The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

8

Paul Muniment took a match out of his pocket and lighted it on the sole of his shoe; after which he applied it to a tallow candle which stood in a tin receptacle on the low mantel-shelf. This enabled Hyacinth to perceive a narrow bed in a corner, and a small figure stretched upon it – a figure revealed to him mainly by the bright fixedness of a pair of large eyes, of which the whites were sharply contrasted with the dark pupil, and which gazed at him across a counterpane of gaudy patchwork. The brown room seemed crowded with heterogeneous objects, and had, moreover, for Hyacinth, thanks to a multitude of small prints, both plain and coloured, fastened all over the walls, a highly-decorated appearance. The little person in the corner had the air of having gone to bed in a picture-gallery, and as soon as Hyacinth became aware of this his impression deepened that Paul Muniment and his sister were very remarkable people. Lady Aurora hovered before him with a kind of drooping erectness, laughing a good deal, vaguely and shyly, as if there were something rather awkward in her being found still on the premises. “Rosy, girl, I’ve brought you a visitor,” Paul Muniment said. “This young man has walked all the way from Lisson Grove to make your acquaintance.” Rosy continued to look at Hyacinth from over her counterpane, and he felt slightly embarrassed, for he had never yet been presented to a young lady in her position. “You mustn’t mind her being in bed – she’s always in bed,” her brother went on. “She’s in bed just the same as a little trout is in the water.”

“Dear me, if I didn’t receive company because I was in bed, there wouldn’t be much use, would there, Lady Aurora?”

Rosy made this inquiry in a light, gay tone, darting her brilliant eyes at her companion, who replied instantly, with still greater hilarity, and in a voice which struck Hyacinth as strange and affected, “Oh, dear, no, it seems quite the natural place!” Then she added, “And it’s such a pretty bed, such a comfortable bed!”

“Indeed it is, when your ladyship makes it up,” said Rosy; while Hyacinth wondered at this strange phenomenon of a peer’s daughter (for he knew she must be that) performing the functions of a housemaid.

“I say, now, you haven’t been doing that again to-day?” Muniment asked, punching the mattress of the invalid with a vigorous hand.

“Pray, who would, if I didn’t?” Lady Aurora inquired. “It only takes a minute, if one knows how.” Her manner was jocosely apologetic, and she seemed to plead guilty to having been absurd; in the dim light Hyacinth thought he saw her blush, as if she were much embarrassed. In spite of her blushing, her appearance and manner suggested to him a personage in a comedy. She sounded the letter r peculiarly.

“I can do it, beautifully. I often do it, when Mrs Major doesn’t come up,” Paul Muniment said, continuing to thump his sister’s couch in an appreciative but somewhat subversive manner.

“Oh, I have no doubt whatever!” Lady Aurora exclaimed, quickly. “Mrs Major must have so very much to do.”

“Not in the making-up of beds, I’m afraid; there are only two or three, down there, for so many,” Paul Muniment remarked loudly, and with a kind of incongruous cheerfulness.

“Yes, I have thought a great deal about that. But there wouldn’t be room for more, you know,” said Lady Aurora, this time in a very serious tone.

“There’s not much room for a family of that sort anywhere – thirteen people of all ages and sizes,” the young man rejoined. “The world’s pretty big, but there doesn’t seem room.”

“We are also thirteen at home;” said Lady Aurora, laughing again. “We are also rather crowded.”

“Surely you don’t mean at Inglefield?” Rosy inquired eagerly, in her dusky nook.

“I don’t know about Inglefield. I am so much in town.” Hyacinth could see that Inglefield was a subject she wished to turn off, and to do so she added, “We too are of all ages and sizes.”

“Well, it’s fortunate you are not all your size!” Paul Muniment exclaimed, with a freedom at which Hyacinth was rather shocked, and which led him to suspect that, though his new friend was a very fine fellow, a delicate tact was not his main characteristic. Later he explained this by the fact that he was rural and provincial, and had not had, like himself, the benefit of metropolitan culture; and later still he asked himself what, after all, such a character as that had to do with tact or with compliments, and why its work in the world was not most properly performed by the simple exercise of a rude, manly strength.

At this familiar allusion to her stature Lady Aurora turned hither and thither, a little confusedly; Hyacinth saw her high, lean figure sway to and fro in the dim little room. Her commotion carried her to the door, and with ejaculations of which it was difficult to guess the meaning she was about to depart, when Rosy detained her, having evidently much more social art than Paul. “Don’t you see it’s only because her ladyship is standing up that she’s so, you gawk? We are not thirteen, at any rate, and we have got all the furniture we want, so that there’s a chair for every one. Do be seated again, Lady Aurora, and help me to entertain this gentleman. I don’t know your name, sir; perhaps my brother will mention it when he has collected his wits. I am very glad to see you, though I don’t see you very well. Why shouldn’t we light one of her ladyship’s candles? It’s very different to that common thing.”

Hyacinth thought Miss Muniment very charming: he had begun to make her out better by this time, and he watched her little wan, pointed face, framed, on the pillow, by thick black hair. She was a diminutive dark person, pale and wasted with a lifelong infirmity; Hyacinth thought her manner denoted high cleverness – he judged it impossible to tell her age. Lady Aurora said she ought to have gone, long since; but she seated herself, nevertheless, on the chair that Paul pushed towards her.

“Here’s a go!” this young man exclaimed. “You told me your name, but I’ve clean forgotten it.” Then, when Paul had announced it again, he said to his sister, “That won’t tell you much; there are bushels of Robinsons in the north. But you’ll like him; he’s a very smart little fellow; I met him at the Poupins.” ‘Puppin’ would represent the sound by which he designated the French bookbinder, and that was the name by which Hyacinth always heard him called at Mr Crookenden’s. Hyacinth knew how much nearer to the right thing he himself came.

“Your name, like mine, represents a flower,” said the little woman in the bed. “Mine is Rose Muniment, and her ladyship’s is Aurora Langrish. That means the morning, or the dawn; it’s the most beautiful of all, don’t you think so?” Rose Muniment addressed this inquiry to Hyacinth, while Lady Aurora gazed at her shyly and mutely, as if she admired her manner, her self-possession and flow of conversation. Her brother lighted one of the visitor’s candles, and the girl went on, without waiting for Hyacinth’s response: “Isn’t it right that she should be called the dawn, when she brings light where she goes? The Puppins are the charming foreigners I have told you about,” she explained to her friend.

“Oh, it’s so pleasant knowing a few foreigners!” Lady Aurora exclaimed, with a spasm of expression. “They are often so very fresh.”

“Mr Robinson’s a sort of foreigner, and he’s very fresh,” said Paul Muniment. “He meets Mr Puppin quite on his own ground. If I had his command of the lingo it would give me a lift.”

“I’m sure I should be very happy to help you with your French. I feel the advantage of knowing it,” Hyacinth remarked, finely, and became conscious that his declaration drew the attention of Lady Aurora towards him; so that he wondered what he could go on to say, to keep at that level. This was the first time he had encountered, socially, a member of that aristocracy to which he had now for a good while known it was Miss Pynsent’s theory that he belonged; and the occasion was interesting, in spite of the lady’s appearing to have so few of the qualities of her caste. She was about thirty years of age; her nose was large and, in spite of the sudden retreat of her chin, her face was long and lean. She had the manner of extreme near-sightedness; her front teeth projected from her upper gums, which she revealed when she smiled, and her fair hair, in tangled, silky skeins (Rose Muniment thought it too lovely), drooped over her pink cheeks. Her clothes looked as if she had worn them a good deal in the rain, and the note of a certain disrepair in her apparel was given by a hole in one of her black gloves, through which a white finger gleamed. She was plain and diffident, and she might have been poor; but in the fine grain and sloping, shrinking slimness of her whole person, the delicacy of her curious features, and a kind of cultivated quality in her sweet, vague, civil expression, there was a suggestion of race, of long transmission, of an organism highly evolved. She was not a common woman; she was one of the caprices of an aristocracy. Hyacinth did not define her in this manner to himself, but he received from her the impression that, though she was a simple creature (which he learned later she was not), aristocracies were complicated things. Lady Aurora remarked that there were many delightful books in French, and Hyacinth rejoined that it was a torment to know that (as he did, very well) when you didn’t see your way to getting hold of them. This led Lady Aurora to say, after a moment’s hesitation, that she had a good lot of her own and that if he liked she should be most happy to lend them to him. Hyacinth thanked her – thanked her even too much, and felt both the kindness and the brilliant promise of the offer (he knew the exasperation of having volumes in his hands, for external treatment, which he couldn’t take home at night, having tried that system, surreptitiously, during his first weeks at Mr Crookenden’s and come very near losing his place in consequence), while he wondered how it could be put into practice – whether she would expect him to call at her house and wait in the hall till the books were sent out to him. Rose Muniment exclaimed that that was her ladyship all over – always wanting to make up to people for being less fortunate than herself : she would take the shoes off her feet for any one that might take a fancy to them. At this the visitor declared that she would stop coming to see her, if the girl caught her up, that way, for everything; and Rosy, without heeding this remonstrance, explained to Hyacinth that she thought it the least she could do to give what she had. She was so ashamed of being rich that she wondered the lower classes didn’t break into Inglefield and take possession of all the treasures in the Italian room. She was a tremendous socialist; she was worse than any one – she was worse, even, than Paul.

“I wonder if she is worse than me,” Hyacinth said, at a venture, not understanding the allusions to Inglefield and the Italian room, which Miss Muniment made as if she knew all about these places. After Hyacinth knew more of the world he remembered this tone of Muniment’s sister (he was to have plenty of observation of it on other occasions) as that of a person who was in the habit of visiting the nobility at their country-seats; she talked about Inglefield as if she had stayed there.

“Hullo, I didn’t know you were so advanced!” exclaimed Paul Muniment, who had been sitting silent, sidewise, in a chair that was too narrow for him, with his big arm hugging the back. “Have we been entertaining an angel unawares?”

Hyacinth seemed to see that he was laughing at him, but he knew the way to face that sort of thing was to exaggerate his meaning. “You didn’t know I was advanced? Why, I thought that was the principal thing about me. I think I go about as far as it is possible to go.”

“I thought the principal thing about you was that you knew French,” Paul Muniment said, with an air of derision which showed Hyacinth that he wouldn’t put that ridicule upon him unless he liked him, at the same time that it revealed to him that he himself had just been posturing a little.

“Well, I don’t know it for nothing. I’ll say something very neat and sharp to you, if you don’t look out – just the sort of thing they say so much in French.”

“Oh, do say something of that kind; we should enjoy it so much!” cried Rosy, in perfect good faith, clasping her hands in expectation.

The appeal was embarrassing, but Hyacinth was saved from the consequences of it by a remark from Lady Aurora, who quavered out the words after two or three false starts, appearing to address him, now that she spoke to him directly, with a sort of overdone consideration. “I should like so very much to know – it would be so interesting – if you don’t mind – how far exactly you do go.” She threw back her head very far, and thrust her shoulders forward, and if her chin had been more adapted to such a purpose would have appeared to point it at him.

This challenge was hardly less alarming than the other, for Hyacinth was far from having ascertained the extent of his advance. He replied, however, with an earnestness with which he tried to make up as far as possible for his vagueness: “Well, I’m very strong indeed. I think I see my way to conclusions, from which even Monsieur and Madame Poupin would shrink. Poupin, at any rate; I’m not so sure about his wife.”

“I should like so much to know Madame,” Lady Aurora murmured, as if politeness demanded that she should content herself with this answer.

“Oh, Puppin isn’t strong,” said Muniment; “you can easily look over his head! He has a sweet assortment of phrases – they are really pretty things to hear, some of them; but he hasn’t had a new idea these thirty years. It’s the old stock that has been withering in the window. All the same, he warms one up; he has got a spark of the sacred fire. The principal conclusion that Mr Robinson sees his way to,” he added to Lady Aurora, “is that your father ought to have his head chopped off and carried on a pike.”

“Ah, yes, the French Revolution.”

“Lord, I don’t know anything about your father, my lady!” Hyacinth interposed.

“Didn’t you ever hear of the Earl of Inglefield?” cried Rose Muniment.

“He is one of the best,” said Lady Aurora, as if she were pleading for him.

“Very likely, but he is a landlord, and he has an hereditary seat and a park of five thousand acres all to himself, while we are bundled together into this sort of kennel.” Hyacinth admired the young man’s consistency until he saw that he was chaffing; after which he still admired the way he mixed up merriment with the tremendous opinions our hero was sure he entertained. In his own imagination Hyacinth associated bitterness with the revolutionary passion; but the young chemist, at the same time that he was planning far ahead, seemed capable of turning revolutionists themselves into ridicule, even for the entertainment of the revolutionised.

“Well, I have told you often enough that I don’t go with you at all,” said Rose Muniment, whose recumbency appeared not in the least to interfere with her sense of responsibility. “You’ll make a tremendous mistake if you try to turn everything round. There ought to be differences, and high and low, and there always will be, true as ever I lie here. I think it’s against everything, pulling down them that’s above.”

“Everything points to great changes in this country, but if once our Rosy’s against them, how can you be sure? That’s the only thing that makes me doubt,” her brother went on, looking at her with a placidity which showed the habit of indulgence.

“Well, I may be ill, but I ain’t buried, and if I’m content with my position – such a position as it is – surely other folk might be with theirs. Her ladyship may think I’m as good as her, if she takes that notion; but she’ll have a deal to do to make me believe it.”

“I think you are much better than I, and I know very few people so good as you,” Lady Aurora remarked, blushing, not for her opinions, but for her timidity. It was easy to see that, though she was original, she would have liked to be even more original than she was. She was conscious, however, that such a declaration might appear rather gross to persons who didn’t see exactly how she meant it; so she added, as quickly as her hesitating manner permitted, to cover it up, “You know there’s one thing you ought to remember, à propos of revolutions and changes and all that sort of thing; I just mention it because we were talking of some of the dreadful things that were done in France. If there were to be a great disturbance in this country – and of course one hopes there won’t – it would be my impression that the people would behave in a different way altogether.”

“What people do you mean?” Hyacinth allowed himself to inquire.

“Oh, the upper class, the people that have got all the things.”

“We don’t call them the people,” observed Hyacinth, reflecting the next instant that his remark was a little primitive.

“I suppose you call them the wretches, the villains!” Rose Muniment suggested, laughing merrily.

“All the things, but not all the brains,” her brother said.

“No, indeed, aren’t they stupid?” exclaimed her ladyship. “All the same, I don’t think they would go abroad.”

“Go abroad?”

“I mean like the French nobles, who emigrated so much. They would stay at home and resist; they would make more of a fight. I think they would fight very hard.”

“I’m delighted to hear it, and I’m sure they would win!” cried Rosy.

“They wouldn’t collapse, don’t you know,” Lady Aurora continued. “They would struggle till they were beaten.”

“And you think they would be beaten in the end?” Hyacinth asked.

“Oh dear, yes,” she replied, with a familiar brevity at which he was greatly surprised. “But of course one hopes it won’t happen.”

“I infer from what you say that they talk it over a good deal among themselves, to settle the line they will take,” said Paul Muniment.

But Rosy intruded before Lady Aurora could answer. “I think it’s wicked to talk it over, and I’m sure we haven’t any business to talk it over here! When her ladyship says that the aristocracy will make a fine stand, I like to hear her say it, and I think she speaks in a manner that becomes her own position. But there is something else in her tone which, if I may be allowed to say so, I think a great mistake. If her ladyship expects, in case of the lower classes coming up in that odious manner, to be let off easily, for the sake of the concessions she may have made in advance, I would just advise her to save herself the disappointment and the trouble. They won’t be a bit the wiser, and they won’t either know or care. If they are going to trample over their betters, it isn’t on account of her having seemed to give up everything to us here that they will let her off. They will trample on her just the same as on the others, and they’ll say that she has got to pay for her title and her grand relations and her fine appearance. Therefore I advise her not to waste her good nature in trying to let herself down. When you’re up so high as that you’ve got to stay there; and if Providence has made you a lady, the best thing you can do is to hold up your head. I can promise your ladyship I would!”

The close logic of this speech and the quaint self-possession with which the little bedridden speaker delivered it struck Hyacinth as amazing, and confirmed his idea that the brother and sister were a most extraordinary pair. It had a terrible effect upon poor Lady Aurora, by whom so stern a lesson from so humble a quarter had evidently not been expected, and who sought refuge from her confusion in a series of bewildered laughs, while Paul Muniment, with his humorous density, which was deliberate, and clever too, not seeing, or at any rate not heeding, that she had been sufficiently snubbed by his sister, inflicted a fresh humiliation by saying, “Rosy’s right, my lady. It’s no use trying to buy yourself off. You can’t do enough; your sacrifices don’t count. You spoil your fun now, and you don’t get it made up to you later. To all you people nothing will ever be made up. Enjoy your privileges while they last; it may not be for long.”

Lady Aurora listened to him with her eyes on his face; and as they rested there Hyacinth scarcely knew what to make of her expression. Afterwards he thought he could attach a meaning to it. She got up quickly when Muniment had ceased speaking; the movement suggested that she had taken offence, and he would have liked to show her that he thought she had been rather roughly used. But she gave him no chance, not glancing at him for a moment. Then he saw that he was mistaken and that, if she had flushed considerably, it was only with the excitement of pleasure, the enjoyment of such original talk and of seeing her friends at last as free and familiar as she wished them to be. “You are the most delightful people – I wish every one could know you!” she broke out. “But I must really be going.” She went to the bed, and bent over Rosy and kissed her.

“Paul will see you as far as you like on your way home,” this young woman remarked.

Lady Aurora protested against this, but Paul, without protesting in return, only took up his hat and looked at her, smiling, as if he knew his duty; upon which her ladyship said, “Well, you may see me downstairs; I forgot it was so dark.”

“You must take her ladyship’s own candle, and you must call a cab,” Rosy directed.

“Oh, I don’t go in cabs. I walk.”

“Well, you may go on the top of a ’bus, if you like; you can’t help being superb,” Miss Muniment declared, watching her sympathetically.

“Superb? Oh, mercy!” cried the poor devoted, grotesque lady, leaving the room with Paul, who asked Hyacinth to wait for him a little. She neglected to bid good-night to our young man, and he asked himself what was to be hoped from that sort of people, when even the best of them – those that wished to be agreeable to the demos – reverted inevitably to the supercilious. She had said no more about lending him her books.

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