Old New Land/Book 1/Part 3

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

(page 10)

As he stepped out into the winter night, Friedrich asked himself which had been the more disgusting: the possessive gesture of Mr. Weinberger of Bruenn, or the smile of the young girl which he had hitherto thought so enchanting. What? The "partner of the firm" had knows the lovely one only fourteen days, and yet he was allowed to put his sweaty hand upon her body. Bile barter! Here went one of his illusions! The Weinberger firm evidently had much money. He, Friedrich, had none. In the Loeffler set, where nothing counted except pleasure and the good things in life, money was all. And yet, he himself was dependent upon this circle of the Jewish bourgeoisie. With these people, yet, and upon these people, he had to live: they were his future clientele. With luck he might become the legal adviser of a man like Laschner. It would be altogether too fantastic to dream of a client like Baron Goldstein. Christian society and a Christian clientele were the most unattainable things in the world. What was a man to do? Was he to adapt himself to this Loeffler circle, share their low ideals, represent the interest of dubious money bags? Such noble conduct would bring an office of one's own after thus and so many years, and then he might claim the hand and the dowry of a maiden ready on a fortnight's acquaintance to marry the first man who came along. Or, if all this was too revolting, loneliness and poverty were the alternative.

Lost in these thoughts, he found himself again in front of the Cafe Birkenreis. Why go home so early to his tiny room? It was only ten o'clock. To sleep? Yes, if there were so be no awakening...

At the entrance he almost stumbled over a little body. A child was squatting on the steps. Friedrich recognized him as the same boy to whom he had given those coins a few hours earlier. He spoke to him roughly. "What's this? Begging again?"

The child replied shiveringly, in Yiddish, "I'm waiting for my father."

He stood up and began to hop, slapping one arm over the other to warm himself. But Friedrich was so steeped in his own misery that he had no sympathy to spare for the freezing child. He entered the smoke-filled room, and took his usual seat at the reading table. There were few guests in the cafe at that hour, except here and there, in the corners, a few belated card-players who could not bear to part. Over and over again they announced the last, the final, the unalterably final round, "Or my name's mud!" Friedrich sat staring into space until a gossipy acquaintance approached the table. He quickly withdrew behind a paper and pretended to read. His eye was caught by the advertisement that Schiffmann had found so fascinating, Here it was:

"Wanted, An educated, desperate young man willing to make a last experiment with his life. Apply N. O. Body, this office."

How strange! Now the description fitted himself. A last experiment! He was sick of. life. Before flinging it away like his poor friend Heinrich, he might as well try to make somthing of it. He asked the waiter for notepaper, and wrote briefly to N. O. Body. "I am your man. Dr. Friedrich Loewenberg, IX Hahngasse 67."

As he was sealing the letter, someone approached him from behind. "Tooth brushes, suspenders, shirt buttons please!" Gruffy he repulsed the importunate peddler. The man moved off with a tearful glance at the waiter, who might put him out for annoying the guests. Friedrich, conscience-stricken at having frightened the man, called him back and threw a small coin into the basket. The peddler held out his trash.

"I am no beggar. You must buy something. Otherwise, I cannot keep your money."

11

To get rid of him, Friedrich took a shin button from the basket. The peddler thanked him and went away. Indifferently Friedrich watched as he walked over to the waiter and handed him the recently acquired coin. The waiter pulled out a basket of stale rolls, and gave some to the peddler, who stuffed them hastily into his coat pocket.

Friedrich rose to go. As he passed through the doorway he noticed the freezing boy, who had now joined the peddler. The man gave him the hard rolls. Father and son evidently.

"What are you doing?" asked Friedrich.

"I am giving the boy bread to take home to my wife. This is the first sale I have made today."

"Are you telling the truth?" probed Friedrich.

"I wish it were not the truth," groaned the man. "Wherever I go, they put me out when I try to sell something. If you are a Jew, you might as well throw yourself into the Danube at once."

Though he had so recently resolved to have done with life, Friedrich was interested in this opportunity to be of some service. The affair would divert his thoughts. He posted his letter, and then walked along with the two. He asked the peddler to tell his story.

"We came here from Galicia," said the man. "In Cracow we lived in one room with three other families. We had no source of livelihood. Things can become no worse, I thought, and came here with my wife and children. Here it is no worse; neither is it better:'

"How many children have you?"

The man began to sob. "I had five, but three have died since we came here. Now I have only this boy here and a little girl still at the breast. ..David, don't run so fast!"

The boy turned his head. "Mother was so hungry when I brought her the three heller from this gentleman." "Oh, sir, you were the kind gentleman!"

The peddler tried to kiss Friedrich's hand.

12

The latter drew back quickly. "What are you thinking of? ...Tell me, my boy, what did your mother do with the few heller?"

"She fetched Miriam some milk."

"Miriam is our other child," explained the father.

"And your mother still went hungry?" asked Friedrich, shaken.

"Yes, sir."

Friedrich still had a few gulden in his pocket. Having done with life, it did not matter whether he kept them or not. He could alleviate the need of these people, if only for the moment.

"Where do you live?" he asked.

"On the Brigittenauer Laende. We have a little room, but have been told to move."

"Good. I want to see for myself if all this is true. I shall go home with you:'

"Please do, sir. Though it will afford you no pleasure. We lie on straw. ..I had intended to go to some other cafes tonight. But, if you wish, I'll go home now."

They crossed the Augarten Bridge to the Brigittenauer Laende. David, sidling along beside his father, whispered, "Tateh, may I eat a piece of bread?"

"Yes, eat," replied the father. Yes, I'll eat some too. There will be enough for mother."

13

Father and son pulled the hard crusts out of their pockets and munched audibly.

They paused before a tall building on the Laende that still exhaled a moist, new smell. The peddler rang the bell. All remained quiet. After a bit he pulled again at the brass knob, saying, "The janitor knows who it is. That's why he takes his time. Many a time I have to stand here for an hour. He is a rude man. Often I do not trust myself to come if I haven't five kreutzer to give him for opening the door."

"What do you do then?"

"I walk until the morning, when the house-door is opened:'

Friedrich tugged vigorously at the bell. Once, twice. Behind the gate they heard a rustling, shuffling footsteps, jingling keys. A gleam of light showed through the slits. The gate was opened. The janitor held up the lantern and shouted, "Who was that rang so loudly? What! The Jew baggage?"

The peddler timidly excused himself. "It wasn't I-this gentleman here..."

"Such audacity!" stormed the janitor.

"Hold your tongue, fellow!" ordered Friedrich, throwing down a silver coin.

Hearing the clink of silver on the cobbles, the man became servile. "Oh, I did not mean you, sir. That Jew there!"

"Hold your tongue!" repeated Friedrich, "and light the way upstairs for me."

The janitor stooped to pick up the money. A whole crown! This must be a very great gentleman.

"It's on the fifth floor, sir," said the peddler. "Perhaps the janitor will lend us a bit of candle." "I'll lend nothing to I.ittwak," he shouted. "But if you, sir, want a candle..."

14

He promptly took the stub out of his lantern and handed it to Friedrich. Then he disappeared, muttering. Friedrich climbed up the five flights. It was well they had the candle; the darkness was impenetrable.

The Littwaks' one-windowed room, too, was in darkness, though the woman was awake and sitting upright on her straw pallet. Friedrich noticed that the narrow room contained no stick of furniture whatever. Not a chair, table, or cupboard. On the window sill were a few small bottles and some broken pots. It was a picture of deepest poverty. A whimpering baby lay at the woman's flabby breast. The mother stared at him anxiously out of her hollow eyes.

"Who is this, Hayim?" she moaned fearfully.

"A kind gentleman," her husband reassured her.

"Mother, here is some bread," said David approaching her.

She broke it with difficulty and slowly put a bit into her mouth. She was emaciated and very weak, but the careworn face still showed traces of beauty.

"Here we live," said Hayim Littwak with a bitter laugh. "But I don't know whether the day after tomorrow we shall have even this. We have been told to move."

The woman sighed heavily. David cowered in the straw and nestled against her.

"How much do you need in order to remain here?" asked Friedrich.

"Three gulden," replied Littwak. "One gulden twenty for rent, and the rest we owe the janitor's wife. But how shall I get three gulden by the day after tomorrow? We and the children will lie in the street."

The woman wept softly, hopelessly. "Three gulden!"

Friedrich reached into his pocket and found eight gulden. He handed them to the peddler.

15

"Righteous God! Is it possible?" cried Hayim, as the tears rolled over his face. "Eight gulden! Rebecca! David! God has helped us! Blessed be His Name!"

Rebecca, too, was beside herself with joy. She rose to her knees and crawled toward the benefactor. She held the sleeping baby on her right arm, and reached with her left for Friedrich's hand that she might kiss it.

He cut their thanks short. "Don't make such a fuss about it! The few gulden are nothing to me-it doesn't matter whether I have them or not...David can light me downstairs."

The woman sank back on her pallet, sobbing pitifully in her joy. Littwak murmured a Hebrew prayer. Friedrich left the room, escorted by David. When they reached the second landing, the boy, who had been holding the candle high, stopped short. "God will make me a strong man," he said. "And then I shall repay you."

Friedrich marveled at the little fellow's words and tone. There was something curiously firm and mature about him.

"How old are you?" he asked the boy.

"Ten, I think."

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to study. To study very much."

Friedrich sighed involuntarily. "And do you think that is enough?"

"Yes. I have heard that one who studies becomes a free, strong man. I shall study, God helping me. Then I shall go to the Land of Israel with my parents and Miriam."

"To Palestine?" asked Friedrich in amazement. "What will you do there?"

16

"That is our country. There we can be happy."

The poor Jew boy seemed in no wise ridiculous as he announced his program in a few emphatic words. Friedrich recalled those silly jesters, Gruen and Blau, who had made Zionism the butt of their insipid humor. "And when I have something," added David, "I shall repay you."

Friedrich smiled. "I did not give the money to you, but to your father."

"What is given to my father is given to me. I shall repay everything-good and evil." David spoke emphatically and shook his small fist toward the janitor's quarters near which they now stood.

Friedrich placed his hand on the boy's head. "May the God of our ancestors be with you!"

Later he wondered at his own words. He had had nothing to do with the ancestral God since as a child he had gone to temple with his father. This remarkable encounter, however, had stirred old and forgotten things within him. He longed for the strong faith of his youth, when he had communed with the God of his fathers in prayer.

The janitor shuffled forward. Friedrich turned to him. "Hereafter," he said, "you will leave these poor people in peace. Otherwise, you will have to reckon with me. Understand?"

As Friedrich's words were accompanied by a second tip, the fellow murmured meekly, "Kiss your grace's hand!"

Friedrich shook hands with little David, and stepped out on the lonely street.