The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James



Hyacinth and his companion took their seats with extreme promptitude before the curtain rose upon the Pearl of Paraguay. Thanks to Millicent’s eagerness not to be late they encountered the discomfort which had constituted her main objection to going into the pit: they waited for twenty minutes at the door of the theatre, in a tight, stolid crowd, before the official hour of opening. Millicent, bareheaded and very tightly laced, presented a most splendid appearance and, on Hyacinth’s part, gratified a certain youthful, ingenuous pride of possession in every respect save a tendency, while ingress was denied them, to make her neighbours feel her elbows and to comment, loudly and sarcastically, on the situation. It was more clear to him even than it had been before that she was a young lady who in public places might easily need a champion or an apologist. Hyacinth knew there was only one way to apologise for a ‘female’, when the female was attached very closely and heavily to one’s arm, and was reminded afresh how little constitutional aversion Miss Henning had to a row. He had an idea she might think his own taste ran even too little in that direction, and had visions of violent, confused scenes, in which he should in some way distinguish himself : he scarcely knew in what way, and imagined himself more easily routing some hulking adversary by an exquisite application of the retort courteous than by flying at him with a pair of very small fists.

By the time they had reached their places in the balcony Millicent was rather flushed and a good deal ruffled; but she had composed herself in season for the rising of the curtain upon the farce which preceded the melodrama and which the pair had had no intention of losing. At this stage a more genial agitation took possession of her, and she surrendered her sympathies to the horse-play of the traditional prelude. Hyacinth found it less amusing, but the theatre, in any conditions, was full of sweet deception for him. His imagination projected itself lovingly across the footlights, gilded and coloured the shabby canvas and battered accessories, and lost itself so effectually in the fictive world that the end of the piece, however long, or however short, brought with it a kind of alarm, like a stoppage of his personal life. It was impossible to be more friendly to the dramatic illusion. Millicent, as the audience thickened, rejoiced more largely and loudly, held herself as a lady, surveyed the place as if she knew all about it, leaned back and leaned forward, fanned herself with majesty, gave her opinion upon the appearance and coiffure of every woman within sight, abounded in question and conjecture, and produced, from her pocket, a little paper of peppermint-drops, of which, under cruel threats, she compelled Hyacinth to partake. She followed with attention, though not always with success, the complicated adventures of the Pearl of Paraguay, through scenes luxuriantly tropical, in which the male characters wore sombreros and stilettos, and the ladies either danced the cachucha or fled from licentious pursuit; but her eyes wandered, during considerable periods, to the occupants of the boxes and stalls, concerning several of whom she had theories which she imparted to Hyacinth while the play went on, greatly to his discomfiture, he being unable to conceive of such levity. She had the pretension of knowing who every one was; not individually and by name, but as regards their exact social station, the quarter of London in which they lived, and the amount of money they were prepared to spend in the neighbourhood of Buckingham Palace. She had seen the whole town pass through her establishment there, and though Hyacinth, from his infancy, had been watching it from his own point of view, his companion made him feel that he had missed a thousand characteristic points, so different were most of her interpretations from his, and so very bold and irreverent. Miss Henning’s observation of human society had not been of a nature to impress her with its high moral tone, and she had a free off-hand cynicism which imposed itself. She thought most ladies were hypocrites, and had, in all ways, a low opinion of her own sex, which, more then once, before this, she had justified to Hyacinth by narrating observations of the most surprising kind, gathered during her career as a shop-girl. There was a pleasing inconsequence, therefore, in her being moved to tears in the third act of the play, when the Pearl of Paraguay, dishevelled and distracted, dragging herself on her knees, implored the stern hidalgo her father, to believe in her innocence in spite of the circumstances which seemed to condemn her – a midnight meeting with the wicked hero in the grove of cocoanuts. It was at this crisis, none the less, that she asked Hyacinth who his friends were in the principal box on the left of the stage, and let him know that a gentleman seated there had been watching him, at intervals, for the past half-hour.

“Watching me! I like that!” said the young man. “When I want to be watched I take you with me.”

“Of course he has looked at me,” Millicent answered, as if she had no interest in denying that. “But you’re the one he wants to get hold of.”

“To get hold of!”

“Yes, you ninny: don’t hang back. He may make your fortune.”

“Well, if you would like him to come and sit by you I’ll go and take a walk in the Strand,” said Hyacinth, entering into the humour of the occasion but not seeing, from where he was placed, any gentleman in the box. Millicent explained that the mysterious observer had just altered his position; he had gone into the back of the box, which had considerable depth. There were other persons in it, out of sight; she and Hyacinth were too much on the same side. One of them was a lady, concealed by the curtain; her arm, bare save for its bracelets, was visible at moments on the cushioned ledge. Hyacinth saw it, in effect, reappear there, and even while the play went on contemplated it with a certain interest; but until the curtain fell at the end of the act there was no further symptom that a gentleman wished to get hold of him.

“Now do you say it’s me he’s after?” Millicent asked abruptly, giving him a sidelong dig, as the fiddlers in the orchestra began to scrape their instruments for the interlude.

“Of course; I am only the pretext,” Hyacinth replied, after he had looked a moment, in a manner which he flattered himself was a proof of quick self-possession. The gentleman designated by his companion was once more at the front, leaning forward, with his arms on the edge. Hyacinth saw that he was looking straight at him, and our young man returned his gaze – an effort not rendered the more easy by the fact that, after an instant, he recognised him.

“Well, if he knows us he might give some sign, and if he doesn’t he might leave us alone,” Millicent declared, abandoning the distinction she had made between herself and her companion. She had no sooner spoken than the gentleman complied with the first mentioned of these conditions; he smiled at Hyacinth across the house – he nodded to him with unmistakable friendliness. Millicent, perceiving this, glanced at the young man from Lomax Place and saw that the demonstration had brought a deep colour to his cheek. He was blushing, flushing; whether with pleasure or embarrassment was not immediately apparent to her. “I say, I say – is it one of your grand relations?” she promptly exclaimed. “Well, I can stare as well as him;” and she told Hyacinth it was a ‘shime’ to bring a young lady to the play when you hadn’t so much as an opera-glass for her to look at the company. “Is he one of those lords your aunt was always talking about in the Plice? Is he your uncle, or your grandfather, or your first or second cousin? No, he’s too young for your grandfather. What a pity I can’t see if he looks like you!”

At any other time Hyacinth would have thought these inquiries in the worst possible taste, but now he was too much given up to other reflections. It pleased him that the gentleman in the box should recognise and notice him, because even so small a fact as this was an extension of his social existence; but it also surprised and puzzled him, and it produced, generally, in his easily-excited organism, an agitation of which, in spite of his attempted self-control, the appearance he presented to Millicent was the sign. They had met three times, he and his fellow-spectator; but they had met under circumstances which, to Hyacinth’s mind, would have made a furtive wink, a mere tremor of the eyelid, a more judicious reference to the fact than so public a salutation. Hyacinth would never have permitted himself to greet him first; and this was not because the gentleman in the box belonged – conspicuously as he did so – to a different walk of society. He was apparently a man of forty, tall and lean and loose-jointed; he fell into lounging, dawdling attitudes, and even at a distance he looked lazy. He had a long, smooth, amused, contented face, unadorned with moustache or whisker, and his brown hair parted itself evenly over his forehead, and came forward on either temple in a rich, well-brushed lock which gave his countenance a certain analogy to portraits of English gentlemen about the year 1820. Millicent Henning had a glance of such range and keenness that she was able to make out the details of his evening-dress, of which she appreciated the ‘form’; to observe the character of his large hands; and to note that he appeared to be perpetually smiling, that his eyes were extraordinarily light in colour, and that in spite of the dark, well-marked brows arching over them, his fine skin never had produced, and never would produce, a beard. Our young lady pronounced him mentally a ‘swell’ of the first magnitude, and wondered more than ever where he had picked up Hyacinth. Her companion seemed to echo her thought when he exclaimed, with a little surprised sigh, almost an exhalation of awe, “Well, I had no idea he was one of that lot!”

“You might at least tell me his name, so that I shall know what to call him when he comes round to speak to us,” the girl said, provoked at her companion’s incommunicativeness.

“Comes round to speak to us – a chap like that!” Hyacinth exclaimed.

“Well, I’m sure if he had been your own brother he couldn’t have grinned at you more! He may want to make my acquaintance after all; he won’t be the first.”

The gentleman had once more retreated from sight, and there was as much evidence as that of the intention Millicent attributed to him. “I don’t think I’m at all clear that I have a right to tell his name,” he remarked, with sincerity, but with a considerable disposition at the same time to magnify an incident which deepened the brilliancy of the entertainment he had been able to offer Miss Henning. “I met him in a place where he may not like to have it known that he goes.”

“Do you go to places that people are ashamed of? Is it one of your political clubs, as you call them, where that dirty young man from Camberwell, Mr Monument (what do you call him?), fills your head with ideas that’ll bring you to no good? I’m sure your friend over there doesn’t look as if he’d be on your side.”

Hyacinth had indulged in this reflection himself; but the only answer he made to Millicent was, “Well, then, perhaps he’ll be on yours!”

“Laws, I hope she ain’t one of the aristocracy!” Millicent exclaimed, with apparent irrelevance; and following the direction of her eyes Hyacinth saw that the chair his mysterious acquaintance had quitted in the stage-box was now occupied by a lady hitherto invisible – not the one who had given them a glimpse of her shoulder and bare arm. This was an ancient personage, muffled in a voluminous, crumpled white shawl – a stout, odd, foreign-looking woman, whose head apparently was surmounted with a light-coloured wig. She had a placid, patient air and a round, wrinkled face, in which, however, a small, bright eye moved quickly enough. Her rather soiled white gloves were too large for her, and round her head, horizontally arranged, as if to keep her wig in its place, she wore a narrow band of tinsel, decorated, in the middle of the forehead, by a jewel which the rest of her appearance would lead the spectator to suppose false. “Is the old woman his mother? Where did she dig up her clothes? They look as if she had hired them for the evening. Does she come to your wonderful club, too? I dare say she cuts it fine, don’t she?” Millicent went on; and when Hyacinth suggested, sportively, that the old lady might be, not the gentleman’s mother, but his wife or his ‘fancy’, she declared that in that case, if he should come to see them, she wasn’t afraid. No wonder he wanted to get out of that box! The woman in the wig was sitting there on purpose to look at them, but she couldn’t say she was particularly honoured by the notice of such an old guy. Hyacinth pretended that he liked her appearance and thought her very handsome; he offered to bet another paper of peppermints that if they could find out she would be some tremendous old dowager, some one with a handle to her name. To this Millicent replied, with an air of experience, that she had never thought the greatest beauty was in the upper class; and her companion could see that she was covertly looking over her shoulder to watch for his political friend and that she would be disappointed if he did not come. This idea did not make Hyacinth jealous, for his mind was occupied with another side of the business; and if he offered sportive suggestions it was because he was really excited, dazzled, by an incident of which the reader will have failed as yet to perceive the larger relations. What moved him was not the pleasure of being patronised by a rich man; it was simply the prospect of new experience – a sensation for which he was always ready to exchange any present boon; and he was convinced that if the gentleman with whom he had conversed in a small occult back-room in Bloomsbury as Captain Godfrey Sholto – the Captain had given him his card – had more positively than in Millicent’s imagination come out of the stage-box to see him, he would bring with him rare influences. This nervous presentiment, lighting on our young man, was so keen that it constituted almost a preparation; therefore, when at the end of a few minutes he became aware that Millicent, with her head turned (her face was in his direction), was taking the measure of some one who had come in behind them, he felt that fate was doing for him, by way of a change, as much as could be expected. He got up in his place, but not too soon to see that Captain Sholto had been standing there a moment in contemplation of Millicent, and that this young lady had performed with deliberation the ceremony of taking his measure. The Captain had his hands in his pockets, and wore a crush-hat, pushed a good deal backward. He laughed at the young couple in the balcony in the friendliest way, as if he had known them both for years, and Millicent could see, on a nearer view, that he was a fine, distinguished, easy, genial gentleman, at least six feet high, in spite of a habit, or an affectation, of carrying himself in a casual, relaxed, familiar manner. Hyacinth felt a little, after the first moment, as if he were treating them rather too much as a pair of children whom he had stolen upon, to startle; but this impression was speedily removed by the air with which he said, laying his hand on our hero’s shoulder as he stood in the little passage at the end of the bench where the holders of Mr Vetch’s order occupied the first seats, “My dear fellow, I really thought I must come round and speak to you. My spirits are all gone with this brute of a play. And those boxes are fearfully stuffy, you know,” he added, as if Hyacinth had had at least an equal experience of that part of the theatre.

“It’s hot here, too,” Millicent’s companion murmured. He had suddenly become much more conscious of the high temperature, of his proximity to the fierce chandelier, and he added that the plot of the play certainly was unnatural, though he thought the piece rather well acted.

“Oh, it’s the good old stodgy British tradition. This is the only place where you find it still, and even here it can’t last much longer; it can’t survive old Baskerville and Mrs Ruffler. ’Gad, how old they are! I remember her, long past her prime, when I used to be taken to the play, as a boy, in the Christmas holidays. Between them, they must be something like a hundred and eighty, eh? I believe one is supposed to cry a good deal about the middle,” Captain Sholto continued, in the same friendly, familiar, encouraging way, addressing himself to Millicent, upon whom, indeed, his eyes had rested almost uninterruptedly from the first. She sustained his glance with composure, but with just enough of an expression of reserve to intimate (what was perfectly true) that she was not in the habit of conversing with gentlemen with whom she was not acquainted. She turned away her face at this (she had already given the visitor the benefit of a good deal of it) and left him, as in the little passage he leaned against the parapet of the balcony with his back to the stage, confronted with Hyacinth, who was now wondering, with rather more vivid a sense of the relations of things, what he had come for. He wanted to do him honour, in return for his civility, but he did not know what one could talk about, at such short notice, to a person whom he immediately perceived to be, in a most extensive, a really transcendent sense of the term, a man of the world. He instantly saw Captain Sholto did not take the play seriously, so that he felt himself warned off that topic, on which, otherwise, he might have had much to say. On the other hand he could not, in the presence of a third person, allude to the matters they had discussed at the ‘Sun and Moon’; nor could he suppose his visitor would expect this, though indeed he impressed him as a man of humours and whims, who was amusing himself with everything, including esoteric socialism and a little bookbinder who had so much more of the gentleman about him than one would expect. Captain Sholto may have been a little embarrassed, now that he was completely launched in his attempt at fraternisation, especially after failing to elicit a smile from Millicent’s respectability; but he left to Hyacinth the burden of no initiative, and went on to say that it was just this prospect of the dying-out of the old British tradition that had brought him to-night. He was with a friend, a lady who had lived much abroad, who had never seen anything of the kind, and who liked everything that was characteristic. “You know the foreign school of acting is a very different affair,” he said, again to Millicent, who this time replied, “Oh yes, of course,” and considering afresh the old lady in the box, reflected that she looked as if there were nothing in the world that she, at least, hadn’t seen.

“We have never been abroad,” said Hyacinth, candidly, looking into his friend’s curious light-coloured eyes, the palest in tint he had ever encountered.

“Oh, well, there’s a lot of nonsense talked about that!” Captain Sholto replied; while Hyacinth remained uncertain as to exactly what he referred to, and Millicent decided to volunteer a remark.

“They are making a tremendous row on the stage. I should think it would be very bad in those boxes.” There was a banging and thumping behind the curtain, the sound of heavy scenery pushed about.

“Oh yes; it’s much better here, every way. I think you have the best seats in the house,” said Captain Sholto. “I should like very much to finish my evening beside you. The trouble is I have ladies – a pair of them,” he went on, as if he were seriously considering this possibility. Then, laying his hand again on Hyacinth’s shoulder, he smiled at him a moment and indulged in a still greater burst of frankness: “My dear fellow, that is just what, as a partial reason, has brought me up here to see you. One of my ladies has a great desire to make your acquaintance!”

“To make my acquaintance?” Hyacinth felt himself turning pale; the first impulse he could have, in connection with such an announcement as that – and it lay far down, in the depths of the unspeakable – was a conjecture that it had something to do with his parentage on his father’s side. Captain Sholto’s smooth, bright face, irradiating such unexpected advances, seemed for an instant to swim before him. The Captain went on to say that he had told the lady of the talks they had had, that she was immensely interested in such matters – “You know what I mean, she really is” – and that as a consequence of what he had said she had begged him to come and ask his – a – his young friend (Hyacinth saw in a moment that the Captain had forgotten his name) to descend into her box for a little while.

“She has a tremendous desire to talk with some one who looks at the whole business from your standpoint, don’t you see? And in her position she scarcely ever has a chance, she doesn’t come across them – to her great annoyance. So when I spotted you to-night she immediately said that I must introduce you at any cost. I hope you don’t mind, for a quarter of an hour. I ought perhaps to tell you that she is a person who is used to having nothing refused her. ‘Go up and bring him down,’ you know, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. She is really very much in earnest: I don’t mean about wishing to see you – that goes without saying – but about the whole matter that you and I care for. Then I should add – it doesn’t spoil anything – that she is the most charming woman in the world, simply! Honestly, my dear boy, she is perhaps the most remarkable women in Europe.”

So Captain Sholto delivered himself, with the highest naturalness and plausibility, and Hyacinth, listening, felt that he himself ought perhaps to resent the idea of being served up for the entertainment of imperious triflers, but that somehow he didn’t, and that it was more worthy of the part he aspired to play in life to meet such occasions calmly and urbanely than to take the trouble of dodging and going roundabout. Of course the lady in the box couldn’t be sincere; she might think she was, though even that was questionable; but you couldn’t really care for the cause that was exemplified in the little back-room in Bloomsbury if you came to the theatre in that style. It was Captain Sholto’s style as well, but it had been by no means clear to Hyacinth hitherto that he really cared. All the same, this was no time for going into the question of the lady’s sincerity, and at the end of sixty seconds our young man had made up his mind that he could afford to humour her. None the less, I must add, the whole proposal continued to make things dance, to appear fictive, delusive; so that it sounded, in comparison, like a note of reality when Millicent, who had been looking from one of the men to the other, exclaimed –

“That’s all very well, but who is to look after me?” Her assumption of the majestic had broken down, and this was the cry of nature.

Nothing could have been pleasanter and more indulgent of her alarm than the manner in which Captain Sholto reassured her: “My dear young lady, can you suppose I have been unmindful of that? I have been hoping that after I have taken down our friend and introduced him you would allow me to come back and, in his absence, occupy his seat.”

Hyacinth was preoccupied with the idea of meeting the most remarkable woman in Europe; but at this juncture he looked at Millicent Henning with some curiosity. She rose to the situation, and replied, “I am much obliged to you, but I don’t know who you are.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you all about that!” the Captain exclaimed, benevolently.

“Of course I should introduce you,” said Hyacinth, and he mentioned to Miss Henning the name of his distinguished acquaintance.

“In the army?” the young lady inquired, as if she must have every guarantee of social position.

“Yes – not in the navy! I have left the army, but it always sticks to one.”

“Mr Robinson, is it your intention to leave me?” Millicent asked, in a tone of the highest propriety.

Hyacinth’s imagination had taken such a flight that the idea of what he owed to the beautiful girl who had placed herself under his care for the evening had somehow effaced itself. Her words put it before him in a manner that threw him quickly and consciously back upon his honour; yet there was something in the way she uttered them that made him look at her harder still before he replied, “Oh dear, no, of course it would never do. I must defer to some other occasion the honour of making the acquaintance of your friend,” he added, to Captain Sholto.

“Ah, my dear fellow, we might manage it so easily now,” this gentleman murmured, with evident disappointment. “It is not as if Miss – a – Miss – a – were to be alone.”

It flashed upon Hyacinth that the root of the project might be a desire of Captain Sholto to insinuate himself into Millicent’s graces; then he asked himself why the most remarkable woman in Europe should lend herself to that design, consenting even to receive a visit from a little bookbinder for the sake of furthering it. Perhaps, after all, she was not the most remarkable; still, even at a lower estimate, of what advantage could such a complication be to her? To Hyacinth’s surprise, Millicent’s eye made acknowledgment of his implied renunciation; and she said to Captain Sholto, as if she were considering the matter very impartially, “Might one know the name of the lady who sent you?”

“The Princess Casamassima.”

“Laws!” cried Millicent Henning. And then, quickly, as if to cover up the crudity of this ejaculation, “And might one also know what it is, as you say, that she wants to talk to him about?”

“About the lower orders, the rising democracy, the spread of nihilism, and all that.”

“The lower orders? Does she think we belong to them?” the girl demanded, with a strange, provoking laugh.

Captain Sholto was certainly the readiest of men. “If she could see you, she would think you one of the first ladies in the land.”

“She’ll never see me!” Millicent replied, in a manner which made it plain that she, at least, was not to be whistled for.

Being whistled for by a princess presented itself to Hyacinth as an indignity endured gracefully enough by the heroes of several French novels in which he had found a thrilling interest; nevertheless, he said, incorruptibly, to the Captain, who hovered there like a Mephistopheles converted to disinterested charity, “Having been in the army, you will know that one can’t desert one’s post.”

The Captain, for the third time, laid his hand on his young friend’s shoulder, and for a minute his smile rested, in silence, on Millicent Henning. “If I tell you simply I want to talk with this young lady, that certainly won’t help me, particularly, and there is no reason why it should. Therefore I’ll tell you the whole truth: I want to talk with her about you!” And he patted Hyacinth in a way which conveyed at once that this idea must surely commend him to the young man’s companion and that he himself liked him infinitely.

Hyacinth was conscious of the endearment, but he remarked to Millicent that he would do just as she liked; he was determined not to let a member of the bloated upper class suppose that he held any daughter of the people cheap.

“Oh, I don’t care if you go,” said Miss Henning. “You had better hurry – the curtain’s going to rise.”

“That’s charming of you! I’ll rejoin you in three minutes!” Captain Sholto exclaimed.

He passed his hand into Hyacinth’s arm, and as our hero lingered still, a little uneasy and questioning Millicent always with his eyes, the girl went on, with her bright boldness, “That kind of princess – I should like to hear all about her.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you that, too,” the Captain rejoined, with his imperturbable pleasantness, as he led his young friend away. It must be confessed that Hyacinth also rather wondered what kind of princess she was, and his suspense on this point made his heart beat fast when, after traversing steep staircases and winding corridors, they reached the small door of the stage-box.

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