Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 24

Dr. Morrell came to see Annie late the next Wednesday evening.

“I didn’t know you’d come back,” she said. She returned to the rocking-chair, from which she came forward to greet him, and he dropped into an easy seat near the table piled with books and sewing.

“I didn’t know it myself half an hour ago.”

“Really? And is this your first visit? I must be a very interesting case.”

“You are — always. How have you been?”

“I? I hardly know whether I’ve been at all,” she answered, in mechanical parody of his own reply. “So many other things have been of so much more importance.”

She let her eyes rest full upon his, with a sense of returning comfort and safety in his presence, and after a deep breath of satisfaction, she asked, “How did you leave your mother?”

“Very much better — entirely out of danger.”

“It’s so odd to think of any one’s having a family. To me it seems the normal condition not to have any relatives.”

“Well, we can’t very well dispense with mothers,” said the doctor. “We have to begin with them, at any rate.”

“Oh, I don’t object to them. I only wonder at them.”

They fell into a cosy and mutually interesting talk about their separate past, and he gave her glimpses of the life, simple and studious, he had led before he went abroad. She confessed to two mistakes in which she had mechanically persisted concerning him; one that he came from Charlestown instead of Chelsea, and the other that his first name was Joseph instead of James. She did not own that she had always thought it odd he should be willing to remain in a place like Hatboro’, and that it must argue a strangely unambitious temperament in a man of his ability. She diverted the impulse to a general satire of village life, and ended by saying that she was getting to be a perfect villager herself.

He laughed, and then, “How has Hatboro’ been getting along?” he asked.

“Simply seething with excitement,” she answered. “But I should hardly know where to begin if I tried to tell you,” she added. “It seems such an age since I saw you.”

“Thank you,” said the doctor.

“I didn’t mean to be quite so flattering; but you have certainly marked an epoch. Really, I don’t know where to begin. I wish you’d seen somebody else first — Ralph and Ellen, or Mrs. Wilmington.”

“I might go and see them now.”

“No; stay, now you’re here, though I know I shall not do justice to the situation.” But she was able to possess him of it with impartiality, even with a little humour, all the more because she was at heart intensely partisan and serious. “No one knows what Mr. Gerrish intends to do next. He has kept quietly about his business; and he told some of the ladies who tried to interview him that he was not prepared to talk about the course he had taken. He doesn’t seem to be ashamed of his behaviour; and Ralph thinks that he’s either satisfied with it, and intends to let it stand as a protest, or else he’s going to strike another blow on the next business meeting. But he’s even kept Mrs. Gerrish quiet, and all we can do is to unite Mr. Peck’s friends provisionally. Ralph’s devoted himself to that, and he says he has talked forty-eight hours to the day ever since.”

Is he —”

“Yes; perfectly! I could hardly believe it when I saw him at church on Sunday. It was like seeing one risen from the dead. What he must have gone through, and Ellen! She told me how Mr. Peck had helped him in the struggle. She attributes everything to him. But of course you think he had nothing to do with it.”

“What makes you think that?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t that naturally be the attitude of Science?”

“Toward religion? Perhaps. But I’m not Science — with a large S. May be that’s the reason why I left the case with Mr. Peck,” said the doctor, smiling. “Putney didn’t leave off my medicine, did he?”

“He never got well so soon before. They both say that. I didn’t think you could be so narrow-minded, Dr. Morrell. But of course your scientific bigotry couldn’t admit the effect of the moral influence. It would be too much like a miracle; you would have to allow for a mystery.”

“I have to allow for a good many,” said the doctor. “The world is full of mysteries for me, if you mean things that science hasn’t explored yet. But I hope that they’ll all yield to the light, and that somewhere there’ll be light enough to clear up even the spiritual mysteries.”

“Do you really?” she demanded eagerly. “Then you believe in a life hereafter? You believe in a moral government of the —”

He retreated, laughing, from her ardent pursuit. “Oh, I’m not going to commit myself. But I’ll go so far as to say that I like to hear Mr. Peck preach, and that I want him to stay. I don’t say he had nothing to do with Putney’s straightening up. Putney had a great deal to do with it himself. What does he think Mr. Peck’s chances are?”

“If Mr. Gerrish tries to get him dismissed? He doesn’t know; he’s quite in the dark. He says the party of the perverse — the people who think Mr. Gerrish must have had some good reason for his behaviour, simply because they can’t see any — is unexpectedly large; and it doesn’t help matters with the more respectable people that the most respectable, like Mr. Wilmington and Colonel Marvin, are Mr. Peck’s friends. They think there must be something wrong if such good men are opposed to Mr. Gerrish.”

“And I suspect,” said Dr. Morrell soberly, “that Putney’s championship isn’t altogether an advantage. The people all concede his brilliancy, and they are prouder of him on account of his infirmity; but I guess they like to feel their superiority to him in practical matters. They admire him, but they don’t want to follow him.”

“Oh, I suppose so,” said Annie disconsolately. “And I imagine that Mr. Wilmington’s course is attributed to Lyra, and that doesn’t help Mr. Peck much with the husbands of the ladies who don’t approve of her.”

The doctor tacitly declined to touch this delicate point. He asked, after a pause, “You’ll be at the meeting?”

“I couldn’t keep away. But I’ve no vote, that’s the worst. I can only suffer in the cause.” The doctor smiled. “You must go, too,” she added eagerly.

“Oh, I shall go; I couldn’t keep away either. Besides, I can vote. How are you getting on with your little protégée?

“Idella? Well, it isn’t such a simple matter as I supposed, quite. Did you ever hear anything about her mother?”

“Nothing more than what every one has. Why?” asked the doctor, with scientific curiosity. “Do you find traits that the father doesn’t account for?”

“Yes. She is very vain and greedy and quick-tempered.”

“Are those traits uncommon in children?”

“In such a degree I should think they were. But she’s very affectionate, too, and you can do anything with her through her love of praise. She puzzles me a good deal. I wish I knew something about her mother. But Mr. Peck himself is a puzzle. With all my respect for him and regard and admiration, I can’t help seeing that he’s a very imperfect character.”

Doctor Morrell laughed. “There’s a great deal of human nature in man.”

“There isn’t enough in Mr. Peck,” Annie retorted. “From the very first he has said things that have stirred me up and put me in a fever; but he always seems to be cold and passive himself.”

“Perhaps he is cold,” said the doctor.

“But has he any right to be so?” retorted Annie, with certainly no coldness of her own.

“Well, I don’t know. I never thought of the right or wrong of a man’s being what he was born. Perhaps we might justly blame his ancestors.”

Annie broke into a laugh at herself: “Of course. But don’t you think that a man who is able to put things as he does — who can make you see, for example, the stupidity and cruelty of things that always seemed right and proper before — don’t you think that he’s guilty of a kind of hypocrisy if he doesn’t feel as well as see?”

“No, I can’t say that I do,” said the doctor, with pleasure in the feminine excess of her demand. “And there are so many ways of feeling. We’re apt to think that our own way is the only way, of course; but I suppose that most philanthropists — men who have done the most to better conditions — have been people of cold temperaments; and yet you can’t say they are unfeeling.”

“No, certainly. Do you think Mr. Peck is a real philanthropist?”

“How you do get back to the personal always!” said Dr. Morrell. “What makes you ask?”

“Because I can’t understand his indifference to his child. It seems to me that real philanthropy would begin at home. But twice he has distinctly forgotten her existence, and he always seems bored with it. Or not that quite; but she seems no more to him than any other child.”

“There’s something very curious about all that,” said the doctor. “In most things the greater includes the less, but in philanthropy it seems to exclude it. If a man’s heart is open to the whole world, to all men, it’s shut sometimes against the individual, even the nearest and dearest. You see I’m willing to admit all you can say against a rival practitioner.”

“Oh, I understand,” said Annie. “But I’m not going to gratify your spite.” At the same time she tacitly consented to the slight for Mr. Peck which their joking about him involved. In such cases we excuse our disloyalty as merely temporary, and intend to turn serious again and make full amends for it. “He made very short work,” she continued, “of that notion of yours that there could be any good feeling between the poor and the rich who had once been poor themselves.”

“Did I have any such notion as that?”

She recalled the time and place of its expression to him, and he said, “Oh yes! Well?”

“He says that rich people like that are apt to be the hardest masters, and are eager to forget they ever were poor, and are only anxious to identify themselves with the rich.”

Dr. Morrell seemed to enjoy this immensely. “That does rather settle it,” he said recreantly.

She tried to be severe with him, but she only kept on laughing and joking; she was aware that he was luring her away from her seriousness.

Mrs. Bolton brought in the lamp, and set it on the library table, showing her gaunt outline a moment against it before she left it to throw its softened light into the parlour where they sat. The autumn moonshine, almost as mellow, fell in through the open windows, which let in the shrilling of the crickets and grasshoppers, and wafts of the warm night wind.

“Does life,” Annie was asking, at the end of half an hour, “seem more simple or more complicated as you live on? That sounds awfully abstruse, doesn’t it? And I don’t know why I’m always asking you abstruse things, but I am.”

“Oh, I don’t mind it,” said the doctor. “Perhaps I haven’t lived on long enough to answer this particular question; I’m only thirty-six, you know.”

Only? I’m thirty-one, and I feel a hundred!” she broke in.

“You don’t look it. But I believe I rather like abstruse questions. You know Putney and I have discussed a great many. But just what do you mean by this particular abstraction?”

He took from the table a large ivory paper-knife which he was in the habit of playing with in his visits, and laid first one side and then the other side of its smooth cool blade in the palm of his left hand, as he leaned forward, with his elbows on his knees, and bent his smiling eyes keenly upon her.

She stopped rocking herself, and said imperatively, “Will you please put that back, Dr. Morrell?”

“This paper-knife?”

“Yes. And not look at me just in that way? When you get that knife and that look, I feel a little too much as if you were diagnosing me.”

“Diagnosticating,” suggested the doctor.

“Is it? I always supposed it was diagnosing. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t the name I was objecting to.”

He put the knife back and changed his posture, with a smile that left nothing of professional scrutiny in his look. “Very well, then; you shall diagnose yourself.”

“Diagnosticate, please.”

“Oh, I thought you preferred the other.”

“No, it sounds undignified, now that I know there’s a larger word. Where was I?”

“The personal bearing of the question whether life isn’t more and more complicated?”

“How did you know it had a personal bearing?”

“I suspected as much.”

“Yes, it has. I mean that within the last four or five months — since I’ve been in Hatboro’— I seem to have lost my old point of view; or, rather, I don’t find it satisfactory any more. I’m ashamed to think of the simple plans, or dreams, that I came home with. I hardly remember what they were; but I must have expected to be a sort of Lady Bountiful here; and now I think a Lady Bountiful one of the most mischievous persons that could infest any community.”

“You don’t mean that charity is played out?” asked the doctor.

“In the old-fashioned way, yes.”

“But they say poverty is on the increase. What is to be done?”

“Justice,” said Annie. “Those who do most of the work in the world ought to share in its comforts as a right, and not be put off with what we idlers have a mind to give them from our superfluity as a grace.”

“Yes, that’s all very true. But what till justice is done?”

“Oh, we must continue to do charity,” cried Annie, with self-contempt that amused him. “But don’t you see how much more complicated it is? That’s what I meant by life not being simple any more. It was easy enough to do charity when it used to seem the right and proper remedy for suffering; but now, when I can’t make it appear a finality, but only something provisional, temporary — Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. But I don’t see how you’re going to help it At the same time, I’ll allow that it makes life more difficult.”

For a moment they were both serious and silent. Then she said: “Sometimes I think the fault is all in myself, and that if I were not so sophisticated and — and — selfish, I should find the old way of doing good just as effective and natural as ever. Then again, I think the conditions are all wrong, and that we ought to be fairer to people, and then we needn’t be so good to them. I should prefer that. I hate being good to people I don’t like, and I can’t like people who don’t interest me. I think I must be very hard-hearted.”

The doctor laughed at this.

“Oh, I know,” said Annie, “I know the fraudulent reputation I’ve got for good works.”

“Your charity to tramps is the opprobrium of Hatboro’,” the doctor consented.

“Oh, I don’t mind that. It’s easy when people ask you for food or money, but the horrible thing is when they ask you for work. Think of me, who never did anything to earn a cent in my life, being humbly asked by a fellow-creature to let him work for something to eat and drink! It’s hideous! It’s abominable! At first I used to be flattered by it, and try to conjure up something for them to do, and to believe that I was helping the deserving poor. Now I give all of them money, and tell them that they needn’t even pretend to work for it. I don’t work for my money, and I don’t see why they should.”

“They’d find that an unanswerable argument if you put it to them,” said the doctor. He reached out his hand for the paper-cutter, and then withdrew it in a way that made her laugh.

“But the worst of it is,” she resumed, “that I don’t love any of the people that I help, or hurt, whichever it is. I did feel remorseful toward Mrs. Savor for a while, but I didn’t love her, and I knew that I only pitied myself through her. Don’t you see?”

“No, I don’t,” said the doctor.

“You don’t, because you’re too polite. The only kind of creature that I can have any sympathy with is some little wretch like Idella, who is perfectly selfish and naughty every way, but seems to want me to like her, and a reprobate like Lyra, or some broken creature like poor Ralph. I think there’s something in the air, the atmosphere, that won’t allow you to live in the old way if you’ve got a grain of conscience or humanity. I don’t mean that I have. But it seems to me as if the world couldn’t go on as it has been doing. Even here in America, where I used to think we had the millennium because slavery was abolished, people have more liberty, but they seem just as far off as ever from justice. That is what paralyses me and mocks me and laughs in my face when I remember how I used to dream of doing good after I came home. I had better stayed at Rome.”

The doctor said vaguely, “I’m glad you didn’t,” and he let his eyes dwell on her with a return of the professional interest which she was too lost in her self reproach to be able to resent.

“I blame myself for trying to excuse my own failure on the plea that things generally have gone wrong. At times it seems to me that I’m responsible for having lost my faith in what I used to think was the right thing to do; and then again it seems as if the world were all so bad that no real good could be done in the old way, and that my faith is gone because there’s nothing for it to rest on any longer. I feel that something must be done; but I don’t know what.”

“It would be hard to say,” said the doctor.

She perceived that her exaltation amused him, but she was too much in earnest to care. “Then we are guilty — all guilty — till we find out and begin to do it. If the world has come to such a pass that you can’t do anything but harm in it —”

“Oh, is it so bad as that?” he protested.

“It’s quite as bad,” she insisted. “Just see what mischief I’ve done since I came back to Hatboro’. I took hold of that miserable Social Union because I was outside of all the life about me, and it seemed my only chance of getting into it; and I’ve done more harm by it in one summer than I could undo in a lifetime. Just think of poor Mr. Brandreth’s love affair with Miss Chapley broken off, and Lyra’s lamentable triumph over Miss Northwick, and Mrs. Munger’s duplicity, and Ralph’s escapade — all because I wanted to do good!”

A note of exaggeration had begun to prevail in her self-upbraiding, which was real enough, and the time came for him to suggest, “I think you’re a little morbid, Miss Kilburn.”

“Morbid! Of course I am! But that doesn’t alter the fact that everything is wrong, does it?”

“Everything!”

“Why, you don’t pretend yourself, do you, that everything is right?”

“A true American ought to do so, oughtn’t he?” teased the doctor. “One mustn’t be a bad citizen.”

“But if you were a bad citizen?” she persisted.

“Oh, then I might agree with you on some points. But I shouldn’t say such things to my patients, Miss Kilburn.”

“It would be a great comfort to them if you did,” she sighed.

The doctor broke out in a laugh of delight at her perfervid concentration. “Oh, no, no! They’re mostly nervous women, and it would be the death of them — if they understood me. In fact, what’s the use of brooding upon such ideas? We can’t hurry any change, but we can make ourselves uncomfortable.”

“Why should I be comfortable?” she asked, with a solemnity that made him laugh again.

“Why shouldn’t you be?”

“Yes, that’s what I often ask myself. But I can’t be,” she said sadly.

They had risen, and he looked at her with his professional interest now openly dominant, as he stood holding her hand. “I’m going to send you a little more of that tonic, Miss Kilburn.”

She pulled her hand away. “No, I shall not take any more medicine. You think everything is physical. Why don’t you ask at once to see my tongue?”

He went out laughing, and she stood looking wistfully at the door he had passed through.

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