Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 14

It was in her revulsion from the direct beneficence which had proved so dangerous that Annie was able to give herself to the more general interests of the Social Union. She had not the courage to test her influence for it among the workpeople whom it was to entertain and elevate, and whose co-operation Mr. Peck had thought important; but she went about among the other classes, and found a degree of favour and deference which surprised her, and an ignorance of what lay so heavy on her heart which was still more comforting. She was nowhere treated as the guilty wretch she called herself; some who knew of the facts had got them wrong; and she discovered what must always astonish the inquirer below the pretentious surface of our democracy — an indifference and an incredulity concerning the feelings of people of lower station which could not be surpassed in another civilisation. Her concern for Mrs. Savor was treated as a great trial for Miss Kilburn; but the mother’s bereavement was regarded as something those people were used to, and got over more easily than one could imagine.

Annie’s mission took her to the ministers of the various denominations, and she was able to overcome any scruples they might have about the theatricals by urging the excellence of their object. As a Unitarian, she was not prepared for the liberality with which the matter was considered; the Episcopalians of course were with her; but the Universalist minister himself was not more friendly than the young Methodist preacher, who volunteered to call with her on the pastor of the Baptist church, and help present the affair in the right light; she had expected a degree of narrow-mindedness, of bigotry, which her sect learned to attribute to others in the militant period before they had imbibed so much of its own tolerance.

But the recollection of what had passed with Mr. Peck remained a reproach in her mind, and nothing that she accomplished for the Social Union with the other ministers was important. In her vivid reveries she often met him, and combated his peculiar ideas, while she admitted a wrong in her own position, and made every expression of regret, and parted from him on the best terms, esteemed and complimented in high degree; in reality she saw him seldom, and still more rarely spoke to him, and then with a distance and consciousness altogether different from the effects dramatised in her fancy. Sometimes during the period of her interest in the sick children of the hands, she saw him in their houses, or coming and going outside; but she had no chance to speak with him, or else said to herself that she had none, because she was ashamed before him. She thought he avoided her; but this was probably only a phase of the impersonality which seemed characteristic of him in everything. At these times she felt a strange pathos in the lonely man whom she knew to be at odds with many of his own people, and she longed to interpret herself more sympathetically to him, but actually confronted with him she was sensible of something cold and even hard in the nimbus her compassion cast about him. Yet even this added to the mystery that piqued her, and that loosed her fancy to play, as soon as they parted, in conjecture about his past life, his marriage, and the mad wife who had left him with the child he seemed so ill-fitted to care for. Then, the next time they met she was abashed with the recollection of having unwarrantably romanced the plain, simple, homely little man, and she added an embarrassment of her own to that shyness of his which kept them apart.

Except for what she had heard Putney say, and what she learned casually from the people themselves, she could not have believed he ever did anything for them. He came and went so elusively, as far as Annie was concerned, that she knew of his presence in the houses of sickness and death usually by his little girl, whom she found playing about in the street before the door with the children of the hands. She seemed to hold her own among the others in their plays and their squabbles; if she tried to make up to her, Idella smiled, but she would not be approached, and Annie’s heart went out to the little mischief in as helpless goodwill as toward the minister himself.

She used to hear his voice through the summer-open windows when he called upon the Boltons, and wondered if some accident would not bring them together, but she had to send for Mrs. Bolton at last, and bid her tell Mr. Peck that she would like to see him before he went away, one night. He came, and then she began a parrying parley of preliminary nothings before she could say that she supposed he knew the ladies were going on with their scheme for the establishment of the Social Union; he admitted vaguely that he had heard something to that effect, and she added that the invited dance and supper had been given up.

He remained apparently indifferent to the fact, and she hurried on: “And I ought to say, Mr. Peck, that nearly every one — every one whose opinion you would value — agreed with you that it would have been extremely ill-advised, and — and shocking. And I’m quite ashamed that I should not have seen it from the beginning; and I hope — I hope you will forgive me if I said things in my — my excitement that must have — I mean not only what I said to you, but what I said to others; and I assure you that I regret them, and —”

She went on and repeated herself at length, and he listened patiently, but as if the matter had not really concerned either of them personally. She had to conclude that what she had said of him had not reached him, and she ended by confessing that she had clung to the Social Union project because it seemed the only thing in which her attempts to do good were not mischievous.

Mr. Peck’s thin face kindled with a friendlier interest than it had shown while the question at all related to himself, and a light of something that she took for humorous compassion came into his large, pale blue eyes. At least it was intelligence; and perhaps the woman nature craves this as much as it is supposed to crave sympathy; perhaps the two are finally one.

“I want to tell you something, Mr. Peck — an experience of mine,” she said abruptly, and without trying to connect it obviously with what had gone before, she told him the story of her ill-fated beneficence to the Savors. He listened intently, and at the end he said: “I understand. But that is sorrow you have caused, not evil; and what we intend in goodwill must not rest a burden on the conscience, no matter how it turns out. Otherwise the moral world is no better than a crazy dream, without plan or sequence. You might as well rejoice in an evil deed because good happened to come of it.”

“Oh, I thank you!” she gasped. “You don’t know what a load you have lifted from me!”

Her words feebly expressed the sense of deliverance which overflowed her heart. Her strength failed her like that of a person suddenly relieved from some great physical stress or peril; but she felt that he had given her the truth, and she held fast by it while she went on.

“If you knew, or if any one knew, how difficult it, is, what a responsibility, to do the least thing for others! And once it seemed so simple! And it seems all the more difficult, the more means you have for doing good. The poor people seem to help one another without doing any harm, but if I try it —”

“Yes,” said the minister, “it is difficult to help others when we cease to need help ourselves. A” man begins poor, or his father or grandfather before him — it doesn’t matter how far back he begins — and then he is in accord and full understanding with all the other poor in the world; but as he prospers he withdraws from them and loses their point of view. Then when he offers help, it is not as a brother of those who need it, but a patron, an agent of the false state of things in which want is possible; and his help is not an impulse of the love that ought to bind us all together, but a compromise proposed by iniquitous social conditions, a peace-offering to his own guilty consciousness of his share in the wrong.”

“Yes,” said Annie, too grateful for the comfort he had given her to question words whose full purport had not perhaps reached her. “And I assure you, Mr. Peck, I feel very differently about these things since I first talked with you. And I wish to tell you, in justice to myself, that I had no idea then that — that — you were speaking from your own experience when you — you said how working people looked at things. I didn’t know that you had been — that is, that —”

“Yes,” said the minister, coming to her relief, “I once worked in a cotton-mill. Then,” he continued, dismissing the personal concern, “it seems to me that I saw things in their right light, as I have never been able to see them since —”

“And how brutal,” she broke in, “how cruel and vulgar, what I said must have seemed to you!”

“I fancied,” he continued evasively, “that I had authority to set myself apart from my fellow-workmen, to be a teacher and guide to the true life. But it was a great error. The true life was the life of work, and no one ever had authority to turn from it. Christ Himself came as a labouring man.”

“That is true,” said Annie; and his words transfigured the man who spoke them, so that her heart turned reverently toward him. “But if you had been meant to work in a mill all your life,” she pursued, “would you have been given the powers you have, and that you have just used to save me from despair?”

The minister rose, and said, with a sigh: “No one was meant to work in a mill all his life. Good night.”

She would have liked to keep him longer, but she could not think how, at once. As he turned to go out through the Boltons’ part of the house, “Won’t you go out through my door?” she asked, with a helpless effort at hospitality.

“Oh, if you wish,” he answered submissively.

When she had closed the door upon him she went to speak with Mrs. Bolton. She was in the kitchen mixing flour to make bread, and Annie traced her by following the lamp-light through the open door. It discovered Bolton sitting in the outer doorway, his back against one jamb and his stocking-feet resting against the base of the other.

“Mrs. Bolton,” Annie began at once, making herself free of one of the hard kitchen chairs, “how is Mr. Peck getting on in Hatboro’?”

“I d’know as I know just what you mean, Miss Kilburn,” said Mrs. Bolton, on the defensive.

“I mean, is there a party against him in his church? Is he unpopular?”

Mrs. Bolton took some flour and sprinkled it on her bread-board; then she lifted the mass of dough out of the trough before her, and let it sink softly upon the board.

“I d’know as you can say he’s unpoplah. He ain’t poplah with some. Yes, there’s a party — the Gerrish party.”

“Is it a strong one?”

“It’s pretty strong.”

“Do you think it will prevail?”

“Well, most o’ folks don’t know what they want; and if there’s some folks that know what they don’t want, they can generally keep from havin’ it.”

Bolton made a soft husky prefatory noise of protest in his throat, which seemed to stimulate his wife to a more definite assertion, and she cut in before he could speak —

I should say that unless them that stood Mr. Peck’s friends first off, and got him here, done something to keep him, his enemies wa’n’t goin’ to take up his cause.”

Annie divined a personal reproach for Bolton in the apparent abstraction.

“Oh, now, you’ll see it’ll all come out right in the end, Pauliny,” he mildly opposed. “There ain’t any such great feelin’ about Mr. Peck; nothin’ but what’ll work itself off perfec’ly natural, give it time. It’s goin’ to come out all right.”

“Yes, at the day o’ jedgment,” Mrs. Bolton assented, plunging her fists into the dough, and beginning to work a contempt for her husband’s optimism into it.

“Yes, an’ a good deal before,” he returned. “There’s always somethin’ to objec’ to every minister; we ain’t any of us perfect, and Mr. Peck’s got his failin’s; he hain’t built up the church quite so much as some on ’em expected but what he would; and there’s some that don’t like his prayers; and some of ’em thinks he ain’t doctrinal enough. But I guess, take it all round, he suits pretty well. It’ll come out all right, Pauliny. You’ll see.”

A pause ensued, of which Annie felt the awfulness. It seemed to her that Mrs. Bolton’s impatience with this intolerable hopefulness must burst violently. She hastened to interpose. “I think the trouble is that people don’t fully understand Mr. Peck at first. But they do finally.”

“Yes; take time,” said Bolton.

“Take eternity, I guess, for some,” retorted his wife. “If you think William B. Gerrish is goin’ to work round with time —” She stopped for want of some sufficiently rejectional phrase, and did not go on.

“The way I look at it,” said Bolton, with incorrigible courage, “is like this: When it comes to anything like askin’ Mr. Peck to resign, it’ll develop his strength. You can’t tell how strong he is without you try to git red of him. I ‘most wish it would come, once, fair and square.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Bolton,” said Annie. “I don’t believe that your church would let such a man go when it really came to it. Don’t they all feel that he has great ability?”

“Oh, I guess they appreciate him as far forth as ability goes. Some on ’em complains that he’s a little too intellectial, if anything. But I tell ’em it’s a good fault; it’s a thing that can be got over in time.”

Mrs. Bolton had ceased to take part in the discussion. She finished kneading her dough, and having fitted it into two baking-pans and dusted it with flour, she laid a clean towel over both. But when Annie rose she took the lamp from the mantel-shelf, where it stood, and held it up for her to find her way back to her own door.

Annie went to bed with a spirit lightened as well as chastened, and kept saying over the words of Mr. Peck, so as to keep fast hold of the consolation they had given her. They humbled her with, a sense of his wisdom and insight; the thought of them kept her awake. She remembered the tonic that Dr. Morrell had left with her, and after questioning whether she really needed it now, she made sure by getting up and taking it.

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