While looking up book covers on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database I came across this collection of Hawthorne stories in French. I couldn’t figure out what the title was in English, so I checked the contents which usually has the original titles next to the translations. Once I did I realized it was a title I’d never heard of before called “The White Old Maid” (1835). Apparently it has been included in a few ghost story anthologies, as well as in the expanded edition of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales”, so I looked it up and found it on the Wikisource page for “Twice-Told Tales”. It actually was rather good, but not on par with his more celebrated tales.
It starts with a sort of MacGuffin: two young women, one haughty and the other gentle, tearfully hovering over the cadaver of a young man in state. There is some transgression which the proud one has made, but it is never divulged. She asks if the other will betray her, but the gentle one, who is named Edith, says,
‘”Till the dead bid me speak I will be silent,” answered Edith. “Leave us alone together. Go and live many years, and then return and tell me of thy life. He too will be here. Then, if thou tellest of sufferings more than death, we will both forgive thee.”
“And what shall be the token?” asked the proud girl, as if her heart acknowledged a meaning in these wild words.
“This lock of hair,” said Edith, lifting one of the dark clustering curls that lay heavily on the dead man’s brow.’ [Nathaniel Hawthorne “The White Old Maid” 1837, retrieved from Wikisource 02/22/17]
The proud woman goes off and lives her entire life wearing the same white dress and trailing behind every local funeral cortege, presumably in penance for her unnamed transgression. She eventually becomes a town fixture and any funeral she doesn’t attend is seen as being ill-favored. Then, one day she is seen walking the main street by herself when there is no funeral. People crowd the street to see what is amiss…but you have to read the story to find out what happens next.
In truth, it isn’t really a ghost story per se, although there is some question at the end as to the status of an old servant of the house of the young man from the beginning of the tale. I’m surprised it has never been filmed. I could picture it as a Val Lewton movie, not too explicit, but with class and atmosphere to spare. The French title, La vieille fille blanche et autres contes fantastiques, which roughly translates to “The White Old Maid and other Fantastic Tales” features a depiction of the maid in question. The only discrepancy is that the woman in the story always wore the same white dress, and the woman in the artwork is wearing black.