The Real Thing
by Henry James
When the porter's wife, who used to answer the house-bell, announced "A gentleman and a lady, sir" I had, as I often had in those days--the wish being father to the thought--an immediate vision of sitters. Sitters my visitors in this case proved to be; but not in the sense I should have preferred. There was nothing at first however to indicate that they mightn't have come for a portrait. The gentleman, a man of fifty, very high and very straight, with a moustache slightly grizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted, both of which I noted professionally--I don't mean as a barber or yet as a tailor--would have struck me as a celebrity if celebrities often were striking. It was a truth of which I had for some time been conscious that a figure with a good deal of frontage was, as one might say, almost never a public institution. A glance at the lady helped to remind me of this paradoxical law: she also looked too distinguished to be a "personality." Moreover one would scarcely come across two variations together.
Neither of the pair immediately spoke--they only prolonged the preliminary gaze suggesting that each wished to give the other a chance. They were visibly shy; they stood there letting me take them in--which, as I afterwards perceived, was the most practical thing they could have done. In this way their embarrassment served their cause. I had seen people painfully reluctant to mention that they desired anything so gross as to be represented on canvas; but the scruples of my new friends appeared almost insurmountable. yet the gentlemen might have said "I should like a portrait of my wife," and the lady might have said "I should like a portrait of my husband." Perhaps they weren't husband and wife--this naturally would make the matter more delicate. Perhaps they wished to be done together--in which case they ought to have brought a third person to break the news.
"We come from Mr. Rivet," the lady finally said with a dim smile that had the effect of a moist sponge passed over a "sunk" piece of painting, as well as of a vague allusion to vanished beauty. She was a stall and straight, in her degree, as her companion, and with ten years less to carry. She looked as sad as a woman could look whose face was not charged with expression; that is her tinted oval mask showed waste as an exposed surface shows friction. The hand of time had played over her freely, but to an effect of elimination. She was slim and stiff, and so well-dressed, in dark blue cloth, with lappets and pockets and buttons, that it was clear she employed the same tailor as her husband. The couple had an indefinable air of prosperous thrift--they evidently got a good deal of luxury for their money. If I was to be one of their luxuries it would behove me to consider my terms.
"Ah Claude Rivet recommended me?" I echoes; and I added that it was very kind of him, though I could reflect that, as he only painted landscape, this wasn't a sacrifice.
The lady looked very hard at the gentleman, and the gentleman looked round the room. Then staring at the floor a moment and stroking his moustache, he rested his pleasant eyes on me with the remark: "He said you were the right one."
"I try to be, when people want to sit."
"Yet, we should like to," said the lady anxiously.
"Do you mean together?"
My visitors exchanged a glance. "If you could do anything with me I suppose it would be double," the gentleman stammered.
"Oh yet, there's naturally a higher charge for two figures than for one."
"We should like to make it pay," the husband confessed.
"that's very good of you," I returned, appreciating so unwonted a sympathy--for I supposed he meant pay the artist.
A sense of strangeness seemed to draw on the lady.
"We mean for the illustrations--Mr. Rivet said you might put one in."
"Put in--an illustration? I was equally confused.
"Sketch her off, you know," said the gentleman, colouring.
It was only then that I understood the service Claude Rivet had rendered me; he had told them how I worked in black-and-white, for magazines, for storybooks, for sketches of contemporary life, and consequently had copious employment for models. These things were true, but it was not less true--I may confess it now; whether because the aspiration was to lead to everything or to nothing I leave the reader to guess--that I couldn't get the honours, to say nothing of the emoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head. My "illustrations" were my pot-boilers; I looked to a different branch of art--far and away the most interesting it had always seemed to me--to perpetuate my fame. There was no shame in looking to it also to make my fortune; but that fortune was by so much further from being made from the moment my visitors wished to be "done" for nothing. I was disappointed; for in the pictorial sense I had immediately seen them. I had seized their type-I had already settled what I would do with it. Something that wouldn't absolutely have pleased them, I afterwards reflected.
"Ah you're--you're--a--?" I began as soon as I had mastered my surprise. I couldn't bring out the dingy word "models": it seemed so little to fit the case.
"We haven't had much practice," said the lady.
"We've got to do something, and we're thought that an artist in your line might perhaps make something of us," her husband threw off. He further mentioned that they didn't know many artists and that they had gone first, on the off-chance--he painted views of course, but sometimes put in figures; perhaps I remembered--to Mr. Rivet, whom they had met a few years before at a place in Norfolk where he was sketching.
"We used to sketch a little ourselves," the lady hinted.
"It's very awkward, but we absolutely must do something," her husband went on.
"Of course we're not so very young," she admitted with a wan smile.
With the remark that I might as well know something more about them the husband had handed me a card extracted from a neat new pocket-book--their appurtenances were all of the freshest--and inscribed with the words "Major Monarch." Impressive as these word were they didn't carry my knowledge much further; but my visitor presently added: "I've left the army and we've had the misfortune to lose our money. In fact our means are dreadfully small."
"It's awfully trying--a regular strain," said Mrs. Monarch.
They evidently wished to be discreet--to take care not to swagger because they were gentlefolk. I felt them willing to recognise this a something of a drawback, at the same time that I guessed at an underlying sense--they consolation in adversity--that they had their points. They certainly had; but these advantages struck me as preponderantly social; such for instance as would help to make a drawing-room look well. However, a drawing-room was always, or ought to be, a picture.
In consequence of his wife's allusion to their age Major Monarch observed: "Naturally it's more for the figure that we thought of going in. We can still hold ourselves up." On the instant I saw that the figure was indeed their strong point. His "naturally" didn't sound vain, but it lighted up the question. "She has the best one," he continued, nodding at his wife with a pleasant after-dinner absence of circumlocution. I could only reply, as if we were in fact sitting over our wine, that this didn't prevent his own from being very good; which led him in turn to make answer: "We thought that if you ever have to do people like us we might be something like it. She particularly--for a lady in a book, you know."
I was so amused by them that, to get more of it, I did my best to take their point of view; and though it was an embarrassment to find myself appraising physically, as if they were animals on hire or useful blacks, a pair whom I should have expected to meet only in one of the relations in which criticism is tacit, I looked at Mrs. Monarch judicially enough to be able to exclaim after a moment with conviction: "Oh yes, a lady in a book!" She was singularly like a bad illustration.
"We'll stand up, if you like," said the Major; and he raised himself before me with a really grand air.
I could take his measure at a glance--he was six feet two, and a perfect gentleman. I would have paid any club in process of formation and in want of a stamp to engage him at a salary to stand in the principal window. What struck me at once was that in coming to me they had rather missed their vocation; they could surely have been turned to better account for advertising purposes. I couldn't of course see the thing in detail, but I could see them make somebody's fortune--I don't mean their own. There was something in them for a waistcoat-maker, an hotel-keeper or a soap-vendor. I could imagine "We always use it" pinned on their bosoms with the greatest effect; I had a vision of the brilliancy with which they would launch a table d'hote.
Mrs. Monarch sat still, not from pride but from shyness, and presently her husband said to her; "Get up, my dear, and show how smart you are." She obeyed, but she had no need to get up to show it. She walked to the end of the studio and then came back blushing, her fluttered eyes on the partner of her appeal. I was reminded of an incident I had accidentally had a glimpse of in Paris--being with a friend there, a dramatist about to produce a play, when an actress came to him to ask to be entrusted with a part. She went through her paces before him, walked up and down as Mrs. Monarch was doing. Mrs. Monarch did it quite as well, but I abstained from applauding. It was very odd to see such people apply for such poor pay. She looked as if she had ten thousand a year. Her husband had used the word that described her: she was in the London current jargon essentially and typically "smart." Her figure was, in the same order of ideas, conspicuously and irreproachably "good." For a woman of her age her waist was surprisingly small; her elbow moreover had the orthodox crook. She held her head at the conventional angle, but why did she come to me? She ought to have tried on jackets at a big shop. I feared my visitors were not only destitute but "artistic"--which would be a great complication. When she sat down again I thanked her, observing that what a draughtsman most valued in his model was the faculty of keeping quiet.
"Oh she can keep quiet," said Major Monarch. Then he added jocosely: "I've always kept her quiet."
"I'm not a nasty fidget, am I?" It was going to wring tears from me, I felt, the way she hid her head, ostrich-like, in the other broad bosom.
The owner of this expanse addressed his answer to me. "Perhaps it isn't out of place to mention--because we ought to be quite business-like, oughtn't we?--that when I married her she was known as the Beautiful Statue."
"Oh dear!" said Mrs. Monarch ruefully.
"Of course I should want a certain amount of expression," I rejoined.
"Of course!"--and I had never heard such unanimity.
"And then I suppose you know that you'll get awfully tired."
"Oh we never get tired!" they eagerly cried.
"Have you had any kind of practice?"
They hesitated--they looked at each other. "We've been photographed--immensely," said Mrs. Monarch.
"She means the fellows have asked us themselves," added the Major.
"I see--because you're so good-looking."
"I don't know what they thought, but they were always after us."
"We always got our photographs for nothing," smiled Mrs. Monarch.
"We might have brought some, my dear," her husband remarked.
"I'm not sure we have any left. We've given quantities away," she explained to me.
"With our autographs and that sort of thing," said the Major.
"Are they to be got in the shops?" I enquired as a harmless pleasantry.
"Oh yes, her--they used to be."
"Not now," said Mrs. Monarch with her eyes on the floor.