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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSummer - Chapter XVIII
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Summer - Chapter XVIII Post by :carefull Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :June 2011 Read :2003

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Summer - Chapter XVIII

CHAPTER XVIII


They began to jog down the winding road to the valley
at old Dan's languid pace. Charity felt herself
sinking into deeper depths of weariness, and as they
descended through the bare woods there were moments
when she lost the exact sense of things, and seemed to
be sitting beside her lover with the leafy arch of
summer bending over them. But this illusion was faint
and transitory. For the most part she had only a
confused sensation of slipping down a smooth
irresistible current; and she abandoned herself to the
feeling as a refuge from the torment of thought.

Mr. Royall seldom spoke, but his silent presence gave
her, for the first time, a sense of peace and security.
She knew that where he was there would be warmth, rest,
silence; and for the moment they were all she wanted.
She shut her eyes, and even these things grew dim to
her....

In the train, during the short run from Creston to
Nettleton, the warmth aroused her, and the
consciousness of being under strange eyes gave her
a momentary energy. She sat upright, facing Mr.
Royall, and stared out of the window at the denuded
country. Forty-eight hours earlier, when she had last
traversed it, many of the trees still held their
leaves; but the high wind of the last two nights had
stripped them, and the lines of the landscape' were as
finely pencilled as in December. A few days of autumn
cold had wiped out all trace of the rich fields and
languid groves through which she had passed on the
Fourth of July; and with the fading of the landscape
those fervid hours had faded, too. She could no longer
believe that she was the being who had lived them; she
was someone to whom something irreparable and
overwhelming had happened, but the traces of the steps
leading up to it had almost vanished.

When the train reached Nettleton and she walked out
into the square at Mr. Royall's side the sense of
unreality grew more overpowering. The physical strain
of the night and day had left no room in her mind for
new sensations and she followed Mr. Royall as passively
as a tired child. As in a confused dream she presently
found herself sitting with him in a pleasant room, at a
table with a red and white table-cloth on which
hot food and tea were placed. He filled her cup and
plate and whenever she lifted her eyes from them she
found his resting on her with the same steady tranquil
gaze that had reassured and strengthened her when they
had faced each other in old Mrs. Hobart's kitchen. As
everything else in her consciousness grew more and more
confused and immaterial, became more and more like the
universal shimmer that dissolves the world to failing
eyes, Mr. Royall's presence began to detach itself with
rocky firmness from this elusive background. She had
always thought of him--when she thought of him at all--
as of someone hateful and obstructive, but whom she
could outwit and dominate when she chose to make the
effort. Only once, on the day of the Old Home Week
celebration, while the stray fragments of his address
drifted across her troubled mind, had she caught a
glimpse of another being, a being so different from the
dull-witted enemy with whom she had supposed herself to
be living that even through the burning mist of her own
dreams he had stood out with startling distinctness.
For a moment, then, what he said--and something in his
way of saying it--had made her see why he had always
struck her as such a lonely man. But the mist of
her dreams had hidden him again, and she had forgotten
that fugitive impression.

It came back to her now, as they sat at the table, and
gave her, through her own immeasurable desolation, a
sudden sense of their nearness to each other. But all
these feelings were only brief streaks of light in the
grey blur of her physical weakness. Through it she was
aware that Mr. Royall presently left her sitting by the
table in the warm room, and came back after an interval
with a carriage from the station--a closed "hack" with
sun-burnt blue silk blinds--in which they drove
together to a house covered with creepers and standing
next to a church with a carpet of turf before it. They
got out at this house, and the carriage waited while
they walked up the path and entered a wainscoted hall
and then a room full of books. In this room a
clergyman whom Charity had never seen received them
pleasantly, and asked them to be seated for a few
minutes while witnesses were being summoned.

Charity sat down obediently, and Mr. Royall, his hands
behind his back, paced slowly up and down the room. As
he turned and faced Charity, she noticed that his
lips were twitching a little; but the look in his eyes
was grave and calm. Once he paused before her and said
timidly: "Your hair's got kinder loose with the wind,"
and she lifted her hands and tried to smooth back the
locks that had escaped from her braid. There was a
looking-glass in a carved frame on the wall, but she
was ashamed to look at herself in it, and she sat with
her hands folded on her knee till the clergyman
returned. Then they went out again, along a sort of
arcaded passage, and into a low vaulted room with a
cross on an altar, and rows of benches. The clergyman,
who had left them at the door, presently reappeared
before the altar in a surplice, and a lady who was
probably his wife, and a man in a blue shirt who had
been raking dead leaves on the lawn, came in and sat on
one of the benches.

The clergyman opened a book and signed to Charity and
Mr. Royall to approach. Mr. Royall advanced a few
steps, and Charity followed him as she had followed him
to the buggy when they went out of Mrs. Hobart's
kitchen; she had the feeling that if she ceased to keep
close to him, and do what he told her to do, the world
would slip away from beneath her feet.

The clergyman began to read, and on her dazed mind
there rose the memory of Mr. Miles, standing the night
before in the desolate house of the Mountain, and
reading out of the same book words that had the same
dread sound of finality:

"I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at
the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all
hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know
any impediment whereby ye may not be lawfully joined
together..."

Charity raised her eyes and met Mr. Royall's. They
were still looking at her kindly and steadily. "I
will!" she heard him say a moment later, after another
interval of words that she had failed to catch. She
was so busy trying to understand the gestures that the
clergyman was signalling to her to make that she no
longer heard what was being said. After another
interval the lady on the bench stood up, and taking her
hand put it in Mr. Royall's. It lay enclosed in his
strong palm and she felt a ring that was too big for
her being slipped on her thin finger. She understood
then that she was married....

Late that afternoon Charity sat alone in a bedroom of
the fashionable hotel where she and Harney had
vainly sought a table on the Fourth of July. She had
never before been in so handsomely furnished a room.
The mirror above the dressing-table reflected the high
head-board and fluted pillow-slips of the double bed,
and a bedspread so spotlessly white that she had
hesitated to lay her hat and jacket on it. The humming
radiator diffused an atmosphere of drowsy warmth, and
through a half-open door she saw the glitter of the
nickel taps above twin marble basins.

For a while the long turmoil of the night and day had
slipped away from her and she sat with closed eyes,
surrendering herself to the spell of warmth and
silence. But presently this merciful apathy was
succeeded by the sudden acuteness of vision with which
sick people sometimes wake out of a heavy sleep. As
she opened her eyes they rested on the picture that
hung above the bed. It was a large engraving with a
dazzling white margin enclosed in a wide frame of
bird's-eye maple with an inner scroll of gold. The
engraving represented a young man in a boat on a lake
over-hung with trees. He was leaning over to gather
water-lilies for the girl in a light dress who lay
among the cushions in the stern. The scene was
full of a drowsy midsummer radiance, and Charity
averted her eyes from it and, rising from her chair,
began to wander restlessly about the room.

It was on the fifth floor, and its broad window of
plate glass looked over the roofs of the town. Beyond
them stretched a wooded landscape in which the last
fires of sunset were picking out a steely gleam.
Charity gazed at the gleam with startled eyes. Even
through the gathering twilight she recognized the
contour of the soft hills encircling it, and the way
the meadows sloped to its edge. It was Nettleton Lake
that she was looking at.

She stood a long time in the window staring out at the
fading water. The sight of it had roused her for the
first time to a realization of what she had done. Even
the feeling of the ring on her hand had not brought her
this sharp sense of the irretrievable. For an instant
the old impulse of flight swept through her; but it was
only the lift of a broken wing. She heard the door
open behind her, and Mr. Royall came in.

He had gone to the barber's to be shaved, and his
shaggy grey hair had been trimmed and smoothed. He
moved strongly and quickly, squaring his shoulders
and carrying his head high, as if he did not want to
pass unnoticed.

"What are you doing in the dark?" he called out in a
cheerful voice. Charity made no answer. He went up to
the window to draw the blind, and putting his finger on
the wall flooded the room with a blaze of light from
the central chandelier. In this unfamiliar
illumination husband and wife faced each other
awkwardly for a moment; then Mr. Royall said: "We'll
step down and have some supper, if you say so."

The thought of food filled her with repugnance; but not
daring to confess it she smoothed her hair and followed
him to the lift.

 

An hour later, coming out of the glare of the dining-
room, she waited in the marble-panelled hall while Mr.
Royall, before the brass lattice of one of the corner
counters, selected a cigar and bought an evening paper.
Men were lounging in rocking chairs under the blazing
chandeliers, travellers coming and going, bells
ringing, porters shuffling by with luggage. Over Mr.
Royall's shoulder, as he leaned against the counter, a
girl with her hair puffed high smirked and nodded at a
dapper drummer who was getting his key at the desk
across the hall.

Charity stood among these cross-currents of life as
motionless and inert as if she had been one of the
tables screwed to the marble floor. All her soul was
gathered up into one sick sense of coming doom, and she
watched Mr. Royall in fascinated terror while he
pinched the cigars in successive boxes and unfolded his
evening paper with a steady hand.

Presently he turned and joined her. "You go right
along up to bed--I'm going to sit down here and have my
smoke," he said. He spoke as easily and naturally as
if they had been an old couple, long used to each
other's ways, and her contracted heart gave a flutter
of relief. She followed him to the lift, and he put
her in and enjoined the buttoned and braided boy to
show her to her room.

She groped her way in through the darkness, forgetting
where the electric button was, and not knowing how to
manipulate it. But a white autumn moon had risen, and
the illuminated sky put a pale light in the room. By
it she undressed, and after folding up the ruffled
pillow-slips crept timidly under the spotless
counterpane. She had never felt such smooth sheets or
such light warm blankets; but the softness of the bed
did not soothe her. She lay there trembling with a
fear that ran through her veins like ice. "What have I
done? Oh, what have I done?" she whispered, shuddering
to her pillow; and pressing her face against it to shut
out the pale landscape beyond the window she lay in the
darkness straining her ears, and shaking at every
footstep that approached....

Suddenly she sat up and pressed her hands against her
frightened heart. A faint sound had told her that
someone was in the room; but she must have slept in the
interval, for she had heard no one enter. The moon was
setting beyond the opposite roofs, and in the darkness
outlined against the grey square of the window, she saw
a figure seated in the rocking-chair. The figure did
not move: it was sunk deep in the chair, with bowed
head and folded arms, and she saw that it was Mr.
Royall who sat there. He had not undressed, but had
taken the blanket from the foot of the bed and laid it
across his knees. Trembling and holding her breath she
watched him, fearing that he had been roused by her
movement; but he did not stir, and she concluded
that he wished her to think he was asleep.

As she continued to watch him ineffable relief stole
slowly over her, relaxing her strained nerves and
exhausted body. He knew, then...he knew...it was
because he knew that he had married her, and that he
sat there in the darkness to show her she was safe with
him. A stir of something deeper than she had ever
felt in thinking of him flitted through her tired
brain, and cautiously, noiselessly, she let her head
sink on the pillow....

When she woke the room was full of morning light, and
her first glance showed her that she was alone in it.
She got up and dressed, and as she was fastening her
dress the door opened, and Mr. Royall came in. He
looked old and tired in the bright daylight, but his
face wore the same expression of grave friendliness
that had reassured her on the Mountain. It was as if
all the dark spirits had gone out of him.

They went downstairs to the dining-room for breakfast,
and after breakfast he told her he had some insurance
business to attend to. "I guess while I'm doing it
you'd better step out and buy yourself whatever you
need." He smiled, and added with an embarrassed
laugh: "You know I always wanted you to beat all the
other girls." He drew something from his pocket, and
pushed it across the table to her; and she saw that he
had given her two twenty-dollar bills. "If it ain't
enough there's more where that come from--I want you to
beat 'em all hollow," he repeated.

She flushed and tried to stammer out her thanks, but he
had pushed back his chair and was leading the way out
of the dining-room. In the hall he paused a minute to
say that if it suited her they would take the three
o'clock train back to North Dormer; then he took his
hat and coat from the rack and went out.

A few minutes later Charity went out, too. She had
watched to see in what direction he was going, and she
took the opposite way and walked quickly down the main
street to the brick building on the corner of Lake
Avenue. There she paused to look cautiously up and
down the thoroughfare, and then climbed the brass-bound
stairs to Dr. Merkle's door. The same bushy-headed
mulatto girl admitted her, and after the same interval
of waiting in the red plush parlor she was once more
summoned to Dr. Merkle's office. The doctor
received her without surprise, and led her into the
inner plush sanctuary.

"I thought you'd be back, but you've come a mite too
soon: I told you to be patient and not fret," she
observed, after a pause of penetrating scrutiny.

Charity drew the money from her breast. "I've come to
get my blue brooch," she said, flushing.

"Your brooch?" Dr. Merkle appeared not to remember.
"My, yes--I get so many things of that kind. Well, my
dear, you'll have to wait while I get it out of the
safe. I don't leave valuables like that laying round
like the noospaper."

She disappeared for a moment, and returned with a bit
of twisted-up tissue paper from which she unwrapped the
brooch.

Charity, as she looked at it, felt a stir of warmth at
her heart. She held out an eager hand.

"Have you got the change?" she asked a little
breathlessly, laying one of the twenty-dollar bills on
the table.

"Change? What'd I want to have change for? I only see
two twenties there," Dr. Merkle answered brightly.

Charity paused, disconcerted. "I thought...you said it
was five dollars a visit...."

"For YOU, as a favour--I did. But how about
the responsibility and the insurance? I don't s'pose
you ever thought of that? This pin's worth a hundred
dollars easy. If it had got lost or stole, where'd I
been when you come to claim it?"

Charity remained silent, puzzled and half-convinced by
the argument, and Dr. Merkle promptly followed up her
advantage. "I didn't ask you for your brooch, my dear.
I'd a good deal ruther folks paid me my regular charge
than have 'em put me to all this trouble."

She paused, and Charity, seized with a desperate
longing to escape, rose to her feet and held out one of
the bills.

"Will you take that?" she asked.

"No, I won't take that, my dear; but I'll take it with
its mate, and hand you over a signed receipt if you
don't trust me."

"Oh, but I can't--it's all I've got," Charity
exclaimed.

Dr. Merkle looked up at her pleasantly from the plush
sofa. "It seems you got married yesterday, up to the
'Piscopal church; I heard all about the wedding from
the minister's chore-man. It would be a pity, wouldn't
it, to let Mr. Royall know you had an account
running here? I just put it to you as your own mother
might."

Anger flamed up in Charity, and for an instant she
thought of abandoning the brooch and letting Dr. Merkle
do her worst. But how could she leave her only
treasure with that evil woman? She wanted it for her
baby: she meant it, in some mysterious way, to be a
link between Harney's child and its unknown father.
Trembling and hating herself while she did it, she laid
Mr. Royall's money on the table, and catching up the
brooch fled out of the room and the house....

In the street she stood still, dazed by this last
adventure. But the brooch lay in her bosom like a
talisman, and she felt a secret lightness of heart. It
gave her strength, after a moment, to walk on slowly in
the direction of the post office, and go in through the
swinging doors. At one of the windows she bought a
sheet of letter-paper, an envelope and a stamp; then
she sat down at a table and dipped the rusty post
office pen in ink. She had come there possessed with a
fear which had haunted her ever since she had felt Mr.
Royall's ring on her finger: the fear that Harney
might, after all, free himself and come back to her. It
was a possibility which had never occurred to her
during the dreadful hours after she had received his
letter; only when the decisive step she had taken made
longing turn to apprehension did such a contingency
seem conceivable. She addressed the envelope, and on
the sheet of paper she wrote:


I'm married to Mr. Royall. I'll always remember you.
CHARITY.


The last words were not in the least what she had meant
to write; they had flowed from her pen irresistibly.
She had not had the strength to complete her sacrifice;
but, after all, what did it matter? Now that there was
no chance of ever seeing Harney again, why should she
not tell him the truth?

When she had put the letter in the box she went out
into the busy sunlit street and began to walk to the
hotel. Behind the plateglass windows of the department
stores she noticed the tempting display of dresses and
dress-materials that had fired her imagination on the
day when she and Harney had looked in at them together.
They reminded her of Mr. Royall's injunction to go out
and buy all she needed. She looked down at her shabby
dress, and wondered what she should say when he
saw her coming back empty-handed. As she drew near
the hotel she saw him waiting on the doorstep, and her
heart began to beat with apprehension.

He nodded and waved his hand at her approach, and they
walked through the hall and went upstairs to collect
their possessions, so that Mr. Royall might give up the
key of the room when they went down again for their
midday dinner. In the bedroom, while she was thrusting
back into the satchel the few things she had brought
away with her, she suddenly felt that his eyes were on
her and that he was going to speak. She stood still,
her half-folded night-gown in her hand, while the blood
rushed up to her drawn cheeks.

"Well, did you rig yourself out handsomely? I haven't
seen any bundles round," he said jocosely.

"Oh, I'd rather let Ally Hawes make the few things I
want," she answered.

"That so?" He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment
and his eye-brows projected in a scowl. Then his face
grew friendly again. "Well, I wanted you to go back
looking stylisher than any of them; but I guess you're
right. You're a good girl, Charity."

Their eyes met, and something rose in his that she
had never seen there: a look that made her feel ashamed
and yet secure.

"I guess you're good, too," she said, shyly and
quickly. He smiled without answering, and they went
out of the room together and dropped down to the hall
in the glittering lift.

Late that evening, in the cold autumn moonlight, they
drove up to the door of the red house.

Content of CHAPTER XVIII
The End
Edith Wharton's novel: Summer

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