Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
Among the leading families in New York in the 1850’s, none is more correct or more highly regarded than the Ralstons. Their ancestors came to America not for religious freedom but for wealth. By the time Delia Lovell marries James Ralston, the Ralstons consider themselves the ruling class, and all their thoughts and actions are dictated by convention. They shun new ideas as they do strange people, and the sons and daughters of the numerous branches of the family marry only the sons and daughters of similar good families.
Delia is conventional and correct by birth as well as by marriage. Before her marriage, she was in love with Clement Spender, a penniless young painter; but since he would not give up his proposed trip to Rome and settle down to a disciplined life in New York, it was impossible for a Lovell to marry him. Against her will, Delia often imagines herself married to Clement, but the image is only momentary, for Delia has no place in her life for strong emotions or great passions. Her life with James and their two children is perfect. She is glad, too, that her cousin, Charlotte Lovell, is going to marry James’s cousin, Joe Ralston, for at one time she feared that Charlotte might never have a suitable proposal.
Charlotte is a strange girl who has become quite prudish in the years since she made her debut. At that time, she was lively and beautiful. Then a sudden illness caused her to go to Georgia for her health. Since her return, she has been colorless and drab, spending all of her time with the children of the poor. She sets up a little nursery where she cares for the children, and to this nursery comes a baby who was abandoned by a veiled woman whom no one could identify. Charlotte seems especially fond of the orphan child and favors her with better toys and clothes than those given the other children.
One day, Charlotte tells Delia that she will not marry Joe. She tells Delia that the orphaned baby in the nursery is her own, and that she went to Georgia to give birth to the child. Charlotte is ill with a racking cough that often causes a hemorrhage, but it is not her cough that causes her to worry. Joe insists that she give up her work with the children after they are married. Since her baby has no known parents, it will have to be placed in an orphanage, and Charlotte could not bear to think of her child in a charity home.
Joe, being a Ralston, would never marry Charlotte and accept her child if he knew the truth. Delia does not know what action to suggest until she learns that the baby’s father is Clement. Charlotte always loved Clement, who, when he returned from Rome and found Delia married, turned to Charlotte. When he goes back to Rome, Charlotte does not tell him of the baby, for she knows that Clement still loves Delia.
Although Delia thinks she no longer cares for Clement, she, too, cannot bring herself to let his child be placed in an orphanage. She persuades her husband to provide a home for Charlotte and the baby, telling him and the rest of the family that Charlotte and Joe should not marry because of Charlotte’s cough. Joe, who wants healthy children, is not hard to convince.
After Charlotte and the baby, Tina, are established in a little house, Charlotte’s health improves. In fact, she becomes quite robust, and each day grows more and more into an old maid. After James is killed by a fall from a horse, Delia takes Charlotte and the little girl into her home. Tina grows up with the Ralston children and copies them in calling Delia “Mother” and Charlotte “Aunt.”
Delia’s children make proper marriages, and at last, she and Charlotte and Tina are left alone in the house. Charlotte often seems to resent Delia’s interest in Tina and the fact that the young girl goes to Delia’s room for private talks, but she dares not give any hint that Tina owes her love or affection.
When Delia learns that the sons of the good families will not marry Tina because she has no family background, she asks Charlotte to let her adopt the girl and give her the Ralston name. Both women fear that Tina might make the same mistake Charlotte made if she continues to see the young men who love her but will not marry her. Soon afterward, Delia makes Tina her legal daughter, and the girl becomes engaged to a correct young man.
Tina is delighted with her new status as Delia’s daughter, for she long thought of her as a mother. The two make endless plans for Tina’s wedding. On the night before the wedding, Delia wants to go up to Tina’s room to tell the girl all the things a mother usually tells her daughter on the eve of her wedding, but Charlotte flies into a rage. She accuses Delia of having helped her and Tina only because she wants revenge for Charlotte’s affair with Clement. She tells Delia that she knows Delia still loves Clement, that she turned to Delia in her need, years ago, because she knew that Delia would help her for Clement’s sake. Charlotte has carried hatred for Delia in her heart for many years, thinking always that Delia is trying to take Tina from her real mother. Charlotte declares fiercely that on her wedding eve Tina should talk with her real mother, and she starts up to the girl’s room.
When Charlotte leaves, Delia realizes that there is some truth in what Charlotte said. She chose James and the Ralston life willingly and knowingly, but she often unconsciously wishes for a life filled with love and unpredictable passions. She knows, too, that she made Tina her own child, leaving Charlotte nothing for herself.
Delia starts up to her room. She wants to see Tina, but she thinks that Charlotte deserves this one night with her daughter. Delia meets Charlotte coming downstairs. Charlotte was not with Tina, knowing that the girl would prefer her adopted mother. There is nothing an old maid aunt can say to a bride unless she were to tell her the truth, and that Charlotte can never do. Delia has her talk with Tina. She does not stay long, for she knows that Charlotte is alone and unhappy. As she kisses Tina goodnight, she asks one favor. On the morrow, for Delia’s sake, Tina is to give her last good-bye kiss to her Aunt Charlotte.
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