The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

5.

Charlotte Lovell, at the sound of her cousin’s step, lifted a fevered face from the pillow.

The bedroom, dim and close, smelt of eau de Cologne and fresh linen. Delia, blinking in from the bright winter sun, had to feel her way through a twilight obstructed by dark mahogany.

“I want to see your face, Chatty; unless your head aches too much?”

Charlotte signed “No,” and Delia drew back the heavy window curtains and let in a ray of light. In it she saw the girl’s head, livid against the bed-linen, the brick-rose circles again visible under darkly shadowed lids. Just so, she remembered, poor cousin So-and-so had looked the week before she sailed for Italy!

“Delia!” Charlotte breathed.

Delia drew near the bed, and stood looking down at her cousin with new eyes. Yes: it had been easy enough, the night before, to dispose of Chatty’s future as if it were her own. But now?

“Darling — ”

“Oh, begin, please,” the girl interrupted, “or I shall know that what’s coming is too dreadful!”

“Chatty, dearest if I promised you too much — ”

“Jim won’t let you take my child? I knew it! Shall I always go on dreaming things that can never be?”

Delia, her tears running down, knelt by the bed, and gave her fresh hand into the other’s burning clutch.

“Don’t think that, dear: think only of what you’d like best . . . ”

“Like best?” The girl sat up sharply against her pillows, alive to the hot finger-tips.

“You can’t marry Joe, dear — can you — and keep little Tina?” Delia continued.

“Not keep her with me, no: but somewhere where I could slip off to see her — oh, I had hoped such follies!”

“Give up follies, Charlotte. Keep her where? See your own child in secret? Always in dread of disgrace? Of wrong to your other children? Have you ever thought of that?

“Oh, my poor head won’t think! You’re trying to tell me that I must give her up?”

“No, dear; but that you must not marry Joe.”

Charlotte sank back on the pillow, her eyes half-closed. “I tell you I must make my child a home. Delia, you’re too blest to understand!”

“Think of yourself blest too, Chatty. You shan’t give up your baby. She shall live with you: you shall take care of her — for me.”

“For you?”

“I promised you I’d take her, didn’t I? But not that you should marry Joe. Only that I would make a home for your baby. Well, that’s done; you two shall be always together.”

Charlotte clung to her and sobbed. “But Joe — I can’t tell him, I can’t!” She put back Delia suddenly. “You haven’t told him of my — of my baby? I couldn’t bear to hurt him as much as that.”

“I told him that you coughed blood yesterday. He’ll see you presently: he’s dreadfully unhappy. He has been given to understand that, in view of your bad health, the engagement is broken by your wish — and he accepts your decision; but if he weakens, or if you weaken, I can do nothing for you or for little Tina. For heaven’s sake remember that!”

Delia released her hold, and Charlotte leaned back silent, with closed eyes and narrowed lips. Almost like a corpse she lay there. On a chair near the bed hung the poplin with red velvet ribbons which had been made over in honour of her betrothal. A pair of new slippers of bronze kid peeped from beneath it. Poor Chatty! She had hardly had time to be pretty . . .

Delia sat by the bed motionless, her eyes on her cousin’s closed face. They followed the course of a tear that forced a way between Charlotte’s tight lids, hung on the lashes, glittered slowly down the cheeks. As the tear reached the narrowed lips they spoke.

“Shall I live with her somewhere, do you mean? Just she and I together?”

“Just you and she.”

“In a little house?”

“In a little house . . . ”

You’re sure, Delia?”

“Sure, my dearest.”

Charlotte once more raised herself on her elbow and sent a hand groping under the pillow. She drew out a narrow ribbon on which hung a diamond ring.

“I had taken it off already,” she said simply, and handed it to Delia.

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