BY PERCEVAL GIBBON
WHEN they brought the news to Manasseh, where he lay on his bed in the inner shop, a spasm grasped him for a moment and shook him, and the rabbi who told the tale, standing over him in pity, thought he would swoon. But the crippled man threw off his hand and mastered his weakness. A light was burning on a high shelf in the room, and shining on the bed standing among the curious litter of Manasseh's stock in trade; and in its gleam the rabbi and the others saw the thin face harden and draw to the shape of iron purpose.
"To-morrow?" asked Manasseh. "You are sure it is to-morrow?"
"Quite sure," the rabbi answered. "Ten of them were doomed this afternoon, and the gallows is building now. Raphael was sentenced first."
Manasseh lifted on his elbow and looked round on them, the little group of wise Jews who worked for the Cause in that fevered Russian town. Behind the leather screen from Kordofan that masked the inner door his women were rustling and whispering; the men who had come with the tale, their keen, mobile faces looking out from their furs, stood waiting around his bed. Their shadows lay here and there on the wonderful goods—the swords and ivories—of the shop.
"This is a time to move with speed," said Manasseh at last. "Pack me up and fetch a sleigh. The hours are short enough."
"You are going to the Governor?" asked the rabbi.
"Not I," answered Manasseh. "I am going to the Old Man. Why do you ask questions? Is this a time to babble, with the rope rove in which my son is to choke out his life?"
While he stormed at them, shrill and harsh, they were busy about him. His old wife came in, and helped, working swiftly in silence, while the tears ran down her poor, ugly face. Miriam, his daughter, helped. The rabbi and the rest bore a hand—it was a desperate business to get this paralytic moved,—while one ran out for a swift sleigh and brought it back to the door of the shop.
He scolded all the while, till they bore him out, a helpless bundle of furs and wrappings. Levi, the son of Reuben, a gaunt, black-browed stripling, mounted his seat and received him from the rest, holding him in his place with an arm around his middle, the more tenderly because from within the door Miriam was looking on. Then the sleigh started, and the group on the pavement, anxious and still, was left behind.
The spirit of murder was abroad; those narrow ways were as dangerous as a battle-field. It was like moving in the ghastly lanes of a nightmare; for over them the night was serene and the air was brisk with frost, and underfoot the snow hushed the sound of their passage. The buildings were gaunt in the darkness, overlooking them with a grave significance. They felt as if the world had been set like a stage for some great tragedy.
But nothing miscarried. They swung out of the narrows of the Jewish quarter and skated athwart the lighted boulevards, and thence, by a plain route, to the house they sought. Levi, who had heard tell of it—in whispers and inaccurately—looked up with quick curiosity at the mean shop before which they stopped. It stood in a street of lesser commerce, of dealers in vegetables and cheap clothes; its shuttered front was without distinction or dignity.
"It is here?" he asked, with some disappointment.
"It is here," answered Manasseh. "Get down and knock, you fool."
Levi knocked, and knocked again; no light showed in any window. But there was a sound of footsteps within, and he heard the clatter of bolts being drawn, and presently the door opened. A man thrust his head out.
"Who are you?" he asked. "What do you want here?"
Manasseh spoke from the sleigh, with an accent of bitterest anger.
"I am Manasseh!" he cried. "Let it suffice. Come and help this other fool to carry me in."
"Manasseh!" The name was evidently known, for the man came forward at once. He looked shrewdly at the istvostchik who drove, but that person had been well chosen. He made a certain sign with his open hand, a sufficient signal of answer to the other's unspoken question.
"Good!" said the man, briefly, and he and Levi carried the cripple indoors.
They went cautiously through the darkness of the shop and into a dimly lighted passage beyond. Here the floor was bare below, and the plaster of the walls was damp and stained. The place seemed rotten with unthrifty poverty; at the end of the passage a stairway descended, as though to the cellars.
"It is down there," said the man, and they carried Manasseh down. At the bottom of the stairs a door stopped them—a door of wood and iron. Levi supported the cripple while the guide unlocked this, and then they conveyed him in.
The young man started with wonder as he entered and saw the apartment to which they had come, in the cellars of that grimy house. The Jew is the true dramatist of life, for he excels in dénouement, and here was the conclusion to which the dirt and meanness had been the studied preparation. It was a big room, windowless, hung with rugs; the glow of them, their soft purity of color, their tenderness of hue, gave the place a something more luxurious than any elaboration of magnificence. The carpet was saffron yellow, and the divan that ran round the chamber was bright with colored cushions.
"He will come presently," said the man, as they laid Manasseh on the divan, and he left them there.
As Levi finished propping the cripple in the cushions, the rugs were parted before a hidden door, and Levi, looking up sharply, knew that he stood at last in the presence of that nameless and secret source of energies, the Old Man of Russia. The big youth stared at him with parted lips, intensely subject to the man's splendid presence. His great head drooped forward as though in aggression; a white beard covered his breast; and there was a manner, an expression, in the brooding Eastern face as though what was reverend and benevolent there was a piece of culture, an alien fashion, like the courtesy of an enemy. He was clad in a black gown from the neck to the ground, so that as he advanced he seemed to glide without effort—a compelling symbol, the Jew implicit.
"Ah, Manasseh?" he said, in a tone of question, and Levi saw, almost with a shock, that the huddled paralytic gave him back a glance as keen as his own.
"Yes," said the cripple. "You have heard about my son?"
The Old Man nodded.
A tinge of color lit the thin cheek of the cripple; his face sharpened restlessly.
"I cannot have him hanged," he said. "There must be no mistake. If it costs money, I have the money. But he is not to die."
"I see," said the Old Man. His voice was deliberate and very clear, even in its undertones, but it had a note that set one watching.
"I see," he repeated, and his keen eyes rested on the face of Manasseh. "I was not in doubt that you would seek a reward for service, sooner or later, Manasseh. I have expected it."
Manasseh, a wan sketch against scarlet pillows, sneered.
"I am not here to gain praise or approval," he retorted. "I want my son, my boy Raphael, who is sitting in his prison, listening to the hours racing by. I will make a bargain for him, if you like; but I will have him."
"H'm! you will make a bargain?" The Old Man's brows drew down and he considered. He waved a hand to Levi, who brought him a chair, and he sat down before Manasseh. The two regarded one another with that wary hostility which animates the real commerce. Levi, standing by, felt his pulses quicken, as if he were watching two dread forces give battle.
"It is not the moment for us to move," said the Old Man at last. "The work is not ripe. You know that?"
"But those who guard my son?" queried Manasseh. "Is there no weak point there? Can he not be brought back to my house—if one took minted gold to them in a cart?"
"No," said the Old Man. It seemed that the answer was sufficient, but after a pause he added, "They are Cossacks from the Caucasus."
Manasseh nodded. "But the hangman?" he queried.
"No," said the Old Man again. "Twice I have bought the hangman, but now they hang them in the morning and do not cut them down till night."
Manasseh scowled. "Curse them!" he said. He remained for a moment as though at a loss, while the Old Man watched him.
"There is the Governor," said Manasseh at length, almost casually. "And perhaps a bargain is possible."
"It is possible," admitted the other.
"Well, then," cried Manasseh, "you must make the bargain with him."
The Old Man raised his great head. He had the air of one who acquiesces, yet Levi, watching the pair, knew that the real struggle was but now at hand.
"If it must be, it must be," said the Old Man. "He has been here for terms before. He will be glad to make them now."
"Well, let him be glad," snapped the cripple.
"He will be glad," answered the Old Man, gravely. "The sorrow of Israel always rejoices the enemies of Israel. Your joy and his will be great, Manasseh—perhaps the joy of Raphael, your son, will be great too. Yet if he rejoice in this, I would not have him for a son of mine."
There was something ominous in his voice, and old Manasseh's eyes narrowed to slits, but he did not answer.
The Old Man turned and began to walk the room with his hands clasped behind him.
"The merchant knows the worth of his wares," he said, slowly. "Yours is a good son, Manasseh?"
"Yes," said Manasseh. "He is all my heart and life."
The Old Man sighed. "Well, then," he said,—and Levi saw the glint of his sidelong eyes as he spoke—"you must have him."
"Pouff!" Manasseh snorted. "You make me chill with fear," he said, "for I know the last word is not yet said. What a cursed business is this being a Jew, that we traffic in subtlety while graves are being dug! Man, man, say what you mean to say, and let me know what horror is at the back of it all. What are the terms you must make with the Governor?"
"Ah!" The Old Man came back to his chair, and again he fronted the cripple. "Listen," he said. "The Governor knows that he is doomed, and walks in terror. His masters drive him to harry us, and he knows that one day we will kill him. He does not know that he will fall with others, governors and princes, for a sign; and he has sought me in the hope that I would give him his life. If I will hold off the knife and the bomb, he will suppress the Black Hundred. I sent him empty away."
"Go on," said Manasseh.
"Now, he will give anything for that—that I make his life sure. And he will take no other price," said the Old Man. "And that is what I cannot give him."
"Why?" said Manasseh, eagerly.
"I will tell you this much only," said the other. "You know that our policies reach far; that they have a thousand branches, a million relationships? Yes, you know that well. At this moment we draw them together; action is brewing. Already the money supplies are drying up for Russia. And a life-and-death treaty with any representative of power clogs the wheels; just now it arrests the whole fabric."
Manasseh's face was gray; the breath came from him in a rattle.
"If I gain your son," said the Old Man, "I give Israel in exchange."
He spoke slowly, and there was even some pity in his expression; but with it the shrewd eye was bright as ever. He knew his man.
"Raphael must hang," he said. "But there is no need for the Governor to live."
Levi, fascinated and aghast, closed his eyes, not to see the stricken grief of the cripple; and there was an interval of choking silence.
Manasseh broke it. He began to stammer in sonorous Hebrew the first words of the prayer for the dying, but stopped.
"One thing, then, you will grant me," he gasped. "I will kill the Governor—, Manasseh. I will have him between these hands"—he thrust forth from his wrappings his two long horny hands, hooked and quivering,—"his death shall be my doing. You hear me! This I will have."
His voice ran up to a shriek as he finished. The Old Man, aloof, immune from emotion, looked at him sharply.
"Even that," he said, "you must forego unless—"
"Unless?" croaked the cripple.
"Unless you are able," said the Old Man. "You are a cripple; there must be no bungling."
Manasseh uttered a splutter of barren laughter. "If I am able!" he cried. "Because my legs curl up under me, do you think these hands are feeble? Look!" he said. He fumbled about his body and brought out a ruble. The Old Man's lip curled, but Manasseh took the coin between his fingers and broke it across.
"Feeble," said he. "Give me his throat, once, in the fork of my hand and I will tear it out of him."
"It is well," said the Old Man, indifferently. "I give you the Governor."
So Levi took Manasseh home.
The feast of the city's saint fell on a Monday; it was then the duty of the Governor to attend the celebration in the cathedral. He was a thin, dark man, petulant and devoid of a sense of proportion, and ridden hard by an active imagination. Of late he had walked in fear of assassination; day and night were populous with threats. Twice he had gone secretly to the chief of the Jewish organization to try to buy safety, and it had not availed. Each time he had come away baffled, and haunted by the power and assurance of that serene Old Man who heard him in silence and answered with a single no. As he stepped from his carriage at the church steps, the beggars who were assembled there for his yearly largesse saw how he looked round him ere he entered the building. They knew what he feared to see. To them, bedded in the slime of life, there trickled the truth that those above them never heard. The dreadful beggars of a Russian town, the blind, the crazed, the leprous, are the confidants and the judges of all.
They waited on the steps while the service within proceeded. The boom of the priest's voice, the cadence of the choir, came out to them, remote and mellow, and they scratched themselves patiently. Each one was sure of an alms to-day; it was as much a part of the feast as anything else. The soldiers of the Governor's escort, drawn up in the roadway, looked at them enviously.
Presently the service was over, and the Governor came out, carrying in his hand the bag of small silver which was the due of the beggars. The clamor of the beggars sprang up at once, and they blessed him vociferously as he moved among them, bestowing his gifts. It only took a few minutes, and he was about to leave, when from the end of the portico a strong, high voice called to him.
"Alms for the paralytic!" it cried. "Is the paralytic to have nothing?"
The Governor turned: on this day he must leave none unnoticed. He saw now that there was a mattress between two pillars and a man on it. With a smile he went up the steps again.
"I had not seen you, brother," he said. "Here is your gift."
The cripple's hand lay on the pavement: his keen eyes looked the Governor in the face.
"Put it in my hand," he said, and the Governor bent to do so. It looked from below as though he were talking to the beggar.
But as he lowered his head, Manasseh raised his hand, and in an instant those long fingers closed on the Governor's throat. They gripped like steel, and the cripple, drawing his other hand from under his blanket, ran the thin blade of a little knife under the Governor's ear. He died with no struggle. It was only when the blood began to trickle briskly down the steps that the soldiers knew something was wrong.
That night the Jews swept the streets with rifles; but Manasseh was already gone the way of his son.