Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 8

Mrs. Munger drove across the street, and drew up before a large, handsomely ugly brick dry-goods store, whose showy windows had caught Annie’s eye the day she arrived in Hatboro’.

“I see Mrs. Gerrish has got here first,” Mrs. Munger said, indicating the perambulator at the door, and she dismounted and fastened her pony with a weight, which she took from the front of the phaeton. On either door jamb of the store was a curved plate of polished metal, with the name GERRISH cut into it in black letters; the sills of the wide windows were of metal, and bore the same legend. At the threshold a very prim, ceremonious little man, spare and straight, met Mrs. Munger with a ceremonious bow, and a solemn “How do you do, ma’am I how do you do? I hope I see you well,” and he put a small dry hand into the ample clasp of Mrs. Munger’s gauntlet.

“Very well indeed, Mr. Gerrish. Isn’t it a lovely morning? You know Miss Kilburn, Mr. Gerrish.”

He took Annie’s hand into his right and covered it with his left, lifting his eyes to look her in the, face with an old-merchant-like cordiality.

“Why, yes, indeed! Delighted to see her. Her father was one of my best friends. I may say that I owe everything that I am to Squire Kilburn; he advised me to stick to commerce when I once thought of studying law. Glad to welcome you back to Hatboro’, Miss Kilburn. You see changes on the surface, no doubt, but you’ll find the genuine old feeling here. Walk right back, ladies,” he continued, releasing Annie’s hand to waft them before him toward the rear of the store. “You’ll find Mrs. Gerrish in my room there — my Growlery, as I call it.” He seemed to think he had invented the name. “And Mrs. Gerrish tells me that you’ve really come back,” he said, leaning decorously toward Annie as they walked, “with the intention of taking up your residence permanently among us. You will find very few places like Hatboro’.”

As he spoke, walking with his hands clasped behind him, he glanced to right and left at the shop-girls on foot behind the counter, who dropped their eyes under their different bangs as they caught his glance, and bridled nervously. He denied them the use of chewing-gum; he permitted no conversation, as he called it, among them; and he addressed no jokes or idle speeches to them himself. A system of grooves overhead brought to his counting-room the cash from the clerks in wooden balls, and he returned the change, and kept the accounts, with a pitiless eye for errors. The women were afraid of him, and hated him with bitterness, which exploded at crises in excesses of hysterical impudence.

His store was an example of variety, punctuality, and quality. Upon the theory, for which he deserved the credit, of giving to a country place the advantages of one of the great city establishments, he was gradually gathering, in their fashion, the small commerce into his hands. He had already opened his bazaar through into the adjoining store, which he had bought out, and he kept every sort of thing desired or needed in a country town, with a tempting stock of articles before unknown to the shopkeepers of Hatboro’. Everything was of the very quality represented; the prices were low, but inflexible, and cash payments, except in the case of some rich customers of unimpeachable credit, were invariably exacted; at the same time every reasonable facility for the exchange or return of goods was afforded. Nothing could exceed the justice and fidelity of his dealing with the public. He had even some effects of generosity in his dealing with his dependants; he furnished them free seats in the churches of their different persuasions, and he closed every night at six o’clock, except Saturday, when the shop hands were paid off, and made their purchases for the coming week.

He stepped lightly before Annie and Mrs. Munger, and pushed open the ground-glass door of his office for them. It was like a bank parlour, except for Mrs. Gerrish sitting in her husband’s leather-cushioned swivel chair, with her last-born in her lap; she greeted the others noisily, without trying to rise.

“You see we are quite at home here,” said Mr. Gerrish.

“Yes, and very snug you are, too,” said Mrs. Munger, taking one half of the leather lounge, and leaving the other half to Annie. “I don’t wonder Mrs. Gerrish likes to visit you here.”

Mr. Gerrish laughed, and said to his wife, who moved provisionally in her chair, seeing he had none, “Sit still, my dear; I prefer my usual perch.” He took a high stool beside a desk, and gathered a ruler in his hand.

“Well, I may as well begin at the beginning,” said Mrs. Munger, “and I’ll try to be short, for I know that these are business hours.”

“Take all the time you want, Mrs. Munger,” said Mr. Gerrish affably. “It’s my idea that a good business man’s business can go on without him, when necessary.”

“Of course!” Mrs. Munger sighed. “If everybody had your system, Mr. Gerrish!” She went on and succinctly expounded the scheme of the Social Union. “I suppose I can’t deny that the idea occurred to me,” she concluded, “but we can’t hope to develop it without the co-operation of the ladies of Old Hatboro’, and I’ve come, first of all, to Mrs. Gerrish.”

Mr. Gerrish bowed his acknowledgments of the honour done his wife, with a gravity which she misinterpreted.

“I think,” she began, with her censorious manner and accent, “that these people have too much done for them now. They’re perfectly spoiled. Don’t you, Annie?”

Mr. Gerrish did not give Annie time to answer. “I differ with you, my dear,” he cut in. “It is my opinion — Or I don’t know but you wish to confine this matter entirely to the ladies?” he suggested to Mrs. Munger.

“Oh, I’m only too proud and glad that you feel interested in the matter!” cried Mrs. Munger. “Without the gentlemen’s practical views, we ladies are such feeble folk — mere conies in the rocks.”

“I am as much opposed as Mrs. Gerrish — or any one — to acceding to unjust demands on the part of my clerks or other employees,” Mr. Gerrish began.

“Yes, that’s what I mean,” said his wife, and broke down with a giggle.

He went on, without regarding her: “I have always made it a rule, as far as business went, to keep my own affairs entirely in my own hands. I fix the hours, and I fix the wages, and I fix all the other conditions, and I say plainly, ‘If you don’t like them, ‘don’t come,’ or ‘don’t stay,’ and I never have any difficulty.”

“I’m sure,” said Mrs. Munger, “that if all the employers in the country would take such a stand, there would soon be an end of labour troubles. I think we’re too concessive.”

“And I do too, Mrs. Munger!” cried Mrs. Gerrish, glad of the occasion to be censorious and of the finer lady’s opinion at the same time. “That’s what I meant. Don’t you, Annie?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand exactly,” Annie replied.

Mr. Gerrish kept his eye on Mrs. Munger’s face, now arranged for indefinite photography, as he went on. “That is exactly what I say to them. That is what I said to Mr. Marvin one year ago, when he had that trouble in his shoe shop. I said, ‘You’re too concessive.’ I said, ‘Mr. Marvin, if you give those fellows an inch, they’ll take an ell. Mr. Marvin,’ said I, ‘you’ve got to begin by being your own master, if you want to be master of anybody else. You’ve got to put your foot down, as Mr. Lincoln said; and as I say, you’ve got to keep it down.’”

Mrs. Gerrish looked at the other ladies for admiration, and Mrs. Munger said, rapidly, without disarranging her face —

“Oh yes. And how much misery could be saved in such cases by a little firmness at the outset!”

“Mr. Marvin differed with me,” said Mr. Gerrish sorrowfully. “He agreed with me on the main point, but he said that too many of his hands had been in his regiment, and he couldn’t lock them out. He submitted to arbitration. And what is arbitration?” asked Mr. Gerrish, levelling his ruler at Mrs. Munger. “It is postponing the evil day.”

“Exactly,” said Mrs. Munger, without winking.

“Mr. Marvin,” Mr. Gerrish proceeded, “may be running very smoothly now, and sailing before the wind all — all — nicely; but I tell you his house is built upon the sand,” He put his ruler by on the desk very softly, and resumed with impressive quiet: “I never had any trouble but once. I had a porter in this store who wanted his pay raised. I simply said that I made it a rule to propose all advances of salary myself, and I should submit to no dictation from any one. He told me to go to — a place that I will not repeat, and I told him to walk out of my store. He was under the influence of liquor at the time, I suppose. I understand that he is drinking very hard. He does nothing to support his family whatever, and from all that I can gather, he bids fair to fill a drunkard’s grave inside of six months.”

Mrs. Munger seized her opportunity. “Yes; and it is just such cases as this that the Social Union is designed to meet. If this man had some such place to spend his evenings — and bring his family if he chose — where he could get a cup of good coffee for the same price as a glass of rum — Don’t you see?”

She looked round at the different faces, and Mr. Gerrish slightly frowned, as if the vision of the Social Union interposing between his late porter and a drunkard’s grave, with a cup of good coffee, were not to his taste altogether; but he said: “Precisely so! And I was about to make the remark that while I am very strict — and obliged to be — with those under me in business, no one is more disposed to promote such objects as this of yours.”

“I was sure you would approve of it,” said Mrs. Munger. “That is why I came to you — to you and Mrs. Gerrish — first,” said Mrs. Munger. “I was sure you would see it in the right light.” She looked round at Annie for corroboration, and Annie was in the social necessity of making a confirmatory murmur.

Mr. Gerrish ignored them both in the more interesting work of celebrating himself. “I may say that there is not an institution in this town which I have not contributed my humble efforts to — to — establish, from the drinking fountain in front of this store, to the soldiers’ monument on the village green.”

Annie turned red; Mrs. Munger said shamelessly, “That beautiful monument!” and looked at Annie with eyes full of gratitude to Mr. Gerrish.

“The schools, the sidewalks, the water-works, the free library, the introduction of electricity, the projected system of drainage, and all the various religious enterprises at various times, I am proud — I am humbly proud — that I have been allowed to be the means of doing — sustaining —”

He lost himself in the labyrinths of his sentence, and Mrs. Munger came to his rescue: “I fancy Hatboro’ wouldn’t be Hatboro’ without you, Mr. Gerrish! And you don’t think that Mr. Peck’s objection will be seriously felt by other leading citizens?”

What is Mr. Peck’s objection?” demanded Mr. Gerrish, perceptibly bristling up at the name of his pastor.

“Why, he talked it over with Miss Kilburn last night, and he objected to an entertainment which wouldn’t be open to all — to the shop hands and everybody.” Mrs. Munger explained the point fully. She repeated some things that Annie had said in ridicule of Mr. Peck’s position regarding it. “If you do think that part would be bad or impolitic,” Mrs. Munger concluded, “we could drop the invited supper and the dance, and simply have the theatricals.”

She bent upon Mr. Gerrish a face of candid deference that filled him with self-importance almost to bursting.

“No!” he said, shaking his head, and “No!” closing his lips abruptly, and opening them again to emit a final “No!” with an explosive force which alone seemed to save him. “Not at all, Mrs. Munger; not on any account! I am surprised at Mr. Peck, or rather I am not surprised. He is not a practical man — not a man of the world; and I should have much preferred to hear that he objected to the dancing and the play; I could have understood that; I could have gone with him in that to a certain extent, though I can see no harm in such things when properly conducted. I have a great respect for Mr. Peck; I was largely instrumental in getting him here; but he is altogether wrong in this matter. We are not obliged to go out into the highways and the hedges until the bidden guests have — er — declined.”

“Exactly,” said Mrs. Munger. “I never thought of that.”

Mrs. Gerrish shifted her baby to another knee, and followed her husband with her eyes, as he dismounted from his stool and began to pace the room.

“I came into this town a poor boy, without a penny in my pocket, and I have made my own way, every inch of it, unaided and alone. I am a thorough believer in giving every one an equal chance to rise and to — get along; I would not throw an obstacle in anybody’s way; but I do not believe — I do not believe — in pampering those who have not risen, or have made no effort to rise.”

“It’s their wastefulness, in nine cases out of ten, that keeps them down,” said Mrs. Gerrish.

“I don’t care what it is, I don’t ask what it is, that keeps them down. I don’t expect to invite my clerks or Mrs. Gerrish’s servants into my parlour. I will meet them at the polls, or the communion table, or on any proper occasion; but a man’s home is sacred. I will not allow my wife or my children to associate with those whose — whose — whose idleness, or vice, or whatever, has kept them down in a country where — where everybody stands on an equality; and what I will not do myself, I will not ask others to do. I make it a rule to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. It is all nonsense to attempt to introduce those one-ideaed notions into — put them in practice.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Munger, with deep conviction, “that is my own feeling, Mr. Gerrish, and I’m glad to have it corroborated by your experience. Then you wouldn’t drop the little invited dance and supper?”

“I will tell you how I feel about it, Mrs. Munger,” said Mr. Gerrish, pausing in his walk, and putting on a fine, patronising, gentleman-of-the-old-school smile. “You may put me down for any number of tickets — five, ten, fifteen — and you may command me in anything I can do to further the objects of your enterprise, if you will keep the invited supper and dance. But I should not be prepared to do anything if they are dropped.”

“What a comfort it is to meet a person who knows his own mind!” exclaimed Mrs. Munger.

“Got company, Billy?” asked a voice at the door; and it added, “Glad to see you here, Mrs. Gerrish.”

“Ah, Mr. Putney! Come in. Hope I see you well, sir!” cried Mr. Gerrish. “Come in!” he repeated, with jovial frankness. “Nobody but friends here.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Mr. Putney, with whimsical perversity, holding the door ajar. “I see that arch-conspirator from South Hatboro’,” he said, looking at Mrs. Munger.

He showed himself, as he stood holding the door ajar, a lank little figure, dressed with reckless slovenliness in a suit of old-fashioned black; a loose neck-cloth fell stringing down his shirt front, which his unbuttoned waistcoat exposed, with its stains from the tobacco upon which his thin little jaws worked mechanically, as he stared into the room with flamy blue eyes; his silk hat was pushed back from a high, clear forehead; he had yesterday’s stubble on his beardless cheeks; a heavy moustache and imperial gave dash to a cast of countenance that might otherwise have seemed slight and effeminate.

“Yes; but I’m in charge of Miss Kilburn, and you needn’t be afraid of me. Come in. We wish to consult you,” cried Mrs. Munger. Mrs. Gerrish cackled some applausive incoherencies.

Putney advanced into the room, and dropped his burlesque air as he approached Annie.

“Miss Kilburn, I must apologise for not having called with Mrs. Putney to pay my respects. I have been away; when I got back I found she had stolen a march on me. But I’m going to make Ellen bring me at once. I don’t think I’ve been in your house since the old Judge’s time. Well, he was an able man, and a good man; I was awfully fond of the old Judge, in a boy’s way.”

“Thank you,” said Annie, touched by something gentle and honest in his words.

“He was a Christian gentleman,” said Mr. Gerrish. with authority.

Putney said, without noticing Mr. Gerrish, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come back to the old place, Miss Kilburn — I almost said Annie.”

“I shouldn’t have minded, Ralph,” she retorted.

“Shouldn’t you? Well, that’s right.” Putney continued, ignoring the laugh of the others at Annie’s sally: “You’ll find Hatboro’ pretty exciting, after Rome, for a while, I suppose. But you’ll get used to it. It’s got more of the modern improvements, I’m told, and it’s more public-spirited — more snap to it. I’m told that there’s more enterprise in Hatboro’, more real crowd in South Hatboro’ alone, than there is in the Quirinal and the Vatican put together.”

“You had better come and live at South Hatboro’, Mr. Putney; that would be just the atmosphere for you,” said Mrs. Munger, with aimless hospitality. She said this to every one.

“Is it about coming to South Hatboro’ you want to consult me?” asked Putney.

“Well, it is, and it isn’t,” she began.

“Better be honest, Mrs. Munger,” said Putney. “You can’t do anything for a client who won’t be honest with his attorney. That’s what I have to continually impress upon the reprobates who come to me. I say, ‘It don’t matter what you’ve done; if you expect me to get you off, you’ve got to make a clean breast of it.’ They generally do; they see the sense of it.”

They all laughed, and Mr. Gerrish said, “Mr. Putney is one of Hatboro’s privileged characters, Miss Kilburn.”

“Thank you, Billy,” returned the lawyer, with mock-tenderness. “Now, Mrs. Munger, out with it!”

“You’ll have to tell him sooner or later, Mrs. Munger!” said Mrs. Gerrish, with overweening pleasure in her acquaintance with both of these superior people. “He’ll get it out of you anyway.” Her husband looked at her, and she fell silent.

Mrs. Munger swept her with a tolerant smile as she looked up at Putney. “Why, it’s really Miss Kilburn’s affair,” she began; and she laid the case before the lawyer with a fulness that made Annie wince.

Putney took a piece of tobacco from his pocket, and tore off a morsel with his teeth. “Excuse me, Annie! It’s a beastly habit. But it’s saved me from something worse. You don’t know what I’ve been; but anybody in Hatboro’ can tell you. I made my shame so public that it’s no use trying to blink the past. You don’t have to be a hypocrite in a place where everybody’s seen you in the gutter; that’s the only advantage I’ve got over my fellow-citizens, and of course I abuse it; that’s nature, you know. When I began to pull up I found that tobacco helped me; I smoked and chewed both; now I only chew. Well,” he said, dropping the pathetic simplicity with which he had spoken, and turning with a fierce jocularity from the shocked and pitying look in Annie’s face to Mrs. Munger, “what do you propose to do? Brother Peck’s head seems to be pretty level, in the abstract.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Munger, willing to put the case impartially; “and I should be perfectly willing to drop the invited dance and supper, if it was thought best, though I must say I don’t at all agree with Mr. Peck in principle. I don’t see what would become of society.”

“You ought to be in politics, Mrs. Munger,” said Putney. “Your readiness to sacrifice principle to expediency shows what a reform will be wrought when you ladies get the suffrage. What does Brother Gerrish think?”

“No, no,” said Mrs. Munger. “We want an impartial opinion.”

“I always think as Brother Gerrish thinks,” said Putney. “I guess you better give up the fandango; hey, Billy?”

“No, sir; no, Mr. Putney,” answered the merchant nervously. “I can’t agree with you. And I will tell you why, sir.”

He gave his reasons, with some abatement of pomp and detail, and with the tremulous eagerness of a solemn man who expects a sarcastic rejoinder. “It would be a bad precedent. This town is full now of a class of persons who are using every opportunity to — to abuse their privileges. And this would be simply adding fuel to the flame.”

“Do you really think so, Billy?” asked the lawyer, with cool derision. “Well, we all abuse our privileges at every opportunity, of course; I was just saying that I abused mine; and I suppose those fellows would abuse theirs if you happened to hurt their wives’ and daughters’ feelings. And how are you going to manage? Aren’t you afraid that they will hang around, after the show, indefinitely, unless you ask all those who have not received invitations to the dance and supper to clear the grounds, as they do in the circus when the minstrels are going to give a performance not included in the price of admission? Mind, I don’t care anything about your Social Union.”

“Oh, but surely!” cried Mrs. Munger, “you must allow that it’s a good object.”

“Well, perhaps it is, if it will keep the men away from the rum-holes. Yes, I guess it is. You won’t sell liquor?”

“We expect to furnish coffee at cost price,” said Mrs. Munger, smiling at Putney’s joke.

“And good navy-plug too, I hope. But you see it would be rather awkward, don’t you? You see, Annie?”

“Yes, I see,” said Annie. “I hadn’t thought of that part before.”

“And you didn’t agree with Brother Peck on general principles? There we see the effect of residence abroad,” said Putney. “The uncorrupted — or I will say the uninterrupted — Hatborian has none of those aristocratic predilections of yours, Annie. He grows up in a community where there is neither poverty nor richness, and where political economy can show by the figures that the profligate shop hands get nine-tenths of the profits, and starve on ’em, while the good little company rolls in luxury on the other tenth. But you’ve got used to something different over there, and of course Brother Peck’s ideas startled you. Well, I suppose I should have been just so myself.”

“Mr. Putney has never felt just right about the working-men since he lost the boycotters’ case,” said Mr. Gerrish, with a snicker.

“Oh, come now, Billy, why did you give me away?” said Putney, with mock suffering. “Well, I suppose I might as well own up, Mrs. Munger; it’s no use trying to keep it from you; you know it already. Yes, Annie, I defended some poor devils here for combining to injure a non-union man — for doing once just what the big manufacturing Trusts do every day of the year with impunity; and I lost the case. I expected to. I told ’em they were wrong, but I did my best for ’em. ‘Why, you fools,’ said I— that’s the way I talk to ’em, Annie; I call ’em pet names; they like it; they’re used to ’em; they get ’em every day in the newspapers —‘you fools,’ said I, ‘what do you want to boycott for, when you can vote? What do you want to break the laws for, when you can make ’em? You idiots, you,’ said I, ‘what do you putter round for, persecuting non-union men, that have as good a right to earn their bread as you, when you might make the whole United States of America a Labour Union?’ Of course I didn’t say that in court.”

“Oh, how delicious you are, Mr. Putney!” said Mrs. Munger.

“Glad you like me, Mrs. Munger,” Putney replied.

“Yes, you’re delightful,” said the lady, recovering from the effects of the drollery which they had all pretended to enjoy, Mr. Gerrish, and Mrs. Gerrish by his leave, even more than the others. “But you’re not candid. All this doesn’t help us to a conclusion. Would you give up the invited dance and supper, or wouldn’t you? That’s the question.”

“And no shirking, hey?” asked Putney.

“No shirking.”

Putney glanced through a little transparent space in the ground-glass windows framing the room, which Mr. Gerrish used for keeping an eye on his sales-ladies to see that they did not sit down.

“Hello!” he exclaimed. “There’s Dr. Morrell. Let’s put the case to him.” He opened the door and called down the store, “Come in here, Doc!”

“What?” called back an amused voice; and after a moment steps approached, and Dr. Morrell hesitated at the open door. He was a tall man, with a slight stoop; well dressed; full bearded; with kind, boyish blue eyes that twinkled in fascinating friendliness upon the group. “Nobody sick here, I hope?”

“Walk right in, sir! come in, Dr. Morrell,” said Mr. Gerrish. “Mrs. Munger and Mrs. Gerrish you know. Present you to Miss Kilburn, who has come to make her home among us after a prolonged residence abroad. Dr. Morrell, Miss Kilburn.”

“No, there’s nobody sick here, in one sense,” said Putney, when the doctor had greeted the ladies. “But. we want your advice all the same. Mrs. Munger is in a pretty bad way morally, Doc.”

“Don’t you mind Mr. Putney, doctor!” screamed Mrs. Gerrish.

Putney said, with respectful recognition of the poor woman’s attempt to be arch, “I’ll try to keep within the bounds of truth in stating the case, Mrs. Gerrish.”

He went on to state it, with so much gravity and scrupulosity, and with so many appeals to Mrs. Munger to correct him if he were wrong, that the doctor was shaking with laughter when Putney came to an end with unbroken seriousness. At each repetition of the facts, Annie’s relation to them grew more intolerable; and she suspected Putney of an intention to punish her. “Well, what do you say?” he demanded of the doctor.

“Ha, ha, ha! ah, ha, ha.” laughed the doctor, shutting his eyes and throwing back his head.

“Seems to consider it a laughing matter,” said Putney to Mrs. Munger.

“Yes; and that is all your fault,” said Mrs. Munger, trying, with the ineffectiveness of a large woman, to pout.

“No, no, I’m not laughing.” began the doctor.

“Smiling, perhaps,” suggested Putney.

The doctor went off again. Then, “I beg — I beg your pardon, Mrs. Munger,” he resumed. “But it isn’t a professional question, you know; and I— I really couldn’t judge — have any opinion on such a matter.”

“No shirking,” said Putney. “That’s what Mrs. Munger said to me.”

“Of course not,” gurgled the doctor. “You ladies will know what to do. I’m sure I shouldn’t,” he added.

“Well, I must be going,” said Putney. “Sorry to leave you in this fix, Doc.” He flashed out of the door, and suddenly came back to offer Annie his hand. “I beg your pardon, Annie. I’m going to make Ellen bring me round. Good morning.” He bowed cursorily to the rest.

“Wait — I’ll go with you, Putney,” said the doctor.

Mrs. Munger rose, and Annie with her. “We must go too,” she said. “We’ve taken up Mr. Gerrish’s time most unconscionably,” and now Mr. Gerrish did not urge her to remain.

“Well, good-bye,” said Mrs. Gerrish, with a genteel prolongation of the last syllable.

Mr. Gerrish followed his guests down the store, and even out upon the sidewalk, where he presided with unheeded hospitality over the superfluous politeness of Putney and Dr. Morrell in putting Mrs. Munger and Annie into the phaeton. Mrs. Munger attempted to drive away without having taken up her hitching weight.

“I suppose that there isn’t a post in this town that my wife hasn’t tried to pull up in that way,” said Putney gravely.

The doctor doubled himself down with another fit of laughing.

Annie wanted to laugh too, but she did not like his laughing. She questioned if it were not undignified. She felt that it might be disrespectful. Then she asked herself why he should respect her.

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