Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 20

“Well?” said Annie, to the change which came over Morrell’s face when Mrs. Munger was gone.

“Oh, it’s a miserable business! He must go on now to the end of his debauch. He’s got past doing any mischief, I’m thankful to say. But I had hoped to tide him over a while longer, and now that fool has spoiled everything. Well!”

Annie’s heart warmed to his vexation, and she postponed another emotion. “Yes, she is a fool. I wish you had qualified the term, doctor.”

They looked at each other solemnly, and then laughed. “It won’t do for a physician to swear,” said Morrell. “I wish you’d give me a cup of coffee. I’ve been up all night.”

“With Ralph?”

“With Putney.”

“You shall have it instantly; that is, as instantly as Mrs. Bolton can kindle up a fire and make it.” She went out to the kitchen, and gave the order with an imperiousness which she softened in Dr. Morrell’s interest by explaining rather fully to Mrs. Bolton.

When she came back she wanted to talk seriously, tragically, about Putney. But the doctor would not. He said that it paid to sit up with Putney, drunk or sober, and hear him go on. He repeated some things Putney said about Mr. Peck, about Gerrish, about Mrs. Munger.

“But why did you try to put her off in that way — to make her believe he wasn’t intoxicated?” asked Annie, venting her postponed emotion, which was of disapproval.

“I don’t know. It came into my head. But she knows better.”

“It was rather cruel; not that she deserves any mercy. She caught so at the idea.”

“Oh yes, I saw that. She’ll humbug herself with it, and you’ll see that before night there’ll be two theories of Putney’s escapade. I think the last will be the popular one. It will jump with the general opinion of Putney’s ability to carry anything out. And Mrs. Munger will do all she can to support it.”

Mrs. Bolton brought in the coffee-pot, and Annie hesitated a moment, with her hand on it, before pouring out a cup.

“I don’t like it,” she said.

“I know you don’t. But you can say that it wasn’t Putney who hoaxed Mrs. Munger, but Dr. Morrell.”

“Oh, you didn’t either of you hoax her.”

“Well, then, there’s no harm done.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“And you won’t give me any coffee?”

“Oh yes, I’ll give you some coffee,” said Annie, with a sigh of baffled scrupulosity that made them both laugh.

He broke out again after he had begun to drink his coffee.

“Well?” she demanded, from her own lapse into silence.

“Oh, nothing! Only Putney. He wants Brother Peck, as he calls him, to unite all the religious elements of Hatboro’ in a church of his own, and send out missionaries to the heathen of South Hatboro’ to preach a practical Christianity. He makes South Hatboro’ stand for all that’s worldly and depraved.”

“Poor Ralph! Is that the way he talks?”

“Oh, not all the time. He talks a great many other ways.”

“I wonder you can laugh.”

“He’s been very severe on Brother Peck for neglecting the discipline of his child. He says he ought to remember his duty to others, and save the community from having the child grow up into a capricious, wilful woman. Putney was very hard upon your sex, Miss Kilburn. He attributed nearly all the trouble in the world to women’s wilfulness and caprice.”

He looked across the table at her with his merry eyes, whose sweetness she felt even in her sudden preoccupation with the notion which she now launched upon him, leaning forward and pushing some books and magazines aside, as if she wished to have nothing between her need and his response.

“Dr. Morrell, what should you think of my asking Mr. Peck to give me his little girl?”

“To give you his —”

“Yes. Let me take Idella — keep her — adopt her! I’ve nothing to do, as you know very well, and she’d be an occupation; and it would be far better for her. What Ralph says is true. She’s growing up without any sort of training; and I think if she keeps on she will be mischievous to herself and every one else.”

“Really?” asked the doctor. “Is it so bad as that?”

“Of course not. And of course I don’t want Mr. Peck to renounce all claim to his child; but to let me have her for the present, or indefinitely, and get her some decent clothes, and trim her hair properly, and give her some sort of instruction —”

“May I come in?” drawled Mrs. Wilmington’s mellow voice, and Annie turned and saw Lyra peering round the edge of the half-opened library door. “I’ve been discreetly hemming and scraping and hammering on the wood-work so as not to overhear, and I’d have gone away if I hadn’t been afraid of being overheard.”

“Oh, come in, Lyra,” said Annie; and she hoped that she had kept the spirit of resignation with which she spoke out of her voice.

Dr. Morrell jumped up with an apparent desire to escape that wounded and exasperated her. She put out her hand quite haughtily to him and asked, “Oh, must you go?”

“Yes. How do you do, Mrs. Wilmington? You’d better get Miss Kilburn to give you a cup of her coffee.”

“Oh, I will,” said Lyra. She forbore any reference, even by a look, to the intimate little situation she had disturbed.

Morrell added to Annie: “I like your plan. It ‘a the best thing you could do.”

She found she had been keeping his hand, and in the revulsion from wrath to joy she violently wrung it.

“I’m so glad!” She could not help following him to the door, in the hope that he would say something more, but he did not, and she could only repeat her rapturous gratitude in several forms of incoherency.

She ran back to Mrs. Wilmington. “Lyra, what do you think of my taking Mr. Peck’s little girl?”

Mrs. Wilmington never allowed herself to seem surprised at anything; she was, in fact, surprised at very few things. She had got into the easiest chair in the room, and she answered from it, with a luxurious interest in the affair, “Well, you know what people will say, Annie.”

“No, I don’t. What will they say?”

“That you’re after Mr. Peck pretty openly.”

Annie turned scarlet. “And when they find I’m not?” she demanded with severity, that had no effect upon Lyra.

“Then they’ll say you couldn’t get him.”

“They may say what they please. What do you think of the plan?”

“I think it would be the greatest blessing for the poor little thing,” said Lyra, with a nearer approach to seriousness than she usually made. “And the greatest care for you,” she added, after a moment.

“I shall not care for the care. I shall be glad of it — thankful for it,” cried Annie fervidly.

“If you can get it,” Lyra suggested.

“I believe I can get it. I believe I can make Mr. Peck see that it’s a duty. I shall ask him to regard it as a charity to me — as a mercy.”

“Well, that’s a good way to work upon Mr. Peck’s feelings,” said Lyra demurely. “Was that the plan that Dr. Morrell approved of so highly?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t know but it was some course of treatment. You pressed his hand so affectionately. I said to myself, Well, Annie’s either an enthusiastic patient, or else —”

“What?” demanded Annie, at the little stop Lyra made.

“Well, you know what people do say, Annie.”

“What?”

“Why, that you’re very much out of health, or —” Lyra made another of her tantalising stops.

“Or what?”

“Or Dr. Morrell is very much in love.”

“Lyra, I can’t allow you to say such things to me.”

“No; that’s what I’ve kept saying to myself all the time. But you would have it out of me. I didn’t want to say it.”

It was impossible to resist Lyra’s pretended deprecation. Annie laughed. “I suppose I can’t help people’s talking, and I ought to be too old to care.”

“You ought, but you’re not,” said Lyra flatteringly. “Well, Annie, what do you think of our little evening at Mrs. Munger’s in the dim retrospect? Poor Ralph! What did the doctor say about him?” She listened with so keen a relish for the report of Putney’s sayings that Annie felt as if she had been turning the affair into comedy for Lyra’s amusement. “Oh dear, I wish I could hear him! I thought I should have died last night when he came back, and began to scare everybody blue with his highly personal remarks. I wish he’d had time to get round to the Northwicks.”

“Lyra,” said Annie, nerving herself to the office; “don’t you think it was wicked to treat that poor girl as you did?”

“Well, I suppose that’s the way some people might look at it,” said Lyra dispassionately.

“Then how —how could you do it?”

“Oh, it’s easy enough to behave wickedly, Annie, when you feel like it,” said Lyra, much amused by Annie’s fervour, apparently. “Besides, I don’t know that it was so very wicked. What makes you think it was?”

“Oh, it wasn’t that merely. Lyra, may I—may I speak to you plainly, frankly — like a sister?” Annie’s heart filled with tenderness for Lyra, with the wish to help her, to save a person who charmed her so much.

“Well, like a step-sister, you may,” said Lyra demurely.

“It wasn’t for her sake alone that I hated to see it. It was for your sake — for his sake.”

“Well, that’s very kind of you, Annie,” said Lyra, without the least resentment. “And I know what you mean. But it really doesn’t hurt either Jack or me. I’m not very goody-goody, Annie; I don’t pretend to be; but I’m not very baddy-baddy either. I assure you”— Lyra laughed mischievously —“I’m one of the very few persons in Hatboro’ who are better than they should be.”

“I know it, Lyra — I know it. But you have no right to keep him from taking a fancy to some young girl — and marrying her; to keep him to yourself; to make people talk.”

“There’s something in that,” Lyra assented, with impartiality. “But I don’t think it would be well for Jack to marry yet; and if I see him taking a fancy to any real nice girl, I sha’n’t interfere with him. But I shall be very particular, Annie.”

She looked at Annie with such a droll mock earnest, and shook her head with such a burlesque of grandmotherly solicitude, that Annie laughed in spite of herself. “Oh, Lyra, Lyra!”

“And as for me,” Lyra went on, “I assure you I don’t care for the little bit of harm it does me.”

“But you ought — you ought!” cried Annie. “You ought to respect yourself enough to care. You ought to respect other women enough.”

“Oh, I guess I’d let the balance of the sex slide, Annie,” said Lyra.

“No, you mustn’t; you can’t. We are all bound together; we owe everything to each other.”

“Isn’t that rather Peckish?” Lyra suggested.

“I don’t know. But it’s true, Lyra. And I shouldn’t be ashamed of getting it from Mr. Peck.”

“Oh, I didn’t say you would be.”

“And I hope you won’t be hurt with me. I know that it’s a most unwarrantable thing to speak to you about such a matter; but you know why I do it.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s because you like me; and I appreciate that, I assure you, Annie.”

Lyra was soberer than she had yet been, and Annie felt that she was really gaining ground. “And your husband; you ought to respect him—”

Lyra laughed out with great relish. “Oh, now, Annie, you are joking! Why in the world should I respect Mr. Wilmington? An old man like him marrying a young girl like me!” She jumped up and laughed at the look in Annie’s face. “Will you go round with me to the Putneys? thought Ellen might like to see us.”

“No, no. I can’t go,” said Annie, finding it impossible to recover at once from the quite unanswerable blow her sense of decorum — she thought it her moral sense — had received.

“Well, you’ll be glad to have me go, anyway,” said Lyra. She saw Annie shrinking from her, and she took hold of her, and pulled her up and kissed her. “You dear old thing! I wouldn’t hurt your feelings for the world. And whichever it is, Annie, the parson or the doctor, I wish him joy.”

That afternoon, as Annie was walking to the village, the doctor drove up to the sidewalk, and stopped near her. “Miss Kilburn, I’ve got a letter from home. They write me about my mother in a way that makes me rather anxious, and I shall run down to Chelsea this evening.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for your bad news. I hope it’s nothing serious.”

“She’s old; that’s the only cause for anxiety. But of course I must go.”

“Oh yes, indeed. I do hope you’ll find all right with her.”

“Thank you very much. I’m sorry that I must leave Putney at such a time. But I leave him with Mr. Peck, who’s promised to be with him. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Yes, I do; it’s very kind of you — very kind indeed.”

“Thank you,” said the doctor. It was not the phrase exactly, but it served the purpose of the cordial interest in which they parted as well as another.

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