The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

14

Hyacinth did not mention to Pinnie or Mr Vetch that he had been taken up by a great lady; but he mentioned it to Paul Muniment, to whom he now confided a great many things. He had, at first, been in considerable fear of his straight, loud, north-country friend, who showed signs of cultivating logic and criticism to a degree that was hostile to free conversation; but he discovered later that he was a man to whom one could say anything in the world, if one didn’t think it of more importance to be sympathised with than to be understood. For a revolutionist, he was strangely good-natured. The sight of all the things he wanted to change had seemingly no power to irritate him, and if he joked about questions that lay very near his heart his pleasantry was not bitter nor invidious; the fault that Hyacinth sometimes found with it, rather, was that it was innocent to puerility. Our hero envied his power of combining a care for the wide misery of mankind with the apparent state of mind of the cheerful and virtuous young workman who, on Sunday morning, has put on a clean shirt, and, not having taken the gilt off his wages the night before, weighs against each other, for a happy day, the respective attractions of Epping Forest and Gravesend. He was never sarcastic about his personal lot and his daily life; it had not seemed to occur to him, for instance, that ‘society’ was really responsible for the condition of his sister’s spinal column, though Eustache Poupin and his wife (who practically, however, were as patient as he) did everything they could to make him say so, believing, evidently, that it would relieve him. Apparently he cared nothing for women, talked of them rarely, and always decently, and had never a sign of a sweetheart, unless Lady Aurora Langrish might pass for one. He never drank a drop of beer nor touched a pipe; he always had a clear tone, a fresh cheek and a smiling eye, and once excited on Hyacinth’s part a kind of elder-brotherly indulgence by the open-mouthed glee and credulity with which, when the pair were present, in the sixpenny gallery, at Astley’s, at an equestrian pantomime, he followed the tawdry spectacle. He once told the young bookbinder that he was a suggestive little beggar, and Hyacinth’s opinion of him, by this time, was so exalted that the remark had almost the value of a patent of nobility. Our hero treated himself to an unlimited belief in him; he had always dreamed of having some grand friendship, and this was the best opening he had ever encountered. No one could entertain a sentiment of that sort better than Hyacinth, or cultivate a greater luxury of confidence. It disappointed him, sometimes, that it was not more richly repaid; that on certain important points of the socialistic programme Muniment would never commit himself; and that he had not yet shown the fond du sac, as Eustache Poupin called it, to so ardent an admirer. He answered particular questions freely enough, and answered them occasionally in a manner that made Hyacinth jump, as when, in reply to an inquiry in regard to his view of capital punishment, he said that, so far from wishing it abolished, he should go in for extending it much further – he should impose it on those who habitually lied or got drunk; but his friend had always a feeling that he kept back his best card and that even in the listening circle in Bloomsbury, when only the right men were present, there were unspoken conclusions in his mind which he didn’t as yet think any one good enough to be favoured with. So far, therefore, from suspecting him of half-heartedness, Hyacinth was sure that he had extraordinary things in his head; that he was thinking them out to the logical end, wherever it might land him; and that the night he should produce them, with the door of the club-room guarded and the company bound by a tremendous oath, the others would look at each other and turn pale.

“She wants to see you; she asked me to bring you; she was very serious,” Hyacinth said, relating his interview with the ladies in the box at the play; which, however, now that he looked back upon it, seemed as queer as a dream, and not much more likely than that sort of experience to have a continuation in one’s waking hours.

“To bring me – to bring me where?” asked Muniment. “You talk as if I were a sample out of your shop, or a little dog you had for sale. Has she ever seen me? Does she think I’m smaller than you? What does she know about me?”

“Well, principally, that you’re a friend of mine – that’s enough for her.”

“Do you mean that it ought to be enough for me that she’s a friend of yours? I have a notion you’ll have some queer ones before you’re done; a good many more than I have time to talk to. And how can I go to see a delicate female, with those paws?” Muniment inquired, exhibiting ten work-stained fingers.

“Buy a pair of gloves,” said Hyacinth, who recognised the serious character of this obstacle. But after a moment he added, “No, you oughtn’t to do that; she wants to see dirty hands.”

“That’s easy enough; she needn’t send for me for the purpose. But isn’t she making game of you?”

“It’s very possible, but I don’t see what good it can do her.”

“You are not obliged to find excuses for the pampered classes. Their bloated luxury begets evil, impudent desires; they are capable of doing harm for the sake of harm. Besides, is she genuine?”

“If she isn’t, what becomes of your explanation?” asked Hyacinth.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter; at night all cats are gray. Whatever she is, she’s an idle, bedizened jade.”

“If you had seen her, you wouldn’t talk of her that way.”

“God forbid I should see her, then, if she’s going to corrupt me!”

“Do you suppose she’ll corrupt me?” Hyacinth demanded, with an expression of face and a tone of voice which produced, on his friend’s part, an explosion of mirth.

“How can she, after all, when you are already such a little mass of corruption?”

“You don’t think that,” said Hyacinth, looking very grave.

“Do you mean that if I did I wouldn’t say it? Haven’t you noticed that I say what I think?”

“No, you don’t, not half of it: you’re as close as a fish.”

Paul Muniment looked at his companion a moment, as if he were rather struck with the penetration of that remark; then he said, “Well, then, if I should give you the other half of my opinion of you, do you think you’d fancy it?”

“I’ll save you the trouble. I’m a very clever, conscientious, promising young chap, and any one would be proud to claim me as a friend.”

“Is that what your Princess told you? She must be a precious piece of goods!” Paul Muniment exclaimed. “Did she pick your pocket meanwhile?”

“Oh yes; a few minutes later I missed a silver cigar-case, engraved with the arms of the Robinsons. Seriously,” Hyacinth continued, “don’t you consider it possible that a woman of that class should want to know what is going on among the like of us?”

“It depends upon what class you mean.”

“Well, a woman with a lot of jewels and the manners of an angel. It’s queer of course, but it’s conceivable; why not? There may be unselfish natures; there may be disinterested feelings.”

“And there may be fine ladies in an awful funk about their jewels, and even about their manners. Seriously, as you say, it’s perfectly conceivable. I am not in the least surprised at the aristocracy being curious to know what we are up to, and wanting very much to look into it; in their place I should be very uneasy, and if I were a woman with angelic manners very likely I too should be glad to get hold of a soft, susceptible little bookbinder, and pump him dry, bless his heart!”

“Are you afraid I’ll tell her secrets?” cried Hyacinth, flushing with virtuous indignation.

“Secrets? What secrets could you tell her, my pretty lad?”

Hyacinth stared a moment. “You don’t trust me – you never have.”

“We will, some day – don’t be afraid,” said Muniment, who, evidently, had no intention of unkindness, a thing that appeared to be impossible to him. “And when we do, you’ll cry with disappointment.”

“Well, you won’t,” Hyacinth declared. And then he asked whether his friend thought the Princess Casamassima a spy; and why, if she were in that line, Mr Sholto was not – inasmuch as it must be supposed he was not, since they had seen fit to let him walk in and out, at that rate, in the place in Bloomsbury. Muniment did not even know whom he meant, not having had any relations with the gentleman; but he summoned a sufficient image when his companion had described the Captain’s appearance. He then remarked, with his usual geniality, that he didn’t take him for a spy – he took him for an ass; but even if he had edged himself into the place with every intention to betray them, what handle could he possibly get – what use, against them, could he make of anything he had seen or heard? If he had a fancy to dip into working-men’s clubs (Muniment remembered, now, the first night he came; he had been brought by that German cabinet-maker, who had a stiff neck and smoked a pipe with a bowl as big as a stove); if it amused him to put on a bad hat, and inhale foul tobacco, and call his ‘inferiors’ ‘my dear fellow’; if he thought that in doing so he was getting an insight into the people and going half-way to meet them and preparing for what was coming – all this was his own affair, and he was very welcome, though a man must be a flat who would spend his evening in a hole like that when he might enjoy his comfort in one of those flaming big shops, full of arm-chairs and flunkies, in Pall Mall. And what did he see, after all, in Bloomsbury? Nothing but a ‘social gathering’, where there were clay pipes, and a sanded floor, and not half enough gas, and the principal newspapers; and where the men, as any one would know, were advanced radicals, and mostly advanced idiots. He could pat as many of them on the back as he liked, and say the House of Lords wouldn’t last till midsummer; but what discoveries would he make? He was simply on the same lay as Hyacinth’s Princess; he was nervous and scared, and he thought he would see for himself.

“Oh, he isn’t the same sort as the Princess. I’m sure he’s in a very different line!” Hyacinth exclaimed.

“Different, of course: she’s a handsome woman, I suppose, and he’s an ugly man; but I don’t think that either of them will save us or spoil us. Their curiosity is natural, but I have got other things to do than to show them over; therefore you can tell her serene highness that I’m much obliged.”

Hyacinth reflected a moment, and then he said, “You show Lady Aurora over; you seem to wish to give her the information she desires; and what’s the difference? If it’s right for her to take an interest, why isn’t it right for my Princess?”

“If she’s already yours, what more can she want?” Muniment asked. “All I know of Lady Aurora, and all I look at, is that she comes and sits with Rosy, and brings her tea, and waits upon her. If the Princess will do as much I’ll tell her she’s a woman of genius; but apart from that I shall never take a grain of interest in her interest in the masses – or in this particular mass!” And Paul Muniment, with his discoloured thumb, designated his own substantial person. His tone was disappointing to Hyacinth, who was surprised at his not appearing to think the episode at the theatre more remarkable and romantic. Muniment seemed to regard his explanation of such a proceeding as all-sufficient; but when, a moment later, he made use, in referring to the mysterious lady, of the expression that she was ‘quaking’, Hyacinth broke out – “Never in the world; she’s not afraid of anything!”

“Ah, my lad, not afraid of you, evidently!”

Hyacinth paid no attention to this coarse sally, but asked in a moment, with a candour that was proof against further ridicule, “Do you think she can do me a hurt of any kind, if we follow up our acquaintance?”

“Yes, very likely, but you must hit her back! That’s your line, you know: to go in for what’s going, to live your life, to gratify the women. I’m an ugly, grimy brute; I’ve got to watch the fires and mind the shop; but you are one of those taking little beggars who ought to run about and see the world; you ought to be an ornament to society, like a young man in an illustrated story-book. Only,” Muniment added in a moment, “you know, if she should hurt you very much, then I would go and see her!”

Hyacinth had been intending for some time to take Pinnie to call on the prostrate damsel in Audley Court, to whom he had promised that his benefactress (he had told Rose Muniment that she was ‘a kind of aunt’) should pay this civility; but the affair had been delayed by wan hesitations on the part of the dressmaker, for the poor woman had hard work to imagine, to-day, that there were people in London so forlorn that her countenance could be of value to them. Her social curiosities had become very nearly extinct, and she knew that she no longer made the same figure in public as when her command of the fashions enabled her to illustrate them in her own little person, by the aid of a good deal of whalebone. Moreover she felt that Hyacinth had strange friends and still stranger opinions; she suspected that he took an unnatural interest in politics and was somehow not on the right side, little as she knew about parties or causes; and she had a vague conviction that this kind of perversity only multiplied the troubles of the poor, who, according to theories which Pinnie had never reasoned out, but which, in her bosom, were as deep as religion, ought always to be of the same way of thinking as the rich. They were unlike them enough in their poverty, without trying to add other differences. When at last she accompanied Hyacinth to Camberwell, one Saturday evening at midsummer, it was in a sighing, sceptical, second-best manner; but if he had told her he wished it she would have gone with him to a soirée at a scavenger’s. There was no more danger of Rose Muniment’s being out than of one of the bronze couchant lions in Trafalgar Square having walked down Whitehall; but he had let her know in advance, and he perceived, as he opened her door in obedience to a quick, shrill summons, that she had had the happy thought of inviting Lady Aurora to help her to entertain Miss Pynsent. Such, at least, was the inference he drew from seeing her ladyship’s memorable figure rise before him for the first time since his own visit. He presented his companion to their reclining hostess, and Rosy immediately repeated her name to the representative of Belgrave Square. Pinnie curtsied down to the ground, as Lady Aurora put out her hand to her, and slipped noiselessly into a chair beside the bed. Lady Aurora laughed and fidgeted, in a friendly, cheerful, yet at the same time rather pointless manner, and Hyacinth gathered that she had no recollection of having met him before. His attention, however, was mainly given to Pinnie: he watched her jealously, to see whether, on this important occasion, she would not put forth a certain stiff, quaint, polished politeness, of which she possessed the secret and which made her resemble a pair of old-fashioned sugar-tongs. Not only for Pinnie’s sake, but for his own as well, he wished her to pass for a superior little woman, and he hoped she wouldn’t lose her head if Rosy should begin to talk about Inglefield. She was, evidently, much impressed by Rosy, and kept repeating, “Dear, dear!” under her breath, as the small, strange person in the bed rapidly explained to her that there was nothing in the world she would have liked so much as to follow her delightful profession, but that she couldn’t sit up to it, and had never had a needle in her hand but once, when at the end of three minutes it had dropped into the sheets and got into the mattress, so that she had always been afraid it would work out again and stick into her; but it hadn’t done so yet, and perhaps it never would – she lay so quiet, she didn’t push it about much. “Perhaps you would think it’s me that trimmed the little handkerchief I wear round my neck,” Miss Muniment said; “perhaps you would think I couldn’t do less, lying here all day long, with complete command of my time. Not a stitch of it. I’m the finest lady in London; I never lift my finger for myself. It’s a present from her ladyship – it’s her ladyship’s own beautiful needlework. What do you think of that? Have you ever met any one so favoured before? And the work – just look at the work, and tell me what you think of that!” The girl pulled off the bit of muslin from her neck and thrust it at Pinnie, who looked at it confusedly and exclaimed, “Dear, dear, dear!” partly in sympathy, partly as if, in spite of the consideration she owed every one, those were very strange proceedings.

“It’s very badly done; surely you see that,” said Lady Aurora. “It was only a joke.”

“Oh yes, everything’s a joke!” cried the irrepressible invalid – “everything except my state of health; that’s admitted to be serious. When her ladyship sends me five shillings’ worth of coals it’s only a joke; and when she brings me a bottle of the finest port, that’s another; and when she climbs up seventy-seven stairs (there are seventy-seven, I know perfectly, though I never go up or down), at the height of the London season, to spend the evening with me, that’s the best of all. I know all about the London season, though I never go out, and I appreciate what her ladyship gives up. She is very jocular indeed, but, fortunately, I know how to take it. You can see that it wouldn’t do for me to be touchy, can’t you, Miss Pynsent?”

“Dear, dear, I should be so glad to make you anything myself; it would be better – it would be better —” Pinnie murmured, hesitating.

“It would be better than my poor work. I don’t know how to do that sort of thing, in the least,” said Lady Aurora.

“I’m sure I didn’t mean that, my lady – I only meant it would be more convenient. Anything in the world she might fancy,” the dressmaker went on, as if it were a question of the invalid’s appetite.

“Ah, you see I don’t wear things – only a flannel jacket, to be a bit tidy,” Miss Muniment rejoined. “I go in only for smart counterpanes, as you can see for yourself;” and she spread her white hands complacently over her coverlet of brilliant patchwork. “Now doesn’t that look to you, Miss Pynsent, as if it might be one of her ladyship’s jokes?”

“Oh, my good friend, how can you? I never went so far as that!” Lady Aurora interposed, with visible anxiety.

“Well, you’ve given me almost everything; I sometimes forget. This only cost me sixpence; so it comes to the same thing as if it had been a present. Yes, only sixpence, in a raffle in a bazaar at Hackney, for the benefit of the Wesleyan Chapel, three years ago. A young man who works with my brother, and lives in that part, offered him a couple of tickets; and he took one, and I took one. When I say ‘I’, of course I mean that he took the two; for how should I find (by which I mean, of course, how should he find) a sixpence in that little cup on the chimney-piece unless he had put it there first? Of course my ticket took a prize, and of course, as my bed is my dwelling-place, the prize was a beautiful counterpane, of every colour of the rainbow. Oh, there never was such luck as mine!” Rosy exclaimed, flashing her gay, strange eyes at Hyacinth, as if on purpose to irritate him with her contradictious optimism.

“It’s very lovely; but if you would like another, for a change, I’ve got a great many pieces,” Pinnie remarked, with a generosity which made the young man feel that she was acquitting herself finely.

Rose Muniment laid her little hand on the dressmaker’s arm, and responded, quickly, “No, not a change, not a change. How can there be a change when there’s already everything? There’s everything here – every colour that was ever seen, or composed, or dreamed of, since the world began.” And with her other hand she stroked, affectionately, her variegated quilt. “You have a great many pieces, but you haven’t as many as there are here; and the more you should patch them together the more the whole thing would resemble this dear, dazzling old friend. I have another idea, very, very charming, and perhaps her ladyship can guess what it is.” Rosy kept her fingers on Pinnie’s arm, and, smiling, turned her brilliant eyes from one of her female companions to the other, as if she wished to associate them as much as possible in their interest in her. “In connection with what we were talking about a few minutes ago – couldn’t your ladyship just go a little further, in the same line?” Then, as Lady Aurora looked troubled and embarrassed, blushing at being called upon to answer a conundrum, as it were, so publicly, her infirm friend came to her assistance. “It will surprise you at first, but it won’t when I have explained it: my idea is just simply a pink dressing-gown!”

“A pink dressing-gown!” Lady Aurora repeated.

“With a neat black trimming! Don’t you see the connection with what we were talking of before our good visitors came in?”

“That would be very pretty,” said Pinnie. “I have made them like that, in my time. Or blue, trimmed with white.”

“No, pink and black, pink and black – to suit my complexion. Perhaps you didn’t know I have a complexion; but there are very few things I haven’t got! Anything at all I should fancy, you were so good as to say. Well now, I fancy that! Your ladyship does see the connection by this time, doesn’t she?”

Lady Aurora looked distressed, as if she felt that she certainly ought to see it but was not sure that even yet it didn’t escape her, and as if, at the same time, she were struck with the fact that this sudden evocation might result in a strain on the little dressmaker’s resources. “A pink dressing-gown would certainly be very becoming, and Miss Pynsent would be very kind,” she said; while Hyacinth made the mental comment that it was a largeish order, as Pinnie would have, obviously, to furnish the materials as well as the labour. The amiable coolness with which the invalid laid her under contribution was, however, to his sense, quite in character, and he reflected that, after all, when you were stretched on your back like that you had the right to reach out your hands (it wasn’t far you could reach at best) and seize what you could get. Pinnie declared that she knew just the article Miss Muniment wanted, and that she would undertake to make a sweet thing of it; and Rosy went on to say that she must explain of what use such an article would be, but for this purpose there must be another guess. She would give it to Miss Pynsent and Hyacinth – as many times as they liked: What had she and Lady Aurora been talking about before they came in? She clasped her hands, and her eyes glittered with her eagerness, while she continued to turn them from Lady Aurora to the dressmaker. What would they imagine? What would they think natural, delightful, magnificent – if one could only end, at last, by making out the right place to put it? Hyacinth suggested, successively, a cage of Java sparrows, a music-box and a shower-bath – or perhaps even a full-length portrait of her ladyship; and Pinnie looked at him askance, in a frightened way, as if perchance he were joking too broadly. Rosy at last relieved their suspense and announced, “A sofa, just a sofa, now! What do you say to that? Do you suppose that’s an idea that could have come from any one but her ladyship? She must have all the credit of it; she came out with it in the course of conversation. I believe we were talking of the peculiar feeling that comes just under the shoulder-blades if one never has a change. She mentioned it as she might have mentioned a plaster, or another spoonful of that American stuff. We are thinking it over, and one of these days, if we give plenty of time to the question, we shall find the place, the very nicest and snuggest of all, and no other. I hope you see the connection with the pink dressing-gown,” she remarked to Pinnie, “and I hope you see the importance of the question, Shall anything go? I should like you to look round a bit, and tell me what you would answer if I were to say to you, Can anything go?”

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