MoboReader> Literature > A Little Girl in Old Detroit

   Chapter 1 A HALF STORY.

A Little Girl in Old Detroit By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 20990

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


When La Motte Cadillac first sailed up the Strait of Detroit he kept his impressions for after travelers and historians, by transcribing them in his journal. It was not only the romantic side, but the usefulness of the position that appealed to him, commanding the trade from Canada to the Lakes, "and a door by which we can go in and out to trade with all our allies." The magnificent scenery charmed the intrepid explorer. The living crystal waters of the lakes, the shores green with almost tropical profusion, the natural orchards bending their branches with fruit, albeit in a wild state, the bloom, the riotous, clinging vines trailing about, the great forests dense and dark with kingly trees where birds broke the silence with songs and chatter, and game of all kinds found a home; the rivers, sparkling with fish and thronged with swans and wild fowl, and blooms of a thousand kinds, made marvelous pictures. The Indian had roamed undisturbed, and built his temporary wigwam in some opening, and on moving away left the place again to solitude.

Beside its beauty was the prospect of its becoming a mart of commerce. But these old discoverers had much enthusiasm, if great ignorance of individual liberty for anyone except the chief rulers. There was a vigorous system of repression by both the King of France and the Church which hampered real advance. The brave men who fought Indians, who struggled against adverse fortunes, who explored the Mississippi valley and planted the nucleus of towns, died one after another. More than half a century later the English, holding the substantial theory of colonization, that a wider liberty was the true soil in which advancement progressed, after the conquest of Canada, opened the lake country to newcomers and abolished the restrictions the Jesuits and the king had laid upon religion.

The old fort at Detroit, all the lake country being ceded, the French relinquishing the magnificent territory that had cost them so much in precious lives already, took on new life. True, the French protested, and many of them went to the West and made new settlements. The most primitive methods were still in vogue. Canoes and row boats were the methods of transportation for the fur trade; there had been no printing press in all New France; the people had followed the Indian expedients in most matters of household supplies. For years there were abortive plots and struggles to recover the country, affiliation with the Indians by both parties, the Pontiac war and numerous smaller skirmishes.

And toward the end of the century began the greatest struggle for liberty America had yet seen. After the war of the Revolution was ended all the country south of the Lakes was ceded to the United Colonies. But for some years England seemed disposed to hold on to Detroit, disbelieving the colonies could ever establish a stable government. As the French had supposed they could reconquer, so the English looked forward to repossession. But Detroit was still largely a French town or settlement, for thus far it had been a military post of importance.

So it might justly be called old this afternoon, as almost two centuries had elapsed since the French had built their huts and made a point for the fur trade, that Jeanne Angelot sat outside the palisade, leaning against the Pani woman who for years had been a slave, from where she did not know herself, except that she had been a child up in the fur country. Madame De Longueil had gone back to France with her family and left the Indian woman to shift for herself in freedom. And then had come a new charge.

The morals of that day were not over-precise. But though the woman had had a husband and two sons, one boy had died in childhood, the other had been taken away by the husband who repudiated her. She was the more ready to mother this child dropped mysteriously into her lap one day by an Indian woman whose tongue she did not understand.

"Tell it over again," said Jeanne with an air of authority, a dainty imperiousness.

She was leaning against one knee, the woman's heels being drawn up close to her body, making a back to the seat of soft turf, and with her small hand thumping the woman's brown one against the other knee.

"Mam'selle, you have heard it so many times you could tell it yourself in the dark."

"But perhaps I could not tell it in the daylight," said the girl, with mischievous laughter that sent musical ripples on the sunny air.

The woman looked amazed.

"Why should you be better able to do it at night?"

"O, you foolish Pani! Why, I might summon the itabolays-"

"Hush! hush! Do not call upon such things."

"And the shil loups, though they cannot talk. And the windigoes-"

"Mam'selle!" The Indian woman made as if she would rise in anger and crossed herself.

"O, Pani, tell the story. Why, it was night you always say. And so I ought to have some night-sight or knowledge. And you were feeling lonely and miserable, and-why, how do you know it was not a windigo?"

"Child! child! you set one crazy! It was flesh and blood, a squaw with a blanket about her and a great bundle in her arms. And I did not go in the palisade that night. I had come to love Madame and the children, and it was hard to be shoved out homeless, and with no one to care. There is fondness in the Indian blood, Mam'selle."

The Indian's voice grew forceful and held a certain dignity. The child patted her hand and pressed it up to her cheek with a caressing touch.

"The De Bers wanted to buy me, but Madame said no. And Touchas, the Outawa woman, had bidden me to her wigwam. I heard the bell ring and the gates close, and I sat down under this very oak-"

"Yes, this is my tree!" interrupted the girl proudly.

"I thought it some poor soul who had lost her brave, and she came close up to me, so close I heard the beads and shells on her leggings shake with soft sound. But I could not understand what she said. And when I would have risen she pushed me back with her knee and dropped something heavy in my lap. I screamed, for I knew not what manner of evil spirit it might be. But she pressed it down with her two hands, and the child woke and cried, and reaching up flung its arms around my neck, while the woman flitted swiftly away. And I tried to hush the sobbing little thing, who almost strangled me with her soft arms."

"O Pani!" The girl sprang up and encircled her again.

"I felt bewitched. I did not know what to do, but the poor, trembling little thing was alive, though I did not know whether you were human or not, for there are strange shapes that come in the night, and when once they fasten on you-"

"They never let go," Jeanne laughed gayly. "And I shall never let go of you, Pani. If I had money I should buy you. Or if I were a man I would get the priest to marry us."

"O Mam'selle, that is sinful! An old woman like me! And no one can be bought to-day."

Jeanne gave her another hug. "And you sat here and held me-" forwarding the story.

"I did not dare stir. It grew darker and all the air was sweet with falling dews and the river fragrance, and the leaves rustled together, the stars came out for there was no moon to check them. On the Beaufeit farm they were having a dance. Susanne Beaufeit had been married that noon in St. Anne. The sound of the fiddles came down like strange voices from out the woods and I was that frightened-"

"Poor Pani!" caressing the hand tenderly.

"Then you stopped sobbing but you had tight hold of my neck. Suddenly I gathered you up and ran with all my might to Touchas' hut. The curtain was up and the fire was burning, and I had grown stiff with cold and just stumbled on the floor, laying you down. Touchas was so amazed.

"'Whose child is that?' she said. 'Why, your eyes are like moons. Have you seen some evil thing?'"

"And you thought me an evil thing, Pani!" said the child reproachfully.

"One never can tell. There are strange things," and the woman shook her head. "And Touchas was so queer she would not touch you at first. I unrolled the torn piece of blanket and there you were, a pretty little child with rings of shining black hair, and fair like French babies, but not white like the English. And there was no sign of Indian about you. But you slept and slept. Then we undressed you. There was a name pinned to your clothes, and a locket and chain about your neck and a tiny ring on one finger. And on your thigh were two letters, 'J. A.,' which meant Jeanne Angelot, Father Rameau said. And oh, Mam'selle, petite fille, you slept in my arms all night and in the morning you were as hungry as some wild thing. At first you cried a little for maman and then you laughed with the children. For Touchas' boys were not grown-up men then, and White Fawn had not met her brave who took her up to St. Ignace."

"I might have dropped from the clouds," said the child mirthfully. "The Great Manitou could have sent me to you."

"But you talked French. Up in the above they will speak in Latin as the good fathers do. That is why they use it in their prayers."

Jeanne nodded with a curl of disbelief in her red-rose mouth.

"So then Touchas and I took you to Father Rameau and I told him the story. He has the clothes and the paper and the locket, which has two faces in it-we all thought they were your parents. The letters on it are all mixed up and no one can seem to make them out. And the ring. He thought some one would come to inquire. A party went out scouting, but they could find no trace of any encampment or any skirmish where there was likely to be some one killed, and they never found any trace. The English Commandant was here then and Madame was interested in you. Madame Bellestre would have you baptized in the old church to make sure, and because you were French she bade me bring you there and care for you. But she had to die and M. Bellestre had large interests in that wonderful Southern town, New Orleans, where it is said oranges and figs and strange things grow all the year round. Mademoiselle Bellestre was jealous, too, she did not like her father to make much of you. So he gave me the little house where we have lived ever since and twice he has sent by some traders to inquire about you, and it is he who sees that we want for nothing. Only you know the good priest advises that you should go in a retreat and become a sister."

"But I never shall, never!" with emphasis, as she suddenly sprang up. "T

o be praying all day in some dark little hole and sleep on a hard bed and count beads, and wear that ugly black gown! No, I told Father Rameau if anyone shut me up I should shout and cry and howl like a panther! And I would bang my head against the stones until it split open and let out my life."

"O Jeanne! Jeanne!" cried the horror-stricken woman. "That is wicked, and the good God hears you."

The girl's cheeks were scarlet and her eyes flashed like points of flame. They were not black, but of the darkest blue, with strange, steely lights in them that flashed and sparkled when she was roused in temper, which was often.

"I think I will be English, or else like these new colonists that are taking possession of everything. I like their religion. You don't have to go in a convent and pray continually and be shut out of all beautiful things!"

"You are very naughty, Mam'selle. These English have spoiled so many people. There is but one God. And the good French fathers know what is right."

"We did well enough before the French people came, Pani," said a soft, rather guttural voice from the handsome half-breed stretched out lazily on the other side of the tree where the western sunshine could fall on him.

"You were not here," replied the woman, shortly. "And the French have been good to me. Their religion saves you from torment and teaches you to be brave. And it takes women to the happy grounds beyond the sky."

"Ah, they learned much of their bravery from the Indian, who can suffer tortures without a groan or a line of pain in the face. Is there any better God than the great Manitou? Does he not speak in the thunder, in the roar of the mighty cataract, and is not his voice soft when he chants in the summer night wind? He gives a brave victory over his enemies, he makes the corn grow and fills the woods with game, the lakes with fish. He is good enough God for me."

"Why then did he let the French take your lands?"

The man rose up on his elbow.

"Because we were cowards!" he cried fiercely. "Because the priests made us weak with their religion, made women of us, called us to their mumbling prayers instead of fighting our enemies! They and the English gave us their fire water to drink and stole away our senses! And now they are both going to be driven out by these pigs of Americans. It serves them right."

"And what will you do, Monsieur Marsac?" asked Pani with innocent irony.

"Oh, I do not care for their grounds nor their fights. I shall go up north again for furs, and now the way is open for a wider trade and a man can make more money. I take thrift from my French father, you see. But some day my people will rise again, and this time it will not be a Pontiac war. We have some great chiefs left. We will not be crowded out of everything. You will see."

Then he sprang up lithe and graceful. He was of medium size but so well proportioned that he might have been modeled from the old Greeks. His hair was black and straight but had a certain softness, and his skin was like fine bronze, while his features were clearly cut. Now and then some man of good birth had married an Indian woman by the rites of the Church, and this Hugh de Marsac had done. But of all their children only one remained, and now the elder De Marsac had a lucrative post at Michilimackinac, while his son went to and fro on business. Outside of the post in the country sections the mixed marriages were quite common, and the French made very good husbands.

"Mam'selle Jeanne," he said with a low bow, "I admire your courage and taste. What one can see to adore in those stuffy old fathers puzzles me! As for praying in a cell, the whole wide heavens and earth that God has made lifts up one's soul to finer thoughts than mumbling over beads or worshiping a Christ on the cross. And you will be much too handsome, my brier rose, to shut yourself up in any Recollet house. There will be lovers suing for your pretty hand and your rosy lips."

Jeanne hid her face on Pani's shoulder. The admiring look did not suit her just now though in a certain fashion this young fellow had been her playmate and devoted attendant.

"Let us go back home," she exclaimed suddenly.

"Why hurry, Mam'selle? Let us go down to King's wharf and see the boats come in."

Her eyes lighted eagerly. She gave a hop on one foot and held out her hand to the woman, who rose slowly, then put the long, lean arm about the child's neck, who smiled up with a face of bloom to the wrinkled and withered one above her.

Louis Marsac frowned a little. What ailed the child to-day? She was generally ready enough to demand his attentions.

"Mam'selle, you brought your story to an abrupt termination. I thought you liked the accessories. The procession that marched up the aisle of St. Anne's, the shower of kisses bestowed upon you after possible evil had been exorcised by holy water; the being taken home in Madame Bellestre's carriage-"

"If I wanted to hear it Pani could tell me. Walk behind, Louis, the path is narrow."

"I will go ahead and clear the way," he returned with dignified sarcasm, suiting his pace to the action.

"That is hardly polite, Monsieur."

"Why yes. If there was any danger, I would be here to face it. I am the advance guard."

"There never is any danger. And Pani is tall and strong. I am not afraid."

"Perhaps you would rather I would not go? Though I believe you accepted my invitation heartily."

Just then two half drunken men lurched into the path. Drunkenness was one of the vices of that early civilization. Marsac pushed them aside with such force that the nearer one toppling against the other, both went over.

"Thank you, Monsieur; it was good to have you."

Jeanne stretched herself up to her tallest and Marsac suddenly realized how she had grown, and that she was prettier than a year ago with some charm quite indescribable. If she were only a few years, older-

"A man is sometimes useful," he returned dryly, glancing at her with a half laugh.

After the English had possession of Detroit, partly from the spirit of the times, the push of the newcomers, and the many restrictions that were abolished, the Detroit river took on an aspect of business that amazed the inhabitants. Sailing vessels came up the river, merchantmen loaded with cargoes instead of the string of canoes. And here was one at the old King's wharf with busy hands, whites and Indians, running to and fro with bales and boxes, presenting a scene of activity not often witnessed. Others had come down to see it as well. Marsac found a little rise of ground occupied by some boys that he soon dispossessed and put the woman and child in their places, despite black looks and mutterings.

What a beautiful sight it all was, Jeanne thought. Up the Strait, as the river was often called, to the crystal clear lake of St. Clair and the opposite shore of Canada, with clumps of dense woods that seemed guarding the place, and irregular openings that gave vistas of the far away prospect. What was all that great outside world like? After St. Clair river, Lake Huron and Michilimackinac? There were a great mission station and some nuns, and a large store place for the fur trade. And then-Hudson Bay somewhere clear to the end of the world, she thought.

The men uttered a sort of caroling melody with their work. There were some strange faces she had never seen before, swarthy people with great gold hoops in their ears.

"Are they Americans?" she asked, her idea of Americans being that they were a sort of conglomerate.

"No-Spaniards, Portuguese, from the other side of the world. There are many strange peoples."

Louis Marsac's knowledge was extremely limited, as education had not made much of an advance among ordinary people. But he was glad he knew this when he saw the look of awe that for an instant touched the rosy face.

There were some English uniforms on the scene. For though the boundaries had been determined the English Commandant made various excuses, and demanded every point of confirmation. There had been an acrimonious debate on conditions and much vexatious delay, as if he was individually loath to surrender his authority. In fact the English, as the French had before them, cherished dreams of recovering the territory, which would be in all time to come an important center of trade. No one had dreamed of railroads then.

The sun began to drop down behind the high hills with their timber-crowned tops. Pani turned.

"We must go home," she said, and Jeanne made no objections. She was a little tired and confused with a strange sensation, as if she had suddenly grown, and the bounds were too small.

Marsac made way for them, up the narrow, wretched street to the gateway. The streets were all narrow with no pretense at order. In some places were lanes where carriages could not pass each other. St. Louis street was better but irregularly built, with frame and hewn log houses. There was the old block house at either end, and the great, high palisades, and the citadel, which served for barracks' stores, and housed some of the troops. Here they passed St. Anne's street with its old church and the military garden at the upper end; houses of one and two stories with peaked thatched roofs, and a few of more imposing aspect. On the west of the citadel near St. Joseph's street they paused before a small cottage with a little garden at the side, which was Pani's delight. There were only two rooms, but it was quite fine with some of the Bellestre furnishings. At one end a big fireplace and a seat each side of it. Opposite, the sleeping chamber with one narrow bed and a high one, covered with Indian blankets. Beds and pillows of pine and fir needles were renewed often enough to keep the place curiously fragrant.

"I will bid you good evening," exclaimed Marsac with a dignified bow. "Mam'selle, I hope you are not tired out. You look-"

A saucy smile went over her face. "Do I look very strange?" pertly. "And I am not tired, but half starved. Good night, Monsieur."

"Pani will soon remedy that."

The bell was clanging out its six strokes. That was the old signal for the Indians and whoever lived outside the palisades to retire.

He bowed again and walked up to the Fort and the Parade.

"Angelot," he said to himself, knitting his brow. "Where have I heard the name away from Detroit? She will be a pretty girl and I must keep an eye on her."

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