Offered in the anthology New York Stories (2011), Edith Wharton‘s “A Cup of Cold Water” is a New York (City) story from long ago. To a NYC bank the man Woburn owes his job, and he loves Miss Talcott, a member of the city’s aristocracy. But Woburn must be rich to marry the girl; at this he is an unscrupulous failure. Eventually he stops a destitute young woman—Woburn himself is nearly destitute now—from committing suicide. Jesus informed us that if a person gives a cup of water to a thirsty Christian, by no means will he lose his reward. Hence the story’s title. Although not a Christian, the young woman is a down-and-outer helped by Woburn in various ways, after which he does receive a reward of sorts. It is renewed strength and moral sense.
Plot and structure here sustain the reader beautifully. Perhaps the most appealing thing about the story are the paragraphs concerning a cotillion where Woburn and Miss Talcott respectfully see each other but do not speak. Wharton’s piece is a sympathetic winner.