The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

21

Paul Muniment had fits of silence, while the others were talking; but on this occasion he had not opened his lips for half an hour. When he talked Hyacinth listened, almost holding his breath; and when he said nothing Hyacinth watched him fixedly, listening to the others only through the medium of his candid countenance. At the ‘Sun and Moon’ Muniment paid very little attention to his young friend, doing nothing that should cause it to be perceived they were particular pals; and Hyacinth even thought, at moments, that he was bored or irritated by the serious manner in which the little bookbinder could not conceal from the world that he regarded him. He wondered whether this were a system, a calculated prudence, on Muniment’s part, or only a manifestation of that superior brutality, latent in his composition, which never had an intention of unkindness but was naturally intolerant of palaver. There was plenty of palaver at the ‘Sun and Moon’; there were nights when a blast of imbecility seemed to blow over the place, and one felt ashamed to be associated with so much insistent ignorance and flat-faced vanity. Then every one, with two or three exceptions, made an ass of himself, thumping the table and repeating over some inane phrase which appeared for the hour to constitute the whole furniture of his mind. There were men who kept saying, “Them was my words in the month of February last, and what I say I stick to – what I say I stick to;” and others who perpetually inquired of the company, “And what the plague am I to do with seventeen shillings – with seventeen shillings? What am I to do with them – will ye tell me that?” an interrogation which, in truth, usually ended by eliciting a ribald reply. There were still others who remarked, to satiety, that if it was not done to-day it would have to be done to-morrow, and several who constantly proclaimed their opinion that the only way was to pull up the Park rails again – just to pluck them straight up. A little shoemaker, with red eyes and a grayish face, whose appearance Hyacinth deplored, scarcely ever expressed himself but in the same form of words: “Well, are we in earnest, or ain’t we in earnest? – that’s the thing I want to know.” He was terribly in earnest himself, but this was almost the only way he had of showing it; and he had much in common (though they were always squabbling) with a large red-faced man, of uncertain attributes and stertorous breathing, who was understood to know a good deal about dogs, had fat hands, and wore on his forefinger a big silver ring, containing some one’s hair – Hyacinth believed it to be that of a terrier, snappish in life. He had always the same refrain: “Well, now, are we just starving, or ain’t we just starving? I should like the ’vice of the company on that question.”

When the tone fell as low as this Paul Muniment held his peace, except that he whistled a little, leaning back, with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the table. Hyacinth often supposed him to be on the point of breaking out and letting the company know what he thought of them – he had a perfectly clear vision of what he must think; but Muniment never compromised his popularity to that degree: he judged it – this he once told Hyacinth – too valuable an instrument, and cultivated the faculty of patience, which had the advantage of showing one more and more that one must do one’s thinking for one’s self. His popularity, indeed, struck Hyacinth as rather an uncertain quantity, and the only mistake he had seen a symptom of on his friend’s part was a tendency to overestimate it. Muniment thought many of their colleagues asinine, but it was Hyacinth’s belief that he himself knew still better how asinine they were; and this inadequate conception supported, in some degree, on Paul’s part, his theory of his influence – an influence that would be stronger than any other on the day he should choose to exert it. Hyacinth only wished that day would come; it would not be till then, he was sure, that they would all know where they were, and that the good they were striving for, blindly, obstructedly, in a kind of eternal dirty intellectual fog, would pass from the stage of crude discussion and mere sharp, tantalising desirableness into that of irresistible reality. Muniment was listened to unanimously, when he spoke, and was much talked about, usually with a knowing, implicit allusiveness, when he was absent; it was generally admitted that he could see further than most. But it was suspected that he wanted to see further than was necessary; as one of the most inveterate frequenters of the club remarked one evening, if a man could see as far as he could chuck a brick, that was far enough. There was an idea that he had nothing particular to complain of, personally, or that if he had he didn’t complain of it – an attitude which perhaps contained the germs of a latent disaffection. Hyacinth could easily see that he himself was exposed to the same imputation, but he couldn’t help it; it would have been impossible to him to keep up his character for sincerity by revealing, at the ‘Sun and Moon’, the condition of his wardrobe, or announcing that he had not had a pennyworth of bacon for six months. There were members of the club who were apparently always in the enjoyment of involuntary leisure – narrating the vainest peregrinations in search of a job, the cruelest rebuffs, the most vivid anecdotes of the insolence of office. They made Hyacinth uncomfortably conscious, at times, that if he should be out of work it would be wholly by his own fault; that he had in his hand a bread-winning tool on which he might absolutely count. He was also aware, however, that his position in this little band of malcontents (it was little only if measured by the numbers that were gathered together on any one occasion; he liked to think it was large in its latent possibilities, its mysterious ramifications and affiliations) was peculiar and distinguished; it would be favourable if he had the kind of energy and assurance that would help him to make use of it. He had an intimate conviction – the proof of it was in the air, in the sensible facility of his footing at the ‘Sun and Moon’ – that Eustache Poupin had taken upon himself to disseminate the anecdote of his origin, of his mother’s disaster; in consequence of which, as the victim of social infamy, of heinous laws, it was conceded to him that he had a larger account to settle even than most. He was ab ovo a revolutionist, and that balanced against his smart neckties, a certain suspicious security that was perceived in him as to the h (he had had from his earliest years a natural command of it), and the fact that he possessed the sort of hand on which there is always a premium – an accident somehow to be guarded against in a thorough-going system of equality. He never challenged Poupin on the subject, for he owed the Frenchman too much to reproach him with any officious step that was meant in kindness; and moreover his fellow-labourer at old Crookenden’s had said to him, as if to anticipate such an impugnment of his discretion, “Remember, my child, that I am incapable of drawing aside any veil that you may have preferred to drop over your lacerated personality. Your moral dignity will always be safe with me. But remember at the same time that among the disinherited there is a mystic language which dispenses with proofs – a freemasonry, a reciprocal divination; they understand each other with half a word.” It was with half a word, then, in Bloomsbury, that Hyacinth had been understood; but there was a certain delicacy within him that forbade him to push his advantage, to treat implications of sympathy, none the less definite for being roundabout, as steps in the ladder of success. He had no wish to be a leader because his mother had murdered her lover and died in penal servitude: these circumstances recommended intentness but they also suggested modesty. When the gathering at the ‘Sun and Moon’ was at its best, and its temper seemed really an earnest of what was the basis of all its calculations – that the people was only a sleeping lion, already breathing shorter and beginning to stretch its limbs – at these hours, some of them thrilling enough, Hyacinth waited for the voice that should allot to him the particular part he was to play. His ambition was to play it with brilliancy, to offer an example – an example, even, that might survive him – of pure youthful, almost juvenile, consecration. He was conscious of no commission to give the promises, to assume the responsibilities, of a redeemer, and he had no envy of the man on whom this burden should rest. Muniment, indeed, might carry it, and it was the first article of his faith that to help him to carry it the better he himself was ready for any sacrifice. Then it was – on these nights of intenser vibration – that Hyacinth waited for a sign.

They came oftener, this second winter, for the season was terribly hard; and as in that lower world one walked with one’s ear nearer the ground, the deep perpetual groan of London misery seemed to swell and swell and form the whole undertone of life. The filthy air came into the place in the damp coats of silent men, and hung there till it was brewed to a nauseous warmth, and ugly, serious faces squared themselves through it, and strong-smelling pipes contributed their element in a fierce, dogged manner which appeared to say that it now had to stand for everything – for bread and meat and beer, for shoes and blankets and the poor things at the pawnbroker’s and the smokeless chimney at home. Hyacinth’s colleagues seemed to him wiser then, and more permeated with intentions boding ill to the satisfied classes; and though the note of popularity was still most effectively struck by the man who could demand oftenest, unpractically, “What the plague am I to do with seventeen shillings?” it was brought home to our hero on more than one occasion that revolution was ripe at last. This was especially the case on the evening I began by referring to, when Eustache Poupin squeezed in and announced, as if it were a great piece of news, that in the east of London, that night, there were forty thousand men out of work. He looked round the circle with his dilated foreign eye, as he took his place; he seemed to address the company individually as well as collectively, and to make each man responsible for hearing him. He owed his position at the ‘Sun and Moon’ to the brilliancy with which he represented the political exile, the magnanimous immaculate citizen wrenched out of bed at dead of night, torn from his hearthstone, his loved ones and his profession, and hurried across the frontier with only the coat on his back. Poupin had performed in this character now for many years, but he had never lost the bloom of the outraged proscript, and the passionate pictures he had often drawn of the bitterness of exile were moving even to those who knew with what success he had set up his household gods in Lisson Grove. He was recognised as suffering everything for his opinions; and his hearers in Bloomsbury – who, after all, even in their most concentrated hours, were very good-natured – appeared never to have made the subtle reflection, though they made many others, that there was a want of tact in his calling upon them to sympathise with him for being one of themselves. He imposed himself by the eloquence of his assumption that if one were not in the beautiful France one was nowhere worth speaking of, and ended by producing an impression that that country had an almost supernatural charm. Muniment had once said to Hyacinth that he was sure Poupin would be very sorry if he should be enabled to go home again (as he might, from one week to the other, the Republic being so indulgent and the amnesty to the Communards constantly extended), for over there he couldn’t be a refugee; and however this might be he certainly flourished a good deal in London on the basis of this very fact that he was miserable there.

“Why do you tell us that, as if it was so very striking? Don’t we know it, and haven’t we known it always? But you are right; we behave as if we knew nothing at all,” said Mr Schinkel, the German cabinet-maker, who had originally introduced Captain Sholto to the ‘Sun and Moon’. He had a long, unhealthy, benevolent face and greasy hair, and constantly wore a kind of untidy bandage round his neck, as if for a local ailment. “You remind us – that is very well; but we shall forget it in half an hour. We are not serious.”

Pardon, pardon; for myself, I do not admit that!” Poupin replied, striking the table with his finger-tips several times, very fast. “If I am not serious, I am nothing.”

“Oh no, you are something,” said the German, smoking his monumental pipe with a contemplative air. “We are all something; but I am not sure it is anything very useful.”

“Well, things would be worse without us. I’d rather be in here, in this kind of muck, than outside,” remarked the fat man who understood dogs.

“Certainly, it is very pleasant, especially if you have your beer; but not so pleasant in the east, where fifty thousand people starve. It is a very unpleasant night,” the cabinet-maker went on.

“How can it be worse?” Eustache Poupin inquired, looking defiantly at the German, as if to make him responsible for the fat man’s reflection. “It is so bad that the imagination recoils, refuses.”

“Oh, we don’t care for the imagination!” the fat man declared. “We want a compact body, in marching order.”

“What do you call a compact body?” the little gray-faced shoemaker demanded. “I dare say you don’t mean your kind of body.”

“Well, I know what I mean,” said the fat man, severely.

“That’s a grand thing. Perhaps one of these days you’ll tell us.”

“You’ll see it for yourself, perhaps, before that day comes,” the gentleman with the silver ring rejoined. “Perhaps when you do, you’ll remember.”

“Well, you know, Schinkel says we don’t,” said the shoemaker, nodding at the cloud-compelling German.

“I don’t care what no man says!” the dog-fancier exclaimed, gazing straight before him.

“They say it’s a bad year – the blockheads in the newspapers,” Mr Schinkel went on, addressing himself to the company at large. “They say that on purpose – to convey the impression that there are such things as good years. I ask the company, has any gentleman present ever happened to notice that article? The good year is yet to come: it might begin to-night, if we like; it all depends on our being able to be serious for a few hours. But that is too much to expect. Mr Muniment is very serious; he looks as if he were waiting for the signal; but he doesn’t speak – he never speaks, if I want particularly to hear him. He only considers, very deeply, I am sure. But it is almost as bad to think without speaking as to speak without thinking.”

Hyacinth always admired the cool, easy way in which Muniment comported himself when the attention of the public was directed towards him. These manifestations of curiosity, or of hostility, would have put him out immensely, himself. When a lot of people, especially the kind of people who were collected at the ‘Sun and Moon’, looked at him, or listened to him, at once, he always blushed and stammered, feeling that if he couldn’t have a million of spectators (which would have been inspiring) he should prefer to have but two or three; there was something very embarrassing in twenty.

Muniment smiled, for an instant, good-humouredly; then, after a moment’s hesitation, looking across at the German, and the German only, as if his remark were worth noticing, but it didn’t matter if the others didn’t understand the reply, he said simply, “Hoffendahl’s in London.”

“Hoffendahl? Gott in Himmel!” the cabinet-maker exclaimed, taking the pipe out of his mouth. And the two men exchanged a longish glance. Then Mr Schinkel remarked, “That surprises me, sehr. Are you very sure?”

Muniment continued, for a moment, to look at him. “If I keep quiet for half an hour, with so many valuable suggestions flying all round me, you think I say too little. Then if I open my head to give out three words, you appear to think I say too much.”

“Ah, no; on the contrary, I want you to say three more. If you tell me you have seen him I shall be perfectly satisfied.”

“Upon my word, I should hope so! Do you think he’s the kind of party a fellow says he has seen?”

“Yes, when he hasn’t!” said Eustache Poupin, who had been listening. Every one was listening now.

“It depends on the fellow he says it to. Not even here?” the German asked.

“Oh, here!” Paul Muniment exclaimed, in a peculiar tone, and resumed his muffled whistle again.

“Take care – take care; you will make me think you haven’t!” cried Poupin, with his excited expression.

“That’s just what I want,” said Muniment.

Nun, I understand,” the cabinet-maker remarked, restoring his pipe to his lips after an interval almost as momentous as the stoppage of a steamer in mid-ocean.

’Ere, ’ere!” repeated the small shoemaker, indignantly. “I dare say it is as good as the place he came from. He might look in and see what he thinks of it.”

“That’s a place you might tell us a little about, now,” the fat man suggested, as if he had been waiting for his chance.

Before the shoemaker had time to notice this challenge some one inquired, with a hoarse petulance, who the blazes they were talking about; and Mr Schinkel took upon himself to reply that they were talking about a man who hadn’t done what he had done by simply exchanging abstract ideas, however valuable, with his friends in a respectable pot-house.

“What the devil has he done, then?” some one else demanded; and Muniment replied, quietly, that he had spent twelve years in a Prussian prison, and was consequently still an object of a good deal of interest to the police.

“Well, if you call that very useful, I must say I prefer a pot-house!” cried the shoemaker, appealing to all the company and looking, as it appeared to Hyacinth, particularly hideous.

Doch, doch, it is useful,” the German remarked, philosophically, among his yellow clouds.

“Do you mean to say you are not prepared for that, yourself?” Muniment inquired of the shoemaker.

“Prepared for that? I thought we were going to smash that sort of shop altogether; I thought that was the main part of the job.”

“They will smash best, those who have been inside,” the German declared; “unless, perhaps, they are broken, enervated. But Hoffendahl is not enervated.”

“Ah, no; no smashing, no smashing,” Muniment went on. “We want to keep them standing, and even to build a few more; but the difference will be that we shall put the correct sort in.”

“I take your idea – that Griffin is one of the correct sort,” the fat man remarked, indicating the shoemaker.

“I thought we was going to ’ave their ’eads – all that bloomin’ lot!” Mr Griffin declared, protesting; while Eustache Poupin began to enlighten the company as to the great Hoffendahl, one of the purest martyrs of their cause, a man who had been through everything – who had been scarred and branded, tortured, almost flayed, and had never given them the names they wanted to have. Was it possible they didn’t remember that great combined attempt, early in the sixties, which took place in four Continental cities at once and which, in spite of every effort to smother it up – there had been editors and journalists transported even for hinting at it – had done more for the social question than anything before or since? “Through him being served in the manner you describe?” some one asked, with plainness; to which Poupin replied that it was one of those failures that are more glorious than any success. Muniment said that the affair had been only a flash in the pan, but that the great value of it was this – that whereas some forty persons (and of both sexes) had been engaged in it, only one had been seized and had suffered. It had been Hoffendahl himself who was collared. Certainly he had suffered much, he had suffered for every one; but from that point of view – that of the economy of material – the thing had been a rare success.

“Do you know what I call the others? I call ’em bloody sneaks!” the fat man cried; and Eustache Poupin, turning to Muniment, expressed the hope that he didn’t really approve of such a solution – didn’t consider that an economy of heroism was an advantage to any cause. He himself esteemed Hoffendahl’s attempt because it had shaken, more than anything – except, of course, the Commune – had shaken it since the French Revolution, the rotten fabric of the actual social order, and because that very fact of the impunity, the invisibility, of the persons concerned in it had given the predatory classes, had given all Europe, a shudder that had not yet subsided; but for his part, he must regret that some of the associates of the devoted victim had not come forward and insisted on sharing with him his tortures and his captivity.

C’aurait été d’un bel exemple!” said the Frenchman, with an impressive moderation of statement which made even those who could not understand him see that he was saying something fine; while the cabinet-maker remarked that in Hoffendahl’s place any of them would have stood out just the same. He didn’t care if they set it down to self-love (Mr Schinkel called it ‘loaf’), but he might say that he himself would have done so if he had been trusted and had been bagged.

“I want to have it all drawn up clear first; then I’ll go in,” said the fat man, who seemed to think it was expected of him to be reassuring.

“Well, who the dickens is to draw it up, eh? That’s what we happen to be talking about,” returned his antagonist the shoemaker.

“A fine example, old man? Is that your idea of a fine example?” Muniment, with his amused face, asked of Poupin. “A fine example of asininity! Are there capable people, in such plenty, about the place?”

“Capable of greatness of soul, I grant you not.”

“Your greatness of soul is usually greatness of blundering. A man’s foremost duty is not to get collared. If you want to show you’re capable, that’s the way.”

At this Hyacinth suddenly felt himself moved to speak. “But some one must be caught, always, must he not? Hasn’t some one always been?”

“Oh, I dare say you’ll be, if you like it!” Muniment replied, without looking at him. “If they succeed in potting you, do as Hoffendahl did, and do it as a matter of course; but if they don’t, make it your supreme duty, make it your religion, to lie close and keep yourself for another go. The world is full of unclean beasts whom I shall be glad to see shovelled away by the thousand; but when it’s a question of honest men and men of courage, I protest against the idea that two should be sacrificed where one will serve.”

Trop d’arithmétique – trop d’arithmétique! That is fearfully English!” Poupin cried.

“No doubt, no doubt; what else should it be? You shall never share my fate, if I have a fate and I can prevent it!” said Muniment, laughing.

Eustache Poupin stared at him and his merriment, as if he thought the English frivolous as well as calculating; then he rejoined, “If I suffer, I trust it may be for suffering humanity, but I trust it may also be for France.”

“Oh, I hope you ain’t going to suffer any more for France,” said Mr Griffin. “Hasn’t it done that insatiable old country of yours some good, by this time, all you’ve had to put up with?”

“Well, I want to know what Hoffendahl has come over for; it’s very kind of him, I’m sure. What is he going to do for us? – that’s what I want to know,” remarked in a loud, argumentative tone a personage at the end of the table most distant from Muniment’s place. His name was Delancey, and he gave himself out as holding a position in a manufactory of soda-water; but Hyacinth had a secret belief that he was really a hairdresser – a belief connected with a high, lustrous curl, or crest, which he wore on the summit of his large head, and the manner in which he thrust over his ear, as if it were a barber’s comb, the pencil with which he was careful to take notes of the discussions carried on at the ‘Sun and Moon’. His opinions were distinct and frequently expressed; he had a watery (Muniment had once called it a soda-watery) eye, and a personal aversion to a lord. He desired to change everything except religion, of which he approved.

Muniment answered that he was unable to say, as yet, what the German revolutionist had come to England for, but that he hoped to be able to give some information on the matter the next time they should meet. It was very certain Hoffendahl hadn’t come for nothing, and he would undertake to declare that they would all feel, within a short time, that he had given a lift to the cause they were interested in. He had had a great experience, and they might very well find it useful to consult. If there was a way for them, then and there, he was sure to know the way. “I quite agree with the majority of you – as I take it to be,” Muniment went on, with his fresh, cheerful, reasonable manner – “I quite agree with you that the time has come to settle upon it and to follow it. I quite agree with you that the actual state of things is” – he paused a moment, and then went on in the same pleasant tone – “is hellish.”

These remarks were received with a differing demonstration: some of the company declaring that if the Dutchman cared to come round and smoke a pipe they would be glad to see him – perhaps he’d show where the thumb-screws had been put on; others being strongly of the opinion that they didn’t want any more advice – they had already had advice enough to turn a donkey’s stomach. What they wanted was to put forth their might without any more palaver; to do something, or for some one; to go out somewhere and smash something, on the spot – why not? – that very night. While they sat there and talked, there were about half a million of people in London that didn’t know where the h — the morrow’s meal was to come from; what they wanted to do, unless they were just a collection of pettifogging old women, was to show them where to get it, to take it to them with heaped-up hands. Hyacinth listened, with a divided attention, to interlaced iterations, while the talk blew hot and cold; there was a genuine emotion, to-night, in the rear of the ‘Sun and Moon’, and he felt the contagion of excited purpose. But he was following a train of his own; he was wondering what Muniment had in reserve (for he was sure he was only playing with the company), and his imagination, quickened by the sense of impending relations with the heroic Hoffendahl and the discussion as to the alternative duty of escaping or of facing one’s fate, had launched itself into possible perils – into the idea of how he might, in a given case, settle for himself that question of paying for the lot. The loud, contradictory, vain, unpractical babble went on about him, but he was definitely conscious only that the project of breaking into the bakers’ shops was well before the assembly and was receiving a vigorous treatment, and that there was likewise a good deal of reference to the butchers and grocers, and even to the fishmongers. He was in a state of inward exaltation; he was seized by an intense desire to stand face to face with the sublime Hoffendahl, to hear his voice, to touch his mutilated hand. He was ready for anything: he knew that he himself was safe to breakfast and dine, poorly but sufficiently, and that his colleagues were perhaps even more crude and clumsy than usual; but a breath of popular passion had passed over him, and he seemed to see, immensely magnified, the monstrosity of the great ulcers and sores of London – the sick, eternal misery crying, in the darkness, in vain, confronted with granaries and treasure-houses and places of delight, where shameless satiety kept guard. In such a mood as this Hyacinth felt that there was no need to consider, to reason: the facts themselves were as imperative as the cry of the drowning; for while pedantry gained time didn’t starvation gain it too? He knew that Muniment disapproved of delay, that he held the day had come for a forcible rectification of horrible inequalities. In the last conversation they had had together his chemical friend had given him a more definite warrant than he had ever done before for numbering him in the party of immediate action, though indeed he remarked on this occasion, once more, that that particular formula which the little bookbinder appeared to have taken such a fancy to was mere gibberish. He hated that sort of pretentious label; it was fit only for politicians and amateurs. None the less he had been as plain as possible on the point that their game must be now to frighten society, and frighten it effectually; to make it believe that the swindled classes were at last fairly in league – had really grasped the idea that, closely combined, they would be irresistible. They were not in league, and they hadn’t in their totality grasped any idea at all – Muniment was not slow to make that equally plain. All the same, society was scareable, and every great scare was a gain for the people. If Hyacinth had needed warrant to-night for a faith that transcended logic, he would have found it in his recollection of this quiet profession; but his friend’s words came back to him mainly to make him wonder what that friend had in his head just now. He took no part in the violence of the talk; he had called Schinkel to come round and sit beside him, and the two appeared to confer together in comfortable absorption, while the brown atmosphere grew denser, the passing to and fro of fire-brands more lively, and the flush of faces more portentous. What Hyacinth would have liked to know most of all was why Muniment had not mentioned to him, first, that Hoffendahl was in London, and that he had seen him; for he had seen him, though he had dodged Schinkel’s question – of that Hyacinth instantly felt sure. He would ask for more information later; and meanwhile he wished, without resentment, but with a certain helpless, patient longing, that Muniment would treat him with a little more confidence. If there were a secret in regard to Hoffendahl (and there evidently was: Muniment, quite rightly, though he had dropped the announcement of his arrival, for a certain effect, had no notion of sharing the rest of what he knew with that raw roomful), if there was something to be silent and devoted about, Hyacinth ardently hoped that to him a chance would be given to show how he could practise this superiority. He felt hot and nervous; he got up suddenly, and, through the dark, tortuous, greasy passage which communicated with the outer world, he went forth into the street. The air was foul and sleety, but it refreshed him, and he stood in front of the public-house and smoked another pipe. Bedraggled figures passed in and out, and a damp, tattered, wretched man, with a spongy, purple face, who had been thrust suddenly across the threshold, stood and whimpered in the brutal blaze of the row of lamps. The puddles glittered roundabout, and the silent vista of the street, bordered with low black houses, stretched away, in the wintry drizzle, to right and left, losing itself in the huge tragic city, where unmeasured misery lurked beneath the dirty night, ominously, monstrously, still, only howling, in its pain, in the heated human cockpit behind him. Ah, what could he do? What opportunity would rise? The blundering, divided counsels he had been listening to only made the helplessness of every one concerned more abject. If he had a definite wish while he stood there it was that that exalted, deluded company should pour itself forth, with Muniment at its head, and surge through the sleeping city, gathering the myriad miserable out of their slums and burrows, and roll into the selfish squares, and lift a tremendous hungry voice, and awaken the gorged indifferent to a terror that would bring them down. Hyacinth lingered a quarter of an hour, but this grand spectacle gave no sign of coming off, and he finally returned to the noisy club-room, in a state of tormented wonder as to what better idea than this very bad one (which seemed to our young man to have at the least the merit that it was an idea) Muniment could be revolving in that too-comprehensive brain of his.

As he re-entered the place he saw that the meeting was breaking up in disorder, or at all events in confusion, and that, certainly, no organised attempt at the rescue of the proletariat would take place that night. All the men were on their feet and were turning away, amid a shuffling of benches and chairs, a hunching of shaggy shoulders, a frugal lowering of superfluous gas, and a varied vivacity of disgust and resignation. The moment after Hyacinth came in, Mr Delancey, the supposititious hairdresser, jumped upon a chair at the far end of the room, and shrieked out an accusation which made every one stop and stare at him –

“Well, I want you all to know what strikes me, before we part company. There isn’t a man in the blessed lot that isn’t afraid of his bloody skin – afraid, afraid, afraid! I’ll go anywhere with any one, but there isn’t another, by G — by what I can make out! There isn’t a mother’s son of you that’ll risk his precious bones!”

This little oration affected Hyacinth like a quick blow in the face; it seemed to leap at him personally, as if a three-legged stool, or some hideous hob-nailed boot, had been shied at him. The room surged round, heaving up and down, while he was conscious of a loud explosion of laughter and scorn; of cries of “Order, order!” of some clear word of Muniment’s, “I say, Delancey, just step down;” of Eustache Poupin shouting out, “Vous insultez le peuple – vous insultez le peuple!” of other retorts, not remarkable for refinement. The next moment Hyacinth found that he had sprung up on a chair, opposite to the barber, and that at the sight of so rare a phenomenon the commotion had suddenly checked itself. It was the first time he had asked the ear of the company, and it was given on the spot. He was sure he looked very white, and it was even possible they could see him tremble. He could only hope that this didn’t make him ridiculous when he said, “I don’t think it’s right of him to say that. There are others, besides him. At all events, I want to speak for myself : it may do some good; I can’t help it. I’m not afraid; I’m very sure I’m not. I’m ready to do anything that will do any good; anything, anything – I don’t care a rap. In such a cause I should like the idea of danger. I don’t consider my bones precious in the least, compared with some other things. If one is sure one isn’t afraid, and one is accused, why shouldn’t one say so?”

It appeared to Hyacinth that he was talking a long time, and when it was over he scarcely knew what happened. He felt himself, in a moment, down almost under the feet of the other men; stamped upon with intentions of applause, of familiarity; laughed over and jeered over, hustled and poked in the ribs. He felt himself also pressed to the bosom of Eustache Poupin, who apparently was sobbing, while he heard some say, “Did ye hear the little beggar, as bold as a lion?” A trial of personal prowess between him and Mr Delancey was proposed, but somehow it didn’t take place, and at the end of five minutes the club-room emptied itself, not, evidently, to be reconstituted, outside, in a revolutionary procession. Paul Muniment had taken hold of Hyacinth, and said, “I’ll trouble you to stay, you little desperado. I’ll be blowed if I ever expected to see you on the stump!” Muniment remained, and M. Poupin and Mr Schinkel lingered in their overcoats, beneath a dim, surviving gasburner, in the unventilated medium in which, at each renewed gathering, the Bloomsbury club seemed to recognise itself.

“Upon my word, I believe you’re game,” said Muniment, looking down at him with a serious face.

“Of course you think it’s swagger, ‘self-loaf’, as Schinkel says. But it isn’t.” Then Hyacinth asked, “In God’s name, why don’t we do something?”

“Ah, my child, to whom do you say it?” Eustache Poupin exclaimed, folding his arms, despairingly.

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’?” said Muniment.

“All the lot of us. There are plenty of them ready.”

“Ready for what? There is nothing to be done here.”

Hyacinth stared. “Then why the deuce do you come?”

“I dare say I shan’t come much more. This is a place you have always overestimated.”

“I wonder if I have overestimated you,” Hyacinth murmured, gazing at his friend.

“Don’t say that – he’s going to introduce us to Hoffendahl!” Schinkel exclaimed, putting away his pipe in a receptacle almost as large as a fiddle-case.

“Should you like to see the genuine article, Robinson?” Muniment asked, with the same unusual absence of jocosity in his tone.

“The genuine article?” Hyacinth looked from one of his companions to the other.

“You have never seen it yet – though you think you have.”

“And why haven’t you shown it to me before?”

“Because I had never seen you on the stump.” This time Muniment smiled.

“Bother the stump! I was trusting you.”

“Exactly so. That gave me time.”

“Don’t come unless your mind is made up, mon petit,” said Poupin.

“Are you going now – to see Hoffendahl?” Hyacinth cried.

“Don’t shout it all over the place. He wants a genteel little customer like you,” Muniment went on.

“Is it true? Are we all going?” Hyacinth demanded eagerly.

“Yes, these two are in it; they are not very artful, but they are safe,” said Muniment, looking at Poupin and Schinkel.

“Are you the genuine article, Muniment?” asked Hyacinth, catching this look.

Muniment dropped his eyes on him; then he said, “Yes, you’re the boy he wants. It’s at the other end of London; we must have a growler.”

“Be calm, my child; me voici!” And Eustache Poupin led Hyacinth out.

They all walked away from the ‘Sun and Moon’, and it was not for some five minutes that they encountered the four-wheeled cab which deepened so the solemnity of their expedition. After they were seated in it, Hyacinth learned that Hoffendahl was in London but for three days, was liable to hurry away on the morrow, and was accustomed to receive visits at all kinds of queer hours. It was getting to be midnight; the drive seemed interminable, to Hyacinth’s impatience and curiosity. He sat next to Muniment, who passed his arm round him, as if by way of tacit expression of indebtedness. They all ended by sitting silent, as the cab jogged along murky miles, and by the time it stopped Hyacinth had wholly lost, in the drizzling gloom, a sense of their whereabouts.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2pr/chapter21.html

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