The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

33

The house in Madeira Crescent was a low, stucco-fronted edifice, in a shabby, shallow semicircle, and Hyacinth could see, as they approached it, that the window-place in the parlour (which was on a level with the street-door) was ornamented by a glass case containing stuffed birds and surmounted by an alabaster Cupid. He was sufficiently versed in his London to know that the descent in the scale of the gentility was almost immeasurable for a person who should have moved into that quarter from the neighbourhood of Park Lane. The street was not squalid, and it was strictly residential; but it was mean and meagre and fourth-rate, and had in the highest degree that paltry, parochial air, that absence of style and elevation, which is the stamp of whole districts of London and which Hyacinth had already more than once mentally compared with the high-piled, important look of the Parisian perspective. It possessed in combination every quality which should have made it detestable to the Princess; it was almost as bad as Lomax Place. As they stopped before the narrow, ill-painted door, on which the number of the house was marked with a piece of common porcelain, cut in a fanciful shape, it appeared to Hyacinth that he had felt, in their long walk, the touch of the passion which led his companion to divest herself of her superfluities, but that it would take the romantic out of one’s heroism to settle one’s self in such a mesquin, Philistine row. However, if the Princess had wished to mortify the flesh she had chosen an effective means of doing so, and of mortifying the spirit as well. The long light of the gray summer evening was still in the air, and Madeira Crescent wore a soiled, dusty expression. A hand-organ droned in front of a neighbouring house, and the cart of the local washerwoman, to which a donkey was harnessed, was drawn up opposite. The local children, as well, were dancing on the pavement, to the music of the organ, and the scene was surveyed, from one of the windows, by a gentleman in a dirty dressing-gown, smoking a pipe, who made Hyacinth think of Mr Micawber. The young man gave the Princess a deep look, before they went into the house, and she smiled, as if she understood everything that was passing in his mind.

The long, circuitous walk with her, from the far-away south of London, had been strange and delightful; it reminded Hyacinth, more queerly than he could have expressed, of some of the rambles he had taken on summer evenings with Millicent Henning. It was impossible to resemble this young lady less than the Princess resembled her, but in her enjoyment of her unwonted situation (she had never before, on a summer’s evening – to the best of Hyacinth’s belief, at least – lost herself in the unfashionable districts on the arm of a seedy artisan) the distinguished personage exhibited certain coincidences with the shop-girl. She stopped, as Millicent had done, to look into the windows of vulgar establishments, and amused herself with picking out abominable objects that she should like to possess; selecting them from a new point of view, that of a reduced fortune and the domestic arrangements of the ‘lower middle class’, deriving extreme diversion from the idea that she now belonged to that aggrieved body. She was in a state of light, fresh, sociable exhilaration which Hyacinth had hitherto, in the same degree, not seen in her, and before they reached Madeira Crescent it had become clear to him that her present phase was little more than a brilliant tour de force, which he could not imagine her keeping up long, for the simple reason that after the novelty and strangeness of the affair had passed away she would not be able to endure the contact of so much that was common and ugly. For the moment her discoveries in this line diverted her, as all discoveries did, and she pretended to be sounding, in a scientific spirit – that of the social philosopher, the student and critic of manners – the depths of British Philistia. Hyacinth was struck, more than ever, with the fund of life that was in her, the energy of feeling, the high, free, reckless spirit. These things expressed themselves, as the couple proceeded, in a hundred sallies and droll proposals, kindling the young man’s pulses and making him conscious of the joy with which, in any extravagance, he would bear her company to the death. She appeared to him, at this moment, to be playing with life so audaciously and defiantly that the end of it all would inevitably be some violent catastrophe.

She desired exceedingly that Hyacinth should take her to a music-hall or a coffee-tavern; she even professed a curiosity to see the inside of a public-house. As she still had self-possession enough to remember that if she stayed out beyond a certain hour Madame Grandoni would begin to worry about her, they were obliged to content themselves with the minor ‘lark’, as the Princess was careful to designate their peep into an establishment, glittering with polished pewter and brass, which bore the name of the ‘Happy Land’. Hyacinth had feared that she would be nervous after the narrow, befingered door had swung behind her, or that, at all events, she would be disgusted at what she might see and hear in such a place and would immediately wish to retreat. By good luck, however, there were only two or three convivial spirits in occupancy, and the presence of the softer sex was apparently not so rare as to excite surprise. The softer sex, furthermore, was embodied in a big, hard, red woman, the publican’s wife, who looked as if she were in the habit of dealing with all sorts and mainly interested in seeing whether even the finest put down their money before they were served. The Princess pretended to ‘have something’, and to admire the ornamentation of the bar; and when Hyacinth asked her in a low tone what disposal they should make, when the great changes came, of such an embarrassing type as that, replied, off-hand, “Oh, drown her in a barrel of beer!” She professed, when they came out, to have been immensely interested in the ‘Happy Land’, and was not content until Hyacinth had fixed an evening on which they might visit a music-hall together. She talked with him, largely, by fits and starts, about his adventures abroad and his impressions of France and Italy; breaking off, suddenly, with some irrelevant but almost extravagantly appreciative allusion to Rose Muniment and Lady Aurora; then returning with a question as to what he had seen and done, the answer to which, however, in many cases, she was not at pains to wait for. Yet it implied that she had paid considerable attention to what he told her that she should be able to say, towards the end, with that fraternising frankness which was always touching because it appeared to place her at one’s mercy, to show that she counted on one’s having an equal loyalty, “Well, my dear friend, you have not wasted your time; you know everything, you have missed nothing; there are lots of things you can tell me, and we shall have some famous talks in the winter evenings.” This last reference was apparently to the coming season, and there was something in the tone of quiet friendship with which it was uttered, and which seemed to involve so many delightful things, something that, for Hyacinth, bound them still closer together. To live out of the world with her that way, lost among the London millions, in a queer little cockneyfied retreat, was a refinement of intimacy, and better even than the splendid chance he had enjoyed at Medley.

They found Madame Grandoni sitting alone in the twilight, very patient and peaceful, and having, after all, it was clear, accepted the situation too completely to fidget at such a trifle as her companion’s not coming home at a ladylike hour. She had placed herself in the back part of the tawdry little drawing-room, which looked into a small, smutty garden, and from the front window, which was open, the sound of the hurdy-gurdy and the voices of the children, who were romping to its music, came in to her through the summer dusk. The influence of London was there, in a kind of mitigated, far-away hum, and for some reason or other, at that moment, the place, to Hyacinth, took on the semblance of the home of an exile – a spot and an hour to be remembered with a throb of fondness in some danger or sorrow of after years. The old lady never moved from her chair as she saw the Princess come in with the little bookbinder, and her eyes rested on Hyacinth as familiarly as if she had seen him go out with her in the afternoon. The Princess stood before Madame Grandoni a moment, smiling. “I have done a great thing. What do you think I have done?” she asked, as she drew off her gloves.

“God knows! I have ceased to think!” said the old woman, staring up, with her fat, empty hands on the arms of her chair.

“I have come on foot from the far south of London – how many miles? four or five – and I’m not a particle tired.”

Che forza, che forza!” murmured Madame Grandoni. “She will knock you up, completely,” she added, turning to Hyacinth with a kind of customary compassion.

“Poor darling, she misses the carriage,” Christina remarked, passing out of the room.

Madame Grandoni followed her with her eyes, and Hyacinth thought he perceived a considerable lassitude, a plaintive bewilderment and hébétement, in the old woman’s face. “Don’t you like to use cabs – I mean hansoms?” he asked, wishing to say something comforting to her.

“It is not true that I miss anything; my life is only too full,” she replied. “I lived worse than this – in my bad days.” In a moment she went on: “It’s because you are here – she doesn’t like Assunta to come.”

“Assunta – because I am here?” Hyacinth did not immediately catch her meaning.

“You must have seen her Italian maid at Medley. She has kept her, and she’s ashamed of it. When we are alone Assunta comes for her bonnet. But she likes you to think she waits on herself.”

“That’s a weakness – when she’s so strong! And what does Assunta think of it?” Hyacinth asked, looking at the stuffed birds in the window, the alabaster Cupid, the wax flowers on the chimney-piece, the florid antimacassars on the chairs, the sentimental engravings on the walls – in frames of papier-mâché and ‘composition’, some of them enveloped in pink tissue-paper – and the prismatic glass pendants which seemed attached to everything.

“She says, ‘What on earth will it matter to-morrow?’”

“Does she mean that to-morrow the Princess will have her luxury back again? Hasn’t she sold all her beautiful things?”

Madame Grandoni was silent a moment. “She has kept a few. They are put away.”

A la bonne heure!” cried Hyacinth, laughing. He sat down with the ironical old woman; he spent nearly half an hour in desultory conversation with her, before candles were brought in, and while Christina was in Assunta’s hands. He noticed how resolutely the Princess had withheld herself from any attempt to sweeten the dose she had taken it into her head to swallow, to mitigate the ugliness of her vulgar little house. She had respected its horrible idiosyncrasies, and left, rigidly, in their places the gimcracks which found favour in Madeira Crescent. She had flung no draperies over the pretentious furniture and disposed no rugs upon the staring carpet; and it was plainly her theory that the right way to acquaint one’s self with the sensations of the wretched was to suffer the anguish of exasperated taste. Presently a female servant came in – not the sceptical Assunta, but a stunted young woman of the maid-of-all-work type, the same who had opened the door to the pair a short time before – and informed Hyacinth that the Princess wished him to understand that he was expected to remain to tea. He learned from Madame Grandoni that the custom of an early dinner, followed in the evening by the frugal repast of the lower orders, was another of Christina’s mortifications; and when, shortly afterwards, he saw the table laid in the back parlour, which was also the dining-room, and observed the nature of the crockery with which it was decorated, he perceived that whether or no her earnestness were durable, it was at any rate, for the time, intense. Madame Grandoni narrated to him, definitely, as the Princess had done only in scraps, the history of the two ladies since his departure from Medley, their relinquishment of that fine house and the sudden arrangements Christina had made to change her mode of life, after they had been only ten days in South Street. At the climax of the London season, in a society which only desired to treat her as one of its brightest ornaments, she had retired to Madeira Crescent, concealing her address (with only partial success, of course) from every one, and inviting a celebrated curiosity-monger to come and look at her bibelots and tell her what he would give her for the lot. In this manner she had parted with them at a fearful sacrifice. She had wished to avoid the nine days’ wonder of a public sale; for, to do her justice, though she liked to be original she didn’t like to be notorious, an occasion of vulgar chatter. What had precipitated her determination was a remonstrance received from her husband, just after she left Medley, on the subject of her excessive expenditure; he had written to her that it was past a joke (as she had appeared to consider it), and that she must really pull up. Nothing could gall her more than an interference on that head (she maintained that she knew the exact figure of the Prince’s income, and that her allowance was an insignificant part of it), and she had pulled up with a vengeance, as Hyacinth perceived. The young man divined on this occasion one of the Princess’s sharpest anxieties (he had never thought of it before), the danger of Casamassima’s really putting the screw on – attempting to make her come back and live with him by withholding supplies altogether. In this case she would find herself in a very tight place, though she had a theory that if she should go to law about the matter the courts would allow her a separate maintenance. This course, however, it would scarcely be in her character to adopt; she would be more likely to waive her right and support herself by lessons in music and the foreign tongues, supplemented by the remnant of property that had come to her from her mother. That she was capable of returning to the Prince some day, through not daring to face the loss of luxury, was an idea that could not occur to Hyacinth, in the midst of her assurances, uttered at various times, that she positively yearned for a sacrifice; and such an apprehension was less present to him than ever as he listened to Madame Grandoni’s account of the manner in which her rupture with the fashionable world had been effected. It must be added that the old lady remarked, with a sigh, that she didn’t know how it would all end, as some of Christina’s economies were very costly; and when Hyacinth pressed her a little she went on to say that it was not at present the question of complications arising from the Prince that troubled her most, but the fear that Christina was seriously compromised by her reckless, senseless correspondences – letters arriving from foreign countries, from God knew whom (Christina never told her, nor did she desire it), all about uprisings and liberations (of so much one could be sure) and other matters that were no concern of honest folk. Hyacinth scarcely knew what Madame Grandoni meant by this allusion, which seemed to show that, during the last few months, the Princess had considerably extended her revolutionary connection: he only thought of Hoffendahl, whose name, however, he was careful not to pronounce, and wondered whether his hostess had been writing to the Master to intercede for him, to beg that he might be let off. His cheeks burned at the thought, but he contented himself with remarking to Madame Grandoni that their extraordinary friend enjoyed the sense of danger. The old lady wished to know how she would enjoy the hangman’s rope (with which, du train dont elle allait, she might easily make acquaintance); and when he expressed the hope that she didn’t regard him as a counsellor of imprudence, replied, “You, my poor child? Oh, I saw into you at Medley. You are a simple codino!”

The Princess came in to tea in a very dull gown, with a bunch of keys at her girdle; and nothing could have suggested the thrifty housewife better than the manner in which she superintended the laying of the cloth and the placing on it of a little austere refreshment – a pile of bread and butter, flanked by a pot of marmalade and a morsel of bacon. She filled the teapot out of a little tin canister locked up in a cupboard, of which the key worked with difficulty, and made the tea with her own superb hands; taking pains, however, to explain to Hyacinth that she was far from imposing that régime on Madame Grandoni, who understood that the grocer had a standing order to supply her, for her private consumption, with any delicacy she might desire. For herself, she had never been so well as since she had followed a homely diet. On Sundays they had muffins, and sometimes, for a change, a smoked haddock, or even a fried sole. Hyacinth was lost in adoration of the Princess’s housewifely ways and of the exquisite figure that she made as a little bourgeoise; judging that if her attempt to combine plain living with high thinking were all a comedy, at least it was the most finished entertainment she had yet offered him. She talked to Madame Grandoni about Lady Aurora; described her with much drollery, even to the details of her dress; declared that she was a delightful creature and one of the most interesting persons she had seen for an age; expressed to Hyacinth the conviction that she should like her exceedingly, if Lady Aurora would only believe a little in her. “But I shall like her, whether she does or not,” said the Princess. “I always know when that’s going to happen; it isn’t so common. She will begin very well with me, and be ‘fascinated’ – isn’t that the way people begin with me? – but she won’t understand me at all, or make out in the least what kind of a queer fish I am, though I shall try to show her. When she thinks she does, at last, she will give me up in disgust, and will never know that she has understood me quite wrong. That has been the way with most of the people I have liked; they have run away from me à toutes jambes. Oh, I have inspired aversions!” laughed the Princess, handing Hyacinth his cup of tea. He recognised it by the aroma as a mixture not inferior to that of which he had partaken at Medley. “I have never succeeded in knowing any one who would do me good; for by the time I began to improve, under their influence, they could put up with me no longer.”

“You told me you were going to visit the poor. I don’t understand what your Gräfin was doing there,” said Madame Grandoni.

“She had come out of charity – in the same way as I. She evidently goes about immensely over there; I shall entreat her to take me with her.”

“I thought you had promised to let me be your guide, in those explorations,” Hyacinth remarked.

The Princess looked at him a moment. “Dear Mr Robinson, Lady Aurora knows more than you.”

“There have been times, surely, when you have complimented me on my knowledge.”

“Oh, I mean more about the lower classes!” the Princess exclaimed; and, oddly enough, there was a sense in which Hyacinth was unable to deny the allegation. He presently returned to something she had said a moment before, declaring that it had not been the way with Madame Grandoni and him to take to their heels, and to this she replied, “Oh, you’ll run away yet; don’t be afraid!”

“I think that if I had been capable of quitting you I should have done it by this time; I have neglected such opportunities,” the old lady sighed. Hyacinth now perceived that her eye had quite lost its ancient twinkle; she was troubled about many things.

“It is true that if you didn’t leave me when I was rich, it wouldn’t look well for you to leave me at present,” the Princess suggested; and before Madame Grandoni could reply to this speech she said to Hyacinth, “I liked the man, your friend Muniment, so much for saying he wouldn’t come to see me. ‘What good would it do him,’ poor fellow? What good would it do him, indeed? You were not so difficult: you held off a little and pleaded obstacles, but one could see you would come down,” she continued, covering her guest with her mystifying smile. “Besides, I was smarter then, more splendid; I had on gewgaws and suggested worldly lures. I must have been more attractive. But I liked him for refusing,” she repeated; and of the many words she uttered that evening it was these that made most impression on Hyacinth. He remained for an hour after tea, for on rising from the table she had gone to the piano (she had not deprived herself of this resource, and had a humble instrument, of the so-called ‘cottage’ kind) and begun to play in a manner that reminded him of her playing the day of his arrival at Medley. The night had grown close, and as the piano was in the front room he opened, at her request, the window that looked into Madeira Crescent. Beneath it assembled the youth of both sexes, the dingy loiterers who had clustered an hour before around the hurdy-gurdy. But on this occasion they did not caper about; they remained still, leaning against the area-rails and listening to the wondrous music. When Hyacinth told the Princess of the spell she had thrown upon them she declared that it made her singularly happy; she added that she was really glad, almost proud, of her day; she felt as if she had begun to do something for the people. Just before he took leave she encountered some occasion for saying to him that she was certain the man in Audley Court wouldn’t come; and Hyacinth forbore contradict her, because he believed that in fact he wouldn’t.

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