The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James

XVIII

She was slow to take in the announcement, but when she had done so she felt it to be more than her cup of bitterness would hold. Her bitterness was her anxiety, the taste of which suddenly sickened her. What had she become, on the spot, but a traitress to her friend? The treachery increased with the view of the friend’s motive, a motive magnificent as a tribute to her value. Mrs. Gereth had wished to make sure of her and had reasoned that there would be no such way as by a large appeal to her honor. If it be true, as men have declared, that the sense of honor is weak in women, some of the bearings of this stroke might have thrown a light on the question. What was now, at all events, put before Fleda was that she had been made sure of, for the greatness of the surrender imposed an obligation as great. There was an expression she had heard used by young men with whom she danced: the only word to fit Mrs. Gereth’s intention was that Mrs. Gereth had designed to “fetch” her. It was a calculated, it was a crushing bribe; it looked her in the eyes and said simply: “That’s what I do for you!” What Fleda was to do in return required no pointing out. The sense, at present, of how little she had done made her almost cry aloud with pain; but her first endeavor, in the face of the fact, was to keep such a cry from reaching her companion. How little she had done Mrs. Gereth didn’t yet know, and possibly there would be still some way of turning round before the discovery. On her own side too Fleda had almost made one: she had known she was wanted, but she had not after all conceived how magnificently much. She had been treated by her friend’s act as a conscious prize, but what made her a conscious prize was only the power the act itself imputed to her. As high, bold diplomacy it dazzled and carried her off her feet. She admired the noble risk of it, a risk Mrs. Gereth had faced for the utterly poor creature that the girl now felt herself. The change it instantly wrought in her was, moreover, extraordinary: it transformed at a touch her emotion on the subject of concessions. A few weeks earlier she had jumped at the duty of pleading for them, practically quarreling with the lady of Ricks for her refusal to restore what she had taken. She had been sore with the wrong to Owen, she had bled with the wounds of Poynton; now however, as she heard of the replenishment of the void that had so haunted her, she came as near sounding an alarm as if from the deck of a ship she had seen a person she loved jump into the sea. Mrs. Gereth had become in a flash the victim; poor little Ricks had been laid bare in a night. If Fleda’s feeling about the old things had taken precipitate form the form would have been a frantic command. It was indeed for mere want of breath that she didn’t shout: “Oh, stop them — it’s no use; bring them back — it’s too late!” And what most kept her breathless was her companion’s very grandeur. Fleda distinguished as never before the purity of such a passion; it made Mrs. Gereth august and almost sublime. It was absolutely unselfish — she cared nothing for mere possession. She thought solely and incorruptibly of what was best for the things; she had surrendered them to the presumptive care of the one person of her acquaintance who felt about them as she felt herself, and whose long lease of the future would be the nearest approach that could be compassed to committing them to a museum. Now it was indeed that Fleda knew what rested on her; now it was also that she measured as if for the first time Mrs. Gereth’s view of the natural influence of a fine acquisition. She had adopted the idea of blowing away the last doubt of what her young friend would gain, of making good still more than she was obliged to make it the promise of weeks before. It was one thing for the girl to have heard that in a certain event restitution would be made; it was another for her to see the condition, with a noble trust, treated in advance as performed, and to be able to feel that she should have only to open a door to find every old piece in every old corner. To have played such a card was therefore, practically, for Mrs. Gereth, to have won the game. Fleda had certainly to recognize that, so far as the theory of the matter went, the game had been won. Oh, she had been made sure of!

She couldn’t, however, succeed for so very many minutes in deferring her exposure. “Why didn’t you wait, dearest? Ah, why didn’t you wait?” — if that inconsequent appeal kept rising to her lips to be cut short before it was spoken, this was only because at first the humility of gratitude helped her to gain time, enabled her to present herself very honestly as too overcome to be clear. She kissed her companion’s hands, she did homage at her feet, she murmured soft snatches of praise, and yet in the midst of it all was conscious that what she really showed most was the wan despair at her heart. She saw Mrs. Gereth’s glimpse of this despair suddenly widen, heard the quick chill of her voice pierce through the false courage of endearments. “Do you mean to tell me at such an hour as this that you’ve really lost him?”

The tone of the question made the idea a possibility for which Fleda had nothing from this moment but terror. “I don’t know, Mrs. Gereth; how can I say?” she asked. “I’ve not seen him for so long; as I told you just now, I don’t even know where he is. That’s by no fault of his,” she hurried on: “he would have been with me every day if I had consented. But I made him understand, the last time, that I’ll receive him again only when he’s able to show me that his release has been complete and definite. Oh, he can’t yet, don’t you see, and that’s why he hasn’t been back. It’s far better than his coming only that we should both be miserable. When he does come he’ll be in a better position. He’ll be tremendously moved by the splendid thing you’ve done. I know you wish me to feel that you’ve done it as much for me as for Owen, but your having done it for me is just what will delight him most! When he hears of it,” said Fleda, in desperate optimism, “when he hears of it — ” There indeed, regretting her advance, she quite broke down. She was wholly powerless to say what Owen would do when he heard of it. “I don’t know what he won’t make of you and how he won’t hug you!” she had to content herself with lamely declaring. She had drawn Mrs. Gereth to a sofa with a vague instinct of pacifying her and still, after all, gaining time; but it was a position in which her great duped benefactress, portentously patient again during this demonstration, looked far from inviting a “hug.” Fleda found herself tricking out the situation with artificial flowers, trying to talk even herself into the fancy that Owen, whose name she now made simple and sweet, might come in upon them at any moment. She felt an immense need to be understood and justified; she averted her face in dread from all that she might have to be forgiven. She pressed on her companion’s arm as if to keep her quiet till she should really know, and then, after a minute, she poured out the clear essence of what in happier days had been her “secret.” “You mustn’t think I don’t adore him when I’ve told him so to his face. I love him so that I’d die for him — I love him so that it’s horrible. Don’t look at me therefore as if I had not been kind, as if I had not been as tender as if he were dying and my tenderness were what would save him. Look at me as if you believe me, as if you feel what I’ve been through. Darling Mrs. Gereth, I could kiss the ground he walks on. I haven’t a rag of pride; I used to have, but it’s gone. I used to have a secret, but every one knows it now, and any one who looks at me can say, I think, what’s the matter with me. It’s not so very fine, my secret, and the less one really says about it the better; but I want you to have it from me because I was stiff before. I want you to see for yourself that I’ve been brought as low as a girl can very well be. It serves me right,” Fleda laughed, “if I was ever proud and horrid to you! I don’t know what you wanted me, in those days at Ricks, to do, but I don’t think you can have wanted much more than what I’ve done. The other day at Maggie’s I did things that made me, afterwards, think of you! I don’t know what girls may do; but if he doesn’t know that there isn’t an inch of me that isn’t his —!” Fleda sighed as if she couldn’t express it; she piled it up, as she would have said; holding Mrs. Gereth with dilated eyes, she seemed to sound her for the effect of these words. “It’s idiotic,” she wearily smiled; “it’s so strange that I’m almost angry for it, and the strangest part of all is that it isn’t even happiness. It’s anguish — it was from the first; from the first there was a bitterness and a kind of dread. But I owe you every word of the truth. You don’t do him justice, either: he’s a dear, I assure you he’s a dear. I’d trust him to the last breath; I don’t think you really know him. He’s ever so much cleverer than he makes a show of; he’s remarkable in his own shy way. You told me at Ricks that you wanted me to let myself go, and I’ve ‘gone’ quite far enough to discover as much as that, as well as all sorts of other delightful things about him. You’ll tell me I make myself out worse than I am,” said the girl, feeling more and more in her companion’s attitude a quality that treated her speech as a desperate rigmarole and even perhaps as a piece of cold immodesty. She wanted to make herself out “bad” — it was a part of her justification; but it suddenly occurred to her that such a picture of her extravagance imputed a want of gallantry to the young man. “I don’t care for anything you think,” she declared, “because Owen, don’t you know, sees me as I am. He’s so kind that it makes up for everything!”

This attempt at gayety was futile; the silence with which, for a minute, her adversary greeted her troubled plea brought home to her afresh that she was on the bare defensive. “Is it a part of his kindness never to come near you?” Mrs. Gereth inquired at last. “Is it a part of his kindness to leave you without an inkling of where he is?” She rose again from where Fleda had kept her down; she seemed to tower there in the majesty of her gathered wrong. “Is it a part of his kindness that, after I’ve toiled as I’ve done for six days, and with my own weak hands, which I haven’t spared, to denude myself, in your interest, to that point that I’ve nothing left, as I may say, but what I have on my back — is it a part of his kindness that you’re not even able to produce him for me?”

There was a high contempt in this which was for Owen quite as much, and in the light of which Fleda felt that her effort at plausibility had been mere groveling. She rose from the sofa with an humiliated sense of rising from ineffectual knees. That discomfort, however, lived but an instant: it was swept away in a rush of loyalty to the absent. She herself could bear his mother’s scorn; but to avert it from his sweet innocence she broke out with a quickness that was like the raising of an arm. “Don’t blame him — don’t blame him: he’d do anything on earth for me! It was I,” said Fleda, eagerly, “who sent him back to her; I made him go; I pushed him out of the house; I declined to have anything to say to him except on another footing.”

Mrs. Gereth stared as at some gross material ravage. “Another footing? What other footing?”

“The one I’ve already made so clear to you: my having it in black and white, as you may say, from her that she freely gives him up.”

“Then you think he lies when he tells you that he has recovered his liberty?”

Fleda hesitated a moment; after which she exclaimed with a certain hard pride: “He’s enough in love with me for anything!”

“For anything, apparently, except to act like a man and impose his reason and his will on your incredible folly. For anything except to put an end, as any man worthy of the name would have put it, to your systematic, to your idiotic perversity. What are you, after all, my dear, I should like to know, that a gentleman who offers you what Owen offers should have to meet such wonderful exactions, to take such extraordinary precautions about your sweet little scruples?” Her resentment rose to a strange insolence which Fleda took full in the face and which, for the moment at least, had the horrible force to present to her vengefully a showy side of the truth. It gave her a blinding glimpse of lost alternatives. “I don’t know what to think of him,” Mrs. Gereth went on; “I don’t know what to call him: I’m so ashamed of him that I can scarcely speak of him even to you. But indeed I’m so ashamed of you both together that I scarcely know in common decency where to look.” She paused to give Fleda the full benefit of this remarkable statement; then she exclaimed: “Any one but a jackass would have tucked you under his arm and marched you off to the Registrar!”

Fleda wondered; with her free imagination she could wonder even while her cheek stung from a slap. “To the Registrar?”

“That would have been the sane, sound, immediate course to adopt. With a grain of gumption you’d both instantly have felt it. I should have found a way to take you, you know, if I’d been what Owen’s supposed to be. I should have got the business over first; the rest could come when you liked! Good God, girl, your place was to stand before me as a woman honestly married. One doesn’t know what one has hold of in touching you, and you must excuse my saying that you’re literally unpleasant to me to meet as you are. Then at least we could have talked, and Owen, if he had the ghost of a sense of humor, could have snapped his fingers at your refinements.”

This stirring speech affected our young lady as if it had been the shake of a tambourine borne towards her from a gypsy dance: her head seemed to go round and she felt a sudden passion in her feet. The emotion, however, was but meagrely expressed in the flatness with which she heard herself presently say: “I’ll go to the Registrar now.”

“Now?” Magnificent was the sound Mrs. Gereth threw into this monosyllable. “And pray who’s to take you?” Fleda gave a colorless smile, and her companion continued: “Do you literally mean that you can’t put your hand upon him?” Fleda’s wan grimace appeared to irritate her; she made a short, imperious gesture. “Find him for me, you fool — find him for me!”

“What do you want of him,” Fleda sadly asked, “feeling as you do to both of us?”

“Never mind how I feel, and never mind what I say when I’m furious!” Mrs. Gereth still more incisively added. “Of course I cling to you, you wretches, or I shouldn’t suffer as I do. What I want of him is to see that he takes you; what I want of him is to go with you myself to the place.” She looked round the room as if, in feverish haste, for a mantle to catch up; she bustled to the window as if to spy out a cab: she would allow half an hour for the job. Already in her bonnet, she had snatched from the sofa a garment for the street: she jerked it on as she came back. “Find him, find him,” she repeated; “come straight out with me, to try, at least, to get at him!”

“How can I get at him? He’ll come when he’s ready,” Fleda replied.

Mrs. Gereth turned on her sharply. “Ready for what? Ready to see me ruined without a reason or a reward?”

Fleda was silent; the worst of it all was that there was something unspoken between them. Neither of them dared to utter it, but the influence of it was in the girl’s tone when she returned at last, with great gentleness: “Don’t be harsh to me — I’m very unhappy.” The words produced a visible impression on Mrs. Gereth, who held her face averted and sent off through the window a gaze that kept pace with the long caravan of her treasures. Fleda knew she was watching it wind up the avenue of Poynton — Fleda participated indeed fully in the vision; so that after a little the most consoling thing seemed to her to add: “I don’t see why in the world you take so for granted that he’s, as you say, ‘lost.’”

Mrs. Gereth continued to stare out of the window, and her stillness denoted some success in controlling herself. “If he’s not lost, why are you unhappy?”

“I’m unhappy because I torment you, and you don’t understand me.”

“No, Fleda, I don’t understand you,” said Mrs. Gereth, finally facing her again. “I don’t understand you at all, and it’s as if you and Owen were of quite another race and another flesh. You make me feel very old-fashioned and simple and bad. But you must take me as I am, since you take so much else with me!” She spoke now with the drop of her resentment, with a dry and weary calm. “It would have been better for me if I had never known you,” she pursued, “and certainly better if I hadn’t taken such an extraordinary fancy to you. But that too was inevitable: everything, I suppose, is inevitable. It was all my own doing — you didn’t run after me: I pounced on you and caught you up. You’re a stiff little beggar, in spite of your pretty manners: yes, you’re hideously misleading. I hope you feel how handsome it is of me to recognize the independence of your character. It was your clever sympathy that did it — your extraordinary feeling for those accursed vanities. You were sharper about them than any one I had ever known, and that was a thing I simply couldn’t resist. Well,” the poor lady concluded after a pause, “you see where it has landed us!”

“If you’ll go for him yourself, I’ll wait here,” said Fleda.

Mrs. Gereth, holding her mantle together, appeared for a while to consider.

“To his club, do you mean?”

“Isn’t it there, when he’s in town, that he has a room? He has at present no other London address,” Fleda said: “it’s there one writes to him.”

“How do I know, with my wretched relations with him?” Mrs. Gereth asked.

“Mine have not been quite so bad as that,” Fleda desperately smiled. Then she added: “His silence, her silence, our hearing nothing at all — what are these but the very things on which, at Poynton and at Ricks, you rested your assurance that everything is at an end between them?”

Mrs. Gereth looked dark and void. “Yes, but I hadn’t heard from you then that you could invent nothing better than, as you call it, to send him back to her.”

“Ah, but, on the other hand, you’ve learned from them what you didn’t know — you’ve learned by Mrs. Brigstock’s visit that he cares for me.” Fleda found herself in the position of availing herself of optimistic arguments that she formerly had repudiated; her refutation of her companion had completely changed its ground.

She was in a fever of ingenuity and painfully conscious, on behalf of her success, that her fever was visible. She could herself see the reflection of it glitter in Mrs. Gereth’s sombre eyes.

“You plunge me in stupefaction,” that lady answered, “and at the same time you terrify me. Your account of Owen is inconceivable, and yet I don’t know what to hold on by. He cares for you, it does appear, and yet in the same breath you inform me that nothing is more possible than that he’s spending these days at Waterbath. Excuse me if I’m so dull as not to see my way in such darkness. If he’s at Waterbath he doesn’t care for you. If he cares for you he’s not at Waterbath.”

“Then where is he?” poor Fleda helplessly wailed. She caught herself up, however; she did her best to be brave and clear. Before Mrs. Gereth could reply, with due obviousness, that this was a question for her not to ask, but to answer, she found an air of assurance to say: “You simplify far too much. You always did and you always will. The tangle of life is much more intricate than you’ve ever, I think, felt it to be. You slash into it,” cried Fleda finely, “with a great pair of shears, you nip at it as if you were one of the Fates! If Owen’s at Waterbath he’s there to wind everything up.”

Mrs. Gereth shook her head with slow austerity. “You don’t believe a word you’re saying. I’ve frightened you, as you’ve frightened me: you’re whistling in the dark to keep up our courage. I do simplify, doubtless, if to simplify is to fail to comprehend the insanity of a passion that bewilders a young blockhead with bugaboo barriers, with hideous and monstrous sacrifices. I can only repeat that you’re beyond me. Your perversity’s a thing to howl over. However,” the poor woman continued with a break in her voice, a long hesitation and then the dry triumph of her will, “I’ll never mention it to you again! Owen I can just make out; for Owen is a blockhead. Owen’s a blockhead,” she repeated with a quiet, tragic finality, looking straight into Fleda’s eyes. “I don’t know why you dress up so the fact that he’s disgustingly weak.”

Fleda hesitated; at last, before her companion’s, she lowered her look. “Because I love him. It’s because he’s weak that he needs me,” she added.

“That was why his father, whom he exactly resembles, needed me. And I didn’t fail his father,” said Mrs. Gereth. She gave Fleda a moment to appreciate the remark; after which she pursued: “Mona Brigstock isn’t weak; she’s stronger than you!”

“I never thought she was weak,” Fleda answered. She looked vaguely round the room with a new purpose: she had lost sight of her umbrella.

“I did tell you to let yourself go, but it’s clear enough that you really haven’t,” Mrs. Gereth declared. “If Mona has got him — ”

Fleda had accomplished her search; her interlocutress paused. “If Mona has got him?” the girl inquired, tightening the umbrella.

“Well,” said Mrs. Gereth profoundly, “it will be clear enough that Mona has.”

“Has let herself go?”

“Has let herself go.” Mrs. Gereth spoke as if she saw it in every detail.

Fleda felt the tone and finished her preparation; then she went and opened the door. “We’ll look for him together,” she said to her friend, who stood a moment taking in her face. “They may know something about him at the Colonel’s.”

“We’ll go there.” Mrs. Gereth had picked up her gloves and her purse. “But the first thing,” she went on, “will be to wire to Poynton.”

“Why not to Waterbath at once?” Fleda asked.

Her companion hesitated. “In your name?”

“In my name. I noticed a place at the corner.”

While Fleda held the door open Mrs. Gereth drew on her gloves. “Forgive me,” she presently said. “Kiss me,” she added.

Fleda, on the threshold, kissed her; then they went out.

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