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   Chapter 7 AT THE KING’S BALL

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 20463

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


It was a very gay summer to Renée de Longueville.

Rosalie Pichou protested and grew angry at being superseded.

"She is only an Indian after all," the girl exclaimed disdainfully. "And my mother thinks it a shame M'sieu Marchand should have married her when there were so many nice girls in St. Louis."

"But she is beautiful and sweet. And, Rosalie, Uncle Gaspard will not care to have you come if you say ugly things about her."

"Well, I can stay away. There are plenty of girls to play with. And I shall soon be a young ma'm'selle and have lovers of my own, then I shall not care for a little chit like you. You can even send the cat back if you like."

The cat had grown big and beautiful and kept the place free from mice and rats, which was a great object in the storeroom. Uncle Gaspard said he would not trade it for a handsome silver foxskin, which everybody knew was worth a great deal of money in France.

Madame Marchand made many friends by her grace and amiability. She taught Renée some beautiful handiwork, and with the little girl was always a welcome visitor at Mattawissa's, though at first they had as much difficulty understanding each other's Indian language as if it had been English. But what a lovely, joyous summer it was, with its walks and water excursions up and down the river and on the great pond!

On Saturday she went with Renée to be instructed in the Catechism, and whichever father was there he seemed impressed with Wawataysee's sweet seriousness and gentle ways.

Then autumn came on. The great fields of corn were cut, the grapes gathered and the wine made. The traders came in again and boats plied up and down. Uncle Gaspard was very busy, and the men about said, making money. The women wondered if Renée de Longueville would get it all, and what old Antoine Freneau had; if so she would be a great heiress.

There were nuts to gather as well, and merry parties haunted the woods for them. Oh, what glorious days these were, quite enough to inspirit any one! Then without much warning a great fleecy wrap of snow fell over everything, but the sledging and the shouting had as much merriment in it.

Gaspard Denys did not want Renée to go to midnight mass at Christmastide.

"Oh, I am so much bigger and stronger now," she said. "I am not going to be such a baby as to take cold. Oh, you will see."

She carried her point, of course. He could seldom refuse her anything. And the next morning she was bright enough to go to church again. And how sweet it was to see the children stop on the porch and with bowed heads exclaim, "Your blessing, ma mère, your blessing, mon père," and shake hands with even the poorest, giving them good wishes.

Then all parties went home to a family breakfast. Even the servants were called in. Then the children ran about with the étrennes to each other.

"Uncle Gaspard," Renée said, "I want to take something to my grandfather. He brought me that beautiful chain and cross last year, and I made a cake that Mère Lunde baked, and candied some pears, thinking of him."

"Perhaps he is not home. You can never tell."

"He was yesterday. M. Marchand saw him. Will you go?"

"You had better have Mère Lunde. I am busy. But if I can find time I will walk down and meet you. And-Renée, do not go in."

"I will heed," she answered smilingly.

The road was hardly broken outside the stockade. Once or twice she slipped and fell into the snow, but it was soft and did not hurt her. Mère Lunde grumbled a little.

"There is a smoke coming from the chimney," Renée cried joyfully. "Let us go around to the kitchen door."

They knocked two or three times. They could hear a stir within, and presently the door was opened a mere crack.

"Grandfather," the child began, "I have come to wish you a good Christmas. I am sorry you were not at church to hear how the little babe Jesus was born for our sakes, and how glad all the stars were, even, so glad that they sang together. And I have brought you some small gifts, a cake I made for you, alone, yesterday. You made me such a beautiful gift last year when I was ill."

"And you've come for another! That's always the way," he returned gruffly.

"No, grandfather, I do not want anything, only to give you this basket with good wishes and tell you that I am well and happy," she said in a proud, sweet voice, and set the basket down on the stone at the doorway. "It would not be quite right for you to give me anything this year."

Her gray fur cloak covered her, and her white fur cap over her fair curls gave her a peculiar daintiness.

"Good-by," she continued, "with many good wishes."

He looked after her in a kind of dazed manner. And she did not want anything! True, she had enough. Gaspard Denys took good care of her-he was too old to be bothered with a child.

But she skipped along very happily. The Marchands were coming in to supper, and in the meanwhile she and Mère Lunde would concoct dainty messes. She would not go out sledding with the children lest she should take cold again.

It was all festival time now. It seemed as if people had nothing to do but to be gay and merry. Fiddling and singing everywhere, and some of the voices would have been bidden up to a high price in more modern times.

And on New Year's day the streets were full of young men who went from door to door singing a queer song, she thought, when she came to know it well afterward. Part of it was, "We do not ask for much, only the eldest daughter of the house. We will give her the finest of the wine and feast her and keep her feet warm," which seemed to prefigure the dance a few days hence. Sometimes the eldest daughter would come out with a contribution, and these were all stored away to be kept for the Epiphany ball.

In the evening they sang love songs at the door or window of the young lady to whom they were partial, and if the fancy was returned or welcomed the fair one generally made some sign. And then they said good-night to the master and mistress of the household and wished them a year's good luck.

If a pretty girl or even a plain one was out on New Year's day unattended, a young fellow caught her, kissed her, and wished her a happy marriage and a prosperous year. Sometimes, it was whispered, there had a hint been given beforehand and the right young fellow found the desired girl.

But the king's ball was the great thing. In the early afternoon the dames and demoiselles met and the gifts were arranged for the evening. Of the fruit and flour a big cake was baked in which were put four large beans. When all was arranged the girls and the mothers donned their best finery, some of it half a century old, and kept only for state occasions. The older people opened the ball with the minuet de la cour, which was quite grand and formal.

Then the real gayety began. With it all there was a certain charming respect, a kind of fine breeding the French never lost. Old gentlemen danced with the young girls, and the young men with matrons. Children were allowed in also, and had corners to themselves. It was said of them that the French were born dancing.

There were no classes in this festivity. Even some of the upper kind of slaves came, and the young Indians ventured in.

Gaspard Denys took the little girl, who was all eagerness. M. and Madame Garreau brought their guests, the Marchands, for society had quite taken in the beautiful young Indian, who held her head up so proudly no one would have dared to offer her a slight.

Among the gayest was Barbe Guion. She had not taken young Maurice, who had gone off to New Orleans. People were beginning to say that she was a bit of a coquette. Madame Renaud announced that Alphonse Maurice was too trifling and not steady enough for a good husband. In her heart Barbe knew that she had never really meant to marry him.

At midnight the cake was cut and every young girl had a piece. This was the great amusement, and everybody thronged about.

"A bean! a bean!" cried Manon Dupont, holding it high above her head so all could see.

Then another, one of the pretty Aubry girls, whose sister had been married at Easter.

"And I, too," announced Barbe Guion, laughing.

They cleared a space for the four queens to stand out on the floor. What eager glances the young men cast.

Manon Dupont chose her lover, as every one supposed she would, but there was no fun or surprise in it, though a general assent.

"And how will she feel at the next ball when he has to choose a queen?" said some one. "She is a jealous little thing."

Ma'm'selle Aubry glanced around with a coquettish air and selected the handsomest young fellow in the room.

Who would Barbe Guion choose? She looked dainty enough in a white woollen gown with scarlet cloth bands; and two or three masculine hearts beat with a thump, as the eyes fairly besought.

Gaspard Denys was talking with the burly commandant of the fort, though it must be admitted there was very little to command. She went over to him and handed him her rose.

He bowed and a slight flush overspread his face, while her eyes could not conceal her delight.

"You do me a great deal of honor, ma'm'selle, but you might have bestowed your favor on a younger and more suitable man. I thank you for the compliment," and he pinned the rose on his coat.

She smiled with a softened light in her eyes.

"It is the first time I have had a chance to choose a king," she said in a caressing sort of voice. "I could not have suited myself better. And-I am almost eighteen. Elise was married a year before that."

"You are not single for lack of admirers, ma'm'selle." She remembered he used to call her Barbe. "What did you do with Alphonse, send him away with a broken heart?"

"His was not the kind of heart to break, monsieur. And a girl cannot deliberately choose bad luck. There is sorrow enough when it comes unforeseen."

Then they took their places. Renée had been very eager at first and watched the two closely. M. Marchand had appealed to her on some trifle, and now she saw Barbe and Uncle Gaspard take their places in the dance.

"Did she-choose Uncle Gaspard?" the child exclaimed with a long respi

ration that was like a sigh, while a flush overspread her face.

"He is the finest man in the room! I would have chosen him myself if I had been a maid. And if you had been sixteen wouldn't you have taken him, little girl? Well, your day will come," in a gay tone.

Wawataysee placed her arm over the child's shoulder. "Let us go around here, we can see them better. What an odd way to do! And very pretty, too!"

Renée's first feeling was that she would not look. Then with a quick inconsequence she wanted to see every step, every motion, every glance. Her king! Barbe Guion had chosen him, and the child's eyes flashed.

It was a beautiful dance, and the gliding, skimming steps of light feet answered the measure of the music exquisitely. Other circles formed. The kings and the queens were not to have it all to themselves.

The balls were often kept up till almost morning, though the children and some of the older people went home. Gaspard made his way through the crowd. Madame Marchand beckoned him, and as he neared them he saw Renée was clinging to her with a desperate emotion next to tears.

"Is it not time little ones were in bed?" she asked with her fascinating smile and in pretty, broken French. "Madame Garreau wishes to retire. It is beautiful, and every one is so cordial. I have danced with delight," and her pleasure shone in her eyes. "But we will take the child safe to Mère Lunde if it is your will."

"Oh, thank you. Yes. You will go, Renée? You look tired." She was pale and her eyes were heavy.

"And you-you stay here and are Ma'm'selle Barbe's king," she said in a tone of plaintive reproach that went to his heart.

"That is only for to-night. There are other queens beside her."

"But she is your queen." The delicate emphasis amused him, it betrayed the rankling jealousy.

"And you are my queen as well, to-morrow, next week, all the time. So do not grudge her an hour or two. See, I am going to give you her rose, my rose, to take home with you."

She smiled, albeit languidly, and held out her small hand, grasping it with triumph.

He broke the stem as he drew it out, leaving the pin in his coat.

"Now let me see you wrapped up snug and tight. Mind you don't get any cold. Tell Mère Lunde to warm the bed and give you something hot to drink."

She nodded and the party went to the dressing room. The two Indian women chattered in their own language, or rather in a patois that they had adopted. Wawataysee was very happy, and her soft eyes shone with satisfaction. Her husband thought her the prettiest woman in all St. Louis.

Renée gave her orders and Mère Lunde attended to them cheerfully.

"For if you should fall ill again our hearts would be heavy with sorrow and anxiety." she said.

Renée had carried the rose under her cloak and it was only a little wilted. She put it in some water herself, and brought the stand near the fireplace, for sometimes it would freeze on the outer edges of the room, though they kept a big log fire all night.

Gaspard went back to Ma'm'selle Barbe.

"Oh, your rose!" she cried. "Where is it?"

He put his hand to his coat as if he had not known it. "The pin is left," he said. "What a crowd there is! St. Louis is getting overrun with people," laughing gayly. "Give me a rose out of your nosegay, for it would signify bad luck to go on the floor without it."

He took one and fastened it in his coat again, and they were soon merrily dancing. There was no absolute need of changing partners, and the queens were proud of keeping their admirers all the evening.

Barbe was delighted and happy, for Gaspard evinced no disposition to stray off, and danced to her heart's content, if not his. He had grown finer looking, certainly, since he had relinquished the hardships of a trapper's life. His complexion had lost the weather-beaten look, his frame had filled out, and strangely enough, he was a much more ready talker. Renée chattered so much, asked him so many questions, and made him talk over people and places he had seen that it had given him a readiness to talk to women. Men could always find enough to say to each other, or enjoy silence over their pipes.

She seemed to grow brighter instead of showing fatigue, and her voice had musical cadences in it very sweet to hear. The touch of her hand on his arm or his shoulder in the dance did give him a peculiar sort of thrill. She was a very sweet, pretty girl. He was glad not to have her wasted on Alphonse Maurice.

But the delicious night came to an end for her. There was a curious little strife among some of the young men to make a bold dash and capture a queen. The girls were sometimes willing enough to be caught. Barbe had skilfully evaded this, he noted.

"Ma'm'selle Guion has the bravest king of them all," said a neighbor. "He is a fine fellow. I wonder, Mère Renaud, you do not fan the flame into a blaze. He is prospering, too. Colonel Chouteau speaks highly of him and holds out a helping hand. If I had daughters no one would suit me better."

Madame Renaud smiled and nodded as if she had a secret confidence.

Mothers in old St. Louis were very fond and proud of their daughters and were watchful of good opportunities for them. And those who had none rather envied them. It was the cordial family affection that made life in these wilderness places delightful.

Barbe was being wound up in her veil so that her pretty complexion should suffer no ill at this coldest hour of the twenty-four, after being heated in the dance. She looked very charming, very tempting. If he had been a lover he would have kissed her.

"You come so seldom now," she said in a tone of seductive complaint. "And we were always such friends when you returned from your journeys. The children have missed you so much. And Lisa wonders-"

"I suppose it is being busy every day. At that time you know there was a holiday between."

"But there is no business now until spring opens," in a pleading tone.

"Except for the householder, the shopkeeper. Oh, you have no idea how ingenious I have become. And the men drop in to talk over plans and berate the Governor because things are not in better shape. We would fare badly in an attack."

"Are we in any danger from the British?"

"One can never tell. Perhaps they may take up Pontiac's wild dream of driving us over the mountains into the sea. No," with a short laugh, "I am not much afraid. And our Indians are friendly also."

"Come, Barbe," counselled Madame Renaud, but she took her husband's arm and marched on ahead like an astute general.

Barbe clung closely to her attendant, for in some places it was slippery.

"Next time you will transfer your attentions," she said with a touch of regret. "I wonder who will be your queen for a night?"

"The prettiest girl," he said gayly.

"Madame Marchand is beautiful."

"But she is no longer a girl."

"Oh, no. You see a good deal of her, though?"

"They are over often. We are excellent friends."

"Renée is quite bewitched with her."

"Yes, they are very fond of each other."

And somehow she, Barbe, was no more fond of the child than the child was of her.

Madame Renaud studied her sister's face as they were unwinding their wraps. It was rather pale, not flushed and triumphant as she hoped.

Gaspared Denys stirred the fire in his shop and threw himself on a pile of skins and was asleep in five minutes. It had been a long while since he had danced all night.

They all slept late. There was no need of stirring early in the morning. They made no idol of industry, as the energetic settlers on the eastern coast did. Pleasure and happiness were enough for them. It ran in the French blood.

When Gaspard woke he heard a sound of an eager chattering voice. He rubbed his limbs and stretched himself, looked down on his red sash and then saw a withered red rose that he tossed in the fire.

"Ah, little one, you are as blithe as a bee," was his greeting.

"Oh, Uncle Gaspard, you have on your ball clothes. When did you come home?" she asked.

"I dropped asleep in them. I am old and stiff this morning. I tumbled down on a pile of skins and stayed there."

"You don't look very old. And-are you a king now?" rather curiously.

"I must be two weeks hence. Then I resign my sceptre, and become an ordinary person."

"And Mère Lunde said you had to choose a new queen." There was a touch of elation in her voice.

"That is so. And I told Ma'm'selle Guion I should look out for the very prettiest girl. I shall be thinking all the time."

"I wish you could take Wawataysee. She is the prettiest of anybody, and the sweetest."

"And she has already chosen her king for life."

"The breakfast will get cold," warned Mère Lunde.

There were more snows, days when you could hardly stir out and paths had to be shovelled. The next ball night it stormed, but Renée did not care to go, because M. and Madame Marchand were staying all night and they would play games and have parched corn and cakes and spiced drinks. Wawataysee would sing, too. And though the songs were odd, she had an exquisite voice, and she could imitate almost any bird, as well as the wind flying and shrieking through the trees, and then softening with sounds of spring.

Sometimes they danced together, and it was a sight to behold, the very impersonation of grace; soft, languid mazes at first and then warming into flying sprites of the forest. And how Renée's eyes shone and her cheeks blossomed, while the little moccasined feet made no more sound than a mouse creeping about.

There was no especial carnival at St. Louis, perhaps a little more gayety than usual, and the dances winding up at midnight. Nearly every one went to church the next morning, listened to the prayers reverently, had a small bit of ashes dropped on his or her head, went home and fasted the rest of the day. But Lent was not very strictly kept, and the maids were preparing for Easter weddings.

"It is strange," said grandaunt Guion, "that Barbe has no lover. She is too giddy, too much of a coquette. She will be left behind. And she is too pretty to turn into an old maid. Guion girls were not apt to hang on hand."

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