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A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 23704

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

It was, indeed, the lodges of the Peorias. The old chief, Neepawa, had long since given up rambling life, and with many of the elder people formed a settlement, where they had lived in peace with their white neighbors and seldom been molested by their red brethren. They were more industrious than many tribes. The main colony was about Ste. Genevieve, but these adored their old chief and his wife and enjoyed the smaller combination. They were kindly hearted and ready to hold out a helping hand, and enjoyed their seclusion.

Wawataysee had collapsed from fatigue and pure joy at the certainty that they would reach St. Louis once more. Of the next few incidents she kept only the vague remembrance of a dream. She was taken into one of the lodges and water brought to her, and when the woman saw how utterly exhausted she was, she bathed her face and combed her hair, then her poor feet, and brought her a cup of warm spiced drink, put her in some fresh garments and left her to sleep. Some other motherly hands had taken Renée in charge, who chattered with all the Indian words she had picked up and entertained her hostess extremely.

Meanwhile, Valbonais had related to the old chief his own mishaps, his meeting with Wawataysee and Renée in their captivity, the terrible storm and the disaster to Black Feather and his followers that had led to their opportunity of escape. Neepawa had heard of the attack on St. Louis, and the signal repulse the marauders had suffered. He admired the courage of the captives and was glad they had found a haven. From here they could easily be returned to St. Louis. But Valbonais also learned that they had narrowly missed an encounter with quite a large body of Sioux and Winnebagoes, who would no doubt have taken them prisoners again if they had followed the river more directly. They had made quite a wide detour, it seemed, and to that they owed their safety.

Renée seemed none the worse for her ducking and the fatigue when she had been bathed, put in dry clothes and had a bountiful breakfast. The Indian children and their plays interested her immensely. And there was so much strange and new about the settlement and other things that suggested her first Indian friend, Mattawissa.

Wawataysee slept until past noon, when she awoke refreshed, and at the first moment so surprised that she could not imagine where she was. But the familiar faces of Renée and André Valbonais quite restored her. How warmly sympathetic these children of nature were! Ah, what if they had fallen into captivity again! and she shuddered.

They talked of starting, but the old chief would not listen to such a plan.

"You have had enough of travelling in the night," he said. "To-morrow some of our young men will take you down. Until then be content."

So they smoked the pipe of peace and amity, and talked of the mighty changes going on in the Continent, the new nation seeming a conglomerate of many peoples, sweeping everything before them with their resistless energy; of the towns springing up where different tribes had roamed about and slaughtered each other. Almost eighty years ago Neepawa had been born, when his race was ruler of nearly all the country.

The travellers were really loaded with gifts the next morning. Two young Indians were to row them down the river and return. With many thanks they parted from their kind entertainers, with promises of grateful remembrance.

Renée could hardly contain herself. Anywhere else she must have danced for joy. Of course, there would be Uncle Gaspard. And she almost believed Mère Lunde must have found her way home, since they had succeeded under such difficulties.

And now familiar sights met their eyes. Here was the Missouri River coming to greet her mighty mother; Fort St. Charles with its hamlets, the bend in the river, the islands, the old town itself, the towers, the fort, the palisade rendered much stronger since the attack; the bluff with its rocky ledge, and then the wharf.

Business was over. There was not much doing at this season, and nearly every one had gone home. A few parties were out canoeing or rowing on the river. The two Indians would return in spite of entreaties, and they bid their white guests good-by.

Down along the levee the two girls, holding hands tightly, ran with all their speed. One hardly had a chance to see their faces. They turned up by the Government House, where a group of men sat smoking and enjoying the late afternoon coolness. Valbonais followed wonderingly. This was St. Louis! What had Indians or British hoped to gain by attacking so small a place, for he had thought of it as resembling Montreal or Quebec. Up the Rue de la Tour-there stood the shop door open--

"Uncle Gaspard! Dear Uncle Gaspard! we have come back!" cried Renée, flying in.

It was not Uncle Gaspard, but Fran?ois Marchand, growing white to the very lips at the apparition that met his gaze. Was it a dream? He hardly dared approach. The words died on his lips.

Renée dropped the Indian girl's hand and rushed through the half-open doorway. There was Mère Lunde in a chair outside, half hidden in the nest of vines, knitting leisurely. That for the moment did not surprise Renée. She caught the elder woman's shoulder and almost shook her.

"Where is my Uncle Gaspard? Tell me at once! Where is he? Where is he?" the child cried imperiously.

Mère Lunde let her knitting fall and stared with wild eyes. "He!" she exclaimed tremulously. "He! Have you not met him? He set out almost at once for you. Oh, the good God and all the angels be praised! Now we will be happy again. Oh, child, my heart has broken for you! How did you escape?"

All the color left Renée's eager face. She stretched out her hands as if to clasp something. The eyes seemed dulled by some far, desperate gaze.

"Uncle Gaspard! Gone!" she faltered.

"Oh, did you not meet him? Child, he would not rest until he had set out. Is it thy pretty prank, little one? Is he staying behind to tell some one the story and then surprise us?"

"He did not come!" she wailed, her heart throbbing with passionate grief. "We have not seen him. Oh, mère, mère, the cruel Indians have captured him! And I was so sure."

She sank in a little heap at the woman's feet. After all the dangers and alternations of hope and fear, the fatigues, the last blow had been too much for her. Mère Lunde gathered the limp form in her arms, then laid her on the rustic settle, chafing the small hands and bathing the face with a fragrant concoction of her French skill. She drew slow breaths presently, but did not open her eyes.

Fran?ois Marchand gazed on his wife, speechless with a curious doubt, as one in a dream. Then he came nearer. She was thinner, the rose bloom had faded from her cheeks and there were dark shadows about her eyes. But oh, surely it was no ghost come to mock him!

He took her in his arms, and if the shape had melted into vague nothingness he would not have felt surprised. But it did not. It was soft flesh. He rained kisses on brow and cheek and lips; her sigh was a breath of perfume. Was it moments or hours?

"Thanks be to God and our good friend Gaspard!" he said presently. "Oh, my sweet blossom of northern wilds, my treasure, my queen, how I have feared and wept for thee! What lonely days! What sleepless nights! And I bound to the bed by wounds and fever and a broken limb, knowing thou wert in the hands of cruel enemies and I helpless to succor thee. And that brave soul came to thy rescue! How can we ever thank him enough?"

She could not speak at first, only return kisses for kisses. He found a seat and drew her close in tender embrace; felt the throb of the heart against his, though the whole slim figure was full of languor.

"And I was never certain if you were dead or alive. When they dragged me from you at the edge of the woods there was no motion to assure me. All night I dreamed of you, torn, perhaps, by some prowling beast, or lying there stark and stiff."

"It was Gaspard who found me, who placed me in wise care and then set off. Oh, let us go and thank him. Every moment's delay is ingratitude."

"Is he not here?" She raised her head from his breast. "We have not seen him. We owe our escape and guidance to another captive-a young fellow considered a slave. But-we have not seen M. Denys."

"Heaven send him safely back to us, then! He is a brave, noble friend. He believed you might be taken up to the straits and the child would be with you."

She shuddered. She could not mar this happy moment by a relation of the dreadful fate which for a few days had hung over her and made her prefer death. Ah, how much harder the resolve would have been had she known of a certainty that her husband was living!

"After much tedious journeying we reached the Peoria settlement, back from the Illinois River, where the old Chief Neepawa governs a remnant of his tribe. They were most kindly and gave us rest and food until we were quite restored. Afterward they brought us home. Oh, my husband, my lord, my lover! To be with you once more is enough. I would have suffered twice the hardships and dangers for such a blissful end!"

He felt her frame tremble in his arms and pressed her closer in a transport of tenderness. Ah, the perfect content!

Then she bethought herself.

"The child," she said, awakening to the more generous flow of sympathy that love for the time had overwhelmed. "The poor little Renée! She has looked forward every hour to meeting him again, and the disappointment will be bitter. It is more like a woman's love than a child's, though she is innocent of the deeper strivings of maidenhood. Come, let us go to her."

Mère Lunde had to give the young wife a warm welcome. The tears of joy filled her faded eyes.

Renée lay on the settle, sobbing. Wawataysee bent over and would have taken her hand.

"Go away! go away!" she cried imperiously. "I do not want you. You have him to be glad with and I have no one, no one!"

The pathos of the tone was heartrending.

"Renée, my little dear, Fran?ois is so glad."

"Go away!" She turned her face to the wall and slapped impatiently with her hand. "I will not listen. The Indians have Uncle Gaspard, I know."

Mère Lunde beckoned them. "She is very wilful at times, and now her heart is sore. But the good saints have led you both back. He has been north many a time and come home unharmed."

"They will kill him this time!" the child almost shrieked. "There was that fierce Black Feather! Oh, he will never come back, never!"

The old woman waved them to the doorway and they turned and passed out. All the garden was abloom and sweet with the fragrance of growing fruit, tangled vines and flowers. The pale heavens had lost the light of day, and the blue of the night was hidden by a soft gray vagueness. Birds were singing good-night songs to each other and to sleepy nestlings. Marchand, with his arm around his wife, drew her into a secluded spot.

"Black Feather was a Huron," he said, "mean, tricky, avaricious. Surely you were not in his hands?" and his grasp tightened.

"Only a little while. Oh, I would never have been taken alive to the straits! And this young Valbonais was their captive. Oh, where has he disappeared to? He had an uncle in St. Louis, whither he was coming when they captured him."

"Tell me the story. I have had hundreds of fears for you, my darling, yet I kept trusting the All Father."

"Oh, not to-night!" she pleaded. "Is it not enough that I am restored, and that no evil has happened to me? Let us not mar the joy of this meeting."

So they sat until the white veil in the sky cleared away and all was a heavenly blue, with stars shining so bright they took on beautiful tints and twinkled as in a fairy dance. To the reunited hear

ts there had never been such a night of joy and splendor.

Renée sobbed herself to sleep, worn out with the pangs of disappointment. Mère Lunde would not disturb her. She set out a little supper for the other two, and they talked in low tones. Mère Lunde told of her wanderings, and that she had almost died of hunger and thirst.

"We who were so sadly bereft resolved to join forces," explained Marchand. "Gaspard Denys ought not lose everything by his generosity. So I have watched the trade and tried to fill his place as best I could, and Mère Lunde has kept the house, both praying and hoping. Several prisoners have escaped or been left by the Indians, who really did not want them and were afraid to practise the cruelties of other days lest a severe punishment might overtake them."

Renée was still dejected and inconsolable the next morning, and would receive no overtures from Wawataysee. The young wife understood. Not that Renée would have wished her any ill, but with the unreason of feminine things she could not endure the sight of their happy faces, the sound of the tender words they exchanged. She went out in the corner of the garden and made her moan, and would not be seen of the friends that came to congratulate the returned captives.

Nearly noon a young man paused at the gate, looking a little uncertain.

"It is André Valbonais!" cried Wawataysee, with delight. "I will bring him in and you must thank him with your full heart."

Valbonais was bright and smiling, his ragged clothes, that scarcely held together, replaced by a comfortable suit, if not new; his hair trimmed and in good order-a very attractive young fellow now, certainly.

"We were going to set out on a search for you," Wawataysee began. "In some unexpected manner we lost sight of you last night. How did you fare?"

"Oh, not badly," with a cheerful smile. "I knew you would go to friends who would be overjoyed to see you, and I wandered down a street, trying to find an inn, for I was not sure I would be allowed to stop in the street all night. So in my inquiry I met some one who knew my uncle, Pierre Valbonais, who, it seems, is at work in your great mill, and who lives beyond the court-house, in the Rue des Grainges. My faith, but you are a very hospitable folk," and his eyes shone with a joyous light. "This M. Pion would give me some supper and a bed, and we talked over my adventures smoking our pipes."

"I am glad you found a friend. It was our desire to take you in. And your relative?" with a slight hesitation.

"I found my way to the mill, and the uncle greeted me cordially. There is an aunt and some cousins, it seems, and I am to make my home with them for the present. Moreover, I find there is plenty of work to do and I shall be happy. Where is the little maid?"

Wawataysee explained Renée's grief at finding her uncle had not returned from his search. Then M. Marchand took him through to the shop, and was so earnest in his gratitude that it touched Valbonais deeply.

Renée came out of her garden corner as he was going away. Her pretty eyes were swollen with weeping.

"Oh, little one, you were so brave on the journey, amid all the hardships, that you must not lose heart now! And I hear your uncle has made many trips with the traders, so he knows about the Indians and is not likely to let them take him unawares. He will return, surely."

She cast her eyes down and made no reply. She would not be comforted even by him.

The Renauds came over in the afternoon, and though the girls followed her to the garden, she would not be amused with their chatter. What did she care about a new frock or a tea-drinking on the green by the fort, or games and plays?

"She is very disagreeable and cold," said Elise to Sophie as they were walking home. "I suppose because she has a 'de' before her name she thinks she can put on any airs. But I am older and shall have a lover first. Of course, M. Denys will return. He always has before."

So everybody thought. And a child cannot be unhappy forever when every one joins to dispel her sorrow. She thawed out very slowly. André hardly knew what to make of her, she was so grave and indifferent.

He had found employment in the mill and felt quite elated. Madame Valbonais liked him very much. There was one son a trapper, though he did not take very long journeys. Then there were two bright girls who were not averse to having such an attractive cousin.

Through them he came to know the Renauds, and Barbe he thought extremely winsome. Before a fortnight had passed he was in the merrymakings and dances, and having a most enjoyable time. It did not trouble him now that he had been in more than one peril of his life.

The lieutenant-governor who had proved himself so unworthy was recalled. M. Cruzat was fortifying the town more securely than it had ever been, but for some time any body of Indians going back and forth roused a feeling of distrust and fear. Pleasure parties were careful not to trust themselves too far away.

Mère Lunde begged Wawataysee to remain with them, as M. Marchand was taking charge of the business. When Mattawissa came in with her pretty work and various articles, many of which went down to New Orleans, she and the young wife made very good friends.

"She will take every one away from me," thought the child with a swelling heart, and she grew more reserved. Even Mère Lunde had to yield to the sweetness of Wawataysee. Sometimes she sang really beautiful Indian songs and described vividly the dances and entertainments, though there were many in which only old women were allowed.

July began to ripen fruits and fill the farmers with joy at the prospect of abundant crops. But Renée counted the weeks sadly. She was growing pale and thinner, and roamed about like an unquiet ghost. She would not play with the children, but rambled desolately by herself and occasionally stole down to the end of the stockade and ventured out to see her grandfather. He seemed nearly always at home now, sitting outside his neglected-looking cabin smoking his pipe and patching his clothes or making moccasins, on which he put stout soles of skin. He would nod and occasionally push a stool to her, which was the round of a log, and motion her to be seated.

One day he said sharply: "Has anything been heard of Gaspard Denys? Some traders have come in."

She knew that. They had been at the shop.

"They have not seen him," she admitted sorrowfully.

"There would be news if he had been killed."

"Oh! oh!" A sharp pang went to the child's heart. To have another put her dread into words was like confirming it.

"That might be," said the old man. "The pitcher may go to the spring without spout or handle, but it gets an unlucky knock at the last."

She was silent.

"He made me give you to him. He bound me with signing a paper. Then if you are his, what he has comes naturally to you. There is the house and the garden. And the shop, with all its stores. Gaspard Denys has a strong box. There may be gold and silver in it. It belongs to you."

Renée stared at him. His skin was browner than ever, and his face wrinkled in every direction. His hair was unkempt, his eyes were so squinted up that they looked like two sparks merely.

"Oh," she cried, "what should I want with it all, and no Uncle Gaspard?"

"It will be a good dot. It will make you a good marriage when the time comes. And they must not get it away from you."

"They? Who?" in surprise.

"That man and his half-Indian wife. Ah, I have seen people before, men who can plan adroitly. And I tell you now he shall not have it. When the time comes I shall turn him out neck and heels, and we will see! I shall not have you cheated out of your rights, Renée de Longueville."

"I don't understand. If it is M. Marchand you mean--" and she eyed the old man resolutely.

"Who asked him to come in there? Gaspard Denys locked up his place, and he and that old woman opened it. They had no right, I say."

He struck the flat stone beside him with his fist, but it did not seem to hurt that member.

"It was Mère Lunde's home. And she looks for him every day. Oh, if word came that he was dead we should both die of grief!"

Her lip quivered, her eyes filled with tears.

"Bah! No one dies of grief. And I will keep you out of that man's clutches. I am your grandfather and I have some rights."

Renée shuddered at the fierce old man. She had used to feel afraid of him, but it seemed of late that she did not fear anything, the darkness of the night nor the thunder storms, when it appeared as if the town would be hurled into the river. What if he should really claim her, if-if-Oh, she would a hundred times rather stay with M. Marchand, even if he was kissing and caressing Wawataysee half the time.

"I must go," she said, rising. She had been trying to esteem him a little now that she was so lonely, but all the endeavor was like water spilled on the ground, and he had broken the bowl.

"You will come again. No one shall cheat you out of your rights," nodding vigorously.

She turned away. First she thought she would walk along the river. It crept lazily to-day, yellow in the yellow sunshine. But when she reached the Rue Royale she turned into that. She did not care to pass the Renauds'-why was it that she could not love any one any more? that her heart seemed like lead in her bosom? So she went up to the Rue de l'Eglise straight on to the little church. She had not been Saturday afternoons of late. She knew the catechism and the prayers, and the children's drawl seemed to spoil it for her. Sometimes people prayed for things and they came. Well, she was praying all the time for Uncle Gaspard's return. Maybe it ought to be asked for in the church. She crept in softly.

The little old place was very, very plain. Even the altar and the high altar had but few decorations at this time. There was a candle burning and it shed a pale glow. There was a basin of holy water, and she reverently made the sign of the cross with it. Then she knelt down on the floor and clasped her small hands.

"O holy God," she prayed, "O Christ, son of the holy God, listen to my sorrow, I beseech thee. Send back Uncle Gaspard, for my life is so lonely without him. Keep him safe from all danger."

It seemed so different to pray here. She would come every day now. This was God's house.

It was strange and she did not understand it a bit, but her heart felt lighter. The old garden was gay with bloom. Chatte came to meet her, arched his back and waved his tail like a flag, looking at her out of green, translucent eyes with a black bar straight up and down. She stooped and patted him and he began to purr with delight. He was as fond as she of sitting in Uncle Gaspard's lap.

Mère Lunde was pounding green grapes, great, luscious wild grapes, into a mash. Then she would strain out the seeds and make a most delicious jam with maple sugar. How fragrant the room was with the spicy scent! She went up and kissed her tenderly, and tears came to the woman's eyes at the unexpected caress.

Wawataysee sat by the open window doing some beautiful beadwork. M. Marchand was busy sorting goods and piling them up on the shelves, and whistling soft and low like the wood thrush. Well, why should he not be happy, now that he had Wawataysee back? And she had been almost angry about it-no, not angry, but hurt, and-perhaps she was selfish. Ah, think of her grandfather being here and turning things about, making it dismal and wretched! No, he should not order the place and turn out these two who had been so kind. Perhaps the Governor would know what was right. She would pray it might never happen. That would be another petition. And without understanding how religion comforted, she was happier.

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