Alice of Old Vincennes
To M. PLACIDE VALCOUR M. D., Ph D., LL. D.
MY DEAR DR. VALCOUR: You gave me the Inspiration which made this story haunt me until I wrote it. Gaspard Roussillon's letter, a mildewed relic of the year 1788, which you so kindly permitted me to copy, as far as it remained legible, was the point from which my imagination, accompanied by my curiosity, set out upon a long and delightful quest. You laughed at me when I became enthusiastic regarding the possible historical importance at that ancient find, alas! fragmentary epistle; but the old saying about the beatitude of him whose cachinations are latest comes handy to me just now, and I must remind you that "I told you so." True enough, it was history pure and simple that I had in mind while enjoying the large hospitality of your gulf-side home. Gaspard Roussillon's letter then appealed to my greed for materials which would help along the making of my little book "The Story of Louisiana." Later, however, as my frequent calls upon you for both documents and suggestions have informed you, I fell to strumming a different guitar. And now to you I dedicate this historical romance of old Vincennes, as a very appropriate, however slight, recognition of your scholarly attainments, your distinguished career in a noble profession, and your descent from one of the earliest French families (if not the very earliest) long resident at that strange little post on the Wabash, now one of the most beautiful cities between the greet river and the ocean.
Following, with ever tantalized expectancy, the broken and breezy hints in the Roussillon letter, I pursued a will-o'-the-wisp, here, there, yonder, until by slowly arriving increments I gathered up a large amount of valuable facts, which when I came to compare them with the history of Clark's conquest of the Wabash Valley, fitted amazingly well into certain spaces heretofore left open in that important yet sadly imperfect record.
You will find that I was not so wrong in suspecting that Emile Jazon, mentioned in the Roussillon letter, was a brother of Jean Jazon and a famous scout in the time of Boone and Clark. He was, therefore, a kinsman of yours on the maternal side, and I congratulate you. Another thing may please you, the success which attended my long and patient research with a view to clearing up the connection between Alice Roussillon's romantic life, as brokenly sketched in M. Roussillon's letter, and the capture of Vincennes by Colonel George Rogers Clark.
Accept, then, this book, which to those who care only for history will seem but an idle romance, while to the lovers of romance it may look strangely like the mustiest history. In my mind, and in yours I hope, it will always be connected with a breezy summer-house on a headland of the Louisiana gulf coast, the rustling of palmetto leaves, the fine flash of roses, a tumult of mocking-bird voices, the soft lilt of Creole patois, and the endless dash and roar of a fragrant sea over which the gulls and pelicans never ceased their flight, and beside which you smoked while I dreamed.
MAURICE THOMPSON. JULY, 1900.
I. Under the Cherry Tree II. A Letter from Afar III. The Rape of the Demijohn IV. The First Mayor of Vincennes V. Father Gibault VI. A Fencing Bout VII. The Mayor's Party VIII. The Dilemma of Captain Helm IX. The Honors of War X. M. Roussillon Entertains Colonel Hamilton XI. A Sword and a Horse Pistol XII. Manon Lescaut, and a Rapier-Thrust XIII. A Meeting in the Wilderness XIV. A Prisoner of Love XV. Virtue in a Locket XVI. Father Beret's Old Battle XVII. A March through Cold Water XVIII. A Duel by Moonlight XIX. The Attack XX. Alice's Flag XXI. Some Transactions in Scalps XXII. Clark Advises Alice XXIII. And So It Ended
Alice of Old Vincennes
UNDER THE CHERRY TREE
Up to the days of Indiana's early statehood, probably as late as 1825, there stood, in what is now the beautiful little city of Vincennes on the Wabash, the decaying remnant of an old and curiously gnarled cherry tree, known as the Roussillon tree, le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon, as the French inhabitants called it, which as long as it lived bore fruit remarkable for richness of flavor and peculiar dark ruby depth of color. The exact spot where this noble old seedling from la belle France flourished, declined, and died cannot be certainly pointed out; for in the rapid and happy growth of Vincennes many land-marks once notable, among them le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon, have been destroyed and the spots where they stood, once familiar to every eye in old Vincennes, are now lost in the pleasant confusion of the new town.
The security of certain land titles may have largely depended upon the disappearance of old, fixed objects here and there. Early records were loosely kept, indeed, scarcely kept at all; many were destroyed by designing land speculators, while those most carefully preserved often failed to give even a shadowy trace of the actual boundaries of the estates held thereby; so that the position of a house or tree not infrequently settled an important question of property rights left open by a primitive deed. At all events the Roussillon cherry tree disappeared long ago, nobody living knows how, and with it also vanished, quite as mysteriously, all traces of the once important Roussillon estate. Not a record of the name even can be found, it is said, in church or county books.
The old, twisted, gum-embossed cherry tree survived every other distinguishing feature of what was once the most picturesque and romantic place in Vincennes. Just north of it stood, in the early French days, a low, rambling cabin surrounded by rude verandas overgrown with grapevines. This was the Roussillon place, the most pretentious home in all the Wabash country. Its owner was Gaspard Roussillon, a successful trader with the Indians. He was rich, for the time and the place, influential to a degree, a man of some education, who had brought with him to the wilderness a bundle of books and a taste for reading.
From faded letters and dimly remembered talk of those who once clung fondly to the legends and traditions of old Vincennes, it is drawn that the Roussillon cherry tree stood not very far away from the present site of the Catholic church, on a slight swell of ground overlooking a wide marshy flat and the silver current of the Wabash. If the tree grew there, then there too stood the Roussillon house with its cosy log rooms, its clay-daubed chimneys and its grapevine-mantled verandas, while some distance away and nearer the river the rude fort with its huddled officers' quarters seemed to fling out over the wild landscape, through its squinting and lopsided port-holes, a gaze of stubborn defiance.
Not far off was the little log church, where one good Father Beret, or as named by the Indians, who all loved him, Father Blackrobe, performed the services of his sacred calling; and scattered all around were the cabins of traders, soldiers and woodsmen forming a queer little town, the like of which cannot now be seen anywhere on the earth.
It is not known just when Vincennes was first founded; but most historians make the probable date very early in the eighteenth century, somewhere between 1710 and 1730. In 1810 the Roussillon cherry tree was thought by a distinguished botanical letter-writer to be at least fifty years old, which would make the date of its planting about 1760. Certainly as shown by the time-stained family records upon which this story of ours is based, it was a flourishing and wide-topped tree in early summer of 1778, its branches loaded to drooping with luscious fruit. So low did the dark red clusters hang at one point that a tall young girl standing on the ground easily reached the best ones and made her lips purple with their juice while she ate them.
That was long ago, measured by what has come to pass on the gentle swell of rich country from which Vincennes overlooks the Wabash. The new town flourishes notably and its appearance marks the latest limit of progress. Electric cars in its streets, electric lights in its beautiful homes, the roar of railway trains coming and going in all directions, bicycles whirling hither and thither, the most fashionable styles of equipages, from brougham to pony-phaeton, make the days of flint-lock guns and buckskin trousers seem ages down the past; and yet we are looking back over but a little more than a hundred and twenty years to see Alice Roussillon standing under the cherry tree and holding high a tempting cluster of fruit, while a very short, hump-backed youth looks up with longing eyes and vainly reaches for it. The tableau is not merely rustic, it is primitive. "Jump!" the girl is saying in French, "jump, Jean; jump high!"
Yes, that was very long ago, in the days when women lightly braved what the strongest men would shrink from now.
Alice Roussillon was tall, lithe, strongly knit, with an almost perfect figure, judging by what the master sculptors carved for the form of Venus, and her face was comely and winning, if not absolutely beautiful; but the time and the place were vigorously indicated by her dress, which was of coarse stuff and simply designed. Plainly she was a child of the American wilderness, a daughter of old Vincennes on the Wabash in the time that tried men's souls.
"Jump, Jean!" she cried, her face laughing with a show of cheek-dimples, an arching of finely sketched brows and the twinkling of large blue-gray eyes.
"Jump high and get them!"
While she waved her sun-browned hand holding the cherries aloft, the breeze blowing fresh from the southwest tossed her hair so that some loose strands shone like rimpled flames. The sturdy little hunchback did leap with surprising activity; but the treacherous brown hand went higher, so high that the combined altitude of his jump and the reach of his unnaturally long arms was overcome. Again and again he sprang vainly into the air comically, like a long-legged, squat-bodied frog.
"And you brag of your agility and strength, Jean," she laughingly remarked; "but you can't take cherries when they are offered to you. What a clumsy bungler you are."
"I can climb and get some," he said with a hideously happy grin, and immediately embraced the bole of the tree, up which he began scrambling almost as fast as a squirrel.
When he had mounted high enough to be extending a hand for a hold on a crotch, Alice grasped his leg near the foot and pulled him down, despite his clinging and struggling, until his hands clawed in the soft earth at the tree's root, while she held his captive leg almost vertically erect.
It was a show of great strength; but Alice looked quite unconscious of it, laughing merrily, the dimples deepening in her plump cheeks, her forearm, now bared to the elbow, gleaming white and shapely while its muscles rippled on account of the jerking and kicking of Jean.
All the time she was holding the cherries high in her other hand, shaking them by the twig to which their slender stems attached them, and saying in a sweetly tantalizing tone:
"What makes you climb downward after cherries. Jean? What a foolish fellow you are, indeed, trying to grabble cherries out of the ground, as you do potatoes! I'm sure I didn't suppose that you knew so little as that."
Her French was colloquial, but quite good, showing here and there what we often notice in the speech of those who have been educated in isolated places far from that babel of polite energies which we call the world; something that may be described as a bookish cast appearing oddly in the midst of phrasing distinctly rustic and local,—a peculiarity not easy to transfer from one language to another.
Jean the hunchback was a muscular little deformity and a wonder of good nature. His head looked unnaturally large, nestling grotesquely between the points of his lifted and distorted shoulders, like a shaggy black animal in the fork of a broken tree. He was bellicose in his amiable way and never knew just when to acknowledge defeat. How long he might have kept up the hopeless struggle with the girl's invincible grip would be hard to guess. His release was caused by the approach of a third person, who wore the robe of a Catholic priest and the countenance of a man who had lived and suffered a long time without much loss of physical strength and endurance.
This was Pere Beret, grizzly, short, compact, his face deeply lined, his mouth decidedly aslant on account of some lost teeth, and his eyes set deep under gray, shaggy brows. Looking at him when his features were in repose a first impression might not have been favorable; but seeing him smile or hearing him speak changed everything. His voice was sweetness itself and his smile won you on the instant. Something like a pervading sorrow always seemed to be close behind his eyes and under his speech; yet he was a genial, sometimes almost jolly, man, very prone to join in the lighter amusements of his people.
"Children, children, my children," he called out as he approached along a little pathway leading up from the direction of the church, "what are you doing now? Bah there, Alice, will you pull Jean's leg off?"
At first they did not hear him, they were so nearly deafened by their own vocal discords.
"Why are you standing on your head with your feet so high in air, Jean?" he added. "It's not a polite attitude in the presence of a young lady. Are you a pig, that you poke your nose in the dirt?"
Alice now turned her bright head and gave Pere Beret a look of frank welcome, which at the same time shot a beam of willful self-assertion.
"My daughter, are you trying to help Jean up the tree feet foremost?" the priest added, standing where he had halted just outside of the straggling yard fence.
He had his hands on his hips and was quietly chuckling at the scene before him, as one who, although old, sympathized with the natural and harmless sportiveness of young people and would as lief as not join in a prank or two.
"You see what I'm doing, Father Beret," said Alice, "I am preventing a great damage to you. You will maybe lose a good many cherry pies and dumplings if I let Jean go. He was climbing the tree to pilfer the fruit; so I pulled him down, you understand."
"Ta, ta!" exclaimed the good man, shaking his gray head; "we must reason with the child. Let go his leg, daughter, I will vouch for him; eh, Jean?"
Alice released the hunchback, then laughed gayly and tossed the cluster of cherries into his hand, whereupon he began munching them voraciously and talking at the same time.
"I knew I could get them," he boasted; "and see, I have them now." He hopped around, looking like a species of ill-formed monkey.
Pere Beret came and leaned on the low fence close to Alice. She was almost as tall as he.
"The sun scorches to-day," he said, beginning to mop his furrowed face with a red-flowered cotton handkerchief; "and from the look of the sky yonder," pointing southward, "it is going to bring on a storm. How is Madame Roussillon to-day?"
"She is complaining as she usually does when she feels extremely well," said Alice; "that's why I had to take her place at the oven and bake pies. I got hot and came out to catch a bit of this breeze. Oh, but you needn't smile and look greedy, Pere Beret, the pies are not for your teeth!"
"My daughter, I am not a glutton, I hope; I had meat not two hours since—some broiled young squirrels with cress, sent me by Rene de Ronville. He never forgets his old father."
"Oh, I never forget you either, mon pere; I thought of you to-day every time I spread a crust and filled it with cherries; and when I took out a pie all brown and hot, the red juice bubbling out of it so good smelling and tempting, do you know what I said to myself?"
"How could I know, my child?"
"Well, I thought this: 'Not a single bite of that pie does Father Beret get.'"
"Why so, daughter?"
"Because you said it was bad of me to read novels and told Mother Roussillon to hide them from me. I've had any amount of trouble about it."
"Ta, ta! read the good books that I gave you. They will soon kill the taste for these silly romances."
"I tried," said Alice; "I tried very hard, and it's no use; your books are dull and stupidly heavy. What do I care about something that a queer lot of saints did hundreds of years ago in times of plague and famine? Saints must have been poky people, and it is poky people who care to read about them, I think. I like reading about brave, heroic men and beautiful women, and war and love."
Pere Beret looked away with a curious expression in his face, his eyes half closed.
"And I'll tell you now, Father Beret," Alice went on after a pause, "no more claret and pies do you get until I can have my own sort of books back again to read as I please." She stamped her moccasin-shod foot with decided energy.
The good priest broke into a hearty laugh, and taking off his cap of grass-straw mechanically scratched his bald head. He looked at the tall, strong girl before him for a moment or two, and it would have been hard for the best physiognomist to decide just how much of approval and how much of disapproval that look really signified.
Although, as Father Beret had said, the sun's heat was violent, causing that gentle soul to pass his bundled handkerchief with a wiping circular motion over his bald and bedewed pate, the wind was momently freshening, while up from behind the trees on the horizon beyond the river, a cloud was rising blue-black, tumbled, and grim against the sky.
"Well," said the priest, evidently trying hard to exchange his laugh for a look of regretful resignation, "you will have your own way, my child, and—"
"Then you will have pies galore and no end of claret!" she interrupted, at the same time stepping to the withe-tied and peg-latched gate of the yard and opening it. "Come in, you dear, good Father, before the rain shall begin, and sit with me on the gallery" (the creole word for veranda) "till the storm is over."
Father Beret seemed not loath to enter, albeit he offered a weak protest against delaying some task he had in hand. Alice reached forth and pulled him in, then reclosed the queer little gate and pegged it. She caressingly passed her arm through his and looked into his weather-stained old face with childlike affection.
There was not a photographer's camera to be had in those days; but what if a tourist with one in hand could have been there to take a snapshot at the priest and the maiden as they walked arm in arm to that squat little veranda! The picture to-day would be worth its weight in a first-water diamond. It would include the cabin, the cherry-tree, a glimpse of the raw, wild background and a sharp portrait-group of Pere Beret, Alice, and Jean the hunchback. To compare it with a photograph of the same spot now would give a perfect impression of the historic atmosphere, color and conditions which cannot be set in words. But we must not belittle the power of verbal description. What if a thoroughly trained newspaper reporter had been given the freedom of old Vincennes on the Wabash during the first week of June, 1778, and we now had his printed story! What a supplement to the photographer's pictures! Well, we have neither photographs nor graphic report; yet there they are before us, the gowned and straw-capped priest, the fresh-faced, coarsely-clad and vigorous girl, the grotesque little hunchback, all just as real as life itself. Each of us can see them, even with closed eyes. Led by that wonderful guide, Imagination, we step back a century and more to look over a scene at once strangely attractive and unspeakably forlorn.
What was it that drew people away from the old countries, from the cities, the villages and the vineyards of beautiful France, for example, to dwell in the wilderness, amid wild beasts and wilder savage Indians, with a rude cabin for a home and the exposures and hardships of pioneer life for their daily experience?
Men like Gaspard Roussillon are of a distinct stamp. Take him as he was. Born in France, on the banks of the Rhone near Avignon, he came as a youth to Canada, whence he drifted on the tide of adventure this way and that, until at last he found himself, with a wife, at Post Vincennes, that lonely picket of religion and trade, which was to become the center of civilizing energy for the great Northwestern Territory. M. Roussillon had no children of his own; so his kind heart opened freely to two fatherless and motherless waifs. These were Alice, now called Alice Roussillon, and the hunchback, Jean. The former was twelve years old, when he adopted her, a child of Protestant parents, while Jean had been taken, when a mere babe, after his parents had been killed and scalped by Indians. Madame Roussillon, a professed invalid, whose appetite never failed and whose motherly kindness expressed itself most often through strains of monotonous falsetto scolding, was a woman of little education and no refinement; while her husband clung tenaciously to his love of books, especially to the romances most in vogue when he took leave of France.
M. Roussillon had been, in a way, Alice's teacher, though not greatly inclined to abet Father Beret in his kindly efforts to make a Catholic of the girl, and most treacherously disposed toward the good priest in the matter of his well-meant attempts to prevent her from reading and re-reading the aforesaid romances. But for many weeks past Gaspard Roussillon had been absent from home, looking after his trading schemes with the Indians; and Pere Beret acting on the suggestion of the proverb about the absent cat and the playing mouse, had formed an alliance offensive and defensive with Madame Roussillon, in which it was strictly stipulated that all novels and romances were to be forcibly taken and securely hidden away from Mademoiselle Alice; which, to the best of Madame Roussillon's ability, had accordingly been done.
Now, while the wind strengthened and the softly booming summer shower came on apace, the heavy cloud lifting as it advanced and showing under it the dark gray sheet of the rain, Pere Beret and Alice sat under the clapboard roof behind the vines of the veranda and discussed, what was generally uppermost in the priest's mind upon such occasions, the good of Alice's immortal soul,—a subject not absorbingly interesting to her at any time.
It was a standing grief to the good old priest, this strange perversity of the girl in the matter of religious duty, as he saw it. True she had a faithful guardian in Gaspard Roussillon; but, much as he had done to aid the church's work in general, for he was always vigorous and liberal, he could not be looked upon as a very good Catholic; and of course his influence was not effective in the right direction. But then Pere Beret saw no reason why, in due time and with patient work, aided by Madame Roussillon and notwithstanding Gaspard's treachery, he might not safely lead Alice, whom he loved as a dear child, into the arms of the Holy Church, to serve which faithfully, at all hazards and in all places, was his highest aim.
"Ah, my child," he was saying, "you are a sweet, good girl, after all, much better than you make yourself out to be. Your duty will control you; you do it nobly at last, my child."
"True enough, Father Beret, true enough!" she responded, laughing, "your perception is most excellent, which I will prove to you immediately."
She rose while speaking and went into the house.
"I'll return in a minute or two," she called back from a region which Pere Beret well knew was that of the pantry; "don't get impatient and go away!"
Pere Beret laughed softly at the preposterous suggestion that he would even dream of going out in the rain, which was now roaring heavily on the loose board roof, and miss a cut of cherry pie—a cherry pie of Alice's making! And the Roussillon claret, too, was always excellent. "Ah, child," he thought, "your old Father is not going away."
She presently returned, bearing on a wooden tray a ruby-stained pie and a short, stout bottle flanked by two glasses.
"Of course I'm better than I sometimes appear to be," she said, almost humbly, but with mischief still in her voice and eyes, "and I shall get to be very good when I have grown old. The sweetness of my present nature is in this pie."
She set the tray on a three-legged stool which she pushed close to him.
"There now," she said, "let the rain come, you'll be happy, rain or shine, while the pie and wine last, I'll be bound."
Pere Beret fell to eating right heartily, meantime handing Jean a liberal piece of the luscious pie.
"It is good, my daughter, very good, indeed," the priest remarked with his mouth full. "Madame Roussillon has not neglected your culinary education." Alice filled a glass for him. It was Bordeaux and very fragrant. The bouquet reminded him of his sunny boyhood in France, of his journey up to Paris and of his careless, joy-brimmed youth in the gay city. How far away, how misty, yet how thrillingly sweet it all was! He sat with half closed eyes awhile, sipping and dreaming.
The rain lasted nearly two hours; but the sun was out again when Pere Beret took leave of his young friend. They had been having another good-natured quarrel over the novels, and Madame Roussillon had come out on the veranda to join in.
"I've hidden every book of them," said Madame, a stout and swarthy woman whose pearl-white teeth were her only mark of beauty. Her voice indicated great stubbornness.
"Good, good, you have done your very duty, Madame," said Pere Beret, with immense approval in his charming voice.
"But, Father, you said awhile ago that I should have my own way about this," Alice spoke up with spirit; "and on the strength of that remark of yours I gave you the pie and wine. You've eaten my pie and swigged the wine, and now—"
Pere Beret put on his straw cap, adjusting it carefully over the shining dome out of which had come so many thoughts of wisdom, kindness and human sympathy. This done, he gently laid a hand on Alice's bright crown of hair and said:
"Bless you, my child. I will pray to the Prince of Peace for you as long as I live, and I will never cease to beg the Holy Virgin to intercede for you and lead you to the Holy Church."
He turned and went away; but when he was no farther than the gate, Alice called out:
"O Father Beret, I forgot to show you something!"
She ran forth to him and added in a low tone:
"You know that Madame Roussillon has hidden all the novels from me."
She was fumbling to get something out of the loose front of her dress.
"Well, just take a glance at this, will you?" and she showed him a little leather bound volume, much cracked along the hinges of the back.
It was Manon Lescaut, that dreadful romance by the famous Abbe Prevost.
Pere Beret frowned and went his way shaking his head; but before he reached his little hut near the church he was laughing in spite of himself.
"She's not so bad, not so bad," he thought aloud, "it's only her young, independent spirit taking the bit for a wild run. In her sweet soul she is as good as she is pure."
A LETTER FROM AFAR
Although Father Beret was for many years a missionary on the Wabash, most of the time at Vincennes, the fact that no mention of him can be found in the records is not stranger than many other things connected with the old town's history. He was, like nearly all the men of his calling in that day, a self-effacing and modest hero, apparently quite unaware that he deserved attention. He and Father Gibault, whose name is so beautifully and nobly connected with the stirring achievements of Colonel George Rogers Clark, were close friends and often companions. Probably Father Gibault himself, whose fame will never fade, would have been to-day as obscure as Father Beret, but for the opportunity given him by Clark to fix his name in the list of heroic patriots who assisted in winning the great Northwest from the English.
Vincennes, even in the earliest days of its history, somehow kept up communication and, considering the circumstances, close relations with New Orleans. It was much nearer Detroit; but the Louisiana colony stood next to France in the imagination and longing of priests, voyageurs, coureurs de bois and reckless adventurers who had Latin blood in their veins. Father Beret first came to Vincennes from New Orleans, the voyage up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash, in a pirogue, lasting through a whole summer and far into the autumn. Since his arrival the post had experienced many vicissitudes, and at the time in which our story opens the British government claimed right of dominion over the great territory drained by the Wabash, and, indeed, over a large, indefinitely outlined part of the North American continent lying above Mexico; a claim just then being vigorously questioned, flintlock in hand, by the Anglo-American colonies.
Of course the handful of French people at Vincennes, so far away from every center of information, and wholly occupied with their trading, trapping and missionary work, were late finding out that war existed between England and her colonies. Nor did it really matter much with them, one way or another. They felt secure in their lonely situation, and so went on selling their trinkets, weapons, domestic implements, blankets and intoxicating liquors to the Indians, whom they held bound to them with a power never possessed by any other white dwellers in the wilderness. Father Beret was probably subordinate to Father Gibault. At all events the latter appears to have had nominal charge of Vincennes, and it can scarcely be doubted that he left Father Beret on the Wabash, while he went to live and labor for a time at Kaskaskia beyond the plains of Illinois.
It is a curious fact that religion and the power of rum and brandy worked together successfully for a long time in giving the French posts almost absolute influence over the wild and savage men by whom they were always surrounded. The good priests deprecated the traffic in liquors and tried hard to control it, but soldiers of fortune and reckless traders were in the majority, their interests taking precedence of all spiritual demands and carrying everything along. What could the brave missionaries do but make the very best of a perilous situation?
In those days wine was drunk by almost everybody, its use at table and as an article of incidental refreshment and social pleasure being practically universal; wherefore the steps of reform in the matter of intemperance were but rudimentary and in all places beset by well-nigh insurmountable difficulties. In fact the exigencies of frontier life demanded, perhaps, the very stimulus which, when over indulged in, caused so much evil. Malaria loaded the air, and the most efficacious drugs now at command were then undiscovered or could not be had. Intoxicants were the only popular specific. Men drank to prevent contracting ague, drank again, between rigors, to cure it, and yet again to brace themselves during convalescence.
But if the effect of rum as a beverage had strong allurement for the white man, it made an absolute slave of the Indian, who never hesitated for a moment to undertake any task, no matter how hard, bear any privation, even the most terrible, or brave any danger, although it might demand reckless desperation, if in in the end a well filled bottle or jug appeared as his reward.
Of course the traders did not overlook such a source of power. Alcoholic liquor became their implement of almost magical work in controlling the lives, labors, and resources of the Indians. The priests with their captivating story of the Cross had a large influence in softening savage natures and averting many an awful danger; but when everything else failed, rum always came to the rescue of a threatened French post.
We need not wonder, then, when we are told that Father Beret made no sign of distress or disapproval upon being informed of the arrival of a boat loaded with rum, brandy or gin. It was Rene de Ronville who brought the news, the same Rene already mentioned as having given the priest a plate of squirrels. He was sitting on the doorsill of Father Beret's hut, when the old man reached it after his visit at the Roussillon home, and held in his hand a letter which he appeared proud to deliver.
"A batteau and seven men, with a cargo of liquor, came during the rain," he said, rising and taking off his curious cap, which, made of an animal's skin, had a tail jauntily dangling from its crown-tip; "and here is a letter for you, Father. The batteau is from New Orleans. Eight men started with it; but one went ashore to hunt and was killed by an Indian."
Father Beret took the letter without apparent interest and said:
"Thank you, my son, sit down again; the door-log is not wetter than the stools inside; I will sit by you."
The wind had driven a flood of rain into the cabin through the open door, and water twinkled in puddles here and there on the floor's puncheons. They sat down side by side, Father Beret fingering the letter in an absent-minded way.
"There'll be a jolly time of it to-night," Rene de Ronville remarked, "a roaring time."
"Why do you say that, my son?" the priest demanded.
"The wine and the liquor," was the reply; "much drinking will be done. The men have all been dry here for some time, you know, and are as thirsty as sand. They are making ready to enjoy themselves down at the river house."
"Ah, the poor souls!" sighed Father Beret, speaking as one whose thoughts were wandering far away.
"Why don't you read your letter, Father?" Rene added.
The priest started, turned the soiled square of paper over in his hand, then thrust it inside his robe.
"It can wait," he said. Then, changing his voice; "the squirrels you gave me were excellent, my son. It was good of you to think of me," he added, laying his hand on Rene's arm.
"Oh, I'm glad if I have pleased you, Father Beret, for you are so kind to me always, and to everybody. When I killed the squirrels I said to myself: 'These are young, juicy and tender, Father Beret must have these,' so I brought them along."
The young man rose to go; for he was somehow impressed that Father Beret must wish opportunity to read his letter, and would prefer to be left alone with it. But the priest pulled him down again.
"Stay a while," he said, "I have not had a talk with you for some time."
Rene looked a trifle uneasy.
"You will not drink any to-night, my son," Father Beret added. "You must not; do you hear?"
The young man's eyes and mouth at once began to have a sullen expression; evidently he was not pleased and felt rebellious; but it was hard for him to resist Father Beret, whom he loved, as did every soul in the post. The priest's voice was sweet and gentle, yet positive to a degree. Rene did not say a word.
"Promise me that you will not taste liquor this night," Father Beret went on, grasping the young man's arm more firmly; "promise me, my son, promise me."
Still Rene was silent. The men did not look at each other, but gazed away across the country beyond the Wabash to where a glory from the western sun flamed on the upper rim of a great cloud fragment creeping along the horizon. Warm as the day had been, a delicious coolness now began to temper the air; for the wind had shifted into the northwest. A meadowlark sang dreamingly in the wild grass of the low lands hard by, over which two or three prairie hawks hovered with wings that beat rapidly.
"Eh bien, I must go," said Rene presently, getting to his feet nimbly and evading Father Beret's hand which would have held him.
"Not to the river house, my son?" said the priest appealingly.
"No, not there; I have another letter; one for M'sieu' Roussillon; it came by the boat too. I go to give it to Madame Roussillon."
Rene de Ronville was a dark, weather-stained young fellow, neither tall nor short, wearing buckskin moccasins, trousers and tunic. His eyes were dark brown, keen, quick-moving, set well under heavy brows. A razor had probably never touched his face, and his thin, curly beard crinkled over his strongly turned cheeks and chin, while his moustaches sprang out quite fiercely above his full-lipped, almost sensual mouth. He looked wiry and active, a man not to be lightly reckoned with in a trial of bodily strength and will power.
Father Beret's face and voice changed on the instant. He laughed dryly and said, with a sly gleam in his eyes:
"You could spend the evening pleasantly with Madame Roussillon and Jean. Jean, you know, is a very amusing fellow."
Rene brought forth the letter of which he had spoken and held it up before Father Beret's face.
"Maybe you think I haven't any letter for M'sieu' Roussillon," he blurted; "and maybe you are quite certain that I am not going to the house to take the letter."
"Monsieur Roussillon is absent, you know," Father Beret suggested. "But cherry pies are just as good while he's gone as when he's at home, and I happen to know that there are some particularly delicious ones in the pantry of Madame Roussillon. Mademoiselle Alice gave me a juicy sample; but then I dare say you do not care to have your pie served by her hand. It would interfere with your appetite; eh, my son?"
Rene turned short about wagging his head and laughing, and so with his back to the priest he strode away along the wet path leading to the Roussillon place.
Father Beret gazed after him, his face relaxing to a serious expression in which a trace of sadness and gloom spread like an elusive twilight. He took out his letter, but did not glance at it, simply holding it tightly gripped in his sinewy right hand. Then his old eyes stared vacantly, as eyes do when their sight is cast back many, many years into the past. The missive was from beyond the sea—he knew the handwriting—a waft of the flowers of Avignon seemed to rise out of it, as if by the pressure of his grasp.
A stoop-shouldered, burly man went by, leading a pair of goats, a kid following. He was making haste excitedly, keeping the goats at a lively trot.
"Bon jour, Pere Beret," he flung out breezily, and walked rapidly on.
"Ah, ah; his mind is busy with the newly arrived cargo," thought the old priest, returning the salutation; "his throat aches for the liquor,—the poor man."
Then he read again the letter's superscription and made a faltering move, as if to break the seal. His hands trembled violently, his face looked gray and drawn.
"Come on, you brutes," cried the receding man, jerking the thongs of skin by which he led the goats.
Father Beret rose and turned into his damp little hut, where the light was dim on the crucifix hanging opposite the door against the clay-daubed wall. It was a bare, unsightly, clammy room; a rude bed on one side, a shelf for table and two or three wooden stools constituting the furniture, while the uneven puncheons of the floor wabbled and clattered under the priest's feet.
An unopened letter is always a mysterious thing. We who receive three or four mails every day, scan each little paper square with a speculative eye. Most of us know what sweet uncertainty hangs on the opening of envelopes whose contents may be almost anything except something important, and what a vague yet delicious thrill comes with the snip of the paper knife; but if we be in a foreign land and long years absent from home, then is a letter subtly powerful to move us, even more before it is opened than after it is read.
It had been many years since a letter from home had come to Father Beret. The last, before the one now in his hand, had made him ill of nostalgia, fairly shaking his iron determination never to quit for a moment his life work as a missionary. Ever since that day he had found it harder to meet the many and stern demands of a most difficult and exacting duty. Now the mere touch of the paper in his hand gave him a sense of returning weakness, dissatisfaction, and longing. The home of his boyhood, the rushing of the Rhone, a seat in a shady nook of the garden, Madeline, his sister, prattling beside him, and his mother singing somewhere about the house—it all came back and went over him and through him, making his heart sink strangely, while another voice, the sweetest ever heard—but she was ineffable and her memory a forbidden fragrance.
Father Beret tottered across the forlorn little room and knelt before the crucifix holding his clasped hands high, the letter pressed between them. His lips moved in prayer, but made no sound; his whole frame shook violently.
It would be unpardonable desecration to enter the chamber of Father Beret's soul and look upon his sacred and secret trouble; nor must we even speculate as to its particulars. The good old man writhed and wrestled before the cross for a long time, until at last he seemed to receive the calmness and strength he prayed for so fervently; then he rose, tore the letter into pieces so small that not a word remained whole, and squeezed them so firmly together that they were compressed into a tiny, solid ball, which he let fall through a crack between the floor puncheons. After waiting twenty years for that letter, hungry as his heart was, he did not even open it when at last it arrived. He would never know what message it bore. The link between him and the old sweet days was broken forever. Now with God's help he could do his work to the end.
He went and stood in his doorway, leaning against the side. Was it a mere coincidence that the meadowlark flew up just then from its grass-tuft, and came to the roof's comb overhead, where it lit with a light yet audible stroke of its feet and began fluting its tender, lonesome-sounding strain? If Father Beret heard it he gave no sign of recognition; very likely he was thinking about the cargo of liquor and how he could best counteract its baleful influence. He looked toward the "river house," as the inhabitants had named a large shanty, which stood on a bluff of the Wabash not far from where the road-bridge at present crosses, and saw men gathering there.
Meantime Rene de Ronville had delivered Madame Roussillon's letter with due promptness. Of course such a service demanded pie and claret. What still better pleased him, Alice chose to be more amiable than was usually her custom when he called. They sat together in the main room of the house where M. Roussillon kept his books, his curiosities of Indian manufacture collected here and there, and his surplus firearms, swords, pistols, and knives, ranged not unpleasingly around the walls.
Of course, along with the letter, Rene bore the news, so interesting to himself, of the boat's tempting cargo just discharged at the river house. Alice understood her friend's danger—felt it in the intense enthusiasm of his voice and manner. She had once seen the men carousing on a similar occasion when she was but a child, and the impression then made still remained in her memory. Instinctively she resolved to hold Rene by one means or another away from the river house if possible. So she managed to keep him occupied eating pie, sipping watered claret and chatting until night came on and Madame Roussillon brought in a lamp. Then he hurriedly snatched his cap from the floor beside him and got up to go.
"Come and look at my handiwork," Alice quickly said; "my shelf of pies, I mean." She led him to the pantry, where a dozen or more of the cherry pates were ranged in order. "I made every one of them this morning and baked them; had them all out of the oven before the rain came up. Don't you think me a wonder of cleverness and industry? Father Beret was polite enough to flatter me; but you—you just eat what you want and say nothing! You are not polite, Monsieur Rene de Ronville."
"I've been showing you what I thought of your goodies," said Rene; "eating's better than talking, you know; so I'll just take one more," and he helped himself. "Isn't that compliment enough?"
"A few such would make me another hot day's work," she replied, laughing. "Pretty talk would be cheaper and more satisfactory in the long run. Even the flour in these pates I ground with my own hand in an Indian mortar. That was hard work too."
By this time Rene had forgotten the river house and the liquor. With softening eyes he gazed at Alice's rounded cheeks and sheeny hair over which the light from the curious earthen lamp she bore in her hand flickered most effectively. He loved her madly; but his fear of her was more powerful than his love. She gave him no opportunity to speak what he felt, having ever ready a quick, bright change of mood and manner when she saw him plucking up courage to address her in a sentimental way. Their relations had long been somewhat familiar, which was but natural, considering their youth and the circumstances of their daily life; but Alice somehow had kept a certain distance open between them, so that very warm friendship could not suddenly resolve itself into a troublesome passion on Rene's part.
We need not attempt to analyze a young girl's feeling and motives in such a case; what she does and what she thinks are mysteries even to her own understanding. The influence most potent in shaping the rudimentary character of Alice Tarleton (called Roussillon) had been only such as a lonely frontier post could generate. Her associations with men and women had, with few exceptions, been unprofitable in an educational way, while her reading in M. Roussillon's little library could not have given her any practical knowledge of manners and life.
She was fond of Rene de Ronville, and it would have been quite in accordance with the law of ordinary human forces, indeed almost the inevitable thing, for her to love and marry him in the fullness of time; but her imagination was outgrowing her surroundings. Books had given her a world of romance wherein she moved at will, meeting a class of people far different from those who actually shared her experiences. Her day-dreams and her night-dreams partook much more of what she had read and imagined than of what she had seen and heard in the raw little world around her.
Her affection for Rene was interfered with by her large admiration for the heroic, masterful and magnetic knights who charged through the romances of the Roussillon collection. For although Rene was unquestionably brave and more than passably handsome, he had no armor, no war-horse, no shining lance and embossed shield—the difference, indeed, was great.
Those who love to contend against the fatal drift of our age toward over-education could find in Alice Tarleton, foster daughter of Gaspard Roussillon, a primitive example, an elementary case in point. What could her book education do but set up stumbling blocks in the path of happiness? She was learning to prefer the ideal to the real. Her soul was developing itself as best it could for the enjoyment of conditions and things absolutely foreign to the possibilities of her lot in life.
Perhaps it was the light and heat of imagination, shining out through Alice's face, which gave her beauty such a fascinating power. Rene saw it and felt its electrical stroke send a sweet shiver through his heart, while he stood before her.
"You are very beautiful to-night Alice," he presently said, with a suddenness which took even her alertness by surprise. A flush rose to his dark face and immediately gave way to a grayish pallor. His heart came near stopping on the instant, he was so shocked by his own daring; but he laid a hand on her hair, stroking it softly.
Just a moment she was at a loss, looking a trifle embarrassed, then with a merry laugh she stepped aside and said:
"That sounds better, Monsieur Rene de Ronville much better; you will be as polite as Father Beret after a little more training."
She slipped past him while speaking and made her way back again to the main room, whence she called to him:
"Come here, I've something to show you."
He obeyed, a sheepish trace on his countenance betraying his self-consciousness.
When he came near Alice she was taking from its buckhorn hook on the wall a rapier, one of a beautiful pair hanging side by side.
"Papa Roussillon gave me these," she said with great animation. "He bought them of an Indian who had kept them a long time; where he came across them he would not tell; but look how beautiful! Did you ever see anything so fine?"
Guard and hilt were of silver; the blade, although somewhat corroded, still showed the fine wavy lines of Damascus steel and traces of delicate engraving, while in the end of the hilt was set a large oval turquoise.
"A very queer present to give a girl," said Rene; "what can you do with them?"
A captivating flash of playfulness came into her face and she sprang backward, giving the sword a semicircular turn with her wrist. The blade sent forth a keen hiss as it cut the air close, very close to Rene's nose. He jerked his head and flung up his hand.
She laughed merrily, standing beautifully poised before him, the rapier's point slightly elevated. Her short skirt left her feet and ankles free to show their graceful proportions and the perfect pose in which they held her supple body.
"You see what I can do with the colechemarde, eh, Monsieur Rene de Ronville!" she exclaimed, giving him a smile which fairly blinded him. "Notice how very near to your neck I can thrust and yet not touch it. Now!"
She darted the keen point under his chin and drew it away so quickly that the stroke was like a glint of sunlight.
"What do you think of that as a nice and accurate piece of skill?"
She again resumed her pose, the right foot advanced, the left arm well back, her lissome, finely developed body leaning slightly forward.
Rene's hands were up before his face in a defensive position, palms outward.
Just then a chorus of men's voices sounded in the distance. The river house was beginning its carousal with a song. Alice let fall her sword's point and listened.
Rene looked about for his cap.
"I must be going," he said.
Another and louder swish of the rapier made him pirouette and dodge again with great energy.
"Don't," he cried, "that's dangerous; you'll put out my eyes; I never saw such a girl!"
She laughed at him and kept on whipping the air dangerously near his eyes, until she had driven him backward as far as he could squeeze himself into a comer of the room.
Madame Roussillon came to the door from the kitchen and stood looking in and laughing, with her hands on her hips. By this time the rapier was making a criss-cross pattern of flashing lines close to the young man's head while Alice, in the enjoyment of her exercise, seemed to concentrate all the glowing rays of her beauty in her face, her eyes dancing merrily.
"Quit, now, Alice," he begged, half in fun and half in abject fear; "please quit—I surrender!"
She thrust to the wall on either side of him, then springing lightly backward a pace, stood at guard. Her thick yellow hair had fallen over her neck and shoulders in a loose wavy mass, out of which her face beamed with a bewitching effect upon her captive.
Rene, glad enough to have a cessation of his peril, stood laughing dryly; but the singing down at the river house was swelling louder and he made another movement to go.
"You surrendered, you remember," cried Alice, renewing the sword-play; "sit down on the chair there and make yourself comfortable. You are not going down yonder to-night; you are going to stay here and talk with me and Mother Roussillon; we are lonesome and you are good company."
A shot rang out keen and clear; there was a sudden tumult that broke up the distant singing; and presently more firing at varying intervals cut the night air from the direction of the river.
Jean, the hunchback, came in to say that there was a row of some sort; he had seen men running across the common as if in pursuit of a fugitive; but the moonlight was so dim that he could not be sure what it all meant.
Rene picked up his cap and bolted out of the house.
THE RAPE OF THE DEMIJOHN
The row down at the river house was more noise than fight, so far as results seemed to indicate. It was all about a small dame jeanne of fine brandy, which an Indian by the name of Long-Hair had seized and run off with at the height of the carousal. He must have been soberer than his pursuers, or naturally fleeter; for not one of them could catch him, or even keep long in sight of him. Some pistols were emptied while the race was on, and two or three of the men swore roundly to having seen Long-Hair jump sidewise and stagger, as if one of the shots had taken effect. But, although the moon was shining, he someway disappeared, they could not understand just how, far down beside the river below the fort and the church.
It was not a very uncommon thing for an Indian to steal what he wanted, and in most cases light punishment followed conviction; but it was felt to be a capital offense for an Indian or anybody else to rape a demijohn of fine brandy, especially one sent as a present, by a friend in New Orleans, to Lieutenant Governor Abbott, who had until recently been the commandant of the post. Every man at the river house recognized and resented the enormity of Long-Hair's crime and each was, for the moment, ready to be his judge and his executioner. He had broken at once every rule of frontier etiquette and every bond of sympathy. Nor was Long-Hair ignorant of the danger involved in his daring enterprise. He had beforehand carefully and stolidly weighed all the conditions, and true to his Indian nature, had concluded that a little wicker covered bottle of brandy was well worth the risk of his life. So he had put himself in condition for a great race by slipping out and getting rid of his weapons and all surplus weight of clothes.
This incident brought the drinking bout at the river house to a sudden end; but nothing further came of it that night, and no record of it would be found in these pages, but for the fact that Long-Hair afterwards became an important character in the stirring historical drama which had old Vincennes for its center of energy.
Rene de Ronville probably felt himself in bad luck when he arrived at the river house just too late to share in the liquor or to join in chasing the bold thief. He listened with interest, however, to the story of Long-Hair's capture of the commandant's demijohn and could not refrain from saying that if he had been present there would have been a quite different result.
"I would have shot him before he got to that door," he said, drawing his heavy flint-lock pistol and going through the motions of one aiming quickly and firing. Indeed, so vigorously in earnest was he with the pantomime, that he actually did fire, unintentionally of course,—the ball burying itself in the door-jamb.
He was laughed at by those present for being more excited than they who witnessed the whole thing. One of them, a leathery-faced and grizzled old sinner, leered at him contemptuously and said in queer French, with a curious accent caught from long use of backwoods English:
"Listen how the boy brags! Ye might think, to hear Rene talk, that he actually amounted to a big pile."
This personage was known to every soul in Vincennes as Oncle Jazon, and when Oncle Jazon spoke the whole town felt bound to listen.
"An' how well he shoots, too," he added with an intolerable wink; "aimed at the door and hit the post. Certainly Long-Hair would have been in great danger! O yes, he'd 'ave killed Long-Hair at the first shot, wouldn't he though!"
Oncle Jazon had the air of a large man, but the stature of a small one; in fact he was shriveled bodily to a degree which suggested comparison with a sun-dried wisp of hickory bark; and when he chuckled, as he was now doing, his mouth puckered itself until it looked like a scar on his face. From cap to moccasins he had every mark significant of a desperate character; and yet there was about him something that instantly commanded the confidence of rough men,—the look of self-sufficiency and superior capability always to be found in connection with immense will power. His sixty years of exposure, hardship, and danger seemed to have but toughened his physique and strengthened his vitality. Out of his small hazel eyes gleamed a light as keen as ice.
"All right, Oncle Jazon," said Rene laughing and blowing the smoke out of his pistol; "'twas you all the same who let Long-Hair trot off with the Governor's brandy, not I. If you could have hit even a door-post it might have been better."
Oncle Jazon took off his cap and looked down into it in a way he had when about to say something final.
"Ventrebleu! I did not shoot at Long-Hair at all," he said, speaking slowly, "because the scoundrel was unarmed. He didn't have on even a knife, and he was havin' enough to do dodgin' the bullets that the rest of 'em were plumpin' at 'im without any compliments from me to bother 'im more."
"Well," Rene replied, turning away with a laugh, "if I'd been scalped by the Indians, as you have, I don't think there would be any particular reason why I should wait for an Indian thief to go and arm himself before I accepted him as a target."
Oncle Jazon lifted a hand involuntarily and rubbed his scalpless crown; then he chuckled with a grotesque grimace as if the recollection of having his head skinned were the funniest thing imaginable.
"When you've killed as many of 'em as Oncle Jazon has," remarked a bystander to Rene, "you'll not be so hungry for blood, maybe."
"Especially after ye've took fifty-nine scalps to pay for yer one," added Oncle Jazon, replacing his cap over the hairless area of his crown.
The men who had been chasing Long-Hair, presently came straggling back with their stories—each had a distinct one—of how the fugitive escaped. They were wild looking fellows, most of them somewhat intoxicated, all profusely liberal with their stock of picturesque profanity. They represented the roughest element of the well-nigh lawless post.
"I'm positive that he's wounded," said one. "Jacques and I shot at him together, so that our pistols sounded just as if only one had been fired—bang! that way—and he leaped sideways for all the world like a bird with a broken leg. I thought he'd fall; but ve! he ran faster'n ever, and all at once he was gone; just disappeared."
"Well, to-morrow we'll get him," said another. "You and I and Jacques, we'll take up his trail, the thief, and follow him till we find him. He can't get off so easy."
"I don't know so well about that," said another; "it's Long-Hair, you must remember, and Long-Hair is no common buck that just anybody can find asleep. You know what Long-Hair is. Nobody's ever got even with 'im yet. That's so, ain't it? Just ask Oncle Jazon, if you don't believe it!"
The next morning Long-Hair was tracked to the edge. He had been wounded, but whether seriously or not could only be conjectured. A sprinkle of blood, here and there quite a dash of it, reddened the grass and clumps of weeds he had run through, and ended close to the water into which it looked as if he had plunged with a view to baffling pursuit. Indeed pursuit was baffled. No further trace could be found, by which to follow the cunning fugitive. Some of the men consoled themselves by saying, without believing, that Long-Hair was probably lying drowned at the bottom of the river.
"Pas du tout," observed Oncle Jazon, his short pipe askew far over in the corner of his mouth, "not a bit of it is that Indian drowned. He's jes' as live as a fat cat this minute, and as drunk as the devil. He'll get some o' yer scalps yet after he's guzzled all that brandy and slep' a week."
It finally transpired that Oncle Jazon was partly right and partly wrong. Long-Hair was alive, even as a fat cat, perhaps; but not drunk, for in trying to swim with the rotund little dame jeanne under his arm he lost hold of it and it went to the bottom of the Wabash, where it may be lying at this moment patiently waiting for some one to fish it out of its bed deep in the sand and mud, and break the ancient wax from its neck!
Rene de Ronville, after the chase of Long-Hair had been given over, went to tell Father Beret what had happened, and finding the priest's hut empty turned into the path leading to the Roussillon place, which was at the head of a narrow street laid out in a direction at right angles to the river's course. He passed two or three diminutive cabins, all as much alike as bee-hives. Each had its squat veranda and thatched or clapboarded roof held in place by weight-poles ranged in roughly parallel rows, and each had the face of the wall under its veranda neatly daubed with a grayish stucco made of mud and lime. You may see such houses today in some remote parts of the creole country of Louisiana.
As Rene passed along he spoke with a gay French freedom to the dames and lasses who chanced to be visible. His air would be regarded as violently brigandish in our day; we might even go so far as to think his whole appearance comical. His jaunty cap with a tail that wagged as he walked, his short trousers and leggins of buckskin, and his loose shirt-like tunic, drawn in at the waist with a broad belt, gave his strong figure just the dash of wildness suited to the armament with which it was weighted. A heavy gun lay in the hollow of his shoulder under which hung an otter-skin bullet-pouch with its clear powder-horn and white bone charger. In his belt were two huge flint-lock pistols and a long case-knife.
"Bon jour, Ma'm'selle Adrienne," he cheerily called, waving his free hand in greeting to a small, dark lass standing on the step of a veranda and indolently swinging a broom. "Comment allez-vous auj ourd'hui?"
"J'm'porte tres bien, merci, Mo'sieu Rene," was the quick response; "et vous?"
"Oh, I'm as lively as a cricket."
"Going a hunting?"
"No, just up here a little way—just on business—up to Mo'sieu Roussillon's for a moment."
"Yes," the girl responded in a tone indicative of something very like spleen, "yes, undoubtedly, Mo'sieu de Ronville; your business there seems quite pressing of late. I have noticed your industrious application to that business."
"Ta-ta, little one," he wheedled, lowering his voice; "you mustn't go to making bug-bears out of nothing."
"Bug-bears!" she retorted, "you go on about your business and I'll attend to mine," and she flirted into the house.
Rene laughed under his breath, standing a moment as if expecting her to come out again; but she did not, and he resumed his walk singing softly—
"Elle a les joues vermeilles, vermeilles, Ma belle, ma belle petite."
But ten to one he was not thinking of Madamoiselle Adrienne Bourcier. His mind, however, must have been absorbingly occupied; for in the straight, open way he met Father Beret and did not see him until he came near bumping against the old man, who stepped aside with astonishing agility and said—
"Dieu vous benisse, mon fils; but what is your great hurry—where can you be going in such happy haste?" Rene did not stop to parley with the priest. He flung some phrase of pleasant greeting back over his shoulder as he trudged on, his heart beginning a tattoo against his ribs when the Roussillon place came in sight, and he took hold of his mustache to pull it, as some men must do in moments of nervousness and bashfulness. If sounds ever have color, the humming in his ears was of a rosy hue; if thoughts ever exhale fragrance, his brain overflowed with the sweets of violet and heliotrope.
He had in mind what he was going to say when Alice and he should be alone together. It was a pretty speech, he thought; indeed a very thrilling little speech, by the way it stirred his own nerve-centers as he conned it over.
Madame Roussillon met him at the door in not a very good humor.
"Is Mademoiselle Alice here?" he ventured to demand.
"Alice? no, she's not here; she's never here just when I want her most. V'la le picbois et la grive—see the woodpecker and the robin—eating the cherries, eating every one of them, and that girl running off somewhere instead of staying here and picking them," she railed in answer to the young man's polite inquiry. "I haven't seen her these four hours, neither her nor that rascally hunchback, Jean. They're up to some mischief, I'll be bound!"
Madame Roussillon puffed audibly between phrases; but she suddenly became very mild when relieved of her tirade.
"Mais entrez," she added in a pleasant tone, "come in and tell me the news."
Rene's disappointment rushed into his face, but he managed to laugh it aside.
"Father Beret has just been telling me," said Madame Roussillon, "that our friend Long-Hair made some trouble last night. How about it?"
Rene told her what he knew and added that Long-Hair would probably never be seen again.
"He was shot, no doubt of it," he went on, "and is now being nibbled by fish and turtles. We tracked him by his blood to where he jumped into the Wabash. He never came out."
Strangely enough it happened that, at the very time of this chat between Madame Roussillon and Rene Alice was bandaging Long-Hair's wounded leg with strips of her apron. It was under some willows which overhung the bank of a narrow and shallow lagoon or slough, which in those days extended a mile or two back into the country on the farther side of the river. Alice and Jean went over in a pirogue to see if the water lilies, haunting a pond there, were yet beginning to bloom. They landed at a convenient spot some distance up the little lagoon, made the boat fast by dragging its prow high ashore, and were on the point of setting out across a neck of wet, grassy land to the pond, when a deep grunt, not unlike that of a self-satisfied pig, attracted them to the willows, where they discovered Long-Hair, badly wounded, weltering in some black mud.
His hiding-place was cunningly chosen, save that the mire troubled him, letting him down by slow degrees, and threatening to engulf him bodily; and he was now too weak to extricate himself. He lifted his head and glared. His face was grimy, his hair matted with mud. Alice, although brave enough and quite accustomed to startling experiences, uttered a cry when she saw those snaky eyes glistening so savagely amid the shadows. But Jean was quick to recognize Long-Hair; he had often seen him about town, a figure not to be forgotten.
"They've been hunting him everywhere," he said in a half whisper to Alice, clutching the skirt of her dress. "It's Long-Hair, the Indian who stole the brandy; I know him."
Alice recoiled a pace or two.
"Let's go back and tell 'em," Jean added, still whispering, "they want to kill him; Oncle Jazon said so. Come on!"
He gave her dress a jerk; but she did not move any farther back; she was looking at the blood oozing from a wound in the Indian's leg.
"He is shot, he is hurt, Jean, we must help him," she presently said, recovering her self-control, yet still pale. "We must get him out of that bad place."
Jean caught Alice's merciful spirit with sympathetic readiness, and showed immediate willingness to aid her.
It was a difficult thing to do; but there was a will and of course a way. They had knives with which they cut willows to make a standing place on the mud. While they were doing this they spoke friendly words to Long-Hair, who understood French a little, and at last they got hold of his arms, tugged, rested, tugged again, and finally managed to help him to a dry place, still under the willows, where he could lie more at ease. Jean carried water in his cap with which they washed the wound and the stolid savage face. Then Alice tore up her cotton apron, in which she had hoped to bear home a load of lilies, and with the strips bound the wound very neatly. It took a long time, during which the Indian remained silent and apparently quite indifferent.
Long-Hair was a man of superior physique, tall, straight, with the muscles of a Vulcan; and while he lay stretched on the ground half clad and motionless, he would have been a grand model for an heroic figure in bronze. Yet from every lineament there came a strange repelling influence, like that from a snake. Alice felt almost unbearable disgust while doing her merciful task; but she bravely persevered until it was finished.
It was now late in the afternoon, and the sun would be setting before they could reach home.
"We must hurry back, Jean," Alice said, turning to depart. "It will be all we can do to reach the other side in daylight. I'm thinking that they'll be out hunting for us too, if we don't move right lively. Come."
She gave the Indian another glance when she had taken but a step. He grunted and held up something in his hand—something that shone with a dull yellow light. It was a small, oval, gold locket which she had always worn in her bosom. She sprang and snatched it from his palm.
"Thank you," she exclaimed, smiling gratefully. "I am so glad you found it."
The chain by which the locket had hung was broken, doubtless by some movement while dragging Long-Hair out of the mud, and the lid had sprung open, exposing a miniature portrait of Alice, painted when she was a little child, probably not two years old. It was a sweet baby face, archly bright, almost surrounded with a fluff of golden hair. The neck and the upper line of the plump shoulders, with a trace of richly delicate lace and a string of pearls, gave somehow a suggestion of patrician daintiness.
Long-Hair looked keenly into Alice's eyes, when she stooped to take the locket from his hand, but said nothing.
She and Jean now hurried away, and, so vigorously did they paddle the pirogue, that the sky was yet red in the west when they reached home and duly received their expected scolding from Madame Roussillon.
Alice sealed Jean's lips as to their adventure; for she had made up her mind to save Long-Hair if possible, and she felt sure that the only way to do it would be to trust no one but Father Beret.
It turned out that Long-Hair's wound was neither a broken bone nor a cut artery. The flesh of his leg, midway between the hip and the knee, was pierced; the bullet had bored a neat hole clean through. Father Beret took the case in hand, and with no little surgical skill proceeded to set the big Indian upon his feet again. The affair had to be cleverly managed. Food, medicines and clothing were surreptitiously borne across the river; a bed of grass was kept fresh under Long-Hair's back; his wound was regularly dressed; and finally his weapons—a tomahawk, a knife, a strong bow and a quiver of arrows—which he had hidden on the night of his bold theft, were brought to him.
"Now go and sin no more," said good Father Beret; but he well knew that his words were mere puffs of articulate wind in the ear of the grim and silent savage, who limped away with an air of stately dignity into the wilderness.
A load fell from Alice's mind when Father Beret informed her of Long-Hair's recovery and departure. Day and night the dread lest some of the men should find out his hiding-place and kill him had depressed and worried her. And now, when it was all over, there still hovered like an elusive shadow in her consciousness a vague haunting impression of the incident's immense significance as an influence in her life. To feel that she had saved a man from death was a new sensation of itself; but the man and the circumstances were picturesque; they invited imagination; they furnished an atmosphere of romance dear to all young and healthy natures, and somehow stirred her soul with a strange appeal.
Long-Hair's imperturbable calmness, his stolid, immobile countenance, the mysterious reptilian gleam of his shifty black eyes, and the soulless expression always lurking in them, kept a fascinating hold on the girl's memory. They blended curiously with the impressions left by the romances she had read in M. Roussillon's mildewed books.
Long-Hair was not a young man; but it would have been impossible to guess near his age. His form and face simply showed long experience and immeasurable vigor. Alice remembered with a shuddering sensation the look he gave her when she took the locket from his hand. It was of but a second's duration, yet it seemed to search every nook of her being with its subtle power.
Romancers have made much of their Indian heroes, picturing them as models of manly beauty and nobility; but all fiction must be taken with liberal pinches of salt. The plain truth is that dark savages of the pure blood often do possess the magnetism of perfect physical development and unfathomable mental strangeness; but real beauty they never have. Their innate repulsiveness is so great that, like the snake's charm, it may fascinate; yet an indescribable, haunting disgust goes with it. And, after all, if Alice had been asked to tell just how she felt toward the Indian she had labored so hard to save, she would promptly have said:
"I loathe him as I do a toad!"
Nor would Father Beret, put to the same test, have made a substantially different confession. His work, to do which his life went as fuel to fire, was training the souls of Indians for the reception of divine grace; but experience had not changed his first impression of savage character. When he traveled in the wilderness he carried the Word and the Cross; but he was also armed with a gun and two good pistols, not to mention a dangerous knife. The rumor prevailed that Father Beret could drive a nail at sixty yards with his rifle, and at twenty snuff a candle with either one of his pistols.
THE FIRST MAYOR OF VINCENNES
Governor Abbott probably never so much as heard of the dame jeanne of French brandy sent to him by his creole friend in New Orleans. He had been gone from Vincennes several months when the batteau arrived, having been recalled to Detroit by the British authorities; and he never returned. Meantime the little post with its quaint cabins and its dilapidated block-house, called Fort Sackville, lay sunning drowsily by the river in a blissful state of helplessness from the military point of view. There was no garrison; the two or three pieces of artillery, abandoned and exposed, gathered rust and cobwebs, while the pickets of the stockade, decaying and loosened in the ground by winter freezes and summer rains, leaned in all directions, a picture of decay and inefficiency.
The inhabitants of the town, numbering about six hundred, lived very much as pleased them, without any regular municipal government, each family its own tribe, each man a law unto himself; yet for mutual protection, they all kept in touch and had certain common rights which were religiously respected and defended faithfully. A large pasturing ground was fenced in where the goats and little black cows of the villagers browsed as one herd, while the patches of wheat, corn and vegetables were not inclosed at all. A few of the thriftier and more important citizens, however, had separate estates of some magnitude, surrounding their residences, kept up with care and, if the time and place be taken into account, with considerable show of taste.
Monsieur Gaspard Roussillon was looked upon as the aristocrat par excellence of Vincennes, notwithstanding the fact that his name bore no suggestion of noble or titled ancestry. He was rich and in a measure educated; moreover the successful man's patent of leadership, a commanding figure and a suave manner, came always to his assistance when a crisis presented itself. He traded shrewdly, much to his own profit, but invariably with the excellent result that the man, white or Indian, with whom he did business felt himself especially favored in the transaction. By the exercise of firmness, prudence, vast assumption, florid eloquence and a kindly liberality he had greatly endeared himself to the people; so that in the absence of a military commander he came naturally to be regarded as the chief of the town, Mo'sieu' le maire.
He returned from his extended trading expedition about the middle of July, bringing, as was his invariable rule, a gift for Alice. This time it was a small, thin disc of white flint, with a hole in the center through which a beaded cord of sinew was looped. The edge of the disc was beautifully notched and the whole surface polished so that it shone like glass, while the beads, made of very small segments of porcupine quills, were variously dyed, making a curiously gaudy show of bright colors.
"There now, ma cherie, is something worth fifty times its weight in gold," said M. Roussillon when he presented the necklace to his foster daughter with pardonable self-satisfaction. "It is a sacred charm-string given me by an old heathen who would sell his soul for a pint of cheap rum. He solemnly informed me that whoever wore it could not by any possibility be killed by an enemy."
Alice kissed M. Roussillon.
"It's so curious and beautiful," she said, holding it up and drawing the variegated string through her fingers. Then, with her mischievous laugh, she added; "and I'm glad it is so powerful against one's enemy; I'll wear it whenever I go where Adrienne Bourcier is, see if I don't!"
"Is she your enemy? What's up between you and la petite Adrienne, eh?" M. Roussillon lightly demanded. "You were always the best of good friends, I thought. What's happened?"
"Oh, we are good friends," said Alice, quickly, "very good friends, indeed; I was but chaffing."
"Good friends, but enemies; that's how it is with women. Who's the young man that's caused the coolness? I could guess, maybe!" He laughed and winked knowingly. "May I be so bold as to name him at a venture?"
"Yes, if you'll be sure to mention Monsieur Rene de Ronville," she gayly answered. "Who but he could work Adrienne up into a perfect green mist of jealousy?"
"He would need an accomplice, I should imagine; a young lady of some beauty and a good deal of heartlessness."
"Like whom, for example?" and she tossed her bright head. "Not me, I am sure."
"Poh! like every pretty maiden in the whole world, ma petite coquette; they're all alike as peas, cruel as blue jays and as sweet as apple-blossoms." He stroked her hair clumsily with his large hand, as a heavy and roughly fond man is apt to do, adding in an almost serious tone:
"But my little girl is better than most of them, not a foolish mischief-maker, I hope."
Alice was putting her head through the string of beads and letting the translucent white disc fall into her bosom.
"It's time to change the subject," she said; "tell me what you have seen while away. I wish I could go far off and see things. Have you been to Detroit, Quebec, Montreal?"
"Yes, I've been to all, a long, hard journey, but reasonably profitable. You shall have a goodly dot when you get married, my child."
"And did you attend any parties and balls?" she inquired quickly, ignoring his concluding remark. "Tell me about them. How do the fine ladies dress, and do they wear their hair high with great big combs? Do they have long skirts and—"
"Hold up, you double-tongued chatterbox!" he interrupted; "I can't answer forty questions at once. Yes, I danced till my legs ached with women old and girls young; but how could I remember how they were dressed and what their style of coiffure was? I know that silk rustled and there was a perfume of eau de Cologne and mignonette and my heart expanded and blazed while I whirled like a top with a sweet lady in my arms."
"Yes, you must have cut a ravishing figure!" interpolated Madame Roussillon with emphatic disapproval, her eyes snapping. "A bull in a lace shop. How delighted the ladies must have been!"
"Never saw such blushing faces and burning glances—such fluttering breasts, such—"
"Big braggart," Madame Roussillon broke in contemptuously, "it's a piastre to a sou that you stood gawping in through a window while gentlemen and ladies did the dancing. I can imagine how you looked—I can!" and with this she took her prodigious bulk at a waddling gait out of the room. "I remember how you danced even when you were not clumsy as a pig on ice!" she shrieked back over her shoulder.
"Parbleu! true enough, my dear," he called after her, "I should think you could—you mind how we used trip it together. You were the prettiest dancer them all, and the young fellows all went to the swords about you!"
"But tell me more," Alice insisted; "I want to know about what you saw in the great towns—in the fine houses—how the ladies looked, how they acted—what they said—the dresses they wore—how—"
"Ciel! you will split my ears, child; can't you fill my pipe and bring it to me with a coal on it? Then I'll try to tell you what I can," he cried, assuming a humorously resigned air. "Perhaps if I smoke I can remember everything."
Alice gladly ran to do what he asked. Meantime Jean was out on the gallery blowing a flute that M. Roussillon had brought him from Quebec.
The pipe well filled and lighted apparently did have the effect to steady and encourage M. Roussillon's memory; or if not his memory, then his imagination, which was of that fervid and liberal sort common to natives of the Midi, and which has been exquisitely depicted by the late Alphonse Daudet in Tartarin and Bompard. He leaned far back in a strong chair, with his massive legs stretched at full length, and gazed at the roof-poles while he talked.
He sympathized fully, in his crude way, with Alice's lively curiosity, and his affection for her made him anxious to appease her longing after news from the great outside world. If the sheer truth must come out, however, he knew precious little about that world, especially the polite part of it in which thrived those femininities so dear to the heart of an isolated and imaginative girl. Still, as he, too, lived in Arcadia, there was no great effort involved when he undertook to blow a dreamer's flute.
In the first place he had not been in Quebec or Montreal during his absence from home. Most of the time he had spent disposing of pelts and furs at Detroit and in extending his trading relations with other posts; but what mattered a trifling want of facts when his meridional fancy once began to warm up? A smattering of social knowledge gained at first hand in his youthful days in France while he was a student whose parents fondly expected him to conquer the world, came to his aid, and besides he had saturated himself all his life with poetry and romance. Scudery, Scarron, Prevost, Madame La Fayette and Calprenede were the chief sources of his information touching the life and manners, morals and gayeties of people who, as he supposed, stirred the surface of that resplendent and far-off ocean called society. Nothing suited him better than to smoke a pipe and talk about what he had seen and done; and the less he had really seen and done the more he had to tell.