WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Ellis Parker Butler (1907) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Chapter I: Eliph' Hewlitt
Eliph' Hewlitt, book agent, seated in his weather-beaten top buggy, drove his horse, Irontail, carefully along the rough Iowa hill road that leads from Jefferson to Clarence. The Horse, a rusty gray, tottered in a loose-jointed manner from side to side of the road, half asleep in the sun, and was indolent in every muscle of his body, except his tail, which thrashed violently at the flies. Eliph' Hewlitt drove with his hands held high, almost on a level with his sandy whiskers, for he was well acquainted with Irontail.
The road seemed to pass through a region of large farms, offering few opportunities for selling books, the houses being so far apart, but Eliph' knew the small settlement of Clarence was a few miles farther on, and he was carrying enlightenment to the benighted. He glowed with missionary zeal. In his eagerness he thoughtlessly slapped the reins on the back of Irontail.
Instantly the plump, gray tail of the horse flashed over the rein and clamped it fast. Eliph' Hewlitt leaned over the dashboard of his buggy and grasped the hair of the tail firmly. He pulled it upward with all his strength, but the tail did not yield. Instead, Irontail kicked vigorously. Eliph' Hewlitt, knowing his horse as well as he knew human nature, climbed out of the buggy, and taking the rein close by the bit led Irontail to the side of the road. Then he took from beneath the buggy seat a bulky, oil-cloth-wrapped parcel and seated himself near the horse's head. There was no safety for a timid driver when Irontail had thus assumed command of the rein. There was no way to get a rein from beneath that tail but to ignore it. In an hour or so Irontail would grow forgetful, carelessly begin flapping flies, and release the rein himself.
Eliph' Hewlitt unwrapped the oilcloth from the object in enfolded. It was a book. It was Jarby's 'Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science, Art, Comprising Useful Information on One Thousand and One Subjects, Including A History of the World, the Lives of all Famous Men, Quotations From the World's Great Authors, One Thousand and One Recipes, Et Cetera'. One Volume, five dollars bound in cloth; seven fifty in morocco. Eliph' Hewlitt passed his hand affectionately over the gilt-stamped cover, and then opened it at random and read.
For years he had been reading Jarby's Encyclopedia, and among its ten thousand and one subjects he always found something new. It opened now at "Courtship-How to Make Love--How to Win the Affections--How to Hold Them When Won," and although he had read the pages often before, he found in all parts of the book, whenever he read it, a new meaning. It occurred to him that even a book agent might have reason to use the helpful words set for in clear type in the chapter on "Courtship--How to Make Love," and he realized that sometime he must reach the age when he would need a home of his own. For years he had thought of woman only as a possible customer for Jarby's Encyclopedia. Every woman, not already married, he now saw, might be a possible Mrs. Eliph' Hewlitt.
Suddenly he raised his head. On the breeze there was borne to him the sound of voices--many voices. He closed the book with a bang. His small body became tense; his eyes glittered. He scented prey. He wrapped the book in its oilcloth, laid it upon the buggy seat, and taking Irontail by the bridle, started in the direction of the voices.
Half a mile down the road he came upon a scene of merriment. In a cleared grove men, women and children were gathered; it was a church picnic. Eliph' Hewlitt took his hitching strap from beneath the buggy seat and secured Irontail to a tree.
"Church picnic," he said to himself; "one, two, sixteen, twenty-four, AND the minister. Good for twelve copies of Jarby's Encyclopedia or I'm no good myself. I love church picnics. What so lovely as to see the pastor and his flock gathered together in a bunch, as I may say, like ten-pins, ready to be scooped in, all at one shot?"
He walked up to the rail fence and leaned against it so that he might be seen and invited in. It was better policy than pushing himself forward, and it gave him time to study the faces. He did not find them hopeful subjects. They were not the faces of readers. They were not even the faces of buyers. Even in their holiday finery, the women were shabby and the men were careworn. The minister himself, white-bearded and gray-haired, showed more signs of spiritual grace than intellectual strength.
One woman, fresh and bright as a butterfly, appeared among them, and Eliph' Hewlitt knew her at once as a city dweller, who had somehow got into this dull and hard-working community. Almost at the same moment she noticed him, and approached him. She smiled kindly and extended her hand.
"Won't you come in?" she asked. "I don't seem to remember your face, but we would be glad to have you join us."
Eliph' Hewlitt shook his head.
"No'm," he said sadly. "I'd better not come in. Not that I don't want to, but I wouldn't be welcome. There ain't anything I like so much as church picnics, and when I was a boy I used to cry for them, but I wouldn't dare join you. I'm a"-- he looked around cautiously, and said in a whisper--"I'm a book agent."
The lady laughed.
"Of course," she said, "that DOES make a difference; but you needn't be a book agent to-day. You can forget it for a while and join us."
Eliph' Hewlitt shook his head again.
"That's it," he said. "That's just the reason. I CAN'T forget it. I try to, but I can't. Just when I don't want to, I break out, and before I know it I've sold everybody a book, and then I feel like I'd imposed on good nature. They take me in as a friend and then I sell 'em a copy of Jarby's 'Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science and Art,' ten thousand and one subjects, from A to Z, including recipes for every known use, quotations from famous authors, lives of famous men, and, in one word, all the world's wisdom condensed into one volume, five dollars, neatly bound in cloth, one dollar down and one dollar a month until paid."
He paused, and the lady looked at him with an amused smile.
"Of seven fifty, handsomely bound in morocco," he added. "So you see I don't feel like I ought to impose. I know how I am. You take my mother now. She hadn't seen me for eight years. I'd been traveling all over these United States, carrying knowledge and culture into the homes of the people at five dollars, easy payments, per home, and I got a telegram saying, 'Come home. Mother very ill.'" He nodded his head slowly. "Wonderful invention, the telegraph," he said. "It tells all about it on page 562 of Jarby's 'Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science and Art,'--who invented; when first used; name of every city, town, village and station in the U.S. that has a telegraph office; complete explanation of the telegraph system, telling how words are carried over a slender wire, et cetery, et cetery. This and ten thousand other useful facts in one volume, only five dollars, bound in cloth. So when I got that telegram I took the train for home. Look in the index under T. 'Train, Railway--see Railway.' 'Railway; when first operated; inventor of the locomotive engine; railway accidents from 1892 to 1904, giving number of fatal accidents per year, per month, per week, per day, and per miles; et cetery, et cetery. Every subject known to man fully and interestingly treated, WITH illustrations."
"I don't believe I care for a copy to-day," said the lady.
"No," said Eliph' Hewlitt, meekly. "I know it. Nor I don't want to sell you one. I just mentioned it to show you that when you have a copy of Jarby's Encyclopedia of Knowledge you have an entire library in one book, arranged and indexed by the greatest minds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One dollar down and one dollar a month until paid. But--when I got home I found mother low--very low. When I went in she was just able to look up and whisper, 'Eliph'?' 'Yes, mother,' I says. 'Is it really you at last?' she says. 'Yes, mother,' I says, 'it's me at last, mother, and I couldn't get here sooner. I was out in Ohio, carrying joy to countless homes and introducing to them Jarby's Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science and Art. It is a book, mother,' I says, 'suited for rich or poor, young or old. No family is complete without it. Ten thousand and one subjects, all indexed from A to Z, including an appendix of the Spanish War brought down to the last moment, and maps of Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia. This book, mother,' I says, 'is a gold mine of information for the young, and a solace for the old. Pages 201 to 263 filled with quotations from the world's great poets, making select and helpful reading for the fireside lamp. Pages 463 to 468, dying sayings of famous men and women. A book,' I says, 'that teaches us how to live and how to die. All the wisdom of the world in one volume, five dollars, neatly bound in cloth, one dollar down and one dollar a month until paid.' Mother looked up at me and says, 'Eliph', put me down for one copy.' So I did. I hope I may do the same for you."
The lady was about to speak, but Eliph' Hewlitt held up his hand warningly.
"No," he said. "I beg your pardon. I didn't MEAN to say that. I couldn't think of taking your order. I didn't mean to ask it any more than I meant to ask mother. It's habit, and that's what I'm afraid of. I'd better not intrude."
The lady evidently did not agree with him. He amused her because he was what she called a "type," and she was always on the lookout for "types." She urged him to join the picnic, and said he could try not to talk books, and reminded him that no one could do more than try. He climbed the fence with a reluctance that was the more noticeable because his climbing was retarded by the oilcloth-covered parcel he held beneath his arm. The lady smiled as she noticed that he had not feared his soliciting habits sufficiently to leave the book in the buggy, and she made a mental note of this to be used in the story she meant to write about this book-agent type.
"My name is Smith," she told him, as she tripped lightly toward the group about the lunch baskets.
Eliph' Hewlitt was a small man and his movements were short and jerky. He drew his hand over his red whiskers and coughed gently when she mentioned her name, and as she hurried on before him he looked at her tall, straight figure; noticed the stylish mode of her simple summer gown, and caught a glimpse of low, white shoes and neat ankles covered by delicately woven silk.
"Courtship--How to Make Love--How to Win the Affections--How to Hold Them When Won," he meditated. "Lovely, but she will not suit. She is an encyclopedia of knowledge and compendium of literature, science and art, but she is not the edition I can afford. She is gilt-edged and morocco bound, and an ornament to any parlor, but I can't afford her. My style is cloth, good substantial cloth, one dollar down and one dollar a month until paid. As I might say."