The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


“I must in common decency let him know that I’ve talked of the matter with you,” she said to her hostess that evening. “What answer do you wish me to write to him?”

“Write to him that you must see him again,” said Mrs. Gereth.

Fleda looked very blank. “What on earth am I to see him for?”

“For anything you like.”

The girl would have been struck with the levity of this had she not already, in an hour, felt the extent of the change suddenly wrought in her commerce with her friend — wrought above all, to that friend’s view, in her relation to the great issue. The effect of what had followed Owen’s visit was to make that relation the very key of the crisis. Pressed upon her, goodness knew, the crisis had been, but it now seemed to put forth big, encircling arms — arms that squeezed till they hurt and she must cry out. It was as if everything at Ricks had been poured into a common receptacle, a public ferment of emotion and zeal, out of which it was ladled up to be tasted and talked about; everything at least but the one little treasure of knowledge that she kept back. She ought to have liked this, she reflected, because it meant sympathy, meant a closer union with the source of so much in her life that had been beautiful and renovating; but there were fine instincts in her that stood off. She had had — and it was not merely at this time — to recognize that there were things for which Mrs. Gereth’s flair was not so happy as for bargains and “marks.” It wouldn’t be happy now as to the best action on the knowledge she had just gained; yet as from this moment they were still more intimately together, so a person deeply in her debt would simply have to stand and meet what was to come. There were ways in which she could sharply incommode such a person, and not only with the best conscience in the world, but with a sort of brutality of good intentions. One of the straightest of these strokes, Fleda saw, would be the dance of delight over the mystery Mrs. Gereth had laid bare — the loud, lawful, tactless joy of the explorer leaping upon the strand. Like any other lucky discoverer, she would take possession of the fortunate island. She was nothing if not practical: almost the only thing she took account of in her young friend’s soft secret was the excellent use she could make of it — a use so much to her taste that she refused to feel a hindrance in the quality of the material. Fleda put into Mrs. Gereth’s answer to her question a good deal more meaning than it would have occurred to her a few hours before that she was prepared to put, but she had on the spot a foreboding that even so broad a hint would live to be bettered.

“Do you suggest that I shall propose to him to come down here again?” she presently inquired.

“Dear, no; say that you’ll go up to town and meet him.” It was bettered, the broad hint; and Fleda felt this to be still more the case when, returning to the subject before they went to bed, her companion said: “I make him over to you wholly, you know — to do what you please with. Deal with him in your own clever way — I ask no questions. All I ask is that you succeed.”

“That’s charming,” Fleda replied, “but it doesn’t tell me a bit, you’ll be so good as to consider, in what terms to write to him. It’s not an answer from you to the message I was to give you.”

“The answer to his message is perfectly distinct: he shall have everything in the place the minute he’ll say he’ll marry you.”

“You really pretend,” Fleda asked, “to think me capable of transmitting him that news?”

“What else can I really pretend when you threaten so to cast me off if I speak the word myself?”

“Oh, if you speak the word!” the girl murmured very gravely, but happy at least to know that in this direction Mrs. Gereth confessed herself warned and helpless. Then she added: “How can I go on living with you on a footing of which I so deeply disapprove? Thinking as I do that you’ve despoiled him far more than is just or merciful — for if I expected you to take something, I didn’t in the least expect you to take everything — how can I stay here without a sense that I’m backing you up in your cruelty and participating in your ill-gotten gains?” Fleda was determined that if she had the chill of her exposed and investigated state she would also have the convenience of it, and that if Mrs. Gereth popped in and out of the chamber of her soul she would at least return the freedom. “I shall quite hate, you know, in a day or two, every object that surrounds you — become blind to all the beauty and rarity that I formerly delighted in. Don’t think me harsh; there’s no use in my not being frank now. If I leave you, everything’s at an end.”

Mrs. Gereth, however, was imperturbable: Fleda had to recognize that her advantage had become too real. “It’s too beautiful, the way you care for him; it’s music in my ears. Nothing else but such a passion could make you say such things; that’s the way I should have been too, my dear. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I’d have gone right in for you; I never would have moved a candlestick. Don’t stay with me if it torments you; don’t, if you suffer, be where you see the old rubbish. Go up to town — go back for a little to your father’s. It need be only for a little; two or three weeks will see us through. Your father will take you and be glad, if you only will make him understand what it’s a question of — of your getting yourself off his hands forever. I’ll make him understand, you know, if you feel shy. I’d take you up myself, I’d go with you, to spare your being bored; we’d put up at an hotel and we might amuse ourselves a bit. We haven’t had much pleasure since we met, have we? But of course that wouldn’t suit our book. I should be a bugaboo to Owen — I should be fatally in the way. Your chance is there — your chance is to be alone; for God’s sake, use it to the right end. If you’re in want of money I’ve a little I can give you. But I ask no questions — not a question as small as your shoe!”

She asked no questions, but she took the most extraordinary things for granted. Fleda felt this still more at the end of a couple of days. On the second of these our young lady wrote to Owen; her emotion had to a certain degree cleared itself — there was something she could say briefly. If she had given everything to Mrs. Gereth and as yet got nothing, so she had on the other hand quickly reacted — it took but a night — against the discouragement of her first check. Her desire to serve him was too passionate, the sense that he counted upon her too sweet: these things caught her up again and gave her a new patience and a new subtlety. It shouldn’t really be for nothing that she had given so much; deep within her burned again the resolve to get something back. So what she wrote to Owen was simply that she had had a great scene with his mother, but that he must be patient and give her time. It was difficult, as they both had expected, but she was working her hardest for him. She had made an impression — she would do everything to follow it up. Meanwhile he must keep intensely quiet and take no other steps; he must only trust her and pray for her and believe in her perfect loyalty. She made no allusion whatever to Mona’s attitude, nor to his not being, as regarded that young lady, master of the situation; but she said in a postscript, in reference to his mother, “Of course she wonders a good deal why your marriage doesn’t take place.” After the letter had gone she regretted having used the word “loyalty;” there were two or three milder terms which she might as well have employed. The answer she immediately received from Owen was a little note of which she met all the deficiencies by describing it to herself as pathetically simple, but which, to prove that Mrs. Gereth might ask as many questions as she liked, she at once made his mother read. He had no art with his pen, he had not even a good hand, and his letter, a short profession of friendly confidence, consisted of but a few familiar and colorless words of acknowledgment and assent. The gist of it was that he would certainly, since Miss Vetch recommended it, not hurry mamma too much. He would not for the present cause her to be approached by any one else, but he would nevertheless continue to hope that she would see she must come round. “Of course, you know,” he added, “she can’t keep me waiting indefinitely. Please give her my love and tell her that. If it can be done peaceably I know you’re just the one to do it.”

Fleda had awaited his rejoinder in deep suspense; such was her imagination of the possibility of his having, as she tacitly phrased it, let himself go on paper that when it arrived she was at first almost afraid to open it. There was indeed a distinct danger, for if he should take it into his head to write her love-letters the whole chance of aiding him would drop: she would have to return them, she would have to decline all further communication with him: it would be quite the end of the business. This imagination of Fleda’s was a faculty that easily embraced all the heights and depths and extremities of things; that made a single mouthful, in particular, of any tragic or desperate necessity. She was perhaps at first just a trifle disappointed not to find in the note in question a syllable that strayed from the text; but the next moment she had risen to a point of view from which it presented itself as a production almost inspired in its simplicity. It was simple even for Owen, and she wondered what had given him the cue to be more so than usual. Then she saw how natures that are right just do the things that are right. He wasn’t clever — his manner of writing showed it; but the cleverest man in England couldn’t have had more the instinct that, under the circumstances, was the supremely happy one, the instinct of giving her something that would do beautifully to be shown to Mrs. Gereth. This was a kind of divination, for naturally he couldn’t know the line Mrs. Gereth was taking. It was furthermore explained — and that was the most touching part of all — by his wish that she herself should notice how awfully well he was behaving. His very bareness called her attention to his virtue; and these were the exact fruits of her beautiful and terrible admonition. He was cleaving to Mona; he was doing his duty; he was making tremendously sure he should be without reproach.

If Fleda handed this communication to her friend as a triumphant gage of the innocence of the young man’s heart, her elation lived but a moment after Mrs. Gereth had pounced upon the tell-tale spot in it. “Why in the world, then,” that lady cried, “does he still not breathe a breath about the day, the day, the day?” She repeated the word with a crescendo of superior acuteness; she proclaimed that nothing could be more marked than its absence — an absence that simply spoke volumes. What did it prove in fine but that she was producing the effect she had toiled for — that she had settled or was rapidly settling Mona?

Such a challenge Fleda was obliged in some manner to take up. “You may be settling Mona,” she returned with a smile, “but I can hardly regard it as sufficient evidence that you’re settling Mona’s lover.”

“Why not, with such a studied omission on his part to gloss over in any manner the painful tension existing between them — the painful tension that, under providence, I’ve been the means of bringing about? He gives you by his silence clear notice that his marriage is practically off.”

“He speaks to me of the only thing that concerns me. He gives me clear notice that he abates not one jot of his demand.”

“Well, then, let him take the only way to get it satisfied.”

Fleda had no need to ask again what such a way might be, nor was her support removed by the fine assurance with which Mrs. Gereth could make her argument wait upon her wish. These days, which dragged their length into a strange, uncomfortable fortnight, had already borne more testimony to that element than all the other time the two women had passed together. Our young lady had been at first far from measuring the whole of a feature that Owen himself would probably have described as her companion’s “cheek.” She lived now in a kind of bath of boldness, felt as if a fierce light poured in upon her from windows opened wide; and the singular part of the ordeal was that she couldn’t protest against it fully without incurring, even to her own mind, some reproach of ingratitude, some charge of smallness. If Mrs. Gereth’s apparent determination to hustle her into Owen’s arms was accompanied with an air of holding her dignity rather cheap, this was after all only as a consequence of her being held in respect to some other attributes rather dear. It was a new version of the old story of being kicked upstairs. The wonderful woman was the same woman who, in the summer, at Poynton, had been so puzzled to conceive why a good-natured girl shouldn’t have contributed more to the personal rout of the Brigstocks — shouldn’t have been grateful even for the handsome puff of Fleda Vetch. Only her passion was keener now and her scruple more absent; the fight made a demand upon her, and her pugnacity had become one with her constant habit of using such weapons as she could pick up. She had no imagination about anybody’s life save on the side she bumped against. Fleda was quite aware that she would have otherwise been a rare creature; but a rare creature was originally just what she had struck her as being. Mrs. Gereth had really no perception of anybody’s nature — had only one question about persons: were they clever or stupid? To be clever meant to know the marks. Fleda knew them by direct inspiration, and a warm recognition of this had been her friend’s tribute to her character. The girl had hours, now, of sombre wishing that she might never see anything good again: that kind of experience was evidently not an infallible source of peace. She would be more at peace in some vulgar little place that should owe its cachet to Tottenham Court Road. There were nice strong horrors in West Kensington; it was as if they beckoned her and wooed her back to them. She had a relaxed recollection of Waterbath; and of her reasons for staying on at Ricks the force was rapidly ebbing. One of these was her pledge to Owen — her vow to press his mother close; the other was the fact that of the two discomforts, that of being prodded by Mrs. Gereth and that of appearing to run after somebody else, the former remained for a while the more endurable.

As the days passed, however, it became plainer to Fleda that her only chance of success would be in lending herself to this low appearance. Then, moreover, at last, her nerves settling the question, the choice was simply imposed by the violence done to her taste — to whatever was left of that high principle, at least, after the free and reckless meeting, for months, of great drafts and appeals. It was all very well to try to evade discussion: Owen Gereth was looking to her for a struggle, and it wasn’t a bit of a struggle to be disgusted and dumb. She was on too strange a footing — that of having presented an ultimatum and having had it torn up in her face. In such a case as that the envoy always departed; he never sat gaping and dawdling before the city. Mrs. Gereth, every morning, looked publicly into “The Morning Post,” the only newspaper she received; and every morning she treated the blankness of that journal as fresh evidence that everything was “off.” What did the Post exist for but to tell you your children were wretchedly married? — so that if such a source of misery was dry, what could you do but infer that for once you had miraculously escaped? She almost taunted Fleda with supineness in not getting something out of somebody — in the same breath indeed in which she drenched her with a kind of appreciation more onerous to the girl than blame. Mrs. Gereth herself had of course washed her hands of the matter; but Fleda knew people who knew Mona and would be sure to be in her confidence — inconceivable people who admired her and had the privilege of Waterbath. What was the use therefore of being the most natural and the easiest of letter-writers, if no sort of side-light — in some pretext for correspondence — was, by a brilliant creature, to be got out of such barbarians? Fleda was not only a brilliant creature, but she heard herself commended in these days for new and strange attractions; she figured suddenly, in the queer conversations of Ricks, as a distinguished, almost as a dangerous beauty. That retouching of her hair and dress in which her friend had impulsively indulged on a first glimpse of her secret was by implication very frequently repeated. She had the sense not only of being advertised and offered, but of being counseled and enlightened in ways that she scarcely understood — arts obscure even to a poor girl who had had, in good society and motherless poverty, to look straight at realities and fill out blanks.

These arts, when Mrs. Gereth’s spirits were high, were handled with a brave and cynical humor with which Fleda’s fancy could keep no step: they left our young lady wondering what on earth her companion wanted her to do. “I want you to cut in!” — that was Mrs. Gereth’s familiar and comprehensive phrase for the course she prescribed. She challenged again and again Fleda’s picture, as she called it (though the sketch was too slight to deserve the name), of the indifference to which a prior attachment had committed the proprietor of Poynton. “Do you mean to say that, Mona or no Mona, he could see you that way, day after day, and not have the ordinary feelings of a man?” This was the sort of interrogation to which Fleda was fitfully and irrelevantly treated. She had grown almost used to the refrain. “Do you mean to say that when, the other day, one had quite made you over to him, the great gawk, and he was, on this very spot, utterly alone with you —?” The poor girl at this point never left any doubt of what she meant to say, but Mrs. Gereth could be trusted to break out in another place and at another time. At last Fleda wrote to her father that he must take her in for a while; and when, to her companion’s delight, she returned to London, that lady went with her to the station and wafted her on her way. “The Morning Post” had been delivered as they left the house, and Mrs. Gereth had brought it with her for the traveler, who never spent a penny on a newspaper. On the platform, however, when this young person was ticketed, labeled, and seated, she opened it at the window of the carriage, exclaiming as usual, after looking into it a moment: “Nothing — nothing — nothing: don’t tell me!” Every day that there was nothing was a nail in the coffin of the marriage. An instant later the train was off, but, moving quickly beside it, while Fleda leaned inscrutably forth, Mrs. Gereth grasped her friend’s hand and looked up with wonderful eyes. “Only let yourself go, darling — only let yourself go!”

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