The Beldonald Holbein, by Henry James

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!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56