Old New Land/Book 1/Part 2
The Loeffler family lived on the second floor of a large house on Gonzaga Street, the ground floor being occupied by the cloth firm of Moritz Loeffier & Co.
When Friedrich and Schiffmann entered the foyer they realized from the number of coats and wraps already hanging there that the evening's gathering was larger than usual.
"Quite a clothing shop," remarked Schiffmann.
Friedrich knew most of the people already assembled in the drawing room. The only stranger was the bald-headed man who stood next to Emestine by the piano smiling at her confidentially.
The girl extended her hand cordially to the newcomer.
"Doctor Loewenberg, come and be introduced to Mr. Leopold Weinberger."
"Member of the firm of Samuel Weinberger and Sons of Bruenn," supplemented Papa Loeffler, not without a touch of solemnity and benevolence.
The gentlemen shook hands politely. Friedrich noted that Mr. Weinberger of Bruenn had a decided squint and very damp palms. He was not sorry, because these characteristics banished the thought that had flashed into his mind as he entered the room. Ernestine and a man like that-simply impossible! She was enchanting as she stood there-slender, graceful, her lovely head a little bent. Friedrich feasted his eyes on her, but had to make room for other guests. Mr. Weinberger of Bruenn, however, kept somewhat obtrusively and persistently by her side.
Friedrich turned inquiringly to Schiffmann. "This Mr. Weinberger is probably an old family friend?"
"Oh, no. They know him only a fortnight, but he is a fine cloth firm."
"What is fine, Mr. Schiffmann-the cloth or the firm?" asked Friedrich, now elated and reassured. Certainly an acquaintance of a fortnight could not be a fiance.
"Both," replied Schiffmann. "Samuel Weinberger and Sons can borrow all the money they want at four per cent. First rate....Things are very elegant here tonight. Look over there. That lean man with the staring eyes is Schlesinger, the confidential representative of Baron Goldstein. He is obnoxious, but very popular."
"Why ask, 'why'? Because he is the agent of Baron Goldstein....Do you know that gray mutton-chop whisker? Not him, either? Where do you come from? That's Laschner, one of the most important men on the stock exchange-a large speculator. He'll stake you a couple of thousand shares as if they were nothing at all. Just now he is very rich. Wish I had his money! Whether he'll have a penny this time next year, I don't know. Just now his wife has larger diamonds than any other woman. ... They all envy her. ..."
Mrs. Laschner sat in a corner with some equally overdressed women passionately discussing millinery. The other groups were still in the reserved ante-prandial mood. Some of the guests, who seemed to be informed as to the nature of the impending surprise, whispered discreetly to one another. Friedrich felt uneasy, without exactly knowing why. Next to Schiffmann, he was the most insignificant guest of the evening. He had never before felt ill at ease in this circle because Ernestine had always kept him by her. But tonight she gave him not a word or glance. This Mr. Weinberger of Bruenn must be a very entertaining companion. Friedrich was suffering from an additional humiliation imposed on him by an unkind Fate. He and Schiffmann were conspicuous by their lack of formal evening costume-a circumstance that marked them as the social pariahs of the gathering. He would have preferred to run away, but lacked courage.
The large drawing room was crowded, but the hosts seemed still to be waiting for someone. Friedrich turned questioningly to his companion in misery. Schiffmann knew the answer, having just overheard a remark by the hostess. "They are waiting for Gruen and Blau."
"Who are they?"
"What! Don't you know Gruen and Blau? The two wittiest men in Vienna. No reception, no wedding, no betrothal party or anything else comes off without them. Some think Gruen the wittier; others prefer Blau. Gruen has more of a tendency toward puns, and Blau pokes fun at people. Blau's had his face slapped more than once, but that never upsets him. He has the kind of face that never reddens when it's slapped. Both these men are very popular in the higher circles of Jewish society. Of course, being rivals, they hate each other."
There was a slight rustle in the salon. Mr. Gruen had entered. He was a long, lanky man with a reddish beard and ears that stood off from his head. Blau called his rival's ears "unseamed," because they did not fold inward over the muscle at the upper edge, but lay flat.
Ernestine's mother amiably reproached the famous jester. "Why so late, Mr. Gruen?"
"Because I could come no later," replied he smartly. His hearers smiled in approval. A shadow flitted over Gruen's face. Blau had entered.
Blau was about thirty years old and of medium height. His face was clean shaven, and a pince-nez was set on his sharply curved nose. "I have been at the Wiedener Theater," he reported, "attending a first night performance. I left after the first act."
His announcement aroused interest. Ladies and gentlemen gathered around him, and he proceeded. "The first act, to everyone's surprise, did not fall flat."
"Moriz," called Mrs. Laschner imperiously to her husband, "I want to see that play tomorrow night."
"The librettist's friends also enjoyed themselves immensely," continued Blau.
"Is the operetta so good?" inquired Schlesinger, representative of Baron Goldstein. "No, so bad!" explained Blau. "The playwright's friends enjoy a production only when it is bad."
Dinner was announced. The spacious dining room was overcrowded. There was barely elbow room at the table. Ernestine sat beside Mr. Weinberger. Friedrich and Schiffmann had to take seats at the very foot of the table.
At first there was more clatter of dishes and silver than conversation. Blau called across the table to his competitor, "Don't eat so loudly, Gruen. I can't hear my own fish."
"Fish is no food for you. You ought to eat cutlets made of jealousy." Gruen's adherents laughed; Blau's thought the joke dull.
Attention was diverted from the humorists when an elderly gentleman sitting next to ,Mrs. Loeffler remarked in a slightly raised voice that things were becoming worse in Moravia. "In the provincial towns," he said, "our people are in actual peril. When the Germans are in a bad mood, they break Jewish windows. When the Czechs are out of sorts, they break into Jewish homes. The poor are beginning to emigrate. But they don't know where to go."
Mrs. Laschner chose this moment to scream to her hushand, "Moriz! You must take me to the Burg Theatre the day after tomorrow!"
"Don't interrupt!" replied the broker. "Dr. Weiss is telling us about the situation in Moravia. Not pleasant, 'pon my honor." Samuel Weinberger, father of the bridegroom, broke into the conversation. "Being a rabbi, Doctor, you see things rather black."
"White (Weiss) always sees black," interjected one of the wits, but the pun went unnoticed.
"I feel quite safe in my factory," continued the elder Weinberger. "When they make any trouble for me, I send for the police, or call on the commandant. Just show bayonets to the mob, and it mends its manners."
"But that in itself is a grave situation," countered Dr. Weiss gently.
Dr. Walter, a lawyer whose name had originally been Veiglstock, remarked, "I don't know who it was that said you could do anything with bayonets except sit on them." "I feel it coming," cried Laschner, "We'll all have to wear the yellow badge."
"Or emigrate," said the rabbi.
"I ask you, where to?" asked Walter. "Are things better anywhere else? Even in free France the anti-Semites have the upper hand,"
Dr. Weiss, a simple rabbi from a provincial town in Moravia, did not know exactly in what company he found himself, and ventured a few shy remarks. "A new movement has arisen within the last few years, which is called Zionism. Its aim is to solve the Jewish problem through colonization on a large scale. All who can no longer bear their present lot will return to our old home, to Palestine."
He spoke very quietly, unaware that the people about him were getting ready for an outburst of laughter. He was therefore dumbfounded at the effect of the word "Palestine." The laughter ran every gamut. The ladies giggled, the gentlemen roared and neighed. Friedrich alone was indignant at the brutal and unseemly merriment at the old man's expense.
Blau took advantage of the first breathing spell to declare that had the new operetta boasted one jest like this, all would have been well with it.
"And I'll be ambassador at Vienna!" shouted Gruen.
The laughter broke out once more. "I too!" "I too!"
Blau assumed a serious tone. "Gentlemen, everyone cannot have that post. I am certain the Austrian Government would not accept so many Jewish ambassadors. You must seek other appointments."
The old rabbi, deeply embarrassed, did not again raise his eyes from his plate while the humorists zealously dissected the new idea. They divided the new empire, they described its customs. The stock exchange would be closed on the Sabbath. Those who served their country or enriched themselves on the stock exchange would receive the "Order of David" or the "meat" sword from the king. But who would be king?
"Baron Goldstein by all means," suggested Blau.
Schlesinger, representative of that renowned banker, was annoyed. "I beg that the person of Baron von Goldstein be left out of this conversation," he said, "at least while I am present."
Almost the whole company nodded approval. The witty Blau did sometimes say very tactless things. Bringing Baron Goldstein into this kind of talk was really going a bit far. But Blau went on. "Dr. Walter will be appointed minister of justice, and will be ennobled under the title of 'von Veiglstock.' 'Walter, count of Veiglstock.' "
Laughter. The lawyer blushed at the sound of his paternal cognomen. "It's a long time since you've had your face slapped!" he cried.
The punster Gruen, more cautious, whispered some word-play on the lawyer's name to the lady next to him. "Will there be theaters in Palestine?" queried Mrs. Laschner. "If not, I shall not go there."
"Certainly, madam," replied Gruen. "All Israel will assemble for the festival performances at the royal theater in Jerusalem."
Rabbi Weiss finally ventured a word. "Whom are you mocking, gentlemen? Yourselves?"
"Oh, no," replied Blau. "We take ourselves seriously."
"I am proud to be a Jew," asserted Laschner. "Because, if I were not proud, I should still be a Jew. I therefore prefer to be proud."
The two serving maids left the room to bring in the next course. "It is better not to discuss Jewish matters in the presence of the servants," remarked the hostess.
"Pardon me, madam,'" retorted Blau quickly. "I thought your servants knew you were Jews." Some of the guests laughed. "Still," declared Schlesinger authoritatively, "there's no need to shout it from the housetops."
Champagne was brought in. Schiffulann nudged Friedrich. "Now it will come out"
"What will come out?"
"You still haven't guessed?'
No, Friedrich still hadn't guessed. But the next moment he knew.
Mr. Loeffler tapped his glass with the point of his knife and rose to his feet. Silence ensued. The ladies leaned back in their chairs. Blau hastily shoved another bit of food into his mouth, and chewed while Papa Loeffler spoke.
"Esteemed friends! I am happy to announce to you that my daughter Ernestine has been betrothed to Mr. Leopold Weinberger of Bruenn, member of the firm of Samuel Weinberger and Sons. Here's to the bridal pair! Hoch!"
"Hochl" "Hoch!" "Hoch!" All were on their feet. Glasses clinked. The guests moved in a procession to the head of the table to congratulate the parents and the new couple. Friedrich walked in the line with a cloud before his eyes. For a second he stood before Ernestine, touching his glass to hers with a trembling hand. She looked quickly past him.
Good cheer prevailed. One toast followed another. Schlesinger delivered a dignified address. Gruen and Blau surpassed themselves. Gruen strained more syllables than ever; Blau made all sorts of tactless allusions. The company was in the best of humor.
It all reached Friedrich vaguely, as from a distance. He felt as if he were in a heavy fog, where nothing could be seen and breathing was difficult.
The dinner came to an end. Friedrich's one thought was to get away, far away, from all these people. He thought himself superfluous in the room-in the city, in the whole world. Trying to slip away as the guests thronged out of the dining room, he was intercepted by Ernestine.
"Doctor Loewenberg," she said to him, "you have said nothing to me yet."
"What shall I say to you, Miss Ernestine? ...I wish you happiness. Yes, yes. I wish you much happiness in this betrothal."
But the bridegroom was again at her side. He put his arm around her waist, and drew her away possessively. She smiled.