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   Chapter 13 PASSING YEARS

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 22507

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Renée de Longueville was fifteen and very fair to look upon, if not as beautiful as Madame Marchand, or perhaps as some of the belles of the town. She was slight and not very tall, and her hair had not grown much darker. Her eyes kept their soft wondering expression, sometimes a curious depth that told of vehement emotions, ardent joys and a capacity for suffering. But most people looking at the gay young face when it smiled would only have read archness and mirth and a great capacity for enjoyment.

Some curious events had been happening. The colonies had beaten England and won their freedom, their recognition. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River it was all America. This side of the river it was Spain still, a kind of French Spain. Commandant Cruzat was well-liked and very social. Madame was charming. There were balls at the Government House and at the handsome old Chouteau residence, that had been improved year by year. A long gallery ran around two sides above the first story, and it made a delightful place for dancers. The roof was high, with both ends cut off as it were, broken by two chimneys and two dormer windows. Downstairs a broad piazza also, and here the gentlemen would sit and smoke and discuss business and the changes that were going on around them, while within, Madame Chouteau dispensed charming hospitality.

St. Louis was still in an idyllic state, gay, joyous, friendly and hospitable, with much simplicity of living. Others besides the Chouteaus had enlarged their borders. Gaspard Denys had built two rooms and raised the roof of his house so as to make a storeroom and one little chamber, where Chloe, the slave, slept. Mère Lunde still took charge of the house, but Denys insisted she should have some help, and then no question was made of buying one. They were well treated and had good homes, and were not overworked.

One of the new rooms was Uncle Gaspard's, the other Renée's, while her old one was transferred to Mère Lunde, who at first thought she could never sleep on a bedstead. And Renée's room was quite a marvel of prettiness. Great strips of white birch bark on which dainty pictures were worked went from floor to ceiling, while between was soft gray plaster. Sometimes this was stained in various colors. Then there were shelves about on which were displayed odd bits of Indian work-a bowl, a vase, or a pretty basket. Many of these came from Mattawissa's hands and not a few from Wawataysee's.

Now Madame Marchand had a dainty little girl, christened Renée. Her gracious air, her refinement and beauty, and her romantic story as well, had made her many friends, and M. Marchand was one of the thriving business men, very much honored and respected. Not infrequently he and Gaspard were called into council on some important question.

And though the palisades and gates and towers were still looked upon as a means of defence, the inhabitants ventured to enlarge their borders without. Several bands of friendly Indians had settled toward the northern and western ends. Parties no longer hesitated to wander through the woods, and the children often went out to pick wild strawberries that grew so plentifully all about. Then there were grapes and a delicious kind of wild plum, pears and apples, and melons cultivated in the gardens, with various small fruits.

Renée de Longueville had come in possession of quite a fortune; at least, Uncle Gaspard held it in trust for her. And it made her quite a person of consequence.

Antoine Freneau had grown really afraid to carry on his illicit trade after the capture of the Red Rover. She had stores for him, and for weeks he trembled when he saw two or three men approaching his cabin. He was old and he resolved he would do no more at it. This he tried to explain to those who came for a supply. True, he brought up his whiskey and sold it as long as it lasted, but unfortunately the Indians used to securing their indulgence in that manner would not believe it. They brought furs, often stolen from the traders, and insisted that he should exchange. They always came after nightfall, and sped away again in the dark.

Angry at length at their repeated efforts, he would not open his door. The bar within was very strong and he felt himself secure. But the old stanchion had decayed at the ground point, and one night it gave way at their united efforts.

Antoine found himself defenceless against the angry mob. They bound him and began to ransack the place. Bringing to light one jug of whiskey, they were confident there was more. They searched every corner, every nook, but in vain. And then they fell upon the old man, beat him and tortured him until he was limp and lifeless they thought, when, taking a pack of the most valuable furs, they decamped.

It was not until noon of the next day that some one in passing noted the unusual appearance and halted at the cabin. The old man lay on the floor. He had revived from unconsciousness, but his hands were securely fastened behind him, his face was bruised and swollen and everything in disorder. He gave the alarm and some kindly neighbors came to his assistance. Then another went for Gaspard Denys.

Perhaps nothing could have happened that would have rehabilitated Antoine Freneau in the pity and good will of his fellow-men sooner. Unsocial and under suspicion for years, asking and taking nothing from them, seldom giving them a good word, his helplessness appealed now to their sympathy. Gaspard had his wounds and bruises attended to, the house made a little orderly, and found a slave woman who would care for him. That he had been robbed was evident. Even the puncheon floor had been torn up, and disclosed a sort of pit in which something had evidently been stored.

Old Doctor Montcrevier came, but he shook his head doubtfully. The old man breathed and occasionally opened heavy, wandering eyes. But on the third day he rallied.

"Gaspard Denys!" he moaned. "Send-tell him," and then he lapsed away again.

Denys came and watched with him through the night. Several times his name escaped the old man's lips. Gaspard gave him some brandy he had brought.

He opened his eyes again and gazed around piteously, resting them finally upon Gaspard.

"I cannot think," rubbing his forehead in a dazed fashion. "They were Indians. They wanted rum. I had none, only one jug I kept in case-in case I should need it. I am an old man, Gaspard. They-they beat me."

"Yes. Can you tell who they were? No strange Indians have been seen about."

Even here the old man's cunning came uppermost. He would not betray himself. He shook his head slowly.

"Some marauding parties. Perhaps from the river."

"The river! See if they are coming!" starting up in affright.

"No one is coming," in a reassuring tone.

"Gaspard, am I hurt much? Oh, help me! I do not want to die. I hate death! I want to live;" and he tried to raise himself, but fell back exhausted.

"Would you like to have the priest?" Gaspard could think of no other aid in this extremity.

"No! no! I will not die! They come to your deathbed. Stay with me yourself."

"What can I do?"

He was silent a long while. His breath came slowly and with effort, and shudders ran over him.

"Renée," he said presently. "You have the child, Gaspard?"

"Yes; you gave her to me."

"If you had died-your money--"

"I had made a will. Everything would have gone to her."

"That was right-right. Gaspard, there is some gold-is any one listening?" moving his eyes in a frightened way.

"No, no!"

"There is some gold and silver put away. You might better take it. Thieves may come again. Carry me to the chimney."

He was a heavy burden. Gaspard put him down on some blankets.

"See! Count the stones. The third stone." The eyes were wild in their eagerness.

"This!" pointing. "Take it out."

Gaspard worked with both strength and energy. It was fitted in very securely, but it gave way at length.

"The next one."

When that came out a small iron box was visible, and Gaspard worked it loose.

"Take it with you. It will be hers when I die. There is no one else. But not until-I have the key-and-but I am not going to die!" with fierce energy.

"No, no," soothingly. "Take a little of this cordial."

But the signs of death were there and Gaspard read them truly. Could he warn? That was for the priest.

"You are very good." His voice was much shaken, and shadows seemed to waver over his eyes. "And I was not good to you, Gaspard Denys, in that old time. You were but a boy. You had your fortune to make. She loved you and I meant to wean her away-and-I did not want her to know how I was-trading. The Count fell in love with her, though when the matter was most settled he wrung a dowry out of me, curse him! But she was a Countess. And he should have kept the child. What did he mean by sending her here?"

He had made many pauses and now lay back exhausted, his face growing grayer. Gaspard roused the nurse.

"Go up to the church," he said, "the priest's house, and bring some one. Quick! The man is dying."

It was some time before he roused again.

"Renée," he murmured, "you will be a great lady in France. Your mother's mother was, and fled away because a king loved her. A king!" He laughed shrilly and a rattle came in his throat. "And you must go back to them, to your own kind. This wild life is not for you. As for that young stripling, he is dancing at the Guinolee and singing love songs to pretty girls. Thou art not the only pretty girl in St. Louis, Renée--"

Then there was a long silence. Once or twice Gaspard thought him dead, but he started and muttered both French and Indian words. It was near midnight when the good father came, and he shook his head sadly.

Gaspard roused Antoine a little.

"I fear it is too late," in a regretful tone, while a look of pity crossed his face. "Still we must try to the last moment. Antoine Freneau, it is I, Père Lemoine. Listen! Death is near. Dost thou repent of thy sins, which have been many, doubtless, hidden from man but not escaping the eye of God? There may yet be mercy vouchsafed."

The dying man clutched the blanket and stared dully, yet he seemed to listen.

"Oh, yes, yes!" he cried suddenly. "At St. Anne's down the river. Yes, we both confessed--"

Whether he understood any of the service was doubtful, but the good priest did his duty according to his conscience and the times. But before he had ended the last prayer both knew he was dead, and had passed without a struggle.

"I will stay the rest of the night with you," said the priest. "And since you have the child, I suppose you will be the proper person to take charge. It is supposed the old man had not a little wealth-if the marauders did not take it all away."

The woman came in to prepare the body. Round the old man's neck was a strong bit of wire like cord, and a key. Gaspard took this. It fitted the box.

After daylight they took a survey of the place. There were some firearms stored away, blankets, furs that were motheaten and of little value, some Indian habiliments; but it was evident the place had been pretty thoroughly ransacked.

So they buried Antoine Frene

au, and for some days it was the sensation of the little town. Gaspard Denys now took the formal guardianship of Renée de Longueville. He had the record of her mother's marriage, her birth and christening. Some of the goods were worth saving, the others were distributed among the poorest of the Indians about.

In an old chest of curious workmanship Gaspard found a false bottom. In this compartment were some laces and embroideries, a wedding veil that Renée's grandmother had doubtless worn, the certificate of her marriage to Antoine Freneau and considerable valuable jewelry, with some unset stones. And when they examined the strong box it proved an unexpected fortune for Renée de Longueville.

Then the old house was suffered to go to ruin. Some Indians went there for shelter, but soon left. They had been roused at midnight by unearthly noises and seen the figure of old Freneau in its grave-clothes; so the story gained credence that the place was haunted. Even after it had fallen into an unsightly heap the mysterious noises were heard and no one would pass it after nightfall.

Renée was very much shocked at first. She had not loved her grandfather, but there had always been a curious pity in her tender soul for him in what she considered his loneliness. She went in the church and prayed for his soul, for she knew God was merciful. Had He not watched over Uncle Gaspard and sent him safely home?

And now Renée de Longueville was quite an heiress and had some really beautiful heirloom jewels, besides the laces and the exquisite veil. Her grandmother's people must have been of some account. But no one would have imagined Antoine Freneau a handsome or attractive young man, and a favorite among the pretty girls of Old New Orleans. The miser-like propensities had grown with the years, and he had found, he thought, an easy way of making money by being in league with the river pirates on the one hand and roving bands of Indians on the other. He had skilfully evaded detection if not always suspicion, and now that he had suffered almost martyrdom in the end, the generous, cordial people were not the kind to fling up these vague accusations.

So the sorrow was over and it was winter again, full of merriment and gayety, and lovers wooing young girls. Elise Renaud had been married and Sophie was quite a belle. Rosalie Pichou was the mother of two babies and had a comfortable home, though her husband traded with New Orleans and was often gone months at a time. They had to guard against the river pirates, who frequently sallied out from some peaceful-looking covert, hidden by woods or a bend in the stream. Occasionally there were Indians lying in wait, but the men always went well armed, and generally in quite a fleet, with the goods, the wheat and corn in barges or flat-bottomed boats, with several canoes for swiftness if they saw a chance of chastising their enemies. It was comparatively easy to go down the river, and as each boat had a mast and sails, they sped along beautifully in a favorable wind. But coming back was generally the trial, as the tide was against them. Sometimes two boatmen would walk along the river bank and pull a rope like the later towing line, while those on the boat steered and with long poles kept the prow from running into the bank and avoided the snags.

But before Christmas all the boats that were expected had come in; the others would remain at New Orleans until more favorable weather. And this year there was to be a grand ball at the Government House before the king's ball took place, for in the last trip up the river several young men had arrived. One was to be secretary to the Commandant. Two were on their way to Canada and would start when the spring opened.

Sophie Renaud had run in, full of the news.

"And you have so many pretty things to wear!" she cried half enviously. "Your uncle always seems to know, while you might as well ask a stick as to ask my father to bring you home anything worth while. And the pretty frock Aunt Barbe sent me last summer is all in shreds. Ma mère declares I ought to have fawnskin, like an Indian girl. And did you see Madame Marchand's lovely feather cape on Sunday? It has a row of bluebird feathers around it that are dazzling."

Yes, Renée had seen the cape often while it was being made. Three years it had taken Wawataysee to collect the feathers. She had so many beautiful ideas.

"It would set me crazy to do such a thing!"

Renée laughed. Sophie always flew from one point to another, and delighted in attire.

"Wawataysee is coming to see what will be most suitable," returned Renée.

"And shall I have to wear the old white silk Cousin Guion gave me? It has been washed, but mother has pressed it like new. And one of the young men is very handsome. I saw him as I passed the court-house. Laflamme I believe he is called, and I predict he will set all the girls' hearts in a flame if he dances anything as he looks. I hope we all get a chance. And oh, what fun the king's ball will be! I just hope I shall be a queen!"

Renée tossed her pretty head. For the girls in those days gossiped pretty much as they do now, and were just as eager for pleasure.

André Valbonais dropped in as he often did. He was a great favorite, and now that he was doing so well under the very eyes of M. Chouteau, he could afford to have a steady sweetheart. Early marriages were much in vogue, and though a dot was very good, many a nice girl was married with only some household articles and bedding.

Truth to tell, André had been very much captivated with Madame Marchand. Her bravery through those wearisome days and nights of the return, her sweetness and patience with the little one, had made her an angel to be adored. M. Marchand's gratitude knew no bounds; indeed, he had been treated with brotherly affection by them both. Suddenly his eyes had been opened. It was an insult to any sweet, honorable woman to covet her, especially when she loved her husband as Wawataysee did. And André struggled to cast the sin out of his heart. She never even dreamed of such a thing, and for worlds he would not have incurred her displeasure.

But this it was that had made him care less for the young girls about. He could not offer any of them a heart that was half another's.

So in a certain fashion he had been devoted to Renée because she was such a child, and there was no danger he believed.

"There will be a great time, I suppose, at the ball," he said, sitting by the splendid log fire at Gaspard Denys'. "One of my cousins is to dance with the new Secretary, Monsieur Rivé. He came to the mill with the Governor."

M. Cruzat was often styled that, but the real Governor of all Louisiana had his capital at New Orleans. This was the Lieutenant.

"And is he very handsome?"

"Oh, good-looking enough," indifferently. "M. Laflamme will take the winning card. Renée, do not get a heartbreak over him. Take warning."

"I shall not get a heartbreak over anybody," with a saucy smile.

"Ah, your time has not yet come!" blowing out wreaths of delicate smoke.

"André, I want you to dance the first dance with me."

"I am at your service, ma'm'selle. But three new young men and a pretty girl-you do me great honor," and he made a bow, with an odd, amused smile.

"Do you suppose I am going to stand around and cast wistful eyes at these strangers?" she cried with pretty, mock indignation. "And I shall be in the very first dance, too."

"I am made supremely happy, ma'm'selle."

"And if there is any-if you see me looking-well, disconsolate, you will ask me again."

There was a charming imperiousness in her tone.

"I will obey, ma'm'selle, with great delight."

"And-André, who will be the prettiest girl there?"

"Merci! Little one, how can I make a choice?"

"I will tell you: Lucie Aubry, and she will dance with the Secretary the first thing."

"Lucie Aubry has not all the beauty of St. Louis."

"Oh, if she had, what would be left for us?" and Renée made a mirthfully despairing face.

"You need not feel alarmed."

"Oh, I don't," with enchanting gayety. "In the first place, I am not tall enough, not grand enough. Then my hair should be raven black, and it is such a funny no-color."

"It is very handsome," he replied decidedly. "Sometimes in the sun it looks as if it had gold dust sprinkled over it. And then I've seen it look as if the top of every wave was touched with silver."

"That is very beautiful, André. I will try to recall the compliment when it looks to me like a gray-brown. And my nose, see--"

"Ma'm'selle, you wrinkle it up and it makes you look piquant, saucy. You couldn't make it bad if you tried."

"Oh, yes! Look!" She put her finger to the tip of it and gave it a tiny hitch and then laughed.

"That shows your curved lips and your lovely teeth. Even that wouldn't make you a fright."

"Oh, André, how good and comforting you are! But Wawataysee, with her little Indian blood, is a hundred times handsomer. Only-I am very glad I suit you and Uncle Gaspard. He thinks I grow like my mother."

She had been half-dancing round the room in the blaze of the logs. Families often kept no other light. Now she came and sat down opposite him, demure as a nun. She had so many fascinating, changeful ways. He had always considered her a child, but now she was a charming young girl. This was one of the places where Valbonais felt entirely at home, because there was no danger of being misinterpreted by any watchful mamma. He was not quite ready to marry.

Denys came in and pushed his seat near Renée, who leaned her head on his shoulder. Now the golden lights shone in her hair-not yellow-gold, but the richer, deeper color-and a soft rose tint played over her cheek, while her mouth dimpled at the corners as if she was amused at something. There would not be many prettier girls at the ball, Valbonais thought.

Wawataysee looked over the "treasures" that one way and another had come into the possession of Gaspard Denys. True, it was a kind of idyllic time in the history of the town, so far as regarded society. Some of the families had a gown or a mantilla of lace and fringe that had been handed down, voyaged from Canada, or more directly from France and New Orleans. Such articles were only taken out on great occasions, a few times in the year. But the woman in plain attire had just as delightful a time if she was vivacious and sparkling and a good dancer.

For this was the chief amusement of the women. The men had their shooting matches, not only as a pastime but a good practice, where to be an excellent marksman was often a protection against Indians; but the hunts served to provide much of the family living. Many of these people had come of the better class peasant stock, who from time immemorial had danced on the greensward on fête days, and not infrequently on Sunday afternoon, their only holidays.

There were no theatres, few books, and many of the elder people read with so much difficulty that they lost interest in it. Oftener legends and family stories were told over on summer evenings when old and young sat out in the moonlight, ate little spiced cakes and drank birch beer.

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