The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Mr Vetch waited below till Lady Aurora should come down and give him the news he was in suspense for. His mind was pretty well made up about Pinnie. It had seemed to him, the night before, that death was written in her face, and he judged it on the whole a very good moment for her to lay down her earthly burden. He had reasons for believing that the future could not be sweet to her. As regards Hyacinth, his mind was far from being at ease; for though he was aware in a general way that he had taken up with strange company, and though he had flattered himself of old that he should be pleased to see the boy act out his life and solve the problem of his queer inheritance, he was worried by the absence of full knowledge. He put out his pipe, in anticipation of Lady Aurora’s reappearance, and without this consoler he was more accessible still to certain fears that had come to him in consequence of a recent talk, or rather an attempt at a talk, with Eustache Poupin. It was through the Frenchman that he had gathered the little he knew about the occasion of Hyacinth’s unprecedented excursion. His ideas on the subject had been very inferential; for Hyacinth had made a mystery of his absence to Pinnie, merely letting her know that there was a lady in the case and that the best luggage he could muster and the best way his shirts could be done up would still not be good enough. Poupin had seen Godfrey Sholto at the ‘Sun and Moon’, and it had come to him, through Hyacinth, that there was a remarkable feminine influence in the Captain’s life, mixed up in some way with his presence in Bloomsbury – an influence, moreover, by which Hyacinth himself, for good or for evil, was in peril of being touched. Sholto was the young man’s visible link with a society for which Lisson Grove could have no importance in the scheme of the universe but as a short cut (too disagreeable to be frequently used) out of Bayswater; therefore if Hyacinth left town with a new hat and a pair of kid gloves it must have been to move in the direction of that superior circle and in some degree, at least, at the solicitation of the before-mentioned feminine influence. So much as this the Frenchman suggested, explicitly enough, as his manner was, to the old fiddler; but his talk had a flavour of other references which excited Mr Vetch’s curiosity much more than they satisfied it. They were obscure; they evidently were painful to the speaker; they were confused and embarrassed and totally wanting in the luminosity which usually characterised the lightest allusions of M. Poupin. It was the fiddler’s fancy that his friend had something on his mind which he was not at liberty to impart, and that it related to Hyacinth and might, for those who took an interest in the singular lad, constitute a considerable anxiety. Mr Vetch, on his own part, nursed this anxiety into a tolerably definite shape: he persuaded himself that the Frenchman had been leading the boy too far in the line of social criticism, had given him a push on some crooked path where a slip would be a likely accident. When on a subsequent occasion, with Poupin, he indulged in a hint of this suspicion, the bookbinder flushed a good deal and declared that his conscience was pure. It was one of his peculiarities that when his colour rose he looked angry, and Mr Vetch held that his displeasure was a proof that in spite of his repudiations he had been unwise; though before they parted Eustache gave this sign of softness, that he shed tears of emotion, of which the reason was not clear to the fiddler and which appeared in a general way to be dedicated to Hyacinth. The interview had taken place in Lisson Grove, where Madame Poupin, however, had not shown herself.

Altogether the old man was a prey to suppositions which led him to feel how much he himself had outlived the democratic glow of his prime. He had ended by accepting everything (though, indeed, he couldn’t swallow the idea that a trick should be played upon Hyacinth), and even by taking an interest in current politics, as to which, of old, he had held the opinion (the same that the Poupins held to-day) that they had been invented on purpose to throw dust in the eyes of disinterested reformers and to circumvent the social solution. He had given up that problem some time ago; there was no way to clear it up that didn’t seem to make a bigger mess than the actual muddle of human affairs, which, by the time one had reached sixty-five, had mostly ceased to exasperate. Mr Vetch could still feel a certain sharpness on the subject of the prayer-book and the bishops; and if at moments he was a little ashamed of having accepted this world he could reflect that at all events he continued to repudiate every other. The idea of great changes, however, took its place among the dreams of his youth; for what was any possible change in the relations of men and women but a new combination of the same elements? If the elements could be made different the thing would be worth thinking of; but it was not only impossible to introduce any new ones – no means had yet been discovered for getting rid of the old. The figures on the chessboard were still the passions and jealousies and superstitions and stupidities of man, and their position with regard to each other, at any given moment, could be of interest only to the grim, invisible fates who played the game – who sat, through the ages, bow-backed over the table. This laxity had come upon the old man with the increase of his measurement round the waist, of the little heap of half-crowns and half-sovereigns that had accumulated in a tin box with a very stiff padlock, which he kept under his bed, and of the interwoven threads of sentiment and custom that united him to the dressmaker and her foster-son. If he was no longer pressing about the demands he felt he should have a right to make of society, as he had been in the days when his conversation scandalised Pinnie, so he was now not pressing for Hyacinth, either; reflecting that though, indeed, the constituted powers might have to ‘count’ with him, it would be in better taste for him not to be importunate about a settlement. What he had come to fear for him was that he should be precipitated by crude agencies, with results in which the deplorable might not exclude the ridiculous. It may even be said that Mr Vetch had a secret project of settling a little on his behalf.

Lady Aurora peeped into the room, very noiselessly, nearly half an hour after Hyacinth had left it, and let the fiddler know that she was called to other duties but that the nurse had come back and the doctor had promised to look in at five o’clock. She herself would return in the evening, and meanwhile Hyacinth was with his aunt, who had recognised him, without a protest; indeed seemed intensely happy that he should be near her again, and lay there with closed eyes, very weak and speechless, with his hand in hers. Her restlessness had passed and her fever abated, but she had no pulse to speak of and Lady Aurora did not disguise the fact that, in her opinion, she was rapidly sinking. Mr Vetch had already accepted it, and after her ladyship had quitted him he lighted another philosophic pipe upon it, lingering on, till the doctor came, in the dressmaker’s dismal, forsaken bower, where, in past years, he had indulged in so many sociable droppings-in and hot tumblers. The echo of all her little simple surprises and pointless contradictions, her gasping reception of contemplative paradox, seemed still to float in the air; but the place felt as relinquished and bereaved as if she were already beneath the sod. Pinnie had always been a wonderful hand at ‘putting away’; the litter that testified to her most elaborate efforts was often immense, but the reaction in favour of an unspeckled carpet was greater still; and on the present occasion, before taking to her bed, she had found strength to sweep and set in order as daintily as if she had been sure that the room would never again know her care. Even to the old fiddler, who had not Hyacinth’s sensibility to the scenery of life, it had the cold propriety of a place arranged for an interment. After the doctor had seen Pinnie, that afternoon, there was no doubt left as to its soon being the stage of dismal preliminaries.

Miss Pynsent, however, resisted her malady for nearly a fortnight more, during which Hyacinth was constantly in her room. He never went back to Mr Crookenden’s, with whose establishment, through violent causes, his relations seemed indefinitely suspended; and in fact, for the rest of the time that Pinnie demanded his care he absented himself but twice from Lomax Place for more than a few minutes. On one of these occasions he travelled over to Audley Court and spent an hour there; on the other he met Millicent Henning, by appointment, and took a walk with her on the Embankment. He tried to find a moment to go and thank Madame Poupin for a sympathetic offering, many times repeated, of tisane, concocted after a receipt thought supreme by the couple in Lisson Grove (though little appreciated in the neighbourhood generally); but he was obliged to acknowledge her kindness only by a respectful letter, which he composed with some trouble, though much elation, in the French tongue, peculiarly favourable, as he believed, to little courtesies of this kind. Lady Aurora came again and again to the darkened house, where she diffused her beneficent influence in nightly watches; in the most modern sanative suggestions, in conversations with Hyacinth, directed with more ingenuity than her fluttered embarrassments might have led one to attribute to her, to the purpose of diverting his mind, and in tea-makings (there was a great deal of this liquid consumed on the premises during Pinnie’s illness), after a system more enlightened than the usual fashion of Pentonville. She was the bearer of several messages and of a good deal of medical advice from Rose Muniment, whose interest in the dressmaker’s case irritated Hyacinth by its fine courage, which even at second-hand was still obtrusive; she appeared very nearly as resigned to the troubles of others as she was to her own.

Hyacinth had been seized, the day after his return from Medley, with a sharp desire to do something enterprising and superior on Pinnie’s behalf. He felt the pressure of a sort of angry sense that she was dying of her poor career, of her uneffaced remorse for the trick she had played him in his boyhood (as if he hadn’t long ago, and indeed at the time, forgiven it, judging it to have been the highest wisdom!), of something basely helpless in the attitude of her little circle. He wanted to do something which should prove to himself that he had got the best opinion about the invalid that it was possible to have: so he insisted that Mr Buffery should consult with a West End doctor, if the West End doctor would consent to meet Mr Buffery. A physician capable of this condescension was discovered through Lady Aurora’s agency (she had not brought him of her own movement, because on the one hand she hesitated to impose on the little household in Lomax Place the expense of such a visit, and on the other, with all her narrow personal economies for the sake of her charities, had not the means to meet it herself); and in prevision of the great man’s fee Hyacinth applied to Mr Vetch, as he had applied before, for a loan. The great man came, and was wonderfully civil to Mr Buffery, whose conduct of the case he pronounced judicious; he remained several minutes in the house, while he gazed at Hyacinth over his spectacles (he seemed rather more occupied with him than with the patient), and almost the whole of the Place turned out to stare at his chariot. After all, he consented to accept no fee. He put the question aside with a gesture full of urbanity – a course disappointing and displeasing to Hyacinth, who felt in a manner cheated of the full effect of the fine thing he had wished to do for Pinnie; though when he said as much (or something like it) to Mr Vetch, the caustic fiddler greeted the observation with a face of amusement which, considering the situation, verged upon the unseemly.

Hyacinth, at any rate, had done the best he could, and the fashionable doctor had left directions which foreshadowed relations with an expensive chemist in Bond Street – a prospect by which our young man was to some extent consoled. Poor Pinnie’s decline, however, was not arrested, and one evening, more than a week after his return from Medley, as he sat with her alone, it seemed to Hyacinth that her spirit must already have passed away. The nurse had gone down to her supper, and from the staircase a perceptible odour of fizzling bacon indicated that a more cheerful state of things prevailed in the lower regions. Hyacinth could not make out whether Miss Pynsent were asleep or awake; he believed she had not lost consciousness, yet for more than an hour she had given no sign of life. At last she put out her hand, as if she knew he was near her and wished to feel for his, and murmured, “Why did she come? I didn’t want to see her.” In a moment, as she went on, he perceived to whom she was alluding: her mind had travelled back, through all the years, to the dreadful day (she had described every incident of it to him) when Mrs Bowerbank had invaded her quiet life and startled her sensitive conscience with a message from the prison. “She sat there so long – so long. She was very large, and I was frightened. She moaned, and moaned, and cried – too dreadful. I couldn’t help it – I couldn’t help it!” Her thought wandered from Mrs Bowerbank in the discomposed show-room, enthroned on the yellow sofa, to the tragic creature at Milbank, whose accents again, for the hour, lived in her ears; and mixed with this mingled vision was still the haunting sense that she herself might have acted differently. That had been cleared up in the past, so far as Hyacinth’s intention was concerned; but what was most alive in Pinnie at the present moment was the passion of repentance, of still further expiation. It sickened Hyacinth that she should believe these things were still necessary, and he leaned over her and talked tenderly, with words of comfort and reassurance. He told her not to think of that dismal, far-off time, which had ceased long ago to have any consequences for either of them; to consider only the future, when she should be quite strong again and he would look after her and keep her all to himself and take care of her better, far better, than he had ever done before. He had thought of many things while he sat with Pinnie, watching the shadows made by the night-lamp – high, imposing shadows of objects low and mean – and among them he had followed, with an imagination that went further in that direction than ever before, the probable consequences of his not having been adopted in his babyhood by the dressmaker. The workhouse and the gutter, ignorance and cold, filth and tatters, nights of huddling under bridges and in doorways, vermin, starvation and blows, possibly even the vigorous efflorescence of an inherited disposition to crime – these things, which he saw with unprecedented vividness, suggested themselves as his natural portion. Intimacies with a princess, visits to fine old country-houses, intelligent consideration, even, of the best means of inflicting a scare on the classes of privilege, would in that case not have been within his compass; and that Pinnie should have rescued him from such a destiny and put these luxuries within his reach was an amelioration which really amounted to success, if he could only have the magnanimity to regard it so.

Her eyes were open and fixed on him, but the sharp ray the little dressmaker used to direct into Lomax Place as she plied her needle at the window had completely left them. “Not there – what should I do there?” she inquired, very softly. “Not with the great – the great —” and her voice failed.

“The great what? What do you mean?”

“You know – you know,” she went on, making another effort. “Haven’t you been with them? Haven’t they received you?”

“Ah, they won’t separate us, Pinnie; they won’t come between us as much as that,” said Hyacinth, kneeling by her bed.

You must be separate – that makes me happier. I knew they would find you at last.”

“Poor Pinnie, poor Pinnie,” murmured the young man.

“It was only for that – now I’m going,” she went on.

“If you’ll stay with me you needn’t fear,” said Hyacinth, smiling at her.

“Oh, what would they think?” asked the dressmaker.

“I like you best,” said Hyacinth.

“You have had me always. Now it’s their turn; they have waited.”

“Yes, indeed, they have waited!” Hyacinth exclaimed.

“But they will make it up; they will make up everything!” the invalid panted. Then she added, “I couldn’t – couldn’t help it!” – which was the last flicker of her strength. She gave no further sign of consciousness, and four days later she ceased to breathe. Hyacinth was with her, and Lady Aurora, but neither of them could recognise the moment.

Hyacinth and Mr Vetch carried her bier, with the help of Eustache Poupin and Paul Muniment. Lady Aurora was at the funeral, and Madame Poupin as well, and twenty neighbours from Lomax Place; but the most distinguished person (in appearance at least) in the group of mourners was Millicent Henning, the grave yet brilliant beauty of whose countenance, the high propriety of whose demeanour, and the fine taste and general style of whose black ‘costume’ excited no little attention. Mr Vetch had his idea; he had been nursing it ever since Hyacinth’s return from Medley, and three days after Pinnie had been consigned to the earth he broached it to his young friend. The funeral had been on a Friday, and Hyacinth had mentioned to him that he should return to Mr Crookenden’s on the Monday morning. This was Sunday night, and Hyacinth had been out for a walk, neither with Millicent Henning nor with Paul Muniment, but alone, after the manner of old days. When he came in he found the fiddler waiting for him, and burning a tallow candle, in the blighted show-room. He had three or four little papers in his hand, which exhibited some jottings of his pencil, and Hyacinth guessed, what was the truth but not all the truth, that he had come to speak to him about business. Pinnie had left a little will, of which she had appointed her old friend executor; this fact had already become known to our hero, who thought such an arrangement highly natural. Mr Vetch informed him of the purport of this simple and judicious document, and mentioned that he had been looking into the dressmaker’s ‘affairs’. They consisted, poor Pinnie’s affairs, of the furniture of the house in Lomax Place, of the obligation to pay the remainder of a quarter’s rent, and of a sum of money in the savings-bank. Hyacinth was surprised to learn that Pinnie’s economies had produced fruit at this late day (things had gone so ill with her in recent years, and there had been often such a want of money in the house), until Mr Vetch explained to him, with eager clearness, that he himself had watched over the little hoard, accumulated during the period of her comparative prosperity, with the stiff determination that it should be sacrificed only in case of desperate necessity. Work had become scarce with Pinnie, but she could still do it when it came, and the money was to be kept for the very possible period when she should be helpless. Mercifully enough, she had not lived to see that day, and the sum in the bank had survived her, though diminished by more than half. She had left no debts but the matter of the house and those incurred during her illness. Of course the fiddler had known – he hastened to give his young friend this assurance – that Pinnie, had she become infirm, would have been able to count absolutely upon him for the equivalent, in her old age, of the protection she had given him in his youth. But what if an accident had overtaken Hyacinth? What if he had incurred some nasty penalty for his revolutionary dabblings, which, little dangerous as they might be to society, were quite capable, in a country where authority, though good-natured, liked occasionally to make an example, to put him on the wrong side of a prison-wall? At any rate, for better or worse, by pinching and scraping, she had saved a little, and of that little, after everything was paid off, a fraction would still be left. Everything was bequeathed to Hyacinth – everything but a couple of plated candlesticks and the old ‘cheffonier’, which had been so handsome in its day; these Pinnie begged Mr Vetch to accept in recognition of services beyond all price. The furniture, everything he didn’t want for his own use, Hyacinth could sell in a lump, and with the proceeds he could wipe out old scores. The sum of money would remain to him; it amounted, in its reduced condition, to about thirty-seven pounds. In mentioning this figure Mr Vetch appeared to imply that Hyacinth would be master of a very pretty little fortune. Even to the young man himself, in spite of his recent initiations, it seemed far from contemptible; it represented sudden possibilities of still not returning to old Crookenden’s. It represented them, that is, till, presently, he remembered the various advances made him by the fiddler, and reflected that by the time these had been repaid there would hardly be twenty pounds left. That, however, was a far larger sum than he had ever had in his pocket at once. He thanked the old man for his information, and remarked – and there was no hypocrisy in the speech – that he was very sorry Pinnie had not given herself the benefit of the whole of the little fund in her lifetime. To this her executor replied that it had yielded her an interest far beyond any other investment; for he was persuaded she believed she should never live to enjoy it, and this faith was rich in pictures, visions of the effect such a windfall would produce in Hyacinth’s career.

“What effect did she mean – do you mean?” Hyacinth inquired. As soon as he had spoken he felt that he knew what the old man would say (it would be a reference to Pinnie’s belief in his reunion with his ‘relations’, and the facilities that thirty-seven pounds would afford him for cutting a figure among them); and for a moment Mr Vetch looked at him as if exactly that response were on his lips. At the end of the moment, however, he replied, quite differently –

“She hoped you would go abroad and see the world.” The fiddler watched his young friend; then he added, “She had a particular wish that you should go to Paris.”

Hyacinth had turned pale at this suggestion, and for a moment he said nothing. “Ah, Paris!” he murmured, at last.

“She would have liked you even to take a little run down to Italy.”

“Doubtless that would be pleasant. But there is a limit to what one can do with twenty pounds.”

“How do you mean, with twenty pounds?” the old man asked, lifting his eyebrows, while the wrinkles in his forehead made deep shadows in the candlelight.

“That’s about what will remain, after I have settled my account with you.”

“How do you mean, your account with me? I shall not take any of your money.”

Hyacinth’s eyes wandered over his interlocutor’s suggestive rustiness. “I don’t want to be ungracious, but suppose you should lose your powers.”

“My dear boy, I shall have one of the resources that was open to Pinnie. I shall look to you to be the support of my old age.”

“You may do so with perfect safety, except for that danger you just mentioned, of my being imprisoned or hanged.”

“It’s precisely because I think it will be less if you go abroad that I urge you to take this chance. You will see the world, and you will like it better. You will think society, even as it is, has some good points,” said Mr Vetch.

“I have never liked it better than the last few months.”

“Ah well, wait till you see Paris!”

“Oh, Paris – Paris,” Hyacinth repeated, vaguely, staring into the turbid flame of the candle as if he made out the most brilliant scenes there; an attitude, accent and expression which the fiddler interpreted both as the vibration of a latent hereditary chord and a symptom of the acute sense of opportunity.

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