Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton

IV

Intolerably monotonous seemed now to the Bunner sisters the treadmill routine of the shop, colourless and long their evenings about the lamp, aimless their habitual interchange of words to the weary accompaniment of the sewing and pinking machines.

It was perhaps with the idea of relieving the tension of their mood that Evelina, the following Sunday, suggested inviting Miss Mellins to supper. The Bunner sisters were not in a position to be lavish of the humblest hospitality, but two or three times in the year they shared their evening meal with a friend; and Miss Mellins, still flushed with the importance of her “turn,” seemed the most interesting guest they could invite.

As the three women seated themselves at the supper-table, embellished by the unwonted addition of pound cake and sweet pickles, the dress-maker’s sharp swarthy person stood out vividly between the neutral-tinted sisters. Miss Mellins was a small woman with a glossy yellow face and a frizz of black hair bristling with imitation tortoise-shell pins. Her sleeves had a fashionable cut, and half a dozen metal bangles rattled on her wrists. Her voice rattled like her bangles as she poured forth a stream of anecdote and ejaculation; and her round black eyes jumped with acrobatic velocity from one face to another. Miss Mellins was always having or hearing of amazing adventures. She had surprised a burglar in her room at midnight (though how he got there, what he robbed her of, and by what means he escaped had never been quite clear to her auditors); she had been warned by anonymous letters that her grocer (a rejected suitor) was putting poison in her tea; she had a customer who was shadowed by detectives, and another (a very wealthy lady) who had been arrested in a department store for kleptomania; she had been present at a spiritualist seance where an old gentleman had died in a fit on seeing a materialization of his mother-in-law; she had escaped from two fires in her night-gown, and at the funeral of her first cousin the horses attached to the hearse had run away and smashed the coffin, precipitating her relative into an open man-hole before the eyes of his distracted family.

A sceptical observer might have explained Miss Mellins’s proneness to adventure by the fact that she derived her chief mental nourishment from the Police Gazette and the Fireside Weekly; but her lot was cast in a circle where such insinuations were not likely to be heard, and where the title-role in blood-curdling drama had long been her recognized right.

“Yes,” she was now saying, her emphatic eyes on Ann Eliza, “you may not believe it, Miss Bunner, and I don’t know’s I should myself if anybody else was to tell me, but over a year before ever I was born, my mother she went to see a gypsy fortune-teller that was exhibited in a tent on the Battery with the green-headed lady, though her father warned her not to — and what you s’pose she told her? Why, she told her these very words — says she: ‘Your next child’ll be a girl with jet-black curls, and she’ll suffer from spasms.’”

“Mercy!” murmured Ann Eliza, a ripple of sympathy running down her spine.

“D’you ever have spasms before, Miss Mellins?” Evelina asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” the dress-maker declared. “And where’d you suppose I had ’em? Why, at my cousin Emma McIntyre’s wedding, her that married the apothecary over in Jersey City, though her mother appeared to her in a dream and told her she’d rue the day she done it, but as Emma said, she got more advice than she wanted from the living, and if she was to listen to spectres too she’d never be sure what she’d ought to do and what she’d oughtn’t; but I will say her husband took to drink, and she never was the same woman after her fust baby — well, they had an elegant church wedding, and what you s’pose I saw as I was walkin’ up the aisle with the wedding percession?”

“Well?” Ann Eliza whispered, forgetting to thread her needle.

“Why, a coffin, to be sure, right on the top step of the chancel — Emma’s folks is ‘piscopalians and she would have a church wedding, though HIS mother raised a terrible rumpus over it — well, there it set, right in front of where the minister stood that was going to marry ’em, a coffin covered with a black velvet pall with a gold fringe, and a ‘Gates Ajar’ in white camellias atop of it.”

“Goodness,” said Evelina, starting, “there’s a knock!”

“Who can it be?” shuddered Ann Eliza, still under the spell of Miss Mellins’s hallucination.

Evelina rose and lit a candle to guide her through the shop. They heard her turn the key of the outer door, and a gust of night air stirred the close atmosphere of the back room; then there was a sound of vivacious exclamations, and Evelina returned with Mr. Ramy.

Ann Eliza’s heart rocked like a boat in a heavy sea, and the dress-maker’s eyes, distended with curiosity, sprang eagerly from face to face.

“I just thought I’d call in again,” said Mr. Ramy, evidently somewhat disconcerted by the presence of Miss Mellins. “Just to see how the clock’s behaving,” he added with his hollow-cheeked smile.

“Oh, she’s behaving beautiful,” said Ann Eliza; “but we’re real glad to see you all the same. Miss Mellins, let me make you acquainted with Mr. Ramy.”

The dress-maker tossed back her head and dropped her lids in condescending recognition of the stranger’s presence; and Mr. Ramy responded by an awkward bow. After the first moment of constraint a renewed sense of satisfaction filled the consciousness of the three women. The Bunner sisters were not sorry to let Miss Mellins see that they received an occasional evening visit, and Miss Mellins was clearly enchanted at the opportunity of pouring her latest tale into a new ear. As for Mr. Ramy, he adjusted himself to the situation with greater ease than might have been expected, and Evelina, who had been sorry that he should enter the room while the remains of supper still lingered on the table, blushed with pleasure at his good-humored offer to help her “glear away.”

The table cleared, Ann Eliza suggested a game of cards; and it was after eleven o’clock when Mr. Ramy rose to take leave. His adieux were so much less abrupt than on the occasion of his first visit that Evelina was able to satisfy her sense of etiquette by escorting him, candle in hand, to the outer door; and as the two disappeared into the shop Miss Mellins playfully turned to Ann Eliza.

“Well, well, Miss Bunner,” she murmured, jerking her chin in the direction of the retreating figures, “I’d no idea your sister was keeping company. On’y to think!”

Ann Eliza, roused from a state of dreamy beatitude, turned her timid eyes on the dress-maker.

“Oh, you’re mistaken, Miss Mellins. We don’t har’ly know Mr. Ramy.”

Miss Mellins smiled incredulously. “You go ‘long, Miss Bunner. I guess there’ll be a wedding somewheres round here before spring, and I’ll be real offended if I ain’t asked to make the dress. I’ve always seen her in a gored satin with rooshings.”

Ann Eliza made no answer. She had grown very pale, and her eyes lingered searchingly on Evelina as the younger sister re-entered the room. Evelina’s cheeks were pink, and her blue eyes glittered; but it seemed to Ann Eliza that the coquettish tilt of her head regrettably emphasized the weakness of her receding chin. It was the first time that Ann Eliza had ever seen a flaw in her sister’s beauty, and her involuntary criticism startled her like a secret disloyalty.

That night, after the light had been put out, the elder sister knelt longer than usual at her prayers. In the silence of the darkened room she was offering up certain dreams and aspirations whose brief blossoming had lent a transient freshness to her days. She wondered now how she could ever have supposed that Mr. Ramy’s visits had another cause than the one Miss Mellins suggested. Had not the sight of Evelina first inspired him with a sudden solicitude for the welfare of the clock? And what charms but Evelina’s could have induced him to repeat his visit? Grief held up its torch to the frail fabric of Ann Eliza’s illusions, and with a firm heart she watched them shrivel into ashes; then, rising from her knees full of the chill joy of renunciation, she laid a kiss on the crimping pins of the sleeping Evelina and crept under the bedspread at her side.

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