The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James



Hyacinth got up early – an operation attended with very little effort, as he had scarcely closed his eyes all night. What he saw from his window made him dress as rapidly as a young man could do who desired more than ever that his appearance should not give strange ideas about him: an old garden, with parterres in curious figures, and little intervals of lawn which appeared to our hero’s cockney vision fantastically green. At one end of the garden was a parapet of mossy brick, which looked down on the other side into a canal, or moat, or quaint old pond; and from the same standpoint there was also a view of a considerable part of the main body of the house (Hyacinth’s room appeared to be in a wing commanding the extensive, irregular back), which was richly gray wherever it was not green with ivy and other dense creepers, and everywhere infinitely like a picture, with a high-piled, ancient, russet roof, broken by huge chimneys and queer peep-holes and all manner of odd gables and windows on different lines and antique patches and protrusions, and a particularly fascinating architectural excrescence in which a wonderful clock-face was lodged – a clock-face covered with gilding and blazonry but showing many traces of the years and the weather. Hyacinth had never in his life been in the country – the real country, as he called it, the country which was not the mere ravelled fringe of London – and there entered through his open casement the breath of a world enchantingly new and, after his recent feverish hours, inexpressibly refreshing to him; a sense of sweet, sunny air and mingled odours, all strangely pure and agreeable, and a kind of musical silence, the greater part of which seemed to consist of the voices of birds. There were tall, quiet trees near by, and afar off, and everywhere; and the group of objects which greeted Hyacinth’s eyes evidently formed only a corner of larger spaces and a more complicated scene. There was a world to be revealed to him: it lay waiting, with the dew upon it, under his windows, and he must go down and take his first steps in it.

The night before, at ten o’clock, when he arrived, he had only got the impression of a mile-long stretch of park, after turning in at a gate; of the cracking of gravel under the wheels of the fly; and of the glow of several windows, suggesting in-door cheer, in a façade that lifted a variety of vague pinnacles into the starlight. It was much of a relief to him then to be informed that the Princess, in consideration of the lateness of the hour, begged to be excused till the morrow; the delay would give him time to recover his balance and look about him. This latter opportunity was offered him first as he sat at supper in a vast dining-room, with the butler, whose acquaintance he had made in South Street, behind his chair. He had not exactly wondered how he should be treated: there was too much vagueness in his conception of the way in which, at a country-house, insidious distinctions might be made and shades of importance illustrated; but it was plain that the best had been ordered for him. He was, at all events, abundantly content with his reception and more and more excited by it. The repast was delicate (though his other senses were so awake that hunger dropped out and he ate, as it were, without eating), and the grave mechanical servant filled his glass with a liquor that reminded him of some lines in Keats – in the Ode to a Nightingale. He wondered whether he should hear a nightingale at Medley (he knew nothing about the seasons of this vocalist), and also whether the butler would attempt to talk to him, had ideas about him, knew or suspected who he was and what; which, after all, there was no reason for his doing, unless it might be the poverty of the luggage that had been transported from Lomax Place. Mr Withers, however (it was in this manner that Hyacinth heard him addressed by the cabman who conveyed the visitor from the station), gave no further symptom of sociability than to ask him at what time he would be called in the morning; to which our young man replied that he preferred not to be called at all – he would get up by himself. The butler rejoined, “Very good, sir,” while Hyacinth thought it probable that he puzzled him a good deal, and even considered the question of giving him a glimpse of his identity, lest it should be revealed, later, in a manner less graceful. The object of this anticipatory step, in Hyacinth’s mind, was that he should not be oppressed and embarrassed with attentions to which he was unused; but the idea came to nothing, for the simple reason that before he spoke he found that he already was inured to being waited upon. His impulse to deprecate attentions departed, and he became conscious that there were none he should care to miss, or was not quite prepared for. He knew he probably thanked Mr Withers too much, but he couldn’t help this – it was an irrepressible tendency and an error he should doubtless always commit.

He lay in a bed constituted in a manner so perfect to insure rest that it was probably responsible in some degree for his restlessness, and in a large, high room, where long dressing-glasses emitted ghostly glances even after the light was extinguished. Suspended on the walls were many prints, mezzotints and old engravings, which Hyacinth supposed, possibly without reason, to be fine and rare. He got up several times in the night, lighted his candle and walked about looking at them. He looked at himself in one of the long glasses, and in a place where everything was on such a scale it seemed to him more than ever that Mademoiselle Vivier’s son was a tiny particle. As he came downstairs he encountered housemaids, with dusters and brooms, or perceived them, through open doors, on their knees before fireplaces; and it was his belief that they regarded him more boldly than if he had been a guest of the usual kind. Such a reflection as that, however, ceased to trouble him after he had passed out of doors and begun to roam through the park, into which he let himself loose at first, and then, in narrowing circles, through the nearer grounds. He rambled for an hour, in a state of breathless ecstasy; brushing the dew from the deep fern and bracken and the rich borders of the garden, tasting the fragrant air, and stopping everywhere, in murmuring rapture, at the touch of some exquisite impression. His whole walk was peopled with recognitions; he had been dreaming all his life of just such a place and such objects, such a morning and such a chance. It was the last of April, and everything was fresh and vivid; the great trees, in the early air, were a blur of tender shoots. Round the admirable house he revolved repeatedly; catching every point and tone, feasting on its expression, and wondering whether the Princess would observe his proceedings from the window, and whether, if she did, they would be offensive to her. The house was not hers, but only hired for three months, and it could flatter no princely pride that he should be struck with it. There was something in the way the gray walls rose from the green lawn that brought tears to his eyes; the spectacle of long duration unassociated with some sordid infirmity or poverty was new to him; he had lived with people among whom old age meant, for the most part, a grudged and degraded survival. In the majestic preservation of Medley there was a kind of serenity of success, an accumulation of dignity and honour.

A footman sought him out, in the garden, to tell him that breakfast was ready. He had never thought of breakfast, and as he walked back to the house, attended by the inscrutable flunkey, this offer appeared a free, extravagant gift, unexpected and romantic. He found he was to breakfast alone, and he asked no questions; but when he had finished the butler came in and informed him that the Princess would see him after luncheon, but that in the meanwhile she wished him to understand that the library was entirely at his service. ‘After luncheon’ – that threw the hour he had come for very far into the future, and it caused him some confusion of mind that the Princess should think it worth while to invite him to stay at her house from Saturday evening to Monday morning if it had been her purpose that so much of his visit should elapse without their meeting. But he felt neither slighted nor impatient; the impressions that had already crowded upon him were in themselves a sufficient reward, and what could one do better, precisely, in such a house as that, than wait for a princess? The butler showed him the way to the library, and left him planted in the middle of it, staring at the treasures that he instantly perceived it contained. It was an old brown room, of great extent – even the ceiling was brown, though there were figures in it dimly gilt – where row upon row of finely-lettered backs returned his discriminating professional gaze. A fire of logs crackled in a great chimney, and there were alcoves with deep window-seats, and arm-chairs such as he had never seen, luxurious, leather-covered, with an adjustment for holding one’s volume; and a vast writing-table, before one of the windows, furnished with a perfect magazine of paper and pens, inkstands and blotters, seals, stamps, candlesticks, reels of twine, paper-weights, book-knives. Hyacinth had never imagined so many aids to correspondence, and before he turned away he had written a note to Millicent, in a hand even more beautiful than usual – his penmanship was very minute, but at the same time wonderfully free and fair – largely for the pleasure of seeing ‘Medley Hall’ stamped in crimson, heraldic-looking characters at the top of his paper. In the course of an hour he had ravaged the collection, taken down almost every book, wishing he could keep it a week, and put it back quickly, as his eye caught the next, which appeared even more desirable. He discovered many rare bindings, and gathered several ideas from an inspection of them – ideas which he felt himself perfectly capable of reproducing. Altogether, his vision of true happiness, at that moment, was that, for a month or two, he should be locked into the library at Medley. He forgot the outer world, and the morning waned – the beautiful vernal Sunday – while he lingered there.

He was on the top of a ladder when he heard a voice remark, “I am afraid they are very dusty; in this house, you know, it is the dust of centuries;” and, looking down, he saw Madame Grandoni stationed in the middle of the room. He instantly prepared to descend, to make her his salutation, when she exclaimed, “Stay, stay, if you are not giddy; we can talk from here! I only came in to show you we are in the house, and to tell you to keep up your patience. The Princess will probably see you in a few hours.”

“I really hope so,” said Hyacinth, from his perch, rather dismayed at the ‘probably’.

Natürlich,” the old lady rejoined; “but people have come, sometimes, and gone away without seeing her. It all depends upon her mood.”

“Do you mean even when she has sent for them?”

“Oh, who can tell whether she has sent for them or not?”

“But she sent for me, you know,” Hyacinth declared, staring down – struck with the odd effect of Madame Grandoni’s wig in that bird’s-eye view.

“Oh yes, she sent for you, poor young man!” The old lady looked up at him with a smile, and they remained a moment exchanging a silent scrutiny. Then she added, “Captain Sholto has come, like that, more than once; and he has gone away no better off.”

“Captain Sholto?” Hyacinth repeated.

“Very true, if we talk at this distance I must shut the door.” She took her way back to it (she had left it open) and pushed it to; then advanced into the room again, with her superannuated, shuffling step, walking as if her shoes were too big for her. Hyacinth meanwhile descended the ladder. “Ecco! She’s a capricciosa,” said the old lady.

“I don’t understand how you speak of her,” Hyacinth remarked, gravely. “You seem to be her friend, yet you say things that are not favourable to her.”

“Dear young man, I say much worse to her about herself than I should ever say to you. I am rude, oh yes – even to you, to whom, no doubt, I ought to be particularly kind. But I am not false. It is not our German nature. You will hear me some day. I am the friend of the Princess; it would be well enough if she never had a worse one! But I should like to be yours, too – what will you have? Perhaps it is of no use. At any rate, here you are.”

“Yes, here I am, decidedly!” Hyacinth laughed, uneasily.

“And how long shall you stay? Excuse me if I ask that; it is part of my rudeness.”

“I shall stay till to-morrow morning. I must be at my work by noon.”

“That will do very well. Don’t you remember, the other time, how I told you to remain faithful?”

“That was very good advice. But I think you exaggerate my danger.”

“So much the better,” said Madame Grandoni; “though now that I look at you well I doubt it a little. I see you are one of those types that ladies like. I can be sure of that, because I like you myself. At my age – a hundred and twenty – can I not say that? If the Princess were to do so, it would be different; remember that – that any flattery she may ever offer you will be on her lips much less discreet. But perhaps she will never have the chance; you may never come again. There are people who have come only once. Vedremo bene. I must tell you that I am not in the least against a young man taking a holiday, a little quiet recreation, once in a while,” Madame Grandoni continued, in her disconnected, discursive, confidential way. “In Rome they take it every five days; that is, no doubt, too often. In Germany, less often. In this country, I cannot understand whether it is an increase of effort: the English Sunday is so difficult! This one will, however, in any case, have been beautiful for you. Be happy, make yourself comfortable; but go home to-morrow!” And with this injunction Madame Grandoni took her way again to the door, while Hyacinth went to open it for her. “I can say that, because it is not my house. I am only here like you. And sometimes I think I also shall go to-morrow!”

“I imagine you have not, like me, your living to get, every day. That is reason enough for me,” said Hyacinth.

She paused in the doorway, with her expressive, ugly, kindly little eyes on his face. “I believe I am nearly as poor as you. And I have not, like you, the appearance of nobility. Yet I am noble,” said the old lady, shaking her wig.

“And I am not!” Hyacinth rejoined, smiling.

“It is better not to be lifted up high, like our friend. It does not give happiness.”

“Not to one’s self, possibly; but to others!” From where they stood, Hyacinth looked out into the great panelled and decorated hall, lighted from above and roofed with a far-away dim fresco, and the reflection of this grandeur came into his appreciative eyes.

“Do you admire everything here very much – do you receive great pleasure?” asked Madame Grandoni.

“Oh, so much – so much!”

She considered him a moment longer. “Poverino!” she murmured, as she turned away.

A couple of hours later the Princess sent for Hyacinth, and he was conducted upstairs, through corridors carpeted with crimson and hung with pictures, and ushered into a kind of bright drawing-room, which he afterwards learned that his hostess regarded as her boudoir. The sound of music had come to him outside the door, so that he was prepared to find her seated at the piano, if not to see her continue to play after he appeared. Her face was turned in the direction from which he entered, and she smiled at him while the servant, as if he had just arrived, formally pronounced his name, without lifting her hands from the keys. The room, placed in an angle of the house and lighted from two sides, was large and sunny, upholstered in fresh, gay chintz, furnished with all sorts of sofas and low, familiar seats and convenient little tables, most of them holding great bowls of early flowers, littered over with books, newspapers, magazines, photographs of celebrities, with their signatures, and full of the marks of luxurious and rather indolent habitation. Hyacinth stood there, not advancing very far, and the Princess, still playing and smiling, nodded toward a seat near the piano. “Put yourself there and listen to me.” Hyacinth obeyed, and she played a long time without glancing at him. This left him the more free to rest his eyes on her own face and person, while she looked about the room, vaguely, absently, but with an expression of quiet happiness, as if she were lost in her music, soothed and pacified by it. A window near her was half open, and the soft clearness of the day and all the odour of the spring diffused themselves, and made the place cheerful and pure. The Princess struck him as extraordinarily young and fair, and she seemed so slim and simple, and friendly too, in spite of having neither abandoned her occupation nor offered him her hand, that he sank back in his seat at last, with the sense that all his uneasiness, his nervous tension, was leaving him, and that he was safe in her kindness, in the free, original way with which she evidently would always treat him. This peculiar manner – half consideration, half fellowship – seemed to him already to have the sweetness of familiarity. She played ever so movingly, with different pieces succeeding each other; he had never listened to music, nor to a talent, of that order. Two or three times she turned her eyes upon him, and then they shone with the wonderful expression which was the essence of her beauty; that profuse, mingled light which seemed to belong to some everlasting summer, and yet to suggest seasons that were past and gone, some experience that was only an exquisite memory. She asked him if he cared for music, and then added, laughing, that she ought to have made sure of this before; while he answered – he had already told her so in South Street; she appeared to have forgotten – that he was awfully fond of it.

The sense of the beauty of women had been given to our young man in a high degree; it was a faculty that made him conscious, to adoration, of every element of loveliness, every delicacy of feature, every shade and tone, that contributed to charm. Even, therefore, if he had appreciated less the deep harmonies the Princess drew from the piano, there would have been no lack of interest in his situation, in such an opportunity to watch her admirable outline and movement, the noble form of her head and face, the gathered-up glories of her hair, the living, flower-like freshness which had no need to turn from the light. She was dressed in fair colours, as simply as a young girl. Before she ceased playing she asked Hyacinth what he would like to do in the afternoon: would he have any objection to taking a drive with her? It was very possible he might enjoy the country. She seemed not to attend to his answer, which was covered by the sound of the piano; but if she had done so it would have left her very little doubt as to the reality of his inclination. She remained gazing at the cornice of the room, while her hands wandered to and fro; then suddenly she stopped, got up and came toward her companion. “It is probable that is the most I shall ever bore you; you know the worst. Would you very kindly close the piano?” He complied with her request, and she went to another part of the room and sank into an arm-chair. When he approached her again she said, “Is it really true that you have never seen a park, nor a garden, nor any of the beauties of nature, and that sort of thing?” She was alluding to something he had said in his letter, when he answered the note by which she proposed to him to run down to Medley; and after he assured her that it was perfectly true she exclaimed, “I’m so glad – I’m so glad! I have never been able to show any one anything new, and I have always thought I should like it so – especially to a sensitive nature. Then you will come and drive with me?” She asked this as if it would be a great favour.

That was the beginning of the communion – so singular, considering their respective positions – which he had come to Medley to enjoy; and it passed into some very remarkable phases. The Princess had the most extraordinary way of taking things for granted, of ignoring difficulties, of assuming that her preferences might be translated into fact. After Hyacinth had remained with her ten minutes longer – a period mainly occupied with her exclamations of delight at his having seen so little of the sort of thing of which Medley consisted (Where should he have seen it, gracious heaven? he asked himself); after she had rested, thus briefly, from her exertions at the piano, she proposed that they should go out-of-doors together. She was an immense walker – she wanted her walk. She left him for a short time, giving him the last number of the Revue des Deux Mondes to entertain himself withal, and calling his attention, in particular, to a story of M. Octave Feuillet (she should be so curious to know what he thought of it); and reappeared with her hat and parasol, drawing on her long gloves, and presenting herself to our young man, at that moment, as a sudden incarnation of the heroine of M. Feuillet’s novel, in which he had instantly become immersed. On their way downstairs it occurred to her that he had not yet seen the house and that it would be amusing for her to show it to him; so she turned aside and took him through it, up and down and everywhere, even into the vast, old-fashioned kitchen, where there was a small, red-faced man in a white jacket and apron and a white cap (he removed the latter ornament to salute the little bookbinder), with whom his companion spoke Italian, which Hyacinth understood sufficiently to perceive that she addressed her cook in the second person singular, as if he had been a feudal retainer. He remembered that was the way the three Musketeers spoke to their lackeys. The Princess explained that the gentleman in the white cap was a delightful creature (she couldn’t endure English servants, though she was obliged to have two or three), who would make her plenty of risottos and polentas – she had quite the palate of a contadina. She showed Hyacinth everything: the queer transmogrified corner that had once been a chapel; the secret stairway which had served in the persecutions of the Catholics (the owners of Medley were, like the Princess herself, of the old persuasion); the musicians’ gallery, over the hall; the tapestried room, which people came from a distance to see; and the haunted chamber (the two were sometimes confounded, but they were quite distinct), where a dreadful individual at certain times made his appearance – a dwarfish ghost, with an enormous head, a dispossessed brother, of long ago (the eldest), who had passed for an idiot, which he wasn’t, and had somehow been made away with. The Princess offered her visitor the privilege of sleeping in this apartment, declaring, however, that nothing would induce her even to enter it alone, she being a benighted creature, consumed with abject superstitions. “I don’t know whether I am religious, and whether, if I were, my religion would be superstitious, but my superstitions are certainly religious.” She made her young friend pass through the drawing-room very cursorily, remarking that they should see it again: it was rather stupid – drawing-rooms in English country-houses were always stupid; indeed, if it would amuse him, they would sit there after dinner. Madame Grandoni and she usually sat upstairs, but they would do anything that he should find more comfortable.

At last they went out of the house together, and as they did so she explained, as if she wished to justify herself against the imputation of extravagance, that, though the place doubtless struck him as absurdly large for a couple of quiet women, and the whole thing was not in the least what she would have preferred, yet it was all far cheaper than he probably imagined; she would never have looked at it if it hadn’t been cheap. It must appear to him so preposterous for a woman to associate herself with the great uprising of the poor and yet live in palatial halls – a place with forty or fifty rooms. This was one of only two allusions she made that day to her democratic sympathies; but it fell very happily, for Hyacinth had been reflecting precisely upon the anomaly she mentioned. It had been present to him all day; it added much to the way life practised on his sense of the tragic-comical to think of the Princess’s having retired to that magnificent residence in order to concentrate her mind upon the London slums. He listened, therefore, with great attention while she related that she had taken the house for only three months, in any case, because she wanted to rest, after a winter of visiting and living in public (as the English spent their lives, with all their celebrated worship of the ‘home’), and yet didn’t wish as yet to return to town – though she was obliged to confess that she had still the place in South Street on her hands, thanks to her deciding unexpectedly to go on with it rather than move out her things. But one had to keep one’s things somewhere, and why wasn’t that as good a receptacle as another? Medley was not what she would have chosen if she had been left to herself; but she had not been left to herself – she never was; she had been bullied into taking it by the owners, whom she had met somewhere and who had made up to her immensely, persuading her that she might really have it for nothing – for no more than she would give for the little honeysuckle cottage, the old parsonage embowered in clematis, which were really what she had been looking for. Besides it was one of those old musty mansions, ever so far from town, which it was always difficult to let, or to get a price for; and then it was a wretched house for living in. Hyacinth, for whom his three hours in the train had been a series of happy throbs, had not been struck with its geographical remoteness, and he asked the Princess what she meant, in such a connection, by using the word ‘wretched’. To this she replied that the place was tumbling to pieces, inconvenient in every respect, full of ghosts and bad smells. “That is the only reason I come to have it. I don’t want you to think me more luxurious than I am, or that I throw away money. Never, never!” Hyacinth had no standard by which he could measure the importance his opinion would have for her, and he perceived that though she judged him as a creature still open to every initiation, whose naïveté would entertain her, it was also her fancy to treat him as an old friend, a person to whom she might have had the habit of referring her difficulties. Her performance of the part she had undertaken to play was certainly complete, and everything lay before him but the reason she had for playing it.

One of the gardens at Medley took the young man’s heart beyond the others; it had high brick walls, on the sunny sides of which was a great training of apricots and plums, and straight walks, bordered with old-fashioned homely flowers, inclosing immense squares where other fruit-trees stood upright and mint and lavender floated in the air. In the southern quarter it overhung a small, disused canal, and here a high embankment had been raised, which was also long and broad and covered with fine turf; so that the top of it, looking down at the canal, made a magnificent grassy terrace, than which, on a summer’s day, there could be no more delightful place for strolling up and down with a companion – all the more that, at either end, was a curious pavilion, in the manner of a tea-house, which completed the scene in an old-world sense and offered rest and privacy, a refuge from sun or shower. One of these pavilions was an asylum for gardeners’ tools and superfluous flower-pots; the other was covered, inside, with a queer Chinese paper, representing ever so many times over a group of people with faces like blind kittens, having tea while they sat on the floor. It also contained a big, clumsy inlaid cabinet, in which cups and saucers showed themselves through doors of greenish glass, together with a carved cocoanut and a pair of outlandish idols. On a shelf, over a sofa, not very comfortable though it had cushions of faded tapestry, which looked like samplers, was a row of novels, out of date and out of print – novels that one couldn’t have found any more and that were only there. On the chimney-piece was a bowl of dried rose-leaves, mixed with some aromatic spice, and the whole place suggested a certain dampness.

On the terrace Hyacinth paced to and fro with the Princess until she suddenly remembered that he had not had his luncheon. He protested that this was the last thing he wished to think of, but she declared that she had not asked him down to Medley to starve him and that he must go back and be fed. They went back, but by a very roundabout way, through the park, so that they really had half an hour’s more talk. She explained to him that she herself breakfasted at twelve o’clock, in the foreign fashion, and had tea in the afternoon; as he too was so foreign he might like that better, and in this case, on the morrow, they would breakfast together. He could have coffee, and anything else he wanted, brought to his room when he woke up. When Hyacinth had sufficiently composed himself, in the presence of this latter image – he thought he saw a footman arranging a silver service at his bedside – he mentioned that really, as regarded the morrow, he should have to be back in London. There was a train at nine o’clock; he hoped she didn’t mind his taking it. She looked at him a moment, gravely and kindly, as if she were considering an abstract idea, and then she said, “Oh yes, I mind it very much. Not to-morrow – some other day.” He made no rejoinder, and the Princess spoke of something else; that is, his rejoinder was private, and consisted of the reflection that he would leave Medley in the morning, whatever she might say. He simply couldn’t afford to stay; he couldn’t be out of work. And then Madame Grandoni thought it so important; for though the old lady was obscure she was decidedly impressive. The Princess’s protest, however, was to be reckoned with; he felt that it might take a form less cursory than the words she had just uttered, which would make it embarrassing. She was less solemn, less explicit, than Madame Grandoni had been, but there was something in her slight seriousness and the delicate way in which she signified a sort of command that seemed to tell him his liberty was going – the liberty he had managed to keep (till the other day, when he gave Hoffendahl a mortgage on it), and the possession of which had in some degree consoled him for other forms of penury. This made him uneasy; what would become of him if he should add another servitude to the one he had undertaken, at the end of that long, anxious cab-drive in the rain, in that dim back-bedroom of a house as to whose whereabouts he was even now not clear, while Muniment and Poupin and Schinkel, all visibly pale, listened and accepted the vow? Muniment and Poupin and Schinkel – how disconnected, all the same, he felt from them at the present hour; how little he was the young man who had made the pilgrimage in the cab; and how the two latter, at least, if they could have a glimpse of him now, would wonder what he was up to!

As to this, Hyacinth wondered sufficiently himself, while the Princess touched upon the people and places she had seen, the impressions and conclusions she had gathered, since their former meeting. It was to such matters as these that she directed the conversation; she appeared to wish to keep it off his own concerns, and he was surprised at her continued avoidance of the slums and the question of her intended sacrifices. She mentioned none of her friends by name, but she talked of their character, their houses, their manners, taking for granted, as before, that Hyacinth would always follow. So far as he followed he was edified, but he had to admit to himself that half the time he didn’t know what she was talking about. At all events, if he had been with the dukes (she didn’t call her associates dukes, but Hyacinth was sure they were of that order), he would have got more satisfaction from them. She appeared, on the whole, to judge the English world severely; to think poorly of its wit, and even worse of its morals. “You know people oughtn’t to be both corrupt and dull,” she said; and Hyacinth turned this over, feeling that he certainly had not yet caught the point of view of a person for whom the aristocracy was a collection of bores. He had sometimes taken great pleasure in hearing that it was fabulously profligate, but he was rather disappointed in the bad account the Princess gave of it. She remarked that she herself was very corrupt – she ought to have mentioned that before – but she had never been accused of being stupid. Perhaps he would discover it, but most of the people she had had to do with thought her only too lively. The second allusion that she made to their ulterior designs (Hyacinth’s and hers) was when she said, “I determined to see it” – she was speaking still of English society – “to learn for myself what it really is, before we blow it up. I have been here now a year and a half, and, as I tell you, I feel that I have seen. It is the old régime again, the rottenness and extravagance, bristling with every iniquity and every abuse, over which the French Revolution passed like a whirlwind; or perhaps even more a reproduction of Roman society in its decadence, gouty, apoplectic, depraved, gorged and clogged with wealth and spoils, selfishness and scepticism, and waiting for the onset of the barbarians. You and I are the barbarians, you know.” The Princess was pretty general, after all, in her animadversions, and regaled him with no anecdotes (he rather missed them) that would have betrayed the hospitality she had enjoyed. She couldn’t treat him absolutely as if he had been an ambassador. By way of defending the aristocracy he said to her that it couldn’t be true they were all a bad lot (he used that expression because she had let him know that she liked him to speak in the manner of the people), inasmuch as he had an acquaintance among them – a noble lady – who was one of the purest, kindest, most conscientious human beings it was possible to imagine. At this she stopped short and looked at him; then she asked, “Whom do you mean – a noble lady?”

“I suppose there is no harm saying. Lady Aurora Langrish.”

“I don’t know her. Is she nice?”

“I like her ever so much.”

“Is she pretty, clever?”

“She isn’t pretty, but she is very uncommon,” said Hyacinth.

“How did you make her acquaintance?” As he hesitated, she went on, “Did you bind some books for her?”

“No. I met her in a place called Audley Court.”

“Where is that?”

“In Camberwell.”

“And who lives there?”

“A young woman I was calling on, who is bedridden.”

“And the lady you speak of – what do you call her, Lydia Languish? – goes to see her?”

“Yes, very often.”

The Princess was silent a moment, looking at him. “Will you take me there?”

“With great pleasure. The young woman I speak of is the sister of the chemist’s assistant you will perhaps remember that I mentioned to you.”

“Yes, I remember. It must be one of the first places we go to. I am sorry,” the Princess added, walking on. Hyacinth inquired what she might be sorry for, but she took no notice of his question, and presently remarked, “Perhaps she goes to see him.”

“Goes to see whom?”

“The chemist’s assistant – the brother.” She said this very seriously.

“Perhaps she does,” Hyacinth rejoined, laughing. “But she is a fine sort of woman.”

The Princess repeated that she was sorry, and he again asked her for what – for Lady Aurora’s being of that sort? To which she replied, “No; I mean for my not being the first – what is it you call them? – noble lady that you have encountered.”

“I don’t see what difference that makes. You needn’t be afraid you don’t make an impression on me.”

“I was not thinking of that. I was thinking that you might be less fresh than I thought.”

“Of course I don’t know what you thought,” said Hyacinth, smiling.

“No; how should you?”

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