A Little Girl in Old Quebec
158 Pages

A Little Girl in Old Quebec


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Project Gutenberg's A Little Girl in Old Quebec, by Amanda Millie Douglas
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Title: A Little Girl in Old Quebec
Author: Amanda Millie Douglas
Release Date: December 9, 2007 [EBook #23779]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Marilynda Fraser-Cunliffe, J.P.W. Fraser, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Copyright, 1906 BYDODD, MEAD& COMPANY
Ralph Destournier went gayly along, whistling a merry French song that was nearly all chorus, climbing, slipping, springing, wondering in his heart as many a man did then what had induced Samuel de Champlain to dream out a city on this craggy, rocky spot. Yet its wildness had an impressive grandeur. Above the island of Orleans the channel narrowed, and there w ere the lovely green heights of what was to be Point Levis, more attractive, he thought, than these frowning cliffs. The angle between the St. Charles and St. Lawrence gave an impregnable site for a fortress, and Champlain was a born soldier with a quick eye to seize on the possibility of defence.
On the space between the cliffs and the water a few wooden buildings, rough hewn, marked the site of the lower town. A wall had been erected, finished with a gallery, loopholed for musketry, and within this were the beginnings of a town that was to be famous for heroic deeds, for men of high courage, for quaintness that perpetuates old stories which are perfect romances yet to-day after the lapse of three centuries.
There was a storehouse quite well fortified, there was a courtyard with some fine walnut trees, and a few gardens stretching out with pleasant greenery, while doves were flying about in wide circles, a re minder of home. Ralph Destournier had a spirit of adventure and Champlain was a great hero to him. Coming partly of Huguenot stock he had fewer chance s at home, and he believed there was more liberty in the new world, a better outlook for a restless, eager mind.
He went on climbing over the sun-baked cliffs, whil e here and there in a
depression where rain could linger there were patches of verdure, trees that somehow maintained a footing. How unlike the level old seaport town where he had passed a good part of his youth, considered his grandfather's heir, when in the turn of fortune's wheel the sturdy old Huguenot had been killed in battle and his estates confiscated.
Something stirred up above him, not any small animal either. It crackled the bushes and moved about with a certain agility. Could it be a deer? He raised his gun.
Then a burst of song held him in amaze. It was not a bird, though it seemed to mock several of them. There were no especial words or rhymes, but the music thrilled him. He strode upward. Out of a leafy bower peered a face, child or woman, he could not tell at first, a crown of light, loose curling hair and two dark, soft merry eyes, a cherry-red mouth and dimpled chin.
"Hello! How did you get up there?" he asked in his astonishment. Indians sometimes lurked about.
"I climbed. You did not suppose I flew?"
The tone was merry rather than saucy, and taking a few steps nearer, he saw she was quite a child. But she wore no cap and she shook the wind-blown hair aside with a dainty gesture. There was a fearlessness about her that charmed him.
"And you live—here?"
"Not here in the woods—no. But down in the town. Down there by the garden, M'sieu Hébert and the General. And Maman has one. But I hate working in it. So I ran away. Do you know what will happen to me when I go back?"
"No, what?" with a sense of amusement. "Perhaps you will get no supper!"
"I shall be whipped. And to-morrow I shall not be let out of the garden. When I get to be a woman I won't work in the garden. I won't even have a husband. They make you do just as they like. Why isn't one's way as good as another's?"
A line of perplexity settled between her eyes that were soft enough to melt the heart of a stone, he thought, if stones really had hearts.
"Older people are generally wiser. And mothers——"
"Oh, she isn't my mother," interrupted the child. "Even Catherine was not my mother. I was very sorry for that. She was good and tender, but she died. And Jean was very angry because she was not my real mother, and he would have nothing to do with me. So he brought me to Maman. Oh, it was a long while ago. Maman is good in some ways. She gives me plenty to eat when we have it and she does not beat me often, as she does Pani."
"And who is Pani?"
"Oh, the little slave. His tribe was driven away after they had lost their battle, but some of the children were left behind and they are slaves. Do you suppose the Indians will ever conquer M. de Champlain? Then we should be slaves—or killed."
He shuddered. Already he had heard tales of awful cruelty in the treatment of prisoners.
"Are you not afraid some Indians may be prowling ab out?" and he glanced furtively around.
"Oh, they do not come here. They are good friends with M. de Champlain. And the fort is guarded. I should hide if one came."
She began to descend and presently reached his level.
"There are long shadows. It gets to be supper time."
He smiled. "Are the shadows your clock hands?"
"We have no clock. M. de Champlain carries his in his pocket. But you see the sun sends long shadows over to the east. It is queer. The sun keeps going round. What is on the other side?"
"It would take a good deal of study to understand it all," he returned gravely.
"I like to hear them talk. There are wonderful places. And where is India? Can any one find the passage they are looking for and sail round the world?"
"They have sailed round it."
"And have you seen Paris and the King?"
"I fought for the dead King. And Paris—why, you cannot imagine anything like it."
"Ah, but we are going to have new France here. And perhaps Paris."
There were pride and gladness in her voice. He smiled inwardly, he would not disturb her childish dream. Would she ever see the beautiful city and the pageants that were almost daily occurrences?
"When did you come here?" she asked presently.
"A fortnight ago, when the storeship arrived."
"Ah, yes. Maman and I went to see it and M. Hébert sent us some curious, delicious dried fruits. M. de Champlain is quite sure we shall grow them in time and have beautiful gardens, and fine people who know many things. Can you read?"
"Why, yes"—laughing.
"I wish I could. But we have no books. Maman thinks it a waste of time, except for the men who must do business and write letters. Can you write letters?"
"Yes"—studying her with amusement.
"Catherine could read. But she had no books. I once learned some of the letters. Jean could make figures."
"Where is he?"
"Oh, off with the fur-hunters. And Antoine makes ever so much money. And he
says he and Maman will go back to France. And I suppose they will leave me here. Antoine has two brothers and one is at Brouage, where M. de Champlain was born."
She leaped from point to point in a graceful, agile manner, ran swiftly down some declivity, while he held his breath, it seemed so fraught with danger, but she only looked back laughingly. What a daring midget she was!
And when they were in sight of the palisades they s aw a group of men, Pontgrave and Champlain among them. Destournier quickened his pace and touched his hat to them with a reverent grace.
"Have you had a guide?" and Champlain held out his hand to the little girl while he asked the question of Destournier. She took Champlain's hand in both of hers and pressed it against her cheek. Pontgrave smiled at her as well.
Destournier glanced up at the eminence where he had first seen the moving figure. How steep and unapproachable!
"Could you find no fairer site for a new Paris?" he inquired smilingly. "How will you get up and down the streets when you come to that?"
"Is it not the key to the north and a natural fortress? Look you, with a cannon at its base and over opposite, no trading vessel could steal up, no hostile man-of-war invade us. There will come a time when the old world will divide this mighty continent between them and the struggle will be tremendous. It will behoove France to see that her entrances are well guarded. And from this point we must build. What could be a fairer, prouder, more invincible heritage for France? For we shall sweep across the continent, we shall have the whole of the fur trade in time. We shall build great cities," and Champlain's face glowed with the pride he took in the new world.
Yet it was a small beginning, and a less intrepid soul would have been daunted by the many discouragements. A few dwelling houses, a moat with a drawbridge, and the space of land running down to the river divided into gardens. The Sieur de Champlain found time to sow various seeds, wheat and rye as well, to set out berries brought from the woods and native grape vines that were better fitted to withstand the rigorous climate. But now it was simply magnificent, glowing with the early autumn suns.
"I have a good neighbor who takes a great interest in these things. You must inspect Mère Dubray's garden. With a dozen emigrants like her we should have the wilderness abloom. She rivals Hébert. We must have some agriculture. We cannot depend on the mother country for all our food. And if the Indians can raise corn and other needful supplies, why not we?"
"Ah, ha! little truant!" cried Mère Dubray, with a sharp glance at the child, "where hast thou been all the afternoon, while weed s have been growing apace?"
"She has been playing guide to a stranger," explained Destournier, "and I have found her most interesting. It has been time well spent."
Mère Dubray smiled. She always felt honored by the encomiums of M. de Champlain. She was proud of her garden, as well, and pleased to have visitors
inspect it. Indeed the young man thought he had seen no neater gardens in sunny France.
"Mère Dubray," he said, "convert this young man into an emigrant. I am a little sorry to have him begin in the autumn when the summer is so much more enticing. But if the worst is taken first there is hope for better to cheer the heart."
Something about her brought to mind the women of ol d France who sturdily fought their way to a certain prosperity. She was rather short and stout, but with no loosely-hanging flesh, her hair was still coal-b lack, with a sharp sort of waviness, and her eyes had the sparkle of beads. Her brown skin was relieved by a warm color in the cheeks and the red, rather smiling lips. No one could imagine the child hers. It was nothing to him, yet he felt rather glad.
Destournier was very friendly, however, and found her really intelligent. The little girl ran hither and thither, quite a privileged character. There were very few children beyond the Indians and half-breeds. The fu r-hunters often went through a sort of ceremony with the Indian girls during their weeks of dickering with the traders. Some returned another season to renew their vows, others sought new loves.
"I suppose the child has some sort of story?" he said to Champlain as they sat in the evening smoking their pipes.
"The child? The reputed mother came over with some emigrants sent by the King, and as a widow she married Jean Arlac. He, it seems, was much disappointed at not having children of his own and was not over-cordial to the little girl. Rather more than a year ago his wife w as taken ill, she had never been robust. And in her last moments she confessed the child was not her own, but that of a friend, and before she told the whole story a convulsion seized her. Jean was very angry and declared the child was nothing to him. He brought it to Mère Dubray and then went off to the fur regions, from whence the tidings came that he had married an Indian woman and taken a post station. She is a bright little thing, and I think must have come of gentle people. Her only trinket is a chain and locket, with a sweet young face in it."
"But there is no chance here for any sort of education. She seems naturally intelligent."
"There will be soon. There is a plan to bring out some nuns, and we shall build a chapel. We cannot do everything at once. The moth er country cannot be roused to the importance of this step. It is not simply to discover, one must hold with a secure hand. And we must make homes, we must people them."
Pontgrave was to return to France. Ralph Destournie r had half a mind to accompany him, but he was young and adventurous and desirous of seeing more of this strange country. At last he cast in his lot with them for the year at least.
October was a gorgeous month with its changing colors, its rather sharp nights when the log fires were a delight, and its days of sunshine that brought a summer warmth at noon. At night the sky sparkled with stars.
The buildings were calked on the outside and hung w ith furs within. Harsh winds swept down from the northwest, everything was hooded with snow. Now
one counted stores carefully and wasted nothing, th ough Champlain's ever sympathetic heart dealt out a little from his not too abundant supplies to the wandering Montagnais and gave their women and children food and shelter. There was a continual fight to keep even tolerably well. Scurvy was one enemy, a low sort of fever another.
There were many plans to make for the opening of sp ring. Yet Ralph Destournier would have found it intolerably dull bu t for the little girl whose name was Rose. He taught her to read—Champlain fortunately had some books in French and Latin. There were bits of old history, a volume of Terence, another of Virgil, and out of what he knew and read he reconstructed stories that charmed her. Most of all she liked to hear about the King. The romances of Henry of Navarre fired her rapidly-awakening imagination.
Destournier took several little excursions with the intrepid explorer before the severest of the winter set in. What faith he had in this wonderful new France that was to add so much glory and prosperity to the old world! If its rulers could have but looked through his eyes and had his aims. There was Tadoussac, there was the upper St. Charles, where Jacques Cartier and his men had passed a winter that in spite of the utmost heroism had ended in the tragedy of death. To the south there was a sturdy band of Engl ishmen trying the same experiment, not merely for their King and country, but also some reward for themselves. Neither were they eager to plant the standard of religion; that was left for Puritans and French missionaries.
It seemed to Destournier that the scheme of colonization was hardly worth while. He had not Champlain's enthusiasm—there was much to do for France, and that land had always to be on the defensive with England. Would it not be so here in the years to come? And the Indians would be a continual menace.
But there was a whole continent to convert, to civi lize. He went back to the times of Charlemagne and the struggles that had brought out a glorious France. And no one had given up the passage to India. Lying westward was a great river, and what was beyond that no one knew. It was the province of man to find out.
It was a dull life for a little girl in the winter. Rose almost longed for the garden, even if weeds did grow apace. In the old country Mère Dubray had spun flax and wool, here there was none to spin. She had learned a little work from the Indian women, but she was severely plain. What need of fringes and bead work and laying feathers in rows to be stitched on with a sort of thread made of fine, tough grass? And as for cooking, one had to be econ omical and make everything with a view to real sustenance, not the high art of cooking, though her peasant life had inducted her into this.
The little girl made a playhouse in one corner of the cabin and stood up sticks for Indian children to whom she told over what had been taught her. They blundered just as she had done, but she had a curious patience with them that would have touched one's heart.
"What nonsense!" Mère Dubray would exclaim. "It is well enough for men, and priests must know Latin prayers, but this is beyond anything a woman needs. And to be repeating it to sticks——"
"But I get so lonely when they are all away," and the child sighed. "The real Indian girls were a pleasure, but I'm afraid you could not teach them to read any more than these make-believes."
"Yes, winter is a dreary time. I'm not sure but I w ould rather be up in the fur country with my man. It seems they find plenty of game."
There was not so much game here, for the Indians were ever on the alert and the roving bands always on the verge of starvation. But once in a while there was a feast of fresh meat and Mère Dubray made tasty messes for the hungry men.
Rose, bundled up in furs sometimes, ran around the gallery where they had cleared the snow. Then there were the forge and the workshop, where the men were hewing immense walnut trees into slabs and posts for spring building. Some days the doves were let out of the cote in the sunshine and it was fascinating to see them circle around. They knew the little girl and would alight on her shoulder and eat grains out of her hand, coo to her and kiss her. Destournier loved to watch her, a real child of nature, innocent as the doves themselves. Mère Dubray had scarcely more idea of the seriousness of life or the demands of another existence beyond. She told her beads, prayed to her patron saint with small idea of what heaven might be like, unless it was the beautiful little hamlet where she was born. And as she was not sure the child had been christened, she thought it best to wait for the advent of a priest to direct her in the right way.
She was not a little horrified by Destournier's curious familiarity with God and heaven, as it seemed to her. Rose understood almost intuitively that it terrified her, that it seemed a sacrilege, though she would not have known what the word meant. So she said very little about it—it was a beautiful land beyond the sky where people went when they died. Sometimes, wh en the wonderful beauty of sunset moved her to a strange ecstasy, she longed to be transported thither. And in the moving white drifts she saw angel forms with out-stretched arms and called to them.
The beginning of the new year was bitter indeed. Snow piled mountain high, it seemed a whole world of snow. For windows they had cloth soaked in oil, but now the curtains of fur were dropped within and a b arricade raised without. There were only the blazing logs to give light and make shadows about. They hovered around it, ate nuts, parched corn, and heated their smoked eels. They slept late in the morning and went to bed early. Th e lack of exercise and vegetables told on health, and towards spring more than one of the little band went their way to the land beyond and left a painful vacancy. But one week there came a marvellous change. The mountains of snow sank down into hills, there was a rush in the river, the barricades were removed from the windows and the fur hangings pushed aside to let in some welcome light.
Rose ran around wild. "I can recall last spring," she said, with a burst of gayety. "The trees coming out in leaf, the birds singing, the blossoms——"
"And the garden," interposed Destournier.
Rose made a wry face.
"It will be an excellent thing for you to run about out of doors. You have lost your rosy cheeks."
"But I am Rose still," she said archly.
She ran gayly one day, she went up the stream in the canoe with Destournier and was full of merriment. But the next day she felt strangely languid. Most of the men had gone hunting. Mère Dubray was piling away some of the heaviest furs.
"Thou wilt roast there in the chimney corner," she said rather sharply. "Get thee out of doors in the fresh air again. It is silly to think one cannot stir without a troop of men tagging to one. Thou art too young for such folly."
"My legs ache," returned the child, "and my head feels queer and goes round when I stir. And I am sleepy, as if there had not been any night."
Mère Dubray glanced at her sharply.
"Why, thy cheeks are red and thy eyes bright. Come, stir about or I shall take a stick to thee. That will liven thee up."
The child rose and made a few uncertain steps. Then she flung out her hands wildly, and the next instant fell in a little heap on the floor.
The elder looked at her in amaze and shook her rather roughly by the arm. And now the redness was gone and the child had a strange gray look, with her eyes rolled up so that only a little of the pupil showed.
"Saint Elizabeth have mercy!" she cried. "The child is truly ill. And she has been so well and strong. And the doctor gone up to Tadoussac!"
She laid her on the rude couch. Rose began to mutter and then broke into a pitiful whine. There were some herbs that every householder gathered, there were secrets extorted from the squaws much more efficacious than those of their medicine men. The little hand was burning hot; yes, it was fever. There had been scurvy and dysentery, but she was a little non-plussed by the fever. And the Sieur would not be here until to-morrow; th e doctor, no one knew when.
She took out her chest of simples, a quaintly-made birchen-bark receptacle. They had been carefully labelled by the doctor. Yes, here was "fever"—here another. Which to take puzzled her.
"I might try first one and then the other," she ruminated. "I would get the good of both. And they might not mix well."
She boiled some water and poured it over the herbs. It diffused a bitter, but not unpleasant flavor. Then she put it out of doors to cool.
Rose was sleeping heavily, but her eyes were half open and it startled Mère Dubray.
"A child is a great responsibility," she moaned to herself. "If the Sieur were only here, or the doctor!" She woke her presently and administered the potion. But it brought on a desperate sickness.
"Perhaps I had better try the other." She took the hot, limp hand, the cheeks were burning, but great drops of perspiration stood out on the forehead. She twisted the soft hair in a knot and struck one of her highly-prized pins through it, then she thought a night-cap would be better. Only they would be a world too large for the child. But she succeeded in pinning i t to the right shape, though she grudged the two pins. They were a great rarity in those days, and if one was lost hours were spent hunting it up.
The second dose fared better. There was nothing to do but let the child sleep. She busied herself about the few household cares, studied the weather and the signs of spring. Oh, was that a bird! Surely he was early with his song. The river went rushing on joyously, leaping, foaming as if glad to be unchained. The air had softened marvellously. Ah, why should one be ill when spring had come!
The kindly Mère repeated her dose. Towards night the fever seemed to abate, but the child was desperately restless and the worthy woman much troubled. Yet what was the child to her? to any one? And death was sure to come sometime. She would be spared much trouble. She wou ld also lose much happiness. But was there any great share of it in this new world?
Rose was no better the next day. The nausea returned and clearly she was out of her head. But late this afternoon the Sieur and the young guest returned and were so much alarmed they dispatched an Indian servitor with instructions to bring the doctor at once.
"A pretty severe case," he said, with a grave shake of the head. "You have done the best you could, Mère Dubray, and children have wonderful recuperative powers. So we will try."
"Poor, pretty little thing," thought Destournier. " Will she find anything worth living for?" Women had so few opportunities in those times. And when one was poor and unknown, and in a strange country. Yet he could not bear to think of her dying. There was always a hopeful future to living.
She went down to the very boundaries of the other country, this little Rose. One night and one day they gave her up. She lay white and silent and Mère Dubray brought out a white muslin dress and ironed it up, much troubled to know whether she had a right to Christian burial or not.
And then she opened her eyes with their olden light and began to ask in a weak voice what happened to her yesterday, and found her last remembrance was six weeks agone.
She could hardly raise her thin little hand, but al l the air was sweet with growing things. The tall trees had come into rich leafage, the sunshine glowed upon the grass that danced as if each blade was fairy-born, and sparkled on the river that went hurrying by as if to tell a wonderful story. The great craggy upper