The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

Part 1.

1.

In the old New York of the ’fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

The sturdy English and the rubicund and heavier Dutch had mingled to produce a prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society. To “do things handsomely” had always been a fundamental principle in this cautious world, built up on the fortunes of bankers, India merchants, ship-builders and ship-chandlers. Those well-fed slow-moving people, who seemed irritable and dyspeptic to European eyes only because the caprices of the climate had stripped them of superfluous flesh, and strung their nerves a little tighter, lived in a genteel monotony of which the surface was never stirred by the dumb dramas now and then enacted underground. Sensitive souls in those days were like muted key-boards, on which Fate played without a sound.

In this compact society, built of solidly welded blocks, one of the largest areas was filled by the Ralstons and their ramifications. The Ralstons were of middle-class English stock. They had not come to the Colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account. The result had been beyond their hopes, and their religion was tinged by their success. An edulcorated Church of England which, under the conciliatory name of the “Episcopal Church of the United States of America,” left out the coarser allusions in the Marriage Service, slid over the comminatory passages in the Athanasian Creed, and thought it more respectful to say “Our Father who” than “which” in the Lord’s Prayer, was exactly suited to the spirit of compromise whereon the Ralstons had built themselves up. There was in all the tribe the same instinctive recoil from new religions as from unaccounted-for people. Institutional to the core, they represented the conservative element that holds new societies together as seaplants bind the seashore.

Compared with the Ralstons, even such traditionalists as the Lovells, the Halseys or the Vandergraves appeared careless, indifferent to money, almost reckless in their impulses and indecisions. Old John Frederick Ralston, the stout founder of the race, had perceived the difference, and emphasized it to his son, Frederick John, in whom he had scented a faint leaning toward the untried and unprofitable.

“You let the Lannings and the Dagonets and the Spenders take risks and fly kites. It’s the county-family blood in ’em: we’ve nothing to do with that. Look how they’re petering out already — the men, I mean. Let your boys marry their girls, if you like (they’re wholesome and handsome); though I’d sooner see my grandsons take a Lovell or a Vandergrave, or any of our own kind. But don’t let your sons go mooning around after their young fellows, horse-racing, and running down south to those d —— d Springs, and gambling at New Orleans, and all the rest of it. That’s how you’ll build up the family, and keep the weather out. The way we’ve always done it.”

Frederick John listened, obeyed, married a Halsey, and passively followed in his father’s steps. He belonged to the cautious generation of New York gentleman who revered Hamilton and served Jefferson, who longed to lay out New York like Washington, and who laid it out instead like a gridiron, lest they should be thought “undemocratic” by people they secretly looked down upon. Shopkeepers to the marrow, they put in their windows the wares there was most demand for, keeping their private opinions for the back-shop, where through lack of use, they gradually lost substance and colour.

The fourth generation of Ralstons had nothing left in the way of convictions save an acute sense of honour in private and business matters; on the life of the community and the state they took their daily views from the newspapers, and the newspapers they already despised. The Ralstons had done little to shape the destiny of their country, except to finance the Cause when it had become safe to do so. They were related to many of the great men who had built the Republic; but no Ralston had so far committed himself as to be great. As old John Frederick said, it was safer to be satisfied with three per cent: they regarded heroism as a form of gambling. Yet by merely being so numerous and so similar they had come to have a weight in the community. People said: “The Ralstons” when they wished to invoke a precedent. This attribution of authority had gradually convinced the third generation of its collective importance, and the fourth, to which Delia Ralston’s husband belonged, had the ease and simplicity of a ruling class.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established. The first Ralston who had brought home a statue had been regarded as a wild fellow; but when it became known that the sculptor had executed several orders for the British aristocracy it was felt in the family that this too was a three per cent investment.

Two marriages with the Dutch Vandergraves had consolidated these qualities of thrift and handsome living, and the carefully built-up Ralston character was now so congenital that Delia Ralston sometimes asked herself whether, were she to turn her own little boy loose in a wilderness, he would not create a small New York there, and be on all its boards of directors.

Delia Lovell had married James Ralston at twenty. The marriage, which had taken place in the month of September, 1840, had been solemnized, as was then the custom, in the drawing-room of the bride’s country home, at what is now the corner of Avenue A and Ninety-first Street, overlooking the Sound. Thence her husband had driven her (in Grandmamma Lovell’s canary-coloured coach with a fringed hammer-cloth) through spreading suburbs and untidy elm-shaded streets to one of the new houses in Gramercy Park, which the pioneers of the younger set were just beginning to affect; and there, at five-and-twenty, she was established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and, by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular “young matrons” (as they were called) of her day.

She was thinking placidly and gratefully of these things as she sat one afternoon in her handsome bedroom in Gramercy Park. She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them, as for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things. The moment was always fleeting; she dropped back from it quickly, breathless and a little pale, to her children, her house-keeping, her new dresses and her kindly Jim.

She thought of him today with a smile of tenderness, remembering how he had told her to spare no expense on her new bonnet. Though she was twenty-five, and twice a mother, her image was still surprisingly fresh. The plumpness then thought seemly in a young wife stretched the grey silk across her bosom, and caused her heavy gold watch-chain — after it left the anchorage of the brooch of St. Peter’s in mosaic that fastened her low-cut Cluny collar — to dangle perilously in the void above a tiny waist buckled into a velvet waist-band. But the shoulders above sloped youthfully under her Cashmere scarf, and every movement was as quick as a girl’s.

Mrs. Jim Ralston approvingly examined the rosy-cheeked oval set in the blonde ruffles of the bonnet on which, in compliance with her husband’s instructions, she had spared no expense. It was a cabriolet of white velvet tied with wide satin ribbons and plumed with a crystal-spangled marabout — a wedding bonnet ordered for the marriage of her cousin, Charlotte Lovell, which was to take place that week at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie. Charlotte was making a match exactly like Delia’s own: marrying a Ralston, of the Waverly Place branch, than which nothing could be safer, sounder or more — well, usual. Delia did not know why the word had occurred to her, for it could hardly be postulated, even of the young women of her own narrow clan, that they “usually” married Ralstons; but the soundness, safeness, suitability of the arrangement, did make it typical of the kind of alliance which a nice girl in the nicest set would serenely and blushingly forecast for herself.

Yes — and afterward?

Well — what? And what did this new question mean? Afterward: why, of course, there was the startled puzzled surrender to the incomprehensible exigencies of the young man to whom one had at most yielded a rosy cheek in return for an engagement ring; there was the large double-bed; the terror of seeing him shaving calmly the next morning, in his shirt-sleeves, through the dressing-room door; the evasions, insinuations, resigned smiles and Bible texts of one’s Mamma; the reminder of the phrase “to obey” in the glittering blur of the Marriage Service; a week or a month of flushed distress, confusion, embarrassed pleasure; then the growth of habit, the insidious lulling of the matter-of-course, the dreamless double slumbers in the big white bed, the early morning discussions and consultations through that dressing-room door which had once seemed open into a fiery pit scorching the brow of innocence.

And then, the babies; the babies who were supposed to “make up for everything,” and didn’t — though they were such darlings, and one had no definite notion as to what it was that one had missed, and that they were to make up for.

Yes: Charlotte’s fate would be just like hers. Joe Ralston was so like his second cousin Jim (Delia’s James), that Delia could see no reason why life in the squat brick house in Waverly Place should not exactly resemble life in the tall brown-stone house in Gramercy Park. Only Charlotte’s bedroom would certainly not be as pretty as hers.

She glanced complacently at the French wall-paper that reproduced a watered silk, with a “valanced” border, and tassels between the loops. The mahogany bedstead, covered with a white embroidered counterpane, was symmetrically reflected in the mirror of a wardrobe which matched it. Coloured lithographs of the “Four Seasons” by Leopold Robert surmounted groups of family daguerreotypes in deeply-recessed gilt frames. The ormolu clock represented a shepherdess sitting on a fallen trunk, a basket of flowers at her feet. A shepherd, stealing up, surprised her with a kiss, while her little dog barked at him from a clump of roses. One knew the profession of the lovers by their crooks and the shape of their hats. This frivolous time-piece had been a wedding-gift from Delia’s aunt, Mrs. Manson Mingott, a dashing widow who lived in Paris and was received at the Tuileries. It had been entrusted by Mrs. Mingott to young Clement Spender, who had come back from Italy for a short holiday just after Delia’s marriage; the marriage which might never have been, if Clem Spender could have supported a wife, or if he had consented to give up painting and Rome for New York and the law. The young man (who looked, already, so odd and foreign and sarcastic) had laughingly assured the bride that her aunt’s gift was “the newest thing in the Palais Royal”; and the family, who admired Mrs. Manson Mingott’s taste though they had disapproved of her “foreignness,” had criticized Delia’s putting the clock in her bedroom instead of displaying it on the drawing-room mantel. But she liked, when she woke in the morning, to see the bold shepherd stealing his kiss.

Charlotte would certainly not have such a pretty clock in her bedroom; but then she had not been used to pretty things. Her father, who had died at thirty of lung-fever, was one of the “poor Lovells.” His widow, burdened with a young family, and living all year round “up the River,” could not do much for her eldest girl; and Charlotte had entered society in her mother’s turned garments, and shod with satin sandals handed down from a defunct aunt who had “opened a ball” with General Washington. The old-fashioned Ralston furniture, which Delia already saw herself banishing, would seem sumptuous to Chatty; very likely she would think Delia’s gay French timepiece somewhat frivolous, or even not “quite nice.” Poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor! Delia remembered, with ever-recurring wonder, the abrupt change in her: the precise moment at which it had been privately agreed in the family that, after all, Charlotte Lovell was going to be an old maid.

They had not thought so when she came out. Though her mother could not afford to give her more than one new tarlatan dress, and though nearly everything in her appearance was regrettable, from the too bright red of her hair to the too pale brown of her eyes — not to mention the rounds of brick-rose on her cheek-bones, which almost (preposterous thought!) made her look as if she painted — yet these defects were redeemed by a slim waist, a light foot and a gay laugh; and when her hair was well oiled and brushed for an evening party, so that it looked almost brown, and lay smoothly along her delicate cheeks under a wreath of red and white camellias, several eligible young men (Joe Ralston among them) were known to have called her pretty.

Then came her illness. She caught cold on a moonlight sleighing-party, the brick-rose circles deepened, and she began to cough. There was a report that she was “going like her father,” and she was hurried off to a remote village in Georgia, where she lived alone for a year with an old family governess. When she came back everyone felt at once that there was a change in her. She was pale, and thinner than ever, but with an exquisitely transparent cheek, darker eyes and redder hair; and the oddness of her appearance was increased by plain dresses of Quakerish cut. She had left off trinkets and watch chains, always wore the same grey cloak and small close bonnet, and displayed a sudden zeal for visiting the indigent. The family explained that during her year in the south she had been shocked by the hopeless degradation of the “poor whites” and their children, and that this revelation of misery had made it impossible for her to return to the light-hearted life of her young friends. Everyone agreed, with significant glances that this unnatural state of mind would “pass off in time”; and meanwhile old Mrs. Lovell, Chatty’s grandmother, who understood her perhaps better than the others, gave her a little money for her paupers, and lent her a room in the Lovell stables (at the back of the old lady’s Mercer Street house) where she gathered about her, in what would afterward have been called a “day-nursery,” some of the destitute children of the neighbourhood. There was even, among them, the baby girl whose origin had excited such intense curiosity two or three years earlier, when a veiled lady in a handsome cloak had brought it to the hovel of Cyrus Washington, the Negro handy-man whose wife Jessamine took in Dr. Lanskell’s washing. Dr. Lanskell, the chief medical practitioner of the day, was presumably versed in the secret history of every household from the Battery to Union Square; but, though beset by inquisitive patients, he had invariably declared himself unable to identify Jessamine’s “veiled lady,” or to hazard a guess as to the origin of the hundred dollar bill pinned to the baby’s bib.

The hundred dollars were never renewed, the lady never reappeared, but the baby lived healthily and happily with Jessamine’s piccaninnies, and as soon as it could toddle was brought to Chatty Lovell’s day-nursery, where it appeared (like its fellow paupers) in little garments cut down from her old dresses, and socks knitted by her untiring hands. Delia, absorbed in her own babies, had nevertheless dropped in once or twice at the nursery, and had come away wishing that Chatty’s maternal instinct might find its normal outlet in marriage. The married cousin confusedly felt that her own affection for her handsome children was a mild and measured sentiment compared with Chatty’s fierce passion for the waifs in Grandmamma Lovell’s stable.

And then, to the general surprise, Charlotte Lovell engaged herself to Joe Ralston. It was known that Joe had “admired her” the year she came out. She was a graceful dancer, and Joe, who was tall and nimble, had footed it with her through many a reel and schottische. By the end of the winter all the match-makers were predicting that something would come of it; but when Delia sounded her cousin, the girl’s evasive answer and burning brow seemed to imply that her suitor had changed his mind, and no further questions could be asked. Now it was clear that there had, in fact, been an old romance between them, probably followed by that exciting incident, a “misunderstanding”; but at last all was well, and the bells of St. Mark’s were preparing to ring in happier days for Charlotte. “Ah, when she has her first baby,” the Ralston mothers chorused . . .

“Chatty!” Delia exclaimed, pushing back her chair as she saw her cousin’s image reflected in the glass over her shoulder.

Charlotte Lovell had paused in the doorway. “They told me you were here — so I ran up.”

“Of course, darling. How handsome you do look in your poplin! I always said you needed rich materials. I’m so thankful to see you out of grey cashmere.” Delia, lifting her hands, removed the white bonnet from her dark polished head, and shook it gently to make the crystals glitter.

“I hope you like it? It’s for your wedding,” she laughed.

Charlotte Lovell stood motionless. In her mother’s old dove-coloured poplin, freshly banded with narrow rows of crimson velvet ribbon, an ermine tippet crossed on her bosom, and a new beaver bonnet with a falling feather, she had already something of the assurance and majesty of a married woman.

“And you know your hair certainly IS darker, darling,” Delia added, still hopefully surveying her.

“Darker? It’s grey,” Charlotte suddenly broke out in her deep voice. She pushed back one of the pommaded bands that framed her face, and showed a white lock on her temple. “You needn’t save up your bonnet; I’m not going to be married,” she added, with a smile that showed her small white teeth in a fleeting glare.

Delia had just enough presence of mind to lay down the bonnet, marabout-up, before she flung herself on her cousin.

“Not going to be married? Charlotte, are you perfectly crazy?”

“Why is it crazy to do what I think right?”

“But people said you were going to marry him the year you came out. And no one understood what happened then. And now — how can it possibly be right? You simply CAN’T!” Delia incoherently cried.

“Oh — people!” said Charlotte Lovell wearily.

Her married cousin looked at her with a start. Something thrilled in her voice that Delia had never heard in it, or in any other human voice, before. Its echo seemed to set their familiar world rocking, and the Axminster carpet actually heaved under Delia’s shrinking slippers.

Charlotte Lovell stood staring ahead of her with strained lids. In the pale brown of her eyes Delia noticed the green specks that floated there when she was angry or excited.

“Charlotte — where on earth have you come from?” she questioned, drawing the girl down to the sofa.

“Come from?”

“Yes. You look as if you had seen a ghost — an army of ghosts.”

The same snarling smile drew up Charlotte’s lip. “I’ve seen Joe,” she said.

“Well? — Oh Chatty,” Delia exclaimed, abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past —? Not that I’ve ever heard the least hint; never. But even if there were . . . ” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been . . . that he’s had a child — of course he would have provided for it before . . . ”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

“Tell me what it is.”

Charlotte Lovell looked about the sunny prosperous room as if it were the image of her world, and that world were a prison she must break out of. She lowered her head. “I want — to get away,” she panted.

“Get away? From Joe?”

“From his ideas — the Ralston ideas.”

Delia bridled — after all, she was a Ralston! “The Ralston ideas? I haven’t found them — so unbearably unpleasant to live with,” she smiled a little tartly.

“No. But it was different with you: they didn’t ask you to give up things.”

“What things?” What in the world (Delia wondered) had poor Charlotte that any one would want her to give up? She had always been in the position of taking rather than of having to surrender.

“Can’t you explain to me, dear,” Delia urged.

“My poor children — he says I’m to give them up,” cried the girl in a stricken whisper.

“Give them up? Give up helping them?”

“Seeing them — looking after them. Give them up altogether. He got his mother to explain to me. After — after we have children . . . he’s afraid . . . afraid our children might catch things . . . He’ll give me money, of course, to pay some one . . . a hired person, to look after them. He thought that handsome,” Charlotte broke out with a sob. She flung off her bonnet and smothered her prostrate weeping in the cushions.

Delia sat perplexed. Of all unforeseen complications this was surely the least imaginable. And with all the acquired Ralston that was in her she could not help seeing the force of Joe’s objection, could almost find herself agreeing with him. No one in New York had forgotten the death of the poor Henry van der Luydens’ only child, who had caught small-pox at the circus to which an unprincipled nurse had surreptitiously taken him. After such a warning as that, parents felt justified in every precaution against contagion. And poor people were so ignorant and careless, and their children, of course, so perpetually exposed to everything catching. No, Joe Ralston was certainly right, and Charlotte almost insanely unreasonable. But it would be useless to tell her so now. Instinctively, Delia temporized.

“After all,” she whispered to the prone ear, “if it’s only after you have children — you may not have any — for some time.”

“Oh, yes, I shall!” came back in anguish from the cushions.

Delia smiled with matronly superiority. “Really, Chatty, I don’t quite see how you can know. You don’t understand.”

Charlotte Lovell lifted herself up. Her collar of Brussels lace had come undone and hung in a wisp on her crumpled bodice, and through the disorder of her hair the white lock glimmered haggardly. In her pale brown eyes the little green specks floated like leaves in a trout-pool.

“Poor girl,” Delia thought, “how old and ugly she looks! More than ever like an old maid; and she doesn’t seem to realize in the least that she’ll never have another chance.”

“You must try to be sensible, Chatty dear. After all, one’s own babies have the first claim.”

“That’s just it.” The girl seized her fiercely by the wrists. “How can I give up my own baby?”

“Your — your —?” Delia’s world again began to waver under her. “Which of the poor little waifs, dearest, do you call your own baby?” she questioned patiently.

Charlotte looked her straight in the eyes. “I call my own baby my own baby.”

“Your own —? Take care — you’re hurting my wrists, Chatty!” Delia freed herself, forcing a smile. “Your own —?”

“My own little girl. The one that Jessamine and Cyrus — ”

“Oh — ” Delia Ralston gasped.

The two cousins sat silent, facing each other; but Delia looked away. It came over her with a shudder of repugnance that such things, even if they had to be said, should not have been spoken in her bedroom, so near the spotless nursery across the passage. Mechanically she smoothed the organ-like folds of her silk skirt, which her cousin’s embrace had tumbled. Then she looked again at Charlotte’s eyes, and her own melted.

“Oh, poor Chatty — my poor Chatty!” She held out her arms to her cousin.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30