Parnassus on Wheels/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER ELEVEN


WE WERE coming into Woodbridge; and I was just wondering whether to wake the Professor when the little window behind me slid back and he stuck his head out.

"Hello!" he said. "I think I must have been asleep!"

"Well, I should hope so," I said. "You needed it."

Indeed he looked much better, and I was relieved to see it. I had been really afraid he would be ill after sleeping out all night, but I guess he was tougher than I thought. He joined me on the seat, and we drove into the town. While he went to the station to ask about the trains I had a fine time selling books. I was away from the locality where I was known, and had no shyness in attempting to imitate Mifflin's methods. I even went him one better by going into a hardware store where I bought a large dinner bell. This I rang lustily until a crowd gathered, then I put up the flaps and displayed my books. As a matter of fact, I sold only one, but I enjoyed myself none the less.

By and by Mifflin reappeared. I think he had been to a barber: at any rate he looked very spry: he had bought a clean collar and a flowing tie of a bright electric blue which really suited him rather well.

"Well," he said, "the Sage is going to get back at me for that punch on the nose! I've been to the bank to cash your check. They telephoned over to Redfield, and apparently your brother has stopped payment on it. It's rather awkward: they seem to think I'm a crook."

I was furious. What right had Andrew to do that?

"The brute!" I said. "What on earth shall I do?"

"I suggest that you telephone to the Redfield Bank," he said, "and countermand your brother's instructions—that is, unless you think you've made a mistake? I don't want to take advantage of you."

"Nonsense!" I said. "I'm not going to let Andrew spoil my holiday. That's always his way: if he gets an idea into his head he's like a mule. I'll telephone to Redfield, and then we'll go to see the bank here."

We put Parnassus up at the hotel, and I went to the telephone. I was thoroughly angry at Andrew, and tried to get him on the wire first. But Sabine Farm didn't answer. Then I telephoned to the bank in Redfield, and got Mr. Shirley. He's the cashier, and I know him well. I guess he recognized my voice, for he made no objection when I told him what I wanted.

"Now you telephone to the bank in Woodbridge," I said, "and tell them to let Mr. Mifflin have the money. I'll go there with him to identify him. Will that be all right?"

"Perfectly," he said. The deceitful little snail! If I had only known what he was concocting!

Mifflin said there was a train at three o'clock which he could take. We stopped at a little lunch room for a bite to eat, then he went again to the bank, and I with him. We asked the cashier whether they had had a message from Redfield.

"Yes," he said. "We've just heard." And he looked at me rather queerly.

"Are you Miss McGill?" he said.

"I am," I said.

"Will you just step this way a moment?" he asked politely.

He led me into a little sitting-room and asked me to sit down. I supposed that he was going to get some paper for me to sign, so I waited quite patiently for several minutes. I had left the Professor at the cashier's window, where they would give him his money.

I waited some time, and finally I got tired of looking at the Life Insurance calendars. Then I happened to glance out of the window. Surely that was the Professor, just disappearing round the corner with another man?

I returned to the cashier's desk.

"What's the matter?" I said. "Your mahogany furniture is charming, but I'm tired of it. Do I have to sit here any longer? And where's Mr. Mifflin? Did he get his money?"

The cashier was a horrid little creature with side whiskers.

"I'm sorry you had to wait, Madam," he said. "The transaction is just concluded. We gave Mr. Mifflin what was due him. There is no need for you to stay longer."

I thought this was very extraordinary. Surely the Professor would not leave without saying good-bye? However, I noticed that the clock said three minutes to three, so I thought that perhaps he had had to run to catch his train. He was such a strange little man, anyway….

Well, I went back to the hotel, quite a little upset by this sudden parting. At least I was glad the little man had got his money all right. Probably he would write from Brooklyn, but of course I wouldn't get the letter till I returned to the farm as that was the only address he would have. Perhaps that wouldn't be so long after all: but I did not feel like going back now, when Andrew had been so horrid.

I drove Parnassus on the ferry, and we crossed the river. I felt lost and disagreeable. Even the fresh movement through the air gave me no pleasure. Bock whined dismally inside the van.

It didn't take me long to discover that Parnassing all alone had lost some of its charms. I missed the Professor: missed his abrupt, direct way of saying things, and his whimsical wit. And I was annoyed by his skipping off without a word of good-bye. It didn't seem natural. I partially appeased my irritation by stopping at a farmhouse on the other side of the river and selling a cook book. Then I started along the road for Bath—about five miles farther on. Peg's foot didn't seem to bother her so I thought it would be safe to travel that far before stopping for the night. Counting up the days (with some difficulty: it seemed as though I had been away from home a month), I remembered that this was Saturday night. I thought I would stay in Bath over Sunday and get a good rest. We jogged sedately along the road, and I got out a copy of Vanity Fair. I was so absorbed in Becky Sharp that I wouldn't even interrupt myself to sell books at the houses we passed. I think reading a good book makes one modest. When you see the marvellous insight into human nature which a truly great book shows, it is bound to make you feel small—like looking at the Dipper on a clear night, or seeing the winter sunrise when you go out to collect the morning eggs. And anything that makes you feel small is mighty good for you.

"What do you mean by a great book?" said the Professor—I mean, I imagined him saying it. It seemed to me as if I could see him sitting there, with his corncob pipe in his hand and that quizzical little face of his looking sharply at me. Somehow, talking with the Professor had made me think. He was as good as one of those Scranton correspondence courses, I do believe, and no money to pay for postage.

Well, I said to the Professor—to myself I mean—let's see: what is a good book? I don't mean books like Henry James's (he's Andrew's great idol. It always seemed to me that he had a kind of rush of words to the head and never stopped to sort them out properly). A good book ought to have something simple about it. And, like Eve, it ought to come from somewhere near the third rib: there ought to be a heart beating in it. A story that's all forehead doesn't amount to much. Anyway, it'll never get over at a Dorcas meeting. That was the trouble with Henry James. Andrew talked so much about him that I took one of his books to read aloud at our sewing circle over at Redfield. Well, after one try we had to fall back on "Pollyanna."

I haven't been doing chores and running a farmhouse for fifteen years without getting some ideas about life—and even about books. I wouldn't set my lit'ry views up against yours, Professor (I was still talking to Mifflin in my mind), no, nor even against Andrew's—but as I say, I've got some ideas of my own. I've learned that honest work counts in writing books just as much as it does in washing dishes. I guess Andrew's books must be some good after all because he surely does mull over them without end. I can forgive his being a shiftless farmer so long as he really does his literary chores up to the hilt. A man can be slack in everything else, if he does one thing as well as he possibly can. And I guess it won't matter my being an ignoramus in literature so long as I'm rated A-1 in the kitchen. That's what I used to think as I polished and scoured and scrubbed and dusted and swept and then set about getting dinner. If I ever sat down to read for ten minutes the cat would get into the custard. No woman in the country sits down for fifteen consecutive minutes between sunrise and sunset, anyway, unless she has half a dozen servants. And nobody knows anything about literature unless he spends most of his life sitting down. So there you are.

The cultivation of philosophic reflection was a new experience for me. Peg ambled along contentedly and the dog trailed under Parnassus where I had tied him. I read Vanity Fair and thought about all sorts of things. Once I got out to pick some scarlet maple leaves that attracted me. The motors passing annoyed me with their dust and noise, but by and by one of them stopped, looked at my outfit curiously, and then asked to see some books. I put up the flaps for them and we pulled off to one side of the road and had a good talk. They bought two or three books, too.

By the time I neared Bath the hands of my watch pointed to supper. I was still a bit shy of Mifflin's scheme of stopping overnight at farmhouses, so I thought I'd go right into the town and look for a hotel. The next day was Sunday, so it seemed reasonable to give the horse a good rest and stay in Bath two nights. The Hominy House looked clean and old-fashioned, and the name amused me, so in I went. It was a kind of high-class boarding-house, with mostly old women around. It looked to me almost literary and Elbert Hubbardish compared to the Grand Central in Shelby. The folks there stared at me somewhat suspiciously and I half thought they were going to say they didn't take pedlars; but when I flashed a new five-dollar bill at the desk I got good service. A five-dollar bill is a patent of nobility in New England.

My! how I enjoyed that creamed chicken on toast, and buckwheat cakes with syrup! After you get used to cooking all your own grub, a meal off some one else's stove is the finest kind of treat. After supper I was all prepared to sit out on the porch with my sweater on and give a rocking chair a hot box, but then I remembered that it was up to me to carry on the traditions of Parnassus. I was there to spread the gospel of good books. I got to thinking how the Professor never shirked carrying on his campaign, and I determined that I would be worthy of the cause.

When I think back about the experience, it seems pretty crazy, but at the time I was filled with a kind of evangelistic zeal. I thought if I was going to try to sell books I might as well have some fun out of it. Most of the old ladies were squatting about in the parlour, knitting or reading or playing cards. In the smoking-room I could see two dried-up men. Mrs. Hominy, the manager of the place, was sitting at her desk behind a brass railing, going over accounts with a quill pen. I thought that the house probably hadn't had a shock since Walt Whitman wrote "Leaves of Grass." In a kind of do-or-die spirit I determined to give them a rouse.

In the dining-room I had noticed a huge dinner bell that stood behind the door. I stepped in there, and got it. Standing in the big hall I began ringing it as hard as I could shake my arm.

You might have thought it was a fire alarm. Mrs. Hominy dropped her pen in horror. The colonial dames in the parlour came to life and ran into the hall like cockroaches. In a minute I had gathered quite a respectable audience. It was up to me to do the spellbinding.

"Friends," I said (unconsciously imitating the Professor's tricks of the trade, I guess), "this bell which generally summons you to the groaning board now calls you to a literary repast. With the permission of the management, and with apologies for disturbing your tranquillity, I will deliver a few remarks on the value of good books. I see that several of you are fond of reading, so perhaps the topic will be congenial?"

They gazed at me about as warmly as a round of walnut sundaes.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," I continued, "of course you remember the story of Abe Lincoln when he said, 'if you call a leg a tail, how many tails has a dog?' 'Five,' you answer. Wrong; because, as Mr. Lincoln said, calling a leg a tail…."

I still think it was a good beginning. But that was as far as I got. Mrs. Hominy came out of her trance, hastened from the cage, and grabbed my arm. She was quite red with anger.

"Really!" she said. "Well, really!… I must ask you to continue this in some other place. We do not allow commercial travellers in this house."

And within fifteen minutes they had hitched up Peg and asked me to move on. Indeed I was so taken aback by my own zeal that I could hardly protest. In a kind of daze I found myself at the Moose Hotel, where they assured me that they catered to mercantile people. I went straight to my room and fell asleep as soon as I reached the straw mattress.

That was my first and only public speech.