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Chapter 7


VII

During the ensuing weeks Mr. Ramy, though his visits were as
frequent as ever, did not seem to regain his usual spirits.  He
complained frequently of headache, but rejected Ann Eliza's
tentatively proffered remedies, and seemed to shrink from any
prolonged investigation of his symptoms.  July had come, with a
sudden ardour of heat, and one evening, as the three sat together
by the open window in the back room, Evelina said: "I dunno what I
wouldn't give, a night like this, for a breath of real country
air."

"So would I," said Mr. Ramy, knocking the ashes from his pipe.
"I'd like to be setting in an arbour dis very minute."

"Oh, wouldn't it be lovely?"

"I always think it's real cool here--we'd be heaps hotter up
where Miss Mellins is," said Ann Eliza.

"Oh, I daresay--but we'd be heaps cooler somewhere else," her
sister snapped: she was not infrequently exasperated by Ann Eliza's
furtive attempts to mollify Providence.

A few days later Mr. Ramy appeared with a suggestion which
enchanted Evelina.  He had gone the day before to see his friend,
Mrs. Hochmuller, who lived in the outskirts of Hoboken, and Mrs.
Hochmuller had proposed that on the following Sunday he should
bring the Bunner sisters to spend the day with her.

"She's got a real garden, you know," Mr. Ramy explained, "wid
trees and a real summer-house to set in; and hens and chickens too.
And it's an elegant sail over on de ferry-boat."

The proposal drew no response from Ann Eliza.  She was still
oppressed by the recollection of her interminable Sunday in the
Park; but, obedient to Evelina's imperious glance, she finally
faltered out an acceptance.

The Sunday was a very hot one, and once on the ferry-boat Ann
Eliza revived at the touch of the salt breeze, and the spectacle of
the crowded waters; but when they reached the other shore, and
stepped out on the dirty wharf, she began to ache with anticipated
weariness.  They got into a street-car, and were jolted from one
mean street to another, till at length Mr. Ramy pulled the
conductor's sleeve and they got out again; then they stood in the
blazing sun, near the door of a crowded beer-saloon, waiting for
another car to come; and that carried them out to a thinly settled
district, past vacant lots and narrow brick houses standing
in unsupported solitude, till they finally reached an almost rural
region of scattered cottages and low wooden buildings that looked
like village "stores."  Here the car finally stopped of its own
accord, and they walked along a rutty road, past a stone-cutter's
yard with a high fence tapestried with theatrical advertisements,
to a little red house with green blinds and a garden paling.
Really, Mr. Ramy had not deceived them.  Clumps of dielytra and
day-lilies bloomed behind the paling, and a crooked elm hung
romantically over the gable of the house.

At the gate Mrs. Hochmuller, a broad woman in brick-brown
merino, met them with nods and smiles, while her daughter Linda, a
flaxen-haired girl with mottled red cheeks and a sidelong stare,
hovered inquisitively behind her.  Mrs. Hochmuller, leading the way
into the house, conducted the Bunner sisters the way to her
bedroom.  Here they were invited to spread out on a mountainous
white featherbed the cashmere mantles under which the solemnity of
the occasion had compelled them to swelter, and when they had given
their black silks the necessary twitch of readjustment, and Evelina
had fluffed out her hair before a looking-glass framed in pink-
shell work, their hostess led them to a stuffy parlour smelling of
gingerbread.  After another ceremonial pause, broken by polite
enquiries and shy ejaculations, they were shown into the kitchen,
where the table was already spread with strange-looking spice-cakes
and stewed fruits, and where they presently found themselves seated
between Mrs. Hochmuller and Mr. Ramy, while the staring Linda
bumped back and forth from the stove with steaming dishes.

To Ann Eliza the dinner seemed endless, and the rich fare
strangely unappetizing.  She was abashed by the easy intimacy of
her hostess's voice and eye.  With Mr. Ramy Mrs. Hochmuller was
almost flippantly familiar, and it was only when Ann Eliza pictured
her generous form bent above his sick-bed that she could forgive
her for tersely addressing him as "Ramy."  During one of the pauses
of the meal Mrs. Hochmuller laid her knife and fork against the
edges of her plate, and, fixing her eyes on the clock-maker's face,
said accusingly: "You hat one of dem turns again, Ramy."

"I dunno as I had," he returned evasively.

Evelina glanced from one to the other.  "Mr. Ramy HAS
been sick," she said at length, as though to show that she also was
in a position to speak with authority.  "He's complained very
frequently of headaches."

"Ho!--I know him," said Mrs. Hochmuller with a laugh, her eyes
still on the clock-maker.  "Ain't you ashamed of yourself, Ramy?"

Mr. Ramy, who was looking at his plate, said suddenly one word
which the sisters could not understand; it sounded to Ann Eliza
like "Shwike."

Mrs. Hochmuller laughed again.  "My, my," she said, "wouldn't
you think he'd be ashamed to go and be sick and never dell me, me
that nursed him troo dat awful fever?"

"Yes, I SHOULD," said Evelina, with a spirited glance
at Ramy; but he was looking at the sausages that Linda had just put
on the table.

When dinner was over Mrs. Hochmuller invited her guests to
step out of the kitchen-door, and they found themselves in a green
enclosure, half garden, half orchard.  Grey hens followed by golden
broods clucked under the twisted apple-boughs, a cat dozed on the
edge of an old well, and from tree to tree ran the network of
clothes-line that denoted Mrs. Hochmuller's calling.  Beyond the
apple trees stood a yellow summer-house festooned with scarlet
runners; and below it, on the farther side of a rough fence, the
land dipped down, holding a bit of woodland in its hollow.  It was
all strangely sweet and still on that hot Sunday afternoon, and as
she moved across the grass under the apple-boughs Ann Eliza thought
of quiet afternoons in church, and of the hymns her mother had sung
to her when she was a baby.

Evelina was more restless.  She wandered from the well to the
summer-house and back, she tossed crumbs to the chickens and
disturbed the cat with arch caresses; and at last she expressed a
desire to go down into the wood.

"I guess you got to go round by the road, then," said Mrs.
Hochmuller.  "My Linda she goes troo a hole in de fence,
but I guess you'd tear your dress if you was to dry."

"I'll help you," said Mr. Ramy; and guided by Linda the pair
walked along the fence till they reached a narrow gap in its
boards.  Through this they disappeared, watched curiously in their
descent by the grinning Linda, while Mrs. Hochmuller and Ann Eliza
were left alone in the summer-house.

Mrs. Hochmuller looked at her guest with a confidential smile.
"I guess dey'll be gone quite a while," she remarked, jerking her
double chin toward the gap in the fence.  "Folks like dat don't
never remember about de dime."  And she drew out her knitting.

Ann Eliza could think of nothing to say.

"Your sister she thinks a great lot of him, don't she?" her
hostess continued.

Ann Eliza's cheeks grew hot.  "Ain't you a teeny bit lonesome
away out here sometimes?" she asked.  "I should think you'd be
scared nights, all alone with your daughter."

"Oh, no, I ain't," said Mrs. Hochmuller.  "You see I take in
washing--dat's my business--and it's a lot cheaper doing it out
here dan in de city: where'd I get a drying-ground like dis in
Hobucken?  And den it's safer for Linda too; it geeps her outer de
streets."

"Oh," said Ann Eliza, shrinking.  She began to feel a distinct
aversion for her hostess, and her eyes turned with involuntary
annoyance to the square-backed form of Linda, still inquisitively
suspended on the fence.  It seemed to Ann Eliza that Evelina and
her companion would never return from the wood; but they came at
length, Mr. Ramy's brow pearled with perspiration, Evelina pink and
conscious, a drooping bunch of ferns in her hand; and it was clear
that, to her at least, the moments had been winged.

"D'you suppose they'll revive?" she asked, holding up the
ferns; but Ann Eliza, rising at her approach, said stiffly: "We'd
better be getting home, Evelina."

"Mercy me!  Ain't you going to take your coffee first?" Mrs.
Hochmuller protested; and Ann Eliza found to her dismay that
another long gastronomic ceremony must intervene before politeness
permitted them to leave.  At length, however, they found themselves
again on the ferry-boat.  Water and sky were grey, with a dividing
gleam of sunset that sent sleek opal waves in the boat's wake.  The
wind had a cool tarry breath, as though it had travelled over miles
of shipping, and the hiss of the water about the paddles was as
delicious as though it had been splashed into their tired faces.

Ann Eliza sat apart, looking away from the others.  She had
made up her mind that Mr. Ramy had proposed to Evelina in the wood,
and she was silently preparing herself to receive her sister's
confidence that evening.

But Evelina was apparently in no mood for confidences.  When
they reached home she put her faded ferns in water, and after
supper, when she had laid aside her silk dress and the forget-me-
not bonnet, she remained silently seated in her rocking-chair near
the open window.  It was long since Ann Eliza had seen her in so
uncommunicative a mood.


The following Saturday Ann Eliza was sitting alone in the shop
when the door opened and Mr. Ramy entered.  He had never before
called at that hour, and she wondered a little anxiously what had
brought him.

"Has anything happened?" she asked, pushing aside the
basketful of buttons she had been sorting.

"Not's I know of," said Mr. Ramy tranquilly.  "But I always
close up the store at two o'clock Saturdays at this season, so I
thought I might as well call round and see you."

"I'm real glad, I'm sure," said Ann Eliza; "but Evelina's
out."

"I know dat," Mr. Ramy answered.  "I met her round de corner.
She told me she got to go to dat new dyer's up in Forty-eighth
Street.  She won't be back for a couple of hours, har'ly, will
she?"

Ann Eliza looked at him with rising bewilderment.  "No, I
guess not," she answered; her instinctive hospitality prompting her
to add: "Won't you set down jest the same?"

Mr. Ramy sat down on the stool beside the counter, and Ann
Eliza returned to her place behind it.

"I can't leave the store," she explained.

"Well, I guess we're very well here."  Ann Eliza had become
suddenly aware that Mr. Ramy was looking at her with
unusual intentness.  Involuntarily her hand strayed to the thin
streaks of hair on her temples, and thence descended to straighten
the brooch beneath her collar.

"You're looking very well to-day, Miss Bunner," said Mr. Ramy,
following her gesture with a smile.

"Oh," said Ann Eliza nervously.  "I'm always well in health,"
she added.

"I guess you're healthier than your sister, even if you are
less sizeable."

"Oh, I don't know.  Evelina's a mite nervous sometimes, but
she ain't a bit sickly."

"She eats heartier than you do; but that don't mean nothing,"
said Mr. Ramy.

Ann Eliza was silent.  She could not follow the trend of his
thought, and she did not care to commit herself farther about
Evelina before she had ascertained if Mr. Ramy considered
nervousness interesting or the reverse.

But Mr. Ramy spared her all farther indecision.

"Well, Miss Bunner," he said, drawing his stool closer to the
counter, "I guess I might as well tell you fust as last what I come
here for to-day.  I want to get married."

Ann Eliza, in many a prayerful midnight hour, had sought to
strengthen herself for the hearing of this avowal, but now that it
had come she felt pitifully frightened and unprepared.  Mr. Ramy
was leaning with both elbows on the counter, and she noticed that
his nails were clean and that he had brushed his hat; yet even
these signs had not prepared her!

At last she heard herself say, with a dry throat in which her
heart was hammering: "Mercy me, Mr. Ramy!"

"I want to get married," he repeated.  "I'm too lonesome.  It
ain't good for a man to live all alone, and eat noding but cold
meat every day."

"No," said Ann Eliza softly.

"And the dust fairly beats me."

"Oh, the dust--I know!"

Mr. Ramy stretched one of his blunt-fingered hands toward her.
"I wisht you'd take me."

Still Ann Eliza did not understand.  She rose hesitatingly
from her seat, pushing aside the basket of buttons which lay
between them; then she perceived that Mr. Ramy was trying to take
her hand, and as their fingers met a flood of joy swept over her.
Never afterward, though every other word of their interview was
stamped on her memory beyond all possible forgetting, could she
recall what he said while their hands touched; she only knew that
she seemed to be floating on a summer sea, and that all its waves
were in her ears.

"Me--me?" she gasped.

"I guess so," said her suitor placidly.  "You suit me right
down to the ground, Miss Bunner.  Dat's the truth."

A woman passing along the street paused to look at the shop-
window, and Ann Eliza half hoped she would come in; but after a
desultory inspection she went on.

"Maybe you don't fancy me?" Mr. Ramy suggested,
discountenanced by Ann Eliza's silence.

A word of assent was on her tongue, but her lips refused it.
She must find some other way of telling him.

"I don't say that."

"Well, I always kinder thought we was suited to one another,"
Mr. Ramy continued, eased of his momentary doubt.  "I always liked
de quiet style--no fuss and airs, and not afraid of work."  He
spoke as though dispassionately cataloguing her charms.

Ann Eliza felt that she must make an end.  "But, Mr. Ramy, you
don't understand.  I've never thought of marrying."

Mr. Ramy looked at her in surprise.  "Why not?"

"Well, I don't know, har'ly."  She moistened her twitching
lips.  "The fact is, I ain't as active as I look.  Maybe I couldn't
stand the care.  I ain't as spry as Evelina--nor as young," she
added, with a last great effort.

"But you do most of de work here, anyways," said her suitor
doubtfully.

"Oh, well, that's because Evelina's busy outside; and where
there's only two women the work don't amount to much.  Besides, I'm
the oldest; I have to look after things," she hastened on, half
pained that her simple ruse should so readily deceive him.

"Well, I guess you're active enough for me," he persisted.
His calm determination began to frighten her; she trembled lest her
own should be less staunch.

"No, no," she repeated, feeling the tears on her lashes.  "I
couldn't, Mr. Ramy, I couldn't marry.  I'm so surprised.
I always thought it was Evelina--always.  And so did everybody
else.  She's so bright and pretty--it seemed so natural."

"Well, you was all mistaken," said Mr. Ramy obstinately.

"I'm so sorry."

He rose, pushing back his chair.

"You'd better think it over," he said, in the large tone of a
man who feels he may safely wait.

"Oh, no, no.  It ain't any sorter use, Mr. Ramy.  I don't
never mean to marry.  I get tired so easily--I'd be afraid of the
work.  And I have such awful headaches."  She paused, racking her
brain for more convincing infirmities.

"Headaches, do you?" said Mr. Ramy, turning back.

"My, yes, awful ones, that I have to give right up to.
Evelina has to do everything when I have one of them headaches.
She has to bring me my tea in the mornings."

"Well, I'm sorry to hear it," said Mr. Ramy.

"Thank you kindly all the same," Ann Eliza murmured.  "And
please don't--don't--"  She stopped suddenly, looking at him
through her tears.

"Oh, that's all right," he answered.  "Don't you fret, Miss
Gunner.  Folks have got to suit themselves."  She thought his tone
had grown more resigned since she had spoken of her headaches.

For some moments he stood looking at her with a hesitating
eye, as though uncertain how to end their conversation; and at
length she found courage to say (in the words of a novel she had
once read): "I don't want this should make any difference between
us."

"Oh, my, no," said Mr. Ramy, absently picking up his hat.

"You'll come in just the same?" she continued, nerving herself
to the effort.  "We'd miss you awfully if you didn't.  Evelina,
she--"  She paused, torn between her desire to turn his thoughts to
Evelina, and the dread of prematurely disclosing her sister's
secret.

"Don't Miss Evelina have no headaches?" Mr. Ramy suddenly
asked.

"My, no, never--well, not to speak of, anyway.  She ain't had
one for ages, and when Evelina IS sick she won't never give
in to it," Ann Eliza declared, making some hurried adjustments with
her conscience.

"I wouldn't have thought that," said Mr. Ramy.

"I guess you don't know us as well as you thought you did."

"Well, no, that's so; maybe I don't.  I'll wish you good day,
Miss Bunner"; and Mr. Ramy moved toward the door.

"Good day, Mr. Ramy," Ann Eliza answered.

She felt unutterably thankful to be alone.  She knew the
crucial moment of her life had passed, and she was glad that she
had not fallen below her own ideals.  It had been a wonderful
experience; and in spite of the tears on her cheeks she was not
sorry to have known it.  Two facts, however, took the edge from its
perfection: that it had happened in the shop, and that she had not
had on her black silk.

She passed the next hour in a state of dreamy ecstasy.
Something had entered into her life of which no subsequent
empoverishment could rob it: she glowed with the same rich sense of
possessorship that once, as a little girl, she had felt when her
mother had given her a gold locket and she had sat up in bed in the
dark to draw it from its hiding-place beneath her night-gown.

At length a dread of Evelina's return began to mingle with
these musings.  How could she meet her younger sister's eye without
betraying what had happened?  She felt as though a visible glory
lay on her, and she was glad that dusk had fallen when Evelina
entered.  But her fears were superfluous.  Evelina, always self-
absorbed, had of late lost all interest in the simple happenings of
the shop, and Ann Eliza, with mingled mortification and relief,
perceived that she was in no danger of being cross-questioned as to
the events of the afternoon.  She was glad of this; yet there was
a touch of humiliation in finding that the portentous secret in her
bosom did not visibly shine forth.  It struck her as dull, and even
slightly absurd, of Evelina not to know at last that they were
equals.


Edith Wharton

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