Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton

XII

What measure of belief her explanation of Evelina’s return obtained in the small circle of her friends Ann Eliza did not pause to enquire. Though she could not remember ever having told a lie before, she adhered with rigid tenacity to the consequences of her first lapse from truth, and fortified her original statement with additional details whenever a questioner sought to take her unawares.

But other and more serious burdens lay on her startled conscience. For the first time in her life she dimly faced the awful problem of the inutility of self-sacrifice. Hitherto she had never thought of questioning the inherited principles which had guided her life. Self-effacement for the good of others had always seemed to her both natural and necessary; but then she had taken it for granted that it implied the securing of that good. Now she perceived that to refuse the gifts of life does not ensure their transmission to those for whom they have been surrendered; and her familiar heaven was unpeopled. She felt she could no longer trust in the goodness of God, and there was only a black abyss above the roof of Bunner Sisters.

But there was little time to brood upon such problems. The care of Evelina filled Ann Eliza’s days and nights. The hastily summoned doctor had pronounced her to be suffering from pneumonia, and under his care the first stress of the disease was relieved. But her recovery was only partial, and long after the doctor’s visits had ceased she continued to lie in bed, too weak to move, and seemingly indifferent to everything about her.

At length one evening, about six weeks after her return, she said to her sister: “I don’t feel’s if I’d ever get up again.”

Ann Eliza turned from the kettle she was placing on the stove. She was startled by the echo the words woke in her own breast.

“Don’t you talk like that, Evelina! I guess you’re on’y tired out — and disheartened.”

“Yes, I’m disheartened,” Evelina murmured.

A few months earlier Ann Eliza would have met the confession with a word of pious admonition; now she accepted it in silence.

“Maybe you’ll brighten up when your cough gets better,” she suggested.

“Yes — or my cough’ll get better when I brighten up,” Evelina retorted with a touch of her old tartness.

“Does your cough keep on hurting you jest as much?”

“I don’t see’s there’s much difference.”

“Well, I guess I’ll get the doctor to come round again,” Ann Eliza said, trying for the matter-of-course tone in which one might speak of sending for the plumber or the gas-fitter.

“It ain’t any use sending for the doctor — and who’s going to pay him?”

“I am,” answered the elder sister. “Here’s your tea, and a mite of toast. Don’t that tempt you?”

Already, in the watches of the night, Ann Eliza had been tormented by that same question — who was to pay the doctor? — and a few days before she had temporarily silenced it by borrowing twenty dollars of Miss Mellins. The transaction had cost her one of the bitterest struggles of her life. She had never borrowed a penny of any one before, and the possibility of having to do so had always been classed in her mind among those shameful extremities to which Providence does not let decent people come. But nowadays she no longer believed in the personal supervision of Providence; and had she been compelled to steal the money instead of borrowing it, she would have felt that her conscience was the only tribunal before which she had to answer. Nevertheless, the actual humiliation of having to ask for the money was no less bitter; and she could hardly hope that Miss Mellins would view the case with the same detachment as herself. Miss Mellins was very kind; but she not unnaturally felt that her kindness should be rewarded by according her the right to ask questions; and bit by bit Ann Eliza saw Evelina’s miserable secret slipping into the dress-maker’s possession.

When the doctor came she left him alone with Evelina, busying herself in the shop that she might have an opportunity of seeing him alone on his way out. To steady herself she began to sort a trayful of buttons, and when the doctor appeared she was reciting under her breath: “Twenty-four horn, two and a half cards fancy pearl . . . ” She saw at once that his look was grave.

He sat down on the chair beside the counter, and her mind travelled miles before he spoke.

“Miss Bunner, the best thing you can do is to let me get a bed for your sister at St. Luke’s.”

“The hospital?”

“Come now, you’re above that sort of prejudice, aren’t you?” The doctor spoke in the tone of one who coaxes a spoiled child. “I know how devoted you are — but Mrs. Ramy can be much better cared for there than here. You really haven’t time to look after her and attend to your business as well. There’ll be no expense, you understand — ”

Ann Eliza made no answer. “You think my sister’s going to be sick a good while, then?” she asked.

“Well, yes — possibly.”

“You think she’s very sick?”

“Well, yes. She’s very sick.”

His face had grown still graver; he sat there as though he had never known what it was to hurry.

Ann Eliza continued to separate the pearl and horn buttons. Suddenly she lifted her eyes and looked at him. “Is she going to die?”

The doctor laid a kindly hand on hers. “We never say that, Miss Bunner. Human skill works wonders — and at the hospital Mrs. Ramy would have every chance.”

“What is it? What’s she dying of?”

The doctor hesitated, seeking to substitute a popular phrase for the scientific terminology which rose to his lips.

“I want to know,” Ann Eliza persisted.

“Yes, of course; I understand. Well, your sister has had a hard time lately, and there is a complication of causes, resulting in consumption — rapid consumption. At the hospital — ”

“I’ll keep her here,” said Ann Eliza quietly.

After the doctor had gone she went on for some time sorting the buttons; then she slipped the tray into its place on a shelf behind the counter and went into the back room. She found Evelina propped upright against the pillows, a flush of agitation on her cheeks. Ann Eliza pulled up the shawl which had slipped from her sister’s shoulders.

“How long you’ve been! What’s he been saying?”

“Oh, he went long ago — he on’y stopped to give me a prescription. I was sorting out that tray of buttons. Miss Mellins’s girl got them all mixed up.”

She felt Evelina’s eyes upon her.

“He must have said something: what was it?”

“Why, he said you’d have to be careful — and stay in bed — and take this new medicine he’s given you.”

“Did he say I was going to get well?”

“Why, Evelina!”

“What’s the use, Ann Eliza? You can’t deceive me. I’ve just been up to look at myself in the glass; and I saw plenty of ’em in the hospital that looked like me. They didn’t get well, and I ain’t going to.” Her head dropped back. “It don’t much matter — I’m about tired. On’y there’s one thing — Ann Eliza — ”

The elder sister drew near to the bed.

“There’s one thing I ain’t told you. I didn’t want to tell you yet because I was afraid you might be sorry — but if he says I’m going to die I’ve got to say it.” She stopped to cough, and to Ann Eliza it now seemed as though every cough struck a minute from the hours remaining to her.

“Don’t talk now — you’re tired.”

“I’ll be tireder to-morrow, I guess. And I want you should know. Sit down close to me — there.”

Ann Eliza sat down in silence, stroking her shrunken hand.

“I’m a Roman Catholic, Ann Eliza.”

“Evelina — oh, Evelina Bunner! A Roman Catholic — YOU? Oh, Evelina, did HE make you?”

Evelina shook her head. “I guess he didn’t have no religion; he never spoke of it. But you see Mrs. Hochmuller was a Catholic, and so when I was sick she got the doctor to send me to a Roman Catholic hospital, and the sisters was so good to me there — and the priest used to come and talk to me; and the things he said kep’ me from going crazy. He seemed to make everything easier.”

“Oh, sister, how could you?” Ann Eliza wailed. She knew little of the Catholic religion except that “Papists” believed in it — in itself a sufficient indictment. Her spiritual rebellion had not freed her from the formal part of her religious belief, and apostasy had always seemed to her one of the sins from which the pure in mind avert their thoughts.

“And then when the baby was born,” Evelina continued, “he christened it right away, so it could go to heaven; and after that, you see, I had to be a Catholic.”

“I don’t see — ”

“Don’t I have to be where the baby is? I couldn’t ever ha’ gone there if I hadn’t been made a Catholic. Don’t you understand that?”

Ann Eliza sat speechless, drawing her hand away. Once more she found herself shut out of Evelina’s heart, an exile from her closest affections.

“I’ve got to go where the baby is,” Evelina feverishly insisted.

Ann Eliza could think of nothing to say; she could only feel that Evelina was dying, and dying as a stranger in her arms. Ramy and the day-old baby had parted her forever from her sister.

Evelina began again. “If I get worse I want you to send for a priest. Miss Mellins’ll know where to send — she’s got an aunt that’s a Catholic. Promise me faithful you will.”

“I promise,” said Ann Eliza.

After that they spoke no more of the matter; but Ann Eliza now understood that the little black bag about her sister’s neck, which she had innocently taken for a memento of Ramy, was some kind of sacrilegious amulet, and her fingers shrank from its contact when she bathed and dressed Evelina. It seemed to her the diabolical instrument of their estrangement.

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