What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


As she met the Captain’s light blue eyes the greatest marvel occurred; she felt a sudden relief at finding them reply with anxiety to the horror in her face. “What in the world has he done?” He put it all on Sir Claude.

“He has called her a damned old brute.” She couldn’t help bringing that out.

The Captain, at the same elevation as her ladyship, gaped wide; then of course, like every one else, he was convulsed. But he instantly caught himself up, echoing her bad words. “A damned old brute — your mother?”

Maisie was already conscious of her second movement. “I think she tried to make him angry.”

The Captain’s stupefaction was fine. “Angry — SHE? Why she’s an angel!”

On the spot, as he said this, his face won her over; it was so bright and kind, and his blue eyes had such a reflexion of some mysterious grace that, for him at least, her mother had put forth. Her fund of observation enabled her as she gazed up at him to place him: he was a candid simple soldier; very grave — she came back to that — but not at all terrible. At any rate he struck a note that was new to her and that after a moment made her say: “Do you like her very much?”

He smiled down at her, hesitating, looking pleasanter and pleasanter. “Let me tell you about your mother.”

He put out a big military hand which she immediately took, and they turned off together to where a couple of chairs had been placed under one of the trees. “She told me to come to you,” Maisie explained as they went; and presently she was close to him in a chair, with the prettiest of pictures — the sheen of the lake through other trees — before them, and the sound of birds, the plash of boats, the play of children in the air. The Captain, inclining his military person, sat sideways to be closer and kinder, and as her hand was on the arm of her seat he put his own down on it again to emphasise something he had to say that would be good for her to hear. He had already told her how her mother, from the moment of seeing her so unexpectedly with a person who was — well, not at all the right person, had promptly asked him to take charge of her while she herself tackled, as she said, the real culprit. He gave the child the sense of doing for the time what he liked with her; ten minutes before she had never seen him, but she could now sit there touching him, touched and impressed by him and thinking it nice when a gentleman was thin and brown — brown with a kind of clear depth that made his straw-coloured moustache almost white and his eyes resemble little pale flowers. The most extraordinary thing was the way she didn’t appear just then to mind Sir Claude’s being tackled. The Captain wasn’t a bit like him, for it was an odd part of the pleasantness of mamma’s friend that it resided in a manner in this friend’s having a face so informally put together that the only kindness could be to call it funny. An odder part still was that it finally made our young lady, to classify him further, say to herself that, of all people in the world, he reminded her most insidiously of Mrs. Wix. He had neither straighteners nor a diadem, nor, at least in the same place as the other, a button; he was sun-burnt and deep-voiced and smelt of cigars, yet he marvellously had more in common with her old governess than with her young stepfather. What he had to say to her that was good for her to hear was that her poor mother (didn’t she know?) was the best friend he had ever had in all his life. And he added: “She has told me ever so much about you. I’m awfully glad to know you.”

She had never, she thought, been so addressed as a young lady, not even by Sir Claude the day, so long ago, that she found him with Mrs. Beale. It struck her as the way that at balls, by delightful partners, young ladies must be spoken to in the intervals of dances; and she tried to think of something that would meet it at the same high point. But this effort flurried her, and all she could produce was: “At first, you know, I thought you were Lord Eric.”

The Captain looked vague. “Lord Eric?”

“And then Sir Claude thought you were the Count.”

At this he laughed out. “Why he’s only five foot high and as red as a lobster!” Maisie laughed, with a certain elegance, in return — the young lady at the ball certainly would — and was on the point, as conscientiously, of pursuing the subject with an agreeable question. But before she could speak her companion challenged her. “Who in the world’s Lord Eric?”

“Don’t you know him?” She judged her young lady would say that with light surprise.

“Do you mean a fat man with his mouth always open?” She had to confess that their acquaintance was so limited that she could only describe the bearer of the name as a friend of mamma’s; but a light suddenly came to the Captain, who quickly spoke as knowing her man. “What-do-you-call-him’s brother, the fellow that owned Bobolink?” Then, with all his kindness, he contradicted her flat. “Oh dear no; your mother never knew HIM.”

“But Mrs. Wix said so,” the child risked.

“Mrs. Wix?”

“My old governess.”

This again seemed amusing to the Captain. “She mixed him up, your old governess. He’s an awful beast. Your mother never looked at him.”

He was as positive as he was friendly, but he dropped for a minute after this into a silence that gave Maisie, confused but ingenious, a chance to redeem the mistake of pretending to know too much by the humility of inviting further correction. “And doesn’t she know the Count?”

“Oh I dare say! But he’s another ass.” After which abruptly, with a different look, he put down again on the back of her own the hand he had momentarily removed. Maisie even thought he coloured a little. “I want tremendously to speak to you. You must never believe any harm of your mother.”

“Oh I assure you I DON’T!” cried the child, blushing, herself, up to her eyes in a sudden surge of deprecation of such a thought.

The Captain, bending his head, raised her hand to his lips with a benevolence that made her wish her glove had been nicer. “Of course you don’t when you know how fond she is of YOU.”

“She’s fond of me?” Maisie panted.

“Tremendously. But she thinks you don’t like her. You MUST like her. She has had too much to put up with.”

“Oh yes — I know!” She rejoiced that she had never denied it.

“Of course I’ve no right to speak of her except as a particular friend,” the Captain went on. “But she’s a splendid woman. She has never had any sort of justice.”

“Hasn’t she?”— his companion, to hear the words, felt a thrill altogether new.

“Perhaps I oughtn’t to say it to you, but she has had everything to suffer.”

“Oh yes — you can SAY it to me!” Maisie hastened to profess.

The Captain was glad. “Well, you needn’t tell. It’s all for YOU— do you see?”

Serious and smiling she only wanted to take it from him. “It’s between you and me! Oh there are lots of things I’ve never told!”

“Well, keep this with the rest. I assure you she has had the most infernal time, no matter what any one says to the contrary. She’s the cleverest woman I ever saw in all my life. She’s too charming.” She had been touched already by his tone, and now she leaned back in her chair and felt something tremble within her. “She’s tremendous fun — she can do all sorts of things better than I’ve ever seen any one. She has the pluck of fifty — and I know; I assure you I do. She has the nerve for a tiger-shoot — by Jove I’d TAKE her! And she is awfully open and generous, don’t you know? there are women that are such horrid sneaks. She’ll go through anything for any one she likes.” He appeared to watch for a moment the effect on his companion of this emphasis; then he gave a small sigh that mourned the limits of the speakable. But it was almost with the note of a fresh challenge that he wound up: “Look here, she’s TRUE!”

Maisie had so little desire to assert the contrary that she found herself, in the intensity of her response, throbbing with a joy still less utterable than the essence of the Captain’s admiration. She was fairly hushed with the sense that he spoke of her mother as she had never heard any one speak. It came over her as she sat silent that, after all, this admiration and this respect were quite new words, which took a distinction from the fact that nothing in the least resembling them in quality had on any occasion dropped from the lips of her father, of Mrs. Beale, of Sir Claude or even of Mrs. Wix. What it appeared to her to come to was that on the subject of her ladyship it was the first real kindness she had heard, so that at the touch of it something strange and deep and pitying surged up within her — a revelation that, practically and so far as she knew, her mother, apart from this, had only been disliked. Mrs. Wix’s original account of Sir Claude’s affection seemed as empty now as the chorus in a children’s game, and the husband and wife, but a little way off at that moment, were face to face in hatred and with the dreadful name he had called her still in the air. What was it the Captain on the other hand had called her? Maisie wanted to hear that again. The tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, which burned under them with the rush of a consciousness that for her too, five minutes before, the vivid towering beauty whose assault she awaited had been, a moment long, an object of pure dread. She became on the spot indifferent to her usual fear of showing what in children was notoriously most offensive — presented to her companion, soundlessly but hideously, her wet distorted face. She cried, with a pang, straight AT him, cried as she had never cried at any one in all her life. “Oh do you love her?” she brought out with a gulp that was the effect of her trying not to make a noise.

It was doubtless another consequence of the thick mist through which she saw him that in reply to her question the Captain gave her such a queer blurred look. He stammered, yet in his voice there was also the ring of a great awkward insistence. “Of course I’m tremendously fond of her — I like her better than any woman I ever saw. I don’t mind in the least telling you that,” he went on, “and I should think myself a great beast if I did.” Then to show that his position was superlatively clear he made her, with a kindness that even Sir Claude had never surpassed, tremble again as she had trembled at his first outbreak. He called her by her name, and her name drove it home. “My dear Maisie, your mother’s an angel!”

It was an almost unbelievable balm — it soothed so her impression of danger and pain. She sank back in her chair, she covered her face with her hands. “Oh mother, mother, mother!” she sobbed. She had an impression that the Captain, beside her, if more and more friendly, was by no means unembarrassed; in a minute, however, when her eyes were clearer, he was erect in front of her, very red and nervously looking about him and whacking his leg with his stick. “Say you love her, Mr. Captain; say it, say it!” she implored.

Mr. Captain’s blue eyes fixed themselves very hard. “Of course I love her, damn it, you know!”

At this she also jumped up; she had fished out somehow her pocket-handkerchief. “So do I then. I do, I do, I do!” she passionately asseverated.

“Then will you come back to her?”

Maisie, staring, stopped the tight little plug of her handkerchief on the way to her eyes. “She won’t have me.”

“Yes she will. She wants you.”

“Back at the house — with Sir Claude?”

Again he hung fire. “No, not with him. In another place.”

They stood looking at each other with an intensity unusual as between a Captain and a little girl. “She won’t have me in any place.”

“Oh yes she will if I ask her!”

Maisie’s intensity continued. “Shall you be there?”

The Captain’s, on the whole, did the same. “Oh yes — some day.”

“Then you don’t mean now?”

He broke into a quick smile. “Will you come now? — go with us for an hour?”

Maisie considered. “She wouldn’t have me even now.” She could see that he had his idea, but that her tone impressed him. That disappointed her a little, though in an instant he rang out again.

“She will if I ask her,” he repeated. “I’ll ask her this minute.”

Maisie, turning at this, looked away to where her mother and her stepfather had stopped. At first, among the trees, nobody was visible; but the next moment she exclaimed with expression: “It’s over — here he comes!”

The Captain watched the approach of her ladyship’s husband, who lounged composedly over the grass, making to Maisie with his closed fingers a little movement in the air. “I’ve no desire to avoid him.”

“Well, you mustn’t see him,” said Maisie.

“Oh he’s in no hurry himself!” Sir Claude had stopped to light another cigarette.

She was vague as to the way it was proper he should feel; but she had a sense that the Captain’s remark was rather a free reflexion on it. “Oh he doesn’t care!” she replied.

“Doesn’t care for what?”

“Doesn’t care who you are. He told me so. Go and ask mamma,” she added.

“If you can come with us? Very good. You really want me not to wait for him?”

“PLEASE don’t.” But Sir Claude was not yet near, and the Captain had with his left hand taken hold of her right, which he familiarly, sociably swung a little. “Only first,” she continued, “tell me this. Are you going to LIVE with mamma?”

The immemorial note of mirth broke out at her seriousness. “One of these days.”

She wondered, wholly unperturbed by his laughter. “Then where will Sir Claude be?”

“He’ll have left her of course.”

“Does he really intend to do that?”

“You’ve every opportunity to ask him.”

Maisie shook her head with decision. “He won’t do it. Not first.”

Her “first” made the Captain laugh out again. “Oh he’ll be sure to be nasty! But I’ve said too much to you.”

“Well, you know, I’ll never tell,” said Maisie.

“No, it’s all for yourself. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.” Maisie kept his hand long enough to add: “I like you too.” And then supremely: “You DO love her?”

“My dear child —!” The Captain wanted words.

“Then don’t do it only for just a little.”

“A little?”

“Like all the others.”

“All the others?”— he stood staring.

She pulled away her hand. “Do it always!” She bounded to meet Sir Claude, and as she left the Captain she heard him ring out with apparent gaiety:

“Oh I’m in for it!”

As she joined Sir Claude she noted her mother in the distance move slowly off, and, glancing again at the Captain, saw him, swinging his stick, retreat in the same direction.

She had never seen Sir Claude look as he looked just then; flushed yet not excited — settled rather in an immoveable disgust and at once very sick and very hard. His conversation with her mother had clearly drawn blood, and the child’s old horror came back to her, begetting the instant moral contraction of the days when her parents had looked to her to feed their love of battle. Her greatest fear for the moment, however, was that her friend would see she had been crying. The next she became aware that he had glanced at her, and it presently occurred to her that he didn’t even wish to be looked at. At this she quickly removed her gaze, while he said rather curtly: “Well, who in the world IS the fellow?”

She felt herself flooded with prudence. “Oh I haven’t found out!” This sounded as if she meant he ought to have done so himself; but she could only face doggedly the ugliness of seeming disagreeable, as she used to face it in the hours when her father, for her blankness, called her a dirty little donkey, and her mother, for her falsity, pushed her out of the room.

“Then what have you been doing all this time?”

“Oh I don’t know!” It was of the essence of her method not to be silly by halves.

“Then didn’t the beast say anything?” They had got down by the lake and were walking fast.

“Well, not very much.”

“He didn’t speak of your mother?”

“Oh yes, a little!”

“Then what I ask you, please, is HOW?” She kept silence — so long that he presently went on: “I say, you know — don’t you hear me?” At this she produced: “Well, I’m afraid I didn’t attend to him very much.”

Sir Claude, smoking rather hard, made no immediate rejoinder; but finally he exclaimed: “Then my dear — with such a chance — you were the perfection of a dunce!” He was so irritated — or she took him to be-that for the rest of the time they were in the Gardens he spoke no other word; and she meanwhile subtly abstained from any attempt to pacify him. That would only lead to more questions. At the gate of the Gardens he hailed a four-wheeled cab and, in silence, without meeting her eyes, put her into it, only saying “Give him THAT” as he tossed half a crown upon the seat. Even when from outside he had closed the door and told the man where to go he never took her departing look. Nothing of this kind had ever yet happened to them, but it had no power to make her love him less; so she could not only bear it, she felt as she drove away — she could rejoice in it. It brought again the sweet sense of success that, ages before, she had had at a crisis when, on the stairs, returning from her father’s, she had met a fierce question of her mother’s with an imbecility as deep and had in consequence been dashed by Mrs. Farange almost to the bottom.


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