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This carefully crafted ebook: "The Princess Casamassima (The Unabridged Edition)" is formatted for your eReader with a functional and detailed table of contents. The Princess Casamassima is the story of an intelligent but confused young London bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, who becomes involved in radical politics and a terrorist assassination plot. Amanda Pynsent, an impoverished seamstress, has adopted Hyacinth Robinson, the illegitimate son of her old friend Florentine Vivier, a Frenchwoman of less than sterling repute, and an English lord. Florentine had stabbed her lover to death several years ago, and Pinnie (as Miss Pynsent is nicknamed) takes Hyacinth to see her as she lies dying at Millbank prison. Hyacinth eventually learns that the dying woman is his mother and that she murdered his father. Many years pass. Hyacinth, now a young man and a skilled bookbinder, meets revolutionary Paul Muniment and gets involved in radical politics. Hyacinth also has a coarse but lively girlfriend, Millicent Henning, and one night they go to the theatre. There Hyacinth meets the radiantly beautiful Princess Casamassima… Henry James (1843–1916) was an American-British writer who spent most of his writing career in Britain. He is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. This carefully crafted ebook: "The Princess Casamassima (The Unabridged Edition)" is formatted for your eReader with a functional and detailed table of contents.
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“OH, YES, I dare say I can find the child, if you would like to see him,” Miss Pynsent said; she had a fluttering wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage. To look for the little boy, she came out of her small parlor, which she had been ashamed to exhibit in so untidy a state, with paper “patterns” lying about on the furniture, and snippings of stuff scattered over the carpet — she came out of this somewhat stuffy sanctuary, dedicated at once to social intercourse and to the ingenious art to which her life had been devoted, and, opening the house-door, turned her eyes up and down the little street. It would presently be teatime, and she knew that at that solemn hour Hyacinth narrowed the circle of his wanderings. She was anxious and impatient, and in a little fever of excitement and complacency, not wanting to keep Mrs. Bowerbank waiting, though she sat there, heavily and consideringly, as if she meant to stay; and wondering not a little whether the object of her quest would have a dirty face. Mrs. Bowerbank had intimated so definitely that she thought it remarkable on Miss Pynsent’s part to have taken care of him, gratuitously, for so many years, that the little dressmaker, whose imagination took flights about every one but herself, and who had never been conscious of an exemplary benevolence, suddenly aspired to appear, throughout, as devoted to the child as she had struck her solemn, substantial guest as being, and felt how much she should like him to come in fresh and frank, and looking as pretty as he sometimes did. Miss Pynsent, who blinked confusedly as she surveyed the outer prospect, was very much flushed, partly with the agitation of what Mrs. Bowerbank had told her, and partly because, when she offered that lady a drop of something refreshing, at the end of so long an expedition, she had said she couldn’t think of touching anything unless Miss Pynsent would keep her company. The chiffonier (as Amanda was always careful to call it), beside the fireplace, yielded up a small bottle which had formerly contained eau-de-cologne, and which now exhibited half a pint of a rich gold-colored liquid. Miss Pynsent was very delicate; she lived on tea and watercress, and she kept the little bottle in the chiffonier only for great emergencies. She didn’t like hot brandy and water, with a lump or two of sugar, but she partook of half a tumbler on the present occasion, which was of a highly exceptional kind. At this time of day the boy was often planted in front of the little sweet-shop on the other side of the street, an establishment where periodical literature as well as tough toffy and hard lollipops was dispensed, and where song-books and pictorial sheets were attractively exhibited in the small-paned, dirty window. He used to stand there for half an hour at a time, spelling out the first pages of the romances in the Family Herald and the London Journal, and admiring the obligatory illustration, in which the noble characters (they were always of the highest birth) were presented to the carnal eye. When he had a penny he spent only a fraction of it on stale sugar-candy; with the remaining halfpenny he always bought a ballad, with a vivid woodcut at the top. Now, however, he was not at his post of contemplation; nor was he visible anywhere to Miss Pynsent’s impatient glance.
“Millicent Henning, tell me quickly, have you seen my child?” These words were addressed by Miss Pynsent to a little girl who sat on the doorstep of the adjacent house, nursing a dingy doll, and who had an extraordinary luxuriance of dark brown hair, surmounted by a torn straw hat. Miss Pynsent pronounced her name Enning.
The child looked up from her dandling and twitching, and after a stare of which the blankness was somewhat exaggerated, replied: “Law no, Miss Pynsent, I never see him.”
“Aren’t you always messing about with him, you naughty little girl?” the dressmaker returned, with sharpness. “Isn’t he round the corner, playing marbles, or — or some jumping game?” Miss Pynsent went on, trying to be suggestive.
“I assure you, he never plays nothing,” said Millicent Henning, with a mature manner, which she bore out by adding, “And I don’t know why I should be called naughty, neither.”
“Well, if you want to be called good, please go and find him, and tell him there’s a lady here come on purpose to see him, this very instant.” Miss Pynsent waited a moment, to see if her injunction would be obeyed, but she got no satisfaction beyond another gaze of deliberation, which made her feel that the child’s perversity was as great as the beauty, somewhat soiled and dimmed, of her insolent little face. She turned back into the house, with an exclamation of despair, and as soon as she had disappeared, Millicent Henning sprang erect and began to race down the street in the direction of another, which crossed it. I take no unfair advantage of the innocence of childhood in saying that the motive of this young lady’s flight was not a desire to be agreeable to Miss Pynsent, but an extreme curiosity on the subject of the visitor who wanted to see Hyacinth Robinson. She wished to participate, if only in imagination, in the interview that might take place, and she was moved also by a quick revival of friendly feeling for the boy, from whom she had parted only half an hour before with considerable asperity. She was not a very clinging little creature, and there was no one in her own domestic circle to whom she was much attached; but she liked to kiss Hyacinth when he didn’t push her away and tell her she was tiresome. It was in this action and epithet he had indulged half an hour ago; but she had reflected rapidly (while she stared at Miss Pynsent) that this was the worst he had ever done. Millicent Henning was only eight years of age, but she knew there was worse in the world than that.
Mrs. Bowerbank, in a leisurely, roundabout way, wandered off to her sister, Mrs. Chipperfield, whom she had come into that part of the world to see, and the whole history of the dropsical tendencies of whose husband, an undertaker with a business that had been a blessing because you could always count on it, she unfolded to Miss Pynsent between the sips of a second glass. She was a high - shouldered, towering woman, and suggested squareness as well as a pervasion of the upper air, so that Amanda reflected that she must be very difficult to fit, and had a sinking at the idea of the number of pins she would take. Her sister had nine children and she herself had seven, the eldest of whom she left in charge of the others when she went to her service. She was on duty at the prison only during the day; she had to be there at seven in the morning, but she got her evenings at home, quite regular and comfortable. Miss Pynsent thought it wonderful she could talk of comfort in such a life as that, but could easily imagine she should be glad to get away at night, for at that time the place must be much more terrible.
“And aren’t you afraid of them — ever?” she inquired, looking up at her visitor, with her little, heated face.
Mrs. Bowerbank was very slew, and considered her so long before replying that she felt herself to be, in an alarming degree, in the eye of the law; for who could be more closely connected with the administration of justice than a female turnkey, especially so big and majestic a one?” I expect they are more afraid of me,” she replied at last; and it was an idea into which Miss Pynsent could easily enter.
“And at night I suppose they rave quite awful,” the little dressmaker suggested, feeling vaguely that prisons and madhouses came very much to the same.
“Well, if they do, we hush ‘em up,” Mrs. Bowerbank remarked, rather portentously; while Miss Pynsent fidgeted to the door again, without results, to see if the child had become visible. She observed to her guest that she couldn’t call it anything but contrary that he should not turn up, when he knew so well, most days in the week, when his tea was ready. To which Mrs. Bowerbank rejoined, fixing her companion again with the steady orb of justice, “And do he have his tea, that way, by himself, like a little gentleman?”
“Well, I try to give it to him tidy-like, at a suitable hour,” said Miss Pynsent, guiltily. “And there might be some who would say that, for the matter of that, he is a little gentleman,” she added, with an effort at mitigation which, as she immediately became conscious, only involved her more deeply.
“There are people silly enough to say anything. If it’s your parents that settle your station, the child hasn’t much to be thankful for,” Mrs. Bowerbank went on, in the manner of a woman accustomed to looking facts in the face.
Miss Pynsent was very timid, but she adored the aristocracy, and there were elements in the boy’s life which she was not prepared to sacrifice even to a person who represented such a possibility of grating bolts and clanking chains. “I suppose we oughtn’t to forget that his father was very high,” she suggested, appealingly, with her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
“His father? Who knows who he was? He doesn’t set up for having a father, does he?”
“But, surely, wasn’t it proved that Lord Frederick” —
“My dear woman, nothing was proved except that she stabbed his lordship in the back with a very long knife, that he died of the blow, and that she got the full sentence. What does such a piece as that know about fathers? The less said about the poor child’s papa, the better!”
This view of the case caused Miss Pynsent fairly to gasp, for it pushed over, with a touch, a certain tall imaginative structure which she had been piling up for years. Even as she heard it crash around her she couldn’t forbear the attempt to save at least some of the material. “Really — really,” she panted, “she never had to do with any one but the nobility!”
Mrs. Bowerbank surveyed her hostess with an expressionless eye. “My dear young lady, what does a respectable little body like you, that sits all day with her needle and scissors, know about the doings of a wicked, low foreigner that carries a knife? I was there when she came in, and I know to what she had sunk. Her conversation was choice, I assure you.”
“Oh, it’s very dreadful, and of course I know nothing in particular,” Miss Pynsent quavered. “But she wasn’t low when I worked at the same place with her, and she often told me she would do nothing for any one that wasn’t at the very top.”
“She might have talked to you of something that would have done you both more good,” Mrs. Bowerbank remarked, while the dressmaker felt rebuked in the past as well as in the present. “At the very top, poor thing! Well, she’s at the very bottom now. If she wasn’t low when she worked, it’s a pity she didn’t stick to her work; and as for pride of birth, that’s an article I recommend your young friend to leave to others. You had better believe what I say, because I’m a woman of the world.”
Indeed she was, as Miss Pynsent felt, to whom all this was very terrible, letting in the cold light of the penal system on a dear, dim little theory. She had cared for the child because maternity was in her nature, and this was the only manner in which fortune had put it in her path to become a mother. She had as few belongings as the baby, and it had seemed to her that he would add to her importance in the little world of Lomax Place (if she kept it a secret how she came by him), quite in the proportion in which she should contribute to his maintenance. Her weakness and loneliness went out to his, and in the course of time this united desolation was peopled by the dressmaker’s romantic mind with a hundred consoling evocations. The boy proved neither a dunce nor a reprobate; but what endeared him to her most was her conviction that he belonged, “by the left hand,” as she had read in a novel, to an ancient and exalted race, the list of whose representatives and the record of whose alliances she had once (when she took home some work and was made to wait, alone, in a lady’s boudoir) had the opportunity of reading in a fat red book, eagerly and tremblingly consulted. She bent her head before Mrs. Bowerbank’s overwhelming logic, but she felt in her heart that she shouldn’t give the child up, for all that, that she believed in him still, and that she recognized, as distinctly as she revered, the quality of her betters. To believe in Hyacinth, for Miss Pynsent, was to believe that he was the son of the extremely immoral Lord Frederick. She had told him so, from the earliest age, and as Mrs. Bowerbank would be sure not to approve of such indiscretions, Miss Pynsent prayed she might not question her on that part of the business. It was not that, when it was necessary, the little dressmaker had any scruple about using the arts of prevarication; she was a kind and innocent creature, but she told fibs as freely as she invented trimmings. She had, however, not yet been questioned by an emissary of the law, and her heart beat faster when Mrs. Bowerbank said to her, in deep tones, with an effect of abruptness, “And pray, Miss Pynsent, does the child know it?”
“Know about Lord Frederick?” Miss Pynsent palpitated.
“Bother Lord Frederick! Know about his mother.”
“Oh, I can’t say that. I have never told him.”
“But has any one else told him?”
To this inquiry Miss Pynsent’s answer was more prompt and more proud; it was with an agreeable sense of having conducted herself with extraordinary wisdom and propriety that she replied, “How could any one know? I have never breathed it to a creature!”
Mrs. Bowerbank gave utterance to no commendation; she only put down her empty glass and wiped her large mouth with much thoroughness and deliberation. Then she said, as if it were as cheerful an idea as, in the premises, she was capable of expressing, “Ah, well, there’ll be plenty, later on, to give him all information!”
“I pray God he may live and die without knowing it!” Miss Pynsent cried, with eagerness.
Her companion gazed at her with a kind of professional patience. “You don’t keep your ideas together. How can he go to her, then, if he’s never to know?”
“Oh, did you mean she would tell him?” Miss Pynsent responded, plaintively.
“Tell him! He won’t need to be told, once she gets hold of him and gives him — what she told me.”
“What she told you?” Miss Pynsent repeated, open-eyed.
“The kiss her lips have been famished for for years.”
“Ah, poor desolate woman!” the little dressmaker murmured, with her pity gushing up again. “Of course he’ll see she’s fond of him,” she pursued, simply. Then she added, with an inspiration more brilliant, “We might tell him she’s his aunt!”
“You may tell him she’s his grandmother, if you like. But it’s all in the family.”
“Yes, on that side,” said Miss Pynsent, musingly and irrepressibly. “And will she speak French?” she inquired. “In that case he won’t understand.”
“Oh, a child will understand its own mother, whatever she speaks,” Mrs. Bowerbank returned, declining to administer a superficial comfort. But she subjoined, opening the door for escape from a prospect which bristled with dangers, “Of course, it’s just according to your own conscience. You needn’t bring the child at all, unless you like. There’s many a one that wouldn’t. There’s no compulsion.”
“And would nothing be done to me, if I didn’t?” poor Miss Pynsent asked, unable to rid herself of the impression that it was somehow the arm of the law that was stretched out to touch her.
“The only thing that could happen to you would be that he might throw it up against you later,” the lady from the prison observed, with a gloomy impartiality.
“Yes, indeed, if he were to know that I had kept him back.”
“Oh, he ‘d be sure to know, one of these days. We see a great deal of that — the way things come out,” said Mrs. Bowerbank, whose view of life seemed to abound in cheerless contingencies. “You must remember that it is her dying wish, and that you may have it on your conscience.”
“That’s a thing I never could abide!” the little dressmaker exclaimed, with great emphasis and a visible shiver; after which she picked up various scattered remnants of muslin and cut paper, and began to roll them together with a desperate and mechanical haste. “It’s quite awful, to know what to do — if you are very sure she is dying.”
“Do you mean she’s shamming? we have plenty of that — but we know how to treat ‘em.”
“Lord, I suppose so,” murmured Miss Pynsent; while her visitor went on to say that the unfortunate person on whose behalf she had undertaken this solemn pilgrimage might live a week and might live a fortnight, but if she lived a month, would violate (as Mrs. Bowerbank might express herself) every established law of nature, being reduced to skin and bone, with nothing left of her but the main desire to see her child.
“If you ‘re afraid of her talking, it isn’t much she ‘d be able to say. And we shouldn’t allow you more than about eight minutes,” Mrs. Bowerbank pursued, in a tone that seemed to refer itself to an iron discipline.
“I’m sure I shouldn’t want more; that would be enough to last me many a year,” said Miss Pynsent, plaintively. And then she added, with another illumination, “Don’t you think he might throw it up against me that I did take him? People might tell him about her in later years; but if he hadn’t seen her, he wouldn’t be obliged to believe them.”
Mrs. Bowerbank considered this a moment, as if it were rather a supersubtle argument, and then answered, quite in the spirit of her official pessimism, “There is one thing you may be sure of: whatever you decide to do, as soon as ever he grows up he will make you wish you had done the opposite.” Mrs. Bowerbank called it opposite.
“Oh, dear, then, I’m glad it will be a long time.”
“It will be ever so long, if once he gets it into his head! At any rate, you must do as you think best. Only, if you come, you mustn’t come when it’s all over.”
“It’s too impossible to decide.”
“It is, indeed,” said Mrs. Bowerbank, with superior consistency. And she seemed more placidly grim than ever when she remarked, gathering up her loosened shawl, that she was much obliged to Miss Pynsent for her civility, and had been quite freshened up: her visit had so completely deprived her hostess of that sort of calm. Miss Pynsent gave the fullest expression to her perplexity in the supreme exclamation:
“If you could only wait and see the child, I’m sure it would help you to judge!”
“My dear woman, I don’t want to judge — it’s none of our business!” Mrs. Bowerbank exclaimed; and she had no sooner uttered the words than the door of the room creaked open, and a small boy stood there, gazing at her. Her eyes rested on him a moment, and then, most unexpectedly, she gave an inconsequent cry. “Is that the child? Oh, Lord o’ mercy, don’t take him!”
“Now ain’t he shrinking and sensitive?” demanded Miss Pynsent, who had pounced upon him, and, holding him an instant at arm’s length, appealed eagerly to her visitor. “Ain’t he delicate and highbred, and wouldn’t he be thrown into a state?” Delicate as he might be. the little dressmaker shook him smartly for his naughtiness in being out of the way when he was wanted, and brought him to the big, square-faced, deep-voiced lady, who took up, as it were, all that side of the room. But Mrs. Bowerbank laid no hand upon him; she only dropped her gaze from a tremendous height, and her forbearance seemed a tribute to that fragility of constitution on which Miss Pynsent desired to insist; just as her continued gravity was an implication that this scrupulous woman might well not know what to do.
“Speak to the lady, nicely, and tell her you are very sorry to have kept her waiting.”
The child hesitated a moment, while he reciprocated Mrs. Bowerbank’s inspection, and then he said, with a strange, cool, conscious indifference (Miss Pynsent instantly recognized it as his aristocratic manner), “I don’t think she can have been in a very great hurry.”
There was irony in the words, for it is a remarkable fact that, even at the age of ten, Hyacinth Robinson was ironical; but the subject of his allusion, who was not nimble, withal, appeared not to interpret it; and she rejoined only by remarking, over his head, to Miss Pynsent, “It’s the very face of her over again!”
“Of her? But what do you say to Lord Frederick?”
“I have seen lords that wasn’t so dainty!”
Miss Pynsent had seen very few lords, but she entered, with a passionate thrill, into this generalization; controlling herself, however, for she remembered the child was tremendously sharp, sufficiently to declare, in an edifying tone, that he would look more like what he ought to, if his face were a little cleaner.
“It was probably Millicent Henning dirtied my face, when she kissed me,” the boy announced, with slow gravity, looking all the while at Mrs. Bowerbank. He exhibited not a symptom of shyness.
“Millicent Henning is a very bad little girl; she’ll come to no good,” said Miss Pynsent, with familiar decision, and also, considering that the young lady in question had been her effective messenger, with marked ingratitude.
Against this qualification the child instantly protested. “Why is she bad? I don’t think she is bad; I like her very much.” It came over him that he had too hastily shifted to her shoulders the responsibility of his unseemly appearance, and he wished to make up to her for that betrayal. He dimly felt that nothing but that particular accusation could have pushed him to it, for he hated people who were not fresh, who had smutches and streaks. Millicent Henning generally had two or three, which she borrowed from her doll, into whom she was always rubbing her nose, and whose dinginess was contagious. It was quite inevitable she should have left her mark under his own nose, when she claimed her reward for coming to tell him about the lady who wanted him.
Miss Pynsent held the boy against her knee, trying to present him so that Mrs. Bowerbank should agree with her about his having the air of race. He was exceedingly diminutive, even for his years, and though his appearance was not positively sickly, it seemed written in his attenuated little person that he would never be either tall or strong. His dark blue eyes were separated by a wide interval, which increased the fairness and sweetness of his face, and his abundant, curly hair, which grew thick and long, had the golden brownness predestined to elicit exclamations of delight from ladies when they take the inventory of a child. His features were smooth and pretty; his head was set upon a slim little neck; his expression, grave and clear, showed a quick perception as well as a great credulity; and he was altogether, in his innocent smallness, a refined and interesting figure.
“Yes, he’s one that would be sure to remember,” said Mrs. Bowerbank, mentally contrasting him with the undeveloped members of her own brood, who had never been retentive of anything but the halfpence which they occasionally contrived to filch from her. Her eyes descended to the details of his toilet: the careful mending of his short breeches and his long, colored stockings, which she was in a position to appreciate, as well as the knot of bright ribbon which the dressmaker had passed into his collar, slightly crumpled by Miss Henning’s embrace. Of course Miss Pynsent had only one to look after, but her visitor was obliged to recognize that she had the highest standard in respect to buttons. “And you do turn him out so it’s a pleasure,” she went on, noting the ingenious patches in the child’s shoes, which, to her mind, were repaired for all the world like those of a little nobleman.
“I’m sure you ‘re very civil,” said Miss Pynsent, in a state of severe exaltation. “There’s never a needle but mine has come near him. That’s exactly what I think: the impression would go so deep.”
“Do you want to see me only to look at me?” Hyacinth inquired, with a candor which, though unstudied, had again much of the force of satire.
“I’m sure it’s very kind of the lady to notice you at all!” cried his protectress, giving him an ineffectual jerk. “You ‘re no bigger than a flea; there are many that wouldn’t spy you out.”
“You’ll find he’s big enough, I expect, when he begins to go,” Mrs. Bowerbank remarked, tranquilly; and she added that now she saw how he was turned out she couldn’t but feel that the other side was to be considered. In her effort to be discreet, on account of his being present (and so precociously attentive), she became slightly enigmatical; but Miss Pynsent gathered her meaning, which was that it was very true the child would take everything in and keep it: but at the same time it was precisely his being so attractive that made it a kind of sin not to gratify the poor woman, who, if she knew what he looked like to-day, wouldn’t forgive his adoptive mamma for not producing him. “Certainly, in her place, I should go off easier if I had seen them curls,” Mrs. Bowerbank declared, with a flight of maternal imagination which brought her to her feet, while Miss Pynsent felt that she was leaving her dreadfully ploughed up, and without any really fertilizing seed having been sown. The little dressmaker packed the child upstairs to tidy himself for his tea, and while she accompanied her visitor to the door, told her that if she would have a little more patience with her, she would think, a day or two longer, what was best, and write to her when she should have decided. Mrs. Bowerbank continued to move in a realm superior to poor Miss Pynsent’s scruples and timidities, and her impartiality gave her hostess a high idea of her respectability; but the way was a little smoothed when, after Amanda had moaned once more, on the threshold, helplessly and irrelevantly, “Ain’t it a pity she’s so bad?” the ponderous lady from the prison rejoined, in those tones which seemed meant to resound through corridors of stone, “I assure you, there’s a many that’s much worse!”
MISS PYNSENT, when she found herself alone, felt that she was really quite upside down; for the event that had just occurred had never entered into her calculations: the very nature of the case had seemed to preclude it. All she knew and all she wished to know was that in one of the dreadful institutions constructed for such purposes her quondam comrade was serving out the sentence that had been substituted for the other (the unspeakable horror) almost when the halter was already round her neck. As there was no question of that concession being stretched any further, poor Florentine seemed only a little more dead than other people, having no decent tombstone to mark the place where she lay. Miss Pynsent had therefore never thought again of her dying; she had no idea to what prison she had been committed on being removed from Newgate (she wished to keep her mind a blank about the matter, in the interest of the child), and it could not occur to her that out of such silence and darkness a voice would reach her again, especially a voice that she should really have to listen to. Miss Pynsent would have said, before Mrs. Bowerbank’s visit, that she had no account to render to any one; that she had taken up the child (who might have starved in the gutter) out of charity, and had brought him up, poor and precarious as her own subsistence had been, without a penny’s help from another source; that the mother had forfeited every right and title; and that this had been understood between them if anything, in so dreadful an hour, could have been said to be understood when she went to see her at Newgate (that terrible episode, nine years before, overshadowed all Miss Pynsent’s other memories), — went to see her because Florentine had sent for her (a name, face, and address coming up out of the still recent but sharply separated past of their working-girl years), as the one friend to whom she could appeal with some chance of a pitying answer. The effect of violent emotion, with Miss Pynsent, was not to make her sit with idle hands, or fidget about to no purpose; under its influence, on the contrary, she threw herself into little jobs, as a fugitive takes to bypaths, and clipped and cut, and stitched and basted, as if she were running a race with hysterics. And while her hands, her scissors, her needle flew, an infinite succession of fantastic possibilities trotted through her confused little head; she had a furious imagination, and the act of reflection, in her mind, was always a panorama of figures and scenes. She had had her picture of the future, painted in rather rosy hues, hung up before her now for a good many years; but it seemed to her that Mrs. Bowerbank’s heavy hand had suddenly punched a hole in the canvas. It must be added, however, that if Amanda’s thoughts were apt to be bewildering visions, they sometimes led her to make up her mind, and on this particular September evening she arrived at a momentous decision. What she made up her mind to was to take advice, and in pursuance of this view she rushed downstairs and, jerking Hyacinth away from his simple but unfinished repast, packed him across the street to tell Mr. Vetch (if he had not yet started for the theatre) that she begged he would come in to see her when he came home that night, as she had something very particular she wished to say to him. It didn’t matter if he should be very late, he could come in at any hour — he would see her light in the window — and he would do her a real mercy. Miss Pynsent knew it would be of no use for her to go to bed; she felt as if she should never close her eyes again. Mr. Vetch was her most distinguished friend; she had an immense appreciation of his cleverness and knowledge of the world, as well as of the purity of his taste in matters of conduct and opinion; and she had already consulted him about Hyacinth’s education. The boy needed no urging to go on such an errand, for he, too, had his ideas about the little fiddler, the second violin in the orchestra of the Vauxhall Theatre. Mr. Vetch had once obtained for the pair an order for two seats at a pantomime, and for Hyacinth the impression of that ecstatic evening had consecrated him, placed him forever in the golden glow of the footlights. There were things in life of which, even at the age of ten, it was a conviction of the boy’s that it would be his fate never to see enough, and one of them was the wonder-world illuminated by those playhouse lamps. But there would be chances, perhaps, if one didn’t lose sight of Mr. Vetch; he might open the door again; he was a privileged, magical mortal, who went to the play every night.
He came in to see Miss Pynsent about midnight; as soon as she heard the lame tinkle of the bell she went to the door to let him in. He was an original, in the fullest sense of the word: a lonely, disappointed, embittered, cynical little man, whose musical organization had been sterile, who had the nerves, the sensibilities, of a gentleman, and whose fate had condemned him, for the last ten years, to play a fiddle at a second-rate theatre for a few shillings a week. He had ideas of his own about everything, and they were not always very comforting. For Amanda Pynsent he represented art, literature (the literature of the playbill), and philosophy, and she always felt about him as if he belonged to a higher social sphere (though his earnings were hardly greater than her own, and he lived, in a single back-room, in a house where she had never seen a window washed). He had, for her, the glamour of reduced gentility and fallen fortunes; she was conscious that he spoke a different language (though she couldn’t have said in what the difference consisted) from the other members of her humble, almost suburban circle; and the shape of his hands was distinctly aristocratic. (Miss Pynsent, as I have intimated, was immensely preoccupied with that element in life.) Mr. Vetch displeased her only by one of the facets of his character, — his blasphemous republican, radical views, and the contemptuous manner in which he expressed himself about the nobility. On that ground he distressed her extremely, though he never seemed to her so clever as when he horrified her most. These dreadful theories (expressed so brilliantly that, really, they might have been dangerous, if Miss Pynsent had not known her own place so well) constituted no presumption against his refined origin; they were explained, rather, to a certain extent, by a just resentment at finding himself excluded from his proper place. Mr. Vetch was short, fat, and bald, though he was not much older than Miss Pynsent, who was not much older than some people who called themselves forty-five; he always went to the theatre in evening-dress, with a flower in his buttonhole, and wore a glass in one eye. He looked mild and smooth, and as if he would fidget at the most about the “get up” of his linen; you would have thought him finical but superficial, and never have suspected that he was a revolutionist, or even a critic of life. Sometimes, when he could get away from the theatre early enough, he went with a pianist, a friend of his, to play dance-music at small parties; and after such expeditions he was particularly cynical and startling; he indulged in diatribes against the British middle-class, its Philistinism, its snobbery. He seldom had much conversation with Miss Pynsent without telling her that she had the intellectual outlook of a caterpillar; but this was his privilege after a friendship now of seven years’ standing, which had begun (the year after he came to live in Lomax Place) with her going over to nurse him, on learning from the milkwoman that he was alone at Number 17, — laid up with an attack of gastritis. He always compared her to an insect or a bird, and she didn’t mind, because she knew he liked her, and she herself liked all winged creatures. How indeed could she complain, after hearing him call the Queen a superannuated form, and the Archbishop of Canterbury a grotesque superstition?
He laid his violin-case on the table, which was covered with a confusion of fashion-plates and pincushions, and glanced toward the fire, where a kettle was gently hissing. Miss Pynsent, who had put it on half an hour before, read his glance, and reflected with complacency that Mrs. Bowerbank had not absolutely drained the little bottle in the chiffonier. She put it on the table again, this time with a single glass, and told her visitor that, as a great exception, he might light his pipe. In fact, she always made the exception, and he always replied to the gracious speech by inquiring whether she supposed the greengrocers’ wives, the butchers’ daughters, for whom she worked, had fine enough noses to smell, in the garments she sent home, the fumes of his tobacco. He knew her “connection” was confined to small shopkeepers, but she didn’t wish others to know it, and would have liked them to believe it was important that the poor little stuffs she made up (into very queer fashions, I am afraid) should not surprise the feminine nostril. But it had always been impossible to impose on Mr. Vetch; he guessed the truth, the untrimmed truth, about everything, in a moment. She was sure he would do so now, in regard to this solemn question which had come up about Hyacinth; he would see that though she was agreeably flurried at finding herself whirled in the last eddies of a case that had been so celebrated in its day, her secret wish was to shirk her duty (if it was a duty); to keep the child from ever knowing his mother’s unmentionable history, the shame that attached to his origin, the opportunity she had had of letting him see the wretched woman before she died. She knew Mr. Vetch would read her troubled thoughts, but she hoped he would say they were natural and just: she reflected that as he took an interest in Hyacinth he wouldn’t want him to be subjected to a mortification that might rankle forever and perhaps even crush him to the earth. She related Mrs. Bowerbank’s visit, while he sat upon the sofa, in the very place where that majestic woman had reposed, and puffed his smoke-wreaths into the dusky little room. He knew the story of the child’s birth, had known it years before, so she had no startling revelation to make. He was not in the least agitated at learning that Florentine was dying in prison, and had managed to get a message conveyed to Amanda; he thought this so much in the usual course that he said to Miss Pynsent, “Did you expect her to live on there forever, working out her terrible sentence, just to spare you the annoyance of a dilemma, or any reminder of her miserable existence, which yon have preferred to forget?” That was just the sort of question Mr. Vetch was sure to ask, and he inquired, further, of his dismayed hostess, whether she was sure her friend’s message (he called the unhappy creature her friend) had come to her in the regular way. The warders, surely, had no authority to introduce visitors to their captives; and was it a question of her going off to the prison on the sole authority of Mrs. Bowerbank? The little dressmaker explained that this lady had merely come to sound her, Florentine had begged so hard. She had been in Mrs. Bowerbank’s ward before her removal to the infirmary, where she now lay, ebbing away, and she had communicated her desire to the Catholic chaplain, who had undertaken that some satisfaction — of inquiry, at least — should be given her. He had thought it best to ascertain first whether the person in charge of the child would be willing to bring him, such a course being perfectly optional, and he had some talk with Mrs. Bowerbank on the subject, in which it was agreed between them that if she would approach Miss Pynsent and explain to her the situation, leaving her to do what she thought best, he would answer for it that the consent of the governor of the prison should be given to the interview. Miss Pynsent had lived for fourteen years in Lomax Place, and Florentine had never forgotten that this was her address at the time she came to her at Newgate (before her dreadful sentence had been commuted), and promised, in an ontgush of pity for one whom she had known in the days of her honesty and brightness, that she would save the child, keep it from the workhouse and the streets, keep it from the fate that had clutched the mother. Mrs. Bowerbank had a half-holiday, and a sister living also in the north of London, to whom she had been for some time intending a visit; so that after her domestic duty had been performed, it had been possible for her to drop in on Miss Pynsent in a kind of natural, casual way, and put the case before her. It would be just as she might be disposed to view it. She was to think it over a day or two, but not long, because the woman was so ill, and then write to Mrs. Bowerbank, at the prison. If she should consent, Mrs. Bowerbank would tell the chaplain, and the chaplain would obtain the order from the governor and send it to Lomax Place; after which Amanda would immediately set out with her unconscious victim. But should she — must she — consent? That was the terrible, the heart-shaking question, with which Miss Pynsent’s unaided wisdom had been unable to grapple.
“After all, he isn’t hers any more, — he’s mine, mine only and mine always. I should like to know if all I have done for him doesn’t make him so!” It was in this manner that Amanda Pynsent delivered herself, while she plied her needle, faster than ever, in a piece of stuff that was pinned to her knee.
Mr. Vetch watched her awhile, blowing silently at his pipe, with his head thrown back on the high, stiff, old-fashioned sofa, and his little legs crossed under him like a Turk’s. “It’s true you have done a good deal for him. You are a good little woman, my dear Pinnie, after all.” He said “after all,” because that was a part of his tone. In reality he had never had a moment’s doubt that she was the best little woman in the north of London.
“I have done what I could, and I don’t want no fuss made about it. Only it does make a difference when you come to look at it — about taking him off to see another woman. And such another woman — and in such a place! I think it’s hardly right to take an innocent child.”
“I don’t know about that; there are people that would tell you it would do him good. If he didn’t like the place as a child, he would take more care to keep out of it later.”
“Lord, Mr. Vetch, how can you think? And him such a perfect little gentleman!” Miss Pynsent cried.
“Is it you that have made him one?” the fiddler asked. “It doesn’t run in the family, you ‘d say.”
“Family? what do you know about that?” she replied, quickly, catching at her dearest, her only hobby.
“Yes, indeed, what does any one know? what did she know herself?” And then Miss Pynsent’s visitor added, irrelevantly, “Why should you have taken him on your back? Why did you want to be so good? No one else thinks it necessary.”
“I didn’t want to be good. That is, I do want to, of course, in a general way: but that wasn’t the reason then. But I had nothing of my own, — I had nothing in the world but my thimble.”
“That would have seemed to most people a reason for not adopting a prostitute’s bastard.”
“Well, I went to see him at the place where he was (just where she had left him, with the woman of the house), and I saw what kind of a shop that was, and felt it was a shame an innocent child should grow up in such a place.” Miss Pynsent defended herself as earnestly as if her inconsistency had been of a criminal cast. “And he wouldn’t have grown up, neither. They wouldn’t have troubled themselves long with a helpless baby. They ‘d have played some trick on him, if it was only to send him to the workhouse. Besides, I always was fond of small creatures, and I have been fond of this one,” she went on, speaking as if with a consciousness, on her own part, of almost heroic proportions.
“He was in my way the first two or three years, and it was a good deal of a pull to look after the business and him together. But now he’s like the business — he seems to go of himself.”
“Oh, if he flourishes as the business flourishes, you can just enjoy your peace of mind,” said the fiddler, still with his manner of making a small dry joke of everything.
“That’s all very well, but it doesn’t close my eyes to that poor woman lying there and moaning just for the touch of his little and before she passes away. Mrs. Bowerbank says she believes I will bring him.”
“Who believes? Mrs. Bowerbank?”
“I wonder if there’s anything in life fearful enough for you to take it seriously,” Miss Pynsent rejoined, snapping off a thread, with temper. “The day you stop laughing I should like to be there.”
“So long as you are there, I shall never stop. What is it you want me to advise you? to take the child, or to leave the mother to groan herself out?”
“I want you to tell me whether he’ll curse me when he grows older.”
“That depends upon what you do. However, he will probably do it in either case.”
“You don’t believe that, because you like him,” said Amanda, with acuteness.
“Precisely; and he’ll curse me too. He’ll curse every one. He won’t be happy.”
“I don’t know how you think I bring him up,” the little dressmaker remarked, with dignity.
“You don’t bring him up; he brings you up.”
“That’s what you have always said; but you don’t know. If you mean that he does as he likes, then he ought to be happy. It ain’t kind of you to say he won’t be,” Miss Pynsent added, reproachfully.
“I would say anything you like, if what I say would help the matter. He’s a thin-skinned, morbid, mooning little beggar, with a good deal of imagination and not much perseverance, who will expect a good deal more of life than he will find in it. That’s why he won’t be happy.”
Miss Pynsent listened to this description of her protege with an appearance of criticising it mentally; but in reality she didn’t know what “morbid” meant, and didn’t like to ask. “He’s the cleverest person I know, except yourself,” she said in a moment, for Mr. Vetch’s words had been in the key of what she thought most remarkable in him. What that was she would have been unable to say.
“Thank you very much for putting me first,” the fiddler rejoined, after a series of puffs. “The youngster’s interesting, one sees that he has a mind, and in that respect he is — I won’t say unique, but peculiar. I shall watch him with curiosity, to see what he grows into. But I shall always be glad that I’m a selfish brute of a bachelor; that I never invested in that class of goods.”
“Well, you are comforting. You would spoil him more than I do,” said Amanda.
“Possibly, but it would be in a different way. I wouldn’t tell him every three minutes that his father was a duke.”
“A duke I never mentioned!” the little dressmaker cried, with eagerness. “I never specified any rank, nor said a word about any one in particular. I never so much as insinuated the name of his lordship. But I may have said that if the truth was to be found out, he might be proved to be connected — in the way of cousinship, or something of the kind, — with the highest in the land. I should have thought myself wanting if I hadn’t given him a glimpse of that. But there is one thing I have always added — that the truth never is found out.”
“You are still more comforting than I!” Mr. Vetch exclaimed. He continued to watch her, with his charitable, round-faced smile, and then he said, “You won’t do what I say; so what is the use of my telling you?”
“I assure you I will, if you say you believe it’s the only right,”
“Do I often say anything so asinine? Right — right? what have you to do with that? If you want the only right, you are very particular.”
“Please, then, what am I to go by?” the dressmaker asked, bewildered.
“You are to go by this, by what will take the youngster down.”
“Take him down, my poor little pet?”
“Your poor little pet thinks himself the flower of creation. I don’t say there is any harm in that: a fine, blooming, odoriferous conceit is a natural appendage of youth and cleverness. I don’t say there is any great harm in it, but if you want a guide as to how you are to treat a boy, that’s as good a guide as any other.”
“You want me to arrange the interview, then?”
“I don’t want you to do anything, but give me another sip of brandy. I just say this: that I think it’s a great gain, early in life, to know the worst; then we don’t live in a fool’s paradise. I did that till I was nearly forty; then I woke up and found I was in Lomax Place.” Whenever Mr. Vetch said anything that could be construed as a reference to a former position which had had elements of distinction, Miss Pynsent observed a discreet, a respectful silence, and that is why she did not challenge him now, though she wanted very much to say that Hyacinth was no more “presumptuous” (that was the term she should have used) than he had reason to be, with his genteel figure and his wonderful intelligence; and that as for thinking himself a “flower” of any kind, he knew but too well that he lived in a small black-faced house, miles away from the West End, rented by a poor little woman who took lodgers, and who, as they were of such a class that they were not always to be depended upon to settle her weekly account, had a strain to make two ends meet, in spite of the sign between her windows —
MISS AMANDA PYNSENT. MODES ET ROBES. dressmaking in all its branches. court-dresses, mantles. and fashionable bonnets.
Singularly enough, her companion, before she had permitted herself to interpose, took up her own thought (in one of its parts), and remarked that perhaps she would say of the child that he was, so far as his actual circumstances were concerned, low enough down in the world, without one’s wanting him to be any lower. “But by the time he’s twenty, he’ll persuade himself that Lomax Place was a bad dream, that your lodgers and your dressmaking were as imaginary as they are vulgar, and that when an old friend came to see you late at night, it was not your amiable practice to make him a glass of brandy and water. He’ll teach himself to forget all this: he’ll have a way.”
“Do you mean he’ll forget me, he’ll deny me?” cried Miss Pynsent, stopping the movement of her needle, short off, for the first time.
“As the person designated in that attractive blazonry on the outside of your house, decidedly he will; and me, equally, as a bald-headed, pot-bellied fiddler, who regarded you as the most graceful and refined of his acquaintance. I don’t mean he’ll disown you and pretend he never knew you: I don’t think he will ever be such an odious little cad as that; he probably won’t be a sneak, and he strikes me as having some love, and possibly even some gratitude, in him. But he will, in his imagination (and that will always persuade him), subject you to some extraordinary metamorphosis; he will dress you up.”
“He’ll dress me up!” Amanda ejaculated, quite ceasing to follow the train of Mr. Vetch’s demonstration. “Do you mean that he’ll have the property — that his relations will take him up?”
“My dear, delightful, idiotic Pinnie, I am speaking in a figurative manner. I don’t pretend to say what his precise position will be when we are relegated; but I affirm that relegation will be our fate. Therefore don’t stuff him with any more illusions than are necessary to keep him alive; he will be sure to pick up enough on the way. On the contrary, give him a good stiff dose of the truth at the start.”
“Dear me, dear me, of course you see much further into it than I could ever do,” Pinnie murmured, as she threaded a needle.
Mr. Vetch paused a minute, but apparently not out of deference to this amiable interruption. He went on suddenly, with a ring of feeling in his voice. “Let him know, because it will be useful to him later, the state of the account between society and himself; he can then conduct himself accordingly. If he is the illegitimate child of a French good-for-naught who murdered one of her numerous lovers, don’t shuffle out of sight so important a fact. I regard that as a most valuable origin.”
“Lord, Mr. Vetch, how you talk!” cried Miss Pynsent, staring. “I don’t know what one would think, to hear you.”
“Surely, my dear lady, and for this reason: that those are the people with whom society has to count. It hasn’t with you and me.” Miss Pynsent gave a sigh which might have meant either that she was well aware of that, or that Mr. Vetch had a terrible way of enlarging a subject, especially when it was already too big for her; and her philosophic visitor went on: “Poor little devil, let him see her, let him see her.”
“And if later, when he’s twenty, he says to me that if I hadn’t meddled in it he need never have known, he need never have had that shame, pray what am I to say to him then? That’s what I can’t get out my head.”
“You can say to him that a young man who is sorry for having gone to his mother when, in her last hours, she lay groaning for him on a pallet in a penitentiary, deserves more than the sharpest pang he can possibly feel.” And the little fiddler, getting up, went over to the fireplace and shook out the ashes of his pipe.
“Well, I am sure it’s natural he should feel badly,” said Miss Pynsent, folding up her work with the same desperate quickness that had animated her throughout the evening.
“I haven’t the least objection to his feeling badly: that’s not the worst thing in the world! If a few more people felt badly in this sodden, stolid, stupid race of ours, the world would wake up to an idea or two, and we should see the beginning of the dance. It’s the dull acceptance, the absence of reflection, the impenetrable density.” Here Mr. Vetch stopped short; his hostess stood before him with eyes of entreaty, with clasped hands.
“Now, Theophilus Vetch, don’t go off into them dreadful wild theories,” she cried, always ungrammatical when she was strongly moved. “You always fly away over the housetops. I thought you liked him better — the dear little unfortunate.”
Theophilus Vetch had pocketed his pipe; he put on his hat with the freedom of old acquaintance and of Lomax Place, and took up his small, coffinlike fiddle-case. “My good Pinnie, I don’t think you understand a word I say. It’s no use talking — do as you like!”
“Well, I must say I don’t think it was worth your coming in at midnight only to tell me that. I don’t like anything — I hate the whole dreadful business!”
He bent over, in his short plumpness, to kiss her hand, as he had seen people do on the stage. “My dear friend, we have different ideas, and I never shall succeed in driving mine into your head. It’s because I am fond of him, poor little devil; but you will never understand that. I want him to know everything, and especially the worst — the worst, as I have said. If I were in his position, I shouldn’t thank you for trying to make a fool of me!”
“A fool of you? as if I thought of anything but his ‘appiness!” Amanda Pynsent exclaimed. She stood looking at him, but following her own reflections; she had given up the attempt to enter into his whims. She remembered, what she had noticed before, in other occurrences, that his reasons were always more extraordinary than his behavior itself; if you only considered his life, you wouldn’t have thought him so fanciful. “Very likely I think too much of that,” she added. “She wants him and cries for him: that’s what keeps coming back to me.” She took up her lamp to light Mr. Vetch to the door (for the dim luminary in the passage had long since been extinguished), and before he left the house he turned, suddenly, stopping short, and said, his placid face taking a strange expression from the quizzical glimmer of his little round eyes: —
“What does it matter after all, and why do you worry?” What difference can it make what happens — on either side — to such low people?”
MRS. BOWERBANK had let her know she would meet her, almost at the threshold of the dreadful place; and this thought had sustained Miss Pynsent in her long and devious journey, performed partly on foot, partly in a succession of omnibuses. She had had ideas about a cab, but she decided to reserve the cab for the return, as then, very likely, she should be so shaken with emotion, so overpoweringly affected, that it would be a comfort to escape from observation. She had no confidence that if once she passed the door of the prison she should ever be restored to liberty and her customers; it seemed to her an adventure as dangerous as it was dismal, and she was immensely touched by the clear-faced eagerness of the child at her side, who strained forward as brightly as he had done on another occasion, still celebrated in Miss Pynsent’s industrious annals, a certain sultry Saturday in August, when she had taken him to the Tower of London. It had been a terrible question with her. when once she made up her mind, what she should tell him about the nature of their errand. She determined to tell him as little as possible, to say only that she was going to see a poor woman who was in prison on account of a crime she had committed years before, and who had sent for her, and had caused her to be told at the same time that if there was any child she could see — as children (if they were good) were bright and cheering — it would make her very happy that such a little visitor should come as well. It was very difficult, with Hyacinth, to make reservations or mysteries; he wanted to know everything about everything, and he projected the light of a hundred questions upon Miss Pynsent’s incarcerated friend. She had to admit that she had been her friend (for where else was the obligation to go to see her?); but she spoke of the acquaintance as if it were of the slightest (it had survived in the memory of the prisoner only because every one else — the world was so very hard! — had turned away from her), and she congratulated herself on a happy inspiration when she represented the crime for which such a penalty had been exacted as the theft of a gold watch, in a moment of irresistible temptation. The woman had had a wicked husband, who maltreated and deserted her, and she was very poor, almost starving, dreadfully pressed. Hyacinth listened to her history with absorbed attention, and then he said: —
“And hadn’t she any children — hadn’t she a little boy?”
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