The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

11.

Tina Lovell — now Miss Clementina Ralston — was to be married in July to Lanning Halsey. The engagement had been announced only in the previous April; and the female elders of the tribe had begun by crying out against the indelicacy of so brief a betrothal. It was unanimously agreed in the New York of those times that “young people should be given the chance to get to know each other”; though the greater number of the couples constituting New York society had played together as children, and been born of parents as long and as familiarly acquainted, yet some mysterious law of decorum required that the newly affianced should always be regarded as being also newly known to each other. In the southern states things were differently conducted: headlong engagements, even runaway marriages, were not uncommon in their annals; but such rashness was less consonant with the sluggish blood of New York, where the pace of life was still set with a Dutch deliberateness.

In a case as unusual as Tina Ralston’s, however, it was no great surprise to any one that tradition should have been disregarded. In the first place, everybody knew that she was no more Tina Ralston than you or I; unless, indeed, one were to credit the rumours about poor Jim’s unsuspected “past,” and his widow’s magnanimity. But the opinion of the majority was against this. People were reluctant to charge a dead man with an offense from which he could not clear himself; and the Ralstons unanimously declared that, thoroughly as they disapproved of Mrs. James Ralston’s action, they were convinced that she would not have adopted Tina if her doing so could have been construed as “casting a slur” on her late husband.

No: the girl was perhaps a Lovell — though even that idea was not generally held — but she was certainly not a Ralston. Her brown eyes and flighty ways too obviously excluded her from the clan for any formal excommunication to be needful. In fact, most people believed that — as Dr. Lanskell had always affirmed — her origin was really undiscoverable, that she represented one of the unsolved mysteries which occasionally perplex and irritate well-regulated societies, and that her adoption by Delia Ralston was simply one more proof of the Lovell clannishness, since the child had been taken in by Mrs. Ralston only because her cousin Charlotte was so attached to it. To say that Mrs. Ralston’s son and daughter were pleased with the idea of Tina’s adoption would be an exaggeration; but they abstained from comment, minimizing the effect of their mother’s whim by a dignified silence. It was the old New York way for families thus to screen the eccentricities of an individual member, and where there was “money enough to go round” the heirs would have been thought vulgarly grasping to protest at the alienation of a small sum from the general inheritance.

Nevertheless, Delia Ralston, from the moment of Tina’s adoption, was perfectly aware of a different attitude on the part of both her children. They dealt with her patiently, almost parentally, as with a minor in whom one juvenile lapse has been condoned, but who must be subjected, in consequence, to a stricter vigilance; and society treated her in the same indulgent but guarded manner.

She had (it was Sillerton Jackson who first phrased it) an undoubted way of “carrying things off”; since that dauntless woman, Mrs. Manson Mingott, had broken her husband’s will, nothing so like her attitude had been seen in New York. But Mrs. Ralston’s method was different, and less easy to analyze. What Mrs. Manson Mingott had accomplished by dint of epigram, invective, insistency and runnings to and fro, the other achieved without raising her voice or seeming to take a step from the beaten path. When she had persuaded Jim Ralston to take in the foundling baby, it had been done in the turn of a hand, one didn’t know when or how; and the next day he and she were as untroubled and beaming as usual. And now, this adoption —! Well, she had pursued the same method; as Sillerton Jackson said, she behaved as if her adopting Tina had always been an understood thing, as if she wondered that people should wonder. And in face of her wonder theirs seemed foolish, and they gradually desisted.

In reality, behind Delia’s assurance there was a tumult of doubts and uncertainties. But she had once learned that one can do almost anything (perhaps even murder) if one does not attempt to explain it; and the lesson had never been forgotten. She had never explained the taking over of the foundling baby; nor was she now going to explain its adoption. She was just going about her business as if nothing had happened that needed to be accounted for; and a long inheritance of moral modesty helped her to keep her questionings to herself.

These questionings were in fact less concerned with public opinion than with Charlotte Lovell’s private thoughts. Charlotte, after her first moment of tragic resistance, had shown herself pathetically, almost painfully, grateful. That she had reason to be, Tina’s attitude abundantly revealed. Tina, during the first days after her return from the Vandergrave ball, had shown a closed and darkened face that terribly reminded Delia of the ghastliness of Charlotte Lovell’s sudden reflection, years before, in Delia’s own bedroom mirror. The first chapter of the mother’s history was already written in the daughter’s eyes; and the Spender blood in Tina might well precipitate the sequence. During those few days of silent observation Delia discovered, with terror and compassion, the justification of Charlotte’s fears. The girl had nearly been lost to them both: at all costs such a risk must not be renewed.

The Halsey’s, on the whole, had behaved admirably. Lanning wished to marry dear Delia Ralston’s protegee — who was shortly, it was understood, to take her adopted mother’s name, and inherit her fortune. To what better could a Halsey aspire than one more alliance with a Ralston? The families had always inter-married. The Halsey parents gave their blessing with a precipitation which showed that they too had their anxieties, and that the relief of seeing Lanning “settled” would more than compensate for the conceivable drawbacks of the marriage; though, once it was decided on, they would not admit even to themselves that such drawbacks existed. Old New York always thought away whatever interfered with the perfect propriety of its arrangements.

Charlotte Lovell of course perceived and recognized all this. She accepted the situation — in her private hours with Delia — as one more in the long list of mercies bestowed on an undeserving sinner. And one phrase of hers perhaps gave the clue to her acceptance: “Now at least she’ll never suspect the truth.” It had come to be the poor creature’s ruling purpose that her child should never guess the tie between them . . .

But Delia’s chief support was the sight of Tina. The older woman, whose whole life had been shaped and coloured by the faint reflection of a rejected happiness, hung dazzled in the light of bliss accepted. Sometimes, as she watched Tina’s changing face, she felt as though her own blood were beating in it, as though she could read every thought and emotion feeding those tumultuous currents. Tina’s love was a stormy affair, with continual ups and downs of rapture and depression, arrogance and self-abasement; Delia saw displayed before her, with an artless frankness, all the visions, cravings and imaginings of her own stifled youth.

What the girl really thought of her adoption it was not easy to discover. She had been given, at fourteen, the current version of her origin, and had accepted it as carelessly as a happy child accepts some remote and inconceivable fact which does not alter the familiar order of things. And she accepted her adoption in the same spirit. She knew that the name of Ralston had been given to her to facilitate her marriage with Lanning Halsey; and Delia had the impression that all irrelevant questionings were submerged in an overwhelming gratitude. “I’ve always thought of you as my Mamma; and now, you dearest, you really are,” Tina had whispered, her cheek against Delia’s; and Delia had laughed back: “Well, if the lawyers can make me so!” But there the matter dropped, swept away on the current of Tina’s bliss. They were all, in those days, Delia, Charlotte, even the gallant Lanning, rather like straws whirling about on a sunlit torrent.

The golden flood bore them onward, nearer and nearer to the enchanted date; and Delia, deep in bridal preparations, wondered at the comparative indifference with which she had ordered and inspected her own daughter’s twelve-dozen-of-everything. There had been nothing to quicken the pulse in young Delia’s placid bridal; but as Tina’s wedding day approached imagination burgeoned like the year. The wedding was to be celebrated at Lovell Place, the old house on the Sound where Delia Lovell had herself been married, and where, since her mother’s death, she spent her summers. Although the neighbourhood was already overspread with a net-work of mean streets, the old house, with its thin colonnaded verandah, still looked across an uncurtailed lawn and leafy shrubberies to the narrows of Hell Gate; and the drawing-rooms kept their frail slender settees, their Sheraton consoles and cabinets. It had been thought useless to discard them for more fashionable furniture, since the growth of the city made it certain that the place must eventually be sold.

Tina, like Mrs. Ralston, was to have a “house-wedding,” though Episcopalian society was beginning to disapprove of such ceremonies, which were regarded as the despised pis-aller of Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians and other altarless sects. In Tina’s case, however, both Delia and Charlotte felt that the greater privacy of a marriage in the house made up for its more secular character; and the Halseys favoured their decision. The ladies accordingly settled themselves at Lovell Place before the end of June, and every morning young Lanning Halsey’s cat-boat was seen beating across the bay, and furling its sail at the anchorage below the lawn.

There had never been a fairer June in any one’s memory. The damask roses and mignonette below the verandah had never sent such a breath of summer through the tall French windows; the gnarled orange-trees brought out from the old arcaded orange-house had never been so thickly blossomed; the very haycocks on the lawn gave out whiffs of Araby.

The evening before the wedding Delia Ralston sat on the verandah watching the moon rise across the Sound. She was tired with the multitude of last preparations, and sad at the thought of Tina’s going. On the following evening the house would be empty: till death came, she and Charlotte would sit alone together beside the evening lamp. Such repinings were foolish — they were, she reminded herself, “not like her.” But too many memories stirred and murmured in her: her heart was haunted. As she closed the door on the silent drawing room — already transformed into a chapel, with its lace-hung altar, the tall alabaster vases awaiting their white roses and June lilies, the strip of red carpet dividing the rows of chairs from door to chancel — she felt that it had perhaps been a mistake to come back to Lovell Place for the wedding. She saw herself again, in her high-waisted “India Mull” embroidered with daisies, her flat satin sandals, her Brussels veil — saw again her reflection in the sallow pier-glass as she had left that same room on Jim Ralston’s triumphant arm, and the one terrified glance she had exchanged with her own image before she took her stand under the bell of white roses in the hall, and smiled upon the congratulating company. Ah, what a different image the pier-glass would reflect tomorrow!

Charlotte Lovell’s brisk step sounded indoors, and she came out and joined Mrs. Ralston.

“I’ve been to the kitchen to tell Melissa Grimes that she’d better count on at least two hundred plates of ice-cream.”

“two hundred? Yes — I suppose she had, with all the Philadelphia connection coming.” Delia pondered. “How about the doylies?” she enquired.

“With your aunt Cecila Vandergrave’s we shall manage beautifully.”

“Yes. Thank you, Charlotte, for taking all this trouble.”

“Oh — ” Charlotte protested, with her flitting sneer; and Delia perceived the irony of thanking a mother for occupying herself with the details of her own daughter’s wedding.

“Do sit down, Chatty,” she murmured, feeling herself redden at her blunder.

Charlotte, with a sigh of fatigue, sat down on the nearest chair.

“We shall have a beautiful day tomorrow,” she said, pensively surveying the placid heaven.

“Yes. Where is Tina?”

“She was very tired. I’ve sent her upstairs to lie down.”

This seemed so eminently suitable that Delia made no immediate answer. After an interval she said: “We shall miss her.”

Charlotte’s reply was an inarticulate murmur.

The two cousins remained silent, Charlotte as usual bolt upright, her thin hands clutched on the arms of her old-fashioned rush-bottomed seat, Delia somewhat heavily sunk into the depths of a high-backed armchair. The two had exchanged their last remarks on the preparations for the morrow; nothing more remained to be said as to the number of guests, the brewing of the punch, the arrangements for the robing of the clergy, and the disposal of the presents in the best spare-room.

Only one subject had not yet been touched upon, and Delia, as she watched her cousin’s profile grimly cut upon the melting twilight, waited for Charlotte to speak. But Charlotte remained silent.

“I have been thinking,” Delia at length began, a slight tremor in her voice, “that I ought presently — ”

She fancied she saw Charlotte’s hands tighten on the knobs of the chair-arms.

“You ought presently —?”

“Well, before Tina goes to bed, perhaps go up for a few minutes — ”

Charlotte remained silent, visibly resolved on making no effort to assist her.

“Tomorrow,” Delia continued, “we shall be in such a rush from the earliest moment that I don’t see how, in the midst of all the interruptions and excitement, I can possibly — ”

“Possibly?” Charlotte monotonously echoed.

Delia felt her blush deepening through the dusk. “Well, I suppose you agree with me, don’t you, that a word ought to be said to the child as to the new duties and responsibilities that — well — what is usual, in fact, at such a time?” she falteringly ended.

“Yes, I have thought of that,” Charlotte answered. She said no more, but Delia divined in her tone the stirring of that obscure opposition which, at the crucial moments of Tina’s life, seemed automatically to declare itself. She could not understand why Charlotte should, at such times, grow so enigmatic and inaccessible, and in the present case she saw no reason why this change of mood should interfere with what she deemed to be her own duty. Tina must long for her guiding hand into the new life as much as she herself yearned for the exchange of half-confidences which would be her real farewell to her adopted daughter. Her heart beating a little more quickly than usual, she rose and walked through the open window into the shadowy drawing-room. The moon, between the columns of the verandah, sent a broad band of light across the rows of chairs, irradiated the lace-decked altar with its empty candlesticks and vases, and outlined with silver Delia’s heavy reflection in the pier-glass.

She crossed the room toward the hall.

“Delia!” Charlotte’s voice sounded behind her. Delia turned, and the two women scrutinized each other in the revealing light. Charlotte’s face looked as it had looked on the dreadful day when Delia had suddenly seen it in the looking-glass above her shoulder.

“You were going up now to speak to Tina?” Charlotte asked.

“I— yes. It’s nearly nine. I thought . . . ”

“Yes; I understand.” Miss Lovell made a visible effort at self-control. “Please understand me too, Delia, if I ask you — not to.”

Delia looked at her cousin with a vague sense of apprehension. What new mystery did this strange request conceal? But no — such a doubt as flitted across her mind was inadmissible. She was too sure of her Tina!

“I confess I don’t understand, Charlotte. You surely feel that, on the night before her wedding, a girl ought to have a mother’s counsel, a mother’s . . . ”

“Yes; I feel that.” Charlotte Lovell took a hurried breath. “But the question is: WHICH OF US IS HER MOTHER?”

Delia drew back involuntarily. “Which of us —?” she stammered.

“Yes. Oh, don’t imagine it’s the first time I’ve asked myself the question! There — I mean to be calm, quite calm. I don’t intend to go back to the past. I’ve accepted — accepted everything — gratefully. Only tonight — just tonight . . . ”

Delia felt the rush of pity which always prevailed over every other sensation in her rare interchanges of truth with Charlotte Lovell. Her throat filled with tears, and she remained silent.

“Just tonight,” Charlotte concluded, “I’M her mother.”

“Charlotte! You’re not going to tell her so — not now?” broke involuntarily from Delia.

Charlotte gave a faint laugh. “If I did, should you hate it as much as all that?”

“Hate it? What a word, between us!”

“Between us? But it’s the word that’s been between us since the beginning — the very beginning! Since the day when you discovered that Clement Spender hadn’t quite broken his heart because he wasn’t good enough for you; since you found your revenge and your triumph in keeping me at your mercy, and in taking his child from me!” Charlotte’s words flamed up as if from the depth of the infernal fires; then the blaze dropped, her head sank forward, and she stood before Delia dumb and stricken.

Delia’s first movement was one of an indignant recoil. Where she had felt only tenderness, compassion, the impulse to help and befriend, these darknesses had been smouldering in the other’s breast! It was as if a poisonous smoke had swept over some pure summer landscape . . .

Usually such feelings were quickly followed by a reaction of sympathy. But now she felt none. An utter weariness possessed her.

“Yes,” she said slowly, “I sometimes believe you really have hated me from the very first; hated me for everything I’ve tried to do for you.”

Charlotte raised her head sharply. “To do for me? But everything you’ve done has been done for Clement Spender!”

Delia stared at her with a kind of terror. “You are horrible, Charlotte. Upon my honour, I haven’t thought of Clement Spender for years.”

“Ah, but you have — you have! You’ve always thought of him in thinking of Tina — of him and nobody else! A woman never stops thinking of the man she loves. She thinks of him years afterward, in all sorts of unconscious ways, in thinking of all sorts of things — books, pictures, sunsets, a flower or a ribbon — or a clock on the mantelpiece,” Charlotte broke off with her sneering laugh. “That was what I gambled on, you see — that’s why I came to you that day. I knew I was giving Tina another mother.”

Again, the poisonous smoke seemed to envelop Delia: that she and Charlotte, two spent old women, should be standing before Tina’s bridal altar, and talking to each other of hatred, seemed unimaginably hideous and degrading.

“You wicked woman — you ARE wicked!” she exclaimed.

Then the evil mist cleared away, and through it she saw the baffled pitiful figure of the mother who was not a mother, and who, for every benefit accepted, felt herself robbed of a privilege. She moved nearer to Charlotte and laid a hand on her arm.

“Not here! Don’t let us talk like this here.”

The other drew away from her. “Wherever you please, then. I’m not particular!”

“But tonight, Charlotte — the night before Tina’s wedding? Isn’t every place in this house full of her? How could we go on saying cruel things to each other anywhere?” Charlotte was silent, and Delia continued in a steadier voice: “Nothing you say can really hurt me — for long; and I don’t want to hurt you — I never did.”

“You tell me that — and you’ve left nothing undone to divide me from my daughter! Do you suppose it’s been easy, all these years, to hear her call you ‘mother’? Oh, I know, I know — it was agreed that she must never guess . . . but if you hadn’t perpetually come between us she’d have had no one but me, she’d have felt about me as a child feels about its mother, she’d have HAD to love me better than anyone else. With all your forbearances and your generosities you’ve ended by robbing me of my child. And I’ve put up with it all for her sake — because I knew I had to. But tonight — tonight she belongs to me. Tonight I can’t bear that she should call you ‘mother’.”

Delia Ralston made no immediate reply. It seemed to her that for the first time she had sounded the deepest depths of maternal passion, and she stood awed at the echoes it gave back.

“How you must love her — to say such things to me,” she murmured; then, with a final effort: “Yes, you’re right. I won’t go up to her. It’s you who must go.”

Charlotte started toward her impulsively; but with a hand lifted as if in defense, Delia moved across the room and out again to the verandah. As she sank down in her chair she heard the drawing-room door open and close, and the sound of Charlotte’s feet on the stairs.

Delia sat alone in the night. The last drop of her magnanimity had been spent, and she tried to avert her shuddering mind from Charlotte. What was happening at this moment upstairs? With what dark revelations were Tina’s bridal dreams to be defaced? Well, that was not matter for conjecture either. She, Delia Ralston, had played her part, done her utmost: there remained nothing now but to try to lift her spirit above the embittering sense of failure.

There was a strange element of truth in some of the things that Charlotte had said. With what divination her maternal passion had endowed her! Her jealousy seemed to have a million feelers. Yes; it was true that the sweetness and peace of Tina’s bridal eve had been filled, for Delia, with visions of her own unrealized past. Softly, imperceptibly, it had reconciled her to the memory of what she had missed. All these last days she had been living the girl’s life, she had been Tina, and Tina had been her own girlish self, the far-off Delia Lovell. Now for the first time, without shame, without self-reproach, without a pang or a scruple, Delia could yield to that vision of requited love from which her imagination had always turned away. She had made her choice in youth, and she had accepted it in maturity; and here in this bridal joy, so mysteriously her own, was the compensation for all she had missed and yet never renounced.

Delia understood now that Charlotte had guessed all this, and that the knowledge had filled her with a fierce resentment. Charlotte had said long ago that Clement Spender had never really belonged to her; now she had perceived that it was the same with Clement Spender’s child. As the truth stole upon Delia her heart melted with the old compassion for Charlotte. She saw that it was a terrible, a sacrilegious thing to interfere with another’s destiny, to lay the tenderest touch upon any human being’s right to love and suffer after his own fashion. Delia had twice intervened in Charlotte Lovell’s life: it was natural that Charlotte should be her enemy. If only she did not revenge herself by wounding Tina!

The adopted mother’s thoughts reverted painfully to the little white room upstairs. She had meant her half-hour with Tina to leave the girl with thoughts as fragrant as the flowers she was to find beside her when she woke. And now — .

Delia started up from her musing. There was a step on the stair — Charlotte coming down through the silent house. Delia rose with a vague impulse of escape: she felt that she could not face her cousin’s eyes. She turned the corner of the verandah, hoping to find the shutters of the dining-room unlatched, and to slip away unnoticed to her room; but in a moment Charlotte was beside her.

“Delia!”

“Ah, it’s you? I was going up to bed.” For the life of her Delia could not keep an edge of hardness from her voice.

“Yes: it’s late. You must be very tired.” Charlotte paused; her own voice was strained and painful.

“I AM tired,” Delia acknowledged.

In the moonlit hush the other went up to her, laying a timid touch on her arm.

“Not till you’ve seen Tina.”

Delia stiffened. “Tina? But it’s late! Isn’t she sleeping? I thought you’d stay with her until — ”

“I don’t know if she’s sleeping.” Charlotte paused. “I haven’t been in — but there’s a light under her door.”

“You haven’t been in?”

“No: I just stood in the passage, and tried — ”

“Tried —?”

“To think of something . . . something . . . to say to her without . . . without her guessing . . . ” A sob stopped her, but she pressed on with a final effort. “It’s no use. You were right: there’s nothing I can say. You’re her real mother. Go to her. It’s not your fault — or mine.”

“Oh — ” Delia cried.

Charlotte clung to her in inarticulate abasement. “You said I was wicked — I’m not wicked. After all, she was mine when she was little!”

Delia put an arm about her shoulder.

“Hush, dear! We’ll go to her together.”

The other yielded automatically to her touch, and side by side the two women mounted the stairs, Charlotte timing her impetuous step to Delia’s stiffened movements. They walked down the passage to Tina’s door; but there Charlotte Lovell paused and shook her head.

“No — you,” she whispered, and turned away.

Tina lay in bed, her arms folded under her head, her happy eyes reflecting the silver space of sky which filled the window. She smiled at Delia through her dream.

“I knew you’d come.”

Delia sat down beside her, and their clasped hands lay upon the coverlet. They did not say much, after all; or else their communion had no need of words. Delia never knew how long she sat by the child’s side: she abandoned herself to the spell of the moonlit hour.

But suddenly she thought of Charlotte, alone behind the shut door of her own room, watching, struggling, listening. Delia must not, for her own pleasure, prolong that tragic vigil. She bent down to kiss Tina goodnight; then she paused on the threshold and turned back.

“Darling! Just one thing more.”

“Yes?” Tina murmured through her dream.

“I want you to promise me — ”

“Everything, everything, you darling mother!”

“Well, then, that when you go away to morrow — at the very last moment, you understand — ”

“Yes?”

“After you’ve said goodbye to me, and to everybody else — just as Lanning helps you into the carriage — ”

“Yes?”

“That you’ll give your last kiss to Aunt Charlotte. Don’t forget — the very last.”

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