The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James



The boulevard was all alive, brilliant with illuminations, with the variety and gaiety of the crowd, the dazzle of shops and cafés seen through uncovered fronts or immense lucid plates, the flamboyant porches of theatres and the flashing lamps of carriages, the far-spreading murmur of talkers and strollers, the uproar of pleasure and prosperity, the general magnificence of Paris on a perfect evening in June. Hyacinth had been walking about all day – he had walked from rising till bed-time every day of the week that had elapsed since his arrival – and now an extraordinary fatigue, which, however, was not without its delight (there was a kind of richness, a sweet satiety, in it), a tremendous lassitude had fallen upon him, and he settled himself in a chair beside a little table in front of Tortoni’s, not so much to rest from it as to enjoy it. He had seen so much, felt so much, learned so much, thrilled and throbbed and laughed and sighed so much, during the past several days, that he was conscious at last of the danger of becoming incoherent to himself, of the need of balancing his accounts.

To-night he came to a full stop; he simply sat at the door of the most dandified café in Paris and felt his pulse and took stock of his impressions. He had been intending to visit the Variétés theatre, which blazed through intermediate lights and through the thin foliage of trees not favoured by the asphalt, on the other side of the great avenue. But the impression of Chaumont – he relinquished that, for the present; it added to the luxury of his situation to reflect that he should still have plenty of time to see the succès du jour. The same effect proceeded from his determination to order a marquise, when the waiter, whose superior shirt-front and whisker emerged from the long white cylinder of an apron, came to take his commands. He knew the decoction was expensive – he had learnt as much at the moment he happened to overhear, for the first time, a mention of it; which had been the night before, in his place in a stall, during an entr’acte, at the Comédie Française. A gentleman beside him, a young man in evening-dress, conversing with an acquaintance in the row behind, recommended the latter to refresh himself with the article in question after the play: there was nothing like it, the speaker remarked, of a hot evening, in the open air, when one was thirsty. The waiter brought Hyacinth a tall glass of champagne, in which a pine-apple ice was in solution, and our hero felt that he had hoped for a sensation no less delicate when he looked for an empty table on Tortoni’s terrace. Very few tables were empty, and it was his belief that the others were occupied by high celebrities; at any rate they were just the types he had had a prevision of and had wanted most to meet, when the extraordinary opportunity to come abroad with his pocket full of money (it was more extraordinary, even, than his original meeting with the Princess) became real to him in Lomax Place. He knew about Tortoni’s from his study of the French novel, and as he sat there he had a vague sense of fraternising with Balzac and Alfred de Musset; there were echoes and reminiscences of their works in the air, confounding themselves with the indefinable exhalations, the strange composite odour, half agreeable, half impure, of the boulevard. ‘Splendid Paris, charming Paris’ – that refrain, the fragment of an invocation, a beginning without an end, hummed itself perpetually in Hyacinth’s ears; the only articulate words that got themselves uttered in the hymn of praise which his imagination had been offering to the French capital from the first hour of his stay. He recognised, he greeted, with a thousand palpitations, the seat of his maternal ancestors – was proud to be associated with so much of the superb, so many proofs of a civilisation that had no visible rough spots. He had his perplexities, and he had even now and then a revulsion for which he had made no allowance, as when it came over him that the most brilliant city in the world was also the most blood-stained; but the great sense that he understood and sympathised was preponderant, and his comprehension gave him wings – appeared to transport him to still wider fields of knowledge, still higher sensations.

In other days, in London, he had thought again and again of his mother’s father, the revolutionary watch-maker who had known the ecstasy of the barricade and had paid for it with his life, and his reveries had not been sensibly chilled by the fact that he knew next to nothing about him. He figured him in his mind, had a conviction that he was very short, like himself, and had curly hair, an immense talent for his work and an extraordinary natural eloquence, together with many of the most attractive qualities of the French character. But he was reckless, and a little cracked, and probably immoral; he had difficulties and debts and irrepressible passions; his life had been an incurable fever and its tragic termination was a matter of course. None the less it would have been a charm to hear him talk, to feel the influence of a gaiety which even political madness could never quench; for his grandson had a theory that he spoke the French tongue of an earlier time, delightful and sociable in accent and phrase, exempt from the commonness of modern slang. This vague yet vivid personage became Hyacinth’s constant companion, from the day of his arrival; he roamed about with Florentine’s boy, hand in hand, sat opposite to him at dinner, at the small table in the restaurant, finished the bottle with him, made the bill a little longer, and treated him to innumerable revelations and counsels. He knew the lad’s secret without being told, and looked at him across the diminutive tablecloth, where the great tube of bread, pushed aside a little, left room for his elbows (it puzzled Hyacinth that the people of Paris should ever have had the fierceness of hunger when the loaves were so big), gazed at him with eyes of deep, kind, glowing comprehension and with lips which seemed to murmur that when one was to die to-morrow one was wise to eat and drink to-day. There was nothing venerable, no constraint of importance or disapproval, in this edifying and impalpable presence; the young man considered that Hyacinthe Vivier was of his own time of life and could enter into his pleasures as well as his pains. Wondering, repeatedly, where the barricade on which his grandfather fell had been erected, he at last satisfied himself (but I am unable to trace the process of the induction) that it had bristled across the Rue Saint-Honoré, very near to the church of Saint-Roch. The pair had now roamed together through all the museums and gardens, through the principal churches (the republican martyr was very good-natured about this), through the passages and arcades, up and down the great avenues, across all the bridges, and above all, again and again, along the river, where the quays were an endless entertainment to Hyacinth, who lingered by the half-hour beside the boxes of old books on the parapets, stuffing his pockets with five-penny volumes, while the bright industries of the Seine flashed and glittered beneath him, and on the other bank the glorious Louvre stretched either way for a league. Our young man took almost the same sort of satisfaction in the Louvre as if he had erected it; he haunted the museum during all the first days, and couldn’t look enough at certain pictures, nor sufficiently admire the high polish of the great floors in which the golden, frescoed ceilings repeated themselves. All Paris struck him as tremendously artistic and decorative; he felt as if hitherto he had lived in a dusky, frowsy, Philistine world, in which the taste was the taste of Little Pedlington and the idea of beautiful arrangement had never had an influence. In his ancestral city it had been active from the first, and that was why his quick sensibility responded; and he murmured again his constant refrain, when the fairness of the great monuments arrested him, in the pearly, silvery light, or he saw them take gray-blue, delicate tones at the end of stately vistas. It seemed to him that Paris expressed herself, and did it in the grand style, while London remained vague and blurred, inarticulate, blunt and dim.

Eustache Poupin had given him letters to three or four democratic friends, ardent votaries of the social question, who had by a miracle either escaped the cruelty of exile or suffered the outrage of pardon, and, in spite of republican mouchards, no less infamous than the imperial, and the periodical swoops of despotism which had only changed its buttons and postage-stamps, kept alive the sacred spark which would some day become a consuming flame. Hyacinth, however, had not had the thought of delivering these introductions; he had accepted them because Poupin had had such a solemn glee in writing them, and also because he had not the courage to let the couple in Lisson Grove know that since that terrible night at Hoffendahl’s a change had come over the spirit of his dream. He had not grown more concentrated, he had grown more relaxed, and it was inconsistent with relaxation that he should rummage out Poupin’s friends – one of whom lived in the Batignolles and the others in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine – and pretend that he cared for what they cared for in the same way as they cared for it. What was supreme in his mind to-day was not the idea of how the society that surrounded him should be destroyed; it was, much more, the sense of the wonderful, precious things it had produced, of the brilliant, impressive fabric it had raised. That destruction was waiting for it there was forcible evidence, known to himself and others, to show; but since this truth had risen before him, in its magnitude he had become conscious of a transfer, partial if not complete, of his sympathies; the same revulsion of which he had given a sign to the Princess in saying that now he pitied the rich, those who were regarded as happy. While the evening passed, therefore, as he kept his place at Tortoni’s, the emotion that was last to visit him was a compunction for not having put himself in relation with poor Poupin’s friends, for having neglected to make the acquaintance of earnest people.

Who in the world, if one should come to that, was as earnest as he himself, or had given such signal even though secret proofs of it? He could lay that unction to his soul in spite of his having amused himself cynically, spent all his time in theatres, galleries, walks of pleasure. The feeling had not failed him with which he accepted Mr Vetch’s furtherance – the sense that since he was destined to perish in his flower he was right to make a dash at the beautiful, horrible world. That reflection had been natural enough, but what was strange was the fiddler’s own impulse, his desire to do something pleasant for him, to beguile him and ship him off. What had been most odd in that was the way Mr Vetch appeared to overlook the fact that his young friend had already had, that year, such an episode of dissipation as was surely rare in the experience of London artisans. This was one of the many things Hyacinth thought of; he thought of the others in turn and out of turn; it was almost the first time he had sat still long enough (except at the theatre) to collect himself. A hundred confused reverberations of the recent past crowded upon him, and he saw that he had lived more intensely in the previous six months than in all the rest of his existence. The succession of events finally straightened itself, and he tasted some of the rarest, strangest moments over again. His last week at Medley, in especial, had already become a kind of fable, the echo of a song; he could read it over like a story, gaze at it as he would have gazed at some exquisite picture. His visit there had been perfect to the end, and even the three days that Captain Sholto’s sojourn lasted had not broken the spell, for the three more that had elapsed before his own departure (the Princess herself had given him the signal) were the most important of all. It was then the Princess had made it clear to him that she was in earnest, was prepared for the last sacrifice. She was now his standard of comparison, his authority, his measure, his perpetual reference; and in taking possession of his mind to this extent she had completely renewed it. She was altogether a new term, and now that he was in a foreign country he observed how much her conversation, itself so foreign, had prepared him to understand it. In Paris he saw, of course, a great many women, and he noticed almost all of them, especially the actresses; confronting, mentally, their movement, their speech, their manner of dressing, with that of his extraordinary friend. He judged that she was beyond them in every respect, though there were one or two actresses who had the air of trying to copy her.

The recollection of the last days he had spent with her affected him now like the touch of a tear-washed cheek. She had shed tears for him, and it was his suspicion that her secret idea was to frustrate the redemption of his vow to Hoffendahl, to the immeasurable body that Hoffendahl represented. She pretended to have accepted it, and what she said was simply that when he should have played his part she would engage to save him – to fling a cloud about him, as the goddess-mother of the Trojan hero used, in Virgil’s poem, to escamoter Æneas. What she meant was, in his view, to prevent him from playing his part at all. She was earnest for herself, not for him. The main result of his concentrated intimacy with her had been to make him feel that he was good enough for anything. When he had asked her, the last day, if he might write to her, she had said, Yes, but not for two or three weeks. He had written after Pinnie’s death, and again just before coming abroad, and in doing so had taken account of something else she had said in regard to their correspondence – that she didn’t wish vague phrases, protestations or compliments; she wanted the realities of his life, the smallest, most personal details. Therefore he had treated her to the whole business of the break-up in Lomax Place, including the sale of the rickety furniture. He had told her what that transaction brought – a beggarly sum, but sufficient to help a little to pay debts; and he had informed her furthermore that one of the ways Mr Vetch had taken to hurry him off to Paris was to offer him a present of thirty pounds out of his curious little hoard, to add to the sum already inherited from Pinnie – which, in a manner that none of Hyacinth’s friends, of course, could possibly regard as frugal, or even as respectable, was now consecrated to a mere excursion. He even mentioned that he had ended by accepting the thirty pounds, adding that he feared there was something demoralising in his peculiar situation (she would know what he meant by that): it disposed one to take what one could get, made one at least very tolerant of whims that happened to be munificent.

What he did not mention to the Princess was the manner in which he had been received by Paul Muniment and by Millicent Henning on his return from Medley. Millicent’s reception had been the queerest; it had been quite unexpectedly mild. She made him no scene of violence, and appeared to have given up the line of throwing a blur of recrimination over her own nefarious doings. She treated him as if she liked him for having got in with the swells; she had an appreciation of success which would lead her to handle him more tenderly now that he was really successful. She tried to make him describe the style of life that was led in a house where people were invited to stay like that without having to pay, and she surprised him almost as much as she gratified him by not indulging in any of her former digs at the Princess. She was lavish of ejaculations when he answered certain of her questions – ejaculations that savoured of Pimlico, “Oh, I say!” and “Oh, my stars!” – and he was more than ever struck with her detestable habit of saying, “Aye, that’s where it is,” when he had made some remark to which she wished to give an intelligent and sympathetic assent. But she didn’t jeer at the Princess’s private character; she stayed her satire, in a case where there was such an opening for it. Hyacinth reflected that this was lucky for her: he couldn’t have stood it (nervous and anxious as he was about Pinnie) if she had had the bad taste, at such a time as that, to be profane and insulting. In that case he would have broken with her completely – he would have been too disgusted. She displeased him enough, as it was, by her vulgar tricks of speech. There were two or three little recurrent irregularities that aggravated him to a degree quite out of proportion to their importance, as when she said ‘full up’ for full, ‘sold out’ for sold, or remarked to him that she supposed he was now going to chuck up his work at old Crookenden’s. These phrases had fallen upon his ear many a time before, but now they seemed almost unpardonable enough to quarrel about. Not that he had any wish to quarrel, for if the question had been pushed he would have admitted that to-day his intimacy with the Princess had caused any rights he might have had upon Millicent to lapse. Millicent did not push it, however; she only, it was evident, wished to convey to him that it was better for both parties they should respect each other’s liberty. A genial understanding on this subject was what Miss Henning desired, and Hyacinth forbade himself to inquire what use she proposed to make of her freedom. During the month that elapsed between Pinnie’s death and his visit to Paris he had seen her several times, for the respect for each other’s freedom had somehow not implied cessation of intercourse, and it was only natural she should have been soft to him in his bereaved condition. Hyacinth’s sentiment about Pinnie was deep, and Millicent was clever enough to guess it; the consequence of which was that on these occasions she was very soft indeed. She talked to him almost as if she had been his mother and he a convalescent child; called him her dear, and a young rascal, and her old boy; moralised a good deal, abstained from beer (till she learned he had inherited a fortune), and when he remarked once (moralising a little, too) that after the death of a person we have loved we are haunted by the memory of our failures of kindness, of generosity, rejoined, with a dignity that made the words almost a contribution to philosophy, “Yes, that’s where it is!”

Something in her behaviour at this period had even made Hyacinth wonder whether there were not some mystical sign in his appearance, some subtle betrayal in the very expression of his face, of the predicament in which he had been placed by Diedrich Hoffendahl; he began to suspect afresh the operation of that ‘beastly attendrissement’ he had detected of old in people who had the benefit of Miss Pynsent’s innuendoes. The compassion Millicent felt for him had never been one of the reasons why he liked her; it had fortunately been corrected, moreover, by his power to make her furious. This evening, on the boulevard, as he watched the interminable successions, one of the ideas that came to him was that it was odd he should like her even yet; for heaven knew he liked the Princess better, and he had hitherto supposed that when a sentiment of this kind had the energy of a possession it made a clean sweep of all minor predilections. But it was clear to him that Millicent still existed for him; that he couldn’t feel he had quite done with her, or she with him; and that in spite of his having now so many other things to admire there was still a comfort in the recollection of her robust beauty and her primitive passions. Hyacinth thought of her as some clever young barbarian who in ancient days should have made a pilgrimage to Rome might have thought of a Dacian or Iberian mistress awaiting his return on the rough provincial shore. If Millicent considered his visit at a ‘hall’ a proof of the sort of success that was to attend him (how he reconciled this with the supposition that she perceived, as a ghostly irradiation, intermingled with his curly hair, the aureola of martyrdom, he would have had some difficulty in explaining), if Miss Henning considered, on his return from Medley, that he had taken his place on the winning side, it was only consistent of her to borrow a grandeur from his further travels; and, indeed, by the time he was ready to start she spoke of the plan as if she had invented it herself and even contributed materially to the funds required. It had been her theory, from the first, that she only liked people of spirit; and Hyacinth certainly had never had so much spirit as when he launched himself into Continental adventures. He could say to himself, quite without bitterness, that of course she would profit by his absence to put her relations with Sholto on a comfortable footing; yet, somehow, at this moment, as her face came back to him amid the crowd of faces about him, it had not that gentleman’s romantic shadow across it. It was the brilliancy of Paris, perhaps, that made him see things rosy; at any rate, he remembered with kindness something that she had said to him the last time he saw her and that had touched him exceedingly at the moment. He had happened to observe to her, in a friendly way, that now Miss Pynsent had gone she was, with the exception of Mr Vetch, the person in his whole circle who had known him longest. To this Millicent had replied that Mr Vetch wouldn’t live for ever, and then she should have the satisfaction of being his very oldest friend. “Oh, well, I shan’t live for ever, either,” said Hyacinth; which led her to inquire whether by chance he had a weakness of the chest. “Not that I know of, but I might get killed in a row;” and when she broke out into scorn of his silly notion of turning everything up (as if any one wanted to know what a costermonger would like, or any of that low sort at the East End!) he amused himself with asking her if she were satisfied with the condition of society and thought nothing ought to be done for people who, at the end of a lifetime of starvation-wages, had only the reward of the hideous workhouse and a pauper’s grave.

“I shouldn’t be satisfied with anything, if ever you was to slip up,” Millicent answered, simply, looking at him with her beautiful boldness. Then she added, “There’s one thing I can tell you, Mr Robinson: that if ever any one was to do you a turn —” And she paused again, tossing back the head she carried as if it were surmounted by a tiara, while Hyacinth inquired what would occur in that contingency. “Well, there’d be one left behind who would take it up!” she announced; and in the tone of the declaration there was something brave and genuine. It struck Hyacinth as a strange fate – though not stranger, after all, than his native circumstances – that one’s memory should come to be represented by a shop-girl overladen with bracelets of imitation silver; but he was reminded that Millicent was a fine specimen of a woman of a type opposed to the whining, and that in her free temperament many disparities were reconciled.

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