The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Several months after Hyacinth had made the acquaintance of Paul Muniment, Millicent Henning remarked to him that it was high time he should take her to some place of amusement. He proposed the Canterbury Music Hall; whereupon she tossed her head and affirmed that when a young lady had done for a young man what she had done for him, the least he could do was to take her to some theatre in the Strand. Hyacinth would have been a good deal at a loss to say exactly what she had done for him, but it was familiar to him by this time that she regarded him as under great obligations. From the day she came to look him up in Lomax Place she had taken a position, largely, in his life, and he had seen poor Pinnie’s wan countenance grow several degrees more blank. Amanda Pynsent’s forebodings had been answered to the letter; that bold-faced apparition had become a permanent influence. She never spoke to him about Millicent but once, several weeks after her interview with the girl; and this was not in a tone of rebuke, for she had divested herself for ever of any maternal prerogative. Tearful, tremulous, deferential inquiry was now her only weapon, and nothing could be more humble and circumspect than the manner in which she made use of it. He was never at home of an evening, at present, and he had mysterious ways of spending his Sundays, with which church-going had nothing to do. The time had been when, often, after tea, he sat near the lamp with the dressmaker, and, while her fingers flew, read out to her the works of Dickens and of Scott; happy hours when he appeared to have forgotten the wrong she had done him and she almost forgot it herself. But now he gulped down his tea so fast that he hardly took off his hat while he sat there, and Pinnie, with her quick eye for all matters of costume, noticed that he wore it still more gracefully askew than usual, with a little victorious, exalted air. He hummed to himself; he fingered his moustache; he looked out of the window when there was nothing to look at; he seemed pre-occupied, absorbed in intellectual excursions, half anxious and half delighted. During the whole winter Miss Pynsent explained everything by three words murmured beneath her breath: “That forward jade!” On the single occasion, however, on which she sought relief from her agitation in an appeal to Hyacinth, she did not trust herself to designate the girl by any epithet or title.

“There is only one thing I want to know,” she said to him, in a manner which might have seemed casual if in her silence, knowing her as well as he did, he had not already perceived the implication of her thought. “Does she expect you to marry her, dearest?”

“Does who expect me? I should like to see the woman who does!”

“Of course you know who I mean. The one that came after you – and picked you right up – from the other end of London.” And at the remembrance of that insufferable scene poor Pinnie flamed up for a moment. “Isn’t there plenty of young fellows down in that low part where she lives, without her ravaging over here? Why can’t she stick to her own beat, I should like to know?” Hyacinth had flushed at this inquiry, and she saw something in his face which made her change her tone. “Just promise me this, my precious child: that if you get into any sort of mess with that piece you’ll immediately confide it to your poor old Pinnie.”

“My poor old Pinnie sometimes makes me quite sick,” Hyacinth remarked, for answer. “What sort of a mess do you suppose I’ll get into?”

“Well, suppose she does come it over you that you promised to marry her?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. She doesn’t want to marry any one to-day.”

“Then what does she want to do?”

“Do you imagine I would tell a lady’s secrets?” the young man inquired.

“Dear me, if she was a lady, I shouldn’t be afraid!” said Pinnie.

“Every woman’s a lady when she has placed herself under one’s protection,” Hyacinth rejoined, with his little manner of a man of the world.

“Under your protection? Laws!” cried Pinnie, staring. “And pray, who’s to protect you?”

As soon as she had said this she repented, because it seemed just the sort of exclamation that would have made Hyacinth bite her head off. One of the things she loved him for, however, was that he gave you touching surprises in this line, had sudden inconsistencies of temper that were all for your advantage. He was by no means always mild when he ought to have been, but he was sometimes so when there was no obligation. At such moments Pinnie wanted to kiss him, and she had often tried to make Mr Vetch understand what a fascinating trait of character this was on the part of their young friend. It was rather difficult to describe, and Mr Vetch never would admit that he understood, or that he had observed anything that seemed to correspond to the dressmaker’s somewhat confused psychological sketch. It was a comfort to her in these days, and almost the only one she had, that she was sure Anastasius Vetch understood a good deal more than he felt bound to acknowledge. He was always up to his old game of being a great deal cleverer than cleverness itself required; and it consoled her present weak, pinched feeling to know that, although he still talked of the boy as if it would be a pity to take him too seriously, that wasn’t the way he thought of him. He also took him seriously, and he had even a certain sense of duty in regard to him. Miss Pynsent went so far as to say to herself that the fiddler probably had savings, and that no one had ever known of any one else belonging to him. She wouldn’t have mentioned it to Hyacinth for the world, for fear of leading up to a disappointment; but she had visions of a foolscap sheet, folded away in some queer little bachelor’s box (she couldn’t fancy what men kept in such places), on which Hyacinth’s name would have been written down, in very big letters, before a solicitor.

“Oh, I’m unprotected, in the nature of things,” he replied, smiling at his too scrupulous companion. Then he added, “At any rate, it isn’t from that girl any danger will come to me.”

“I can’t think why you like her,” Pinnie remarked, as if she had spent on the subject treasures of impartiality.

“It’s jolly to hear one woman on the subject of another,” Hyacinth said. “You’re kind and good, and yet you’re ready —” He gave a philosophic sigh.

“Well, what am I ready to do? I’m not ready to see you gobbled up before my eyes!”

“You needn’t be afraid; she won’t drag me to the altar.”

“And pray, doesn’t she think you good enough – for one of the beautiful Hennings?”

“You don’t understand, my poor Pinnie,” said Hyacinth, wearily. “I sometimes think there isn’t a single thing in life that you understand. One of these days she’ll marry an alderman.”

“An alderman – that creature?”

“An alderman, or a banker, or a bishop, or some one of that kind. She doesn’t want to end her career to-day; she wants to begin it.”

“Well, I wish she would take you later!” the dressmaker exclaimed.

Hyacinth said nothing for a moment; then he broke out: “What are you afraid of? Look here, we had better clear this up, once for all. Are you afraid of my marrying a girl out of a shop?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t, would you?” cried Pinnie, with a kind of conciliatory eagerness. “That’s the way I like to hear you talk!”

“Do you think I would marry any one who would marry me?” Hyacinth went on. “The kind of girl who would look at me is the kind of girl I wouldn’t look at.” He struck Pinnie as having thought it all out; which did not surprise her, as she had been familiar, from his youth, with his way of following things up. But she was always delighted when he made a remark which showed he was conscious of being of fine clay – flashed out an allusion to his not being what he seemed. He was not what he seemed, but even with Pinnie’s valuable assistance he had not succeeded in representing to himself, very definitely, what he was. She had placed at his disposal, for this purpose, a passionate idealism which, employed in some case where it could have consequences, might have been termed profligate, and which never cost her a scruple or a compunction.

“I’m sure a princess might look at you and be none the worse!” she declared, in her delight at this assurance, more positive than any she had yet received, that he was safe from the worst danger. This the dressmaker considered to be the chance of his marrying some person like herself. Still it came over her that his taste might be lowered, and before the subject was dropped, on this occasion, she said to him that of course he must be quite aware of all that was wanting to such a girl as Millicent Henning – she pronounced her name at last.

“Oh, I don’t bother about what’s wanting to her; I’m content with what she has.”

“Content, dearest – how do you mean?” the little dressmaker quavered. “Content to make an intimate friend of her?”

“It is impossible I should discuss these matters with you,” Hyacinth replied, grandly.

“Of course I see that. But I should think she would bore you sometimes,” Miss Pynsent murmured, cunningly.

“She does, I assure you, to extinction!”

“Then why do you spend every evening with her?”

“Where should you like me to spend my evenings? At some beastly public-house – or at the Italian opera?” His association with Miss Henning was not so close as that, but nevertheless he wouldn’t take the trouble to prove to poor Pinnie that he enjoyed her society only two or three times a week; that on other evenings he simply strolled about the streets (this boyish habit clung to him), and that he had even occasionally the resource of going to the Poupins’, or of gossiping and smoking a pipe at some open house-door, when the night was not cold, with a fellow-mechanic. Later in the winter, after he had made Paul Muniment’s acquaintance, the aspect of his life changed considerably, though Millicent continued to be exceedingly mixed up with it. He hated the taste of liquor and still more the taste of the places where it was sold; besides which the types of misery and vice that one was liable to see collected in them frightened and harrowed him, made him ask himself questions that pierced the deeper because they were met by no answer. It was both a blessing and a drawback to him that the delicate, charming character of the work he did at Mr Crookenden’s, under Eustache Poupin’s influence, was a kind of education of the taste, trained him in the finest discriminations, in the perception of beauty and the hatred of ugliness. This made the brutal, garish, stodgy decoration of public-houses, with their deluge of gaslight, their glittering brass and pewter, their lumpish woodwork and false colours, detestable to him; he was still very young when the ‘gin-palace’ ceased to convey to him an idea of the palatial.

For this unfortunate but remarkably organised youth, every displeasure or gratification of the visual sense coloured his whole mind, and though he lived in Pentonville and worked in Soho, though he was poor and obscure and cramped and full of unattainable desires, it may be said of him that what was most important in life for him was simply his impressions. They came from everything he touched, they kept him thrilling and throbbing during a considerable part of his waking consciousness, and they constituted, as yet, the principal events and stages of his career. Fortunately, they were sometimes very delightful. Everything in the field of observation suggested this or that; everything struck him, penetrated, stirred; he had, in a word, more impressions than he knew what to do with – felt sometimes as if they would consume or asphyxiate him. He liked to talk about them, but it was only a few, here and there, that he could discuss with Millicent Henning. He let Miss Pynsent imagine that his hours of leisure were almost exclusively dedicated to this young lady, because, as he said to himself, if he were to account to her for every evening in the week it would make no difference – she would stick to her suspicion; and he referred this perversity to the general weight of misconception under which (at this crude period of his growth) he held it was his lot to languish. It didn’t matter to one whether one were a little more or a little less misunderstood. He might have remembered that it mattered to Pinnie, who, after her first relief at hearing him express himself so properly on the subject of a matrimonial connection with Miss Henning, allowed her faded, kind, weak face, little by little, to lengthen out to its old solemnity. This came as the days went on, for it wasn’t much comfort that he didn’t want to marry the young woman in Pimlico, when he allowed himself to be held as tight as if he did. For the present, indeed, she simply said, “Oh, well, if you see her as she is, I don’t care what you do” – a sentiment implying a certain moral recklessness on the part of the good little dressmaker. She was irreproachable herself, but she had lived for more than fifty years in a world of wickedness; like an immense number of London women of her class and kind, she had acquired a certain innocent cynicism, and she judged it quite a minor evil that Millicent should be left lamenting, if only Hyacinth might get out of the scrape. Between a forsaken maiden and a premature, lowering marriage for her beloved little boy, she very well knew which she preferred. It should be added that her impression of Millicent’s power to take care of herself was such as to make it absurd to pity her in advance. Pinnie thought Hyacinth the cleverest young man in the world, but her state of mind implied somehow that the young lady in Pimlico was cleverer. Her ability, at any rate, was of a kind that precluded the idea of suffering, whereas Hyacinth’s was rather associated with it.

By the time he had enjoyed for three months the acquaintance of the brother and sister in Audley Court the whole complexion of his life seemed changed; it was pervaded by an interest, an excitement, which overshadowed, though it by no means supplanted, the brilliant figure of Miss Henning. It was pitched in a higher key, altogether, and appeared to command a view of horizons equally fresh and vast. Millicent, therefore, shared her dominion, without knowing exactly what it was that drew her old play-fellow off, and without indeed demanding of him an account which, on her own side, she was not prepared to give. Hyacinth was, in the language of the circle in which she moved, her fancy, and she was content to occupy, as regards himself, the same graceful and somewhat irresponsible position. She had an idea that she was a most beneficent friend: fond of him and careful of him as an elder sister might be; warning him as no one else could do against the dangers of the town; putting that stiff common sense, of which she was convinced that she possessed an extraordinary supply, at the service of his incurable verdancy; and looking after him, generally, as no one, poor child, had ever done. Millicent made light of the little dressmaker, in this view of Hyacinth’s past (she thought Pinnie no better than a starved cat), and enjoyed herself immensely in the character of guide and philosopher, while she pushed the young man with a robust elbow or said to him, “Well, you are a sharp one, you are!” Her theory of herself, as we know, was that she was the sweetest girl in the world, as well as the cleverest and handsomest, and there could be no better proof of her kindness of heart than her disinterested affection for a snippet of a bookbinder. Her sociability was certainly great, and so were her vanity, her grossness, her presumption, her appetite for beer, for buns, for entertainment of every kind. She represented, for Hyacinth, during this period, the eternal feminine, and his taste, considering that he was fastidious, will be wondered at; it will be judged that she did not represent it very favourably.

It may easily be believed that he scrutinised his infatuation even while he gave himself up to it, and that he often wondered he should care for a girl in whom he found so much to object to. She was vulgar, clumsy and grotesquely ignorant; her conceit was proportionate, and she had not a grain of tact or of quick perception. And yet there was something so fine about her, to his imagination, and she carried with such an air the advantages she did possess, that her figure constantly mingled itself even with those bright visions that hovered before him after Paul Muniment had opened a mysterious window. She was bold, and free, and generous, and if she was coarse she was neither false nor cruel. She laughed with the laugh of the people, and if you hit her hard enough she would cry with its tears. When Hyacinth was not letting his imagination wander among the haunts of the aristocracy, and fancying himself stretched in the shadow of an ancestral beech, reading the last number of the Revue des Deux Mondes, he was occupied with contemplations of a very different kind; he was absorbed in the struggles and sufferings of the millions whose life flowed in the same current as his, and who, though they constantly excited his disgust, and made him shrink and turn away, had the power to chain his sympathy, to make it glow to a kind of ecstasy, to convince him, for the time at least, that real success in the world would be to do something with them and for them. All this, strange to say, was never so vivid to him as when he was in Millicent’s company; which is a proof of his fantastic, erratic way of seeing things. She had no such ideas about herself; they were almost the only ideas she didn’t have. She had no theories about redeeming or uplifting the people; she simply loathed them, because they were so dirty, with the outspoken violence of one who had known poverty, and the strange bedfellows it makes, in a very different degree from Hyacinth, brought up, comparatively, with Pinnie to put sugar in his tea, and keep him supplied with neckties, like a little swell.

Millicent, to hear her talk, only wanted to keep her skirts clear and marry some respectable tea-merchant. But for our hero she was magnificently plebeian, in the sense that implied a kind of loud recklessness of danger and the qualities that shine forth in a row. She summed up the sociable, humorous, ignorant chatter of the masses, their capacity for offensive and defensive passion, their instinctive perception of their strength on the day they should really exercise it; and as much as any of this, their ideal of something smug and prosperous, where washed hands, and plates in rows on dressers, and stuffed birds under glass, and family photographs, would symbolise success. She was none the less plucky for being at bottom a shameless Philistine, ambitious of a front-garden with rockwork; and she presented the plebeian character in none the less plastic a form. Having the history of the French Revolution at his fingers’ ends, Hyacinth could easily see her (if there should ever be barricades in the streets of London) with a red cap of liberty on her head and her white throat bared so that she should be able to shout the louder the Marseillaise of that hour, whatever it might be. If the festival of the Goddess of Reason should ever be enacted in the British metropolis (and Hyacinth could consider such possibilities without a smile, so much was it a part of the little religion he had to remember, always, that there was no knowing what might happen) – if this solemnity, I say, should be revived in Hyde Park, who was better designated than Miss Henning to figure in a grand statuesque manner, as the heroine of the occasion? It was plain that she had laid her inconsequent admirer under a peculiar spell, since he could associate her with such scenes as that while she consumed beer and buns at his expense. If she had a weakness, it was for prawns; and she had, all winter, a plan for his taking her down to Gravesend, where this luxury was cheap and abundant, when the fine long days should arrive. She was never so frank and facetious as when she dwelt on the details of a project of this kind; and then Hyacinth was reminded afresh that it was an immense good fortune for her that she was handsome. If she had been ugly he couldn’t have listened to her; but her beauty glorified even her accent, interfused her cockney genius with prismatic hues, gave her a large and constant impunity.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38