The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton


The shepherd continued to steal his kiss from the shepherdess, and the clock in the fallen trunk continued to tick out the minutes.

Delia, petrified, sat unconscious of their passing, her cousin clasped to her. She was dumb with the horror and amazement of learning that her own blood ran in the veins of the anonymous foundling, the “hundred dollar baby” about whom New York had so long furtively jested and conjectured. It was her first contact with the nether side of the smooth social surface, and she sickened at the thought that such things were, and that she, Delia Ralston, should be hearing of them in her own house, and from the lips of the victim! For Chatty of course was a victim — but whose? She had spoken no name, and Delia could put no question: the horror of it sealed her lips. Her mind had instantly raced back over Chatty’s past; but she saw no masculine figure in it but Joe Ralston’s. And to connect Joe with the episode was obviously unthinkable. Someone in the south, then —? But no: Charlotte had been ill when she left — and in a flash Delia understood the real nature of that illness, and of the girl’s disappearance. But from such speculations too her mind recoiled, and instinctively she fastened on something she could still grasp: Joe Ralston’s attitude about Chatty’s paupers. Of course Joe could not let his wife risk bringing contagion into their home — that was safe ground to dwell on. Her own Jim would have felt in the same way; and she would certainly have agreed with him.

Her eyes travelled back to the clock. She always thought of Clem Spender when she looked at the clock, and suddenly she wondered — if things had been different — what HE would have said if she had made such an appeal to him as Charlotte had made to Joe. The thing was hard to imagine; yet in a flash of mental readjustment Delia saw herself as Clem’s wife, she saw her children as his, she pictured herself asking him to let her go on caring for the poor waifs in the Mercer Street stable, and she distinctly heard his laugh and his light answer: “Why on earth did you ask, you little goose? Do you take me for such a Pharisee as that?”

Yes, that was Clem Spender all over — tolerant, reckless, indifferent to consequences, always doing the kind thing at the moment, and too often leaving others to pay the score. “There’s something cheap about Clem,” Jim had once said in his heavy way. Delia Ralston roused herself and pressed her cousin closer. “Chatty, tell me,” she whispered.

“There’s nothing more.”

“I mean, about yourself . . . this thing . . . this . . . ” Clem Spender’s voice was still in her ears. “You loved some one,” she breathed.

“Yes. That’s over — . Now it’s only the child . . . And I could love Joe — in another way.” Chatty Lovell straightened herself, wan and frowning.

“I need the money — I must have it for my baby. Or else they’ll send it to an Institution.” She paused. “But that’s not all. I want to marry — to be a wife, like all of you. I should have loved Joe’s children — our children. Life doesn’t stop . . . ”

“No; I suppose not. But you speak as if . . . as if . . . the person who took advantage of you . . . ”

“No one took advantage of me. I was lonely and unhappy. I met someone who was lonely and unhappy. People don’t all have your luck. We were both too poor to marry each other . . . and mother would never have consented. And so one day . . . one day before he said goodbye . . . ”

“He said goodbye?”

“Yes. He was going to leave the country.”

“He left the country — knowing?”

“How was he to know? He doesn’t live here. He’d just come back — come back to see his family — for a few weeks . . . ” She broke off, her thin lips pressed together upon her secret.

There was a silence. Blindly Delia stared at the bold shepherd.

“Come back from where?” she asked at length in a low tone.

“Oh, what does it matter? You wouldn’t understand,” Charlotte broke off, in the very words her married cousin had compassionately addressed to her virginity.

A slow blush rose to Delia’s cheek: she felt oddly humiliated by the rebuke conveyed in that contemptuous retort. She seemed to herself shy, ineffectual, as incapable as an ignorant girl of dealing with the abominations that Charlotte was thrusting on her. But suddenly some fierce feminine intuition struggled and woke in her. She forced her eyes upon her cousin’s.

“You won’t tell me who it was?”

“What’s the use? I haven’t told anybody.”

“Then why have you come to me?”

Charlotte’s stony face broke up in weeping. “It’s for my baby . . . my baby . . . ”

Delia did not heed her. “How can I help you if I don’t know?” she insisted in a harsh dry voice: her heart-beats were so violent that they seemed to send up throttling hands to her throat.

Charlotte made no answer.

“Come back from where?” Delia doggedly repeated; and at that, with a long wail, the girl flung her hands up, screening her eyes. “He always thought you’d wait for him,” she sobbed out, “and then, when he found you hadn’t . . . and that you were marrying Jim . . . He heard it just as he was sailing . . . He didn’t know it till Mrs. Mingott asked him to bring the clock back for your wedding . . . ”

“Stop — stop,” Delia cried, springing to her feet. She had provoked the avowal, and now that it had come she felt that it had been gratuitously and indecently thrust upon her. Was this New York, HER New York, her safe friendly hypocritical New York, was this James Ralston’s house, and this his wife listening to such revelations of dishonour?

Charlotte Lovell stood up in her turn. “I knew it — I knew it! You think worse of my baby now, instead of better . . . Oh, why did you make me tell you? I knew you’d never understand. I’d always cared for him, ever since I came out; that was why I wouldn’t marry any one else. But I knew there was no hope for me . . . he never looked at anybody but you. And then, when he came back four years ago, and there was no YOU for him any more, he began to notice me, to be kind, to talk to me about his life and his painting . . . ” She drew a deep breath, and her voice cleared. “That’s over — all over. It’s as if I couldn’t either hate him or love him. There’s only the child now — my child. He doesn’t even know of it — why should he? It’s none of his business; it’s nobody’s business but mine. But surely you must see that I can’t give up my baby.”

Delia Ralston stood speechless, looking away from her cousin in a growing horror. She had lost all sense of reality, all feeling of safety and self-reliance. Her impulse was to close her ears to the other’s appeal as a child buries its head from midnight terrors. At last she drew herself up, and spoke with dry lips.

“But what do you mean to do? Why have you come to me? Why have you told me all this?”

“Because he loved you!” Charlotte Lovell stammered out; and the two women stood and faced each other.

Slowly the tears rose to Delia’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks, moistening her parched lips. Through the tears she saw her cousin’s haggard countenance waver and droop like a drowning face under water. Things half-guessed, obscurely felt, surged up from unsuspected depths in her. It was almost as if, for a moment, this other woman were telling her of her own secret past, putting into crude words all the trembling silences of her own heart.

The worst of it was, as Charlotte said, that they must act now; there was not a day to lose. Chatty was right — it was impossible that she should marry Joe if to do so meant giving up the child. But, in any case, how could she marry him without telling him the truth? And was it conceivable that, after hearing it, he should not repudiate her? All these questions spun agonizingly through Delia’s brain, and through them glimmered the persistent vision of the child — Clem Spender’s child — growing up on charity in a negro hovel, or herded in one of the plague-houses they called Asylums. No: the child came first — she felt it in every fibre of her body. But what should she do, of whom take counsel, how advise the wretched creature who had come to her in Clement’s name? Delia glanced about her desperately, and then turned back to her cousin.

“You must give me time. I must think. You ought not to marry him — and yet all the arrangements are made; and the wedding-presents . . . There would be a scandal . . . it would kill Granny Lovell . . . ”

Charlotte answered in a low voice: “There IS no time. I must decide now.”

Delia pressed her hands against her breast. “I tell you, I must think. I wish you would go home. — Or, no: stay here: your mother mustn’t see your eyes. Jim’s not coming home till late; you can wait in this room till I come back.” She had opened the wardrobe and was reaching up for a plain bonnet and heavy veil.

“stay here? But where are you going?”

“I don’t know. I want to walk — to get the air. I think I want to be alone.” Feverishly, Delia unfolded her Paisley shawl, tied on bonnet and veil, thrust her mittened hands into her muff. Charlotte, without moving, stared at her dumbly from the sofa.

“You’ll wait,” Delia insisted, on the threshold.

“Yes: I’ll wait.”

Delia shut the door and hurried down the stairs.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02