The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


It must not be supposed that Hyacinth’s relations with Millicent Henning had remained unaffected by the remarkable incident she had witnessed at the theatre. It had made a great impression on the young lady from Pimlico; he never saw her, for several weeks afterwards, that she had not an immense deal to say about it; and though it suited her to take the line of being shocked at the crudity of such proceedings, and of denouncing the Princess for a bold-faced foreigner, of a kind to which any one who knew anything of what could go on in London would give a wide berth, it was easy to see that she was pleased at being brought even into roundabout contact with a person so splendid and at finding her own discriminating approval of Hyacinth confirmed in such high quarters. She professed to derive her warrant for her low opinion of the lady in the box from information given her by Captain Sholto as he sat beside her – information of which at different moments she gave a different version; her anecdotes having nothing in common, at least, save that they were alike unflattering to the Princess. Hyacinth had many doubts of the Captain’s pouring such confidences into Miss Henning’s ear; under the circumstances it would be such a very unnatural thing for him to do. He was unnatural – that was true – and he might have told Millicent, who was capable of having plied him with questions, that his distinguished friend was separated from her husband; but, for the rest, it was more probable that the girl had given the rein to a certain inventive faculty which she had already showed him she possessed, when it was a question of exercising her primitive, half-childish, half-plebeian impulse of destruction, the instinct of pulling down what was above her, the reckless energy that would, precisely, make her so effective in revolutionary scenes. Hyacinth (it has been mentioned) did not consider that Millicent was false, and it struck him as a proof of positive candour that she should make up absurd, abusive stories about a person concerning whom she knew nothing at all, save that she disliked her, and could not hope for esteem, or, indeed, for recognition of any kind, in return. When people were really false you didn’t know where you stood with them, and on such a point as this Miss Henning could never be accused of leaving you in obscurity. She said little else about the Captain, and did not pretend to repeat the remainder of his conversation; taking it with an air of grand indifference when Hyacinth amused himself with repaying her strictures on his new acquaintance by drawing a sufficiently derisive portrait of hers.

He took the ground that Sholto’s admiration for the high-coloured beauty in the second balcony had been at the bottom of the whole episode: he had persuaded the Princess to pretend she was a socialist and should like therefore to confer with Hyacinth, in order that he might slip into the seat of this too easily deluded youth. At the same time, it never occurred to our young man to conceal the fact that the lady in the box had followed him up; he contented himself with saying that this had been no part of the original plot, but a simple result – not unnatural, after all – of his turning out so much more fascinating than one might have supposed. He narrated, with sportive variations, his visit in South Street, and felt that he would never feel the need, with his childhood’s friend, of glossing over that sort of experience. She might make him a scene of jealousy and welcome – there were things that would have much more terror for him than that; her jealousy, with its violence, its energy, even a certain inconsequent, dare-devil humour that played through it, entertained him, illustrated the frankness, the passion and pluck, that he admired her for. He should never be on the footing of sparing Miss Henning’s susceptibilities; how fond she might really be of him he could not take upon himself to say, but her affection would never take the form of that sort of delicacy, and their intercourse was plainly foredoomed to be an exchange of thumps and concussions, of sarcastic shouts and mutual défis. He liked her, at bottom, strangely, absurdly; but after all it was only well enough to torment her – she could bear so much – not well enough to spare her. Of there being any justification of her jealousy of the Princess he never thought; it could not occur to him to weigh against each other the sentiments he might excite in such opposed bosoms or those that the spectacle of either emotion might have kindled in his own. He had, no doubt, his share of fatuity, but he found himself unable to associate, mentally, a great lady and a shop-girl in a contest for a prize which should present analogies with his own personality. How could they have anything in common – even so small a thing as a desire to possess themselves of Hyacinth Robinson? A fact that he did not impart to Millicent, and that he could have no wish to impart to her, was the matter of his pilgrimage to Belgrave Square. He might be in love with the Princess (how could he qualify, as yet, the bewildered emotion she had produced in him?), and he certainly never would conceive a passion for poor Lady Aurora; yet it would have given him pain much greater than any he felt in the other case, to hear the girl make free with the ministering angel of Audley Court. The difference was, perhaps, somehow in that she appeared really not to touch or arrive at the Princess at all, whereas Lady Aurora was within her range and compass.

After paying him that visit at his rooms Hyacinth lost sight of Captain Sholto, who had not again reappeared at the ‘Sun and Moon’, the little tavern which presented so common and casual a face to the world and yet, in its unsuspected rear, offered a security as yet unimpugned to machinations going down to the very bottom of things. Nothing was more natural than that the Captain should be engaged at this season in the recreations of his class; and our young man took for granted that if he were not hanging about the Princess, on that queer footing as to which he himself had a secret hope that he should some day have more light, he was probably ploughing through northern seas on a yacht or creeping after stags in the Highlands; our hero’s acquaintance with the light literature of his country being such as to assure him that in one or other of these occupations people of leisure, during the autumn, were necessarily immersed. If the Captain were giving his attention to neither, he must have started for Albania, or at least for Paris. Happy Captain, Hyacinth reflected, while his imagination followed him through all kinds of vivid exotic episodes and his restless young feet continued to tread, through the stale, flat weeks of September and October, the familiar pavements of Soho, Islington and Pentonville, and the shabby sinuous ways which unite these laborious districts. He had told the Princess that he sometimes had a holiday at this period and that there was a chance of his escorting his respectable companion to the seaside; but as it turned out, at present, the spare cash for such an excursion was wanting. Hyacinth had indeed, for the moment, an exceptionally keen sense of the absence of this article, and was forcibly reminded that it took a good deal of money to cultivate the society of agreeable women. He not only had not a penny, but he was much in debt, and the explanation of his pinched feeling was in a vague, half-remorseful, half-resigned reference to the numerous occasions when he had had to put his hand in his pocket under penalty of disappointing a young lady whose needs were positive, and especially to a certain high crisis (as it might prove to be) in his destiny, when it came over him that one couldn’t call on a princess just as one was. So, this year, he did not ask old Crookenden for the week which some of the other men took (Eustache Poupin, who had never quitted London since his arrival, launched himself, precisely that summer, supported by his brave wife, into the British unknown, on the strength of a return ticket to Worthing); simply because he shouldn’t know what to do with it. The best way not to spend money, though it was no doubt not the best in the world to make it, was still to take one’s daily course to the old familiar, shabby shop, where, as the days shortened and November thickened the air to a livid yellow, the uncovered flame of the gas, burning often from the morning on, lighted up the ugliness amid which the hand of practice endeavoured to disengage a little beauty – the ugliness of a dingy, belittered interior, of battered, dispapered walls, of work-tables stained and hacked, of windows opening into a foul, drizzling street, of the bared arms, the sordid waistcoat-backs, the smeared aprons, the personal odour, the patient, obstinate, irritating shoulders and vulgar, narrow, inevitable faces, of his fellow-labourers. Hyacinth’s relations with his comrades would form a chapter by itself, but all that may be said of the matter here is that the clever little operator from Lomax Place had a kind of double identity, and that much as he lived in Mr Crookenden’s establishment he lived out of it still more. In this busy, pasty, sticky, leathery little world, where wages and beer were the main objects of consideration, he played his part in a manner which caused him to be regarded as a queer lot, but capable of queerness in the line of good-nature too. He had not made good his place there without discovering that the British workman, when animated by the spirit of mirth, has rather a heavy hand, and he tasted of the practical joke in every degree of violence. During his first year he dreamed, with secret passion and suppressed tears, of a day of bliss when at last they would let him alone – a day which arrived in time, for it is always an advantage to be clever, if only one is clever enough. Hyacinth was sufficiently so to have invented a modus vivendi in respect to which M. Poupin said to him, “Enfin vous voilà ferme!” (the Frenchman himself, terribly éprouvé at the beginning, had always bristled with firmness and opposed to insular grossness a refined dignity), and under the influence of which the scenery of Soho figured as a daily, dusky phantasmagoria, relegated to the mechanical, passive part of experience and giving no hostages to reality, or at least to ambition, save an insufficient number of shillings on Saturday night and spasmodic reminiscences of delicate work that might have been more delicate still, as well as of certain applications of the tool which he flattered himself were unsurpassed, unless by the supreme Eustache.

One evening in November, after discharging himself of a considerable indebtedness to Pinnie, he had still a sovereign in his pocket – a sovereign which seemed to spin there at the opposed solicitation of a dozen exemplary uses. He had come out for a walk, with a vague intention of pushing as far as Audley Court; and lurking within this nebulous design, on which the damp breath of the streets, making objects seem that night particularly dim and places particularly far, had blown a certain chill, was a sense that it would be rather nice to take something to Rose Muniment, who delighted in a sixpenny present and to whom, for some time, he had not rendered any such homage. At last, after he had wandered a while, hesitating between the pilgrimage to Camberwell and the possibility of still associating his evening in some way or other with that of Miss Henning, he reflected that if a sovereign was to be pulled to pieces it was a simplification to get it changed. He had been traversing the region of Mayfair, partly with the preoccupation of a short cut and partly from an instinct of self-defence; if one was in danger of spending one’s money precipitately it was so much gained to plunge into a quarter in which, at that hour especially, there were no shops for little bookbinders. Hyacinth’s victory, however, was imperfect when it occurred to him to turn into a public-house in order to convert his gold into convenient silver. When it was a question of entering these establishments he selected in preference the most decent; he never knew what unpleasant people he might find on the other side of the swinging door. Those which glitter, at intervals, amid the residential gloom of Mayfair partake of the general gentility of the neighbourhood, so that Hyacinth was not surprised (he had passed into the compartment marked ‘private bar’) to see but a single drinker leaning against the counter on which, with his request very civilly enunciated, he put down his sovereign. He was surprised, on the other hand, when, glancing up again, he became aware that this solitary drinker was Captain Godfrey Sholto.

“Why, my dear boy, what a remarkable coincidence!” the Captain exclaimed. “For once in five years that I come into a place like this!”

“I don’t come in often myself. I thought you were in Madagascar,” said Hyacinth.

“Ah, because I have not been at the ‘Sun and Moon’? Well, I have been constantly out of town, you know. And then – don’t you see what I mean? – I want to be tremendously careful. That’s the way to get on, isn’t it? But I dare say you don’t believe in my discretion!” Sholto laughed. “What shall I do to make you understand? I say, have a brandy and soda,” he continued, as if this might assist Hyacinth’s comprehension. He seemed a trifle flurried, and, if it were possible to imagine such a thing of so independent and whimsical a personage, the least bit abashed or uneasy at having been found in such a low place. It was not any lower, after all, than the ‘Sun and Moon’. He was dressed on this occasion according to his station, without the pot-hat and the shabby jacket, and Hyacinth looked at him with a sense that a good tailor must really add a charm to life. Our hero was struck more than ever before with his being the type of man whom, as he strolled about, observing people, he had so often regarded with wonder and envy – the sort of man of whom one said to one’s self that he was the ‘finest white’, feeling that he had the world in his pocket. Sholto requested the bar-maid to please not dawdle in preparing the brandy and soda which Hyacinth had thought to ease off the situation by accepting: this, indeed, was perhaps what the finest white would naturally do. And when the young man had taken the glass from the counter Sholto appeared to encourage him not to linger as he drank it, and smiled down at him very kindly and amusedly, as if the combination of a very small bookbinder and a big tumbler were sufficiently droll. The Captain took time, however, to ask Hyacinth how he had spent his autumn and what was the news in Bloomsbury; he further inquired about those delightful people over the river. “I can’t tell you what an impression they made upon me – that evening, you know.” After this he remarked to Hyacinth, suddenly, irrelevantly, “And so you are just going to stay on for the winter, quietly?” Our young man stared: he wondered what other project any one could attribute to him; he could not reflect, immediately, that this was the sort of thing the finest whites said to each other when they met, after their fashionable dispersals, and that his friend had only been guilty of a momentary inadvertence. In point of fact the Captain recovered himself : “Oh, of course you have got your work, and that sort of thing;” and, as Hyacinth did not succeed in swallowing at a gulp the contents of his big tumbler, he asked him presently whether he had heard anything from the Princess. Hyacinth replied that he could have no news except what the Captain might be good enough to give him; but he added that he did go to see her just before she left town.

“Ah, you did go to see her? That’s quite right – quite right.”

“I went because she very kindly wrote to me to come.”

“Ah, she wrote to you to come?” The Captain fixed Hyacinth for a moment with his curious colourless eyes. “Do you know you are a devilish privileged mortal?”

“Certainly, I know that.” Hyacinth blushed and felt foolish; the bar-maid, who had heard this odd couple talking about a princess, was staring at him too, with her elbows on the counter.

“Do you know there are people who would give their heads that she should write to them to come?”

“I have no doubt of it whatever!” Hyacinth exclaimed, taking refuge in a laugh which did not sound as natural as he would have liked, and wondering whether his interlocutor were not precisely one of these people. In this case the bar-maid might well stare; for deeply convinced as our young man might be that he was the son of Lord Frederick Purvis, there was really no end to the oddity of his being preferred – and by a princess – to Captain Sholto. If anything could have reinforced, at that moment, his sense of this anomaly, it would have been the indescribably gentlemanly way, implying all sorts of common initiations, in which his companion went on –

“Ah, well, I see you know how to take it! And if you are in correspondence with her why do you say that you can hear from her only through me? My dear fellow, I am not in correspondence with her. You might think I would naturally be, but I am not.” He subjoined, as Hyacinth had laughed again, in a manner that might have passed for ambiguous, “So much the worse for me – is that what you mean?” Hyacinth replied that he himself had had the honour of hearing from the Princess only once, and he mentioned that she had told him that her letter-writing came only in fits, when it was sometimes very profuse: there were months together that she didn’t touch a pen. “Oh, I can imagine what she told you!” the Captain exclaimed. “Look out for the next fit! She is visiting about. It’s a great thing to be in the same house with her – an immense comedy.” He remarked that he had heard, now he remembered, that she either had taken, or was thinking of taking, a house in the country for a few months, and he added that if Hyacinth didn’t propose to finish his brandy and soda they might as well turn out. Hyacinth’s thirst had been very superficial, and as they turned out the Captain observed, by way of explanation of his having been found in a public-house (it was the only attempt of this kind he made), that any friend of his would always know him by his love of curious out-of-the-way nooks. “You must have noticed that,” he said – “my taste for exploration. If I hadn’t explored I never should have known you, should I? That was rather a nice little girl in there; did you twig her figure? It’s a pity they always have such beastly hands.” Hyacinth, instinctively, had made a motion to go southward, but Sholto, passing a hand into his arm, led him the other way. The house they had quitted was near a corner, which they rounded, the Captain pushing forward as if there were some reason for haste. His haste was checked, however, by an immediate collision with a young woman who, coming in the opposite direction, turned the angle as briskly as themselves. At this moment the Captain gave Hyacinth a great jerk, but not before he had caught a glimpse of the young woman’s face – it seemed to flash upon him out of the dusk – and given quick voice to his surprise.

“Hallo, Millicent!” This was the simple cry that escaped from his lips, while the Captain, still going on, inquired, “What’s the matter? Who’s your pretty friend?” Hyacinth declined to go on, and repeated Miss Henning’s baptismal name so loudly that the young woman, who had passed them without looking back, was obliged to stop. Then Hyacinth saw that he was not mistaken, though Millicent gave no audible response. She stood looking at him, with her head very high, and he approached her, disengaging himself from Sholto, who however hung back only an instant before joining them. Hyacinth’s heart had suddenly begun to beat very fast; there was a sharp shock in the girl’s turning up just in that place at that moment. Yet when she began to laugh, abruptly, with violence, and to ask him why he was looking at her as if she were a kicking horse, he recognised that there was nothing so very extraordinary, after all, in a casual meeting between persons who were such frequenters of the London streets. Millicent had never concealed the fact that she ‘trotted about’, on various errands, at night; and once, when he had said to her that the less a respectable young woman took the evening air alone the better for her respectability, she had asked how respectable he thought she pretended to be, and had remarked that if he would make her a present of a brougham, or even call for her three or four times a week in a cab, she would doubtless preserve more of her social purity. She could turn the tables quickly enough, and she exclaimed, now, professing, on her own side, great astonishment –

“What are you prowling about here for? You’re after no good, I’ll be bound!”

“Good evening, Miss Henning; what a jolly meeting!” said the Captain, removing his hat with a humorous flourish.

“Oh, how d’ye do?” Millicent returned, as if she did not immediately place him.

“Where were you going so fast? What are you doing?” asked Hyacinth, who had looked from one to the other.

“Well, I never did see such a manner – from one that knocks about like you!” cried Miss Henning. “I’m going to see a friend of mine – a lady’s-maid in Curzon Street. Have you anything to say to that?”

“Don’t tell us – don’t tell us!” Sholto interposed, after she had spoken (she had not hesitated an instant). “I, at least, disavow the indiscretion. Where may not a charming woman be going when she trips with a light foot through the gathering dusk?”

“I say, what are you talking about?” the girl inquired, with dignity, of Hyacinth’s companion. She spoke as if with a resentful suspicion that her foot had not really been perceived to be light.

“On what errand of mercy, of secret tenderness?” the Captain went on, laughing.

“Secret yourself!” cried Millicent. “Do you two always hunt in couples?”

“All right, we’ll turn round and go with you as far as your friend’s,” Hyacinth said.

“All right,” Millicent replied.

“All right,” the Captain added; and the three took their way together in the direction of Curzon Street. They walked for a few moments in silence, though the Captain whistled, and then Millicent suddenly turned to Hyacinth –

“You haven’t told me where you were going, yet.”

“We met in that public-house,” the Captain said, “and we were each so ashamed of being found in such a place by the other that we tumbled out together, without much thinking what we should do with ourselves.”

“When he’s out with me he pretends he can’t abide them houses,” Miss Henning declared. “I wish I had looked in that one, to see who was there.”

“Well, she’s rather nice,” the Captain went on. “She told me her name was Georgiana.”

“I went to get a piece of money changed,” Hyacinth said, with a sense that there was a certain dishonesty in the air; glad that he, at least, could afford to speak the truth.

“To get your grandmother’s nightcap changed! I recommend you to keep your money together – you’ve none too much of it!” Millicent exclaimed.

“Is that the reason you are playing me false?” Hyacinth flashed out. He had been thinking, with still intentness, as they walked; at once nursing and wrestling with a kindled suspicion. He was pale with the idea that he was being bamboozled; yet he was able to say to himself that one must allow, in life, for the element of coincidence, and that he might easily put himself immensely in the wrong by making a groundless charge. It was only later that he pieced his impressions together, and saw them – as it appeared – justify each other; at present, as soon as he had uttered it, he was almost ashamed of his quick retort to Millicent’s taunt. He ought at least to have waited to see what Curzon Street would bring forth.

The girl broke out upon him immediately, repeating “False, false?” with high derision, and wanting to know whether that was the way to knock a lady about in public. She had stopped short on the edge of a crossing, and she went on, with a voice so uplifted that he was glad they were in a street that was rather empty at such an hour: “You’re a pretty one to talk about falsity, when a woman has only to leer at you out of an opera-box!”

“Don’t say anything about her,” the young man interposed, trembling.

“And pray why not about ‘her’, I should like to know? You don’t pretend she’s a decent woman, I suppose?” Millicent’s laughter rang through the quiet neighbourhood.

“My dear fellow, you know you have been to her,” Captain Sholto remarked, smiling.

Hyacinth turned upon him, staring, at once challenged and baffled by his ambiguous part in an incident it was doubtless possible to magnify but it was not possible to treat as perfectly simple. “Certainly, I have been to the Princess Casamassima, thanks to you. When you came and begged me, when you dragged me, do you make it a reproach? Who the devil are you, any way, and what do you want of me?” our hero cried – his mind flooded in a moment with everything in the Captain that had puzzled him and eluded him. This swelling tide obliterated on the spot everything that had entertained and gratified him.

“My dear fellow, whatever I am, I am not an ass,” this gentleman replied, with imperturbable good-humour. “I don’t reproach you with anything. I only wanted to put in a word as a peacemaker. My good friends – my good friends,” and he laid a hand, in his practised way, on Hyacinth’s shoulder, while, with the other pressed to his heart, he bent on the girl a face of gallantry which had something paternal in it, “I am determined this absurd misunderstanding shall end as lovers’ quarrels ought always to end.”

Hyacinth withdrew himself from the Captain’s touch and said to Millicent, “You are not really jealous of – of any one. You pretend that, only to throw dust in my eyes.”

To this sally Miss Henning returned him an answer which promised to be lively, but the Captain swept it away in the profusion of his protests. He pronounced them a dear delightful, abominable young couple; he declared it was most interesting to see how, in people of their sort, the passions lay near the surface; he almost pushed them into each other’s arms; and he wound up by proposing that they should all terminate their little differences by proceeding together to the Pavilion music-hall, the nearest place of entertainment in that neighbourhood, leaving the lady’s-maid in Curzon Street to dress her mistress’s wig in peace. He has been presented to the reader as an accomplished man, and it will doubtless be felt that the picture is justified when I relate that he placed this idea in so attractive a light that his companions finally entered a hansom with him and rattled toward the haunt of pleasure, Hyacinth sandwiched, on the edge of the seat, between the others. Two or three times his ears burned; he felt that if there was an understanding between them they had now, behind him, a rare opportunity for carrying it out. If it was at his expense, the whole evening constituted for them, indeed, an opportunity, and this thought rendered his diversion but scantily absorbing, though at the Pavilion the Captain engaged a private box and ordered ices to be brought in. Hyacinth cared so little for his little pink pyramid that he suffered Millicent to consume it after she had disposed of her own. It was present to him, however, that if he should make a fool of himself the folly would be of a very gross kind, and this is why he withheld a question which rose to his lips repeatedly – a disposition to inquire of his entertainer why the mischief he had hurried him so out of the public-house, if he had not been waiting there, preconcertedly, for Millicent. We know that in Hyacinth’s eyes one of this young lady’s compensatory merits had been that she was not deceitful, and he asked himself if a girl could change, that way, from one month to the other. This was optimistic, but, all the same, he reflected, before leaving the Pavilion, that he could see quite well what Lady Aurora meant by thinking Captain Sholto vulgar.

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