What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


Every single thing he had prophesied came so true that it was after all no more than fair to expect quite as much for what he had as good as promised. His pledges they could verify to the letter, down to his very guarantee that a way would be found with Miss Ash. Roused in the summer dawn and vehemently squeezed by that interesting exile, Maisie fell back upon her couch with a renewed appreciation of his policy, a memento of which, when she rose later on to dress, glittered at her from the carpet in the shape of a sixpence that had overflowed from Susan’s pride of possession. Sixpences really, for the forty-eight hours that followed, seemed to abound in her life; she fancifully computed the number of them represented by such a period of “larks.” The number was not kept down, she presently noticed, by any scheme of revenge for Sir Claude’s flight which should take on Mrs. Wix’s part the form of a refusal to avail herself of the facilities he had so bravely ordered. It was in fact impossible to escape them; it was in the good lady’s own phrase ridiculous to go on foot when you had a carriage prancing at the door. Everything about them pranced: the very waiters even as they presented the dishes to which, from a similar sense of the absurdity of perversity, Mrs. Wix helped herself with a freedom that spoke to Maisie quite as much of her depletion as of her logic. Her appetite was a sign to her companion of a great many things and testified no less on the whole to her general than to her particular condition. She had arrears of dinner to make up, and it was touching that in a dinnerless state her moral passion should have burned so clear. She partook largely as a refuge from depression, and yet the opportunity to partake was just a mark of the sinister symptoms that depressed her. The affair was in short a combat, in which the baser element triumphed, between her refusal to be bought off and her consent to be clothed and fed. It was not at any rate to be gainsaid that there was comfort for her in the developments of France; comfort so great as to leave Maisie free to take with her all the security for granted and brush all the danger aside. That was the way to carry out in detail Sir Claude’s injunction to be “nice”; that was the way, as well, to look, with her, in a survey of the pleasures of life abroad, straight over the head of any doubt.

They shrank at last, all doubts, as the weather cleared up: it had an immense effect on them and became quite as lovely as Sir Claude had engaged. This seemed to have put him so into the secret of things, and the joy of the world so waylaid the steps of his friends, that little by little the spirit of hope filled the air and finally took possession of the scene. To drive on the long cliff was splendid, but it was perhaps better still to creep in the shade — for the sun was strong — along the many-coloured and many-odoured port and through the streets in which, to English eyes, everything that was the same was a mystery and everything that was different a joke. Best of all was to continue the creep up the long Grand’ Rue to the gate of the haute ville and, passing beneath it, mount to the quaint and crooked rampart, with its rows of trees, its quiet corners and friendly benches where brown old women in such white-frilled caps and such long gold earrings sat and knitted or snoozed, its little yellow-faced houses that looked like the homes of misers or of priests and its dark château where small soldiers lounged on the bridge that stretched across an empty moat and military washing hung from the windows of towers. This was a part of the place that could lead Maisie to enquire if it didn’t just meet one’s idea of the middle ages; and since it was rather a satisfaction than a shock to perceive, and not for the first time, the limits in Mrs. Wix’s mind of the historic imagination, that only added one more to the variety of kinds of insight that she felt it her own present mission to show. They sat together on the old grey bastion; they looked down on the little new town which seemed to them quite as old, and across at the great dome and the high gilt Virgin of the church that, as they gathered, was famous and that pleased them by its unlikeness to any place in which they had worshipped. They wandered in this temple afterwards and Mrs. Wix confessed that for herself she had probably made a fatal mistake early in life in not being a Catholic. Her confession in its turn caused Maisie to wonder rather interestedly what degree of lateness it was that shut the door against an escape from such an error. They went back to the rampart on the second morning — the spot on which they appeared to have come furthest in the journey that was to separate them from everything objectionable in the past: it gave them afresh the impression that had most to do with their having worked round to a confidence that on Maisie’s part was determined and that she could see to be on her companion’s desperate. She had had for many hours the sense of showing Mrs. Wix so much that she was comparatively slow to become conscious of being at the same time the subject of a like aim. The business went the faster, however, from the moment she got her glimpse of it; it then fell into its place in her general, her habitual view of the particular phenomenon that, had she felt the need of words for it, she might have called her personal relation to her knowledge. This relation had never been so lively as during the time she waited with her old governess for Sir Claude’s reappearance, and what made it so was exactly that Mrs. Wix struck her as having a new suspicion of it. Mrs. Wix had never yet had a suspicion — this was certain — so calculated to throw her pupil, in spite of the closer union of such adventurous hours, upon the deep defensive. Her pupil made out indeed as many marvels as she had made out on the rush to Folkestone; and if in Sir Claude’s company on that occasion Mrs. Wix was the constant implication, so in Mrs. Wix’s, during these hours, Sir Claude was — and most of all through long pauses — the perpetual, the insurmountable theme. It all took them back to the first flush of his marriage and to the place he held in the schoolroom at that crisis of love and pain; only he had himself blown to a much bigger balloon the large consciousness he then filled out.

They went through it all again, and indeed while the interval dragged by the very weight of its charm they went, in spite of defences and suspicions, through everything. Their intensified clutch of the future throbbed like a clock ticking seconds; but this was a timepiece that inevitably, as well, at the best, rang occasionally a portentous hour. Oh there were several of these, and two or three of the worst on the old city-wall where everything else so made for peace. There was nothing in the world Maisie more wanted than to be as nice to Mrs. Wix as Sir Claude had desired; but it was exactly because this fell in with her inveterate instinct of keeping the peace that the instinct itself was quickened. From the moment it was quickened, however, it found other work, and that was how, to begin with, she produced the very complication she most sought to avert. What she had essentially done, these days, had been to read the unspoken into the spoken; so that thus, with accumulations, it had become more definite to her that the unspoken was, unspeakably, the completeness of the sacrifice of Mrs. Beale. There were times when every minute that Sir Claude stayed away was like a nail in Mrs. Beale’s coffin. That brought back to Maisie — it was a roundabout way — the beauty and antiquity of her connexion with the flower of the Overmores as well as that lady’s own grace and charm, her peculiar prettiness and cleverness and even her peculiar tribulations. A hundred things hummed at the back of her head, but two of these were simple enough. Mrs. Beale was by the way, after all, just her stepmother and her relative. She was just — and partly for that very reason — Sir Claude’s greatest intimate (“lady-intimate” was Maisie’s term) so that what together they were on Mrs. Wix’s prescription to give up and break short off with was for one of them his particular favourite and for the other her father’s wife. Strangely, indescribably her perception of reasons kept pace with her sense of trouble; but there was something in her that, without a supreme effort not to be shabby, couldn’t take the reasons for granted. What it comes to perhaps for ourselves is that, disinherited and denuded as we have seen her, there still lingered in her life an echo of parental influence — she was still reminiscent of one of the sacred lessons of home. It was the only one she retained, but luckily she retained it with force. She enjoyed in a word an ineffaceable view of the fact that there were things papa called mamma and mamma called papa a low sneak for doing or for not doing. Now this rich memory gave her a name that she dreaded to invite to the lips of Mrs. Beale: she should personally wince so just to hear it. The very sweetness of the foreign life she was steeped in added with each hour of Sir Claude’s absence to the possibility of such pangs. She watched beside Mrs. Wix the great golden Madonna, and one of the ear-ringed old women who had been sitting at the end of their bench got up and pottered away. “Adieu mesdames!” said the old woman in a little cracked civil voice — a demonstration by which our friends were so affected that they bobbed up and almost curtseyed to her. They subsided again, and it was shortly after, in a summer hum of French insects and a phase of almost somnolent reverie, that Maisie most had the vision of what it was to shut out from such a perspective so appealing a participant. It had not yet appeared so vast as at that moment, this prospect of statues shining in the blue and of courtesy in romantic forms.

“Why after all should we have to choose between you? Why shouldn’t we be four?” she finally demanded.

Mrs. Wix gave the jerk of a sleeper awakened or the start even of one who hears a bullet whiz at the flag of truce. Her stupefaction at such a breach of the peace delayed for a moment her answer. “Four improprieties, do you mean? Because two of us happen to be decent people! Do I gather you to wish that I should stay on with you even if that woman IS capable —?”

Maisie took her up before she could further phrase Mrs. Beale’s capability. “Stay on as MY companion — yes. Stay on as just what you were at mamma’s. Mrs. Beale WOULD let you!” the child said.

Mrs. Wix had by this time fairly sprung to her arms. “And who, I’d like to know, would let Mrs. Beale? Do you mean, little unfortunate, that YOU would?”

“Why not, if now she’s free?”

“Free? Are you imitating HIM? Well, if Sir Claude’s old enough to know better, upon my word I think it’s right to treat you as if you also were. You’ll have to, at any rate — to know better — if that’s the line you’re proposing to take.” Mrs. Wix had never been so harsh; but on the other hand Maisie could guess that she herself had never appeared so wanton. What was underlying, however, rather overawed than angered her; she felt she could still insist — not for contradiction, but for ultimate calm. Her wantonness meanwhile continued to work upon her friend, who caught again, on the rebound, the sound of deepest provocation. “Free, free, free? If she’s as free as YOU are, my dear, she’s free enough, to be sure!”

“As I am?”— Maisie, after reflexion and despite whatever of portentous this seemed to convey, risked a critical echo.

“Well,” said Mrs. Wix, “nobody, you know, is free to commit a crime.”

“A crime!” The word had come out in a way that made the child sound it again.

“You’d commit as great a one as their own — and so should I— if we were to condone their immorality by our presence.”

Maisie waited a little; this seemed so fiercely conclusive. “Why is it immorality?” she nevertheless presently enquired.

Her companion now turned upon her with a reproach softer because it was somehow deeper. “You’re too unspeakable! Do you know what we’re talking about?”

In the interest of ultimate calm Maisie felt that she must be above all clear. “Certainly; about their taking advantage of their freedom.”

“Well, to do what?”

“Why, to live with us.”

Mrs. Wix’s laugh, at this, was literally wild. “‘Us?’ Thank you!”

“Then to live with ME.”

The words made her friend jump. “You give me up? You break with me for ever? You turn me into the street?”

Maisie, though gasping a little, bore up under the rain of challenges. “Those, it seems to me, are the things you do to ME.”

Mrs. Wix made little of her valour. “I can promise you that, whatever I do, I shall never let you out of my sight! You ask me why it’s immorality when you’ve seen with your own eyes that Sir Claude has felt it to be so to that dire extent that, rather than make you face the shame of it, he has for months kept away from you altogether? Is it any more difficult to see that the first time he tries to do his duty he washes his hands of HER— takes you straight away from her?”

Maisie turned this over, but more for apparent consideration than from any impulse to yield too easily. “Yes, I see what you mean. But at that time they weren’t free.” She felt Mrs. Wix rear up again at the offensive word, but she succeeded in touching her with a remonstrant hand. “I don’t think you know how free they’ve become.”

“I know, I believe, at least as much as you do!”

Maisie felt a delicacy but overcame it. “About the Countess?”

“Your father’s — temptress?” Mrs. Wix gave her a sidelong squint. “Perfectly. She pays him!”

“Oh DOES she?” At this the child’s countenance fell: it seemed to give a reason for papa’s behaviour and place it in a more favourable light. She wished to be just. “I don’t say she’s not generous. She was so to me.”

“How, to you?”

“She gave me a lot of money.”

Mrs. Wix stared. “And pray what did you do with a lot of money?”

“I gave it to Mrs. Beale.”

“And what did Mrs. Beale do with it?”

“She sent it back.”

“To the Countess? Gammon!” said Mrs. Wix. She disposed of that plea as effectually as Susan Ash.

“Well, I don’t care!” Maisie replied. “What I mean is that you don’t know about the rest.”

“The rest? What rest?”

Maisie wondered how she could best put it. “Papa kept me there an hour.”

“I do know — Sir Claude told me. Mrs. Beale had told him.”

Maisie looked incredulity. “How could she — when I didn’t speak of it?”

Mrs. Wix was mystified. “Speak of what?”

“Why, of her being so frightful.”

“The Countess? Of course she’s frightful!” Mrs. Wix returned. After a moment she added: “That’s why she pays him.”

Maisie pondered. “It’s the best thing about her then — if she gives him as much as she gave ME!”

“Well, it’s not the best thing about HIM! Or rather perhaps it IS too!” Mrs. Wix subjoined.

“But she’s awful — really and truly,” Maisie went on.

Mrs. Wix arrested her. “You needn’t go into details!” It was visibly at variance with this injunction that she yet enquired: “How does that make it any better?”

“Their living with me? Why for the Countess — and for her whiskers! — he has put me off on them. I understood him,” Maisie profoundly said.

“I hope then he understood you. It’s more than I do!” Mrs. Wix admitted.

This was a real challenge to be plainer, and our young lady immediately became so. “I mean it isn’t a crime.”

“Why then did Sir Claude steal you away?”

“He didn’t steal — he only borrowed me. I knew it wasn’t for long,” Maisie audaciously professed.

“You must allow me to reply to that,” cried Mrs. Wix, “that you knew nothing of the sort, and that you rather basely failed to back me up last night when you pretended so plump that you did! You hoped in fact, exactly as much as I did and as in my senseless passion I even hope now, that this may be the beginning of better things.”

Oh yes, Mrs. Wix was indeed, for the first time, sharp; so that there at last stirred in our heroine the sense not so much of being proved disingenuous as of being precisely accused of the meanness that had brought everything down on her through her very desire to shake herself clear of it. She suddenly felt herself swell with a passion of protest. “I never, NEVER hoped I wasn’t going again to see Mrs. Beale! I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t!” she repeated. Mrs. Wix bounced about with a force of rejoinder of which she also felt that she must anticipate the concussion and which, though the good lady was evidently charged to the brim, hung fire long enough to give time for an aggravation. “She’s beautiful and I love her! I love her and she’s beautiful!”

“And I’m hideous and you hate ME?” Mrs. Wix fixed her a moment, then caught herself up. “I won’t embitter you by absolutely accusing you of that; though, as for my being hideous, it’s hardly the first time I’ve been told so! I know it so well that even if I haven’t whiskers — have I? — I dare say there are other ways in which the Countess is a Venus to me! My pretensions must therefore seem to you monstrous — which comes to the same thing as your not liking me. But do you mean to go so far as to tell me that you WANT to live with them in their sin?”

“You know what I want, you know what I want!”— Maisie spoke with the shudder of rising tears.

“Yes, I do; you want me to be as bad as yourself! Well, I won’t. There! Mrs. Beale’s as bad as your father!” Mrs. Wix went on.

“She’s not! — she’s not!” her pupil almost shrieked in retort.

“You mean because Sir Claude at least has beauty and wit and grace? But he pays just as the Countess pays!” Mrs. Wix, who now rose as she spoke, fairly revealed a latent cynicism.

It raised Maisie also to her feet; her companion had walked off a few steps and paused. The two looked at each other as they had never looked, and Mrs. Wix seemed to flaunt there in her finery. “Then doesn’t he pay YOU too?” her unhappy charge demanded.

At this she bounded in her place. “Oh you incredible little waif!” She brought it out with a wail of violence; after which, with another convulsion, she marched straight away.

Maisie dropped back on the bench and burst into sobs.


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