The Beldonald Holbein, by Henry James

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