The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

Part 2.

6.

You could always have told, every one agreed afterward, that Charlotte Lovell was meant to be an old maid. Even before her illness it had been manifest: there was something prim about her in spite of her fiery hair. Lucky enough for her, poor girl, considering her wretched health in her youth: Mrs. James Ralston’s contemporaries, for instance, remembered Charlotte as a mere ghost, coughing her lungs out — that, of course, had been the reason for her breaking her engagement with Joe Ralston.

True, she had recovered very rapidly, in spite of the peculiar treatment she was given. The Lovells, as every one knew, couldn’t afford to send her to Italy; the previous experiment in Georgia had been unsuccessful; and so she was packed off to a farm-house on the Hudson — a little place on the James Ralston’s property — where she lived for five or six years with an Irish servant-woman and a foundling baby. The story of the foundling was another queer episode in Charlotte’s history. From the time of her first illness, when she was only twenty-two or three, she had developed an almost morbid tenderness for children, especially for the children of the poor. It was said — Dr. Lanskell was understood to have said — that the baffled instinct of motherhood was peculiarly intense in cases where lung-disease prevented marriage. And so, when it was decided that Chatty must break her engagement to Joe Ralston and go to live in the country, the doctor had told her family that the only hope of saving her lay in not separating her entirely from her pauper children, but in letting her choose one of them, the youngest and most pitiable, and devote herself to its care. So the James Ralstons had lent her their little farm-house, and Mrs. Jim, with her extraordinary gift of taking things in at a glance, had at once arranged everything, and even pledged herself to look after the baby if Charlotte died.

Charlotte did not die. She lived to grow robust and middle aged, energetic and even tyrannical. And as the transformation in her character took place she became more and more like the typical old maid: precise, methodical, absorbed in trifles, and attaching an exaggerated importance to the smallest social and domestic observances. Such was her reputation as a vigilant house-wife that, when poor Jim Ralston was killed by a fall from his horse, and left Delia, still young, with a boy and girl to bring up, it seemed perfectly natural that the heart-broken widow should take her cousin to live with her and share her task. But Delia Ralston never did things quite like other people. When she took Charlotte she took Charlotte’s foundling too: a dark-haired child with pale brown eyes, and the odd incisive manner of children who have lived too much with their elders. The little girl was called Tina Lovell: it was vaguely supposed that Charlotte had adopted her. She grew up on terms of affectionate equality with her young Ralston cousins, and almost as much so — it might be said — with the two women who mothered her. But, impelled by an instinct of imitation which no one took the trouble to correct, she always called Delia Ralston “Mamma,” and Charlotte Lovell “Aunt Chatty.” She was a brilliant and engaging creature, and people marvelled at poor Chatty’s luck in having chosen so interesting a specimen among her foundlings (for she was by this time supposed to have had a whole asylum-full to choose from).

The agreeable elderly bachelor, Sillerton Jackson, returning from a prolonged sojourn in Paris (where he was understood to have been made much of by the highest personages) was immensely struck by Tina’s charms when he saw her at her coming-out ball, and asked Delia’s permission to come some evening and dine alone with her and her young people. He complimented the widow on the rosy beauty of her own young Delia; but the mother’s keen eye perceived that all the while he was watching Tina, and after dinner he confided to the older ladies that there was something “very French” in the girl’s way of doing her hair, and that in the capital of all the Elegances she would have been pronounced extremely stylish.

“Oh — ” Delia deprecated, beamingly, while Charlotte Lovell sat bent over her work with pinched lips; but Tina, who had been laughing with her cousins at the other end of the room was around upon her elders in a flash.

“I heard what Mr. Sillerton said! Yes, I did, Mamma: he says I do my hair stylishly. Didn’t I always tell you so? I KNOW it’s more becoming to let it curl as it wants to than to plaster it down with bandoline like Aunty’s — ”

“Tina, Tina — you always think people are admiring you!” Miss Lovell protested.

“Why shouldn’t I, when they do?” the girl laughingly challenged; and, turning her mocking eyes on Sillerton Jackson: “Do tell Aunt Charlotte not to be so dreadfully old-maidish!”

Delia saw the blood rise to Charlotte Lovell’s face. It no longer painted two brick-rose circles on her thin cheek-bones, but diffused a harsh flush over her whole countenance, from the collar fastened with an old-fashioned garnet brooch to the pepper-and-salt hair (with no trace of red left in it) flattened down over her hollow temples.

That evening, when they went up to bed, Delia called Tina into her room.

“You ought not to speak to your Aunt Charlotte as you did this evening, dear. It’s disrespectful — you must see that it hurts her.”

The girl overflowed with compunction. “Oh, I’m so sorry! Because I said she was an old maid? But she IS, isn’t she, Mamma? In her inmost soul, I mean. I don’t believe she’s ever been young — ever thought of fun or admiration or falling in love — do you? That’s why she never understands me, and you always do, you darling dear Mamma.” With one of her light movements, Tina was in the widow’s arms.

“Child, child,” Delia softly scolded, kissing the dark curls planted in five points on the girl’s forehead.

There was a soft foot-fall in the passage, and Charlotte Lovell stood in the door. Delia, without moving, sent her a glance of welcome over Tina’s shoulder.

“Come in, Charlotte. I’m scolding Tina for behaving like a spoilt baby before Sillerton Jackson. What will he think of her?”

“Just what she deserves, probably,” Charlotte returned with a cold smile. Tina went toward her, and her thin lips touched the girl’s proffered forehead just where Delia’s warm kiss had rested. “Good-night, child,” she said in her dry tone of dismissal.

The door closed on the two women, and Delia signed to Charlotte to take the armchair opposite to her own.

“Not so near the fire,” Miss Lovell answered. She chose a straight-backed seat, and sat down with folded hands. Delia’s eyes rested absently on the thin ringless fingers: she wondered why Charlotte never wore her mother’s jewels.

“I overheard what you were saying to Tina, Delia. You were scolding her because she called me an old maid.”

It was Delia’s turn to colour. “I scolded her for being disrespectful, dear; if you heard what I said you can’t think that I was too severe.”

“Not too severe: no. I’ve never thought you too severe with Tina; on the contrary.”

“You think I spoil her?”

“Sometimes.”

Delia felt an unreasoning resentment. “What was it I said that you object to?”

Charlotte returned her glance steadily. “I would rather she thought me an old maid than — ”

“Oh — ” Delia murmured. With one of her quick leaps of intuition she had entered into the other’s soul, and once more measured its shuddering loneliness.

“What else,” Charlotte inexorably pursued, “CAN she possibly be allowed to think me — ever?”

“I see . . . I see . . . ” the widow faltered.

“A ridiculous narrow-minded old maid — nothing else,” Charlotte Lovell insisted, getting to her feet, “or I shall never feel safe with her.”

“Goodnight, my dear,” Delia said compassionately. There were moments when she almost hated Charlotte for being Tina’s mother, and others, such as this, when her heart was wrung by the tragic spectacle of that unavowed bond.

Charlotte seemed to have divined her thought.

“Oh, but don’t pity me! She’s mine,” she murmured, going.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/old_maid/chapter6.html

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