Parnassus on Wheels/Chapter 10

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WE STOOD in complete dismay—I did, at any rate—for about as long as it takes to peel a potato. There could be no doubt in which direction the van had moved, for the track of the wheels was plain. It had gone farther up the lane toward the quarry. In the earth, which was still soggy, were a number of footprints.

"By the bones of Polycarp!" exclaimed the Professor, "those hoboes have stolen the van. I guess they think it'll make a fine Pullman sleeper for them. If I'd realized there was more than one of them I'd have hung around closer. They need a lesson."

Good Lord! I thought, here's Don Quixote about to wade into another fight.

"Hadn't we better go back and get Mr. Pratt?" I asked.

This was obviously the wrong thing to say. It put the fiery little man all the more on his mettle. His beard bristled. "Nothing of the sort!" he said. "Those fellows are cowards and vagabonds anyway. They can't be far off; you haven't been away more than an hour, have you? If they've done anything to Bock, by the bones of Chaucer, I'll harry them. I thought I heard him bark."

He hurried up the lane, and I followed in a panicky frame of mind. The track wound along a hillside, between a high bank and a forest of birch trees. I think the distance can't have been more than a quarter of a mile. Anyway, in a very few minutes the road made a sharp twist to the right and we found ourselves looking down into the quarry, over a sheer rocky drop of a hundred feet at least. Below, drawn over to one side of the wall of rock, stood Parnassus. Peg was between the shafts. Bock was nowhere to be seen. Sitting by the van were three disreputable looking men. The smoke of a cooking fire rose into the air; evidently they were making free with my little larder.

"Keep back," said the Professor softly. "Don't let them see us." He flattened himself in the grass and crawled to the edge of the cliff. I did the same, and we lay there, invisible from below, but quite able to see everything in the quarry. The three tramps were evidently enjoying an excellent breakfast.

"This place is a regular hang-out for these fellows," Mifflin whispered. "I've seen hoboes about here every year. They go into winter quarters about the end of October, usually. There's an old blasted-out section of this quarry that makes a sheltered dormitory for them, and as the place isn't worked any more they're not disturbed here so long as they don't make mischief in the neighbourhood. We'll give them…."

"Hands up!" said a rough voice behind us. I looked round. There was a fat, red-faced villainous-looking creature covering us with a shiny revolver. It was an awkward situation. Both the Professor and I were lying full length on the ground. We were quite helpless.

"Get up!" said the tramp in a husky, nasty voice. "I guess youse thought we wasn't covering our trail? Well, we'll have to tie you up, I reckon, while we get away with this Crystal Pallis of yourn."

I scrambled to my feet, but to my surprise the Professor continued to lie at full length.

"Get up, deacon!" said the tramp again. "Get up on them graceful limbs, if you please."

I guess he thought himself safe from attack by a woman. At any rate, he bent over as if to grab Mifflin by the neck. I saw my chance and jumped on him from behind. I am heavy, as I have said, and he sprawled on the ground. My doubts as to the pistol being loaded were promptly dissolved, for it went off like a cannon. Nobody was in front of it, however, and Mifflin was on his feet like a flash. He had the ruffian by the throat and kicked the weapon out of his hand. I ran to seize it.

"You son of Satan!" said the valiant Redbeard. "Thought you could bully us, did you? Miss McGill, you were as quick as Joan of Arc. Hand me the pistol, please."

I gave it to him, and he shoved it under the hobo's nose.

"Now," he said, "take off that rag around your neck."

The rag was an old red handkerchief, inconceivably soiled. The tramp removed it, grumbling and whining. Mifflin gave me the pistol to hold while he tied our prisoner's wrists together. In the meantime we heard a shout from the quarry. The three vagabonds were gazing up in great excitement.

"You tell those fashion plates down there," said Mifflin, as he knotted the tramp's hands together, "that if they make any fight I'll shoot them like crows." His voice was cold and savage and he seemed quite master of the situation, but I must confess I wondered how we could handle four of them.

The greasy ruffian shouted down to his pals in the quarry, but I did not hear what he said, as just then the Professor asked me to keep our captive covered while he got a stick. I stood with the pistol pointed at his head while Mifflin ran back into the birchwood to cut a cudgel.

The tramp's face became the colour of the under side of a fried egg as he looked into the muzzle of his own gun.

"Say, lady," he pleaded, "that gun goes off awful easy, point her somewhere else or you'll croak me by mistake."

I thought a good scare wouldn't do him any harm and kept the barrel steadily on him.

The rascals down below seemed debating what to do. I don't know whether they were armed or not; but probably they imagined that there were more than two of us. At all events, by the time Mifflin came back with a stout birch staff they were hustling out of the quarry on the lower side. The Professor swore, and looked as if he would gladly give chase, but he refrained.

"Here, you," he said in crisp tones to the tramp, "march on ahead of us, down to the quarry."

The fat ruffian shambled awkwardly down the trail. We had to make quite a détour to get into the quarry, and by the time we reached there the other three tramps had got clean away. I was not sorry, to tell the truth. I thought the Professor had had enough scrapping for one twenty-four hours.

Peg whinneyed loudly as she saw us coming, but Bock was not in sight.

"What have you done with the dog, you swine?" said Mifflin. "If you've hurt him I'll make you pay with your own hide."

Our prisoner was completely cowed. "No, boss, we ain't hurt the dog," he fawned. "We tied him up so he couldn't bark, that's all. He's in the 'bus." And sure enough, by this time we could hear smothered yelping and whining from Parnassus.

I hurried to open the door, and there was Bock, his jaws tied together with a rope-end. He bounded out and made super-canine efforts to express his joy at seeing the Professor again. He paid very little attention to me.

"Well," said Mifflin, after freeing the dog's muzzle, and with difficulty restraining him from burying his teeth in the tramp's shin, "what shall we do with this heroic specimen of manhood? Shall we cart him over to the jail in Port Vigor, or shall we let him go?"

The tramp burst into a whining appeal that was almost funny, it was so abject. The Professor cut it short.

"I ought to pack you into quod," he said. "Are you the Phœbus Apollo I scuffled with down the lane last night? Was it you skulking around this wagon then?"

"No, boss, that was Splitlip Sam, honest to Gawd it was. He come back, boss; said he'd been fightin' with a cat-o'-mountain! Say, boss, you sure hit him hard. One of his lamps is a pudding! Boss, I'll swear I ain't had nothin' to do with it."

"I don't like your society," said the Professor, "and I'm going to turn you loose. I'm going to count ten, and if you're not out of this quarry by then, I'll shoot. And if I see you again I'll skin you alive. Now get out!"

He cut the knotted handkerchief in two. The hobo needed no urging. He spun on his heel and fled like a rabbit. The Professor watched him go, and as the fat, ungainly figure burst through a hedge and disappeared he fired the revolver into the air to frighten him still more. Then he tossed the weapon into the pool near by.

"Well, Miss McGill," he said with a chuckle, "if you like to undertake breakfast, I'll fix up Peg." And he drew the horse-shoe from his pocket once more.

A brief inspection of Parnassus satisfied me that the thieves had not had time to do any real damage. They had got out most of the eatables and spread them on a flat rock in preparation for a feast; and they had tracked a good deal of mud into the van; but otherwise I could see nothing amiss. So while Mifflin busied himself with Peg's foot it was easy for me to get a meal under way. I found a gush of clean water trickling down the face of the rock. There were still some eggs and bread and cheese in the little cupboard, and an unopened tin of condensed milk. I gave Peg her nose bag of oats, and fed Bock, who was frisking about in high spirits. By that time the shoeing was done, and the Professor and I sat down to an improvised meal. I was beginning to feel as if this gipsy existence were the normal course of my life.

"Well, Professor," I said, as I handed him a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs and cheese, "for a man who slept in a wet haystack, you acquit yourself with excellent valour."

"Old Parnassus is quite a stormy petrel," he said. "I used to think the chief difficulty in writing a book would be to invent things to happen, but if I were to sit down and write the adventures I'd had with her it would be a regular Odyssey."

"How about Peg's foot?" I asked. "Can she travel on it?"

"It'll be all right if you go easy. I've scraped out the injured part and put the shoe back. I keep a little kit of tools under the van for emergencies of all sorts."

It was chilly, and we didn't dawdle over our meal. I only made a feint of eating, as I had had a little breakfast before, and also as the events of the last few hours had left me rather restless. I wanted to get Parnassus out on the highway again, to jog along in the sun and think things over. The quarry was a desolate, forbidding place anyway. But before we left we explored the cave where the tramps had been preparing to make themselves comfortable for the winter. It was not really a cave, but only a shaft into the granite cliff. A screen of evergreen boughs protected the opening against the weather, and inside were piles of sacking that had evidently been used as beds, and many old grocery boxes for tables and chairs. It amused me to notice a cracked fragment of mirror balanced on a corner of rock. Even these ragamuffins apparently were not totally unconscious of personal appearance. I seized the opportunity, while the Professor was giving Peg's foot a final look, to rearrange my hair, which was emphatically a sight. I hardly think Andrew would have recognized me that morning.

We led Peg up the steep incline, back into the lane where I had strayed, and at length we reached the main road again. Here I began to lay down the law to Redbeard.

"Now look here, Professor," I said, "I'm not going to have you tramp all the way back to Port Vigor. After the night you've had you need a rest. You just climb into that Parnassus and lie down for a good snooze. I'll drive you into Woodbridge and you can take your train there. Now you get right into that bunk. I'll sit out here and drive."

He demurred, but without much emphasis. I think the little fool was just about fagged out, and no wonder. I was a trifle groggy myself. In the end he was quite docile. He climbed into the van, took off his boots, and lay down under a blanket. Bock followed him, and I think they both fell asleep on the instant. I got on the front seat and took the reins. I didn't let Peg go more quickly than a walk as I wanted to spare her sore foot.

My, what a morning that was after the rain! The road ran pretty close to the shore, and every now and then I could catch a glimpse of the water. The air was keen—not just the ordinary, unnoticed air that we breathe in and out and don't think about, but a sharp and tingling essence, as strong in the nostrils as camphor or ammonia. The sun seemed focussed upon Parnassus, and we moved along the white road in a flush of golden light. The flat fronds of the cedars swayed gently in the salty air, and for the first time in ten years, I should think, I began amusing myself by selecting words to describe the goodness of the morning. I even imagined myself writing a description of it, as if I were Andrew or Thoreau. The crazy little Professor had inoculated me with his literary bug, I guess.

And then I did a dishonourable thing. Just by chance I put my hand into the little pocket beside the seat where Mifflin kept a few odds and ends. I meant to have another look at that card of his with the poem on it. And there I found a funny, battered little notebook, evidently forgotten. On the cover was written, in ink, "Thoughts on the Present Discontents." That title seemed vaguely familiar. I seemed to recall something of the kind from my school days—more than twenty years ago, goodness me! Of course if I had been honourable I wouldn't have looked into it. But in a kind of quibbling self-justification I recalled that I had bought Parnassus and all it contained, "lock, stock, barrel and bung" as Andrew used to say. And so….

The notebook was full of little jottings, written in pencil in the Professor's small, precise hand. The words were rubbed and soiled, but plainly legible. I read this:

I don't suppose Bock or Peg get lonely, but by the bones of Ben Gunn, I do. Seems silly when Herrick and Hans Andersen and Tennyson and Thoreau and a whole wagonload of other good fellows are riding at my back. I can hear them all talking as we trundle along. But books aren't a substantial world after all, and every now and then we get hungry for some closer, more human relationships. I've been totally alone now for eight years—except for Runt, and he might be dead and never say so. This wandering about is fine in its way, but it must come to an end some day. A man needs to put down a root somewhere to be really happy.

What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet how bestial is content—all the great things in life are done by discontented people.

There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning. A man should be learning as he goes; and he should be earning bread for himself and others; and he should be yearning, too: yearning to know the unknowable.

What a fine old poem is "The Pulley" by George Herbert! Those Elizabethan fellows knew how to write! They were marred perhaps by their idea that poems must be "witty." (Remember how Bacon said that reading poets makes one witty? There he gave a clue to the literature of his time.) Their fantastic puns and conceits are rather out of our fashion nowadays. But Lord! the root of the matter was in them! How gallantly, how reverently, they tackle the problems of life!

When God at first made man (says George Herbert) He had a "glass of blessings standing by." So He pours on man all the blessings in His reservoir: strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure—and then He refrains from giving him the last of them, which is rest, i.e., contentment. God sees that if man is contented he will never win his way to Him. Let man be restless, so that

"If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast."

Some day I shall write a novel on that theme, and call it "The Pulley." In this tragic, restless world there must be some place where at last we can lay our heads and be at rest. Some people call it death. Some call it God.

My ideal of a man is not the Omar who wants to shatter into bits this sorry scheme of things, and then remould it nearer to the heart's desire. Old Omar was a coward, with his silk pajamas and his glass of wine. The real man is George Herbert's "seasoned timber"—the fellow who does handily and well whatever comes to him. Even if it's only shovelling coal into a furnace he can balance the shovel neatly, swing the coal square on the fire and not spill it on the floor. If it's only splitting kindling or running a trolley car he can make a good, artistic job of it. If it's only writing a book or peeling potatoes he can put into it the best he has. Even if he's only a bald-headed old fool over forty selling books on a country road, he can make an ideal of it. Good old Parnassus! It's a great game…. I think I'll have to give her up soon, though: I must get that book of mine written. But Parnassus has been a true glass of blessings to me.

There was much more in the notebook; indeed it was half full of jotted paragraphs, memoranda, and scraps of writing—poems I believe some of them were—but I had seen enough. It seemed as if I had stumbled unawares on the pathetic, brave, and lonely heart of the little man. I'm a commonplace creature, I'm afraid, insensible to many of the deeper things in life, but every now and then, like all of us, I come face to face with something that thrills me. I saw how this little, red-bearded pedlar was like a cake of yeast in the big, heavy dough of humanity: how he travelled about trying to fulfil in his own way his ideals of beauty. I felt almost motherly toward him: I wanted to tell him that I understood him. And in a way I felt ashamed of having run away from my own homely tasks, my kitchen and my hen yard and dear old, hot-tempered, absent-minded Andrew. I fell into a sober mood. As soon as I was alone, I thought, I would sell Parnassus and hurry back to the farm. That was my job, that was my glass of blessings. What was I doing—a fat, middle-aged woman—trapesing along the roads with a cartload of books I didn't understand?

I slipped the little notebook back into its hiding-place. I would have died rather than let the Professor know I had seen it.