MoboReader> Literature > A Little Girl in Old St. Louis

   Chapter 3 A NEW HOME

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 22015

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


In after years, when Renée de Longueville looked back at what seemed the real beginning of her life, everything about the old town was enveloped in a curious glamour. For it was all abloom. Such flowers, such great trees in pink and white, such fragrance everywhere, and everybody moving to and fro, as if impelled by some strange power. What were they all doing? And the children were so merry. To a little girl who had been mewed up in an old chateau, rather gloomy at that, and no one about but elderly servants, the transition was mysterious, quite beyond the child's depth. But she felt the new life in every limb, in every nerve, and she was full of joy.

The streets of the old town, if not wide, were comparatively straight; those running along the river the longest, those stretching up to the fort only a few squares. Nearly every homestead had its separate lot or garden, enclosed by some sort of rude fence. Outside were the fields, cultivated largely in common; woodlands and an immense prairie stretching out to the northwest. Beside the fort were several towers in which ammunition was stored, although the Spanish government had a great fancy for building these.

Gaspard Denys was very busy cleaning up his place and making some alterations. In his heart he began to feel quite like a family man. Most of the stores were kept in the residences, except those down on the levee. The people seldom suffered from depredations. Their treatment of the Indians was uniformly honorable, and they kept them as much as possible from the use of ardent spirits. The slaves were happy in their lot. Indeed, a writer in early eighteen hundred speaks of the town as arcadian in its simplicity and kindliness to its dependents. Women never worked in the fields, and much of the housework was done by the slaves and Indian women. Holidays were frequent, in which all joined. In the summer, out-of-doors sports and dances often took place, very much like modern picnics, at which one frequently saw parties of Indians. There were no hostelries; but if a stranger came in town he was sheltered and treated to the best. Hospitality was considered one of the first duties.

There was one large room in the log part of the house, but Denys resolved to build another. His little girl should have a place of her very own, and from time to time he would find adornments for it. Here she should grow to womanhood. Antoine Freneau was not a young man when he had married; and though people who did not meet with accidents lived to a good old age, he was old already. He always pleaded poverty, though he did considerable dickering in the way of trade, and it was surmised that his business dealings would not stand honest scrutiny, and his unsocial habits did not endear him to the joyous community. Still, whatever he had left would come to Renée. He, Denys, would make sure of that.

Renée soon became domesticated with the Renauds. Elise and Sophie played about most of the time, and were jolly, laughing little girls. Twice a week they went to the house of the good Father Lemoine, who taught them to read and write and gave them some knowledge of mathematics, which was quite necessary in trading. Twice a week the boys went, and on Saturday they repeated the catechism orally.

Denys called in a little help; but every man was his own builder, with some cordial neighborly assistance. So they raised the posts and studding, and fastened the cross ties-round on the outside, the smooth part, or middle, going on the inside. The interstices were filled with mortar made of tough grass and clay that hardened easily. Sometimes this was plastered on the inside, but oftener blankets were hung, which gave a bright and cheerful appearance, and warmth in winter.

The stone part was cleared up and put in order. It had a big chimney, part of which was in the adjoining room. Denys spread about quantities of sweet grass to neutralize the musty smell; though the clear, beautiful air, with its mingled perfumes, was doing that. On the shelves he spread some of his wares, implements of different sorts were ranged about the walls. Near the door was a counter; back of it two iron-bound chests, very much battered, that he had bought with the place and the small store of goods from the family of the dead owner. These held his choicest treasures, many of which he had brought from Quebec, which were to please the ladies.

The voyages up and down the river were often tedious, and sometimes the traders were attacked by river pirates, who hid in caves along the banks and drew their boats up out of sight when not needed. Peltries and lead went down to New Orleans, wheat and corn and imported articles were returned. There were some troublesome restrictions, and about as much came overland from Detroit.

If Renée made friends with the Renaud household, they had no power to win her from Uncle Gaspard. They had insisted on his accepting their hospitality, though he devoted most of his time to the work he was hurrying forward. Now and then he came just at dusk and spent the night, but was always off early in the morning before Renée was up.

She often ran up the street, sometimes reaching the house before he started. The children were ready enough to go with her, but she liked best to be alone. She had a curious, exclusive feeling about him, young as she was.

"But he is not your true uncle," declared Elise, one day when she had laid her claim rather strenuously. "Mamma said so. Your uncles have to be real relations."

"But he said when we were in Quebec that he was my uncle-that I was to be his little girl," was the defiant rejoinder.

"And if your gran'père had not agreed?"

"I would never have stayed there. It makes me shiver now. I would-yes, I would have run away."

"He is not like our gran'père, who is a lovely old man, living up by the Government House. And gran'mère gives us delightful little cakes when we go there. And there are uncles and aunts, real ones. Barbe is our aunt."

Renée's small heart swelled with pride and a sense of desolation. She had gathered already that Grandpapa Freneau was not at all respected; and there were moments when she felt the solitariness of her life-the impression that she had in some sense been cast off.

"But my father is at the palace of the King of France. He came to see me on an elegant horse, and his clothes were splendid. And there are two little brothers. Oh, such fine people as there are in Paris."

That extinguished the little girls. It was true that now the French had gotten over their soreness about the transfer. They never meddled with politics, but they still loved the old flag. The Spanish governors had been judicious men thus far.

So that night Renée slipped out from the supper table and sped like a little sprite along the Rue Royale, and then up the Rue de Rive. The moon was coming over the river with a pale light, as if she was not quite ready for full burning. She heard the sounds of hammering, and rushed in the open doorway.

"Well, little one! Your eyes are so bright that if you were an Indian girl I should call you Evening Star."

"I wanted to see you so," in a breathless fashion.

"What has happened?"

"Why, nothing. Only the day seemed so long."

"You went to the father's?"

"Oh, yes," rather indifferently.

"Why didn't you run over then? You might have taken supper with me."

"Because-there were Elise and Sophie."

"But there was supper enough to go round. We had some fine broiled fish. Mère Lunde is an excellent cook."

"Oh, when can I come to stay?" Her tone was full of entreaty, and her eyes soft with emotion.

"But-you won't have any little girls to play with."

"I don't want any one but you."

He had paused from his work, and now she sprang to him and encircled him as far as she could with her small arms.

"You are not homesick?" It would be strange, indeed, since she had never had a true home.

"I don't know. That," giving her head a turn, "is not my real home."

"Oh, no. But they have all been good to you. Ma'm'selle Barbe is very fond of you."

"Oh, everybody is good and kind. Even Louis, though he teases. And Père Renaud. But not one of them is you-you."

"My little girl!" He stooped over and hugged her, kissed her fondly. The child's love was so innocent, so sincere, that it brought again the hopes of youth.

"And you will always keep me-always?" There was a catch in her breath like a sob.

"Why, yes. What has any one said to you?" with a slight touch of indignation.

"Sophie said you were not my own uncle. What would make you so? Can you never be?"

There was a pathos in her tone that touched him to the heart, even as he smiled at her childish ignorance, and was wild to have the past undone.

"My dear, you can hardly understand. I must have been your mother's brother."

"Oh, then you would have belonged to that hateful old man!" and she gave her foot a quick stamp. "No, I should not want you to."

He laughed softly. He would have been glad enough to belong to the hateful old man years ago, and belong to the child as well.

"It doesn't matter, little one," he said tenderly. "I shall be your uncle all my life long. Don't bother your head about relationships. Come, see your room. It will soon be dry, and then you shall take possession."

It had been whitewashed, and the puncheon floor-laid in most houses, it being difficult to get flat boards-stained a pretty reddish color. The window had a curtain hung to it, some of the Canadian stuff. One corner had been partitioned off for a closet. There was a box with a curtain tacked around it, and a white cover over it, to do duty as a dressing-table. There were two rustic chairs, and some pretty Indian basket-like pouches had been hung around.

"Oh, oh!" she cried in delight. "Why, it is as pretty as Ma'm'selle Barbe's-almost as pretty," correcting herself. "And can I not come at once?"

"There must be a bed for you to sleep on, though we might sling a hammock."

"And Mère Lunde?"

"Come through and see."

In one corner of this, which was the ordinary living room, was a sort of pallet, a long box with a cover, in which Mère Lunde kept her own belongings, with a mattress on the top, spread over with a blanket, answering for a seat as well. She had despoiled her little cottage, for Gaspard Denys had said, "It is a home for all the rest of your life if you can be content," and she had called down the blessings of the good God upon him. So, here were shelves with her dishes, some that her mother had brought over to New Orleans as a bride; china and pewter, and coarse earthenware acquired since, and queer Indian jars, and baskets stiffened with a kind of clay that hardened in the heating.

"Welcome, little one," she exclaimed cheerfully. "The good uncle gets ready the little nest for thee. And soon we shall be a family indeed."

She lighted a torch and stood it in the corner, and smiled

upon Renée.

"Oh, I shall be so glad to come!" cried the child joyfully. "And my room is so pretty."

She looked with eager eyes from one to the other.

"And the garden is begun. There are vines planted by ma'm'selle's window. In a month one will not know the place. And it is near to the church and the good father's house."

"But I wouldn't mind if it was a desert, so long as you both were here," she replied enthusiastically.

"We must go back, little one. They will wonder about you. Just be patient awhile."

"And thou hast no cap," said Mère Lunde.

"Oh, that does not matter; the night is warm. Adieu," taking the hard hand in her soft one. Then she danced away and caught Gaspard's arm.

"Let us walk about a little," she pleaded. "The moon is so beautiful." If they went direct to the Renauds', he would sit on the gallery and talk to Barbe.

"Which way?" pausing, looking up and down.

"Oh, toward the river. The moon makes it look like a silver road. And it is never still except at night."

That was true enough. Business ended at the old-fashioned supper time. There was one little French tavern far up the Rue Royale, near the Locust Street of to-day; but the conviviality of friends, which was mostly social, took place at home, out on the wide porches, where cards were played for amusement. The Indians had dispersed. A few people were strolling about, and some flat boats were moored at the dock, almost indistinguishable in the shade. The river wound about with a slow, soft lapping, every little crest and wavelet throwing up a sparkling gem and then sweeping it as quickly away.

From here one could see out to both ends. The semi-circular gates terminated at the river's edge, and at each a cannon was planted and kept in readiness for use. Now and then there would be vague rumors about the English on the opposite shore. The new stockade of logs and clay surmounted by pickets was slowly replacing the worn-out one.

Renée was fain to linger, with her childish prattle and touching gestures of devotion. How the child loved him already! That a faint tint of jealousy had been kindled would have amused him if he had suspected it.

When they turned back in the Rue Royale they met M. Renaud enjoying his pipe.

"Ah, truant!" he exclaimed; "they were beginning to feel anxious about you. Barbe declared you might stay all night. Was it not true you had threatened?"

"They would not have me," she returned laughingly, her heart in a glow over the thought that when she did stay permanently, there would be no need of Uncle Gaspard going to the Renauds'.

"Was that it?" rather gayly. "The girls will miss thee. They are very fond of thee, Renée de Longueville."

Then Renée's heart relented with the quick compunction of childhood.

"M. Laclede's fleet of keel boats will be up shortly, I heard to-day. The town must give him a hearty welcome. What a man he is! What energy and forethought! A little more than twenty years and we have grown to this, where there was nothing but a wild. Denys, there is a man for you!"

"Fort Chartres helped it along. I was but a boy when we came over. My mother is buried there, and it almost broke my father's heart to leave her."

"Those hated English!" said Renaud, almost under his breath. "The colonies have revolted, it is said. I should be glad to see them driven out of the country."

"Yes, I heard the talk at Quebec and more of it as I came down the lakes. But the country is so big, why cannot each take a piece in content? Do you ever think we may be driven out to the wilderness?"

"And find the true road to India?" with a short laugh. "Strange stories are told by some of the hunters of inaccessible mountains. And what is beyond no one knows," shrugging his shoulders.

No one knew whether the gold-fields of La Salle's wild dreams lay in that direction or not. There were vague speculations. Parties had started and never returned. The hardy pioneers turned their steps northward for furs. And many who heard these wild dreams in their youth, half a century later crossed the well-nigh inaccessible mountains and found the gold. And before the century was much older ships were on their way to the East of dream and fable.

Barbe and Madame Renaud were out on the porch in the moonlight, and it was very bright now. Denys would not stay, and soon said good-night to them, going back to his work by a pine torch.

Renée counted the days, and every one seemed longer. But at last the joyful news came.

"We shall run over often," declared Sophie, who had a fondness for the little girl in spite of childish tiffs.

Renée was busy enough placing her little store of articles about, discovering new treasures, running to and fro, and visiting Mère Lunde, who had a word of welcome every time she came near.

"It will be a different house, petite," she said, with her kindly smile.

The garden could not compare with the Renauds in the glory of its gay flower-beds. Two slaves of a neighbor-they were often borrowed for a trifle-were working at it. A swing had been put up for the little lady.

But somehow, when the afternoon began to lengthen, when Uncle Gaspard had gone up to the Government House on some business, and Mère Lunde was in a sound doze over the stocking she was knitting, Renée felt strangely solitary. She missed the gay chat of Madame Renaud and her sister and the merriment of the children. There seemed none immediately about here. She strolled around to the front of the store; the door was locked, and it looked rather dreary.

She was glad to-morrow was the day for the classes to meet. Why, it was almost as lonesome as at the old chateau!

That evening Uncle Gaspard brought out his flute, which filled her with delight. The violin was the great musical instrument in St. Louis-the favorite in all the French settlements. But the flute had such a tender tone, such a mysterious softness, that it filled her with an indescribable joy. And there was none of the dreadful tuning that rasped her nerves and made her feel as if she must scream.

Then, it was strange to sleep alone in the room when she had been with Ma'm'selle Barbe and the two girls. They were versed in Indian traditions, and some they told over were not pleasant bed-time visions. But the comfort was that all these terrible things had happened in Michigan, or a place away off, called New England; and Sophie did not care what the Indians did to the English who had driven them out of the settlements on the Illinois. So, why should she? She was still more of a French girl, because she was born in France.

But the world looked bright and cheery the next morning, and the breakfast was delightful, sitting on the side toward Uncle Gaspard, and having Mère Lunde opposite, with her gay coif and her red plaid kerchief instead of the dull gray one. Her small, wrinkled face was a pleasant one, though her eyes were faded, for her teeth were still white and even, and her short upper lip frequently betrayed them. She poured the coffee and passed the small cakes of bread, which were quite as good as Madame Renaud's.

The lines were not strictly drawn in those days between masters and servants. And Mère Lunde had been her own mistress for so many years that she possessed the quiet dignity of independence.

Then Renée inspected her room afresh, ran out of doors and gathered a few flowers, as she had seen Ma'm'selle Barbe do. She ventured to peep into Uncle Gaspard's abode.

"Come in, come in!" he cried cheerily. "There is no one to buy you up, like a bale of merchandise."

"But-you wouldn't sell me?" Her eyes had a laughing light in them, her voice a make-believe entreaty, and altogether she looked enchanting.

"Well, it would take a great deal of something to buy you. It would have to be more valuable than money. I don't care so much for money myself."

He put his arm about her and hugged her up close. He was sitting at a massive old desk that he had bought with the place. It seemed crowded full of various articles.

"But you love me better than any one else?"

"Any one else? Does that mean ever so many people love you? The Renaud children, and Ma'm'selle Barbe, and-perhaps-your grandfather?"

"Oh, you know I don't mean that!" Her cheek flushed with a dainty bit of vexation. "The others like me well enough, but you-how much do you love me?"

"The best of any one. Child, I do not think you will ever understand how dear you are to me. There is no measurement for such love."

That was the confession she wanted. Her face was radiant with delight-a child's pleasure in the present satisfaction.

She glanced around. "Do you mean to sell all these things?" she asked wonderingly.

"Oh, yes and many more. I ought to be down on the Rue Royale, where people could find me easily. But I took a fancy to this old place, and the man was in my debt; so he paid me with it. It would not be so pleasant to live down there, on the lower side, by the levee. But I shall stay here and wait till the people come to me. After all, for a few years, if we get enough to eat and a little to wear, it will suffice."

"And what then?" with captivating eagerness.

"Why, then-" he hesitated. Why should he think of this just now? He did not want her grown up into a charming mademoiselle, even if she resembled her mother still more strongly.

"Yes; what then? Isn't it just the same afterward, or do people come to a time when they stop eating?" and a gleam of mischief crossed her face.

"That is at the end of life, child-sixty or eighty years."

"No, I don't mean that time," with a shrug and a little curl of the lip. "Maybe-after a few years--"

"Well?" in amused inquiry.

"You might go to New Orleans and take me. Ma'm'selle Barbe has been, and she says it is so beautiful and gay."

"And you have been half over the world. Ma'm'selle has not been to Quebec nor Detroit."

"Oh, that is true enough," laughingly. "Nor to France."

Two customers paused at the door, and he said, "Run away, dear." So she went obediently, watched Mère Lunde at her work awhile, then strolled out to the garden spot, where two hired slaves were working. What should make them so different from white people? Where was Africa and the Guinea Coast that she heard spoken of at the Renauds'? Their lips were so thick and red and their hair so woolly. But they seemed very merry, though she could not understand a word they said; it was a queer patois.

Uncle Gaspard came out presently. "Wouldn't you like to have a flower garden?" he asked.

"What is here?" She put out her small moccasined toe toward a rather stiff-looking plot of green plants.

"Oh, that is Mère Lunde's garden of herbs. All manner of things for potage, and the making of sundry remedies in which she has great faith. She will look after that."

"And must I look after mine?"

"I will come and help you."

"Oh, then, I will have a garden!" she cried joyfully.

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