What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


If for reasons of her own she could bear the sense of Sir Claude’s displeasure her young endurance might have been put to a serious test. The days went by without his knocking at her father’s door, and the time would have turned sadly to waste if something hadn’t conspicuously happened to give it a new difference. What took place was a marked change in the attitude of Mrs. Beale — a change that somehow, even in his absence, seemed to bring Sir Claude again into the house. It began practically with a conversation that occurred between them the day Maisie, came home alone in the cab. Mrs. Beale had by that time returned, and she was more successful than their friend in extracting from our young lady an account of the extraordinary passage with the Captain. She came back to it repeatedly, and on the very next day it grew distinct to the child that she was already in full possession of what at the same moment had been enacted between her ladyship and Sir Claude. This was the real origin of her final perception that though he didn’t come to the house her stepmother had some rare secret for not being quite without him. This led to some rare passages with Mrs. Beale, the promptest of which had been — not on Maisie’s part — a wonderful outbreak of tears. Mrs. Beale was not, as she herself said, a crying creature: she hadn’t cried, to Maisie’s knowledge, since the lowly governess days, the grey dawn of their connexion. But she wept now with passion, professing loudly that it did her good and saying remarkable things to her charge, for whom the occasion was an equal benefit, an addition to all the fine precautionary wisdom stored away. It somehow hadn’t violated that wisdom, Maisie felt, for her to have told Mrs. Beale what she had not told Sir Claude, inasmuch as the greatest strain, to her sense, was between Sir Claude and Sir Claude’s wife, and his wife was just what Mrs. Beale was unfortunately not. He sent his stepdaughter three days after the incident in Kensington Gardens a message as frank as it was tender, and that was how Mrs. Beale had had to bring out in a manner that seemed half an appeal, half a defiance: “Well yes, hang it — I DO see him!”

How and when and where, however, were just what Maisie was not to know — an exclusion moreover that she never questioned in the light of a participation large enough to make him, while she shared the ample void of Mrs. Beale’s rather blank independence, shine in her yearning eye like the single, the sovereign window-square of a great dim disproportioned room. As far as her father was concerned such hours had no interruption; and then it was clear between them that each was thinking of the absent and thinking the other thought, so that he was an object of conscious reference in everything they said or did. The wretched truth, Mrs. Beale had to confess, was that she had hoped against hope and that in the Regent’s Park it was impossible Sir Claude should really be in and out. Hadn’t they at last to look the fact in the face? — it was too disgustingly evident that no one after all had been squared. Well, if no one had been squared it was because every one had been vile. No one and every one were of course Beale and Ida, the extent of whose power to be nasty was a thing that, to a little girl, Mrs. Beale simply couldn’t give chapter and verse for. Therefore it was that to keep going at all, as she said, that lady had to make, as she also said, another arrangement — the arrangement in which Maisie was included only to the point of knowing it existed and wondering wistfully what it was. Conspicuously at any rate it had a side that was responsible for Mrs. Beale’s sudden emotion and sudden confidence — a demonstration this, however, of which the tearfulness was far from deterrent to our heroine’s thought of how happy she should be if she could only make an arrangement for herself. Mrs. Beale’s own operated, it appeared, with regularity and frequency; for it was almost every day or two that she was able to bring Maisie a message and to take one back. It had been over the vision of what, as she called it, he did for her that she broke down; and this vision was kept in a manner before Maisie by a subsequent increase not only of the gaiety, but literally — it seemed not presumptuous to perceive — of the actual virtue of her friend. The friend was herself the first to proclaim it: he had pulled her up immensely — he had quite pulled her round. She had charming tormenting words about him: he was her good fairy, her hidden spring — above all he was just her “higher” conscience. That was what had particularly come out with her startling tears: he had made her, dear man, think ever so much better of herself. It had been thus rather surprisingly revealed that she had been in a way to think ill, and Maisie was glad to hear of the corrective at the same time that she heard of the ailment.

She presently found herself supposing, and in spite of her envy even hoping, that whenever Mrs. Beale was out of the house Sir Claude had in some manner the satisfaction of it. This was now of more frequent occurrence than ever before — so much so that she would have thought of her stepmother as almost extravagantly absent had it not been that, in the first place, her father was a superior specimen of that habit: it was the frequent remark of his present wife, as it had been, before the tribunals of their country, a prominent plea of her predecessor, that he scarce came home even to sleep. In the second place Mrs. Beale, when she WAS on the spot, had now a beautiful air of longing to make up for everything. The only shadow in such bright intervals was that, as Maisie put it to herself, she could get nothing by questions. It was in the nature of things to be none of a small child’s business, even when a small child had from the first been deluded into a fear that she might be only too much initiated. Things then were in Maisie’s experience so true to their nature that questions were almost always improper; but she learned on the other hand soon to recognise how at last, sometimes, patient little silences and intelligent little looks could be rewarded by delightful little glimpses. There had been years at Beale Farange’s when the monosyllable “he” meant always, meant almost violently, the master; but all that was changed at a period at which Sir Claude’s merits were of themselves so much in the air that it scarce took even two letters to name him. “He keeps me up splendidly — he does, my own precious,” Mrs. Beale would observe to her comrade; or else she would say that the situation at the other establishment had reached a point that could scarcely be believed — the point, monstrous as it sounded, of his not having laid eyes upon her for twelve days. “She” of course at Beale Farange’s had never meant any one but Ida, and there was the difference in this case that it now meant Ida with renewed intensity. Mrs. Beale — it was striking — was in a position to animadvert more and more upon her dreadfulness, the moral of all which appeared to be how abominably yet blessedly little she had to do with her husband. This flow of information came home to our two friends because, truly, Mrs. Beale had not much more to do with her own; but that was one of the reflexions that Maisie could make without allowing it to break the spell of her present sympathy. How could such a spell be anything but deep when Sir Claude’s influence, operating from afar, at last really determined the resumption of his stepdaughter’s studies? Mrs. Beale again took fire about them and was quite vivid for Maisie as to their being the great matter to which the dear absent one kept her up.

This was the second source — I have just alluded to the first — of the child’s consciousness of something that, very hopefully, she described to herself as a new phase; and it also presented in the brightest light the fresh enthusiasm with which Mrs. Beale always reappeared and which really gave Maisie a happier sense than she had yet had of being very dear at least to two persons. That she had small remembrance at present of a third illustrates, I am afraid, a temporary oblivion of Mrs. Wix, an accident to be explained only by a state of unnatural excitement. For what was the form taken by Mrs. Beale’s enthusiasm and acquiring relief in the domestic conditions still left to her but the delightful form of “reading” with her little charge on lines directly prescribed and in works profusely supplied by Sir Claude? He had got hold of an awfully good list —“mostly essays, don’t you know?” Mrs. Beale had said; a word always august to Maisie, but henceforth to be softened by hazy, in fact by quite languorous edges. There was at any rate a week in which no less than nine volumes arrived, and the impression was to be gathered from Mrs. Beale that the obscure intercourse she enjoyed with Sir Claude not only involved an account and a criticism of studies, but was organised almost for the very purpose of report and consultation. It was for Maisie’s education in short that, as she often repeated, she closed her door — closed it to the gentlemen who used to flock there in such numbers and whom her husband’s practical desertion of her would have made it a course of the highest indelicacy to receive. Maisie was familiar from of old with the principle at least of the care that a woman, as Mrs. Beale phrased it, attractive and exposed must take of her “character,” and was duly impressed with the rigour of her stepmother’s scruples. There was literally no one of the other sex whom she seemed to feel at liberty to see at home, and when the child risked an enquiry about the ladies who, one by one, during her own previous period, had been made quite loudly welcome, Mrs. Beale hastened to inform her that, one by one, they had, the fiends, been found out, after all, to be awful. If she wished to know more about them she was recommended to approach her father.

Maisie had, however, at the very moment of this injunction much livelier curiosities, for the dream of lectures at an institution had at last become a reality, thanks to Sir Claude’s now unbounded energy in discovering what could be done. It stood out in this connexion that when you came to look into things in a spirit of earnestness an immense deal could be done for very little more than your fare in the Underground. The institution — there was a splendid one in a part of the town but little known to the child — became, in the glow of such a spirit, a thrilling place, and the walk to it from the station through Glower Street (a pronunciation for which Mrs. Beale once laughed at her little friend) a pathway literally strewn with “subjects.” Maisie imagined herself to pluck them as she went, though they thickened in the great grey rooms where the fountain of knowledge, in the form usually of a high voice that she took at first to be angry, plashed in the stillness of rows of faces thrust out like empty jugs. “It MUST do us good — it’s all so hideous,” Mrs. Beale had immediately declared; manifesting a purity of resolution that made these occasions quite the most harmonious of all the many on which the pair had pulled together. Maisie certainly had never, in such an association, felt so uplifted, and never above all been so carried off her feet, as at the moments of Mrs. Beale’s breathlessly re-entering the house and fairly shrieking upstairs to know if they should still be in time for a lecture. Her stepdaughter, all ready from the earliest hours, almost leaped over the banister to respond, and they dashed out together in quest of learning as hard as they often dashed back to release Mrs. Beale for other preoccupations. There had been in short no bustle like these particular spasms, once they had broken out, since that last brief flurry when Mrs. Wix, blowing as if she were grooming her, “made up” for everything previously lost at her father’s.

These weeks as well were too few, but they were flooded with a new emotion, part of which indeed came from the possibility that, through the long telescope of Glower Street, or perhaps between the pillars of the institution — which impressive objects were what Maisie thought most made it one — they should some day spy Sir Claude. That was what Mrs. Beale, under pressure, had said — doubtless a little impatiently: “Oh yes, oh yes, some day!” His joining them was clearly far less of a matter of course than was to have been gathered from his original profession of desire to improve in their company his own mind; and this sharpened our young lady’s guess that since that occasion either something destructive had happened or something desirable hadn’t. Mrs. Beale had thrown but a partial light in telling her how it had turned out that nobody had been squared. Maisie wished at any rate that somebody WOULD be squared. However, though in every approach to the temple of knowledge she watched in vain for Sir Claude, there was no doubt about the action of his loved image as an incentive and a recompense. When the institution was most on pillars — or, as Mrs. Beale put it, on stilts — when the subject was deepest and the lecture longest and the listeners ugliest, then it was they both felt their patron in the background would be most pleased with them. One day, abruptly, with a glance at this background, Mrs. Beale said to her companion: “We’ll go to-night to the thingumbob at Earl’s Court”; an announcement putting forth its full lustre when she had made known that she referred to the great Exhibition just opened in that quarter, a collection of extraordinary foreign things in tremendous gardens, with illuminations, bands, elephants, switchbacks and side-shows, as well as crowds of people among whom they might possibly see some one they knew. Maisie flew in the same bound at the neck of her friend and at the name of Sir Claude, on which Mrs. Beale confessed that — well, yes, there was just a chance that he would be able to meet them. He never of course, in his terrible position, knew what might happen from hour to hour; but he hoped to be free and he had given Mrs. Beale the tip. “Bring her there on the quiet and I’ll try to turn up”— this was clear enough on what so many weeks of privation had made of his desire to see the child: it even appeared to represent on his part a yearning as constant as her own. That in turn was just puzzling enough to make Maisie express a bewilderment. She couldn’t see, if they were so intensely of the same mind, why the theory on which she had come back to Mrs. Beale, the general reunion, the delightful trio, should have broken down so in fact. Mrs. Beale furthermore only gave her more to think about in saying that their disappointment was the result of his having got into his head a kind of idea.

“What kind of idea?”

“Oh goodness knows!” She spoke with an approach to asperity. “He’s so awfully delicate.”

“Delicate?”— that was ambiguous.

“About what he does, don’t you know?” said Mrs. Beale. She fumbled. “Well, about what WE do.”

Maisie wondered. “You and me?”

“Me and HIM, silly!” cried Mrs. Beale with, this time, a real giggle.

“But you don’t do any harm — YOU don’t,” said Maisie, wondering afresh and intending her emphasis as a decorous allusion to her parents.

“Of course we don’t, you angel — that’s just the ground I take!” her companion exultantly responded. “He says he doesn’t want you mixed up.”

“Mixed up with what?”

“That’s exactly what I want to know: mixed up with what, and how you are any more mixed —?” Mrs. Beale paused without ending her question. She ended after an instant in a different way. “All you can say is that it’s his fancy.”

The tone of this, in spite of its expressing a resignation, the fruit of weariness, that dismissed the subject, conveyed so vividly how much such a fancy was not Mrs. Beale’s own that our young lady was led by the mere fact of contact to arrive at a dim apprehension of the unuttered and the unknown. The relation between her step-parents had then a mysterious residuum; this was the first time she really had reflected that except as regards herself it was not a relationship. To each other it was only what they might have happened to make it, and she gathered that this, in the event, had been something that led Sir Claude to keep away from her. Didn’t he fear she would be compromised? The perception of such a scruple endeared him the more, and it flashed over her that she might simplify everything by showing him how little she made of such a danger. Hadn’t she lived with her eyes on it from her third year? It was the condition most frequently discussed at the Faranges’, where the word was always in the air and where at the age of five, amid rounds of applause, she could gabble it off. She knew as well in short that a person could be compromised as that a person could be slapped with a hair-brush or left alone in the dark, and it was equally familiar to her that each of these ordeals was in general held to have too little effect. But the first thing was to make absolutely sure of Mrs. Beale. This was done by saying to her thoughtfully: “Well, if you don’t mind — and you really don’t, do you?”

Mrs. Beale, with a dawn of amusement, considered. “Mixing you up? Not a bit. For what does it mean?”

“Whatever it means I don’t in the least mind BEING mixed. Therefore if you don’t and I don’t,” Maisie concluded, “don’t you think that when I see him this evening I had better just tell him we don’t and ask him why in the world HE should?”


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