Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 25

The bell on the orthodox church called the members of Mr. Peck’s society together for the business meeting with the same plangent, lacerant note that summoned them to worship on Sundays. Among those who crowded the house were many who had not been there before, and seldom in any place of the kind. There were admirers of Putney: workmen of rebellious repute and of advanced opinions on social and religious questions; nonsuited plaintiffs and defendants of shady record, for whom he had at one time or another done what he could. A good number of the summer folk from South Hatboro’ were present, with the expectation of something dramatic, which every one felt, and every one hid with the discipline that subdues the outside of life in a New England town to a decorous passivity.

At the appointed time Mr. Peck rose to open the meeting with prayer; then, as if nothing unusual were likely to come before it, he declared it ready to proceed to business. Some people who had been gathering in the vestibule during his prayer came in; and the electric globes, which had been recently hung above the pulpit and on the front of the gallery in substitution of the old gas chandelier, shed their moony glare upon a house in which few places were vacant. Mr. Gerrish, sitting erect and solemn beside his wife in their pew, shared with the minister and Putney the tacit interest of the audience.

He permitted the transaction of several minor affairs, and Mr. Peck, as Moderator, conducted the business with his habitual exactness and effect of far-off impersonality. The people waited with exemplary patience, and Putney, who lounged in one corner of his pew, gave no more sign of excitement, with his chin sunk in his rumpled shirt-front, than his sad-faced wife at the other end of the seat.

Mr. Gerrish rose, with the air of rising in his own good time, and said, with dry pomp, “Mr. Moderator, I have prepared a resolution, which I will ask you to read to this meeting.”

He held up a paper as he spoke, and then passed it to the minister, who opened and read it —

Whereas, It is indispensable to the prosperity and well-being of any and every organisation, and especially of a Christian church, that the teachings of its minister be in accord with the convictions of a majority of its members upon vital questions of eternal interest, with the end and aim of securing the greatest efficiency of that body in the community, as an example and a shining light before men to guide their steps in the strait and narrow path; therefore

Resolved, That a committee of this society be appointed to inquire if such is the case in the instance of the Rev. Julius W. Peck, and be instructed to report upon the same.”

A satisfied expectation expressed itself in the silence that followed the reading of the paper, whatever pain and shame were mixed with the satisfaction. If the contempt of kindly usage shown in offering such a resolution without warning or private notice to the minister shocked many by its brutality, still it was satisfactory to find that Mr. Gerrish had intended to seize the first chance of airing his grievance, as everybody had said he would do.

Mr. Peck looked up from the paper and across the intervening pews at Mr. Gerrish. “Do I understand that you move the adoption of this resolution?”

“Why, certainly, sir,” said Mr. Gerrish, with an accent of supercilious surprise.

“You did not say so,” said the minister gently. “Does any one second Brother Gerrish’s motion?”

A murmur of amusement followed Mr. Peck’s reminder to Mr. Gerrish, and an ironical voice called out —

“Mr. Moderator!”

“Mr. Putney.”

“I think it important that the sense of the meeting should be taken on the question the resolution raises. I therefore second the motion for its adoption.”

Putney sat down, and the murmur now broadened into something like a general laugh, hushed as with a sudden sense of the impropriety.

Mr. Gerrish had gradually sunk into his seat, but now he rose again, and when the minister formally announced the motion before the meeting, he called, sharply, “Mr. Moderator!”

“Brother Gerrish,” responded the minister, in recognition.

“I wish to offer a few remarks in support of the resolution which I have had the honour — the duty, I would say — of laying before this meeting.” He jerked his head forward at the last word, and slid the fingers of his right hand into the breast of his coat like an orator, and stood very straight. “I have no desire, sir, to make this the occasion of a personal question between myself and my pastor. But, sir, the question has been forced upon me against my will and my — my consent; and I was obliged on the last ensuing Sabbath, when I sat in this place, to enter my public protest against it.

“Sir, I came into this community a poor boy, without a penny in my pocket, and unaided and alone and by my own exertions I have built up one of the business interests of the place. I will not stoop to boast of the part I have taken in the prosperity of this place; but I will say that no public object has been wanting — that my support has not been wanting — from the first proposition to concrete the sidewalks of this village to the introduction of city waterworks and an improved system of drainage, and — er — electric lighting. So much for my standing in a public capacity! As for my business capacity, I would gladly let that speak for itself, if that capacity had not been turned in the sanctuary itself against the personal reputation which every man holds dearer than life itself, and which has had a deadly blow aimed at it through that — that very capacity. Sir, I have established in this town a business which I may humbly say that in no other place of the same numerical size throughout the commonwealth will you find another establishment so nearly corresponding to the wants and the — er — facilities of a great city. In no other establishment in a place of the same importance will you find the interests and the demands and the necessities of the whole community so carefully considered. In no other —”

Putney got upon his feet and called out, “Mr. Moderator, will Brother Gerrish allow me to ask him a single question?”

Mr. Peck put the request, and Mr. Gerrish involuntarily made a pause, in which Putney pursued —

“My question is simply this: doesn’t Brother Gerrish think it would help us to get at the business in hand sooner if he would print the rest of his advertisement in the Hatboro’ Register?”

A laugh broke out all over the house as Putney dropped back into his seat. Mr. Gerrish stood apparently undaunted.

“I will attend to you presently, sir,” he said, with a schoolmasterly authority which made an impression in his favour with some. “And I thank the gentleman,” he continued, turning again to address the minister, “for recalling me from a side issue. As he acknowledges in the suggestion which he intended to wound my feelings, but I can assure him that my self-respect is beyond the reach of slurs and innuendoes; I care little for them; I care not what quarter they originate from, or have their — their origin; and still less when they spring from a source notoriously incompetent and unworthy to command the respect of this community, which has abused all its privileges and trampled the forbearance of its fellow-citizens under foot, until it has become a — a byword in this place, sir.”

Putney sprang up again with, “Mr. Moderator —” “No, sir! no, sir!” pursued Gerrish; “I will not submit to your interruptions. I have the floor, and I intend to keep it. I intend to challenge a full and fearless scrutiny of my motives in this matter, and I intend to probe those motives in others. Why do we find, sir, on the one side of this question as its most active exponent a man outside of the church in organising a force within this society to antagonise the most cherished convictions of that church? We do not asperse his motives; but we ask if these motives coincide with the relations which a Christian minister should sustain to his flock as expressed in the resolution which I have had the privilege to offer, more in sorrow than in anger.”

Putney made some starts to rise, but quelled himself, and finally sank back with an air of ironical patience. Gerrish’s personalities had turned public sentiment in his favour. Colonel Marvin came over to Putney’s pew and shook hands with him before sitting down by his side. He began to talk with him in whisper while Gerrish went on —

“But on the other hand, sir, what do we see? I will not allude to myself in this connection, but I am well aware, sir, that I represent a large and growing majority of this church in the stand I have taken. We are tired, sir — and I say it to you openly, sir, what has been bruited about in secret long enough — of having what I may call a one-sided gospel preached in this church and from this pulpit. We enter our protest against the neglect of very essential elements of Christianity — not to say the essential — the representation of Christ as — a — a spirit as well as a life. Understand me, sir, we do not object, neither I nor any of those who agree with me, to the preaching of Christ as a life. That is all very well in its place, and it is the wish of every true Christian to conform and adapt his own life as far as — as circumstances will permit of. But when I come to this sanctuary, and they come, Sabbath after Sabbath, and hear nothing said of my Redeemer as a — means of salvation, and nothing of Him crucified; and when I find the precious promises of the gospel ignored and neglected continually and — and all the time, and each discourse from yonder pulpit filled up with generalities — glittering generalities, as has been well said by another — in relation to and connection with mere conduct, I am disappointed, sir, and dissatisfied, and I feel to protest against that line of — of preaching. During the last six months, Sabbath after Sabbath, I have listened in vain for the ministrations of the plain gospel and the tenets under which we have been blessed as a church and as — a — people. Instead of this I have heard, as I have said — and I repeat it without fear of contradiction — nothing but one-idea appeals and mere moralisings upon duty to others, which a child and the veriest tyro could not fail therein; and I have culminated — or rather it has been culminated to me — in a covert attack upon my private affairs and my way of conducting my private business in a manner which I could not overlook. For that reason, and for the reasons which I have recapitulated — and I challenge the closest scrutiny — I felt it my duty to enter my public protest and to leave this sanctuary, where I have worshipped ever since it was erected, with my family. And I now urge the adoption of the foregoing resolution because I believe that your usefulness has come to an end to the vast majority of the constituent members of this church; and — and that is all.”

Mr. Gerrish stopped so abruptly that Putney, who was engaged in talk with Colonel Marvin, looked up with a startled air, too late to secure the floor. Mr. Peck recognised Mr. Gates, who stood with his wrists caught in either hand across his middle, and looked round with a quizzical glance before he began to speak. Putney lifted his hand in playful threatening toward Colonel Marvin, who got away from him with a face of noiseless laughter, and went and joined Mr. Wilmington where he sat with his wife, who entered into the talk between the men.

“Mr. Moderator,” said Gates, “I don’t know as I expected to take part in this debate; but you can’t always tell what’s going to happen to you, even if you’re only a member of the church by marriage, as you might say. I presume, though, that I have a right to speak in a meeting like this, because I am a member of the society in my own right, and I’ve got its interests at heart as much as any one. I don’t know but what I got the interests of Hatboro’ at heart too, but I can’t be certain; sometimes you can’t; sometimes you think you’ve got the common good in view, and you come to look a little closer and you find it’s the uncommon good; that is to say, it’s not so much the public weal you’re after as what it is the private weal. But that’s neither here nor there. I haven’t got anything to say against identifying yourself with things in general; I don’t know but what it’s a good way; all is, it’s apt to make you think you’re personally attacked when nobody is meant in particular. I think that’s what’s partly the matter with Brother Gerrish here. I heard that sermon, and I didn’t suppose there was anything in it to hurt any one especially; and I was consid’ably surprised to see that Mr. Gerrish seemed to take it to himself, somehow, and worry over it; but I didn’t really know just what the trouble was till he explained here tonight. All I was thinking was when it come to that about large commerce devouring the small — sort of lean and fat kine — I wished Jordan and Marsh could hear that, or Stewart’s in New York, or Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. I never thought of Brother Gerrish once; and I don’t presume one out of a hundred did either. I—” The electric light immediately over Gates’s head began to hiss and sputter, and to suffer the sort of syncope which overtakes electric lights at such times, and to leave the house in darkness. Gates waited, standing, till it revived, and then added: “I guess I hain’t got anything more to say, Mr. Moderator. If I had it’s gone from me now. I’m more used to speaking by kerosene, and I always lose my breath when an electric light begins that way.”

Putney was on his legs in good time now, and secured recognition before Mr. Wilmington, who made an effort to catch the moderator’s eye. Gates had put the meeting in good-humoured expectation of what they might now have from Putney. They liked Gates’s points very well, but they hoped from Putney something more cruel and unsparing, and the greater part of those present must have shared his impatience with Mr. Wilmington’s request that he would give way to him for a moment. Yet they all probably felt the same curiosity about what was going forward, for it was plain that Mr. Wilmington and Colonel Marvin were conniving at the same point. Marvin had now gone to Mr. Gerrish, and had slipped into the pew beside him with the same sort of hand-shake he had given Putney.

“Will my friend Mr. Putney give way to me for a moment?” asked Mr. Wilmington.

“I don’t see why I should do that,” said Putney.

“I assure him that I will not abuse his courtesy, and that I will yield the floor to him at any moment.”

Putney hesitated a moment, and then, with the contented laugh of one who securely bides his time, said, “Go ahead.”

“It is simply this,” said Mr. Wilmington, with a certain formal neatness of speech: “The point has been touched by the last speaker, which I think suggested itself to all who heard the remarks of Brother Gerrish in support of his resolution, and the point is simply this — whether he has not misapplied the words of the discourse by which he felt himself aggrieved, and whether he has not given them a particular bearing foreign to the intention of their author. If, as I believe, this is the case, the whole matter can be easily settled by a private conference between the parties, and we can be saved the public appearance of disagreement in our society. And I would now ask Brother Gerrish, in behalf of many who take this view with me, whether he will not consent to reconsider the matter, and whether, in order to arrive at the end proposed, he will not, for the present at least, withdraw the resolution he has offered?”

Mr. Wilmington sat down amidst a general sensation, which was heightened by Putney’s failure to anticipate any action on Gerrish’s part. Gerrish rapidly finished something he was saying to Colonel Marvin, and then half rose, and said, “Mr. Moderator, I withdraw my resolution — for the time being, and — for the present, sir,” and sat down again.

“Mr. Moderator,” Putney called sharply, from his place, “this is altogether unparliamentary. That resolution is properly before the meeting. Its adoption has been moved and seconded, and it cannot be withdrawn without leave granted by a vote of the meeting. I wish to discuss the resolution in all its bearings, and I think there are a great many present who share with me a desire to know how far it represents the sense of this society. I don’t mean as to the supposed personal reflections which it was intended to punish; that is a very small matter, and as compared with the other questions involved, of no consequence whatever.” Putney tossed his head with insolent pleasure in his contempt of Gerrish. His nostrils swelled, and he closed his little jaws with a firmness that made his heavy black moustache hang down below the corners of his chin. He went on with a wicked twinkle in his eye, and a look all round to see that people were waiting to take his next point. “I judge my old friend Brother Gerrish by myself. My old friend Gerrish cares no more really about personal allusions than I do. What he really had at heart in offering his resolution was not any supposed attack upon himself or his shop from the pulpit of this church. He cared no more for that than I should care for a reference to my notorious habits. These are things that we feel may be safely left to the judgment, the charitable judgment, of the community, which will be equally merciful to the man who devours widows’ houses and to the man who ‘puts an enemy in his mouth to steal away his brains.’”

“Mr. Moderator,” said Colonel Marvin, getting upon his feet.

“No, sir!” shouted Putney fiercely; “I can’t allow you to speak. Wait till I get done!” He stopped, and then said gently “Excuse me, Colonel; I really must go on. I’m speaking now in behalf of Brother Gerrish, and he doesn’t like to have the speaking on his side interrupted.”

“Oh, all right,” said Colonel Marvin amiably; “go on.”

“What my old friend William Gerrish really designed in offering that resolution was to bring into question the kind of Christianity which has been preached in this place by our pastor — the one-sided gospel, as he aptly called it — and what he and I want to get at is the opinion of the society on that question. Has the gospel preached to us here been one-sided or hasn’t it? Brother Gerrish says it has, and Brother Gerrish, as I understand, doesn’t change his mind on that point, if he does on any, in asking to withdraw his resolution. He doesn’t expect Mr. Peck to convince him in a private conference that he has been preaching an all-round gospel. I don’t contend that he has; but I suppose I’m not a very competent judge. I don’t propose to give you the opinion of one very fallible and erring man, and I don’t set myself up in judgment of others; but I think it’s important for all parties concerned to know what the majority of this society think on a question involving its future. That importance must excuse — if anything can excuse — the apparent want of taste, of humanity, of decency, in proposing the inquiry at a meeting over which the person chiefly concerned would naturally preside, unless he were warned to absent himself. Nobody cares for the contemptible point, the wholly insignificant question, whether allusion to Mr. Gerrish’s variety store was intended or not. What we are all anxious to know is whether he represents any considerable portion of this society in his general attack upon its pastor. I want a vote on that, and I move the previous question.”

No one stopped to inquire whether this was parliamentary or not. Putney sat down, and Colonel Marvin rose to say that if a vote was to be taken, it was only right and just that Mr. Peck should somehow be heard in his own behalf, and half a dozen voices from all parts of the church supported him Mr. Peck, after a moment, said, “I think I have nothing to say;” and he added, “Shall I put the question?”

“Question!” “Question!” came from different quarters.

“It is moved and seconded that the resolution before the meeting be adopted,” said the minister formally. “All those in favour will say ay.” He waited for a distinct space, but there was no response; Mr. Gerrish himself did not vote. The minister proceeded, “Those opposed will say no.”

The word burst forth everywhere, and it was followed by laughter and inarticulate expressions of triumph and mocking. “Order! order!” called the minister gravely, and he announced, “The noes have it.”

The electric light began to suffer another syncope. When it recovered, with the usual fizzing and sputtering, Mr. Peck was on his feet, asking to be relieved from his duties as moderator, so that he might make a statement to the meeting. Colonel Marvin was voted into the chair, but refused formally to take possession of it. He stood up and said, “There is no place where we would rather hear you than in that pulpit, Mr. Peck.”

“I thank you,” said the minister, making himself heard through the approving murmur; “but I stand in this place only to ask to be allowed to leave it. The friendly feeling which has been expressed toward me in the vote upon the resolution you have just rejected is all that reconciles me to its defeat. Its adoption might have spared me a duty which I find painful. But perhaps it is best that I should discharge it. As to the sermon which called forth that resolution it is only just to say that I intended no personalities in it, and I humbly entreat any one who felt himself aggrieved to believe me.” Every one looked at Gerrish to see how he took this; he must have felt it the part of self-respect not to change countenance. “My desire in that discourse was, as always, to present the truth as I had seen it, and try to make it a help to all. But I am by no means sure that the author of the resolution was wrong in arraigning me before you for neglecting a very vital part of Christianity in my ministrations here. I think with him, that those who have made an open profession of Christ have a claim to the consolation of His promises, and to the support which good men have found in the mysteries of faith; and I ask his patience and that of others who feel that I have not laid sufficient stress upon these. My shortcoming is something that I would not have you overlook in any survey of my ministry among you; and I am not here now to defend that ministry in any point of view. As I look back over it, by the light of the one ineffable ideal, it seems only a record of failure and defeat.” He stopped, and a sympathetic dissent ran through the meeting. “There have been times when I was ready to think that the fault was not in me, but in my office, in the church, in religion. We all have these moments of clouded vision, in which we ourselves loom up in illusory grandeur above the work we have failed to do. But it is in no such error that I stand before you now. Day after day it has been borne in upon me that I had mistaken my work here, and that I ought, if there was any truth in me, to turn from it for reasons which I will give at length should I be spared to preach in this place next Sabbath. I should have willingly acquiesced if our parting had come in the form of my dismissal at your hands. Yet I cannot wholly regret that it has not taken that form, and that in offering my resignation, as I shall formally do to those empowered by the rules of our society to receive it, I can make it a means of restoring concord among you. It would be affectation in me to pretend that I did not know of the dissension which has had my ministry for its object if not its cause; and I earnestly hope that with my withdrawal that dissension may cease, and that this church may become a symbol before the world of the peace of Christ. I conjure such of my friends as have been active in my behalf to unite with their brethren in a cause which can alone merit their devotion. Above all things I beseech you to be at peace one with another. Forbear, forgive, submit, remembering that strife for the better part can only make it the worse, and that for Christians there can be no rivalry but in concession and self-sacrifice.”

Colonel Marvin forgot his office and all parliamentary proprieties in the tide of emotion that swept over the meeting when the minister sat down. “I am glad,” he said, “that no sort of action need be taken now upon Mr. Peck’s proposed resignation, which I for one cannot believe this society will ever agree to accept.”

Others echoed his sentiment; they spoke out, sitting and standing, and addressed themselves to no one, till Putney moved an adjournment, which Colonel Marvin sufficiently recollected himself to put to a vote, and declare carried.

Annie walked home with the Putneys and Dr. Morrell. She was aware of something unwholesome in the excitement which ran so wholly in Mr. Peck’s favour, but abandoned herself to it with feverish helplessness.

“Ah-h-h!” cried Putney, when they were free of the crowd which pressed upon him with questions and conjectures and comments. “What a slump! — what a slump! That blessed, short-legged little seraph has spoilt the best sport that ever was. Why, he’s sent that fool of a Gerrish home with the conviction that he was right in the part of his attack that was the most vilely hypocritical, and he’s given that heartless scoundrel the pleasure of feeling like an honest man. I should like to rap Mr. Peck’s head up against the back of his pulpit, and I should like to knock the skulls of Colonel Marvin and Mr. Wilmington together and see which was the thickest. Why, I had Gerrish fairly by the throat at last, and I was just reaching for the balm of Gilead with my other hand to give him a dose that would have done him for one while! Ah, it’s too bad, too bad! Well! well! But — haw! haw! haw! — didn’t Gerrish tangle himself up beautifully in his rhetoric? I guess we shall fix Brother Gerrish yet, and I don’t think we shall let Brother Peck off without a tussle. I’m going to try print on Brother Gerrish. I’m going to ask him in the Hatboro’ Register— he doesn’t advertise, and the editor’s as independent as a lion where a man don’t advertise —”

“Indeed he’s not going to do anything of the kind, Annie,” said Mrs. Putney. “I shall not let him. I shall make him drop the whole affair now, and let it die out, and let us be at peace again, as Mr. Peck says.”

“There seemed to be a good deal of sense in that part of it,” said Dr. Morrell. “I don’t know but he was right to propose himself as a peace-offering; perhaps there’s no other way out.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Putney, “whether he goes or stays, I think we owe him that much. Don’t you, Annie?”

“Oh yes!” sighed Annie, from the exaltation to which the events of the evening had borne her. “And we mustn’t let him go. It would be a loss that every one would feel; that —”

“I’m tired of this fighting,” Mrs. Putney broke in, “and I think it’s ruining Ralph every way. He hasn’t slept the last two nights, and he’s been all in a quiver for the last fortnight. For my part I don’t care what happens now, I’m not going to have Ralph mixed up in it any more. I think we ought all to forgive and forget. I’m willing to overlook everything, and I believe others are the same.”

“You’d better ask Mrs. Gerrish the next time she calls,” Putney interposed.

Mrs. Putney stopped, and took her hand from her husband’s arm. “Well, after what Mr. Gerrish said to-night about you, I don’t think Emmeline had better call very soon!”

“Ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha!” shrieked Putney, and his laugh flapped back at them in derisive echo from the house-front they were passing. “I guess Brother Peck had better stay and help fight it out. It won’t be all brotherly love after he goes — or sisterly either.”

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