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The Crossing By Winston Churchill Characters: 27523

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The House above the Falls

It was May-day, and shortly after dawn we slipped into the quiet water which is banked up for many miles above the Falls. The Captain and I sat forward on the deck, breathing deeply the sharp odor which comes from the wet forest in the early morning, listening to the soft splash of the oars, and watching the green form of Eighteen Mile Island as it gently drew nearer and nearer. And ere the sun had risen greatly we had passed Twelve Mile Island, and emerging from the narrow channel which divides Six Mile Island from the northern shore, we beheld, on its terrace above the Bear Grass, Louisville shining white in the morning sun. Majestic in its mile of width, calm, as though gathering courage, the river seemed to straighten for the ordeal to come, and the sound of its waters crying over the rocks far below came faintly to my ear and awoke memories of a day gone by. Fearful of the suck, we crept along the Indian shore until we counted the boats moored in the Bear Grass, and presently above the trees on our right we saw the Stars and Stripes floating from the log bastion of Fort Finney. And below the fort, on the gentle sunny slope to the river's brink, was spread the green garden of the garrison, with its sprouting vegetables and fruit trees blooming pink and white.

We were greeted by a company of buff and blue officers at the landing, and I was bidden to breakfast at their mess, Captain Wendell promising to take me over to Louisville afterwards. He had business in the town, and about eight of the clock we crossed the wide river in one of the barges of the fort and made fast at the landing in the Bear Grass. But no sooner had we entered the town than we met a number of country people on horseback, with their wives and daughters-ay, and sweethearts-perched up behind them: the men mostly in butternut linsey hunting shirts and trousers, slouch hats, and red handkerchiefs stuck into their bosoms; the women marvellously pretty and fresh in stiff cotton gowns and Quaker hats, and some in crimped caps with ribbons neatly tied under the chin. Before Mr. Easton's tavern Joe Handy, the fiddler, was reeling off a few bars of "Hey, Betty Martin" to the familiar crowd of loungers under the big poplar.

"It's Davy Ritchie!" shouted Joe, breaking off in the middle of the tune; "welcome home, Davy. Ye're jest in time for the barbecue on the island."

"And Cap Wendell! Howdy, Cap!" drawled another, a huge, long-haired, sallow, dirty fellow. But the Captain only glared.

"Damn him!" he said, after I had spoken to Joe and we had passed on, "he ought to be barbecued; he nearly bit off Ensign Barry's nose a couple of months ago. Barry tried to stop the beast in a gouging fight."

The bright morning, the shady streets, the homelike frame and log houses, the old-time fragrant odor of corn-pone wafted out of the open doorways, the warm greetings,-all made me happy to be back again. Mr. Crede rushed out and escorted us into his cool store, and while he waited on his country customers bade his negro brew a bowl of toddy, at the mention of which Mr. Bill Whalen, chief habitué, roused himself from a stupor on a tobacco barrel. Presently the customers, having indulged in the toddy, departed for the barbecue, the Captain went to the fort, and Mr. Crede and myself were left alone to talk over the business which had sent me to Philadelphia.

At four o'clock, having finished my report and dined with my client, I set out for Clarksville, for Mr. Crede had told me, among other things, that the General was there. Louisville was deserted, the tavern porch vacant; but tacked on the logs beside the door was a printed bill which drew my curiosity. I stopped, caught by a familiar name in large type at the head of it.




"For raising volunteers for the reduction of the Spanish posts on the Mississippi, for opening the trade of the said river and giving freedom to all its inhabitants-"

I had got so far when I heard a noise of footsteps within, and Mr. Easton himself came out, in his shirt-sleeves.

"By cricky, Davy," said he, "I'm right glad ter see ye ag'in. Readin' the General's bill, are ye? Tarnation, I reckon Washington and all his European fellers east of the mountains won't be able ter hold us back this time. I reckon we'll gallop over Louisiany in the face of all the Spaniards ever created. I've got some new whiskey I 'low will sink tallow. Come in, Davy."

As he took me by the arm, a laughter and shouting came from the back room.

"It's some of them Frenchy fellers come over from Knob Licks. They're in it," and he pointed his thumb over his shoulder to the proclamation, "and thar's one young American among 'em who's a t'arer. Come in."

I drank a glass of Mr. Easton's whiskey, and asked about the General.

"He stays over thar to Clarksville pretty much," said Mr. Easton. "Thar ain't quite so much walkin' araound ter do," he added significantly.

I made my way down to the water-side, where Jake Landrasse sat alone on the gunwale of a Kentucky boat, smoking a clay pipe as he fished. I had to exercise persuasion to induce Jake to paddle me across, which he finally agreed to do on the score of old friendship, and he declared that the only reason he was not at the barbecue was because he was waiting to take a few gentlemen to see General Clark. I agreed to pay the damages if he were late in returning for these gentlemen, and soon he was shooting me with pulsing strokes across the lake-like expanse towards the landing at Fort Finney. Louisville and the fort were just above the head of the Falls, and the little town of Clarksville, which Clark had founded, at the foot of them. I landed, took the road that led parallel with the river through the tender green of the woods, and as I walked the mighty song which the Falls had sung for ages to the Wilderness rose higher and higher, and the faint spray seemed to be wafted through the forest and to hang in the air like the odor of a summer rain.

It was May-day. The sweet, caressing note of the thrush mingled with the music of the water, the dogwood and the wild plum were in festal array; but my heart was heavy with thinking of a great man who had cheapened himself. At length I came out upon a clearing where fifteen log houses marked the grant of the Federal government to Clark's regiment. Perched on a tree-dotted knoll above the last spasm of the waters in their two-mile race for peace, was a two-storied log house with a little, square porch in front of the door. As I rounded the corner of the house and came in sight of the porch I halted-by no will of my own-at the sight of a figure sunken in a wooden chair. It was that of my old Colonel. His hands were folded in front of him, his eyes were fixed but dimly on the forests of the Kentucky shore across the water; his hair, uncared for, fell on the shoulders of his faded blue coat, and the stained buff waistcoat was unbuttoned. For he still wore unconsciously the colors of the army of the American Republic.

"General!" I said.

He started, got to his feet, and stared at me.

"Oh, it's-it's Davy," he said. "I-I was expecting-some friends-Davy. What-what's the matter, Davy?"

"I have been away. I am glad to see you again, General."

"Citizen General, sir, Major-general in the army of the French Republic and Commander-in-chief of the French Revolutionary Legion on the Mississippi."

"You will always be Colonel Clark to me, sir," I answered.

"You-you were the drummer boy, I remember, and strutted in front of the regiment as if you were the colonel. Egad, I remember how you fooled the Kaskaskians when you told them we were going away." He looked at me, but his eyes were still fixed on the point beyond. "You were always older than I, Davy. Are you married?"

In spite of myself, I laughed as I answered this question.

"You are as canny as ever," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,-they are only possible for the bachelor." Hearing a noise, he glanced nervously in the direction of the woods, only to perceive his negro carrying a pail of water. "I-I was expecting some friends," he said. "Sit down, Davy."

"I hope I am not intruding, General," I said, not daring to look at him.

"No, no, my son," he answered, "you are always welcome. Did we not campaign together? Did we not-shoot these very falls together on our way to Kaskaskia?" He had to raise his voice above the roar of the water. "Faith, well I remember the day. And you saved it, Davy,-you, a little gamecock, a little worldly-wise hop-o'-my-thumb, eh? Hamilton's scalp hanging by a lock, egad-and they frightened out of their five wits because it was growing dark." He laughed, and suddenly became solemn again. "There comes a time in every man's life when it grows dark, Davy, and then the cowards are afraid. They have no friends whose hands they can reach out and feel. But you are my friend. You remember that you said you would always be my friend? It-it was in the fort at Vincennes."

"I remember, General."

He rose from the steps, buttoned his waistcoat, and straightened himself with an effort. He looked at me impressively.

"You have been a good friend indeed, Davy, a faithful friend," he said. "You came to me when I was sick, you lent me money,"-he waved aside my protest. "I am happy to say that I shall soon be in a position to repay you, to reward you. My evil days are over, and I spurn that government which spurned me, for the honor and glory of which I founded that city,"-he pointed in the direction of Louisville,-"for the power and wealth of which I conquered this Northwest territory. Listen! I am now in the service of a republic where the people have rights, I am Commander-in-chief of the French Revolutionary Legion on the Mississippi. Despite the supineness of Washington, the American nation will soon be at war with Spain. But my friends-and thank God they are many-will follow me-they will follow me to Natchez and New Orleans,-ay, even to Santa Fé and Mexico if I give the word. The West is with me, and for the West I shall win the freedom of the Mississippi. For France and Liberty I shall win back again Louisiana, and then I shall be a Maréchal de Camp."

I could not help thinking of a man who had not been wont to speak of his intentions, who had kept his counsel for a year before Kaskaskia.

"I need my drummer boy, Davy," he said, his face lighting up, "but he will not be a drummer boy now. He will be a trusted officer of high rank, mind you. Come," he cried, seizing me by the arm, "I will write the commission this instant. But hold! you read French,-I remember the day Father Gibault gave you your first lesson." He fumbled in his pocket, drew out a letter, and handed it to me. "This is from Citizen Michaux, the famous naturalist, the political agent of the French Republic. Read what he has written me."

I read, I fear in a faltering voice:-

"Citoyen Général:

"Un homme qui a donné des preuves de son amour pour la Liberté et de sa haine pour le despotisme ne devait pas s'adresser en vain au ministre de la République fran?aise. Général, il est temps que les Américains libres de l'Ouest soient débarassés d'un ennemie aussi injuste que méprisable."

When I had finished I glanced at the General, but he seemed not to be heeding me. The sun was setting above the ragged line of forest, and a blue veil was spreading over the tumbling waters. He took me by the arm and led me into the house, into a bare room that was all awry. Maps hung on the wall, beside them the General's new commission, rudely framed. Among the littered papers on the table were two whiskey bottles and several glasses, and strewn about were a number of chairs, the arms of which had been whittled by the General's guests. Across the rough mantel-shelf was draped the French tricolor, and before the fireplace on the puncheons lay a huge bearskin which undoubtedly had not been shaken for a year. Picking up a bottle, the General poured out generous helpings in two of the glasses, and handed one to me.

"The mists are bad, Davy," said he; "I-I cannot afford to get the fever now. Let us drink success to the army of the glorious Republic, France."

"Let us drink first, General," I said, "to the old friendship between us."

"Good!" he cried. Tossing off his liquor, he set down the glass and began what seemed a fruitless search among the thousand papers on the table. But at length, with a grunt of satisfaction, he produced a form and held it under my eyes. At the top of the sheet was that much-abused and calumniated lady, the Goddess of Liberty.

"Now," he said, drawing up a chair and dipping his quill into an almost depleted ink-pot, "I have decided to make you, David Ritchie, with full confidence in your ability and loyalty to the rights of liberty and mankind, a captain in the Legion on the Mississippi."

I crossed the room swiftly, and as he put his pen to paper I laid my hand on his arm.

"General, I cannot," I said. I had seen from the first the futility of trying to dissuade him from the expedition, and I knew now that it would never come off. I was willing to make almost any sacrifice rather than offend him, but this I could not allow. The General drew himself up in his chair and stared at me with a flash of his old look.

"You cannot?" he repeated; "you have affairs to attend to, I take it."

I tried to speak, but he rode me down.

"There is money to be made in that prosperous town of Louisville." He did not understand

the pain which his words caused me. He rose and laid his hands affectionately on my shoulders. "Ah, Davy, commerce makes a man timid. Do you forget the old days when I was the father and you the son? Come! I will make you a fortune undreamed of, and you shall be my fianancier once more."

"I had not thought of the money, General," I answered, "and I have always been ready to leave my business to serve a friend."

"There, there," said the General, soothingly, "I know it. I would not offend you. You shall have the commission, and you may come when it pleases you."

He sat down again to write, but I restrained him.

"I cannot go, General," I said.

"Thunder and fury," cried the General, "a man might think you were a weak-kneed Federalist." He stared at me, and stared again, and rose and recoiled a step. "My God," he said, "you cannot be a Federalist, you can't have marched to Kaskaskia and Vincennes, you can't have been a friend of mine and have seen how the government of the United States has treated me, and be a Federalist!"

It was an argument and an appeal which I had foreseen, yet which I knew not how to answer. Suddenly there came, unbidden, his own counsel which he had given me long ago, "Serve the people, as all true men should in a Republic, but do not rely upon their gratitude." This man had bidden me remember that.

"General," I said, trying to speak steadily, "it was you who gave me my first love for the Republic. I remember you as you stood on the heights above Kaskaskia waiting for the sun to go down, and you reminded me that it was the nation's birthday. And you said that our nation was to be a refuge of the oppressed of this earth, a nation made of all peoples, out of all time. And you said that the lands beyond," and I pointed to the West as he had done, "should belong to it until the sun sets on the sea again."

I glanced at him, for he was silent, and in my life I can recall no sadder moment than this. The General heard, but the man who had spoken these words was gone forever. The eyes of this man before me were fixed, as it were, upon space. He heard, but he did not respond; for the spirit was gone. What I looked upon was the tortured body from which the genius-the spirit I had worshipped-had fled. I turned away, only to turn back in anger.

"What do you know of this France for which you are to fight?" I cried. "Have you heard of the thousands of innocents who are slaughtered, of the women and children who are butchered in the streets in the name of Liberty? What have those blood-stained adventurers to do with Liberty, what have the fish-wives who love the sight of blood to do with you that would fight for them? You warned me that this people and this government to which you have given so much would be ungrateful,-will the butchers and fish-wives be more grateful?"

He caught only the word grateful, and he rose to his feet with something of the old straightness and of the old power. And by evil chance his eye, and mine, fell upon a sword hanging on the farther wall. Well I remembered when he had received it, well I knew the inscription on its blade, "Presented by the State of Virginia to her beloved son, George Rogers Clark, who by the conquest of Illinois and St. Vincennes extended her empire and aided in the defence of her liberties." By evil chance, I say, his eye lighted on that sword. In three steps he crossed the room to where it hung, snatched it from its scabbard, and ere I could prevent him he had snapped it across his knee and flung the pieces in a corner.

"So much for the gratitude of my country," he said.

* * *

I had gone out on the little porch and stood gazing over the expanse of forest and waters lighted by the afterglow. Then I felt a hand upon my shoulder, I heard a familiar voice calling me by an old name.

"Yes, General!" I turned wonderingly.

"You are a good lad, Davy. I trust you," he said. "I-I was expecting some friends."

He lifted a hand that was not too steady to his brow and scanned the road leading to the fort. Even as he spoke four figures emerged from the woods,-undoubtedly the gentlemen who had held the council at the inn that afternoon. We watched them in silence as they drew nearer, and then something in the walk and appearance of the foremost began to bother me. He wore a long, double-breasted, claret-colored redingote that fitted his slim figure to perfection, and his gait was the easy gait of a man who goes through the world careless of its pitfalls. So intently did I stare that I gave no thought to those who followed him. Suddenly, when he was within fifty paces, a cry escaped me,-I should have known that smiling, sallow, weakly handsome face anywhere in the world.

The gentleman was none other than Monsieur Auguste de St. Gré. At the foot of the steps he halted and swept his hand to his hat with a military salute.

"Citizen General," he said gracefully, "we come and pay our respec's to you and mek our report, and ver' happy to see you look well. Citoyens, Vive la République!-Hail to the Citizen General!"

"Vive la République! Vive le Général!" cried the three citizens behind him.

"Citizens, you are very welcome," answered the General, gravely, as he descended the steps and took each of them by the hand. "Citizens, allow me to introduce to you my old friend, Citizen David Ritchie-"

"Milles diables!" cried the Citizen St. Gré, seizing me by the hand, "c'est mon cher ami, Monsieur Reetchie. Ver' happy you have this honor, Monsieur;" and snatching his wide-brimmed military cocked hat from his head he made me a smiling, sweeping bow.

"What!" cried the General to me, "you know the Sieur de St. Gré, Davy?"

"He is my guest once in Louisiane, mon général," Monsieur Auguste explained; "my family knows him."

"You know the Sieur de St. Gré, Davy?" said the General again.

"Yes, I know him," I answered, I fear with some brevity.

"Podden me," said Auguste, "I am now Citizen Captain de St. Gré. And you are also embark in the glorious cause-Ah, I am happy," he added, embracing me with a winning glance.

I was relieved from the embarrassment of denying the impeachment by reason of being introduced to the other notables, to Citizen Captain Sullivan, who wore an undress uniform consisting of a cotton butternut hunting shirt. He had charge on the Bear Grass of building the boats for the expedition, and was likewise a prominent member of that august body, the Jacobin Society of Lexington. Next came Citizen Quartermaster Depeau, now of Knob Licks, Kentucky, sometime of New Orleans. The Citizen Quartermaster wore his hair long in the backwoods fashion; he had a keen, pale face and sunken eyes.

"Ver' glad mek you known to me, Citizen Reetchie."

The fourth gentleman was likewise French, and called Gignoux. The Citizen Gignoux made some sort of an impression on me which I did not stop to analyze. He was a small man, with a little round hand that wriggled out of my grasp; he had a big French nose, bright eyes that popped a little and gave him the habit of looking sidewise, and grizzled, chestnut eyebrows over them. He had a thin-lipped mouth and a round chin.

"Citizen Reetchie, is it? I laik to know citizen's name glorified by gran' cause. Reetchie?"

"Will you enter, citizens?" said the General.

I do not know why I followed them unless it were to satisfy a devil-prompted curiosity as to how Auguste de St. Gré had got there. We went into the room, where the General's slovenly negro was already lighting the candles and the General proceeded to collect and fill six of the glasses on the table. It was Citizen Captain Sullivan who gave the toast.

"Citizens," he cried, "I give you the health of the foremost apostle of Liberty in the Western world, the General who tamed the savage tribes, who braved the elements, who brought to their knees the minions of a despot king." A slight suspicion of a hiccough filled this gap. "Cast aside by an ungrateful government, he is still unfaltering in his allegiance to the people. May he lead our Legion victorious through the Spanish dominions."

"Vive la République!" they shouted, draining their glasses. "Vive le citoyen général Clark!"

"Louisiana!" shouted Citizen Sullivan, warming, "Louisiana, groaning under oppression and tyranny, is imploring us with uplifted hands. To those remaining veteran patriots whose footsteps we followed to this distant desert, and who by their blood and toil have converted it into a smiling country, we now look. Under your guidance, Citizen General, we fought, we bled-"

How far the Citizen Captain would have gone is problematical. I had noticed a look of disgust slowly creeping into the Citizen Quartermaster's eyes, and at this juncture he seized the Citizen Captain and thrust him into a chair.

"Sacré vent!" he exclaimed, "it is the proclamation-he recites the proclamation! I see he have participate in those handbill. Poof, the world is to conquer,-let us not spik so much."

"I give you one toast," said the little Citizen Gignoux, slyly, "we all bring back one wife from Nouvelle Orléans!"

"Ha," exclaimed the Sieur de St. Gré, laughing, "the Citizen Captain Depeau-he has already one wife in Nouvelle Orléans." 1

1 It is unnecessary for the editor to remind the reader that these are not Mr. Ritchie's words, but those of an adventurer. Mr. Depeau was an honest and worthy gentleman, earnest enough in a cause which was more to his credit than to an American's. According to contemporary evidence, Madame Depeau was in New Orleans.

The Citizen Quartermaster was angry at this, and it did not require any great perspicacity on my part to discover that he did not love the Citizen de St. Gré.

"He is call in his country, Gumbo de St. Gré," said Citizen Depeau. "It is a deesh in that country. But to beesness, citizens,-we embark on glorious enterprise. The King and Queen of France, she pay for her treason with their haids, and we must be prepare' for do the sem."

"Ha," exclaimed the Sieur de St. Gré, "the Citizen Quartermaster will lose his provision before his haid."

The inference was plain, and the Citizen Quartermaster was quick to take it up.

"We are all among frien's," said he. "Why I call you Gumbo de St. Gré? When I come first settle in Louisiane you was wild man-yes. Drink tafia, fight duel, spend family money. Aristocrat then. No, I not hold my tongue. You go France and Monsieur le Marquis de St. Gré he get you in gardes du corps of the King. Yes, I tell him. You tell the Citizen General how come you Jacobin now, and we see if he mek you Captain."

A murmur of surprise escaped from several of the company, and they all stared at the Sieur de St. Gré. But General Clark brought down his fist on the table with something of his old-time vigor, and the glasses rattled.

"Gentlemen, I will have no quarrelling in my presence," he cried; "and I beg to inform Citizen Depeau that I bestow my commissions where it pleases me."

Auguste de St. Gré rose, flushing, to his feet. "Citizens," he said, with a fluency that was easy for him, "I never mek secret of my history-no. It is true my relation, Monsieur le Marquis de St. Gré, bought me a pair of colors in the King's gardes du corps."

"And is it not truth you tremple the coackade, what I hear from Philadelphe?" cried Depeau.

Monsieur Auguste smiled with a patient tolerance.

"If you hev pains to mek inquiry," said he, "you must learn that I join le Marquis de La Fayette and the National Guard. That I have since fight for the Revolution. That I am come now home to fight for Louisiane, as Monsieur Genêt will tell you whom I saw in Philadelphe."

"The Citizen Capitaine-he spiks true."

All eyes were turned towards Gignoux, who had been sitting back in his chair, very quiet.

"It is true what he say," he repeated, "I have it by Monsieur Genêt himself."

"Gentlemen," said General Clark, "this is beside the question, and I will not have these petty quarrels. I may as well say to you now that I have chosen the Citizen Captain to go at once to New Orleans and organize a regiment among the citizens there faithful to France. On account of his family and supposed Royalist tendencies he will not be suspected. I fear that a month at least has yet to elapse before our expedition can move."

"It is one wise choice," put in Monsieur Gignoux.

"Monsieur le général and gentlemen," said the Sieur de St. Gré, gracefully, "I thank you ver' much for the confidence. I leave by first flatboat and will have all things stir up when you come. The citizens of Louisiane await you. If necessair, we have hole in levee ready to cut."

"Citizens," interrupted General Clark, sitting down before the ink-pot, "let us hear the Quartermaster's report of the supplies at Knob Licks, and Citizen Sullivan's account of the boats. But hold," he cried, glancing around him, "where is Captain Temple? I heard that he had come to Louisville from the Cumberland to-day. Is he not going with you to New Orleans, St. Gré?"

I took up the name involuntarily.

"Captain Temple," I repeated, while they stared at me. "Nicholas Temple?"

It was Auguste de St. Gré who replied.

"The sem," he said. "I recall he was along with you in Nouvelle Orléans. He is at ze tavern, and he has had one gran' fight, and he is ver'-I am sorry-intoxicate-"

I know not how I made my way through the black woods to Fort Finney, where I discovered Jake Landrasse and his canoe. The road was long, and yet short, for my brain whirled with the expectation of seeing Nick again, and the thought of this poor, pathetic, ludicrous expedition compared to the sublime one I had known.

George Rogers Clark had come to this!

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