The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Hyacinth knew there was something out of the way as soon as he saw Lady Aurora’s face look forth at him, in answer to his tap, while she held the door ajar. What was she doing in Pinnie’s bedroom? – a very poor place, into which the dressmaker, with her reverence, would never have admitted a person of that quality unless things were pretty bad. She was solemn, too; she didn’t laugh, as usual; she had removed her large hat, with its limp, old-fashioned veil, and she raised her finger to her lips. Hyacinth’s first alarm had been immediately after he let himself into the house, with his latch-key, as he always did, and found the little room on the right of the passage, in which Pinnie had lived ever since he remembered, fireless and untenanted. As soon as he had paid the cabman, who put down his portmanteau for him in the hall (he was not used to paying cabmen, and was conscious he gave him too much, but was too impatient, in his sudden anxiety, to care), he hurried up the vile staircase, which seemed viler, even through his preoccupation, than ever, and gave the knock, accompanied by a call the least bit tremulous, immediately answered by Lady Aurora. She drew back into the room a moment, while he stared, in his dismay; then she emerged again, closing the door behind her – all with the air of enjoining him to be terribly quiet. He felt, suddenly, so sick at the idea of having lingered at Medley while there was distress at the wretched little house to which he owed so much, that he scarcely found strength for an articulate question, and obeyed, mechanically, the mute, urgent gesture by which Lady Aurora appealed to him to go downstairs with her. It was only when they stood together in the deserted parlour (it was as if he perceived for the first time what an inelegant odour prevailed there) that he asked, “Is she dying – is she dead?” That was the least the strained sadness looking out from the face of the noble visitor appeared to announce.

“Dear Mr Robinson, I’m so sorry for you. I wanted to write, but I promised her I wouldn’t. She is very ill – we are very anxious. It began ten days ago, and I suppose I must tell you how much she has gone down.” Lady Aurora spoke with more than all her usual embarrassments and precautions, eagerly, yet as if it cost her much pain: pausing a little after everything she said, to see how he would take it; then going on, with a little propitiatory rush. He learned presently what was the matter, what doctor she had sent for, and that if he would wait a little before going into the room it would be so much better; the invalid having sunk, within half an hour, into a doze of a less agitated kind than she had had for some time, from which it would be an immense pity to run the risk of waking her. The doctor gave her the right things, as it seemed to her ladyship, but he admitted that she had very little power of resistance. He was of course not a very large practitioner, Mr Buffery, from round the corner, but he seemed really clever; and she herself had taken the liberty (as she confessed to this she threw off one of her odd laughs, and her colour rose) of sending an elderly, respectable person – a kind of nurse. She was out just then; she had to go, for an hour, for the air – “only when I come, of course,” said Lady Aurora. Dear Miss Pynsent had had a cold hanging about her, and had not taken care of it. Hyacinth would know how plucky she was about that sort of thing; she took so little interest in herself. “Of course a cold is a cold, whoever has it; isn’t it?” said Lady Aurora. Ten days before, she had taken an additional chill through falling asleep in her chair, in the evening, down there, and letting the fire go out. “It would have been nothing if she had been like you or me, you know,” her ladyship went on; “but just as she was then, it made the difference. The day was horribly damp, and it had struck into the lungs, and inflammation had set in. Mr Buffery says she was impoverished, just rather low and languid, you know.” The next morning she had bad pains and a good deal of fever, yet she had got up. Poor Pinnie’s gracious ministrant did not make clear to Hyacinth what time had elapsed before she came to her relief, nor by what means she had been notified, and he saw that she slurred this over from the admirable motive of wishing him not to feel that the little dressmaker had suffered by his absence or called for him in vain. This, apparently, had indeed not been the case, if Pinnie had opposed, successfully, his being written to. Lady Aurora only said, “I came in very soon, it was such a delightful chance. Since then she has had everything; only it’s sad to see a person need so little. She did want you to stay; she has clung to that idea. I speak the simple truth, Mr Robinson.”

“I don’t know what to say to you – you are so extraordinarily good, so angelic,” Hyacinth replied, bewildered and made weak by a strange, unexpected shame. The episode he had just traversed, the splendour he had been living in and drinking so deep of, the unnatural alliance to which he had given himself up while his wretched little foster-mother struggled alone with her death-stroke – he could see it was that; the presentiment of it, the last stiff horror, was in all the place – the contrast seemed to cut him like a knife, and to make the horrible accident of his absence a perversity of his own. “I can never blame you, when you are so kind, but I wish to God I had known!” he broke out.

Lady Aurora clasped her hands, begging him to judge her fairly. “Of course it was a great responsibility for us, but we thought it right to consider what she urged upon us. She went back to it constantly, that your visit should not be cut short. When you should come of yourself, it would be time enough. I don’t know exactly where you have been, but she said it was such a pleasant house. She kept repeating that it would do you so much good.”

Hyacinth felt his eyes filling with tears. “She’s dying – she’s dying! How can she live when she’s like that?”

He sank upon the old yellow sofa, the sofa of his lifetime and of so many years before, and buried his head on the shabby, tattered arm. A succession of sobs broke from his lips – sobs in which the accumulated emotion of months and the strange, acute conflict of feeling that had possessed him for the three weeks just past found relief and a kind of solution. Lady Aurora sat down beside him and laid her finger-tips gently on his hand. So, for a minute, while his tears flowed and she said nothing, he felt her timid, consoling touch. At the end of the minute he raised his head; it came back to him that she had said ‘we’ just before, and he asked her whom she meant.

“Oh, Mr Vetch, don’t you know? I have made his acquaintance; it’s impossible to be more kind.” Then, while, for an instant, Hyacinth was silent, wincing, pricked with the thought that Pinnie had been beholden to the fiddler while he was masquerading in high life, Lady Aurora added, “He’s a charming musician. She asked him once, at first, to bring his violin; she thought it would soothe her.”

“I’m much obliged to him, but now that I’m here we needn’t trouble him,” said Hyacinth.

Apparently there was a certain dryness in his tone, which was the cause of her ladyship’s venturing to reply, after an hesitation, “Do let him come, Mr Robinson; let him be near you! I wonder whether you know that – that he has a great affection for you.”

“The more fool he; I have always treated him like a brute!” Hyacinth exclaimed, colouring.

The way Lady Aurora spoke proved to him, later, that she now definitely did know his secret, or one of them, rather; for at the rate things had been going for the last few months he was making a regular collection. She knew the smaller – not, of course, the greater; she had, decidedly, been illuminated by Pinnie’s divagations. At the moment he made that reflection, however, he was almost startled to perceive how completely he had ceased to resent such betrayals and how little it suddenly seemed to signify that the innocent source of them was about to be quenched. The sense of his larger secret swallowed up that particular anxiety, making him ask himself what it mattered, for the time that was left to him, that people should whisper to each other his little mystery. The day came quickly when he believed, and yet didn’t care, that it had been universally imparted.

After Lady Aurora left him, promising she would call him the first moment it should seem prudent, he walked up and down the cold, stale parlour, immersed in his meditations. The shock of the danger of losing Pinnie had already passed away; he had achieved so much, of late, in the line of accepting the idea of death that the little dressmaker, in taking her departure, seemed already to benefit by this curious discipline. What was most vivid to him, in the deserted scene of Pinnie’s unsuccessful industry, was the changed vision with which he had come back to objects familiar for twenty years. The picture was the same, and all its horrid elements, wearing a kind of greasy gloss in the impure air of Lomax Place, made, through the mean window-panes, a dismal chiaroscuro – showed, in their polished misery, the friction of his own little life; but the eyes with which he looked at it had new terms of comparison. He had known the place was hideous and sordid, but its aspect to-day was pitiful to the verge of the sickening; he couldn’t believe that for years together he had accepted and even, a little, revered it. He was frightened at the sort of service that his experience of grandeur had rendered him. It was all very well to have assimilated that element with a rapidity which had surprises even for himself; but with sensibilities now so improved what fresh arrangement could one come to with the very humble, which was in its nature uncompromising? Though the spring was far advanced the day was a dark drizzle, and the room had the clamminess of a finished use, an ooze of dampness from the muddy street, where the areas were a narrow slit. No wonder Pinnie had felt it at last, and her small under-fed organism had grown numb and ceased to act. At the thought of her limited, stinted life, the patient, humdrum effort of her needle and scissors, which had ended only in a show-room where there was nothing to show and a pensive reference to the cut of sleeves no longer worn, the tears again rose to his eyes; but he brushed them aside when he heard a cautious tinkle at the house-door, which was presently opened by the little besmirched slavey retained for the service of the solitary lodger – a domestic easily bewildered, who had a squint and distressed Hyacinth by wearing shoes that didn’t match, though they were of an equal antiquity and resembled each other in the facility with which they dropped off. Hyacinth had not heard Mr Vetch’s voice in the hall, apparently because he spoke in a whisper; but the young man was not surprised when, taking every precaution not to make the door creak, he came into the parlour. The fiddler said nothing to him at first; the two men only looked at each other for a long minute. Hyacinth saw what he most wanted to know – whether he knew the worst about Pinnie; but what was further in his eyes (they had an expression considerably different from any he had hitherto seen in them) defined itself to our hero only little by little.

“Don’t you think you might have written me a word?” said Hyacinth, at last. His anger at having been left in ignorance had quitted him, but he thought the question fair. None the less, he expected a sarcastic answer, and was surprised at the mild reasonableness with which Mr Vetch replied –

“I assure you, no responsibility, in the course of my life, ever did more to distress me. There were obvious reasons for calling you back, and yet I couldn’t help wishing you might finish your visit. I balanced one thing against the other; it was very difficult.”

“I can imagine nothing more simple. When people’s nearest and dearest are dying, they are usually sent for.”

The fiddler gave a strange, argumentative smile. If Lomax Place and Miss Pynsent’s select lodging-house wore a new face of vulgarity to Hyacinth, it may be imagined whether the renunciation of the niceties of the toilet, the resigned seediness, which marked Mr Vetch’s old age was unlikely to lend itself to comparison. The glossy butler at Medley had had a hundred more of the signs of success in life. “My dear boy, this case was exceptional,” said the old man. “Your visit had a character of importance.”

“I don’t know what you know about it. I don’t remember that I told you anything.”

“No, certainly, you have never told me much. But if, as is probable, you have seen that kind lady who is now upstairs, you will have learned that Pinnie made a tremendous point of your not being disturbed. She threatened us with her displeasure if we should hurry you back. You know what Pinnie’s displeasure is!” As, at this, Hyacinth turned away with a gesture of irritation, Mr Vetch went on, “No doubt she is absurdly fanciful, poor dear thing; but don’t, now, cast any disrespect upon it. I assure you, if she had been here alone, suffering, sinking, without a creature to tend her, and nothing before her but to die in a corner, like a starved cat, she would still have faced that fate rather than cut short by a single hour your experience of novel scenes.”

Hyacinth was silent for a moment. “Of course I know what you mean. But she spun her delusion – she always did, all of them – out of nothing. I can’t imagine what she knows about my ‘experience’ of any kind of scenes. I told her, when I went out of town, very little more than I told you.”

“What she guessed, what she gathered, has been, at any rate, enough. She has made up her mind that you have formed a connection by means of which you will come, somehow or other, into your own. She has done nothing but talk about your grand kindred. To her mind, you know, it’s all one, the aristocracy, and nothing is simpler than that the person – very exalted, as she believes – with whom you have been to stay should undertake your business with her friends.”

“Oh, well,” said Hyacinth, “I’m very glad not to have deprived you of that entertainment.”

“I assure you the spectacle was exquisite.” Then the fiddler added, “My dear fellow, please leave her the idea.”

“Leave it? I’ll do much more!” Hyacinth exclaimed. “I’ll tell her my great relations have adopted me and that I have come back in the character of Lord Robinson.”

“She will need nothing more to die happy,” Mr Vetch observed.

Five minutes later, after Hyacinth had obtained from his old friend a confirmation of Lady Aurora’s account of Miss Pynsent’s condition, Mr Vetch explaining that he came over, like that, to see how she was, half a dozen times a day – five minutes later a silence had descended upon the pair, while Hyacinth waited for some sign from Lady Aurora that he might come upstairs. The fiddler, who had lighted a pipe, looked out of the window, studying intently the physiognomy of Lomax Place; and Hyacinth, making his tread discreet, walked about the room with his hands in his pockets. At last Mr Vetch observed, without taking his pipe out of his lips or looking round, “I think you might be a little more frank with me at this time of day and at such a crisis.”

Hyacinth stopped in his walk, wondering for a moment, sincerely, what his companion meant, for he had no consciousness at present of an effort to conceal anything he could possibly tell (there were some things, of course, he couldn’t); on the contrary, his life seemed to him particularly open to the public view and exposed to invidious comment. It was at this moment he first observed a certain difference; there was a tone in Mr Vetch’s voice that he had never perceived before – an absence of that note which had made him say, in other days, that the impenetrable old man was diverting himself at his expense. It was as if his attitude had changed, become more explicitly considerate, in consequence of some alteration or promotion on Hyacinth’s part, his having grown older, or more important, or even simply more surpassingly curious. If the first impression made upon him by Pinnie’s old neighbour, as to whose place in the list of the sacrificial (his being a gentleman or one of the sovereign people) he formerly was so perplexed; if the sentiment excited by Mr Vetch in a mind familiar now for nearly a month with forms of indubitable gentility was not favourable to the idea of fraternisation, this secret impatience on Hyacinth’s part was speedily corrected by one of the sudden reactions or quick conversions of which the young man was so often the victim. In the light of the fiddler’s appeal, which evidently meant more than it said, his musty antiquity, his typical look of having had, for years, a small, definite use and taken all the creases and contractions of it, his visible expression, even, of ultimate parsimony and of having ceased to care for the shape of his trousers because he cared more for something else – these things became so many reasons for turning round, going over to him, touching signs of an invincible fidelity, the humble, continuous, single-minded practice of daily duties and an art after all very charming; pursued, moreover, while persons of the species our restored prodigal had lately been consorting with fidgeted from one selfish sensation to another and couldn’t even live in the same place for three months together.

“What should you like me to do, to say, to tell you? Do you want to know what I have been doing in the country? I should have first to know, myself,” Hyacinth said.

“Have you enjoyed it very much?”

“Yes, certainly, very much – not knowing anything about Pinnie. I have been in a beautiful house, with a beautiful woman.”

Mr Vetch had turned round; he looked very impartial, through the smoke of his pipe.

“Is she really a princess?”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘really’. I suppose all titles are great rot. But every one seems agreed to call her so.”

“You know I have always liked to enter into your life; and to-day the wish is stronger than ever,” the old man observed, presently, fixing his eyes very steadily on Hyacinth’s.

The latter returned his gaze for a moment; then he asked, “What makes you say that just now?”

The fiddler appeared to deliberate, and at last he replied, “Because you are in danger of losing the best friend you have ever had.”

“Be sure I feel it. But if I have got you —” Hyacinth added.

“Oh, me! I’m very old, and very tired of life.”

“I suppose that that’s what one arrives at. Well, if I can help you in any way you must lean on me, you must make use of me.”

“That’s precisely what I was going to say to you,” said Mr Vetch. “Should you like any money?”

“Of course I should! But why should you offer it to me?”

“Because in saving it up, little by little, I have had you in mind.”

“Dear Mr Vetch,” said Hyacinth, “you have me too much in mind. I’m not worth it, please believe that; for all sorts of reasons. I should make money enough for any uses I have for it, or have any right to have, if I stayed quietly in London and attended to my work. As you know, I can earn a decent living.”

“Yes, I can see that. But if you stayed quietly in London what would become of your princess?”

“Oh, they can always manage, ladies in that position.”

“Hanged if I understand her position!” cried Mr Vetch, but without laughing. “You have been for three weeks without work, and yet you look uncommonly smart.”

“You see, my living has cost me nothing. When you stay with great people you don’t pay your score,” Hyacinth explained, with great gentleness. “Moreover, the lady whose hospitality I have been enjoying has made me a very handsome offer of work.”

“What kind of work?”

“The only kind I know. She is going to send me a lot of books, to do up for her.”

“And to pay you fancy prices?”

“Oh, no; I am to fix the prices myself.”

“Are not transactions of that kind rather disagreeable, with a lady whose hospitality one has been enjoying?” Mr Vetch inquired.

“Exceedingly! That is exactly why I shall do the books and then take no money.”

“Your princess is rather clever!” the fiddler exclaimed, in a moment, smiling.

“Well, she can’t force me to take it if I won’t,” said Hyacinth.

“No; you must only let me do that.”

“You have curious ideas about me,” the young man declared.

Mr Vetch turned about to the window again, remarking that he had curious ideas about everything. Then he added, after an interval –

“And have you been making love to your great lady?”

He had expected a flash of impatience in reply to this inquiry, and was rather surprised at the manner in which Hyacinth answered: “How shall I explain? It is not a question of that sort.”

“Has she been making love to you, then?”

“If you should ever see her you would understand how absurd that supposition is.”

“How shall I ever see her?” returned Mr Vetch. “In the absence of that privilege I think there is something in my idea.”

“She looks quite over my head,” said Hyacinth, simply. “It’s by no means impossible you may see her. She wants to know my friends, to know the people who live in the Place. And she would take a particular interest in you, on account of your opinions.”

“Ah, I have no opinions now, none any more!” the old man broke out, sadly. “I only had them to frighten Pinnie.”

“She was easily frightened,” said Hyacinth.

“Yes, and easily reassured. Well, I like to know about your life,” his neighbour sighed, irrelevantly. “But take care the great lady doesn’t lead you too far.”

“How do you mean, too far?”

“Isn’t she an anarchist – a nihilist? Doesn’t she go in for a general rectification, as Eustace calls it?”

Hyacinth was silent a moment. “You should see the place – you should see what she wears, what she eats and drinks.”

“Ah, you mean that she is inconsistent with her theories? My dear boy, she would be a droll woman if she were not. At any rate, I’m glad of it.”

“Glad of it?” Hyacinth repeated.

“For you, I mean, when you stay with her; it’s more luxurious!” Mr Vetch exclaimed, turning round and smiling. At this moment a little rap on the floor above, given by Lady Aurora, announced that Hyacinth might at last come up and see Pinnie. Mr Vetch listened and recognised it, and it led him to say, with considerable force, “There’s a woman whose theories and conduct do square!”

Hyacinth, on the threshold, leaving the room, stopped long enough to reply, “Well, when the day comes for my friend to give up – you’ll see.”

“Yes, I have no doubt there are things she will bring herself to sacrifice,” the old man remarked; but Hyacinth was already out of hearing.

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