The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

26

“Of course he may come, and stay as long as he likes!” the Princess exclaimed, when Hyacinth, that afternoon, told her of his encounter, with the sweet, bright surprise her face always wore when people went through the form (supererogatory she apparently meant to declare it) of asking her leave. From the manner in which she granted Sholto’s petition – with a geniality that made light of it, as if the question were not worth talking of, one way or the other – it might have been supposed that the account he had given Hyacinth of their relations was an elaborate but none the less foolish hoax. She sent a messenger with a note over to Bonchester, and the Captain arrived just in time to dress for dinner. The Princess was always late, and Hyacinth’s toilet, on these occasions, occupied him considerably (he was acutely conscious of its deficiencies, and yet tried to persuade himself that they were positively honourable and that the only garb of dignity, for him, was the costume, as it were, of his profession); therefore, when the fourth member of the little party descended to the drawing-room Madame Grandoni was the only person he found there.

Santissima Vergine! I’m glad to see you! What good wind has sent you?” she exclaimed, as soon as Sholto came into the room.

“Didn’t you know I was coming?” he asked. “Has the idea of my arrival produced so little agitation?”

“I know nothing of the affairs of this house. I have given them up at last, and it was time. I remain in my room.” There was nothing at present in the old lady’s countenance of her usual spirit of cheer; it expressed anxiety, and even a certain sternness, and the excellent woman had perhaps at this moment more than she had ever had in her life of the air of a duenna who took her duties seriously. She looked almost august. “From the moment you come it’s a little better. But it is very bad.”

“Very bad, dear madam?”

“Perhaps you will be able to tell me where Christina veut en venir. I have always been faithful to her – I have always been loyal. But to-day I have lost patience. It has no sense.”

“I am not sure I know what you are talking about,” Sholto said; “but if I understand you I must tell you I think it’s magnificent.”

“Yes, I know your tone; you are worse than she, because you are cynical. It passes all bounds. It is very serious. I have been thinking what I should do.”

“Precisely; I know what you would do.”

“Oh, this time I shouldn’t come back!” the old lady declared. “The scandal is too great; it is intolerable. My only fear is to make it worse.”

“Dear Madame Grandoni, you can’t make it worse, and you can’t make it better,” Sholto rejoined, seating himself on the sofa beside her. “In point of fact, no idea of scandal can possibly attach itself to our friend. She is above and outside of all such considerations, such dangers. She carries everything off; she heeds so little, she cares so little. Besides, she has one great strength – she does no wrong.”

“Pray, what do you call it when a lady sends for a bookbinder to come and live with her?”

“Why not for a bookbinder as well as for a bishop? It all depends upon who the lady is, and what she is.”

“She had better take care of one thing first,” cried Madame Grandoni – “that she shall not have been separated from her husband!”

“The Princess can carry off even that. It’s unusual, it’s eccentric, it’s fantastic, if you will, but it isn’t necessarily wicked. From her own point of view our friend goes straight. Besides, she has her opinions.”

“Her opinions are perversity itself.”

“What does it matter,” asked Sholto, “if they keep her quiet?”

“Quiet! Do you call this quiet?”

“Surely, if you’ll only be so yourself. Putting the case at the worst, moreover, who is to know he’s her bookbinder? It’s the last thing you’d take him for.”

“Yes, for that she chose him carefully,” the old lady murmured, still with a discontented eyebrow.

She chose him? It was I who chose him, dear lady!” the Captain exclaimed, with a laugh which showed how little he shared her solicitude.

“Yes, I had forgotten; at the theatre,” said Madame Grandoni, gazing at him as if her ideas were confused but a certain repulsion from her interlocutor nevertheless disengaged itself. “It was a fine turn you did him there, poor young man!”

“Certainly, he will have to be sacrificed. But why was I bound to consider him so much? Haven’t I been sacrificed myself?”

“Oh, if he bears it like you!” cried the old lady, with a short laugh.

“How do you know how I bear it? One does what one can,” said the Captain, settling his shirt-front. “At any rate, remember this: she won’t tell people who he is, for his own sake; and he won’t tell them, for hers. So, as he looks much more like a poet, or a pianist, or a painter, there won’t be that sensation you fear.”

“Even so it’s bad enough,” said Madame Grandoni. “And he’s capable of bringing it out, suddenly, himself.”

“Ah, if he doesn’t mind it, she won’t! But that’s his affair.”

“It’s too terrible, to spoil him for his station,” the old lady went on. “How can he ever go back?”

“If you want him kept, then, indefinitely, you are inconsistent. Besides, if he pays for it, he deserves to pay. He’s an abominable little conspirator against society.”

Madame Grandoni was silent a moment; then she looked at the Captain with a gravity which might have been impressive to him, had not his accomplished jauntiness suggested an insensibility to that sort of influence. “What, then, does Christina deserve?” she asked, with solemnity.

“Whatever she may get; whatever, in the future, may make her suffer. But it won’t be the loss of her reputation. She is too distinguished.”

“You English are strange. Is it because she’s a princess?” Madame Grandoni reflected, audibly.

“Oh, dear, no, her princedom is nothing here. We can easily beat that. But we can’t beat —” And Sholto paused a moment.

“What then?” his companion asked.

“Well, the perfection of her indifference to public opinion and the unaffectedness of her originality; the sort of thing by which she has bedeviled me.”

“Oh, you!” murmured Madame Grandoni.

“If you think so poorly of me why did you say just now that you were glad to see me?” Sholto demanded, in a moment.

“Because you make another person in the house, and that is more regular; the situation is by so much less – what did you call it? – eccentric. Nun,” the old lady went on, in a moment, “so long as you are here I won’t go off.”

“Depend upon it that I shall be here until I’m turned out.”

She rested her small, troubled eyes upon him, but they betrayed no particular enthusiasm at this announcement, “I don’t understand how, for yourself, on such an occasion, you should like it.”

“Dear Madame Grandoni, the heart of man, without being such a hopeless labyrinth as the heart of woman, is still sufficiently complicated. Don’t I know what will become of the little beggar?”

“You are very horrible,” said the ancient woman. Then she added, in a different tone, “He is much too good for his fate.”

“And pray wasn’t I, for mine?” the Captain asked.

“By no manner of means!” Madame Grandoni answered, rising and moving away from him.

The Princess had come into the room, accompanied by Hyacinth. As it was now considerably past the dinner-hour the old lady judged that this couple, on their side, had met in the hall and had prolonged their conversation there. Hyacinth watched with extreme interest the way the Princess greeted the Captain – observed that it was very simple, easy and friendly. At dinner she made no stranger of him, including him in everything, as if he had been a useful familiar, like Madame Grandoni, only a little less venerable, yet not giving him any attention that might cause their eyes to meet. She had told Hyacinth that she didn’t like his eyes, nor indeed, very much, any part of him. Of course any admiration, from almost any source, could not fail to be in some degree agreeable to a woman, but of any little impression that one might ever have produced the mark she had made on Godfrey Sholto was the one that ministered least to her vanity. He had been useful, undoubtedly, at times, but at others he had been an intolerable bore. He was so uninteresting in himself, so shallow, so unoccupied and superfluous, and really so frivolous, in spite of his pretension (of which she was unspeakably weary) of being all wrapped up in a single idea. It had never, by itself, been sufficient to interest her in any man, the fact that he was in love with her; but indeed she could honestly say that most of the people who had liked her had had, on their own side, something – something in their character or circumstances – that one could care a little about. Not so far as would do any harm, save perhaps in one or two cases; but still, something.

Sholto was a curious and not particularly edifying English type (as the Princess further described him); one of those strange beings produced by old societies that have run to seed, corrupt, exhausted civilisations. He was a cumberer of the earth, and purely selfish, in spite of his devoted, disinterested airs. He was nothing whatever in himself, and had no character or merit save by tradition, reflection, imitation, superstition. He had a longish pedigree – he came of some musty, mouldy ‘county family’, people with a local reputation and an immense lack of general importance; he had taken the greatest care of his little fortune. He had travelled all over the globe several times, ‘for the shooting’, in that brutal way of the English. That was a pursuit which was compatible with the greatest stupidity. He had a little taste, a little cleverness, a little reading, a little good furniture, a little French and Italian (he exaggerated these latter quantities), an immense deal of assurance, and complete leisure. That, at bottom, was all he represented – idle, trifling, luxurious, yet at the same time pretentious leisure, the sort of thing that led people to invent false, humbugging duties, because they had no real ones. Sholto’s great idea of himself (after his profession of being her slave) was that he was a cosmopolite – exempt from every prejudice. About the prejudices the Princess couldn’t say and didn’t care; but she had seen him in foreign countries, she had seen him in Italy, and she was bound to say he understood nothing about those people. It was several years before, shortly after her marriage, that she had first encountered him. He had not begun immediately to take the adoring line, but it had come little by little. It was only after she had separated from her husband that he had begun really to hang about her; since when she had suffered much from him. She would do him one justice, however: he had never, so far as she knew, had the impudence to represent himself as anything but hopeless and helpless. It was on this that he took his stand; he wished to pass for the great model of unrewarded constancy. She couldn’t imagine what he was waiting for; perhaps it was for the death of the Prince. But the Prince would never die, nor had she the least desire that he should. She had no wish to be harsh, for of course that sort of thing, from any one, was very flattering; but really, whatever feeling poor Sholto might have, four-fifths of it were purely theatrical. He was not in the least a natural human being, but had a hundred affectations and attitudes, the result of never having been obliged to put his hand to anything; having no serious tastes and yet being born to a little ‘position’. The Princess remarked that she was so glad Hyacinth had no position, and had been forced to do something in life but amuse himself; that was the way she liked her friends now. She had said to Sholto again and again, “There are plenty of others who will be much more pleased; why not go to them? It’s such a waste of time:” and she was sure he had taken her advice, and was by no means, as regards herself, the absorbed, annihilated creature he endeavoured to appear. He had told her once that he tried to take an interest in other women – though indeed he had added that it was of no use. Of what use did he expect anything he could possibly do to be? Hyacinth did not tell the Princess that he had reason to believe the Captain’s effort in this direction had not been absolutely vain; but he made that reflection, privately, with increased confidence. He recognised a further truth even when his companion said, at the end, that, with all she had touched upon, he was a queer combination. Trifler as he was, there was something sinister in him too; and she confessed she had had a vague feeling, at times, that some day he might do her a hurt. Hyacinth, at this, stopped short, on the threshold of the drawing-room, and asked in a low voice, “Are you afraid of him?”

The Princess looked at him a moment; then smiling, “Dio mio, how you say that! Should you like to kill him for me?”

“I shall have to kill some one, you know. Why not him, while I’m about it, if he troubles you?”

“Ah, my friend, if you should begin to kill every one who had troubled me!” the Princess murmured, as they went into the room.

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