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´╗┐Title: The Beldonald Holbein
Author: James, Henry, 1843-1916
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcribed from the 1922 Macmillan and Co. edition by David Price, email


THE BELDONALD HOLBEIN
by Henry James


CHAPTER I


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
care, as she called it, to throw the handkerchief--to paint her beautiful
sister-in-law.  I needn't go here more than is essential into the
question of Mrs. Munden, who would really, by the way, be a story in
herself.  She has a manner of her own of putting things, and some of
those she has put to me--!  Her implication was that Lady Beldonald
hadn't only seen and admired certain examples of my work, but 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 tone, with
the way she appeared to muse a moment, even suggested to me that what she
"oughtn't" was 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 ways, I mean, of
being one."

"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 express,
"she hasn't done with it--"

"I see," I laughed; "what she oughtn't!"

Mrs. Munden in a manner corrected me, but it _was_ difficult to express.
"My brother at all events was certainly selfish.  Till he died she was
almost never in London; they wintered, year after year, for what he
supposed to be his health--which it didn't help, since he was so much too
soon to meet his end--in the south of France and in the dullest holes he
could pick out, and 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 London, but 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 hilarity, "how 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 out, "she should give on my nerves?"

"Oh she will.  But isn't that all in the day's work, and don't great
beauties always--?"

"_You_ don't," I interrupted; but I at any rate saw Lady Beldonald later
on--the day came when her kinswoman brought her, and 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 particular, I think, sole of her kind--a person whom vanity
has had the odd effect of keeping positively safe and sound.  This
passion is supposed surely, for the most part, to 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 consciousness, one feels, exactly in the same place.  It
has protected her from every danger, has 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 said, "is a large order!  We live in a worrying
world."

"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 appearance."

I shook my head.  "Nothing tells on her appearance.  Nothing reaches it
in any way; nothing gets _at_ it.  However, I 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 easy."

"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 deep, yet 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."

"Hideous?"

Mrs. Munden made a mouth for it.  "Hideous is too much to say; she
doesn't really require them as bad as that.  But consistently,
cheerfully, loyally 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 asked, "why are they so difficult to
find?"

"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 to themselves."

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 that, being smothered, has struck in?"  My joke, however,
wasn't well timed, for I afterwards learned that the unfortunate lady's
state had been, even while I spoke, such 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.



CHAPTER II


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 successor, I gathered from
Mrs. Munden, widowed childless and lonely, as well as inapt for the minor
offices, she had absolutely to have; a more or less humble _alter ago_ to
deal with the servants, keep the accounts, make the tea and watch the
window-blinds.  Nothing seemed more natural than that she should marry
again, and obviously that might come; yet the predecessors of Miss Dadd
had been contemporaneous with a first husband, so that others formed in
her image might be contemporaneous with a second.  I was much occupied in
those months at any rate, and these questions and their ramifications
losing themselves for a while to my view, I 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. Brash,
an American relative whom she hadn't seen for years, but with whom she
had continued to communicate, was to come out to her immediately; and
this person, it appeared, could be quite trusted to meet the conditions.
She was ugly--ugly enough, without abuse of it, and was unlimitedly good.
The position offered her by Lady Beldonald was moreover exactly what she
needed; widowed also, after many troubles and reverses, with her fortune
of the smallest, and her various children either buried or placed about,
she had never had time or means to visit England, and 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 duties, to the variety of her tribulations.  I
daresay I laughed at my friend's use of the term "position"--the
position, one might call it, of a candlestick or a sign-post, and 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 doubtless, on the arrival and due initiation of Mrs.
Brash, be in form really to wait on me.  The situation must further, to
my knowledge, have developed happily, for I arranged with Mrs. Munden
that our friend, now all ready to begin, but wanting first just to see
the things I had most recently done, should come once more, as a final
preliminary, to my studio.  A good foreign friend of mine, a French
painter, Paul Outreau, was at the moment in London, and I had proposed,
as he was much interested in types, to get together for his amusement a
small afternoon party.  Every one came, my big room was full, there 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 divine, mon cher--que cette vieille est
donc belle_!"

I had tried to collect all the beauty I could, and also all the youth, so
that for a moment I was at a loss.  I had talked to many people and
provided for the music, and 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!  Yes, she's handsome; but the great point about her is that
she has been 'put up' to keep, and 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 opened, Lady Beldonald never has yet been--but I'm going to do
it."  I joked, but I was somewhat disappointed.  It was a type that, with
his unerring sense for the _banal_, I shouldn't have expected Outreau to
pick out.

"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
bonnet, both relieved with a little white, who 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 unknown, and
I immediately recognised that some other guest must have brought her and,
for want of opportunity, had as yet to call my attention to her.  But two
things, simultaneously with this and with each other, struck me with
force; one of them the truth of Outreau's description of her, the 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. Brash, the 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 myself, on the other first
occasion, of that of her patroness.  Only with so different a
consequence.  I couldn't look at her enough, and 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!"

"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 London, and"--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 intensity, in the light of Mrs. Brash's distant
perfection of a little white old face, in which every wrinkle was the
touch of a master; but something else, I suddenly felt, was not less so,
for Lady Beldonald, in the other quarter, and though she couldn't have
made out the subject of our notice, continued to fix us, and her eyes had
the challenge of those of the woman of consequence who has missed
something.  A moment later I was close to her, apologising first for not
having been more on the spot at her arrival, but saying in the next
breath uncontrollably: "Why my dear lady, it'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 name?--your companion."

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."

"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 her, this impression,
which the fixed sweetness of her serenity had hitherto struck me by no
means as justifying, gave 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
asked, as 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 stare, and she mightn't have seen I was looking at her, though her
protectress, I'm afraid, could scarce have failed of that certainty.  "We
must each take our turn, and at any rate she's a wonderful thing, so 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 on, "more 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 look, so after
it I could as little resist sounding my converser.  "You'll see.  Only
give her time."

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 this, for reasons, had brought my guest to her feet; but her eyes had
while we talked never once followed the direction of mine.  "You call her
a Holbein?"

"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 relax, because 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 was, however, well 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 yes, I 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 eyes, no sense, no 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
rather, if she'll be so good, _she_ must."

"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 round.

"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.



CHAPTER III


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 perfectly, and 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 Holbein, you know, absolutely," she
took it up, after a first fine vacancy, with an immediate abysmal "Oh
_is_ she?" that, as a piece of social gymnastics, did 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 first, I must
add, to see what would really happen--though this she put before me only
a week or two later.  "It will kill her, my 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
Beldonald, now too "upset"--it was always Mrs. Munden's word about her
and, as I inferred, her own about herself--to meet me again on our
previous footing.  The only thing, I of course soon saw, was 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 up, if I remember, early in the new year,
and 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
things, things touching, amusing, mystifying--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 and, to 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 poetic, of absolutely retributive
justice; so that my desire grew great to work it, as we say, on 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 moreover, in perfect
good faith, she 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 was, on the instant, her whole
unenlightened past and the full, if foreshortened, revelation 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 age, and 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 time, and 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 same, was at the worst a notable
comedy.

The famous "irony of fate" takes many forms, but I had never yet seen it
take quite this one.  She had been "had over" on an understanding, and
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
her, and of which, had I doubted of my own judgement, I 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 calculation, which they
quite justified--were written large in her face, so 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 combinations, what extraordinary language,
unknown but understood at a glance, had 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 have, like a lecturer or a showman, a chart or a blackboard to
present properly the relation, in the wonderful old tender battered
blanched face, between the original elements and the exquisite final
"style."  I could do it with chalks, but I can scarcely do it with words.
However, the thing was, for any artist who respected himself, to _feel_
it--which I abundantly did; and then not to conceal from _her_ I felt
it--which I neglected as little.  But she was really, to do her complete
justice, the last to understand; and I'm not sure that, to 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 save, if possible, how not
to mind it.  Being beautiful took in any case a new set of muscles.  It
was on the prior conviction, literally, that she had developed her
admirable dress, instinctively felicitous, always 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 white, somehow) disposed on her chest.  What had happened was
that these arrangements, determined by certain considerations, lent
themselves in effect much better to certain others.  Adopted in mere shy
silence they had really only deepened her accent.  It was singular,
moreover, that, so constituted, there was nothing in her aspect of the
ascetic or the nun.  She was a good hard sixteenth-century figure, not
withered with innocence, bleached rather by life in the open.  She was in
short just what we had made of her, a Holbein for a great Museum; and our
position, Mrs. Munden's and mine, rapidly 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.



CHAPTER IV


"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
effect, however, only 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 too, you know, as well as good-
looking, and I don't see how, if she ever really _knew_ Nina, she 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 lights, alike for
its past and its future, she 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 you,
and that you wouldn't understand if I could, since 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 bargain, and our action on Mrs. Brash is to deprive
her of the sense of keeping her side of it, various 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 Nina, without
waiting for that, may 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
be lovely!"

But I further worked it out.  "The difficulty is that she's not a model,
hang it--that she's too good for one, that she's the very thing herself.
When Outreau and I have each had our go, that 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 returned, "see 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't, I'm certain, make out
what we mean.  The woman, for _her_ still, is just what she always was.
But she has nevertheless had her stroke, and her blindness, while she
wavers and gropes in the dark, only 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 said, "that
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 about, "whether 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 ministered, while I took yet
another turn, to a sort of agitation.  Our attitude was a responsibility.

But I had suggested something else to my friend, who 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 now, we 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 life, of an acclaimed
personal triumph in our superior sophisticated world."

Mrs. Munden had a glow of response for my sudden eloquence.  Oh it will
be beautiful!



CHAPTER V


Well, that's what, on the whole and in spite of everything, it really
was.  It has dropped into my memory a rich little gallery of pictures, a
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 introduced,
and catch the word when they have had their turn; hear it above all, the
great one--"Ah yes, the 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 silliness, but great also as to this
case of poor Mrs. Brash, I will say for it, the good nature.  Of course,
furthermore, it took in particular "our set," with its positive child-
terror of the _banal_, to be either so foolish or so wise; though indeed
I've never quite known where our set begins and ends, and 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 her, I quite took this as she
meant it; before we had gone very far our understanding, hers and mine,
was 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 Beldonald, and did much, for the time, I divined, toward 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 truth, which 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, naturally, from the
outside, and heaven forbid indeed that I should try too closely to,
reconstruct the possible strange intercourse of these good friends at
home.

My anecdote, however, would 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 old, our original
question, but 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 that, as
a climax, her life at last was the price.  But while she lived at
least--and it was with an intensity, for those wondrous weeks, of which
she had never dreamed--Lady Beldonald herself faced the music.  This is
what I mean by the possibilities, by the sharp actualities indeed, that
she accepted.  She took our friend out, she showed her at home, never
attempted to hide or to betray her, played her no trick whatever so long
as the ordeal lasted.  She drank deep, on her side too, of the cup--the
cup that for her own lips could only be bitterness.  There was, I think,
scarce 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 less, and in abundance,
confirmed by our observations.  The whole thing was to be the death of
one or the other of them, but 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
eyes, quite sublimely, "I've made out what you mean--she _is_ a picture."
The beauty of this moreover was that, as I'm persuaded, she 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 vision, this supreme stupidity in short, that
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 occasions, and in particular when she uttered the
words just quoted, this high serenity, as a sign of the relief of her
soreness, if not of the effort of her conscience, did something quite
visible to my eyes, and also quite unprecedented, for 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. Munden, who added that any cord pulled tight
enough would end at last by snapping.  At the snap, in any case, we
mightily jumped, for 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 been, for high
finish, the gem of our collection--we found what a blank it left on the
wall.  Lady Beldonald might fill up the blank, but we couldn't.  That she
did soon fill it up--and, heaven help us, _how_ was put before me after
an interval of no great length, but during which I hadn't seen her.  I
dined on the Christmas of last year at Mrs. Munden's, and Nina, with 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 successor,
was at the other side of the room, and 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 time, to say?  Oh first and foremost assuredly
that it was immensely droll, for this time at least there was no mistake.
The lady I looked upon, and as to whom my friend, again quite at sea,
appealed to me for a formula, was as little a Holbein, or a specimen of
any other school, as she was, like Lady Beldonald herself, a Titian.  The
formula was easy to give, for the amusement was that her prettiness--yes,
literally, prodigiously, her prettiness--was distinct.  Lady Beldonald
had been magnificent--had been almost intelligent.  Miss What's-her-name
continues pretty, continues even young, and doesn't matter a straw!  She
matters so ideally little that Lady Beldonald is practically safer, I
judge, than she has ever been.  There hasn't been a symptom of chatter
about this person, and 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 extent, that is, of 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 resisted, on her
return to her original conditions, less than a year; the taste of the
tree, as 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 performed, Mrs. Munden and I, a 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 Holbeins, and what had
occurred was that the poor old picture, banished from its museum and
refreshed by the rise of no new movement to hang it, was capable of the
miracle of a silent revolution; of itself turning, in its dire dishonour,
its face to the wall.  So it stood, without the intervention of the ghost
of a critic, till they happened to pull it round again and find it mere
dead paint.  Well, it had had, if that's anything, its season of fame,
its name on a thousand tongues and printed in capitals in the catalogue.
We hadn't been at fault.  I haven't, all the same, the least note of
her--not a scratch.  And I did her so in intention!  Mrs. Munden
continues to remind me, however, that this is not the sort of rendering
with which, on the other side, after all, Lady 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 it, she shall!





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