The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James

XIV

When Owen and Fleda were in her father’s little place and, among the brandy-flasks and pen-wipers, still more disconcerted and divided, the girl — to do something, though it would make him stay — had ordered tea, he put the letter before her quite as if he had guessed her thought. “She’s still a bit nasty — fancy!” He handed her the scrap of a note which he had pulled out of his pocket and from its envelope. “Fleda Vetch,” it ran, “is at 10 Raphael Road, West Kensington. Go to see her, and try, for God’s sake, to cultivate a glimmer of intelligence.” When in handing it back to him she took in his face she saw that its heightened color was the effect of his watching her read such an allusion to his want of wit. Fleda knew what it was an allusion to, and his pathetic air of having received this buffet, tall and fine and kind as he stood there, made her conscious of not quite concealing her knowledge. For a minute she was kept silent by an angered sense of the trick that had been played her. It was a trick because Fleda considered there had been a covenant; and the trick consisted of Mrs. Gereth’s having broken the spirit of their agreement while conforming in a fashion to the letter. Under the girl’s menace of a complete rupture she had been afraid to make of her secret the use she itched to make; but in the course of these days of separation she had gathered pluck to hazard an indirect betrayal. Fleda measured her hesitations and the impulse which she had finally obeyed and which the continued procrastination of Waterbath had encouraged, had at last made irresistible. If in her high-handed manner of playing their game she had not named the thing hidden, she had named the hiding-place. It was over the sense of this wrong that Fleda’s lips closed tight: she was afraid of aggravating her case by some ejaculation that would make Owen prick up his ears. A great, quick effort, however, helped her to avoid the danger; with her constant idea of keeping cool and repressing a visible flutter, she found herself able to choose her words. Meanwhile he had exclaimed with his uncomfortable laugh: “That’s a good one for me, Miss Vetch, isn’t it?”

“Of course you know by this time that your mother’s very sharp,” said Fleda.

“I think I can understand well enough when I know what’s to be understood,” the young man asserted. “But I hope you won’t mind my saying that you’ve kept me pretty well in the dark about that. I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting; so much has depended on your news. If you’ve been working for me I’m afraid it has been a thankless job. Can’t she say what she’ll do, one way or the other? I can’t tell in the least where I am, you know. I haven’t really learnt from you, since I saw you there, where she is. You wrote me to be patient, and upon my soul I have been. But I’m afraid you don’t quite realize what I’m to be patient with. At Waterbath, don’t you know? I’ve simply to account and answer for the damned things. Mona looks at me and waits, and I, hang it, I look at you and do the same.” Fleda had gathered fuller confidence as he continued; so plain was it that she had succeeded in not dropping into his mind the spark that might produce the glimmer invoked by his mother. But even this fine assurance gave a start when, after an appealing pause, he went on: “I hope, you know, that after all you’re not keeping anything back from me.”

In the full face of what she was keeping back such a hope could only make her wince; but she was prompt with her explanations in proportion as she felt they failed to meet him. The smutty maid came in with tea-things, and Fleda, moving several objects, eagerly accepted the diversion of arranging a place for them on one of the tables. “I’ve been trying to break your mother down because it has seemed there may be some chance of it. That’s why I’ve let you go on expecting it. She’s too proud to veer round all at once, but I think I speak correctly in saying that I’ve made an impression.”

In spite of ordering tea she had not invited him to sit down; she herself made a point of standing. He hovered by the window that looked into Raphael Road; she kept at the other side of the room; the stunted slavey, gazing wide-eyed at the beautiful gentleman and either stupidly or cunningly bringing but one thing at a time, came and went between the tea-tray and the open door.

“You pegged at her so hard?” Owen asked.

“I explained to her fully your position and put before her much more strongly than she liked what seemed to me her absolute duty.”

Owen waited a little. “And having done that, you departed?”

Fleda felt the full need of giving a reason for her departure; but at first she only said with cheerful frankness: “I departed.”

Her companion again looked at her in silence. “I thought you had gone to her for several months.”

“Well,” Fleda replied, “I couldn’t stay. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all — I couldn’t bear it,” she went on. “In the midst of those trophies of Poynton, living with them, touching them, using them, I felt as if I were backing her up. As I was not a bit of an accomplice, as I hate what she has done, I didn’t want to be, even to the extent of the mere look of it — what is it you call such people? — an accessory after the fact.” There was something she kept back so rigidly that the joy of uttering the rest was double. She felt the sharpest need of giving him all the other truth. There was a matter as to which she had deceived him, and there was a matter as to which she had deceived Mrs. Gereth, but her lack of pleasure in deception as such came home to her now. She busied herself with the tea and, to extend the occupation, cleared the table still more, spreading out the coarse cups and saucers and the vulgar little plates. She was aware that she produced more confusion than symmetry, but she was also aware that she was violently nervous. Owen tried to help her with something: this made rather for disorder. “My reason for not writing to you,” she pursued, “was simply that I was hoping to hear more from Ricks. I’ve waited from day to day for that.”

“But you’ve heard nothing?”

“Not a word.”

“Then what I understand,” said Owen, “is that, practically, you and Mummy have quarreled. And you’ve done it — I mean you personally — for me.”

“Oh no, we haven’t quarreled a bit!” Then with a smile: “We’ve only diverged.”

“You’ve diverged uncommonly far!” — Owen laughed back. Fleda, with her hideous crockery and her father’s collections, could conceive that these objects, to her visitor’s perception even more strongly than to her own, measured the length of the swing from Poynton and Ricks; she was aware too that her high standards figured vividly enough even to Owen’s simplicity to make him reflect that West Kensington was a tremendous fall. If she had fallen it was because she had acted for him. She was all the more content he should thus see she had acted, as the cost of it, in his eyes, was none of her own showing. “What seems to have happened,” he exclaimed, “is that you’ve had a row with her and yet not moved her!”

Fleda considered a moment; she was full of the impression that, notwithstanding her scant help, he saw his way clearer than he had seen it at Ricks. He might mean many things; and what if the many should mean in their turn only one? “The difficulty is, you understand, that she doesn’t really see into your situation.” She hesitated. “She doesn’t comprehend why your marriage hasn’t yet taken place.”

Owen stared. “Why, for the reason I told you: that Mona won’t take another step till mother has given full satisfaction. Everything must be there. You see, everything was there the day of that fatal visit.”

“Yes, that’s what I understood from you at Ricks,” said Fleda; “but I haven’t repeated it to your mother.” She had hated, at Ricks, to talk with him about Mona, but now that scruple was swept away. If he could speak of Mona’s visit as fatal, she need at least not pretend not to notice it. It made all the difference that she had tried to assist him and had failed: to give him any faith in her service she must give him all her reasons but one. She must give him, in other words, with a corresponding omission, all Mrs. Gereth’s. “You can easily see that, as she dislikes your marriage, anything that may seem to make it less certain works in her favor. Without my telling her, she has suspicions and views that are simply suggested by your delay. Therefore it didn’t seem to me right to make them worse. By holding off long enough, she thinks she may put an end to your engagement. If Mona’s waiting, she believes she may at last tire Mona out.” That, in all conscience, Fleda felt was lucid enough.

So the young man, following her attentively, appeared equally to feel. “So far as that goes,” he promptly declared, “she has at last tired Mona out.” He uttered the words with a strange approach to hilarity.

Fleda’s surprise at this aberration left her a moment looking at him. “Do you mean your marriage is off?”

Owen answered with a kind of gay despair. “God knows, Miss Vetch, where or when or what my marriage is! If it isn’t ‘off,’ it certainly, at the point things have reached, isn’t on. I haven’t seen Mona for ten days, and for a week I haven’t heard from her. She used to write me every week, don’t you know? She won’t budge from Waterbath, and I haven’t budged from town.” Then he suddenly broke out: “If she does chuck me, will mother come round?”

Fleda, at this, felt that her heroism had come to its real test — felt that in telling him the truth she should effectively raise a hand to push his impediment out of the way. Was the knowledge that such a motion would probably dispose forever of Mona capable of yielding to the conception of still giving her every chance she was entitled to? That conception was heroic, but at the same moment it reminded Fleda of the place it had held in her plan, she was also reminded of the not less urgent claim of the truth. Ah, the truth — there was a limit to the impunity with which one could juggle with it! Wasn’t what she had most to remember the fact that Owen had a right to his property and that he had also her vow to stand by him in the effort to recover it? How did she stand by him if she hid from him the single way to recover it of which she was quite sure? For an instant that seemed to her the fullest of her life she debated. “Yes,” she said at last, “if your marriage is really abandoned, she will give up everything she has taken.”

“That’s just what makes Mona hesitate!” Owen honestly exclaimed. “I mean the idea that I shall get back the things only if she gives me up.”

Fleda thought an instant. “You mean makes her hesitate to keep you — not hesitate to renounce you?”

Owen looked a trifle bewildered. “She doesn’t see the use of hanging on, as I haven’t even yet put the matter into legal hands. She’s awfully keen about that, and awfully disgusted that I don’t. She says it’s the only real way, and she thinks I’m afraid to take it. She has given me time and then has given me again more. She says I give Mummy too much. She says I’m a muff to go pottering on. That’s why she’s drawing off so hard, don’t you see?”

“I don’t see very clearly. Of course you must give her what you offered her; of course you must keep your word. There must be no mistake about that!” the girl declared.

Owen’s bewilderment visibly increased. “You think, then, as she does, that I must send down the police?”

The mixture of reluctance and dependence in this made her feel how much she was failing him. She had the sense of “chucking” him too. “No, no, not yet!” she said, though she had really no other and no better course to prescribe. “Doesn’t it occur to you,” she asked in a moment, “that if Mona is, as you say, drawing away, she may have, in doing so, a very high motive? She knows the immense value of all the objects detained by your mother, and to restore the spoils of Poynton she is ready — is that it! — to make a sacrifice. The sacrifice is that of an engagement she had entered upon with joy.”

Owen had been blank a moment before, but he followed this argument with success — a success so immediate that it enabled him to produce with decision: “Ah, she’s not that sort! She wants them herself,” he added; “she wants to feel they’re hers; she doesn’t care whether I have them or not! And if she can’t get them she doesn’t want me. If she can’t get them she doesn’t want anything at all.”

This was categoric; Fleda drank it in. “She takes such an interest in them?”

“So it appears.”

“So much that they’re all, and that she can let everything else absolutely depend upon them?”

Owen weighed her question as if he felt the responsibility of his answer. But that answer came in a moment, and, as Fleda could see, out of a wealth of memory. “She never wanted them particularly till they seemed to be in danger. Now she has an idea about them; and when she gets hold of an idea — Oh dear me!” He broke off, pausing and looking away as with a sense of the futility of expression: it was the first time Fleda had ever heard him explain a matter so pointedly or embark at all on a generalization. It was striking, it was touching to her, as he faltered, that he appeared but half capable of floating his generalization to the end. The girl, however, was so far competent to fill up his blank as that she had divined, on the occasion of Mona’s visit to Poynton, what would happen in the event of the accident at which he glanced. She had there with her own eyes seen Owen’s betrothed get hold of an idea. “I say, you know, do give me some tea!” he went on irrelevantly and familiarly.

Her profuse preparations had all this time had no sequel, and, with a laugh that she felt to be awkward, she hastily complied with his request. “It’s sure to be horrid,” she said; “we don’t have at all good things.” She offered him also bread and butter, of which he partook, holding his cup and saucer in his other hand and moving slowly about the room. She poured herself a cup, but not to take it; after which, without wanting it, she began to eat a small stale biscuit. She was struck with the extinction of the unwillingness she had felt at Ricks to contribute to the bandying between them of poor Mona’s name; and under this influence she presently resumed: “Am I to understand that she engaged herself to marry you without caring for you?”

Owen looked out into Raphael Road. “She did care for me awfully. But she can’t stand the strain.”

“The strain of what?”

“Why, of the whole wretched thing.”

“The whole thing has indeed been wretched, and I can easily conceive its effect upon her,” Fleda said.

Her visitor turned sharp round. “You can?” There was a light in his strong stare. “You can understand it’s spoiling her temper and making her come down on me? She behaves as if I were of no use to her at all!”

Fleda hesitated. “She’s rankling under the sense of her wrong.”

“Well, was it I, pray, who perpetrated the wrong? Ain’t I doing what I can to get the thing arranged?”

The ring of his question made his anger at Mona almost resemble for a minute an anger at Fleda; and this resemblance in turn caused our young lady to observe how handsome he looked when he spoke, for the first time in her hearing, with that degree of heat, and used, also for the first time, such a term as “perpetrated.” In addition, his challenge rendered still more vivid to her the mere flimsiness of her own aid. “Yes, you’ve been perfect,” she said. “You’ve had a most difficult part. You’ve had to show tact and patience, as well as firmness, with your mother, and you’ve strikingly shown them. It’s I who, quite unintentionally, have deceived you. I haven’t helped you at all to your remedy.”

“Well, you wouldn’t at all events have ceased to like me, would you?” Owen demanded. It evidently mattered to him to know if she really justified Mona. “I mean of course if you had liked me — liked me as she liked me,” he explained.

Fleda looked this inquiry in the face only long enough to recognize that, in her embarrassment, she must take instant refuge in a superior one. “I can answer that better if I know how kind to her you’ve been. Have you been kind to her?” she asked as simply as she could.

“Why, rather, Miss Vetch!” Owen declared. “I’ve done every blessed thing she wished. I rushed down to Ricks, as you saw, with fire and sword, and the day after that I went to see her at Waterbath.” At this point he checked himself, though it was just the point at which her interest deepened. A different look had come into his face as he put down his empty teacup. “But why should I tell you such things, for any good it does me? I gather that you’ve no suggestion to make me now except that I shall request my solicitor to act. Shall I request him to act?”

Fleda scarcely heard his words; something new had suddenly come into her mind. “When you went to Waterbath after seeing me,” she asked, “did you tell her all about that?”

Owen looked conscious. “All about it?”

“That you had had a long talk with me, without seeing your mother at all?”

“Oh yes, I told her exactly, and that you had been most awfully kind, and that I had placed the whole thing in your hands.”

Fleda was silent a moment. “Perhaps that displeased her,” she at last suggested.

“It displeased her fearfully,” said Owen, looking very queer.

“Fearfully?” broke from the girl. Somehow, at the word, she was startled.

“She wanted to know what right you had to meddle. She said you were not honest.”

“Oh!” Fleda cried, with a long wail. Then she controlled herself. “I see.”

“She abused you, and I defended you. She denounced you — ”

She checked him with a gesture. “Don’t tell me what she did!” She had colored up to her eyes, where, as with the effect of a blow in the face, she quickly felt the tears gathering. It was a sudden drop in her great flight, a shock to her attempt to watch over what Mona was entitled to. While she had been straining her very soul in this attempt, the object of her magnanimity had been pronouncing her “not honest.” She took it all in, however, and after an instant was able to speak with a smile. She would not have been surprised to learn, indeed, that her smile was strange. “You had said a while ago that your mother and I quarreled about you. It’s much more true that you and Mona have quarreled about me.”

Owen hesitated, but at last he brought it out. “What I mean to say is, don’t you know, that Mona, if you don’t mind my saying so, has taken it into her head to be jealous.”

“I see,” said Fleda. “Well, I dare say our conferences have looked very odd.”

“They’ve looked very beautiful, and they’ve been very beautiful. Oh, I’ve told her the sort you are!” the young man pursued.

“That of course hasn’t made her love me better.”

“No, nor love me,” said Owen. “Of course, you know, she says she loves me.”

“And do you say you love her?”

“I say nothing else — I say it all the while. I said it the other day a dozen times.” Fleda made no immediate rejoinder to this, and before she could choose one he repeated his question of a moment before. “Am I to tell my solicitor to act?”

She had at that moment turned away from this solution, precisely because she saw in it the great chance of her secret. If she should determine him to adopt it she might put out her hand and take him. It would shut in Mrs. Gereth’s face the open door of surrender: she would flare up and fight, flying the flag of a passionate, an heroic defense. The case would obviously go against her, but the proceedings would last longer than Mona’s patience or Owen’s propriety. With a formal rupture he would be at large; and she had only to tighten her fingers round the string that would raise the curtain on that scene. “You tell me you ‘say’ you love her, but is there nothing more in it than your saying so? You wouldn’t say so, would you, if it’s not true? What in the world has become, in so short a time, of the affection that led to your engagement?”

“The deuce knows what has become of it, Miss Vetch!” Owen cried. “It seemed all to go to pot as this horrid struggle came on.” He was close to her now, and, with his face lighted again by the relief of it, he looked all his helpless history into her eyes. “As I saw you and noticed you more, as I knew you better and better, I felt less and less — I couldn’t help it — about anything or any one else. I wished I had known you sooner — I knew I should have liked you better than any one in the world. But it wasn’t you who made the difference,” he eagerly continued, “and I was awfully determined to stick to Mona to the death. It was she herself who made it, upon my soul, by the state she got into, the way she sulked, the way she took things, and the way she let me have it! She destroyed our prospects and our happiness, upon my honor. She made just the same smash of them as if she had kicked over that tea-table. She wanted to know all the while what was passing between us, between you and me; and she wouldn’t take my solemn assurance that nothing was passing but what might have directly passed between me and old Mummy. She said a pretty girl like you was a nice old Mummy for me, and, if you’ll believe it, she never called you anything else but that. I’ll be hanged if I haven’t been good, haven’t I? I haven’t breathed a breath of any sort to you, have I? You’d have been down on me hard if I had, wouldn’t you? You’re down on me pretty hard as it is, I think, aren’t you? But I don’t care what you say now, or what Mona says, either, or a single rap what any one says: she has given me at last, by her confounded behavior, a right to speak out, to utter the way I feel about it. The way I feel about it, don’t you know, is that it had all better come to an end. You ask me if I don’t love her, and I suppose it’s natural enough you should. But you ask it at the very moment I’m half mad to say to you that there’s only one person on the whole earth I really love, and that that person — ” Here Owen pulled up short, and Fleda wondered if it was from the effect of his perceiving, through the closed door, the sound of steps and voices on the landing of the stairs. She had caught this sound herself with surprise and a vague uneasiness: it was not an hour at which her father ever came in, and there was no present reason why she should have a visitor. She had a fear, which after a few seconds deepened: a visitor was at hand; the visitor would be simply Mrs. Gereth. That lady wished for a near view of the consequence of her note to Owen. Fleda straightened herself with the instant thought that if this was what Mrs. Gereth desired Mrs. Gereth should have it in a form not to be mistaken. Owen’s pause was the matter of a moment, but during that moment our young couple stood with their eyes holding each other’s eyes and their ears catching the suggestion, still through the door, of a murmured conference in the hall. Fleda had begun to make the movement to cut it short when Owen stopped her with a grasp of her arm. “You’re surely able to guess,” he said, with his voice dropped and her arm pressed as she had never known such a drop or such a pressure — “you’re surely able to guess the one person on earth I love?”

The handle of the door turned, and Fleda had only time to jerk at him: “Your mother!”

The door opened, and the smutty maid, edging in, announced “Mrs. Brigstock!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38