Tillie’s Theatre – Keira K. Barton

T he walls of Madam Wiggie’s plush office seemed to be shrinking in around Tillie Thompson. She shifted in the large cushioned chair she was sitting in, as it suddenly felt very uncomfortable. “So, are you saying I’m not welcome here anymore?” Tillie hoped she didn’t sound ungrateful. She’d die if Madam Wiggie ever thought she took her time at the orphanage for granted, but she wasn’t exactly happy. “I would never say it so harshly, but I suppose that’s what it comes down to. The time I have to take care of you girls is expiring. Quickly. You are all at an age where moving on from the Wigg School and Foundling Home is the logical next step. Please, don’t think I’m forcing you out.” Tillie looked down at her hands, unable to meet the eyes of the woman she’d come to love so dearly over the years. This is why Abigail had gone. Tillie never would have suspected that Wiggie had suggested Abigail leave—she was a pillar of leadership at this school, but apparently pillars were easily replaced in Wiggie’s eyes. Wiggie folded her hands and placed them on the desk that sat between them as she leaned forward to look into Tillie’s eyes, her gaze softening a bit. “You’ve always been special to me, Tillie. You came so much later than the other girls around your age, and you were the missing link in our alphabet.

I named each baby girl who was brought to our doors during those first few years with such care, and then when we lost Tabitha so young, I thought nothing would ever fill that void. A few years later, you showed up on that August afternoon like the missing piece to our puzzle—gone for years, yet turned up when we rearranged the furniture.” Tillie’s heart ached for the pain Madam Wiggie and all the other girls had surely felt at Tabitha’s passing, especially because the girl had been so young, but she wasn’t derailed by Wiggie’s attempt to make her feel special. Maybe she was special to her, but that wasn’t the point. “What do you mean, your time is expiring? Are you sick?” Wiggie immediately looked away. “I said what I meant, Tillie. My time is expiring. It’s time for you to go out and start your own life.” Tillie didn’t feel satisfied with that answer, but she wasn’t going to push the issue further. She took satisfaction in leaving things unresolved. Sometimes it was better than being right. If she got to the bottom of every issue, if she always proved her point, people would easily forget about her. However, if she let them wonder how much she knew, if she let them have the last word when they were expecting her to retaliate, she was sure they would think about her and their conversation long after it was over. She was quite sure Wiggie had the best intentions, but it didn’t change the fact that this abrupt request for her to leave carried the sting of betrayal. This was her home.

Wasn’t it? “Come now, don’t look so glum. I’m not suggesting you do this without my help. I have a plan to ensure that you all have a successful start out in the ‘real’ world.” Wiggie pulled out one of her desk drawers and reached in, extracting a folder. “This,” she said as she opened the folder to reveal pages of newspaper clippings, which she laid on the table facing Tillie, “is a catalog of sorts. I’ve been collecting The Bride’s Bulletin for quite a while now. It turns out there are great numbers of men on the frontier, but not very many marriageable women. And, as I mentioned before, there is also an immense need for proper schools.” Madam Wiggie paused for a moment and flipped to the first page in her “catalog,” then turned it around so she could read from it. “I have organized all of the submissions alphabetically—that should be a given,” she chuckled. Tillie wasn’t feeling quite so amused, but she put on a polite face, as always. She’d dreamed of starting her own school for a few years now. Of course, she’d loved teaching at the Wigg School and Foundling Home, but if she was honest with herself, she’d enjoy teaching a more arts-based curriculum. She wholeheartedly agreed with Madam Wigg’s precepts about equal opportunities for children to learn, but she sometimes felt like a second-class teacher because her plays were only the frosting on top of the ‘real’ subjects. “First, we have Arthur Abernathy.

Ooo, he’s handsome. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It looks like he’s a silver miner. Then there’s Benjamin Barnard. No picture for him, but—” Tillie put her hand up. “Listen, Madam Wiggie, I know that you mean well, and I’m truly grateful that you’ve found a way to help us start these much-needed schools out west, but I’m really not in the mood to pick through a book of the most eligible bachelors on the other side of the Mississippi at this very moment.” Wiggie hesitated for a second, as if she was about to say something but then thought better of it. “All right. I understand. My catalog will be here for you to peruse whenever you feel ready. Just know that these bachelors are funding the journeys of the other girls, and providing the money to start the schools where you will teach. They are desperate for love.” Tillie wanted to roll her eyes, but she suppressed the urge. A man, desperate for love? That was a notion that was hard to believe. She’d never had the pleasure of meeting such a man in real life—they only seemed to exist in books and plays.

“I truly appreciate all you’ve done for me, and all of us, Madam Wiggie. I don’t know where I’d be without you, and I guess, in a way, my future still rests in your hands.” Tillie eyed the closed folder the woman was still clutching. “I just need a while to process all of this. I hope you understand.” “Of course, dear. The news was a shock to the rest of the girls as well. I hope you’ll keep our conversation in confidence until I have the chance to talk to the others. I want to be the one to inform the girls of my limitations, and my intentions for their futures.” Tillie stood. “You have my word.” “Then you’re dismissed,” Madam Wiggie said. But when Tillie turned to go, it seemed the woman wasn’t done dishing out advice quite yet. “I should warn you,” she said to Tillie’s back, causing the young woman to pause, “because each girl will be picking out a future groom from the same catalog, you might not want to delay your choice for too long. I’d hate for you to be stuck with whatever’s left at the bottom of the barrel.

” Tillie stiffened. As if I have a choice in this whole scheme at all. She would have never thought she’d be the kind of girl to agree to marry someone before she met them, but her hands were tied—she clearly couldn’t stay here anymore, and with no real savings of her own, this had to be the solution. “Thank you for the warning,” she said without turning around. After the words had left her lips, she continued toward the door, wishing the conversation she’d just had with Madam Wiggie could all be a dream. So many aspects of Tillie’s life had been out of her control. She hadn’t decided to become an orphan at age nine. She hadn’t chosen to be put in the care of Madam Wiggie —although she was thankful that someone had. She hadn’t even chosen her love of theatre—her parents had sort of thrust that on her by allowing her to grow up in one. And now, the sole decision that she’d always dreamed of making for herself, her one show of free will—to choose her love—was being taken away as well. It was almost more than she could bear. “Tillie, are you all right?” The question made Tillie jump. It had come from Vera Mae, the kindest teacher at the school who must also have the quietest walk because Tillie hadn’t heard her coming at all. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?” Tillie knew she was good at hiding her true emotions, and she put on a happy face, hoping that Vera Mae wouldn’t be able to see through it.

“You look distressed. It’s not like you to walk with your head down, or to wring your hands like that,” she said, shifting her gaze to Tillie’s restless movements. Tillie should have known that she couldn’t fool Vera Mae. She was always much more concerned with others than herself, and would notice within seconds if anyone was acting even slightly different. Since Tillie wasn’t sure if Wiggie had talked to Vera Mae yet, she couldn’t say what was really bothering her, so she held her ground. “All is well, really.” Vera Mae looked at her skeptically, but must have decided that it wasn’t worth her time to keep prying. “Well, if you insist. If you need to talk, I’m always here.” Tillie simply nodded in response. Vera Mae was as near perfect as anyone Tillie had ever met, and excluding Rebecca, Sally, and Uma, she was also one of her closest friends. Where were her friends when she needed someone to talk to, anyway? She was sure that at least Rebecca and Sally knew about Madam Wiggie’s plans for them. They had definitely been acting strange for the last few days. And Uma? Well, Uma was always in an uproar about something—whether it was the Morgan dollar or child labor laws—so it was hard to say if she knew yet. Although, Tillie was sure Uma wouldn’t have been able to hide her displeasure about having to leave if she’d been told—no matter how hard she tried, because Uma was the impulsive one, usually blurting out whatever was on her mind, and as a result, causing havoc.

No, Uma probably didn’t know yet. Unless… Was Tillie the only one who was so opposed to an arranged marriage? Maybe the other women were jumping at the chance to become a wife and move out west, even if they would be marrying a stranger. When she got to her room, she was surprised to find it empty. Wanting to talk to someone about the prospect of choosing a groom from a newspaper clipping, Tillie walked over to Rebecca and Sally’s room. She was just about to knock on the door when Sally ripped it open and almost knocked her over in her haste. “Oh! Tillie! You startled me! What are you still doing in here? We’re going to be late for the show. I was halfway down the stairs when I realized I forgot my ticket. Were you on your way down to the carriage?” Of course! How had she forgotten? Her conversation with Wiggie must have pushed everything else out of her mind because she’d been looking forward to seeing The Bohemian Girl for weeks. “Actually, I’d forgotten. Let me retrieve my shawl and my ticket and we can walk down together.” “I can’t believe you forgot!” Sally laughed. “This was all your idea!” “Well, you might believe it after I tell you why,” Tillie said as she walked toward her room. She hoped her suspicions about Sally having talked to Wiggie already were correct, and judging by her friend’s pained expression, they were. “So, you know?” Tillie looked up and down the hall, then grabbed Sally’s hand and pulled her into the room she shared with Uma. It felt funny dragging around someone who was so much taller than her.

“Sally, how have you been dealing with this? It’s horrible,” Tillie said through gritted teeth. “I never thought I was one of those ladies who always had to be in control, but my goodness. I can’t come to terms with putting my entire future in the hands of a man I’ve never met.” Sally looked at her knowingly, and with so much compassion that Tillie almost wanted to cry. “At first, I was angry, and so worried. I mean, what if the man I choose turns out to be a horrible person? What if he’s abusive or controlling? Trust me—I let my mind run through all the possibilities. I guess I finally calmed down when I came up with an exit strategy.” “An exit strategy?” “Yes. Wiggie told you about the grant money, right? After the school is formed with the initial money from your prospective husband, she’ll send a grant to help it along?” Tillie nodded. She’d almost forgotten about that part of their conversation. She’d been so hung up thinking about the pages of The Brides Bulletin in Wiggie’s folder. “Well, if the man turns out to be repulsive, I’ve decided to use the grant money to get away.” “What about the children?” “I know. I’ve thought about the problem of leaving my students, but in order for me to take this chance, there has to be some assurance that I can get out if things end up badly. No matter how hard I try, I can’t think like Rebecca and convince myself that everything will be dandy and I’ll end up with the perfect husband.

I have faith in God too, but I guess it’s just not as strong as hers.” Sally wrapped her arms around her waist. She looked incredibly vulnerable, and Tillie could tell this was difficult for her. “I understand. I don’t think you should beat yourself up because you’re not like Rebecca. Few people are.” By this time, Tillie had found her ticket and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. “Come on. The others are probably wondering where we are.” Sally smiled. “I’m so glad Wiggie finally told you. I’ve been dying to discuss all of this with you, Til. Speaking of dying, do you really think there is something wrong with Wiggie? I’ve been a little worried, but she seems to be fine. Maybe just a bit more tired than usual?” Tillie felt a little guilty that she hadn’t given more thought to Wiggie saying her time was expiring. The woman’s words had been so vague, Tillie didn’t know how to take them.

“I’m not sure what to think, honestly.” “Me neither. I guess there’s no real way to find out until something happens. Wiggie won’t budge when I ask her for details. So, did you pick out a groom?” Sally nudged Tillie playfully, and Tillie was surprised that it caused a smile to erupt on her face. Maybe this would be more fun than she thought. Maybe she could control things more than she’d anticipated in the beginning. “No, I couldn’t bear to look before I’d decided if this was really something I could do. Have you?” “I haven’t either, but I think tomorrow I’m going to ask Wiggie if I can take a look at that folder. Will you come with me?” “Of course! Although, I don’t know if I’ll be ready.” Each of the ladies pushed open one of the double doors of the school’s entrance to reveal a carriage waiting outside. “You don’t have to be—you can look another day if you want. Now, hush up,” Sally said in an urgent whisper. “I don’t think Uma has spoken with Wiggie yet.” * * * Once the women were in their seats, Tillie’s worries eased a bit.

Ever since her parents had passed, she’d felt the closest to them when she was watching people perform on stage, and she’d begged Madam Wiggie to allow her and her friends—Rebecca, Sally, and Uma—to attend the theatre regularly. There were quite a number of people, both spectators and actors, who still remembered her parents, and it always felt a little bit like coming home. A memory flashed through her mind of an encounter she’d had with the director of one of her favorite musicals, Evangeline, a few weeks before. He’d offered her a supporting role in his newest play, and he wasn’t the only director who had done so over the last few years. Maybe I don’t have to get married and move out west. Her heart leaped at the prospect of staying in New York City and performing just as her mother had, but then quickly sank again when she realized that no matter what grand visions she had in her head, she’d never muster up the courage to grace the stage. Each time she convinced herself she could get over her stage fright, she would turn back before she even opened the theatre doors. She could hardly bless the food at super without her voice and hands starting to shake, but when she was teaching the children, all of that fear disappeared. Over the years, she’d helped countless students master their characters—tweaking their performances and showing them how certain scenes should be done. However, if asked to do it in front of a crowd of adults—even just the other teachers—her blood would run cold. She simply couldn’t do it. But maybe I can now, if it means not having to marry a man I’ve never met? Tillie’s whole body shuddered. No. Not even the threat of a marriage of convenience could make her take the stage. Besides, she loved teaching.

Her true passion lay in the shaping of young minds, and empowering the children who were entrusted to her to have more courage than she did. The theatre had saved her sanity after she lost her parents, and continued to be her escape during each new stage of life. There were so many lessons to be learned in each play, so many parallels to hardships most of the children would eventually face as adults, or visions of hope for brighter futures than the current lives they led as orphans. Although, she did hope that the children who attended the Wigg School were happier than most in their same situation. She fingered the ends of her long, dark hair as she thought of all the young, smiling faces she’d seen grace her modest stage for their little productions, and let out a sigh. She wouldn’t give up teaching for performing, even if it would save her from losing her choice about whom she would love. Although, Sally’s idea of an exit strategy had soothed her nerves enough to realize she didn’t have to be as helpless as she looked. She might be tiny, but that didn’t mean she was incapable of shaping her own future.


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Updated: 2 March 2021 — 12:41

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