The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James


That the Princess had done with him, done with him for ever, remained the most vivid impression that Hyacinth had carried away from Madeira Crescent the night before. He went home, and he flung himself on his narrow bed, where the consolation of sleep again descended upon him. But he woke up with the earliest dawn, and the beginning of a new day was a quick revival of pain. He was over-past, he had become vague, he was extinct. The things that Sholto had said to him came back to him, and the compassion of foreknowledge that Madame Grandoni had shown him from the first. Of Paul Muniment he only thought to wonder whether he knew. An insurmountable desire to do justice to him, for the very reason that there might be a temptation to oblique thoughts, forbade him to challenge his friend even in imagination. He vaguely wondered whether he would ever be superseded; but this possibility faded away in a stronger light – a kind of dazzling vision of some great tribuneship, which swept before him now and again and in which the figure of the Princess herself seemed merged and extinguished. When full morning came at last, and he got up, it brought with it, in the restlessness which made it impossible to him to remain in his room, a return of that beginning of an answerless question, ‘After all – after all —?’ which the Princess had planted there the night before when she spoke so bravely in the name of the Revolution. ‘After all – after all, since nothing else was tried, or would, apparently, ever be tried —’ He had a sense of his mind, which had been made up, falling to pieces again; but that sense in turn lost itself in a shudder which was already familiar – the horror of the reappearance, on his part, of the imbrued hands of his mother. This loathing of the idea of a repetition had not been sharp, strangely enough, till his summons came; in all his previous meditations the growth of his reluctance to act for the ‘party of action’ had not been the fear of a personal stain, but the simple extension of his observation. Yet now the idea of the personal stain made him horribly sick; it seemed by itself to make service impossible. It rose before him like a kind of backward accusation of his mother; to suffer it to start out in the life of her son was in a manner to place her own forgotten, redeemed pollution again in the eye of the world. The thought that was most of all with him was that he had time – he had time; he was grateful for that, and saw a kind of delicacy in their having given him a margin – not condemned him to be pressed by the hours. He had another day, he had two days, he might take three, he might take several. He knew he should be terribly weary of them before they were over; but for that matter they would be over whenever he liked. Anyhow, he went forth again into the streets, into the squares, into the parks, solicited by an aimless desire to steep himself yet once again in the great indifferent city which he knew and loved and which had had so many of his smiles and tears and confidences. The day was gray and damp, though no rain fell, and London had never appeared to him to wear more proudly and publicly the stamp of her imperial history. He passed slowly to and fro over Westminster bridge and watched the black barges drift on the great brown river, and looked up at the huge fretted palace that rose there as a fortress of the social order which he, like the young David, had been commissioned to attack with a sling and a pebble. At last he made his way to St James’s Park, and he strolled about a long time. He revolved around it, and he went a considerable distance up the thoroughfare that communicates with Pimlico. He stopped at a certain point and came back again, and then he retraced his steps in the former direction. He looked in the windows of shops, and he looked in particular into the long, glazed expanse of that establishment in which, at that hour of the day, Millicent Henning discharged superior functions. Millicent’s image had descended upon him after he came out, and now it moved before him as he went, it clung to him, it refused to quit him. He made, in truth, no effort to drive it away; he held fast to it in return, and it murmured strange things in his ear. She had been so jolly to him on Sunday; she was such a strong, obvious, simple nature, with such a generous breast and such a freedom from the sophistries of civilisation. All that he had ever liked in her came back to him now with a finer air, and there was a moment, during which he hung over the rail of the bridge that spans the lake in St James’s Park and mechanically followed the movement of the swans, when he asked himself whether, at bottom, he hadn’t liked her better, almost, than any one. He tried to think he had, he wanted to think he had, and he seemed to see the look her eyes would have if he should tell her that he had. Something of that sort had really passed between them on Sunday; only the business that had come up since had superseded it. Now the taste of the vague, primitive comfort that his Sunday had given him came back to him, and he asked himself whether he mightn’t know it a second time. After he had thought he couldn’t again wish for anything, he found himself wishing that he might believe there was something Millicent could do for him. Mightn’t she help him – mightn’t she even extricate him? He was looking into a window – not that of her own shop – when a vision rose before him of a quick flight with her, for an undefined purpose, to an undefined spot; and he was glad, at that moment, to have his back turned to the people in the street, because his face suddenly grew red to the tips of his ears. Again and again, all the same, he indulged in the reflection that spontaneous, uncultivated minds often have inventions, inspirations. Moreover, whether Millicent should have any or not, he might at least feel her arms around him. He didn’t exactly know what good it would do him or what door it would open; but he should like it. The sensation was not one he could afford to defer, but the nearest moment at which he could enjoy it would be that evening. He had thrown over everything, but she would be busy all day; nevertheless, it would be a gain, it would be a kind of foretaste, to see her earlier, to have three words with her. He wrestled with the temptation to go into her haberdasher’s, because he knew she didn’t like it (he had tried it once, of old); as the visits of gentlemen, even when ostensible purchasers (there were people watching about who could tell who was who), compromised her in the eyes of her employers. This was not an ordinary case, however; and though he hovered about the place a long time, undecided, embarrassed, half ashamed, at last he went in, as by an irresistible necessity. He would just make an appointment with her, and a glance of the eye and a single word would suffice. He remembered his way through the labyrinth of the shop; he knew that her department was on the second floor. He walked through the place, which was crowded, as if he had as good a right as any one else; and as he had entertained himself, on rising, with putting on his holiday garments, in which he made such a distinguished little figure, he was not suspected of any purpose more nefarious than that of looking for some nice thing to give a lady. He ascended the stairs, and found himself in a large room where made-up articles were exhibited and where, though there were twenty people in it, a glance told him he shouldn’t find Millicent. She was perhaps in the next one, into which he passed by a wide opening. Here also were numerous purchasers, most of them ladies; the men were but three or four, and the disposal of the wares was in the hands of neat young women attired in black dresses with long trains. At first it appeared to Hyacinth that the young woman he sought was even here not within sight, and he was turning away, to look elsewhere, when suddenly he perceived that a tall gentleman, standing in the middle of the room, was none other than Captain Sholto. It next became plain to him that the person standing upright before the Captain, as still as a lay-figure and with her back turned to Hyacinth, was the object of his own quest. In spite of her averted face he instantly recognised Millicent; he knew her shop-attitude, the dressing of her hair behind, and the long, grand lines of her figure, draped in the last new thing. She was exhibiting this article to the Captain, and he was lost in contemplation. He had been beforehand with Hyacinth as a false purchaser, but he imitated a real one better than our young man, as, with his eyes travelling up and down the front of Millicent’s person, he frowned, consideringly, and rubbed his lower lip slowly with his walking-stick. Millicent stood admirably still, and the back-view of the garment she displayed was magnificent. Hyacinth, for a minute, stood as still as she. At the end of that minute he perceived that Sholto saw him, and for an instant he thought he was going to direct Millicent’s attention to him. But Sholto only looked at him very hard, for a few seconds, without telling her he was there; to enjoy that satisfaction he would wait till the interloper was gone. Hyacinth gazed back at him for the same length of time – what these two pairs of eyes said to each other requires perhaps no definite mention – and then turned away.

That evening, about nine o’clock, the Princess Casamassima drove in a hansom to Hyacinth’s lodgings in Westminster. The door of the house was a little open, and a man stood on the step, smoking his big pipe and looking up and down. The Princess, seeing him while she was still at some distance, had hoped he was Hyacinth, but he proved to be a very different figure indeed from her devoted young friend. He had not a forbidding countenance, but he looked very hard at her as she descended from her hansom and approached the door. She was used to being looked at hard, and she didn’t mind this; she supposed he was one of the lodgers in the house. He edged away to let her pass, and watched her while she endeavoured to impart an elasticity of movement to the limp bell-pull beside the door. It gave no audible response, so that she said to him, “I wish to ask for Mr Hyacinth Robinson. Perhaps you can tell me —”

“Yes, I too,” the man replied, smiling. “I have come also for that.”

The Princess hesitated a moment. “I think you must be Mr Schinkel. I have heard of you.”

“You know me by my bad English,” her interlocutor remarked, with a sort of benevolent coquetry.

“Your English is remarkably good – I wish I spoke German as well. Only just a hint of an accent, and evidently an excellent vocabulary.”

“I think I have heard, also, of you,” said Schinkel, appreciatively.

“Yes, we know each other, in our circle, don’t we? We are all brothers and sisters.” The Princess was anxious, she was in a fever; but she could still relish the romance of standing in a species of back-slum and fraternising with a personage looking like a very tame horse whose collar galled him. “Then he’s at home, I hope; he is coming down to you?” she went on.

“That’s what I don’t know. I am waiting.”

“Have they gone to call him?”

Schinkel looked at her, while he puffed his pipe. “I have called him myself, but he will not say.”

“How do you mean – he will not say?”

“His door is locked. I have knocked many times.”

“I suppose he is out,” said the Princess.

“Yes, he may be out,” Schinkel remarked, judicially.

He and the Princess stood a moment looking at each other, and then she asked, “Have you any doubt of it?”

“Oh, es kann sein. Only the woman of the house told me five minutes ago that he came in.”

“Well, then, he probably went out again,” the Princess remarked.

“Yes, but she didn’t hear him.”

The Princess reflected, and was conscious that she was flushing. She knew what Schinkel knew about their young friend’s actual situation, and she wished to be very clear with him, and to induce him to be the same with her. She was rather baffled, however, by the sense that he was cautious, and justly cautious. He was polite and inscrutable, quite like some of the high personages – ambassadors and cabinet-ministers – whom she used to meet in the great world. “Has the woman been here, in the house, ever since?” she asked in a moment.

“No, she went out for ten minutes, half an hour ago.”

“Surely, then, he may have gone out again in that time!” the Princess exclaimed.

“That is what I have thought. It is also why I have waited here,” said Schinkel. “I have nothing to do,” he added, serenely.

“Neither have I,” the Princess rejoined. “We can wait together.”

“It’s a pity you haven’t got some room,” the German suggested.

“No, indeed; this will do very well. We shall see him the sooner when he comes back.”

“Yes, but perhaps it won’t be for long.”

“I don’t care for that; I will wait. I hope you don’t object to my company,” she went on, smiling.

“It is good, it is good,” Schinkel responded, through his smoke.

“Then I will send away my cab.” She returned to the vehicle and paid the driver, who said, “Thank you, my lady,” with expression, and drove off.

“You gave him too much,” observed Schinkel, when she came back.

“Oh, he looked like a nice man. I am sure he deserved it.”

“It is very expensive,” Schinkel went on, sociably.

“Yes, and I have no money, but it’s done. Was there no one else in the house while the woman was away?” the Princess asked.

“No, the people are out; she only has single men. I asked her that. She has a daughter, but the daughter has gone to see her cousin. The mother went only a hundred yards, round the corner there, to buy a pennyworth of milk. She locked this door, and put the key in her pocket; she stayed at the grocer’s, where she got the milk, to have a little conversation with a friend she met there. You know ladies always stop like that – nicht wahr? It was half an hour later that I came. She told me that he was at home, and I went up to his room. I got no sound, as I have told you. I came down and spoke to her again, and she told me what I say.”

“Then you determined to wait, as I have done,” said the Princess.

“Oh, yes, I want to see him.”

“So do I, very much.” The Princess said nothing more, for a minute; then she added, “I think we want to see him for the same reason.”

Das kann sein – das kann sein.”

The two continued to stand there in the brown evening, and they had some further conversation, of a desultory and irrelevant kind. At the end of ten minutes the Princess broke out, in a low tone, laying her hand on her companion’s arm, “Mr Schinkel, this won’t do. I’m intolerably nervous.”

“Yes, that is the nature of ladies,” the German replied, imperturbably.

“I wish to go up to his room,” the Princess pursued. “You will be so good as to show me where it is.”

“It will do you no good, if he is not there.”

The Princess hesitated. “I am not sure he is not there.”

“Well, if he won’t speak, it shows he likes better not to have visitors.”

“Oh, he may like to have me better than he does you!” the Princess exclaimed.

Das kann sein – das kann sein.” But Schinkel made no movement to introduce her into the house.

“There is nothing to-night – you know what I mean,” the Princess remarked, after looking at him a moment.

“Nothing to-night?”

“At the Duke’s. The first party is on Thursday, the other is next Tuesday.”

Schön. I never go to parties,” said Schinkel.

“Neither do I.”

“Except that this is a kind of party – you and me,” suggested Schinkel.

“Yes, and the woman of the house doesn’t approve of it.” The footstep of the personage in question had been audible in the passage, through the open door, which was presently closed, from within, with a little reprehensive bang. Something in this incident appeared to quicken exceedingly the Princess’s impatience and emotion; the menace of exclusion from the house made her wish more even than before to enter it. “For God’s sake, Mr Schinkel, take me up there. If you won’t, I will go alone,” she pleaded.

Her face was white now, and it need hardly be added that it was beautiful. The German considered it a moment in silence; then turned and reopened the door and went in, followed closely by his companion.

There was a light in the lower region, which tempered the gloom of the staircase – as high, that is, as the first floor; the ascent the rest of the way was so dusky that the pair went slowly and Schinkel led the Princess by the hand. She gave a suppressed exclamation as she rounded a sharp turn in the second flight. “Good God, is that his door, with the light?”

“Yes, you can see under it. There was a light before,” said Schinkel, without confusion.

“And why, in heaven’s name, didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I thought it would worry you.”

“And doesn’t it worry you?”

“A little, but I don’t mind,” said Schinkel. “Very likely he may have left it.”

“He doesn’t leave candles!” the Princess returned, with vehemence. She hurried up the few remaining steps to the door, and paused there with her ear against it. Her hand grasped the handle, and she turned it, but the door resisted. Then she murmured, pantingly, to her companion, “We must go in – we must go in!”

“What will you do, when it’s locked?” he inquired.

“You must break it down.”

“It is very expensive,” said Schinkel.

“Don’t be abject!” cried the Princess. “In a house like this the fastenings are certainly flimsy; they will easily yield.”

“And if he is not there – if he comes back and finds what we have done?”

She looked at him a moment through the darkness, which was mitigated only by the small glow proceeding from the chink. “He is there! Before God, he is there!”

Schön, schön,” said her companion, as if he felt the contagion of her own dread but was deliberating and meant to remain calm. The Princess assured him that one or two vigorous thrusts with his shoulder would burst the bolt – it was sure to be some wretched morsel of tin – and she made way for him to come close. He did so, he even leaned against the door, but he gave no violent push, and the Princess waited, with her hand against her heart. Schinkel apparently was still deliberating. At last he gave a low sigh. “I know they found him the pistol; it is only for that,” he murmured; and the next moment Christina saw him sway sharply to and fro in the gloom. She heard a crack and saw that the lock had yielded. The door collapsed: they were in the light; they were in a small room, which looked full of things. The light was that of a single candle on the mantel; it was so poor that for a moment she made out nothing definite. Before that moment was over, however, her eyes had attached themselves to the small bed. There was something on it – something black, something ambiguous, something outstretched. Schinkel held her back, but only for an instant; she saw everything, and with the very act she flung herself beside the bed, upon her knees. Hyacinth lay there as if he were asleep, but there was a horrible thing, a mess of blood, on the bed, in his side, in his heart. His arm hung limp beside him, downwards, off the narrow couch; his face was white and his eyes were closed. So much Schinkel saw, but only for an instant; a convulsive movement of the Princess, bending over the body while a strange low cry came from her lips, covered it up. He looked about him for the weapon, for the pistol, but the Princess, in her rush at the bed, had pushed it out of sight with her knees. “It’s a pity they found it – if he hadn’t had it here!” he exclaimed to her. He had determined to remain calm, so that, on turning round at the quick advent of the little woman of the house, who had hurried up, white, scared, staring, at the sound of the crashing door, he was able to say, very quietly and gravely, “Mr Robinson has shot himself through the heart. He must have done it while you were fetching the milk.” The Princess got up, hearing another person in the room, and then Schinkel perceived the small revolver lying just under the bed. He picked it up and carefully placed it on the mantel-shelf, keeping, equally carefully, to himself the reflection that it would certainly have served much better for the Duke.

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