Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  


Edith Wharton

  Produced by Meredith Ricker, John Hamm and David Widger


  by Edith Wharton



  A girl came out of lawyer Royall's house, at the end of the one streetof North Dormer, and stood on the doorstep.

  It was the beginning of a June afternoon. The springlike transparent skyshed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on thepastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among theround white clouds on the shoulders of the hills, driving their shadowsacross the fields and down the grassy road that takes the name of streetwhen it passes through North Dormer. The place lies high and in theopen, and lacks the lavish shade of the more protected New Englandvillages. The clump of weeping-willows about the duck pond, and theNorway spruces in front of the Hatchard gate, cast almost the onlyroadside shadow between lawyer Royall's house and the point where, atthe other end of the village, the road rises above the church and skirtsthe black hemlock wall enclosing the cemetery.

  The little June wind, frisking down the street, shook the dolefulfringes of the Hatchard spruces, caught the straw hat of a young manjust passing under them, and spun it clean across the road into theduck-pond.

  As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall's doorstep noticedthat he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he waslaughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at suchmishaps.

  Her heart contracted a little, and the shrinking that sometimes cameover her when she saw people with holiday faces made her draw back intothe house and pretend to look for the key that she knew she had alreadyput into her pocket. A narrow greenish mirror with a gilt eagle over ithung on the passage wall, and she looked critically at her reflection,wished for the thousandth time that she had blue eyes like AnnabelBalch, the girl who sometimes came from Springfield to spend a week withold Miss Hatchard, straightened the sunburnt hat over her small swarthyface, and turned out again into the sunshine.

  "How I hate everything!" she murmured.

  The young man had passed through the Hatchard gate, and she had thestreet to herself. North Dormer is at all times an empty place, and atthree o'clock on a June afternoon its few able-bodied men are off inthe fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid householddrudgery.

  The girl walked along, swinging her key on a finger, and looking abouther with the heightened attention produced by the presence of a strangerin a familiar place. What, she wondered, did North Dormer look like topeople from other parts of the world? She herself had lived theresince the age of five, and had long supposed it to be a place of someimportance. But about a year before, Mr. Miles, the new Episcopalclergyman at Hepburn, who drove over every other Sunday--when the roadswere not ploughed up by hauling--to hold a service in the North Dormerchurch, had proposed, in a fit of missionary zeal, to take the youngpeople down to Nettleton to hear an illustrated lecture on the HolyLand; and the dozen girls and boys who represented the future of NorthDormer had been piled into a farm-waggon, driven over the hills toHepburn, put into a way-train and carried to Nettleton.

  In the course of that incredible day Charity Royall had, for the firstand only time, experienced railway-travel, looked into shops withplate-glass fronts, tasted cocoanut pie, sat in a theatre, and listenedto a gentleman saying unintelligible things before pictures that shewould have enjoyed looking at if his explanations had not prevented herfrom understanding them. This initiation had shown her that North Dormerwas a small place, and developed in her a thirst for information thather position as custodian of the village library had previously failedto excite. For a month or two she dipped feverishly and disconnectedlyinto the dusty volumes of the Hatchard Memorial Library; then theimpression of Nettleton began to fade, and she found it easier to takeNorth Dormer as the norm of the universe than to go on reading.

  The sight of the stranger once more revived memories of Nettleton, andNorth Dormer shrank to its real size. As she looked up and down it, fromlawyer Royall's faded red house at one end to the white church at theother, she pitilessly took its measure. There it lay, a weather-beatensunburnt village of the hills, abandoned of men, left apart by railway,trolley, telegraph, and all the forces that link life to life in moderncommunities. It had no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no "businessblock"; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the stateof the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had beenbought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed onthe damp shelves. Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she oughtto consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer.She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormerrepresented all the blessings of the most refined civilization. Everyonein the village had told her so ever since she had been brought there asa child. Even old Miss Hatchard had said to her, on a terrible occasionin her life: "My child, you must never cease to remember that it was Mr.Royall who brought you down from the Mountain."

  She had been "brought down from the Mountain"; from the scarred cliffthat lifted its sullen wall above the lesser slopes of Eagle Range,making a perpetual background of gloom to the lonely valley. TheMountain was a good fifteen miles away, but it rose so abruptly from thelower hills that it seemed almost to cast its shadow over North Dormer.And it was like a great magnet drawing the clouds and scattering themin storm across the valley. If ever, in the purest summer sky, theretrailed a thread of vapour over North Dormer, it drifted to the Mountainas a ship drifts to a whirlpool, and was caught among the rocks, torn upand multiplied, to sweep back over the village in rain and darkness.

  Charity was not very clear about the Mountain; but she knew it was a badplace, and a shame to have come from, and that, whatever befell herin North Dormer, she ought, as Miss Hatchard had once reminded her, toremember that she had been brought down from there, and hold her tongueand be thankful. She looked up at the Mountain, thinking of thesethings, and tried as usual to be thankful. But the sight of the youngman turning in at Miss Hatchard's gate had brought back the vision ofthe glittering streets of Nettleton, and she felt ashamed of her oldsun-hat, and sick of North Dormer, and jealously aware of Annabel Balchof Springfield, opening her blue eyes somewhere far off on gloriesgreater than the glories of Nettleton.

  "How I hate everything!" she said again.

  Half way down the street she stopped at a weak-hinged gate. Passingthrough it, she walked down a brick path to a queer little brick templewith white wooden columns supporting a pediment on which was inscribedin tarnished gold letters: "The Honorius Hatchard Memorial Library,1832."

  Honorius Hatchard had been old Miss Hatchard's great-uncle; though shewould undoubtedly have reversed the phrase, and put forward, as heronly claim to distinction, the fact that she was his great-niece. ForHonorius Hatchard, in the early years of the nineteenth century, hadenjoyed a modest celebrity. As the marble tablet in the interior ofthe library informed its infrequent visitors, he had possessed markedliterary gifts, written a series of papers called "The Recluse of EagleRange," enjoyed the acquaintance of Washington Irving and Fitz-GreeneHalleck, and been cut off in his flower by a fever contracted in Italy.Such had been the sole link between North Dormer and literature, alink piously commemorated by the erection of the monument where CharityRoyall, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, sat at her desk under afreckled steel engraving of the deceased author, and wondered if he feltany deader in his grave than she did in his library.

  Entering her prison-house with a listless step she took off her hat,hung it on a plaster bust of Minerva, opened the shutters, leaned outto see if there were any eggs in the swallow's nest above one of thewindows, and finally, seating herself behind the desk, drew out aroll of cotton lace and a steel crochet hook. She was not an expertworkwoman, and it had taken her
many weeks to make the half-yardof narrow lace which she kept wound about the buckram back of adisintegrated copy of "The Lamplighter." But there was no other way ofgetting any lace to trim her summer blouse, and since Ally Hawes, thepoorest girl in the village, had shown herself in church with enviabletransparencies about the shoulders, Charity's hook had travelled faster.She unrolled the lace, dug the hook into a loop, and bent to the taskwith furrowed brows.

  Suddenly the door opened, and before she had raised her eyes she knewthat the young man she had seen going in at the Hatchard gate hadentered the library.

  Without taking any notice of her he began to move slowly about thelong vault-like room, his hands behind his back, his short-sighted eyespeering up and down the rows of rusty bindings. At length he reached thedesk and stood before her.

  "Have you a card-catalogue?" he asked in a pleasant abrupt voice; andthe oddness of the question caused her to drop her work.

  "A WHAT?"

  "Why, you know----" He broke off, and she became conscious that he waslooking at her for the first time, having apparently, on his entrance,included her in his general short-sighted survey as part of thefurniture of the library.

  The fact that, in discovering her, he lost the thread of his remark,did not escape her attention, and she looked down and smiled. He smiledalso.

  "No, I don't suppose you do know," he corrected himself. "In fact, itwould be almost a pity----"

  She thought she detected a slight condescension in his tone, and askedsharply: "Why?"

  "Because it's so much pleasanter, in a small library like this, to pokeabout by one's self--with the help of the librarian."

  He added the last phrase so respectfully that she was mollified, andrejoined with a sigh: "I'm afraid I can't help you much."

  "Why?" he questioned in his turn; and she replied that there weren'tmany books anyhow, and that she'd hardly read any of them. "The wormsare getting at them," she added gloomily.

  "Are they? That's a pity, for I see there are some good ones." He seemedto have lost interest in their conversation, and strolled away again,apparently forgetting her. His indifference nettled her, and she pickedup her work, resolved not to offer him the least assistance. Apparentlyhe did not need it, for he spent a long time with his back to her,lifting down, one after another, the tall cob-webby volumes from adistant shelf.

  "Oh, I say!" he exclaimed; and looking up she saw that he had drawn outhis handkerchief and was carefully wiping the edges of the book in hishand. The action struck her as an unwarranted criticism on her care ofthe books, and she said irritably: "It's not my fault if they're dirty."

  He turned around and looked at her with reviving interest. "Ah--thenyou're not the librarian?"

  "Of course I am; but I can't dust all these books. Besides, nobody everlooks at them, now Miss Hatchard's too lame to come round."

  "No, I suppose not." He laid down the book he had been wiping, and stoodconsidering her in silence. She wondered if Miss Hatchard had senthim round to pry into the way the library was looked after, and thesuspicion increased her resentment. "I saw you going into her house justnow, didn't I?" she asked, with the New England avoidance of the propername. She was determined to find out why he was poking about among herbooks.

  "Miss Hatchard's house? Yes--she's my cousin and I'm staying there," theyoung man answered; adding, as if to disarm a visible distrust: "My nameis Harney--Lucius Harney. She may have spoken of me."

  "No, she hasn't," said Charity, wishing she could have said: "Yes, shehas."

  "Oh, well----" said Miss Hatchard's cousin with a laugh; and afteranother pause, during which it occurred to Charity that her answerhad not been encouraging, he remarked: "You don't seem strong onarchitecture."

  Her bewilderment was complete: the more she wished to appear tounderstand him the more unintelligible his remarks became. He remindedher of the gentleman who had "explained" the pictures at Nettleton, andthe weight of her ignorance settled down on her again like a pall.

  "I mean, I can't see that you have any books on the old houses abouthere. I suppose, for that matter, this part of the country hasn't beenmuch explored. They all go on doing Plymouth and Salem. So stupid. Mycousin's house, now, is remarkable. This place must have had a past--itmust have been more of a place once." He stopped short, with the blushof a shy man who overhears himself, and fears he has been voluble. "I'man architect, you see, and I'm hunting up old houses in these parts."

  She stared. "Old houses? Everything's old in North Dormer, isn't it? Thefolks are, anyhow."

  He laughed, and wandered away again.

  "Haven't you any kind of a history of the place? I think there was onewritten about 1840: a book or pamphlet about its first settlement," hepresently said from the farther end of the room.

  She pressed her crochet hook against her lip and pondered. There wassuch a work, she knew: "North Dormer and the Early Townships of EagleCounty." She had a special grudge against it because it was a limpweakly book that was always either falling off the shelf or slippingback and disappearing if one squeezed it in between sustaining volumes.She remembered, the last time she had picked it up, wondering how anyonecould have taken the trouble to write a book about North Dormer and itsneighbours: Dormer, Hamblin, Creston and Creston River. She knew themall, mere lost clusters of houses in the folds of the desolate ridges:Dormer, where North Dormer went for its apples; Creston River, wherethere used to be a paper-mill, and its grey walls stood decaying by thestream; and Hamblin, where the first snow always fell. Such were theirtitles to fame.

  She got up and began to move about vaguely before the shelves. But shehad no idea where she had last put the book, and something told her thatit was going to play her its usual trick and remain invisible. It wasnot one of her lucky days.

  "I guess it's somewhere," she said, to prove her zeal; but she spokewithout conviction, and felt that her words conveyed none.

  "Oh, well----" he said again. She knew he was going, and wished morethan ever to find the book.

  "It will be for next time," he added; and picking up the volume he hadlaid on the desk he handed it to her. "By the way, a little air and sunwould do this good; it's rather valuable."

  He gave her a nod and smile, and passed out.