The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

32

The landing at the top of the stairs in Audley Court was always dark; but it seemed darker than ever to Hyacinth while he fumbled for the door-latch, after he had heard Rose Muniment’s penetrating voice bid him come in. During that instant his ear caught the sound – if it could trust itself – of another voice, which prepared him, a little, for the spectacle that offered itself as soon as the door (his attempt to reach the handle, in his sudden agitation, proving fruitless) was opened to him by Paul. His friend stood there, tall and hospitable, saying something loud and jovial, which he didn’t distinguish. His eyes had crossed the threshold in a flash, but his step faltered a moment, only to obey, however, the vigour of Muniment’s outstretched hand. Hyacinth’s glance had gone straight, and though with four persons in it Rosy’s little apartment looked crowded, he saw no one but the object of his quick preconception – no one but the Princess Casamassima, seated beside the low sofa (the grand feature introduced during his absence from London) on which, arrayed in the famous pink dressing-gown, Miss Muniment now received her visitors. He wondered afterwards why he should have been so startled; for he had said, often enough, both to himself and to the Princess, that so far as she was concerned he was proof against astonishment; it was so evident that, in her behaviour, the unexpected was the only thing to be looked for. In fact, now that he perceived she had made her way to Camberwell without his assistance, the feeling that took possession of him was a kind of embarrassment; he blushed a little as he entered the circle, the fourth member of which was inevitably Lady Aurora Langrish. Was it that his intimacy with the Princess gave him a certain sense of responsibility for her conduct in respect to people who knew her as yet but a little, and that there was something that required explanation in the confidence with which she had practised a descent upon them? It is true that it came over our young man that by this time, perhaps, they knew her a good deal; and moreover a woman’s conduct spoke for itself when she could sit looking, in that fashion, like a radiant angel dressed in a simple bonnet and mantle and immensely interested in an appealing corner of the earth. It took Hyacinth but an instant to perceive that her character was in a different phase from any that had yet been exhibited to him. There had been a brilliant mildness about her the night he made her acquaintance, and she had never ceased, at any moment since, to strike him as an exquisitely human, sentient, pitying organisation; unless it might be, indeed, in relation to her husband, against whom – for reasons, after all, doubtless, very sufficient – her heart appeared absolutely steeled. But now her face looked at him through a sort of glorious charity. She had put off her splendour, but her beauty was unquenchably bright; she had made herself humble for her pious excursion; she had, beside Rosy (who, in the pink dressing-gown, looked much the more luxurious of the two), almost the attitude of a hospital nurse; and it was easy to see, from the meagre line of her garments, that she was tremendously in earnest. If Hyacinth was flurried her own countenance expressed no confusion; for her, evidently, this queer little chamber of poverty and pain was a place in which it was perfectly natural that he should turn up. The sweet, still greeting her eyes offered him might almost have conveyed to him that she had been waiting for him, that she knew he would come and that there had been a tacit appointment for that very moment. They said other things beside, in their beautiful friendliness: they said, ‘Don’t notice me too much, or make any kind of scene. I have an immense deal to say to you, but remember that I have the rest of our life before me to say it in. Consider only what will be easiest and kindest to these people, these delightful people, whom I find enchanting (why didn’t you ever tell me more – I mean really more – about them?). It won’t be particularly complimentary to them if you have the air of seeing a miracle in my presence here. I am very glad of your return. The quavering, fidgety “ladyship” is as fascinating as the others.’

Hyacinth’s reception at the hands of his old friends was cordial enough quite to obliterate the element of irony that had lurked, three months before, in their godspeed; their welcome was not boisterous, but it seemed to express the idea that the occasion was already so rare and agreeable that his arrival was all that was needed to make it perfect. By the time he had been three minutes in the room he was able to measure the impression produced by the Princess, who, it was clear, had thrown a spell of adoration over the little company. This was in the air, in the face of each, in their excited, smiling eyes and heightened colour; even Rosy’s wan grimace, which was at all times screwed up to ecstasy, emitted a supererogatory ray. Lady Aurora looked more than ever dishevelled with interest and wonder; the long strands of her silky hair floated like gossamer, as, in her extraordinary, religious attention (her hands were raised and clasped to her bosom, as if she were praying), her respiration rose and fell. She had never seen any one like the Princess; but Hyacinth’s apprehension, of some months before, had been groundless – she evidently didn’t think her vulgar. She thought her divine, and a revelation of beauty and benignity; and the illuminated, amplified room could contain no dissentient opinion. It was her beauty, primarily, that ‘fetched’ them, Hyacinth could easily see, and it was not hidden from him that the sensation was as active in Paul Muniment as in his companions. It was not in Paul’s nature to be jerkily demonstrative, and he had not lost his head on the present occasion; but he had already appreciated the difference between one’s preconception of a meretricious, factitious fine lady and the actual influence of such a personage. She was gentler, fairer, wiser, than a chemist’s assistant could have guessed in advance. In short, she held the trio in her hand (she had reduced Lady Aurora to exactly the same simplicity as the others), and she performed, admirably, artistically, for their benefit. Almost before Hyacinth had had time to wonder how she had found the Muniments out (he had no recollection of giving her specific directions), she mentioned that Captain Sholto had been so good as to introduce her; doing so as if she owed him that explanation and were a woman who would be scrupulous in such a case. It was rather a blow to him to hear that she had been accepting the Captain’s mediation, and this was not softened by her saying that she was too impatient to wait for his own return; he was apparently so happy on the Continent that one couldn’t be sure it would ever take place. The Princess might at least have been sure that to see her again very soon was still more necessary to his happiness than anything the Continent could offer.

It came out in the conversation he had with her, to which the others listened with respectful curiosity, that Captain Sholto had brought her a week before, but then she had seen only Miss Muniment. “I took the liberty of coming again, by myself, to-day, because I wanted to see the whole family,” the Princess remarked, looking from Paul to Lady Aurora, with a friendly gaiety in her face which purified the observation (as regarded her ladyship) of impertinence. The Princess added, frankly, that she had now been careful to arrive at an hour when she thought Mr Muniment might be at home. “When I come to see gentlemen, I like at least to find them,” she continued, and she was so great a lady that there was no small diffidence in her attitude; it was a simple matter for her to call on a chemist’s assistant, if she had a reason. Hyacinth could see that the reason had already been brought forward – her immense interest in problems that Mr Muniment had completely mastered, and in particular their common acquaintance with the extraordinary man whose mission it was to solve them. Hyacinth learned later that she had pronounced the name of Hoffendahl. A part of the lustre in Rosy’s eye came no doubt from the explanation she had inevitably been moved to make in respect to any sympathy with wicked theories that might be imputed to her; and of course the effect of this intensely individual little protest (such was always its effect), emanating from the sofa and the pink dressing-gown, was to render the Muniment interior still more quaint and original. In that spot Paul always gave the go-by, humorously, to any attempt to draw out his views, and you would have thought, to hear him, that he allowed himself the reputation of having them only in order to get a ‘rise’ out of his sister and let their visitors see with what wit and spirit she could repudiate them. This, however, would only be a reason the more for the Princess’s following up her scent. She would doubtless not expect to get at the bottom of his ideas in Audley Court; the opportunity would occur, rather, in case of his having the civility (on which surely she might count) to come and talk them over with her in her own house.

Hyacinth mentioned to her the disappointment he had had in South Street, and she replied, “Oh, I have given up that house, and taken quite a different one.” But she didn’t say where it was, and in spite of her having given him so much the right to expect she would communicate to him a matter so nearly touching them both as a change of address, he felt a great shyness about asking.

Their companions watched them as if they considered that something rather brilliant, now, would be likely to come off between them; but Hyacinth was too full of regard to the Princess’s tacit notification to him that they must not appear too thick, which was after all more flattering than the most pressing inquiries or the most liberal announcements about herself could have been. She never asked him when he had come back; and indeed it was not long before Rose Muniment took that business upon herself. Hyacinth, however, ventured to assure himself whether Madame Grandoni were still with the Princess, and even to remark (when she had replied, “Oh yes, still, still. The great refusal, as Dante calls it, has not yet come off”), “You ought to bring her to see Miss Rosy. She is a person Miss Rosy would particularly appreciate.”

“I am sure I should be most happy to receive any friend of the Princess Casamassima,” said this young lady, from the sofa; and when the Princess answered that she certainly would not fail to produce Madame Grandoni some day, Hyacinth (though he doubted whether the presentation would really take place) guessed how much she wished her old friend might have heard the strange bedizened little invalid make that speech.

There were only three other seats, for the introduction of the sofa (a question so profoundly studied in advance) had rendered necessary the elimination of certain articles; so that Muniment, on his feet, hovered round the little circle, with his hands in his pockets, laughing freely and sociably but not looking at the Princess; though, as Hyacinth was sure, he was none the less agitated by her presence.

“You ought to tell us about foreign parts and the grand things you have seen; except that, doubtless, our distinguished visitor knows all about them,” Muniment said to Hyacinth. Then he added, “Surely, at any rate, you have seen nothing more worthy of your respect than Camberwell.”

“Is this the worst part?” the Princess asked, looking up with her noble, interested face.

“The worst, madam? What grand ideas you must have! We admire Camberwell immensely.”

“It’s my brother’s ideas that are grand!” cried Rose Muniment, betraying him conscientiously. “He does want everything changed, no less than you, Princess; though he is more cunning than you, and won’t give one a handle where one can take him up. He thinks all this part most objectionable – as if dirty people won’t always make everything dirty where they live! I dare say he thinks there ought to be no dirty people, and it may be so; only if every one was clean, where would be the merit? You would get no credit for keeping yourself tidy. At any rate, if it’s a question of soap and water, every one can begin by himself. My brother thinks the whole place ought to be as handsome as Brompton.”

“Ah, yes, that’s where the artists and literary people live, isn’t it?” asked the Princess, attentively.

“I have never seen it, but it’s very well laid out,” Rosy rejoined, with her competent air.

“Oh, I like Camberwell better than that,” said Muniment, hilariously.

The Princess turned to Lady Aurora, and with the air of appealing to her for her opinion gave her a glance which travelled in a flash from the topmost bow of her large, misfitting hat to the crumpled points of her substantial shoes. “I must get you to tell me the truth,” she murmured. “I want so much to know London – the real London. It seems so difficult!”

Lady Aurora looked a little frightened, but at the same time gratified, and after a moment she responded, “I believe a great many artists live in St John’s Wood.”

“I don’t care about the artists!” the Princess exclaimed, shaking her head, slowly, with the sad smile which sometimes made her beauty so inexpressibly touching.

“Not when they have painted you such beautiful pictures?” Rosy demanded. “We know about your pictures – we have admired them so much. Mr Hyacinth has described to us your precious possessions.”

The Princess transferred her smile to Rosy, and rested it on that young lady’s shrunken countenance with the same ineffable head-shake. “You do me too much honour. I have no possessions.”

“Gracious, was it all a make-believe?” Rosy cried, flashing at Hyacinth an eye that was never so eloquent as when it demanded an explanation.

“I have nothing in the world – nothing but the clothes on my back!” the Princess repeated, very gravely, without looking at the young man.

The words struck him as an admonition, so that, though he was much puzzled, he made no attempt, for the moment, to reconcile the contradiction. He only replied, “I meant the things in the house. Of course I didn’t know whom they belonged to.”

“There are no things in my house now,” the Princess went on; and there was a touch of pure, high resignation in the words.

“Laws, I shouldn’t like that!” Rose Muniment declared, glancing, with complacency, over her own decorated walls. “Everything here belongs to me.”

“I shall bring Madame Grandoni to see you,” said the Princess, irrelevantly but kindly.

“Do you think it’s not right to have a lot of things about?” Lady Aurora, with sudden courage, queried of her distinguished companion, pointing her chin at her but looking into the upper angle of the room.

“I suppose one must always settle that for one’s self. I don’t like to be surrounded with objects I don’t care for; and I can care only for one thing – that is, for one class of things – at a time. Dear lady,” the Princess went on, “I fear I must confess to you that my heart is not in bibelots. When thousands and tens of thousands haven’t bread to put in their mouths, I can dispense with tapestry and old china.” And her fair face, bent charmingly, conciliatingly, on Lady Aurora, appeared to argue that if she was narrow at least she was candid.

Hyacinth wondered, rather vulgarly, what strange turn she had taken, and whether this singular picture of her denuded personality were not one of her famous caprices, a whimsical joke, a nervous perversity. Meanwhile, he heard Lady Aurora urge, anxiously, “But don’t you think we ought to make the world more beautiful?”

“Doesn’t the Princess make it so by the mere fact of her existence?” Hyacinth demanded; his perplexity escaping, in a harmless manner, through this graceful hyperbole. He had observed that, though the lady in question could dispense with old china and tapestry, she could not dispense with a pair of immaculate gloves, which fitted her like a charm.

“My people have a mass of things, you know, but I have really nothing myself,” said Lady Aurora, as if she owed this assurance to such a representative of suffering humanity.

“The world will be beautiful enough when it becomes good enough,” the Princess resumed. “Is there anything so ugly as unjust distinctions, as the privileges of the few contrasted with the degradation of the many? When we want to beautify, we must begin at the right end.”

“Surely there are none of us but what have our privileges!” Rose Muniment exclaimed, with eagerness. “What do you say to mine, lying here between two members of the aristocracy, and with Mr Hyacinth thrown in?”

“You are certainly lucky – with Lady Aurora Langrish. I wish she would come and see me,” the Princess murmured, getting up.

“Do go, my lady, and tell me if it’s so poor!” Rosy went on, gaily.

“I think there can’t be too many pictures and statues and works of art,” Hyacinth broke out. “The more the better, whether people are hungry or not. In the way of ameliorating influences, are not those the most definite?”

“A piece of bread and butter is more to the purpose, if your stomach’s empty,” the Princess declared.

“Robinson has been corrupted by foreign influences,” Paul Muniment suggested. “He doesn’t care for bread and butter now; he likes French cookery.”

“Yes, but I don’t get it. And have you sent away the little man, the Italian, with the white cap and apron?” Hyacinth asked of the Princess.

She hesitated a moment, and then she replied, laughing, and not in the least offended at his question, though it was an attempt to put her in the wrong from which Hyacinth had not been able to refrain, in his astonishment at these ascetic pretensions, “I have sent him away many times!”

Lady Aurora had also got up: she stood there gazing at her beautiful fellow-visitor with a timidity which made her wonder only more apparent. “Your servants must be awfully fond of you,” she said.

“Oh, my servants!” murmured the Princess, as if it were only by a stretch of the meaning of the word that she could be said to enjoy the ministrations of menials. Her manner seemed to imply that she had a charwoman for an hour a day. Hyacinth caught the tone, and determined that since she was going, as it appeared, he would break off his own visit and accompany her. He had flattered himself, at the end of three weeks of Medley, that he knew her in every phase, but here was a field of freshness. She turned to Paul Muniment and put out her hand to him, and while he took it in his own his face was visited by the most beautiful eyes that had ever rested there. “Will you come and see me, one of these days?” she asked, with a voice as sweet and clear as her glance.

Hyacinth waited for Paul’s answer with an emotion that could only be accounted for by his affectionate sympathy, the manner in which he had spoken of him to the Princess and which he wished him to justify, the interest he had in his appearing, completely, the fine fellow he believed him. Muniment neither stammered nor blushed; he held himself straight, and looked back at his interlocutress with an eye almost as crystalline as her own. Then, by way of answer, he inquired, “Well, madam, pray what good will it do me?” And the tone of the words was so humorous and kindly, and so instinct with a plain manly sense, that though they were not gallant Hyacinth was not ashamed for him. At the same moment he observed that Lady Aurora was watching their friend as if she had at least an equal stake in what he might say.

“Ah, none; only me, perhaps, a little.” With this rejoinder, and with a wonderful sweet, indulgent dignity, in which there was none of the stiffness of pride or resentment, the Princess quitted him and approached Lady Aurora. She asked her if she wouldn’t do her the kindness to come. She should like so much to know her, and she had an idea there was a great deal they might talk about. Lady Aurora said she should be delighted, and the Princess took one of her cards out of her pocket and gave it to the noble spinster. After she had done so she stood a moment holding her hand, and remarked, “It has really been such a happiness to me to meet you. Please don’t think it’s very clumsy if I say I do like you so!” Lady Aurora was evidently exceedingly moved and impressed; but Rosy, when the Princess took farewell of her, and the irrepressible invalid had assured her of the pleasure with which she should receive her again, admonished her that in spite of this she could never conscientiously enter into such theories.

“If every one was equal,” she asked, “where would be the gratification I feel in getting a visit from a grandee? That’s what I have often said to her ladyship, and I consider that I’ve kept her in her place a little. No, no; no equality while I’m about the place!”

The company appeared to comprehend that there was a natural fitness in Hyacinth’s seeing the great lady on her way, and accordingly no effort was made to detain him. He guided her, with the help of an attendant illumination from Muniment, down the dusky staircase, and at the door of the house there was a renewed brief leave-taking with the young chemist, who, however, showed no signs of relenting or recanting in respect to the Princess’s invitation. The warm evening had by this time grown thick, and the population of Audley Court appeared to be passing it, for the most part, in the open air. As Hyacinth assisted his companion to thread her way through groups of sprawling, chattering children, gossiping women with bare heads and babies at the breast, and heavily-planted men smoking very bad pipes, it seemed to him that their project of exploring the slums was already in the way of execution. He said nothing till they had gained the outer street, and then, pausing a moment, he inquired how she would be conveyed. Had she a carriage somewhere, or should he try and get a cab?

“A carriage, my dear fellow? For what do you take me? I won’t trouble you about a cab: I walk everywhere now.”

“But if I had not been here?”

“I should have gone alone,” said the Princess, smiling at him through the turbid twilight of Camberwell.

“And where, please, gracious heaven? I may at least have the honour of accompanying you.”

“Certainly, if you can walk so far.”

“So far as what, dear Princess?”

“As Madeira Crescent, Paddington.”

“Madeira Crescent, Paddington?” Hyacinth stared.

“That’s what I call it when I’m with people with whom I wish to be fine, like you. I have taken a small house there.”

“Then it’s really true that you have given up your beautiful things?”

“I have sold them all, to give to the poor.”

“Ah, Princess!” the young man almost moaned; for the memory of some of her treasures was vivid within him.

She became very grave, even stern, and with an accent of reproach that seemed to show she had been wounded where she was most sensitive, she demanded, “When I said I was willing to make the last sacrifice, did you then believe I was lying?”

“Haven’t you kept anything?” Hyacinth went on, without heeding this challenge.

She looked at him a moment. “I have kept you!” Then she took his arm, and they moved forward. He saw what she had done; she was living in a little ugly, bare, middle-class house and wearing simple gowns; and the energy and good faith of her behaviour, with the abruptness of the transformation, took away his breath. “I thought I should please you so much,” she added, after they had gone a few steps. And before he had time to reply, as they came to a part of the street where there were small shops, those of butchers, greengrocers and pork-pie men, with open fronts, flaring lamps and humble purchasers, she broke out, joyously, “Ah, this is the way I like to see London!”

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