The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Half an hour after Paul Muniment’s departure the Princess heard another rat-tat-tat at her door; but this was a briefer, discreeter peal, and was accompanied by a faint tintinnabulation. The person who had produced it was presently ushered in, without, however, causing Madame Grandoni to look round, or rather to look up, from an arm-chair as low as a sitz-bath, and of very much the shape of such a receptacle, in which, near the fire, she had been immersed. She left this care to the Princess, who rose on hearing the name of the visitor pronounced, inadequately, by her maid. ‘Mr Fetch’ Assunta called it; but the Princess recognised without difficulty the little fat, ‘reduced’ fiddler of whom Hyacinth had talked to her, who, as Pinnie’s most intimate friend, had been so mixed up with his existence, and whom she herself had always had a curiosity to see. Hyacinth had not told her he was coming, and the unexpectedness of the apparition added to its interest. Much as she liked seeing queer types and exploring out-of-the-way social corners, she never engaged in a fresh encounter, nor formed a new relation of this kind, without a fit of nervousness, a fear that she might be awkward and fail to hit the right tone. She perceived in a moment, however, that Mr Vetch would take her as she was and require no special adjustments; he was a gentleman and a man of experience, and she would only have to leave the tone to him. He stood there with his large, polished hat in his two hands, a hat of the fashion of ten years before, with a rusty sheen and an undulating brim – stood there without a salutation or a speech, but with a little fixed, acute, tentative smile, which seemed half to inquire and half to explain. What he explained was that he was clever enough to be trusted, and that if he had come to see her that way, abruptly, without an invitation, he had a reason which she would be sure to think good enough when she should hear it. There was even a certain jauntiness in this confidence – an insinuation that he knew how to present himself to a lady; and though it quickly appeared that he really did, that was the only thing about him that was inferior – it suggested a long experience of actresses at rehearsal, with whom he had formed habits of advice and compliment.

“I know who you are – I know who you are,” said the Princess, though she could easily see that he knew she did.

“I wonder whether you also know why I have come to see you,” Mr Vetch replied, presenting the top of his hat to her as if it were a looking-glass.

“No, but it doesn’t matter. I am very glad; you might even have come before.” Then the Princess added, with her characteristic honesty, “Don’t you know of the great interest I have taken in your nephew?”

“In my nephew? Yes, my young friend Robinson. It is in regard to him that I have ventured to intrude upon you.”

The Princess had been on the point of pushing a chair toward him, but she stopped in the act, staring, with a smile. “Ah, I hope you haven’t come to ask me to give him up!”

“On the contrary – on the contrary!” the old man rejoined, lifting his hand expressively, and with his head on one side, as if he were holding his violin.

“How do you mean, on the contrary?” the Princess demanded, after he had seated himself and she had sunk into her former place. As if that might sound contradictious, she went on: “Surely he hasn’t any fear that I shall cease to be a good friend to him?”

“I don’t know what he fears; I don’t know what he hopes,” said Mr Vetch, looking at her now with a face in which she could see there was something more tonic than old-fashioned politeness. “It will be difficult to tell you, but at least I must try. Properly speaking, I suppose, it’s no business of mine, as I am not a blood-relation to the boy; but I have known him since he was an urchin, and I can’t help saying that I thank you for your great kindness to him.”

“All the same, I don’t think you like it,” the Princess remarked. “To me it oughtn’t to be difficult to say anything.”

“He has told me very little about you; he doesn’t know I have taken this step,” the fiddler said, turning his eyes about the room, and letting them rest on Madame Grandoni.

“Why do you call it a ‘step’?” the Princess asked. “That’s what people say when they have to do something disagreeable.”

“I call very seldom on ladies. It’s long time since I have been in the house of a person like the Princess Casamassima. I remember the last time,” said the old man. “It was to get some money from a lady at whose party I had been playing – for a dance.”

“You must bring your fiddle, sometime, and play to us. Of course I don’t mean for money,” the Princess rejoined.

“I will do it with pleasure, or anything else that will gratify you. But my ability is very small. I only know vulgar music – things that are played at theatres.”

“I don’t believe that; there must be things you play for yourself, in your room, alone.”

For a moment the old man made no reply; then he said, “Now that I see you, that I hear you, it helps me to understand.”

“I don’t think you do see me!” cried the Princess, kindly, laughing; while the fiddler went on to ask whether there were any danger of Hyacinth’s coming in while he was there. The Princess replied that he only came, unless by prearrangement, in the evening, and Mr Vetch made a request that she would not let their young friend know that he himself had been with her. “It doesn’t matter; he will guess it, he will know it by instinct, as soon as he comes in. He is terribly subtle,” said the Princess; and she added that she had never been able to hide anything from him. Perhaps it served her right, for attempting to make a mystery of things that were not worth it.

“How well you know him!” Mr Vetch murmured, with his eyes wandering again to Madame Grandoni, who paid no attention to him as she sat staring at the fire. He delayed, visibly, to say what he had come for, and his hesitation could only be connected with the presence of the old lady. He said to himself that the Princess might have divined this from his manner; he had an idea that he could trust himself to convey such an intimation with clearness and yet with delicacy. But the most she appeared to apprehend was that he desired to be presented to her companion.

“You must know the most delightful of women. She also takes a particular interest in Mr Robinson: of a different kind from mine – much more sentimental!” And then she explained to the old lady, who seemed absorbed in other ideas, that Mr Vetch was a distinguished musician, a person whom she, who had known so many in her day, and was so fond of that kind of thing, would like to talk with. The Princess spoke of ‘that kind of thing’ quite as if she herself had given it up, though Madame Grandoni heard her by the hour together improvising on the piano revolutionary battle-songs and pæans.

“I think you are laughing at me,” Mr Vetch said to the Princess, while Madame Grandoni twisted herself slowly round in her chair and considered him. She looked at him leisurely, up and down, and then she observed, with a sigh –

“Strange people – strange people!”

“It is indeed a strange world, madam,” the fiddler replied; and he then inquired of the Princess whether he might have a little conversation with her in private.

She looked about her, embarrassed and smiling. “My dear sir, I have only this one room to receive in. We live in a very small way.”

“Yes, your excellency is laughing at me. Your ideas are very large, too. However, I would gladly come at any other time that might suit you.”

“You impute to me higher spirits than I possess. Why should I be so gay?” the Princess asked. “I should be delighted to see you again. I am extremely curious as to what you may have to say to me. I would even meet you anywhere – in Kensington Gardens or the British Museum.”

The fiddler looked at her a moment before replying; then, with his white old face flushing a little, he exclaimed, “Poor dear little Hyacinth!”

Madame Grandoni made an effort to rise from her chair, but she had sunk so low that at first it was not successful. Mr Vetch gave her his hand, to help her, and she slowly erected herself, keeping hold of him for a moment after she stood there. “What did she tell me? That you are a great musician? Isn’t that enough for any man? You ought to be content, my dear gentleman. It has sufficed for people whom I don’t believe you surpass.”

“I don’t surpass any one,” said poor Mr Vetch. “I don’t know what you take me for.”

“You are not a conspirator, then? You are not an assassin? It surprises me, but so much the better. In this house one can never know. It is not a good house, and if you are a respectable person it is a pity you should come here. Yes, she is very gay, and I am very sad. I don’t know how it will end. After me, I hope. The world is not good, certainly; but God alone can make it better.” And as the fiddler expressed the hope that he was not the cause of her leaving the room, she went on, “Doch, doch, you are the cause; but why not you as well as another? I am always leaving it for some one or for some thing, and I would sooner do so for an honest man, if you are one – but, as I say, who can tell? – than for a destroyer. I wander about. I have no rest. I have, however, a very nice room, the best in the house. Me, at least, she does not treat ill. It looks to-day like the end of all things. If you would turn your climate the other side up, the rest would do well enough. Good-night to you, whoever you are.”

The old lady shuffled away, in spite of Mr Vetch’s renewed apologies, and the Princess stood before the fire, watching her companions, while he opened the door. “She goes away, she comes back; it doesn’t matter. She thinks it’s a bad house, but she knows it would be worse without her. I remember now,” the Princess added. “Mr Robinson told me that you had been a great democrat in old days, but that now you had ceased to care for the people.”

“The people – the people? That is a vague term. Whom do you mean?”

The Princess hesitated. “Those you used to care for, to plead for; those who are underneath every one, every thing, and have the whole social mass crushing them.”

“I see you think I’m a renegade. The way certain classes arrogate to themselves the title of the people has never pleased me. Why are some human beings the people, and the people only, and others not? I am of the people myself, I have worked all my days like a knife-grinder, and I have really never changed.”

“You must not let me make you angry,” said the Princess, laughing and sitting down again. “I am sometimes very provoking, but you must stop me off. You wouldn’t think it, perhaps, but no one takes a snub better than I.”

Mr Vetch dropped his eyes a minute; he appeared to wish to show that he regarded such a speech as that as one of the Princess’s characteristic humours, and knew that he should be wanting in respect to her if he took it seriously or made a personal application of it. “What I want is this,” he began, after a moment: “that you will – that you will —” But he stopped before he had got further. She was watching him, listening to him, and she waited while he paused. It was a long pause, and she said nothing. “Princess,” the old man broke out at last, “I would give my own life many times for that boy’s!”

“I always told him you must have been fond of him!” she cried, with bright exultation.

“Fond of him? Pray, who can doubt it? I made him, I invented him!”

“He knows it, moreover,” said the Princess, smiling. “It is an exquisite organisation.” And as the old man gazed at her, not knowing, apparently, what to make of her tone, she continued: “It is a very interesting opportunity for me to learn certain things. Speak to me of his early years. How was he as a child? When I like people I want to know everything about them.”

“I shouldn’t have supposed there was much left for you to learn about our young friend. You have taken possession of his life,” the fiddler added, gravely.

“Yes, but as I understand you, you don’t complain of it? Sometimes one does so much more than one has intended. One must use one’s influence for good,” said the Princess, with the noble, gentle air of accessibility to reason that sometimes lighted up her face. And then she went on, irrelevantly: “I know the terrible story of his mother. He told it me himself, when he was staying with me; and in the course of my life I think I have never been more affected.”

“That was my fault, that he ever learned it. I suppose he also told you that.”

“Yes, but I think he understood your idea. If you had the question to determine again, would you judge differently?”

“I thought it would do him good,” said the old man, simply and rather wearily.

“Well, I dare say it has,” the Princess rejoined, with the manner of wishing to encourage him.

“I don’t know what was in my head. I wanted him to quarrel with society. Now I want him to be reconciled to it,” Mr Vetch remarked, earnestly. He appeared to wish the Princess to understand that he made a great point of this.

“Ah, but he is!” she immediately returned. “We often talk about that; he is not like me, who see all kinds of abominations. He’s a tremendous aristocrat. What more would you have?”

“Those are not the opinions that he expresses to me,” said Mr Vetch, shaking his head sadly. “I am greatly distressed, and I don’t understand. I have not come here with the presumptuous wish to cross-examine you, but I should like very much to know if I am wrong in believing that he has gone about with you in the bad quarters – in St Giles’s and Whitechapel.”

“We have certainly inquired and explored together,” the Princess admitted, “and in the depths of this huge, luxurious, wanton, wasteful city we have seen sights of unspeakable misery and horror. But we have been not only in the slums; we have been to a music-hall and a penny-reading.”

The fiddler received this information at first in silence, so that his hostess went on to mention some of the phases of life they had observed; describing with great vividness, but at the same time with a kind of argumentative moderation, several scenes which did little honour to ‘our boasted civilisation’. “What wonder is it, then, that he should tell me that things cannot go on any longer as they are?” he asked, when she had finished. “He said only the other day that he should regard himself as one of the most contemptible of human beings if he should do nothing to alter them, to better them.”

“What wonder, indeed? But if he said that, he was in one of his bad days. He changes constantly, and his impressions change. The misery of the people is by no means always weighing on his heart. You tell me what he has told you; well, he has told me that the people may perish over and over, rather than the conquests of civilisation shall be sacrificed to them. He declares, at such moments, that they will be sacrificed – sacrificed utterly – if the ignorant masses get the upper hand.”

“He needn’t be afraid! That will never happen.”

“I don’t know. We can at least try!”

“Try what you like, madam, but, for God’s sake, get the boy out of his mess!”

The Princess had suddenly grown excited, in speaking of the cause she believed in, and she gave, for the moment, no heed to this appeal, which broke from Mr Vetch’s lips with a sudden passion of anxiety. Her beautiful head raised itself higher, and the deep expression that was always in her eyes became an extraordinary radiance. “Do you know what I say to Mr Robinson when he makes such remarks as that to me? I ask him what he means by civilisation. Let civilisation come a little, first, and then we will talk about it. For the present, face to face with those horrors, I scorn it, I deny it!” And the Princess laughed ineffable things, like some splendid syren of the Revolution.

“The world is very sad and very hideous, and I am happy to say that I soon shall have done with it. But before I go I want to save Hyacinth. If he’s a little aristocrat, as you say, there is so much the less fitness in his being ground in your mill. If he doesn’t even believe in what he pretends to do, that’s a pretty situation! What is he in for, madam? What devilish folly has he undertaken?”

“He is a strange mixture of contradictory impulses,” said the Princess, musingly. Then, as if calling herself back to the old man’s question, she continued: “How can I enter into his affairs with you? How can I tell you his secrets? In the first place, I don’t know them, and if I did – fancy me!”

The fiddler gave a long, low sigh, almost a moan, of discouragement and perplexity. He had told the Princess that now he saw her he understood how Hyacinth should have become her slave, but he would not have been able to tell her that he understood her own motives and mysteries, that he embraced the immense anomaly of her behaviour. It came over him that she was incongruous and perverse, a more complicated form of the feminine character than any he had hitherto dealt with, and he felt helpless and baffled, foredoomed to failure. He had come prepared to flatter her without scruple, thinking that would be the clever, the efficacious, method of dealing with her; but he now had a sense that this primitive device had, though it was strange, no application to such a nature, while his embarrassment was increased rather than diminished by the fact that the lady at least made the effort to be accommodating. He had put down his hat on the floor beside him, and his two hands were clasped on the knob of an umbrella which had long since renounced pretensions to compactness; he collapsed a little, and his chin rested on his folded hands. “Why do you take such a line? Why do you believe such things?” he asked; and he was conscious that his tone was weak and his inquiry beside the question.

“My dear sir, how do you know what I believe? However, I have my reasons, which it would take too long to tell you, and which, after all, would not particularly interest you. One must see life as one can; it comes, no doubt, to each of us in different ways. You think me affected, of course, and my behaviour a fearful pose; but I am only trying to be natural. Are you not yourself a little inconsequent?” the Princess went on, with the bright mildness which had the effect of making Mr Vetch feel that he should not extract any pledge of assistance from her. “You don’t want our young friend to pry into the wretchedness of London, because it excites his sense of justice. It is a strange thing to wish, for a person of whom one is fond and whom one esteems, that his sense of justice shall not be excited.”

“I don’t care a fig for his sense of justice – I don’t care a fig for the wretchedness of London; and if I were young, and beautiful, and clever, and brilliant, and of a noble position, like you, I should care still less. In that case I should have very little to say to a poor mechanic – a youngster who earns his living with a glue-pot and scraps of old leather.”

“Don’t misrepresent him; don’t make him out what you know he’s not!” the Princess retorted, with her baffling smile. “You know he’s one of the most civilised people possible.”

The fiddler sat breathing unhappily. “I only want to keep him – to get him free.” Then he added, “I don’t understand you very well. If you like him because he’s one of the lower orders, how can you like him because he’s a swell?”

The Princess turned her eyes on the fire a moment, as if this little problem might be worth considering, and presently she answered, “Dear Mr Vetch, I am very sure you don’t mean to be impertinent, but some things you say have that effect. Nothing is more annoying than when one’s sincerity is doubted. I am not bound to explain myself to you. I ask of my friends to trust me, and of the others to leave me alone. Moreover, anything not very nice you may have said to me, out of awkwardness, is nothing to the insults I am perfectly prepared to see showered upon me before long. I shall do things which will produce a fine crop of them – oh, I shall do things, my dear sir! But I am determined not to mind them. Come, therefore, pull yourself together. We both take such an interest in young Robinson that I can’t see why in the world we should quarrel about him.”

“My dear lady,” the old man pleaded, “I have indeed not the least intention of failing in respect or courtesy, and you must excuse me if I don’t look after my manners. How can I when I am so worried, so haunted? God knows I don’t want to quarrel. As I tell you, I only want to get Hyacinth free.”

“Free from what?” the Princess asked.

“From some abominable brotherhood or international league that he belongs to, the thought of which keeps me awake at night. He’s just the sort of youngster to be made a cat’s-paw.”

“Your fears seem very vague.”

“I hoped you would give me chapter and verse.”

“On what do your suspicions rest? What grounds have you?” the Princess inquired.

“Well, a great many; none of them very definite, but all contributing something – his appearance, his manner, the way he strikes me. Dear madam, one feels those things, one guesses. Do you know that poor, infatuated phrase-monger, Eustache Poupin, who works at the same place as Hyacinth? He’s a very old friend of mine, and he’s an honest man, considering everything. But he is always conspiring, and corresponding, and pulling strings that make a tinkle which he takes for the death-knell of society. He has nothing in life to complain of, and he drives a roaring trade. But he wants folks to be equal, heaven help him; and when he has made them so I suppose he’s going to start a society for making the stars in the sky all of the same size. He isn’t serious, though he thinks that he’s the only human being who never trifles; and his machinations, which I believe are for the most part very innocent, are a matter of habit and tradition with him, like his theory that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America, was a Frenchman, and his hot foot-bath on Saturday nights. He has not confessed to me that Hyacinth has taken some secret engagement to do something for the cause which may have nasty consequences, but the way he turns off the idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as if he had. He and his wife are very sweet on Hyacinth, but they can’t make up their minds to interfere; perhaps for them, indeed, as for me, there is no way in which interference can be effective. Only I didn’t put him up to those devil’s tricks – or, rather, I did originally! The finer the work, I suppose, the higher the privilege of doing it; yet the Poupins heave socialistic sighs over the boy, and their peace of mind evidently isn’t all that it ought to be, if they have given him a noble opportunity. I have appealed to them, in good round terms, and they have assured me that every hair of his head is as precious to them as if he were their own child. That doesn’t comfort me much, however, for the simple reason that I believe the old woman (whose grandmother, in Paris, in the Revolution, must certainly have carried bloody heads on a pike) would be quite capable of chopping up her own child, if it would do any harm to proprietors. Besides, they say, what influence have they on Hyacinth any more? He is a deplorable little backslider; he worships false gods. In short, they will give me no information, and I dare say they themselves are tied up by some unholy vow. They may be afraid of a vengeance if they tell tales. It’s all sad rubbish, but rubbish may be a strong motive.”

The Princess listened attentively, following her visitor with patience. “Don’t speak to me of the French; I have never liked them.”

“That’s awkward, if you’re a socialist. You are likely to meet them.”

“Why do you call me a socialist? I hate labels and tickets,” she declared. Then she added, “What is it you suppose on Mr Robinson’s part? – for you must suppose something.”

“Well, that he may have drawn some accursed lot, to do some idiotic thing – something in which even he himself doesn’t believe.”

“I haven’t an idea of what sort of thing you mean. But, if he doesn’t believe in it he can easily let it alone.”

“Do you think he’s a customer who will back out of an engagement?” the fiddler asked.

The Princess hesitated a moment. “One can never judge of people, in that way, until they are tested.” The next thing, she inquired, “Haven’t you even taken the trouble to question him?”

“What would be the use? He would tell me nothing. It would be like a man giving notice when he is going to fight a duel.”

The Princess sat for some moments in thought; she looked up at Mr Vetch with a pitying, indulgent smile. “I am sure you are worrying about a mere shadow; but that never prevents, does it? I still don’t see exactly how I can help you.”

“Do you want him to commit some atrocity, some infamy?” the old man murmured.

“My dear sir, I don’t want him to do anything in all the wide world. I have not had the smallest connection with any arrangement of any kind, that he may have entered into. Do me the honour to trust me,” the Princess went on, with a certain dryness of tone. “I don’t know what I have done to deprive myself of your confidence. Trust the young man a little, too. He is a gentleman, and he will behave like a gentleman.”

The fiddler rose from his chair, smoothing his hat, silently, with the cuff of his coat. He stood there, whimsical and piteous, as if the sense that he had still something to urge mingled with that of his having received his dismissal, and both of them were tinged with the oddity of another idea. “That’s exactly what I am afraid of!” he exclaimed. Then he added, continuing to look at her, “But he must be very fond of life.”

The Princess took no notice of the insinuation contained in these words, and indeed it was of a sufficiently impalpable character. “Leave him to me – leave him to me. I am sorry for your anxiety, but it was very good of you to come to see me. That has been interesting, because you have been one of our friend’s influences.”

“Unfortunately, yes! If it had not been for me, he would not have known Poupin, and if he hadn’t known Poupin he wouldn’t have known his chemical friend – what’s his name? Muniment.”

“And has that done him harm, do you think?” the Princess asked. She had got up.

“Surely: that fellow has been the main source of his infection.”

“I lose patience with you,” said the Princess, turning away.

And indeed her visitor’s persistence was irritating. He went on, lingering, with his head thrust forward and his short arms out at his sides, terminating in his hat and umbrella, which he held grotesquely, as if they were intended for emphasis or illustration: “I have supposed for a long time that it was either Muniment or you that had got him into his scrape. It was you I suspected most – much the most; but if it isn’t you, it must be he.”

“You had better go to him, then!”

“Of course I will go to him. I scarcely know him – I have seen him but once – but I will speak my mind.”

The Princess rang for her maid to usher the fiddler out, but at the moment he laid his hand on the door of the room she checked him with a quick gesture. “Now that I think of it, don’t go to Mr Muniment. It will be better to leave him quiet. Leave him to me,” she added, smiling.

“Why not, why not?” he pleaded. And as she could not tell him on the instant why not, he asked, “Doesn’t he know?”

“No, he doesn’t know; he has nothing to do with it.” She suddenly found herself desiring to protect Paul Muniment from the imputation that was in Mr Vetch’s mind – the imputation of an ugly responsibility; and though she was not a person who took the trouble to tell fibs, this repudiation, on his behalf, issued from her lips before she could check it. It was a result of the same desire, though it was also an inconsequence, that she added, “Don’t do that – you’ll spoil everything!” She went to him, suddenly eager, and herself opened the door for him. “Leave him to me – leave him to me,” she continued, persuasively, while the fiddler, gazing at her, dazzled and submissive, allowed himself to be wafted away. A thought that excited her had come to her with a bound, and after she had heard the house-door close behind Mr Vetch she walked up and down the room half an hour, restlessly, under the possession of it.

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