Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 2

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THAT evening, in the corner room of the high house with the large bow-windows and handsome stucco work that stood on the town wall near the synagogue, unusual illumination and splendor reigned. The silver chandelier in the centre of the room, whose rare arabesques were usually wrapped in gauze, shone brilliantly in reflection of the seven candles that blazed in a circle round it. There were many other beauties to illuminate: the cushions of the carved chairs were stripped of their ordinary gray covers, and revealed the magnificence of their silk and gold embroidered flowers and birds to the eyes of all beholders, so that hardly a glance could be spared for the gorgeous carpet beneath. The glittering goblets and glasses stood in regular order on the sideboard, and reflected the light in varied broken rays. From the stove, a light puff of sandalwood smoke arose, and pervaded the moderately spacious apartment, in whose midst under the chandelier stood a round table covered with pink-flowered damask, on which the silver pitchers and goblets seemed to give promise of a small but jovial company. On the east wall hung a picture on gilt parchment, and above it in Hebrew characters was written, "From this side blows the breath of Life." A frame brown with age enclosed the picture, in whose faded outlines the walls of a city were still recognizable, and underneath, in Hebrew, the verse, "Then the heathen that are left round about you shall know that I, the Lord, build the ruined places, and plant that which was desolate: I, the Lord, have spoken it, and I will do it" (Ezek. xxxvi. 36). It was the ancient city of the Lord, Jerusalem; and many eyes, now darkened in the bosom of the earth, had rested, with tears of grief or longing looks of joy, on this gilded parchment. There was no other picture on the tapestry-decked walls. On the ottoman reclined a youthful maiden; her rounded cheek rested on her right hand, the fingers were lost to sight in the abundance of her unbound raven tresses as she thus rested; an open prayer-book lay before her, but her eyes wandered beyond it into vacancy.

Was it devotion, was it the thought of God, that filled her soul? Was it a beautiful memory that rose before her, or dream-pictures of the future that entranced her and brought that celestial longing to the rosy lips, and doubled the pulsations of her heart? Or was it that happy unconscious waking dream, that so often surprises the maiden developing into womanhood, and raises nameless and defined longings in her breast? A Sabbath stillness rested on all her fairy-like surroundings. "I believe you are tired, Miriam, and no wonder!" said a nasal voice as the door opened.

Miriam sprang up hastily, pushed back her hair from her brow, kissed the prayer-book fervently, laid it on the window-seat, and quickly smoothed the ottoman.

"Why, what a fright you are in! Did you think a witch was coming? I may be ugly enough for one, it is true; I have not had time to change my dress; but that was a piece of work," said old Chaje; and indeed her whole appearance verified her description of herself. A coif smoked by the fire covered her gray hair, except where some locks escaped, and strayed like cobwebs over her wrinkled face; a black streak of soot on her left cheek, and half over her nose was remarked upon by Miriam, and Chaje tried to wipe it off before the mirror.

"You were quite right," she continued as she wiped her face with her kitchen apron. "You were quite right to lie down a little. Why should that thing stand there the whole year round and never be used? I wish I could lie down on my bed for awhile; I want nothing to eat to-night, I am so weary. Ay! When one has been eighteen years in one service, one feels the toil does not only wear one's clothes out. You would be tired enough if you had been ten times up and down, cleaning everything yourself and getting a bed ready for the strange guest; it is no little to do, but it is all set to rights now: he will stare to see it. What a good thing it is you bought the fish! Wine, fish, and meat—that the poor man has among the poor every Sabbath. Without fish the Sabbath is not rightly kept: it says so in the Thora. You are such a good housewife, you ought to be married soon; you will ask me to the wedding? Only take care not to wed such a little Schlemiehl as your Rebecca has. Have you seen how Baruch looks again today? As if he had been ten years underground. I'm afraid—I'm afraid that much learning may—God forbid it!—injure his health. Day and night, nothing but learning, learning, learning; and how will it end? My brother Abraham had a son, who was as knowing as Ristotles; he studied so much, that at last he quite stupefied himself. But hark! I think the service in the synagogue is over. I must go; I wouldn't be seen by any decent Jew as I am now. They are coming up the steps." Therewith Chaje slipped through the door.

Miriam was glad to be free from the tiresome talker. Her father, the stranger, whom we saw in the graveyard in conversation with Baruch, and Baruch himself entered. Miriam approached her father, and bowed before him; he laid both hands on her head, and blessed her in a low voice, saying these words; "The Lord make thee like the mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah;" and he also blessed Baruch, saying this verse in low tones: "The Lord make thee like Ephraim and Manasseh." He and Baruch then chanted a short canticle in honor of the troop of angels who enter the house of a Jew on each Sabbath. The father's voice took a melancholy tone, as he sang, with his son, in the usual manner, the praise of woman in Prov. xxxi. 10: "Who can find a virtuous woman?" The beauty, and even the management of the house, were the same as ever; the careful housewife had ensured its continuance; but she herself had been torn from him by death. Doubly painful was the thought of her loss amid Sabbath joys. The stranger noticed the picture on the wall.

"Do you recognize it yet, Rodrigo?" said the father when he had finished the whispered prayer. "It is an old heirloom, and hung once in our cellar synagogue at Guadalajara; I saved it with much danger."

While the two friends spoke of their old associations, Baruch and Miriam stood at the opposite end of the apartment.

"You have a dreadfully dismal face again today," said Miriam, smoothing her brother's hair from his brow as she spoke; "come to the mirror and see."

Baruch caught his sister's hand and held it fast; he said nothing, but listened to the conversation of the men.

"It was an instance of divine providence, for which I shall ever be thankful, that I recognized you directly you passed," said his father to the stranger.

"So you know my son, Baruch, already; this is my youngest daughter. How old are you now, Miriam?"

"Only a year younger than Baruch," answered the maiden, blushing.

"A foolish answer," said her father: "she is fourteen, I believe. I have an elder daughter, already married."

"Ah, my dears! I have two children also," said the stranger. "My Isabella is about your age, Miriam; my son will soon be twenty now. I hope when my children come here you will take care of them, especially in things pertaining to religion, for in all such they are wholly inexperienced. But stay," continued the stranger as he stood with folded arms before Baruch. "When I look at Baruch again, I cannot understand how it was I did not recognize him in the graveyard: his singularly dark complexion, his long, dark, almost black eyebrows, are just like yours in your younger days, when you meditated some daring adventure or other; and this frown on his uneven brow—that is just you; but the black wavy hair, and fine-cut mouth, with the soft dimple at the corner—ah, with what celestial sweetness Manuela smiled with those lips! A certain bold oppositiveness, that speaks in the lines of his face, all give him a partially Moorish look that he has from his mother. Ah, if she still lived, what joy it would give her to see me here to-day!"

Baruch listened to this description of himself unwillingly, and half in fear. When he heard thus of his partially Moorish origin, he recollected that Chisdai had taunted him with it in school; he was indignant that his father had not imparted it to him before. The latter noticed the annoyance of his son, and said to the stranger,

"You cannot conceal, Rodrigo, that you are a pupil of Silva Velasquez, and helped him to point out the beauty and ugliness of others to the dames of Philip's court. Baruch, you must show this gentleman your drawings to-morrow. Do not look so timid; nothing has been done to you."

"No, no," said the stranger, as he patted the boy's cheek, "I hope we shall be good friends. Did you not know my cousin, the learned Jacob Casseres?"

"Not himself," said Baruch, "but I knew his book, 'The seven days of the week at the Creation.'"

They then sat down to table, blessed the bread and the wine, and inaugurated the Sabbath.

"It is strange," remarked the host, after grace was said: "on other days I can hardly finish the last mouthful before I put my lighted cigar in my mouth, but on the Sabbath it is as if all our habits were changed; I do not desire to smoke, and it gives me no annoyance to practise the self-denial." The guest gave no response.

"Bless me," continued the host, "I notice now you still keep to our native custom of mixing wine with water. If you remain with us in the foggy north, where we force land from the sea, and guard it each hour; where half the year the earth is stiff, and the blue canopy of heaven hidden with clouds; where you breathe in mist and vapor, instead of clear air; here in our town, where no springs flow, and water for drinking must be brought from a distance; where men live as if imprisoned by the sea; where the climate itself compels men to be tranquil and composed, and the foresight and patience which have made the land, and still hold it, are the prime virtues of mankind: remain here, I say, and believe me, you will soon conform to our custom, and pour pure grape blood into your old veins to make yours circulate the faster. Ah, it is a glorious and precious country, our Spain! Our Eden inhabited by devils. Now when I must so soon lay my weary head in the bosom of the earth, I feel for the first time that it is not my native land that will receive me."

"You are unjust," replied the stranger. "You here sit at your table without fear: there your friend and your own child might be forced to confess with a heavy heart that you secretly worshipped the God of Israel; and the glow of a funeral pile might warm your old veins instead of this costly wine. You may dream now of the pleasures of your native land, and forget the terrible death that stared us in the face! The glorious chestnut woods with their cool dark shade could not invite us to rest, or the rich forests to the chase; on the morrow those trees might be our fagots; on the morrow we might be the hunter's prey. In truth, when I hear you speak so, I could join with those zealots who ascribe our afflictions to excessive love of our native land, too great pride and gratification in the respect we had won there."

"Yes, yes, you are right," answered his host; "but let us not disturb the joy of our reunion with dismal reflections. Come, drink! But stay! Miriam, bring the Venetian goblets here; and let Elsje light you to the cellar, and bring the two flasks that De Castro sent me."

"Brilliant!" exclaimed the stranger as he raised the glass of newly poured out wine to his lips; " that is real Val de Pefias; where did it come from?"

"As I said, Ramiro de Castro sent it to me from Hamburg. The wine has improved with us, but now it grows more fiery; and we—!"

"Well, well, we have lived; be content. The wine awakes the long-extinguished fire in me. Dost thou remember yet? Such wine we drank that evening in the Posada near the House of Donna Ines, who had already made thee wait two evenings in vain. You struck the table, and swore never to see her again; yet the next evening in the silent Arbor it was 'dear Alfonso' and 'dear Ines' again. Ha! ha! ha!"

The father warned his friend of the presence of the children; the stranger took little notice, however, and revelled in the wine of his native land.

"Do you remember that heavenly summer evening?" he continued, "when we sauntered on the Alameda in Guadalaxara? I see you now, when the bells tolled nine, and every one stood still as if by magic to pray a Pater Noster. I see you standing before me: how you crushed your hat in your hands! Your eyes flashed fire as though they would set the whole world in flames. Donna Ines not excepted. You were a dangerous cavalier."

"By G—," continued the stranger, after he had taken another pull at the wine. "The sweat still stands on my brow when I think how we stood once in Toledo before the church of 'Our Lady del Transito.' 'Do you see,' you said, gnashing your teeth, 'that splendid building was once the synagogue of our fathers. Samuel Levi, who built it, hangs rotting on the gallows, and now—' It was a real wonder that, in spite of thy audacity, we got away with whole heads."

Thus the two old friends renewed the memories of their youth. For an hour they lived a life of pleasure and youthful fire.

"I cannot understand," said Baruch once, "how a man could be happy for a moment in such a land, where he would perpetually see scorn, shame, and death before him."

"You are too young," said the stranger. "Believe me, if men watched your lightest breath, there are hours, yea days, when you can be happy, and forget everything. If men repulse you with scorn, and push you and yours aside into the mud, there is a holy of holies, wherein no earthly power enters: it is your own consciousness, union with your own faithful circle; the heaven that there surrounds us no man can take from us; not even the ever present horror of death.

"All these afflictions have passed over us, and yet we were happy."

"But the incessant discord in the soul? Christian before the world, and Jew at heart?"

"That was our misfortune, that I witnessed in your uncle Geronimo."

"Why does he not leave his dreary hermitage, and come to us?" inquired Baruch.

"He has left his hermitage, and we shall go to him: he is dead. Boy, these sad experiences you should have lived through; it would do you good your whole life long."

Baruch had risen from his seat, and repeated the verse appointed to be said on hearing of a death:

"Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the World, and Righteous Judge!"

"Tell us of it, I pray you," he added; and Miriam too approached the table, and joined in her brother's request.

"It is the Sabbath, and I ought not to do it," said the stranger; "but as you ask it, so let it be. It was his death that decided me to save myself and all dear to me from such a lie."