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Mark Twain > The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm > Story

The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm


The conversation drifted smoothly and pleasantly along from weather to
crops, from crops to literature, from literature to scandal, from scandal
to religion; then took a random jump, and landed on the subject of
burglar alarms. And now for the first time Mr. McWilliams showed
feeling. Whenever I perceive this sign on this man's dial, I comprehend
it, and lapse into silence, and give him opportunity to unload his heart.
Said he, with but ill-controlled emotion:

"I do not go one single cent on burglar alarms, Mr. Twain--not a single
cent--and I will tell you why. When we were finishing our house, we
found we had a little cash left over, on account of the plumber not
knowing it. I was for enlightening the heathen with it, for I was always
unaccountably down on the heathen somehow; but Mrs. McWilliams said no,
let's have a burglar alarm. I agreed to this compromise. I will explain
that whenever I want a thing, and Mrs. McWilliams wants another thing,
and we decide upon the thing that Mrs. McWilliams wants--as we always do
--she calls that a compromise. Very well: the man came up from New York
and put in the alarm, and charged three hundred and twenty-five dollars
for it, and said we could sleep without uneasiness now. So we did for
awhile--say a month. Then one night we smelled smoke, and I was advised
to get up and see what the matter was. I lit a candle, and started
toward the stairs, and met a burglar coming out of a room with a basket
of tinware, which he had mistaken for solid silver in the dark. He was
smoking a pipe. I said, 'My friend, we do not allow smoking in this
room.' He said he was a stranger, and could not be expected to know the
rules of the house: said he had been in many houses just as good as this
one, and it had never been objected to before. He added that as far as
his experience went, such rules had never been considered to apply to
burglars, anyway.

"I said: 'Smoke along, then, if it is the custom, though I think that the
conceding of a privilege to a burglar which is denied to a bishop is a
conspicuous sign of the looseness of the times. But waiving all that,
what business have you to be entering this house in this furtive and
clandestine way, without ringing the burglar alarm?'

"He looked confused and ashamed, and said, with embarrassment: 'I beg a
thousand pardons. I did not know you had a burglar alarm, else I would
have rung it. I beg you will not mention it where my parents may hear of
it, for they are old and feeble, and such a seemingly wanton breach of
the hallowed conventionalities of our Christian civilization might all
too rudely sunder the frail bridge which hangs darkling between the pale
and evanescent present and the solemn great deeps of the eternities. May
I trouble you for a match?'

"I said: 'Your sentiments do you honor, but if you will allow me to say
it, metaphor is not your best hold. Spare your thigh; this kind light
only on the box, and seldom there, in fact, if my experience may be
trusted. But to return to business: how did you get in here?'

"'Through a second-story window.'

"It was even so. I redeemed the tinware at pawnbroker's rates, less cost
of advertising, bade the burglar good-night, closed the window after him,
and retired to headquarters to report. Next morning we sent for the
burglar-alarm man, and he came up and explained that the reason the alarm
did not 'go off' was that no part of the house but the first floor was
attached to the alarm. This was simply idiotic; one might as well have
no armor on at all in battle as to have it only on his legs. The expert
now put the whole second story on the alarm, charged three hundred
dollars for it, and went his way. By and by, one night, I found a
burglar in the third story, about to start down a ladder with a lot of
miscellaneous property. My first impulse was to crack his head with a
billiard cue; but my second was to refrain from this attention, because
he was between me and the cue rack. The second impulse was plainly the
soundest, so I refrained, and proceeded to compromise. I redeemed the
property at former rates, after deducting ten per cent. for use of
ladder, it being my ladder, and, next day we sent down for the expert
once more, and had the third story attached to the alarm, for three
hundred dollars.

"By this time the 'annunciator' had grown to formidable dimensions. It
had forty-seven tags on it, marked with the names of the various rooms
and chimneys, and it occupied the space of an ordinary wardrobe. The
gong was the size of a wash-bowl, and was placed above the head of our
bed. There was a wire from the house to the coachman's quarters in the
stable, and a noble gong alongside his pillow.

"We should have been comfortable now but for one defect. Every morning
at five the cook opened the kitchen door, in the way of business, and rip
went that gong! The first time this happened I thought the last day was
come sure. I didn't think it in bed--no, but out of it--for the first
effect of that frightful gong is to hurl you across the house, and slam
you against the wall, and then curl you up, and squirm you like a spider
on a stove lid, till somebody shuts the kitchen door. In solid fact,
there is no clamor that is even remotely comparable to the dire clamor
which that gong makes. Well, this catastrophe happened every morning
regularly at five o'clock, and lost us three hours sleep; for, mind you,
when that thing wakes you, it doesn't merely wake you in spots; it wakes
you all over, conscience and all, and you are good for eighteen hours of
wide-awakeness subsequently--eighteen hours of the very most
inconceivable wide-awakeness that you ever experienced in your life.
A stranger died on our hands one time, aid we vacated and left him in our
room overnight. Did that stranger wait for the general judgment? No,
sir; he got up at five the next morning in the most prompt and
unostentatious way. I knew he would; I knew it mighty well. He
collected his life-insurance, and lived happy ever after, for there was
plenty of proof as to the perfect squareness of his death.

"Well, we were gradually fading toward a better land, on account of the
daily loss of sleep; so we finally had the expert up again, and he ran a
wire to the outside of the door, and placed a switch there, whereby
Thomas, the butler, always made one little mistake--he switched the alarm
off at night when he went to bed, and switched it on again at daybreak in
the morning, just in time for the cook to open the kitchen door, and
enable that gong to slam us across the house, sometimes breaking a window
with one or the other of us. At the end of a week we recognized that
this switch business was a delusion and a snare. We also discovered that
a band of burglars had been lodging in the house the whole time--not
exactly to steal, for there wasn't much left now, but to hide from the
police, for they were hot pressed, and they shrewdly judged that the
detectives would never think of a tribe of burglars taking sanctuary in a
house notoriously protected by the most imposing and elaborate burglar
alarm in America.

"Sent down for the expert again, and this time he struck a most dazzling
idea--he fixed the thing so that opening the kitchen door would take off
the alarm. It was a noble idea, and he charged accordingly. But you
already foresee the result. I switched on the alarm every night at bed-
time, no longer trusting on Thomas's frail memory; and as soon as the
lights were out the burglars walked in at the kitchen door, thus taking
the alarm off without waiting for the cook to do it in the morning. You
see how aggravatingly we were situated. For months we couldn't have any
company. Not a spare bed in the house; all occupied by burglars.

"Finally, I got up a cure of my own. The expert answered the call, and
ran another ground wire to the stable, and established a switch there, so
that the coachman could put on and take off the alarm. That worked first
rate, and a season of peace ensued, during which we got to inviting
company once more and enjoying life.

"But by and by the irrepressible alarm invented a new kink. One winter's
night we were flung out of bed by the sudden music of that awful gong,
and when we hobbled to the annunciator, turned up the gas, and saw the
word 'Nursery' exposed, Mrs. McWilliams fainted dead away, and I came
precious near doing the same thing myself. I seized my shotgun, and
stood timing the coachman whilst that appalling buzzing went on. I knew
that his gong had flung him out, too, and that he would be along with his
gun as soon as he could jump into his clothes. When I judged that the
time was ripe, I crept to the room next the nursery, glanced through the
window, and saw the dim outline of the coachman in the yard below,
standing at present-arms and waiting for a chance. Then I hopped into
the nursery and fired, and in the same instant the coachman fired at the
red flash of my gun. Both of us were successful; I crippled a nurse, and
he shot off all my back hair. We turned up the gas, and telephoned for a
surgeon. There was not a sign of a burglar, and no window had been
raised. One glass was absent, but that was where the coachman's charge
had come through. Here was a fine mystery--a burglar alarm 'going off'
at midnight of its own accord, and not a burglar in the neighborhood!

"The expert answered the usual call, and explained that it was a 'False
alarm.' Said it was easily fixed. So he overhauled the nursery window,
charged a remunerative figure for it, and departed.

"What we suffered from false alarms for the next three years no
stylographic pen can describe. During the next three months I always
flew with my gun to the room indicated, and the coachman always sallied
forth with his battery to support me. But there was never anything to
shoot at--windows all tight and secure. We always sent down for the
expert next day, and he fixed those particular windows so they would keep
quiet a week or so, and always remembered to send us a bill about like

         Wire ............................$2.15
         Nipple........................... .75
         Two hours' labor ................ 1.50
         Wax.............................. .47
         Tape............................. .34
         Screws........................... .15
         Recharging battery .............. .98
         Three hours' labor .............. 2.25
         String........................... .02
         Lard ............................ .66
         Pond's Extract .................. 1.25
         Springs at 50.................... 2.00
         Railroad fares................... 7.25

"At length a perfectly natural thing came about--after we had answered
three or four hundred false alarms--to wit, we stopped answering them.
Yes, I simply rose up calmly, when slammed across the house by the alarm,
calmly inspected the annunciator, took note of the room indicated; and
then calmly disconnected that room from the alarm, and went back to bed
as if nothing had happened. Moreover, I left that room off permanently,
and did not send for the expert. Well, it goes without saying that in
the course of time all the rooms were taken off, and the entire machine
was out of service.

"It was at this unprotected time that the heaviest calamity of all
happened. The burglars walked in one night and carried off the burglar
alarm! yes, sir, every hide and hair of it: ripped it out, tooth and
nail; springs, bells, gongs, battery, and all; they took a hundred and
fifty miles of copper wire; they just cleaned her out, bag and baggage,
and never left us a vestige of her to swear at--swear by, I mean.

"We had a time of it to get her back; but we accomplished it finally, for
money. The alarm firm said that what we needed now was to have her put
in right--with their new patent springs in the windows to make false
alarms impossible, and their new patent clock attached to take off and
put on the alarm morning and night without human assistance. That seemed
a good scheme. They promised to have the whole thing finished in ten
days. They began work, and we left for the summer. They worked a couple
of days; then they left for the summer. After which the burglars moved
in, and began their summer vacation. When we returned in the fall, the
house was as empty as a beer closet in premises where painters have been
at work. We refurnished, and then sent down to hurry up the expert. He
came up and finished the job, and said: 'Now this clock is set to put on
the alarm every night at 10, and take it off every morning at 5:45. All
you've got to do is to wind her up every week, and then leave her alone--
she will take care of the alarm herself.'

"After that we had a most tranquil season during three months. The bill
was prodigious, of course, and I had said I would not pay it until the
new machinery had proved itself to be flawless. The time stipulated was
three months. So I paid the bill, and the very next day the alarm went
to buzzing like ten thousand bee swarms at ten o'clock in the morning.
I turned the hands around twelve hours, according to instructions, and
this took off the alarm; but there was another hitch at night, and I had
to set her ahead twelve hours once more to get her to put the alarm on
again. That sort of nonsense went on a week or two, then the expert came
up and put in a new clock. He came up every three months during the next
three years, and put in a new clock. But it was always a failure. His
clocks all had the same perverse defect: they would put the alarm on in
the daytime, and they would not put it on at night; and if you forced it
on yourself, they would take it off again the minute your back was

"Now there is the history of that burglar alarm--everything just as it
happened; nothing extenuated, and naught set down in malice. Yes, sir,--
and when I had slept nine years with burglars, and maintained an
expensive burglar alarm the whole time, for their protection, not mine,
and at my sole cost--for not a d---d cent could I ever get THEM to
contribute--I just said to Mrs. McWilliams that I had had enough of that
kind of pie; so with her full consent I took the whole thing out and
traded it off for a dog, and shot the dog. I don't know what you think
about it, Mr. Twain; but I think those things are made solely in the
interest of the burglars. Yes, sir, a burglar alarm combines in its
person all that is objectionable about a fire, a riot, and a harem, and
at the same time had none of the compensating advantages, of one sort or
another, that customarily belong with that combination. Good-by: I get
off here."

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