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Tillie: A Mennonite Maid By Helen Reimensnyder Martin Characters: 12517

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Tillie was obliged, when about a half-mile from her father's farm, to hide her precious book. This she did by pinning her petticoat into a bag and concealing the book in it. It was in this way that she always carried home her "li-bries" from Sunday-school, for all story-book reading was prohibited by her father. It was uncomfortable walking along the highroad with the book knocking against her legs at every step, but that was not so painful as her father's punishment would be did he discover her bringing home a "novel"! She was not permitted to bring home even a school-book, and she had greatly astonished Miss Margaret, one day at the beginning of the term, by asking, "Please, will you leave me let my books in school? Pop says I darsen't bring 'em home."

"What you can't learn in school, you can do without," Tillie's father had said. "When you're home you'll work fur your wittles."

Tillie's father was a frugal, honest, hard-working, and very prosperous Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, who thought he religiously performed his parental duty in bringing up his many children in the fear of his heavy hand, in unceasing labor, and in almost total abstinence from all amusement and self-indulgence. Far from thinking himself cruel, he was convinced that the oftener and the more vigorously he applied "the strap," the more conscientious a parent was he.

His wife, Tillie's stepmother, was as submissive to his authority as were her five children and Tillie. Apathetic, anemic, overworked, she yet never dreamed of considering herself or her children abused, accepting her lot as the natural one of woman, who was created to be a child-bearer, and to keep man well fed and comfortable. The only variation from the deadly monotony of her mechanical and unceasing labor was found in her habit of irritability with her stepchild. She considered Tillie "a dopple" (a stupid, awkward person); for though usually a wonderful little household worker, Tillie, when very much tired out, was apt to drop dishes; and absent-mindedly she would put her sunbonnet instead of the bread into the oven, or pour molasses instead of batter on the griddle. Such misdemeanors were always plaintively reported by Mrs. Getz to Tillie's father, who, without fail, conscientiously applied what he considered the undoubted cure.

In practising the strenuous economy prescribed by her husband, Mrs. Getz had to manoeuver very skilfully to keep her children decently clothed, and Tillie in this matter was a great help to her; for the little girl possessed a precocious skill in combining a pile of patches into a passably decent dress or coat for one of her little brothers or sisters. Nevertheless, it was invariably Tillie who was slighted in the small expenditures that were made each year for the family clothing. The child had always really preferred that the others should have "new things" rather than herself-until Miss Margaret came; and now, before Miss Margaret's daintiness, she felt ashamed of her own shabby appearance and longed unspeakably for fresh, pretty clothes. Tillie knew perfectly well that her father had plenty of money to buy them for her if he would. But she never thought of asking him or her stepmother for anything more than what they saw fit to give her.

The Getz family was a perfectly familiar type among the German farming class of southeastern Pennsylvania. Jacob Getz, though spoken of in the neighborhood as being "wonderful near," which means very penurious, and considered by the more gentle-minded Amish and Mennonites of the township to be "overly strict" with his family and "too ready with the strap still," was nevertheless highly respected as one who worked hard and was prosperous, lived economically, honestly, and in the fear of the Lord, and was "laying by."

The Getz farm was typical of the better sort to be found in that county. A neat walk, bordered by clam shells, led from a wooden gate to the porch of a rather large, and severely plain frame house, facing the road. Every shutter on the front and sides of the building was tightly closed, and there was no sign of life about the place. A stranger, ignorant of the Pennsylvania Dutch custom of living in the kitchen and shutting off the "best rooms,"-to be used in their mustiness and stiff unhomelikeness on Sunday only,-would have thought the house temporarily empty. It was forbiddingly and uncompromisingly spick-and-span.

A grass-plot, ornamented with a circular flower-bed, extended a short distance on either side of the house. But not too much land was put to such unproductive use; and the small lawn was closely bordered by a corn-field on the one side and on the other by an apple orchard. Beyond stretched the tobacco-and wheat-fields, and behind the house were the vegetable garden and the barn-yard.

Arrived at home by half-past three, Tillie hid her "Ivanhoe" under the pillow of her bed when she went up-stairs to change her faded calico school dress for the yet older garment she wore at her work.

If she had not been obliged to change her dress, she would have been puzzled to know how to hide her book, for she could not, without creating suspicion, have gone up-stairs in the daytime. In New Canaan one never went up-stairs during the day, except at the rare times when obliged to change one's clothes. Every one washed at the pump and used the one family roller-towel hanging on the porch. Miss Margaret, ever since her arrival in the neighborhood, had been the subject of wide-spread remark and even suspicion, because she "washed up-stairs" and even sat up-stairs!-in her bedroom! It was an unheard-of proceeding in New Canaan.

Tillie helped her father in the celery-beds until dark; then, weary, but excited at the prospect of her book, she went in from the fields and up-stairs to the little low-roofed bed-chamber which she shared with her two half-sisters. They were already in bed and asleep, as was their mother in the room across the hall, for every one went to bed at sundown in Canaan Township, and got up at sunrise.

Tillie was in bed in a few minutes, rejoicing in the feeling of the book under her pillow. Not yet dared she venture to light a candle and read it-not until she should hear her father's heavy s

noring in the room across the hall.

The candles which she used for this surreptitious reading of Sunday-school "li-bries" and any other chance literature which fell in her way, were procured with money paid to her by Miss Margaret for helping her to clean the school-room on Friday afternoons after school. Tillie would have been happy to help her for the mere joy of being with her, but Miss Margaret insisted upon paying her ten cents for each such service.

The little girl was obliged to resort to a deep-laid plot in order to do this work for the teacher. It had been her father's custom-ever since, at the age of five, she had begun to go to school-to "time" her in coming home at noon and afternoon, and whenever she was not there on the minute, to mete out to her a dose of his ever-present strap.

"I ain't havin' no playin' on the way home, still! When school is done, you come right away home then, to help me or your mom, or I 'll learn you once!"

But it happened that Miss Margaret, in her reign at "William Perm" school-house, had introduced the innovation of closing school on Friday afternoons at half-past three instead of four, and Tillie, with bribes of candy bought with part of her weekly wage of ten cents, secured secrecy as to this innovation from her little sister and brother who went to school with her-making them play in the school-grounds until she was ready to go home with them.

Before Miss Margaret had come to New Canaan, Tillie had done her midnight reading by the light of the kerosene lamp which, after every one was asleep, she would bring up from the kitchen to her bedside. But this was dangerous, as it often led to awkward inquiries as to the speedy consumption of the oil. Candles were safer. Tillie kept them and a box of matches hidden under the mattress.

It was eleven o'clock when at last the child, trembling with mingled delight and apprehension, rose from her bed, softly closed her bedroom door, and with extremely judicious carefulness lighted her candle, propped up her pillow, and settled down to read as long as she should be able to hold her eyes open. The little sister at her side and the one in the bed at the other side of the room slept too soundly to be disturbed by the faint flickering light of that one candle.

To-night her stolen pleasure proved more than usually engrossing. At first the book was interesting principally because of the fact, so vividly present with her, that Miss Margaret's eyes and mind had moved over every word and thought which, she was now absorbing. But soon her intense interest in the story excluded every other idea-even the fear of discovery. Her young spirit was "out of the body" and following, as in a trance, this tale, the like of which she had never before read.

The clock down-stairs in the kitchen struck twelve-one-two, but Tillie never heard it. At half-past two o'clock in the morning, when the tallow candle was beginning to sputter to its end, she still was reading, her eyes bright as stars, her usually pale face flushed with excitement, her sensitive lips parted in breathless interest-when, suddenly, a stinging blow of "the strap" on her shoulders brought from her a cry of pain and fright.

"What you mean, doin' somepin like, this yet!" sternly demanded her father. "What fur book's that there?"

He took the book from her hands and Tillie cowered beneath the covers, the wish flashing through her mind that the book could change into a Bible as he looked at it!-which miracle would surely temper the punishment that in a moment she knew would be meted out to her.

"'Iwanhoe'-a novel! A NOVEL!" he said in genuine horror. "Tillie, where d'you get this here!"

Tillie knew that if she told lies she would go to hell, but she preferred to burn in torment forever rather than betray Miss Margaret; for her father, like Absalom's, was a school director, and if he knew Miss Margaret read novels and lent them to the children, he would surely force her out of "William Penn."

"I lent it off of Elviny Dinkleberger!" she sobbed.

"You know I tole you a'ready you darsen't bring books home! And you know I don't uphold to novel-readin'! I 'll have to learn you to mind better 'n this! Where d' you get that there candle?"

"I-bought it, pop."

"Bought? Where d'you get the money!"

Tillie did not like the lies she had to tell, but she knew she had already perjured her soul beyond redemption and one lie more or less could not make matters worse.

"I found it in the road."

"How much did you find?"

"Fi' cents."

"You hadn't ought to spent it without astin' me dare you. Now I'm goin' to learn you once! Set up."

Tillie obeyed, and the strap fell across her shoulders. Her outcries awakened the household and started the youngest little sister, in her fright and sympathy with Tillie, to a high-pitched wailing. The rest of them took the incident phlegmatically, the only novelty about it being the strange hour of its happening.

But the hardest part of her punishment was to follow.

"Now this here book goes in the fire!" her father announced when at last his hand was stayed. "And any more that comes home goes after it in the stove, I'll see if you 'll mind your pop or not!"

Left alone in her bed, her body quivering, her little soul hot with shame and hatred, the child stifled her sobs in her pillow, her whole heart one bleeding wound.

How could she ever tell Miss Margaret? Surely she would never like her any more!-never again lay her hand on her hair, or praise her compositions, or call her "honey," or, even, perhaps, allow her to help her on Fridays!-and what, then, would be the use of living? If only she could die and be dead like a cat or a bird and not go to hell, she would take the carving-knife and kill herself! But there was hell to be taken into consideration. And yet, could hell hold anything worse than the loss of Miss Margaret's kindness? HOW could she tell her of that burned-up book and endure to see her look at her with cold disapproval? Oh, to make such return for her kindness, when she so longed with all her soul to show her how much she loved her!

For the first time in all her school-days, Tillie went next morning with reluctance to school.

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