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The Bunner Sisters

The Bunner Sisters

Edith Wharton

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1

  • In the days when New York's traffic moved at the pace of the drooping horse- car, when society applauded Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music an_asked in the sunsets of the Hudson River School on the walls of the Nationa_cademy of Design, an inconspicuous shop with a single show-window wa_ntimately and favourably known to the feminine population of the quarte_ordering on Stuyvesant Square.
  • It was a very small shop, in a shabby basement, in a side- street alread_oomed to decline; and from the miscellaneous display behind the window-pane, and the brevity of the sign surmounting it (merely "Bunner Sisters" in blotch_old on a black ground) it would have been difficult for the uninitiated t_uess the precise nature of the business carried on within. But that was o_ittle consequence, since its fame was so purely local that the customers o_hom its existence depended were almost congenitally aware of the exact rang_f "goods" to be found at Bunner Sisters'.
  • The house of which Bunner Sisters had annexed the basement was a privat_welling with a brick front, green shutters on weak hinges, and a dress- maker's sign in the window above the shop. On each side of its modest thre_tories stood higher buildings, with fronts of brown stone, cracked an_listered, cast-iron balconies and cat-haunted grass-patches behind twiste_ailings. These houses too had once been private, but now a cheap lunchroo_illed the basement of one, while the other announced itself, above the knott_istaria that clasped its central balcony, as the Mendoza Family Hotel. It wa_bvious from the chronic cluster of refuse- barrels at its area-gate and th_lurred surface of its curtainless windows, that the families frequenting th_endoza Hotel were not exacting in their tastes; though they doubtles_ndulged in as much fastidiousness as they could afford to pay for, and rathe_ore than their landlord thought they had a right to express.
  • These three houses fairly exemplified the general character of the street, which, as it stretched eastward, rapidly fell from shabbiness to squalor, wit_n increasing frequency of projecting sign-boards, and of swinging doors tha_oftly shut or opened at the touch of red-nosed men and pale little girls wit_roken jugs. The middle of the street was full of irregular depressions, wel_dapted to retain the long swirls of dust and straw and twisted paper that th_ind drove up and down its sad untended length; and toward the end of the day, when traffic had been active, the fissured pavement formed a mosaic o_oloured hand-bills, lids of tomato-cans, old shoes, cigar-stumps and banan_kins, cemented together by a layer of mud, or veiled in a powdering of dust, as the state of the weather determined.
  • The sole refuge offered from the contemplation of this depressing waste wa_he sight of the Bunner Sisters' window. Its panes were always well-washed, and though their display of artificial flowers, bands of scalloped flannel, wire hat-frames, and jars of home-made preserves, had the undefinable greyis_inge of objects long preserved in the show-case of a museum, the windo_evealed a background of orderly counters and white-washed walls in pleasan_ontrast to the adjoining dinginess.
  • The Bunner sisters were proud of the neatness of their shop and content wit_ts humble prosperity. It was not what they had once imagined it would be, bu_hough it presented but a shrunken image of their earlier ambitions it enable_hem to pay their rent and keep themselves alive and out of debt; and it wa_ong since their hopes had soared higher.
  • Now and then, however, among their greyer hours there came one not brigh_nough to be called sunny, but rather of the silvery twilight hue whic_ometimes ends a day of storm. It was such an hour that Ann Eliza, the elde_f the firm, was soberly enjoying as she sat one January evening in the bac_oom which served as bedroom, kitchen and parlour to herself and her siste_velina. In the shop the blinds had been drawn down, the counters cleared an_he wares in the window lightly covered with an old sheet; but the shop-doo_emained unlocked till Evelina, who had taken a parcel to the dyer's, shoul_ome back.
  • In the back room a kettle bubbled on the stove, and Ann Eliza had laid a clot_ver one end of the centre table, and placed near the green-shaded sewing lam_wo tea-cups, two plates, a sugar-bowl and a piece of pie. The rest of th_oom remained in a greenish shadow which discreetly veiled the outline of a_ld-fashioned mahogany bedstead surmounted by a chromo of a young lady in _ight-gown who clung with eloquently-rolling eyes to a crag described i_lluminated letters as the Rock of Ages; and against the unshaded windows tw_ocking-chairs and a sewing-machine were silhouetted on the dusk.
  • Ann Eliza, her small and habitually anxious face smoothed to unusual serenity, and the streaks of pale hair on her veined temples shining glossily beneat_he lamp, had seated herself at the table, and was tying up, with her usua_umbling deliberation, a knobby object wrapped in paper. Now and then, as sh_truggled with the string, which was too short, she fancied she heard th_lick of the shop-door, and paused to listen for her sister; then, as no on_ame, she straightened her spectacles and entered into renewed conflict wit_he parcel. In honour of some event of obvious importance, she had put on he_ouble-dyed and triple- turned black silk. Age, while bestowing on thi_arment a patine worthy of a Renaissance bronze, had deprived it of whateve_urves the wearer's pre-Raphaelite figure had once been able to impress on it; but this stiffness of outline gave it an air of sacerdotal state which seeme_o emphasize the importance of the occasion.
  • Seen thus, in her sacramental black silk, a wisp of lace turned over th_ollar and fastened by a mosaic brooch, and her face smoothed into harmon_ith her apparel, Ann Eliza looked ten years younger than behind the counter, in the heat and burden of the day. It would have been as difficult to gues_er approximate age as that of the black silk, for she had the same worn an_lossy aspect as her dress; but a faint tinge of pink still lingered on he_heek-bones, like the reflection of sunset which sometimes colours the wes_ong after the day is over.
  • When she had tied the parcel to her satisfaction, and laid it with furtiv_ccuracy just opposite her sister's plate, she sat down, with an air o_bviously-assumed indifference, in one of the rocking-chairs near the window; and a moment later the shop-door opened and Evelina entered.
  • The younger Bunner sister, who was a little taller than her elder, had a mor_ronounced nose, but a weaker slope of mouth and chin. She still permitte_erself the frivolity of waving her pale hair, and its tight little ridges, stiff as the tresses of an Assyrian statue, were flattened under a dotted vei_hich ended at the tip of her cold-reddened nose. In her scant jacket an_kirt of black cashmere she looked singularly nipped and faded; but it seeme_ossible that under happier conditions she might still warm into relativ_outh.
  • "Why, Ann Eliza," she exclaimed, in a thin voice pitched to chroni_retfulness, "what in the world you got your best silk on for?"
  • Ann Eliza had risen with a blush that made her steel-browed spectacle_ncongruous.
  • "Why, Evelina, why shouldn't I, I sh'ld like to know? Ain't it your birthday, dear?" She put out her arms with the awkwardness of habitually represse_motion.
  • Evelina, without seeming to notice the gesture, threw back the jacket from he_arrow shoulders.
  • "Oh, pshaw," she said, less peevishly. "I guess we'd better give up birthdays.
  • Much as we can do to keep Christmas nowadays."
  • "You hadn't oughter say that, Evelina. We ain't so badly off as all that. _uess you're cold and tired. Set down while I take the kettle off: it's righ_n the boil."
  • She pushed Evelina toward the table, keeping a sideward eye on her sister'_istless movements, while her own hands were busy with the kettle. A momen_ater came the exclamation for which she waited.
  • "Why, Ann Eliza!" Evelina stood transfixed by the sight of the parcel besid_er plate.
  • Ann Eliza, tremulously engaged in filling the teapot, lifted a look o_ypocritical surprise.
  • "Sakes, Evelina! What's the matter?"
  • The younger sister had rapidly untied the string, and drawn from its wrapping_ round nickel clock of the kind to be bought for a dollar-seventy-five.
  • "Oh, Ann Eliza, how could you?" She set the clock down, and the sister_xchanged agitated glances across the table.
  • "Well," the elder retorted, "AIN'T it your birthday?"
  • "Yes, but—"
  • "Well, and ain't you had to run round the corner to the Square every morning, rain or shine, to see what time it was, ever since we had to sell mother'_atch last July? Ain't you, Evelina?"
  • "Yes, but—"
  • "There ain't any buts. We've always wanted a clock and now we've got one: that's all there is about it. Ain't she a beauty, Evelina?" Ann Eliza, puttin_ack the kettle on the stove, leaned over her sister's shoulder to pass a_pproving hand over the circular rim of the clock. "Hear how loud she ticks. _as afraid you'd hear her soon as you come in."
  • "No. I wasn't thinking," murmured Evelina.
  • "Well, ain't you glad now?" Ann Eliza gently reproached her. The rebuke had n_cerbity, for she knew that Evelina's seeming indifference was alive wit_nexpressed scruples.
  • "I'm real glad, sister; but you hadn't oughter. We could have got on wel_nough without."
  • "Evelina Bunner, just you sit down to your tea. I guess I know what I'_ughter and what I'd hadn't oughter just as well as you do—I'm old enough!"
  • "You're real good, Ann Eliza; but I know you've given up something you neede_o get me this clock."
  • "What do I need, I'd like to know? Ain't I got a best black silk?" the elde_ister said with a laugh full of nervous pleasure.
  • She poured out Evelina's tea, adding some condensed milk from the jug, an_utting for her the largest slice of pie; then she drew up her own chair t_he table.
  • The two women ate in silence for a few moments before Evelina began to spea_gain. "The clock is perfectly lovely and I don't say it ain't a comfort t_ave it; but I hate to think what it must have cost you."
  • "No, it didn't, neither," Ann Eliza retorted. "I got it dirt cheap, if yo_ant to know. And I paid for it out of a little extra work I did the othe_ight on the machine for Mrs. Hawkins."
  • "The baby-waists?"
  • "Yes."
  • "There, I knew it! You swore to me you'd buy a new pair of shoes with tha_oney."
  • "Well, and s'posin' I didn't want 'em—what then? I've patched up the old one_s good as new—and I do declare, Evelina Bunner, if you ask me anothe_uestion you'll go and spoil all my pleasure."
  • "Very well, I won't," said the younger sister.
  • They continued to eat without farther words. Evelina yielded to her sister'_ntreaty that she should finish the pie, and poured out a second cup of tea, into which she put the last lump of sugar; and between them, on the table, th_lock kept up its sociable tick.
  • "Where'd you get it, Ann Eliza?" asked Evelina, fascinated.
  • "Where'd you s'pose? Why, right round here, over acrost the Square, in th_ueerest little store you ever laid eyes on. I saw it in the window as I wa_assing, and I stepped right in and asked how much it was, and the store- keeper he was real pleasant about it. He was just the nicest man. I guess he'_ German. I told him I couldn't give much, and he said, well, he knew wha_ard times was too. His name's Ramy—Herman Ramy: I saw it written up over th_tore. And he told me he used to work at Tiff'ny's, oh, for years, in th_lock-department, and three years ago he took sick with some kinder fever, an_ost his place, and when he got well they'd engaged somebody else and didn'_ant him, and so he started this little store by himself. I guess he's rea_mart, and he spoke quite like an educated man—but he looks sick."
  • Evelina was listening with absorbed attention. In the narrow lives of the tw_isters such an episode was not to be under-rated.
  • "What you say his name was?" she asked as Ann Eliza paused.
  • "Herman Ramy."
  • "How old is he?"
  • "Well, I couldn't exactly tell you, he looked so sick—but I don't b'lieve he'_uch over forty."
  • By this time the plates had been cleared and the teapot emptied, and the tw_isters rose from the table. Ann Eliza, tying an apron over her black silk, carefully removed all traces of the meal; then, after washing the cups an_lates, and putting them away in a cupboard, she drew her rocking-chair to th_amp and sat down to a heap of mending. Evelina, meanwhile, had been roamin_bout the room in search of an abiding-place for the clock. A rosewood what- not with ornamental fret-work hung on the wall beside the devout young lady i_ishabille, and after much weighing of alternatives the sisters decided t_ethrone a broken china vase filled with dried grasses which had long stood o_he top shelf, and to put the clock in its place; the vase, after farthe_onsideration, being relegated to a small table covered with blue and whit_eadwork, which held a Bible and prayer-book, and an illustrated copy o_ongfellow's poems given as a school-prize to their father.
  • This change having been made, and the effect studied from every angle of th_oom, Evelina languidly put her pinking-machine on the table, and sat down t_he monotonous work of pinking a heap of black silk flounces. The strips o_tuff slid slowly to the floor at her side, and the clock, from its commandin_ltitude, kept time with the dispiriting click of the instrument under he_ingers.