Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 10

By the end of May most of the summer folk had come to their cottages in South Hatboro’. One after another the ladies called upon Annie. They all talked to her of the Social Union, and it seemed to be agreed that it was fully in train, though what was really in train was the entertainment to be given at Mrs. Munger’s for the benefit of the Union; the Union always dropped out of the talk as soon as the theatricals were mentioned.

When Annie went to return these visits she scarcely recognised even the shape of the country, once so familiar to her, of which the summer settlement had possessed itself. She found herself in a strange world — a world of colonial and Queen Anne architecture, where conscious lines and insistent colours contributed to an effect of posing which she had never seen off the stage. But it was not a very large world, and after the young trees and hedges should have grown up and helped to hide it, she felt sure that it would be a better world. In detail it was not so bad now, but the whole was a violent effect of porches, gables, chimneys, galleries, loggias, balconies, and jalousies, which nature had not yet had time to palliate.

Mrs. Munger was at home, and wanted her to spend the day, to drive out with her, to stay to lunch. When Annie would not do any of these things, she invited herself to go with her to call at the Brandreths’. But first she ordered her to go out with her to see the place where they intended to have the theatricals: a pretty bit of natural boscage — white birches, pines, and oaks — faced by a stretch of smooth turf, where a young man in a flannel blazer was painting a tennis-court in the grass. Mrs. Munger introduced him as her Jim, and the young fellow paused from his work long enough to bow to her: his nose now seemed in perfect repair.

Mr. Brandreth met them at the door of his mother’s cottage. It was a very small cottage on the outside, with a good deal of stained glass en évidence in leaded sashes; where the sashes were not leaded and the glass not stained, the panes were cut up into very large ones, with little ones round them. Everything was very old-fashioned inside. The door opened directly into a wainscoted square hall, which had a large fireplace with gleaming brass andirons, and a carved mantel carried to the ceiling. It was both baronial and colonial in its decoration; there was part of a suit of imitation armour under a pair of moose antlers on one wall, and at one side of the fireplace there was a spinning-wheel, with a tuft of flax ready to be spun. There were Japanese swords on the lowest mantel-shelf, together with fans and vases; a long old flint-lock musket stretched across the panel above. Mr. Brandreth began to show things to Annie, and to tell how little they cost, as soon as the ladies entered. His mother’s voice called from above, “Now, Percy, you stop till I get there!” and in a moment or two she appeared from behind a portière in one corner. Before she shook hands with the ladies, or allowed any kind of greeting, she pulled the portière aside, and made Annie admire the snug concealment of the staircase. Then she made her go upstairs and see the chambers, and the second-hand colonial bedsteads, and the andirons everywhere, and the old chests of drawers and their brasses; and she told her some story about each, and how Percy picked it up and had it repaired. When they came down, the son took Annie in hand again and walked her over the ground-floor, ending with the kitchen, which was in the taste of an old New England kitchen, with hard-seated high-backed chairs, and a kitchen table with curiously turned legs, which he had picked up in the hen-house of a neighbouring farmer for a song. There was an authentic crane in the dining-room fireplace, which he had found in a heap of scrap-iron at a blacksmith’s shop, and had got for next to nothing. The sideboard he had got at an old second-hand shop in the North End; and he believed it was an heirloom from the house of one of the old ministers of the North End Church. Everything, nearly, in the Brandreth cottage was an heirloom, though Annie could not remember afterward any object that had been an heirloom in the Brandreth family.

When she went back with Mr. Brandreth to the hall, which seemed to be also the drawing-room, she found that Mrs. Brandreth had lighted the fire on the hearth, though it was rather a warm day without, for the sake of the effect. She was sitting in the chimney-seat, and shielding her face from the blaze with an old-fashioned feather hand-screen.

“Now don’t you think we have a lovely little home?” she demanded.

Mrs. Munger began to break out in its praise, but she shook the screen silencingly at her.

“No, no! I want Miss Kilburn’s unbiassed opinion. Don’t you speak, Mrs. Munger! Now haven’t we?”

Mrs. Brandreth made Annie assent to the superiority of her cottage in detail. She recapitulated the different facts of the architecture and furnishing, from each of which she seemed to acquire personal merit, and she insisted that Percy should show some of them again. “We think it’s a little picture,” she concluded, and once more Annie felt obliged to murmur her acquiescence.

At last Mrs. Munger said that she must go to lunch, and was going to take Annie with her; Annie said she must lunch at home; and then Mrs. Brandreth pressed them both to stay to lunch with her. “You shall have a cup of tea out of a piece of real Satsuma,” she said; but they resisted. “I don’t believe,” she added, apparently relieved by their persistence, and losing a little anxiety of manner, “that Percy’s had any chance to consult you on a very important point about your theatricals, Miss Kilburn.”

“Oh, that will do some other time, mother,” said Mr. Brandreth.

“No, no! Now! And you can have Mrs. Munger’s opinion too. You know Miss Sue Northwick is going to be Juliet?”

“No!” shouted Mrs. Munger. “I thought she had refused positively. When did she change her mind?”

“She’s just sent Percy a note. We were talking it over when you came, and Percy was going over to tell you.”

“Then it is sure to be a success,” said Mrs. Munger, with a solemnity of triumph.

“Yes, but Percy feels that it complicates one point more than ever —”

“It’s a question that always comes up in amateur dramatics,” said Mr. Brandreth, with reluctance, “and it always will; and of course it’s particularly embarrassing in Romeo and Juliet. If they don’t show any affection — it’s very awkward and stiff; and if —”

“I never approved of those liberties on the stage,” said Mrs. Brandreth. “I tell Percy that it’s my principal objection to it. I can’t make it seem nice. But he says that it’s essential to the effect. Now I say that they might just incline their heads toward each other without actually, you know. But Percy is afraid that it won’t do, especially in the parting scene on the balcony — so passionate, you know — it won’t do simply to — They must act like lovers. And it’s such a great point to get Miss Sue Northwick to take the part, that he mustn’t risk losing her by anything that might seem —”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Munger, with deep concern.

Mr. Brandreth looked very unhappy. “It’s an embarrassing point. We can’t change the play, and so the difficulty must be met and disposed of at once.”

He did not look at either of the ladies, but Mrs. Munger referred the matter to Annie with a glance of impartiality. His mother also turned her eyes upon Annie. “Percy thought that you must have seen so much of amateur dramatics in Europe that you could tell him just how to do.”

“Perhaps you could consult Miss Northwick herself,” said Annie dryly, after a moment of indignation, and another of amusement.

“I thought of that,” said Mrs. Brandreth; “but as Percy’s to be Romeo — You see he wishes the play to be a success artistically; but if it’s to succeed socially, he must have Miss Northwick, and she might resign at the first suggestion of —”

“Bessie Chapley would certainly have been better. She’s so outspoken you could have put the case right to her,” said Mrs. Munger.

“Yes,” said Mr. Brandreth gloomily.

“But we shall find out a way. Why, you can settle it at rehearsal!”

“Perhaps at rehearsal,” said Mr. Brandreth, with a pensive absence of mind.

Mrs. Munger crushed his hand and his mother’s in her leathern grasp, and took Annie away with her. “It isn’t lunch-time yet,” she explained, when they were out of earshot, “but I saw she was simply killing you, and so I made the excuse. She has no mercy. There’s time enough for you to make your calls before lunch, and then you can come home with me.”

Annie suggested that this would not do after refusing Mrs. Brandreth.

“Why, it would never have done to accept!” Mrs. Munger cried. “They didn’t dream of it!” At the next place she said: “This is the Clevingers’. They’re some of our all-the-year-round people too.” She opened the door without ringing, and let herself noisily in. “This is the way we run in, without ceremony, everywhere. It’s quite one family. That’s the charm of the place. We expect to take each other as we find them.”

Her freedom did not find the ladies off their guard anywhere. At all the houses there was a skurrying of feet and a flashing of skirts out of the room or up the stairs, and there was an interval for a thorough study of the features of the room before the hostess came in, with the effect of coming in just as she was. She had naturally always made some change in her dress, and Annie felt that she had not really liked being run in upon. Everywhere they talked to her about the theatricals; and they talked across her to Mrs. Munger, about one another, pretty freely.

“Well, that’s all there is of us at present,” said Mrs. Munger, coming down the main road with her from the last place, “and you see just what we are. It’s a neighbourhood where everybody’s just adapted to everybody else. It’s not a mere mush of concession, as Emerson says; people are perfectly outspoken; but there’s the greatest good feeling, and no vulgar display, or lavish expenditure, or — anything.”

Annie walked slowly homeward. She was tired, and she was now aware of having been extremely bored by the South Hatboro’ people. She was very censorious of them, as we are of other people when we have reason to be discontented with ourselves. They were making a pretence of simplicity and unconventionality; but they had brought each her full complement of servants with her, and each was apparently giving herself in the summer to the unrealities that occupied her during the winter. Everywhere Annie had found the affectation of intellectual interests, and the assumption that these were the highest interests of life: there could be no doubt that culture was the ideal of South Hatboro’, and several of the ladies complained that in the summer they got behind with their reading, or their art, or their music. They said it was even more trouble to keep house in the country than it was in town; sometimes your servants would not come with you; or, if they did, they were always discontented, and you did not know what moment they would leave you.

Annie asked herself how her own life was in any wise different from that of these people. It had received a little more light into it, but as yet it had not conformed itself to any ideal of duty. She too was idle and vapid, like the society of which her whole past had made her a part, and she owned to herself, groaning in spirit, that it was no easier to escape from her tradition at Hatboro’ than it was at Rome.

When she reached her own house again, Mrs. Bolton called to her from the kitchen threshold as she was passing the corner on her way to the front door: “Mis’ Putney’s b’en here. I guess you’ll find a note from her on the parlour table.”

Annie fired in resentment of the uncouthness. It was Mrs. Bolton’s business to come into the parlour and give her the note, with a respectful statement of the facts. But she did not tell her so; it would have been useless.

Mrs. Putney’s note was an invitation to a family tea for the next evening.

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