The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

18

The matter concerned him only indirectly, but it may concern the reader more closely to know that before the visit to the duke took place Madame Grandoni granted to Prince Casamassima the private interview she had promised him on that sad Sunday afternoon. She crept out of South Street after breakfast – a repast which under the Princess’s roof was served at twelve o’clock, in the foreign fashion – crossed the sultry solitude into which, at such a season, that precinct resolves itself, and entered the Park, where the grass was already brown and a warm, smoky haze prevailed, a sort of summer edition of what was most characteristic in the London air. The Prince met her, by appointment, at the gate, and they went and sat down together under the trees beside the drive, amid a wilderness of empty chairs and with nothing to distract their attention from an equestrian or two, left over from the cavalcades of a fortnight before, and whose vain agitation in the saddle the desolate scene seemed to throw into high relief. They remained there for nearly an hour, though Madame Grandoni, in spite of her leaning to friendly interpretations, could not have told herself what comfort it was to the depressed, embarrassed young man at her side. She had nothing to say to him which could better his case, as he bent his mournful gaze on a prospect which was not, after all, perceptibly improved by its not being Sunday, and could only feel that, with her, he must seem to himself to be nearer his wife – to be touching something she had touched. The old lady wished he would resign himself more, but she was willing to minister to that thin illusion, little as she approved of the manner in which he had conducted himself at the time of the last sharp crisis in the remarkable history of his relations with Christina. He had behaved like a spoiled child, with a bad little nature, in a rage; he had been fatally wanting in dignity and wisdom, and had given the Princess an advantage which she took on the spot and would keep for ever. He had acted without manly judgment, had put his uncles upon her (as if she cared for his uncles! though one of them was a powerful prelate), had been suspicious and jealous on exactly the wrong occasions – occasions on which such ideas were a gratuitous injury. He had not been clever enough or strong enough to make good his valid rights, and had transferred the whole quarrel to a ground where his wife was far too accomplished a woman not to obtain the appearance of victory.

There was another reflection that Madame Grandoni made, as her interview with her dejected friend prolonged itself. She could make it the more freely as, besides being naturally quick and appreciative, she had always, during her Roman career, in the dear old days (mingled with bitterness as they had been for her), lived with artists, archæologists, ingenious strangers, people who abounded in good talk, threw out ideas and played with them. It came over her that, really, even if things had not come to that particular crisis, Christina’s active, various, ironical mind, with all its audacities and impatiences, could not have tolerated for long the simple dullness of the Prince’s company. The old lady had said to him, on meeting him, “Of course, what you want to know immediately is whether she has sent you a message. No, my poor friend, I must tell you the truth. I asked her for one, but she told me that she had nothing whatever, of any kind, to say to you. She knew I was coming out to see you. I haven’t done so en cachette. She doesn’t like it, but she accepts the necessity for this once, since you have made the mistake, as she considers it, of approaching her again. We talked about you, last night, after your note came to me – for five minutes; that is, I talked, and Christina was good enough to listen. At the end she said this (what I shall tell you) with perfect calmness, and the appearance of being the most reasonable woman in the world. She didn’t ask me to repeat it to you, but I do so because it is the only substitute I can offer you for a message. ‘I try to occupy my life, my mind, to create interests, in the odious position in which I find myself; I endeavour to get out of myself, my small personal disappointments and troubles, by the aid of such poor faculties as I possess. There are things in the world more interesting, after all, and I hope to succeed in giving my attention to them. It appears to me not too much to ask that the Prince, on his side, should make the same conscientious effort – and leave me alone!’ Those were your wife’s remarkable words; they are all I have to give you.”

After she had given them Madame Grandoni felt a pang of regret; the Prince turned upon her a face so white, bewildered and wounded. It had seemed to her that they might form a wholesome admonition, but it was now impressed upon her that, as coming from his wife, they were cruel, and she herself felt almost cruel for having repeated them. What they amounted to was an exquisite taunt of his mediocrity – a mediocrity which was, after all, not a crime. How could the Prince occupy himself, what interests could he create, and what faculties, gracious heaven, did he possess? He was as ignorant as a fish, and as narrow as his hat-band. His expression became pitiful; it was as if he dimly measured the insult, felt it more than saw it – felt that he could not plead incapacity without putting the Princess largely in the right. He gazed at Madame Grandoni, his face worked, and for a moment she thought he was going to burst into tears. But he said nothing – perhaps because he was afraid of that – so that suffering silence, during which she gently laid her hand upon his own, remained his only answer. He might doubtless do so much he didn’t, that when Christina touched upon this she was unanswerable. The old lady changed the subject: told him what a curious country England was, in so many ways; offered information as to their possible movements during the summer and autumn, which, within a day or two, had become slightly clearer. But at last, abruptly, as if he had not heard her, he inquired, appealingly, who the young man was who had come in the day he called, just as he was going.

Madame Grandoni hesitated a moment. “He was the Princess’s bookbinder.”

“Her bookbinder? Do you mean her lover?”

“Prince, how can you dream she will ever live with you again?” the old lady asked, in reply to this.

“Why, then, does she have him in her drawing-room – announced like an ambassador, carrying a hat in his hand like mine? Where were his books, his bindings? I shouldn’t say this to her,” the Prince added, as if the declaration justified him.

“I told you the other day that she is making studies of the people – the lower orders. The young man you saw is a study.” Madame Grandoni could not help laughing out as she gave her explanation this turn; but her mirth elicited no echo from her interlocutor.

“I have thought that over – over and over; but the more I think the less I understand. Would it be your idea that she is quite crazy? I must tell you I don’t care if she is!”

“We are all quite crazy, I think,” said Madame Grandoni; “but the Princess no more than the rest of us. No, she must try everything; at present she is trying democracy and socialism.”

Santo Dio!” murmured the young man. “And what do they say here when they see her bookbinder?”

“They haven’t seen him, and perhaps they won’t. But if they do, it won’t matter, because here everything is forgiven. That a person should be singular is all they want. A bookbinder will do as well as anything else.”

The Prince mused a while, and then he said, “How can she bear the dirt, the bad smell?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. If you mean the young man you saw at the house (I may tell you, by the way, that it was only the first time he had been there, and that the Princess had only seen him once) – if you mean the little bookbinder, he isn’t dirty, especially what we should call. The people of that kind, here, are not like our dear Romans. Every one has a sponge, as big as your head; you can see them in the shops.”

“They are full of gin; their faces are purple,” said the Prince; after which he immediately asked, “If she had only seen him once, how could he have come into her drawing-room that way?”

The old lady looked at him with a certain severity. “Believe, at least, what I say, my poor friend! Never forget that this was how you spoiled your affairs most of all – by treating a person (and such a person!) as if, as a matter of course, she lied. Christina has many faults, but she hasn’t that one; that’s why I can live with her. She will speak the truth always.”

It was plainly not agreeable to the Prince to be reminded so sharply of his greatest mistake, and he flushed a little as Madame Grandoni spoke. But he did not admit his error, and she doubted whether he even perceived it. At any rate he remarked rather grandly, like a man who has still a good deal to say for himself, “There are things it is better to conceal.”

“It all depends on whether you are afraid. Christina never is. Oh, I admit that she is very strange, and when the entertainment of watching her, to see how she will carry out some of her inspirations, is not stronger than anything else, I lose all patience with her. When she doesn’t fascinate she can only exasperate. But, as regards yourself, since you are here, and as I may not see you again for a long time, or perhaps ever (at my age – I’m a hundred and twenty!), I may as well give you the key of certain parts of your wife’s conduct. It may make it seem to you a little less fantastic. At the bottom, then, of much that she does is the fact that she is ashamed of having married you.”

“Less fantastic?” the young man repeated, staring.

“You may say that there can be nothing more eccentric than that. But you know – or, if not, it isn’t for want of her having told you – that the Princess considers that in the darkest hour of her life she sold herself for a title and a fortune. She regards her doing so as such a horrible piece of frivolity that she can never, for the rest of her days, be serious enough to make up for it.”

“Yes, I know that she pretends to have been forced. And does she think she’s so serious now?”

“The young man you saw the other day thinks so,” said the old woman, smiling. “Sometimes she calls it by another name: she says she has thrown herself with passion into being ‘modern’. That sums up the greatest number of things that you and your family are not.”

“Yes, we are not, thank God! Dio mio, Dio mio!” groaned the Prince. He seemed so exhausted by his reflections that he remained sitting in his chair after his companion, lifting her crumpled corpulence out of her own, had proposed that they should walk about a little. She had no ill-nature, but she had already noticed that whenever she was with Christina’s husband the current of conversation made her, as she phrased it, bump against him. After administering these small shocks she always steered away, and now, the Prince having at last got up and offered her his arm, she tried again to talk with him of things he could consider without bitterness. She asked him about the health and habits of his uncles, and he replied, for the moment, with the minuteness which he had been taught that in such a case courtesy demanded; but by the time that, at her request, they had returned to the gate nearest to South Street (she wished him to come no farther) he had prepared a question to which she had not opened the way.

“And who and what, then, is this English captain? About him there is a great deal said.”

“This English captain?”

“Godfrey Gerald Cholto – you see I know a good deal about him,” said the Prince, articulating the English names with difficulty.

They had stopped near the gate, on the edge of Park Lane, and a couple of predatory hansoms dashed at them from opposite quarters. “I thought that was coming, and at bottom it is he that has occupied you most!” Madame Grandoni exclaimed, with a sigh. “But in reality he is the last one you need trouble about; he doesn’t count.”

“Why doesn’t he count?”

“I can’t tell you – except that some people don’t, you know. He doesn’t even think he does.”

“Why not, when she receives him always – lets him go wherever she goes?”

“Perhaps that is just the reason. When people give her a chance to get tired of them she takes it rather easily. At any rate, you needn’t be any more jealous of him than you are of me. He’s a convenience, a factotum, but he works without wages.”

“Isn’t he, then, in love with her?”

“Naturally. He has, however, no hope.”

“Ah, poor gentleman!” said the Prince, lugubriously.

“He accepts the situation better than you. He occupies himself – as she has strongly recommended him, in my hearing, to do – with other women.”

“Oh, the brute!” the Prince exclaimed. “At all events, he sees her.”

“Yes, but she doesn’t see him!” laughed Madame Grandoni, as she turned away.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2pr/chapter18.html

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