Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 22

The farmers’ carry-alls filled the long shed beside the church, and their leathern faces looked up, with their wives’ and children’s, at Mr. Peck where he sat high behind the pulpit; a patient expectance suggested itself in the men’s bald or grizzled crowns, and in the fantastic hats and bonnets of their women folks. The village ladies were all in the perfection of their street costumes, and they compared well with three or four of the ladies from South Hatboro’, but the men with them spoiled all by the inadequacy of their fashion. Mrs. Gates, the second of her name, was very stylish, but the provision-man had honestly the effect of having got for the day only into the black coat which he had bought ready-made for his first wife’s funeral. Mr. Wilmington, who appeared much shorter than his wife as he sat beside her, was as much inferior to her in dress; he wore, with the carelessness of a rich man who could afford simplicity, a loose alpaca coat and a cambric neckcloth, over which he twisted his shrivelled neck to catch sight of Annie, as she rustled up the aisle. Mrs. Gerrish — so much as could be seen of her — was a mound of bugled velvet, topped by a small bonnet, which seemed to have gone much to a fat black pompon; she sat far within her pew, and their children stretched in a row from her side to that of Mr. Gerrish, next the door. He did not look round at Annie, but kept an attitude of fixed self-concentration, in harmony with the severe old-school respectability of his dress; his wife leaned well forward to see, and let all her censure appear in her eyes.

Colonel Marvin, of the largest shoe-shop, showed the side of his large florid face, with the kindly smile that seemed to hang loosely upon it; and there was a good number of the hat-shop and shoe-shop hands of different ages and sexes scattered about. The gallery, commonly empty or almost so, showed groups and single figures dropped about here and there on its seats.

The Putneys were in their pew, the little lame boy between the father and mother, as their custom was. They each looked up at her as she passed, and smiled in the slight measure of recognition which people permit themselves in church. Putney was sitting with his head hanging forward in pathetic dejection; his face, when he first lifted it to look at Annie in passing, was haggard, but otherwise there was no consciousness in it of what had passed since they had sat there the Sunday before. When his glance took in Idella too, in her sudden finery, a light of friendly mocking came into it, and seemed to comment the relation Annie had assumed to the child.

Annie’s pew was just in front of Lyra’s, and Lyra pursed her mouth in burlesque surprise as Annie got into it with Idella and turned round to lift the child to the seat. While Mr. Peck was giving out the hymn, Lyra leaned forward and whispered —

“Don’t imagine that this turnout is all on your account, Annie. He’s going to preach against the Social Union and the social glass.”

The banter echoed a mechanical expectation in Annie’s heart, which was probably present in many others there. It was some time before she could cast it out, even after he had taken his text, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” and she followed him with a mechanical disappointment at his failure to meet it.

He began by saying that he wished to dissociate his text in his hearers’ minds from the scent of the upturned earth, and the fall of clods upon the coffin lid, and he asked them to join him in attempting to find in it another meaning beside that which it usually carried. He believed that those words of Christ ought to speak to us of this world as well as the next, and enjoin upon us the example which we might all find in Him, as well as promise us immortality with Him. As the minister went on, Annie followed him with the interest which her belief that she heard between the words inspired, and occasionally in a discontent with what seemed a mystical, almost a fantastical, quality of his thought.

“There is an evolution,” he continued, “in the moral as well as in the material world, and good unfolds in greater good; that which was once best ceases to be in that which is better. In the political world we have striven forward to liberty as to the final good, but with this achieved we find that liberty is only a means and not an end, and that we shall abuse it as a means if we do not use it, even sacrifice it, to promote equality; or in other words, equality is the perfect work, the evolution of liberty. Patriotism has been the virtue which has secured an image of brotherhood, rude and imperfect, to large numbers of men within certain limits, but nationality must perish before the universal ideal of fraternity is realised. Charity is the holiest of the agencies which have hitherto wrought to redeem the race from savagery and despair; but there is something holier yet than charity, something higher, something purer and further from selfishness, something into which charity shall willingly grow and cease, and that is justice. Not the justice of our Christless codes, with their penalties, but the instinct of righteous shame which, however dumbly, however obscurely, stirs in every honest man’s heart when his superfluity is confronted with another’s destitution, and which is destined to increase in power till it becomes the social as well as the individual conscience. Then, in the truly Christian state, there shall be no more asking and no more giving, no more gratitude and no more merit, no more charity, but only and evermore justice; all shall share alike, and want and luxury and killing toil and heartless indolence shall all cease together.

“It is in the spirit of this justice that I believe Christ shall come to judge the world; not to condemn and punish so much as to reconcile and to right. We live in an age of seeming preparation for indefinite war. The lines are drawn harder and faster between the rich and the poor, and on either side the forces are embattled. The working-men are combined in vast organisations to withstand the strength of the capitalists, and these are taking the lesson and uniting in trusts. The smaller industries are gone, and the smaller commerce is being devoured by the larger. Where many little shops existed one huge factory assembles manufacture; one large store, in which many different branches of trade are united, swallows up the small dealers. Yet in the labour organisations, which have their bad side, their weak side, through which the forces of hell enter, I see evidence of the fact that the poor have at last had pity on the poor, and will no more betray and underbid and desert one another, but will stand and fall together as brothers; and the monopolies, though they are founded upon ruin, though they know no pity and no relenting, have a final significance which we must not lose sight of. They prophesy the end of competition; they eliminate one element of strife, of rivalry, of warfare. But woe to them through whose evil this good comes, to any man who prospers on to ease and fortune, forgetful or ignorant of the ruin on which his success is built. For that death the resurrection and the life seem not to be. Whatever his creed or his religious profession, his state is more pitiable than that of the sceptic, whose words perhaps deny Christ, but whose works affirm Him. There has been much anxiety in the Church for the future of the world abandoned to the godlessness of science, but I cannot share it. If God is, nothing exists but from Him. He directs the very reason that questions Him, and Christ rises anew in the doubt of him that the sins of Christendom inspire. So far from dreading such misgiving as comes from contemplating the disparity between the Church’s profession and her performance, I welcome it as another resurrection and a new life.”

The minister paused and seemed about to resume, when a scuffling and knocking noise drew all eyes toward the pew of the Gerrish family. Mr. Gerrish had risen and flung open the door so sharply that it struck against the frame-work of the pew, and he stood pulling his children, whom Mrs. Gerrish urged from behind, one after another, into the aisle beside him. One of them had been asleep, and he now gave way to the alarm which seizes a small boy suddenly awakened. His mother tried to still him, stooping over him and twitching him by the hand, with repeated “Sh! ‘sh’s!” as mothers do, till her husband got her before him, and marched his family down the aisle and out of the door. The noise of their feet over the floor of the vestibule died away upon the stone steps outside. The minister allowed the pause he had made to prolong itself painfully. He wavered, after clearing his throat, as if to go on with his sermon, and then he said sadly, “Let us pray!”

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