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- Parnassus on Wheels - 10/20 -
and above the meadows two or three seagulls were circling. Like all women, my angry mood melted into a reaction of exaggerated tenderness and I began to praise both Andrew and Mifflin in my heart. How fine to have a brother so solicitous of his sister's welfare and reputation! And yet, how splendid the little, scrawny Professor had been! How quick to resent an insult and how bold to avenge it! His absurd little tweed cap was lying on the seat, and I picked it up almost sentimentally. The lining was frayed and torn. From my suit case in the van I got out a small sewing kit, and hanging the reins on a hook I began to stitch up the rents as Peg jogged along. I thought with amusement of the quaint life Mr. Mifflin had led in his "caravan of culture." I imagined him addressing the audience of Whitman disciples in Camden, and wondered how the fuss ended. I imagined him in his beloved Brooklyn, strolling in Prospect Park and preaching to chance comers his gospel of good books. How different was his militant love of literature from Andrew's quiet satisfaction. And yet how much they really had in common! It tickled me to think of Mifflin reading aloud from "Happiness and Hayseed," and praising it so highly, just before fighting with the author and giving him a bloody nose. I remembered that I should have spoken to Andrew about feeding the hens, and reminded him of his winter undergarments. What helpless creatures men are, after all!
I finished mending the cap in high good humour.
I had hardly laid it down when I heard a quick step in the road behind me, and looking back, there was Mifflin, striding along with his bald pate covered with little beads of moisture. Bock trotted sedately at his heels. I halted Peg.
"Well," I said, "what's happened to Andrew?"
The Professor still looked a bit shamefaced. "The Sage is a tenacious person," he said. "We argued for a bit without much satisfaction. As a matter of fact we nearly came to blows again, only he got another waft of goldenrod, which started him sneezing, and then his nose began bleeding once more. He is convinced that I'm a ruffian, and said so in excellent prose. Honestly, I admire him a great deal. I believe he intends to have the law on me. I gave him my Brooklyn address in case he wants to follow the matter up. I think I rather pleased him by asking him to autograph 'Happiness and Hayseed' for me. I found it lying in the ditch."
"Well," I said, "you two are certainly a great pair of lunatics. You both ought to go on the stage. You'd be as good as Weber and Fields. Did he give you the autograph?"
He pulled the book out of his pocket. Scrawled in it in pencil were the words "I have shed blood for Mr. Mifflin. Andrew McGill."
"I shall read the book again with renewed interest," said Mifflin. "May I get in?"
"By all means," I said. "There's Port Vigor in front of us."
He put on his cap, noticed that it seemed to feel different, pulled it off again, and then looked at me in a quaint embarrassment.
"You are very good, Miss McGill," he said.
"Where did Andrew go?" I asked.
"He set off for Shelby on foot," Mifflin answered. "He has a grand stride for walking. He suddenly remembered that he had left some potatoes boiling on the fire yesterday afternoon, and said he must get back to attend to them. He said he hoped you would send him a postal card now and then. Do you know, he reminds me of Thoreau more than ever."
"He reminds me of a burnt cooking pot," I said. "I suppose all my kitchenware will be in a horrible state when I get home."
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
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