Annie Kilburn, by William Dean Howells

Chapter 11

Putney met Annie at the door, and led her into the parlour beside the hall. He had a little crippled boy on his right arm, and he gave her his left hand. In the parlour he set his burden down in a chair, and the child drew up under his thin arms a pair of crutches that stood beside it. His white face had the eager purity and the waxen translucence which we see in sufferers from hip-disease.

“This is our Winthrop,” said his father, beginning to talk at once. “We receive the company and do the honours while mother’s looking after the tea. We only keep one undersized girl,” he explained more directly to Annie, “and Ellen has to be chief cook and bottlewasher herself. She’ll be in directly. Just lay off your bonnet anywhere.”

She was taking in the humility of the house and its belongings while she received the impression of an unimagined simplicity in its life from his easy explanations. The furniture was in green terry, the carpet a harsh, brilliant tapestry; on the marble-topped centre table was a big clasp Bible and a basket with a stereoscope and views; the marbleised iron shelf above the stove-pipe hole supported two glass vases and a French clock under a glass bell; through the open door, across the oil-cloth of the hallway, she saw the white-painted pine balusters of the steep, cramped stairs. It was clear that neither Putney nor his wife had been touched by the aesthetic craze; the parlour was in the tastelessness of fifteen years before; but after the decoration of South Hatboro’, she found a delicious repose in it. Her eyes dwelt with relief on the wall-paper of French grey, sprigged with small gilt flowers, and broken by a few cold engravings and framed photographs.

Putney himself was as little decorated as the parlour. He had put on a clean shirt, but the bulging bosom had broken away from its single button, and showed two serrated edges of ragged linen; his collar lost itself from time to time under the rise of his plastron scarf band, which kept escaping from the stud that ought to have held it down behind. His hair was brushed smoothly across a forehead which looked as innocent and gentle as the little boy’s.

“We don’t often give these festivities,” he went on, “but you don’t come home once in twelve years every day, Annie. I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you in our house; and Ellen’s just as excited as the rest of us; she was sorry to miss you when she called.”

“You’re very kind, Ralph. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to come, and I’m not going to let the trouble I’m giving spoil my pleasure.”

“Well, that’s right,” said Putney. “We sha’n’t either.” He took out a cigar and put it into his mouth. “It’s only a dry smoke. Ellen makes me let up on my chewing when we have company, and I must have something in my mouth, so I get a cigar. It’s a sort of compromise. I’m a terribly nervous man, Annie; you can’t imagine. If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I think I should fly to pieces sometimes. But I guess that’s what holds me together — that and Winthy here. I dropped him on the stairs out there, when I was drunk, one night. I saw you looking at them; I suppose you’ve been told; it’s all right. I presume the Almighty knows what He’s about; but sometimes He appears to save at the spigot and waste at the bung-hole, like the rest of us. He let me cripple my boy to reform me.”

“Don’t, Ralph!” said Annie, with a voice of low entreaty. She turned and spoke to the child, and asked him if he would not come to see her.

“What?” he asked, breaking with a sort of absent-minded start from his intentness upon his father’s words.

She repeated her invitation.

“Thanks!” he said, in the prompt, clear little pipe which startles by its distinctness and decision on the lips of crippled children. “I guess father’ll bring me some day. Don’t you want I should go out and tell mother she’s here?” he asked his father.

“Well, if you want to, Winthrop,” said his father.

The boy swung himself lightly out of the room on his crutches, and his father turned to her. “Well, how does Hatboro’ strike you, anyway, Annie? You needn’t mind being honest with me, you know.”

He did not give her a chance to say, and she was willing to let him talk on, and tell her what he thought of Hatboro’ himself. “Well, it’s like every other place in the world, at every moment of history — it’s in a transition state. The theory is, you know, that most places are at a standstill the greatest part of the time; they haven’t begun to move, or they’ve stopped moving; but I guess that’s a mistake; they’re moving all the while. I suppose Rome itself was in a transition state when you left?”

“Oh, very decidedly. It had ceased to be old and was becoming new.”

“Well, that’s just the way with Hatboro’. There is no old Hatboro’ any more; and there never was, as your father and mine could tell us if they were here. They lived in a painfully transitional period, poor old fellows! But, for all that, there is a difference. They lived in what was really a New England village, and we live now in a sprawling American town; and by American of course I mean a town where at least one-third of the people are raw foreigners or rawly extracted natives. The old New England ideal characterises them all, up to a certain point, socially; it puts a decent outside on most of ’em; it makes ’em keep Sunday, and drink on the sly. We got in the Irish long ago, and now they’re part of the conservative element. We got in the French Canadians, and some of them are our best mechanics and citizens. We’re getting in the Italians, and as soon as they want something better than bread and vinegar to eat, they’ll begin going to Congress and boycotting and striking and forming pools and trusts just like any other class of law-abiding Americans. There used to be some talk of the Chinese, but I guess they’ve pretty much blown over. We’ve got Ah Lee and Sam Lung here, just as they have everywhere, but their laundries don’t seem to increase. The Irish are spreading out into the country and scooping in the farms that are not picturesque enough for the summer folks. You can buy a farm anywhere round Hatboro’ for less than the buildings on it cost. I’d rather the Irish would have the land than the summer folks. They make an honest living off it, and the other fellows that come out to roost here from June till October simply keep somebody else from making a living off it, and corrupt all the poor people in sight by their idleness and luxury. That’s what I tell ’em at South Hatboro’. They don’t like it, but I guess they believe it; anyhow they have to hear it. They’ll tell you in self-defence that J. Milton Northwick is a practical farmer, and sells his butter for a dollar a pound. He’s done more than anybody else to improve the breeds of cattle and horses; and he spends fifteen thousand a year on his place. It can’t return him five; and that’s the reason he’s a curse and a fraud.”

“Who is Mr. Northwick, Ralph?” Annie interposed. “Everybody at South Hatboro’ asked me if I’d met the Northwicks.”

“He’s a very great and good man,” said Putney. “He’s worth a million, and he runs a big manufacturing company at Ponkwasset Falls, and he owns a fancy farm just beyond South Hatboro’. He lives in Boston, but he comes out here early enough to dodge his tax there, and let poorer people pay it. He’s got miles of cut stone wall round his place, and conservatories and gardens and villas and drives inside of it, and he keeps up the town roads outside at his own expense. Yes, we feel it such an honour and advantage to have J. Milton in Hatboro’ that our assessors practically allow him to fix the amount of tax here himself. People who can pay only a little at the highest valuation are assessed to the last dollar of their property and income; but the assessors know that this wouldn’t do with Mr. Northwick. They make a guess at his income, and he always pays their bills without asking for abatement; they think themselves wise and public-spirited men for doing it, and most of their fellow-citizens think so too. You see it’s not only difficult for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven, Annie, but he makes it hard for other people.

“Well, as I was saying, socially, the old New England element is at the top of the heap here. That’s so everywhere. The people that are on the ground first, it don’t matter much who they are, have to manage pretty badly not to leave their descendants in social ascendency over all newer comers for ever. Why, I can see it in my own case. I can see that I was a sort of fetich to the bedevilled fancy of the people here when I was seen drunk in the streets every day, just because I was one of the old Hatboro’ Putneys; and when I began to hold up, there wasn’t a man in the community that wasn’t proud and flattered to help me. Curious, isn’t it? It made me sick of myself and ashamed of them, and I just made up my mind, as soon as I got straight again, I’d give all my help to the men that hadn’t a tradition. That’s what I’ve done, Annie. There isn’t any low, friendless rapscallion in this town that hasn’t got me for his friend — and Ellen. We’ve been in all the strikes with the men, and all their fool boycottings and kicking over the traces generally. Anybody else would have been turned out of respectable society for one-half that I’ve done, but it tolerates me because I’m one of the old Hatboro’ Putneys. You’re one of the old Hatboro’ Kilburns, and if you want to have a mind of your own and a heart of your own, all you’ve got to do is to have it. They’ll like it; they’ll think it’s original. That’s the reason South Hatboro’ got after you with that Social Union scheme. They were right in thinking you would have a great deal of influence. I was sorry you had to throw it against Brother Peck.”

Annie felt herself jump at this climax, as if she had been touched on an exposed nerve. She grew red, and tried to be angry, but she was only ashamed and tempted to lie out of the part she had taken. “Mrs. Munger,” she said, “gave that a very unfair turn. I didn’t mean to ridicule Mr. Peck. I think he was perfectly sincere. The scheme of the invited dance and supper has been entirely given up. And I don’t care for the project of the Social Union at all.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” said Putney, indifferently, and he resumed his analysis of Hatboro’—

“We’ve got all the modern improvements here, Annie. I suppose you’d find the modern improvements, most of ’em, in Sheol: electric light, Bell telephone, asphalt sidewalks, and city water — though I don’t know about the water; and I presume they haven’t got a public library or an opera-house — perhaps they have got an opera-house in Sheol: you see I use the Revised Version, it don’t sound so much like swearing. But, as I was saying —”

Mrs. Putney came in, and he stopped with the laugh of a man who knows that his wife will find it necessary to account for him and apologise for him.

The ladies kissed each other. Mrs. Putney was dressed in the black silk of a woman who has one silk; she was red from the kitchen, but all was neat and orderly in the hasty toilet which she must have made since leaving the cook-stove. A faint, mixed perfume of violet sachet and fricasseed chicken attended her.

“Well, as you were saying, Ralph?” she suggested.

“Oh, I was just tracing a little parallel between Hatboro’ and Sheol,” replied her husband.

Mrs. Putney made a tchk of humorous patience, and laughed toward Annie for sympathy. “Well, then, I guess you needn’t go on. Tea’s ready. Shall we wait for the doctor?”

“No; doctors are too uncertain. We’ll wait for him while we’re eating. That’s what fetches him the soonest. I’m hungry. Ain’t you, Win?”

“Not so very,” said the boy, with his queer promptness. He stood resting himself on his crutches at the door, and he now wheeled about, and led the way out to the living-room, swinging himself actively forward. It seemed that his haste was to get to the dumb-waiter in the little china closet opening off the dining-room, which was like the papered inside of a square box. He called to the girl below, and helped pull it up, as Annie could tell by the creaking of the rope, and the light jar of the finally arriving crockery. A half-grown girl then appeared, and put the dishes on at the places indicated with nods and looks by Mrs. Putney, who had taken her place at the table. There was a platter of stewed fowl, and a plate of high-piled waffles, sweltering in successive courses of butter and sugar. In cut-glass dishes, one at each end of the table, there were canned cherries and pine-apple. There was a square of old-fashioned soda biscuit, not broken apart, which sent up a pleasant smell; in the centre of the table was a shallow vase of strawberries.

It was all very good and appetising; but to Annie it was pathetically old-fashioned, and helped her to realise how wholly out of the world was the life which her friends led.

“Winthrop,” said Putney, and the father and mother bowed their heads.

The boy dropped his over his folded hands, and piped up clearly: “Our Father, which art in heaven, help us to remember those who have nothing to eat. Amen!”

“That’s a grace that Win got up himself,” his father explained, beginning to heap a plate with chicken and mashed potato, which he then handed to Annie, passing her the biscuit and the butter. “We think it suits the Almighty about as well as anything.”

“I suppose you know Ralph of old, Annie?” said Mrs. Putney. “The only way he keeps within bounds at all is by letting himself perfectly loose.”

Putney laughed out his acquiescence, and they began to talk together about old times. Mrs. Putney and Annie recalled the childish plays and adventures they had together, and one dreadful quarrel. Putney told of the first time he saw Annie, when his father took him one day for a call on the old judge, and how the old judge put him through his paces in American history, and would not admit the theory that the battle of Bunker’s Hill could have been fought on Breed’s Hill. Putney said that it was years before it occurred to him that the judge must have been joking: he had always thought he was simply ignorant.

“I used to set a good deal by the battle of Bunker’s Hill,” he continued. “I thought the whole Revolution and subsequent history revolved round it, and that it gave us all liberty, equality, and fraternity at a clip. But the Lord always finds some odd jobs to look after next day, and I guess He didn’t clear ’em all up at Bunker’s Hill.”

Putney’s irony and piety were very much of a piece apparently, and Annie was not quite sure which this conclusion was. She glanced at his wife, who seemed satisfied with it in either case. She was waiting patiently for him to wake up to the fact that he had not yet given her anything to eat; after helping Annie and the boy, he helped himself, and pending his wife’s pre-occupation with the tea, he forgot her.

“Why didn’t you throw something at me,” he roared, in grief and self-reproach. “There wouldn’t have been a loose piece of crockery on this side of the table if I hadn’t got my tea in time.”

“Oh, I was listening to Annie’s share in the conversation,” said Mrs. Putney; and her husband was about to say something in retort of her thrust when a tap on the front door was heard.

“Come in, come in, Doc!” he shouted. “Mrs. Putney’s just been helped, and the tea is going to begin.”

Dr. Morrell’s chuckle made answer for him, and after time enough to put down his hat, he came in, rubbing his hands and smiling, and making short nods round the table. “How d’ye do, Mrs. Putney? How d’ye do, Miss Kilburn? Winthrop?” He passed his hand over the boy’s smooth hair and slipped into the chair beside him.

“You see, the reason why we always wait for the doctor in this formal way,” said Putney, “is that he isn’t in here more than seven nights of the week, and he rather stands on his dignity. Hand round the doctor’s plate, my son,” he added to the boy, and he took it from Annie, to whom the boy gave it, and began to heap it from the various dishes. “Think you can lift that much back to the doctor, Win?”

“I guess so,” said the boy coolly.

“What is flooring Win at present,” said his father, “and getting him down and rolling him over, is that problem of the robin that eats half a pint of grasshoppers and then doesn’t weigh a bit more than he did before.”

“When he gets a little older,” said the doctor, shaking over his plateful, “he’ll be interested to trace the processes of his father’s thought from a guest and half a peck of stewed chicken, to a robin and half a pint of —”

“Don’t, doctor!” pleaded Mrs. Putney. “He won’t have the least trouble if he’ll keep to the surface.”

Putney laughed impartially, and said: “Well, we’ll take the doctor out and weigh him when he gets done. We expected Brother Peck here this evening,” he explained to Dr. Morrell. “You’re our sober second thought — Well,” he broke off, looking across the table at his wife with mock anxiety. “Anything wrong about that, Ellen?”

“Not as far as I’m concerned, Mrs. Putney,” interposed the doctor. “I’m glad to be here on any terms. Go on, Putney.”

“Oh, there isn’t anything more. You know how Miss Kilburn here has been round throwing ridicule on Brother Peck, because he wants the shop-hands treated with common decency, and my idea was to get the two together and see how she would feel.”

Dr. Morrell laughed at this with what Annie thought was unnecessary malice; but he stopped suddenly, after a glance at her, and Putney went on —

“Brother Peck pleaded another engagement. Said he had to go off into the country to see a sick woman that wasn’t expected to live. You don’t remember the Merrifields, do you, Annie? Well, it doesn’t matter. One of ’em married West, and her husband left her, and she came home here and got a divorce; I got it for her. She’s the one. As a consumptive, she had superior attractions for Brother Peck. It isn’t a case that admits of jealousy exactly, but it wouldn’t matter to Brother Peck anyway. If he saw a chance to do a good action, he’d wade through blood.”

“Now look here, Ralph,” said Mrs. Putney, “there’s such a thing as letting yourself too loose.”

“Well, gore, then,” said Putney, buttering himself a biscuit.

The boy, who had kept quiet till now, seemed reached by this last touch, and broke into a high, crowing laugh, in which they all joined except his father.

“Gore suits Winthy, anyway,” he said, beginning to eat his biscuit. “I met one of the deacons from Brother Peck’s last parish, in Boston, yesterday. He asked me if we considered Brother Peck anyways peculiar in Hatboro’, and when I said we thought he was a little too luxurious, the deacon came out with a lot of things. The way Brother Peck behaved toward the needy in that last parish of his made it simply uninhabitable to the standard Christian. They had to get rid of him somehow — send him away or kill him. Of course the deacon said they didn’t want to kill him.”

“Where was his last parish?” asked the doctor.

“Down on the Maine coast somewhere. Penobscotport, I believe.”

“And was he indigenous there?”

“No, I believe not; he’s from Massachusetts. Farm-boy and then mill-hand, I understand. Self-helped to an education; divinity student with summer intervals of waiting at table in the mountain hotels probably. Drifted down Maine way on his first call and stuck; but I guess he won’t stick here very long. Annie’s friend Mr. Gerrish is going to look after Brother Peck before a great while.” He laughed, to see her blush, and went on. “You see, Brother Gerrish has got a high ideal of what a Christian minister ought to be; he hasn’t said much about it, but I can see that Brother Peck doesn’t come up to it. Well, Brother Gerrish has got a good many ideals. He likes to get anybody he can by the throat, and squeeze the difference of opinion out of ’em.”

“There, now, Ralph,” his wife interposed, “you let Mr. Gerrish alone. You don’t like people to differ with you, either. Is your cup out, doctor?”

“Thank you,” said the doctor, handing it up to her. “And you mean Mr. Gerrish doesn’t like Mr. Peck’s doctrine?” he asked of Putney.

“Oh, I don’t know that he objects to his doctrine; he can’t very well; it’s ‘between the leds of the Bible,’ as the Hard-shell Baptist said. But he objects to Brother Peck’s walk and conversation. He thinks he walks too much with the poor, and converses too much with the lowly. He says he thinks that the pew-owners in Mr. Peck’s church and the people who pay his salary have some rights to his company that he’s bound to respect.”

The doctor relished the irony, but he asked, “Isn’t there something to say on that side?”

“Oh yes, a good deal. There’s always something to say on both sides, even when one’s a wrong side. That’s what makes it all so tiresome — makes you wish you were dead.” He looked up, and caught his boy’s eye fixed with melancholy intensity upon him. “I hope you’ll never look at both sides when you grow up, Win. It’s mighty uncomfortable. You take the right side, and stick to that. Brother Gerrish,” he resumed, to the doctor, “goes round taking the credit of Brother Peck’s call here; but the fact is he opposed it. He didn’t like his being so indifferent about the salary. Brother Gerrish held that the labourer was worthy of his hire, and if he didn’t inquire what his wages were going to be, it was a pretty good sign that he wasn’t going to earn them.”

“Well, there was some logic in that,” said the doctor, smiling as before.

“Plenty. And now it worries Brother Gerrish to see Brother Peck going round in the same old suit of clothes he came here in, and dressing his child like a shabby little Irish girl. He says that he who provideth not for those of his own household is worse than a heathen. That’s perfectly true. And he would like to know what Brother Peck does with his money, anyway. He would like to insinuate that he loses it at poker, I guess; at any rate, he can’t find out whom he gives it to, and he certainly doesn’t spend it on himself.”

“From your account of Mr. Peck.” said the doctor, “I should think Brother Gerrish might safely object to him as a certain kind of sentimentalist.”

“Well, yes, he might, looking at him from the outside. But when you come to talk with Brother Peck, you find yourself sort of frozen out with a most unexpected, hard-headed cold-bloodedness. Brother Peck is plain common-sense itself. He seems to be a man without an illusion, without an emotion.”

“Oh, not so bad as that!” laughed the doctor.

“Ask Miss Kilburn. She’s talked with him, and she hates him.”

“No, I don’t, Ralph,” Annie began.

“Oh, well, then, perhaps he only made you hate yourself,” said Putney. There was something charming in his mockery, like the teasing of a brother with a sister; and Annie did not find the atonement to which he brought her altogether painful. It seemed to her really that she was getting off pretty easily, and she laughed with hearty consent at last.

Winthrop asked solemnly, “How did he do that?”

“Oh, I can’t tell exactly, Winthrop,” she said, touched by the boy’s simple interest in this abstruse point. “He made me feel that I had been rather mean and cruel when I thought I had only been practical. I can’t explain; but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling, my dear.”

“I guess that’s the trouble with Brother Peck,” said Putney. “He doesn’t make you feel comfortable. He doesn’t flatter you up worth a cent. There was Annie expecting him to take the most fervent interest in her theatricals, and her Social Union, and coo round, and tell her what a noble woman she was, and beg her to consider her health, and not overwork herself in doing good; but instead of that he simply showed her that she was a moral Cave–Dweller, and that she was living in a Stone Age of social brutalities; and of course she hated him.”

“Yes, that was the way, Winthrop,” said Annie; and they all laughed with her.

“Now you take them into the parlour, Ralph,” said his wife, rising, “and tell them how he made you hate him.”

“I shouldn’t like anything better,” replied Putney. He lifted the large ugly kerosene lamp that had been set on the table when it grew dark during tea, and carried it into the parlour with him. His wife remained to speak with her little helper, but she sent Annie with the gentlemen.

“Why, there isn’t a great deal of it — more spirit than letter, so to speak,” said Putney, when he put down the lamp in the parlour. “You know how I like to go on about other people’s sins, and the world’s wickedness generally; but one day Brother Peck, in that cool, impersonal way of his, suggested that it was not a wholly meritorious thing to hate evil. He went so far as to say that perhaps we could not love them that despitefully used us if we hated their evil so furiously. He said it was a good deal more desirable to understand evil than to hate it, for then we could begin to cure it. Yes, Brother Peck let in a good deal of light on me. He rather insinuated that I must be possessed by the very evils I hated, and that was the reason I was so violent about them. I had always supposed that I hated other people’s cruelty because I was merciful, and their meanness because I was magnanimous, and their intolerance because I was generous, and their conceit because I was modest, and their selfishness because I was disinterested; but after listening to Brother Peck a while I came to the conclusion that I hated these things in others because I was cruel myself, and mean, and bigoted, and conceited, and piggish; and that’s why I’ve hated Brother Peck ever since — just like you, Annie. But he didn’t reform me, I’m thankful to say, any more than he did you. I’ve gone on just the same, and I suppose I hate more infernal scoundrels and loathe more infernal idiots to-day than ever; but I perceive that I’m no part of the power that makes for righteousness as long as I work that racket; and now I sin with light and knowledge, anyway. No, Annie,” he went on, “I can understand why Brother Peck is not the success with women, and feminine temperaments like me, that his virtues entitle him to be. What we feminine temperaments want is a prophet, and Brother Peck doesn’t prophesy worth a cent. He doesn’t pretend to be authorised in any sort of way; he has a sneaking style of being no better than you are, and of being rather stumped by some of the truths he finds out. No, women like a good prophet about as well as they do a good doctor. Now if you, if you could unite the two functions, Doc —”

“Sort of medicine-man?” suggested Morrell.

“Exactly! The aborigines understood the thing. Why, I suppose that a real live medicine-man could go through a community like this and not leave a sinful soul nor a sore body in it among the ladies — perfect faith cure.”

“But what did you say to Mr. Peck, Ralph?” asked Annie. “Didn’t you attempt any defence?”

“No,” said Putney. “He had the advantage of me. You can’t talk back at a man in the pulpit.”

“Oh, it was a sermon?”

“I suppose the other people thought so. But I knew it was a private conversation that he was publicly holding with me.”

Putney and the doctor began to talk of the nature and origin of evil, and Annie and the boy listened. Putney took high ground, and attributed it to Adam. “You know, Annie,” he explained, “I don’t believe this; but I like to get a scientific man that won’t quite deny Scripture or the good old Bible premises, and see him suffer. Hello! you up yet, Winthrop? I guess I’ll go through the form of carrying you to bed, my son.”

When Mrs. Putney rejoined them, Annie said she must go, and Mrs. Putney went upstairs with her, apparently to help her put on her things, but really to have that talk before parting which guest and hostess value above the whole evening’s pleasure. She showed Annie the pictures of the little girls that had died, and talked a great deal about their sickness and their loveliness in death. Then they spoke of others, and Mrs. Putney asked Annie if she had seen Lyra Wilmington lately. Annie told of her call with Mrs. Munger, and Mrs. Putney said: “I like Lyra, and I always did. I presume she isn’t very happily married; he’s too old; there couldn’t have been any love on her part. But she would be a better woman than she is if she had children. Ralph says,” added Mrs. Putney, smiling, “that he knows she would be a good mother, she’s such a good aunt.”

Annie put her two hands impressively on the hands of her friend folded at her waist. “Ellen, what does it mean?”

“Nothing more than what you saw, Annie. She must have — or she will have — some one to amuse her; to be at her beck and call; and it’s best to have it all in the family, Ralph says.”

“But isn’t it — doesn’t he think it’s — odd?”

“It makes talk.”

They moved a little toward the door, holding each other’s hands. “Ellen, I’ve had a lovely time!”

“And so have I, Annie. I thought you’d like to meet Dr. Morrell.”

“Oh yes, indeed!”

“And I can’t tell you what a night this has been for Ralph. He likes you so much, and it isn’t often that he has a chance to talk to two such people as you and Dr. Morrell.”

“How brilliant he is!” Annie sighed.

“Yes, he’s a very able man. It’s very fortunate for Hatboro’ to have such a doctor. He and Ralph are great cronies. I never feel uneasy now when Ralph’s out late — I know he’s been up at the doctor’s office, talking. I—”

Annie broke in with a laugh. “I’ve no doubt Dr. Morrell is all you say, Ellen, but I meant Ralph when I spoke of brilliancy. He has a great future, I’m sure.”

Mrs. Putney was silent for a moment. “I’m satisfied with the present, so long as Ralph —” The tears suddenly gushed out of her eyes, and ran down over the fine wrinkles of her plump little cheeks.

“Not quite so much loud talking, please,” piped a thin, high voice from a room across the stairs landing.

“Why, dear little soul!” cried Annie. “I forgot he’d gone to bed.”

“Would you like to see him?” asked his mother.

She led the way into the room where the boy lay in a low bed near a larger one. His crutches lay beside it. “Win sleeps in our room yet. He can take care of himself quite well. But when he wakes in the night he likes to reach out and touch his father’s hand.”

The child looked mortified.

“I wish I could reach out and touch my father’s hand when I wake in the night,” said Annie.

The cloud left the boy’s face. “I can’t remember whether I said my prayers, mother, I’ve been thinking so.”

“Well, say them over again, to me.”

The men’s voices sounded in the hall below, and the ladies found them there. Dr. Morrell had his hat in his hand.

“Look here, Annie,” said Putney, “I expected to walk home with you, but Doc Morrell says he’s going to cut me out. It looks like a put-up job. I don’t know whether you’re in it or not, but there’s no doubt about Morrell.”

Mrs. Putney gave a sort of gasp, and then they all shouted with laughter, and Annie and the doctor went out into the night. In the imperfect light which the electrics of the main street flung afar into the little avenue where Putney lived, and the moon sent through the sidewalk trees, they struck against each other as they walked, and the doctor said, “Hadn’t you better take my arm, Miss Kilburn, till we get used to the dark?”

“Yes, I think I had, decidedly,” she answered; and she hurried to add: “Dr. Morrell, there is something I want to ask you. You’re their physician, aren’t you?”

“The Putneys? Yes.”

“Well, then, you can tell me —”

“Oh no, I can’t, if you ask me as their physician,” he interrupted.

“Well, then, as their friend. Mrs. Putney said something to me that makes me very unhappy. I thought Mr. Putney was out of all danger of his — trouble. Hasn’t he perfectly reformed? Does he ever —”

She stopped, and Dr. Morrell did not answer at once. Then he said seriously: “It’s a continual fight with a man of Putney’s temperament, and sometimes he gets beaten. Yes, I guess you’d better know it.”

“Poor Ellen!”

“They don’t allow themselves to be discouraged. As soon as he’s on his feet they begin the fight again. But of course it prevents his success in his profession, and he’ll always be a second-rate country lawyer.”

“Poor Ralph! And so brilliant as he is! He could be anything.”

“We must be glad if he can be something, as it is.”

“Yes, and how happy they seem together, all three of them! That child worships his father; and how tender Ralph is of him! How good he is to his wife; and how proud she is of him! And that awful shadow over them all the time! I don’t see how they live!”

The doctor was silent for a moment, and finally said: “They have the peace that seems to come to people from the presence of a common peril, and they have the comfort of people who never blink the facts.”

“I think Ralph is terrible. I wish he’d let other people blink the facts a little.”

“Of course,” said the doctor, “it’s become a habit with him now, or a mania. He seems to speak of his trouble as if mentioning it were a sort of conjuration to prevent it. I wouldn’t venture to check him in his way of talking. He may find strength in it.”

“It’s all terrible!”

“But it isn’t by any means hopeless.”

“I’m so glad to hear you say so. You see a great deal of them, I believe?”

“Yes,” said the doctor, getting back from their seriousness, with apparent relief. “Pretty nearly every day. Putney and I consider the ways of God to man a good deal together. You can imagine that in a place like Hatboro’ one would make the most of such a friend. In fact, anywhere.”

“Yes, of course,” Annie assented. “Dr. Morrell,” she added, in that effect of continuing the subject with which one breaks away from it, “do you know much about South Hatboro’?”

“I have some patients there.”

“I was there this morning —”

“I heard of you. They all take a great interest in your theatricals.”

“In my theatricals? Really this is too much! Who has made them my theatricals, I should like to know? Everybody at South Hatboro’ talked as if I had got them up.”

“And haven’t you?”

“No. I’ve had nothing to do with them. Mr. Brandreth spoke to me about them a week ago, and I was foolish enough to go round with Mrs. Munger to collect public opinion about her invited dance and supper; and now it appears that I have invented the whole affair.”

“I certainly got that impression,” said the doctor, with a laugh lurking under his gravity.

“Well, it’s simply atrocious,” said Annie. “I’ve nothing at all to do with either. I don’t even know that I approve of their object.”

“Their object?”

“Yes. The Social Union.”

“Oh! Oh yes. I had forgot about the object,” and now the doctor laughed outright.

“It seems to have dropped into the background with everybody,” said Annie, laughing too.

“You like the unconventionality of South Hatboro’?” suggested the doctor, after a little silence.

“Oh, very much,” said Annie. “I was used to the same thing abroad. It might be an American colony anywhere on the Continent.”

“I suppose,” said the doctor musingly, “that the same conditions of sojourn and disoccupation would produce the same social effects anywhere. Then you must feel quite at home in South Hatboro’!”

“Quite! It’s what I came back to avoid. I was sick of the life over there, and I wanted to be of some use here, instead of wasting all my days.”

She stopped, resolved not to go on if he took this lightly, but the doctor answered her with sufficient gravity: “Well?”

“It seemed to me that if I could be of any use in the world anywhere, I could in the place where I was born, and where my whole childhood was spent. I’ve been at home a month now, the most useless person in Hatboro’. I did catch at the first thing that offered — at Mr. Brandreth and his ridiculous Social Union and theatricals, and brought all this trouble on myself. I talked to Mr. Peck about them. You know what his views are?”

“Only from Putney’s talk,” said the doctor.

“He didn’t merely disapprove of the dance and supper, but he had some very peculiar notions about the relations of the different classes in general,” said Annie; and this was the point she had meant circuitously to lead up to when she began to speak of South Hatboro’, though she theoretically despised all sorts of feminine indirectness.

“Yes?” said the doctor. “What notions?”

“Well, he thinks that if you have money, you can’t do good with it.”

“That’s rather odd,” said Dr. Morrell.

“I don’t state it quite fairly. He meant that you can’t make any kindness with it between yourself and the — the poor.”

“That’s odd too.”

“Yes,” said Annie anxiously. “You can impose an obligation, he says, but you can’t create sympathy. Of course Ralph exaggerates what I said about him in connection with the invited dance and supper, though I don’t justify what I did say; and if I’d known then, as I do now, what his history had been, I should have been more careful in my talk with him. I should be very sorry to have hurt his feelings, and I suppose people who’ve come up in that way are sensitive?”

She suggested this, and it was not the reassurance she was seeking to have Dr. Morrell say, “Naturally.”

She continued with an effort: “I’m afraid I didn’t respect his sincerity, and I ought to have done that, though I don’t at all agree with him on the other points. It seems to me that what he said was shocking, and perfectly — impossible.”

“Why, what was it?” asked the doctor.

“He said there could be no real kindness between the rich and poor, because all their experiences of life were different. It amounted to saying that there ought not to be any wealth. Don’t you think so?”

“Really, I’ve never thought about it,” returned Dr. Morrell. After a moment he asked, “Isn’t it rather an abstraction?”

“Don’t say that!” said Annie nervously. “It’s the most concrete thing in the world!”

The doctor laughed with enjoyment of her convulsive emphasis; but she went on: “I don’t think life’s worth living if you’re to be shut up all your days to the intelligence merely of your own class.”

“Who said you were?”

“Mr. Peck.”

“And what was your inference from the fact? That there oughtn’t to be any classes?”

“Of course it won’t do to say that. There must be social differences. Don’t you think so?”

“I don’t know,” said Dr. Morrell. “I never thought of it in that light before. It’s a very curious question.” He asked, brightening gaily after a moment of sober pause, “Is that the whole trouble?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No; I don’t think it is. Why didn’t you tell him that you didn’t want any gratitude?”.

“Not want any?” she demanded.

“Oh!” said Dr. Morrell, “I didn’t know but you thought it was enough to give.“

Annie believed that he was making fun of her, and she tried to make her resentful silence dignified; but she only answered sadly: “No; it isn’t enough for me. Besides, he made me see that you can’t give sympathy where you can’t receive it.”

“Well, that is bad,” said the doctor, and he laughed again. “Excuse me,” he added. “I see the point. But why don’t you forget it?”

“Forget it!”

“Yes. If you can’t help it, why need you worry about it?”

She gave a kind of gasp of astonishment. “Do you really think that would be right?” She edged a little away from Dr. Morrell, as if with distrust.

“Well, no; I can’t say that I do,” he returned thoughtfully, without seeming to have noticed her withdrawal. “I don’t suppose I was looking at the moral side. It’s rather out of my way to do that. If a physician let himself get into the habit of doing that, he might regard nine-tenths of the diseases he has to treat as just penalties, and decline to interfere.”

She fancied that he was amused again, rather than deeply concerned, and she determined to make him own his personal complicity in the matter if she could. “Then you do feel sympathy with your patients? You find it necessary to do so?”

The doctor thought a moment. “I take an interest in their diseases.”

“But you want them to get well?”

“Oh, certainly. I’m bound to do all I can for them as a physician.”

“Nothing more?”

“Yes; I’m sorry for them — for their families, if it seems to be going badly with them.”

“And — and as — as — Don’t you care at all for your work as a part of what every one ought to do for others — as humanity, philan —” She stopped the offensive word.

“Well, I can’t say that I’ve looked at it in that light exactly,” he answered. “I suspect I’m not very good at generalising my own relations to others, though I like well enough to speculate in the abstract. But don’t you think Mr. Peck has overlooked one important fact in his theory? What about the people who have grown rich from being poor, as most Americans have? They have the same experiences, and why can’t they sympathise with those who have remained poor?”

“I never thought of that. Why didn’t I ask him that?” She lamented so sincerely that the doctor laughed again. “I think that Mr. Peck —”

“Oh no! oh no!” said the doctor, in an entreating, coaxing tone, expressive of a satiety with the subject that he might very well have felt; and he ended with another laugh, in which, after a moment of indignant self-question, she joined him.

“Isn’t that delicious?” he exclaimed; and she involuntarily slowed her pace with his.

The spicy scent of sweet-currant blossoms hung in the dewy air that wrapped one of the darkened village houses. From a syringa bush before another, as they moved on, a denser perfume stole out with the wild song of a cat-bird hidden in it; the music and the odour seemed braided together. The shadows of the trees cast by the electrics on the walks were so thick and black that they looked palpable; it seemed as if she could stoop down and lift them from the ground. A broad bath of moonlight washed one of the house fronts, and the white-painted clapboards looked wet with it.

They talked of these things, of themselves, and of their own traits and peculiarities; and at her door they ended far from Mr. Peck and all the perplexities he had suggested.

She had told Dr. Morrell of some things she had brought home with her, and had said she hoped he would find time to come and see them. It would have been stiff not to do it, and she believed she had done it in a very off-hand, business-like way. But she continued to question whether she had.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56