The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


She desired at last to raise their common experience to a loftier level, to enjoy what she called a high-class treat. Their conversation was condemned, for the most part, to go forward in the streets, the wintry, dusky, foggy streets, which looked bigger and more numerous in their perpetual obscurity, and in which everything was covered with damp, gritty smut, an odour extremely agreeable to Miss Henning. Happily she shared Hyacinth’s relish of vague perambulation, and was still more addicted than he to looking into the windows of shops, before which, in long, contemplative halts, she picked out freely the articles she shouldn’t mind calling her own. Hyacinth always pronounced the objects of her selection hideous, and made no scruple to tell her that she had the worst taste of any girl in the place. Nothing that he could say to her affronted her so much, as her pretensions in the way of a cultivated judgment were boundless. Had not, indeed, her natural aptitude been fortified, in the neighbourhood of Buckingham Palace (there was scarcely anything they didn’t sell in the great shop of which she was an ornament), by daily contact with the freshest products of modern industry? Hyacinth laughed this establishment to scorn, and told her there was nothing in it, from top to bottom, that a real artist would look at. She inquired, with answering derision, if this were a description of his own few inches; but in reality she was fascinated, as much as she was provoked, by his air of being difficult to please, of seeing indescribable differences among things. She had given herself out, originally, as very knowing, but he could make her feel stupid. When once in a while he pointed out a commodity that he condescended to like (this didn’t happen often, because the only shops in which there was a chance of his making such a discovery were closed at nightfall) she stared, bruised him more or less with her elbow, and declared that if any one should give her such a piece of rubbish she would sell it for fourpence. Once or twice she asked him to be so good as to explain to her in what its superiority consisted – she could not rid herself of a suspicion that there might be something in his opinion, and she was angry at not finding herself as positive as any one. But Hyacinth replied that it was no use attempting to tell her; she wouldn’t understand, and she had better continue to admire the insipid productions of an age which had lost the sense of quality – a phrase which she remembered, proposing to herself even to make use of it, on some future occasion, but was quite unable to interpret.

When her companion demeaned himself in this manner it was not with a view of strengthening the tie which united him to his childhood’s friend; but the effect followed, on Millicent’s side, and the girl was proud to think that she was in possession of a young man whose knowledge was of so high an order that it was inexpressible. In spite of her vanity she was not so convinced of her perfection as not to be full of ungratified aspirations; she had an idea that it might be to her advantage some day to exhibit a sample of that learning; and at the same time, when, in consideration, for instance, of a jeweller’s gas-lighted display in Great Portland Street, Hyacinth lingered for five minutes in perfect silence, while she delivered herself according to her wont at such junctures, she was a thousand miles from guessing the feelings which made it impossible for him to speak. She could long for things she was not likely to have; envy other people for possessing them, and say it was a regular shame (she called it a shime); draw brilliant pictures of what she should do with them if she did have them; and pass immediately, with a mind unencumbered by superfluous inductions, to some other topic, equally intimate and personal. The sense of privation, with her, was often extremely acute; but she could always put her finger on the remedy. With the imaginative, irresponsible little bookbinder the case was very different; the remedy, with him, was terribly vague and impracticable. He was liable to moods in which the sense of exclusion from all that he would have liked most to enjoy in life settled upon him like a pall. They had a bitterness, but they were not invidious – they were not moods of vengeance, of imaginary spoliation: they were simply states of paralysing melancholy, of infinite sad reflection, in which he felt that in this world of effort and suffering life was endurable, the spirit able to expand, only in the best conditions, and that a sordid struggle, in which one should go down to the grave without having tasted them, was not worth the misery it would cost, the dull demoralisation it would entail.

In such hours the great, roaring, indifferent world of London seemed to him a huge organisation for mocking at his poverty, at his inanition; and then its vulgarest ornaments, the windows of third-rate jewellers, the young man in a white tie and a crush-hat who dandled by, on his way to a dinner-party, in a hansom that nearly ran over one – these familiar phenomena became symbolic, insolent, defiant, took upon themselves to make him smart with the sense that he was out of it. He felt, moreover, that there was no consolation or refutation in saying to himself that the immense majority of mankind were out of it with him, and appeared to put up well enough with the annoyance. That was their own affair; he knew nothing of their reasons or their resignation, and if they chose neither to rebel nor to compare, he, at least, among the disinherited, would keep up the standard. When these fits were upon the young man, his brothers of the people fared, collectively, badly at his hands; their function then was to represent in massive shape precisely the grovelling interests which attracted one’s contempt, and the only acknowledgment one owed them was for the completeness of the illustration. Everything which, in a great city, could touch the sentient faculty of a youth on whom nothing was lost ministered to his conviction that there was no possible good fortune in life of too ‘quiet’ an order for him to appreciate – no privilege, no opportunity, no luxury, to which he should not do justice. It was not so much that he wished to enjoy as that he wished to know; his desire was not to be pampered, but to be initiated. Sometimes, of a Saturday, in the long evenings of June and July, he made his way into Hyde Park at the hour when the throng of carriages, of riders, of brilliant pedestrians, was thickest; and though lately, on two or three of these occasions, he had been accompanied by Miss Henning, whose criticism of the scene was rich and distinct, a tremendous little drama had taken place, privately, in his soul. He wanted to drive in every carriage, to mount on every horse, to feel on his arm the hand of every pretty woman in the place. In the midst of this his sense was vivid that he belonged to the class whom the upper ten thousand, as they passed, didn’t so much as rest their eyes upon for a quarter of a second. They looked at Millicent, who was safe to be looked at anywhere, and was one of the handsomest girls in any company, but they only reminded him of the high human walls, the deep gulfs of tradition, the steep embankments of privilege and dense layers of stupidity, which fenced him off from social recognition.

And this was not the fruit of a morbid vanity on his part, or of a jealousy that could not be intelligent; his personal discomfort was the result of an exquisite admiration for what he had missed. There were individuals whom he followed with his eyes, with his thoughts, sometimes even with his steps; they seemed to tell him what it was to be the flower of a high civilisation. At moments he was aghast when he reflected that the cause he had secretly espoused, the cause from which M. Poupin and Paul Muniment (especially the latter) had within the last few months drawn aside the curtain, proposed to itself to bring about a state of things in which that particular scene would be impossible. It made him even rather faint to think that he must choose; that he couldn’t (with any respect for his own consistency) work, underground, for the enthronement of the democracy, and continue to enjoy, in however platonic a manner, a spectacle which rested on a hideous social inequality. He must either suffer with the people, as he had suffered before, or he must apologise to others, as he sometimes came so near doing to himself, for the rich; inasmuch as the day was certainly near when these two mighty forces would come to a death-grapple. Hyacinth thought himself obliged, at present, to have reasons for his feelings; his intimacy with Paul Muniment, which had now grown very great, laid a good deal of that sort of responsibility upon him. Muniment laughed at his reasons, whenever he produced them, but he appeared to expect him, nevertheless, to have them ready, on demand, and Hyacinth had an immense desire to do what he expected. There were times when he said to himself that it might very well be his fate to be divided, to the point of torture, to be split open by sympathies that pulled him in different ways; for hadn’t he an extraordinarily mingled current in his blood, and from the time he could remember was there not one half of him that seemed to be always playing tricks on the other, or getting snubs and pinches from it?

That dim, dreadful, confused legend of his mother’s history, as regards which what Pinnie had been able to tell him when he first began to question her was at once too much and too little – this stupefying explanation had supplied him, first and last, with a hundred different theories of his identity. What he knew, what he guessed, sickened him, and what he didn’t know tormented him; but in his illuminated ignorance he had fashioned forth an article of faith. This had gradually emerged from the depths of darkness in which he found himself plunged as a consequence of the challenge he had addressed to Pinnie – while he was still only a child – on the memorable day which transformed the whole face of his future. It was one January afternoon. He had come in from a walk; she was seated at her lamp, as usual with her work, and she began to tell him of a letter that one of the lodgers had got, describing the manner in which his brother-in-law’s shop, at Nottingham, had been rifled by burglars. He listened to her story, standing in front of her, and then, by way of response, he said to her, “Who was that woman you took me to see ever so long ago?” The expression of her white face, as she looked up at him, her fear of such an attack all dormant, after so many years – her strange, scared, sick glance was a thing he could never forget, any more than the tone, with her breath failing her, in which she had repeated, “That woman?”

“That woman, in the prison, years ago – how old was I? – who was dying, and who kissed me so – as I have never been kissed, as I never shall be again! Who was she, who WAS she?” Poor Pinnie, to do her justice, had made, after she recovered her breath, a gallant fight: it lasted a week; it was to leave her spent and sore for evermore, and before it was over Anastasius Vetch had been called in. At his instance she retracted the falsehoods with which she had tried to put him off, and she made, at last, a confession, a report, which he had reason to believe was as complete as her knowledge. Hyacinth could never have told you why the crisis occurred on such a day, why his question broke out at that particular moment. The strangeness of the matter to himself was that the germ of his curiosity should have developed so slowly; that the haunting wonder, which now, as he looked back, appeared to fill his whole childhood, should only after so long an interval have crept up to the air. It was only, of course, little by little that he had recovered his bearings in his new and more poignant consciousness; little by little that he reconstructed his antecedents, took the measure, so far as was possible, of his heredity. His having the courage to disinter, in the Times, in the reading-room of the British Museum, a report of his mother’s trial for the murder of Lord Frederick Purvis, which was very copious, the affair having been quite a cause célèbre; his resolution in sitting under that splendid dome, and, with his head bent to hide his hot eyes, going through every syllable of the ghastly record, had been an achievement of comparatively recent years. There were certain things that Pinnie knew which appalled him; and there were others, as to which he would have given his hand to have some light, that it made his heart ache supremely to find she was honestly ignorant of. He scarcely knew what sort of favour Mr Vetch wished to make with him (as a compensation for the precious part he had played in the business years before), when the fiddler permitted himself to pass judgment on the family of the wretched young nobleman for not having provided in some manner for the infant child of his assassin. Why should they have provided, when it was evident that they refused absolutely to recognise his lordship’s responsibility? Pinnie had to admit this, under Hyacinth’s terrible cross-questioning; she could not pretend, with any show of evidence, that Lord Whiteroy and the other brothers (there had been no less than seven, most of them still living) had, at the time of the trial, given any symptom of believing Florentine Vivier’s asseverations. That was their affair; he had long since made up his mind that his own was very different. One couldn’t believe at will, and fortunately, in the case, he had no effort to make; for from the moment he began to consider the established facts (few as they were, and poor and hideous) he regarded himself, irresistibly, as the son of the recreant, sacrificial Lord Frederick.

He had no need to reason about it; all his nerves and pulses pleaded and testified. His mother had been a daughter of the wild French people (all that Pinnie could tell him of her parentage was that Florentine had once mentioned that in her extreme childhood her father had fallen, in the blood-stained streets of Paris, on a barricade, with his gun in his hand); but on the other side it took an English aristocrat – though a poor specimen, apparently, had to suffice – to account for him. This, with its further implications, became Hyacinth’s article of faith; the reflection that he was a bastard involved in a remarkable manner the reflection that he was a gentleman. He was conscious that he didn’t hate the image of his father, as he might have been expected to do; and he supposed this was because Lord Frederick had paid so tremendous a penalty. It was in the exaction of that penalty that the moral proof, for Hyacinth, resided; his mother would not have armed herself on account of any injury less cruel than the episode of which her miserable baby was the living sign. She had avenged herself because she had been thrown over, and the bitterness of that wrong had been in the fact that he, Hyacinth, lay there in her lap. He was the one to have been killed: that remark our young man often made to himself. That his attitude on this whole subject was of a tolerably exalted, transcendent character, and took little account of any refutation that might be based on a vulgar glance at three or four obtrusive items, is proved by the importance that he attached, for instance, to the name by which his mother had told poor Pinnie (when this excellent creature consented to take him) that she wished him to be called. Hyacinth had been the name of her father, a republican clockmaker, the martyr of his opinions, whose memory she professed to worship; and when Lord Frederick insinuated himself into her confidence he had reasons for preferring to be known as plain Mr Robinson – reasons, however, which, in spite of the light thrown upon them at the trial, it was difficult, after so many years, to enter into.

Hyacinth never knew that Mr Vetch had said more than once to Pinnie, “If her contention as regards that dissolute young swell was true, why didn’t she make the child bear his real name, instead of his false one?” – an inquiry which the dressmaker answered with some ingenuity, by remarking that she couldn’t call him after a man she had murdered, and that she supposed the unhappy girl didn’t wish to publish to every one the boy’s connection with a crime that had been so much talked about. If Hyacinth had assisted at this little discussion it is needless to say that he would have sided with Miss Pynsent; though that his judgment was independently formed is proved by the fact that Pinnie’s fearfully indiscreet attempts at condolence should not have made him throw up his version in disgust. It was after the complete revelation that he understood the romantic innuendoes with which his childhood had been surrounded, and of which he had never caught the meaning; they having seemed but part and parcel of the habitual and promiscuous divagations of his too constructive companion. When it came over him that, for years, she had made a fool of him, to himself and to others, he could have beaten her, for grief and shame; and yet, before he administered this rebuke he had to remember that she only chattered (though she professed to have been extraordinarily dumb) about a matter which he spent nine-tenths of his time in brooding over. When she tried to console him for the horror of his mother’s history by descanting on the glory of the Purvises, and reminding him that he was related, through them, to half the aristocracy of England, he felt that she was turning the tragedy of his life into a monstrous farce; and yet he none the less continued to cherish the belief that he was a gentleman born. He allowed her to tell him nothing about the family in question, and his stoicism on this subject was one of the reasons of the deep dejection of her later years. If he had only let her idealise him a little to himself she would have felt that she was making up, by so much, for her grand mistake. He sometimes saw the name of his father’s relations in the newspaper, but he always turned away his eyes from it. He had nothing to ask of them, and he wished to prove to himself that he could ignore them (who had been willing to let him die like a rat) as completely as they ignored him. Decidedly, he cried to himself at times, he was with the people, and every possible vengeance of the people, as against such shameless egoism as that; but all the same he was happy to feel that he had blood in his veins which would account for the finest sensibilities.

He had no money to pay for places at a theatre in the Strand; Millicent Henning having made it clear to him that on this occasion she expected something better than the pit. “Should you like the royal box, or a couple of stalls at ten shillings apiece?” he asked of her, with a frankness of irony which, with this young lady, fortunately, it was perfectly possible to practise. She had answered that she would content herself with a seat in the second balcony, in the very front; and as such a position involved an expenditure which he was still unable to meet, he waited one night upon Mr Vetch, to whom he had already, more than once, had recourse in moments of pecuniary embarrassment. His relations with the caustic fiddler were peculiar; they were much better in fact than they were in theory. Mr Vetch had let him know – long before this, and with the purpose of covering Pinnie to the utmost – the part he had played when the question of the child’s being taken to Mrs Bowerbank’s institution was so distressingly presented; and Hyacinth, in the face of this information, had inquired, with some sublimity, what the devil the fiddler had to do with his private affairs. Anastasius Vetch had replied that it was not as an affair of his, but as an affair of Pinnie’s, that he had considered the matter; and Hyacinth afterwards had let the question drop, though he had never been formally reconciled to his officious neighbour. Of course his feeling about him had been immensely modified by the trouble Mr Vetch had taken to get him a place with old Crookenden; and at the period of which I write it had long been familiar to him that the fiddler didn’t care a straw what he thought of his advice at the famous crisis, and entertained himself with watching the career of a youth put together of such queer pieces. It was impossible to Hyacinth not to perceive that the old man’s interest was kindly; and to-day, at any rate, our hero would have declared that nothing could have made up to him for not knowing the truth, horrible as the truth might be. His miserable mother’s embrace seemed to furnish him with an inexhaustible fund of motive, and under the circumstances that was a benefit. What he chiefly objected to in Mr Vetch was a certain air of still regarding him as extremely juvenile; he would have got on with him much better if the fiddler had consented to recognise the degree in which he was already a man of the world. Vetch knew an immense deal about society, and he seemed to know the more because he never swaggered – it was only little by little you discovered it; but that was no reason for his looking as if his chief entertainment resided in a private, diverting commentary on the conversation of his young friend. Hyacinth felt that he himself gave considerable evidence of liking his fellow-resident in Lomax Place when he asked him to lend him half-a-crown. Somehow, circumstances, of old, had tied them together, and though this partly vexed the little bookbinder it also touched him; he had more than once solved the problem of deciding how to behave (when the fiddler exasperated him) by simply asking him some service. The old man had never refused. It was satisfactory to Hyacinth to remember this, as he knocked at his door, very late, after he had allowed him time to come home from the theatre. He knew his habits: Mr Vetch never went straight to bed, but sat by his fire an hour, smoking his pipe, mixing a grog, and reading some old book. Hyacinth knew when to go up by the light in his window, which he could see from a court behind.

“Oh, I know I haven’t been to see you for a long time,” he said, in response to the remark with which the fiddler greeted him; “and I may as well tell you immediately what has brought me at present – in addition to the desire to ask after your health. I want to take a young lady to the theatre.”

Mr Vetch was habited in a tattered dressing-gown; his apartment smelt strongly of the liquor he was consuming. Divested of his evening-gear he looked to our hero so plucked and blighted that on the spot Hyacinth ceased to hesitate as to his claims in the event of a social liquidation; he, too, was unmistakably a creditor. “I’m afraid you find your young lady rather expensive.”

“I find everything expensive,” said Hyacinth, as if to finish that subject.

“Especially, I suppose, your secret societies.”

“What do you mean by that?” the young man asked, staring.

“Why, you told me, in the autumn, that you were just about to join a few.”

“A few? How many do you suppose?” And Hyacinth checked himself. “Do you suppose if I had been serious I would tell?”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Mr Vetch murmured, with a sigh. Then he went on: “You want to take her to my shop, eh?”

“I’m sorry to say she won’t go there. She wants something in the Strand: that’s a great point. She wants very much to see the Pearl of Paraguay. I don’t wish to pay anything, if possible; I am sorry to say I haven’t a penny. But as you know people at the other theatres, and I have heard you say that you do each other little favours, from place to place – à charge de revanche, as the French say – it occurred to me that you might be able to get me an order. The piece has been running a long time, and most people (except poor devils like me) must have seen it: therefore there probably isn’t a rush.”

Mr Vetch listened in silence, and presently he said, “Do you want a box?”

“Oh no; something more modest.”

“Why not a box?” asked the fiddler, in a tone which Hyacinth knew.

“Because I haven’t got the clothes that people wear in that sort of place, if you must have such a definite reason.”

“And your young lady – has she got the clothes?”

“Oh, I dare say; she seems to have everything.”

“Where does she get them?”

“Oh, I don’t know. She belongs to a big shop; she has to be fine.”

“Won’t you have a pipe?” Mr Vetch asked, pushing an old tobacco-pouch across the table to his visitor; and while the young man helped himself he puffed a while in silence. “What will she do with you?” he inquired at last.

“What will who do with me?”

“Your big beauty – Miss Henning. I know all about her from Pinnie.”

“Then you know what she’ll do with me!” Hyacinth returned, with rather a scornful laugh.

“Yes, but, after all, it doesn’t very much matter.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Hyacinth.

“Well, now the other matter – the International – are you very deep in that?” the fiddler went on, as if he had not heard him.

“Did Pinnie tell you all about that?” his visitor asked.

“No, our friend Eustace has told me a good deal. He knows you have put your head into something. Besides, I see it,” said Mr Vetch.

“How do you see it, pray?”

“You have got such a speaking eye. Any one can tell, to look at you, that you have become a nihilist, that you’re a member of a secret society. You seem to say to every one, ‘Slow torture won’t induce me to tell where it meets!’”

“You won’t get me an order, then?” Hyacinth said, in a moment.

“My dear boy, I offer you a box. I take the greatest interest in you.”

They smoked together a while, and at last Hyacinth remarked, “It has nothing to do with the International.”

“Is it more terrible – more deadly secret?” his companion inquired, looking at him with extreme seriousness.

“I thought you pretended to be a radical,” answered Hyacinth.

“Well, so I am – of the old-fashioned, constitutional, milk-and-water, jog-trot sort. I’m not an exterminator.”

“We don’t know what we may be when the time comes,” Hyacinth rejoined, more sententiously than he intended.

“Is the time coming, then, my dear boy?”

“I don’t think I have a right to give you any more of a warning than that,” said our hero, smiling.

“It’s very kind of you to do so much, I’m sure, and to rush in here at the small hours for the purpose. Meanwhile, in the few weeks, or months, or years, or whatever they are, that are left, you wish to put in as much enjoyment as you can squeeze, with the young ladies: that’s a very natural inclination.” Then, irrelevantly, Mr Vetch inquired, “Do you see many foreigners?”

“Yes, I see a good many.”

“And what do you think of them?”

“Oh, all sorts of things. I rather like Englishmen better.”

“Mr Muniment, for example?”

“I say, what do you know about him?” Hyacinth asked.

“I’ve seen him at Eustace’s. I know that you and he are as thick as thieves.”

“He will distinguish himself some day, very much,” said Hyacinth, who was perfectly willing, and indeed very proud, to be thought a close ally of the chemist’s assistant.

“Very likely – very likely. And what will he do with you?” the fiddler inquired.

Hyacinth got up; the two men looked at each other for an instant. “Do get me two good places in the second balcony,” said Hyacinth.

Mr Vetch replied that he would do what he could, and three days afterwards he gave the coveted order to his young friend. As he placed it in his hands he said, “You had better put in all the fun you can, you know!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56