Parnassus on Wheels/Chapter 4
JUST out of sight of the farm the road forks, one way running on to Walton where you cross the river by a covered bridge, the other swinging down toward Greenbriar and Port Vigor. Mrs. Collins lives a mile or so up the Walton road, and as I very often run over to see her I thought Andrew would be most likely to look for me there. So, after we had passed through the grove, I took the right-hand turn to Greenbriar. We began the long ascent over Huckleberry Hill and as I smelt the fresh autumn odour of the leaves I chuckled a little.
Mr. Mifflin seemed in a perfect ecstasy of high spirits. "This is certainly grand," he said. "Lord, I applaud your spunk. Do you think Mr. McGill will give chase?"
"I haven't an idea," I said. "Not right away, anyhow. He's so used to my settled ways that I don't think he'll suspect anything till he finds my note. I wonder what kind of story Mrs. McNally will tell!"
"How about putting him off the scent?" he said. "Give me your handkerchief."
I did so. He hopped nimbly out, ran back down the hill (he was a spry little person in spite of his bald crown), and dropped the handkerchief on the Walton Road about a hundred feet beyond the fork. Then he followed me up the slope.
"There," he said, grinning like a kid, "that'll fool him. The Sage of Redfield will undoubtedly follow a false spoor and the criminals will win a good start. But I'm afraid it's rather easy to follow a craft as unusual as Parnassus."
"Tell me how you manage the thing," I said. "Do you really make it pay?" We halted at the top of the hill to give Pegasus a breathing space. The terrier lay down in the dust and watched us gravely. Mr. Mifflin pulled out a pipe and begged my permission to smoke.
"It's rather comical how I first got into it," he said. "I was a school teacher down in Maryland. I'd been plugging away in a country school for years, on a starvation salary. I was trying to support an invalid mother, and put by something in case of storms. I remember how I used to wonder whether I'd ever be able to wear a suit that wasn't shabby and have my shoes polished every day. Then my health went back on me. The doctor told me to get into the open air. By and by I got this idea of a travelling bookstore. I had always been a lover of books, and in the days when I boarded out among the farmers I used to read aloud to them. After my mother died I built the wagon to suit my own ideas, bought a stock of books from a big second-hand store in Baltimore, and set out. Parnassus just about saved my life I guess."
He pushed his faded old cap back on his head and relit his pipe. I clicked to Pegasus and we rumbled gently off over the upland, looking down across the pastures. Distant cow bells sounded tankle-tonk among the bushes. Across the slope of the hill I could see the road winding away to Redfield. Somewhere along that road Andrew would be rolling back toward home and roast pork with apple sauce; and here was I, setting out on the first madness of my life without even a qualm.
"Miss McGill," said the little man, "this rolling pavilion has been wife, doctor, and religion to me for seven years. A month ago I would have scoffed at the thought of leaving her; but somehow it's come over me I need a change. There's a book I've been yearning to write for a long time, and I need a desk steady under my elbows and a roof over my head. And silly as it seems, I'm crazy to get back to Brooklyn. My brother and I used to live there as kids. Think of walking over the old Bridge at sunset and seeing the towers of Manhattan against a red sky! And those old gray cruisers down in the Navy Yard! You don't know how tickled I am to sell out. I've sold a lot of copies of your brother's books and I've often thought he'd be the man to buy Parnassus if I got tired of her."
"So he would," I said. "Just the man. He'd be only too likely to—and go maundering about in this jaunting car and neglect the farm. But tell me about selling books. How much profit do you make out of it? We'll be passing Mrs. Mason's farm, by and by, and we might as well sell her something just to make a start."
"It's very simple," he said. "I replenish my stock whenever I go through a big town. There's always a second-hand bookstore somewhere about, where you can pick up odds and ends. And every now and then I write to a wholesaler in New York for some stuff. When I buy a book I mark in the back just what I paid for it, then I know what I can afford to sell it for. See here."
He pulled up a book from behind the seat—a copy of "Lorna Doone" it was—and showed me the letters a m scrawled in pencil in the back.
"That means that I paid ten cents for this. Now, if you sell it for a quarter you've got a safe profit. It costs me about four dollars a week to run Parnassus—generally less. If you clear that much in six days you can afford to lay off on Sundays!"
"How do you know that a m stands for ten cents?" I asked.
"The code word's manuscript. Each letter stands for a figure, from 0 up to 9, see?" He scrawled it down on a scrap of paper:
m a n u s c r i p t
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
"Now, you see a m stands for 10, a n would be 12, n s is 24, a c is 15, a m m is $1.00, and so on. I don't pay much over fifty cents for books as a rule, because country folks are shy of paying much for them. They'll pay a lot for a separator or a buggy top, but they've never been taught to worry about literature! But it's surprising how excited they get about books if you sell 'em the right kind. Over beyond Port Vigor there's a farmer who's waiting for me to go back—I've been there three or four times—and he'll buy about five dollars' worth if I know him. First time I went there I sold him 'Treasure Island,' and he's talking about it yet. I sold him 'Robinson Crusoe,' and 'Little Women' for his daughter, and 'Huck Finn,' and Grubb's book about 'The Potato.' Last time I was there he wanted some Shakespeare, but I wouldn't give it to him. I didn't think he was up to it yet."
I began to see something of the little man's idealism in his work. He was a kind of traveling missionary in his way. A hefty talker, too. His eyes were twinkling now and I could see him warming up.
"Lord!" he said, "when you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night—there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean. Jiminy! If I were the baker or the butcher or the broom huckster, people would run to the gate when I came by—just waiting for my stuff. And here I go loaded with everlasting salvation—yes, ma'am, salvation for their little, stunted minds—and it's hard to make 'em see it. That's what makes it worth while—I'm doing something that nobody else from Nazareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It's a new field, but by the bones of Whitman it's worth while. That's what this country needs—more books!"
He laughed at his own vehemence. "Do you know, it's comical," he said. "Even the publishers, the fellows that print the books, can't see what I'm doing for them. Some of 'em refuse me credit because I sell their books for what they're worth instead of for the prices they mark on them. They write me letters about price-maintenance—and I write back about merit-maintenance. Publish a good book and I'll get a good price for it, say I! Sometimes I think the publishers know less about books than any one else! I guess that's natural, though. Most school teachers don't know much about children."
"The best of it is," he went on, "I have such a darn good time. Peg and Bock (that's the dog) and I go loafing along the road on a warm summer day, and by and by we'll fetch up alongside some boarding-house and there are the boarders all rocking off their lunch on the veranda. Most of 'em bored to death—nothing good to read, nothing to do but sit and watch the flies buzzing in the sun and the chickens rubbing up and down in the dust. First thing you know I'll sell half a dozen books that put the love of life into them, and they don't forget Parnassus in a hurry. Take O. Henry, for instance—there isn't anybody so dog-gone sleepy that he won't enjoy that man's stories. He understood life, you bet, and he could write it down with all its little twists. I've spent an evening reading O. Henry and Wilkie Collins to people and had them buy out all their books I had and clamour for more."
"What do you do in winter?" I asked—a practical question, as most of mine are.
"That depends on where I am when bad weather sets in," said Mr. Mifflin. "Two winters I was down south and managed to keep Parnassus going all through the season. Otherwise, I just lay up wherever I am. I've never found it hard to get lodging for Peg and a job for myself, if I had to have them. Last winter I worked in a bookstore in Boston. Winter before, I was in a country drugstore down in Pennsylvania. Winter before that, I tutored a couple of small boys in English literature. Winter before that, I was a steward on a steamer; you see how it goes. I've had a fairly miscellaneous experience. As far as I can see, a man who's fond of books never need starve! But this winter I'm planning to live with my brother in Brooklyn and slog away at my book. Lord, how I've pondered over that thing! Long summer afternoons I've sat here, jogging along in the dust, thinking it out until it seemed as if my forehead would burst. You see, my idea is that the common people—in the country, that is—never have had any chance to get hold of books, and never have had any one to explain what books can mean. It's all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff—something that'll stick to their ribs—make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space without ever even getting a hot-box! And something that'll spur 'em on to keep the hearth well swept and the wood pile split into kindling and the dishes washed and dried and put away. Any one who can get the country people to read something worth while is doing his nation a real service. And that's what this caravan of culture aspires to…. You must be weary of this harangue! Does the Sage of Redfield ever run on like that?"
"Not to me," I said. "He's known me so long that he thinks of me as a kind of animated bread-baking and cake-mixing machine. I guess he doesn't put much stock in my judgment in literary matters. But he puts his digestion in my hands without reserve. There's Mason's farm over there. I guess we'd better sell them some books—hadn't we? Just for a starter."
We turned into the lane that runs up to the Mason farmhouse. Bock trotted on ahead—very stiff on his legs and his tail gently wagging—to interview the mastiff, and Mrs. Mason who was sitting on the porch, peeling potatoes, laid down the pan. She's a big, buxom woman with jolly, brown eyes like a cow's.
"For heaven's sake, Miss McGill," she called out in a cheerful voice—"I'm glad to see you. Got a lift, did you?"
She hadn't really noticed the inscription on Parnassus, and thought it was a regular huckster's wagon.
"Well, Mrs. Mason," I said, "I've gone into the book business. This is Mr. Mifflin. I've bought out his stock. We've come to sell you some books."
She laughed. "Go on, Helen," she said, "you can't kid me! I bought a whole set of books last year from an agent—'The World's Great Funeral Orations'—twenty volumes. Sam and I ain't read more'n the first volume yet. It's awful uneasy reading!"
Mifflin jumped down, and raised the side flap of the wagon. Mrs. Mason came closer. I was tickled to see how the little man perked up at the sight of a customer. Evidently selling books was meat and drink to him.
"Madam," he said, "'Funeral Orations' (bound in sackcloth, I suppose?) have their place, but Miss McGill and I have got some real books here to which I invite your attention. Winter will be here soon, and you will need something more cheerful to beguile your evenings. Very possibly you have growing children who would profit by a good book or two. A book of fairy tales for the little girl I see on the porch? Or stories of inventors for that boy who is about to break his neck jumping from the barn loft? Or a book about road making for your husband? Surely there is something here you need? Miss McGill probably knows your tastes."
That little red-bearded man was surely a born salesman. How he guessed that Mr. Mason was the road commissioner in our township, goodness only knows. Perhaps it was just a lucky shot. By this time most of the family had gathered around the van, and I saw Mr. Mason coming from the barn with his twelve-year-old Billy.
"Sam," shouted Mrs. Mason, "here's Miss McGill turned book pedlar and got a preacher with her!"
"Hello, Miss McGill," said Mr. Mason. He is a big, slow-moving man of great gravity and solidity. "Where's Andrew?"
"Andrew's coming home for roast pork and apple sauce," I said, "and I'm going off to sell books for a living. Mr. Mifflin here is teaching me how. We've got a book on road mending that's just what you need."
I saw Mr. and Mrs. Mason exchange glances. Evidently they thought me crazy. I began to wonder whether we had made a mistake in calling on people I knew so well. The situation was a trifle embarrassing.
Mr. Mifflin came to the rescue.
"Don't be alarmed, sir," he said to Mr. Mason. "I haven't kidnapped Miss McGill." (As he is about half my size this was amusing.) "We are trying to increase her brother's income by selling his books for him. As a matter of fact, we have a wager with him that we can sell fifty copies of 'Happiness and Hayseed' before Hallowe'en. Now I'm sure your sporting instinct will assist us by taking at least one copy. Andrew McGill is probably the greatest author in this State, and every taxpayer ought to possess his books. May I show you a copy?"
"That sounds reasonable," said Mr. Mason, and he almost smiled. "What do you say, Emma, think we better buy a book or two? You know those 'Funeral Orations.'…" "Well," said Emma, "you know we've always said we ought to read one of Andrew McGill's books but we didn't rightly know how to get hold of one. That fellow that sold us the funeral speeches didn't seem to know about 'em. I tell you what, you folks better stop and have dinner with us and you can tell us what we'd ought to buy. I'm just ready to put the potatoes on the stove now."
I must confess that the prospect of sitting down to a meal I hadn't cooked myself appealed to me strongly; and I was keen to see what kind of grub Mrs. Mason provided for her household; but I was afraid that if we dallied there too long Andrew would be after us. I was about to say that we would have to be getting on, and couldn't stay; but apparently the zest of expounding his philosophy to new listeners was too much for Mifflin. I heard him saying:
"That's mighty kind of you, Mrs. Mason, and we'd like very much to stay. Perhaps I can put Peg up in your barn for a while. Then we can tell you all about our books." And to my amazement I found myself chiming in with assent.
Mifflin certainly surpassed himself at dinner. The fact that Mrs. Mason's hot biscuits tasted of saleratus gave me far less satisfaction than it otherwise would, because I was absorbed in listening to the little vagabond's talk. Mr. Mason came to the table grumbling something about his telephone being out of order—(I wondered whether he had been trying to get Andrew on the wire; he was a little afraid that I was being run away with, I think)—but he was soon won over by the current of the little man's cheery wit. Nothing daunted Mifflin. He talked to the old grandmother about quilts; offered to cut off a strip of his necktie for her new patchwork; and told all about the illustrated book on quilts that he had in the van. He discussed cookery and the Bible with Mrs. Mason; and she being a leading light in the Greenbriar Sunday School, was pleasantly scandalized by his account of the best detective stories in the Old Testament. With Mr. Mason he was all scientific farming, chemical manures, macadam roads, and crop rotation; and to little Billy (who sat next him) he told extraordinary yarns about Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, and what not. Honestly I was amazed at the little man. He was as genial as a cricket on the hearth, and yet every now and then his earnestness would break through. I don't wonder he was a success at selling books. That man could sell clothes pins or Paris garters, I guess, and make them seem romantic.
"You know, Mr. Mason," he said, "you certainly owe it to these youngsters of yours to put a few really good books into their hands. City kids have the libraries to go to, but in the country there's only old Doc Hostetter's Almanac and the letters written by ladies with backache telling how Peruna did for them. Give this boy and girl of yours a few good books and you're starting them on the double-track, block-signal line to happiness. Now there's 'Little Women'—that girl of yours can learn more about real girlhood and fine womanhood out of that book than from a year's paper dolls in the attic."
"That's right, Pa," assented Mrs. Mason. ("Go on with your meal, Professor, the meat'll be cold.") She was completely won by the travelling bookseller, and had given him the highest title of honour in her ken. "Why, I read that story when I was a girl, and I still remember it. That's better readin' for Dorothy than those funeral speeches, I reckon. I believe the Professor's right: we'd ought to have more books laying around. Seems kind of a shame, with a famous author at the next farm, not to read more, don't it, now?"
So by the time we got down to Mrs. Mason's squash pie (good pie, too, I admit, but her hand is a little heavy for pastry), the whole household was enthusiastic about books, and the atmosphere was literary enough for even Dr. Eliot to live in without panting. Mrs. Mason opened up her parlour and we sat there while Mifflin recited "The Revenge" and "Maud Muller."
"Well, now, ain't that real sweet!" said Emma Mason. "It's surprising how those words rhyme so nicely. Seems almost as though it was done a-purpose! Reminds me of piece day at school. There was a mighty pretty piece I learned called the 'Wreck of the Asperus.'" And she subsided into a genteel melancholy.
I saw that Mr. Mifflin was well astride his hobby: he had started to tell the children about Robin Hood, but I had the sense to give him a wink. We had to be getting along or surely Andrew might be on us. So while Mifflin was putting Pegasus into the shafts again I picked out seven or eight books that I thought would fit the needs of the Masons. Mr. Mason insisted that "Happiness and Hayseed" be included among them, and gave me a crisp five-dollar bill, refusing any change. "No, no," he said, "I've had more fun than I get at a grange meeting. Come round again, Miss McGill; I'm going to tell Andrew what a good show this travelling theayter of yours gives! And you, Professor, any time you're here about road-mending season, stop in an' tell me some more good advice. Well, I must get back to the field."
Bock fell in under the van, and we creaked off down the lane. Mifflin filled his pipe and was chuckling to himself. I was a little worried now for fear Andrew might overtake us.
"It's a wonder Sam Mason didn't call up Andrew," I said. "It must have looked mighty queer to him for an old farm hand like me to be around, peddling books."
"He would have done it straight off," said Mifflin, "but you see, I cut his telephone wire!"