The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


The pink dressing-gown which Pinnie had engaged to make for Rose Muniment became, in Lomax Place, a conspicuous object, supplying poor Amanda with a constant theme for reference to one of the great occasions of her life – her visit to Belgrave Square with Lady Aurora, after their meeting at Rosy’s bedside. She described this episode vividly to her companion, repeating a thousand times that her ladyship’s affability was beyond anything she could have expected. The grandeur of the house in Belgrave Square figured in her recital as something oppressive and fabulous, tempered though it had been by shrouds of brown holland and the nudity of staircases and saloons of which the trappings had been put away. “If it’s so noble when they’re out of town, what can it be when they are all there together and everything is out?” she inquired suggestively; and she permitted herself to be restrictive only on two points, one of which was the state of Lady Aurora’s gloves and bonnet-strings. If she had not been afraid to appear to notice the disrepair of these objects, she would have been so happy to offer to do any little mending. “If she would only come to me every week or two, I would keep up her rank for her,” said Pinnie, with visions of a needle that positively flashed in the disinterested service of the aristocracy. She added that her ladyship got all dragged out with her long expeditions to Camberwell; she might be in tatters, for all they could do to help her at the top of those dreadful stairs, with that strange sick creature (she was too unnatural) thinking only of her own finery and talking about her complexion. If she wanted pink, she should have pink; but to Pinnie there was something almost unholy in it, like decking out a corpse, or the next thing to it. This was the other element that left Miss Pynsent cold; it could not be other than difficult for her to enter into the importance her ladyship appeared to attach to those pushing people. The girl was unfortunate, certainly, stuck up there like a kitten on a shelf, but in her ladyship’s place she would have found some topic more in keeping, while they walked about under those tremendous gilded ceilings. Lady Aurora, seeing how she was struck, showed her all over the house, carrying the lamp herself and telling an old woman who was there – a kind of housekeeper, with ribbons in her cap, who would have pushed Pinnie out if you could push with your eyes – that they would do very well without her. If the pink dressing-gown, in its successive stages of development, filled up the little brown parlour (it was terribly long on the stocks), making such a pervasive rose-coloured presence as had not been seen there for many a day, this was evidently because it was associated with Lady Aurora, not because it was dedicated to her humble friend.

One day, when Hyacinth came home from his work, Pinnie announced to him as soon as he entered the room that her ladyship had been there to look at it – to pass judgment before the last touches were conferred. The dressmaker intimated that in such a case as that her judgment was rather wild, and she had made an embarrassing suggestion about pockets. Whatever could poor Miss Muniment want of pockets, and what had she to put in them? But Lady Aurora had evidently found the garment far beyond anything she expected, and she had been more affable than ever, and had wanted to know about every one in the Place; not in a meddling, prying way, either, like some of those upper-class visitors, but quite as if the poor people were the high ones and she was afraid her curiosity might be ‘presumptious’. It was in the same discreet spirit that she had invited Amanda to relate her whole history, and had expressed an interest in the career of her young friend.

“She said you had charming manners,” Miss Pynsent hastened to remark; “but, before heaven, Hyacinth Robinson, I never mentioned a scrap that it could give you pain that any one should talk about.” There was an heroic explicitness in this, on Pinnie’s part, for she knew in advance just how Hyacinth would look at her – fixedly, silently, hopelessly, as if she were still capable of tattling horribly (with the idea that her revelations would increase her importance), and putting forward this hollow theory of her supreme discretion to cover it up. His eyes seemed to say, ‘How can I believe you, and yet how can I prove you are lying? I am very helpless, for I can’t prove that without applying to the person to whom your incorrigible folly has probably led you to brag, to throw out mysterious and tantalising hints. You know, of course, that I would never condescend to that.’ Pinnie suffered, acutely, from this imputation; yet she exposed herself to it often, because she could never deny herself the pleasure, keener still than her pain, of letting Hyacinth know that he was appreciated, admired and, for those ‘charming manners’ commended by Lady Aurora, even wondered at; and this kind of interest always appeared to imply a suspicion of his secret – something which, when he expressed to himself the sense of it, he called, resenting it at once and yet finding a certain softness in it, ‘a beastly attendrissement’. When Pinnie went on to say to him that Lady Aurora appeared to feel a certain surprise at his never yet having come to Belgrave Square for the famous books, he reflected that he must really wait upon her without more delay, if he wished to keep up his reputation for charming manners; and meanwhile he considered much the extreme oddity of this new phase of his life (it had opened so suddenly, from one day to the other); a phase in which his society should have become indispensable to ladies of high rank and the obscurity of his condition only an attraction the more. They were taking him up then, one after the other, and they were even taking up poor Pinnie, as a means of getting at him; so that he wondered, with humorous bitterness, whether it meant that his destiny was really seeking him out – that the aristocracy, recognising a mysterious affinity (with that fineness of flair for which they were remarkable), were coming to him to save him the trouble of coming to them.

It was late in the day (the beginning of an October evening), and Lady Aurora was at home. Hyacinth had made a mental calculation of the time at which she would have risen from dinner; the operation of ‘rising from dinner’ having always been, in his imagination, for some reason or other, highly characteristic of the nobility. He was ignorant of the fact that Lady Aurora’s principal meal consisted of a scrap of fish and a cup of tea, served on a little stand in the dismantled breakfast-parlour. The door was opened for Hyacinth by the invidious old lady whom Pinnie had described, and who listened to his inquiry, conducted him through the house, and ushered him into her ladyship’s presence, without the smallest relaxation of a pair of tightly-closed lips. Hyacinth’s hostess was seated in the little breakfast-parlour, by the light of a couple of candles, immersed apparently in a collection of tolerably crumpled papers and account-books. She was ciphering, consulting memoranda, taking notes; she had had her head in her hands, and the silky entanglement of her tresses resisted the rapid effort she made to smooth herself down as she saw the little bookbinder come in. The impression of her fingers remained in little rosy streaks on her pink skin. She exclaimed, instantly, “Oh, you have come about the books – it’s so very kind of you;” and she hurried him off to another room, to which, as she explained, she had had them brought down for him to choose from. The effect of this precipitation was to make him suppose at first that she might wish him to execute his errand as quickly as possible and take himself off; but he presently perceived that her nervousness, her shyness, were of an order that would always give false ideas. She wanted him to stay, she wanted to talk with him, and she had rushed with him at the books in order to gain time and composure for exercising some subtler art. Hyacinth stayed half an hour, and became more and more convinced that her ladyship was, as he had ventured to pronounce her on the occasion of their last meeting, a regular saint. He was privately a little disappointed in the books, though he selected three or four, as many as he could carry, and promised to come back for others: they denoted, on Lady Aurora’s part, a limited acquaintance with French literature and even a certain puerility of taste. There were several volumes of Lamartine and a set of the spurious memoirs of the Marquise de Créqui; but for the rest the little library consisted mainly of Marmontel and Madame de Genlis, the Récit d’une Sœur and the tales of M. J. T. de Saint-Germain. There were certain members of an intensely modern school, advanced and scientific realists, of whom Hyacinth had heard and on whom he had long desired to put his hand; but, evidently, none of them had ever stumbled into Lady Aurora’s candid collection, though she did possess a couple of Balzac’s novels, which, by ill-luck, happened to be just those that Hyacinth had read more than once.

There was, nevertheless, something very agreeable to him in the moments he passed in the big, dim, cool, empty house, where, at intervals, monumental pieces of furniture – not crowded and miscellaneous, as he had seen the appurtenances of the Princess – loomed and gleamed, and Lady Aurora’s fantastic intonations awakened echoes which gave him a sense of privilege, of rioting, decently, in the absence of jealous influences. She talked again about the poor people in the south of London, and about the Muniments in particular; evidently, the only fault she had to find with these latter was that they were not poor enough – not sufficiently exposed to dangers and privations against which she could step in. Hyacinth liked her for this, even though he wished she would talk of something else – he hardly knew what, unless it was that, like Rose Muniment, he wanted to hear more about Inglefield. He didn’t mind, with the poor, going into questions of poverty – it even gave him at times a strange, savage satisfaction – but he saw that in discussing them with the rich the interest must inevitably be less; they could never treat them à fond. Their mistakes and illusions, their thinking they had got hold of the sensations of the destitute when they hadn’t at all, would always be more or less irritating. It came over Hyacinth that if he found this want of perspective in Lady Aurora’s deep conscientiousness, it would be a queer enough business when he should come to go into the detail of such matters with the Princess Casamassima.

His present hostess said not a word to him about Pinnie, and he guessed that she had an instinctive desire to place him on the footing on which people do not express approbation or surprise at the decency or good-breeding of each other’s relatives. He saw that she would always treat him as a gentleman, and that even if he should be basely ungrateful she would never call his attention to the fact that she had done so. He should not have occasion to say to her, as he had said to the Princess, that she regarded him as a curious animal; and it gave him immediately that sense, always so delightful to him, of learning more about life, to perceive there were such different ways (which implied still a good many more) of being a lady of rank. The manner in which Lady Aurora appeared to wish to confer with him on the great problems of pauperism might have implied that he was a benevolent nobleman (of the type of Lord Shaftesbury), who had endowed many charities and was noted, in philanthropic schemes, for his practical sense. It was not less present to him that Pinnie might have tattled, put forward his claims to high consanguinity, than it had been when the dressmaker herself descanted on her ladyship’s condescensions; but he remembered now that he too had only just escaped being asinine, when, the other day, he flashed out an allusion to his accursed origin. At all events, he was much touched by the delicacy with which the earl’s daughter comported herself, simply assuming that he was ‘one of themselves’; and he reflected that if she did know his history (he was sure he might pass twenty years in her society without discovering whether she did or not), this shade of courtesy, this natural tact, coexisting even with extreme awkwardness, illustrated that ‘best breeding’ which he had seen alluded to in novels portraying the aristocracy. The only remark on Lady Aurora’s part that savoured in the least of looking down at him from a height was when she said, cheerfully, encouragingly, “I suppose that one of these days you will be setting up in business for yourself;” and this was not so cruelly patronising that he could not reply, with a smile equally free from any sort of impertinence, “Oh dear, no, I shall never do that. I should make a great mess of any attempt to carry on a business. I haven’t a particle of that kind of aptitude.”

Lady Aurora looked a little surprised; then she said, “Oh, I see; you don’t like – you don’t like —” She hesitated: he saw she was going to say that he didn’t like the idea of going in, to that extent, for a trade; but he stopped her in time from attributing to him a sentiment so foolish, and declared that what he meant was simply that the only faculty he possessed was the faculty of doing his little piece of work, whatever it was, of liking to do it skillfully and prettily, and of liking still better to get his money for it when it was done. His conception of ‘business’, or of rising in the world, didn’t go beyond that. “Oh yes, I can fancy!” her ladyship exclaimed; but she looked at him a moment with eyes which showed that he puzzled her, that she didn’t quite understand his tone. Before he went away she inquired of him, abruptly (nothing had led up to it), what he thought of Captain Sholto, whom she had seen that other evening in Audley Court. Didn’t Hyacinth think he was very odd? Hyacinth confessed to this impression; whereupon Lady Aurora went on anxiously, eagerly: “Don’t you consider that – that – he is decidedly vulgar?”

“How can I know?”

“You can know perfectly – as well as any one!” Then she added, “I think it’s a pity they should – a – form relations with any one of that kind.”

‘They’, of course, meant Paul Muniment and his sister. “With a person that may be vulgar?” Hyacinth asked, regarding this solicitude as exquisite. “But think of the people they know – think of those they are surrounded with – think of all Audley Court!”

“The poor, the unhappy, the labouring classes? Oh, I don’t call them vulgar!” cried her ladyship, with radiant eyes. The young man, lying awake a good deal that night, laughed to himself, on his pillow, not unkindly, at her fear that he and his friends would be contaminated by the familiar of a princess. He even wondered whether she would not find the Princess herself rather vulgar.

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