Just out of sight of the farm the road forks, one way running on to Walto_here you cross the river by a covered bridge, the other swinging down towar_reenbriar 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 likel_o look for me there. So, after we had passed through the grove, I took th_ight-hand turn to Greenbriar. We began the long ascent over Huckleberry Hil_nd 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 certainl_rand," he said. "Lord, I applaud your spunk. Do you think Mr. McGill wil_ive chase?"
"I haven't an idea," I said. "Not right away, anyhow. He's so used to m_ettled 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 littl_erson in spite of his bald crown), and dropped the handkerchief on the Walto_oad 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 Redfiel_ill 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?" W_alted at the top of the hill to give Pegasus a breathing space. The terrie_ay down in the dust and watched us gravely. Mr. Mifflin pulled out a pipe an_egged my permission to smoke.
"It's rather comical how I first got into it," he said. "I was a schoo_eacher down in Maryland. I'd been plugging away in a country school fo_ears, on a starvation salary. I was trying to support an invalid mother, an_ut by something in case of storms. I remember how I used to wonder whethe_'d ever be able to wear a suit that wasn't shabby and have my shoes polishe_very day. Then my health went back on me. The doctor told me to get into th_pen air. By and by I got this idea of a travelling bookstore. I had alway_een a lover of books, and in the days when I boarded out among the farmers _sed to read aloud to them. After my mother died I built the wagon to suit m_wn 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 t_egasus and we rumbled gently off over the upland, looking down across th_astures. Distant cow bells sounded tankle-tonk among the bushes. Across th_lope of the hill I could see the road winding away to Redfield. Somewher_long that road Andrew would be rolling back toward home and roast pork wit_pple sauce; and here was I, setting out on the first madness of my lif_ithout 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 scoffe_t 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 des_teady under my elbows and a roof over my head. And silly as it seems, I'_razy 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 o_anhattan against a red sky! And those old gray cruisers down in the Nav_ard! You don't know how tickled I am to sell out. I've sold a lot of copie_f your brother's books and I've often thought he'd be the man to bu_arnassus if I got tired of her."
"So he would," I said. "Just the man. He'd be only too likely to—and g_aundering about in this jaunting car and neglect the farm. But tell me abou_elling 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 mak_ start."
"It's very simple," he said. "I replenish my stock whenever I go through a bi_own. There's always a second-hand bookstore somewhere about, where you ca_ick up odds and ends. And every now and then I write to a wholesaler in Ne_ork for some stuff. When I buy a book I mark in the back just what I paid fo_t, 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—an_howed 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 quarte_ou've got a safe profit. It costs me about four dollars a week to ru_arnassus—generally less. If you clear that much in six days you can afford t_ay 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 t_, 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, ___ is 15, _a m m_ is $1.00, and so on. I don't pay much over fifty cent_or 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 bee_aught to worry about literature! But it's surprising how excited they ge_bout books if you sell 'em the right kind. Over beyond Port Vigor there's _armer who's waiting for me to go back—I've been there three or four times—an_e'll buy about five dollars' worth if I know him. First time I went there _old him 'Treasure Island,' and he's talking about it yet. I sold him
'Robinson Crusoe,' and 'Little Women' for his daughter, and 'Huck Finn,' an_rubb's book about 'The Potato.' Last time I was there he wanted som_hakespeare, but I wouldn't give it to him. I didn't think he was up to i_et."
I began to see something of the little man's idealism in his work. He was _ind of traveling missionary in his way. A hefty talker, too. His eyes wer_winkling now and I could see him warming up.
"Lord!" he said, "when you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelv_unces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love an_riendship and humour and ships at sea by night—there's all heaven and eart_n a book, a real book I mean. Jiminy! If I were the baker or the butcher o_he broom huckster, people would run to the gate when I came by—just waitin_or 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 fro_azareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It's a ne_ield, but by the bones of Whitman it's worth while. That's what this countr_eeds—more books!"
He laughed at his own vehemence. "Do you know, it's comical," he said. "Eve_he publishers, the fellows that print the books, can't see what I'm doing fo_hem. Some of 'em refuse me credit because I sell their books for what they'r_orth instead of for the prices they mark on them. They write me letters abou_rice-maintenance—and I write back about merit-maintenance. Publish a goo_ook and I'll get a good price for it, Say I! Sometimes I think the publisher_now less about books than any one else! I guess that's natural, though. Mos_chool 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 b_nd by we'll fetch up alongside some boarding-house and there are the boarder_ll rocking off their lunch on the veranda. Most of 'em bored to death—nothin_ood to read, nothing to do but sit and watch the flies buzzing in the sun an_he chickens rubbing up and down in the dust. First thing you know I'll sel_alf a dozen books that put the love of life into them, and they don't forge_arnassus 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, yo_et, and he could write it down with all its little twists. I've spent a_vening reading O. Henry and Wilkie Collins to people and had them buy out al_heir 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. "Tw_inters I was down south and managed to keep Parnassus going all through th_eason. Otherwise, I just lay up wherever I am. I've never found it hard t_et lodging for Peg and a job for myself, if I had to have them. Last winter _orked in a bookstore in Boston. Winter before, I was in a country drugstor_own in Pennsylvania. Winter before that, I tutored a couple of small boys i_nglish literature. Winter before that, I was a steward on a steamer; you se_ow 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 planing t_ive with my brother in Brooklyn and slog away at my book. Lord, how I'v_ondered over that thing! Long summer afternoons I've sat here, jogging alon_n 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 hav_ad any chance to get hold of books, and never have had any one to explai_hat books can mean. It's all right for college presidents to draw up thei_ive-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertis_ets 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 trembl_nd feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning i_pace without ever even getting a hot-box! And something that'll spur 'em o_o keep the hearth well swept and the wood pile split into kindling and th_ishes washed and dried and put away. Any one who can get the country peopl_o read something worth while is doing his nation a real service. And that'_hat 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 o_nimated bread-baking and cake-mixing machine. I guess he doesn't put muc_tock in my judgment in literary matters. But he puts his digestion in m_ands without reserve. There's Mason's farm over there. I guess we'd bette_ell them some books—hadn't we? Just for a starter."
We turned into the lane that runs up to the Mason farmhouse. Bock trotted o_head—very stiff on his legs and his tail gently wagging—to interview th_astiff, and Mrs. Mason who was sitting on the porch, peeling potatoes, lai_own 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 gla_o see you. Got a lift, did you?"
She hadn't really noticed the inscription on Parnassus, and thought it was _egular 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 se_f books last year from an agent—'The World's Great Funeral Orations'—twent_olumes. Sam and I ain't read more'n the first volume yet. It's awful uneas_eading!"
Mifflin jumped down, and raised the side flap of the wagon. Mrs. Mason cam_loser. I was tickled to see how the little man perked up at the sight of _ustomer. Evidently selling books was meat and drink to him.
"Madam," he said, "'Funeral Orations' (bound in sackcloth, I suppose?) hav_heir place, but Miss McGill and I have got some real books here to which _nvite your attention. Winter will be here soon, and you will need somethin_ore cheerful to beguile your evenings. Very possibly you have growin_hildren who would profit by a good book or two. A book of fairy tales for th_ittle girl I see on the porch? Or stories of inventors for that boy who i_bout to break his neck jumping from the barn loft? Or a book about roa_aking for your husband? Surely there is something here you need? Miss McGil_robably knows your tastes."
That little red-bearded man was surely a born salesman. How he guessed tha_r. 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 gathere_round 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 _reacher with her!"
"Hello, Miss McGill," said Mr. Mason. He is a big, slow-moving man of grea_ravity and solidity. "Where's Andrew?"
"Andrew's coming home for roast pork and apple sauce," I said, "and I'm goin_ff to sell books for a living. Mr. Mifflin here is teaching me how. We've go_ book on road mending that's just what you need."
I saw Mr. and Mrs. Mason exchange glances. Evidently they thought me crazy. _egan to wonder whether we had made a mistake in calling on people I knew s_ell. 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 Mis_cGill." (As he is about half my size this was amusing.) "We are trying t_ncrease her brother's income by selling his books for him. As a matter o_act, we have a wager with him that we can sell fifty copies of 'Happiness an_ayseed' before Hallowe'en. Now I'm sure your sporting instinct will assist u_y taking at least one copy. Andrew McGill is probably the greatest author i_his State, and every taxpayer ought to possess his books. May I show you _opy?"
"That sounds reasonable," said Mr. Mason, and he almost smiled. "What do yo_ay, Emma, think we better buy a book or two? You know those 'Funera_rations.'…" "Well," said Emma, "you know we've always said we ought to rea_ne of Andrew McGill's books but we didn't rightly know how to get hold o_ne. 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 yo_an tell us what we'd ought to buy. I'm just ready to put the potatoes on th_tove now."
I must confess that the prospect of sitting down to a meal I hadn't cooke_yself appealed to me strongly; and I was keen to see what kind of grub Mrs.
Mason provided for her house-hold; but I was afraid that if we dallied ther_oo long Andrew would be after us. I was about to say that we would have to b_etting on, and couldn't stay; but apparently the zest of expounding hi_hilosophy 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 al_bout 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 ho_iscuits tasted of saleratus gave me far less satisfaction than it otherwis_ould, 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 o_rder—(I wondered whether he had been trying to get Andrew on the wire; he wa_ little afraid that I was being run away with, I think)—but he was soon wo_ver 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 o_is necktie for her new patchwork; and told all about the illustrated book o_uilts 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, wa_leasantly scandalized by his account of the best detective stories in the Ol_estament. With Mr. Mason he was all scientific farming, chemical manures, macadam roads, and crop rotation; and to little Billy (who sat next him) h_old extraordinary yarns about Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, and what not. Honestly I was amazed at the little man. He was a_enial as a cricket on the hearth, and yet every now and then his earnestnes_ould break through. I don't wonder he was a success at selling books. Tha_an could sell clothes pins or Paris garters, I guess, and make them see_omantic.
"You know, Mr. Mason," he said, "you certainly owe it to these youngsters o_ours to put a few really good books into their hands. City kids have th_ibraries to go to, but in the country there's only old Doc Hostetter'_lmanac and the letters written by ladies with backache telling how Peruna di_or them. Give this boy and girl of yours a few good books and you're startin_hem on the double-track, block-signal line to happiness. Now there's 'Littl_omen'—that girl of yours can learn more about real girlhood and fin_omanhood 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 tha_tory when I was a girl, and I still remember it. That's better readin' fo_orothy than those funeral speeches, I reckon. I believe the Professor'_ight: 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 wa_nthusiastic 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 sa_here while Mifflin recited "The Revenge" and "Maud Muller."
"Well, now, ain't that real sweet!" said Emma Mason. "It's surprising ho_hose 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 learne_alled the 'Wreck of the Asperus.'" And she subsided into a gentee_elancholy.
I saw that Mr. Mifflin was well astride his hobby: he had started to tell th_hildren about Robin Hood, but I had the sense to give him a wink. We had t_e getting along or surely Andrew might be on us. So while Mifflin was puttin_egasus into the shafts again I picked out seven or eight books that I though_ould fit the needs of the Masons. Mr. Mason insisted that "Happiness an_ayseed" 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 _range meeting. Come round again, Miss McGill; I'm going to tell Andrew what _ood show this travelling theayter of yours gives! And you, Professor, an_ime you're here about road-mending season, stop in an' tell me some more goo_dvice. Well, I must get back to the field."
Bock fell in under the van, and we creaked off down the lane. Mifflin fille_is pipe and was chuckling to himself. I was a little worried now for fea_ndrew might overtake us.
"It's a wonder Sam Mason didn't call up Andrew," I said. "It must have looke_ighty queer to him for an old farm hand like me to be around, peddlin_ooks."
"He would have done it straight off," said Mifflin, "but you see, I cut hi_elephone wire!"