The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Mrs Bowerbank had let her know she would meet her, almost at the threshold of the dreadful place; and this thought had sustained Miss Pynsent in her long and devious journey, performed partly on foot, partly in a succession of omnibuses. She had had ideas about a cab, but she decided to reserve the cab for the return, as then, very likely, she should be so shaken with emotion, so overpoweringly affected, that it would be a comfort to escape from observation. She had no confidence that if once she passed the door of the prison she should ever be restored to liberty and her customers; it seemed to her an adventure as dangerous as it was dismal, and she was immensely touched by the clear-faced eagerness of the child at her side, who strained forward as brightly as he had done on another occasion, still celebrated in Miss Pynsent’s industrious annals, a certain sultry Saturday in August, when she had taken him to the Tower. It had been a terrible question with her, when once she made up her mind, what she should tell him about the nature of their errand. She determined to tell him as little as possible, to say only that she was going to see a poor woman who was in prison on account of a crime she had committed years before, and who had sent for her, and caused her to be told at the same time that if there was any child she could see – as children (if they were good) were bright and cheering – it would make her very happy that such a little visitor should come as well. It was very difficult, with Hyacinth, to make reservations or mysteries; he wanted to know everything about everything, and he projected the light of a hundred questions upon Miss Pynsent’s incarcerated friend. She had to admit that she had been her friend (for where else was the obligation to go to see her?); but she spoke of the acquaintance as if it were of the slightest (it had survived in the memory of the prisoner only because every one else – the world was so very hard! – had turned away from her), and she congratulated herself on a happy inspiration when she represented the crime for which such a penalty had been exacted as the theft of a gold watch, in a moment of irresistible temptation. The woman had had a wicked husband, who maltreated and deserted her, and she was very poor, almost starving, dreadfully pressed. Hyacinth listened to her history with absorbed attention, and then he said –

“And hadn’t she any children – hadn’t she a little boy?”

This inquiry seemed to Miss Pynsent a portent of future embarrassments, but she met it as bravely as she could, and replied that she believed the wretched victim of the law had had (once upon a time) a very small baby, but she was afraid she had completely lost sight of it. He must know they didn’t allow babies in prisons. To this Hyacinth rejoined that of course they would allow him, because he was – really – big. Miss Pynsent fortified herself with the memory of her other pilgrimage, to Newgate, upwards of ten years before; she had escaped from that ordeal, and had even had the comfort of knowing that in its fruits the interview had been beneficent. The responsibility, however, was much greater now, and, after all, it was not on her own account she was in a nervous tremor, but on that of the urchin over whom the shadow of the house of shame might cast itself.

They made the last part of their approach on foot, having got themselves deposited as near as possible to the river and keeping beside it (according to advice elicited by Miss Pynsent, on the way, in a dozen confidential interviews with policemen, conductors of omnibuses, and small shopkeepers), till they came to a big, dark building with towers, which they would know as soon as they looked at it. They knew it, in fact, soon enough, when they saw it lift its dusky mass from the bank of the Thames, lying there and sprawling over the whole neighbourhood, with brown, bare, windowless walls, ugly, truncated pinnacles, and a character unspeakably sad and stern. It looked very sinister and wicked, to Miss Pynsent’s eyes, and she wondered why a prison should have such an evil face if it was erected in the interest of justice and order – an expression of the righteous forces of society. This particular penitentiary struck her as about as bad and wrong as those who were in it; it threw a blight over the whole place and made the river look foul and poisonous, and the opposite bank, with its protrusion of long-necked chimneys, unsightly gasometers and deposits of rubbish, wear the aspect of a region at whose expense the jail had been populated. She looked up at the dull, closed gates, tightening her grasp of Hyacinth’s small hand; and if it was hard to believe anything so blind and deaf and closely fastened would relax itself to let her in, there was a dreadful premonitory sinking of the heart attached to the idea of its taking the same trouble to let her out. As she hung back, murmuring vague ejaculations, at the very goal of her journey, an incident occurred which fanned all her scruples and reluctances into life again. The child suddenly jerked his hand out of her own, and placing it behind him, in the clutch of the other, said to her respectfully but resolutely, while he planted himself at a considerable distance –

“I don’t like this place.”

“Neither do I like it, my darling,” cried the dressmaker, pitifully. “Oh, if you knew how little!”

“Then we will go away. I won’t go in.”

She would have embraced this proposition with alacrity if it had not become very vivid to her while she stood there, in the midst of her shrinking, that behind those sullen walls the mother who bore him was even then counting the minutes. She was alive, in that huge, dark tomb, and it seemed to Miss Pynsent that they had already entered into relation with her. They were near her, and she knew it; in a few minutes she would taste the cup of the only mercy (except the reprieve from hanging!) she had known since her fall. A few, a very few minutes would do it, and it seemed to Miss Pynsent that if she should fail of her charity now the watches of the night, in Lomax Place, would be haunted with remorse – perhaps even with something worse. There was something inside that waited and listened, something that would burst, with an awful sound, a shriek, or a curse, if she were to lead the boy away. She looked into his pale face for a moment, perfectly conscious that it would be vain for her to take the tone of command; besides, that would have seemed to her shocking. She had another inspiration, and she said to him in a manner in which she had had occasion to speak before –

“The reason why we have come is only to be kind. If we are kind we shan’t mind its being disagreeable.”

“Why should we be kind, if she’s a bad woman?” Hyacinth inquired. “She must be very low; I don’t want to know her.”

“Hush, hush,” groaned poor Amanda, edging toward him with clasped hands. “She is not bad now; it has all been washed away – it has been expiated.”

“What’s expiated?” asked the child, while she almost kneeled down in the dust, catching him to her bosom.

“It’s when you have suffered terribly – suffered so much that it has made you good again.”

“Has she suffered very much?”

“For years and years. And now she is dying. It proves she is very good now, that she should want to see us.”

“Do you mean because we are good?” Hyacinth went on, probing the matter in a way that made his companion quiver, and gazing away from her, very seriously, across the river, at the dreary waste of Battersea.

“We shall be good if we are pitiful, if we make an effort,” said the dressmaker, seeming to look up at him rather than down.

“But if she is dying? I don’t want to see any one die.”

Miss Pynsent was bewildered, but she rejoined, desperately, “If we go to her, perhaps she won’t. Maybe we shall save her.”

He transferred his remarkable little eyes – eyes which always appeared to her to belong to a person older than herself, to her face; and then he inquired, “Why should I save her, if I don’t like her?”

“If she likes you, that will be enough.”

At this Miss Pynsent began to see that he was moved. “Will she like me very much?”

“More, much more than any one.”

“More than you, now?”

“Oh,” said Amanda quickly, “I mean more than she likes any one.”

Hyacinth had slipped his hands into the pockets of his scanty knickerbockers, and, with his legs slightly apart, he looked from his companion back to the immense dreary jail. A great deal, to Miss Pynsent’s sense, depended on that moment. “Oh, well,” he said, at last, “I’ll just step in.”

“Deary, deary!” the dressmaker murmured to herself, as they crossed the bare semicircle which separated the gateway from the unfrequented street. She exerted herself to pull the bell, which seemed to her terribly big and stiff, and while she waited, again, for the consequences of this effort, the boy broke out, abruptly –

“How can she like me so much if she doesn’t know me?”

Miss Pynsent wished the gate would open before an answer to this question should become imperative, but the people within were a long time arriving, and their delay gave Hyacinth an opportunity to repeat it. So the dressmaker rejoined, seizing the first pretext that came into her head, “It’s because the little baby she had, of old, was also named Hyacinth.”

“That’s a queer reason,” the boy murmured, staring across again at the Battersea shore.

A moment afterwards they found themselves in a vast interior dimness, with a grinding of keys and bolts going on behind them. Hereupon Miss Pynsent gave herself up to an overruling providence, and she remembered, later, no circumstance of what happened to her until the great person of Mrs Bowerbank loomed before her in the narrowness of a strange, dark corridor. She only had a confused impression of being surrounded with high black walls, whose inner face was more dreadful than the other, the one that overlooked the river; of passing through gray, stony courts, in some of which dreadful figures, scarcely female, in hideous brown, misfitting uniforms and perfect frights of hoods, were marching round in a circle; of squeezing up steep, unlighted staircases at the heels of a woman who had taken possession of her at the first stage, and who made incomprehensible remarks to other women, of lumpish aspect, as she saw them erect themselves, suddenly and spectrally, with dowdy untied bonnets, in uncanny corners and recesses of the draughty labyrinth. If the place had seemed cruel to the poor little dressmaker outside, it may be believed that it did not strike her as an abode of mercy while she pursued her tortuous way into the circular shafts of cells, where she had an opportunity of looking at captives through grated peepholes and of edging past others who had temporarily been turned into the corridors – silent women, with fixed eyes, who flattened themselves against the stone walls at the brush of the visitor’s dress and whom Miss Pynsent was afraid to glance at. She never had felt so immured, so made sure of; there were walls within walls and galleries on top of galleries; even the daylight lost its colour, and you couldn’t imagine what o’clock it was. Mrs Bowerbank appeared to have failed her, and that made her feel worse; a panic seized her, as she went, in regard to the child. On him, too, the horror of the place would have fallen, and she had a sickening prevision that he would have convulsions after they got home. It was a most improper place to have brought him, no matter who had sent for him and no matter who was dying. The stillness would terrify him, she was sure – the penitential dumbness of the clustered or isolated women. She clasped his hand more tightly, and she felt him keep close to her, without speaking a word. At last, in an open doorway, darkened by her ample person, Mrs Bowerbank revealed herself, and Miss Pynsent thought it (afterwards) a sign of her place and power that she should not condescend to apologise for not having appeared till that moment, or to explain why she had not met the bewildered pilgrims near the principal entrance, according to her promise. Miss Pynsent could not embrace the state of mind of people who didn’t apologise, though she vaguely envied and admired it, she herself spending much of her time in making excuses for obnoxious acts she had not committed. Mrs Bowerbank, however, was not arrogant, she was only massive and muscular; and after she had taken her timorous friends in tow the dressmaker was able to comfort herself with the reflection that even so masterful a woman couldn’t inflict anything gratuitously disagreeable on a person who had made her visit in Lomax Place pass off so pleasantly.

It was on the outskirts of the infirmary that she had been hovering, and it was into certain dismal chambers dedicated to sick criminals, that she presently ushered her companions. These chambers were naked and grated, like all the rest of the place, and caused Miss Pynsent to say to herself that it must be a blessing to be ill in such a hole, because you couldn’t possibly pick up again, and then your case was simple. Such simplification, however, had for the moment been offered to very few of Florentine’s fellow-sufferers, for only three of the small, stiff beds were occupied – occupied by white-faced women in tight, sordid caps, on whom, in the stale, ugly room, the sallow light itself seemed to rest without pity. Mrs Bowerbank discreetly paid no attention whatever to Hyacinth; she only said to Miss Pynsent, with her hoarse distinctness, “You’ll find her very low; she wouldn’t have waited another day.” And she guided them, through a still further door, to the smallest room of all, where there were but three beds, placed in a row. Miss Pynsent’s frightened eyes rather faltered than inquired, but she became aware that a woman was lying on the middle bed, and that her face was turned toward the door. Mrs Bowerbank led the way straight up to her, and, giving a business-like pat to her pillow, looked invitation and encouragement to the visitors, who clung together not far within the threshold. Their conductress reminded them that very few minutes were allowed them, and that they had better not dawdle them away; whereupon, as the boy still hung back, the little dressmaker advanced alone, looking at the sick woman with what courage she could muster. It seemed to her that she was approaching a perfect stranger, so completely had nine years of prison transformed Florentine. She felt, immediately, that it was a mercy she hadn’t told Hyacinth she was pretty (as she used to be), for there was no beauty left in the hollow, bloodless mask that presented itself without a movement. She had told him that the poor woman was good, but she didn’t look so, nor, evidently, was he struck with it as he stared back at her across the interval he declined to traverse, kept (at the same time) from retreating by her strange, fixed eyes, the only portion of all her wasted person in which there was still any appearance of life. She looked unnatural to Amanda Pynsent, and terribly old; a speechless, motionless creature, dazed and stupid, whereas Florentine Vivier, in the obliterated past, had been her idea of personal, as distinguished from social, brilliancy. Above all she seemed disfigured and ugly, cruelly misrepresented by her coarse cap and short, rough hair. Amanda, as she stood beside her, thought with a sort of scared elation that Hyacinth would never guess that a person in whom there was so little trace of smartness – or of cleverness of any kind – was his mother. At the very most it might occur to him, as Mrs Bowerbank had suggested, that she was his grandmother. Mrs Bowerbank seated herself on the further bed, with folded hands, like a monumental timekeeper, and remarked, in the manner of one speaking from a sense of duty, that the poor thing wouldn’t get much good of the child unless he showed more confidence. This observation was evidently lost upon the boy; he was too intensely absorbed in watching the prisoner. A chair had been placed at the head of her bed, and Miss Pynsent sat down without her appearing to notice it. In a moment, however, she lifted her hand a little, pushing it out from under the coverlet, and the dressmaker laid her own hand softly upon it. This gesture elicited no response, but after a little, still gazing at the boy, Florentine murmured, in words no one present was in a position to understand –

Dieu de Dieu, qu’il est beau!”

“She won’t speak nothing but French since she has been so bad – you can’t get a natural word out of her,” Mrs Bowerbank said.

“It used to be so pretty when she spoke English – and so very amusing,” Miss Pynsent ventured to announce, with a feeble attempt to brighten up the scene. “I suppose she has forgotten it all.”

“She may well have forgotten it – she never gave her tongue much exercise. There was little enough trouble to keep her from chattering,” Mrs Bowerbank rejoined, giving a twitch to the prisoner’s counterpane. Miss Pynsent settled it a little on the other side and considered, in the same train, that this separation of language was indeed a mercy; for how could it ever come into her small companion’s head that he was the offspring of a person who couldn’t so much as say good morning to him? She felt, at the same time, that the scene might have been somewhat less painful if they had been able to communicate with the object of their compassion. As it was, they had too much the air of having been brought together simply to look at each other, and there was a grewsome awkwardness in that, considering the delicacy of Florentine’s position. Not, indeed, that she looked much at her old comrade; it was as if she were conscious of Miss Pynsent’s being there, and would have been glad to thank her for it – glad even to examine her for her own sake, and see what change, for her, too, the horrible years had brought, but felt, more than this, that she had but the thinnest pulse of energy left and that not a moment that could still be of use to her was too much to take in her child. She took him in with all the glazed entreaty of her eyes, quite giving up his poor little protectress, who evidently would have to take her gratitude for granted. Hyacinth, on his side, after some moments of embarrassing silence – there was nothing audible but Mrs Bowerbank’s breathing – had satisfied himself, and he turned about to look for a place of patience while Miss Pynsent should finish her business, which as yet made so little show. He appeared to wish not to leave the room altogether, as that would be a confession of a vanquished spirit, but to take some attitude that should express his complete disapproval of the unpleasant situation. He was not in sympathy, and he could not have made it more clear than by the way he presently went and placed himself on a low stool, in a corner, near the door by which they had entered.

Est-il possible, mon Dieu, qu’il soit gentil comme ça?” his mother moaned, just above her breath.

“We are very glad you should have cared – that they look after you so well,” said Miss Pynsent, confusedly, at random; feeling, first, that Hyacinth’s coldness was perhaps excessive and his scepticism too marked, and then that allusions to the way the poor woman was looked after were not exactly happy. They didn’t matter, however, for she evidently heard nothing, giving no sign of interest even when Mrs Bowerbank, in a tone between a desire to make the interview more lively and an idea of showing that she knew how to treat the young, referred herself to the little boy.

“Is there nothing the little gentleman would like to say, now, to the unfortunate? Hasn’t he any pleasant remark to make to her about his coming so far to see her when she’s so sunk? It isn’t often that children are shown over the place (as the little man has been), and there’s many that would think they were lucky if they could see what he has seen.”

Mon pauvre joujou, mon pauvre chéri,” the prisoner went on, in her tender, tragic whisper.

“He only wants to be very good; he always sits that way at home,” said Miss Pynsent, alarmed at Mrs Bowerbank’s address and hoping there wouldn’t be a scene.

“He might have stayed at home then – with this wretched person moaning after him,” Mrs Bowerbank remarked, with some sternness. She plainly felt that the occasion threatened to be wanting in brilliancy, and wished to intimate that though she was to be trusted for discipline, she thought they were all getting off too easily.

“I came because Pinnie brought me,” Hyacinth declared, from his low perch. “I thought at first it would be pleasant. But it ain’t pleasant – I don’t like prisons.” And he placed his little feet on the cross-piece of the stool, as if to touch the institution at as few points as possible.

The woman in bed continued her strange, almost whining plaint. “Il ne veut pas s’approcher, il a honte de moi.”

“There’s a many that begin like that!” laughed Mrs Bowerbank, who was irritated by the boy’s contempt for one of her Majesty’s finest establishments.

Hyacinth’s little white face exhibited no confusion; he only turned it to the prisoner again, and Miss Pynsent felt that some extraordinary dumb exchange of meanings was taking place between them. “She used to be so elegant; she was a fine woman,” she observed, gently and helplessly.

Il a honte de moi – il a honte, Dieu le pardonne!” Florentine Vivier went on, never moving her eyes.

“She’s asking for something, in her language. I used to know a few words,” said Miss Pynsent, stroking down the bed, very nervously.

“Who is that woman? what does she want?” Hyacinth asked, his small, clear voice ringing over the dreary room.

“She wants you to come near her, she wants to kiss you, sir,” said Mrs Bowerbank, as if it were more than he deserved.

“I won’t kiss her; Pinnie says she stole a watch!” the child answered with resolution.

“Oh, you dreadful – how could you ever?” cried Pinnie, blushing all over and starting out of her chair.

It was partly Amanda’s agitation, perhaps, which, by the jolt it administered, gave an impulse to the sick woman, and partly the penetrating and expressive tone in which Hyacinth announced his repugnance: at any rate, Florentine, in the most unexpected and violent manner, jerked herself up from her pillow, and, with dilated eyes and waving hands, shrieked out, “Ah, quelle infamie! I never stole a watch, I never stole anything – anything! Ah, par exemple!” Then she fell back, sobbing with the passion that had given her a moment’s strength.

“I’m sure you needn’t put more on her than she has by rights,” said Mrs Bowerbank, with dignity, to the dressmaker, laying a large red hand upon the patient, to keep her in her place.

“Mercy, more? I thought it so much less!” cried Miss Pynsent, convulsed with confusion and jerking herself, in a wild tremor, from the mother to the child, as if she wished to fling herself upon one for contrition and upon the other for revenge.

Il a honte de moi – il a honte de moi!” Florentine repeated, in the misery of her sobs, “Dieu de bonté, quelle horreur!”

Miss Pynsent dropped on her knees beside the bed and, trying to possess herself of Florentine’s hand again, protested with a passion almost equal to that of the prisoner (she felt that her nerves had been screwed up to the snapping-point, and now they were all in shreds) that she hadn’t meant what she had told the child, that he hadn’t understood, that Florentine herself hadn’t understood, that she had only said she had been accused and meant that no one had ever believed it. The Frenchwoman paid no attention to her whatever, and Amanda buried her face and her embarrassment in the side of the hard little prison-bed, while, above the sound of their common lamentation, she heard the judicial tones of Mrs Bowerbank.

“The child is delicate, you might well say! I’m disappointed in the effect – I was in hopes you’d hearten her up. The doctor’ll be down on me, of course; so we’ll just pass out again.”

“I’m very sorry I made you cry. And you must excuse Pinnie – I asked her so many questions.”

These words came from close beside the prostrate dressmaker, who, lifting herself quickly, found the little boy had advanced to her elbow and was taking a nearer view of the mysterious captive. They produced upon the latter an effect even more powerful than his unfortunate speech of a moment before; for she found strength to raise herself, partly, in her bed again, and to hold out her arms to him, with the same thrilling sobs. She was talking still, but she had become quite inarticulate, and Miss Pynsent had but a glimpse of her white, ravaged face, with the hollows of its eyes and the rude crop of her hair. Amanda caught the child with an eagerness almost as great as Florentine’s, and drawing him to the head of the bed, pushed him into his mother’s arms. “Kiss her – kiss her, and we’ll go home!” she whispered desperately, while they closed about him, and the poor dishonoured head pressed itself against his young cheek. It was a terrible, irresistible embrace, to which Hyacinth submitted with instant patience. Mrs Bowerbank had tried at first to keep her protégée from rising, evidently wishing to abbreviate the scene; then, as the child was enfolded, she accepted the situation and gave judicious support from behind, with an eye to clearing the room as soon as this effort should have spent itself. She propped up her patient with a vigorous arm; Miss Pynsent rose from her knees and turned away, and there was a minute’s stillness, during which the boy accommodated himself as he might to his strange ordeal. What thoughts were begotten at that moment in his wondering little mind Miss Pynsent was destined to learn at another time. Before she had faced round to the bed again she was swept out of the room by Mrs Bowerbank, who had lowered the prisoner, exhausted, with closed eyes, to her pillow, and given Hyacinth a business-like little push, which sent him on in advance. Miss Pynsent went home in a cab – she was so shaken; though she reflected, very nervously, on getting into it, on the opportunities it would give Hyacinth for the exercise of inquisitorial rights. To her surprise, however, he completely neglected them; he sat in silence, looking out of the window, till they re-entered Lomax Place.

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