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A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 19332

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

The bell had clanged and the gates of the stockade were closed. There were some houses on the outside; there was not so much fear of the Indians here, for the French had the art of winning them into friendship. Farms were cultivated, and the rich bottom lands produced fine crops. Small as the town was twenty years before the eighteenth century ended, it was the headquarters of a flourishing trade. The wisdom of Pierre Laclede had laid the foundation of a grand city. The lead mines even then were profitably worked, and supplied a large tract of the Mississippi River east and west.

Antoine Freneau stood a few moments in the door of his log hut, down by the old Mill Creek, listening with his hand to one ear. There were sounds of spring all about, but he was not heeding them. Then he turned, closed the door, which was braced on the inner side with some rough iron bands; fastened it with the hook, and let down a chain. He was seldom troubled with unexpected evening visitors.

The log hut was hidden at the back with trees enough to form a sort of grove. It had two rooms. This at the front was a sort of miscellaneous storehouse. Freneau did quite a trade with the Indians and the boatmen going up and down the river. There was no real attempt at orderly store-keeping. Articles were in heaps and piles. One had almost to stumble over them.

The back room was larger. There was a stone chimney, with a great wide fireplace, where Freneau was cooking supper. In the far corner was a bed raised on sawed rounds of logs, with skins stretched over the framework, on which was a sack of hay with a heap of Indian blankets, just as he had crawled out of it in the morning. A table and three stools manufactured by himself; a rude sort of closet, and a curious old brass-bound chest, now almost black with age, completed the furnishing. The puncheon floor, in common use at that time, was made with logs split in the middle and the rounding side laid in a sort of clay plaster that hardened and made it very durable. The top would get worn smooth presently. The walls were hung with various trophies and arms of different kinds. Two windows had battened shutters; one stood a little way open, and this was on the creek side.

The supper had a savory fragrance. He had baked a loaf of bread on a heated flat stone, spreading the dough out thin and turning it two or three times. A dish of corn stewed with salted pork, a certain kind of coffee compounded of roasted grains and crushed in the hollow of a stone, gave out a fragrance, and now he was broiling some venison on the coals.

There were sundry whispers about the old man as to smuggling. Once his place had been searched, he standing by, looking on and jibing the men so engaged, turning any apparent mystery inside out for them. Then he would be gone days at a time, but his house was securely fastened. Occasionally he had taken longer journeys, and once he had brought back from New Orleans a beautiful young wife, who died when her baby girl was born. The nurse had taken it to her home in Kaskaskia. Then it had been sent to the Sisters' School at New Orleans. She had been home all one winter and had her share in the merry making. In the spring her father took her to Canada, to the great disappointment of hosts of admirers. At Quebec she was married and went to France. That was ten years ago. He had grown queer and morose since, and turned miserly.

There was a peremptory thump at the door, and Antoine started, glancing wildly about an instant, then went through and unfastened the stout hook. The chain he did not remove: it was about a foot from the floor and well calculated to trip up any unwary intruder and send him sprawling face downward.

The night had grown dark, and a mist-like rain had set in. The trees were beating about in the rising wind.

"Open wide to us, Antoine Freneau! See what I have brought you, if you can make light enough."

"Gaspard Denys-is it you? Why, I thought you were in the wilds of Canada. And--"

He kicked aside the chain and peered over at the small figure beside Gaspard.

Gaspard had just stood the child down, and his arms tingled with the strain when the muscles were set loose.

"You have brought her!"

There was a sound in the voice far from welcome, almost anger.

"Yes; your messenger from New Orleans told the truth. The nurse or companion, whatever you may call her, had instructions, if no one claimed her, to place her in a convent."

"And you-you interfered?" Freneau struck his clinched fist hard on a pile of skins.

Gaspard laughed.

"What I am to do with a child is more than I can tell," Freneau said doggedly, almost threateningly.

"Well, you can give us something to eat. Your supper has a grand fragrance to a hungry man. Then we can discuss the other points. A bear taken away from his meal is always cross-eh, Antoine?"

Freneau turned swarthy; he was dark, and the red tinge added made him look dangerous.

"I don't understand--"

"Well, neither do I. You married your daughter to a French title when you knew she would have been happier here with a young fellow who loved her; and-yes, I am sure she loved me. Somewhere back, when my forebears called themselves St. Denys, there might have been a title in the family. In this New World we base our titles on our courage, ambitions, successes. Then her little daughter was born, and she pined away in the old Chateau de Longueville and presently died, while her husband was paying court and compliments to the ladies at the palace of Louis XVII. There are deep mutterings over in France. And De Longueville, with his half dozen titles, marries one of Marie Antoinette's ladies in waiting. The child goes on in the old chateau. Two boys are born to the French inheritance, and little mademoiselle is not worth a rush. She will be sent to her grandfather somewhere in the province of Louisiana. But the nurse goes to Canada to marry her lover, expatriated for some cause. You see, I know it all. If mademoiselle had stayed in France she would have been put in a convent."

"The best thing! the best thing!" interrupted the old man irascibly.

"Word was sent to enter her in a convent at Quebec. Well, I have brought her here. Give us some supper."

He had been taking off the child's cap and coat after they entered the living room. A great flaming torch stood up in one corner of the chimney, and shed a peculiar golden-red light around the room, leaving some places in deep shadow. The old man turned his meat, took up his cake of bread, and put them on the table. Then he went for plates and knives.

"This is your grandfather, Renée," Denys said, turning the child to face him.

The girl shrank a little, and then suddenly surveyed him from his yarn stockings and doeskin breeches up to his weather-beaten and not especially attractive face, surmounted by a shock of grizzled hair. She looked steadily out of large brown eyes. She was slim, with a clear-cut face and air of dignity, a child of nine or so. Curiously enough, his eyes fell. He turned in some confusion without a word and went on with his preparations.

"Let us have some supper. It is not much. Even if I had expected a guest I could not have added to it."

"It is a feast to a hungry man. Our dinner was not over-generous."

Gaspard took one side of his host and placed the little girl opposite her grandfather. She evinced no surprise. She had seen a good deal of rough living since leaving old Quebec.

Antoine broke the bread in chunks and handed it to each. The dish of corn was passed and the venison steak divided.

"After this long tramp I would like to have something stronger than your home-brewed coffee, though that's not bad. Come, be a little friendly to a returned traveller," exclaimed the guest.

"You should have had it without the asking, Gaspard Denys, if you had given me a moment's time. You came down the Illinois, I suppose?"

"To St. Charles. There the boat was bound to hang up for the night. But Pierre Joutel brought us down in his piroque after an endless amount of talk. There was a dance at St. Charles. So it was dark when we reached here. Lucky you are outside the stockade."

"And you carried me," said the child, in a clear, soft voice that had a penetrative sound.

Antoine started. Why should he hear some pleading in the same voice suddenly strike through the years?

Gaspard poured out a glass of wine. Then he offered the bottle to Antoine, who shook his head.

"How long since?" asked Gaspard mockingly.

"I do not drink at night."

"Renée, you are not eating. This corn is good, better than with the fish. And the bread! Antoine, you could change the name of the town or the nickname. Go into the baking business."

Freneau shrugged his shoulders.

Scarcity of flour and bread had at one time given the town the appellation of Pain Court. Now there were two bakeries, but many of the settlers made excellent bread. Freneau's bread cake was split in the middle and buttered, at least Gaspard helped himself liberally and spread the child's piece with the soft, sweet, half-creamy compound.

"You must eat a little of the meat, Renée. You must grow rosy and stout in this new home."

The men ate heartily enough. Everything was strange to her, though for that matter everything had been strange since leaving the old chateau. The post-chaise, the day in Paris, the long journey across the ocean, the city of Quebec with its various peoples, and the other journey through lakes and over portages. Detroit, where they had stayed two days and that had appeared beautiful to her; the li

ttle towns, the sail down the Illinois River to the greater one that seemed to swallow it up.

Marie Loubet had said her rich grandfather in the new country had sent for her, and that her father did not care for her since his sons were born. Indeed, he scarcely gave her a thought until it occurred to him that her American-French grandfather was well able to provide for her. Her mother's dot had been spent long ago. He wanted to sell the old chateau and its many acres of ground, for court living was high, and the trend of that time was extravagance.

"You had better place your daughter in a convent," said the amiable stepmother, who had never seen the little girl but twice. "The boys will be all we can care for. I hope heaven will not send me any daughters. They must either have a large dot or striking beauty. And I am sure this girl of yours will not grow up into a beauty."

Yet her mother had been beautiful the Count remembered. And he smiled when he thought of the dower he had exacted from the old trader. No doubt there was plenty of money still, and this grandchild had the best right to it. She might like it better than convent life.

Marie's lover had emigrated two years before, and had sent her money to pay her passage. Why, it was almost a miraculous opening. So Renée de Longueville was bundled off to the new country.

And now she sat here, taking furtive glances at her grandfather, who did not want her. No one in her short life had been absolutely cross to her, and she was quite used to the sense of not being wanted until she met Gaspard Denys. Of the relationships of life she knew but little; yet her childish heart had gone out with great fervor to him when he said, "I loved your mother. I ought to have married her; then you would have been my little girl."

"Why did you not?" she asked gravely. Then with sweet seriousness, "I should like to be your little girl."

"You shall be." He pressed her to his heart, and kissed down amid the silken curls.

So now she did not mind her grandfather's objection to her; she knew with a child's intuition he did not want her. But she could, she did, belong to Uncle Gaspard, and so she was safe. A better loved child might have been crushed by the knowledge, but she was always solacing herself with the next thing. This time it was the first, the very first thing, and her little heart gave a beat of joy.

Yet she was growing tired and sleepy, child fashion. The two men were talking about the fur trade, the pelts that had come in, the Indians and hunters that were loitering about. It had been a long day to her, and the room was warm. The small head drooped lower with a nod.

There was a pile of dressed skins one side of the room, soft and silken, Freneau's own curing.

Gaspard paused suddenly, glanced at her, then rose and took her in his arms and laid her down on them tenderly. She did not stir, only the rosy lips parted as with a half smile.

"Yes, tell me what to do with her," Antoine exclaimed, as if that had been the gist of the conversation. "You see I have no one to keep house; then I am out hunting, going up and down the river, working my farm. I couldn't be bothered with womankind. I can cook and keep house and wash even. I like living alone. I could send her to New Orleans," raising his eyes furtively.

"You will do nothing of the kind," said the other peremptorily. "Antoine Freneau, you owe me this child. You know I was in love with the mother."

"You were a mere boy," retorted the old man disdainfully.

"I was man enough to love her then and always. I have never put any one in her place. And the last time we walked together over yonder by the pond, I told her I was going up north to make money for her, and that in a year I should come back. I was twenty, she just sixteen. I can see her now; I can hear her voice in the unformed melody of the child's. We made no especial promise, but we both knew. I meant to ask your consent when I came back. Seven months afterward, on my return, I found you had whisked her off and married her to the Count, who, after all, cared so little for her that her child is nothing to him. I don't know what lies you told her, but I know she would never have given me up without some persuasion near to force."

The old man knew. It had been a lie. He kept out of Gaspard's way for the next two years, and it was well for him.

"There was no force," he returned gruffly. "Do you not suppose a girl can see? He was a fine fellow and loved her, and she was ready to go with him. No one dragged her to church. Well, the priest would have had something to say. They are not wild Indians at Quebec, and know how to treat a woman."

Gaspard had never forced more than this out of him. But he was sure some trickery had won the day and duped them both.

"Well, what have you gained?" mockingly. "You might have kept your daughter here and had grandchildren growing up about you, instead of living like a lonely old hermit."

"The life suits me well enough," in a gruff tone.

"Then give me the child that should have been mine. You don't want her."

"What will you do with her?"

"Have a home some day and put her in it."

"Bah! And you are off months at a time!"

"There would be some one to look after her. I shall not lead this roving life forever. If she were less like her mother you might keep her, since you were so won by her father. And I am not a poor man, Antoine Freneau."

"She is such a child." Did Gaspard mean that some day he might want to marry her?

"That is what I want. Oh, you don't know--"

He paused abruptly. Antoine could never understand the longing that had grown upon him through these weeks to possess the child, to play at fatherhood.

"No, I shall not be likely to marry," almost as if he had suspected what was in Antoine's pause, but he did not. "And I've envied the fathers of children. They had something to work for, to hope for. And now I say I want Renée because she is such a child. I wish she could stay like this just five years; then I'd be willing to have her grow up. But I know you, Antoine Freneau, and you won't take half care of her; you couldn't love her, it isn't in you. But you shall not crowd her out of love."

"You talk like a fool, Gaspard Denys! But if you want the child-I am an old man, and I tell you frankly that I don't know what to do with her. I would have to change my whole life."

"And I would be glad to change mine for such a cause. You must promise not to interfere in any way. We will have some writings drawn up and signed before the priest."

Antoine gave a yawn. "To-morrow, or any time you like. What are you going to do now? It is late. If you will take a shakedown in the other room-you see, I'm not prepared for visitors."

"Yes; I have slept in worse places. The child has a box of clothes at St. Charles. Hers will have to do for to-night."

He straightened out the impromptu bed and fixed the child more comfortably. He was tired and sleepy himself. Antoine lighted a bit of wick drawn through a piece of tin floating in a bowl of oily grease and took it in the storeroom, where both men soon arranged a sort of bunk.

"Good-night," said Antoine, and shut the door.

But he did not go to bed. The fire had mostly burned out, and now the torch dropped down and the room was full of shadows. He sat awhile on the edge of the bed and made it creak; then he rose and opened the shutter very softly, creeping out. Even then he listened suspiciously. Turning, he ran swiftly down to the river's edge, through the wet sedge of last year's grass. Then he gave a low whistle.

Some one answered with an oath. "We were just going away," in a hissing French voice. "What the devil kept you so?"

"I could not get away. There was a fellow," and Antoine prefaced the excuse with an oath. "He wouldn't go; I had to fix a bunk for him."

"Antoine Freneau, if you betray us-" in a threatening tone.

"Ah, bah! Would I kill the goose that lays golden eggs? Come, hurry."

They unloaded some cases from the piroque and dumped them on the soft ground.

"Now, carry them yourself. What! No barrow? You are a fool! But we must be off up the river."

There was considerable smuggling in spite of the watchfulness of the authorities. Duties were levied on so many things, and some-many, indeed-closely under government supervision.

Antoine Freneau tugged and swore. The cases of brandy were not light. He went back and forth, every time peering in the window and listening; but all was quiet. The cases he hid among the trees. He had drawn some tree branches, ostensibly for firewood, and covered the cases with this brush until he could dispose of them more securely.

Once, several years before, his house had been thoroughly ransacked in his absence. He knew he was suspected of unlawful dealings, and he had a dim misgiving that Gaspard had one end of the secret. He had more than once been very overbearing.

He came in wet and tired, and, disrobing himself, crawled into bed. Fine work, indeed, it would be to have a housekeeper and a prying child! He laughed to think Gaspard fancied that he would be unwilling to give her up.

Still he had hated Count de Longueville that he should have extorted so much dowry. But then it seemed a great thing to have titled grandsons and a daughter with the entrée of palaces, although he would never have gone to witness her state and consequence.

Every year money had grown dearer and dearer to him, though, miser like, he made no spread, never bragged, but pleaded poverty when he paid church dues at Christmas and Easter.

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