The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


Hyacinth hurried down and got out of the house, but he had not the least intention of losing sight of Schinkel. The odd behaviour of the Poupins was a surprise and annoyance, and he had wished to shake himself free from it. He was candidly astonished at the alarm they were so good as to feel for him, for he had never perceived that they had gone round to the hope that the note he had signed (as it were) to Hoffendahl would not be presented. What had he said, what had he done, after all, to give them the right to fasten on him the charge of apostasy? He had always been a free critic of everything, and it was natural that, on certain occasions, in the little parlour in Lisson Grove, he should have spoken in accordance with that freedom; but it was only with the Princess that he had permitted himself really to rail at the democracy and given the full measure of his scepticism. He would have thought it indelicate to express contempt for the opinions of his old foreign friends, to whom associations that made them venerable were attached; and, moreover, for Hyacinth, a change of heart was, in the nature of things, much more an occasion for a hush of publicity and a kind of retrospective reserve; it couldn’t prompt one to aggression or jubilation. When one had but lately discovered what could be said on the opposite side one didn’t want to boast of one’s sharpness – not even when one’s new convictions cast shadows that looked like the ghosts of the old.

Hyacinth lingered in the street, a certain distance from the house, watching for Schinkel’s exit and prepared to remain there if necessary till the dawn of another day. He had said to his friends, just before, that the manner in which the communication they looked so askance at should reach him was none of his business – it might reach him as it could. This was true enough in theory, but in fact his desire was overwhelming to know what Madame Poupin had meant by her allusion to a letter, destined for him, in Schinkel’s possession – an allusion confirmed by Schinkel’s own virtual acknowledgment. It was indeed this eagerness that had driven him out of the house, for he had reason to believe that the German would not fail him, and it galled his suspense to see the foolish Poupins try to interpose, to divert the missive from its course. He waited and waited, in the faith that Schinkel was dealing with them in his slow, categorical Teutonic way, and only objurgated the cabinet-maker for having in the first place paltered with his sacred trust. Why hadn’t he come straight to him – whatever the mysterious document was – instead of talking it over with French featherheads? Passers were rare, at this hour, in Lisson Grove, and lights were mainly extinguished; there was nothing to look at but the vista of the low black houses, the dim, interspaced street-lamps, the prowling cats who darted occasionally across the road, and the terrible, mysterious, far-off stars, which appeared to him more than ever to see everything and to tell nothing. A policeman creaked along on the opposite side of the way, looking across at him as he passed, and stood for some minutes on the corner, as if to keep an eye on him. Hyacinth had leisure to reflect that the day was perhaps not far off when a policeman might have his eye on him for a very good reason – might walk up and down, pass and repass, as he mounted guard over him.

It seemed horribly long before Schinkel came out of the house, but it was probably only half an hour. In the stillness of the street he heard Poupin let his visitor out, and at the sound he stepped back into the recess of a doorway on the same side, so that, in looking out, the Frenchman should not see him waiting. There was another delay, for the two stood talking together interminably and in a low tone on the doorstep. At last, however, Poupin went in again, and then Schinkel came down the street towards Hyacinth, who had calculated that he would proceed in that direction, it being, as Hyacinth happened to know, that of his own lodging. After he had heard Poupin go in he stopped and looked up and down; it was evidently his idea that Hyacinth would be waiting for him. Our hero stepped out of the shallow recess in which he had been flattening himself, and came straight to him, and the two men stood there face to face, in the dusky, empty, sordid street.

“You didn’t let them have the letter?”

“Oh no, I retained it,” said Schinkel, with his eyes more than ever like invisible points.

“Then hadn’t you better give it to me?”

“We will talk of that – we will talk.” Schinkel made no motion to satisfy his friend; he had his hands in the pockets of his trousers, and his appearance was characterised by an exasperating assumption that they had the whole night before them. He was intolerably methodical.

“Why should we talk? Haven’t you talked enough with those people, all the evening? What have they to say about it? What right have you to detain a letter that belongs to me?”

Erlauben Sie: I will light my pipe,” the German remarked. And he proceeded to this business, methodically, while Hyacinth’s pale, excited face showed in the glow of the match that he ignited on the rusty railing beside them. “It is not yours unless I have given it to you,” Schinkel went on, as they walked along. “Be patient, and I will tell you,” he added, passing his hand into his companion’s arm. “Your way, not so? We will go down toward the Park.” Hyacinth tried to be patient, and he listened with interest when Schinkel said, “She tried to take it; she attacked me with her hands. But that was not what I went for, to give it up.”

“Is she mad? I don’t recognise them,” Hyacinth murmured.

“No, but they lofe you.”

“Why, then, do they try to disgrace me?”

“They think it is no disgrace, if you have changed.”

“That’s very well for her; but it’s pitiful for him, and I declare it surprises me.”

“Oh, he came round, and he helped me to resist. He pulled his wife off. It was the first shock,” said Schinkel.

“You oughtn’t to have shocked them, my dear fellow,” Hyacinth replied.

“I was shocked myself – I couldn’t help it.”

“Lord, how shaky you all are!”

“You take it well. I am very sorry. But it is a fine chance,” Schinkel went on, smoking away. His pipe, for the moment, seemed to absorb him, so that after a silence Hyacinth resumed –

“Be so good as to reflect that all this while I don’t in the least understand what you are talking about.”

“Well, it was this morning, early,” said the German. “You know in my country we don’t lie in bed late, and what they do in my country I try to do everywhere. I think it is good enough. In winter I get up, of course, long before the sun, and in summer I get up almost at the same time. I should see the fine spectacle of the sunrise, if in London you could see. The first thing I do of a Sunday is to smoke a pipe at my window, which is at the front, you remember, and looks into a little dirty street. At that hour there is nothing to see there – you English are so slow to leave the bed. Not much, however, at any time; it is not important, my little street. But my first pipe is the one I enjoy most. I want nothing else when I have that pleasure. I look out at the new, fresh light – though in London it is not very fresh – and I think it is the beginning of another day. I wonder what such a day will bring; whether it will bring anything good to us poor devils. But I have seen a great many pass, and nothing has come. This morning, however, brought something – something, at least, to you. On the other side of the way I saw a young man, who stood just opposite to my house, looking up at my window. He looked at me straight, without any ceremony, and I smoked my pipe and looked at him. I wondered what he wanted, but he made no sign and spoke no word. He was a very nice young man; he had an umbrella, and he wore spectacles. We remained that way, face to face, perhaps for a quarter of an hour, and at last he took out his watch – he had a watch, too – and held it in his hand, just glancing at it every few minutes, as if to let me know that he would rather not give me the whole day. Then it came over me that he wanted to speak to me! You would have guessed that before, but we good Germans are slow. When we understand, however, we act; so I nodded to him, to let him know I would come down. I put on my coat and my shoes, for I was only in my shirt and stockings (though of course I had on my trousers), and I went down into the street. When he saw me come he walked slowly away, but at the end of a little distance he waited for me. When I came near him I saw that he was a very nice young man indeed – very young, with a very pleasant, friendly face. He was also very neat, and he had gloves, and his umbrella was of silk. I liked him very much. He said I should come round the corner, so we went round the corner together. I thought there would be some one there waiting for us; but there was nothing – only the closed shops and the early light and a little spring mist which told that the day would be fine. I didn’t know what he wanted; perhaps it was some of our business – that’s what I first thought – and perhaps it was only a little game. So I was very careful; I didn’t ask him to come into the house. Yet I told him that he must excuse me for not understanding more quickly that he wished to speak with me; and when I said that, he said it was not of consequence – he would have waited there, for the chance to see me all day. I told him I was glad I had spared him that, at least, and we had some very polite conversation. He was a very nice young man. But what he wanted was simply to put a letter in my hand; as he said himself, he was only a kind of private postman. He gave me the letter – it was not addressed; and when I had taken it I asked him how he knew, and if he wouldn’t be sorry if it should turn out that I was not the man for whom the letter was meant. But I didn’t give him a start; he told me he knew all it was necessary for him to know – he knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I think he is a valuable member. I asked him if the letter required an answer, and he told me he had nothing to do with that; he was only to put it in my hand. He recommended me to wait till I had gone into the house again to read it. We had a little more talk – always very polite; and he mentioned that he had come so early because he thought I might go out, if he delayed, and because, also, he had a great deal to do and had to take his time when he could. It is true that he looked as if he had plenty to do – as if he was in some very good occupation. I should tell you that he spoke to me always in English, but he is not English; he sounded his words like some kind of foreigner. I suppose he is not German, or he would have spoken to me in German. But there are so many, of all countries! I said if he had so much to do I wouldn’t keep him; I would go to my room and open my letter. He said it wasn’t important; and then I asked him if he wouldn’t come into my room, also, and rest. I told him it wasn’t very handsome, my room – because he looked like a young man who would have, for himself, a very neat lodging. Then I found he meant it wasn’t important that we should talk any more, and he went away without even offering to shake hands. I don’t know if he had other letters to give, but he went away, as I have said, like a postman on his rounds, without giving me any more information.”

It took Schinkel a long time to unfold this story – his calm and conscientious thoroughness made no allowance for any painful acuteness of curiosity that Hyacinth might feel. He went from step to step, and treated his different points with friendly explicitness, as if each would have exactly the same interest for his companion. The latter made no attempt to hurry him, and indeed he listened, now, with a kind of intense patience; for he was interested, and, moreover, it was clear to him that he was safe with Schinkel; the German would satisfy him in time – wouldn’t worry him with attaching conditions to their transaction, in spite of the mistake he had made in going for guidance to Lisson Grove. Hyacinth learned in due course that on returning to his apartment and opening the little packet of which he had been put into possession, Mr Schinkel had found himself confronted with two separate articles: one a sealed letter superscribed with our young man’s name, the other a sheet of paper containing in three lines a request that within two days of receiving it he would hand the letter to the ‘young Robinson’. The three lines in question were signed D. H., and the letter was addressed in the same hand. Schinkel professed that he already knew the writing; it was that of Diedrich Hoffendahl. “Good, good,” he said, exerting a soothing pressure upon Hyacinth’s arm. “I will walk with you to your door, and I will give it to you there; unless you like better that I should keep it till to-morrow morning, so that you may have a quiet sleep – I mean in case it might contain anything that will be disagreeable to you. But it is probably nothing; it is probably only a word to say that you need think no more about your engagement.”

“Why should it be that?” Hyacinth asked.

“Probably he has heard that you repent.”

“That I repent?” Hyacinth stopped him short; they had just reached the top of Park Lane. “To whom have I given a right to say that?”

“Ah well, if you haven’t, so much the better. It may be, then, for some other reason.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Schinkel,” Hyacinth returned, as they walked along. And in a moment he went on, “What the devil did you go and tattle to the Poupins for?”

“Because I thought they would like to know. Besides, I felt my responsibility; I thought I should carry it better if they knew it. And then, I’m like them – I lofe you.”

Hyacinth made no answer to this profession; he asked the next instant, “Why didn’t your young man bring the letter directly to me?”

“Ah, I didn’t ask him that! The reason was probably not complicated, but simple – that those who wrote it knew my address and didn’t know yours. And wasn’t I one of your guarantors?”

“Yes, but not the principal one. The principal one was Muniment. Why was the letter not sent to me through him?”

“My dear Robinson, you want to know too many things. Depend upon it, there are always good reasons. I should have liked it better if it had been Muniment. But if they didn’t send to him —” Schinkel interrupted himself; the remainder of his sentence was lost in a cloud of smoke.

“Well, if they didn’t send to him,” – Hyacinth persisted.

“You’re a great friend of his – how can I tell you?”

At this Hyacinth looked up at his companion askance, and caught an odd glance, accompanied with a smile, which the mild, circumspect German directed toward him. “If it’s anything against him, my being his friend makes me just the man to hear it. I can defend him.”

“Well, it’s a possibility that they are not satisfied.”

“How do you mean it – not satisfied?”

“How shall I say it? – that they don’t trust him.”

“Don’t trust him? And yet they trust me!”

“Ah, my boy, depend upon it, there are reasons,” Schinkel replied; and in a moment he added, “They know everything – everything. Oh, they go straight!”

The pair pursued the rest of their course for the most part in silence, Hyacinth being considerably struck with something that dropped from his companion in answer to a question he asked as to what Eustache Poupin had said when Schinkel, that evening, first told him what he had come to see him about. “Il vaut du galme – il vaut du galme:” that was the German’s version of the Frenchman’s words; and Hyacinth repeated them over to himself several times, almost with the same accent. They had a certain soothing effect. In fact the good Schinkel was soothing altogether, as our hero felt when they stopped at last at the door of his lodging in Westminster and stood there face to face, while Hyacinth waited – waited. The sharpness of his impatience had passed away, and he watched without irritation the loving manner in which the German shook the ashes out of his big pipe and laid it to rest in its coffin. It was only after he had gone through this business with his usual attention to every detail of it that he said, “Also, now for the letter,” and, putting his hand inside of his waistcoat, drew forth the important document. It passed instantly into Hyacinth’s grasp, and our young man transferred it to his own pocket without looking at it. He thought he saw a shade of disappointment in Schinkel’s ugly, kindly face, at this indication that he should have no present knowledge of its contents; but he liked that better than his pretending to say again that it was nothing – that it was only a release. Schinkel had now the good sense, or the good taste, not to repeat that remark, and as the letter pressed against his heart Hyacinth felt still more distinctly that it was something – that it was a command. What Schinkel did say, in a moment, was: “Now that you have got it, I am very glad. It is more comfortable for me.”

“I should think so!” Hyacinth exclaimed. “If you hadn’t done your job you would have paid for it.”

Schinkel hesitated a moment while he lingered; then, as Hyacinth turned away, putting in his door-key, he replied, “And if you don’t do yours, so will you.”

“Yes, as you say, they go straight! Good-night.” And our young man let himself in.

The passage and staircase were never lighted, and the lodgers either groped their way bedward with the infallibility of practice or scraped the wall with a casual match which, in the milder gloom of day, was visible in a hundred rich streaks. Hyacinth’s room was on the second floor, behind, and as he approached it he was startled by seeing a light proceed from the crevice under the door, the imperfect fitting of which was in this manner vividly illustrated. He stopped and considered this mysterious brightness, and his first impulse was to connect it with the incident just ushered in by Schinkel; for what could anything that touched him now be but a part of the same business? It was natural that some punctual emissary should be awaiting him. Then it occurred to him that when he went out to call on Lady Aurora, after tea, he had simply left a tallow candle burning, and that it showed a cynical spirit on the part of his landlady, who could be so close-fisted for herself, not to have gone in and put it out. Lastly, it came over him that he had had a visitor, in his absence, and that the visitor had taken possession of his apartment till his return, seeking sources of comfort, as was perfectly just. When he opened the door he found that this last prevision was the right one, though his visitor was not one of the figures that had risen before him. Mr Vetch sat there, beside the little table at which Hyacinth did his writing, with his head resting on his hand and his eyes bent on the floor. He looked up when Hyacinth appeared, and said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you; you are very quiet.”

“I come in softly, when I’m late, for the sake of the house – though I am bound to say I am the only lodger who has that refinement. Besides, you have been asleep,” Hyacinth said.

“No, I have not been asleep,” returned the old man. “I don’t sleep much nowadays.”

“Then you have been plunged in meditation.”

“Yes, I have been thinking.” Then Mr Vetch explained that the woman of the house wouldn’t let him come in, at first, till he had given proper assurances that his intentions were pure and that he was moreover the oldest friend Mr Robinson had in the world. He had been there for an hour; he thought he might find him, coming so late.

Hyacinth answered that he was very glad he had waited and that he was delighted to see him, and expressed regret that he hadn’t known in advance of his visit, so that he might have something to offer him. He sat down on his bed, vaguely expectant; he wondered what special purpose had brought the fiddler so far at that unnatural hour. But he only spoke the truth in saying that he was glad to see him. Hyacinth had come upstairs in a tremor of desire to be alone with the revelation that he carried in his pocket, yet the sight of Anastasius Vetch gave him a sudden relief by postponing solitude. The place where he had put his letter seemed to throb against his side, yet he was thankful to his old friend for forcing him still to leave it so. “I have been looking at your books,” the fiddler said; “you have two or three exquisite specimens of your own. Oh yes, I recognise your work when I see it; there are always certain little finer touches. You have a manner, like a master. With such a talent, such a taste, your future leaves nothing to be desired. You will make a fortune and become a great celebrity.”

Mr Vetch sat forward, to sketch this vision; he rested his hands on his knees and looked very hard at his young friend, as if to challenge him to dispute his flattering views. The effect of what Hyacinth saw in his face was to give him immediately the idea that the fiddler knew something, though it was impossible to guess how he could know it. The Poupins, for instance, had had no time to communicate with him, even granting that they were capable of that baseness; an unwarrantable supposition, in spite of Hyacinth’s having seen them, less than an hour before, fall so much below their own standard. With this suspicion there rushed into Hyacinth’s mind an intense determination to dissemble before his visitor to the last; he might imagine what he liked, but he should not have a grain of satisfaction – or rather he should have that of being led to believe, if possible, that his suspicions were positively vain and idle. Hyacinth rested his eyes on the books that Mr Vetch had taken down from the shelf, and admitted that they were very pretty work and that so long as one didn’t become blind or maimed the ability to produce that sort of thing was a legitimate source of confidence. Then suddenly, as they continued simply to look at each other, the pressure of the old man’s curiosity, the expression of his probing, beseeching eyes, which had become strange and tragic in these latter times and completely changed their character, grew so intolerable that to defend himself Hyacinth took the aggressive and asked him boldly whether it were simply to look at his work, of which he had half a dozen specimens in Lomax Place, that he had made a nocturnal pilgrimage. “My dear old friend, you have something on your mind – some fantastic fear, some extremely erroneous idée fixe. Why has it taken you to-night, in particular? Whatever it is, it has brought you here, at an unnatural hour, you don’t know why. I ought of course to be thankful to anything that brings you here; and so I am, in so far as that it makes me happy. But I can’t like it if it makes you miserable. You’re like a nervous mother whose baby’s in bed upstairs; she goes up every five minutes to see if he’s all right – if he isn’t uncovered or hasn’t tumbled out of bed. Dear Mr  Vetch, don’t, don’t worry; the blanket’s up to my chin, and I haven’t tumbled yet.”

Hyacinth heard himself say these things as if he were listening to another person; the impudence of them, under the circumstances, seemed to him, somehow, so rare. But he believed himself to be on the edge of an episode in which impudence, evidently, must play a considerable part, and he might as well try his hand at it without delay. The way the old man gazed at him might have indicated that he too was able to take the measure of his perversity – that he knew he was false as he sat there declaring that there was nothing the matter, while a brand-new revolutionary commission burned in his pocket. But in a moment Mr Vetch said, very mildly, as if he had really been reassured, “It’s wonderful how you read my thoughts. I don’t trust you; I think there are beastly possibilities. It’s not true, at any rate, that I come to look at you every five minutes. You don’t know how often I have resisted my fears – how I have forced myself to let you alone.”

“You had better let me come and live with you, as I proposed after Pinnie’s death. Then you will have me always under your eyes,” said Hyacinth, smiling.

The old man got up eagerly, and, as Hyacinth did the same, laid his hands upon his shoulders, holding him close. “Will you now, really, my boy? Will you come to-night?”

“To-night, Mr Vetch?”

“To-night has worried me more than any other, I don’t know why. After my tea I had my pipe and a glass, but I couldn’t keep quiet; I was very, very bad. I got to thinking of Pinnie – she seemed to be in the room. I felt as if I could put out my hand and touch her. If I believed in ghosts I should believe I had seen her. She wasn’t there for nothing; she was there to add her fears to mine – to talk to me about you. I tried to hush her up, but it was no use – she drove me out of the house. About ten o’clock I took my hat and stick and came down here. You may judge whether I thought it important, as I took a cab.”

“Ah, why do you spend your money so foolishly?” asked Hyacinth, in a tone of the most affectionate remonstrance.

“Will you come to-night?” said the old man, for all rejoinder, holding him still.

“Surely, it would be simpler for you to stay here. I see perfectly that you are ill and nervous. You can take the bed, and I’ll spend the night in the chair.”

The fiddler thought a moment. “No, you’ll hate me if I subject you to such discomfort as that; and that’s just what I don’t want.”

“It won’t be a bit different in your room; there, as here, I shall have to sleep in a chair.”

“I’ll get another room; we shall be close together,” the fiddler went on.

“Do you mean you’ll get another room at this hour of the night, with your little house stuffed full and your people all in bed? My poor Anastasius, you are very bad; your reason totters on its throne,” said Hyacinth, humorously and indulgently.

“Very good, we’ll get a room to-morrow. I’ll move into another house, where there are two, side by side.” Hyacinth’s tone was evidently soothing to him.

Comme vous y allez!” the young man continued. “Excuse me if I remind you that in case of my leaving this place I have to give a fortnight’s notice.”

“Ah, you’re backing out!” the old man exclaimed, dropping his hands.

“Pinnie wouldn’t have said that,” Hyacinth returned. “If you are acting, if you are speaking, at the prompting of her pure spirit, you had better act and speak exactly as she would have done. She would have believed me.”

“Believed you? Believed what? What is there to believe? If you’ll make me a promise, I will believe that.”

“I’ll make you any promise you like,” said Hyacinth.

“Oh, any promise I like – that isn’t what I want! I want just one very particular little pledge; and that is really what I came here for to-night. It came over me that I’ve been an ass, all this time, never to have demanded it of you before. Give it to me now, and I will go home quietly and leave you in peace.” Hyacinth, assenting in advance, requested again that he would formulate his demand, and then the old man said, “Well, promise me that you will never, under any circumstances whatever, do anything.”

“Do anything?”

“Anything that those people expect of you.”

“Those people?” Hyacinth repeated.

“Ah, don’t torment me with pretending not to understand!” the old man begged. “You know the people I mean. I can’t call them by their names, because I don’t know them. But you do, and they know you.”

Hyacinth had no desire to torment Mr Vetch, but he was capable of reflecting that to enter into his thought too easily would be tantamount to betraying himself. “I suppose I know the people you have in mind,” he said, in a moment; “but I’m afraid I don’t grasp the idea of the promise.”

“Don’t they want to make use of you?”

“I see what you mean,” said Hyacinth. “You think they want me to touch off some train for them. Well, if that’s what troubles you, you may sleep sound. I shall never do any of their work.”

A radiant light came into the fiddler’s face, and he stared, as if this assurance were too fair for nature. “Do you take your oath on that? Never anything, anything, anything?”

“Never anything at all.”

“Will you swear it to me by the memory of that good woman of whom we have been speaking and whom we both loved?”

“My dear old Pinnie’s memory? Willingly.”

The old man sank down in his chair and buried his face in his hands; the next moment his companion heard him sobbing. Ten minutes later he was content to take his departure, and Hyacinth went out with him to look for another cab. They found an ancient four-wheeler stationed languidly at a crossing of the ways, and before Mr Vetch got into it he asked his young friend to kiss him. That young friend watched the vehicle get itself into motion and rattle away; he saw it turn a neighbouring corner. Then he approached the nearest gas-lamp and drew from his breast-pocket the letter that Schinkel had given him.

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