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The Spoils of Poynton

By Henry James


BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
The Riverside Press, Cambridge
1897

Copyright, 1896,
By HENRY JAMES.

_All rights reserved._

_The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A._
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.




THE SPOILS OF POYNTON




I


Mrs. Gereth had said she would go with the rest to church, but suddenly
it seemed to her that she should not be able to wait even till
church-time for relief: breakfast, at Waterbath, was a punctual meal,
and she had still nearly an hour on her hands. Knowing the church to be
near, she prepared in her room for the little rural walk, and on her way
down again, passing through corridors and observing imbecilities of
decoration, the æsthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a
return of the tide of last night's irritation, a renewal of everything
she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity. Why did she
consent to such contacts, why did she so rashly expose herself? She had
had, heaven knew, her reasons, but the whole experience was to be
sharper than she had feared. To get away from it and out into the air,
into the presence of sky and trees, flowers and birds, was a necessity
of every nerve. The flowers at Waterbath would probably go wrong in
color and the nightingales sing out of tune; but she remembered to have
heard the place described as possessing those advantages that are
usually spoken of as natural. There were advantages enough it clearly
didn't possess. It was hard for her to believe that a woman could look
presentable who had been kept awake for hours by the wall-paper in her
room; yet none the less, as in her fresh widow's weeds she rustled
across the hall, she was sustained by the consciousness, which always
added to the unction of her social Sundays, that she was, as usual, the
only person in the house incapable of wearing in her preparation the
horrible stamp of the same exceptional smartness that would be
conspicuous in a grocer's wife. She would rather have perished than have
looked _endimanchée_.

She was fortunately not challenged, the hall being empty of the other
women, who were engaged precisely in arraying themselves to that dire
end. Once in the grounds, she recognized that, with a site, a view that
struck the note, set an example to its inmates, Waterbath ought to have
been charming. How she herself, with such elements to handle, would have
taken the fine hint of nature! Suddenly, at the turn of a walk, she came
on a member of the party, a young lady seated on a bench in deep and
lonely meditation. She had observed the girl at dinner and afterwards:
she was always looking at girls with an apprehensive or speculative
reference to her son. Deep in her heart was a conviction that Owen
would, in spite of all her spells, marry at last a frump; and this from
no evidence that she could have represented as adequate, but simply from
her deep uneasiness, her belief that such a special sensibility as her
own could have been inflicted on a woman only as a source of anguish. It
would be her fate, her discipline, her cross, to have a frump brought
hideously home to her. This girl, one of the two Vetches, had no beauty,
but Mrs. Gereth, scanning the dullness for a sign of life, had been
straightway able to classify such a figure as the least, for the moment,
of her afflictions. Fleda Vetch was dressed with an idea, though perhaps
with not much else; and that made a bond when there was none other,
especially as in this case the idea was real, not imitation. Mrs. Gereth
had long ago generalized the truth that the temperament of the frump is
amply consistent with a certain usual prettiness. There were five girls
in the party, and the prettiness of this one, slim, pale, and
black-haired, was less likely than that of the others ever to occasion
an exchange of platitudes. The two less developed Brigstocks, daughters
of the house, were in particular tiresomely "lovely." A second glance,
this morning, at the young lady before her conveyed to Mrs. Gereth the
soothing assurance that she also was guiltless of looking hot and fine.
They had had no talk as yet, but this was a note that would effectually
introduce them if the girl should show herself in the least conscious of
their community. She got up from her seat with a smile that but partly
dissipated the prostration Mrs. Gereth had recognized in her attitude.
The elder woman drew her down again, and for a minute, as they sat
together, their eyes met and sent out mutual soundings. "Are you safe?
Can I utter it?" each of them said to the other, quickly recognizing,
almost proclaiming, their common need to escape. The tremendous fancy,
as it came to be called, that Mrs. Gereth was destined to take to Fleda
Vetch virtually began with this discovery that the poor child had been
moved to flight even more promptly than herself. That the poor child no
less quickly perceived how far she could now go was proved by the
immense friendliness with which she instantly broke out: "Isn't it too
dreadful?"

"Horrible - horrible!" cried Mrs. Gereth, with a laugh, "and it's really
a comfort to be able to say it." She had an idea, for it was her
ambition, that she successfully made a secret of that awkward oddity,
her proneness to be rendered unhappy by the presence of the dreadful.
Her passion for the exquisite was the cause of this, but it was a
passion she considered that she never advertised nor gloried in,
contenting herself with letting it regulate her steps and show quietly
in her life, remembering at all times that there are few things more
soundless than a deep devotion. She was therefore struck with the
acuteness of the little girl who had already put a finger on her hidden
spring. What was dreadful now, what was horrible, was the intimate
ugliness of Waterbath, and it was of that phenomenon these ladies talked
while they sat in the shade and drew refreshment from the great tranquil
sky, from which no blue saucers were suspended. It was an ugliness
fundamental and systematic, the result of the abnormal nature of the
Brigstocks, from whose composition the principle of taste had been
extravagantly omitted. In the arrangement of their home some other
principle, remarkably active, but uncanny and obscure, had operated
instead, with consequences depressing to behold, consequences that took
the form of a universal futility. The house was bad in all conscience,
but it might have passed if they had only let it alone. This saving
mercy was beyond them; they had smothered it with trumpery ornament and
scrapbook art, with strange excrescences and bunchy draperies, with
gimcracks that might have been keepsakes for maid-servants and
nondescript conveniences that might have been prizes for the blind. They
had gone wildly astray over carpets and curtains; they had an infallible
instinct for disaster, and were so cruelly doom-ridden that it rendered
them almost tragic. Their drawing-room, Mrs. Gereth lowered her voice to
mention, caused her face to burn, and each of the new friends confided
to the other that in her own apartment she had given way to tears. There
was in the elder lady's a set of comic water-colors, a family joke by a
family genius, and in the younger's a souvenir from some centennial or
other Exhibition, that they shudderingly alluded to. The house was
perversely full of souvenirs of places even more ugly than itself and of
things it would have been a pious duty to forget. The worst horror was
the acres of varnish, something advertised and smelly, with which
everything was smeared; it was Fleda Vetch's conviction that the
application of it, by their own hands and hilariously shoving each
other, was the amusement of the Brigstocks on rainy days.

When, as criticism deepened, Fleda dropped the suggestion that some
people would perhaps see something in Mona, Mrs. Gereth caught her up
with a groan of protest, a smothered familiar cry of "Oh, my dear!" Mona
was the eldest of the three, the one Mrs. Gereth most suspected. She
confided to her young friend that it was her suspicion that had brought
her to Waterbath; and this was going very far, for on the spot, as a
refuge, a remedy, she had clutched at the idea that something might be
done with the girl before her. It was her fancied exposure at any rate
that had sharpened the shock; made her ask herself with a terrible chill
if fate could really be plotting to saddle her with a daughter-in-law
brought up in such a place. She had seen Mona in her appropriate setting
and she had seen Owen, handsome and heavy, dangle beside her; but the
effect of these first hours had happily not been to darken the prospect.
It was clearer to her that she could never accept Mona, but it was after
all by no means certain that Owen would ask her to. He had sat by
somebody else at dinner, and afterwards he had talked to Mrs. Firmin,
who was as dreadful as all the rest, but redeemingly married. His
heaviness, which in her need of expansion she freely named, had two
aspects: one of them his monstrous lack of taste, the other his
exaggerated prudence. If it should come to a question of carrying Mona
with a high hand there would be no need to worry, for that was rarely
his manner of proceeding.

Invited by her companion, who had asked if it weren't wonderful, Mrs.
Gereth had begun to say a word about Poynton; but she heard a sound of
voices that made her stop short. The next moment she rose to her feet,
and Fleda could see that her alarm was by no means quenched. Behind the
place where they had been sitting the ground dropped with a certain
steepness, forming a long grassy bank, up which Owen Gereth and Mona
Brigstock, dressed for church but making a familiar joke of it, were in
the act of scrambling and helping each other. When they had reached the
even ground Fleda was able to read the meaning of the exclamation in
which Mrs. Gereth had expressed her reserves on the subject of Miss
Brigstock's personality. Miss Brigstock had been laughing and even
romping, but the circumstance hadn't contributed the ghost of an
expression to her countenance. Tall, straight and fair, long-limbed and
strangely festooned, she stood there without a look in her eye or any
perceptible intention of any sort in any other feature. She belonged to
the type in which speech is an unaided emission of sound and the secret
of being is impenetrably and incorruptibly kept. Her expression would
probably have been beautiful if she had had one, but whatever she
communicated she communicated, in a manner best known to herself,
without signs. This was not the case with Owen Gereth, who had plenty of
them, and all very simple and immediate. Robust and artless, eminently
natural, yet perfectly correct, he looked pointlessly active and
pleasantly dull. Like his mother and like Fleda Vetch, but not for the
same reason, this young pair had come out to take a turn before church.

The meeting of the two couples was sensibly awkward, and Fleda, who was
sagacious, took the measure of the shock inflicted on Mrs. Gereth. There
had been intimacy - oh yes, intimacy as well as puerility - in the
horse-play of which they had just had a glimpse. The party began to
stroll together to the house, and Fleda had again a sense of Mrs.
Gereth's quick management in the way the lovers, or whatever they were,
found themselves separated. She strolled behind with Mona, the mother
possessing herself of her son, her exchange of remarks with whom,
however, remained, as they went, suggestively inaudible. That member of
the party in whose intenser consciousness we shall most profitably seek
a reflection of the little drama with which we are concerned received an
even livelier impression of Mrs. Gereth's intervention from the fact
that ten minutes later, on the way to church, still another pairing had
been effected. Owen walked with Fleda, and it was an amusement to the
girl to feel sure that this was by his mother's direction. Fleda had
other amusements as well: such as noting that Mrs. Gereth was now with
Mona Brigstock; such as observing that she was all affability to that
young woman; such as reflecting that, masterful and clever, with a great
bright spirit, she was one of those who impose themselves as an
influence; such as feeling finally that Owen Gereth was absolutely
beautiful and delightfully dense. This young person had even from
herself wonderful secrets of delicacy and pride; but she came as near
distinctness as in the consideration of such matters she had ever come
at all in now surrendering herself to the idea that it was of a pleasant
effect and rather remarkable to be stupid without offense - of a
pleasanter effect and more remarkable indeed than to be clever and
horrid. Owen Gereth at any rate, with his inches, his features, and his
lapses, was neither of these latter things. She herself was prepared, if
she should ever marry, to contribute all the cleverness, and she liked
to think that her husband would be a force grateful for direction. She
was in her small way a spirit of the same family as Mrs. Gereth. On that
flushed and huddled Sunday a great matter occurred; her little life
became aware of a singular quickening. Her meagre past fell away from
her like a garment of the wrong fashion, and as she came up to town on
the Monday what she stared at in the suburban fields from the train was
a future full of the things she particularly loved.




II


These were neither more nor less than the things with which she had had
time to learn from Mrs. Gereth that Poynton overflowed. Poynton, in the
south of England, was this lady's established, or rather her
disestablished home, having recently passed into the possession of her
son. The father of the boy, an only child, had died two years before,
and in London, with his mother, Owen was occupying for May and June a
house good-naturedly lent them by Colonel Gereth, their uncle and
brother-in-law. His mother had laid her hand so engagingly on Fleda
Vetch that in a very few days the girl knew it was possible they should
suffer together in Cadogan Place almost as much as they had suffered
together at Waterbath. The kind colonel's house was also an ordeal, but
the two women, for the ensuing month, had at least the relief of their
confessions. The great drawback of Mrs. Gereth's situation was that,
thanks to the rare perfection of Poynton, she was condemned to wince
wherever she turned. She had lived for a quarter of a century in such
warm closeness with the beautiful that, as she frankly admitted, life
had become for her a kind of fool's paradise. She couldn't leave her own
house without peril of exposure. She didn't say it in so many words, but
Fleda could see she held that there was nothing in England really to
compare to Poynton. There were places much grander and richer, but there
was no such complete work of art, nothing that would appeal so to those
who were really informed. In putting such elements into her hand fortune
had given her an inestimable chance; she knew how rarely well things had
gone with her and that she had tasted a happiness altogether rare.

There had been in the first place the exquisite old house itself, early
Jacobean, supreme in every part: it was a provocation, an inspiration, a
matchless canvas for the picture. Then there had been her husband's
sympathy and generosity, his knowledge and love, their perfect accord
and beautiful life together, twenty-six years of planning and seeking, a
long, sunny harvest of taste and curiosity. Lastly, she never denied,
there had been her personal gift, the genius, the passion, the patience
of the collector - a patience, an almost infernal cunning, that had
enabled her to do it all with a limited command of money. There wouldn't
have been money enough for any one else, she said with pride, but there
had been money enough for her. They had saved on lots of things in life,
and there were lots of things they hadn't had, but they had had in every
corner of Europe their swing among the Jews. It was fascinating to poor
Fleda, who hadn't a penny in the world nor anything nice at home, and
whose only treasure was her subtle mind, to hear this genuine English
lady, fresh and fair, young in the fifties, declare with gayety and
conviction that she was herself the greatest Jew who had ever tracked a
victim. Fleda, with her mother dead, hadn't so much even as a home, and
her nearest chance of one was that there was some appearance her sister
would become engaged to a curate whose eldest brother was supposed to
have property and would perhaps allow him something. Her father paid
some of her bills, but he didn't like her to live with him; and she had
lately, in Paris, with several hundred other young women, spent a year
in a studio, arming herself for the battle of life by a course with an
impressionist painter. She was determined to work, but her impressions,
or somebody's else, were as yet her only material. Mrs. Gereth had told
her she liked her because she had an extraordinary _flair_; but under
the circumstances a _flair_ was a questionable boon: in the dry places
in which she had mainly moved she could have borne a chronic catarrh.
She was constantly summoned to Cadogan Place, and before the month was
out was kept to stay, to pay a visit of which the end, it was agreed,
should have nothing to do with the beginning. She had a sense, partly
exultant and partly alarmed, of having quickly become necessary to her
imperious friend, who indeed gave a reason quite sufficient for it in
telling her there was nobody else who understood. From Mrs. Gereth there
was in these days an immense deal to understand, though it might be
freely summed up in the circumstance that she was wretched. She told
Fleda that she couldn't completely know why till she should have seen
the things at Poynton. Fleda could perfectly grasp this connection,
which was exactly one of the matters that, in their inner mystery, were
a blank to everybody else.

The girl had a promise that the wonderful house should be shown her
early in July, when Mrs. Gereth would return to it as to her home; but
even before this initiation she put her finger on the spot that in the
poor lady's troubled soul ached hardest. This was the misery that
haunted her, the dread of the inevitable surrender. What Fleda had to
sit up to was the confirmed appearance that Owen Gereth would marry Mona
Brigstock, marry her in his mother's teeth, and that such an act would
have incalculable bearings. They were present to Mrs. Gereth, her
companion could see, with a vividness that at moments almost ceased to
be that of sanity. She would have to give up Poynton, and give it up to
a product of Waterbath - that was the wrong that rankled, the humiliation
at which Fleda would be able adequately to shudder only when she should
know the place. She did know Waterbath, and she despised it - she had
that qualification for sympathy. Her sympathy was intelligent, for she
read deep into the matter; she stared, aghast, as it came home to her
for the first time, at the cruel English custom of the expropriation of
the lonely mother. Mr. Gereth had apparently been a very amiable man,
but Mr. Gereth had left things in a way that made the girl marvel. The
house and its contents had been treated as a single splendid object;
everything was to go straight to his son, and his widow was to have a
maintenance and a cottage in another county. No account whatever had
been taken of her relation to her treasures, of the passion with which
she had waited for them, worked for them, picked them over, made them
worthy of each other and the house, watched them, loved them, lived with
them. He appeared to have assumed that she would settle questions with
her son, that he could depend upon Owen's affection. And in truth, as
poor Mrs. Gereth inquired, how could he possibly have had a
prevision - he who turned his eyes instinctively from everything
repulsive - of anything so abnormal as a Waterbath Brigstock? He had been
in ugly houses enough, but had escaped that particular nightmare.
Nothing so perverse could have been expected to happen as that the heir
to the loveliest thing in England should be inspired to hand it over to
a girl so exceptionally tainted. Mrs. Gereth spoke of poor Mona's taint
as if to mention it were almost a violation of decency, and a person who
had listened without enlightenment would have wondered of what fault the
girl had been or had indeed not been guilty. But Owen had from a boy
never cared, had never had the least pride or pleasure in his home.

"Well, then, if he doesn't care!" - Fleda exclaimed, with some
impetuosity; stopping short, however, before she completed her sentence.

Mrs. Gereth looked at her rather hard. "If he doesn't care?"

Fleda hesitated; she had not quite had a definite idea. "Well - he'll
give them up."

"Give what up?"

"Why, those beautiful things."

"Give them up to whom?" Mrs. Gereth more boldly stared.

"To you, of course - to enjoy, to keep for yourself."

"And leave his house as bare as your hand? There's nothing in it that
isn't precious."

Fleda considered; her friend had taken her up with a smothered ferocity
by which she was slightly disconcerted. "I don't mean of course that he
should surrender everything; but he might let you pick out the things to
which you're most attached."

"I think he would if he were free," said Mrs. Gereth.

"And do you mean, as it is, that _she_'ll prevent him?" Mona Brigstock,
between these ladies, was now nothing but "she."

"By every means in her power."

"But surely not because she understands and appreciates them?"

"No," Mrs. Gereth replied, "but because they belong to the house and the
house belongs to Owen. If I should wish to take anything, she would
simply say, with that motionless mask: 'It goes with the house.' And day
after day, in the face of every argument, of every consideration of
generosity, she would repeat, without winking, in that voice like the
squeeze of a doll's stomach: 'It goes with the house - it goes with the
house.' In that attitude they'll shut themselves up."

Fleda was struck, was even a little startled with the way Mrs. Gereth
had turned this over - had faced, if indeed only to recognize its
futility, the notion of a battle with her only son. These words led her
to make an inquiry which she had not thought it discreet to make before;
she brought out the idea of the possibility, after all, of her friend's
continuing to live at Poynton. Would they really wish to proceed to
extremities? Was no good-humored, graceful compromise to be imagined or
brought about? Couldn't the same roof cover them? Was it so very
inconceivable that a married son should, for the rest of her days, share
with so charming a mother the home she had devoted more than a score of
years to making beautiful for him? Mrs. Gereth hailed this question with
a wan, compassionate smile; she replied that a common household, in such
a case, was exactly so inconceivable that Fleda had only to glance over
the fair face of the English land to see how few people had ever
conceived it. It was always thought a wonder, a "mistake," a piece of
overstrained sentiment; and she confessed that she was as little capable
of a flight of that sort as Owen himself. Even if they both had been
capable, they would still have Mona's hatred to reckon with. Fleda's
breath was sometimes taken away by the great bounds and elisions which,
on Mrs. Gereth's lips, the course of discussion could take. This was the
first she had heard of Mona's hatred, though she certainly had not
needed Mrs. Gereth to tell her that in close quarters that young lady
would prove secretly mulish. Later Fleda perceived indeed that perhaps
almost any girl would hate a person who should be so markedly averse to
having anything to do with her. Before this, however, in conversation
with her young friend, Mrs. Gereth furnished a more vivid motive for her
despair by asking how she could possibly be expected to sit there with
the new proprietors and accept - or call it, for a day, endure - the
horrors they would perpetrate in the house. Fleda reasoned that they
wouldn't after all smash things nor burn them up; and Mrs. Gereth
admitted when pushed that she didn't quite suppose they would. What she
meant was that they would neglect them, ignore them, leave them to


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