The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

34

How right she had been to say that Lady Aurora would probably be fascinated at first was proved the first time Hyacinth went to Belgrave Square, a visit he was led to pay very promptly, by a deep sense of the obligations under which her ladyship had placed him at the time of Pinnie’s death. The circumstances in which he found her were quite the same as those of his visit the year before; she was spending the unfashionable season in her father’s empty house, amid a desert of brown holland and the dormant echoes of heavy conversation. He had seen so much of her during Pinnie’s illness that he felt (or had felt then) that he knew her almost intimately – that they had become real friends, almost comrades, and might meet henceforth without reserves or ceremonies; yet she was as fluttered and awkward as she had been on the other occasion: not distant, but entangled in new coils of shyness and apparently unmindful of what had happened to draw them closer. Hyacinth, however, always liked extremely to be with her, for she was the person in the world who quietly, delicately, and as a matter of course treated him most like a gentleman. She had never said the handsome, flattering things to him that had fallen from the lips of the Princess, and never explained to him her view of him; but her timid, cursory, receptive manner, which took all sorts of equalities for granted, was a homage to the idea of his refinement. It was in this manner that she now conversed with him on the subject of his foreign travels; he found himself discussing the political indications of Paris and the Ruskinian theories of Venice, in Belgrave Square, quite like one of the cosmopolites bred in that region. It took him, however, but a few minutes to perceive that Lady Aurora’s heart was not in these considerations; the deferential smile she bent upon him, while she sat with her head thrust forward and her long hands clasped in her lap, was slightly mechanical, her attitude perfunctory. When he gave her his views of some of the arrière-pensées of M. Gambetta (for he had views not altogether, as he thought, deficient in originality), she did not interrupt, for she never interrupted; but she took advantage of his first pause to say, quickly, irrelevantly, “Will the Princess Casamassima come again to Audley Court?”

“I have no doubt she will come again, if they would like her to.”

“I do hope she will. She is very wonderful,” Lady Aurora continued.

“Oh, yes, she is very wonderful. I think she gave Rosy pleasure,” said Hyacinth.

“Rosy can talk of nothing else. It would really do her great good to see the Princess again. Don’t you think she is different from anybody that one has ever seen?” But her ladyship added, before waiting for an answer to this, “I liked her quite extraordinarily.”

“She liked you just as much. I know it would give her great pleasure if you should go to see her.”

“Fancy!” exclaimed Lady Aurora; but she instantly obtained the Princess’s address from Hyacinth, and made a note of it in a small, shabby book. She mentioned that the card the Princess had given her in Camberwell proved to contain no address, and Hyacinth recognised that vagary – the Princess was so off-hand. Then she said, hesitating a little, “Does she really care for the poor?”

“If she doesn’t,” the young man replied, “I can’t imagine what interest she has in pretending to.”

“If she does, she’s very remarkable – she deserves great honour.”

“You really care; why is she more remarkable than you?” Hyacinth demanded.

“Oh, it’s very different – she’s so wonderfully attractive!” Lady Aurora replied, making, recklessly, the only allusion to the oddity of her own appearance in which Hyacinth was destined to hear her indulge. She became conscious of it the moment she had spoken, and said, quickly, to turn it off, “I should like to talk with her, but I’m rather afraid. She’s tremendously clever.”

“Ah, what she is you’ll find out when you know her!” Hyacinth sighed, expressively.

His hostess looked at him a little, and then, vaguely, exclaimed, “How very interesting!” The next moment she continued, “She might do so many other things; she might charm the world.”

“She does that, whatever she does,” said Hyacinth, smiling. “It’s all by the way; it needn’t interfere.”

“That’s what I mean, that most other people would be content – beautiful as she is. There’s great merit, when you give up something.”

“She has known a great many bad people, and she wants to know some good,” Hyacinth rejoined. “Therefore be sure to go to her soon.”

“She looks as if she had known nothing bad since she was born,” said Lady Aurora, rapturously. “I can’t imagine her going into all the dreadful places that she would have to.”

“You have gone into them, and it hasn’t hurt you,” Hyacinth suggested.

“How do you know that? My family think it has.”

“You make me glad that I haven’t a family,” said the young man.

“And the Princess – has she no one?”

“Ah, yes, she has a husband. But she doesn’t live with him.”

“Is he one of the bad persons?” asked Lady Aurora, as earnestly as a child listening to a tale.

“Well, I don’t like to abuse him, because he is down.”

“If I were a man, I should be in love with her,” said Lady Aurora. Then she pursued, “I wonder whether we might work together.”

“That’s exactly what she hopes.”

“I won’t show her the worst places,” said her ladyship, smiling.

To which Hyacinth replied, “I suspect you will do what every one else has done, namely, exactly what she wants!” Before he took leave he said to her, “Do you know whether Paul Muniment liked the Princess?”

Lady Aurora meditated a moment, apparently with some intensity. “I think he considered her extraordinarily beautiful – the most beautiful person he had ever seen.”

“Does he still believe her to be a humbug?”

“Still?” asked Lady Aurora, as if she didn’t understand.

“I mean that that was the impression apparently made upon him last winter by my description of her.”

“Oh, I’m sure he thinks her tremendously plucky!” That was all the satisfaction Hyacinth got just then as to Muniment’s estimate of the Princess.

A few days afterward he returned to Madeira Crescent, in the evening, the only time he was free, the Princess having given him a general invitation to take tea with her. He felt that he ought to be discreet in acting upon it, though he was not without reasons that would have warranted him in going early and often. He had a peculiar dread of her growing tired of him – boring herself in his society; yet at the same time he had rather a sharp vision of her boring herself without him, in the dull summer evenings, when even Paddington was out of town. He wondered what she did, what visitors dropped in, what pastimes she cultivated, what saved her from the sudden vagary of throwing up the whole of her present game. He remembered that there was a complete side of her life with which he was almost unacquainted (Lady Marchant and her daughters, at Medley, and three or four other persons who had called while he was there, being, in his experience, the only illustrations of it), and knew not to what extent she had, in spite of her transformation, preserved relations with her old friends; but he could easily imagine a day when she should discover that what she found in Madeira Crescent was less striking than what she missed. Going thither a second time Hyacinth perceived that he had done her great injustice; she was full of resources, she had never been so happy, she found time to read, to write, to commune with her piano, and above all to think – a delightful detachment from the invasive, vulgar, gossiping, distracting world she had known hitherto. The only interruption to her felicity was that she received quantities of notes from her former acquaintance, challenging her to give some account of herself, to say what had become of her, to come and stay with them in the country; but with these importunate missives she took a very short way – she simply burned them, without answering. She told Hyacinth immediately that Lady Aurora had called on her, two days before, at an hour when she was not in, and she had straightway addressed her, in return, an invitation to come to tea, any evening, at eight o’clock. That was the way the people in Madeira Crescent entertained each other (the Princess knew everything about them now, and was eager to impart her knowledge); and the evening, she was sure, would be much more convenient to Lady Aurora, whose days were filled with good works, peregrinations of charity. Her ladyship arrived ten minutes after Hyacinth; she told the Princess that her invitation had been expressed in a manner so irresistible that she was unwilling to wait more than a day to respond. She was introduced to Madame Grandoni, and tea was immediately served; Hyacinth being gratefully conscious the while of the super-subtle way in which Lady Aurora forbore to appear bewildered at meeting him in such society. She knew he frequented it, and she had been witness of his encounter with the Princess in Audley Court; but it might have startled her to have ocular evidence of the footing on which he stood. Everything the Princess did or said, at this time, had for effect, whatever its purpose, to make her seem more rare and fine; and she had seldom given him greater pleasure than by the exquisite art she put forward to win Lady Aurora’s confidence, to place herself under the pure and elevating influence of the noble spinster. She made herself small and simple; she spoke of her own little aspirations and efforts; she appealed and persuaded; she laid her white hand on Lady Aurora’s, gazing at her with an interest which was evidently deeply sincere, but which, all the same, derived half its effect from the contrast between the quality of her beauty, the whole air of her person, and the hard, dreary problems of misery and crime. It was touching, and Lady Aurora was touched; that was very evident as they sat together on the sofa, after tea, and the Princess protested that she only wanted to know what her new friend was doing – what she had done for years – in order that she might go and do likewise. She asked personal questions with a directness that was sometimes embarrassing to the subject – Hyacinth had seen that habit in her from the first – and Lady Aurora, though she was charmed and excited, was not quite comfortable at being so publicly probed and sounded. The public was formed of Madame Grandoni and Hyacinth; but the old lady (whose intercourse with the visitor had consisted almost wholly of watching her with a quiet, speculative anxiety) presently shuffled away, and was heard, through the thin partitions that prevailed in Madeira Crescent, to ascend to her own apartment. It seemed to Hyacinth that he ought also, in delicacy, to retire, and this was his intention, from one moment to the other; to him, certainly (and the second time she met him), Lady Aurora had made as much of her confession as he had a right to look for. After that one little flash of egotism he had never again heard her allude to her own feelings or circumstances.

“Do you stay in town, like this, at such a season, on purpose to attend to your work?” the Princess asked; and there was something archly rueful in the tone in which she made this inquiry, as if it cost her just a pang to find that in taking such a line she herself had not been so original as she hoped. “Mr Robinson has told me about your big house in Belgrave Square – you must let me come and see you there. Nothing would make me so happy as that you should allow me to help you a little – how little soever. Do you like to be helped, or do you like to go alone? Are you very independent, or do you need to look up, to cling, to lean upon some one? Excuse me if I ask impertinent questions; we speak that way – rather, you know – in Rome, where I have spent a large part of my life. That idea of your being there alone in your great dull house, with all your charities and devotions, makes a kind of picture in my mind; it’s quaint and touching, like something in some English novel. Englishwomen are so accomplished, are they not? I am really a foreigner, you know, and though I have lived here a while it takes one some time to find those things out au juste. Therefore, is your work for the people only one of your occupations, or is it everything, does it absorb your whole life? That’s what I should like it to be for me! Do your family like you to throw yourself into all this, or have you had to brave a certain amount of ridicule? I dare say you have; that’s where you English are strong, in braving ridicule. They have to do it so often, haven’t they? I don’t know whether I could do it. I never tried; but with you I would brave anything. Are your family clever and sympathetic? No? the kind of thing that one’s family generally is? Ah, well, dear lady, we must make a little family together. Are you encouraged or disgusted? Do you go on doggedly, or have you any faith, any great idea, that lifts you up? Are you religious, now, par exemple? Do you do your work in connection with any ecclesiasticism, any missions, or priests or sisters? I’m a Catholic, you know – but so little! I shouldn’t mind in the least joining hands with any one who is really doing anything. I express myself awkwardly, but perhaps you know what I mean. Possibly you don’t know that I am one of those who believe that a great social cataclysm is destined to take place, and that it can’t make things worse than they are already. I believe, in a word, in the people doing something for themselves (the others will never do anything for them), and I am quite willing to help them. If that shocks you I shall be immensely disappointed, because there is something in the impression you make on me that seems to say that you haven’t the usual prejudices, and that if certain things were to happen you wouldn’t be afraid. You are shy, are you not? – but you are not timorous. I suppose that if you thought the inequalities and oppressions and miseries which now exist were a necessary part of life, and were going on for ever, you wouldn’t be interested in those people over the river (the bedridden girl and her brother, I mean); because Mr Robinson tells me that they are advanced socialists – or at least the brother is. Perhaps you’ll say that you don’t care for him; the sister, to your mind, being the remarkable one. She is, indeed, a perfect little femme du monde – she talks so much better than most of the people in society. I hope you don’t mind my saying that, because I have an idea that you are not in society. You can imagine whether I am! Haven’t you judged it, like me, condemned it, and given it up? Are you not sick of the egotism, the snobbery, the meanness, the frivolity, the immorality, the hypocrisy? Isn’t there a great resemblance in our situation? I don’t mean in our nature, for you are far better than I shall ever be. Aren’t you quite divinely good? When I see a woman of your sort (not that I often do!) I try to be a little less bad. You have helped hundreds, thousands, of people; you must help me!”

These remarks, which I have strung together, did not, of course, fall from the Princess’s lips in an uninterrupted stream; they were arrested and interspersed by frequent inarticulate responses and embarrassed protests. Lady Aurora shrank from them even while they gratified her, blinking and fidgeting in the brilliant, direct light of her hostess’s attentions. I need not repeat her answers, the more so as they none of them arrived at completion, but passed away into nervous laughter and averted looks, the latter directed at the ceiling, the floor, the windows, and appearing to constitute a kind of entreaty to some occult or supernatural power that the conversation should become more impersonal. In reply to the Princess’s allusion to the convictions prevailing in the Muniment family, she said that the brother and sister thought differently about public questions, but were of the same mind with regard to persons of the upper class taking an interest in the working people, attempting to enter into their life: they held it was a great mistake. At this information the Princess looked much disappointed; she wished to know if the Muniments thought it was impossible to do them any good. “Oh, I mean a mistake from our point of view,” said Lady Aurora. “They wouldn’t do it in our place; they think we had much better occupy ourselves with our own pleasures.” And as the Princess stared, not comprehending, she went on: “Rosy thinks we have a right to our own pleasures under all circumstances, no matter how badly off the poor may be; and her brother takes the ground that we will not have them long, and that in view of what may happen we are great fools not to make the most of them.”

“I see, I see. That is very strong,” the Princess murmured, in a tone of high appreciation.

“I dare say. But all the same, whatever is going to come, one must do something.”

“You do think, then, that something is going to come?” said the Princess.

“Oh, immense changes, I dare say. But I don’t belong to anything, you know.”

The Princess hesitated a moment. “No more do I. But many people do. Mr Robinson, for instance.” And she gave Hyacinth a familiar smile.

“Oh, if the changes depend on me!” the young man exclaimed, blushing.

“They won’t set the Thames on fire – I quite agree to that!”

Lady Aurora had the manner of not considering that she had a warrant for going into the question of Hyacinth’s affiliations; so she stared abstractly at the piano and in a moment remarked to the Princess, “I am sure you play awfully well; I should like so much to hear you.”

Hyacinth felt that their hostess thought this banal. She had not asked Lady Aurora to spend the evening with her simply that they should fall back on the resources of the vulgar. Nevertheless, she replied with perfect good-nature that she should be delighted to play; only there was a thing she should like much better, namely, that Lady Aurora should narrate her life.

“Oh, don’t talk about mine; yours, yours!” her ladyship cried, colouring with eagerness and, for the first time since her arrival, indulging in the free gesture of laying her hand upon that of the Princess.

“With so many narratives in the air, I certainly had better take myself off,” said Hyacinth, and the Princess offered no opposition to his departure. She and Lady Aurora were evidently on the point of striking up a tremendous intimacy, and as he turned this idea over, walking away, it made him sad, for strange, vague reasons, which he could not have expressed.

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