A Rose of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill
One day it occurred to Leibel that he ought to get married. He went to Sugarman the Shadchan forthwith.
"I have the very thing for you," said the great marriage broker.
"Is she pretty?" asked Leibel.
"Her father has a boot and shoe warehouse," replied Sugarman, enthusiastically.
"Then there ought to be a dowry with her," said Leibel, eagerly.
"Certainly a dowry! A fine man like you!"
"How much do you think it would be?"
"Of course it is not a large warehouse; but then you could get your boots at trade price, and your wife's, perhaps, for the cost of the leather."
"When could I see her?"
"I will arrange for you to call next Sabbath afternoon."
"You won't charge me more than a sovereign?"
"Not a groschen more! Such a pious maiden! I'm sure you will be happy. She has so much way-of-the-country [breeding]. And of course five per cent on the dowry?"
"H'm! Well, I don't mind!" "Perhaps they won't give a dowry," he thought with a consolatory sense of outwitting the Shadchan.
On the Saturday Leibel went to see the damsel, and on the Sunday he went to see Sugarman the Shadchan.
"But your maiden squints!" he cried, resentfully.
"An excellent thing!" said Sugarman. "A wife who squints can never look her husband straight in the face and overwhelm him. Who would quail before a woman with a squint?"
"I could endure the squint," went on Leibel, dubiously, "but she also stammers."
"Well, what is better, in the event of a quarrel? The difficulty she has in talking will keep her far more silent than most wives. You had best secure her while you have the chance."
"But she halts on the left leg," cried Leibel, exasperated.
"Gott in Himmel! Do you mean to say you do not see what an advantage it is to have a wife unable to accompany you in all your goings?"
Leibel lost patience.
"Why, the girl is a hunchback!" he protested, furiously.
"My dear Leibel," said the marriage broker, deprecatingly shrugging his shoulders and spreading out his palms, "you can't expect perfection!"
Nevertheless Leibel persisted in his unreasonable attitude. He accused Sugarman of wasting his time, of making a fool of him.
"A fool of you!" echoed the Shadchan, indignantly, "when I give you a chance of a boot and shoe manufacturer's daughter? You will make a fool of yourself if you refuse. I dare say her dowry would be enough to set you up as a master tailor. At present you are compelled to slave away as a cutter for thirty shillings a week. It is most unjust. If you only had a few machines you would be able to employ your own cutters. And they can be got so cheap nowadays."
This gave Leibel pause, and he departed without having definitely broken the negotiations. His whole week was befogged by doubt, his work became uncertain, his chalk marks lacked their usual decision, and he did not always cut his coat according to his cloth. His aberrations became so marked that pretty Rose Green, the sweater's eldest daughter, who managed a machine in the same room, divined, with all a woman's intuition, that he was in love.
"What is the matter?" she said, in rallying Yiddish, when they were taking their lunch of bread and cheese and ginger-beer amid the clatter of machines, whose serfs had not yet knocked off work.
"They are proposing me a match," he answered, sullenly.
"A match!" ejaculated Rose. "Thou!" She had worked by his side for years, and familiarity bred the second person singular. Leibel nodded his head, and put a mouthful of Dutch cheese into it.
"With whom?" asked Rose. Somehow he felt ashamed. He gurgled the answer into the stone ginger-beer bottle, which he put to his thirsty lips.
"With Leah Volcovitch!"
"Leah Volcovitch!" gasped Rose. "Leah, the boot and shoe manufacturer's daughter?"
Leibel hung his head--he scarce knew why. He did not dare meet her gaze. His droop said "Yes." There was a long pause.
"And why dost thou not have her?" said Rose. It was more than an inquiry; there was contempt in it, and perhaps even pique.
Leibel did not reply. The embarrassing silence reigned again, and reigned long. Rose broke it at last.
"Is it that thou likest me better?" she asked.
Leibel seemed to see a ball of lightning in the air; it burst, and he felt the electric current strike right through his heart. The shock threw his head up with a jerk, so that his eyes gazed into a face whose beauty and tenderness were revealed to him for the first time. The face of his old acquaintance had vanished; this was a cajoling, coquettish, smiling face, suggesting undreamed-of things.
"Nu, yes," he replied, without perceptible pause.
"Nu, good!" she rejoined as quickly.
And in the ecstasy of that moment of mutual understanding Leibel forgot to wonder why he had never thought of Rose before. Afterward he remembered that she had always been his social superior.
The situation seemed too dream-like for explanation to the room just yet. Leibel lovingly passed a bottle of ginger-beer, and Rose took a sip, with a beautiful air of plighting troth, understood only of those two. When Leibel quaffed the remnant it intoxicated him. The relics of the bread and cheese were the ambrosia to this nectar. They did not dare kiss; the suddenness of it all left them bashful, and the smack of lips would have been like a cannon-peal announcing their engagement. There was a subtler sweetness in this sense of a secret, apart from the fact that neither cared to break the news to the master tailor, a stern little old man. Leibel's chalk marks continued indecisive that afternoon, which shows how correctly Rose had connected them with love.
Before he left that night Rose said to him, "Art thou sure thou wouldst not rather have Leah Volcovitch?"
"Not for all the boots and shoes in the world," replied Leibel, vehemently.
"And I," protested Rose, "would rather go without my own than without thee."
The landing outside the workshop was so badly lighted that their lips came together in the darkness.
"Nay, nay; thou must not yet," said Rose. "Thou art still courting Leah Volcovitch. For aught thou knowest, Sugarman the Shadchan may have entangled thee beyond redemption."
"Not so," asserted Leibel. "I have only seen the maiden once."
"Yes. But Sugarman has seen her father several times," persisted Rose. "For so misshapen a maiden his commission would be large. Thou must go to Sugarman to-night, and tell him that thou canst not find it in thy heart to go on with the match."
"Kiss me, and I will go," pleaded Leibel.
"Go, and I will kiss thee," said Rose, resolutely.
"And when shall we tell thy father?" he asked, pressing her hand, as the next best thing to her lips.
"As soon as thou art free from Leah."
"But will he consent?"
"He will not be glad," said Rose, frankly. "But after mother's death-- peace be upon her--the rule passed from her hands into mine."
"Ah, that is well," said Leibel. He was a superficial thinker.
Leibel found Sugarman at supper. The great Shadchan offered him a chair, but nothing else. Hospitality was associated in his mind with special occasions only, and involved lemonade and "stuffed monkeys."
He was very put out--almost to the point of indigestion--to hear of Leibel's final determination, and plied him with reproachful inquiries.
"You don't mean to say that you give up a boot and shoe manufacturer merely because his daughter has round shoulders!" he exclaimed, incredulously.
"It is more than round shoulders--it is a hump!" cried Leibel.
"And suppose? See how much better off you will be when you get your own machines! We do not refuse to let camels carry our burdens because they have humps."
"Ah, but a wife is not a camel," said Leibel, with a sage air.
"And a cutter is not a master tailor," retorted Sugarman.
"Enough, enough!" cried Leibel. "I tell you, I would not have her if she were a machine warehouse."
"There sticks something behind," persisted Sugarman, unconvinced.
Leibel shook his head. "Only her hump" he said with a flash of humour.
"Moses Mendelssohn had a hump," expostulated Sugarman, reproachfully.
"Yes, but he was a heretic," rejoined Leibel, who was not without reading. "And then he was a man! A man with two humps could find a wife for each. But a woman with a hump cannot expect a husband in addition."
"Guard your tongue from evil," quoth the Shadchan, angrily. "If everybody were to talk like you Leah Volcovitch would never be married at all."
Leibel shrugged his shoulders, and reminded him that hunchbacked girls who stammered and squinted and halted on left legs were not usually led under the canopy.
"Nonsense! Stuff!" cried Sugarman, angrily. "That is because they do not come to me."
"Leah Volcovitch has come to you," said Leibel, "but she shall not come to me." And he rose, anxious to escape.
Instantly Sugarman gave a sigh of resignation. "Be it so! Then I shall have to look out for another, that's all."
"No, I don't want any," replied Leibel, quickly.
Sugarman stopped eating. "You don't want any?" he cried. "But you came to me for one?"
"I--I--know," stammered Leibel. "But I've--I've altered my mind."
"One needs Hillel's patience to deal with you!" cried Sugarman. "But I shall charge you, all the same, for my trouble. You cannot cancel an order like this in the middle! No, no! You can play fast and loose with Leah Volcovitch, but you shall not make a fool of me."
"But if I don't want one?" said Leibel, sullenly.
Sugarman gazed at him with a cunning look of suspicion. "Didn't I say there was something sticking behind?"
Leibel felt guilty. "But whom have you got in your eye?" he inquired, desperately.
"Perhaps you may have some one in yours!" naively answered Sugarman.
Leibel gave a hypocritic long-drawn "U-m-m-m! I wonder if Rose Green-- where I work--" he said, and stopped.
"I fear not," said Sugarman. "She is on my list. Her father gave her to me some months ago, but he is hard to please. Even the maiden herself is not easy, being pretty."
"Perhaps she has waited for some one," suggested Leibel.
Sugarman's keen ear caught the note of complacent triumph.
"You have been asking her yourself!" he exclaimed, in horror-stricken accents.
"And if I have?" said Leibel, defiantly.
"You have cheated me! And so has Eliphaz Green--I always knew he was tricky! You have both defrauded me!"
"I did not mean to," said Leibel, mildly.
"You did mean to. You had no business to take the matter out of my hands. What right had you to propose to Rose Green?"
"I did not," cried Leibel, excitedly.
"Then you asked her father!"
"No; I have not asked her father yet."
"Then how do you know she will have you?"
"I--I know," stammered Leibel, feeling himself somehow a liar as well as a thief. His brain was in a whirl; he could not remember how the thing had come about. Certainly he had not proposed; nor could he say that she had.
"You know she will have you," repeated Sugarman, reflectively. "And does she know?"
"Yes. In fact," he blurted out, "we arranged it together."
"Ah, you both know. And does her father know?"
"Ah, then I must get his consent," said Sugarman, decisively.
"I--I thought of speaking to him myself."
"Yourself!" echoed Sugarman, in horror. "Are you unsound in the head? Why, that would be worse than the mistake you have already made!"
"What mistake?" asked Leibel, firing up.
"The mistake of asking the maiden herself. When you quarrel with her after your marriage she will always throw it in your teeth that you wished to marry her. Moreover, if you tell a maiden you love her, her father will think you ought to marry her as she stands. Still, what is done is done." And he sighed regretfully.
"And what more do I want? I love her."
"You piece of clay!" cried Sugarman, contemptuously. "Love will not turn machines, much less buy them. You must have a dowry. Her father has a big stocking; he can well afford it."
Leibel's eyes lit up. There was really no reason why he should not have bread and cheese with his kisses.
"Now, if you went to her father," pursued the Shadchan, "the odds are that he would not even give you his daughter--to say nothing of the dowry. After all, it is a cheek of you to aspire so high. As you told me from the first, you haven't saved a penny. Even my commission you won't be able to pay till you get the dowry. But if I go I do not despair of getting a substantial sum--to say nothing of the daughter."
"Yes, I think you had better go," said Leibel, eagerly.
"But if I do this thing for you I shall want a pound more," rejoined Sugarman.
"A pound more!" echoed Leibel, in dismay. "Why?"
"Because Rose Green's hump is of gold," replied Sugarman, oracularly. "Also, she is fair to see, and many men desire her."
"But you have always your five per cent, on the dowry."
"It will be less than Volcovitch's," explained Sugarman. "You see, Green has other and less beautiful daughters."
"Yes, but then it settles itself more easily. Say five shillings."
"Eliphaz Green is a hard man," said the Shadchan instead.
"Ten shillings is the most I will give!"
"Twelve and sixpence is the least I will take. Eliphaz Green haggles so terribly."
They split the difference, and so eleven and threepence represented the predominance of Eliphaz Green's stinginess over Volcovitch's.
The very next day Sugarman invaded the Green workroom. Rose bent over her seams, her heart fluttering. Leibel had duly apprised her of the roundabout manner in which she would have to be won, and she had acquiesced in the comedy. At the least it would save her the trouble of father-taming.
Sugarman's entry was brusque and breathless. He was overwhelmed with joyous emotion. His blue bandana trailed agitatedly from his coat- tail.
"At last!" he cried, addressing the little white-haired master tailor; "I have the very man for you."
"Yes?" grunted Eliphaz, unimpressed. The monosyllable was packed with emotion. It said, "Have you really the face to come to me again with an ideal man?"
"He has all the qualities that you desire," began the Shadchan, in a tone that repudiated the implications of the monosyllable. "He is young, strong, God-fearing--"
"Has he any money?" grumpily interrupted Eliphaz.
"He will have money," replied Sugarman, unhesitatingly, "when he marries."
"Ah!" The father's voice relaxed, and his foot lay limp on the treadle. He worked one of his machines himself, and paid himself the wages so as to enjoy the profit. "How much will he have?"
"I think he will have fifty pounds; and the least you can do is to let him have fifty pounds," replied Sugarman, with the same happy ambiguity.
Eliphaz shook his head on principle.
"Yes, you will," said Sugarman, "when you learn how fine a man he is."
The flush of confusion and trepidation already on Leibel's countenance became a rosy glow of modesty, for he could not help overhearing what was being said, owing to the lull of the master tailor's machine.
"Tell me, then," rejoined Eliphaz.
"Tell me, first, if you will give fifty to a young, healthy, hard- working, God-fearing man, whose idea it is to start as a master tailor on his own account? And you know how profitable that is!"
"To a man like that," said Eliphaz, in a burst of enthusiasm, "I would give as much as twenty-seven pounds ten!"
Sugarman groaned inwardly, but Leibel's heart leaped with joy. To get four months' wages at a stroke! With twenty-seven pounds ten he could certainly procure several machines, especially on the instalment system. Out of the corners of his eyes he shot a glance at Rose, who was beyond earshot.
"Unless you can promise thirty it is waste of time mentioning his name," said Sugarman.
"Well, well--who is he?"
Sugarman bent down, lowering his voice into the father's ear.
"What! Leibel!" cried Eliphaz, outraged.
"Sh!" said Sugarman, "or he will overhear your delight, and ask more. He has his nose high enough, as it is."
"B--b--b--ut," sputtered the bewildered parent, "I know Leibel myself. I see him every day. I don't want a Shadchan to find me a man I know-- a mere hand in my own workshop!"
"Your talk has neither face nor figure," answered Sugarman, sternly. "It is just the people one sees every day that one knows least. I warrant that if I had not put it into your head you would never have dreamt of Leibel as a son-in-law. Come now, confess."
Eliphaz grunted vaguely, and the Shadchan went on triumphantly: "I thought as much. And yet where could you find a better man to keep your daughter?"
"He ought to be content with her alone," grumbled her father.
Sugarman saw the signs of weakening, and dashed in, full strength: "It's a question whether he will have her at all. I have not been to him about her yet. I awaited your approval of the idea." Leibel admired the verbal accuracy of these statements, which he had just caught.
"But I didn't know he would be having money," murmured Eliphaz.
"Of course you didn't know. That's what the Shadchan is for--to point out the things that are under your nose."
"But where will he be getting this money from?"
"From you," said Sugarman, frankly.
"From whom else? Are you not his employer? It has been put by for his marriage day."
"He has saved it?"
"He has not spent it," said Sugarman, impatiently.
"But do you mean to say he has saved fifty pounds?"
"If he could manage to save fifty pounds out of your wages he would be indeed a treasure," said Sugarman. "Perhaps it might be thirty."
"But you said fifty."
"Well, you came down to thirty," retorted the Shadchan. "You cannot expect him to have more than your daughter brings."
"I never said thirty," Eliphaz reminded him. "Twenty-seven ten was my last bid."
"Very well; that will do as a basis of negotiations," said Sugarman, resignedly. "I will call upon him this evening. If I were to go over and speak to him now, he would perceive you were anxious, and raise his terms, and that will never do. Of course you will not mind allowing me a pound more for finding you so economical a son-in-law?"
"Not a penny more."
"You need not fear," said Sugarman, resentfully. "It is not likely I shall be able to persuade him to take so economical a father-in-law. So you will be none the worse for promising."
"Be it so," said Eliphaz, with a gesture of weariness, and he started his machine again.
"Twenty-seven pounds ten, remember," said Sugarman, above the whir.
Eliphaz nodded his head, whirring his wheel-work louder.
"And paid before the wedding, mind."
The machine took no notice.
"Before the wedding, mind," repeated Sugarman. "Before we go under the canopy."
"Go now, go now!" grunted Eliphaz, with a gesture of impatience. "It shall all be well." And the white-haired head bowed immovably over its work.
In the evening Rose extracted from her father the motive of Sugarman's visit, and confessed that the idea was to her liking.
"But dost thou think he will have me, little father?" she asked, with cajoling eyes.
"Any one would have my Rose."
"Ah, but Leibel is different. So many years he has sat at my side and said nothing."
"He had his work to think of. He is a good, saving youth."
"At this very moment Sugarman is trying to persuade him--not so? I suppose he will want much money."
"Be easy, my child." And he passed his discoloured hand over her hair.
Sugarman turned up the next day, and reported that Leibel was unobtainable under thirty pounds, and Eliphaz, weary of the contest, called over Leibel, till that moment carefully absorbed in his scientific chalk marks, and mentioned the thing to him for the first time. "I am not a man to bargain," Eliphaz said, and so he gave the young man his tawny hand, and a bottle of rum sprang from somewhere, and work was suspended for five minutes, and the "hands" all drank amid surprised excitement. Sugarman's visits had prepared them to congratulate Rose; but Leibel was a shock.
The formal engagement was marked by even greater junketing, and at last the marriage day came. Leibel was resplendent in a diagonal frockcoat, cut by his own hand; and Rose stepped from the cab a medley of flowers, fairness, and white silk, and behind her came two bridesmaids,--her sisters,--a trio that glorified the spectator-strewn pavement outside the synagogue. Eliphaz looked almost tall in his shiny high hat and frilled shirt-front. Sugarman arrived on foot, carrying red-socked little Ebenezer tucked under his arm.
Leibel and Rose were not the only couple to be disposed of, for it was the thirty-third day of the Omer--a day fruitful in marriages.
But at last their turn came. They did not, however, come in their turn, and their special friends among the audience wondered why they had lost their precedence. After several later marriages had taken place a whisper began to circulate. The rumour of a hitch gained ground steadily, and the sensation was proportionate. And, indeed, the rose was not to be picked without a touch of the thorn.
Gradually the facts leaked out, and a buzz of talk and comment ran through the waiting synagogue. Eliphaz had not paid up!
At first he declared he would put down the money immediately after the ceremony. But the wary Sugarman, schooled by experience, demanded its instant delivery on behalf of his other client. Hard pressed, Eliphaz produced ten sovereigns from his trousers-pocket, and tendered them on account. These Sugarman disdainfully refused, and the negotiations were suspended. The bridegroom's party was encamped in one room, the bride's in another, and after a painful delay Eliphaz sent an emissary to say that half the amount should be forthcoming, the extra five pounds in a bright new Bank of England note. Leibel, instructed and encouraged by Sugarman, stood firm.
And then arose a hubbub of voices, a chaos of suggestions; friends rushed to and fro between the camps, some emerging from their seats in the synagogue to add to the confusion. But Eliphaz had taken his stand upon a rock--he had no more ready money. To-morrow, the next day, he would have some. And Leibel, pale and dogged, clutched tighter at those machines that were slipping away momently from him. He had not yet seen his bride that morning, and so her face was shadowy compared with the tangibility of those machines. Most of the other maidens were married women by now, and the situation was growing desperate. From the female camp came terrible rumours of bridesmaids in hysterics, and a bride that tore her wreath in a passion of shame and humiliation. Eliphaz sent word that he would give an I O U for the balance, but that he really could not muster any more current coin. Sugarman instructed the ambassador to suggest that Eliphaz should raise the money among his friends.
And the short spring day slipped away. In vain the minister, apprised of the block, lengthened out the formulae for the other pairs, and blessed them with more reposeful unction. It was impossible to stave off the Leibel-Green item indefinitely, and at last Rose remained the only orange-wreathed spinster in the synagogue. And then there was a hush of solemn suspense, that swelled gradually into a steady rumble of babbling tongues, as minute succeeded minute and the final bridal party still failed to appear. The latest bulletin pictured the bride in a dead faint. The afternoon was waning fast. The minister left his post near the canopy, under which so many lives had been united, and came to add his white tie to the forces for compromise. But he fared no better than the others. Incensed at the obstinacy of the antagonists, he declared he would close the synagogue. He gave the couple ten minutes to marry in or quit. Then chaos came, and pandemonium--a frantic babel of suggestion and exhortation from the crowd. When five minutes had passed a legate from Eliphaz announced that his side had scraped together twenty pounds, and that this was their final bid.
Leibel wavered; the long day's combat had told upon him; the reports of the bride's distress had weakened him. Even Sugarman had lost his cocksureness of victory. A few minutes more and both commissions might slip through his fingers. Once the parties left the synagogue, it would not be easy to drive them there another day. But he cheered on his man still: one could always surrender at the tenth minute.
At the eighth the buzz of tongues faltered suddenly, to be transposed into a new key, so to speak. Through the gesticulating assembly swept that murmur of expectation which crowds know when the procession is coming at last. By some mysterious magnetism all were aware that the BRIDE herself--the poor hysteric bride--had left the paternal camp, was coming in person to plead with her mercenary lover.
And as the glory of her and the flowers and the white draperies loomed upon Leibel's vision his heart melted in worship, and he knew his citadel would crumble in ruins at her first glance, at her first touch. Was it fair fighting? As his troubled vision cleared, and as she came nigh unto him, he saw to his amazement that she was speckless and composed--no trace of tears dimmed the fairness of her face, there was no disarray in her bridal wreath.
The clock showed the ninth minute.
She put her hand appeallingly on his arm, while a heavenly light came into her face--the expression of a Joan of Arc animating her country.
"Do not give in, Leibel!" she said. "Do not have me! Do not let them persuade thee! By my life, thou must not! Go home!"
So at the eleventh minute the vanquished Eliphaz produced the balance, and they all lived happily ever afterward.