Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 23

Putney stopped with his wife and boy and waited for Annie at the corner of the street where their ways parted. She had eluded Lyra Wilmington in coming down the aisle, and she had hurried to escape the sensation which broke into eager talk among the people before they got out of church, and which began with question whether one of the Gerrish children was sick, and ended in the more satisfactory conviction that Mr. Gerrish was offended at something in the sermon.

“Well, Annie,” said Putney, with a satirical smile.

“Oh, Ralph — Ellen — what does it mean?”

“It means that Brother Gerrish thought Mr. Peck was hitting at him in that talk about the large commerce, and it means business,” said Putney. “Brother Gerrish has made a beginning, and I guess it’s the beginning of the end, unless we’re all ready to take hold against him. What are you going to do?”

“Do? Anything! Everything! It was abominable! It was atrocious!” she shuddered out with disgust. “How could he imagine that Mr. Peck would do such a thing?”

“Well, he’s imagined it. But he doesn’t mean to stay out of church; he means to put Brother Peck out.”

“We mustn’t let him. That would be outrageous.”

“That’s the way Ellen and I feel about it,” said Putney; “but we don’t know how much of a party there is with us.”

“But everybody — everybody must feel the same way about Mr. Gerrish’s behaviour? I don’t see how you can be so quiet about it — you and Ellen!”

Annie looked from one to another indignantly, and Putney laughed.

“We’re not feeling quietly about it,” said Mrs. Putney.

Putney took out a piece of tobacco, and bit off a large corner, and began to chew vehemently upon it. “Hello, Idella!” he said to the little girl, holding by Annie’s hand and looking up intently at him, with childish interest in what he was eating. “What a pretty dress you’ve got on!”

“It’s mine,” said the child. To keep.”

“Is that so? Well, it’s a beauty.”

“I’m going to wear it all the time.”

“Is that so? Well, now, you and Winthrop step on ahead a little; I want to see how you look in it. Splendid!” he said, as she took the boy’s hand and looked back over her shoulder for Putney’s applause. “Lyra tells us you’ve adopted her for the time being, Annie. I guess you’ll have your hands full. But, as I was going to say, about feeling differently, my experience is that there’s always a good-sized party for the perverse, simply because it seems to answer a need in human nature. There’s a fascination in it; a man feels as if there must be something in it besides the perversity, and because it’s so obviously wrong it must be right. Don’t you believe but what a good half of the people in church to-day are pretty sure that Gerrish had a good reason for behaving indecently. The very fact that he did so carries conviction to some minds, and those are the minds we have got to deal with. When he gets up in the next Society meeting there’s a mighty great danger that he’ll have a strong party to back him.”

“I can’t believe it,” Annie broke out, but she was greatly troubled. “What do you think, Ellen; that there’s any danger of his carrying the day against Mr. Peck?”

“There’s a great deal of dissatisfaction with Mr. Peck already, you know, and I guess Ralph’s right about the rest of it.”

“Well, I’m glad I’ve taken a pew. I’m with you for Mr. Peck, Ralph, heart and soul.”

“As Brother Brandreth says about the Social Union. Well, that’s right. I shall count upon you. And speaking of the Social Union, I haven’t seen you, Annie, since that night at Mrs. Munger’s. I suppose you don’t expect me to say anything in self-defence?”

“No, Ralph, and you needn’t; I’ve defended you sufficiently — justified you.”

“That won’t do,” said Putney. “Ellen and I have thought that all out, and we find that I— or something that stood for me — was to blame, whoever else was to blame, too; we won’t mention the hospitable Mrs. Munger. When Dr. Morrell had to go away Brother Peck took hold with me, and he suggested good resolutions. I told him I’d tried ’em, and they never did me the least good; but his sort really seemed to work. I don’t know whether they would work again; Ellen thinks they would. Ithink we sha’n’t ever need anything again; but that’s what I always think when I come out of it — like a man with chills and fever.”

“It was Dr. Morrell who asked Mr. Peck to come,” said Mrs. Putney; “and it turned out for the best. Ralph got well quicker than he ever did before. Of course, Annie,” she explained, “it must seem strange to you hearing us talk of it as if it were a disease; but that’s just like what it is — a raging disease; and I can’t feel differently about anything that happens in it, though I do blame people for it.” Annie followed with tender interest the loving pride that exonerated and idealised Putney in the words of the woman who had suffered so much with him, and must suffer. “I couldn’t help speaking as I did to Mrs. Munger.”

“She deserved it every word,” said Annie. “I wonder you didn’t say more.”

“Oh, hold on!” Putney interposed. “We’ll allow that the local influences were malarial, but I guess we can’t excuse the invalid altogether. That’s Brother Peck’s view; and I must say I found it decidedly tonic; it helped to brace me up.”

“I think he was too severe with you altogether,” said his wife.

Putney laughed. “It was all I could do to keep Ellen from getting up and going out of church too, when Brother Gerrish set the example. She’s a Gerrishite at heart.”

“Well, remember, Ralph,” said Annie, “that I’m with you in whatever you do to defeat that man. It’s a good cause — a righteous cause — the cause of justice; and we must do everything for it,” she said fervently.

“Yes, any enormity is justifiable against injustice,” he suggested, “or the unjust; it’s the same thing.”

“You know I don’t mean that. I can trust you.”

“I shall keep within the law, at any rate,” said Putney.

“Well, Mrs. Bolton!” Annie called out, when she entered her house, and she pushed on into the kitchen; she had not the patience to wait for her to bring in the dinner before speaking about the exciting event at church. But Mrs. Bolton would not be led up to the subject by a tacit invitation, and after a suspense in which her zeal for Mr. Peck began to take a colour of resentment toward Mrs. Bolton, Annie demanded, “What do you think of Mr. Gerrish’s scandalous behaviour?”

Mrs. Bolton gave herself time to put a stick of wood into the stove, and to punch it with the stove-lid handle before answering. “I don’t know as it’s anything more than I expected.”

Annie went on: “It was shameful! Do you suppose he really thought Mr. Peck was referring to him in his sermon?”

“I presume he felt the cap fit. But if it hadn’t b’en one thing, ‘twould b’en another. Mr. Peck was bound to roil the brook for Mr. Gerrish’s drinkin’, wherever he stood, up stream or down.”

“Yes. He is a wolf! A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Annie excitedly.

“I d’know as you can call him a wolf, exactly,” returned Mrs. Bolton dryly. “He’s got his good points, I presume.”

Annie was astounded. “Why, Mrs. Bolton, you’re surely not going to justify him?”

Mrs. Bolton erected herself from cutting a loaf of her best bread into slices, and stood with the knife in her hand, like a figure of Justice. “Well, I guess you no need to ask me a question like that, Miss Kilburn. I hain’t obliged to make up to Mr. Peck, though, for what I done in the beginnin’ by condemnin’ everybuddy else without mercy now.” Mrs. Bolton’s eyes did not flash fire, but they sent out an icy gleam that went as sharply to Annie’s heart.

Bolton came in from feeding the horse and cow in the barn, with a mealy tin pan in his hand, from which came a mild, subdued radiance like that of his countenance. He was not sensible of arriving upon a dramatic moment, and he said, without noticing the attitude of either lady: “I see you walkin’ home with Mr. Putney, Miss Kilburn. What’d he say?”

“You mean about Mr. Gerrish? He thinks as we all do; that it was a challenge to Mr. Peck’s friends, and that we must take it up.”

A light of melancholy satisfaction shone from Bolton’s deeply shaded eyes. “Well, he ain’t one to lose time, not a great deal. I presume he’s goin’ to work?”

“At once,” said Annie. “He says Mr. Gerrish will be sure to bring his grievance up at the next Society meeting, and we must be ready to meet him, and out-talk him and out-vote him.” She reported these phrases from Putney’s lips.

“Well, I guess if it was out-talkin’, Mr. Putney wouldn’t have much trouble about it. And as far forth as votin’ goes, I don’t believe but what we can carry the day.”

“We couldn’t,” said Mrs. Bolton from the pantry, where she had gone to put the bread away in its stone jar, “if it was left to the church.” She accented the last word with the click of the jar lid, and came out.

“Well, it ain’t a church question. It’s a Society question.”

Mrs. Bolton replied, on her passage to the dining-room with the plate of sliced bread: “I can’t make it seem right to have the minister a Society question. Seems to me that the church members’d ought have the say.”

“Well, you can’t make the discipline over to suit everybody,” said Bolton. “I presume it was ordered for a wise purpose.”

“Why, land alive, Oliver Bolton,” his wife shouted back from the remoteness to which his words had followed her, “the statute provisions and rules of the Society wa’n’t ordered by Providence.”

“Well, not directly, as you may say,” said Bolton, beginning high, and lowering his voice as she rejoined them, “but I presume the hearts of them that made them was moved.”

Mrs. Bolton could not combat a position of such unimpregnable piety in words, but she permitted herself a contemptuous sniff, and went on getting the things into the dining-room.

“And I guess it’s all goin’ to work together for good. I ain’t afraid any but what it’s goin’ to come out all right. But we got to be up and doin’, as they say about ‘lection times. The Lord helps them that helps themselves,” said Bolton, and then, as if he felt the weakness of this position as compared with that of entire trust in Providence, he winked his mild eyes, and added, “if they’re on the right side, and put their faith in His promises.”

“Well, your dinner’s ready now,” Mrs. Bolton said to Annie.

Idella had clung fast to Annie’s hand; as Annie started toward the dining-room she got before her, and whispered vehemently.

“What?” asked Annie, bending down; she laughed, in lifting her head, “I promised Idella you’d let us have some preserves to-day, Mrs. Bolton.”

Mrs. Bolton smiled with grim pleasure. “I see all the while her mind was set on something. She ain’t one to let you forget your promises. Well, I guess if Mr. Peck had a little more of her disposition there wouldn’t be much doubt about the way it would all come out.”

“Well, you don’t often see pairents take after their children,” said Bolton, venturing a small joke.

“No, nor husbands after their wives, either,” said Mrs. Bolton sharply. “The more’s the pity.”

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