Parnassus on Wheels/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN


I COULDN'T help chuckling, as Parnassus came over the brow of the hill, and I saw the river in the distance once more. How different all this was from my girlhood visions of romance. That has been characteristic of my life all along—it has been full of homely, workaday happenings, and often rather comic in spite of my best resolves to be highbrow and serious. All the same I was something near to tears as I thought of the tragic wreck at Willdon and the grief-laden hearts that must be mourning. I wondered whether the Governor was now returning from Willdon after ordering an inquiry.

On his card he had written: "Please release R. Mifflin at once and show this lady all courtesies." So I didn't anticipate any particular trouble. This made me all the more anxious to push on, and after crossing the ferry we halted in Woodbridge only long enough for supper. I drove past the bank where I had waited in the anteroom, and would have been glad of a chance to horsewhip that sneaking little cashier. I wondered how they had transported the Professor to Port Vigor, and thought ironically that it was only that Saturday morning when he had suggested taking the hoboes to the same jail. Still I do not doubt that his philosophic spirit had made the best of it all.

Woodbridge was as dead as any country town is on Sunday night. At the little hotel where I had supper there was no topic of conversation except the wreck. But the proprietor, when I paid my bill, happened to notice Parnassus in the yard.

"That's the bus that pedlar sold you, ain't it?" he asked with a leer.

"Yes," I said, shortly.

"Goin' back to prosecute him, I guess?" he suggested. "Say, that feller's a devil, believe me. When the sheriff tried to put the cuffs on him he gave him a black eye and pretty near broke his jaw. Some scrapper fer a midget!"

My own brave little fighter, I thought, and flushed with pride.

The road back to Port Vigor seemed endless. I was a little nervous, remembering the tramps in Pratt's quarry, but with Bock sitting beside me on the seat I thought it craven to be alarmed. We rumbled gently through the darkness, between aisles of inky pines where the strip of starlight ran like a ribbon overhead, then on the rolling dunes that overlook the water. There was a moon, too, but I was mortally tired and lonely and longed only to see my little Redbeard. Peg was weary, too, and plodded slowly. It must have been midnight before we saw the red and green lights of the railway signals and I knew that Port Vigor was at hand.

I decided to camp where I was. I guided Peg into a field beside the road, hitched her to a fence, and took the dog into the van with me. I was too tired to undress. I fell into the bunk and drew the blankets over me. As I did so, something dropped down behind the bunk with a sharp rap. It was a forgotten corncob pipe of the Professor's, blackened and sooty. I put it under my pillow, and fell asleep.

Monday, October seventh. If this were a novel about some charming, slender, pansy-eyed girl, how differently I would have to describe the feelings with which I woke the next morning. But these being only a few pages from the life of a fat, New England housewife, I must be candid. I woke feeling dull and sour. The day was gray and cool: faint shreds of mist sifting up from the Sound and a desolate mewing of seagulls in the air. I was unhappy, upset, and—yes—shy. Passionately I yearned to run to the Professor, to gather him into my arms, to be alone with him in Parnassus, creaking up some sunny by-road. But his words came back to me: I was nothing to him. What if he didn't love me after all?

I walked across two fields, down to the beach where little waves were slapping against the shingle. I washed my face and hands in salt water. Then I went back to Parnassus and brewed some coffee with condensed milk. I gave Peg and Bock their breakfasts. Then I hitched Peg to the van again, and felt better. As I drove into the town I had to wait at the grade crossing while a wrecking train rumbled past, on its way back from Willdon. That meant that the line was clear again. I watched the grimy men on the cars, and shuddered to think what they had been doing.

The Vigor county jail lies about a mile out of the town, an ugly, gray stone barracks with a high, spiked wall about it. I was thankful that it was still fairly early in the morning, and I drove through the streets without seeing any one I knew. Finally I reached the gate in the prison wall. Here some kind of a keeper barred my way. "Can't get in, lady," he said. "Yesterday was visitors' day. No more visitors till next month."

"I must get in," I said. "You've got a man in there on a false charge."

"So they all say," he retorted, calmly, and spat halfway across the road. "You wouldn't believe any of our boarders had a right to be here if you could hear their friends talk."

I showed him Governor Stafford's card. He was rather impressed by this, and retired into a sentry-box in the wall—to telephone, I suppose.

Presently he came back.

"The sheriff says he'll see you, ma'am. But you'll have to leave this here dynamite caboose behind." He unlocked a little door in the immense iron gate, and turned me over to another man inside. "Take this here lady to the sheriff," he said.

Some of Vigor county's prisoners must have learned to be pretty good gardeners, for certainly the grounds were in good condition. The grass was green and trimly mowed; there were conventional beds of flowers in very ugly shapes; in the distance I saw a gang of men in striped overalls mending a roadway. The guide led me to an attractive cottage to one side of the main building. There were two children playing outside, and I remember thinking that within the walls of a jail was surely a queer place to bring up youngsters.

But I had other things to think about. I looked up at that grim, gray building. Behind one of those little barred windows was the Professor. I should have been angry at Andrew, but somehow it all seemed a kind of dream. Then I was taken into the hallway of the sheriff's cottage and in a minute I was talking to a big, bull-necked man with a political moustache.

"You have a prisoner here called Roger Mifflin?" I said.

"My dear Madam, I don't keep a list of all our inmates in my head. If you will come to the office we will look up the records."

I showed him the Governor's card. He took it and kept looking at it as though he expected to see the message written there change or fade away. We walked across a strip of lawn to the prison building. There, in a big bare office, he ran over a card index.

"Here we are," he said. "Roger Mifflin; age, 41; face, oval; complexion, florid; hair, red but not much of it; height, 64 inches; weight, stripped, 120; birthmark…."

"Never mind," I said. "That's the man. What's he here for?"

"He's held in default of bail, pending trial. The charge is attempt to defraud one Helen McGill, spinster, age…"

"Rubbish!" I said. "I'm Helen McGill, and the man made no attempt to defraud me."

"The charge was entered and warrant applied for by your brother, Andrew McGill, acting on your behalf."

"I never authorized Andrew to act on my behalf."

"Then do you withdraw the charge?"

"By all means," I said. "I've a great mind to enter a counter-charge against Andrew and have him arrested."

"This is all very irregular," said the sheriff, "but if the prisoner is known to the Governor, I suppose there is no alternative. I cannot annul the warrant without some recognizance. According to the laws of this State the next of kin must stand surety for the prisoner's good behaviour after release. There is no next of kin…."

"Surely there is!" I said. "I am the prisoner's next of kin."

"What do you mean?" he said. "In what relationship do you stand to this Roger Mifflin?"

"I intend to marry him just as soon as I can get him away from here."

He burst into a roar of laughter. "I guess there's no stopping you," he said. He pinned the Governor's card to a blue paper on the desk, and began filling in some blanks.

"Well, Miss McGill," he went on, "don't take away more than one of my prisoners or I'll lose my job. The turnkey will take you up to the cell. I'm exceedingly sorry: you can see that the mistake was none of our fault. Tell the Governor that, will you, when you see him?"

I followed the attendant up two flights of bare, stone stairs, and down a long, whitewashed corridor. It was a gruesome place; rows and rows of heavy doors with little, barred windows. I noticed that each door had a combination knob, like a safe. My knees felt awfully shaky.

But it wasn't really so heart-throbby as I had expected. The jailer stopped at the end of a long passageway. He spun the clicking dial, while I waited in a kind of horror. I think I expected to see the Professor with shaved head (they couldn't shave much off his head, poor lamb!) and striped canvas suit, and a ball and chain on his ankle.

The door swung open heavily. There was a narrow, clean little room with a low camp bed, and under the barred window a table strewn with sheets of paper. It was the Professor in his own clothes, writing busily, with his back toward me. Perhaps he thought it was only an attendant with food, or perhaps he didn't even hear the interruption. I could hear his pen running busily. I might have known you never would get any heroics out of that man! Trust him to make the best of it!

"Lemon sole and a glass of sherry, please, James," said the Professor over his shoulder, and the warder, who evidently had joked with him before, broke into a cackle of laughter.

"A lady to see yer Lordship," he said.

The Professor turned round. His face went quite white. For the first time in my experience of him he seemed to be at a loss for speech.

"Miss—Miss McGill," he stammered. "You are the good Samaritan. I'm doing the John Bunyan act, see? Writing in prison. I've really started my book at last. And I find the fellows here know nothing whatever about literature. There isn't even a library in the place."

For the life of me, I couldn't utter the tenderness in my heart with that gorilla of a jailer standing behind us.

Somehow we made our way downstairs, after the Professor had gathered together the sheets of his manuscript. It had already reached formidable proportions, as he had written fifty pages in the thirty-six hours he had been in prison. In the office we had to sign some papers. The sheriff was very apologetic to Mifflin, and offered to take him back to town in his car, but I explained that Parnassus was waiting at the gate. The Professor's eyes brightened when he heard that, but I had to hurry him away from an argument about putting good books in prisons. The sheriff walked with us to the gate and there shook hands again.

Peg whickered as we came up to her, and the Professor patted her soft nose. Bock tugged at his chain in a frenzy of joy. At last we were alone.