The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


“I asked for you,” he said when she stood there, “because I heard from the flyman who drove me from the station to the inn that he had brought you here yesterday. We had some talk, and he mentioned it.”

“You didn’t know I was here?”

“No. I knew only that you had had, in London, all that you told me, that day, to do; and it was Mona’s idea that after your sister’s marriage you were staying on with your father. So I thought you were with him still.”

“I am,” Fleda replied, idealizing a little the fact. “I’m here only for a moment. But do you mean,” she went on, “that if you had known I was with your mother you wouldn’t have come down?”

The way Owen hung fire at this question made it sound more playful than she had intended. She had, in fact, no consciousness of any intention but that of confining herself rigidly to her function. She could already see that, in whatever he had now braced himself for, she was an element he had not reckoned with. His preparation had been of a different sort — the sort congruous with his having been careful to go first and lunch solidly at the inn. He had not been forced to ask for her, but she became aware, in his presence, of a particular desire to make him feel that no harm could really come to him. She might upset him, as people called it, but she would take no advantage of having done so. She had never seen a person with whom she wished more to be light and easy, to be exceptionally human. The account he presently gave of the matter was that he indeed wouldn’t have come if he had known she was on the spot; because then, didn’t she see? he could have written to her. He would have had her there to let fly at his mother.

“That would have saved me — well, it would have saved me a lot. Of course I would rather see you than her,” he somewhat awkwardly added. “When the fellow spoke of you, I assure you I quite jumped at you. In fact I’ve no real desire to see Mummy at all. If she thinks I like it —!” He sighed disgustedly. “I only came down because it seemed better than any other way. I didn’t want her to be able to say I hadn’t been all right. I dare say you know she has taken everything; or if not quite everything, why, a lot more than one ever dreamed. You can see for yourself — she has got half the place down. She has got them crammed — you can see for yourself!” He had his old trick of artless repetition, his helpless iteration of the obvious; but he was sensibly different, for Fleda, if only by the difference of his clear face, mottled over and almost disfigured by little points of pain. He might have been a fine young man with a bad toothache; with the first even of his life. What ailed him above all, she felt, was that trouble was new to him: he had never known a difficulty; he had taken all his fences, his world wholly the world of the personally possible, rounded indeed by a gray suburb into which he had never had occasion to stray. In this vulgar and ill-lighted region he had evidently now lost himself. “We left it quite to her honor, you know,” he said ruefully.

“Perhaps you’ve a right to say that you left it a little to mine.” Mixed up with the spoils there, rising before him as if she were in a manner their keeper, she felt that she must absolutely dissociate herself. Mrs. Gereth had made it impossible to do anything but give her away. “I can only tell you that, on my side, I left it to her. I never dreamed either that she would pick out so many things.”

“And you don’t really think it’s fair, do you? You don’t!” He spoke very quickly; he really seemed to plead.

Fleda faltered a moment. “I think she has gone too far.” Then she added: “I shall immediately tell her that I’ve said that to you.”

He appeared puzzled by this statement, but he presently rejoined: “You haven’t then said to mamma what you think?”

“Not yet; remember that I only got here last night.” She appeared to herself ignobly weak. “I had had no idea what she was doing; I was taken completely by surprise. She managed it wonderfully.”

“It’s the sharpest thing I ever saw in my life!” They looked at each other with intelligence, in appreciation of the sharpness, and Owen quickly broke into a loud laugh. The laugh was in itself natural, but the occasion of it strange; and stranger still, to Fleda, so that she too almost laughed, the inconsequent charity with which he added: “Poor dear old Mummy! That’s one of the reasons I asked for you,” he went on — “to see if you’d back her up.”

Whatever he said or did, she somehow liked him the better for it. “How can I back her up, Mr. Gereth, when I think, as I tell you, that she has made a great mistake?”

“A great mistake! That’s all right.” He spoke — it wasn’t clear to her why — as if this declaration were a great point gained.

“Of course there are many things she hasn’t taken,” Fleda continued.

“Oh yes, a lot of things. But you wouldn’t know the place, all the same.” He looked about the room with his discolored, swindled face, which deepened Fleda’s compassion for him, conjuring away any smile at so candid an image of the dupe. “You’d know this one soon enough, wouldn’t you? These are just the things she ought to have left. Is the whole house full of them?”

“The whole house,” said Fleda uncompromisingly. She thought of her lovely room.

“I never knew how much I cared for them. They’re awfully valuable, aren’t they?” Owen’s manner mystified her; she was conscious of a return of the agitation he had produced in her on that last bewildering day, and she reminded herself that, now she was warned, it would be inexcusable of her to allow him to justify the fear that had dropped on her. “Mother thinks I never took any notice, but I assure you I was awfully proud of everything. Upon my honor, I was proud, Miss Vetch.”

There was an oddity in his helplessness; he appeared to wish to persuade her and to satisfy himself that she sincerely felt how worthy he really was to treat what had happened as an injury. She could only exclaim, almost as helplessly as himself: “Of course you did justice! It’s all most painful. I shall instantly let your mother know,” she again declared, “the way I’ve spoken of her to you.” She clung to that idea as to the sign of her straightness.

“You’ll tell her what you think she ought to do?” he asked with some eagerness.

“What she ought to do?”

Don’t you think it — I mean that she ought to give them up?”

“To give them up?” Fleda hesitated again.

“To send them back — to keep it quiet.” The girl had not felt the impulse to ask him to sit down among the monuments of his wrong, so that, nervously, awkwardly, he fidgeted about the room with his hands in his pockets and an effect of returning a little into possession through the formulation of his view. “To have them packed and dispatched again, since she knows so well how. She does it beautifully” — he looked close at two or three precious pieces. “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!”

He had laughed at his way of putting it, but Fleda remained grave. “Is that what you came to say to her?”

“Not exactly those words. But I did come to say” — he stammered, then brought it out — “I did come to say we must have them right back.”

“And did you think your mother would see you?”

“I wasn’t sure, but I thought it right to try — to put it to her kindly, don’t you see? If she won’t see me, then she has herself to thank. The only other way would have been to set the lawyers at her.”

“I’m glad you didn’t do that.”

“I’m dashed if I want to!” Owen honestly declared. “But what’s a fellow to do if she won’t meet a fellow?”

“What do you call meeting a fellow?” Fleda asked, with a smile.

“Why, letting me tell her a dozen things she can have.”

This was a transaction that Fleda, after a moment, had to give up trying to represent to herself. “If she won’t do that —?” she went on.

“I’ll leave it all to my solicitor. He won’t let her off: by Jove, I know the fellow!”

“That’s horrible!” said Fleda, looking at him in woe.

“It’s utterly beastly!”

His want of logic as well as his vehemence startled her; and with her eyes still on his she considered before asking him the question these things suggested. At last she asked it. “Is Mona very angry?”

“Oh dear, yes!” said Owen.

She had perceived that he wouldn’t speak of Mona without her beginning. After waiting fruitlessly now for him to say more, she continued: “She has been there again? She has seen the state of the house?”

“Oh dear, yes!” Owen repeated.

Fleda disliked to appear not to take account of his brevity, but it was just because she was struck by it that she felt the pressure of the desire to know more. What it suggested was simply what her intelligence supplied, for he was incapable of any art of insinuation. Wasn’t it at all events the rule of communication with him to say for him what he couldn’t say? This truth was present to the girl as she inquired if Mona greatly resented what Mrs. Gereth had done. He satisfied her promptly; he was standing before the fire, his back to it, his long legs apart, his hands, behind him, rather violently jiggling his gloves. “She hates it awfully. In fact, she refuses to put up with it at all. Don’t you see? — she saw the place with all the things.”

“So that of course she misses them.”

“Misses them — rather! She was awfully sweet on them.” Fleda remembered how sweet Mona had been, and reflected that if that was the sort of plea he had prepared it was indeed as well he shouldn’t see his mother. This was not all she wanted to know, but it came over her that it was all she needed. “You see it puts me in the position of not carrying out what I promised,” Owen said. “As she says herself” — he hesitated an instant — “it’s just as if I had obtained her under false pretenses.” Just before, when he spoke with more drollery than he knew, it had left Fleda serious; but now his own clear gravity had the effect of exciting her mirth. She laughed out, and he looked surprised, but went on: “She regards it as a regular sell.”

Fleda was silent; but finally, as he added nothing, she exclaimed: “Of course it makes a great difference!” She knew all she needed, but none the less she risked, after another pause, an interrogative remark. “I forget when it is that your marriage takes place?”

Owen came away from the fire and, apparently at a loss where to turn, ended by directing himself to one of the windows. “It’s a little uncertain; the date isn’t quite fixed.”

“Oh, I thought I remembered that at Poynton you had told me a day, and that it was near at hand.”

“I dare say I did; it was for the 19th. But we’ve altered that — she wants to shift it.” He looked out of the window; then he said: “In fact, it won’t come off till Mummy has come round.”

“Come round?”

“Put the place as it was.” In his offhand way he added: “You know what I mean!”

He spoke not impatiently, but with a kind of intimate familiarity, the sweetness of which made her feel a pang for having forced him to tell her what was embarrassing to him, what was even humiliating. Yes indeed, she knew all she needed: all she needed was that Mona had proved apt at putting down that wonderful patent-leather foot. Her type was misleading only to the superficial, and no one in the world was less superficial than Fleda. She had guessed the truth at Waterbath and she had suffered from it at Poynton; at Ricks the only thing she could do was to accept it with the dumb exaltation that she felt rising. Mona had been prompt with her exercise of the member in question, for it might be called prompt to do that sort of thing before marriage. That she had indeed been premature who should say save those who should have read the matter in the full light of results? Neither at Waterbath nor at Poynton had even Fleda’s thoroughness discovered all that there was — or rather, all that there was not — in Owen Gereth. “Of course it makes all the difference!” she said in answer to his last words. She pursued, after considering: “What you wish me to say from you then to your mother is that you demand immediate and practically complete restitution?”

“Yes, please. It’s tremendously good of you.”

“Very well, then. Will you wait?”

“For Mummy’s answer?” Owen stared and looked perplexed; he was more and more fevered with so much vivid expression of his case. “Don’t you think that if I’m here she may hate it worse — think I may want to make her reply bang off?”

Fleda thought. “You don’t, then?”

“I want to take her in the right way, don’t you know? — treat her as if I gave her more than just an hour or two.”

“I see,” said Fleda. “Then, if you don’t wait — good-bye.”

This again seemed not what he wanted. “Must you do it bang off?”

“I’m only thinking she’ll be impatient — I mean, you know, to learn what will have passed between us.”

“I see,” said Owen, looking at his gloves. “I can give her a day or two, you know. Of course I didn’t come down to sleep,” he went on. “The inn seems a horrid hole. I know all about the trains — having no idea you were here.” Almost as soon as his interlocutress he was struck with the absence of the visible, in this, as between effect and cause. “I mean because in that case I should have felt I could stop over. I should have felt I could talk with you a blessed sight longer than with Mummy.”

“We’ve already talked a long time,” smiled Fleda.

“Awfully, haven’t we?” He spoke with the stupidity she didn’t object to. Inarticulate as he was, he had more to say; he lingered perhaps because he was vaguely aware of the want of sincerity in her encouragement to him to go. “There’s one thing, please,” he mentioned, as if there might be a great many others too. “Please don’t say anything about Mona.”

She didn’t understand. “About Mona?”

“About its being her that thinks she has gone too far.” This was still slightly obscure, but now Fleda understood. “It mustn’t seem to come from her at all, don’t you know? That would only make Mummy worse.”

Fleda knew exactly how much worse, but she felt a delicacy about explicitly assenting: she was already immersed moreover in the deep consideration of what might make “Mummy” better. She couldn’t see as yet at all; she could only clutch at the hope of some inspiration after he should go. Oh, there was a remedy, to be sure, but it was out of the question; in spite of which, in the strong light of Owen’s troubled presence, of his anxious face and restless step, it hung there before her for some minutes. She felt that, remarkably, beneath the decent rigor of his errand, the poor young man, for reasons, for weariness, for disgust, would have been ready not to insist. His fitness to fight his mother had left him — he wasn’t in fighting trim. He had no natural avidity and even no special wrath; he had none that had not been taught him, and it was doing his best to learn the lesson that had made him so sick. He had his delicacies, but he hid them away like presents before Christmas. He was hollow, perfunctory, pathetic; he had been girded by another hand. That hand had naturally been Mona’s, and it was heavy even now on his strong, broad back. Why then had he originally rejoiced so in its touch? Fleda dashed aside this question, for it had nothing to do with her problem. Her problem was to help him to live as a gentleman and carry through what he had undertaken; her problem was to reinstate him in his rights. It was quite irrelevant that Mona had no intelligence of what she had lost — quite irrelevant that she was moved not by the privation, but by the insult: she had every reason to be moved, though she was so much more movable, in the vindictive way, at any rate, than one might have supposed — assuredly more than Owen himself had imagined.

“Certainly I shall not mention Mona,” Fleda said, “and there won’t be the slightest necessity for it. The wrong’s quite sufficiently yours, and the demand you make is perfectly justified by it.”

“I can’t tell you what it is to me to feel you on my side!” Owen exclaimed.

“Up to this time,” said Fleda, after a pause, “your mother has had no doubt of my being on hers.”

“Then of course she won’t like your changing.”

“I dare say she won’t like it at all.”

“Do you mean to say you’ll have a regular kick-up with her?”

“I don’t exactly know what you mean by a regular kick-up. We shall naturally have a great deal of discussion — if she consents to discuss the matter at all. That’s why you must decidedly give her two or three days.”

“I see you think she may refuse to discuss it at all,” said Owen.

“I’m only trying to be prepared for the worst. You must remember that to have to withdraw from the ground she has taken, to make a public surrender of what she has publicly appropriated, will go uncommonly hard with her pride.”

Owen considered; his face seemed to broaden, but not into a smile. “I suppose she’s tremendously proud, isn’t she?” This might have been the first time it had occurred to him.

“You know better than I,” said Fleda, speaking with high extravagance.

“I don’t know anything in the world half so well as you. If I were as clever as you I might hope to get round her.” Owen hesitated; then he went on: “In fact I don’t quite see what even you can say or do that will really fetch her.”

“Neither do I, as yet. I must think — I must pray!” the girl pursued, smiling. “I can only say to you that I’ll try. I want to try, you know — I want to help you.” He stood looking at her so long on this that she added with much distinctness: “So you must leave me, please, quite alone with her. You must go straight back.”

“Back to the inn?”

“Oh no, back to town. I’ll write to you to-morrow.”

He turned about vaguely for his hat.

“There’s the chance, of course, that she may be afraid.”

“Afraid, you mean, of the legal steps you may take?”

“I’ve got a perfect case — I could have her up. The Brigstocks say it’s simple stealing.”

“I can easily fancy what the Brigstocks say!” Fleda permitted herself to remark without solemnity.

“It’s none of their business, is it?” was Owen’s unexpected rejoinder. Fleda had already noted that no one so slow could ever have had such rapid transitions.

She showed her amusement. “They’ve a much better right to say it’s none of mine.”

“Well, at any rate, you don’t call her names.”

Fleda wondered whether Mona did; and this made it all the finer of her to exclaim in a moment: “You don’t know what I shall call her if she holds out!”

Owen gave her a gloomy glance; then he blew a speck off the crown of his hat. “But if you do have a set-to with her?”

He paused so long for a reply that Fleda said: “I don’t think I know what you mean by a set-to.”

“Well, if she calls you names.”

“I don’t think she’ll do that.”

“What I mean to say is, if she’s angry at your backing me up — what will you do then? She can’t possibly like it, you know.”

“She may very well not like it; but everything depends. I must see what I shall do. You mustn’t worry about me.”

She spoke with decision, but Owen seemed still unsatisfied. “You won’t go away, I hope?”

“Go away?”

“If she does take it ill of you.”

Fleda moved to the door and opened it. “I’m not prepared to say. You must have patience and see.”

“Of course I must,” said Owen — “of course, of course.” But he took no more advantage of the open door than to say: “You want me to be off, and I’m off in a minute. Only, before I go, please answer me a question. If you should leave my mother, where would you go?”

Fleda smiled again. “I haven’t the least idea.”

“I suppose you’d go back to London.”

“I haven’t the least idea,” Fleda repeated.

“You don’t — a — live anywhere in particular, do you?” the young man went on. He looked conscious as soon as he had spoken; she could see that he felt himself to have alluded more grossly than he meant to the circumstance of her having, if one were plain about it, no home of her own. He had meant it as an allusion of a tender sort to all that she would sacrifice in the case of a quarrel with his mother; but there was indeed no graceful way of touching on that. One just couldn’t be plain about it.

Fleda, wound up as she was, shrank from any treatment at all of the matter, and she made no answer to his question. “I won’t leave your mother,” she said. “I’ll produce an effect on her; I’ll convince her absolutely.”

“I believe you will, if you look at her like that!”

She was wound up to such a height that there might well be a light in her pale, fine little face — a light that, while, for all return, at first, she simply shone back at him, was intensely reflected in his own. “I’ll make her see it — I’ll make her see it!” She rang out like a silver bell. She had at that moment a perfect faith that she should succeed; but it passed into something else when, the next instant, she became aware that Owen, quickly getting between her and the door she had opened, was sharply closing it, as might be said, in her face. He had done this before she could stop him, and he stood there with his hand on the knob and smiled at her strangely. Clearer than he could have spoken it was the sense of those seconds of silence.

“When I got into this I didn’t know you, and now that I know you how can I tell you the difference? And she’s so different, so ugly and vulgar, in the light of this squabble. No, like you I’ve never known one. It’s another thing, it’s a new thing altogether. Listen to me a little: can’t something be done?” It was what had been in the air in those moments at Kensington, and it only wanted words to be a committed act. The more reason, to the girl’s excited mind, why it shouldn’t have words; her one thought was not to hear, to keep the act uncommitted. She would do this if she had to be horrid.

“Please let me out, Mr. Gereth,” she said; on which he opened the door with an hesitation so very brief that in thinking of these things afterwards — for she was to think of them forever — she wondered in what tone she could have spoken. They went into the hall, where she encountered the parlor-maid, of whom she inquired whether Mrs. Gereth had come in.

“No, miss; and I think she has left the garden. She has gone up the back road.” In other words, they had the whole place to themselves. It would have been a pleasure, in a different mood, to converse with that parlor-maid.

“Please open the house-door,” said Fleda.

Owen, as if in quest of his umbrella, looked vaguely about the hall — looked even wistfully up the staircase — while the neat young woman complied with Fleda’s request. Owen’s eyes then wandered out of the open door. “I think it’s awfully nice here,” he observed; “I assure you I could do with it myself.”

“I should think you might, with half your things here! It’s Poynton itself — almost. Good-bye, Mr. Gereth,” Fleda added. Her intention had naturally been that the neat young woman, opening the front door, should remain to close it on the departing guest. That functionary, however, had acutely vanished behind a stiff flap of green baize which Mrs. Gereth had not yet had time to abolish. Fleda put out her hand, but Owen turned away — he couldn’t find his umbrella. She passed into the open air — she was determined to get him out; and in a moment he joined her in the little plastered portico which had small resemblance to any feature of Poynton. It was, as Mrs. Gereth had said, like the portico of a house in Brompton.

“Oh, I don’t mean with all the things here,” he explained in regard to the opinion he had just expressed. “I mean I could put up with it just as it was; it had a lot of good things, don’t you think? I mean if everything was back at Poynton, if everything was all right.” He brought out these last words with a sort of smothered sigh. Fleda didn’t understand his explanation unless it had reference to another and more wonderful exchange — the restoration to the great house not only of its tables and chairs, but of its alienated mistress. This would imply the installation of his own life at Ricks, and obviously that of another person. Such another person could scarcely be Mona Brigstock. He put out his hand now; and once more she heard his unsounded words: “With everything patched up at the other place, I could live here with you. Don’t you see what I mean?”

Fleda saw perfectly, and, with a face in which she flattered herself that nothing of this vision appeared, gave him her hand and said: “Good-bye, good-bye.”

Owen held her hand very firmly and kept it even after an effort made by her to recover it — an effort not repeated, as she felt it best not to show she was flurried. That solution — of her living with him at Ricks — disposed of him beautifully, and disposed not less so of herself; it disposed admirably too of Mrs. Gereth. Fleda could only vainly wonder how it provided for poor Mona. While he looked at her, grasping her hand, she felt that now indeed she was paying for his mother’s extravagance at Poynton — the vividness of that lady’s public plea that little Fleda Vetch was the person to insure the general peace. It was to that vividness poor Owen had come back, and if Mrs. Gereth had had more discretion little Fleda Vetch wouldn’t have been in a predicament. She saw that Owen had at this moment his sharpest necessity of speech, and so long as he didn’t release her hand she could only submit to him. Her defense would be perhaps to look blank and hard; so she looked as blank and as hard as she could, with the reward of an immediate sense that this was not a bit what he wanted. It even made him hang fire, as if he were suddenly ashamed of himself, were recalled to some idea of duty and of honor. Yet he none the less brought it out. “There’s one thing I dare say I ought to tell you, if you’re going so kindly to act for me; though of course you’ll see for yourself it’s a thing it won’t do to tell her.” What was it? He made her wait for it again, and while she waited, under firm coercion, she had the extraordinary impression that Owen’s simplicity was in eclipse. His natural honesty was like the scent of a flower, and she felt at this moment as if her nose had been brushed by the bloom without the odor. The allusion was undoubtedly to his mother; and was not what he meant about the matter in question the opposite of what he said — that it just would do to tell her? It would have been the first time he had said the opposite of what he meant, and there was certainly a fascination in the phenomenon, as well as a challenge to suspense in the ambiguity. “It’s just that I understand from Mona, you know,” he stammered; “it’s just that she has made no bones about bringing home to me — ” He tried to laugh, and in the effort he faltered again.

“About bringing home to you?” — Fleda encouraged him.

He was sensible of it, he achieved his performance. “Why, that if I don’t get the things back — every blessed one of them except a few she’ll pick out — she won’t have anything more to say to me.”

Fleda, after an instant, encouraged him again. “To say to you?”

“Why, she simply won’t marry me, don’t you see?”

Owen’s legs, not to mention his voice, had wavered while he spoke, and she felt his possession of her hand loosen so that she was free again. Her stare of perception broke into a lively laugh. “Oh, you’re all right, for you will get them. You will; you’re quite safe; don’t worry!” She fell back into the house with her hand on the door. “Good-bye, good-bye.” She repeated it several times, laughing bravely, quite waving him away and, as he didn’t move and save that he was on the other side of it, closing the door in his face quite as he had closed that of the drawing-room in hers. Never had a face, never at least had such a handsome one, been so presented to that offense. She even held the door a minute, lest he should try to come in again. At last, as she heard nothing, she made a dash for the stairs and ran up.

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