The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


“And Madame Grandoni, then?” asked Hyacinth, reluctant to turn away. He felt pretty sure that he should never knock at that door again, and the desire was strong in him to see once more, for the last time, the ancient, troubled suivante of the Princess, whom he had always liked. She had seemed to him ever to be in the slightly ridiculous position of a confidant of tragedy in whom the heroine should have ceased to confide.

E andata via, caro signorino,” said Assunta, smiling at him as she stood there holding the door open.

“She has gone away? Bless me, when did she go?”

“It is now five days, dear young sir. She has returned to our country.”

“Is it possible?” exclaimed Hyacinth, disappointedly.

E possibilissimo!” said Assunta. Then she added, “There were many times when she almost went; but this time – capisce —” And without finishing her sentence the Princess’s Roman tirewoman indulged in a subtle, suggestive, indefinable play of expression, to which her hands and shoulders contributed, as well as her lips and eyebrows.

Hyacinth looked at her long enough to catch any meaning that she might have wished to convey, but gave no sign of apprehending it. He only remarked, gravely, “In short she is here no more.”

“And the worst is that she will probably never come back. She didn’t go for a long time, but when she decided herself it was finished,” Assunta declared. “Peccato!” she added, with a sigh.

“I should have liked to see her again – I should have liked to bid her good-bye.” Hyacinth lingered there in strange, melancholy vagueness; since he had been told the Princess was not at home he had no reason for remaining, save the possibility that she might return before he turned away. This possibility, however, was small, for it was only nine o’clock, the middle of the evening – too early an hour for her to reappear, if, as Assunta said, she had gone out after tea. He looked up and down the Crescent, gently swinging his stick, and became conscious in a moment that Assunta was regarding him with tender interest.

“You should have come back sooner; then perhaps she wouldn’t have gone, povera vecchia,” she rejoined in a moment. “It is too many days since you have been here. She liked you – I know that.”

“She liked me, but she didn’t like me to come,” said Hyacinth. “Wasn’t that why she went, because we came?”

“Ah, that other one – with the long legs – yes. But you are better.”

“The Princess doesn’t think so, and she is the right judge,” Hyacinth replied, smiling.

“Eh, who knows what she thinks? It is not for me to say. But you had better come in and wait. I dare say she won’t be long, and it would gratify her to find you.”

Hyacinth hesitated. “I am not sure of that.” Then he asked, “Did she go out alone?”

Sola, sola,” said Assunta, smiling. “Oh, don’t be afraid; you were the first!” And she flung open the door of the little drawing-room, with an air of irresistible solicitation and sympathy.

He sat there nearly an hour, in the chair the Princess habitually used, under her shaded lamp, with a dozen objects around him which seemed as much a part of herself as if they had been folds of her dress or even tones of her voice. His thoughts were tremendously active, but his body was too tired for restlessness; he had not been at work, and had been walking about all day, to fill the time; so that he simply reclined there, with his head on one of the Princess’s cushions, his feet on one of her little stools – one of the ugly ones, that belonged to the house – and his respiration coming quickly, like that of a man in a state of acute agitation. Hyacinth was agitated now, but it was not because he was waiting for the Princess; a deeper source of emotion had been opened to him, and he had not on the present occasion more sharpness of impatience than had already visited him at certain moments of the past twenty hours. He had not closed his eyes the night before, and the day had not made up for that torment. A fever of reflection had descended upon him, and the range of his imagination had been wide. It whirled him through circles of immeasurable compass; and this is the reason that, thinking of many things while he sat in the Princess’s chair, he wondered why, after all, he had come to Madeira Crescent, and what interest he could have in seeing the lady of the house. He had a very complete sense that everything was over between them; that the link had snapped which bound them so closely together for a while. And this was not simply because for a long time now he had received no sign nor communication from her, no invitation to come back, no inquiry as to why his visits had stopped. It was not because he had seen her go in and out with Paul Muniment, nor because it had suited Prince Casamassima to point the moral of her doing so, nor even because, quite independently of the Prince, he believed her to be more deeply absorbed in her acquaintance with that superior young man than she had ever been in her relations with himself. The reason, so far as he became conscious of it in his fitful meditations, could only be a strange, detached curiosity – strange and detached because everything else of his past had been engulfed in the abyss that opened before him as, after Mr Vetch had left him, he stood under the lamp in a paltry Westminster street. That had swallowed up all familiar feelings, and yet out of the ruin had sprung the impulse which brought him to where he sat.

The solution of his difficulty – he flattered himself he had arrived at it – involved a winding-up of his affairs; and though, even if no solution had been required, he would have felt clearly that he had been dropped, yet as even in that case it would have been sweet to him to bid her good-bye, so, at present, the desire for some last vision of her own hurrying fate could still appeal to him. If things had not gone well for him he was still capable of wondering whether they looked better for her. It is a singular fact, but there rose in his mind a sort of incongruous desire to pity her. All these were odd feelings enough, and by the time half an hour had elapsed they had throbbed themselves into weariness and into slumber. While he remembered that he was waiting now in a very different frame from that in which he waited for her in South Street the first time he went to see her, he closed his eyes and lost himself. His unconsciousness lasted, he afterwards perceived, nearly half an hour; it terminated in his becoming aware that the lady of the house was standing before him. Assunta was behind her, and as he opened his eyes she took from her mistress the bonnet and mantle of which the Princess divested herself. “It’s charming of you to have waited,” the latter said, smiling down at him with all her old kindness. “You are very tired – don’t get up; that’s the best chair, and you must keep it.” She made him remain where he was; she placed herself near him on a smaller seat; she declared that she was not tired herself, that she didn’t know what was the matter with her – nothing tired her now; she exclaimed on the time that had elapsed since he had last called, as if she were reminded of it simply by seeing him again; and she insisted that he should have some tea – he looked so much as if he needed it. She considered him with deeper attention, and wished to know what was the matter with him – what he had done to use himself up; adding that she must begin and look after him again, for while she had the care of him that kind of thing didn’t happen. In response to this Hyacinth made a great confession: he admitted that he had stayed away from work and simply amused himself – amused himself by loafing about London all day. This didn’t pay – he was beginning to discover it as he grew older; it was doubtless a sign of increasing years when one began to perceive that wanton pleasures were hollow and that to stick to one’s tools was not only more profitable but more refreshing. However, he did stick to them, as a general thing; that was no doubt partly why, from the absence of the habit of it, a day off turned out to be rather a grind. When Hyacinth had not seen the Princess for some time he always, on meeting her again, had a renewed, tremendous sense of her beauty, and he had it to-night in an extraordinary degree. Splendid as that beauty had ever been, it seemed clothed at present in transcendent glory, and (if that which was already supremely fine could be capable of greater refinement) to have worked itself free of all earthly grossness and been purified and consecrated by her new life. Her gentleness, when she was in the mood for it, was quite divine (it had always the irresistible charm that it was the humility of a high spirit), and on this occasion she gave herself up to it. Whether it was because he had the consciousness of resting his eyes upon her for the last time, or because she wished to be particularly pleasant to him in order to make up for having, amid other preoccupations, rather dropped him of late (it was probable the effect was a product of both causes), at all events the sight of her loveliness seemed none the less a privilege than it had done the night he went into her box, at the play, and her presence lifted the weight from his soul. He suffered himself to be coddled and absently, even if radiantly, smiled at, and his state of mind was such that it could produce no alteration of his pain to see that on the Princess’s part these were inexpensive gifts. She had sent Assunta to bring them tea, and when the tray arrived she gave him cup after cup, with every restorative demonstration; but he had not sat with her a quarter of an hour before he perceived that she scarcely measured a word he said to her or a word that she herself uttered. If she had the best intention of being nice to him, by way of compensation, this compensation was for a wrong that was far from vividly present to her mind. Two points became perfectly clear: one was that she was thinking of something very different from her present, her past, or her future relations with Hyacinth Robinson; the other was that he was superseded indeed. This was so completely the case that it did not even occur to her, it was evident, that the sense of supersession might be cruel to the young man. If she was charming to him it was because she was good-natured and he had been hanging off, and not because she had done him an injury. Perhaps, after all, she hadn’t, for he got the impression that it might be no great loss of comfort not to constitute part of her life to-day. It was manifest from her eye, from her smile, from every movement and tone, and indeed from all the irradiation of her beauty, that that life to-day was tremendously wound up. If he had come to Madeira Crescent because he was curious to see how she was getting on, it was sufficiently intimated to him that she was getting on well; that is that she was living more than ever on high hopes and bold plans and far-reaching combinations. These things, from his own point of view, ministered less to happiness, and to be mixed up with them was perhaps not so much greater a sign that one had not lived for nothing, than the grim arrangement which, in the interest of peace, he had just arrived at with himself. She asked him why he had not been to see her for so long, quite as if this failure were only a vulgar form of social neglect; and she scarcely seemed to notice whether it were a good or a poor excuse when he said he had stayed away because he knew her to be extremely busy. But she did not deny the impeachment; she admitted that she had been busier than ever in her life before. She looked at him as if he would know what that meant, and he remarked that he was very sorry for her.

“Because you think it’s all a mistake? Yes, I know that. Perhaps it is; but if it is, it’s a magnificent one. If you were scared about me three or four months ago, I don’t know what you would think to-day – if you knew! I have risked everything.”

“Fortunately I don’t know,” said Hyacinth.

“No, indeed, how should you?”

“And to tell the truth,” he went on, “that is really the reason I haven’t been back here till to-night. I haven’t wanted to know – I have feared and hated to know.”

“Then why did you come at last?”

Hyacinth hesitated a moment. “Out of a kind of inconsistent curiosity.”

“I suppose then you would like me to tell you where I have been to-night, eh?”

“No, my curiosity is satisfied. I have learned something – what I mainly wanted to know – without your telling me.”

She stared an instant. “Ah, you mean whether Madame Grandoni was gone? I suppose Assunta told you.”

“Yes, Assunta told me, and I was sorry to hear it.”

The Princess looked grave, as if her old friend’s departure had been indeed a very serious incident. “You may imagine how I feel it! It leaves me completely alone; it makes, in the eyes of the world, an immense difference in my position. However, I don’t consider the eyes of the world. At any rate, she couldn’t put up with me any more – it appears that I am more and more shocking; and it was written!” On Hyacinth’s asking what the old lady would do, she replied, “I suppose she will go and live with my husband.” Five minutes later she inquired of him whether the same reason that he had mentioned just before was the explanation of his absence from Audley Court. Mr Muniment had told her that he had not been near him and his sister for more than a month.

“No, it isn’t the fear of learning something that would make me uneasy: because, somehow, in the first place it isn’t natural to feel uneasy about Paul, and in the second, if it were, he never lets one see anything. It is simply the general sense of real divergence of view. When that divergence becomes sharp, it is better not to pester each other.”

“I see what you mean. But you might go and see his sister.”

“I don’t like her,” said Hyacinth, simply.

“Ah, neither do I!” the Princess exclaimed; while her visitor remained conscious of the perfect composure, the absence of false shame, with which she had referred to their common friend. But she was silent after this, and he judged that he had stayed long enough and sufficiently taxed a preoccupied attention. He got up, and was bidding her good-night, when she checked him by saying, suddenly, “By the way, your not going to see so good a friend as Mr Muniment, because you disapprove to-day of his work, suggests to me that you will be in an awkward fix, with your disapprovals, the day you are called upon to serve the cause according to your vow.”

“Oh, of course I have thought of that,” said Hyacinth, smiling.

“And would it be indiscreet to ask what you have thought?”

“Ah, so many things, Princess! It would take me a long time to say.”

“I have never talked to you about this, because it seemed to me indelicate, and the whole thing too much a secret of your own breast for even so intimate a friend as I have been to have a right to meddle with it. But I have wondered much – seeing that you cared less and less for the people – how you would reconcile your change of heart with the performance of your engagement. I pity you, my poor friend,” the Princess went on, with a heavenly sweetness, “for I can imagine nothing more terrible than to find yourself face to face with such an engagement, and to feel at the same time that the spirit which prompted it is dead within you.”

“Terrible, terrible, most terrible,” said Hyacinth, gravely, looking at her.

“But I pray God it may never be your fate!” The Princess hesitated a moment; then she added, “I see you feel it. Heaven help us all!” She paused, then went on: “Why shouldn’t I tell you, after all? A short time ago I had a visit from Mr Vetch.”

“It was kind of you to see him,” said Hyacinth.

“He was delightful, I assure you. But do you know what he came for? To beg me, on his knees, to snatch you away.”

“To snatch me away?”

“From the danger that hangs over you. Poor man, he was very pathetic.”

“Oh yes, he has talked to me about it,” Hyacinth said. “He has picked up the idea, but he knows nothing whatever about it. And how did he expect that you would be able to snatch me?”

“He left that to me; he had only a general conviction of my influence with you.”

“And he thought you would exercise it to make me back out? He does you injustice; you wouldn’t!” Hyacinth exclaimed, with a laugh. “In that case, taking one false position with another, yours would be no better than mine.”

“Oh, speaking seriously, I am perfectly quiet about you and about myself. I know you won’t be called,” the Princess returned.

“May I inquire how you know it?”

After a slight hesitation she replied, “Mr Muniment tells me so.”

“And how does he know it?”

“We have information. My dear fellow,” the Princess went on, “you are so much out of it now that if I were to tell you, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Yes, no doubt I am out of it; but I still have a right to say, all the same, in contradiction to your imputation of a moment ago, that I care for the people exactly as much as I ever did.”

“My poor Hyacinth, my dear infatuated little aristocrat, was that ever very much?” the Princess asked.

“It was enough, and it is still enough, to make me willing to lay down my life for anything that will really help them.”

“Yes, and of course you must decide for yourself what that is; or, rather, what it’s not.”

“I didn’t decide when I gave my promise. I agreed to take the decision of others,” Hyacinth said.

“Well, you said just now that in relation to this business of yours you had thought of many things,” the Princess rejoined. “Have you ever, by chance, thought of anything that will help the people?”

“You call me fantastic names, but I’m one of them myself.”

“I know what you are going to say!” the Princess broke in. “You are going to say that it will help them to do what you do – to do their work and earn their wages. That’s beautiful so far as it goes. But what do you propose for the thousands and thousands for whom no work – on the overcrowded earth, under the pitiless heaven – is to be found? There is less and less work in the world, and there are more and more people to do the little that there is. The old ferocious selfishnesses must come down. They won’t come down gracefully, so they must be smashed!”

The tone in which the Princess uttered these words made Hyacinth’s heart beat fast, and there was something so inspiring in her devoted fairness that the vision of a great heroism flashed up again before him, in all the splendour it had lost – the idea of a tremendous risk and an unregarded sacrifice. Such a woman as that, at such a moment, made every scruple seem a prudence and every compunction a cowardice. “I wish to God I could see it as you see it!” he exclaimed, after he had looked at her a minute in silent admiration.

“I see simply this: that what we are doing is at least worth trying, and that as none of those who have the power, the place, the means, will try anything else, on their head be the responsibility, on their head be the blood!”

“Princess,” said Hyacinth, clasping his hands and feeling that he trembled, “dearest Princess, if anything should happen to you —” and his voice fell; the horror of it, a dozen hideous images of her possible perversity and her possible punishment were again before him, as he had already seen them in sinister musings; they seemed to him worse than anything he had imagined for himself.

She threw back her head, looking at him almost in anger. “To me! And pray why not to me? What title have I to exemption, to security, more than any one else? Why am I so sacrosanct and so precious?”

“Simply because there is no one in the world, and there has never been any one in the world, like you.”

“Oh, thank you!” said the Princess, with a kind of dry impatience, turning away.

The manner in which she spoke put an end to their conversation. It expressed an indifference to what it might interest him to think about her to-day, and even a contempt for it, which brought tears to his eyes. His tears, however, were concealed by the fact that he bent his head over her hand, which he had taken to kiss; after which he left the room without looking at her.

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