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   Chapter 17 RIVALS

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 23598

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

Gaspard Denys had wondered more than once about Barbe's married life, and at Gardepier's second visit to St. Louis he was quite convinced that he was not the kind of man to make a tender, clinging heart happy. Women throve and blossomed in an atmosphere of love; grew cold, pale and listless when this was denied. It was their natural sustenance. Had this hastened Renée Freneau's death?

And when he saw Marchand's devotion and Wawataysee's delicious joy in it, he could not tell why, but he wished such a marriage had been Barbe's good fortune.

He never asked himself what might have happened if he had not gone to Canada for Renée de Longueville. He had started adventuring first in a desperate frame of mind, and then grown to like it exceedingly. He had purchased the old house to assist a family in distress who had lost husband and father. On his way home with his little Renée he had resolved to set up a household, to keep the child under his guardianship, for he knew well Freneau would not want her. She was so clinging, so sweet. She was a part of the adorable girl he had loved. If he had been certain of her happiness he might have let her fade from his mind, but a fear had always rankled with a thorn-prick.

Did she know, would she know that he meant to lavish the love that should have been hers on the child? What was that country like? Surely the soul could not linger in the grave, and if it was given to one to have glimpses of those left behind, she must rejoice.

With his heart so engrossed he could not think, indeed, was not tempted to a strong feeling for any other woman. Barbe was pretty and sweet-young men were attracted to her-and he felt quite old compared with her. Then there was so much business to occupy him, and presently Barbe was married without a sigh of regret on his part.

The little jealous feeling Renée displayed rather amused him. He hardly understood the child's passionate fondness, but was not her exclusive love something she inherited from her mother? He liked to think so.

Now she was half woman and still kept the child's eager fondness. She had no real lovers, even if she had been asked in marriage. And he did not want to give her up. When he sat in the fascinating blaze of the log fire and steeped his brain in the haze of his pipe, visions stole softly about him. He saw Renée a happy wife, the mother of sweet, enchanting children who would climb his knees, half strangle him with baby arms and press soft faces against his, prattle of their love in turn. No, she must never go away. And who would he like as well as André!

And she liked him, too, in spite of her wilful manner of flouting him. She was ready enough to put him in the face of any imaginary danger. He was a fine, generous, wholesome young fellow, with a good business. And he, Denys, could wait. He was not in so great a hurry to share Renée, but he felt there was no life, no joy to a woman comparable with wifehood and motherhood. And he wanted his darling to have the best of everything.

She was very quiet the next morning and stole furtive glances at him, too proud to make any inquiry as to whether he had passed a pleasant evening. After breakfast André came with a face of eager light, and yet perplexity.

"What is it now?" asked Denys.

"Matter enough. I am divided in two. I have just had an offer-command, I might say. And whether I am to take it-" looking up with uncertainty.

"Beating about a bush doesn't always thresh off nuts. There is the right season," and a glint of humor crossed the elder's face. "Is there a pretty girl in it?"

Was the world running after pretty girls? Renée frowned.

"You would not like me to go away, ma'm'selle?"

A sudden hope had rendered him incautious.

"It makes no difference to me," she replied coldly.

"What is it all about?" inquired Denys. "Where were you last night, that you are so incoherent this morning?"

"In the counting house with M'sieu Pierre Chouteau. In about ten days he starts for New Orleans, and must take some one with him. He proposes the post to me."

Denys gave a side glance at Renée. Her face was cold, impenetrable. Clearly she was not in love, much as she liked André.

"Come in the shop!" exclaimed Denys.

They seated themselves on bales of furs, done up ready to be transferred to the boats.

"It is a high compliment, André. And it may not be a bad thing for a young fellow to see a little of the world and learn how to make money in different ways. It's a much gayer place than this. And you will be in good hands."

"But-M. Denys, I do not want to go."

The young fellow's face was scarlet, and his eyes were full of unspoken hope mingled with fear.

"And why not, André Valbonais?"

"Oh, you must know, you must have guessed that I love Ma'm'selle Renée. Ever since last winter I have known that all my heart was hers, that I would not be satisfied until I had won her for a wife. And I do not think-you are averse--"

He looked so frank and sincere and honorable under the elder's scrutiny, though his face was flushed and the lines about his mouth were quivering.

Denys took his arm. There was something better than a smile on the face, a tender approval.

"No," Denys replied in a tone that went to the young man's heart. "I have had a little dream of the future. There is no one in St. Louis I would so soon take as a son. For look you, André, I do not want to give her up. The man who weds her must come here, must put up with me as I grow old and full of whims. I cannot be shut out of her happiness. I will tell you that I had a brief few months' love with her mother, and a dream like this. Her father parted us. The child is as dear to me as if my blood ran in her veins, and her happiness is my whole study. If you can win her I shall be content. But women have to wait for a time to love. And it is not her time."

"But if I should go away-" The young fellow drew a long, sorrowing breath.

"It might be best, so that you come back."

"I must stay all winter. And if some one else wins her?" he questioned anxiously.

"That would be a grief to me. I shall try not to have it happen. Oh, you can trust me; only I shall not force her inclination. But there is some comfort to take with you in my full consent."

"You think, then, I had better go?" reluctantly.

"It is not every day a friend like M. Chouteau is given to a young man. And," with a vague smile, "you may even advance your suit by going. If she should miss you, so much the better. You have given her a great deal of devotion, perhaps too much. There are some gifts that are not appreciated if they come too easily."

André Valbonais felt as if his dream had been dashed to fragments like a bit of glass. He had resolved he would not go away; he would marry Renée. Yet down in his heart he knew she did not love him with the fervor of a sweetheart. But that might come when she understood how much in earnest he was, and that her guardian really wished for the marriage. Yet, much as he wished for it, he would not spoil his darling's life by any over-persuasion.

"Yes, it is a fine chance. You will be the envy of the town. And-I trust you to come back as honorable as you go. A year soon passes."

"It will be hard to go without speaking."

"It will do no good." Denys shook his head. "Trust me. I have seen more of womankind."

"Then I must be off. I asked to consult you, and I have your answer."

"Yes, yes! Go, by all means."

Renée was in her room, moving articles about in an aimless fashion, wondering how Barbe had looked and what she had said. She need not have worried. There were a dozen other neighbors, ready to talk of the narrow escape and compare their own town with the larger one.

Now and then she had exchanged a word with Denys, but it seemed as if every one talked at once. He had in his mind the picture she made in the morning, but she did not look like that now. There were lines of care in her face, and the prettiness had deepened into womanly beauty.

Not a question about her did Renée ask. After dinner she took some sewing and went to Madame Marchand's, as she often did. Fran?ois had been to the wharf, hurriedly constructed again, to see when the boats were likely to go down the river, since it was now considered safe. André Valbonais had told him he was going.

"He came to see uncle this morning. I suppose that was what they talked about," said Renée.

The voice had the languor of indifference, and the little face, rather pale now, betrayed no emotion.

It was always a busy time when a fleet of boats went down. Now, there was more talk than usual. Some of the stock had been quite spoiled by the overflow; indeed, not a little of it had been swept out of the storehouses and it had been impossible to save it. But men took their losses philosophically; they would recoup themselves another year. And they now thought it wisdom to build higher up, and leave the muddy bank to itself.

André was very busy, and truth to tell, rather downhearted. He had been buoyant; it was his nature. But as he faced the actual now, and the careless demeanor of Renée, he felt like one roused from a dream and swung to the opposite verge. No, she did not care for him. Yet she had been so sweet at times! He was in and out. Mère Lunde was full of regrets. She was old and might never see him again. Renée said carelessly, "We shall all miss you. I don't know what uncle would do if he did not have M'sieu Marchand."

She and Madame Marchand had gone to the Renauds', as was proper. Wawataysee was charmed with the little Angelique, and they found Madame Gardepier quite different from the women of the town, except some of the higher ladies in the government circles, though she was very sweet and gracious.

Renée's heart swelled with a great jealousy. Barbe was beautiful and grand, she could not deny it. Her voice had a lingering cadence, like a rivulet in some forest depth, as if she might coax the heart out of one. Renée steeled hers in a sort of desperation. Surely she was distanced. She could not contend against these charms, any more than she could deny them. All her life was suddenly set in the shade.

So she could not feel much sorrow for André's going away; her own filled all her heart. He might have thought her quiet a sign of it, but his eyes seemed to have been curiously opened.

"You will give me good wishes?" he said the last evening he came. "And-will you not say that you shall miss me?"

"Of course, I shall miss you," but the dreariness in the tone was not for him. "I shall be so much alone."

"M. Denys will be here-" He was a little puzzled.

"Oh, yes! But, then--"

"Renée," impetuously, "you have some sorrow. You are not like yourself. What has happened?"

"Yes, I have some sorrow in my heart. I cannot tell any one," and the red lips quivered.

"And you were so gay a little while ago. Oh, my darling-" His full heart overflowed in his face.

She held up her hand in entreaty. "Don't," she said in a half-irritated way. "I shall never be any one's darling again. And," in something of her old imperious tone, "if I cannot have the love I want I will not have any!"

He looked at her in amaze. Did she love some one else, then? He was suddenly stunned. That had never entered his thoughts.

"Oh," she exclaimed with a burst of feeling, "you have been very good to me, André. You rescued me in that dreadful peril, and I shall always be grateful. And I wish you prosperity and happiness."

Then she vanished from the garden and shut herself in her room. When Uncle Gaspard begged her to come out, as this was André's last evening, she said her head ached and she could not bear the sound of voices.

They went down

to see the boats off, and the air was almost rent with good wishes. This was always a great occasion. There in the foremost one was M. Pierre Chouteau and André beside him, both waving their hands in response to the "Bon voyage!" from a hundred throats. The Colonel stood beside his mother, who was a proud and happy woman, and who chatted in a charming fashion with her friends and had singled out Barbe, it seemed, who had come with her niece Sophie.

The line rounded the curve and began to take in the turn, and the sailors' shouts were mere echoes. To-day the water was tranquil enough, and the heavens so blue that all the atmosphere had an extraordinary brilliance.

Madame Chouteau invited some of the friends to come and dine with her.

"I do not want to," Renée said, shrinking back. "But you go, Uncle Gaspard, and take my excuse. I am not well. I shall go to bed and make Mère Lunde doctor me, and be right by to-morrow."

What was the matter with the child? She had grown pale and heavy-eyed. He had been much engrossed with the boats and André's perplexity, and the impression that she desired to evade him, so he had made it easy for her to do so. But if she were going to be ill!

She threaded her way homeward and sat for awhile under her favorite tree, looking at the vision of Barbe smiling and Uncle Gaspard listening to her attractive manner of talking and smiling back. For all the summer sunshine she was cold, and her temples throbbed with a dull pain. She did not want to cry outwardly, but within her heart seemed weeping bitter tears, and its beating was like the dull thud of pounding on lead.

She startled Mère Lunde when she came in so wan and spiritless. The good woman steeped some herbs, and she did really go to bed. Uncle Gaspard did not get home until almost supper-time, and some trappers were in the shop dickering about pelts.

He came and sat on the side of the bed presently and held her hands, wondering if it was a cold, and recalling the fact that he had heard there were some cases of fever about.

She was very languid for several days. He was down at the levee, supervising some of the new work; indeed, it seemed as if he was in great demand. She would curl herself up in the big chair at the corner of the fireplace, not on account of the cold, for the door stood open, as well as the heavy shutters, and the sunshine stole in the room, dancing about on the floor like groups of sprites. Mère Lunde would nod in her chair. Chloe was out in the garden, working. It was so quiet, the very silence appealed strangely to her, and her mind wandered off to the future.

Some day Barbe would come here from the church leaning on Uncle Gaspard's arm and looking up in his face with smiles, holding her pretty child by the hand. He would love it as he had loved her. He would carry it in his arms and hold it on his knee, listen to its chatter, just as he had done with her. And Barbe would have dozens of different graces and pretty ways to lure him continually. Where would she, Renée, be? Not pushed aside, but left to her own devices, dropped out, half forgotten.

She wiped away some tears that overflowed her eyes. When André came back, if he wanted her she would marry him. It was comforting to think some one might want her. And if he never came back, if some pretty girl in New Orleans attracted him-ah, then, she would be lonely, indeed! Perhaps this was the way her mother had felt in the old chateau. And her grandfather had wanted her put in a convent-perhaps it would have been better.

If youth can make pleasures of its own, it can also make bitter sorrows, and in its waywardness longs to drain the cup to the last drop. Perhaps there may be some strength in the very bitterness, a tonic to work a cure.

Gaspard Denys came in and found her there, picked her up, and, seating himself, pressed her to his broad breast and encircled her with his arms. What an exquisite shelter it was!

"What can I do for you?" he asked. "You were never ill but once before, and that was the cold. But now you do not seem to improve. I wonder if you would like to have a change? It is dull, now that André is away, and I am so busy. Madame Renaud and Madame Gardepier are coming over to-morrow. And if you would like to spend a few days with them--"

"Oh, no! I am content here," in a quick tone.

"Then some day we could go up the river and take our dinner. Some of the young people might like to join. Sophie Pion is so gay and good-humored."

"I like the quiet," she returned languidly.

"But it is not good for you, unless you were really ill."

"I shall be better soon. I walked out in the garden to-day."

"That is right. I can't think what could have brought this about. Come, you must cheer up and be like your olden self. It makes my heart ache to have you so dreary."

"Oh, does it really ache for me? Then I must try. Yes, I will try," in a more cheerful tone.

"That is my own little girl," and he kissed her fondly. Yes, he would always love her in a way.

The guests came up the next day. Madame Renaud was always bright and cheery. Madame Gardepier brought her little girl, who ran about and prattled and was like a bit of sunshine, sitting a moment in Mère Lunde's lap, then off again chasing the two half-grown kittens.

Barbe was very charming and gracious and had a good deal to tell about New Orleans, and thought M'sieu Valbonais would enjoy it very much, though no doubt he would long for the old friends and associations. And was he not coming back in a year?

Renée admitted without any change of color that he was. There was no half secret in her face.

"And now you must see Ma'm'selle Renée's room," exclaimed Madame Renaud. "It is just full of prettiness and ingenuity."

Renée led the way, and if admiration could have lightened her heart, surely all the heaviness would have vanished. They were very cordial, and quite insisted upon having a whole day's visit from her. Uncle Gaspard promised that she should surely come.

As they were walking down the street Barbe said: "She does look poorly. I suppose she has been fretting after M. Valbonais."

"I really wonder that Gaspard let him go. There was no reason why they should not marry."

"And she has some fortune of her own. Why, yes, she could have gone with him. I hope he will not forget her. There are so many attractive women there."

Wawataysee studied her earnestly a few days afterward, when she had been sitting in silence.

"What has changed you so, Renée?" she asked with much solicitude. "There is a surmise in the air that you are grieving after André. What happened between you? For I know he loved you sincerely."

"I grieving?" Then Renée's face went scarlet and she could hardly refrain from tears. "It is not André. I seldom think of him. Oh, how cruel and unjust! And it is not true."

"But something troubles you," in a tender tone.

Renée was silent.

"And you never have been so unhappy before. Why do you not tell your uncle?"

"No, I cannot," and Renée shivered.

"Then, dear, why not go to the good father? I should if I had any sorrows. But what can I have to pain me, with such a good husband and my lovely children, who are like angels? And Father Lemoine said last month, 'Madame, your confession is a thanksgiving instead.' He is so kindly, that Father Lemoine. But you must find some relief, or you will waste quite away."

"I shall get well at once. I will not have people quoting me as a love-sick girl," a little resentfully.

Still Wawataysee looked doubtfully at her. She tried to be more cheerful that evening, and Uncle Gaspard smiled and called her his little girl. Would he always love her? She dared not ask him now. When she had sorrowed for him in his long absence it had been a comfort to go up to the little church and pray. But would it not be monstrous to ask God to keep Uncle Denys from loving Barbe? She was lovely and kind, and merry too, for that matter, and if Uncle Denys--

Ah, there was the sting!

There crept into her heart a curious dull ache, a sense of something she did not like, that she shrank from, just as one shuts one's eyes to some unpleasant sight. And this time it was not Barbe. Some one nearer, one that she was answerable for, and she did not like the half consciousness. She had believed the sorrow all hers. What if it was wrong to cherish it and make it another's sorrow?

She went up to the church one afternoon. There was no one about. The confessional stood open. She thought she would pray, and then she recalled a sentence, "Clean hands and a pure heart." Was her heart pure, not desiring what might belong to another? And if she snatched at it with over-eager hands and a selfish heart?

She went out quietly and sat on the grass. The soft wind just stirred the trees and brought wafts of perfume and the distant sound of the voices of children at play. The sun was casting long shadows and burnishing the tree-tops out on the fields. A few insects were lazily droning.

A figure came out in the rusty black cassock with the cord around the waist, and the little round cap, where a few straggling locks, much threaded with white, fell below in a half-curling fashion. He glanced her way, then came over to her and she rose with a reverent obeisance.

"It is Ma'm'selle de Longueville. You were little Renée. I remember when you used to come and pray for your uncle that he might be returned in safety. Is there nothing left to pray for?"

The tone was wonderfully sweet, and the eyes gave her such a kindly, tender glance that her heart melted within her.

"I went in the church," she began in a low tone. "I was troubled about something. I could not find the right prayer. There may be a need before the prayer," and her voice trembled like a quivering note of music.

"Then let us go in and find it, daughter," and he took her hand in his and gently led her back. She knelt in silence. The kindly hands were folded on her head in blessing.

What was it she wanted to say? "If one so coveted a love that it brought unhappiness if it was shared with any one else; if one had been first for years, and found another in the place, and then-" The sorrowful voice broke. It was flooded with tears and soft sobs.

"Is it a lover that has cast longing eyes on another?"

"Oh, no, no!" And then the poor little story came out in an incoherent fashion. It was selfish, it was covetous, it was unjust. She saw that, now that she put it in words, and it sent a pang of shame and anguish through her whole being. Was this the return for all the affection he had given?

"Child," said the low, sweet voice, "I think he will not love thee less because another comes into his heart. It is a good, generous heart. I know it well. And thou must cast out the selfish fear and give love for love. God shares His with all His creatures, and asks first a devoted heart, then the wide love for one's neighbor. No grudging heart ever yet had peace. And the more happiness one scattereth the more returneth to thee. The more Christlike thy heart becomes, the greater will be thy desire to do for others, and in this will come the recompense. Trust thy God and then thy trust will grow in all His creatures. Narrow thy life, and when the one light fails all will be darkness. Thou hast gone but a little way forward and there are many lessons to learn before thou wilt reach the end, but the divinest of all is unselfish love."

Could she be brave enough to put aside her own intense, selfish love? If another love made Uncle Gaspard happier--

They went out on the step of the old church porch, and he said: "You will come again, daughter?" And she replied: "I will come every day and pray for a new heart."

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