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.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38