The firm of Sloper and Dodge, publishers and printers, was in great distress. These two enterprising individuals had worked up an enormous business in time-payment books, which they sold all over Australia by means of canvassers. They had put all the money they had into the business; and now, just when everything was in thorough working order, the public had revolted against them.
Their canvassers were molested by the country folk in divers strange bush ways. One was made drunk, and then a two-horse harrow was run over him; another was decoyed into the ranges on pretence of being shown a gold-mine, and his guide galloped away and left him to freeze all night in the bush. In mining localities the inhabitants were called together by beating a camp-oven lid with a pick, and the canvasser was given ten minutes in which to get out of the town alive. If he disregarded the hint he would, as likely as not, fall accidentally down a disused shaft.
The people of one district applied to their M.P. to have canvassers brought under the "Noxious Animals Act", and demanded that a reward should be offered for their scalps. Reports appeared in the country press about strange, gigantic birds that appeared at remote selections and frightened the inhabitants to death -- these were Sloper and Dodge's sober and reliable agents, wearing neat, close-fitting suits of tar and feathers.
In fact, it was altogether too hot for the canvassers, and they came in from North and West and South, crippled and disheartened, to tender their resignations. To make matters worse, Sloper and Dodge had just got out a large Atlas of Australasia, and if they couldn't sell it, ruin stared them in the face; and how could they sell it without canvassers?
The members of the firm sat in their private office. Sloper was a long, sanctimonious individual, very religious and very bald. Dodge was a little, fat American, with bristly, black hair and beard, and quick, beady eyes. He was eternally smoking a reeking black pipe, and puffing the smoke through his nose in great whiffs, like a locomotive on a steep grade. Anybody walking into one of those whiffs was liable to get paralysis.
Just as things were at their very blackest, something had turned up that promised to relieve all their difficulties. An inventor had offered to supply them with a patent cast-iron canvasser -- a figure which (he said) when wound up would walk, talk, collect orders, and stand any amount of ill-usage and wear and tear. If this could indeed be done, they were saved. They had made an appointment with the genius; but he was half-an-hour late, and the partners were steeped in gloom.
They had begun to despair of his appearing at all, when a cab rattled up to the door. Sloper and Dodge rushed unanimously to the window. A young man, very badly dressed, stepped out of the cab, holding over his shoulder what looked like the upper half of a man's body. In his disengaged hand he held a pair of human legs with boots and trousers on. Thus burdened he turned to ask his fare, but the cabman gave a yell of terror, whipped up his horse, and disappeared at a hand-gallop; and a woman who happened to be going by, ran down the street, howling that Jack the Ripper had come to town. The man bolted in at the door, and toiled up the dark stairs tramping heavily, the legs and feet, which he dragged after him, making an unearthly clatter. He came in and put his burden down on the sofa.
"There you are, gents," he said; "there's your canvasser."
Sloper and Dodge recoiled in horror. The upper part of the man had a waxy face, dull, fishy eyes, and dark hair; he lounged on the sofa like a corpse at ease, while his legs and feet stood by, leaning stiffly against the wall. The partners gazed at him for a while in silence.
"Fix him together, for God's sake," said Dodge. "He looks awful."
The Genius grinned, and fixed the legs on.
"Now he looks better," said Dodge, poking about the figure -- "looks as much like life as most -- ah, would you, you brute!" he exclaimed, springing back in alarm, for the figure had made a violent La Blanche swing at him.
"That's all right," said the Inventor. "It's no good having his face knocked about, you know -- lot of trouble to make that face. His head and body are full of springs, and if anybody hits him in the face, or in the pit of the stomach -- favourite places to hit canvassers, the pit of the stomach -- it sets a strong spring in motion, and he fetches his right hand round with a swipe that'll knock them into the middle of next week. It's an awful hit. Griffo couldn't dodge it, and Slavin couldn't stand up against it. No fear of any man hitting HIM twice.
"And he's dog-proof, too. His legs are padded with tar and oakum, and if a dog bites a bit out of him, it will take that dog weeks to pick his teeth clean. Never bite anybody again, that dog won't. And he'll talk, talk, talk, like a suffragist gone mad; his phonograph can be charged for 100,000 words, and all you've got to do is to speak into it what you want him to say, and he'll say it. He'll go on saying it till he talks his man silly, or gets an order. He has an order-form in his hand, and as soon as anyone signs it and gives it back to him, that sets another spring in motion, and he puts the order in his pocket, turns round, and walks away. Grand idea, isn't he? Lor' bless you, I fairly love him."
He beamed affectionately on his monster.
"What about stairs?" said Dodge.
"No stairs in the bush," said the Inventor, blowing a speck of dust off his apparition; "all ground-floor houses. Anyhow, if there were stairs we could carry him up and let him fall down afterwards, or get flung down like any other canvasser."
"Ha! Let's see him walk," said Dodge.
The figure walked all right, stiff and erect.
"Now let's hear him yabber."
The Genius touched a spring, and instantly, in a queer, tin-whistly voice, he began to sing, "Little Annie Rooney".
"Good!" said Dodge; "he'll do. We'll give you your price. Leave him here to-night, and come in to-morrow. We'll send you off to the back country with him. Ninemile would be a good place to start in. Have a cigar?"
Mr. Dodge, much elated, sucked at his pipe, and blew through his nose a cloud of nearly solid smoke, through which the Genius sidled out. They could hear him sneezing and choking all the way down the stairs.
Ninemile is a quiet little place, sleepy beyond description. When the mosquitoes in that town settle on anyone, they usually go to sleep, and forget to bite him. The climate is so hot that the very grasshoppers crawl into the hotel parlours out of the sun, climb up the window curtains, and then go to sleep. The Riot Act never had to be read in Ninemile. The only thing that can arouse the inhabitants out of their lethargy is the prospect of a drink at somebody else's expense.
For these reasons it had been decided to start the Cast-iron Canvasser there, and then move him on to more populous and active localities if he proved a success. They sent up the Genius, and one of their men who knew the district well. The Genius was to manage the automaton, and the other was to lay out the campaign, choose the victims, and collect the money, geniuses being notoriously unreliable and loose in their cash. They got through a good deal of whisky on the way up, and when they arrived at Ninemile were in a cheerful mood, and disposed to take risks.
"Who'll we begin on?" said the Genius.
"Oh, hang it all," said the other, "let's make a start with Macpherson."
Macpherson was a Land Agent, and the big bug of the place. He was a gigantic Scotchman, six feet four in his socks, and freckled all over with freckles as big as half-crowns. His eyebrows would have made decent-sized moustaches for a cavalryman, and his moustaches looked like horns. He was a fighter from the ground up, and had a desperate "down" on canvassers generally, and on Sloper and Dodge's canvassers in particular.
Sloper and Dodge had published a book called "Remarkable Colonials", and Macpherson had written out his own biography for it. He was intensely proud of his pedigree and his relations, and in his narrative made out that he was descended from the original Fhairshon who swam round Noah's Ark with his title-deeds in his teeth. He showed how his people had fought under Alexander the Great and Timour, and had come over to Scotland some centuries before William the Conqueror landed in England. He proved that he was related in a general way to one emperor, fifteen kings, twenty-five dukes, and earls and lords and viscounts innumerable. And then, after all, the editor of "Remarkable Colonials" managed to mix him up with some other fellow, some low-bred Irish McPherson, born in Dublin of poor but honest parents.
It was a terrible outrage. Macpherson became president of the Western District Branch of the "Remarkable Colonials" Defence League, a fierce and homicidal association got up to resist, legally and otherwise, paying for the book. He had further sworn by all he held sacred that every canvasser who came to harry him in future should die, and had put up a notice on his office-door, "Canvassers come in at their own risk."
He had a dog of what he called the Hold'em breed, who could tell a canvasser by his walk, and would go for him on sight. The reader will understand, therefore, that, when the Genius and his mate proposed to start on Macpherson, they were laying out a capacious contract for the Cast-iron Canvasser, and could only have been inspired by a morbid craving for excitement, aided by the influence of backblock whisky.
The Inventor wound the figure up in the back parlour of the pub. There were a frightful lot of screws to tighten before the thing would work, but at last he said it was ready, and they shambled off down the street, the figure marching stiffly between them. It had a book tucked under its arm and an order-form in its hand. When they arrived opposite Macpherson's office, the Genius started the phonograph working, pointed the figure straight at Macpherson's door, and set it going. Then the two conspirators waited, like Guy Fawkes in his cellar.
The automaton marched across the road and in at the open door, talking to itself loudly in a hoarse, unnatural voice.
Macpherson was writing at his table, and looked up.
The figure walked bang through a small collection of flower-pots, sent a chair flying, tramped heavily in the spittoon, and then brought up against the table with a loud crash and stood still. It was talking all the time.
"I have here," it said, "a most valuable work, an Atlas of Australia, which I desire to submit to your notice. The large and increasing demand of bush residents for time-payment works has induced the publishers of this ----"
"My God!" said Macpherson, "it's a canvasser. Here, Tom Sayers, Tom Sayers!" and he whistled and called for his dog. "Now," he said, "will you go out of this office quietly, or will you be thrown out? It's for yourself to decide, but you've only got while a duck wags his tail to decide in. Which'll it be?"
"---- works of modern ages," said the canvasser. "Every person subscribing to this invaluable work will receive, in addition, a flat-iron, a railway pass for a year, and a pocket-compass. If you will please sign this order ----"
Just here Tom Sayers came tearing through the office, and without waiting for orders hitched straight on to the canvasser's calf. To Macpherson's amazement the piece came clear away, and Tom Sayers rolled about on the floor with his mouth full of a sticky substance which seemed to surprise him badly.
The long Scotchman paused awhile before this mystery, but at last he fancied he had got the solution. "Got a cork leg, have you?" said he -- "Well, let's see if your ribs are cork too," and he struck the canvasser an awful blow on the fifth button of the waistcoat.
Quicker than lightning came that terrific right-hand cross-counter. Macpherson never even knew what happened to him. The canvasser's right hand, which had been adjusted by his inventor for a high blow, had landed on the butt of Macpherson's ear and dropped him like a fowl. The gasping, terrified bull-dog fled the scene, and the canvasser stood over his fallen foe, still intoning the virtues of his publication. He had come there merely as a friend, he said, to give the inhabitants of Ninemile a chance to buy a book which had recently earned the approval of King O'Malley and His Excellency the Governor-General.
The Genius and his mate watched this extraordinary drama through the window. The stimulant habitually consumed by the Ninemilers had induced in them a state of superlative Dutch courage, and they looked upon the whole affair as a wildly hilarious joke.
"By Gad! he's done him," said the Genius, as Macpherson went down, "done him in one hit. If he don't pay as a canvasser I'll take him to town and back him to fight Les Darcy. Look out for yourself; don't you handle him!" he continued as the other approached the figure. "Leave him to me. As like as not, if you get fooling about him, he'll give you a clout that'll paralyse you."
So saying, he guided the automaton out of the office and into the street, and walked straight into a policeman.
By a common impulse the Genius and his mate ran rapidly away in different directions, leaving the figure alone with the officer.
He was a fully-ordained sergeant -- by name Aloysius O'Grady; a squat, rosy little Irishman. He hated violent arrests and all that sort of thing, and had a faculty of persuading drunks and disorderlies and other fractious persons to "go quietly along wid him," that was little short of marvellous. Excited revellers, who were being carried by their mates, struggling violently, would break away to prance gaily along to the lock-up with the sergeant. Obstinate drunks who had done nothing but lie on the ground and kick their feet in the air, would get up like birds, serpent-charmed, to go with him to durance vile.
As soon as he saw the canvasser, and noted his fixed, unearthly stare, and listened to his hoarse, unnatural voice, the sergeant knew what was the matter; it was a man in the horrors, a common enough spectacle at Ninemile. He resolved to decoy him into the lock-up, and accosted him in a friendly, free-and-easy way.
"Good day t'ye," he said.
"---- most magnificent volume ever published, jewelled in fourteen holes, working on a ruby roller, and in a glass case," said the book-canvasser. "The likenesses of the historical personages are so natural that the book must not be left open on the table, or the mosquitoes will ruin it by stinging the portraits."
It then dawned on the sergeant that this was no mere case of the horrors -- he was dealing with a book-canvasser.
"Ah, sure," he said, "fwhat's the use uv tryin' to sell books at all, at all; folks does be peltin' them out into the street, and the nanny-goats lives on them these times. Oi send the childer out to pick 'em up, and we have 'em at me place in barrow-loads. Come along wid me now, and Oi'll make you nice and comfortable for the night," and he laid his hand on the outstretched palm of the figure.
It was a fatal mistake. He had set in motion the machinery which operated the figure's left arm, and it moved that limb in towards its body, and hugged the sergeant to its breast, with a vice-like grip. Then it started in a faltering and uneven, but dogged, way to walk towards the river.
"Immortial Saints!" gasped the sergeant, "he's squazin' the livin' breath out uv me. Lave go now loike a dacent sowl, lave go. And oh, for the love uv God, don't be shpakin' into me ear that way;" for the figure's mouth was pressed tight against the sergeant's ear, and its awful voice went through and through the little man's head, as it held forth about the volume. The sergeant struggled violently, and by so doing set some more springs in motion, and the figure's right arm made terrific swipes in the air. A following of boys and loafers had collected by this time. "Blimey, how does he lash out!" was the remark they made. But they didn't interfere, notwithstanding the sergeant's frantic appeals, and things were going hard with him when his subordinate, Constable Dooley, appeared on the scene.
Dooley, better known as The Wombat because of his sleepy disposition, was a man of great strength. He had originally been quartered at Sydney, and had fought many bitter battles with the notorious "pushes" of Bondi, Surry Hills and The Rocks. After that, duty at Ninemile was child's play, and he never ran in fewer than two drunks at a time; it was beneath his dignity to be seen capturing a solitary inebriate. If they wouldn't come any other way, he would take them by the ankles and drag them after him. When the Wombat saw the sergeant in the grasp of an inebriate he bore down on the fray full of fight.
"I'll soon make him lave go, sergeant," he said, and he caught hold of the figure's right arm, to put on the "police twist". Unfortunately, at that exact moment the sergeant touched one of the springs in the creature's breast. With the suddenness and severity of a horse-kick, it lashed out with its right hand, catching the redoubtable Dooley a thud on the jaw, and sending him to grass as if he had been shot.
For a few minutes he "lay as only dead men lie". Then he got up bit by bit, wandered off home to the police-barracks, and mentioned casually to his wife that John L. Sullivan had come to town, and had taken the sergeant away to drown him. After which, having given orders that anybody who called was to be told that he had gone fifteen miles out of town to serve a summons on a man for not registering a dog, he locked himself up in a cell for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, the Cast-iron Canvasser, still holding the sergeant tightly clutched to its breast, was marching straight towards the river. Something had disorganised its vocal arrangements, and it was now positively shrieking in the sergeant's ear, and, as it yelled, the little man yelled still louder.
"Oi don't want yer accursed book. Lave go uv me, Oi say!" He beat with his fists on its face, and kicked its shins without avail. A short, staggering rush, a wild shriek from the officer, and they both toppled over the steep bank and went souse into the depths of Ninemile Creek.
That was the end of the matter. The Genius and his mate returned to town hurriedly, and lay low, expecting to be indicted for murder. Constable Dooley drew up a report for the Chief of Police which contained so many strange statements that the Police department concluded the sergeant must have got drunk and drowned himself, and that Dooley saw him do it, but was too drunk to pull him out.
Anyone unacquainted with Ninemile might expect that a report of the occurrence would have reached the Sydney papers. As a matter of fact the storekeeper did think of writing one, but decided that it was too much trouble. There was some idea of asking the Government to fish the two bodies out of the river; but about that time an agitation was started in Ninemile to have the Federal Capital located there, and nothing else mattered.
The Genius discovered a pub in Sydney that kept the Ninemile brand of whisky, and drank himself to death; the Wombat became a Sub-Inspector of Police; Sloper entered the Christian ministry; Dodge was elected to the Federal Parliament; and a vague tradition about "a bloke who came up here in the horrors, and drownded poor old O'Grady," is the only memory that remains of that wonderful creation, the Cast-iron Canvasser.