The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

10.

Lying awake till morning, Delia lived over every detail of the fateful day when she had assumed the charge of Charlotte’s child. At the time she had been hardly more than a child herself, and there had been no one for her to turn to, no one to fortify her resolution, or to advise her how to put it into effect. Since then, the accumulated experiences of twenty years ought to have prepared her for emergencies, and taught her to advise others instead of seeking their guidance. But these years of experience weighed down on her like chains binding her down to her narrow plot of life; independent action struck her as more dangerous, less conceivable, than when she had first ventured on it. There seemed to be so many more people to “consider” now (“consider” was the Ralston word): her children, their children, the families into which they had married. What would the Halseys say, and what the Ralstons? Had she then become a Ralston through and through?

A few hours later she sat in old Dr. Lanskell’s library, her eyes on his sooty Smyrna rug. For some years now Dr. Lanskell had no longer practised: at most, he continued to go to a few old patients, and to give consultations in “difficult” cases. But he remained a power in his former kingdom, a sort of lay Pope or medical Elder to whom the patients he had once healed of physical ills often returned for moral medicine. People were agreed that Dr. Lanskell’s judgment was sound; but what secretly drew them to him was the fact that, in the most totem-ridden of communities he was known not to be afraid of anything.

Now, as Delia sat and watched his massive silver-headed figure moving ponderously about the room, between rows of medical books in calf bindings and the Dying Gladiators and Young Augusteses of grateful patients, she already felt the reassurance given by his mere bodily presence.

“You see, when I first took Tina I didn’t perhaps consider sufficiently — ”

The Doctor halted behind his desk and brought his fist down on it with a genial thump. “Thank goodness you didn’t! There are considerers enough in this town without you, Delia Lovell.”

She looked up quickly. “Why do you call me Delia Lovell?”

“Well, because today I rather suspect you ARE,” he rejoined astutely; and she met this with a wistful laugh.

“Perhaps, if I hadn’t been, once before — I mean, if I’d always been a prudent deliberate Ralston it would have been kinder to Tina in the end.”

Dr. Lanskell sank his gouty bulk into the armchair behind his desk, and beamed at her through ironic spectacles. “I hate in-the-end kindnesses: they’re about as nourishing as the third day of cold mutton.”

She pondered. “Of course I realize that if I adopt Tina — ”

“Yes?”

“Well, people will say . . . ” A deep blush rose to her throat, covered her cheeks and brow, and ran like fire under her decently-parted hair.

He nodded; “Yes.”

“Or else — ” the blush darkened — “that she’s Jims — ”

Again Dr. Lanskell nodded. “That’s what they’re more likely to think; and what’s the harm if they do? I know Jim: he asked you no questions when you took the child — but he knew whose she was.”

She raised astonished eyes. “He knew —?”

“Yes: he came to me. And — well — in the baby’s interest I violated professional secrecy. That’s how Tina got a home. You’re not going to denounce me, are you?”

“Oh, Dr. Lanskell — ” Her eyes filled with painful tears. “Jim knew? And didn’t tell me?”

“No. People didn’t tell each other things much in those days, did they? But he admired you enormously for what you did. And if you assume — as I suppose you do — that he’s now in a world of completer enlightenment, why not take it for granted that he’ll admire you still more for what you’re going to do? Presumably,” the Doctor concluded sardonically, “people realize in heaven that it’s a devilish sight harder, on earth, to do a brave thing at forty-five than at twenty-five.”

“Ah, that’s what I was thinking this morning,” she confessed.

“Well. You’re going to prove the contrary this afternoon.” He looked at his watch, stood up and laid a fatherly hand on her shoulder. “Let people think what they choose; and send young Delia to me if she gives you any trouble. Your boy won’t, you know, nor John Junius either; it must have been a woman who invented that third-and-fourth generation idea . . . ”

An elderly maid-servant looked in, and Delia rose; but on the threshold she halted.

“I have an idea it’s Charlotte I may have to send to you.”

“Charlotte?”

“She’ll hate what I’m going to do, you know.”

Dr. Lanskell lifted his silver eyebrows. “Yes: poor Charlotte! I suppose she’s jealous? That’s where the truth of the third-and-fourth generation business comes in, after all. Somebody always has to foot the bill.”

“Ah — if only Tina doesn’t!”

“Well — that’s just what Charlotte will come to recognize in time. So your course is clear.”

He guided her out through the dining-room, where some poor people and one or two old patients were already waiting.

Delia’s course, in truth, seemed clear enough till, that afternoon, she summoned Charlotte alone to her bedroom. Tina was lying down with a headache: it was in those days the accepted state of young ladies in sentimental dilemmas, and greatly simplified the communion of their elders.

Delia and Charlotte had exchanged only conventional phrases over their midday meal; but Delia still had the sense that her cousin’s decision was final. The events of the previous evening had no doubt confirmed Charlotte’s view that the time had come for such a decision.

Miss Lovell, closing the bedroom door with her dry deliberateness, advanced toward the chintz lounge between the windows.

“You wanted to see me, Delia?”

“Yes. Oh, don’t sit there,” Mrs. Ralston exclaimed uncontrollably.

Charlotte stared: was it possible that she did not remember the sobs of anguish she had once smothered in those very cushions?

“Not —?”

“No; come nearer to me. Sometimes I think I’m a little deaf,” Delia nervously explained, pushing a chair up to her own.

“Ah.” Charlotte seated herself. “I hadn’t remarked it. But if you are, it may have saved you from hearing at what hour of the morning Tina came back from the Vandergraves’ last night. She would never forgive herself — inconsiderate as she is — if she thought she’d waked you.”

“She didn’t wake me,” Delia answered. Inwardly she thought: “Charlotte’s mind is made up; I shan’t be able to move her.”

“I suppose Tina enjoyed herself very much at the ball?” she continued.

“Well, she’s paying for it with a headache. Such excitements are not meant for her, I’ve already told you — ”

“Yes,” Mrs. Ralston interrupted. “It’s to continue our talk of last night that I’ve asked you to come up.”

“To continue it?” The brick-red circles appeared on Charlotte’s dried cheeks. “Is it worth while? I think I ought to tell you at once that my mind’s made up. I suppose you’ll admit that I know what’s best for Tina.”

“Yes; of course. But won’t you at least allow me a share in your decision?”

“A share?”

Delia leaned forward, laying a warm hand on her cousin’s interlocked fingers. “Charlotte, once in this room, years ago, you asked me to help you — you believed I could. Won’t you believe it again?”

Charlotte’s lips grew rigid. “I believe the time has come for me to help myself.”

“At the cost of Tina’s happiness?”

“No; but to spare her greater unhappiness.”

“But Charlotte, Tina’s happiness is all I want.”

“Oh, I know. You’ve done all you could for my child.”

“No, not all.” Delia rose, and stood before her cousin with a kind of solemnity. “But now I’m going to.” It was as if she had pronounced a vow.

Charlotte Lovell looked up at her with a glitter of apprehension in her hunted eyes.

“If you mean that you’re going to use your influence with the Halsey’s — I’m very grateful to you; I shall always be grateful. But I don’t want a compulsory marriage for my child.”

Delia flushed at the other’s incomprehension. It seemed to her that her tremendous purpose must be written on her face. “I’m going to adopt Tina — give her my name,” she announced.

Charlotte Lovell stared at her stonily. “Adopt her — adopt her?”

“Don’t you see, dear, the difference it will make? There’s my mother’s money — the Lovell money; it’s not much, to be sure; but Jim always wanted it to go back to the Lovells. And my Delia and her brother are so handsomely provided for. There’s no reason why my little fortune shouldn’t go to Tina. And why she shouldn’t be known as Tina Ralston.”

Delia paused. “I believe — I think I know — that Jim would have approved of that too.”

“Approved?”

“Yes. Can’t you see that when he let me take the child he must have foreseen and accepted whatever — whatever might eventually come of it?”

Charlotte stood up also. “Thank you, Delia. But nothing more must come of it, except our leaving you; our leaving you now. I’m sure that’s what Jim would have approved.”

Mrs. Ralston drew back a step or two. Charlotte’s cold resolution benumbed her courage, and she could find no immediate reply.

“Ah, then it’s easier for you to sacrifice Tina’s happiness than your pride?” she exclaimed.

“My pride? I’ve no right to any pride, except in my child. And that I’ll never sacrifice.”

“No one asks you to. You’re not reasonable. You’re cruel. All I want is to be allowed to help Tina, and you speak as if I were interfering with your rights.”

“My rights?” Charlotte echoed the words with a desolate laugh. “What are they? I have no rights, either before the law or in the heart of my own child.”

“How can you say such things? You know how Tina loves you.”

“Yes; compassionately — as I used to love my old-maid aunts. There were two of them — you remember? Like withered babies! We children used to be warned never to say anything that might shock Aunt Josie or Aunt Nonie; exactly as I heard you telling Tina the other night — ”

“Oh — ” Delia murmured.

Charlotte Lovell continued to stand before her, haggard, rigid, unrelenting. “No, it’s gone on long enough. I mean to tell her everything; and to take her away.”

“To tell her about her birth?”

“I was never ashamed of it,” Charlotte panted.

“You do sacrifice her, then — sacrifice her to your desire for mastery?”

The two women faced each other, both with weapons spent. Delia, through the tremor of her own indignation, saw her antagonist waver, step backward, sink down with a broken murmur on the lounge. Charlotte hid her face in the cushions, clenching them with violent hands. The same fierce maternal passion that had once flung her down upon those same cushions was now bowing her still lower, in the throes of a bitterer renunciation. Delia seemed to hear the old cry: “But how can I give up my baby?” Her own momentary resentment melted, and she bent over the mother’s labouring shoulders.

“Chatty — it won’t be like giving her up this time. Can’t we just go on loving her together?”

Charlotte did not answer. For a long time she lay silent, immovable, her face hidden: she seemed to fear to turn it to the face bent down to her. But presently Delia was aware of a gradual relaxing of the stretched muscles, and saw that one of her cousin’s arms was faintly stirring and groping. She lowered her hand to the seeking fingers, and it was caught and pressed to Charlotte’s lips.

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