The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

25

Hyacinth took several long walks by himself, beyond the gates of the park and through the neighbouring country – walks during which, committed as he was to reflection on the general ‘rumness’ of his destiny, he had still a delighted attention to spare for the green dimness of leafy lanes; the attraction of meadow-paths that led from stile to stile and seemed a clue to some pastoral happiness, some secret of the fields; the hedges thick with flowers, bewilderingly common, for which he knew no names; the picture-making quality of thatched cottages, the mystery and sweetness of blue distances, the bloom of rural complexions, the quaintness of little girls bobbing curtsies by waysides (a sort of homage he had never prefigured); the soft sense of the turf under feet that had never ached but from paving-stones. One morning, as he had his face turned homeward, after a long stroll, he heard behind him the sound of a horse’s hoofs, and, looking back, perceived a gentleman, who would presently pass him, advancing up the road which led to the lodge-gates of Medley. He went his way, and, as the horse overtook him, noticed that the rider slackened pace. Then he turned again, and recognised in this personage his brilliant occasional friend Captain Sholto. The Captain pulled up alongside of him, saluting him with a smile and a movement of the whip-handle. Hyacinth stared with surprise, not having heard from the Princess that she was expecting him. He gathered, however, in a moment, that she was not; and meanwhile he received an impression, on Sholto’s part, of riding-gear that was ‘knowing’ – of gaiters and spurs and a curious waistcoat; perceiving that this was a phase of the Captain’s varied nature which he had not yet had an opportunity to observe. He struck him as very high in the air, perched on his big, lean chestnut, and Hyacinth noticed that if the horse was heated the rider was cool.

“Good-morning, my dear fellow. I thought I should find you here!” the Captain exclaimed. “It’s a good job I’ve met you this way, without having to go to the house.”

“Who gave you reason to think I was here?” Hyacinth asked; partly occupied with the appositeness of this inquiry and partly thinking, as his eyes wandered over his handsome friend, bestriding so handsome a beast, what a jolly thing it would be to know how to ride. He had already, during the few days he had been at Medley, had time to observe that the knowledge of luxury and the extension of one’s sensations beget a taste for still newer pleasures.

“Why, I knew the Princess was capable of asking you,” Sholto said; “and I learned at the ‘Sun and Moon’ that you had not been there for a long time. I knew furthermore that as a general thing you go there a good deal, don’t you? So I put this and that together, and judged you were out of town.”

This was very luminous and straightforward, and might have satisfied Hyacinth, were it not for that irritating reference to the Princess’s being ‘capable of asking him’. He knew as well as the Captain that it had been tremendously eccentric in her to do so, but somehow a transformation had lately taken place in him which made it disagreeable for him to receive that view from another, and particularly from a gentleman of whom, on a certain occasion, several months before, he had had strong grounds for thinking unfavourably. He had not seen Sholto since the evening when a queer combination of circumstances caused him, more queerly still, to sit and listen to comic songs in the company of Millicent Henning and this admirer. The Captain did not conceal his admiration; Hyacinth had his own ideas about his taking that line in order to look more innocent. That evening, when he accompanied Millicent to her lodgings (they parted with Sholto on coming out of the Pavilion), the situation was tense between the young lady and her childhood’s friend. She let him have it, as she said; she gave him a dressing which she evidently intended should be memorable, for having suspected her, for having insulted her before a military gentleman. The tone she took, and the magnificent audacity with which she took it, reduced him to a kind of gratified helplessness; he watched her at last with something of the excitement with which he would have watched a clever but uncultivated actress, while she worked herself into a passion which he believed to be fictitious. He gave more credence to his jealousy and to the whole air of the case than to her vehement repudiations, enlivened though these were by tremendous head-tossings and skirt-shakings. But he felt baffled and outfaced, and took refuge in sarcasms which after all proved as little as her high gibes; seeking a final solution in one of those beastly little French shrugs, as Millicent called them, with which she had already reproached him with interlarding his conversation.

The air was never cleared, though the subject of their dispute was afterwards dropped, Hyacinth promising himself to watch his playmate as he had never done before. She let him know, as may well be supposed, that she had her eye on him, and it must be confessed that as regards the exercise of a right of supervision he had felt himself at a disadvantage ever since the night at the theatre. It mattered little that she had pushed him into the Princess’s box (for she herself had not been jealous beforehand; she had wanted too much to know what such a person could be ‘up to’, desiring, perhaps, to borrow a hint), and it mattered little, also, that his relations with the great lady were all for the sake of suffering humanity; the atmosphere, none the less, was full of thunder for many weeks, and it scarcely signified from which quarter the flash and the explosion proceeded. Hyacinth was a good deal surprised to find that he should care whether Millicent deceived him or not, and even tried to persuade himself that he didn’t; but there was a grain of conviction in his heart that some kind of personal affinity existed between them and that it would torment him more never to see her at all than to see her go into tantrums in order to cover her tracks. An inner sense told him that her mingled beauty and grossness, her vulgar vitality, the spirit of contradiction yet at the same time of attachment that was in her, had ended by making her indispensable to him. She bored him as much as she irritated him; but if she was full of execrable taste she was also full of life, and her rustlings and chatterings, her wonderful stories, her bad grammar and good health, her insatiable thirst, her shrewd perceptions and grotesque opinions, her mistakes and her felicities, were now all part of the familiar human sound of his little world. He could say to himself that she came after him much more than he went after her, and this helped him, a little, to believe, though the logic was but lame, that she was not making a fool of him. If she were really taking up with a swell he didn’t see why she wished to retain a bookbinder. Of late, it must be added, he had ceased to devote much consideration to Millicent’s ambiguities; for although he was lingering on at Medley for the sake of suffering humanity he was quite aware that to say so (if she should ask him for a reason) would have almost as absurd a sound as some of the girl’s own speeches. As regards Sholto, he was in the awkward position of having let him off, as it were, by accepting his hospitality, his bounty; so that he couldn’t quarrel with him except on a fresh pretext. This pretext the Captain had apparently been careful not to give, and Millicent had told him, after the triple encounter in the street, that he had driven him out of England, the poor gentleman whom he insulted by his low insinuations even more (why ‘even more’ Hyacinth hardly could think) than he outraged herself. When he asked her what she knew about the Captain’s movements she made no scruple to announce to him that the latter had come to her great shop to make a little purchase (it was a pair of silk braces, if she remembered rightly, and she admitted, perfectly, the transparency of the pretext), and had asked her with much concern whether his gifted young friend (that’s what he called him – Hyacinth could see he meant well) was still in a huff. Millicent had answered that she was afraid he was – the more shame to him; and then the Captain had said that it didn’t matter, for he himself was on the point of leaving England for several weeks (Hyacinth – he called him Hyacinth this time – couldn’t have ideas about a man in a foreign country, could he?), and he hoped that by the time he returned the little cloud would have blown over. Sholto had added that she had better tell him frankly – recommending her at the same time to be gentle with their morbid friend – about his visit to the shop. Their candour, their humane precautions, were all very well; but after this, two or three evenings, Hyacinth passed and repassed the Captain’s chambers in Queen Anne Street, to see if, at the window, there were signs of his being in London. Darkness, however, prevailed, and he was forced to comfort himself a little when, at last making up his mind to ring at the door and inquire, by way of a test, for the occupant, he was informed, by the superior valet whose acquaintance he had already made, and whose air of wearing a jacket left behind by his master confirmed the statement, that the gentleman in question was at Monte Carlo.

“Have you still got your back up a little?” the Captain demanded, without rancour; and in a moment he had swung a long leg over the saddle and dismounted, walking beside his young friend and leading his horse by the bridle. Hyacinth pretended not to know what he meant, for it came over him that after all, even if he had not condoned, at the time, the Captain’s suspected treachery, he was in no position, sitting at the feet of the Princess, to sound the note of jealousy in relation to another woman. He reflected that the Princess had originally been, in a manner, Sholto’s property, and if he did en fin de compte wish to quarrel with him about Millicent he would have to cease to appear to poach on the Captain’s preserves. It now occurred to him, for the first time, that the latter had intended a kind of exchange; though it must be added that the Princess, who on a couple of occasions had alluded slightingly to her military friend, had given him no sign of recognising this gentleman’s claim. Sholto let him know, at present, that he was staying at Bonchester, seven miles off; he had come down from London and put up at the inn. That morning he had ridden over on a hired horse (Hyacinth had supposed this steed was a very fine animal, but Sholto spoke of it as an infernal screw); he had been taken by the sudden fancy of seeing how his young friend was coming on.

“I’m coming on very well, thank you,” said Hyacinth, with some shortness, not knowing exactly what business it was of the Captain’s.

“Of course you understand my interest in you, don’t you? I’m responsible for you – I put you forward.”

“There are a great many things in the world that I don’t understand, but I think the thing I understand least is your interest in me. Why the devil —” And Hyacinth paused, breathless with the force of his inquiry. Then he went on, “If I were you, I shouldn’t care a filbert for the sort of person that I happen to be.”

“That proves how different my nature is from yours! But I don’t believe it, my boy; you are too generous for that.” Sholto’s imperturbability always appeared to grow with the irritation it produced, and it was proof even against the just resentment excited by his want of tact. That want of tact was sufficiently marked when he went on to say, “I wanted to see you here, with my own eyes. I wanted to see how it looked; it is a rum sight! Of course you know what I mean, though you are always trying to make a fellow explain. I don’t explain well, in any sense, and that’s why I go in only for clever people, who can do without it. It’s very grand, her having brought you down.”

“Grand, no doubt, but hardly surprising, considering that, as you say, I was put forward by you.”

“Oh, that’s a great thing for me, but it doesn’t make any difference to her!” Sholto exclaimed. “She may care for certain things for themselves, but it will never signify a jot to her what I may have thought about them. One good turn deserves another. I wish you would put me forward!”

“I don’t understand you, and I don’t think I want to,” said Hyacinth, as his companion strolled beside him.

The latter put a hand on his arm, stopping him, and they stood face to face a moment. “I say, my dear Robinson, you’re not spoiled already, at the end of a week – how long is it? It isn’t possible you’re jealous!”

“Jealous of whom?” asked Hyacinth, whose failure to comprehend was perfectly genuine.

Sholto looked at him a moment; then, with a laugh, “I don’t mean Miss Henning.” Hyacinth turned away, and the Captain resumed his walk, now taking the young man’s arm and passing his own through the bridle of the horse. “The courage of it, the insolence, the crânerie! There isn’t another woman in Europe who could carry it off.”

Hyacinth was silent a little; after which he remarked, “This is nothing, here. You should have seen me the other day over at Broome, at Lady Marchant’s.”

“Gad, did she take you there? I’d have given ten pounds to see it. There’s no one like her!” cried the Captain, gaily, enthusiastically.

“There’s no one like me, I think – for going.”

“Why, didn’t you enjoy it?”

“Too much – too much. Such excesses are dangerous.”

“Oh, I’ll back you,” said the Captain; then, checking their pace, he inquired, “Is there any chance of our meeting her? I won’t go into the park.”

“You won’t go to the house?” Hyacinth demanded, staring.

“Oh dear, no, not while you’re there.”

“Well, I shall ask the Princess about you, and have done with it, once for all.”

“Lucky little beggar, with your fireside talks!” the Captain exclaimed. “Where does she sit now, in the evening? She won’t tell you anything except that I’m a nuisance; but even if she were willing to take the trouble to throw some light upon me it wouldn’t be of much use, because she doesn’t understand me herself.”

“You are the only thing in the world then of which that can be said,” Hyacinth returned.

“I dare say I am, and I am rather proud of it. So far as the head is concerned, the Princess is all there. I told you, when I presented you, that she was the cleverest woman in Europe, and that is still my opinion. But there are some mysteries you can’t see into unless you happen to have a little heart. The Princess hasn’t, though doubtless just now you think that’s her strong point. One of these days you’ll see. I don’t care a straw, myself, whether she has or not. She has hurt me already so much she can’t hurt me any more, and my interest in her is quite independent of that. To watch her, to adore her, to see her lead her life and act out her extraordinary nature, all the while she treats me like a brute, is the only thing I care for to-day. It doesn’t do me a scrap of good, but, all the same, it’s my principal occupation. You may believe me or not – it doesn’t in the least matter; but I’m the most disinterested human being alive. She’ll tell you I’m a tremendous ass, and so one is. But that isn’t all.”

It was Hyacinth who stopped this time, arrested by something new and natural in the tone of his companion, a simplicity of emotion which he had not hitherto associated with him. He stood there a moment looking up at him, and thinking again what improbable confidences it decidedly appeared to be his lot to receive from gentlefolks. To what quality in himself were they a tribute? The honour was one he could easily dispense with; though as he scrutinised Sholto he found something in his curious light eyes – an expression of cheerfulness not disconnected from veracity – which put him into a less fantastic relation with this jaunty, factitious personage. “Please go on,” he said, in a moment.

“Well, what I mentioned just now is my real and only motive, in anything. The rest is mere gammon and rubbish, to cover it up – or to give myself the change, as the French say.”

“What do you mean by the rest?” asked Hyacinth, thinking of Millicent Henning.

“Oh, all the straw one chews, to cheat one’s appetite; all the rot one dabbles in, because it may lead to something which it never does lead to; all the beastly buncombe (you know) that you and I have heard together in Bloomsbury and that I myself have poured out, damme, with an eloquence worthy of a better cause. Don’t you remember what I have said to you – all as my own opinion – about the impending change of the relations of class with class? Impending fiddlesticks! I believe those that are on top the heap are better than those that are under it, that they mean to stay there, and that if they are not a pack of poltroons they will.”

“You don’t care for the social question, then?” Hyacinth inquired, with an aspect of which he was conscious of the blankness.

“I only took it up because she did. It hasn’t helped me,” Sholto remarked, smiling. “My dear Robinson,” he went on, “there is only one thing I care for in life: to have a look at that woman when I can, and when I can’t, to approach her in the sort of way I’m doing now.”

“It’s a very curious sort of way.”

“Indeed it is; but if it is good enough for me it ought to be good enough for you. What I want you to do is this – to induce her to ask me over to dine.”

“To induce her —?” Hyacinth murmured.

“Tell her I’m staying at Bonchester and it would be an act of common humanity.”

They proceeded till they reached the gates, and in a moment Hyacinth said, “You took up the social question, then, because she did; but do you happen to know why she took it up?”

“Ah, my dear fellow, you must find that out for yourself. I found you the place, but I can’t do your work for you!”

“I see – I see. But perhaps you’ll tell me this: if you had free access to the Princess a year ago, taking her to the theatre and that sort of thing, why shouldn’t you have it now?”

This time Sholto’s white pupils looked strange again. “You have it now, my dear fellow, but I’m afraid it doesn’t follow that you’ll have it a year hence. She was tired of me then, and of course she’s still more tired of me now, for the simple reason that I’m more tiresome. She has sent me to Coventry, and I want to come out for a few hours. See how conscientious I am – I won’t pass the gates.”

“I’ll tell her I met you,” said Hyacinth. Then, irrelevantly, he added, “Is that what you mean by her having no heart?”

“Her treating me as she treats me? Oh, dear, no; her treating you!”

This had a portentous sound, but it did not prevent Hyacinth from turning round with his visitor (for it was the greatest part of the oddity of the present meeting that the hope of a little conversation with him, if accident were favourable, had been the motive not only of Sholto’s riding over to Medley but of his coming down to stay, in the neighbourhood, at a musty inn in a dull market-town), it did not prevent him, I say, from bearing the Captain company for a mile on his backward way. Our young man did not pursue this particular topic much further, but he discovered still another reason or two for admiring the light, free action with which his companion had unmasked himself, and the nature of his interest in the revolutionary idea, after he had asked him, abruptly, what he had had in his head when he travelled over that evening, the summer before (he didn’t appear to have come back as often as he promised), to Paul Muniment’s place in Camberwell. What was he looking for, whom was he looking for, there?

“I was looking for anything that would turn up, that might take her fancy. Don’t you understand that I’m always looking? There was a time when I went in immensely for illuminated missals, and another when I collected horrible ghost-stories (she wanted to cultivate a belief in ghosts), all for her. The day I saw she was turning her attention to the rising democracy I began to collect little democrats. That’s how I collected you.”

“Muniment read you exactly, then. And what did you find to your purpose in Audley Court?”

“Well, I think the little woman with the popping eyes – she reminded me of a bedridden grasshopper – will do. And I made a note of the other one, the old virgin with the high nose, the aristocratic sister of mercy. I’m keeping them in reserve for my next propitiatory offering.”

Hyacinth was silent a moment. “And Muniment himself – can’t you do anything with him?”

“Oh, my dear fellow, after you he’s poor!”

“That’s the first stupid thing you have said. But it doesn’t matter, for he dislikes the Princess – what he knows of her – too much ever to consent to see her.”

“That’s his line, is it? Then he’ll do!” Sholto cried.

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