PELAGIE'S CHRISTMAS Edit
By Roberta Bel Edit
From Short Stories Magazine 1894
The right bank of the " Father of Waters," in the year 1 756 , was the little French village destined to become one day the great city of St. Louis.
The place at that time consisted of a single street running along the bank, well up from the river. Back of this Street *as the village common, while here and there, at increasing distances apart, were log cabins, marking the road which led first to the fort and later to the settlement of friendly Indians, several miles away.
The houses along the street fronting the river had mostly a well-kept, thrifty look, while a few were even pretentious.
One of these excelled all the others in its neatness and air of consequence. It was built of upright poles, the spaces between filled with a mixture of mud or plaster, and the whole brilliant with successive coats of whitewash.
In the open door of this cottage, one fine day in the latter part of December, stood a young girl of perhaps sixteen years of age. Her figure slight, yet full of curves, was smily encased in the dart tightly -fit ting "josey," then worn. Her short skirt of bright-hued homespun revealed a neatly -fitting stocking on the trimmest of little ankles. From her yule toes, albeit shod with somewhat clumsy shoes, up to her brilliant brown eyes, she was a model of girlish beauty.
At this moment her white forehead was puckered up, and her face very serious, but when she smiles — ah! You shall see such a burst of sunshine. All the boys know the dazzling effect of Pelagie's smile, but perhaps Jean Vallot knows it best of all
The hand which shaded her eyes as she gazed long and eagerly up and down the river was white and firm, unspoiled as yet by house work. She has evidently looked n vain, for a little frown of disappointment clouded her face as she dropped her arm and vanished within the doorway.
The room she entered was filled with a merry group of young girls, busy as bees and noisy as humming-birds. A few young men lounged about the low-ceilinged apartment, some aiding, some hindering their fair companions. A jolly-looking, fat French woman flitted back and forth from the kitchen, superintending all, I and adding her own work . to the preparation for the coming festival. Christmas, was only a week off, and the "grand banquet" was to be at Monsieur Guion's house, and while every household made its own special provision for the day, all combined to assist at the ffite at the beloved Commandant's.
A storm of lively query and comment greeted Pelagie's return to the house.
" My faith, and didst thou see him, Pelagie ? " " Thou hast looked long enough ! " " Citl .' no. I would stand a week at the door to await him were he my sweetheart," said another.
" Not a glimpse of him, Fanchette. I fear he has found a Northern bride, and I shall have to look elsewhere for a partner at the Twelfth-night dance."
" No fear of that," cried a half-dozen together.
" I hope he has, and will bring her home, that I may dance with her," said a sturdy youth who was weaving Fanchette's apron-strings in and out of the back of her chair.
A chorus of approving chuckles from the boys and disapproving groans from the young girls greeted this remark.
" Thou should’nt never dance with her were she my bride," growled a tall, blue-eyed fellow of nineteen or so, who was swathed in one of MJre Guion's ample kitchen -aprons, and engaged in chopping some sweet-scented, fruity substance in a large wooden bowl. A chorus of laughter went up at this — Jean Vallot's warUlte scowl and his peaceful occupation were ludicrously at variance.
" Thou art indeed a jealous monster! but not so bad as that ! " " And how wouldst thou prevent me?" satd the first youngster, tauntingly, as he tied the final knot in Fanchette's apron-strings.
" I would shoot him or knife him who dared to lay a iinger on her." Jean touched his weapon as he spoke, and nodded his head several times.
One and all burst into a peal of laughter. With a face like a thunder-cloud the boy stooped to pick up an apple that had rolled from Pelagie's lap to the floor. She also stooped, their heads came together with a soft concussion, their hands touched in reaching for the fruit. Their eyes met, and for a moment her face was crimsoned, a smile dimpled her cheek and her eyes danced, and lo i as by magic, the angry look melted out of his face and an air of contentment took its place — and while this happened good Mere Guion shook her head at the others with a reproachful glance, as if she would say : Why torment this poor Jean, when every one knows his weakness ?
The hum of voices, the cracking of nuts, the rattle of chopping knives, and the occasional twitter of a caged bird in the room.drowned any sound which might have been made by a door opening.
At this very moment a tall shadow fell athwart the white floor. A bronzed figure followed on tiptoe, and with a finger wamingly laid upon his lips stood in the centre of the room. Only Pelagic, whose back was to the door, and Jean, who was looking at her, failed to perceive this apparition.
Fanchette started up with a tremulous face, but being tied sat suddenly down again.
Pelagie had just peeled an apple with dainty care, ring after ring of bright red apple-skin curled around her white fingers. She smiled at Jean Vallot, who was turning red and white with jealous fear as to the outcome, and threw it over her shoulder. As she turned to see what shape the curving peel might have taken, a pair of strong, firm hands were placed gently upon her eyes.
" It is a V, a V, I tell thee that, Pelagie ! " chirped one of her chums in bird-like French. " No, but no ! " cried Fanchette, stretching her head and neck to look, " it's a C — vraiment a C — nothing else,"
" But guess first, who is this ? " said the owner of the strong hands.
" Paul — Paul St. Vrain," she answered, as she stn^gled to pull them away.
Amid the buzz of greeting which now ensued, Jean Vallot slipped quietly and all unnoticed out of the room.
The newcomer was a well-built young fellow of twenty-six, attired in a picturesque and handsome . hunting costume, his beaded leggings alone being worth the price of many oxen. til? In reply to the questions and congratulations which poiu^d upon him from all sides, St. Vrain told ,Y -of the unusually prosperous voyage he had made. " Out — yes, my friends, instead of the one bateau and five canoes which I took away, I have brought back two bateaux and nine canoes — and the store of fine skins is great. We have had wonderful luck, though we have passed through great dangers. See, a bullet from an Indian's gun took off this little piece of my ear, and as he was about to shoot again one of my friends took him aS. — with another bullet just a little better aimed. A dead Indian and my life saved 1
" Where is Edmond Gamache, he ? Oh, gone to ' Vide Poche.' He fears his old mother might be dead, and the other boys are gone home, too. Ten months is a long time to be away from friends, and wives and sweethearts." He gave a long look at Pelagic as he said this. She frowned a little.
" By my faith, girls, I have brought back a famous sweetheart for one of you — if so be one is lucky enough to catch him."
He was immediately surrounded by the bright-eyed maidens, who unceremoniously elbowed the boys aside.
Fanchette, who had only now been released by Mire Goion from her bondage, was in the very front Paul was besieged with questions. " But, yes — one at a time," he remonstrated. " He is English, from New York and from London. Tall? Oh, yes! A good shot, a fine oar. Yes, it was his shot that saved me from that unseen Indian. Brave — oh! and he is an artist ; he can draw a picture hke the life itself.
" His name, didst thou say, Fanchette ? His name is
Chester Hardie — and thou shalt see him to-night at the dance and shall admit he is the finest fellow in the room ; and perhaps he will get the bean out of thy Twelfth-night cake and be thy man." He pinched Fanchette's cheek playfully, which little liberty caused her to color painfully and draw back. The home-coming of so many village lads and the arrival of the stranger filled these simple village girls with excitement. They made their adieux to the family of the good Commandant, and hied to their respective homes to tell the news — to hear some and perhaps to meet others of the returned travellers, ere attiring themselves in their gayest apparel for the dance which, at one house or another, wound up the toils of nearly every day.
In honor of the new arrivals, the dance would be this night at Veuve St. Vrain's. The young fellows, of course, gathered their hats and accompanied the girls. Paul only remained with Pelagie. He had formerly been so devoted to her as to be considered her suitor, though no definite word had passed between them. His successful voyage had made him feel well able to marry, and it was in his mind to get from her at once a definite promise, and perhaps a definite date for the wedding.
But Pelagie was very coy — what a mixture of feelings is in the heart of a girl of sixteen, what a jumble of thoughts in her mind 1 In Paul's long absence her youthful fancy for him had somewhat faded. Other admirers had not been lacking. She enjoyed the possession of the village hero as she enjoyed her own position of village belle and beauty — yet for Paul individually she cared little, and a wedded Hfe with him looked terribly common-place now that he was here* It would seem so with any one, she fancied. Besides, he seemed so assured and so persistent She might perhaps marry him finally, if he would not tease her so, but some imp of contrariness made her loath to admit even that much.
" How do I know," she said with roguish demureness, " how do I know I may not meet some one I like better ? "
" Oh, I will love thee so well, I will not let thee, Pelagie " — ^kissing her hand — " I know thou wilt marry me, but I want to hear thee say so." She shook her head obstinately. " Wilt thou say yes to-morrow ? No ? Next day ? " She still shook her little head with a vehemence that threatened to bring down all those black braids wound so neatly about it " Then, Christmas Day ? " Her face was averted, but her head still moved from side to side energetically, and now Paul, who had been trying to look into her eyes, seized it firmly, and gently held it between his hands. " Now, thou canst not shake thy head, and if thou sayest No, I will kiss thy lips until thy breath is all — all gone."
At this dreadful threat, the eyes sparkled and the dimples came out in force, but no word was spoken. Paul gazed at her an instant, thinking he would inflict the penalty anyhow, but he evidently thought better of it, for he released her with a sigh, saying: ".Then it is Yes, on Christmas Day, and mafoi — I think I'll marry thee the next minute. Now, Petite, I must go ; Chester Hardie will think me but a poor host. To-night thou shalt see him, and thou must like him for my sake."
" I know I shall not like him," murmured PelagJe, stroking her braids and settling a vagrant hair-pin.
" And thou shalt see the fine picture he has made of me, and I will ask him to make one of thee, also. What ! not one litde kiss ? " he grumbled, as Pelagie nimbly eluded him. " Well, I can wait until Christmas, but then, oh, I warn thee, I shall be an ogre, and eat thee up."
As Pelagie watched his figure disappearing in the distance, she felt a little strange feeling of disappointment, that he had not taken that kiss, which she had yet no mind to accord him.
When Pelagie, accompanied by her parents, reached Veuve St. Vrain's house, the guests, young and old, were already assembled, and many couples were gaily footing it over the bare white floor, to the jocund sound of Père Choiseul's fiddle. Only when the last breathless couple gave it up did the old man stop and look about him as one who has won a signal victory. All the returned voyageurs crowded about the Guion family, and many were the compliments paid the old Commandant on the beauty of his daughter. Among the last to come up was Paul, who proudly presented his friend. The stranger was deeply interested in Pelagie. His grey eyes, heavily fringed with black lashes, regarded her eanieslly, while his well-cut lips framed pretty courtesies, which might have been addressed to a princess. He had already noted her and decided that he had never seen such dainty loveliness before. He took her hand for the next dance, at Paul's suggestion, and after some rounds he sat with her in a quiet comer. The quiet comer was made by their absorbed interest in each other and by the backs of a noisy, jolly set of bourgeois, who were looking at the dancing.
Pelagie had a very queer sensation when she first met Monsieur Hardie. Her heart had made a great bound, and it had not been beating regularly since. When Chester siurendered her to Paul she drew him on — easy task enough — to talk of his friend; and while the good fellow enlarged upon Chester's courage, his kindness, his honor, Pelagie listened with parted lips and beaming eyes. Then again he told the story of how nearly he had been shot by an Indian lurking in a tree, and how it was Chester's sure bullet that had gone to the Indian's heart at the right moment to save his friend's life. Then Pelagie laughed and clapped her hands, and the old dames nudged each other and whispered, " How glad is that petite Pelagie that her sweetheart hath returned." And all were glad with her, for Paul was a universal favorite. All save one. Jean Vallot stood about in corners and doorways, keeping Paul and Pelagie under observance. When Paul was chatting with Fanchette or one of the other girls, then Jean seemed relieved, but if he were wilh Pelagie, then Jean glared ferociously, and nervously fingered the revolver that was thrust in his belt. All this, too, the older people noted and laughed at, until their tears ran.
Every day the young people of the village met in their walks, or at their work, and every evening they assembled at one house to dance and chat. It was a sort of holiday season with these simple French folks, and the only work they had on hand was getting ready for Christmas. At such times friendships are easily formed, and intimacies ripen quickly. All of the villagers grew fond of Chester Hardie, and adopted him as one of themselves. Paul had assumed that he was to receive a favorable answer from Pelagie on Christmas Day, which was fast approaching ; until then he would say nothing more to her of his hopes. Much of the time when he was supposed by the neighborhood to be pushing a successful courtship, he was really listening to the reminiscences of P&re Guion and his wife, while Chester Hardie talked softly to Pelagie as he transferred her exquisite features and coloring to his sketch-block. This picture was the delight ftnd wonder of all who saw it, and was supposed to be intended for Paul, though Chester had a different thought about the matter. In the abundance of Paul's gratitude to Hardie and love for him he had procured a costume similar to his own, and this he begged him to wear at once when he gave it to him on Christmas Eve.
To this Chester readily consented, and the two laughed heartily at the odd resemblance between them, that was brought out by the similarity of dress. On Christmas Eve of course everyone would go to midnight mass — and while all looked forward to it as a great event, they had no intention to forego their usual dance. So fiddles squeaked — there were three this time — and the steady scuffle and patter of feet was heard until a late hour.
Presents were exchanged, and good things to eat and drink were passed around. Outside, lovers, arm in arm, paced up and down in the moonlight. Jean Vallot was nowhere to be seen, but alas, poor fellow, no one missed him. Some stranger had come in hot and dusty, and after a few words to Paul St Vrain, had mounted his panting and sweating horse and rode away. With the breaking up of the party, Paul spoke a little while with Chester and disappeared into the darkness on that side of the house that looked toward his own home.
The message brought him had been that there was a rumor Miat the Keokuks, an unfriendly tribe of Indians not many miles distant, were on the warpath, that they intended swooping down upon the peaceable Osages; then coming on, would wipe out a few of the villages up and down the Mississippi.
After a moment's hesitation, Paul decided to investigate the matter before alarming his friends and neighbors. And with this object he saddled his horse and set out for the Osage village.
To Chester he had briefly hinted of dangei, and to him had he confided the care of Pelagic. " Listen to the mass for me. I am doing duty elsewhere."
The weather was delicious, soft and springlike. Groups of negroes, laughing and chatting, strolled along the moonlit streets. Other groups of silent Indians stood or squatted about waiting for the bell and for the burst of music which would announce the priest's arrival. Picturesquely-dressed youths and maidens lingered along until the moment should arrive for them to enter the church.
Pacing slowly along, talking in low, earnest tones, came Pelagie, her hand resting lightly on the fanciful sleeve of her escort's hunting-shirt. Their talk was mostly of commonplaces, but the air and manner of both conveyed a more interesting and significant story than did their lips.
As these two passed a dark spot, flung upon the path by a group of huge trees, a slouching figure detached itself from the gloom, followed them a step, while a nervous hand grasped a freshly sharpened knife.
"Nan," the figure muttered, with pale lips, " a curse upon Paul St Vrain and his gorgeous hunting costume. Non — not yet," thrusting the knife again into his belt. " I will let him go to mass first and afris — del. Yes," he smiled cruelly, "he shall go straight to heaven, and I will go to hell, only I will have Pelagic first." So the happy young couple passed on, walking on air, blissful, unharmed, and Jean Vallot slunk heavily down to the riverside to nurse his hot, bitter thoughts of revenge.
Then arose on the night a burst of harmony from organ and voices, and the murmur of prayers, and anon the priest re-told the old ever-new story of peace on earth and good will toward men, and a hundred hearts thrilled with holy fervor. In a distant, shadowy pew, two hands had somehow found each other and forgot to separate. Out in the deep darkness at the river brooded silent, unhappy Jean ; out in the dappled darkness of the forest rode Paul, merrily humming the last waltz — he had danced it with Fanchette, somehow, and not with Pelagic, " more's the pity."
Paul could not be downcast, even though danger threatened the village. " It would all come right somehow."
Amid the merry clangor of Christmas bells, the church poured out its throng, and the now really wearied people sought their homes. A slouching shadow had pursued Chester Hardie and Pelagie to the Guion's gate, and as the two lingered for a last word, a knife, sharp and glittering, clove the air, and — but love is quicker than hate — Pelagie's ann interposed, and the cruel knife did not quite reach Chester's heart, but tore Pelagie's arm instead, and then buried itself in Hardie's side. As Pelagie's piercing scream rang out, Chester put out an arm to shield her, and grasping each other they fell unconscious to the ground.
Jean turned upon his heel and vanished into the nearest shadow. The girl's cry had not only brought out her father and mother, but also arrested a host of friends, who with much gesticulation and many " Mon DUus" carried the pair into the house,
Pelagie soon recovered consciousness, and applied herself feverishly to tender care for Chester, who still lay pale and speechless.
Many were the expressions of wonder that one so beloved as Chester should have been the subject of such an attack, and many were the questions asked— where, above all, was Paul St, Vrain ? He was suddenly missed and no one could say where he had gone. Trembling neighbors came in to know if it was true that Paul St. Vrain had been shot by Hardie; while as many more had heard that Paul had himself killed his friend.
In the midst of this confusion Paul entered, very pale and almost breathless. A glass of Mire Guion's good home-made wine was given him, while he listened to the story told by a dozen excited people.
He set his glass upon the dresser, and after a slight pause said — "Jean Vallot." A babel of voices arose. Why had no one thought of it before! "Findjean at once!" "Send for him," — "He will have fled!" Paul now told his story — how he had gone to see if there was danger from the Keobuks; how the Osages had denied that there
was anything in the report; — how, speeding along the road, he had met Jean Vallot, and, reining in his horse, had called out to him a friendly greeting. " He turned," said Paul, " like a corpse ; he was pale enough already, and, without a word, he plunged his knife into his own heart.
"I almost fell off my horse with horror; but there he lies, in the road stone-dead. I galloped in for assistance as fast as I could. Why — why, on earth, did he do this thing?" Chester Hardie took up Pelagie's hand and pressed it to his lips.
"Holy Mother of God!" exclaimed Veuve St. Vrain, "he thought he had slain thee and it was thy spirit that had arisen to accuse him !
" Yes, that hundng-suit — that new suit of M. Hardie^— he took him for thee."
"Just so," said Chester, faintly; "the fellow has long thirsted for your blood, Paul, and he has gotten a little of mine by mistake."
"And so thou hast saved my life once more! What can I ever do for thee in return ? "
Chester fixed his bright bruning eyes upon his friend for an instant, then again he took the hand of Pelagie within his own.
The look and action were full of significance to Paul. In his present exalted state he comprehended everything. His face fell, then with a heroic effort he mastered himself.
" Is it really so ? Chester, Felagie ?" The girl hung her head, but she nodded. A clink of glasses came from the adjoining room, where the villagers had stopped preparatory to setting out after Jean Vallot's body. No one was in the room but themselves. Pelagie's eyes had found Chester's, and it was bitter to Paul to see the love-light in them. Tears rushed to his own.
" Be it so," he cried bravely. He took a hand of each. " Thou hast won the sweetest girl, Chester, and thou Pelagie the bravest boy ; thou art worthy of each other. But let thy wedding be this day, Chester; it will cheer us up; we want something to make us meny. I shall go and speak to P&re Billon at once." His assumed gaiety but poorly veiled his hurt. Yet, what do lovers in the first flush of happiness care for the wounds they inflict on others. They were absorbed in their first kiss, that divine first kiss, ere Paul had reached the outer room. And while the sweetness of that kiss yet lingered on their lips, the bells rang out the joyful Christmas morning.
Chubby French children crawled out of bed to see what the jolly old saint had brought them, to besiege their parents with the Christmas greeting, and to clap delighted hands at the falling snow. Merry Christinas for the children. Many, merry Christmas for the lovers who may be married to-day! but sad, sad Christmas in the home ^ of J ean Vallot. The usual gaieties of the season went on, however, with philosophic disregard of any unusual event The dance was at Fanchctte's house
instead of being at the Commandant's, and Fanchette was the belle of the evening and monopolized Paul St. Vrain. Chester and Pelagie were missed, but not much, and at nine o'clock the dancers took a recess and trooped over to see Pelagie and Chester married. After drinking to the bride's health they trooped back and danced more gaily than ever. And not a few, Fanchette among the number, pronounced it the very jolliest Christmas yet