His broad, almost over-virile, kindly and contented face beamed with the warmth of wholly imaginary recollections while he recounted with minute circumstantiality to the delighted Alice his gallant adventures in the crowded and brilliant ball-rooms of the French-Canadian towns. The rolling burr of his bass voice, deep and resonant, gave force to the improvised descriptions.
Madame Roussillon heard the heavy booming and presently came softly back into the door from the kitchen to listen. She leaned against the facing in an attitude of ponderous attention, a hand, on her bulging hip. She could not suppress her unbounded admiration of her liege lord's manly physique, and jealous to fierceness as she was of his experiences so eloquently and picturesquely related, her woman's nature took fire with enjoyment of the scenes described.
This is the mission of the poet and the romancer—to sponge out of existence, for a time, the stiff, refractory, and unlovely realities and give in their place a scene of ideal mobility and charm. The two women reveled in Gaspard Roussillon's revelations. They saw the brilliant companies, the luxurious surroundings, heard the rustle of brocade and the fine flutter of laces, the hum of sweet voices, breathed in the wafts of costly perfumeries, looked on while the dancers whirled and flickered in the confusion of lights; and over all and through all poured and vibrated such ravishing music as only the southern imagination could have conjured up out of nothing.
Alice was absolutely charmed. She sat on a low wooden stool and gazed into Gaspard Roussillon's face with dilating eyes in which burned that rich and radiant something we call a passionate soul. She drank in his flamboyant stream of words with a thirst which nothing but experience could ever quench. He felt her silent applause and the admiring involuntary absorption that possessed his wife; the consciousness of his elementary magnetism augmented the flow of his fine descriptions, and he went on and on, until the arrival of Father Beret put an end to it all.
The priest, hearing of M. Roussillon's return, had come to inquire about some friends living at Detroit. He took luncheon with the family, enjoying the downright refreshing collation of broiled birds, onions, meal-cakes and claret, ending with a dish of blackberries and cream.
M. Roussillon seized the first opportunity to resume his successful romancing, and presently in the midst of the meal began to tell Father Beret about what he had seen in Quebec.
"By the way," he said, with expansive casualness in his voice, "I called upon your old-time friend and co-adjutor, Father Sebastien, while up there. A noble old man. He sent you a thousand good messages. Was mightily delighted when I told him how happy and hale you have always been here. Ah, you should have seen his dear old eyes full of loving tears. He would walk a hundred miles to see you, he said, but never expected to in this world. Blessings, blessings upon dear Father Beret, was what he murmured in my ear when we were parting. He says that he will never leave Quebec until he goes to his home above—ah!"
The way in which M. Roussillon closed his little speech, his large eyes upturned, his huge hands clasped in front of him, was very effective.
"I am under many obligations, my son," said Father Beret, "for what you tell me. It was good of you to remember my dear old friend and go to him for his loving messages to me. I am very, very thankful. Help me to another drop of wine, please."
Now the extraordinary feature of the situation was that Father Beret had known positively for nearly five years that Father Sebastien was dead and buried.
"Ah, yes," M. Roussillon continued, pouring the claret with one hand and making a pious gesture with the other; "the dear old man loves you and prays for you; his voice quavers whenever he speaks of you."
"Doubtless he made his old joke to you about the birth-mark on my shoulder," said Father Beret after a moment of apparently thoughtful silence. "He may have said something about it in a playful way, eh?"
"True, true, why yes, he surely mentioned the same," assented M. Roussillon, his face assuming an expression of confused memory; "it was something sly and humorous, I mind; but it just escapes my recollection. A right jolly old boy is Father Sebastien; indeed very amusing at times."
"At times, yes," said Father Beret, who had no birth-mark on his shoulder, and had never had one there, or on any other part of his person.
"How strange!" Alice remarked, "I, too, have a mark on my shoulder—a pink spot, just like a small, five-petaled flower. We must be of kin to each other, Father Beret."
The priest laughed.
"If our marks are alike, that would be some evidence of kinship," he said.
"But what shape is yours, Father?"
"I've never seen it," he responded.
"Never seen it! Why?"
"Well, it's absolutely invisible," and he chuckled heartily, meantime glancing shrewdly at M. Roussillon out of the tail of his eye.
"It's on the back part of his shoulder," quickly spoke up M. Roussillon, "and you know priests never use looking-glasses. The mark is quite invisible therefore, so far as Father Beret is concerned!"
"You never told me of your birth-mark before, my daughter," said Father Beret, turning to Alice with sudden interest. "It may some day be good fortune to you."
"Why so, Father?"
"If your family name is really Tarleton, as you suppose from the inscription on your locket, the birth-mark, being of such singular shape, would probably identify you. It is said that these marks run regularly in families. With the miniature and the distinguishing birth-mark you have enough to make a strong case should you once find the right Tarleton family."
"You talk as they write in novels," said Alice. "I've read about just such things in them. Wouldn't it be grand if I should turn out to be some great personage in disguise!"
The mention of novels reminded Father Beret of that terrible book, Manon Lescaut, which he last saw in Alice's possession, and he could not refrain from mentioning it in a voice that shuddered.
"Rest easy, Father Beret," said Alice; "that is one novel I have found wholly distasteful to me. I tried to read it, but could not do it, I flung it aside in utter disgust. You and mother Roussillon are welcome to hide it deep as a well, for all I care. I don't enjoy reading about low, vile people and hopeless unfortunates; I like sweet and lovely heroines and strong, high-souled, brave heroes."
"Read about the blessed saints, then, my daughter; you will find in them the true heroes and heroines of this world," said Father Beret.
M. Roussillon changed the subject, for he always somehow dreaded to have the good priest fall into the strain of argument he was about to begin. A stray sheep, no matter how refractory, feels a touch of longing when it hears the shepherd's voice. M. Roussillon was a Catholic, but a straying one, who avoided the confessional and often forgot mass. Still, with all his reckless independence, and with all his outward show of large and breezy self-sufficiency, he was not altogether free from the hold that the church had laid upon him in childhood and youth. Moreover, he was fond of Father Beret and had done a great deal for the little church of St. Xavier and the mission it represented; but he distinctly desired to be let alone while he pursued his own course; and he had promised the dying woman who gave Alice to him that the child should be left as she was, a Protestant, without undue influence to change her from the faith of her parents. This promise he had kept with stubborn persistence and he meant to keep it as long as he lived. Perhaps the very fact that his innermost conscience smote him with vague yet telling blows at times for this departure from the strict religion of his fathers, may have intensified his resistance of the influence constantly exerted upon Alice by Father Beret and Madame Roussillon, to bring her gently but surely to the church. Perverseness is a force to be reckoned with in all original characters.
A few weeks had passed after M. Roussillon's return, when that big-hearted man took it into his head to celebrate his successful trading ventures with a moonlight dance given without reserve to all the inhabitants of Vincennes. It was certainly a democratic function that he contemplated, and motley to a most picturesque extent.
Rene de Ronville called upon Alice a day or two previous to the occasion and duly engaged her as his partenaire; but she insisted upon having the engagement guarded in her behalf by a condition so obviously fanciful that he accepted it without argument.
"If my wandering knight should arrive during the dance, you promise to stand aside and give place to him," she stipulated. "You promise that? You see I'm expecting him all the time. I dreamed last night that he came on a great bay horse and, stooping, whirled me up behind the saddle, and away we went!"
There was a childish, half bantering air in her look; but her voice sounded earnest and serious, notwithstanding its delicious timbre of suppressed playfulness.
"You promise me?" she insisted.
"Oh, I promise to slink away into a corner and chew my thumb, the moment he comes," Rene eagerly assented. "Of course I'm taking a great risk, I know; for lords and barons and knights are very apt to appear Suddenly in a place like this."
"You may banter and make light if you want to," she said, pouting admirably. "I don't care. All the same the laugh will jump to the other corner of your mouth, see if it doesn't. They say that what a person dreams about and wishes for and waits for and believes in, will come true sooner or later."
"If that's so," said Rene, "you and I will get married; for I've dreamed it every night of the year, wished for it, waited for it and believed in it, and—"
It was a madly sudden rush. He made it on an impulse quite irresistible, as hypnotized persons are said to do in response to the suggestion of the hypnotist, and his heart was choking his throat before he could end his speech. Alice interrupted him with a hearty burst of laughter.
"A very pretty twist you give to my words, I must declare," she said; "but not new by any means. Little Adrienne Bourcier could tell you that. She says that you have vowed to her over and over that you dream about her, and wish for her, and wait for her, precisely as you have just said to me."
Rene's brown face flushed to the temples, partly with anger, partly with the shock of mingled surprise and fear. He was guilty, and the guilt showed in his eyes and paralyzed his tongue, so that he sat there before Alice with his under jaw sagging ludicrously.
"Don't you rather think, Monsieur Rene de Ronville," she presently added in a calmly advisory tone, "that you had better quit trying to say such foolish things to me, and just be my very good friend? If you don't, I do, which comes to the same thing. What's more, I won't be your partenaire at the dance unless you promise me on your word of honor that you will dance two dances with Adrienne to every one that you have with me. Do you promise?"
He dared not oppose her outwardly, although in his heart resistance amounted to furious revolt and riot.
"I promise anything you ask me to," he said resignedly, almost sullenly; "anything for you."
"Well, I ask nothing whatever on my own account," Alice quickly replied; "but I do tell you firmly that you shall not maltreat little Adrienne Bourcier and remain a friend of mine. She loves you, Rene de Ronville, and you have told her that you love her. If you are a man worthy of respect you will not desert her. Don't you think I am right?"
Like a singed and crippled moth vainly trying to rise once again to the alluring yet deadly flame, Rene de Ronville essayed to break out of his embarrassment and resume equal footing with the girl so suddenly become his commanding superior; but the effort disclosed to him as well as to her that he had fallen to rise no more. In his abject defeat he accepted the terms dictated by Alice and was glad when she adroitly changed her manner and tone in going on to discuss the approaching dance.
"Now let me make one request of you," he demanded after a while. "It's a small favor; may I ask it?"
"Yes, but I don't grant it in advance."
"I want you to wear, for my sake, the buff gown which they say was your grandmother's."
"No, I won't wear it."
"But why, Alice?"
"None of the other girls have anything like such a dress; it would not be right for me to put it on and make them all feel that I had taken the advantage of them, just because I could; that's why."
"But then none of them is beautiful and educated like you," he said; "you'll outshine them anyway."
"Save your compliments for poor pretty little Adrienne," she firmly responded, "I positively do not wish to hear them. I have agreed to be your partenaire at this dance of Papa Roussillon's, but it is understood between us that Adrienne is your sweet-heart. I am not, and I'm not going to be, either. So for your sake and Adrienne's, as well as out of consideration for the rest of the girls who have no fine dresses, I am not going to wear the buff brocade gown that belonged to Papa Roussillon's mother long ago. I shall dress just as the rest do."
It is safe to say that Rene de Ronville went home with a troublesome bee in his bonnet. He was not a bad-hearted fellow. Many a right good young man, before him and since, has loved an Adrienne and been dazzled by an Alice. A violet is sweet, but a rose is the garden's queen. The poor youthful frontiersman ought to have been stronger; but he was not, and what have we to say?
As for Alice, since having a confidential talk with Adrienne Bourcier recently, she had come to realize what M. Roussillon meant when he said; "But my little girl is better than most of them, not a foolish mischief-maker, I hope." She saw through the situation with a quick understanding of what Adrienne might suffer should Rene prove permanently fickle. The thought of it aroused all her natural honesty and serious nobleness of character, which lay deep under the almost hoydenish levity usually observable in her manner. Crude as her sense of life's larger significance was, and meager as had been her experience in the things which count for most in the sum of a young girl's existence under fair circumstances, she grasped intuitively the gist of it all.
The dance did not come off; it had to be postponed indefinitely on account of a grave change in the political relations of the little post. A day or two before the time set for that function a rumor ran through the town that something of importance was about to happen. Father Gibault, at the head of a small party, had arrived from Kaskaskia, far away on the Mississippi, with the news that France and the American Colonies had made common cause against the English in the great war of which the people of Vincennes neither knew the cause nor cared a straw about the outcome.
It was Oncle Jazon who came to the Roussillon place to tell M. Roussillon that he was wanted at the river house. Alice met him at the door.
"Come in, Oncle Jazon," she cheerily said, "you are getting to be a stranger at our house lately. Come in; what news do you bring? Take off your cap and rest your hair, Oncle Jazon."
The scalpless old fighter chuckled raucously and bowed to the best of his ability. He not only took off his queer cap, but looked into it with a startled gaze, as if he expected something infinitely dangerous to jump out and seize his nose.
"A thousand thanks, Ma'm'selle," he presently said, "will ye please tell Mo'sieu' Roussillon that I would wish to see 'im?"
"Yes, Oncle Jazon; but first be seated, and let me offer you just a drop of eau de vie; some that Papa Roussillon brought back with him from Quebec. He says it's old and fine."
She poured him a full glass, then setting the bottle on a little stand, went to find M. Roussillon. While she was absent Oncle Jazon improved his opportunity to the fullest extent. At least three additional glasses of the brandy went the way of the first. He grinned atrociously and smacked his corrugated lips; but when Gaspard Roussillon came in, the old man was sitting at some distance from the bottle and glass gazing indifferently out across the veranda. He told his story curtly. Father Gibault, he said, had sent him to ask M. Roussillon to come to the river house, as he had news of great importance to communicate.
"Ah, well, Oncle Jazon, we'll have a nip of brandy together before we go," said the host.
"Why, yes, jes' one agin' the broilin' weather," assented Oncle Jazon; "I don't mind jes' one."
"A very rich friend of mine in Quebec gave me this brandy, Oncle Jazon," said M. Roussillon, pouring the liquor with a grand flourish; "and I thought of you as soon as I got it. Now, says I to myself, if any man knows good brandy when he tastes it, it's Oncle Jazon, and I'll give him a good chance at this bottle just the first of all my friends."
"It surely is delicious," said Oncle Jazon, "very delicious." He spoke French with a curious accent, having spent long years with English-speaking frontiersmen in the Carolinas and Kentucky, so that their lingo had become his own.
As they walked side by side down the way to the river house they looked like typical extremes of rough, sun-burned and weather-tanned manhood; Oncle Jazon a wizened, diminutive scrap, wrinkled and odd in every respect; Gaspard Roussillon towering six feet two, wide shouldered, massive, lumbering, muscular, a giant with long curling hair and a superb beard. They did not know that they were going down to help dedicate the great Northwest to freedom.
Great movements in the affairs of men are like tides of the seas which reach and affect the remotest and quietest nooks and inlets, imparting a thrill and a swell of the general motion. Father Gibault brought the wave of the American Revolution to Vincennes. He was a simple missionary; but he was, besides, a man of great worldly knowledge and personal force. Colonel George Rogers Clark made Father Gibault's acquaintance at Kaskaskia, when the fort and its garrison surrendered to his command, and, quickly discerning the fine qualities of the priest's character, sent him to the post on the Wabash to win over its people to the cause of freedom and independence. Nor was the task assumed a hard one, as Father Gibault probably well knew before he undertook it.
A few of the leading men of Vincennes, presided over by Gaspard Roussillon, held a consultation at the river house, and it was agreed that a mass meeting should be called bringing all of the inhabitants together in the church for the purpose of considering the course to be taken under the circumstances made known by Father Gibault. Oncle Jazon constituted himself an executive committee of one to stir up a noise for the occasion.
It was a great day for Vincennes. The volatile temperament of the French frontiersmen bubbled over with enthusiasm at the first hint of something new, and revolutionary in which they might be expected to take part. Without knowing in the least what it was that Father Gibault and Oncle Jazon wanted of them, they were all in favor of it at a venture.
Rene de Ronville, being an active and intelligent young man, was sent about through the town to let everybody know of the meeting. In passing he stepped into the cabin of Father Beret, who was sitting on the loose puncheon floor, with his back turned toward the entrance and so absorbed in trying to put together a great number of small paper fragments that he did not hear or look up.
"Are you not going to the meeting, Father?" Rene bluntly demanded. In the hurry that was on him he did not remember to be formally polite, as was his habit.
The old priest looked up with a startled face. At the same time he swept the fragments of paper together and clutched them hard in his right hand. "Yes, yes, my son—yes I am going, but the time has not yet come for it, has it?" he stammered. "Is it late?"
He sprang to his feet and appeared confused, as if caught in doing something very improper.
Rene wondered at this unusual behavior, but merely said:
"I beg pardon, Father Beret, I did not mean to disturb you," and went his way.
Father Beret stood for some minutes as if dazed, then squeezed the paper fragments into a tight ball, just as they were when he took them from under the floor some time before Rene came in, and put it in his pocket. A little later he was kneeling, as we have seen him once before, in silent yet fervent prayer, his clasped hands lifted toward the crucifix on the wall.
"Jesus, give me strength to hold on and do my work," he murmured beseechingly, "and oh, free thy poor servant from bitter temptation."
Father Gibault had come prepared to use his eloquence upon the excitable Creoles, and with considerable cunning he addressed a motley audience at the church, telling them that an American force had taken Kaskaskia and would henceforth hold it; that France had joined hands with the Americans against the British, and that it was the duty of all Frenchmen to help uphold the cause of freedom and independence.
"I come," said he, "directly from Colonel George Rogers Clark, a noble and brave officer of the American army, who told me the news that I have brought to you. He sent me here to say to you that if you will give allegiance to his government you shall be protected against all enemies and have the full freedom of citizens. I think you should do this without a moment's hesitation, as I and my people at Kaskaskia have already done. But perhaps you would like to have a word from your distinguished fellow-citizen, Monsieur Gaspard Roussillon. Speak to your friends, my son, they will be glad to take counsel of your wisdom."
There was a stir and a craning of necks. M. Roussillon presently appeared near the little chancel, his great form towering majestically. He bowed and waved his hand with the air of one who accepts distinction as a matter of course; then he took his big silver watch and looked at it. He was the only man in Vincennes who owned a watch, and so the incident was impressive. Father Gibault looked pleased, and already a murmur of applause went through the audience. M. Roussillon stroked the bulging crystal of the time-piece with a circular motion of his thumb and bowed again, clearing his throat resonantly, his face growing purplish above his beard.
"Good friends," he said, "what France does all high-class Frenchmen applaud." He paused for a shout of approbation, and was not disappointed. "The other name for France is glory," he added, "and all true Frenchmen love both names. I am a true Frenchman!" and he struck his breast a resounding blow with the hand that still held the watch. A huge horn button on his buckskin jerkin came in contact with the crystal, and there was a smash, followed by a scattered tinkling of glass fragments.
All Vincennes stood breathless, contemplating the irreparable accident. M. Roussillon had lost the effect of a great period in his speech, but he was quick. Lifting the watch to his ear, he listened a moment with superb dignity, then slowly elevating his head and spreading his free hand over his heart he said:
"The faithful time-piece still tells off the seconds, and the loyal heart of its owner still throbs with patriotism."
Oncle Jazon, who stood in front of the speaker, swung his shapeless cap as high as he could and yelled like a savage. Then the crowd went wild for a time.
"Vive la France! A bas l' Angleterre!" Everybody shouted at the top of his voice.
"What France does we all do," continued M. Roussillon, when the noise subsided. "France has clasped hands with George Washington and his brave compatriots; so do we."
"Vive Zhorzh Vasinton!" shrieked Oncle Jazon in a piercing treble, tiptoeing and shaking his cap recklessly under M. Roussillon's nose.
The orator winced and jerked his head back, but nobody saw it, save perhaps Father Gibault, who laughed heartily.
Great sayings come suddenly, unannounced and unexpected. They have the mysterious force of prophetic accident combined with happy economy of phrasing. The southern blood in M. Roussillon's veins was effervescing upon his brain; his tongue had caught the fine freedom and abandon of inspired oratory. He towered and glowed; words fell melodiously from his lips; his gestures were compelling, his visage magnetic. In conclusion he said:
"Frenchmen, America is the garden-spot of the world and will one day rule it, as did Rome of old. Where freedom makes her home, there is the centre of power!"
It was in a little log church on the verge of a hummock overlooking a marshy wild meadow. Westward for two thousand miles stretched the unbroken prairies, woods, mountains, deserts reaching to the Pacific; southward for a thousand miles rolled the green billows of the wilderness to the warm Gulf shore; northward to the pole and eastward to the thin fringe of settlements beyond the mountains, all was houseless solitude.
If the reader should go to Vincennes to-day and walk southward along Second Street to its intersection with Church Street, the spot then under foot would be probably very near where M. Roussillon stood while uttering his great sentence. Mind you, the present writer does not pretend to know the exact site of old Saint Xavier church. If it could be fixed beyond doubt the spot should have an imperishable monument of Indiana stone.
When M, Roussillon ceased speaking the audience again exhausted its vocal resources; and then Father Gibault called upon each man to come forward and solemnly pledge his loyalty to the American cause. Not one of them hesitated.
Meantime a woman was doing her part in the transformation of Post Vincennes from a French-English picket to a full-fledged American fort and town. Madame Godere, finding out what was about to happen, fell to work making a flag in imitation of that under which George Washington was fighting. Alice chanced to be in the Godere home at the time and joined enthusiastically in the sewing. It was an exciting task. Their fingers trembled while they worked, and the thread, heavily coated with beeswax, squeaked as they drew it through the cloth.
"We shall not be in time," said Madame Godere; "I know we shall not. Everything hinders me. My thread breaks or gets tangled and my needle's so rusty I can hardly stick it through the cloth. O dear!"
Alice encouraged her with both words and work, and they had almost finished when Rene came with a staff which he had brought from the fort.
"Mon dieu, but we have had a great meeting!" he cried. He was perspiring with excitement and fast walking; leaning on the staff he mopped his face with a blue handkerchief.
"We heard much shouting and noise," said Madame Godere, "M. Roussillon's voice rose loud above the rest. He roared like a lion."
"Ah, he was speaking to us; he was very eloquent," Rene replied. "But now they are waiting at the fort for the new flag. I have come for it."
"It is ready," said Madame Godere.
With flying fingers Alice sewed it to the staff.
"Voici!" she cried, "vive la republique Americaine!" She lifted the staff and let the flag droop over her from head to foot.
"Give it to me," said Rene, holding forth a hand for it, "and I'll run to the fort with it."
"No," said Alice, her face suddenly lighting up with resolve. "No, I am going to take it myself," and without a moment's delay off she went.
Rene was so caught by surprise that he stood gazing after her until she passed behind a house, where the way turned, the shining flag rippling around her, and her moccasins twinkling as she ran.
At the blockhouse, awaiting the moment when the symbol of freedom should rise like a star over old Vincennes the crowd had picturesquely broken into scattered groups. Alice entered through a rent in the stockade, as that happened to be a shorter route than through the gate, and appeared suddenly almost in their midst.
It was a happy surprise, a pretty and catching spectacular apparition of a sort to be thoroughly appreciated by the lively French fancy of the audience. The caught the girl's spirit, or it caught them, and they made haste to be noisy.
"V'la! V'la! l'p'tite Alice et la bannlere de Zhorzh Vasinton! (Look, look, little Alice and George Washington's flag!)" shouted Oncle Jazon. He put his wiry little legs through a sort of pas de zephyr and winked at himself with concentrated approval.
All the men danced around and yelled till they were hoarse.
By this time Rene had reached Alice's side; but she did not see him; she ran into the blockhouse and climbed up a rude ladder-way; then she appeared on the roof, still accompanied by Rene, and planted the staff in a crack of the slabs, where it stood bravely up, the colors floating free.
She looked down and saw M. Roussillon, Father Gibault and Father Beret grouped in the centre of the area. They were waving their hands aloft at her, while a bedlam of voices sent up applause which went through her blood like strong wine. She smiled radiantly, and a sweet flush glowed in her cheeks.
No one of all that wild crowd could ever forget the picture sketched so boldly at that moment when, after planting the staff, Alice stepped back a space and stood strong and beautiful against the soft blue sky. She glanced down first, then looked up, her arms folded across her bosom. It was a pose as unconsciously taken as that of a bird, and the grace of it went straight to the hearts of those below.
She turned about to descend, and for the first time saw that Rene had followed her. His face was beaming.
"What a girl you are!" he exclaimed, in a tone of exultant admiration. "Never was there another like you!"
Alice walked quickly past him without speaking; for down in the space where some women were huddled aside from the crowd, looking on, she had seen little Adrienne Bourcier. She made haste to descend. Now that her impulsively chosen enterprise was completed her boldness deserted her and she slipped out through a dilapidated postern opposite the crowd. On her right was the river, while southward before her lay a great flat plain, beyond which rose some hillocks covered with forest. The sun blazed between masses of slowly drifting clouds that trailed creeping fantastic shadows across the marshy waste.
Alice walked along under cover of the slight landswell which then, more plainly marked than it is now, formed the contour line of hummock upon which the fort and village stood. A watery swale grown full of tall aquatic weeds meandered parallel with the bluff, so to call it, and there was a soft melancholy whispering of wind among the long blades and stems. She passed the church and Father Beret's hut and continued for some distance in the direction of that pretty knoll upon which the cemetery is at present so tastefully kept. She felt shy now, as if to run away and hide would be a great relief. Indeed, so relaxed were her nerves that a slight movement in the grass and cat-tail flags near by startled her painfully, making her jump like a fawn.
"Little friend not be 'fraid," said a guttural voice in broken French. "Little friend not make noise."
At a glance she recognized Long-Hair, the Indian, rising out of the matted marsh growth. It was a hideous vision of embodied cunning, soullessness and murderous cruelty.
"Not tell white man you see me?" he grunted interrogatively, stepping close to her. He looked so wicked that she recoiled and lifted her hands defensively.
She trembled from head to foot, and her voice failed her; but she made a negative sign and smiled at him, turning as white as her tanned face could become.
In his left hand he held his bow, while in his right he half lifted a murderous looking tomahawk.
"What new flag mean?" he demanded, waving the bow's end toward the fort and bending his head down close to hers. "Who yonder?"
"The great American Father has taken us under his protection," she explained. "We are big-knives now." It almost choked her to speak.
"Ugh! heap damn fools," he said with a dark scowl. "Little friend much damn fool."
He straightened up his tall form and stood leering at her for some seconds, then added:
"Little friend get killed, scalped, maybe."
The indescribable nobility of animal largeness, symmetry and strength showed in his form and attitude, but the expression of his countenance was absolutely repulsive—cold, hard, beastly.
He did not speak again, but turned quickly, and stooping low, disappeared like a great brownish red serpent in the high grass, which scarcely stirred as he moved through it.
Somehow that day made itself strangely memorable to Alice. She had been accustomed to stirring scenes and sudden changes of conditions; but this was the first time that she had ever joined actively in a public movement of importance. Then, too, Long-Hair's picturesque and rudely dramatic reappearance affected her imagination with an indescribable force. Moreover, the pathetic situation in the love affair between Rene and Adrienne had taken hold of her conscience with a disturbing grip. But the shadowy sense of impending events, of which she could form no idea, was behind it all. She had not heard of Brandywine, or Bunker Hill, or Lexington, or Concord; but something like a waft of their significance had blown through her mind. A great change was coming into her idyllic life. She was indistinctly aware of it, as we sometimes are of an approaching storm, while yet the sky is sweetly blue and serene. When she reached home the house was full of people to whom M. Roussillon, in the gayest of moods, was dispensing wine and brandy.
"Vive Zhorzh Vasinton!" shouted Oncle Jazon as soon as he saw her.
And then they all talked at once, saying flattering things about her. Madame Roussillon tried to scold as usual; but the lively chattering of the guests drowned her voice.
"I suppose the American commander will send a garrison here," some one said to Father Gibault, "and repair the fort."
"Probably," the priest replied, "in a very few weeks. Meantime we will garrison it ourselves."
"And we will have M. Roussillon for commander," spoke up Rene de Ronville, who was standing by.
"A good suggestion," assented Father Gibault; "let us organize at once."
Immediately the word was passed that there would be a meeting at the fort that evening for the purpose of choosing a garrison and a commander. Everybody went promptly at the hour set. M. Roussillon was elected Captain by acclamation, with Rene de Ronville as his Lieutenant. It was observed that Oncle Jazon had resumed his dignity, and that he looked into his cap several times without speaking.
Meantime certain citizens, who had been in close relations with Governor Abbott during his stay, quietly slipped out of town, manned a batteau and went up the river, probably to Ouiatenon first and then to Detroit. Doubtless they suspected that things might soon grow too warm for their comfort.
It was thus that Vincennes and Fort Sackville first acknowledged the American Government and hoisted the flag which, as long as it floated over the blockhouse, was lightly and lovingly called by everyone la banniere d'Alice Roussillon.
Father Gibault returned to Fort Kaskaskia and a little later Captain Leonard Helm, a jovial man, but past the prime of life, arrived at Vincennes with a commission from Col. Clark authorizing him to supersede M. Roussillon as commander, and to act as Indian agent for the American Government in the Department of the Wabash. He was welcomed by the villagers, and at once made himself very pleasing to them by adapting himself to their ways and entering heartily into their social activities.
M. Roussillon was absent when Captain Helm and his party came. Rene de Ronville, nominally in command of the fort, but actually enjoying some excellent grouse shooting with a bell-mouthed old fowling piece on a distant prairie, could not be present to deliver up the post; and as there was no garrison just then visible, Helm took possession, without any formalities.
"I think, Lieutenant, that you'd better look around through the village and see if you can scare up this Captain what's-his-name," said the new commander to a stalwart young officer who had come with him. "I can't think of these French names without getting my brain in a twist. Do you happen to recollect the Captain's name, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir; Gaspard Roussillon it reads in Colonel Clark's order; but I am told that he's away on a trading tour," said the young man.
"You may be told anything by these hair-tongued parlyvoos," Helm remarked. "It won't hurt, anyway, to find out where he lives and make a formal call, just for appearance sake, and to enquire about his health. I wish you would try it, sir, and let me know the result."
The Lieutenant felt that this was a peremptory order and turned about to obey promptly.
"And I say, Beverley, come back sober, if you possibly can," Helm added in his most genial tone, thinking it a great piece of humor to suggest sobriety to a man whose marked difference from men generally, of that time, was his total abstinence from intoxicating drinks.
Lieutenant Fitzhugh Beverley was a Virginian of Virginians. His family had long been prominent in colonial affairs and boasted a record of great achievements both in peace and in war. He was the only son of his parents and heir to a fine estate consisting of lands and slaves; but, like many another of the restless young cavaliers of the Old Dominion, he had come in search of adventure over into Kentucky, along the path blazed by Daniel Boone; and when Clark organized his little army, the young man's patriotic and chivalrous nature leaped at the opportunity to serve his country under so gallant a commander.
Beverley was not a mere youth, although yet somewhat under thirty. Educated abroad and naturally of a thoughtful and studious turn, he had enriched his mind far beyond the usual limit among young Americans of the very best class in that time; and so he appeared older than he really was: an effect helped out by his large and powerful form and grave dignity of bearing. Clark, who found him useful in emergencies, cool, intrepid, daring to a fault and possessed of excellent judgement, sent him with Helm, hoping that he would offset with his orderly attention to details the somewhat go-as-you-please disposition of that excellent officer.
Beverley set out in search of the French commander's house, impressed with no particular respect for him or his office. Somehow Americans of Anglo-Saxon blood were slow to recognize any good qualities whatever in the Latin Creoles of the West and South. It seemed to them that the Frenchman and the Spaniard were much too apt to equalize themselves socially and matrimonially with Indians and negroes. The very fact that for a century, while Anglo-Americans had been in constant bloody warfare with savages, Frenchmen had managed to keep on easy and highly profitable trading terms with them, tended to confirm the worst implication. "Eat frogs and save your scalp," was a bit of contemptuous frontier humor indicative of what sober judgement held in reserve on the subject.
Intent upon his formal mission, Lieutenant Beverley stalked boldly into the inclosure at Roussillon place and was met on the gallery by Madame Roussillon in one of her worst moods. She glared at him with her hands on her hips, her mouth set irritably aslant upward, her eyebrows gathered into a dark knot over her nose. It would be hard to imagine a more forbidding countenance; and for supplementary effect out popped hunchback Jean to stand behind her, with his big head lying back in the hollow of his shoulders and his long chin elevated, while he gawped intently up into Beverley's face.
"Bon jour, Madame," said the Lieutenant, lifting his hat and speaking with a pleasant accent. "Would it be agreeable to Captain Roussillon for me to see him a moment?"
Despite Beverley's cleverness in using the French language, he had a decided brusqueness of manner and a curt turn of voice not in the least Gallic. True, the soft Virginian intonation marked every word, and his obeisance was as low as if Madame Roussillon had been a queen; but the light French grace was wholly lacking.
"What do you want of my husband?" Madame Roussillon demanded.
"Nothing unpleasant, I assure you, Madame," said Beverley.
"Well, he's not at home, Mo'sieu; he's up the river for a few days."
She relaxed her stare, untied her eyebrows, and even let fall her hands from her shelf-like hips.
"Thank you, Madame," said Beverley, bowing again, "I am sorry not to have seen him."
As he was turning to go a shimmer of brown hair streaked with gold struck upon his vision from just within the door. He paused, as if in response to a military command, while a pair of gray eyes met his with a flash. The cabin room was ill lighted; but the crepuscular dimness did not seem to hinder his sight. Beyond the girl's figure, a pair of slender swords hung crossed aslant on the wall opposite the low door.
Beverley had seen, in the old world galleries, pictures in which the shadowy and somewhat uncertain background thus forced into strongest projection the main figure, yet without clearly defining it. The rough frame of the doorway gave just the rustic setting suited to Alice's costume, the most striking part of which was a grayish short gown ending just above her fringed buckskin moccasins. Around her head she had bound a blue kerchief, a wide corner of which lay over her crown like a loose cap. Her bright hair hung free upon her shoulders in tumbled half curls. As a picture, the figure and its entourage might have been artistically effective; but as Beverley saw it in actual life the first impression was rather embarrassing. Somehow he felt almost irresistibly invited to laugh, though he had never been much given to risibility. The blending, or rather the juxtaposition, of extremes—a face, a form immediately witching, and a costume odd to grotesquery—had made an assault upon his comprehension at once so sudden and so direct that his dignity came near being disastrously broken up. A splendidly beautiful child comically clad would have made much the same half delightful, half displeasing impression.
Beverley could not stare at the girl, and no sooner had he turned his back upon her than the picture in his mind changed like a scene in a kaleidoscope. He now saw a tall, finely developed figure and a face delicately oval, with a low, wide forehead, arched brows, a straight, slightly tip-tilted nose, a mouth sweet and full, dimpled cheeks, and a strong chin set above a faultless throat. His imagination, in casting off its first impression, was inclined to exaggerate Alice's beauty and to dwell upon its picturesqueness. He smiled as he walked back to the fort, and even found himself whistling gayly a snatch from a rollicking fiddle-tune that he had heard when a boy.
A FENCING BOUT
A few days after Helm's arrival, M. Roussillon returned to Vincennes, and if he was sorely touched in his amour propre by seeing his suddenly acquired military rank and title drop away, he did not let it be known to his fellow citizens. He promptly called upon the new commander and made acquaintance with Lieutenant Fitzhugh Beverley, who just then was superintending the work of cleaning up an old cannon in the fort and mending some breaks in the stockade.
Helm formed a great liking for the big Frenchman, whose breezy freedom of manner and expansive good humor struck him favorably from the beginning. M. Roussillon's ability to speak English with considerable ease helped the friendship along, no doubt; at all events their first interview ended with a hearty show of good fellowship, and as time passed they became almost inseparable companions during M. Roussillon's periods of rest from his trading excursions among the Indians. They played cards and brewed hot drinks over which they told marvelous stories, the latest one invariably surpassing all its predecessors.
Helm had an eye to business, and turned M. Roussillon's knowledge of the Indians to valuable account, so that he soon had very pleasant relations with most of the tribes within reach of his agents. This gave a feeling of great security to the people of Vincennes. They pursued their narrow agricultural activities with excellent results and redoubled those social gayeties which, even in hut and cabin under all the adverse conditions of extreme frontier life, were dear to the volatile and genial French temperament.
Lieutenant Beverley found much to interest him in the quaint town; but the piece de resistance was Oncle Jazon, who proved to be both fascinating and unmanageable; a hard nut to crack, yet possessing a kernel absolutely original in flavor. Beverley visited him one evening in his hut—it might better be called den—a curiously built thing, with walls of vertical poles set in a quadrangular trench dug in the ground, and roofed with grass. Inside and out it was plastered with clay, and the floor of dried mud was as smooth and hard as concrete paving. In one end there was a wide fireplace grimy with soot, in the other a mere peep-hole for a window: a wooden bench, a bed of skins and two or three stools were barely visible in the gloom. In the doorway Oncle Jazon sat whittling a slender billet of hickory into a ramrod for his long flint-lock American rifle.
"Maybe ye know Simon Kenton," said the old man, after he and Beverley had conversed for a while, "seeing that you are from Kentucky—eh?"
"Yes, I do know him well; he's a warm personal friend of mine," said Beverley with quick interest, for it surprised him that Oncle Jazon should know anything about Kenton. "Do you know him, Monsieur Jazon?"
Oncle Jazon winked conceitedly and sighted along his rudimentary ramrod to see if it was straight; then puckering his lips, as if on the point of whistling, made an affirmative noise quite impossible to spell.
"Well, I'm glad you are acquainted with Kenton," said Beverley. "Where did you and he come together?"
Oncle Jazon chuckled reminiscently and scratched the skinless, cicatrized spot where his scalp had once flourished.
"Oh, several places," he answered. "Ye see thet hair a hangin' there on the wall?" He pointed at a dry wisp dangling under a peg in a log barely visible by the bad light. "Well, thet's my scalp, he! he! he!" He snickered as if the fact were a most enjoyable joke. "Simon Kenton can tell ye about thet little affair! The Indians thought I was dead, and they took my hair; but I wasn't dead; I was just a givin' 'em a 'possum act. When they was gone I got up from where I was a layin' and trotted off. My head was sore and ventrebleu! but I was mad, he! he! he!"
All this time he spoke in French, and the English but poorly paraphrases his odd turns of expression. His grimaces and grunts cannot even be hinted.
It was a long story, as Beverley received it, told scrappily, but with certain rude art. In the end Oncle Jazon said with unctuous self-satisfaction:
"Accidents will happen. I got my chance at that damned Indian who skinned my head, and I jes took a bead on 'im with my old rifle. I can't shoot much, never could, but I happened to hit 'im square in the lef' eye, what I shot at, and it was a hundred yards. Down he tumbles, and I runs to 'im and finds my same old scalp a hangin' to his belt. Well, I lifted off his hair with my knife, and untied mine from the belt, and then I had both scalps, he! he! he! You ask Simon Kenton when ye see 'im. He was along at the same time, and they made 'im run the ga'ntlet and pretty nigh beat the life out o' 'im. Ventrebleu!"
Beverley now recollected hearing Kenton tell the same grim story by a camp-fire in the hills of Kentucky. Somehow it had caught a new spirit in the French rendering, which linked it with the old tales of adventure that he had read in his boyhood, and it suddenly endeared Oncle Jazon to him. The rough old scrap of a man and the powerful youth chatted together until sundown, smoking their pipes, each feeling for what was best in the other, half aware that in the future they would be tested together in the fire of wild adventure. Every man is more or less a prophet at certain points in his life.
Twilight and moonlight were blending softly when Beverley, on his way back to the fort, departing from a direct course, went along the river's side southward to have a few moments of reflective strolling within reach of the water's pleasant murmur and the town's indefinite evening stir. Rich sweetness, the gift of early autumn, was on the air blowing softly out of a lilac west and singing in the willow fringe that hung here and there over the bank.
On the farther side of the river's wide flow, swollen by recent heavy rains, Beverley saw a pirogue, in one end of which a dark figure swayed to the strokes of a paddle. The slender and shallow little craft was bobbing on the choppy waves and taking a zig-zag course among floating logs and masses of lighter driftwood, while making slow but certain headway toward the hither bank.
Beverley took a bit of punk and a flint and steel from his pocket, relit his pipe and stood watching the skilful boatman conduct his somewhat dangerous voyage diagonally against the rolling current. It was a shifting, hide-and-seek scene, its features appearing and disappearing with the action of the waves and the doubtful light reflected from fading clouds and sky. Now and again the man stood up in his skittish pirogue, balancing himself with care, to use a short pole in shoving driftwood out of his way; and more than once he looked to Beverley as if he had plunged head-long into the dark water.
The spot, as nearly as it can be fixed, was about two hundred yards below where the public road-bridge at present spans the Wabash. The bluff was then far different from what it is now, steeper and higher, with less silt and sand between it and the water's edge. Indeed, swollen as the current was, a man could stand on the top of the bank and easily leap into the deep water. At a point near the middle of the river a great mass of drift-logs and sand had long ago formed a barrier which split the stream so that one current came heavily shoreward on the side next the town and swashed with its muddy foam, making a swirl and eddy just below where Beverley stood.
The pirogue rounded the upper angle of this obstruction, not without difficulty to its crew of one, and swung into the rapid shoreward rush, as was evidently planned for by the steersman, who now paddled against the tide with all his might to keep from being borne too far down stream for a safe landing place.
Beverley stood at ease idly and half dreamily looking on, when suddenly something caused a catastrophe, which for a moment he did not comprehend. In fact the man in the pirogue came to grief, as a man in a pirogue is very apt to do, and fairly somersaulted overboard into the water. Nothing serious would have threatened (for the man could swim like an otter) had not a floating, half submerged log thrust up some short, stiff stumps of boughs, upon the points of which the man struck heavily and was not only hurt, but had his clothes impaled securely by one of the ugly spears, so that he hung in a helpless position, while the water's motion alternately lifted and submerged him, his arms beating about wildly.
When Beverley heard a strangling cry for help, he pulled himself promptly together, flung off his coat, as if by a single motion, and leaped down the bank into the water. He was a swimmer whose strokes counted for all that prodigious strength and excellent training could afford; he rushed through the water with long sweeps, making a semicircle, rounding against the current, so as to swing down upon the drowning man.
Less than a half-hour later a rumor by some means spread throughout the town that Father Beret and Lieutenant Beverley were drowned in the Wabash. But when a crowd gathered to verify the terrible news it turned out to be untrue. Gaspard Roussillon had once more distinguished himself by an exhibition of heroic nerve and muscle.
"Ventrebleu! Quel homme!" exclaimed Oncle Jazon, when told that M. Roussillon had come up the bank of the Wabash with Lieutenant Beverley under one arm and Father Beret under the other, both men apparently dead.
"Bring them to my house immediately," M. Roussillon ordered, as soon as they were restored to consciousness; and he shook himself, as a big wet animal sometimes does, covering everybody near him with muddy water. Then he led the way with melodramatic strides.
In justice to historical accuracy there must be a trifling reform of what appeared on the face of things to be grandly true. Gaspard Roussillon actually dragged Father Beret and Lieutenant Beverley one at a time out of the eddy water and up the steep river bank. That was truly a great feat; but the hero never explained. When men arrived he was standing between the collapsed forms, panting and dripping. Doubtless he looked just as if he had dropped them from under his arms, and why shouldn't he have the benefit of a great implication?
"I've saved them both," he roared; from which, of course, the ready creole imagination inferred the extreme of possible heroic performance.
"Bring them to my house immediately," and it was accordingly done.
The procession, headed by M. Roussillon, moved noisily, for the French tongue must shake off what comes to it on the thrill of every exciting moment. The only silent Frenchman is the dead one.
Father Beret was not only well-nigh drowned, but seriously hurt. He lay for a week on a bed in M. Roussillon's house before he could sit up. Alice hung over him night and day, scarcely sleeping or eating until he was past all danger. As for Beverley, he shook off all the effects of his struggle in a little while. Next day he was out, as well and strong as ever, busy with the affairs of his office. Nor was he less happy on account of what the little adventure had cast into his experience. It is good to feel that one has done an unselfish deed, and no young man's heart repels the freshness of what comes to him when a beautiful girl first enters his life.
Naturally enough Alice had some thoughts of Beverley while she was so attentively caring for Father Beret. She had never before seen a man like him, nor had she read of one. Compared with Rene de Ronville, the best youth of her acquaintance, he was in every way superior; this was too evident for analysis; but referred to the romantic standard taken out of the novels she had read, he somehow failed; and yet he loomed bravely in her vision, not exactly a knight of the class she had most admired, still unquestionably a hero of large proportions.
Beverley stepped in for a few minutes every day to see Father Beret, involuntarily lengthening his visit by a sliding ratio as he became better acquainted. He began to enjoy the priest's conversation, with its sly worldly wisdom cropping up through fervid religious sentiments and quaint humor. Alice must have interested him more than he was fully aware of; for his eyes followed her, as she came and went, with a curious criticism of her half-savage costume and her springy, Dryad-like suppleness, which reminded him of the shyest and gracefulest wild birds; and yet a touch of refinement, the subtlest and best, showed in all her ways. He studied her, as he would have studied a strange, showy and originally fragrant flower, or a bird of oddly attractive plumage. While she said little to him or to anyone else in his presence, he became aware of the willfulness and joyous lightness which played on her nature's changeable surface. He wondered at her influence over Father Beret, whom she controlled apparently without effort. But in due time he began to feel a deeper character, a broader intelligence, behind her superficial sauvagerie; and he found that she really had no mean smattering of books in the lighter vein.
A little thing happened which further opened his eyes and increased the interest that her beauty and elementary charm of style aroused in him gradually, apace with their advancing acquaintanceship.
Father Beret had got well and returned to his hut and his round of spiritual duties; but Beverley came to Roussillon place every day all the same. For a wonder Madame Roussillon liked him, and at most times held the scolding side of her tongue when he was present. Jean, too, made friendly advances whenever opportunity afforded. Of course Alice gave him just the frank cordiality of hospitable welcome demanded by frontier conditions. She scarcely knew whether she liked him or not; but he had a treasury of information from which he was enriching her with liberal carelessness day by day. The hungriest part of her mind was being sumptuously banqueted at his expense. Mere intellectual greediness drew her to him.
Naturally they soon threw off such troubling formalities as at first rose between them, and began to disclose to each other their true characteristics. Alice found in Beverley a large target for the missiles of her clever and tantalizing perversity. He in turn practiced a native dignity and an acquired superiority of manner to excellent effect. It was a meeting of Greek with Greek in a new Arcadia. To him here was Diana, strong, strange, simple, even crude almost to naturalness, yet admirably pure in spirit and imbued with highest womanly aspirations. To her Beverley represented the great outside area of life. He came to her from wonderland, beyond the wide circle of houseless woods and prairies. He represented gorgeous cities, teeming parks of fashion, boulevards, salons, halls of social splendor, the theater, the world of woman's dreams.
Now, there is an antagonism, vague yet powerful, generated between natures thus cast together from the opposite poles of experience and education: an antagonism practically equivalent to the most vigorous attraction. What one knows the other is but half aware of; neither knowledge nor ignorance being mutual, there is a scintillation of exchange, from opposing vantage grounds, followed by harmless snaps of thunder. Culture and refinement take on airs—it is the deepest artificial instinct of enlightenment to pose—in the presence of naturalness; and there is a certain style of ignorance which attitudinizes before the gate of knowledge. The return to nature has always been the dream of the conventionalized soul, while the simple Arcadian is forever longing for the maddening honey of sophistication.
Innate jealousies strike together like flint and steel dashing off sparks by which nearly everything that life can warm its core withal is kindled and kept burning. What I envy in my friend I store for my best use. I thrust and parry, not to kill, but to learn my adversary's superior feints and guards. And this hint of sword play leads back to what so greatly surprised and puzzled Beverley one day when he chanced to be examining the pair of colechemardes on the wall.
He took one down, and handling it with the indescribable facility possible to none save a practical swordsman, remarked:
"There's a world of fascination in these things; I like nothing better than a bout at fencing. Does your father practice the art?"
"I have no father, no mother," she quickly said; "but good Papa Roussillon does like a little exercise with the colechemarde."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it, I shall ask to teach him a trick or two," Beverley responded in the lightest mood. "When will he return from the woods?"
"I can't tell you; he's very irregular in such matters," she said. Then, with a smile half banter and half challenge, she added; "if you are really dying for some exercise, you shall not have to wait for him to come home, I assure you, Monsieur Beverley."
"Oh, it's Monsieur de Ronville, perhaps, that you will offer up as a victim to my skill and address," he slyly returned; for he was suspecting that a love affair in some stage of progress lay between her and Rene.
She blushed violently, but quickly overcoming a combined rush of surprise and anger, added with an emphasis as charming as it was unexpected.
"I myself am, perhaps, swordsman enough to satisfy the impudence and vanity of Monsieur Beverley, Lieutenant in the American army."
"Pardon me, Mademoiselle; forgive me, I beg of you," he exclaimed, earnestly modulating his voice to sincerest beseechment; "I really did not mean to be impudent, nor—"
Her vivacity cleared with a merry laugh.
"No apologies, I command you," she interposed. "We will have them after I have taught you a fencing lesson."
From a shelf she drew down a pair of foils and presenting the hilts, bade him take his choice.
"There isn't any difference between them that I know of," she said, and then added archly; "but you will feel better at last, when all is over and the sting of defeat tingles through you, if you are conscious of having used every sensible precaution."
He looked straight into her eyes, trying to catch what was in her mind, but there was a bewildering glamour playing across those gray, opal-tinted wells of mystery, from which he could draw only a mischievous smile-glint, direct, daring, irresistible.
"Well," he said, taking one of the foils, "what do you really mean? Is it a challenge without room for honorable retreat?"
"The time for parley is past," she replied, "follow me to the battle-ground."
She led the way to a pleasant little court in the rear of the cabin's yard, a space between two wings and a vine-covered trellis, beyond which lay a well kept vineyard and vegetable garden. Here she turned about and faced him, poising her foil with a fine grace.
"Are you ready?" she inquired.
He tried again to force a way into the depths of her eyes with his; but he might as well have attacked the sun; so he stood in a confusion of not very well defined feelings, undecided, hesitating, half expecting that there would be some laughable turn to end the affair.
"Are you afraid, Monsieur Beverley?" she demanded after a short waiting in silence.
He laughed now and whipped the air with his foil.
"You certainly are not in earnest?" he said interrogatively. "Do you really mean that you want to fence with me?"
"If you think because I'm only a girl you can easily beat me, try it," she tauntingly replied making a level thrust toward his breast.
Quick as a flash he parried, and then a merry clinking and twinkling of steel blades kept time to their swift movements. Instantly, by the sure sense which is half sight, half feeling—the sense that guides the expert fencer's hand and wrist—Beverley knew that he had probably more than his match, and in ten seconds his attack was met by a time thrust in opposition which touched him sharply.
Alice sprang far back, lowered her point and laughed.
"Je vous salue, Monsieur Beverley!" she cried, with childlike show of delight. "Did you feel the button?"
"Yes, I felt it," he said with frank acknowledgment in his voice, "it was cleverly done. Now give me a chance to redeem myself."
He began more carefully and found that she, too, was on her best mettle; but it was a short bout, as before. Alice seemed to give him an easy opening and he accepted it with a thrust; then something happened that he did not understand. The point of his foil was somehow caught under his opponent's hilt-guard while her blade seemed to twist around his; at the same time there was a wring and a jerk, the like of which he had never before felt, and he was disarmed, his wrist and fingers aching with the wrench they had received.
Of course the thing was not new; he had been disarmed before; but her trick of doing it was quite a mystery to him, altogether different from any that he had ever seen.
"Vous me pardonnerez, Monsieur," she mockingly exclaimed, picking up his weapon and offering the hilt to him. "Here is your sword!"
"Keep it," he said, folding his arms and trying to look unconcerned, "you have captured it fairly. I am at your mercy; be kind to me."
Madame Roussillon and Jean, the hunchback, hearing the racket of the foils had come out to see and were standing agape.
"You ought to be ashamed, Alice," said the dame in scolding approval of what she had done; "girls do not fence with gentlemen."
"This girl does," said Alice.
"And with extreme disaster to this gentleman," said Beverley, laughing in a tone of discomfiture and resignation.
"Ah, Mo'sieu', there's nothing but disaster where she goes," complained Madame Roussillon, "she is a destroyer of everything. Only yesterday she dropped my pink bowl and broke it, the only one I had."
"And just to think," said Beverley, "what would have been the condition of my heart had we been using rapiers instead of leather-buttoned foils! She would have spitted it through the very center."
"Like enough," replied the dame indifferently. "She wouldn't wince, either,—not she."
Alice ran into the house with the foils and Beverley followed.
"We must try it over again some day soon," he said; "I find that you can show me a few points. Where did you learn to fence so admirably? Is Monsieur Roussillon your master?"
"Indeed he isn't," she quickly replied, "he is but a bungling swordsman. My master—but I am not at liberty to tell you who has taught me the little I know."
"Well, whoever he is I should be glad to have lessons from him."
"But you'll never get them."
"A woman's ultimatum."
"As good as a man's!" she bridled prettily; "and sometimes better—at the foils for example. Vous—comprenez, n'est ce pas?"
He laughed heartily.
"Yes, your point reaches me," he said, "but sperat et in saeva victus gladiatur arena, as the old Latin poet wisely remarks." The quotation was meant to tease her.
"Yes, Montaigne translated that or something in his book," she commented with prompt erudition. "I understand it."
Beverley looked amazed.
"What do you know about Montaigne?" he demanded with a blunt brevity amounting to something like gruffness.
"Sh', Monsieur, not too loud," she softly protested, looking around to see that neither Madame Roussillon nor Jean had followed them into the main room. "It is not permitted that I read that old book; but they do not hide it from me, because they think I can't make out its dreadful spelling."
She smiled so that her cheeks drew their dimples deep into the delicately tinted pink-and-brown, where wind and sun and wholesome exercise had set the seal of absolute health, and took from a niche in the logs of the wall a stained and dog-eared volume. He looked, and it was, indeed, the old saint and sinner, Montaigne.
Involuntarily he ran his eyes over the girl from head to foot, comparing her show of knowledge with the outward badges of abject rusticity, and even wildness, with which she was covered.
"Well," he said, "you are a mystery."
"You think it surprising that I can read a book! Frankly I can't understand half of this one. I read it because—well just because they want me to read about nothing but sickly old saints and woe-begone penitents. I like something lively. What do I care for all that uninteresting religious stuff?"
"Montaigne IS decidedly lively in spots," Beverley remarked. "I shouldn't think a girl—I shouldn't think you'd particularly enjoy his humors."
"I don't care for the book at all," she said, flushing quickly, "only I seem to learn about the world from it. Sometimes it seems as if it lifted me up high above all this wild, lonely and tiresome country, so that I can see far off where things are different and beautiful. It is the same with the novels; and they don't permit me to read them either; but all the same I do."
When Beverley, taking his leave, passed through the gate at Roussillon place, he met Rene de Ronville going in. It was a notable coincidence that each young man felt something troublesome rise in his throat as he looked into the other's eyes.
A week of dreamy autumn weather came on, during which Beverley managed to be with Alice a great deal, mostly sitting on the Roussillon gallery, where the fading vine leaves made fairy whispering, and where the tempered breeze blew deliciously cool from over the distant multi-colored woods. The men of Vincennes were gathering their Indian corn early to dry it on the cob for grating into winter meal. Many women made wine from the native grapes and from the sweeter and richer fruit of imported vines. Madame Roussillon and Alice stained their hands a deep purple during the pressing season, and Beverley found himself engaged in helping them handle the juicy crop, while around the overflowing earthen pots the wild bees, wasps and hornets hummed with an incessant, jarring monotony.
Jean, the hunchback, gathered ample stores of hickory nuts, walnuts, hazel-nuts and pin-oak acorns. Indeed, the whole population of the village made a great spurt of industry just before the falling of winter; and presently, when every preparation had been completed for the dreaded cold season, M. Roussillon carried out his long-cherished plan, and gave a great party at the river house. After the most successful trading experience of all his life he felt irrepressibly liberal.
"Let's have one more roaring good time," he said, "that's what life is for."
THE MAYOR'S PARTY
Beverley was so surprised and confused in his mind by the ease with which he had been mastered at swordplay by a mere girl, that he felt as if just coming out of a dream. In fact the whole affair seemed unreal, yet so vivid and impressive in all its main features, that he could not emerge from it and look it calmly over from without. His experience with women had not prepared him for a ready understanding and acceptance of a girl like Alice. While he was fully aware of her beauty, freshness, vivacity and grace, this Amazonian strength of hers, this boldness of spirit, this curious mixture of frontier crudeness and a certain adumbration—so to call it—of patrician sensibilities and aspirations, affected him both pleasantly and unpleasantly. He did not sympathize promptly with her semi-barbaric costume; she seemed not gently feminine, as compared with the girls of Virginia and Maryland. He resented her muscular development and her independent disposition. She was far from coarseness, however, and, indeed, a trace of subtle refinement, although not conventional, imbued her whole character.
But why was he thinking so critically about her? Had his selfishness received an incurable shock from the button of her foil? A healthy young man of the right sort is apt to be jealous of his physical prowess—touch him there and he will turn the world over to right himself in, his own admiration and yours. But to be beaten on his highest ground of virility by a dimple-faced maiden just leaving her teens could not offer Beverley any open way to recoupment of damages.
He tried to shake her out of his mind, as a bit of pretty and troublesome rubbish, what time he pursued his not very exacting military duties. But the more he shook the tighter she clung, and the oftener he went to see her.
Helm was a good officer in many respects, and his patriotism was of the best; but he liked jolly company, a glass of something strong and a large share of ease. Detroit lay many miles northeastward across the wilderness, and the English, he thought, would scarcely come so far to attack his little post, especially now that most of the Indians in the intervening country had declared in favor of the Americans. Recently, too, the weather had been favoring him by changing from wet to dry, so that the upper Wabash and its tributaries were falling low and would soon be very difficult to navigate with large batteaux.
Very little was done to repair the stockade and dilapidated remnant of a blockhouse. There were no sufficient barracks, a mere shed in one angle serving for quarters, and the old cannon could not have been used to any effect in case of attack. As for the garrison, it was a nominal quantity, made up mostly of men who preferred hunting and fishing to the merest pretense of military duty.
Gaspard Roussillon assumed to know everything about Indian affairs and the condition of the English at Detroit. His optimistic eloquence lulled Helm to a very pleasant sense of security. Beverley was not so easy to satisfy; but his suggestions regarding military discipline and a vigorous prosecution of repairs to the blockhouse and stockade were treated with dilatory geniality by his superior officer. The soft wonder of a perfect Indian summer glorified land, river and sky. Why not dream and bask? Why not drink exhilarating toddies?
Meantime the entertainment to be given by Gaspard Roussillon occupied everybody's imagination to an unusual extent. Rene de Ronville, remembering but not heeding the doubtful success of his former attempt, went long beforehand to claim Alice as his partenaire; but she flatly refused him, once more reminding him of his obligations to little Adrienne Bourcier. He would not be convinced.
"You are bound to me," he said, "you promised before, you know, and the party was but put off. I hold you to it; you are my partenaire, and I am yours, you can't deny that."
"No you are not my partenaire," she firmly said; then added lightly, "Feu mon partenaire, you are dead and buried as my partner at that dance."
He glowered in silence for a few moments, then said:
"It is Lieutenant Beverley, I suppose."
She gave him a quick contemptuous look, but turned it instantly into one of her tantalising smiles.
"Do you imagine that?" she demanded.
"Imagine it! I know it," he said with a hot flush. "Have I no sense?"
"Precious little," she replied with a merry laugh.
"You think so."
"Go to Father Beret, tell him everything, and then ask him what he thinks," she said in a calm, even tone, her face growing serious.
There was an awkward silence.
She had touched Rene's vulnerable spot; he was nothing if not a devout Catholic, and his conscience rooted itself in what good Father Beret had taught him.
The church, no matter by what name it goes, Catholic or Protestant, has a saving hold on the deepest inner being of its adherents. No grip is so hard to shake off as that of early religious convictions. The still, small voice coming down from the times "When shepherds watched their flocks by night," in old Judea, passes through the priest, the minister, the preacher; it echoes in cathedral, church, open-air meeting; it gently and mysteriously imparts to human life the distinctive quality which is the exponent of Christian civilization. Upon the receptive nature of children it makes an impress that forever afterward exhales a fragrance and irradiates a glory for the saving of the nations.
Father Beret was the humble, self-effacing, never-tiring agent of good in his community. He preached in a tender sing-song voice the sweet monotonies of his creed and the sublime truths of Christ's code. He was indeed the spiritual father of his people. No wonder Rene's scowling expression changed to one of abject self-concern when the priest's name was suddenly connected with his mood. The confessional loomed up before the eyes of his conscience, and his knees smote together, spiritually if not physically.
"Now," said Alice, brusquely, but with sweet and gentle firmness, "go to your fiancee, go to pretty and good Adrienne, and ask her to be your partenaire. Refresh your conscience with a noble draught of duty and make that dear little girl overflow with joy. Go, Rene de Ronville."
In making over what she said into English, the translation turns out to be but a sonorous paraphrase. Her French was of that mixed creole sort, a blending of linguistic elegance and patois, impossible to imitate. Like herself it was beautiful, crude, fascinating, and something in it impressed itself as unimpeachable, despite the broken and incongruous diction. Rene felt his soul cowering, even slinking; but he fairly maintained a good face, and went away without saying another word.
"Ciel, ciel, how beautiful she is!" he thought, as he walked along the narrow street in the dreamy sunshine. "But she is not for me, not for me."
He shook himself and tried to be cheerful. In fact he hummed a Creole ditty, something about
"La belle Jeanette, qu' a brise mon coeur."
Days passed, and at last the time of the great event arrived. It was a frosty night, clear, sparkling with stars, a keen breath cutting down from the northwest. M. Roussillon, Madame Roussillon, Alice and Lieutenant Beverley went together to the river house, whither they had been preceded by almost the entire population of Vincennes. Some fires had been built outside; the crowd proving too great for the building's capacity, as there had to be ample space for the dancers. Merry groups hovered around the flaming logs, while within the house a fiddle sang its simple and ravishing tunes. Everybody talked and laughed; it was a lively racket of clashing voices and rhythmical feet.
You would have been surprised to find that Oncle Jazon was the fiddler; but there he sat, perched on a high stool in one corner of the large room, sawing away as if for dear life, his head wagging, his elbow leaping back and forth, while his scalpless crown shone like the side of a peeled onion and his puckered mouth wagged grotesquely from side to side keeping time to his tuneful scraping.
When the Roussillon party arrived it attracted condensed attention. Its importance, naturally of the greatest in the assembled popular mind, was enhanced—as mathematicians would say, to the nth power—by the gown of Alice. It was resplendent indeed in the simple, unaccustomed eyes upon which it flashed with a buff silken glory. Matrons stared at it; maidens gazed with fascinated and jealous vision; men young and old let their eyes take full liberty. It was as if a queen, arrayed in a robe of state, had entered that dingy log edifice, an apparition of dazzling and awe-inspiring beauty. Oncle Jazon caught sight of her, and snapped his tune short off. The dancers swung together and stopped in confusion. But she, fortified by a woman's strongest bulwark, the sense of resplendency, appeared quite unconscious of herself.
Little Adrienne, hanging in blissful delight upon Rene's strong arm, felt the stir of excitement and wondered what was the matter, being too short to see over the heads of those around her.
"What is it? what is it?" she cried, tiptoeing and tugging at her companion's sleeve. "Tell me, Rene, tell me, I say."
Rene was gazing in dumb admiration into which there swept a powerful anger, like a breath of flame. He recollected how Alice had refused to wear that dress when he had asked her, and now she had it on. Moreover, there she stood beside Lieutenant Beverley, holding his arm, looking up into his face, smiling, speaking to him.
"I think you might tell me what has happened," said Adrienne, pouting and still plucking at his arm. "I can't see a thing, and you won't tell me."
"Oh, it's nothing," he presently answered, rather fretfully. Then he stooped, lowered his voice and added; "it's Mademoiselle Roussillon all dressed up like a bride or something. She's got on a buff silk dress that Mo'sieu' Roussillon's mother had in France."
"How beautiful she must look!" cried the girl. "I wish I could see her."
Rene put a hand on each side of her slender waist and lifted her high, so that her pretty head rose above the crowding people. Alice chanced to turn her face that way just then and saw the unconventional performance. Her eyes met those of Adrienne and she gave a nod of smiling recognition. It was a rose beaming upon a gilliflower.
M. Roussillon naturally understood that all this stir and crowding to see was but another demonstration of his personal popularity. He bowed and waved a vast hand.
But the master of ceremonies called loudly for the dancers to take their places. Oncle Jazon attacked his fiddle again with startling energy. Those who were not to dance formed a compact double line around the wall, the shorter ones in front, the taller in the rear. And what a scene it was! but no person present regarded it as in any way strange or especially picturesque, save as to the gown of Alice, which was now floating and whirling in time to Oncle Jazon's mad music. The people outside the house cheerfully awaited their turn to go in while an equal number went forth to chat and sing around the fires.
Beverley was in a young man's seventh heaven. The angels formed a choir circling around his heart, and their song brimmed his universe from horizon to horizon.
When he called at Roussillon place, and Alice appeared so beautifully and becomingly robed, it was another memorable surprise. She flashed a new and subtly stimulating light upon him. The old gown, rich in subdued splendor of lace and brocade, was ornamented at the throat with a heavy band of pearls, just above which could be seen a trace of the gold chain that supported her portrait locket. There, too, with a not unbecoming gleam of barbaric colors, shone the string of porcupine beads to which the Indian charmstone hidden in her bosom was attached. It all harmonized with the time, the place, the atmosphere. Anywhere else it would have been preposterous as a decorative presentment, but here, in this little nook where the coureurs de bois, the half-breeds, the traders and the missionaries had founded a centre of assembly, it was the best possible expression in the life so formed at hap-hazard, and so controlled by the coarsest and narrowest influences. To Fitzhugh Beverley, of Beverley Hall, the picture conveyed immediately a sweet and pervading influence.
Alice looked superbly tall, stately and self-possessed in her transforming costume, a woman of full stature, her countenance gravely demure yet reserving near the surface the playful dimples and mischievous smiles so characteristic of her more usual manner. A sudden mood of the varium et mutabile semper femina had led her to wear the dress, and the mood still illuminated her.
Beverley stood before her frankly looking and admiring. The underglow in her cheeks deepened and spread over her perfect throat; her eyes met his a second, then shyly avoided him. He hardly could have been sure which was master, her serenity or her girlish delight in being attractively dressed; but there could be no doubt as to her self-possession; for, saving the pretty blush under his almost rude gaze of admiration, she bore herself as firmly as any fine lady he remembered.
They walked together to the river house, she daintily holding up her skirts, under the insistent verbal direction of Madame Roussillon, and at the same time keeping a light, strangely satisfying touch on his arm. When they entered the room there was no way for Beverley to escape full consciousness of the excitement they aroused; but M. Roussillon's assumption broke the force of what would have otherwise been extremely embarrassing.
"It is encouraging, very encouraging," murmured the big man to Beverley in the midst of the staring and scrambling and craning of necks, "to have my people admire and love me so; it goes to the middle of my heart." And again he bowed and waved his hand with an all-including gesture, while he swept his eyes over the crowd.