The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


“I can give you your friend’s name – in a single guess. He is Diedrich Hoffendahl!” They had been strolling more and more slowly, the next morning, and as she made this announcement the Princess stopped altogether, standing there under a great beech with her eyes upon Hyacinth’s and her hands full of primroses. He had breakfasted at noon, with his hostess and Madame Grandoni, but the old lady had fortunately not joined them when the Princess afterwards proposed that he should accompany her on her walk in the park. She told him that her venerable friend had let her know, while the day was still very young, that she thought it in the worst possible taste of the Princess not to have allowed Mr Robinson to depart; to which Christina had replied that concerning tastes there was no disputing and that they had disagreed on such matters before without any one being the worse. Hyacinth expressed the hope that they wouldn’t dispute about him – of all thankless subjects in the world; and the Princess assured him that she never disputed about anything. She held that there were other ways than that of arranging one’s relations with people; and Hyacinth guessed that she meant that when a difference became sharp she broke off altogether. On her side, then, there was as little possibility as on his that they should ever quarrel; their acquaintance would be a solid friendship or it would be nothing at all. The Princess gave it from hour to hour more of this quality, and it may be imagined how safe Hyacinth felt by the time he began to tell her that something had happened to him, in London, three months before, one night (or rather in the small hours of the morning), that had altered his life altogether – had, indeed, as he might say, changed the terms on which he held it. He was aware that he didn’t know exactly what he meant by this last phrase; but it expressed sufficiently well the new feeling that had come over him since that interminable, tantalising cab-drive in the rain.

The Princess had led to this, almost as soon as they left the house; making up for her avoidance of such topics the day before by saying, suddenly, “Now tell me what is going on among your friends. I don’t mean your worldly acquaintances, but your colleagues, your brothers. Où en êtes-vous, at the present time? Is there anything new, is anything going to be done; I am afraid you are always simply dawdling and muddling.” Hyacinth felt as if, of late, he had by no means either dawdled or muddled; but before he had committed himself so far as to refute the imputation the Princess exclaimed, in another tone, “How annoying it is that I can’t ask you anything without giving you the right to say to yourself, ‘After all, what do I know? May she not be in the pay of the police?’”

“Oh, that doesn’t occur to me,” said Hyacinth, with a smile.

“It might, at all events; by which I mean it may, at any moment. Indeed, I think it ought.”

“If you were in the pay of the police you wouldn’t trouble your head about me.”

“I should make you think that, certainly! That would be my first care. However, if you have no tiresome suspicions so much the better,” said the Princess; and she pressed him again for some news from behind the scenes.

In spite of his absence of doubt on the subject of her honesty – he felt that he should never again entertain any such trumpery idea as that she might be an agent on the wrong side – he did not open himself immediately; but at the end of half an hour he let her know that the most important event of his life had taken place, scarcely more than the other day, in the most unexpected manner. And to explain in what it had consisted, he said, “I pledged myself, by everything that is sacred.”

“To what did you pledge yourself?”

“I took a vow – a tremendous, terrible vow – in the presence of four witnesses,” Hyacinth went on.

“And what was it about, your vow?”

“I gave my life away,” said Hyacinth, smiling.

She looked at him askance, as if to see how he would make such an announcement as that; but she wore no smile – her face was politely grave. They moved together a moment, exchanging a glance, in silence, and then she said, “Ah, well, then, I’m all the more glad you stayed!”

“That was one of the reasons.”

“I wish you had waited – till after you had been here,” the Princess remarked.

“Why till after I had been here?”

“Perhaps then you wouldn’t have given away your life. You might have seen reasons for keeping it.” And now, at last, she treated the matter gaily, as Hyacinth had done. He replied that he had not the least doubt that, on the whole, her influence was relaxing; but without heeding this remark she went on: “Be so good as to tell me what you are talking about.”

“I’m not afraid of you, but I’ll give you no names,” said Hyacinth; and he related what had happened in the back-room in Bloomsbury, in the course of that evening of which I have given some account. The Princess listened, intently, while they strolled under the budding trees with a more interrupted step. Never had the old oaks and beeches, renewing themselves in the sunshine as they did to-day, or naked in some gray November, witnessed such an extraordinary series of confidences, since the first pair that sought isolation wandered over the grassy slopes and ferny dells beneath them. Among other things Hyacinth mentioned to his companion that he didn’t go to the ‘Sun and Moon’ any more; he now perceived, what he ought to have perceived long before, that this particular temple of their faith, and everything that pretended to get hatched there, was a hopeless sham. He had been a rare muff, from the first, to take it seriously. He had done so mainly because a friend of his, in whom he had confidence, appeared to set him the example; but now it turned out that this friend (it was Paul Muniment again, by the way) had always thought the men who went there a pack of duffers and was only trying them because he tried everything. There was nobody you could begin to call a first-rate man there, putting aside another friend of his, a Frenchman named Poupin – and Poupin was magnificent, but he wasn’t first-rate. Hyacinth had a standard, now that he had seen a man who was the very incarnation of his programme. You felt that he was a big chap the very moment you came into his presence.

“Into whose presence, Mr Robinson?” the Princess inquired.

“I don’t know that I ought to tell you, much as I believe in you! I am speaking of the very remarkable individual with whom I entered into that engagement.”

“To give away your life?”

“To do something which in a certain contingency he will require of me. He will require my poor little carcass.”

“Those plans have a way of failing – unfortunately,” the Princess murmured, adding the last word more quickly.

“Is that a consolation, or a lament?” Hyacinth asked. “This one shall not fail, so far as it depends on me. They wanted an obliging young man – the place was vacant – I stepped in.”

“I have no doubt you are right. We must pay for what we do.” The Princess made that remark calmly and coldly; then she said, “I think I know the person in whose power you have placed yourself.”

“Possibly, but I doubt it.”

“You can’t believe I have already gone so far? Why not? I have given you a certain amount of proof that I don’t hang back.”

“Well, if you know my friend, you have gone very far indeed.”

The Princess appeared to be on the point of pronouncing a name; but she checked herself, and asked suddenly, smiling, “Don’t they also want, by chance, an obliging young woman?”

“I happen to know he doesn’t think much of women, my first-rate man. He doesn’t trust them.”

“Is that why you call him first-rate? You have very nearly betrayed him to me.”

“Do you imagine there is only one of that opinion?” Hyacinth inquired.

“Only one who, having it, still remains a superior man. That’s a very difficult opinion to reconcile with others that it is important to have.”

“Schopenhauer did so, successfully,” said Hyacinth.

“How delightful that you should know Schopenhauer!” the Princess exclaimed. “The gentleman I have in my eye is also German.” Hyacinth let this pass, not challenging her, because he wished not to be challenged in return, and the Princess went on: “Of course such an engagement as you speak of must make a tremendous difference, in everything.”

“It has made this difference, that I have now a far other sense from any I had before of the reality, the solidity, of what is being prepared. I was hanging about outside, on the steps of the temple, among the loafers and the gossips, but now I have been in the innermost sanctuary – I have seen the holy of holies.”

“And it’s very dazzling?”

“Ah, Princess!” sighed the young man.

“Then it is real, it is solid?” she pursued. “That’s exactly what I have been trying to make up my mind about, for so long.”

“It is more strange than I can say. Nothing of it appears above the surface; but there is an immense underworld, peopled with a thousand forms of revolutionary passion and devotion. The manner in which it is organised is what astonished me; I knew that, or thought I knew it, in a general way, but the reality was a revelation. And on top of it all, society lives! People go and come, and buy and sell, and drink and dance, and make money and make love, and seem to know nothing and suspect nothing and think of nothing; and iniquities flourish, and the misery of half the world is prated about as a ‘necessary evil’, and generations rot away and starve, in the midst of it, and day follows day, and everything is for the best in the best of possible worlds. All that is one-half of it; the other half is that everything is doomed! In silence, in darkness, but under the feet of each one of us, the revolution lives and works. It is a wonderful, immeasurable trap, on the lid of which society performs its antics. When once the machinery is complete, there will be a great rehearsal. That rehearsal is what they want me for. The invisible, impalpable wires are everywhere, passing through everything, attaching themselves to objects in which one would never think of looking for them. What could be more strange and incredible, for instance, than that they should exist just here?”

“You make me believe it,” said the Princess, thoughtfully.

“It matters little whether one believes it or not!”

“You have had a vision,” the Princess continued.

Parbleu, I have had a vision! So would you, if you had been there.”

“I wish I had!” she declared, in a tone charged with such ambiguous implications that Hyacinth, catching them a moment after she had spoken, rejoined, with a quick, incongruous laugh –

“No, you would have spoiled everything. He made me see, he made me feel, he made me do, everything he wanted.”

“And why should he have wanted you, in particular?”

“Simply because I struck him as the right person. That’s his affair: I can’t tell you. When he meets the right person he chalks him. I sat on the bed. (There were only two chairs in the dirty little room, and by way of a curtain his overcoat was hung up before the window.) He didn’t sit, himself; he leaned against the wall, straight in front of me, with his hands behind him. He told me certain things, and his manner was extraordinarily quiet. So was mine, I think I may say; and indeed it was only poor Poupin who made a row. It was for my sake, somehow: he didn’t think we were all conscious enough; he wanted to call attention to my sublimity. There was no sublimity about it – I simply couldn’t help myself. He and the other German had the two chairs, and Muniment sat on a queer old battered, hair-covered trunk, a most foreign-looking article.” Hyacinth had taken no notice of the little ejaculation with which his companion greeted, in this last sentence, the word ‘other’.

“And what did Mr Muniment say?” she presently inquired.

“Oh, he said it was all right. Of course he thought that, from the moment he determined to bring me. He knew what the other fellow was looking for.”

“I see.” Then the Princess remarked, “We have a curious way of being fond of you.”

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’?”

“Your friends. Mr Muniment and I, for instance.”

“I like it as well as any other. But you don’t feel alike. I have an idea you are sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“That I have put my head in a noose.”

“Ah, you’re severe – I thought I concealed it so well!” the Princess exclaimed. He admitted that he had been severe, and begged her pardon, for he was by no means sure that there was not a hint of tears in her voice. She looked away from him for a minute, and it was after this that, stopping short, she remarked, as I have related, “He is Diedrich Hoffendahl.”

Hyacinth stared for a moment, with parted lips. “Well, you are in it, more than I supposed!”

“You know he doesn’t trust women,” his companion smiled.

“Why in the world should you have cared for any light I can throw, if you have ever been in relation with him?”

She hesitated a little. “Oh, you are very different. I like you better,” she added.

“Ah, if it’s for that!” murmured Hyacinth.

The Princess coloured, as he had seen her colour before, and in this accident, on her part, there was an unexpectedness, something touching. “Don’t try to fix my inconsistencies on me,” she said, with an humility which matched her blush. “Of course there are plenty of them, but it will always be kinder of you to let them pass. Besides, in this case they are not so serious as they seem. As a product of the ‘people’, and of that strange, fermenting underworld (what you say of it is so true!), you interest me more, and have more to say to me, even than Hoffendahl – wonderful creature as he assuredly is.”

“Would you object to telling me how and where you came to know him?”

“Through a couple of friends of mine in Vienna, two of the affiliated, both passionate revolutionists and clever men. They are Neapolitans, originally poveretti, like yourself, who emigrated, years ago, to seek their fortune. One of them is a teacher of singing, the wisest, most accomplished person in his line I have ever known. The other, if you please, is a confectioner! He makes the most delicious pâtisserie fine. It would take long to tell you how I made their acquaintance, and how they put me into relation with the Maestro, as they called him, of whom they spoke with bated breath. It is not from yesterday – though you don’t seem able to believe it – that I have had a care for all this business. I wrote to Hoffendahl, and had several letters from him; the singing-master and the pastry-cook went bail for my sincerity. The next year I had an interview with him at Wiesbaden; but I can’t tell you the circumstances of our meeting, in that place, without implicating another person, to whom, at present at least, I have no right to give you a clue. Of course Hoffendahl made an immense impression on me; he seemed to me the Master indeed, the very genius of a new social order, and I fully understand the manner in which you were affected by him. When he was in London, three months ago, I knew it, and I knew where to write to him. I did so, and asked him if he wouldn’t see me somewhere. I said I would meet him in any hole he should designate. He answered by a charming letter, which I will show you – there is nothing in the least compromising in it – but he declined my offer, pleading his short stay and a press of engagements. He will write to me, but he won’t trust me. However, he shall some day!”

Hyacinth was thrown quite off his balance by this representation of the ground the Princess had already traversed, and the explanation was still but half restorative when, on his asking her why she hadn’t exhibited her titles before, she replied, “Well, I thought my being quiet was the better way to draw you out.” There was but little difficulty in drawing him out now, and before their walk was over he had told her more definitely what Hoffendahl demanded. This was simply that he should hold himself ready, for the next five years, to do, at a given moment, an act which would in all probability cost him his life. The act was as yet indefinite, but one might get an idea of it from the penalty involved, which would certainly be capital. The only thing settled was that it was to be done instantly and absolutely, without a question, a hesitation or a scruple, in the manner that should be prescribed, at the moment, from headquarters. Very likely it would be to kill some one – some humbug in a high place; but whether the individual should deserve it or should not deserve it was not Hyacinth’s affair. If he recognised generally Hoffendahl’s wisdom – and the other night it had seemed to shine like a northern aurora – it was not in order that he might challenge it in the particular case. He had taken a vow of blind obedience, as the Jesuit fathers did to the head of their order. It was because they had carried out their vows (having, in the first place, great administrators) that their organisation had been mighty, and that sort of mightiness was what people who felt as Hyacinth and the Princess felt should go in for. It was not certain that he should be collared, any more than it was certain that he should bring down his man; but it was much to be looked for, and it was what he counted on and indeed preferred. He should probably take little trouble to escape, and he should never enjoy the idea of hiding (after the fact) or running away. If it were a question of putting a bullet into some one, he himself should naturally deserve what would come to him. If one did that sort of thing there was an indelicacy in not being ready to pay for it; and he, at least, was perfectly willing. He shouldn’t judge; he should simply execute. He didn’t pretend to say what good his little job might do, or what portée it might have; he hadn’t the data for appreciating it, and simply took upon himself to believe that at headquarters they knew what they were about. The thing was to be a feature in a very large plan, of which he couldn’t measure the scope – something that was to be done simultaneously in a dozen different countries. The effect was to be very much in this immense coincidence. It was to be hoped it wouldn’t be spoiled. At any rate, he wouldn’t hang fire, whatever the other fellows might do. He didn’t say it because Hoffendahl had done him the honour of giving him the business to do, but he believed the Master knew how to pick out his men. To be sure, Hoffendahl had known nothing about him in advance; he had only been suggested by those who were looking out, from one day to the other. The fact remained however that when Hyacinth stood before him he recognised him as the sort of little chap that he had in his eye (one who could pass through a small orifice). Humanity, in his scheme, was classified and subdivided with a truly German thoroughness, and altogether of course from the point of view of the revolution, as it might forward or obstruct it. Hyacinth’s little job was a very small part of what Hoffendahl had come to England for; he had in his hand innumerable other threads. Hyacinth knew nothing of these, and didn’t much want to know, except that it was marvellous, the way Hoffendahl kept them apart. He had exactly the same mastery of them that a great musician – that the Princess herself – had of the keyboard of the piano; he treated all things, persons, institutions, ideas, as so many notes in his great symphonic revolt. The day would come when Hyacinth, far down in the treble, would feel himself touched by the little finger of the composer, would become audible (with a small, sharp crack) for a second.

It was impossible that our young man should not feel, at the end of ten minutes, that he had charmed the Princess into the deepest, most genuine attention; she was listening to him as she had never listened before. He enjoyed having that effect upon her, and his sense of the tenuity of the thread by which his future hung, renewed by his hearing himself talk about it, made him reflect that at present anything in the line of enjoyment was so much gained. The reader may judge whether he had passed through a phase of excitement after finding himself on his new footing of utility in the world; but that had finally spent itself, through a hundred forms of restlessness, of vain conjecture – through an exaltation which alternated with despair and which, equally with the despair, he concealed more successfully than he supposed. He would have detested the idea that his companion might have heard his voice tremble while he told his story; but though to-day he had really grown used to his danger and resigned, as it were, to his consecration, and though it could not fail to be agreeable to him to perceive that he was thrilling, he could still not guess how very remarkable, in such a connection, the Princess thought his composure, his lucidity and good-humour. It is true she tried to hide her wonder, for she owed it to her self-respect to let it still appear that even she was prepared for a personal sacrifice as complete. She had the air – or she endeavoured to have it – of accepting for him everything that he accepted for himself; nevertheless, there was something rather forced in the smile (lovely as it was) with which she covered him, while she said, after a little, “It’s very serious – it’s very serious indeed, isn’t it?” He replied that the serious part was to come – there was no particular grimness for him (comparatively) in strolling in that sweet park and gossiping with her about the matter; and it occurred to her presently to suggest to him that perhaps Hoffendahl would never give him any sign at all, and he would wait all the while, sur les dents, in a false suspense. He admitted that this would be a sell, but declared that either way he would be sold, though differently; and that at any rate he would have conformed to the great religious rule – to live each hour as if it were to be one’s last.

“In holiness, you mean – in great recueillement?” the Princess asked.

“Oh dear, no; simply in extreme thankfulness for every minute that’s added.”

“Ah, well, there will probably be a great many,” she rejoined.

“The more the better – if they are like this.”

“That won’t be the case with many of them, in Lomax Place.”

“I assure you that since that night Lomax Place has improved.” Hyacinth stood there, smiling, with his hands in his pockets and his hat pushed back a little.

The Princess appeared to consider this fact with an extreme intellectual curiosity. “If, after all, then, you are not called, you will have been positively happy.”

“I shall have had some fine moments. Perhaps Hoffendahl’s plot is simply for that; Muniment may have put him up to it!”

“Who knows? However, with me you must go on as if nothing were changed.”

“Changed from what?”

“From the time of our first meeting at the theatre.”

“I’ll go on in any way you like,” said Hyacinth; “only the real difference will be there.”

“The real difference?”

“That I shall have ceased to care for what you care about.”

“I don’t understand,” said the Princess.

“Isn’t it enough, now, to give my life to the beastly cause,” the young man broke out, “without giving my sympathy?”

“The beastly cause?” the Princess murmured, opening her deep eyes.

“Of course it is really just as holy as ever; only the people I find myself pitying now are the rich, the happy.”

“I see. You are very curious. Perhaps you pity my husband,” the Princess added in a moment.

“Do you call him one of the happy?” Hyacinth inquired, as they walked on again.

In answer to this she only repeated, “You are very curious!”

I have related the whole of this conversation, because it supplies a highly important chapter of Hyacinth’s history, but it will not be possible to trace all the stages through which the friendship of the Princess Casamassima with the young man she had constituted her bookbinder was confirmed. By the end of a week the standard of fitness she had set up in the place of exploded proprieties appeared the model of justice and convenience; and during this period many other things happened. One of them was that Hyacinth drove over to Broome with his hostess, and called on Lady Marchant and her daughters; an episode from which the Princess appeared to derive an exquisite gratification. When they came away he asked her why she hadn’t told the ladies who he was. Otherwise, where was the point? And she replied, “Simply because they wouldn’t have believed me. That’s your fault!” This was the same note she had struck when, the third day of his stay (the weather had changed for the worse, and a rainy afternoon kept them in-doors), she remarked to him, irrelevantly and abruptly, “It is most extraordinary, your knowing about Schopenhauer!” He answered that she really seemed quite unable to accustom herself to his little talents; and this led to a long talk, longer than the one I have already narrated, in which he took her still further into his confidence. Never had the pleasure of conversation (the greatest he knew) been so largely opened to him. The Princess admitted, frankly, that he would, to her sense, take a great deal of accounting for; she observed that he was, no doubt, pretty well used to himself, but he must give other people time. “I have watched you, constantly, since you have been here, in every detail of your behaviour, and I am more and more intriguée. You haven’t a vulgar intonation, you haven’t a common gesture, you never make a mistake, you do and say everything exactly in the right way. You come out of the hole you have described to me, and yet you might have stayed in country-houses all your life. You are much better than if you had! Jugez donc, from the way I talk to you! I have to make no allowances. I have seen Italians with that sort of natural tact and taste, but I didn’t know one ever found it in any Anglo-Saxon in whom it hadn’t been cultivated at a vast expense; unless, indeed, in certain little American women.”

“Do you mean I’m a gentleman?” asked Hyacinth, in a peculiar tone, looking out into the wet garden.

She hesitated, and then she said, “It’s I who make the mistakes!” Five minutes later she broke into an exclamation which touched him almost more than anything she had ever done, giving him the highest opinion of her delicacy and sympathy and putting him before himself as vividly as if the words were a little portrait: “Fancy the strange, the bitter fate: to be constituted as you are constituted, to feel the capacity that you must feel, and yet to look at the good things of life only through the glass of the pastry-cook’s window!”

“Every class has its pleasures,” Hyacinth rejoined, with perverse sententiousness, in spite of his emotion; but the remark didn’t darken their mutual intelligence, and before they separated that evening he told her the things that had never yet passed his lips – the things to which he had awaked when he made Pinnie explain to him the visit to the prison. He told her, in a word, what he was.

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