What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


A good deal of the rest of Ida’s visit was devoted to explaining, as it were, so extraordinary a statement. This explanation was more copious than any she had yet indulged in, and as the summer twilight gathered and she kept her child in the garden she was conciliatory to a degree that let her need to arrange things a little perceptibly peep out. It was not merely that she explained; she almost conversed; all that was wanting was that she should have positively chattered a little less. It was really the occasion of Maisie’s life on which her mother was to have most to say to her. That alone was an implication of generosity and virtue, and no great stretch was required to make our young lady feel that she should best meet her and soonest have it over by simply seeming struck with the propriety of her contention. They sat together while the parent’s gloved hand sometimes rested sociably on the child’s and sometimes gave a corrective pull to a ribbon too meagre or a tress too thick; and Maisie was conscious of the effort to keep out of her eyes the wonder with which they were occasionally moved to blink. Oh there would have been things to blink at if one had let one’s self go; and it was lucky they were alone together, without Sir Claude or Mrs. Wix or even Mrs. Beale to catch an imprudent glance. Though profuse and prolonged her ladyship was not exhaustively lucid, and her account of her situation, so far as it could be called descriptive, was a muddle of inconsequent things, bruised fruit of an occasion she had rather too lightly affronted. None of them were really thought out and some were even not wholly insincere. It was as if she had asked outright what better proof could have been wanted of her goodness and her greatness than just this marvellous consent to give up what she had so cherished. It was as if she had said in so many words: “There have been things between us — between Sir Claude and me — which I needn’t go into, you little nuisance, because you wouldn’t understand them.” It suited her to convey that Maisie had been kept, so far as SHE was concerned or could imagine, in a holy ignorance and that she must take for granted a supreme simplicity. She turned this way and that in the predicament she had sought and from which she could neither retreat with grace nor emerge with credit: she draped herself in the tatters of her impudence, postured to her utmost before the last little triangle of cracked glass to which so many fractures had reduced the polished plate of filial superstition. If neither Sir Claude nor Mrs. Wix was there this was perhaps all the more a pity: the scene had a style of its own that would have qualified it for presentation, especially at such a moment as that of her letting it betray that she quite did think her wretched offspring better placed with Sir Claude than in her own soiled hands. There was at any rate nothing scant either in her admissions or her perversions, the mixture of her fear of what Maisie might undiscoverably think and of the support she at the same time gathered from a necessity of selfishness and a habit of brutality. This habit flushed through the merit she now made, in terms explicit, of not having come to Folkestone to kick up a vulgar row. She had not come to box any ears or to bang any doors or even to use any language: she had come at the worst to lose the thread of her argument in an occasional dumb disgusted twitch of the toggery in which Mrs. Beale’s low domestic had had the impudence to serve up Miss Farange. She checked all criticism, not committing herself even so far as for those missing comforts of the schoolroom on which Mrs. Wix had presumed.

“I AM good — I’m crazily, I’m criminally good. But it won’t do for YOU any more, and if I’ve ceased to contend with him, and with you too, who have made most of the trouble between us, it’s for reasons that you’ll understand one of these days but too well — one of these days when I hope you’ll know what it is to have lost a mother. I’m awfully ill, but you mustn’t ask me anything about it. If I don’t get off somewhere my doctor won’t answer for the consequences. He’s stupefied at what I’ve borne — he says it has been put on me because I was formed to suffer. I’m thinking of South Africa, but that’s none of your business. You must take your choice — you can’t ask me questions if you’re so ready to give me up. No, I won’t tell you; you can find out for yourself. South Africa’s wonderful, they say, and if I do go it must be to give it a fair trial. It must be either one thing or the other; if he takes you, you know, he takes you. I’ve struck my last blow for you; I can follow you no longer from pillar to post. I must live for myself at last, while there’s still a handful left of me. I’m very, very ill; I’m very, very tired; I’m very, very determined. There you have it. Make the most of it. Your frock’s too filthy; but I came to sacrifice myself.” Maisie looked at the peccant places; there were moments when it was a relief to her to drop her eyes even on anything so sordid. All her interviews, all her ordeals with her mother had, as she had grown older, seemed to have, before any other, the hard quality of duration; but longer than any, strangely, were these minutes offered to her as so pacific and so agreeably winding up the connexion. It was her anxiety that made them long, her fear of some hitch, some check of the current, one of her ladyship’s famous quick jumps. She held her breath; she only wanted, by playing into her visitor’s hands, to see the thing through. But her impatience itself made at instants the whole situation swim; there were things Ida said that she perhaps didn’t hear, and there were things she heard that Ida perhaps didn’t say. “You’re all I have, and yet I’m capable of this. Your father wishes you were dead — that, my dear, is what your father wishes. You’ll have to get used to it as I’ve done — I mean to his wishing that I’M dead. At all events you see for yourself how wonderful I am to Sir Claude. He wishes me dead quite as much; and I’m sure that if making me scenes about YOU could have killed me —!” It was the mark of Ida’s eloquence that she started more hares than she followed, and she gave but a glance in the direction of this one; going on to say that the very proof of her treating her husband like an angel was that he had just stolen off not to be fairly shamed. She spoke as if he had retired on tiptoe, as he might have withdrawn from a place of worship in which he was not fit to be present. “You’ll never know what I’ve been through about you — never, never, never. I spare you everything, as I always have; though I dare say you know things that, if I did (I mean if I knew them) would make me — well, no matter! You’re old enough at any rate to know there are a lot of things I don’t say that I easily might; though it would do me good, I assure you, to have spoken my mind for once in my life. I don’t speak of your father’s infamous wife: that may give you a notion of the way I’m letting you off. When I say ‘you’ I mean your precious friends and backers. If you don’t do justice to my forbearing, out of delicacy, to mention, just as a last word, about your stepfather, a little fact or two of a kind that really I should only HAVE to mention to shine myself in comparison, and after every calumny, like pure gold: if you don’t do me THAT justice you’ll never do me justice at all!”

Maisie’s desire to show what justice she did her had by this time become so intense as to have brought with it an inspiration. The great effect of their encounter had been to confirm her sense of being launched with Sir Claude, to make it rich and full beyond anything she had dreamed, and everything now conspired to suggest that a single soft touch of her small hand would complete the good work and set her ladyship so promptly and majestically afloat as to leave the great seaway clear for the morrow. This was the more the case as her hand had for some moments been rendered free by a marked manoeuvre of both of her mother’s. One of these capricious members had fumbled with visible impatience in some backward depth of drapery and had presently reappeared with a small article in its grasp. The act had a significance for a little person trained, in that relation, from an early age, to keep an eye on manual motions, and its possible bearing was not darkened by the memory of the handful of gold that Susan Ash would never, never believe Mrs. Beale had sent back —“not she; she’s too false and too greedy!”— to the munificent Countess. To have guessed, none the less, that her ladyship’s purse might be the real figure of the object extracted from the rustling covert at her rear — this suspicion gave on the spot to the child’s eyes a direction carefully distant. It added moreover to the optimism that for an hour could ruffle the surface of her deep diplomacy, ruffle it to the point of making her forget that she had never been safe unless she had also been stupid. She in short forgot her habitual caution in her impulse to adopt her ladyship’s practical interests and show her ladyship how perfectly she understood them. She saw without looking that her mother pressed a little clasp; heard, without wanting to, the sharp click that marked the closing portemonnaie from which something had been taken. What this was she just didn’t see; it was not too substantial to be locked with ease in the fold of her ladyship’s fingers. Nothing was less new to Maisie than the art of not thinking singly, so that at this instant she could both bring out what was on her tongue’s end and weigh, as to the object in her mother’s palm, the question of its being a sovereign against the question of its being a shilling. No sooner had she begun to speak than she saw that within a few seconds this question would have been settled: she had foolishly checked the rising words of the little speech of presentation to which, under the circumstances, even such a high pride as Ida’s had had to give some thought. She had checked it completely — that was the next thing she felt: the note she sounded brought into her companion’s eyes a look that quickly enough seemed at variance with presentations.

“That was what the Captain said to me that day, mamma. I think it would have given you pleasure to hear the way he spoke of you.”

The pleasure, Maisie could now in consternation reflect, would have been a long time coming if it had come no faster than the response evoked by her allusion to it. Her mother gave her one of the looks that slammed the door in her face; never in a career of unsuccessful experiments had Maisie had to take such a stare. It reminded her of the way that once, at one of the lectures in Glower Street, something in a big jar that, amid an array of strange glasses and bad smells, had been promised as a beautiful yellow was produced as a beautiful black. She had been sorry on that occasion for the lecturer, but she was at this moment sorrier for herself. Oh nothing had ever made for twinges like mamma’s manner of saying: “The Captain? What Captain?”

“Why when we met you in the Gardens — the one who took me to sit with him. That was exactly what HE said.”

Ida let it come on so far as to appear for an instant to pick up a lost thread. “What on earth did he say?”

Maisie faltered supremely, but supremely she brought it out. “What you say, mamma — that you’re so good.”

“What ‘I’ say?” Ida slowly rose, keeping her eyes on her child, and the hand that had busied itself in her purse conformed at her side and amid the folds of her dress to a certain stiffening of the arm. “I say you’re a precious idiot, and I won’t have you put words into my mouth!” This was much more peremptory than a mere contradiction. Maisie could only feel on the spot that everything had broken short off and that their communication had abruptly ceased. That was presently proved. “What business have you to speak to me of him?”

Her daughter turned scarlet. “I thought you liked him.”

“Him! — the biggest cad in London!” Her ladyship towered again, and in the gathering dusk the whites of her eyes were huge.

Maisie’s own, however, could by this time pretty well match them; and she had at least now, with the first flare of anger that had ever yet lighted her face for a foe, the sense of looking up quite as hard as any one could look down. “Well, he was kind about you then; he WAS, and it made me like him. He said things — they were beautiful, they were, they were!” She was almost capable of the violence of forcing this home, for even in the midst of her surge of passion — of which in fact it was a part — there rose in her a fear, a pain, a vision ominous, precocious, of what it might mean for her mother’s fate to have forfeited such a loyalty as that. There was literally an instant in which Maisie fully saw — saw madness and desolation, saw ruin and darkness and death. “I’ve thought of him often since, and I hoped it was with him — with him —” Here, in her emotion, it failed her, the breath of her filial hope.

But Ida got it out of her. “You hoped, you little horror —?”

“That it was he who’s at Dover, that it was he who’s to take you. I mean to South Africa,” Maisie said with another drop.

Ida’s stupefaction, on this, kept her silent unnaturally long, so long that her daughter could not only wonder what was coming, but perfectly measure the decline of every symptom of her liberality. She loomed there in her grandeur, merely dark and dumb; her wrath was clearly still, as it had always been, a thing of resource and variety. What Maisie least expected of it was by this law what now occurred. It melted, in the summer twilight, gradually into pity, and the pity after a little found a cadence to which the renewed click of her purse gave an accent. She had put back what she had taken out. “You’re a dreadful dismal deplorable little thing,” she murmured. And with this she turned back and rustled away over the lawn.

After she had disappeared, Maisie dropped upon the bench again and for some time, in the empty garden and the deeper dusk, sat and stared at the image her flight had still left standing. It had ceased to be her mother only, in the strangest way, that it might become her father, the father of whose wish that she were dead the announcement still lingered in the air. It was a presence with vague edges — it continued to front her, to cover her. But what reality that she need reckon with did it represent if Mr. Farange were, on his side, also going off — going off to America with the Countess, or even only to Spa? That question had, from the house, a sudden gay answer in the great roar of a gong, and at the same moment she saw Sir Claude look out for her from the wide lighted doorway. At this she went to him and he came forward and met her on the lawn. For a minute she was with him there in silence as, just before, at the last, she had been with her mother.

“She’s gone?”

“She’s gone.”

Nothing more, for the instant, passed between them but to move together to the house, where, in the hall, he indulged in one of those sudden pleasantries with which, to the delight of his stepdaughter, his native animation overflowed. “Will Miss Farange do me the honour to accept my arm?”

There was nothing in all her days that Miss Farange had accepted with such bliss, a bright rich element that floated them together to their feast; before they reached which, however, she uttered, in the spirit of a glad young lady taken in to her first dinner, a sociable word that made him stop short. “She goes to South Africa.”

“To South Africa?” His face, for a moment, seemed to swing for a jump; the next it took its spring into the extreme of hilarity. “Is that what she said?”

“Oh yes, I didn’t MISTAKE!” Maisie took to herself THAT credit. “For the climate.”

Sir Claude was now looking at a young woman with black hair, a red frock and a tiny terrier tucked under her elbow. She swept past them on her way to the dining-room, leaving an impression of a strong scent which mingled, amid the clatter of the place, with the hot aroma of food. He had become a little graver; he still stopped to talk. “I see — I see.” Other people brushed by; he was not too grave to notice them. “Did she say anything else?”

“Oh yes, a lot more.”

On this he met her eyes again with some intensity, but only repeating: “I see — I see.”

Maisie had still her own vision, which she brought out. “I thought she was going to give me something.”

“What kind of a thing?”

“Some money that she took out of her purse and then put back.”

Sir Claude’s amusement reappeared. “She thought better of it. Dear thrifty soul! How much did she make by that manoeuvre?”

Maisie considered. “I didn’t see. It was very small.”

Sir Claude threw back his head. “Do you mean very little? Sixpence?”

Maisie resented this almost as if, at dinner, she were already bandying jokes with an agreeable neighbour. “It may have been a sovereign.”

“Or even,” Sir Claude suggested, “a ten-pound note.” She flushed at this sudden picture of what she perhaps had lost, and he made it more vivid by adding: “Rolled up in a tight little ball, you know — her way of treating banknotes as if they were curl-papers!” Maisie’s flush deepened both with the immense plausibility of this and with a fresh wave of the consciousness that was always there to remind her of his cleverness — the consciousness of how immeasurably more after all he knew about mamma than she. She had lived with her so many times without discovering the material of her curl-papers or assisting at any other of her dealings with banknotes. The tight little ball had at any rate rolled away from her for ever — quite like one of the other balls that Ida’s cue used to send flying. Sir Claude gave her his arm again, and by the time she was seated at table she had perfectly made up her mind as to the amount of the sum she had forfeited. Everything about her, however — the crowded room, the bedizened banquet, the savour of dishes, the drama of figures — ministered to the joy of life. After dinner she smoked with her friend — for that was exactly what she felt she did — on a porch, a kind of terrace, where the red tips of cigars and the light dresses of ladies made, under the happy stars, a poetry that was almost intoxicating. They talked but little, and she was slightly surprised at his asking for no more news of what her mother had said; but she had no need of talk — there were a sense and a sound in everything to which words had nothing to add. They smoked and smoked, and there was a sweetness in her stepfather’s silence. At last he said: “Let us take another turn — but you must go to bed soon. Oh you know, we’re going to have a system!” Their turn was back into the garden, along the dusky paths from which they could see the black masts and the red lights of boats and hear the calls and cries that evidently had to do with happy foreign travel; and their system was once more to get on beautifully in this further lounge without a definite exchange. Yet he finally spoke — he broke out as he tossed away the match from which he had taken a fresh light: “I must go for a stroll. I’m in a fidget — I must walk it off.” She fell in with this as she fell in with everything; on which he went on: “You go up to Miss Ash”— it was the name they had started; “you must see she’s not in mischief. Can you find your way alone?”

“Oh yes; I’ve been up and down seven times.” She positively enjoyed the prospect of an eighth.

Still they didn’t separate; they stood smoking together under the stars. Then at last Sir Claude produced it. “I’m free — I’m free.”

She looked up at him; it was the very spot on which a couple of hours before she had looked up at her mother. “You’re free — you’re free.”

“To-morrow we go to France.” He spoke as if he hadn’t heard her; but it didn’t prevent her again concurring.

“To-morrow we go to France.”

Again he appeared not to have heard her; and after a moment — it was an effect evidently of the depth of his reflexions and the agitation of his soul — he also spoke as if he had not spoken before. “I’m free — I’m free!”

She repeated her form of assent. “You’re free — you’re free.”

This time he did hear her; he fixed her through the darkness with a grave face. But he said nothing more; he simply stooped a little and drew her to him — simply held her a little and kissed her goodnight; after which, having given her a silent push upstairs to Miss Ash, he turned round again to the black masts and the red lights. Maisie mounted as if France were at the top.


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