What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


After they were seated there it was different: the place was not below the hotel, but further along the quay; with wide, clear windows and a floor sprinkled with bran in a manner that gave it for Maisie something of the added charm of a circus. They had pretty much to themselves the painted spaces and the red plush benches; these were shared by a few scattered gentlemen who picked teeth, with facial contortions, behind little bare tables, and by an old personage in particular, a very old personage with a red ribbon in his buttonhole, whose manner of soaking buttered rolls in coffee and then disposing of them in the little that was left of the interval between his nose and chin might at a less anxious hour have cast upon Maisie an almost envious spell. They too had their café au lait and their buttered rolls, determined by Sir Claude’s asking her if she could with that light aid wait till the hour of déjeuner. His allusion to this meal gave her, in the shaded sprinkled coolness, the scene, as she vaguely felt, of a sort of ordered mirrored licence, the haunt of those — the irregular, like herself — who went to bed or who rose too late, something to think over while she watched the white-aproned waiter perform as nimbly with plates and saucers as a certain conjurer her friend had in London taken her to a music-hall to see. Sir Claude had presently begun to talk again, to tell her how London had looked and how long he had felt himself, on either side, to have been absent; all about Susan Ash too and the amusement as well as the difficulty he had had with her; then all about his return journey and the Channel in the night and the crowd of people coming over and the way there were always too many one knew. He spoke of other matters beside, especially of what she must tell him of the occupations, while he was away, of Mrs. Wix and her pupil. Hadn’t they had the good time he had promised? — had he exaggerated a bit the arrangements made for their pleasure? Maisie had something — not all there was — to say of his success and of their gratitude: she had a complication of thought that grew every minute, grew with the consciousness that she had never seen him in this particular state in which he had been given back.

Mrs. Wix had once said — it was once or fifty times; once was enough for Maisie, but more was not too much — that he was wonderfully various. Well, he was certainly so, to the child’s mind, on the present occasion: he was much more various than he was anything else. Besides, the fact that they were together in a shop, at a nice little intimate table as they had so often been in London, only made greater the difference of what they were together about. This difference was in his face, in his voice, in every look he gave her and every movement he made. They were not the looks and the movements he really wanted to show, and she could feel as well that they were not those she herself wanted. She had seen him nervous, she had seen every one she had come in contact with nervous, but she had never seen him so nervous as this. Little by little it gave her a settled terror, a terror that partook of the coldness she had felt just before, at the hotel, to find herself, on his answer about Mrs. Beale, disbelieve him. She seemed to see at present, to touch across the table, as if by laying her hand on it, what he had meant when he confessed on those several occasions to fear. Why was such a man so often afraid? It must have begun to come to her now that there was one thing just such a man above all could be afraid of. He could be afraid of himself. His fear at all events was there; his fear was sweet to her, beautiful and tender to her, was having coffee and buttered rolls and talk and laughter that were no talk and laughter at all with her; his fear was in his jesting postponing perverting voice; it was just in this make-believe way he had brought her out to imitate the old London playtimes, to imitate indeed a relation that had wholly changed, a relation that she had with her very eyes seen in the act of change when, the day before in the salon, Mrs. Beale rose suddenly before her. She rose before her, for that matter, now, and even while their refreshment delayed Maisie arrived at the straight question for which, on their entrance, his first word had given opportunity. “Are we going to have déjeuner with Mrs. Beale?”

His reply was anything but straight. “You and I?”

Maisie sat back in her chair. “Mrs. Wix and me.”

Sir Claude also shifted. “That’s an enquiry, my dear child, that Mrs. Beale herself must answer.” Yes, he had shifted; but abruptly, after a moment during which something seemed to hang there between them and, as it heavily swayed, just fan them with the air of its motion, she felt that the whole thing was upon them. “Do you mind,” he broke out, “my asking you what Mrs. Wix has said to you?”

“Said to me?”

“This day or two — while I was away.”

“Do you mean about you and Mrs. Beale?”

Sir Claude, resting on his elbows, fixed his eyes a moment on the white marble beneath them. “No; I think we had a good deal of that — didn’t we? — before I left you. It seems to me we had it pretty well all out. I mean about yourself, about your — don’t you know? — associating with us, as I might say, and staying on with us. While you were alone with our friend what did she say?”

Maisie felt the weight of the question; it kept her silent for a space during which she looked at Sir Claude, whose eyes remained bent. “Nothing,” she returned at last.

He showed incredulity. “Nothing?”

“Nothing,” Maisie repeated; on which an interruption descended in the form of a tray bearing the preparations for their breakfast. These preparations were as amusing as everything else; the waiter poured their coffee from a vessel like a watering-pot and then made it froth with the curved stream of hot milk that dropped from the height of his raised arm; but the two looked across at each other through the whole play of French pleasantness with a gravity that had now ceased to dissemble. Sir Claude sent the waiter off again for something and then took up her answer. “Hasn’t she tried to affect you?”

Face to face with him thus it seemed to Maisie that she had tried so little as to be scarce worth mentioning; again therefore an instant she shut herself up. Presently she found her middle course. “Mrs. Beale likes her now; and there’s one thing I’ve found out — a great thing. Mrs. Wix enjoys her being so kind. She was tremendously kind all day yesterday.”

“I see. And what did she do?” Sir Claude asked.

Maisie was now busy with her breakfast, and her companion attacked his own; so that it was all, in form at least, even more than their old sociability. “Everything she could think of. She was as nice to her as you are,” the child said. “She talked to her all day.”

“And what did she say to her?”

“Oh I don’t know.” Maisie was a little bewildered with his pressing her so for knowledge; it didn’t fit into the degree of intimacy with Mrs. Beale that Mrs. Wix had so denounced and that, according to that lady, had now brought him back in bondage. Wasn’t he more aware than his stepdaughter of what would be done by the person to whom he was bound? In a moment, however, she added: “She made love to her.”

Sir Claude looked at her harder, and it was clearly something in her tone that made him quickly say: “You don’t mind my asking you, do you?”

“Not at all; only I should think you’d know better than I.”

“What Mrs. Beale did yesterday?”

She thought he coloured a trifle; but almost simultaneously with that impression she found herself answering: “Yes — if you have seen her.”

He broke into the loudest of laughs. “Why, my dear boy, I told you just now I’ve absolutely not. I say, don’t you believe me?”

There was something she was already so afraid of that it covered up other fears. “Didn’t you come back to see her?” she enquired in a moment. “Didn’t you come back because you always want to so much?”

He received her enquiry as he had received her doubt — with an extraordinary absence of resentment. “I can imagine of course why you think that. But it doesn’t explain my doing what I have. It was, as I said to you just now at the inn, really and truly you I wanted to see.”

She felt an instant as she used to feel when, in the back garden at her mother’s, she took from him the highest push of a swing — high, high, high — that he had had put there for her pleasure and that had finally broken down under the weight and the extravagant patronage of the cook. “Well, that’s beautiful. But to see me, you mean, and go away again?”

“My going away again is just the point. I can’t tell yet — it all depends.”

“On Mrs. Beale?” Maisie asked. “SHE won’t go away.” He finished emptying his coffee-cup and then, when he had put it down, leaned back in his chair, where she could see that he smiled on her. This only added to her idea that he was in trouble, that he was turning somehow in his pain and trying different things. He continued to smile and she went on: “Don’t you know that?”

“Yes, I may as well confess to you that as much as that I do know. SHE won’t go away. She’ll stay.”

“She’ll stay. She’ll stay,” Maisie repeated.

“Just so. Won’t you have some more coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

“And another buttered roll?”

“Yes, please.”

He signed to the hovering waiter, who arrived with the shining spout of plenty in either hand and with the friendliest interest in mademoiselle. “Les tartines sont là.“ Their cups were replenished and, while he watched almost musingly the bubbles in the fragrant mixture, “Just so — just so,” Sir Claude said again and again. “It’s awfully awkward!” he exclaimed when the waiter had gone.

“That she won’t go?”

“Well — everything! Well, well, well!” But he pulled himself together; he began again to eat. “I came back to ask you something. That’s what I came back for.”

“I know what you want to ask me,” Maisie said.

“Are you very sure?”

“I’m ALMOST very.”

“Well then risk it. You mustn’t make ME risk everything.”

She was struck with the force of this. “You want to know if I should be happy with THEM.”

“With those two ladies only? No, no, old man: vous n’y êtes pas. So now — there!” Sir Claude laughed.

“Well then what is it?”

The next minute, instead of telling her what it was, he laid his hand across the table on her own and held her as if under the prompting of a thought. “Mrs. Wix would stay with HER?”

“Without you? Oh yes — now.”

“On account, as you just intimated, of Mrs. Beale’s changed manner?”

Maisie, with her sense of responsibility, weighed both Mrs. Beale’s changed manner and Mrs. Wix’s human weakness. “I think she talked her round.”

Sir Claude thought a moment. “Ah poor dear!”

“Do you mean Mrs. Beale?”

“Oh no — Mrs. Wix.”

“She likes being talked round — treated like any one else. Oh she likes great politeness,” Maisie expatiated. “It affects her very much.”

Sir Claude, to her surprise, demurred a little to this. “Very much — up to a certain point.”

“Oh up to any point!” Maisie returned with emphasis.

“Well, haven’t I been polite to her?”

“Lovely — and she perfectly worships you.”

“Then, my dear child, why can’t she let me alone?”— this time Sir Claude unmistakeably blushed. Before Maisie, however, could answer his question, which would indeed have taken her long, he went on in another tone: “Mrs. Beale thinks she has probably quite broken her down. But she hasn’t.”

Though he spoke as if he were sure, Maisie was strong in the impression she had just uttered and that she now again produced. “She has talked her round.”

“Ah yes; round to herself, but not round to me.”

Oh she couldn’t bear to hear him say that! “To you? Don’t you really believe how she loves you?”

Sir Claude examined his belief. “Of course I know she’s wonderful.”

“She’s just every bit as fond of you as I am,” said Maisie. “She told me so yesterday.”

“Ah then,” he promptly exclaimed, “she HAS tried to affect you! I don’t love HER, don’t you see? I do her perfect justice,” he pursued, “but I mean I don’t love her as I do you, and I’m sure you wouldn’t seriously expect it. She’s not my daughter — come, old chap! She’s not even my mother, though I dare say it would have been better for me if she had been. I’ll do for her what I’d do for my mother, but I won’t do more.” His real excitement broke out in a need to explain and justify himself, though he kept trying to correct and conceal it with laughs and mouthfuls and other vain familiarities. Suddenly he broke off, wiping his moustache with sharp pulls and coming back to Mrs. Beale. “Did she try to talk YOU over?”

“No — to me she said very little. Very little indeed,” Maisie continued.

Sir Claude seemed struck with this. “She was only sweet to Mrs. Wix?”

“As sweet as sugar!” cried Maisie.

He looked amused at her comparison, but he didn’t contest it; he uttered on the contrary, in an assenting way, a little inarticulate sound. “I know what she CAN be. But much good may it have done her! Mrs. Wix won’t COME ‘round.’ That’s what makes it so fearfully awkward.”

Maisie knew it was fearfully awkward; she had known this now, she felt, for some time, and there was something else it more pressingly concerned her to learn. “What is it you meant you came over to ask me?”

“Well,” said Sir Claude, “I was just going to say. Let me tell you it will surprise you.” She had finished breakfast now and she sat back in her chair again: she waited in silence to hear. He had pushed the things before him a little way and had his elbows on the table. This time, she was convinced, she knew what was coming, and once more, for the crash, as with Mrs. Wix lately in her room, she held her breath and drew together her eyelids. He was going to say she must give him up. He looked hard at her again; then he made his effort. “Should you see your way to let her go?”

She was bewildered. “To let who —?”

“Mrs. Wix simply. I put it at the worst. Should you see your way to sacrifice her? Of course I know what I’m asking.”

Maisie’s eyes opened wide again; this was so different from what she had expected. “And stay with you alone?”

He gave another push to his coffee-cup. “With me and Mrs. Beale. Of course it would be rather rum; but everything in our whole story is rather rum, you know. What’s more unusual than for any one to be given up, like you, by her parents?”

“Oh nothing is more unusual than THAT!” Maisie concurred, relieved at the contact of a proposition as to which concurrence could have lucidity.

“Of course it would be quite unconventional,” Sir Claude went on —“I mean the little household we three should make together; but things have got beyond that, don’t you see? They got beyond that long ago. We shall stay abroad at any rate — it’s ever so much easier and it’s our affair and nobody else’s: it’s no one’s business but ours on all the blessed earth. I don’t say that for Mrs. Wix, poor dear — I do her absolute justice. I respect her; I see what she means; she has done me a lot of good. But there are the facts. There they are, simply. And here am I, and here are you. And she won’t come round. She’s right from her point of view. I’m talking to you in the most extraordinary way — I’m always talking to you in the most extraordinary way, ain’t I? One would think you were about sixty and that I— I don’t know what any one would think I am. Unless a beastly cad!” he suggested. “I’ve been awfully worried, and this’s what it has come to. You’ve done us the most tremendous good, and you’ll do it still and always, don’t you see? We can’t let you go — you’re everything. There are the facts as I say. She IS your mother now, Mrs. Beale, by what has happened, and I, in the same way, I’m your father. No one can contradict that, and we can’t get out of it. My idea would be a nice little place — somewhere in the South — where she and you would be together and as good as any one else. And I should be as good too, don’t you see? for I shouldn’t live with you, but I should be close to you — just round the corner, and it would be just the same. My idea would be that it should all be perfectly open and frank. Honi soit qui mal y pense, don’t you know? You’re the best thing — you and what we can do for you — that either of us has ever known,” he came back to that. “When I say to her ‘Give her up, come,’ she lets me have it bang in the face: ‘Give her up yourself!’ It’s the same old vicious circle — and when I say vicious I don’t mean a pun, a what-d’-ye-call-’em. Mrs. Wix is the obstacle; I mean, you know, if she has affected you. She has affected ME, and yet here I am. I never was in such a tight place: please believe it’s only that that makes me put it to you as I do. My dear child, isn’t that — to put it so — just the way out of it? That came to me yesterday, in London, after Mrs. Beale had gone: I had the most infernal atrocious day. ‘Go straight over and put it to her: let her choose, freely, her own self.’ So I do, old girl — I put it to you. CAN you choose freely?”

This long address, slowly and brokenly uttered, with fidgets and falterings, with lapses and recoveries, with a mottled face and embarrassed but supplicating eyes, reached the child from a quarter so close that after the shock of the first sharpness she could see intensely its direction and follow it from point to point; all the more that it came back to the point at which it had started. There was a word that had hummed all through it. “Do you call it a ‘sacrifice’?”

“Of Mrs. Wix? I’ll call it whatever YOU call it. I won’t funk it — I haven’t, have I? I’ll face it in all its baseness. Does it strike you it IS base for me to get you well away from her, to smuggle you off here into a corner and bribe you with sophistries and buttered rolls to betray her?”

“To betray her?”

“Well — to part with her.”

Maisie let the question wait; the concrete image it presented was the most vivid side of it. “If I part with her where will she go?”

“Back to London.”

“But I mean what will she do?”

“Oh as for that I won’t pretend I know. I don’t. We all have our difficulties.”

That, to Maisie, was at this moment more striking than it had ever been. “Then who’ll teach me?”

Sir Claude laughed out. “What Mrs. Wix teaches?”

She smiled dimly; she saw what he meant. “It isn’t so very very much.”

“It’s so very very little,” he returned, “that that’s a thing we’ve positively to consider. We probably shouldn’t give you another governess. To begin with we shouldn’t be able to get one — not of the only kind that would do. It wouldn’t do — the kind that WOULD do,” he queerly enough explained. “I mean they wouldn’t stay — heigh-ho! We’d do you ourselves. Particularly me. You see I CAN now; I haven’t got to mind — what I used to. I won’t fight shy as I did — she can show out WITH me. Our relation, all round, is more regular.”

It seemed wonderfully regular, the way he put it; yet none the less, while she looked at it as judiciously as she could, the picture it made persisted somehow in being a combination quite distinct — an old woman and a little girl seated in deep silence on a battered old bench by the rampart of the haute ville. It was just at that hour yesterday; they were hand in hand; they had melted together. “I don’t think you yet understand how she clings to you,” Maisie said at last.

“I do — I do. But for all that —” And he gave, turning in his conscious exposure, an oppressed impatient sigh; the sigh, even his companion could recognise, of the man naturally accustomed to that argument, the man who wanted thoroughly to be reasonable, but who, if really he had to mind so many things, would be always impossibly hampered. What it came to indeed was that he understood quite perfectly. If Mrs. Wix clung it was all the more reason for shaking Mrs. Wix off.

This vision of what she had brought him to occupied our young lady while, to ask what he owed, he called the waiter and put down a gold piece that the man carried off for change. Sir Claude looked after him, then went on: “How could a woman have less to reproach a fellow with? I mean as regards herself.”

Maisie entertained the question. “Yes. How COULD she have less? So why are you so sure she’ll go?”

“Surely you heard why — you heard her come out three nights ago? How can she do anything but go — after what she then said? I’ve done what she warned me of — she was absolutely right. So here we are. Her liking Mrs. Beale, as you call it now, is a motive sufficient, with other things, to make her, for your sake, stay on without me; it’s not a motive sufficient to make her, even for yours, stay on WITH me — swallow, don’t you see? what she can’t swallow. And when you say she’s as fond of me as you are I think I can, if that’s the case, challenge you a little on it. Would YOU, only with those two, stay on without me?”

The waiter came back with the change, and that gave her, under this appeal, a moment’s respite. But when he had retreated again with the “tip” gathered in with graceful thanks on a subtle hint from Sir Claude’s forefinger, the latter, while pocketing the money, followed the appeal up. “Would you let her make you live with Mrs. Beale?”

“Without you? Never,” Maisie then answered. “Never,” she said again.

It made him quite triumph, and she was indeed herself shaken by the mere sound of it. “So you see you’re not, like her,” he exclaimed, “so ready to give me away!” Then he came back to his original question. “CAN you choose? I mean can you settle it by a word yourself? Will you stay on with us without her?” Now in truth she felt the coldness of her terror, and it seemed to her that suddenly she knew, as she knew it about Sir Claude, what she was afraid of. She was afraid of herself. She looked at him in such a way that it brought, she could see, wonder into his face, a wonder held in check, however, by his frank pretension to play fair with her, not to use advantages, not to hurry nor hustle her — only to put her chance clearly and kindly before her. “May I think?” she finally asked.

“Certainly, certainly. But how long?”

“Oh only a little while,” she said meekly.

He had for a moment the air of wishing to look at it as if it were the most cheerful prospect in the world. “But what shall we do while you’re thinking?” He spoke as if thought were compatible with almost any distraction.

There was but one thing Maisie wished to do, and after an instant she expressed it. “Have we got to go back to the hotel?”

“Do you want to?”

“Oh no.”

“There’s not the least necessity for it.” He bent his eyes on his watch; his face was now very grave. “We can do anything else in the world.” He looked at her again almost as if he were on the point of saying that they might for instance start off for Paris. But even while she wondered if that were not coming he had a sudden drop. “We can take a walk.”

She was all ready, but he sat there as if he had still something more to say. This too, however, didn’t come; so she herself spoke. “I think I should like to see Mrs. Wix first.”

“Before you decide? All right — all right.” He had put on his hat, but he had still to light a cigarette. He smoked a minute, with his head thrown back, looking at the ceiling; then he said: “There’s one thing to remember — I’ve a right to impress it on you: we stand absolutely in the place of your parents. It’s their defection, their extraordinary baseness, that has made our responsibility. Never was a young person more directly committed and confided.” He appeared to say this over, at the ceiling, through his smoke, a little for his own illumination. It carried him after a pause somewhat further. “Though I admit it was to each of us separately.”

He gave her so at that moment and in that attitude the sense of wanting, as it were, to be on her side — on the side of what would be in every way most right and wise and charming for her — that she felt a sudden desire to prove herself not less delicate and magnanimous, not less solicitous for his own interests. What were these but that of the “regularity” he had just before spoken of? “It WAS to each of you separately,” she accordingly with much earnestness remarked. “But don’t you remember? I brought you together.”

He jumped up with a delighted laugh. “Remember? Rather! You brought us together, you brought us together. Come!”


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