Summer, by Edith Wharton

V

There had never been such a June in Eagle County. Usually it was a month of moods, with abrupt alternations of belated frost and mid-summer heat; this year, day followed day in a sequence of temperate beauty. Every morning a breeze blew steadily from the hills. Toward noon it built up great canopies of white cloud that threw a cool shadow over fields and woods; then before sunset the clouds dissolved again, and the western light rained its unobstructed brightness on the valley.

On such an afternoon Charity Royall lay on a ridge above a sunlit hollow, her face pressed to the earth and the warm currents of the grass running through her. Directly in her line of vision a blackberry branch laid its frail white flowers and blue-green leaves against the sky. Just beyond, a tuft of sweet-fern uncurled between the beaded shoots of the grass, and a small yellow butterfly vibrated over them like a fleck of sunshine. This was all she saw; but she felt, above her and about her, the strong growth of the beeches clothing the ridge, the rounding of pale green cones on countless spruce-branches, the push of myriads of sweet-fern fronds in the cracks of the stony slope below the wood, and the crowding shoots of meadowsweet and yellow flags in the pasture beyond. All this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths and bursting of calyxes was carried to her on mingled currents of fragrance. Every leaf and bud and blade seemed to contribute its exhalation to the pervading sweetness in which the pungency of pine-sap prevailed over the spice of thyme and the subtle perfume of fern, and all were merged in a moist earth-smell that was like the breath of some huge sun-warmed animal.

Charity had lain there a long time, passive and sun-warmed as the slope on which she lay, when there came between her eyes and the dancing butterfly the sight of a man’s foot in a large worn boot covered with red mud.

“Oh, don’t!” she exclaimed, raising herself on her elbow and stretching out a warning hand.

“Don’t what?” a hoarse voice asked above her head.

“Don’t stamp on those bramble flowers, you dolt!” she retorted, springing to her knees. The foot paused and then descended clumsily on the frail branch, and raising her eyes she saw above her the bewildered face of a slouching man with a thin sunburnt beard, and white arms showing through his ragged shirt.

“Don’t you ever SEE anything, Liff Hyatt?” she assailed him, as he stood before her with the look of a man who has stirred up a wasp’s nest.

He grinned. “I seen you! That’s what I come down for.”

“Down from where?” she questioned, stooping to gather up the petals his foot had scattered.

He jerked his thumb toward the heights. “Been cutting down trees for Dan Targatt.”

Charity sank back on her heels and looked at him musingly. She was not in the least afraid of poor Liff Hyatt, though he “came from the Mountain,” and some of the girls ran when they saw him. Among the more reasonable he passed for a harmless creature, a sort of link between the mountain and civilized folk, who occasionally came down and did a little wood cutting for a farmer when hands were short. Besides, she knew the Mountain people would never hurt her: Liff himself had told her so once when she was a little girl, and had met him one day at the edge of lawyer Royall’s pasture. “They won’t any of ’em touch you up there, f’ever you was to come up. . . . But I don’t s’pose you will,” he had added philosophically, looking at her new shoes, and at the red ribbon that Mrs. Royall had tied in her hair.

Charity had, in truth, never felt any desire to visit her birthplace. She did not care to have it known that she was of the Mountain, and was shy of being seen in talk with Liff Hyatt. But today she was not sorry to have him appear. A great many things had happened to her since the day when young Lucius Harney had entered the doors of the Hatchard Memorial, but none, perhaps, so unforeseen as the fact of her suddenly finding it a convenience to be on good terms with Liff Hyatt. She continued to look up curiously at his freckled weather-beaten face, with feverish hollows below the cheekbones and the pale yellow eyes of a harmless animal. “I wonder if he’s related to me?” she thought, with a shiver of disdain.

“Is there any folks living in the brown house by the swamp, up under Porcupine?” she presently asked in an indifferent tone.

Liff Hyatt, for a while, considered her with surprise; then he scratched his head and shifted his weight from one tattered sole to the other.

“There’s always the same folks in the brown house,” he said with his vague grin.

“They’re from up your way, ain’t they?”

“Their name’s the same as mine,” he rejoined uncertainly.

Charity still held him with resolute eyes. “See here, I want to go there some day and take a gentleman with me that’s boarding with us. He’s up in these parts drawing pictures.”

She did not offer to explain this statement. It was too far beyond Liff Hyatt’s limitations for the attempt to be worth making. “He wants to see the brown house, and go all over it,” she pursued.

Liff was still running his fingers perplexedly through his shock of straw-colored hair. “Is it a fellow from the city?” he asked.

“Yes. He draws pictures of things. He’s down there now drawing the Bonner house.” She pointed to a chimney just visible over the dip of the pasture below the wood.

“The Bonner house?” Liff echoed incredulously.

“Yes. You won’t understand — and it don’t matter. All I say is: he’s going to the Hyatts’ in a day or two.”

Liff looked more and more perplexed. “Bash is ugly sometimes in the afternoons.”

She threw her head back, her eyes full on Hyatt’s. “I’m coming too: you tell him.”

“They won’t none of them trouble you, the Hyatts won’t. What d’you want a take a stranger with you though?”

“I’ve told you, haven’t I? You’ve got to tell Bash Hyatt.”

He looked away at the blue mountains on the horizon; then his gaze dropped to the chimney-top below the pasture.

“He’s down there now?”

“Yes.”

He shifted his weight again, crossed his arms, and continued to survey the distant landscape. “Well, so long,” he said at last, inconclusively; and turning away he shambled up the hillside. From the ledge above her, he paused to call down: “I wouldn’t go there a Sunday”; then he clambered on till the trees closed in on him. Presently, from high overhead, Charity heard the ring of his axe.

She lay on the warm ridge, thinking of many things that the woodsman’s appearance had stirred up in her. She knew nothing of her early life, and had never felt any curiosity about it: only a sullen reluctance to explore the corner of her memory where certain blurred images lingered. But all that had happened to her within the last few weeks had stirred her to the sleeping depths. She had become absorbingly interesting to herself, and everything that had to do with her past was illuminated by this sudden curiosity.

She hated more than ever the fact of coming from the Mountain; but it was no longer indifferent to her. Everything that in any way affected her was alive and vivid: even the hateful things had grown interesting because they were a part of herself.

“I wonder if Liff Hyatt knows who my mother was?” she mused; and it filled her with a tremor of surprise to think that some woman who was once young and slight, with quick motions of the blood like hers, had carried her in her breast, and watched her sleeping. She had always thought of her mother as so long dead as to be no more than a nameless pinch of earth; but now it occurred to her that the once-young woman might be alive, and wrinkled and elf-locked like the woman she had sometimes seen in the door of the brown house that Lucius Harney wanted to draw.

The thought brought him back to the central point in her mind, and she strayed away from the conjectures roused by Liff Hyatt’s presence. Speculations concerning the past could not hold her long when the present was so rich, the future so rosy, and when Lucius Harney, a stone’s throw away, was bending over his sketch-book, frowning, calculating, measuring, and then throwing his head back with the sudden smile that had shed its brightness over everything.

She scrambled to her feet, but as she did so she saw him coming up the pasture and dropped down on the grass to wait. When he was drawing and measuring one of “his houses,” as she called them, she often strayed away by herself into the woods or up the hillside. It was partly from shyness that she did so: from a sense of inadequacy that came to her most painfully when her companion, absorbed in his job, forgot her ignorance and her inability to follow his least allusion, and plunged into a monologue on art and life. To avoid the awkwardness of listening with a blank face, and also to escape the surprised stare of the inhabitants of the houses before which he would abruptly pull up their horse and open his sketch-book, she slipped away to some spot from which, without being seen, she could watch him at work, or at least look down on the house he was drawing. She had not been displeased, at first, to have it known to North Dormer and the neighborhood that she was driving Miss Hatchard’s cousin about the country in the buggy he had hired of lawyer Royall. She had always kept to herself, contemptuously aloof from village love-making, without exactly knowing whether her fierce pride was due to the sense of her tainted origin, or whether she was reserving herself for a more brilliant fate. Sometimes she envied the other girls their sentimental preoccupations, their long hours of inarticulate philandering with one of the few youths who still lingered in the village; but when she pictured herself curling her hair or putting a new ribbon on her hat for Ben Fry or one of the Sollas boys the fever dropped and she relapsed into indifference.

Now she knew the meaning of her disdains and reluctances. She had learned what she was worth when Lucius Harney, looking at her for the first time, had lost the thread of his speech, and leaned reddening on the edge of her desk. But another kind of shyness had been born in her: a terror of exposing to vulgar perils the sacred treasure of her happiness. She was not sorry to have the neighbors suspect her of “going with” a young man from the city; but she did not want it known to all the countryside how many hours of the long June days she spent with him. What she most feared was that the inevitable comments should reach Mr. Royall. Charity was instinctively aware that few things concerning her escaped the eyes of the silent man under whose roof she lived; and in spite of the latitude which North Dormer accorded to courting couples she had always felt that, on the day when she showed too open a preference, Mr. Royall might, as she phrased it, make her “pay for it.” How, she did not know; and her fear was the greater because it was undefinable. If she had been accepting the attentions of one of the village youths she would have been less apprehensive: Mr. Royall could not prevent her marrying when she chose to. But everybody knew that “going with a city fellow” was a different and less straightforward affair: almost every village could show a victim of the perilous venture. And her dread of Mr. Royall’s intervention gave a sharpened joy to the hours she spent with young Harney, and made her, at the same time, shy of being too generally seen with him.

As he approached she rose to her knees, stretching her arms above her head with the indolent gesture that was her way of expressing a profound well-being.

“I’m going to take you to that house up under Porcupine,” she announced.

“What house? Oh, yes; that ramshackle place near the swamp, with the gipsy-looking people hanging about. It’s curious that a house with traces of real architecture should have been built in such a place. But the people were a sulky-looking lot — do you suppose they’ll let us in?”

“They’ll do whatever I tell them,” she said with assurance.

He threw himself down beside her. “Will they?” he rejoined with a smile. “Well, I should like to see what’s left inside the house. And I should like to have a talk with the people. Who was it who was telling me the other day that they had come down from the Mountain?”

Charity shot a sideward look at him. It was the first time he had spoken of the Mountain except as a feature of the landscape. What else did he know about it, and about her relation to it? Her heart began to beat with the fierce impulse of resistance which she instinctively opposed to every imagined slight.

“The Mountain? I ain’t afraid of the Mountain!”

Her tone of defiance seemed to escape him. He lay breast-down on the grass, breaking off sprigs of thyme and pressing them against his lips. Far off, above the folds of the nearer hills, the Mountain thrust itself up menacingly against a yellow sunset.

“I must go up there some day: I want to see it,” he continued.

Her heart-beats slackened and she turned again to examine his profile. It was innocent of all unfriendly intention.

“What’d you want to go up the Mountain for?”

“Why, it must be rather a curious place. There’s a queer colony up there, you know: sort of out-laws, a little independent kingdom. Of course you’ve heard them spoken of; but I’m told they have nothing to do with the people in the valleys — rather look down on them, in fact. I suppose they’re rough customers; but they must have a good deal of character.”

She did not quite know what he meant by having a good deal of character; but his tone was expressive of admiration, and deepened her dawning curiosity. It struck her now as strange that she knew so little about the Mountain. She had never asked, and no one had ever offered to enlighten her. North Dormer took the Mountain for granted, and implied its disparagement by an intonation rather than by explicit criticism.

“It’s queer, you know,” he continued, “that, just over there, on top of that hill, there should be a handful of people who don’t give a damn for anybody.”

The words thrilled her. They seemed the clue to her own revolts and defiances, and she longed to have him tell her more.

“I don’t know much about them. Have they always been there?”

“Nobody seems to know exactly how long. Down at Creston they told me that the first colonists are supposed to have been men who worked on the railway that was built forty or fifty years ago between Springfield and Nettleton. Some of them took to drink, or got into trouble with the police, and went off — disappeared into the woods. A year or two later there was a report that they were living up on the Mountain. Then I suppose others joined them — and children were born. Now they say there are over a hundred people up there. They seem to be quite outside the jurisdiction of the valleys. No school, no church — and no sheriff ever goes up to see what they’re about. But don’t people ever talk of them at North Dormer?”

“I don’t know. They say they’re bad.”

He laughed. “Do they? We’ll go and see, shall we?”

She flushed at the suggestion, and turned her face to his. “You never heard, I suppose — I come from there. They brought me down when I was little.”

“You?” He raised himself on his elbow, looking at her with sudden interest. “You’re from the Mountain? How curious! I suppose that’s why you’re so different. . . . ”

Her happy blood bathed her to the forehead. He was praising her — and praising her because she came from the Mountain!

“Am I . . . different?” she triumphed, with affected wonder.

“Oh, awfully!” He picked up her hand and laid a kiss on the sunburnt knuckles.

“Come,” he said, “let’s be off.” He stood up and shook the grass from his loose grey clothes. “What a good day! Where are you going to take me tomorrow?”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30