The Old Things


As soon as her sister was married Fleda went down to Mrs. Gereth at Ricks, — a promise to this effect having been promptly exacted and given; and her inner vision was much more fixed on the alterations there, complete now, as she understood, than on the success of her plotting and pinching for Maggie’s happiness. Her imagination, in the interval, had indeed had plenty to do and numerous scenes to visit; for when, on the summons just mentioned, it had taken a flight from West Kensington to Ricks, it had hung but an hour over the terrace of painted pots, and then yielded to a current of the upper air that swept it straight off to Poynton and Waterbath. Not a sound had reached her of any supreme clash, and Mrs. Gereth had communicated next to nothing ; giving out that, as was easily conceivable, she was too busy, too bitter, and too tired for vain civilities. All she had written was that she had got the new place well in hand, and that Fleda would be surprised at the way it was turning out. Everything was even yet upside down ; nevertheless, in the sense of having passed the threshold of Poynton for the last time, the amputation, as she called it, had been performed. Her leg had come off, — she had now begun to stump along with the lovely wooden substitute ; she would stump for life, and what her young friend was to come and admire was the beauty of her movement and the noise she made about the house. The reserve of Poynton and Waterbath had been matched by the austerity of Fleda’s own secret, under the discipline of which she had repeated to herself a hundred times a day that she rejoiced at having cares that excluded all thought of it. She had lavished herself, in act, on Maggie and the curate, and had opposed to her father’s selfishness a sweetness quite ecstatic. The young couple wondered why they had waited so long, since everything was after all so easy. She had thought of everything, even to how the “ quietness ” of the wedding should be relieved by champagne, and her father be kept brilliant on a single bottle. Fleda knew, in short, and liked the knowledge, that for several weeks she had appeared exemplary in every relation of life.

She had been perfectly prepared to be surprised at Ricks, for Mrs. Gereth was a wonder-working wizard, with a command, when all was said, of good material ; but the impression in wait for her on the threshold made her catch her breath and falter. Dusk had fallen when she arrived, and in the plain square hall, one of the few good features, the glow of a Venetian lamp just showed, on either wall, the richness of an admirable tapestry. This instant perception that the place had been dressed at the expense of Poynton was a shock : it was as if she had abruptly seen herself in the light of an accomplice. The next moment, folded in Mrs. Gereth’s arms, her eyes were diverted; but she had already had, in a flash, the vision of the great gaps in the other house. The two tapestries, not the largest, but those most splendidly toned by time, had been on the whole its most uplifted pride. When she could really see again, she was in the drawing-room, on a sofa, staring with intensity at an object soon distinct as the great Italian cabinet that, at Poynton, had been in the red saloon. Without looking, she was sure the room was occupied with other objects like it, stuffed with as many as it could hold of the trophies of her friend’s struggle. By this time the very fingers of her glove, resting on the seat of the sofa, had thrilled at the touch of an old velvet brocade, a wondrous texture that she could recognize, would have recognized among a thousand, without dropping her eyes on it. They stuck to the cabinet with a kind of dissimulated dread, while she painfully asked herself whether she should notice it, notice everything, or just pretend not to be affected. How could she pretend not to be affected, with the very pendants of the lustres tinkling at her, and with Mrs. Gereth, beside her and staring at her, even as she herself stared at the cabinet, hunching up a back like Atlas under his globe ? She was appalled at this image of what Mrs. Gereth had on her shoulders. That lady was waiting and watching her, bracing herself, and preparing the same face of confession and defiance she had shown the day, at Poynton, she had been surprised in the corridor. It was farcical not to speak ; and yet to exclaim, to participate, would give one a bad sense of being mixed up with a theft. This ugly word sounded, for herself, in Fleda’s silence, and the very violence of it jarred her into a scared glance, as of a creature detected, to right and left. But what, again, the full picture most showed her was the faraway empty sockets, a scandal of nakedness in high, bare walls. She at last uttered something formal and incoherent, — she did n’t know what: it had no relation to either house. Then she felt Mrs. Gereth’s hand once more on her arm. “ I’ve arranged a charming room for you, — it’s really lovely. You ’ll be very happy there.” This was spoken with extraordinary sweetness, and with a smile that meant, “ Oh. I know what you ’re thinking ; but what does it matter when you ’re so loyally on my side ? ” It had come, indeed, to a question of “ sides,” Fleda thought, for the whole place was in battle array. In the soft lamplight, with one fine feature after another looming up into sombre richness, it defied her not to pronounce it a triumph of taste. Her passion for beauty leaped back into life ; and was not what now most appealed to it a certain gorgeous audacity ? Mrs. Gereth’s high hand was, as mere great effect, the climax of the impression.

“ It’s too wonderful, what you’ve done with the house ! ” The visitor met her friend’s eyes. They lighted up with joy, — that friend herself so pleased with what she had done. This was not at all, in its accidental air of enthusiasm, what Fleda wanted to have said: it offered her as stupidly announcing from the first minute on whose side she was. Such was clearly the way Mrs. Gereth took it: she threw herself upon the delightful girl and tenderly embraced her again ; so that Fleda soon went on, with a studied difference and a cooler inspection: “ Why, you brought away absolutely everything! ”

“ Oh no, not everything; I saw how little I could get into this scrap of a house. I only brought away what I required.”

Fleda had got up; she took a turn round the room. “You ‘required’ the very best pieces, — the morceaux de musée, the individual gems ! ” she answered, smiling.

“ I certainly did n’t want the rubbish, if that’s what you mean.” Mrs. Gereth, on the sofa, followed the direction of her companion’s eyes; with the light of her satisfaction still in her face, she slowly rubbed her large, handsome hands. Wherever she was, she was herself the great piece in the gallery. It was the first Fleda had heard of there being “ rubbish” at Poynton, but she didn’t, for the moment, take up this insincerity ; she only, from where she stood in the room, called out, one after the other, as if she had had a list in her hand, the pieces that in the great house had been scattered, and that now, if they had a fault, were too much like a minuet danced on a hearth-rug. She knew them each, in every chink and charm, — knew them by the personal name their distinctive sign or story had given them; and a second time she felt how, against her intention, this uttered knowledge struck her hostess as so much free approval. Mrs. Gereth was never indifferent to approval, and there was nothing she could so love you for as for doing justice to her deep morality. There was a particular gleam in her eyes when Fleda exclaimed at last, dazzled by the display, “ And even the Maltese cross ! ” That description, though technically incorrect, had always been applied, at Poynton, to a small but marvelous crucifix of ivory, a masterpiece of delicacy, of expression, and of the great Spanish period, the existence and precarious accessibility of which she had heard of, at Malta, years before, by an odd and romantic chance, — a clue followed through mazes of secrecy till the treasure was at last unearthed.

“ ‘ Even ’ the Maltese cross ? ” Mrs. Gereth rose as she sharply echoed the words. My dear child, you don’t suppose I’d have sacrificed that ? For what in the world would you have taken me ? ”

” A bibelot the more or the less,” Fleda said, “ could have made little difference in this grand general view of you. I take you simply for the greatest of all conjurers. You ’ve operated with a quickness — and with a quietness ! ” Her voice trembled a little as she spoke, for the plain meaning of her words was that what her friend had achieved belonged to the class of achievement essentially involving the protection of darkness. Fleda felt she really could say nothing at all if she could n’t say that she knew what the danger had been. She completed her thought by a resolute and perfectly candid question : “ How in the world did you get off with them ? ”

Mrs. Gereth confessed to the fact of danger with a cynicism that surprised the girl. “ By calculating, by choosing my time. I was quiet, and I was quick. I manœuvred ; then at the last I rushed ! ” Fleda drew a long breath : she saw in the poor woman something much better than sophistical ease, a crude elation that was a comparatively simple state to deal with. Her elation, it was true, was not so much from what she had done as from the way she had done it, — by as brilliant a stroke as any commemorated in the annals of crime. “ I succeeded because I had thought it all out and left nothing to chance : the whole process was organized in advance, so that the mere carrying it into effect took but a few hours. It was largely a matter of money : oh, I was horribly extravagant,— I had to turn on so many people. But they were all to be had, — a little army of workers, the packers, the porters, the helpers of every sort, the men with the mighty vans. It was a question of arranging in Tottenham Court Road and of paying the price. I have n’t paid it yet; there ’ll be a horrid bill; but at least the thing’s done ! Expedition pure and simple was the essence of the bargain. ‘ I can give you two days,’ I said ; ; I can’t give you another second.’ They undertook the job, and the two days saw them through. The people came down on a Tuesday morning; they were off on the Thursday. I admit that some of them worked all Wednesday night. I had thought it all out; I stood over them ; I showed them how. Yes, I coaxed them, I made love to them. Oh, I was inspired, — they found me wonderful. I neither ate nor slept, but I was as calm as I am now. I didn’t know what was in me ; it was worth finding out. I’m very remarkable, my dear : I lifted tons with my own arms. I ’m tired, very, very tired ; but there ’s neither a scratch nor a nick, there is n’t a teacup missing.” Magnificent both in her exhaustion and in her triumph, Mrs. Gereth sank on the sofa again, the sweep of her eyes a rich synthesis and the restless friction of her hands a clear betrayal. “Upon my word,” she laughed, “they really look better here ! ”

Fleda had listened in awe. “ And no one at Poynton said anything ? There was no alarm ? ”

“ What alarm should there have been ? Owen left me almost defiantly alone : I had taken a time that I had reason to believe was safe from a descent.” Fleda had another wonder, which she hesitated to express : it would scarcely do to ask Mrs. Gereth if she hadn’t stood in fear of her servants. She knew, moreover, some of the secrets of her humorous household rule, all made up of shocks to shyness and provocations to curiosity, — a diplomacy so artful that several of the maids quite yearned to accompany her to Ricks. Mrs. Gereth, reading sharply the whole of her visitor’s thought, caught it up with fine frankness. “ You mean that I was watched, — that he had his myrmidons, pledged to wire him if they should see what I was ‘ up to ’ ? Precisely. I know the three persons you have in mind : I had them in mind myself. Well, I took a line with them,— I settled them.”

Fleda had had no one in particular in mind ; she had never believed in the myrmidons : but the tone in which Mrs. Gereth spoke added to her suspense. “ What did you do to them ? ”

“ I took hold of them hard, — I put them in the forefront. I made them work.”

“To move the furniture ? ”

“ To help, and to help so as to please me. That was the way to take them; it was what they had least expected. I marched up to them and looked each straight in the eye, giving him the chance to choose if he ’d gratify me or gratify my son. He gratified me. They were too stupid! ”

Mrs. Gereth massed herself there more and more as an immoral woman, but Fleda had to recognize that she too would have been stupid, and she too would have gratified her. “ And when did all this take place ? ”

“ Only last week ; it seems a hundred years. We’ve worked here as fast as we worked there, but. I’m not settled yet: you’ll see in the rest of the house. However, the worst is over.”

“ Do you really think so ? ” Fleda presently inquired. “ I mean, does he, after the fact, as it were, accept it ? ”

“ Owen — what I’ve done ? I have n’t the least idea,” said Mrs. Gereth.

“ Does Mona ? ”

“You mean that she ’ll be the soul of the row ? ”

“I hardly see Mona as the ‘soul ’ of anything,” the girl replied. “ But have they made no sound ? Have you heard nothing at all ? ”

“ Not a whisper, not a step, in all the eight days. Perhaps they don’t know. Perhaps they’re crouching for a leap.”

“ But would n’t they have gone down as soon as you left ? ”

“ They may not have known of my leaving.” Fleda wondered afresh; it struck her as scarcely supposable that some sign should n’t have flashed from Poynton to London. If the storm was taking this term of silence to gather, even in Mona’s breast, it would probably discharge itself in some startling form. The great hush of every one concerned was strange ; but when she pressed Mrs. Gereth for some explanation of it, that lady only replied, with her brave irony, “ Oh, I took their breath away ! ” She had no illusions, however; she was still prepared to fight. What indeed was her spoliation of Poynton but the first engagement of a campaign ?

All this was exciting, but Fleda’s spirit dropped, at bedtime, in the chamber embellished for her pleasure, where she found several of the objects that in her earlier room she had most admired. These had been reinforced by other pieces from other rooms, so that the quiet air of it was a harmony without a break, the finished picture of a maiden’s bower. It was the sweetest Louis Seize, all assorted and combined, — old chastened, figured, faded France. Fleda was impressed anew with her friend’s genius for composition. She could say to herself that no girl in England, that night, went to rest with so picked a guard ; but there was no joy for her in her privilege, no sleep even for the tired hours that made the place, in the embers of the fire and the winter dawn, look gray, somehow, and loveless. She could n’t care for such things when they came to her in such ways : there was a wrong about them all that turned them to ugliness. In the watches of the night she saw Poynton dishonored; she had cared for it as a happy whole, she reasoned, and the parts of it now around her seemed to suffer like chopped limbs. Before going to bed she had walked about with Mrs. Gereth and seen at whose expense the whole house had been furnished. At poor Owen’s, from top to bottom. There was n’t a chair he had n’t sat upon. The maiden aunt had been exterminated, — no trace of her to tell her tale. Fleda tried to think of some of the things at Poynton still unappropriated, but her memory was a blank about them, and in trying to focus the old combinations she saw again nothing but gaps and scars, a vacancy that gathered at moments into something worse. This concrete image was her greatest trouble, for it was Owen Gereth’s face, his sad, strange eyes, fixed upon her now as they had never been. They stared at her out of the darkness, and their expression was more than she could bear; it seemed to say that he was in pain, and that it was somehow her fault. He had looked to her to help him, and this was what her help had been. He had done her the honor to ask her to exert herself in his interest, confiding to her a task of difficulty, but of the highest delicacy. Had n’t that been exactly the sort of service she longed to render him ? Well, her way of rendering it had been simply to betray him and hand him over to his enemy. Shame, pity, resentment, oppressed her in turn; in the last of these feelings the others were quickly submerged. Mrs. Gereth had imprisoned her in that torment of taste; but it was clear to her for an hour, at least, that she might hate Mrs. Gereth.

Something else, however, when morning came, was even move intensely definite : the most odious thing in the world for her would be ever again to meet Owen. She took on the spot a resolve to neglect no precaution that could lead to her going through life without that accident. After this, while she dressed, she took still another. Her position had become, in a few hours, intolerably false; in as few more hours as possible she would therefore put an end to it. The way to put an end to it would be to inform Mrs. Gereth that, to her great regret, she could n’t be with her now, could n’t cleave to her to the point that everything about her so plainly urged. She dressed with a sort of violence, a symbol of the manner in which this purpose was precipitated. The more they parted company, the less likely she was to come across Owen ; for Owen would be drawn closer to his mother now by the very necessity of bringing her down. Fleda, in the inconsequence of distress, wished to have nothing to do with her fall; she had had too much to do with everything. She was well aware of the importance, before breakfast and in view of any light they might shed on the question of motive, of not suffering her invidious expression of a difference to be accompanied by the traces of tears ; but it none the less came to pass, downstairs, that after she had subtly put her back to the window, to make a mystery of the state of her eyes, she stupidly let a rich sob escape her before she could properly meet the consequences of being asked if she was n’t delighted with her room. This accident struck her on the spot as so grave that she felt the only refuge to be instant hypocrisy, some graceful impulse that would charge her emotion to the quickened sense of her friend’s generosity, — a demonstration entailing a flutter round the table and a renewed embrace, and not so successfully improvised but that Fleda fancied Mrs. Gereth to have been only half reassured. She had been startled, at any rate, and she might remain suspicious: this reflection interposed by the time, after breakfast. the gill had recovered sufficiently to say what was in her heart. She accordingly didn’t say it that morning at. all: she had absurdly veered about: she had encountered the shock of the fear that Mrs. Gereth, with sharpened eyes, might wonder why the deuce (she often wondered in that phrase) she had grown so warm about Owen’s rights. She would doubtless, at a pinch, be able to defend them on abstract grounds, but that would involve a discussion, and the idea of a discussion made her nervous for her secret. Until in some way Poynton should return the blow and give her a cue, she must keep nervousness down : and she called herself a fool for having forgotten, however briefly, that her one safety was in silence.

Directly after luncheon Mrs. Gereth took her into the garden for a glimpse of the revolution — or at least, said the mistress of Ricks, of the great row — that had been decreed there ; but the ladies had scarcely placed themselves for this view before the younger one found herself embracing a prospect that opened in quite another quarter. Her attention was called to it, oddly, by the streamers of the parlor-maid’s cap, which, flying straight behind the neat young woman who unexpectedly burst from the house and showed a long red face as she ambled over the grass, seemed to articulate in their flutter the name that Fleda lived at present only to catch. “ Poynton — Poynton ! ” said the morsels of muslin ; so that the parlor-maid became on the instant an actress in the drama, and Fleda. assuming pusillanimously that she herself was only a spectator, looked across the footlights at the exponent of the principal part. The manner in which this artist returned her look showed that she was equally preoccupied. Both were haunted alike by possibilities, but the apprehension of neither, before the announcement was made, took the form of the arrival at Ricks, in the flesh, of Mrs. Gereth’s victim. When the messenger informed them that Mr. Gereth was in the drawing-room, the blank “ Oh ! ” emitted by Fleda was quite as precipitate as the sound on her hostess’s lips, besides being, as she felt, much less pertinent. “ I thought it would be somebody.’’ that lady afterwards said; “but I expected, on the whole, a solicitor’s clerk.’’ Fleda did n’t mention that she herself had expected, on the whole, a pair of constables. She was surprised by Mrs. Gereth’s question to the parlor-maid.

“ For whom did he ask ? ”

Why. for you. of course, dearest friend! ” Fleda interjected, falling instinctively into the address that embodied the intensest pressure. She wanted to put Mrs. Gereth between her and her danger.

“ He asked for Miss Vetch, mum,” the girl replied, with a face that brought startlingly to Fleda’s ear the muffled chorus of the kitchen.

“ Quite proper,” said Mrs. Gereth austerely. Then to Fleda. “ Please go to him.”

“ But what to do ? ”

“ What you always do. — to see what he wants.” Mrs. Gereth dismissed the maid. “ Tell him Miss Vetch will come.” Fleda saw that nothing was in the mother’s imagination at this moment but the desire not to meet her son. She had completely broken with him, and there was little in what had just happened to repair the rupture. It would now take more to do so than his presenting himself uninvited at her door. “ He’s right in asking for you, — he ’s aware that you ’re still our intermediary ; nothing has occurred to alter that. To what he wishes to transmit through you, I’m ready, as I’ve been ready before, to listen. As far as I’m concerned, if I could n’t meet him a month ago, how am I to meet him to-day ? If he has come to say, ‘ My dear mother, you ’re here, in the hovel into which I’ve flung you, with consolations that give me pleasure,’ I ’ll listen to him ; but on no other footing. That ’s what you ’re to ascertain, please. You ’ll oblige me as you’ve obliged me before. There ! ” Mrs. Gereth turned her back, and, with a fine imitation of superiority, began to redress the miseries immediately before her. Fleda meanwhile hesitated, lingered for some minutes where she had been left, feeling secretly that her fate still had her in hand. It had put her face to face with Owen Gereth, and it evidently meant to keep her so. She was reminded afresh of two things : one of which was that, though she judged her friend’s rigor, she had never really had the story of the scene enacted in the great awestricken house between the mother and the son weeks before, — the day the former took to her bed in her collapse ; the other was, that at Ricks, as at Poynton, it was before all things her place to accept thankfully a usefulness not, she must remember, universally acknowledged. What determined her at the last, while Mrs. Gereth disappeared in the shrubbery, was that, though she was at a distance from the house, and the drawing-room was turned the other way, she could absolutely see the young man alone there with the sources of his pain. She saw his simple stare at his tapestries, heard his heavy tread on his carpets and the hard breath of his sense of unfairness. At this she went to him fast.


“ 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 did n’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 would n’t have come down? ”

The way Owen hung fire at this suggested that it was a more ironic question 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 would n’t have come, indeed, if he had known she was on the spot; because then, did n’t she see, he could have written to her ? He would have had her there, to go at his mother.

“ That would have saved me — well, it would have saved me a lot. Of course I should 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 my mother at all. If she thinks I like it ” — He sighed disgustedly. “ I only came down because it seemed better than any other way. I did n’t want her to be able to say I had n’t been nice. 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 have 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 have n’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 was n’t clear to her why — as if this declaration were a great point gained.

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

“ Oh yes, a lot of things. But you would n’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, would n’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, are n’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 was n’t sure, but I thought it right to try, — to put it to her kindly, you know. 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 did n’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 tilings 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 would n’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. Was n’t it, at all events, the rule of communication with him to say for him what he could n’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 know ? — 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 should n’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 he 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 is n’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 a 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 n’t — 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 formulation 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-by.”

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 did n’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, have n’t we ? ” He spoke with the stupidity she did n’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 did n’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 must n’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 could n’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 was n’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 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, and assuredly 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 row with her ? ”

“ I don’t exactly know what you mean by a regular row. 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, is n’t she ? ” This might have been the first time it had occurred to him.

“ You know better than I,” said Fleda, 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 have 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 ’ll 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 row with her? ”

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

“ 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 must n’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 have n’t the least idea.”

“ I suppose you ’d go back to London.”

“ I have n’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 could n’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 did n’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 should n’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-by, 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 could n’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 did n’t quite 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. That other person could scarcely he 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, she gave him her hand, and said, “ Good-by, goodby.”

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 would n’t have been in a predicament. She saw that Owen had at this moment his sharpest necessity of speech, and so long as he did n 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, and 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, you know.”

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-by, goodby.” She repeated it several times, laughing bravely, quite waving him away, and as he did n’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.


In knowing, a while before, all she needed, Fleda had been far from knowing as much as that; so that, once upstairs, where, in her room with her sense of danger and trouble, the age of Louis Seize suddenly struck her as wanting in taste and point, she felt that she now for the first time knew her temptation. Owen had put it before her with an art beyond his own dream. Mona would cast him off if he did n’t proceed to extremities ; if his negotiation with his mother should fail, he would be a free man. That negotiation depended on a young lady to whom he had pressingly suggested the condition of his freedom ; and as if to aggravate the young lady’s predicament, designing fate had sent Mrs. Gereth, as the parlor-maid said, “ up the back road.” This would give the young lady more time to make up her mind that nothing should come of the negotiation. There would be different ways of putting the question to Mrs. Gereth, and Fleda might profitably devote the moments before her return to a selection of the way that would most surely be tantamount to failure. This selection, indeed, required no great adroitness ; it was so conspicuous that failure would be the reward of an effective introduction of Mona. If that abhorred name should be properly invoked, Mrs. Gereth would resist to the death, and before envenomed resistance Owen would certainly retire. His retirement would be into single life, and Fleda reflected that he bad now gone away conscious of having practically told her so. She could only say, as she waited for the back road to disgorge, that she hoped it was a consciousness he enjoyed. There was something she enjoyed, but that was a very different matter. To know that she had become to him an object of desire gave her wings that she felt herself flutter in the air ; it was like the rush of a flood into her own accumulations. These stored depths had been fathomless and still, but now, for half an hour, in the empty house, they spread till they overflowed. He seemed to have made it right for her to confess to herself her secret. Strange, then, there should be nothing for him, in return, that such a confession could make right! How could it make right that he should give up Mona for another woman ? His attitude was a sorry appeal to Fleda to legitimate that. But he didn’t believe it himself, and he had none of the courage of his suggestion. She could easily see how wrong everything must be when Owen was wanting in courage. She had upset him, as people called it, and he had spoken out from the force of the jar of finding her there. He had upset her too, Heaven knew, but she was one of those who could pick themselves up. She had the real advantage, she considered, of having kept him from seeing that she had been overthrown.

She had, moreover, at present, completely recovered her feet, though there was in the intensity of the effort required to do so a vibration which throbbed away into an immense allowance for the young man. How could she know, after all, what, in the disturbance wrought by his mother, Mona’s relations with him might have become ? If he had been able to keep his wits, such as they were, more about him, he would probably have felt — as sharply as she felt on his behalf — that so long as those relations were not ended he had no right to say even the little he had said. He had no right to appear to wish to draw in another girl to help him to an end. If he was in a plight, he must get out of the plight himself, he must get out of it first, and anything he should have to say to any one else must be deferred and detached. She herself at any rate, — it was her own case that was in question, — could n’t dream of assisting him save in the sense of their common honor. She could never be the girl to be drawn in, she could never lift her finger against Mona. There was something in her that would make it a shame to her forever to have owed her happiness to an interference. It would seem intolerably vulgar to her to have “ ousted ” the daughter of the Brigstocks ; and merely to have abstained, even, would n’t assure her that she had been straight. Nothing was really straight but to justify her little pensioned presence by her use ; and now, won over as she was to heroism, she could see her use only as some high and delicate deed. She could n’t do anything at all, in short, unless she could do it with a kind of pride, and there would be nothing to be proud of in having arranged for poor Owen to get off easily. Nobody had a right to get off easily from pledges so deep, so sacred. How could Fleda doubt they had been tremendous when she knew so well what any pledge of her own would be ? If Mona was so formed that she could hold such vows light, that was Mona’s peculiar business. To have loved Owen, apparently, and yet to have loved him only so much, only to the extent of a few tables and chairs, was not a thing she could so much as try to grasp. Of a different way of loving him she was herself ready to give an instance, an instance of which the beauty indeed would not be generally known. It would not, perhaps, if revealed, be generally understood, inasmuch as the effect of the particular pressure she proposed to exercise would be, should success attend it, to keep him tied to an affection that had died a sudden and violent death. Even in the ardor of her meditation Fleda remained in sight of the truth that it would be an odd result of her magnanimity to prevent her friend’s escaping from a woman he disliked. If he did n’t dislike Mona, what was the matter with him ? And if he did, Fleda asked, what was the matter with her own silly self ?

Our young lady met this branch of the temptation it pleased her frankly to recognize by declaring that to encourage any such cruelty would be tortuous and vile. She had nothing to do with his dislikes; she had only to do with his good nature and his good name. She had joy of him just as he was, but it was of these things she had the greatest. The worst aversion and the liveliest reaction, moreover, would n’t alter the fact — since one was facing facts — that but the other day his strong arms must have clasped a remarkably handsome girl as close as she had permitted. Fleda’s emotion, at this time, was a wondrous mixture, in which Mona’s permissions and Mona’s beauty figured powerfully as aids to reflection. She herself had no beauty, and her permissions were the stony stares she had just practiced in the drawingroom, — a consciousness of a kind appreciably to add to the particular sense of triumph that made her generous. I may not perhaps too much diminish the merit of that generosity if I mention that it could take the flight we are considering just because really, with the telescope of her long thought, Fleda saw what might bring her out of the wood. Mona herself would bring her out; at any rate, Mona might. Deep down plunged the idea that even should she achieve what she had promised Owen, there was still the possibility of Mona’s independent action. She might by that time, under stress of temper or of whatever it was that was now moving her, have said or done the things there is no patching up. If the rupture should come from Waterbath, they might all be happy yet. This was a calculation that Fleda would n’t have committed to paper, but it affected the total of her thoughts. She was, meanwhile, so remarkably constituted that while she refused to profit by Owen’s mistake, even while she judged it and hastened to cover it up, she could drink a sweetness from it that consorted little with her wishing it might n’t have been made. There was no harm done, because he had instinctively known, poor dear, with whom to make it, and it was a compensation for seeing him worried that he had n’t made it with some horrid mean girl who would immediately have dished him by making a still bigger one. Their protected error (for she indulged a fancy that it was hers too) was like some dangerous, lovely living thing that she had caught and could keep, — keep vivid and helpless in the cage of her own passion, and look at and talk to all day long. She had got it well locked up there by the time that, from an upper window, she saw Mrs. Gereth again in the garden. At this she went down to meet her.

Henry James.