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Chapter XI

Brute's Little Game

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

How real, how similar to life, that, after extolling the pleasures that our mode of wayfaring hatched out, after disclaiming all conveyance in favor of leggin' it, how perversely natural that Brute and I should climb into an automobile!

Yet there were three excuses: we were tempted, Brute's heel had been chafed, and spring, which had been dammed up by winter until the northwind barriers could no longer hold, burst through and overflowed the country. It was my second spring within a month. This time the tides were even stronger, the flood of sunlight more compelling, the roads more bibulous.

To the north of us lay the Windham country, and to the west also untoured provinces that, from Hunter Mountain, bad looked worth while. We stood on the swift highway -- swift because the current of slush-water was at the lowest three miles an hour-ready to toss the coin. If it came down E Pluribus Unum we would be off to Windham, but if In God We Trust we should go west. Destiny, I'd have you remember, is inseparate from character. Our characters were to be awarded more than a ten-cent destiny. At the very moment when we were to commit our futures to God or the Union, an automobile, mire-covered, but with a back seat empty, slowed down, the driver motioned to us to get in, and without comment in we got.

This was at 9.10 A. M., the beginning of as superior a round of absurdity as I have ever gratuitously indulged in. The only extenuation I seek is that the growth of the Game -- the name we used to cover our later foolishness -- was gradual and not premeditated art. Otherwise our face would blush.

It was an excellent country for a hydroplane. Slush ran down every declivity and collected at the bottom. Each hour the sun added an inch of water, I should judge, to the general level. Our driver was greatly pressed for time, we thought, for with us safely in he soon attained a mud-splattering impetus that prevented conversation. Only once he turned and said:

"Where you going?"

"Can't say," we replied; "where are you?"

"Jewett."

Never having heard of Jewett, we could not very well object to going there, and settled back to enjoy the unusual voyage. It reminded me of those Channel crossings when the newspaper warnings would announce winds "fresh to stormy." But our automobile was a gallant side-wheeler. Along the level we threw an even sheet of water on either side. Then we would come to a down plunge into the obscure gulf at the bottom. Owing to the extreme importance of our captain's getting to Jewett, there was no slowing up. Fortunately, we rode the waves well. Again and again a breaker would curl over the radiator and dash in angry spray against the wind-shield. In our back seat we braced ourselves against the ground-swell and listened to the hiss and swirl with considerable enjoyment. There is this one thing about a devastating pace produced by some one else's throttle: you won't abate the danger by taking thought. If you have confidence, stay in; if you haven't, get out. But, in either event, indulge in a little enjoyment.

The day we were to have gave us foundations for comparison of towns. The character and appearance of Catskill towns, which are really only villages in their teens, vary enough to make a sermon on. Nearly all of them began in the tanning business. To-day the pleasure that they give to the eye and the nose differs with a difference that reaches to the very roots.

There are Catskill communities that express all the civic virtues. Roxbury, to mention one, gladdens the eye and the intelligence. It must spend fortunes in white paint. But the result is prosperity, comfort, progress, and self-respect. The splendid trees along its street are kept in order. The library is full and immaculate. The stores are clean, the bank doubtless overflowing. There is a church for the pious, and a park for the rest -- in fact, several churches and an endless park; for the hills come down to the Delaware as gracefully as deer to water, and woods invite one from a town that one is loath to leave.

How differently other Catskill towns make one feel: as if immediate flight were the one grateful prerogative left to their inhabitants. One needs to travel to the raw frontier to find dingier or more calamitous-looking villages than some of the conglomerations Brute and I passed through. There is some excuse for the frontier towns, but none for these. The stark and paintless parade on the prairie, the wooden shanties in the desert, are but for overnight. One knows that the next tornado will get them, anyway. But in the Catskills they should build for old age. There may be poverty, but no poverty such as one finds in older countries. In Italy, in Cornwall, along the Zuyder Zee there is poverty, but at least it is clean and often picturesque.

The truth is that half the boarding-house towns in America are still rectilinear dumps. I wonder how long we shall have to wait for a Town Board of Art, with powers to prescribe the minimum of ugliness allowable. Even the Boards of Health might be given such powers. Vines are more sanitary than tin cans, shining creeks than open sewers. Trees are less expensive than awnings. Paint is cheaper than microbes. I should tremble for some of the mud-colored crimes of the architects if Elisha should pass by. He would call down the fires once more.

Early in our wanderings Brute and I hit upon a way of deciding upon the house wherein we should put up. If there were several to choose from, we invariably took the one painted to a semblance of prosperity. If there were several such, we took the one with geraniums in the window. People who take care of flowers take care of food. And since, doubtless, all travelers are swayed by appearance as much as we, the future of the spotless towns in the Catskills -- and there are several -- is much easier to predict than of those dingy dens one occasionally meets.

Our barge was heading down the Schoharie Valley, and, despite the heavy sea, we had thimblefuls of view. All along the south ran a continuing range, gaping infrequently, and carrying one's vision up until you felt a little thrill as at the apex of a swing. Perhaps this was our motion, but I think not. The south side of the valley is very fine. The static view to be had from Onteora Park, giving the bulk of Plateau Mountain, the yawn of Stony Clove, and the broad dignity of Hunter and his clan, is repayment for the climb. But our first impression, our running view, caught between lurch and tumble in the bright freshet of sunlight and snow water, will never be overplaced.

Despite the flourish of our progress, we ran over neither urchins nor poultry in the towns. The road continued toward Lexington and Prattsville, but a few miles past Hunter our Jehu swung to the right and we began to mount into as fine a stretch of country as any one has had the effrontery to describe. On one hand the dark swiftness of the little Eastkill fled from hemlock shadow into glitter of sun, then like a trout sparkled back again into its cover. It was utterly charming, utterly ingenuous. I have never seen anything like the Catskill streams for gripping one's memory so lightly yet with so firm a hand. Mental pictures of them do not subsist on the condition of time. Once in the mind, they are there forever. Decades from now they will show as bright in my inward eye as did Wordsworth's octogenarian daffodils. Repeatedly, during that month of flowing April, I found those eager, spiritual little streams covering the blank of consciousness with the hieroglyphics of their glamour. There come back pictures of the blue ranges, the lower hillsides quilted with wood-lot and pasture, the curving roads, and the tins shining on the maple-trunks they drained; but clearest of all are the swift streams.

The uplands around Jewett are a great sugar country. The mottled bark of maples, the glint of cans, were on every hand. To the south, valleys dropped toward the Schoharie, and rolling highlands carried the horizon. In the distance the hardwood forest seemed to close in and decorations of conifer darkened its breast. Truly it was a lovely country to ride through, and as the progressive depth of mud caused a slackening of our pace, I had time to wish that we were going to put up at the attractive farms which we passed at considerable intervals. If there was anything which I should feel confident of recommending without having tried, I might safely warrant that there would be good fare, sweet beds, and sufficient variety of amusement in the country around the Eastkill.

And now the gentleman our carrier, having rebounded to his home whence doubtless he had earlier sprung that morning, set us down. Spoiled by such swift society, we were unloaded upon the road willy-nilly. The sun had not only returned to its season, but promised to overshoot it in the direction of summer. In a trice we had been carried from the half-wild region of the Stony Clove to a well cultivated demesne. Suddenly we became averse to wading. All that waddle are not geese, perhaps, but they feel like 'em, and as we started off on the five-mile hike to the state road for Windham the germ of the Game was already depositing a shameful idea in each one of our brain-cells, as the cow-bird does her egg, leaving it to be hatched by circumstance.

If one can call the sun a circumstance, then one might have said that the hatching would soon take place. It beat upon us as we slopped along our canal. Brute had just been reminded of his sore heel, when the noise of a motor brought us to a halt. This time it was a truck. By merely looking intelligently wistful, the invitation was secured. For the second time that morning, the boy and I climbed aboard for some strange port of call. Nothing mattered since we were out of the mud.

Cruising on a truck had certain advantages. The additional time available gave one an opportunity to digest the scenery for which swifter flight had created the appetite. Also it made the captain, quite weary of navigation, eager to converse. For a while Brute seemed strangely immersed in reverie. But the range of the driver's gossip became so wide and his ability to eke out a commonplace narrative with personals so vivid that he soon joined me as a listener. We lost the white spire of Jewett's church, careened down the hill, well called Prospect, into East Ashland, rode into Windham and beyond, still listening. Only when he threw her again upon the starboard tack that would bring us into Hunter did I request to be set down.

"Well, what for? " inquired Brute, peering after the vanishing truck. "Everybody has said we must see Windham heights. We're nearest now."

"Do you mean to walk?"

"It isn't deep enough to swim."

"Why not keep on riding till it dries up."

"How ingenious!" I said. But sarcasm ricochets from Brute. He was standing, intent upon the distance, looking altogether unsubduable by any element, be it mud or water. Evidently his brain-cells had hatched and the germs of the Game were already active, for they soon gave tongue.

"We can keep on riding till the roads dry up and blow away," was his comment on my doubt, "if you only follow the rules of the Game."

"Which are?"

"First, wait for an automobile. Second, have it stop for you."

"A very wise rule," I could not help saying. "The third?"

"Look here," he replied, somewhat nettled. "Nothing in particular if you don't want to. I thought it'd be a good way to get a lay of the country."

Despite the maturity of his brain and brawn, Brute was very much a boy at heart, and his face so fell at the thought of giving up his new scheme of transportation that a laugh escaped me.

"I'm game," I insisted, "for a couple of rounds, anyway. It sounds only a little more brazen than holding a man up at the point of a pistol. The third rule is?"

"The third rule is to take the first car that comes along and not to care shucks where it 's going."

"That suits me perfectly -- for instance, this."

A big Buick swept by in a lavish spectacle of mud, some of which I could still probably find on my clothes if I brushed hard.

"Now," continued Brute in a matter-of-fact manner, "that car scores five points for the opponents. If a Ford outwits us it counts ten points, because it is harder for a Ford to escape. Each ride nets us five points. Are you on?"

I was. The Buick's mud bath had left me callous to any of the slighter modesties. It was going to be a contest between us two and the world on wheels, and although I did not anticipate much edification geographically, I had to own to a curiosity in the practical problem that Brute had laid open for solution. So long as I should taste the mixture of shale and slush so liberally showered upon me by the Buick, I would be "on." With the dramatic art that provides the effect while obscuring the means, Brute bade me mount into a new Cadillac that had just tendered its services. The Game had begun with a score of five to five.

I have no intention of detailing the experiences of that day. If you wish to call us names, I pray you temper them with the knowledge that our opponents won; though the margin was slight and due entirely to the politeness of our brigandage. We began to develop a technique of hold-up, which never, however, overstepped the boundary of drawing-room behavior.

For instance, a car approaches. We are walking away from Hunter. We deprecatorily detain it for information. "Sir, how far is it to Hunter?" If the driver be mortal he will exclaim, "But, gentlemen, you are going the wrong way!" We are silent. If he, too, is a gentleman, he offers us a seat thither. For this, according to the chivalry of the Game, he gets a cigar from each. Thus the Game develops ethics. Indeed, if our chauffeur brings us to the hour of ref reshment, he is invited to the meal. The Game is expensive.

That night we slept within four miles of the place wherefrom we began the Game. We had traveled, we calculated, about two hundred miles. It had taken eleven vehicles to accomplish this. We had been as far to the northwest as Stamford, to the south as Arkville. Three times had we driven up the Stony Clove, and twice around the Ashokan Reservoir. One gentleman had had dinner at our expense in Kingston and some may still be smoking our cigars. We had obtained a very clear notion of the conventional Catskill routes.

That night we slept, but only after the Comic Muse had got tired and let us alone. Viewed from the cool pinnacles of the usual, it had been a day of progressive imbecility. Talked over as between two of the principals getting ready for bed, it had been a harvest of hilarity.

 

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