Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 29

The evening after the funeral Annie took Idella, with the child’s clothes and toys in a bundle, and Bolton drove them down Over the Track to the Savors’. She had thought it all out, and she perceived that whatever the minister’s final intention might have been, she was bound by the purpose he had expressed to her, and must give up the child. For fear she might be acting from the false conscientiousness of which she was beginning to have some notion in herself, she put the case to Mrs. Bolton. She knew what she must do in any event, but it was a comfort to be stayed so firmly in her duty by Mrs. Bolton, who did not spare some doubts of Mrs. Savor’s fitness for the charge, and reflected a subdued censure even upon the judgment of Mr. Peck himself, as she bustled about and helped Annie get Idella and her belongings ready. The child watched the preparations with suspicion. At the end, when she was dressed, and Annie tried to lift her into the carriage, she broke out in sudden rebellion; she cried, she shrieked, she fought; the two good women who were obeying the dead minister’s behest were obliged to descend to the foolish lies of the nursery; they told her she was going on a visit to the Savors, who would take her on the cars with them, and then bring her back to Aunt Annie’s house. Before they could reconcile her to this fabled prospect they had to give it verisimilitude by taking off her everyday clothes and putting on her best dress.

She did not like Mrs. Savor’s house when she came to it, nor Mrs. Savor, who stopped, all blowzed and work-deranged from trying to put it in order after the death in it, and gave Idella a motherly welcome. Annie fancied a certain surprise in her manner, and her own ideal of duty was put to proof by Mrs. Savor’s owning that she had not expected Annie to bring Idella to her right away.

“If I had not done it at once, I never could have done it,” Annie explained.

“Well, I presume it’s a cross,” said Mrs. Savor, “and I don’t feel right to take her. If it wa’n’t for what her father —”

“‘Sh!” Annie said, with a significant glance.

“It’s an ugly house!” screamed the child. “I want to go back to my Aunt Annie’s house. I want to go on the cars.”

“Yes, yes,” answered Mrs. Savor, blindly groping to share in whatever cheat had been practised on the child, “just as soon as the cars starts. Here, William, you take her out and show her the pretty coop you be’n makin’ the pigeons, to keep the cats out.”

They got rid of her with Savor’s connivance for the moment, and Annie hastened to escape.

“We had to tell her she was going a journey, or we never could have got her into the carriage,” she explained, feeling like a thief.

“Yes, yes. It’s all right,” said Mrs. Savor. “I see you’d be’n putting up some kind of job on her the minute she mentioned the cars. Don’t you fret any, Miss Kilburn. Rebecca and me’ll get along with her, you needn’t be afraid.”

Annie could not look at the empty crib where it stood in its alcove when she went to bed; and she cried upon her own pillow with heart-sickness for the child, and with a humiliating doubt of her own part in hurrying to give it up without thought of Mrs. Savor’s convenience. What had seemed so noble, so exemplary, began to wear another colour; and she drowsed, worn out at last by the swarming fears, shames, and despairs, which resolved themselves into a fantastic medley of dream images. There was a cat trying to get at the pigeons in the coop which Mr. Savor had carried Idella to see. It clawed and miauled at the lattice-work of lath, and its caterwauling became like the cry of a child, so like that it woke Annie from her sleep, and still kept on. She lay shuddering a moment; it seemed as if the dead minister’s ghost flitted from the room, while the crying defined and located itself more and more, till she knew it a child’s wail at the door of her house. Then she heard, “Aunt Annie! Aunt Annie!” and soft, faint thumps as of a little fist upon the door panels.

She had no experience of more than one motion from her bed to the door, which the same impulse flung open and let her crush to her breast the little tumult of sobs and moans from the threshold.

“Oh, wicked, selfish, heartless wretch!” she stormed out over the child. “But now I will never, never, never give you up! Oh, my poor little baby! my darling! God has sent you back to me, and I will keep you, I don’t care what happens! What a cruel wretch I have been — oh, what a cruel wretch, my pretty! — to tear you from your home! But now you shall never leave it; no one shall take you away.” She gripped it in a succession of fierce hugs, and mumbled it — face and neck, and little cold wet hands and feet — with her kisses; and all the time she did not know the child was in its night-dress like herself, or that her own feet were bare, and her drapery as scanty as Idella’s.

A sense of the fact evanescently gleamed upon her with the appearance of Mrs. Bolton, lamp in hand, and the instantaneous appearance and disappearance of her husband at the back door through which she emerged. The two women spent the first moments of the lamp-light in making certain that Idella was sound and whole in every part, and then in making uncertain for ever how she came to be there. Whether she had wandered out in her sleep, and found her way home with dream-led feet, or whether she had watched till the house was quiet, and then stolen away, was what she could not tell them, and must always remain a mystery.

“I don’t believe but what Mr. Bolton had better go and wake up the Savors. You got to keep her for the night, I presume, but they’d ought to know where she is, and you can take her over there agin, come daylight.”

Mrs. Bolton!” shouted Annie, in a voice so deep and hoarse that it shook the heart of a woman who had never known fear of man. “If you say such a thing to me — if you ever say such a thing again — I— I— I will hit you! Send Mr. Bolton for Idella’s things — right away!”

“Land!” said Mrs. Savor, when Bolton, after a long conciliatory preamble, explained that he did not believe Miss Kilburn felt a great deal like giving the child up again. “I don’t want it without it’s satisfied to stay. I see last night it was just breakin’ its heart for her, and I told William when we first missed her this mornin’, and he was in such a pucker about her, I bet anything he was a mind to that the child had gone back to Miss Kilburn’s. That’s just the words I used; didn’t I, Rebecca? I couldn’t stand it to have no child grievin’ around.”

Beyond this sentimental reluctance, Mrs. Savor later confessed to Annie herself that she was really accepting the charge of Idella in the same spirit of self-sacrifice as that in which Annie was surrendering it, and that she felt, when Mr. Peck first suggested it, that the child was better off with Miss Kilburn; only she hated to say so. Her husband seemed to think it would make up to her for the one they lost, but nothing could really do that.

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