Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 9

“That was a great success,” said Mrs. Munger, as they drove away. Annie said nothing, and she added, “Don’t you think so?”

“Well, I confess,” said Annie, “I don’t see how, exactly. Do you mean with regard to Mr. Gerrish?”

“Oh no; I don’t care anything about him,” said Mrs. Munger, touching her pony with the tip of her whip-lash. “He’s an odious little creature, and I knew that he would go for the dance and supper because Mr. Peck was opposed to them. He’s one of the anti-Peck party in his church, and that is the reason I spoke to him. But I meant the other gentlemen. You saw how they took it.”

“I saw that they both made fun of it,” said Annie.

“Yes; that’s just the point. It’s so fortunate they were frank about it. It throws a new light on it; and if that’s the way nice people are going to look at it, why, we must give up the idea. I’m quite prepared to do so. But I want to see Mrs. Wilmington first.”

“Mrs. Munger,” said Annie uneasily, “I would rather not see Mrs. Wilmington with you on this subject; I should be of no use.”

“My dear, you would be of the greatest use,” persisted Munger, and she laid her arm across Annie’s lap, as if to prevent her jumping out of the phaeton. “As Mrs. Wilmington’s old friend, you will have the greatest influence with her.”

“But I don’t know that I wish to influence her in favour of the supper and dance; I don’t know that I believe in them,” said Annie, cowed and troubled by the affair.

“That doesn’t make the slightest difference,” said Mrs. Munger impartially. “All you will have to do is to keep still. I will put the case to her.”

She checked the pony before the bar which the flagman at the railroad crossing had let down, while a long freight train clattered deafeningly by, and then drove bumping and jouncing across the tracks. “I suppose you remember what ‘Over the Track’ means in Hatboro’?”

“Oh yes,” said Annie, with a smile. “Social perdition at the least. You don’t mean that Mrs. Wilmington lives ‘Over the Track’?”

“Yes. It isn’t so bad as it used to be, socially. Mr. Wilmington has built a very fine house on this side, and there are several pretty Queen Anne cottages going up.”

They drove along under the elms which here stood somewhat at random about the wide, grassless street, between the high, windowy bulks of the shoe shops and hat shops. The dust gradually freed itself from the cinders about the tracks, and it hardened into a handsome, newly made road beyond the houses of the shop hands. They passed some open lots, and then, on a pleasant rise of ground, they came to a stately residence, lifted still higher on its underpinning of granite blocks. It was built in a Boston suburban taste of twenty years ago, with a lofty mansard-roof, and it was painted the stone-grey colour which was once esteemed for being so quiet. The lawn before it sloped down to the road, where it ended smoothly at the brink of a neat stone wall. A black asphalt path curved from the steps by which you mounted from the street to the steps by which you mounted to the heavy portico before the massive black walnut doors.

The ladies were shown into the music-room, from which the notes of a piano were sounding when they rang, and Mrs. Wilmington rose from the instrument to meet them. A young man who had been standing beside her turned away. Mrs. Wilmington was dressed in a light morning dress with a Watteau fall, whose delicate russets and faded reds and yellows heightened the richness of her complexion and hair.

“Why, Annie,” she said, “how glad I am to see you! And you too, Mrs. Munger. How vurry nice!” Her words took value from the thick mellow tones of her voice, and passed for much more than they were worth intrinsically. She moved lazily about and got them into chairs, and was not resentful when Mrs. Munger broke out with “How hot you have it!” “Have we? We had the furnace lighted yesterday, and we’ve been in all the morning, and so we hadn’t noticed. Jack, won’t you shut the register?” she drawled over her shoulder. “This is my nephew, Mr. Jack Wilmington, Miss Kilburn. Mr. Wilmington and Mrs. Munger are old friends.”

The young fellow bowed silently, and Annie instantly took a dislike to him, his heavy jaw, long eyes, and low forehead almost hidden under a thick bang. He sat down cornerwise on a chair, and listened, with a scornful thrust of his thick lips, to their talk.

Mrs. Munger was not abashed by him. She opened her budget with all her robust authority, and once more put Annie to shame. When she came to the question of the invited supper and dance, and having previously committed Mrs. Wilmington in favour of the general scheme, asked her what she thought of that part, Mr. Jack Wilmington answered for her —

“I should think you had a right to do what you please about it. It’s none of the hands’ business if you don’t choose to ask them.”

“Yes, that’s what any one would think — in the abstract,” said Mrs. Munger.

“Now, little boy,” said Mrs. Wilmington, with indolent amusement, putting out a silencing hand in the direction of the young man, “don’t you be so fast. You let your aunty speak for herself. I don’t know about not letting the hands stay to the dance and supper, Mrs. Munger. You know I might feel ‘put upon.’ I used to be one of the hands myself. Yes, Annie, there was a time after you went away, and after father died, when I actually fell so low as to work for an honest living.”

“I think I heard, Lyra,” said Annie; “but I had forgotten.” The fact, in connection with what had been said, made her still more uncomfortable.

“Well, I didn’t work very hard, and I didn’t have to work long. But I was a hand, and there’s no use trying to deny it. As Mr. Putney says, he and I have our record, and we don’t have to make any pretences. And the question is, whether I ought to go back on my fellow-hands.”

“Oh, but Mrs. Wilmington!” said Mrs. Munger, with intense deprecation, “that’s such a very different thing. You were not brought up to it; it was just temporary; and besides —”

“And besides, there was Mr. Wilmington, I know. He was very opportune. I might have been a hand at this moment if Mr. Wilmington had not come along and invited me to be a head — the head of his house. But I don’t know, Annie, whether I oughtn’t to remember my low beginnings.”

“I suppose we all like to be consistent,” answered Annie aimlessly, uneasily.

“Yes,” Mrs. Munger broke in; “but they were not your beginnings, Mrs. Wilmington; they were your incidents — your accidents.”

“It’s very pretty of you to say so, Mrs. Munger,” drawled Mrs. Wilmington. “But I guess I must oppose the little invited dance and supper, on principle. We all like to be consistent, as Annie says — even if we’re inconsistent in the attempt,” she added, with a laugh.

“Very well, then,” exclaimed Mrs. Munger, “we’ll drop them. As I said to Miss Kilburn on our way here, ‘if Mrs. Wilmington is opposed to them, we’ll drop them.’”

“Oh, am I such an influential person?” said Mrs. Wilmington, with a shrug. “It’s rather awful — isn’t it, Annie?”

“Not at all!” Mrs. Munger answered for Annie. “We’ve just been talking the matter over with Mr. Putney and Dr. Morrell, and they’re both opposed. You’re merely the straw that breaks the camel’s back, Mrs. Wilmington.”

“Oh, thank you! That’s a great relief.”

“Well — and now the question is, will you take the part of the Nurse or not in the dramatics?” asked Mrs. Munger, returning to business.

“Well, I must think about that, and I must ask Mr. Wilmington. Jack,” she called over her shoulder to the young man at the window, “do you think your uncle would approve of me as Juliet’s Nurse?”

“You’d better ask him,” growled the young fellow.

“Well,” said Mrs. Wilmington, with another laugh, “I’ll think it over, Mrs. Munger.”

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Munger. “And now we must really be going,” she added, pulling out her watch by its leathern guard.

“Not till you’ve had lunch,” said Mrs. Wilmington, rising with the ladies. “You must stay. Annie, I shall not excuse you.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Munger, complying without regard to Annie, “all this diplomacy is certainly very exhausting.”

“Lunch will be on the table in one moment,” returned Mrs. Wilmington, as the ladies sat down again provisionally. “Will you join us, Jack?”

“No; I’m going to the office,” said the nephew, bowing himself out of the room.

“Jack’s learning to be superintendent,” said Mrs. Wilmington, lifting her teasing voice to make him hear her in the hall, “and he’s been spending the whole morning here.”

In the richly appointed dining-room — a glitter of china and glass and a mass of carven oak — the table was laid for two.

“Put another plate, Norah,” said Mrs. Wilmington carelessly.

There was bouillon in teacups, chicken cutlets in white sauce, and luscious strawberries.

What a cook!” cried Mrs. Munger, over the cutlets.

“Yes, she’s a treasure; I don’t deny it,” said Mrs. Wilmington.

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