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   Chapter 22 A NEW ST. LOUIS

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 12995

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

Once again the French flag waved over St. Louis and hearts beat high with joy. Not that they had been unhappy or discontented under the Spanish régime, though the place had remained stationery. Except for the fur trade and the energies of the house of Maxent Laclede & Co. with their entrepot, it would still have been a little French hamlet. Even now it had scarcely two hundred buildings and less than a thousand inhabitants. Yet perhaps few places could boast of forty years of content and happiness and such peaceful living.

So down came the Spanish flag and up went the lilies of France. There was a night of rejoicing. People scarcely went to bed. Fiddles and flutes played old French airs, and songs were sung; but, after all, the people were decorous and there was no orgie. Most of these men had never known Parisian enthusiasm. Robert de Longueville marvelled at it and the simplicity.

It was well, perhaps, to have had those few hours of jubilation for men to talk about in their old age. For the next day a company came over from the fort and held a consultation with Lieutenant-Governor Dellassus. And then the royal lilies came down slowly, sadly, it seemed, and men's hearts beat with sudden apprehension. What did it mean? They gathered in little knots and their faces were blanched.

Captain Stoddard raised the new colors-broad bands of red and white and thirteen stars on a blue field. The brave colonies had taken another leap and crossed the Mississippi. Here at the old Spanish quarters, March, 1804, the last vestige of hope fluttered and died in the French heart. The breeze caught the flag and flung it out and a few cheers went up, but they were from the Americans, and the salutes even had a melancholy sound.

"St. Louis," said some one. "Will they take away the name, too? Are we to be orphans?"

Others wept. Some of the better informed tried to explain, but it was half-heartedly. No one was certain of what was to come. These conquerors, yes, they were that, spoke a different tongue, had a different religion, were aggressive, a resistless power that might sweep them beyond the mountains.

There was no rejoicing that night. There were no cabarets in which men could drink and discuss the change. They went to each other's houses and sat moodily by firesides. Old St. Louis was lost to them and hearts were very heavy.

Spain had ceded the whole of Louisiana to France, and again France had sold her desirable possession. Napoleon, hating the English and wanting the money to carry on his war against them, had bargained with the United States. All the great country lying westward no one knew how far. And the mighty river was free from troublesome complications.

Yes, old St. Louis was gone. There was something new in the very air, an energy where there had been a leisurely aspect; a certain roughness instead of simplicity, pioneer life. No avalanche swept over them, but people came from the other side of the river, stalwart boatmen, stalwart hunters, with new and far-reaching ideas. Schools, poor enough at first, but teaching something besides the catechism and a little arithmetic. There were books to read, discoveries to make, mines to unearth, more profitable ways of labor. The old slow method of work in the salt licks was improved upon, as well as that of the lead mines. Upper Louisiana held in its borders some of the great wealth of the world. Spanish language dropped out, French began to be a good deal mixed, and men found it to their advantage to learn English. The stockade and the round towers dropped down, and no one repaired them, because the town was going to stretch out. New houses were built, but many of them seemed as queer at a later date, with their second-floor galleries approached by a stairs from the outside. The high-peaked roofs with their perky windows looked down on the old one-story houses of split logs and plaster. Laclede's town, about a mile long, was old enough to have legends growing about it when men sat out on stoops and smoked their pipes.

Yet there was enough of the past left to still afford content and romance. Robert de Longueville proved himself a capable young fellow and turned his past education to some account. He had a truly French adoration for his half sister that presently won quite a regard from Gaspard Denys.

Robert was fascinated as well with the half Indian wife of M. Marchand, and never tired of the wild legends of fur hunting and life up at the strait. Then the ten children were a great source of interest as well. There were only two girls among them, the boys growing up tall, strong and fine-looking, proud of their mother, who kept curiously young and occasionally put on all her Indian finery for their amusement.

Renée was quite fair and rather petite, and with such shining eyes they often called her Firefly. Then Robert fell in love with her, and there was another Renée de Longueville to hand down the name, and very proud felt Renée Valbonais of the fact.

The little old church was partly rebuilt in the repairing, and was turned about. Then many years afterward it became the French Cathedral on Walnut Street. The high, stiff pews savor of olden time. There are still several paintings in it, one very fine, sent by Louis, the King of France. And there are the inscriptions in four languages, two modern and two ancient.

When Renée Valbonais knelt in her pew at the consecration her face was still sweet, her eyes brown, soft and smiling, but the hair curling about her forehead was snowy white. On this spot she had prayed for Uncle Gaspard's safe return, then she had prayed to be made willing to give him up if it was for his happiness. Now she had very little to pray for, so many blessings had been showered upon her by the good God. So her heart was all one great thanksgiving, and she felt that at the last she could "depart in peace."

When it was set off from Louisiana, when it became a Territory and then a State, St. Louis remained the capital. Brick and finished frame houses were built, stores and factories, a newspaper started, a steamboat came up the river, and that revolutionized the trade.

Then it was to change curiously again. The Americans had nearly superseded the French. Some of them went to the towns below, intermarriages became common as the prejudices died away. Then there was a great German emigration. The failure of patriotic hopes at home in the Old World sent many across to the New World. T

hey were of the better class, educated, energetic and earnest for freedom of thought. Again in 1849 they were largely recruited after another unsuccessful revolution.

Eighty-three years after the founding of the town they held a grand celebration. Only one member of Pierre Laclede Liquist's company, who had planted and named the town, was living. This was the president of the day, Pierre Chouteau. The fine old madame, who had gloried in her brave sons, had passed to the other country. Four mounted Indians in full costume were the bodyguard of the venerable president, and in the carriages were a few withered-up, brown-faced Frenchmen, who had made themselves log houses along those early years and lived their simple lives, raised their families, danced in the merry-makings and now felt almost like aliens.

Gaspard Denys, still hale and hearty, was among them, past eighty, but clear of eye and steady of step. He had seen his godson, young Gaspard, grow up into a fine, manly fellow, marry a sweet girl and have sons to carry on the name. What more could a man ask than a well-used life and a certain share of happiness? But they had gone back on the next rise of ground, for business had seized with its inexorable grasp on the old home where Renée had sat and dreamed beside the great chimney and Mère Lunde had nodded.

Way out to the side of the old pond they had gone, where there was still a forest on one side of them. Great hickories, pecans, trees useful for food and fuel and building houses, long reaches of tangled grapes that made all the air sweet at their blossoming and again at their ripening, fields and meadows, the garden near by, the house with great porches, a wide hall and beautiful stairway, with no need of outside climbing.

"Here we will end our days," Gaspard Denys said to the child of the woman he still dreamed about, more vividly, perhaps, now than at middle life. For there was the wide stone chimney, the great corners in the fireplace. Sometimes on a winter night they stood a pine torch in the corner, and it gave the weird, flickering light they used to love.

Across the hall would be young people dancing. But there was no more Guinolee, no more anxious, eager crowds to see who would get the beans in the cake, no strife to be queens, no anxiety to be chosen kings; that, with other old things, had passed away.

"I wonder," Renée says, smiling absently, "if they have as good times as they used to in old St. Louis? There are so many pleasures now."

No one goes round on New Year's Eve singing songs, saying, "Good-night, master; good-night, mistress. I wish you great joy and good luck."

And this was to be all swept away by the imperious demand of the growing city; but it was true then that Renée and André Valbonais and Gaspard Denys had gone to that country which is never to know any change, for God is in the midst of it.

Before the century was half gone the dream of the old explorers had come true, and many a new explorer gave up his life, as well as De Soto and La Salle. For out on the western coasts, over mountain fastnesses, through gorges and beyond the Mississippi thousands of miles lay the land of gold; lay, too, a new road to India. Out and out on the high ground has stretched the great city. The old mill and the queer winding pond went long ago. The Chouteau house, where there were many gatherings both grave and gay of the older people, is the Merchants' Exchange. Here and there a place is marked by some memento. But when you see the little old map with its Rue this and that, one smiles and contrasts its small levee with the twenty or more miles of water front, kept, too, within bounds, bridged over magnificently. And if its traders are not as picturesque as Indians and voyageurs and trappers in their different attire, they still seem from almost every nation.

Most of the French have gone. There is no exclusive French circle, as in New Orleans. Here and there a family is proud to trace back its ancestry and keep alive the old tongue. But the old houses have disappeared as well. Sometimes one finds one of the second decade, with its gable windows jutting out of the peaked roof, and one waits to see a brown, dried-up, wrinkled face in French coif and gay shoulder shawl peering out, but it is only a dream.

And surely the Germans earned their birthright with the loyalty of those days when the whole country was rent with the throes of civil war. There was a delightful, friendly, well-bred class of planters from the middle Southern States, who had lovely homes in and about the town, and who clung to their traditions, the system of slavery being more to them than a united country. But the patriotism of these adopted citizens, who had learned many wise lessons at a high price, was a wall against which the forces threw themselves to defeat, and again the everlasting truth conquered.

The youth of cities is the childhood of maturer purposes, knowledge, experience. Each brings with it the traditions of race, of surroundings, to outgrow them later on. Does one really sigh for the past, looking at the present? At the towns and cities and the wealth-producing inventions, where the silence of the wilderness reigned a hundred years ago, or broken only by the wild animals that ranged in their depths, and here and there an Indian lodge? And the new race, born of many others, proud, generous, courageous, men of breadth and foresight, who have bridged streams and hewn down mountains, made the solitary gorges familiar pictures to thousands, and have had their wise and earnest opinions moulded into public wisdom and usefulness, mothers who have added sweetness and wholesome nurture and refined daily living, children growing up to transform the beautiful city again, perhaps, though as one walks its splendid streets one wonders if there is any better thing to come, if the genius of man can devise more worthiness.

The new white city may answer it to the countless thousands who will come from all the quarters of the globe.

But the Little Girl and Old St. Louis had their happy day and are garnered among the memories of the past.


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