The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


Ten days after his visit she received a communication from Mrs. Gereth — a telegram of eight words, exclusive of signature and date. “Come up immediately and stay with me here” — it was characteristically sharp, as Maggie said; but, as Maggie added, it was also characteristically kind. “Here” was an hotel in London, and Maggie had embraced a condition of life which already began to produce in her some yearning for hotels in London. She would have responded in an instant, and she was surprised that her sister seemed to hesitate. Fleda’s hesitation, which lasted but an hour, was expressed in that young lady’s own mind by the reflection that in obeying her friend’s summons she shouldn’t know what she should be “in for.” Her friend’s summons, however, was but another name for her friend’s appeal; and Mrs. Gereth’s bounty had laid her under obligations more sensible than any reluctance. In the event — that is at the end of her hour — she testified to her gratitude by taking the train and to her mistrust by leaving her luggage. She went as if she had gone up for the day. In the train, however, she had another thoughtful hour, during which it was her mistrust that mainly deepened. She felt as if for ten days she had sat in darkness, looking to the east for a dawn that had not yet glimmered. Her mind had lately been less occupied with Mrs. Gereth; it had been so exceptionally occupied with Mona. If the sequel was to justify Owen’s prevision of Mrs. Brigstock’s action upon her daughter, this action was at the end of a week as much a mystery as ever. The stillness, all round, had been exactly what Fleda desired, but it gave her for the time a deep sense of failure, the sense of a sudden drop from a height at which she had all things beneath her. She had nothing beneath her now; she herself was at the bottom of the heap. No sign had reached her from Owen — poor Owen, who had clearly no news to give about his precious letter from Waterbath. If Mrs. Brigstock had hurried back to obtain that this letter should be written, Mrs. Brigstock might then have spared herself so great an inconvenience. Owen had been silent for the best of all reasons — the reason that he had had nothing in life to say. If the letter had not been written he would simply have had to introduce some large qualification into his account of his freedom. He had left his young friend under her refusal to listen to him until he should be able, on the contrary, to extend that picture; and his present submission was all in keeping with the rigid honesty that his young friend had prescribed.

It was this that formed the element through which Mona loomed large; Fleda had enough imagination, a fine enough feeling for life, to be impressed with such an image of successful immobility. The massive maiden at Waterbath was successful from the moment she could entertain her resentments as if they had been poor relations who needn’t put her to expense. She was a magnificent dead weight; there was something positive and portentous in her quietude. “What game are they all playing?” poor Fleda could only ask; for she had an intimate conviction that Owen was now under the roof of his betrothed. That was stupefying if he really hated Mona; and if he didn’t really hate her what had brought him to Raphael Road and to Maggie’s? Fleda had no real light, but she felt that to account for the absence of any result of their last meeting would take a supposition of the full sacrifice to charity that she had held up before him. If he had gone to Waterbath it had been simply because he had to go. She had as good as told him that he would have to go; that this was an inevitable incident of his keeping perfect faith — faith so literal that the smallest subterfuge would always be a reproach to him. When she tried to remember that it was for herself he was taking his risk, she felt how weak a way that was of expressing Mona’s supremacy. There would be no need of keeping him up if there were nothing to keep him up to. Her eyes grew wan as she discerned in the impenetrable air that Mona’s thick outline never wavered an inch. She wondered fitfully what Mrs. Gereth had by this time made of it, and reflected with a strange elation that the sand on which the mistress of Ricks had built a momentary triumph was quaking beneath the surface. As The Morning Post still held its peace, she would be, of course, more confident; but the hour was at hand at which Owen would have absolutely to do either one thing or the other. To keep perfect faith was to inform against his mother, and to hear the police at her door would be Mrs. Gereth’s awakening. How much she was beguiled Fleda could see from her having been for a whole month quite as deep and dark as Mona. She had let her young friend alone because of the certitude, cultivated at Ricks, that Owen had done the opposite. He had done the opposite indeed, but much good had that brought forth! To have sent for her now, Fleda felt, was from this point of view wholly natural: she had sent for her to show at last how much she had scored. If, however, Owen was really at Waterbath the refutation of that boast was easy.

Fleda found Mrs. Gereth in modest apartments and with an air of fatigue in her distinguished face — a sign, as she privately remarked, of the strain of that effort to be discreet of which she herself had been having the benefit. It was a constant feature of their relation that this lady could make Fleda blench a little, and that the effect proceeded from the intense pressure of her confidence. If the confidence had been heavy even when the girl, in the early flush of devotion, had been able to feel herself most responsive, it drew her heart into her mouth now that she had reserves and conditions, now that she couldn’t simplify with the same bold hand as her protectress. In the very brightening of the tired look, and at the moment of their embrace, Fleda felt on her shoulders the return of the load, so that her spirit frankly quailed as she asked herself what she had brought up from her trusted seclusion to support it. Mrs. Gereth’s free manner always made a joke of weakness, and there was in such a welcome a richness, a kind of familiar nobleness, that suggested shame to a harried conscience. Something had happened, she could see, and she could also see, in the bravery that seemed to announce it had changed everything, a formidable assumption that what had happened was what a healthy young woman must like. The absence of luggage had made this young woman feel meagre even before her companion, taking in the bareness at a second glance, exclaimed upon it and roundly rebuked her. Of course she had expected her to stay.

Fleda thought best to show bravery too, and to show it from the first. “What you expected, dear Mrs. Gereth, is exactly what I came up to ascertain. It struck me as right to do that first. I mean to ascertain, without making preparations.”

“Then you’ll be so good as to make them on the spot!” Mrs. Gereth was most emphatic. “You’re going abroad with me.”

Fleda wondered, but she also smiled. “To-night — to-morrow?”

“In as few days as possible. That’s all that’s left for me now.” Fleda’s heart, at this, gave a bound; she wondered to what particular difference in Mrs. Gereth’s situation as last known to her it was an allusion. “I’ve made my plan,” her friend continued: “I go for at least a year. We shall go straight to Florence; we can manage there. I of course don’t look to you, however,” she added, “to stay with me all that time. That will require to be settled. Owen will have to join us as soon as possible; he may not be quite ready to get off with us. But I’m convinced it’s quite the right thing to go. It will make a good change; it will put in a decent interval.”

Fleda listened; she was deeply mystified. “How kind you are to me!” she presently said. The picture suggested so many questions that she scarcely knew which to ask first. She took one at a venture. “You really have it from Mr. Gereth that he’ll give us his company?”

If Mr. Gereth’s mother smiled in response to this, Fleda knew that her smile was a tacit criticism of such a form of reference to her son. Fleda habitually spoke of him as Mr. Owen, and it was a part of her present vigilance to appear to have relinquished that right. Mrs. Gereth’s manner confirmed a certain impression of her pretending to more than she felt; her very first words had conveyed it, and it reminded Fleda of the conscious courage with which, weeks before, the lady had met her visitor’s first startled stare at the clustered spoils of Poynton. It was her practice to take immensely for granted whatever she wished. “Oh, if you’ll answer for him, it will do quite as well!” she said. Then she put her hands on the girl’s shoulders and held them at arm’s length, as if to shake them a little, while in the depths of her shining eyes Fleda discovered something obscure and unquiet. “You bad, false thing, why didn’t you tell me?” Her tone softened her harshness, and her visitor had never had such a sense of her indulgence. Mrs. Gereth could show patience; it was a part of the general bribe, but it was also like the handing in of a heavy bill before which Fleda could only fumble in a penniless pocket. “You must perfectly have known at Ricks, and yet you practically denied it. That’s why I call you bad and false!” It was apparently also why she again almost roughly kissed her.

“I think that before I answer you I had better know what you’re talking about,” Fleda said.

Mrs. Gereth looked at her with a slight increase of hardness. “You’ve done everything you need for modesty, my dear! If he’s sick with love of you, you haven’t had to wait for me to inform you.”

Fleda hesitated. “Has he informed you, dear Mrs. Gereth?”

Dear Mrs. Gereth smiled sweetly. “How could he, when our situation is such that he communicates with me only through you, and that you are so tortuous you conceal everything?”

“Didn’t he answer the note in which you let him know that I was in town?” Fleda asked.

“He answered it sufficiently by rushing off on the spot to see you.”

Mrs. Gereth met that allusion with a prompt firmness that made almost insolently light of any ground of complaint, and Fleda’s own sense of responsibility was now so vivid that all resentments turned comparatively pale. She had no heart to produce a grievance; she could only, left as she was with the little mystery on her hands, produce, after a moment, a question. “How then do you come to know that your son has ever thought — ”

“That he would give his ears to get you?” Mrs. Gereth broke in. “I had a visit from Mrs. Brigstock.”

Fleda opened her eyes. “She went down to Ricks?”

“The day after she had found Owen at your feet. She knows everything.”

Fleda shook her head sadly; she was more startled than she cared to show. This odd journey of Mrs. Brigstock’s, which, with a simplicity equal for once to Owen’s, she had not divined, now struck her as having produced the hush of the last ten days. “There are things she doesn’t know!” she presently exclaimed.

“She knows he would do anything to marry you.”

“He hasn’t told her so,” Fleda said.

“No, but he has told you. That’s better still!” laughed Mrs. Gereth. “My dear child,” she went on with an air that affected the girl as a sort of blind profanity, “don’t try to make yourself out better than you are. I know what you are. I haven’t lived with you so much for nothing. You’re not quite a saint in heaven yet. Lord, what a creature you’d have thought me in my good time! But you do like it, fortunately, you idiot. You’re pale with your passion, you sweet thing. That’s exactly what I wanted to see. I can’t for the life of me think where the shame comes in.” Then with a finer significance, a look that seemed to Fleda strange, she added: “It’s all right.”

“I’ve seen him but twice,” said Fleda.

“But twice?” Mrs. Gereth still smiled.

“On the occasion, at papa’s, that Mrs. Brigstock told you of, and one day, since then, down at Maggie’s.”

“Well, those things are between yourselves, and you seem to me both poor creatures at best.” Mrs. Gereth spoke with a rich humor which tipped with light for an instant a real conviction. “I don’t know what you’ve got in your veins: you absurdly exaggerated the difficulties. But enough is as good as a feast, and when once I get you abroad together —!” She checked herself as if from excess of meaning; what might happen when she should get them abroad together was to be gathered only from the way she slowly rubbed her hands.

The gesture, however, made the promise so definite that for a moment her companion was almost beguiled. But there was nothing to account, as yet, for the wealth of Mrs. Gereth’s certitude: the visit of the lady of Waterbath appeared but half to explain it. “Is it permitted to be surprised,” Fleda deferentially asked, “at Mrs. Brigstock’s thinking it would help her to see you?”

“It’s never permitted to be surprised at the aberrations of born fools,” said Mrs. Gereth. “If a cow should try to calculate, that’s the kind of happy thought she’d have. Mrs. Brigstock came down to plead with me.”

Fleda mused a moment. “That’s what she came to do with me,” she then honestly returned. “But what did she expect to get of you, with your opposition so marked from the first?”

“She didn’t know I want you, my dear. It’s a wonder, with all my violence — the gross publicity I’ve given my desires. But she’s as stupid as an owl — she doesn’t feel your charm.”

Fleda felt herself flush slightly, but she tried to smile. “Did you tell her all about it? Did you make her understand you want me?”

“For what do you take me? I wasn’t such a donkey.”

“So as not to aggravate Mona?” Fleda suggested.

“So as not to aggravate Mona, naturally. We’ve had a narrow course to steer, but thank God we’re at last in the open!”

“What do you call the open, Mrs. Gereth?” Fleda demanded. Then as the other faltered: “Do you know where Mr. Owen is to-day?”

Mrs. Gereth stared. “Do you mean he’s at Waterbath? Well, that’s your own affair. I can bear it if you can.”

“Wherever he is, I can bear it,” Fleda said. “But I haven’t the least idea where he is.”

“Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself!” Mrs. Gereth broke out with a change of note that showed how deep a passion underlay everything she had said. The poor woman, catching her companion’s hand, however, the next moment, as if to retract something of this harshness, spoke more patiently. “Don’t you understand, Fleda, how immensely, how devotedly, I’ve trusted you?” Her tone was indeed a supplication.

Fleda was infinitely shaken; she was silent a little. “Yes, I understand. Did she go to you to complain of me?”

“She came to see what she could do. She had been tremendously upset, the day before, by what had taken place at your father’s, and she had posted down to Ricks on the inspiration of the moment. She hadn’t meant it on leaving home; it was the sight of you closeted there with Owen that had suddenly determined her. The whole story, she said, was written in your two faces: she spoke as if she had never seen such an exhibition. Owen was on the brink, but there might still be time to save him, and it was with this idea she had bearded me in my den. ‘What won’t a mother do, you know?’ — that was one of the things she said. What wouldn’t a mother do indeed? I thought I had sufficiently shown her what! She tried to break me down by an appeal to my good nature, as she called it, and from the moment she opened on you, from the moment she denounced Owen’s falsity, I was as good-natured as she could wish. I understood that it was a plea for mere mercy, that you and he between you were killing her child. Of course I was delighted that Mona should be killed, but I was studiously kind to Mrs. Brigstock. At the same time I was honest, I didn’t pretend to anything I couldn’t feel. I asked her why the marriage hadn’t taken place months ago, when Owen was perfectly ready; and I showed her how completely that fatuous mistake on Mona’s part cleared his responsibility. It was she who had killed him — it was she who had destroyed his affection, his illusions. Did she want him now when he was estranged, when he was disgusted, when he had a sore grievance? She reminded me that Mona had a sore grievance too, but she admitted that she hadn’t come to me to speak of that. What she had come to me for was not to get the old things back, but simply to get Owen. What she wanted was that I would, in simple pity, see fair play. Owen had been awfully bedeviled — she didn’t call it that, she called it ‘misled’ — but it was simply you who had bedeviled him. He would be all right still if I would see that you were out of the way. She asked me point-blank if it was possible I could want him to marry you.”

Fleda had listened in unbearable pain and growing terror, as if her interlocutress, stone by stone, were piling some fatal mass upon her breast. She had the sense of being buried alive, smothered in the mere expansion of another will; and now there was but one gap left to the air. A single word, she felt, might close it, and with the question that came to her lips as Mrs. Gereth paused she seemed to herself to ask, in cold dread, for her doom. “What did you say to that?” she inquired.

“I was embarrassed, for I saw my danger — the danger of her going home and saying to Mona that I was backing you up. It had been a bliss to learn that Owen had really turned to you, but my joy didn’t put me off my guard. I reflected intensely for a few seconds; then I saw my issue.”

“Your issue?” Fleda murmured.

“I remembered how you had tied my hands about saying a word to Owen.”

Fleda wondered. “And did you remember the little letter that, with your hands tied, you still succeeded in writing to him?”

“Perfectly; my little letter was a model of reticence. What I remembered was all that in those few words I forbade myself to say. I had been an angel of delicacy — I had effaced myself like a saint. It was not for me to have done all that and then figure to such a woman as having done the opposite. Besides, it was none of her business.”

“Is that what you said to her?” Fleda asked.

“I said to her that her question revealed a total misconception of the nature of my present relations with my son. I said to her that I had no relations with him at all, and that nothing had passed between us for months. I said to her that my hands were spotlessly clean of any attempt to make him make up to you. I said to her that I had taken from Poynton what I had a right to take, but had done nothing else in the world. I was determined that if I had bit my tongue off to oblige you I would at least have the righteousness that my sacrifice gave me.”

“And was Mrs. Brigstock satisfied with your answer?”

“She was visibly relieved.”

“It was fortunate for you,” said Fleda, “that she’s apparently not aware of the manner in which, almost under her nose, you advertised me to him at Poynton.”

Mrs. Gereth appeared to recall that scene; she smiled with a serenity remarkably effective as showing how cheerfully used she had grown to invidious allusions to it. “How should she be aware of it?”

“She would if Owen had described your outbreak to Mona.”

“Yes, but he didn’t describe it. All his instinct was to conceal it from Mona. He wasn’t conscious, but he was already in love with you!” Mrs. Gereth declared.

Fleda shook her head wearily. “No — I was only in love with him!”

Here was a faint illumination with which Mrs. Gereth instantly mingled her fire. “You dear old wretch!” she exclaimed; and she again, with ferocity, embraced her young friend.

Fleda submitted like a sick animal: she would submit to everything now. “Then what further passed?”

“Only that she left me thinking she had got something.”

“And what had she got?”

“Nothing but her luncheon. But I got everything!”

“Everything?” Fleda quavered.

Mrs. Gereth, struck apparently by something in her tone, looked at her from a tremendous height. “Don’t fail me now!”

It sounded so like a menace that, with a full divination at last, the poor girl fell weakly into a chair. “What on earth have you done?”

Mrs. Gereth stood there in all the glory of a great stroke. “I’ve settled you.” She filled the room, to Fleda’s scared vision, with the glare of her magnificence. “I’ve sent everything back.”

“Everything?” Fleda gasped.

“To the smallest snuff-box. The last load went yesterday. The same people did it. Poor little Ricks is empty.” Then as if, for a crowning splendor, to check all deprecation, “They’re yours, you goose!” Mrs. Gereth concluded, holding up her handsome head and rubbing her white hands. Fleda saw that there were tears in her deep eyes.

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