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A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 26434

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

There was news enough at Madame Renaud's. Every year she grew a little stouter, a trifle more consequential. The grandmères always were. Elise and Louis both had little daughters. There had been sons before, but granddaughters were rather nearer, it seemed. She must make a christening cake for both, and she thanked the saints that the church had been freshened up a little and that the good Vicar-General had made a gift of a new altar cloth.

The other news was not so joyous. Barbe Gardepier had never been home since her marriage. Women travelled very seldom in those days. Once her baby boy had been born and died, then her little girl was just born. And now she had lost her husband, and was coming back to St. Louis to live.

Jean Gardepier had died early in the winter. But news was slow in coming. This had been sent with the first relay of boats, and she would be up in June with her little girl.

"And to think of the sorrow of the poor thing!" exclaimed Madame Renaud, wiping her eyes. "Here I have my good man Louis and my four children around me, three of them in homes of their own, and never a sorrow, while she is left alone to sup bitter grief! And not a relative near her! The saints be praised when it is possible for families to stay together. Then there is a friendly voice to console you."

They all remembered pretty Barbe Guion. The old grandmère had died-that was natural in old age-but aunts and uncles and cousins were living, so it was a family grief.

But the christening came to break the sorrow and there was a grand time. Spring had come late this year. With a rather hard winter, streams and rivers had been choked with ice, but now all was bloom and beauty and gladness.

There were always some special prayers and a mass said on Corpus Christi day, and it was kept with great seriousness at Gaspard Denys'. But the Indians all about were so friendly that fears were allayed, though the town was better protected now.

There had been very heavy spring rains, and this, with the sunshine, gave promise of abundant harvests. Farmers had begun to plant wheat and rye, which brought back old memories of pleasant life in sunny France when taxes and tithes were not too high.

Amid all this smiling content there was one morning a strange sound. Men paused at their work and listened. Sometimes in a high wind the sound came rushing over the prairie like the tramp of an army, and seemed to threaten everything with destruction. Occasionally the river rose, but since the founding of the towns no great harm had been done.

On it came, nearer, with a thundering boom that now could not be mistaken. Men rushed to the levee to be sure that the boats were made safe. They looked up the river, standing on the high ground. What was this terror marching toward them? A seething, foaming flood with great, dark waves tossing up a yellow-black spray, sweeping all before it.

"The river! The river is rising!" was shouted by terrified voices, and men looked at each other in fear. They had never seen anything like it. There had been freshets that had done considerable damage, torn out banks and sent down great drifts of broken and uprooted trees. There had been ice gorges, when the cakes of ice would pile up like Arctic mounds, crashing, thundering, and suddenly give way, dazzling in the sunshine like a fleet of boats and, sweeping down the river, crush whatever was in its way.

But this was a great wall, starting up no one knew where, swelled by the streams, expanded by the Missouri, sweeping all before it, submerging Gaboret Island, gathering momentum every moment, swirling at every point and curve, as if longing to beat them out of existence, and with an accumulation of uprooted trees so jammed together that many of them stood upright, a great army of devastation.

The current was very swift in any freshet. Although it was called the great river, that applied more to its length, for here it was not much over two thousand feet wide. But it was deep, with a dangerous power when it rose in its might, and fed by so many streams and tributaries that the débris was constantly washing down to the gulf at its numerous mouths.

They gazed in speechless terror at first, as if they would be helpless in the grasp of such a giant, and the roar was appalling. The spray seemed dashed up in the very face of heaven; the rending, tearing and crushing was terrific. The very trees shrieked as they were torn from their foundation. On it rushed, a great, dark, fierce wall, sweeping everything in its way, tearing out banks, booming like the roar of artillery, shrieking with madness, as if hundreds of people were crying out for help and safety. The crowd looked at each other in dismay. Some fled to the next higher range, many sank helplessly to the ground, others were on their knees praying. And when it struck the little town it seemed like a mighty earthquake, and the ground fairly shuddered as it rushed by furiously.

The boats that had been drawn up to a safe line, as was thought, were swept off to join the mad, careering mass and add to the rending, deafening sound. And when the first accumulation had swept by and was whirling around the bend of the river another and still another followed. Was the whole north going to be precipitated upon them?

The curve in the river did the town this much good: it swept the fierce current to the eastern side, tore out, submerged, and by the time it turned it was below the town. They were not to be swept quite away, and some of the braver ones began to take courage and ventured to look at the levee below. That was gone, of course.

It was a day and a night of terror. The flood had submerged a part of the Rue Royale and some of the residents had moved their belongings to higher ground. Trading houses had been emptied of their goods. Gaspard Denys shrugged his shoulders with intense satisfaction. Up here past the Rue de l'Eglise all was safe and dry.

For days there seemed a spell upon the people. They could do little besides watch the receding river and view the wreckage it had left in its wake. Great caves and indentations on the opposite shore, bare spaces where trees had waved their long green arms joyously in the sunshine a few days ago. Yet they found they had not fared so badly. Everybody turned out to help repair damages.

What of the fleet of boats coming up the river? What of the towns below?

"And my poor Barbe!" cried Madame Renaud. "Why, they would be almost home, unless the boats were swept to destruction. Only a miracle could have saved them. And oh, then, where are they?"

True. The waters had subsided so much it would be safe to go in search of them. There were several coves less infested now with pirates than formerly, where boats sometimes put in to avoid the storms. Colonel Chouteau at once had two boats made ready and stored with provisions, in case of a rescue of any voyagers.

Then some trading fleets ventured from St. Charles. All along the shores on both sides were marks of devastation. Great chasms had been created here, and there mounds of broken trees and tons of river mud deposited over them. Gaboret Island began to show its head, but it had been swept clean.

The farther down the river went, the more appalling had been the destruction. The fate of the towns below they could only guess at, but the news came presently. Cahokia had been nearly swept out of existence. Part of Kaskaskia, the oldest part built on the river bluff, had been torn away by the resistless force. People were flying hither and thither, having lost their all.

André Valbonais had headed the rescuing party-if, indeed, there was anything to rescue. The mighty river had gone back to its normal state; the banks, encrusted with yellow mud, were drying in the sun. They found curious changes. Two of the little coves were filled with débris and gave no indication of sheltering any travellers.

They passed the Miramec River with no sign. That, too, had all its banks submerged, and the tough grasses and reeds were just rearing their heads. On again, here was quite a bluff. Just around the turn had been a noted pirate resort, broken up two or three times; at the last time with the cost of a number of lives.

"Do you suppose it will be safe?" queried the captain. "There may be Indians in hiding."

Valbonais reconnoitred awhile. "Up above there is the smoke of a fire," he said. "And I think I see a boat just beyond the turn. Get your arms, men, and be ready to back out if we are in danger."

They crept on cautiously. Now they could see two boats drawn up on a ledge. Farther up there was a cluster of men.

"They are not pirates, surely. They would have some scouts stationed if they were."

"They are making signs. Oh, no, they are neither Indians nor pirates," and the captain dug the pole in the soft bank, impelling the boat up a yard or two. And then he heard a joyful cry, which he answered by an encouraging greeting through the horn he carried.

It was, indeed, the stranded voyagers. The captain of the fleet came running down the winding path. He was a Spaniard, quite well known in St. Louis, Dessous by name.

As to his story, all had been fair sailing, with mostly fine weather until they had reached this point. At the first sight they feared a hurricane was upon them. The river began to seethe and swell, and the noise of its rush sounded the awful warning in their ears. The boats had been cordelled, and now the order was given to run them in the cove. Two had reached a point of safety when the sweeping torrent invaded this shelter and took with it the rest of the line to join the raging flood.

The few passengers were in the first boat, and were soon put ashore and bidden to run upon the high ground. Then an effort was made to save the two remaining boats. Now and then a swirl nearly submerged them, but a mass of tree trunks and branches caught on some projection at the mouth of the cove, which turned the current and gave them a promise of safety. There was a cave, partly natural, and rendered more secure by the gang of pirates who had once made it their camping ground. But now it began to fill with water. So they carried some of their stores and blankets to a sheltered place up above to await the result. Even here they could hear the roar of the river.

When Captain Dessous thought it safe to venture, they examined the boats and found one with a large hole in the bottom where it had struck on the jagged rock. They had provisions and made a rude shelter for the women, three ladies and a maid, and a little child. It would not be safe to venture until the river had subsided, so they had waited. All could not go in the one boat, and to leave the others at the mercy of prowling Indians, or, it might be, a return of some pirate squad, was hardly safe. Still some of the more courageous men had agreed to remain, and they had decided to start shortly. It was full moon now and the night would be light enough for safety if they were caught in it, for no one could calculate the exact distance or the obstacles they would have to encounter.

Now all was joyous satisfaction. The stores from the injured boat were divided among the other two, and the women taken on board the rescue boat. They found their way out to the river, now flowing along serenely. But there would be the tide against them. Still they were delighted at the thought of soon reaching a safe harbor. The moon came out in its most resplendent beauty. The banks of the river were a series of bewildering pictures for any one with an artistic eye. The men sang songs in French and Spanish, and would have danced if there had been room.

"They are coming up the river!" some one shouted in the light of the golden June morning. "There is Captain Javelot and André Valbonais. I can make them out through the glass. And some women."

One and another hurried down. Christophe Baugenon expected his sweetheart, and had been getting a nest ready for her. Madame Galette had come up to end her days with her two sons. Gaspard Denys was there as well, anxious to know how the peril had been escaped.

There was a lovely woman with a babe in her arms. The Spanish veil-like mantilla was thrown gracefully over her head and shoulders. Her soft, dark eyes glanced up and met those of Denys, who stretched out his hand past that of Valbonais in a heartfelt greeting.

"Barbe!" he cried. "Barbe!" forgetting she had any other name.

"Oh, Monsieur Denys, thank heaven!"

Madame Renaud came rushing down with a wild cry and flung her arms around her sister.

"Let me take the child," Gaspard said, while the two women fell into each other's embrace.

A pretty little thing of three or so, with rings of dark hair about her forehead and curiously tinted eyes, black with golden shades in them. She laid her hand confidingly on his shoulder. Children always trusted him.

"Marie! Marie!" called Madame Gardepier. "Take the little Angelique. Monsieur Denys, how can I thank you?"

She was lovelier than ever with her eyes full of tears. Elise had been crying over her.

Marie was maid and slave, about as

much Spanish as African, slim and graceful, and with the beauty belonging to the mixed blood. The child made no demur, but bestowed a dainty smile upon him.

"Oh-it is nothing." He had not come expecting to meet her, though he had wondered a little about her.

"But to be here again! To have a welcome from you, an old friend! Yes, it is joy indeed."

Christophe Baugenon had his arms about his sweetheart. They were glad to have half the world share their joys, in those early days when honesty was more than style or culture.

"Come soon," said Madame Renaud. "We are all such old friends. And Barbe will have so much to tell. And bring ma'm'selle: she can't have forgotten. Oh, Barbe, she is a young lady now!" laughing cheerily.

Then they moved on, while his eyes followed them.

Already men were repairing the levee, or, rather, building it anew under Colonel Chouteau's direction. Some other overflow in time would sweep this away, but this was the best of their knowledge then. And the unfortunate captain had his story to tell. He had saved his papers and bills of lading, and could tell upon whom the losses would fall. There were some shipments for Denys, but he was glad no lives had been lost. André was describing their share of the rescue in brief terms. So it was late when M. Denys returned.

"We waited and waited for you!" cried Renée. "And the breakfast was so good-the corn cakes Mère Lunde makes that melt in your mouth."

And truly even those wilderness women, with no culinary magazines or housekeeping hints, concocted very savory dishes. Their grater was of the rudest kind. A strip of tin through which a sharpened bit of iron was driven to make holes, the rough side put upward as it was fastened to a piece of board. On this they grated green corn all the summer and autumn. During the winter they boiled it on the ear until it was soft, then prepared it the same way. The cakes were mixed with eggs and flour and baked on a hot flat stone in the heat of the coals. A syrup made of maple sugar would be poured over them.

"Yes, I am very sorry-and hungry," laughing. "There was so much to talk about."

"And was any one lost? Where did they find the boats?" Renée was all eagerness.

"There were only two. The rest were swept away. They took shelter in Pirate Creek, but the pirates have been cleaned out. It might have been worse. The losses can be recouped. Ah, you should have seen the joy of Christophe Baugenon over his sweetheart! Madame Galette, and Madame Gardepier with her little girl."

"She is quite old now," said Renée, with the assurance of youth that is its own hasty judge.

"Oh, no! Five or six and twenty. And her little girl is about three, a pretty child. Madame Renaud was wild with delight, as who would not be. And she begs that we will come soon."

Renée had busied herself with a pretence of getting the meal, but it was Mère Lunde who had toasted the corn cake and the dried fish. It seemed to her as if a tiny shade had fallen over the world, but no, the sun was shining with extraordinary brilliancy. It made the leaves outside scatter its golden rays about as if they were sprites dancing.

"The blessed Virgin has been very good to her," said Mère Lunde, crossing herself. "Such a fearful time! I hope there never will be another. And Madame Galette. I knew her years ago. She has two good sons left."

An event like this made talk for days, especially as the men were busy repairing damages, and the captains had to tell their stories over and over. Then the next relay of boats came in with the news of the other towns, and that families were resolving to emigrate. Indeed, before cold weather set in quite a number of families had reached St. Louis, and many a winter evening was devoted to a recount of dangers and wonderful escapes, the destruction of many a small fortune.

There was not a happier heart in all St. Louis, perhaps, than that of Barbe Gardepier. If her marriage had not been altogether satisfactory, she would not at first confess it to her sister. New Orleans was very different from St. Louis. Pleasures were not so simple. There were cabarets where men spent evenings drinking and playing games, betting and losing. And there were balls where men never took their wives, but danced with beautiful creole girls who were outside the pale of their own people. True, the wives visited each other and gossiped about this and that, and went to church often, at times finding a choice morsel of scandal to discuss. She had longed for her own old home, and as the weeks and months went on she seemed to grow away from her husband rather than nearer to him. He had not appeared to mind the baby's death much, while it had almost broken her heart.

She had been bitterly disappointed in the non-success of her second plan to visit home, as she still called the old town.

"It is too severe a journey," her husband had said decisively. "And it is a dull little place at the best. I would not stir a step if I were not compelled to."

For all that he seemed to find plenty to amuse himself with. Coming down the river, he had made a stay at Kaskaskia, where pretty girls abounded. When he did return there was a little daughter to claim his love; but he was not fond of babies. Girls were all right enough budding into womanhood, with a hundred seductive charms. Until then, the nursery and the convent.

Barbe might have found amusement and danced with the gayest, but she soon learned that her husband was jealous and could say very bitter things. So she kept to her little girl and poured out all her love on this sweet object. There were moments when she could not even bear to think that Jean Gardepier was her father.

One night he was brought home with a bad stab wound, the result of a quarrel. It did not seem dangerous at first, but he fumed and fretted and would go out too soon. He was quite ill again, and then it was found that the wound had penetrated his lung, and, after a few hemorrhages, he dropped quietly out of life. There was not much money left, but enough to take her home and keep her for awhile, and though she tried hard to moderate her joy at the thought, in her inmost heart she felt it was partly the sense of freedom.

And Gaspard Denys had been first to welcome her. The years had touched him lightly. His face had the same strong kindliness that had made her feel in her girlhood that he was a man to be trusted anywhere, a man one could rely upon. She had learned many things in these few years of her married life. She had had a much wider experience than Madame Renaud with sons-in-law and daughter-in-law and the many years since she became a bride.

Neighbors came out to greet them. It was like a triumphal procession. Indeed, it seemed as if all the streets were full of gay, cheerful chatter. For in those days there was very little letter-writing; indeed, many fine housekeepers and excellent women did not know how to write.

Late in the afternoon the sisters were alone. Nearly every one had been discussed, and Barbe knew about most of the marriages and deaths, the new babies, the few newcomers and the general prosperity, as well as the losses.

"I was extremely pleased with that young Valbonais," Barbe said. "He has improved very much. Is he connected in business now with Monsieur Denys?"

"Oh, no; he remains with the Chouteaus. But he is a frequent guest, and one can almost see how it will end," laughing with a certain satisfaction.

"You mean-with the child?"

"Yes. She is a very pretty girl. She was at two of the balls last winter, though not a queen. There was a stranger, two of them, staying with the Governor. One cared little for gayety; the other was much smitten with the attractive Renée, and there was talk, but it fell through. It was said that he really did ask for her hand. But I think M. Denys would much rather have her remain here. She is like a child to him."

Barbe nodded. "Still she is old enough to marry."

"Oh, yes. Then her grandfather left quite a fortune, as I have told you. She is very young for her years, though-a child in some things."

Barbe drew a long breath. "It is a little singular that M. Denys has never married," she said indifferently.

"Oh, he may marry yet. There is always time for a man."

Madame Renaud gave a meaning laugh. Barbe felt her color rising, but vouchsafed no reply.

That evening after supper M. Denys said:

"Let us go down to the Renauds', my child, and welcome Madame Gardepier home."

"Why, you saw her this morning! I thought everybody was giving her a welcome. She will be tired of so much," was the rather careless reply.

"One is never tired of friendly appreciation."

"Indeed?" almost saucily. "They may tire of other things, however. I was running races on the old mound this afternoon. I would like to sit and rest and talk."

"Running races! And in the winter you were asked in marriage!" He laughed heartily and pinched her peachy cheek.

"Mère Lunde said sometimes princesses in France were asked in marriage when they were only a few years old," she replied with dignity.

"That is true enough. Offered to this one and that. But I do not hawk my little queen about."

"You love me very much?"

She uttered it with a soft sigh that was quite charming and touched him.

"Ah, you know that!" with fervor.

"But I like to hear you say it," pleadingly.

"I love you very much." He bent over and kissed the crown of her head, adding, "Then you will not go?"

"Stay with me," she entreated. "You haven't told me half the story of the boat coming in this morning."

There was a light, youthful step on the floor.

"Ah, André!" Denys said, turning. "Come and tell this girl the welcomes that filled the air this morning, the finding of the castaways and all. You were there, and she can have it first-hand. Meanwhile, I will run down to the Renauds' and see if Madame Gardepier is any the worse for her journey."

Renée could have cried out with vexation. Denys did not even stop to light his pipe.

"Let us go in the garden, ma'm'selle. It is so beautiful in the starlight, and the air is fragrant with a hundred sweet scents. I wish you could have had the sail last night. It was the kind of thing to fill one's soul with rapture."

"I am tired!" she cried pettishly. "That was why I refused to go with uncle. And I don't care so much about the rescue. People are crazy, as if nothing ever happened in St. Louis before. And my head aches. I believe I will go to bed."

She sprang up impatiently.

"I am sorry--"

"There are plenty of girls who will be glad to have you talk to them," she flung out, and the next moment had vanished.

André looked after her. He was very much in love with her now. He had been more than charmed with the young Indian girl. He had even thought if it was true M. Marchand was dead, he would try to comfort her, to win her. But when he witnessed her love for her husband, her entire devotion, and the tone in which she once said: "I think I must have had the hope in my heart all the time that my husband was alive, and that gave me strength when it seemed as if I must drop by the wayside. And if I had not found him I should have died, because there would have been no further desire to live," he believed her then. He knew now that must have been the end. To be loved like that! Could Fate bestow anything better?

But last winter a different feeling had taken possession of him. First it was an effort to save Renée from a possible danger. He had seen considerable of Monsieur Laflamme and had no faith whatever in him. He was quite sure it was her fortune that had attracted him, for he was paying an equivocal sort of devotion to several others, or else he was just trifling with them all, taking what amusement he could in the simple pleasures of the place.

And now he knew that he had a desire quite for himself! True he would have saved her from any possible evil, but he wanted her, the smiles and the sweetness she lavished on Uncle Denys and Mère Lunde, the radiance and charm that she flung here and there. He would have liked to go about and gather them up as if they were tangible things. And yet-she did not care for him. Why, then, did she claim him in dozens of dainty ways? Why did she put him between herself and other gallants when their devotion became too pronounced?

André Valbonais was simple and straightforward, and had a very limited knowledge of the twists and turns in the feminine mind. Complex characters are not usual where people live truly rather than take continual thought about living.

He went out now and sat on the doorstep, talking to Mère Lunde. Some one was playing on a fiddle, interspersed with rollicking songs, and the sound floated up to them. There was a great deal of joy in the world, but his heart was heavy.

Renée flung herself on the bed and wept angrily, bitterly. Barbe Gardepier had come into her life again and was free. She had summoned Uncle Gaspard this first night to her side. Had he loved her a little long ago? Would she try to win him now? Oh, what a dreary outlook! And she had been so happy!

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