Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton

Part II

VIII

Mr. Ramy, after a decent interval, returned to the shop; and Ann Eliza, when they met, was unable to detect whether the emotions which seethed under her black alpaca found an echo in his bosom. Outwardly he made no sign. He lit his pipe as placidly as ever and seemed to relapse without effort into the unruffled intimacy of old. Yet to Ann Eliza’s initiated eye a change became gradually perceptible. She saw that he was beginning to look at her sister as he had looked at her on that momentous afternoon: she even discerned a secret significance in the turn of his talk with Evelina. Once he asked her abruptly if she should like to travel, and Ann Eliza saw that the flush on Evelina’s cheek was reflected from the same fire which had scorched her own.

So they drifted on through the sultry weeks of July. At that season the business of the little shop almost ceased, and one Saturday morning Mr. Ramy proposed that the sisters should lock up early and go with him for a sail down the bay in one of the Coney Island boats.

Ann Eliza saw the light in Evelina’s eye and her resolve was instantly taken.

“I guess I won’t go, thank you kindly; but I’m sure my sister will be happy to.”

She was pained by the perfunctory phrase with which Evelina urged her to accompany them; and still more by Mr. Ramy’s silence.

“No, I guess I won’t go,” she repeated, rather in answer to herself than to them. “It’s dreadfully hot and I’ve got a kinder headache.”

“Oh, well, I wouldn’t then,” said her sister hurriedly. “You’d better jest set here quietly and rest.”

*** A summary of Part I of “Bunner Sisters” appears on page 4 of the advertising pages.

“Yes, I’ll rest,” Ann Eliza assented.

At two o’clock Mr. Ramy returned, and a moment later he and Evelina left the shop. Evelina had made herself another new bonnet for the occasion, a bonnet, Ann Eliza thought, almost too youthful in shape and colour. It was the first time it had ever occurred to her to criticize Evelina’s taste, and she was frightened at the insidious change in her attitude toward her sister.

When Ann Eliza, in later days, looked back on that afternoon she felt that there had been something prophetic in the quality of its solitude; it seemed to distill the triple essence of loneliness in which all her after-life was to be lived. No purchasers came; not a hand fell on the door-latch; and the tick of the clock in the back room ironically emphasized the passing of the empty hours.

Evelina returned late and alone. Ann Eliza felt the coming crisis in the sound of her footstep, which wavered along as if not knowing on what it trod. The elder sister’s affection had so passionately projected itself into her junior’s fate that at such moments she seemed to be living two lives, her own and Evelina’s; and her private longings shrank into silence at the sight of the other’s hungry bliss. But it was evident that Evelina, never acutely alive to the emotional atmosphere about her, had no idea that her secret was suspected; and with an assumption of unconcern that would have made Ann Eliza smile if the pang had been less piercing, the younger sister prepared to confess herself.

“What are you so busy about?” she said impatiently, as Ann Eliza, beneath the gas-jet, fumbled for the matches. “Ain’t you even got time to ask me if I’d had a pleasant day?”

Ann Eliza turned with a quiet smile. “I guess I don’t have to. Seems to me it’s pretty plain you have.”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t know HOW I feel — it’s all so queer. I almost think I’d like to scream.”

“I guess you’re tired.”

“No, I ain’t. It’s not that. But it all happened so suddenly, and the boat was so crowded I thought everybody’d hear what he was saying. — Ann Eliza,” she broke out, “why on earth don’t you ask me what I’m talking about?”

Ann Eliza, with a last effort of heroism, feigned a fond incomprehension.

“What ARE you?”

“Why, I’m engaged to be married — so there! Now it’s out! And it happened right on the boat; only to think of it! Of course I wasn’t exactly surprised — I’ve known right along he was going to sooner or later — on’y somehow I didn’t think of its happening to-day. I thought he’d never get up his courage. He said he was so ‘fraid I’d say no — that’s what kep’ him so long from asking me. Well, I ain’t said yes YET— leastways I told him I’d have to think it over; but I guess he knows. Oh, Ann Eliza, I’m so happy!” She hid the blinding brightness of her face.

Ann Eliza, just then, would only let herself feel that she was glad. She drew down Evelina’s hands and kissed her, and they held each other. When Evelina regained her voice she had a tale to tell which carried their vigil far into the night. Not a syllable, not a glance or gesture of Ramy’s, was the elder sister spared; and with unconscious irony she found herself comparing the details of his proposal to her with those which Evelina was imparting with merciless prolixity.

The next few days were taken up with the embarrassed adjustment of their new relation to Mr. Ramy and to each other. Ann Eliza’s ardour carried her to new heights of self-effacement, and she invented late duties in the shop in order to leave Evelina and her suitor longer alone in the back room. Later on, when she tried to remember the details of those first days, few came back to her: she knew only that she got up each morning with the sense of having to push the leaden hours up the same long steep of pain.

Mr. Ramy came daily now. Every evening he and his betrothed went out for a stroll around the Square, and when Evelina came in her cheeks were always pink. “He’s kissed her under that tree at the corner, away from the lamp-post,” Ann Eliza said to herself, with sudden insight into unconjectured things. On Sundays they usually went for the whole afternoon to the Central Park, and Ann Eliza, from her seat in the mortal hush of the back room, followed step by step their long slow beatific walk.

There had been, as yet, no allusion to their marriage, except that Evelina had once told her sister that Mr. Ramy wished them to invite Mrs. Hochmuller and Linda to the wedding. The mention of the laundress raised a half-forgotten fear in Ann Eliza, and she said in a tone of tentative appeal: “I guess if I was you I wouldn’t want to be very great friends with Mrs. Hochmuller.”

Evelina glanced at her compassionately. “I guess if you was me you’d want to do everything you could to please the man you loved. It’s lucky,” she added with glacial irony, “that I’m not too grand for Herman’s friends.”

“Oh,” Ann Eliza protested, “that ain’t what I mean — and you know it ain’t. Only somehow the day we saw her I didn’t think she seemed like the kinder person you’d want for a friend.”

“I guess a married woman’s the best judge of such matters,” Evelina replied, as though she already walked in the light of her future state.

Ann Eliza, after that, kept her own counsel. She saw that Evelina wanted her sympathy as little as her admonitions, and that already she counted for nothing in her sister’s scheme of life. To Ann Eliza’s idolatrous acceptance of the cruelties of fate this exclusion seemed both natural and just; but it caused her the most lively pain. She could not divest her love for Evelina of its passionate motherliness; no breath of reason could lower it to the cool temperature of sisterly affection.

She was then passing, as she thought, through the novitiate of her pain; preparing, in a hundred experimental ways, for the solitude awaiting her when Evelina left. It was true that it would be a tempered loneliness. They would not be far apart. Evelina would “run in” daily from the clock-maker’s; they would doubtless take supper with her on Sundays. But already Ann Eliza guessed with what growing perfunctoriness her sister would fulfill these obligations; she even foresaw the day when, to get news of Evelina, she should have to lock the shop at nightfall and go herself to Mr. Ramy’s door. But on that contingency she would not dwell. “They can come to me when they want to — they’ll always find me here,” she simply said to herself.

One evening Evelina came in flushed and agitated from her stroll around the Square. Ann Eliza saw at once that something had happened; but the new habit of reticence checked her question.

She had not long to wait. “Oh, Ann Eliza, on’y to think what he says — ” (the pronoun stood exclusively for Mr. Ramy). “I declare I’m so upset I thought the people in the Square would notice me. Don’t I look queer? He wants to get married right off — this very next week.”

“Next week?”

“Yes. So’s we can move out to St. Louis right away.”

“Him and you — move out to St. Louis?”

“Well, I don’t know as it would be natural for him to want to go out there without me,” Evelina simpered. “But it’s all so sudden I don’t know what to think. He only got the letter this morning. DO I look queer, Ann Eliza?” Her eye was roving for the mirror.

“No, you don’t,” said Ann Eliza almost harshly.

“Well, it’s a mercy,” Evelina pursued with a tinge of disappointment. “It’s a regular miracle I didn’t faint right out there in the Square. Herman’s so thoughtless — he just put the letter into my hand without a word. It’s from a big firm out there — the Tiff’ny of St. Louis, he says it is — offering him a place in their clock-department. Seems they heart of him through a German friend of his that’s settled out there. It’s a splendid opening, and if he gives satisfaction they’ll raise him at the end of the year.”

She paused, flushed with the importance of the situation, which seemed to lift her once for all above the dull level of her former life.

“Then you’ll have to go?” came at last from Ann Eliza.

Evelina stared. “You wouldn’t have me interfere with his prospects, would you?”

“No — no. I on’y meant — has it got to be so soon?”

“Right away, I tell you — next week. Ain’t it awful?” blushed the bride.

Well, this was what happened to mothers. They bore it, Ann Eliza mused; so why not she? Ah, but they had their own chance first; she had had no chance at all. And now this life which she had made her own was going from her forever; had gone, already, in the inner and deeper sense, and was soon to vanish in even its outward nearness, its surface-communion of voice and eye. At that moment even the thought of Evelina’s happiness refused her its consolatory ray; or its light, if she saw it, was too remote to warm her. The thirst for a personal and inalienable tie, for pangs and problems of her own, was parching Ann Eliza’s soul: it seemed to her that she could never again gather strength to look her loneliness in the face.

The trivial obligations of the moment came to her aid. Nursed in idleness her grief would have mastered her; but the needs of the shop and the back room, and the preparations for Evelina’s marriage, kept the tyrant under.

Miss Mellins, true to her anticipations, had been called on to aid in the making of the wedding dress, and she and Ann Eliza were bending one evening over the breadths of pearl-grey cashmere which in spite of the dress-maker’s prophetic vision of gored satin, had been judged most suitable, when Evelina came into the room alone.

Ann Eliza had already had occasion to notice that it was a bad sign when Mr. Ramy left his affianced at the door. It generally meant that Evelina had something disturbing to communicate, and Ann Eliza’s first glance told her that this time the news was grave.

Miss Mellins, who sat with her back to the door and her head bent over her sewing, started as Evelina came around to the opposite side of the table.

“Mercy, Miss Evelina! I declare I thought you was a ghost, the way you crep’ in. I had a customer once up in Forty-ninth Street — a lovely young woman with a thirty-six bust and a waist you could ha’ put into her wedding ring — and her husband, he crep’ up behind her that way jest for a joke, and frightened her into a fit, and when she come to she was a raving maniac, and had to be taken to Bloomingdale with two doctors and a nurse to hold her in the carriage, and a lovely baby on’y six weeks old — and there she is to this day, poor creature.”

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Evelina.

She sat down on the nearest chair, and as the lamp-light fell on her face Ann Eliza saw that she had been crying.

“You do look dead-beat,” Miss Mellins resumed, after a pause of soul-probing scrutiny. “I guess Mr. Ramy lugs you round that Square too often. You’ll walk your legs off if you ain’t careful. Men don’t never consider — they’re all alike. Why, I had a cousin once that was engaged to a book-agent — ”

“Maybe we’d better put away the work for to-night, Miss Mellins,” Ann Eliza interposed. “I guess what Evelina wants is a good night’s rest.”

“That’s so,” assented the dress-maker. “Have you got the back breadths run together, Miss Bunner? Here’s the sleeves. I’ll pin ’em together.” She drew a cluster of pins from her mouth, in which she seemed to secrete them as squirrels stow away nuts. “There,” she said, rolling up her work, “you go right away to bed, Miss Evelina, and we’ll set up a little later to-morrow night. I guess you’re a mite nervous, ain’t you? I know when my turn comes I’ll be scared to death.”

With this arch forecast she withdrew, and Ann Eliza, returning to the back room, found Evelina still listlessly seated by the table. True to her new policy of silence, the elder sister set about folding up the bridal dress; but suddenly Evelina said in a harsh unnatural voice: “There ain’t any use in going on with that.”

The folds slipped from Ann Eliza’s hands.

“Evelina Bunner — what you mean?”

“Jest what I say. It’s put off.”

“Put off — what’s put off?”

“Our getting married. He can’t take me to St. Louis. He ain’t got money enough.” She brought the words out in the monotonous tone of a child reciting a lesson.

Ann Eliza picked up another breadth of cashmere and began to smooth it out. “I don’t understand,” she said at length.

“Well, it’s plain enough. The journey’s fearfully expensive, and we’ve got to have something left to start with when we get out there. We’ve counted up, and he ain’t got the money to do it — that’s all.”

“But I thought he was going right into a splendid place.”

“So he is; but the salary’s pretty low the first year, and board’s very high in St. Louis. He’s jest got another letter from his German friend, and he’s been figuring it out, and he’s afraid to chance it. He’ll have to go alone.”

“But there’s your money — have you forgotten that? The hundred dollars in the bank.”

Evelina made an impatient movement. “Of course I ain’t forgotten it. On’y it ain’t enough. It would all have to go into buying furniture, and if he was took sick and lost his place again we wouldn’t have a cent left. He says he’s got to lay by another hundred dollars before he’ll be willing to take me out there.”

For a while Ann Eliza pondered this surprising statement; then she ventured: “Seems to me he might have thought of it before.”

In an instant Evelina was aflame. “I guess he knows what’s right as well as you or me. I’d sooner die than be a burden to him.”

Ann Eliza made no answer. The clutch of an unformulated doubt had checked the words on her lips. She had meant, on the day of her sister’s marriage, to give Evelina the other half of their common savings; but something warned her not to say so now.

The sisters undressed without farther words. After they had gone to bed, and the light had been put out, the sound of Evelina’s weeping came to Ann Eliza in the darkness, but she lay motionless on her own side of the bed, out of contact with her sister’s shaken body. Never had she felt so coldly remote from Evelina.

The hours of the night moved slowly, ticked off with wearisome insistence by the clock which had played so prominent a part in their lives. Evelina’s sobs still stirred the bed at gradually lengthening intervals, till at length Ann Eliza thought she slept. But with the dawn the eyes of the sisters met, and Ann Eliza’s courage failed her as she looked in Evelina’s face.

She sat up in bed and put out a pleading hand.

“Don’t cry so, dearie. Don’t.”

“Oh, I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it,” Evelina moaned.

Ann Eliza stroked her quivering shoulder. “Don’t, don’t,” she repeated. “If you take the other hundred, won’t that be enough? I always meant to give it to you. On’y I didn’t want to tell you till your wedding day.”

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