What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


This might moreover have been taken to be the sense of a remark made by her stepfather as — one rainy day when the streets were all splash and two umbrellas unsociable and the wanderers had sought shelter in the National Gallery — Maisie sat beside him staring rather sightlessly at a roomful of pictures which he had mystified her much by speaking of with a bored sigh as a “silly superstition.” They represented, with patches of gold and cataracts of purple, with stiff saints and angular angels, with ugly Madonnas and uglier babies, strange prayers and prostrations; so that she at first took his words for a protest against devotional idolatry — all the more that he had of late often come with her and with Mrs. Wix to morning church, a place of worship of Mrs. Wix’s own choosing, where there was nothing of that sort; no haloes on heads, but only, during long sermons, beguiling backs of bonnets, and where, as her governess always afterwards observed, he gave the most earnest attention. It presently appeared, however, that his reference was merely to the affectation of admiring such ridiculous works — an admonition that she received from him as submissively as she received everything. What turn it gave to their talk needn’t here be recorded: the transition to the colourless schoolroom and lonely Mrs. Wix was doubtless an effect of relaxed interest in what was before them. Maisie expressed in her own way the truth that she never went home nowadays without expecting to find the temple of her studies empty and the poor priestess cast out. This conveyed a full appreciation of her peril, and it was in rejoinder that Sir Claude uttered, acknowledging the source of that peril, the reassurance at which I have glanced. “Don’t be afraid, my dear: I’ve squared her.” It required indeed a supplement when he saw that it left the child momentarily blank. “I mean that your mother lets me do what I want so long as I let her do what SHE wants.”

“So you ARE doing what you want?” Maisie asked.

“Rather, Miss Farange!”

Miss Farange turned it over. “And she’s doing the same?”

“Up to the hilt!”

Again she considered. “Then, please, what may it be?”

“I wouldn’t tell you for the whole world.”

She gazed at a gaunt Madonna; after which she broke into a slow smile. “Well, I don’t care, so long as you do let her.”

“Oh you monster!”— and Sir Claude’s gay vehemence brought him to his feet.

Another day, in another place — a place in Baker Street where at a hungry hour she had sat down with him to tea and buns — he brought out a question disconnected from previous talk. “I say, you know, what do you suppose your father WOULD do?”

Maisie hadn’t long to cast about or to question his pleasant eyes. “If you were really to go with us? He’d make a great complaint.”

He seemed amused at the term she employed. “Oh I shouldn’t mind a ‘complaint’!”

“He’d talk to every one about it,” said Maisie.

“Well, I shouldn’t mind that either.”

“Of course not,” the child hastened to respond. “You’ve told me you’re not afraid of him.”

“The question is are you?” said Sir Claude.

Maisie candidly considered; then she spoke resolutely. “No, not of papa.”

“But of somebody else?”

“Certainly, of lots of people.”

“Of your mother first and foremost of course.”

“Dear, yes; more of mamma than of — than of —”

“Than of what?” Sir Claude asked as she hesitated for a comparison.

She thought over all objects of dread. “Than of a wild elephant!” she at last declared. “And you are too,” she reminded him as he laughed.

“Oh yes, I am too.”

Again she meditated. “Why then did you marry her?”

“Just because I WAS afraid.”

“Even when she loved you?”

“That made her the more alarming.”

For Maisie herself, though her companion seemed to find it droll, this opened up depths of gravity. “More alarming than she is now?”

“Well, in a different way. Fear, unfortunately, is a very big thing, and there’s a great variety of kinds.”

She took this in with complete intelligence. “Then I think I’ve got them all.”

“You?” her friend cried. “Nonsense! You’re thoroughly ‘game.’”

“I’m awfully afraid of Mrs. Beale,” Maisie objected.

He raised his smooth brows. “That charming woman?”

“Well,” she answered, “you can’t understand it because you’re not in the same state.”

She had been going on with a luminous “But” when, across the table, he laid his hand on her arm. “I CAN understand it,” he confessed. “I AM in the same state.”

“Oh but she likes you so!” Maisie promptly pleaded.

Sir Claude literally coloured. “That has something to do with it.”

Maisie wondered again. “Being liked with being afraid?”

“Yes, when it amounts to adoration.”

“Then why aren’t you afraid of ME?”

“Because with you it amounts to that?” He had kept his hand on her arm. “Well, what prevents is simply that you’re the gentlest spirit on earth. Besides —” he pursued; but he came to a pause.

“Besides —?”

“I SHOULD be in fear if you were older — there! See — you already make me talk nonsense,” the young man added. “The question’s about your father. Is he likewise afraid of Mrs. Beale?”

“I think not. And yet he loves her,” Maisie mused.

“Oh no — he doesn’t; not a bit!” After which, as his companion stared, Sir Claude apparently felt that he must make this oddity fit with her recollections. “There’s nothing of that sort NOW.”

But Maisie only stared the more. “They’ve changed?”

“Like your mother and me.”

She wondered how he knew. “Then you’ve seen Mrs. Beale again?”

He demurred. “Oh no. She has written to me,” he presently subjoined. “SHE’S not afraid of your father either. No one at all is — really.” Then he went on while Maisie’s little mind, with its filial spring too relaxed from of old for a pang at this want of parental majesty, speculated on the vague relation between Mrs. Beale’s courage and the question, for Mrs. Wix and herself, of a neat lodging with their friend. “She wouldn’t care a bit if Mr. Farange should make a row.”

“Do you mean about you and me and Mrs. Wix? Why should she care? It wouldn’t hurt HER.”

Sir Claude, with his legs out and his hand diving into his trousers-pocket, threw back his head with a laugh just perceptibly tempered, as she thought, by a sigh. “My dear stepchild, you’re delightful! Look here, we must pay. You’ve had five buns?”

“How CAN you?” Maisie demanded, crimson under the eye of the young woman who had stepped to their board. “I’ve had three.”

Shortly after this Mrs. Wix looked so ill that it was to be feared her ladyship had treated her to some unexampled passage. Maisie asked if anything worse than usual had occurred; whereupon the poor woman brought out with infinite gloom: “He has been seeing Mrs. Beale.”

“Sir Claude?” The child remembered what he had said. “Oh no — not SEEING her!”

“I beg your pardon. I absolutely know it.” Mrs. Wix was as positive as she was dismal.

Maisie nevertheless ventured to challenge her. “And how, please, do you know it?”

She faltered a moment. “From herself. I’ve been to see her.”

Then on Maisie’s visible surprise: “I went yesterday while you were out with him. He has seen her repeatedly.”

It was not wholly clear to Maisie why Mrs. Wix should be prostrate at this discovery; but her general consciousness of the way things could be both perpetrated and resented always eased off for her the strain of the particular mystery. “There may be some mistake. He says he hasn’t.”

Mrs. Wix turned paler, as if this were a still deeper ground for alarm. “He says so? — he denies that he has seen her?”

“He told me so three days ago. Perhaps she’s mistaken,” Maisie suggested.

“Do you mean perhaps she lies? She lies whenever it suits her, I’m very sure. But I know when people lie — and that’s what I’ve loved in you, that YOU never do. Mrs. Beale didn’t yesterday at any rate. He HAS seen her.”

Maisie was silent a little. “He says not,” she then repeated. “Perhaps — perhaps —” Once more she paused.

“Do you mean perhaps HE lies?”

“Gracious goodness, no!” Maisie shouted.

Mrs. Wix’s bitterness, however, again overflowed. “He does, he does,” she cried, “and it’s that that’s just the worst of it! They’ll take you, they’ll take you, and what in the world will then become of me?” She threw herself afresh upon her pupil and wept over her with the inevitable effect of causing the child’s own tears to flow. But Maisie couldn’t have told you if she had been crying at the image of their separation or at that of Sir Claude’s untruth. As regards this deviation it was agreed between them that they were not in a position to bring it home to him. Mrs. Wix was in dread of doing anything to make him, as she said, “worse”; and Maisie was sufficiently initiated to be able to reflect that in speaking to her as he had done he had only wished to be tender of Mrs. Beale. It fell in with all her inclinations to think of him as tender, and she forbore to let him know that the two ladies had, as SHE would never do, betrayed him.

She had not long to keep her secret, for the next day, when she went out with him, he suddenly said in reference to some errand he had first proposed: “No, we won’t do that — we’ll do something else.” On this, a few steps from the door, he stopped a hansom and helped her in; then following her he gave the driver over the top an address that she lost. When he was seated beside her she asked him where they were going; to which he replied “My dear child, you’ll see.” She saw while she watched and wondered that they took the direction of the Regent’s Park; but she didn’t know why he should make a mystery of that, and it was not till they passed under a pretty arch and drew up at a white house in a terrace from which the view, she thought, must be lovely that, mystified, she clutched him and broke out: “I shall see papa?”

He looked down at her with a kind smile. “No, probably not. I haven’t brought you for that.”

“Then whose house is it?”

“It’s your father’s. They’ve moved here.”

She looked about: she had known Mr. Farange in four or five houses, and there was nothing astonishing in this except that it was the nicest place yet. “But I shall see Mrs. Beale?”

“It’s to see her that I brought you.”

She stared, very white, and, with her hand on his arm, though they had stopped, kept him sitting in the cab. “To leave me, do you mean?”

He could scarce bring it out. “It’s not for me to say if you CAN stay. We must look into it.”

“But if I do I shall see papa?”

“Oh some time or other, no doubt.” Then Sir Claude went on: “Have you really so very great a dread of that?”

Maisie glanced away over the apron of the cab — gazed a minute at the green expanse of the Regent’s Park and, at this moment colouring to the roots of her hair, felt the full, hot rush of an emotion more mature than any she had yet known. It consisted of an odd unexpected shame at placing in an inferior light, to so perfect a gentleman and so charming a person as Sir Claude, so very near a relative as Mr. Farange. She remembered, however, her friend’s telling her that no one was seriously afraid of her father, and she turned round with a small toss of her head. “Oh I dare say I can manage him!”

Sir Claude smiled, but she noted that the violence with which she had just changed colour had brought into his own face a slight compunctious and embarrassed flush. It was as if he had caught his first glimpse of her sense of responsibility. Neither of them made a movement to get out, and after an instant he said to her: “Look here, if you say so we won’t after all go in.”

“Ah but I want to see Mrs. Beale!” the child gently wailed.

“But what if she does decide to take you? Then, you know, you’ll have to remain.”

Maisie turned it over. “Straight on — and give you up?”

“Well — I don’t quite know about giving me up.”

“I mean as I gave up Mrs. Beale when I last went to mamma’s. I couldn’t do without you here for anything like so long a time as that.” It struck her as a hundred years since she had seen Mrs. Beale, who was on the other side of the door they were so near and whom she yet had not taken the jump to clasp in her arms.

“Oh I dare say you’ll see more of me than you’ve seen of Mrs. Beale. It isn’t in ME to be so beautifully discreet,” Sir Claude said. “But all the same,” he continued, “I leave the thing, now that we’re here, absolutely WITH you. You must settle it. We’ll only go in if you say so. If you don’t say so we’ll turn right round and drive away.”

“So in that case Mrs. Beale won’t take me?”

“Well — not by any act of ours.”

“And I shall be able to go on with mamma?” Maisie asked.

“Oh I don’t say that!”

She considered. “But I thought you said you had squared her?”

Sir Claude poked his stick at the splashboard of the cab. “Not, my dear child, to the point she now requires.”

“Then if she turns me out and I don’t come here —”

Sir Claude promptly took her up. “What do I offer you, you naturally enquire? My poor chick, that’s just what I ask myself. I don’t see it, I confess, quite as straight as Mrs. Wix.”

His companion gazed a moment at what Mrs. Wix saw. “You mean WE can’t make a little family?”

“It’s very base of me, no doubt, but I can’t wholly chuck your mother.”

Maisie, at this, emitted a low but lengthened sigh, a slight sound of reluctant assent which would certainly have been amusing to an auditor. “Then there isn’t anything else?”

“I vow I don’t quite see what there is.”

Maisie waited; her silence seemed to signify that she too had no alternative to suggest. But she made another appeal. “If I come here you’ll come to see me?”

“I won’t lose sight of you.”

“But how often will you come?” As he hung fire she pressed him. “Often and often?”

Still he faltered. “My dear old woman —” he began. Then he paused again, going on the next moment with a change of tone. “You’re too funny! Yes then,” he said; “often and often.”

“All right!” Maisie jumped out. Mrs. Beale was at home, but not in the drawing-room, and when the butler had gone for her the child suddenly broke out: “But when I’m here what will Mrs. Wix do?”

“Ah you should have thought of that sooner!” said her companion with the first faint note of asperity she had ever heard him sound.


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