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Kilo, a novel by Ellis Parker Butler

Chapter 9. The Witness

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_ CHAPTER IX. The Witness

When Eliph' Hewlitt reached the Briggs house, he did not hesitate, but walked right up to the front door and rang the bell. A minute later he saw the red silk that obstructed the pane of beveled glass in the upper part of the door drawn ever so slightly to one side and then quickly replaced. He caught the glisten of an eye, as the red silk was held aside, but the door did not open. Miss Sally, after the brief glance, tiptoed back through the hall. She did not want to meet the book agent.

Eliph' waited a respectable minute and then rang the bell again, although he had little belief that this would bring Miss Sally to the door. It is good form to ring the bell of the front door several times, before going to the back door, for it may be that the lady of the house is dressing, or is hastily taking the folded paper "curlers" out of her front hair, or slipping on her "other skirt" before admitting the visitor. Few indeed are the front doors in Iowa that open promptly to a knock or a ring. Primping time must be allowed, ad if this, followed by a second ring or knock, does not open the door, nothing but business permits the visitor to go to the back door. Having waited, Eliph' went to the back door. It closed almost as he reached it, and it would not open to his most vigorous knocking.

To know a person is in a house, and not to be able to reach that person, is annoying, and Eliph' had often had this happen to him. The usual course was to go away and return again; returning a third or fourth time, or until the door at last opened; but Eliph' was not merely trying to sell a copy of Jarby's Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science and Art this time. He had no time to waste in the usual manner. If he could not get into one house to sell a book, he could enter another house and sell a book, but when a man is after a certain heart he does not care to go to another house and take another heart. Some men do it, but they are usually sorry afterwards. Eliph' walked to the front of the house again, and looked at the front door.

He felt there should be some way to get into the house and have five minutes' conversation with Miss Sally. If this Colonel and this Skinner had already had months or years of opportunity for pressing their suits, there was not time to be lost, and the sooner he began the sooner he would win. But none of his ordinary methods of entering unwilling houses would serve his purpose this time. It would not do to begin by making Miss Sally unfriendly. So Eliph' tucked his book more snugly under his left arm and looked at the house. He walked to the gate and looked up at the roof; walked across the street and viewed the house in perspective; but nothing useful came of it, so he crossed the street again and tried ringing the doorbell once more. He rang it sharply and waited. Then he knocked and waited. He was willing to wait until the door opened, and he leaned against the porch railing and waited, ringing the doorbell insinuatingly, or commandingly, or coaxingly, from time to time.

Meanwhile, the attorney waited until the half hour he had assigned was up, and then walked toward Miss Briggs' house with briskly business-like steps.

"Now, some folks," he said to himself, as he walked, "wouldn't get any fun at all out of a case like this, but I do. That's the way to keep young. It's why I don't grow stale in this town. It is a small puddle for a toad of my size, but I hop around and keep things stirred up."

As he neared the house, he saw the Colonel approaching from the opposite direction, and he waved his hand to him, and the Colonel hurried to meet him. They turned into the yard together, and saw Eliph' Hewlitt resting easily against the porch railing.

"Nobody's at home?" asked the attorney.

"Yes," said Eliph'. "Somebody's home, but they don't answer the bell.

"Book agent?" said the attorney. "Well, you can't blame them, much. Gems of literature aren't always wanted."

The Colonel scowled. He felt a personal interest in Pap Briggs' money, and he resented any attempt to part the old man from any of it. He suffered almost as deeply at tax time as Pap himself did, and he considered the money Sally had to pay in installments on Sir Walter Scott as practically thrown away, and that she might as well have taken it out of his own pocket. He knocked on the lower step of the porch, with the side of his ax, angrily.

"You git out of this here yard!" he ordered. "I don't want no book agents a-hangin' around here, an' I won't have it. You clean out of here!"

Eliph' coughed lightly behind his hand, but the words of reproof that he intended to launch softly at the Colonel were never spoken.

"Well, this IS lucky!" cried the attorney, holding out his hand to Eliph'. "Colonel, this is the best luck we could have had. Here we need a witness, and here we have him right on the spot! I was going to stop and get Skinner on the way down, and then I thought maybe, from what you said, you and Skinner were not very friendly, so I didn't, and now I'm glad I didn't. We find a witness right here on the porch, just as if he had been ordered to be here. I call that a good omen."

The Colonel was not pleased, and he showed it, but he really had nothing that he could urge against this book agent, so he said nothing. The attorney rang the bell, and Miss Sally, having peeped out to see the meaning of so many men on her porch, recognized the Colonel and the attorney, and opened the door. The attorney stood back to let Eliph' enter, and then followed him in. The three men stood in the little hallway, hats in hand, while Toole explained why they had come, and Miss Sally led the way to the second-floor room where the box stood.

It was an impressive scene as the four gathered around the box.

"Knock off the lid!" said the attorney firmly. The Colonel raised his ax and struck. The board splintered but remained firm. "Legally," said the attorney, "you may strike three blows."

At the third blow a portion of the lid fell clattering to the floor, and the three men and Miss Sally peered anxiously into the box. From it the Colonel tenderly lifted a nickel-plated cylinder, as tall as a man's knee and as large around as a leg of mutton. It had a convex top, and on one side a dial. From near the base a long rubber tube extended.

The Colonel handled the thing gently. He held it in his hands as an old bachelor might handle his newborn nephew, and Miss Sally looked anxiously into his face, appealing for enlightenment. The Colonel studied the thing carefully, and then looked into the box again, and back at the glittering object in his hands. There were three more exactly like it in the box.

"What is it?" asked Miss Sally nervously. It looked explosive.

The gingerly manner in which the Colonel handled the dangerous-looking thing aroused her suspicions. She backed away from it. Eliph' Hewlitt opened his lips to speak, but the attorney motioned him to be still.

"Don't you know what it is?" Miss Sally asked, appealing to the Colonel.

"Yes," said the Colonel, but he still looked at the glistening affair with doubt. "Oh, yes! But I can't see what that there young feller was doin' with four of 'em. I can't see what he was doin' with 'em anyhow. Mebby," he said, "he was agent for 'em."

"He was agent for 'most everything I ever heard tell of a man bein' agent for," said Miss Sally, "but I wish you'd tell me what they are."

"Well, ma'm," said the Colonel, "this is fire-extinguishers; patent chemical fire-extinguishers. I know because I recall seein' some once when I was down to Jefferson. They had 'em in a theater there. They put out fires with 'em."

"Well!" exclaimed Miss Sally. "How do you ever suppose anybody would put out a fire with a thing like that?"

The Colonel turned the affair over and over.

"I didn't study that up," he admitted, "but I guess if I take time I can find out how the thing works. They squirt out of this here tube somehow."

He turned up the end of the tube and squinted into it. Again Eliph' Hewlitt was about to speak, but the attorney caught his eye and winked, and the little book agent held his tongue.

"Well, land's sakes!" exclaimed Miss Sally, "What am I goin' to do with four fire-extinguishers, I'd like to know?" She asked the question as if the Colonel had got her into this thing of the ownership of the fire-extinguishers, and she looked to him to take the responsibility. He was quite willing to accept it.

"I've got to think that over," he said. "A feller can't decide right off hand what to do with four fire-extinguishers. It looks to me as if they was worth a lot more than the young feller owed you, Miss Sally. They ain't no doubt about Miss Sally havin' a right to 'em, is there, Mister Toole?"

"Not a bit of doubt!" exclaimed Toole cheerfully. "She has every right in the world. You've got a witness that they came out of that box, and she can sell, give, donate, assign, or bequeath them, for better or for worse."

"Then that's all right," said the Colonel, "an' I guess that's all we need you for."

"Except to settle the witness fees with this gentleman," said Toole, turning to Eliph', who was still eager to say a word or two. "But mebby, if I have a word or two with him, I can fix it up without making any expense for you."

He drew Eliph' to one side.

"What's the cost of that book you're selling?" he asked. "Well, I'll take one. I don't take one for a bribe, but because I can see you're not the sort of man that would sell a book that wasn't worth the money. I want that book. And just you keep still about those fire-extinguishers. Between you and me, those are first-class nickel-plated lung-testers, and not fire-extinguishers. But that doesn't matter. There's just about as heavy a call for fire-extinguishers in Kilo as there is for lung-testers. Can you keep still about it?"

"I can," said Eliph' Hewlitt, "and you'll never regret having bought a copy of Jarby's Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science and Art. It is a book that should be in every man's hand, and in every home. If you owned a copy now, you would know is value to man, woman, or child. I was going to try to sell one to Miss Briggs when you came, and if you could help me to----"

The attorney smiled. This was the sort of game he enjoyed. "Don't tell about the lung-testers," he whispered, and turned to Miss Sally. "Miss Briggs," he said, "will you let this gentleman have a few minutes of your time? I want him to show you a book he has. It is a book that should be in every home. If you will give him a few minutes."

He did not wait for Miss Sally to answer, but turned to the scowling Colonel.

"Colonel," he said, "I want you to walk down to the office with me. I shouldn't wonder if you could sell those fire-extinguishers right here in Kilo."

The four descended the stairs together, and the Colonel would willingly have lingered, but the attorney took him by the arm and jovially steered him out of the door. Miss Sally, too, would gladly have had the Colonel remain, to protect her from the book agent, and to say "no" when the appeal to buy was reached, but Eliph' retreated into the darkness of the parlor, and took a seat in the corner of the room, and Miss Sally, unable now to escape him, seated herself as far from him as she could. _

Read next: Chapter 10. The Boss Grafter

Read previous: Chapter 8. The Medium-Sized Box

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