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   Chapter 14 AT THE BALL

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 30065

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Wawataysee fashioned a frock for Renée out of some silvery threaded stuff that had soft blue disks here and there, looking almost like bits of fur. Round the shoulders was a band of blue feathers from jay and marten and bluebird, skilfully arranged on a strip of cloth. Her full, girlish throat and arms were bare except for some bracelets and a string of pearls. Her hair was gathered up in a great knot on top of her head and fastened with a silver comb set with jewels. When she entered the ballroom leaning on her uncle's arm half the assemblage turned to look at her.

The largest space in the Government House had been cleared for dancing. There were smaller connecting rooms, and all had been trimmed with evergreens. The warmth brought out their pungent fragrance. Here a cluster of scarlet berries, there a branch of brown-red oak, a handful of yellow hickory leaves bunched like a sunflower. Here was the Commandant, M. Cruzat, and his staff, with their military accoutrements much tarnished by wear, and the soldiers at the fort who had worn out those kept some little shred, perhaps the old buttons, to indicate their standing. But the young men were in noticeably fresh array.

Madame Cruzat and the elegant Madame Chouteau were on the other side with several ladies, bowing and smiling and making a place for some of the elders. Around the room were ranged seats of rough boards covered with blankets. In one of the smaller apartments was the band, though it was composed mostly of violins.

The elders were to have the upper end of the room in the Court minuet, the younger people next and in the adjoining rooms. M. Laflamme, a distinguished-looking young man with an air of what we should call society, spoke to a lady standing near, who brought him over to Mademoiselle de Longueville. And at that instant Valbonais approached smiling and extending his hand.

She listened to the request with the most dainty modesty. "I regret, monsieur," she said in a low tone, "but it is a previous engagement." And now Lucie Aubry might have the pleasure in welcome. She would not throw over an old friend for a new acquaintance. She held her head up very proudly and danced the minuet as if she had been a queen.

After that the real pleasure began. Old and young, with little formality, yet with the kind of breeding the French never forgot, and took into the forests with them. André need not have watched for Renée's half warning. If she could have danced with three in the same set, she had the opportunity.

M. Laflamme was a little piqued, but he captured her at last.

"Ma'm'selle," in a pause, "you are a true French girl, name and all. You might have come from Paris."

"As I did once upon a time," smiling out of bewitching eyes.

"Ah! Can you remember?"

"I was there but one day. At the house of my father. A little child, eight years or so."

"Not the Count de Longueville?"

"The Count de Longueville. At least, one Count. There may be many," she replied, with drooping, mischievous eyes.

"But-he has a wife and two sons, the one I mean."

"My own mother died," and the grave tone was tenderly sweet. "I hardly knew her. Then I was sent to her people, my grandfather here at St. Louis."

"Not-oh, no, not Monsieur Denys!"

"He is not old enough," she replied, with a touch of vexation. "No. And now that relative is dead. Monsieur, tell me about my little brothers."

"I never saw them, but know there are two. They are away somewhere being educated. Madame the Countess is at court, one of the handsome women that swell the Queen's train."

A sort of protest sped through Renée's pulses. Her mother was lying in an unheeded grave. She remembered being taken to it several times. And the Count had forgotten about her; another stood in her place. They two were gay and happy.

"You would like to go back to France?" tentatively.

"No, monsieur," and she raised her pretty head proudly. "I would not leave Uncle Denys for all France has to offer," in a clear, decisive tone.

"You rate him very highly. I almost envy him, ma'm'selle," bowing very low. "There is another dance--"

Uncle Denys brought up Monsieur Rivé, who had been merely presented to her in the early part of the evening, and he begged for the pleasure of dancing with her.

"I thought you were engaged," said Laflamme in a quick tone to Renée.

"I did not say so, monsieur," she replied in a low tone. "But it is not considered best to dance right along with one person. I do not quite know the fashion of courts," raising demure, but fascinating eyes.

"She would do for a court," he ruminated.

Renée meanwhile swam away like a graceful bird in a maze of sunshine. M. Rivé was delighted. He had been dancing with Madame Aubry, who had grown rather stout, and Madame Garis, who was always a little stiff, as she had descended on both sides from nobility, though it was long ago; but she desired to keep up a certain state. The mothers expected to have the young men pay them the compliment of at least one dance.

But what grace and elegance this young creature possessed! And the pretty, flower-like face was enchanting in its enjoyment.

"Do you often have such balls as this?" he asked presently. "I was quite averse to coming to St. Louis, but I hardly dared decline the appointment. I thought you-" and he paused.

"Well, what did you think, monsieur?" with an arch look and in a merry voice. "That we were part Indian and lived in wigwams?"

"Oh, no!" coloring. "But we are quite gay at New Orleans. There are many Spanish people, and the creole women are very beautiful and exquisite dancers, though they seem a race quite by themselves. And we have a theatre. You see, it is the great port. So much trade comes to us-the vessels from Europe, and from some of the cities in the colonies that have so lately gained their independence."

"I shall go to New Orleans some time. My uncle has promised me. In the summer, perhaps."

"Oh, not next summer!"

"Why not?" with a dainty toss of the head.

"Because I am to stay here a year whether or no."

"Monsieur," with gay audacity, "I believe your business has something to do with writing letters and keeping accounts. I cannot help you there, so it could make but little difference."

"But we shall have the winter. What is this I hear about the king's ball? Or is it a series of balls?"

"Oh, monsieur, that is a delight!" She gave a brief description of it. "And there are four queens. Each chooses a king."

"I hope you will be a queen. But to have your high honor depend on so great a chance seems rather discouraging."

"Still, the king may choose you next time. Then it doesn't always depend upon a bean," laughing with gay softness.

"What an odd plan! Ma'm'selle, I hope I may be a king. I never thought of such an honor before. And I have chosen my queen already."

The violins dragged out a last slow note. The fiddlers had not learned to blow it out with a sort of ecstasy. Then André Valbonais came, for the next dance was his and he was very glad. If there was such a thing as an especial belle of the evening, it was Renée de Longueville. These new gay fellows must not crowd him out, he resolved.

There was a promenade after that. Renée fell out of the ranks and insisted upon sitting down a few minutes.

"Go and find Sophie Renaud for me," she said to André in a dainty tone of command.

"And leave you here alone?"

"I am going to crawl in this corner and rest a bit. And I wonder where Uncle Denys is?"

"He has been talking to the Governor. M. Cruzat is not above listening to the needs of the people. There are to be improvements along the levee."

She waved her hand in dismissal. Then she wondered, with a bit of feminine inconsistency, who would be first to find her out. This would be a lovely corner for a chat.

A voice caught her ear. She heard her name mentioned in a complimentary manner.

"She is very well born. Although you do not seem to make much of that here."

That was Monsieur Laflamme's peculiarly cultivated accent.

"Yes, on the one side. The other, her grandfather-well, no one is quite certain. But he left her a fortune and some handsome jewels. How he obtained both no one really knows."

"I suppose many things have to be condoned in this new country. In fact, they have to be in most places," laughing ironically. "The world is quite turned upside down, but money is on the top everywhere. And the uncle, he has several interests I have heard. He has no family."

"He is not a real relative, but a sort of godfather or guardian. She is like a child to him. There is a story that he was in love with her mother when they were children. Besides his trading business he has an interest in the lead mines. And it is said there are some wonderful discoveries of salt that hunters have found. We shall distance you more southern people some day."

"Then M. Denys is one of your prosperous citizens?"

"Oh, yes, monsieur! We are proud of him."

"And the young lady will be his heiress?"

"Most likely. It is hardly probable that he will marry now. Monsieur Laflamme, if you are looking for a wife with a comfortable dot, here is your opportunity. A pretty girl, too. Well spoiled; but a husband, if he has any sense, soon trains a girl aright when she is young."

Madame Aubry laughed with an inflection of satisfaction. French mothers seem matchmakers by instinct. She had informed herself about the newcomers. The two travellers were men of no especial fortunes, and though she was pleased to have Lucie dance with them, she had other views for her daughter, who would have no great dowry. Genevieve had a pretty home near by, and she did not want Lucie to go away. She had her eye on a very well-to-do person who had already made the proper advances to her. She could afford to be generous with her neighbors' maids.

Renée sprang up suddenly, her face aflush with anger. That any one would consider her fortune made her indignant. She had some fanciful ideas of love, gleaned largely from Wawataysee and her husband, who since the attack on St. Louis had guarded her with the utmost devotion, purchasing a strong, burly slave to be her guard and to watch over his babies. During his two journeys North she had lived at the Denys's house. There had been other love matches as well, where the question of dowry had hardly been thought of, though every mother and father were delighted to have a hand in the bride's plenishing.

She almost ran into M. Rivé. Then she laughed and drew herself up with a gesture of half dignity, half amusement. And there was Sophie Renaud and Valbonais, who looked from one to the other and wondered why Renée had sent him away. He fancied he read some confusion in her face.

"The gentlemen are invited to the office," said a servant. "There are pipes and liquors and cards for those who love play. The ladies will be refreshed in the anteroom," designating the corridor with a wave of his hand.

There were several tables spread here with delicacies that it was supposed men cared little about. Spiced wines and cordials, fruit dried and sugared, dainty cakes and various confections. No one thought of a great supper. The girls crowded by themselves and laughed and chatted, counting up the times they had danced and the captures they had made, and what their real lovers had said. In the simplicity of their enjoyment there was little heart-burning.

"Renée," exclaimed one of the group, "we shall have to look out for ourselves! Why, you have only been a child hitherto, and here are all the men paying court and compliments to you! However, you cannot have my Jean, for he has spoken to the priest, and though maman thinks it but short notice, she will get me ready."

Rose Boucher threw back her head and laughed, showing her pearly teeth.

"Oh," said Renée merrily, "and last winter we had such nice times skating on the pond! Now you will not let him skate with us or help us up the mound or anything!"

The tone was so disconsolate and the face so full of mock despair that it was amusing.

"Not I, indeed! You're not going to have the whole world, Renée de Longueville, if you have a rich uncle and have danced with all these newcomers, and had all the room looking at you in your beautiful gown and your high comb. Has it real diamonds? Dear me! It behooves us to get betrothed as soon as possible when these young things set up for admirers."

So they teased her good-humoredly and she laughed in return, but it seemed as if she were two people instead of one-a girl enjoying everything and a woman fearing some things.

But presently they returned to the dancing. Monsieur Laflamme sought her out at once. Her first impulse was to decline with high dignity, then a gleam of mirth shone in her eyes and she accepted. If he wanted to begin wooing, let him. The inborn coquetry of her nature rose to the surface. She was bright with a certain childish audacity and her piquancy attracted him. If he chose he could win her very easily. People in this New World were making fortunes readily, but Paris would be the place to spend them.

Mothers began presently to gather up their charges and express their pleasure to Madame Cruzat. The fathers had a touch of gallantry as well. It was very gratifying to feel that the Commandant had their interests truly at heart and cared for the town.

André Valbonais came to find Renée.

"I am to see you safe home," he said. "M. Denys is wanted in a little council they are having."

The girl made no demur. How lovely they looked in their fur hoods, their cheeks still rosy, their eyes bright, their chatter full of joy. Laflamme studied them and wondered who Valbonais could be, with his unquestioning authority.

They went down the Rue Royale a happy, light-hearted crowd, crunching the snow under their feet and looking up at the stars that seemed to shine with unwonted brilliance, as if they had really usurped the place of the moon. And here was the Chouteau house, a great white mound, the dormer windows in the roof like some curious eyes. The throng thinned out. Renée and André turned up their own street.

"And did you like those newcomers very much?" he began, as if they were continuing a conversation.

"They were nice dancers-yes, elegant dancers."

"They're much interested in the king's ball. Renée, if you draw a bean, who shall you choose?"

"Oh, how can I tell? The handsomest man."

"The handsomest are not always the worthiest."

"That sounds like a grandam. Why should one care for a night? One dances for the pleasure."

"But it may lead to--"

"To all manner of ills, such as falling in love. I suppose that is a very great ill. Were you ever in love, André?" laughing in a mocking mood.

"Oh, with you, a hundred times! Else I should not be so ready to do your bidding."

"But with any one else?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"But you said you were in love with me."

Her tone had in it the daintiest bit of upbraiding.

"Yes, when I ran away with you and Wawataysee. When I watched over you day and night. When I do your bidding now as if I was your slave."

"There's another kind of love."

"Ma'm'selle, that's too sacred to talk about lightly."

Dragon, the great hound, was watching at the gate. He made no objection when André opened it, but he looked up and down the street.

"Your master will come presently. He is all right," said André. "Or, if you like to, go for him."

Dragon signified that he did. André opened the door. Mère Lunde was asleep in her chair. She had piled several logs on the fire, and they had just burst into a blaze that glorified the apartment. Another hound lay half asleep in the warmth, but he beat his tail to let them know that he heard.

Renée threw off her wraps, took out her comb and shook her hair over her shoulders. What a shining mass it was! Her eyes were softly bright in their quartz-like glow. André thought she had not looked as beautiful the whole evening, and he was glad without knowing just why.

"Good-night," he said abruptly. "Friga will see that no harm befalls you."

"Thank you, André," and she smiled upon him with a sweetness that he took outside with him.

"She will be a flirt," he said to himself. "But, after all, she is only a child and she doesn't know what deep, heartfelt love is. Heaven keep her from the knowledge until she has had her fling. The bright, winsome things have the most power."

Renée was standing there when Uncle Gaspard came in. He put his arms around her and kissed her shining head and drooping eyelids.

"You had a nice time?"

"It was splendid!" in a joyous tone.

"I like that young Rivé very much. M. Cruzat is well pleased with him. Go to bed, kitten."

The very next day, when a company were out skating, M. Laflamme and several others joined the party. If Renée had been lovely in her dancing gown, she was infinitely more bewitching in this half Indian skating attire. Laflamme had made some farther inquiries this morning and found Madame Aubry had not exaggerated. He had been something of a spendthrift and was now going to Montreal to get his portion of a family estate that had fallen in, but whether it could be turned speedily to money was rather doubtful. It was a long journey, he learned, and though he had begun it with a spirit of adventure, his courage in the matter was rather oozing out. What if he stayed here and wooed this charming girl who threw him a fascinating smile now and then, and knew so little of the world that she could easily be won? The journey in the summer would be more agreeable, and with her for a companion--

The next day was the New Year and the fun began early. The streets were musical with fiddles and songs. Lovers had puzzled their brains for pretty rhymes, and many, it must be confessed, were rather lame; but the frosty air carried the melody, and no one was over-critical.

Renée had numberless serenades to her soft, love-inspiring eyes, her cheeks that would make roses envious, her ripe lips where kisses blossomed, her shining hair that was like a crown, her lithe figure, her feet that were not large enough to make a print in the snow.

Gaspard Denys sat one side of the broad fireplace, in the glow of the ruddy flame, and listened with amusement. The year before he had gone for Renée he had joined the merry throng. Barbe Guion was a pretty young girl, and the Renauds had invited him in. And somehow no one ever quite knew whether Barbe was happy or not. The first time her husband came up with the boats she could not accompany him on the severe journey. While he was in St. Louis her little boy was born and died. Once afterward Gardepier had taken the expedition, but Barbe was not well and had sent loving messages; was very happy with her little daughter. He wondered what led him to think of her this night!

Renée was restless as a bird. She listened to the singing. There was one very musical French song that was not as fulsome as the others, and she wondered a little about it. Then the voices in chorus cried out: "Good-night, master; may good luck be yours. Good-night, young mistress; may your dreams be sweet of your true love."

Then the songs were heard in the distance, and presently André Valbonais came in.

"Did you hear Laflamme?" he asked. "He and Monette went out for the fun, but they sang some beautiful songs. M'sieu Denys, do you not think it time some of this foolishness was broken up? Not that I have anything against serenading, and really they did finely at the Commandant's. But the soldiers were out, and that helped."

"It's an old habit. And the young fellows enjoy it."

"André, are you getting too old for fun? Why, I think it's quite delightful. I was sure I heard a new voice. And it is the first time I have been serenaded. Oh, dear! I wonder who I shall dream about?"

Yes, she had only been a child; now she was a young girl, not quite a woman, a gay, wilful, enchanting young girl. Did Denys know it? He was lazily stretched out, with his hands in his pockets, gazing at the fire, dreaming of long ago, and Renée Freneau, of another time and Barbe Guion.

André gave a little cough. "Of your true love, ma'm'selle."

"There are so many," with a laughable assumption of weariness. "And to doubt their truth would be cruel."

"There can be only one true love."

"But each serenader thinks his the true one."

He had not joined in the foolishness.

"What they think does not so much matter, ma'm'selle. It is what is in the woman's heart."

"And she cannot go out serenading her true love."

"Would you want to, ma'm'selle?"

"I should like to find out who he was," and she laughed.

Denys roused himself suddenly and began to talk business. André was working his way up in the Chouteau mill and was in high favor with its owners. What would happen when the spring opened, for St. Louis was growing to be a larger business centre? England, the talk was, had ceded her rights to the river and all the eastern shore to the new colonial government, which would make fresh treaties with Spain. The Ohio River was another promising branch. In fact, everything seemed tending to strange and uncertain prospects.

Denys would have been more than amazed if a vision of fifty years later had crossed his brain there in the firelight. And a hundred years-that would have sent him quite crazy.

But the king's ball was the next thing. They were such a pleasure-loving people at this time; indeed, the winters would have been very dreary without the pleasure.

So the merry crowd came and the cake was made. Everybody who could gathered as usual, and the children added zest in the early part of the evening, exchanging their gifts and eating their étrennes. The stately dances of the elder people, and then the gavotte, the airy passe-pied, and afterward the merry spinning round in all kinds of fancy steps, in which some of the young men excelled.

Then twelve boomed out and one of the matrons cut the cake, another dealt out the pieces just as they came, so there should be no favoritism. Renée's had in it no bean-was she glad or sorry? For two pairs of eyes watched her eagerly.

"I shall have to wait until next year!" she exclaimed, with a captivating moue of disappointment.

"Or the next ball," said Laflamme. "I hope some one will take pity on me. I should like a taste of royalty."

Sure enough he was chosen. Monsieur Rivé as well. Monette had been tempted by a hunting expedition. He was not so fond of merriment, and had left a sweetheart in New Orleans.

Laflamme was rather annoyed. He had to pay his devotion to his queen, but he would make up for it next time. André had no rival to fear then, though Renée was besieged with invitations.

Yet with all the apparent freedom, a young man waited to be asked by the head of the house before presenting himself to any young lady. And there was no madame here looking out that this rose should not be left on the household stem.

There are natures that opposition whets into ardent desire, and Laflamme's was one of these. He had become a guest at Madame Aubry's, but he was too well bred to ask so great a favor of her so soon. Yet at the night of the second ball he was impatiently waiting. As Renée emerged from the dressing-room he handed her the bouquet, and she accepted it with a smile, but she was a little vexed at heart. She would rather have had the compliment from Monsieur Rivé, but she was gratified to be a queen.

For somehow her heart rather misgave her. Out on the pond skating, or in the merry sledging parties, she had managed to evade any special overtures. There were other young men who considered her bright and pretty, but to them she was still an eager, rather spoiled child, hardly to be considered in a fair field for winning, though more than one had counted up her possible fortune. There was another virtue among these simple people, loyalty. One young man rarely interfered with another's sweetheart. A peculiar kind of consent had given her to André Valbonais. He was doing well, a steady young fellow and high in favor with Pierre Chouteau, who entrusted a great deal of the business to his care. Then he was in and out at Gaspard Denys', as no young man would be unless he was willing to give him his darling Renée.

Laflamme danced with her, and the grace and lightness of her step made it an exquisite pleasure. He glanced over the girls. There were many who were pretty with the charm of youth, some who were lovely with the finer dowry of beauty, that wifehood and motherhood only enhances. A few generations ago these settlers, many of them, came from peasant stock, and at least on one side she had fine blood. It showed in her with the many indescribable points that he could distinguish readily. Still, he would not have taken any woman with poverty unless it were some court favorite the King or Queen would dower.

True, Gaspard Denys might marry and raise up sons and daughters, but he would make sure that Renée had her portion of his wealth. And although this was a wild, uncultivated sort of life, there were possibilities of gain in it. The lead mines were believed to be inexhaustible, though the method of working them was imperfect. Denys had a share in the enterprise and sometimes spent weeks at Fort Chartres, as the lead was sent from there to New Orleans. At such times the Marchands came over to stay, or André Valbonais slept in the house.

Laflamme had enjoyed his bachelorhood extremely, and admitted to himself it would be a bother to have to think about a wife. But if his Montreal affairs should prove unsuccessful it might be a most excellent thing to have a dependence to fall back upon. And when it came to that he would not be really compelled to take Renée to France; he would, no doubt, return to America.

They had finished their dance, but M. Laflamme still kept Renée's hand and held her attention by some amusing incidents until the music began again. Then she was fain to release it. No one had asked her for this dance-there had been no opportunity.

"I have you, little prisoner." he said, with a meaning smile. "Come, this is too delightful to forego."

"No, I would rather not dance," hesitatingly.

"You cannot plead fatigue, since you have only danced once," he declared insistently.

He impelled her into the line with a gentle firmness she could not resist, though every line of her face, every pulse in her body, protested against it. Two dances in succession were too pronounced, unless one was betrothed or likely to be.

In spite of it all she found herself whirling about the line, in a keeper's charge she felt. The young men looked rather questioningly; the girls exchanged glances, the elder women nodded, as if this set the seal to their surmises. Renée's face was scarlet and her eyes downcast. Would it never come to an end? She was growing more and more resentful, indignant.

"Now we will take a turn about--"

"Where is Elise?" she interrupted. Elise Renaud had been married long enough to play chaperone. Madame Marchand had expected to attend, but in the afternoon one of the babies had been taken ill. And there were mothers enough to watch over the young girls.

"No, you do not want Elise," mimicking her tone in a soft, yet decisive manner. "And I want you. I have something to say--"

"No! no!" she cried in alarm, wrenching her hand away, and she would have fled, but she almost ran into André Valbonais's arms.

"Oh, keep me!" she cried under her breath. "Take me away-keep me from--"

"What is the meaning of this?" and he looked from the small, trembling figure in his arms to Monsieur Laflamme.

"Ma'm'selle de Longueville had a turn-I think it was the heat-or, perhaps we danced too hard. You in this new country take things so much in earnest. Then we came out here for a breath of air. She is better already. She is my queen for the evening. Ma'm'selle, when you are ready to go back--"

Laflamme was the embodiment of gentleness and perfect breeding, and as he gazed tranquilly at André, the young man felt the indescribable difference, and withal a certain power that was like authority over Renée. Oh, what if-and suddenly André Valbonais knew the child's play; the pretty imperiousness of ownership had a deeper meaning for him. He would dispute this man's claim. What was it but trifling? The two men were as transient guests in the town. They would go away as soon as the spring opened. But this one should not trifle with little Renée. Ah! he did not look like trifling. The resolution in his face startled André.

"Ma'm'selle Renée," he began, "are you ill? Shall I take you home?" and André's eyes questioned.

There was an ardent pressure on the small hand that said authoritatively, "Come! come!" It roused the spirit of wilfulness, of which she had quite too much. And what was there to be afraid of? She was suddenly courageous.

"I am better now," she said. "We will go back. But I will not dance. Monsieur Laflamme, choose some other partner. One does not dance every time, even with a king. We rule our own court here and make our own laws. And I will lend the fair one my rose."

She took André's arm and smiled up in the other's face with the most provoking nonchalance. Laflamme gnawed his lip. He was very angry.

"I shall not consent to that. I am not so easily transferred, ma'm'selle."

"But you must go and dance. You will break the circle. Monsieur Valbonais and I will look on."

She turned, her head held up haughtily. There was nothing to do but follow or make a scene, which was not to be thought of.

"And here is Lucie Aubry, the most queenlike girl in the room. You two look splendid on the floor. Ma'm'selle Lucie, will you take my rose?"

"Ma'm'selle Aubry does not need it. May I have the pleasure?" Laflamme placed himself between the two and led Lucie away.

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