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- Tillie: A Mennonite Maid - 30/48 -
"Tut, tut, Absalom, this is quite enough. Behave yourself, or I shall be obliged to hurt you."
"YOU--you white-faced, woman-faced mackerel! YOU think you kin hurt me! You--"
"Now then," Fairchilds again dropped Absalom's hands and picked up from the settee the book which the youth had presented to Tillie. "Here, Absalom, take your 'What a Young Husband Ought to Know' and go home."
Something in the teacher's quiet, confident tone cowed Absalom completely--for the time being, at least. He was conquered. It was very bewildering. The man before him was not half his weight and was not in the least ruffled. How had he so easily "licked" him? Absalom, by reason of his stalwart physique and the fact that his father was a director, had, during most of his school life, found pleasing diversion in keeping the various teachers of William Penn cowed before him. He now saw his supremacy in that quarter at an end--physically speaking at least. There might be a moral point of attack.
"Look-ahere!" he blustered. "Do you know my pop's Nathaniel Puntz, the director?"
"You are a credit to him, Absalom. By the way, will you take a message to him from me? Tell him, please, that the lock on the school-room door is broken, and I'd be greatly obliged if he would send up a lock-smith to mend it."
Absalom looked discouraged. A Harvard graduate was, manifestly, a freak of nature--invulnerable at all points.
"If pop gets down on you, you won't be long at William Penn!" he bullied. "You'll soon get chased off your job!"
"My job at breaking you in? Well, well, I might be spending my time more profitably, that's so."
"You go on out of here and le' me alone with my girl!" quavered Absalom, blinking away tears of rage.
"That will be as she says. How is it, Miss Tillie? Do you want him to go?"
Now Tillie knew that if she allowed Absalom Puntz to leave her in his present state of baffled anger, Fairchilds would not remain in New Canaan a month. Absalom was his father's only child, and Nathaniel Puntz was known to be both suspicious and vindictive. "Clothed in a little brief authority," as school director, he never missed an opportunity to wield his precious power.
With quick insight, Tillie realized that the teacher would think meanly of her if, after her outcry at Absalom's amorous benavior, she now inconsistently ask that he remain with her for the rest of the evening. But what the teacher might think about HER did not matter so much as that he should be saved from the wrath of Absalom.
"Please leave him stay," she answered in a low voice.
Fairchilds gazed in surprise upon the girl's sweet, troubled face. "Let him stay?"
"Then perhaps my interference was unwelcome?"
"I thank you, but--I want him to stay."
"Yes? I beg pardon for my intrusion. Good night."
He turned away somewhat abruptly and left the room.
And Tillie was again alone with Absalom.
IN his chamber, getting ready for bed, Fairchilds's thoughts idly dwelt upon the strange contradictions he seemed to see in the character of the little Mennonite maiden. He had thought that he recognized in her a difference from the rest of this household--a difference in speech, in feature, in countenance, in her whole personality. And yet she could allow the amorous attentions of that coarse, stupid cub; and her protestations against the fellow's liberties with her had been mere coquetry. Well, he would be careful, another time, how he played the part of a Don Quixote.
Meantime Tillie, with suddenly developed histrionic skill, was, by a Spartan self-sacrifice in submitting to Absalom's love-making, overcoming his wrath against the teacher. Absalom never suspected how he was being played upon, or what a mere tool he was in the hands of this gentle little girl, when, somewhat to his own surprise, he found himself half promising that the teacher should not be complained of to his father. The infinite tact and scheming it required on Tillie's part to elicit this assurance without further arousing his jealousy left her, at the end of his prolonged sitting-up, utterly exhausted.
Yet when at last her weary head found her pillow, it was not to rest or sleep. A haunting, fearful certainty possessed her. "Dumm" as he was, Absalom, in his invulnerable persistency, had become to the tired, tortured girl simply an irresistible force of Nature. And Tillie felt that, struggle as she might against him, there would come a day when she could fight no longer, and so at last she must fall a victim to this incarnation of Dutch determination.
TILLIE REVEALS HERSELF
In the next few days, Tillie tried in vain to summon courage to appeal to the teacher for assistance in her winter's study. Day after day she resolved to speak to him, and as often postponed it, unable to conquer her shyness. Meantime, however, under the stimulus of his constant presence, she applied herself in every spare moment to the school-books used by her two cousins, and in this unaided work she succeeded, as usual, in making headway.
Fairehilds's attention was arrested by the frequent picture of the little Mennonite maiden conning school-books by lamp-light.
One evening he happened to be alone with her for a few minutes in the sitting-room. It was Hallowe'en, and he was waiting for Amanda to come down from her room, where she was arraying herself for conquest at a party in the village, to which he had been invited to escort her.
"Studying all alone?" he inquired sociably, coming to the table where Tillie sat. and looking down upon her.
"Yes," said Tillie, raising her eyes for an instant.
"May I see!"
He bent to look at her book, pressing it open with his palm, and the movement brought his hand in contact with hers. Tillie felt for an instant as if she were going to swoon, so strangely delicious was the shock.
"'Hiawatha,'" he said, all unconscious of the tempest in the little soul apparently so close to him, yet in reality so immeasurably far away. "Do you enjoy it?" he inquired curiously.
"Oh, yes"; then quickly she added, "I am parsing it."
"Oh!" There was a faint disappointment in his tone.
"But," she confessed, "I read it all through the first day I began to parse it, and--and I wish I was parsing something else, because I keep reading this instead of parsing it, and--"
"You enjoy the story and the poetry?" he questioned.
"But a body mustn't read just for pleasure," she said timidly; "but for instruction; and this 'Hiawatha' is a temptation to me."
"What makes you think you ought not to read 'just for pleasure'?"
"That would be a vanity. And we Mennonites are loosed from the things of the world."
"Do you never do anything just for the pleasure of it?"
"When pleasure and duty go hand in hand, then pleasure is not displeasing to God. But Christ, you know, did not go about seeking pleasure. And we try to follow him in all things."
"But, child, has not God made the world beautiful for our pleasure? Has he not given us appetites and passions for our pleasure?--minds and hearts and bodies constructed for pleasure?"
"Has he made anything for pleasure apart from usefulness?" Tillie asked earnestly, suddenly forgetting her shyness.
"But when a thing gives pleasure it is serving the highest possible use," he insisted. "It is blasphemous to close your nature to the pleasures God has created for you. Blasphemous!"
"Those thoughts have come to me still," said Tillie. "But I know they were sent to me by the Enemy."
"The Enemy of our souls."
"Oh!" he nodded; then abruptly added, "Now do you know, little girl, I wouldn't let HIM bother me at this stage of the game, if I were you! He's a back number, really!" He checked himself, remembering how dangerous such heresies were in New Canaan. "Don't you find it dull working alone?" he asked hastily, "and rather uphill?"
"It is often very hard."
"Often? Then you have been doing it for some time?"
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