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 o_eadache, but rejected Ann Eliza's tentatively proffered remedies, and seeme_o 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 b_he 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 b_etting 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 Mellin_s," 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 t_ollify 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 i_he outskirts of Hoboken, and Mrs. Hochmuller had proposed that on th_ollowing 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 rea_ummer-house to set in; and hens and chickens too. And it's an elegant sai_ver on de ferry-boat."
The proposal drew no response from Ann Eliza. She was still oppressed by th_ecollection of her interminable Sunday in the Park; but, obedient t_velina'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 a_he touch of the salt breeze, and the spectacle of the crowded waters; bu_hen they reached the other shore, and stepped out on the dirty wharf, sh_egan to ache with anticipated weariness. They got into a street-car, and wer_olted from one mean street to another, till at length Mr. Ramy pulled th_onductor'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; an_hat carried them out to a thinly settled district, past vacant lots an_arrow brick houses standing in unsupported solitude, till they finall_eached an almost rural region of scattered cottages and low wooden building_hat looked like village "stores." Here the car finally stopped of its ow_ccord, and they walked along a rutty road, past a stone-cutter's yard with _igh fence tapestried with theatrical advertisements, to a little red hous_ith 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 el_ung romantically over the gable of the house.
At the gate Mrs. Hochmuller, a broad woman in brick-brown merino, met the_ith nods and smiles, while her daughter Linda, a flaxen-haired girl wit_ottled red cheeks and a sidelong stare, hovered inquisitively behind her.
Mrs. Hochmuller, leading the way into the house, conducted the Bunner sister_he way to her bedroom. Here they were invited to spread out on a mountainou_hite featherbed the cashmere mantles under which the solemnity of th_ccasion had compelled them to swelter, and when they had given their blac_ilks the necessary twitch of readjustment, and Evelina had fluffed out he_air before a looking-glass framed in pink- shell work, their hostess led the_o a stuffy parlour smelling of gingerbread. After another ceremonial pause, broken by polite enquiries and shy ejaculations, they were shown into th_itchen, where the table was already spread with strange-looking spice-cake_nd stewed fruits, and where they presently found themselves seated betwee_rs. Hochmuller and Mr. Ramy, while the staring Linda bumped back and fort_rom the stove with steaming dishes.
To Ann Eliza the dinner seemed endless, and the rich fare strangel_nappetizing. She was abashed by the easy intimacy of her hostess's voice an_ye. With Mr. Ramy Mrs. Hochmuller was almost flippantly familiar, and it wa_nly when Ann Eliza pictured her generous form bent above his sick-bed tha_he could forgive her for tersely addressing him as "Ramy." During one of th_auses of the meal Mrs. Hochmuller laid her knife and fork against the edge_f 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 a_ength, as though to show that she also was in a position to speak wit_uthority. "He's complained very frequently of headaches."
"Ho!—I know him," said Mrs. Hochmuller with a laugh, her eyes still on th_lock-maker. "Ain't you ashamed of yourself, Ramy?"
Mr. Ramy, who was looking at his plate, said suddenly one word which th_isters could not understand; it sounded to Ann Eliza like "Shwike."
Mrs. Hochmuller laughed again. "My, my," she said, "wouldn't you think he'd b_shamed to go and be sick and never dell me, me that nursed him troo dat awfu_ever?"
"Yes, I SHOULD," said Evelina, with a spirited glance at Ramy; but he wa_ooking at the sausages that Linda had just put on the table.
When dinner was over Mrs. Hochmuller invited her guests to step out of th_itchen-door, and they found themselves in a green enclosure, half garden, half orchard. Grey hens followed by golden broods clucked under the twiste_pple-boughs, a cat dozed on the edge of an old well, and from tree to tre_an the network of clothes-line that denoted Mrs. Hochmuller's calling. Beyon_he 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 stil_n that hot Sunday afternoon, and as she moved across the grass under th_pple-boughs Ann Eliza thought of quiet afternoons in church, and of the hymn_er mother had sung to her when she was a baby.
Evelina was more restless. She wandered from the well to the summer-house an_ack, she tossed crumbs to the chickens and disturbed the cat with arc_aresses; 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. "M_inda she goes troo a hole in de fence, but I guess you'd tear your dress i_ou was to dry."
"I'll help you," said Mr. Ramy; and guided by Linda the pair walked along th_ence till they reached a narrow gap in its boards. Through this the_isappeared, watched curiously in their descent by the grinning Linda, whil_rs. Hochmuller and Ann Eliza were left alone in the summer-house.
Mrs. Hochmuller looked at her guest with a confidential smile. "I guess dey'l_e gone quite a while," she remarked, jerking her double chin toward the ga_n the fence. "Folks like dat don't never remember about de dime." And sh_rew 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 her_ometimes?" she asked. "I should think you'd be scared nights, all alone wit_our daughter."
"Oh, no, I ain't," said Mrs. Hochmuller. "You see I take in washing—dat's m_usiness—and it's a lot cheaper doing it out here dan in de city: where'd _et a drying-ground like dis in Hobucken? And den it's safer for Linda too; i_eeps her outer de streets."
"Oh," said Ann Eliza, shrinking. She began to feel a distinct aversion for he_ostess, and her eyes turned with involuntary annoyance to the square-backe_orm of Linda, still inquisitively suspended on the fence. It seemed to An_liza that Evelina and her companion would never return from the wood; bu_hey came at length, Mr. Ramy's brow pearled with perspiration, Evelina pin_nd 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 An_liza, 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. Hochmulle_rotested; and Ann Eliza found to her dismay that another long gastronomi_eremony must intervene before politeness permitted them to leave. At length, however, they found themselves again on the ferry-boat. Water and sky wer_rey, with a dividing gleam of sunset that sent sleek opal waves in the boat'_ake. The wind had a cool tarry breath, as though it had travelled over mile_f shipping, and the hiss of the water about the paddles was as delicious a_hough it had been splashed into their tired faces.
Ann Eliza sat apart, looking away from the others. She had made up her min_hat Mr. Ramy had proposed to Evelina in the wood, and she was silentl_reparing herself to receive her sister's confidence that evening.
But Evelina was apparently in no mood for confidences. When they reached hom_he put her faded ferns in water, and after supper, when she had laid asid_er silk dress and the forget-me- not bonnet, she remained silently seated i_er rocking-chair near the open window. It was long since Ann Eliza had see_er in so uncommunicative a mood.
The following Saturday Ann Eliza was sitting alone in the shop when the doo_pened and Mr. Ramy entered. He had never before called at that hour, and sh_ondered a little anxiously what had brought him.
"Has anything happened?" she asked, pushing aside the basketful of buttons sh_ad been sorting.
"Not's I know of," said Mr. Ramy tranquilly. "But I always close up the stor_t two o'clock Saturdays at this season, so I thought I might as well cal_ound 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 sh_ot to go to dat new dyer's up in Forty-eighth Street. She won't be back for _ouple of hours, har'ly, will she?"
Ann Eliza looked at him with rising bewilderment. "No, I guess not," sh_nswered; her instinctive hospitality prompting her to add: "Won't you se_own jest the same?"
Mr. Ramy sat down on the stool beside the counter, and Ann Eliza returned t_er 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 tha_r. Ramy was looking at her with unusual intentness. Involuntarily her han_trayed to the thin streaks of hair on her temples, and thence descended t_traighten the brooch beneath her collar.
"You're looking very well to-day, Miss Bunner," said Mr. Ramy, following he_esture 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 bi_ickly."
"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 sh_id not care to commit herself farther about Evelina before she ha_scertained 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, "_uess I might as well tell you fust as last what I come here for to-day. _ant to get married."
Ann Eliza, in many a prayerful midnight hour, had sought to strengthen hersel_or the hearing of this avowal, but now that it had come she felt pitifull_rightened and unprepared. Mr. Ramy was leaning with both elbows on th_ounter, and she noticed that his nails were clean and that he had brushed hi_at; yet even these signs had not prepared her!
At last she heard herself say, with a dry throat in which her heart wa_ammering: "Mercy me, Mr. Ramy!"
"I want to get married," he repeated. "I'm too lonesome. It ain't good for _an 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'_ake 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 perceive_hat Mr. Ramy was trying to take her hand, and as their fingers met a flood o_oy swept over her. Never afterward, though every other word of thei_nterview was stamped on her memory beyond all possible forgetting, could sh_ecall what he said while their hands touched; she only knew that she seeme_o 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 An_liza half hoped she would come in; but after a desultory inspection she wen_n.
"Maybe you don't fancy me?" Mr. Ramy suggested, discountenanced by Ann Eliza'_ilence.
A word of assent was on her tongue, but her lips refused it. She must fin_ome other way of telling him.
"I don't say that."
"Well, I always kinder thought we was suited to one another," Mr. Ram_ontinued, eased of his momentary doubt. "I always liked de quiet style—n_uss and airs, and not afraid of work." He spoke as though dispassionatel_ataloguing her charms.
Ann Eliza felt that she must make an end. "But, Mr. Ramy, you don'_nderstand. 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 spr_s 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 tw_omen the work don't amount to much. Besides, I'm the oldest; I have to loo_fter things," she hastened on, half pained that her simple ruse should s_eadily deceive him.
"Well, I guess you're active enough for me," he persisted. His cal_etermination began to frighten her; she trembled lest her own should be les_taunch.
"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 wa_velina—always. And so did everybody else. She's so bright and pretty—i_eemed 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 h_ay safely wait.
"Oh, no, no. It ain't any sorter use, Mr. Ramy. I don't never mean to marry. _et tired so easily—I'd be afraid of the work. And I have such awfu_eadaches." 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 d_verything when I have one of them headaches. She has to bring me my tea i_he 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 hav_ot to suit themselves." She thought his tone had grown more resigned sinc_he had spoken of her headaches.
For some moments he stood looking at her with a hesitating eye, as thoug_ncertain how to end their conversation; and at length she found courage t_ay (in the words of a novel she had once read): "I don't want this shoul_ake 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 betwee_er desire to turn his thoughts to Evelina, and the dread of prematurel_isclosing 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, an_hen 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"; an_r. 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 he_ife had passed, and she was glad that she had not fallen below her ow_deals. It had been a wonderful experience; and in spite of the tears on he_heeks she was not sorry to have known it. Two facts, however, took the edg_rom its perfection: that it had happened in the shop, and that she had no_ad on her black silk.
She passed the next hour in a state of dreamy ecstasy. Something had entere_nto her life of which no subsequent empoverishment could rob it: she glowe_ith the same rich sense of possessorship that once, as a little girl, she ha_elt when her mother had given her a gold locket and she had sat up in bed i_he 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. Ho_ould 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 ha_allen when Evelina entered. But her fears were superfluous. Evelina, alway_elf- absorbed, had of late lost all interest in the simple happenings of th_hop, and Ann Eliza, with mingled mortification and relief, perceived that sh_as 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 th_ortentous secret in her bosom did not visibly shine forth. It struck her a_ull, and even slightly absurd, of Evelina not to know at last that they wer_quals.