Summer eBook: Page2

Edith Wharton (2006)


  II

  The hours of the Hatchard Memorial librarian were from three to five;and Charity Royall's sense of duty usually kept her at her desk untilnearly half-past four.

  But she had never perceived that any practical advantage therebyaccrued either to North Dormer or to herself; and she had no scruplein decreeing, when it suited her, that the library should close an hourearlier. A few minutes after Mr. Harney's departure she formed thisdecision, put away her lace, fastened the shutters, and turned the keyin the door of the temple of knowledge.

  The street upon which she emerged was still empty: and after glancing upand down it she began to walk toward her house. But instead of enteringshe passed on, turned into a field-path and mounted to a pasture on thehillside. She let down the bars of the gate, followed a trail along thecrumbling wall of the pasture, and walked on till she reached a knollwhere a clump of larches shook out their fresh tassels to the wind.There she lay down on the slope, tossed off her hat and hid her face inthe grass.

  She was blind and insensible to many things, and dimly knew it; but toall that was light and air, perfume and colour, every drop of blood inher responded. She loved the roughness of the dry mountain grass underher palms, the smell of the thyme into which she crushed her face, thefingering of the wind in her hair and through her cotton blouse, and thecreak of the larches as they swayed to it.

  She often climbed up the hill and lay there alone for the mere pleasureof feeling the wind and of rubbing her cheeks in the grass. Generallyat such times she did not think of anything, but lay immersed in aninarticulate well-being. Today the sense of well-being was intensifiedby her joy at escaping from the library. She liked well enough to have afriend drop in and talk to her when she was on duty, but she hated to bebothered about books. How could she remember where they were, when theywere so seldom asked for? Orma Fry occasionally took out a novel, andher brother Ben was fond of what he called "jography," and of booksrelating to trade and bookkeeping; but no one else asked for anythingexcept, at intervals, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or "Opening of a ChestnutBurr," or Longfellow. She had these under her hand, and could havefound them in the dark; but unexpected demands came so rarely that theyexasperated her like an injustice....

  She had liked the young man's looks, and his short-sighted eyes, and hisodd way of speaking, that was abrupt yet soft, just as his hands weresun-burnt and sinewy, yet with smooth nails like a woman's. His hair wassunburnt-looking too, or rather the colour of bracken after frost; hiseyes grey, with the appealing look of the shortsighted, his smile shyyet confident, as if he knew lots of things she had never dreamed of,and yet wouldn't for the world have had her feel his superiority. Butshe did feel it, and liked the feeling; for it was new to her. Poor andignorant as she was, and knew herself to be--humblest of the humbleeven in North Dormer, where to come from the Mountain was the worstdisgrace--yet in her narrow world she had always ruled. It was partly,of course, owing to the fact that lawyer Royall was "the biggest manin North Dormer"; so much too big for it, in fact, that outsiders,who didn't know, always wondered how it held him. In spite ofeverything--and in spite even of Miss Hatchard--lawyer Royall ruled inNorth Dormer; and Charity ruled in lawyer Royall's house. She had neverput it to herself in those terms; but she knew her power, knew what itwas made of, and hated it. Confusedly, the young man in the libraryhad made her feel for the first time what might be the sweetness ofdependence.

  She sat up, brushed the bits of grass from her hair, and looked down onthe house where she held sway. It stood just below her, cheerless anduntended, its faded red front divided from the road by a "yard" witha path bordered by gooseberry bushes, a stone well overgrown withtraveller's joy, and a sickly Crimson Rambler tied to a fan-shapedsupport, which Mr. Royall had once brought up from Hepburn to pleaseher. Behind the house a bit of uneven ground with clothes-lines strungacross it stretched up to a dry wall, and beyond the wall a patch ofcorn and a few rows of potatoes strayed vaguely into the adjoiningwilderness of rock and fern.

  Charity could not recall her first sight of the house. She had been toldthat she was ill of a fever when she was brought down from the Mountain;and she could only remember waking one day in a cot at the foot of Mrs.Royall's bed, and opening her eyes on the cold neatness of the room thatwas afterward to be hers.

  Mrs. Royall died seven or eight years later; and by that time Charityhad taken the measure of most things about her. She knew that Mrs.Royall was sad and timid and weak; she knew that lawyer Royall was harshand violent, and still weaker. She knew that she had been christenedCharity (in the white church at the other end of the village) tocommemorate Mr. Royall's disinterestedness in "bringing her down," andto keep alive in her a becoming sense of her dependence; she knew thatMr. Royall was her guardian, but that he had not legally adopted her,though everybody spoke of her as Charity Royall; and she knew why he hadcome back to live at North Dormer, instead of practising at Nettleton,where he had begun his legal career.

  After Mrs. Royall's death there was some talk of sending her to aboarding-school. Miss Hatchard suggested it, and had a long conferencewith Mr. Royall, who, in pursuance of her plan, departed one day forStarkfield to visit the institution she recommended. He came back thenext night with a black face; worse, Charity observed, than she had everseen him; and by that time she had had some experience.

  When she asked him how soon she was to start he answered shortly, "Youain't going," and shut himself up in the room he called his office;and the next day the lady who kept the school at Starkfield wrote that"under the circumstances" she was afraid she could not make room justthen for another pupil.

  Charity was disappointed; but she understood. It wasn't the temptationsof Starkfield that had been Mr. Royall's undoing; it was the thought oflosing her. He was a dreadfully "lonesome" man; she had made that outbecause she was so "lonesome" herself. He and she, face to face in thatsad house, had sounded the depths of isolation and though she feltno particular affection for him, and not the slightest gratitude, shepitied him because she was conscious that he was superior to the peopleabout him, and that she was the only being between him and solitude.Therefore, when Miss Hatchard sent for her a day or two later, to talkof a school at Nettleton, and to say that this time a friend of herswould "make the necessary arrangements," Charity cut her short with theannouncement that she had decided not to leave North Dormer.

  Miss Hatchard reasoned with her kindly, but to no purpose; she simplyrepeated: "I guess Mr. Royall's too lonesome."

  Miss Hatchard blinked perplexedly behind her eye-glasses. Her long frailface was full of puzzled wrinkles, and she leant forward, resting herhands on the arms of her mahogany armchair, with the evident desire tosay something that ought to be said.

  "The feeling does you credit, my dear."

  She looked about the pale walls of her sitting-room, seeking counsel ofancestral daguerreotypes and didactic samplers; but they seemed to makeutterance more difficult.

  "The fact is, it's not only--not only because of the advantages. Thereare other reasons. You're too young to understand----"

  "Oh, no, I ain't," said Charity harshly; and Miss Hatchard blushed tothe roots of her blonde cap. But she must have felt a vague relief athaving her explanation cut short, for she concluded, again invoking thedaguerreotypes: "Of course I shall always do what I can for you; and incase... in case... you know you can always come to me...."

  Lawyer Royall was waiting for Charity in the porch when she returnedfrom this visit. He had shaved, and brushed his black coat, and looked amagnificent monument of a man; at such moments she really admired him.

  "Well," he said, "is it settled?"

  "Yes, it's settled. I ain't going."

  "Not to the Nettleton school?"

  "Not anywhere."

  He cleared his throat and asked sternly: "Why?"

  "I'd rather not," she said, swinging past him on her way to her room.It was the following week that he brought her up the Crimson Rambler andits fan from Hepburn. He had never given her an
ything before.

  The next outstanding incident of her life had happened two years later,when she was seventeen. Lawyer Royall, who hated to go to Nettleton,had been called there in connection with a case. He still exercisedhis profession, though litigation languished in North Dormer and itsoutlying hamlets; and for once he had had an opportunity that he couldnot afford to refuse. He spent three days in Nettleton, won his case,and came back in high good-humour. It was a rare mood with him, andmanifested itself on this occasion by his talking impressively at thesupper-table of the "rousing welcome" his old friends had given him. Hewound up confidentially: "I was a damn fool ever to leave Nettleton. Itwas Mrs. Royall that made me do it."

  Charity immediately perceived that something bitter had happened to him,and that he was trying to talk down the recollection. She went up to bedearly, leaving him seated in moody thought, his elbows propped on theworn oilcloth of the supper table. On the way up she had extracted fromhis overcoat pocket the key of the cupboard where the bottle of whiskeywas kept.

  She was awakened by a rattling at her door and jumped out of bed. Sheheard Mr. Royall's voice, low and peremptory, and opened the door,fearing an accident. No other thought had occurred to her; but whenshe saw him in the doorway, a ray from the autumn moon falling on hisdiscomposed face, she understood.

  For a moment they looked at each other in silence; then, as he put hisfoot across the threshold, she stretched out her arm and stopped him.

  "You go right back from here," she said, in a shrill voice that startledher; "you ain't going to have that key tonight."

  "Charity, let me in. I don't want the key. I'm a lonesome man," hebegan, in the deep voice that sometimes moved her.

  Her heart gave a startled plunge, but she continued to hold him backcontemptuously. "Well, I guess you made a mistake, then. This ain't yourwife's room any longer."

  She was not frightened, she simply felt a deep disgust; and perhaps hedivined it or read it in her face, for after staring at her a momenthe drew back and turned slowly away from the door. With her ear to herkeyhole she heard him feel his way down the dark stairs, and towardthe kitchen; and she listened for the crash of the cupboard panel, butinstead she heard him, after an interval, unlock the door of the house,and his heavy steps came to her through the silence as he walked downthe path. She crept to the window and saw his bent figure striding upthe road in the moonlight. Then a belated sense of fear came to herwith the consciousness of victory, and she slipped into bed, cold to thebone.

  A day or two later poor Eudora Skeff, who for twenty years had been thecustodian of the Hatchard library, died suddenly of pneumonia; and theday after the funeral Charity went to see Miss Hatchard, and asked to beappointed librarian. The request seemed to surprise Miss Hatchard: sheevidently questioned the new candidate's qualifications.

  "Why, I don't know, my dear. Aren't you rather too young?" shehesitated.

  "I want to earn some money," Charity merely answered.

  "Doesn't Mr. Royall give you all you require? No one is rich in NorthDormer."

  "I want to earn money enough to get away."

  "To get away?" Miss Hatchard's puzzled wrinkles deepened, and there wasa distressful pause. "You want to leave Mr. Royall?"

  "Yes: or I want another woman in the house with me," said Charityresolutely.

  Miss Hatchard clasped her nervous hands about the arms of her chair. Hereyes invoked the faded countenances on the wall, and after a faint coughof indecision she brought out: "The... the housework's too hard for you,I suppose?"

  Charity's heart grew cold. She understood that Miss Hatchard had nohelp to give her and that she would have to fight her way out of herdifficulty alone. A deeper sense of isolation overcame her; she feltincalculably old. "She's got to be talked to like a baby," she thought,with a feeling of compassion for Miss Hatchard's long immaturity. "Yes,that's it," she said aloud. "The housework's too hard for me: I've beencoughing a good deal this fall."

  She noted the immediate effect of this suggestion. Miss Hatchard paledat the memory of poor Eudora's taking-off, and promised to do what shecould. But of course there were people she must consult: the clergyman,the selectmen of North Dormer, and a distant Hatchard relative atSpringfield. "If you'd only gone to school!" she sighed. She followedCharity to the door, and there, in the security of the threshold, saidwith a glance of evasive appeal: "I know Mr. Royall is... trying attimes; but his wife bore with him; and you must always remember,Charity, that it was Mr. Royall who brought you down from the Mountain."Charity went home and opened the door of Mr. Royall's "office." He wassitting there by the stove reading Daniel Webster's speeches. They hadmet at meals during the five days that had elapsed since he had come toher door, and she had walked at his side at Eudora's funeral; but theyhad not spoken a word to each other.

  He glanced up in surprise as she entered, and she noticed that hewas unshaved, and that he looked unusually old; but as she had alwaysthought of him as an old man the change in his appearance did not moveher. She told him she had been to see Miss Hatchard, and with whatobject. She saw that he was astonished; but he made no comment.

  "I told her the housework was too hard for me, and I wanted to earn themoney to pay for a hired girl. But I ain't going to pay for her: you'vegot to. I want to have some money of my own."

  Mr. Royall's bushy black eyebrows were drawn together in a frown, and hesat drumming with ink-stained nails on the edge of his desk.

  "What do you want to earn money for?" he asked.

  "So's to get away when I want to."

  "Why do you want to get away?"

  Her contempt flashed out. "Do you suppose anybody'd stay at North Dormerif they could help it? You wouldn't, folks say!"

  With lowered head he asked: "Where'd you go to?"

  "Anywhere where I can earn my living. I'll try here first, and if Ican't do it here I'll go somewhere else. I'll go up the Mountain if Ihave to." She paused on this threat, and saw that it had taken effect."I want you should get Miss Hatchard and the selectmen to take me at thelibrary: and I want a woman here in the house with me," she repeated.

  Mr. Royall had grown exceedingly pale. When she ended he stood upponderously, leaning against the desk; and for a second or two theylooked at each other.

  "See here," he said at length as though utterance were difficult,"there's something I've been wanting to say to you; I'd ought to havesaid it before. I want you to marry me."

  The girl still stared at him without moving. "I want you to marry me,"he repeated, clearing his throat. "The minister'll be up here nextSunday and we can fix it up then. Or I'll drive you down to Hepburn tothe Justice, and get it done there. I'll do whatever you say." Hiseyes fell under the merciless stare she continued to fix on him, andhe shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. As hestood there before her, unwieldy, shabby, disordered, the purple veinsdistorting the hands he pressed against the desk, and his long orator'sjaw trembling with the effort of his avowal, he seemed like a hideousparody of the fatherly old man she had always known.

  "Marry you? Me?" she burst out with a scornful laugh. "Was that what youcame to ask me the other night? What's come over you, I wonder? How longis it since you've looked at yourself in the glass?" She straightenedherself, insolently conscious of her youth and strength. "I supposeyou think it would be cheaper to marry me than to keep a hired girl.Everybody knows you're the closest man in Eagle County; but I guessyou're not going to get your mending done for you that way twice."

  Mr. Royall did not move while she spoke. His face was ash-coloured andhis black eyebrows quivered as though the blaze of her scorn had blindedhim. When she ceased he held up his hand.

  "That'll do--that'll about do," he said. He turned to the door and tookhis hat from the hat-peg. On the threshold he paused. "People ain't beenfair to me--from the first they ain't been fair to me," he said. Then hewent out.

  A few days later North Dormer learned with surprise that Charity hadbeen appointed librarian of the Hatchard Memorial at a
salary of eightdollars a month, and that old Verena Marsh, from the Creston Almshouse,was coming to live at lawyer Royall's and do the cooking.