The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

15

“I’m sure there’s nothing I should like to part with,” Pinnie returned; and while she surveyed the scene Lady Aurora, with delicacy, to lighten Amanda’s responsibility, got up and turned to the window, which was open to the summer-evening and admitted still the last rays of the long day. Hyacinth, after a moment, placed himself beside her, looking out with her at the dusky multitude of chimney-pots and the small black houses, roofed with grimy tiles. The thick, warm air of a London July floated beneath them, suffused with the everlasting uproar of the town, which appeared to have sunk into quietness but again became a mighty voice as soon as one listened for it; here and there, in poor windows, glimmered a turbid light, and high above, in a clearer, smokeless zone, a sky still fair and luminous, a faint silver star looked down. The sky was the same that, far away in the country, bent over golden fields and purple hills and gardens where nightingales sang; but from this point of view everything that covered the earth was ugly and sordid, and seemed to express, or to represent, the weariness of toil. In an instant, to Hyacinth’s surprise, Lady Aurora said to him, “You never came, after all, to get the books.”

“Those you kindly offered to lend me? I didn’t know it was an understanding.”

Lady Aurora gave an uneasy laugh. “I have picked them out; they are quite ready.”

“It’s very kind of you,” the young man rejoined. “I will come and get them some day, with pleasure.” He was not very sure that he would; but it was the least he could say.

“She’ll tell you where I live, you know,” Lady Aurora went on, with a movement of her head in the direction of the bed, as if she were too shy to mention it herself.

“Oh, I have no doubt she knows the way – she could tell me every street and every turn!” Hyacinth exclaimed.

“She has made me describe to her, very often, how I come and go. I think that few people know more about London than she. She never forgets anything.”

“She’s a wonderful little witch – she terrifies me!” said Hyacinth.

Lady Aurora turned her modest eyes upon him. “Oh, she’s so good, she’s so patient!”

“Yes, and so wise, and so self-possessed.”

“Oh, she’s immensely clever,” said her ladyship. “Which do you think the cleverest?”

“The cleverest?”

“I mean of the girl and her brother.”

“Oh, I think he, some day, will be prime minister of England.”

“Do you really? I’m so glad!” cried Lady Aurora, with a flush of colour in her face. “I’m so glad you think that will be possible. You know it ought to be, if things were right.”

Hyacinth had not professed this high faith for the purpose of playing upon her ladyship’s feelings, but when he perceived her eager responsiveness he felt almost as if he had been making sport of her. Still, he said no more than he believed when he remarked, in a moment, that he had the greatest expectations of Paul Muniment’s future: he was sure that the world would hear of him, that England would feel him, that the public, some day, would acclaim him. It was impossible to associate with him without feeling that he was very strong, that he must play an important part.

“Yes, people wouldn’t believe – they wouldn’t believe,” Lady Aurora murmured softly, appreciatively. She was evidently very much pleased with what Hyacinth was saying. It was moreover a pleasure to himself to place on record his opinion of his friend; it seemed to make that opinion more clear, to give it the force of an invocation, a prophecy. This was especially the case when he asked why on earth nature had endowed Paul Muniment with such extraordinary powers of mind, and powers of body too – because he was as strong as a horse – if it had not been intended that he should do something great for his fellow-men. Hyacinth confided to her ladyship that he thought the people in his own class generally very stupid – what he should call third-rate minds. He wished it were not so, for heaven knew that he felt kindly to them and only asked to cast his lot with theirs; but he was obliged to confess that centuries of poverty, of ill-paid toil, of bad, insufficient food and wretched homes, had not a favourable effect upon the higher faculties. All the more reason that when there was a splendid exception, like Paul Muniment, it should count for a tremendous force – it had so much to make up for, to act for. And then Hyacinth repeated that in his own low walk of life people had really not the faculty of thought; their minds had been simplified – reduced to two or three elements. He saw that this declaration made his interlocutress very uncomfortable; she turned and twisted herself, vaguely, as if she wished to protest, but she was far too considerate to interrupt him. He had no desire to distress her, but there were times in which it was impossible for him to withstand the perverse satisfaction he took in insisting on his lowliness of station, in turning the knife about in the wound inflicted by such explicit reference, and in letting it be seen that if his place in the world was immeasurably small he at least had no illusions about either himself or his fellows. Lady Aurora replied, as quickly as possible, that she knew a great deal about the poor – not the poor like Rose Muniment, but the terribly, hopelessly poor, with whom she was more familiar than Hyacinth would perhaps believe – and that she was often struck with their great talents, with their quick wit, with their conversation being really much more entertaining, to her at least, than what one usually heard in drawing-rooms. She often found them immensely clever.

Hyacinth smiled at her, and said, “Ah, when you get to the lowest depths of poverty, they may become very brilliant again. But I’m afraid I haven’t gone so far down. In spite of my opportunities, I don’t know many absolute paupers.”

“I know a great many.” Lady Aurora hesitated, as if she didn’t like to boast, and then she added, “I dare say I know more than any one.” There was something touching, beautiful, to Hyacinth, in this simple, diffident admission; it confirmed his impression that Lady Aurora was in some mysterious, incongruous, and even slightly ludicrous manner a heroine, a creature of a noble ideal. She perhaps guessed that he was indulging in reflections that might be favourable to her, for she said, precipitately, the next minute, as if there were nothing she dreaded so much as the danger of a compliment, “I think your aunt’s so very attractive – and I’m sure Rose Muniment thinks so.” No sooner had she spoken than she blushed again; it appeared to have occurred to her that he might suppose she wished to contradict him by presenting this case of his aunt as a proof that the baser sort, even in a prosaic upper layer, were not without redeeming points. There was no reason why she should not have had this intention; so without sparing her, Hyacinth replied –

“You mean that she’s an exception to what I was saying?”

Lady Aurora stammered a little; then, at last, as if, since he wouldn’t spare her, she wouldn’t spare him, either, “Yes, and you’re an exception, too; you’ll not make me believe you’re wanting in intelligence. The Muniments don’t think so,” she added.

“No more do I myself; but that doesn’t prove that exceptions are not frequent. I have blood in my veins that is not the blood of the people.”

“Oh, I see,” said Lady Aurora, sympathetically. And with a smile she went on: “Then you’re all the more of an exception – in the upper class!”

Her smile was the kindest in the world, but it did not blind Hyacinth to the fact that from his own point of view he had been extraordinarily indiscreet. He believed a moment before that he would have been proof against the strongest temptation to refer to the mysteries of his lineage, inasmuch as, if made in a boastful spirit (and he had no desire as yet to make it an exercise in humility), any such reference would inevitably contain an element of the grotesque. He had never opened his lips to any one about his birth (since the dreadful days when the question was discussed, with Mr Vetch’s assistance, in Lomax Place); never even to Paul Muniment, never to Millicent Henning nor to Eustache Poupin. He had an impression that people had ideas about him, and with some of Miss Henning’s he had been made acquainted: they were of such a nature that he sometimes wondered whether the tie which united him to her were not, on her own side, a secret determination to satisfy her utmost curiosity before she had done with him. But he flattered himself that he was impenetrable, and none the less he had begun to swagger, idiotically, the first time a temptation (to call a temptation) presented itself. He turned crimson as soon as he had spoken, partly at the sudden image of what he had to swagger about, and partly at the absurdity of a challenge having appeared to proceed from the bashful gentlewoman before him. He hoped she didn’t particularly regard what he had said (and indeed she gave no sign whatever of being startled by his claim to a pedigree – she had too much quick delicacy for that; she appeared to notice only the symptoms of confusion that followed it), but as soon as possible he gave himself a lesson in humility by remarking, “I gather that you spend most of your time among the poor, and I am sure you carry blessings with you. But I frankly confess that I don’t understand a lady giving herself up to people like us when there is no obligation. Wretched company we must be, when there is so much better to be had.”

“I like it very much – you don’t understand.”

“Precisely – that is what I say. Our little friend on the bed is perpetually talking about your house, your family, your splendours, your gardens and green-houses; they must be magnificent, of course —”

“Oh, I wish she wouldn’t; really, I wish she wouldn’t. It makes one feel dreadfully!” Lady Aurora interposed, with vehemence.

“Ah, you had better give her her way; it’s such a pleasure to her.”

“Yes, more than to any of us!” sighed her ladyship, helplessly.

“Well, how can you leave all those beautiful things, to come and breathe this beastly air, surround yourself with hideous images, and associate with people whose smallest fault is that they are ignorant, brutal and dirty? I don’t speak of the ladies here present,” Hyacinth added, with the manner which most made Millicent Henning (who at once admired and hated it) wonder where on earth he had got it.

“Oh, I wish I could make you understand!” cried Lady Aurora, looking at him with troubled, appealing eyes, as if he were unexpectedly discouraging.

“After all, I do understand! Charity exists in your nature as a kind of passion.”

“Yes, yes, it’s a kind of passion!” her ladyship repeated, eagerly, very thankful for the word. “I don’t know whether it’s charity – I don’t mean that. But whatever it is, it’s a passion – it’s my life – it’s all I care for.” She hesitated a moment, as if there might be something indecent in the confession, or dangerous in the recipient; and then, evidently, she was mastered by the comfort of being able to justify herself for an eccentricity that had excited notice, as well as by the luxury of discharging her soul of a long accumulation of timid, sacred sentiment. “Already, when I was fifteen years old, I wanted to sell all I had and give to the poor. And ever since, I have wanted to do something; it has seemed as if my heart would break if I shouldn’t be able!”

Hyacinth was struck with a great respect, which, however, did not prevent him (the words sounded patronising, even to himself) from saying in a moment, “I suppose you are very religious.”

Lady Aurora looked away, into the thickening dusk, at the smutty housetops, the blurred emanation, above the streets, of lamp-light. “I don’t know – one has one’s ideas – some of them may be strange. I think a great many clergymen do good, but there are others I don’t like at all. I dare say we had too many, always, at home; my father likes them so much. I think I have known too many bishops; I have had the church too much on my back. I dare say they wouldn’t think at home, you know, that one was quite what one ought to be; but of course they consider me very odd, in every way, as there’s no doubt I am. I should tell you that I don’t tell them everything; for what’s the use, when people don’t understand? We are twelve at home, and eight of us are girls; and if you think it’s so very splendid, and she thinks so, I should like you both to try it for a little! My father isn’t rich, and there is only one of us married, and we are not at all handsome, and – oh, there are all kinds of things,” the young woman went on, looking round at him an instant, shyly but excitedly. “I don’t like society; and neither would you if you were to see the kind there is in London – at least in some parts,” Lady Aurora added, considerately. “I dare say you wouldn’t believe all the humbuggery and the tiresomeness that one has to go through. But I’ve got out of it; I do as I like, though it has been rather a struggle. I have my liberty, and that is the greatest blessing in life, except the reputation of being queer, and even a little mad, which is a greater advantage still. I’m a little mad, you know; you needn’t be surprised if you hear it. That’s because I stop in town when they go into the country; all the autumn, all the winter, when there’s no one here (except three or four millions), and the rain drips, drips, drips, from the trees in the big, dull park, where my people live. I dare say I oughtn’t to say such things to you, but, as I tell you, I’m a little mad, and I might as well keep up my character. When one is one of eight daughters, and there’s very little money (for any of us, at least), and there’s nothing to do but to go out with three or four others in a mackintosh, one can easily go off one’s head. Of course there’s the village, and it’s not at all a nice one, and there are the people to look after, and heaven knows they’re in want of it; but one must work with the vicarage, and at the vicarage there are four more daughters, all old maids, and it’s dreary, and it’s dreadful, and one has too much of it, and they don’t understand what one thinks or feels, or a single word one says to them! Besides they are stupid, I admit – the country poor; they are very, very dense. I like Camberwell better,” said Lady Aurora, smiling and taking breath, at the end of her nervous, hurried, almost incoherent speech, of which she had delivered herself pantingly, with strange intonations and grotesque movements of her neck, as if she were afraid from one moment to the other that she would repent, not of her confidence, but of her egotism.

It placed her, for Hyacinth, in an unexpected light, and made him feel that her awkward, aristocratic spinsterhood was the cover of tumultuous passions. No one could have less the appearance of being animated by a vengeful irony; but he saw that this delicate, shy, generous, and evidently most tender creature was not a person to spare, wherever she could prick them, the institutions among which she had been brought up and against which she had violently reacted. Hyacinth had always supposed that a reactionary meant a backslider from the liberal faith, but Rosy’s devotee gave a new value to the term; she appeared to have been driven to her present excesses by the squire and the parson and the conservative influences of that upper-class British home which our young man had always supposed to be the highest fruit of civilisation. It was clear that her ladyship was an original, and an original with force; but it gave Hyacinth a real pang to hear her make light of Inglefield (especially the park), and of the opportunities that must have abounded in Belgrave Square. It had been his belief that in a world of suffering and injustice these things were, if not the most righteous, at least the most fascinating. If they didn’t give one the finest sensations, where were such sensations to be had? He looked at Lady Aurora with a face which was a tribute to her sudden vividness, and said, “I can easily understand your wanting to do some good in the world, because you’re a kind of saint.”

“A very curious kind!” laughed her ladyship.

“But I don’t understand your not liking what your position gives you.”

“I don’t know anything about my position. I want to live!”

“And do you call this life?”

“I’ll tell you what my position is, if you want to know: it’s the deadness of the grave!”

Hyacinth was startled by her tone, but he nevertheless laughed back at her, “Ah, as I say, you’re a kind of saint!” She made no reply, for at that moment the door opened, and Paul Muniment’s tall figure emerged from the blackness of the staircase into the twilight, now very faint, of the room. Lady Aurora’s eyes, as they rested upon him, seemed to declare that such a vision as that, at least, was life. Another person, as tall as himself, appeared behind him, and Hyacinth recognised with astonishment their insinuating friend Captain Sholto. Muniment had brought him up for Rosy’s entertainment, being ready, and more than ready, always, to usher in any one in the world, from the prime minister to the common hangman, who might give that young lady a sensation. They must have met at the ‘Sun and Moon’, and if the Captain, some accident smoothing the way, had made him half as many advances as he had made some other people Hyacinth could see that it wouldn’t take long for Paul to lay him under contribution. But what the mischief was the Captain up to? It cannot be said that our young man arrived, this evening, at an answer to that question. The occasion proved highly festal, and the hostess rose to it without lifting her head from the pillow. Her brother introduced Captain Sholto as a gentleman who had a great desire to know extraordinary people, and she made him take possession of the chair at her bedside, out of which Miss Pynsent quickly edged herself, and asked him who he was, and where he came from, and how Paul had made his acquaintance, and whether he had many friends in Camberwell. Sholto had not the same grand air that hovered about him at the theatre; he was shabbily dressed, very much like Hyacinth himself; but his appearance gave our young man an opportunity to wonder what made him so unmistakably a gentleman in spite of his seedy coat and trousers – in spite too, of his rather overdoing the manner of being appreciative even to rapture and thinking everything and every one most charming and curious. He stood out, in poor Rosy’s tawdry little room, among her hideous attempts at decoration, and looked to Hyacinth a being from another sphere, playing over the place and company a smile (one couldn’t call it false or unpleasant, yet it was distinctly not natural), of which he had got the habit in camps and courts. It became brilliant when it rested on Hyacinth, and the Captain greeted him as he might have done a dear young friend from whom he had been long and painfully separated. He was easy, he was familiar, he was exquisitely benevolent and bland, and altogether incomprehensible.

Rosy was a match for him, however. He evidently didn’t puzzle her in the least; she thought his visit the most natural thing in the world. She expressed all the gratitude that decency required, but appeared to assume that people who climbed her stairs would always find themselves repaid. She remarked that her brother must have met him for the first time that day, for the way that he sealed a new acquaintance was usually by bringing the person immediately to call upon her. And when the Captain said that if she didn’t like them he supposed the poor wretches were dropped on the spot, she admitted that this would be true if it ever happened that she disapproved; as yet, however, she had not been obliged to draw the line. This was perhaps partly because he had not brought up any of his political friends – people that he knew only for political reasons. Of these people, in general, she had a very small opinion, and she would not conceal from Captain Sholto that she hoped he was not one of them. Rosy spoke as if her brother represented the Camberwell district in the House of Commons and she had discovered that a parliamentary career lowered the moral tone. The Captain, however, entered quite into her views, and told her that it was as common friends of Mr Hyacinth Robinson that Mr Muniment and he had come together; they were both so fond of him that this had immediately constituted a kind of tie. On hearing himself commemorated in such a brilliant way Mr Hyacinth Robinson averted himself; he saw that Captain Sholto might be trusted to make as great an effort for Rosy’s entertainment as he gathered that he had made for that of Millicent Henning, that evening at the theatre. There were not chairs enough to go round, and Paul fetched a three-legged stool from his own apartment, after which he undertook to make tea for the company, with the aid of a tin kettle and a spirit-lamp; these implements having been set out, flanked by half a dozen cups, in honour, presumably, of the little dressmaker, who was to come such a distance. The little dressmaker, Hyacinth observed with pleasure, fell into earnest conversation with Lady Aurora, who bent over her, flushed, smiling, stammering, and apparently so nervous that Pinnie, in comparison, was majestic and serene. They communicated presently to Hyacinth a plan they had unanimously evolved, to the effect that Miss Pynsent should go home to Belgrave Square with her ladyship, to settle certain preliminaries in regard to the pink dressing-gown, toward which, if Miss Pynsent assented, her ladyship hoped to be able to contribute sundry morsels of stuff which had proved their quality in honourable service and might be dyed to the proper tint. Pinnie, Hyacinth could see, was in a state of religious exaltation; the visit to Belgrave Square and the idea of co-operating in such a manner with the nobility were privileges she could not take solemnly enough. The latter luxury, indeed, she began to enjoy without delay; Lady Aurora suggesting that Mr Muniment might be rather awkward about making tea, and that they should take the business off his hands. Paul gave it up to them, with a pretence of compassion for their conceit, remarking that at any rate it took two women to supplant one man; and Hyacinth drew him to the window, to ask where he had encountered Sholto and how he liked him.

They had met in Bloomsbury, as Hyacinth supposed, and Sholto had made up to him very much as a country curate might make up to an archbishop. He wanted to know what he thought of this and that: of the state of the labour market at the East End, of the terrible case of the old woman who had starved to death at Walham Green, of the practicability of more systematic out-of-door agitation, and the prospects of their getting one of their own men – one of the Bloomsbury lot – into Parliament. “He was mighty civil,” Muniment said, “and I don’t find that he has picked my pocket. He looked as if he would like me to suggest that he should stand as one of our own men, one of the Bloomsbury lot. He asks too many questions, but he makes up for it by not paying any attention to the answers. He told me he would give the world to see a working-man’s ‘interior’. I didn’t know what he meant at first: he wanted a favourable specimen, one of the best; he had seen one or two that he didn’t believe to be up to the average. I suppose he meant Schinkel, the cabinet-maker, and he wanted to compare. I told him I didn’t know what sort of a specimen my place would be, but that he was welcome to look round, and that it contained at any rate one or two original features. I expect he has found that’s the case – with Rosy and the noble lady. I wanted to show him off to Rosy; he’s good for that, if he isn’t good for anything else. I told him we expected a little company this evening, so it might be a good time; and he assured me that to mingle in such an occasion as that was the dream of his existence. He seemed in a rare hurry, as if I were going to show him a hidden treasure, and insisted on driving me over in a hansom. Perhaps his idea is to introduce the use of cabs among the working-classes; certainly, I’ll vote for him for Parliament, if that’s his line. On our way over he talked to me about you; told me you were an intimate friend of his.”

“What did he say about me?” Hyacinth inquired, with promptness.

“Vain little beggar!”

“Did he call me that?” said Hyacinth, ingenuously.

“He said you were simply astonishing.”

“Simply astonishing?” Hyacinth repeated.

“For a person of your low extraction.”

“Well, I may be queer, but he is certainly queerer. Don’t you think so, now you know him?”

Paul Muniment looked at his young friend a moment. “Do you want to know what he is? He’s a tout.”

“A tout? What do you mean?”

“Well, a cat’s-paw, if you like better.”

Hyacinth stared. “For whom, pray?”

“Or a fisherman, if you like better still. I give you your choice of comparisons. I made them up as we came along in the hansom. He throws his nets and hauls in the little fishes – the pretty little shining, wriggling fishes. They are all for her; she swallows ’em down.”

“For her? Do you mean the Princess?”

“Who else should I mean? Take care, my tadpole!”

“Why should I take care? The other day you told me not to.”

“Yes, I remember. But now I see more.”

“Did he speak of her? What did he say?” asked Hyacinth, eagerly.

“I can’t tell you now what he said, but I’ll tell you what I guessed.”

“And what’s that?”

They had been talking, of course, in a very low tone, and their voices were covered by Rosy’s chatter in the corner, by the liberal laughter with which Captain Sholto accompanied it, and by the much more discreet, though earnest, intermingled accents of Lady Aurora and Miss Pynsent. But Paul Muniment spoke more softly still – Hyacinth felt a kind of suspense – as he replied in a moment, “Why, she’s a monster!”

“A monster?” repeated our young man, from whom, this evening, Paul Muniment seemed destined to elicit ejaculations and echoes.

Muniment glanced toward the Captain, who was apparently more and more fascinated by Rosy. “In him I think there’s no great harm. He’s only a conscientious fisherman!”

It must be admitted that Captain Sholto justified to a certain extent this definition by the manner in which he baited his hook for such little facts as might help him to a more intimate knowledge of his host and hostess. When the tea was made, Rose Muniment asked Miss Pynsent to be so good as to hand it about. They must let her poor ladyship rest a little, must they not? – and Hyacinth could see that in her innocent but inveterate self-complacency she wished to reward and encourage the dressmaker, draw her out and present her still more, by offering her this graceful exercise. Sholto sprang up at this, and begged Pinnie to let him relieve her, taking a cup from her hand; and poor Pinnie, who perceived in a moment that he was some kind of masquerading gentleman, who was bewildered by the strange mixture of elements that surrounded her and unused to being treated like a duchess (for the Captain’s manner was a triumph of respectful gallantry), collapsed, on the instant, into a chair, appealing to Lady Aurora with a frightened smile and conscious that, deeply versed as she might be in the theory of decorum, she had no precedent that could meet such an occasion. “Now, how many families would there be in such a house as this, and what should you say about the sanitary arrangements? Would there be others on this floor – what is it, the third, the fourth? – beside yourselves, you know, and should you call it a fair specimen of a tenement of its class?” It was with such inquiries as this that Captain Sholto beguiled their tea-drinking, while Hyacinth made the reflection that, though he evidently meant them very well, they were characterised by a want of fine tact, by too patronising a curiosity. The Captain requested information as to the position in life, the avocations and habits, of the other lodgers, the rent they paid, their relations with each other, both in and out of the family. “Now, would there be a good deal of close packing, do you suppose, and any perceptible want of – a – sobriety?”

Paul Muniment, who had swallowed his cup of tea at a single gulp – there was no offer of a second – gazed out of the window into the dark, which had now come on, with his hands in his pockets, whistling, impolitely, no doubt, but with brilliant animation. He had the manner of having made over their visitor altogether to Rosy and of thinking that whatever he said or did it was all so much grist to her indefatigable little mill. Lady Aurora looked distressed and embarrassed, and it is a proof of the degree to which our little hero had the instincts of a man of the world that he guessed exactly how vulgar she thought this new acquaintance. She was doubtless rather vexed, also – Hyacinth had learned this evening that Lady Aurora could be vexed – at the alacrity of Rosy’s responses; the little person in the bed gave the Captain every satisfaction, considered his questions as a proper tribute to humble respectability, and supplied him, as regards the population of Audley Court, with statistics and anecdotes which she had picked up by mysterious processes of her own. At last Lady Aurora, upon whom Paul Muniment had not been at pains to bestow much conversation, took leave of her, and signified to Hyacinth that for the rest of the evening she would assume the care of Miss Pynsent. Pinnie looked very tense and solemn, now that she was really about to be transported to Belgrave Square, but Hyacinth was sure she would acquit herself only the more honourably; and when he offered to call for her there, later, she reminded him, under her breath, with a little sad smile, of the many years during which, after nightfall, she had carried her work, pinned up in a cloth, about London.

Paul Muniment, according to his habit, lighted Lady Aurora downstairs, and Captain Sholto and Hyacinth were alone for some minutes with Rosy; which gave the former, taking up his hat and stick, an opportunity to say to his young friend, “Which way are you going? Not my way, by chance?” Hyacinth saw that he hoped for his company, and he became conscious that, strangely as Muniment had indulged him and too promiscuously investigating as he had just shown himself, this ingratiating personage was not more easy to resist than he had been the other night at the theatre. The Captain bent over Rosy’s bed as if she had been a fine lady on a satin sofa, promising to come back very soon and very often, and the two men went downstairs. On their way they met Paul Muniment coming up, and Hyacinth felt rather ashamed, he could scarcely tell why, that his friend should see him marching off with the ‘tout’. After all, if Muniment had brought him to see his sister, might not he at least walk with him? “I’m coming again, you know, very often. I dare say you’ll find me a great bore!” the Captain announced, as he bade good-night to his host. “Your sister is a most interesting creature, one of the most interesting creatures I have ever seen, and the whole thing, you know, exactly the sort of thing I wanted to get at, only much more – really, much more – original and curious. It has been a great success, a grand success!”

And the Captain felt his way down the dusky shaft, while Paul Muniment, above, gave him the benefit of rather a wavering candlestick, and answered his civil speech with an “Oh, well, you take us as you find us, you know!” and an outburst of frank but not unfriendly laughter.

Half an hour later Hyacinth found himself in Captain Sholto’s chambers, seated on a big divan covered with Persian rugs and cushions and smoking the most delectable cigar that had ever touched his lips. As they left Audley Court the Captain had taken his arm, and they had walked along together in a desultory, colloquial manner, till on Westminster Bridge (they had followed the embankment, beneath St Thomas’s Hospital) Sholto said, “By the way, why shouldn’t you come home with me and see my little place? I’ve got a few things that might amuse you – some pictures, some odds and ends I’ve picked up, and a few bindings; you might tell me what you think of them.” Hyacinth assented, without hesitation; he had still in his ear the reverberation of the Captain’s inquiries in Rose Muniment’s room, and he saw no reason why he, on his side, should not embrace an occasion of ascertaining how, as his companion would have said, a man of fashion would live now.

This particular specimen lived in a large, old-fashioned house in Queen Anne Street, of which he occupied the upper floors, and whose high, wainscoted rooms he had filled with the spoils of travel and the ingenuities of modern taste. There was not a country in the world he did not appear to have ransacked, and to Hyacinth his trophies represented a wonderfully long purse. The whole establishment, from the low-voiced, inexpressive valet who, after he had poured brandy into tall tumblers, gave dignity to the popping of soda-water corks, to the quaint little silver receptacle in which he was invited to deposit the ashes of his cigar, was such a revelation for our appreciative hero that he felt himself hushed and made sad, so poignant was the thought that it took thousands of things which he, then, should never possess nor know to make an accomplished man. He had often, in evening-walks, wondered what was behind the walls of certain spacious, bright-windowed houses in the West End, and now he got an idea. The first effect of the idea was to overwhelm him.

“Well, now, tell me what you thought of our friend the Princess,” the Captain said, thrusting out the loose yellow slippers which his servant had helped to exchange for his shoes. He spoke as if he had been waiting impatiently for the proper moment to ask that question, so much might depend on the answer.

“She’s beautiful – beautiful,” Hyacinth answered, almost dreamily, with his eyes wandering all over the room.

“She was so interested in all you said to her; she would like so much to see you again. She means to write to you – I suppose she can address to the ‘Sun and Moon’? – and I hope you’ll go to her house, if she proposes a day.”

“I don’t know – I don’t know. It seems so strange.”

“What seems strange, my dear fellow?”

“Everything! My sitting here with you; my introduction to that lady; the idea of her wanting, as you say, to see me again, and of her writing to me; and this whole place of yours, with all these dim, rich curiosities hanging on the walls and glinting in the light of that rose-coloured lamp. You yourself, too – you are strangest of all.”

The Captain looked at him, in silence, so fixedly for a while, through the fumes of their tobacco, after he had made this last charge, that Hyacinth thought he was perhaps offended; but this impression was presently dissipated by further manifestations of sociability and hospitality, and Sholto took occasion, later, to let him know how important it was, in the days they were living in, not to have too small a measure of the usual, destined as they certainly were – “in the whole matter of the relations of class with class, and all that sort of thing, you know” – to witness some very startling developments. The Captain spoke as if, for his part, he were a child of his age (so that he only wanted to see all it could show him), down to the point of his yellow slippers. Hyacinth felt that he himself had not been very satisfactory about the Princess; but as his nerves began to tremble a little more into tune with the situation he repeated to his host what Millicent Henning had said about her at the theatre – asked if this young lady had correctly understood him in believing that she had been turned out of the house by her husband.

“Yes, he literally pushed her into the street – or into the garden; I believe the scene took place in the country. But perhaps Miss Henning didn’t mention, or perhaps I didn’t mention, that the Prince would at the present hour give everything he owns in the world to get her back. Fancy such a scene!” said the Captain, laughing in a manner that struck Hyacinth as rather profane.

He stared, with dilated eyes, at this picture, which seemed to evoke a comparison with the only incident of the sort that had come within his experience – the forcible ejection of intoxicated females from public houses. “That magnificent being – what had she done?”

“Oh, she had made him feel he was an ass!” the Captain answered, promptly. He turned the conversation to Miss Henning; said he was so glad Hyacinth gave him an opportunity to speak of her. He got on with her famously; perhaps she had told him. They became immense friends – en tout bien tout honneur, s’entend. Now, there was another London type, plebeian but brilliant; and how little justice one usually did it, how magnificent it was! But she, of course, was a wonderful specimen. “My dear fellow, I have seen many women, and the women of many countries,” the Captain went on, “and I have seen them intimately, and I know what I am talking about; and when I tell you that that one – that one —” Then he suddenly paused, laughing in his democratic way. “But perhaps I am going too far: you must always pull me up, you know, when I do. At any rate, I congratulate you; I do, heartily. Have another cigar. Now what sort of – a – salary would she receive at her big shop, you know? I know where it is; I mean to there and buy some pocket-handkerchiefs.”

Hyacinth knew neither how far Captain Sholto had been going, nor exactly on what he congratulated him; and he pretended, at least, an equal ignorance on the subject of Millicent’s salary. He didn’t want to talk about her, moreover, nor about his own life; he wanted to talk about the Captain’s, and to elicit information that would be in harmony with his romantic chambers, which reminded our hero somehow of Bulwer’s novels. His host gratified this desire most liberally, and told him twenty stories of things that had happened to him in Albania, in Madagascar, and even in Paris. Hyacinth induced him easily to talk about Paris (from a different point of view from M. Poupin’s), and sat there drinking in enchantments. The only thing that fell below the high level of his entertainment was the bindings of the Captain’s books, which he told him frankly, with the conscience of an artist, were not very good. After he left Queen Anne Street he was quite too excited to go straight home; he walked about with his mind full of images and strange speculations, till the gray London streets began to grow clear with the summer dawn.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2pr/chapter15.html

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