Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 16

A wire had been carried from the village to the scene of the play at South Hatboro’, and electric globes fizzed and hissed overhead, flooding the open tennis-court with the radiance of sharper moonlight, and stamping the thick velvety shadows of the shrubbery and tree-tops deep into the raw green of the grass along its borders.

The spectators were seated on the verandas and terraced turf at the rear of the house, and they crowded the sides of the court up to a certain point, where a cord stretched across it kept them from encroaching upon the space intended for the action. Another rope enclosed an area all round them, where chairs and benches were placed for those who had tickets. After the rejection of the exclusive feature of the original plan, Mrs. Munger had liberalised more and more: she caused it to be known that all who could get into her grounds would be welcome on the outside of that rope, even though they did not pay anything; but a large number of tickets had been sold to the hands, as well as to the other villagers, and the area within the rope was closely packed. Some of the boys climbed the neighbouring trees, where from time to time the town authorities threatened them, but did not really dislodge them.

Annie, with other friends of Mrs. Munger, gained a reserved seat on the veranda through the drawing-room windows; but once there, she found herself in the midst of a sufficiently mixed company.

“How do, Miss Kilburn? That you? Well, I declare!” said a voice that she seemed to know, in a key of nervous excitement. Mrs. Savor’s husband leaned across his wife’s lap and shook hands with Annie. “William thought I better come,” Mrs. Savor seemed called upon to explain. “I got to do something. Ain’t it just too cute for anything the way they got them screens worked into the shrubbery down they-ar? It’s like the cycloraymy to Boston; you can’t tell where the ground ends and the paintin’ commences. Oh, I do want ’em to begin!”

Mr. Savor laughed at his wife’s impatience, and she said playfully: “What you laughin’ at? I guess you’re full as excited as what I be, when all’s said and done.”

There were other acquaintances of Annie’s from Over the Track, in the group about her, and upon the example of the Savors they all greeted her. The wives and sweethearts tittered with self-derisive expectation; the men were gravely jocose, like all Americans in unwonted circumstances, but they were respectful to the coming performance, perhaps as a tribute to Annie. She wondered how some of them came to have those seats, which were reserved at an extra price; she did not allow for that self-respect which causes the American workman to supply himself with the best his money can buy while his money lasts.

She turned to see who was on her other hand. A row of three small children stretched from her to Mrs. Gerrish, whom she did not recognise at first. “Oh, Emmeline!” she said; and then, for want of something else, she added, “Where is Mr. Gerrish? Isn’t he coming?”

“He was detained at the store,” said Mrs. Gerrish, with cold importance; “but he will be here. May I ask, Annie,” she pursued solemnly, “how you got here?”

“How did I get here? Why, through the windows. Didn’t you?”

“May I ask who had charge of the arrangements?”

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” said Annie. “I suppose Mrs. Munger.”

A burst of music came from the dense shadow into which the group of evergreens at the bottom of the tennis-court deepened away from the glister of the electrics. There was a deeper hush; then a slight jarring and scraping of a chair beyond Mrs. Gerrish, who leaned across her children and said, “He’s come, Annie — right through the parlour window!” Her voice was lifted to carry above the music, and all the people near were able to share the fact that righted Mrs. Gerrish in her own esteem.

From the covert of the low pines in the middle of the scene Miss Northwick and Mr. Brandreth appeared hand in hand, and then the place filled with figures from other apertures of the little grove and through the artificial wings at the sides, and walked the minuet. Mr. Fellows, the painter, had helped with the costumes, supplying some from his own artistic properties, and mediævalising others; the Boston costumers had been drawn upon by the men; and they all moved through the stately figures with a security which discipline had given them. The broad solid colours which they wore took the light and shadow with picturesque effectiveness; the masks contributed a sense of mystery novel in Hatboro’, and kept the friends of the dancers in exciting doubt of their identity; the strangeness of the audience to all spectacles of the sort held its judgment in suspense. The minuet was encored, and had to be given again, and it was some time before the applause of the repetition allowed the characters to be heard when the partners of the minuet began to move about arm in arm, and the drama properly began. When the applause died away it was still not easy to hear; a boy in one of the trees called, “Louder!” and made some of the people laugh, but for the rest they were very orderly throughout.

Toward the end of the fourth act Annie was startled by a child dashing itself against her knees, and breaking into a gurgle of shy laughter as children do.

“Why, you little witch!” she said to the uplifted face of Idella Peck. “Where is your father?”

“Oh, somewhere,” said the child, with entire ease of mind.

“And your hat?” said Annie, putting her hand on the curly bare head —“where’s your hat?”

“On the ground.”

“On the ground — where?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Idella lightly, as if the pursuit bored her.

Annie pulled her up on her lap. “Well, now, you stay here with me, if you please, till your papa or your hat comes after you.”

“My — hat — can’t — come — after — me!” said the child, turning back her head, so as to laugh her sense of the joke in Annie’s face.

“No matter; your papa can, and I’m going to keep you.”

Idella let her head fall back against Annie’s breast, and began to finger the rings on the hand which Annie laid across her lap to keep her.

“For goodness gracious!” said Mrs. Savor, “who you got there, Miss Kilburn?”

“Mr. Peck’s little girl.”

“Where’d she spring from?”

Mrs. Gerrish leaned forward and spoke across the six legs of her children, who were all three standing up in their chairs: “You don’t mean to say that’s Idella Peck? Where’s her father?”

“Somewhere, she says,” said Annie, willing to answer Mrs. Gerrish with the child’s nonchalance.

“Well, that’s great!” said Mrs. Gerrish. “I should think he better be looking after her — or some one.”

The music ceased, and the last act of the play began. Before it ended, Idella had fallen asleep, and Annie sat still with her after the crowd around her began to break up. Mrs. Savor kept her seat beside Annie. She said, “Don’t you want I should spell you a little while, Miss Kilburn?” She leaned over the face of the sleeping child. “Why, she ain’t much more than a baby! William, you go and see if you can’t find Mr. Peck. I’m goin’ to stay here with Miss Kilburn.” Her husband humoured her whim, and made his way through the knots and clumps of people toward the rope enclosing the tennis-court. “Won’t you let me hold her, Miss Kilburn?” she pleaded again.

“No, no; she isn’t heavy; I like to hold her,” replied Annie. Then something occurred to her, and she started in amazement at herself.

“Or yes, Mrs. Savor, you may take her a while;” and she put the child into the arms of the bereaved creature, who had fallen desolately back in her chair. She hugged Idella up to her breast, and hungrily mumbled her with kisses, and moaned out over her, “Oh dear! Oh my! Oh my!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/annie_kilburn/chapter16.html

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