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   Chapter 2 OLD ST. LOUIS

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 24118

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Soon after daylight the strong west wind drove away the rain and clouds. The air was soft and balmy, full of the indescribable odors of spring. Birds began their pipings; robin and thrush and meadow-larks and wood-pigeons went circling about on glistening wings.

Antoine found himself some dry clothes and kindled his fire. He would bake a few corn cakes; they had demolished the loaf of bread last night. There was a flitch of dried bacon and some eggs.

The door opened, and Gaspard wished his host good-morning. Renée was still asleep.

There was a little rivulet that emptied in the mill pond, and near the house Freneau had hollowed out quite a basin. Gaspard went down here for his morning ablutions. A tall, well-developed man, just turned of thirty with a strong, decisive face, clear blue eyes that could flash like steel in a moment of indignation, yet in the main were rather humorous; chestnut hair, closely cropped, and a beard trimmed in the same fashion. He soused his head now in the miniature basin and shook it like a water dog. Then he drew in long breaths of the divine morning air, and glanced about with a sort of worship in his heart, took a few steps this way and that. Antoine watched him with bated breath, he was so near the secret.

But Denys had heard nothing in the night. He was tired and had slept soundly. Suddenly he bethought himself of the little girl and went into the house. Antoine was preparing breakfast. Renée was sitting up, glancing round. She had been in so many strange places this did not disturb her.

She rose upright now, and stretched out her hands with a half-timid, half-joyous smile.

"Uncle Gaspard," she said, "where are we?"

Old Antoine raised his head. The French was so pure, the voice had an old reminder of the one back of her mother.

"We are at St. Louis, child."

"And where is the King?"

"Oh, my little girl, back in France. There is no king here. And we are not French any longer, but Spanish."

"I am French." She said it proudly.

"We keep our hearts and our language French. Some day there may be another overturn. I do not see as it matters much. The Spanish are pretty good to us."

"Good! And with these cursed river laws!" grumbled Antoine.

"If report says true, it can't interfere very much with you."

"Report is a liar," the man flung out savagely.

Gaspard Denys laughed.

After a moment he said, "Isn't there a towel or a cloth of some kind? I dried myself in the air."

"I told you I had not any accommodations for womenkind. You should have left her at the convent. Farther back, it is De Longueville's business to care for her."

"But you see he did not. You and he are her only blood kin, and you both cast her off. It is well she has found a friend."

"The convent and the Sisters would have been better."

"Come, man, some sort of a towel," exclaimed Denys imperatively.

Antoine rummaged in the old chest, and presently brought forth one. Denys noted that it was soft and fine and not of home manufacture. Then he led Renée out to the little basin and, dipping the towel in, washed her face and hands.

"Oh, how good it feels!" she cried delightedly.

Gaspard had grown quite used to playing lady's maid. He took a comb out of its case of Indian work that he carried about in his pocket, and combed out the tumbled hair. She winced now and then at a bad tangle, and laughed on the top of it. Then he bent over and kissed her on the forehead. She caught his head in her small arms and pressed her soft cheek against his caressingly.

"I love you, Uncle Gaspard," she exclaimed. "But I don't love that old man in there. Are you sure he is my grandfather? I couldn't live here. I should run away and live with the birds and the squirrels."

"And the Indians."

"But that Light of the Moon was sweet and pretty."

"Yes. I should like to have brought her with us for your maid."

"Oh, that would have been nice!" She clapped her hands. "What is over there?" nodding her head.

"That is St. Louis-the fort, the palisades, the stockade to keep out the Indians."

"There are no Indians in France," she said retrospectively.

"No. And I have wondered a little, Renée, if you would not rather be back there."

"And not have you?" She clung to his arm.

He gave a little sigh.

"Oh, are you not glad to have me? Does no one want me?"

The pathos of the young voice pierced his heart.

"Yes, I want you. I had no one to care for, no brothers or sisters or--"

"Men have wives and children." There was a touch of almost regret in her tone, as if she were sorry for him.

"And you are my child. We will go in town to-day and find some one to look after you. And there will be children to play with."

"Oh, I shall be so glad. Little girls?"

"Yes. I know ever so many."

"I saw my little brothers in Paris as we came through. They were very pretty-at least their clothes were. And papa's wife-well, I think the Queen couldn't have had any finer gown. They were just going to the palace, and papa kissed me farewell. It was very dreary at the old chateau. And when the wind blew through the great trees it seemed like people crying. Old Pierre used to count his beads."

What a strange, dreary life the little girl had had! It should all be better now. The child of the woman he had loved!

"If grandfather is rich, as Marie said, why does he live that way?"

She made a motion toward the house.

"No one knows whether he is rich or not. He trades a little with the Indians and the boats going up and down the river."

The shrill summons to breakfast reached them.

They went in, the child holding tightly to Gaspard's hand. It seemed as if her grandfather looked more forbidding now than he had last night. He was both sulky and surly, but the viands were appetizing, and this morning Renée felt hungry. Gaspard was glad to see her eat. The old man still eyed her furtively.

"Well?" he interrogated, as they rose from the table, looking meaningly at Gaspard.

"We are going in the town, the child and I," Gaspard replied briefly.

Antoine nodded.

Oh, what a morning it was! The air seemed fairly drenched with the new growth of everything; the tints were indescribable. Some shrubs and flowers had begun to bloom. Renée had seen so much that was cold and bleak, trees leafless and apparently lifeless amid the almost black green of hemlocks and firs. Streams and pools frozen over, and a coldness that seemed to penetrate one's very soul. At Detroit it had softened a little and all along the journey since then were heralds of warmth and beauty. The child, too, expanded in it, and the changes in her face interested Gaspard intently. He was a great lover of nature himself.

Early St. Louis was all astir. From the bustle, the sound of voices, the gesticulation, and running to and fro, it appeared as if there might be thousands of people instead of six or seven hundred. Everything looked merry, everybody was busy. There was a line of boats coming, others already at the primitive landings, Indians and trappers in picturesque attire, gay feathers and red sashes; fringes down the sides of their long leggings and the top of their moccasins. Traders were there, too, sturdy brown-faced Frenchmen, many of whom had taken a tour or two up in the North Country themselves, and had the weather-beaten look that comes of much living out of doors. Children ran about, black-eyed, rosy-cheeked, shrill of voice. Small Indians, with their grave faces and straight black hair, and here and there a squaw with her papoose strapped to her back.

Gaspard Denys paused a moment to study them. He really had an artist's soul; these pictures always appealed to him.

They came in the old Rue Royale, skirting the river a short distance, then turned up to the Rue d'Eglise. Here was a low stone house, rather squat, the roof not having a high peak. A wide garden space, with fruit trees and young vegetables, some just peeping up from brown beds and a great space in front where grass might have grown if little feet had not trodden it so persistently. A broad porch had a straw-thatched roof, and here already a young girl sat spinning, while several children were playing about.

"Lisa! Lisa!" called the girl, rising. "Ah, Monsieur Denys, we are very glad to see you. You have been absent a long while. You missed the merry-making and-and we missed you," blushing.

A pretty girl, with dark eyes and hair done up in a great coil of braids; soft peachy skin with a dainty bloom on the cheek and a dimple in the broad chin. Her lips had the redness of a ripe red cherry that is so clear you almost think it filled with wine.

"And I am glad to see you, Barbe," taking her outstretched hand. "Ought I to say 'ma'm'selle' now?" glancing her all over, from the braids done up to certain indications in the attire of womanhood.

She blushed and laughed. "Oh, I hope I have not grown as much as that. I should like always to be Barbe to you."

"But some day you may be married. Then you will be madame to everybody."

"Lise thinks I have too good a home to give up lightly. I am very happy."

Madame Renaud came out of the house. She was taller and larger than her sister, but with the same dark eyes and hair. Her sleeves were rolled up above her elbows and showed a plump, pretty arm; her wide, homespun apron nearly covered her.

"Oh, Gaspard-M'sieu Denys! You are such a stranger and we have missed you much, much," with an emphasis. "We were not sure but some Quebec belle would capture you and keep you there. You will have warm welcomes. Whose is the child?"

The other children had stopped their play and were edging nearer Renée, who in turn shrank against Denys.

"I have come to talk about the child. May I not come in? Are you busy?"

"With bread and cakes. We are not so poorly off if we have a bad name," smiling with amusement. "Here is a chair, and a stool for the little one. She looks pale. Is she not well?"

"She has had a long journey. First across the ocean, then from Quebec in not the pleasantest of weather for such a tramp. But she has not been ill a day."

Denys placed his arm over the child's shoulder, and she leaned her arms on his knee.

Madame Renaud raised her eyebrows a trifle.

"You remember the daughter of Antoine Freneau?"

"Yes-a little. He took her to Canada and married her to some great person and she died in France. Poor thing! I wonder if she was happy?"

She, too, knew of the gossip that Denys had been very much in love with this girl, and she stole a little furtive glance; but the man's face was not so ready with confessions. Much hard experience had settled the lines.

"Then the Count married again. He is in the King's service at the palace. They sent the child over to her grandfather. I went to Canada for her."

"And this is Renée Freneau's child. Poor thing!"

She glanced intently at the little girl, who flushed and cast down her eyes. Why was she always a poor thing?

"And that is no home for her."

"I should think not! Home, indeed, in that old cabin, where men meet to carouse, and strange stories are told," said madame decisively.

"I am to be her guardian and look after her. I think I shall settle down. I have tramped about enough to satisfy myself for one while. I shall go into trading, and have some one keep a house for me and take care of the child. Meanwhile I must persuade some one to give her shelter and oversight."

"Yes, yes, m'sieu," encouragingly.

"And so I have come to you," looking up, with a bright laugh.

Gaspard Denys very often obtained just what he wanted without much argument. Perhaps it was not so much his way as his good judgment of others.

"And so I have come to you," he repeated. "If you will take her in a little while, I think she will enjoy being with children. She has had a lonely life thus far."

"Poor thing! Poor little girl, to lose her mother so soon! And you think old Antoine will make no trouble?"

"Oh, no, no!

He would not know what to do with her."

Madame Renaud laughed derisively, and gave a nod, throwing her head back, which displayed her pretty throat.

"So I shall look after her. He will never interfere. It will not be for long. And how shall I appear putting on fatherly airs?" in a tone of amusement.

"Louis is but two and thirty, and you--"

"Have just turned thirty," subjoined Gaspard.

"And little Louis is twelve, stout and sturdy and learning to figure as well as read under the good père. Then there are three others, and papa is as proud of them as was ever any hen with her chicks. I never heard that Chanticleer was a pattern of fatherly devotion."

They both laughed at that.

"And, Gaspard, you should have settled upon some nice girl at the balls. You have been chosen king times enough."

He flushed a trifle. "I have been quite a roamer in strange places, and at first had a fancy for a life of adventure. But, as I said, I think of settling down now. And if you will keep the little girl for me until I get a home--"

"And you want a good housemaid. Gaspard, Mère Lunde has lost her son. True, he was a great burden and care, and she has spent most of her little fortune upon him. I think she would be glad--"

"The very person. Thank you a thousand times, Madame Renaud. I should want some one settled in her ways, content to stay at home, and with a tender heart. Yes, Mère Lunde will be the very one.

"She was going to the père's; then his niece came from Michilimackinac. They had bad work at the Mission with the Indians, and she just escaped with her life and her little boy."

"Yes; I will see her. It is advised that you get the cage before you find the bird; but the bird may be captured elsewhere if you wait too long. The child's box comes in from St. Charles; they would not stir a step farther last night. I must go and look after it. Then I can send it here? And Louis will not kick it out of doors when he comes?" smiling humorously.

"He will be liker to keep the little one for good and all and let you whistle," she retorted merrily.

"Thank you a hundred times until you are better paid. And now I must be going. I expect the town will almost look strange."

"And plain after gay Quebec; and Detroit, they say, has some grand people in it. But, bah, they are English!" with a curl of the lip.

He rose now. Madame Renaud had not been idle, but had rolled out dough fairly brown with spices and cut it in little cakes of various shapes, filling up some baking sheets of tin.

"You will leave the child? Renée-what is her name? It has slipped my mind."

"Renée de Longueville."

The child clung to his hand. "I want to go with you," she said in a tone of entreaty.

"Yes, and see St. Louis? He is her king or was until she touched this Spanish soil."

"The Spaniards have been very good to us. But we all hope to go back again some day. Renée, will you not stay and play with the children? There is Sophie, about your age or a little older, and Elise--"

"No," she returned with a long breath; "I want Uncle Gaspard."

"Adopted already? Well, you will bring her in to dinner?" with a cordial intonation.

"If not, to supper."

"You will tire her to death dragging her around."

"Oh, heaven forefend," in mock fear.

He paused a moment or two and glanced at Renée, half questioningly, but she still clung to him.

They took their way along the street, but from every corner they had a glimpse of the river, now flowing lazily along. The French seemed to have a fancy for building their towns on the margin of a river. Partly, perhaps, from fear of the Indians, but quite as much from innate sociability, as they preferred compactness, and did not branch out into farms until later on. But many of these squares had not more than three or four houses; some, indeed, only one, the rest devoted to a garden.

Here was the market, but there were not many customers this morning, though the stands were attractively arranged. And beyond was the old Laclede mansion. He it was who had laid out the town and named its streets. On the main street was his large store, but it was then the end of Rue Royale. He had welcomed the emigration from Fort Chartres when the English had taken possession, and set a band of workmen building log houses for them. His own house was quite roomy and imposing.

Then they went down to the levee, which presented a busy and picturesque sight. Boats were being unloaded of bales of furs and articles of merchandise. Indians with blankets around them or with really gay trappings; coureur de bois; Frenchmen, both jolly and stern, chaffering, buying, sending piles of skins away on barrows, paying for them in various kinds of wares, arms, ammunition, beads and trinkets, though these were mostly taken by the squaws.

Denys found his parcels and the box belonging to the child, and responded to the cordial greetings.

"Here, Noyan," he called to a man who had just trundled his barrow down and who paused to make an awkward salutation. He had a blue cotton kerchief tied round his head, buckskin trousers, and a sort of blouse coat made of coarse woollen stuff, belted in loosely; but it held a pouch containing tobacco and his knife, and a small hatchet was suspended from it.

"M'sieu Denys! One has not seen you for an age! Were you up to the north? It is a good sight. And have you been making a fortune?"

The wide, smiling mouth showed white, even teeth.

"Not up in the fur regions. I took Canada this time."

"Then thou hast lots of treasures that will set the dames and the maids crazy with longing. They are gay people in those old towns, and the state they keep is something like a court, I hear. Have you brought home Madame Denys? Is it not high time?"

"Past time," returning the laugh. "But our good Pierre Laclede is content to remain a bachelor, and why not I?"

"I am afraid thou art hard to suit. Surely we have pretty maids here; and at New Orleans it is said they make a man lose his head if they do but smile on him. A dangerous place that!" and he laughed merrily.

"Are you busy?"

"Yes and no. I am to look after M. Maxent's boat load, but it will not be in until noon. So, if I can catch a job I am ready."

"Then you are the man for me. Come. They have piled up the freight here on the wharf. I am a lucky fellow to meet you. I feel quite strange after my long absence. I suppose the old storehouse has not burned down? It could not well be robbed," and Monsieur Denys laughed with gay indifference.

"When a man has only the coat on his back he need not be afraid of thieves."

"Unless he fall among Indians."

"Ah, bah! yes," with a comical shrug. "And sometimes they take his skin."

There were bales strapped up, with thongs of hide over the coarse covering; some sacks made of hide; several boxes bound about with bands of iron. Noyan looked them over and considered.

"I must go twice, M'sieu Denys," looking askance as if his employer might object.

"Very well. This box is to go to Madame Renaud's."

The man nodded, and began to pile on the goods, fastening them with some stout straps.

"Do you go, too?"

"Oh, yes. Here, Jaques, sit on this box and guard these two bundles, and earn a little more than your salt."

A shock-headed boy, with a broad, stupid face, had been looking on indifferently, and now he dropped on the box like a weight of lead, with a grunt that meant assent and a grin that betokened satisfaction.

"We must retrace our steps," said Denys to the little girl. "But it is not far."

They passed the market again. They turned into the Rue de Rive, just beyond the Rue Royale. A building of rough stone, with a heavy doorway that looked as if it had been deserted a long while, which was true enough. A broad bar had fastened it securely, and the great lock might have guarded the treasures of Niebelungs.

Denys unlocked it with some difficulty, threw open the door and unfastened the shutter.

"Whew! What a musty old hole! It must be cleaned up. I will attend to that to-morrow. Dump the things in here, and then go for the others."

On the western end was an addition of hewn logs, with big posts set in the corners. Denys marched around and surveyed it. There was a space of neglected ground, with two or three fine trees and a huddle of grape-vines fallen to the ground. It did not look altogether inviting. But just beyond was the Rue de la Tour that led straight out to the old fort, and only a step farther was the church and the priest's house. Then, it would not be very far from the Renauds.

Renée was watching him as he peered about.

"It looks a dull place for a little girl!" he exclaimed.

"Are you going to live here?" with some curiosity.

"Oh, yes. But it will be fixed up. And-a flower garden," hesitatingly.

"I don't mind if you are here," and she slipped her hand in his with a gesture of possession.

"And we will have a nice old woman to get our meals and make our beds and keep the house tidy. Oh, it will be all right when it is cleared up. And you will soon know some little girls. And we can take walks around."

She started suddenly. A bird up in the tree poured forth a torrent of melody. Her eyes grew luminous, her lips quivered, her pale cheeks flushed.

"Oh, birds!" she cried. "I used to talk to them at the chateau and feed them with crumbs. They would come to my hand."

"You shall tame them here. Oh, we will have nice times together," and now he pressed her hand.

The sweetness of her little face went to his heart. Yes, she was like her mother.

Noyan came with the next load, threw off the few parcels, and took his way to Madame Renaud's. Denys locked his door again and they turned away.

"Now we will go and find Mère Lunde. It is up somewhere by the fort. That will be quite a landmark for you. And the great Indian chief, Pontiac, that I told you about at Detroit, lies buried there."

"I do not think I like Indians," she returned gravely. "Only the babies are so odd, and the little children. It is a pity they should grow up so cruel."

"We have kept very good friends with them thus far."

They had begun to build the new palisades. Yes, here was the fort, and the Guion house, and the grave that she did not care to linger over. Then they turned into the street of the Barns, La rue des Granges, and soon found Mère Lunde, who was cooking a savory pottage, and welcomed Gaspard Denys warmly.

A little old Frenchwoman such as artists love to paint. She was round in the shoulders, made so by much stooping over her son and her work in the tiny garden, where she raised much of her living. She was wrinkled, but her eyes were bright, and her cheeks still had a color in them. She wore the coif, her best one being white, but this a sort of faded plaid. Her skirt just came to her ankles, and to-day she had on sabots, that made a little clatter as she stepped round. Over her shoulders was pinned a small gray kerchief. She looked so cheerful and tidy, so honest and kindly, that she went to one's heart at once.

M'sieu must hear about her son, poor lad-all she had to live for. Yet, perhaps, it was well the Good Father took him before she went. And now she worked a little for the neighbors. Everybody was kind to her. And would they not partake of her simple meal? It was not much, to be sure, but it would make her very happy.

Denys admitted that he was hungry, and Renée's eyes had an assenting light in them. Over the meal he made his proposal, which Mère Lunde accepted with tears in her eyes.

"God is good," she said, crossing herself devoutly. "Father Meurin said I must have faith, and something would come. Oh, how can I thank you! Yes, I will gladly keep your house, and care for the child, and strive to please you every way. Oh, it is, indeed, the best of fortune to happen to me, when life had begun to look lone and drear."

"To-morrow, then, we will begin to clear up."

"Yes; to-morrow," she replied cheerfully.

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