What measure of belief her explanation of Evelina's return obtained in th_mall circle of her friends Ann Eliza did not pause to enquire. Though sh_ould not remember ever having told a lie before, she adhered with rigi_enacity to the consequences of her first lapse from truth, and fortified he_riginal statement with additional details whenever a questioner sought t_ake her unawares.
But other and more serious burdens lay on her startled conscience. For th_irst time in her life she dimly faced the awful problem of the inutility o_elf-sacrifice. Hitherto she had never thought of questioning the inherite_rinciples which had guided her life. Self-effacement for the good of other_ad always seemed to her both natural and necessary; but then she had taken i_or granted that it implied the securing of that good. Now she perceived tha_o refuse the gifts of life does not ensure their transmission to those fo_hom they have been surrendered; and her familiar heaven was unpeopled. Sh_elt she could no longer trust in the goodness of God, and there was only _lack abyss above the roof of Bunner Sisters.
But there was little time to brood upon such problems. The care of Evelin_illed Ann Eliza's days and nights. The hastily summoned doctor had pronounce_er to be suffering from pneumonia, and under his care the first stress of th_isease was relieved. But her recovery was only partial, and long after th_octor's visits had ceased she continued to lie in bed, too weak to move, an_eemingly indifferent to everything about her.
At length one evening, about six weeks after her return, she said to he_ister: "I don't feel's if I'd ever get up again."
Ann Eliza turned from the kettle she was placing on the stove. She wa_tartled by the echo the words woke in her own breast.
"Don't you talk like that, Evelina! I guess you're on'y tired out—an_isheartened."
"Yes, I'm disheartened," Evelina murmured.
A few months earlier Ann Eliza would have met the confession with a word o_ious admonition; now she accepted it in silence.
"Maybe you'll brighten up when your cough gets better," she suggested.
"Yes—or my cough'll get better when I brighten up," Evelina retorted with _ouch of her old tartness.
"Does your cough keep on hurting you jest as much?"
"I don't see's there's much difference."
"Well, I guess I'll get the doctor to come round again," Ann Eliza said, trying for the matter-of-course tone in which one might speak of sending fo_he plumber or the gas-fitter.
"It ain't any use sending for the doctor—and who's going to pay him?"
"I am," answered the elder sister. "Here's your tea, and a mite of toast.
Don't that tempt you?"
Already, in the watches of the night, Ann Eliza had been tormented by tha_ame question—who was to pay the doctor?—and a few days before she ha_emporarily silenced it by borrowing twenty dollars of Miss Mellins. Th_ransaction had cost her one of the bitterest struggles of her life. She ha_ever borrowed a penny of any one before, and the possibility of having to d_o had always been classed in her mind among those shameful extremities t_hich Providence does not let decent people come. But nowadays she no longe_elieved in the personal supervision of Providence; and had she been compelle_o steal the money instead of borrowing it, she would have felt that he_onscience was the only tribunal before which she had to answer. Nevertheless, the actual humiliation of having to ask for the money was no less bitter; an_he could hardly hope that Miss Mellins would view the case with the sam_etachment as herself. Miss Mellins was very kind; but she not unnaturall_elt that her kindness should be rewarded by according her the right to as_uestions; and bit by bit Ann Eliza saw Evelina's miserable secret slippin_nto the dress-maker's possession.
When the doctor came she left him alone with Evelina, busying herself in th_hop that she might have an opportunity of seeing him alone on his way out. T_teady herself she began to sort a trayful of buttons, and when the docto_ppeared she was reciting under her breath: "Twenty-four horn, two and a hal_ards fancy pearl … " She saw at once that his look was grave.
He sat down on the chair beside the counter, and her mind travelled mile_efore he spoke.
"Miss Bunner, the best thing you can do is to let me get a bed for your siste_t St. Luke's."
"Come now, you're above that sort of prejudice, aren't you?" The doctor spok_n the tone of one who coaxes a spoiled child. "I know how devoted you are—bu_rs. Ramy can be much better cared for there than here. You really haven'_ime to look after her and attend to your business as well. There'll be n_xpense, you understand—"
Ann Eliza made no answer. "You think my sister's going to be sick a goo_hile, then?" she asked.
"You think she's very sick?"
"Well, yes. She's very sick."
His face had grown still graver; he sat there as though he had never know_hat it was to hurry.
Ann Eliza continued to separate the pearl and horn buttons. Suddenly sh_ifted her eyes and looked at him. "Is she going to die?"
The doctor laid a kindly hand on hers. "We never say that, Miss Bunner. Huma_kill works wonders—and at the hospital Mrs. Ramy would have every chance."
"What is it? What's she dying of?"
The doctor hesitated, seeking to substitute a popular phrase for th_cientific terminology which rose to his lips.
"I want to know," Ann Eliza persisted.
"Yes, of course; I understand. Well, your sister has had a hard time lately, and there is a complication of causes, resulting in consumption—rapi_onsumption. At the hospital—"
"I'll keep her here," said Ann Eliza quietly.
After the doctor had gone she went on for some time sorting the buttons; the_he slipped the tray into its place on a shelf behind the counter and wen_nto the back room. She found Evelina propped upright against the pillows, _lush of agitation on her cheeks. Ann Eliza pulled up the shawl which ha_lipped from her sister's shoulders.
"How long you've been! What's he been saying?"
"Oh, he went long ago—he on'y stopped to give me a prescription. I was sortin_ut that tray of buttons. Miss Mellins's girl got them all mixed up."
She felt Evelina's eyes upon her.
"He must have said something: what was it?"
"Why, he said you'd have to be careful—and stay in bed—and take this ne_edicine he's given you."
"Did he say I was going to get well?"
"What's the use, Ann Eliza? You can't deceive me. I've just been up to look a_yself in the glass; and I saw plenty of 'em in the hospital that looked lik_e. They didn't get well, and I ain't going to." Her head dropped back. "I_on't much matter— I'm about tired. On'y there's one thing—Ann Eliza—"
The elder sister drew near to the bed.
"There's one thing I ain't told you. I didn't want to tell you yet because _as afraid you might be sorry—but if he says I'm going to die I've got to sa_t." She stopped to cough, and to Ann Eliza it now seemed as though ever_ough struck a minute from the hours remaining to her.
"Don't talk now—you're tired."
"I'll be tireder to-morrow, I guess. And I want you should know. Sit dow_lose to me—there."
Ann Eliza sat down in silence, stroking her shrunken hand.
"I'm a Roman Catholic, Ann Eliza."
"Evelina—oh, Evelina Bunner! A Roman Catholic—YOU? Oh, Evelina, did HE mak_ou?"
Evelina shook her head. "I guess he didn't have no religion; he never spoke o_t. But you see Mrs. Hochmuller was a Catholic, and so when I was sick she go_he doctor to send me to a Roman Catholic hospital, and the sisters was s_ood to me there—and the priest used to come and talk to me; and the things h_aid kep' me from going crazy. He seemed to make everything easier."
"Oh, sister, how could you?" Ann Eliza wailed. She knew little of the Catholi_eligion except that "Papists" believed in it—in itself a sufficien_ndictment. Her spiritual rebellion had not freed her from the formal part o_er religious belief, and apostasy had always seemed to her one of the sin_rom which the pure in mind avert their thoughts.
"And then when the baby was born," Evelina continued, "he christened it righ_way, so it could go to heaven; and after that, you see, I had to be _atholic."
"I don't see—"
"Don't I have to be where the baby is? I couldn't ever ha' gone there if _adn't been made a Catholic. Don't you understand that?"
Ann Eliza sat speechless, drawing her hand away. Once more she found hersel_hut out of Evelina's heart, an exile from her closest affections.
"I've got to go where the baby is," Evelina feverishly insisted.
Ann Eliza could think of nothing to say; she could only feel that Evelina wa_ying, and dying as a stranger in her arms. Ramy and the day-old baby ha_arted her forever from her sister.
Evelina began again. "If I get worse I want you to send for a priest. Mis_ellins'll know where to send—she's got an aunt that's a Catholic. Promise m_aithful you will."
"I promise," said Ann Eliza.
After that they spoke no more of the matter; but Ann Eliza now understood tha_he little black bag about her sister's neck, which she had innocently take_or a memento of Ramy, was some kind of sacrilegious amulet, and her finger_hrank from its contact when she bathed and dressed Evelina. It seemed to he_he diabolical instrument of their estrangement.