The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


A certain Sunday in November, more than three months after she had gone to live in Madeira Crescent, was so important an occasion for the Princess Casamassima that I must give as complete an account of it as the limits of my space will allow. Early in the afternoon a loud peal from her door-knocker came to her ear; it had a sound of resolution, almost of defiance, which made her look up from her book and listen. She was sitting by the fire, alone, with a volume of a heavy work on Labour and Capital in her hand. It was not yet four o’clock, but she had had candles for an hour; a dense brown fog made the daylight impure, without suggesting an answer to the question whether the scheme of nature had been to veil or to deepen the sabbatical dreariness. She was not tired of Madeira Crescent – such an idea she would indignantly have repudiated; but the prospect of a visitor was rather pleasant to her – the possibility even of his being an ambassador, or a cabinet minister, or another of the eminent personages with whom she had associated before embracing the ascetic life. They had not knocked at her present door hitherto in any great numbers, for more reasons than one; they were out of town, and she had taken pains to diffuse the belief that she had left England. If the impression prevailed, it was exactly the impression she had desired; she forgot this fact whenever she felt a certain surprise, even, it may be, a certain irritation, in perceiving that people were not taking the way to Madeira Crescent. She was making the discovery, in which she had had many predecessors, that in London it is only too possible to hide one’s self. It was very much in that fashion that Godfrey Sholto was in the habit of announcing himself, when he reappeared after the intervals she explicitly imposed upon him; there was a kind of artlessness, for so world-worn a personage, in the point he made of showing that he knocked with confidence, that he had as good a right as any other. This afternoon she was ready to accept a visit from him: she was perfectly detached from the shallow, frivolous world in which he lived, but there was still a freshness in her renunciation which coveted reminders and enjoyed comparisons; he would prove to her how right she had been to do exactly what she was doing. It did not occur to her that Hyacinth Robinson might be at her door, for it was understood between them that, except by special appointment, he was to come to see her only in the evening. She heard in the hail, when the servant arrived, a voice that she failed to recognise; but in a moment the door of the room was thrown open and the name of Mr Muniment was pronounced. It may be said at once that she felt great pleasure in hearing it, for she had both wished to see more of Hyacinth’s extraordinary friend and had given him up, so little likely had it begun to appear that he would put himself out for her. She had been glad he wouldn’t come, as she had told Hyacinth three months before; but now that he had come she was still more glad.

Presently he was sitting opposite to her, on the other side of the fire, with his big foot crossed over his big knee, his large, gloved hands fumbling with each other, drawing and smoothing the gloves (of very red, new-looking dog-skin) in places, as if they hurt him. So far as the size of his extremities, and even his attitude and movement, went, he might have belonged to her former circle. With the details of his dress remaining vague in the lamp-light, which threw into relief mainly his powerful, important head, he might have been one of the most considerable men she had ever known. The first thing she said to him was that she wondered extremely what had brought him at last to come to see her: the idea, when she proposed it, evidently had so little attraction for him. She had only seen him once since then – the day she met him coming into Audley Court as she was leaving it, after a visit to his sister – and, as he probably remembered, she had not on that occasion repeated her invitation.

“It wouldn’t have done any good, at the time, if you had,” Muniment rejoined, with his natural laugh.

“Oh, I felt that; my silence wasn’t accidental!” the Princess exclaimed, joining in his merriment.

“I have only come now – since you have asked me the reason – because my sister hammered at me, week after week, dinning it into me that I ought to. Oh, I’ve been under the lash! If she had left me alone, I wouldn’t have come.”

The Princess blushed on hearing these words, but not with shame or with pain; rather with the happy excitement of being spoken to in a manner so fresh and original. She had never before had a visitor who practised so racy a frankness, or who, indeed, had so curious a story to tell. She had never before so completely failed, and her failure greatly interested her, especially as it seemed now to be turning a little to success. She had succeeded promptly with every one, and the sign of it was that every one had rendered her a monotony of homage. Even poor little Hyacinth had tried, in the beginning, to say sweet things to her. This very different type of man appeared to have his thoughts fixed on anything but sweetness; she felt the liveliest hope that he would move further and further away from it. “I remember what you asked me – what good it would do you. I couldn’t tell you then; and though I now have had a long time to turn it over, I haven’t thought of it yet.”

“Oh, but I hope it will do me some,” said Paul. “A fellow wants a reward, when he has made a great effort.”

“It does me some,” the Princess remarked, gaily.

“Naturally, the awkward things I say amuse you. But I don’t say them for that, but just to give you an idea.”

“You give me a great many ideas. Besides, I know you already a good deal.”

“From little Robinson, I suppose,” said Muniment.

The Princess hesitated. “More particularly from Lady Aurora.”

“Oh, she doesn’t know much about me!” the young man exclaimed.

“It’s a pity you say that, because she likes you.”

“Yes, she likes me,” Muniment replied, serenely.

Again the Princess hesitated. “And I hope you like her.”

“Ay, she’s a dear old girl!”

The Princess reflected that her visitor was not a gentleman, like Hyacinth; but this made no difference in her present attitude. The expectation that he would be a gentleman had had nothing to do with her interest in him; that, in fact, had rested largely on the supposition that he had a rich plebeian strain. “I don’t know that there is any one in the world I envy so much,” she remarked; an observation which her visitor received in silence. “Better than any one I have ever met she has solved the problem – which, if we are wise, we all try to solve, don’t we? – of getting out of herself. She has got out of herself more perfectly than any one I have ever known. She has merged herself in the passion of doing something for others. That’s why I envy her,” said the Princess, with an explanatory smile, as if perhaps he didn’t understand her.

“It’s an amusement, like any other,” said Paul Muniment.

“Ah, not like any other! It carries light into dark places; it makes a great many wretched people considerably less wretched.”

“How many, eh?” asked the young man, not exactly as if he wished to dispute, but as if it were always in him to enjoy an argument.

The Princess wondered why he should desire to argue at Lady Aurora’s expense. “Well, one who is very near to you, to begin with.”

“Oh, she’s kind, most kind; it’s altogether wonderful. But Rosy makes her considerably less wretched,” Paul Muniment rejoined.

“Very likely, of course; and so she does me.”

“May I inquire what you are wretched about?” Muniment went on.

“About nothing at all. That’s the worst of it. But I am much happier now than I have ever been.”

“Is that also about nothing?”

“No, about a sort of change that has taken place in my life. I have been able to do some little things.”

“For the poor, I suppose you mean. Do you refer to the presents you have made to Rosy?” the young man inquired.

“The presents?” The Princess appeared not to remember. “Oh, those are trifles. It isn’t anything one has been able to give; it’s some talks one has had, some convictions one has arrived at.”

“Convictions are a source of very innocent pleasure,” said the young man, smiling at his interlocutress with his bold, pleasant eyes, which seemed to project their glance further than any she had seen.

“Having them is nothing. It’s the acting on them,” the Princess replied.

“Yes; that doubtless, too, is good.” He continued to look at her peacefully, as if he liked to consider that this might be what she had asked him to come for. He said nothing more, and she went on –

“It’s far better, of course, when one is a man.”

“I don’t know. Women do pretty well what they like. My sister and you have managed, between you, to bring me to this.”

“It’s more your sister, I suspect, than I. But why, after all, should you have disliked so much to come?”

“Well, since you ask me,” said Paul Muniment, “I will tell you frankly, though I don’t mean it uncivilly, that I don’t know what to make of you.”

“Most people don’t,” returned the Princess. “But they usually take the risk.”

“Ah, well, I’m the most prudent of men.”

“I was sure of it; that is one of the reasons why I wanted to know you. I know what some of your ideas are – Hyacinth Robinson has told me; and the source of my interest in them is partly the fact that you consider very carefully what you attempt.”

“That I do – I do,” said Muniment, simply.

The tone in which he said this would have been almost ignoble, as regards a kind of northern canniness which it expressed, had it not been corrected by the character of his face, his youth and strength, and his military eye. The Princess recognised both the shrewdness and the latent audacity as she rejoined, “To do anything with you would be very safe. It would be sure to succeed.”

“That’s what poor Hyacinth thinks,” said Paul Muniment.

The Princess wondered a little that he could allude in that light tone to the faith their young friend had placed in him, considering the consequences such a trustfulness might yet have; but this curious mixture of qualities could only make her visitor, as a tribune of the people, more interesting to her. She abstained for the moment from touching on the subject of Hyacinth’s peculiar position, and only said, “Hasn’t he told you about me? Hasn’t he explained me a little?”

“Oh, his explanations are grand!” Muniment exclaimed, hilariously. “He’s fine sport when he talks about you.”

“Don’t betray him,” said the Princess, gently.

“There’s nothing to betray. You would be the first to admire it if you were there. Besides, I don’t betray,” the young man added.

“I love him very much,” said the Princess; and it would have been impossible for the most impudent cynic to smile at the manner in which she made the declaration.

Paul accepted it respectfully. “He’s a sweet little lad, and, putting her ladyship aside, quite the light of our home.”

There was a short pause after this exchange of amenities, which the Princess terminated by inquiring, “Wouldn’t some one else do his work quite as well?”

“His work? Why, I’m told he’s a master-hand.”

“Oh, I don’t mean his bookbinding.” Then the Princess added, “I don’t know whether you know it, but I am in correspondence with Hoffendahl. I am acquainted with many of our most important men.”

“Yes, I know it. Hyacinth has told me. Do you mention it as a guarantee, so that I may know you are genuine?”

“Not exactly; that would be weak, wouldn’t it?” the Princess asked. “My genuineness must be in myself – a matter for you to appreciate as you know me better; not in my references and vouchers.”

“I shall never know you better. What business is it of mine?”

“I want to help you,” said the Princess, and as she made this earnest appeal her face became transfigured; it wore an expression of the most passionate yet the purest longing. “I want to do something for the cause you represent; for the millions that are rotting under our feet – the millions whose whole life is passed on the brink of starvation, so that the smallest accident pushes them over. Try me, test me; ask me to put my hand to something, to prove that I am as deeply in earnest as those who have already given proof. I know what I am talking about – what one must meet and face and count with, the nature and the immensity of your organisation. I am not playing. No, I am not playing.”

Paul Muniment watched her with his steady smile until this sudden outbreak had spent itself. “I was afraid you would be like this – that you would turn on the fountains and let off the fireworks.”

“Permit me to believe you thought nothing about it. There is no reason my fireworks should disturb you.”

“I have always had a fear of women.”

“I see – that’s a part of your prudence,” said the Princess, reflectively. “But you are the sort of man who ought to know how to use them.”

Muniment said nothing, immediately, in answer to this; the way he appeared to consider the Princess suggested that he was not following closely what she said, so much as losing himself in certain matters which were beside that question – her beauty, for instance, her grace, her fragrance, the spectacle of a manner and quality so new to him. After a little, however, he remarked, irrelevantly, “I’m afraid I’m very rude.”

“Of course you are, but it doesn’t signify. What I mainly object to is that you don’t answer my questions. Would not some one else do Hyacinth Robinson’s work quite as well? Is it necessary to take a nature so delicate, so intellectual? Oughtn’t we to keep him for something finer?”

“Finer than what?”

“Than what Hoffendahl will call upon him to do.”

“And pray what is that?” the young man demanded. “You know nothing about it; no more do I,” he added in a moment. “It will require whatever it will. Besides, if some one else might have done it, no one else volunteered. It happened that Robinson did.”

“Yes, and you nipped him up!” the Princess exclaimed.

At this expression Muniment burst out laughing. “I have no doubt you can easily keep him, if you want him.”

“I should like to do it in his place – that’s what I should like,” said the Princess.

“As I say, you don’t even know what it is.”

“It may be nothing,” she went on, with her grave eyes fixed on her visitor. “I dare say you think that what I wanted to see you for was to beg you to let him off. But it wasn’t. Of course it’s his own affair, and you can do nothing. But oughtn’t it to make some difference, when his opinions have changed?”

“His opinions? He never had any opinions,” Muniment replied. “He is not like you and me.”

“Well, then, his feelings, his attachments. He hasn’t the passion for democracy he had when I first knew him. He’s much more tepid.”

“Ah, well, he’s quite right.”

The Princess stared. “Do you mean that you are giving up —?”

“A fine stiff conservative is a thing I perfectly understand,” said Paul Muniment. “If I were on the top, I’d stick there.”

“I see, you are not narrow,” the Princess murmured, appreciatively.

“I beg your pardon, I am. I don’t call that wide. One must be narrow to penetrate.”

“Whatever you are, you’ll succeed,” said the Princess. “Hyacinth won’t, but you will.”

“It depends upon what you call success!” the young man exclaimed. And in a moment, before she replied, he added, looking about the room, “You’ve got a very lovely dwelling.”

“Lovely? My dear sir, it’s hideous. That’s what I like it for,” the Princess added.

“Well, I like it; but perhaps I don’t know the reason. I thought you had given up everything – pitched your goods out of the window, for a grand scramble.”

“Well, so I have. You should have seen me before.”

“I should have liked that,” said Muniment, smiling. “I like to see solid wealth.”

“Ah, you’re as bad as Hyacinth. I am the only consistent one!” the Princess sighed.

“You have a great deal left, for a person who has given everything away.”

“These are not mine – these abominations – or I would give them, too!” Paul’s hostess rejoined, artlessly.

Muniment got up from his chair, still looking about the room. “I would give my nose for such a place as this. At any rate, you are not yet reduced to poverty.”

“I have a little left – to help you.”

“I dare say you’ve a great deal,” said Paul, with his north-country accent.

“I could get money – I could get money,” the Princess continued, gravely. She had also risen, and was standing before him.

These two remarkable persons faced each other, their eyes met again, and they exchanged a long, deep glance of mutual scrutiny. Each seemed to drop a plummet into the other’s mind. Then a strange and, to the Princess, unexpected expression passed over the countenance of the young man; his lips compressed themselves, as if he were making a strong effort, his colour rose, and in a moment he stood there blushing like a boy. He dropped his eyes and stared at the carpet, while he observed, “I don’t trust women – I don’t trust women!”

“I am sorry, but, after all, I can understand it,” said the Princess; “therefore I won’t insist on the question of your allowing me to work with you. But this appeal I will make to you: help me a little yourself – help me!”

“How do you mean, help you?” Muniment demanded, raising his eyes, which had a new, conscious look.

“Advise me; you will know how. I am in trouble – I have gone very far.”

“I have no doubt of that!” said Paul, laughing.

“I mean with some of those people abroad. I’m not frightened, but I’m perplexed; I want to know what to do.”

“No, you are not frightened,” Muniment rejoined, after a moment.

“I am, however, in a sad entanglement. I think you can straighten it out. I will give you the facts, but not now, for we shall be interrupted; I hear my old lady on the stairs. For this, you must come to see me again.”

At this point the door opened, and Madame Grandoni appeared, cautiously, creepingly, as if she didn’t know what might be going on in the parlour. “Yes, I will come again,” said Paul Muniment, in a low but distinct tone; and he walked away, passing Madame Grandoni on the threshold, without having exchanged the hand-shake of farewell with his hostess. In the hall he paused an instant, feeling she was behind him; and he learned that she had not come to exact from him this omitted observance, but to say once more, dropping her voice, so that her companion, through the open door, might not hear –

“I could get money – I could!”

Muniment passed his hand through his hair, and, as if he had not heard her, remarked, “I have not given you, after all, half Rosy’s messages.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter!” the Princess answered, turning back into the parlour.

Madame Grandoni was in the middle of the room, wrapped in an old shawl, looking vaguely around her, and the two ladies heard the house-door close. “And pray, who may that be? Isn’t it a new face?” the elder one inquired.

“He’s the brother of the little person I took you to see over the river – the chattering cripple with the wonderful manners.”

“Ah, she had a brother! That, then, was why you went?”

It was striking, the good-humour with which the Princess received this rather coarse thrust, which could have been drawn from Madame Grandoni only by the petulance and weariness of increasing age, and the antipathy she now felt to Madeira Crescent and everything it produced. Christina bent a calm, charitable smile upon her ancient companion, and replied –

“There could have been no question of our seeing him. He was, of course, at his work.”

“Ah, how do I know, my dear? And is he a successor?”

“A successor?”

“To the little bookbinder.”

“My darling,” said the Princess, “you will see how absurd that question is when I tell you he’s his greatest friend!”

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