Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 28

They went away together, leaving her to her despair, which had passed into a sort of torpor by the following night, when Dr. Morrell came again, out of what she knew must be mere humanity; he could not respect her any longer. He told her, as if for her comfort, that Putney had gone to the depot to meet Mr. Peck, who was expected back in the eight-o’clock train, and was to labour with him all night long if necessary to get him to change, or at least postpone, his purpose. The feeling in his favour was growing. Putney hoped to put it so strongly to him as a proof of duty that he could not resist it.

Annie listened comfortlessly. Whatever happened, nothing could take away the shame of her weakness now. She even wished, feebly, vaguely, that she might be forced to keep her word.

A sound of running on the gravel-walk outside and a sharp pull at the door-bell seemed to jerk them both to their feet.

Some one stepped into the hall panting, and the face of William Savor showed itself at the door of the room where they stood. “Doc — Doctor Morrell, come — come quick! There’s been an accident — at — the depot. Mr. — Peck —” He panted out the story, and Annie saw rather than heard how the minister tried to cross the track from his train, where it had halted short of the station, and the flying express from the other quarter caught him from his feet, and dropped the bleeding fragment that still held his life beside the rail a hundred yards away, and then kept on in brute ignorance into the night.

“Where is he? Where have you got him?” the doctor demanded of Savor.

“At my house.”

The doctor ran out of the house, and she heard his buggy whirl away, followed by the fainter sound of Savor’s feet as he followed running, after he had stopped to repeat his story to the Boltons. Annie turned to the farmer. “Mr. Bolton, get the carry-all. I must go.”

“And me too,” said his wife.

“Why, no, Pauliny; I guess you better stay. I guess it’ll come out all right in the end,” Bolton began. “I guess William has exaggerated some may be. Anyrate, who’s goin’ to look after the little girl if you come?”

I am,” Mrs. Bolton snapped back. “She’s goin’ with me.”

“Of course she is. Be quick, Mr. Bolton!” Annie called from the stairs, which she had already mounted half-way.

She caught up the child, limp with sleep, from its crib, and began to dress it. Idella cried, and fought away the hands that tormented her, and made herself now very stiff and now very lax; but Annie and Mrs. Bolton together prevailed against her, and she was dressed, and had fallen asleep again in her clothes while the women were putting on their hats and sacks, and Bolton was driving up to the door with the carry-all.

“Why, I can see,” he said, when he got out to help them in, “just how William’s got his idee about it. His wife’s an excitable kind of a woman, and she’s sent him off lickety-split after the doctor without looking to see what the matter was. There hain’t never been anybody hurt at our depot, and it don’t stand to reason —”

“Oliver Bolton, will you hush that noise?” shrieked his wife. “If the world was burnin’ up you’d say it was nothing but a chimbley on fire som’er’s.”

“Well, well, Pauliny, have it your own way, have it your own way,” said Bolton. “I ain’t sayin’ but what there’s somethin’ in William’s story; but you’ll see’t he’s exaggerated. Git up!”

“Well, do hurry, and do be still!” said his wife.

“Yes, yes. It’s all right, Pauliny; all right. Soon’s I’m out the lane, you’ll see’t I’ll drive fast enough.”

Mrs. Bolton kept a grim silence, against which her husband’s babble of optimism played like heat-lightning on a night sky.

Idella woke with the rush of cold air, and in the dark and strangeness began to cry, and wailed heart-breakingly between her fits of louder sobbing, and then fell asleep again before they reached the house where her father lay dying.

They had put him in the best bed in Mrs. Savor’s little guest-room, and when Annie entered, the minister was apologising to her for spoiling it.

“Now don’t you say one word, Mr. Peck,” she answered him. “It’s all right. I ruthah see you layin’ there just’s you be than plenty of folks that —” She stopped for want of an apt comparison, and at sight of Annie she said, as if he were a child whose mind was wandering: “Well, I declare, if here ain’t Miss Kilburn come to see you, Mr. Peck! And Mis’ Bolton! Well, the land!”

Mrs. Savor came and shook hands with them, and in her character of hostess urged them forward from the door, where they had halted. “Want to see Mr. Peck? Well, he’s real comf’table now; ain’t he, Dr. Morrell? We got him all fixed up nicely, and he ain’t in a bit o’ pain. It’s his spine that’s hurt, so’t he don’t feel nothin’; but he’s just as clear in his mind as what you or I be. Ain’t he, doctor?”

“He’s not suffering,” said Dr. Morrell, to whom Annie’s eye wandered from Mrs. Savor, and there was something in his manner that made her think the minister was not badly hurt. She went forward with Mr. and Mrs. Bolton, and after they had both taken the limp hand that lay outside the covering, she touched it too. It returned no pressure, but his large, wan eyes looked at her with such gentle dignity and intelligence that she began to frame in her mind an excuse for what seemed almost an intrusion.

“We were afraid you were hurt badly, and we thought — we thought you might like to see Idella — and so — we came. She is in the next room.”

“Thank you,” said the minister. “I presume that I am dying; the doctor tells me that I have but a few hours to live.”

Mrs. Savor protested, “Oh, I guess you ain’t a-goin’ to die this time, Mr. Peck.” Annie looked from Dr. Morrell to Putney, who stood with him on the other side of the bed, and experienced a shock from their gravity without yet being able to accept the fact it implied. “There’s plenty of folks,” continued Mrs. Savor, “hurt worse’n what you be that’s alive to-day and as well as ever they was.”

Bolton seized his chance. “It’s just what I said to Pauliny, comin’ along. ‘You’ll see,’ said I, ‘Mr. Peck’ll be out as spry as any of us before a great while.’ That’s the way I felt about it from the start.”

“All you got to do is to keep up courage,” said Mrs. Savor.

“That’s so; that’s half the battle,” said Bolton.

There were numbers of people in the room and at the door of the next. Annie saw Colonel Marvin and Jack Wilmington. She heard afterward that he was going to take the same train to Boston with Mr. Peck, and had helped to bring him to the Savors’ house. The stationmaster was there, and some other railroad employes.

The doctor leaned across the bed and lifted slightly the arm that lay there, taking the wrist between his thumb and finger. “I think we had better let Mr. Peck rest a while,” he said to the company generally, “We’re doing him no good.”

The people began to go; some of them said, “Well, good night!” as if they would meet again in the morning. They all made the pretence that it was a slight matter, and treated the wounded man as if he were a child. He did not humour the pretence, but said “Good-bye” in return for their “Good night” with a quiet patience.

Mrs. Savor hastened after her retreating guests. “I ain’t a-goin’ to let you go without a sup of coffee,” she said. “I want you should all stay and git some, and I don’t believe but what a little of it would do Mr. Peck good.”

The surface of her lugubrious nature was broken up, and whatever was kindly and cheerful in its depths floated to the top; she was almost gay in the demand which the calamity made upon her. Annie knew that she must have seen and helped to soothe the horror of mutilation which she could not even let her fancy figure, and she followed her foolish bustle and chatter with respectful awe.

“Rebecca’ll have it right off the stove in half a minute now,” Mrs. Savor concluded; and from a further room came the cheerful click of cups, and then a wandering whiff of the coffee; life in its vulgar kindliness touched and made friends with death, claiming it a part of nature too.

The night at Mrs. Munger’s came back to Annie from the immeasurable remoteness into which all the past had lapsed. She looked up at Dr. Morrell across the bed.

“Would you like to speak with Mr. Peck?” he asked officially. “Better do it now,” he said, with one of his short nods.

Putney came and set her a chair. She would have liked to fall on her knees beside the bed; but she took the chair, and drew the minister’s hand into hers, stretching her arm above his head on the pillow. He lay like some poor little wounded boy, like Putney’s Winthrop; the mother that is in every woman’s heart gushed out of hers in pity upon him, mixed with filial reverence. She had thought that she should confess her baseness to him, and ask his forgiveness, and offer to fulfil with the people he had chosen for the guardians of his child that interrupted purpose of his. But in the presence of death, so august, so simple, all the concerns of life seemed trivial, and she found herself without words. She sobbed over the poor hand she held. He turned his eyes upon her and tried to speak, but his lips only let out a moaning, shuddering sound, inarticulate of all that she hoped or feared he might prophesy to shape her future.

Life alone has any message for life, but from the beginning of time it has put its ear to the cold lips that must for ever remain dumb.

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