The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Hyacinth had been warned by Mr Vetch as to what brilliant women might do with him (it was only a word on the old fiddler’s lips, but the word had had a point), he had been warned by Paul Muniment, and now he was admonished by a person supremely well placed for knowing – a fact that could not fail to deepen the emotion which, any time these three days, had made him draw his breath more quickly. That emotion, however, was now not of a kind to make him fear remote consequences; as he looked over the Princess Casamassima’s drawing-room and inhaled an air that seemed to him inexpressibly delicate and sweet, he hoped that his adventure would throw him upon his mettle only half as much as the old lady had wished to intimate. He considered, one after the other, the different chairs, couches and ottomans the room contained – he wished to treat himself to the most sumptuous – and then, for reasons he knew best, sank into a seat covered with rose-coloured brocade, of which the legs and frame appeared to be of pure gold. Here he sat perfectly still, with only his heart beating very sensibly and his eyes coursing again and again from one object to another. The splendours and suggestions of Captain Sholto’s apartment were thrown completely into the shade by the scene before him, and as the Princess did not scruple to keep him waiting for twenty minutes (during which the butler came in and set out, on a small table, a glittering tea-service), Hyacinth had time to count over the innumerable bibelots (most of which he had never dreamed of) involved in the personality of a woman of high fashion, and to feel that their beauty and oddity revealed not only whole provinces of art, but refinements of choice, on the part of their owner, complications of mind, and – almost – terrible depths of character.

When at last the door opened and the servant, reappearing, threw it far back, as if to make a wide passage for a person of the importance of his mistress, Hyacinth’s suspense became very acute; it was much the same feeling with which, at the theatre, he had sometimes awaited the entrance of a celebrated actress. In this case the actress was to perform for him alone. There was still a moment before she came on, and when she did so she was so simply dressed – besides his seeing her now on her feet – that she looked like a different person. She approached him rapidly, and a little stiffly and shyly, but in the manner in which she shook hands with him there was an evident desire to be frank, and even fraternal. She looked like a different person, but that person had a beauty even more radiant; the fairness of her face shone forth at our young man as if to dissipate any doubts that might have crept over him as to the reality of the vision bequeathed to him by his former interview. And in this brightness and richness of her presence he could not have told you whether she struck him as more proud or more kind.

“I have kept you a long time, but it’s supposed not, usually, to be a bad place, my salon; there are various things to look at, and perhaps you have noticed them. Over on that side, for instance, there is rather a curious collection of miniatures.” She spoke abruptly, quickly, as if she were conscious that their communion might be awkward and she were trying to strike, instantly (to conjure that element away), the sort of note that would make them both most comfortable. Quickly, too, she sat down before her tea-tray and poured him out a cup, which she handed him without asking whether he would have it. He accepted it with a trembling hand, though he had no desire for it; he was too nervous to swallow the tea, but it would not have occurred to him that it was possible to decline. When he had murmured that he had indeed looked at all her things but that it would take hours to do justice to such treasures, she asked if he were fond of works of art; adding, however, immediately, that she was afraid he had not many opportunities of seeing them, though of course there were the public collections, open to all. Hyacinth said, with perfect veracity, that some of the happiest moments of his life had been spent at the British Museum and the National Gallery, and this reply appeared to interest her greatly, so that she immediately begged him to tell her what he thought of certain pictures and antiques. In this way it was that in an incredibly short space of time, as it appeared to him, he found himself discussing the Bacchus and Ariadne and the Elgin marbles with one of the most remarkable woman in Europe. It is true that she herself talked most, passing precipitately from one point to another, asking him questions and not waiting for answers; describing and qualifying things, expressing feelings, by the aid of phrases that he had never heard before but which seemed to him illuminating and happy – as when, for instance, she asked what art was, after all, but a synthesis made in the interest of pleasure, or said that she didn’t like England at all, but loved it. It did not occur to him to think these discriminations pedantic. Suddenly she remarked, “Madame Grandoni told me you saw my husband.”

“Ah, was the gentleman your husband?”

“Unfortunately! What do you think of him?”

“Oh, I can’t think —” Hyacinth murmured.

“I wish I couldn’t, either! I haven’t seen him for nearly three years. He wanted to see me to-day, but I refused.”

“Ah!” said Hyacinth, staring and not knowing how he ought to receive so unexpected a confidence. Then, as the suggestions of inexperience are sometimes the happiest of all, he spoke simply what was in his mind and said, gently, “It has made you very nervous.” Afterwards, when he had left the house, he wondered how, at that stage, he could have ventured on such a familiar remark.

The Princess took it with a quick, surprised laugh. “How do you know that?” But before he had time to tell how, she added, “Your saying that – that way – shows me how right I was to ask you to come to see me. You know, I hesitated. It shows me you have perceptions; I guessed as much the other night at the theatre. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have asked you. I may be wrong, but I like people who understand what one says to them, and also what one doesn’t say.”

“Don’t think I understand too much. You might easily exaggerate that,” Hyacinth declared, conscientiously.

“You confirm, completely, my first impression,” the Princess returned, smiling in a way that showed him he really amused her. “We shall discover the limits of your comprehension! I am atrociously nervous. But it will pass. How is your friend the dressmaker?” she inquired, abruptly. And when Hyacinth had briefly given some account of poor Pinnie – told her that she was tolerably well for her, but old and tired and sad, and not very successful – she exclaimed, impatiently, “Ah, well, she’s not the only one!” and came back, with irrelevance, to the former question. “It’s not only my husband’s visit – absolutely unexpected! – that has made me fidgety, but the idea that now you have been so kind as to come here you may wonder why, after all, I made such a point of it, and even think any explanation I might be able to give you entirely insufficient.”

“I don’t want any explanation,” said Hyacinth.

“It’s very nice of you to say that, and I shall take you at your word. Explanations usually make things worse. All the same, I don’t want you to think (as you might have done so easily the other evening) that I wish only to treat you as a curious animal.”

“I don’t care how you treat me!” said Hyacinth, smiling.

There was a considerable silence, after which the Princess remarked, “All I ask of my husband is to let me alone. But he won’t. He won’t reciprocate my indifference.”

Hyacinth asked himself what reply he ought to make to such an announcement as that, and it seemed to him that the least civility demanded was that he should say – as he could with such conviction – “It can’t be easy to be indifferent to you.”

“Why not, if I am odious? I can be – oh, there is no doubt of that! However, I can honestly say that with the Prince I have been exceedingly reasonable, and that most of the wrongs – the big ones, those that settled the question – have been on his side. You may tell me of course that that’s the pretension of every woman who has made a mess of her marriage. But ask Madame Grandoni.”

“She will tell me it’s none of my business.”

“Very true – she might!” the Princess admitted, laughing. “And I don’t know, either, why I should talk to you about my domestic affairs; except that I have been wondering what I could do to show confidence in you, in return for your showing so much in me. As this matter of my separation from my husband happens to have been turned uppermost by his sudden descent upon me, I just mention it, though the subject is tiresome enough. Moreover I ought to let you know that I have very little respect for distinctions of class – the sort of thing they make so much of in this country. They are doubtless convenient in some ways, but when one has a reason – a reason of feeling – for overstepping them, and one allows one’s self to be deterred by some dreary superstition about one’s place, or some one else’s place, then I think it’s ignoble. It always belongs to one’s place not to be a poor creature. I take it that if you are a socialist you think about this as I do; but lest, by chance, as the sense of those differences is the English religion, it may have rubbed off even on you, though I am more and more impressed with the fact that you are scarcely more British than I am; lest you should, in spite of your theoretic democracy, be shocked at some of the applications that I, who cherish the creed, am capable of making of it, let me assure you without delay that in that case we shouldn’t get on together at all, and had better part company before we go further.” She paused, long enough for Hyacinth to declare, with a great deal of emphasis, that he was not easily shocked; and then, restlessly, eagerly, as if it relieved her to talk, and made their queer interview less abnormal that she should talk most, she arrived at the point that she wanted to know the people, and know them intimately – the toilers and strugglers and sufferers – because she was convinced they were the most interesting portion of society, and at the inquiry, “What could possibly be in worse taste than for me to carry into such an undertaking a pretension of greater delicacy and finer manners? If I must do that,” she continued, “it’s simpler to leave them alone. But I can’t leave them alone; they press upon me, they haunt me, they fascinate me. There it is (after all, it’s very simple): I want to know them, and I want you to help me!”

“I will help you with pleasure, to the best of my humble ability. But you will be awfully disappointed,” Hyacinth said. Very strange it seemed to him that within so few days two ladies of rank should have found occasion to express to him the same mysterious longing. A breeze from a thoroughly unexpected quarter was indeed blowing over the aristocracy. Nevertheless, though there was much of the accent of passion in the Princess Casamassima’s communication that there had been in Lady Aurora’s, and though he felt bound to discourage his present interlocutress as he had done the other, the force that pushed her struck him as a very different mixture from the shy, conscientious, anxious heresies of Rose Muniment’s friend. The temper varied in the two women as much as the face and the manner, and that perhaps made their curiosity the more significant.

“I haven’t the least doubt of it: there is nothing in life in which I have not been awfully disappointed. But disappointment for disappointment I shall like it better than some others. You’ll not persuade me, either, that among the people I speak of, characters and passions and motives are not more natural, more complete, more naïf. The upper classes are so insipid! My husband traces his descent from the fifth century, and he’s the greatest bore on earth. That is the kind of people I was condemned to live with after my marriage. Oh, if you knew what I have been through, you would allow that intelligent mechanics (of course I don’t want to know idiots) would be a pleasant change. I must begin with some one – mustn’t I? – so I began, the other night, with you!” As soon as she had uttered these words the Princess added a correction, with the consciousness of her mistake in her face. It made that face, to Hyacinth, more nobly, tenderly pure. “The only objection to you, individually, is that you have nothing of the people about you – to-day not even the dress.” Her eyes wandered over him from head to foot, and their friendly beauty made him ashamed. “I wish you had come in the clothes you wear at your work!”

“You see you do regard me as a curious animal,” he answered.

It was perhaps to contradict this that, after a moment, she began to tell him more about her domestic affairs. He ought to know who she was, unless Captain Sholto had told him; and she related her parentage – American on the mother’s side, Italian on the father’s – and how she had led, in her younger years, a wandering, Bohemian life, in a thousand different places (always in Europe; she had never been in America and knew very little about it, though she wanted greatly to cross the Atlantic), and largely, at one period, in Rome. She had been married by her people, in a mercenary way, for the sake of a fortune and a title, and it had turned out as badly as her worst enemy could wish. Her parents were dead, luckily for them, and she had no one near her of her own except Madame Grandoni, who belonged to her only in the sense that she had known her as a girl; was an association of her – what should she call them? – her innocent years. Not that she had ever been very innocent; she had had a horrible education. However, she had known a few good people – people she respected, then; but Madame Grandoni was the only one who had stuck to her. She, too, was liable to leave her any day; the Princess appeared to intimate that her destiny might require her to take some step which would test severely the old lady’s adhesive property. It would detain her too long to make him understand the stages by which she had arrived at her present state of mind: her disgust with a thousand social arrangements, her rebellion against the selfishness, the corruption, the iniquity, the cruelty, the imbecility, of the people who, all over Europe, had the upper hand. If he could have seen her life, the milieu in which, for several years, she had been condemned to move, the evolution of her opinions (Hyacinth was delighted to hear her use that term) would strike him as perfectly logical. She had been humiliated, outraged, tortured; she considered that she too was one of the numerous class who could be put on a tolerable footing only by a revolution. At any rate, she had some self-respect left, and there was still more that she wanted to recover; the only way to arrive at that was to throw herself into some effort which would make her forget her own affairs and comprehend the troubles and efforts of others. Hyacinth listened to her with a wonderment which, as she went on, was transformed into fascinated submission; she seemed so natural, so vivid, so exquisitely generous and sincere. By the time he had been with her for half an hour she had made the situation itself appear natural and usual, and a third person who should have joined them at this moment would have observed nothing to make him suppose that friendly social intercourse between little bookbinders and Neapolitan princesses was not, in London, a matter of daily occurrence.

Hyacinth had seen plenty of women who chattered about themselves and their affairs – a vulgar garrulity of confidence was indeed a leading characteristic of the sex as he had hitherto learned to know it – but he was quick to perceive that the great lady who now took the trouble to open herself to him was not of a gossiping habit; that she must be, on the contrary, as a general thing, proudly, ironically, reserved, even to the point of passing, with many people, for a model of the unsatisfactory. It was very possible she was capricious; yet the fact that her present sympathies and curiosities might be a caprice wore, in Hyacinth’s eyes, no sinister aspect. Why was it not a noble and interesting whim, and why might he not stand, for the hour at any rate, in the silvery moonshine it threw upon his path? It must be added that he was far from understanding everything she said, and some of her allusions and implications were so difficult to seize that they mainly served to reveal to him the limits of his own acquaintance with life. Her words evoked all sorts of shadowy suggestions of things he was condemned not to know, touching him most when he had not the key to them. This was especially the case with her reference to her career in Italy, on her husband’s estates, and her relations with his family; who considered that they had done her a great honour in receiving her into their august circle (putting the best face on a bad business), after they had moved heaven and earth to keep her out of it. The position made for her among these people, and what she had had to suffer from their family tone, their opinions and customs (though what these might be remained vague to her listener), had evidently planted in her soul a lasting resentment and contempt; and Hyacinth gathered that the force of reaction and revenge might carry her far, make her modern and democratic and heretical à outrance – lead her to swear by Darwin and Spencer as well as by the revolutionary spirit. He surely need not have been so sensible of the weak spots in his comprehension of the Princess, when he could already surmise that personal passion had counted for so much in the formation of her views. This induction, however, which had no harshness, did not make her appear to him any the less a creature compounded of the finest elements; brilliant, delicate, complicated, but complicated with something divine. It was not until after he had left her that he became conscious she had forced him to talk, as well as talked herself. He drew a long breath as he reflected that he had not made quite such an ass of himself as might very well have happened; he had been saved by his enjoyment and admiration, which had not gone to his head and prompted him to show that he too, in his improbable little way, was remarkable, but had kept him in a state of anxious, delicious tension, as if the occasion had been a great solemnity. He had said, indeed, much more than he had warrant for, when she questioned him about his socialistic affiliations; he had spoken as if the movement were vast and mature, whereas, in fact, so far, at least, as he was as yet concerned with it, and could answer for it from personal knowledge, it was circumscribed by the hideously papered walls of the little club-room at the ‘Sun and Moon’. He reproached himself with this laxity, but it had not been engendered by vanity. He was only afraid of disappointing his hostess too much; of making her say, ‘Why in the world, then, did you come to see me, if you have nothing more remarkable to relate?’ – an inquiry to which, of course, he would have had an answer ready, if it had not been impossible to him to say that he had never asked to come: his coming was her own affair. He wanted too much to come a second time to have the courage to make that speech. Nevertheless, when she exclaimed, changing the subject abruptly, as she always did, from something else they had been talking about, “I wonder whether I shall ever see you again!”, he replied, with perfect sincerity, that it was very difficult for him to believe anything so delightful could be repeated. There were some kinds of happiness that to many people never came at all, and to others could come only once. He added, “It is very true I had just that feeling after I left you the other night at the theatre. And yet here I am!”

“Yes, there you are,” said the Princess thoughtfully, as if this might be a still graver and more embarrassing fact than she had yet supposed it. “I take it there is nothing essentially impossible in my seeing you again; but it may very well be that you will never again find it so pleasant. Perhaps that’s the happiness that comes but once. At any rate, you know, I am going away.”

“Oh yes, of course; every one leaves town,” Hyacinth commented, sagaciously.

“Do you, Mr Robinson?” asked the Princess.

“Well, I don’t as a general thing. Nevertheless, it is possible that, this year, I may get two or three days at the seaside. I should like to take my old lady. I have done it before.”

“And except for that you shall be always at work?”

“Yes; but you must understand that I like my work. You must understand that it’s a great blessing for a young fellow like me to have it.”

“And if you didn’t have it, what would you do? Should you starve?”

“Oh, I don’t think I should starve,” the young man replied, judicially.

The Princess looked a little chagrined, but after a moment she remarked, “I wonder whether you would come to see me, in the country, somewhere.”

“Oh, dear!” Hyacinth exclaimed, catching his breath. “You are so kind, I don’t know what to do.”

“Don’t be banal, please. That’s what other people are. What’s the use of my looking for something fresh in other walks of life, if you are going to be banal too? I ask you, would you come?”

Hyacinth hesitated a moment. “Yes, I think I would come. I don’t know, at all, how I should do it – there would be several obstacles; but wherever you should call for me, I would come.”

“You mean you can’t leave your work, like that; you might lose it, if you did, and be in want of money and much embarrassed?”

“Yes, there would be little difficulties of that kind. You see that immediately, in practice, great obstacles come up, when it’s a question of a person like you making friends with a person like me.”

“That’s the way I like you to talk,” said the Princess, with a pitying gentleness that seemed to her visitor quite sacred. “After all, I don’t know where I shall be. I have got to pay stupid visits, myself, where the only comfort will be that I shall make the people jump. Every one here thinks me exceedingly odd – as there is no doubt I am! I might be ever so much more so if you would only help me a little. Why shouldn’t I have my bookbinder, after all? In attendance, you know, it would be awfully chic. We might have immense fun, don’t you think so? No doubt it will come. At any rate, I shall return to London when I have got through that corvée; I shall be here next year. In the meantime, don’t forget me,” she went on, rising to her feet. “Remember, on the contrary, that I expect you to take me into the slums – into very bad places.” Why the idea of these scenes of misery should have lighted up her face is more than may be explained; but she smiled down at Hyacinth – who, even as he stood up, was of slightly smaller stature – with all her strange, radiant sweetness. Then, in a manner almost equally incongruous, she added a reference to what she had said a moment before: “I recognise perfectly the obstacles, in practice, as you call them; but though I am not, by nature, persevering, and am really very easily put off, I don’t consider that they will prove insurmountable. They exist on my side as well, and if you will help me to overcome mine I will do the same for you, with yours.”

These words, repeating themselves again and again in Hyacinth’s consciousness, appeared to give him wings, to help him to float and soar, as he turned that afternoon out of South Street. He had at home a copy of Tennyson’s poems – a single, comprehensive volume, with a double column on the page, in a tolerably neat condition, though he had handled it much. He took it to pieces that same evening, and during the following week, in his hours of leisure, at home in his little room, with the tools he kept there for private use, and a morsel of delicate, blue-tinted Russia leather, of which he obtained possession at the place in Soho, he devoted himself to the task of binding the book as perfectly as he knew how. He worked with passion, with religion, and produced a masterpiece of firmness and finish, of which his own appreciation was as high as that of M. Poupin, when, at the end of the week, he exhibited the fruit of his toil, and much more freely expressed than that of old Crookenden, who grunted approbation, but was always too long-headed to create precedents. Hyacinth carried the volume to South Street, as an offering to the Princess; hoping she would not yet have left London, in which case he would ask the servant to deliver it to her, along with a little note he had sat up all night to compose. But the majestic butler, in charge of the house, opening the door yet looking down at him as if from a second-storey window, took the life out of his vision and erected himself as an impenetrable medium. The Princess had been absent for some days; the butler was so good as to inform the young man with the parcel that she was on a visit to a ‘juke’, in a distant part of the country. He offered however to receive, and even to forward, anything Hyacinth might wish to leave; but our hero felt a sudden indisposition to launch his humble tribute into the vast, the possibly cold, unknown of a ducal circle. He decided to retain his little package for the present; he would give it to her when he should see her again, and he turned away without parting with it. Later, it seemed to create a sort of material link between the Princess and himself, and at the end of three months it almost appeared to him, not that the exquisite book was an intended present from his own hand, but that it had been placed in that hand by the most remarkable woman in Europe. Rare sensations and impressions, moments of acute happiness, almost always, with Hyacinth, in retrospect, became rather mythic and legendary; and the superior piece of work he had done after seeing her last, in the immediate heat of his emotion, turned into a kind of proof and gage, as if a ghost, in vanishing from sight, had left a palpable relic.

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