The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


It was in this way that the dressmaker failed either to see or to hear the opening of the door of the room, which obeyed a slow, apparently cautious impulse given it from the hall, and revealed the figure of a young man standing there with a short pipe in his teeth. There was something in his face which immediately told Millicent Henning that he had heard, outside, her last resounding tones. He entered as if, young as he was, he knew that when women were squabbling men were not called upon to be headlong, and evidently wondered who the dressmaker’s brilliant adversary might be. She recognised on the instant her old playmate, and without reflection, confusion or diplomacy, in the fullness of her vulgarity and sociability, she exclaimed, in no lower pitch, “Gracious, Hyacinth Robinson, is that your form?”

Miss Pynsent turned round, in a flash, but kept silent; then, very white and trembling, took up her work again and seated herself in her window.

Hyacinth Robinson stood staring; then he blushed all over. He knew who she was, but he didn’t say so; he only asked, in a voice which struck the girl as quite different from the old one – the one in which he used to tell her she was beastly tiresome – “Is it of me you were speaking just now?”

“When I asked where you had come from? That was because we ’eard you in the ’all,” said Millicent, smiling. “I suppose you have come from your work.”

“You used to live in the Place – you always wanted to kiss me,” the young man remarked, with an effort not to show all the surprise and agitation that he felt. “Didn’t she live in the Place, Pinnie!”

Pinnie, for all answer, fixed a pair of strange, pleading eyes upon him, and Millicent broke out, with her recurrent laugh, in which the dressmaker had been right in discovering the note of affectation, “Do you want to know what you look like? You look for all the world like a little Frenchman! Don’t he look like a little Frenchman, Miss Pynsent?” she went on, as if she were on the best possible terms with the mistress of the establishment.

Hyacinth exchanged a look with that afflicted woman; he saw something in her face which he knew very well by this time, and the sight of which always gave him an odd, perverse, unholy satisfaction. It seemed to say that she prostrated herself, that she did penance in the dust, that she was his to trample upon, to spit upon. He did neither of these things, but she was constantly offering herself, and her permanent humility, her perpetual abjection, was a sort of counter-irritant to the soreness lodged in his own heart for ever, which had often made him cry with rage at night, in his little room under the roof. Pinnie meant that, to-day, as a matter of course, and she could only especially mean it in the presence of Miss Henning’s remark about his looking like a Frenchman. He knew he looked like a Frenchman, he had often been told so before, and a large part of the time he felt like one – like one of those he had read about in Michelet and Carlyle. He had picked up the French tongue with the most extraordinary facility, with the aid of one of his mates, a refugee from Paris, in the workroom, and of a second-hand dog’s-eared dictionary, bought for a shilling in the Brompton Road, in one of his interminable, restless, melancholy, moody, yet all-observant strolls through London. He spoke it (as he believed) as if by instinct, caught the accent, the gesture, the movement of eyebrow and shoulder; so that if it should become necessary in certain contingencies that he should pass for a foreigner he had an idea that he might do so triumphantly, once he could borrow a blouse. He had never seen a blouse in his life, but he knew exactly the form and colour of such a garment, and how it was worn. What these contingencies might be which should compel him to assume the disguise of a person of a social station lower still than his own, Hyacinth would not for the world have mentioned to you; but as they were very present to the mind of our imaginative, ingenious youth we shall catch a glimpse of them in the course of a further acquaintance with him. At the present moment, when there was no question of masquerading, it made him blush again that such a note should be struck by a loud, laughing, handsome girl, who came back out of his past. There was more in Pinnie’s weak eyes, now, than her usual profession; there was a dumb intimation, almost as pathetic as the other, that if he cared to let her off easily he would not detain their terrible visitor very long. He had no wish to do that; he kept the door open, on purpose; he didn’t enjoy talking to girls under Pinnie’s eyes, and he could see that this one had every disposition to talk. So without responding to her observation about his appearance he said, not knowing exactly what to say, “Have you come back to live in the Place?”

“Heaven forbid I should ever do that!” cried Miss Henning, with genuine emotion. “I have to live near the establishment in which I’m employed.”

“And what establishment is that, now?” the young man asked, gaining confidence and perceiving, in detail, how handsome she was. He hadn’t roamed about London for nothing, and he knew that when a girl was so handsome as that, a jocular tone of address, a pleasing freedom, was de rigueur; so he added, “Is it the Bull and Gate, or the Elephant and Castle?”

“A public house! Well, you haven’t got the politeness of a Frenchman, at all events!” Her good-nature had come back to her perfectly, and her resentment of his imputation of her looking like a bar-maid – a blowzy beauty who handled pewter – was tempered by her more and more curious consideration of Hyacinth’s form. He was exceedingly ‘rum’, but this quality took her fancy, and since he remembered so well that she had been fond of kissing him, in their early days she would have liked to say to him that she stood prepared to repeat this form of attention. But she reminded herself, in time, that her line should be, religiously, the ladylike, and she was content to exclaim, simply, “I don’t care what a man looks like so long as he’s clever. That’s the form I like!”

Miss Pynsent had promised herself the satisfaction of taking no further notice of her brilliant invader; but the temptation was great to expose her to Hyacinth, as a mitigation of her brilliancy, by remarking sarcastically, according to opportunity, “Miss ’Enning wouldn’t live in Lomax Place for the world. She thinks it too abominably low.”

“So it is; it’s a beastly hole,” said the young man.

The poor dressmaker’s little dart fell to the ground, and Millicent exclaimed, jovially, “Right you are!” while she directed to the object of her childhood’s admiration a smile that put him more and more at his ease.

“Don’t you suppose I’m clever?” he asked, planted before her with his little legs slightly apart, while, with his hands behind him, he made the open door waver to and fro.

“You? Oh, I don’t care whether you are or not!” said Millicent Henning; and Hyacinth was at any rate quick-witted enough to see what she meant by that. If she meant he was so good-looking that he might pass on this score alone her judgment was conceivable, though many women would strongly have dissented from it. He was as small as he had threatened – he had never got his growth – and she could easily see that he was not what she, at least, would call strong. His bones were small, his chest was narrow, his complexion pale, his whole figure almost childishly slight; and Millicent perceived afterward that he had a very delicate hand – the hand, as she said to herself, of a gentleman. What she liked was his face, and something jaunty and entertaining, almost theatrical in his whole little person. Miss Henning was not acquainted with any member of the dramatic profession, but she supposed, vaguely, that that was the way an actor would look in private life. Hyacinth’s features were perfect; his eyes, large and much divided, had as their usual expression a kind of witty candour, and a small, soft, fair moustache disposed itself upon his upper lip in a way that made him look as if he were smiling even when his heart was heavy. The waves of his dense, fine hair clustered round a forehead which was high enough to suggest remarkable things, and Miss Henning had observed that when he first appeared he wore his little soft circular hat in a way that left these frontal locks very visible. He was dressed in an old brown velveteen jacket, and wore exactly the bright-coloured necktie which Miss Pynsent’s quick fingers used of old to shape out of hoarded remnants of silk and muslin. He was shabby and work-stained, but the observant eye would have noted an idea in his dress (his appearance was plainly not a matter of indifference to himself), and a painter (not of the heroic) would have liked to make a sketch of him. There was something exotic about him, and yet, with his sharp young face, destitute of bloom, but not of sweetness, and a certain conscious cockneyism which pervaded him, he was as strikingly as Millicent, in her own degree, a product of the London streets and the London air. He looked both ingenuous and slightly wasted, amused, amusing, and indefinably sad. Women had always found him touching; yet he made them – so they had repeatedly assured him – die of laughing.

“I think you had better shut the door,” said Miss Pynsent, meaning that he had better shut their departing visitor out.

“Did you come here on purpose to see us?” Hyacinth asked, not heeding this injunction, of which he divined the spirit, and wishing the girl would take her leave, so that he might go out again with her. He should like talking with her much better away from Pinnie, who evidently was ready to stick a bodkin into her, for reasons he perfectly understood. He had seen plenty of them before, Pinnie’s reasons, even where girls were concerned who were not nearly so good-looking as this one. She was always in a fearful ‘funk’ about some woman getting hold of him, and persuading him to make a marriage beneath his station. His station! – poor Hyacinth had often asked himself, and Miss Pynsent, what it could possibly be. He had thought of it bitterly enough, and wondered how in the world he could marry ‘beneath’ it. He would never marry at all – to that his mind was absolutely made up; he would never hand on to another the burden which had made his own young spirit so intolerably sore, the inheritance which had darkened the whole threshold of his manhood. All the more reason why he should have his compensation; why, if the soft society of women was to be enjoyed on other terms, he should cultivate it with a bold, free mind.

“I thought I would just give a look at the old shop; I had an engagement not far off,” Millicent said. “But I wouldn’t have believed any one who had told me I should find you just where I left you.”

“We needed you to look after us!” Miss Pynsent exclaimed, irrepressibly.

“Oh, you’re such a swell yourself!” Hyacinth observed, without heeding the dressmaker.

“None of your impudence! I’m as good a girl as there is in London!” And to corroborate this, Miss Henning went on: “If you were to offer to see me a part of the way home, I should tell you I don’t knock about that way with gentlemen.”

“I’ll go with you as far as you like,” Hyacinth replied, simply, as if he knew how to treat that sort of speech.

“Well, it’s only because I knew you as a baby!” And they went out together, Hyacinth careful not to look at poor Pinnie at all (he felt her glaring whitely and tearfully at him out of her dim corner – it had by this time grown too dusky to work without a lamp), and his companion giving her an outrageously friendly nod of farewell over her shoulder.

It was a long walk from Lomax Place to the quarter of the town in which (to be near the haberdasher’s in the Buckingham Palace Road) Miss Henning occupied a modest back-room; but the influences of the hour were such as to make the excursion very agreeable to our young man, who liked the streets at all times, but especially at nightfall, in the autumn, of a Saturday, when, in the vulgar districts, the smaller shops and open-air industries were doubly active, and big, clumsy torches flared and smoked over hand-carts and costermongers’ barrows, drawn up in the gutters. Hyacinth had roamed through the great city since he was an urchin, but his imagination had never ceased to be stirred by the preparations for Sunday that went on in the evening among the toilers and spinners, his brothers and sisters, and he lost himself in all the quickened crowding and pushing and staring at lighted windows and chaffering at the stalls of fishmongers and hucksters. He liked the people who looked as if they had got their week’s wage and were prepared to lay it out discreetly; and even those whose use of it would plainly be extravagant and intemperate; and, best of all, those who evidently hadn’t received it at all and who wandered about, disinterestedly, vaguely, with their hands in empty pockets, watching others make their bargains and fill their satchels, or staring at the striated sides of bacon, at the golden cubes and triangles of cheese, at the graceful festoons of sausage, in the most brilliant of the windows. He liked the reflection of the lamps on the wet pavements, the feeling and smell of the carboniferous London damp; the way the winter fog blurred and suffused the whole place, made it seem bigger and more crowded, produced halos and dim radiations, trickles and evaporations, on the plates of glass. He moved in the midst of these impressions this evening, but he enjoyed them in silence, with an attention taken up mainly by his companion, and pleased to be already so intimate with a young lady whom people turned round to look at. She herself affected to speak of the rush and crush of the week’s end with disgust: she said she liked the streets, but she liked the respectable ones; she couldn’t abide the smell of fish, and the whole place seemed full of it, so that she hoped they would soon get into the Edgware Road, towards which they tended and which was a proper street for a lady. To Hyacinth she appeared to have no connection with the long-haired little girl who, in Lomax Place, years before, was always hugging a smutty doll and courting his society; she was like a stranger, a new acquaintance, and he observed her curiously, wondering by what transitions she had reached her present pitch.

She enlightened him but little on this point, though she talked a great deal on a variety of subjects, and mentioned to him her habits, her aspirations, her likes and dislikes. The latter were very numerous. She was tremendously particular, difficult to please, he could see that; and she assured him that she never put up with anything a moment after it had ceased to be agreeable to her. Especially was she particular about gentlemen’s society, and she made it plain that a young fellow who wanted to have anything to say to her must be in receipt of wages amounting at the least to fifty shillings a week. Hyacinth told her that he didn’t earn that, as yet; and she remarked again that she made an exception for him, because she knew all about him (or if not all, at least a great deal), and he could see that her good-nature was equal to her beauty. She made such an exception that when, after they were moving down the Edgware Road (which had still the brightness of late closing, but with more nobleness), he proposed that she should enter a coffee-house with him and ‘take something’ (he could hardly tell himself, afterwards, what brought him to this point), she acceded without a demur – without a demur even on the ground of his slender earnings. Slender as they were, Hyacinth had them in his pocket (they had been destined in some degree for Pinnie), and he felt equal to the occasion. Millicent partook profusely of tea and bread and butter, with a relish of raspberry jam, and thought the place most comfortable, though he himself, after finding himself ensconced, was visited by doubts as to its respectability, suggested, among other things, by photographs, on the walls, of young ladies in tights. Hyacinth himself was hungry, he had not yet had his tea, but he was too excited, too preoccupied, to eat; the situation made him restless and gave him palpitations; it seemed to be the beginning of something new. He had never yet ‘stood’ even a glass of beer to a girl of Millicent’s stamp – a girl who rustled and glittered and smelt of musk – and if she should turn out as jolly a specimen of the sex as she seemed it might make a great difference in his leisure hours, in his evenings, which were often very dull. That it would also make a difference in his savings (he was under a pledge to Pinnie and to Mr Vetch to put by something every week) it didn’t concern him, for the moment, to reflect; and indeed, though he thought it odious and insufferable to be poor, the ways and means of becoming rich had hitherto not greatly occupied him. He knew what Millicent’s age must be, but felt, nevertheless, as if she were older, much older, than himself – she appeared to know so much about London and about life; and this made it still more of a sensation to be entertaining her like a young swell. He thought of it, too, in connection with the question of the respectability of the establishment; if this element was deficient she would perceive it as soon as he, and very likely it would be a part of the general initiation she had given him an impression of that she shouldn’t mind it so long as the tea was strong and the bread and butter thick. She described to him what had passed between Miss Pynsent and herself (she didn’t call her Pinnie, and he was glad, for he wouldn’t have liked it) before he came in, and let him know that she should never dare to come to the place again, as his mother would tear her eyes out. Then she checked herself. “Of course she ain’t your mother! How stupid I am! I keep forgetting.”

Hyacinth had long since convinced himself that he had acquired a manner with which he could meet allusions of this kind: he had had, first and last, so many opportunities to practise it. Therefore he looked at his companion very steadily while he said, “My mother died many years ago; she was a great invalid. But Pinnie has been awfully good to me.”

“My mother’s dead, too,” Miss Henning remarked. “She died very suddenly. I dare say you remember her in the Place.” Then, while Hyacinth disengaged from the past the wavering figure of Mrs Henning, of whom he mainly remembered that she used to strike him as dirty, the girl added, smiling, but with more sentiment, “But I have had no Pinnie.”

“You look as if you could take care of yourself.”

“Well, I’m very confiding,” said Millicent Henning. Then she asked what had become of Mr Vetch. “We used to say that if Miss Pynsent was your mamma, he was your papa. In our family we used to call him Miss Pynsent’s young man.”

“He’s her young man still,” Hyacinth said. “He’s our best friend – or supposed to be. He got me the place I’m in now. He lives by his fiddle, as he used to do.”

Millicent looked a little at her companion, after which she remarked, “I should have thought he would have got you a place at his theatre.”

“At his theatre? That would have been no use. I don’t play any instrument.”

“I don’t mean in the orchestra, you gaby! You would look very nice in a fancy costume.” She had her elbows on the table, and her shoulders lifted, in an attitude of extreme familiarity. He was on the point of replying that he didn’t care for fancy costumes, he wished to go through life in his own character; but he checked himself, with the reflection that this was exactly what, apparently, he was destined not to do. His own character? He was to cover that up as carefully as possible; he was to go through life in a mask, in a borrowed mantle; he was to be, every day and every hour, an actor. Suddenly, with the utmost irrelevance, Miss Henning inquired, “Is Miss Pynsent some relation? What gave her any right over you?”

Hyacinth had an answer ready for this question; he had determined to say, as he had several times said before, “Miss Pynsent is an old friend of my family. My mother was very fond of her, and she was very fond of my mother.” He repeated the formula now, looking at Millicent with the same inscrutable calmness (as he fancied), though what he would have liked to say to her would have been that his mother was none of her business. But she was too handsome to talk that way to, and she presented her large fair face to him, across the table, with an air of solicitation to be cosy and comfortable. There were things in his heart and a torment and a hidden passion in his life which he should be glad enough to lay open to some woman. He believed that perhaps this would be the cure ultimately; that in return for something he might drop, syllable by syllable, into a listening feminine ear, certain other words would be spoken to him which would make his pain for ever less sharp. But what woman could he trust, what ear would be safe? The answer was not in this loud, fresh laughing creature, whose sympathy couldn’t have the fineness he was looking for, since her curiosity was vulgar. Hyacinth objected to the vulgar as much as Miss Pynsent herself; in this respect she had long since discovered that he was after her own heart. He had not taken up the subject of Mrs Henning’s death; he felt himself incapable of inquiring about that lady, and had no desire for knowledge of Millicent’s relationships. Moreover he always suffered, to sickness, when people began to hover about the question of his origin, the reasons why Pinnie had had the care of him from a baby. Mrs Henning had been untidy, but at least her daughter could speak of her. “Mr Vetch has changed his lodgings: he moved out of No. 17, three years ago,” he said, to vary the topic. “He couldn’t stand the other people in the house; there was a man that played the accordeon.”

Millicent, however, was but moderately interested in this anecdote, and she wanted to know why people should like Mr Vetch’s fiddle any better. Then she added, “And I think that while he was about it he might have put you into something better than a bookbinder’s.”

“He wasn’t obliged to put me into anything. It’s a very good place.”

“All the same, it isn’t where I should have looked to find you,” Millicent declared, not so much in the tone of wishing to pay him a compliment as of resentment at having miscalculated.

“Where should you have looked to find me? In the House of Commons? It’s a pity you couldn’t have told me in advance what you would have liked me to be.”

She looked at him, over her cup, while she drank, in several sips. “Do you know what they used to say in the Place? That your father was a lord.”

“Very likely. That’s the kind of rot they talk in that precious hole,” the young man said, without blenching.

“Well, perhaps he was,” Millicent ventured.

“He may have been a prince, for all the good it has done me.”

“Fancy your talking as if you didn’t know!” said Millicent.

“Finish your tea – don’t mind how I talk.”

“Well, you ’ave got a temper!” the girl exclaimed, archly. “I should have thought you’d be a clerk at a banker’s.”

“Do they select them for their tempers?”

“You know what I mean. You used to be too clever to follow a trade.”

“Well, I’m not clever enough to live on air.”

“You might be, really, for all the tea you drink! Why didn’t you go in for some high profession?”

“How was I to go in? Who the devil was to help me?” Hyacinth inquired, with a certain vibration.

“Haven’t you got any relations?” said Millicent, after a moment.

“What are you doing? Are you trying to make me swagger?”

When he spoke sharply she only laughed, not in the least ruffled, and by the way she looked at him seemed to like it. “Well, I’m sorry you’re only a journeyman,” she went on, pushing away her cup.

“So am I,” Hyacinth rejoined; but he called for the bill as if he had been an employer of labour. Then, while it was being brought, he remarked to his companion that he didn’t believe she had an idea of what his work was and how charming it could be. “Yes, I get up books for the shops,” he said, when she had retorted that she perfectly understood. “But the art of the binder is an exquisite art.”

“So Miss Pynsent told me. She said you had some samples at home. I should like to see them.”

“You wouldn’t know how good they are,” said Hyacinth, smiling.

He expected that she would exclaim, in answer, that he was an impudent wretch, and for a moment she seemed to be on the point of doing so. But the words changed on her lips, and she replied, almost tenderly, “That’s just the way you used to speak to me, years ago in the Plice.”

“I don’t care about that. I hate all that time.”

“Oh, so do I, if you come to that,” said Millicent, as if she could rise to any breadth of view. And then she returned to her idea that he had not done himself justice. “You used always to be reading: I never thought you would work with your ’ands.”

This seemed to irritate him, and, having paid the bill and given threepence, ostentatiously, to the young woman with a languid manner and hair of an unnatural yellow, who had waited on them, he said, “You may depend upon it I shan’t do it an hour longer than I can help.”

“What will you do then?”

“Oh, you’ll see, some day.” In the street, after they had begun to walk again, he went on, “You speak as if I could have my pick. What was an obscure little beggar to do, buried in a squalid corner of London, under a million of idiots? I had no help, no influence, no acquaintance of any kind with professional people, and no means of getting at them. I had to do something; I couldn’t go on living on Pinnie. Thank God, I help her now, a little. I took what I could get.” He spoke as if he had been touched by the imputation of having derogated.

Millicent seemed to imply that he defended himself successfully when she said, “You express yourself like a gentleman” – a speech to which he made no response. But he began to talk again afterwards, and, the evening having definitely set in, his companion took his arm for the rest of the way home. By the time he reached her door he had confided to her that, in secret, he wrote: he had a dream of literary distinction. This appeared to impress her, and she branched off to remark, with an irrelevance that characterised her, that she didn’t care anything about a man’s family if she liked the man himself; she thought families were played out. Hyacinth wished she would leave his alone; and while they lingered in front of her house, before she went in, he said –

“I have no doubt you’re a jolly girl, and I am very happy to have seen you again. But you have awfully little tact.”

I have little tact? You should see me work off an old jacket!”

He was silent a moment, standing before her with his hands in his pockets. “It’s a good job you’re so handsome.”

Millicent didn’t blush at this compliment, and probably didn’t understand all it conveyed, but she looked into his eyes a while, with a smile that showed her teeth, and then said, more inconsequently than ever, “Come now, who are you?”

“Who am I? I’m a wretched little bookbinder.”

“I didn’t think I ever could fancy any one in that line!” Miss Henning exclaimed. Then she let him know that she couldn’t ask him in, as she made it a point not to receive gentlemen, but she didn’t mind if she took another walk with him and she didn’t care if she met him somewhere – if it were handy. As she lived so far from Lomax Place she didn’t care if she met him half-way. So, in the dusky by-street in Pimlico, before separating, they took a casual tryst; the most interesting, the young man felt, that had yet been – he could scarcely call it granted him.

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