The Beldonald Holbein by Henry James


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Page 1

"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."

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 23rd Aug 2019, 16:26