The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

9

“She lives in Belgrave Square; she has ever so many brothers and sisters; one of her sisters is married to Lord Warmington,” Rose Muniment instantly began, not apparently in the least discomposed at being left alone with a strange young man in a room which was now half dark again, thanks to her brother’s having carried off the second and more brilliant candle. She was so interested, for the time, in telling Hyacinth the history of Lady Aurora, that she appeared not to remember how little she knew about himself. Her ladyship had dedicated her life and her pocket-money to the poor and sick; she cared nothing for parties, and races, and dances, and picnics, and life in great houses, the usual amusements of the aristocracy; she was like one of the saints of old come to life again out of a legend. She had made their acquaintance, Paul’s and hers, about a year before, through a friend of theirs, such a fine, brave, young woman, who was in St Thomas’s Hospital for a surgical operation. She had been laid up there for weeks, during which Lady Aurora, always looking out for those who couldn’t help themselves, used to come and talk to her and read to her, till the end of her time in the ward, when the poor girl, parting with her kind friend, told her how she knew of another unfortunate creature (for whom there was no place there, because she was incurable) who would be mighty thankful for any little attention of that sort. She had given Lady Aurora the address in Audley Court, and the very next day her ladyship had knocked at their door. It wasn’t because she was poor – though in all conscience they were pinched enough – but because she had so little satisfaction in her limbs. Lady Aurora came very often, for several months, without meeting Paul, because he was always at his work; but one day he came home early, on purpose to find her, to thank her for her goodness, and also to see (Miss Muniment rather shyly intimated) whether she were really so good as his extravagant little sister made her out. Rosy had a triumph after that: Paul had to admit that her ladyship was beyond anything that any one in his waking senses would believe. She seemed to want to give up everything to those who were below her, and never to expect any thanks at all. And she wasn’t always preaching and showing you your duty; she wanted to talk to you sociable-like, as if you were just her own sister. And her own sisters were the highest in the land, and you might see her name in the newspapers the day they were presented to the Queen. Lady Aurora had been presented too, with feathers in her head and a long tail to her gown; but she had turned her back upon it all with a kind of terror – a sort of shivering, sinking feeling, which she had often described to Miss Muniment. The day she had first seen Paul was the day they became so intimate (the three of them together), if she might apply such a word as that to such a peculiar connection. The little woman, the little girl, as she lay there (Hyacinth scarcely knew how to characterise her), told our young man a very great secret, in which he found himself too much interested to think of criticising so headlong a burst of confidence. The secret was that, of all the people she had ever seen in the world, her ladyship thought Rosy’s Paul the very cleverest. And she had seen the greatest, the most famous, the brightest of every kind, for they all came to stay at Inglefield, thirty and forty of them at once. She had talked with them all and heard them say their best (and you could fancy how they would try to give it out at such a place as that, where there was nearly a mile of conservatories and a hundred wax candles were lighted at time), and at the end of it all she had made the remark to herself – and she had made it to Rosy too – that there was none of them had such a head on his shoulders as the young man in Audley Court. Rosy wouldn’t spread such a rumour as that in the court itself, but she wanted every friend of her brother’s (and she could see Hyacinth was that, by the way he listened) to know what was thought of him by them that had an experience of talent. She didn’t wish to give it out that her ladyship had lowered herself in any manner to a person that earned his bread in a dirty shop (clever as he might be), but it was easy to see she minded what he said as if he had been a bishop – or more, indeed, for she didn’t think much of bishops, any more than Paul himself, and that was an idea she had got from him. Oh, she took it none so ill if he came back from his work before she had gone; and to-night Hyacinth could see for himself how she had lingered. This evening, she was sure, her ladyship would let him walk home with her half the way. This announcement gave Hyacinth the prospect of a considerable session with his communicative hostess; but he was very glad to wait, for he was vaguely, strangely excited by her talk, fascinated by the little queer-smelling, high-perched interior, encumbered with relics, treasured and polished, of a poor north-country home, bedecked with penny ornaments and related in so unexpected a manner to Belgrave Square and the great landed estates. He spent half an hour with Paul Muniment’s small, odd, crippled, chattering, clever, trenchant sister, who gave him an impression of education and native wit (she expressed herself far better than Pinnie, or than Millicent Henning), and who startled, puzzled, and at the same time rather distressed, him by the manner in which she referred herself to the most abject class – the class that prostrated itself, that was in a fever and flutter in the presence of its betters. That was Pinnie’s attitude, of course; but Hyacinth had long ago perceived that his adoptive mother had generations of plebeian patience in her blood, and that though she had a tender soul she had not a great one. He was more entertained than afflicted, however, by Miss Muniment’s tone, and he was thrilled by the frequency and familiarity of her allusions to a kind of life he had often wondered about; this was the first time he had heard it described with that degree of authority. By the nature of his mind he was perpetually, almost morbidly, conscious that the circle in which he lived was an infinitesimally small, shallow eddy in the roaring vortex of London, and his imagination plunged again and again into the waves that whirled past it and round it, in the hope of being carried to some brighter, happier vision – the vision of societies in which, in splendid rooms, with smiles and soft voices, distinguished men, with women who were both proud and gentle, talked about art, literature and history. When Rosy had delivered herself to her complete satisfaction on the subject of Lady Aurora, she became more quiet, asking, as yet, however, no questions about Hyacinth, whom she seemed to take very much for granted. He presently remarked that she must let him come very soon again, and he added, to explain this wish, “You know you seem to me very curious people.”

Miss Muniment did not in the least repudiate the imputation. “Oh yes, I dare say we seem very curious. I think we are generally thought so; especially me, being so miserable and yet so lively.” And she laughed till her bed creaked again.

“Perhaps it’s lucky you are ill; perhaps if you had your health you would be all over the place,” Hyacinth suggested. And he went on, candidly, “I can’t make it out, your being so up in everything.”

“I don’t see why you need make it out! But you would, perhaps, if you had known my father and mother.”

“Were they such a rare lot?”

“I think you would say so if you had ever been in the mines. Yes, in the mines, where the filthy coal is dug out. That’s where my father came from – he was working in the pit when he was a child of ten. He never had a day’s schooling in his life; but he climbed up out of his black hole into daylight and air, and he invented a machine, and he married my mother, who came out of Durham, and (by her people) out of the pits and misery too. My father had no great figure, but she was magnificent – the finest woman in the country, and the bravest, and the best. She’s in her grave now, and I couldn’t go to look at it even if it were in the nearest churchyard. My father was as black as the coal he worked in: I know I’m just his pattern, barring that he did have his legs, when the liquor hadn’t got into them. But between him and my mother, for grand, high intelligence there wasn’t much to choose. But what’s the use of brains if you haven’t got a backbone? My poor father had even less of that than I, for with me it’s only the body that can’t stand up, and with him it was the spirit. He discovered a kind of wheel, and he sold it, at Bradford, for fifteen pounds: I mean the whole right of it, and every hope and pride of his family. He was always straying, and my mother was always bringing him back. She had plenty to do, with me a puny, ailing brat from the moment I opened my eyes. Well, one night he strayed so far that he never came back; or only came back a loose, bloody bundle of clothes. He had fallen into a gravel-pit; he didn’t know where he was going. That’s the reason my brother will never touch so much as you could wet your finger with, and that I only have a drop once a week or so, in the way of a strengthener. I take what her ladyship brings me, but I take no more. If she could have come to us before my mother went, that would have been a saving! I was only nine when my father died, and I’m three years older than Paul. My mother did for us with all her might, and she kept us decent – if such a useless little mess as me can be said to be decent. At any rate, she kept me alive, and that’s a proof she was handy. She went to the wash-tub, and she might have been a queen, as she stood there with her bare arms in the foul linen and her long hair braided on her head. She was terrible handsome, but he would have been a bold man that would have taken upon himself to tell her so. And it was from her we got our education – she was determined we should rise above the common. You might have thought, in her position, that she couldn’t go into such things; but she was a rare one for keeping you at your book. She could hold to her idea when my poor father couldn’t; and her idea, for us, was that Paul should get learning and should look after me. You can see for yourself that that’s what has come about. How he got it is more than I can say, as we never had a penny to pay for it; and of course my mother’s cleverness wouldn’t have been of much use if he hadn’t been clever himself. Well, it was all in the family. Paul was a boy that would learn more from a yellow placard pasted on a wall, or a time-table at a railway station, than many a young fellow from a year at college. That was his only college, poor lad – picking up what he could. Mother was taken when she was still needed, nearly five years ago. There was an epidemic of typhoid, and of course it must pass me over, the goose of a thing – only that I’d have made a poor feast – and just lay that gallant creature on her back. Well, she never again made it ache over her soapsuds, straight and broad as it was. Not having seen her, you wouldn’t believe,” said Rose Muniment, in conclusion; “but I just wanted you to understand that our parents had intellect, at least, to give us.”

Hyacinth listened to this recital with the deepest interest, and without being in the least moved to allow for filial exaggeration; inasmuch as his impression of the brother and sister was such as it would have taken a much more marvellous tale to account for. The very way Rose Muniment sounded the word ‘intellect’ made him feel this; she pronounced it as if she were distributing prizes for a high degree of it. No doubt the tipsy inventor and the regal laundress had been fine specimens, but that didn’t diminish the merit of their highly original offspring. The girl’s insistence upon her mother’s virtues (even now that her age had become more definite to him he thought of her as a girl) touched in his heart a chord that was always ready to throb – the chord of melancholy, bitter, aimless wonder as to the difference it would have made in his spirit if there had been some pure, honourable figure like that to shed her influence over it.

“Are you very fond of your brother?” he inquired, after a little.

The eyes of his hostess glittered at him for a moment. “If you ever quarrel with him, you’ll see whose side I’ll take.”

“Ah, before that I shall make you like me.”

“That’s very possible, and you’ll see how I’ll fling you over!”

“Why, then, do you object so to his views – his ideas about the way the people will come up?”

“Because I think he’ll get over them.”

“Never – never!” cried Hyacinth. “I have only known him an hour or two, but I deny that, with all my strength.”

“Is that the way you are going to make me like you – contradicting me so?” Miss Muniment inquired, with familiar archness.

“What’s the use, when you tell me I shall be sacrificed? One might as well perish for a lamb as for a sheep.”

“I don’t believe you’re a lamb at all. Certainly you are not, if you want all the great people pulled down, and the most dreadful scenes enacted.”

“Don’t you believe in human equality? Don’t you want anything done for the groaning, toiling millions – those who have been cheated and crushed and bamboozled from the beginning of time?”

Hyacinth asked this question with considerable heat, but the effect of it was to send his companion off into a new fit of laughter. “You say that just like a man that my brother described to me three days ago; a little man at some club, whose hair stood up – Paul imitated the way he glowered and screamed. I don’t mean that you scream, you know; but you use almost the same words that he did.” Hyacinth scarcely knew what to make of this allusion, or of the picture offered to him of Paul Muniment casting ridicule upon those who spoke in the name of the down-trodden. But Rosy went on, before he had time to do more than reflect that there would evidently be a great deal more to learn about her brother: “I haven’t the least objection to seeing the people improved, but I don’t want to see the aristocracy lowered an inch. I like so much to look at it up there.”

“You ought to know my aunt Pinnie – she’s just such another benighted idolater!” Hyacinth exclaimed.

“Oh, you are making me like you very fast! And pray, who is your aunt Pinnie?”

“She’s a dressmaker, and a charming little woman. I should like her to come and see you.”

“I’m afraid I’m not in her line – I never had on a dress in my life. But, as a charming woman, I should be delighted to see her.”

“I will bring her some day,” said Hyacinth. And then he added, rather incongruously, for he was irritated by the girl’s optimism, thinking it a shame that her sharpness should be enlisted on the wrong side, “Don’t you want, for yourself, a better place to live in?”

She jerked herself up, and for a moment he thought she would jump out of her bed at him. “A better place than this? Pray, how could there be a better place? Every one thinks it’s lovely; you should see our view by daylight – you should see everything I’ve got. Perhaps you are used to something very fine, but Lady Aurora says that in all Belgrave Square there isn’t such a cosy little room. If you think I’m not perfectly content, you are very much mistaken!”

Such a sentiment as that could only exasperate Hyacinth, and his exasperation made him indifferent to the fact that he had appeared to cast discredit on Miss Muniment’s apartment. Pinnie herself, submissive as she was, had spared him that sort of displeasure; she groaned over the dinginess of Lomax Place sufficiently to remind him that she had not been absolutely stultified by misery. “Don’t you sometimes make your brother very angry?” he asked, smiling, of Rose Muniment.

“Angry? I don’t know what you take us for! I never saw him lose his temper in his life.”

“He must be a rum customer! Doesn’t he really care for – for what we were talking about?”

For a moment Rosy was silent; then she replied, “What my brother really cares for – well, one of these days, when you know, you’ll tell me.”

Hyacinth stared. “But isn’t he tremendously deep in —” He hesitated.

“Deep in what?”

“Well, in what’s going on, beneath the surface. Doesn’t he belong to things?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what he belongs to – you may ask him!” cried Rosy, laughing gaily again, as the opening door readmitted the subject of their conversation. “You must have crossed the water with her ladyship,” she went on. “I wonder who enjoyed their walk most.”

“She’s a handy old girl, and she has a goodish stride,” said the young man.

“I think she’s in love with you, simply, Mr Muniment.”

“Really, my dear, for an admirer of the aristocracy you allow yourself a license,” Paul murmured, smiling at Hyacinth.

Hyacinth got up, feeling that really he had paid a long visit; his curiosity was far from satisfied, but there was a limit to the time one should spend in a young lady’s sleeping apartment. “Perhaps she is; why not?” he remarked.

“Perhaps she is, then; she’s daft enough for anything.”

“There have been fine folks before who have patted the people on the back and pretended to enter into their life,” Hyacinth said. “Is she only playing with that idea, or is she in earnest?”

“In earnest – in terrible earnest, my dear fellow. I think she must be rather crowded out at home.”

“Crowded out of Inglefield? Why, there’s room for three hundred!” Rosy broke in.

“Well, if that’s the kind of mob that’s in possession, no wonder she prefers Camberwell. We must be kind to the poor lady,” Paul added, in a tone which Hyacinth noticed. He attributed a remarkable meaning to it; it seemed to say that people such as he were now so sure of their game that they could afford to be magnanimous; or else it expressed a prevision of the doom which hung over her ladyship’s head. Muniment asked if Hyacinth and Rosy had made friends, and the girl replied that Mr Robinson had made himself very agreeable. “Then you must tell me all about him after he goes, for you know I don’t know him much myself,” said her brother.

“Oh yes, I’ll tell you everything; you know how I like describing.”

Hyacinth was laughing to himself at the young lady’s account of his efforts to please her, the fact being that he had only listened to her own eager discourse, without opening his mouth; but Paul, whether or no he guessed the truth, said to him very pertinently, “It’s very wonderful: she can describe things she has never seen. And they are just like the reality.”

“There’s nothing I’ve never seen,” Rosy rejoined. “That’s the advantage of my lying here in such a manner. I see everything in the world.”

“You don’t seem to see your brother’s meetings – his secret societies and clubs. You put that aside when I asked you.”

“Oh, you mustn’t ask her that sort of thing,” said Paul, lowering at Hyacinth with a fierce frown – an expression which he perceived in a moment to be humorously assumed.

“What am I to do, then, since you won’t tell me anything definite yourself?”

“It will be definite enough when you get hanged for it!” Rosy exclaimed, mockingly.

“Why do you want to poke your head into black holes?” Muniment asked, laying his hand on Hyacinth’s shoulder, and shaking it gently.

“Don’t you belong to the party of action?” said Hyacinth, solemnly.

“Look at the way he has picked up all the silly bits of catchwords!” Paul cried, laughing, to his sister. “You must have got that precious phrase out of the newspapers, out of some drivelling leader. Is that the party you want to belong to?” he went on, with his clear eyes ranging over his diminutive friend.

“If you’ll show me the thing itself I shall have no more occasion to mind the newspapers,” Hyacinth pleaded. It was his view of himself, and it was not an unfair one, that his was a character that would never beg for a favour; but now he felt that in any relation he might have with Paul Muniment such a law would be suspended. This man he could entreat, pray to, go on his knees to, without a sense of humiliation.

“What thing do you mean, infatuated, deluded youth?” Paul went on, refusing to be serious.

“Well, you know you do go to places you had far better keep out of, and that often when I lie here and listen to steps on the stairs I’m sure they are coming in to make a search for your papers,” Miss Muniment lucidly interposed.

“The day they find my papers, my dear, will be the day you’ll get up and dance.”

“What did you ask me to come home with you for?” Hyacinth demanded, twirling his hat. It was an effort for him, for a moment, to keep the tears out of his eyes; he found himself forced to put such a different construction on his new friend’s hospitality. He had had a happy impression that Muniment perceived in him a possible associate, of a high type, in a subterranean crusade against the existing order of things, and now it came over him that the real use he had been put to was to beguile an hour for a pert invalid. That was all very well, and he would sit by Miss Rosy’s bedside, were it a part of his service, every day in the week; only in such a case it should be his reward to enjoy the confidence of her brother. This young man, at the present juncture, justified the high estimate that Lady Aurora Langrish had formed of his intelligence: whatever his natural reply to Hyacinth’s question would have been, he invented, at the moment, a better one, and said, at random, smiling, and not knowing exactly what his visitor had meant –

“What did I ask you to come with me for? To see if you would be afraid.”

What there was to be afraid of was to Hyacinth a quantity equally vague; but he rejoined, quickly enough, “I think you have only to try me to see.”

“I’m sure if you introduce him to some of your low, wicked friends, he’ll be quite satisfied after he has looked round a bit,” Miss Muniment remarked, irrepressibly.

“Those are just the kind of people I want to know,” said Hyacinth, ingenuously.

His ingenuousness appeared to touch Paul Muniment. “Well, I see you’re a good ’un. Just meet me some night.”

“Where, where?” asked Hyacinth, eagerly.

“Oh, I’ll tell you where when we get away from her,” said his friend, laughing, but leading him out of the room again.

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