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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHouse - Chapter 23. Alice's Night Watchman
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House - Chapter 23. Alice's Night Watchman Post by :stevekiene Category :Nonfictions Author :Eugene Field Date :May 2012 Read :1946

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House - Chapter 23. Alice's Night Watchman

CHAPTER XXIII. ALICE'S NIGHT WATCHMAN

From what I have already told you it is likely that you have gathered that Alice and I had good reason to conclude that being a householder was by no means as cheap an enjoyment as could be conceived of. We recalled the words of the sagacious and prudent Mr. Denslow. "When you get a place of your own," said that wise man, "you will find that there will be a thousand annoying little demands for your money where now there is one." Our other friend, Mr. Black, had expressed the same idea when he told us that "a house-owner never gets through paying out." If Alice and I had had any thought upon the matter at all it was to the effect that when we had a home of our own we got rid forever of the monstrous bugaboo of house-rent at sixty dollars a month. We supposed that all our spare time could be devoted to counting the money we were going to save by getting out of a grasping, avaricious landlord's clutches. Experience is a severe teacher; Alice and I have found out a great many things since we began to have direct dealings with builders, masons, plumbers, painters et id omne genus, as well as with sprinklers, day laborers, landscape gardeners, fruit-tree peddlers, lightning-rod agents, and others of that ilk.

We duly became aware that we were losing a good deal at the hands of nocturnal depredators. Our flower beds were despoiled with amazing regularity; the broken lath and old lumber which had been piled up in the back yard, and which Alice intended to use eventually for kindling, disappeared mysteriously, and the carpenters reported finding evidences every morning that some person or persons had been tramping through the house the night before.

We were all at once possessed of the paralyzing fear that this nocturnal trespasser, or these nocturnal trespassers, might set our house on fire. The floors were strewn with shavings; a spark would precipitate a conflagration, and the old Schmittheimer place would burn like so much tinder. I read over the fire-insurance policies which we had taken out with our genial friends, Doller, Jeems, and Teddy, and I found out that the companies represented by those gentlemen were not responsible for losses upon unoccupied premises, or for losses resulting from incendiarism. It occurred to me that it would be wise to invite the police to keep an eye on the place at night, but this plan seemed impracticable for the reason that I wanted to keep the lawn-sprinklers running all night in defiance of the ordinance, and this could not be done if the police were to be mousing about the premises.

While I was still worrying over this distressing problem one of the carpenters came to me with a harrowing tale about a tramp whom he had caught sleeping in the barn. This tramp had gained access to the barn by means of a window. He quietly removed the sash, after breaking the panes of glass, and crawled in. The carpenter caught the impudent rogue early next morning in flagrante delicto--that is to say, found him snoozing upon a mattress which Alice had stored away in the barn for safe-keeping. An argument ensued, but the tramp finally beat a retreat.

Upon the evening of that same day the carpenter remained after working hours to see whether the tramp would come back for another night's lodging in the nice, warm barn on that nice, clean mattress. Surely enough, as evening shadows fell the tramp made his reappearance and sought to effect an entrance to the barn. Thereupon the belligerent carpenter emerged from his hiding and bade the trespasser be gone. The tramp complied with this demand, but not until he had signified his intention of returning later at night for the purpose of squaring accounts with the carpenter.

This dark threat filled the carpenter with gloomy forebodings and he hastened to Alice and me for advice. Of course we assured him that we would support him in any line of action he would take, and we promised to pay him one dollar if he would stay and guard the premises that night. The carpenter was not insensible to the soothing influences of lucre, and he consented to watch and defend our property, provided we furnished him with a weapon of one kind or another, for he had a conviction that the tramp fully intended to come back that very night to cut his heart out.

My acquaintance with weapons is limited to that circle which includes my collection of antique armor and several old flintlocks picked up at different times in New England and in the South. I confessed to the carpenter that I had in the house nothing suited to his bellicose purposes, unless he was willing to put up with a mediaeval battle axe or a Queen Anne musket. The carpenter seemed disinclined to place any reliance upon these means of defence, and he suggested that perhaps I might borrow a pistol of some one of the neighbors. I had not thought of that before; the idea impressed me favorably, and I proceeded to act upon it. It was no easy task, however, finding what I wanted. At the Denslows an axe was the only weapon to be had, and at the Baylors', the Crowes', the Sissons', and the Ewings' I found that the spears had been beaten into plowshares and the swords into pruning-hooks. I felt that it would be folly to apply at the Tiltmans', for Jack Tiltman is the mildest man in seven States, and he is descended from a line of Quakers religiously opposed to war and strife. However, meeting with Tiltman, I ventured to confide to him the dilemma I was in, and I was surprised when he told me that he could provide me with any kind or size of revolver I wanted. Presently he brought out of his house a machine which, had he not assured me to the contrary, I should at first sight have mistaken for a one-inch aperture telescope.

"Is it loaded?" I asked.

"Yes, seven times," said he.

"And will it go off seven times all at once?" said I.

"Once will be enough," said he; and then he added that the bore was so large that if the bullet once struck a man it would let daylight clean through him, even in the night time.

You can well understand that, by the time the carpenter was equipped for defensive operations, the whole neighborhood was worked up to a condition of great excitement. The children were enthusiastic over the prospect of bloodshed, and from the chatter that was indulged in by these innocents you might have supposed that a murderous tramp lurked at every corner. Alice and I walked over to the Schmittheimer place with the carpenter, and we were accompanied by several of our neighbors and their offspring. The evening was now advanced to the degree of darkness, and our heated fancies transformed every shadow into a living creature. Little Annie Ewing was on the verge of hysterics and declared she saw things behind every tree and stump, and Mr. Denslow contributed to the general excitement by recalling that he had read that very day of several mysterious murders down in a remote corner of Arizona by unknown tramps.

I admit that I, too, was much perturbed. I contemplated with indignation the lawless impudence of the fellow who had broken into our barn, and who had subsequently threatened violence to the carpenter for expostulating against this act of trespass. At the same time I could not stifle a feeling of pity for the homeless being who doubtless found the bed upon our barn floor as grateful as the downy couch of a Persian potentate. Nor could I stifle the conviction that it was a piece of miserable greediness on my part to deny this friendless and penniless wanderer the humble shelter he craved.

In fact I presently became so ashamed of the part I was taking in these proceedings that but for my regard for Alice's feelings I would have packed the carpenter off home and left the barn open to the tramp and all his kind. As it was my conscience gave me no rest until I had induced neighbor Tiltman to extract the cartridges from the pistol, which service he did so cleverly that the carpenter knew nothing about it, and continued to bluster and bloviate like a dragoon on dress parade.

The tramp did not return that night, and I was glad he did not, for it would have spoiled our new premises for me had any act of violence been committed thereupon. The experience, however, alarmed Alice to such an extent that she determined to employ a private watchman to guard the premises by night until we occupied them. She told me at supper the next evening that for this purpose she had secured the services of a poor but honest man who had called that day seeking employment.

"You don't mean to tell me, my dear," said I, "that you have intrusted this responsible duty to a person who is in the habit of travelling from house to house, asking alms!"

"I guess I know an honest man when I see him," said Alice, "and I know this man is honest, if there is such a thing as an honest man."

Alice went on to say that her protege was an old soldier; that he had wept when he told of his unrequited services for his country, and of the ingratitude which he had experienced when his application for a pension was denied by the unfeeling authorities at Washington. Alice said she had never met with a more civil-spoken person, and he must indeed have impressed her most favorably, for she advanced him fifty cents on account.

We slept securely that night, for Alice's assurances made me confident that under the new watchman's sleepless vigilance all would be safe on the Schmittheimer premises. But about seven o'clock next morning there was a rude outcry, and there came a terrible banging at our front door. Looking out into the street we saw the carpenter with a very sorry specimen of manhood in custody. The carpenter was flourishing neighbor Tiltman's unloaded pistol and threatening to blow his prisoner's brains out.

"I caught him asleep in the barn!" cried the carpenter, excitedly.

"Stop! Stop!" shrieked Alice. "Don't shoot him! Don't harm a hair of his head! He is the night watchman I hired to guard the place!"

"He 's the tramp!" insisted the carpenter. "He 's the very tramp who broke into the barn and slept there once before. I 've caught him now and I won't let him go!"

The prisoner protested that the carpenter was mistaken, that he was, indeed, the night watchman, and that he was entitled to "the kind lady's protection."

The fellow's voice sounded familiar and I recognized his form and face. Yes, there could be no mistake; I had seen and dealt with this person before.

"My friends," said I, addressing Alice and her carpenter and the crowd of neighbors that had assembled, "you are right, and yet you are wrong. I know this man, and I identify him as the base ingrate who stole my new wheelbarrow and my garden utensils. Your name, sir," I continued, sternly, transfixing the quaking wretch with a glance of commingled anger and scorn, "your name is Percival Wax!"

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