Christopher Morley.

Parnassus on Wheels online

. (page 1 of 8)
Online LibraryChristopher MorleyParnassus on Wheels → online text (page 1 of 8)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Andrew Sly




To H.B.F. and H.F.M.
"Trusty, dusky, vivid, true"

David Grayson, Esq.


Although my name appears on the title page, the real author of this
book is Miss Helen McGill (now Mrs. Roger Mifflin), who told me the
story with her own inimitable vivacity. And on her behalf I want to
send to you these few words of acknowledgment.

Mrs. Mifflin, I need hardly say, is unskilled in the arts of
authorship: this is her first book, and I doubt whether she will
ever write another. She hardly realized, I think, how much her
story owes to your own delightful writings. There used to be a
well-thumbed copy of "Adventures in Contentment" on her table at the
Sabine Farm, and I have seen her pick it up, after a long day in
the kitchen, read it with chuckles, and say that the story of you
and Harriet reminded her of herself and Andrew. She used to mutter
something about "Adventures in Discontentment" and ask why Harriet's
side of the matter was never told? And so when her own adventure
came to pass, and she was urged to put it on paper, I think she
unconsciously adopted something of the manner and matter that you
have made properly yours.

Surely, sir, you will not disown so innocent a tribute! At any rate,
Miss Harriet Grayson, whose excellent qualities we have all so long
admired, will find in Mrs. Mifflin a kindred spirit.

Mrs. Mifflin would have said this for herself, with her characteristic
definiteness of speech, had she not been out of touch with her
publishers and foolscap paper. She and the Professor are on their
Parnassus, somewhere on the high roads, happily engrossed in the
most godly diversion known to man - selling books. And I venture
to think that there are no volumes they take more pleasure in
recommending than the wholesome and invigorating books which bear
your name.

Believe me, dear Mr. Grayson, with warm regards,

Faithfully yours,


I wonder if there isn't a lot of bunkum in higher education? I never
found that people who were learned in logarithms and other kinds of
poetry were any quicker in washing dishes or darning socks. I've
done a good deal of reading when I could, and I don't want to "admit
impediments" to the love of books, but I've also seen lots of good,
practical folk spoiled by too much fine print. Reading sonnets
always gives me hiccups, too.

I never expected to be an author! But I do think there are some
amusing things about the story of Andrew and myself and how books
broke up our placid life. When John Gutenberg, whose real name (so
the Professor says) was John Gooseflesh, borrowed that money to set
up his printing press he launched a lot of troubles on the world.

Andrew and I were wonderfully happy on the farm until he became an
author. If I could have foreseen all the bother his writings were
to cause us, I would certainly have burnt the first manuscript in
the kitchen stove.

Andrew McGill, the author of those books every one reads, is my
brother. In other words, I am his sister, ten years younger. Years
ago Andrew was a business man, but his health failed and, like so
many people in the story books, he fled to the country, or, as he
called it, to the bosom of Nature. He and I were the only ones left
in an unsuccessful family. I was slowly perishing as a conscientious
governess in the brownstone region of New York. He rescued me from
that and we bought a farm with our combined savings. We became real
farmers, up with the sun and to bed with the same. Andrew wore
overalls and a soft shirt and grew brown and tough. My hands got
red and blue with soapsuds and frost; I never saw a Redfern
advertisement from one year's end to another, and my kitchen was a
battlefield where I set my teeth and learned to love hard work.
Our literature was government agriculture reports, patent medicine
almanacs, seedsmen's booklets, and Sears Roebuck catalogues. We
subscribed to Farm and Fireside and read the serials aloud. Every
now and then, for real excitement, we read something stirring in the
Old Testament - that cheery book Jeremiah, for instance, of which
Andrew was very fond. The farm did actually prosper, after a while;
and Andrew used to hang over the pasture bars at sunset, and tell,
from the way his pipe burned, just what the weather would be the
next day.

As I have said, we were tremendously happy until Andrew got the
fatal idea of telling the world how happy we were. I am sorry to
have to admit he had always been rather a bookish man. In his
college days he had edited the students' magazine, and sometimes he
would get discontented with the Farm and Fireside serials and pull
down his bound volumes of the college paper. He would read me some
of his youthful poems and stories and mutter vaguely about writing
something himself some day. I was more concerned with sitting hens
than with sonnets and I'm bound to say I never took these threats
very seriously. I should have been more severe.

Then great-uncle Philip died, and his carload of books came to us.
He had been a college professor, and years ago when Andrew was a
boy Uncle Philip had been very fond of him - had, in fact, put him
through college. We were the only near relatives, and all those
books turned up one fine day. That was the beginning of the end,
if I had only known it. Andrew had the time of his life building
shelves all round our living-room; not content with that he turned
the old hen house into a study for himself, put in a stove, and used
to sit up there evenings after I had gone to bed. The first thing I
knew he called the place Sabine Farm (although it had been known for
years as Bog Hollow) because he thought it a literary thing to do.
He used to take a book along with him when he drove over to Redfield
for supplies; sometimes the wagon would be two hours late coming
home, with old Ben loafing along between the shafts and Andrew lost
in his book.

I didn't think much of all this, but I'm an easy-going woman and
as long as Andrew kept the farm going I had plenty to do on my own
hook. Hot bread and coffee, eggs and preserves for breakfast; soup
and hot meat, vegetables, dumplings, gravy, brown bread and white,
huckleberry pudding, chocolate cake and buttermilk for dinner;
muffins, tea, sausage rolls, blackberries and cream, and doughnuts
for supper - that's the kind of menu I had been preparing three times
a day for years. I hadn't any time to worry about what wasn't my

And then one morning I caught Andrew doing up a big, flat parcel for
the postman. He looked so sheepish I just had to ask what it was.

"I've written a book," said Andrew, and he showed me the title page -


Even then I wasn't much worried, because of course I knew no one
would print it. But Lord! a month or so later came a letter from a
publisher - accepting it! That's the letter Andrew keeps framed above
his desk. Just to show how such things sound I'll copy it here:


January 13, 1907.


We have read with singular pleasure your manuscript "Paradise
Regained." There is no doubt in our minds that so spirited an
account of the joys of sane country living should meet with
popular approval, and, with the exception of a few revisions and
abbreviations, we would be glad to publish the book practically as
it stands. We would like to have it illustrated by Mr. Tortoni, some
of whose work you may have seen, and would be glad to know whether
he may call upon you in order to acquaint himself with the local
colour of your neighbourhood.

We would be glad to pay you a royalty of 10 percent upon the retail
price of the book, and we enclose duplicate contracts for your
signature in case this proves satisfactory to you.

Believe us, etc., etc.,


I have since thought that "Paradise Lost" would have been a better
title for that book. It was published in the autumn of 1907, and
since that time our life has never been the same. By some mischance
the book became the success of the season; it was widely commended
as "a gospel of health and sanity" and Andrew received, in almost
every mail, offers from publishers and magazine editors who wanted
to get hold of his next book. It is almost incredible to what
stratagems publishers will descend to influence an author. Andrew
had written in "Paradise Regained" of the tramps who visit us, how
quaint and appealing some of them are (let me add, how dirty),
and how we never turn away any one who seems worthy. Would you
believe that, in the spring after the book was published, a
disreputable-looking vagabond with a knapsack, who turned up one
day, blarneyed Andrew about his book and stayed overnight, announced
himself at breakfast as a leading New York publisher? He had chosen
this ruse in order to make Andrew's acquaintance.

You can imagine that it didn't take long for Andrew to become
spoiled at this rate! The next year he suddenly disappeared, leaving
only a note on the kitchen table, and tramped all over the state for
six weeks collecting material for a new book. I had all I could do
to keep him from going to New York to talk to editors and people of
that sort. Envelopes of newspaper cuttings used to come to him, and
he would pore over them when he ought to have been ploughing corn.
Luckily the mail man comes along about the middle of the morning
when Andrew is out in the fields, so I used to look over the letters
before he saw them. After the second book ("Happiness and Hayseed"
it was called) was printed, letters from publishers got so thick
that I used to put them all in the stove before Andrew saw
them - except those from the Decameron Jones people, which sometimes
held checks. Literary folk used to turn up now and then to interview
Andrew, but generally I managed to head them off.

But Andrew got to be less and less of a farmer and more and more
of a literary man. He bought a typewriter. He would hang over the
pigpen noting down adjectives for the sunset instead of mending the
weather vane on the barn which took a slew so that the north wind
came from the southwest. He hardly ever looked at the Sears Roebuck
catalogues any more, and after Mr. Decameron came to visit us and
suggested that Andrew write a book of country poems, the man became
simply unbearable.

And all the time I was counting eggs and turning out three meals a
day, and running the farm when Andrew got a literary fit and would
go off on some vagabond jaunt to collect adventures for a new book.
(I wish you could have seen the state he was in when he came back
from these trips, hoboing it along the roads without any money or a
clean sock to his back. One time he returned with a cough you could
hear the other side of the barn, and I had to nurse him for three
weeks.) When somebody wrote a little booklet about "The Sage of
Redfield" and described me as a "rural Xantippe" and "the domestic
balance-wheel that kept the great writer close to the homely
realities of life" I made up my mind to give Andrew some of his own
medicine. And that's my story.


It was a fine, crisp morning in fall - October I dare say - and I was
in the kitchen coring apples for apple sauce. We were going to have
roast pork for dinner with boiled potatoes and what Andrew calls
Vandyke brown gravy. Andrew had driven over to town to get some
flour and feed and wouldn't be back till noontime.

Being a Monday, Mrs. McNally, the washerwoman, had come over to take
care of the washing. I remember I was just on my way out to the wood
pile for a few sticks of birch when I heard wheels turn in at the
gate. There was one of the fattest white horses I ever saw, and a
queer wagon, shaped like a van. A funny-looking little man with a
red beard leaned forward from the seat and said something. I didn't
hear what it was, I was looking at that preposterous wagon of his.

It was coloured a pale, robin's-egg blue, and on the side, in big
scarlet letters, was painted:


Underneath the wagon, in slings, hung what looked like a tent,
together with a lantern, a bucket, and other small things. The van
had a raised skylight on the roof, something like an old-fashioned
trolley car; and from one corner went up a stove pipe. At the back
was a door with little windows on each side and a flight of steps
leading up to it.

As I stood looking at this queer turnout, the little reddish man
climbed down from in front and stood watching me. His face was a
comic mixture of pleasant drollery and a sort of weather-beaten
cynicism. He had a neat little russet beard and a shabby Norfolk
jacket. His head was very bald.

"Is this where Andrew McGill lives?" he said.

I admitted it.

"But he's away until noon," I added. "He'll be back then. There's
roast pork for dinner."

"And apple sauce?" said the little man.

"Apple sauce and brown gravy," I said. "That's why I'm sure he'll be
home on time. Sometimes he's late when there's boiled dinner, but
never on roast pork days. Andrew would never do for a rabbi."

A sudden suspicion struck me.

"You're not another publisher, are you?" I cried. "What do you want
with Andrew?"

"I was wondering whether he wouldn't buy this outfit," said the
little man, including, with a wave of the hand, both van and white
horse. As he spoke he released a hook somewhere, and raised the
whole side of his wagon like a flap. Some kind of catch clicked, the
flap remained up like a roof, displaying nothing but books - rows and
rows of them. The flank of his van was nothing but a big bookcase.
Shelves stood above shelves, all of them full of books - both old and
new. As I stood gazing, he pulled out a printed card from somewhere
and gave it to me:


Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old;
Books, the truest friends of man,
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses,
Golden lyrics of the Muses,
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming,
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What librarian can surpass us?


By R. Mifflin, Prop'r.

Star Job Print, Celeryville, Va.

While I was chuckling over this, he had raised a similar flap on the
other side of the Parnassus which revealed still more shelves loaded
with books.

I'm afraid I am severely practical by nature.

"Well!" I said, "I should think you _would_ need a pretty stout
steed to lug that load along. It must weigh more than a coal wagon."

"Oh, Peg can manage it all right," he said. "We don't travel very
fast. But look here, I want to sell out. Do you suppose your husband
would buy the outfit - Parnassus, Pegasus, and all? He's fond of
books, isn't he?

"Hold on a minute!" I said. "Andrew's my brother, not my husband,
and he's altogether _too_ fond of books. Books'll be the ruin of
this farm pretty soon. He's mooning about over his books like a
sitting hen about half the time, when he ought to be mending
harness. Lord, if he saw this wagonload of yours he'd be unsettled
for a week. I have to stop the postman down the road and take all
the publishers' catalogues out of the mail so that Andrew don't
see 'em. I'm mighty glad he's not here just now, I can tell you!"

I'm not literary, as I said before, but I'm human enough to like
a good book, and my eye was running along those shelves of his
as I spoke. He certainly had a pretty miscellaneous collection.
I noticed poetry, essays, novels, cook books, juveniles, school
books, Bibles, and what not - all jumbled together.

"Well, see here," said the little man - and about this time I noticed
that he had the bright eyes of a fanatic - "I've been cruising with
this Parnassus going on seven years. I've covered the territory from
Florida to Maine and I reckon I've injected about as much good
literature into the countryside as ever old Doc Eliot did with his
five-foot shelf. I want to sell out now. I'm going to write a book
about 'Literature Among the Farmers,' and want to settle down with
my brother in Brooklyn and write it. I've got a sackful of notes for
it. I guess I'll just stick around until Mr. McGill gets home and
see if he won't buy me out. I'll sell the whole concern, horse,
wagon, and books, for $400. I've read Andrew McGill's stuff and I
reckon the proposition'll interest him. I've had more fun with this
Parnassus than a barrel of monkeys. I used to be a school teacher
till my health broke down. Then I took this up and I've made more
than expenses and had the time of my life."

"Well, Mr. Mifflin," I said, "if you want to stay around I guess I
can't stop you. But I'm sorry you and your old Parnassus ever came
this way."

I turned on my heel and went back to the kitchen. I knew pretty well
that Andrew would go up in the air when he saw that wagonload of
books and one of those crazy cards with Mr. Mifflin's poetry on it.

I must confess that I was considerably upset. Andrew is just as
unpractical and fanciful as a young girl, and always dreaming of
new adventures and rambles around the country. If he ever saw that
travelling Parnassus he'd fall for it like snap. And I knew Mr.
Decameron was after him for a new book anyway. (I'd intercepted one
of his letters suggesting another "Happiness and Hayseed" trip just
a few weeks before. Andrew was away when the letter came. I had a
suspicion what was in it; so I opened it, read it, and - well, burnt
it. Heavens! as though Andrew didn't have enough to do without
mooning down the road like a tinker, just to write a book about it.)

As I worked around the kitchen I could see Mr. Mifflin making
himself at home. He unhitched his horse, tied her up to the fence,
sat down by the wood pile, and lit a pipe. I could see I was in for
it. By and by I couldn't stand it any longer. I went out to talk to
that bald-headed pedlar.

"See here," I said. "You're a pretty cool fish to make yourself so
easy in my yard. I tell you I don't want you around here, you and
your travelling parcheesi. Suppose you clear out of here before my
brother gets back and don't be breaking up our happy family."

"Miss McGill," he said (the man had a pleasant way with him,
too - darn him - with his bright, twinkling eye and his silly little
beard), "I'm sure I don't want to be discourteous. If you move me on
from here, of course I'll go; but I warn you I shall lie in wait for
Mr. McGill just down this road. I'm here to sell this caravan of
culture, and by the bones of Swinburne I think your brother's the
man to buy it."

My blood was up now, and I'll admit that I said my next without
proper calculation.

"Rather than have Andrew buy your old parcheesi," I said, "I'll buy
it myself. I'll give you $300 for it."

The little man's face brightened. He didn't either accept or decline
my offer. (I was frightened to death that he'd take me right on the
nail and bang would go my three years' savings for a Ford.)

"Come and have another look at her," he said.

I must admit that Mr. Roger Mifflin had fixed up his van mighty
comfortably inside. The body of the wagon was built out on each side
over the wheels, which gave it an unwieldy appearance but made extra
room for the bookshelves. This left an inside space about five feet
wide and nine long. On one side he had a little oil stove, a flap
table, and a cozy-looking bunk above which was built a kind of chest
of drawers - to hold clothes and such things, I suppose; on the other
side more bookshelves, a small table, and a little wicker easy
chair. Every possible inch of space seemed to be made useful in some
way, for a shelf or a hook or a hanging cupboard or something. Above
the stove was a neat little row of pots and dishes and cooking
usefuls. The raised skylight made it just possible to stand upright
in the centre aisle of the van; and a little sliding window opened
onto the driver's seat in front. Altogether it was a very neat
affair. The windows in front and back were curtained and a pot of
geraniums stood on a diminutive shelf. I was amused to see a sandy
Irish terrier curled up on a bright Mexican blanket in the bunk.

"Miss McGill," he said, "I couldn't sell Parnassus for less than
four hundred. I've put twice that much into her, one time and
another. She's built clean and solid all through, and there's
everything a man would need from blankets to bouillon cubes. The
whole thing's yours for $400 - including dog, cook stove, and
everything - jib, boom, and spanker. There's a tent in a sling
underneath, and an ice box (he pulled up a little trap door under
the bunk) and a tank of coal oil and Lord knows what all. She's as
good as a yacht; but I'm tired of her. If you're so afraid of your
brother taking a fancy to her, why don't you buy her yourself and
go off on a lark? Make _him_ stay home and mind the farm!... Tell
you what I'll do. I'll start you on the road myself, come with you
the first day and show you how it's worked. You could have the time
of your life in this thing, and give yourself a fine vacation. It
would give your brother a good surprise, too. Why not?"

I don't know whether it was the neatness of his absurd little van,
or the madness of the whole proposition, or just the desire to have
an adventure of my own and play a trick on Andrew, but anyway, some
extraordinary impulse seized me and I roared with laughter.

"Right!" I said. "I'll do it."

I, Helen McGill, in the thirty-ninth year of my age!


"Well," I thought, "if I'm in for an adventure I may as well be spry
about it. Andrew'll be home by half-past twelve and if I'm going to
give him the slip I'd better get a start. I suppose he'll think I'm
crazy! He'll follow me, I guess. Well, he just shan't catch me,
that's all!" A kind of anger came over me to think that I'd been
living on that farm for nearly fifteen years - yes, sir, ever since
I was twenty-five - and hardly ever been away except for that trip
to Boston once a year to go shopping with cousin Edie. I'm a
home-keeping soul, I guess, and I love my kitchen and my preserve
cupboard and my linen closet as well as grandmother ever did, but
something in that blue October air and that crazy little red-bearded
man just tickled me.

"Look here, Mr. Parnassus," I said, "I guess I'm a fat old fool but
I just believe I'll do that. You hitch up your horse and van and
I'll go pack some clothes and write you a check. It'll do Andrew all
the good in the world to have me skip. I'll get a chance to read a
few books, too. It'll be as good as going to college!" And I untied
my apron and ran for the house. The little man stood leaning against
a corner of the van as if he were stupefied. I dare say he was.

I ran into the house through the front door, and it struck me as
comical to see a copy of one of Andrew's magazines lying on the
living-room table with "The Revolt of Womanhood" printed across
it in red letters. "Here goes for the revolt of Helen McGill," I
thought. I sat down at Andrew's desk, pushed aside a pad of notes
he had been jotting down about "the magic of autumn," and scrawled
a few lines:


Don't be thinking I'm crazy. I've gone off for an adventure. It just
came over me that you've had all the adventures while I've been at
home baking bread. Mrs. McNally will look after your meals and one
of her girls can come over to do the housework. So don't worry. I'm
going off for a little while - a month, maybe - to see some of this
happiness and hayseed of yours. It's what the magazines call the
revolt of womanhood. Warm underwear in the cedar chest in the spare
room when you need it. With love, HELEN.

I left the note on his desk.

Mrs. McNally was bending over the tubs in the laundry. I could see
only the broad arch of her back and hear the vigorous zzzzzzz of her
rubbing. She straightened up at my call.

"Mrs. McNally," I said, "I'm going away for a little trip. You'd
better let the washing go until this afternoon and get Andrew's
dinner for him. He'll be back about twelve-thirty. It's half-past
ten now. You tell him I've gone over to see Mrs. Collins at Locust

Mrs. McNally is a brawny, slow-witted Swede. "All right Mis'
McGill," she said. "You be back to denner?"

"No, I'm not coming back for a month," I said. "I'm going away for

1 3 4 5 6 7 8

Online LibraryChristopher MorleyParnassus on Wheels → online text (page 1 of 8)