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   Chapter 1 OH, I LOVE HER! I LOVE HER!

Tillie: A Mennonite Maid By Helen Reimensnyder Martin Characters: 15824

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Tillie's slender little body thrilled with a peculiar ecstasy as she stepped upon the platform and felt her close proximity to the teacher-so close that she could catch the sweet, wonderful fragrance of her clothes and see the heave and fall of her bosom. Once Tillie's head had rested against that motherly bosom. She had fainted in school one morning after a day and evening of hard, hard work in her father's celery-beds, followed by a chastisement for being caught with a "story-book"; and she had come out of her faint to find herself in the heaven of sitting on Miss Margaret's lap, her head against her breast and Miss Margaret's soft hand smoothing her cheek and hair. And it was in that blissful moment that Tillie had discovered, for the first time in her young existence, that life could be worth while. Not within her memory had any one ever caressed her before, or spoken to her tenderly, and in that fascinating tone of anxious concern.

Afterward, Tillie often tried to faint again in school; but, such is Nature's perversity, she never could succeed.

School had just been called after the noon recess, and Miss Margaret was standing before her desk with a watchful eye on the troops of children crowding in from the playground to their seats, when the little girl stepped to her side on the platform.

This country school-house was a dingy little building in the heart of Lancaster County, the home of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Miss Margaret had been the teacher only a few months, and having come from Kentucky and not being "a Millersville Normal," she differed quite radically from any teacher they had ever had in New Canaan. Indeed, she was so wholly different from any one Tillie had ever seen in her life, that to the child's adoring heart she was nothing less than a miracle. Surely no one but Cinderella had ever been so beautiful! And how different, too, were her clothes from those of the other young ladies of New Canaan, and, oh, so much prettier-though not nearly so fancy; and she didn't "speak her words" as other people of Tillie's acquaintance spoke. To Tillie it was celestial music to hear Miss Margaret say, for instance, "buttah" when she meant butter-r-r, and "windo" for windah. "It gives her such a nice sound when she talks," thought Tillie.

Sometimes Miss Margaret's ignorance of the dialect of the neighborhood led to complications, as in her conversation just now with Tillie.

"Well?" she inquired, lifting the little girl's chin with her forefinger as Tillie stood at her side and thereby causing that small worshiper to blush with radiant pleasure. "What is it, honey?"

Miss Margaret always made Tillie feel that she LIKED her. Tillie wondered how Miss Margaret could like HER! What was there to like? No one had ever liked her before.

"It wonders me!" Tillie often whispered to herself with throbbing heart.

"Please, Miss Margaret," said the child, "pop says to ast you will you give me the darst to go home till half-past three this after?"

"If you go home till half-past three, you need not come back, honey-it wouldn't be worth while, when school closes at four."

"But I don't mean," said Tillie, in puzzled surprise, "that I want to go home and come back. I sayed whether I have the darst to go home till half-past three. Pop he's went to Lancaster, and he'll be back till half-past three a'ready, and he says then I got to be home to help him in the celery-beds."

Miss Margaret held her pretty head on one side, considering, as she looked down into the little girl's upturned face. "Is this a conundrum, Tillie? How your father be in Lancaster now and yet be home until half-past three? It's uncanny. Unless," she added, a ray of light coming to her,-"unless 'till' means BY. Your father will be home BY half-past three and wants you then?"

"Yes, ma'am. I can't talk just so right," said Tillie apologetically, "like what you can. Yes, sometimes I say my we's like my w's, yet!"

Miss Margaret laughed. "Bless your little heart!" she said, running her fingers through Tillie's hair. "But you would rather stay in school until four, wouldn't you, than go home to help your father in the celery-beds?"

"Oh, yes, ma'am," said Tillie wistfully, "but pop he has to get them beds through till Saturday market a'ready, and so we got to get 'em done behind Thursday or Friday yet."

"If I say you can't go home?"

Tillie colored all over her sensitive little face as, instead of answering, she nervously worked her toe into a crack in the platform.

"But your father can't blame YOU, honey, if I won't let you go home."

"He wouldn't stop to ast me was it my fault, Miss Margaret. If I wasn't there on time, he'd just-"

"All right, dear, you may go at half-past three, then," Miss Margaret gently said, patting the child's shoulder. "As soon as you have written your composition."

"Yes, ma'am, Miss Margaret."

It was hard for Tillie, as she sat at her desk that afternoon, to fix her wandering attention upon the writing of her composition, so fascinating was it just to revel idly in the sense of the touch of that loved hand that had stroked her hair, and the tone of that caressing voice that had called her "honey."

Miss Margaret always said to the composition classes, "Just try to write simply of what you see or feel, and then you will be sure to write a good 'composition.'"

Tillie was moved this afternoon to pour out on paper all that she "felt" about her divinity. But she had some misgivings as to the fitness of this.

She dwelt upon the thought of it, however, dreamily gazing out of the window near which she sat, into the blue sky of the October afternoon-until presently her ear was caught by the sound of Miss Margaret's voice speaking to Absalom Puntz, who stood at the foot of the composition class, now before her on the platform.

"You may read your composition, Absalom."

Absalom was one of "the big boys," but though he was sixteen years old and large for his age, his slowness in learning classed him with the children of twelve or thirteen. However, as learning was considered in New Canaan a superfluous and wholly unnecessary adjunct to the means of living, Absalom's want of agility in imbibing erudition never troubled him, nor did it in the least call forth the pity or contempt of his schoolmates.

Three times during the morning session he had raised his hand to announce stolidly to his long-suffering teacher, "I can't think of no subjeck"; and at last Miss Margaret had relaxed her Spartan resolution to make him do his own thinking and had helped him out.

"Write of something that is interesting you just at present. Isn't there some one thing you care more about than other things?" she had asked.

Absalom had stared at her blankly without replying.

"Now, Absalom," she had said desperately, "I think I know one thing you have been interested in lately-write me a composition on Girls."

Of course the school had greeted the advice with a laugh, and Miss Margaret had smiled with them, though she had not meant to be facetious.

Absalom, however, had taken her suggestion seriously.

"Is your composition written, Absalom?" she was asking as Tillie turned from the window, her contemplation of her own composition arrested by the sound of the voice which to her was the sweetest music in the world.

"No'm," sullenly answered Absalom. "I didn't get it through till it was time a'ready."

"But, Absalom, you've been at it this whole blessed day! You've not done another thing!"

"I wrote off some of it."

"Well," sighed Miss Margaret, "let us hear what you have done."

Absalom unfolded a sheet of paper and laboriously read:

"GIRLS

"The only thing I took particular notice to, about Girls, is that they are always picking lint off each other, still."

He stopped and slowly folded his paper.

"But go on," said Miss Margaret

. "Read it all.'

"That's all the fu'ther I got."

Miss Margaret looked at him for an instant, then suddenly lifted the lid of her desk, evidently to search for something. When she closed it her face was quite grave.

"We'll have the reading-lesson now," she announced.

Tillie tried to withdraw her attention from the teacher and fix it on her own work, but the gay, glad tone in which Lizzie Harnish was reading the lines,

"When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit-"

hopelessly checked the flow of her ideas.

This class was large, and by the time Absalom's turn to read was reached, "Thanatopsis" had been finished, and so the first stanza of "The Bells" fell to him. It had transpired in the reading of "Thanatopsis" that a grave and solemn tone best suited that poem, and the value of this intelligence was made manifest when, in a voice of preternatural solemnity, he read:

"What a world of merriment their melody foretells!"

Instantly, when he had finished his "stanza," Lizzie raised her hand to offer a criticism. "Absalom, he didn't put in no gestures."

Miss Margaret's predecessor had painstakingly trained his reading-classes in the Art of Gesticulation in Public Speaking, and Miss Margaret found the results of his labors so entertaining that she had never been able to bring herself to suppress the monstrosity.

"I don't like them gestures," sulkily retorted Absalom.

"Never mind the gestures," Miss Margaret consoled him-which indifference on her part seemed high treason to the well-trained class.

"I'll hear you read, now, the list of synonyms you found in these two poems," she added. "Lizzie may read first."

While the class rapidly leafed their readers to find their lists of synonyms, Miss Margaret looked up and spoke to Tillie, reminding her gently that that composition would not be written by half-past three if she did not hasten her work.

Tillie blushed with embarrassment at being caught in an idleness that had to be reproved, and resolutely bent all her powers to her task.

She looked about the room for a subject. The walls were adorned with the print portraits of "great men,"-former State superintendents of public instruction in Pennsylvania,-and with highly colored chromo portraits of Washington, Lincoln, Grant, and Garfield. Then there were a number of framed mottos: "Education rules in America," "Rely on yourself," "God is our hope," "Dare to say No," "Knowledge is power," "Education is the chief defense of nations."

But none of these things made Tillie's genius to burn, and again her eyes wandered to the window and gazed out into the blue sky; and after a few moments she suddenly turned to her desk and rapidly wrote down her "subject"-"Evening."

The mountain of the opening sentence being crossed, the rest went smoothly enough, for Tillie wrote it from her heart.

"EVENING.

"I love to take my little sisters and brothers and go out, still, on a hill-top when the sun is setting so red in the West, and the birds are singing around us, and the cows are coming home to be milked, and the men are returning from their day's work.

"I would love to play in the evening if I had the dare, when the children are gay and everything around me is happy.

"I love to see the flowers closing their buds when the shades of evening are come. The thought has come to me, still, that I hope the closing of my life may come as quiet and peaceful as the closing of the flowers in the evening.

"MATILDA MARIA GETZ."

Miss Margaret was just calling for Absalom's synonyms when Tillie carried her composition to the desk, and Absalom was replying with his customary half-defiant sullenness.

"My pop he sayed I ain't got need to waste my time gettin' learnt them cinnamons. Pop he says what's the use learnin' TWO words where [which] means the selfsame thing-one's enough."

Absalom's father was a school director and Absalom had grown accustomed, under the rule of Miss Margaret's predecessors, to feel the force of the fact in their care not to offend him.

"But your father is not the teacher here-I am," she cheerfully told him. "So you may stay after school and do what I require."

Tillie felt a pang of uneasiness as she went back to her seat. Absalom's father was very influential and, as all the township knew, very spiteful. He could send Miss Margaret away, and he would do it, if she offended his only child, Absalom. Tillie thought she could not bear it at all if Miss Margaret were sent away. Poor Miss Margaret did not seem to realize her own danger. Tillie felt tempted to warn her. It was only this morning that the teacher had laughed at Absalom when he said that the Declaration of Independence was "a treaty between the United States and England,"-and had asked him, "Which country, do you think, hurrahed the loudest, Absalom, when that treaty was signed?" And now this afternoon she "as much as said Absalom's father should mind to his own business!" It was growing serious. There had never been before a teacher at William Penn school-house who had not judiciously "showed partiality" to Absalom.

"And he used to be dummer yet [stupider even] than what he is now," thought Tillie, remembering vividly a school entertainment that had been given during her own first year at school, when Absalom, nine years old, had spoken his first piece. His pious Methodist grandmother had endeavored to teach him a little hymn to speak on the great occasion, while his frivolous aunt from the city of Lancaster had tried at the same time to teach him "Bobby Shafto." New Canaan audiences were neither discriminating nor critical, but the assembly before which little Absalom had risen to "speak his piece off," had found themselves confused when he told them that

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist stands,

Silver buckles on his knee."

Tillie would never forget her own infantine agony of suspense as she sat, a tiny girl of five, in the audience, listening to Absalom's mistakes. But Eli Darmstetter, the teacher, had not scolded him.

Then there was the time that Absalom had forced a fight at recess and had made little Adam Oberholzer's nose bleed-it was little Adam (whose father was not at that time a school director) that had to stay after school; and though every one knew it wasn't fair, it had been accepted without criticism, because even the young rising generation of New Canaan understood the impossibility and folly of quarreling with one's means of earning money.

But Miss Margaret appeared to be perfectly blind to the perils of her position. Tillie was deeply troubled about it.

At half-past three, when, at a nod from Miss Margaret the little girl left her desk to go home, a wonderful thing happened-Miss Margaret gave her a story-book.

"You are so fond of reading, Tillie, I brought you this. You may take it home, and when you have read it, bring it back to me, and I'll give you something else to read."

Delighted as Tillie was to have the book for its own sake, it was yet greater happiness to handle something belonging to Miss Margaret and to realize that Miss Margaret had thought so much about her as to bring it to her.

"It's a novel, Tillie. Have you ever read a novel?"

"No'm. Only li-bries."

"What?"

"Sunday-school li-bries. Us we're Evangelicals, and us children we go to the Sunday-school, and I still bring home li-bry books. Pop he don't uphold to novel-readin'. I have never saw a novel yet."

"Well, this book won't injure you, Tillie. You must tell me all about it when you have read it. You will find it so interesting, I'm afraid you won't be able to study your lessons while you are reading it."

Outside the school-room, Tillie looked at the title,-Ivanhoe,"-and turned over the pages in an ecstasy of anticipation.

"Oh! I love her! I love her!" throbbed her little hungry heart.

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