Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 19

Annie made up a bed for Idella on a wide, old-fashioned lounge in her room, and put her away in it, swathed in a night-gown which she found among the survivals of her own childish clothing in that old chest of drawers. When she woke in the morning she looked across at the little creature, with a tender sense of possession and protection suffusing her troubled recollections of the night before. Idella stirred, stretched herself with a long sigh, and then sat up and stared round the strange place as if she were still in a dream.

“Would you like to come in here with me?” Annie suggested from her bed.

The child pushed back her hair with her little hands, and after waiting to realise the situation to the limit of her small experience, she said, with a smile that showed her pretty teeth, “Yes.”

“Then come.”

Idella tumbled out of bed, pulling up the nightgown, which was too long for her, and softly thumped across the carpet. Annie leaned over and lifted her up, and pressed the little face to her own, and felt the play of the quick, light breath over her cheek.

“Would you like to stay with me — live with me — Idella?” she asked.

The child turned her face away, and hid a roguish smile in the pillow. “I don’t know.”

“Would you like to be my little girl?”

“No.”

“No? Why not?”

“Because — because”— she seemed to search her mind —“because your night-gowns are too long.”

“Oh, is that all? That’s no reason. Think of something else.”

Idella rubbed her face hard on the pillow. “You dress up cats.”

She lifted her face, and looked with eyes of laughing malice into Annie’s, and Annie pushed her face against Idella’s neck and cried, “You’re a rogue!”

The little one screamed with laughter and gurgled: “Oh, you tickle! You tickle!”

They had a childish romp, prolonged through the details of Idella’s washing and dressing, and Annie tried to lose, in her frolic with the child, the anxieties that had beset her waking; she succeeded in confusing them with one another in one dull, indefinite pain.

She wondered when Mr. Peck would come for Idella, but they were still at their belated breakfast when Mrs. Bolton came in to say that Bolton had met the minister on his way up, and had asked him if Idella might not stay the week out with them.

“I don’ know but he done more’n he’d ought.

“But she can be with us the rest part, when you’ve got done with her.”

“I haven’t begun to get done with her,” said Annie. “I’m glad Mr. Bolton asked.”

After breakfast Bolton himself appeared, to ask if Idella might go up to the orchard with him. Idella ran out of the room and came back with her hat on, and tugging to get into her shabby little sack. Annie helped her with it, and Idella tucked her hand into Bolton’s loose, hard fist, and gave it a pull toward the door.

“Well, I don’t see but what she’s goin’,” he said.

“Yes; you’d better ask her the next time if I can go,” said Annie.

“Well, why don’t you?” asked Bolton, humouring the joke. “I guess you’d enjoy it about as well as any. We’re just goin’ for a basket of wind-falls for pies. I guess we ain’t a-goin’ to be gone a great while.”

Annie watched them up the lane from the library window with a queer grudge at heart; Bolton stiffly lumbering forward at an angle of forty-five degrees, the child whirling and dancing at his side, and now before and now after him.

At the sound of wheels on the gravel before the front door, Annie turned away with such an imperative need of its being Dr. Morrell’s buggy that it was almost an intolerable disappointment to find it Mrs. Munger’s phaeton.

Mrs. Munger burst in upon her in an excitement which somehow had an effect of premeditation.

“Miss Kilburn, I wish to know what you think of Mr. and Mrs. Putney’s behaviour to me, and Mr. Peck’s, in my own house, last night. They are friends of yours, and I wish to know if you approve of it. I come to you as their friend, and I am sure you will feel as I do that my hospitality has been abused. It was an outrage for Mr. Putney to get intoxicated in my house; and for Mr. Peck to attack me as he did before everybody, because Mr. Putney had taken advantage of his privileges, was abominable. I am not a member of his church; and even if I were, he would have had no right to speak so to me.”

Annie felt the blood fly to her head, and she waited a moment to regain her coolness. “I wonder you came to ask me, Mrs. Munger, if you were so sure that I agreed with you. I’m certainly Mr. and Mrs. Putney’s friend, and so far as admiring Mr. Peck’s sincerity and goodness is concerned, I’m his friend. But I’m obliged to say that you’re mistaken about the rest.”

She folded her hands at her waist, and stood up very straight, looking firmly at Mrs. Munger, who made a show of taking a new grip of her senses as she sank unbidden into a chair.

“Why, what do you mean, Miss Kilburn?”

“It seems to me that I needn’t say.”

“Why, but you must! You must, you know. I can’t be left so! I must know where I stand! I must be sure of my ground! I can’t go on without understanding just how much you mean by my being mistaken.”

She looked Annie in the face with eyes superficially expressive of indignant surprise, and Annie perceived that she wished to restore herself in her own esteem by browbeating some one else into the affirmation of her innocence.

“Well, if you must know, Mrs. Munger, I mean that you ought to have remembered Mr. Putney’s infirmity, and that it was cruel to put temptation in his way. Everybody knows that he can’t resist it, and that he is making such a hard fight to keep out of it. And then, if you press me for an opinion, I must say that you were not justifiable in asking Mr. Peck to take part in a social entertainment when we had explicitly dropped that part of the affair.”

Mrs. Munger had not pressed Annie for an opinion on this point at all; but in their interest in it they both ignored the fact. Mrs. Munger tacitly admitted her position in retorting, “He needn’t have stayed.”

“You made him stay — you remember how — and he couldn’t have got away without being rude.”

“And you think he wasn’t rude to scold me before my guests?”

“He told you the truth. He didn’t wish to say anything, but you forced him to speak, just as you have forced me.”

“Forced you? Miss Kilburn!”

“Yes. I don’t at all agree with Mr. Peck in many things, but he is a good man, and last night he spoke the truth. I shouldn’t be speaking it if I didn’t tell you I thought so.”

“Very well, then,” said Mrs. Munger, rising.

“After this you can’t expect me to have anything to do with the Social Union; you couldn’t wish me to, if that’s your opinion of my character.”

“I haven’t expressed any opinion of your character, Mrs. Munger, if you’ll remember, please; and as for the Social Union, I shall have nothing further to do with it myself.”

Annie drew herself up a little higher, and silently waited for her visitor to go.

But Mrs. Munger remained.

“I don’t believe Mrs. Putney herself would say what you have said,” she remarked, after an embarrassing moment. “If it were really so I should be willing to make any reparation — to acknowledge it. Will you go with me to Mrs. Putney’s? I have my phaeton here, and —”

“I shouldn’t dream of going to Mrs. Putney’s with you.”

Mrs. Munger urged, with the effect of invincible argument: “I’ve been down in the village, and I’ve talked to a good many about it — some of them hadn’t heard of it before — and I must say, Miss Kilburn, that people generally take a very different view of it from what you do. They think that my hospitality has been shamefully abused. Mr. Gates said he should think I would have Mr. Putney arrested. But I don’t care for all that. What I wish is to prove to you that I am right; and if I can go with you to call on Mrs. Putney, I shall not care what any one else says. Will you come?”

“Certainly not,” cried Annie.

They both stood a moment, and in this moment Dr. Morrell drove up, and dropped his hitching-weight beyond Mrs. Munger’s phaeton.

As he entered she said: “We will let Dr. Morrell decide. I’ve been asking Miss Kilburn to go with me to Mrs. Putney’s. I think it would be a graceful and proper thing for me to do, to express my sympathy and interest, and to hear what Mrs. Putney really has to say. Don’t you think I ought to go to see her, doctor?”

The doctor laughed. “I can’t prescribe in matters of social duty. But what do you want to see Mrs. Putney for?”

“What for? Why, doctor, on account of Mr. Putney — what took place last night.”

“Yes? What was that?”

“What was that? Why, his strange behaviour — his — his intoxication.”

“Was he intoxicated? Did you think so?”

“Why, you were there, doctor. Didn’t you think so?”

Annie looked at him with as much astonishment as Mrs. Munger.

The doctor laughed again. “You can’t always tell when Putney’s joking; he’s a great joker. Perhaps he was hoaxing.”

“Oh doctor, do you think he could have been?” said Mrs. Munger, with clasped hands. “It would make me the happiest woman in the world! I’d forgive him all he’s made me suffer. But you’re joking now, doctor?”

“You can’t tell when people are joking. If I’m not, does it follow that I’m really intoxicated?”

“Oh, but that’s nonsense, Dr. Morrell. That’s mere — what do you call it? — chop logic. But I don’t mind it. I grasp at a straw.” Mrs. Munger grasped at a straw of the mind, to show how. “But what do you mean?”

“Well, Mrs. Putney wasn’t intoxicated last night, but she’s not well this morning. I’m afraid she couldn’t see you.”

“Just as you say, doctor,” cried Mrs. Munger, with mounting cheerfulness. “I wish I knew just how much you meant, and how little.” She moved closer to the doctor, and bent a look of candid fondness upon him. “But I know you’re trying to mystify me.”

She pursued him with questions which he easily parried, smiling and laughing. At the end she left him to Annie, with adieux that were almost radiant. “Anyhow, I shall take the benefit of the doubt, and if Mr. Putney was hoaxing, I shall not give myself away. Do find out what he means, Miss Kilburn, won’t you?” She took hold of Annie’s unoffered hand, and pressed it in a double leathern grasp, and ran out of the room with a lightness of spirit which her physical bulk imperfectly expressed.

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