Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 27

Annie did not sleep. After lying a long time awake she took some of the tonic that Dr. Morrell had left her, upon the chance that it might quiet her; but it did no good. She dressed herself, and sat by the window till morning.

The breaking day showed her purposes grotesque and monstrous. The revulsion that must come, came with a tide that swept before it all prepossessions, all affections. It seemed as if the child, still asleep in her crib, had heard what she said, and would help to hold her to her word.

She choked down a crust of bread with the coffee she drank at breakfast, and instead of romping with Idella at her bath, she dressed the little one silently, and sent her out to Mrs. Bolton. Then she sat down again in the sort of daze in which she had spent the night, and as the day passed, her revolt from what she had pledged herself to do mounted and mounted. It was like the sort of woman she was, not to think of any withdrawal from her pledges; they were all the more sacred with her because they had been purely voluntary, insistent; the fact that they had been refused made them the more obligatory.

She thought some one would come to break in upon the heavy monotony of the time; she expected Ralph or Ellen, or at least Lyra; but she only saw Mrs. Bolton, and heard her about her work. Sometimes the child stole back from the kitchen or the barn, and peeped in upon her with a roguish expectance which her gloomy stare defeated, and then it ran off again.

She lay down in the afternoon and tried to sleep; but her brain was inexorably alert, and she lay making inventory of all the pleasant things she was to leave for that ugly fate she had insisted on. A swarm of fancies gave every detail of the parting dramatic intensity. Amidst the poignancy of her regrets, her shame for her recreancy was sharper still.

By night she could bear it no longer. It was Dr. Morrell’s custom to come nearly every night; but she was afraid, because he had walked home with her from the meeting the night before, he might not come now, and she sent for him. It was in quality of medicine-man, as well as physician, that she wished to see him; she meant to tell him all that had passed with Mr. Peck; and this was perfectly easy in the interview she forecast; but at the sound of his buggy wheels in the lane a thought came that seemed to forbid her even to speak of Mr. Peck to him. For the first time it occurred to her that the minister might have inferred a meaning from her eagerness and persistence infinitely more preposterous than even the preposterous letter of her words. A number of little proofs of the conjecture flashed upon her: his anxiety to get away from her, his refusal to let her believe in her own constancy of purpose, his moments of bewilderment and dismay. It needed nothing but this to add the touch of intolerable absurdity to the horror of the whole affair, and to snatch the last hope of help from her.

She let Mrs. Bolton go to the door, and she did not rise to meet the doctor; she saw from his smile that he knew he had a moral rather than a physical trouble to deal with, but she did not relax the severity of her glare in sympathy, as she was tempted from some infinite remoteness to do.

When he said, “You’re not well,” she whispered solemnly back, “Not at all.”

He did not pursue his inquiry into her condition, but said, with an irrelevant cheerfulness that piqued her, “I was coming here this evening at any rate, and I got your message on the way up from my office.”

“You are very kind,” she said, a little more audibly.

“I wanted to tell you,” he went on, “of what a time Putney and I have had to-day working up public sentiment for Mr. Peck, so as to keep him here.”

Annie did not change her position, but the expression of her glance changed.

“We’ve been round in the enemy’s camp, everywhere; and I’ve committed Gerrish himself to an armed neutrality. That wasn’t difficult. The difficulty was in another quarter — with Mr. Peck himself. He’s more opposed than any one else to his stay in Hatboro’. You know he intended going away this morning?”

“Did he?” Annie asked dishonestly. The question obliged her to say something.

“Yes. He came to Putney before breakfast to thank him and take leave of him, and to tell him of the plan he had for — Imagine what!”

“I don’t know,” said Annie, hoarsely, after an effort, as if the untruth would not come easily. “I am worse than Mrs. Munger,” she thought.

“For going to Fall River to teach school among the mill-hands’ children! And to open a night-school for the hands themselves.”

The doctor waited for her sensation, and in its absence he looked so disappointed that she was forced to say, “To teach school?”

Then he went on briskly again. “Yes. Putney laboured with him on his knees, so to speak, and got him to postpone his going till to-morrow morning; and then he came to me for help. We enlisted Mrs. Wilmington in the cause, and we’ve spent the day working up the Peck sentiment to a fever-heat. It’s been a very queer campaign; three Gentiles toiling for a saint against the elect, and bringing them all over at last. We’ve got a paper, signed by a large majority of the members of the church — the church, not the society — asking Mr. Peck to remain; and Putney’s gone to him with the paper, and he’s coming round here to report Mr. Peck’s decision. We all agreed that it wouldn’t do to say anything about his plan for the future, and I fancy some of his people signed our petition under the impression that they were keeping a valuable man out of another pulpit.”

Annie accompanied the doctor’s words, which she took in to the last syllable, with a symphony of conjecture as to how the change in Mr. Peck’s plans, if they prevailed with him, would affect her, and the doctor had not ceased to speak before she perceived that it would be deliverance perfect and complete, however inglorious. But the tacit drama so vividly preoccupied her with its minor questions of how to descend to this escape with dignity that still she did not speak, and he took up the word again.

“I confess I’ve had my misgivings about Mr. Peck, and about his final usefulness in a community like this. In spite of all that Putney can say of his hard-headedness, I’m afraid that he’s a good deal of a dreamer. But I gave way to Putney, and I hope you’ll appreciate what I’ve done for your favourite.”

“You are very good,” she said, in mechanical acknowledgment: her mind was set so strenuously to break from her dishonest reticence that she did not know really what she was saying. “Why — why do you call him a dreamer?” She cast about in that direction at random.

“Why? Well, for one thing, the reason he gave Putney for giving up his luxuries here: that as long as there was hardship and overwork for underpay in the world, he must share them. It seems to me that I might as well say that as long as there were dyspepsia and rheumatism in the world, I must share them. Then he has a queer notion that he can go back and find instruction in the working-men — that they alone have the light and the truth, and know the meaning of life. I don’t say anything against them. My observation and my experience is that if others were as good as they are in the ratio of their advantages, Mr. Peck needn’t go to them for his ideal. But their conditions warp and dull them; they see things askew, and they don’t see them clearly. I might as well expose myself to the small-pox in hopes of treating my fellow-sufferers more intelligently.”

She could not perceive where his analogies rang false; they only overwhelmed her with a deeper sense of her own folly.

“But I don’t know,” he went on, “that a dreamer is such a desperate character, if you can only keep him from trying to realise his dreams; and if Mr. Peck consents to stay in Hatboro’, perhaps we can manage it.” He drew his chair a little toward the lounge where she reclined, and asked, with the kindliness that was both personal and professional, “What seems to be the matter?”

She started up. “There is nothing — nothing that medicine can help. Why do you call him my favourite?” she demanded violently. “But you have wasted your time. If he had made up his mind to what you say, he would never give it up — never in the world!” she added hysterically. “If you’ve interfered between any one and his duty in this world, where it seems as if hardly any one had any duty, you’ve done a very unwarrantable thing.” She was aware from his stare that her words were incoherent, if not from the words themselves, but she hurried on: “I am going with him. He was here last night, and I told him I would. I will go with the Savors, and we will keep the child together; and if they will take me, I shall go to work in the mills; and I shall not care what people think, if it’s right —”

She stopped and weakly dropped back on the lounge, and hid her face in the pillow.

“I really don’t understand.” The doctor began, with a physician’s carefulness, to unwind the coil she had flung down to him. “Are the Savors going, and the child?”

“He will give her the child for the one they lost — you know how! And they will take it with them.”

“But you — what have you —”

“I must have the child too! I can’t give it up, and I shall go with them. There’s no other way. You don’t know. I’ve given him my word, and there is no hope!”

“He asked you,” said the doctor, to make sure he had heard aright —“he asked you — advised you — to go to work in a cotton-mill?”

“No;” she lifted her face to confront him. “He told me not to go; but I said I would.”

They sat staring at each other in a silence which neither of them broke, and which promised to last indefinitely. They were still in their daze when Putney’s voice came through the open hall door.

“Hello! hello! hello! Hello, Central! Can’t I make you hear, any one?” His steps advanced into the hall, and he put his head in at the library doorway. “Thought you’d be here,” he said, nodding at the doctor. “Well, doctor, Brother Peck’s beaten us again. He’s going.”

“Going?” the doctor echoed.

“Yes. It’s no use. I put the whole case before him, and I argued it with a force of logic that would have fetched the twelfth man with eleven stubborn fellows against him on a jury; but it didn’t fetch Brother Peck. He was very appreciative and grateful, but he believes he’s got a call to give up the ministry, for the present at least. Well, there’s some consolation in supposing he may know best, after all. It seemed to us that he had a great opportunity in Hatboro’, but if he turns his back on it, perhaps it’s a sign he wasn’t equal to it. The doctor told you what we’ve been up to, Annie?”

“Yes,” she answered faintly, from the depths of the labyrinth in which she was plunged again.

“I’m sorry for your news about him,” said the doctor. “I hoped he was going to stay. It’s always a pity when such a man lets his sympathies use him instead of using them. But we must always judge that kind of crank leniently, if he doesn’t involve other people in his erase.”

She knew that he was shielding and trying to spare her, and she felt inexpressibly degraded by the terms of his forbearance. She could not accept, and she had not the strength to refuse it; and Putney said: “I’ve not seen anything to make me doubt his sanity; but I must say the present racket shakes my faith in his common-sense, and I rather held by that, you know. But I suppose no man, except the kind of a man that a woman would be if she were a man — excuse me, Annie — is ever absolutely right. I suppose the truth is a constitutional thing, and you can’t separate it from the personal consciousness, and so you get it coloured and heated by personality when you get it fresh. That is, we can see what the absolute truth was, but never what it is.”

Putney amused himself in speculating on these lines with more or less reference to Mr. Peck, and did not notice that the doctor and Annie gave him only a silent assent. “As to misleading any one else, Mr. Peck’s following in his new religion seems to be confined to the Savors, as I understand. They are going with him to help him set up a sort of cooperative boarding-house. Well, I don’t know where we shall get a hotter gospeller than Brother Peck. Poor old fellow! I hope he’ll get along better in Fall River. It is something to be out of reach of Gerrish.”

The doctor asked, “When is he going?”

“Why, he’s gone by this time, I suppose,” said Putney. “I tried to get him to think about it overnight, but he wouldn’t. He’s anxious to go and get back, so as to preach his last sermon here Sunday, and he’s taken the 9.10, if he hasn’t changed his mind.” Putney looked at his watch.

“Let’s hope he hasn’t,” said Dr. Morrell.

“Which?” asked Putney.

“Changed his mind. I’m sorry he’s coming back.”

Annie knew that he was talking at her, though he spoke to Putney; but she was powerless to protest.

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