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MUMBLETY-PEG AND MIDDLE AGE
By Walter Prichard Eaton
ILLUSTRATIONS BY WORTI BREHM
S GLD HUNDRED and I were “My memory bad!” I sniffed. “I sup
taking our Saturday after- pose you think I've forgotten how I always
in the neighborhood of New is a mask for some coming trouble. He York. We had passed innumerable small always grinned before he sailed into the boys and not a few small girls, but save for other fellow, which was an effective way to an occasional noisy group on a base-ball catch the other fellow off his guard. I prediamond none of them seemed to be play- sume he grins now before he cross-questions ing any definite games.
a witness. “I'll play you a game right “Did we use to wander aimlessly round now," he said softly. that way?” asked Old Hundred.
“You're on,” said I. “We did not,” said I. “If it wasn't We selected a spot of clean, thin turf bemarbles in spring or tops in autumn it was hind a roadside fence. It was in reality a duck-on-the-rock or stick-knife or— " part of somebody's yard, but it was the best
“Only we didn't call it stick-knife," said we could do. I still carry a pocket knife Old Hundred, “we called it mumblety- of generous proportions, to whittle with
when we go for a walk, and this I produced “We called it stick-knife," said I. and opened, handing it to Old Hundred.
“Your memory is curiously bad,” said “Now, begin," said I, as we squatted down. Old Hundred. “You are always forget- He held the knife somewhat gingerly, first ting about these important matters. It by the blade, then by the handle. "Whawas mumblety-peg.”
what do you do first?” he finally asked.
“Do?" said I. “Don't you remember?” like a fiend, used to be the last one caught. "No," he replied, “and neither do you.” Sometimes he'd get around a hundred boys,
“Give me the knife,” I cried. I relied ducking and dodging and taking half a mile on the feel of it in my hand to awaken a of ice to do it in, but escaping untouched. dormant muscular memory to help me out. Sometimes, if there weren't many playing, But no muscular memory was stirred. Old he'd go around backwards, just to taunt us. Hundred watched me with a smile. “Be- But I don't think that game was relievo. gin, begin!” he urged.
That doesn't sound like the name to me." "Let's see,” said I, “I think you took it “What was it, then?” said Old Hundred. first by the tip of the blade, this way, and “I don't know," I answered. “It's made it stick up." I threw the knife. It funny how you forget things." stuck, but almost lay upon the ground. By this time we were strolling along the
“You've got to get two fingers under it,” road again. “Speaking of Birch Meadow,” said Old Hundred. He tried, but there said Old Hundred, "what glorious skating wasn't room. “You fail,” he cried. we kids used to have there! I never go by “There's a point for me."
Central Park in winter without pitying the “Not till you've made it stick," said I. poor New York youngsters, just hobbling
We grew interested in our game. We round and round on a half-acre pond where threw the knife from our nose and chin, we the surface is cut up into powder an inch dropped it from our forehead, we jumped it thick, and the crowd is so dense you can over our hand, we half-closed the blade and scarcely see the ice. Shall you ever forget tossed it that way, and finally, when the that mile-long pond in the woods, not deep tally was reckoned up in my favor, I enough to drown in anywhere, and frozen began to look about for a stick to whittle over with smooth black ice as early as into the peg.
Thanksgiving Day? How we used to rush Old Hundred rose and dusted his clothes. to it, up Love Lane, as soon as school was “Here," I cried. “You're not done yet!” out!” “Oh, yes I am!” he answered.
“Do you remember," said I, “how we “Quitter, quitter, quitter!” I taunted. passed it last year, and found the woods all
“That may be," said he, “but a learned cut and the water drained off ?” lawyer of forty-five with a dirty mug is “Don't be a wet blanket," said Old Hunrather more self-conscious than a boy of dred, crossly. “The country has to grow.” ten. I'll buy you a dinner when we get to I looked at him out of the corner of my town."
eye. The mood of memory was on him. I “Oh, very well,” said I, peevishly, “but repented of my speech. "Yes,” I answered. I didn't think you'd so degenerated. I'll “No doubt the country has to grow. The let you off if you'll admit it was stick-knife.' colleges now play hockey on ponds made
“I'll admit it," said Old Hundred. “I by the fire department. But there isn't suppose in a minute you'll ask me to admit that thrilling ring to your runners nor that that prisoners’-base was relievo."
long-drawn echo from the wooded shores “What was relievo, by the way?" I when a crack crosses the ice.” asked.
“I can see it all this minute,” said Old "Relievo-relievo?” said Old Hundred. Hundred. “I can see my little self like a "Why that was a game we played mostly different person (which, indeed, he was !) on the ice, upon Birch Meadow, don't as one of the crowd. We had chosen up you remember? When we got tired of sides—ten, twenty, thirty on a side. Stones, hockey, we all put our coats and hockey dragged from the shores, were put down sticks in a pile, one man was It, and the rest for goals. Most of us had hockey sticks we tried to skate from a distant line around had cut ourselves in the woods, hickory, the pile and back. If the chap who was it with a bit of the curved root for the blade. tagged anybody before he got around, that you were one of the few boys who could chap had to be it with him, and so on till afford a store stick. We had a hard rubeverybody was caught. Then the first one ber ball. Bobbie Pratt was always one tagged had to be it for a new start.” goal because he had big feet. And over
"I remember that game,'' said I. “I re- the black ice, against the sombre backmember how Frank White, who could skate ground of those cathedral aisles of white
pine, we chased that ball, charging in solid other. If you played 'em out of time, they ranks so that the ice sagged and protested didn't seem right; there was no zest to them. under the rush of our runners, wheeling Now, most of these game periods were desuddenly, darting in pursuit of one boy termined long ago by physical conditions of who had snaked the ball out from the ground and climate. They stem us back to maze of feet and was flying with it toward nature. Cramp the youngsters in the artithe goal, all rapid action, panting breath, ficial life of a city, and you snap this stem. superb life. It really must have been a My theory may be wild, all wrong. Yet I beautiful sight, one of those hockey games. can't help feeling that our games, which we I can still hear the ring and roar of the run- accepted and absorbed as a part of the uniners as the crowd swept down in a charge!” verse, as much as our parents or the woods
I smiled. “And I can still feel the ice and fields, were a part of that nature which when somebody's stick got caught between surrounded us, linking us with the beginmy legs. “Hi, fellers, come look at the star nings of the race. Most kids' games are Willie made!' I can hear you shouting, as centuries upon centuries old, they say. I you examined the spot where my anatomy can't help believing that for every skyhad been violently superimposed on the scraper we erect we end the life, for thouskating surface."
sands of children, of one more game." Old Hundred smiled too. “Fine little Old Hundred had listened attentively to animals we were!” he said. “I suppose my long discourse, nodding his head apone reason why we don't see more games provingly. “No doubt, no doubt,” he said. nowadays is because we live in the city. “I shall hereafter regard the Metropolitan Even this suburbanized region is really Tower as a memorial shaft, which ought to city, dirtied all over with its spawn. Lord, bear an inscription, 'Hic jacet, Puss-in-theBill, think if we'd been cramped up in an corner. Yet I saw some poor little dufEast Side street, or reduced to Central fers on the East Side the other day trying to Park for a skating pond! A precious lot of play soak with a tattered old ball, which reminiscences we'd have to-day, wouldn't kept getting lost under the push carts." we? They build the kids what they call “They die hard,” said I. public play grounds, and then they have toW e had by this time come on our walk hire teachers to teach 'em how to play. into a group of houses, the outskirts of a Poor beggars, think of having to be taught town. Several small boys were, apparently, by a grown-up how to play a game! They aimlessly walking about. all have a rudimentary idea of base-ball; “Why don't they do something,” Old the American spirit and the sporting ex- Hundred exclaimed, half to himself. tras see to that. But I never see 'em play- “Don't they know how, even out here?” ing anything else much, not even out here “Suppose you teach 'em,” I suggested. where the suburbs smut an otherwise at- Again Old Hundred grinned. He walked tractive landscape.”
over among the small boys, who stopped "Perhaps," I ventured, “not only the their talk and regarded him silently. “Ever lack of space and free open in the city has play duck-on-the-rock?” he asked, with something to do with it, but the fact that that curiously embarrassed friendliness of the seasons there grow and change so un- the middle-aged man trying to make up to perceived. Games, you remember, go by boyhood. After a certain period, most of a kind of immutable rotation-as much a us unconsciously regard a small boy as a law of childhood as gravitation of the uni- kind of buzz saw, to be handled with exverse. Marbles belong to spring, to the treme care. first weeks after the frost is out of the The boys looked at one another, as if pickground. They are a kind of celebration of ing a spokesman. Finally one of them, a the season, of the return to bare earth. freckle-faced, stocky youngster who looked Tops belong to autumn, hockey to the ice, more like a country lad than the rest, replied: base-ball to the spring and summer, foot- “They dunno how," he said. “They're ball to the cold, snappy fall, and I seem to afraid the stones'll hurt 'em. We used to remember that even such games as hide- play it up State all the time.” and-seek or puss-in-the-corner were played “There's your theory," said Old Hunconstantly at one period, not at all at an- dred in an aside to me.
“You're a liar," said one of the other of whether we went or stayed. We were boys. “We ain't afraid, are we, Bill?” dusty and hot; our hands were scratched “Naw," said Bill.
and grimed. “Ah!” said Old Hundred, “Who's a liar?” said the first speaker, looking back, “I've accomplished somedoubling his fists. “I'll knock your block thing to-day, and had a good time doing off in about a minute.”
it! The ungrateful little savages; they “Ah, come on an' do it, Rube!” taunted might have said good-by." the other.
“Yet you wouldn't pull up the mumOld Hundred hereupon interfered. blety-peg for me," I said. “Let's not fight, let's play,” he said. “If “My dear fellow," he replied, "that is they don't know how, we'll teach 'em, eh quite different. To take a dare from a Rube? Want to learn, boys?”
man is childish. Not to take a dare from a They looked at him for a moment with child is unmanly." the instinctive suspicion of their class, de- “You talk like G. K. Chesterton," said I. cided in his favor, and assented. Like all “Which shows that occasionally Chestermen, Old Hundred was flattered by this ton is right,” said he. “Speaking of dares, mark of confidence from the severest critics I'd like to see a gang of kids playing dares in the world. He and Rube hunted out or follow-your-leader right now. Remema large rock, and placed it on the curb. ber how we used to play follow-your-leader Each boy found his individual duck, Old by the hour? You had to do just what he Hundred tried to count out for It, couldn't did, like a row of sheep. When there were remember the rhyme, and had to turn the girls in the game, you always ended up by job over to Rube, who delivered himself of turning a somersault, which was a subtle the following:
jest never to be too much enjoyed.”
“And Alice Perkins used to take that "As I went up to Salt Lake
dare, too, I remember," said I.
“Alice never could bear to be stumped," It made his little belly ache.”
he mused. “She's either become a mighty
fine woman or a bad one. She was the When It was thus selected, automati- only girl we ever allowed to perform in the cally and poetically, Old Hundred drew a circuses up in your backyard. Often we line in the road, parallel to the curb, It put wouldn't even admit girls as spectators. his duck on the rock, and the rest started to Remember the sign you painted to that pitch. Suddenly one demon spotted me, a effect? She was the lady trapeze artist and smiling by-stander. “Hi,” he called,“Old bareback rider. You were the bareback, Coattails ain't playin'.”
as I recall it-or was it Fatty Newell? “Quitter, quitter, quitter!” taunted Old Anyhow, one of her stunts was to hang by Hundred.
her legs and drink a tumbler of water." I started to make some remark about the I felt my muscles. “I wonder," said I, self-consciousness of a learned litterateur “if I could still skin the cat?” of forty-five, but my speech was drowned “I'll bet I can chin myself ten times," in a derisive howl from the buzz saws. I said Old Hundred meekly accepted the inevitable, and hunted We cast about for a convenient limb. myself out a duck.
There was an apple-tree beside the road, After ten minutes of madly dashing back with a horizontal limb some eight feet above to the line pursued by those supernaturally the ground. I tried first. I got myself over active young cubs, after stooping again and all right, till I hung inverted, my fountain again to pick up my duck, after dodging pen, pencil, and eyeglass case falling out of flying stones and sometimes not succeeding, my pocket. But there I stuck. There was I was quite ready to quit. Old Hundred, no strength in my arms to pull me up. So flushed and perspiring, was playing as if his I curled clean over and dropped to the life depended on it. When he was tagged, ground, very red in the face, my clothes he took his turn as It without a murmur. covered with powdered apple-tree bark. He was one of the kids, and they knew it. Old Hundred grasped the limb to chin But finally he, too, felt the pace in his bones. himself. He got up once easily, he got up We left the boys still playing, quite careless a second time with difficulty, he got up a