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THE BELDONALD HOLBEIN
by Henry James
Mrs. Munden had not yet been to my studio on so good a pretext as when she
first intimated that it would be quite open to me--should I only careas
she called itto throw the handkerchief--to paint her beautiful sister-inlaw.
I needn't go here more than is essential into the question of Mrs.
Mundenwho would reallyby the waybe a story in herself. She has a
manner of her own of putting thingsand some of those she has put to me--!
Her implication was that Lady Beldonald hadn't only seen and admired
certain examples of my workbut had literally been prepossessed in favour
of the painter's "personality." Had I been struck with this sketch I might
easily have imagined her ladyship was throwing me the handkerchief. "She
hasn't done my visitor said, what she ought."
Do you mean she has done what she oughtn't?
Nothing horrid--ah dear no.And something in Mrs. Munden's tonewith
the way she appeared to muse a momenteven suggested to me that what she
oughtn'twas perhaps what Lady Beldonald had too much neglected. "She
hasn't got on."
What's the matter with her?
Well, to begin with, she's American.
But I thought that was the way of ways to get on.
It's one of them. But it's one of the ways of being awfully out of it
too. There are so many!
So many Americans?I asked.
Yes, plenty of THEM,Mrs. Munden sighed. "So many waysI meanof being
But if your sister-in-law's way is to be beautiful--?
Oh there are different ways of that too.
And she hasn't taken the right way?
Well,my friend returned as if it were rather difficult to expressshe
hasn't done with it--
I see,I laughed; "what she oughtn't!"
Mrs. Munden in a manner corrected mebut it WAS difficult to express. "My
brother at all events was certainly selfish. Till he died she was almost
never in London; they winteredyear after yearfor what he supposed to be
his health--which it didn't helpsince he was so much too soon to meet his
end--in the south of France and in the dullest holes he could pick outand
when they came back to England he always kept her in the country. I must
say for her that she always behaved beautifully. Since his death she has
been more in Londonbut on a stupidly unsuccessful footing. I don't think
she quite understands. She hasn't what I should call a life. It may be of
course that she doesn't want one. That's just what I can't exactly find
out. I can't make out how much she knows."
I can easily make out,I returned with hilarityhow much YOU do!
Well, you're very horrid. Perhaps she's too old.
Too old for what?I persisted.
For anything. Of course she's no longer even a little young; only
preserved--oh but preserved, like bottled fruit, in syrup! I want to help
her if only because she gets on my nerves, and I really think the way of it
would be just the right thing of yours at the Academy and on the line.
But suppose,I threw outshe should give on my nerves?
Oh she will. But isn't that all in the day's work, and don't great
YOU don't,I interrupted; but I at any rate saw Lady Beldonald later on-the
day came when her kinswoman brought herand then I saw how her life
must have its centre in her own idea of her appearance. Nothing else about
her mattered--one knew her all when one knew that. She's indeed in one
particularI thinksole of her kind--a person whom vanity has had the odd
effect of keeping positively safe and sound. This passion is supposed
surelyfor the most partto be a principle of perversion and of injury
leading astray those who listen to it and landing them sooner or later in
this or that complication; but it has landed her ladyship nowhere whatever-
it has kept her from the first moment of full consciousnessone feels
exactly in the same place. It has protected her from every dangerhas
made her absolutely proper and prim. If she's "preserved as Mrs. Munden
originally described her to me, it's her vanity that has beautifully done
it--putting her years ago in a plate-glass case and closing up the
receptacle against every breath of air. How shouldn't she be preserved
when you might smash your knuckles on this transparency before you could
crack it? And she is--oh amazingly! Preservation is scarce the word for
the rare condition of her surface. She looks NATURALLY new, as if she took
out every night her large lovely varnished eyes and put them in water. The
thing was to paint her, I perceived, in the glass case--a most tempting
attaching feat; render to the full the shining interposing plate and the
general show-window effect.
It was agreed, though it wasn't quite arranged, that she should sit to me.
If it wasn't quite arranged this was because, as I was made to understand
from an early stage, the conditions from our start must be such as should
exclude all elements of disturbance, such, in a word, as she herself should
judge absolutely favourable. And it seemed that these conditions were
easily imperilled. Suddenly, for instance, at a moment when I was
expecting her to meet an appointment--the first--that I had proposed, I
received a hurried visit from Mrs. Munden, who came on her behalf to let me
know that the season happened just not to be propitious and that our friend
couldn't be quite sure, to the hour, when it would again become so. She
felt nothing would make it so but a total absence of worry.
Oh a 'total absence'" I saidis a large order! We live in a worrying
Yes; and she feels exactly that--more than you'd think. It's in fact just
why she mustn't have, as she has now, a particular distress on at the very
moment. She wants of course to look her best, and such things tell on her
I shook my head. "Nothing tells on her appearance. Nothing reaches it in
any way; nothing gets AT it. HoweverI can understand her anxiety. But
what's her particular distress?"
Why the illness of Miss Dadd.
And who in the world's Miss Dadd?
Her most intimate friend and constant companion--the lady who was with us
here that first day.
Oh the little round black woman who gurgled with admiration?
None other. But she was taken ill last week, and it may very well be that
she'll gurgle no more. She was very bad yesterday and is no better to-day,
and Nina's much upset. If anything happens to Miss Dadd she'll have to get
another, and, though she has had two or three before, that won't be so
Two or three Miss Dadds? is it possible? And still wanting another!I
recalled the poor lady completely now. "No; I shouldn't indeed think it
would be easy to get another. But why is a succession of them necessary to
Lady Beldonald's existence?"
Can't you guess?Mrs. Munden looked deepyet impatient. "They help."
Help what? Help whom?
Why every one. You and me for instance. To do what? Why to think Nina
beautiful. She has them for that purpose; they serve as foils, as accents
serve on syllables, as terms of comparison. They make her 'stand out.'
It's an effect of contrast that must be familiar to you artists; it's what
a woman does when she puts a band of black velvet under a pearl ornament
that may, require, as she thinks, a little showing off.
I wondered. "Do you mean she always has them black?"
Dear no; I've seen them blue, green, yellow. They may be what they like,
so long as they're always one other thing.
Mrs. Munden made a mouth for it. "Hideous is too much to say; she doesn't
really require them as bad as that. But consistentlycheerfullyloyally
plain. It's really a most happy relation. She loves them for it."
And for what do they love HER?
Why just for the amiability that they produce in her. Then also for their
'home.' It's a career for them.
I see. But if that's the case,I askedwhy are they so difficult to
Oh they must be safe; it's all in that: her being able to depend on them
to keep to the terms of the bargain and never have moments of rising--as
even the ugliest woman will now and then (say when she's in love)--superior
I turned it over. "Then if they can't inspire passions the poor things
mayn't even at least feel them?"
She distinctly deprecates it. That's why such a man as you may be after
all a complication.
I continued to brood. "You're very sure Miss Dadd's ailment isn't an
affection thatbeing smotheredhas struck in?" My jokehoweverwasn't
well timedfor I afterwards learned that the unfortunate lady's state had
beeneven while I spokesuch as to forbid all hope. The worst symptoms
had appeared; she was destined not to recover; and a week later I heard
from Mrs. Munden that she would in fact "gurgle" no more.
All this had been for Lady Beldonald an agitation so great that access to
her apartment was denied for a time even to her sister-in-law. It was much
more out of the question of course that she should unveil her face to a
person of my special business with it; so that the question of the portrait
was by common consent left to depend on that of the installation of a
successor to her late companion. Such a successorI gathered from Mrs.
Mundenwidowed childless and lonelyas well as inapt for the minor
officesshe had absolutely to have; a more or less humble alter ago to
deal with the servantskeep the accountsmake the tea and watch the
window-blinds. Nothing seemed more natural than that she should marry
againand obviously that might come; yet the predecessors of Miss Dadd had
been contemporaneous with a first husbandso that others formed in her
image might be contemporaneous with a second. I was much occupied in those
months at any rateand these questions and their ramifications losing
themselves for a while to my viewI was only brought back to them by Mrs.
Munden's arrival one day with the news that we were all right again--her
sister-in-law was once more "suited." A certain Mrs. Brashan American
relative whom she hadn't seen for yearsbut with whom she had continued to
communicatewas to come out to her immediately; and this personit
appearedcould be quite trusted to meet the conditions. She was ugly-ugly
enoughwithout abuse of itand was unlimitedly good. The position
offered her by Lady Beldonald was moreover exactly what she needed; widowed
alsoafter many troubles and reverseswith her fortune of the smallest
and her various children either buried or placed aboutshe had never had
time or means to visit Englandand would really be grateful in her
declining years for the new experience and the pleasant light work involved
in her cousin's hospitality. They had been much together early in life and
Lady Beldonald was immensely fond of her--would in fact have tried to get
hold of her before hadn't Mrs. Brash been always in bondage to family
dutiesto the variety of her tribulations. I daresay I laughed at my
friend's use of the term "position"--the positionone might call itof a
candlestick or a sign-postand I daresay I must have asked if the special
service the poor lady was to render had been made clear to her. Mrs.
Munden left me in any case with the rather droll image of her faring forth
across the sea quite consciously and resignedly to perform it.
The point of the communication had however been that my sitter was again
looking up and would doubtlesson the arrival and due initiation of Mrs.
Brashbe in form really to wait on me. The situation must furtherto my
knowledgehave developed happilyfor I arranged with Mrs. Munden that our
friendnow all ready to beginbut wanting first just to see the things I
had most recently doneshould come once moreas a final preliminaryto
my studio. A good foreign friend of minea French painterPaul Outreau
was at the moment in Londonand I had proposedas he was much interested
in typesto get together for his amusement a small afternoon party. Every
one camemy big room was fullthere was music and a modest spread; and
I've not forgotten the light of admiration in Outreau's expressive face as
at the end of half an hour he came up to me in his enthusiasm. "Bonte
divinemon cher--que cette vieille est donc belle!"
I had tried to collect all the beauty I couldand also all the youthso
that for a moment I was at a loss. I had talked to many people and
provided for the musicand there were figures in the crowd that were still
lost to me. "What old woman do you mean?"
I don't know her name--she was over by the door a moment ago. I asked
somebody and was told, I think, that she's American.
I looked about and saw one of my guests attach a pair of fine eyes to
Outreau very much as if she knew he must be talking of her. "Oh Lady
Beldonald! Yesshe's handsome; but the great point about her is that she
has been 'put up' to keepand that she wouldn't be flattered if she knew
you spoke of her as old. A box of sardines is 'old' only after it has been
openedLady Beldonald never has yet been--but I'm going to do it." I
jokedbut I was somewhat disappointed. It was a type thatwith his
unerring sense for the banalI shouldn't have expected Outreau to pick
You're going to paint her? But, my dear man, she is painted--and as
neither you nor I can do it. Ou est-elle donc? He had lost her, and I saw
I had made a mistake. She's the greatest of all the great Holbeins.
I was relieved. "Ah then not Lady Beldonald! But do I possess a Holbein
of ANY price unawares?"
There she is--there she is! Dear, dear, dear, what a head!And I saw
whom he meant--and what: a small old lady in a black dress and a black
bonnetboth relieved with a little whitewho had evidently just changed
her place to reach a corner from which more of the room and of the scene
was presented to her. She appeared unnoticed and unknownand I
immediately recognised that some other guest must have brought her andfor
want of opportunityhad as yet to call my attention to her. But two
thingssimultaneously with this and with each otherstruck me with force;
one of them the truth of Outreau's description of herthe other the fact
that the person bringing her could only have been Lady Beldonald. She WAS
a Holbein--of the first water; yet she was also Mrs. Brashthe imported
foil,the indispensable accent the successor to the dreary Miss Dadd!
By the time I had put these things together--Outreau's American" having
helped me--I was in just such full possession of her face as I had found
myselfon the other first occasionof that of her patroness. Only with
so different a consequence. I couldn't look at her enoughand I stared
and stared till I became aware she might have fancied me challenging her as
a person unpresented. "All the same Outreau went on, equally held,
c'est une tete a faire. If I were only staying long enough for a crack at
her! But I tell you what and he seized my arm--"bring her over!"
To Paris. She'd have a succes fou.
Ah thanks, my dear fellow,I was now quite in a position to say; "she's
the handsomest thing in Londonand"--for what I might do with her was
already before me with intensity--"I propose to keep her to myself." It
was before me with intensityin the light of Mrs. Brash's distant
perfection of a little white old facein which every wrinkle was the touch
of a master; but something elseI suddenly feltwas not less sofor Lady
Beldonaldin the other quarterand though she couldn't have made out the
subject of our noticecontinued to fix usand her eyes had the challenge
of those of the woman of consequence who has missed something. A moment
later I was close to herapologising first for not having been more on the
spot at her arrivalbut saying in the next breath uncontrollably: "Why my
dear ladyit's a Holbein!"
A Holbein? What?
Why the wonderful sharp old face so extraordinarily, consummately drawn-in
the frame of black velvet. That of Mrs. Brash, I mean--isn't it her
This was the beginning of a most odd matter--the essence of my anecdote;
and I think the very first note of the oddity must have sounded for me in
the tone in which her ladyship spoke after giving me a silent look. It
seemed to come to me out of a distance immeasurably removed from Holbein.
Mrs. Brash isn't my 'companion' in the sense you appear to mean. She's my
rather near relation and a very dear old friend. I love her--and you must
Know her? Rather! Why to see her is to want on the spot to 'go' for her.
She also must sit for me,
SHE? Louisa Brash?If Lady Beldonald had the theory that her beauty
directly showed it when things weren't well with herthis impression
which the fixed sweetness of her serenity had hitherto struck me by no
means as justifyinggave me now my first glimpse of its grounds. It was
as if I had never before seen her face invaded by anything I should have
called an expression. This expression moreover was of the faintest--was
like the effect produced on a surface by an agitation both deep within and
as yet much confused. "Have you told her so?" she then quickly askedas
if to soften the sound of her surprise.
Dear no, I've but just noticed her--Outreau, a moment ago put me on her.
But we're both so taken, and he also wants--
To PAINT her?Lady Beldonald uncontrollably murmured.
Don't be afraid we shall fight for her,I returned with a laugh for this
tone. Mrs. Brash was still where I could see her without appearing to
stareand she mightn't have seen I was looking at herthough her
protectressI'm afraidcould scarce have failed of that certainty. "We
must each take our turnand at any rate she's a wonderful thingso that
if you'll let her go to Paris Outreau promises her there--"
THERE?my companion gasped.
A career bigger still than among us, as he considers we haven't half their
eye. He guarantees her a succes fou.
She couldn't get over it. "Louisa Brash? In Paris?"
They do see,I went onmore than we and they live extraordinarily,
don't you know, in that. But she'll do something here too.
And what will she do?
If frankly now I couldn't help giving Mrs. Brash a longer lookso after it
I could as little resist sounding my converser. "You'll see. Only give
She said nothing during the moment in which she met my eyes; but then:
Time, it seems to me, is exactly what you and your friend want. If you
haven't talked with her--
We haven't seen her? Oh we see bang off--with a click like a steel
spring. It's our trade, it's our life, and we should be donkeys if we made
mistakes. That's the way I saw you yourself, my lady, if I may say so;
that's the way, with a long pin straight through your body, I've got you.
And just so I've got HER!
All thisfor reasonshad brought my guest to her feet; but her eyes had
while we talked never once followed the direction of mine. "You call her a
Outreau did, and I of course immediately recognised it. Don't you? She
brings the old boy to life! It's just as I should call you a Titian. You
bring HIM to life.
She couldn't be said to relaxbecause she couldn't be said to have
hardened; but something at any rate on this took place in her--something
indeed quite disconnected from what I would have called her. "Don't you
understand that she has always been supposed--?" It had the ring of
impatience; nevertheless it stopped short on a scruple.
I knew what it washoweverwell enough to say it for her if she
preferred. "To be nothing whatever to look at? To be unfortunately plain-
or even if you like repulsively ugly? Oh yesI understand it perfectly
just as I understand--I have to as a part of my trade--many other forms of
stupidity. It's nothing new to one that ninety-nine people out of a
hundred have no eyesno senseno taste. There are whole communities
impenetrably sealed. I don't say your friend's a person to make the men
turn round in Regent Street. But it adds to the joy of the few who do see
that they have it so much to themselves. Where in the world can she have
lived? You must tell me all about that--or ratherif she'll be so good
You mean then to speak to her--?
I wondered as she pulled up again. "Of her beauty?"
Her beauty!cried Lady Beldonald so loud that two or three persons looked
Ah with every precaution of respect I declared in a much lower tone. But
her back was by this time turned to me, and in the movement, as it were,
one of the strangest little dramas I've ever known was well launched.
It was a drama of small smothered intensely private things, and I knew of
but one other person in the secret; yet that person and I found it
exquisitely susceptible of notation, followed it with an interest the
mutual communication of which did much for our enjoyment, and were present
with emotion at its touching catastrophe. The small case--for so small a
case--had made a great stride even before my little party separated, and in
fact within the next ten minutes.
In that space of time two things had happened one of which was that I made
the acquaintance of Mrs. Brash; and the other that Mrs. Munden reached me,
cleaving the crowd, with one of her usual pieces of news. What she had to
impart was that, on her having just before asked Nina if the conditions of
our sitting had been arranged with me, Nina had replied, with something
like perversity, that she didn't propose to arrange them, that the whole
affair was off" again and that she preferred not to be further beset for
the present. The question for Mrs. Munden was naturally what had happened
and whether I understood. Oh I understood perfectlyand what I at first
most understood was that even when I had brought in the name of Mrs. Brash
intelligence wasn't yet in Mrs. Munden. She was quite as surprised as Lady
Beldonald had been on hearing of the esteem in which I held Mrs. Brash's
appearance. She was stupefied at learning that I had just in my ardour
proposed to its proprietress to sit to me. Only she came round promptly-which
Lady Beldonald really never did. Mrs. Munden was in fact wonderful;
for when I had given her quickly "Why she's a Holbeinyou know
absolutely she took it up, after a first fine vacancy, with an immediate
abysmal Oh IS she?" thatas a piece of social gymnasticsdid her the
greatest honour; and she was in fact the first in London to spread the
tidings. For a face--about it was magnificent. But she was also the
firstI must addto see what would really happen--though this she put
before me only a week or two later. It will kill hermy dear--that's what
it will do
She meant neither more nor less than that it would kill Lady Beldonald if I
were to paint Mrs. Brash; for at this lurid light had we arrived in so
short a space of time. It was for me to decide whether my aesthetic need
of giving life to my idea was such as to justify me in destroying it in a
woman after all in most eyes so beautiful. The situation was indeed
sufficiently queer; for it remained to be seen what I should positively
gain by giving up Mrs. Brash. I appeared to have 'in any case lost Lady
Beldonaldnow too "upset"--it was always Mrs. Munden's word about her and
as I inferredher own about herself--to meet me again on our previous
footing. The only thingI of course soon sawwas to temporise to drop
the whole question for the present and yet so far as possible keep each of
the pair in view. I may as well say at once that this plan and this
process gave their principal interest to the next several months. Mrs.
Brash had turned upif I rememberearly in the new yearand her little
wonderful career was in our particular circle one of the features of the
following season. It was at all events for myself the most attaching; it's
not my fault if I am so put together as often to find more life in
situations obscure and subject to interpretation than in the gross rattle
of the foreground. And there were all sorts of thingsthings touching
amusingmystifying--and above all such an instance as I had never yet met-
in this funny little fortune of the useful American cousin. Mrs. Munden
was promptly at one with me as to the rarity andto a near and human view
the beauty and interest of the position. We had neither of us ever before
seen that degree and that special sort of personal success come to a woman
for the first time so late in life. I found it an example of poeticof
absolutely retributive justice; so that my desire grew great to work itas
we sayon those lines. I had seen it all from the original moment at my
studio; the poor lady had never known an hour's appreciation--which
moreoverin perfect good faithshe had never missed. The very first
thing I did after inducing so unintentionally the resentful retreat of her
protectress had been to go straight over to her and say almost without
preliminaries that I should hold myself immeasurably obliged for a few
patient sittings. What I thus came face to face with wason the instant
her whole unenlightened past and the fullif foreshortenedrevelation of
what among us all was now unfailingly in store for her. To turn the handle
and start that tune came to me on the spot as a temptation. Here was a
poor lady who had waited for the approach of old age to find out what she
was worth. Here was a benighted being to whom it was to be disclosed in
her fifty-seventh year--I was to make that out--that she had something that
might pass for a face. She looked much more than her ageand was fairly
frightened--as if I had been trying on her some possibly heartless London
trick--when she had taken in my appeal. That showed me in what an air she
had lived and--as I should have been tempted to put it had I spoken out-among
what children of darkness. Later on I did them more justice; saw
more that her wonderful points must have been points largely the fruit of
timeand even that possibly she might never in all her life have looked so
well as at this particular moment. It might have been that if her hour had
struck I just happened to be present at the striking. What had occurred
all the samewas at the worst a notable comedy.
The famous "irony of fate" takes many formsbut I had never yet seen it
take quite this one. She had been "had over" on an understandingand she
wasn't playing fair. She had broken the law of her ugliness and had turned
beautiful on the hands of her employer. More interesting even perhaps than
a view of the conscious triumph that this might prepare for herand of
whichhad I doubted of my own judgementI could still take Outreau's fine
start as the full guarantee--more interesting was the question of the
process by which such a history could get itself enacted. The curious
thing was that all the while the reasons of her having passed for plain-the
reasons for Lady Beldonald's fond calculationwhich they quite
justified--were written large in her faceso large that it was easy to
understand them as the only ones she herself had ever read. What was it
then that actually made the old stale sentence mean something so
different?--into what new combinationswhat extraordinary language
unknown but understood at a glancehad time and life translated it? The
only thing to be said was that time and life were artists who beat us all
working with recipes and secrets we could never find out. I really ought
to havelike a lecturer or a showmana chart or a blackboard to present
properly the relationin the wonderful old tender battered blanched face
between the original elements and the exquisite final it style." I could
do it with chalksbut I can scarcely do it with words. Howeverthe thing
wasfor any artist who respected himselfto FEEL it--which I abundantly
did; and then not to conceal from HER I felt it--which I neglected as
little. But she was reallyto do her complete justicethe last to
understand; and I'm not sure thatto the end--for there was an end--she
quite made it all out or knew where she was. When you've been brought up
for fifty years on black it must be hard to adjust your organism at a day's
notice to gold-colour. Her whole nature had been pitched in the key of her
supposed plainness. She had known how to be ugly--it was the only thing
she had learnt saveif possiblehow not to mind it. Being beautiful took
in any case a new set of muscles. It was on the prior conviction
literallythat she had developed her admirable dressinstinctively
felicitousalways either black or white and a matter of rather severe
squareness and studied line. She was magnificently neat; everything she
showed had a way of looking both old and fresh; and there was on every
occasion the same picture in her draped head--draped in low-falling black-and
the fine white plaits (of a painter's whitesomehow) disposed on her
chest. What had happened was that these arrangementsdetermined by
certain considerationslent themselves in effect much better to certain
others. Adopted in mere shy silence they had really only deepened her
accent. It was singularmoreoverthatso constitutedthere was nothing
in her aspect of the ascetic or the nun. She was a good hard sixteenthcentury
figurenot withered with innocencebleached rather by life in the
open. She was in short just what we had made of hera Holbein for a great
Museum; and our positionMrs. Munden's and minerapidly became that of
persons having such a treasure to dispose of. The world--I speak of course
mainly of the art-world--flocked to see it.
But has she any idea herself, poor thing?was the way I had put it to
Mrs. Munden on our next meeting after the incident at my studio; with the
effecthoweveronly of leaving my friend at first to take me as alluding
to Mrs. Brash's possible prevision of the chatter she might create. I had
my own sense of that--this provision had been nil; the question was of her
consciousness of the office for which Lady Beldonald had counted on her and
for which we were so promptly proceeding to spoil her altogether.
Oh I think she arrived with a goodish notion,Mrs. Munden had replied
when I had explained; "for she's clever tooyou knowas well as goodlooking
and I don't see howif she ever really KNEW Ninashe could have
supposed for a moment that she wasn't wanted for whatever she might have
left to give up. Hasn't she moreover always been made to feel that she's
ugly enough for anything?" It was even at this point already wonderful how
my friend had mastered the case and what lightsalike for its past and its
futureshe was prepared to throw on it. "If she has seen herself as ugly
enough for anything she has seen herself--and that was the only way--as
ugly enough for Nina; and she has had her own manner of showing that she
understands without making Nina commit herself to anything vulgar. Women
are never without ways for doing such things--both for communicating and
receiving knowledge--that I can't explain to youand that you wouldn't
understand if I couldsince you must be a woman even to do that. I
daresay they've expressed it all to each other simply in the language of
kisses. But doesn't it at any rate make something rather beautiful of the
relation between them as affected by our discovery--?"
I had a laugh for her plural possessive. "The point is of course that if
there was a conscious bargainand our action on Mrs. Brash is to deprive
her of the sense of keeping her side of itvarious things may happen that
won't be good either for her or for ourselves. She may conscientiously
throw up the position."
Yes,my companion mused--"for she is conscientious. Or Ninawithout
waiting for thatmay cast her forth."
I faced it all. "Then we should have to keep her."
As a regular model?Mrs. Munden was ready for anything. "Oh that would
But I further worked it out. "The difficulty is that she's not a model
hang it--that she's too good for onethat she's the very thing herself.
When Outreau and I have each had our gothat will be all; there'll be
nothing left for any one else. Therefore it behoves us quite to understand
that our attitude's a responsibility. If we can't do for her positively
more than Nina does--"
We must let her alone?My companion continued to muse. "I see!"
Yet don't,I returnedsee too much. We CAN do more.
Than Nina?She was again on the spot. "It wouldn't after all be
difficult. We only want the directly opposite thing--and which is the only
one the poor dear can give. Unless indeed she suggested, we simply
retract--we back out."
I turned it over. "It's too late for that. Whether Mrs. Brash's peace is
gone I can't say. But Nina's is."
Yes, and there's no way to bring it back that won't sacrifice her friend.
We can't turn round and say Mrs. Brash is ugly, can we? But fancy Nina's
not having SEEN!Mrs. Munden exclaimed.
She doesn't see now,I answered. "She can'tI'm certainmake out what
we mean. The womanfor HER stillis just what she always was. But she
has nevertheless had her strokeand her blindnesswhile she wavers and
gropes in the darkonly adds to her discomfort. Her blow was to see the
attention of the world deviate."
All the same I don't think, you know,my interlocutress saidthat Nina
will have made her a scene or that, whatever we do, she'll ever make her
one. That isn't the way it will happen, for she's exactly as conscientious
as Mrs. Brash.
Then what is the way?I asked.
It will just happen in silence.
And what will 'it,' as you call it, be?
Isn't that what we want really to see?
Well,I replied after a turn or two aboutwhether we want it or not
it's exactly what we SHALL see; which is a reason the more for fancying,
between the pair there--in the quiet exquisite house, and full of
superiorities and suppressions as they both are--the extraordinary
situation. If I said just now that it's too late to do anything but assent
it's because I've taken the full measure of what happened at my studio. It
took but a few moments--but she tasted of the tree.
My companion wondered. "Nina?"
Mrs. Brash.And to have to put it so ministeredwhile I took yet
another turnto a sort of agitation. Our attitude was a responsibility.
But I had suggested something else to my friendwho appeared for a moment
detached. "Should you say she'll hate her worse if she DOESN'T see?"
Lady Beldonald? Doesn't see what we see, you mean, than if she does? Ah
I give THAT up!I laughed. "But what I can tell you is why I hold that
as I said just nowwe can do most. We can do this: we can give to a
harmless and sensitive creature hitherto practically disinherited--and give
with an unexpectedness that will immensely add to its price--the pure joy
of a deep draught of the very pride of lifeof an acclaimed personal
triumph in our superior sophisticated world."
Mrs. Munden had a glow of response for my sudden eloquence. Oh it will be
Wellthat's whaton the whole and in spite of everythingit really was.
It has dropped into my memory a rich little gallery of picturesa regular
panorama of those occasions that were to minister to the view from which I
had so for a moment extracted a lyric inspiration. I see Mrs. Brash on
each of these occasions practically enthroned and surrounded and more or
less mobbed; see the hurrying and the nudging and the pressing and the
staring; see the people "making up" and introducedand catch the word when
they have had their turn; hear it above allthe great one--"Ah yesthe
famous Holbein!"--passed about with that perfection of promptitude that
makes the motions of the London mind so happy a mixture of those of the
parrot and the sheep. Nothing would be easier of course than to tell the
whole little tale with an eye only for that silly side of it. Great was
the sillinessbut great also as to this case of poor Mrs. BrashI will
say for itthe good nature. Of coursefurthermoreit took in particular
our set,with its positive child-terror of the banalto be either so
foolish or so wise; though indeed I've never quite known where our set
begins and endsand have had to content myself on this score with the
indication once given me by a lady next whom I was placed at dinner: "Oh
it's bounded on the north by Ibsen and on the south by Sargent! Mrs. Brash
never sat to me; she absolutely declined; and when she declared that it was
quite enough for her that I had with that fine precipitation invited herI
quite took this as she meant it; before we had gone very far our
understandinghers and minewas complete. Her attitude was as happy as
her success was prodigious. The sacrifice of the portrait was a sacrifice
to the true inwardness of Lady Beldonaldand did muchfor the timeI
divinedtoward muffling their domestic tension. All it was thus in her
power to say--and I heard of a few cases of her having said it--was that
she was sure I would have painted her beautifully if she hadn't prevented
me. She couldn't even tell the truthwhich was that I certainly would
have done so if Lady Beldonald hadn't; and she never could mention the
subject at all before that personage. I can only describe the affair
naturallyfrom the outsideand heaven forbid indeed that I should try too
closely toreconstruct the possible strange intercourse of these good
friends at home.
My anecdotehoweverwould lose half the point it may have to show were I
to omit all mention of the consummate turn her ladyship appeared gradually
to have found herself able to give her deportment. She had made it
impossible I should myself bring up our oldour original questionbut
there was real distinction in her manner of now accepting certain other
possibilities. Let me do her that justice; her effort at magnanimity must
have been immense. There couldn't fail of course to be ways in which poor
Mrs. Brash paid for it. How much she had to pay we were in fact soon
enough to see; and it's my intimate conviction thatas a climaxher life
at last was the price. But while she lived at least--and it was with an
intensityfor those wondrous weeksof which she had never dreamed--Lady
Beldonald herself faced the music. This is what I mean by the
possibilitiesby the sharp actualities indeedthat she accepted. She
took our friend outshe showed her at homenever attempted to hide or to
betray herplayed her no trick whatever so long as the ordeal lasted. She
drank deepon her side tooof the cup--the cup that for her own lips
could only be bitterness. There wasI thinkscarce a special success of
her companion's at which she wasn't personally present. Mrs. Munden's
theory of the silence in which all this would be muffled for them was none
the lessand in abundanceconfirmed by our observations. The whole thing
was to be the death of one or the other of thembut they never spoke of it
at tea. I remember even that Nina went so far as to say to me once
looking me full in the eyesquite sublimelyI've made out what you mean-
she IS a picture.The beauty of this moreover was thatas I'm
persuadedshe hadn't really made it out at all--the words were the mere
hypocrisy of her reflective endeavour for virtue. She couldn't possibly
have made it out; her friend was as much as ever "dreadfully plain" to her;
she must have wondered to the last what on earth possessed us. Wouldn't it
in fact have been after all just this failure of visionthis supreme
stupidity in shortthat kept the catastrophe so long at bay? There was a
certain sense of greatness for her in seeing so many of us so absurdly
mistaken; and I recall that on various occasionsand in particular when
she uttered the words just quotedthis high serenityas a sign of the
relief of her sorenessif not of the effort of her consciencedid
something quite visible to my eyesand also quite unprecedentedfor the
beauty of her face. She got a real lift from it--such a momentary
discernible sublimity that I recollect coming out on the spot with a queer
crude amused "Do you know I believe I could paint you NOW?"
She was a fool not to have closed with me then and there; for what has
happened since has altered everything--what was to happen a little later
was so much more than I could swallow. This was the disappearance of the
famous Holbein from one day to the other--producing a consternation among
us all as great as if the Venus of Milo had suddenly vanished from the
Louvre. "She has simply shipped her straight back"--the explanation was
given in that form by Mrs. Mundenwho added that any cord pulled tight
enough would end at last by snapping. At the snapin any casewe
mightily jumpedfor the masterpiece we had for three or four months been
living with had made us feel its presence as a luminous lesson and a daily
need. We recognised more than ever that it had beenfor high finishthe
gem of our collection--we found what a blank it left on the wall. Lady
Beldonald might fill up the blankbut we couldn't. That she did soon fill
it up--andheaven help usHOW was put before me after an interval of no
great lengthbut during which I hadn't seen her. 'I dined on the
Christmas of last year at Mrs. Munden'sand Ninawith a "scratch lot as
our hostess said, was there, so that, the preliminary wait being longish,
she could approach me very sweetly. I'll come to you tomorrow if you
like she said; and the effect of it, after a first stare at her, was to
make me look all round. I took in, by these two motions, two things; one
of which was that, though now again so satisfied herself of her high state,
she could give me nothing comparable to what I should have got had she
taken me up at the moment of my meeting her on her distinguished
concession; the other that she was suited" afresh and that Mrs. Brash's
successor was fully installed. Mrs. Brash's successorwas at the other
side of the roomand I became conscious that Mrs. Munden was waiting to
see my eyes seek her. I guessed the meaning of the wait; what was one
this timeto say? Oh first and foremost assuredly that it was immensely
drollfor this time at least there was no mistake. The lady I looked
uponand as to whom my friendagain quite at seaappealed to me for a
formulawas as little a Holbeinor a specimen of any other schoolas she
waslike Lady Beldonald herselfa Titian. The formula was easy to give
for the amusement was that her prettiness--yesliterallyprodigiously
her prettiness--was distinct. Lady Beldonald had been magnificent--had
been almost intelligent. Miss What's-her-name continues prettycontinues
even youngand doesn't matter a straw! She matters so ideally little that
Lady Beldonald is practically saferI judgethan she has ever been.
There hasn't been a symptom of chatter about this personand I believe her
protectress is much surprised that we're not more struck.
It was at any rate strictly impossible to me to make an appointment for the
day as to which I have just recorded Nina's proposal; and the turn of
events since then has not quickened my eagerness. Mrs. Munden remained in
correspondence with Mrs. Brash--to the extentthat isof three letters
each of which she showed me. They so told to our imagination her terrible
little story that we were quite prepared--or thought we were--for her going
out like a snuffed candle. She resistedon her return to her original
conditionsless than a year; the taste of the treeas I had called it
had been fatal to her; what she had contentedly enough lived without before
for half a century she couldn't now live without for a day. I know nothing
of her original conditions--some minor American city--save that for her to
have gone back to them was clearly to have stepped out of her frame. We
performedMrs. Munden and Ia small funeral service for her by talking it
all over and making it all out. It wasn't--the minor American city--a
market for Holbeinsand what had occurred was that the poor old picture
banished from its museum and refreshed by the rise of no new movement to
hang itwas capable of the miracle of a silent revolution; of itself
turningin its dire dishonourits face to the wall. So it stoodwithout
the intervention of the ghost of a critictill they happened to pull it
round again and find it mere dead paint. Wellit had hadif that's
anythingits season of fameits name on a thousand tongues and printed in
capitals in the catalogue. We hadn't been at fault. I haven'tall the
samethe least note of her--not a scratch. And I did her so in intention!
Mrs. Munden continues to remind mehoweverthat this is not the sort of
rendering with whichon the other sideafter allLady Beldonald proposes
to content herself. She has come back to the question of her own portrait.
Let me settle it then at last. Since she WILL have the real thing--well
hang itshe shall!