The Beldonald Holbein, by Henry James

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.

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