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- Alice of Old Vincennes - 1/64 -

Alice of Old Vincennes



Up to the days of Indiana's early statehood, probably as late as 1825, there stood, in what is now the beautiful little city of Vincennes on the Wabash, the decaying remnant of an old and curiously gnarled cherry tree, known as the Roussillon tree, le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon, as the French inhabitants called it, which as long as it lived bore fruit remarkable for richness of flavor and peculiar dark ruby depth of color. The exact spot where this noble old seedling from la belle France flourished, declined, and died cannot be certainly pointed out; for in the rapid and happy growth of Vincennes many land-marks once notable, among them le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon, have been destroyed and the spots where they stood, once familiar to every eye in old Vincennes, are now lost in the pleasant confusion of the new town.

The security of certain land titles may have largely depended upon the disappearance of old, fixed objects here and there. Early records were loosely kept, indeed, scarcely kept at all; many were destroyed by designing land speculators, while those most carefully preserved often failed to give even a shadowy trace of the actual boundaries of the estates held thereby; so that the position of a house or tree not infrequently settled an important question of property rights left open by a primitive deed. At all events the Roussillon cherry tree disappeared long ago, nobody living knows how, and with it also vanished, quite as mysteriously, all traces of the once important Roussillon estate. Not a record of the name even can be found, it is said, in church or county books.

The old, twisted, gum-embossed cherry tree survived every other distinguishing feature of what was once the most picturesque and romantic place in Vincennes. Just north of it stood, in the early French days, a low, rambling cabin surrounded by rude verandas overgrown with grapevines. This was the Roussillon place, the most pretentious home in all the Wabash country. Its owner was Gaspard Roussillon, a successful trader with the Indians. He was rich, for the time and the place, influential to a degree, a man of some education, who had brought with him to the wilderness a bundle of books and a taste for reading.

From faded letters and dimly remembered talk of those who once clung fondly to the legends and traditions of old Vincennes, it is drawn that the Roussillon cherry tree stood not very far away from the present site of the Catholic church, on a slight swell of ground overlooking a wide marshy flat and the silver current of the Wabash. If the tree grew there, then there too stood the Roussillon house with its cosy log rooms, its clay-daubed chimneys and its grapevine-mantled verandas, while some distance away and nearer the river the rude fort with its huddled officers' quarters seemed to fling out over the wild landscape, through its squinting and lopsided port-holes, a gaze of stubborn defiance.

Not far off was the little log church, where one good Father Beret, or as named by the Indians, who all loved him, Father Blackrobe, performed the services of his sacred calling; and scattered all around were the cabins of traders, soldiers and woodsmen forming a queer little town, the like of which cannot now be seen anywhere on the earth.

It is not known just when Vincennes was first founded; but most historians make the probable date very early in the eighteenth century, somewhere between 1710 and 1730. In 1810 the Roussillon cherry tree was thought by a distinguished botanical letter- writer to be at least fifty years old, which would make the date of its planting about 1760. Certainly as shown by the time-stained family records upon which this story of ours is based, it was a flourishing and wide-topped tree in early summer of 1778, its branches loaded to drooping with luscious fruit. So low did the dark red clusters hang at one point that a tall young girl standing on the ground easily reached the best ones and made her lips purple with their juice while she ate them.

That was long ago, measured by what has come to pass on the gentle swell of rich country from which Vincennes overlooks the Wabash. The new town flourishes notably and its appearance marks the latest limit of progress. Electric cars in its streets, electric lights in its beautiful homes, the roar of railway trains coming and going in all directions, bicycles whirling hither and thither, the most fashionable styles of equipages, from brougham to pony- phaeton, make the days of flint-lock guns and buckskin trousers seem ages down the past; and yet we are looking back over but a little more than a hundred and twenty years to see Alice Roussillon standing under the cherry tree and holding high a tempting cluster of fruit, while a very short, hump-backed youth looks up with longing eyes and vainly reaches for it. The tableau is not merely rustic, it is primitive. "Jump!" the girl is saying in French, "jump, Jean; jump high!"

Yes, that was very long ago, in the days when women lightly braved what the strongest men would shrink from now.

Alice Roussillon was tall, lithe, strongly knit, with an almost perfect figure, judging by what the master sculptors carved for the form of Venus, and her face was comely and winning, if not absolutely beautiful; but the time and the place were vigorously indicated by her dress, which was of coarse stuff and simply designed. Plainly she was a child of the American wilderness, a daughter of old Vincennes on the Wabash in the time that tried men's souls.

"Jump, Jean!" she cried, her face laughing with a show of cheek- dimples, an arching of finely sketched brows and the twinkling of large blue-gray eyes.

"Jump high and get them!"

While she waved her sun-browned hand holding the cherries aloft, the breeze blowing fresh from the southwest tossed her hair so that some loose strands shone like rimpled flames. The sturdy little hunchback did leap with surprising activity; but the treacherous brown hand went higher, so high that the combined altitude of his jump and the reach of his unnaturally long arms was overcome. Again and again he sprang vainly into the air comically, like a long-legged, squat-bodied frog.

"And you brag of your agility and strength, Jean," she laughingly remarked; "but you can't take cherries when they are offered to you. What a clumsy bungler you are."

"I can climb and get some," he said with a hideously happy grin, and immediately embraced the bole of the tree, up which he began scrambling almost as fast as a squirrel.

When he had mounted high enough to be extending a hand for a hold on a crotch, Alice grasped his leg near the foot and pulled him down, despite his clinging and struggling, until his hands clawed in the soft earth at the tree's root, while she held his captive leg almost vertically erect.

It was a show of great strength; but Alice looked quite unconscious of it, laughing merrily, the dimples deepening in her plump cheeks, her forearm, now bared to the elbow, gleaming white and shapely while its muscles rippled on account of the jerking and kicking of Jean.

All the time she was holding the cherries high in her other hand, shaking them by the twig to which their slender stems attached them, and saying in a sweetly tantalizing tone:

"What makes you climb downward after cherries. Jean? What a foolish fellow you are, indeed, trying to grabble cherries out of the ground, as you do potatoes! I'm sure I didn't suppose that you knew so little as that."

Her French was colloquial, but quite good, showing here and there what we often notice in the speech of those who have been educated in isolated places far from that babel of polite energies which we call the world; something that may be described as a bookish cast appearing oddly in the midst of phrasing distinctly rustic and local,--a peculiarity not easy to transfer from one language to another.

Jean the hunchback was a muscular little deformity and a wonder of good nature. His head looked unnaturally large, nestling grotesquely between the points of his lifted and distorted shoulders, like a shaggy black animal in the fork of a broken tree. He was bellicose in his amiable way and never knew just when to acknowledge defeat. How long he might have kept up the hopeless struggle with the girl's invincible grip would be hard to guess. His release was caused by the approach of a third person, who wore the robe of a Catholic priest and the countenance of a man who had lived and suffered a long time without much loss of physical strength and endurance.

This was Pere Beret, grizzly, short, compact, his face deeply lined, his mouth decidedly aslant on account of some lost teeth, and his eyes set deep under gray, shaggy brows. Looking at him when his features were in repose a first impression might not have been favorable; but seeing him smile or hearing him speak changed everything. His voice was sweetness itself and his smile won you on the instant. Something like a pervading sorrow always seemed to be close behind his eyes and under his speech; yet he was a genial, sometimes almost jolly, man, very prone to join in the lighter amusements of his people.

"Children, children, my children," he called out as he approached along a little pathway leading up from the direction of the church, "what are you doing now? Bah there, Alice, will you pull Jean's leg off?"

At first they did not hear him, they were so nearly deafened by their own vocal discords.

"Why are you standing on your head with your feet so high in air, Jean?" he added. "It's not a polite attitude in the presence of a young lady. Are you a pig, that you poke your nose in the dirt?"

Alice now turned her bright head and gave Pere Beret a look of frank welcome, which at the same time shot a beam of willful self- assertion.

Alice of Old Vincennes - 1/64

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