The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


Fleda’s line had been taken, her word was quite ready; on the terrace of the painted pots she broke out before her interlocutress could put a question. “His errand was perfectly simple: he came to demand that you shall pack everything straight up again and send it back as fast as the railway will carry it.”

The back road had apparently been fatiguing to Mrs. Gereth; she rose there rather white and wan with her walk. A certain sharp thinness was in her ejaculation of “Oh!” — after which she glanced about her for a place to sit down. The movement was a criticism of the order of events that offered such a piece of news to a lady coming in tired; but Fleda could see that in turning over the possibilities this particular peril was the one that during the last hour her friend had turned up oftenest. At the end of the short, gray day, which had been moist and mild, the sun was out; the terrace looked to the south, and a bench, formed as to legs and arms of iron representing knotted boughs, stood against the warmest wall of the house. The mistress of Ricks sank upon it and presented to her companion the handsome face she had composed to hear everything. Strangely enough, it was just this fine vessel of her attention that made the girl most nervous about what she must drop in. “Quite a ‘demand,’ dear, is it?” asked Mrs. Gereth, drawing in her cloak.

“Oh, that’s what I should call it!” Fleda laughed, to her own surprise.

“I mean with the threat of enforcement and that sort of thing.”

“Distinctly with the threat of enforcement — what would be called, I suppose, coercion.”

“What sort of coercion?” said Mrs. Gereth.

“Why, legal, don’t you know? — what he calls setting the lawyers at you.”

“Is that what he calls it?” She seemed to speak with disinterested curiosity.

“That’s what he calls it,” said Fleda.

Mrs. Gereth considered an instant. “Oh, the lawyers!” she exclaimed lightly. Seated there almost cosily in the reddening winter sunset, only with her shoulders raised a little and her mantle tightened as if from a slight chill, she had never yet looked to Fleda so much in possession nor so far from meeting unsuspectedness halfway. “Is he going to send them down here?”

“I dare say he thinks it may come to that.”

“The lawyers can scarcely do the packing,” Mrs. Gereth humorously remarked.

“I suppose he means them — in the first place, at least — to try to talk you over.”

“In the first place, eh? And what does he mean in the second?”

Fleda hesitated; she had not foreseen that so simple an inquiry could disconcert her. “I’m afraid I don’t know.”

“Didn’t you ask?” Mrs. Gereth spoke as if she might have said, “What then were you doing all the while?”

“I didn’t ask very much,” said her companion. “He has been gone some time. The great thing seemed to be to understand clearly that he wouldn’t be content with anything less than what he mentioned.”

“My just giving everything back?”

“Your just giving everything back.”

“Well, darling, what did you tell him?” Mrs. Gereth blandly inquired.

Fleda faltered again, wincing at the term of endearment, at what the words took for granted, charged with the confidence she had now committed herself to betray. “I told him I would tell you!” She smiled, but she felt that her smile was rather hollow and even that Mrs. Gereth had begun to look at her with some fixedness.

“Did he seem very angry?”

“He seemed very sad. He takes it very hard,” Fleda added.

“And how does she take it?”

“Ah, that — that I felt a delicacy about asking.”

“So you didn’t ask?” The words had the note of surprise.

Fleda was embarrassed; she had not made up her mind definitely to lie. “I didn’t think you’d care.” That small untruth she would risk.

“Well — I don’t!” Mrs. Gereth declared; and Fleda felt less guilty to hear her, for the statement was as inexact as her own. “Didn’t you say anything in return?” Mrs. Gereth presently continued.

“Do you mean in the way of justifying you?”

“I didn’t mean to trouble you to do that. My justification,” said Mrs. Gereth, sitting there warmly and, in the lucidity of her thought, which nevertheless hung back a little, dropping her eyes on the gravel — “my justification was all the past. My justification was the cruelty — ” But at this, with a short, sharp gesture, she checked herself. “It’s too good of me to talk — now.” She produced these sentences with a cold patience, as if addressing Fleda in the girl’s virtual and actual character of Owen’s representative. Our young lady crept to and fro before the bench, combating the sense that it was occupied by a judge, looking at her boot-toes, reminding herself in doing so of Mona, and lightly crunching the pebbles as she walked. She moved about because she was afraid, putting off from moment to moment the exercise of the courage she had been sure she possessed. That courage would all come to her if she could only be equally sure that what she should be called upon to do for Owen would be to suffer. She had wondered, while Mrs. Gereth spoke, how that lady would describe her justification. She had described it as if to be irreproachably fair, give her adversary the benefit of every doubt, and then dismiss the question forever. “Of course,” Mrs. Gereth went on, “if we didn’t succeed in showing him at Poynton the ground we took, it’s simply that he shuts his eyes. What I supposed was that you would have given him your opinion that if I was the woman so signally to assert myself, I’m also the woman to rest upon it imperturbably enough.”

Fleda stopped in front of her hostess. “I gave him my opinion that you’re very logical, very obstinate, and very proud.”

“Quite right, my dear: I’m a rank bigot — about that sort of thing!” and Mrs. Gereth jerked her head at the contents of the house. “I’ve never denied it. I’d kidnap — to save them, to convert them — the children of heretics. When I know I’m right I go to the stake. Oh, he may burn me alive!” she cried with a happy face. “Did he abuse me?” she then demanded.

Fleda had remained there, gathering in her purpose. “How little you know him!”

Mrs. Gereth stared, then broke into a laugh that her companion had not expected. “Ah, my dear, certainly not so well as you!” The girl, at this, turned away again — she felt she looked too conscious; and she was aware that, during a pause, Mrs. Gereth’s eyes watched her as she went. She faced about afresh to meet them, but what she met was a question that reinforced them. “Why had you a ‘delicacy’ as to speaking of Mona?”

She stopped again before the bench, and an inspiration came to her. “I should think you would know,” she said with proper dignity.

Blankness was for a moment on Mrs. Gereth’s brow; then light broke — she visibly remembered the scene in the breakfast-room after Mona’s night at Poynton. “Because I contrasted you — told him you were the one?” Her eyes looked deep. “You were — you are still!”

Fleda gave a bold dramatic laugh. “Thank you, my love — with all the best things at Ricks!”

Mrs. Gereth considered, trying to penetrate, as it seemed; but at last she brought out roundly: “For you, you know, I’d send them back!”

The girl’s heart gave a tremendous bound; the right way dawned upon her in a flash. Obscurity indeed the next moment engulfed this course, but for a few thrilled seconds she had understood. To send the things back “for her” meant of course to send them back if there were even a dim chance that she might become mistress of them. Fleda’s palpitation was not allayed as she asked herself what portent Mrs. Gereth had suddenly perceived of such a chance: that perception could come only from a sudden suspicion of her secret. This suspicion, in turn, was a tolerably straight consequence of that implied view of the propriety of surrender from which, she was well aware, she could say nothing to dissociate herself. What she first felt was that if she wished to rescue the spoils she wished also to rescue her secret. So she looked as innocent as she could and said as quickly as possible: “For me? Why in the world for me?”

“Because you’re so awfully keen.”

“Am I? Do I strike you so? You know I hate him,” Fleda went on.

She had the sense for a while of Mrs. Gereth’s regarding her with the detachment of some stern, clever stranger. “Then what’s the matter with you? Why do you want me to give in?”

Fleda hesitated; she felt herself reddening. “I’ve only said your son wants it. I haven’t said I do.”

“Then say it and have done with it!”

This was more peremptory than any word her friend, though often speaking in her presence with much point, had ever yet directly addressed to her. It affected her like the crack of a whip, but she confined herself, with an effort, to taking it as a reminder that she must keep her head. “I know he has his engagement to carry out.”

“His engagement to marry? Why, it’s just that engagement we loathe!”

“Why should I loathe it?” Fleda asked with a strained smile. Then, before Mrs. Gereth could reply, she pursued: “I’m thinking of his general undertaking — to give her the house as she originally saw it.”

“To give her the house!” Mrs. Gereth brought up the words from the depth of the unspeakable. The effort was like the moan of an autumn wind; it was in the power of such an image to make her turn pale.

“I’m thinking,” Fleda continued, “of the simple question of his keeping faith on an important clause of his contract: it doesn’t matter whether it’s with a stupid girl or with a monster of cleverness. I’m thinking of his honor and his good name.”

“The honor and good name of a man you hate?”

“Certainly,” the girl resolutely answered. “I don’t see why you should talk as if one had a petty mind. You don’t think so. It’s not on that assumption you’ve ever dealt with me. I can do your son justice, as he put his case to me.”

“Ah, then he did put his case to you!” Mrs. Gereth exclaimed, with an accent of triumph. “You seemed to speak just now as if really nothing of any consequence had passed between you.”

“Something always passes when one has a little imagination,” our young lady declared.

“I take it you don’t mean that Owen has any!” Mrs. Gereth cried with her large laugh.

Fleda was silent a moment. “No, I don’t mean that Owen has any,” she returned at last.

“Why is it you hate him so?” her hostess abruptly inquired.

“Should I love him for all he has made you suffer?”

Mrs. Gereth slowly rose at this and, coming across the walk, took her young friend in her arms and kissed her. She then passed into one of Fleda’s an arm perversely and imperiously sociable. “Let us move a little,” she said, holding her close and giving a slight shiver. They strolled along the terrace, and she brought out another question. “He was eloquent, then, poor dear — he poured forth the story of his wrongs?”

Fleda smiled down at her companion, who, cloaked and perceptibly bowed, leaned on her heavily and gave her an odd, unwonted sense of age and cunning. She took refuge in an evasion. “He couldn’t tell me anything that I didn’t know pretty well already.”

“It’s very true that you know everything. No, dear, you haven’t a petty mind; you’ve a lovely imagination and you’re the nicest creature in the world. If you were inane, like most girls — like every one, in fact — I would have insulted you, I would have outraged you, and then you would have fled from me in terror. No, now that I think of it,” Mrs. Gereth went on, “you wouldn’t have fled from me; nothing, on the contrary, would have made you budge. You would have cuddled into your warm corner, but you would have been wounded and weeping and martyrized, and you would have taken every opportunity to tell people I’m a brute — as indeed I should have been!” They went to and fro, and she would not allow Fleda, who laughed and protested, to attenuate with any light civility this spirited picture. She praised her cleverness and her patience; then she said it was getting cold and dark and they must go in to tea. She delayed quitting the place, however, and reverted instead to Owen’s ultimatum, about which she asked another question or two; in particular whether it had struck Fleda that he really believed she would comply with such a summons.

“I think he really believes that if I try hard enough I can make you:” after uttering which words our young lady stopped short and emulated the embrace she had received a few moments before.

“And you’ve promised to try: I see. You didn’t tell me that, either,” Mrs. Gereth added as they went on. “But you’re rascal enough for anything!” While Fleda was occupied in thinking in what terms she could explain why she had indeed been rascal enough for the reticence thus denounced, her companion broke out with an inquiry somewhat irrelevant and even in form somewhat profane. “Why the devil, at any rate, doesn’t it come off?”

Fleda hesitated. “You mean their marriage?”

“Of course I mean their marriage!” Fleda hesitated again. “I haven’t the least idea.”

“You didn’t ask him?”

“Oh, how in the world can you fancy?” She spoke in a shocked tone.

“Fancy your putting a question so indelicate? I should have put it — I mean in your place; but I’m quite coarse, thank God!” Fleda felt privately that she herself was coarse, or at any rate would presently have to be; and Mrs. Gereth, with a purpose that struck the girl as increasing, continued: “What, then, was the day to be? Wasn’t it just one of these?”

“I’m sure I don’t remember.”

It was part of the great rupture and an effect of Mrs. Gereth’s character that up to this moment she had been completely and haughtily indifferent to that detail. Now, however, she had a visible reason for being clear about it. She bethought herself and she broke out — “Isn’t the day past?” Then, stopping short, she added: “Upon my word, they must have put it off!” As Fleda made no answer to this she sharply went on: “Have they put it off?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” said the girl.

Her hostess was looking at her hard again. “Didn’t he tell you — didn’t he say anything about it?”

Fleda, meanwhile, had had time to make her reflections, which were moreover the continued throb of those that had occupied the interval between Owen’s departure and his mother’s return. If she should now repeat his words, this wouldn’t at all play the game of her definite vow; it would only play the game of her little gagged and blinded desire. She could calculate well enough the effect of telling Mrs. Gereth how she had had it from Owen’s troubled lips that Mona was only waiting for the restitution and would do nothing without it. The thing was to obtain the restitution without imparting that knowledge. The only way, also, not to impart it was not to tell any truth at all about it; and the only way to meet this last condition was to reply to her companion, as she presently did: “He told me nothing whatever: he didn’t touch on the subject.”

“Not in any way?”

“Not in any way.”

Mrs. Gereth watched Fleda and considered. “You haven’t any idea if they are waiting for the things?”

“How should I have? I’m not in their counsels.”

“I dare say they are — or that Mona is.” Mrs. Gereth reflected again; she had a bright idea. “If I don’t give in, I’ll be hanged if she’ll not break off.”

“She’ll never, never break off!” said Fleda.

“Are you sure?”

“I can’t be sure, but it’s my belief.”

“Derived from him?”

The girl hung fire a few seconds. “Derived from him.”

Mrs. Gereth gave her a long last look, then turned abruptly away. “It’s an awful bore you didn’t really get it out of him! Well, come to tea,” she added rather dryly, passing straight into the house.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56