The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


On the other hand the brilliancy of Paris had not much power to transfigure the impression made upon him by such intercourse with Paul Muniment as he had enjoyed during the weeks that followed Pinnie’s death – an impression considerably more severe than any idea of renunciation or oblivion that could connect itself with Millicent. Why it should have had the taste of sadness was not altogether clear, for Muniment’s voice was as distinct as any in the chorus of approbation excited by the news that Hyacinth was about to cultivate the most characteristic of the pleasures of gentility – a sympathetic unanimity, of which the effect was to place his journey to Paris in a light almost ridiculous. What had got into them all, and did they think he was good for nothing but to amuse himself? Mr Vetch had been the most zealous, but the others clapped him on the back in almost exactly the same manner as he had seen his mates in Soho bring their palms down on one of their number when it was disclosed to them that his ‘missus’ had made him yet once again a father. That had been Poupin’s tone, and his wife’s as well; and even poor Schinkel, with his everlasting bandage, whom he had met in Lisson Grove, appeared to think it necessary to remark that a little run across the Rhine, while he was about it, would open his eyes to a great many wonders. The Poupins shed tears of joy, and the letters which have already been mentioned, and which lay day after day on the mantel-shelf of the little room our hero occupied in a hôtel garni, tremendously tall and somewhat lopsided, in the Rue Jacob (that recommendation proceeded also from Lisson Grove, the garni being kept by a second cousin of Madame Eustache), these valuable documents had been prepared by the obliging exile many days before his young friend was ready to start. It was almost refreshing to Hyacinth when old Crookenden, the sole outspoken dissentient, told him he was a blockhead to waste his money on the bloody French. This worthy employer of labour was evidently disgusted at such an innovation; if he wanted a little recreation why couldn’t he take it as it had been taken in Soho from the beginning of time, in the shape of a trip to Hampton Court or two or three days of alcoholic torpor? Old Crookenden was right. Hyacinth conceded freely that he was a blockhead, and was only a little uncomfortable that he couldn’t explain why he didn’t pretend not to be and had a kind of right to that compensatory luxury.

Paul guessed why, of course, and smiled approval with a candour which gave Hyacinth a strange, inexpressible heartache. He already knew that his friend’s view of him was that he was ornamental and adapted to the lighter kinds of socialistic utility – constituted to show that the revolution was not necessarily brutal and illiterate; but in the light of the cheerful stoicism with which Muniment regarded the sacrifice our hero was committed to, the latter had found it necessary to remodel a good deal his original conception of the young chemist’s nature. The result of this process was not that he admired it less but that he felt almost awe-stricken in the presence of it. There had been an element of that sort in his appreciation of Muniment from the first, but it had been infinitely deepened by the spectacle of his sublime consistency. Hyacinth felt that he himself could never have risen to that point. He was competent to make the promise to Hoffendahl, and he was equally competent to keep it; but he could not have had the same fortitude for another, could not have detached himself from personal prejudice so effectually as to put forward, in that way, for the terrible ‘job’, a little chap he liked. That Muniment liked him it never occurred to Hyacinth to doubt, and certainly he had all the manner of it to-day: he had never been more good-humoured, more placidly talkative; he was like an elder brother who knew that the ‘youngster’ was clever, and was rather proud of it even when there was no one there to see. That air of suspending their partnership for the moment, which had usually marked him at the ‘Sun and Moon’, was never visible in other places; in Audley Court he only chaffed Hyacinth occasionally for taking him too seriously. To-day his young friend hardly knew just how to take him; the episode of which Hoffendahl was the central figure had, as far as one could see, made so little change in his life. As a conspirator he was so extraordinarily candid, and bitterness and denunciation so rarely sat on his lips. It was as if he had been ashamed to complain; and indeed, for himself, as the months went on, he had nothing particular to complain of. He had had a rise, at the chemical works, and a plan of getting a larger room for Rosy was under serious consideration. On behalf of others he never sounded the pathetic note – he thought that sort of thing unbusiness-like; and the most that he did in the way of expatiation on the wrongs of humanity was occasionally to mention certain statistics, certain ‘returns’, in regard to the remuneration of industries, applications for employment and the discharge of hands. In such matters as these he was deeply versed, and he moved in a dry statistical and scientific air in which it cost Hyacinth an effort of respiration to accompany him. Simple and kindly as he was, and thoughtful of the woes of beasts, attentive and merciful to small insects, and addicted even to kissing dirty babies in Audley Court, he sometimes emitted a short satiric gleam which showed that his esteem for the poor was small and that if he had no illusions about the people who had got everything into their hands he had as few about those who had egregiously failed to do so. He was tremendously reasonable, which was largely why Hyacinth admired him, having a desire to be so himself but finding it terribly difficult.

Muniment’s absence of passion, his fresh-coloured coolness, his easy, exact knowledge, the way he kept himself clean (except for the chemical stains on his hands) in circumstances of foul contact, constituted a group of qualities that had always appeared to Hyacinth singularly enviable. Most enviable of all was the force that enabled him to sink personal sentiment where a great public good was to be attempted and yet keep up the form of caring for that minor interest. It seemed to Hyacinth that if he had introduced a young fellow to Hoffendahl for his purposes, and Hoffendahl had accepted him on such a recommendation, and everything had been settled, he would have preferred never to look at the young fellow again. That was his weakness, and Muniment carried it off far otherwise. It must be added that he had never made an allusion to their visit to Hoffendahl; so that Hyacinth also, out of pride, held his tongue on the subject. If his friend didn’t wish to express any sympathy for him he was not going to beg for it (especially as he didn’t want it) by restless references. It had originally been a surprise to him that Muniment should be willing to countenance a possible assassination; but after all none of his ideas were narrow (Hyacinth had a sense that they ripened all the while), and if a pistol-shot would do any good he was not the man to raise pedantic objections. It is true that, as regards his quiet acceptance of the predicament in which Hyacinth might be placed by it, our young man had given him the benefit of a certain amount of doubt; it had occurred to him that perhaps Muniment had his own reasons for believing that the summons from Hoffendahl would never really arrive, so that he might only be treating himself to the entertainment of judging of a little bookbinder’s nerve. But in this case, why did he take an interest in the little bookbinder’s going to Paris? That was a thing he would not have cared for if he had held that in fact there was nothing to fear. He despised the sight of idleness, and in spite of the indulgence he had more than once been good enough to express on the subject of Hyacinth’s epicurean tendencies what he would have been most likely to say at present was, ‘Go to Paris? Go to the dickens! Haven’t you been out at grass long enough for one while, didn’t you lark enough in the country there with the noble lady, and hadn’t you better take up your tools again before you forget how to handle them?’ Rosy had said something of that sort, in her free, familiar way (whatever her intention, she had been, in effect, only a little less sarcastic than old Crookenden): that Mr Robinson was going in for a life of leisure, a life of luxury, like herself; she must congratulate him on having the means and the time. Oh, the time – that was the great thing! She could speak with knowledge, having always enjoyed these advantages herself. And she intimated – or was she mistaken? – that his good fortune emulated hers also in the matter of his having a high-born and beneficent friend (such a blessing, now he had lost dear Miss Pynsent), who covered him with little attentions. Rose Muniment, in short, had been more exasperating than ever.

The boulevard became even more brilliant as the evening went on, and Hyacinth wondered whether he had a right to occupy the same table for so many hours. The theatre on the other side discharged its multitude; the crowd thickened on the wide asphalt, on the terrace of the café; gentlemen, accompanied by ladies of whom he knew already how to characterise the type – des femmes très-chic – passed into the portals of Tortoni. The nightly emanation of Paris seemed to rise more richly, to float and hang in the air, to mingle with the universal light and the many-voiced sound, to resolve itself into a thousand solicitations and opportunities, addressed however mainly to those in whose pockets the chink of a little loose gold might respond. Hyacinth’s retrospections had not made him drowsy, but quite the reverse; he grew restless and excited, and a kind of pleasant terror of the place and hour entered into his blood. But it was nearly midnight, and he got up to walk home, taking the line of the boulevard toward the Madeleine. He passed down the Rue Royale, where comparative stillness reigned; and when he reached the Place de la Concorde, to cross the bridge which faces the Corps Législatif, he found himself almost isolated. He had left the human swarm and the obstructed pavements behind, and the wide spaces of the splendid square lay quiet under the summer stars. The plash of the great fountains was audible, and he could almost hear the wind-stirred murmur of the little wood of the Tuileries on one side, and of the vague expanse of the Champs Elysées on the other. The place itself – the Place Louis Quinze, the Place de la Révolution – had given him a sensible emotion, from the day of his arrival; he had recognised so quickly its tremendously historic character. He had seen, in a rapid vision, the guillotine in the middle, on the site of the inscrutable obelisk, and the tumbrils, with waiting victims, were stationed round the circle now made majestic by the monuments of the cities of France. The great legend of the French Revolution, sanguinary and heroic, was more real to him here than anywhere else; and, strangely, what was most present was not its turpitude and horror, but its magnificent energy, the spirit of life that had been in it, not the spirit of death. That shadow was effaced by the modern fairness of fountain and statue, the stately perspective and composition; and as he lingered, before crossing the Seine, a sudden sense overtook him, making his heart sink with a kind of desolation – a sense of everything that might hold one to the world, of the sweetness of not dying, the fascination of great cities, the charm of travel and discovery, the generosity of admiration. The tears rose to his eyes, as they had done more than once in the past six months, and a question, low but poignant, broke from his lips, ending in nothing: “How could he – how could he —?” It may be explained that ‘he’ was a reference to Paul Muniment; for Hyacinth had dreamed of the religion of friendship.

Three weeks after this he found himself in Venice, whence he addressed to the Princess Casamassima a letter of which I reproduce the principal passages.

‘This is probably the last time I shall write to you before I return to London. Of course you have been in this place, and you will easily understand why here, especially here, the spirit should move me. Dear Princess, what an enchanted city, what ineffable impressions, what a revelation of the exquisite! I have a room in a little campo opposite to a small old church, which has cracked marble slabs let into the front; and in the cracks grow little wild delicate flowers, of which I don’t know the name. Over the door of the church hangs an old battered leather curtain, polished and tawny, as thick as a mattress, and with buttons in it, like a sofa; and it flops to and fro, laboriously, as women and girls, with shawls on their heads and their feet in little wooden shoes which have nothing but toes, pass in and out. In the middle of the campo is a fountain, which looks still older than the church; it has a primitive, barbaric air, and I have an idea it was put there by the first settlers – those who came to Venice from the mainland, from Aquileia. Observe how much historical information I have already absorbed; it won’t surprise you, however, for you never wondered at anything after you discovered I knew something of Schopenhauer. I assure you, I don’t think of that musty misogynist in the least to-day, for I bend a genial eye on the women and girls I just spoke of, as they glide, with a small clatter and with their old copper water-jars, to the fountain. The Venetian girl-face is wonderfully sweet and the effect is charming when its pale, sad oval (they all look under-fed) is framed in the old faded shawl. They also have very fascinating hair, which never has done curling, and they slip along together, in couples or threes, interlinked by the arms and never meeting one’s eye (so that its geniality doesn’t matter), dressed in thin, cheap cotton gowns, whose limp folds make the same delightful line that everything else in Italy makes. The weather is splendid and I roast – but I like it; apparently, I was made to be spitted and “done”, and I discover that I have been cold all my life, even when I thought I was warm. I have seen none of the beautiful patricians who sat for the great painters – the gorgeous beings whose golden hair was intertwined with pearls; but I am studying Italian in order to talk with the shuffling, clicking maidens who work in the bead-factories – I am determined to make one or two of them look at me. When they have filled their old water-pots at the fountain it is jolly to see them perch them on their heads and patter away over the polished Venetian stones. It’s a charm to be in a country where the women don’t wear the hideous British bonnet. Even in my own class (excuse the expression – I remember it used to offend you), I have never known a young female, in London, to put her nose out of the door without it; and if you had frequented such young females as much as I have you would have learned of what degradation that dreary necessity is the source. The floor of my room is composed of little brick tiles, and to freshen the air, in this temperature, one sprinkles it, as you no doubt know, with water. Before long, if I keep on sprinkling, I shall be able to swim about; the green shutters are closed, and the place makes a very good tank. Through the chinks the hot light of the campo comes in. I smoke cigarettes, and in the pauses of this composition recline on a faded magenta divan in the corner. Convenient to my hand, in that attitude, are the works of Leopardi and a second-hand dictionary. I am very happy – happier than I have ever been in my life save at Medley – and I don’t care for anything but the present hour. It won’t last long, for I am spending all my money. When I have finished this I shall go forth and wander about in the splendid Venetian afternoon; and I shall spend the evening in that enchanted square of St Mark’s, which resembles an immense open-air drawing-room, listening to music and feeling the sea-breeze blow in between those two strange old columns, in the piazzetta, which seem to make a portal for it. I can scarcely believe that it’s of myself that I am telling these fine things; I say to myself a dozen times a day that Hyacinth Robinson is not in it – I pinch my leg to see if I’m not dreaming. But a short time hence, when I have resumed the exercise of my profession, in sweet Soho, I shall have proof enough that it has been my very self : I shall know that by the terrible grind I shall feel my work to be.

‘That will mean, no doubt, that I’m deeply demoralised. It won’t be for you, however, in this case, to cast the stone at me; for my demoralisation began from the moment I first approached you. Dear Princess, I may have done you good, but you haven’t done me much. I trust you will understand what I mean by that speech, and not think it flippant or impertinent. I may have helped you to understand and enter into the misery of the people (though I protest I don’t know much about it), but you have led my imagination into quite another train. However, I don’t mean to pretend that it’s all your fault if I have lost sight of the sacred cause almost altogether in my recent adventures. It is not that it has not been there to see, for that perhaps is the clearest result of extending one’s horizon – the sense, increasing as we go, that want and toil and suffering are the constant lot of the immense majority of the human race. I have found them everywhere, but I haven’t minded them. Excuse the cynical confession. What has struck me is the great achievements of which man has been capable in spite of them – the splendid accumulations of the happier few, to which, doubtless, the miserable many have also in their degree contributed. The face of Europe appears to be covered with them, and they have had much the greater part of my attention. They seem to me inestimably precious and beautiful, and I have become conscious, more than ever before, of how little I understand what, in the great rectification, you and Poupin propose to do with them. Dear Princess, there are things which I shall be sorry to see you touch, even you with your hands divine; and – shall I tell you le fond de ma pensée, as you used to say? – I feel myself capable of fighting for them. You can’t call me a traitor, for you know the obligation that I recognise. The monuments and treasures of art, the great palaces and properties, the conquests of learning and taste, the general fabric of civilisation as we know it, based, if you will, upon all the despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and the rapacities of the past, but thanks to which, all the same, the world is less impracticable and life more tolerable – our friend Hoffendahl seems to me to hold them too cheap and to wish to substitute for them something in which I can’t somehow believe as I do in things with which the aspirations and the tears of generations have been mixed. You know how extraordinary I think our Hoffendahl (to speak only of him); but if there is one thing that is more clear about him than another it is that he wouldn’t have the least feeling for this incomparable, abominable old Venice. He would cut up the ceilings of the Veronese into strips, so that every one might have a little piece. I don’t want every one to have a little piece of anything, and I have a great horror of that kind of invidious jealousy which is at the bottom of the idea of a redistribution. You will say that I talk of it at my ease, while, in a delicious capital, I smoke cigarettes on a magenta divan; and I give you leave to scoff at me if it turns out that, when I come back to London without a penny in my pocket, I don’t hold the same language. I don’t know what it comes from, but during the last three months there has crept over me a deep mistrust of that same grudging attitude – the intolerance of positions and fortunes that are higher and brighter than one’s own; a fear, moreover, that I may, in the past, have been actuated by such motives, and a devout hope that if I am to pass away while I am yet young it may not be with that odious stain upon my soul.’

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