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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSummer - Chapter VIII
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Summer - Chapter VIII Post by :pecno Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :June 2011 Read :2792

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Summer - Chapter VIII

CHAPTER VIII


SHE had lost the sense of time, and did not know how
late it was till she came out into the street and saw
that all the windows were dark between Miss Hatchard's
and the Royall house.

As she passed from under the black pall of the Norway
spruces she fancied she saw two figures in the shade
about the duck-pond. She drew back and watched; but
nothing moved, and she had stared so long into the
lamp-lit room that the darkness confused her, and she
thought she must have been mistaken.

She walked on, wondering whether Mr. Royall was still
in the porch. In her exalted mood she did not greatly
care whether he was waiting for her or not: she seemed
to be floating high over life, on a great cloud of
misery beneath which every-day realities had dwindled
to mere specks in space. But the porch was empty, Mr.
Royall's hat hung on its peg in the passage, and the
kitchen lamp had been left to light her to bed. She
took it and went up.

The morning hours of the next day dragged by
without incident. Charity had imagined that, in some
way or other, she would learn whether Harney had
already left; but Verena's deafness prevented her being
a source of news, and no one came to the house who
could bring enlightenment.

Mr. Royall went out early, and did not return till
Verena had set the table for the midday meal. When he
came in he went straight to the kitchen and shouted to
the old woman: "Ready for dinner----" then he turned
into the dining-room, where Charity was already seated.
Harney's plate was in its usual place, but Mr. Royall
offered no explanation of his absence, and Charity
asked none. The feverish exaltation of the night
before had dropped, and she said to herself that he had
gone away, indifferently, almost callously, and that
now her life would lapse again into the narrow rut out
of which he had lifted it. For a moment she was
inclined to sneer at herself for not having used the
arts that might have kept him.

She sat at table till the meal was over, lest Mr.
Royall should remark on her leaving; but when he stood
up she rose also, without waiting to help Verena.
She had her foot on the stairs when he called to her to
come back.

"I've got a headache. I'm going up to lie down."

"I want you should come in here first; I've got
something to say to you."

She was sure from his tone that in a moment she would
learn what every nerve in her ached to know; but as she
turned back she made a last effort of indifference.

Mr. Royall stood in the middle of the office, his thick
eyebrows beetling, his lower jaw trembling a little.
At first she thought he had been drinking; then she saw
that he was sober, but stirred by a deep and stern
emotion totally unlike his usual transient angers. And
suddenly she understood that, until then, she had never
really noticed him or thought about him. Except on the
occasion of his one offense he had been to her merely
the person who is always there, the unquestioned
central fact of life, as inevitable but as
uninteresting as North Dormer itself, or any of the
other conditions fate had laid on her. Even then she
had regarded him only in relation to herself, and had
never speculated as to his own feelings, beyond
instinctively concluding that he would not trouble
her again in the same way. But now she began to wonder
what he was really like.

He had grasped the back of his chair with both hands,
and stood looking hard at her. At length he said:
"Charity, for once let's you and me talk together like
friends."

Instantly she felt that something had happened, and
that he held her in his hand.

"Where is Mr. Harney? Why hasn't he come back? Have you
sent him away?" she broke out, without knowing what she
was saying.

The change in Mr. Royall frightened her. All the blood
seemed to leave his veins and against his swarthy
pallor the deep lines in his face looked black.

"Didn't he have time to answer some of those questions
last night? You was with him long enough!" he said.

Charity stood speechless. The taunt was so unrelated
to what had been happening in her soul that she hardly
understood it. But the instinct of self-defense awoke
in her.

"Who says I was with him last night?"

"The whole place is saying it by now."

"Then it was you that put the lie into their
mouths.--Oh, how I've always hated you!" she cried.

She had expected a retort in kind, and it startled her
to hear her exclamation sounding on through silence.

"Yes, I know," Mr. Royall said slowly. "But that ain't
going to help us much now."

"It helps me not to care a straw what lies you tell
about me!"

"If they're lies, they're not my lies: my Bible oath on
that, Charity. I didn't know where you were: I wasn't
out of this house last night."

She made no answer and he went on: "Is it a lie that
you were seen coming out of Miss Hatchard's nigh onto
midnight?"

She straightened herself with a laugh, all her reckless
insolence recovered. "I didn't look to see what time
it was."

"You lost girl...you...you...Oh, my God, why did you
tell me?" he broke out, dropping into his chair, his
head bowed down like an old man's.

Charity's self-possession had returned with the sense
of her danger. "Do you suppose I'd take the
trouble to lie to YOU? Who are you, anyhow, to
ask me where I go to when I go out at night?"

Mr. Royall lifted his head and looked at her. His face
had grown quiet and almost gentle, as she remembered
seeing it sometimes when she was a little girl, before
Mrs. Royall died.

"Don't let's go on like this, Charity. It can't do any
good to either of us. You were seen going into that
fellow's house...you were seen coming out of it....I've
watched this thing coming, and I've tried to stop it.
As God sees me, I have...."

"Ah, it WAS you, then? I knew it was you that sent
him away!"

He looked at her in surprise. "Didn't he tell you so?
I thought he understood." He spoke slowly, with
difficult pauses, "I didn't name you to him: I'd have
cut my hand off sooner. I just told him I couldn't
spare the horse any longer; and that the cooking was
getting too heavy for Verena. I guess he's the kind
that's heard the same thing before. Anyhow, he took it
quietly enough. He said his job here was about done,
anyhow; and there didn't another word pass between
us....If he told you otherwise he told you an untruth."

Charity listened in a cold trance of anger. It
was nothing to her what the village said...but all this
fingering of her dreams!

"I've told you he didn't tell me anything. I didn't
speak with him last night."

"You didn't speak with him?"

"No....It's not that I care what any of you say...but
you may as well know. Things ain't between us the way
you think...and the other people in this place. He was
kind to me; he was my friend; and all of a sudden he
stopped coming, and I knew it was you that done it--
YOU!" All her unreconciled memory of the past flamed
out at him. "So I went there last night to find out
what you'd said to him: that's all."

Mr. Royall drew a heavy breath. "But, then--if he
wasn't there, what were you doing there all that time?--
Charity, for pity's sake, tell me. I've got to know,
to stop their talking."

This pathetic abdication of all authority over her did
not move her: she could feel only the outrage of his
interference.

"Can't you see that I don't care what anybody says?
It's true I went there to see him; and he was in his
room, and I stood outside for ever so long and watched
him; but I dursn't go in for fear he'd think I'd
come after him...." She felt her voice breaking, and
gathered it up in a last defiance. "As long as I live
I'll never forgive you!" she cried.

Mr. Royall made no answer. He sat and pondered with
sunken head, his veined hands clasped about the arms of
his chair. Age seemed to have come down on him as
winter comes on the hills after a storm. At length he
looked up.

"Charity, you say you don't care; but you're the
proudest girl I know, and the last to want people to
talk against you. You know there's always eyes
watching you: you're handsomer and smarter than the
rest, and that's enough. But till lately you've never
given them a chance. Now they've got it, and they're
going to use it. I believe what you say, but they
won't....It was Mrs. Tom Fry seen you going in...and
two or three of them watched for you to come out
again....You've been with the fellow all day long every
day since he come here...and I'm a lawyer, and I know
how hard slander dies." He paused, but she stood
motionless, without giving him any sign of acquiescence
or even of attention. "He's a pleasant fellow to talk
to--I liked having him here myself. The young men up
here ain't had his chances. But there's one thing
as old as the hills and as plain as daylight: if he'd
wanted you the right way he'd have said so."

Charity did not speak. It seemed to her that nothing
could exceed the bitterness of hearing such words from
such lips.

Mr. Royall rose from his seat. "See here, Charity
Royall: I had a shameful thought once, and you've made
me pay for it. Isn't that score pretty near wiped
out?...There's a streak in me I ain't always master of;
but I've always acted straight to you but that once.
And you've known I would--you've trusted me. For all
your sneers and your mockery you've always known I
loved you the way a man loves a decent woman. I'm a
good many years older than you, but I'm head and
shoulders above this place and everybody in it, and you
know that too. I slipped up once, but that's no reason
for not starting again. If you'll come with me I'll do
it. If you'll marry me we'll leave here and settle in
some big town, where there's men, and business, and
things doing. It's not too late for me to find an
opening....I can see it by the way folks treat me when
I go down to Hepburn or Nettleton...."

Charity made no movement. Nothing in his appeal
reached her heart, and she thought only of words to
wound and wither. But a growing lassitude restrained
her. What did anything matter that he was saying? She
saw the old life closing in on her, and hardly heeded
his fanciful picture of renewal.

"Charity--Charity--say you'll do it," she heard him
urge, all his lost years and wasted passion in his
voice.

"Oh, what's the use of all this? When I leave here it
won't be with you."

She moved toward the door as she spoke, and he stood up
and placed himself between her and the threshold. He
seemed suddenly tall and strong, as though the
extremity of his humiliation had given him new vigour.

"That's all, is it? It's not much." He leaned against
the door, so towering and powerful that he seemed to
fill the narrow room. "Well, then look here....You're
right: I've no claim on you--why should you look at a
broken man like me? You want the other fellow...and I
don't blame you. You picked out the best when you seen
it...well, that was always my way." He fixed his stern
eyes on her, and she had the sense that the
struggle within him was at its highest. "Do you want
him to marry you?" he asked.

They stood and looked at each other for a long moment,
eye to eye, with the terrible equality of courage that
sometimes made her feel as if she had his blood in her
veins.

"Do you want him to--say? I'll have him here in an hour
if you do. I ain't been in the law thirty years for
nothing. He's hired Carrick Fry's team to take him to
Hepburn, but he ain't going to start for another hour.
And I can put things to him so he won't be long
deciding....He's soft: I could see that. I don't say
you won't be sorry afterward--but, by God, I'll give
you the chance to be, if you say so."

She heard him out in silence, too remote from all he
was feeling and saying for any sally of scorn to
relieve her. As she listened, there flitted through
her mind the vision of Liff Hyatt's muddy boot coming
down on the white bramble-flowers. The same thing had
happened now; something transient and exquisite had
flowered in her, and she had stood by and seen it
trampled to earth. While the thought passed through
her she was aware of Mr. Royall, still leaning
against the door, but crestfallen, diminished, as
though her silence were the answer he most dreaded.

"I don't want any chance you can give me: I'm glad he's
going away," she said.

He kept his place a moment longer, his hand on the
door-knob. "Charity!" he pleaded. She made no answer,
and he turned the knob and went out. She heard him
fumble with the latch of the front door, and saw him
walk down the steps. He passed out of the gate, and
his figure, stooping and heavy, receded slowly up the
street.

For a while she remained where he had left her. She
was still trembling with the humiliation of his last
words, which rang so loud in her ears that it seemed as
though they must echo through the village, proclaiming
her a creature to lend herself to such vile
suggestions. Her shame weighed on her like a physical
oppression: the roof and walls seemed to be closing in
on her, and she was seized by the impulse to get away,
under the open sky, where there would be room to
breathe. She went to the front door, and as she did so
Lucius Harney opened it.

He looked graver and less confident than usual,
and for a moment or two neither of them spoke.
Then he held out his hand. "Are you going out?" he
asked. "May I come in?"

Her heart was beating so violently that she was afraid
to speak, and stood looking at him with tear-dilated
eyes; then she became aware of what her silence must
betray, and said quickly: "Yes: come in."

She led the way into the dining-room, and they sat down
on opposite sides of the table, the cruet-stand and
japanned bread-basket between them. Harney had laid
his straw hat on the table, and as he sat there, in his
easy-looking summer clothes, a brown tie knotted under
his flannel collar, and his smooth brown hair brushed
back from his forehead, she pictured him, as she had
seen him the night before, lying on his bed, with the
tossed locks falling into his eyes, and his bare throat
rising out of his unbuttoned shirt. He had never
seemed so remote as at the moment when that vision
flashed through her mind.

"I'm so sorry it's good-bye: I suppose you know I'm
leaving," he began, abruptly and awkwardly; she guessed
that he was wondering how much she knew of his reasons
for going.

"I presume you found your work was over quicker
than what you expected," she said.

"Well, yes--that is, no: there are plenty of things I
should have liked to do. But my holiday's limited; and
now that Mr. Royall needs the horse for himself it's
rather difficult to find means of getting about."

"There ain't any too many teams for hire around here,"
she acquiesced; and there was another silence.

"These days here have been--awfully pleasant: I wanted
to thank you for making them so," he continued, his
colour rising.

She could not think of any reply, and he went on:
"You've been wonderfully kind to me, and I wanted to
tell you....I wish I could think of you as happier,
less lonely....Things are sure to change for you by and
by...."

"Things don't change at North Dormer: people just get
used to them."

The answer seemed to break up the order of his
prearranged consolations, and he sat looking at her
uncertainly. Then he said, with his sweet smile:
"That's not true of you. It can't be."

The smile was like a knife-thrust through her
heart: everything in her began to tremble and
break loose. She felt her tears run over, and stood
up.

"Well, good-bye," she said.

She was aware of his taking her hand, and of feeling
that his touch was lifeless.

"Good-bye." He turned away, and stopped on the
threshold. "You'll say good-bye for me to Verena?"

She heard the closing of the outer door and the sound
of his quick tread along the path. The latch of the
gate clicked after him.

The next morning when she arose in the cold dawn and
opened her shutters she saw a freckled boy standing on
the other side of the road and looking up at her. He
was a boy from a farm three or four miles down the
Creston road, and she wondered what he was doing there
at that hour, and why he looked so hard at her window.
When he saw her he crossed over and leaned against the
gate unconcernedly. There was no one stirring in the
house, and she threw a shawl over her night-gown and
ran down and let herself out. By the time she reached
the gate the boy was sauntering down the road,
whistling carelessly; but she saw that a letter had
been thrust between the slats and the crossbar of
the gate. She took it out and hastened back to her
room.

The envelope bore her name, and inside was a leaf torn
from a pocket-diary.


DEAR CHARITY:

I can't go away like this. I am staying for a few days
at Creston River. Will you come down and meet me at
Creston pool? I will wait for you till evening.

Content of CHAPTER VIII (Edith Wharton's novel: Summer)

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