I could by no means manage to undo the latch. No wonder, since I found it afterwards to be four or five feet long--a fortification in itself. As I still fumbled, a dog came on the inside and sniffed suspiciously at my hands, so that I was reduced to calling 'House ahoy!' Mr. Muller came down and put his chin across the paling in the dark. 'Who is that?' said he, like one who has no mind to welcome strangers.
'My name is Stevenson,' said I.
'O, Mr. Stevens! I didn't know you. Come inside.' We stepped into the dark store, when I leaned upon the counter and he against the wall. All the light came from the sleeping-room, where I saw his family being put to bed; it struck full in my face, but Mr. Muller stood in shadow. No doubt he expected what was Coming, and sought the advantage of position; but for a man who wished to persuade and had nothing to conceal, mine was the preferable.
'Look here,' I began, 'I hear you are selling to the natives.'
'Others have done that before me,' he returned pointedly.
'No doubt,' said I, 'and I have nothing to do with the past, but the future. I want you to promise you will handle these spirits carefully.'
'Now what is your motive in this?' he asked, and then, with a sneer, 'Are you afraid of your life?'
'That is nothing to the purpose,' I replied. 'I know, and you know, these spirits ought not to be used at all.'
'Tom and Mr. Rick have sold them before.'
'I have nothing to do with Tom and Mr. Rick. All I know is I have heard them both refuse.'
'No, I suppose you have nothing to do with them. Then you are just afraid of your life.'
'Come now,' I cried, being perhaps a little stung, 'you know in your heart I am asking a reasonable thing. I don't ask you to lose your profit--though I would prefer to see no spirits brought here, as you would--'
'I don't say I wouldn't. I didn't begin this,' he interjected.
'No, I don't suppose you did,' said I. 'And I don't ask you to lose; I ask you to give me your word, man to man, that you will make no native drunk.'
Up to now Mr. Muller had maintained an attitude very trying to my temper; but he had maintained it with difficulty, his sentiment being all upon my side; and here he changed ground for the worse. 'It isn't me that sells,' said he.
'No, it's that nigger,' I agreed. 'But he's yours to buy and sell; you have your hand on the nape of his neck; and I ask you--I have my wife here--to use the authority you have.'
He hastily returned to his old ward. 'I don't deny I could if I wanted,' said he. 'But there's no danger, the natives are all quiet. You're just afraid of your life.'
I do not like to be called a coward, even by implication; and here I lost my temper and propounded an untimely ultimatum. 'You had better put it plain,' I cried. 'Do you mean to refuse me what I ask?'
'I don't want either to refuse it or grant it,' he replied.
'You'll find you have to do the one thing or the other, and right now!' I cried, and then, striking into a happier vein, 'Come,' said I, 'you're a better sort than that. I see what's wrong with you-- you think I came from the opposite camp. I see the sort of man you are, and you know that what I ask is right.'
Again he changed ground. 'If the natives get any drink, it isn't safe to stop them,' he objected.
'I'll be answerable for the bar,' I said. 'We are three men and four revolvers; we'll come at a word, and hold the place against the village.'
'You don't know what you're talking about; it's too dangerous!' he cried.
'Look here,' said I, 'I don't mind much about losing that life you talk so much of; but I mean to lose it the way I want to, and that is, putting a stop to all this beastliness.'
He talked a while about his duty to the firm; I minded not at all, I was secure of victory. He was but waiting to capitulate, and looked about for any potent to relieve the strain. In the gush of light from the bedroom door I spied a cigar-holder on the desk. 'That is well coloured,' said I.