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The Cast-Iron Canvasser
by [?]

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.