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Anne Marie and Jeanne Marie by Grace E. King

 

Old Jeanne Marie leaned her hand against the house, and the tears rolled down her cheeks. She had not wept since she buried her last child. With her it was one trouble, one weeping, no more; and her wrinkled, hard, polished skin so far had known only the tears that come after death. The trouble in her heart now was almost exactly like the trouble caused by death; although she knew it was not so bad as death, yet, when she thought of this to console herself, the tears rolled all the faster. She took the end of the red cotton kerchief tied over her head, and wiped them away; for the furrows in her face did not merely run up and down—they ran in all directions, and carried her tears all over her face at once. She could understand death, but she could not understand this.

It came about in this way: Anne Marie and she lived in the little red-washed cabin against which she leaned; had lived there alone with each other for fifty years, ever since Jeanne Marie's husband had died, and the three children after him, in the fever epidemic.

The little two-roomed cabin, the stable where there used to be a cow, the patch of ground planted with onions, had all been bought and paid for by the husband; for he was a thrifty, hard-working Gascon, and had he lived there would not have been one better off, or with a larger family, either in that quarter or in any of the red-washed suburbs with which Gascony has surrounded New Orleans. His women, however,—the wife and sister-in-law,—had done their share in the work: a man's share apiece, for with the Gascon women there is no discrimination of sex when it comes to work.

And they worked on just the same after he died, tending the cow, digging, hoeing, planting, watering. The day following the funeral, by daylight Jeanne Marie was shouldering around the yoke of milk-cans to his patrons, while Anne Marie carried the vegetables to market; and so on for fifty years.

They were old women now,—seventy-five years old,—and, as they expressed it, they had always been twins. In twins there is always one lucky and one unlucky one: Jeanne Marie was the lucky one, Anne Marie the unlucky one. So much so, that it was even she who had to catch the rheumatism, and to lie now bedridden, months at a time, while Jeanne Marie was as active in her sabots as she had ever been.

In spite of the age of both, and the infirmity of one, every Saturday night there was some little thing to put under the brick in the hearth, for taxes and license, and the never-to-be-forgotten funeral provision. In the husband's time gold pieces used to go in, but they had all gone to pay for the four funerals and the quadrupled doctor's bill. The women laid in silver pieces; the coins, however, grew smaller and smaller, and represented more and more not so much the gain from onions as the saving from food.

It had been explained to them how they might, all at once, make a year's gain in the lottery; and it had become their custom always, at the end of every month, to put aside one silver coin apiece, to buy a lottery ticket with—one ticket each, not for the great, but for the twenty-five-cent, prizes. Anne Marie would buy hers round about the market; Jeanne Marie would stop anywhere along her milk course and buy hers, and they would go together in the afternoon to stand with the little crowd watching the placard upon which the winning numbers were to be written. And when they were written, it was curious, Jeanne Marie's numbers would come out twice as often as Anne Marie's. Not that she ever won anything, for she was not lucky enough to have them come out in the order to win; they only came out here and there, singly: but it was sufficient to make old Anne Marie cross and ugly for a day or two, and injure the sale of the onion-basket. When she became bedridden, Jeanne Marie bought the ticket for both, on the numbers, however, that Anne Marie gave her; and Anne Marie had to lie in bed and wait, while Jeanne Marie went out to watch the placard.

One evening, watching it, Jeanne Marie saw the ticket-agent write out the numbers as they came on her ticket, in such a way that they drew a prize—forty dollars.

When the old woman saw it she felt such a happiness; just as she used to feel in the old times right after the birth of a baby. She thought of that instantly. Without saying a word to any one, she clattered over the banquette as fast as she could in her sabots, to tell the good news to Anne Marie. But she did not go so fast as not to have time to dispose of her forty dollars over and over again. Forty dollars! That was a great deal of money. She had often in her mind, when she was expecting a prize, spent twenty dollars; for she had never thought it could be more than that. But forty dollars! A new gown apiece, and black silk kerchiefs to tie over their heads instead of red cotton, and the little cabin new red-washed, and soup in the pot, and a garlic sausage, and a bottle of good, costly liniment for Anne Marie's legs; and still a pile of gold to go under the hearth-brick—a pile of gold that would have made the eyes of the defunct husband glisten.

She pushed open the picket-gate, and came into the room where her sister lay in bed.

“Eh, Anne Marie, my girl,” she called in her thick, pebbly voice, apparently made purposely to suit her rough Gascon accent; “this time we have caught it!”

[Illustration: “THIS TIME WE HAVE CAUGHT IT!”]

“Whose ticket?” asked Anne Marie, instantly.

In a flash all Anne Marie's ill luck ran through Jeanne Marie's mind; how her promised husband had proved unfaithful, and Jeanne Marie's faithful; and how, ever since, even to the coming out of her lottery numbers, even to the selling of vegetables, even to the catching of the rheumatism, she had been the loser. But above all, as she looked at Anne Marie in the bed, all the misery came over Jeanne Marie of her sister's not being able, in all her poor old seventy-five years of life, to remember the pressure of the arms of a husband about her waist, nor the mouth of a child on her breast.

As soon as Anne Marie had asked her question, Jeanne Marie answered it.

“But your ticket, Coton-Mai!“[1]

[Footnote 1: Coton-Mai is an innocent oath invented by the good, pious priest as a substitute for one more harmful.]

“Where? Give it here! Give it here!”

The old woman, who had not been able to move her back for weeks, sat bolt upright in bed, and stretched out her great bony fingers, with the long nails as hard and black as rake-prongs from groveling in the earth.

Jeanne Marie poured the money out of her cotton handkerchief into them.

Anne Marie counted it, looked at it; looked at it, counted it; and if she had not been so old, so infirm, so toothless, the smile that passed over her face would have made it beautiful.

Jeanne Marie had to leave her to draw water from the well to water the plants, and to get her vegetables ready for next morning. She felt even happier now than if she had just had a child, happier even than if her husband had just returned to her.

“Ill luck! Coton-Mai! Ill luck! There's a way to turn ill luck!” And her smile also should have beautified her face, wrinkled and ugly though it was.

She did not think any more of the spending of the money, only of the pleasure Anne Marie would take in spending it.

The water was low in the well, and there had been a long drought. There are not many old women of seventy-five who could have watered so much ground as abundantly as she did; but whenever she thought of the forty dollars and Anne Marie's smile she would give the thirsting plant an extra bucketful.

The twilight was gaining. She paused. “Coton-Mai” she exclaimed aloud. “But I must see the old woman smile again over her good luck.”

Although it was “my girl” face to face, it was always “the old woman” behind each other's back.

There was a knot-hole in the plank walls of the house. In spite of Anne Marie's rheumatism they would never stop it up, needing it, they said, for light and air. Jeanne Marie slipped her feet out of her sabots and crept easily toward it, smiling, and saying “Coton-Mai!” to herself all the way. She put her eye to the hole. Anne Marie was not in the bed, she who had not left her bed for two months! Jeanne Marie looked through the dim light of the room until she found her.

Anne Marie, in her short petticoat and nightsack, with bare legs and feet, was on her knees in the corner, pulling up a plank, hiding—peasants know hiding when they see it—hiding her money away—away—away from whom?—muttering to herself and shaking her old grayhaired head. Hiding her money away from Jeanne Marie!

And this was why Jeanne Marie leaned her head against the side of the house and wept. It seemed to her that she had never known her twin sister at all.

 
 
 

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