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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesParnassus On Wheels - Chapter 12
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Parnassus On Wheels - Chapter 12 Post by :chrisf Category :Long Stories Author :Christopher Morley Date :May 2012 Read :585

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Parnassus On Wheels - Chapter 12

CHAPTER TWELVE


The next day was Sunday, October sixth. I well remember the date.

I woke up as chipper as any Robert W. Chambers heroine. All my doubts and depressions of the evening before had fled, and I was single-heartedly delighted with the world and everything in it. The hotel was a poor place, but it would have taken more than that to mar my composure. I had a bitterly cold bath in a real country tin tub, and then eggs and pancakes for breakfast. At the table was a drummer who sold lightning rods, and several other travelling salesmen. I'm afraid my conversation was consciously modelled along the line of what the Professor would have said if he had been there, but at any rate I got along swimmingly. The travelling men, after a moment or two of embarrassed diffidence, treated me quite as one of themselves and asked me about my "line" with interest. I described what I was doing and they all said they envied me my freedom to come and go independently of trains. We talked cheerfully for a long time, and almost without intending to, I started preaching about books. In the end they insisted on my showing them Parnassus. We all went out to the stable, where the van was quartered, and they browsed over the shelves. Before I knew it I had sold five dollars' worth, although I had decided not to do any business at all on Sunday. But I couldn't refuse to sell them the stuff as they all seemed so keen on getting something really good to read. One man kept on talking about Harold Bell Wright, but I had to admit that I hadn't heard of him. Evidently the Professor hadn't stocked any of his works. I was tickled to see that after all little Redbeard didn't know _everything about literature.

After that I debated whether to go to church or to write letters. Finally I decided in favour of the letters. First I tackled Andrew. I wrote:


The Moose Hotel, Bath,
Sunday morning.


DEAR ANDREW:

It seems absurd to think that it's only three days since I left Sabine Farm. Honestly, more has happened to me in these three days than in three years at home.

I'm sorry that you and Mr. Mifflin disagreed but I quite understood your feelings. But I'm very angry that you should have tried to stop that check I gave him. It was none of your business, Andrew. I telephoned Mr. Shirley and made him send word to the bank in Woodbridge to give Mifflin the money. Mr. Mifflin did not swindle me into buying Parnassus. I did it of my own free will. If you want to know the truth, it was your fault! I bought it because I was scared _you would if I didn't. And I didn't want to be left all alone on the farm from now till Thanksgiving while you went off on another trip. So I decided to do the thing myself. I thought I'd see how you would like being left all alone to run the house. I thought it'd be pretty nice for me to get things off my mind a while and have an adventure of my own.

Now, Andrew, here are some directions for you:

1. Don't forget to feed the chickens twice a day, and collect _all the eggs. There's a nest behind the wood pile, and some of the Wyandottes have been laying under the ice house.

2. Don't let Rosie touch grandmother's blue china, because she'll break it as sure as fate if she lays her big, thick Swedish fingers on it.

3. Don't forget your warmer underwear. The nights are getting chilly.

4. I forgot to put the cover on the sewing machine. Please do that for me or it'll get all dusty.

5. Don't let the cat run loose in the house at night: he always breaks something.

6. Send your socks and anything else that needs darning over to Mrs. McNally, she can do it for you.

7. Don't forget to feed the pigs.

8. Don't forget to mend the weathervane on the barn.

9. Don't forget to send that barrel of apples over to the cider mill or you won't have any cider to drink when Mr. Decameron comes up to see us later in the fall.

10. Just to make ten commandments, I'll add one more: You might 'phone to Mrs. Collins that the Dorcas will have to meet at some one else's house next week, because I don't know just when I'll get back. I may be away a fortnight more. This is my first holiday in a long time and I'm going to chew it before I swallow it.

The Professor (Mr. Mifflin, I mean) has gone back to Brooklyn to work on his book. I'm sorry you and he had to mix it up on the high road like a couple of hooligans. He's a nice little man and you'd like him if you got to know him.

I'm spending Sunday in Bath: to-morrow I'm going on toward Hastings. I've sold five dollars' worth of books this morning even if it is Sunday.


Your affte sister
HELEN McGiLL.

P.S. Don't forget to clean the separator after using it, or it'll get in a fearful state.


After writing to Andrew I thought I would send a message to the Professor. I had already written him a long letter in my mind, but somehow when I began putting it on paper a sort of awkwardness came over me. I didn't know just how to begin. I thought how much more fun it would be if he were there himself and I could listen to him talk. And then, while I was writing the first few sentences, some of the drummers came back into the room.

"Thought you'd like to see a Sunday paper," said one of them.

I picked up the newspaper with a word of thanks and ran an eye over the headlines. The ugly black letters stood up before me, and my heart gave a great contraction. I felt my fingertips turn cold.


DISASTROUS WRECK
ON THE SHORE LINE
EXPRESS RUNS INTO OPEN SWITCH
--
TEN LIVES LOST, AND
MORE THAN A SCORE INJURED
--
FAILURE OF BLOCK SIGNALS


The letters seemed to stand up before me as large as a Malted Milk signboard. With a shuddering apprehension I read the details. Apparently the express that left Providence at four o'clock on Saturday afternoon had crashed into an open siding near Willdon about six o'clock, and collided with a string of freight empties. The baggage car had been demolished and the smoker had turned over and gone down an embankment. There were ten men killed... my head swam. Was that the train the Professor had taken? Let me see. He left Woodbridge on a local train at three. He had said the day before that the express left Port Vigor at five.... If he had changed to the express.....

In a kind of fascinated horror my eye caught the list of the dead. I ran down the names. Thank God, no, Mifflin was not among them. Then I saw the last entry:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN, MIDDLE-AGED.

What if that should be the Professor?

And I suddenly felt dizzy, and for the first time in my life I fainted.

Thank goodness, no one else was in the room. The drummers had gone outside again, and no one heard me flop off the chair. I came to in a moment, my heart whirling like a spinning top. At first I did not realize what was wrong. Then my eye fell on the newspaper again. Feverishly I re-read the account, and the names of the injured, too, which I had missed before. Nowhere was there a name I knew. But the tragic words "unidentified man" danced before my eyes. Oh! if it were the Professor....

In a wave the truth burst upon me. I loved that little man: I loved him, I loved him. He had brought something new into my life, and his brave, quaint ways had warmed my fat old heart. For the first time, in an intolerable gush of pain, I seemed to know that my life could never again be endurable without him. And now--what was I to do?

How could I learn the truth? Certainly if he _had been on the train, and had escaped from the wreck unhurt, he would have sent a message to Sabine Farm to let me know. At any rate, that was a possibility. I rushed to the telephone to call up Andrew.

Oh! the agonizing slowness of telephone connections when urgent hurry is needed! My voice shook as I said "Redfield 158 J" to the operator. Throbbing with nervousness I waited to hear the familiar click of the receiver at the other end. I could hear the Redfield switchboard receive the call, and put in the plug to connect with our wire. In imagination I could see the telephone against the wall in the old hallway at Sabine Farm. I could see the soiled patch of plaster where Andrew rests his elbow when he talks into the 'phone, and the place where he jots numbers down in pencil and I rub them off with bread crumbs. I could see Andrew coming out of the sitting-room to answer the bell. And then the operator said carelessly, "Doesn't answer." My forehead was wet as I came out of the booth.

I hope I may never have to re-live the horrors of the next hour. In spite of my bluff and hearty ways, in times of trouble I am as reticent as a clam. I was determined to hide my agony and anxiety from the well-meaning people of the Moose Hotel. I hurried to the railway station to send a telegram to the Professor's address in Brooklyn, but found the place closed. A boy told me it would not be open until the afternoon. From a drugstore I called "information" in Willdon, and finally got connected with some undertaker to whom the Willdon operator referred me. A horrible, condoling voice (have you ever talked to an undertaker over the telephone?) answered me that no one by the name of Mifflin had been among the dead, but admitted that there was one body still unidentified. He used one ghastly word that made me shudder--unrecognizable. I rang off.

I knew then for the first time the horror of loneliness. I thought of the poor little man's notebook that I had seen. I thought of his fearless and lovable ways--of his pathetic little tweed cap, of the missing button of his jacket, of the bungling darns on his frayed sleeve. It seemed to me that heaven could mean nothing more than to roll creaking along country roads, in Parnassus, with the Professor beside me on the seat. What if I had known him only--how long was it? He had brought the splendour of an ideal into my humdrum life. And now--had I lost it forever? Andrew and the farm seemed faint and far away. I was a homely old woman, mortally lonely and helpless. In my perplexity I walked to the outskirts of the village and burst into tears.

Finally I got a grip on myself again. I am not ashamed to say that I now admitted frankly what I had been hiding from myself. I was in love--in love with a little, red-bearded bookseller who seemed to me more splendid than Sir Galahad. And I vowed that if he would have me, I would follow him to the other end of nowhere.

I walked back to the hotel. I thought I would make one more try to get Andrew on the telephone. My whole soul quivered when at last I heard the receiver click.

"Hello?" said Andrew's voice.

"Oh, Andrew," I said, "this is Helen."

"Where are you?" (His voice sounded cross.)

"Andrew, is there any--any message from Mr. Mifflin? That wreck yesterday--he might have been on that train--I've been so frightened; do you think he was--hurt?"

"Stuff and nonsense," said Andrew. "If you want to know about Mifflin, he's in jail in Port Vigor."

And then I think Andrew must have been surprised. I began to laugh and cry simultaneously, and in my agitation I set down the receiver.

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CHAPTER EIGHT 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
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