Parnassus on Wheels/Chapter 8
PORT VIGOR Port Vigor is a fascinating old town. It is built on a point jutting out into the Sound. Dimly in the distance one can see the end of Long Island, which Mifflin viewed with sparkling eyes. It seemed to bring him closer to Brooklyn. Several schooners were beating along the estuary in the fresh wind, and there was a delicious tang of brine in the air. We drove direct to the station where the Professor alighted. We took his portmanteau, and shut Bock inside the van to prevent the dog from following him. Then there was an awkward pause as he stood by the wheel with his cap off.
"Well, Miss McGill," he said, "there's an express train at five o'clock, so with luck I shall be in Brooklyn to-night. My brother's address is 600 Abingdon Avenue, and I hope when you're sending a card to the Sage you'll let me have one, too. I shall be very homesick for Parnassus, but I'd rather leave her with you than with any one I know."
He bowed very low, and before I could say a word he blew his nose violently and hurried away. I saw him carrying his valise into the station, and then he disappeared. I suppose that living alone with Andrew for all these years has unused me to the eccentricities of other people, but surely this little Redbeard was one of the strangest beings one would be likely to meet.
Bock yowled dismally inside, and I did not feel in any mood to sell books in Port Vigor. I drove back into the town and stopped at a tea shop for a pot of tea and some toast. When I came out I found that quite a little crowd had collected, partly owing to the strange appearance of Parnassus and partly because of Bock's plaintive cries from within. Most of the onlookers seemed to suspect the outfit of being part of a travelling menagerie, so almost against my will I put up the flaps, tied Bock to the tail of the wagon, and began to answer the humourous questions of the crowd. Two or three bought books without any urging, and it was some time before I could get away. Finally I shut up the van and pulled off, as I was afraid of seeing some one I knew. As I turned into the Woodbridge Road I heard the whistle of the five o'clock train to New York.
The twenty miles of road between Sabine Farm and Port Vigor was all familiar to me, but now to my relief I struck into a region that I had never visited. On my occasional trips to Boston I had always taken the train at Port Vigor, so the country roads were unknown. But I had set out on the Woodbridge way because Mifflin had spoken of a farmer, Mr. Pratt, who lived about four miles out of Port Vigor, on the Woodbridge Road. Apparently Mr. Pratt had several times bought books from the Professor and the latter had promised to visit him again. So I felt in duty bound to oblige a good customer.
After the varied adventures of the last two days it was almost a relief to be alone to think things over. Here was I, Helen McGill, in a queer case indeed. Instead of being home at Sabine Farm getting supper, I was trundling along a strange road, the sole owner of a Parnassus (probably the only one in existence), a horse, and a dog, and a cartload of books on my hands. Since the morning of the day before my whole life had twisted out of its accustomed orbit. I had spent four hundred dollars of my savings; I had sold about thirteen dollars' worth of books; I had precipitated a fight and met a philosopher. Not only that, I was dimly beginning to evolve a new philosophy of my own. And all this in order to prevent Andrew from buying a lot more books! At any rate, I had been successful in that. When he had seen Parnassus at last, he had hardly looked at her—except in tones of scorn. I caught myself wondering whether the Professor would allude to the incident in his book, and hoping that he would send me a copy. But after all, why should he mention it? To him it was only one of a thousand adventures. As he had said angrily to Andrew, he was nothing to me, nor I to him. How could he realize that this was the first adventure I had had in the fifteen years I had been—what was it he called it?—compiling my anthology. Well, the funny little gingersnap!
I kept Bock tied to the back of the van, as I was afraid he might take a notion to go in search of his master. As we jogged on, and the falling sun cast a level light across the way, I got a bit lonely. This solitary vagabonding business was a bit sudden after fifteen years of home life. The road lay close to the water and I watched the Sound grow a deeper blue and then a dull purple. I could hear the surf pounding, and on the end of Long Island a far-away lighthouse showed a ruby spark. I thought of the little gingersnap roaring toward New York on the express, and wondered whether he was travelling in a Pullman or a day coach. A Pullman chair would feel easy after that hard Parnassus seat.
By and by we neared a farmhouse which I took to be Mr. Pratt's. It stood close to the road, with a big, red barn behind and a gilt weathervane representing a galloping horse. Curiously enough Peg seemed to recognize the place, for she turned in at the gate and neighed vigorously. It must have been a favourite stopping place for the Professor.
Through a lighted window I could see people sitting around a table. Evidently the Pratts were at supper. I drew up in the yard. Some one looked out of a window, and I heard a girl's voice:
"Why, Pa, here's Parnassus!"
Gingersnap must have been a welcome visitor at that farm, for in an instant the whole family turned out with a great scraping of chairs and clatter of dishes. A tall, sunburnt man, in a clean shirt with no collar, led the group, and then came a stout woman about my own build, and a hired man and three children.
"Good evening!" I said. "Is this Mr. Pratt?"
"Sure thing!" said he. "Where's the Perfessor?"
"On his way to Brooklyn," said I. "And I've got Parnassus. He told me to be sure to call on you. So here we are."
"Well, I want to know!" ejaculated Mrs. Pratt. "Think of Parnassus turned suffrage! Ben, you put up the critters, and I'll take Mrs. Mifflin in to supper."
"Hold on there," I said. "My name's McGill—Miss McGill. See, it's painted on the wagon. I bought the outfit from Mr. Mifflin. A business proposition entirely."
"Well, well," said Mr. Pratt. "We're glad to see any friend of the Perfessor. Sorry he's not here, too. Come right in and have a bite with us."
They were certainly good-hearted folk, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Pratt. He put Peg and Bock away in the barn and gave them their supper, while Mrs. Pratt took me up to her spare bedroom and brought me a jug of hot water. Then they all trooped back into the dining-room and the meal began again. I am a connoisseur of farm cooking, I guess, and I've got to hand it to Beulah Pratt that she was an A-1 housewife. Her hot biscuit was perfect; the coffee was real Mocha, simmered, not boiled; the cold sausage and potato salad was as good as any Andrew ever got. And she had a smoking-hot omelet sent in for me, and opened a pot of her own strawberry preserve. The children (two boys and a girl) sat open-mouthed, nudging one another, and Mr. Pratt got out his pipe while I finished up on stewed pears and cream and chocolate cake. It was a regular meal. I wondered what Andrew was eating and whether he had found the nest behind the wood pile where the red hen always drops her eggs.
"Well, well," said Mr. Pratt, "tell us about the Perfessor. We was expectin' him here some time this fall. He generally gets here around cider time."
"I guess there isn't so much to tell," I said. "He stopped up at our place the other day, and said he wanted to sell his outfit. So I bought him out. He was pining to get back to Brooklyn and write a book."
"That book o' his!" said Mrs. Pratt. "He was always talkin' on it, but I don't believe he ever started it yet."
"Whereabout do you come from, Miss McGill?" said Pratt. I could see he was mighty puzzled at a woman driving a vanload of books around the country, alone.
"Over toward Redfield," I said.
"You any kin to that writer that lives up that way?"
"You mean Andrew McGill?" I said. "He's my brother."
"Do tell!" exclaimed Mrs. Pratt. "Why the Perfessor thought a terrible lot of him. He read us all to sleep with one of his books one night. Said he was the best literature in this State, I do believe."
I smiled to myself as I thought of the set-to on the road from Shelby.
"Well," said Pratt, "if the Perfessor's got any better friends than us in these parts, I'm glad to meet 'em. He come here first time 'bout four years ago. I was up working in the hayfield that afternoon, and I heard a shout down by the mill pond. I looked over that way and saw a couple o' kids waving their arms and screamin'. I ran down the hill and there was the Perfessor just a pullin' my boy Dick out o' the water. Dick's this one over here."
Dick, a small boy of thirteen or so, grew red under his freckles.
"The kids had been foolin' around on a raft there, an' first thing you know Dick fell in, right into deep water, over by the dam. Couldn't swim a stroke, neither. And the Perfessor, who jest happened to be comin' along in that 'bus of his, heard the boys yell. Didn't he hop out o' the wagon as spry as a chimpanzee, skin over the fence, an' jump into the pond, swim out there an' tow the boy in! Yes, ma'am, he saved that boy's life then an' no mistake. That man can read me to sleep with poetry any night he has a mind to. He's a plumb fine little firecracker, the Perfessor."
Farmer Pratt pulled hard on his pipe. Evidently his friendship for the wandering bookseller was one of the realities of his life.
"Yes, ma'am," he went on, "that Perfessor has been a good friend to me, sure enough. We brought him an' the boy back to the house. The boy had gone down three times an' the Perfessor had to dive to find him. They were both purty well all in, an' I tell you I was scared. But we got Dick around somehow—rolled him on a sugar bar'l, an' poured whiskey in him, an' worked his arms, an' put him in hot blankets. By and by he come to. An' then I found that the Perfessor, gettin' over the barb-wire fence so quick (when he lit for the pond) had torn a hole in his leg you could put four fingers in. There was his trouser all stiff with blood, an' he not sayin' a thing. Pluckiest little runt in three States, by Judas! Well, we put him to bed, too, and then the Missus keeled over, an' we put her to bed. Three of them, by time the Doc got here. Great old summer afternoon that was! But bless your heart, we couldn't keep the Perfessor abed long. Next day he was out lookin' fer his poetry books, an' first thing you know he had us all rounded up an' was preachin' good literature at us like any evangelist. I guess we all fell asleep over his poetry, so then he started on readin' that 'Treasure Island' story to us, wasn't it, Mother? By hickory, we none of us fell asleep over that. He started the kids readin' so they been at it ever since, and Dick's top boy at school now. Teacher says she never saw such a boy for readin'. That's what Perfessor done for us! Well, tell us 'bout yerself, Miss McGill. Is there any good books we ought to read? I used to pine for some o' that feller Shakespeare my father used to talk about so much, but Perfessor always 'lowed it was over my head!"
It gave me quite a thrill to hear all this about Mifflin. I could readily imagine the masterful little man captivating the simple-hearted Pratts with his eloquence and earnestness. And the story of the mill pond had its meaning, too. Little Redbeard was no mere wandering crank—he was a real man, cool and steady of brain, with the earmarks of a hero. I felt a sudden gush of warmth as I recalled his comical ways.
Mrs. Pratt lit a fire in her Franklin stove and I racked my head wondering how I could tread worthily in the Professor's footsteps. Finally I fetched the "Jungle Book" from Parnassus and read them the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. There was a long pause when I had finished.
"Say, Pa," said Dick shyly, "that mongoose was rather like Professor, wasn't he!"
Plainly the Professor was the traditional hero of this family, and I began to feel rather like an impostor!
I suppose it was foolish of me, but I had already made up my mind to push on to Woodbridge that night. It could not be more than four miles, and the time was not much after eight. I felt a little twinge of quite unworthy annoyance because I was still treading in the glamour of the Professor's influence. The Pratts would talk of nothing else, and I wanted to get somewhere where I would be estimated at my own value, not merely as his disciple. "Darn the Redbeard," I said to myself, "I think he has bewitched these people!" And in spite of their protests and invitations to stay the night, I insisted on having Peg hitched up. I gave them the copy of the "Jungle Book" as a small return for their hospitality, and finally sold Mr. Pratt a little copy of "Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare" which I thought he could read without brain fever. Then I lit my lantern and after a chorus of good-byes Parnassus rolled away. "Well," I said to myself as I turned into the high road once more, "drat the gingersnap, he seems to hypnotize everybody … he must be nearly in Brooklyn by this time!"
It was very quiet along the road, also very dark, for the sky had clouded over and I could see neither moon nor stars. As it was a direct road I should have had no difficulty, and I suppose I must have fallen into a doze during which Peg took a wrong turning. At any rate, I realized about half-past nine that Parnassus was on a much rougher road than the highway had any right to be, and there were no telephone poles to be seen. I knew that they stretched all along the main road, so plainly I had made a mistake. I was reluctant for a moment to admit that I could be wrong, and just then Peg stumbled heavily and stood still. She paid no heed to my exhortations, and when I got out and carried my lantern to see whether anything was in the way, I found that she had cast a shoe and her foot was bleeding. The shoe must have dropped off some way back and she had picked up a nail or something in the quick. I saw no alternative but to stay where I was for the night.
This was not very pleasant, but the adventures of the day had put me into a stoical frame of mind, and I saw no good in repining. I unhitched Peg, sponged her foot, and tied her to a tree. I would have made more careful explorations to determine just where I was, but a sharp patter of rain began to fall. So I climbed into my Parnassus, took Bock in with me, and lit the swinging lamp. By this time it was nearly ten o'clock. There was nothing to do but turn in, so I took off my boots and lay down in the bunk. Bock lay quite comfortably on the floor of the van. I meant to read for a while, and so did not turn out the light, but I fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke up at half-past eleven and turned out the lamp, which had made the van very warm. I opened the little windows front and back, and would have opened the door, but I feared Bock might slip away. It was still raining a little. To my annoyance I felt very wakeful. I lay for some time listening to the patter of raindrops on the roof and skylight—a very snug sound when one is warm and safe. Every now and then I could hear Peg stamping in the underbrush. I was almost dozing off again when Bock gave a low growl.
No woman of my bulk has a right to be nervous, I guess, but instantly my security vanished! The patter of the rain seemed menacing, and I imagined a hundred horrors. I was totally alone and unarmed, and Bock was not a large dog. He growled again, and I felt worse than before. I imagined that I heard stealthy sounds in the bushes, and once Peg snorted as though frightened. I put my hand down to pat Bock, and found that his neck was all bristly, like a fighting cock. He uttered a queer half growl, half whine, which gave me a chill. Some one must be prowling about the van, but in the falling rain I could hear nothing.
I felt I must do something. I was afraid to call out lest I betray the fact that there was only a woman in the van. My expedient was absurd enough, but at any rate it satisfied my desire to act. I seized one of my boots and banged vigorously on the floor, at the same time growling in as deep and masculine a voice as I could muster: "What the hell's the matter? What the hell's the matter?" This sounds silly enough, I dare say, but it afforded me some relief. And as Bock shortly ceased growling, it apparently served some purpose.
I lay awake for a long time, tingling all over with nervousness. Then I began to grow calmer, and was getting drowsy almost in spite of myself when I was aroused by the unmistakable sound of Bock's tail thumping on the floor—a sure sign of pleasure. This puzzled me quite as much as his growls. I did not dare strike a light, but could hear him sniffing at the door of the van and whining with eagerness. This seemed very uncanny, and again I crept stealthily out of the bunk and pounded on the floor lustily, this time with the frying pan, which made an unearthly din. Peg neighed and snorted, and Bock began to bark. Even in my anxiety I almost laughed. "It sounds like an insane asylum," I thought, and reflected that probably the disturbance was only caused by some small animal. Perhaps a rabbit or a skunk which Bock had winded and wanted to chase. I patted him, and crawled into my bunk once more.
But my real excitement was still to come. About half an hour later I heard unmistakable footsteps alongside the van. Bock growled furiously, and I lay in a panic. Something jarred one of the wheels. Then broke out a most extraordinary racket. I heard quick steps, Peg whinneyed, and something fell heavily against the back of the wagon. There was a violent scuffle on the ground, the sound of blows, and rapid breathing. With my heart jumping I peered out of one of the back windows. There was barely any light, but dimly I could see a tumbling mass which squirmed and writhed on the ground. Something struck one of the rear wheels so that Parnassus trembled. I heard hoarse swearing, and then the whole body, whatever it was, rolled off into the underbrush. There was a terrific crashing and snapping of twigs. Bock whined, growled, and pawed madly at the door. And then complete silence.
My nerves were quite shattered by this time. I don't think I had been so frightened since childhood days when I awakened from a nightmare. Little trickles of fear crept up and down my spine and my scalp prickled. I pulled Bock on the bunk, and lay with one hand on his collar. He, too, seemed agitated and sniffed gingerly now and then. Finally, however, he gave a sigh and fell asleep. I judged it might have been two o'clock, but I did not like to strike a light. And at last I fell into a doze.
When I woke the sun was shining brilliantly and the air was full of the chirping of birds. I felt stiff and uneasy from sleeping in my clothes, and my foot was numb from Bock's weight.
I got up and looked out of the window. Parnassus was standing in a narrow lane by a grove of birch trees. The ground was muddy, and smeared with footprints behind the van. I opened the door and looked around. The first thing I saw, on the ground by one of the wheels, was a battered tweed cap.