Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 12

Miss Northwick called upon Annie during the week, with excuses for her delay and for coming alone. She seemed to have intentions of being polite; but she constantly betrayed her want of interest in Annie, and disappointed an expectation of refinement which her physical delicacy awakened. She asked her how she ever came to take up the Social Union, and answered for her that of course it had the attraction of the theatricals, and went on to talk of her sister’s part in them. The relation of the Northwick family to the coming entertainment, and an impression of frail mottled wrists and high thin cheeks, and an absence of modelling under affluent drapery, was the main effect of Miss Northwick’s visit.

When Annie returned it, she met the younger sister, whom she found a great beauty. She seemed very cold, and of a hauteur which she subdued with difficulty; but she was more consecutively polite than her sister, and Annie watched with fascination her turns of the head, her movements of leopard swiftness and elasticity, the changing lights of her complexion, the curves of her fine lips, the fluttering of her thin nostrils.

A very new basket phaeton stood glittering at Annie’s door when she got home, and Mrs. Wilmington put her head out of the open parlour window.

“How d’ye do, Annie?” she drawled, in her tender voice. “Won’t you come in? You see I’m in possession. I’ve just got my new phaeton, and I drove up at once to crush you with it. Isn’t it a beauty?”

“You’re too late, Lyra,” said Annie. “I’ve just come from the Northwicks, and another crushing beauty has got in ahead of your phaeton.”

“Oh, poor Annie!” Lyra began to laugh with agreeable intelligence. “Do come in and tell me about it!”

“Why is that girl going to take part in the theatricals? She doesn’t care to please any one, does she?”

“I didn’t know that people took part in theatricals for that, Annie. I thought they wanted to please themselves and mortify others. I do. But then I may be different. Perhaps Miss Northwick wants to please Mr. Brandreth.”

“Do you mean it, Lyra?” demanded Annie, arrested on her threshold by the charm of this improbability.

“Well, I don’t know; they’re opposites. But, upon second thoughts, you needn’t come in, Annie. I want you to take a drive with me, and try my new phaeton,” said Lyra, coming out.

Annie now looked at it with that irresolution of hers, and Lyra commanded: “Get right in. We’ll go down to the Works. You’ve never met my husband yet; have you, Annie?”

“No, I haven’t, Lyra. I’ve always just missed him somehow. He seems to have been perpetually just gone to town, or not got back.”

“Well, he’s really at home now. And I don’t mean at the house, which isn’t home to him, but the Works. You’ve never seen the Works either, have you?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well, then, we’ll just go round there, and kill two birds with one stone. I ought to show off my new phaeton to Mr. Wilmington first of all; he gave it to me. It would be kind of conjugal, or filial, or something. You know Mr. Wilmington and I are not exactly contemporaries, Annie?”

“I heard he was somewhat your senior,” said Annie reluctantly.

Lyra laughed. “Well, I always say we were born in the same century, anyway.”

They came round into the region of the shops, and Lyra checked her pony in front of her husband’s factory. It was not imposingly large, but, as Mrs. Wilmington caused Annie to observe, it was as big as the hat shops and as ugly as the shoe shops.

The structure trembled with the operation of its industry, and as they mounted the wooden steps to the open outside door, an inner door swung ajar for a moment, and let out a roar mingled of the hum and whirl and clash of machinery and fragments of voice, borne to them on a whiff of warm, greasy air. “Of course it doesn’t smell very nice,” said Lyra.

She pushed open the door of the office, and finding its first apartment empty, led the way with Annie to the inner room, where her husband sat writing at a table.

“George, I want to introduce you to Miss Kilburn.”

“Oh yes, yes, yes,” said her husband, scrambling to his feet, and coming round to greet Annie. He was a small man, very bald, with a serious and wrinkled forehead, and rather austere brows; but his mouth had a furtive curl at one corner, which, with the habit he had of touching it there with the tip of his tongue, made Annie think of a cat that had been at the cream. “I’ve been hoping to call with Mrs. Wilmington to pay my respects; but I’ve been away a great deal this season, and — and — We’re all very happy to have you home again, Miss Kilburn. I’ve often heard my wife speak of your old days together at Hatboro’.”

They fenced with some polite feints of interest in each other, the old man standing beside his writing-table, and staying himself with a shaking hand upon it.

Lyra interrupted them. “Well, I think now that Annie is here, we’d better not let her get away without showing her the Works.”

“Oh — oh — decidedly! I’ll go with you, with great pleasure. Ah!” He bustled about, putting the things together on his table, and then reaching for the Panama hat on a hook behind it. There was something pathetic in his eagerness to do what Lyra bade him, and Annie fancied in him the uneasy consciousness which an elderly husband might feel in the presence of those who met him for the first time with his young wife. At the outer office door they encountered Jack Wilmington.

“I’ll show them through,” he said to his uncle; and the old man assented with, “Well, perhaps you’d better, Jack,” and went back to his room.

The Wilmington Stocking–Mills spun their own threads, and the first room was like what Annie had seen before in cotton factories, with a faint smell of oil from the machinery, and a fine snow of fluff in the air, and catching to the white-washed walls and the foul window sashes. The tireless machines marched back and forth across the floor, and the men who watched them with suicidal intensity ran after them barefooted when they made off with a broken thread, spliced it, and then escaped from them to their stations again. In other rooms, where there was a stunning whir of spindles, girls and women were at work; they looked after Lyra and her nephew from under cotton-frowsed bangs; they all seemed to know her, and returned her easy, kindly greetings with an effect of liking. From time to time, at Lyra’s bidding, the young fellow explained to Annie some curious feature of the processes; in the room where the stockings were knitted she tried to understand the machinery that wrought and seemed to live before her eyes. But her mind wandered to the men and women who were operating it, and who seemed no more a voluntary part of it than all the rest, except when Jack Wilmington curtly ordered them to do this or that in illustration of some point he was explaining. She wearied herself, as people do in such places, in expressing her wonder at the ingenuity of the machinery; it was a relief to get away from it all into the room, cool and quiet, where half a dozen neat girls were counting and stamping the stockings with different numbers. “Here’s where I used to work,” said Lyra, “and here’s where I first met Mr. Wilmington. The place is full of romantic associations. The stockings are all one size, Annie; but people like to wear different numbers, and so we try to gratify them. Which number do you wear? Or don’t you wear the Wilmington machine-knit? I don’t. Well, they’re not dreams exactly, Annie, when all’s said and done for them.”

When they left the mill she asked Annie to come home to tea with her, saying, as if from a perception of her dislike for the young fellow, that Jack was going to Boston.

They had a long evening together, after Mr. Wilmington took himself off after tea to his study, as he called it, and remained shut in there. Annie was uneasily aware of him from time to time, but Lyra had apparently no more disturbance from his absence than from his presence, which she had managed with a frank acceptance of everything it suggested. She talked freely of her marriage, not as if it were like others, but for what it was. She showed Annie over the house, and she ended with a display of the rich dresses which he was always buying her, and which she never wore, because she never went anywhere.

Annie said she thought she would at least like to go to the seaside somewhere during the summer, but “No,” Lyra said; “it would be too much trouble, and you know, Annie, I always did hate trouble. I don’t want the care of a cottage, and I don’t want to be poked into a hotel, so I stay in Hatboro’.” She said that she had always been a village girl, and did not miss the interests of a larger life, as she caught glimpses of them in South Hatboro’, or want the bother of them. She said she studied music a little, and confessed that she read a good deal, novels mostly, though the library was handsomely equipped with well-bound general literature.

At moments it all seemed no harm; at others, the luxury in which this life was so contentedly sunk oppressed Annie like a thick, close air. Yet she knew that Lyra was kind to many of the poor people about her, and did a great deal of good, as the phrase is, with the superfluity which it involved no self-denial to give from. But Mr. Peck had given her a point of view, and though she believed she did not agree with him, she could not escape from it.

Lyra told her much about people in Hatboro’, and characterised them all so humorously, and she seemed so good-natured, in her ridicule which spared nobody.

She shrieked with laughter about Mr. Brandreth when Annie told her of his mother’s doubt whether his love-making with Miss Northwick ought to be tacit or explicit in the kissing and embracing between Romeo and Juliet.

“Don’t you think, Annie, we’d better refer him to Mr. Peck? I should like to hear Mr. Brandreth and Mr. Peek discussing it. I must tell Jack about it. I might get him to ask Sue Northwick, and get her ideas.”

“Has Mr. Wilmington known the Northwicks long?” Annie asked.

“He used to go to their Boston house when he was at Harvard.”

“Oh, then,” said Annie, “perhaps he accounts for her playing Juliet; though, as Tybalt, I don’t see exactly how he —”

“Oh, it’s at the rehearsals, you know, that the fun is, and then it don’t matter what part you have.”

Annie lay awake a long time that night. She was sure that she ought not to like Lyra if she did not approve of her, and that she ought not to have gone home to tea with her and spent the evening with her unless she fully respected her. But she had to own to herself that she did like her, and enjoyed hearing her soft drawl. She tried to think how Jack Wilmington’s having gone to Boston for the evening made it somehow less censurable for her to spend it with Lyra, even if she did not approve of her. As she drowsed, this became perfectly clear.

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