Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 6

Toward five o’clock Annie was interrupted by a knock at her door, which ought to have prepared her for something unusual, for it was Mrs. Bolton’s habit to come and go without knocking. But she called “Come in!” without rising from her letter, and Mrs. Bolton entered with a stranger. The little girl clung to his forefinger, pressing her head against his leg, and glancing shyly up at Annie. She sprang up, and, “This is Mr. Peck, Miss Kilburn,” said Mrs. Bolton.

“How do you do?” said Mr. Peck, taking the hand she gave him.

He was gaunt, without being tall, and his clothes hung loosely about him, as if he had fallen away in them since they were made. His face was almost the face of the caricature American: deep, slightly curved vertical lines enclosed his mouth in their parenthesis; a thin, dust-coloured beard fell from his cheeks and chin; his upper lip was shaven. But instead of the slight frown of challenge and self-assertion which marks this face in the type, his large blue eyes, set near together, gazed sadly from under a smooth forehead, extending itself well up toward the crown, where his dry hair dropped over it.

“I am very glad to see you, Mr. Peck,” said Annie; “I’ve wanted to tell you how pleased I am that you found shelter in my old home when you first came to Hatboro’.”

Mr. Peck’s trousers were short and badly kneed, and his long coat hung formlessly from his shoulders; she involuntarily took a patronising tone toward him which was not habitual with her.

“Thank you,” he said, with the dry, serious voice which seemed the fit vocal expression of his presence; “I have been afraid that it seemed like an intrusion to you.”

“Oh, not the least,” retorted Annie. “You were very welcome. I hope you’re comfortably placed where you are now?”

“Quite so,” said the minister.

“I’d heard so much of your little girl from Mrs. Bolton, and her attachment to the house, that I ventured to send for her to-day. But I believe I gave her rather a bad quarter of an hour, and that she liked the place better under Mrs. Bolton’s régime.”

She expected some deprecatory expression of gratitude from him, which would relieve her of the lingering shame she felt for having managed so badly, but he made none.

“It was my fault. I’m not used to children, and I hadn’t taken the precaution to ask her name —”

“Her name is Idella,” said the minister.

Annie thought it very ugly, but, with the intention of saying something kind, she said, “What a quaint name!”

“It was her mother’s choice,” returned the minister. “Her own name was Ella, and my mother’s name was Ida; she combined the two.”

“Oh!” said Annie. She abhorred those made-up names in which the New England country people sometimes indulge their fancy, and Idella struck her as a particularly repulsive invention; but she felt that she must not visit the fault upon the little creature. “Don’t you think you could give me another trial some time, Idella?” She stooped down and took the child’s unoccupied hand, which she let her keep, only twisting her face away to hide it in her father’s pantaloon leg. “Come now, won’t you give me a forgiving little kiss?” Idella looked round, and Annie made bold to gather her up.

Idella broke into a laugh, and took Annie’s cheeks between her hands.

“Well, I declare!” said Mrs. Bolton. “You never can tell what that child will do next.”

“I never can tell what I will do next myself,” said Annie. She liked the feeling of the little, warm, soft body in her arms, against her breast, and it was flattering to have triumphed where she had seemed to fail so desperately. They had all been standing, and she now said, “Won’t you sit down, Mr. Peck?” She added, by an impulse which she instantly thought ill-advised, “There is something I would like to speak to you about.”

“Thank you,” said Mr. Peck, seating himself beyond the stove. “We must be getting home before a great while. It is nearly tea-time.”

“I won’t detain you unduly,” said Annie.

Mrs. Bolton left them at her hint of something special to say to the minister. Annie could not have had the face to speak of Mr. Brandreth’s theatricals in that grim presence; and as it was, she resolved to put forward their serious object. She began abruptly: “Mr. Peck, I’ve been asked to interest myself for a Social Union which the ladies of South Hatboro’ are trying to establish for the operatives. I suppose you haven’t heard anything of the scheme?”

“No, I hadn’t,” said Mr. Peck.

He was one of those people who sit very high, and he now seemed taller and more impressive than when he stood.

“It is certainly a-very good object,” Annie resumed; and she went on to explain it at second-hand from Mr. Brandreth as well as she could. The little girl was standing in her lap, and got between her and Mr. Peck, so that she had to look first around one side of her and then another to see how he was taking it.

He nodded his head, and said gravely, “Yes,” and “Yes,” and “Yes,” at each significant point of her statement. At the end he asked: “And are the means forthcoming? Have they raised the money for renting and furnishing the rooms?”

“Well, no, they haven’t yet, or not quite, as I understand.”

“Have they tried to interest the working people themselves in it? If they are to value its benefits, it ought to cost them something — self-denial, privation even.”

“Yes, I know,” Annie began.

“I’m not satisfied,” the minister pursued, “that it is wise to provide people with even harmless amusements that take them much away from their homes. These things are invented by well-to-do people who have no occupation, and think that others want pastimes as much as themselves. But what working people want is rest, and what they need are decent homes where they can take it. Besides, unless they help to support this union out of their own means, the better sort among them will feel wounded by its existence, as a sort of superfluous charity.”

“Yes, I see,” said Annie. She saw this side of the affair with surprise. The minister seemed to have thought more about such matters than she had, and she insensibly receded from her first hasty generalisation of him, and paused to reapproach him on another level. The little girl began to play with her glasses, and accidentally knocked them from her nose. The minister’s face and figure became a blur, and in the purblindness to which she was reduced she had a moment of clouded volition in which she was tempted to renounce, and even oppose, the scheme for a Social Union, in spite of her promise to Mr. Brandreth. But she remembered that she was a consistent and faithful person, and she said: “The ladies have a plan for raising the money, and they’ve applied to me to second it — to use my influence somehow among the villagers to get them interested; and the working people can help too if they choose. But I’m quite a stranger amongst those I’m expected to influence, and I don’t at all know how they will take it.” The minister listened, neither prompting nor interrupting. “The ladies’ plan is to have an entertainment at one of the cottages, and charge an admission, and devote the proceeds to the union.” She paused. Mr. Peck still remained silent, but she knew he was attentive. She pushed on. “They intend to have a — a representation, in the open air, of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or scenes from one —”

“Do you wish me,” interrupted the minister, “to promote the establishment of this union? Is that why you speak to me of it?”

“Why, I don’t know why I speak to you of it,” she replied with a laugh of embarrassment, to which he was cold, apparently. “I certainly couldn’t ask you to take part in an affair that you didn’t approve.”

“I don’t know that I disapprove of it. Properly managed, it might be a good thing.”

“Yes, of course. But I understand why you might not sympathise with that part of it, and that is why I told you of it,” said Annie.

“What part?”

“The — the — theatricals.”

“Why not?” asked the minister.

“I know — Mrs. Bolton told me you were very liberal,” Annie faltered on; “but I didn’t expect you as a — But of course —”

“I read Shakespeare a great deal,” said Mr. Peck. “I have never been in the theatre; but I should like to see one of his plays represented where it could cause no one to offend.”

“Yes,” said Annie, “and this would be by amateurs, and there could be no possible ‘offence in it.’ I wished to know how the general idea would strike you. Of course the ladies would be only too glad of your advice and co-operation. Their plan is to sell tickets to every one for the theatricals, and to a certain number of invited persons for a supper, and a little dance afterward on the lawn.”

“I don’t know if I understand exactly,” said the minister.

Annie repeated her statement more definitely, and explained, from Mr. Brandreth, as before, that the invitations were to be given so as to eliminate the shop-hand element from the supper and dance.

Mr. Peck listened quietly. “That would prevent my taking part in the affair,” he said, as quietly as he had listened.

“Of course — dancing,” Annie began.

“It is not that. Many people who hold strictly to the old opinions now allow their children to learn dancing. But I could not join at all with those who were willing to lay the foundations of a Social Union in a social disunion — in the exclusion of its beneficiaries from the society of their benefactors.”

He was not sarcastic, but the grotesqueness of the situation as he had sketched it was apparent. She remembered now that she had felt something incongruous in it when Mr. Brandreth exposed it, but not deeply.

The minister continued gently: “The ladies who are trying to get up this Social Union proceed upon the assumption that working people can neither see nor feel a slight; but it is a great mistake to do so.”

Annie had the obtuseness about those she fancied below her which is one of the consequences of being brought up in a superior station. She believed that there was something to say on the other side, and she attempted to say it.

“I don’t know that you could call it a slight exactly. People can ask those they prefer to a social entertainment.”

“Yes — if it is for their own pleasure.”

“But even in a public affair like this the work-people would feel uncomfortable and out of place, wouldn’t they, if they stayed to the supper and the dance? They might be exposed to greater suffering among those whose manners and breeding were different, and it might be very embarrassing all round. Isn’t there that side to be regarded?”

“You beg the question,” said the minister, as unsparingly as if she were a man. “The point is whether a Social Union beginning in social exclusion could ever do any good. What part do these ladies expect to take in maintaining it? Do they intend to spend their evenings there, to associate on equal terms with the shoe-shop and straw-shop hands?”

“I don’t suppose they do, but I don’t know,” said Annie dryly; and she replied by helplessly quoting Mr. Brandreth: “They intend to organise a system of lectures, concerts, and readings. They wish to get on common ground with them.”

“They can never get on common ground with them in that way,” said the minister. “No doubt they think they want to do them good; but good is from the heart, and there is no heart in what they propose. The working people would know that at once.”

“Then you mean to say,” Annie asked, half alarmed and half amused, “that there can be no friendly intercourse with the poor and the well-to-do unless it is based upon social equality?”

“I will answer your question by asking another. Suppose you were one of the poor, and the well-to-do offered to be friendly with you on such terms as you have mentioned, how should you feel toward them?”

“If you make it a personal question —”

“It makes itself a personal question,” said the minister dispassionately.

“Well, then, I trust I should have the good sense to see that social equality between people who were better dressed, better taught, and better bred than myself was impossible, and that for me to force myself into their company was not only bad taste, but it was foolish, I have often heard my father say that the great superiority of the American practice of democracy over the French ideal was that it didn’t involve any assumption of social equality. He said that equality before the law and in politics was sacred, but that the principle could never govern society, and that Americans all instinctively recognised it. And I believe that to try to mix the different classes would be un-American.”

Mr. Peck smiled, and this was the first break in his seriousness. “We don’t know what is or will be American yet. But we will suppose you are quite right. The question is, how would you feel toward the people whose company you wouldn’t force yourself into?”

“Why, of course,” Annie was surprised into saying, “I suppose I shouldn’t feel very kindly toward them.”

“Even if you knew that they felt kindly toward you?”

“I’m afraid that would only make the matter worse,” she said, with an uneasy laugh.

The minister was silent on his side of the stove.

“But do I understand you to say,” she demanded, “that there can be no love at all, no kindness, between the rich and the poor? God tells us all to love one another.”

“Surely,” said the minister. “Would you suffer such a slight as your friends propose, to be offered to any one you loved?”

She did not answer, and he continued, thoughtfully: “I suppose that if a poor person could do a rich person a kindness which cost him some sacrifice, he might love him. In that case there could be love between the rich and the poor.”

“And there could be no love if a rich man did the same?”

“Oh yes,” the minister said —“upon the same ground. Only, the rich man would have to make a sacrifice first that he would really feel.”

“Then you mean to say that people can’t do any good at all with their money?” Annie asked.

“Money is a palliative, but it can’t cure. It can sometimes create a bond of gratitude perhaps, but it can’t create sympathy between rich and poor.”

“But why can’t it?”

“Because sympathy — common feeling — the sense of fraternity — can spring only from like experiences, like hopes, like fears. And money cannot buy these.”

He rose, and looked a moment about him, as if trying to recall something. Then, with a stiff obeisance, he said, “Good evening,” and went out, while she remained daunted and bewildered, with the child in her arms, as unconscious of having kept it as he of having left it with her.

Mrs. Bolton must have reminded him of his oversight, for after being gone so long as it would have taken him to walk to her parlour and back, he returned, and said simply, “I forgot Idella.”

He put out his hands to take her, but she turned perversely from him, and hid her face in Annie’s neck, pushing his hands away with a backward reach of her little arm.

“Come, Idella!” he said. Idella only snuggled the closer.

Mrs. Bolton came in with the little girl’s wraps; they were very common and poor, and the thought of getting her something prettier went through Annie’s mind.

At sight of Mrs. Bolton the child turned from Annie to her older friend.

“I’m afraid you have a woman-child for your daughter, Mr. Peck,” said Annie, remotely hurt at the little one’s fickleness.

Neither Mr. Peck nor Mrs. Bolton smiled, and with some vague intention of showing him that she could meet the poor on common ground by sharing their labours, she knelt down and helped Mrs. Bolton tie on and button on Idella’s things.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/annie_kilburn/chapter6.html

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