The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Miss Pynsent, when she found herself alone, felt that she was really quite upside down; for the event that had just occurred had never entered into her calculations: the very nature of the case had seemed to preclude it. All she knew, and all she wished to know, was that in one of the dreadful institutions constructed for such purposes her quondam comrade was serving out the sentence that had been substituted for the other (the unspeakable horror) almost when the halter was already round her neck. As there was no question of that concession being stretched any further, poor Florentine seemed only a little more dead than other people, having no decent tombstone to mark the place where she lay. Miss Pynsent had therefore never thought of her dying again; she had no idea to what prison she had been committed on being removed from Newgate (she wished to keep her mind a blank about the matter, in the interest of the child), and it could not occur to her that out of such silence and darkness a second voice would reach her, especially a voice that she should really have to listen to. Miss Pynsent would have said, before Mrs Bowerbank’s visit, that she had no account to render to any one; that she had taken up the child (who might have starved in the gutter) out of charity, and had brought him up, poor and precarious as her own subsistence had been, without a penny’s help from another source; that the mother had forfeited every right and title; and that this had been understood between them – if anything, in so dreadful an hour, could have been said to be understood – when she went to see her at Newgate (that terrible episode, nine years before, overshadowed all Miss Pynsent’s other memories): went to see her because Florentine had sent for her (a name, face and address coming up out of the still recent but sharply separated past of their working-girl years) as the one friend to whom she could appeal with some chance of a pitying answer. The effect of violent emotion, with Miss Pynsent, was not to make her sit with idle hands or fidget about to no purpose; under its influence, on the contrary, she threw herself into little jobs, as a fugitive takes to by-paths, and clipped and cut, and stitched and basted, as if she were running a race with hysterics. And while her hands, her scissors, her needle flew, an infinite succession of fantastic possibilities trotted through her confused little head; she had a furious imagination, and the act of reflection, in her mind, was always a panorama of figures and scenes. She had had her picture of the future, painted in rather rosy hues, hung up before her now for a good many years; but it seemed to her that Mrs Bowerbank’s heavy hand had suddenly punched a hole in the canvas. It must be added, however, that if Amanda’s thoughts were apt to be bewildering visions they sometimes led her to make up her mind, and on this particular September evening she arrived at a momentous decision. What she made up her mind to was to take advice, and in pursuance of this view she rushed downstairs, and, jerking Hyacinth away from his simple but unfinished repast, packed him across the street to tell Mr Vetch (if he had not yet started for the theatre) that she begged he would come in to see her when he came home that night, as she had something very particular she wished to say to him. It didn’t matter if he should be very late, he could come in at any hour – he would see her light in the window – and he would do her a real mercy. Miss Pynsent knew it would be of no use for her to go to bed; she felt as if she should never close her eyes again. Mr Vetch was her most distinguished friend; she had an immense appreciation of his cleverness and knowledge of the world, as well as of the purity of his taste in matters of conduct and opinion; and she had already consulted him about Hyacinth’s education. The boy needed no urging to go on such an errand, for he, too, had his ideas about the little fiddler, the second violin in the orchestra of the Bloomsbury Theatre. Mr Vetch had once obtained for the pair an order for two seats at a pantomime, and for Hyacinth the impression of that ecstatic evening had consecrated him, placed him for ever in the golden glow of the footlights. There were things in life of which, even at the age of ten, it was a conviction of the boy’s that it would be his fate never to see enough, and one of them was the wonder-world illuminated by those playhouse lamps. But there would be chances, perhaps, if one didn’t lose sight of Mr Vetch; he might open the door again; he was a privileged, magical mortal, who went to the play every night.

He came in to see Miss Pynsent about midnight; as soon as she heard the lame tinkle of the bell she went to the door to let him in. He was an original, in the fullest sense of the word: a lonely, disappointed, embittered, cynical little man, whose musical organisation had been sterile, who had the nerves, the sensibilities, of a gentleman, and whose fate had condemned him, for the last ten years, to play a fiddle at a second-rate theatre for a few shillings a week. He had ideas of his own about everything, and they were not always very improving. For Amanda Pynsent he represented art, literature (the literature of the play-bill) and philosophy, and she always felt about him as if he belonged to a higher social sphere, though his earnings were hardly greater than her own and he lived in a single back-room, in a house where she had never seen a window washed. He had, for her, the glamour of reduced gentility and fallen fortunes; she was conscious that he spoke a different language (though she couldn’t have said in what the difference consisted) from the other members of her humble, almost suburban circle; and the shape of his hands was distinctly aristocratic. (Miss Pynsent, as I have intimated, was immensely preoccupied with that element in life.)   Mr Vetch displeased her only by one of the facets of his character – his blasphemous republican, radical views, and the contemptuous manner in which he expressed himself about the nobility. On that ground he worried her extremely, though he never seemed to her so clever as when he horrified her most. These dreadful theories (expressed so brilliantly that, really, they might have been dangerous if Miss Pynsent had not known her own place so well) constituted no presumption against his refined origin; they were explained, rather, to a certain extent, by a just resentment at finding himself excluded from his proper place. Mr Vetch was short, fat and bald, though he was not much older than Miss Pynsent, who was not much older than some people who called themselves forty-five; he always went to the theatre in evening-dress, with a flower in his button-hole, and wore a glass in one eye. He looked placid and genial, and as if he would fidget at the most about the ‘get up’ of his linen; you would have thought him finical but superficial, and never have suspected that he was a revolutionist, or even a critic of life. Sometimes, when he could get away from the theatre early enough, he went with a pianist, a friend of his, to play dance-music at small parties; and after such expeditions he was particularly cynical and startling; he indulged in diatribes against the British middle-class, its Philistinism, its snobbery. He seldom had much conversation with Miss Pynsent without telling her that she had the intellectual outlook of a caterpillar; but this was his privilege after a friendship now of seven years’ standing, which had begun (the year after he came to live in Lomax Place) with her going over to nurse him, on learning from the milk-woman that he was alone at Number 17 – laid up with an attack of gastritis. He always compared her to an insect or a bird, and she didn’t mind, because she knew he liked her, and she herself liked all winged creatures. How indeed could she complain, after hearing him call the Queen a superannuated form and the Archbishop of Canterbury a grotesque superstition?

He laid his violin-case on the table, which was covered with a confusion of fashion-plates and pincushions, and glanced toward the fire, where a kettle was gently hissing. Miss Pynsent, who had put it on half an hour before, read his glance, and reflected with complacency that Mrs Bowerbank had not absolutely drained the little bottle in the cheffonier. She placed it on the table again, this time with a single glass, and told her visitor that, as a great exception, he might light his pipe. In fact, she always made the exception, and he always replied to the gracious speech by inquiring whether she supposed the greengrocers’ wives, the butchers’ daughters, for whom she worked, had fine enough noses to smell, in the garments she sent home, the fumes of his tobacco. He knew her ‘connection’ was confined to small shopkeepers, but she didn’t wish others to know it, and would have liked them to believe it was important that the poor little stuffs she made up (into very queer fashions, I am afraid) should not surprise the feminine nostril. But it had always been impossible to impose on Mr Vetch; he guessed the truth, the untrimmed truth, about everything in a moment. She was sure he would do so now, in regard to this solemn question which had come up about Hyacinth; he would see that though she was agreeably flurried at finding herself whirled in the last eddies of a case that had been so celebrated in its day, her secret wish was to shirk her duty (if it was a duty): to keep the child from ever knowing his mother’s unmentionable history, the shame that attached to his origin, the opportunity she had had of letting him see the wretched woman before she died. She knew Mr Vetch would read her troubled thoughts, but she hoped he would say they were natural and just; she reflected that as he took an interest in Hyacinth he wouldn’t desire him to be subjected to a mortification that might rankle for ever and perhaps even crush him to the earth. She related Mrs Bowerbank’s visit, while he sat upon the sofa in the very place where that majestic woman had reposed, and puffed his smoke-wreaths into the dusky little room. He knew the story of the child’s birth, had known it years before, so she had no startling revelation to make. He was not in the least agitated at learning that Florentine was dying in prison and had managed to get a message conveyed to Amanda; he thought this so much in the usual course that he said to Miss Pynsent, “Did you expect her to live on there for ever, working out her terrible sentence, just to spare you the annoyance of a dilemma, or any reminder of her miserable existence, which you have preferred to forget?” That was just the sort of question Mr Vetch was sure to ask, and he inquired, further, of his dismayed hostess, whether she were sure her friend’s message (he called the unhappy creature her friend) had come to her in the regular way. The warders, surely, had no authority to introduce visitors to their captives; and was it a question of her going off to the prison on the sole authority of Mrs Bowerbank? The little dressmaker explained that this lady had merely come to sound her, Florentine had begged so hard. She had been in Mrs Bowerbank’s ward before her removal to the infirmary, where she now lay ebbing away, and she had communicated her desire to the Catholic chaplain, who had undertaken that some satisfaction – of inquiry, at least – should be given her. He had thought it best to ascertain first whether the person in charge of the child would be willing to bring him, such a course being perfectly optional, and he had some talk with Mrs Bowerbank on the subject, in which it was agreed between them that if she would approach Miss Pynsent and explain to her the situation, leaving her to do what she thought best, he would answer for it that the consent of the governor of the prison should be given to the interview. Miss Pynsent had lived for fourteen years in Lomax Place, and Florentine had never forgotten that this was her address at the time she came to her at Newgate (before her dreadful sentence had been commuted), and promised, in an outgush of pity for one whom she had known in the days of her honesty and brightness, that she would save the child, rescue it from the workhouse and the streets, keep it from the fate that had swallowed up the mother. Mrs Bowerbank had a half-holiday, and a sister living also in the north of London, to whom she had been for some time intending a visit; so that after her domestic duty had been performed it had been possible for her to drop in on Miss Pynsent in a natural, casual way and put the case before her. It would be just as she might be disposed to view it. She was to think it over a day or two, but not long, because the woman was so ill, and then write to Mrs Bowerbank, at the prison. If she should consent, Mrs Bowerbank would tell the chaplain, and the chaplain would obtain the order from the governor and send it to Lomax Place; after which Amanda would immediately set out with her unconscious victim. But should she – must she – consent? That was the terrible, the heart-shaking question, with which Miss Pynsent’s unaided wisdom had been unable to grapple.

“After all, he isn’t hers any more – he’s mine, mine only, and mine always. I should like to know if all I have done for him doesn’t make him so!” It was in this manner that Amanda Pynsent delivered herself, while she plied her needle, faster than ever, in a piece of stuff that was pinned to her knee.

Mr Vetch watched her awhile, blowing silently at his pipe, with his head thrown back on the high, stiff, old-fashioned sofa, and his little legs crossed under him like a Turk’s. “It’s true you have done a good deal for him. You are a good little woman, my dear Pinnie, after all.” He said ‘after all’, because that was a part of his tone. In reality he had never had a moment’s doubt that she was the best little woman in the north of London.

“I have done what I could, and I don’t want no fuss made about it. Only it does make a difference when you come to look at it – about taking him off to see another woman. And such another woman – and in such a place! I think it’s hardly right to take an innocent child.”

“I don’t know about that; there are people that would tell you it would do him good. If he didn’t like the place as a child, he would take more care to keep out of it later.”

“Lord, Mr Vetch, how can you think? And him such a perfect little gentleman!” Miss Pynsent cried.

“Is it you that have made him one?” the fiddler asked. “It doesn’t run in the family, you’d say.”

“Family? what do you know about that?” she replied, quickly, catching at her dearest, her only hobby.

“Yes, indeed, what does any one know? what did she know herself?” And then Miss Pynsent’s visitor added, irrelevantly, “Why should you have taken him on your back? Why did you want to be so good? No one else thinks it necessary.”

“I didn’t want to be good. That is, I do want to, of course, in a general way: but that wasn’t the reason then. But I had nothing of my own – I had nothing in the world but my thimble.”

“That would have seemed to most people a reason for not adopting a prostitute’s bastard.”

“Well, I went to see him at the place where he was (just where she had left him, with the woman of the house), and I saw what kind of a shop that was, and felt it was a shame an innocent child should grow up in such a place.” Miss Pynsent defended herself as earnestly as if her inconsistency had been of a criminal cast. “And he wouldn’t have grown up, neither. They wouldn’t have troubled themselves long with a helpless baby. They’d have played some trick on him, if it was only to send him to the workhouse. Besides, I always was fond of tiny creatures, and I have been fond of this one,” she went on, speaking as if with a consciousness, on her own part, of almost heroic proportions. “He was in my way the first two or three years, and it was a good deal of a pull to look after the business and him together. But now he’s like the business – he seems to go of himself.”

“Oh, if he flourishes as the business flourishes, you can just enjoy your peace of mind,” said the fiddler, still with his manner of making a small dry joke of everything.

“That’s all very well, but it doesn’t close my eyes to that poor woman lying there and moaning just for the touch of his little ’and before she passes away. Mrs Bowerbank says she believes I will bring him.”

“Who believes? Mrs Bowerbank?”

“I wonder if there’s anything in life holy enough for you to take it seriously,” Miss Pynsent rejoined, snapping off a thread, with temper. “The day you stop laughing I should like to be there.”

“So long as you are there, I shall never stop. What is it you want me to advise you? to take the child, or to leave the mother to groan herself out?”

“I want you to tell me whether he’ll curse me when he grows older.”

“That depends upon what you do. However, he will probably do it in either case.”

“You don’t believe that, because you like him,” said Amanda, with acuteness.

“Precisely; and he’ll curse me too. He’ll curse every one. He won’t be happy.”

“I don’t know how you think I bring him up,” the little dressmaker remarked, with dignity.

“You don’t bring him up; he brings you up.”

“That’s what you have always said; but you don’t know. If you mean that he does as he likes, then he ought to be happy. It ain’t kind of you to say he won’t be,” Miss Pynsent added, reproachfully.

“I would say anything you like, if what I say would help the matter. He’s a thin-skinned, morbid, mooning little beggar, with a good deal of imagination and not much perseverance, who will expect a good deal more of life than he will find in it. That’s why he won’t be happy.”

Miss Pynsent listened to this description of her protégé with an appearance of criticising it mentally; but in reality she didn’t know what ‘morbid’ meant, and didn’t like to ask. “He’s the cleverest person I know, except yourself,” she said in a moment, for Mr Vetch’s words had been in the key of what she thought most remarkable in him. What that was she would have been unable to say.

“Thank you very much for putting me first,” the fiddler rejoined, after a series of puffs. “The youngster is interesting, one sees that he has a mind, and in that respect he is – I won’t say unique, but peculiar. I shall watch him with curiosity, to see what he grows into. But I shall always be glad that I’m a selfish brute of a bachelor; that I never invested in that class of goods.”

“Well, you are comforting. You would spoil him more than I do,” said Amanda.

“Possibly, but it would be in a different way. I wouldn’t tell him every three minutes that his father was a duke.”

“A duke I never mentioned!” the little dressmaker cried, with eagerness. “I never specified any rank, nor said a word about any one in particular. I never so much as insinuated the name of his lordship. But I may have said that if the truth was to be found out, he might be proved to be connected – in the way of cousinship, or something of the kind – with the highest in the land. I should have thought myself wanting if I hadn’t given him a glimpse of that. But there is one thing I have always added – that the truth never is found out.”

“You are still more comforting than I!” Mr Vetch exclaimed. He continued to watch her, with his charitable, round-faced smile, and then he said, “You won’t do what I say; so what is the use of my telling you?”

“I assure you I will, if you say you believe it’s the only right.”

“Do I often say anything so asinine? Right – right? what have you to do with that? If you want the only right, you are very particular.”

“Please, then, what am I to go by?” the dressmaker asked, bewildered.

“You are to go by this, by what will take the youngster down.”

“Take him down, my poor little pet?”

“Your poor little pet thinks himself the flower of creation. I don’t say there is any harm in that: a fine, blooming, odoriferous conceit is a natural appendage of youth and cleverness. I don’t say there is any great harm in it, but if you want a guide as to how you are to treat a boy, that’s as good a guide as any other.”

“You want me to arrange the interview, then?”

“I don’t want you to do anything but give me another sip of brandy. I just say this: that I think it’s a great gain, early in life, to know the worst; then we don’t live in a fool’s paradise. I did that till I was nearly forty; then I woke up and found I was in Lomax Place.” Whenever Mr Vetch said anything that could be construed as a reference to a former position which had had elements of distinction, Miss Pynsent observed a respectful, a tasteful, silence, and that is why she did not challenge him now, though she wanted very much to say that Hyacinth was no more ‘presumptuous’ (that was the term she should have used) than he had reason to be, with his genteel figure and his wonderful intelligence; and that as for thinking himself a ‘flower’ of any kind, he knew but too well that he lived in a small black-faced house, miles away from the West End, rented by a poor little woman who took lodgers, and who, as they were of such a class that they were not always to be depended upon to settle her weekly account, had a strain to make two ends meet, in spite of the sign between her windows –


Modes et Robes.



Singularly enough, her companion, before she had permitted herself to interpose, took up her own thought (in one of its parts) and remarked that perhaps she would say of the child that he was, so far as his actual circumstances were concerned, low enough down in the world, without one’s wanting him to be any lower. “But by the time he’s twenty, he’ll persuade himself that Lomax Place was a bad dream, that your lodgers and your dressmaking were as imaginary as they are vulgar, and that when an old friend came to see you late at night it was not your amiable practice to make him a glass of brandy and water. He’ll teach himself to forget all this: he’ll have a way.”

“Do you mean he’ll forget me, he’ll deny me?” cried Miss Pynsent, stopping the movement of her needle, short off, for the first time.

“As the person designated in that attractive blazonry on the outside of your house, decidedly he will; and me, equally, as a bald-headed, pot-bellied fiddler, who regarded you as the most graceful and refined of his acquaintance. I don’t mean he’ll disown you and pretend he never knew you: I don’t think he will ever be such an odious little cad as that; he probably won’t be a sneak, and he strikes me as having some love, and possibly even some gratitude, in him. But he will, in his imagination (and that will always persuade him), subject you to some extraordinary metamorphosis; he will dress you up.”

“He’ll dress me up!” Amanda ejaculated, quite ceasing to follow the train of Mr Vetch’s demonstration. “Do you mean that he’ll have the property – that his relations will take him up?”

“My dear, delightful, idiotic Pinnie, I am speaking in a figurative manner. I don’t pretend to say what his precise position will be when we are relegated; but I affirm that relegation will be our fate. Therefore don’t stuff him with any more illusions than are necessary to keep him alive; he will be sure to pick up enough on the way. On the contrary, give him a good stiff dose of the truth at the start.”

“Dear me, dear me, of course you see much further into it than I could ever do,” Pinnie murmured, as she threaded a needle.

Mr Vetch paused a minute, but apparently not out of deference to this amiable interruption, He went on suddenly, with a ring of feeling in his voice. “Let him know, because it will be useful to him later, the state of the account between society and himself; he can then conduct himself accordingly. If he is the illegitimate child of a French good-for-naught who murdered one of her numerous lovers, don’t shuffle out of sight so important a fact. I regard that as a most valuable origin.”

“Lord, Mr Vetch, how you talk!” cried Miss Pynsent, staring. “I don’t know what one would think, to hear you.”

“Surely, my dear lady, and for this reason: that those are the people with whom society has to count. It hasn’t with you and me.” Miss Pynsent gave a sigh which might have meant either that she was well aware of that, or that Mr Vetch had a terrible way of enlarging a subject, especially when it was already too big for her; and her philosophic visitor went on: “Poor little devil, let him see her, let him see her.”

“And if later, when he’s twenty, he says to me that if I hadn’t meddled in it he need never have known, he need never have had that shame, pray what am I to say to him then? That’s what I can’t get out my head.”

“You can say to him that a young man who is sorry for having gone to his mother when, in her last hours, she lay groaning for him on a pallet in a penitentiary, deserves more than the sharpest pang he can possibly feel.” And the little fiddler, getting up, went over to the fireplace and shook out the ashes of his pipe.

“Well, I am sure it’s natural he should feel badly,” said Miss Pynsent, folding up her work with the same desperate quickness that had animated her throughout the evening.

“I haven’t the least objection to his feeling badly; that’s not the worst thing in the world! If a few more people felt badly, in this sodden, stolid, stupid race of ours, the world would wake up to an idea or two, and we should see the beginning of the dance. It’s the dull acceptance, the absence of reflection, the impenetrable density.” Here Mr Vetch stopped short; his hostess stood before him with eyes of entreaty, with clasped hands.

“Now, Anastasius Vetch, don’t go off into them dreadful wild theories!” she cried, always ungrammatical when she was strongly moved. “You always fly away over the house-tops. I thought you liked him better – the dear little unfortunate.”

Anastasius Vetch had pocketed his pipe; he put on his hat with the freedom of old acquaintance and of Lomax Place, and took up his small coffin-like fiddle-case. “My good Pinnie, I don’t think you understand a word I say. It’s no use talking – do as you like!”

“Well, I must say I don’t think it was worth your coming in at midnight only to tell me that. I don’t like anything – I hate the whole dreadful business!”

He bent over, in his short plumpness, to kiss her hand, as he had seen people do on the stage. “My dear friend, we have different ideas, and I never shall succeed in driving mine into your head. It’s because I am fond of him, poor little devil; but you will never understand that. I want him to know everything, and especially the worst – the worst, as I have said. If I were in his position, I shouldn’t thank you for trying to make a fool of me!”

“A fool of you? as if I thought of anything but his ’appiness!” Amanda Pynsent exclaimed. She stood looking at him, but following her own reflections; she had given up the attempt to enter into his whims. She remembered, what she had noticed before, in other occurrences, that his reasons were always more extraordinary than his behaviour itself; if you only considered his life you wouldn’t have thought him so fanciful. “Very likely I think too much of that,” she added. “She wants him and cries for him: that’s what keeps coming back to me.” She took up her lamp to light Mr Vetch to the door (for the dim luminary in the passage had long since been extinguished), and before he left the house he turned, suddenly, stopping short, and said, his composed face taking a strange expression from the quizzical glimmer of his little round eyes –

“What does it matter after all, and why do you worry? What difference can it make what happens – on either side – to such low people?”

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