Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1261
It is a June afternoon in the early part of the twentieth century as Summer begins, and nineteenyear- old Charity Royall stands on the doorstep of her home, about to set off for her job at the library. As she looks over the small New England town of North Dormer, she notices a stranger, a young man clearly from the city. Something about him captures her imagination, and she feels, not for the first time, that her small-town life is unsatisfying. She is flustered when he enters the library to ask for books about the local architecture, and he appears flustered as well, struck by Charity’s beauty. His questions about the library’s holdings remind Charity how little she knows about books, and she is both disappointed and relieved when he leaves.
To clear her head, Charity heads for a hillside, where she lies among the wild flowers and observes the many signs of summer. She often comes here when she has thinking to do, and the scented breezes on her skin always cheer her. On this day she reflects on her life since she came to live in North Dormer. She is the legal ward, though not the adopted daughter, of Lawyer Royall, whose wife died seven or eight years after they took Charity in. Charity has given little thought to the man who provides for her. Once, when she was seventeen, he approached her bedroom at night and made a feeble attempt to seduce her, but she rebuffed him and has had no fear that he will repeat his actions. However, she has taken the library position hoping that eventually she can earn enough money to get away from North Dormer.
Over the next few weeks, Charity and the stranger, Lucius Harney, become friends. Harney lives alone down the street and has arranged to take his meals at the Royalls’ home. The young architect is sketching and measuring the old houses in the area, and with the horse-drawn buggy he rents from Royall he has visited several remote areas of the region with Charity as his guide. Charity has kept the amount of time she spends alone with Harney a secret, though she is not sure why. She tells herself that she does not care what the neighbors think and that she does not care that Harney has never spoken of love. When she takes him to a house in which some of the poor Mountain folk live, she is ashamed to be reminded again of how different her background is from his.
Now hopelessly infatuated with Harney, Charity looks forward eagerly to their meetings. One evening, he does not appear for supper, and Lawyer Royall tells Charity that he will not be coming again. Impetuously, Charity storms out and walks to Harney’s house. Noticing a light, she goes to the back of the house and sees through a window that Harney is packing his bags and preparing to leave. Realizing that if she makes her presence known he will invite her in and their chaste relationship will become a physical one, she remains silent until Harney falls asleep and then returns home. The next day she learns that she was seen leaving the house after midnight, and the town gossips assume that she has had sexual relations. To protect her reputation, Lawyer Royall asks Charity to marry him and leave town, but she refuses. Harney comes to say goodbye to Charity and then sends a note asking her to meet him secretly in the next town.
It is the Fourth of July, and Harney takes Charity to Nettleton for the celebrations. Everything is a wonder to Charity: the train ride, the shops and restaurants, the hotels full of glamorous and confident people, the doctor’s office where an unfortunate acquaintance is said to have had an abortion. Harney shows her around the city, introduces her to the taste of wine, and even buys her a pin with blue stones—her first piece of jewelry. Later, they go to the lake where they watch a spectacular fireworks display and Harney gives Charity her first kiss. Flushed with excitement, Charity is stunned to run into Lawyer Royall, drunk and angry. He loudly calls her a whore and stumbles away.
When she returns home after the Fourth of July celebration, Charity dreads encountering Lawyer Royall, but he does not return that day. Suddenly unable to bear society’s condemnations, Charity decides to run away, to join her mother on the Mountain. She sets out on the fifteen-mile walk but does not get far before Harney finds her. He persuades her not to go to the Mountain, but she insists that she will not return home. Instead, they walk to an abandoned house in an orchard, and there their sexual relationship begins.
At the end of August, the town of North Dormer is busily preparing for Old Home Week. Charity has been drafted to help make decorations, and Harney has returned to help design a stage for Town Hall. The two have been meeting secretly every afternoon. During the festivities, however, Charity sees Harney talking intimately with Annabel Balch, a sophisticated young woman from the city, and begins to doubt her hold over him. One afternoon, as she waits for Harney in the abandoned house, she is met instead by Royall, who has learned about the secret meetings. He urges Charity to break off the relationship before it is too late, but she refuses. When Harney arrives, Royall asks him whether he intends to marry Charity, but Harney will not reply.
As he had planned, Harney leaves North Dormer the next day to return to his work in New York. He has made a vague promise that he will return and marry Charity when his affairs are settled, but has asked her not to tell anyone of their plans. Later, Charity learns that Annabel Balch was with him when he left town and that they are engaged. Charity also discovers that she is pregnant. When a letter from Harney seems to offer no hope of their eventual reunion, she decides to go to the Mountain at last and raise her child among her own people.
With the added burden of her pregnancy, Charity finds the long trip to the Mountain exhausting. She is met on the way by the local minister, called to attend to Charity’s mother, who is dying. When they arrive, Charity’s mother Mary has died, and Charity sees for the first time how impoverished her existence has been. Mary’s people are rough and unfeeling; they have had none of Charity’s meager advantages. She knows that she cannot stay there to raise her child and heads wearily back for North Dormer. Before she gets very far, Royall, who has driven all night to rescue her, finds her. He picks her up, speaks kindly to her, and asks her once again to marry him.
Royall and Charity take the train to Nettleton and are married. They take a room at a fashionable hotel in the city and have a nice supper in the hotel restaurant. Charity goes up to their room to go to bed. The lawyer comes up hours later to spend the night in the rocking chair, and Charity understands that he knows she is pregnant and that he will protect her. The next day, Charity sends Harney a letter telling of her marriage and returns to North Dormer with her new husband.
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