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   Chapter 6 BY THE FIRESIDE

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 25501

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Renée mended slowly. She had indeed been very ill. She was so weak that it tired her to sit up among the pillows in her bed. And one day when she insisted upon getting up she dropped over into Mère Lunde's arms.

"Where is all my strength gone to?" she inquired pettishly.

"Pauvre petite," it was queer, and the good woman had no science to explain it.

But her throat improved and her voice cleared up, the fever grew lighter every day and she began to have some appetite. Friends came in to inquire and sympathize and bring delicacies. Madame Renaud offered her services, but no one was really needed, though the cordial, smiling face did Renée good. Ma'm'selle Barbe brought the two little girls, who looked awestricken at the pale face, where the eyes seemed bigger than ever.

Uncle Gaspard made a sort of settle on which they could put some cushions and blankets so that she could be brought out to the living room and watch Mère Lunde at her work. Then he improved upon it and made it into a kind of chair with a back that could be raised and lowered by an ingenious use of notches and wooden pins. He was getting so handy that he made various useful articles, for in those days in these upper settlements there were so few pieces of furniture that could be purchased, unless some one died and left no relatives, which was very seldom. Proud enough one was of owning an article or a bit of china or a gown that was a family heirloom.

"Oh," he said one evening when she was comfortably fixed and the blaze of the great logs lighted up the room and made her pale face a little rosy, "I had almost forgotten-you have been so ill it drove most other things out of my mind. Your grandfather came up here on Christmas day and brought you a gift."

"A gift! Oh, what was it?"

"Mère Lunde had not forgotten, but she had a superstitious feeling about it. I will get it for you," Gaspard said.

He returned from the adjoining room with the box in his hand. It was very securely fastened with a twisted bit of deerskin, which was often used for cord.

"Open it," she begged languidly.

He cut the cord but did not raise the cover. She held it some seconds in her hand.

"Uncle, do you remember you told me about a girl who opened a box and let troubles out all over the world?"

"But she was bidden not to. Grandpère Antoine did not leave any such word as that," smilingly.

She raised the cover slowly. There was a bit of soft white fur in the bottom and on it lay a golden chain and a cross, with a pearl set where the arms and upright met. In the clasp was a smaller pearl. She held it up silently.

"The good saints must have touched his soul!" ejaculated Mère Lunde. "A beautiful cross! It is gold?" with a questioning glance at Denys.

Renée handed it to him.

"Oh, yes, gold of course. And your grandfather seemed quite moved with pity for you. I saw him again this morning, but he said, 'Oh, I did not think she would die.'"

Renée's eyes were wide open, with a startled light. "Did anybody think-that?" and her voice trembled.

"You may be sure I did not," exclaimed Denys with spirit, almost with joyousness. "I would not have let you go."

She held out both arms to him, and he clasped her to his heart.

"But people are compelled to sometimes," said Mère Lunde gravely.

"We were not compelled. And now you are to get well as rapidly as possible. Everybody has been having a merry time with the king's ball, and you have missed it. But there is next year."

How far away next year seemed! Spring, and summer, and autumn.

"How long have I been ill? It is queer, but I don't seem to remember clearly," trying to think, and studying the leaping blaze that seemed like a group of children playing tag, or hide and seek.

"It is almost a month. First it was pretty bad," and he compressed his lips with a queer expression and shook his head. Now he had let his hair grow quite long, as most of the men did, and the ends fell into a sort of curl.

"And then-Mère Lunde, the things you gave me were very bad and bitter, and my head used to go round, I remember. Sometimes things stood on the ceiling in such a funny position. And then to be like a baby, hardly able to walk."

She gave a soft, languid ripple of a laugh. Ah, what if he had lost her!

"And when can I go out?"

"Oh, not in a long while. It is bitter cold, even the river is full of ice chunks. But you may dance at the next king's ball."

"The king's ball?" inquiringly.

"Not the King of France," with a gentle smile. "When the Christ was born three kings came to do Him honor. And the feast is always kept."

"The blessed Epiphany," explained Mère Lunde. "Though why it should be given over to all this merry-making I can't see."

"Did you ever go?" asked Renée.

"Oh, yes. But not last year-I had started for Canada. And the year before I was up with the hunters."

"Tell me about it."

He sat down beside her. She was twisting the chain about her fingers.

"There is not much to do for the people who stay here in the winter, though New Orleans is twice as gay. So they have the balls. There are four queens, pretty young girls, and they each choose a king and open the ball with him. Then they dance. But the old people and a good many of the children go as well. And there is dancing and jollity and a feast of good things to eat, and much laughing and jesting and falling in love, with the marrying at Easter. Next year we will go."

"I will keep my chain to wear then." She put it back in the box. "And when I am well I will go down and thank grandfather."

"Yes, yes, that will be the right thing to do. I will take you."

Then they were silent awhile. "Tell me some of the stories you know," she entreated.

"I have told you so many."

"But you can think of one more," in her coaxing tone. "Away up in the north and the endless fields of snow, and where does it end?"

"At the North Pole, I believe."

"And what is that?" eagerly.

"We will have to ask Dr. Montcrevier. I have never been farther than Hudson's Bay."

"But people can't live in such endless cold!"

"I think not. Only polar bears and the white and silver fox, and they come down in the winter. And then there are islands hundreds of miles away below us, where it is always summer."

"What a queer world!" She smiled absently as if she could hardly take it in. "Have you been there?"

"Only to New Orleans. Some day we will go there, too."

"Oh, how much there is to do. Yes, one must live a long while to do it all," and a thoughtful expression deepened her eyes.

"And you are tired, little one. You must go to bed."

It was strange to get so tired. She had been tired many times on the long journey from Canada, but not like this. She was very glad she had not died, however, though she had no very clear idea about death, except that it meant going to another world. Uncle Gaspard was here, and that was one reason why she wanted to stay.

Presently she began to go about and take pleasure in having the children come in and tell her about their sports. The life was so simple, the main thing seemed to be the good times. No one troubled about education and there were no "higher branches" to vex one's soul. There was much less dissipation here than in New Orleans or even Detroit, where people from other towns were continually mingling.

One day Uncle Gaspard took her out on his sledge. She had never dreamed of anything so splendid. Great fields of snowy white, as far as the eye could see, dotted here and there with a cluster of wigwam poles and brown skins stretched on the outside for warmth. A little blue-gray smoke curled lazily upward, and then the bluest sky over it all. The air was exhilarating and brought a color to her pale cheeks, and made her eyes glow like stars.

Then spring came. The white blanket melted away, the evergreens and spruces scented the air with their new growth; the little streams rushed hither and thither as if they were joyfully carolling, birds sang and built everywhere. Children were out for wild flowers, and raced around like deers. Some days the old mound was alive with them, then they were down to Chouteau's pond. The boys and often some girls went up the river in canoes. There was the old rock of Fort St. Louis with its story of a hundred years agone, of how La Salle had built a fort and planted an Indian colony, that, when its leader had gone, dwindled and went back to its native tribes. How there had been a fierce quarrel between the Illinois and the Outgamies, and the Illinois had fled to the top of the rock and stayed there until starvation stared them in the face and French intervention came to their assistance.

Then business opened and Gaspard Denys found his hands full. His wide acquaintance with the hunters and his dealings with the Indians brought him in a great deal of trade. There was a continual loading and unloading of boats, the levee was thronged. Denys had to take in a clerk, and his evenings were devoted to straightening accounts and preparing for the next day, and it seemed to Renée as if he was always busy now, with no time for stories.

Easter brought a gay festival and several weddings. The young voyageurs were warmly welcomed home and there was always a feast or a ball given in their honor. When the houses were too small, they went out and danced on the green. Marriages seemed an especially social affair. The families on both sides made the agreement and were mutually pleased. It was seldom a young couple disregarded the respect universally paid to parents, and though there was much pioneer life there was a kind of elegance and refinement among the women with all their vivacious gayety. The admixture of Spanish blood was no bad element.

One of the young traders had brought home with him a beautiful Indian wife, lawfully wedded by one of the mission priests. These mixed marriages were not in much favor with the French. Now and then a trapper brought in one and stayed a few months, but she nearly always preferred to share his hunting expeditions. Still, there were some comfortably settled, whose families years afterward were very proud of their Indian descent.

Fran?ois Marchand found an old friend in Gaspard Denys. It does not take a decade to cement a friendship made over camp-fires and days filled with adventures and dangers. They had not met in two years, and the youth, who seemed but a stripling to Gaspard then, was now a fine young fellow, his slim figure filled out, his thin face rounded with certain lines of energy, determination, and good health. His clear blue eyes were resolute and undaunted; his chestnut hair was cropped close, which made him less of an object for an Indian's scalping knife.

"How the town has grown!" he exclaimed with great earnestness. New St. Louis would have laughed at the idea that twenty or thirty families could add much importance. But there had been a few new houses built, sundry additions made to older ones where families had increased. Colonel Chouteau was beautifying the house and grounds where his lamented chief and dear friend had lived. The government house had been repaired, though the new occupant seemed much more indifferent than his people, and cared very little for the interest of the town in general.

"We shall have a fine place by and by," returned Denys. "True, New Orleans has the mouth of the great river, but if no boats come down, what then? And we are the half-way house, the north and the south both need us. If it were not for these troublesome restrictions on trade, and the fear of the British."

"France, it seems, has sided with the colonies, and Spain has given them a certain sympathy," returned Marchand. "You hear a good deal of talk up north. The fur dealers of New Amsterdam are quite sure the colonies will win in the end, though by my faith it doesn't look very promising now," and he gave a doubtful laugh.

"Almost five years of losing and winning! Well, they are plucky not to be discouraged. But what troubles me a little are the English over there!" nodding to the eastward. "If some fine day they descend upon us-well, we shall be wiped out, that is all about it! The government at New Orleans does not seem to care, and sends us this drunken, insolent fellow for commandant, who is as set in his own ways as a mule."

"The English will be kept busy enough on the eastern coast defending their ports and trying to capture the cities. Faith! it is a great and glorious country, and I hardly know which has the best, the east or the west. If some day the way is cleared to the Pacific coast, and then, presto! India!"

India was still a dream of the advancement of

commerce. The western empire was to turn more than one brain.

Denys studied the young face in the glow of youthful enthusiasm.

"Marchand, you should have been a soldier," he said.

"Well, which side shall I take?" mockingly. "I am French. Those cursed English have driven us out of Canada. Thank Heaven we have left some graves of heroes there. But I wonder what Louis le Grand could have been thinking of to allow himself to be despoiled of such a magnificent estate! And here we were all turned over to Spain without even a chance to fight for our homes in the New World," and Marchand gave a strong, scornful laugh. "There are still the Indians left."

"We have kept good friends with them so far."

"But the British can stir them up easily. Rum and firearms may do the mischief. Still, it is true that some day I may have to fight for my life, or something I hold dearer than life."

"Are you going back north?"

Marchand shook his head. He was sitting on a pile of skins leaning against the wall, picturesque in his voyageur's attire, which was highly ornamented with Indian work. Now and then in the intervals of talk he blew out a volume of smoke from his pipe, or made rings in the air when he took it from his mouth. There was something jaunty and light-hearted about him in spite of the resolute eyes.

"Nay," with a shake of the head, "I have cut myself out of that. I like the life, too. Denys, were you ever very much in love? But no, that is a foolish question, for you are the sort of man to fight for the one who roused your soul. And so many pretty girls are here in St. Louis!"

"Yes, I heard you had married," evading the half inquiry.

"I want you to see her, my beautiful Indian prize. Though I suspect there is a strain of French blood back of her mother, who was brought somewhere from Canada. And when her father was killed at one of those dreadful massacres up on the strait (her mother had died before), she and her brother were adopted in one branch of the Huron tribe. Her brother married a chief's daughter. I saw her first more than a year ago, in the winter. She was only a child, not as forward as most Indian maids. And last winter we met again, and yes, fell in love with each other. The squaw who had been like a mother to her consented. But straightway there was trouble. Her brother had chosen a brave for her, a fellow noted for his fighting propensities and his love of drink. It was surmised that he was buying her. She shrank from him with horror. He had had two wives already, and rumor said he had beaten one to death. I was ready to leave with my men and pack, and she came to me in terror and despair. She would have killed herself, I know, before she could have gone to such a brute. We loved each other, and the old woman Nasauka pitied us, and had a strong liking for me. So it was arranged. I was to start with my people, leaving her behind. When the train was several days under way I was to remain at a given point where Nasauka was to meet me with the girl, and then return to ward suspicion from the right track. I only hope the poor woman did not suffer for her kindly sympathy for us. We made our way along without any alarm. At a mission station a priest married us. And now we are safe here and doubtless unsuspected. But I shall not expose myself to any dangers, at least for several years to come. There are other trails to work on. Or we may go farther south."

"Quite a romantic story, Marchand. The saints be praised that you rescued her from such a life, though I think she would have chosen death rather. I have known of several instances. Yes, it will be safer not to visit the old hunting ground, even if the brave solaces himself with a new wife."

"And now you must see her. I know there is a little prejudice, and," with a cynical sort of smile, "if I had a sister I should not let her marry an Indian if I had to shut her up in a convent. But there are many charming Indian girls and kindly hearted squaws, true as steel, who will suffer anything rather than betray. Strange, too, when you find so much deceit and falseness and cruelty among the men."

"The women take all the virtues, perhaps. Yes, I shall be glad to welcome you. To-morrow you will bring her to dine with us. Meanwhile, you have found a home?"

"With the Garreaus. Pierre did the same thing, you know, and is happy enough with his two pretty children. Ah, when you see my beautiful wife you will not wonder that I went mad for her," laughing with a kind of gay triumph.

Ah, if he had been brave enough at twenty to fly with Renée Freneau! But would she have dared an unblessed marriage? And then neither dreamed of such a result from the journey to Canada.

"I shall not blame you," Gaspard answered gravely. "And if you want a staunch friend, here he is," springing up and holding out his hand.

"A thousand thanks, Gaspard Denys. I wanted to tell you my story. It is not for every one, only the fact that I have loved and married her. And now it grows late. Good-night."

They clasped hands again cordially. Denys shut his shop door and went through to the other room. Mère Lunde was telling over some beads. Renée sat in the chimney corner, but the fire was out long ago.

"Why did you let that man talk so long to you?" with pretty imperiousness. "And I grew very sleepy. But I wanted to say good-night."

"He had much to relate, a story you will like to hear sometime. And he is coming to-morrow to bring a pretty Indian wife that he found up by the Strait of Michilimackinac. That is a long name, is it not?"

"And is the strait long-as long as to the end of the millpond?"

"It is of more account. It connects the big Lake Michigan with Lake Huron."

Geography had not come to be one of the studies, and the only maps were the traders' rough outlines of journeys.

She was not considering the lakes. Her thoughts were as rapid as a bird's flight.

"Is she like Mattawissa?"

"Oh, younger, much younger. Only a girl. Fifteen or sixteen perhaps. They will come to dinner to-morrow. Mère Lunde," raising his voice a little, "we shall have guests to-morrow. Give us a good dinner."

"Guests! How many?" in a cheerful tone.

"Oh, only two. A young trader and his wife, a pretty Indian girl. Unless, indeed, some one else drops in."

This often happened in a town where there were no inns, and sometimes led to rather amusing episodes when a traveller mistook the wide-open doors and a bountiful table for a hostelry.

"Did you see her?" asked Renée, following out her own thoughts.

"No, but I have known him some time. He was a young lad here in the town, Fran?ois Marchand."

Mère Lunde shut down the cover of the box that held her beads, and picked up the end of her stout apron. It always seemed to assist her memory.

"Marchand. And a boy. Had he very blue eyes?"

"Yes, and he has them still," laughed Denys.

"Then I know. He was a nice lad. It is a thousand pities he has married an Indian. Yes, you shall have a good dinner. Renée, it is time thou went to bed."

Renée rose and kissed Uncle Gaspard. She had, ever since her illness, that seemed to have drawn them nearer together, if such a thing had been possible.

As a great honor the next day, she brought out her pretty bowl and filled it with flowers. Uncle Gaspard had made a small table with a drawer that held Mère Lunde's beads and some other choice articles, and had a shelf low down on which was kept a work-basket with sewing materials, for at times Renée was seized with a fit of devotion to her needle. On the top of the table she set the bowl.

Curious eyes had followed Fran?ois Marchand down the Rue de l'Eglise. For with a vanity quite natural the young girl had taken in her flight her beautifully ornamented dress that would have adorned any Indian bride. Long afterward in the Marchand family they used to display grandmère's exquisitely worked suit.

Gaspard Denys with Renée by the hand went out to the gate to bid them welcome. Renée almost stared. A slim, graceful figure of medium height, with a face that in some towns would have attracted more attention than the attire. Large, soft eyes of dusky, velvety blackness, a complexion just tinted with Indian blood, the cheeks blossoming in the most exquisite rose hue, while the lips were cherry red. Her long hair was brushed up from her straight, low brow, held with a band of glittering bead work, and falling about her shoulders like a veil, much softer and finer than ordinary Indian hair. Her short skirt had a band of shining white feathers overlapping each other, with here and there a cluster of yellow ones that resembled a daisy. The fine, elegantly dressed fawnskin was like velvet. The bodice was wrought with beads and variously colored threads and a sort of lace the Indian women made, though it was an infrequent employment, being rather tedious. Over her shoulders a cape of soft-dressed, creamy skin, with designs worked here and there in fine detail.

She colored daintily on being presented to M. Denys, and he in turn brought forward his little protégé, who held up her head proudly and felt almost as tall. But a second glance conquered Renée. She proffered both hands cordially.

"Oh, I am sure I shall like you," she cried frankly. How could any one help adoring so much beauty! For Renée was not envious of beauty alone.

The young wife took the hands with glad pressure, and they went in together.

"Here is a friend who remembers you," said Denys to Marchand. "Her son died, and at that juncture I wanted a housekeeper. She fits in admirably."

Mère Lunde trembled with delight when he shook her hand so heartily and expressed his pleasure at seeing her again, declaring that she had grown younger instead of older, which was true enough, so great a restorer is freedom from care and fear of coming want.

"But the child?" said Marchand with curiosity in his eyes.

The child was playing hostess to the young wife with the ease and grace of a true Frenchwoman, and displaying the adornments of her room. This and that had come from Mattawissa, who made beautiful articles that Uncle Gaspard sent to New Orleans, and who was sweet and friendly, not like some of the morose old Indian women about. But then Mattawissa was not old.

Gaspard smiled at the little girl's chatter, and explained briefly.

"One would hardly think such a pretty innocent thing could belong to old Antoine! Is he still in with the river pirates? His goods must be hidden somewhere. He does not keep them in the house, it would seem, for the guards found nothing when they searched."

"He is a shrewd old dog," replied Gaspard. "But his wife and his daughter were of a different kind. And you see he could not have taken charge of the child."

Marchand nodded.

The dinner was certainly Mère Lunde's best. The men had their talk about trade and who was prospering, but the two girls, who sat side by side, had some gay laughs, and occasionally hard work to understand each other. Wawataysee, the Firefly, as she was called in her native language, knew a little French and a little English, and often confused them. Renée had picked up a few words of English, but the tongue was quite despised at that time. And when the dinner was through they went out to walk, pausing at the little old church and the priest's house on the way to the fort, and the little plot about.

Father Valentine came out and gave them a cordial greeting. Denys did the honors.

The priest bent his head close to Marchand's.

"You have been true and fair with this beautiful girl?" he asked a little anxiously. "She is your lawful wife?"

"Yes, oh, a thousand times yes. Here is the good father's signature and that of the witnesses. It was at the little mission at St. Pierre's."

He took out a bundle of papers in a deerskin wallet. Tied securely in a little package by itself was the priest's certificate.

Father Valentine nodded, well pleased. "And she is a baptized Christian," he added. "I wish you both much happiness."

"Suppose you keep this awhile for me," said Marchand, "while I am changing about. I hardly know yet where I shall settle."

"Gladly will I oblige you. But why not stay here, my son? St. Louis needs industry and energy and capable citizens for her upbuilding."

"I am thinking of it, I confess. I have already met with a warm welcome from old friends."

They walked round about the fort. Wawataysee knew curious legends of Pontiac and had heard of the siege of Detroit. Indeed, many of the Hurons had participated in it. And here was the end of so much bravery and energy, misdirected, and of no avail against the invincible march of the white man.

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