The Real Thing
by Henry James
I could fancy the "sort of thing" they put on the presentation copies of their photographs, and I was sure they wrote a beautiful hand. It was odd how quickly I was sure of everything that concerned them. If they were now so poor as to have to earn shillings and pence they could never have had much of a margin. Their good looks had been their capital, and they had good-humouredly made the most of the career that this resource marked out for them. It was in their faces, the blankness, the deep intellectual repose of the twenty years of country-house visiting that had given them pleasant intonations. I could see the sunny drawing-rooms, sprinkled with periodicals she didn't read, in which Mrs. Monarch had continuously sat; I could see the wet shrubberies in which she had walked, equipped to admiration for either exercise. I could see the rich covers the Major had helped to shoot and the wonderful garments in which, late at night, he repaired to the smoking-room to talk about them. I could imagine their leggings and waterproofs, their knowing tweeds and rugs, their rolls of sticks and cases of tackle and neat umbrellas; and I could evoke the exact appearance of their servants and the compact variety of their luggage on the platforms of country stations.
They gave small tips, but they were liked; they didn't do anything themselves, but they were welcome. They looked so well everywhere; they gratified the general relish for stature, complexion and "form." They knew it without fatuity or vulgarity, and they respected themselves in consequence. they weren't superficial; they were thorough and kept themselves up--it had been their line. People with such a taste for activity had to have some line. I could feel how even in a dull house they could have been counted on for the joy of life. At present something had happened--it didn't matter what, their little income had grown less, it had grown least--and they had to do something for pocket-money. Their friends could like them, I made out, without liking to support them. There was something about them that represented credit--their clothes, their manners, their type; but if credit is a large empty pocket in which an occasional chink reverberates, the chink at least must be audible. What they wanted of me was to help to make it so. Fortunately they had no children--I soon divined that. They would also perhaps wish our relations to be kept secret: this was why it was "for the figure"--the reproduction of the face would betray them.
I liked them--I felt, quite as their friends must have done--they were so simple; and I had no objection to them if they would suit. But somehow with all their perfections I didn't easily believe in them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur. Combined with this was another perversity--an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I liked things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question. There were other considerations, the first of which was that I already had two or three recruits in use, notably a young person with big feet, in alpaca, from Kilburn, who for a couple of years had come to me regularly for my illustrations and with whom I was still--perhaps ignobly--satisfied. I frankly explained to my visitors how the case stood, but they had taken more precautions than I supposed. They had reasoned out their opportunity, for Claude Rivet had told them of the projected edition de luxe of one of the writers of our day--the rarest of the novelists--who, long neglected by the multitudinous vulgar and dearly prized by the attentive (need I mention Philip Vincent?) had had the happy fortune of seeing, late in life, the dawn and then the full light of a higher criticism; an estimate in which on the part of the public there was something really of expiation. The edition preparing, planned by a publisher of taste, was practically an act of high reparation; the wood-cuts with which it was to be enriched were the homage of English art to one of the most independent representatives of English letters. Major and Mrs. Monarch confessed to me they had hoped I might be able to work them into my branch of the enterprise. They knew I was to do the first of the books, "Rutland Ramsay," but I had to make clear to them that my participation in the rest of the affair--this first book was to be a test--must depend on the satisfaction I should give. If this should be limited my employers would drop me with scarce common forms. It was therefore a crisis for me, and naturally I was making special preparations, looking about for new people, should they be necessary, and securing the best types. I admitted however that I should like to settle down to two or three good models who would do for everything.
"Should we have often to--a--put on special clothes?" Mrs. Monarch timidly demanded.
"Dear yes--that's half the business."
"And should we be expected to supply our own costumes?"
"Oh no; I've got a lot of things. A painter's models put on--or put off--anything he likes."
"And you mean--a--the same?"
Mrs. Monarch looked at her husband again.
"Oh she was just wondering," he explained, "if the costumes are in general use." I had to confess that they were, and I mentioned further that some of them--I had a lot of genuine greasy last-century things--had served their time, a hundred years ago, on living world-stained men and women; on figures not perhaps so far removed, in that vanished world, from their type, the Monarchs', quoi! of a breeched and bewigged age. "We'll put on anything that fits," said the Major.
"Oh I arrange that--they fit in the pictures."
"I'm afraid I should do better for the modern books. I'd come as you like," said Mrs. Monarch.
"She has got a lot of clothes at home: they might do for contemporary life," her husband continued.
"Oh I can fancy scenes in which you'd be quite natural." And indeed I could see the slipshod rearrangements of stale properties--the stories I tried to produce pictures for without the exasperation of reading them--whose sandy tracts the good lady might help to people. But I had to return to the fact that for this sort of work--the daily mechanical grind--I was already equipped: the people I was working with were fully adequate.
"We only thought we might be more like some characters," said Mrs. Monarch mildly, getting up.
Her husband also rose; he stood looking at me with a dim wistfulness that was touching in so fine a man. "Wouldn't it be rather a pull sometimes to have--a--to have--?" He hung fire; he wanted me to help him by phrasing what he meant. But I couldn't--I didn't know. So he brought it out awkwardly: "The real thing: a gentleman, you know, or a lady." I was quite ready to give a general assent--I admitted that there was a great deal in that. This encouraged Major Monarch to say, following up his appeal with an unacted gulp: "It's awfully hard--we've tried everything." The gulp was communicative; it proved too much for his wife. Before I knew it Mrs. Monarch had dropped again upon a divan and burst into tears. Her husband sat down beside her, holding one of her hands; whereupon she quickly dried her eyes with the other, while I felt embarrassed as she looked up at me. "There isn't a confounded job I haven't applied for--waited for--prayed for. You can fancy we'd be pretty bad first. Secretaryships and that sort of thing? You might as well ask for a peerage. I'd be anything--I'm strong; a messenger or a coalheaver. I'd put on a gold-laced cap and open carriage-doors in front of the haberdasher's; I'd hang about a station to carry portmanteaux; I'd be a postman. But they won't look at you; there are thousands as good as yourself already on the ground. Gentlemen, poor beggars, who've drunk their wine, who've kept their hunters!"
I was as reassuring as I knew how to be, and my visitors were presently on their feet again while, for the experiment, we agreed on an hour. We were discussing it when the door opened and Miss Churm came in with a wet umbrella. Miss Churm had to take the omnibus to Maida Vale and then walk half a mile. She looked a trifle blowsy and slightly splashed. I scarcely ever saw her come in without thinking afresh how odd it was that, being so little in herself, she should yet be so much in others. She was a meagre little Miss Churm, but was such an ample heroine of romance. she was only a freckled cockney, but she could represent everything, from a fine lady to a shepherdess; she had the faculty as she might have had a fine voice or long hair. She couldn't spell and she loved beer, but she had two or three "points," and practice, and a knack, and mother-wit, and a whimsical sensibility, and a love of the theatre, and seven sisters, and not an ounce of respect, especially for the h. The first thing my visitors saw was that her umbrella was wet, and in their spotless perfection they visibly winced at it. The rain had come on since their arrival.
"I'm all in a soak; there was a mess of people in the 'bus. I wish you lived near a stytion," said Miss Churm. I requested her to get ready as quickly as possible, and she passed into the room in which she always changed her dress. But before going out she asked me what she was to get into this time.
"It's the Russian princess, don't you know?" I answered; "the one with the 'golden eyes,' in black velvet, for the long thing in the Cheapside."
"Golden eyes? I say!" cried Miss Churm, while my companions watched her with intensity as she withdrew. She always arranged herself, when she was late, before I could turn around; and I kept my visitors a little on purpose, so that they might get an idea, from seeing her, what would be expected of themselves. I mentioned that she was quite my notion of an excellent model--she was really very clever.
"Do you think she looks like a Russian princess?" Major Monarch asked with lurking alarm.
"When I make her, yes."
"Oh if you have to make her--!" he reasoned, no without point.
"That's the most you can ask. There are so many who are not makeable."
"Well now, here's a lady"--and with a persuasive smile he passed his arm into his wife's--"who's already made!"
"Oh I'm not a Russian princess," Mrs. Monarch protested a little coldly. I could see she had known some and didn't like them. There at once was a complication of a kind I never had to fear with Miss Churm.
This young lady came back in black velvet--the gown was rather rusty and very low on her lean shoulders--and with a Japanese fan in her red hands. I reminded her that in the scene I was doing she had to look over some one's head. "I forget whose it is; but it doesn't matter. Just look over a head."
"I'd rather look over a stove," said Miss Churm; and she took her station near the fire. She fell into position, settled herself into a tall attitude, gave a certain backward inclination to her head and a certain forward droop to her fan, and looked, at least to my prejudiced sense, distinguished and charming, foreign and dangerous. We left her looking so while I went downstairs with Major and Mrs. Monarch.
"I believe I could come about as near it as that," said Mrs. Monarch.
"Oh, you think she's shabby, but you must allow for the alchemy of art."
However, they went off with an evident increase of comfort founded on their demonstrable advantage in being the real thing. I could fancy them shuddering over Miss Churm. She was very droll about them when I went back, for I told her what they wanted.
"Well, if she can sit I'll tyke to bookkeeping," said my model.
"She's very ladylike," I replied as an innocent form of aggravation.
"So much the worse for you. That means she can't turn round."
"She'll do for the fashionable novels."
"Oh yes, she'll do for them!" my model humorously declared. "Ain't they bad enough without her?" I had often sociably denounced them to Miss Churm.