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Chapter 3

THE FOUR SISTERS

The row of houses in which the old lady and her troublesome
neighbour reside, comprises, beyond all doubt, a greater number of
characters within its circumscribed limits, than all the rest of
the parish put together. As we cannot, consistently with our
present plan, however, extend the number of our parochial sketches
beyond six, it will be better perhaps, to select the most peculiar,
and to introduce them at once without further preface.

The four Miss Willises, then, settled in our parish thirteen years
ago. It is a melancholy reflection that the old adage, 'time and
tide wait for no man,' applies with equal force to the fairer
portion of the creation; and willingly would we conceal the fact,
that even thirteen years ago the Miss Willises were far from
juvenile. Our duty as faithful parochial chroniclers, however, is
paramount to every other consideration, and we are bound to state,
that thirteen years since, the authorities in matrimonial cases,
considered the youngest Miss Willis in a very precarious state,
while the eldest sister was positively given over, as being far
beyond all human hope. Well, the Miss Willises took a lease of the
house; it was fresh painted and papered from top to bottom: the
paint inside was all wainscoted, the marble all cleaned, the old
grates taken down, and register-stoves, you could see to dress by,
put up; four trees were planted in the back garden, several small
baskets of gravel sprinkled over the front one, vans of elegant
furniture arrived, spring blinds were fitted to the windows,
carpenters who had been employed in the various preparations,
alterations, and repairs, made confidential statements to the
different maid-servants in the row, relative to the magnificent
scale on which the Miss Willises were commencing; the maid-servants
told their 'Missises,' the Missises told their friends, and vague
rumours were circulated throughout the parish, that No. 25, in
Gordon-place, had been taken by four maiden ladies of immense
property.

At last, the Miss Willises moved in; and then the 'calling' began.
The house was the perfection of neatness--so were the four Miss
Willises. Everything was formal, stiff, and cold--so were the four
Miss Willises. Not a single chair of the whole set was ever seen
out of its place--not a single Miss Willis of the whole four was
ever seen out of hers. There they always sat, in the same places,
doing precisely the same things at the same hour. The eldest Miss
Willis used to knit, the second to draw, the two others to play
duets on the piano. They seemed to have no separate existence, but
to have made up their minds just to winter through life together.
They were three long graces in drapery, with the addition, like a
school-dinner, of another long grace afterwards--the three fates
with another sister--the Siamese twins multiplied by two. The
eldest Miss Willis grew bilious--the four Miss Willises grew
bilious immediately. The eldest Miss Willis grew ill-tempered and
religious--the four Miss Willises were ill-tempered and religious
directly. Whatever the eldest did, the others did, and whatever
anybody else did, they all disapproved of; and thus they vegetated-
-living in Polar harmony among themselves, and, as they sometimes
went out, or saw company 'in a quiet-way' at home, occasionally
icing the neighbours. Three years passed over in this way, when an
unlooked for and extraordinary phenomenon occurred. The Miss
Willises showed symptoms of summer, the frost gradually broke up; a
complete thaw took place. Was it possible? one of the four Miss
Willises was going to be married!

Now, where on earth the husband came from, by what feelings the
poor man could have been actuated, or by what process of reasoning
the four Miss Willises succeeded in persuading themselves that it
was possible for a man to marry one of them, without marrying them
all, are questions too profound for us to resolve: certain it is,
however, that the visits of Mr. Robinson (a gentleman in a public
office, with a good salary and a little property of his own,
besides) were received--that the four Miss Willises were courted in
due form by the said Mr Robinson--that the neighbours were
perfectly frantic in their anxiety to discover which of the four
Miss Willises was the fortunate fair, and that the difficulty they
experienced in solving the problem was not at all lessened by the
announcement of the eldest Miss Willis,--'WE are going to marry Mr.
Robinson.'

It was very extraordinary. They were so completely identified, the
one with the other, that the curiosity of the whole row--even of
the old lady herself--was roused almost beyond endurance. The
subject was discussed at every little card-table and tea-drinking.
The old gentleman of silk-worm notoriety did not hesitate to
express his decided opinion that Mr. Robinson was of Eastern
descent, and contemplated marrying the whole family at once; and
the row, generally, shook their heads with considerable gravity,
and declared the business to be very mysterious. They hoped it
might all end well;--it certainly had a very singular appearance,
but still it would be uncharitable to express any opinion without
good grounds to go upon, and certainly the Miss Willises were QUITE
old enough to judge for themselves, and to be sure people ought to
know their own business best, and so forth.

At last, one fine morning, at a quarter before eight o'clock, A.M.,
two glass-coaches drove up to the Miss Willises' door, at which Mr.
Robinson had arrived in a cab ten minutes before, dressed in a
light-blue coat and double-milled kersey pantaloons, white
neckerchief, pumps, and dress-gloves, his manner denoting, as
appeared from the evidence of the housemaid at No. 23, who was
sweeping the door-steps at the time, a considerable degree of
nervous excitement. It was also hastily reported on the same
testimony, that the cook who opened the door, wore a large white
bow of unusual dimensions, in a much smarter head-dress than the
regulation cap to which the Miss Willises invariably restricted the
somewhat excursive tastes of female servants in general.

The intelligence spread rapidly from house to house. It was quite
clear that the eventful morning had at length arrived; the whole
row stationed themselves behind their first and second floor
blinds, and waited the result in breathless expectation.

At last the Miss Willises' door opened; the door of the first
glass-coach did the same. Two gentlemen, and a pair of ladies to
correspond--friends of the family, no doubt; up went the steps,
bang went the door, off went the first class-coach, and up came the
second.

The street door opened again; the excitement of the whole row
increased--Mr. Robinson and the eldest Miss Willis. 'I thought
so,' said the lady at No. 19; 'I always said it was MISS Willis!'--
'Well, I never!' ejaculated the young lady at No. 18 to the young
lady at No. 17.--'Did you ever, dear!' responded the young lady at
No. 17 to the young lady at No. 18. 'It's too ridiculous!'
exclaimed a spinster of an UNcertain age, at No. 16, joining in the
conversation. But who shall portray the astonishment of Gordon-
place, when Mr. Robinson handed in ALL the Miss Willises, one after
the other, and then squeezed himself into an acute angle of the
glass-coach, which forthwith proceeded at a brisk pace, after the
other glass-coach, which other glass-coach had itself proceeded, at
a brisk pace, in the direction of the parish church! Who shall
depict the perplexity of the clergyman, when ALL the Miss Willises
knelt down at the communion-table, and repeated the responses
incidental to the marriage service in an audible voice--or who
shall describe the confusion which prevailed, when--even after the
difficulties thus occasioned had been adjusted--ALL the Miss
Willises went into hysterics at the conclusion of the ceremony,
until the sacred edifice resounded with their united wailings!

As the four sisters and Mr. Robinson continued to occupy the same
house after this memorable occasion, and as the married sister,
whoever she was, never appeared in public without the other three,
we are not quite clear that the neighbours ever would have
discovered the real Mrs. Robinson, but for a circumstance of the
most gratifying description, which WILL happen occasionally in the
best-regulated families. Three quarter-days elapsed, and the row,
on whom a new light appeared to have been bursting for some time,
began to speak with a sort of implied confidence on the subject,
and to wonder how Mrs. Robinson--the youngest Miss Willis that was-
-got on; and servants might be seen running up the steps, about
nine or ten o'clock every morning, with 'Missis's compliments, and
wishes to know how Mrs. Robinson finds herself this morning?' And
the answer always was, 'Mrs. Robinson's compliments, and she's in
very good spirits, and doesn't find herself any worse.' The piano
was heard no longer, the knitting-needles were laid aside, drawing
was neglected, and mantua-making and millinery, on the smallest
scale imaginable, appeared to have become the favourite amusement
of the whole family. The parlour wasn't quite as tidy as it used
to be, and if you called in the morning, you would see lying on a
table, with an old newspaper carelessly thrown over them, two or
three particularly small caps, rather larger than if they had been
made for a moderate-sized doll, with a small piece of lace, in the
shape of a horse-shoe, let in behind: or perhaps a white robe, not
very large in circumference, but very much out of proportion in
point of length, with a little tucker round the top, and a frill
round the bottom; and once when we called, we saw a long white
roller, with a kind of blue margin down each side, the probable use
of which, we were at a loss to conjecture. Then we fancied that
Dr. Dawson, the surgeon, &c., who displays a large lamp with a
different colour in every pane of glass, at the corner of the row,
began to be knocked up at night oftener than he used to be; and
once we were very much alarmed by hearing a hackney-coach stop at
Mrs. Robinson's door, at half-past two o'clock in the morning, out
of which there emerged a fat old woman, in a cloak and night-cap,
with a bundle in one hand, and a pair of pattens in the other, who
looked as if she had been suddenly knocked up out of bed for some
very special purpose.

When we got up in the morning we saw that the knocker was tied up
in an old white kid glove; and we, in our innocence (we were in a
state of bachelorship then), wondered what on earth it all meant,
until we heard the eldest Miss Willis, in propria persona say, with
great dignity, in answer to the next inquiry, 'MY compliments, and
Mrs. Robinson's doing as well as can be expected, and the little
girl thrives wonderfully.' And then, in common with the rest of
the row, our curiosity was satisfied, and we began to wonder it had
never occurred to us what the matter was, before.

Charles Dickens