Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 30

In a reverie of rare vividness following her recovery of the minister’s child, Annie Kilburn dramatised an escape from all the failures and humiliations of her life in Hatboro’. She took Idella with her and went back to Rome, accomplishing the whole affair so smoothly and rapidly that she wondered at herself for not having thought of such a simple solution of her difficulties before. She even began to put some little things together for her flight, while she explained to old friends in the American colony that Idella was the orphan child of a country minister, which she had adopted. That old lady who had found her motives in returning to Hatboro’ insufficient questioned her sharply why she had adopted the minister’s child, and did not find her answers satisfactory. They were such as also failed to pacify inquiry in Hatboro’, where Annie remained, in spite of her reverie; but people accepted the fact, and accounted for it in their own way, and approved it, even though they could not quite approve her.

The dramatic impressiveness of the minister’s death won him undisputed favour, yet it failed to establish unity in his society. Supply after supply filled his pulpit, but the people found them all unsatisfactory when they remembered his preaching, and could not make up their minds to any one of them. They were more divided than ever, except upon the point of regretting Mr. Peck. But they distinguished, in honouring his memory. They revered his goodness and his wisdom, but they regarded his conduct of life as unpractical. They said there never was a more inspired teacher, but it was impossible to follow him, and he could not himself have kept the course he had marked out. They said, now that he was beyond recall, no one else could have built up the church in Hatboro’ as he could, if he could only have let impracticable theories alone. Mr. Gerrish called many people to witness that this was what he had always said. He contended that it was the spirit of the gospel which you were to follow. He said that if Mr. Peck had gone to teaching among the mill hands, he would have been sick of it inside of six weeks; but he was a good Christian man, and no one wished less than Mr. Gerrish to reproach him for what was, after all, more an error of the head than the heart. His critics had it their own way in this, for he had not lived to offer that full exposition of his theory and justification of his purpose which he had been expected to give on the Sunday after he was killed; and his death was in no wise exegetic. It said no more to his people than it had said to Annie; it was a mere casualty; and his past life, broken and unfulfilled, with only its intimations and intentions of performance, alone remained.

When people learned, as they could hardly help doing from Mrs. Savor’s volubility, what his plan with regard to Idella had been, they instanced that in proof of the injuriousness of his idealism as applied to real life; and they held that she had been remanded in that strange way to Miss Kilburn’s charge for some purpose which she must not attempt to cross. As the minister had been thwarted in another intent by death, it was a sign that he was wrong in this too, and that she could do better by the child than he had proposed.

This was the sum of popular opinion; and it was further the opinion of Mrs. Gerrish, who gave more attention to the case than many others, that Annie had first taken the child because she hoped to get Mr. Peck, when she found she could not get Dr. Morrell; and that she would have been very glad to be rid of it if she had known how, but that she would have to keep it now for shame’s sake.

For shame’s sake certainly, Annie would have done several other things, and chief of these would have been never to see Dr. Morrell again. She believed that he not only knew the folly she had confessed to him, but that he had divined the cowardice and meanness in which she had repented it, and she felt intolerably disgraced before the thought of him. She had imagined mainly because of him that escape to Rome which never has yet been effected, though it might have been attempted if Idella had not wakened ill from the sleep she sobbed herself into when she found herself safe in Annie’s crib again.

She had taken a heavy cold, and she moped lifelessly about during the day, and drowsed early again in the troubled cough-broken slumber.

“That child ought to have the doctor,” said Mrs. Bolton, with the grim impartiality in which she masked her interference.

“Well,” said Annie helplessly.

At the end of the lung fever which followed, “It was a narrow chance,” said the doctor one morning; “but now I needn’t come any more unless you send for me.”

Annie stood at the door, where he spoke with his hand on the dash-board of his buggy before getting into it.

She answered with one of those impulses that come from something deeper than intention. “I will send for you, then — to tell you how generous you are,” and in the look with which she spoke she uttered the full meaning that her words withheld.

He flushed for pleasure of conscious desert, but he had to laugh and turn it off lightly. “I don’t think I could come for that. But I’ll look in to see Idella unprofessionally.”

He drove away, and she remained at her door looking up at the summer blue sky that held a few soft white clouds, such as might have overhung the same place at the same hour thousands of years before, and such as would lazily drift over it in a thousand years to come. The morning had an immeasurable vastness, through which some crows flying across the pasture above the house sent their voices on the spacious stillness. A perception of the unity of all things under the sun flashed and faded upon her, as such glimpses do. Of her high intentions, nothing had resulted. An inexorable centrifugality had thrown her off at every point where she tried to cling. Nothing of what was established and regulated had desired her intervention; a few accidents and irregularities had alone accepted it. But now she felt that nothing withal had been lost; a magnitude, a serenity, a tolerance, intimated itself in the universal frame of things, where her failure, her recreancy, her folly, seemed for the moment to come into true perspective, and to show venial and unimportant, to be limited to itself, and to be even good in its effect of humbling her to patience with all imperfection and shortcoming, even her own. She was aware of the cessation of a struggle that has never since renewed itself with the old intensity; her wishes, her propensities, ceased in that degree to represent evil in conflict with the portion of good in her; they seemed so mixed and interwoven with the good that they could no longer be antagonised; for the moment they seemed in their way even wiser and better, and ever after to be the nature out of which good as well as evil might come.

As she remained standing there, Mr. Brandreth came round the corner of the house, looking very bright and happy.

“Miss Kilburn,” he said abruptly, “I want you to congratulate me. I’m engaged to Miss Chapley.”

“Are you indeed, Mr. Brandreth? I do congratulate you with all my heart. She is a lovely girl.”

“Yes, it’s all right now,” said Mr. Brandreth. “I’ve come to tell you the first one, because you seemed to take an interest in it when I told you of the trouble about the Juliet. We hadn’t come to any understanding before that, but that seemed to bring us both to the point, and — and we’re engaged. Mother and I are going to New York for the winter; we think she can risk it; and at any rate she won’t be separated from me; and we shall be back in our little home next May. You know that I’m to be with Mr. Chapley in his business?”

“Why, no! This is great news, Mr. Brandreth! I don’t know what to say.”

“You’re very kind,” said the young man, and for the third or fourth time he wrung her hand. “It isn’t a partnership, of course; but he thinks I can be of use to him.”

“I know you can!” Annie adventured.

“We are very busy getting ready — nearly everybody else is gone — and mother sent her kindest regards — you know she don’t make calls — and I just ran up to tell you. Well, good-bye!”

Good-bye! Give my love to your mother, and to your-to Miss Chapley.”

“I will.” He hurried off, and then came running back. “Oh, I forgot! About the Social Union fund. You know we’ve got about two hundred dollars from the theatricals, but the matter seems to have stopped there, and some of us think there’d better be some other disposition of the money. Have you any suggestion to make?”

“No, none.”

“Then I’ll tell you. It’s proposed to devote the money to beautifying the grounds around the soldiers’ monument. They ought to be fenced and planted with flowers — turned into a little public garden. Everybody appreciates the interest you took in the Union, and we hoped you’d be pleased with that disposition of the money.”

“It is very kind,” said Annie, with a meek submission that must have made him believe she was deeply touched.

“As I’m not to be here this winter,” he continued, “we thought we had better leave the whole matter in your hands, and the money has been deposited in the bank subject to your order. It was Mrs. Munger’s idea. I don’t think she’s ever felt just right about that evening of the dramatics, don’t you know. Good-bye!”

He ran off to escape her thanks for this proof of confidence in her taste and judgment, and he was gone beyond her protest before she emerged from her daze into a full sense of the absurdity of the situation.

“Well, it’s a very simple matter to let the money lie in the bank,” said Dr. Morrell, who came that evening to make his first unprofessional visit, and received with pure amusement the account of the affair, which she gave him with a strong infusion of vexation.

“The way I was involved in this odious Social Union business from the first, and now have it left on my hands in the end, is maddening. Why, I can’t get rid of it!” she replied.

“Then, perhaps,” he comfortably suggested, “it’s a sign you’re not intended to get rid of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why don’t you go on,” he irresponsibly adventured further, “and establish a Social Union?”

“Do you mean it?”

“What was that notion of his”— they usually spoke of the minister pronominally —“about getting the Savors going in a co-operative boarding-house at Fall River? Putney said something about it.”

Annie explained, as she had heard it from him, and from the Savors since his death, the minister’s scheme for a club, in which the members should contribute the labour and the provisions, and should live cheaply and wholesomely under the management of the Savors at first, and afterward should continue them in charge, or not, as they chose. “He seemed to have thought it out very carefully. But I supposed, of course, it was unpractical.”

“Was that why you were going in for it?” asked the doctor; and then he spared her confusion in adding: “I don’t see why it was unpractical. It seems to me a very good notion for a Social Union. Why not try it here? There isn’t the same pressing necessity that there is in a big factory town; but you have the money, and you have the Savors to make a beginning.”

His tone was still half bantering; but it had become more and more serious, so that she could say in earnest: “But the money is one of the drawbacks. It was Mr. Peck’s idea that the working people ought to do it all themselves.”

“Well, I should say that two-thirds of that money in the bank had come from them. They turned out in great force to Mr. Brandreth’s theatricals. And wouldn’t it be rather high-handed to use their money for anything but the Union?”

“You don’t suppose,” said Annie hotly, “that I would spend a cent of it on the grounds of that idiotic monument? I would pay for having it blown up with dynamite! No, I can’t have anything more to do with the wretched affair. My touch is fatal.” The doctor laughed, and she added: “Besides, I believe most heartily with Mr. Peck that no person of means and leisure can meet working people except in the odious character of a patron, and if I didn’t respect them, I respect myself too much for that. If I were ready to go in with them and start the Social Union on his basis, by helping do house-work —scullion-work — for it, and eating and living with them, I might try; but I know from experience I’m not. I haven’t the need, and to pretend that I have, to forego my comforts and luxuries in a make-believe that I haven’t them, would be too ghastly a farce, and I won’t.”

“Well, then, don’t,” said the doctor, bent more perhaps on carrying his point in argument than on promoting the actual establishment of the Social Union. “But my idea is this: Take two-thirds or one-half of that money, and go to Savor, and say: ‘Here! This is what Mr. Brandreth’s theatricals swindled the shop-hands out of. It’s honestly theirs, at least to control; and if you want to try that experiment of Mr. Peck’s here in Hatboro’, it’s yours. We people of leisure, or comparative leisure, have really nothing in common with you people who work with your hands for a living; and as we really can’t be friends with you, we won’t patronise you. We won’t advise you, and we won’t help you; but here’s the money. If you fail, you fail; and if you succeed, you won’t succeed by our aid and comfort.’”

The plan that Annie and Doctor Morrell talked over half in joke took a more and more serious character in her sense of duty to the minister’s memory and the wish to be of use, which was not extinct in her, however she mocked and defied it. It was part of the irony of her fate that the people who were best able to counsel with her in regard to it were Lyra, whom she could not approve, and Jack Wilmington, whom she had always disliked. He was able to contribute some facts about the working of the Thayer Club at the Harvard Memorial Hall in Cambridge, and Lyra because she had been herself a hand, and would not forget it, was of use in bringing the scheme into favour with the hands. They felt easy with her, as they did with Putney, and for much the same reason: it is one of the pleasing facts of our conditions that people who are socially inferior like best those above them who are morally anomalous. It was really through Lyra that Annie got at the working people, and when it came to a formal conference, there was no one who could command their confidence like Putney, whom they saw mad-drunk two or three times a year, but always pulling up and fighting back to sanity against the enemy whose power some of them had felt too.

No theory is so perfect as not to be subject to exceptions in the experiment, and in spite of her conviction of the truth of Mr. Peck’s social philosophy, Annie is aware, through her simple and frank relations with the hands in a business matter, of mutual kindness which it does not account for. But perhaps the philosophy and the experiment were not contradictory; perhaps it was intended to cover only the cases in which they had no common interest. At anyrate, when the Peck Social Union, as its members voted to call it, at the suggestion of one of their own number, got in working order, she was as cordially welcomed to the charge of its funds and accounts as if she had been a hat-shop hand or a shoe-binder. She is really of use, for its working is by no means ideal, and with her wider knowledge she has suggested improvements and expedients for making both ends meet which were sometimes so reluctant to meet. She has kept a conscience against subsidising the Union from her own means; and she even accepts for her services a small salary, which its members think they ought to pay her. She owns this ridiculous, like all the make-believe work of rich people; a travesty which has no reality except the little sum it added to the greater sum of her superabundance. She is aware that she is a pensioner upon the real members of the Social Union for a chance to be useful, and that the work they let her do is the right of some one who needs it. She has thought of doing the work and giving the pay to another; but she sees that this would be pauperising and degrading another. So she dwells in a vicious circle, and waits, and mostly forgets, and is mostly happy.

The Social Union itself, though not a brilliant success in all points, is still not a failure; and the promise of its future is in the fact that it continues to have a present. The people of Hatboro’ are rather proud of it, and strangers visit it as one of the possible solutions of one of the social problems. It is predicted that it cannot go on; that it must either do better or do worse; but it goes on the same.

Putney studies its existence in the light of his own infirmity, to which he still yields from time to time, as he has always done. He professes to find there a law which would account for a great many facts of human experience otherwise inexplicable. He does not attempt to define this occult preservative principle, but he offers himself and the Social Union as proofs of its existence; and he argues that if they can only last long enough they will finally be established in a virtue and prosperity as great as those of Mr. Gerrish and his store.

Annie sometimes feels that nothing else can explain the maintenance of Lyra Wilmington’s peculiar domestic relations at the point which perpetually invites comment and never justifies scandal. The situation seems to her as lamentable as ever. She grieves over Lyra, and likes her, and laughs with her; she no longer detests Jack Wilmington so much since he showed himself so willing and helpful about the Social Union; she thinks there must be a great deal of good in him, and sometimes she is sorry for him, and longs to speak again to Lyra about the wrong she is doing him. One of the dangers of having a very definite point of view is the temptation of abusing it to read the whole riddle of the painful earth. Annie has permitted herself to think of Lyra’s position as one which would be impossible in a state of things where there was neither poverty nor riches, and there was neither luxury on one hand to allure, nor the fear of want to constrain on the other.

When her recoil from the fulfilment of her volunteer pledge to Mr. Peck brought her face to face with her own weakness, there were two ways back to self-respect, either of which she might take. She might revert to her first opinion of him, and fortify herself in that contempt and rejection of his ideas, or she might abandon herself to them, with a vague intention of reparation to him, and accept them to the last insinuation of their logic. This was what she did, and while her life remained the same outwardly, it was inwardly all changed. She never could tell by what steps she reached her agreement with the minister’s philosophy; perhaps, as a woman, it was not possible she should; but she had a faith concerning it to which she bore unswerving allegiance, and it was Putney’s delight to witness its revolutionary effect on an old Hatboro’ Kilburn, the daughter of a shrewd lawyer and canny politician like her father, and the heir of an aristocratic tradition, a gentlewoman born and bred. He declared himself a reactionary in comparison with her, and had the habit of taking the conservative side against her. She was in the joke of this; but it was a real trouble to her for a time that Dr. Morrell, after admitting the force of her reasons, should be content to rest in a comfortable inconclusion as to his conduct, till one day she reflected that this was what she was herself doing, and that she differed from him only in the openness with which she proclaimed her opinions. Being a woman, her opinions were treated by the magnates of Hatboro’ as a good joke, the harmless fantasies of an old maid, which she would get rid of if she could get anybody to marry her; being a lady, and very well off, they were received with deference, and she was left to their uninterrupted enjoyment. Putney amused himself by saying that she was the fiercest apostle of labour that never did a stroke of work; but no one cared half so much for all that as for the question whether her affair with Dr. Morrell was a friendship or a courtship. They saw an activity of attention on his part which would justify the most devout belief in the latter, and yet they were confronted with the fact that it so long remained eventless. The two theories, one that she was amusing herself with him, and the other that he was just playing with her, divided public opinion, but they did not molest either of the parties to the mystery; and the village, after a season of acute conjecture, quiesced into that sarcastic sufferance of the anomaly into which it may have been noticed that small communities are apt to subside from such occasions. Except for some such irreconcilable as Mrs. Gerrish, it was a good joke that if you could not find Dr. Morrell in his office after tea, you could always find him at Miss Kilburn’s. Perhaps it might have helped solve the mystery if it had been known that she could not accept the situation, whatever it really was, without satisfying herself upon two points, which resolved themselves into one in the process of the inquiry.

She asked, apparently as preliminary to answering a question of his, “Have you heard that gossip about my — being in — caring for the poor man?”

“Yes.”

“And did you — what did you think?”

“That it wasn’t true. I knew if there were anything in it, you couldn’t have talked him over with me.”

She was silent. Then she said, in a low voice: “No, there couldn’t have been. But not for that reason alone, though it’s very delicate and generous of you to think of it, very large-minded; but because it couldn’t have been. I could have worshipped him, but I couldn’t have loved him — any more,” she added, with an implication that entirely satisfied him, “than I could have worshipped you.”

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