Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 7

Next morning the day broke clear after the long storm, and Annie woke in revolt against the sort of subjection in which she had parted from Mr. Peck. She felt the need of showing Mrs. Bolton that, although she had been civil to him, she had no sympathy with his ideas; but she could not think of any way to formulate her opposition, and all she could say in offence was, “Does Mr. Peck usually forget his child when he starts home?”

“I don’t know as he does,” answered Mrs. Bolton simply. “He’s rather of an absent-minded man, and I suppose he’s like other men when he gets talking.”

“The child’s clothes were disgracefully shabby!” said Annie, vexed that her attack could come to no more than this.

“I presume,” said Mrs. Bolton, “that if he kept more of his money for himself, he could dress her better.”

“Oh, that’s the way with these philanthropists,” said Annie, thinking of Hollingsworth, in The Blithedale Romance, the only philanthropist whom she had really ever known, “They are always ready to sacrifice the happiness and comfort of any one to the general good.”

Mrs. Bolton stood a moment, and then went out without replying; but she looked as offended as Annie could have wished. About ten o’clock the bell rang, and she came gloomily into the study, and announced that Mrs. Munger was in the parlour.

Annie had already heard an authoritative rustling of skirts, and she was instinctively prepared for the large, vigorous woman who turned upon her from the picture she had been looking at on the wall, and came toward her with the confident air of one sure they must be friends. Mrs. Munger was dressed in a dark, firm woollen stuff, which communicated its colour, if not its material, to the matter-of-fact bonnet which she wore on her plainly dressed hair. In one of her hands, which were cased in driving gloves of somewhat insistent evidence, she carried a robust black silk sun-umbrella, and the effect of her dress otherwise might be summarised in the statement that where other women would have worn lace, she seemed to wear leather. She had not only leather gloves, and a broad leather belt at her waist, but a leather collar; her watch was secured by a leather cord, passing round her neck, and the stubby tassel of her umbrella stick was leather: she might be said to be in harness. She had a large, handsome face, no longer fresh, but with an effect of exemplary cleanness, and a pair of large grey eyes that suggested the notion of being newly washed, and that now looked at Annie with the assumption of fully understanding her.

“Ah, Miss Kilburn!” she said, without any of the wonted preliminaries of introduction and greeting. “I should have come long ago to see you, but I’ve been dispersed over the four quarters of the globe ever since you came, my dear. I got home last night on the nine o’clock train, in the last agonies of that howling tempest. Did you ever know anything like it? I see your trees have escaped. I wonder they weren’t torn to shreds.”

Annie took her on her own ground of ignoring their past non-acquaintance. “Yes, it was awful. And your son — how did you leave him? Mr. Brandreth —”

“Oh yes, poor little man! I found him waiting for me at home last night, and he told me he had been here. He was blowing about in the storm all day. Such a spirit! There was nothing serious the matter; the bridge of the nose was all right; merely the cartilage pushed aside by the ball.”

She had passed so lightly from Mr. Brandreth’s heroic spirit to her son’s nose that Annie, woman as she was, and born to these bold bounds over sequence, was not sure where they had arrived, till Mrs. Munger added: “Jim’s used to these things. I’m thankful it wasn’t a finger, or an eye. What is that?” She jumped from her chair, and swooped upon the Spanish–Roman water-colour Annie had stood against some books on the table, pending its final disposition.

“It’s only a Guerra,” said Annie. “My things are all scattered about still; I have scarcely tried to get into shape yet.”

Mrs. Munger would not let her interpose any idea of there being a past between them. She merely said: “You knew the Herricks at Rome, of course. I’m in hopes I shall get them here when they come back. I want you to help me colonise Hatboro’ with the right sort of people: it’s so easy to get the wrong sort! But, so far, I think we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. It’s easy enough to get nice people together at the seaside; but inland! No; it’s only a very few nice people who will come into the country for the summer; and we propose to make Hatboro’ a winter colony too; that gives us agreeable invalids, you know; it gave us the Brandreths. He told you of our projected theatricals, I suppose?”

“Yes,” said Annie non-committally, “he did.”

“I know just how you feel about it, my dear,” said Mrs. Munger. “‘Been there myself,’ as Jim says. But it grows upon you. I’m glad you didn’t refuse outright;” and Mrs. Munger looked at her with eyes of large expectance.

“No, I didn’t,” said Annie, obliged by this expectance to say something. “But to tell you the truth, Mrs. Munger, I don’t see how I’m to be of any use to you or to Mr. Brandreth.”

“Oh, take a cab and go about, like Boots and Brewer, you know, for the Veneerings.” She said this as if she knew about the humour rather than felt it. “We are placing all our hopes of bringing round the Old Hatborians in you.”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken about my influence,” said Annie. “Mr. Brandreth spoke of it, and I had an opportunity of trying it last night, and seeing just what it amounted to.”

“Yes?” Mrs. Munger prompted, with an increase of expectance in her large clear eyes, and of impartiality in her whole face.

“Mr. Peck was here,” said Annie reluctantly, “and I tried it on him.”

“Yes?” repeated Mrs. Munger, as immutably as if she were sitting for her photograph and keeping the expression.

Annie broke from her reluctance with a sort of violence which carried her further than she would have gone otherwise. She ridiculed Mr. Peck’s appearance and manner, and laughed at his ideas to Mrs. Munger. She had not a good conscience in it, but the perverse impulse persisted in her. There seemed no other way in which she could assert herself against him.

Mrs. Munger listened judicially, but she seemed to take in only what Mr. Peck had thought of the dance and supper; at the end she said, rather vacantly, “What nonsense!”

“Yes; but I’m afraid he thinks it’s wisdom, and for all practical purposes it amounts to that. You see what my ‘influence’ has done at the outset, Mrs. Munger. He’ll never give way on such a point.”

“Oh, very well, then,” said Mrs. Munger, with the utmost lightness and indifference, “we’ll drop the idea of the invited supper and dance.”

“Do you think that would be well?” asked Annie.

“Yes; why not? It’s only an idea. I don’t think you’ve made at all a bad beginning. It was very well to try the idea on some one who would be frank about it, and wouldn’t go away and talk against it,” said Mrs. Munger, rising. “I want you to come with me, my dear.”

“To see Mr. Peck? Excuse me. I don’t think I could,” said Annie.

“No; to see some of his parishioners,” said Mrs. Munger. “His deacons, to begin with, or his deacons’ wives.”

This seemed so much less than calling on Mr. Peck that Annie looked out at Mrs. Munger’s basket-phaeton at her gate, and knew that she would go with very little more urgence.

“After all, you know, you’re not one of his congregation; he may yield to them,” said Mrs. Munger. “We must have him — if only because he’s hard to get. It’ll give us an idea of what we’ve got to contend with.”

It had a very practical sound; it was really like meeting the difficulties on their own ground, and it overcame the question of taste which was rising in Annie’s mind. She demurred a little more upon the theory of her uselessness; but Mrs. Munger insisted, and carried her off down the village street.

The air sparkled full of sun, and a breeze from the south-west frolicked with the twinkling leaves of the overarching elms, and made their shadows dance on the crisp roadway, packed hard by the rain, and faced with clean sand, which crackled pleasantly under Mrs. Munger’s phaeton wheels. She talked incessantly. “I think we’ll go first to Mrs. Gerrish’s, and then to Mrs. Wilmington’s. You know them?”

“Oh yes; they were old girl friends.”

“Then you know why I go to Mrs. Gerrish’s first. She’ll care a great deal, and Mrs. Wilmington won’t care at all. She’s a delicious creature, Mrs. Wilmington — don’t you think? That large, indolent nature; Mr. Brandreth says she makes him think of ‘the land in which it seemed always afternoon.’”

Annie remembered Lyra Goodman as a long, lazy, red-haired girl who laughed easily; and she could not readily realise her in the character of a Titian-esque beauty with a gift for humorous dramatics, which she had filled out into during the years of her absence from Hatboro’; but she said “Oh yes,” in the necessity of polite acquiescence, and Mrs. Munger went on talking —

“She’s the only one of the Old Hatboro’ people, so far as I know them, who has any breadth of view. Whoa!” She pulled up suddenly beside a stout, short lady in a fashionable walking dress, who was pushing an elegant perambulator with one hand, and shielding her complexion with a crimson sun-umbrella in the other.

“Mrs. Gerrish!” Mrs. Munger called; and Mrs. Gerrish, who had already looked around at the approaching phaeton, and then looked away, so as not to have seemed to look, stopped abruptly, and after some exploration of the vicinity, discovered where the voice came from.

“Oh, Mrs. Munger!” she called back, bridling with pleasure at being greeted in that way by the chief lady of South Hatboro’, and struggling to keep up a dignified indifference at the same time. “Why, Annie!” she added.

“Good morning, Emmeline,” said Annie; she annexed some irrelevancies about the weather, which Mrs. Munger swept away with business-like robustness.

“We were driving down to your house to find you. I want to see the principal ladies of your church, and talk with them about our Social Union. You’ve heard about it?”

“Well, nothing very particular,” said Mrs. Gerrish; she had probably heard nothing at all. After a moment she asked, “Have you seen Mrs. Wilmington yet?”

“No, I haven’t,” cried Mrs. Munger. “The fact is, I wanted to talk it over with you and Mr. Gerrish first.”

“Oh!” said Mrs. Gerrish, brightening. “Well, I was just going right there. I guess he’s in.”

“Well, we shall meet there, then. Sorry I can’t offer you a seat. But there’s nothing but the rumble, and that wouldn’t hold you all.”

Mrs. Munger called this back after starting her pony. Mrs. Gerrish did not understand, and screamed, “What?”

Mrs. Munger repeated her joke at the top of her voice.

“Oh, I can walk!” Mrs. Gerrish yelled at the top of hers. Both the ladies laughed at their repartee.

“She’s as jealous of Mrs. Wilmington as a cat,” Mrs. Munger confided to Annie as they drove away; “and she’s just as pleased as Punch that I’ve spoken to her first. Mrs. Wilmington won’t mind. She’s so delightfully indifferent, it really renders her almost superior; you might forget that she was a village person. But this has been an immense stroke. I don’t know,” she mused, “whether I’d better let her get there first and prepare her husband, or do it myself. No; I’ll let her. I’ll stop here at Gates’s.”

She stopped at the pavement in front of a provision store, and a pale, stout man, in the long over-shirt of his business, came out to receive her orders. He stood, passing his hand through the top of a barrel of beans, and listened to Mrs. Munger with a humorous, patient smile.

“Mr. Gates, I want you to send me up a leg of lamb for dinner — a large one.”

“Last year’s, then,” suggested Gates.

“No; this year’s,” insisted Mrs. Munger; and Gates gave way with the air of pacifying a wilful child, which would get, after all, only what he chose to allow it.

“All right, ma’am; a large leg of this year’s lamb — grown to order. Any peas, spinnage, cucumbers, sparrowgrass?”

“Southern, I suppose?” said Mrs. Munger.

“Well, not if you want to call ’em native,” said Gates.

“Yes, I’ll take two bunches of asparagus, and some peas.”

“Any strawberries? — natives?” suggested Gates.

“Nonsense!”

“Same thing; natives of Norfolk.”

“You had better be honest with me, Mr. Gates,” said Mrs. Munger. “Yes, I’ll take a couple of boxes.”

“All right! Want ’em nice, and the biggest ones at the bottom of the box?”

“Yes, I do.”

“That’s what I thought. Some customers wants the big ones on top; but I tell ’em it’s all foolishness; just vanity.” Gates laughed a dry, hacking little laugh at his drollery, and kept his eyes on Annie. She smiled at last, with permissive recognition, and Gates came forward. “Used to know your father pretty well; but I can’t keep up with the young folks any more.” He was really not many years older than Annie; he rubbed his right hand on the inside of his long shirt, and gave it her to shake. “Well, you haven’t been about much for the last nine or ten years, that’s a fact.”

“Eleven,” said Annie, trying to be gay with the hand-shaking, and wondering if this were meeting the lower classes on common ground, and what Mr. Peck would think of it.

“That so?” queried Gates. “Well, I declare! No wonder you’ve grown!” He hacked out another laugh, and stood on the curb-stone looking at Annie a moment. Then he asked, “Anything else, Mrs. Munger?”

“No; that’s all. Tell me, Mr. Gates, how do Mr. Peck and Mr. Gerrish get on?” asked Mrs. Munger in a lower tone.

“Well,” said Gates, “he’s workin’ round — the deacon’s workin’ round gradually, I guess. I guess if Mr. Peck was to put in a little more brimstone, the deacon’d be all right. He’s a great hand for brimstone, you know, the deacon is.”

Mrs. Munger laughed again, and then she said, with a proselyting sigh, “It’s a pity you couldn’t all find your way into the Church.”

“Well, may be it would be a good thing,” said Gates, as Mrs. Munger gathered up her reins and chirped to her pony.

“He isn’t a member of Mr. Peck’s church,” she explained to Annie; “but he’s one of the society, and his wife’s very devout Orthodox. He’s a great character, we think, and he’ll treat you very well, if you keep on the right side of him. They say he cheats awfully in the weight, though.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/annie_kilburn/chapter7.html

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