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Authors: Henry James

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What Maisie Knew

WHAT MAISIE KNEW

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HENRY JAMES

 

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What Maisie Knew
First published in 1897
ISBN 978-1-62012-410-9
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.

Contents

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What Maisie Knew

*

The litigation seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but
by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was
confirmed as to the assignment of the child. The father, who, though
bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance
of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the
mother's character had been more absolutely damaged as that the
brilliancy of a lady's complexion (and this lady's, in court, was
immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots.
Attached, however, to the second pronouncement was a condition that
detracted, for Beale Farange, from its sweetness—an order that he
should refund to his late wife the twenty-six hundred pounds put down
by her, as it was called, some three years before, in the interest of
the child's maintenance and precisely on a proved understanding that he
would take no proceedings: a sum of which he had had the administration
and of which he could render not the least account. The obligation thus
attributed to her adversary was no small balm to Ida's resentment; it
drew a part of the sting from her defeat and compelled Mr. Farange
perceptibly to lower his crest. He was unable to produce the money or to
raise it in any way; so that after a squabble scarcely less public and
scarcely more decent than the original shock of battle his only issue
from his predicament was a compromise proposed by his legal advisers and
finally accepted by hers.

His debt was by this arrangement remitted to him and the little girl
disposed of in a manner worthy of the judgement-seat of Solomon. She was
divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants.
They would take her, in rotation, for six months at a time; she would
spend half the year with each. This was odd justice in the eyes of those
who still blinked in the fierce light projected from the tribunal—a
light in which neither parent figured in the least as a happy example to
youth and innocence. What was to have been expected on the evidence was
the nomination,
in loco parentis
, of some proper third person, some
respectable or at least some presentable friend. Apparently, however,
the circle of the Faranges had been scanned in vain for any such
ornament; so that the only solution finally meeting all the difficulties
was, save that of sending Maisie to a Home, the partition of the
tutelary office in the manner I have mentioned. There were more reasons
for her parents to agree to it than there had ever been for them to
agree to anything; and they now prepared with her help to enjoy the
distinction that waits upon vulgarity sufficiently attested. Their
rupture had resounded, and after being perfectly insignificant
together they would be decidedly striking apart. Had they not produced
an impression that warranted people in looking for appeals in the
newspapers for the rescue of the little one—reverberation, amid a
vociferous public, of the idea that some movement should be started or
some benevolent person should come forward? A good lady came indeed a
step or two: she was distantly related to Mrs. Farange, to whom she
proposed that, having children and nurseries wound up and going, she
should be allowed to take home the bone of contention and, by working it
into her system, relieve at least one of the parents. This would make
every time, for Maisie, after her inevitable six months with Beale, much
more of a change.

"More of a change?" Ida cried. "Won't it be enough of a change for her
to come from that low brute to the person in the world who detests him
most?"

"No, because you detest him so much that you'll always talk to her about
him. You'll keep him before her by perpetually abusing him."

Mrs. Farange stared. "Pray, then, am I to do nothing to counteract his
villainous abuse of ME?"

The good lady, for a moment, made no reply: her silence was a grim
judgement of the whole point of view. "Poor little monkey!" she at
last exclaimed; and the words were an epitaph for the tomb of Maisie's
childhood. She was abandoned to her fate. What was clear to any
spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this
lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep
little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. They had
wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they
could, with her unconscious aid, do each other. She should serve
their anger and seal their revenge, for husband and wife had been
alike crippled by the heavy hand of justice, which in the last resort
met on neither side their indignant claim to get, as they called it,
everything. If each was only to get half this seemed to concede that
neither was so base as the other pretended, or, to put it differently,
offered them both as bad indeed, since they were only as good as each
other. The mother had wished to prevent the father from, as she said,
"so much as looking" at the child; the father's plea was that the
mother's lightest touch was "simply contamination." These were the
opposed principles in which Maisie was to be educated—she was to fit
them together as she might. Nothing could have been more touching at
first than her failure to suspect the ordeal that awaited her little
unspotted soul. There were persons horrified to think what those in
charge of it would combine to try to make of it: no one could conceive
in advance that they would be able to make nothing ill.

This was a society in which for the most part people were occupied
only with chatter, but the disunited couple had at last grounds for
expecting a time of high activity. They girded their loins, they felt
as if the quarrel had only begun. They felt indeed more married than
ever, inasmuch as what marriage had mainly suggested to them was the
unbroken opportunity to quarrel. There had been "sides" before, and
there were sides as much as ever; for the sider too the prospect
opened out, taking the pleasant form of a superabundance of matter for
desultory conversation. The many friends of the Faranges drew together
to differ about them; contradiction grew young again over teacups
and cigars. Everybody was always assuring everybody of something
very shocking, and nobody would have been jolly if nobody had been
outrageous. The pair appeared to have a social attraction which failed
merely as regards each other: it was indeed a great deal to be able
to say for Ida that no one but Beale desired her blood, and for Beale
that if he should ever have his eyes scratched out it would be only by
his wife. It was generally felt, to begin with, that they were awfully
good-looking—they had really not been analysed to a deeper residuum.
They made up together for instance some twelve feet three of stature,
and nothing was more discussed than the apportionment of this
quantity. The sole flaw in Ida's beauty was a length and reach of
arm conducive perhaps to her having so often beaten her ex-husband
at billiards, a game in which she showed a superiority largely
accountable, as she maintained, for the resentment finding expression
in his physical violence. Billiards was her great accomplishment
and the distinction her name always first produced the mention of.
Notwithstanding some very long lines everything about her that might
have been large and that in many women profited by the licence was,
with a single exception, admired and cited for its smallness. The
exception was her eyes, which might have been of mere regulation size,
but which overstepped the modesty of nature; her mouth, on the other
hand, was barely perceptible, and odds were freely taken as to the
measurement of her waist. She was a person who, when she was out—and
she was always out—produced everywhere a sense of having been seen
often, the sense indeed of a kind of abuse of visibility, so that it
would have been, in the usual places rather vulgar to wonder at her.
Strangers only did that; but they, to the amusement of the familiar,
did it very much: it was an inevitable way of betraying an alien
habit. Like her husband she carried clothes, carried them as a train
carries passengers: people had been known to compare their taste and
dispute about the accommodation they gave these articles, though
inclining on the whole to the commendation of Ida as less overcrowded,
especially with jewellery and flowers. Beale Farange had natural
decorations, a kind of costume in his vast fair beard, burnished like
a gold breastplate, and in the eternal glitter of the teeth that his
long moustache had been trained not to hide and that gave him, in
every possible situation, the look of the joy of life. He had been
destined in his youth for diplomacy and momentarily attached, without
a salary, to a legation which enabled him often to say "In MY time in
the East": but contemporary history had somehow had no use for him,
had hurried past him and left him in perpetual Piccadilly. Every one
knew what he had—only twenty-five hundred. Poor Ida, who had run
through everything, had now nothing but her carriage and her paralysed
uncle. This old brute, as he was called, was supposed to have a lot
put away. The child was provided for, thanks to a crafty godmother, a
defunct aunt of Beale's, who had left her something in such a manner
that the parents could appropriate only the income.

I

*

The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably
confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had
happened which must matter a good deal and looking anxiously out for
the effects of so great a cause. It was to be the fate of this patient
little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even
at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient,
had perhaps ever understood before. Only a drummer-boy in a ballad or
a story could have been so in the thick of the fight. She was taken
into the confidence of passions on which she fixed just the stare she
might have had for images bounding across the wall in the slide of a
magic-lantern. Her little world was phantasmagoric—strange shadows
dancing on a sheet. It was as if the whole performance had been given
for her—a mite of a half-scared infant in a great dim theatre. She was
in short introduced to life with a liberality in which the selfishness
of others found its account, and there was nothing to avert the
sacrifice but the modesty of her youth.

Her first term was with her father, who spared her only in not letting
her have the wild letters addressed to her by her mother: he confined
himself to holding them up at her and shaking them, while he showed his
teeth, and then amusing her by the way he chucked them, across the room,
bang into the fire. Even at that moment, however, she had a scared
anticipation of fatigue, a guilty sense of not rising to the occasion,
feeling the charm of the violence with which the stiff unopened
envelopes, whose big monograms—Ida bristled with monograms—she would
have liked to see, were made to whizz, like dangerous missiles, through
the air. The greatest effect of the great cause was her own greater
importance, chiefly revealed to her in the larger freedom with which
she was handled, pulled hither and thither and kissed, and the
proportionately greater niceness she was obliged to show. Her features
had somehow become prominent; they were so perpetually nipped by the
gentlemen who came to see her father and the smoke of whose cigarettes
went into her face. Some of these gentlemen made her strike matches and
light their cigarettes; others, holding her on knees violently jolted,
pinched the calves of her legs till she shrieked—her shriek was much
admired—and reproached them with being toothpicks. The word stuck in
her mind and contributed to her feeling from this time that she was
deficient in something that would meet the general desire. She found
out what it was: it was a congenital tendency to the production of a
substance to which Moddle, her nurse, gave a short ugly name, a name
painfully associated at dinner with the part of the joint that she
didn't like. She had left behind her the time when she had no desires
to meet, none at least save Moddle's, who, in Kensington Gardens, was
always on the bench when she came back to see if she had been playing
too far. Moddle's desire was merely that she shouldn't do that, and she
met it so easily that the only spots in that long brightness were the
moments of her wondering what would become of her if, on her rushing
back, there should be no Moddle on the bench. They still went to the
Gardens, but there was a difference even there; she was impelled
perpetually to look at the legs of other children and ask her nurse if
THEY were toothpicks. Moddle was terribly truthful; she always said: "Oh
my dear, you'll not find such another pair as your own." It seemed to
have to do with something else that Moddle often said: "You feel the
strain—that's where it is; and you'll feel it still worse, you know."

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