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   Chapter 15 GATHERING THISTLES

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 22533

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


"What happened?" asked André abruptly. "Were you ill, or-or offended?"

"I was dizzy and warm, that was all."

"Renée," he began presently, "that man is playing with you. He is endeavoring to win your affections, and he will go away soon and you will be left to get over it as best you may."

"Get over what?" Her look and tone were so demure, so innocent, that he studied her in amaze.

"Why," with some embarrassment, "if you care for him-and now I remember--"

A definite feeling that could hardly be called emotion swept over him. And he knew now he was cherishing a vague dream that some day she would love him.

"Well, what is it you remember?" in a sweet, half malicious, half mocking tone.

"He has been with you a great deal of late. On the ice and at sledging, and at the last dance. Men of his stamp love to flirt with pretty girls-yes, love to win their hearts and then leave them in the lurch. That is what he is doing. He is not in earnest."

That vexed her. She flushed and looked prettier than ever, but tormenting as well, as a half-veiled touch of indignation seemed to pass from her shining eyes.

"As if I cared!" with a laugh like the softest ripple.

"Then-you do not-love him?"

André's voice had the hoarseness of an unspoken fear in it. He was amazed at the boldness of his question.

"Why should I love him? Why should I want to go away from this dear home, from Uncle Gaspard?"

"But he will persuade you--"

"Will he?" She glanced up so daring, so defiant and resolute, that he gave a happy laugh.

"That is right. Oh, Renée, child, do not let any one persuade you! You are too young. And then, by and by-yes, you will know some one cares for you with his whole soul, will lay all that he has at your feet--"

"He had better not. I should simply dance over it. Now let us go back. I am all rested. You shall have the next dance with me."

Monsieur Laflamme made no movement toward her, but seemed quite devoted to a new partner. Did he really care so much? Renée felt piqued with this display of indifference. This dance had a chain of persons going in and out and turning partners. As that gentleman approached she gave her rose a caressing touch and glanced up with eyes so alight and full of beseechingness that he pressed her hand in token that all was peace between them, and her wilful heart exulted.

"My charming queen," he said in an appealing tone, "may I come back to my rightful place and sun myself in your smiles? Did I offend you?"

She was not used to such flowery speech, but it sounded delightful to her. And yet it did not seem quite sincere. But she waved her hand playfully to André and went with M. Laflamme to the head of the row of dancers. It was hardly likely she would be queen again after to-night.

André Valbonais looked on puzzled, confused. He danced with several other girls, he chatted with the mothers and fathers, but it seemed as if one side of his nature did not respond to anything. It was so curiously cold that the smiles Renée lavished on every one did not arouse any jealous resentment. It was like an ice-bound stream that would awaken presently; the spring sunshine never failed to burst the bounds.

They came to the end of the night's pleasure. Several lovers were glancing at each other with confident, lingering smiles that mothers understood and did not disapprove of, even while they hurried their daughters away.

"There can be but one more ball, Lent falls so early," said some one.

"True. Well, let us make it on Tuesday night."

"Oh, you forget! That is the masked ball."

"What matter, so long as there is dancing and fun?"

"But we are not all allowed at the masked ball. That is more for the older people. Oh, I hope next year I shall be a queen!"

So they chatted in their gay youth. André fastened Renée's fur cloak and drew the hood over her face. Had she ever looked so sweet and bewildering before? Monsieur Laflamme wished her good-night and happy dreams, then bending low, whispered:

"But they must be of me. I shall dream of you."

She colored vividly.

The quiet streets were filled with echoes of talk. Two or three dropped out here, a few more there. Renée and André called out good-night and turned in their square.

Gaspard Denys was smoking his pipe before the cheerful blazing fire, a picture of comfort.

"Oh, you lazy uncle!" Renée cried, but her voice had gayety, and not disappointment in it. "You did not come to see me as the queen. And I may never be that again."

"A queen! And whose queen, pray?"

"M. Laflamme chose me. And M. Rivé was one of the kings. I don't know why, but I believe I like him better. And he looked especially well to-night. Why didn't you come?" with an enchanting pout of her rosy lips.

"I had a long list of accounts to go over. And then, pretty one, you had André to bring you home. Besides, I am growing old and, like Mère Lunde, love the chimney corner."

"Oh, you are not old! I will not have you growing old. Why, the fathers with their grown-up children were there. And some women have grandchildren. Good-night, André," nodding to him.

André took his dismissal cheerfully.

Renée crawled in Gaspard's lap and put her soft arms about his neck, laid her cheek to his.

"Oh," she cried in a tone of pathos, "I do not want you ever to get old! You are just right now."

"My dear, do you want always to stay fifteen?"

"Yes, I should be glad to. Oh, what makes the world whirl round so! And I shall be sixteen in the summer, and then-no, I won't go on. Can't you take something, do something--"

"There was a man once who fell asleep and slept for years. When he awoke his friends were dead, or had gone away--"

"Oh, hush! hush! I do not mean anything so dreadful as that," she entreated.

"Then we must go on and take all the pleasure we can to-day, or to-night-though I believe it is to-morrow morning now, and you must run to bed."

She kissed him and turned slowly. She wanted to ask some curious questions, but they were vague and would not readily shape themselves into words.

He still sat and thought. Sixteen. It gave him an uneasy feeling. If she could always stay a little girl! If he might map out her life! André Valbonais had the making of a fine, trusty man, a good business man as well. If he could come here as a son of the house. If they three could go on together, and a merry throng of children grow up about them!

The dream was rudely broken to fragments the next day. The young man of six or seven and twenty who stood leaning against the counter, one foot half crossed over the other, with an easy, gentlemanly air that betokened training beyond what the average habitant of the new countries acquired, was well calculated to win a woman's heart, a girl's heart, perhaps too easily caught, satisfied with the outward indications of manliness. Gaspard Denys could not quite tell why, but in his heart he did not altogether approve of this fine gentlemen, for all his good looks, his well-modulated voice and excellent breeding.

And he had asked him for the pride of his eye, the idol of his heart, the dearest thing on earth, to take her away for years, perhaps forever, and leave him to the loneliness of old age! And, monstrous thought, he was persuaded that Renée would love him when he had spoken. He had seen indications of it. Last evening he had startled her by some vehemence, for in spite of her apparent gayety and merriment she was a tender, sensitive plant. He would woo her with the utmost gentleness after the permission was once given.

"She is so young," Gaspard Denys began reluctantly. "Whether a girl at that time of life knows her own mind, is able to choose wisely--"

"But it is the guardians and parents generally who choose. A little advice, suggestion-and I think I can satisfy you on any point you desire. Ma'm'selle Renée would go back to the standing of her father's family. She would have advantages, and I may succeed to a title. Still, now I only present myself, and rely upon no adventitious aids."

"It would be-for her to decide. And I would rather have her here. Her father, it seems, cared little enough about her. No, I do not think I could give her up," decisively.

"But it is not absolutely necessary that I return to France," in a gravely gentle tone. "After my affairs in Montreal are settled, which I hope will turn out profitably, I should be free to do as I liked, or as another liked," smiling affably.

"We will not decide this matter hastily. If you chose to go to Montreal, and the spring will soon open," M. Denys said tentatively.

M. Laflamme thought he had only to ask to have. He fancied Gaspard Denys would be very glad to marry his adopted daughter into a good family-for, after all, her grandfather had not been held in high esteem. A little persuasion on Denys's part, a little setting forth of the advantages, and he could manage to do the rest by flattery and cajolery. He began to half wish he had not taken a step in the matter, but he could not draw back now.

"I should like to know that my suit was favorably looked upon before I went," was the rejoinder.

"Oh, you may soon know that. To-morrow, perhaps."

"Meanwhile may I see Ma'm'selle de Longueville?"

"She is at the Marchands'."

Monsieur Laflamme bowed. He did not care to subject himself to the clear, intent eyes of Madame Marchand. They were too penetrating.

A fortune was not so easily won, after all. Fate was playing at cross-purposes. Renée and Wawataysee were skimming over the lake in an ice boat. If he had guessed that he might have walked home with her in the twilight.

Renée was brilliant with the bloom of the frosty air as she came in, and her eyes were like stars. A pang went to Gaspard's heart. Ought she not take her place on a higher round than this little town of traders and trappers and farmers, many of them scarcely knowing how to read? There might be beautiful, satisfactory years before her-years with educated, refined people. He knew something of the larger cities and their advantages; he could guess at many of the charms of the beautiful, fascinating, historic Paris, with its palaces and villas and works of art and wonderful gardens. Should she be shut out of all these and affiliate with the wilderness of the New World? No. If it broke his heart, she should be free to choose.

"You had a fine time!" he commented.

"Oh, splendid! Do you know, I shall hate to have the snow and ice vanish! Oh, you should have seen the sky to-night when the red sun dropped down behind the mountains and everything was illumined as from some mighty blaze. And then fading, changing to such gorgeous colors. Oh, what is back of it all? What wonderful power and glory?"

Yes, she was capable of appreciating higher and finer opportunities than any she would ever have here.

He went through to the shop. He could not enjoy the fire when Mère Lunde was clattering pots and pans. But he had his own, if the place was a conglomeration of everything. He had made himself a big, easy chair, and the great buffalo-skin thrown over it kept off drafts. The fire was poked up; the dry pine made an exhilarating blaze, and the pungency aff

ected one like drinking wine-sent a thrill to the farthest pulse.

Renée came and stood in the light of the blaze, that made a Rembrandt picture of her. She watched the dancing, leaping flames. She smiled, turned grave, then smiled again, and presently caught sight of the serious face watching her.

"What is it?" she asked, dropping down on a log, fur-covered for a stool.

"Renée, I wonder if you would like to go away and visit wonderful, beautiful countries, where people have books and pictures and fine houses, and where there are elegant men and women--"

"Why? Are you going?"

She took the rather rough hand in hers, soft as velvet, and gazed at him out of surprised eyes.

"Would you like to go?" studying her lovely face.

"Not without you," gravely.

"But if some one younger and handsome, well-informed, accustomed to a more refined life, should care for you, should want to take you, should--"

"Oh, what is it you mean? And who is it? And I could not go unless"-her face was scarlet-"unless he married me, I know that. And there is no one I would marry. Do you think I would go away and leave you, when I love you so, when you wanted me and no one else did? Why, I would not marry a king!" and she clasped her arms about his neck.

Then a sudden knowledge flashed over her. She recalled last evening.

"I know!" she exclaimed. "It is Monsieur Laflamme. And he dared--"

She clinched her small fist.

"Then he spoke last night? And you--"

"No, he did not speak. But you can make one understand. Perhaps he might have, but André came."

Renée rose suddenly and stretched up her full height.

"Then he did mean- André said he was only pretending. I should hate him still more if he could do that! But if he thinks I care for him and would go away with him to the fairest spot in the world-oh, you do not want me to!" and she threw herself into his arms, sobbing vehemently.

"Renée, child, there is no harm done. He was very gentlemanly. He asked for your hand as an honest man should. And we cannot blame him altogether," a spice of humor in his tone. "He fancied you cared for him. Men occasionally make mistakes."

Had she made him believe that? She had tried somewhat without considering the consequences. The little triumph had appealed to her girlish vanity. How could she explain it?

"I liked him a little," she confessed brokenly. "And I was proud and delighted to be chosen his queen. But I do not want him to love me. I do not want any one to love me but just you. I shall never love any one else."

It was a very sweet confession, but she did not know what it meant. So her mother had said, and he wanted to believe he had held her truest faith, and this had descended to her child.

"Then what am I to tell him? That you are too young to think about such things?"

"That I shall never think about him in that manner. Oh, make him understand that!"

"There, dear, it is not worth crying over. He is not the first man who has found the rose out of reach or been pricked by thorns."

Gaspard turned up the sweet, flushed, tear-wet face and kissed it. He was so glad to have it back safe and innocent of the great knowledge that sooner or later comes to all womanhood. Some day it would come to her, but let him keep his little girl as long as he could.

So it was all settled, but Renée could not feel quite at rest about it. These people did not make tyrants of conscience; they were not analytical nor given to inquisitorial scrutiny of every feeling or motive. The priests were as simple-hearted as the people. True, some of them were considered rather lax when they had left their people open to Protestant influences. But here there were no Protestants, no religious arguments. To tell the truth, to be honest, just and kindly was creed enough for the women. Their hearts were not probed to the deepest thought. They confessed a bit of temper, a little envying, perhaps some laxness about prayers, and took a simple penance. Church-going was one of their pleasures.

Yet Renée had a kind of misgiving that she had thrown at Monsieur Laflamme some of those radiant looks that might mean much or little, according to one's way of translating them. She put the thought of marriage far away from her. Some time a delightful, devoted man, like M. Marchand, might cross her path. He was so strong and yet so gentle. He was always thinking of what would please Wawataysee. Even now, with two babies, he went out rambling with her, and they came home laden with wild flowers or berries. Then it was out canoeing, of which the young wife was extremely fond.

But it did not seem as if M. Laflamme would be given to this kind of devotion. He would seek to bend a woman to his will. There were wives who cheerfully bowed their heads to their masters, but as a general thing these simple-minded French husbands were not tyrants.

She did not like him to come so near; it made her afraid. And, girlish contradiction, she had delighted in her power of bringing him near, of tasting the sweets of a certain kind of exaction. André always yielded to her whims and seldom had any will of his own.

She sat in the garden awhile listening to the birds and a pretty black-eyed squirrel, who kept running up and down the tree beside her and looking as if he would presently jump on her shoulder. Then she saw André coming up the path, and a tormenting impulse seized her. She skipped across the grass with a triumph of laughter in her eyes.

"André!" she cried gayly. "André, you were quite mistaken-" How should she word it?

"Mistaken! About what?" and he raised his honest eyes, half amused.

"About-Monsieur Laflamme. You said that he did not mean anything; that he only cared to win a girl's heart and cast it away. It is not true. You were very unjust. He has been here. He has asked Uncle Gaspard for my hand. He would like to marry me. And I am not quite sixteen!" in a tone of exultation.

She mistook the fleeting color for a fit of vexation that he had been wrong, though people generally turned red when they were angry. It seemed to him all the blood rushed out of his body, whither he knew not, but left him as one dead. And there was a solemn tolling of bells in his ears.

She was enjoying his unlooked-for mood with a certain sense of triumph.

"Oh, the pity of the blessed saints, of the sweet Virgin herself! And you mean to marry him!"

"Well, if I did?" saucily. "I dare say there are girls who would jump at the prospect."

"But you know next to nothing about him. He may have a wife already somewhere. Such things have been. Oh, Monsieur Denys cannot, will not let you go!"

That was like a strain of sweet music to her. Then she laughed and he looked puzzled.

"Oh," with an airy toss of the head, "I don't believe Uncle Gaspard would break my heart and make me miserable if I had cared a great deal for M. Laflamme. But I do not want to marry any one. I do not want to go away. I am very happy here. Why, there isn't a man in the world like Uncle Gaspard!"

There was a great revulsion in every pulse. The warm blood came back to André's cheek and the strange look went out of his eyes.

"But you see you were mistaken. You gave him hard and unjust judgment. I suppose he must have loved me or he wouldn't have wanted to marry me. There is no lack of pretty girls in the town."

She held her head with triumphant assurance. Her eyes were brimming over, her red lips full of saucy curves, in which seemed to lurk budding kisses for some lover.

But André blundered, as inexperience sometimes will.

"It is not only the beauty, ma'm'selle. Laure Eudeline is like a picture, but without a sou or a silver spoon for her portion. Has M. Laflamme looked at her twice? And you have a dot that would make many men covet you. Every one knows it will only grow larger in M'sieu Denys's hands. And I dare say he would like the pleasure of handling it."

Renée had rarely thought of her fortune. And the most exquisite, the most romantic dream of a young girl is to be loved for herself alone. André had suddenly dashed this enchanting belief to fragments. Yes, there was the fortune, a hard, solemn fact. Must she suspect every one henceforward?

"André," she cried in passionate anger, "you are small and mean and suspicious! I hate you!"

It was the truth, since André had heard Madame Aubry and one or two others commend Monsieur Laflamme for his wisdom. Some man would marry Mademoiselle de Longueville in a year or two. But it was an unfortunate way of putting her on guard. And it stings a girl with mortification to hear a man belittled who has paid her the compliment of a marriage proposal.

The young fellow walked away. There was something fine and solid about him, she had to admit, angry as she was. Almost as tall as Uncle Gaspard and with a compact, yet lithesome figure, carrying his head well, stepping with decision and having an air of command with most people, but never with her, for she ruled him.

Her anger was short-lived, after all. When she quarrelled with him there always came up a procession of remembrances. She knew now what might have been her fate as a captive, and he had saved her from that. He had gone without food that she and Wawataysee would not lose their strength until they had reached some place of safety. He had carried her that last night. Yes, she was an ungrateful, exasperating little thing, and after all she did not really hate him. She would not even want him to go out of her life. Suddenly she thought she would not even like him to love some other girl.

He had a long conversation with Gaspard Denys that comforted him a good deal. Denys was like an older brother, taking a great interest in his advancement, advising him as to what was best to do with his savings, but as yet he had never said, "You had better marry some nice, thrifty girl." Somehow he was very glad of that.

She lingered around in the old garden and the happy light came back to her eyes, the balmy air soothed her ruffled temper. In her secret heart she believed M. Laflamme had really loved her. If there were other pretty girls in the world, there were other rich girls, too. In Canada, where he was going, there were real heiresses, though how much it took to constitute one she had no idea.

He did not come through the garden. Perhaps he meant to stay to supper. Then she would be rather grave and dignified, and show him that he had seriously offended her.

"Renée! Renée, petite!" called Mère Lunde.

There was a quick stride down the street. It turned the corner. She pulled a rose and unthinkingly pressed it to her lips.

"André!" she said in a rather appealing tone.

The tall figure bent over the fence, and the eyes were touched with an eager, responsive light.

"André, were you very angry? I was--"

"Oh, ma'm'selle, who could long be angry with one so charming?" and his whole heart was in his voice.

She gave him the rose. "I must run in to supper," and she vanished like a sprite.

"She kissed the rose," he said, pressing it to his lips. "Oh, ma'm'selle, no sweeter flower ever bloomed. But you are a rose set in thorns. The fragrance clings to you, the thorns prick others."

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