The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


The sense of her adversary’s dryness, which was ominous of something she couldn’t read, made Fleda, before complying, linger a little on the terrace; she felt the need moreover of taking breath after such a flight into the cold air of denial. When at last she rejoined Mrs. Gereth she found her erect before the drawing-room fire. Their tea had been set out in the same quarter, and the mistress of the house, for whom the preparation of it was in general a high and undelegated function, was in an attitude to which the hissing urn made no appeal. This omission, for Fleda, was such a further sign of something to come that, to disguise her apprehension, she immediately and without an apology took the duty in hand; only, however, to be promptly reminded that she was performing it confusedly and not counting the journeys of the little silver shovel she emptied into the pot. “Not five, my dear — the usual three,” said her hostess, with the same dryness; watching her then in silence while she clumsily corrected her mistake. The tea took some minutes to draw, and Mrs. Gereth availed herself of them suddenly to exclaim: “You haven’t yet told me, you know, how it is you propose to ‘make’ me!”

“Give everything back?” Fleda looked into the pot again and uttered her question with a briskness that she felt to be a little overdone. “Why, by putting the question well before you; by being so eloquent that I shall persuade you, shall act upon you; by making you sorry for having gone so far,” she said boldly; “by simply and earnestly asking it of you, in short; and by reminding you at the same time that it’s the first thing I ever have so asked. Oh, you’ve done things for me — endless and beautiful things,” she exclaimed; “but you’ve done them all from your own generous impulse. I’ve never so much as hinted to you to lend me a postage-stamp.”

“Give me a cup of tea,” said Mrs. Gereth. A moment later, taking the cup, she replied: “No, you’ve never asked me for a postage-stamp.”

“That gives me a pull!” Fleda returned, smiling.

“Puts you in the situation of expecting that I shall do this thing just simply to oblige you?”

The girl hesitated. “You said a while ago that for me you would do it.”

“For you, but not for your eloquence. Do you understand what I mean by the difference?” Mrs. Gereth asked as she stood stirring her tea.

Fleda, to postpone answering, looked round, while she drank it, at the beautiful room. “I don’t in the least like, you know, your having taken so much. It was a great shock to me, on my arrival here, to find you had done so.”

“Give me some more tea,” said Mrs. Gereth; and there was a moment’s silence as Fleda poured out another cup. “If you were shocked, my dear, I’m bound to say you concealed your shock.”

“I know I did. I was afraid to show it.”

Mrs. Gereth drank off her second cup. “And you’re not afraid now?”

“No, I’m not afraid now.”

“What has made the difference?”

“I’ve pulled myself together.” Fleda paused; then she added: “And I’ve seen Mr. Owen.”

“You’ve seen Mr. Owen” — Mrs. Gereth concurred. She put down her cup and sank into a chair, in which she leaned back, resting her head and gazing at her young friend. “Yes, I did tell you a while ago that for you I’d do it. But you haven’t told me yet what you’ll do in return.”

Fleda thought an instant. “Anything in the wide world you may require.”

“Oh, ‘anything’ is nothing at all! That’s too easily said.” Mrs. Gereth, reclining more completely, closed her eyes with an air of disgust, an air indeed of inviting slumber.

Fleda looked at her quiet face, which the appearance of slumber always made particularly handsome; she noted how much the ordeal of the last few weeks had added to its indications of age. “Well then, try me with something. What is it you demand?”

At this, opening her eyes, Mrs. Gereth sprang straight up. “Get him away from her!”

Fleda marveled: her companion had in an instant become young again. “Away from Mona? How in the world —?”

“By not looking like a fool!” cried Mrs. Gereth very sharply. She kissed her, however, on the spot, to make up for this roughness, and summarily took off her hat, which, on coming into the house, our young lady had not removed. She applied a friendly touch to the girl’s hair and gave a businesslike pull to her jacket. “I say don’t look like an idiot, because you happen not to be one, not the least bit. I’m idiotic; I’ve been so, I’ve just discovered, ever since our first days together. I’ve been a precious donkey; but that’s another affair.”

Fleda, as if she humbly assented, went through no form of controverting this; she simply stood passive to her companion’s sudden refreshment of her appearance. “How can I get him away from her?” she presently demanded.

“By letting yourself go.”

“By letting myself go?” She spoke mechanically, still more like an idiot, and felt as if her face flamed out the insincerity of her question. It was vividly back again, the vision of the real way to act upon Mrs. Gereth. This lady’s movements were now rapid; she turned off from her as quickly as she had seized her, and Fleda sat down to steady herself for full responsibility.

Her hostess, without taking up her ejaculation, gave a violent poke at the fire and then faced her again. “You’ve done two things, then, to-day — haven’t you? — that you’ve never done before. One has been asking me the service, or favor, or concession — whatever you call it — that you just mentioned; the other has been telling me — certainly too for the first time — an immense little fib.”

“An immense little fib?” Fleda felt weak; she was glad of the support of her seat.

“An immense big one, then!” said Mrs. Gereth irritatedly. “You don’t in the least ‘hate’ Owen, my darling. You care for him very much. In fact, my own, you’re in love with him — there! Don’t tell me any more lies!” cried Mrs. Gereth with a voice and a face in the presence of which Fleda recognized that there was nothing for her but to hold herself and take them. When once the truth was out, it was out, and she could see more and more every instant that it would be the only way. She accepted therefore what had to come; she leaned back her head and closed her eyes as her companion had done just before. She would have covered her face with her hands but for the still greater shame. “Oh, you’re a wonder, a wonder,” said Mrs. Gereth; “you’re magnificent, and I was right, as soon as I saw you, to pick you out and trust you!” Fleda closed her eyes tighter at this last word, but her friend kept it up. “I never dreamed of it till a while ago, when, after he had come and gone, we were face to face. Then something stuck out of you; it strongly impressed me, and I didn’t know at first quite what to make of it. It was that you had just been with him and that you were not natural. Not natural to me,” she added with a smile. “I pricked up my ears, and all that this might mean dawned upon me when you said you had asked nothing about Mona. It put me on the scent, but I didn’t show you, did I? I felt it was in you, deep down, and that I must draw it out. Well, I have drawn it, and it’s a blessing. Yesterday, when you shed tears at breakfast, I was awfully puzzled. What has been the matter with you all the while? Why, Fleda, it isn’t a crime, don’t you know that?” cried the delighted woman. “When I was a girl I was always in love, and not always with such nice people as Owen. I didn’t behave as well as you; compared with you I think I must have been horrid. But if you’re proud and reserved, it’s your own affair; I’m proud too, though I’m not reserved — that’s what spoils it. I’m stupid, above all — that’s what I am; so dense that I really blush for it. However, no one but you could have deceived me. If I trusted you, moreover, it was exactly to be cleverer than myself. You must be so now more than ever!” Suddenly Fleda felt her hands grasped: Mrs. Gereth had plumped down at her feet and was leaning on her knees. “Save him — save him: you can!” she passionately pleaded. “How could you not like him, when he’s such a dear? He is a dear, darling; there’s no harm in my own boy! You can do what you will with him — you know you can! What else does he give us all this time for? Get him away from her; it’s as if he besought you to, poor wretch! Don’t abandon him to such a fate, and I’ll never abandon you. Think of him with that creature, that future! If you’ll take him I’ll give up everything. There, it’s a solemn promise, the most sacred of my life! Get the better of her, and he shall have every stick I removed. Give me your word, and I’ll accept it. I’ll write for the packers to-night!”

Fleda, before this, had fallen forward on her companion’s neck, and the two women, clinging together, had got up while the younger wailed on the other’s bosom. “You smooth it down because you see more in it than there can ever be; but after my hideous double game how will you be able to believe in me again?”

“I see in it simply what must be, if you’ve a single spark of pity. Where on earth was the double game, when you’ve behaved like such a saint? You’ve been beautiful, you’ve been exquisite, and all our trouble is over.”

Fleda, drying her eyes, shook her head ever so sadly. “No, Mrs. Gereth, it isn’t over. I can’t do what you ask — I can’t meet your condition.”

Mrs. Gereth stared; the cloud gathered in her face again. “Why, in the name of goodness, when you adore him? I know what you see in him,” she declared in another tone. “You’re right!”

Fleda gave a faint, stubborn smile. “He cares for her too much.”

“Then why doesn’t he marry her? He’s giving you an extraordinary chance.”

“He doesn’t dream I’ve ever thought of him,” said Fleda. “Why should he, if you didn’t?”

“It wasn’t with me you were in love, my duck.” Then Mrs. Gereth added: “I’ll go and tell him.”

“If you do any such thing, you shall never see me again, — absolutely, literally never!”

Mrs. Gereth looked hard at her young friend, showing she saw she must believe her. “Then you’re perverse, you’re wicked. Will you swear he doesn’t know?”

“Of course he doesn’t know!” cried Fleda indignantly.

Her interlocutress was silent a little. “And that he has no feeling on his side?”

“For me?” Fleda stared. “Before he has even married her?”

Mrs. Gereth gave a sharp laugh at this. “He ought at least to appreciate your wit. Oh, my dear, you are a treasure! Doesn’t he appreciate anything? Has he given you absolutely no symptom — not looked a look, not breathed a sigh?”

“The case,” said Fleda coldly, “is as I’ve had the honor to state it.”

“Then he’s as big a donkey as his mother! But you know you must account for their delay,” Mrs. Gereth remarked.

“Why must I?” Fleda asked after a moment.

“Because you were closeted with him here so long. You can’t pretend at present, you know, not to have any art.”

The girl hesitated an instant; she was conscious that she must choose between two risks. She had had a secret and the secret was gone. Owen had one, which was still unbruised, and the greater risk now was that his mother should lay her formidable hand upon it. All Fleda’s tenderness for him moved her to protect it; so she faced the smaller peril. “Their delay,” she brought herself to reply, “may perhaps be Mona’s doing. I mean because he has lost her the things.”

Mrs. Gereth jumped at this. “So that she’ll break altogether if I keep them?”

Fleda winced. “I’ve told you what I believe about that. She’ll make scenes and conditions; she’ll worry him. But she’ll hold him fast; she’ll never give him up.”

Mrs. Gereth turned it over. “Well, I’ll keep them, to try her,” she finally pronounced; at which Fleda felt quite sick, as if she had given everything and got nothing.

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