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   Chapter 20 WHEN A WOMAN WILL

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 21073

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


"What ails the child?" inquired Mère Lunde. "She has not been like herself the last fortnight. And now she is in there, crying as if her heart would break. It is all that André Valbonais, I know. Why does he not marry her and be done with it?"

"But if she will not?" Gaspard Denys shrugged his shoulders and drew his brow into a frown.

"In my time a man knew how to make a woman say yes. And a woman knew when she was going to get a good husband, which is of the Lord. Gaspard Denys, you have spoiled her!"

Yes, he had spoiled her. A man did not know how to bring up a girl. But she was so sweet in all her wilfulness, so loving in spite of little tempers and authoritative ways, so dear to him, that if she had wanted to walk over his body with her dainty feet he could hardly have refused her. He went into her room and took her in his arms.

"You are too good to me!" she cried presently. "And I am a miserable, hateful, quarrelsome, selfish little thing, wanting my own way and then not happy or satisfied with it. Oh, how will you endure me years and years, getting queerer as I grow old! For now we will have to live here together always. I have sent André away. Oh, will you care?"

There was no use arguing. She had cried herself into an unreasonable passion. She had had her way. How much of it was regret? None of it was satisfaction.

"Well, dear, then we must get along," and his tone had a tranquillizing cheerfulness in it. "There is no one I would like as well for a son--"

"But you do not want to go to that wretched New Orleans?" in a tone of incredulity.

She raised her head from his shoulder. Her swollen eyes and tear-stained face melted his heart.

"You know we were going some time. It is well worth seeing. But we do not need to take André."

"Yet you like him so," with her old waywardness.

"Yes. And I am sorry you do not."

She hid her face again. She did like him. She felt it in the hot color that stained her cheek.

"He will be gone a year-that is not long," she said in a rather hopeful tone.

"Or, he might decide to stay longer. If he has nothing to call him back--"

They would be lonely without him. She would be lonely. After all, there were few young men to compare with him. And some time-if he was quite sure she did not care for him, he might marry. She never could marry any one else, but, then-men were different. Oh, here was one who had never put a woman in his first love's place! And André was all alone in the world. Yes, he would need a wife--

"Oh, Uncle Gaspard, I am not worth all this love!" she cried remorsefully.

"You will always be worth it to two men," he said in so gentle a tone that it pierced her heart. "I am much older than you, dear, and some day I shall be called upon to take the journey from which one never returns. Then you will be left quite alone."

What made her think of the little girl in the old chateau to whom the days were so long and lonesome? Yet, it would be very sad to be left alone. And-after all--

There are so many "after alls" in life. And so many things seem insurmountable when looked at in a moment of passion. Uncle Denys could never give her wholly away, had never planned to do that. Fathers and mothers were happy to have their children married, and here she would not do this for the best friend she had, nor for the man who loved her sincerely-that she loved-a little.

"You ought to shut me up in the loft and keep me on-on pemican, which you know I hate, and declare you would never let me out until-until--"

"A woman's love must always be a free gift, Renée, darling. And if you do not love André it would be sinning against him to marry him."

She knew down deep in her heart that she did love him, that she had waited these two years because there was no one like him to her. Of course, she had not really meant that he should throw up his fine prospects, but be willing to for her sake. And she knew now it was all very foolish and wicked, and that she deserved to be left alone for years and years and have them all full of sorrowful regret.

"I am going to turn over a new leaf, indeed I am," and she slipped out of Uncle Gaspard's arms. "See what a fright I have made of myself with red eyes and swollen face, and my hair frousled. Dinner must be nearly ready. Oh, what a long morning! And I have made you unhappy, when I love you so much," in accents of tenderest regret.

He kissed her and went away.

They were very silent at dinner. Mère Lunde grumbled because they ate so little. Then Uncle Gaspard went out. The boats were loading up with lead, as well as other materials, and he was interested in that, and needed as well.

No one came during the evening. She heard the violins and singing up the street, the fiddles and dancing down below. The fire was all out; no one wanted it after the cooking was done. There were some black charred ends and piles of ashes. It had a melancholy appearance. And then she fancied herself as old as Mère Lunde, sitting by the chimney corner, only Mère Lunde had married the man of her choice-it seemed now to Renée that every one must have done so-and though her two sons were dead, she had had them once; and everybody must die some time. But to die without having been very happy, that made her shudder. And, then, to know that one had cast it away rather than give up a whim of will.

So the next day passed and the next. Sunday she and Uncle Gaspard went to church. There would only be one Sunday more for André-ten days. For her-how many?

Coming down the path they glanced at each other. What wonderful languages live in the depths of the eyes! André came to her side, and then she colored and the hand he took trembled, but she did not withdraw it. They walked on homeward. She never knew whether any one spoke or not. Uncle Gaspard was lingering behind, giving thanks that he was likely to get his heart's desire.

They paused at the garden gate. He opened it for her to pass. There was midsummer richness and bloom in it, the homely every-day herbs giving out a sweetness in their plain flowering that was reviving. He followed her, but she made a little pause at the vine-clad arbor.

"I am wilful and delight in my own way," she began, and the words trembled on the fragrant air. "I am like a briar that pricks you when you would gather the rose--"

"But the rose is sweet for all that. And-I will take the rose."

Then he kissed her throbbing red lips, her fluttering eyelids, just as he had dreamed of doing many a time. And the bliss was sweeter than any dream.

There was not much time to waste. Mère Lunde protested at first at being left alone, but there would be Chloe, and the Marchands to look after her, and neighbors were kindly.

Not much fuss was made in those days over wedding trousseaus. Often one dress went through families, was even borrowed. But Renée had no need of that.

So they went to church on Sunday and heard the banns called, and every one nodded to his next neighbor with the confident air of having known it all along. The next day Gaspard Denys gave his darling away, and the priest joined their hands and blessed them. Madame Chouteau gave them the wedding feast, which was a mid-day dinner in the grand old house, much the finest residence in St. Louis. It had not the boisterousness of most weddings, for only the better part of the community were invited. Madame Chouteau could do that.

They drank the bride's health and gave her all good wishes. The men considered André very lucky and he thought himself so, but Renée's fortune scarcely counted, since he would make one for himself. Everything seemed sweet and solemn to Renée, and she was awed in a sacred sort of way as this new life unfolded before her.

They walked in quite a procession afterward. Gaspard Denys had Madame Gardepier. They talked a little about the bridegroom, then she said:

"Monsieur Denys, you have done a faithful duty toward the child. You will miss her much. One can never be quite the same again. Is it true you are going to New Orleans also?"

"Yes, madame. I have not been there for years."

She had hoped it was not so. If he were lonely, he might turn to others for consolation. And if the child went out of his life--

"But will her husband agree to share her love? Husbands are jealous sometimes," she commented rather gayly.

"He is like a son to me, and he knows it. You see, I am old enough to be his father also."

"Ah, M'sieu Denys, you should have had children of your very own, and a woman to love in your home. You have such a noble and tender heart you could have made some one so happy."

Her heart beat as she said it. Why could he not be roused to the hope even now?

"I think you know that I loved the child's mother, and that we were unfairly separated. If she had lived-but she died. And when I heard the little one was sent across the sea by her father, who had small regard for her, it was as if her mother, leaning over the wall of heaven, called to me, and I did what I knew would set her heart at rest."

"But she had heaven and all the saints. And in that land of the blest one cannot long for human loves. It is to those left on earth to whom they are precious," she returned, with a little longing in her tone. She had been waiting for Renée's marriage to take her out of his life. Why should the child have so much?

"I think they know, those blessed ones. Ah, madame, if you had been dying, instead of your husband, and leaving the little one, would you not have pleaded with the very angels that some one might be raised up to care for her? And if that had been one to whom she would be doubly dear! So the child in one sense has been like my own."

And always her rival, Barbe Gardepier felt. Her last hope seemed to drop as one lets fall a withered flower that has been sweet and is still freighted with some dear remembrances.

They paused at her sister's house.

"You will come in and say good-by to-morrow?"

"Yes," and he bowed.

Why should things go so wrong in the world? Renée Freneau defrauded of a lifelong happiness, of life itself, and she who had seen such a blissful possibility twice in her short life shut out from what would have been her brightest happiness.

He went his way thoughtfully. He had been so long used to a man's liberty that he did not care to enchain himself with matrimony. And surely he would give Renée no rival to her children.

It was a gorgeous day and the fleet of boats

glided out with music and many a "Bon voyage!" The little girl had vanished, but Renée remembered the first night she came, when in the bend of the river they passed the old ruined heap, and the old French post-house going to decay. Was it in some other life? She still had Uncle Denys, and she was glad. What a wonderful thing it was to love a woman's memory all these years!

It was a pleasant journey, with only a few storms, one severe enough to make them run into an inlet to get out of the fierce sweep of the river. There was Cahokia, whose ruins were still visible. Kaskaskia, despoiled of much of its valuable front, the town high now above the river. Strange and curious sights to one who had been no farther than St. Charles.

How would St. Louis look when they went back to it? Renée wondered. For this to her was a marvellous city, more brilliant than any dream ever made it. It seemed as if the whole world must have been gathered in it when one heard the confusion of tongues.

They did not return the next summer, for still the business could not spare André. But Monsieur Chouteau came down, and there were journeys about to places of such bloom and beauty and mystery that one almost had to hold one's breath.

Strange things, too, were happening in the world beyond the great river that seemed all to them. The colonies were growing more stable, being welded together by chains of interest and pride and patriotism into a grand country, but the Mississippi River would always be its boundary. It could not pass that, men thought.

Over seas there were tumults and wars, and France in the throes of a most fearful revolution. They heard a great deal about it here. How hundreds of the nobility were thrown in prison, the King and Queen executed and the mob quarrelling with its leaders.

Renée thought of the two little brothers in Paris that she had seen on the day of her journey. And the Count. He was among the nobility, and he was her father. She shuddered over the horrible doings. And here was her other father, bright and happy and always considering what would be for her pleasure.

Sometimes they read an unspoken wish in each other's eyes.

"It is not quite St. Louis," she would say, with a half smile meant to be gay, but was pensive instead.

"No. But we will return presently," the eyes full of cheerful light and the tone hopeful.

"And never leave it again?"

"I am glad you cannot forget it."

"Oh, there is no place like the home and the friends of childhood-the larger childhood, when everything is impressed on one's heart. The old house and the shop and the wide chimneys and Mère Lunde, and the Marchands with their babies. I know what it is to be an exile."

Still she and André were very happy, taking the leisure of life like two children, growing into each other's souls, laughing over some of the old times. And she would say:

"How could you love me so well when I was horrid and provoking and tormented you so?"

"But you had moments of rare sweetness, ma'm'selle; and sometimes the bee works a long while before he can extract the honey."

"And you have never once been sorry?"

"The sorrow would have come if I had not gained you-a lifelong sorrow."

"And I like your strength, your determination, your resolution, André. Oh, I like you altogether. I would not have one thought or line of you changed."

"You yielded so sweetly, ma'm'selle. It is the rose without the thorns. And such tenderness! Ah, I do not wonder Father Gaspard gave up all other women for love of you!" kissing the crown of her head, a trick he had learned from Denys.

"Not altogether for me," smiling with the distant look in her eyes, as if she saw a heavenly vision. "For my mother as well. I wish I could remember her better, but I was so small. And do you know, André, I used to act like a fiend sometimes, I was so afraid he would love Barbe. And now and then a great wave of sorrow sweeps over me, thinking of all she has missed."

"Madame Gardepier is a lovely woman. Still she does not look like those who have had their heart's longing satisfied. There is something still needed."

"And I could not even yet give up Papa Gaspard. I am still selfish. Are you jealous, André?" raising beauful, beseeching eyes to him.

"He gave you to me long before you gave yourself-the treasure of his life. I lost my father so young that I cannot tell what such a love would have been like, but I know it could not be any tenderer. One sees it in his eyes and the comfort he takes, the immeasurable content. But he is longing for home. Dear, we will never leave St. Louis again."

They often made love to each other, she with a freedom that wifehood had given her which was enchanting. Gaspard Denys took deep satisfaction in his two children. There was one more dream, but that was for some after-day fruition.

There was a much greater spirit of energy in this queer, half-submerged town, with its muddy streets that sometimes were positive streams. The ambition of the outside world was stirring them, the interest that varied commerce brings. There were new boats being builded for the old firm, and in one of these Renée went up the river again to her old home.

There had been no great freshet since the one that had wrought such destruction, but the swift current of spring had torn away some of the old obstructions. Noble bluffs had settled to sunken ridges, banks had slipped into the river and formed other high places full of greenery and wild bloom. Caves of rocks swept out and left high in some other place. It was wild and curious with a peculiar beauty. Its partly ruined towns were recovering. There were little hamlets set so near the river's edge one wondered people had the courage to plant them there. And there was all the Illinois side, the new country showing already the energy of the new race combined of many peoples.

Renée might have left St. Louis yesterday, so little had it changed in the two years. The levee was in a better condition, some new docks had been built. And, as usual, there was the throng to see the boats come in, pouring down from the Rue de la Tour and the Rue de la Place into the Rue Royale. Yet it was like an everyday sight at New Orleans. Only the welcomes gave it a rapture she had never known before. Madame Marchand had her arms about her. Other old friends of girlhood, wives and mothers now, voices so confused, yet so glad, that it was music to listen to them.

It was old St. Louis, but the little girl had gone forever. Madame Valbonais, prettier than ever and with a style that was foreign to the small town. Monsieur, grown a little stouter, fine and strong, yet smiling with a face of gladness. Gaspard Denys, keeping close watch over the mulatto nurse in gay coif and bright gown, who had in her arms the little son of madame.

A triumphal procession escorted her home. How curiously dry the streets were, and almost prim after the southern irregularity; the riotous tangle of vines, the balconies full of ladies with fans, chatting and waving to the passers-by, throwing coquettish smiles. The old French air that had grown settled in fifty years, the queer houses, and oh, yes, here was the garden, and Mère Lunde watching at the gate, more bent than ever, crying tears of joy, and in her broken voice repeating, "Oh, my little one! Oh, my little one!"

Yet it was strange, too, after all that luxuriance of growth and bloom and fragrance, queer, crooked, busy streets, gay wine shops with open doors and tables of men within playing cards or fiddling or singing songs. Birds of every color and richest plumage filling the air with melody, iridescent lizards creeping about winking with their bright black eyes, alligators sunning themselves in the ooze, snakes gliding about unmolested, throngs of almost naked children shining in their blackness, ready to sing and dance, turn a dozen somersaults or walk upside down for a copper-the vivid panorama still floated before her eyes and gave her queer, mixed impressions.

Most of the people seemed to have stood still. Two or three very old ones had died and several babies, but others had come to replace them. Not a new house had been built; the stockade was getting dilapidated. The Government House had been painted afresh, but the old court-house was dingy enough. The priest's house had been repaired, the little garden was lovely with roses that were always blooming, and the Chouteau grounds were like a beautiful park, so well kept and thrifty.

"Oh," André said, "I wonder if you will be sick with longing for all the gayety and loveliness we have left behind?"

"Why, then, we can go there again," she answered merrily, with bright, contented eyes and a winsome smile. "It is so restful here. And Papa Gaspard is so happy."

He was hale and hearty and had not turned the half-century yet. Then he was full of plans. They would move the shop down on the Rue Royale and build a new room on to the old house. He had brought home some ideas of improvement and comfort, of larger living. It was not likely St. Louis would always stand still.

Madame Marchand was delighted to get her friend back again. There was a new little girl, but Renée kept her beauty and winsomeness. Wawataysee was still lithe and slim-it belonged to her tribe-and M. Marchand was as devoted as ever. Oh, what days of talk it took to make up all the past!

And Madame Gardepier had married and gone over to the Illinois side to live on a big plantation. Pierre Menard had a mill for sawing boards and a brewery for beer, no end of slaves and servants, full fifty years of age, and two grown sons married. He coveted the little Angelique Gardepier and sued hard for the mother, who would have a luxurious life.

"But thou wilt be an American truly," sighed Madame Renaud.

There was still a great prejudice against the Illinois people. Their religion, or, rather, lack of religion, was a great stumbling-block. Then their roaming lives, their apparent disregard of home ties, that were so strong with the French.

But monsieur adored her in a very complimentary fashion, and she was fain to satisfy her heart with it. Sometimes when the red-gold splendors were fading from the sky, leaving the bluffs and pearl-gray spaces on the opposite side like long avenues where the light shone through, Barbe Menard would glance over and wonder what particular merit there was in Renée de Longueville that the good God should have given so much to her.

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