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?"
"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?"
"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."
"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.
"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.