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A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 22232

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

The boats were coming up the river, a long line slow moving, and not with the usual shouts and songs. Half the town turned out to welcome them. Along the edge of the levee in the old days stretched a considerable bluff, washed and worn away long ago to the level of Market and Chestnut Streets. From here you had much of the river both up and down in clear sight.

It was thronged with men now in motley array, smoking their short pipes, exchanging a bit of badinage and telling each other what treasures they expected. For a few weeks there would be a rush of business until the boats were loaded again and everything dropped back to the olden inertia. There would be plenty of frolics too and a great warm welcome for Pierre Laclede.

A canoe was coming up swiftly, and yet there was no sign of gladness on the boats, no flags flying gayly.

"What does it all mean?" said some one perplexed.

The canoe was steered slowly, touched the rude wharf, and the cheer died in the throats of the throng.

"It is bad news we bring. Monsieur Laclede is not with us. M. Pierre Chouteau is heartbroken. Where is the colonel?" and the boat swung round.

"Here, here," and the tall, soldierly man sprang down the steps. "What is it? What has happened to my brother?" and his tone was freighted with anxiety.

"Nothing to him but sorrow, Monsieur le Colonel. But our brave and true friend, our great man and leader in everything, M. Laclede, is lost to us forever. Monsieur, he is dead."

The sailor bowed reverently. Colonel Chouteau clasped his hands together.

"Dead! dead! Our beloved M. Laclede." It ran through the crowd like a knell.

A great wave of sorrow swept over St. Louis. True, the boats came in and there was bustle and business enough unloading. Some of them were to go farther up, but they paused in a reverent fashion. The merriment of welcome was hushed in reverent sadness. The little bell began to toll, the steps so eager a moment ago were slow enough now. Every one felt he had lost a friend.

"But when and how did this happen?" asked Colonel Chouteau, dazed by the unexpected sorrow, and still incredulous.

The captain of one of the boats on which indeed Pierre Laclede had taken his passage, stepped to the wharf and made a salute with his hand. Every one crowded around to hear the story.

It was melancholy enough and moved more than one to tears. M. Laclede had not been altogether well on leaving New Orleans, and was trusting to the exhilarating air of his loved town to restore him. But fever set in and he had grown rapidly worse. It was a long and tedious journey in those days, and medical lore was at a low ebb. Before they had reached the Arkansas River the brave soul had yielded up his life, still in the prime of a splendid manhood, not even attaining the privilege of sepulture in the town of his heart, for which he had worked and planned with a wisdom that was to remain long years afterward, like the fragrance of a high, unwearied soul.

They gathered in groups relating this and that to his praise. He had founded the town, his busy brain and far-reaching wisdom had seen and seized upon the points possible for a great entrep?t of trade. And in the years to come his wildest dreams would be more than realized, though the faint-hearted ones feared now that everything would stop.

Renée was aroused to a great interest in the tales of the intrepid explorers. Sitting in the door in the soft darkness, for now the moon did not rise until past midnight, she lingered, listening with a child's eagerness to whom something new and wonderful is related, and Denys telling adventures that even now moved him deeply. De Soto marching with his little band across the Continent, suffering from perfidy and mutiny, resolved to find a westward passage and the gold that had rewarded other explorers in South America, and at last ill and wearied out, giving up his life, and at night pushing off on the longer journey where friendly hands rowed out silently as if to some unknown country, and softly dropped their burden in the river, partly it is said because they did not want the Indians to know that he was mortal and could die.

Marquette and Joliet, brave heroes of a faith they wished to establish everywhere, La Salle with his indomitable courage, being deserted and with but one guide pushing through dangers, then going to France to seek aid from the great king, convinced now that the Mississippi River was not a waterway to the western coast as some had predicted, but would open up a great river route to the Gulf of Mexico. There were wild guesses in those days. But this proved true. In the name of Louis XIV. he took possession of this splendid estate, that rendered France the greatest proprietor of the new country. Not content with all this glory he must essay another dangerous trip and lose his life by a perfidious follower.

Men made histories in those days and had but little time to write them. Priests' journals and letters were to translate them later on. But stories and legends were told over, passed down in families, and treasured as sacred belongings.

Renée was deeply interested. The heroism stirred her. Nearly every story she wound in some way about Uncle Gaspard. It seemed as if he must have sailed in every boat, trudged through wildernesses, even explored the old cave with its shining walls and sides of lead that they mistook first for silver; and after getting over his disappointment how Sieur Renault opened the grand Valle mine that seems inexhaustible even to-day. Gaspard had a wonderful way of making all these old heroes live in the flesh again.

Renée was a very happy little girl now. It was quite true that Ma'm'selle Barbe had a lover, a handsome young fellow who was devoted, who came every night with his violin, and when he did not play sang charming French love songs. The Guions would much rather have had it Gaspard Denys. He was "settled." And then he was a shrewd business fellow and would be sure to make a fortune. Already he was acquiring a good trade. Alphonse Maurice had no business of his very own, and was barely twenty-one. But youthful marriages were very much in vogue in those days, and most of them were happy. Life was so much more simple.

Madame Renaud had a great leaning toward Gaspard as well. But what could one do if he would not come, would not play the lover? She would have laughed at the idea of the little Renée in any sense being a rival.

The child had settled to a happy round. She went to the classes, but she could read very well, and Gaspard had a way of explaining figures to her. There was the business, too, that she was taking a great interest in, and this amused him very much.

Her kitten grew and was a great pet. There was a flower garden, though wild flowers grew all about and there were wild berries in profusion. She often went with Mère Lunde to gather them, sometimes with parties of children. She learned little housewifely tricks as well. When she found Mère Lunde had no end of memories and legends tucked under her cap, she often made the gentle old body bring them out, when Uncle Gaspard had to spend his evenings talking to the men.

She rather liked the Saturday lesson, though she soon had it all by heart. And she was quite a devout little church-goer. She had been very much impressed when Father Gibault, the vicar general, came up and delivered a funeral oration for Monsieur Pierre Laclede.

Meanwhile the Chouteau brothers stepped into M. Laclede's business. Colonel Auguste Chouteau had been his lieutenant and right-hand man for years. He was very proud of the town, too, and resolved to improve the old Laclede house and make it quite a centre.

There was a new governor as well. Why a mild and judicious ruler like Francisco Cruzat should have been superseded by an avaricious, feeble-minded Spaniard, who was half the time incapable from drink, no one could explain.

Meanwhile some larger questions were coming to the fore that caused great uneasiness. There was war between the American colonies and the British, who had conquered a part of Canada. Spain avowed her sympathy with the colonies. The Indians of the great northwest had affiliated with the British. Then an American, Colonel Rogers Clark, had captured the British posts at Cahokia and Kaskaskia, but afterward gone to Vincennes.

Colonel Chouteau argued that the town should be put in a state of defence. The new palisades had not been finished. This was pushed forward now, the wall strengthened with logs and clay, and in some places rebuilt. The old cannon was replaced with new, and the gates made more secure. The governor even in his sober moments laughed at these precautions.

Sometimes on a Sunday or holiday Gaspard Denys took Renée to visit her grandfather. He made no effort to claim her. Indeed, he was away a good deal, and then his cabin was locked up.

Over beyond at the southern end was the great Chouteau pond, almost a lake where the mill was situated, then a kind of creek winding about and another lovely spot, broadening out, turning around again, and ending in a long point. Young people and older ones too went out to row, taking their dinner in picnic fashion. They were always full of pleasure, these merry French.

Christmas had delighted Renée, and brought a disappointment as well. It was a great season in old St. Louis. At twelve o'clock every one who possibly could went to midnight mass and the little church was crowded. The people were already outgrowing it. Father Meurin had come up from other visitations, there was good old white-haired Father Savigne, who had been a missionary to the Indians and several times barely escaped with his life. Father Valentine taught the children and was much younger.

The altar was decorated and illuminated with candles in front of the Virgin Mother and her baby Son. The solemn yet lovely sound of the Gregorian chants made waves of music through the chapel and stirred every heart. There was the solemn consecration, the kneeling, adoring multitude, the heartfelt responses.

They might not have understood the intricate, hair-splitting truths of to-day, and many no doubt came far short of the divine precepts, but they did worship with all their hearts and souls. And when the priest rang the bell on the hour of midnight it touched them all with deep reverence; and they were glad to join in the hymn, and the benediction descended like a blessing.

Ah, how beautiful it was out of doors! There was no moon, but myriad stars gleamed and glowed, and it seemed as if they were touched with all faint, delicate colors. The ground was white with snow, the peaked roofs were spires, and the river a dark, winding valley.

Outside the church everybody shook hands and gave good wishes. Children and old people were all together. No one would have missed the mass. But now they chatted gayly and talked of the coming day, the young men loitering to capture some pretty girl and walk home with her.

Mère Lunde stirred the fire and Denys put a great log on

it, and on his own in the shop. The little girl's window was hung with a fur curtain, for occasionally the wind found chinks to whistle through as it came from the great prairies beyond and brought the sound of writhing and sometimes crushed forests. But all was warmth within. Mère Lunde made a hot drink with wine and spices, and brought out her Christmas cake which she had not meant to cut until to-morrow.

"But see, it is to-morrow already," she said with her cheery laugh. She had devoted several prayers for her poor son's soul and she was quite sure he was safe with the Blessed Virgin and now understood what heavenly life was like.

"It was all so beautiful," Renée said with a long breath of delight. "And the singing! I can hear it yet in the air."

"Thou must to bed, little one, for to-morrow will be a gay day," said Gaspard, kissing her. "Mère, see that she is well tucked in, for the night is cold."

Alas! for all the precaution the little girl woke up with a strange hot feeling in her throat, and her head was heavy and seemed twice as large as ordinary. She tried to raise it, but everything in the room swam round. She gave a faint cry, but no one heard, for Mère Lunde was busy among pans and pots.

"Come, little laggard!" cried a cheery voice. "The children are here with their étrennes."

These were little cakes with dried fruit dipped in maple syrup and thus coated over. The children carried them about to each other on Christmas morning.

The only answer was a low moan. Uncle Gaspard leaned over the small bed.

"Renée, Renée, what is it?" He raised her in his arms and was startled at her flushed face, her dulled eyes, her hot hands.

"O mère," he cried. "Come, the little one is very ill."

They looked at her, but she did not seem to know them, and moaned pitifully. "Something must be done. She has taken cold, I think, and has a hot fever."

Very few people called in a doctor in those days. Indeed, it would have been difficult to find him this morning. There were many excellent home-made remedies that all housewives put up in the autumn, compounded of roots and barks, some of them learned from the Indian women.

"Poor child, poor petite, yes, she must be attended to at once. Get thy breakfast, m'sieu, while I make some comfort and aid for her. Yes, it is a fever."

"But what shall I do for her?"

"Get me some ears of corn, good big ones."

"And leave her?" aghast at the thought.

"Thou wilt not cure her by staring at her. She can take no harm for a few moments."

There was always a big kettle standing on the coals with four short legs holding it up. Mère Lunde raked out the ashes and pushed the flaming brands under it. Gaspard exhumed an armful of corn from a big box in the shop.

"Drop them in," she said. "A dozen or so."

"Oh, yes, I know now." He nodded in a satisfied fashion, for he had faith in the remedy.

Soon the water bubbled up and the fragrance of the steaming corn diffused itself about the room. Mère Lunde went to the bed and put a thick blanket under the child. Then the ears were laid about her and she was rolled up like a mummy. The woman raised her head a trifle and forced a potion down her throat that almost strangled her. Spreading blankets over her, she tucked her in securely, and, patting the top one, meant for love to the child, she turned away.

"Well people must eat for strength, and Christmas day is no time for fasting. Come."

But Gaspard Denys was in no mood for eating. He had never thought of Renée being ill. He knew of some children who had died, and there was Monsieur Laclede who looked strong enough to live to a hundred years, who had gone out of life with a fever. Oh, he could not give up his little girl!

"Is that all?" he asked presently.

Mère Lunde understood.

"There's no use running in and out like the mill stream, for it's the flour that is getting ground," she said sententiously. "Wait a bit."

He had large patience with most events of life, but here was breathless with suspense. If she had been drooping for days, but she was so merry last night.

Rosalie came to the door. The children were going to Chouteau pond to skate and slide. Would not Renée join them?

"Alas! Renée was very ill."

"But she must get better by to-morrow," nodding hopefully and laughing.

After that Grandpère Freneau came up, which startled Gaspard, for he had never deigned to visit his grandchild. He was sober and comparatively well dressed, and had a little gift for her, a curious inlaid box, with a trinket a girl might like. She would be well again in a few days. Children were tough and sturdy, it was the old people who had to think about ills. As for him, he was strong enough yet.

Then he made a clumsy sort of bow and retreated.

"I hope it will bring no bad luck," exclaimed Mère Lunde. "But he has not a good name. I should throw the gift into the fire!"

"I dare say it is of no great value." He shook the box. "Some bits of silver with which he salves his conscience."

Mère Lunde crossed herself.

He put it away in his desk. He was not superstitious, but he wished it had not happened this morning.

It was quite late, but he unbarred his shop door. There was no trade now. The fall business had lasted longer than usual on account of the fine, open weather. When the cold once set in it often lasted steadily for three months. But there was plenty of pleasure. The regular trappers had gone off, but hunting parties often sallied out and returned laden with game.

Mère Lunde stole in to look at her patient and shook her head, threw some more ears of corn in the kettle and answered the calls that came in a joyous mood and left in sorrow. For people were very sympathetic in those days, and cares were shared in true neighborly fashion.

Presently there was a little moisture about the edge of Renée's hair, but the watcher did not like the dull purple of her cheeks nor the labored breathing. There might be a poultice for the throat; yes, she would make that. And if the good Father came and made a prayer! But that seemed as if one must be very ill indeed.

Gaspard had no mind for pleasure. He went in and stood by the child, who most of the time lay in a heavy sort of sleep. How strange she looked with her red, swollen face, quite unlike herself!

Yes, he would go for Dr. Montcrevier, though he had not much faith in him, for he seemed to think more of strange bugs and birds and fishes than human beings. However, his search was fruitless, perhaps it was as well.

"The fever is abating," was Mère Lunde's greeting in a joyous tone. "Great drops have come out on her forehead. Ah, I think we shall conquer with the good corn. And she has been awake."

There was less pressure for breath, though the rattle in the throat was not a pleasant sound. But by mid-afternoon she was in a drench of perspiration, and then Mère Lunde rubbed her dry and rolled her in a fresh blanket.

"What is the matter? I feel so queer," exclaimed the tremulous voice.

"You are ill, poor little child," in a tender tone.

"Is it morning? The night was so long. It seemed as if the house was burning up."

"It was the bad fever. Oh, yes, it is day, almost another night. Oh, little one, the good God be praised!"

Mère Lunde dropped down on her knees and repeated a short prayer.

Renée raised her head.

"Oh, it still feels queer. And I am so tired."

She dropped off to sleep again. Mère Lunde had two potions, one for the fever, one for her general strength, but she would not disturb her now. Sleep was generally a good medicine.

"She has spoken. She is better," was the mère's greeting as Denys entered. "But she is asleep now. Do not disturb her."

Yes, the dreadful purple was going out of her face. He took the limp little hand. It was cooler, though the pulse still beat hard and high. Ah, how much one could come to love and hardly know it until the threat of losing appeared. And he thought of her mother. He could never get it out of his mind but that she had died in cruel neglect, alone and heartbroken. He pressed the slim fingers to his lips, he studied the brow with its soft, light rings of hair, the almost transparent eyelids and long lashes, the dainty nose that had a piquant ending not quite retroussé but suggestive of it, and the small mouth, the lips wide in the middle that gave it a roundness often seen in childhood. She would be a pretty young girl, though it was her soft yet deep and wondering eyes that made her resemble her mother.

When she roused again Mère Lunde administered her potions. She made a very wry face over the bitter one. The good mère put another poultice on her throat and spread it well over her chest; rolling her up again like a mummy. She would have laughed if there had not been a great lump in her throat.

"I am like a papoose," she said. "Uncle Gaspard, sit here and tell me some stories."

He would not go away after she had fallen asleep, but wrapped himself in a blanket and leaned his head on the foot of her bed. Now and then she moaned a little, which gave him a pang, and after midnight she grew very restless. The fever was coming on again. Mère Lunde roused her and gave her another potion, and before daylight she had prepared the corn bath again. The fever did not seem to be as obstinate. By noon she was quite comfortable. Father Lemoine brought in the vicar general, who was going back to Ste. Genevieve. This was a great honor, and Mère Lunde brought out some wine that had come from the real vineyards of France.

Father Meurin heard the little girl's story. He had known of Antoine Freneau, indeed, he had performed the first marriage and given the first baptism in the little town. That was in a tent, because there was no church. And the first services had been held in the fields, for the church had been built hardly ten years.

"She would be in poor hands if left to her grandfather," he admitted. "And I hope she will be rightly brought up. If you had a wife, M. Denys."

"I have rambled about so much I have had no time to marry," he returned rather drily. "But now I shall settle down."

"I hope so. It is what the towns need, steady occupancy. And you will deal rightly with the child and see that she is brought up as a daughter of the Church should be. You are quite sure her mother-" he finished the question with his eyes.

"I saw the marriage register in the cathedral at Quebec. Then her mother was taken to France, where she died," Denys answered.

The vicar nodded, satisfied. He repeated the prayer for the recovery of the sick and gave them all a kindly blessing with his adieu.

Gaspard Denys fell into a brown study. She was not his child, to be sure. Would it make any difference any time in the future? Ought there to be some woman different from Mère Lunde-bah! it would be years before Renée was grown up. And the little one wanted no one to share his love. He was glad-that would always be an excuse to himself. He never could put any one in the place he had hoped to set Renée Freneau.

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