The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Hyacinth spent three days, after his return to London, in a process which he supposed to be the quest of a lodging; but in reality he was pulling himself together for the business of his livelihood – an effort he found by no means easy or agreeable. As he had told the Princess, he was demoralised, and the perspective of Mr Crookenden’s dirty staircase had never seemed so steep. He lingered on the brink, before he plunged again into Soho; he wished not to go back to the shop till he should be settled, and he delayed to get settled in order not to go back to the shop. He saw no one during this interval, not even Mr Vetch; he waited to call upon the fiddler till he should have the appearance of not coming as a beggar or a borrower – have recovered his employment and be able to give an address, as he had heard Captain Sholto say. He went to South Street – not meaning to go in at once but wishing to look at the house – and there he had the surprise of perceiving a bill of sale in the window of the Princess’s late residence. He had not expected to find her in town (he had heard from her the last time three weeks before, and then she said nothing about her prospects), but he was puzzled by this indication that she had moved away altogether. There was something in this, however, which he felt that at bottom he had looked for; it appeared a proof of the justice of a certain suspicious, uneasy sentiment from which one could never be quite free, in one’s intercourse with the Princess – a vague apprehension that one might suddenly stretch out one’s hand and miss her altogether from one’s side. Hyacinth decided to ring at the door and ask for news of her; but there was no response to his summons: the stillness of an August afternoon (the year had come round again from his first visit) hung over the place, the blinds were down and the caretaker appeared to be absent. Under these circumstances Hyacinth was much at a loss; unless, indeed, he should address a letter to his wonderful friend at Medley. It would doubtless be forwarded, though her short lease of the country-house had terminated, as he knew, several weeks before. Captain Sholto was of course a possible medium of communication; but nothing would have induced Hyacinth to ask such a service of him.

He turned away from South Street with a curious sinking of the heart; his state of ignorance struck inward, as it were – had the force of a vague, disquieting portent. He went to old Crookenden’s only when he had arrived at his last penny. This, however, was very promptly the case. He had disembarked at London Bridge with only seventeen pence in his pocket, and he had lived on that sum for three days. The old fiddler in Lomax Place was having a chop before he went to the theatre, and he invited Hyacinth to share his repast, sending out at the same time for another pot of beer. He took the youth with him to the play, where, as at that season there were very few spectators, he had no difficulty in finding him a place. He seemed to wish to keep hold of him, and looked at him strangely, over his spectacles (Mr Vetch wore the homely double glass in these latter years), when he learned that Hyacinth had taken a lodging not in their old familiar quarter but in the unexplored purlieus of Westminster. What had determined our young man was the fact that from this part of the town the journey was comparatively a short one to Camberwell; he had suffered so much, before Pinnie’s death, from being separated by such a distance from his best friends. There was a pang in his heart connected with the image of Paul Muniment, but none the less the prospect of an evening hour in Audley Court, from time to time, appeared one of his most definite sources of satisfaction in the future. He could have gone straight to Camberwell to live, but that would carry him too far from the scene of his profession; and in Westminster he was much nearer to old Crookenden’s than he had been in Lomax Place. He said to Mr Vetch that if it would give him pleasure he would abandon his lodging and take another in Pentonville. But the old man replied, after a moment, that he should be sorry to put that constraint upon him; if he were to make such an exaction Hyacinth would think he wanted to watch him.

“How do you mean, to watch me?”

Mr Vetch had begun to tune his fiddle, and he scraped it a little before answering. “I mean it as I have always meant it. Surely you know that in Lomax Place I had my eyes on you. I watched you as a child on the edge of a pond watches the little boat he has constructed and set afloat.”

“You couldn’t discover much. You saw, after all, very little of me,” Hyacinth said.

“I made what I could of that little; it was better than nothing.”

Hyacinth laid his hand gently on the old man’s arm; he had never felt so kindly to him, not even when he accepted the thirty pounds, before going abroad, as at this moment. “Certainly I will come and see you.”

“I was much obliged to you for your letters,” Mr Vetch remarked, without heeding these words, and continuing to scrape. He had always, even into the shabbiness of his old age, kept that mark of English good-breeding (which is composed of some such odd elements), that there was a shyness, an aversion to possible phrase-making, in his manner of expressing gratitude for favours, and that in spite of this cursory tone his acknowledgment had ever the accent of sincerity.

Hyacinth took but little interest in the play, which was an inanimate revival; he had been at the Théâtre Français and the tradition of that house was still sufficiently present to him to make any other style of interpretation appear of the clumsiest. He sat in one of the front stalls, close to the orchestra; and while the piece went forward – or backward, ever backward, as it seemed to him – his thoughts wandered far from the shabby scene and the dusty boards, revolving round a question which had come up immensely during the last few hours. The Princess was a capricciosa – that, at least, was Madame Grandoni’s account of her; and was that blank, expressionless house in South Street a sign that an end had come to the particular caprice in which he had happened to be involved? He had returned to London with an ache of eagerness to be with her again on the same terms as at Medley, a throbbing sense that unless she had been abominably dishonest he might count upon her. This state of mind was by no means complete security, but it was so sweet that it mattered little whether it were sound. Circumstances had favoured in an extraordinary degree his visit to her, and it was by no means clear that they would again be so accommodating or that what had been possible for a few days should be possible with continuity, in the midst of the ceremonies and complications of London. Hyacinth felt poorer than he had ever felt before, inasmuch as he had had money and spent it, whereas in previous times he had never had it to spend. He never for an instant regretted his squandered fortune, for he said to himself that he had made a good bargain and become master of a precious equivalent. The equivalent was a rich experience – an experience which would become richer still as he should talk it over, in a low chair, close to hers, with the all-comprehending, all-suggesting lady of his life. His poverty would be no obstacle to their intercourse so long as he should have a pair of legs to carry him to her door; for she liked him better shabby than when he was furbished up, and she had given him too many pledges, they had taken together too many appointments, worked out too many programmes, to be disconcerted (on either side) by obstacles that were merely a part of the general conventionality. He was to go with her into the slums, to introduce her to the worst that London contained (he should have, precisely, to make acquaintance with it first), to show her the reality of the horrors of which she dreamed that the world might be purged. He had ceased, himself, to care for the slums, and had reasons for not wishing to spend his remnant in the contemplation of foul things; but he would go through with his part of the engagement. He might be perfunctory, but any dreariness would have a gilding that should involve an association with her. What if she should have changed, have ceased to care? What if, from a kind of royal insolence which he suspected to lurk somewhere in the side-scenes of her nature, though he had really not once seen it peep out, she should toss back her perfect head with a movement signifying that he was too basely literal and that she knew him no more? Hyacinth’s imagination represented her this evening in places where a barrier of dazzling light shut her out from access, or even from any appeal. He saw her with other people, in splendid rooms, where ‘the dukes’ had possession of her, smiling, satisfied, surrounded, covered with jewels. When this vision grew intense he found a reassurance in reflecting that after all she would be unlikely to throw him personally over so long as she should remain mixed up with what was being planned in the dark, and that it would not be easy for her to liberate herself from that entanglement. She had of course told him more, at Medley, of the manner in which she had already committed herself, and he remembered, with a strange perverse elation, that she had gone very far indeed.

In the intervals of the foolish play Mr Vetch, who lingered in his place in the orchestra while his mates descended into the little hole under the stage, leaned over the rail and asked his young friend occasional questions, carrying his eyes at the same time up about the dingy house, at whose smoky ceiling and tarnished galleries he had been staring for so many a year. He came back to Hyacinth’s letters, and said, “Of course you know they were clever; they entertained me immensely. But as I read them I thought of poor Pinnie: I wished she could have listened to them; they would have made her so happy.”

“Yes, poor Pinnie,” Hyacinth murmured, while Mr Vetch went on –

“I was in Paris in 1840; I stayed at a small hotel in the Rue Mogador. I judge everything is changed, from your letters. Does the Rue Mogador still exist? Yes, everything is changed. I dare say it’s all much finer, but I liked it very much as it was then. At all events, I am right in supposing – am I not? – that it cheered you up considerably, made you really happy.”

“Why should I have wanted any cheering? I was happy enough,” Hyacinth replied.

The fiddler turned his old white face upon him; it had the unhealthy smoothness which denotes a sedentary occupation, thirty years spent in a close crowd, amid the smoke of lamps and the odour of stage-paint. “I thought you were sad about Pinnie,” he remarked.

“When I jumped, with that avidity, at your proposal that I should take a tour? Poor old Pinnie!” Hyacinth added.

“Well, I hope you think a little better of the world. We mustn’t make up our mind too early in life.”

“Oh, I have made up mine: it’s an awfully jolly place.”

“Awfully jolly, no; but I like it as I like an old pair of shoes – I like so much less the idea of putting on the new ones.”

“Why should I complain?” Hyacinth asked. “What have I known but kindness? People have done such a lot for me.”

“Oh, well, of course, they have liked you. But that’s all right,” murmured Mr Vetch, beginning to scrape again. What remained in Hyacinth’s mind from this conversation was the fact that the old man, whom he regarded distinctly as cultivated, had thought his letters clever. He only wished that he had made them cleverer still; he had no doubt of his ability to have done so.

It may be imagined whether the first hours he spent at old Crookenden’s, after he took up work again, were altogether to his taste, and what was the nature of the reception given him by his former comrades, whom he found exactly in the same attitudes and the same clothes (he knew and hated every article they wore), and with the same primitive pleasantries on their lips. Our young man’s feelings were mingled; the place and the people appeared to him loathsome, but there was something delightful in handling his tools. He gave a little private groan of relief when he discovered that he still liked his work and that the pleasant swarm of his ideas (in the matter of sides and backs) returned to him. They came in still brighter, more suggestive form, and he had the satisfaction of feeling that his taste had improved, that it had been purified by experience, and that the covers of a book might be made to express an astonishing number of high conceptions. Strange enough it was, and a proof surely, of our little hero’s being a genuine artist, that the impressions he had accumulated during the last few months appeared to mingle and confound themselves with the very sources of his craft and to be susceptible of technical representation. He had quite determined, by this time, to carry on his life as if nothing were hanging over him, and he had no intention of remaining a little bookbinder to the end of his days; for that medium, after all, would translate only some of his conceptions. Yet his trade was a resource, an undiminished resource, for the present, and he had a particular as well as a general motive in attempting new flights – the prevision of the exquisite work which he was to do during the coming year for the Princess and which it was very definite to him he owed her. When that debt should have been paid and his other arrears made up he proposed to himself to write something. He was far from having decided as yet what it should be; the only point settled was that it should be very remarkable and should not, at least on the face of it, have anything to do with a fresh deal of the social pack. That was to be his transition – into literature; to bind the book, charming as the process might be, was after all much less fundamental than to write it. It had occurred to Hyacinth more than once that it would be a fine thing to produce a brilliant death-song.

It is not surprising that among such reveries as this he should have been conscious of a narrow range in the tone of his old workfellows. They had only one idea: that he had come into a thousand pounds and had gone to spend them in France with a regular high one. He was aware, in advance, of the diffusion of this legend, and did his best to allow for it, taking the simplest course, which was not to contradict it but to catch the ball as it came and toss it still further, enlarging and embroidering humorously until Grugan and Roker and Hotchkin and all the rest, who struck him as not having washed since he left them, seemed really to begin to understand how it was he could have spent such a rare sum in so short a time. The impressiveness of this achievement helped him greatly to slip into his place; he could see that, though the treatment it received was superficially irreverent, the sense that he was very sharp and that the springs of his sharpness were somehow secret gained a good deal of strength from it. Hyacinth was not incapable of being rather pleased that it should be supposed, even by Grugan, Roker and Hotchkin, that he could get rid of a thousand pounds in less than five months, especially as to his own conscience the fact had altogether yet to be proved. He got off, on the whole, easily enough to feel a little ashamed, and he reflected that the men at Crookenden’s, at any rate, showed no symptoms of the social jealousy lying at the bottom of the desire for a fresh deal. This was doubtless an accident, and not inherent in the fact that they were highly skilled workmen (old Crookenden had no others), and therefore sure of constant employment; for it was impossible to be more skilled, in one’s own line, than Paul Muniment was, and yet he (though not out of jealousy, of course) went in for the great restitution. What struck him most, after he had got used again to the sense of his apron and bent his back a while over his battered table, was the simple, synthetic patience of the others, who had bent their backs and felt the rub of that dirty drapery all the while he was lounging in the halls of Medley, dawdling through boulevards and museums, and admiring the purity of the Venetian girl-face. With Poupin, to be sure, his relations were special; but the explanations that he owed the sensitive Frenchman were not such as could make him very unhappy, once he had determined to resist as much as possible the friction of his remaining days. There was moreover more sorrow than anger in Poupin’s face when he learned that his young friend and pupil had failed to cultivate, in Paris, the rich opportunities he had offered him. “You are cooling off, my child; there is something about you! Have you the weakness to flatter yourself that anything has been done, or that humanity suffers a particle less? Enfin, it’s between you and your conscience.”

“Do you think I want to get out of it?” Hyacinth asked, smiling; Eustache Poupin’s phrases about humanity, which used to thrill him so, having grown of late strangely hollow and rococo.

“You owe me no explanations; the conscience of the individual is absolute, except, of course, in those classes in which, from the very nature of the infamies on which they are founded, no conscience can exist. Speak to me, however, of my Paris; she is always divine,” Poupin went on; but he showed signs of irritation when Hyacinth began to praise to him the magnificent creations of the arch-fiend of December. In the presence of this picture he was in a terrible dilemma: he was gratified as a Parisian and a patriot but he was disconcerted as a lover of liberty; it cost him a pang to admit that anything in the sacred city was defective, yet he saw still less his way to concede that it could owe any charm to the perjured monster of the second Empire, or even to the hypocritical, mendacious republicanism of the régime before which the sacred Commune had gone down in blood and fire. “Ah, yes, it’s very fine, no doubt,” he remarked at last, “but it will be finer still when it’s ours!” – a speech which caused Hyacinth to turn back to his work with a slight feeling of sickness. Everywhere, everywhere, he saw the ulcer of envy – the passion of a party which hung together for the purpose of despoiling another to its advantage. In old Eustache, one of the ‘pure’, this was particularly sad.

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