Home  

Chapter VI

The Gröt Vly's Victime

From "The Land Of Rip Van Winkle" (1884)
By A.E.P. Searling

Text Box:

HOOSING the low level ridges that skirt the foot of the Catskills, with a discernment unrivalled in the history of early Dutch high­ ways, runs the "Old King's Road," as it has been called since it served the postcarriers in old colony days. The comparative directness of that road and its easy rises, you will never realize till you have been obliged to make a hurried journey across country by any of the ways laid out by the old settlers, and then you will find yourself obliged

to wind over hills and through valleys in a way that produces very picturesque impressions of the scenery, but equally vivid convictions concerning the deserts of that Dutchman who made the journey ten miles long, when, as the bird flies, it was but four. However, nobody has any business to be in a hurry in this region, and, with human nature's true perversity, you resent in this case the very directness of the route that hurries you past such vistas of peaceful fields and winding streams.

Nothing could be lovelier than the views of the mountains toward the west, or of the Hudson River on the east, that open between trees or around jutting corners of the curious formation of rocks, whose perpendicular sides guard the way for a long distance like fortresses. Along this highway in the stirring times of the Revolution, passed many and strange figures - Whig and Tory, Indian and British spy, stout vrouws and blushing maidens, on errands of loyalty or treachery, love or hate, and each carried a weapon of defence, whether blunderbuss, pistol, or knife, hidden in the bosom. The whole way is rife with memories of old days, and the aroma of Indian superstition.

On a commanding hill stands Caatsban church, with a settle rnent of farm-houses clustered about it much as chickens huddle about the mother hen for protection. Over toward the river stretches away the black waste of marsh called by the Dutch the Gröt Vly, holding in its bottomless depths one of those Indian demons that the Dutch held in very respectful veneration, for heathen deities of fell power. This particular old deity seemed to have a special love for young girls, and more particularly for those who were already held in like estimation by the more attractive gallants of flesh and blood. Certain it is that on certain nights of the year he was wont to rise up from his watery bed, when woe to the luckless woman, beloved of man, who might be wandering near

At the time of which I write, Burgoyne was advancing on Saratoga, the British were holding New York, and this broad river-valley was one of the most important keys to unlock the problem of the Revolution. The staunch Dutch were holding out well, keeping strict watch of Tory neighbors, lest some messenger should get up or down the valley to effect a junction of British forces, but rumors finally came that Brant was advancing toward the mountains from Niagara, and that thought brought dismay to even their stout hearts.

One September evening the mountains were hurling down shot and shell of a mightier kind than human hand could devise. The thunder and lightning came booming and flashing through the clove as if the great Manitou who dwells in their secret places had determined to vent his wrath on the dwellers below. In vain, however, did they besiege the parsonage where Domine Van Vlierden and his family sat around the great fire in peace and. safety. The smoke from the good man's pipe ascended the blaz­ing cavern on one side the hearth, while on the other side sat his broad wife, with placid, close-capped face, knitting stockings that might have been meant for a giant, so wide in the calf and long in the leg were they. The Domine was one of those pastors who played so important a part in the early history of New York State, and who were to the people of their respective parishes at once pastor, magistrate, physician, and military leader. He had a shrewd eye, and beneath his outer appearance of lethargy was a quick brain. With an education acquired at Leyden, and a man­ ner and method of speech above his parishioners, he readily gained over them a great power, and ruled his people, from Catskill to Kingston and far beyond the mountains, with the undisputed sway of an autocrat, while his wife, styled by the country people the "Yvrouw," ruled him in turn. The two children crouching in the corner of the great settle were miniature copies, in face, figure, and dress, of their parents.

"It will be a great storm, Yvrouw," said the domine, using the vernacular then growing among the North River Dutch; "best get to kindern to bet."

As the wife rose to carry out this suggestion, a terrific blast shook the door on its great brass hinges, threatening to tear apart the two halves, and she paused as if listening to a knock. Just then another and fiercer blast drove in the upper door, bringing with it a hurricane of wind and rain, and displaying the figure of a woman thrown in strong relief against the outer blackness by the rays from the fire.

"Got in de himelin!" cried the now frightened Yvrouw, while the children shuddered and shrank still farther into their corner. The domine, however, went and pulled in the stranger and barred the door. Who was she? Some spirit driven down the wild clove in the storm, or a spy? To the wife and children she seemed the former, but the domine's darkened brow gave out his suspicions of the latter. The slaves from the outer kitchen, having heard the clatter and bang, were now chattering and crowding in the inner doorway, their eyes wide with terror, while the children's fairly started from their heads, and they held up their arms before their faces as a defence.

Something absurd in the picture before her seemed to strike the new-comer, for glancing around her she lifted her head, letting fall the hood of her cloak, and laughed a long silvery peal, very unlike the usual "haw-haws" of the country side. This seemed to break the spell, for a torrent of questions was now poured forth, to all of which there was no answer save a smiling shake of the head and a reiterated inquiry for "Pierre Dubois." Now Pierre Dubois was a French Huguenot who lived a mile farther on the road, and nothing could be done that night but get the poor girl dry and then to bed, waiting for morning to bring Pierre, when he was expected to join the domine in a trip to the part of the parish that lay beyond the mountains. So the blacks were sent off to their quarters, the children hurried to bed, and then dry garments brought to replace the foreign-looking clothes in which the stranger was clad. As she sat by the fire drying her wavy black locks, the domine eyed well her beautiful face with the soft eyes and the brilliant expression, thinking she was not at all like Pierre or Pierre's sort of folk. Pierre was short and stooping, while her figure was slim and tall with a sort of commanding carriage. As for the Yvrouw, she watched over the clicking needles, being rather distrustful of her strange appearing, illuminated so against the outer blackness; and then her very clothes were uncanny, the red-lined cloak and high-waisted, clinging skirts being any thing but Dutch in their pretty fashioning.

Morning brought light on the dark subject. The Yvrouw was awakened at early dawn by the same ringing laughter that startled her the previous night, and hurrying down stairs she found Pierre already arrived, and talking with the stranger in the open door­way. The man's face was a picture of horrified surprise he stood stupidly staring, but the lady came forward and kissed the Yvrouw's hand saying, in her sweet voice, "Bon jour, madame." Charmed, in spite of her stolid self, at the winning gesture, the Yvrouw looked inquiringly at Pierre, who seemed to have so scanty a welcome for this traveller. The girl spoke to him quickly in French, and this seemed to rouse his wandering wits.

"Oh, yes," he said hurriedly, " this will be my - my niece, your ladyship - I mean Yvrouw, who has come all the way from Paris to me here, and she was brought last night from Sopus in all the storm! Mon dieu, mon dieu!" he said, throwing up his hands, " to think that the winds and rains of heaven should dare to beat on that head!"

His wild gesture receiving a warning glance from the head in question, stopped all further speech on his part till soon the domine appeared on the scene. Then it was explained that his niece spoke only French, having, however, a little knowledge of the English, and she wished to teach embroidery and fine needle­work to the women and children as soon as she could learn enough of the language. Old Pierre begged that she might remain with the Yvrouw, as she was not used to the hardships and rough living of his family.

"She came from beautiful Paris, you know, sir, whilst I have lived most of my life in Provence."

So at last it was all arranged, and Sophie Dubois settled down into the ways of the parsonage, translating herself into a spirit of usefulness.

"It vill be vondershone vat Sophie ken do," said the Yvrouw very soon, " from the domine to to kindern, she vill pe for helping us." With her wit and high spirits she soon became the delight not only of the parsonage, but of the whole community, and no husking-bee or frolic was complete without her. She taught them pretty dances and strange foreign games; she sang songs grave and gay, till tears and laughter dwelt together on their honest faces, and yet she never came to be quite one of themselves. There were limits to her reserve which the boldest could not pass, and there breathed no gallant so bold that he had yet dared to offer her the customary salute when the red ear of corn came up at the husking, or when the sleighing parties jumped over a "kissing-hole" in the road. Her chief charm to these imaginative people lay in her gift of story-telling. She was a born racon­teur to the tips of her facile fingers, and in the long winter evenings, as they gathered about some hospitable hearth, no prize was so coveted as Sophie in one of her happy moods. She was not all sunshine and fair weather though; sometimes she would say not a word for any one, only sit gazing in the fire with wide, sad eyes, and then they would whisper "She vill pe for getting homesick." She asked no sympathy and told nobody her thoughts at such times, but when the mood was right, how she poured forth her treasures of song and tale to their waiting ears!

No one of them all drank in her charms so eagerly as Garretje Brit, who sat always in a sort of silent worship in the chimney-corner, with knees curved, smoking his evening pipe. Every turn of her perfect head, each quick gesture, each flash of her smile, and tone of her voice when she sang or spoke, passed through his heart like an electric current. He followed her with little unobtrusive services, bringing her flowers and gorgeous October leaves, taking her, when she would suffer it, to church or to the country frolics. Nor was she unconscious of his devotion, but watched him now with amused interest as a mother might regard a diverting child, or again repulsed him almost fiercely if his hand chanced to touch her hair as he clumsily helped her with her cloak. Old Pierre saw all this with growing concern and sometimes spoke to her in her own language words that either caused her to laugh wickedly, or to answer with a haughty air more suggestive of the relation of master and servant than of niece and uncle.

One night there was a great husking over at the Bught (a " bight " or bend in the river near Catskill), and the young folks, with many of the older, of all the country side, from West Camp to the Van Bergen Patent, in great ark-like pungs, or on horseback, came riding down to enjoy the fun. There were the Abiels and the Snyders, the Wyncoops and Van Gelders, and the Heermans, the Kiersteds, and the Van Ordens, with a sprinkling of Scotch, as seasoning for the polyglot pie, in the persons of the Salisburys and Grants from Leeds-way, while the Huguenot ele ment was represented by the Leferves, the Freres, and the Eltinges. Then there were some Germans from the Palatinate, settled across the river, such as the Allendorphs, the Stickles, and the Hommels. The babel produced by these different nationalities baffles description, for the language of the region had developed into a vernacular in which remained words of each tongue, but the whole sounded like broken English. The jaw-breaking words flew back and forth like the fast flying ears of corn. The huge raftered barn, the mows piled up with hay, the horses poking their sniffing noses through their stall windows, candles stuck here and there, and the groups of jolly Dutch in their quilted petticoats, or knee-breeches and long worsted stockings, all combined to make a picture worthy the brush of some old Holland master. By and by comes the hostess surging along like a great scow among smaller craft, bumping against this one and that one, saying: "Now den once for de victuals, - come eat till you burst, and I wish you may Indeed it would seem that the company would need to accomplish some such gastronomic feat if the supper were to be disposed of that night. Great wooden dishes and troughs were piled high with two whole sheep, an entire bear, and smaller piles of chickens, turkeys, sausage, crullers, volichie, apple-butter, and other dainties, all set forth cheek by jowl, and served to each guest on one large dish. One chronicler asserts that often as many as a hundred chickens and an equal number of turkeys and ducks were devoured at these feasts. Sophie Dubois looked on with amused disgust while the supper went on, refusing all refreshment but a glass of cider, thereby bringing down on herself the distressed importunities of the hostess and her final indignant despair. After the feast came the dancing, and a meal such as would have incapacitated an ordinary mortal from stirring from his chair, seemed to animate their usually spiritless bodies with an unwonted vivacity. As the fun grew more furious, a luckless Wight was emboldened to steal a sly kiss from Sophie where she stood in the shadow regarding the antics on the barn floor. Encircling her waist with his arm he reached toward her shrinking face, regardless of her struggles, when a sound "thwack!" laid him sprawling on the floor, where Garretje Brit stood over him saying: "Take dat, to gret awkward On wijzen!" A great laugh greeted this confusion, and Sophie stole a grateful look at Garretje that caused his heart to bound. Afterward he saw her shiver and heard her mutter between her closed teeth: "The impertinent! The dog!" He could not help rejoicing that the lady of his love was unlike these girls with their indiscriminate favors, and yet why should the peasant niece of Pierre Dubois be so proud? And what made old Pierre himself look just now as if he had seen some impious thing done, as if the brass-bound Bible itself had been hurled from the pulpit? After all, one should not give one's self airs.

So the winter wore away in work and occasional pleasuring, and in the spring with the blossoms and birds, and the warm south winds came also rumors of trouble in the air. Brant was surely on his way from Niagara with a great band of Indians, and two or three English officers. The men of the region were enlisted in the army of the rebellion, as the British called it, but Garretje Brit had been one of a little company who stayed at home, scenting afar off the danger that was to come upon these unprotected firesides in the method of attack the mother country afterward adopted, when she set a price on Whig scalps and sent the red men to harry the homes left unguarded under the mountains.

As the summer passed, Sophie's face grew thinner and paler, and she seemed at times possessed by a feverish expectation of some event that was to come. At such times the color would come back to her cheeks, and her step regain its spring as she wandered restlessly through the meadows. Garretje warned her against these lonely wanderings in vain, she only smiled and paid no heed, so he took to following her at a distance or meeting her at any unexpected turn in the path. Then she would wake up like any sleep-walker, sometimes seeming annoyed at the intrusion on her dreams, at others so kind and sweet that the poor fellow would be in rapture. Once while she stood watching the current of the creek where it winds through the "Vlaats," or flat-lands, Garretje came upon her suddenly, and she looked so sad and dejected with her hands clasped behind her and head bent down, a very picture of despair in the warm sunset light, that his heart was flooded with a sense of her loveliness and loneliness. Something of his feeling burst from him almost unaware. She looked up as if puzzled to make out his meaning, and then seemed interested. Finally her eyes softened and filled with tears, and she put out her hand to stop him.

"Oh, no, dear Garretje ! I am not what you think - it could not be - oh, never, never!"

He was kneeling now at her feet, sobbing like a child, and she put her hand pityingly on his head. It was a pretty, pathetic picture, but to Pierre Dubois going along with a bundle of rushes on his shoulders it seemed to present some other element, for he stood still a little way off, trembling and scared. Sophie spying him as he stood there laughed aloud at his absurd plight. Poor Garretje started up as if stung, and Sophie cried with a touch of bitterness: "Ah, mon bon Pierre, comme les dieus sont fombes! "

The next moment she was hurrying after her would-be lover, calling in her sweetest accents: "Please, oh please forgive me!"

Old Pierre collected his wits and resumed his journey, muttering to himself: "We are all but dogs in her proud eyes, and yet I would serve her mother's child to my death!"

One autumn night when the leaves had turned their brightest tints, and the air had a frosty bite in its touch, some neighbors had gathered about the domine's hearth to listen to Sophie's songs and tales. A wealth of warmth and light poured from the vast chimney to meet the path of the moonbeams on the polished floor, playing strange freaks on its way with the stolid faces it touched as it passed. The young girl was in a strangely excited mood, and her eyes shone like stars, while her stories were all of love and war and danger.

At the conclusion of one that was all about "a warrior bold with spurs of gold," who had rescued his lady from her enemies, and died at last in her service, she exclaimed: "So it was they loved in old Provence a hundred years ago! Never then did a knight break faith or forget - oh, no! - and it was reward enough to die for love!"

"It vass petter to die in to service of Got," said Garretje, solemnly; "end, pesides, there pe no maids any more who can lofe much."

She turned her eyes from the fire with an impatient little frown, as if a child had interrupted.

"It was the nobles, Garretje. You comprehend it not - how could you? But, piff!" with a scornful wave of her hands, as she unclasped them from her knees where she sat on the low stool, "'t is no more so. I dare swear there was this many a year in all fair France but one maiden who would cross an ocean to meet a lover, and he - perhaps," with a break in her voice, "he would fail her!"

Then she drew back in the shadow and leaned her head against the chimney jamb, looking sadly toward the window, where the Virginia creeper outside fluttered back and forth in the breeze, tracing graceful arabesques on the tiny moonlit panes. Garretje, repulsed, put in his proper place, gazed on her longingly across the path of the fire-light, and it seemed to him an impassable gulf, with her face far off and faint on the other side, and her eyes looking ever away into another world than his. Would she hear him if he called to her ?

Old Pierre, too, was watching her covertly, and saw her start as if she saw more than the vine on the pane, and when she soon after slipped quietly out of the room, he stole after her, but she was nowhere to be seen. He took up his position by the hall door and waited patiently till she came back into the hall-way, with flushed cheeks and glad eyes.

"You look as if you had seen into heaven," he said, eying her narrowly; "and who was the man I saw out there?"

"Peut-eire," shrugging her shoulders, " it may be that I have just caught a glimpse through the blessed gates; but, old Pierre, you are fast losing your sight. As for the man, you saw your shadow."

"My shadow wears no red coat, mademoiselle."

"Ciel, how you are stupid!" bending low to look into his old face with mocking eyes. "May not I wear my coat renverse ­ wrong-side-out, if so it pleases me!"

So she slipped back to her low seat beside the Yvrouw's knee, just as Tobias Terwilliger was finishing a legend of the Gra Vly (Great Swamp) that stretches away behind the hill toward the river.

"Efen yet," said the old Boerman, "it is one moon of te year, end dis vill pe te moon, yen if any maid belofed py a youth valks by its edge, a gret arm rises outen te Vly end teks her down, but it must be at twelf of de clock at night!"

An awe-struck silence here ensued, broken only by the puffs of the pipes, the click of knitting needles, and the sonorous breathing of one old man who had gone to sleep.

"Do you all believe that? Do you Garretje Brit?"

It was Sophie Dubois who spoke, and many eyes turned toward her, remembering for many a long year how she looked that night. There was about the girl an indefinable charm or fascination, something that drew all hearts and yet was independent of her beauty - something that comes not "by favor of blue eyes, or black, or brown," and yet her face was so lovely tonight that to these people its wonderful illuminated expression was wellnigh supernatural. On the hand she held up, palm outward, to guard her cheek from the blaze, there glowed a ruby heart.

"You believe that, Garretje, I ask?" And he was fain to reply "I shall not scorn to beleef what my fathers held to be truth."

Tall and slim she rose up in the firelight, standing for a moment as if in thought, with her hands clasped loosely in front of her, then as if she had reached some inward decision, she bent over the good Yvrouw and kissed her three times. Rising, she looked around on the group, and with a wave of her hand said, as a queen might have addressed her subjects: "Good people ­ good-night!" As she passed out behind Garretje, a soft touch on his shoulder and the odor of a jasmine flower falling in his lap, made his head swim and his heart stand still under the sweet electric influence of her presence, then she was gone. "Adieu, my good and dear Garretje!" Was it only a fancy, or did she whisper that in his ear?

Next morning, as he went over the hills at early dawn, toward the Bught, he still thought he heard the voice in his ears, but now it seemed to come from the Grot Vly, calling softly, "Adieu, my Garretje, adieu!" Drawn almost irresistibly toward the swamp, he walked aimlessly along the shores where the morning vapors came pouring off in a rose-tinted cloud. Wrapped in his dream, he saw and heard naught but the face and the voice of the previous night, though all the woods were waking up to life, and flapping crows were calling hoarsely through the fog, while the whole world was turning to rose and gold. Now his feet were tripping in some soft thing like a garment, and stooping, he picked up a woman's cloak lined with red. A cry went echoing through the woods that startled all the birds and sent the crows screaming back over the Vly, while Garretje fell prone upon the ground, in his great loss and sorrow.

The news of Sophie Dubois' awful fate, drawn into the Gröt Vly by the Indian demon, spread throughout the country, bringing sorrow to all, but old Pierre and his indifference were so shameful that the domine himself was drawn to remonstrate. No word did he answer, however, to the charge, but this: "Domine, 't is no time for bewailing; dey say Brant is on South Mountain, and a British spy escaped last night, going right through our midst to de river, to join de ship Vulture de British have brought to anchor down by Sopus!

"Got in de himelen!" cried the domine, "mount a horse den, end rouse de country, vile I puckle on my sword end get dat militia to de church!"

So the old church was turned into barracks and such drilling of raw recruits, such cleaning of old weapons, and such gun practice, was never witnessed before or since.

During the years that followed till peace was declared, and the British evacuated New York, so much of hardship and sorrow came to these people of Caatsban, that poor Sophie's fate was seldom spoken of, but at last in the quiet time succeeding peace, there came to the Yvrouw a letter with a great armorial seal half covering one side. It was signed "Sophie Montmorenci-Sack­ville," and it thanked the good Yvrouw, in many graceful and fervent phrases, for her great kindness to the writer, who had fled from her home in France and from her father, the Marquis de Montmorenci, to join her lover in America. The lover who was forbidden her was an officer in the English army, hence an enemy to her family. Colonel Sackville had come from Canada under the guidance of Brant, and had joined her, as previously arranged between them, at Caatsban, fleeing thence with her to the ship Vulture down the river, where they were married. She had purposely deceived them as to her fate, the better to protect her husband in his dangerous flight. She wished to be kindly remembered to old Pierre Dubois who had "helped me in grateful memory of my mother, on whose family estates in Provence he had formerly lived as a dependent; likewise to Garretje Brit, whose friendship I shall ever cherish as a valued possession." With the letter came also a chest filled with presents from Colonel Sackville to "my wife's kind friends and protectors," among which was a store of finery for the good Yvrouw Van Vlierden, much too grand for her simple tastes and frugal life. The gowns and laces were laid away in lavender and linen, and handed down to her descendants. They came finally into the possession of the Myer family of Saugerties, where in '82 they were destroyed in a burning farm-house.

As for Garretje Brit he would accept none of the fine presents, but when he died years after, a lonely old man, they found about his neck a little locket hanging from a cord, and when they opened it, there was only a shrivelled flower exhaling a faint odor of jasmine.

Passing through Saugerties we saw some more fine old Dutch houses, and were surprised to find the town so large and flourishing; some of the streets were very pretty with their high-arching shade trees and smooth lawns, all kept carefully fenced, however. I was curious to see more of the town, said to be so proud of its Dutch ancestry, and was much interested in the names, scores of them with a jaw-breaking Dutch sound, and the old spelling preserved intact. As for the name of the town itself, all the information I procured seemed to indicate its Dutch extraction. The tract on which the town was built belonged to a sawyer, "sager," who on account of his small size was called "sager-tje," the affix tje being a diminutive often found in their names, the possessive added to this word then made it "sagertje's," the property of the little sawyer.

I don't know why, but somehow the personality of that little sawyer has grown to be of intense interest to me, and indeed I went out to the little creek called "Sagers-kill," or as they have it now "Sau-kill," where his old mill stood, and where now a grist mill grinds its daily task.

I fancied that he came out on the bridge (there must surely have been a bridge then, before this modern iron thing was thought of), and smoked his pipe to the rosy sunsets, while his eyes wandered far over the valley toward the mountains all aglow with the evening light. No doubt his thoughts were more of work and gain than of the transfiguration that had come to those distant hills, but I like to think his slow Dutch mind was penetrated with some of the wonder of the picture.

There was much to admire in those ancestors of ours, and much to be proud of and grateful for. Such abiding strength was ingrained in their distinctive traits that they seem to have been impressed on the faces of the race to this day, so that in these places where the Holland blood predominates you can now and then read in the passing countenances the old pluck, the bravery that resisted to the death, the unswerving honesty, and, most prominent of all, the even-tempered but unyielding and mulish obstinacy.

                                *                *                *                *                *

Alas, that I must write that ugly little word finis to this most perfect of pilgrimages!

We watched from the deck of the night boat the last lingering rays of sunset behind those enchanted hills, and then turned doleful faces to each other to be commiserated on the close of our holiday. I heard Polly say in her breathless, excited way to Mr. John Grant: "Oh, if I could have but one wish granted in all this world, I should wish for one of those mountains to be transported to some spot where I could always see the sun set behind it from my window!"

"I know what I should wish for, if I had but one wish," answered her companion.

"What would that be?"

The answer to this leading question was too low for my ears to catch, but I suspect that two young people in our party found something in that magical region of the Catskills that is to them, at least, as rare, and far more precious than Manitou's treasure.

We consoled ourselves later in the evening by listening to Mr. Grant's reading of that prettiest of all American tales, so familiar to us all, Irving's "Rip Van Winkle." As it formed the prologue to our summer idyl, acting as the inspiration from which our journey sprung, it shall be its epilogue, and never again can I doubt its truth, for have I not been there; have I not sat in Rip's chair, and seen the print of his gun on the rock!

 

Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

 


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery