Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 21

During the days that Mr. Peck had consented to leave Idella with her Annie took the whole charge of the child, and grew into an intimacy with her that was very sweet. It was not necessary to this that Idella should be always tractable and docile, which she was not, but only that she should be affectionate and dependent; Annie found that she even liked her to be a little baddish; it gave her something to forgive; and she experienced a perverse pleasure in discovering that the child of a man so self-forgetful as Mr. Peck was rather more covetous than most children. It also amused her that when some of Idella’s shabby playmates from Over the Track casually found their way to the woods past Annie’s house, and tried to tempt Idella to go with them, the child disowned them, and ran into the house from them; so soon was she alienated from her former life by her present social advantages. She apparently distinguished between Annie and the Boltons, or if not quite this, she showed a distinct preference for her company, and for her part of the house. She hung about Annie with a flattering curiosity and interest in all she did. She lost every trace of shyness with her, but developed an intense admiration for her in every way — for her dresses, her rings, her laces, for the elegancies that marked her a gentlewoman. She pronounced them prettier than Mrs. Warner’s things, and the house prettier and larger.

“Should you like to live with me?” Annie asked.

The child seemed to reflect. Then she said, with the indirection of her age and sex, pushing against Annie’s knee, “I don’t know what your name is.”

“Have you never heard my name? It’s Annie. How do you like it?”

“It’s — it’s too short,” said the child, from her readiness always to answer something that charmed Annie.

“Well, then you can make it longer. You can call me Aunt Annie. I think that will be better for a little girl; don’t you?”

“Mothers can whip, but aunts can’t,” said Idella, bringing a practical knowledge, acquired from her observation of life Over the Track, to a consideration of the proposed relation.

“I know one aunt who won’t,” said Annie, touched by the reply.

Saturday evening Idella’s father came for her; and with a preamble which seemed to have been unnecessary when he understood it, Annie asked him to let her keep the child, at least till he had settled himself in a house of his own, or, she hinted, in some way more comfortable for Idella than he was now living. In her anxiety to make him believe that she was not taking too great a burden on her hands, she became slowly aware that no fear of this had apparently troubled him, and that he was looking at the whole matter from a point outside of questions of polite ceremonial, even of personal feeling.

She was vexed a little with his insensibility to the favour she meant the child, and she could not help trying to make him realise it. “I don’t promise always to be the best guide, philosopher, and friend that Idella could have”— she took this light tone because she found herself afraid of him —“but I think I shall be a little improvement on some of her friends Over the Track. At least, if she wants my cat, she shall have it without fighting for it.”

Mr. Peck looked up with question, and she went on to tell him of a struggle which she had seen one day between Idella and a small Irish boy for a kitten; it really belonged to the boy, but Idella carried it off.

The minister listened attentively. At the end: “Yes,” he said, “that lust of possession is something all but impossible, even with constant care, to root out of children. I have tried to teach Idella that nothing is rightfully hers except while she can use it; but it is hard to make her understand, and when she is with other children she forgets.”

Annie could not believe at first that he was serious, and then she was disposed to laugh. “Really, Mr. Peck,” she began, “I can’t think it’s so important that a little thing like Idella should be kept from coveting a kitten as that she should be kept from using naughty words and from scratching and biting.”

“I know,” Mr. Peck consented. “That is the usual way of looking at such things.”

“It seems to me,” said Annie, “that it’s the common-sense way.”

“Perhaps. But upon the whole, I don’t agree with you. It is bad for the child to use naughty words and to scratch and bite; that’s part of the warfare in which we all live; but it’s worse for her to covet, and to wish to keep others from having.”

“I don’t wonder you find it hard to make her understand that.”

“Yes, it’s hard with all of us. But if it is ever to be easier we must begin with the children.”

He was silent, and Annie did not say anything. She was afraid that she had not helped her cause. “At least,” she finally ventured, “you can’t object to giving Idella a little rest from the fray. Perhaps if she finds that she can get things without fighting for them, she’ll not covet them so much.”

“Yes,” he said, with a dim smile that left him sad again, “there is some truth in that. But I’m not sure that I have the right to give her advantages of any kind, to lift her above the lot, the chance, of the least fortunate —”

“Surely, we are bound to provide for those of our own household,” said Annie.

“Who are those of our own household?” asked the minister. “All mankind are those of our own household. These are my mother and my brother and my sister.”

“Yes, I know,” said Annie, somewhat eagerly quitting this difficult ground. “But you can leave her with me at least till you get settled,” she faltered, “if you don’t wish it to be for longer.”

“Perhaps it may not be for long,” he answered, “if you mean my settlement in Hatboro’. I doubt,” he continued, lifting his eyes to the question in hers, “whether I shall remain here.”

“Oh, I hope you will,” cried Annie. She thought she must make a pretence of misunderstanding him. “I supposed you were very much satisfied with your work here.”

“I am not satisfied with myself in my work,” replied the minister; “and I know that I am far from acceptable to many others in it.”

“You are acceptable to those who are best able to appreciate you, Mr. Peck,” she protested, “and to people of every kind. I’m sure it’s only a question of time when you will be thoroughly acceptable to all. I want you to understand, Mr. Peck,” she added, “that I was shocked and ashamed the other night at your being tricked into countenancing a part of the entertainment you were promised should be dropped. I had nothing to do with it.”

“It was very unimportant, after all,” the minister said, “as far as I was concerned. In fact, I was interested to see the experiment of bringing the different grades of society together.”

“It seems to me it was an utter failure,” suggested Annie.

“Quite. But it was what I expected.”

There appeared an uncandour in this which Annie could not let pass even if it imperilled her present object to bring up the matter of past contention. “But when we first talked of the Social Union you opposed it because it wouldn’t bring the different classes together.”

“Did you understand that? Then I failed to make myself clear. I wished merely to argue that the well-meaning ladies who suggested it were not intending a social union at all. In fact, such a union in our present condition of things, with its division of classes, is impossible — as Mrs. Munger’s experiment showed — with the best will on both sides. But, as I said, the experiment was interesting, though unimportant, except as it resulted in heart-burning and offence.”

They were on the same ground, but they had reached it from starting-points so opposite that Annie felt it very unsafe. In her fear of getting into some controversy with Mr. Peck that might interfere with her designs regarding Idella, she had a little insincerity in saying: “Mrs. Munger’s bad faith in that was certainly unimportant compared with her part in poor Mr. Putney’s misfortune. That was the worst thing; that’s what I can’t forgive.”

Mr. Peck said nothing to this, and Annie, somewhat daunted by his silence, proceeded. “I’ve had the satisfaction of telling her what I thought on both points. But Ralph — Mr. Putney — I hear, has escaped this time with less than his usual —”

She did not know what lady-like word to use for spree, and so she stopped.

Mr. Peck merely said, “He has shown great self-control;” and she perceived that he was not going to say more. He listened patiently to the reasons she gave for not having offered Mrs. Putney anything more than passive sympathy at a time when help could only have cumbered and kindness wounded her, but he made no sign of thinking them either necessary or sufficient. In the meantime he had not formally consented to Idella’s remaining with her, and Annie prepared to lead back to that affair as artfully as she could.

“I really want you to believe, Mr. Peck, that I think very differently on some points from what I did when we first talked about the Social Union, and I have you to thank for seeing things in a new light. And you needn’t,” she added lightly, “be afraid of my contaminating Idella’s mind with any wicked ideas. I’ll do my best to keep her from coveting kittens or property of any kind; though I’ve always heard my father say that civilisation was founded upon the instinct of ownership, and that it was the only thing that had advanced the world. And if you dread the danger of giving her advantages, as you say, or bettering her worldly lot,” she continued, with a smile for his quixotic scruples, “why, I’ll do my best to reduce her blessings to a minimum; though I don’t see why the poor little thing shouldn’t get some good from the inequalities that there always must be in the world.”

“I am not sure there always must be inequalities in the world,” answered the minister.

“There always have been,” cried Annie.

“There always had been slavery, up to a certain time,” he replied.

“Oh, but surely you don’t compare the two!” Annie pleaded with what she really regarded as a kind of lunacy in the good man. “In the freest society, I’ve heard my father say, there is naturally an upward and downward tendency; a perfect level is impossible. Some must rise, and some must sink.”

“But what do you mean by rising? If you mean in material things, in wealth and the power over others that it gives —”

“I don’t mean that altogether. But there are other ways — in cultivation, refinement, higher tastes and aims than the great mass of people can have. You have risen yourself, Mr. Peck.”

“I have risen, as you call it,” he said, with a meek sufferance of the application of the point to himself. “Those who rise above the necessity of work for daily bread are in great danger of losing their right relation to other men, as I said when we talked of this before.”

A point had remained in Annie’s mind from her first talk with Dr. Morrell. “Yes; and you said once that there could be no sympathy between the rich and the poor — no real love — because they had not had the same experience of life. But how is it about the poor who become rich? They have had the same experience.”

“Too often they make haste to forget that they were poor; they become hard masters to those they have left behind them. They are eager to identify themselves with those who have been rich longer than they. Some working-men who now see this clearly have the courage to refuse to rise. Miss Kilburn, why should I let you take my child out of the conditions of self-denial and self-help to which she was born?”

“I don’t know,” said Annie rather blankly. Then she added impetuously: “Because I love her and want her. I don’t — I won’t— pretend that it’s for her sake. It’s for my sake, though I can take better care of her than you can. But I’m all alone in the world; I’ve neither kith nor kin; nothing but my miserable money. I’ve set my heart on the child; I must have her. At least let me keep her a while. I will be honest with you, Mr. Peck. If I find I’m doing her harm and not good, I’ll give her up. I should wish you to feel that she is yours as much as ever, and if you will feel so, and come often to see her — I— I shall — be very glad, and —” she stopped, and Mr. Peck rose.

“Where is the child?” he asked, with a troubled air; and she silently led the way to the kitchen, and left him at the door to Idella and the Boltons. When she ventured back later he was gone, but the child remained.

Half exultant and half ashamed, she promised herself that she really would be true as far as possible to the odd notions of the minister in her treatment of his child. When she undressed Idella for bed she noticed again the shabbiness of her poor little clothes. She went through the bureau that held her own childish things once more, but found them all too large for Idella, and too hopelessly antiquated. She said to herself that on this point at least she must be a law to herself.

She went down to see Mrs. Bolton. “Isn’t there some place in the village where they have children’s ready-made clothes for sale?” she asked.

“Mr. Gerrish’s,” said Mrs. Bolton briefly.

Annie shook her head, drawing in her breath. “I shouldn’t want to go there. Is there nowhere else?”

“There’s a Jew place. They say he cheats.”

“I dare say he doesn’t cheat more than most Christians,” said Annie, jumping from her chair. “I’ll try the Jew place. I want you to come with me, Mrs. Bolton.”

They went together, and found a dress that they both decided would fit Idella, and a hat that matched it.

“I don’t know as he’d like to have anything quite so nice,” said Mrs. Bolton coldly.

“I don’t know as he has anything to say about it,” said Annie, mimicking Mrs. Bolton’s accent and syntax.

They both meant Mr. Peck. Mrs. Bolton turned away to hide her pleasure in Annie’s audacity and extravagance.

“Want I should carry ’em?” she asked, when they were out of the store.

“No, I can carry them,” said Annie.

She put them where Idella must see them as soon as she woke.

It was late before she slept, and Idella’s voice broke upon her dreams. The child was sitting up in her bed, gloating upon the dress and hat hung and perched upon the chair-back in the middle of the room. “Oh, whose is it? Whose is it? Whose is it?” she screamed; and as Annie lifted herself on her elbow, and looked over at her: “Is it mine? Is it mine?”

Annie had thought of playing some joke; of pretending not to understand; of delaying the child’s pleasure; playing with it; teasing. But in the face of this rapturous longing, she could only answer, “Yes.”

“Mine? My very own? To have? To keep always?”

“Yes.”

Idella sprang from her bed, and flew upon the things with a primitive, greedy transport in their possession. She could scarcely be held long enough to be washed before the dress could be put on.

“Be careful — be careful not to get it soiled now,” said Annie.

“No; I won’t spoil it.” She went quietly downstairs, and when Annie followed, she found her posing before the long pier-glass in the parlour, and twisting and turning for this effect and that. All the morning she moved about prim and anxious; the wild-wood flower was like a hot-house blossom wired for a bouquet. At the church door she asked Idella, “Would you rather sit with Mrs. Bolton?”

“No, no,” gasped the child intensely; “with you!” and she pushed her hand into Annie’s, and held fast to it.

Annie’s question had been suggested by a belated reluctance to appear before so much of Hatboro’ in charge of the minister’s child. But now she could not retreat, and with Idella’s hand in hers she advanced blushing up the aisle to her pew.

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