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- Tillie: A Mennonite Maid - 4/48 -
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?"
"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.
"WHAT'S HURTIN' YOU, TILLIE?"
She meant to make her confession as soon as she reached the school-house--and have it over--but Miss Margaret was busy writing on the blackboard, and Tillie felt an immense relief at the necessary postponement of her ordeal to recess time.
The hours of that morning were very long to her heavy heart, and the minutes dragged to the time of her doom--for nothing but blackness lay beyond the point of the acknowledgment which must turn her teacher's fondness to dislike.
She saw Miss Margaret's eyes upon her several times during the morning, with that look of anxious concern which had so often fed her starved affections. Yes, Miss Margaret evidently could see that she was in trouble and she was feeling sorry for her. But, alas, when she should learn the cause of her misery, how surely would that look turn to coldness and displeasure!
Tillie felt that she was ill preparing the way for her dread confession in the very bad recitations she made all morning. She failed in geography--every question that came to her; she failed to understand Miss Margaret's explanation of compound interest, though the explanation was gone over a third time for her especial benefit; she missed five words in spelling and two questions in United States history!
"Tillie, Tillie!" Miss Margaret solemnly shook her head, as she closed her book at the end of the last recitation before recess. "Too much 'Ivanhoe,' I'm afraid! Well, it's my fault, isn't it?"
The little girl's blue eyes gazed up at her with a look of such anguish, that impulsively Miss Margaret drew her to her side, as the rest of the class moved away to their seats.
"What's the matter, dear?" she asked. "Aren't you well? You look pale and ill! What is it, Tillie?"
Tillie's overwrought heart could bear no more. Her head fell on Miss Margaret's shoulder as she broke into wildest crying. Her body quivered with her gasping sobs and her little hands clutched convulsively at Miss Margaret's gown.
"You poor little thing!" whispered Miss Margaret, her arms about the child; "WHAT'S the matter with you, honey? There, there, don't cry so--tell me what's the matter."
It was such bliss to be petted like this--to feel Miss Margaret's arms about her and hear that loved voice so close to her!--for the last time! Never again after this moment would she be liked and caressed! Her heart was breaking and she could not answer for her sobbing.
"Tillie, dear, sit down here in my chair until I send the other children out to recess--and then you and I can have a talk by ourselves, "Miss Margaret said, leading the child a step to her arm-chair on the platform. She stood beside the chair, holding Tillie's throbbing head to her side, while she tapped the bell which dismissed the children.
"Now," she said, when the door had closed on the last of them and she had seated herself and drawn Tillie to her again, "tell me what you are crying for, little girlie."
"Miss Margaret!" Tillie's words came in hysterical, choking gasps; "you won't never like me no more when I tell you what's happened, Miss Margaret!"
"Why, dear me, Tillie, what on earth is it?"
"I didn't mean to do it, Miss Margaret! And I'll redd up for you, Fridays, still, till it's paid for a'ready, Miss Margaret, if you'll leave me, won't you, please? Oh, won't you never like me no more?"
"My dear little goosie, what IS the matter with you? Come," she said, taking the little girl's hand reassuringly in both her own, "tell me, child."
A certain note of firmness in her usually drawling Southern voice checked a little the child's hysterical emotion. She gulped the choking lump in her throat and answered.
"I was readin' 'Ivanhoe' in bed last night, and pop woke up, and seen my candle-light, and he conceited he'd look once and see what it was, and then he seen me, and he don't uphold to novel-readin', and he--he--"
"Well?" Miss Margaret gently urged her faltering speech.
"He whipped me and--and burnt up your Book!"
"Whipped you again!" Miss Margaret's soft voice indignantly exclaimed. "The br--" she checked herself and virtuously closed her lips. "I'm so sorry, Tillie, that I got you into such a scrape!"
Tillie thought Miss Margaret could not have heard her clearly.
"He--burnt up your book yet, Miss Margaret!" she found voice to whisper again.
"Indeed! I ought to make him pay for it!"
"He didn't know it was yourn, Miss Margaret--he don't uphold to
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