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HOME > Classical Novels > The Worst Boy in Town > CHAPTER II. A CORNER IN WHISKEY.
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CHAPTER II. A CORNER IN WHISKEY.
"You're the worst boy in town!"

For several days after their unsuccessful fishing expedition, Jack and Matt were extremely obedient and undemonstrative. Village school teachers, in that country, were not unfrequently the stout-armed sons of farmers, and when they plied the rod, any memory of the occasion was not likely soon to become dimmed. It was perhaps for this reason that even when Matt or Jack amused himself by whistling, the airs selected were sure to have been written on minor keys, and that both boys sought earnestly, each by himself, for some method of setting some positive moral success against their late failure at benevolence.

The opportunity did not linger long. Matt was sitting in the house one evening, wondering whether to go to bed at once, or wrestle again with an exasperating problem in cube root, the answer to which, as printed in the book, he felt thrice assured was wrong, when a long whistle of peculiar volume and inflection informed him that Jack was outside and had something to communicate. Matt sprang to his feet, for only a matter of extreme importance would have brought Jack across town at so late an hour. The worst boy in town was found by Matt to be hanging across the garden gate and so powerfully charged with virtuous indignation that he was unable to contain it all.

"Look here, Matt," said he, "you know what an awful thing whiskey is, don't you?"

"I should think I did," replied Matt, "Havn't I been to every temperance meeting that's been held?"

"So you have," said Jack, "Well what do you think? There's Hoccamine, the corner storekeeper, gone and bought seven barrels."

"Isn't that dreadful!" exclaimed Matt. "If he starts a rum-shop here, it'll spoil the custom of his store."

"He isn't going to have a bar," explained Jack, "he's going to sell by the gallon. But what's the difference?—rum is rum, and it does harm, no matter in what way it is sold."

"It's perfectly awful," said Matt.

"All right," said Jack, "Now I'll tell you what I propose. It wasn't brought up to the store until after dark—I suppose they were ashamed—and it is on the sidewalk beside their store, to be put down cellar as soon as the clerks come in the morning." Then Jack put his lips down to Matt's ear, and whispered, "Let's spill it for them?"

"Gracious!" whispered Matt, "how can we?"

"Easily enough," said Jack. "We'll bore a gimlet hole in each barrel, and it'll have all night to run. I've got a gimlet. You slip out of the house about twelve o'clock, and so will I; we'll meet at the church steps, and then unchain the demon only to destroy him forever." (Jack's last clause was quoted verbatim from a temperance address to which he had lately listened.)

"I'm your man," said Matt.

"I knew you would be," Jack replied; "I could have done it alone, but I was sure you'd enjoy helping, and I'm not the sort of fellow that goes back on a friend, you know. Twelve o'clock sure,—does your clock strike the hours?"

"Yes."

"So does ours. Can you keep awake until then? If you can't I'll give you half of my cloves to eat. I've saved them the past few Sunday nights when I havn't been sleepy in church."

Matt accepted the proffered assistance, and Jack departed, while Matt went into the house and to bed with the firm conviction that he was too excited to sleep any for a week to come. It was nine when he retired, and at the stroke of ten he had not had occasion to touch the cloves except to nibble the blossom end from one, just to have a pleasant taste in his mouth. It was many hours, apparently before the clock struck eleven; had it not been for the loud persistent ticking Matt would have believed the old timepiece had stopped. As it was, he had fully made up his mind that the striking weight had not been wound, when suddenly the hammer rattled off eleven. Between eleven and twelve, Matt ate all the cloves, pinched himself nearly black and blue, pulled his hair, rubbed his ears, and did everything else he had ever heard of as an antidote to sleepiness. Finally he dressed himself and descended, intending to be at the front door when the clock should strike. As he stepped from the last stair his foot fell upon the family cat, who habitually reposed upon a rug lying just there, and the cry which that cat uttered was more appalling to Matt than the roar of a royal Bengal tiger would have been. Matt's parents, however, had clear consciences, so the agonized scream did not seem to awaken them. Then Matt's heart beat so violently that he began to wonder why the sound of its throbs did not shake the house. He tiptoed to the door, but his shoes squeaked, and though he experimented, by setting down his feet, heel first, by walking on the outer edge of his shoes, and then upon the inner, the squeak continued. Then he sat upon the floor and removed his shoes, when, to his great relief, the clock struck twelve. Why that clock did not rouse him with its clamor every night and every time it struck was a great mystery to him as he softly opened the door, closed it, sped away in his stockinged feet, and determined to smuggle a bit of soap out of the house and settle with those stockings before they went to the family washtub.

Reaching the church, Matt was sure he saw a shadow hold up a gaunt forefinger by way of warning, but this speedily resolved itself into Jack, who was elevating the gimlet, and who approached and whispered—

"In hoc signo vinces," as old Constantine says in the "Universal School History."

Both boys hugged every fence and wall until they reached the offending barrels; then Matt's heart began pumping again, receiving some sympathy from that of Jack. The last-named youth suddenly whispered,

"Want to strike the first blow?"

"I guess not," said Matt, flattening himself as closely as possible against the wall of the store. "You thought of it first."

Jack knelt before one of the barrels, bored a hole as low as possible, and a small stream of liquid and a strong smell of whiskey appeared instantly and at the same time. Then another hole was bored at the top, to admit air, and the industry of the stream increased suddenly, as Jack learned by a jet which struck his own trowsers and made itself felt on the skin beneath. Matt operated upon the second barrel, Jack unlocked the demon in the third, and so the boys proceeded alternately, until while over the sixth barrel Matt's enthusiasm interfered with his steadiness of hand and he broke the gimlet.

"That's too bad," whispered Jack. "I guess we'd better leave, but old Hoccamine won't find five empty barrels a very small hint to stop outraging the sentiments of the inhabitants of this town."

Both boys made haste to depart, wasting no time in formal adieux. As soon as they had reached the church and cemetery, in neither of which they feared listeners, Jack exclaimed in a low tone

"This is a proud day for Doveton, Matt; can't you make some excuse to come up town in the morning to hear Hoccamine swear when he learns about it?"

"I'll ask mother if she doesn't need something from some store," said Matt; "good night."

The boys went their separate ways, each unconsciously carrying the smell of whiskey in the shoe soles which had several times been wet with it, as they moved about the sidewalk, so when Mr. and Mrs. Bolton awoke in the morning, it was not strange that the lady exclaimed—

"Where can that strong smell of whiskey come from? I didn't know there was a drop in the house."

"Nor I," said Mr. Bolton. The odor could not be attributed to the servant, for she lived elsewhere, and had not yet come to her daily labor. Mrs. Bolton was not superior to the ordinary human interest in mystery, so she continued,

"Where can it be? Oh, husband, it can't be that Matt, our only darling boy, is getting into bad ways?"

Mr. Bolton sprang from his bed and hurried to Matt's room; there were too many other fourteen-year old boys in Doveton who had already trifled with liquor, and Matt's father had at once become suspicious. But he returned in a moment saying,

"Thank God, it isn't that; the blessed scamp's breath is as sweet as it was when he was a baby. But what can it be?"

Mr. Bolton quickly dressed himself and went through the house, but soon hurried back exclaiming—

"Thieves! The front door is ajar."

Both householders took part in a hasty search, but Mrs. Bolton found her silver spoons safe though they had been in plain view in a dining-room closet. Mr. Bolton found no clothing missing, nor could the subsequent search prove that anything whatever had been taken.

"I have it!" exclaimed Mrs. Bolton suddenly. "I heard the cat scream terribly in the night. It is plain that the rascal stepped upon her, and then ran away, supposing her noise would arouse the house. What a narrow escape!"

Matt slept throughout the excitement like one who has a conscience which was not only void of offense, but had the additional peace which comes of virtuous deeds successfully accomplished. It was only after considerable effort, indeed, that he could be roused at breakfast time. As for Jack, he was up long before the lark, and on his way to the market (which was opposite Hoccamine's store) to purchase some scraps of meat for a mythical dog. He meekly stood outside with his package, for what seemed to him centuries, awaiting the opening of Hoccamine's store. Then he hurried home, ate the merest excuse for a breakfast, and cooled his heels at Matt's wood-pile for at least an hour, and when his companion finally appeared, yawning profoundly, Jack shouted—

"Oh, Matt, 'twas worth a million dollars. Hurry up, can't you?"

Matt quickly roused himself to consciousness that life was real, life was earnest, and joined Jack, who exclaimed—

"Fun? why there was oceans of it, with hundreds of lakes and ponds thrown in. First there came along old Burt, on his way to market, and as soon as he saw the stuff in little puddles by the curbstone, and smelt what it was, he just lay down on his stomach and began to drink. He signed the pledge at the last temperance meeting, too; isn't it awful? Then Captain Sands came along, and stopped to look, and so did Squire Jones and Joe, the barber, and everybody that came to market saw the crowd and went over, so I thought 'twas safe to go over myself. All of a sudden over came Hoccamine, who had been to market, and then—well, you never heard such swearing at a fight. He declared that somebody had been stealing it, and Squire Jones told him it was a righteous judgment on him, and then Hoccamine swore some more and called the Squire names, and the Squire said he'd never buy another penny's worth from a man who had abused him in that way, and Hoccamine told him to take his infernal pennies and buy of—of the old fellow down below, you know, if he chose. Then Hoccamine opened the store and got out some pails and scoop-shovels, and tried to save some of the liquor out of the gutter. Oh, it was just glorious." And Jack, unable to express his feelings in any other way, danced about madly and jumped over several logs of wood.

Then Matt, who has listened with considerable interest, yet with a pre-occupied air, told the story of the attempted burglary, but explained away the supposition that the thief was scared off by the cat.

"That shows," said Jack, briskly, "how necessary the work was that we did last night. Whiskey made that thief, you see—I shouldn't wonder if what you were about at the same time had something to do with his being influenced to go away. Don't you know how these things happen in books sometimes? I once read—"

Jack suddenly ceased talking, but burst out laughing, and finally dropped upon the chips and rolled about in a perfect convulsion of laughter, while Matt looked on in mute astonishment.

"Oh, Matt," he exclaimed finally, "don't you understand? That smell of whiskey was on you somewhere—I smell it now. And you were so excited when you went in, that you forgot to latch the door—I've done the same thing, once or twice. Oh, oh, oh, that's too rich. I'll die if I can't tell somebody."

Matt immediately swore his companion to strict secresy, but later in the day, which happened to be Saturday, he became so uncomfortable at hearing his father discuss the attempted burglary with everyone who entered the store that he confessed the whole affair to Mr. Bolton. That gentleman made a valiant effort at reproof, but he did not love Hoccamine more than business rivals usually love each other, and he was an earnest advocate of total abstinence, so he made some excuse to get at his account books, and for the remainder of the day he was subject to violent fits of laughter whenever he was not trying to truthfully modify his story of the burglary to the many acquaintances who came in to enquire about it.
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