Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton

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Mr. Hawkins proved himself worthy of his wife’s faith in his capacity. He learned from Ann Eliza as much as she could tell him about Mrs. Hochmuller and returned the next evening with a scrap of paper bearing her address, beneath which Johnny (the family scribe) had written in a large round hand the names of the streets that led there from the ferry.

Ann Eliza lay awake all that night, repeating over and over again the directions Mr. Hawkins had given her. He was a kind man, and she knew he would willingly have gone with her to Hoboken; indeed she read in his timid eye the half-formed intention of offering to accompany her — but on such an errand she preferred to go alone.

The next Sunday, accordingly, she set out early, and without much trouble found her way to the ferry. Nearly a year had passed since her previous visit to Mrs. Hochmuller, and a chilly April breeze smote her face as she stepped on the boat. Most of the passengers were huddled together in the cabin, and Ann Eliza shrank into its obscurest corner, shivering under the thin black mantle which had seemed so hot in July. She began to feel a little bewildered as she stepped ashore, but a paternal policeman put her into the right car, and as in a dream she found herself retracing the way to Mrs. Hochmuller’s door. She had told the conductor the name of the street at which she wished to get out, and presently she stood in the biting wind at the corner near the beer-saloon, where the sun had once beat down on her so fiercely. At length an empty car appeared, its yellow flank emblazoned with the name of Mrs. Hochmuller’s suburb, and Ann Eliza was presently jolting past the narrow brick houses islanded between vacant lots like giant piles in a desolate lagoon. When the car reached the end of its journey she got out and stood for some time trying to remember which turn Mr. Ramy had taken. She had just made up her mind to ask the car-driver when he shook the reins on the backs of his lean horses, and the car, still empty, jogged away toward Hoboken.

Ann Eliza, left alone by the roadside, began to move cautiously forward, looking about for a small red house with a gable overhung by an elm-tree; but everything about her seemed unfamiliar and forbidding. One or two surly looking men slouched past with inquisitive glances, and she could not make up her mind to stop and speak to them.

At length a tow-headed boy came out of a swinging door suggestive of illicit conviviality, and to him Ann Eliza ventured to confide her difficulty. The offer of five cents fired him with an instant willingness to lead her to Mrs. Hochmuller, and he was soon trotting past the stone-cutter’s yard with Ann Eliza in his wake.

Another turn in the road brought them to the little red house, and having rewarded her guide Ann Eliza unlatched the gate and walked up to the door. Her heart was beating violently, and she had to lean against the door-post to compose her twitching lips: she had not known till that moment how much it was going to hurt her to speak of Evelina to Mrs. Hochmuller. As her agitation subsided she began to notice how much the appearance of the house had changed. It was not only that winter had stripped the elm, and blackened the flower-borders: the house itself had a debased and deserted air. The window-panes were cracked and dirty, and one or two shutters swung dismally on loosened hinges.

She rang several times before the door was opened. At length an Irish woman with a shawl over her head and a baby in her arms appeared on the threshold, and glancing past her into the narrow passage Ann Eliza saw that Mrs. Hochmuller’s neat abode had deteriorated as much within as without.

At the mention of the name the woman stared. “Mrs. who, did ye say?”

“Mrs. Hochmuller. This is surely her house?”

“No, it ain’t neither,” said the woman turning away.

“Oh, but wait, please,” Ann Eliza entreated. “I can’t be mistaken. I mean the Mrs. Hochmuller who takes in washing. I came out to see her last June.”

“Oh, the Dutch washerwoman is it — her that used to live here? She’s been gone two months and more. It’s Mike McNulty lives here now. Whisht!” to the baby, who had squared his mouth for a howl.

Ann Eliza’s knees grew weak. “Mrs. Hochmuller gone? But where has she gone? She must be somewhere round here. Can’t you tell me?”

“Sure an’ I can’t,” said the woman. “She wint away before iver we come.”

“Dalia Geoghegan, will ye bring the choild in out av the cowld?” cried an irate voice from within.

“Please wait — oh, please wait,” Ann Eliza insisted. “You see I must find Mrs. Hochmuller.”

“Why don’t ye go and look for her thin?” the woman returned, slamming the door in her face.

She stood motionless on the door-step, dazed by the immensity of her disappointment, till a burst of loud voices inside the house drove her down the path and out of the gate.

Even then she could not grasp what had happened, and pausing in the road she looked back at the house, half hoping that Mrs. Hochmuller’s once detested face might appear at one of the grimy windows.

She was roused by an icy wind that seemed to spring up suddenly from the desolate scene, piercing her thin dress like gauze; and turning away she began to retrace her steps. She thought of enquiring for Mrs. Hochmuller at some of the neighbouring houses, but their look was so unfriendly that she walked on without making up her mind at which door to ring. When she reached the horse-car terminus a car was just moving off toward Hoboken, and for nearly an hour she had to wait on the corner in the bitter wind. Her hands and feet were stiff with cold when the car at length loomed into sight again, and she thought of stopping somewhere on the way to the ferry for a cup of tea; but before the region of lunch-rooms was reached she had grown so sick and dizzy that the thought of food was repulsive. At length she found herself on the ferry-boat, in the soothing stuffiness of the crowded cabin; then came another interval of shivering on a street-corner, another long jolting journey in a “cross-town” car that smelt of damp straw and tobacco; and lastly, in the cold spring dusk, she unlocked her door and groped her way through the shop to her fireless bedroom.

The next morning Mrs. Hawkins, dropping in to hear the result of the trip, found Ann Eliza sitting behind the counter wrapped in an old shawl.

“Why, Miss Bunner, you’re sick! You must have fever — your face is just as red!”

“It’s nothing. I guess I caught cold yesterday on the ferry-boat,” Ann Eliza acknowledged.

“And it’s jest like a vault in here!” Mrs. Hawkins rebuked her. “Let me feel your hand — it’s burning. Now, Miss Bunner, you’ve got to go right to bed this very minute.”

“Oh, but I can’t, Mrs. Hawkins.” Ann Eliza attempted a wan smile. “You forget there ain’t nobody but me to tend the store.”

“I guess you won’t tend it long neither, if you ain’t careful,” Mrs. Hawkins grimly rejoined. Beneath her placid exterior she cherished a morbid passion for disease and death, and the sight of Ann Eliza’s suffering had roused her from her habitual indifference. “There ain’t so many folks comes to the store anyhow,” she went on with unconscious cruelty, “and I’ll go right up and see if Miss Mellins can’t spare one of her girls.”

Ann Eliza, too weary to resist, allowed Mrs. Hawkins to put her to bed and make a cup of tea over the stove, while Miss Mellins, always good-naturedly responsive to any appeal for help, sent down the weak-eyed little girl to deal with hypothetical customers.

Ann Eliza, having so far abdicated her independence, sank into sudden apathy. As far as she could remember, it was the first time in her life that she had been taken care of instead of taking care, and there was a momentary relief in the surrender. She swallowed the tea like an obedient child, allowed a poultice to be applied to her aching chest and uttered no protest when a fire was kindled in the rarely used grate; but as Mrs. Hawkins bent over to “settle” her pillows she raised herself on her elbow to whisper: “Oh, Mrs. Hawkins, Mrs. Hochmuller warn’t there.” The tears rolled down her cheeks.

“She warn’t there? Has she moved?”

“Over two months ago — and they don’t know where she’s gone. Oh what’ll I do, Mrs. Hawkins?”

“There, there, Miss Bunner. You lay still and don’t fret. I’ll ask Mr. Hawkins soon as ever he comes home.”

Ann Eliza murmured her gratitude, and Mrs. Hawkins, bending down, kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t you fret,” she repeated, in the voice with which she soothed her children.

For over a week Ann Eliza lay in bed, faithfully nursed by her two neighbours, while the weak-eyed child, and the pale sewing girl who had helped to finish Evelina’s wedding dress, took turns in minding the shop. Every morning, when her friends appeared, Ann Eliza lifted her head to ask: “Is there a letter?” and at their gentle negative sank back in silence. Mrs. Hawkins, for several days, spoke no more of her promise to consult her husband as to the best way of tracing Mrs. Hochmuller; and dread of fresh disappointment kept Ann Eliza from bringing up the subject.

But the following Sunday evening, as she sat for the first time bolstered up in her rocking-chair near the stove, while Miss Mellins studied the Police Gazette beneath the lamp, there came a knock on the shop-door and Mr. Hawkins entered.

Ann Eliza’s first glance at his plain friendly face showed her he had news to give, but though she no longer attempted to hide her anxiety from Miss Mellins, her lips trembled too much to let her speak.

“Good evening, Miss Bunner,” said Mr. Hawkins in his dragging voice. “I’ve been over to Hoboken all day looking round for Mrs. Hochmuller.”

“Oh, Mr. Hawkins — you HAVE?”

“I made a thorough search, but I’m sorry to say it was no use. She’s left Hoboken — moved clear away, and nobody seems to know where.”

“It was real good of you, Mr. Hawkins.” Ann Eliza’s voice struggled up in a faint whisper through the submerging tide of her disappointment.

Mr. Hawkins, in his embarrassed sense of being the bringer of bad news, stood before her uncertainly; then he turned to go. “No trouble at all,” he paused to assure her from the doorway.

She wanted to speak again, to detain him, to ask him to advise her; but the words caught in her throat and she lay back silent.

The next day she got up early, and dressed and bonneted herself with twitching fingers. She waited till the weak-eyed child appeared, and having laid on her minute instructions as to the care of the shop, she slipped out into the street. It had occurred to her in one of the weary watches of the previous night that she might go to Tiffany’s and make enquiries about Ramy’s past. Possibly in that way she might obtain some information that would suggest a new way of reaching Evelina. She was guiltily aware that Mrs. Hawkins and Miss Mellins would be angry with her for venturing out of doors, but she knew she should never feel any better till she had news of Evelina.

The morning air was sharp, and as she turned to face the wind she felt so weak and unsteady that she wondered if she should ever get as far as Union Square; but by walking very slowly, and standing still now and then when she could do so without being noticed, she found herself at last before the jeweller’s great glass doors.

It was still so early that there were no purchasers in the shop, and she felt herself the centre of innumerable unemployed eyes as she moved forward between long lines of show-cases glittering with diamonds and silver.

She was glancing about in the hope of finding the clock-department without having to approach one of the impressive gentlemen who paced the empty aisles, when she attracted the attention of one of the most impressive of the number.

The formidable benevolence with which he enquired what he could do for her made her almost despair of explaining herself; but she finally disentangled from a flurry of wrong beginnings the request to be shown to the clock-department.

The gentleman considered her thoughtfully. “May I ask what style of clock you are looking for? Would it be for a wedding-present, or —?”

The irony of the allusion filled Ann Eliza’s veins with sudden strength. “I don’t want to buy a clock at all. I want to see the head of the department.”

“Mr. Loomis?” His stare still weighed her — then he seemed to brush aside the problem she presented as beneath his notice. “Oh, certainly. Take the elevator to the second floor. Next aisle to the left.” He waved her down the endless perspective of show-cases.

Ann Eliza followed the line of his lordly gesture, and a swift ascent brought her to a great hall full of the buzzing and booming of thousands of clocks. Whichever way she looked, clocks stretched away from her in glittering interminable vistas: clocks of all sizes and voices, from the bell-throated giant of the hallway to the chirping dressing-table toy; tall clocks of mahogany and brass with cathedral chimes; clocks of bronze, glass, porcelain, of every possible size, voice and configuration; and between their serried ranks, along the polished floor of the aisles, moved the languid forms of other gentlemanly floor-walkers, waiting for their duties to begin.

One of them soon approached, and Ann Eliza repeated her request. He received it affably.

“Mr. Loomis? Go right down to the office at the other end.” He pointed to a kind of box of ground glass and highly polished panelling.

As she thanked him he turned to one of his companions and said something in which she caught the name of Mr. Loomis, and which was received with an appreciative chuckle. She suspected herself of being the object of the pleasantry, and straightened her thin shoulders under her mantle.

The door of the office stood open, and within sat a gray-bearded man at a desk. He looked up kindly, and again she asked for Mr. Loomis.

“I’m Mr. Loomis. What can I do for you?”

He was much less portentous than the others, though she guessed him to be above them in authority; and encouraged by his tone she seated herself on the edge of the chair he waved her to.

“I hope you’ll excuse my troubling you, sir. I came to ask if you could tell me anything about Mr. Herman Ramy. He was employed here in the clock-department two or three years ago.”

Mr. Loomis showed no recognition of the name.

“Ramy? When was he discharged?”

“I don’t har’ly know. He was very sick, and when he got well his place had been filled. He married my sister last October and they went to St. Louis, I ain’t had any news of them for over two months, and she’s my only sister, and I’m most crazy worrying about her.”

“I see.” Mr. Loomis reflected. “In what capacity was Ramy employed here?” he asked after a moment.

“He — he told us that he was one of the heads of the clock-department,” Ann Eliza stammered, overswept by a sudden doubt.

“That was probably a slight exaggeration. But I can tell you about him by referring to our books. The name again?”

“Ramy — Herman Ramy.”

There ensued a long silence, broken only by the flutter of leaves as Mr. Loomis turned over his ledgers. Presently he looked up, keeping his finger between the pages.

“Here it is — Herman Ramy. He was one of our ordinary workmen, and left us three years and a half ago last June.”

“On account of sickness?” Ann Eliza faltered.

Mr. Loomis appeared to hesitate; then he said: “I see no mention of sickness.” Ann Eliza felt his compassionate eyes on her again. “Perhaps I’d better tell you the truth. He was discharged for drug-taking. A capable workman, but we couldn’t keep him straight. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but it seems fairer, since you say you’re anxious about your sister.”

The polished sides of the office vanished from Ann Eliza’s sight, and the cackle of the innumerable clocks came to her like the yell of waves in a storm. She tried to speak but could not; tried to get to her feet, but the floor was gone.

“I’m very sorry,” Mr. Loomis repeated, closing the ledger. “I remember the man perfectly now. He used to disappear every now and then, and turn up again in a state that made him useless for days.”

As she listened, Ann Eliza recalled the day when she had come on Mr. Ramy sitting in abject dejection behind his counter. She saw again the blurred unrecognizing eyes he had raised to her, the layer of dust over everything in the shop, and the green bronze clock in the window representing a Newfoundland dog with his paw on a book. She stood up slowly.

“Thank you. I’m sorry to have troubled you.”

“It was no trouble. You say Ramy married your sister last October?”

“Yes, sir; and they went to St. Louis right afterward. I don’t know how to find her. I thought maybe somebody here might know about him.”

“Well, possibly some of the workmen might. Leave me your name and I’ll send you word if I get on his track.”

He handed her a pencil, and she wrote down her address; then she walked away blindly between the clocks.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30