What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


The idea of what she was to make up and the prodigious total it came to were kept well before Maisie at her mother’s. These things were the constant occupation of Mrs. Wix, who arrived there by the back stairs, but in tears of joy, the day after her own arrival. The process of making up, as to which the good lady had an immense deal to say, took, through its successive phases, so long that it heralded a term at least equal to the child’s last stretch with her father. This, however, was a fuller and richer time: it bounded along to the tune of Mrs. Wix’s constant insistence on the energy they must both put forth. There was a fine intensity in the way the child agreed with her that under Mrs. Beale and Susan Ash she had learned nothing whatever; the wildness of the rescued castaway was one of the forces that would henceforth make for a career of conquest. The year therefore rounded itself as a receptacle of retarded knowledge — a cup brimming over with the sense that now at least she was learning. Mrs. Wix fed this sense from the stores of her conversation and with the immense bustle of her reminder that they must cull the fleeting hour. They were surrounded with subjects they must take at a rush and perpetually getting into the attitude of triumphant attack. They had certainly no idle hours, and the child went to bed each night as tired as from a long day’s play. This had begun from the moment of their reunion, begun with all Mrs. Wix had to tell her young friend of the reasons of her ladyship’s extraordinary behaviour at the very first.

It took the form of her ladyship’s refusal for three days to see her little girl — three days during which Sir Claude made hasty merry dashes into the schoolroom to smooth down the odd situation, to say “She’ll come round, you know; I assure you she’ll come round,” and a little even to compensate Maisie for the indignity he had caused her to suffer. There had never in the child’s life been, in all ways, such a delightful amount of reparation. It came out by his sociable admission that her ladyship had not known of his visit to her late husband’s house and of his having made that person’s daughter a pretext for striking up an acquaintance with the dreadful creature installed there. Heaven knew she wanted her child back and had made every plan of her own for removing her; what she couldn’t for the present at least forgive any one concerned was such an officious underhand way of bringing about the transfer. Maisie carried more of the weight of this resentment than even Mrs. Wix’s confidential ingenuity could lighten for her, especially as Sir Claude himself was not at all ingenious, though indeed on the other hand he was not at all crushed. He was amused and intermittent and at moments most startling; he impressed on his young companion, with a frankness that agitated her much more than he seemed to guess, that he depended on her not letting her mother, when she should see her, get anything out of her about anything Mrs. Beale might have said to him. He came in and out; he professed, in joke, to take tremendous precautions; he showed a positive disposition to romp. He chaffed Mrs. Wix till she was purple with the pleasure of it, and reminded Maisie of the reticence he expected of her till she set her teeth like an Indian captive. Her lessons these first days and indeed for long after seemed to be all about Sir Claude, and yet she never really mentioned to Mrs. Wix that she was prepared, under his inspiring injunction, to be vainly tortured. This lady, however, had formulated the position of things with an acuteness that showed how little she needed to be coached. Her explanation of everything that seemed not quite pleasant — and if her own footing was perilous it met that danger as well — that her ladyship was passionately in love. Maisie accepted this hint with infinite awe and pressed upon it much when she was at last summoned into the presence of her mother.

There she encountered matters amid which it seemed really to help to give her a clue — an almost terrifying strangeness, full, none the less, after a little, of reverberations of Ida’s old fierce and demonstrative recoveries of possession. They had been some time in the house together, and this demonstration came late. Preoccupied, however, as Maisie was with the idea of the sentiment Sir Claude had inspired, and familiar, in addition, by Mrs. Wix’s anecdotes, with the ravages that in general such a sentiment could produce, she was able to make allowances for her ladyship’s remarkable appearance, her violent splendour, the wonderful colour of her lips and even the hard stare, the stare of some gorgeous idol described in a story-book, that had come into her eyes in consequence of a curious thickening of their already rich circumference. Her professions and explanations were mixed with eager challenges and sudden drops, in the midst of which Maisie recognised as a memory of other years the rattle of her trinkets and the scratch of her endearments, the odour of her clothes and the jumps of her conversation. She had all her old clever way — Mrs. Wix said it was “aristocratic”— of changing the subject as she might have slammed the door in your face. The principal thing that was different was the tint of her golden hair, which had changed to a coppery red and, with the head it profusely covered, struck the child as now lifted still further aloft. This picturesque parent showed literally a grander stature and a nobler presence, things which, with some others that might have been bewildering, were handsomely accounted for by the romantic state of her affections. It was her affections, Maisie could easily see, that led Ida to break out into questions as to what had passed at the other house between that horrible woman and Sir Claude; but it was also just here that the little girl was able to recall the effect with which in earlier days she had practised the pacific art of stupidity. This art again came to her aid: her mother, in getting rid of her after an interview in which she had achieved a hollowness beyond her years, allowed her fully to understand she had not grown a bit more amusing.

She could bear that; she could bear anything that helped her to feel she had done something for Sir Claude. If she hadn’t told Mrs. Wix how Mrs. Beale seemed to like him she certainly couldn’t tell her ladyship. In the way the past revived for her there was a queer confusion. It was because mamma hated papa that she used to want to know bad things of him; but if at present she wanted to know the same of Sir Claude it was quite from the opposite motive. She was awestruck at the manner in which a lady might be affected through the passion mentioned by Mrs. Wix; she held her breath with the sense of picking her steps among the tremendous things of life. What she did, however, now, after the interview with her mother, impart to Mrs. Wix was that, in spite of her having had her “good” effect, as she called it — the effect she studied, the effect of harmless vacancy — her ladyship’s last words had been that her ladyship’s duty by her would be thoroughly done. Over this announcement governess and pupil looked at each other in silent profundity; but as the weeks went by it had no consequences that interfered gravely with the breezy gallop of making up. Her ladyship’s duty took at times the form of not seeing her child for days together, and Maisie led her life in great prosperity between Mrs. Wix and kind Sir Claude. Mrs. Wix had a new dress and, as she was the first to proclaim, a better position; so it all struck Maisie as a crowded brilliant life, with, for the time, Mrs. Beale and Susan Ash simply “left out” like children not invited to a Christmas party. Mrs. Wix had a secret terror which, like most of her secret feelings, she discussed with her little companion, in great solemnity, by the hour: the possibility of her ladyship’s coming down on them, in her sudden highbred way, with a school. But she had also a balm to this fear in a conviction of the strength of Sir Claude’s grasp of the situation. He was too pleased — didn’t he constantly say as much? — with the good impression made, in a wide circle, by Ida’s sacrifices; and he came into the schoolroom repeatedly to let them know how beautifully he felt everything had gone off and everything would go on.

He disappeared at times for days, when his patient friends understood that her ladyship would naturally absorb him; but he always came back with the drollest stories of where he had been, a wonderful picture of society, and even with pretty presents that showed how in absence he thought of his home. Besides giving Mrs. Wix by his conversation a sense that they almost themselves “went out,” he gave her a five-pound note and the history of France and an umbrella with a malachite knob, and to Maisie both chocolate-creams and story-books, besides a lovely greatcoat (which he took her out all alone to buy) and ever so many games in boxes, with printed directions, and a bright red frame for the protection of his famous photograph. The games were, as he said, to while away the evening hour; and the evening hour indeed often passed in futile attempts on Mrs. Wix’s part to master what “it said” on the papers. When he asked the pair how they liked the games they always replied “Oh immensely!” but they had earnest discussions as to whether they hadn’t better appeal to him frankly for aid to understand them. This was a course their delicacy shrank from; they couldn’t have told exactly why, but it was a part of their tenderness for him not to let him think they had trouble. What dazzled most was his kindness to Mrs. Wix, not only the five-pound note and the “not forgetting” her, but the perfect consideration, as she called it with an air to which her sounding of the words gave the only grandeur Maisie was to have seen her wear save on a certain occasion hereafter to be described, an occasion when the poor lady was grander than all of them put together. He shook hands with her, he recognised her, as she said, and above all, more than once, he took her, with his stepdaughter, to the pantomime and, in the crowd, coming out, publicly gave her his arm. When he met them in sunny Piccadilly he made merry and turned and walked with them, heroically suppressing his consciousness of the stamp of his company, a heroism that — needless for Mrs. Wix to sound THOSE words — her ladyship, though a blood-relation, was little enough the woman to be capable of. Even to the hard heart of childhood there was something tragic in such elation at such humanities: it brought home to Maisie the way her humble companion had sidled and ducked through life. But it settled the question of the degree to which Sir Claude was a gentleman: he was more of one than anybody else in the world —“I don’t care,” Mrs. Wix repeatedly remarked, “whom you may meet in grand society, nor even to whom you may be contracted in marriage.” There were questions that Maisie never asked; so her governess was spared the embarrassment of telling her if he were more of a gentleman than papa. This was not moreover from the want of opportunity, for there were no moments between them at which the topic could be irrelevant, no subject they were going into, not even the principal dates or the auxiliary verbs, in which it was further off than the turn of the page. The answer on the winter nights to the puzzle of cards and counters and little bewildering pamphlets was just to draw up to the fire and talk about him; and if the truth must be told this edifying interchange constituted for the time the little girl’s chief education.

It must also be admitted that he took them far, further perhaps than was always warranted by the old-fashioned conscience, the dingy decencies, of Maisie’s simple instructress. There were hours when Mrs. Wix sighingly testified to the scruples she surmounted, seemed to ask what other line one COULD take with a young person whose experience had been, as it were, so peculiar. “It isn’t as if you didn’t already know everything, is it, love?” and “I can’t make you any worse than you ARE, can I, darling?”— these were the terms in which the good lady justified to herself and her pupil her pleasant conversational ease. What the pupil already knew was indeed rather taken for granted than expressed, but it performed the useful function of transcending all textbooks and supplanting all studies. If the child couldn’t be worse it was a comfort even to herself that she was bad — a comfort offering a broad firm support to the fundamental fact of the present crisis: the fact that mamma was fearfully jealous. This was another side of the circumstance of mamma’s passion, and the deep couple in the schoolroom were not long in working round to it. It brought them face to face with the idea of the inconvenience suffered by any lady who marries a gentleman producing on other ladies the charming effect of Sir Claude. That such ladies wouldn’t be able to help falling in love with him was a reflexion naturally irritating to his wife. One day when some accident, some crash of a banged door or some scurry of a scared maid, had rendered this truth particularly vivid, Maisie, receptive and profound, suddenly said to her companion: “And you, my dear, are you in love with him too?” Even her profundity had left a margin for a laugh; so she was a trifle startled by the solemn promptitude with which Mrs. Wix plumped out: “Over head and ears. I’ve NEVER since you ask me, been so far gone.”

This boldness had none the less no effect of deterrence for her when, a few days later — it was because several had elapsed without a visit from Sir Claude — her governess turned the tables. “May I ask you, miss, if YOU are?” Mrs. Wix brought it out, she could see, with hesitation, but clearly intending a joke. “Why RATHER!” the child made answer, as if in surprise at not having long ago seemed sufficiently to commit herself; on which her friend gave a sigh of apparent satisfaction. It might in fact have expressed positive relief. Everything was as it should be.

Yet it was not with them, they were very sure, that her ladyship was furious, nor because she had forbidden it that there befell at last a period — six months brought it round — when for days together he scarcely came near them. He was “off,” and Ida was “off,” and they were sometimes off together and sometimes apart; there were seasons when the simple students had the house to themselves, when the very servants seemed also to be “off” and dinner became a reckless forage in pantries and sideboards. Mrs. Wix reminded her disciple on such occasions — hungry moments often, when all the support of the reminder was required — that the “real life” of their companions, the brilliant society in which it was inevitable they should move and the complicated pleasures in which it was almost presumptuous of the mind to follow them, must offer features literally not to be imagined without being seen. At one of these times Maisie found her opening it out that, though the difficulties were many, it was Mrs. Beale who had now become the chief. Then somehow it was brought fully to the child’s knowledge that her stepmother had been making attempts to see her, that her mother had deeply resented it, that her stepfather had backed her stepmother up, that the latter had pretended to be acting as the representative of her father, and that her mother took the whole thing, in plain terms, very hard. The situation was, as Mrs. Wix declared, an extraordinary muddle to be sure. Her account of it brought back to Maisie the happy vision of the way Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale had made acquaintance — an incident to which, with her stepfather, though she had had little to say about it to Mrs. Wix, she had during the first weeks of her stay at her mother’s found more than one opportunity to revert. As to what had taken place the day Sir Claude came for her, she had been vaguely grateful to Mrs. Wix for not attempting, as her mother had attempted, to put her through. That was what Sir Claude had called the process when he warned her of it, and again afterwards when he told her she was an awfully good “chap” for having foiled it. Then it was that, well aware Mrs. Beale hadn’t in the least really given her up, she had asked him if he remained in communication with her and if for the time everything must really be held to be at an end between her stepmother and herself. This conversation had occurred in consequence of his one day popping into the schoolroom and finding Maisie alone.


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