Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 4

Miss Kilburn found that the house had been well aired for her coming, but an old earthy and mouldy smell, which it took days and nights of open doors and windows to drive out, stole back again with the first turn of rainy weather. She had fires built on the hearths and in the stoves, and after opening her trunks and scattering her dresses on beds and chairs, she spent most of the first week outside of the house, wandering about the fields and orchards to adjust herself anew to the estranged features of the place. The house she found lower-ceiled and smaller than she remembered it. The Boltons had kept it up very well, and in spite of the earthy and mouldy smell, it was conscientiously clean. There was not a speck of dust anywhere; the old yellowish-white paint was spotless; the windows shone. But there was a sort of frigidity in the perfect order and repair which repelled her, and she left her things tossed about, as if to break the ice of this propriety. In several places, within and without, she found marks of the faithful hand of Bolton in economical patches of the woodwork; but she was not sure that they had not been there eleven years before; and there were darnings in the carpets and curtains, which affected her with the same mixture of novelty and familiarity. Certain stale smells about the place (minor smells as compared with the prevalent odour) confused her; she could not decide whether she remembered them of old, or was reminded of the odours she used to catch in passing the pantry on the steamer.

Her father had never been sure that he would not return any next year or month, and the house had always been ready to receive them. In his study everything was as he left it. His daughter looked for signs of Mr. Peck’s occupation, but there were none; Mrs. Bolton explained that she had put him in a table from her own sitting-room to write at. The Judge’s desk was untouched, and his heavy wooden arm-chair stood pulled up to it as if he were in it. The ranks of law-books, in their yellow sheepskin, with their red titles above and their black titles below, were in the order he had taught Mrs. Bolton to replace them in after dusting; the stuffed owl on a shelf above the mantel looked down with a clear solemnity in its gum-copal eyes, and Mrs. Bolton took it from its perch to show Miss Kilburn that there was not a moth on it, nor the sign of a moth.

Miss Kilburn experienced here that refusal of the old associations to take the form of welcome which she had already felt in the earth and sky and air outside; in everything there was a sense of impassable separation. Her dead father was no nearer in his wonted place than the trees of the orchard, or the outline of the well-known hills, or the pink of the familiar sunsets. In her rummaging about the house she pulled open a chest of drawers which used to stand in the room where she slept when a child. It was full of her own childish clothing, a little girl’s linen and muslin; and she thought with a throe of despair that she could as well hope to get hack into these outgrown garments, which the helpless piety of Mrs. Bolton had kept from the rag-bag, as to think of re-entering the relations of the life so long left off.

It surprised her to find how cold the Boltons were; she had remembered them as always very kind and willing; but she was so used now to the ways of the Italians and their showy affection, it was hard for her to realise that people could be both kind and cold. The Boltons seemed ashamed of their feelings, and hid them; it was the same in some degree with all the villagers when she began to meet them, and the fact slowly worked back into her consciousness, wounding its way in. People did not come to see her at once. They waited, as they told her, till she got settled, before they called, and then they did not appear very glad to have her back.

But this was not altogether the effect of their temperament. The Kilburns had made a long summer always in Hatboro’, and they had always talked of it as home; but they had never passed a whole year there since Judge Kilburn first went to Congress, and they were not regarded as full neighbours or permanent citizens. Miss Kilburn, however, kept up her childhood friendships, and she and some of the ladies called one another by their Christian names, but they believed that she met people in Washington whom she liked better; the winters she spent there certainly weakened the ties between them, and when it came to those eleven years in Rome, the letters they exchanged grew rarer and rarer, till they stopped altogether. Some of the girls went away; some died; others became dead and absent to her in their marriages and household cares.

After waiting for one another, three of them came together to see her one day. They all kissed her, after a questioning glance at her face and dress, as if they wanted to see whether she had grown proud or too fashionable. But they were themselves apparently much better dressed, and certainly more richly dressed. In a place like Hatboro’, where there is no dinner-giving, and evening parties are few, the best dress is a street costume, which may be worn for calls and shopping, and for church and all public entertainments. The well-to-do ladies make an effect of outdoor fashion, in which the poorest shop hand has her part; and in their turn they share her indoor simplicity. These old friends of Annie’s wore bonnets and frocks of the latest style and costly material.

They let her make the advances, receiving them with blank passivity, or repelling them with irony, according to the several needs of their self-respect, and talking to one another across her. One of them asked her when her hair had begun to turn, and they each told her how thin she was, but promised her that Hatboro’ air would bring her up. At the same time they feigned humility in regard to everything about Hatboro’ but the air; they laughed when she said she intended now to make it her home the whole year round, and said they guessed she would be tired of it long before fall; there were plenty of summer folks that passed the winter as long as the June weather lasted. As they grew more secure of themselves, or less afraid of one another in her presence, their voices rose; they laughed loudly at nothing, and they yelled in a nervous chorus at times, each trying to make herself heard above the others.

She asked them about the social life in the village, and they told her that a good many new people had really settled there, but they did not know whether she would like them; they were not the old Hatboro’ style. Annie showed them some of the things she had brought home, especially Roman views, and they said now she ought to give an evening in the church parlour with them.

“You’ll have to come to our church, Annie,” said Mrs. Putney. “The Unitarian doesn’t have preaching once in a month, and Mr. Peck is very liberal.”

“He’s ‘most too liberal for some,” said Emmeline Gerrish. Of the three she had grown the stoutest, and from being a slight, light-minded girl, she had become a heavy matron, habitually censorious in her speech. She did not mean any more by it, however, than she did by her girlish frivolity, and if she was not supported in her severity, she was apt to break down and disown it with a giggle, as she now did.

“Well, I don’t know about his being too liberal,” said Mrs. Wilmington, a large red-haired blonde, with a lazy laugh. “He makes you feel that you’re a pretty miserable sinner.” She made a grimace of humorous disgust.

“Mr. Gerrish says that’s just the trouble,” Mrs. Gerrish broke in. “Mr. Peck don’t put stress enough on the promises. That’s what Mr. Gerrish says. You must have been surprised, Annie,” she added, “to find that he’d been staying in your house.”

“I was glad Mrs. Bolton invited him,” answered Annie sincerely, but not instantly.

The ladies waited, with an exchange of glances, for her reply, as if they had talked the matter over beforehand, and had agreed to find out just how Annie Kilburn felt about it.

“Oh, I guess he paid his board,” said Mrs. Wilmington, jocosely rejecting the implication that he had been the guest of the Boltons.

“I don’t see what he expects to do with that little girl of his, without any mother, that way,” said Mrs. Gerrish. “He ought to get married.”

“Perhaps he will, when he’s waited a proper time,” suggested Mrs. Putney demurely.

“Well, his wife’s been the same as dead ever since the child was born. I don’t know what you call a proper time, Ellen,” argued Mrs. Gerrish.

“I presume a minister feels differently about such things,” Mrs. Wilmington remarked indolently.

“I don’t see why a minister should feel any different from anybody else,” said Mrs. Gerrish. “It’s his duty to do it on his child’s account. I don’t see why he don’t have the remains brought to Hatboro’, anyway.”

They debated this point at some length, and they seemed to forget Annie. She listened with more interest than her concern in the last resting-place of the minister’s dead wife really inspired. These old friends of hers seemed to have lost the sensitiveness of their girlhood without having gained tenderness in its place. They treated the affair with a nakedness that shocked her. In the country and in small towns people come face to face with life, especially women. It means marrying, child-bearing, household cares and burdens, neighbourhood gossip, sickness, death, burial, and whether the corpse appeared natural. But ever so much kindness goes with their disillusion; they are blunted, but not embittered.

They ended by recalling Annie to mind, and Mrs. Putney said: “I suppose you haven’t been to the cemetery yet? I They’ve got it all fixed up since you went away — drives laid out, and paths cut through, and everything. A good many have put up family tombs, and they’ve taken away the old iron fences round the lots, and put granite curbing. They mow the grass all the time. It’s a perfect garden.” Mrs. Putney was a small woman, already beginning to wrinkle. She had married a man whom Annie remembered as a mischievous little boy, with a sharp tongue and a nervous temperament; her father had always liked him when he came about the house, but Annie had lost sight of him in the years that make small boys and girls large ones, and he was at college when she went abroad. She had an impression of something unhappy in her friend’s marriage.

“I think it’s too much fixed up myself,” said Mrs. Gerrish. She turned suddenly to Annie: “You going to have your father fetched home?”

The other ladies started a little at the question and looked at Annie; it was not that they were shocked, but they wanted to see whether she would not be so.

“No,” she said briefly. She added, helplessly, “It wasn’t his wish.”

“I should have thought he would have liked to be buried alongside of your mother,” said Mrs. Gerrish. “But the Judge always was a little peculiar. I presume you can have the name and the date put on the monument just the same.”

Annie flushed at this intimate comment and suggestion from a woman whom as a girl she had never admitted to familiarity with her, but had tolerated her because she was such a harmless simpleton, and hung upon other girls whom she liked better. The word monument cowed her, however. She was afraid they might begin to talk about the soldiers’ monument. She answered hastily, and began to ask them about their families.

Mrs. Wilmington, who had no children, and Mrs. Putney, who had one, spoke of Mrs. Gerrish’s large family. She had four children, and she refused the praises of her friends for them, though she celebrated them herself. “You ought to have seen the two little girls that Ellen lost, Annie,” she said. “Ellen Putney, I don’t see how you ever got over that. Those two lovely, healthy children gone, and poor little Winthrop left! I always did say it was too hard.”

She had married a clerk in the principal dry-goods store, who had prospered rapidly, and was now one of the first business men of the place, and had an ambition to be a leading citizen. She believed in his fitness to deal with the questions of religion and education which he took part in, and was always quoting Mr. Gerrish. She called him Mr. Gerrish so much that other people began to call him so too. But Mrs. Putney’s husband held out against it, and had the habit of returning the little man’s ceremonious salutations with an easy, “Hello, Billy,” “Good morning, Billy.” It was his theory that this was good for Gerrish, who might otherwise have forgotten when everybody called him Billy. He was one of the old Putneys; and he was a lawyer by profession.

Mrs. Wilmington’s husband had come to Hatboro’ since Annie’s long absence began; he had capital, and he had started a stocking-mill in Hatboro’. He was much older than his wife, whom he had married after a protracted widowerhood. She had one of the best houses and the most richly furnished in Hatboro’. She and Mrs. Putney saw Mrs. Gerrish at rare intervals, and in observance of some notable fact of their girlish friendship like the present.

In pursuance of the subject of children, Mrs. Gerrish said that she sometimes had a notion to offer to take Mr. Peck’s little girl herself till he could get fixed somehow, but Mr. Gerrish would not let her. Mr. Gerrish said Mr. Peck had better get married himself if he wanted a step-mother for his little girl. Mr. Gerrish was peculiar about keeping a family to itself.

“Well, you’ll think we’ve come to board with you too,” said Mrs. Putney, in reference to Mr. Peck.

The ladies all rose, and having got upon their feet, began to shout and laugh again — like girls, they implied.

They stayed and talked a long time after rising, with the same note of unsparing personality in their talk. Where there are few public interests and few events, as in such places, there can be no small-talk, nothing of the careless touch-and-go of larger societies. Every one knows all the others, and knows the worst of them. People are not unkind; they are mutually and freely helpful; but they have only themselves to occupy their minds. Annie’s friends had also to distinguish themselves to her from the rest of the villagers, and it was easiest to do this by an attitude of criticism mingled with large allowance. They ended a dissection of the community by saying that they believed there was no place like Hatboro’, after all.

In the contagion of their perfunctory gaiety Annie began to scream and laugh too, as she followed them to the door, and stood talking to them while they got into Mrs. Wilmington’s extension-top carry-all. She answered with deafening promises, when they put their bonnets out of the carry-all and called back to her to be sure to come soon to see them soon.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/annie_kilburn/chapter4.html

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