The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James

XX

There came to her at her sister’s no telegram in answer to her own: the rest of that day and the whole of the next elapsed without a word either from Owen or from his mother. She was free, however, to her infinite relief, from any direct dealing with suspense, and conscious, to her surprise, of nothing that could show her, or could show Maggie and her brother-in-law, that she was excited. Her excitement was composed of pulses as swift and fine as the revolutions of a spinning top: she supposed she was going round, but she went round so fast that she couldn’t even feel herself move. Her emotion occupied some quarter of her soul that had closed its doors for the day and shut out even her own sense of it; she might perhaps have heard something if she had pressed her ear to a partition. Instead of that she sat with her patience in a cold, still chamber from which she could look out in quite another direction. This was to have achieved an equilibrium to which she couldn’t have given a name: indifference, resignation, despair were the terms of a forgotten tongue. The time even seemed not long, for the stages of the journey were the items of Mrs. Gereth’s surrender. The detail of that performance, which filled the scene, was what Fleda had now before her eyes. The part of her loss that she could think of was the reconstituted splendor of Poynton. It was the beauty she was most touched by that, in tons, she had lost — the beauty that, charged upon big wagons, had safely crept back to its home. But the loss was a gain to memory and love; it was to her too, at last, that, in condonation of her treachery, the old things had crept back. She greeted them with open arms; she thought of them hour after hour; they made a company with which solitude was warm and a picture that, at this crisis, overlaid poor Maggie’s scant mahogany. It was really her obliterated passion that had revived, and with it an immense assent to Mrs. Gereth’s early judgment of her. She too, she felt, was of the religion, and like any other of the passionately pious she could worship now even in the desert. Yes, it was all for her; far round as she had gone she had been strong enough: her love had gathered in the spoils. She wanted indeed no catalogue to count them over; the array of them, miles away, was complete; each piece, in its turn, was perfect to her; she could have drawn up a catalogue from memory. Thus again she lived with them, and she thought of them without a question of any personal right. That they might have been, that they might still be hers, that they were perhaps already another’s, were ideas that had too little to say to her. They were nobody’s at all — too proud, unlike base animals and humans, to be reducible to anything so narrow. It was Poynton that was theirs; they had simply recovered their own. The joy of that for them was the source of the strange peace in which the girl found herself floating.

It was broken on the third day by a telegram from Mrs. Gereth. “Shall be with you at 11.30 — don’t meet me at station.” Fleda turned this over, but was sufficiently expert not to disobey the injunction. She had only an hour to take in its meaning, but that hour was longer than all the previous time. If Maggie had studied her convenience the day Owen came, Maggie was also at the present juncture a miracle of refinement. Increasingly and resentfully mystified, in spite of all reassurance, by the impression that Fleda suffered more than she gained from the grandeur of the Gereths, she had it at heart to exemplify the perhaps truer distinction of nature that characterized the house of Vetch. She was not, like poor Fleda, at every one’s beck, and the visitor was to see no more of her than what the arrangement of luncheon might tantalizingly show. Maggie described herself to her sister as intending for a just provocation even the understanding she had had with her husband that he also should remain invisible. Fleda accordingly awaited alone the subject of so many manoeuvres — a period that was slightly prolonged even after the drawing-room door, at 11.30, was thrown open. Mrs. Gereth stood there with a face that spoke plain, but no sound fell from her till the withdrawal of the maid, whose attention had immediately attached itself to the rearrangement of a window-blind and who seemed, while she bustled at it, to contribute to the pregnant silence; before the duration of which, however, she retreated with a sudden stare.

“He has done it,” said Mrs. Gereth, turning her eyes avoidingly but not unperceivingly about her and in spite of herself dropping an opinion upon the few objects in the room. Fleda, on her side, in her silence, observed how characteristically she looked at Maggie’s possessions before looking at Maggie’s sister. The girl understood and at first had nothing to say; she was still dumb while Mrs. Gereth selected, with hesitation, a seat less distasteful than the one that happened to be nearest. On the sofa near the window the poor woman finally showed what the two past days had done for the age of her face. Her eyes at last met Fleda’s. “It’s the end.”

“They’re married?”

“They’re married.”

Fleda came to the sofa in obedience to the impulse to sit down by her; then paused before her while Mrs. Gereth turned up a dead gray mask. A tired old woman sat there with empty hands in her lap. “I’ve heard nothing,” said Fleda. “No answer came.”

“That’s the only answer. It’s the answer to everything.” So Fleda saw; for a minute she looked over her companion’s head and far away. “He wasn’t at Waterbath; Mrs. Brigstock must have read your telegram and kept it. But mine, the one to Poynton, brought something. ‘We are here — what do you want?’” Mrs. Gereth stopped as if with a failure of voice; on which Fleda sank upon the sofa and made a movement to take her hand. It met no response; there could be no attenuation. Fleda waited; they sat facing each other like strangers. “I wanted to go down,” Mrs. Gereth presently continued. “Well, I went.”

All the girl’s effort tended for the time to a single aim — that of taking the thing with outward detachment, speaking of it as having happened to Owen and to his mother and not in any degree to herself. Something at least of this was in the encouraging way she said: “Yesterday morning?”

“Yesterday morning. I saw him.”

Fleda hesitated. “Did you see her?”

“Thank God, no!”

Fleda laid on her arm a hand of vague comfort, of which Mrs. Gereth took no notice. “You’ve been capable, just to tell me, of this wretched journey, of this consideration that I don’t deserve?”

“We’re together, we’re together,” said Mrs. Gereth. She looked helpless as she sat there, her eyes, unseeingly enough, on a tall Dutch clock, old but rather poor, that Maggie had had as a wedding-gift and that eked out the bareness of the room.

To Fleda, in the face of the event, it appeared that this was exactly what they were not: the last inch of common ground, the ground of their past intercourse, had fallen from under them. Yet what was still there was the grand style of her companion’s treatment of her. Mrs. Gereth couldn’t stand upon small questions, couldn’t, in conduct, make small differences. “You’re magnificent!” her young friend exclaimed. “There’s a rare greatness in your generosity.”

“We’re together, we’re together,” Mrs. Gereth lifelessly repeated. “That’s all we are now; it’s all we have.” The words brought to Fleda a sudden vision of the empty little house at Ricks; such a vision might also have been what her companion found in the face of the stopped Dutch clock. Yet with this it was clear that she would now show no bitterness: she had done with that, had given the last drop to those horrible hours in London. No passion even was left to her, and her forbearance only added to the force with which she represented the final vanity of everything.

Fleda was so far from a wish to triumph that she was absolutely ashamed of having anything to say for herself; but there was one thing, all the same, that not to say was impossible. “That he has done it, that he couldn’t not do it, shows how right I was.” It settled forever her attitude, and she spoke as if for her own mind; then after a little she added very gently, for Mrs. Gereth’s: “That’s to say, it shows that he was bound to her by an obligation that, however much he may have wanted to, he couldn’t in any sort of honor break.”

Blanched and bleak, Mrs. Gereth looked at her. “What sort of an obligation do you call that? No such obligation exists for an hour between any man and any woman who have hatred on one side. He had ended by hating her, and now he hates her more than ever.”

“Did he tell you so?” Fleda asked.

“No. He told me nothing but the great gawk of a fact. I saw him but for three minutes.” She was silent again, and Fleda, as before some lurid image of this interview, sat without speaking. “Do you wish to appear as if you don’t care?” Mrs. Gereth presently demanded.

“I’m trying not to think of myself.”

“Then if you’re thinking of Owen, how can you bear to think?”

Sadly and submissively Fleda shook her head; the slow tears had come into her eyes. “I can’t. I don’t understand — I don’t understand!” she broke out.

I do, then.” Mrs. Gereth looked hard at the floor. “There was no obligation at the time you saw him last — when you sent him, hating her as he did, back to her.”

“If he went,” Fleda asked, “doesn’t that exactly prove that he recognized one?”

“He recognized rot! You know what I think of him.” Fleda knew; she had no wish to challenge a fresh statement. Mrs. Gereth made one — it was her sole, faint flicker of passion — to the extent of declaring that he was too abjectly weak to deserve the name of a man. For all Fleda cared! — it was his weakness she loved in him. “He took strange ways of pleasing you!” her friend went on. “There was no obligation till suddenly, the other day, the situation changed.”

Fleda wondered. “The other day?”

“It came to Mona’s knowledge — I can’t tell you how, but it came — that the things I was sending back had begun to arrive at Poynton. I had sent them for you, but it was her I touched.” Mrs. Gereth paused; Fleda was too absorbed in her explanation to do anything but take blankly the full, cold breath of this. “They were there, and that determined her.”

“Determined her to what?”

“To act, to take means.”

“To take means?” Fleda repeated.

“I can’t tell you what they were, but they were powerful. She knew how,” said Mrs. Gereth.

Fleda received with the same stoicism the quiet immensity of this allusion to the person who had not known how. But it made her think a little, and the thought found utterance, with unconscious irony, in the simple interrogation: “Mona?”

“Why not? She’s a brute.”

“But if he knew that so well, what chance was there in it for her?”

“How can I tell you? How can I talk of such horrors? I can only give you, of the situation, what I see. He knew it, yes. But as she couldn’t make him forget it, she tried to make him like it. She tried and she succeeded: that’s what she did. She’s after all so much less of a fool than he. And what else had he originally liked?” Mrs. Gereth shrugged her shoulders. “She did what you wouldn’t!” Fleda’s face had grown dark with her wonder, but her friend’s empty hands offered no balm to the pain in it. “It was that if it was anything. Nothing else meets the misery of it. Then there was quick work. Before he could turn round he was married.”

Fleda, as if she had been holding her breath, gave the sigh of a listening child. “At that place you spoke of in town?”

“At the Registrar’s, like a pair of low atheists.”

The girl hesitated. “What do people say of that? I mean the ‘world.’”

“Nothing, because nobody knows. They’re to be married on the 17th, at Waterbath church. If anything else comes out, everybody is a little prepared. It will pass for some stroke of diplomacy, some move in the game, some outwitting of me. It’s known there has been a row with me.”

Fleda was mystified. “People surely knew at Poynton,” she objected, “if, as you say, she’s there.”

“She was there, day before yesterday, only for a few hours. She met him in London and went down to see the things.”

Fleda remembered that she had seen them only once. “Did you see them?” she then ventured to ask.

“Everything.”

“Are they right?”

“Quite right. There’s nothing like them,” said Mrs. Gereth. At this her companion took up one of her hands again and kissed it as she had done in London. “Mona went back that night; she was not there yesterday. Owen stayed on,” she added.

Fleda stared. “Then she’s not to live there?”

“Rather! But not till after the public marriage.” Mrs. Gereth seemed to muse; then she brought out: “She’ll live there alone.”

“Alone?”

“She’ll have it to herself.”

“He won’t live with her?”

“Never! But she’s none the less his wife, and you’re not,” said Mrs. Gereth, getting up. “Our only chance is the chance she may die.”

Fleda appeared to consider: she appreciated her visitor’s magnanimous use of the plural. “Mona won’t die,” she replied.

“Well, I shall, thank God! Till then” — and with this, for the first time, Mrs. Gereth put out her hand — “don’t desert me.”

Fleda took her hand, and her clasp of it was a reiteration of a promise already given. She said nothing, but her silence was an acceptance as responsible as the vow of a nun. The next moment something occurred to her. “I mustn’t put myself in your son’s way.”

Mrs. Gereth gave a dry, flat laugh. “You’re prodigious! But how shall you possibly be more out of it? Owen and I— ” She didn’t finish her sentence.

“That’s your great feeling about him,” Fleda said; “but how, after what has happened, can it be his about you?”

Mrs. Gereth hesitated. “How do you know what has happened? You don’t know what I said to him.”

“Yesterday?”

“Yesterday.”

They looked at each other with a long, deep gaze. Then, as Mrs. Gereth seemed again about to speak, the girl, closing her eyes, made a gesture of strong prohibition. “Don’t tell me!”

“Merciful powers, how you worship him!” Mrs. Gereth wonderingly moaned. It was, for Fleda, the shake that made the cup overflow. She had a pause, that of the child who takes time to know that he responds to an accident with pain; then, dropping again on the sofa, she broke into tears. They were beyond control, they came in long sobs, which for a moment Mrs. Gereth, almost with an air of indifference, stood hearing and watching. At last Mrs. Gereth too sank down again. Mrs. Gereth soundlessly, wearily wept.

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