Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 1

After the death of Judge Kilburn his daughter came back to America. They had been eleven winters in Rome, always meaning to return, but staying on from year to year, as people do who have nothing definite to call them home. Toward the last Miss Kilburn tacitly gave up the expectation of getting her father away, though they both continued to say that they were going to take passage as soon as the weather was settled in the spring. At the date they had talked of for sailing he was lying in the Protestant cemetery, and she was trying to gather herself together, and adjust her life to his loss. This would have been easier with a younger person, for she had been her father’s pet so long, and then had taken care of his helplessness with a devotion which was finally so motherly, that it was like losing at once a parent and a child when he died, and she remained with the habit of giving herself when there was no longer any one to receive the sacrifice. He had married late, and in her thirty-first year he was seventy-eight; but the disparity of their ages, increasing toward the end through his infirmities, had not loosened for her the ties of custom and affection that bound them; she had seen him grow more and more fitfully cognisant of what they had been to each other since her mother’s death, while she grew the more tender and fond with him. People who came to condole with her seemed not to understand this, or else they thought it would help her to bear up if they treated her bereavement as a relief from hopeless anxiety. They were all surprised when she told them she still meant to go home.

“Why, my dear,” said one old lady, who had been away from America twenty years, “this is home! You’ve lived in this apartment longer now than the oldest inhabitant has lived in most American towns. What are you talking about? Do you mean that you are going back to Washington?”

“Oh no. We were merely staying on in Washington from force of habit, after father gave up practice. I think we shall go back to the old homestead, where we used to spend our summers, ever since I can remember.”

“And where is that?” the old lady asked, with the sharpness which people believe must somehow be good for a broken spirit.

“It’s in the interior of Massachusetts — you wouldn’t know it: a place called Hatboro’.”

“No, I certainly shouldn’t,” said the old lady, with superiority. “Why Hatboro’, of all the ridiculous reasons?”

“It was one of the first places where they began to make straw hats; it was a nickname at first, and then they adopted it. The old name was Dorchester Farms. Father fought the change, but it was of no use; the people wouldn’t have it Farms after the place began to grow; and by that time they had got used to Hatboro’. Besides, I don’t see how it’s any worse than Hatfield, in England.”

“It’s very American.”

“Oh, it’s American. We have Boxboro’ too, you know, in Massachusetts.”

“And you are going from Rome to Hatboro’, Mass.,” said the old lady, trying to present the idea in the strongest light by abbreviating the name of the State.

“Yes,” said Miss Kilburn. “It will be a change, but not so much of a change as you would think. It was father’s wish to go back.”

“Ah, my dear!” cried the old lady. “You’re letting that weigh with you, I see. Don’t do it! If it wasn’t wise, don’t you suppose that the last thing he could wish you to do would be to sacrifice yourself to a sick whim of his?”

The kindness expressed in the words touched Annie Kilburn. She had a certain beauty of feature; she was near-sighted; but her eyes were brown and soft, her lips red and full; her dark hair grew low, and played in little wisps and rings on her temples, where her complexion was clearest; the bold contour of her face, with its decided chin and the rather large salient nose, was like her father’s; it was this, probably, that gave an impression of strength, with a wistful qualification. She was at that time rather thin, and it could have been seen that she would be handsomer when her frame had rounded out in fulfilment of its generous design. She opened her lips to speak, but shut them again in an effort at self-control before she said —

“But I really wish to do it. At this moment I would rather be in Hatboro’ than in Rome.”

“Oh, very well,” said the old lady, gathering herself up as one does from throwing away one’s sympathy upon an unworthy object; “if you really wish it —”

“I know that it must seem preposterous and — and almost ungrateful that I should think of going back, when I might just as well stay. Why, I’ve a great many more friends here than I have there; I suppose I shall be almost a stranger when I get there, and there’s no comparison in congeniality; and yet I feel that I must go back. I can’t tell you why. But I have a longing; I feel that I must try to be of some use in the world — try to do some good — and in Hatboro’ I think I shall know how.” She put on her glasses, and looked at the old lady as if she might attempt an explanation, but, as if a clearer vision of the veteran worldling discouraged her, she did not make the effort.

Oh!” said the old lady. “If you want to be of use, and do good —” She stopped, as if then there were no more to be said by a sensible person. “And shall you be going soon?” she asked. The idea seemed to suggest her own departure, and she rose after speaking.

“Just as soon as possible,” answered Miss Kilburn. Words take on a colour of something more than their explicit meaning from the mood in which they are spoken: Miss Kilburn had a sense of hurrying her visitor away, and the old lady had a sense of being turned out-of-doors, that the preparations for the homeward voyage might begin instantly.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38