Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 13

In the process of that expansion from a New England village to an American town of which Putney spoke, Hatboro’ had suffered one kind of deterioration which Annie could not help noticing. She remembered a distinctly intellectual life, which might still exist in its elements, but which certainly no longer had as definite expression. There used to be houses in which people, maiden aunts and hale grandmothers, took a keen interest in literature, and read the new books and discussed them, some time after they had ceased to be new in the publishing centres, but whilst they were still not old. But now the grandmothers had died out, and the maiden aunts had faded in, and she could not find just such houses anywhere in Hatboro’. The decay of the Unitarians as a sect perhaps had something to do with the literary lapse of the place: their highly intellectualised belief had favoured taste in a direction where the more ritualistic and emotional religions did not promote it: and it is certain that they were no longer the leading people.

It would have been hard to say just who these leading people were. The old political and juristic pre-eminence which the lawyers had once enjoyed was a tradition; the learned professions yielded in distinction to the growing wealth and plutocratic influence of the prosperous manufacturers; the situation might be summed up in the fact that Colonel Marvin of the shoe interest and Mr. Wilmington now filled the place once held by Judge Kilburn and Squire Putney. The social life in private houses had undoubtedly shrunk; but it had expanded in the direction of church sociables, and it had become much more ecclesiastical in every way, without becoming more religious. As formerly, some people were acceptable, and some were not; but it was, as everywhere else, more a question of money; there was an aristocracy and a commonalty, but there was a confusion and a more ready convertibility in the materials of each.

The social authority of such a person as Mrs. Gerrish was not the only change that bewildered Annie, and the effort to extend her relations with the village people was one from which she shrank till her consciousness had more perfectly adjusted itself to the new conditions. Meanwhile Dr. Morrell came to call the night after their tea at the Putneys’, and he fell into the habit of coming several nights in the week, and staying late. Sometimes he was sent for at her house by sick people, and he must have left word at his office where he was to be found.

He had spent part of his student life in Europe, and he looked back to his travel there with a fondness that the Old World inspires less and less in Americans. This, with his derivation from one of the unliterary Boston suburbs, and his unambitious residence in a place like Hatboro’, gave her a sense of provinciality in him. On his part, he apparently found it droll that a woman of her acquaintance with a larger life should be willing to live in Hatboro’ at all, and he seemed incredulous about her staying after summer was over. She felt that she mystified him, and sometimes she felt the pursuit of a curiosity which was a little too like a psychical diagnosis. He had a way of sitting beside her table and playing with her paper-cutter, while he submitted with a quizzical smile to her endeavours to turn him to account. She did not mind his laughing at her eagerness (a woman is willing enough to join a man in making fun of her femininity if she believes that he respects her), and she tried to make him talk about Hatboro’, and tell her how she could be of use among the working people. She would have liked very much to know whether he gave his medical service gratis among them, and whether he found it a pleasure and a privilege to do so. There was one moment when she would have liked to ask him to let her be at the charges of his more indigent patients, but with the words behind her lips she perceived that it would not do. At the best, it would be taking his opportunity from him and making it hers. She began to see that one ought to have a conscience about doing good.

She let the chance of proposing this impossibility go by; and after a little silence Dr. Morrell seemed to revert, in her interest, to the economical situation in Hatboro’.

“You know that most of the hands in the hat-shops are from the farms around; and some of them own property here in the village. I know the owner of three small houses who’s always worked in the shops. You couldn’t very well offer help to a landed proprietor like that?”

“No,” said Annie, abashed in view of him.

“I suppose you ought to go to a factory town like Fall River, if you really wanted to deal with overwork and squalor.”

“I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing anywhere,” she said desperately.

The doctor’s eyes twinkled sympathetically. “I don’t know whether Benson earned his three houses altogether in the hat-shops. He ‘likes a good horse,’ as he says; and he likes to trade it for a better; I know that from experience. But he’s a great friend of mine. Well, then, there are more women than men in the shops, and they earn more. I suppose that’s rather disappointing too.”

“It is, rather.”

“But, on the other hand, the work only lasts eight months of the year, and that cuts wages down to an average of a dollar a day.”

“Ah!” cried Annie. “There’s some hope in that! What do they do when the work stops?”

“Oh, they go back to their country-seats.”

“All?”

“Perhaps not all.”

“I thought so!”

“Well, you’d better look round among those that stay.”

Even among these she looked in vain for destitution; she could find that in satisfactory degree only in straggling veterans of the great army of tramps which once overran country places in the summer.

She would have preferred not to see or know the objects of her charity, and because she preferred this she forced herself to face their distasteful misery. Mrs. Bolton had orders to send no one from the door who asked for food or work, but to call Annie and let her judge the case. She knew that it was folly, and she was afraid it was worse, but she could not send the homeless creatures away as hungry or poor as they came. They filled her gentlewoman’s soul with loathing; but if she kept beyond the range of the powerful corporeal odour that enveloped them, she could experience the luxury of pity for them. The filthy rags that caricatured them, their sick or sodden faces, always frowsed with a week’s beard, represented typical poverty to her, and accused her comfortable state with a poignant contrast; and she consoled herself as far as she could with the superstition that in meeting them she was fulfilling a duty sacred in proportion to the disgust she felt in the encounter.

The work at the hat-shops fell off after the spring orders, and did not revive till the beginning of August. If there was less money among the hands and their families who remained than there was in time of full work, the weather made less demand upon their resources. The children lived mostly out-of-doors, and seemed to have always what they wanted of the season’s fruit and vegetables. They got these too late from the decaying lots at the provision stores, and too early from the nearest orchards; and Dr. Morrell admitted that there was a good deal of sickness, especially among the little ones, from this diet. Annie wondered whether she ought not to offer herself as a nurse among them; she asked him whether she could not be of use in that way, and had to confess that she knew nothing about the prevailing disease.

“Then, I don’t think you’d better undertake it,” he said. “There are too many nurses there already, such as they are. It’s the dull time in most of the shops, you know, and the women have plenty of leisure. There are about five volunteer nurses for every patient, not counting the grandmothers on both sides. I think they would resent any outside aid.”

“Ah, I’m always on the outside! But can’t I send — I mean carry — them anything nourishing, any little dishes —”

“Arrowroot is about all the convalescents can manage.” She made a note of it. “But jelly and chicken broth are always relished by their friends.”

“Dr. Morrell, I must ask you not to turn me into ridicule, if you please. I cannot permit it.”

“I beg your pardon — I do indeed, Miss Kilburn. I didn’t mean to ridicule you. I began seriously, but I was led astray by remembering what becomes of most of the good things sent to sick people.”

“I know,” she said, breaking into a laugh. “I have eaten lots of them for my father. And is arrowroot the only thing?”

The doctor reflected gravely. “Why, no. There’s a poor little life now and then that might be saved by the sea-air. Yes, if you care to send some of my patients, with a mother and a grandmother apiece, to the seaside —”

“Don’t say another word, doctor,” cried Annie. “You make me so happy! I will — I will send their whole families. And you won’t, you won’t let a case escape, will you, doctor?” It was a break in the iron wall of uselessness which had closed her in; she behaved like a young girl with an invitation to a ball.

When the first patient came back well from the seaside her rejoicing overflowed in exultation before the friends to whom she confessed her agency in the affair. Putney pretended that he could not see what pleasure she could reasonably take in restoring the child to the sort of life it had been born to; but that was a matter she would not consider, theoretically or practically.

She began to go outside of Dr. Morrell’s authority; she looked up two cases herself, and, upon advising with their grandmothers, sent them to the seaside, and she was at the station when the train came in with the young mother and the still younger aunt of one of the sick children. She did not see the baby, and the mother passed her with a stare of impassioned reproach, and fell sobbing on the neck of her husband, waiting for her on the platform. Annie felt the blood drop back upon her heart. She caught at the girlish aunt, who was looking about her with a sense of the interest which attached to herself as a party to the spectacle.

“Oh, Rebecca, where is the child?”

“Well, there, Miss Kilburn, I’m ril sorry to tell you, but I guess the sea-air didn’t do it a great deal of good, if any. I tell Maria she’ll see it in the right light after a while, but of course she can’t, first off. Well, there! Somebody’s got to look after it. You’ll excuse me, Miss Kilburn.”

Annie saw her run off to the baggage-car, from which the baggage-man was handing out a narrow box. The ground reeled under her feet; she got the public depot carriage and drove home.

She sent for Dr. Morrell, and poured out the confession of her error upon him before he could speak. “I am a murderess,” she ended hysterically. “Don’t deny it!”

“I think you can be got off on the ground of insanity, Miss Kilburn, if you go on in this way,” he answered.

Her desperation broke in tears. “Oh, what shall I do — what shall I do? I’ve killed the child!”

“Oh no, you haven’t,” he retorted. “I know the case. The only hope for it was the sea-air; I was going to ask you to send it —”

She took down her handkerchief and gave him a piercing look. “Dr. Morrell, if you are lying to me —”

“I’m not lying, Miss Kilburn,” he answered. “You’ve done a very unwarrantable thing in both of the cases that you sent to the seaside on your own responsibility. One of them I certainly shouldn’t have advised sending, but it’s turned out well. You’ve no more credit for it, though, than for this that died; and you won’t think I’m lying, perhaps, when I say you’re equally to blame in both instances.”

“I— I beg your pardon,” she faltered, with dawning comfort in his severity. “I didn’t mean — I didn’t intend to say —”

“I know it,” said Dr. Morrell, allowing himself to smile. “Just remember that you blundered into doing the only thing left to be done for Mrs. Savor’s child; and — don’t try it again. That’s all.”

He smiled once more, and at some permissive light in her face, he began even to laugh.

“You — you’re horrible!”

“Oh no, I’m not,” he gasped. “All the tears in the world wouldn’t help; and my laughing hurts nobody. I’m sorry for you, and I’m sorry for the mother; but I’ve told you the truth — I have indeed; and you must believe me.”

The child’s father came to see her the next night. “Rebecca she seemed to think that you felt kind of bad, may be, because Maria wouldn’t speak to you when she first got off the cars yesterday, and I don’t say she done exactly right, myself. The way I look at it, and the way I tell Maria she’d ought to, is like this: You done what you done for the best, and we wa’n’t obliged to take your advice anyway. But of course Maria she’d kind of set her heart on savin’ it, and she can’t seem to get over it right away.” He talked on much longer to the same effect, tilted back in his chair, and looking down, while he covered and uncovered one of his knees with his straw hat. He had the usual rustic difficulty in getting away, but Annie was glad to keep him, in her gratitude for his kindness. Besides, she could not let him go without satisfying a suspicion she had.

“And Dr. Morrell — have you seen him for Mrs. Savor — have you —” She stopped, for shame of her hypocrisy.

“No, ‘m. We hain’t seen him sence. I guess she’ll get along.”

It needed this stroke to complete her humiliation before the single-hearted fellow.

“I— I suppose,” she stammered out, “that you — your wife, wouldn’t like me to come to the — I can understand that; but oh! if there is anything I can do for you — flowers — or my carriage — or helping anyway —”

Mr. Savor stood up. “I’m much obliged to you, Miss Kilburn; but we thought we hadn’t better wait, well not a great while, and — the funeral was this afternoon. Well, I wish you good evening.”

She met the mother, a few days after, in the street; with an impulse to cross over to the other side she advanced straight upon her.

“Mrs. Savor! What can I say to you?”

“Oh, I don’t presume but what you meant for the best, Miss Kilburn. But I guess I shall know what to do next time. I kind of felt the whole while that it was a resk. But it’s all right now.”

Annie realised, in her resentment of the poor thing’s uncouth sorrow, that she had spoken to her with the hope of getting, not giving, comfort.

“Yes, yes,” she confessed. “I was to blame.” The bereaved mother did not gainsay her, and she felt that, whatever was the justice of the case, she had met her present deserts.

She had to bear the discredit into which the seaside fell with the mothers of all the other sick children. She tried to bring Dr. Morrell once to the consideration of her culpability in the case of those who might have lived if the case of Mrs. Savor’s baby had not frightened their mothers from sending them to the seaside; but he refused to grapple with the problem. She was obliged to believe him when he said he should not have advised sending any of the recent cases there; that the disease was changing its character, and such a course could have done no good.

“Look here, Miss Kilburn,” he said, after scanning her face sharply, “I’m going to leave you a little tonic. I think you’re rather run down.”

“Well,” she said passively.

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