High and low, rich and poor, in Troy Town there are seventy-three maiden ladies. Under this term, of course, I include only those who may reasonably be supposed to have forsworn matrimony. And of the seventy-three, the two Misses Lefanu stand first, as well from their age and extraction (their father was an Admiral of the Blue) as because of their house, which stands in Fore Street and is faced with polished Luxulyan granite–the same that was used for the famous Duke of Wellington’s coffin in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Miss Susan Lefanu is eighty-five; Miss Charlotte has just passed seventy-six. They are extremely small, and Miss Bunce looks after them. That is to say, she dresses them of a morning, arranges their chestnut “fronts,” sets their caps straight, and takes them down to breakfast. After dinner (which happens in the middle of the day) she dresses them again and conducts them for a short walk along the Rope-walk, which they call “the Esplanade.” In the evening she brings out the Bible and sets it the right way up for Miss Susan, who begins to meditate on her decease; then sits down to a game of ecarte with Miss Charlotte, who as yet has not turned her thoughts upon mortality. At ten she puts them to bed. Afterwards, “the good Bunce “–who is fifty, looks like a grenadier, and wears a large mole on her chin–takes up a French novel, fastened by a piece of elastic between the covers of Baxter’s “Saint’s Rest,” and reads for an hour before retiring. Her pay is fifty-two pounds a year, and her attachment to the Misses Lefanu a matter of inference rather than perception.
One morning in last May, at nine o’clock, when Miss Bunce had just arranged the pair in front of their breakfast-plates, and was sitting down to pour out the tea, two singers came down the street, and their voices–a man’s and a woman’s–though not young, accorded very prettily:–
“Citizens, toss your pens away!
For all the world is mad to-day–
The world is mad to-day.”
“What unusual words for a pair of street singers!” Miss Bunce murmured, setting down the tea-pot. But as Miss Charlotte was busy cracking an egg, and Miss Susan in a sort of coma, dwelling perhaps on death and its terrors, the remark went unheeded.
“Citizens, doff your coats of black,
And dress to suit the almanack–
The voices broke off, and a rat-tat sounded on the front door.
“Say that we never give to beggars, under any circumstances,” murmured Miss Susan, waking out of her lethargy.
The servant entered with a scrap of crumpled paper in her hand. “There was a woman at the door who wished to see Miss Lefanu.”
“Say that we never give–” Miss Susan began again, fumbling with the note. “Bunce, I have on my gold-rimmed spectacles, and cannot read with them, as you know. The black-rimmed pair must be up-stairs, on the–“
“How d’ye do, my dears?” interrupted a brisk voice. In the doorway stood a plump middle-aged woman, nodding her head rapidly. She wore a faded alpaca gown, patched here and there, a shawl of shepherd’s plaid stained with the weather, and a nondescript bonnet. Her face was red and roughened, as if she lived much out of doors.
“How d’ye do?” she repeated “I’m Joanna.”
Miss Bunce rose, and going discreetly to the window, pretended to gaze into the street. Joanna, as she knew, was the name of the old ladies’ only step-sister, who had eloped from home twenty years before, and (it was whispered) had disgraced the family. As for the Misses Lefanu, being unused to rise without help, they spread out their hands as if stretching octaves on the edge of the table, and feebly stared.