The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

BOOK FIFTH

38

Hyacinth found, this winter, considerable occupation for his odd hours, his evenings and holidays and scraps of leisure, in putting in hand the books which he had promised himself, at Medley, to inclose in covers worthy of the high station and splendour of the lady of his life (these brilliant attributes had not then been shuffled out of sight), and of the confidence and generosity she showed him. He had determined she should receive from him something of value, and took pleasure in thinking that after he was gone they would be passed from hand to hand as specimens of rare work, while connoisseurs bent their heads over them, smiling and murmuring, handling them delicately. His invention stirred itself, and he had a hundred admirable ideas, many of which he sat up late at night to execute. He used all his skill, and by this time his skill was of a very high order. Old Crookenden recognised it by raising the rates at which he was paid; and though it was not among the traditions of the proprietor of the establishment in Soho, who to the end wore the apron with his workmen, to scatter sweet speeches, Hyacinth learned accidentally that several books that he had given him to do had been carried off and placed on a shelf of treasures at the villa, where they were exhibited to the members of the Crookenden circle who came to tea on Sundays. Hyacinth himself, indeed, was included in this company on a great occasion – invited to a musical party where he made the acquaintance of half a dozen Miss Crookendens, an acquaintance which consisted in his standing in a corner, behind several broad-backed old ladies, and watching the rotation, at the piano and the harp, of three or four of his master’s thick-fingered daughters. “You know it’s a tremendously musical house,” said one of the old ladies to another (she called it ‘’ouse’); but the principal impression made upon him by the performance of the Miss Crookendens was that it was wonderfully different from the Princess’s playing.

He knew that he was the only young man from the shop who had been invited, not counting the foreman, who was sixty years old and wore a wig which constituted in itself a kind of social position, besides being accompanied by a little frightened, furtive wife, who closed her eyes, as if in the presence of a blinding splendour, when Mrs Crookenden spoke to her. The Poupins were not there – which, however, was not a surprise to Hyacinth, who knew that (even if they had been asked, which they were not) they had objections of principle to putting their feet chez les bourgeois. They were not asked because, in spite of the place Eustache had made for himself in the prosperity of the business, it had come to be known that his wife was somehow not his wife (though she was certainly no one’s else); and the evidence of this irregularity was conceived to reside, vaguely, in the fact that she had never been seen save in a camisole. There had doubtless been an apprehension that if she had come to the villa she would not have come with the proper number of hooks and eyes, though Hyacinth, on two or three occasions, notably the night he took the pair to Mr Vetch’s theatre, had been witness of the proportions to which she could reduce her figure when she wished to give the impression of a lawful tie.

It was not clear to him how the distinction conferred upon him became known in Soho, where, however, it excited no sharpness of jealousy – Grugan, Roker, and Hotchkin being hardly more likely to envy a person condemned to spend a genteel evening than they were to envy a monkey performing antics on a barrel-organ: both forms of effort indicated an urbanity painfully acquired. But Roker took his young comrade’s breath half away with his elbow and remarked that he supposed he saw the old man had spotted him for one of the darlings at home; inquiring, furthermore, what would become in that case of the little thing he took to France, the one to whom he had stood champagne and lobster. This was the first allusion Hyacinth had heard made to the idea that he might some day marry his master’s daughter, like the virtuous apprentice of tradition; but the suggestion, somehow, was not inspiring, even when he had thought of an incident or two which gave colour to it. None of the Miss Crookendens spoke to him – they all had large faces and short legs and a comical resemblance to that elderly male with wide nostrils, their father, and, unlike the Miss Marchants, at Medley, they knew who he was – but their mother, who had on her head the plumage of a cockatoo, mingled with a structure of glass beads, looked at him with an almost awful fixedness and asked him three distinct times if he would have a glass of negus.

He had much difficulty in getting his books from the Princess; for when he reminded her of the promise she had given him at Medley to make over to him as many volumes as he should require, she answered that everything was changed since then, that she was completely dépouillée, that she had now no pretension to have a library, and that, in fine, he had much better leave the matter alone. He was welcome to any books that were in the house, but, as he could see for himself, these were cheap editions, on which it would be foolish to expend such work as his. He asked Madame Grandoni to help him – to tell him, at least, whether there were not some good volumes among the things the Princess had sent to be warehoused; it being known to him, through casual admissions of her own, that she had allowed her maid to save certain articles from the wreck and pack them away at the Pantechnicon. This had all been Assunta’s work, the woman had begged so hard for a few reservations – a loaf of bread for their old days; but the Princess herself had washed her hands of the business. “Chè, chè, there are boxes, I am sure, in that place, with a little of everything,” said the old lady, in answer to his inquiry; and Hyacinth conferred with Assunta, who took a sympathetic, talkative, Italian interest in his undertaking and promised to fish out for him whatever worthy volumes should remain. She came to his lodging, one evening, in a cab, with an armful of pretty books, and when he asked her where they had come from waved her forefinger in front of her nose, in a manner both mysterious and expressive. He brought each volume to the Princess, as it was finished; but her manner of receiving it was to shake her head over it with a kind, sad smile. “It’s beautiful, I am sure, but I have lost my sense for such things. Besides, you must always remember what you once told me, that a woman, even the most cultivated, is incapable of feeling the difference between a bad binding and a good. I remember your once saying that fine ladies had brought shoemaker’s bindings to your shop, and wished them imitated. Certainly those are not the differences I most feel. My dear fellow, such things have ceased to speak to me; they are doubtless charming, but they leave me cold. What will you have? One can’t serve God and mammon.” Her thoughts were fixed on far other matters than the delight of dainty covers, and she evidently considered that in caring so much for them Hyacinth resembled the mad emperor who fiddled in the flames of Rome. European society, to her mind, was in flames, and no frivolous occupation could give the measure of the emotion with which she watched them. It produced occasionally demonstrations of hilarity, of joy and hope, but these always took some form connected with the life of the people. It was the people she had gone to see, when she accompanied Hyacinth to a music-hall in the Edgware Road; and all her excursions and pastimes, this winter, were prompted by her interest in the classes on whose behalf the revolution was to be wrought.

To ask himself whether she were in earnest was now an old story to him, and, indeed, the conviction he might arrive at on this head had ceased to have any practical relevancy. It was just as she was, superficial or profound, that she held him, and she was, at any rate, sufficiently animated by a purpose for her doings to have consequences, actual and possible. Some of these might be serious, even if she herself were not, and there were times when Hyacinth was much visited by the apprehension of them. On the Sundays that she had gone with him into the darkest places, the most fetid holes, in London, she had always taken money with her, in considerable quantities, and always left it behind. She said, very naturally, that one couldn’t go and stare at people, for an impression, without paying them, and she gave alms right and left, indiscriminately, without inquiry or judgment, as simply as the abbess of some beggar-haunted convent, or a lady-bountiful of the superstitious, unscientific ages who should have hoped to be assisted to heaven by her doles. Hyacinth never said to her, though he sometimes thought it, that since she was so full of the modern spirit her charity should be administered according to the modern lights, the principles of economical science; partly because she was not a woman to be directed and regulated – she could take other people’s ideas, but she could never take their way. Besides, what did it matter? To himself, what did it matter to-day whether he were drawn into right methods or into wrong ones, his time being too short for regret or for cheer? The Princess was an embodied passion – she was not a system; and her behaviour, after all, was more addressed to relieving herself than to relieving others. And then misery was sown so thick in her path that wherever her money was dropped it fell into some trembling palm. He wondered that she should still have so much cash to dispose of, until she explained to him that she came by it through putting her personal expenditure on a rigid footing. What she gave away was her savings, the margin she had succeeded in creating; and now that she had tasted of the satisfaction of making little hoards for such a purpose she regarded her other years, with their idleness and waste, their merely personal motives, as a long, stupid sleep of the conscience. To do something for others was not only so much more human, but so much more amusing!

She made strange acquaintances, under Hyacinth’s conduct; she listened to extraordinary stories, and formed theories about them, and about the persons who narrated them to her, which were often still more extraordinary. She took romantic fancies to vagabonds of either sex, attempted to establish social relations with them, and was the cause of infinite agitation to the gentleman who lived near her in the Crescent, who was always smoking at the window, and who reminded Hyacinth of Mr Micawber. She received visits that were a scandal to the Crescent, and Hyacinth neglected his affairs, whatever they were, to see what tatterdemalion would next turn up at her door. This intercourse, it is true, took a more fruitful form as her intimacy with Lady Aurora deepened; her ladyship practised discriminations which she brought the Princess to recognise, and before the winter was over Hyacinth’s services in the slums were found unnecessary. He gave way with relief, with delight, to Lady Aurora, for he had not in the least understood his behaviour for the previous four months, nor taken himself seriously as a cicerone. He had plunged into a sea of barbarism without having any civilising energy to put forth. He was conscious that the people were miserable – more conscious, it often seemed to him, than they themselves were; so frequently was he struck with their brutal insensibility, a grossness impervious to the taste of better things or to any desire for them. He knew it so well that the repetition of contact could add no vividness to the conviction; it rather smothered and befogged his impression, peopled it with contradictions and difficulties, a violence of reaction, a sense of the inevitable and insurmountable. In these hours the poverty and ignorance of the multitude seemed so vast and preponderant, and so much the law of life, that those who had managed to escape from the black gulf were only the happy few, people of resource as well as children of luck; they inspired in some degree the interest and sympathy that one should feel for survivors and victors, those who have come safely out of a shipwreck or a battle. What was most in Hyacinth’s mind was the idea, of which every pulsation of the general life of his time was a syllable, that the flood of democracy was rising over the world; that it would sweep all the traditions of the past before it; that, whatever it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a magnificent energy; and that it might be trusted to look after its own. When democracy should have its way everywhere, it would be its fault (whose else?) if want and suffering and crime should continue to be ingredients of the human lot. With his mixed, divided nature, his conflicting sympathies, his eternal habit of swinging from one view to another, Hyacinth regarded this prospect, in different moods, with different kinds of emotion. In spite of the example Eustache Poupin gave him of the reconcilement of disparities, he was afraid the democracy wouldn’t care for perfect bindings or for the finest sort of conversation. The Princess gave up these things in proportion as she advanced in the direction she had so audaciously chosen; and if the Princess could give them up it would take very transcendent natures to stick to them. At the same time there was joy, exultation, in the thought of surrendering one’s self to the wave of revolt, of floating in the tremendous tide, of feeling one’s self lifted and tossed, carried higher on the sun-touched crests of billows than one could ever be by a dry, lonely effort of one’s own. That vision could deepen to a kind of ecstasy; make it indifferent whether one’s ultimate fate, in such a heaving sea, were not almost certainly to be submerged in bottomless depths or dashed to pieces on resisting cliffs. Hyacinth felt that, whether his personal sympathy should rest finally with the victors or the vanquished, the victorious force was colossal and would require no testimony from the irresolute.

The reader will doubtless smile at his mental debates and oscillations, and not understand why a little bastard bookbinder should attach importance to his conclusions. They were not important for either cause, but they were important for himself, if only because they would rescue him from the torment of his present life, the perpetual laceration of the rebound. There was no peace for him between the two currents that flowed in his nature, the blood of his passionate, plebeian mother and that of his long-descended, supercivilised sire. They continued to toss him from one side to the other; they arrayed him in intolerable defiances and revenges against himself. He had a high ambition: he wanted neither more nor less than to get hold of the truth and wear it in his heart. He believed, with the candour of youth, that it is brilliant and clear-cut, like a royal diamond; but in whatever direction he turned in the effort to find it, he seemed to know that behind him, bent on him in reproach, was a tragic, wounded face. The thought of his mother had filled him, originally, with the vague, clumsy fermentation of his first impulses toward social criticism; but since the problem had become more complex by the fact that many things in the world as it was constituted grew intensely dear to him, he had tried more and more to construct some conceivable and human countenance for his father – some expression of honour, of tenderness and recognition, of unmerited suffering, or at least of adequate expiation. To desert one of these presences for the other – that idea had a kind of shame in it, as an act of treachery would have had; for he could almost hear the voice of his father ask him if it were the conduct of a gentleman to take up the opinions and emulate the crudities of fanatics and cads. He had got over thinking that it would not have become his father to talk of what was proper to gentlemen, and making the mental reflection that from him, at least, the biggest cad in London could not have deserved less consideration. He had worked himself round to allowances, to interpretations, to such hypotheses as the evidence in the Times, read in the British Museum on that never-to-be-forgotten afternoon, did not exclude; though they had been frequent enough, and too frequent, his hours of hot resentment against the man who had attached to him the stigma he was to carry for ever, he threw himself, in other conditions, and with a certain success, into the effort to find condonations, excuses, for him. It was comparatively easy for him to accept himself as the son of a terribly light Frenchwoman; there seemed a deeper obloquy even than that in his having for his other parent a nobleman altogether wanting in nobleness. He was too poor to afford it. Sometimes, in his imagination, he sacrificed one to the other, throwing over Lord Frederick much the oftener; sometimes, when the theory failed that his father would have done great things for him if he had lived, or the assumption broke down that he had been Florentine Vivier’s only lover, he cursed and disowned them alike; sometimes he arrived at conceptions which presented them side by side, looking at him with eyes infinitely sad but quite unashamed – eyes which seemed to tell him that they had been hideously unfortunate but had not been base. Of course his worst moments now, as they had always been the worst, were those in which his grounds for thinking that Lord Frederick had really been his father perversely fell away from him. It must be added that they always passed, for the mixture that he felt himself so tormentingly, so insolubly, to be could be accounted for in no other manner.

I mention these dim broodings not because they belong in an especial degree to the history of our young man during the winter of the Princess’s residence in Madeira Crescent, but because they were a constant element in his moral life and need to be remembered in any view of him at a given time. There were nights of November and December, as he trod the greasy pavements that lay between Westminster and Paddington, groping his way through the baffled lamp-light and tasting the smoke-seasoned fog, when there was more happiness in his heart than he had ever known. The influence of his permeating London had closed over him again; Paris and Milan and Venice had shimmered away into reminiscence and picture; and as the great city which was most his own lay round him under her pall, like an immeasurable breathing monster, he felt, with a vague excitement, as he had felt before, only now with more knowledge, that it was the richest expression of the life of man. His horizon had been immensely widened, but it was filled, again, by the expanse that sent dim night-gleams and strange blurred reflections and emanations into a sky without stars. He suspended, as it were, his small sensibility in the midst of it, and it quivered there with joy and hope and ambition, as well as with the effort of renunciation. The Princess’s quiet fireside glowed with deeper assurances, with associations of intimacy, through the dusk and the immensity; the thought of it was with him always, and his relations with the mistress of it were more organised than they had been in his first vision of her. Whether or no it was better for the cause she cherished that she should have been reduced to her present simplicity, it was better, at least, for Hyacinth. It made her more near and him more free; and if there had been a danger of her nature seeming really to take the tone of the vulgar things about her, he would only have had to remember her as she was at Medley to restore the perspective. In truth, her beauty always appeared to have the setting that best became it; her fairness made the element in which she lived and, among the meanest accessories, constituted a kind of splendour. Nature had multiplied the difficulties in the way of her successfully representing herself as having properties in common with the horrible populace of London. Hyacinth used to smile at this pretension in his night-walks to Paddington, or homeward; the populace of London were scattered upon his path, and he asked himself by what wizardry they could ever be raised to high participations. There were nights when every one he met appeared to reek with gin and filth, and he found himself elbowed by figures as foul as lepers. Some of the women and girls, in particular, were appalling – saturated with alcohol and vice, brutal, bedraggled, obscene. ‘What remedy but another deluge, what alchemy but annihilation?’ he asked himself, as he went his way; and he wondered what fate there could be, in the great scheme of things, for a planet overgrown with such vermin, what redemption but to be hurled against a ball of consuming fire. If it was the fault of the rich, as Paul Muniment held, the selfish, congested rich, who allowed such abominations to flourish, that made no difference, and only shifted the shame; for the terrestrial globe, a visible failure, produced the cause as well as the effect.

It did not occur to Hyacinth that the Princess had withdrawn her confidence from him because, for the work of investigating still further the condition of the poor, she placed herself in the hands of Lady Aurora. He could have no jealousy of the noble spinster; he had too much respect for her philanthropy, the thoroughness of her knowledge, and her capacity to answer any question it could come into the Princess’s extemporising head to ask, and too acute a consciousness of his own desultory and superficial attitude toward the great question. It was enough for him that the little parlour in Madeira Crescent was a spot round which his thoughts could revolve, and toward which his steps could direct themselves, with an unalloyed sense of security and privilege. The picture of it hung before him half the time, in colours to which the feeling of the place gave a rarity that doubtless did not literally characterise the scene. His relations with the Princess had long since ceased to appear to him to belong to the world of fable; they were as natural as anything else (everything in life was queer enough); he had by this time assimilated them, as it were, and they were an indispensable part of the happiness of each. ‘Of each’ – Hyacinth risked that, for there was no particular vanity now involved in his perceiving that the most remarkable woman in Europe was, simply, very fond of him. The quiet, familiar, fraternal welcome he found on the nasty winter nights was proof enough of that. They sat together like very old friends, whom long pauses, during which they simply looked at each other with kind, acquainted eyes, could not make uncomfortable. Not that the element of silence was the principal part of their conversation, for it interposed only when they had talked a great deal. Hyacinth, on the opposite side of the fire, felt at times almost as if he were married to his hostess, so many things were taken for granted between them. For intercourse of that sort, intimate, easy, humorous, circumscribed by drawn curtains and shaded lamp-light, and interfused with domestic embarrassments and confidences, all turning to the jocular, the Princess was incomparable. It was her theory of her present existence that she was picnicking; but all the accidents of the business were happy accidents. There was a household quietude in her steps and gestures, in the way she sat, in the way she listened, in the way she played with the cat, or looked after the fire, or folded Madame Grandoni’s ubiquitous shawl; above all, in the inveteracy with which she spent her evenings at home, never dining out nor going to parties, ignorant of the dissipations of the town. There was something in the isolation of the room, when the kettle was on the hob and he had given his wet umbrella to the maid and the Princess made him sit in a certain place near the fire, the better to dry his shoes – there was something that evoked the idea of the vie de province, as he had read about it in French works. The French term came to him because it represented more the especial note of the Princess’s company, the cultivation, the facility, of talk. She expressed herself often in the French tongue itself; she could borrow that convenience, for certain shades of meaning, though she had told Hyacinth that she didn’t like the people to whom it was native. Certainly, the quality of her conversation was not provincial; it was singularly free and unrestricted; there was nothing one mightn’t say to her or that she was not liable to say herself. She had cast off prejudices and gave no heed to conventional danger-posts. Hyacinth admired the movement – his eyes seemed to see it – with which, in any direction, intellectually, she could fling open her windows. There was an extraordinary charm in this mixture of liberty and humility – in seeing a creature capable, socially, of immeasurable flights sit dove-like, with folded wings.

The young man met Lady Aurora several times in Madeira Crescent (her days, like his own, were filled with work, and she came in the evening), and he knew that her friendship with the Princess had arrived at a rich maturity. The two ladies were a source of almost rapturous interest to each other, and each rejoiced that the other was not a bit different. The Princess prophesied freely that her visitor would give her up – all nice people did, very soon; but to Hyacinth the end of her ladyship’s almost breathless enthusiasm was not yet in view. She was bewildered, but she was fascinated; and she thought the Princess not only the most distinguished, the most startling, the most edifying and the most original person in the world, but the most amusing and the most delightful to have tea with. As for the Princess, her sentiment about Lady Aurora was the same that Hyacinth’s had been: she thought her a saint, the first she had ever seen, and the purest specimen conceivable; as good in her way as St Francis of Assisi, as tender and naïve and transparent, of a spirit of charity as sublime. She held that when one met a human flower as fresh as that in the dusty ways of the world one should pluck it and wear it; and she was always inhaling Lady Aurora’s fragrance, always kissing her and holding her hand. The spinster was frightened at her generosity, at the way her imagination embroidered; she wanted to convince her (as the Princess did on her own side) that such exaggerations destroyed their unfortunate subject. The Princess delighted in her clothes, in the way she put them on and wore them, in the economies she practised in order to have money for charity and the ingenuity with which these slender resources were made to go far, in the very manner in which she spoke, a kind of startled simplicity. She wished to emulate her in all these particulars; to learn how to economise still more cunningly, to get her bonnets at the same shop, to care as little for the fit of her gloves, to ask, in the same tone, “Isn’t it a bore Susan Crotty’s husband has got a ticket-of-leave?” She said Lady Aurora made her feel like a French milliner, and that if there was anything in the world she loathed it was a French milliner. Each of these persons was powerfully affected by the other’s idiosyncrasies, and each wanted the other to remain as she was while she herself should be transformed into the image of her friend.

One evening, going to Madeira Crescent a little later than usual, Hyacinth met Lady Aurora on the doorstep, leaving the house. She had a different air from any he had seen in her before; appeared flushed and even a little agitated, as if she had been learning a piece of bad news. She said, “Oh, how do you do?” with her customary quick, vague laugh; but she went her way, without stopping to talk.

Hyacinth, on going in, mentioned to the Princess that he had encountered her, and this lady replied, “It’s a pity you didn’t come a little sooner. You would have assisted at a scene.”

“At a scene?” Hyacinth repeated, not understanding what violence could have taken place between mutual adorers.

“She made me a scene of tears, of earnest remonstrance – perfectly well meant, I needn’t tell you. She thinks I am going too far.”

“I imagine you tell her things that you don’t tell me,” said Hyacinth.

“Oh, you, my dear fellow!” the Princess murmured. She spoke absent-mindedly, as if she were thinking of what had passed with Lady Aurora, and as if the futility of telling things to Hyacinth had become a commonplace.

There was no annoyance for him in this, his pretension to keep pace with her ‘views’ being quite extinct. The tone they now, for the most part, took with each other was one of mutual derision, of shrugging commiseration for insanity on the one hand and benightedness on the other. In discussing with her he exaggerated deliberately, went to fantastic lengths in the way of reaction; and it was their habit and their entertainment to hurl all manner of denunciation at each other’s head. They had given up serious discussion altogether, and when they were not engaged in bandying, in the spirit of burlesque, the amenities I have mentioned, they talked of matters as to which it could not occur to them to differ. There were evenings when the Princess did nothing but relate her life and all that she had seen of humanity, from her earliest years, in a variety of countries. If the evil side of it appeared mainly to have been presented to her view, this did not diminish the interest and vividness of her reminiscences, nor her power, the greatest Hyacinth had ever encountered, of light pictorial, dramatic evocation. She was irreverent and invidious, but she made him hang on her lips; and when she regaled him with anecdotes of foreign courts (he delighted to know how sovereigns lived and conversed), there was often, for hours together, nothing to indicate that she would have liked to get into a conspiracy and he would have liked to get out of one. Nevertheless, his mind was by no means exempt from wonder as to what she was really doing in the dark and in what queer consequences she might find herself landed. When he questioned her she wished to know by what title, with his sentiments, he pretended to inquire. He did so but little, not being himself altogether convinced of the validity of his warrant; but on one occasion, when she challenged him, he replied, smiling and hesitating, “Well, I must say, it seems to me that, from what I have told you, it ought to strike you that I have a title.”

“You mean your famous engagement, your vow? Oh, that will never come to anything.”

“Why won’t it come to anything?”

“It’s too absurd, it’s too vague. It’s like some silly humbug in a novel.”

Vous me rendez la vie!” said Hyacinth, theatrically.

“You won’t have to do it,” the Princess went on.

“I think you mean I won’t do it. I have offered, at least; isn’t that a title?”

“Well, then, you won’t do it,” said the Princess; and they looked at each other a couple of minutes in silence.

“You will, I think, at the pace you are going,” the young man resumed.

“What do you know about the pace? You are not worthy to know!”

He did know, however; that is, he knew that she was in communication with foreign socialists and had, or believed she had, irons on the fire – that she held in her hand some of the strings that are pulled in great movements. She received letters that made Madame Grandoni watch her askance, of which, though she knew nothing of their contents and had only her general suspicions and her scent for disaster, now become constant, the old woman had spoken more than once to Hyacinth. Madame Grandoni had begun to have sombre visions of the interference of the police: she was haunted with the idea of a search for compromising papers; of being dragged, herself, as an accomplice in direful plots, into a court of justice – possibly into a prison. “If she would only burn – if she would only burn! But she keeps – I know she keeps!” she groaned to Hyacinth, in her helpless gloom. Hyacinth could only guess what it might be that she kept; asking himself whether she were seriously entangled, were being exploited by revolutionary Bohemians, predatory adventurers who counted on her getting frightened at a given moment and offering hush-money to be allowed to slip out (out of a complicity which they, of course, would never have taken seriously); or were merely coquetting with paper schemes, giving herself cheap sensations, discussing preliminaries which, for her, could have no second stage. It would have been easy for Hyacinth to smile at the Princess’s impression that she was ‘in it’, and to conclude that even the cleverest women do not know when they are superficial, had not the vibration remained which had been imparted to his nerves two years before, of which he had spoken to his hostess at Medley – the sense, vividly kindled and never quenched, that the forces secretly arrayed against the present social order were pervasive and universal, in the air one breathed, in the ground one trod, in the hand of an acquaintance that one might touch, or the eye of a stranger that might rest a moment upon one’s own. They were above, below, within, without, in every contact and combination of life; and it was no disproof of them to say it was too odd that they should lurk in a particular improbable form. To lurk in improbable forms was precisely their strength, and they would doubtless exhibit much stranger incidents than this of the Princess’s being a genuine participant even when she flattered herself that she was.

“You do go too far,” Hyacinth said to her, the evening Lady Aurora had passed him at the door.

To which she answered, “Of course I do – that’s exactly what I mean. How else does one know one has gone far enough? That poor, dear woman! She’s an angel, but she isn’t in the least in it,” she added, in a moment. She would give him no further satisfaction on the subject; when he pressed her she inquired whether he had brought the copy of Browning that he had promised the last time. If he had, he was to sit down and read it to her. In such a case as this Hyacinth had no disposition to insist; he was glad enough not to talk about the everlasting nightmare. He took Men and Women from his pocket, and read aloud for half an hour; but on his making some remark on one of the poems, at the end of this time he perceived the Princess had been paying no attention. When he charged her with this levity she only replied, looking at him musingly, “How can one, after all, go too far? That’s a word of cowards.”

“Do you mean her ladyship is a coward?”

“Yes, in not having the courage of her opinions, of her conclusions. The way the English can go half-way to a thing, and then stick in the middle!” the Princess exclaimed, impatiently.

“That’s not your fault, certainly!” said Hyacinth. “But it seems to me that Lady Aurora, for herself, goes pretty far.”

“We are all afraid of some things, and brave about others,” the Princess went on.

“The thing Lady Aurora is most afraid of is the Princess Casamassima,” Hyacinth remarked.

His companion looked at him, but she did not take this up. “There is one particular in which she would be very brave. She would marry her friend – your friend – Mr Muniment.”

“Marry him, do you think?”

“What else, pray?” the Princess asked. “She adores the ground he walks on.”

“And what would Belgrave Square, and Inglefield, and all the rest of it, say?”

“What do they say already, and how much does it make her swerve? She would do it in a moment; and it would be fine to see it, it would be magnificent,” said the Princess, kindling, as she was apt to kindle, at the idea of any great freedom of action.

“That certainly wouldn’t be a case of what you call sticking in the middle,” Hyacinth rejoined.

“Ah, it wouldn’t be a matter of logic; it would be a matter of passion. When it’s a question of that, the English, to do them justice, don’t stick!”

This speculation of the Princess’s was by no means new to Hyacinth, and he had not thought it heroic, after all, that their high-strung friend should feel herself capable of sacrificing her family, her name, and the few habits of gentility that survived in her life, of making herself a scandal, a fable, and a nine days’ wonder, for Muniment’s sake; the young chemist’s assistant being, to his mind, as we know, exactly the type of man who produced convulsions, made ruptures and renunciations easy. But it was less clear to him what ideas Muniment might have on the subject of a union with a young woman who should have come out of her class for him. He would marry some day, evidently, because he would do all the natural, human, productive things; but for the present he had business on hand which would be likely to pass first. Besides – Hyacinth had seen him give evidence of this – he didn’t think people could really come out of their class; he held that the stamp of one’s origin is ineffaceable and that the best thing one can do is to wear it and fight for it. Hyacinth could easily imagine how it would put him out to be mixed up, closely, with a person who, like Lady Aurora, was fighting on the wrong side. “She can’t marry him unless he asks her, I suppose – and perhaps he won’t,” he reflected.

“Yes, perhaps he won’t,” said the Princess, thoughtfully.

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