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   Chapter 12 HER ANSWER

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 17756

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


It was strange how petitions grew. Renée used to walk gravely up to the old church-the door was never fastened-and slip in and say her prayer. Once a woman came who had lost her little baby.

"Oh," she said, when they had exchanged sorrows, "I think thou wilt be comforted. Gaspard Denys has come back times before. Many of our husbands and brothers have returned. But my little baby cannot return. I may live many, many years and grow old, and in all that time I shall never see him!"

Yes, that was a great sorrow, and a long waiting.

August came in. Pears and plums were ripening, and various articles were being put by for winter use. Sometimes the season was long and cold, and it was well to be prepared. Men worked in the fields to gather the early crops, and the young people had merry dances at night. The days began to grow a little shorter already.

Some one said as she stepped out of church one afternoon: "There is a small fleet coming down the river. Pierre Chouteau expects one of his in next week, but that will have a dozen or more."

"That is only Latour's. He has been up to St. Charles," was the answer. "They have a great abundance of corn this season."

Next week! Renée's little heart beat with a great bound of joy. And after that boats would be coming in weekly, Indians with canoes full of furs, dried venison and fish from the lakes. If one of them brought Uncle Gaspard!

She went down to the rise of ground, almost like an embankment, long since worn away. She could see over the small throng. The first boat was moored; it had bales of something. The second had some passengers, women among them. A man was standing up, and suddenly he waved his hand. Who was it? It was waved again.

"Oh! oh!" She dropped down. All the air was full of sparks, and the river seemed turning round and getting mingled with the sky. When the mist cleared away she saw a confused throng of people, some leaping ashore, and a hurly-burly of voices. Had that brief vision been a dream? She felt strangely weak, then she laughed without knowing why and her eyes overflowed with tears.

A tall form came climbing up the hill with long strides, and then she was clasped in strong arms, she felt kisses on her forehead, she was lifted off her feet.

"Little one!" the voice said; and only one thing in her after life sounded as sweet. "Little one, oh, thank heaven you were saved!"

Then they sat down on the grass the sun had scorched into a dried mat.

"Did you come thinking to meet me?"

"I meant to come every time after this to meet the boats. Oh, you are alive! The fierce Indians have not killed you."

How her voice trembled with emotion, and her hands were clasped tight about his arm!

"They have not had much chance." How good it was to hear the old cheerful laugh. "And Wawataysee is safe, as well? Did Marchand recover? I have heard no news of the dear old town, but of you I heard long ago, and it made my heart as light as a bird mounting up to the sky. Perhaps it will please even your gentle heart to know that Black Feather, the treacherous Indian chief, is dead. You see, I hardly knew which direction to take and went wrong several times. Then I heard Elk Horn had sold some female captives to Black Feather, who had taken them up the Illinois River. When I reached an encampment where there had been a terrific storm I heard Black Feather had been seriously injured and had finally been moved to an interior encampment, where there was a medicine man. So, after a search, I found them. In spite of the medicine man the chief had died, and they had given him a grand funeral. His followers had dispersed. But I was told that, after the storm, some captives had escaped and he had been so angry he had two Indians put to death. So then I retraced my steps. Many a time I wondered if I should find you in the forests, dead from hunger and fatigue. Whether you had gone down the river-but you could not do that, unless some friendly boat had offered. I passed some lodges where they had not known of any wanderers, and at last met two Peoria Indians, who said the three escaped captives had reached them and been taken to St. Louis."

He pressed the child closer, looked down in the fond, eager eyes that were shaded in a mist of emotion, and felt the eager grasp of the small hand. How much she cared, this motherless and well-nigh fatherless girl.

"It was Wawataysee they wanted, but your fate might have been as bad. They might have left you somewhere to starve-" Yet did not the pretty child's face give evidence of coming beauty? only to an Indian this was not the rich, appealing beauty of his own tribes. And the present was so much to the red man, the triumphs, satisfactions, joys and revenges of to-day.

"Oh," she said, with a long, quivering breath, "I am so glad! so glad! It runs all over me," and she laughed softly. "And you will never go away again? They are building the wall all around the town and putting sharp-pointed sticks through the top. The children do not go out on the prairies any more; they are afraid."

"I do not think we are in much danger. Farther to the east the Indians are joining tribes, stirred up by the English fighting the colonists. But we have nothing to do with their quarrels. And this attack was a mortification to them. Few, if any, of our friendly Indians were concerned in it. Oh, little one, thank God that you and Wawataysee are safe."

"But M. Marchand thanks God for Wawataysee!" she said, with a touch of resentment.

He smiled at that. When she was older she would demand every thought of one's heart.

"Shall we go down now?"

"Mère Lunde will be so glad." She arose and hopped gleefully on one foot, holding his hand as she went part of the way around him. The last rays of golden light in the sky made bewildering shadows and gleams about her and she looked like a fairy sprite.

The town was already lapsing into quiet. No one had need to grumble at the length of working days in this pastoral town and time. Others had come in from journeys, and in more than one home feasting had begun. The boats had been fastened securely, the river was growing dark with shadows, and purple and gold clouds were drifting across the heavens.

"Let us go this way," Renée said.

This way was up to the Rue de l'Eglise, and she turned into that. Here and there a friend caught his hand and he had to pause for a few words of cordial welcome.

"What now, little one?" as she drew him aside.

She looked up with a sweetly serious expression, though a flush of half-embarrassment wavered over the small face.

"I went to church every afternoon to say a prayer for you that you might come home. I thought the good God would rather hear it in His own house-"

"Did you, my little darling?" he exclaimed, deeply touched.

"And now"-she hesitated-"I think I ought to go and thank Him. Men do that when the Governor grants their wishes."

"Yes, yes! And I will go, too."

Ah! there was much to be thankful for, and he felt a little conscience-smitten that he had not made more of a point of it.

The church was quite dark, with a candle burning on each side of the high altar. She led him clear up to the chancel steps, and there they knelt together. The little girl might not have understood all the fine points of belief that the world had fought over since Christ had died for all, and was still warring about, but her gratitude was sincere and earnest if not spiritual, at least in a devout spirit.

Gaspard Denys was moved by something he had never experienced before, and touched by the child's tender, fervent faith.

Coming out, they met old Père Rierceraux, leaning on his cane. He had been godfather to little Mary Pion, the first child baptised by Father Meurin when there had been no church at all and only a tent in the woods. The rude little building was a temple to him, and thither he came every night to see that no harm was likely to befall it, and commend it to the watchful care of God.

"It is Gaspard Denys!" he said in a voice a little broken by the weight of years. "So thou hast come home from perils and hast devotion enough to thank God and the saints for it. There will be merry hearts to-night, quite unmindful of this. Ma'm'selle, I have noted thy devoutness also. The Holy Mother have thee in her keeping."

It was quite dusk now and the houses were lighted up. At the Pichous' they were playing already on the fiddles. Then there was this turn.

The good news had preceded Denys. The household had come out to meet him and there was great joy. Mère Lunde had already set a little feast, and they wondered at the loitering.

There had never been any welcome like this in his life before, no one to be greatly glad when he came or sorrowful when he went. It was like a new life, and his heart expanded, hi

s pulses thrilled with a fervent joy. The beautiful Indian wife who smiled at him and then turned her eyes to her husband with an exquisite tenderness; the little girl whose gladness was so true and deep that her eyes had the soft lustre of tears now and then, and smiles that went to his heart; Mère Lunde's happy, wrinkled old face, in her best coif and kerchief; and presently, neighbors coming in with joyous greetings. For in those days they shared each other's joys and sorrows.

The remembrance of the cruel May day vanished. Flowers were growing over the graves of the dead in the little churchyard. Many of the captives had found their way back; some, indeed, lay in silent places far from kindred. They did not forget, but they were a light-hearted people, and their religion was not of the morbid, disquieting kind. Conscience with them had a few salient points of right and wrong, the rest did not touch their simple lives.

There was a gay autumn, with wine-making and brewing of spiced or plain beer, of meat and fish salted and dried, of corn gathered and wheat ground and the thrifty preparations for winter. All the meadow lands were abloom with autumnal flowers, the trees were gorgeous in all the coloring sun and winds and dew could devise, and the haze of the resplendent Indian summer hung over it all. There were nutting parties to the woods, but they were cautious and went well protected.

Trappers and traders came in, and the talk was of wilderness trails and Indian villages friendly and unfriendly, of deer and mink and otter and beaver, sable, marten and beautiful fox and wolfskins from the far north. Many of the fleets went straight down the river to New Orleans, others came up from there with beads and gewgaws and spun silk and threads of various colors, calicoes and blankets and coarse thick stuffs for tents. There was much dickering, great supplies of arms and ammunitions, and then the crowd melted away and only familiar faces were seen again. The country round about put on its white coverlet of snow to keep warm the little earth children, streams and ponds were frozen over and all was merriment again.

Fran?ois Marchand and his pretty wife set up a home of their own only a short distance away, but business had increased so much that it needed the attention of both. Next year they would buy some boats or have them built, and do some trading up and down the river.

André Valbonais was much pleased with his new home and the cordiality of his relatives. He soon attracted the attention of Colonel Chouteau, for he had considerable education, and was put in a clerkship, which gratified him extremely. But he often ran up to the Rue de Rive to chat with Denys and Marchand over their adventures, and to watch the pretty, dark-eyed girl who always sat so close to her uncle and held his hand.

And then came the winter gayeties. Throngs of children went out on the great mound when the snow had a crust on it, and the girls, gathering up their skirts, squatted down and were given a little push, and away they went, swift as an arrow. One would tumble over and roll down to the bottom, throwing about numerous little fleets, but they were so well wrapped in furs no one was ever hurt. The great achievement was to spin the whole length without a break.

It was merry again at Christmastide, and Renée enjoyed it much more than last year; but there was a tender devoutness in her worship. Then the great Feast of Lights, Epiphany and all the fun and frolic. André was chosen a king by one of the pretty girls. He was a fine dancer and a very good-looking young fellow.

Perhaps it made Renée more light-hearted to know that Barbe had a real lover, and that he hardly allowed her to smile at any one else. She was not quite betrothed as yet, but there could be no objections. He belonged to a good New Orleans family, and was in a trading house second only to the Chouteaus'. All the Guions said it would be an excellent match, and Barbe was plenty old enough to marry. Bachelor girls had not come in fashion, and when one had passed twenty the younger girls really flouted her and thought she ought to step in the background.

She danced once with Gaspard Denys. No, he had never been a real lover. But if he had not gone to Quebec after this little girl-well, all things might have been different. And as well Jean Gardepier as any one. She would go to New Orleans with him when he went down on trading expeditions, and the gayety would delight her. She would have some fine clothes and jewels, still she sighed a little when Denys took her back to her sister.

"And here is Elise the second," said Madame Renaud gayly. "See what a tall girl she has grown. You must dance once with her. Oh, how soon they are women, and then it is lovers and husbands. Gaspard, are you going to stay single forever?" and Madame laughed softly.

"I'm such an old fellow now! I feel like a grandfather to these young girls," he returned jocosely.

But Elise thought him charming, and in her turn almost envied Renée.

Years unmarked by any special events pass on almost unheeded. Trade came and went. A few new houses were built. Young people were married, new children were born. Families came from across the river, not liking their English neighbors over well. Occasionally there was an Indian alarm, but St. Louis had the good fortune to live mostly at peace with her red neighbors, while many of the Illinois towns suffered severely.

One of the events of the summer that delighted Renée was the birth of Wawataysee's baby. It was a great marvel to her, though there were plenty of babies about. It was more French than Indian. It had beautiful large dark eyes and was a very fine specimen of babyhood. It was named for Uncle Gaspard, who was its godfather, and Wawataysee pleaded that Renée should be godmother.

"For you are the two people I love best after my husband," said the Indian woman proudly. "You are like a little sister."

Renée was very glad to be that now. She was learning to rejoice in the happiness of others.

Then Barbe Guion had a very pretty wedding, and the boat in which she was going to New Orleans was trimmed with flags. It was a long journey then, sometimes a dangerous one; less so at this season. And Barbe might be gone a whole year. There was a great turnout to wish her godspeed. She looked very bright and happy in her wedding gear.

Renée took Uncle Gaspard's hand and glanced up in his face, which was rather grave.

"Are you sorry?" she asked.

"Sorry? What a question, child! Why should I be sorry?"

"She loved you very much," was the answer, in a low tone.

"Nonsense! I am old enough to be her father. And Barbe married of her own free will."

"I wish you had been my true father," Renée subjoined gravely. And strange to say, she pitied Barbe in her secret heart, yet she was glad she had gone so far away.

Renée went now and then to see her grandfather. It seemed as if he grew older and thinner and more morose, yet her sympathy went out to him curiously. She had heard the talk that he was suspected of being in league with the river pirates and supplying the Indians with rum, which was against the laws. One ship had been caught, the pirates overmastered, four of them sent to New Orleans in irons, and two had been wounded and drowned in an attempt to swim away. She felt a good deal troubled. He would not talk of the affair when she mentioned it.

"But you are so lonely here outside the palisade. Why do you not come in?" she inquired.

"It suits me well enough," he answered roughly. "I did not ask you to stay here. And you need not come for my pleasure."

"But if the Indians should attack you some time?"

"Bah! The Indians know me better," with a scowl of disdain.

"Is Antoine Freneau my grandfather really?" she asked that evening as she sat in the moonlight with Denys.

"Why, yes," in amaze at her question.

"Then it would be wicked not to-to have some regard for him," she remarked unwillingly.

Gaspard did not answer at once. Antoine had dropped down year by year. He had not always been so churlish, though his discourteous, hermit-like ways were of long standing. He had never doubted but that he had been the father of the girl he loved, yet she had come up as a lily out of a quagmire. But how could Renée respect or regard him? And how little he cared for her!

"That's a difficult question. We shall have to ask the good père some day. He understands these matters."

"But-I belong to you, surely?"

"You belong to me!" He clasped her hand fervently.

"And I shall always stay here?"

"Always, until some young lover comes;" but he drew her closer, as if he disputed her being taken away.

"You shall be my lover," with a gay laugh. "If ever I draw a bean at the king's ball you shall be my king."

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