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- Tillie: A Mennonite Maid - 2/48 -
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:
"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.
"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
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