Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 3

The industry of making straw hats began at Hatboro’, as many other industries have begun in New England, with no great local advantages, but simply because its founder happened to live there, and to believe that it would pay. There was a railroad, and labour of the sort he wanted was cheap and abundant in the village and the outlying farms. In time the work came to be done more and more by machinery, and to be gathered into large shops. The buildings increased in size and number; the single line of the railroad was multiplied into four, and in the region of the tracks several large, ugly, windowy wooden bulks grew up for shoe shops; a stocking factory followed; yet this business activity did not warp the old village from its picturesqueness or quiet. The railroad tracks crossed its main street; but the shops were all on one side of them, with the work-people’s cottages and boarding-houses, and on the other were the simple, square, roomy old mansions, with their white paint and their green blinds, varied by the modern colour and carpentry of French-roofed villas. The old houses stood quite close to the street, with a strip of narrow door-yard before them; the new ones affected a certain depth of lawn, over which their owners personally pushed a clucking hand-mower in the summer evenings after tea. The fences had been taken away from the new houses, in the taste of some of the Boston suburbs; they generally remained before the old ones, whose inmates resented the ragged effect that their absence gave the street. The irregularity had hitherto been of an orderly and harmonious kind, such as naturally follows the growth of a country road into a village thoroughfare. The dwellings were placed nearer or further from the sidewalk as their builders fancied, and the elms that met in a low arch above the street had an illusive symmetry in the perspective; they were really set at uneven intervals, and in a line that wavered capriciously in and out. The street itself lounged and curved along, widening and contracting like a river, and then suddenly lost itself over the brow of an upland which formed a natural boundary of the village. Beyond this was South Hatboro’, a group of cottages built by city people who had lately come in — idlers and invalids, the former for the cool summer, and the latter for the dry winter. At chance intervals in the old village new side streets branched from the thoroughfare to the right and the left, and here and there a Queen Anne cottage showed its chimneys and gables on them. The roadway under the elms that kept it dark and cool with their hovering shade, and swept the wagon-tops with their pendulous boughs at places, was unpaved; but the sidewalks were asphalted to the last dwelling in every direction, and they were promptly broken out in winter by the public snow-plough.

Miss Kilburn saw them in the spring, when their usefulness was least apparent, and she did not know whether to praise the spirit of progress which showed itself in them as well as in other things at Hatboro’. She had come prepared to have misgivings, but she had promised herself to be just; she thought she could bear the old ugliness, if not the new. Some of the new things, however, were not so ugly; the young station-master was handsome in his railroad uniform, and pleasanter to the eye than the veteran baggage-master, incongruous in his stiff silk cap and his shirt sleeves and spectacles. The station itself, one of Richardson’s, massive and low, with red-tiled, spreading veranda roofs, impressed her with its fitness, and strengthened her for her encounter with the business architecture of Hatboro’, which was of the florid, ambitious New York type, prevalent with every American town in the early stages of its prosperity. The buildings were of pink brick, faced with granite, and supported in the first story by columns of painted iron; flat-roofed blocks looked down over the low-wooden structures of earlier Hatboro’, and a large hotel had pushed back the old-time tavern, and planted itself flush upon the sidewalk. But the stores seemed very good, as she glanced at them from her carriage, and their show-windows were tastefully arranged; the apothecary’s had an interior of glittering neatness unsurpassed by an Italian apothecary’s; and the provision-man’s, besides its symmetrical array of pendent sides and quarters indoors, had banks of fruit and vegetables without, and a large aquarium with a spraying fountain in its window.

Bolton, the farmer who had always taken care of the Kilburn place, came to meet her at the station and drive her home. Miss Kilburn had bidden him drive slowly, so that she could see all the changes, and she noticed the new town-hall, with which she could find no fault; the Baptist and Methodist churches were the same as of old; the Unitarian church seemed to have shrunk as if the architecture had sympathised with its dwindling body of worshippers; just beyond it was the village green, with the soldiers’ monument, and the tall white-painted flag-pole, and the four small brass cannon threatening the points of the compass at its base.

“Stop a moment, Mr. Bolton,” said Miss Kilburn; and she put her head quite out of the carriage, and stared at the figure on the monument.

It was strange that the first misgiving she could really make sure of concerning Hatboro’ should relate to this figure, which she herself was mainly responsible for placing there. When the money was subscribed and voted for the statue, the committee wrote out to her at Rome as one who would naturally feel an interest in getting something fit and economical for them. She accepted the trust with zeal and pleasure; but she overruled their simple notion of an American volunteer at rest, with his hands folded on the muzzle of his gun, as intolerably hackneyed and commonplace. Her conscience, she said, would not let her add another recruit to the regiment of stone soldiers standing about in that posture on the tops of pedestals all over the country; and so, instead of going to an Italian statuary with her fellow-townsmen’s letter, and getting him to make the figure they wanted, she doubled the money and gave the commission to a young girl from Kansas, who had come out to develop at Rome the genius recognised at Topeka. They decided together that it would be best to have something ideal, and the sculptor promptly imagined and rapidly executed a design for a winged Victory, poising on the summit of a white marble shaft, and clasping its hands under its chin, in expression of the grief that mingled with the popular exultation. Miss Kilburn had her doubts while the work went on, but she silenced them with the theory that when the figure was in position it would be all right.

Now that she saw it in position she wished to ask Mr. Bolton what was thought of it, but she could not nerve herself to the question. He remained silent, and she felt that he was sorry for her. “Oh, may I be very humble; may I be helped to be very humble!” she prayed under her breath. It seemed as if she could not take her eyes from the figure; it was such a modern, such an American shape, so youthfully inadequate, so simple, so sophisticated, so like a young lady in society indecorously exposed for a tableau vivant. She wondered if the people in Hatboro’ felt all this about it; if they realised how its involuntary frivolity insulted the solemn memory of the slain.

“Drive on, please,” she said gently.

Bolton pulled the reins, and as the horses started he pointed with his whip to a church at the other side of the green. “That’s the new Orthodox church,” he explained.

“Oh, is it?” asked Miss Kilburn. “It’s very handsome, I’m sure.” She was not sensible of admiring the large Romanesque pile very much, though it was certainly not bad, but she remembered that Bolton was a member of the Orthodox church, and she was grateful to him for not saying anything about the soldiers’ monument.

“We sold the old buildin’ to the Catholics, and they moved it down ont’ the side street.”

Miss Kilburn caught the glimmer of a cross where he beckoned, through the flutter of the foliage.

“They had to razee the steeple some to git their cross on,” he added; and then he showed her the high-school building as they passed, and the Episcopal chapel, of blameless church-warden’s Gothic, half hidden by its Japanese ivy, under a branching elm, on another side street.

“Yes,” she said, “that was built before we went abroad.”

“I disremember,” he said absently. He let the horses walk on the soft, darkly shaded road, where the wheels made a pleasant grinding sound, and set himself sidewise on his front seat, so as to talk to Miss Kilburn more at his ease.

“I d’know,” he began, after clearing his throat, with a conscious air, “as you know we’d got a new minister to our church.”

“No, I hadn’t heard of it,” said Miss Kilburn, with her mind full of the monument still. “But I might have heard and forgotten it,” she added. “I was very much taken up toward the last before I left Rome.”

“Well, come to think,” said Bolton; “I don’t know’s you’d had time to heard. He hain’t been here a great while.”

“Is he — satisfactory?” asked Miss Kilburn, feeling how far from satisfactory the Victory was, and formulating an explanatory apology to the committee in her mind.

“Oh yes, he’s satisfactory enough, as far forth as that goes. He’s talented, and he’s right up with the times. Yes, he’s progressive. I guess they got pretty tired of Mr. Rogers, even before he died; and they kept the supply a-goin’ till — all was blue, before they could settle on anybody. In fact they couldn’t seem to agree on anybody till Mr. Peck come.”

Miss Kilburn had got as far, in her tacit interview with the committee, as to have offered to replace at her own expense the Victory with a Volunteer, and she seemed to be listening to Bolton with rapt attention.

“Well, it’s like this,” continued the farmer. “He’s progressive in his idees, ‘n’ at the same time he’s spiritual-minded; and so I guess he suits pretty well all round. Of course you can’t suit everybody. There’s always got to be a dog in the manger, it don’t matter where you go. But if anybody was to ask me, I should say Mr. Peck suited. Yes, I don’t know but what I should.”

Miss Kilburn instantaneously closed her transaction with the committee, removed the Victory, and had the Volunteer unveiled with appropriate ceremonies, opened with prayer by the Rev. Mr. Peck.

“Peck?” she said. “Did you tell me his name was Peck?”

“Yes, ma’am; Rev. Julius W. Peck. He’s from down Penobscotport way, in Maine. I guess he’s all right.”

Miss Kilburn did not reply. Her mind had been taken off the monument for the moment by her dislike for the name of the new minister, and the Victory had seized the opportunity to get back.

Bolton sighed deeply, and continued in a strain whose diffusiveness at last became perceptible to Miss Kilburn through her own humiliation. “There’s some in every community that’s bound to complain, I don’t care what you do to accommodate ’em; and what I done, I done as much to stop their clack as anything, and give him the right sort of a start off, an’ I guess I did. But Mis’ Bolton she didn’t know but what you’d look at it in the light of a libbutty, and I didn’t know but what you would think I no business to done it.”

He seemed to be addressing a question to her, but she only replied with a dazed frown, and Bolton was obliged to go on.

“I didn’t let him room in your part of the house; that is to say, not sleep there; but I thought, as you was comin’ home, and I better be airin’ it up some, anyway, I might as well let him set in the old Judge’s room. If you think it was more than I had a right to do, I’m willin’ to pay for it. Git up!” Bolton turned fully round toward his horses, to hide the workings of emotion in his face, and shook the reins like a desperate man.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Bolton?” cried Miss Kilburn. “Whom are you talking about?”

Bolton answered, with a kind of violence, “Mr. Peck; I took him to board, first off.”

“You took him to board?”

“Yes. I know it wa’n’t just accordin’ to the letter o’ the law, and the old Judge was always pootty p’tic’lah. But I’ve took care of the place goin’ on twenty years now, and I hain’t never had a chick nor a child in it before. The child,” he continued, partly turning his face round again, and beginning to look Miss Kilburn in the eye, “wa’n’t one to touch anything, anyway, and we kep’ her in our part all the while; Mis’ Bolton she couldn’t seem to let her out of her sight, she got so fond of her, and she used to follow me round among the hosses like a kitten. I declare, I miss her.”

Bolton’s face, the colour of one of the lean ploughed fields of Hatboro’, and deeply furrowed, lighted up with real feeling, which he tried to make go as far in the work of reconciling Miss Kilburn as if it had been factitious.

“But I don’t understand,” she said. “What child are you talking about?”

“Mr. Peck’s.”

“Was he married?” she asked, with displeasure, she did not know why.

“Well, yes, he had been,” answered Bolton. “But she’d be’n in the asylum ever since the child was born.”

“Oh,” said Miss Kilburn, with relief; and she fell back upon the seat from which she had started forward.

Bolton might easily have taken her tone for that of disgust. He faced round upon her once more. “It was kind of queer, his havin’ the child with him, an’ takin’ most the care of her himself; and so, as I say, Mis’ Bolton and me we took him in, as much to stop folks’ mouths as anything, till they got kinder used to it. But we didn’t take him into your part, as I say; and as I say, I’m willin’ to pay you whatever you say for the use of the old Judge’s study. I presume that part of it was a libbutty.”

“It was all perfectly right, Mr. Bolton,” said Miss Kilburn.

“His wife died anyway, more than a year ago,” said Bolton, as if the fact completed his atonement to Miss Kilburn, “Git ep! I told him from, the start that it had got to be a temporary thing, an’ ‘t I only took him till he could git settled somehow. I guess he means to go to house-keepin’, if he can git the right kind of a house-keeper; he wants an old one. If it was a young one, I guess he wouldn’t have any great trouble, if he went about it the right way.” Bolton’s sarcasm was merely a race sarcasm. He was a very mild man, and his thick-growing eyelashes softened and shadowed his grey eyes, and gave his lean face pathos.

“You could have let him stay till he had found a suitable place,” said Miss Kilburn.

“Oh, I wa’n’t goin’ to do that,” said Bolton. “But I’m ‘bliged to you just the same.”

They came up in sight of the old square house, standing back a good distance from the road, with a broad sweep of grass sloping down before it into a little valley, and rising again to the wall fencing the grounds from the street. The wall was overhung there by a company of magnificent elms, which turned and formed one side of the avenue leading to the house. Their tops met and mixed somewhat incongruously with those of the stiff dark maples which more densely shaded the other side of the lane.

Bolton drove into their gloom, and then out into the wide sunny space at the side of the house where Miss Kilburn had alighted so often with her father. Bolton’s dog, grown now so very old as to be weak-minded, barked crazily at his master, and then, recognising him, broke into an imbecile whimper, and went back and coiled his rheumatism up in the sun on a warm stone before the door. Mrs. Bolton had to step over him as she came out, formally supporting her right elbow with her left hand as she offered the other in greeting to Miss Kilburn, with a look of question at her husband.

Miss Kilburn intercepted the look, and began to laugh.

All was unchanged, and all so strange; it seemed as if her father must both get down with her from the carriage and come to meet her from the house. Her glance involuntarily took in the familiar masses and details; the patches of short tough grass mixed with decaying chips and small weeds underfoot, and the spacious June sky overhead; the fine network and blisters of the cracking and warping white paint on the clapboarding, and the hills beyond the bulks of the village houses and trees; the woodshed stretching with its low board arches to the barn, and the milk-pans tilted to sun against the underpinning of the L, and Mrs. Bolton’s pot plants in the kitchen window.

“Did you think I could be hard about such a thing as that? It was perfectly right. O Mrs. Bolton!” She stopped laughing and began to cry; she put away Mrs. Bolton’s carefully offered hand, she threw herself upon the bony structure of her bosom, and buried her face sobbing in the leathery folds of her neck.

Mrs. Bolton suffered her embrace above the old dog, who fled with a cry of rheumatic apprehension from the sweep of Miss Kilburn’s skirts, and then came back and snuffed at them in a vain effort to recall her.

“Well, go in and lay down by the stove,” said Mrs. Bolton, with a divided interest, while she beat Miss Kilburn’s back with her bony palm in sign of sympathy. But the dog went off up the lane, and stood there by the pasture bars, barking abstractedly at intervals.

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