Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 18

Mrs. Munger’s guests kept on talking and laughing. With the coffee and the punch there began to be a little more freedom. Some prohibitionists among the working people went away when they found that the lemonade was punch; but Mrs. Munger did not know it, and she saw the ideal of a Social Union figuratively accomplished in her own house. She stirred about among her guests till she produced a fleeting, empty good-fellowship among them. One of the shoe-shop hands, with an inextinguishable scent of leather and the character of a droll, seconded her efforts with noisy jokes. He proposed games, and would not be snubbed by the refusal of his boss to countenance him, he had the applause of so many others. Mrs. Munger approved of the idea.

“Don’t you think it would be great fun, Mrs. Gerrish?” she asked.

“Well, now, if Squire Putney would lead off,” said the joker, looking round.

Putney could not be found, nor Dr. Morrell.

“They’re off somewhere for a smoke,” said Mrs. Munger. “Well, that’s right. I want everybody to feel that my house is their own to-night, and to come and go just as they like. Do you suppose Mr. Peck is offended?” she asked, under her breath, as she passed Annie. “He couldn’t feel that this is the same thing; but I can’t see him anywhere. He wouldn’t go without taking leave, you don’t suppose?”

Annie joined Mrs. Putney. They talked at first with those who came to ask where Putney and the doctor were; but finally they withdrew into a little alcove from the parlour, where Mrs. Munger approved of their being when she discovered them; they must be very tired, and ought to rest on the lounge there. Her theory of the exhaustion of those who had taken part in the play embraced their families.

The time wore on toward midnight, and her guests got themselves away with more or less difficulty as they attempted the formality of leave-taking or not. Some of the hands who thought this necessary found it a serious affair; but most of them slipped off without saying good night to Mrs. Munger or expressing that rapture with the whole evening from beginning to end which the ladies of South Hatboro’ professed. The ladies of South Hatboro’ and Old Hatboro’ had met in a general intimacy not approached before, and they parted with a flow of mutual esteem. The Gerrish children had dropped asleep in nooks and corners, from which Mr. Gerrish hunted them up and put them together for departure, while his wife remained with Mrs. Munger, unable to stop talking, and no longer amenable to the looks with which he governed her in public.

Lyra came downstairs, hooded and wrapped for departure, with Jack Wilmington by her side. “Why, Ellen!” she said, looking into the little alcove from the hall. “Are you here yet? And Annie! Where in the world is Ralph?” At the pleading look with which Mrs. Putney replied, she exclaimed: “Oh, it’s what I was afraid of! I don’t see what the woman could have been about! But of course she didn’t think of poor Ralph. Ellen, let me take you and Winthrop home! Dr. Morrell will be sure to bring Ralph.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Putney passively, but without rising.

“Annie can come too. There’s plenty of room. Jack can walk.”

Jack Wilmington joined Lyra in urging Annie to take his place. He said to her, apart, “Young Munger has been telling me that Putney got at the sideboard and carried off the rum. I’ll stay and help look after him.”

A crazy laugh came into the parlour from the piazza outside, and the group in the alcove started forward. Putney stood at a window, resting one arm on the bar of the long lower sash, which was raised to its full height, and looking ironically in upon Mrs. Munger and her remaining guests. He was still in his Mercutio dress, but he had lost his plumed cap, and was bareheaded. A pace or two behind him stood Mr. Peck, regarding the effect of this apparition upon the company with the same dreamy, indrawn presence he had in the pulpit.

“Well, Mrs. Munger, I’m glad I got back in time to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it. Brother Peck wanted me to go home, but I told him, Not till I’ve thanked Mrs. Munger, Brother Peck; not till I’ve drunk her health in her own old particular Jamaica.” He put to his lips the black bottle which he had been holding in his right hand behind him; then he took it away, looked at it, and flung it rolling-along the piazza floor. “Didn’t get hold of the inexhaustible bottle that time; never do. But it’s a good article; a better article than you used to sell on the sly, Bill Gerrish. You’ll excuse my helping myself, Mrs. Munger; I knew you’d want me to. Well, it’s been a great occasion, Mrs. Munger.” He winked at the hostess. “You’ve had your little invited supper, after all. You’re a manager, Mrs. Munger. You’ve made even the wrath of Brother Peck to praise you.”

The ladies involuntarily shrank backward as Putney suddenly entered through the window and gained the corner of the piano at a dash. He stayed himself against it, slightly swaying, and turned his flaming eyes from one to another, as if questioning whom he should attack next.

Except for the wild look in them, which was not so much wilder than they wore in all times of excitement, and an occasional halt at a difficult word, he gave no sign of being drunk. The liquor had as yet merely intensified him.

Mrs. Munger had the inspiration to treat him as one caresses a dangerous lunatic. “I’m sure you’re very kind, Mr. Putney, to come back. Do sit down!”

“Why?” demanded Putney. “Everybody else standing.”

“That’s true,” said Mrs. Munger. “I’m sure I don’t know why —”

“Oh yes, you do, Mrs. Munger. It’s because they want to have a good view of a man who’s made a fool of himself —”

“Oh, now, Mr. Putney!” said Mrs. Munger, with hospitable deprecation. “I’m sure no one wants to do anything of the kind.” She looked round at the company for corroboration, but no one cared to attract Putney’s attention by any sound or sign.

“But I’ll tell you what,” said Putney, with a savage burst, “that a woman who puts hell-fire before a poor devil who can’t keep out of it when he sees it, is better worth looking at.”

“Mr. Putney, I assure you,” said Mrs. Munger, “that it was the mildest punch! And I really didn’t think — I didn’t remember —”

She turned toward Mrs. Putney with her explanation, but Putney seemed to have forgotten her, and he turned upon Mr. Gerrish, “How’s that drunkard’s grave getting along that you’ve dug for your porter?” Gerrish remained prudently silent. “I know you, Billy. You’re all right. You’ve got the pull on your conscience; we all have, one way or another. Here’s Annie Kilburn, come back from Rome, where she couldn’t seem to fix it up with hers to suit her, and she’s trying to get round it in Hatboro’ with good works. Why, there isn’t any occasion for good works in Hatboro’. I could have told you that before you came,” he said, addressing Annie directly. “What we want is faith, and lots of it. The church is going to pieces because we haven’t got any faith.”

His hand slipped from the piano, and he dropped heavily back upon a chair that stood near. The concussion seemed to complete in his brain the transition from his normal dispositions to their opposite, which had already begun. “Bill Gerrish has done more for Hatboro’ than any other man in the place. He’s the only man that holds the church together, because he knows the value of faith.” He said this without a trace of irony, glaring at Annie with fierce defiance. “You come back here, and try to set up for a saint in a town where William B. Gerrish has done — has done more to establish the dry-goods business on a metro-me-tro-politan basis than any other man out of New York or Boston.”

He stopped and looked round, mystified, as if this were not the point which he had been aiming at.

Lyra broke into a spluttering laugh, and suddenly checked herself. Putney smiled slightly. “Pretty good, eh? Say, where was I?” he asked slyly. Lyra hid her face behind Annie’s shoulder. “What’s that dress you got on? What’s all this about, anyway? Oh yes, I know. Romeo and Juliet— Social Union. Well,” he resumed, with a frown, “there’s too much Romeo and Juliet, too much Social Union, in this town already.” He stopped, and seemed preparing to launch some deadly phrase at Mrs. Wilmington, but he only said, “You’re all right, Lyra.”

“Mrs. Munger,” said Mr. Gerrish, “we must be going. Good night, ma’am. Mrs. Gerrish, it’s time the children were at home.”

“Of course it is,” said Putney, watching the Gerrishes getting their children together. He waved his hand after them, and called out, “William Gerrish, you’re a man; I honour you.”

He laid hold of the piano and pulled himself to his feet, and seemed to become aware, for the first time, of his wife, where she stood with their boy beside her.

“What you doing here with that child at this time of night?” he shouted at her, all that was left of the man in his eyes changing into the glare of a pitiless brute. “Why don’t you go home? You want to show people what I did to him? You want to publish my shame, do you? Is that it? Look here!”

He began to work himself along toward her by help of the piano. A step was heard on the piazza without, and Dr. Morrell entered through the open window.

“Come now, Putney,” he said gently. The other men closed round them.

Putney stopped. “What’s this? Interfering in family matters? You better go home and look after your own wives, if you got any. Get out the way, ‘n’ you mind your own business, Doc. Morrell. You meddle too much.” His speech was thickening and breaking. “You think science going do everything — evolution! Talk me about evolution! What’s evolution done for Hatboro’? ‘Volved Gerrish’s store. One day of Christianity — real Christianity — Where’s that boy? If I get hold of him —”

He lunged forward, and Jack Wilmington and young Munger stepped before him.

Mrs. Putney had not moved, nor lost the look of sad, passive vigilance which she had worn since her husband reappeared.

She pushed the men aside.

“Ralph, behave yourself! Here’s Winthrop, and we want you to take us home. Come now!” She passed her arm through his, and the boy took his other hand. The action, so full of fearless custom and wonted affection from them both, seemed with her words to operate another total change in his mood.

“All right; I’m going, Ellen. Got to say good night Mrs. Munger, that’s all.” He managed to get to her, with his wife on his arm and his boy at his side. “Want to thank you for a pleasant evening, Mrs. Munger — want to thank you —”

“And I want to thank you too, Mrs. Munger,” said Mrs. Putney, with an intensity of bitterness no repetition of the words could give, “It’s been a pleasant evening for me!”

Putney wished to stop and explain, but his wife pulled him away.

Dr. Morrell and Annie followed to get them safely into the carriage; he went with them, and when she came back Mrs. Munger was saying: “I will leave it to Mr. Wilmington, or any one, if I’m to blame. It had quite gone out of my head about Mr. Putney. There was plenty of coffee, besides, and if everything that could harm particular persons had to be kept out of the way, society couldn’t go on. We ought to consider the greatest good of the greatest number.” She looked round from one to another for support. No one said anything, and Mrs. Munger, trembling on the verge of a collapse, made a direct appeal: “Don’t you think so, Mr. Peck?”

The minister broke his silence with reluctance. “It’s sometimes best to have the effect of error unmistakable. Then we are sure it’s error.”

Mrs. Munger gave a sob of relief into her handkerchief. “Yes, that’s just what I say.”

Lyra bent her face on her arm, and Jack Wilmington put his head out of the window where he stood.

Mr. Peck remained staring at Mrs. Munger, as if doubtful what to do. Then he said: “You seem not to have understood me, ma’am. I should be to blame if I left you in doubt. You have been guilty of forgetting your brother’s weakness, and if the consequence has promptly followed in his shame, it is for you to realise it. I wish you a good evening.”

He went out with a dignity that thrilled Annie. Lyra leaned toward her and said, choking with laughter, “He’s left Idella asleep upstairs. We haven’t any of us got perfect memories, have we?”

“Run after him!” Annie said to Jack Wilmington, in undertone, “and get him into my carriage. I’ll get the little girl. Lyra, don’t speak of it.”

“Never!” said Mrs. Wilmington, with delight. “I’m solid for Mr. Peck every time.”

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