Chapter VII
 
The harder Tom tried to fasten his mind on his book, the more his ideas
wandered. So at last, with a sigh and a yawn, he gave it up. It seemed to
him that the noon recess would never come. The air was utterly dead. There
was not a breath stirring. It was the sleepiest of sleepy days. The
drowsing murmur of the five and twenty studying scholars soothed the soul
like the spell that is in the murmur of bees. Away off in the flaming
sunshine, Cardiff Hill lifted its soft green sides through a shimmering
veil of heat, tinted with the purple of distance; a few birds floated on
lazy wing high in the air; no other living thing was visible but some
cows, and they were asleep. Tom's heart ached to be free, or else to have
something of interest to do to pass the dreary time. His hand wandered
into his pocket and his face lit up with a glow of gratitude that was
prayer, though he did not know it. Then furtively the percussion-cap box
came out. He released the tick and put him on the long flat desk. The
creature probably glowed with a gratitude that amounted to prayer, too, at
this moment, but it was premature: for when he started thankfully to
travel off, Tom turned him aside with a pin and made him take a new
direction.
Tom's bosom friend sat next him, suffering just as Tom had been, and
now he was deeply and gratefully interested in this entertainment in an
instant. This bosom friend was Joe Harper. The two boys were sworn friends
all the week, and embattled enemies on Saturdays. Joe took a pin out of
his lapel and began to assist in exercising the prisoner. The sport grew
in interest momently. Soon Tom said that they were interfering with each
other, and neither getting the fullest benefit of the tick. So he put
Joe's slate on the desk and drew a line down the middle of it from top to
botTom.
"Now," said he, "as long as he is on your side you can stir him up and
I'll let him alone; but if you let him get away and get on my side, you're
to leave him alone as long as I can keep him from crossing over."
"All right, go ahead; start him up."
The tick escaped from Tom, presently, and crossed the equator. Joe
harassed him awhile, and then he got away and crossed back again. This
change of base occurred often. While one boy was worrying the tick with
absorbing interest, the other would look on with interest as strong, the
two heads bowed together over the slate, and the two souls dead to all
things else. At last luck seemed to settle and abide with Joe. The tick
tried this, that, and the other course, and got as excited and as anxious
as the boys themselves, but time and again just as he would have victory
in his very grasp, so to speak, and Tom's fingers would be twitching to
begin, Joe's pin would deftly head him off, and keep possession. At last
Tom could stand it no longer. The temptation was too strong. So he reached
out and lent a hand with his pin. Joe was angry in a moment. Said he:
"Tom, you let him alone."
"I only just want to stir him up a little, Joe."
"No, sir, it ain't fair; you just let him alone."
"Blame it, I ain't going to stir him much."
"Let him alone, I tell you."
"I won't!"
"You shall-he's on my side of the line."
"Look here, Joe Harper, whose is that tick?"
"I don't care whose tick he is-he's on my side of the line, and you
sha'n't touch him."
"Well, I'll just bet I will, though. He's my tick and I'll do what I
blame please with him, or die!"
A tremendous whack came down on Tom's shoulders, and its duplicate on
Joe's; and for the space of two minutes the dust continued to fly from the
two jackets and the whole school to enjoy it. The boys had been too
absorbed to notice the hush that had stolen upon the school awhile before
when the master came tiptoeing down the room and stood over them. He had
contemplated a good part of the performance before he contributed his bit
of variety to it.
When school broke up at noon, Tom flew to Becky Thatcher, and whispered
in her ear:
"Put on your bonnet and let on you're going home; and when you get to
the corner, give the rest of 'em the slip, and turn down through the lane
and come back. I'll go the other way and come it over 'em the same way."
So the one went off with one group of scholars, and the other with
another. In a little while the two met at the botTom of the lane, and when
they reached the school they had it all to themselves. Then they sat
together, with a slate before them, and Tom gave Becky the pencil and held
her hand in his, guiding it, and so created another surprising house. When
the interest in art began to wane, the two fell to talking. Tom was
swimming in bliss. He said:
"Do you love rats?"
"No! I hate them!"
"Well, I do, too-LIVE ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing round your
head with a string."
"No, I don't care for rats much, anyway. What I like is chewing-gum."
"Oh, I should say so! I wish I had some now."
"Do you? I've got some. I'll let you chew it awhile, but you must give
it back to me."
That was agreeable, so they chewed it turn about, and dangled their
legs against the bench in excess of contentment.
"Was you ever at a circus?" said Tom.
"Yes, and my pa's going to take me again some time, if I'm good."
"I been to the circus three or four times-lots of times. Church ain't
shucks to a circus. There's things going on at a circus all the time. I'm
going to be a clown in a circus when I grow up."
"Oh, are you! That will be nice. They're so lovely, all spotted up."
"Yes, that's so. And they get slathers of money-most a dollar a day,
Ben Rogers says. Say, Becky, was you ever engaged?"
"What's that?"
"Why, engaged to be married."
"No."
"Would you like to?"
"I reckon so. I don't know. What is it like?"
"Like? Why it ain't like anything. You only just tell a boy you won't
ever have anybody but him, ever ever ever, and then you kiss and that's
all. Anybody can do it."
"Kiss? What do you kiss for?"
"Why, that, you know, is to-well, they always do that."
"Everybody?"
"Why, yes, everybody that's in love with each other. Do you remember
what I wrote on the slate?"
"Ye-yes."
"What was it?"
"I sha'n't tell you."
"Shall I tell YOU?"
"Ye-yes-but some other time."
"No, now."
"No, not now-to-morrow."
"Oh, no, NOW. Please, Becky-I'll whisper it, I'll whisper it ever so
easy."
Becky hesitating, Tom took silence for consent, and passed his arm
about her waist and whispered the tale ever so softly, with his mouth
close to her ear. And then he added:
"Now you whisper it to me-just the same."
She resisted, for a while, and then said:
"You turn your face away so you can't see, and then I will. But you
mustn't ever tell anybody-WILL you, Tom? Now you won't, WILL you?"
"No, indeed, indeed I won't. Now, Becky."
He turned his face away. She bent timidly around till her breath
stirred his curls and whispered, "I-love-you!"
Then she sprang away and ran around and around the desks and benches,
with Tom after her, and took refuge in a corner at last, with her little
white apron to her face. Tom clasped her about her neck and pleaded:
"Now, Becky, it's all done-all over but the kiss. Don't you be afraid
of that-it ain't anything at all. Please, Becky." And he tugged at her
apron and the hands.
By and by she gave up, and let her hands drop; her face, all glowing
with the struggle, came up and submitted. Tom kissed the red lips and
said:
"Now it's all done, Becky. And always after this, you know, you ain't
ever to love anybody but me, and you ain't ever to marry anybody but me,
ever never and forever. Will you?"
"No, I'll never love anybody but you, Tom, and I'll never marry anybody
but you-and you ain't to ever marry anybody but me, either."
"Certainly. Of course. That's PART of it. And always coming to school
or when we're going home, you're to walk with me, when there ain't anybody
looking-and you choose me and I choose you at parties, because that's the
way you do when you're engaged."
"It's so nice. I never heard of it before."
"Oh, it's ever so gay! Why, me and Amy Lawrence-"
The big eyes told Tom his blunder and he stopped, confused.
"Oh, Tom! Then I ain't the first you've ever been engaged to!"
The child began to cry. Tom said:
"Oh, don't cry, Becky, I don't care for her any more."
"Yes, you do, Tom-you know you do."
Tom tried to put his arm about her neck, but she pushed him away and
turned her face to the wall, and went on crying. Tom tried again, with
soothing words in his mouth, and was repulsed again. Then his pride was
up, and he strode away and went outside. He stood about, restless and
uneasy, for a while, glancing at the door, every now and then, hoping she
would repent and come to find him. But she did not. Then he began to feel
badly and fear that he was in the wrong. It was a hard struggle with him
to make new advances, now, but he nerved himself to it and entered. She
was still standing back there in the corner, sobbing, with her face to the
wall. Tom's heart smote him. He went to her and stood a moment, not
knowing exactly how to proceed. Then he said hesitatingly:
"Becky, I-I don't care for anybody but you."
No reply-but sobs.
"Becky"-pleadingly. "Becky, won't you say something?"
More sobs.
Tom got out his chiefest jewel, a brass knob from the top of an
andiron, and passed it around her so that she could see it, and said:
"Please, Becky, won't you take it?"
She struck it to the floor. Then Tom marched out of the house and over
the hills and far away, to return to school no more that day. Presently
Becky began to suspect. She ran to the door; he was not in sight; she flew
around to the play-yard; he was not there. Then she called:
"Tom! Come back, Tom!"
She listened intently, but there was no answer. She had no companions
but silence and loneliness. So she sat down to cry again and upbraid
herself; and by this time the scholars began to gather again, and she had
to hide her griefs and still her broken heart and take up the cross of a
long, dreary, aching afternoon, with none among the strangers about her to
exchange sorrows with.