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   Chapter 18 A FINE ADJUSTMENT

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 23553

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Gaspard Denys was out by the gate waiting, quite at a loss to know what could keep his little girl, and wondering what had made her so quiet and indifferent of late. Had she really cared more for André than she knew? She must miss him, of course, for although he had touches of sentiment now and then, he was bright and very much given to the amusing rather than the serious side of every-day occurrences. But he was earnest enough where that quality was needed. And he had been Renée's devoted slave.

Her hands were clasped, her shoulders drooped a little and her step was slow. Gaspard went to meet her, touched by the piteousness of her aspect.

"My little darling--"

She had not been exactly weeping, but her eyes had filled and overflowed. He would not have seen it in the gathering darkness, but he kissed amid the tears on her cheek.

"Renée, where have you been?" in a gentle tone. "You were not at the Marchands'."

"I was up at the church with Father Lemoine."

Had she some confidence to give the priest that she withheld from him? And he thought he knew all her simple heart.

"Renée, what is the matter? You are not happy. You are not really ill, either. Something troubles you."

The girl was silent, but he heard her fluttering breath. He took her hand in his. It was cold and spiritless. It did not curl about his fingers in her usual caressing fashion.

"Has some one grown nearer and dearer than I? You need not be afraid--"

"Oh, no, it is not that! No one is so dear. And if I lost you-" Oh, she did not mean to say it, and stopped in her slow pacing.

"You are not likely to lose me. Who has been filling your head with nonsense?"

His tone was a little sharp.

"No one is to blame. It was all my fault. I have been selfish and grudging and"-it burst out vehemently-"jealous!"

He smiled, and was glad the purple gray of the waning light would not betray it to her wounding. It was the old story, Barbe Guion again.

"My dear little girl-" he began with infinite tenderness, clasping his strong arm around her.

"I want to tell you," she interrupted hurriedly, "it is right, and just now I have the courage. I don't mean ever to be so selfish again. It is wicked and ungrateful, and if anything can make you happier, I shall-try to rejoice in it."

And he knew she swallowed over a great lump in her throat. He was deeply touched as well.

"It is very wicked and selfish, but I couldn't bear to think of your loving any one else, and when Madame Gardepier came back so pretty and attractive, and-and you liked her so, it made me very miserable. I did not want her to come here to be mistress, to have your love, to be first everywhere, but I know now how odious and hateful it was, and I am sorry, when you have always been so good to me. And, Uncle Gaspard, if you want to marry Barbe and bring her here and be happy with her, I will be content and not envy her for your sake--"

She was sobbing softly then. He had his arm around her and led her through the open gate to the little arbor of wild grape vines and honeysuckle that was always in bloom, a nest of fragrance now that the dew had begun to fall. He drew her very close to him and let her sob out her sorrow and penitence. How simply heroic she was to give up a part of the best thing in her life, for he knew, as he had believed before, that Valbonais's love had not found the path to her heart.

"I was so miserable," she went on tremulously, "and I thought I would go to the church and pray as I used, when I asked God to send you back. Then I met the good father. And now I am going to begin. I shall not be unhappy any more, at least I shall strive against it. And I want you-yes," catching her breath, "I want you to have whatever pleases you best."

For a moment or two so deep was his emotion he could not steady his own voice. And as he held her there, felt the beating of her heart, the agitation of her slim figure, the sobs she was trying to control, a passion of tenderness swept over him and almost a desire to claim her as his and let her rest henceforth in the proud security of entire love. Yes, she would marry him if he said the word. But much as she loved him it would never be that highest of all wifely love. She was still a child, and he was more than double her age. He stood in the place of a father, and there would be a question if the legal relationship would not be a bar in the sight of the Church.

And-Barbe? He was much interested in her and had a secret sympathy with her. Her eyes had confessed to him that her marriage had not been satisfactory. If he stood quite alone, perhaps that might be the ending presently, but it was no plan of his now, no desire, even.

Ah, Renée, you did not know what an unconscious rival you were! Barbe understood the situation much better, but she had a woman's wisdom.

It had all passed through his mind like a flash.

"My little dear," he said, toying with the soft hair, "set your heart at rest. I had not thought of marrying Barbe. And I could never give you up."

"But-if you were going to be happier--"

"I am quite an old fellow now. I like my own way. A smoke in the chimney corner is my delight, and a little girl who sits there weaving pictures and adventures in the blaze. I am happy enough."

Her heart gave a great bound. How could she help delighting in the confession! But that was selfish again. She would hold this exquisite pleasure on sufferance.

"Yes, I am happy enough at present. But I should like my little girl to marry some one who could be a son to me in my old age, who would not want to take her away, and we would keep step together when we turned the summit of the hill and were going down the decline. Only I shall have to sit on the top a good while waiting for you, there are so many years between."

There was almost a merry sound in his voice.

"And now is the unhappiness all gone?" pressing her fondly to his side.

"There is the shame and regret for naughtiness. Have I troubled you a good deal?" in a repentant tone.

"It would have been worse if you were really ill."

"I almost made myself so. I did not think that it might cause you anxiety. You see, I was only considering myself and heaping up sorrow where there was no real sorrow."

"But you will not do it any more?"

"No, not any more," she answered, with exquisite tenderness.

"And now shall we go in? What do you suppose Mère Lunde will say? And see, it is quite dark. There are two stars."

All above them was the vault of deepest blue, resting on the tree-tops or the vague, far distance where all was indistinguishable. The river lapped along, some night birds gave a shrill cry, and far off a whippoorwill was repeating his mournful lay.

"Come." He lifted her up in his strong arms and swung her around. The door stood wide open, framing in a vivid picture of the hearth fire, the big empty chair, Mère Lunde bending over some cookery. Every year her shoulders grew more round and her head was almost hidden between them.

Renée seemed to herself like one in a dream. She would not exult in this new possessorship. She would keep meek and lowly, remembering her indulgence in sinful feelings, her doubt and distrust.

"What has kept you so?" cried Mère Lunde. "The fish has dried to a crisp. And one never knows. It may be Indians or wild animals--"

"Nothing worse than sitting in the arbor, talking."

"And the child not at all well! When she comes down with a fever-and she looks like a ghost now."

That was true enough. The cool air had added to her paleness and her eyes had a softness in their brown depths, a mysterious expression, as if she had not shaken off the atmosphere of some far world.

"Go to the fire and warm up, even if it is a summer night. You should have known better than to keep her sitting in the chill dew," to M. Denys.

Then the good mère made her drink a cup of hot broth.

But she had not much appetite. Now and then she stole a shy glance at Uncle Gaspard, and if she met his eyes a faint color suffused her face. The happy, childlike trust was coming back. And though they sat together awhile afterward, the faint glow of the dying fire lighting the room, neither fell in a humor for talking. She kept half wondering if it was true that he did not care to marry Barbe, half disbelieving it; and yet it did not give her the pang she had suffered from the cruel jealousy that had rent her soul. The tranquillity was very sweet, very comforting.

She was singing the next morning as she went about her duties a gay little French chanson André had taught her, and her voice was like a bird's.

"You are happy this morning, ma'm'selle," said Mère Lunde, with fondness in her old eyes. "Has there been news from the boats?"

"From the boats?" What had that to do with it? Then she colored scarlet-that meant André.

"No," she replied gravely. "Uncle Gaspard would have mentioned it if there was."

Still the embarrassing tint ran over her face. All this time had one and another been fancying that she was grieving for André Valbonais? Ah, they would see! She would be as gay as before. She would go out with the girls berrying, and gathering strange flowers that queer old Doctor Montcrevier was glad to press and put in a great book that he had. They were very little troubled by Indians now, yet they always went in considerable parties, and Friga was her guard.

Monsieur Denys took quite a party up the river in the boat he had been building, and they spent the night at St. Charles. Just beyond was another bend in the river, and the air was so clear they could discern the windings a long distance up. Everywhere there were still some signs of the great flood. But it had not been able to destroy the frowning bluffs, though it had left caves in different places, swept some islands out of existence or added them to others. The world was a beautiful place when the elements were at rest, and it was a blessed thing to live.

Renée was growing a little graver, a little more womanly and thoughtful, but Denys wondered at the added sweetness. She was quite a devout churchgoer now, and occasionally went up for a chat with the good father, that was not confession exactly, but helped her insight in some of the greater truths, made her more ready to share happiness with others.

It had been quite a trial at first to go cordially to the Renauds', though she did admire Barbe's little girl. Madame Gardepier was a person of some note now, and received invitations to the Government House, and was on delightful terms with Madame Chouteau and several of the more important residents. Sometimes Uncle Gaspard and Renée walked down of an evening, and the young girl always trembled a little, Barbe was so very charming.

Denys understood that he could win her if he cared. Was he really growing so old that he had not the necessary ardor? Had that one youthful love and sorrow sufficed him? He was touched by Renée's sweet demeanor now, though he could not see the quaking heart behind it.

Monsieur Pierre Chouteau came home to his family late in the fall, and a new Lieutenant-Governor accompanied him. There was strange and stirring news from France, from Spain, even from the colonies at the eastward which, having shaken off their old rulers, were still harrassed by Indian wars and the unwillingness of England to give up the places specified in the treaties.

They did not mind these disputes in the old town. Life ran on smoothly. They were like one big family; had their joys and few sorrows and took little heed for to-morrow. There was the winter pleasure and new marriages; there were young men who cast longing eyes at Renée de Longueville, who would have

no real lovers. And now she was seventeen.

They were very happy together, Renée and her uncle.

"She will marry some time," thought the woman who longed for the place by his fireside when it should be vacant. Renée's demeanor puzzled her. She was no longer a third person. She often left them quite alone, and when occasion offered invited Barbe and her little girl to tea. Gaspard Denys was very friendly. He had the gift of being friendly with women.

The boats began to come up. There was some word about André. Pierre Chouteau came over and told Denys.

"I hope you will not be too much disappointed," he said, "but there is some important business on hand and he really cannot be spared. We made it an object for him to remain. Indeed, we should like him to take one of the head positions there. He is a fine, trusty fellow. He asked me to come and explain to you, lest you should think he had grown indifferent about old friends. But you need not fear that."

"We had counted on seeing him, but duty is duty, and one ought not to run away from it for pleasure," replied Denys, approvingly.

Renée was not going to give any one an opportunity to consider her a lovelorn maiden this time. She was gay and bright, joining the pleasure parties and dancing, ready for canoeing or rowing about on the old mill-pond in the races. She never summoned the young men to her side and bade them fetch and carry, as she used to André; she sent her admirers to this girl and that one, but somehow they always found their way back and gathered as bees about the sweetest flower. They would spend whole evenings with Denys for the sake of watching her as she sat so demurely beside the fire, now and then raising her soft brown eyes that the flame seemed to burnish with gold, or smiling vaguely at some conceit of her own instead of what the visitor said.

When they were alone on rare occasions she would bring Uncle Gaspard his flute and often sing dainty little songs in the sweetest voice imaginable. Then he would listen and dream of her mother, and it seemed as if she came and sat beside them. He could see her shadowy form, he believed he could touch her with his hand. There was no sin in loving her now, since she was free from the Count de Longueville.

Then came winter again. Should they go to the king's ball?

"I'm too old," said Uncle Gaspard. "I found a white hair in my beard this morning."

"Oh, think of the fathers and grandfathers! And they dance, too. Old, indeed!"

She shook her slim finger at him.

"I've grown lazy. M. Marchand is such an excellent partner that I have very little to do."

"Oh, and you were out skating a few days ago and distanced many of the younger men! I shall not go unless you do," resolutely.

"And you have never been a queen in your own right," he remarked with a gleam of amusement. "You ought to try your luck."

"Before I get old and have to wear a coif," shaking her head in mock despair. "Oh, let us both go!"

She had to coax a good deal and insist stoutly that she would not stir a step without him. And, of course, he had to yield.

She listened to the songs and the solicitations, and sent Mère Lunde out with a generous contribution.

This time she did not care so much about her gown. It was pretty enough. She had a beautiful necklace that Mattawissa had given her, made of blue and white shells that came from the southerly Atlantic coast and were held in high esteem among the Indians and considered of great value in the way of trade, as they were used in wampums. They were ground in a peculiar fashion, with a small hole drilled in them and strung on a chain. In dancing, as they touched each other the jingle had a peculiar musical sound.

Madame Gardepier and one of her nieces cut the cake when the midnight bell sounded.

"You must have a piece, Renée," said Madame Elise Borrie, who was plump and smiling and the mother of three children. "But," in a mischievous whisper, "they will fight to be chosen king. We shall learn who is your favorite."

"I've never had any luck," returned Renée in a tone of mock disappointment.

"And I've never cut the cake before! Oh, you must take a piece from me! There will be luck in it."

Renée took the piece laughingly, spread out her handkerchief, and broke it in two or three fragments. Out fell the ring.

"Oh! oh! oh!" and there was a crowd about her. She slipped it on her finger and was handed her nose-gay.

Whom would she choose? There were eager eyes and indrawn breaths, smiles that asked in wordless language, young men crowding nearer.

She went over to Denys. "You always were my king," she said in a low, sweet tone that touched him immeasurably. "I am glad to give you the royal signet, a rose."

Gaspard Denys bowed like a young courtier.

"You know I must have done it besides my own desire," she whispered. "There would have been quarrels and heart burnings."

"Yes," nodding that he understood.

"Ma'm'selle Renée, that is hardly fair," declared an aggrieved one. "There are so many young men--"

"And other queens, and a room full of pretty girls. I will give you one dance."

His face lighted up with joy.

"It will end by a marriage, mark my words," said the mother of three daughters.

"No, it cannot," returned Madame Gardepier, with secret exultation. "He was appointed her uncle and guardian by the Church. It would be unlawful."

"True enough. But if she would settle upon some one in earnest the rest would stand a chance. I don't know what there is about her. And she's past eighteen. It won't do for her to waste many more years."

Renée and her uncle danced twice. Then she said, with the persuasive touch in her voice that he never could resist:

"Now you must dance with Madame Gardepier and some of the young girls, while I comfort the disconsolate. And we will go home early."

But there was such an outcry she could not get away so easily. They were all as eager as if there had never been balls before and would never be one again.

Renée would not attend the next one. Gaspard grumbled at having to go by himself and meet the storm of reproaches.

"See, I will tie up my head-you can say you left me that way," and she passed a folded handkerchief about it, that made her look more coquettish than ever. "Now-I might rub a bit of garlic over my eyes and they would look red enough."

Gaspard laughed in spite of a little ill humor.

Renée settled herself in his big chair and wrapped her feet in the fur robe. How the wind blew without, though the moonless sky was brilliant with stars. The trees writhed and groaned, and she fancied she could hear the lashing of the river. Occasionally a gust blew down the chimney, driving long tongues of flame out into the room and scattering ashes about. But the house of split logs, plastered on the outside and within, was solid enough. She only laughed when the wind banged up against it and had to depart with sullen grumbling.

She loved to sit this way and live over the past. What had changed her so? Did wilfulness belong naturally to childhood? Or was it the lessons she had learned in the little old church from the good father? Life was finer and broader, and duties, real duties, were oftentimes a delight-not always, she admitted, with a little twinge of conscience-and there were sacrifices of inclination to be made.

What a curious, varied life hers had been! And now it flowed on tranquilly. Would it always be this way? Uncle Gaspard wanted her to marry, but who was there to suit them both? The pretty mystery, not quite a smile, but that always made her face enchanting, passed over it now. This one and that one had been mentioned, and she had scouted them with a dainty insistence that always amused him, though he would argue about their best points as if he was in sober earnest.

"Sometimes I think you really want to get rid of me, Uncle Gaspard," she would retort, with an air of being provoked. "And what if I should never like anybody? I wonder if, after all, when I am old, say thirty, perhaps, I would have to go to Quebec and enter a convent, like Marie Guion?"

"Thirty! Well, you are a good way from that! And I am a good way past it, and you won't hear to my being old."

Then she would laugh and put loving arms about his neck, and he would think he did not mind the waiting. If it was God's will, the thing he wanted would come about; but if it was not, one could not go against the great All-Father, whose right it was to give or to deny.

But he remarked that she had grown to like talking over the times when André Valbonais had come to her rescue and that of Wawataysee.

"And I would get hungry and tired and cold, and feel afraid of wild animals in the forest. I was so little, you know, and not wise and patient like Wawataysee. And I used to cry for you. André was very good not to get cross and scold, now was he not?"

"Oh, my little one, I never forget that I owe him a great deal. And I am glad he is prospering so well."

"But suppose he should want to stay in New Orleans? It is so much gayer and finer than this little St. Louis. Our Place d'Arms is nothing compared to that handsome plaza, Barbe says. And the women dress so much, and there is the beautiful church, and the school for girls, and a theatre, and music everywhere on the balconies. Perhaps he will never come back."

Did she sigh a little over her own prediction?

"We can go there some day--"

"If you think I am going to run after him," with a charming show of indignation that made her cheeks bloom like the rose, "you are far out of the way. That would be on every one's tongue. Renée de Longueville has gone to New Orleans after M'sieu Valbonais, because she cannot get a lover here. Why, he might stay there a hundred years before I would go!"

"There seems to be no lack of lovers here. Whether they come for me, or the good fire, or--"

"They like you, and they like to smoke and ask your advice. And don't you notice that sometimes I go to bed, slip away softly, and they never miss me?"

At that Uncle Gaspard would nod, with an expression of incredulity in his eyes.

And on nights like these, when she happened to be alone, or in that long space of winter twilight when she curled herself up in the fur rugs like a kitten, she used to wander off in reveries about that almost dream-like episode, with its terrors, that made her shudder even now, because she realized their dangers so much more keenly. Oh, what if André had not found them? How could they have taken all that long journey with no care, no kindly treatment? And that tall, fierce Black Feather! He might have minded about Wawataysee, who was of some value to him, but she, a little child! And if André had said, "Oh, we cannot be bothered with her, we shall have to go so much slower," and they had stolen away! Some tears always came in her eyes at this point. And there was that last night, when he had carried her and she had slept in his arms. Yes, she ought to be very grateful. And sometimes she had been wilful and treated him very badly. Of course, he had half-forgotten about her. Was the girl beautiful that he cared the most for? Did she dance with the grace of a fairy, and was her voice sweet and seductive, just as Barbe Gardepier's was at times, a sound that both fascinated and vexed her, the liquid tone that made a man bend his head lest he should lose a note of its sweetness? And her parents would be very gracious to him; she knew how charming mothers could be.

After they had been married a long, long while she would go with Uncle Gaspard to visit them. She and Uncle Gaspard would grow old together, and she would have a stoop in the shoulders like Mère Lunde.

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