What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


The next day it seemed to her indeed at the bottom — down too far, in shuddering plunges, even to leave her a sense, on the Channel boat, of the height at which Sir Claude remained and which had never in every way been so great as when, much in the wet, though in the angle of a screen of canvas, he sociably sat with his stepdaughter’s head in his lap and that of Mrs. Beale’s housemaid fairly pillowed on his breast. Maisie was surprised to learn as they drew into port that they had had a lovely passage; but this emotion, at Boulogne, was speedily quenched in others, above all in the great ecstasy of a larger impression of life. She was “abroad” and she gave herself up to it, responded to it, in the bright air, before the pink houses, among the bare-legged fishwives and the red-legged soldiers, with the instant certitude of a vocation. Her vocation was to see the world and to thrill with enjoyment of the picture; she had grown older in five minutes and had by the time they reached the hotel recognised in the institutions and manners of France a multitude of affinities and messages. Literally in the course of an hour she found her initiation; a consciousness much quickened by the superior part that, as soon as they had gobbled down a French breakfast — which was indeed a high note in the concert — she observed herself to play to Susan Ash. Sir Claude, who had already bumped against people he knew and who, as he said, had business and letters, sent them out together for a walk, a walk in which the child was avenged, so far as poetic justice required, not only for the loud giggles that in their London trudges used to break from her attendant, but for all the years of her tendency to produce socially that impression of an excess of the queer something which had seemed to waver so widely between innocence and guilt. On the spot, at Boulogne, though there might have been excess there was at least no wavering; she recognised, she understood, she adored and took possession; feeling herself attuned to everything and laying her hand, right and left, on what had simply been waiting for her. She explained to Susan, she laughed at Susan, she towered over Susan; and it was somehow Susan’s stupidity, of which she had never yet been so sure, and Susan’s bewilderment and ignorance and antagonism, that gave the liveliest rebound to her immediate perceptions and adoptions. The place and the people were all a picture together, a picture that, when they went down to the wide sands, shimmered, in a thousand tints, with the pretty organisation of the plage, with the gaiety of spectators and bathers, with that of the language and the weather, and above all with that of our young lady’s unprecedented situation. For it appeared to her that no one since the beginning of time could have had such an adventure or, in an hour, so much experience; as a sequel to which she only needed, in order to feel with conscious wonder how the past was changed, to hear Susan, inscrutably aggravated, express a preference for the Edgware Road. The past was so changed and the circle it had formed already so overstepped that on that very afternoon, in the course of another walk, she found herself enquiring of Sir Claude — without a single scruple — if he were prepared as yet to name the moment at which they should start for Paris. His answer, it must be said, gave her the least little chill.

“Oh Paris, my dear child — I don’t quite know about Paris!”

This required to be met, but it was much less to challenge him than for the rich joy of her first discussion of the details of a tour that, after looking at him a minute, she replied: “Well, isn’t that the REAL thing, the thing that when one does come abroad —?”

He had turned grave again, and she merely threw that out: it was a way of doing justice to the seriousness of their life. She couldn’t moreover be so much older since yesterday without reflecting that if by this time she probed a little he would recognise that she had done enough for mere patience. There was in fact something in his eyes that suddenly, to her own, made her discretion shabby. Before she could remedy this he had answered her last question, answered it in the way that, of all ways, she had least expected. “The thing it doesn’t do not to do? Certainly Paris is charming. But, my dear fellow, Paris eats your head off. I mean it’s so beastly expensive.”

That note gave her a pang — it suddenly let in a harder light. Were they poor then, that is was HE poor, really poor beyond the pleasantry of apollinaris and cold beef? They had walked to the end of the long jetty that enclosed the harbour and were looking out at the dangers they had escaped, the grey horizon that was England, the tumbled surface of the sea and the brown smacks that bobbed upon it. Why had he chosen an embarrassed time to make this foreign dash? unless indeed it was just the dash economic, of which she had often heard and on which, after another look at the grey horizon and the bobbing boats, she was ready to turn round with elation. She replied to him quite in his own manner: “I see, I see.” She smiled up at him. “Our affairs are involved.”

“That’s it.” He returned her smile. “Mine are not quite so bad as yours; for yours are really, my dear man, in a state I can’t see through at all. But mine will do — for a mess.”

She thought this over. “But isn’t France cheaper than England?”

England, over there in the thickening gloom, looked just then remarkably dear. “I dare say; some parts.”

“Then can’t we live in those parts?”

There was something that for an instant, in satisfaction of this, he had the air of being about to say and yet not saying. What he presently said was: “This very place is one of them.”

“Then we shall live here?”

He didn’t treat it quite so definitely as she liked. “Since we’ve come to save money!”

This made her press him more. “How long shall we stay?”

“Oh three or four days.”

It took her breath away. “You can save money in that time?”

He burst out laughing, starting to walk again and taking her under his arm. He confessed to her on the way that she too had put a finger on the weakest of all his weaknesses, the fact, of which he was perfectly aware, that he probably might have lived within his means if he had never done anything for thrift. “It’s the happy thoughts that do it,” he said; “there’s nothing so ruinous as putting in a cheap week.” Maisie heard afresh among the pleasant sounds of the closing day that steel click of Ida’s change of mind. She thought of the ten-pound note it would have been delightful at this juncture to produce for her companion’s encouragement. But the idea was dissipated by his saying irrelevantly, in presence of the next thing they stopped to admire: “We shall stay till she arrives.”

She turned upon him. “Mrs. Beale?”

“Mrs. Wix. I’ve had a wire,” he went on. “She has seen your mother.”

“Seen mamma?” Maisie stared. “Where in the world?”

“Apparently in London. They’ve been together.”

For an instant this looked ominous — a fear came into her eyes. “Then she hasn’t gone?”

“Your mother? — to South Africa? I give it up, dear boy,” Sir Claude said; and she seemed literally to see him give it up as he stood there and with a kind of absent gaze — absent, that is, from HER affairs — followed the fine stride and shining limbs of a young fishwife who had just waded out of the sea with her basketful of shrimps. His thought came back to her sooner than his eyes. “But I dare say it’s all right. She wouldn’t come if it wasn’t, poor old thing: she knows rather well what she’s about.”

This was so reassuring that Maisie, after turning it over, could make it fit into her dream. “Well, what IS she about?”

He finally stopped looking at the fishwife — he met his companion’s enquiry. “Oh you know!” There was something in the way he said it that made, between them, more of an equality than she had yet imagined; but it had also more the effect of raising her up than of letting him down, and what it did with her was shown by the sound of her assent.

“Yes — I know!” What she knew, what she COULD know is by this time no secret to us: it grew and grew at any rate, the rest of that day, in the air of what he took for granted. It was better he should do that than attempt to test her knowledge; but there at the worst was the gist of the matter: it was open between them at last that their great change, as, speaking as if it had already lasted weeks, Maisie called it, was somehow built up round Mrs. Wix. Before she went to bed that night she knew further that Sir Claude, since, as HE called it, they had been on the rush, had received more telegrams than one. But they separated again without speaking of Mrs. Beale.

Oh what a crossing for the straighteners and the old brown dress — which latter appurtenance the child saw thriftily revived for the possible disasters of travel! The wind got up in the night and from her little room at the inn Maisie could hear the noise of the sea. The next day it was raining and everything different: this was the case even with Susan Ash, who positively crowed over the bad weather, partly, it seemed, for relish of the time their visitor would have in the boat, and partly to point the moral of the folly of coming to such holes. In the wet, with Sir Claude, Maisie went to the Folkestone packet, on the arrival of which, with many signs of the fray, he made her wait under an umbrella by the quay; whence almost ere the vessel touched, he was to be descried, in quest of their friend, wriggling — that had been his word — through the invalids massed upon the deck. It was long till he reappeared — it was not indeed till every one had landed; when he presented the object of his benevolence in a light that Maisie scarce knew whether to suppose the depth of prostration or the flush of triumph. The lady on his arm, still bent beneath her late ordeal, was muffled in such draperies as had never before offered so much support to so much woe. At the hotel, an hour later, this ambiguity dropped: assisting Mrs. Wix in private to refresh and reinvest herself, Maisie heard from her in detail how little she could have achieved if Sir Claude hadn’t put it in her power. It was a phrase that in her room she repeated in connexions indescribable: he had put it in her power to have “changes,” as she said, of the most intimate order, adapted to climates and occasions so various as to foreshadow in themselves the stages of a vast itinerary. Cheap weeks would of course be in their place after so much money spent on a governess; sums not grudged, however, by this lady’s pupil, even on her feeling her own appearance give rise, through the straighteners, to an attention perceptibly mystified. Sir Claude in truth had had less time to devote to it than to Mrs. Wix’s; and moreover she would rather be in her own shoes than in her friend’s creaking new ones in the event of an encounter with Mrs. Beale. Maisie was too lost in the idea of Mrs. Beale’s judgement of so much newness to pass any judgement herself. Besides, after much luncheon and many endearments, the question took quite another turn, to say nothing of the pleasure of the child’s quick view that there were other eyes than Susan Ash’s to open to what she could show. She couldn’t show much, alas, till it stopped raining, which it declined to do that day; but this had only the effect of leaving more time for Mrs. Wix’s own demonstration. It came as they sat in the little white and gold salon which Maisie thought the loveliest place she had ever seen except perhaps the apartment of the Countess; it came while the hard summer storm lashed the windows and blew in such a chill that Sir Claude, with his hands in his pockets and cigarettes in his teeth, fidgeting, frowning, looking out and turning back, ended by causing a smoky little fire to be made in the dressy little chimney. It came in spite of something that could only be named his air of wishing to put it off; an air that had served him — oh as all his airs served him! — to the extent of his having for a couple of hours confined the conversation to gratuitous jokes and generalities, kept it on the level of the little empty coffee-cups and petits verres (Mrs. Wix had two of each!) that struck Maisie, through the fumes of the French fire and the English tobacco, as a token more than ever that they were launched. She felt now, in close quarters and as clearly as if Mrs. Wix had told her, that what this lady had come over for was not merely to be chaffed and to hear her pupil chaffed; not even to hear Sir Claude, who knew French in perfection, imitate the strange sounds emitted by the English folk at the hotel. It was perhaps half an effect of her present renovations, as if her clothes had been somebody’s else: she had at any rate never produced such an impression of high colour, of a redness associated in Maisie’s mind at THAT pitch either with measles or with “habits.” Her heart was not at all in the gossip about Boulogne; and if her complexion was partly the result of the déjeuner and the petits verres it was also the brave signal of what she was there to say. Maisie knew when this did come how anxiously it had been awaited by the youngest member of the party. “Her ladyship packed me off — she almost put me into the cab!” That was what Mrs. Wix at last brought out.


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