The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

7

“I am suffering extremely, but we must all suffer, so long as the social question is so abominably, so iniquitously neglected,” Poupin remarked, speaking French and rolling toward Hyacinth his salient, excited-looking eyes, which always had the same proclaiming, challenging expression, whatever his occupation or his topic. Hyacinth had seated himself near his friend’s pillow, opposite the strange young man, who had been accommodated with a chair at the foot of the bed.

“Ah, yes; with their filthy politics the situation of the pauvre monde is the last thing they ever think of!” his wife exclaimed, from the fire. “There are times when I ask myself how long it will go on.”

“It will go on till the measure of their imbecility, their infamy, is full. It will go on till the day of justice, till the reintegration of the despoiled and disinherited, is ushered in with an irresistible force.”

“Oh, we always see things go on; we never see them change,” said Madame Poupin, making a very cheerful clatter with a big spoon in a saucepan.

“We may not see it, but they’ll see it,” her husband rejoined. “But what do I say, my children? I do see it,” he pursued. “It’s before my eyes, in its luminous reality, especially as I lie here – the revendication, the rehabilitation, the rectification.”

Hyacinth ceased to pay attention, not because he had a differing opinion about what M. Poupin called the avènement of the disinherited, but, on the contrary, precisely on account of his familiarity with that prospect. It was the constant theme of his French friends, whom he had long since perceived to be in a state of chronic spiritual inflammation. For them the social question was always in order, the political question always abhorrent, the disinherited always present. He wondered at their zeal, their continuity, their vivacity, their incorruptibility; at the abundant supply of conviction and prophecy which they always had on hand. He believed that at bottom he was sorer than they, yet he had deviations and lapses, moments when the social question bored him and he forgot not only his own wrongs, which would have been pardonable, but those of the people at large, of his brothers and sisters in misery. They, however, were perpetually in the breach, and perpetually consistent with themselves and, what is more, with each other. Hyacinth had heard that the institution of marriage in France was rather lightly considered, but he was struck with the closeness and intimacy of the union in Lisson Grove, the passionate identity of interest: especially on the day when M. Poupin informed him, in a moment of extreme but not indiscreet expansion, that the lady was his wife only in a spiritual, transcendental sense. There were hypocritical concessions and debasing superstitions of which this exalted pair wholly disapproved. Hyacinth knew their vocabulary by heart, and could have said everything, in the same words, that on any given occasion M. Poupin was likely to say. He knew that ‘they’, in their phraseology, was a comprehensive allusion to every one in the world but the people – though who, exactly, in their length and breadth, the people were was less definitely established. He himself was of this sacred body, for which the future was to have such compensations; and so, of course, were the Frenchman and his consort, and so was Pinnie, and so were most of the inhabitants of Lomax Place and the workmen in old Crookenden’s shop. But was old Crookenden himself, who wore an apron rather dirtier than the rest of them and was a master-hand at ‘forwarding’, but who, on the other side, was the occupant of a villa almost detached, in Putney, with a wife known to have secret aspirations toward a page in buttons? Above all, was Mr Vetch, who earned a weekly wage, and not a large one, with his fiddle, but who had mysterious affinities of another sort, reminiscences of a phase in which he smoked cigars, had a hat-box and used cabs – besides visiting Boulogne? Anastasius Vetch had interfered in his life, atrociously, in a terrible crisis; but Hyacinth, who strove to cultivate justice in his own conduct, believed he had acted conscientiously and tried to esteem him, the more so as the fiddler evidently felt that he had something to make up to him and had treated him with marked benevolence for years. He believed, in short, that Mr Vetch took a sincere interest in him, and if he should meddle again would meddle in a different way: he used to see him sometimes looking at him with the kindest eyes. It would make a difference, therefore, whether he were of the people or not, inasmuch as in the day of the great revenge it would only be the people who should be saved. It was for the people the world was made: whoever was not of them was against them; and all others were cumberers, usurpers, exploiters, accapareurs, as M. Poupin used to say. Hyacinth had once put the question directly to Mr Vetch, who looked at him a while through the fumes of his eternal pipe and then said, “Do you think I’m an aristocrat?”

“I didn’t know but you were a bourgeois,” the young man answered.

“No, I’m neither. I’m a Bohemian.”

“With your evening dress, every night?”

“My dear boy,” said the fiddler, “those are the most confirmed.”

Hyacinth was only half satisfied with this, for it was by no means definite to him that Bohemians were also to be saved; if he could be sure, perhaps he would become one himself. Yet he never suspected Mr Vetch of being a ‘spy’, though Eustache Poupin had told him that there were a great many who looked a good deal like that: not, of course, with any purpose of incriminating the fiddler, whom he had trusted from the first and continued to trust. The middle-class spy became a very familiar type to Hyacinth, and though he had never caught one of the infamous brotherhood in the act, there were plenty of persons to whom, on the very face of the matter, he had no hesitation in attributing the character. There was nothing of the Bohemian, at any rate, about the Poupins, whom Hyacinth had now known long enough not to be surprised at the way they combined the socialistic passion, a red-hot impatience for the general rectification, with an extraordinary decency of life and a worship of proper work. The Frenchman spoke, habitually, as if the great swindle practised upon the people were too impudent to be endured a moment longer, and yet he found patience for the most exquisite ‘tooling’, and took a book in hand with the deliberation of one who should believe that everything was immutably constituted. Hyacinth knew what he thought of priests and theologies, but he had the religion of conscientious craftsmanship, and he reduced the boy, on his side, to a kind of prostration before his delicate, wonder-working fingers. “What will you have? J’ai la main parisienne,” M. Poupin would reply modestly, when Hyacinth’s admiration broke out; and he was good enough, after he had seen a few specimens of what our hero could do, to inform him that he had the same happy conformation. “There is no reason why you shouldn’t be a good workman, il n’y a que ça;” and his own life was practically governed by this conviction. He delighted in the use of his hands and his tools and the exercise of his taste, which was faultless, and Hyacinth could easily imagine how it must torment him to spend a day on his back. He ended by perceiving, however, that consolation was, on this occasion, in some degree conveyed by the presence of the young man who sat at the foot of the bed, and with whom M. Poupin exhibited such signs of acquaintance as to make our hero wonder why he had not seen him before, nor even heard of him.

“What do you mean by an irresistible force?” the young man inquired, leaning back in his chair, with raised arms and his interlocked hands behind him, supporting his head. M. Poupin had spoken French, which he always preferred to do, the insular tongue being an immense tribulation to him; but his visitor spoke English, and Hyacinth immediately perceived that there was nothing French about him – M. Poupin could never tell him he had la main parisienne.

“I mean a force that will make the bourgeois go down into their cellars and hide, pale with fear, behind their barrels of wine and their heaps of gold!” cried M. Poupin, rolling terrible eyes.

“And in this country, I hope in their coal-bins. Là-là, we shall find them even there,” his wife remarked.

“’89 was an irresistible force,” said M. Poupin. “I believe you would have thought so if you had been there.”

“And so was the entrance of the Versaillais, which sent you over here, ten years ago,” the young man rejoined. He saw that Hyacinth was watching him, and he met his eyes, smiling a little, in a way that added to our hero’s interest.

Pardon, pardon, I resist!” cried Eustache Poupin, glaring, in his improvised nightcap, out of his sheets; and Madame repeated that they resisted – she believed well that they resisted! The young man burst out laughing; whereupon his host declared, with a dignity which even his recumbent position did not abate, that it was really frivolous of him to ask such questions as that, knowing as he did – what he did know.

“Yes, I know – I know,” said the young man, good-naturedly, lowering his arms and thrusting his hands into his pockets, while he stretched his long legs a little. “But everything is yet to be tried.”

“Oh, the trial will be on a great scale – soyez tranquille! It will be one of those experiments that constitute a proof.”

Hyacinth wondered what they were talking about, and perceived that it must be something important, for the stranger was not a man who would take an interest in anything else. Hyacinth was immensely struck with him – he could see that he was remarkable – and felt slightly aggrieved that he should be a stranger: that is, that he should be, apparently, a familiar of Lisson Grove and yet that M. Poupin should not have thought his young friend from Lomax Place worthy, up to this time, to be made acquainted with him. I know not to what degree the visitor in the other chair discovered these reflections in Hyacinth’s face, but after a moment, looking across at him, he said in a friendly yet just slightly diffident way, a way our hero liked, “And do you know, too?”

“Do I know what?” asked Hyacinth, wondering.

“Oh, if you did, you would!” the young man exclaimed, laughing again. Such a rejoinder, from any one else, would have irritated our sensitive hero, but it only made Hyacinth more curious about his interlocutor, whose laugh was loud and extraordinarily gay.

Mon ami, you ought to present ces messieurs,” Madame Poupin remarked.

Ah ça, is that the way you trifle with state secrets?” her husband cried out, without heeding her. Then he went on, in a different tone: “ M. Hyacinthe is a gifted child, un enfant très-doué, in whom I take a tender interest – a child who has an account to settle. Oh, a thumping big one! Isn’t it so, mon petit?”

This was very well meant, but it made Hyacinth blush, and, without knowing exactly what to say, he murmured shyly, “Oh, I only want them to let me alone!”

“He is very young,” said Eustache Poupin.

“He is the person we have seen in this country whom we like the best,” his wife added.

“Perhaps you are French,” suggested the strange young man.

The trio seemed to Hyacinth to be waiting for his answer to this; it was as if a listening stillness had fallen upon them. He found it a difficult moment, partly because there was something exciting and embarrassing in the attention of the other visitor, and partly because he had never yet had to decide that important question. He didn’t really know whether he were French or English, or which of the two he should prefer to be. His mother’s blood, her suffering in an alien land, the unspeakable, irremediable misery that consumed her, in a place, among a people, she must have execrated – all this made him French; yet he was conscious at the same time of qualities that did not mix with it. He had evolved, long ago, a legend about his mother, built it up slowly, adding piece to piece, in passionate musings and broodings, when his cheeks burned and his eyes filled; but there were times when it wavered and faded, when it ceased to console him and he ceased to trust it. He had had a father too, and his father had suffered as well, and had fallen under a blow, and had paid with his life; and him also he felt in his mind and his body, when the effort to think it out did not simply end in darkness and confusion, challenging still even while they baffled, and inevitable freezing horror. At any rate, he seemed rooted in the place where his wretched parents had expiated, and he knew nothing about any other. Moreover, when old Poupin said, ‘M. Hyacinthe’, as he had often done before, he didn’t altogether enjoy it; he thought it made his name, which he liked well enough in English, sound like the name of a hairdresser. Our young friend was under a cloud and a stigma, but he was not yet prepared to admit that he was ridiculous. “Oh, I dare say I ain’t anything,” he replied in a moment.

En v’là des bêtises!” cried Madame Poupin. “Do you mean to say you are not as good as any one in the world? I should like to see!”

“We all have an account to settle, don’t you know?” said the strange young man.

He evidently meant this to be encouraging to Hyacinth, whose quick desire to avert M. Poupin’s allusions had not been lost upon him; but our hero could see that he himself would be sure to be one of the first to be paid. He would make society bankrupt, but he would be paid. He was tall and fair and good-natured looking, but you couldn’t tell – or at least Hyacinth couldn’t – whether he were handsome or ugly, with his large head and square forehead, his thick, straight hair, his heavy mouth and rather vulgar nose, his admirably clear, bright eye, light-coloured and set very deep; for though there was a want of fineness in some of its parts, his face had a marked expression of intelligence and resolution, and denoted a kind of joyous moral health. He was dressed like a workman in his Sunday toggery, having evidently put on his best to call in Lisson Grove, where he was to meet a lady, and wearing in particular a necktie which was both cheap and pretentious, and of which Hyacinth, who noticed everything of that kind, observed the crude, false blue. He had very big shoes – the shoes, almost, of a country labourer – and spoke with a provincial accent, which Hyacinth believed to be that of Lancashire. This didn’t suggest cleverness, but it didn’t prevent Hyacinth from perceiving that he was the reverse of stupid; that he probably, indeed, had a tremendous head. Our little hero had a great desire to know superior people, and he interested himself on the spot in this strong, humorous fellow, who had the complexion of a ploughboy and the glance of a commander-in-chief and who might have been (Hyacinth thought) a distinguished young savant in the disguise of an artisan. The disguise would have been very complete, for he had several brown stains on his fingers. Hyacinth’s curiosity, on this occasion, was both excited and gratified; for after two or three allusions, which he didn’t understand, had been made to a certain place where Poupin and the stranger had met and expected to meet again, Madame Poupin exclaimed that it was a shame not to take in M. Hyacinthe, who, she would answer for it, had in him the making of one of the pure.

“All in good time, in good time, ma bonne,” the invalid replied. “M. Hyacinthe knows that I count upon him, whether or no I make him an interne to-day or wait a while longer.”

“What do you mean by an interne?” Hyacinth asked.

Mon Dieu, what shall I say!” and Eustache Poupin stared at him solemnly, from his pillow. “You are very sympathetic, but I am afraid you are too young.”

“One is never too young to contribute one’s obole,” said Madame Poupin.

“Can you keep a secret?” asked the other visitor, smilingly.

“Is it a plot – a conspiracy?” Hyacinth broke out.

“He asks that as if he were asking if it’s a plum-pudding,” said M. Poupin. “It isn’t good to eat, and we don’t do it for our amusement. It’s terribly serious, my child.”

“It’s a kind of society, to which he and I and a good many others belong. There is no harm in telling him that,” the young man went on.

“I advise you not to tell it to Mademoiselle; she is quite in the old ideas,” Madame Poupin suggested to Hyacinth, tasting her tisane.

Hyacinth sat baffled and wondering, looking from his fellow-labourer in Soho to his new acquaintance opposite. “If you have some plan, something to which one can give one’s self, I think you might have told me,” he remarked, in a moment, to Poupin.

The latter merely gazed at him a while; then he said to the strange young man, “He is a little jealous of you. But there is no harm in that; it’s of his age. You must know him, you must like him. We will tell you his history some other day; it will make you feel that he belongs to us in fact. It is an accident that he hasn’t met you here before.”

“How could ces messieurs have met, when M. Paul never comes? He doesn’t spoil us!” Madame Poupin cried.

“Well, you see I have my little sister at home to take care of, when I ain’t at the shop,” M. Paul explained. “This afternoon it was just a chance; there was a lady we know came in to sit with her.”

“A lady – a real lady?”

“Oh yes, every inch,” said M. Paul, laughing.

“Do you like them to thrust themselves into your apartment like that, because you have the désagrément of being poor? It seems to be the custom in this country, but it wouldn’t suit me at all,” Madame Poupin continued. “I should like to see one of ces dames – the real ones – coming in to sit with me!”

“Oh, you are not a cripple; you have got the use of your legs!”

“Yes, and of my arms!” cried the Frenchwoman.

“This lady looks after several others in our court, and she reads to my sister.”

“Oh, well, you are patient, you English.”

“We shall never do anything without that,” said M. Paul, with undisturbed good-humour.

“You are perfectly right; you can’t say that too often. It will be a tremendous job, and only the strong will prevail,” his host murmured, a little wearily, turning his eyes to Madame Poupin, who approached slowly, holding the tisane in a rather full bowl, and tasting it again and yet again as she came.

Hyacinth had been watching his fellow-visitor with deepening interest; a fact of which M. Paul apparently became aware, for he said, presently, giving a little nod in the direction of the bed, “He says we ought to know each other. I’m sure I have nothing against it. I like to know folk, when they’re worth it!”

Hyacinth was too pleased with this even to take it up; it seemed to him, for a moment, that he couldn’t touch it gracefully enough. But he said, with sufficient eagerness, “Will you tell me all about your plot?”

“Oh, it’s no plot. I don’t think I care much for plots.” And with his mild, steady, light-blue English eye, M. Paul certainly had not much the appearance of a conspirator.

“Isn’t it a new era?” asked Hyacinth, rather disappointed.

“Well, I don’t know; it’s just a little movement.”

Ah bien, voilà du propre; between us we have thrown him into a fever!” cried Madame Poupin, who had put down her bowl on a table near her husband’s bed and was bending over him, with her hand on his forehead. Eustache was flushed, he had closed his eyes, and it was evident there had been more than enough conversation. Madame Poupin announced as much, with the addition that if the young men wished to make acquaintance they must do it outside; the invalid must be perfectly quiet. They accordingly withdrew, with apologies and promises to return for further news on the morrow, and two minutes afterward Hyacinth found himself standing face to face with his new friend on the pavement in front of M. Poupin’s residence, under a street-lamp which struggled ineffectually with the brown winter dusk.

“Is that your name – M. Paul?” he asked, looking up at him.

“Oh, bless you, no; that’s only her Frenchified way of putting it. My name is Paul, though – Paul Muniment.”

“And what’s your trade?” Hyacinth demanded, with a jump into familiarity; for his companion seemed to have told him a great deal more than was usually conveyed in that item of information.

Paul Muniment looked down at him from above broad shoulders. “I work at a wholesale chemist’s, at Lambeth.”

“And where do you live?”

“I live over the water, too; in the far south of London.”

“And are you going home now?”

“Oh yes, I am going to toddle.”

“And may I toddle with you?”

Mr Muniment considered him further; then he gave a laugh. “I’ll carry you, if you like.”

“Thank you; I expect I can walk as far as you,” said Hyacinth.

“Well, I admire your spirit, and I dare say I shall like your company.”

There was something in his face, taken in connection with the idea that he was concerned in a little movement, which made Hyacinth feel the desire to go with him till he dropped; and in a moment they started away together and took the direction Muniment had mentioned. They discoursed as they went, and exchanged a great many opinions and anecdotes; but they reached the south-westerly court in which the young chemist lived with his infirm sister before he had told Hyacinth anything definite about his little movement, or Hyacinth, on his side, had related to him the circumstances connected with his being, according to M. Poupin, one of the disinherited. Hyacinth didn’t wish to press him; he would not for the world have appeared to him indiscreet; and, moreover, though he had taken so great a fancy to Muniment, he was not quite prepared, as yet, to be pressed. Therefore it did not become very clear to him how his companion had made Poupin’s acquaintance and how long he had enjoyed it. Paul Muniment nevertheless was to a certain extent communicative about himself, and forewarned Hyacinth that he lived in a very poor little corner. He had his sister to keep – she could do nothing for herself; and he paid a low rent because she had to have doctors, and doses, and all sorts of little comforts. He spent a shilling a week for her on flowers. It was better, too, when you got upstairs, and from the back windows you could see the dome of St Paul’s. Audley Court, with its pretty name, which reminded Hyacinth of Tennyson, proved to be a still dingier nook than Lomax Place; and it had the further drawback that you had to pass through a narrow alley, a passage between high, black walls, to enter it. At the door of one of the houses the young men paused, lingering a little, and then Muniment said, “I say, why shouldn’t you come up? I like you well enough for that, and you can see my sister; her name is Rosy.” He spoke as if this would be a great privilege, and added, humorously, that Rosy enjoyed a call from a gentleman, of all things. Hyacinth needed no urging, and he groped his way, at his companion’s heels, up a dark staircase, which appeared to him – for they stopped only when they could go no further – the longest and steepest he had ever ascended. At the top Paul Muniment pushed open a door, but exclaimed, “Hullo, have you gone to roost?” on perceiving that the room on the threshold of which they stood was unlighted.

“Oh, dear, no; we are sitting in the dark,” a small, bright voice instantly replied. “Lady Aurora is so kind; she’s here still.”

The voice came out of a corner so pervaded by gloom that the speaker was indistinguishable. “Dear me, that’s beautiful!” Paul Muniment rejoined. “You’ll have a party, then, for I have brought some one else. We are poor, you know, but I dare say we can manage a candle.”

At this, in the dim firelight, Hyacinth saw a tall figure erect itself – a figure angular and slim, crowned with a large, vague hat, surmounted, apparently, with a flowing veil. This unknown person gave a singular laugh, and said, “Oh, I brought some candles; we could have had a light if we had wished it.” Both the tone and the purport of the words announced to Hyacinth that they proceeded from the lips of Lady Aurora.

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