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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Sieur de la Salle and Sainte Jeanne

By Mary Hartwell Catherwood (1847–1902)

[Born in Luray, Ohio, 1847. Died in Chicago, Ill., 1902. The Story of Tonty. 1890.]

JEANNE LE BER sat down upon a high-backed bench before the fire in the upper room. This apartment was furnished and decorated only by abundant firelight, which danced on stone walls and hard dark rafters, on rough floor and high enclosure of the stairway. At opposite sides of the room were doors which Jeanne did not know opened into chambers scarcely larger than the sleepers who might lodge therein.

She sat in strained thought, without unwrapping herself, though shudders were sent through her by damp raiment. When her father came up with the sergeant who carried their supper, he took off her cloak, smoothed her hair, and tenderly reproved her. He set the dishes on the bench between them, and persuaded Jeanne to eat what he carved for her,—a swarthy nurse whose solicitude astounded the soldier.

Another man came up and opened the door nearest the chimney, on that side which overlooked the fortress enclosure. He paused in descending, loaded with the commandant’s possessions, to say that this bedroom was designed for mademoiselle, and was now ready.

“And thou must get to it as soon as the river’s chill is warmed out of thy bones,” said Le Ber. “I will sit and hear the worthy friar downstairs tell his strange adventures. The sound of your voice can reach me with no effort whatever. My bedroom will be next yours, or near by, and no harm can befall you in Fort Frontenac.”

Jeanne kissed his cheek before he returned to the lower room, and when the supper was removed she sat drying herself by the fire.

The eager piety of her early girlhood, which was almost fantastic in its expression, had yet worked out a nobly spiritual face. She was a beautiful saint.

For several years Jeanne le Ber had refused the ordinary clothing of women. Her visible garment was made of a soft fine blanket of white wool, with long sleeves falling nearly to her feet. It was girded to her waist by a cord from which hung her rosary. Her neck stood slim and white above the top of this robe, without ornament except the peaked monk’s hood which hung behind it.

This creature like a flame of living white fire stood up and turned her back to the ruddier logs, and clasped her hands across the top of her head. Her eyes wasted scintillations on rafters while she waited for heavenly peace to calm the strong excitement driving her.

The door of Jeanne’s chamber stood open as the soldier had left it. At the opposite side of the room a similar door opened, and La Salle came out. He moved a step toward the hearth, but stopped, and the pallor of a swoon filled his face.

“Sieur de la Salle,” said Jeanne in a whisper. She let her arms slip down by her sides. The eccentric robe with its background of firelight cast her up tall and white before his eyes.

In the explorer’s most successful moments he had never appeared so majestic. Though his dress was tarnished by the wilderness, he had it carefully arranged; for he liked to feel it fitting him with an exactness which would not annoy his thoughts.

No formal greeting preluded the crash of this encounter between La Salle and Jeanne le Ber. What had lain repressed by prayer and penance, or had been trodden down league by league in the wilds, leaped out with strength made mighty by such repression.

Voices in loud and merry conversation below and occasional laughter came up the open stairway and made accompaniment to this half-hushed duet.

“Jeanne,” stammered La Salle.

“Sieur de la Salle, I was just going to my room.”

She moved away from him to the side of the hearth, as he advanced and sat down upon the bench. Unconscious that she stood while he was sitting, as if overcome by sudden blindness he reached toward her with a groping gesture.

“Take hold of my hand, Sainte Jeanne.”

“And if I take hold of your hand, Sieur de la Salle,” murmured the girl, bending toward him, though she held her arms at her sides, “what profit will it be to either of us?”

“I beg that you will take hold of my hand.”

Her hand, quivering to each finger-tip, moved out and met and was clasped in his. La Salle’s head dropped on his breast.

Jeanne turned away her face. Voices and laughter jangled in the room below. In this silent room pulse answered pulse, and with slow encounter eyes answered the adoration of eyes. In terror of herself Jeanne uttered the whispered cry:

“I am afraid!”

She veiled herself with the long sleeve of her robe.

“And of what should you be afraid when we are thus near together?” said La Salle. “The thing to be afraid of is losing this. Such gladness has been long coming; for I was a man when you were born, Sainte Jeanne.”

“Let go my hand, Sieur de la Salle.”

“Do you want me to let it go, Sainte Jeanne?”

“No, Sieur de la Salle.”

Dropping her sleeve, Jeanne faced heaven through the rafters. Tears stormed down her face, and her white throat swelled with strong repressed sobs. Like some angel caught in a snare, she whispered her up-directed wail:

“All my enormity must now be confessed! Whenever Sieur de la Salle has been assailed my soul rose up in arms for him. Oh, my poor father! So dear has Sieur de la Salle been to me that I hated the hatred of my father. What shall I do to tear out this awful love? I have fought it through midnights and solitary days of ceaseless prayer. Oh, Sieur de la Salle, why art thou such a man? Pray to God and invoke the saints for me, and help me to go free from this love!”

“Jeanne,” said La Salle, “you are so holy I dare touch no more than this sweet hand. It fills me with life. Ask me not to pray to God that he will take the life from me. Oh, Jeanne, if you could reach out of your eternity of devotion and hold me always by the hand, what a man I might be!”

She dropped her eyes to his face, saying like a soothing mother:

“Thou greatest and dearest, there is a gulf between us which we cannot pass. I am vowed to Heaven. Thou art vowed to great enterprises. The life of the family is not for us. If God showed me my way by thy side I would go through any wilderness. But Jeanne was made to listen in prayer and silence and secrecy and anguish for the word of Heaven. The worst is,”—her stormy sob again shook her from head to foot,—“you will be at court, and beautiful women will love the great explorer. And one will shine; she will be set like a star as high as the height of being your wife. And Jeanne,—oh, Jeanne! here in this rough, new world,—she must eternally learn to be nothing!”

“My wife!” said La Salle, turning her hand in his clasp, and laying his cheek in her palm. “You are my wife. There is no court. There is no world to discover. There is only the sweet, the rose-tender palm of my wife where I can lay my tired cheek and rest.”

Jeanne’s fingers moved with involuntary caressing along the lowest curve of his face.

An ember fell on the hearth beside them, and Father Hennepin emphasized some point in his relation with a stamp of his foot.

“You left a glove at my father’s house, Sieur de la Salle, and I hid it; I put my face to it. And when I burned it, my own blood seemed to ooze out of that crisping glove.”

La Salle trembled. The dumb and solitary man was dumb and solitary in his love.

“Now we must part,” breathed Jeanne. “Heaven is strangely merciful to sinners. I never could name you to my confessor or show him this formless anguish; but now that it has been owned and cast out, my heart is glad.”

La Salle rose up and stood by the hearth. As she drew her hand from his continued hold he opened his arms. Jeanne stepped backward, her eyes swarming with motes of light. She turned and reached her chamber-door; but as the saint receded from temptation the woman rose in strength. She ran to La Salle, and with a tremor and a sob in his arms, met his mouth with the one kiss of her life. As suddenly she ran from him and left him.

La Salle had had his sublime moment of standing at the centre of the universe and seeing all things swing around him, which comes to every one successful in embodying a vast idea. But from this height he looked down at that experience.

He stood still after Jeanne’s door closed until he felt his own intrusion. This drove him downstairs and out of the house, regardless of Jacques le Ber, Father Hennepin, and the officers of the fortress, who turned to gaze at his transit.

Proud satisfaction, strange in a ruined man, appeared on the explorer’s face. He felt his reverses as cobwebs to be brushed away. He was loved. The king had been turned against him. His enemies had procured Count Frontenac’s removal, and La Barre the new governor, conspiring to seize his estate, had ruined his credit. But he was loved. Even on this homeward journey an officer had passed him with authority to take possession of his new post on the Illinois River. His discoveries were doubted and sneered at, as well as half claimed by boasting subordinates, who knew nothing about his greater views. Yet the only softener of this man of noble granite was a spirit-like girl, who regarded the love of her womanhood as sin.

La Salle stood in the midst of enemies. He stood considering merely how his will should break down the religious walls Jeanne built around herself, and how Jacques le Ber might be conciliated by shares in the profits of the West. Behind stretched his shadowed life, full of misfortune: good was held out to him to be withdrawn at the touch of his fingers. But this good he determined to have; and thinking of her, La Salle walked the stiffened frost-crisp ground of the fortress half the night.