THERE was something about Aunt Polly’s manner, when she kissed Tom, that swept away his low spirits and made him lighthearted and happy again. He started to school and had the luck of coming upon Becky Thatcher at the head of Meadow Lane. His mood always determined his manner. Without a moment’s hesitation he ran to her and said:
“I acted mighty mean today, Becky, and I’m so sorry. I won’t ever, ever do that way again, as long as ever I live—please make up, won’t you?”
The girl stopped and looked him scornfully in the face:
“I’ll thank you to keep yourself to yourself, Mr. Thomas Sawyer. I’ll never speak to you again.”
She tossed her head and passed on. Tom was so stunned that he had not even presence of mind enough to say “Who cares, Miss Smarty?” until the right time to say it had gone by. So he said nothing. But he was in a fine rage, nevertheless. He moped into the schoolyard wishing she were a boy, and imagining how he would trounce her if she were. He presently encountered her and delivered a stinging remark as he passed. She hurled one in return, and the angry breach was complete. It seemed to Becky, in her hot resentment, that she could hardly wait for school to “take in,” she was so impatient to see Tom flogged for the injured spelling-book. If she had had any lingering notion of exposing Alfred Temple, Tom’s offensive fling had driven it entirely away.
Poor girl, she did not know how fast she was nearing trouble herself. The master, Mr. Dobbins, had reached middle age with an unsatisfied ambition. The darling of his desires was, to be a doctor, but poverty had decreed that he should be nothing higher than a village schoolmaster. Every day he took a mysterious book out of his desk and absorbed himself in it at times when no classes were reciting. He kept that book under lock and key. There was not an urchin in school but was perishing to have a glimpse of it, but the chance never came. Every boy and girl had a theory about the nature of that book; but no two theories were alike, and there was no way of getting at the facts in the case. Now, as Becky was passing by the desk, which stood near the door, she noticed that the key was in the lock! It was a precious moment. She glanced around; found herself alone, and the next instant she had the book in her hands. The titlepage—Professor Somebody’s Anatomy—carried no information to her mind; so she began to turn the leaves. She came at once upon a handsomely engraved and colored frontispiece—a human figure, stark naked. At that moment a shadow fell on the page and Tom Sawyer stepped in at the door and caught a glimpse of the picture. Becky snatched at the book to close it, and had the hard luck to tear the pictured page half down the middle. She thrust the volume into the desk, turned the key, and burst out crying with shame and vexation.
“Tom Sawyer, you are just as mean as you can be, to sneak up on a person and look at what they’re looking at.”
“How could I know you was looking at anything?”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Tom Sawyer; you know you’re going to tell on me, and oh, what shall I do, what shall I do! I’ll be whipped, and I never was whipped in school.”
Then she stamped her little foot and said:
“Be so mean if you want to! I know something that’s going to happen. You just wait and you’ll see! Hateful, hateful, hateful!”—and she flung out of the house with a new explosion of crying.
Tom stood still, rather flustered by this onslaught. Presently he said to himself:
“What a curious kind of a fool a girl is! Never been licked in school! Shucks! What’s a licking! That’s just like a girl—they’re so thin-skinned and chicken-hearted. Well, of course I ain’t going to tell old Dobbins on this little fool, because there’s other ways of getting even on her, that ain’t so mean; but what of it? Old Dobbins will ask who it was tore his book. Nobody’ll answer. Then he’ll do just the way he always does—ask first one and then t’other, and when he comes to the right girl he’ll know it, without any telling. Girls’ faces always tell on them. They ain’t got any backbone. She’ll get licked. Well, it’s a kind of a tight place for Becky Thatcher, because there ain’t any way out of it.” Tom conned the thing a moment longer, and then added: “All right, though; she’d like to see me in just such a fix—let her sweat it out!”
Tom joined the mob of skylarking scholars outside. In a few moments the master arrived and school “took in.” Tom did not feel a strong interest in his studies. Every time he stole a glance at the girls’ side of the room Becky’s face troubled him. Considering all things, he did not want to pity her, and yet it was all he could do to help it. He could get up no exultation that was really worthy the name. Presently the spelling-book discovery was made, and Tom’s mind was entirely full of his own matters for a while after that. Becky roused up from her lethargy of distress and showed good interest in the proceedings. She did not expect that Tom could get out of his trouble by denying that he spilt the ink on the book himself; and she was right. The denial only seemed to make the thing worse for Tom. Becky supposed she would be glad of that, and she tried to believe she was glad of it, but she found she was not certain. When the worst came to the worst, she had an impulse to get up and tell on Alfred Temple, but she made an effort and forced herself to keep still—because, said she to herself, “he’ll tell about me tearing the picture sure. I wouldn’t say a word, not to save his life!”
Tom took his whipping and went back to his seat not at all broken-hearted, for he thought it was possible that he had unknowingly upset the ink on the spelling-book himself, in some skylarking bout—he had denied it for form’s sake and because it was custom, and had stuck to the denial from principle.
A whole hour drifted by, the master sat nodding in his throne, the air was drowsy with the hum of study. By and by, Mr. Dobbins straightened himself up, yawned, then unlocked his desk, and reached for his book, but seemed undecided whether to take it out or leave it. Most of the pupils glanced up languidly, but there were two among them that watched his movements with intent eyes. Mr. Dobbins fingered his book absently for a while, then took it out and settled himself in his chair to read! Tom shot a glance at Becky. He had seen a hunted and helpless rabbit look as she did, with a gun levelled at its head. Instantly he forgot his quarrel with her. Quick—something must be done! done in a flash, too! But the very imminence of the emergency paralyzed his invention. Good!—he had an inspiration! He would run and snatch the book, spring through the door and fly. But his resolution shook for one little instant, and the chance was lost—the master opened the volume. If Tom only had the wasted opportunity back again! Too late. There was no help for Becky now, he said. The next moment the master faced the school. Every eye sank under his gaze. There was that in it which smote even the innocent with fear. There was silence while one might count ten—the master was gathering his wrath. Then he spoke: “Who tore this book?”
There was not a sound. One could have heard a pin drop. The stillness continued; the master searched face after face for signs of guilt.
“Benjamin Rogers, did you tear this book?”
A denial. Another pause.
“Joseph Harper, did you?”
Another denial. Tom’s uneasiness grew more and more intense under the slow torture of these proceedings. The master scanned the ranks of boys—considered a while, then turned to the girls:
A shake of the head.
The same sign.
“Susan Harper, did you do this?”
Another negative. The next girl was Becky Thatcher. Tom was trembling from head to foot with excitement and a sense of the hopelessness of the situation.
“Rebecca Thatcher” [Tom glanced at her face—it was white with terror]—”did you tear—no, look me in the face” [her hands rose in appeal]—”did you tear this book?”
A thought shot like lightning through Tom’s brain. He sprang to his feet and shouted—”I done it!”
The school stared in perplexity at this incredible folly. Tom stood a moment, to gather his dismembered faculties; and when he stepped forward to go to his punishment the surprise, the gratitude, the adoration that shone upon him out of poor Becky’s eyes seemed pay enough for a hundred floggings. Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.
Tom went to bed that night planning vengeance against Alfred Temple; for with shame and repentance Becky had told him all, not forgetting her own treachery; but even the longing for vengeance had to give way, soon, to pleasanter musings, and he fell asleep at last with Becky’s latest words lingering dreamily in his ear—
“Tom, how could you be so noble!”