The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

4

“Well, you’ll have to guess my name before I’ll tell you,” the girl said, with a free laugh, pushing her way into the narrow hall and leaning against the tattered wall-paper, which, representing blocks of marble with bevelled edges, in streaks and speckles of black and gray, had not been renewed for years and came back to her out of the past. As Miss Pynsent closed the door, seeing her visitor was so resolute, the light filtered in from the street, through the narrow, dusty glass above it, and then the very smell and sense of the place returned to Millicent; a kind of musty dimness, with the vision of a small, steep staircase at the end, covered with a strip of oilcloth which she recognised, and made a little less dark by a window in the bend (you could see it from the hall), from which you could almost bump your head against the house behind. Nothing was changed except Miss Pynsent, and of course the girl herself. She had noticed, outside, that the sign between the windows had not even been touched up; there was still the same preposterous announcement of ‘fashionable bonnets’ – as if the poor little dressmaker had the slightest acquaintance with that style of head-dress, of which Miss Henning’s own knowledge was now so complete. She could see Miss Pynsent was looking at her hat, which was a wonderful composition of flowers and ribbons; her eyes had travelled up and down Millicent’s whole person, but they rested in fascination upon this ornament. The girl had forgotten how small the dressmaker was; she barely came up to her shoulder. She had lost her hair, and wore a cap, which Millicent noticed in return, wondering if that were a specimen of what she thought the fashion. Miss Pynsent stared up at her as if she had been six feet high; but she was used to that sort of surprised admiration, being perfectly conscious that she was a magnificent young woman.

“Won’t you take me into your shop?” she asked. “I don’t want to order anything; I only want to inquire after your ’ealth; and isn’t this rather an awkward place to talk?” She made her way further in, without waiting for permission, seeing that her startled hostess had not yet guessed.

“The show-room is on the right hand,” said Miss Pynsent, with her professional manner, which was intended, evidently, to mark a difference. She spoke as if on the other side, where the horizon was bounded by the partition of the next house, there were labyrinths of apartments. Passing in after her guest she found the young lady already spread out upon the sofa, the everlasting sofa, in the right-hand corner as you faced the window, covered with a light, shrunken shroud of a strange yellow stuff, the tinge of which revealed years of washing, and surmounted by a coloured print of Rebekah at the Well, balancing, in the opposite quarter, with a portrait of the Empress of the French, taken from an illustrated newspaper and framed and glazed in the manner of 1853. Millicent looked about her, asking herself what Miss Pynsent had to show and acting perfectly the part of the most brilliant figure the place had ever contained. The old implements were there on the table: the pincushions and needle-books; the pink measuring-tape with which, as children, she and Hyacinth used to take each other’s height; and the same collection of fashion-plates (she could see in a minute), crumpled, sallow and fly-blown. The little dressmaker bristled, as she used to do, with needles and pins (they were stuck all over the front of her dress), but there were no rustling fabrics tossed in heaps about the room – nothing but the skirt of a shabby dress (it might have been her own), which she was evidently repairing and had flung upon the table when she came to the door. Miss Henning speedily arrived at the conclusion that her hostess’s business had not increased, and felt a kind of good-humoured, luxurious scorn of a person who knew so little what was to be got out of London. It was Millicent’s belief that she herself was already perfectly acquainted with the resources of the metropolis.

“Now tell me, how is Hyacinth? I should like so much to see him,” she remarked, extending a pair of large protrusive feet and supporting herself on the sofa by her hands.

“Hyacinth?” Miss Pynsent repeated, with majestic blankness, as if she had never heard of such a person. She felt that the girl was cruelly, scathingly, well dressed; she couldn’t imagine who she was, nor with what design she could have presented herself.

“Perhaps you call him Mr Robinson, to-day – you always wanted him to hold himself so high. But to his face, at any rate, I’ll call him as I used to: you see if I don’t!”

“Bless my soul, you must be the little ’Enning!” Miss Pynsent exclaimed, planted before her and going now into every detail.

“Well, I’m glad you have made up your mind. I thought you’d know me directly. I had a call to make in this part, and it came into my ’ead to look you up. I don’t like to lose sight of old friends.”

“I never knew you – you’ve improved so,” Miss Pynsent rejoined, with a candour justified by her age and her consciousness of respectability.

“Well, you haven’t changed; you were always calling me something horrid.”

“I dare say it doesn’t matter to you now, does it?” said the dressmaker, seating herself, but quite unable to take up her work, absorbed as she was in the examination of her visitor.

“Oh, I’m all right now,” Miss Henning replied, with the air of one who had nothing to fear from human judgments.

“You were a pretty child – I never said the contrary to that; but I had no idea you’d turn out like this. You’re too tall for a woman,” Miss Pynsent added, much divided between an old prejudice and a new appreciation.

“Well, I enjoy beautiful ’ealth,” said the young lady; “every one thinks I’m twenty.” She spoke with a certain artless pride in her bigness and her bloom, and as if, to show her development, she would have taken off her jacket or let you feel her upper arm. She was very handsome, with a shining, bold, good-natured eye, a fine, free, facial oval, an abundance of brown hair, and a smile which showed the whiteness of her teeth. Her head was set upon a fair, strong neck, and her tall young figure was rich in feminine curves. Her gloves, covering her wrists insufficiently, showed the redness of those parts, in the interstices of the numerous silver bracelets that encircled them, and Miss Pynsent made the observation that her hands were not more delicate than her feet. She was not graceful, and even the little dressmaker, whose preference for distinguished forms never deserted her, indulged in the mental reflection that she was common, for all her magnificence; but there was something about her indescribably fresh, successful and satisfying. She was, to her blunt, expanded finger-tips, a daughter of London, of the crowded streets and hustling traffic of the great city; she had drawn her health and strength from its dingy courts and foggy thoroughfares, and peopled its parks and squares and crescents with her ambitions; it had entered into her blood and her bone, the sound of her voice and the carriage of her head; she understood it by instinct and loved it with passion; she represented its immense vulgarities and curiosities, its brutality and its knowingness, its good-nature and its impudence, and might have figured, in an allegorical procession, as a kind of glorified townswoman, a nymph of the wilderness of Middlesex, a flower of the accumulated parishes, the genius of urban civilisation, the muse of cockneyism. The restrictions under which Miss Pynsent regarded her would have cost the dressmaker some fewer scruples if she had guessed the impression she made upon Millicent, and how the whole place seemed to that prosperous young lady to smell of poverty and failure. Her childish image of Miss Pynsent had represented her as delicate and dainty, with round loops of hair fastened on her temples by combs, and associations of brilliancy arising from the constant manipulation of precious stuffs – tissues at least which Millicent regarded with envy. But the little woman before her was bald and white and pinched; she looked shrunken and sickly and insufficiently nourished; her small eyes were sharp and suspicious, and her hideous cap did not disguise her meagreness. Miss Henning thanked her stars, as she had often done before, that she had not been obliged to get her living by drudging over needlework year after year in that undiscoverable street, in a dismal little room where nothing had been changed for ages; the absence of change had such an exasperating effect upon her vigorous young nature. She reflected with complacency upon her good fortune in being attached to a more exciting, a more dramatic, department of the dressmaking business, and noticed that though it was already November there was no fire in the neatly-kept grate beneath the chimney-piece, on which a design, partly architectural, partly botanical, executed in the hair of Miss Pynsent’s parents, was flanked by a pair of vases, under glass, containing muslin flowers.

If she thought Miss Pynsent’s eyes suspicious it must be confessed that this lady felt very much upon her guard in the presence of so unexpected and undesired a reminder of one of the least honourable episodes in the annals of Lomax Place. Miss Pynsent esteemed people in proportion to their success in constituting a family circle – in cases, that is, when the materials were under their hand. This success, among the various members of the house of Henning, had been of the scantiest, and the domestic broils in the establishment adjacent to her own, whose vicissitudes she was able to follow, as she sat at her window at work, by simply inclining an ear to the thin partition behind her – these scenes, amid which the crash of crockery and the imprecations of the wounded were frequently audible, had long been the scandal of a humble but harmonious neighbourhood. Mr Henning was supposed to occupy a place of confidence in a brush-factory, while his wife, at home, occupied herself with the washing and mending of a considerable brood, mainly of sons. But economy and sobriety, and indeed a virtue more important still, had never presided at their councils. The freedom and frequency of Mrs Henning’s relations with a stove-polisher in the Euston Road were at least not a secret to a person who lived next door and looked up from her work so often that it was a wonder it was always finished so quickly. The little Hennings, unwashed and unchidden, spent most of their time either in pushing each other into the gutter or in running to the public-house at the corner for a pennyworth of gin, and the borrowing propensities of their elders were a theme for exclamation. There was no object of personal or domestic use which Mrs Henning had not at one time or another endeavoured to elicit from the dressmaker; beginning with a mattress, on an occasion when she was about to take to her bed for a considerable period, and ending with a flannel petticoat and a pewter teapot. Lomax Place had, eventually, from its over-peeping windows and doorways, been present at the seizure, by a long-suffering landlord, of the chattels of this interesting family and at the ejectment of the whole insolvent group, who departed in a straggling, jeering, unabashed, cynical manner, carrying with them but little of the sympathy of the street. Millicent, whose childish intimacy with Hyacinth Robinson Miss Pynsent had always viewed with vague anxiety – she thought the girl a ‘nasty little thing’, and was afraid she would teach the innocent orphan low ways – Millicent, with her luxuriant tresses, her precocious beauty, her staring, mocking manner on the doorstep, was at this time twelve years of age. She vanished with her vanishing companions; Lomax Place saw them turn the corner, and returned to its occupations with a conviction that they would make shipwreck on the outer reefs. But neither spar nor splinter floated back to their former haunts, and they were engulfed altogether in the fathomless deeps of the town. Miss Pynsent drew a long breath; it was her conviction that none of them would come to any good, and Millicent least of all.

When, therefore, this young lady reappeared, with all the signs of accomplished survival, she could not fail to ask herself whether, under a specious seeming, the phenomenon did not simply represent the triumph of vice. She was alarmed, but she would have given her silver thimble to know the girl’s history, and between her alarm and her curiosity she passed an uncomfortable half-hour. She felt that the familiar, mysterious creature was playing with her; revenging herself for former animadversions, for having been snubbed and miscalled by a peering little spinster who now could make no figure beside her. If it was not the triumph of vice it was at least the triumph of impertinence, as well as of youth, health, and a greater acquaintance with the art of dress than Miss Pynsent could boast, for all her ridiculous signboards. She perceived, or she believed she perceived, that Millicent wanted to scare her, to make her think she had come after Hyacinth; that she wished to inveigle, to corrupt him. I should be sorry to impute to Miss Henning any motive more complicated than the desire to amuse herself, of a Saturday afternoon, by a ramble which her vigorous legs had no occasion to deprecate; but it must be confessed that when it occurred to her that Miss Pynsent regarded her as a ravening wolf and her early playmate as an unspotted lamb, she laughed out, in her hostess’s anxious face, irrelevantly and good-humouredly, without deigning to explain. But what, indeed, had she come for, if she had not come after Hyacinth? It was not for the love of the dressmaker’s pretty ways. She remembered the boy and some of their tender passages, and in the wantonness of her full-blown freedom – her attachment, also, to any tolerable pretext for wandering through the streets of London and gazing into shop-windows – she had said to herself that she would dedicate an afternoon to the pleasures of memory, would revisit the scenes of her childhood. She considered that her childhood had ended with the departure of her family from Lomax Place. If the tenants of that obscure locality never learned what their banished fellows went through, Millicent retained a deep impression of those horrible intermediate years. The family, as a family, had gone down-hill, to the very bottom; and in her humbler moments Millicent sometimes wondered what lucky star had checked her own descent, and indeed enabled her to mount the slope again. In her humbler moments, I say, for as a general thing she was provided with an explanation of any good fortune that might befall her. What was more natural than that a girl should do well when she was at once so handsome and so clever? Millicent thought with compassion of the young persons whom a niggardly fate had endowed with only one of these advantages. She was good-natured, but she had no idea of gratifying Miss Pynsent’s curiosity; it seemed to her quite a sufficient kindness to stimulate it.

She told the dressmaker that she had a high position at a great haberdasher’s in the neighbourhood of Buckingham Palace; she was in the department for jackets and mantles; she put on all these articles to show them off to the customers, and on her person they appeared to such advantage that nothing she took up ever failed to go off. Miss Pynsent could imagine, from this, how highly her services were prized. She had had a splendid offer from another establishment, in Oxford Street, and she was just thinking whether she should accept it. “We have to be beautifully dressed, but I don’t care, because I like to look nice,” she remarked to her hostess, who at the end of half an hour, very grave, behind the clumsy glasses which she had been obliged to wear of late years, seemed still not to know what to make of her. On the subject of her family, of her history during the interval that was to be accounted for, the girl was large and vague, and Miss Pynsent saw that the domestic circle had not even a shadow of sanctity for her. She stood on her own feet, and she stood very firm. Her staying so long, her remaining over the half-hour, proved to the dressmaker that she had come for Hyacinth; for poor Amanda gave her as little information as was decent, told her nothing that would encourage or attract. She simply mentioned that Mr Robinson (she was careful to speak of him in that manner) had given his attention to bookbinding, and had served an apprenticeship at an establishment where they turned out the best work of that kind that was to be found in London.

“A bookbindery? Laws!” said Miss Henning. “Do you mean they get them up for the shops? Well, I always thought he would have something to do with books.” Then she added, “But I didn’t think he would ever follow a trade.”

“A trade?” cried Miss Pynsent. “You should hear Mr Robinson speak of it. He considers it one of the fine arts.”

Millicent smiled, as if she knew how people often considered things, and remarked that very likely it was tidy, comfortable work, but she couldn’t believe there was much to be seen in it. “Perhaps you will say there is more than there is here,” she went on, finding at last an effect of irritation, of reprehension, an implication of aggressive respectability, in the image of the patient dressmaker, sitting for so many years in her close, brown little den, with the foggy familiarities of Lomax Place on the other side of the pane. Millicent liked to think that she herself was strong, and she was not strong enough for that.

This allusion to her shrunken industry seemed to Miss Pynsent very cruel; but she reflected that it was natural one should be insulted if one talked to a vulgar girl. She judged this young lady in the manner of a person who was not vulgar herself, and if there was a difference between them she was right in feeling it to be in her favour. Miss Pynsent’s ‘cut’, as I have intimated, was not truly fashionable, and in the application of gimp and the distribution of ornament she was not to be trusted; but, morally, she had the best taste in the world. “I haven’t so much work as I used to have, if that’s what you mean. My eyes are not so good, and my health has failed with advancing years.”

I know not to what extent Millicent was touched by the dignity of this admission, but she replied, without embarrassment, that what Miss Pynsent wanted was a smart young assistant, some nice girl with a pretty taste, who would brighten up the business and give her new ideas. “I can see you have got the same old ones, always: I can tell that by the way you have stuck the braid on that dress;” and she directed a poke of her neat little umbrella to the drapery in the dressmaker’s lap. She continued to patronise and exasperate her, and to offer her consolation and encouragement with the heaviest hand that had ever been applied to Miss Pynsent’s sensitive surface. Poor Amanda ended by gazing at her as if she were a public performer of some kind, a ballad-singer or a conjurer, and went so far as to ask herself whether the hussy could be (in her own mind) the ‘nice girl’ who was to regild the tarnished sign. Miss Pynsent had had assistants, in the past – she had even, once, for a few months, had a ‘forewoman’; and some of these damsels had been precious specimens, whose misdemeanours lived vividly in her memory. Never, all the same, in her worst hour of delusion, had she trusted her interests to such an extravagant baggage as this. She was quickly reassured as to Millicent’s own views, perceiving more and more that she was a tremendous highflyer, who required a much larger field of action than the musty bower she now honoured, heaven only knew why, with her presence. Miss Pynsent held her tongue, as she always did, when the sorrow of her life had been touched, the thought of the slow, inexorable decline on which she had entered that day, nearly ten years before, when her hesitations and scruples resolved themselves into a hideous mistake. The deep conviction of error, on that unspeakably important occasion, had ached and throbbed within her ever since like an incurable disease. She had sown in her boy’s mind the seeds of shame and rancour; she had made him conscious of his stigma, of his exquisitely vulnerable spot, and condemned him to know that for him the sun would never shine as it shone for most others. By the time he was sixteen years old she had learned – or believed she had learned – the judgment he passed upon her, and at that period she had lived through a series of horrible months, an ordeal in which every element of her old prosperity perished. She cried her eyes out, on coming to a sense of her aberration, blinded and weakened herself with weeping, so that for a moment it seemed as if she should never be able to touch a needle again. She lost all interest in her work, and that artistic imagination which had always been her pride deserted her, together with the reputation of keeping the tidiest lodgings in Lomax Place. A couple of commercial gentlemen and a Welsh plumber, of religious tendencies, who for several years had made her establishment their home, withdrew their patronage on the ground that the airing of her beds was not what it used to be, and disseminated cruelly this injurious legend. She ceased to notice or to care how sleeves were worn, and on the question of flounces and gores her mind was a blank. She fell into a grievous debility, and then into a long, low, languid fever, during which Hyacinth tended her with a devotion which only made the wrong she had done him seem more bitter, and in which, so soon as she was able to hold up her head a little, Mr Vetch came and sat with her through the dull hours of convalescence. She re-established to a certain extent, after a while, her connection, so far as the letting of her rooms was concerned (from the other department of her activity the tide had ebbed apparently forever); but nothing was the same again, and she knew it was the beginning of the end. So it had gone on, and she watched the end approach; she felt it was very near indeed when a child she had seen playing in the gutters came to flaunt it over her in silk and lace. She gave a low, inaudible sigh of relief when at last Millicent got up and stood before her, smoothing the glossy cylinder of her umbrella.

“Mind you give my love to Hyacinth,” the girl said, with an assurance which showed all her insensibility to tacit protests. “I don’t care if you do guess that if I have stopped so long it was in the hope he would be dropping in to his tea. You can tell him I sat an hour, on purpose, if you like; there’s no shame in my wanting to see my little friend. He may know I call him that!” Millicent continued, with her show-room laugh, as Miss Pynsent judged it to be; conferring these permissions, successively, as if they were great indulgences. “Do give him my love, and tell him I hope he’ll come and see me. I see you won’t tell him anything. I don’t know what you’re afraid of; but I’ll leave my card for him, all the same.” She drew forth a little bright-coloured pocket-book, and it was with amazement that Miss Pynsent saw her extract from it a morsel of engraved pasteboard – so monstrous did it seem that one of the squalid little Hennings should have lived to display this emblem of social consideration. Millicent enjoyed the effect she produced as she laid the card on the table, and gave another ringing peal of merriment at the sight of her hostess’s half-angry, half-astonished look. “What do you think I want to do with him? I could swallow him at a single bite!” she cried.

Poor Amanda gave no second glance at the document on the table, though she had perceived it contained, in the corner, her visitor’s address, which Millicent had amused herself, ingeniously, with not mentioning: she only got up, laying down her work with a trembling hand, so that she should be able to see Miss Henning well out of the house. “You needn’t think I shall put myself out to keep him in the dark. I shall certainly tell him you have been here, and exactly how you strike me.”

“Of course you’ll say something nasty – like you used to when I was a child. You let me ’ave it then, you know!”

“Ah, well,” said Miss Pynsent, nettled at being reminded of an acerbity which the girl’s present development caused to appear ridiculously ineffectual, “you are very different now, when I think what you’ve come from.”

“What I’ve come from?” Millicent threw back her head, and opened her eyes very wide, while all her feathers and ribbons nodded. “Did you want me to stick fast in this low place for the rest of my days? You have had to stay in it yourself, so you might speak civilly of it.” She coloured, and raised her voice, and looked magnificent in her scorn. “And pray what have you come from yourself, and what has he come from – the mysterious ‘Mr Robinson’, that used to be such a puzzle to the whole Place? I thought perhaps I might clear it up, but you haven’t told me that yet!”

Miss Pynsent turned straight away, covering her ears with her hands. “I have nothing to tell you! Leave my room – leave my house!” she cried, with a trembling voice.

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