The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

42

He had no intention of going in the evening to Madeira Crescent, and that is why he asked his companion, before they separated, if he might not see her again, after tea. The evenings were bitter to him now, and he feared them in advance. The darkness had become a haunted element; it had visions for him that passed even before his closed eyes – sharp doubts and fears and suspicions, suggestions of evil, revelations of suffering. He wanted company, to light up his gloom, and this had driven him back to Millicent, in a manner not altogether consistent with the respect which it was still his theory that he owed to his nobler part. He felt no longer free to drop in at the Crescent, and tried to persuade himself, in case his mistrust should be overdone, that his reasons were reasons of magnanimity. If Paul Muniment were seriously occupied with the Princess, if they had work in hand for which their most earnest attention was required (and Sunday was very likely to be the day they would take: they had spent so much of the previous Sunday together), it would be delicate on his part to stay away, to leave his friend a clear field. There was something inexpressibly representative to him in the way that friend had abruptly decided to re-enter the house, after pausing outside with its mistress, at the moment he himself stood peering through the fog with the Prince. The movement repeated itself innumerable times, to his moral perception, suggesting to him things that he couldn’t bear to learn. Hyacinth was afraid of being jealous, even after he had become so, and to prove to himself that he was not he had gone to see the Princess one evening in the middle of the week. Hadn’t he wanted Paul to know her, months and months before, and now was he to entertain a vile feeling at the first manifestation of an intimacy which rested, in each party to it, upon aspirations that he respected? The Princess had not been at home, and he had turned away from the door without asking for Madame Grandoni; he had not forgotten that on the occasion of his previous visit she had excused herself from remaining in the drawing-room. After the little maid in the Crescent had told him the Princess was out he walked away with a quick curiosity – a curiosity which, if he had listened to it, would have led him to mount upon the first omnibus that travelled in the direction of Camberwell. Was Paul Muniment, who was such a rare one, in general, for stopping at home of an evening – was he also out, and would Rosy, in this case, be in the humour to mention (for of course she would know) where he had gone? Hyacinth let the omnibus pass, for he suddenly became aware, with a throb of horror, that he was in danger of playing the spy. He had not been near Muniment since, on purpose to leave his curiosity unsatisfied. He allowed himself however to notice that the Princess had now not written him a word of consolation, as she had been so kind as to do once or twice before when he had knocked at her door without finding her. At present he had missed her twice in succession, and yet she had given no sign of regret – regret even on his own behalf. This determined him to stay away awhile longer; it was such a proof that she was absorbingly occupied. Hyacinth’s glimpse of the Princess in earnest conversation with Muniment as they returned from the excursion described by the Prince, his memory of Paul’s relenting figure crossing the threshold once more, could leave him no doubt as to the degree of that absorption.

Millicent hesitated when Hyacinth proposed to her that they should finish the day together. She smiled, and her splendid eyes rested on his with an air of indulgent interrogation; they seemed to ask whether it were worth her while, in face of his probable incredulity, to mention the real reason why she could not have the pleasure of acceding to his delightful suggestion. Since he would be sure to deride her explanation, would not some trumped-up excuse do as well, since he could knock that about without hurting her? I know not exactly in what sense Miss Henning decided; but she confessed at last that there was an odious obstacle to their meeting again later – a promise she had made to go and see a young lady, the forewoman of her department, who was kept in-doors with a bad face, and nothing in life to help her pass the time. She was under a pledge to spend the evening with her, and it was not her way to disappoint an expectation. Hyacinth made no comment on this speech; he received it in silence, looking at the girl gloomily.

“I know what’s passing in your mind!” Millicent suddenly broke out. “Why don’t you say it at once, and give me a chance to contradict it? I oughtn’t to care, but I do care!”

“Stop, stop – don’t let us fight!” Hyacinth spoke in a tone of pleading weariness; she had never heard just that accent before.

Millicent considered a moment. “I’ve a mind to play her false. She is a real lady, highly connected, and the best friend I have – I don’t count men,” the girl interpolated, smiling – “and there isn’t one in the world I’d do such a thing for but you.”

“No, keep your promise; don’t play any one false,” said Hyacinth.

“Well, you are a gentleman!” Miss Henning murmured, with a sweetness that her voice occasionally took.

“Especially —” Hyacinth began; but he suddenly stopped.

“Especially what? Something impudent, I’ll engage! Especially as you don’t believe me?”

“Oh, no! Don’t let’s fight!” he repeated.

“Fight, my darling? I’d fight for you!” Miss Henning declared.

Hyacinth offered himself, after tea, the choice between a visit to Lady Aurora and a pilgrimage to Lisson Grove. He was in a little doubt about the former experiment, having an idea that her ladyship’s family might have returned to Belgrave Square. He reflected, however, that he could not recognise that as a reason for not going to see her; his relations with her were not clandestine, and she had given him the kindest general invitation. If her august progenitors were at home she was probably at dinner with them; he would take that risk. He had taken it before, without disastrous results. He was determined not to spend the evening alone, and he would keep the Poupins as a more substantial alternative, in case her ladyship should not be able to receive him.

As soon as the great portal in Belgrave Square was drawn open before him, he perceived that the house was occupied and animated – if the latter term might properly be applied to a place which had hitherto given Hyacinth the impression of a magnificent mausoleum. It was pervaded by subdued light and tall domestics; Hyacinth found himself looking down a kind of colonnade of colossal footmen, an array more imposing even than the retinue of the Princess at Medley. His inquiry died away on his lips, and he stood there struggling with dumbness. It was manifest to him that some high festival was taking place, at which his presence could only be deeply irrelevant; and when a large official, out of livery, bending over him for a voice that faltered, suggested, not unencouragingly, that it might be Lady Aurora he wished to see, he replied in a low, melancholy accent, “Yes, yes, but it can’t be possible!” The butler took no pains to controvert this proposition verbally; he merely turned round, with a majestic air of leading the way, and as at the same moment two of the footmen closed the wings of the door behind the visitor, Hyacinth judged that it was his cue to follow him. In this manner, after traversing a passage where, in the perfect silence of the servants, he heard the shorter click of his plebeian shoes upon a marble floor, he found himself ushered into a small apartment, lighted by a veiled lamp, which, when he had been left there alone, without further remark on the part of his conductor, he recognised as the scene – only now more amply decorated – of one of his former interviews. Lady Aurora kept him waiting a few moments, and then fluttered in with an anxious, incoherent apology. The same transformation had taken place in her own appearance as in the aspect of her parental halls: she had on a light-coloured, crumpled-looking, faintly-rustling dress; her head was adorned with a kind of languid plume, terminating in little pink tips; and in her hand she carried a pair of white gloves. All her repressed eagerness was in her face, and she smiled as if she wished to anticipate any scruples or embarrassments on the part of her visitor; frankly recognising the brilliancy of her attire and the startling implications it might convey. Hyacinth said to her that, no doubt, on perceiving her family had returned to town, he ought to have backed out; he knew that must make a difference in her life. But he had been marched in, in spite of himself, and now it was clear that he had interrupted her at dinner. She answered that no one who asked for her at any hour was ever turned away; she had managed to arrange that, and she was very happy in her success. She didn’t usually dine – there were so many of them, and it took so long. Most of her friends couldn’t come at visiting-hours, and it wouldn’t be right that she shouldn’t ever receive them. On that occasion she had been dining, but it was all over; she was only sitting there because she was going to a party. Her parents were dining out, and she was just in the drawing-room with some of her sisters. When they were alone it wasn’t so long, though it was rather long afterwards, when they went up again. It wasn’t time yet: the carriage wouldn’t come for nearly half an hour. She hadn’t been to an evening thing for months and months, but – didn’t he know? – one sometimes had to do it. Lady Aurora expressed the idea that one ought to be fair all round and that one’s duties were not all of the same species; some of them would come up from time to time that were quite different from the others. Of course it wasn’t just, unless one did all, and that was why she was in for something to-night. It was nothing of consequence; only the family meeting the family, as they might do of a Sunday, at one of their houses. It was there that papa and mamma were dining. Since they had given her that room for any hour she wanted (it was really tremendously convenient), she had determined to do a party now and then, like a respectable young woman, because it pleased them – though why it should, to see her at a place, was more than she could imagine. She supposed it was because it would perhaps keep some people, a little, from thinking she was mad and not safe to be at large – which was of course a sort of thing that people didn’t like to have thought of their belongings. Lady Aurora explained and expatiated with a kind of nervous superabundance; she talked more continuously than Hyacinth had ever heard her do before, and the young man saw that she was not in her natural equilibrium. He thought it scarcely probable that she was excited by the simple prospect of again dipping into the great world she had forsworn, and he presently perceived that he himself had an agitating effect upon her. His senses were fine enough to make him feel that he revived certain associations and quickened certain wounds. She suddenly stopped talking, and the two sat there looking at each other, in a kind of occult community of suffering. Hyacinth made several mechanical remarks, explaining, insufficiently, why he had come, and in the course of a very few moments, quite independently of these observations, it seemed to him that there was a deeper, a measurelessly deep, confidence between them. A tacit confession passed and repassed, and each understood the situation of the other. They wouldn’t speak of it – it was very definite that they would never do that; for there was something in their common consciousness that was inconsistent with the grossness of accusation. Besides, the grievance of each was an apprehension, an instinct of the soul – not a sharp, definite wrong, supported by proof. It was in the air and in their restless pulses, and not in anything that they could exhibit or complain of. Strange enough it seemed to Hyacinth that the history of each should be the counterpart of that of the other. What had each done but lose that which he or she had never had? Things had gone ill with them; but even if they had gone well, if the Princess had not combined with his friend in that manner which made his heart sink and produced an effect exactly corresponding upon that of Lady Aurora – even in this case what would prosperity, what would success, have amounted to? They would have been very barren. He was sure the singular creature before him would never have had a chance to take the unprecedented social step for the sake of which she was ready to go forth from Belgrave Square for ever; Hyacinth had judged the smallness of Paul Muniment’s appetite for that complication sufficiently to have begun really to pity her ladyship long ago. And now, even when he most felt the sweetness of her sympathy, he might wonder what she could have imagined for him in the event of his not having been supplanted – what security, what completer promotion, what honourable, satisfying sequel. They were unhappy because they were unhappy, and they were right not to rail about that.

“Oh, I like to see you – I like to talk with you,” said Lady Aurora, simply. They talked for a quarter of an hour, and he made her such a visit as any gentleman might have made to any lady. They exchanged remarks about the lateness of the spring, about the loan-exhibition at Burlington House – which Hyacinth had paid his shilling to see – about the question of opening the museums on Sunday, about the danger of too much coddling legislation on behalf of the working-classes. He declared that it gave him great pleasure to see any sign of her amusing herself; it was unnatural never to do that, and he hoped that now she had taken a turn she would keep it up. At this she looked down, smiling, at her frugal finery, and then she replied, “I dare say I shall begin to go to balls – who knows?”

“That’s what our friends in Audley Court think, you know – that it’s the worst mistake you can make, not to drink deep of the cup while you have it.”

“Oh, I’ll do it, then – I’ll do it for them!” Lady Aurora exclaimed. “I dare say that, as regards all that, I haven’t listened to them enough.” This was the only allusion that passed on the subject of the Muniments.

Hyacinth got up – he had stayed long enough, as she was going out; and as he held out his hand to her she seemed to him a heroine. She would try to cultivate the pleasures of her class if the brother and sister in Camberwell thought it right – try even to be a woman of fashion in order to console herself. Paul Muniment didn’t care for her, but she was capable of considering that it might be her duty to regulate her life by the very advice that made an abyss between them. Hyacinth didn’t believe in the success of this attempt; there passed before his imagination a picture of the poor lady coming home and pulling off her feathers for ever, after an evening spent in watching the agitation of a ball-room from the outer edge of the circle, with a white, irresponsive face. “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” he said, laughing.

“Oh, I don’t mind dying.”

“I think I do,” Hyacinth declared, as he turned away. There had been no mention whatever of the Princess.

It was early enough in the evening for him to risk a visit to Lisson Grove; he calculated that the Poupins would still be sitting up. When he reached their house he found this calculation justified; the brilliancy of the light in the window appeared to announce that Madame was holding a salon. He ascended to this apartment without delay (it was free to a visitor to open the house-door himself), and, having knocked, obeyed the hostess’s invitation to enter. Poupin and his wife were seated, with a third person, at a table in the middle of the room, round a staring kerosene lamp adorned with a globe of clear glass, of which the transparency was mitigated only by a circular pattern of bunches of grapes. The third person was his friend Schinkel, who had been a member of the little party that waited upon Hoffendahl. No one said anything as Hyacinth came in; but in their silence the three others got up, looking at him, as he thought, rather strangely.

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