The purchase of Evelina's clock had been a more important event in the life o_nn Eliza Bunner than her younger sister could divine. In the first place, there had been the demoralizing satisfaction of finding herself in possessio_f a sum of money which she need not put into the common fund, but could spen_s she chose, without consulting Evelina, and then the excitement of he_tealthy trips abroad, undertaken on the rare occasions when she could trum_p a pretext for leaving the shop; since, as a rule, it was Evelina who too_he bundles to the dyer's, and delivered the purchases of those among thei_ustomers who were too genteel to be seen carrying home a bonnet or a bundl_f pinking—so that, had it not been for the excuse of having to see Mrs.
Hawkins's teething baby, Ann Eliza would hardly have known what motive t_llege for deserting her usual seat behind the counter.
The infrequency of her walks made them the chief events of her life. The mer_ct of going out from the monastic quiet of the shop into the tumult of th_treets filled her with a subdued excitement which grew too intense fo_leasure as she was swallowed by the engulfing roar of Broadway or Thir_venue, and began to do timid battle with their incessant cross-currents o_umanity. After a glance or two into the great show-windows she usuall_llowed herself to be swept back into the shelter of a side-street, an_inally regained her own roof in a state of breathless bewilderment an_atigue; but gradually, as her nerves were soothed by the familiar quiet o_he little shop, and the click of Evelina's pinking-machine, certain sight_nd sounds would detach themselves from the torrent along which she had bee_wept, and she would devote the rest of the day to a mental reconstruction o_he different episodes of her walk, till finally it took shape in her though_s a consecutive and highly-coloured experience, from which, for week_fterwards, she would detach some fragmentary recollection in the course o_er long dialogues with her sister.
But when, to the unwonted excitement of going out, was added the intense_nterest of looking for a present for Evelina, Ann Eliza's agitation, sharpened by concealment, actually preyed upon her rest; and it was not til_he present had been given, and she had unbosomed herself of the experience_onnected with its purchase, that she could look back with anything lik_omposure to that stirring moment of her life. From that day forward, however, she began to take a certain tranquil pleasure in thinking of Mr. Ramy's smal_hop, not unlike her own in its countrified obscurity, though the layer o_ust which covered its counter and shelves made the comparison onl_uperficially acceptable. Still, she did not judge the state of the sho_everely, for Mr. Ramy had told her that he was alone in the world, and lon_en, she was aware, did not know how to deal with dust. It gave her a goo_eal of occupation to wonder why he had never married, or if, on the othe_and, he were a widower, and had lost all his dear little children; and sh_carcely knew which alternative seemed to make him the more interesting. I_ither case, his life was assuredly a sad one; and she passed many hours i_peculating on the manner in which he probably spent his evenings. She knew h_ived at the back of his shop, for she had caught, on entering, a glimpse of _ingy room with a tumbled bed; and the pervading smell of cold fry suggeste_hat he probably did his own cooking. She wondered if he did not often mak_is tea with water that had not boiled, and asked herself, almost jealously, who looked after the shop while he went to market. Then it occurred to her a_ikely that he bought his provisions at the same market as Evelina; and sh_as fascinated by the thought that he and her sister might constantly b_eeting in total unconsciousness of the link between them. Whenever sh_eached this stage in her reflexions she lifted a furtive glance to the clock, whose loud staccato tick was becoming a part of her inmost being.
The seed sown by these long hours of meditation germinated at last in th_ecret wish to go to market some morning in Evelina's stead. As this purpos_ose to the surface of Ann Eliza's thoughts she shrank back shyly from it_ontemplation. A plan so steeped in duplicity had never before taken shape i_er crystalline soul. How was it possible for her to consider such a step?
And, besides, (she did not possess sufficient logic to mark the downward tren_f this "besides"), what excuse could she make that would not excite he_ister's curiosity? From this second query it was an easy descent to th_hird: how soon could she manage to go?
It was Evelina herself, who furnished the necessary pretext by awaking with _ore throat on the day when she usually went to market. It was a Saturday, an_s they always had their bit of steak on Sunday the expedition could not b_ostponed, and it seemed natural that Ann Eliza, as she tied an old stockin_round Evelina's throat, should announce her intention of stepping round t_he butcher's.
"Oh, Ann Eliza, they'll cheat you so," her sister wailed.
Ann Eliza brushed aside the imputation with a smile, and a few minutes later, having set the room to rights, and cast a last glance at the shop, she wa_ying on her bonnet with fumbling haste.
The morning was damp and cold, with a sky full of sulky clouds that would no_ake room for the sun, but as yet dropped only an occasional snow-flake. I_he early light the street looked its meanest and most neglected; but to An_liza, never greatly troubled by any untidiness for which she was no_esponsible, it seemed to wear a singularly friendly aspect.
A few minutes' walk brought her to the market where Evelina made he_urchases, and where, if he had any sense of topographical fitness, Mr. Ram_ust also deal.
Ann Eliza, making her way through the outskirts of potato- barrels and flabb_ish, found no one in the shop but the gory- aproned butcher who stood in th_ackground cutting chops.
As she approached him across the tesselation of fish-scales, blood and saw- dust, he laid aside his cleaver and not unsympathetically asked: "Siste_ick?"
"Oh, not very—jest a cold," she answered, as guiltily as if Evelina's illnes_ad been feigned. "We want a steak as usual, please—and my sister said you wa_o be sure to give me jest as good a cut as if it was her," she added wit_hild-like candour.
"Oh, that's all right." The butcher picked up his weapon with a grin. "You_ister knows a cut as well as any of us," he remarked.
In another moment, Ann Eliza reflected, the steak would be cut and wrapped up, and no choice left her but to turn her disappointed steps toward home. She wa_oo shy to try to delay the butcher by such conversational arts as sh_ossessed, but the approach of a deaf old lady in an antiquated bonnet an_antle gave her her opportunity.
"Wait on her first, please," Ann Eliza whispered. "I ain't in any hurry."
The butcher advanced to his new customer, and Ann Eliza, palpitating in th_ack of the shop, saw that the old lady's hesitations between liver and por_hops were likely to be indefinitely prolonged. They were still unresolve_hen she was interrupted by the entrance of a blowsy Irish girl with a baske_n her arm. The newcomer caused a momentary diversion, and when she ha_eparted the old lady, who was evidently as intolerant of interruption as _rofessional story-teller, insisted on returning to the beginning of he_omplicated order, and weighing anew, with an anxious appeal to the butcher'_rbitration, the relative advantages of pork and liver. But even he_esitations, and the intrusion on them of two or three other customers, wer_f no avail, for Mr. Ramy was not among those who entered the shop; and a_ast Ann Eliza, ashamed of staying longer, reluctantly claimed her steak, an_alked home through the thickening snow.
Even to her simple judgment the vanity of her hopes was plain, and in th_lear light that disappointment turns upon our actions she wondered how sh_ould have been foolish enough to suppose that, even if Mr. Ramy DID go t_hat particular market, he would hit on the same day and hour as herself.
There followed a colourless week unmarked by farther incident. The ol_tocking cured Evelina's throat, and Mrs. Hawkins dropped in once or twice t_alk of her baby's teeth; some new orders for pinking were received, an_velina sold a bonnet to the lady with puffed sleeves. The lady with puffe_leeves—a resident of "the Square," whose name they had never learned, becaus_he always carried her own parcels home—was the most distinguished an_nteresting figure on their horizon. She was youngish, she was elegant (as th_itle they had given her implied), and she had a sweet sad smile about whic_hey had woven many histories; but even the news of her return to town—it wa_er first apparition that year—failed to arouse Ann Eliza's interest. All th_mall daily happenings which had once sufficed to fill the hours now appeare_o her in their deadly insignificance; and for the first time in her lon_ears of drudgery she rebelled at the dullness of her life. With Evelina suc_its of discontent were habitual and openly proclaimed, and Ann Eliza stil_xcused them as one of the prerogatives of youth. Besides, Evelina had no_een intended by Providence to pine in such a narrow life: in the origina_lan of things, she had been meant to marry and have a baby, to wear silk o_undays, and take a leading part in a Church circle. Hitherto opportunity ha_layed her false; and for all her superior aspirations and carefully crimpe_air she had remained as obscure and unsought as Ann Eliza. But the elde_ister, who had long since accepted her own fate, had never accepte_velina's. Once a pleasant young man who taught in Sunday-school had paid th_ounger Miss Bunner a few shy visits. That was years since, and he ha_peedily vanished from their view. Whether he had carried with him any o_velina's illusions, Ann Eliza had never discovered; but his attentions ha_lad her sister in a halo of exquisite possibilities.
Ann Eliza, in those days, had never dreamed of allowing herself the luxury o_elf-pity: it seemed as much a personal right of Evelina's as her elaboratel_rinkled hair. But now she began to transfer to herself a portion of th_ympathy she had so long bestowed on Evelina. She had at last recognized he_ight to set up some lost opportunities of her own; and once that dangerou_recedent established, they began to crowd upon her memory.
It was at this stage of Ann Eliza's transformation that Evelina, looking u_ne evening from her work, said suddenly: "My! She's stopped."
Ann Eliza, raising her eyes from a brown merino seam, followed her sister'_lance across the room. It was a Monday, and they always wound the clock o_undays.
"Are you sure you wound her yesterday, Evelina?"
"Jest as sure as I live. She must be broke. I'll go and see."
Evelina laid down the hat she was trimming, and took the clock from its shelf.
"There—I knew it! She's wound jest as TIGHT—what you suppose's happened t_er, Ann Eliza?"
"I dunno, I'm sure," said the elder sister, wiping her spectacles befor_roceeding to a close examination of the clock.
With anxiously bent heads the two women shook and turned it, as though the_ere trying to revive a living thing; but it remained unresponsive to thei_ouch, and at length Evelina laid it down with a sigh.
"Seems like somethin' DEAD, don't it, Ann Eliza? How still the room is!"
"Yes, ain't it?"
"Well, I'll put her back where she belongs," Evelina continued, in the tone o_ne about to perform the last offices for the departed. "And I guess," sh_dded, "you'll have to step round to Mr. Ramy's to-morrow, and see if he ca_ix her."
Ann Eliza's face burned. "I—yes, I guess I'll have to," she stammered, stooping to pick up a spool of cotton which had rolled to the floor. A sudde_eart-throb stretched the seams of her flat alpaca bosom, and a pulse leapt t_ife in each of her temples.
That night, long after Evelina slept, Ann Eliza lay awake in the unfamilia_ilence, more acutely conscious of the nearness of the crippled clock tha_hen it had volubly told out the minutes. The next morning she woke from _roubled dream of having carried it to Mr. Ramy's, and found that he and hi_hop had vanished; and all through the day's occupations the memory of thi_ream oppressed her.
It had been agreed that Ann Eliza should take the clock to be repaired as soo_s they had dined; but while they were still at table a weak-eyed little gir_n a black apron stabbed with innumerable pins burst in on them with the cry:
"Oh, Miss Bunner, for mercy's sake! Miss Mellins has been took again."
Miss Mellins was the dress-maker upstairs, and the weak-eyed child one of he_outhful apprentices.
Ann Eliza started from her seat. "I'll come at once. Quick, Evelina, th_ordial!"
By this euphemistic name the sisters designated a bottle of cherry brandy, th_ast of a dozen inherited from their grandmother, which they kept locked i_heir cupboard against such emergencies. A moment later, cordial in hand, An_liza was hurrying upstairs behind the weak-eyed child.
Miss Mellins' "turn" was sufficiently serious to detain Ann Eliza for nearl_wo hours, and dusk had fallen when she took up the depleted bottle of cordia_nd descended again to the shop. It was empty, as usual, and Evelina sat a_er pinking-machine in the back room. Ann Eliza was still agitated by he_fforts to restore the dress-maker, but in spite of her preoccupation she wa_truck, as soon as she entered, by the loud tick of the clock, which stil_tood on the shelf where she had left it.
"Why, she's going!" she gasped, before Evelina could question her about Mis_ellins. "Did she start up again by herself?"
"Oh, no; but I couldn't stand not knowing what time it was, I've got s_ccustomed to having her round; and just after you went upstairs Mrs. Hawkin_ropped in, so I asked her to tend the store for a minute, and I clapped on m_hings and ran right round to Mr. Ramy's. It turned out there wasn't anythin_he matter with her— nothin' on'y a speck of dust in the works—and he fixe_er for me in a minute and I brought her right back. Ain't it lovely to hea_er going again? But tell me about Miss Mellins, quick!"
For a moment Ann Eliza found no words. Not till she learned that she ha_issed her chance did she understand how many hopes had hung upon it. Even no_he did not know why she had wanted so much to see the clock-maker again.
"I s'pose it's because nothing's ever happened to me," she thought, with _winge of envy for the fate which gave Evelina every opportunity that cam_heir way. "She had the Sunday-school teacher too," Ann Eliza murmured t_erself; but she was well-trained in the arts of renunciation, and after _carcely perceptible pause she plunged into a detailed description of th_ress-maker's "turn."
Evelina, when her curiosity was roused, was an insatiable questioner, and i_as supper-time before she had come to the end of her enquiries about Mis_ellins; but when the two sisters had seated themselves at their evening mea_nn Eliza at last found a chance to say: "So she on'y had a speck of dust i_er."
Evelina understood at once that the reference was not to Miss Mellins. "Yes—a_east he thinks so," she answered, helping herself as a matter of course t_he first cup of tea.
"On'y to think!" murmured Ann Eliza.
"But he isn't SURE," Evelina continued, absently pushing the teapot toward he_ister. "It may be something wrong with the—I forget what he called it.
Anyhow, he said he'd call round and see, day after to-morrow, after supper."
"Who said?" gasped Ann Eliza.
"Why, Mr. Ramy, of course. I think he's real nice, Ann Eliza. And I don'_elieve he's forty; but he DOES look sick. I guess he's pretty lonesome, al_y himself in that store. He as much as told me so, and somehow"—Evelin_aused and bridled—"I kinder thought that maybe his saying he'd call roun_bout the clock was on'y just an excuse. He said it just as I was going out o_he store. What you think, Ann Eliza?"
"Oh, I don't har'ly know." To save herself, Ann Eliza could produce nothin_armer.
"Well, I don't pretend to be smarter than other folks," said Evelina, puttin_ conscious hand to her hair, "but I guess Mr. Herman Ramy wouldn't be sorr_o pass an evening here, 'stead of spending it all alone in that poky littl_lace of his."
Her self-consciousness irritated Ann Eliza.
"I guess he's got plenty of friends of his own," she said, almost harshly.
"No, he ain't, either. He's got hardly any."
"Did he tell you that too?" Even to her own ears there was a faint sneer i_he interrogation.
"Yes, he did," said Evelina, dropping her lids with a smile. "He seemed to b_ust crazy to talk to somebody—somebody agreeable, I mean. I think the man'_nhappy, Ann Eliza."
"So do I," broke from the elder sister.
"He seems such an educated man, too. He was reading the paper when I went in.
Ain't it sad to think of his being reduced to that little store, after bein_ears at Tiff'ny's, and one of the head men in their clock-department?"
"He told you all that?"
"Why, yes. I think he'd a' told me everything ever happened to him if I'd ha_he time to stay and listen. I tell you he's dead lonely, Ann Eliza."