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Chapter XII
 
 One  of  the  reasons  why  Tom's mind had drifted away from its secret
troubles was, that it had found a new and weighty matter to interest
itself about. Becky Thatcher had stopped coming to school. Tom had
struggled with his pride a few days, and tried to "whistle her down the
wind," but failed. He began to find himself hanging around her father's
house, nights, and feeling very miserable. She was ill. What if she should
die! There was distraction in the thought. He no longer took an interest
in war, nor even in piracy. The charm of life was gone; there was nothing
but dreariness left. He put his hoop away, and his bat; there was no joy
in them any more. His aunt was concerned. She began to try all manner of
remedies on him. She was one of those people who are infatuated with
patent medicines and all new-fangled methods of producing health or
mending it. She was an inveterate experimenter in these things. When
something fresh in this line came out she was in a fever, right away, to
try it; not on herself, for she was never ailing, but on anybody else that
came handy. She was a subscriber for all the "Health" periodicals and
phrenological frauds; and the solemn ignorance they were inflated with was
breath to her nostrils. All the "rot" they contained about ventilation,
and how to go to bed, and how to get up, and what to eat, and what to
drink, and how much exercise to take, and what frame of mind to keep one's
self in, and what sort of clothing to wear, was all gospel to her, and she
never observed that her health-journals of the current month cusTomarily
upset everything they had recommended the month before. She was as
simple-hearted and honest as the day was long, and so she was an easy
victim. She gathered together her quack periodicals and her quack
medicines, and thus armed with death, went about on her pale horse,
metaphorically speaking, with "hell following after." But she never
suspected that she was not an angel of healing and the balm of Gilead in
disguise, to the suffering neighbors.
The water treatment was new, now, and Tom's low condition was a
windfall to her. She had him out at daylight every morning, stood him up
in the woodshed and drowned him with a deluge of cold water; then she
scrubbed him down with a towel like a file, and so brought him to; then
she rolled him up in a wet sheet and put him away under blankets till she
sweated his soul clean and "the yellow stains of it came through his
pores"-as Tom said.
Yet notwithstanding all this, the boy grew more and more melancholy and
pale and dejected. She added hot baths, sitz baths, shower baths, and
plunges. The boy remained as dismal as a hearse. She began to assist the
water with a slim oatmeal diet and blisterplasters. She calculated his
capacity as she would a jug's, and filled him up every day with quack
cure-alls.
Tom had become indifferent to persecution by this time. This phase
filled the old lady's heart with consternation. This indifference must be
broken up at any cost. Now she heard of Pain-killer for the first time.
She ordered a lot at once. She tasted it and was filled with gratitude. It
was simply fire in a liquid form. She dropped the water treatment and
everything else, and pinned her faith to Pain-killer. She gave Tom a
teaspoonful and watched with the deepest anxiety for the result. Her
troubles were instantly at rest, her soul at peace again; for the
"indifference" was broken up. The boy could not have shown a wilder,
heartier interest, if she had built a fire under him.
Tom felt that it was time to wake up; this sort of life might be
romantic enough, in his blighted condition, but it was getting to have too
little sentiment and too much distracting variety about it. So he thought
over various plans for relief, and finally hit pon that of professing to
be fond of Pain-killer. He asked for it so often that he became a
nuisance, and his aunt ended by telling him to help himself and quit
bothering her. If it had been Sid, she would have had no misgivings to
alloy her delight; but since it was Tom, she watched the bottle
clandestinely. She found that the medicine did really diminish, but it did
not occur to her that the boy was mending the health of a crack in the
sitting-room floor with it.
One day Tom was in the act of dosing the crack when his aunt's yellow
cat came along, purring, eying the teaspoon avariciously, and begging for
a taste. Tom said:
"Don't ask for it unless you want it, Peter."
But Peter signified that he did want it.
"You better make sure."
Peter was sure.
"Now you've asked for it, and I'll give it to you, because there ain't
anything mean about me; but if you find you don't like it, you mustn't
blame anybody but your own self."
Peter was agreeable. So Tom pried his mouth open and poured down the
Pain-killer. Peter sprang a couple of yards in the air, and then delivered
a war-whoop and set off round and round the room, banging against
furniture, upsetting flower-pots, and making general havoc. Next he rose
on his hind feet and pranced around, in a frenzy of enjoyment, with his
head over his shoulder and his voice proclaiming his unappeasable
happiness. Then he went tearing around the house again spreading chaos and
destruction in his path. Aunt Polly entered in time to see him throw a few
double summersets, deliver a final mighty hurrah, and sail through the
open window, carrying the rest of the flower-pots with him. The old lady
stood petrified with astonishment, peering over her glasses; Tom lay on
the floor expiring with laughter.
"Tom, what on earth ails that cat?"
"I don't know, aunt," gasped the boy.
"Why, I never see anything like it. What did make him act so?"
"Deed I don't know, Aunt Polly; cats always act so when they're having
a good time."
"They do, do they?" There was something in the tone that made Tom
apprehensive.
"Yes'm. That is, I believe they do."
"You DO?"
"Yes'm."
The old lady was bending down, Tom watching, with interest emphasized
by anxiety. Too late he divined her "drift." The handle of the telltale
teaspoon was visible under the bed-valance. Aunt Polly took it, held it
up. Tom winced, and dropped his eyes. Aunt Polly raised him by the usual
handle-his ear-and cracked his head soundly with her thimble.
"Now, sir, what did you want to treat that poor dumb beast so, for?"
"I done it out of pity for him-because he hadn't any aunt."
"Hadn't any aunt!-you numskull. What has that got to do with it?"
"Heaps. Because if he'd had one she'd a burnt him out herself! She'd a
roasted his bowels out of him 'thout any more feeling than if he was a
human!"
Aunt Polly felt a sudden pang of remorse. This was putting the thing in
a new light; what was cruelty to a cat MIGHT be cruelty to a boy, too. She
began to soften; she felt sorry. Her eyes watered a little, and she put
her hand on Tom's head and said gently:
"I was meaning for the best, Tom. And, Tom, it DID do you good."
Tom looked up in her face with just a perceptible twinkle peeping
through his gravity.
"I know you was meaning for the best, aunty, and so was I with Peter.
It done HIM good, too. I never see him get around so since-"
"Oh, go 'long with you, Tom, before you aggravate me again. And you try
and see if you can't be a good boy, for once, and you needn't take any
more medicine."
Tom reached school ahead of time. It was noticed that this strange
thing had been occurring every day latterly. And now, as usual of late, he
hung about the gate of the schoolyard instead of playing with his
comrades. He was sick, he said, and he looked it. He tried to seem to be
looking everywhere but whither he really was looking-down the road.
Presently Jeff Thatcher hove in sight, and Tom's face lighted; he gazed a
moment, and then turned sorrowfully away. When Jeff arrived, Tom accosted
him; and "led up" warily to opportunities for remark about Becky, but the
giddy lad never could see the bait. Tom watched and watched, hoping
whenever a frisking frock came in sight, and hating the owner of it as
soon as he saw she was not the right one. At last frocks ceased to appear,
and he dropped hopelessly into the dumps; he entered the empty schoolhouse
and sat down to suffer. Then one more frock passed in at the gate, and
Tom's heart gave a great bound. The next instant he was out, and "going
on" like an Indian; yelling, laughing, chasing boys, jumping over the
fence at risk of life and limb, throwing handsprings, standing on his
head-doing all the heroic things he could conceive of, and keeping a
furtive eye out, all the while, to see if Becky Thatcher was noticing. But
she seemed to be unconscious of it all; she never looked. Could it be
possible that she was not aware that he was there? He carried his exploits
to her immediate vicinity; came war-whooping around, snatched a boy's cap,
hurled it to the roof of the schoolhouse, broke through a group of boys,
tumbling them in every direction, and fell sprawling, himself, under
Becky's nose, almost upsetting her-and she turned, with her nose in the
air, and he heard her say: "Mf! some people think they're mighty
smart-always showing off!"
Tom's cheeks burned. He gathered himself up and sneaked off, crushed
and crestfallen.