The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

BOOK SIXTH

43

“My child, you are always welcome,” said Eustache Poupin, taking Hyacinth’s hand in both his own and holding it for some moments. An impression had come to our young man, immediately, that they were talking about him before he appeared and that they would rather have been left to talk at their ease. He even thought he saw in Poupin’s face the kind of consciousness that comes from detection, or at least interruption, in a nefarious act. With Poupin, however, it was difficult to tell; he always looked so heated and exalted, so like a conspirator defying the approach of justice. Hyacinth contemplated the others: they were standing as if they had shuffled something on the table out of sight, as if they had been engaged in the manufacture of counterfeit coin. Poupin kept hold of his hand; the Frenchman’s ardent eyes, fixed, unwinking, always expressive of the greatness of the occasion, whatever the occasion was, had never seemed to him to protrude so far from his head. “Ah, my dear friend, nous causions justement de vous,” Eustache remarked, as if this were a very extraordinary fact.

“Oh, nous causions – nous causions!” his wife exclaimed, as if to deprecate an indiscreet exaggeration. “One may mention a friend, I suppose, in the way of conversation, without taking such a liberty.”

“A cat may look at a king, as your English proverb says,” added Schinkel, jocosely. He smiled so hard at his own pleasantry that his eyes closed up and vanished – an effect which Hyacinth, who had observed it before, thought particularly unbecoming to him, appearing as it did to administer the last perfection to his ugliness. He would have consulted his interests by cultivating immobility of feature.

“Oh, a king, a king!” murmured Poupin, shaking his head up and down. “That’s what it’s not good to be, au point où nous en sommes.”

“I just came in to wish you good-night,” said Hyacinth. “I’m afraid it’s rather late for a call, though Schinkel is here.”

“It’s always too late, my very dear, when you come,” the Frenchman rejoined. “You know if you have a place at our fireside.”

“I esteem it too much to disturb it,” said Hyacinth, smiling and looking round at the three.

“We can easily sit down again; we are a comfortable party. Put yourself beside me.” And the Frenchman drew a chair close to the one, at the table, that he had just quitted.

“He has had a long walk, he is tired – he will certainly accept a little glass,” Madame Poupin announced with decision, moving toward the tray containing the small gilded liqueur service.

“We will each accept one, ma bonne; it is a very good occasion for a drop of fine,” her husband interposed, while Hyacinth seated himself in the chair his host had designated. Schinkel resumed his place, which was opposite; he looked across at Hyacinth without speaking, but his long face continued to flatten itself into a representation of mirth. He had on a green coat, which Hyacinth had seen before; it was a garment of ceremony, such as our young man judged it would have been impossible to procure in London or in any modern time. It was eminently German and of high antiquity, and had a tall, stiff, clumsy collar, which came up to the wearer’s ears and almost concealed his perpetual bandage. When Hyacinth had sat down Eustache Poupin did not take possession of his own chair, but stood beside him, resting his hand on his head. At that touch something came over Hyacinth, and his heart sprang into his throat. The idea that occurred to him, conveyed in Poupin’s whole manner as well as in the reassuring intention of that caress and in his wife’s uneasy, instant offer of refreshment, explained the embarrassment of the circle and reminded our young man of the engagement he had taken with himself to exhibit an extraordinary quietness when a certain crisis in his life should have arrived. It seemed to him that this crisis was in the air, very near – that he should touch it if he made another movement; the pressure of the Frenchman’s hand, which was meant as a solvent, only operated as a warning. As he looked across at Schinkel he felt dizzy and a little sick; for a moment, to his senses, the room whirled round. His resolution to be quiet appeared only too easy to keep; he couldn’t break it even to the extent of speaking. He knew that his voice would tremble, and that is why he made no answer to Schinkel’s rather honeyed words, uttered after an hesitation: “Also, my dear Robinson, have you passed your Sunday well – have you had an ’appy day?” Why was every one so endearing? His eyes questioned the table, but encountered nothing but its well-wiped surface, polished for so many years by the gustatory elbows of the Frenchman and his wife, and the lady’s dirty pack of cards for ‘patience’ (she had apparently been engaged in this exercise when Schinkel came in), which indeed gave a little the impression of gamblers surprised, who might have shuffled away the stakes. Madame Poupin, who had dived into a cupboard, came back with a bottle of green chartreuse, an apparition which led the German to exclaim, “Lieber Gott, you Vrench, you Vrench, how well you manage! What would you have more?”

The hostess distributed the liquor, but Hyacinth was scarcely able to swallow it, though it was highly appreciated by his companions. His indifference to this luxury excited much discussion and conjecture, the others bandying theories and contradictions, and even ineffectual jokes, about him, over his head, with a volubility which seemed to him unnatural. Poupin and Schinkel professed the belief that there must be something very curious the matter with a man who couldn’t smack his lips over a drop of that tap; he must either be in love or have some still more insidious complaint. It was true that Hyacinth was always in love – that was no secret to his friends – and it had never been observed to stop his thirst. The Frenchwoman poured scorn on this view of the case, declaring that the effect of the tender passion was to make one enjoy one’s victual (when everything went straight, bien entendu; and how could an ear be deaf to the whisperings of such a dear little bonhomme as Hyacinth?), in proof of which she deposed that she had never eaten and drunk with such relish as at the time – oh, it was far away now – when she had a soft spot in her heart for her rascal of a husband. For Madame Poupin to allude to her husband as a rascal indicated a high degree of conviviality. Hyacinth sat staring at the empty table with the feeling that he was, somehow, a detached, irresponsible witness of the evolution of his fate. Finally he looked up and said to his friends, collectively, “What on earth’s the matter with you all?” And he followed this inquiry by an invitation that they should tell him what it was they had been saying about him, since they admitted that he had been the subject of their conversation. Madame Poupin answered for them that they had simply been saying how much they loved him, but that they wouldn’t love him any more if he became suspicious and grincheux. She had been telling Mr Schinkel’s fortune on the cards, and she would tell Hyacinth’s if he liked. There was nothing much for Mr Schinkel, only that he would find something, some day, that he had lost, but would probably lose it again, and serve him right if he did! He objected that he had never had anything to lose, and never expected to have; but that was a vain remark, inasmuch as the time was fast coming when every one would have something – though indeed it was to be hoped that he would keep it when he had got it. Eustache rebuked his wife for her levity, reminded her that their young friend cared nothing for old women’s tricks, and said he was sure Hyacinth had come to talk over a very different matter – the question (he was so good as to take an interest in it, as he had done in everything that related to them) of the terms which M. Poupin might owe it to himself, to his dignity, to a just though not exaggerated sentiment of his value, to make in accepting Mr Crookenden’s offer of the foremanship of the establishment in Soho; an offer not yet formally enunciated but visibly in the air and destined – it would seem, at least – to arrive within a day or two. The old foreman was going to set up for himself. The Frenchman intimated that before accepting any such proposal he must have the most substantial guarantees. “Il me faudrait des conditions très-particulières.” It was singular to Hyacinth to hear M. Poupin talk so comfortably about these high contingencies, the chasm by which he himself was divided from the future having suddenly doubled its width. His host and hostess sat down on either side of him, and Poupin gave a sketch, in somewhat sombre tints, of the situation in Soho, enumerating certain elements of decomposition which he perceived to be at work there and which he would not undertake to deal with unless he should be given a completely free hand. Did Schinkel understand, and was that what Schinkel was grinning at? Did Schinkel understand that poor Eustache was the victim of an absurd hallucination and that there was not the smallest chance of his being invited to assume a lieutenancy? He had less capacity for tackling the British workman to-day than when he began to rub shoulders with him, and Mr Crookenden had never in his life made a mistake, at least in the use of his tools. Hyacinth’s responses were few and mechanical, and he presently ceased to try to look as if he were entering into the Frenchman’s ideas.

“You have some news – you have some news about me,” he remarked, abruptly, to Schinkel. “You don’t like it, you don’t like to have to give it to me, and you came to ask our friends here whether they wouldn’t help you out with it. But I don’t think they will assist you particularly, poor dears! Why do you mind? You oughtn’t to mind more than I do. That isn’t the way.”

Qu’est-ce qu’il dit – qu’est-ce qu’il dit, le pauvre chéri?” Madame Poupin demanded, eagerly; while Schinkel looked very hard at her husband, as if to ask for direction.

“My dear child, vous vous faites des idées!” the latter exclaimed, laying his hand on him remonstrantly.

But Hyacinth pushed away his chair and got up. “If you have anything to tell me, it is cruel of you to let me see it, as you have done, and yet not to satisfy me.”

“Why should I have anything to tell you?” Schinkel asked.

“I don’t know that, but I believe you have. I perceive things, I guess things, quickly. That’s my nature at all times, and I do it much more now.”

“You do it indeed; it is very wonderful,” said Schinkel.

“Mr Schinkel, will you do me the pleasure to go away – I don’t care where – out of this house?” Madame Poupin broke out, in French.

“Yes, that will be the best thing, and I will go with you,” said Hyacinth.

“If you would retire, my child, I think it would be a service that you would render us,” Poupin returned, appealing to his young friend. “Won’t you do us the justice to believe that you may leave your interests in our hands?”

Hyacinth hesitated a moment; it was now perfectly clear to him that Schinkel had some sort of message for him, and his curiosity as to what it might be had become nearly intolerable. “I am surprised at your weakness,” he observed, as sternly as he could manage it, to Poupin.

The Frenchman stared at him an instant, and then fell on his neck. “You are sublime, my young friend – you are sublime!”

“Will you be so good as to tell me what you are going to do with that young man?” demanded Madame Poupin, glaring at Schinkel.

“It’s none of your business, my poor lady,” Hyacinth replied, disengaging himself from her husband. “Schinkel, I wish you would walk away with me.”

Calmons-nous, entendons-nous, expliquons-nous! The situation is very simple,” Poupin went on.

“I will go with you, if it will give you pleasure,” said Schinkel, very obligingly, to Hyacinth.

“Then you will give me that letter first!” Madame Poupin, erecting herself, declared to the German.

“My wife, you are an imbecile!” Poupin groaned, lifting his hands and shoulders and turning away.

“I may be an imbecile, but I won’t be a party – no, God help me, not to that!” protested the Frenchwoman, planted before Schinkel as if to prevent his moving.

“If you have a letter for me, you ought to give it to me,” said Hyacinth to Schinkel. “You have no right to give it to any one else.”

“I will bring it to you in your house, my good friend,” Schinkel replied, with a little wink that seemed to say that Madame Poupin would have to be considered.

“Oh, in his house – I’ll go to his house!” cried the lady. “I regard you, I have always regarded you, as my child,” she declared to Hyacinth, “and if this isn’t an occasion for a mother!”

“It’s you that are making it an occasion. I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Hyacinth. He had been questioning Schinkel’s eye, and he thought he saw there a little twinkle of assurance that he might really depend upon him. “I have disturbed you, and I think I had better go away.”

Poupin had turned round again; he seized the young man’s arm eagerly, as if to prevent his retiring before he had given a certain satisfaction. “How can you care, when you know everything is changed?”

“What do you mean – everything is changed?”

“Your opinions, your sympathies, your whole attitude. I don’t approve of it – je le constate. You have withdrawn your confidence from the people; you have said things in this spot, where you stand now, that have given pain to my wife and me.”

“If we didn’t love you, we should say that you had betrayed us!” cried Madame Poupin, quickly, taking her husband’s idea.

“Oh, I shall never betray you,” said Hyacinth, smiling.

“You will never betray us – of course you think so. But you have no right to act for the people when you have ceased to believe in the people. Il faut être conséquent, nom de Dieu!” Poupin went on.

“You will give up all thoughts of acting for me – je ne permets pas ça!” exclaimed his wife.

“It is probably not of importance – only a little fraternal greeting,” Schinkel suggested, soothingly.

“We repudiate you, we deny you, we denounce you!” shouted Poupin, more and more excited.

“My poor friends, it is you who have broken down, not I,” said Hyacinth. “I am much obliged to you for your solicitude, but the inconsequence is yours. At all events, good-night.”

He turned away from them, and was leaving the room, when Madame Poupin threw herself upon him, as her husband had done a moment before, but in silence and with an extraordinary force of passion and distress. Being stout and powerful she quickly got the better of him, and pressed him to her ample bosom in a long, dumb embrace.

“I don’t know what you want me to do,” said Hyacinth, as soon as he could speak. “It’s for me to judge of my convictions.”

“We want you to do nothing, because we know you have changed,” Poupin replied. “Doesn’t it stick out of you, in every glance of your eye and every breath of your lips? It’s only for that, because that alters everything.”

“Does it alter my engagement? There are some things in which one can’t change. I didn’t promise to believe; I promised to obey.”

“We want you to be sincere – that is the great thing,” said Poupin, edifyingly. “I will go to see them – I will make them understand.”

“Ah, you should have done that before!” Madame Poupin groaned.

“I don’t know whom you are talking about, but I will allow no one to meddle in my affairs.” Hyacinth spoke with sudden vehemence; the scene was cruel to his nerves, which were not in a condition to bear it.

“When it is Hoffendahl, it is no good to meddle,” Schinkel remarked, smiling.

“And pray, who is Hoffendahl, and what authority has he got?” demanded Madame Poupin, who had caught his meaning. “Who has put him over us all, and is there nothing to do but to lie down in the dust before him? Let him attend to his little affairs himself, and not put them off on innocent children, no matter whether they are with us or against us.”

This protest went so far that, evidently, Poupin felt a little ashamed of his wife. “He has no authority but what we give him; but you know that we respect him, that he is one of the pure, ma bonne. Hyacinth can do exactly as he likes; he knows that as well as we do. He knows there is not a feather’s weight of compulsion; he knows that, for my part, I long since ceased to expect anything from him.”

“Certainly, there is no compulsion,” said Schinkel. “It’s to take or to leave. Only they keep the books.”

Hyacinth stood there before the three, with his eyes on the floor. “Of course I can do as I like, and what I like is what I shall do. Besides, what are we talking about, with such sudden passion?” he asked, looking up. “I have no summons, I have no sign. When the call reaches me, it will be time to discuss it. Let it come or not come: it’s not my affair.”

“Certainly, it is not your affair,” said Schinkel.

“I can’t think why M. Paul has never done anything, all this time, knowing that everything is different now!” Madame Poupin exclaimed.

“Yes, my dear boy, I don’t understand our friend,” her husband remarked, watching Hyacinth with suspicious, contentious eyes.

“It’s none of his business, any more than ours; it’s none of any one’s business!” Schinkel declared.

“Muniment walks straight; the best thing you can do is to imitate him,” said Hyacinth, trying to pass Poupin, who had placed himself before the door.

“Promise me only this – not to do anything till I have seen you first,” the Frenchman begged, almost piteously.

“My poor old friend, you are very weak.” And Hyacinth opened the door, in spite of him, and passed out.

“Ah, well, if you are with us, that’s all I want to know!” the young man heard him say, behind him, at the top of the stairs, in a different voice, a tone of sudden, exaggerated fortitude.

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