Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton

III

Two days afterward, Ann Eliza noticed that Evelina, before they sat down to supper, pinned a crimson bow under her collar; and when the meal was finished the younger sister, who seldom concerned herself with the clearing of the table, set about with nervous haste to help Ann Eliza in the removal of the dishes.

“I hate to see food mussing about,” she grumbled. “Ain’t it hateful having to do everything in one room?”

“Oh, Evelina, I’ve always thought we was so comfortable,” Ann Eliza protested.

“Well, so we are, comfortable enough; but I don’t suppose there’s any harm in my saying I wisht we had a parlour, is there? Anyway, we might manage to buy a screen to hide the bed.”

Ann Eliza coloured. There was something vaguely embarrassing in Evelina’s suggestion.

“I always think if we ask for more what we have may be taken from us,” she ventured.

“Well, whoever took it wouldn’t get much,” Evelina retorted with a laugh as she swept up the table-cloth.

A few moments later the back room was in its usual flawless order and the two sisters had seated themselves near the lamp. Ann Eliza had taken up her sewing, and Evelina was preparing to make artificial flowers. The sisters usually relegated this more delicate business to the long leisure of the summer months; but to-night Evelina had brought out the box which lay all winter under the bed, and spread before her a bright array of muslin petals, yellow stamens and green corollas, and a tray of little implements curiously suggestive of the dental art. Ann Eliza made no remark on this unusual proceeding; perhaps she guessed why, for that evening her sister had chosen a graceful task.

Presently a knock on the outer door made them look up; but Evelina, the first on her feet, said promptly: “Sit still. I’ll see who it is.”

Ann Eliza was glad to sit still: the baby’s petticoat that she was stitching shook in her fingers.

“Sister, here’s Mr. Ramy come to look at the clock,” said Evelina, a moment later, in the high drawl she cultivated before strangers; and a shortish man with a pale bearded face and upturned coat-collar came stiffly into the room.

Ann Eliza let her work fall as she stood up. “You’re very welcome, I’m sure, Mr. Ramy. It’s real kind of you to call.”

“Nod ad all, ma’am.” A tendency to illustrate Grimm’s law in the interchange of his consonants betrayed the clockmaker’s nationality, but he was evidently used to speaking English, or at least the particular branch of the vernacular with which the Bunner sisters were familiar. “I don’t like to led any clock go out of my store without being sure it gives satisfaction,” he added.

“Oh — but we were satisfied,” Ann Eliza assured him.

“But I wasn’t, you see, ma’am,” said Mr. Ramy looking slowly about the room, “nor I won’t be, not till I see that clock’s going all right.”

“May I assist you off with your coat, Mr. Ramy?” Evelina interposed. She could never trust Ann Eliza to remember these opening ceremonies.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he replied, and taking his thread-bare over-coat and shabby hat she laid them on a chair with the gesture she imagined the lady with the puffed sleeves might make use of on similar occasions. Ann Eliza’s social sense was roused, and she felt that the next act of hospitality must be hers. “Won’t you suit yourself to a seat?” she suggested. “My sister will reach down the clock; but I’m sure she’s all right again. She’s went beautiful ever since you fixed her.”

“Dat’s good,” said Mr. Ramy. His lips parted in a smile which showed a row of yellowish teeth with one or two gaps in it; but in spite of this disclosure Ann Eliza thought his smile extremely pleasant: there was something wistful and conciliating in it which agreed with the pathos of his sunken cheeks and prominent eyes. As he took the lamp, the light fell on his bulging forehead and wide skull thinly covered with grayish hair. His hands were pale and broad, with knotty joints and square finger-tips rimmed with grime; but his touch was as light as a woman’s.

“Well, ladies, dat clock’s all right,” he pronounced.

“I’m sure we’re very much obliged to you,” said Evelina, throwing a glance at her sister.

“Oh,” Ann Eliza murmured, involuntarily answering the admonition. She selected a key from the bunch that hung at her waist with her cutting-out scissors, and fitting it into the lock of the cupboard, brought out the cherry brandy and three old-fashioned glasses engraved with vine-wreaths.

“It’s a very cold night,” she said, “and maybe you’d like a sip of this cordial. It was made a great while ago by our grandmother.”

“It looks fine,” said Mr. Ramy bowing, and Ann Eliza filled the glasses. In her own and Evelina’s she poured only a few drops, but she filled their guest’s to the brim. “My sister and I seldom take wine,” she explained.

With another bow, which included both his hostesses, Mr. Ramy drank off the cherry brandy and pronounced it excellent.

Evelina meanwhile, with an assumption of industry intended to put their guest at ease, had taken up her instruments and was twisting a rose-petal into shape.

“You make artificial flowers, I see, ma’am,” said Mr. Ramy with interest. “It’s very pretty work. I had a lady-vriend in Shermany dat used to make flowers.” He put out a square finger-tip to touch the petal.

Evelina blushed a little. “You left Germany long ago, I suppose?”

“Dear me yes, a goot while ago. I was only ninedeen when I come to the States.”

After this the conversation dragged on intermittently till Mr. Ramy, peering about the room with the short-sighted glance of his race, said with an air of interest: “You’re pleasantly fixed here; it looks real cosy.” The note of wistfulness in his voice was obscurely moving to Ann Eliza.

“Oh, we live very plainly,” said Evelina, with an affectation of grandeur deeply impressive to her sister. “We have very simple tastes.”

“You look real comfortable, anyhow,” said Mr. Ramy. His bulging eyes seemed to muster the details of the scene with a gentle envy. “I wisht I had as good a store; but I guess no blace seems home-like when you’re always alone in it.”

For some minutes longer the conversation moved on at this desultory pace, and then Mr. Ramy, who had been obviously nerving himself for the difficult act of departure, took his leave with an abruptness which would have startled anyone used to the subtler gradations of intercourse. But to Ann Eliza and her sister there was nothing surprising in his abrupt retreat. The long-drawn agonies of preparing to leave, and the subsequent dumb plunge through the door, were so usual in their circle that they would have been as much embarrassed as Mr. Ramy if he had tried to put any fluency into his adieux.

After he had left both sisters remained silent for a while; then Evelina, laying aside her unfinished flower, said: “I’ll go and lock up.”

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