The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


Mrs. Brigstock, in the doorway, stood looking from one of the occupants of the room to the other; then they saw her eyes attach themselves to a small object that had lain hitherto unnoticed on the carpet. This was the biscuit of which, on giving Owen his tea, Fleda had taken a perfunctory nibble: she had immediately laid it on the table, and that subsequently, in some precipitate movement, she should have brushed it off was doubtless a sign of the agitation that possessed her. For Mrs. Brigstock there was apparently more in it than met the eye. Owen at any rate picked it up, and Fleda felt as if he were removing the traces of some scene that the newspapers would have characterized as lively. Mrs. Brigstock clearly took in also the sprawling tea-things and the mark as of high water in the full faces of her young friends. These elements made the little place a vivid picture of intimacy. A minute was filled by Fleda’s relief at finding her visitor not to be Mrs. Gereth, and a longer space by the ensuing sense of what was really more compromising in the actual apparition. It dimly occurred to her that the lady of Ricks had also written to Waterbath. Not only had Mrs. Brigstock never paid her a call, but Fleda would have been unable to figure her so employed. A year before the girl had spent a day under her roof, but never feeling that Mrs. Brigstock regarded this as constituting a bond. She had never stayed in any house but Poynton where the imagination of a bond, one way or the other, prevailed. After the first astonishment she dashed gayly at her guest, emphasizing her welcome and wondering how her whereabouts had become known at Waterbath. Had not Mrs. Brigstock quitted that residence for the very purpose of laying her hand on the associate of Mrs. Gereth’s misconduct? The spirit in which this hand was to be laid our young lady was yet to ascertain; but she was a person who could think ten thoughts at once — a circumstance which, even putting her present plight at its worst, gave her a great advantage over a person who required easy conditions for dealing even with one. The very vibration of the air, however, told her that whatever Mrs. Brigstock’s spirit might originally have been, it had been sharply affected by the sight of Owen. He was essentially a surprise: she had reckoned with everything that concerned him but his presence. With that, in awkward silence, she was reckoning now, as Fleda could see, while she effected with friendly aid an embarrassed transit to the sofa. Owen would be useless, would be deplorable: that aspect of the case Fleda had taken in as well. Another aspect was that he would admire her, adore her, exactly in proportion as she herself should rise gracefully superior. Fleda felt for the first time free to let herself “go,” as Mrs. Gereth had said, and she was full of the sense that to “go” meant now to aim straight at the effect of moving Owen to rapture at her simplicity and tact. It was her impression that he had no positive dislike of Mona’s mother; but she couldn’t entertain that notion without a glimpse of the implication that he had a positive dislike of Mrs. Brigstock’s daughter. Mona’s mother declined tea, declined a better seat, declined a cushion, declined to remove her boa: Fleda guessed that she had not come on purpose to be dry, but that the voice of the invaded room had itself given her the hint.

“I just came on the mere chance,” she said. “Mona found yesterday, somewhere, the card of invitation to your sister’s marriage that you sent us, or your father sent us, some time ago. We couldn’t be present — it was impossible; but as it had this address on it I said to myself that I might find you here.”

“I’m very glad to be at home,” Fleda responded.

“Yes, that doesn’t happen very often, does it?” Mrs. Brigstock looked round afresh at Fleda’s home.

“Oh, I came back from Ricks last week. I shall be here now till I don’t know when.”

“We thought it very likely you would have come back. We knew of course of your having been at Ricks. If I didn’t find you I thought I might perhaps find Mr. Vetch,” Mrs. Brigstock went on.

“I’m sorry he’s out. He’s always out — all day long.”

Mrs. Brigstock’s round eyes grew rounder. “All day long?”

“All day long,” Fleda smiled.

“Leaving you quite to yourself?”

“A good deal to myself, but a little, to-day, as you see, to Mr. Gereth, — ” and the girl looked at Owen to draw him into their sociability. For Mrs. Brigstock he had immediately sat down; but the movement had not corrected the sombre stiffness taking possession of him at the sight of her. Before he found a response to the appeal addressed to him Fleda turned again to her other visitor. “Is there any purpose for which you would like my father to call on you?”

Mrs. Brigstock received this question as if it were not to be unguardedly answered; upon which Owen intervened with pale irrelevance: “I wrote to Mona this morning of Miss Vetch’s being in town; but of course the letter hadn’t arrived when you left home.”

“No, it hadn’t arrived. I came up for the night — I’ve several matters to attend to.” Then looking with an intention of fixedness from one of her companions to the other, “I’m afraid I’ve interrupted your conversation,” Mrs. Brigstock said. She spoke without effectual point, had the air of merely announcing the fact. Fleda had not yet been confronted with the question of the sort of person Mrs. Brigstock was; she had only been confronted with the question of the sort of person Mrs. Gereth scorned her for being. She was really, somehow, no sort of person at all, and it came home to Fleda that if Mrs. Gereth could see her at this moment she would scorn her more than ever. She had a face of which it was impossible to say anything but that it was pink, and a mind that it would be possible to describe only if one had been able to mark it in a similar fashion. As nature had made this organ neither green nor blue nor yellow, there was nothing to know it by: it strayed and bleated like an unbranded sheep. Fleda felt for it at this moment much of the kindness of compassion, since Mrs. Brigstock had brought it with her to do something for her that she regarded as delicate. Fleda was quite prepared to help it to perform, if she should be able to gather what it wanted to do. What she gathered, however, more and more, was that it wanted to do something different from what it had wanted to do in leaving Waterbath. There was still nothing to enlighten her more specifically in the way her visitor continued: “You must be very much taken up. I believe you quite espouse his dreadful quarrel.”

Fleda vaguely demurred. “His dreadful quarrel?”

“About the contents of the house. Aren’t you looking after them for him?”

“She knows how awfully kind you’ve been to me,” Owen said. He showed such discomfiture that he really gave away their situation; and Fleda found herself divided between the hope that he would take leave and the wish that he should see the whole of what the occasion might enable her to bring to pass for him.

She explained to Mrs. Brigstock. “Mrs. Gereth, at Ricks, the other day, asked me particularly to see him for her.”

“And did she ask you also particularly to see him here in town?” Mrs. Brigstock’s hideous bonnet seemed to argue for the unsophisticated truth; and it was on Fleda’s lips to reply that such had indeed been Mrs. Gereth’s request. But she checked herself, and before she could say anything else Owen had addressed their companion.

“I made a point of letting Mona know that I should be here, don’t you see? That’s exactly what I wrote her this morning.”

“She would have had no doubt you would be here, if you had a chance,” Mrs. Brigstock returned. “If your letter had arrived it might have prepared me for finding you here at tea. In that case I certainly wouldn’t have come.”

“I’m glad, then, it didn’t arrive. Shouldn’t you like him to go?” Fleda asked.

Mrs. Brigstock looked at Owen and considered: nothing showed in her face but that it turned a deeper pink. “I should like him to go with me.” There was no menace in her tone, but she evidently knew what she wanted. As Owen made no response to this Fleda glanced at him to invite him to assent; then, for fear that he wouldn’t, and would thereby make his case worse, she took upon herself to declare that she was sure he would be very glad to meet such a wish. She had no sooner spoken than she felt that the words had a bad effect of intimacy: she had answered for him as if she had been his wife. Mrs. Brigstock continued to regard him as if she had observed nothing, and she continued to address Fleda: “I’ve not seen him for a long time — I’ve particular things to say to him.”

“So have I things to say to you, Mrs. Brigstock!” Owen interjected. With this he took up his hat as if for an immediate departure.

The other visitor meanwhile turned to Fleda. “What is Mrs. Gereth going to do?”

“Is that what you came to ask me?” Fleda demanded.

“That and several other things.”

“Then you had much better let Mr. Gereth go, and stay by yourself and make me a pleasant visit. You can talk with him when you like, but it is the first time you’ve been to see me.”

This appeal had evidently a certain effect; Mrs. Brigstock visibly wavered. “I can’t talk with him whenever I like,” she returned; “he hasn’t been near us since I don’t know when. But there are things that have brought me here.”

“They are not things of any importance,” Owen, to Fleda’s surprise, suddenly asserted. He had not at first taken up Mrs. Brigstock’s expression of a wish to carry him off: Fleda could see that the instinct at the bottom of this was that of standing by her, of seeming not to abandon her. But abruptly, all his soreness working within him, it had struck him that he should abandon her still more if he should leave her to be dealt with by her other visitor. “You must allow me to say, you know, Mrs. Brigstock, that I don’t think you should come down on Miss Vetch about anything. It’s very good of her to take the smallest interest in us and our horrid little squabble. If you want to talk about it, talk about it with me.” He was flushed with the idea of protecting Fleda, of exhibiting his consideration for her. “I don’t like your cross-questioning her, don’t you see? She’s as straight as a die: I’ll tell you all about her!” he declared with an excited laugh. “Please come off with me and let her alone.”

Mrs. Brigstock, at this, became vivid at once; Fleda thought she looked most peculiar. She stood straight up, with a queer distention of her whole person and of everything in her face but her mouth, which she gathered into a small, tight orifice. Fleda was painfully divided; her joy was deep within, but it was more relevant to the situation that she should not appear to associate herself with the tone of familiarity in which Owen addressed a lady who had been, and was perhaps still, about to become his mother-in-law. She laid on Mrs. Brigstock’s arm a repressive hand. Mrs. Brigstock, however, had already exclaimed on her having so wonderful a defender. “He speaks, upon my word, as if I had come here to be rude to you!”

At this, grasping her hard, Fleda laughed; then she achieved the exploit of delicately kissing her. “I’m not in the least afraid to be alone with you, or of your tearing me to pieces. I’ll answer any question that you can possibly dream of putting to me.”

“I’m the proper person to answer Mrs. Brigstock’s questions,” Owen broke in again, “and I’m not a bit less ready to meet them than you are.” He was firmer than she had ever seen him: it was as if she had not known he could be so firm.

“But she’ll only have been here a few minutes. What sort of a visit is that?” Fleda cried.

“It has lasted long enough for my purpose. There was something I wanted to know, but I think I know it now.”

“Anything you don’t know I dare say I can tell you!” Owen observed as he impatiently smoothed his hat with the cuff of his coat.

Fleda by this time desired immensely to keep his companion, but she saw she could do so only at the cost of provoking on his part a further exhibition of the sheltering attitude, which he exaggerated precisely because it was the first thing, since he had begun to “like” her, that he had been able frankly to do for her. It was not in her interest that Mrs. Brigstock should be more struck than she already was with that benevolence. “There may be things you know that I don’t,” she presently said to her, with a smile. “But I’ve a sort of sense that you’re laboring under some great mistake.”

Mrs. Brigstock, at this, looked into her eyes more deeply and yearningly than she had supposed Mrs. Brigstock could look; it was the flicker of a certain willingness to give her a chance. Owen, however, quickly spoiled everything. “Nothing is more probable than that Mrs. Brigstock is doing what you say; but there’s no one in the world to whom you owe an explanation. I may owe somebody one — I dare say I do; but not you, no!”

“But what if there’s one that it’s no difficulty at all for me to give?” Fleda inquired. “I’m sure that’s the only one Mrs. Brigstock came to ask, if she came to ask any at all.”

Again the good lady looked hard at her young hostess. “I came, I believe, Fleda, just, you know, to plead with you.”

Fleda, with a bright face, hesitated a moment. “As if I were one of those bad women in a play?”

The remark was disastrous. Mrs. Brigstock, on whom her brightness was lost, evidently thought it singularly free. She turned away, as from a presence that had really defined itself as objectionable, and Fleda had a vain sense that her good humor, in which there was an idea, was taken for impertinence, or at least for levity. Her allusion was improper, even if she herself wasn’t; Mrs. Brigstock’s emotion simplified: it came to the same thing. “I’m quite ready,” that lady said to Owen rather mildly and woundedly. “I do want to speak to you very much.”

“I’m completely at your service.” Owen held out his hand to Fleda. “Good-bye, Miss Vetch. I hope to see you again to-morrow.” He opened the door for Mrs. Brigstock, who passed before the girl with an oblique, averted salutation. Owen and Fleda, while he stood at the door, then faced each other darkly and without speaking. Their eyes met once more for a long moment, and she was conscious there was something in hers that the darkness didn’t quench, that he had never seen before and that he was perhaps never to see again. He stayed long enough to take it — to take it with a sombre stare that just showed the dawn of wonder; then he followed Mrs. Brigstock out of the house.

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