The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


He had uttered the hope that he should see her the next day, but Fleda could easily reflect that he wouldn’t see her if she were not there to be seen. If there was a thing in the world she desired at that moment, it was that the next day should have no point of resemblance with the day that had just elapsed. She accordingly aspired to an absence: she would go immediately down to Maggie. She ran out that evening and telegraphed to her sister, and in the morning she quitted London by an early train. She required for this step no reason but the sense of necessity. It was a strong personal need; she wished to interpose something, and there was nothing she could interpose but distance, but time. If Mrs. Brigstock had to deal with Owen she would allow Mrs. Brigstock the chance. To be there, to be in the midst of it, was the reverse of what she craved: she had already been more in the midst of it than had ever entered into her plan. At any rate she had renounced her plan; she had no plan now but the plan of separation. This was to abandon Owen, to give up the fine office of helping him back to his own; but when she had undertaken that office she had not foreseen that Mrs. Gereth would defeat it by a manoeuvre so simple. The scene at her father’s rooms had extinguished all offices, and the scene at her father’s rooms was of Mrs. Gereth’s producing. Owen, at all events, must now act for himself: he had obligations to meet, he had satisfactions to give, and Fleda fairly ached with the wish that he might be equal to them. She never knew the extent of her tenderness for him till she became conscious of the present force of her desire that he should be superior, be perhaps even sublime. She obscurely made out that superiority, that sublimity, mightn’t after all be fatal. She closed her eyes and lived for a day or two in the mere beauty of confidence. It was with her on the short journey; it was with her at Maggie’s; it glorified the mean little house in the stupid little town. Owen had grown larger to her: he would do, like a man, whatever he should have to do. He wouldn’t be weak — not as she was: she herself was weak exceedingly.

Arranging her few possessions in Maggie’s fewer receptacles, she caught a glimpse of the bright side of the fact that her old things were not such a problem as Mrs. Gereth’s. Picking her way with Maggie through the local puddles, diving with her into smelly cottages and supporting her, at smellier shops, in firmness over the weight of joints and the taste of cheese, it was still her own secret that was universally inter-woven In the puddles, the cottages, the shops she was comfortably alone with it; that comfort prevailed even while, at the evening meal, her brother-in-law invited her attention to a diagram, drawn with a fork on too soiled a tablecloth, of the scandalous drains of the Convalescent Home. To be alone with it she had come away from Ricks; and now she knew that to be alone with it she had come away from London. This advantage was of course menaced, but not immediately destroyed, by the arrival, on the second day, of the note she had been sure she should receive from Owen. He had gone to West Kensington and found her flown, but he had got her address from the little maid and then hurried to a club and written to her. “Why have you left me just when I want you most?” he demanded. The next words, it was true, were more reassuring on the question of his steadiness. “I don’t know what your reason may be,” they went on, “nor why you’ve not left a line for me; but I don’t think you can feel that I did anything yesterday that it wasn’t right for me to do. As regards Mrs. Brigstock, certainly, I just felt what was right and I did it. She had no business whatever to attack you that way, and I should have been ashamed if I had left her there to worry you. I won’t have you worried by any one; no one shall be disagreeable to you but me. I didn’t mean to be so yesterday, and I don’t to-day; but I’m perfectly free now to want you, and I want you much more than you’ve allowed me to explain. You’ll see if I’m not all right, if you’ll let me come to you. Don’t be afraid — I’ll not hurt you nor trouble you. I give you my honor I’ll not hurt any one. Only I must see you, on what I had to say to Mrs. B. She was nastier than I thought she could be, but I’m behaving like an angel. I assure you I’m all right — that’s exactly what I want you to see. You owe me something, you know, for what you said you would do and haven’t done; what your departure without a word gives me to understand — doesn’t it? — that you definitely can’t do. Don’t simply forsake me. See me, if you only see me once. I shan’t wait for any leave — I shall come down to-morrow. I’ve been looking into trains and find there’s something that will bring me down just after lunch and something very good for getting me back. I won’t stop long. For God’s sake, be there.”

This communication arrived in the morning, but Fleda would still have had time to wire a protest. She debated on that alternative; then she read the note over and found in one phrase an exact statement of her duty. Owen’s simplicity had expressed it, and her subtlety had nothing to answer. She owed him something for her obvious failure, and what she owed him was to receive him. If indeed she had known he would make this attempt she might have been held to have gained nothing by her flight. Well, she had gained what she had gained — she had gained the interval. She had no compunction for the greater trouble she should give the young man; it was now doubtless right that he should have as much trouble as possible. Maggie, who thought she was in her confidence, but was immensely not, had reproached her for having left Mrs. Gereth, and Maggie was just in this proportion gratified to hear of the visitor with whom, early in the afternoon, she would have to ask to be left alone. Maggie liked to see far, and now she could sit upstairs and rake the whole future. She had known that, as she familiarly said, there was something the matter with Fleda, and the value of that knowledge was augmented by the fact that there was apparently also something the matter with Mr. Gereth.

Fleda, downstairs, learned soon enough what this was. It was simply that, as he announced the moment he stood before her, he was now all right. When she asked him what he meant by that state he replied that he meant he could practically regard himself henceforth as a free man: he had had at West Kensington, as soon as they got into the street, such a horrid scene with Mrs. Brigstock.

“I knew what she wanted to say to me: that’s why I was determined to get her off. I knew I shouldn’t like it, but I was perfectly prepared,” said Owen. “She brought it out as soon as we got round the corner; she asked me point-blank if I was in love with you.”

“And what did you say to that?”

“That it was none of her business.”

“Ah,” said Fleda, “I’m not so sure!”

“Well, I am, and I’m the person most concerned. Of course I didn’t use just those words: I was perfectly civil, quite as civil as she. But I told her I didn’t consider she had a right to put me any such question. I said I wasn’t sure that even Mona had, with the extraordinary line, you know, that Mona has taken. At any rate the whole thing, the way I put it, was between Mona and me; and between Mona and me, if she didn’t mind, it would just have to remain.”

Fleda was silent a little. “All that didn’t answer her question.”

“Then you think I ought to have told her?”

Again our young lady reflected. “I think I’m rather glad you didn’t.”

“I knew what I was about,” said Owen. “It didn’t strike me that she had the least right to come down on us that way and ask for explanations.”

Fleda looked very grave, weighing the whole matter. “I dare say that when she started, when she arrived, she didn’t mean to ‘come down.’”

“What then did she mean to do?”

“What she said to me just before she went: she meant to plead with me.”

“Oh, I heard her!” said Owen. “But plead with you for what?”

“For you, of course — to entreat me to give you up. She thinks me awfully designing — that I’ve taken some sort of possession of you.”

Owen stared. “You haven’t lifted a finger! It’s I who have taken possession.”

“Very true, you’ve done it all yourself.” Fleda spoke gravely and gently, without a breath of coquetry. “But those are shades between which she’s probably not obliged to distinguish. It’s enough for her that we’re singularly intimate.”

“I am, but you’re not!” Owen exclaimed.

Fleda gave a dim smile. “You make me at least feel that I’m learning to know you very well when I hear you say such a thing as that. Mrs. Brigstock came to get round me, to supplicate me,” she went on; “but to find you there, looking so much at home, paying me a friendly call and shoving the tea-things about — that was too much for her patience. She doesn’t know, you see, that I’m after all a decent girl. She simply made up her mind on the spot that I’m a very bad case.”

“I couldn’t stand the way she treated you, and that was what I had to say to her,” Owen returned.

“She’s simple and slow, but she’s not a fool: I think she treated me, on the whole, very well.” Fleda remembered how Mrs. Gereth had treated Mona when the Brigstocks came down to Poynton.

Owen evidently thought her painfully perverse. “It was you who carried it off; you behaved like a brick. And so did I, I consider. If you only knew the difficulty I had! I told her you were the noblest and straightest of women.”

“That can hardly have removed her impression that there are things I put you up to.”

“It didn’t,” Owen replied with candor. “She said our relation, yours and mine, isn’t innocent.”

“What did she mean by that?”

“As you may suppose, I particularly inquired. Do you know what she had the cheek to tell me?” Owen asked. “She didn’t better it much: she said she meant that it’s excessively unnatural.”

Fleda considered afresh. “Well, it is!” she brought out at last.

“Then, upon my honor, it’s only you who make it so!” Her perversity was distinctly too much for him. “I mean you make it so by the way you keep me off.”

“Have I kept you off to-day?” Fleda sadly shook her head, raising her arms a little and dropping them.

Her gesture of resignation gave him a pretext for catching at her hand, but before he could take it she had put it behind her. They had been seated together on Maggie’s single sofa, and her movement brought her to her feet, while Owen, looking at her reproachfully, leaned back in discouragement. “What good does it do me to be here when I find you only a stone?”

She met his eyes with all the tenderness she had not yet uttered, and she had not known till this moment how great was the accumulation. “Perhaps, after all,” she risked, “there may be even in a stone still some little help for you.”

Owen sat there a minute staring at her. “Ah, you’re beautiful, more beautiful than any one,” he broke out, “but I’ll be hanged if I can ever understand you! On Tuesday, at your father’s, you were beautiful — as beautiful, just before I left, as you are at this instant. But the next day, when I went back, I found it had apparently meant nothing; and now, again, that you let me come here and you shine at me like an angel, it doesn’t bring you an inch nearer to saying what I want you to say.” He remained a moment longer in the same position; then he jerked himself up. “What I want you to say is that you like me — what I want you to say is that you pity me.” He sprang up and came to her. “What I want you to say is that you’ll save me!”

Fleda hesitated. “Why do you need saving, when you announced to me just now that you’re a free man?”

He too hesitated, but he was not checked. “It’s just for the reason that I’m free. Don’t you know what I mean, Miss Vetch? I want you to marry me.”

Fleda, at this, put out her hand in charity; she held his own, which quickly grasped it a moment, and if he had described her as shining at him it may be assumed that she shone all the more in her deep, still smile. “Let me hear a little more about your freedom first,” she said. “I gather that Mrs. Brigstock was not wholly satisfied with the way you disposed of her question.”

“I dare say she wasn’t. But the less she’s satisfied the more I’m free.”

“What bearing have her feelings, pray?” Fleda asked.

“Why, Mona’s much worse than her mother. She wants much more to give me up.”

“Then why doesn’t she do it?”

“She will, as soon as her mother gets home and tells her.”

“Tells her what?” Fleda inquired.

“Why, that I’m in love with you!”

Fleda debated. “Are you so very sure she will?”

“Certainly I’m sure, with all the evidence I already have. That will finish her!” Owen declared.

This made his companion thoughtful again. “Can you take such pleasure in her being ‘finished’ — a poor girl you’ve once loved?”

Owen waited long enough to take in the question; then with a serenity startling even to her knowledge of his nature, “I don’t think I can have really loved her, you know,” he replied.

Fleda broke into a laugh which gave him a surprise as visible as the emotion it testified to. “Then how am I to know that you ‘really’ love — anybody else?”

“Oh, I’ll show you that!” said Owen.

“I must take it on trust,” the girl pursued. “And what if Mona doesn’t give you up?” she added.

Owen was baffled but a few seconds; he had thought of everything. “Why, that’s just where you come in.”

“To save you? I see. You mean I must get rid of her for you.” His blankness showed for a little that he felt the chill of her cold logic; but as she waited for his rejoinder she knew to which of them it cost most. He gasped a minute, and that gave her time to say: “You see, Mr. Owen, how impossible it is to talk of such things yet!”

Like lightning he had grasped her arm. “You mean you will talk of them?” Then as he began to take the flood of assent from her eyes: “You will listen to me? Oh, you dear, you dear — when, when?”

“Ah, when it isn’t mere misery!” The words had broken from her in a sudden loud cry, and what next happened was that the very sound of her pain upset her. She heard her own true note; she turned short away from him; in a moment she had burst into sobs; in another his arms were round her; the next she had let herself go so far that even Mrs. Gereth might have seen it. He clasped her, and she gave herself — she poured out her tears on his breast; something prisoned and pent throbbed and gushed; something deep and sweet surged up — something that came from far within and far off, that had begun with the sight of him in his indifference and had never had rest since then. The surrender was short, but the relief was long: she felt his lips upon her face and his arms tighten with his full divination. What she did, what she had done, she scarcely knew: she only was aware, as she broke from him again, of what had taken place in his own quick breast. What had taken place was that, with the click of a spring, he saw. He had cleared the high wall at a bound; they were together without a veil. She had not a shred of a secret left; it was as if a whirlwind had come and gone, laying low the great false front that she had built up stone by stone. The strangest thing of all was the momentary sense of desolation.

“Ah, all the while you cared?” Owen read the truth with a wonder so great that it was visibly almost a sadness, a terror caused by his sudden perception of where the impossibility was not. That made it all perhaps elsewhere.

“I cared, I cared, I cared!” Fleda moaned it as defiantly as if she were confessing a misdeed. “How couldn’t I care? But you mustn’t, you must never, never ask! It isn’t for us to talk about!” she insisted. “Don’t speak of it, don’t speak!”

It was easy indeed not to speak when the difficulty was to find words. He clasped his hands before her as he might have clasped them at an altar; his pressed palms shook together while he held his breath and while she stilled herself in the effort to come round again to the real and the right. He helped this effort, soothing her into a seat with a touch as light as if she had really been something sacred. She sank into a chair and he dropped before her on his knees; she fell back with closed eyes and he buried his face in her lap. There was no way to thank her but this act of prostration, which lasted, in silence, till she laid consenting hands on him, touched his head and stroked it, held it in her tenderness till he acknowledged his long density. He made the avowal seem only his — made her, when she rose again, raise him at last, softly, as if from the abasement of shame. If in each other’s eyes now, however, they saw the truth, this truth, to Fleda, looked harder even than before — all the harder that when, at the very moment she recognized it, he murmured to her ecstatically, in fresh possession of her hands, which he drew up to his breast, holding them tight there with both his own: “I’m saved, I’m saved, — I am! I’m ready for anything. I have your word. Come!” he cried, as if from the sight of a response slower than he needed, and in the tone he so often had of a great boy at a great game.

She had once more disengaged herself, with the private vow that he shouldn’t yet touch her again. It was all too horribly soon — her sense of this was rapidly surging back. “We mustn’t talk, we mustn’t talk; we must wait!” she intensely insisted. “I don’t know what you mean by your freedom; I don’t see it, I don’t feel it. Where is it yet, where, your freedom? If it’s real there’s plenty of time, and if it isn’t there’s more than enough. I hate myself,” she protested, “for having anything to say about her: it’s like waiting for dead men’s shoes! What business is it of mine what she does? She has her own trouble and her own plan. It’s too hideous to watch her and count on her!”

Owen’s face, at this, showed a reviving dread, the fear of some darksome process of her mind. “If you speak for yourself I can understand, but why is it hideous for me?”

“Oh, I mean for myself!” Fleda said impatiently.

I watch her, I count on her: how can I do anything else? If I count on her to let me definitely know how we stand, I do nothing in life but what she herself has led straight up to. I never thought of asking you to ‘get rid of her’ for me, and I never would have spoken to you if I hadn’t held that I am rid of her, that she has backed out of the whole thing. Didn’t she do so from the moment she began to put it off? I had already applied for the license; the very invitations were half addressed. Who but she, all of a sudden, demanded an unnatural wait? It was none of my doing; I had never dreamed of anything but coming up to the scratch.” Owen grew more and more lucid, and more confident of the effect of his lucidity. “She called it ‘taking a stand,’ to see what mother would do. I told her mother would do what I would make her do; and to that she replied that she would like to see me make her first. I said I would arrange that everything should be all right, and she said she really preferred to arrange it herself. It was a flat refusal to trust me in the smallest degree. Why then had she pretended so tremendously to care for me? And of course, at present,” said Owen, “she trusts me, if possible, still less.”

Fleda paid this statement the homage of a minute’s muteness. “As to that, naturally, she has reason.”

“Why on earth has she reason?” Then, as his companion, moving away, simply threw up her hands, “I never looked at you — not to call looking — till she had regularly driven me to it,” he went on. “I know what I’m about. I do assure you I’m all right!”

“You’re not all right — you’re all wrong!” Fleda cried in despair. “You mustn’t stay here, you mustn’t!” she repeated with clear decision. “You make me say dreadful things, and I feel as if I made you say them.” But before he could reply she took it up in another tone. “Why in the world, if everything had changed, didn’t you break off?”

“I? — ” The inquiry seemed to have moved him to stupefaction. “Can you ask me that question when I only wanted to please you? Didn’t you seem to show me, in your wonderful way, that that was exactly how? I didn’t break off just on purpose to leave it to her. I didn’t break off so that there shouldn’t be a thing to be said against me.”

The instant after her challenge Fleda had faced him again in self-reproof. “There isn’t a thing to be said against you, and I don’t know what nonsense you make me talk! You have pleased me, and you’ve been right and good, and it’s the only comfort, and you must go. Everything must come from Mona, and if it doesn’t come we’ve said entirely too much. You must leave me alone — forever.”

“Forever?” Owen gasped.

“I mean unless everything is different.”

“Everything is different — when I know!”

Fleda winced at what he knew; she made a wild gesture which seemed to whirl it out of the room. The mere allusion was like another embrace. “You know nothing — and you must go and wait! You mustn’t break down at this point.”

He looked about him and took up his hat: it was as if, in spite of frustration, he had got the essence of what he wanted and could afford to agree with her to the extent of keeping up the forms. He covered her with his fine, simple smile, but made no other approach. “Oh, I’m so awfully happy!” he exclaimed.

She hesitated: she would only be impeccable even though she should have to be sententious. “You’ll be happy if you’re perfect!” she risked.

He laughed out at this, and she wondered if, with a new-born acuteness, he saw the absurdity of her speech, and that no one was happy just because no one could be what she so lightly prescribed. “I don’t pretend to be perfect, but I shall find a letter to-night!”

“So much the better, if it’s the kind of one you desire.” That was the most she could say, and having made it sound as dry as possible she lapsed into a silence so pointed as to deprive him of all pretext for not leaving her. Still, nevertheless, he stood there, playing with his hat and filling the long pause with a strained and anxious smile. He wished to obey her thoroughly, to appear not to presume on any advantage he had won from her; but there was clearly something he longed for beside. While he showed this by hanging on she thought of two other things. One of these was that his countenance, after all, failed to bear out his description of his bliss. As for the other, it had no sooner come into her head than she found it seated, in spite of her resolution, on her lips. It took the form of an inconsequent question. “When did you say Mrs. Brigstock was to have gone back?”

Owen stared. “To Waterbath? She was to have spent the night in town, don’t you know? But when she left me, after our talk, I said to myself that she would take an evening train. I know I made her want to get home.”

“Where did you separate?” Fleda asked.

“At the West Kensington station — she was going to Victoria. I had walked with her there, and our talk was all on the way.”

Fleda pondered a moment. “If she did go back that night you would have heard from Waterbath by this time.”

“I don’t know,” said Owen. “I thought I might hear this morning.”

“She can’t have gone back,” Fleda declared. “Mona would have written on the spot.”

“Oh yes, she will have written bang off!” Owen cheerfully conceded.

Fleda thought again. “Then, even in the event of her mother’s not having got home till the morning, you would have had your letter at the latest to-day. You see she has had plenty of time.”

Owen hesitated; then, “Oh, she’s all right!” he laughed. “I go by Mrs. Brigstock’s certain effect on her — the effect of the temper the old lady showed when we parted. Do you know what she asked me?” he sociably continued. “She asked me in a kind of nasty manner if I supposed you ‘really’ cared anything about me. Of course I told her I supposed you didn’t — not a solitary rap. How could I suppose you do, with your extraordinary ways? It doesn’t matter; I could see she thought I lied.”

“You should have told her, you know, that I had seen you in town only that one time,” Fleda observed.

“By Jove, I did — for you! It was only for you.”

Something in this touched the girl so that for a moment she could not trust herself to speak. “You’re an honest man,” she said at last. She had gone to the door and opened it. “Good-bye.”

Even yet, however, he hung back; and she remembered how, at the end of his hour at Ricks, she had been put to it to get him out of the house. He had in general a sort of cheerful slowness which helped him at such times, though she could now see his strong fist crumple his big, stiff gloves as if they had been paper. “But even if there’s no letter — ” he began. He began, but there he left it.

“You mean, even if she doesn’t let you off? Ah, you ask me too much!” Fleda spoke from the tiny hall, where she had taken refuge between the old barometer and the old mackintosh. “There are things too utterly for yourselves alone. How can I tell? What do I know? Good-bye, good-bye! If she doesn’t let you off, it will be because she is attached to you.”

“She’s not, she’s not: there’s nothing in it! Doesn’t a fellow know? — except with you!” Owen ruefully added. With this he came out of the room, lowering his voice to secret supplication, pleading with her really to meet him on the ground of the negation of Mona. It was this betrayal of his need of support and sanction that made her retreat — harden herself in the effort to save what might remain of all she had given, given probably for nothing. The very vision of him as he thus morally clung to her was the vision of a weakness somewhere in the core of his bloom, a blessed manly weakness of which, if she had only the valid right, it would be all a sweetness to take care. She faintly sickened, however, with the sense that there was as yet no valid right poor Owen could give. “You can take it from my honor, you know,” he whispered, “that she loathes me.”

Fleda had stood clutching the knob of Maggie’s little painted stair-rail; she took, on the stairs, a step backward. “Why then doesn’t she prove it in the only clear way?”

“She has proved it. Will you believe it if you see the letter?”

“I don’t want to see any letter,” said Fleda. “You’ll miss your train.”

Facing him, waving him away, she had taken another upward step; but he sprang to the side of the stairs and brought his hand, above the banister, down hard on her wrist. “Do you mean to tell me that I must marry a woman I hate?”

From her step she looked down into his raised face. “Ah, you see it’s not true that you’re free!” She seemed almost to exult. “It’s not true — it’s not true!”

He only, at this, like a buffeting swimmer, gave a shake of his head and repeated his question. “Do you mean to tell me I must marry such a woman?”

Fleda hesitated; he held her fast. “No. Anything is better than that.”

“Then, in God’s name, what must I do?”

“You must settle that with her. You mustn’t break faith. Anything is better than that. You must at any rate be utterly sure. She must love you — how can she help it? I wouldn’t give you up!” said Fleda. She spoke in broken bits, panting out her words. “The great thing is to keep faith. Where is a man if he doesn’t? If he doesn’t he may be so cruel. So cruel, so cruel, so cruel!” Fleda repeated. “I couldn’t have a hand in that, you know: that’s my position — that’s mine. You offered her marriage: it’s a tremendous thing for her.” Then looking at him another moment, “I wouldn’t give you up!” she said again. He still had hold of her arm; she took in his blank alarm. With a quick dip of her face she reached his hand with her lips, pressing them to the back of it with a force that doubled the force of her words. “Never, never, never!” she cried; and before he could succeed in seizing her she had turned and, scrambling up the stairs, got away from him even faster than she had got away from him at Ricks.

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