The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton


The Ralstons gave up old customs reluctantly, but once they had adopted a new one they found it impossible to understand why everyone else did not immediately do likewise.

When Delia, who came of the laxer Lovells, and was naturally inclined to novelty, had first proposed to her husband to dine at six o’ clock instead of two, his malleable young face had become as relentless as that of the old original Ralston in his grim Colonial portrait. But after a two days’ resistance he had come round to his wife’s view, and now smiled contemptuously at the obstinacy of those who clung to a heavy mid-day meal and high tea.

“There’s nothing I hate like narrow-mindedness. Let people eat when they like, for all I care: it’s their narrow-mindedness that I can’t stand.”

Delia was thinking of this as she sat in the drawing-room (her mother would have called it the parlour) waiting for her husband’s return. She had just had time to smooth her glossy braids, and slip on the black-and-white striped moire with cherry pipings which was his favourite dress. The drawing-room, with its Nottingham lace curtains looped back under florid gilt cornices, its marble centre-table on a carved rosewood foot, and its old-fashioned mahogany armchairs covered with one of the new French silk damasks in a tart shade of apple-green, was one for any young wife to be proud of. The rosewood what-nots on each side of the folding doors that led into the dining-room were adorned with tropical shells, feld-spar vases, an alabaster model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a pair of obelisks made of scraps of porphyry and serpentine picked up by the young couple in the Roman Forum, a bust of Clytie in chalk-white biscuit de Sevres, and four old-fashioned figures of the seasons in Chelsea ware, that had to be left among the newer ornaments because they had belonged to great-grandmamma Ralston. On the walls hung large dark steel-engravings of Cole’s “Voyage of Life,” and between the windows stood the life-sized statue of “A Captive Maiden” executed for Jim Ralston’s father by the celebrated Harriet Hosmer, immortalized in Hawthorne’s novel of the Marble Faun. On the table lay handsomely tooled copies of Turner’s Rivers of France, Drake’s Culprit Fay, Crabbe’s tales, and the Book of Beauty containing portraits of the British peeresses who had participated in the Earl of Eglinton’s tournament.

As Delia sat there, before the hard-coal fire in its arched opening of black marble, her citron-wood work-table at her side and one of the new French lamps shedding a pleasant light on the centre-table from under a crystal-fringed shade, she asked herself how she could have passed, in such a short time, so completely out of her usual circle of impressions and convictions — so much farther than ever before beyond the Ralston horizon. Here it was, closing in on her again, as if the very plaster ornaments of the ceiling, the forms of the furniture, the cut of her dress, had been built out of Ralston prejudices, and turned to adamant by the touch of Ralston hands.

She must have been mad, she thought, to have committed herself so far to Charlotte; yet, turn about as she would in the ever-tightening circle of the problem, she could still find no other issue. Somehow, it lay with her to save Clem Spender’s baby.

She heard the sound of the latch-key (her heart had never beat so high at it), and the putting down of a tall hat on the hall console — or of two tall hats, was it? The drawing-room door opened, and two high-stocked and ample-coated young men came in: two Jim Ralstons, so to speak. Delia had never before noticed how much her husband and his cousin Joe were alike; it made her feel how justified she was in always thinking of the Ralston’s collectively.

She would not have been young and tender, and a happy wife, if she had not thought Joe but an indifferent copy of her Jim; yet, allowing for defects in the reproduction, there remained a striking likeness between the two tall athletic figures, the short sanguine faces with straight noses, straight whiskers, straight brows, candid blue eyes and sweet selfish smiles. Only, at the present moment, Joe looked like Jim with a tooth-ache.

“Look here, my dear: here’s a young man who’s asked to take pot-luck with us,” Jim smiled, with the confidence of a well-nourished husband who knows that he can always bring a friend home.

“How nice of you, Joe! — Do you suppose he can put up with oyster soup and a stuffed goose?” Delia beamed upon her husband.

“I knew it! I told you so, my dear chap! He said you wouldn’t like it — that you’d be fussed about the dinner. Wait till you’re married, Joseph Ralston — .” Jim brought down a genial paw on his cousin’s bottle-green shoulder, and Joe grimaced as if the tooth had stabbed him.

“It’s excessively kind of you, cousin Delia, to take me in this evening. The fact is — ”

“Dinner, first, my boy, if you don’t mind! A bottle of Burgundy will brush away the blue devils. Your arm to your cousin, please; I’ll just go and see that the wine is brought up.”

Oyster soup, broiled bass, stuffed goose, apple fritters and green peppers, followed by one of Grandmamma Ralston’s famous caramel custards: through all her mental anguish, Delia was faintly aware of a secret pride in her achievement. Certainly it would serve to confirm the rumour that Jim Ralston could always bring a friend home to dine without notice. The Ralston and Lovell wines rounded off the effect, and even Joe’s drawn face had mellowed by the time the Lovell Madeira started westward. Delia marked the change when the two young men rejoined her in the drawing-room.

“And now, my dear fellow, you’d better tell her the whole story,” Jim counselled, pushing an armchair toward his cousin.

The young woman, bent above her wool-work, listened with lowered lids and flushed cheeks. As a married woman — as a mother — Joe hoped she would think him justified in speaking to her frankly: he had her husband’s authority to do so.

“Oh, go ahead, go ahead,” chafed the exuberant after-dinner Jim from the hearth-rug.

Delia listened, considered, let the bridegroom flounder on through his embarrassed exposition. Her needle hung like a sword of Damocles above the canvas; she saw at once that Joe depended on her trying to win Charlotte over to his way of thinking. But he was very much in love: at a word from Delia, she understood that he would yield, and Charlotte gain her point, save the child, and marry him . . .

How easy it was, after all! A friendly welcome, a good dinner, a ripe wine, and the memory of Charlotte’s eyes — so much the more expressive for all that they had looked upon. A secret envy stabbed the wife who had lacked this last enlightenment.

How easy it was — and yet it must not be! Whatever happened, she could not let Charlotte Lovell marry Joe Ralston. All the traditions of honour and probity in which she had been brought up forbade her to connive at such a plan. She could conceive — had already conceived — of high-handed measures, swift and adroit defiances of precedent, subtle revolts against the heartlessness of the social routine. But a lie she could never connive at. The idea of Charlotte’s marrying Joe Ralston — her own Jim’s cousin — without revealing her past to him, seemed to Delia as dishonourable as it would have seemed to any Ralston. And to tell him the truth would at once put an end to the marriage; of that even Chatty was aware. Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

No; there was no escape from the dilemma. As clearly as it was Delia’s duty to save Clem Spender’s child, so clearly, also, she seemed destined to sacrifice his mistress. As the thought pressed on her she remembered Charlotte’s wistful cry: “I want to be married, like all of you,” and her heart tightened. But yet it must not be.

“I make every allowance” (Joe was droning on) “for my sweet girl’s ignorance and inexperience — for her lovely purity. How could a man wish his future wife to be — to be otherwise? You’re with me, Jim? And Delia? I’ve told her, you understand, that she shall always have a special sum set apart for her poor children — in addition to her pin money; on that she may absolutely count. God! I’m willing to draw up a deed, a settlement, before a lawyer, if she says so. I admire, I appreciate her generosity. But I ask you, Delia, as a mother — mind you, now, I want your frank opinion. If you think I can stretch a point — can let her go on giving her personal care to these children until . . . until . . . ” A flush of pride suffused the potential father’s brow . . . “till nearer duties claim her, why, I’m more than ready . . . if you’ll tell her so. I undertake,” Joe proclaimed, suddenly tingling with the memory of his last glass, “to make it right with my mother, whose prejudices, of course, while I respect them, I can never allow to — to come between me and my own convictions.” He sprang to his feet, and beamed on his dauntless double in the chimney-mirror. “My convictions,” he flung back at it.

“Hear, hear!” cried Jim emotionally.

Delia’s needle gave the canvas a sharp prick, and she pushed her work aside.

“I think I understand you both, Joe. Certainly, in Charlotte’s place, I could never give up those children.”

“There you are, my dear fellow!” Jim triumphed, as proud of this vicarious courage as of the perfection of the dinner.

“Never,” said Delia. “Especially, I mean, the foundlings — there are two, I think. Those children always die if they are sent to asylums. That is what is haunting Chatty.”

“Poor innocents! How I love her for loving them! That there should be such scoundrels upon this earth unpunished — . Delia, will you tell her that I’ll do whatever — ”

“Gently, old man, gently,” Jim admonished him, with a flash of Ralston caution.

“Well, that is to say, whatever — in reason — ”

Delia lifted an arresting hand. “I’ll tell her, Joe: she will be grateful. But it’s of no use — ”

“No use? What more —?”

“Nothing more: except this. Charlotte has had a return of her old illness. She coughed blood here today. You must not marry her.”

There: it was done. She stood up, trembling in every bone, and feeling herself pale to the lips. Had she done right? Had she done wrong? And would she ever know?

Poor Joe turned on her a face as wan as hers: he clutched the back of his armchair, his head drooping forward like an old man’s. His lips moved, but made no sound.

“My God!” Jim stammered. “But you know you’ve got to buck up, old boy.”

“I’m — I’m so sorry for you, Joe. She’ll tell you herself tomorrow,” Delia faltered, while her husband continued to proffer heavy consolations.

“Take it like a man, old chap. Think of yourself — your future. Can’t be, you know. Delia’s right; she always IS. Better get it over — better face the music now than later.”

“Now than later,” Joe echoed with a tortured grin; and it occurred to Delia that never before in the course of his easy good-natured life had he had — any more than her Jim — to give up anything his heart was set on. Even the vocabulary of renunciation, and its conventional gestures, were unfamiliar to him.

“But I don’t understand. I can’t give her up,” he declared, blinking away a boyish tear.

“Think of the children, my dear fellow; it’s your duty,” Jim insisted, checking a glance of pride at Delia’s wholesome comeliness.

In the long conversation that followed between the cousins — argument, counter-argument, sage counsel and hopeless protest — Delia took but an occasional part. She knew well enough what the end would be. The bridegroom who had feared that his bride might bring home contagion from her visits to the poor would not knowingly implant disease in his race. Nor was that all. Too many sad instances of mothers prematurely fading, and leaving their husbands alone with a young flock to rear, must be pressing upon Joe’s memory. Ralstons, Lovells, Lannings, Archers, van der Luydens — which one of them had not some grave to care for in a distant cemetery: graves of young relatives “in a decline,” sent abroad to be cured by balmy Italy? The Protestant grave-yards of Rome and Pisa were full of New York names; the vision of that familiar pilgrimage with a dying wife was one to turn the most ardent Ralston cold. And all the while, as she listened with bent head, Delia kept repeating to herself: “This is easy; but how am I going to tell Charlotte?”

When poor Joe, late that evening, wrung her hand with a stammered farewell, she called him back abruptly from the threshold.

“You must let me see her first, please; you must wait till she sends for you — ” and she winced a little at the alacrity of his acceptance. But no amount of rhetorical bolstering-up could make it easy for a young man to face what lay ahead of Joe; and her final glance at his was one of compassion . . .

The front door closed upon Joe, and she was roused by her husband’s touch on her shoulder.

“I never admired you more, darling. My wise Delia!”

Her head bent back, she took his kiss, and then drew apart. The sparkle in his eyes she understood to be as much an invitation to her bloom as a tribute to her sagacity.

She held him at arms’ length. “What should you have done, Jim, if I’d had to tell you about myself what I’ve just told Joe about Chatty?”

A slight frown showed that he thought the question negligible, and hardly in her usual taste. “Come,” his strong arm entreated her.

She continued to stand away from him, with grave eyes. “Poor Chatty! Nothing left now — ”

His own eyes grew grave, in instant sympathy. At such moments he was still the sentimental boy whom she could manage.

“Ah, poor Chatty, indeed!” He groped for the readiest panacea. “Lucky, now, after all, that she has those paupers, isn’t it? I suppose a woman MUST have children to love — somebody else’s if not her own.” It was evident that the thought of the remedy had already relieved his pain.

“Yes,” Delia agreed, “I see no other comfort for her. I’m sure Joe will feel that too. Between us, darling — ” and now she let him have her hands — “between us, you and I must see to it that she keeps her babies.”

“Her babies?” He smiled at the possessive pronoun. “Of course, poor girl! Unless indeed she’s sent to Italy?”

“Oh, she won’t be that — where’s the money to come from? And, besides, she’d never leave Aunt Lovell. But I thought, dear, if I might tell her tomorrow — you see, I’m not exactly looking forward to my talk with her — if I might tell her that you would let me look after the baby she’s most worried about, the poor little foundling girl who has no name and no home — if I might put aside a fixed sum from my pin-money . . . ”

Their hands flowed together, she lifted her flushing face to his. Manly tears were in his eyes; ah, how he triumphed in her health, her wisdom, her generosity!

“Not a penny from your pin-money, never!”

She feigned discouragement and wonder. “Think, dear — if I’d had to give you up!”

“Not a penny from your pin-money, I say — but as much more as you need, to help poor Chatty’s pauper. There — will that content you?”

“Dearest! When I think of our own, upstairs!” They held each other, awed by that evocation.

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