The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

13

Hyacinth’s first consciousness, after his companion had opened it, was of his nearness to the stage, on which the curtain had now risen again. The play was in progress, the actors’ voices came straight into the box, and it was impossible to speak without disturbing them. This at least was his inference from the noiseless way his conductor drew him in, and, without announcing or introducing him, simply pointed to a chair and whispered, “Just drop into that; you’ll see and hear beautifully.” He heard the door close behind him, and became aware that Captain Sholto had already retreated. Millicent, at any rate, would not be left to languish in solitude very long. Two ladies were seated in the front of the box, which was so large that there was a considerable space between them; and as he stood there, where Captain Sholto had planted him – they appeared not to have noticed the opening of the door – they turned their heads and looked at him. The one on whom his eyes first rested was the old lady whom he had already contemplated at a distance; she looked queerer still on a closer view, and gave him a little friendly, jolly nod. Her companion was partly overshadowed by the curtain of the box, which she had drawn forward with the intention of shielding herself from the observation of the house; she had still the air of youth, and the simplest way to express the instant effect upon Hyacinth of her fair face of welcome is to say that she was dazzling. He remained as Sholto had left him, staring rather confusedly and not moving an inch; whereupon the younger lady put out her hand – it was her left, the other rested on the ledge of the box – with the expectation, as he perceived, to his extreme mortification, too late, that he would give her his own. She converted the gesture into a sign of invitation, and beckoned him, silently but graciously, to move his chair forward. He did so, and seated himself between the two ladies; then, for ten minutes, stared straight before him, at the stage, not turning his eyes sufficiently even to glance up at Millicent in the balcony. He looked at the play, but he was far from seeing it; he had no sense of anything but the woman who sat there, close to him, on his right, with a fragrance in her garments and a light about her which he seemed to see even while his head was averted. The vision had been only of a moment, but it hung before him, threw a vague white mist over the proceedings on the stage. He was embarrassed, overturned, bewildered, and he knew it; he made a great effort to collect himself, to consider the situation lucidly. He wondered whether he ought to speak, to look at her again, to behave differently, in some way; whether she would take him for a clown, for an idiot; whether she were really as beautiful as she had seemed or if it were only a superficial glamour, which a renewed inspection would dissipate. While he asked himself these questions the minutes went on, and neither of his hostesses spoke; they watched the play in perfect stillness, so that Hyacinth divined that this was the proper thing and that he himself must remain dumb until a word should be bestowed upon him. Little by little he recovered himself, took possession of his predicament, and at last transferred his eyes to the Princess. She immediately perceived this, and returned his glance, with a soft smile. She might well be a princess – it was impossible to conform more to the finest evocations of that romantic word. She was fair, brilliant, slender, with a kind of effortless majesty. Her beauty had an air of perfection; it astonished and lifted one up, the sight of it seemed a privilege, a reward. If the first impression it had given Hyacinth was to make him feel strangely transported, he need not have been too much agitated, for this was the effect the Princess Casamassima produced upon persons of a wider experience and greater pretensions. Her dark eyes, blue or gray, something that was not brown, were as sweet as they were splendid, and there was an extraordinary light nobleness in the way she held her head. That head, where two or three diamond stars glittered in the thick, delicate hair which defined its shape, suggested to Hyacinth something antique and celebrated, which he had admired of old – the memory was vague – in a statue, in a picture, in a museum. Purity of line and form, of cheek and chin and lip and brow, a colour that seemed to live and glow, a radiance of grace and eminence and success – these things were seated in triumph in the face of the Princess, and Hyacinth, as he held himself in his chair, trembling with the revelation, wondered whether she were not altogether of some different substance from the humanity he had hitherto known. She might be divine, but he could see that she understood human needs – that she wished him to be at his ease and happy; there was something familiar in her smile, as if she had seen him many times before. Her dress was dark and rich; she had pearls round her neck, and an old rococo fan in her hand. Hyacinth took in all these things, and finally said to himself that if she wanted nothing more of him than that, he was content, he would like it to go on; so pleasant was it to sit with fine ladies, in a dusky, spacious receptacle which framed the bright picture of the stage and made one’s own situation seem a play within the play. The act was a long one, and the repose in which his companions left him might have been a calculated indulgence, to enable him to get used to them, to see how harmless they were. He looked at Millicent, in the course of time, and saw that Captain Sholto, seated beside her, had not the same standard of propriety, inasmuch as he made a remark to her every few minutes. Like himself, the young lady in the balcony was losing the play, thanks to her eyes being fixed on her friend from Lomax Place, whose position she thus endeavoured to gauge. Hyacinth had quite given up the Paraguayan complications; by the end of the half-hour his attention might have come back to them, had he not then been engaged in wondering what the Princess would say to him after the descent of the curtain – or whether she would say anything. The consideration of this problem, as the moment of the solution drew nearer, made his heart again beat faster. He watched the old lady on his left, and supposed it was natural that a princess should have an attendant – he took for granted she was an attendant – as different as possible from herself. This ancient dame was without majesty or grace; huddled together, with her hands folded on her stomach and her lips protruding, she solemnly followed the performance. Several times, however, she turned her head to Hyacinth, and then her expression changed; she repeated the jovial, encouraging, almost motherly nod with which she had greeted him when he made his bow, and by which she appeared to wish to intimate that, better than the serene beauty on the other side, she could enter into the oddity, the discomfort, of his situation. She seemed to say to him that he must keep his head, and that if the worst should come to the worst she was there to look after him. Even when, at last, the curtain descended, it was some moments before the Princess spoke, though she rested her smile upon Hyacinth as if she were considering what he would best like her to say. He might at that instant have guessed what he discovered later – that among this lady’s faults (he was destined to learn that they were numerous) not the least eminent was an exaggerated fear of the commonplace. He expected she would make some remark about the play, but what she said was, very gently and kindly, “I like to know all sorts of people.”

“I shouldn’t think you would find the least difficulty in that,” Hyacinth replied.

“Oh, if one wants anything very much, it’s sure to be difficult. Every one isn’t as obliging as you.”

Hyacinth could think, immediately, of no proper rejoinder to this; but the old lady saved him the trouble by declaring, with a foreign accent, “I think you were most extraordinarily good-natured. I had no idea you would come – to two strange women.”

“Yes, we are strange women,” said the Princess, musingly.

“It’s not true that she finds things difficult; she makes every one do everything,” her companion went on.

The Princess glanced at her; then remarked to Hyacinth, “Her name is Madame Grandoni.” Her tone was not familiar, but there was a friendly softness in it, as if he had really taken so much trouble for them that it was only just he should be entertained a little at their expense. It seemed to imply, also, that Madame Grandoni’s fitness for supplying such entertainment was obvious.

“But I am not Italian – ah no!” the old lady cried. “In spite of my name, I am an honest, ugly, unfortunate German. But it doesn’t matter. She also, with such a name, isn’t Italian, either. It’s an accident; the world is full of accidents. But she isn’t German, poor lady, any more.” Madame Grandoni appeared to have entered into the Princess’s view, and Hyacinth thought her exceedingly amusing. In a moment she added, “That was a very charming person you were with.”

“Yes, she is very charming,” Hyacinth replied, not sorry to have a chance to say it.

The Princess made no remark on this subject, and Hyacinth perceived not only that from her position in the box she could have had no glimpse of Millicent, but that she would never take up such an allusion as that. It was as if she had not heard it that she asked, “Do you consider the play very interesting?”

Hyacinth hesitated a moment, and then told the simple truth. “I must confess that I have lost the whole of this last act.”

“Ah, poor bothered young man!” cried Madame Grandoni. “You see – you see!”

“What do I see?” the Princess inquired. “If you are annoyed at being here now, you will like us later; probably, at least. We take a great interest in the things you care for. We take a great interest in the people,” the Princess went on.

“Oh, allow me, allow me, and speak only for yourself!” the elder lady interposed. “I take no interest in the people; I don’t understand them, and I know nothing about them. An honourable nature, of any class, I always respect it; but I will not pretend to a passion for the ignorant masses, because I have it not. Moreover, that doesn’t touch the gentleman.”

The Princess Casamassima had, evidently, a faculty of completely ignoring things of which she wished to take no account; it was not in the least the air of contempt, but a kind of thoughtful, tranquil absence, after which she came back to the point where she wished to be. She made no protest against her companion’s speech, but said to Hyacinth, as if she were only vaguely conscious that the old lady had been committing herself in some absurd way, “She lives with me; she is everything to me; she is the best woman in the world.”

“Yes, fortunately, with many superficial defects, I am very good,” Madame Grandoni remarked.

Hyacinth, by this time, was less embarrassed than when he presented himself to the Princess Casamassima, but he was not less mystified; he wondered afresh whether he were not being practised upon for some inconceivable end; so strange did it seem to him that two such fine ladies should, of their own movement, take the trouble to explain each other to a miserable little bookbinder. This idea made him flush; it was as if it had come over him that he had fallen into a trap. He was conscious that he looked frightened, and he was conscious the moment afterwards that the Princess noticed it. This was, apparently, what made her say, “If you have lost so much of the play I ought to tell you what has happened.”

“Do you think he would follow that any more?” Madame Grandoni exclaimed.

“If you would tell me – if you would tell me —” And then Hyacinth stopped. He had been going to say, ‘If you would tell me what all this means and what you want of me, it would be more to the point!’ but the words died on his lips, and he sat staring, for the woman at his right was simply too beautiful. She was too beautiful to question, to judge by common logic; and how could he know, moreover, what was natural to a person in that exaltation of grace and splendour? Perhaps it was her habit to send out every evening for some naïf stranger, to amuse her; perhaps that was the way the foreign aristocracy lived. There was no sharpness in her face, at the present moment at least; there was nothing but luminous sweetness, yet she looked as if she knew what was going on in his mind. She made no eager attempt to reassure him, but there was a world of delicate consideration in the tone in which she said, “Do you know, I am afraid I have already forgotten what they have been doing in the play? It’s terribly complicated; some one or other was hurled over a precipice.”

“Ah, you’re a brilliant pair,” Madame Grandoni remarked, with a laugh of long experience. “I could describe everything. The person who was hurled over the precipice was the virtuous hero, and you will see, in the next act, that he was only slightly bruised.”

“Don’t describe anything; I have so much to ask.” Hyacinth had looked away, in tacit deprecation, at hearing himself ‘paired’ with the Princess, and he felt that she was watching him. “What do you think of Captain Sholto?” she went on, suddenly, to his surprise, if anything, in his position, could excite that sentiment more than anything else; and as he hesitated, not knowing what to say, she added, “Isn’t he a very curious type?”

“I know him very little,” Hyacinth replied; and he had no sooner uttered the words than it struck him they were far from brilliant – they were poor and flat, and very little calculated to satisfy the Princess. Indeed, he reflected that he had said nothing at all that could place him in a favourable light; so he continued, at a venture: “I mean, I have never seen him at home.” That sounded still more silly.

“At home? Oh, he is never at home; he is all over the world. To-night he was as likely to have been in Paraguay, for instance, as here. He is what they call a cosmopolite. I don’t know whether you know that species; very modern, more and more frequent, and exceedingly tiresome. I prefer the Chinese! He had told me he had had a great deal of interesting talk with you. That was what made me say to him, ‘Oh, do ask him to come in and see me. A little interesting talk, that would be a change!’”

“She is very complimentary to me!” said Madame Grandoni.

“Ah, my dear, you and I, you know, we never talk: we understand each other without that!” Then the Princess pursued, addressing herself to Hyacinth, “Do you never admit women?”

“Admit women?”

“Into those séances – what do you call them? – those little meetings that Captain Sholto described to me. I should like so much to be present. Why not?”

“I haven’t seen any ladies,” Hyacinth said. “I don’t know whether it’s a rule, but I have seen nothing but men;” and he added, smiling, though he thought the dereliction rather serious, and couldn’t understand the part Captain Sholto was playing, nor, considering the grand company he kept, how he had originally secured admittance into the subversive little circle in Bloomsbury, “You know I’m not sure Captain Sholto ought to go about reporting our proceedings.”

“I see. Perhaps you think he’s a spy, or something of that sort.”

“No,” said Hyacinth, after a moment. “I think a spy would he more careful – would disguise himself more. Besides, after all, he has heard very little.” And Hyacinth smiled again.

“You mean he hasn’t really been behind the scenes?” the Princess asked, bending forward a little, and now covering the young man steadily with her deep, soft eyes, as if by this time he must have got used to her and wouldn’t flinch from such attention. “Of course he hasn’t, and he never will be; he knows that, and that it’s quite out of his power to tell any real secrets. What he repeated to me was interesting, but of course I could see that there was nothing the authorities, anywhere, could put their hand on. It was mainly the talk he had had with you which struck him so very much, and which struck me, as you see. Perhaps you didn’t know how he was drawing you out.”

“I am afraid that’s rather easy,” said Hyacinth, with perfect candour, as it came over him that he had chattered, with a vengeance, in Bloomsbury, and had thought it natural enough then that his sociable fellow-visitor should offer him cigars and attach importance to the views of a clever and original young artisan.

“I am not sure that I find it so! However, I ought to tell you that you needn’t have the least fear of Captain Sholto. He’s a perfectly honest man, so far as he goes; and even if you had trusted him much more than you appear to have done, he would be incapable of betraying you. However, don’t trust him: not because he’s not safe, but because — No matter, you will see for yourself. He has gone into that sort of thing simply to please me. I should tell you, merely to make you understand, that he would do anything for that. That’s his own affair. I wanted to know something, to learn something, to ascertain what really is going on; and for a woman everything of that sort is so difficult, especially for a woman in my position, who is known, and to whom every sort of bad faith is sure to be imputed. So Sholto said he would look into the subject for me; poor man, he has had to look into so many subjects! What I particularly wanted was that he should make friends with some of the leading spirits, really characteristic types.” The Princess’s voice was low and rather deep, and her tone very quick; her manner of speaking was altogether new to her listener, for whom the pronunciation of her words and the very punctuation of her sentences were a kind of revelation of ‘society’.

“Surely Captain Sholto doesn’t suppose that I am a leading spirit!” Hyacinth exclaimed, with the determination not to be laughed at any more than he could help.

The Princess hesitated a moment; then she said, “He told me you were very original.”

“He doesn’t know, and – if you will allow me to say so – I don’t think you know. How should you? I am one of many thousands of young men of my class – you know, I suppose, what that is – in whose brains certain ideas are fermenting. There is nothing original about me at all. I am very young and very ignorant; it’s only a few months since I began to talk of the possibility of a social revolution with men who have considered the whole ground much more than I have done. I’m a mere particle in the immensity of the people. All I pretend to is my good faith, and a great desire that justice shall be done.”

The Princess listened to him intently, and her attitude made him feel how little he, in comparison, expressed himself like a person who had the habit of conversation; he seemed to himself to stammer and emit common sounds. For a moment she said nothing, only looking at him with her pure smile. “I do draw you out!” she exclaimed, at last. “You are much more interesting to me than if you were an exception.” At these last words Hyacinth flinched a hair’s breadth; the movement was shown by his dropping his eyes. We know to what extent he really regarded himself as of the stuff of the common herd. The Princess doubtless guessed it as well, for she quickly added, “At the same time, I can see that you are remarkable enough.”

“What do you think I am remarkable for?”

“Well, you have general ideas.”

“Every one has them to-day. They have them in Bloomsbury to a terrible degree. I have a friend (who understands the matter much better than I) who has no patience with them: he declares they are our danger and our bane. A few very special ideas – if they are the right ones – are what we want.”

“Who is your friend?” the Princess asked, abruptly.

“Ah, Christina, Christina,” Madame Grandoni murmured from the other side of the box.

Christina took no notice of her, and Hyacinth, not understanding the warning, and only remembering how personal women always are, replied, “A young man who lives in Camberwell, an assistant at a wholesale chemist’s.”

If he had expected that this description of his friend was a bigger dose than his hostess would be able to digest, he was greatly mistaken. She seemed to look tenderly at the picture suggested by his words, and she immediately inquired whether the young man were also clever, and whether she might not hope to know him. Hadn’t Captain Sholto seen him; and if so, why hadn’t he spoken of him, too? When Hyacinth had replied that Captain Sholto had probably seen him, but that he believed he had had no particular conversation with him, the Princess inquired, with startling frankness, whether her visitor wouldn’t bring his friend, some day, to see her.

Hyacinth glanced at Madame Grandoni, but that worthy woman was engaged in a survey of the house, through an old-fashioned eye-glass with a long gilt handle. He had perceived, long before this, that the Princess Casamassima had no desire for vain phrases, and he had the good taste to feel that, from himself to such a personage, compliments, even if he had wished to pay them, would have had no suitability. “I don’t know whether he would be willing to come. He’s the sort of man that, in such a case, you can’t answer for.”

“That makes me want to know him all the more. But you’ll come yourself, at all events, eh?”

Poor Hyacinth murmured something about the unexpected honour; for, after all, he had a French heredity, and it was not so easy for him to make unadorned speeches. But Madame Grandoni, laying down her eye-glass, almost took the words out of his mouth, with the cheerful exhortation, “Go and see her – go and see her once or twice. She will treat you like an angel.”

“You must think me very peculiar,” the Princess remarked, sadly.

“I don’t know what I think. It will take a good while.”

“I wish I could make you trust me – inspire you with confidence,” she went on. “I don’t mean only you, personally, but others who think as you do. You would find I would go with you – pretty far. I was answering just now for Captain Sholto; but who in the world is to answer for me?” And her sadness merged itself in a smile which appeared to Hyacinth extraordinarily magnanimous and touching.

“Not I, my dear, I promise you!” her ancient companion ejaculated, with a laugh which made the people in the stalls look up at the box.

Her mirth was contagious; it gave Hyacinth the audacity to say to her, “I would trust you, if you did!” though he felt, the next minute, that this was even a more familiar speech than if he had said he wouldn’t trust her.

“It comes, then, to the same thing,” the Princess went on. “She would not show herself with me in public if I were not respectable. If you knew more about me you would understand what has led me to turn my attention to the great social question. It is a long story, and the details wouldn’t interest you; but perhaps some day, if we have more talk, you will put yourself a little in my place. I am very serious, you know; I am not amusing myself with peeping and running away. I am convinced that we are living in a fool’s paradise, that the ground is heaving under our feet.”

“It’s not the ground, my dear; it’s you that are turning somersaults,” Madame Grandoni interposed.

“Ah, you, my friend, you have the happy faculty of believing what you like to believe. I have to believe what I see.”

“She wishes to throw herself into the revolution, to guide it, to enlighten it,” Madame Grandoni said to Hyacinth, speaking now with imperturbable gravity.

“I am sure she could direct it in any sense she would wish!” the young man responded, in a glow. The pure, high dignity with which the Princess had just spoken, and which appeared to cover a suppressed tremor of passion, set Hyacinth’s pulses throbbing, and though he scarcely saw what she meant – her aspirations seeming so vague – her tone, her voice, her wonderful face, showed that she had a generous soul.

She answered his eager declaration with a serious smile and a melancholy head-shake. “I have no such pretensions, and my good old friend is laughing at me. Of course that is very easy; for what, in fact, can be more absurd, on the face of it, than for a woman with a title, with diamonds, with a carriage, with servants, with a position, as they call it, to sympathise with the upward struggles of those who are below? ‘Give all that up, and we’ll believe you,’ you have a right to say. I am ready to give them up the moment it will help the cause; I assure you that’s the least difficulty. I don’t want to teach, I want to learn; and, above all, I want to know à quoi m’en tenir. Are we on the eve of great changes, or are we not? Is everything that is gathering force, underground, in the dark, in the night, in little hidden rooms, out of sight of governments and policemen and idiotic ‘statesmen’ – heaven save them! – is all this going to burst forth some fine morning and set the world on fire? Or is it to sputter out and spend itself in vain conspiracies, be dissipated in sterile heroisms and abortive isolated movements? I want to know à quoi m’en tenir,” she repeated, fixing her visitor with more brilliant eyes, as if he could tell her on the spot. Then, suddenly, she added in a totally different tone, “Excuse me, I have an idea you speak French. Didn’t Captain Sholto tell me so?”

“I have some little acquaintance with it,” Hyacinth murmured. “I have French blood in my veins.”

She considered him as if he had proposed to her some kind of problem. “Yes, I can see that you are not le premier venu. Now, your friend, of whom you were speaking, is a chemist; and you, yourself – what is your occupation?”

“I’m just a bookbinder.”

“That must be delightful. I wonder if you would bind some books for me.”

“You would have to bring them to our shop, and I can do there only the work that’s given out to me. I might manage it by myself, at home,” Hyacinth added, smiling.

“I should like that better. And what do you call home?”

“The place I live in, in the north of London: a little street you certainly never heard of.”

“What is it called?”

“Lomax Place, at your service,” said Hyacinth, laughing.

She laughed back at him, and he didn’t know whether her brightness or her gravity were the more charming. “No, I don’t think I have heard of it. I don’t know London very well; I haven’t lived here long. I have spent most of my life abroad. My husband is a foreigner, an Italian. We don’t live together much. I haven’t the manners of this country – not of any class; have I, eh? Oh, this country – there is a great deal to be said about it; and a great deal to be done, as you, of course, understand better than any one. But I want to know London; it interests me more than I can say – the huge, swarming, smoky, human city. I mean real London, the people and all their sufferings and passions; not Park Lane and Bond Street. Perhaps you can help me – it would be a great kindness: that’s what I want to know men like you for. You see it isn’t idle, my having given you so much trouble to-night.”

“I shall be very glad to show you all I know. But it isn’t much, and above all it isn’t pretty,” said Hyacinth.

“Whom do you live with, in Lomax Place?” the Princess asked, by way of rejoinder to this.

“Captain Sholto is leaving the young lady – he is coming back here,” Madame Grandoni announced, inspecting the balcony with her instrument. The orchestra had been for some time playing the overture to the following act.

Hyacinth hesitated a moment. “I live with a dressmaker.”

“With a dressmaker? Do you mean – do you mean —?” And the Princess paused.

“Do you mean she’s your wife?” asked Madame Grandoni, humorously.

“Perhaps she gives you rooms,” remarked the Princess.

“How many do you think I have? She gives me everything, or she has done so in the past. She brought me up; she is the best little woman in the world.”

“You had better command a dress!” exclaimed Madame Grandoni.

“And your family, where are they?” the Princess continued.

“I have no family.”

“None at all?”

“None at all. I never had.”

“But the French blood that you speak of, and which I see perfectly in your face – you haven’t the English expression, or want of expression – that must have come to you through some one.”

“Yes, through my mother.”

“And she is dead?”

“Long ago.”

“That’s a great loss, because French mothers are usually so much to their sons.” The Princess looked at her painted fan a moment, as she opened and closed it; after which she said, “Well, then, you’ll come some day. We’ll arrange it.”

Hyacinth felt that the answer to this could be only a silent inclination of his little person; and to make it he rose from his chair. As he stood there, conscious that he had stayed long enough and yet not knowing exactly how to withdraw, the Princess, with her fan closed, resting upright on her knee, and her hands clasped on the end of it, turned up her strange, lovely eyes at him, and said –

“Do you think anything will occur soon?”

“Will occur?”

“That there will be a crisis – that you’ll make yourselves felt?”

In this beautiful woman’s face there was to Hyacinth’s bewildered perception something at once inspiring, tempting and mocking; and the effect of her expression was to make him say, rather clumsily, “I’ll try and ascertain;” as if she had asked him whether her carriage were at the door.

“I don’t quite know what you are talking about; but please don’t have it for another hour or two. I want to see what becomes of the Pearl!” Madame Grandoni interposed.

“Remember what I told you: I would give up everything – everything!” the Princess went on, looking up at the young man in the same way. Then she held out her hand, and this time he knew sufficiently what he was about to take it.

When he bade good-night to Madame Grandoni the old lady exclaimed to him, with a comical sigh, “Well, she is respectable!” and out in the lobby, when he had closed the door of the box behind him, he found himself echoing these words and repeating mechanically, “She is respectable!” They were on his lips as he stood, suddenly, face to face with Captain Sholto, who laid his hand on his shoulder once more and shook him a little, in that free yet insinuating manner for which this officer appeared to be remarkable.

“My dear fellow, you were born under a lucky star.”

“I never supposed it,” said Hyacinth, changing colour.

“Why, what in the world would you have? You have the faculty, the precious faculty, of inspiring women with an interest – but an interest!”

“Yes, ask them in the box there! I behaved like a cretin,” Hyacinth declared, overwhelmed now with a sense of opportunities missed.

“They won’t tell me that. And the lady upstairs?”

“Well,” said Hyacinth gravely, “what about her?”

The Captain considered him a moment. “She wouldn’t talk to me of anything but you. You may imagine how I liked it!”

“I don’t like it, either. But I must go up.”

“Oh yes, she counts the minutes. Such a charming person!” Captain Sholto added, with more propriety of tone. As Hyacinth left him he called after him, “Don’t be afraid – you’ll go far.”

When the young man took his place in the balcony beside Millicent this damsel gave him no greeting, nor asked any question about his adventures in the more aristocratic part of the house. She only turned her fine complexion upon him for some minutes, and as he himself was not in the mood to begin to chatter, the silence continued – continued till after the curtain had risen on the last act of the play. Millicent’s attention was now, evidently, not at her disposal for the stage, and in the midst of a violent scene, which included pistol-shots and shrieks, she said at last to her companion, “She’s a tidy lot, your Princess, by what I learn.”

“Pray, what do you know about her?”

“I know what that fellow told me.”

“And pray, what was that?”

“Well, she’s a bad ’un, as ever was. Her own husband has had to turn her out of the house.”

Hyacinth remembered the allusion the lady herself had made to her matrimonial situation; nevertheless, what he would have liked to reply to Miss Henning was that he didn’t believe a word of it. He withheld the doubt, and after a moment remarked quietly, “I don’t care.”

“You don’t care? Well, I do, then!” Millicent cried. And as it was impossible, in view of the performance and the jealous attention of their neighbours, to continue the conversation in this pitch, she contented herself with ejaculating, in a somewhat lower key, at the end of five minutes, during which she had been watching the stage, “Gracious, what dreadful common stuff!”

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