The Real Thing and Other Tales
Henry James
8:09 h Novels Lvl 8.07
When an aspiring painter needs inspiration for his next great work, he hires the Monarchs. The couple is the perfect image of aristocrats the artist is looking for, except they only take the job because they need money. The artist soon realizes they aren't what he needs for inspiration. The Real thing and Other Tales is a collection of short stories by Henry James published at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Real Thing and Other Tales

Henry James

The Real Thing


When the porter’s wife (sheused to answer the house-bell), announced “Agentleman — with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had inthose days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediatevision of sitters. Sitters my visitors in this case provedto be; but not in the sense I should have preferred. However, there was nothing at first to indicate that they mightnot have come for a portrait. The gentleman, a man offifty, very high and very straight, with a moustache slightlygrizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted, both ofwhich I noted professionally — I don’t mean as a barberor yet as a tailor — would have struck me as a celebrity ifcelebrities often were striking. It was a truth of which Ihad for some time been conscious that a figure with a good dealof frontage was, as one might say, almost never a publicinstitution. A glance at the lady helped to remind me ofthis paradoxical law: she also looked too distinguished to be a“personality.” Moreover one would scarcely comeacross two variations together.

Neither of the pair spoke immediately — they onlyprolonged the preliminary gaze which suggested that each wishedto give the other a chance. They were visibly shy; theystood there letting me take them in — which, as I afterwardsperceived, was the most practical thing they could havedone. In this way their embarrassment served theircause. I had seen people painfully reluctant to mentionthat they desired anything so gross as to be represented oncanvas; but the scruples of my new friends appeared almostinsurmountable. Yet the gentleman might have said “Ishould like a portrait of my wife,” and the lady might havesaid “I should like a portrait of my husband.” Perhaps they were not husband and wife — this naturally wouldmake the matter more delicate. Perhaps they wished to bedone together — in which case they ought to have brought athird person to break the news.

“We come from Mr. Rivet,” the lady said at last,with a dim smile which had the effect of a moist sponge passedover a “sunk” piece of painting, as well as of avague allusion to vanished beauty. She was as tall andstraight, in her degree, as her companion, and with ten yearsless to carry. She looked as sad as a woman could lookwhose face was not charged with expression; that is her tintedoval mask showed friction as an exposed surface shows it. The hand of time had played over her freely, but only tosimplify. She was slim and stiff, and so well-dressed, indark blue cloth, with lappets and pockets and buttons, that itwas clear she employed the same tailor as her husband. Thecouple had an indefinable air of prosperous thrift — theyevidently got a good deal of luxury for their money. If Iwas to be one of their luxuries it would behove me to consider myterms.

“Ah, Claude Rivet recommended me?” I inquired; andI added that it was very kind of him, though I could reflectthat, as he only painted landscape, this was not a sacrifice.

The lady looked very hard at the gentleman, and the gentlemanlooked round the room. Then staring at the floor a momentand stroking his moustache, he rested his pleasant eyes on mewith the remark:

“He said you were the right one.”

“I try to be, when people want to sit.”

“Yes, we should like to,” said the ladyanxiously.

“Do you mean together?”

My visitors exchanged a glance. “If you could doanything with me, I suppose it would be double,” thegentleman stammered.

“Oh yes, there’s naturally a higher charge for twofigures than for one.”

“We should like to make it pay,” the husbandconfessed.

“That’s very good of you,” I returned,appreciating so unwonted a sympathy — for I supposed he meantpay the artist.

A sense of strangeness seemed to dawn on the lady. “We mean for the illustrations — Mr. Rivet said youmight put one in.”

“Put one in — an illustration?” I was equallyconfused.

“Sketch her off, you know,” said the gentleman,colouring.

It was only then that I understood the service Claude Rivethad rendered me; he had told them that I worked in black andwhite, for magazines, for story-books, for sketches ofcontemporary life, and consequently had frequent employment formodels. These things were true, but it was not less true (Imay confess it now — whether because the aspiration was tolead to everything or to nothing I leave the reader to guess),that I couldn’t get the honours, to say nothing of theemoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head. My “illustrations” were my pot-boilers; I looked to adifferent branch of art (far and away the most interesting it hadalways seemed to me), to perpetuate my fame. There was noshame in looking to it also to make my fortune; but that fortunewas by so much further from being made from the moment myvisitors wished to be “done” for nothing. I wasdisappointed; for in the pictorial sense I had immediatelyseen them. I had seized their type — I hadalready settled what I would do with it. Something thatwouldn’t absolutely have pleased them, I afterwardsreflected.

“Ah,you’re — you’re — a — ?” I began,as soon as I had mastered my surprise. I couldn’tbring out the dingy word “models”; it seemed to fitthe case so little.

“We haven’t had much practice,” said thelady.

“We’ve got to do something, and we’vethought that an artist in your line might perhaps make somethingof us,” her husband threw off. He further mentionedthat they didn’t know many artists and that they had gonefirst, on the off-chance (he painted views of course, butsometimes put in figures — perhaps I remembered), to Mr.Rivet, whom they had met a few years before at a place in Norfolkwhere he was sketching.

“We used to sketch a little ourselves,” the ladyhinted.

“It’s very awkward, but we absolutely mustdo 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 aboutthem, the husband had handed me a card extracted from a neat newpocket-book (their appurtenances were all of the freshest) andinscribed with the words “Major Monarch.” Impressive as these words were they didn’t carry myknowledge much further; but my visitor presently added:“I’ve left the army, and we’ve had themisfortune to lose our money. In fact our means aredreadfully small.”

“It’s an awful bore,” said Mrs. Monarch.

They evidently wished to be discreet — to take care not toswagger because they were gentlefolks. I perceived theywould have been willing to recognise this as something of adrawback, at the same time that I guessed at an underlyingsense — their consolation in adversity — that theyhad their points. They certainly had; but theseadvantages struck me as preponderantly social; such for instanceas would help to make a drawing-room look well. However, adrawing-room was always, or ought to be, a picture.

In consequence of his wife’s allusion to their age MajorMonarch observed: “Naturally, it’s more for thefigure that we thought of going in. We can still holdourselves up.” On the instant I saw that the figurewas indeed their strong point. His “naturally”didn’t sound vain, but it lighted up the question. “She has got the best,” he continued, noddingat his wife, with a pleasant after-dinner absence ofcircumlocution. I could only reply, as if we were in factsitting over our wine, that this didn’t prevent his ownfrom being very good; which led him in turn to rejoin: “Wethought that if you ever have to do people like us, we might besomething like it. She, particularly — for alady in a book, you know.”

I was so amused by them that, to get more of it, I did my bestto take their point of view; and though it was an embarrassmentto find myself appraising physically, as if they were animals onhire or useful blacks, a pair whom I should have expected to meetonly in one of the relations in which criticism is tacit, Ilooked at Mrs. Monarch judicially enough to be able to exclaim,after a moment, with conviction: “Oh yes, a lady in abook!” She was singularly like a badillustration.

“We’ll stand up, if you like,” said theMajor; and he raised himself before me with a really grandair.

I could take his measure at a glance — he was six feet twoand a perfect gentleman. It would have paid any club inprocess of formation and in want of a stamp to engage him at asalary to stand in the principal window. What struck meimmediately was that in coming to me they had rather missed theirvocation; they could surely have been turned to better accountfor advertising purposes. I couldn’t of course seethe thing in detail, but I could see them make someone’sfortune — I don’t mean their own. There wassomething in them for a waistcoat-maker, an hotel-keeper or asoap-vendor. I could imagine “We always use it”pinned on their bosoms with the greatest effect; I had a visionof the promptitude with which they would launch a tabled’hôte.

Mrs. Monarch sat still, not from pride but from shyness, andpresently her husband said to her: “Get up my dear and showhow smart you are.” She obeyed, but she had no needto get up to show it. She walked to the end of the studio,and then she came back blushing, with her fluttered eyes on herhusband. I was reminded of an incident I had accidentallyhad a glimpse of in Paris — being with a friend there, adramatist about to produce a play — when an actress came tohim to ask to be intrusted with a part. She went throughher paces before him, walked up and down as Mrs. Monarch wasdoing. Mrs. Monarch did it quite as well, but I abstainedfrom applauding. It was very odd to see such people applyfor such poor pay. She looked as if she had ten thousand ayear. Her husband had used the word that described her: shewas, in the London current jargon, essentially and typically“smart.” Her figure was, in the same order ofideas, conspicuously and irreproachably “good.” For a woman of her age her waist was surprisingly small; herelbow moreover had the orthodox crook. She held her head atthe conventional angle; but why did she come to me? She ought to have tried on jackets at a big shop. I fearedmy visitors were not only destitute, but“artistic” — which would be a greatcomplication. When she sat down again I thanked her,observing that what a draughtsman most valued in his model wasthe faculty of keeping quiet.

“Oh, she can keep quiet,” said MajorMonarch. Then he added, jocosely: “I’ve alwayskept her quiet.”

“I’m not a nasty fidget, am I?” Mrs. Monarchappealed to her husband.

He addressed his answer to me. “Perhaps itisn’t out of place to mention — because we ought to bequite business-like, oughtn’t we? — that when I marriedher she was known as the Beautiful Statue.”

“Oh dear!” said Mrs. Monarch, ruefully.

“Of course I should want a certain amount ofexpression,” I rejoined.

“Of course!” they both exclaimed.

“And then I suppose you know that you’ll getawfully tired.”

“Oh, we never get tired!” they eagerlycried.

“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,” added theMajor.

“I see — because you’re sogood-looking.”

“I don’t know what they thought, but they werealways after us.”

“We always got our photographs for nothing,”smiled Mrs. Monarch.

“We might have brought some, my dear,” her husbandremarked.

“I’m not sure we have any left. We’vegiven quantities away,” she explained to me.

“With our autographs and that sort of thing,” saidthe Major.

“Are they to be got in the shops?” I inquired, asa harmless pleasantry.

“Oh, yes; hers — they used to be.”

“Not now,” said Mrs. Monarch, with her eyes on thefloor.


I could fancy the “sort ofthing” they put on the presentation-copies of theirphotographs, and I was sure they wrote a beautiful hand. Itwas odd how quickly I was sure of everything that concernedthem. If they were now so poor as to have to earn shillingsand pence, they never had had much of a margin. Their goodlooks had been their capital, and they had good-humouredly madethe most of the career that this resource marked out forthem. It was in their faces, the blankness, the deepintellectual repose of the twenty years of country-house visitingwhich had given them pleasant intonations. I could see thesunny drawing-rooms, sprinkled with periodicals she didn’tread, in which Mrs. Monarch had continuously sat; I could see thewet shrubberies in which she had walked, equipped to admirationfor either exercise. I could see the rich covers the Majorhad helped to shoot and the wonderful garments in which, late atnight, he repaired to the smoking-room to talk about them. I could imagine their leggings and waterproofs, their knowingtweeds and rugs, their rolls of sticks and cases of tackle andneat umbrellas; and I could evoke the exact appearance of theirservants and the compact variety of their luggage on theplatforms of country stations.

They gave small tips, but they were liked; they didn’tdo anything themselves, but they were welcome. They lookedso well everywhere; they gratified the general relish forstature, complexion and “form.” They knew itwithout fatuity or vulgarity, and they respected themselves inconsequence. They were not superficial; they were thoroughand kept themselves up — it had been their line. Peoplewith such a taste for activity had to have some line. Icould feel how, even in a dull house, they could have beencounted upon for cheerfulness. At present something hadhappened — it didn’t matter what, their little incomehad grown less, it had grown least — and they had to dosomething for pocket-money. Their friends liked them, butdidn’t like to support them. There was somethingabout them that represented credit — their clothes, theirmanners, their type; but if credit is a large empty pocket inwhich an occasional chink reverberates, the chink at least mustbe audible. What they wanted of me was to help to make itso. Fortunately they had no children — I soon divinedthat. They would also perhaps wish our relations to be keptsecret: this was why it was “for thefigure” — the reproduction of the face would betraythem.

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