Her relation with her wonderful friend had, however, in becoming a new one, begun to shape itself almost wholly on breaches and omissions. Something had dropped out altogether, and the question between them, which time would answer, was whether the change had made them strangers or yokefellows. It was as if at last, for better or worse, they were, in a clearer, cruder air, really to know each other. Fleda wondered how Mrs. Gereth had escaped hating her: there were hours when it seemed that such a feat might leave after all a scant margin for future accidents. The thing indeed that now came out in its simplicity was that even in her shrunken state the lady of Ricks was larger than her wrongs. As for the girl herself, she had made up her mind that her feelings had no connection with the case. It was her pretension that they had never yet emerged from the seclusion into which, after her friend’s visit to her at her sister’s, we saw them precipitately retire: if she should suddenly meet them in straggling procession on the road it would be time enough to deal with them. They were all bundled there together, likes with dislikes and memories with fears; and she had for not thinking of them the excellent reason that she was too occupied with the actual. The actual was not that Owen Gereth had seen his necessity where she had pointed it out; it was that his mother’s bare spaces demanded all the tapestry that the recipient of her bounty could furnish. There were moments during the month that followed when Mrs. Gereth struck her as still older and feebler, and as likely to become quite easily amused.
At the end of it, one day, the London paper had another piece of news: “Mr. and Mrs. Owen Gereth, who arrived in town last week, proceed this morning to Paris.” They exchanged no word about it till the evening, and none indeed would then have been uttered had not Mrs. Gereth irrelevantly broken out: “I dare say you wonder why I declared the other day with such assurance that he wouldn’t live with her. He apparently is living with her.”
“Surely it’s the only proper thing for him to do.”
“They’re beyond me — I give it up,” said Mrs. Gereth.
“I don’t give it up — I never did,” Fleda returned.
“Then what do you make of his aversion to her?”
“Oh, she has dispelled it.”
Mrs. Gereth said nothing for a minute. “You’re prodigious in your choice of terms!” she then simply ejaculated.
But Fleda went luminously on; she once more enjoyed her great command of her subject: “I think that when you came to see me at Maggie’s you saw too many things, you had too many ideas.”
“You had none,” said Mrs. Gereth: “you were completely bewildered.”
“Yes, I didn’t quite understand — but I think I understand now. The case is simple and logical enough. She’s a person who’s upset by failure and who blooms and expands with success. There was something she had set her heart upon, set her teeth about — the house exactly as she had seen it.”
“She never saw it at all, she never looked at it!” cried Mrs. Gereth.
“She doesn’t look with her eyes; she looks with her ears. In her own way she had taken it in; she knew, she felt when it had been touched. That probably made her take an attitude that was extremely disagreeable. But the attitude lasted only while the reason for it lasted.”
“Go on — I can bear it now,” said Mrs. Gereth. Her companion had just perceptibly paused.
“I know you can, or I shouldn’t dream of speaking. When the pressure was removed she came up again. From the moment the house was once more what it had to be, her natural charm reasserted itself.”
“Her natural charm!” Mrs. Gereth could barely articulate.
“It’s very great; everybody thinks so; there must be something in it. It operated as it had operated before. There’s no need of imagining anything very monstrous. Her restored good humor, her splendid beauty, and Mr. Owen’s impressibility and generosity sufficiently cover the ground. His great bright sun came out!”
“And his great bright passion for another person went in. Your explanation would doubtless be perfection if he didn’t love you.”
Fleda was silent a little. “What do you know about his ‘loving’ me?”
“I know what Mrs. Brigstock herself told me.”
“You never in your life took her word for any other matter.”
“Then won’t yours do?” Mrs. Gereth demanded. “Haven’t I had it from your own mouth that he cares for you?”
Fleda turned pale, but she faced her companion and smiled. “You confound, Mrs. Gereth, you mix things up. You’ve only had it from my own mouth that I care for him!”
It was doubtless in contradictious allusion to this (which at the time had made her simply drop her head as in a strange, vain reverie) that Mrs. Gereth, a day or two later, said to Fleda: “Don’t think I shall be a bit affected if I’m here to see it when he comes again to make up to you.”
“He won’t do that,” the girl replied. Then she added, smiling: “But if he should be guilty of such bad taste, it wouldn’t be nice of you not to be disgusted.”
“I’m not talking of disgust; I’m talking of its opposite,” said Mrs. Gereth.
“Of its opposite?”
“Why, of any reviving pleasure that one might feel in such an exhibition. I shall feel none at all. You may personally take it as you like; but what conceivable good will it do?”
Fleda wondered. “To me, do you mean?”
“Deuce take you, no! To what we don’t, you know, by your wish, ever talk about.”
“The old things?” Fleda considered again. “It will do no good of any sort to anything or any one. That’s another question I would rather we shouldn’t discuss, please,” she gently added.
Mrs. Gereth shrugged her shoulders.
“It certainly isn’t worth it!”
Something in her manner prompted her companion, with a certain inconsequence, to speak again. “That was partly why I came back to you, you know — that there should be the less possibility of anything painful.”
“Painful?” Mrs. Gereth stared. “What pain can I ever feel again?”
“I meant painful to myself,” Fleda, with a slight impatience, explained.
“Oh, I see.” Her friend was silent a minute. “You use sometimes such odd expressions. Well, I shall last a little, but I sha’n’t last forever.”
“You’ll last quite as long — ” Here Fleda suddenly hesitated.
Mrs. Gereth took her up with a cold smile that seemed the warning of experience against hyperbole. “As long as what, please?”
The girl thought an instant; then met the difficulty by adopting, as an amendment, the same tone. “As any danger of the ridiculous.”
That did for the time, and she had moreover, as the months went on, the protection of suspended allusions. This protection was marked when, in the following November, she received a letter directed in a hand at which a quick glance sufficed to make her hesitate to open it. She said nothing, then or afterwards; but she opened it, for reasons that had come to her, on the morrow. It consisted of a page and a half from Owen Gereth, dated from Florence, but with no other preliminary. She knew that during the summer he had returned to England with his wife, and that after a couple of months they had again gone abroad. She also knew, without communication, that Mrs. Gereth, round whom Ricks had grown submissively and indescribably sweet, had her own interpretation of her daughter-in-law’s share in this second migration. It was a piece of calculated insolence — a stroke odiously directed at showing whom it might concern that now she had Poynton fast she was perfectly indifferent to living there. The Morning Post, at Ricks, had again been a resource: it was stated in that journal that Mr. and Mrs. Owen Gereth proposed to spend the winter in India. There was a person to whom it was clear that she led her wretched husband by the nose. Such was the light in which contemporary history was offered to Fleda until, in her own room, late at night, she broke the seal of her letter.
“I want you, inexpressibly, to have, as a remembrance, something of mine — something of real value. Something from Poynton is what I mean and what I should prefer. You know everything there, and far better than I what’s best and what isn’t. There are a lot of differences, but aren’t some of the smaller things the most remarkable? I mean for judges, and for what they’d bring. What I want you to take from me, and to choose for yourself, is the thing in the whole house that’s most beautiful and precious. I mean the ‘gem of the collection,’ don’t you know? If it happens to be of such a sort that you can take immediate possession of it — carry it right away with you — so much the better. You’re to have it on the spot, whatever it is. I humbly beg of you to go down there and see. The people have complete instructions: they’ll act for you in every possible way and put the whole place at your service. There’s a thing mamma used to call the Maltese cross and that I think I’ve heard her say is very wonderful. Is that the gem of the collection? Perhaps you would take it, or anything equally convenient. Only I do want you awfully to let it be the very pick of the place. Let me feel that I can trust you for this. You won’t refuse if you will think a little what it must be that makes me ask.”
Fleda read that last sentence over more times even than the rest; she was baffled — she couldn’t think at all of what it might be. This was indeed because it might be one of so many things. She made for the present no answer; she merely, little by little, fashioned for herself the form that her answer should eventually wear. There was only one form that was possible — the form of doing, at her time, what he wished. She would go down to Poynton as a pilgrim might go to a shrine, and as to this she must look out for her chance. She lived with her letter, before any chance came, a month, and even after a month it had mysteries for her that she couldn’t meet. What did it mean, what did it represent, to what did it correspond in his imagination or his soul? What was behind it, what was beyond it, what was, in the deepest depth, within it? She said to herself that with these questions she was under no obligation to deal. There was an explanation of them that, for practical purposes, would do as well as another: he had found in his marriage a happiness so much greater than, in the distress of his dilemma, he had been able to take heart to believe, that he now felt he owed her a token of gratitude for having kept him in the straight path. That explanation, I say, she could throw off; but no explanation in the least mattered: what determined her was the simple strength of her impulse to respond. The passion for which what had happened had made no difference, the passion that had taken this into account before as well as after, found here an issue that there was nothing whatever to choke. It found even a relief to which her imagination immensely contributed. Would she act upon his offer? She would act with secret rapture. To have as her own something splendid that he had given her, of which the gift had been his signed desire, would be a greater joy than the greatest she had supposed to be left to her, and she felt that till the sense of this came home she had even herself not known what burned in her successful stillness. It was an hour to dream of and watch for; to be patient was to draw out the sweetness. She was capable of feeling it as an hour of triumph, the triumph of everything in her recent life that had not held up its head. She moved there in thought — in the great rooms she knew; she should be able to say to herself that, for once at least, her possession was as complete as that of either of the others whom it had filled only with bitterness. And a thousand times yes — her choice should know no scruple: the thing she should go down to take would be up to the height of her privilege. The whole place was in her eyes, and she spent for weeks her private hours in a luxury of comparison and debate. It should be one of the smallest things because it should be one she could have close to her; and it should be one of the finest because it was in the finest he saw his symbol. She said to herself that of what it would symbolize she was content to know nothing more than just what her having it would tell her. At bottom she inclined to the Maltese cross — with the added reason that he had named it. But she would look again and judge afresh; she would on the spot so handle and ponder that there shouldn’t be the shade of a mistake.
Before Christmas she had a natural opportunity to go to London; there was her periodical call upon her father to pay as well as a promise to Maggie to redeem. She spent her first night in West Kensington, with the idea of carrying out on the morrow the purpose that had most of a motive. Her father’s affection was not inquisitive, but when she mentioned to him that she had business in the country that would oblige her to catch an early train, he deprecated her excursion in view of the menace of the weather. It was spoiling for a storm; all the signs of a winter gale were in the air. She replied that she would see what the morning might bring; and it brought, in fact, what seemed in London an amendment. She was to go to Maggie the next day, and now that she had started her eagerness had become suddenly a pain. She pictured her return that evening with her trophy under her cloak; so that after looking, from the doorstep, up and down the dark street, she decided, with a new nervousness, and sallied forth to the nearest place of access to the “Underground.” The December dawn was dolorous, but there was neither rain nor snow; it was not even cold, and the atmosphere of West Kensington, purified by the wind, was like a dirty old coat that had been bettered by a dirty brush. At the end of almost an hour, in the larger station, she had taken her place in a third-class compartment; the prospect before her was the run of eighty minutes to Poynton. The train was a fast one, and she was familiar with the moderate measure of the walk to the park from the spot at which it would drop her.
Once in the country, indeed, she saw that her father was right: the breath of December was abroad with a force from which the London labyrinth had protected her. The green fields were black, the sky was all alive with the wind; she had, in her anxious sense of the elements, her wonder at what might happen, a reminder of the surmises, in the old days of going to the Continent, that used to worry her on the way, at night, to the horrid cheap crossings by long sea. Something, in a dire degree, at this last hour, had begun to press on her heart: it was the sudden imagination of a disaster, or at least of a check, before her errand was achieved. When she said to herself that something might happen she wanted to go faster than the train. But nothing could happen save a dismayed discovery that, by some altogether unlikely chance, the master and mistress of the house had already come back. In that case she must have had a warning, and the fear was but the excess of her hope. It was every one’s being exactly where every one was that lent the quality to her visit. Beyond lands and seas and alienated forever, they in their different ways gave her the impression to take as she had never taken it. At last it was already there, though the darkness of the day had deepened; they had whizzed past Chater — Chater, which was the station before the right one. Off in that quarter was an air of wild rain, but there shimmered straight across it a brightness that was the color of the great interior she had been haunting. That vision settled before her — in the house the house was all; and as the train drew up she rose, in her mean compartment, quite proudly erect with the thought that all for Fleda Vetch then the house was standing there.
But with the opening of the door she encountered a shock, though for an instant she couldn’t have named it; the next moment she saw it was given her by the face of the man advancing to let her out, an old lame porter of the station, who had been there in Mrs. Gereth’s time and who now recognized her. He looked up at her so hard that she took an alarm and before alighting broke out to him: “They’ve come back?” She had a confused, absurd sense that even he would know that in this case she mustn’t be there. He hesitated, and in the few seconds her alarm had completely changed its ground: it seemed to leap, with her quick jump from the carriage, to the ground that was that of his stare at her. “Smoke?” She was on the platform with her frightened sniff: it had taken her a minute to become aware of an extraordinary smell. The air was full of it, and there were already heads at the window of the train, looking out at something she couldn’t see. Some one, the only other passenger, had got out of another carriage, and the old porter hobbled off to close his door. The smoke was in her eyes, but she saw the station-master, from the end of the platform, recognize her too and come straight to her. He brought her a finer shade of surprise than the porter, and while he was coming she heard a voice at a window of the train say that something was “a good bit off — a mile from the town.” That was just what Poynton was. Then her heart stood still at the white wonder in the station-master’s face.
“You’ve come down to it, miss, already?”
At this she knew. “Poynton’s on fire?”
“Gone, miss — with this awful gale. You weren’t wired? Look out!” he cried in the next breath, seizing her; the train was going on, and she had given a lurch that almost made it catch her as it passed. When it had drawn away she became more conscious of the pervading smoke, which the wind seemed to hurl in her face.
“Gone?” She was in the man’s hands; she clung to him.
“Burning still, miss. Ain’t it quite too dreadful? Took early this morning — the whole place is up there.”
In her bewildered horror she tried to think. “Have they come back?”
“Back? They’ll be there all day!”
“Not Mr. Gereth, I mean — nor his wife?”
“Nor his mother, miss — not a soul of them back. A pack o’ servants in charge — not the old lady’s lot, eh? A nice job for care-takers! Some rotten chimley or one of them portable lamps set down in the wrong place. What has done it is this cruel, cruel night.” Then as a great wave of smoke half choked them, he drew her with force to the little waiting room. “Awkward for you, miss — I see!”
She felt sick; she sank upon a seat, staring up at him. “Do you mean that great house is lost?”
“It was near it, I was told, an hour ago — the fury of the flames had got such a start. I was there myself at six, the very first I heard of it. They were fighting it then, but you couldn’t quite say they had got it down.”
Fleda jerked herself up. “Were they saving the things?”
“That’s just where it was, miss — to get at the blessed things. And the want of right help — it maddened me to stand and see ’em muff it. This ain’t a place, like, for anything organized. They don’t come up to a reel emergency.”
She passed out of the door that opened toward the village and met a great acrid gust. She heard a far-off windy roar which, in her dismay, she took for that of flames a mile away, and which, the first instant, acted upon her as a wild solicitation. “I must go there.” She had scarcely spoken before the same omen had changed into an appalling check.
Her vivid friend, moreover, had got before her; he clearly suffered from the nature of the control he had to exercise. “Don’t do that, miss — you won’t care for it at all.” Then as she waveringly stood her ground, “It’s not a place for a young lady, nor, if you’ll believe me, a sight for them as are in any way affected.”
Fleda by this time knew in what way she was affected: she became limp and weak again; she felt herself give everything up. Mixed with the horror, with the kindness of the station-master, with the smell of cinders and the riot of sound, was the raw bitterness of a hope that she might never again in life have to give up so much at such short notice. She heard herself repeat mechanically, yet as if asking it for the first time: “Poynton’s gone?”
The man hesitated. “What can you call it, miss, if it ain’t really saved?”
A minute later she had returned with him to the waiting-room, where, in the thick swim of things, she saw something like the disk of a clock. “Is there an up-train?” she asked.
“In seven minutes.”
She came out on the platform: everywhere she met the smoke. She covered her face with her hands. “I’ll go back.”
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