Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 5

Mrs. Bolton made no advances with Annie toward the discussion of her friends; but when Annie asked about their families, she answered with the incisive directness of a country-bred woman. She delivered her judgments as she went about her work, the morning after the ladies’ visit, while Annie sat before the breakfast-table, which she had given her leave to clear. As she passed in and out from the dining-room to the kitchen she kept talking; she raised her voice in the further room, and lowered it when she drew near again. She wore a dismal calico wrapper, which made no compromise with the gauntness of her figure; her reddish-brown hair, which grew in a fringe below her crown, was plaited into small tags or tails, pulled up and tied across the top of her head, the bare surfaces of which were curiously mottled with the dye which she sometimes put on her hair. Behind, this was gathered up into a small knob pierced with a single hair-pin; the arrangement left Mrs. Bolton’s visage to the unrestricted expression of character. She did not let it express toward Annie any expectation of the confidential relations that are supposed to exist between people who have been a long time master and servant. She had never recognised her relations with the Kilburns in these terms. She was a mature Yankee single woman, of confirmed self-respect, when she first came as house-keeper to Judge Kilburn, twenty years ago, and she had not changed her nature in changing her condition by her marriage with Oliver Bolton; she was childless, unless his comparative youth conferred a sort of adoptive maternity upon her.

Annie went into her father’s study, where she had lit the fire in the Franklin-stove on her way to breakfast. It had come on to rain during the night, after the fine yesterday which Mrs. Gerrish had denounced to its face as a weather-breeder. At first it rained silently, stealthily; but toward morning Annie heard the wind rising, and when she looked out of her window after daylight she found a fierce north-easterly storm drenching and chilling the landscape. Now across the flattened and tangled grass of the lawn the elms were writhing in the gale, and swinging their long lean boughs to and fro; from another window she saw the cuffed and hustled maples ruffling their stiff masses of foliage, and shuddering in the storm. She turned away, with a sigh of the luxurious melancholy which a northeaster inspires in people safely sheltered from it, and sat down before her fire. She recalled the three women who had visited her the day before, in the better-remembered figures of their childhood and young girlhood; and their present character did not seem a broken promise. Nothing was really disappointed in it but the animal joy, the hopeful riot of their young blood, which must fade and die with the happiest fate. She perceived that what they had come to was not unjust to what they had been; and as our own fate always appears to us unaccomplished, a thing for the distant future to fulfil, she began to ask herself what was to be the natural sequence of such a temperament, such mental and moral traits, as hers. Had her life been so noble in anything but vague aspirations that she could ever reasonably expect the destiny of grand usefulness which she had always unreasonably expected? The question came home to her with such pain, in the light of what her old playmates had become, that she suddenly ceased to enjoy the misery of the storm out-of-doors, or the purring content of the fire on the hearth of the stove at her feet; the book she had taken down to read fell unopened into her lap, and she gave herself up to a half-hour of such piercing self-question as only a high-minded woman can endure when the flattering promises of youth have grown vague and few.

There is no condition of life that is wholly acceptable, but none that is not tolerable when once it establishes itself; and while Annie Kilburn had never consented to be an old maid, she had become one without great suffering. At thirty-one she could not call herself anything else; she often called herself an old maid, with the mental reservation that she was not one. She was merely unmarried; she might marry any time. Now, when she assured herself of this, as she had done many times before, she suddenly wondered if she should ever marry; she wondered if she had seemed to her friends yesterday like a person who would never marry. Did one carry such a thing in one’s looks? Perhaps they, idealised her; they had not seen her since she was twenty, and perhaps they still thought of her as a young girl. It now seemed to her as if she had left her youth in Rome, as in Rome it had seemed to her that she should find it again in Hatboro’. A pang of aimless, unlocalised homesickness passed through her; she realised that she was alone in the world. She rose to escape the pang, and went to the window of the parlour which looked toward the street, where she saw the figure of a young man draped in a long indiarubber gossamer coat fluttering in the wind that pushed him along as he tacked on a southerly course; he bowed and twisted his head to escape the lash of the rain. She watched him till he turned into the lane leading to the house, and then, at a discreeter distance, she watched him through the window at the other corner, making his way up to the front door in the teeth of the gale. He seemed to have a bundle under his arm, and as he stepped into the shelter of the portico, and freed his arm to ring, she discovered that it was a bundle of books. Whether Mrs. Bolton did not hear the bell, or whether she heard it and decided that it would be absurd to leave her work for it, when Miss Kilburn, who was so much nearer, could answer it, she did not come, even at a second ring, and Annie was forced to go to the door herself, or leave the poor man dripping in the cold wind outside.

She had made up her mind, at sight of the books, that he was a canvasser for some subscription book, such as used to come in her father’s time, but when she opened to him he took off his hat with a great deal of manner, and said “Miss Kilburn?” with so much insinuation of gentle disinterestedness, that it flashed upon her that it might be Mr. Peck.

“Yes,” she said, with confusion, while the flash of conjecture faded away.

“Mr. Brandreth,” said her visitor, whom she now saw to be much younger than Mr. Peck could be. He looked not much more than twenty-two or twenty-three; his damp hair waved and curled upon his temples and forehead, and his blue eyes lightened from a beardless and freshly shaven face. “I called this morning because I felt sure of finding you at home.”

He smiled at his reference to the weather, and Annie smiled too as she again answered, “Yes?” She did not want his books, but she liked something that was cheerful and enthusiastic in him; she added, “Won’t you step into the study?”

“Thanks, yes,” said the young man, flinging off his gossamer, and hanging it up to drip into the pan of the hat rack. He gathered up his books from the chair where he had laid them, and held them at his waist with both hands, while he bowed her precedence beside the study door.

“I don’t know,” he began, “but I ought to apologise for coming on a day like this, when you were not expecting to be interrupted.”

“Oh no; I’m not at all busy. But you must have had courage to brave a storm like this.”

“No. The truth is, Miss Kilburn, I was very anxious to see you about a matter I have at heart — that I desire your help with.”

“He wants me,” Annie thought, “to give him the use of my name as a subscriber to his book”— there seemed really to be a half-dozen books in his bundle —“and he’s come to me first.”

“I had expected to come with Mrs. Munger — she’s a great friend of mine; you haven’t met her yet, but you’ll like her; she’s the leading spirit in South Hatboro’— and we were coming together this morning; but she was unexpectedly called away yesterday, and so I ventured to call alone.”

“I’m very glad to see you, Mr. Brandreth,” Annie said. “Then Mrs. Munger has subscribed already, and I’m only second fiddle, after all,” she thought.

“The truth is,” said Mr. Brandreth, “I’m the factotum, or teetotum, of the South Hatboro’ ladies’ book club, and I’ve been deputed to come and see if you wouldn’t like to join it.”

“Oh!” said Annie, and with a thrill of dismay she asked herself how much she had let her manner betray that she had supposed he was a book agent. “I shall be very glad indeed, Mr. Brandreth.”

“Mrs. Munger was sure you would,” said Mr. Brandreth joyously. “I’ve brought some of the books with me — the last,” he said; and Annie had time to get into a new social attitude toward him during their discussion of the books. She chose one, and Mr. Brandreth took her subscription, and wrote her name in the club book.

“One of the reasons,” he said, “why I would have preferred to come with Mrs. Munger is that she is so heart and soul with mo in my little scheme. She could have put it before you in so much better light than I can. But she was called away so suddenly.”

“I hope for no serious cause,” said Annie.

“Oh no! It’s just to Cambridge. Her son is one of the Freshman Nine, and he’s been hit by a ball.”

“Oh!” said Annie.

“Yes; it’s a great pity for Mrs. Munger. But I come to you for advice as well as co-operation, Miss Kilburn. You must have met a great many English people in Rome, and heard some of them talk about it. We’re thinking, some of the young people here, about getting up some outdoor theatricals, like Lady Archibald Campbell’s, don’t you know. You know about them?” he added, at the blankness in her face.

“I read accounts of them in the English papers. They must have been very — original. But do you think that in a community like Hatboro’— Are there enough who could — enter into the spirit?”

“Oh yes, indeed!” cried Mr. Brandreth ardently. “You’ve no idea what a place Hatboro’ has got to be. You’ve not been about much yet, Miss Kilburn?”

“No,” said Annie; “I haven’t really been off our own place since I came. I’ve seen nobody but two or three old friends, and we naturally talked more about old times than anything else. But I hear that there are great changes.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Brandreth. “The social growth has been even greater than the business growth. You’ve no idea! People have come in for the winter as well as the summer. South Hatboro’, where we live — you must see South Hatboro’, Miss Kilburn! — is quite a famous health resort. A great many Boston doctors send their patients to us now, instead of Colorado or the Adirondacks. In fact, that’s what brought us to Hatboro’. My mother couldn’t have lived, if she had tried to stay in Melrose. One lung all gone, and the other seriously affected. And people have found out what a charming place it is for the summer. It’s cool; and it’s so near, you know; the gentlemen can run out every night — only an hour and a quarter from town, and expresses both ways. All very agreeable people, too; and cultivated. Mr. Fellows, the painter, makes a long summer; he bought an old farm-house, and built a studio; Miss Jennings, the flower-painter, has a little box there, too; Mr. Chapley, the publisher, of New York, has built; the Misses Clevinger, and Mrs. Valence, are all near us. There’s one family from Chicago — quite nice — New England by birth, you know; and Mrs. Munger, of course; so that there’s a very pleasant variety.”

“I certainly had no idea of it,” said Annie.

“I knew you couldn’t have,” said Mr. Brandreth, “or you wouldn’t have felt any doubt about our having the material for the theatricals. You see, I want to interest all the nice people in it, and make it a whole-town affair. I think it’s a great pity for some of the old village families and the summer folks, as they call us, not to mingle more than they do, and Mrs. Munger thinks so too; and we’ve been talking you over, Miss Kilburn, and we’ve decided that you could do more than anybody else to help on a scheme that’s meant to bring them together.”

“Because I’m neither summer folks nor old village families?” asked Annie.

“Because you’re both,” retorted Mr. Brandreth.

“I don’t see that,” said Annie; “but we’ll suppose the case, for the sake of argument. What do you expect me to do in theatricals, in-doors or out? I never took part in anything of the kind; I can’t see an inch beyond the end of my nose without glasses; I never could learn the simplest thing by heart; I’m clumsy and awkward; I get confused.”

“Oh, my dear Miss Kilburn, spare yourself! We don’t expect you to take part in the play. I don’t admit that you’re what you say at all; but we only want you to lend us your countenance.”

“Oh, is that all? And what do you expect to do with my countenance?” Annie said, with a laugh of misgiving.

“Everything. We know how much influence your name has — one of the old Hatboro’ names — in the community, and all that; and we do want to interest the whole community in our scheme. We want to establish a Social Union for the work-people, don’t you know, and we think it would be much nicer if it seemed to originate with the old village people.”

Annie could not resist an impression in favour of the scheme. It gave definition to the vague intentions with which she had returned to Hatboro’; it might afford her a chance to make reparation for the figure on the soldiers’ monument.

“I’m not sure,” she began. “If I knew just what a Social Union is —”

“Well, at first,” Mr. Brandreth interposed, “it will only be a reading-room, supplied with the magazines and papers, and well lighted and heated, where the work-people — those who have no families especially — could spend their evenings. Afterward we should hope to have a kitchen, and supply tea and coffee — and oysters, perhaps — at a nominal cost; and ice-cream in the summer.”

“But what have your outdoor theatricals to do — But of course. You intend to give the proceeds —”

“Exactly. And we want the proceeds to be as large as possible. We propose to give our time and money to getting the thing up in the best shape, and then we want all the villagers to give their half-dollars and make it a success every way.”

“I see,” said Annie.

“We want it to be successful, and we want it to be distinguished; we want to make it unique. Mrs. Munger is going to give her grounds and the decorations, and there will be a supper afterward, and a little dance.”

“Such things are a great deal of trouble,” said Annie, with a smile, from the vantage-ground of her larger experience. “What do you propose to do — what play?”

“Well, we’ve about decided upon some scenes from Romeo and Juliet. They would be very easy to set, outdoors, don’t you know, and everybody knows them, and they wouldn’t be hard to do. The ballroom in the house of the Capulets could be made to open on a kind of garden terrace — Mrs. Munger has a lovely terrace in her grounds for lawn-tennis — and then we could have a minuet on the grass. You know Miss Mather introduces a minuet in that scene, and makes a great deal of it. Or, I forgot. She’s come up since you went away.”

“Yes; I hadn’t heard of her. Isn’t a minuet at Verona in the time of the Scaligeri rather —”

“Well, yes, it is, rather. But you’ve no idea how pretty it is. And then, you know, we could have the whole of the balcony scene, and other bits that we choose to work in — perhaps parts of other acts that would suit the scene.”

“Yes, it would be charming; I can see how very charming it could be made.”

“Then we may count upon you?” he asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said; “but I don’t really know what I’m to do.”

Mr. Brandreth had risen; but he sat down again, as if glad to afford her any light he could throw upon the subject.

“How am I to ‘influence people,’ as you say?” she continued. “I’m quite a stranger in Hatboro’; I hardly know anybody.”

“But a great many people know you, Miss Kilburn. Your name is associated with the history of the place, and you could do everything for us. You won’t refuse!” cried Mr. Brandreth winningly. “For instance, you know Mrs. Wilmington.”

“Oh yes; she’s an old girl-friend of mine.”

“Then you know how enormously clever she is. She can do anything. We want her to take an active part — the part of the Nurse. She’s delightfully funny. But you know her peculiar temperament — how she hates initiative of all kinds; and we want somebody to bring Mr. Wilmington round. If we could get them committed to the scheme, and a man like Mr. Putney — he’d make a capital Mercutio — it would go like wildfire. We want to interest the churches, too. The object is so worthy, and the theatricals will be so entirely unobjectionable in every respect. We have the Unitarians and Universalists, of course. The Baptists and Methodists will be hard to manage; but the Orthodox are of so many different shades; and I understand the new minister, Mr. Peck, is very liberal. He was here in your house, I believe.”

“Yes; but I never saw him,” said Annie. “He boarded with the farmer. I’m a Unitarian myself.”

“Of course. It would be a great point gained if we could interest him. Every care will be taken to have the affair unobjectionable. You see, the design is to let everybody come to the theatricals, and only those remain to the supper and dance whom we invite. That will keep out the socially objectionable element — the shoe-shop hands and the straw-shop girls.”

“Oh,” said Annie. “But isn’t the — the Social Union for just that class?”

“Yes, it’s expressly for them, and we intend to organise a system of entertainments — lectures, concerts, readings — for the winter, and keep them interested the whole year round in it. The object is to show them that the best people in the community have their interests at heart, and wish to get on common ground with them.”

“Yes,” said Annie, “the object is certainly very good.”

Mr. Brandreth rose again, and put out his hand. “Then you will help us?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that yet.”

“At least you won’t hinder us?”

“Certainly not.”

“Then I consider you in a very hopeful condition, Miss Kilburn, and I feel that I can safely leave you to Mrs. Munger. She is coming to see you as soon as she gets back.”

Annie found herself sadder when he was gone, and she threw herself upon the old feather-cushioned lounge to enjoy a reverie in keeping with the dreary storm outside. Was it for this that she had left Rome? She had felt, as every American of conscience feels abroad, the drawings of a duty, obscure and indefinable, toward her country, the duty to come home and do something for it, be something in it. This is the impulse of no common patriotism; it is perhaps a sense of the opportunity which America supremely affords for the race to help itself, and for each member of it to help all the rest.

But from the moment Annie arrived in Hatboro’ the difficulty of being helpful to anything or any one had increased upon her with every new fact that she had learned about it and the people in it. To her they seemed terribly self-sufficing. They seemed occupied and prosperous, from her front parlour window; she did not see anybody going by who appeared to be in need of her; and she shrank from a more thorough exploration of the place. She found she had fancied necessity coming to her and taking away her good works, as it were, in a basket; but till Mr. Brandreth appeared with his scheme, nothing had applied for her help She had always hated theatricals; they bored her; and yet the Social Union was a good object, and if this scheme would bring her acquainted in Hatboro’ it might be the stepping-stone to something better, something really or more ideally useful. She wondered what South Hatboro’ was like; she would get Mrs. Bolton’s opinion, which, if severe, would be just. She would ask Mrs. Bolton about Mrs. Munger, too. She would tell Mrs. Bolton to tell Mr. Peck to call to dine. Would it be thought patronising to Mr. Peck?

The fire from the Franklin-stove diffused a drowsy comfort through the room, the rain lashed the window-panes, and the wind shrilled in the gable. Annie fell off to sleep. When she woke up she heard Mrs. Bolton laying the table for her one o’clock dinner, and she knew it was half-past twelve, because Mrs. Bolton always laid the table just half an hour beforehand. She went out to speak to Mrs. Bolton.

There was no want of distinctness in Mrs. Bolton’s opinion, but Annie felt that there was a want of perspective and proportion in it, arising from the narrowness of Mrs. Bolton’s experience and her ignorance of the world; she was farm-bred, and she had always lived upon the outskirts of Hatboro’, even when it was a much smaller place than now. But Mrs. Bolton had her criterions, and she believed in them firmly; in a time when agnosticism extends among cultivated people to every region of conjecture, the social convictions of Mrs. Bolton were untainted by misgiving. In the first place, she despised laziness, and as South Hatboro’ was the summer home of open and avowed disoccupation, of an idleness so entire that it had to seek refuge from itself in all manner of pastimes, she held its population in a contempt to which her meagre phrase did imperfect justice. From time to time she had to stop altogether, and vent it in “Wells!” of varying accents and inflections, but all expressive of aversion, and in snorts and sniffs still more intense in purport.

Then she held that people who had nothing else to do ought at least to be exemplary in their lives, and she was merciless to the goings-on in South Hatboro’, which had penetrated on the breath of scandal to the elder village. When Annie came to find out what these were, she did not think them dreadful; they were small flirtations and harmless intimacies between the members of the summer community, which in the imagination of the village blackened into guilty intrigue. On the tongues of some, South Hatboro’ was another Gomorrah; Mrs. Bolton believed the worst, especially of the women.

“I hear,” said Mrs. Bolton, “that them women come up here for rest. I don’t know what they want to rest from; but if it’s from doin’ nothin’ all winter long, I guess they go back to the city poot’ near’s tired’s they come.”

Perhaps Annie felt that it was useless to try to enlighten her in regard to the fatigues from which the summer sojourner in the country escapes so eagerly; the cares of giving and going to lunches and dinners; the labour of afternoon teas; the late hours and the heavy suppers of evening receptions; the drain of charity-doing and play-going; the slavery of amateur art study, and parlour readings, and musicales; the writing of invitations and acceptances and refusals; the trying on of dresses; the calls made and received. She let her talk on, and tried to figure, as well as she could from her talk, the form and magnitude of the task laid upon her by Mr. Brandreth, of reconciling Old Hatboro’ to South Hatboro’, and uniting them in a common enterprise.

“Mrs. Bolton,” she said, abruptly leaving the subject at last, “I’ve been thinking whether I oughtn’t to do something about Mr. Peck. I don’t want him to feel that he was unwelcome to me in my house; I should like him to feel that I approved of his having been here.”

As this was not a question, Mrs. Bolton, after the fashion of country people, held her peace, and Annie went on —

“Does he never come to see you?”

“Well, he was here last night,” said Mrs. Bolton.

“Last night!” cried Annie. “Why in the world didn’t you let me know?”

“I didn’t know as you wanted to know,” began Mrs. Bolton, with a sullen defiance mixed with pleasure in Annie’s reproach. “He was out there in my settin’-room with his little girl.”

“But don’t you see that if you didn’t let me know he was here it would look to him as if I didn’t wish to meet him — as if I had told you that you were not to introduce him?”

Probably Mrs. Bolton believed too that a man’s mind was agile enough for these conjectures; but she said she did not suppose he would take it in that way; she added that he stayed longer than she expected, because the little girl seemed to like it so much; she always cried when she had to go away.

“Do you mean that she’s attached to the place?” demanded Annie.

“Well, yes, she is,” Mrs. Bolton admitted. “And the cat.”

Annie had a great desire to tell Mrs. Bolton that she had behaved very stupidly. But she knew Mrs. Bolton would not stand that, and she had to content herself with saying, severely, “The next time he comes, let me know without fail, please. What is the child like?” she asked.

“Well, I guess it must favour the mother, if anything. It don’t seem to take after him any.”

“Why don’t you have it here often, then,” asked Annie, “if it’s so much attached to the place?”

“Well I didn’t know as you wanted to have it round,” replied Mrs. Bolton bluntly.

Annie made a “Tchk!” of impatience with her obtuseness, and asked, “Where is Mr. Peck staying?”

“Well, he’s staying at Mis’ Warner’s till he can get settled.”

“Is it far from here?”

“It’s down in the north part of the village — Over the Track.”

“Is Mr. Bolton at home?”

“Yes, he is,” said Mrs. Bolton, with the effect of not intending to deny it.

“Then I want him to hitch up — now — at once — right away — and go and get the child and bring her here to dinner with me.” Annie got so far with her severity, feeling that it was needed to mask a proceeding so romantic, perhaps so silly. She added timidly, “Can he do it?”

“I d’know but what he can,” said Mrs. Bolton, dryly, and whatever her feeling really was in regard to the matter, her manner gave no hint of it. Annie did not know whether Bolton was going on her errand or not, from Mrs. Bolton, but in ten or twelve minutes she saw him emerge from the avenue into the street, in the carry-all, tightly curtained against the storm. Half an hour later he returned, and his wife set down in the library a shabbily dressed little girl, with her cheeks bright and her hair curling from the weather, and staring at Annie, and rather disposed to cry. She said hastily, “Bring in the cat, Mrs. Bolton; we’re going to have the cat to dinner with us.”

This inspiration seemed to decide the little girl against crying. The cat was equipped with a doily, and actually provided with dinner at a small table apart; the child did not look at it as Annie had expected she would, but remained with her eyes fastened on Annie herself: She did not stir from the spot where Mrs. Bolton had put her down, but she let Annie take her up and arrange her in a chair, with large books graduated to the desired height under her, and made no sign of satisfaction or disapproval. Once she looked round, when Mrs. Bolton finally went out after bringing in the last dish for dinner, and then fastened her eyes on Annie again, twisting her head shyly round to follow her in every gesture and expression as Annie fitted on a napkin under her chin, cut up her meat, poured her milk, and buttered her bread. She answered nothing to the chatter which Annie tried to make lively and entertaining, and made no sound but that of a broken and suppressed breathing. Annie had forgotten to ask her name of Mrs. Bolton, and she asked it in vain of the child herself, with a great variety of circumlocution; she was so unused to children that she was ashamed to invent any pet name for her; she called her, in what she felt to be a stiff and school-mistressly fashion, “Little Girl,” and talked on at her, growing more and more nervous herself without perceiving that the child’s condition was approaching a climax. She had taken off her glasses, from the notion that they embarrassed her guest, and she did not see the pretty lips beginning to curl, nor the searching eyes clouding with tears; the storm of sobs that suddenly burst upon her astounded her.

“Mrs. Bolton! Mrs. Bolton!” she screamed, in hysterical helplessness. Mrs. Bolton rushed in, and with an instant perception of the situation, caught the child to her bony breast, and fled with it to her own room, where Annie heard its wails die gradually away amid murmurs of comfort and reassurance from Mrs. Bolton.

She felt like a great criminal and a great fool; at the same time she was vexed with the stupid child which she had meant so well by, and indignant with Mrs. Bolton, whose flight with it had somehow implied a reproach of her behaviour. When she could govern herself, she went out to Mrs. Bolton’s room, where she found the little one quiet enough, and Mrs. Bolton tying on the long apron in which she cleared up the dinner and washed the dishes.

“I guess she’ll get along now,” she said, without the critical tone which Annie was prepared to resent. “She was scared some, and she felt kind of strange, I presume.”

“Yes, and I behaved like a simpleton, dressing up the cat, I suppose,” answered Annie. “But I thought it would amuse her.”

“You can’t tell how children will take a thing. I don’t believe they like anything that’s out of the common — well, not a great deal.”

There was a leniency in Mrs. Bolton’s manner which encouraged Annie to go on and accuse herself more and more, and then an unresponsive blankness that silenced her. She went back to her own rooms; and to get away from her shame, she began to write a letter.

It was to a friend in Rome, and from the sense we all have that a letter which is to go such a great distance ought to be a long letter, and from finding that she had really a good deal to say, she let it grow so that she began apologising for its length half a dozen pages before the end. It took her nearly the whole afternoon, and she regained a little of her self-respect by ridiculing the people she had met.

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