The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


“It looks just like Waterbath; but, after all, we bore that together:” these words formed part of a letter in which, before the 17th, Mrs. Gereth, writing from disfigured Ricks, named to Fleda the day on which she would be expected to arrive there on a second visit. “I sha’n’t, for a long time to come,” the missive continued, “be able to receive any one who may like it, who would try to smooth it down, and me with it; but there are always things you and I can comfortably hate together, for you’re the only person who comfortably understands. You don’t understand quite everything, but of all my acquaintance you’re far away the least stupid. For action you’re no good at all; but action is over, for me, forever, and you will have the great merit of knowing, when I’m brutally silent, what I shall be thinking about. Without setting myself up for your equal, I dare say I shall also know what are your own thoughts. Moreover, with nothing else but my four walls, you’ll at any rate be a bit of furniture. For that, you know, a little, I’ve always taken you — quite one of my best finds. So come, if possible, on the 15th.”

The position of a bit of furniture was one that Fleda could conscientiously accept, and she by no means insisted on so high a place in the list. This communication made her easier, if only by its acknowledgment that her friend had some thing left: it still implied recognition of the principle of property. Something to hate, and to hate “comfortably,” was at least not the utter destitution to which, after their last interview, she had helplessly seemed to see Mrs. Gereth go forth. She remembered indeed that, in the state in which they first saw it, she herself had “liked” the blessed refuge of Ricks; and she now wondered if the tact for which she was commended had then operated to make her keep her kindness out of sight. She was at present ashamed of such obliquity, and made up her mind that if this happy impression, quenched in the spoils of Poynton, should revive on the spot, she would utter it to her companion without reserve. Yes, she was capable of as much “action” as that: all the more that the spirit of her hostess seemed, for the time at least, wholly to have failed. Mrs. Gereth’s three minutes with Owen had been a blow to all talk of travel, and after her woeful hour at Maggie’s she had, like some great moaning, wounded bird, made her way, with wings of anguish, back to the nest she knew she should find empty. Fleda, on that dire day, could neither keep her nor give her up; she had pressingly offered to return with her, but Mrs. Gereth, in spite of the theory that their common grief was a bond, had even declined all escort to the station, conscious apparently of something abject in her collapse and almost fiercely eager, as with a personal shame, to be unwatched. All she had said to Fleda was that she would go back to Ricks that night, and the girl had lived for days after with a dreadful image of her position and her misery there. She had had a vision of her now lying prone on some unmade bed, now pacing a bare floor like a lioness deprived of her cubs. There had been moments when her mind’s ear was strained to listen for some sound of grief wild enough to be wafted from afar. But the first sound, at the end of a week, had been a note announcing, without reflections, that the plan of going abroad had been abandoned. “It has come to me indirectly, but with much appearance of truth, that they are going — for an indefinite time. That quite settles it; I shall stay where I am, and as soon as I’ve turned round again I shall look for you.” The second letter had come a week later, and on the 15th Fleda was on her way to Ricks.

Her arrival took the form of a surprise very nearly as violent as that of the other time. The elements were different, but the effect, like the other, arrested her on the threshold: she stood there stupefied and delighted at the magic of a passion of which such a picture represented the low-water mark. Wound up but sincere, and passing quickly from room to room, Fleda broke out before she even sat down. “If you turn me out of the house for it, my dear, there isn’t a woman in England for whom it wouldn’t be a privilege to live here.” Mrs. Gereth was as honestly bewildered as she had of old been falsely calm. She looked about at the few sticks that, as she afterwards phrased it, she had gathered in, and then hard at her guest, as if to protect herself against a joke sufficiently cruel. The girl’s heart gave a leap, for this stare was the sign of an opportunity. Mrs. Gereth was all unwitting; she didn’t in the least know what she had done, and as Fleda could tell her Fleda suddenly became the one who knew most. That counted for the moment as a magnificent position; it almost made all the difference. Yet what contradicted it was the vivid presence of the artist’s idea. “Where on earth did you put your hand on such beautiful things?”

“Beautiful things?” Mrs. Gereth turned again to the little worn, bleached stuffs and the sweet spindle-legs. “They’re the wretched things that were here — that stupid, starved old woman’s.”

“The maiden aunt’s, the nicest, the dearest old woman that ever lived? I thought you had got rid of the maiden aunt.”

“She was stored in an empty barn — stuck away for a sale; a matter that, fortunately, I’ve had neither time nor freedom of mind to arrange. I’ve simply, in my extremity, fished her out again.”

“You’ve simply, in your extremity, made a delight of her.” Fleda took the highest line and the upper hand, and as Mrs. Gereth, challenging her cheerfulness, turned again a lustreless eye over the contents of the place, she broke into a rapture that was unforced, but that she was conscious of an advantage in being able to feel. She moved, as she had done on the previous occasion, from one piece to another, with looks of recognition and hands that lightly lingered, but she was as feverishly jubilant now as she had formerly been anxious and mute. “Ah, the little melancholy, tender, tell-tale things: how can they not speak to you and find a way to your heart? It’s not the great chorus of Poynton; but you’re not, I’m sure, either so proud or so broken as to be reached by nothing but that. This is a voice so gentle, so human, so feminine — a faint, far-away voice with the little quaver of a heart-break. You’ve listened to it unawares; for the arrangement and effect of everything — when I compare them with what we found the first day we came down — shows, even if mechanically and disdainfully exercised, your admirable, infallible hand. It’s your extraordinary genius; you make things ‘compose’ in spite of yourself. You’ve only to be a day or two in a place with four sticks for something to come of it!”

“Then if anything has come of it here, it has come precisely of just four. That’s literally, by the inventory, all there are!” said Mrs. Gereth.

“If there were more there would be too many to convey the impression in which half the beauty resides — the impression, somehow, of something dreamed and missed, something reduced, relinquished, resigned: the poetry, as it were, of something sensibly gone.” Fleda ingeniously and triumphantly worked it out. “Ah, there’s something here that will never be in the inventory!”

“Does it happen to be in your power to give it a name?” Mrs. Gereth’s face showed the dim dawn of an amusement at finding herself seated at the feet of her pupil.

“I can give it a dozen. It’s a kind of fourth dimension. It’s a presence, a perfume, a touch. It’s a soul, a story, a life. There’s ever so much more here than you and I. We’re in fact just three!”

“Oh, if you count the ghosts!”

“Of course I count the ghosts. It seems to me ghosts count double — for what they were and for what they are. Somehow there were no ghosts at Poynton,” Fleda went on. “That was the only fault.”

Mrs. Gereth, considering, appeared to fall in with the girl’s fine humor. “Poynton was too splendidly happy.”

“Poynton was too splendidly happy,” Fleda promptly echoed.

“But it’s cured of that now,” her companion added.

“Yes, henceforth there’ll be a ghost or two.”

Mrs. Gereth thought again: she found her young friend suggestive. “Only she won’t see them.”

“No, ‘she’ won’t see them.” Then Fleda said, “What I mean is, for this dear one of ours, that if she had (as I know she did; it’s in the very taste of the air!) a great accepted pain — ”

She had paused an instant, and Mrs. Gereth took her up. “Well, if she had?”

Fleda still hesitated. “Why, it was worse than yours.”

Mrs. Gereth reflected. “Very likely.” Then she too hesitated. “The question is if it was worse than yours.”

“Mine?” Fleda looked vague.

“Precisely. Yours.”

At this our young lady smiled. “Yes, because it was a disappointment. She had been so sure.”

“I see. And you were never sure.”

“Never. Besides, I’m happy,” said Fleda.

Mrs. Gereth met her eyes awhile. “Goose!” she quietly remarked as she turned away. There was a curtness in it; nevertheless it represented a considerable part of the basis of their new life.

On the 18th The Morning Post had at last its clear message, a brief account of the marriage, from the residence of the bride’s mother, of Mr. Owen Gereth of Poynton Park to Miss Mona Brigstock of Waterbath. There were two ecclesiastics and six bridesmaids and, as Mrs. Gereth subsequently said, a hundred frumps, as well as a special train from town: the scale of the affair sufficiently showed that the preparations had been complete for weeks. The happy pair were described as having taken their departure for Mr. Gereth’s own seat, famous for its unique collection of artistic curiosities. The newspapers and letters, the fruits of the first London post, had been brought to the mistress of Ricks in the garden; and she lingered there alone a long time after receiving them. Fleda kept at a distance; she knew what must have happened, for from one of the windows she saw her rigid in a chair, her eyes strange and fixed, the newspaper open on the ground and the letters untouched in her lap. Before the morning’s end she had disappeared, and the rest of that day she remained in her room: it recalled to Fleda, who had picked up the newspaper, the day, months before, on which Owen had come down to Poynton to make his engagement known. The hush of the house was at least the same, and the girl’s own waiting, her soft wandering, through the hours: there was a difference indeed sufficiently great, of which her companion’s absence might in some degree have represented a considerate recognition. That was at any rate the meaning Fleda, devoutly glad to be alone, attached to her opportunity. Mrs. Gereth’s sole allusion, the next day, to the subject of their thoughts, has already been mentioned: it was a dazzled glance at the fact that Mona’s quiet pace had really never slackened.

Fleda fully assented. “I said of our disembodied friend here that she had suffered in proportion as she had been sure. But that’s not always a source of suffering. It’s Mona who must have been sure!”

“She was sure of you!” Mrs. Gereth returned. But this didn’t diminish the satisfaction taken by Fleda in showing how serenely and lucidly she could talk.

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