What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


She became aware in time that this phase wouldn’t have shone by lessons, the care of her education being now only one of the many duties devolving on Miss Overmore; a devolution as to which she was present at various passages between that lady and her father — passages significant, on either side, of dissent and even of displeasure. It was gathered by the child on these occasions that there was something in the situation for which her mother might “come down” on them all, though indeed the remark, always dropped by her father, was greeted on his companion’s part with direct contradiction. Such scenes were usually brought to a climax by Miss Overmore’s demanding, with more asperity than she applied to any other subject, in what position under the sun such a person as Mrs. Farange would find herself for coming down. As the months went on the little girl’s interpretations thickened, and the more effectually that this stretch was the longest she had known without a break. She got used to the idea that her mother, for some reason, was in no hurry to reinstate her: that idea was forcibly expressed by her father whenever Miss Overmore, differing and decided, took him up on the question, which he was always putting forward, of the urgency of sending her to school. For a governess Miss Overmore differed surprisingly; far more for instance than would have entered into the bowed head of Mrs. Wix. She observed to Maisie many times that she was quite conscious of not doing her justice, and that Mr. Farange equally measured and equally lamented this deficiency. The reason of it was that she had mysterious responsibilities that interfered — responsibilities, Miss Overmore intimated, to Mr. Farange himself and to the friendly noisy little house and those who came there. Mr. Farange’s remedy for every inconvenience was that the child should be put at school — there were such lots of splendid schools, as everybody knew, at Brighton and all over the place. That, however, Maisie learned, was just what would bring her mother down: from the moment he should delegate to others the housing of his little charge he hadn’t a leg to stand on before the law. Didn’t he keep her away from her mother precisely because Mrs. Farange was one of these others?

There was also the solution of a second governess, a young person to come in by the day and really do the work; but to this Miss Overmore wouldn’t for a moment listen, arguing against it with great public relish and wanting to know from all comers — she put it even to Maisie herself — they didn’t see how frightfully it would give her away. “What am I supposed to be at all, don’t you see, if I’m not here to look after her?” She was in a false position and so freely and loudly called attention to it that it seemed to become almost a source of glory. The way out of it of course was just to do her plain duty; but that was unfortunately what, with his excessive, his exorbitant demands on her, which every one indeed appeared quite to understand, he practically, he selfishly prevented. Beale Farange, for Miss Overmore, was now never anything but “he,” and the house was as full as ever of lively gentlemen with whom, under that designation, she chaffingly talked about him. Maisie meanwhile, as a subject of familiar gossip on what was to be done with her, was left so much to herself that she had hours of wistful thought of the large loose discipline of Mrs. Wix; yet she none the less held it under her father’s roof a point of superiority that none of his visitors were ladies. It added to this odd security that she had once heard a gentleman say to him as if it were a great joke and in obvious reference to Miss Overmore: “Hanged if she’ll let another woman come near you — hanged if she ever will. She’d let fly a stick at her as they do at a strange cat!” Maisie greatly preferred gentlemen as inmates in spite of their also having their way — louder but sooner over — of laughing out at her. They pulled and pinched, they teased and tickled her; some of them even, as they termed it, shied things at her, and all of them thought it funny to call her by names having no resemblance to her own. The ladies on the other hand addressed her as “You poor pet” and scarcely touched her even to kiss her. But it was of the ladies she was most afraid.

She was now old enough to understand how disproportionate a stay she had already made with her father; and also old enough to enter a little into the ambiguity attending this excess, which oppressed her particularly whenever the question had been touched upon in talk with her governess. “Oh you needn’t worry: she doesn’t care!” Miss Overmore had often said to her in reference to any fear that her mother might resent her prolonged detention. “She has other people than poor little YOU to think about, and has gone abroad with them; so you needn’t be in the least afraid she’ll stickle this time for her rights.” Maisie knew Mrs. Farange had gone abroad, for she had had weeks and weeks before a letter from her beginning “My precious pet” and taking leave of her for an indeterminate time; but she had not seen in it a renunciation of hatred or of the writer’s policy of asserting herself, for the sharpest of all her impressions had been that there was nothing her mother would ever care so much about as to torment Mr. Farange. What at last, however, was in this connexion bewildering and a little frightening was the dawn of a suspicion that a better way had been found to torment Mr. Farange than to deprive him of his periodical burden. This was the question that worried our young lady and that Miss Overmore’s confidences and the frequent observations of her employer only rendered more mystifying. It was a contradiction that if Ida had now a fancy for waiving the rights she had originally been so hot about her late husband shouldn’t jump at the monopoly for which he had also in the first instance so fiercely fought; but when Maisie, with a subtlety beyond her years, sounded this new ground her main success was in hearing her mother more freshly abused. Miss Overmore had up to now rarely deviated from a decent reserve, but the day came when she expressed herself with a vividness not inferior to Beale’s own on the subject of the lady who had fled to the Continent to wriggle out of her job. It would serve this lady right, Maisie gathered, if that contract, in the shape of an overgrown and underdressed daughter, should be shipped straight out to her and landed at her feet in the midst of scandalous excesses.

The picture of these pursuits was what Miss Overmore took refuge in when the child tried timidly to ascertain if her father were disposed to feel he had too much of her. She evaded the point and only kicked up all round it the dust of Ida’s heartlessness and folly, of which the supreme proof, it appeared, was the fact that she was accompanied on her journey by a gentleman whom, to be painfully plain on it, she had — well, “picked up.” The terms on which, unless they were married, ladies and gentlemen might, as Miss Overmore expressed it, knock about together, were the terms on which she and Mr. Farange had exposed themselves to possible misconception. She had indeed, as has been noted, often explained this before, often said to Maisie: “I don’t know what in the world, darling, your father and I should do without you, for you just make the difference, as I’ve told you, of keeping us perfectly proper.” The child took in the office it was so endearingly presented to her that she performed a comfort that helped her to a sense of security even in the event of her mother’s giving her up. Familiar as she had grown with the fact of the great alternative to the proper, she felt in her governess and her father a strong reason for not emulating that detachment. At the same time she had heard somehow of little girls — of exalted rank, it was true — whose education was carried on by instructors of the other sex, and she knew that if she were at school at Brighton it would be thought an advantage to her to be more or less in the hands of masters. She turned these things over and remarked to Miss Overmore that if she should go to her mother perhaps the gentleman might become her tutor.

“The gentleman?” The proposition was complicated enough to make Miss Overmore stare.

“The one who’s with mamma. Mightn’t that make it right — as right as your being my governess makes it for you to be with papa?”

Miss Overmore considered; she coloured a little; then she embraced her ingenious friend. “You’re too sweet! I’m a REAL governess.”

“And couldn’t he be a real tutor?”

“Of course not. He’s ignorant and bad.”

“Bad —?” Maisie echoed with wonder.

Her companion gave a queer little laugh at her tone. “He’s ever so much younger —” But that was all.

“Younger than you?”

Miss Overmore laughed again; it was the first time Maisie had seen her approach so nearly to a giggle.

“Younger than — no matter whom. I don’t know anything about him and don’t want to,” she rather inconsequently added. “He’s not my sort, and I’m sure, my own darling, he’s not yours.” And she repeated the free caress into which her colloquies with Maisie almost always broke and which made the child feel that HER affection at least was a gage of safety. Parents had come to seem vague, but governesses were evidently to be trusted. Maisie’s faith in Mrs. Wix for instance had suffered no lapse from the fact that all communication with her had temporarily dropped. During the first weeks of their separation Clara Matilda’s mamma had repeatedly and dolefully written to her, and Maisie had answered with an enthusiasm controlled only by orthographical doubts; but the correspondence had been duly submitted to Miss Overmore, with the final effect of its not suiting her. It was this lady’s view that Mr. Farange wouldn’t care for it at all, and she ended by confessing — since her pupil pushed her — that she didn’t care for it herself. She was furiously jealous, she said; and that weakness was but a new proof of her disinterested affection. She pronounced Mrs. Wix’s effusions moreover illiterate and unprofitable; she made no scruple of declaring it monstrous that a woman in her senses should have placed the formation of her daughter’s mind in such ridiculous hands. Maisie was well aware that the proprietress of the old brown dress and the old odd headgear was lower in the scale of “form” than Miss Overmore; but it was now brought home to her with pain that she was educationally quite out of the question. She was buried for the time beneath a conclusive remark of her critic’s: “She’s really beyond a joke!” This remark was made as that charming woman held in her hand the last letter that Maisie was to receive from Mrs. Wix; it was fortified by a decree proscribing the preposterous tie. “Must I then write and tell her?” the child bewilderedly asked: she grew pale at the dreadful things it appeared involved for her to say. “Don’t dream of it, my dear — I’ll write: you may trust me!” cried Miss Overmore; who indeed wrote to such purpose that a hush in which you could have heard a pin drop descended upon poor Mrs. Wix. She gave for weeks and weeks no sign whatever of life: it was as if she had been as effectually disposed of by Miss Overmore’s communication as her little girl, in the Harrow Road, had been disposed of by the terrible hansom. Her very silence became after this one of the largest elements of Maisie’s consciousness; it proved a warm and habitable air, into which the child penetrated further than she dared ever to mention to her companions. Somewhere in the depths of it the dim straighteners were fixed upon her; somewhere out of the troubled little current Mrs. Wix intensely waited.


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