Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 26

Annie knew from the light in the kitchen window that Mrs. Bolton, who had not gone to the meeting, was there, and she inferred from the silence of the house that Bolton had not yet come home. She went up to her room, and after a glance at Idella asleep in her crib, she began to lay off her things. Then she sat down provisionally by the open window, and looked out into the still autumnal night. The air was soft and humid, with a scent of smoke in it from remote forest fires. The village lights showed themselves dimmed by the haze that thickened the moonless dark.

She heard steps on the gravel of the lane, and then two men talking, one of whom she knew to be Bolton. In a little while the back entry door was opened and shut, and after a brief murmur of voices in the library Mrs. Bolton knocked on the door-jamb of the room where Annie sat.

“What is it, Mrs. Bolton?”

“You in bed yet?”

“No; I’m here by the window. What is it?”

“Well, I don’t know but what you’ll think it’s pretty late for callers, but Mr. Peck is down in the library. I guess he wants to speak with you about Idella. I told him he better see you.”

“I will come right down.”

She followed Mrs. Bolton to the foot of the stairs, where she kept on to the kitchen, while Annie turned into the library. Mr. Peck stood beside her father’s desk, resting one hand on it and holding his hat in the other.

“Won’t you be seated, Mr. Peck?”

“I thank you. It’s only for a moment. I am going away to-morrow, and I wish to speak with you about Idella.”

“Yes, certainly. But surely you are not going to leave Hatboro’, Mr. Peck! I hoped — we all did — that after what you had seen of the strong feeling in your favour to-night you would reconsider your determination and stay with us!” She went on impetuously. “You must know — you must understand now — how much good you can do here — more than any one else — more than you could do anywhere else. I don’t believe that you realise how much depends upon your staying here. You can’t stop the dissensions by going away; it will only make them worse. You saw how Colonel Marvin and Mr. Wilmington were with you; and Mr. Gates — all classes. I oughtn’t to speak — to attempt to teach you your duty; I’m not of your church; and I can only tell you how it seems to me: that you never can find another place where your principles — your views —”

He waited for her to go on; but she really had nothing more to say, and he began: “I am not hoping for another charge elsewhere, at least not for the present; but I am satisfied that my usefulness here is at an end, and I do not think that my going away will make matters worse. Whether I go or stay, the dissensions will continue. At any rate, I believe that there are those who need help more, and whom I can help more, in another field —”

“Yes,” she broke in, with a woman’s relevancy to the immediate point, “there is nothing to do here.”

He went on as if she had not spoken: “I am going to Fall River to-morrow, where I have heard that there is work for me —”

“In the mills!” she exclaimed, recurring in thought to what he had once said of his work in them. “Surely you don’t mean that!” The sight, the smell, the tumult of the work she had seen that day in the mill with Lyra came upon her with all their offence. “To throw away all that you have learnt, all that you have become to others!”

“I am less and less confident that I have become anything useful to others in turning aside from the life of toil and presuming to attempt the guidance of those who remained in it. But I don’t mean work in the mills,” he continued, “or not at first, or not unless it seems necessary to my work with those who work in them. I have a plan — or if it hardly deserves that name, a design — of being useful to them in such ways as my own experience of their life in the past shall show me in the light of what I shall see among them now. I needn’t trouble you with it.”

“Oh yes!” she interposed.

“I do not expect to preach at once, but only to teach in one of the public schools, where I have heard of a vacancy, and — and — perhaps otherwise. With those whose lives are made up of hard work there must be room for willing and peaceful service. And if it should be necessary that I should work in the mills in order to render this, then I will do so; but at present I have another way in view — a social way that shall bring me into immediate relations with the people.” She still tried to argue with him, to prove him wrong in going away, but they both ended where they began. He would not or could not explain himself further. At last he said: “But I did not come to urge this matter. I have no wish to impose my will, my theory, upon any one, even my own child.”

“Oh yes — Idella!” Annie broke in anxiously. “You will leave her with me, Mr. Peck, won’t you? You don’t know how much I’m attached to her. I see her faults, and I shall not spoil her. Leave her with me at least till you see your way clear to having her with you, and then I will send her to you.”

A trouble showed itself in his face, ordinarily so impassive, and he seemed at a loss how to answer her; but he said: “I— appreciate your kindness to her, but I shall not ask you to be at the inconvenience longer than till to-morrow. I have arranged with another to take her until I am settled, and then bring her to me.”

Annie sat intensely searching his face, with her lips parted to speak. “Another!” she said, and the wounded feeling, the resentment of his insensibility to her good-will, that mingled in her heart, must have made itself felt in her voice, for he went on reluctantly —

“It is a family in which she will be brought up to work and to be helpful to herself. They will join me with her. You know the mother — she has lost her own child — Mrs. Savor.”

At the name, Annie’s spirit fell; the tears started from her eyes. “Yes, she must have her. It is just — it is the only expiation. Don’t you remember that it was I who sent Mrs. Savor’s baby to the sea-shore, where it died?”

“No; I had forgotten,” said the minister, aghast. “I am sorry —”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Annie lifelessly; “it had to be.” After a pause, she asked quietly, “If Mrs. Savor is going to work in the mills, how can she make a home for the child?”

“She is not going into the mills,” he answered. “She will keep house for us all, and we hope to have others who are without homes of their own join us in paying the expenses and doing the work, so that all may share its comfort without gain to any one upon their necessity of food and shelter.”

She did not heed his explanation, but suddenly entreated: “Let me go with you. I will not be a trouble to you, and I will help as well as I can. I can’t give the child up! Why — why”— the thought, crazy as it would have once seemed, was now such a happy solution of the trouble that she smiled hopefully —“why shouldn’t I go with Mr. and Mrs. Savor, and help to make a home for Idella there? You will need money to begin your work; I will give you mine. I will give it up — I will give it all up. I will give it to any good object that you approve; or you may have it, to do what you think best with; and I will go with Idella and I will work in the mills there — or anything.”

He shook his head, and for the first time in their acquaintance he seemed to feel compassion for her. “It isn’t possible. I couldn’t take your money; I shouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“You know what to do with your own,” she broke in. “You do good with that!”

“I’m afraid I do harm with it too,” he returned. “It’s only a little, but little as it has been, I can no longer meet the responsibility it brings.”

“But if you took my money,” she urged, “you could devote your life to preaching the truth, to writing and publishing books, and all that; and so could others: don’t you see?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps others; but I have done with preaching for the present. Later I may have something to say. Now I feel sure of nothing, not even of what I’ve been saying here.”

“Will you send for Idella? When she goes with the Savors I will come too!”

He looked at her sorrowfully. “I think you are a good woman, and you mean what you say. But I am sorry you say it, if any words of mine have caused you to say it, for I know you cannot do it. Even for me it is hard to go back to those associations, and for you they would be impossible.”

“You will see,” she returned, with exaltation. “I will take Idella to the Savors’ to-morrow — or no; I’ll have them come here!”

He stood looking at her in perplexity. At last he asked, “Could I see the child?”

“Certainly!” said Annie, with the lofty passion that possessed her, and she led him up into the chamber where Idella lay sleeping in Annie’s own crib.

He stood beside it, gazing long at the little one, from whose eyes he shaded the lamp. Then he said, “I thank you,” and turned away.

She followed him down-stairs, and at the door she said: “You think I will not come; but I will come. Don’t you believe that?”

He turned sadly from her. “You might come, but you couldn’t stay. You don’t know what it is; you can’t imagine it, and you couldn’t bear it.”

“I will come, and I will stay,” she answered; and when he was gone she fell into one of those intense reveries of hers — a rapture in which she prefigured what should happen in that new life before her. At its end Mr. Peck stood beside her grave, reading the lesson of her work to the multitude of grateful and loving poor who thronged to pay the last tribute to her memory. Putney was there with his wife, and Lyra regretful of her lightness, and Mrs. Munger repentant of her mendacities. They talked together in awe-stricken murmurs of the noble career just ended. She heard their voices, and then she began to ask herself what they would really say of her proposing to go to Fall River with the Savors and be a mill-hand.

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