The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


The aspect of South Street, Mayfair, on a Sunday afternoon in August, is not enlivening, yet the Prince had stood for ten minutes gazing out of the window at the genteel vacancy of the scene; at the closed blinds of the opposite houses, the lonely policeman on the corner, covering a yawn with a white cotton hand, the low-pitched light itself, which seemed conscious of an obligation to observe the decency of the British Sabbath. The Prince, however, had a talent for that kind of attitude; it was one of the things by which he had exasperated his wife; he could remain motionless, with the aid of some casual support for his high, lean person, considering serenely and inexpressively any object that might lie before him and presenting his aristocratic head at a favourable angle, for periods of extraordinary length. On first coming into the room he had given some attention to its furniture and decorations, perceiving at a glance that they were rich and varied; some of the things he recognised as old friends, odds and ends the Princess was fond of, which had accompanied her in her remarkable wanderings, while others were unfamiliar, and suggested vividly that she had not ceased to ‘collect’. The Prince made two reflections: one was that she was living as expensively as ever; the other that, however this might be, no one had such a feeling as she for the mise-en-scène of life, such a talent for arranging a room. She had still the most charming salon in Europe.

It was his impression that she had taken the house in South Street but for three months; yet, gracious heaven, what had she not put into it? The Prince asked himself this question without violence, for that was not to be his line to-day. He could be angry to a point at which he himself was often frightened, but he honestly believed that this was only when he had been baited beyond endurance and that as a usual thing he was really as mild and accommodating as the extreme urbanity of his manner appeared to announce. There was indeed nothing to suggest to the world in general that he was an impracticable or vindictive nobleman: his features were not regular, and his complexion had a bilious tone; but his dark brown eye, which was at once salient and dull, expressed benevolence and melancholy; his head drooped from his long neck in a considerate, attentive style; and his close-cropped black hair, combined with a short, fine, pointed beard, completed his resemblance to some old portrait of a personage of distinction under the Spanish dominion at Naples. To-day, at any rate, he had come in conciliation, almost in humility, and that is why he did not permit himself even to murmur at the long delay to which he was subjected. He knew very well that if his wife should consent to take him back it would be only after a probation to which this little wait in her drawing-room was a trifle. It was a quarter of an hour before the door opened, and even then it was not the Princess who appeared, but only Madame Grandoni.

Their greeting was a very silent one. She came to him with both hands outstretched, and took his own and held them awhile, looking up at him in a kindly, motherly manner. She had elongated her florid, humorous face to a degree that was almost comical, and the pair might have passed, in their speechless solemnity, for acquaintances meeting in a house in which a funeral was about to take place. It was indeed a house on which death had descended, as he very soon learned from Madame Grandoni’s expression; something had perished there for ever, and he might proceed to bury it as soon as he liked. His wife’s ancient German friend, however, was not a person to keep up a manner of that sort very long, and when, after she had made him sit down on the sofa beside her, she shook her head, slowly and definitely, several times, it was with a face in which a more genial appreciation of the circumstances had already begun to appear.

“Never – never – never?” said the Prince, in a deep, hoarse voice, which was at variance with his aristocratic slimness. He had much of the aspect which, in late-coming members of long-descended races, we qualify to-day as effete; but his speech might have been the speech of some deep-chested fighting ancestor.

“Surely you know your wife as well as I,” she replied, in Italian, which she evidently spoke with facility, though with a strong guttural accent. “I have been talking with her: that is what has made me keep you. I have urged her to see you. I have told her that this could do no harm and would pledge her to nothing. But you know your wife,” Madame Grandoni repeated, with a smile which was now distinctly facetious.

Prince Casamassima looked down at his boots. “How can one ever know a person like that? I hoped she would see me for five minutes.”

“For what purpose? Have you anything to propose?”

“For what purpose? To rest my eyes on her beautiful face.”

“Did you come to England for that?”

“For what else should I have come?” the Prince inquired, turning his blighted gaze to the opposite side of South Street.

“In London, such a day as this, già,” said the old lady, sympathetically. “I am very sorry for you; but if I had known you were coming I would have written to you that you might spare yourself the pain.”

The Prince gave a low, interminable sigh. “You ask me what I wish to propose. What I wish to propose is that my wife does not kill me inch by inch.”

“She would be much more likely to do that if you lived with her!” Madame Grandoni cried.

Cara signora, she doesn’t appear to have killed you,” the melancholy nobleman rejoined.

“Oh, me? I am past killing. I am as hard as a stone. I went through my miseries long ago; I suffered what you have not had to suffer; I wished for death many times, and I survived it all. Our troubles don’t kill us, Prince; it is we who must try to kill them. I have buried not a few. Besides Christina is fond of me, God knows why!” Madame Grandoni added.

“And you are so good to her,” said the Prince, laying his hand on her fat, wrinkled fist.

Che vuole? I have known her so long. And she has some such great qualities.”

“Ah, to whom do you say it?” And Prince Casamassima gazed at his boots again, for some moments, in silence. Suddenly he inquired, “How does she look to-day?”

“She always looks the same: like an angel who came down from heaven yesterday and has been rather disappointed in her first day on earth!”

The Prince was evidently a man of a simple nature, and Madame Grandoni’s rather violent metaphor took his fancy. His face lighted up for a moment, and he replied with eagerness, “Ah, she is the only woman I have ever seen whose beauty never for a moment falls below itself. She has no bad days. She is so handsome when she is angry!”

“She is very handsome to-day, but she is not angry,” said the old lady.

“Not when my name was announced?”

“I was not with her then; but when she sent for me and asked me to see you, it was quite without passion. And even when I argued with her, and tried to persuade her (and she doesn’t like that, you know), she was still perfectly quiet.”

“She hates me, she despises me too much, eh?”

“How can I tell, dear Prince, when she never mentions you?”

“Never, never?”

“That’s much better than if she railed at you and abused you.”

“You mean it should give me more hope for the future?” the young man asked, quickly.

Madame Grandoni hesitated a moment. “I mean it’s better for me,” she answered, with a laugh of which the friendly ring covered as much as possible her equivocation.

“Ah, you like me enough to care,” he murmured, turning on her his sad, grateful eyes.

“I am very sorry for you. Ma che vuole?”

The Prince had, apparently, nothing to suggest, and he only exhaled, in reply, another gloomy groan. Then he inquired whether his wife pleased herself in that country, and whether she intended to pass the summer in London. Would she remain long in England, and – might he take the liberty to ask? – what were her plans? Madame Grandoni explained that the Princess had found the British metropolis much more to her taste than one might have expected, and that as for plans, she had as many, or as few, as she had always had. Had he ever known her to carry out any arrangement, or to do anything, of any kind, she had selected or determined upon? She always, at the last moment, did the other thing, the one that had been out of the question; and it was for this that Madame Grandoni herself privately made her preparations. Christina, now that everything was over, would leave London from one day to the other; but they should not know where they were going until they arrived. The old lady concluded by asking the Prince if he himself liked England. He thrust forward his thick lips. “How can I like anything? Besides, I have been here before: I have friends,” he said.

His companion perceived that he had more to say to her, to extract from her, but that he was hesitating nervously, because he feared to incur some warning, some rebuff, with which his dignity – which, in spite of his position of discomfiture, was really very great – might find it difficult to square itself. He looked vaguely round the room, and presently he remarked, “I wanted to see for myself how she is living.”

“Yes, that is very natural.”

“I have heard – I have heard —” and Prince Casamassima stopped.

“You have heard great rubbish, I have no doubt.” Madame Grandoni watched him, as if she foresaw what was coming.

“She spends a terrible deal of money,” said the young man.

“Indeed she does.” The old lady knew that, careful as he was of his very considerable property, which at one time had required much nursing, his wife’s prodigality was not what lay heaviest on his mind. She also knew that expensive and luxurious as Christina might be she had never yet exceeded the income settled upon her by the Prince at the time of their separation – an income determined wholly by himself and his estimate of what was required to maintain the social consequence of his name, for which he had a boundless reverence. “She thinks she is a model of thrift – that she counts every shilling,” Madame Grandoni continued. “If there is a virtue she prides herself upon, it’s her economy. Indeed, it’s the only thing for which she takes any credit.”

“I wonder if she knows that I” – the Prince hesitated a moment, then he went on – “that I spend really nothing. But I would rather live on dry bread than that, in a country like this, in this English society, she should not make a proper appearance.”

“Her appearance is all you could wish. How can it help being proper, with me to set her off?”

“You are the best thing she has, dear lady. So long as you are with her I feel a certain degree of security; and one of the things I came for was to extract from you a promise that you won’t leave her.”

“Ah, let us not tangle ourselves up with promises!” Madame Grandoni exclaimed. “You know the value of any engagement one may take with regard to the Princess; it’s like promising you I will stay in the bath when the hot water is turned on. When I begin to be scalded, I have to jump out! I will stay while I can; but I shouldn’t stay if she were to do certain things.” Madame Grandoni uttered these last words very gravely, and for a minute she and her companion looked deep into each other’s eyes.

“What things do you mean?”

“I can’t say what things. It is utterly impossible to predict, on any occasion, what Christina will do. She is capable of giving us great surprises. The things I mean are things I should recognise as soon as I saw them, and they would make me leave the house on the instant.”

“So that if you have not left it yet —?” the Prince asked, in a low tone, with extreme eagerness.

“It is because I have thought I may do some good by staying.”

The young man seemed only half satisfied with this answer; nevertheless he said in a moment – “To me it makes all the difference. And if anything of the kind you speak of should happen, that would be only the greater reason for your staying – that you might interpose, that you might arrest —” He stopped short; Madame Grandoni was laughing, with her Teutonic homeliness, in his face.

“You must have been in Rome, more than once, when the Tiber had overflowed, è vero? What would you have thought then if you had heard people telling the poor wretches in the Ghetto, on the Ripetta, up to their knees in liquid mud, that they ought to interpose, to arrest?”

Capisco bene,” said the Prince, dropping his eyes. He appeared to have closed them, for some moments, as if a slow spasm of pain were passing through him. “I can’t tell you what torments me most,” he presently went on, “the thought that sometimes makes my heart rise into my mouth. It’s a haunting fear.” And his pale face and disturbed respiration might indeed have been those of a man before whom some horrible spectre had risen.

“You needn’t tell me. I know what you mean, my poor friend.”

“Do you think, then, there is a danger – that she will drag my name, do what no one has ever dared to do? That I would never forgive,” said the young man, almost under his breath; and the hoarseness of his whisper lent a great effect to the announcement.

Madame Grandoni wondered for a moment whether she had not better tell him (as it would prepare him for the worst) that his wife cared about as much for his name as for any old label on her luggage; but after an instant’s reflection she reserved this information for another hour. Besides, as she said to herself, the Prince ought already to know perfectly to what extent Christina attached the idea of an obligation or an interdict to her ill-starred connection with an ignorant and superstitious Italian race whom she despised for their provinciality, their parsimony and their tiresomeness (she thought their talk the climax of puerility), and whose fatuous conception of their importance in the great modern world she had on various public occasions sufficiently covered with her derision. The old lady finally contented herself with remarking, “Dear Prince, your wife is a very proud woman.”

“Ah, how could my wife be anything else? But her pride is not my pride. And she has such ideas, such opinions! Some of them are monstrous.”

Madame Grandoni smiled. “She doesn’t think it so necessary to have them when you are not there.”

“Why then do you say that you enter into my fears – that you recognise the stories I have heard?”

I know not whether the good lady lost patience with his persistence; at all events, she broke out, with a certain sharpness, “Understand this – understand this: Christina will never consider you – your name, your illustrious traditions – in any case in which she doesn’t consider, much more, herself!”

The Prince appeared to study, for a moment, this somewhat ambiguous yet portentous phrase; then he slowly got up, with his hat in his hand, and walked about the room, softly, solemnly, as he were suffering from his long thin feet. He stopped before one of the windows, and took another survey of South Street; then, turning, he suddenly inquired, in a voice into which he had evidently endeavoured to infuse a colder curiosity, “Is she admired in this place? Does she see many people?”

“She is thought very strange, of course. But she sees whom she likes. And they mostly bore her to death!” Madame Grandoni added, with a laugh.

“Why then do you tell me this country pleases her?”

Madame Grandoni left her place. She had promised Christina, who detested the sense of being under the same roof with her husband, that the Prince’s visit should be kept within narrow limits; and this movement was intended to signify as kindly as possible that it had better terminate. “It is the common people that please her,” she replied, with her hands folded on her crumpled satin stomach and her humorous eyes raised to his face. “It is the lower orders, the basso popolo.”

“The basso popolo?” The Prince stared, at this fantastic announcement.

“The povera gente,” pursued the old lady, laughing at his amazement.

“The London mob – the most horrible, the most brutal —?”

“Oh, she wishes to raise them.”

“After all, something like that is no more than I had heard,” said the Prince gravely.

Che vuole? Don’t trouble yourself; it won’t be for long!”

Madame Grandoni saw that this comforting assurance was lost upon him; his face was turned to the door of the room, which had been thrown open, and all his attention was given to the person who crossed the threshold. Madame Grandoni transferred her own to the same quarter, and recognised the little artisan whom Christina had, in a manner so extraordinary and so profoundly characteristic, drawn into her box that night at the theatre, and whom she had since told her old friend she had sent for to come and see her.

“Mr Robinson!” the butler, who had had a lesson, announced in a loud, colourless tone.

“It won’t be for long,” Madame Grandoni repeated, for the Prince’s benefit; but it was to Mr Robinson the words had the air of being addressed.

He stood there while Madame Grandoni signalled to the servant to leave the door open and wait, looking from the queer old lady, who was as queer as before, to the tall foreign gentleman (he recognised his foreignness at a glance), whose eyes seemed to challenge him, to devour him; wondering whether he had made some mistake, and needing to remind himself that he had the Princess’s note in his pocket, with the day and hour as clear as her magnificent handwriting could make them.

“Good-morning, good-morning. I hope you are well,” said Madame Grandoni, with quick friendliness, but turning her back upon him at the same time, to ask of the Prince, in Italian, as she extended her hand, “And do you not leave London soon – in a day or two?”

The Prince made no answer; he still scrutinised the little bookbinder from head to foot, as if he were wondering who the deuce he could be. His eyes seemed to Hyacinth to search for the small neat bundle he ought to have had under his arm, and without which he was incomplete. To the reader, however, it may be confided that, dressed more carefully than he had ever been in his life before, stamped with that extraordinary transformation which the British Sunday often operates in the person of the wage-earning cockney, with his handsome head uncovered and suppressed excitement in his brilliant little face, the young man from Lomax Place might have passed for anything rather than a carrier of parcels. “The Princess wrote to me, madam, to come and see her,” he remarked, as a precaution, in case he should have incurred the reproach of bad taste, or at least of precipitation.

“Oh yes, I dare say.” And Madame Grandoni guided the Prince to the door, with an expression of the hope that he would have a comfortable journey back to Italy.

A faint flush had come into his face; he appeared to have satisfied himself on the subject of Mr Robinson. “I must see you once more – I must – it’s impossible!”

“Ah, well, not in this house, you know.”

“Will you do me the honour to meet me, then?” And as the old lady hesitated, he added, with sudden passion, “Dearest friend, I entreat you on my knees!” After she had agreed that if he would write to her, proposing a day and place, she would see him, he raised her ancient knuckles to his lips and, without further notice of Hyacinth, turned away. Madame Grandoni requested the servant to announce the other visitor to the Princess, and then approached Mr Robinson, rubbing her hands and smiling, with her head on one side. He smiled back at her, vaguely; he didn’t know what she might be going to say. What she said was, to his surprise –

“My poor young man, may I take the liberty of asking your age?”

“Certainly, madam; I am twenty-four.”

“And I hope you are industrious, and sober, and – what do you call it in English? – steady.”

“I don’t think I am very wild,” said Hyacinth, smiling still. He thought the old woman patronising, but he forgave her.

“I don’t know how one speaks, in this country, to young men like you. Perhaps one is considered meddling, impertinent.”

“I like the way you speak,” Hyacinth interposed.

She stared, and then with a comical affectation of dignity, replied, “You are very good. I am glad it amuses you. You are evidently intelligent and clever,” she went on, “and if you are disappointed it will be a pity.”

“How do you mean, if I am disappointed?” Hyacinth looked more grave.

“Well, I dare say you expect great things, when you come into a house like this. You must tell me if I wound you. I am very old-fashioned, and I am not of this country. I speak as one speaks to young men, like you, in other places.”

“I am not so easily wounded!” Hyacinth exclaimed, with a flight of imagination. “To expect anything, one must know something, one must understand: isn’t it so? And I am here without knowing, without understanding. I have come only because a lady who seems to me very beautiful and very kind has done me the honour to send for me.”

Madame Grandoni examined him a moment, as if she were struck by his good looks, by something delicate that was stamped upon him everywhere. “I can see you are very clever, very intelligent; no, you are not like the young men I mean. All the more reason —” And she paused, giving a little sigh. “I want to warn you a little, and I don’t know how. If you were a young Roman, it would be different.”

“A young Roman?”

“That’s where I live, properly, in Rome. If I hurt you, you can explain it that way. No, you are not like them.”

“You don’t hurt me – please believe that; you interest me very much,” said Hyacinth, to whom it did not occur that he himself might appear patronising. “Of what do you want to warn me?”

“Well – only to advise you a little. Do not give up anything.”

“What can I give up?”

“Do not give up yourself. I say that to you in your interest. I think you have some little trade – I forget what; but whatever it may be, remember that to do it well is the best thing – it is better than paying visits, better even than a Princess!”

“Ah yes, I see what you mean!” Hyacinth exclaimed, exaggerating a little. “I am very fond of my trade, I assure you.”

“I am delighted to hear it. Hold fast to it, then, and be quiet; be diligent, and honest, and good. I gathered the other night that you are one of the young men who want everything changed – I believe there are a great many in Italy, and also in my own dear old Deutschland – and even think it’s useful to throw bombs into innocent crowds, and shoot pistols at their rulers, or at any one. I won’t go into that. I might seem to be speaking for myself, and the fact is that for myself I don’t care; I am so old that I may hope to spend the few days that are left me without receiving a bullet. But before you go any further please think a little whether you are right.”

“It isn’t just that you should impute to me ideas which I may not have,” said Hyacinth, turning very red, but taking more and more of a fancy, all the same, to Madame Grandoni. “You talk at your ease about our ways and means, but if we were only to make use of those that you would like to see —” And while he blushed, smiling, the young man shook his head two or three times, with great significance.

“I shouldn’t like to see any!” the old lady cried. “I like people to bear their troubles as one has done one’s self. And as for injustice, you see how kind I am to you when I say to you again, don’t, don’t give anything up. I will tell them to send you some tea,” she added, as she took her way out of the room, presenting to him her round, low, aged back, and dragging over the carpet a scanty and lustreless train.

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