The Beldonald Holbein, by Henry James

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.

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