“A Cup of Cold Water” is a lovely short story by Edith Wharton centered on a man named Woburn. The story divides into two halves, which frankly I’m not convinced is aesthetically whole. By that I mean that there is a first half which is a story in itself and a second half that seems like a separate story, though the central character of Woburn is in both halves. You can read the entire story at the Literature Network, here, from which I will use as a source for the quotes.
The story is set in New York City in the late 19th century. Woburn is a poor young man who has this infatuation with a rich young lady, Miss Talcott. Here is a one sentence paragraph of why Woburn is charmed with Miss Talcott.
Her supreme charm was the simplicity that comes of taking it for granted that people are born with carriages and country-places: it never occurred to her that such congenital attributes could be matter for self-consciousness, and she had none of the nouveau riche prudery which classes poverty with the nude in art and is not sure how to behave in the presence of either.
In other words, she didn’t realize other people weren’t born with her financial advantages, which meant she did not look down on the lower classes, or it didn’t dawn on her to look down on them. She’s natural and not snobby.
So Woburn—which I think is so named because it nearly sounds like “woe born”—realizes he has to be rich to marry Miss Talcott, and so starts investing in stocks with borrowed money, and then starts using money from the bank at which he worked. Here are two wonderful paragraphs on his subsequent crash.
He had invested the few thousand dollars which had been his portion of his father's shrunken estate: when his debts began to pile up, he took a flyer in stocks and after a few months of varying luck his little patrimony disappeared. Meanwhile his courtship was proceeding at an inverse ratio to his financial ventures. Miss Talcott was growing tender and he began to feel that the game was in his hands. The nearness of the goal exasperated him. She was not the girl to wait and he knew that it must be now or never. A friend lent him five thousand dollars on his personal note and he bought railway stocks on margin. They went up and he held them for a higher rise: they fluctuated, dragged, dropped below the level at which he had bought, and slowly continued their uninterrupted descent. His broker called for more margin; he could not respond and was sold out.
What followed came about quite naturally. For several years he had been cashier in a well-known banking-house. When the note he had given his friend became due it was obviously necessary to pay it and he used the firm's money for the purpose. To repay the money thus taken, he increased his debt to his employers and bought more stocks; and on these operations he made a profit of ten thousand dollars. Miss Talcott rode in the Park, and he bought a smart hack for seven hundred, paid off his tradesmen, and went on speculating with the remainder of his profits. He made a little more, but failed to take advantage of the market and lost all that he had staked, including the amount taken from the firm. He increased his over-draft by another ten thousand and lost that; he over-drew a farther sum and lost again. Suddenly he woke to the fact that he owed his employers fifty thousand dollars and that the partners were to make their semi-annual inspection in two days. He realized then that within forty-eight hours what he had called borrowing would become theft.
And so he realizes he has lost everything including Miss Talcott and needs to leave town before he will be arrested. On the night before he will skip town there is a ball where Miss Talcott was to attend and had invited him. He decides to go and have one last moment with her before he will never see her again. Here is that last moment.
Presently Woburn was aware that she had forgotten young Boylston and was glancing absently about the room. She was looking for someone, and meant the someone to know it: he knew that Lost-Chord look in her eyes.
A new figure was being formed. The partners circled about the room and Miss Talcott's flying tulle drifted close to him as she passed. Then the favors were distributed; white skirts wavered across the floor like thistle-down on summer air; men rose from their seats and fresh couples filled the shining parquet.
Miss Talcott, after taking from the basket a Legion of Honor in red enamel, surveyed the room for a moment; then she made her way through the dancers and held out the favor to Woburn. He fastened it in his coat, and emerging from the crowd of men about the doorway, slipped his arm about her. Their eyes met; hers were serious and a little sad. How fine and slender she was! He noticed the little tendrils of hair about the pink convolution of her ear. Her waist was firm and yet elastic; she breathed calmly and regularly, as though dancing were her natural motion. She did not look at him again and neither of them spoke.
When the music ceased they paused near her chair. Her partner was waiting for her and Woburn left her with a bow. He made his way down-stairs and out of the house. He was glad that he had not spoken to Miss Talcott. There had been a healing power in their silence. All bitterness had gone from him and he thought of her now quite simply, as the girl he loved.
What a lovely but melancholy moment. And that was the ending of the first half of the story. The second half begins with Woburn spending the night at a hotel since he still had a number of hours before the steamer on which he will escape the city departs. In the adjoining room he hears a woman crying.
There was no mistaking the nature of the noise; it was that of a woman's sobs. The sobs were not loud, but the sound reached him distinctly through the frail door between the two rooms; it expressed an utter abandonment to grief; not the cloud-burst of some passing emotion, but the slow down-pour of a whole heaven of sorrow.
Woburn sat listening. There was nothing else to be done; and at least his listening was a mute tribute to the trouble he was powerless to relieve. It roused, too, the drugged pulses of his own grief: he was touched by the chance propinquity of two alien sorrows in a great city throbbing with multifarious passions. It would have been more in keeping with the irony of life had he found himself next to a mother singing her child to sleep: there seemed a mute commiseration in the hand that had led him to such neighborhood.
In that second paragraph is the theme of the story: “the drugged pulses” of grief and “alien sorrows in a great city throbbing with multifarious passions.” What a great sentence. This is a story of a big city, of people saddened by unrequited passions. Through the keyhole Woburn spies that the woman has a gun and intends to kill herself. He breaks through the door and comforts the woman, who feels she has no other recourse but suicide. Woburn tells her he will figure out a solution to whatever problem she has that has brought her to this point.
Ruby Glenn, the sobbing woman, tells him the story of how she was bored living in a small town named Hinksville, “a poky little place,” which sounds a lot like Hicksville, an emblematic name of a town in the middle of nowhere. There she lived a mundane life with an unexciting husband, Joe, who is away a lot for his work and his mother, an austere woman whose only guest was a Baptist minister. When her husband was away for an extended time, a colorful journalist “bewitches” her and they run off together. After five months traveling about he abandons her, and wants to get back to her husband but has no money. She’s confident he will take her back but believes his mother has stymied her letters. Ruby, in contrast to Miss Talcott, is quite class conscious, and understands the limitations of want, and, through her bad decision to run off, desired to live a fantasy life outside of her means.
What we have is a story within a story where Woburn resolves Ruby’s problems by using his remaining pocket money to pay for her back bills and her train fare back to Hinksville. You can now see how aesthetically the overall story is bifurcated. By this point the reader has lost sight of Miss Talcott and the events that led him to the hotel.
So what holds the story together? Certainly the sorrows of those in a big city throbbing with passions. What I think holds the story together is the suffering that Woburn experiences in the first half leads him to help the poor woman out in the second half. In paying the woman’s bills, Woburn has sacrificed his means of escaping debtors. At the end of the story he has to go back to the bank where he worked to face his misconduct.
But before he puts the Ruby on the train, there is a final scene where Ruby thanks him.
Ruby Glenn had obediently prepared herself for departure and was standing before the mirror, patting her curls into place. Her eyes were still red, but she had the happy look of a child that has outslept its grief. On the floor he noticed the tattered fragments of the letter which, a few hours earlier, he had seen her place before the mirror.
"Shall we go down now?" he asked.
"Very well," she assented; then, with a quick movement, she stepped close to him, and putting her hands on his shoulders lifted her face to his.
"I believe you're the best man I ever knew," she said, "the very best-- except Joe."
She drew back blushing deeply, and unlocked the door which led into the passage-way. Woburn picked up her bag, which she had forgotten, and followed her out of the room. They passed a frowzy chambermaid, who stared at them with a yawn. Before the doors the row of boots still waited; there was a faint new aroma of coffee mingling with the smell of vanished dinners, and a fresh blast of heat had begun to tingle through the radiators.
“I believe you’re the best man I ever knew.” This was Woburn’s heroic moment. Her sincere statement of his character is his reward. He may never have Miss Talcott as a wife, he may be poor for the rest of his life, he may even face prosecution and jail for embezzlement, but he saved a poor woman from killing herself and got her back to her husband to save her marriage.
Finally there is the odd title of the story. There is no cup of water in the entire story. As it turns out, the title comes from Matthew 10:42. It’s one of those sayings of Jesus: “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” His sacrifice has been his reward, which has made him a hero. Though awkwardly structured, it is a wonderful story.