What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


Mrs. Beale, at table between the pair, plainly attracted the attention Mrs. Wix had foretold. No other lady present was nearly so handsome, nor did the beauty of any other accommodate itself with such art to the homage it produced. She talked mainly to her other neighbour, and that left Maisie leisure both to note the manner in which eyes were riveted and nudges interchanged, and to lose herself in the meanings that, dimly as yet and disconnectedly, but with a vividness that fed apprehension, she could begin to read into her stepmother’s independent move. Mrs. Wix had helped her by talking of a game; it was a connexion in which the move could put on a strategic air. Her notions of diplomacy were thin, but it was a kind of cold diplomatic shoulder and an elbow of more than usual point that, temporarily at least, were presented to her by the averted inclination of Mrs. Beale’s head. There was a phrase familiar to Maisie, so often was it used by this lady to express the idea of one’s getting what one wanted: one got it — Mrs. Beale always said SHE at all events always got it or proposed to get it — by “making love.” She was at present making love, singular as it appeared, to Mrs. Wix, and her young friend’s mind had never moved in such freedom as on thus finding itself face to face with the question of what she wanted to get. This period of the omelette aux rognons and the poulet sauté, while her sole surviving parent, her fourth, fairly chattered to her governess, left Maisie rather wondering if her governess would hold out. It was strange, but she became on the spot quite as interested in Mrs. Wix’s moral sense as Mrs. Wix could possibly be in hers: it had risen before her so pressingly that this was something new for Mrs. Wix to resist. Resisting Mrs. Beale herself promised at such a rate to become a very different business from resisting Sir Claude’s view of her. More might come of what had happened — whatever it was — than Maisie felt she could have expected. She put it together with a suspicion that, had she ever in her life had a sovereign changed, would have resembled an impression, baffled by the want of arithmetic, that her change was wrong: she groped about in it that she was perhaps playing the passive part in a case of violent substitution. A victim was what she should surely be if the issue between her step-parents had been settled by Mrs. Beale’s saying: “Well, if she can live with but one of us alone, with which in the world should it be but me?” That answer was far from what, for days, she had nursed herself in, and the desolation of it was deepened by the absence of anything from Sir Claude to show he had not had to take it as triumphant. Had not Mrs. Beale, upstairs, as good as given out that she had quitted him with the snap of a tension, left him, dropped him in London, after some struggle as a sequel to which her own advent represented that she had practically sacrificed him? Maisie assisted in fancy at the probable episode in the Regent’s Park, finding elements almost of terror in the suggestion that Sir Claude had not had fair play. They drew something, as she sat there, even from the pride of an association with such beauty as Mrs. Beale’s; and the child quite forgot that, though the sacrifice of Mrs. Beale herself was a solution she had not invented, she would probably have seen Sir Claude embark upon it without a direct remonstrance.

What her stepmother had clearly now promised herself to wring from Mrs. Wix was an assent to the great modification, the change, as smart as a juggler’s trick, in the interest of which nothing so much mattered as the new convenience of Mrs. Beale. Maisie could positively seize the moral that her elbow seemed to point in ribs thinly defended — the moral of its not mattering a straw which of the step-parents was the guardian. The essence of the question was that a girl wasn’t a boy: if Maisie had been a mere rough trousered thing, destined at the best probably to grow up a scamp, Sir Claude would have been welcome. As the case stood he had simply tumbled out of it, and Mrs. Wix would henceforth find herself in the employ of the right person. These arguments had really fallen into their place, for our young friend, at the very touch of that tone in which she had heard her new title declared. She was still, as a result of so many parents, a daughter to somebody even after papa and mamma were to all intents dead. If her father’s wife and her mother’s husband, by the operation of a natural or, for all she knew, a legal rule, were in the shoes of their defunct partners, then Mrs. Beale’s partner was exactly as defunct as Sir Claude’s and her shoes the very pair to which, in “Farange v. Farange and Others,” the divorce court had given priority. The subject of that celebrated settlement saw the rest of her day really filled out with the pomp of all that Mrs. Beale assumed. The assumption rounded itself there between this lady’s entertainers, flourished in a way that left them, in their bottomless element, scarce a free pair of eyes to exchange signals. It struck Maisie even a little that there was a rope or two Mrs. Wix might have thrown out if she would, a rocket or two she might have sent up. They had at any rate never been so long together without communion or telegraphy, and their companion kept them apart by simply keeping them with her. From this situation they saw the grandeur of their intenser relation to her pass and pass like an endless procession. It was a day of lively movement and of talk on Mrs. Beale’s part so brilliant and overflowing as to represent music and banners. She took them out with her promptly to walk and to drive, and even — towards night — sketched a plan for carrying them to the Etablissement, where, for only a franc apiece, they should listen to a concert of celebrities. It reminded Maisie, the plan, of the side-shows at Earl’s Court, and the franc sounded brighter than the shillings which had at that time failed; yet this too, like the other, was a frustrated hope: the francs failed like the shillings and the side-shows had set an example to the concert. The Etablissement in short melted away, and it was little wonder that a lady who from the moment of her arrival had been so gallantly in the breach should confess herself it last done up. Maisie could appreciate her fatigue; the day had not passed without such an observer’s discovering that she was excited and even mentally comparing her state to that of the breakers after a gale. It had blown hard in London, and she would take time to go down. It was of the condition known to the child by report as that of talking against time that her emphasis, her spirit, her humour, which had never dropped, now gave the impression.

She too was delighted with foreign manners; but her daughter’s opportunities of explaining them to her were unexpectedly forestalled by her own tone of large acquaintance with them. One of the things that nipped in the bud all response to her volubility was Maisie’s surprised retreat before the fact that Continental life was what she had been almost brought up on. It was Mrs. Beale, disconcertingly, who began to explain it to her friends; it was she who, wherever they turned, was the interpreter, the historian and the guide. She was full of reference to her early travels — at the age of eighteen: she had at that period made, with a distinguished Dutch family, a stay on the Lake of Geneva. Maisie had in the old days been regaled with anecdotes of these adventures, but they had with time become phantasmal, and the heroine’s quite showy exemption from bewilderment at Boulogne, her acuteness on some of the very subjects on which Maisie had been acute to Mrs. Wix, were a high note of the majesty, of the variety of advantage, with which she had alighted. It was all a part of the wind in her sails and of the weight with which her daughter was now to feel her hand. The effect of it on Maisie was to add already the burden of time to her separation from Sir Claude. This might, to her sense, have lasted for days; it was as if, with their main agitation transferred thus to France and with neither mamma now nor Mrs. Beale nor Mrs. Wix nor herself at his side, he must be fearfully alone in England. Hour after hour she felt as if she were waiting; yet she couldn’t have said exactly for what. There were moments when Mrs. Beale’s flow of talk was a mere rattle to smother a knock. At no part of the crisis had the rattle so public a purpose as when, instead of letting Maisie go with Mrs. Wix to prepare for dinner, she pushed her — with a push at last incontestably maternal — straight into the room inherited from Sir Claude. She titivated her little charge with her own brisk hands; then she brought out: “I’m going to divorce your father.”

This was so different from anything Maisie had expected that it took some time to reach her mind. She was aware meanwhile that she probably looked rather wan. “To marry Sir Claude?”

Mrs. Beale rewarded her with a kiss. “It’s sweet to hear you put it so.”

This was a tribute, but it left Maisie balancing for an objection. “How CAN you when he’s married?”

“He isn’t — practically. He’s free, you know.”

“Free to marry?”

“Free, first, to divorce his own fiend.”

The benefit that, these last days, she had felt she owed a certain person left Maisie a moment so ill-prepared for recognising this lurid label that she hesitated long enough to risk: “Mamma?”

“She isn’t your mamma any longer,” Mrs. Beale returned. “Sir Claude has paid her money to cease to be.” Then as if remembering how little, to the child, a pecuniary transaction must represent: “She lets him off supporting her if he’ll let her off supporting you.”

Mrs. Beale appeared, however, to have done injustice to her daughter’s financial grasp. “And support me himself?” Maisie asked.

“Take the whole bother and burden of you and never let her hear of you again. It’s a regular signed contract.”

“Why that’s lovely of her!” Maisie cried.

“It’s not so lovely, my dear, but that he’ll get his divorce.”

Maisie was briefly silent; after which, “No — he won’t get it,” she said. Then she added still more boldly: “And you won’t get yours.”

Mrs. Beale, who was at the dressing-glass, turned round with amusement and surprise. “How do you know that?”

“Oh I know!” cried Maisie.

“From Mrs. Wix?”

Maisie debated, then after an instant took her cue from Mrs. Beale’s absence of anger, which struck her the more as she had felt how much of her courage she needed. “From Mrs. Wix,” she admitted.

Mrs. Beale, at the glass again, made play with a powder-puff. “My own sweet, she’s mistaken!” was all she said.

There was a certain force in the very amenity of this, but our young lady reflected long enough to remember that it was not the answer Sir Claude himself had made. The recollection nevertheless failed to prevent her saying: “Do you mean then that he won’t come till he has got it?”

Mrs. Beale gave a last touch; she was ready; she stood there in all her elegance. “I mean, my dear, that it’s because he HASN’T got it that I left him.”

This opened a view that stretched further than Maisie could reach. She turned away from it, but she spoke before they went out again. “Do you like Mrs. Wix now?”

“Why, my chick, I was just going to ask you if you think she has come at all to like poor bad me!”

Maisie thought, at this hint; but unsuccessfully. “I haven’t the least idea. But I’ll find out.”

“Do!” said Mrs. Beale, rustling out with her in a scented air and as if it would be a very particular favour.

The child tried promptly at bed-time, relieved now of the fear that their visitor would wish to separate her for the night from her attendant. “Have you held out?” she began as soon as the two doors at the end of the passage were again closed on them.

Mrs. Wix looked hard at the flame of the candle. “Held out —?”

“Why, she has been making love to you. Has she won you over?”

Mrs. Wix transferred her intensity to her pupil’s face. “Over to what?”

“To HER keeping me instead.”

“Instead of Sir Claude?” Mrs. Wix was distinctly gaining time.

“Yes; who else? since it’s not instead of you.”

Mrs. Wix coloured at this lucidity. “Yes, that IS what she means.”

“Well, do you like it?” Maisie asked.

She actually had to wait, for oh her friend was embarrassed! “My opposition to the connexion — theirs — would then naturally to some extent fall. She has treated me today as if I weren’t after all quite such a worm; not that I don’t know very well where she got the pattern of her politeness. But of course,” Mrs. Wix hastened to add, “I shouldn’t like her as THE one nearly so well as him.”

“‘Nearly so well!’” Maisie echoed. “I should hope indeed not.” She spoke with a firmness under which she was herself the first to quiver. “I thought you ‘adored’ him.”

“I do,” Mrs. Wix sturdily allowed.

“Then have you suddenly begun to adore her too?”

Mrs. Wix, instead of directly answering, only blinked in support of her sturdiness. “My dear, in what a tone you ask that! You’re coming out.”

“Why shouldn’t I? YOU’VE come out. Mrs. Beale has come out. We each have our turn!” And Maisie threw off the most extraordinary little laugh that had ever passed her young lips.

There passed Mrs. Wix’s indeed the next moment a sound that more than matched it. “You’re most remarkable!” she neighed.

Her pupil, though wholly without aspirations to pertness, barely faltered. “I think you’ve done a great deal to make me so.”

“Very true, I have.” She dropped to humility, as if she recalled her so recent self-arraignment.

“Would you accept her then? That’s what I ask,” said Maisie.

“As a substitute?” Mrs. Wix turned it over; she met again the child’s eyes. “She has literally almost fawned upon me.”

“She hasn’t fawned upon HIM. She hasn’t even been kind to him.”

Mrs. Wix looked as if she had now an advantage. “Then do you propose to ‘kill’ her?”

“You don’t answer my question,” Maisie persisted. “I want to know if you accept her.”

Mrs. Wix continued to hedge. “I want to know if YOU do!”

Everything in the child’s person, at this, announced that it was easy to know. “Not for a moment.”

“Not the two now?” Mrs. Wix had caught on; she flushed with it. “Only him alone?”

“Him alone or nobody.”

“Not even ME?” cried Mrs. Wix.

Maisie looked at her a moment, then began to undress. “Oh you’re nobody!”


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