The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


The Sunday following this occasion Hyacinth spent almost entirely with the Muniments, with whom, since his return to his work, he had been able to have no long, fraternising talk, of the kind that had marked their earlier relations. The present, however, was a happy day; it refreshed exceedingly the sentiments with which he now regarded the inscrutable Paul. The warm, bright September weather gilded even the dinginess of Audley Court, and while, in the morning, Rosy’s brother and their visitor sat beside her sofa, the trio amused themselves with discussing a dozen different plans for giving a festive turn to the day. There had been moments, in the last six months, when Hyacinth had the sense that he should never again be able to enter into such ideas as that, and these moments had been connected with the strange perversion taking place in his mental image of the man whose hardness (of course he was obliged to be hard) he had never expected to see turned upon a passionate admirer. But now, for the hour at least, the darkness had cleared away, and Paul’s company was in itself a comfortable, inspiring influence. He had never been kinder, jollier, safer, as it were; it had never appeared more desirable to hold fast to him and trust him. Less than ever would an observer have guessed there was a reason why the two young men might have winced as they looked at each other. Rosy naturally took part in the question debated between her companions – the question whether they should limit their excursion to a walk in Hyde Park; should embark at Lambeth pier on the penny steamer, which would convey them to Greenwich; or should start presently for Waterloo station and go thence by train to Hampton Court. Miss Muniment had visited none of these places, but she contributed largely to the discussion, for which she seemed perfectly qualified; talked about the crowd on the steamer, and the inconvenience arising from drunken persons on the return, quite as if she had suffered from these drawbacks; said that the view from the hill at Greenwich was terribly smoky, and at that season the fashionable world – half the attraction, of course – was wholly absent from Hyde Park; and expressed strong views in favour of Wolsey’s old palace, with whose history she appeared intimately acquainted. She threw herself into her brother’s holiday with eagerness and glee, and Hyacinth marvelled again at the stoicism of the hard, bright creature, polished, as it were, by pain, whose imagination appeared never to concern itself with her own privations, so that she could lie in her close little room the whole golden afternoon, without bursting into sobs as she saw the western sunbeams slant upon the shabby, ugly, familiar paper of her wall and thought of the far-off fields and gardens which she should never see. She talked immensely of the Princess, for whose beauty, grace and benevolence she could find no sufficient praise; declaring that of all the fair faces that had ever hung over her couch (and Rosy spoke as from immense opportunities for comparison) she had far the noblest and most refreshing. She seemed to make a kind of light in the room and to leave it behind her after she had gone. Rosy could call up her image as she could hum a tune she had heard, and she expressed in her quaint, particular way how, as she lay there in the quiet hours, she repeated over to herself the beautiful air. The Princess might be anything, she might be royal or imperial, and Rosy was well aware how little she should complain of the dullness of her life when such apparitions as that could pop in any day. She made a difference in the place – it gave it a kind of finish for her to have come there; if it was good enough for a princess, it was good enough for her, and she hoped she shouldn’t hear again of Paul’s wishing her to move out of a room with which she should have henceforth such delightful associations. The Princess had found her way to Audley Court, and perhaps she wouldn’t find it to another lodging – they couldn’t expect her to follow them about London at their pleasure; and at any rate she had evidently been very much struck with the little room, so that if they were quiet and patient who could say but the fancy would take her to send them a bit of carpet, or a picture, or even a mirror with a gilt frame, to make it a bit more tasteful? Rosy’s transitions from pure enthusiasm to the imaginative calculation of benefit were performed with a serenity peculiar to herself. Her chatter had so much spirit and point that it always commanded attention, but to-day Hyacinth was less tolerant of it than usual, because so long as it lasted Muniment held his tongue, and what he had been anxious about was much more Paul’s impression of the Princess. Rosy made no remark to him on the monopoly he had so long enjoyed of this wonderful lady; she had always had the manner of a kind of indulgent incredulity about Hyacinth’s social adventures, and he saw the day might easily come when she would begin to talk of the Princess as if she herself had been the first to discover her. She had much to say, however, about the nature of the acquaintance Lady Aurora had formed with her, and she was mainly occupied with the glory she had drawn upon herself by bringing two such exalted persons together. She fancied them alluding, in the great world, to the occasion on which ‘we first met, at Miss Muniment’s, you know’; and she related how Lady Aurora, who had been in Audley Court the day before, had declared that she owed her a debt she could never repay. The two ladies had liked each other more, almost, than they liked any one; and wasn’t it a rare picture to think of them moving hand in hand, like twin roses, through the bright upper air? Muniment inquired, in rather a coarse, unsympathetic way, what the mischief she ever wanted of her; which led Hyacinth to demand in return, “What do you mean? What does who want of whom?”

“What does the beauty want of our poor lady? She has a totally different stamp. I don’t know much about women, but I can see that.”

“How do you mean – a different stamp? They both have the stamp of their rank!” cried Rosy.

“Who can ever tell what women want, at any time?” Hyacinth said, with the off-handedness of a man of the world.

“Well, my boy, if you don’t know any more than I, you disappoint me! Perhaps if we wait long enough she will tell us some day herself.”

“Tell you what she wants of Lady Aurora?”

“I don’t mind about Lady Aurora so much; but what in the name of long journeys does she want with us?”

“Don’t you think you’re worth a long journey?” Rosy asked, gaily. “If you were not my brother, which is handy for seeing you, and I were not confined to my sofa, I would go from one end of England to the other to make your acquaintance! He’s in love with the Princess,” she went on, to Hyacinth, “and he asks those senseless questions to cover it up. What does any one want of anything?”

It was decided, at last, that the two young men should go down to Greenwich, and after they had partaken of bread and cheese with Rosy they embarked on a penny steamer. The boat was densely crowded, and they leaned, rather squeezed together, in the fore part of it, against the rail of the deck, and watched the big black fringe of the yellow stream. The river was always fascinating to Hyacinth. The mystified entertainment which, as a child, he had found in all the aspects of London came back to him from the murky scenery of its banks and the sordid agitation of its bosom: the great arches and pillars of the bridges, where the water rushed, and the funnels tipped, and sounds made an echo, and there seemed an overhanging of interminable processions; the miles of ugly wharves and warehouses; the lean protrusions of chimney, mast, and crane; the painted signs of grimy industries, staring from shore to shore; the strange, flat, obstructive barges, straining and bumping on some business as to which everything was vague but that it was remarkably dirty; the clumsy coasters and colliers, which thickened as one went down; the small, loafing boats, whose occupants, somehow, looking up from their oars at the steamer, as they rocked in the oily undulations of its wake, appeared profane and sarcastic; in short, all the grinding, puffing, smoking, splashing activity of the turbid flood. In the good-natured crowd, amid the fumes of vile tobacco, beneath the shower of sooty particles, and to the accompaniment of a bagpipe of a dingy Highlander, who sketched occasionally a smothered reel, Hyacinth forbore to speak to his companion of what he had most at heart; but later, as they lay on the brown, crushed grass, on one of the slopes of Greenwich Park, and saw the river stretch away and shine beyond the pompous colonnades of the hospital, he asked him whether there was any truth in what Rosy had said about his being sweet on their friend the Princess. He said ‘their friend’ on purpose, speaking as if, now that she had been twice to Audley Court, Muniment might be regarded as knowing her almost as well as he himself did. He wished to conjure away the idea that he was jealous of Paul, and if he desired information on the point I have mentioned this was because it still made him almost as uncomfortable as it had done at first that his comrade should take the scoffing view. He didn’t easily see such a fellow as Muniment wheel about from one day to the other, but he had been present at the most exquisite exhibition he had ever observed the Princess make of that divine power of conciliation which was not perhaps in social intercourse the art she chiefly exercised but was certainly the most wonderful of her secrets, and it would be remarkable indeed that a sane young man should not have been affected by it. It was familiar to Hyacinth that Muniment was not easily touched by women, but this might perfectly have been the case without detriment to the Princess’s ability to work a miracle. The companions had wandered through the great halls and courts of the hospital; had gazed up at the glories of the famous painted chamber and admired the long and lurid series of the naval victories of England – Muniment remarking to his friend that he supposed he had seen the match to all that in foreign parts, offensive little travelled beggar that he was. They had not ordered a fish-dinner either at the ‘Trafalgar’ or the ‘Ship’ (having a frugal vision of tea and shrimps with Rosy, on their return), but they had laboured up and down the steep undulations of the shabby, charming park; made advances to the tame deer and seen them amble foolishly away; watched the young of both sexes, hilarious and red in the face, roll in promiscuous entanglement over the slopes; gazed at the little brick observatory, perched on one of the knolls, which sets the time of English history and in which Hyacinth could see that his companion took a kind of technical interest; wandered out of one of the upper gates and admired the trimness of the little villas at Blackheath, where Muniment declared that it was his idea of supreme social success to be able to live. He pointed out two or three small, semi-detached houses, faced with stucco, and with ‘Mortimer Lodge’ or ‘The Sycamores’ inscribed upon the gate-posts, and Hyacinth guessed that these were the sort of place where he would like to end his days – in high, pure air, with a genteel window for Rosy’s couch and a cheerful view of suburban excursions. It was when they came back into the park that, being rather hot and a little satiated, they stretched themselves under a tree and Hyacinth yielded to his curiosity.

“Sweet on her – sweet on her, my boy!” said Muniment. “I might as well be sweet on the dome of St Paul’s, which I just make out off there.”

“The dome of St Paul’s doesn’t come to see you, and doesn’t ask you to return the visit.”

“Oh, I don’t return visits – I’ve got a lot of jobs of my own to do. If I don’t put myself out for the Princess, isn’t that a sufficient answer to your question?”

“I’m by no means sure,” said Hyacinth. “If you went to see her, simply and civilly, because she asked you, I shouldn’t regard it as a proof that you had taken a fancy to her. Your hanging off is more suspicious; it may mean that you don’t trust yourself – that you are in danger of falling in love if you go in for a more intimate acquaintance.”

“It’s a rum job, your wanting me to make up to her. I shouldn’t think it would suit your book,” Muniment rejoined, staring at the sky, with his hands clasped under his head.

“Do you suppose I’m afraid of you?” his companion asked. “Besides,” Hyacinth added in a moment, “why the devil should I care, now?”

Muniment, for a little, made no rejoinder; he turned over on his side, and with his arm resting on the ground leaned his head on his hand. Hyacinth felt his eyes on his face, but he also felt himself colouring, and didn’t meet them. He had taken a private vow never to indulge, to Muniment, in certain inauspicious references, and the words he had just spoken had slipped out of his mouth too easily. “What do you mean by that?” Paul demanded, at last; and when Hyacinth looked at him he saw nothing but his companion’s strong, fresh, irresponsible face. Muniment, before speaking, had had time to guess what he meant by it.

Suddenly, an impulse that he had never known before, or rather that he had always resisted, took possession of him. There was a mystery which it concerned his happiness to clear up, and he became unconscious of his scruples, of his pride, of the strength that he had believed to be in him – the strength for going through his work and passing away without a look behind. He sat forward on the grass, with his arms round his knees, and bent upon Muniment a face lighted up by his difficulties. For a minute the two men’s eyes met with extreme clearness, and then Hyacinth exclaimed, “What an extraordinary fellow you are!”

“You’ve hit it there!” said Muniment, smiling.

“I don’t want to make a scene, or work on your feelings, but how will you like it when I’m strung up on the gallows?”

“You mean for Hoffendahl’s job? That’s what you were alluding to just now?” Muniment lay there, in the same attitude, chewing a long blade of dry grass, which he held to his lips with his free hand.

“I didn’t mean to speak of it; but after all, why shouldn’t it come up? Naturally, I have thought of it a good deal.”

“What good does that do?” Muniment returned. “I hoped you didn’t, and I noticed you never spoke of it. You don’t like it; you would rather throw it up,” he added.

There was not in his voice the faintest note of irony or contempt, no sign whatever that he passed judgment on such a tendency. He spoke in a quiet, human, memorising manner, as if it had originally quite entered into his thought to allow for weak regrets. Nevertheless the complete reasonableness of his tone itself cast a chill on his companion’s spirit; it was like the touch of a hand at once very firm and very soft, but strangely cold.

“I don’t want in the least to throw the business up, but did you suppose I liked it?” Hyacinth asked, with rather a forced laugh.

“My dear fellow, how could I tell? You like a lot of things I don’t. You like excitement and emotion and change, you like remarkable sensations, whereas I go in for a holy calm, for sweet repose.”

“If you object, for yourself, to change, and are so fond of still waters, why have you associated yourself with a revolutionary movement?” Hyacinth demanded, with a little air of making rather a good point.

“Just for that reason!” Muniment answered, with a smile. “Isn’t our revolutionary movement as quiet as the grave? Who knows, who suspects, anything like the full extent of it?”

“I see – you take only the quiet parts!”

In speaking these words Hyacinth had had no derisive intention, but a moment later he flushed with the sense that they had a sufficiently petty sound. Muniment, however, appeared to see no offence in them, and it was in the gentlest, most suggestive way, as if he had been thinking over what might comfort his comrade, that he replied, “There’s one thing you ought to remember – that it’s quite on the cards it may never come off.”

“I don’t desire that reminder,” Hyacinth said; “and, moreover, you must let me say that, somehow, I don’t easily fancy you mixed up with things that don’t come off. Anything you have to do with will come off, I think.”

Muniment reflected a moment, as if his little companion were charmingly ingenious. “Surely, I have nothing to do with this idea of Hoffendahl’s.”

“With the execution, perhaps not; but how about the conception? You seemed to me to have a great deal to do with it the night you took me to see him.”

Muniment changed his position, raising himself, and in a moment he was seated, Turk-fashion, beside his mate. He put his arm over his shoulder and held him, studying his face; and then, in the kindest manner in the world, he remarked, “There are three or four definite chances in your favour.”

“I don’t want comfort, you know,” said Hyacinth, with his eyes on the distant atmospheric mixture that represented London.

“What the devil do you want?” Muniment asked, still holding him, and with perfect good-humour.

“Well, to get inside of you a little; to know how a chap feels when he’s going to part with his best friend.”

“To part with him?” Muniment repeated.

“I mean, putting it at the worst.”

“I should think you would know by yourself, if you’re going to part with me!”

At this Hyacinth prostrated himself, tumbled over on the grass, on his face, which he buried in his arms. He remained in this attitude, saying nothing, for a long time; and while he lay there he thought, with a sudden, quick flood of association, of many strange things. Most of all, he had the sense of the brilliant, charming day; the warm stillness, touched with cries of amusement; the sweetness of loafing there, in an interval of work, with a friend who was a tremendously fine fellow, even if he didn’t understand the inexpressible. Muniment also kept silent, and Hyacinth perceived that he was unaffectedly puzzled. He wanted now to relieve him, so that he pulled himself together again and turned round, saying the first thing he could think of, in relation to the general subject of their conversation, that would carry them away from the personal question: “I have asked you before, and you have told me, but somehow I have never quite grasped it (so I just touch on the matter again), exactly what good you think it will do.”

“This idea of Hoffendahl’s? You must remember that as yet we know only very vaguely what it is. It is difficult, therefore, to measure closely the importance it may have, and I don’t think I have ever, in talking with you, pretended to fix that importance. I don’t suppose it will matter immensely whether your own engagement is carried out or not; but if it is it will have been a detail in a scheme of which the general effect will be decidedly useful. I believe, and you pretend to believe, though I am not sure you do, in the advent of the democracy. It will help the democracy to get possession that the classes that keep them down shall be admonished from time to time that they have a very definite and very determined intention of doing so. An immense deal will depend upon that. Hoffendahl is a capital admonisher.”

Hyacinth listened to this explanation with an expression of interest that was not feigned; and after a moment he rejoined, “When you say you believe in the democracy, I take for granted you mean you positively wish for their coming into power, as I have always supposed. Now what I really have never understood is this – why you should desire to put forward a lot of people whom you regard, almost without exception, as donkeys.”

“Ah, my dear lad,” laughed Muniment, “when one undertakes to meddle in human affairs one must deal with human material. The upper classes have the longest ears.”

“I have heard you say that you were working for an equality in human conditions, to abolish the immemorial inequality. What you want, then, for all mankind is a similar nuance of asininity.”

“That’s very clever; did you pick it up in France? The low tone of our fellow-mortals is a result of bad conditions; it is the conditions I want to alter. When those that have no start to speak of have a good one, it is but fair to infer that they will go further. I want to try them, you know.”

“But why equality?” Hyacinth asked. “Somehow, that word doesn’t say so much to me as it used to. Inequality – inequality! I don’t know whether it’s by dint of repeating it over to myself, but that doesn’t shock me as it used.”

“They didn’t put you up to that in France, I’m sure!” Muniment exclaimed. “Your point of view has changed; you have risen in the world.”

“Risen? Good God, what have I risen to?”

“True enough; you were always a bloated little swell!” And Muniment gave his young friend a sociable slap on the back. There was a momentary bitterness in its being imputed to such a one as Hyacinth, even in joke, that he had taken sides with the fortunate ones of the earth, and he had it on his tongue’s end to ask his friend if he had never guessed what his proud titles were – the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter, out of which he had been picked by a sewing-girl. But his life-long reserve on this point was a habit not easily broken, and before such an inquiry could flash through it Muniment had gone on: “If you’ve ceased to believe we can do anything, it will be rather awkward, you know.”

“I don’t know what I believe, God help me!” Hyacinth remarked, in a tone of an effect so lugubrious that Paul gave one of his longest, most boyish-sounding laughs. And he added, “I don’t want you to think I have ceased to care for the people. What am I but one of the poorest and meanest of them?”

“You, my boy? You’re a duke in disguise, and so I thought the first time I ever saw you. That night I took you to Hoffendahl you had a little way with you that made me forget it; I mean that your disguise happened to be better than usual. As regards caring for the people, there’s surely no obligation at all,” Muniment continued. “I wouldn’t if I could help it – I promise you that. It all depends on what you see. The way I’ve used my eyes in this abominable metropolis has led to my seeing that present arrangements won’t do. They won’t do,” he repeated, placidly.

“Yes, I see that, too,” said Hyacinth, with the same dolefulness that had marked his tone a moment before – a dolefulness begotten of the rather helpless sense that, whatever he saw, he saw (and this was always the case) so many other things beside. He saw the immeasurable misery of the people, and yet he saw all that had been, as it were, rescued and redeemed from it: the treasures, the felicities, the splendours, the successes, of the world. All this took the form, sometimes, to his imagination, of a vast, vague, dazzling presence, an irradiation of light from objects undefined, mixed with the atmosphere of Paris and of Venice. He presently added that a hundred things Muniment had told him about the foul horrors of the worst districts of London, pictures of incredible shame and suffering that he had put before him, came back to him now, with the memory of the passion they had kindled at the time.

“Oh, I don’t want you to go by what I have told you; I want you to go by what you have seen yourself. I remember there were things you told me that weren’t bad in their way.” And at this Paul Muniment sprang to his feet, as if their conversation had drawn to an end, or they must at all events be thinking of their homeward way. Hyacinth got up, too, while his companion stood there. Muniment was looking off toward London, with a face that expressed all the healthy singleness of his vision. Suddenly Paul remarked, as if it occurred to him to complete, or at any rate confirm, the declaration he had made a short time before, “Yes, I don’t believe in the millennium, but I do believe in the democracy.”

The young man, as he spoke these words, struck his comrade as such a fine embodiment of the spirit of the people; he stood there, in his powerful, sturdy newness, with such an air of having learnt what he had learnt and of good-nature that had purposes in it, that our hero felt the simple inrush of his old, frequent pride at having a person of that promise, a nature of that capacity, for a friend. He passed his hand into Muniment’s arm and said, with an imperceptible tremor in his voice, “It’s no use your saying I’m not to go by what you tell me. I would go by what you tell me, anywhere. There’s no awkwardness to speak of. I don’t know that I believe exactly what you believe, but I believe in you, and doesn’t that come to the same thing?”

Muniment evidently appreciated the cordiality and candour of this little tribute, and the way he showed it was by a movement of his arm, to check his companion, before they started to leave the spot, and by looking down at him with a certain anxiety of friendliness. “I should never have taken you to Hoffendahl if I hadn’t thought you would jump at the job. It was that flaring little oration of yours, at the club, when you floored Delancey for saying you were afraid, that put me up to it.”

“I did jump at it – upon my word I did; and it was just what I was looking for. That’s all correct!” said Hyacinth, cheerfully, as they went forward. There was a strain of heroism in these words – of heroism of which the sense was not conveyed to Muniment by a vibration in their interlocked arms. Hyacinth did not make the reflection that he was infernally literal; he dismissed the sentimental problem that had bothered him; he condoned, excused, admired – he merged himself, resting happy for the time in the consciousness that Paul was a grand fellow, that friendship was a purer feeling than love, and that there was an immense deal of affection between them. He did not even observe at that moment that it was preponderantly on his own side.

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