What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


Nothing so dreadful of course could be final or even for many minutes prolonged: they rushed together again too soon for either to feel that either had kept it up, and though they went home in silence it was with a vivid perception for Maisie that her companion’s hand had closed upon her. That hand had shown altogether, these twenty-four hours, a new capacity for closing, and one of the truths the child could least resist was that a certain greatness had now come to Mrs. Wix. The case was indeed that the quality of her motive surpassed the sharpness of her angles; both the combination and the singularity of which things, when in the afternoon they used the carriage, Maisie could borrow from the contemplative hush of their grandeur the freedom to feel to the utmost. She still bore the mark of the tone in which her friend had thrown out that threat of never losing sight of her. This friend had been converted in short from feebleness to force; and it was the light of her new authority that showed from how far she had come. The threat in question, sharply exultant, might have produced defiance; but before anything so ugly could happen another process had insidiously forestalled it. The moment at which this process had begun to mature was that of Mrs. Wix’s breaking out with a dignity attuned to their own apartments and with an advantage now measurably gained. They had ordered coffee after luncheon, in the spirit of Sir Claude’s provision, and it was served to them while they awaited their equipage in the white and gold saloon. It was flanked moreover with a couple of liqueurs, and Maisie felt that Sir Claude could scarce have been taken more at his word had it been followed by anecdotes and cigarettes. The influence of these luxuries was at any rate in the air. It seemed to her while she tiptoed at the chimney-glass, pulling on her gloves and with a motion of her head shaking a feather into place, to have had something to do with Mrs. Wix’s suddenly saying: “Haven’t you really and truly ANY moral sense?”

Maisie was aware that her answer, though it brought her down to her heels, was vague even to imbecility, and that this was the first time she had appeared to practise with Mrs. Wix an intellectual inaptitude to meet her — the infirmity to which she had owed so much success with papa and mamma. The appearance did her injustice, for it was not less through her candour than through her playfellow’s pressure that after this the idea of a moral sense mainly coloured their intercourse. She began, the poor child, with scarcely knowing what it was; but it proved something that, with scarce an outward sign save her surrender to the swing of the carriage, she could, before they came back from their drive, strike up a sort of acquaintance with. The beauty of the day only deepened, and the splendour of the afternoon sea, and the haze of the far headlands, and the taste of the sweet air. It was the coachman indeed who, smiling and cracking his whip, turning in his place, pointing to invisible objects and uttering unintelligible sounds — all, our tourists recognised, strict features of a social order principally devoted to language: it was this polite person, I say, who made their excursion fall so much short that their return left them still a stretch of the long daylight and an hour that, at his obliging suggestion, they spent on foot by the shining sands. Maisie had seen the plage the day before with Sir Claude, but that was a reason the more for showing on the spot to Mrs. Wix that it was, as she said, another of the places on her list and of the things of which she knew the French name. The bathers, so late, were absent and the tide was low; the sea-pools twinkled in the sunset and there were dry places as well, where they could sit again and admire and expatiate: a circumstance that, while they listened to the lap of the waves, gave Mrs. Wix a fresh support for her challenge. “Have you absolutely none at all?”

She had no need now, as to the question itself at least, to be specific; that on the other hand was the eventual result of their quiet conjoined apprehension of the thing that — well, yes, since they must face it — Maisie absolutely and appallingly had so little of. This marked more particularly the moment of the child’s perceiving that her friend had risen to a level which might — till superseded at all events — pass almost for sublime. Nothing more remarkable had taken place in the first heat of her own departure, no act of perception less to be overtraced by our rough method, than her vision, the rest of that Boulogne day, of the manner in which she figured. I so despair of courting her noiseless mental footsteps here that I must crudely give you my word for its being from this time forward a picture literally present to her. Mrs. Wix saw her as a little person knowing so extraordinarily much that, for the account to be taken of it, what she still didn’t know would be ridiculous if it hadn’t been embarrassing. Mrs. Wix was in truth more than ever qualified to meet embarrassment; I am not sure that Maisie had not even a dim discernment of the queer law of her own life that made her educate to that sort of proficiency those elders with whom she was concerned. She promoted, as it were, their development; nothing could have been more marked for instance than her success in promoting Mrs. Beale’s. She judged that if her whole history, for Mrs. Wix, had been the successive stages of her knowledge, so the very climax of the concatenation would, in the same view, be the stage at which the knowledge should overflow. As she was condemned to know more and more, how could it logically stop before she should know Most? It came to her in fact as they sat there on the sands that she was distinctly on the road to know Everything. She had not had governesses for nothing: what in the world had she ever done but learn and learn and learn? She looked at the pink sky with a placid foreboding that she soon should have learnt All. They lingered in the flushed air till at last it turned to grey and she seemed fairly to receive new information from every brush of the breeze. By the time they moved homeward it was as if this inevitability had become for Mrs. Wix a long, tense cord, twitched by a nervous hand, on which the valued pearls of intelligence were to be neatly strung.

In the evening upstairs they had another strange sensation, as to which Maisie couldn’t afterwards have told you whether it was bang in the middle or quite at the beginning that her companion sounded with fresh emphasis the note of the moral sense. What mattered was merely that she did exclaim, and again, as at first appeared, most disconnectedly: “God help me, it does seem to peep out!” Oh the queer confusions that had wooed it at last to such peeping! None so queer, however, as the words of woe, and it might verily be said of rage, in which the poor lady bewailed the tragic end of her own rich ignorance. There was a point at which she seized the child and hugged her as close as in the old days of partings and returns; at which she was visibly at a loss how to make up to such a victim for such contaminations: appealing, as to what she had done and was doing, in bewilderment, in explanation, in supplication, for reassurance, for pardon and even outright for pity.

“I don’t know what I’ve said to you, my own: I don’t know what I’m saying or what the turn you’ve given my life has rendered me, heaven forgive me, capable of saying. Have I lost all delicacy, all decency, all measure of how far and how bad? It seems to me mostly that I have, though I’m the last of whom you would ever have thought it. I’ve just done it for YOU, precious — not to lose you, which would have been worst of all: so that I’ve had to pay with my own innocence, if you do laugh! for clinging to you and keeping you. Don’t let me pay for nothing; don’t let me have been thrust for nothing into such horrors and such shames. I never knew anything about them and I never wanted to know! Now I know too much, too much!” the poor woman lamented and groaned. “I know so much that with hearing such talk I ask myself where I am; and with uttering it too, which is worse, say to myself that I’m far, too far, from where I started! I ask myself what I should have thought with my lost one if I had heard myself cross the line. There are lines I’ve crossed with YOU where I should have fancied I had come to a pretty pass —” She gasped at the mere supposition. “I’ve gone from one thing to another, and all for the real love of you; and now what would any one say — I mean any one but THEM— if they were to hear the way I go on? I’ve had to keep up with you, haven’t I? — and therefore what could I do less than look to you to keep up with ME? But it’s not THEM that are the worst — by which I mean to say it’s not HIM: it’s your dreadfully base papa and the one person in the world whom he could have found, I do believe — and she’s not the Countess, duck — wickeder than himself. While they were about it at any rate, since they WERE ruining you, they might have done it so as to spare an honest woman. Then I shouldn’t have had to do whatever it is that’s the worst: throw up at you the badness you haven’t taken in, or find my advantage in the vileness you HAVE! What I did lose patience at this morning was at how it was that without your seeming to condemn — for you didn’t, you remember! — you yet did seem to KNOW. Thank God, in his mercy, at last, IF you do!”

The night, this time, was warm, and one of the windows stood open to the small balcony over the rail of which, on coming back from dinner, Maisie had hung a long time in the enjoyment of the chatter, the lights, the life of the quay made brilliant by the season and the hour. Mrs. Wix’s requirements had drawn her in from this pasture and Mrs. Wix’s embrace had detained her even though midway in the outpouring her confusion and sympathy had permitted, or rather had positively helped, her to disengage herself. But the casement was still wide, the spectacle, the pleasure were still there, and from her place in the room, which, with its polished floor and its panels of elegance, was lighted from without more than from within, the child could still take account of them. She appeared to watch and listen; after which she answered Mrs. Wix with a question. “If I do know —?”

“If you do condemn.” The correction was made with some austerity.

It had the effect of causing Maisie to heave a vague sigh of oppression and then after an instant and as if under cover of this ambiguity pass out again upon the balcony. She hung again over the rail; she felt the summer night; she dropped down into the manners of France. There was a café below the hotel, before which, with little chairs and tables, people sat on a space enclosed by plants in tubs; and the impression was enriched by the flash of the white aprons of waiters and the music of a man and a woman who, from beyond the precinct, sent up the strum of a guitar and the drawl of a song about “amour.” Maisie knew what “amour” meant too, and wondered if Mrs. Wix did: Mrs. Wix remained within, as still as a mouse and perhaps not reached by the performance. After a while, but not till the musicians had ceased and begun to circulate with a little plate, her pupil came back to her. “IS it a crime?” Maisie then asked.

Mrs. Wix was as prompt as if she had been crouching in a lair. “Branded by the Bible.”

“Well, he won’t commit a crime.”

Mrs. Wix looked at her gloomily. “He’s committing one now.”


“In being with her.”

Maisie had it on her tongue’s end to return once more: “But now he’s free.” She remembered, however, in time that one of the things she had known for the last entire hour was that this made no difference. After that, and as if to turn the right way, she was on the point of a blind dash, a weak reversion to the reminder that it might make a difference, might diminish the crime for Mrs. Beale; till such a reflexion was in its order also quashed by the visibility in Mrs. Wix’s face of the collapse produced by her inference from her pupil’s manner that after all her pains her pupil didn’t even yet adequately understand. Never so much as when confronted had Maisie wanted to understand, and all her thought for a minute centred in the effort to come out with something which should be a disproof of her simplicity. “Just TRUST me, dear; that’s all!”— she came out finally with that; and it was perhaps a good sign of her action that with a long, impartial moan Mrs. Wix floated her to bed.

There was no letter the next morning from Sir Claude — which Mrs. Wix let out that she deemed the worst of omens; yet it was just for the quieter communion they so got with him that, when after the coffee and rolls which made them more foreign than ever, it came to going forth for fresh drafts upon his credit they wandered again up the hill to the rampart instead of plunging into distraction with the crowd on the sands or into the sea with the semi-nude bathers. They gazed once more at their gilded Virgin; they sank once more upon their battered bench; they felt once more their distance from the Regent’s Park. At last Mrs. Wix became definite about their friend’s silence. “He IS afraid of her! She has forbidden him to write.” The fact of his fear Maisie already knew; but her companion’s mention of it had at this moment two unexpected results. The first was her wondering in dumb remonstrance how Mrs. Wix, with a devotion not after all inferior to her own, could put into such an allusion such a grimness of derision; the second was that she found herself suddenly drop into a deeper view of it. She too had been afraid, as we have seen, of the people of whom Sir Claude was afraid, and by that law she had had her due measure of latest apprehension of Mrs. Beale. What occurred at present, however, was that, whereas this sympathy appeared vain as for him, the ground of it loomed dimly as a reason for selfish alarm. That uneasiness had not carried her far before Mrs. Wix spoke again and with an abruptness so great as almost to seem irrelevant. “Has it never occurred to you to be jealous of her?”

It never had in the least; yet the words were scarce in the air before Maisie had jumped at them. She held them well, she looked at them hard; at last she brought out with an assurance which there was no one, alas, but herself to admire: “Well, yes — since you ask me.” She debated, then continued: “Lots of times!”

Mrs. Wix glared askance an instant; such approval as her look expressed was not wholly unqualified. It expressed at any rate something that presumably had to do with her saying once more: “Yes. He’s afraid of her.”

Maisie heard, and it had afresh its effect on her even through the blur of the attention now required by the possibility of that idea of jealousy — a possibility created only by her feeling she had thus found the way to show she was not simple. It struck out of Mrs. Wix that this lady still believed her moral sense to be interested and feigned; so what could be such a gage of her sincerity as a peep of the most restless of the passions? Such a revelation would baffle discouragement, and discouragement was in fact so baffled that, helped in some degree by the mere intensity of their need to hope, which also, according to its nature, sprang from the dark portent of the absent letter, the real pitch of their morning was reached by the note, not of mutual scrutiny, but of unprecedented frankness. There were broodings indeed and silences, and Maisie sank deeper into the vision that for her friend she was, at the most, superficial, and that also, positively, she was the more so the more she tried to appear complete. Was the sum of all knowledge only to know how little in this presence one would ever reach it? The answer to that question luckily lost itself in the brightness suffusing the scene as soon as Maisie had thrown out in regard to Mrs. Beale such a remark as she had never dreamed she should live to make. “If I thought she was unkind to him — I don’t know WHAT I should do!”

Mrs. Wix dropped one of her squints; she even confirmed it by a wild grunt. “I know what I should!”

Maisie at this felt that she lagged. “Well, I can think of ONE thing.”

Mrs. Wix more directly challenged her. “What is it then?”

Maisie met her expression as if it were a game with forfeits for winking. “I’d KILL her!” That at least, she hoped as she looked away, would guarantee her moral sense. She looked away, but her companion said nothing for so long that she at last turned her head again. Then she saw the straighteners all blurred with tears which after a little seemed to have sprung from her own eyes. There were tears in fact on both sides of the spectacles, and they were even so thick that it was presently all Maisie could do to make out through them that slowly, finally Mrs. Wix put forth a hand. It was the material pressure that settled this and even at the end of some minutes more things besides. It settled in its own way one thing in particular, which, though often, between them, heaven knew, hovered round and hung over, was yet to be established without the shadow of an attenuating smile. Oh there was no gleam of levity, as little of humour as of deprecation, in the long time they now sat together or in the way in which at some unmeasured point of it Mrs. Wix became distinct enough for her own dignity and yet not loud enough for the snoozing old women.

“I adore him. I adore him.”

Maisie took it well in; so well that in a moment more she would have answered profoundly: “So do I.” But before that moment passed something took place that brought other words to her lips; nothing more, very possibly, than the closer consciousness in her hand of the significance of Mrs. Wix’s. Their hands remained linked in unutterable sign of their union, and what Maisie at last said was simply and serenely: “Oh I know!”

Their hands were so linked and their union was so confirmed that it took the far deep note of a bell, borne to them on the summer air, to call them back to a sense of hours and proprieties. They had touched bottom and melted together, but they gave a start at last: the bell was the voice of the inn and the inn was the image of luncheon. They should be late for it; they got up, and their quickened step on the return had something of the swing of confidence. When they reached the hotel the table d’hôte had begun; this was clear from the threshold, clear from the absence in the hall and on the stairs of the “personnel,” as Mrs. Wix said — she had picked THAT up — all collected in the dining-room. They mounted to their apartments for a brush before the glass, and it was Maisie who, in passing and from a vain impulse, threw open the white and gold door. She was thus first to utter the sound that brought Mrs. Wix almost on top of her, as by the other accident it would have brought her on top of Mrs. Wix. It had at any rate the effect of leaving them bunched together in a strained stare at their new situation. This situation had put on in a flash the bright form of Mrs. Beale: she stood there in her hat and her jacket, amid bags and shawls, smiling and holding out her arms. If she had just arrived it was a different figure from either of the two that for THEIR benefit, wan and tottering and none too soon to save life, the Channel had recently disgorged. She was as lovely as the day that had brought her over, as fresh as the luck and the health that attended her: it came to Maisie on the spot that she was more beautiful than she had ever been. All this was too quick to count, but there was still time in it to give the child the sense of what had kindled the light. That leaped out of the open arms, the open eyes, the open mouth; it leaped out with Mrs. Beale’s loud cry at her: “I’m free, I’m free!”


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