The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

8.

“But you must see,” Charlotte Lovell insisted, laying aside the Evening Post, “that Tina has changed. You do see that?”

The two women were sitting alone by the drawing-room fire in Gramercy Park. Tina had gone to dine with her cousin, young Mrs. John Junius Halsey, and was to be taken afterward to a ball at the Vandergraves’, from which the John Juniuses had promised to see her home. Mrs. Ralston and Charlotte, their early dinner finished, had the long evening to themselves. Their custom on such occasions, was for Charlotte to read the news aloud to her cousin, while the latter embroidered; but tonight, all through Charlotte’s conscientious progress from column to column, without a slip or an omission, Delia had felt her, for some special reason, alert to take advantage of her daughter’s absence.

To gain time before answering, Mrs. Ralston bent over a stitch in her delicate white embroidery.

“Tina changed? Since when?” she questioned.

The answer flashed out instantly. “Since Lanning Halsey has been coming here so much.”

“Lanning? I used to think he came for Delia,” Mrs. Ralston mused, speaking at random to gain still more time.

“It’s natural you should suppose that every one came for Delia,” Charlotte rejoined dryly; “but as Lanning continues to seek every chance of being with Tina — ”

Mrs. Ralston raised her head and stole a swift glance at her cousin. She had in truth noticed that Tina had changed, as a flower changes at the mysterious moment when the unopened petals flush from within. The girl had grown handsomer, shyer, more silent, at times more irrelevantly gay. But Delia had not associated these variations of mood with the presence of Lanning Halsey, one of the numerous youths who had haunted the house before young Delia’s marriage. There had, indeed, been a moment when Mrs. Ralston’s eye had been fixed, with a certain apprehension, on the handsome Lanning. Among all the sturdy and stolid Halsey cousins he was the only one to whom a prudent mother might have hesitated to entrust her daughter; it would have been hard to say why, except that he was handsomer and more conversable than the rest, chronically unpunctual, and totally unperturbed by the fact. Clem Spender had been like that; and what if young Delia —?

But young Delia’s mother was speedily reassured. The girl, herself arch and appetizing, took no interest in the corresponding graces except when backed by more solid qualities. A Ralston to the core, she demanded the Ralston virtues, and chose the Halsey most worthy of a Ralston bride.

Mrs. Ralston felt that Charlotte was waiting for her to speak. “It will be hard to get used to the idea of Tina’s marrying,” she said gently. “I don’t know what we two old women shall do, alone in this empty house — for it will be an empty house then. But I suppose we ought to face the idea.”

“I DO face it,” said Charlotte Lovell gravely.

“And you dislike Lanning? I mean, as a husband for Tina?”

Miss Lovell folded the evening paper, and stretched out a thin hand for her knitting. She glanced across the citron-wood work-table at her cousin. “Tina must not be too difficult — ” she began.

“Oh — ” Delia protested, reddening.

“Let us call things by their names,” the other evenly pursued. “That’s my way, when I speak at all. Usually, as you know, I say nothing.”

The widow made a sign of assent, and Charlotte went on: “It’s better so. But I’ve always known a time would come when we should have to talk this thing out.”

“Talk this thing out? You and I? What thing?”

“Tina’s future.”

There was a silence. Delia Ralston, who always responded instantly to the least appeal to her sincerity, breathed a deep sigh of relief. At last the ice in Charlotte’s breast was breaking up!

“My dear,” Delia murmured, “you know how much Tina’s happiness concerns me. If you disapprove of Lanning Halsey as a husband, have you any other candidate in mind?”

Miss Lovell smiled one of her faint hard smiles. “I am not aware that there is a queue at the door. Nor do I disapprove of Lanning Halsey as a husband. Personally, I find him very agreeable; I understand his attraction for Tina.”

“Ah — Tina IS attracted?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Ralston pushed aside her work and thoughtfully considered her cousin’s sharply-lined face. Never had Charlotte Lovell more completely presented the typical image of the old maid than as she sat there, upright on her straight-backed chair, with narrowed elbows and clicking needles, and imperturbably discussed her daughter’s marriage.

“I don’t understand, Chatty. Whatever Lanning’s faults are — and I don’t believe they’re grave — I share your liking for him. After all — ” Mrs. Ralston paused — “what is it that people find so reprehensible in him? Chiefly, as far as I can hear, that he can’t decide on the choice of a profession. The New York view about that is rather narrow, as we know. Young men may have other tastes . . . artistic . . . literary . . . they may even have difficulty in deciding . . . ”

Both women coloured slightly, and Delia guessed that the same reminiscence which shook her own bosom also throbbed under Charlotte’s strait bodice.

Charlotte spoke. “Yes: I understand that. But hesitancy about a profession may cause hesitancy about . . . other decisions . . . ”

“What do you mean? Surely not that Lanning —?”

“Lanning has not asked Tina to marry him.”

“And you think he’s hesitating?”

Charlotte paused. The steady click of her needles punctuated the silence as once, years before, it had been punctuated by the tick of the Parisian clock on Delia’s mantel. As Delia’s memory fled back to the scene she felt its mysterious tension in the air.

Charlotte spoke. “Lanning is not hesitating any longer: he has decided NOT to marry Tina. But he has also decided not to give up seeing her.”

Delia flushed abruptly; she was irritated and bewildered by Charlotte’s oracular phrases, doled out between parsimonious lips.

“You don’t mean that he has offered himself and then drawn back? I can’t think him capable of such an insult to Tina.”

“He has not insulted Tina. He has simply told her that he can’t afford to marry. Until he chooses a profession his father will allow him only a few hundred dollars a year; and that may be suppressed if — if he marries against his parents’ wishes.”

It was Delia’s turn to be silent. The past was too overwhelmingly resuscitated in Charlotte’s words. Clement Spender stood before her, irresolute, impecunious, persuasive. Ah, if only she had let herself be persuaded!

“I’m very sorry that this should have happened to Tina. But as Lanning appears to have behaved honourably, and withdrawn without raising false expectations, we must hope . . . we must hope . . . ” Delia paused, not knowing what they must hope.

Charlotte Lovell laid down her knitting. “You know as well as I do, Delia, that every young man who is inclined to fall in love with Tina will find as good reasons for not marrying her.”

“Then you think Lanning’s excuses are a pretext?”

“Naturally. The first of many that will be found by his successors — for of course he will have successors. Tina — attracts.”

“Ah,” Delia murmured.

Here they were at last face to face with the problem which, through all the years of silence and evasiveness, had lain as close to the surface as a corpse too hastily buried! Delia drew another deep breath, which again was almost one of relief. She had always known that it would be difficult, almost impossible, to find a husband for Tina; and much as she desired Tina’s happiness, some inmost selfishness whispered how much less lonely and purposeless the close of her own life would be should the girl be forced to share it. But how say this to Tina’s mother?

“I hope you exaggerate, Charlotte. There may be disinterested characters . . . But, in any case, surely Tina need not be unhappy here, with us who love her so dearly.”

“Tina an old maid? Never!” Charlotte Lovell rose abruptly, her closed hand crashing down on the slender work-table. “My child shall have her life . . . her own life . . . whatever it costs me . . . ”

Delia’s ready sympathy welled up. “I understand your feeling. I should want also . . . hard as it will be to let her go. But surely there is no hurry — no reason for looking so far ahead. The child is not twenty. Wait.”

Charlotte stood before her, motionless, perpendicular. At such moments she made Delia think of lava struggling through granite: there seemed no issue for the fires within.

“Wait? But if SHE doesn’t wait?”

“But if he has withdrawn — what do you mean?”

“He has given up marrying her — but not seeing her.”

Delia sprang up in her turn, flushed and trembling.

“Charlotte! Do you know what you’re insinuating?”

“Yes: I know.”

“But it’s too outrageous. No decent girl — ”

The words died on Delia’s lips. Charlotte Lovell held her eyes inexorably. “Girls are not always what you call decent,” she declared.

Mrs. Ralston turned slowly back to her seat. Her tambour frame had fallen to the floor; she stooped heavily to pick it up. Charlotte’s gaunt figure hung over her, relentless as doom.

“I can’t imagine, Charlotte, what is gained by saying such things — even by hinting them. Surely you trust your own child.”

Charlotte laughed. “My mother trusted me,” she said.

“How dare you — how dare you?” Delia began; but her eyes fell, and she felt a tremor of weakness in her throat.

“Oh, I dare anything for Tina, even to judging her as she is,” Tina’s mother murmured.

“As she is? She’s perfect!”

“Let us say then that she must pay for my imperfections. All I want is that she shouldn’t pay too heavily.”

Mrs. Ralston sat silent. It seemed to her that Charlotte spoke with the voice of all the dark destinies coiled under the safe surface of life; and that to such a voice there was no answer but an awed acquiescence.

“Poor Tina!” she breathed.

“Oh, I don’t intend that she shall suffer! It’s not for that that I’ve waited . . . waited. Only I’ve made mistakes: mistakes that I understand now, and must remedy. You’ve been too good to us — and we must go.”

“Go?” Delia gasped.

“Yes. Don’t think me ungrateful. You saved my child once — do you suppose I can forget? But now it’s my turn — it’s I who must save her. And it’s only by taking her away from everything here — from everything she’s known till now — that I can do it. She’s lived too long among unrealities: and she’s like me. They won’t content her.”

“Unrealities?” Delia echoed vaguely.

“Unrealities for her. Young men who make love to her and can’t marry her. Happy households where she’s welcomed till she’s suspected of designs on a brother or a husband — or else exposed to their insults. How could we ever have imagined, either of us, that the child could escape disaster? I thought only of her present happiness — of all the advantages, for both of us, of being with you. But this affair with young Halsey has opened my eyes. I must take Tina away. We must go and live somewhere where we’re not known, where we shall be among plain people, leading plain lives. Somewhere where she can find a husband, and make herself a home.”

Charlotte paused. She had spoken in a rapid monotonous tone, as if by rote; but now her voice broke and she repeated painfully: “I’m not ungrateful.”

“Oh, don’t let’s speak of gratitude! What place has it between you and me?”

Delia had risen and begun to move uneasily about the room. She longed to plead with Charlotte, to implore her not to be in haste, to picture to her the cruelty of severing Tina from all her habits and associations, of carrying her inexplicably away to lead “a plain life among plain people.” What chance was there, indeed, that a creature so radiant would tamely submit to such a fate, or find an acceptable husband in such conditions? The change might only precipitate a tragedy. Delia’s experience was too limited for her to picture exactly what might happen to a girl like Tina, suddenly cut off from all that sweetened life for her; but vague visions of revolt and flight — of a “fall” deeper and more irretrievable than Charlotte’s — flashed through her agonized imagination.

“It’s too cruel — it’s too cruel,” she cried, speaking to herself rather than to Charlotte.

Charlotte, instead of answering, glanced abruptly at the clock.

“Do you know what time it is? Past midnight. I mustn’t keep you sitting up for my foolish girl.”

Delia’s heart contracted. She saw that Charlotte wished to cut the conversation short, and to do so by reminding her that only Tina’s mother had a right to decide what Tina’s future should be. At that moment, though Delia had just protested that there could be no question of gratitude between them, Charlotte Lovell seemed to her a monster of ingratitude, and it was on the tip of her tongue to cry out: “Have all the years then given me no share in Tina?” But at the same instant she had put herself once more in Charlotte’s place, and was feeling the mother’s fierce terrors for her child. It was natural enough that Charlotte should resent the faintest attempt to usurp in private the authority she could never assert in public. With a pang of compassion Delia realized that she herself was literally the one being on earth before whom Charlotte could act the mother. “Poor thing — ah, let her!” she murmured inwardly.

“But why should you sit up for Tina? She has the key, and Delia is to bring her home.”

Charlotte Lovell did not immediately answer. She rolled up her knitting, looked severely at one of the candelabra on the mantelpiece, and crossed over to straighten it. Then she picked up her work-bag.

“Yes, as you say — why should any one sit up for her?” She moved about the room, putting out the lamps, covering the fire, assuring herself that the windows were bolted, while Delia passively watched her. Then the two cousins lit their bedroom candles and walked upstairs through the darkened house. Charlotte seemed determined to make no further allusion to the subject of their talk. On the landing she paused, bending her head toward Delia’s nightly kiss.

“I hope they’ve kept up your fire,” she said, with her capable housekeeping air; and on Delia’s hasty reassurance the two murmured a simultaneous “Goodnight,” and Charlotte turned down the passage to her room.

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