The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton


She had spoken the truth in saying that she did not know where she was going. She simply wanted to get away from Charlotte’s unbearable face, and from the immediate atmosphere of her tragedy. Outside, in the open, perhaps it would be easier to think.

As she skirted the park-rails she saw her rosy children playing, under their nurse’s eye, with the pampered progeny of other square-dwellers. The little girl had on her new plaid velvet bonnet and white tippet, and the boy his Highland cap and broad-cloth spencer. How happy and jolly they looked! The nurse spied her, but she shook her head, waved at the group and hurried on.

She walked and walked through the familiar streets decked with bright winter sunshine. It was early afternoon, an hour when the gentlemen had just returned to their offices, and there were few pedestrians in Irving Place and Union Square. Delia crossed the Square to Broadway.

The Lovell house in Mercer Street was a sturdy old-fashioned brick dwelling. A large stable adjoined it, opening on an alley such as Delia, on her honeymoon trip to England, had heard called a “mews.” She turned into the alley, entered the stable court, and pushed open a door. In a shabby white-washed room a dozen children, gathered about a stove, were playing with broken toys. The Irishwoman who had charge of them was cutting out small garments on a broken-legged deal table. She raised a friendly face, recognizing Delia as the lady who had once or twice been to see the children with Miss Charlotte.

Delia paused, embarrassed.

“I— I came to ask if you need any new toys,” she stammered.

“That we do, ma’am. And many another thing too, though Miss Charlotte tells me I’m not to beg of the ladies that comes to see our poor darlin’s.”

“Oh, you may beg of me, Bridget,” Mrs. Ralston answered, smiling. “Let me see your babies — it’s so long since I’ve been here.”

The children had stopped playing and, huddled against their nurse, gazed up open-mouthed at the rich rustling lady. One little girl with pale brown eyes and scarlet cheeks was dressed in a plaid alpaca frock trimmed with imitation coral buttons that Delia remembered. Those buttons had been on Charlotte’s “best dress” the year she came out. Delia stopped and took up the child. Its curly hair was brown, the exact colour of the eyes — thank heaven! But the eyes had the same little green spangles floating in their transparency. Delia sat down, and the little girl, standing on her knee, gravely fingered her watch chain.

“Oh, ma’am — maybe her shoes’ll soil your skirt. The floor here ain’t none too clean.”

Delia shook her head, and pressed the child against her. She had forgotten the other gazing babies and their wardress. The little creature on her knee was made of different stuff — it had not needed the plaid alpaca and coral buttons to single her out. Her brown curls grew in points on her high forehead, exactly as Clement Spender’s did. Delia laid a burning cheek against the forehead.

“Baby want my lovely yellow chain?”

Baby did.

Delia unfastened the gold chain and hung it about the child’s neck. The other babies clapped and crowed, but the little girl, gravely dimpling, continued to finger the links in silence.

“Oh, ma’am, you can’t leave that fine chain on little Teeny. When she has to go back to those blacks . . . ”

“What is her name?”

“Teena they call her, I believe. It don’t seem a Christian name, har’ly.”

Delia was silent.

“What I say is, her cheeks is too red. And she coughs too easy. Always one cold and another. Here, Teeny, leave the lady go.”

Delia stood up, loosening the tender arms.

“She doesn’t want to leave go of you, ma’am. Miss Chatty ain’t been in today, and the little thing’s kinder lonesome without her. She don’t play like the other children, somehow . . . Teeny, you look at that lovely chain you’ve got . . . there, . . . there now . . . ”

“Goodbye, Clementina,” Delia whispered below her breath. She kissed the pale brown eyes, the curly crown, and dropped her veil on rushing tears. In the stable-yard she dried them on her large embroidered handkerchief, and stood hesitating. Then with a decided step she turned toward home.

The house was as she had left it, except that the children had come in; she heard them romping in the nursery as she went down the passage to her bedroom. Charlotte Lovell was seated on the sofa, upright and rigid, as Delia had left her.

“Chatty — Chatty, I’ve thought it out. Listen. Whatever happens, the baby shan’t stay with those people. I mean to keep her.”

Charlotte stood up, tall and white. The eyes in her thin face had grown so dark that they seemed like spectral hollows in a skull. She opened her lips to speak, and then, snatching at her handkerchief, pressed it to her mouth, and sank down again. A red trickle dripped through the handkerchief onto her poplin skirt.

“Charlotte — Charlotte,” Delia screamed, on her knees beside her cousin. Charlotte’s head slid back against the cushions and the trickle ceased. She closed her eyes, and Delia, seizing a vinaigrette from the dressing-table, held it to her pinched nostrils. The room was filled with an acrid aromatic scent.

Charlotte’s lids lifted. “Don’t be frightened. I still spit blood sometimes — not often. My lung is nearly healed. But it’s the terror — ”

“No, no: there’s to be no more terror. I tell you I’ve thought it all out. Jim is going to let me take the baby.”

The girl raised herself haggardly. “Jim? Have you told him? Is that where you’ve been?”

“No, darling. I’ve only been to see the baby.”

“Oh,” Charlotte moaned, leaning back again. Delia took her own handkerchief, and wiped away the tears that were raining down her cousin’s cheeks.

“You mustn’t cry, Chatty; you must be brave. Your little girl and his — how could you think? But you must give me time: I must manage it in my own way . . . Only trust me . . . ”

Charlotte’s lips stirred faintly.

“The tears . . . don’t dry them, Delia. . . . I like to feel them . . . ”

The two cousins continued to lean against each other without speaking. The ormolu clock ticked out the measure of their mute communion in minutes, quarters, a half-hour, then an hour: the day declined and darkened, the shadows lengthened across the garlands of the Axminster and the broad white bed. There was a knock.

“The children’s waiting to say their grace before supper, ma’am.”

“Yes, Eliza. Let them say it to you. I’ll come later.” As the nurse’s steps receded Charlotte Lovell disengaged herself from Delia’s embrace.

“Now I can go,” she said.

“You’re not too weak, dear? I can send for a coach to take you home.”

“No, no; it would frighten mother. And I shall like walking now, in the darkness. Sometimes the world used to seem all one awful glare to me. There were days when I thought the sun would never set. And then there was the moon at night.” She laid her hands on her cousin’s shoulders. “Now it’s different. By and bye I shan’t hate the light.”

The two women kissed each other, and Delia whispered: “Tomorrow.”

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