The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James

XIX

In the place at the corner, on the chance of its saving time, Fleda wrote her telegram — wrote it in silence under Mrs. Gereth’s eye and then in silence handed it to her. “I send this to Waterbath, on the possibility of your being there, to ask you to come to me.” Mrs. Gereth held it a moment, read it more than once; then keeping it, and with her eyes on her companion, seemed to consider. There was the dawn of a kindness in her look; Fleda perceived in it, as if as the reward of complete submission, a slight relaxation of her rigor.

“Wouldn’t it perhaps after all be better,” she asked, “before doing this, to see if we can make his whereabouts certain?”

“Why so? It will be always so much done,” said Fleda. “Though I’m poor,” she added with a smile, “I don’t mind the shilling.”

“The shilling’s my shilling,” said Mrs. Gereth.

Fleda stayed her hand. “No, no — I’m superstitious.”

“Superstitious?”

“To succeed, it must be all me!”

“Well, if that will make it succeed!” Mrs. Gereth took back her shilling, but she still kept the telegram. “As he’s most probably not there — ”

“If he shouldn’t be there,” Fleda interrupted, “there will be no harm done.”

“If he ‘shouldn’t be’ there!” Mrs. Gereth ejaculated. “Heaven help us, how you assume it!”

“I’m only prepared for the worst. The Brigstocks will simply send any telegram on.”

“Where will they send it?”

“Presumably to Poynton.”

“They’ll read it first,” said Mrs. Gereth.

“Read it?”

“Yes, Mona will. She’ll open it under the pretext of having it repeated; and then she’ll probably do nothing. She’ll keep it as a proof of your immodesty.”

“What of that?” asked Fleda.

“You don’t mind her seeing it?”

Rather musingly and absently Fleda shook her head. “I don’t mind anything.”

“Well, then, that’s all right,” said Mrs. Gereth as if she had only wanted to feel that she had been irreproachably considerate. After this she was gentler still, but she had another point to clear up. “Why have you given, for a reply, your sister’s address?”

“Because if he does come to me he must come to me there. If that telegram goes,” said Fleda, “I return to Maggie’s to-night.”

Mrs. Gereth seemed to wonder at this. “You won’t receive him here with me?”

“No, I won’t receive him here with you. Only where I received him last — only there again.” She showed her companion that as to that she was firm.

But Mrs. Gereth had obviously now had some practice in following queer movements prompted by queer feelings. She resigned herself, though she fingered the paper a moment longer. She appeared to hesitate; then she brought out: “You couldn’t then, if I release you, make your message a little stronger?”

Fleda gave her a faint smile. “He’ll come if he can.”

Mrs. Gereth met fully what this conveyed; with decision she pushed in the telegram. But she laid her hand quickly upon another form and with still greater decision wrote another message. “From me, this,” she said to Fleda when she had finished: “to catch him possibly at Poynton. Will you read it?”

Fleda turned away. “Thank you.”

“It’s stronger than yours.”

“I don’t care,” said Fleda, moving to the door. Mrs. Gereth, having paid for the second missive, rejoined her, and they drove together to Owen’s club, where the elder lady alone got out. Fleda, from the hansom, watched through the glass doors her brief conversation with the hall-porter and then met in silence her return with the news that he had not seen Owen for a fortnight and was keeping his letters till called for. These had been the last orders; there were a dozen letters lying there. He had no more information to give, but they would see what they could find at Colonel Gereth’s. To any connection with this inquiry, however, Fleda now roused herself to object, and her friend had indeed to recognize that on second thoughts it couldn’t be quite to the taste of either of them to advertise in the remoter reaches of the family that they had forfeited the confidence of the master of Poynton. The letters lying at the club proved effectively that he was not in London, and this was the question that immediately concerned them. Nothing could concern them further till the answers to their telegrams should have had time to arrive. Mrs. Gereth had got back into the cab, and, still at the door of the club, they sat staring at their need of patience. Fleda’s eyes rested, in the great hard street, on passing figures that struck her as puppets pulled by strings. After a little the driver challenged them through the hole in the top. “Anywhere in particular, ladies?”

Fleda decided. “Drive to Euston, please.”

“You won’t wait for what we may hear?” Mrs. Gereth asked.

“Whatever we hear, I must go.” As the cab went on she added: “But I needn’t drag you to the station.”

Mrs. Gereth was silent a moment; then “Nonsense!” she sharply replied.

In spite of this sharpness they were now almost equally and almost tremulously mild; though their mildness took mainly the form of an inevitable sense of nothing left to say. It was the unsaid that occupied them — the thing that for more than an hour they had been going round and round without naming it. Much too early for Fleda’s train, they encountered at the station a long half-hour to wait. Fleda made no further allusion to Mrs. Gereth’s leaving her; their dumbness, with the elapsing minutes, grew to be in itself a reconstituted bond. They slowly paced the great gray platform, and presently Mrs. Gereth took the girl’s arm and leaned on it with a hard demand for support. It seemed to Fleda not difficult for each to know of what the other was thinking — to know indeed that they had in common two alternating visions, one of which, at moments, brought them as by a common impulse to a pause. This was the one that was fixed; the other filled at times the whole space and then was shouldered away. Owen and Mona glared together out of the gloom and disappeared, but the replenishment of Poynton made a shining, steady light. The old splendor was there again, the old things were in their places. Our friends looked at them with an equal yearning; face to face, on the platform, they counted them in each other’s eyes. Fleda had come back to them by a road as strange as the road they themselves had followed. The wonder of their great journeys, the prodigy of this second one, was the question that made her occasionally stop. Several times she uttered it, asked how this and that difficulty had been met. Mrs. Gereth replied with pale lucidity — was naturally the person most familiar with the truth that what she undertook was always somehow achieved. To do it was to do it — she had more than one kind of magnificence. She confessed there, audaciously enough, to a sort of arrogance of energy, and Fleda, going on again, her inquiry more than answered and her arm rendering service, flushed, in her diminished identity, with the sense that such a woman was great.

“You do mean literally everything, to the last little miniature on the last little screen?”

“I mean literally everything. Go over them with the catalogue!”

Fleda went over them while they walked again; she had no need of the catalogue. At last she spoke once more: “Even the Maltese cross?”

“Even the Maltese cross. Why not that as well as everything else? — especially as I remembered how you like it.”

Finally, after an interval, the girl exclaimed: “But the mere fatigue of it, the exhaustion of such a feat! I drag you to and fro here while you must be ready to drop.”

“I’m very, very tired.” Mrs. Gereth’s slow head-shake was tragic. “I couldn’t do it again.”

“I doubt if they’d bear it again!”

“That’s another matter: they’d bear it if I could. There won’t have been, this time either, a shake or a scratch. But I’m too tired — I very nearly don’t care.”

“You must sit down, then, till I go,” said Fleda. “We must find a bench.”

“No. I’m tired of them: I’m not tired of you. This is the way for you to feel most how much I rest on you.” Fleda had a compunction, wondering as they continued to stroll whether it was right after all to leave her. She believed, however, that if the flame might for the moment burn low, it was far from dying out; an impression presently confirmed by the way Mrs. Gereth went on: “But one’s fatigue is nothing. The idea under which one worked kept one up. For you I could — I can still. Nothing will have mattered if she’s not there.”

There was a question that this imposed, but Fleda at first found no voice to utter it: it was the thing that, between them, since her arrival, had been so consciously and vividly unsaid. Finally she was able to breathe: “And if she is there — if she’s there already?”

Mrs. Gereth’s rejoinder too hung back; then when it came — from sad eyes as well as from lips barely moved — it was unexpectedly merciful. “It will be very hard.” That was all, now; and it was poignantly simple. The train Fleda was to take had drawn up; the girl kissed her as if in farewell. Mrs. Gereth submitted, then after a little brought out: “If we have lost — ”

“If we have lost?” Fleda repeated as she paused again.

“You’ll all the same come abroad with me?”

“It will seem very strange to me if you want me. But whatever you ask, whatever you need, that I will always do.”

“I shall need your company,” said Mrs. Gereth. Fleda wondered an instant if this were not practically a demand for penal submission — for a surrender that, in its complete humility, would be a long expiation. But there was none of the latent chill of the vindictive in the way Mrs. Gereth pursued: “We can always, as time goes on, talk of them together.”

“Of the old things?” Fleda had selected a third-class compartment: she stood a moment looking into it and at a fat woman with a basket who had already taken possession. “Always?” she said, turning again to her companion. “Never!” she exclaimed. She got into the carriage, and two men with bags and boxes immediately followed, blocking up door and window so long that when she was able to look out again Mrs. Gereth had gone.

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