What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


It must not be supposed that her ladyship’s intermissions were not qualified by demonstrations of another order — triumphal entries and breathless pauses during which she seemed to take of everything in the room, from the state of the ceiling to that of her daughter’s boot-toes, a survey that was rich in intentions. Sometimes she sat down and sometimes she surged about, but her attitude wore equally in either case the grand air of the practical. She found so much to deplore that she left a great deal to expect, and bristled so with calculation that she seemed to scatter remedies and pledges. Her visits were as good as an outfit; her manner, as Mrs. Wix once said, as good as a pair of curtains; but she was a person addicted to extremes — sometimes barely speaking to her child and sometimes pressing this tender shoot to a bosom cut, as Mrs. Wix had also observed, remarkably low. She was always in a fearful hurry, and the lower the bosom was cut the more it was to be gathered she was wanted elsewhere. She usually broke in alone, but sometimes Sir Claude was with her, and during all the earlier period there was nothing on which these appearances had had so delightful a bearing as on the way her ladyship was, as Mrs. Wix expressed it, under the spell. “But ISN’T she under it!” Maisie used in thoughtful but familiar reference to exclaim after Sir Claude had swept mamma away in peals of natural laughter. Not even in the old days of the convulsed ladies had she heard mamma laugh so freely as in these moments of conjugal surrender, to the gaiety of which even a little girl could see she had at last a right — a little girl whose thoughtfulness was now all happy selfish meditation on good omens and future fun.

Unaccompanied, in subsequent hours, and with an effect of changing to meet a change, Ida took a tone superficially disconcerting and abrupt — the tone of having, at an immense cost, made over everything to Sir Claude and wishing others to know that if everything wasn’t right it was because Sir Claude was so dreadfully vague. “He has made from the first such a row about you,” she said on one occasion to Maisie, “that I’ve told him to do for you himself and try how he likes it — see? I’ve washed my hands of you; I’ve made you over to him; and if you’re discontented it’s on him, please, you’ll come down. So don’t haul poor ME up — I assure you I’ve worries enough.” One of these, visibly, was that the spell rejoiced in by the schoolroom fire was already in danger of breaking; another was that she was finally forced to make no secret of her husband’s unfitness for real responsibilities. The day came indeed when her breathless auditors learnt from her in bewilderment that what ailed him was that he was, alas, simply not serious. Maisie wept on Mrs. Wix’s bosom after hearing that Sir Claude was a butterfly; considering moreover that her governess but half-patched it up in coming out at various moments the next few days with the opinion that it was proper to his “station” to be careless and free. That had been proper to every one’s station that she had yet encountered save poor Mrs. Wix’s own, and the particular merit of Sir Claude had seemed precisely that he was different from every one. She talked with him, however, as time went on, very freely about her mother; being with him, in this relation, wholly without the fear that had kept her silent before her father — the fear of bearing tales and making bad things worse. He appeared to accept the idea that he had taken her over and made her, as he said, his particular lark; he quite agreed also that he was an awful fraud and an idle beast and a sorry dunce. And he never said a word to her against her mother — he only remained dumb and discouraged in the face of her ladyship’s own overtopping earnestness. There were occasions when he even spoke as if he had wrenched his little charge from the arms of a parent who had fought for her tooth and nail.

This was the very moral of a scene that flashed into vividness one day when the four happened to meet without company in the drawing-room and Maisie found herself clutched to her mother’s breast and passionately sobbed and shrieked over, made the subject of a demonstration evidently sequent to some sharp passage just enacted. The connexion required that while she almost cradled the child in her arms Ida should speak of her as hideously, as fatally estranged, and should rail at Sir Claude as the cruel author of the outrage. “He has taken you FROM me,” she cried; “he has set you AGAINST me, and you’ve been won away and your horrid little mind has been poisoned! You’ve gone over to him, you’ve given yourself up to side against me and hate me. You never open your mouth to me — you know you don’t; and you chatter to him like a dozen magpies. Don’t lie about it — I hear you all over the place. You hang about him in a way that’s barely decent — he can do what he likes with you. Well then, let him, to his heart’s content: he has been in such a hurry to take you that we’ll see if it suits him to keep you. I’m very good to break my heart about it when you’ve no more feeling for me than a clammy little fish!” She suddenly thrust the child away and, as a disgusted admission of failure, sent her flying across the room into the arms of Mrs. Wix, whom at this moment and even in the whirl of her transit Maisie saw, very red, exchange a quick queer look with Sir Claude.

The impression of the look remained with her, confronting her with such a critical little view of her mother’s explosion that she felt the less ashamed of herself for incurring the reproach with which she had been cast off. Her father had once called her a heartless little beast, and now, though decidedly scared, she was as stiff and cold as if the description had been just. She was not even frightened enough to cry, which would have been a tribute to her mother’s wrongs: she was only, more than anything else, curious about the opinion mutely expressed by their companions. Taking the earliest opportunity to question Mrs. Wix on this subject she elicited the remarkable reply: “Well, my dear, it’s her ladyship’s game, and we must just hold on like grim death.”

Maisie could interpret at her leisure these ominous words. Her reflexions indeed at this moment thickened apace, and one of them made her sure that her governess had conversations, private, earnest and not infrequent, with her denounced stepfather. She perceived in the light of a second episode that something beyond her knowledge had taken place in the house. The things beyond her knowledge — numerous enough in truth — had not hitherto, she believed, been the things that had been nearest to her: she had even had in the past a small smug conviction that in the domestic labyrinth she always kept the clue. This time too, however, she at last found out — with the discreet aid, it had to be confessed, of Mrs. Wix. Sir Claude’s own assistance was abruptly taken from her, for his comment on her ladyship’s game was to start on the spot, quite alone, for Paris, evidently because he wished to show a spirit when accused of bad behaviour. He might be fond of his stepdaughter, Maisie felt, without wishing her to be after all thrust on him in such a way; his absence therefore, it was clear, was a protest against the thrusting. It was while this absence lasted that our young lady finally discovered what had happened in the house to be that her mother was no longer in love.

The limit of a passion for Sir Claude had certainly been reached, she judged, some time before the day on which her ladyship burst suddenly into the schoolroom to introduce Mr. Perriam, who, as she announced from the doorway to Maisie, wouldn’t believe his ears that one had a great hoyden of a daughter. Mr. Perriam was short and massive — Mrs. Wix remarked afterwards that he was “too fat for the pace”; and it would have been difficult to say of him whether his head were more bald or his black moustache more bushy. He seemed also to have moustaches over his eyes, which, however, by no means prevented these polished little globes from rolling round the room as if they had been billiard-balls impelled by Ida’s celebrated stroke. Mr. Perriam wore on the hand that pulled his moustache a diamond of dazzling lustre, in consequence of which and of his general weight and mystery our young lady observed on his departure that if he had only had a turban he would have been quite her idea of a heathen Turk.

“He’s quite my idea,” Mrs. Wix replied, “of a heathen Jew.”

“Well, I mean,” said Maisie, “of a person who comes from the East.”

“That’s where he MUST come from,” her governess opined —“he comes from the City.” In a moment she added as if she knew all about him. “He’s one of those people who have lately broken out. He’ll be immensely rich.”

“On the death of his papa?” the child interestedly enquired.

“Dear no — nothing hereditary. I mean he has made a mass of money.”

“How much, do you think?” Maisie demanded.

Mrs. Wix reflected and sketched it. “Oh many millions.”

“A hundred?”

Mrs. Wix was not sure of the number, but there were enough of them to have seemed to warm up for the time the penury of the schoolroom — to linger there as an afterglow of the hot heavy light Mr. Perriam sensibly shed. This was also, no doubt, on his part, an effect of that enjoyment of life with which, among her elders, Maisie had been in contact from her earliest years — the sign of happy maturity, the old familiar note of overflowing cheer. “How d’ye do, ma’am? How d’ye do, little miss?”— he laughed and nodded at the gaping figures. “She has brought me up for a peep — it’s true I wouldn’t take you on trust. She’s always talking about you, but she’d never produce you; so today I challenged her on the spot. Well, you ain’t a myth, my dear — I back down on that,” the visitor went on to Maisie; “nor you either, miss, though you might be, to be sure!”

“I bored him with you, darling — I bore every one,” Ida said, “and to prove that you ARE a sweet thing, as well as a fearfully old one, I told him he could judge for himself. So now he sees that you’re a dreadful bouncing business and that your poor old Mummy’s at least sixty!”— and her ladyship smiled at Mr. Perriam with the charm that her daughter had heard imputed to her at papa’s by the merry gentlemen who had so often wished to get from him what they called a “rise.” Her manner at that instant gave the child a glimpse more vivid than any yet enjoyed of the attraction that papa, in remarkable language, always denied she could put forth.

Mr. Perriam, however, clearly recognised it in the humour with which he met her. “I never said you ain’t wonderful — did I ever say it, hey?” and he appealed with pleasant confidence to the testimony of the schoolroom, about which itself also he evidently felt something might be expected of him. “So this is their little place, hey? Charming, charming, charming!” he repeated as he vaguely looked round. The interrupted students clung together as if they had been personally exposed; but Ida relieved their embarrassment by a hunch of her high shoulders. This time the smile she addressed to Mr. Perriam had a beauty of sudden sadness. “What on earth is a poor woman to do?”

The visitor’s grimace grew more marked as he continued to look, and the conscious little schoolroom felt still more like a cage at a menagerie. “Charming, charming, charming!” Mr. Perriam insisted; but the parenthesis closed with a prompt click. “There you are!” said her ladyship. “By-bye!” she sharply added. The next minute they were on the stairs, and Mrs. Wix and her companion, at the open door and looking mutely at each other, were reached by the sound of the large social current that carried them back to their life.

It was singular perhaps after this that Maisie never put a question about Mr. Perriam, and it was still more singular that by the end of a week she knew all she didn’t ask. What she most particularly knew — and the information came to her, unsought, straight from Mrs. Wix — was that Sir Claude wouldn’t at all care for the visits of a millionaire who was in and out of the upper rooms. How little he would care was proved by the fact that under the sense of them Mrs. Wix’s discretion broke down altogether; she was capable of a transfer of allegiance, capable, at the altar of propriety, of a desperate sacrifice of her ladyship. As against Mrs. Beale, she more than once intimated, she had been willing to do the best for her, but as against Sir Claude she could do nothing for her at all. It was extraordinary the number of things that, still without a question, Maisie knew by the time her stepfather came back from Paris — came bringing her a splendid apparatus for painting in water-colours and bringing Mrs. Wix, by a lapse of memory that would have been droll if it had not been a trifle disconcerting, a second and even a more elegant umbrella. He had forgotten all about the first, with which, buried in as many wrappers as a mummy of the Pharaohs, she wouldn’t for the world have done anything so profane as use it. Maisie knew above all that though she was now, by what she called an informal understanding, on Sir Claude’s “side,” she had yet not uttered a word to him about Mr. Perriam. That gentleman became therefore a kind of flourishing public secret, out of the depths of which governess and pupil looked at each other portentously from the time their friend was restored to them. He was restored in great abundance, and it was marked that, though he appeared to have felt the need to take a stand against the risk of being too roughly saddled with the offspring of others, he at this period exposed himself more than ever before to the presumption of having created expectations.

If it had become now, for that matter, a question of sides, there was at least a certain amount of evidence as to where they all were. Maisie of course, in such a delicate position, was on nobody’s; but Sir Claude had all the air of being on hers. If therefore Mrs. Wix was on Sir Claude’s, her ladyship on Mr. Perriam’s and Mr. Perriam presumably on her ladyship’s, this left only Mrs. Beale and Mr. Farange to account for. Mrs. Beale clearly was, like Sir Claude, on Maisie’s, and papa, it was to be supposed, on Mrs. Beale’s. Here indeed was a slight ambiguity, as papa’s being on Mrs. Beale’s didn’t somehow seem to place him quite on his daughter’s. It sounded, as this young lady thought it over, very much like puss-inthe-corner, and she could only wonder if the distribution of parties would lead to a rushing to and fro and a changing of places. She was in the presence, she felt, of restless change: wasn’t it restless enough that her mother and her stepfather should already be on different sides? That was the great thing that had domestically happened. Mrs. Wix, besides, had turned another face: she had never been exactly gay, but her gravity was now an attitude as public as a posted placard. She seemed to sit in her new dress and brood over her lost delicacy, which had become almost as doleful a memory as that of poor Clara Matilda. “It IS hard for him,” she often said to her companion; and it was surprising how competent on this point Maisie was conscious of being to agree with her. Hard as it was, however, Sir Claude had never shown to greater advantage than in the gallant generous sociable way he carried it off: a way that drew from Mrs. Wix a hundred expressions of relief at his not having suffered it to embitter him. It threw him more and more at last into the schoolroom, where he had plainly begun to recognise that if he was to have the credit of perverting the innocent child he might also at least have the amusement. He never came into the place without telling its occupants that they were the nicest people in the house — a remark which always led them to say to each other “Mr. Perriam!” as loud as ever compressed lips and enlarged eyes could make them articulate. He caused Maisie to remember what she had said to Mrs. Beale about his having the nature of a good nurse, and, rather more than she intended before Mrs. Wix, to bring the whole thing out by once remarking to him that none of her good nurses had smoked quite so much in the nursery. This had no more effect than it was meant to on his cigarettes: he was always smoking, but always declaring that it was death to him not to lead a domestic life.

He led one after all in the schoolroom, and there were hours of late evening, when she had gone to bed, that Maisie knew he sat there talking with Mrs. Wix of how to meet his difficulties. His consideration for this unfortunate woman even in the midst of them continued to show him as the perfect gentleman and lifted the subject of his courtesy into an upper air of beatitude in which her very pride had the hush of anxiety. “He leans on me — he leans on me!” she only announced from time to time; and she was more surprised than amused when, later on, she accidentally found she had given her pupil the impression of a support literally supplied by her person. This glimpse of a misconception led her to be explicit — to put before the child, with an air of mourning indeed for such a stoop to the common, that what they talked about in the small hours, as they said, was the question of his taking right hold of life. The life she wanted him to take right hold of was the public: “she” being, I hasten to add, in this connexion, not the mistress of his fate, but only Mrs. Wix herself. She had phrases about him that were full of easy understanding, yet full of morality. “He’s a wonderful nature, but he can’t live like the lilies. He’s all right, you know, but he must have a high interest.” She had more than once remarked that his affairs were sadly involved, but that they must get him — Maisie and she together apparently — into Parliament. The child took it from her with a flutter of importance that Parliament was his natural sphere, and she was the less prepared to recognise a hindrance as she had never heard of any affairs whatever that were not involved. She had in the old days once been told by Mrs. Beale that her very own were, and with the refreshment of knowing that she HAD affairs the information hadn’t in the least overwhelmed her. It was true and perhaps a little alarming that she had never heard of any such matters since then. Full of charm at any rate was the prospect of some day getting Sir Claude in; especially after Mrs. Wix, as the fruit of more midnight colloquies, once went so far as to observe that she really believed it was all that was wanted to save him. This critic, with these words, struck her disciple as cropping up, after the manner of mamma when mamma talked, quite in a new place. The child stared as at the jump of a kangaroo. “Save him from what?”

Mrs. Wix debated, then covered a still greater distance. “Why just from awful misery.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56