The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

23

He was in the library, after luncheon, when word was brought to him that the carriage was at the door, for their drive; and when he went into the hall he found Madame Grandoni, bonneted and cloaked, awaiting the descent of the Princess. “You see I go with you. I am always there,” she remarked, jovially. “The Princess has me with her to take care of her, and this is how I do it. Besides, I never miss my drive.”

“You are different from me; this will be the first I have ever had in my life.” He could establish that distinction without bitterness, because he was too pleased with his prospect to believe the old lady’s presence could spoil it. He had nothing to say to the Princess that she might not hear. He didn’t dislike her for coming, even after she had said to him, in answer to his own announcement, speaking rather more sententiously than was her wont, “It doesn’t surprise me that you have not spent your life in carriages. They have nothing to do with your trade.”

“Fortunately not,” he answered. “I should have made a ridiculous coachman.”

The Princess appeared, and they mounted into a great square barouche, an old-fashioned, high-hung vehicle, with a green body, a faded hammer-cloth and a rumble where the footman sat (the Princess mentioned that it had been let with the house), which rolled ponderously and smoothly along the winding avenue and through the gilded gates (they were surmounted with an immense escutcheon) of the park. The progress of this oddly composed trio had a high respectability, and that is one of the reasons why Hyacinth felt the occasion to be tremendously memorable. There might still be greater joys in store for him – he was by this time quite at sea, and could recognise no shores – but he would never again in his life be so respectable. The drive was long and comprehensive, but very little was said while it lasted. “I shall show you the whole country: it is exquisitely beautiful; it speaks to the heart.” Of so much as this his hostess had informed him at the start; and she added, in French, with a light, allusive nod at the rich, humanised landscape, “Voilà ce que j’aime en Angleterre.” For the rest, she sat there opposite to him, in quiet fairness, under her softly-swaying, lace-fringed parasol: moving her eyes to where she noticed that his eyes rested; allowing them, when the carriage passed anything particularly charming, to meet his own; smiling as if she enjoyed the whole affair very nearly as much as he; and now and then calling his attention to some prospect, some picturesque detail, by three words of which the cadence was sociable. Madame Grandoni dozed most of the time, with her chin resting on rather a mangy ermine tippet, in which she had enveloped herself; expanding into consciousness at moments, however, to greet the scenery with comfortable polyglot ejaculations. If Hyacinth was exalted, during these delightful hours, he at least measured his exaltation, and it kept him almost solemnly still, as if with the fear that a wrong movement of any sort would break the charm, cause the curtain to fall upon the play. This was especially the case when his senses oscillated back from the objects that sprang up by the way, every one of which was a rich image of something he had longed for, to the most beautiful woman in England, who sat there, close to him, as completely for his benefit as if he had been a painter engaged to make her portrait. More than once he saw everything through a mist; his eyes were full of tears.

That evening they sat in the drawing-room after dinner, as the Princess had promised, or, as he was inclined to consider it, threatened him. The force of the threat was in his prevision that the ladies would make themselves fine, and that in contrast with the setting and company he should feel dingier than ever; having already on his back the only tolerably decent coat he possessed, and being unable to exchange it for a garment of the pattern that civilised people (so much he knew, if he couldn’t emulate them) put on about eight o’clock. The ladies, when they came to dinner, looked festal indeed; but Hyacinth was able to make the reflection that he was more pleased to be dressed as he was dressed, meanly and unsuitably as it was, than he should have been to present such a figure as Madame Grandoni, in whose toggery there was something comical. He was coming more and more round to the sense that if the Princess didn’t mind his poorness, in every way, he had no call to mind it himself. His present circumstances were not of his seeking – they had been forced upon him; they were not the fruit of a disposition to push. How little the Princess minded – how much, indeed, she enjoyed the consciousness that in having him about her in that manner she was playing a trick upon society, the false and conventional society she had measured and despised – was manifest from the way she had introduced him to the people they found awaiting them in the hall on the return from their drive: four ladies, a mother and three daughters, who had come over to call, from Broome, a place some five miles off. Broome was also a great house, as he gathered, and Lady Marchant, the mother, was the wife of a county magnate. She explained that they had come in on the persuasion of the butler, who had represented the return of the Princess as imminent, and who then had administered tea without waiting for this event. The evening had drawn in chill; there was a fire in the hall, and they all sat near it, round the tea-table, under the great roof which rose to the top of the house. Hyacinth conversed mainly with one of the daughters, a very fine girl with a straight back and long arms, whose neck was encircled so tightly with a fur boa that, to look a little to one side, she was obliged to move her whole body. She had a handsome, inanimate face, over which the firelight played without making it more lively, a beautiful voice, and the occasional command of a few short words. She asked Hyacinth with what pack he hunted, and whether he went in much for tennis, and she ate three muffins.

Our young man perceived that Lady Marchant and her daughters had already been at Medley, and even guessed that their reception by the Princess, who probably thought them of a tiresome type, had not been enthusiastic; and his imagination projected itself, further still, into the motives which, in spite of this tepidity, must have led them, in consideration of the rarity of princesses in that country, to come a second time. The talk, in the firelight, while Hyacinth laboured, rather recklessly (for the spirit of the occasion, on his hostess’s part, was passing into his own blood), with his muffin-eating beauty – the conversation, accompanied with the light click of delicate tea-cups, was as well-bred as could be consistent with an odd, evident parti-pris of the Princess’s to make poor Lady Marchant explain everything. With great urbanity of manner, she professed complete inability to understand the sense in which her visitor meant her thin remarks; and Hyacinth was scarcely able to follow her here, he wondered so what interest she could have in trying to appear dense. It was only afterwards he learned that the Marchant family produced a very peculiar, and at moments almost maddening, effect upon her nerves. He asked himself what would happen to that member of it with whom he was engaged if it should be revealed to her that she was conversing (how little soever) with a beggarly London artisan; and though he was rather pleased at her not having discovered his station (for he didn’t attribute her brevity to this idea), he entertained a little the question of its being perhaps his duty not to keep it hidden from her, not to flourish in a cowardly disguise. What did she take him for – or, rather, what didn’t she take him for – when she asked him if he hunted? Perhaps that was because it was rather dark; if there had been more light in the great vague hall she would have seen he was not one of themselves. Hyacinth felt that by this time he had associated a good deal with swells, but they had always known what he was and had been able to elect how to treat him. This was the first occasion on which a young gentlewoman had not been warned, and, as a consequence, he appeared to pass muster. He determined not to unmask himself, on the simple ground that he should by the same stroke betray the Princess. It was quite open to her to lean over and say to Miss Marchant, “You know he’s a wretched little bookbinder, earning a few shillings a week in a horrid street in Soho. There are all kinds of low things – and I suspect even something very horrible – connected with his birth. It seems to me I ought to mention it.” He almost wished she would mention it, for the sake of the strange, violent sensation of the thing, a curiosity quivering within him to know what Miss Marchant would do at such a pinch, and what chorus of ejaculations – or, what appalled, irremediable silence – would rise to the painted roof. The responsibility, however, was not his; he had entered a phase of his destiny where responsibilities were suspended. Madame Grandoni’s tea had waked her up; she came, at every crisis, to the rescue of the conversation, and talked to the visitors about Rome, where they had once spent a winter, describing with much drollery the manner in which the English families she had seen there for nearly half a century (and had met, of an evening, in the Roman world) inspected the ruins and monuments and squeezed into the great ceremonies of the church. Clearly, the four ladies didn’t know what to make of the Princess; but, though they perhaps wondered if she were a paid companion, they were on firm ground in the fact that the queer, familiar, fat person had been acquainted with the Millingtons, the Bunburys and the Tripps.

After dinner (during which the Princess allowed herself a considerable license of pleasantry on the subject of her recent visitors, declaring that Hyacinth must positively go with her to return their call, and must see their interior, their manner at home), Madame Grandoni sat down to the piano, at Christina’s request, and played to her companions for an hour. The spaces were large in the big drawing-room, and our friends had placed themselves at a distance from each other. The old lady’s music trickled forth discreetly into the pleasant dimness of the candlelight; she knew dozens of Italian local airs, which sounded like the forgotten tunes of a people, and she followed them by a series of tender, plaintive German Lieder, awaking, without violence, the echoes of the high, pompous apartment. It was the music of an old woman, and seemed to quaver a little, as her singing might have done. The Princess, buried in a deep chair, listened, behind her fan. Hyacinth at least supposed she listened; at any rate, she never moved. At last Madame Grandoni left the piano and came toward the young man. She had taken up, on the way, a French book, in a pink cover, which she nursed in the hollow of her arm, and she stood looking at Hyacinth.

“My poor little friend, I must bid you good-night. I shall not see you again for the present, as, to take your early train, you will have left the house before I put on my wig – and I never show myself to gentlemen without it. I have looked after the Princess pretty well, all day, to keep her from harm, and now I give her up to you, for a little. Take the same care, I beg you. I must put myself into my dressing-gown; at my age, at this hour, it is the only thing. What will you have? I hate to be tight,” pursued Madame Grandoni, who appeared even in her ceremonial garment to have evaded this discomfort successfully enough. “Do not sit up late,” she added; “and do not keep him, Christina. Remember that for an active young man like Mr Robinson, going every day to his work, there is nothing more exhausting than such an unoccupied life as ours. For what do we do, after all? His eyes are very heavy. Basta!”

During this little address the Princess, who made no rejoinder to that part of it which concerned herself, remained hidden behind her fan; but after Madame Grandoni had wandered away she lowered this emblazoned shield and rested her eyes for a while on Hyacinth. At last she said, “Don’t sit half a mile off. Come nearer to me. I want to say something to you that I can’t shout across the room.” Hyacinth instantly got up, but at the same moment she also rose; so that, approaching each other, they met half-way, before the great marble chimney-piece. She stood a little, opening and closing her fan; then she remarked, “You must be surprised at my not having yet spoken to you about our great interest.”

“No, indeed, I am not surprised at anything.”

“When you take that tone I feel as if we should never, after all, become friends,” said the Princess.

“I hoped we were, already. Certainly, after the kindness you have shown me, there is no service of friendship that you might ask of me —”

“That you wouldn’t gladly perform? I know what you are going to say, and have no doubt you speak truly. But what good would your service do me if, all the while, you think of me as a hollow-headed, hollow-hearted trifler, behaving in the worst possible taste and oppressing you with her attentions? Perhaps you can think of me as – what shall I call it? – as a kind of coquette.”

Hyacinth demurred. “That would be very conceited.”

“Surely, you have the right to be as conceited as you please, after the advances I have made you! Pray, who has a better one? But you persist in remaining humble, and that is very provoking.”

“It is not I that am provoking; it is life, and society, and all the difficulties that surround us.”

“I am precisely of that opinion – that they are exasperating; that when I appeal to you, frankly, candidly, disinterestedly – simply because I like you, for no other reason in the world – to help me to disregard and surmount these obstructions, to treat them with the contempt they deserve, you drop your eyes, you even blush a little, and make yourself small, and try to edge out of the situation by pleading general devotion and insignificance. Please remember this: you cease to be insignificant from the moment I have anything to do with you. My dear fellow,” the Princess went on, in her free, audacious, fraternising way, to which her beauty and simplicity gave nobleness, “there are people who would be very glad to enjoy, in your place, that form of obscurity.”

“What do you wish me to do?” Hyacinth asked, as quietly as he could.

If he had had an idea that this question, to which, as coming from his lips, and even as being uttered with perceptible impatience, a certain unexpectedness might attach, would cause her a momentary embarrassment, he was completely out in his calculation. She answered on the instant: “I want you to give me time! That’s all I ask of my friends, in general – all I ever asked of the best I have had. But none of them ever did it; none of them, that is, save the excellent creature who has just left us. She understood me long ago.”

“That’s all I, on my side, ask of you,” said Hyacinth, smiling. “Give me time, give me time,” he murmured, looking up at her splendour.

“Dear Mr Hyacinth, I have given you mouths! – months since our first meeting. And at present, haven’t I given you the whole day? It has been intentional, my not speaking to you of our plans. Yes, our plans; I know what I am saying. Don’t try to look stupid; you will never succeed. I wished to leave you free to amuse yourself.”

“Oh, I have amused myself,” said Hyacinth.

“You would have been very fastidious if you hadn’t! However, that is precisely, in the first place, what I wished you to come here for. To observe the impression made by such a place as this on such a nature as yours, introduced to it for the first time, has been, I assure you, quite worth my while. I have already given you a hint of how extraordinary I think it that you should be what you are without having seen – what shall I call them? – beautiful, delightful old things. I have been watching you; I am frank enough to tell you that. I want you to see more – more – more!” the Princess exclaimed, with a sudden flicker of passion. “And I want to talk with you about this matter, as well as others. That will be for to-morrow.”

“To-morrow?”

“I noticed Madame Grandoni took for granted just now that you are going. But that has nothing to do with the business. She has so little imagination!”

Hyacinth shook his head, smiling. “I can’t stay!” He had an idea his mind was made up.

She returned his smile, but there was something strangely touching – it was so sad, yet, as a rebuke, so gentle – in the tone in which she replied, “You oughtn’t to force me to beg. It isn’t nice.”

He had reckoned without that tone; all his reasons suddenly seemed to fall from under him, to liquefy. He remained a moment, looking on the ground; then he said, “Princess, you have no idea – how should you have? – into the midst of what abject, pitiful preoccupations you thrust yourself. I have no money – I have no clothes.”

“What do you want of money? This isn’t an hotel.”

“Every day I stay here I lose a day’s wages; and I live on my wages from day to day.”

“Let me, then, give you wages. You will work for me.”

“What do you mean – work for you?”

“You will bind all my books. I have ever so many foreign ones, in paper.”

“You speak as if I had brought my tools!”

“No, I don’t imagine that. I will give you the wages now, and you can do the work, at your leisure and convenience, afterwards. Then, if you want anything, you can go over to Bonchester and buy it. There are very good shops; I have used them.” Hyacinth thought of a great many things at this juncture; the Princess had that quickening effect upon him. Among others, he thought of these two: first, that it was indelicate (though such an opinion was not very strongly held either in Pentonville or in Soho) to accept money from a woman; and second, that it was still more indelicate to make such a woman as that go down on her knees to him. But it took more than a minute for one of these convictions to prevail over the other, and before that he had heard the Princess continue, in the tone of mild, disinterested argument: “If we believe in the coming democracy, if it seems to us right and just, and we hold that in sweeping over the world the great wave will wash away a myriad iniquities and cruelties, why not make some attempt, with our own poor means – for one must begin somewhere – to carry out the spirit of it in our lives and our manners? I want to do that. I try to do it – in my relations with you, for instance. But you hang back; you are not democratic!”

The Princess accusing him of a patrician offishness was a very fine stroke; nevertheless it left him lucidity enough (though he still hesitated an instant, wondering whether the words would not offend her) to say, with a smile, “I have been strongly warned against you.”

The offence seemed not to touch her. “I can easily understand that. Of course my proceedings – though, after all, I have done little enough as yet – must appear most unnatural. Che vuole? as Madame Grandoni says.”

A certain knot of light blue ribbon, which formed part of the trimming of her dress, hung down, at her side, in the folds of it. On these glossy loops Hyacinth’s eyes happened for a moment to have rested, and he now took one of them up and carried it to his lips. “I will do all the work for you that you will give me. If you give it on purpose, by way of munificence, that is your own affair. I myself will estimate the price. What decides me is that I shall do it so well; at least it shall be better than any one else can do – so that if you employ me there will have been that reason. I have brought you a book – so you can see. I did it for you last year, and went to South Street to give it to you, but you had already gone.”

“Give it to me to-morrow.” These words appeared to express so exclusively the calmness of relief at finding that he could be reasonable, as well as that of a friendly desire to see the proof of his talent, that he was surprised when she said, in the next breath, irrelevantly, “Who was it warned you against me?”

He feared she might suppose he meant Madame Grandoni, so he made the plainest answer, having no desire to betray the old lady, and reflecting that, as the likelihood was small that his friend in Camberwell would ever consent to meet the Princess (in spite of her plan of going there), no one would be hurt by it. “A friend of mine in London – Paul Muniment.”

“Paul Muniment?”

“I think I mentioned him to you the first time we met.”

“The person who said something good? I forget what it was.”

“It was sure to be something good if he said it; he is very wise.”

“That makes his warning very flattering to me! What does he know about me?”

“Oh, nothing, of course, except the little that I could tell him. He only spoke on general grounds.”

“I like his name – Paul Muniment,” the Princess said. “If he resembles it, I think I should like him.”

“You would like him much better than me.”

“How do you know how much – or how little – I like you? I am determined to keep hold of you, simply for what you can show me.” She paused a moment, with her beautiful, intelligent eyes smiling into his own, and then she continued, “On general grounds, bien entendu, your friend was quite right to warn you. Now those general grounds are just what I have undertaken to make as small as possible. It is to reduce them to nothing that I talk to you, that I conduct myself with regard to you as I have done. What in the world is it I am trying to do but, by every device that my ingenuity suggests, fill up the inconvenient gulf that yawns between my position and yours? You know what I think of ‘positions’; I told you in London. For Heaven’s sake, let me feel that I have – a little – succeeded!” Hyacinth satisfied her sufficiently to enable her, five minutes later, apparently to entertain no further doubt on the question of his staying over. On the contrary, she burst into a sudden ebullition of laughter, exchanging her bright, lucid insistence for one of her singular sallies. “You must absolutely go with me to call on the Marchants; it will be too delightful to see you there!”

As he walked up and down the empty drawing-room it occurred to him to ask himself whether that was mainly what she was keeping him for – so that he might help her to play one of her tricks on the good people at Broome. He paced there, in the still candlelight, for a longer time than he measured; until the butler came and stood in the doorway, looking at him silently and fixedly, as if to let him know that he interfered with the custom of the house. He had told the Princess that what determined him was the thought of the manner in which he might exercise his craft in her service; but this was only half the influence that pressed him into forgetfulness of what he had most said to himself when, in Lomax Place, in an hour of unprecedented introspection, he wrote the letter by which he accepted the invitation to Medley. He would go there (so he said) because a man must be gallant, especially if he be a little bookbinder; but after he should be there he would insist at every step upon knowing what he was in for. The change that had taken place in him now, from one moment to another, was that he had simply ceased to care what he was in for. All warnings, reflections, considerations of verisimilitude, of the delicate, the natural and the possible, of the value of his independence, had become as nothing to him. The cup of an exquisite experience – a week in that enchanted palace, a week of such immunity from Lomax Place and old Crookenden as he had never dreamed of – was at his lips; it was purple with the wine of novelty, of civilisation, and he couldn’t push it aside without drinking. He might go home ashamed, but he would have for evermore in his mouth the taste of nectar. He went upstairs, under the eye of the butler, and on his way to his room, at the turning of a corridor, found himself face to face with Madame Grandoni. She had apparently just issued from her own apartment, the door of which stood open, near her; she might have been hovering there in expectation of his footstep. She had donned her dressing-gown, which appeared to give her every facility for respiration, but she had not yet parted with her wig. She still had her pink French book under her arm; and her fat little hands, tightly locked together in front of her, formed the clasp of her generous girdle.

“Do tell me it is positive, Mr Robinson!” she said, stopping short.

“What is positive, Madame Grandoni?”

“That you take the train in the morning.”

“I can’t tell you that, because it wouldn’t be true. On the contrary, it has been settled that I shall stay over. I am very sorry if it distresses you – but che vuole?” Hyacinth added, smiling.

Madame Grandoni was a humorous woman, but she gave him no smile in return; she only looked at him a moment, and then, shrugging her shoulders silently but expressively, shuffled back to her room.

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