A Twelve Night Tale of Old CahokiaBy JOHN J. DUNPHY
My Second Reading Book Shop never ceases to amaze and delight me!
For some time I had been hoping that material dealing with the French experience in early southern Illinois would come my way so that I could share it with you in the pages of Springhouse. As most of you surely know, the French-founded settlements of Cahokia and Kaskaskia were the earliest European communities in what would later become the Egypt region of the Prairie State but, to date, our magazine has paid little attention to this interesting chapter in our area's history.
Darn it, I thought, if only some material about the history or folklore of "French Egypt" would pass through the portals of the Second Reading. And then last week, I got my wish.
A book acquired as part of a generous package deal for the shop caught my eye. Well, with a title like Heroes, Outlaws, & Funny Fellows of American Popular Tales (by Olive Beaupre Miller; Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942), how could it not? Celtic romanticist that I am, folklore is among the great passions of my life (the greatest passion, of course, is Susan).
But back to the book. A scan of the table of contents revealed some intriguing items that would whet any folklorist's appetite: tales of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Mike Fink, Pecos Bill, and the ubiquitous Johnny Appleseed made this book one that I would definitely read before placing it on the shelves for ready purchase. But, to and behold, one chapter title virtually leaped off the page at me: "A Twelfth Night Prank in Cahokia: A Folk Tale of the French in Illinois and Missouri."
Needless to say, the book's other folk tales immediately took a back seat to this particular entry. And yes, I found the story delightful. For those of you who may not know, Twelfth Night is January 6, the twelfth night after Christmas and more commonly known today as Epiphany, the commemoration of the Wise Men finally finding the Christ Child after their long journey. In years past, Twelfth Night marked the formal end of the Christmas season and was widely-celebrated .... just as it is in this tale of old Cahokia.
I sincerely hope that you are able to locate a copy of this old book but, for those Springhouse readers who lack the patience and perseverance to rummage through second-hand book shops, I'll summarize this particular tale for you.
Our story begins in Cahokia on New Year's Eve. The French traditionally celebrated that joyous night with strolling bands of revelers in costumes and masks who journeyed from house to house. Upon being invited in, they would sing some light-hearted old airs and then partake of the Guignolee, a traditional New Year's Eve repast of wine and cakes.
On that New Year's Eve, the revelers who entered the Florian household included one Gwen Malhon, a prosperous but rather dull gentleman whose heart yearned for the beautiful Louison Florian. Although the fair damsel wanted nothing to do with poor Gwen, her father considered him quite a catch who would make an excellent husband.
After revealing such a warm welcome from Louison's father on New Year's Eve, Gwen began coming to the house every day to press his suit. But Louison's heart belonged only to Beaurain, a flamboyant adventurer with a taste for wanderlust. At that time, Beaurain was touring with a troupe of actors, presenting merry little plays in the tiny French settlements along the Mississippi. When Louison realized that her father fully intended to marry her off to the unloved and unlovable Gwen, she sent an Indian runner with a frantic letter to her paramour. If only Beaurain could be found, she thought, all might not be lost.
Then came Twelfth Night, the evening of the King's Ball which would finally conclude the holiday season. The Kings' Ball, so named for the three kings who brought gifts to the Christ Child on that day so many centuries before, was an eagerly-awaited gala event. The tiny wooden courthouse, where the ball was traditionally held in old Cahokia, was richly furbished with evergreen cuttings and lighted by 13 holy fires. The largest fire was said to represent Christ, the Light of the World, while the other fires stood for his apostles. The smallest fire symbolized Judas Iscariot and would be stamped out by the crowd at the ball's conclusion to demonstrate their contempt for the Great Traitor.
On a table stood the grand Twelfth Night cake and somewhere in it was hidden a ring. The man who found that ring in his slice of cake won the title King of the Festival and earned the right to choose the most beautiful woman there as his Queen.
Needless to say, Gwen dearly hoped to find the ring in his cake slice. In any event, he decided that this was the night when he would ask Louison to become his wife.
The ball was about to begin, but one rather important ingredient was lacking: music! There was no fiddler present! Gwen volunteered to find one and went to the riverfront where there was always someone fiddling a tune. His search yielded a fiddler, all right, but a strange one indeed: some would even say an eerie one. Dressed in a long black cloak, he had a fierce mustache, shaggy eyebrows, a scraggly beard like a goat's, and bright, gleaming eyes.
And if his appearance wasn't intimidating enough, the fiddler's words were positively bloodcurdling. Oh, he promised to play for the ball-goers. In fact, he promised something to the effect, "I'll play the one tune I know! It's called 'I've Come Back from the Grave!'"
Upon hearing this, poor Gwen's heart skipped a beat. Who was this creature from the riverfront? A demon? The very Devil himself?
Arriving at the ball, the fiddler made a beeline for Louison who let out a startled cry when she saw his face. Then she suddenly turned and took a slice of cake that she gave to the stranger. In it he found the ring!
"I choose this lovely woman as my Queen!" he cried, much to dismay of Gwen and horror of everyone else. And then he began to play his fiddle.
Never had there been such music in Cahokia - or anywhere else on earth, thought the astonished guests. But, somehow, it was absolutely irresistible and soon everyone was dancing, caught up in a feverish rhythm that seemingly made one's feet twitch with a life and mind of their own. All present were captivated by the madness - except Louison, who just stood near the fiddler and favored him with her most beguiling smile.
This infuriated Gwen who cried out, "It's the Devil who plays! Get some holy water and sprinkle it on the floor!" Gwen made a mad rush for the barrel on which the fiddler sat but, being his usual clumsy self, bumped into another dancer and tumbled to the floor. Suddenly, all the lights in the room went out! The fiddler's voice roared in the darkness, "By right of the ring, the girl is mine!" and footsteps were heard going out the door.
After a few moments some candles were found, but the fiddler was indeed gone as was Louison. On the floor lay the fiddler's imposing black cloak - along with half of a false mustache.
When Gwen and his friends dashed from the courthouse to the river, they just caught a glimpse of two figures in a boat moving down the Mississippi. Was it indeed the Prince of Darkness who had taken his beloved Louison, the heartbroken Gwen wondered?
Readers by now have probably guessed that the mysterious fiddler was none other than Beaurain, summoned by the letter that Louison had given to the Indian runner. The holy fires within the courthouse had been extinguished on cue by Beaurain's allies to allow the pair to escape from the King's Ball. And poor Gwen? It was said that he remained convinced all his days that Louison had been carried off by the Devil and never told the story of her abduction without first crossing himself and muttering a prayer.
I found the story utterly charming and welcome this opportunity to reintroduce it to southern Illinoisans and all Springhouse readers. And the very warmest of holiday greetings to readers from the Sage of Metro-East!
[Source: John J. Dunphy. December 1994. "A Twelfth Night Tale of Old Cahokia. Springhouse. 11:6. 12-13.]
Created October 9, 2003 by Jon Musgrave © 2003