The Grafters  (1905) 
by Ellis Parker Butler

From The Smart Set, Jul 1905

Attorney Toole's specialty was collections. That was how Widow Morgan came to apply to him. Let us take up the case of Widow Morgan carefully, since it was the contents of the box in her second-floor front that wrecked the Citizen's Party in Willington.


By Ellis Parker Butler

ATTORNEY TOOLE was a legal light of Willington; he was, in fact, the legalest and lightest of the entire Willing County Bar. He smiled habitually, not because he thought a smile becoming to his freckled face, but because he found things so eternally amusing. In law a man is considered innocent until he has been proved guilty; in Willington Attorney Toole considered everything a joke until it was proved serious. He considered it a joke that he had been admitted to the Bar; he considered every trial case he received a joke, and it usually turned out to be a joke on his client.

Attorney Toole's specialty was collections. He could wheedle or bluff money out of the deadest beat that ever expired financially. That was how Widow Morgan came to apply to him. Let us take up the case of Widow Morgan carefully, since it was the contents of the box in her second-floor front that wrecked the Citizen's Party in Willington.

The party of the first part, Widow Morgan, was the keeper of a high-class ice-water and weak-coffee boarding-house in the town of Willington. To her, on a certain day and date, came William Briggs, the party of the second part, and applied for the said ice water and weak coffee and other board and lodging, agreeing to pay four dollars a week therefor. But this said William Briggs, being a book agent, lightning-rod agent, patent medicine peddler and other transient things, did, at the end of four weeks, jump his board bill and mysteriously disappear, leaving only a note which said:

Dear Mrs. Morgan: I'm off. Good-bye. Business is bum. Sorry I can't square up, but I leave you the box in my room in part payrment.

Having done this, the said William Briggs passed out of Willington and out of this narrative. And good riddance, for he was a slangy young gent.

Every pleasant evening for many years a gentleman of Willington had dropped in to see Widow Morgan. This was Colonel Guthrie. He was a fine old gentleman, with brave mustaches and a valiant goatee and deep-set eyes. Standing six-feet-two in his boots, he was a fine type of the thin but impressive military man. He came by his title honestly; he had been a sergeant in the Civil War. Being a widower, he had a perfect right to court the Widow Morgan. He made no secret of it. Everyone in Willington knew that he was courting her, and one and all respected him for it and refused to interfere—with one exception. Nathaniel Grubb, butcher and capitalist, wrapped love and affection into every roast of beef and round steak he sent to the widow. Just when he ceased to look upon the widow as a mere customer and began to consider her as a possible Mrs. Grubb cannot be stated—probably it was about the time he decided to build Grubb's Opera House.

The colonel scorned Grubb. As a gentleman farmer in reduced circumstances he looked upon Grubb as a beefy, puffy moneybag. Grubb himself knew he was all that, but he knew that he was a public benefactor, too, for he was giving Willington an opera house, a thing no other man had been foolish enough to do, and trusting to this glory he entered the field against the colonel. The widow received him coldly, and complained of the toughness of his steak. When he called and spoke meaningly of his love state, the widow assured him that the last leg of lamb she had received from him was not as good as the one before.

Colonel Guthrie lived with his daughter, and every evening his daughter tied his white neck-bow for him, kissed him affectionately, told him how handsome he was, and watched him walking toward the widow's boarding-house. She wished her father to be happy; she liked the widow, and her own wedding was being postponed from year to year in order that she might not leave her father helpless and unwomaned. She was engaged to Attorney Toole.

It was but natural that in ten or a dozen years of slow courtship the widow and the colonel should exhaust most topics of conversation, and the decamping of William Briggs was welcomed by them both as a fertile subject. Mrs. Morgan detailed the entire transaction. She repeated what he had said to her and what she had said to him, and what he did and what she did. The colonel listened attentively and remarked from time to time, "Tut, tut!" and "Well, now!" with great feeling.

"But have I the right to open that box?" she asked. "Is it mine? If I open it, can he come back and sue me—or anything?"

"Ah!" said the colonel impressively. "Can he? That is the question. Can he?"

"It is a large box," said the widow.

"A large box!" repeated the colonel gravely. "Of course, if it was only a small box—But it is a large box! How large?"

"Quite large. About medium large. Not too large. Beside anything very large it would be small; but beside anything very small it would be large." The widow looked at him appealingly. She longed for advice.

The colonel nodded his head in a sympathetic manner.

"I know!" he said. "I know! Medium large. I have seen such boxes."

He rested his forehead on his cane and thought. He was very dignified so. Suddenly he lifted his head.

"Is it a heavy box?" he asked with great interest.

The widow waved her hands in the air.

"Medium!" she said. "Just medium heavy."

The colonel shook his head and looked dejected.

"Medium!" he murmured. "A medium-sized, medium-heavy box!"

He lapsed into thought. If it had been a small, light box he would have known what to advise. He would have told her to open it and appropriate its contents. If it had been a very large, very heavy box he would have advised her to leave it alone. But a medium box was an indefinite thing. It suggested unlimited legal complications.

"I would like to help you," he said. "My advice is always at your service, madam, as you know, but a medium box—I advise legal counsel. Do not touch the box. Do not open it except in the presence of the law."

The advice sounded good. In the colonel's deep voice it seemed impressively correct. The widow almost shuddered as she thought how near she had come to taking the kindling-wood hatchet and knocking off the lid of the box.

The colonel cleared his throat.

"My daughter," he said slowly, "is, I may say, in close touch with Attorney Toole. I may say they are close friends, if not more. I presume," he paused impressively, "I presume I could persuade Attorney Toole to advise us."

The widow clasped her hands with pleasure, combining a pretty, imploring gesture.

"Could you?" she exclaimed. "If you could!"

"For you, madam," said the colonel, with a bow, "I would do far more."

Attorney Toole, when the colonel called at his office the next day, listened to the circumstances of the box with his inscrutable smile.

" 'Tis a very serious case," he said.

"So I told that estimable person, Mrs. Morgan," said the colonel.

"But I'll undertake it," said Toole, "for friendship. Only for friendship. I would not take a case for money involving a medium-sized box. But as you are my friend—" He smiled upon the colonel meaningly.

"A medium-sized box," he added, "should only be opened in the presence of an attorney-at-law. That," he said, "is legal advice, and is worth five dollars. I charge you nothing for it, being your friend. Consider it a gift from me to you."

"I appreciate it, sir," said the colonel.

"And now," said the lawyer briskly, "for the modus operandi, as we lawyers say. Has the lady a hatchet?"

The colonel thought.

"I do not know," he said at length, after he had carefully searched his brain. "But I will bring a hatchet."

"Good!" exclaimed Attorney Toole. "That's better yet. A medium-sized box left by a transient in payment of default of a board bill should always be opened, if possible, with a hatchet not the property of the plaintiff. Chitty says that."

He took from his desk a bulky volume and ran over the pages rapidly.

"Box," he said, "small box—medium box. Here it is. Humph!"

The colonel leaned over the book, but the attorney closed it quickly.

"Bring an axe," he said. "A hatchet would do, but an axe is more legal. Hatchets for small boxes; axes for medium boxes."

"I will bring an axe," said the colonel pompously.

"Be at the house at eight this evening," said the attorney.

The colonel said he would. He bowed to the attorney and passed out. He felt pleasantly businesslike.

"Now, some folks," said Attorney Toole, "wouldn't get any fun at all out of such a case as this. I do. That's why I keep so young."

It was true. He kept almost childishly young. People noticed it.

It was an impressive scene when, by the light of a squatty kerosene lamp with a red wick, the widow, the colonel and the attorney gathered in the second-floor front to open the medium-sized box. A look of grim determination rested on the colonel's face; the widow was grimly remorseless; Attorney Toole smiled knowingly.

"Knock off the lid!" he said firmly. The colonel raised the axe 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 widow, the colonel and the attorney 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 it gently. He held it in his hands as an old bachelor holds his new-born nephew. The widow looked into his face, appealing for enlightenment. The colonel carefully studied the object in his hands. He 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 the widow nervously.

The gingerly manner in which the colonel handled it aroused her suspicions. She backed away from it.

"Don't you know what it is?" she asked anxiously.

"Yes," said the colonel, "oh, yes! But I can't imagine what that young man was doing with them, with four of them. Perhaps," he added, "he was agent for them."

"He was agent for 'most everything," said the widow. "But what are they?"

"Madam," said the colonel, "they are fire-extinguishers; chemical fire-extinguishers. I recall having seen some once when I attended a theatre at Jefferson. They are used to extinguish fires."

"Well!" exclaimed the widow. "And how in the world do they work?"

The colonel turned the nickel-plated object over and over.

"That, madam," he said slowly, "I cannot say. If I study them closely a few days no doubt I can discover how they work. At present I am in the dark."

"And what, pray," she asked, "am I to do with four fire-extinguishers?"

She asked the question as if she held the colonel responsible, and he accepted the responsibility gladly.

"That I must decide," he said grandly. "I must consider. No doubt," he added, "they are of far more value than the amount of your bill against this fellow Briggs. First, however, I will ask my legal friend here if we have a perfect right to dispose of these fire-extinguishers?"

"You have," exclaimed Attorney Toole joyously. "Every right in the world. You can sell, give, donate or bequeath them, for better, for worse, till death you do part."

"Then all is well," said the colonel.

"Except," said Attorney Toole to himself, "that those are first-class nickel-plated lung-testers, and not fire-extinguishers. But that doesn't matter. In fact, the demand for lung-testers is on a par with the demand for fire-extinguishers in Willington. Now, some people wouldn't get any fun out of this, but I do. I enjoy it."

During the next few days the colonel thought deeply. He considered a hundred different methods of disposing of the supposed fire-extinguishers. He thought of having a raffle; but no one would buy chances on a fire-extinguisher. He thought of taking them down to Jefferson; but the possibility of selling them after he got there seemed doubtful.

It was when he was standing before the incompleted Grubb's Opera House that the practical solution came to him. He would sell them to Grubb. Grubb's Opera House needed fire-extinguishers. The safety of the people of Willington demanded fire-extinguishers in Grubb's Opera House. He went to Mr. Grubb. He offered the fire-extinguishers to Mr. Grubb at ten dollars each.

Mr. Grubb was trimming a roast. He had just cut off a piece of suet, which he held in his hand as he listened. When the colonel had, too haughtily, perhaps, explained the object ot his call, Mr. Grubb held the lump of suet offensively near the nose of the colonel.

"Fire-extinguishers!" he laughed. "Me buy fire-extinguishers? I wouldn't give that for them."

He shook the suet before the colonel's eyes.

"No, sir!" continued Mr. Grubb. "I wouldn't give that for them. And I throw that away!"

"Sir!" exclaimed the colonel, growing dangerously red, "you are a low-bred—a low-bred beef-chopper!"

"Mebby," admitted Mr. Grubb indifferently; "but I don't buy no fire-extinguishers, nor lightning-rods. No."

When the colonel reported his ill success to the widow that evening he was astounded to find that she sympathized with Mr. Grubb in his refusal.

"I don't wonder," she said. "He's put so much money into that opera house already. He's done enough for the town. He's been a very public-spirited citizen. And to think he made it all out of selling meat! It must be a good business."

The colonel glowered at the lung-tester that stood on the parlor table, and an hour later went home disheartened. The widow had almost openly rebuffed him and had praised Grubb.

Early the next morning he dropped into the office of Attorney Toole, and as that young man lay back in his chair, with his feet on his desk, the colonel told him the whole story. The attorney smiled.

"After that," he said, "you ought to make him buy them."

"Gad, sir!" exclaimed the colonel. "If I only could!"

"Colonel," said Attorney Toole, "I see you hesitate to force him. The feeling does you honor, but it isn't business. You hesitate even when you see how easily you can force him to do what he should do to protect the lives of our trusted citizens. I admire you."

The colonel coughed. He felt that the admiration was his due, but he did not see exactly why.

"You," said Attorney Toole, "knowing that our town council can pass an ordinance compelling all owners of opera houses to install nickel-plated fire-extinguishers—to install four of them—for the protection of our people, hesitate to ask them to pass such an ordinance. You hesitate because you do not wish to appear malevolent toward a rival. Now, don't you?"

The colonel coughed again. Attorney Toole lowered his feet to the floor and slapped his desk with the flat of his hand.

"And I," he shouted, "beg you not to hesitate! I beg you to act! I beg you to think of the lives of the poor, helpless women and children. I beg you for humanity's sake to go to the honorable mayor and city council and appeal to them to pass an ordinance compelling this Grubb to buy nickel-plated fire-extinguishers. To compel him, sir!"

He shuffled the legal-looking documents that littered his desk.

"What have we come to," he asked sadly, "when our leading citizens thus neglect their duty? Will you neglect your duty? Will you forswear your plain duty to the star-spangled banner, for which you once fought and, if I am not in error, bled?"

"No," said the colonel gravely

"Good!" exclaimed Attorney Toole. "Then there is one true citizen left in Willington." And he smiled again.

It is to the colonel's credit that he did not delay when he saw his duty to the women and children of Willington. He went at once to the mayor, the honest, upright shoemaker, Johann Stitz, and laid the case before him.

Johann Stitz and the city council had been elected on a citizens' ticket. They were, therefore, free and independent. They owed allegiance to no political party, and they chafed and worried because they were so independent. Their independence made their work more difficult; it compelled them to decide things for themselves. As Democrats they would, for example, have promptly refused to saddle an expense on the Democratic Mr. Grubb; as Republicans they would, with equal promptness, have done whatever the Republican colonel requested; as citizen-ticketers they had found all such questions most difficult of decision, and the burden had largely fallen on Mayor Johann Stitz. The council basely unshouldered the burden upon him. "Ask Stitz," they said. "He's mayor. What he says, we'll do." And Stitz would never say.

As the colonel entered the shoe-shop the mayor was reading a magazine, which he laid beside him while he listened to the colonel. A pile of similar magazines lay on the floor at his side. They were the missionary offerings of an enthusiastic female who had labored for the success of the citizens' ticket. They were magazines telling of the municipal corruption of "New York, the Vile," "Philadelphia, the Defiled but Happy," "Chicago, the Base," and "St. Louis, the Decayed." They had been given to Mayor Johann Stitz to show him the evil of graft and to keep his administration clean and pure.

When the mayor heard the colonel's request he beamed on him through his iron-rimmed spectacles.

"Ho! ho!" he exclaimed, "it is to make Herr Grubb buy some fire-extinguishables, yes? So shall my city council pass an ordinance, yes? Um!"

He smiled broadly at the colonel, and then nodded.

"For how much you graft me?" he asked blandly.

"What?" asked the colonel.

"Graft me," repeated Mayor Stitz. "I says, for how much you graft me when I pass one such ordinance my council through?"

"What's that?" asked the colonel, puzzled.

"For how much you make me one graft?" Mayor Stitz repeated slowly. "Graft! Graft! Understand him not?"

The colonel shook his head.

"What is it?" he inquired politely.

"Graft!" said the mayor. "Don't you know him? When I make you one ordinance, so, then you make me one graft, so! Like I read in this books. Me to you, one ordinance; you to me, one graft. So!"

The colonel did not understand. His face showed it. A crease wrinkled the brow of Mayor Johann Stitz.

"Here in this books," he said slowly and distinctly, "I read me of this grafts. It is to me this graft comes. So is it by all big cities. Man would to have one ordinance. Goot! Then gives man to the boss grafter a graft. So! Then gets the boss grafter one ordinance made like is wanted. Yes! No graft, no ordinance! Some graft, some ordinance! I read him in this books. It is a goot way. I likes me that graft business."

A glimmering of the meaning entered the colonel's mind, but he could hardly connect the idea of bribery with the honest Johann Stitz. As a fact, to Mayor Stitz the idea of unlawful gain did not come. Graft was a way out of the difficulty of having to decide things. It was a system authorized by the lawmakers of great cities, and a system that could operate in Willington. To them that grafted should be given. The colonel frowned.

"And what—how much must this graft be?" he asked coldly.

Mayor Stitz smiled blandly again.

"That makes not!" he exclaimed. "It is what you will to graft me. One bushel apples—two bushel apples—that must you say."

The colonel thought of the widow. He thought of the fire-extinguishers.

"I will make you a present of a bushel of apples," he said.

To his amazement the mayor laid down his magazine and arose.

"Well," the colonel inquired, "will you pass the ordinance?"

The mayor looked at him in surprise.

"First must I go by Herr Grubb," he said. "Mebby so he graft me more. I know not."

"Look here!" said the colonel in alarm, "I don't want you to do that."

"Well," said the mayor, "still must I do it! So always does the boss grafter. Which side grafts him much, so he goes. It is never different. To the muchest graft, so goes he. I read it in this books."

The mayor was obdurate. He would not budge from the high principle of graft. The most the colonel could obtain was a promise that no names should be mentioned. He seated himself on the cobbler's bench and awaited the mayor's return. The mayor returned radiant. He was rubbing his hands.

"Nice!" he exclaimed. "Nice! I make me one great boss grafter yet. Herr Grubb grafts me one roast beef and six pigs' feet. He would not no fire-extinguishables have."

The colonel looked the mayor squarely in the eye.

"Stitz," he said, "I will not run an auction bargain with that Grubb. I came to you first. It is your duty to pass that ordinance anyway. I scorn to bribe you. But to end the matter here and now I'll do this: if you will agree to pass the ordinance compelling Grubb to buy the four nickel-plated fire-extinguishers now owned by Mrs. Morgan at the price of twenty-five dollars each, I will graft you to four bushels of Benoni apples, two bushels of Early Rose potatoes, four bunches of celery, a peck of peas and one spring chicken. And if you won't"—he paused and raised his hand threateningly—"I'll go to the five councilmen and I'll graft them individually, and you can't help yourself."

The mayor's eyes sparkled.

"Say," he cried, "ain't I a boss grafter? Apples, potatoes, celery, peas and chickens! Five grafts to one ordinance! I do it!"

He did. At the next meeting of the city council the ordinance was unanimously passed, and the chastened Grubb humbly sought the widow and carried off the four lung-testers, which were properly installed on little wooden brackets in different parts of Grubb's Opera House, and the widow, in the fulness of her heart and pocketbook, agreed to marry the colonel. Less than a month later Attorney Toole, smiling, married the colonel's daughter.

It was not until an agent for a real fire-extinguisher came to Willington that the scandal of the graft became known, and Attorney Toole, as a member of one of the regular political parties, was elected city attorney. For reasons of his own he did not push the charge of graft against Mayor Stitz. He let it drop after an interview with that boss grafter.

That interview must have been a great joy to Attorney Toole. He saw the fun of things. Among other things the interview managed, in some way, to alter Mayor Stitz's opinion of himself, for one day, when the colonel had taken his wife's shoes to be half-soled, the ex-mayor said:

"When I am ever mayor once more I makes no such fool mistakes. I makes me a real boss grafter. It is to laugh when I thinks how I took me for a grafter and wasn't. No!" He chuckled over the shoe he held between his knees.

"So is it that Attorney Toole makes no prosecutions of me. I'm no grafter. Like so," he said, pointing his awl at the colonel; "money is graft, and houses and lots is graft, and horses is graft, and buggies. But"—and he paused impressively—"apples isn't, and potatoes isn't, and celery isn't, and peas isn't, and chickens isn't. Nothing to eat is grafts. Man can't eat grafts. If it is to eat it is not grafts. So says Attorney Toole. Things to eat is no more grafts, says Attorney Toole, than lung-testers is fire-extinguishables."

At which the colonel's back stiffened and he walked out of the cobbler's shop.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.