Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton

VI

For four days after their Sunday in the Park the Bunner sisters had no news of Mr. Ramy. At first neither one betrayed her disappointment and anxiety to the other; but on the fifth morning Evelina, always the first to yield to her feelings, said, as she turned from her untasted tea: “I thought you’d oughter take that money out by now, Ann Eliza.”

Ann Eliza understood and reddened. The winter had been a fairly prosperous one for the sisters, and their slowly accumulated savings had now reached the handsome sum of two hundred dollars; but the satisfaction they might have felt in this unwonted opulence had been clouded by a suggestion of Miss Mellins’s that there were dark rumours concerning the savings bank in which their funds were deposited. They knew Miss Mellins was given to vain alarms; but her words, by the sheer force of repetition, had so shaken Ann Eliza’s peace that after long hours of midnight counsel the sisters had decided to advise with Mr. Ramy; and on Ann Eliza, as the head of the house, this duty had devolved. Mr. Ramy, when consulted, had not only confirmed the dress-maker’s report, but had offered to find some safe investment which should give the sisters a higher rate of interest than the suspected savings bank; and Ann Eliza knew that Evelina alluded to the suggested transfer.

“Why, yes, to be sure,” she agreed. “Mr. Ramy said if he was us he wouldn’t want to leave his money there any longer’n he could help.”

“It was over a week ago he said it,” Evelina reminded her.

“I know; but he told me to wait till he’d found out for sure about that other investment; and we ain’t seen him since then.”

Ann Eliza’s words released their secret fear. “I wonder what’s happened to him,” Evelina said. “You don’t suppose he could be sick?”

“I was wondering too,” Ann Eliza rejoined; and the sisters looked down at their plates.

“I should think you’d oughter do something about that money pretty soon,” Evelina began again.

“Well, I know I’d oughter. What would you do if you was me?”

“If I was YOU,” said her sister, with perceptible emphasis and a rising blush, “I’d go right round and see if Mr. Ramy was sick. YOU could.”

The words pierced Ann Eliza like a blade. “Yes, that’s so,” she said.

“It would only seem friendly, if he really IS sick. If I was you I’d go to-day,” Evelina continued; and after dinner Ann Eliza went.

On the way she had to leave a parcel at the dyer’s, and having performed that errand she turned toward Mr. Ramy’s shop. Never before had she felt so old, so hopeless and humble. She knew she was bound on a love-errand of Evelina’s, and the knowledge seemed to dry the last drop of young blood in her veins. It took from her, too, all her faded virginal shyness; and with a brisk composure she turned the handle of the clock-maker’s door.

But as she entered her heart began to tremble, for she saw Mr. Ramy, his face hidden in his hands, sitting behind the counter in an attitude of strange dejection. At the click of the latch he looked up slowly, fixing a lustreless stare on Ann Eliza. For a moment she thought he did not know her.

“Oh, you’re sick!” she exclaimed; and the sound of her voice seemed to recall his wandering senses.

“Why, if it ain’t Miss Bunner!” he said, in a low thick tone; but he made no attempt to move, and she noticed that his face was the colour of yellow ashes.

“You ARE sick,” she persisted, emboldened by his evident need of help. “Mr. Ramy, it was real unfriendly of you not to let us know.”

He continued to look at her with dull eyes. “I ain’t been sick,” he said. “Leastways not very: only one of my old turns.” He spoke in a slow laboured way, as if he had difficulty in getting his words together.

“Rheumatism?” she ventured, seeing how unwillingly he seemed to move.

“Well — somethin’ like, maybe. I couldn’t hardly put a name to it.”

“If it WAS anything like rheumatism, my grandmother used to make a tea — ” Ann Eliza began: she had forgotten, in the warmth of the moment, that she had only come as Evelina’s messenger.

At the mention of tea an expression of uncontrollable repugnance passed over Mr. Ramy’s face. “Oh, I guess I’m getting on all right. I’ve just got a headache to-day.”

Ann Eliza’s courage dropped at the note of refusal in his voice.

“I’m sorry,” she said gently. “My sister and me’d have been glad to do anything we could for you.”

“Thank you kindly,” said Mr. Ramy wearily; then, as she turned to the door, he added with an effort: “Maybe I’ll step round to-morrow.”

“We’ll be real glad,” Ann Eliza repeated. Her eyes were fixed on a dusty bronze clock in the window. She was unaware of looking at it at the time, but long afterward she remembered that it represented a Newfoundland dog with his paw on an open book.

When she reached home there was a purchaser in the shop, turning over hooks and eyes under Evelina’s absent-minded supervision. Ann Eliza passed hastily into the back room, but in an instant she heard her sister at her side.

“Quick! I told her I was goin’ to look for some smaller hooks — how is he?” Evelina gasped.

“He ain’t been very well,” said Ann Eliza slowly, her eyes on Evelina’s eager face; “but he says he’ll be sure to be round to-morrow night.”

“He will? Are you telling me the truth?”

“Why, Evelina Bunner!”

“Oh, I don’t care!” cried the younger recklessly, rushing back into the shop.

Ann Eliza stood burning with the shame of Evelina’s self-exposure. She was shocked that, even to her, Evelina should lay bare the nakedness of her emotion; and she tried to turn her thoughts from it as though its recollection made her a sharer in her sister’s debasement.

The next evening, Mr. Ramy reappeared, still somewhat sallow and red-lidded, but otherwise his usual self. Ann Eliza consulted him about the investment he had recommended, and after it had been settled that he should attend to the matter for her he took up the illustrated volume of Longfellow — for, as the sisters had learned, his culture soared beyond the newspapers — and read aloud, with a fine confusion of consonants, the poem on “Maidenhood.” Evelina lowered her lids while he read. It was a very beautiful evening, and Ann Eliza thought afterward how different life might have been with a companion who read poetry like Mr. Ramy.

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