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   Chapter 12 ABSALOM KEEPS COMPANY

Tillie: A Mennonite Maid By Helen Reimensnyder Martin Characters: 21117

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Tillie wrote to Miss Margaret (she could not learn to call her Mrs. Lansing) how that she had "given herself up and turned plain," and Miss Margaret, seeing how sacred this experience was to the young girl, treated the subject with all respect and even reverence.

The correspondence between these two, together with the books which from time to time came to the girl from her faithful friend, did more toward Tillie's growth and development along lines of which her parents had no suspicion, than all the schooling at William Penn, under the instruction of the average "Millersville Normal," could ever have accomplished.

And her tongue, though still very provincial, soon lost much of its native dialect, through her constant reading and study.

Of course whenever her father discovered her with her books he made her suffer.

"You're got education enough a'ready," he would insist. "And too much fur your own good. Look at me-I was only educated with a Testament and a spelling-book and a slate. We had no such a blackboards even, to recite on. And do I look as if I need to know any more 'n what I know a'ready?"

Tillie bore her punishments like a martyr-and continued surreptitiously to read and to study whenever and whatever she could; and not even the extreme conscientiousness of a New Mennonite faltered at this filial disobedience. She obeyed her father implicitly, however tyrannical he was, to the point where he bade her suppress and kill all the best that God had given her of mind and heart. Then she revolted; and she never for an instant doubted her entire justification in eluding or defying his authority.

There was another influence besides her books and Miss Margaret's letters which, unconsciously to herself, was educating Tillie at this time. Her growing fondness for stealing off to the woods not far from the farm, of climbing to the hill-top beyond the creek, or walking over the fields under the wide sky-not only in the spring and summer, but at all times of the year-was yielding her a richness, a depth and breadth, of experience that nothing else could have given her.

A nature deeply sensitive to the mysterious appeal of sky and green earth, of deep, shady forest and glistening water, when unfolding in daily touch with these things, will learn to see life with a broader, saner mind and catch glimpses and vistas of truth with a clearer vision than can ever come to one whose most susceptible years are spent walled in and overtopped by the houses of the city that shut out and stifle "the larger thought of God." And Tillie, in spite of her narrowing New Mennonite "convictions," did reach through her growing love for and intimacy with Nature a plane of thought and feeling which was immeasurably above her perfunctory creed.

Sometimes the emotions excited by her solitary walks gave the young girl greater pain than happiness-yet it was a pain she would not have been spared, for she knew, though the knowledge was never formulated in her thought, that in some precious, intimate way her suffering set her apart and above the villagers and farming people about her-those whose placid, contented eyes never strayed from the potato-patch to the distant hills, or lifted themselves from the goodly tobacco-fields to the wide blue heavens.

Thus, cramped and crushing as much of her life was, it had-as all conditions must have-its compensations; and many of the very circumstances which at the time seemed most unbearable brought forth in later years rich fruit.

And so, living under her father's watchful eye and relentless rule,-with long days of drudgery and outward acquiescence in his scheme of life that she devote herself, mind, body, and soul, to the service of himself, his wife, and their children, and in return to be poorly fed and scantily clad,-Tillie nevertheless grew up in a world apart, hidden to the sealed vision of those about her; as unknown to them in her real life as though they had never looked upon her face; and while her father never for an instant doubted the girl's entire submission to him, she was day by day waxing stronger in her resolve to heed Miss Margaret's constant advice and make a fight for her right to the education her father had denied her, and for a life other than that to which his will would consign her.

There were dark times when her steadfast purpose seemed impossible of fulfilment. But Tillie felt she would rather die in the struggle than become the sort of apathetic household drudge she beheld in her stepmother-a condition into which it would be so easy to sink, once she loosed her wagon from its star.

It was when Tillie was seventeen years old-a slight, frail girl, with a look in her eyes as of one who lives in two worlds-that Absalom Puntz, one Sunday evening in the fall of the year, saw her safe home from meeting and asked permission to "keep comp'ny" with her.

Now that morning Tillie had received a letter from Miss Margaret (sent to her, as always, under cover to the doctor), and Absalom's company on the way from church was a most unwelcome interruption to her happy brooding over the precious messages of love and helpfulness which those letters always brought her.

A request for permission to "keep comp'ny" with a young lady meant a very definite thing in Canaan Township. "Let's try each other," was what it signified; and acceptance of the proposition involved on each side an exclusion of all association with others of the opposite sex. Tillie of course understood this.

"But you're of the World's people, Absalom," her soft, sweet voice answered him. They were walking along in the dim evening on the high dusty pike toward the Getz farm. "And I'm a member of meeting. I can't marry out of the meeting."

"This long time a'ready, Tillie, I was thinkin' about givin' myself up and turnin' plain," he assured her. "To be sure, I know I'd have to, to git you. You've took notice, ain't you, how reg'lar I 'tend meeting? Well, oncet me and you kin settle this here question of gittin' married, I'm turnin' plain as soon as I otherwise [possibly] kin."

"I have never thought about keeping company, Absalom."

"Nearly all the girls around here as old as you has their friend a'ready."

Absalom was twenty years old, stoutly built and coarse-featured, a deeply ingrained obstinacy being the only characteristic his heavy countenance suggested. He still attended the district school for a few months of the winter term. His father was one of the richest farmers of the neighborhood, and Absalom, being his only child, was considered a matrimonial prize.

"Is there nobody left for you but me?" Tillie inquired in a matter-of-fact tone. The conjugal relation, as she saw it in her father's home and in the neighborhood, with its entirely practical basis and utter absence of sentiment, had no attraction or interest for her, and she had long since made up her mind that she would none of it.

"There ain't much choice," granted Absalom. "But I anyways would pick out you, Tillie."

"Why me?"

"I dunno. I take to you. And I seen a'ready how handy you was at the work still. Mom says, too, you'd make me a good housekeeper."

Tillie never dreamed of resenting this practical approval of her qualifications for the post with which Absalom designed to honor her. It was because of her familiarity with such matrimonial standards as these that from her childhood up she had determined never to marry. From what she gathered of Miss Margaret's married life, through her letters, and from what she learned from the books and magazines which she read, she knew that out in the great unknown world there existed another basis of marriage. But she did not understand it and she never thought about it. The strongly emotional tide of her girlhood, up to this time, had been absorbed by her remarkable love for Miss Margaret and by her earnest religiousness.

"There's no use in your wasting your time keeping company with me, Absalom. I never intend to marry. I've made up my mind."

"Is it that your pop won't leave you, or whatever?"

"I never asked him. I don't know what he would say."

"Mom spoke somepin about mebbe your pop he'd want to keep you at home, you bein' so useful to him and your mom. But I sayed when you come eighteen, you're your own boss. Ain't, Tillie?"

"Father probably would object to my marrying because I'm needed at home," Tillie agreed. "That's why they wouldn't leave me go to school after I was eleven. But I don't want to marry."

"You leave me be your steady friend, Tillie, and I'll soon get you over them views," urged Absalom, confidently.

But Tillie shook her head. "It would just waste your time, Absalom."

In Canaan Township it would have been considered highly dishonorable for a girl to allow a young man to "sit up with her Sundays" if she definitely knew she would never marry him. Time meant money, and even the time spent in courting must be judiciously used.

"I don't mind if I do waste my time settin' up with you Sundays, Tillie. I take to you that much, it's something surprising, now! Will you give me the dare to come next Sunday?"

"If you don't mind wasting your time-" Tillie reluctantly granted.

"It won't be wasted. I'll soon get you to think different to what you think now. You just leave me set up with you a couple Sundays and see!"

"I know I'll never think any different, Absalom. You must not suppose that I will."

"Is it somepin you're got ag'in' me?" he asked incredulously, for he knew he was considered a prize. "I'm well-fixed enough, ain't I? I'd make you a good purvider, Tillie. And I don't addict to no bad habits. I don't chew. Nor I don't drink. Nor I don't swear any. The most I ever sayed when I was spited was 'confound it.'"

"It isn't that I have anything against you, Absalom, especially. But-look here, Absalom, if you were a woman, would YOU marry? What does a woman gain?"

Absalom stared at her in the dusky evening light of the high road. To ask of his slow-moving brain that it question the foundations of the universe and wrestle with a social and psychological problem like this made the poor youth dumb with bewilderment.

"Why SHOULD a woman get married?" Tillie repeated.

"That's what a woman's FUR," Absalom found his tongue to say.

"She loses everything and gains nothing."

"She gets kep'," Absalom argued.

"Like the horses. Only not so carefully. No, thank you, Absalom. I can keep myself."

"I'd keep you better 'n your pop keeps you, anyways, Tillie.

I'd make you a good purvider."

"I won't ever marry," Tillie repeated.

"I didn't know you was so funny," Absalom sullenly answered. "You might be glad I want to be your reg'lar friend."

"No," said Tillie, "I don't care about it."

They walked on in silence for a few minutes. Tillie looked away into the starlit night and thought of Miss Margaret and wished she were alone, that her thoughts might be uninterrupted. Absalom, at her side, kicked up the dust with his heavy shoes, as he sulkily hung his head.

Presently he spoke again.

"Will you leave me come to see you Sundays, still, if I take my chancet that I'm wastin' my time?"

"If you'll leave it that way," Tillie acquiesced, "and not hold me to anything."

"All right. Only you won't leave no one else set up with you, ain't not?"

"There isn't any one else."

"But some chance time another feller might turn up oncet that wants to keep comp'ny with you too."

"I won't promise anything, Absalom. If you want to come Sundays to see me and the folks, you can. That's all I'll say."

"I never seen such a funny girl as what you are!" growled Absalom.

Tillie made no reply, and again they went on in silence.

"Say!" It was Absalom who finally spoke.

Tillie's absent, dreamy gaze came down from the stars and rested upon his heavy, dull face.

"Ezra Herr he's resigned William Penn. He's gettin' more pay at Abra'm Lincoln in Janewille. It comes unhandy, his leavin', now the term's just started and most all the applicants took a'ready. Pop he got a letter from in there at Lancaster off of Superintendent Reingruber and he's sendin' us a applicant out till next Saturday three weeks-fur the directors to see oncet if he'll do."

Absalom's father was secretary of the Board, and Mr. Getz was the treasurer.

"Pop he's goin' over to see your pop about it till to-morrow evenin' a'ready if he can make it suit."

"When does Ezra go?" Tillie inquired. The New Mennonite rule which forbade the use of all titles had led to the custom in this neighborhood, so populated with Mennonites, of calling each one by his Christian name.

"Till next Friday three weeks," Absalom replied. "Pop says he don't know what to think about this here man Superintendent Reingruber's sendin' out. He ain't no Millersville Normal. The superintendent says he's a 'Harvard gradyate'-whatever that is, pop says! Pop he sayed it ain't familiar with him what that there is. And I guess the other directors don't know neither. Pop he sayed when we're payin' as much as forty dollars a month we had ought, now, to have a Millersville Normal, and nothin' less. Who wants to pay forty dollars a month fur such a Harvard gradyate that we don't know right what it is."

"What pay will Ezra get at Janeville?" Tillie asked. Her heart beat fast as she thought how SHE might, perhaps, in another year be the applicant for a vacancy at William Penn.

"Around forty-five dollars," Absalom answered.

"Oh!" Tillie said; "it seems so much, don't it?"

"Fur settin' and doin' nothin' but hearin' off spellin' and readin' and whatever, it's too much! Pop says he's goin' to ast your pop and the rest of the Board if they hadn't ought to ast this here Harvard gradyate to take a couple dollars less, seein' he ain't no Millersville Normal."

They had by this time reached the farm, and Tillie, not very warmly, asked Absalom whether he would "come in and sit awhile." She almost sighed audibly as he eagerly consented.

When he had left at twelve o'clock that night, she softly climbed the stairs to her room, careful not to disturb the sleeping household. Tillie wondered why it was that every girl of her acquaintance exulted in being asked to keep company with a gentleman friend. She had found "sitting up" a more fatiguing task than even the dreaded Monday's washing which would confront her on the morrow.

"Seein' it's the first time me and you set up together, I mebbe better not stay just so late," Absalom had explained when, after three hours' courting, he had reluctantly risen to take his leave, under the firm conviction, as Tillie plainly saw, that she felt as sorry to have him go as evidently he was to part from her!

"How late," thought Tillie, "will he stay the SECOND time he sits up with me? And what," she wondered, "do other girls see in it?"

The following Sunday night, Absalom came again, and this time he stayed until one o'clock, with the result that on the following Monday morning Tillie overslept herself and was one hour late in starting the washing.

It was that evening, after supper, while Mrs. Getz was helping her husband make his toilet for a meeting of the School Board-at which the application of that suspicious character, the Harvard graduate, was to be considered-that the husband and wife discussed these significant Sunday night visits. Mrs. Getz opened up the subject while she performed the wifely office of washing her husband's neck, his increasing bulk making that duty a rather difficult one for him. Standing over him as he sat in a chair in the kitchen, holding on his knees a tin basin full of soapy water, she scrubbed his fat, sunburned neck with all the vigor and enthusiasm that she would have applied to the cleaning of the kitchen porch or the scouring of an iron skillet.

A custom prevailed in the county of leaving one's parlor plainly furnished, or entirely empty, until the eldest daughter should come of age; it was then fitted up in style, as a place to which she and her "regular friend" could retire from the eyes of the girl's folks of a Sunday night to do their "setting up." The occasion of a girl's "furnishing" was a notable one, usually celebrated by a party; and it was this fact that led her stepmother to remark presently:

"Say, pop, are you furnishin' fur Tillie, now she's comin' eighteen years old?"

"I ain't thought about it," Mr. Getz answered shortly. "That front room's furnished good enough a'ready. No-I ain't spendin' any!"

"Seein' she's a member and wears plain, it wouldn't cost wery expensive to furnish fur her, fur she hasn't the dare to have nothin' stylish like a organ or gilt-framed landscapes or sich stuffed furniture that way."

"The room's good enough the way it is," repeated Mr. Getz. "I don't see no use spendin' on it."

"It needs new paper and carpet. Pop, it'll get put out if you don't furnish fur her. The neighbors'll talk how you're so close with your own child after she worked fur you so good still. I don't like it so well, pop, havin' the neighbors talk."

"Leave 'em talk. Their talkin' don't cost ME nothin'. I AIN'T furnishin'!" His tone was obstinate and angry.

His wife rubbed him down with a crash towel as vigorously as she had washed him, then fastened his shirt, dipped the family comb in the soapy water and began with artistic care to part and comb his hair.

"Absalom Puntz he's a nice party, pop. He'll be well-fixed till his pop's passed away a'ready."

"You think! Well, now look here, mom!" Mr. Getz spoke with stern decision. "Tillie ain't got the dare to keep comp'ny Sundays! It made her a whole hour late with the washin' this mornin'. I'm tellin' her she's got to tell Absalom Puntz he can't come no more."

Mrs. Getz paused with comb poised in air, and her feeble jaw dropped in astonishment.

"Why, pop!" she said. "Ain't you leavin' Tillie keep comp'ny?"

"No," affirmed Mr. Getz. "I ain't. What does a body go to the bother of raisin' childern FUR? Just to lose 'em as soon as they are growed enough to help earn a little? I ain't LEAVIN' Tillie get married! She's stayin' at home to help her pop and mom-except in winter when they ain't so much work, and mebbe then I'm hirin' her out to Aunty Em at the hotel where she can earn a little, too, to help along. She can easy earn enough to buy the children's winter clo'es and gums and school-books."

"When she comes eighteen, pop, she'll have the right to get married whether or no you'd conceited you wouldn't give her the dare."

"If I say I ain't buyin' her her aus styer, Absalom Puntz nor no other feller would take her."

An "aus styer" is the household outfit always given to a bride by her father.

"Well, to be sure," granted Mrs. Getz, "I'd like keepin' Tillie home to help me out with the work still. I didn't see how I was ever goin' to get through without her. But I thought when Absalom Puntz begin to come Sundays, certainly you'd be fur her havin' him. I was sayin' to her only this mornin' that if she didn't want to dishearten Absalom from comin' to set up with her, she'd have to take more notice to him and not act so dopplig with him-like as if she didn't care whether or no he made up to her. I tole her I'd think, now, she'd be wonderful pleased at his wantin' her, and him so well-fixed. Certainly I never conceited you'd be ag'in' it. Tillie she didn't answer nothin'. Sometimes I do now think Tillie's some different to what other girls is."

"I'd be glad," said Jacob Getz in a milder tone, "if she ain't set on havin' him. I was some oneasy she might take it a little hard when I tole her she darsent get married."

"Och, Tillie she never takes nothin' hard," Mrs. Getz answered easily. "She ain't never ast me you goin' to furnish fur her. She don't take no interest. She's so funny that way. I think to myself, still, Tillie is, now, a little dumm!"

It happened that while this dialogue was taking place, Tillie was in the room above the kitchen, putting the two most recently arrived Getz babies to bed; and as she sat near the open register with a baby on her lap, every word that passed between her father and stepmother was perfectly audible to her.

With growing bitterness she listened to her father's frank avowal of his selfish designs. At the same time she felt a thrill of exultation, as she thought of the cherished secret locked in her breast-hidden the more securely from those with whom she seemed to live nearest. How amazed they would be, her stolid, unsuspicious parents, when they discovered that she had been secretly studying and, with Miss Margaret's help, preparing herself for the high calling of a teacher! One more year, now, and she would be ready, Miss Margaret assured her, to take the county superintendent's examination for a certificate to teach. Then good-by to household drudgery and the perpetual self-sacrifice that robbed her of all that was worth while in life.

With a serene mind, Tillie rose, with the youngest baby in her arms, and tenderly tucked it in its little bed.

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