The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


“I have received a letter from your husband,” Paul Muniment said to the Princess, the next evening, as soon as he came into the room. He announced this fact with a kind of bald promptitude and with a familiarity of manner which showed that his visit was one of a closely-connected series. The Princess was evidently not a little surprised by it, and immediately asked how in the world the Prince could know his address. “Couldn’t it have been by your old lady?” Muniment inquired. “He must have met her in Paris. It is from Paris that he writes.”

“What an incorrigible cad!” the Princess exclaimed.

“I don’t see that – for writing to me. I have his letter in my pocket, and I will show it to you if you like.”

“Thank you, nothing would induce me to touch anything he has touched,” the Princess replied.

“You touch his money, my dear lady,” Muniment remarked, with the quiet smile of a man who sees things as they are.

The Princess hesitated a little. “Yes, I make an exception for that, because it hurts him, it makes him suffer.”

“I should think, on the contrary, it would gratify him by showing you in a condition of weakness and dependence.”

“Not when he knows I don’t use it for myself. What exasperates him is that it is devoted to ends that he hates almost as much as he hates me and yet which he can’t call selfish.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” said Muniment, with that tone of pleasant reasonableness that he used when he was most imperturbable. “His letter satisfies me of that.” The Princess stared, at this, and asked him what he was coming to – whether he was leading up to advising her to go back and live with her husband. “I don’t know that I would go so far as to advise,” he replied; “when I have so much benefit from seeing you here, on your present footing, that wouldn’t sound well. But I’ll just make bold to prophesy that you will go before very long.”

“And on what does that extraordinary prediction rest?”

“On this plain fact – that you will have nothing to live upon. You decline to read the Prince’s letter, but if you were to look at it it would give you evidence of what I mean. He informs me that I need count upon no more supplies from your hands, as you yourself will receive no more.”

“He addresses you that way, in plain terms?”

“I can’t call them very plain, because the letter is written in French, and I naturally have had a certain difficulty in making it out, in spite of my persevering study of the tongue and the fine example set me by poor Robinson. But that appears to be the gist of the matter.”

“And you can repeat such an insult to me without the smallest apparent discomposure? You’re the most remarkable man!” the Princess broke out.

“Why is it an insult? It is the simple truth. I do take your money,” said Paul Muniment.

“You take it for a sacred cause; you don’t take it for yourself.”

“The Prince isn’t obliged to look at that,” Muniment rejoined, laughing.

His companion was silent for a moment; then, “I didn’t know you were on his side,” she replied, gently.

“Oh, you know on what side I am!”

“What does he know? What business has he to address you so?”

“I suppose he knows from Madame Grandoni. She has told him that I have great influence upon you.”

“She was welcome to tell him that!” the Princess exclaimed.

“His reasoning, therefore, has been that when I find you have nothing more to give to the cause I will let you go.”

“Nothing more? And does he count me, myself, and every pulse of my being, every capacity of my nature, as nothing?” the Princess cried, with shining eyes.

“Apparently he thinks that I do.”

“Oh, as for that, after all, I have known that you care far more for my money than for me. But it has made no difference to me,” said the Princess.

“Then you see that by your own calculation the Prince is right.”

“My dear sir,” Muniment’s hostess replied, “my interest in you never depended on your interest in me. It depended wholly on a sense of your great destinies. I suppose that what you began to tell me is that he stops my allowance.”

“From the first of next month. He has taken legal advice. It is now clear – so he tells me – that you forfeit your settlements.”

“Can I not take legal advice, too?” the Princess asked. “Surely I can contest that. I can forfeit my settlements only by an act of my own. The act that led to our separation was his act; he turned me out of his house by physical violence.”

“Certainly,” said Muniment, displaying even in this simple discussion his easy aptitude for argument; “but since then there have been acts of your own —” He stopped a moment, smiling; then he went on: “Your whole connection with a secret society constitutes an act, and so does your exercise of the pleasure, which you appreciate so highly, of feeding it with money extorted from an old Catholic and princely family. You know how little it is to be desired that these matters should come to light.”

“Why in the world need they come to light? Allegations in plenty, of course, he would have, but not a particle of proof. Even if Madame Grandoni were to testify against me, which is inconceivable, she would not be able to produce a definite fact.”

“She would be able to produce the fact that you had a little bookbinder staying for a month in your house.”

“What has that to do with it?” the Princess demanded. “If you mean that that is a circumstance which would put me in the wrong as against the Prince, is there not, on the other side, this circumstance, that while our young friend was staying with me Madame Grandoni herself, a person of the highest and most conspicuous respectability, never saw fit to withdraw from me her countenance and protection? Besides, why shouldn’t I have my bookbinder, just as I might have (and the Prince should surely appreciate my consideration in not having) my physician and my chaplain?”

“Am I not your chaplain?” said Muniment, with a laugh. “And does the bookbinder usually dine at the Princess’s table?”

“Why not, if he’s an artist? In the old times, I know, artists dined with the servants; but not to-day.”

“That would be for the court to appreciate,” Muniment remarked. And in a moment he added, “Allow me to call your attention to the fact that Madame Grandoni has left you – has withdrawn her countenance and protection.”

“Ah, but not for Hyacinth!” the Princess returned, in a tone which would have made the fortune of an actress if an actress could have caught it.

“For the bookbinder or for the chaplain, it doesn’t matter. But that’s only a detail,” said Muniment. “In any case, I shouldn’t in the least care for your going to law.”

The Princess rested her eyes upon him for a while in silence, and at last she replied, “I was speaking just now of your great destinies, but every now and then you do something, you say something, that makes me doubt of them. It’s when you seem afraid. That’s terribly against your being a first-rate man.”

“Oh, I know you have thought me a coward from the first of your knowing me. But what does it matter? I haven’t the smallest pretension to being a first-rate man.”

“Oh, you are deep, and you are provoking!” murmured the Princess, with a sombre eye.

“Don’t you remember,” Muniment continued, without heeding this somewhat passionate ejaculation – “don’t you remember how, the other day, you accused me of being not only a coward but a traitor; of playing false; of wanting, as you said, to back out?”

“Most distinctly. How can I help its coming over me, at times, that you have incalculable ulterior views and are only using me – only using us all? But I don’t care!”

“No, no; I’m genuine,” said Paul Muniment, simply, yet in a tone which might have implied that the discussion was idle. And he immediately went on, with a transition too abrupt for perfect civility: “The best reason in the world for your not having a lawsuit with your husband is this: that when you haven’t a penny left you will be obliged to go back and live with him.”

“How do you mean, when I haven’t a penny left? Haven’t I my own property?” the Princess demanded.

“The Prince tells me that you have drawn upon your own property at such a rate that the income to be derived from it amounts, to his positive knowledge, to no more than a thousand francs – forty pounds – a year. Surely, with your habits and tastes, you can’t live on forty pounds. I should add that your husband implies that your property, originally, was but a small affair.”

“You have the most extraordinary tone,” observed the Princess, gravely. “What you appear to wish to express is simply this: that from the moment I have no more money to give you I am of no more value than the skin of an orange.”

Muniment looked down at his shoe awhile. His companion’s words had brought a flush into his cheek; he appeared to admit to himself and to her that, at the point at which their conversation had arrived, there was a natural difficulty in his delivering himself. But presently he raised his head, showing a face still slightly embarrassed but none the less bright and frank. “I have no intention whatever of saying anything harsh or offensive to you, but since you challenge me perhaps it is well that I should let you know that I do consider that in giving your money – or, rather, your husband’s – to our business you gave the most valuable thing you had to contribute.”

“This is the day of plain truths!” the Princess exclaimed, with a laugh that was not expressive of pleasure. “You don’t count then any devotion, any intelligence, that I may have placed at your service, even rating my faculties modestly?”

“I count your intelligence, but I don’t count your devotion, and one is nothing without the other. You are not trusted at headquarters.”

“Not trusted!” the Princess repeated, with her splendid stare. “Why, I thought I could be hanged to-morrow!”

“They may let you hang, perfectly, without letting you act. You are liable to be weary of us,” Paul Muniment went on; “and, indeed, I think you are weary of us already.”

“Ah, you must be a first-rate man – you are such a brute!” replied the Princess, who noticed, as she had noticed before, that he pronounced ‘weary’ weery.

“I didn’t say you were weary of me,” said Muniment, blushing again. “You can never live poor – you don’t begin to know the meaning of it.”

“Oh, no, I am not tired of you,” the Princess returned, in a strange tone. “In a moment you will make me cry with passion, and no man has done that for years. I was very poor when I was a girl,” she added, in a different manner. “You yourself recognised it just now, in speaking of the insignificant character of my fortune.”

“It had to be a fortune, to be insignificant,” said Muniment, smiling. “You will go back to your husband!”

To this declaration she made no answer whatever; she only sat looking at him in a sort of desperate calmness. “I don’t see, after all, why they trust you more than they trust me,” she remarked.

“I am not sure that they do,” said Muniment. “I have heard something this evening which suggests that.”

“And may one know what it is?”

“A communication which I should have expected to be made through me has been made through another person.”

“A communication?”

“To Hyacinth Robinson.”

“To Hyacinth —” The Princess sprang up; she had turned pale in a moment.

“He has got his ticket; but they didn’t send it through me.”

“Do you mean his orders? He was here last night,” the Princess said.

“A fellow named Schinkel, a German – whom you don’t know, I think, but who was a sort of witness, with me and another, of his undertaking – came to see me this evening. It was through him the summons came, and he put Hyacinth up to it on Sunday night.”

“On Sunday night?” The Princess stared. “Why, he was here yesterday, and he talked of it, and he told me nothing.”

“That was quite right of him, bless him!” Muniment exclaimed.

The Princess closed her eyes a moment, and when she opened them again Muniment had risen and was standing before her. “What do they want him to do?” she asked.

“I am like Hyacinth; I think I had better not tell you – at least till it’s over.”

“And when will it be over?”

“They give him several days and, I believe, minute instructions,” said Muniment, “with, however, considerable discretion in respect to seizing his chance. The thing is made remarkably easy for him. All this I know from Schinkel, who himself knew nothing on Sunday, being a mere medium of transmission, but who saw Hyacinth yesterday morning.”

“Schinkel trusts you, then?” the Princess remarked.

Muniment looked at her steadily a moment. “Yes, but he won’t trust you. Hyacinth is to receive a card of invitation to a certain big house,” he went on, “a card with the name left in blank, so that he may fill it out himself. It is to be good for each of two grand parties which are to be given at a few days’ interval. That’s why they give him the job – because at a grand party he’ll look in his place.”

“He will like that,” said the Princess, musingly – “repaying hospitality with a pistol-shot.”

“If he doesn’t like it he needn’t do it.”

The Princess made no rejoinder to this, but in a moment she said, “I can easily find out the place you mean – the big house where two parties are to be given at a few days’ interval and where the master is worth your powder.”

“Easily, no doubt. And do you want to warn him?”

“No, I want to do the business first, so that it won’t be left for another. If Hyacinth will look in his place at a grand party, should not I look still more in mine? And as I know the individual I should be able to approach him without exciting the smallest suspicion.”

Muniment appeared to consider her suggestion a moment, as if it were practical and interesting; but presently he answered, placidly, “To fall by your hand would be too good for him.”

“However he falls, will it be useful, valuable?” the Princess asked.

“It’s worth trying. He’s a very bad institution.”

“And don’t you mean to go near Hyacinth?”

“No, I wish to leave him free,” Muniment answered.

“Ah, Paul Muniment,” murmured the Princess, “you are a first-rate man!” She sank down upon the sofa and sat looking up at him. “In God’s name, why have you told me this?” she broke out.

“So that you should not be able to throw it up at me, later, that I had not.”

She threw herself over, burying her face in the cushions, and remained so for some minutes, in silence. Muniment watched her awhile, without speaking; but at last he remarked, “I don’t want to aggravate you, but you will go back!” The words failed to cause her even to raise her head, and after a moment he quietly went out.

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