The Devil's Bridge
Le Pont du Diable
relocated and retold by Marilyn Kinsella
Many Southern Illinois villages were settled along the Mississippi River. Many of us have heard of Prairie DuPont, Prairie DuRocher and, of course...Cahokia. But some of the villages no longer exist. And others, perhaps, were the mere products of legend. The French settlement that I will tell you about no longer exists, but this story lives on.
A long time ago a little French village lay high up in the bluffs of the Mississippi. It was perched on the edge of a deep gorge. There was only one way in and out of that village and that was a stone bridge across the gorge. And to all the French settlers that bridge was the most important thing in their lives.
The farmers used it every day to drive their cattle and carts of grain down to the landing of the great river several miles on the other side of the gorge.
It was a beautiful bridge that arched over the gorge like a rainbow. It was made from the shiny quartzite rocks from the nearby bluffs. It was so high that children could throw a rock from the bridge and count to five before they heard it crash on the rocks or splash in the riverlet below. They had a chant as they threw the rock...
"Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, crash-ah!
Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, splash-ah!
Then they would make a wish and run to the other side.
But it was a bit odd. For no one in the village - not even the old stonemason, Pierre - knew when the bridge had been built..or how...or by whom. All the stones in had been cut to perfection and fitted together so precisely that it was hard to believe that the bridge was man-made. In fact, it had been rumored that it had been built by the Devil...le diable. Or as the French settlers like to call him...Monsieur Ropotuo.
One night there was a great thunderstorm. And those of you who have lived along the Mississippi know only too well how the rain can pour with great claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. It often sounds like the end of the world. Well, that was the kind of storm that blew across that tiny French village. People lay shaking in their beds. They were too frightened to even get up and put pots and pans on the floor to catch the streams of water that poured through the roofs of all the houses...les mansion.
All night the storm raged. Then, towards morning there was an enormous clap of thunder and a roaring sound of crashing rocks. It sounded as though part of the bluff had fallen into the gorge. Then the storm stopped. All was quiet. One by one the people came out of there homes. At first everything seemed okay. Then someone yelled, "Mon Dieu! Le pont!"
Everyone ran to the edge of the gorge and looked down on what was left of their beautiful bridge - a pile of rubble strewn down into the riverlet.
"It must have been the bridge falling that made such a roaring noise," said a plump, little man. He was the mayor of the village.
"What are we going to do now?" asked a farmer. "How will we ever get back and forth to the landing? Without supplies from the flat boats we will surely perish."
"That's right," said another, "we can't live here without a bridge. We must build a new one."
"The way I see it, there is only one who can help us...Pierre, the stone mason."
"Pierre?" replied another villager. "But he is far too old."
"Yes, Pierre is old, but he is very wise. Someone fetch Pierre."
So they sent someone to fetch Pierre, who lived in a little stone hut on the edge of the village. Old Pierre did not see or hear very well and his back was bent from carrying stones all his life. But his heart was merry and he never complained.
When Pierre came to the place where the bridge had been, he stood for a long time shaking his head.
"Do you think you can build us a new bridge?" asked the mayor.
"How long will it take?" asked an anxious farmer.
Old Pierre sighed. "If I had a hundred men to help me and each of them was a master stonemason, I could build the bridge in a hundred days. But, by myself, I couldn't do it in a hundred years."
The villagers groaned when they heard that. They knew that Pierre was telling the truth. If he couldn't help them no one could.
Just then a tall stranger stepped up to the mayor. The villagers began to talk and point at him. Why, he looked like a nobleman from far off France in his fine brocade suit and bright silk tie around his neck. He wore a large black hat with a matching silk scarf. He walked with a noticeable limp and leaned heavily on a cane with a fine silver handle. He smiled a crooked smile, but he talked friendly enough. However the dogs...les chien...growled and backed away as he came close to them.
"Pardon my intrusion," said the stranger with a voice as smooth as his silk scarves, "but you people seem to be having a problem. Possibly, I can help."
"If only you could!" cried the mayor. "We've lost our bridge during the storm last night and without it we are cut off from the rest of the world."
"Well, well," replied the stranger. "Tsk, tsk tsk, That is a calamity. Is there nothing you can do?"
"We asked the village stonemason but he said it would take a hundred men a hundred days. Do you know of any stonebuilders?"
With a crooked smile the stranger replied, "Well now, it just so happens that I do. You see, I'm a builder of bridges myself. I've built some of the finest bridges in the world. To build one like yours would be child's play for me. But, of course, you can't expect me to build it for nothing now can you?"
(Ahem) "Of course not. How much do you want?"
"What will you pay me?"
Now the mayor was not a generous man. In fact, he was known to be downright stingy. He was always trying to get the best bargain he could. So he close his eyes for a few minutes before be said anything.
"I'll tell you what we'll do," he said finally. "We'll give you three of our finest milking cows if you will build our bridge."
"Including the milk," said the mayor's wife.
(Laughing) "You must be joking," said the stranger. "Only fools would believe I need cows for my milk." He stepped over to rain barrel filled with the storm's rainwater. He struck the side of the barrel sharply with his cane. Instantly, all the water in the barrel turned into rich creamy milk.
The crowd let out a gasp of surprise. The mayor looked stunned, but he was not prepared to give up.
"Did I say cows? How silly of me. I meant three bags of gold - a hundred pieces of gold. That's a king's ransom."
"Gold? Gold means nothing to me! I can make my own gold. WATCH!" He picked up a stone from the ground - a common ordinary rock - and threw it high into the air and caught it with one hand. When he opened his hand there lay a shining nugget of pure gold. "That's all gold is worth to me."
The crowd of people gasped in wonder. This time the mayor closed his eyes and finally said, "We are ruined, desperate. This is what we will do for you. We'll build you the finest house in the village, and we'll work for you part-time throughout the year and it will cost you nothing."
"Not a single penny," said the mayor's wife.
This time the stranger did not laugh. "At least now you are making a little more sense. But you must understand that I already have beautiful homes in every town, in every city in the world. And in all of those places I have men women and children working for me - not part-time, but full time. You can't suppose that I would be willing to stay more than a day in this little village. Surely by now you have guessed who I am."
Everyone stood in stunned silence. They looked at each other puzzling over this stranger.
Finally a little girl spoke up. "I know who you are," she cried. "You are the devil...le diable."
The stranger took off his hat and made a deep bow to the little girl. "You are very astute, my dear. I am the devil or if you like Monsieur Ropotou. I, however, like to call myself a collector.
"What do you collect?" asked the mayor.
"Why, I'm a collector of souls. I collect souls of men, women and children. I have the biggest collection of souls in the world. I will build your bridge for you, and the one thing that I demand is the soul of the first person who crosses the new bridge. That's my price. Take it or leave it."
Everyone was silent. They had never heard of such a price. They were afraid to agree to it and they were afraid not to agree to it. The mayor shut his eyes and wrung his hands. Although he didn't want harm to come to anyone, he knew a greater harm would come to them all if the bridge was not built. Then he thought that perhaps someone they did not know might come along and be the first to cross the bridge. It might even be an evil person whose soul already belonged to the devil.
"You are asking a high price indeed, Monsieur Ropotou. But a price we will have to accept."
Tres bien! Now we'll put our bargain in writing and you will have to sign it in blood."
So the agreement was written on a sheet of paper, and with a great deal of moaning and groaning the mayor cut his thumb with a little knife and drew enough blood to sign his name.
Monsieur Ropotou took the sheet of paper carefully folded it and put it in his vest pocket. What he did next surprised the villagers. He squatted on the ground and began to make something that looked like a toy bridge. First, he scraped a little trench in the dirt with the end of his cane. That was the gorge. Then he piled little pebbles on each side of the trench, placing some of the bigger ones across the top. That was the bridge. Then he sprinkled a circle of black powder around the tiny bridge. No one was quite sure was that was. Finally, he stood up and recited words in a strange language:
"Veni, vidi, vici.
Multum bonum mihi."
At that there was a bright flash of light and loud explosion. "Viola, look! Your bridge is ready now!"
The villagers looked. " C'est magnifit!" They stared it with eyes and mouths opened wide. Then they started to back away for no one, no one was willing to be the first to cross that bridge. Mothers held their children tightly by the hand to prevent them from running across. The devil twirled his cane and looked exceedingly proud of himself.
Everyone was admiring the bridge so that no one noticed old Pierre when he climbed down the side of the gorge. Even though he almost slipped and fell many times he finally reached the bottom. Then painfully, slowly he climbed up to the other side of the other side of the gorge. He walked to the far end of the bridge. Still no one noticed Pierre until he shouted, "Monsieur Ropotou has cheated us! This bridge isn't safe to cross! It will fall into the gorge if anyone dares walk across it."
When the devil heard Pierre his face turned purple with anger. He stamped his foot. He jumped up and down. "What are saying, you old fool? An army could cross this bridge, riding on elephants pulling ten tons of gold. Nothing can destroy it. Nothing I say!"
"I can't hear you very well," answered old Pierre, "but even with my old eyes i can see that on this side the stones are loose and ready to fall. You are trying to trick us."
"C'est Impossible! You're and old fool out of his mind!"
"See for yourself. I am a stonemason...a master stonemason and I know what I'm talking about."
When he heard that the devil went into a wild rage. In spite of his limp the devil raced across the bridge and seized the old stonemason by the shoulders and shook him.
"Fool, ninny! There's not a weak spot in this bridge."
Pierre smiled, "Perhaps the devil's the fool. Don't you see that you are the first person to cross this bridge" Now you can take your own soul, if you have a soul. And if you don't have a soul, you won't be out anything."
The devil said not a word. he stood rigid with anger. He knew he had been outwitted. Slowly he walked to the middle of the bridge and climbed up the stone rail. He turned to the villagers and said quietly, "Even though you have cheated me out of my pay, I shall let you keep this bridge. But I warn you...the devil shall has his due, and some day...some day some of you will fall into my power. And when that happens, you will know that the devil has a long memory...a very long memory indeed."
Then he dove over the side of the bridge. An enormous hole gushing flames and heavy sulfuric smoke opened to receive him. Then the hole closed. Nothing was left of the devil.
Everyone shivered and all was silent til one villager shouted with joy, then another, then another til the whole 1village was shouting and laughing with joy. They ran across the bridge and carried old Pierre on their shoulders back across the bridge and through the village.
"You were a brave man," said the mayor. "It is not everyone who would be clever enough to trick the devil."
The villagers did not give Pierre a new house, or a hundred pieces of gold or three cows. They offered all those things, but Pierre refused. When they asked what he wanted he said, "Laughter, laughter every day in the week."
Like I said in the beginning of the story...this village no longer exists. All that is left is this story. But they do say that there is place in Southern Illinois where a gorge exists. Perhaps, it is the place where this story happened. For anyone who drops a stone over the edge and counts "Un, deus, trois quatre, cinq" and listens, they can hear the faint, far-away sound of laughter. Some say that is Monsieur Ropotou... the collector of souls.
Taleypo's notes: The devil getting cheated out of his payment of a human soul is a common theme in folk literature. Take a look at Ashliman's folk text site: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type1191.html
The story from which I based this localized legend was from a book of French folktales. This was one of the stories. I don't have the name of the book. I will continue to try to find it.
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