fHERE are two little houses on the corner where the ragged street turns bayou-ward—two little houses just alike, showing each a sombre-grey face to the world, with a couple of brown-shuttered windows looking like a pair of sad eyes out upon the passers-by. Two small brown-trimmed doors split the space between the windows, a narrow strip of gallery runs along the front, and at the end a rickety flight of steps turns sharply, breaking through the few feet of terrace down to the grass-grown banquette. Against the corner of each house leans a straggling china tree, overshadowing the steps and rotting the shingles on the roof. A little red brick chimney-top breaks the roof line midway, and the two spirals of smoke that curl therefrom twine and intertwine their wreaths or swerve and drift apart, according to the veering of the wind.
Twin houses they are, making a landlord of Alix, the little black-browned, thick-lipped groceryman on the levee, who comes himself every month to collect the rent, and so close together are they that once the Old Madame leaning over the banisters of the one
might have shaken hands with her neighbor on the gallery of the other. Not that Madame ever thought of doing such a thing, however—oh, no!
" One must be kind to her, yes, the poor Mees Maree," Madame would say, with a wave of her palms and a shrug of her shoulders.
'^ But—one must be kind to her, by the reason that we must have always charity and she is my neighbor, not? If I have a little plain sewing once a wdiile it is just as well I give it to her; it makes nothing to me, and she must live. I have plenty, me, with my flowers and my birds and the flfty dollars mbnsieur sends me every month—oh, dear I " Somehow Old Madame always sighed Avhen she spoke of monsieur. "Yes, I have plenty, me, and Mees Maree has nothing, poor thing. What makes a bit of a leg boiled in lard to me when I may have a whole turkey ? And if I pass it to her out of the window, why should not a slice of bread and a sip of wine go along to keep it company and make the roses bloom in her pale cheeks, the poor thing! "
There were plenty of people whom Madame might tell these things to ! Aunt Sophie, perhaps, when she drew her cart up close by the window-side and leaned out to pass Madame lier little bunch of onions or a tiny measure of peas, wdth now and then in the springtime, a sprig of cress from the convent marsh ; or the tailoress maybe, who lived in the next block, and who came and went as clockwork, with her armful of ripping and stitching, or the men in blue blouses, friends all, who stopped on the banquette in the evenings on their way home to chat with the old woman as she
sat on the little porch behind the vines and the flower-boxes, swinging to and fro in the big chair.
She had been pretty once, this Old Madame, and she was pictnresque still, with her dark hair, wrinkled skin and bright eyes. Her hair had been black, of course, when she had any, and now that it was gone she made up for it by wearing a braid and a frizzed front of the old hue. There was usually a red rose pinned low on her neck, just touching the lace of her white dress, when Madame appeared in the evenings, and her high old voice made the whole square gay as she spoke to every passer-by, bidding her toll of gossip, or calling to the little terrier that was her sole companion in the lonely house.
^'He is so smart, that dog! lei, Ratton, ici!^'' and Madame would wave her cane like a director's baton while the dog danced up and down the narrow gallery, and Miss Mary leaned over the banister to see. " Ah, ha, ah, ha, my little Ratton ! " the old woman would say. '^ He is my baby, my only one now," and interrupting herself, she would lean forward to put her wrinkled lips on the dog's nose. ^'See, he loves me, heinf Oh, my little one, my little one ! " And the little fellow would lay his head upon her knees and look up into her face with patient tenderness in his bright eyes. '^ See how he loves me! He looks at me with his eyes big, like my own little one, my baby, only her eyes were blue, blue and so beautiful, like monsieur's, O dear!" and the Old Madame would sigh and lay her head on Ratton's again.
Once, when Madame spoke of her blue-eyed baby. Miss Mary leaned forward eagerly and pressed her
thin hands together. ^' And did your baby have blue eyes too?" she asked.
" Too ! " poor Miss Mary !
"Did I not tell you?" said the Old Madame, her voice brightening and a softer light coming into her eyes as she spoke. " Ah, you should have seen her, my blue-eyed little one. Monsieur's eyes she had, dark blue, like violets in the shade, with her long lashes sweeping over. God was good, not? to give me so beautiful a little one, me with my black skin and my black hair like a crow. O dear! O dear! But we were so gay then, monsieur and I and baby, and in the evenings he would come up from the shop, looking so fine, my beautiful husband, and I would dress the little one all in white, and put a rose in my hair like this, and look so nice, O dear! But we were happy, and monsieur, how proud he was, and how he would puff, puff his cigar, and take baby on his knee like this— ki, Ratton, ici! Up, petite, up! ah, ha, ah, ha!—he would take baby on his knee like this, and trot, trot, trot her up and down with his big legs, till she would crow and laugh and pull at his mustache, O dear me ! " and Madame would crow and coo herself in an ecstacy of memories, and always end by wiping her eyes with the corner of her embroidered handkerchief.
Of this period of her existence, indeed. Old Madame seemed never to tire of telling. In fact, she had dwelt npon it and magnified it till this one memory may have swallowed up all that went before and all that came after, perhaps.
Poor Madame! Did it swallow up the memory of the old first husband—the bald-pated, watery-eyed
first husband who had brought her, a pretty young girl, from her cozy home behind the gay little Parisian glove-shop, to make her weigh coffee and sugar and meat in his dirty corner grocery; to make her pinch and grind till her hands were rough and her face wrinkled, and her heart was starved and she hated the ugly, wizened old face of her master? Had she forgotten, the Old Madame? Perhaps, but when the watery eyes were closed at last forever, and Madame was left alone in the little shop with the big bank account and her starved heart, is it any wonder that the handsome young bookkeeper stepped down from his high stool one morning to find a glass of iced wine and Madame's self awaiting him in the pleasant sitting-room behind the vines? Is it any wonder? What mattered a slight discrepancy in their ages, with the odd years on Madame's side of the account? The shrewd young clerk w^as expert in manipulating the trial-balance, and he became monsieur number two, reckoning his youth and his beauty against her love and her bank account.
Then was the spring-time of life come again to the old woman, and she forgot to pinch and to grind and to save, and grew young herself along with her young husband and her young child and her young love.
Is it any wonder then that the old monsieur was forgotten ? Any wonder that the memory of those happy days blotted the past? Did it blot out what came after, poor Madame? Could time or eternity do that? Could all the love left in her heart heal the misery of it? And would the vision of a sweet
young maiden grown to womanhood among the Howers of heaven conij>ensate her for the little grass-grown mound hack yonder in the old home? Who can say by what means He tempers tiic wind t«» the shorn lamb? Was there not enough besiiles to deepen the wrinkles in Madanie's old cheeks and tighten the chords aroun<l her heart ?
'' It was only by the reason that monsieur was young," she wouM say sometimes to Alix when he oame for the rent. Alix had swept the little gh>ve-shop of Madame's father in tlic old l^arisiaii days, and knew as well as Madame herself how the color had faded from her cheek and the lightness from her stej>. *'Yes, monsieur was young I I must j)ray that I forgive him, not? We must have always charity, charity, charity, Alix. Monsicin- was young, and he forgot me. That is all. I was old, (dd even then, l)ut I was a woman. There is the difference. Women never forget, never. They remember with their hearts. But monsieur, is he not kind to me. He pays your rent, is it not, Alix? And he h'ts me have my wine and my birds and my Howers and plenty to divide with the pool-. Isn't that enouuh for an ohl woman like me ? "
But Alix only i-olled his l)lack iye> up under his heavy lids and turned down the corners of his thick lips for a moment. Then he bade Madame adieu, and went to collect Miss Mary's rent. Miss Mary was more than occasionally behind with her rent, poor thing, and Alix would scold and roll his black eyes under his lids, while she would stamp her foot and beg and weep and wait until he was gone to go out
and lean over the banisters with her swollen eyes and her towsled hair to tell Madame what a hard world this was to live in.
Years came and went, but their passing brought little change to the two houses; the china trees at the corner grew larger and the patch of rotten shingles spread beneath, and that was all. Yet within the one Miss Mary's cheeks grew thinner and more pinched, and within the other the Madame's grew yellower and more wrinkled. The old woman leaned more heavily upon her staiF as she walked, and sometimes whole days would pass when no smoke curled from her little chimney's mouth. The bird in the cage would pick drearily among yesterday's seed husks, and Madame herself only hobbled to the door in her bedgown for the loaf which the baker had left and down into the cellar for a bottle of vin ordinaire.
But by and by the little houses seemed to grow closer and closer together, and if Madame saw Ratton burrowing under the dividing fence she forgot to call him back, though she always wondeied afterward where he got the bones and bits that made almost his daily meals, now that her rheumatism was so bad. She would wait too, in the mornings, till a little stealthy tread had died from her own gallery and she heard Miss Mary's door close softly, to go out for the baker's loaf, but she always wondered, the shrewd Madame, what passing friend had left the new laid Qgg or the little breakfast-pudding which she grew to look for along with the bread. She still told her friends that they ^' must have always charity " when they shrugged their shoulders or nodded their heads
toward Miss Mary's closed door, and still gave Alix an extra dollar or two now and then and told him to be good to the poor tiling if she liad not all the rent readv for him. Poor Madame ! The shadows were lengtiiening fast, and she drew ('h)ser and ('h)ser to the banisters under the china tree, and leaned more and more toward the other little house.
*'This was my baby's first shoe," she would say sometimes, as she held out a little ju-rfunicd package for Miss Mary to see. And then Mi>> Mary would forget again, and fumble in her bosom for a little yellow curl tied with blue ribbon, and both their hearts would bleed anew and both their eyes would grow red with weeping.
One evening as they sat thus, so near that they migiit have touched each other, the Old Madame held a little casket in her lap, and now and then she opened and shut it gently, or caressed it tenderly with her wrinkled brown fingers. At the same time, beside her own little banisters, Miss Mary sat holding a little packet, now and then dropping a tear u])on the pictured face that stared up at her behind its oval ot glass. Was it chance or was it fate that thus they sat side by side, these two? Who can say, for it was the throbbing time of early spring, and both their hearts were stirred with the nu'inory of long-ago love.
'* He was very handsome, my baby's father," said Miss Mary softly by and by, as she rubbed the blurred glass with her thin work-hardened palm.
"A-a-hl" said Madame, and her voice was a prayer, though a gleam of yellow shot from her dim
eyes, " not handsomer than monsieur, Mees Maree,
not handsomer than my beautiful husband. Wait till I show you/'
'^ And I, Madame/^ said Miss Mary.
Madame opened the casket with a click, and both leaned forward eagerly. They were very near together, the two hands, and as Miss Mary looked into Madame's she saw the smiling face of her baby's father; as Madame looked into Miss Mary's she saw the beautiful face of monsieur. Was it chance or fate?
'' O God!" said Miss Mary, and the two pictures fell face downward, crushed and broken in the weeds that grew and sprawled upon the dividing fence.
And the Old Madame? Where now was the curse she had held in her heart so long for the woman who had stolen monsieur's love? Lift up your voice, Madame, and curse her face to face. She must have been pretty once with her yellow hair and her blue eyes; she must have been young not very long ago, have you forgotten, Madame ? Curse her now though the hair is grey and the eyes are faded; have you forgotten, Madame?
Poor Madame ! They were Miss Mary's arms that picked her up and laid her on the bed behind the curtains by and by, but she stirred not nor spoke. The nimble old tongue had lost its cunning forever, the poor tottering old limbs were paralyzed.
The days are passing still over the heads of the
two neighbors, but one little house covers them both
now. Miss Mary flits almost gayly about among the
flowers and birds on Madame's gallery, or chats with
the friends when they stop on the banquette in the evenings, but oftenest she sits beside the okl woman's bed singing and sewing, and the poor dim eyes that watch for her coming are soft with love and tenderness. Who indeed shall say how He may temper the wind to the shorn lamb ?