Story type: Literature
‘English, all English, that’s my dream.’
Even in his provincial days at Sudminster Solomon Cohen had distinguished himself by his Anglican mispronunciation of Hebrew and his insistence on a minister who spoke English and looked like a Christian clergyman; and he had set a precedent in the congregation by docking the ‘e’ of his patronymic. There are many ways of concealing from the Briton your shame in being related through a pedigree of three thousand years to Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, and Cohn is one of the simplest and most effective. Once, taken to task by a pietist, Solomon defended himself by the quibble that Hebrew has no vowels. But even this would not account for the whittling away of his ‘Solomon.’ ‘S. Cohn’ was the insignium over his clothing establishment. Not that he was anxious to deny his Jewishness–was not the shop closed on Saturdays?–he was merely anxious not to obtrude it. ‘When we are in England, we are in England,’ he would say, with his Talmudic sing-song.
S. Cohn was indeed a personage in the seaport of Sudminster, and his name had been printed on voting papers, and, what is more, he had at last become a Town Councillor. Really the citizens liked his stanch adherence to his ancient faith, evidenced so tangibly by his Sabbath shutters: even the Christian clothiers bore him goodwill, not suspecting that S. Cohn’s Saturday losses were more than counterbalanced by the general impression that a man who sacrificed business to religion would deal more fairly by you than his fellows. And his person, too, had the rotundity which the ratepayer demands.
But twin with his Town Councillor’s pride was his pride in being Gabbai (treasurer) of the little synagogue tucked away in a back street: in which for four generations prayer had ebbed and flowed as regularly as the tides of the sea, with whose careless rovers the worshippers did such lucrative business. The synagogue, not the sea, was the poetry of these eager traffickers: here they wore phylacteries and waved palm-branches and did other picturesque things, which in their utter ignorance of Catholic or other ritual they deemed unintelligible to the heathen and a barrier from mankind. Very imposing was Solomon Cohn in his official pew under the reading platform, for there is nothing which so enhances a man’s dignity in the synagogue as the consideration of his Christian townsmen. That is one of the earliest stages of Anglicization.
Mrs. Cohn was a pale image of Mr. Cohn, seeing things through his gold spectacles, and walking humbly in the shadow of his greatness. She had dutifully borne him many children, and sat on the ground for such as died. Her figure refused the Jewess’s tradition of opulency, and remained slender as though repressed. Her work was manifold and unceasing, for besides her domestic and shop-womanly duties she was necessarily a philanthropist, fettered with Jewish charities as the Gabbai’s wife, tangled with Christian charities as the consort of the Town Councillor. In speech she was literally his echo, catching up his mistakes, indeed, admonished by him of her slips in speaking the Councillor’s English. He had had the start of her by five years, for she had been brought from Poland to marry him, through the good offices of a friend of hers who saw in her little dowry the nucleus of a thriving shop in a thriving port.
And from this initial inferiority she never recovered–five milestones behind on the road of Anglicization! It was enough to keep down a more assertive personality than poor Hannah’s. The mere danger of slipping back unconsciously to the banned Yiddish put a curb upon her tongue. Her large, dark eyes had a dog-like look, and they were set pathetically in a sallow face that suggested ill-health, yet immense staying power.
That S. Cohn was a bit of a bully can scarcely be denied. It is difficult to combine the offices of Gabbai and Town Councillor without a self-satisfaction that may easily degenerate into dissatisfaction with others. Least endurable was S. Cohn in his religious rigidity, and he could never understand that pietistic exercises in which he found pleasure did not inevitably produce ecstasy in his son and heir. And when Simon was discovered reading ‘The Pirates of Pechili,’ dexterously concealed in his prayer-book, the boy received a strapping that made his mother wince. Simon’s breakfast lay only at the end of a long volume of prayers; and, having ascertained by careful experiment the minimum of time his father would accept for the gabbling of these empty Oriental sounds, he had fallen back on penny numbers to while away the hungry minutes. The quartering and burning of these tales in an avenging fireplace was not the least of the reasons why the whipped youth wept, and it needed several pieces of cake, maternally smuggled into his maw while the father’s back was turned, to choke his sobs.
With the daughters–and there were three before the son and heir–there was less of religious friction, since women have not the pious privileges and burdens of the sterner sex. When the eldest, Deborah, was married, her husband received, by way of compensation, the goodwill of the Sudminster business, while S. Cohn migrated to the metropolis, in the ambition of making ‘S. Cohn’s trouserings’ a household word. He did, indeed, achieve considerable fame in the Holloway Road.
Gradually he came to live away from his business, and in the most fashionable street of Highbury. But he was never to recover his exalted posts. The London parish had older inhabitants, the local synagogue richer members. The cry for Anglicization was common property. From pioneer, S. Cohn found himself outmoded. The minister, indeed, was only too English–and especially his wife. One would almost have thought from their deportment that they considered themselves the superiors instead of the slaves of the congregation. S. Cohn had been accustomed to a series of clergymen, who must needs be taught painfully to parrot ‘Our Sovereign Lady Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, the Princess of Wales, and all the Royal Family’–the indispensable atom of English in the service–so that he, the expert, had held his breath while they groped and stumbled along the precipitous pass. Now the whilom Gabbai and Town Councillor found himself almost patronized–as a poor provincial–by this mincing, genteel clerical couple. He retorted by animadverting upon the preacher’s heterodoxy.
An urban unconcern met the profound views so often impressed on Simon with a strap. ‘We are not in Poland now,’ said the preacher, shrugging his shoulders.
‘In Poland!’ S. Cohn’s blood boiled. To be twitted with Poland, after decades of Anglicization! He, who employed a host of Anglo-Saxon clerks, counter-jumpers, and packers! ‘And where did your father come from?’ he retorted hotly.
He had almost a mind to change his synagogue, but there was no other within such easy walking distance–an important Sabbatic consideration–and besides, the others were reported to be even worse. Dread rumours came of a younger generation that craved almost openly for organs in the synagogue and women’s voices in the choir, nay, of even more flagitious spirits–devotional dynamitards–whose dream was a service all English, that could be understood instead of chanted! Dark mutterings against the ancient Rabbis were in the very air of these wealthier quarters of London.
‘Oh, shameless ignorance of the new age,’ S. Cohn was wont to complain, ‘that does not know the limits of Anglicization!’
That Simon should enter his father’s business was as inevitable as that the business should prosper in spite of Simon.
His career had been settled ere his father became aware that Highbury aspired even to law and medicine, and the idea that Simon’s education was finished was not lightly to be dislodged. Simon’s education consisted of the knowledge conveyed in seaport schools for the sons of tradesmen, while a long course of penny dreadfuls had given him a peculiar and extensive acquaintance with the ways of the world. Carefully curtained away in a secret compartment, lay his elementary Hebrew lore. It did not enter into his conception of the perfect Englishman. Ah, how he rejoiced in this wider horizon of London, so thickly starred with music-halls, billiard-rooms, and restaurants! ‘We are emancipated now,’ was his cry: ‘we have too much intellect to keep all those old laws;’ and he swallowed the forbidden oyster in a fine spiritual glow, which somehow or other would not extend to bacon. That stuck more in his throat, and so was only taken in self-defence, to avoid the suspicions of a convivial company.
As he sat at his father’s side in the synagogue–a demure son of the Covenant–this young Englishman lurked beneath his praying-shawl, even as beneath his prayer-book had lurked ‘The Pirates of Pechili.’
In this hidden life Mrs. S. Cohn was not an aider or abettor, except in so far as frequent gifts from her own pocket-money might be considered the equivalent of the surreptitious cake of childhood. She would have shared in her husband’s horror had she seen Simon banqueting on unrighteousness, and her apoplexy would have been original, not derivative. For her, indeed, London had proved narrowing rather than widening. She became part of a parish instead of part of a town, and of a Ghetto in a parish at that! The vast background of London was practically a mirage–the London suburb was farther from London than the provincial town. No longer did the currents of civic life tingle through her; she sank entirely to family affairs, excluded even from the ladies’ committee. Her lord’s life, too, shrank, though his business extended–the which, uneasily suspected, did but increase his irritability. He had now the pomp and pose of his late offices minus any visible reason: a Sir Oracle without a shrine, an abdomen without authority.
Even the two new sons-in-law whom his ability to clothe them had soon procured in London, listened impatiently, once they had safely passed under the Canopy and were ensconced in plush parlours of their own. Home and shop became his only realm, and his autocratic tendencies grew the stronger by compression. He read ‘the largest circulation,’ and his wife became an echo of its opinions. These opinions, never nebulous, became sharp as illuminated sky-signs when the Boer War began.
‘The impertinent rascals!’ cried S. Cohn furiously. ‘They have invaded our territory.’
‘Is it possible?’ ejaculated Mrs. Cohn. ‘This comes of our kindness to them after Majuba!’
A darkness began to overhang the destinies of Britain. Three defeats in one week!
‘It is humiliating,’ said S. Cohn, clenching his fist.
‘It makes a miserable Christmas,’ said Mrs. Cohn gloomily. Although her spouse still set his face against the Christmas pudding which had invaded so many Anglo-Jewish homes, the festival, with its shop-window flamboyance, entered far more vividly into his consciousness than the Jewish holidays, which produced no impression on the life of the streets.
The darkness grew denser. Young men began to enlist for the front: the City formed a new regiment of Imperial Volunteers. S. Cohn gave his foreign houses large orders for khaki trouserings. He sent out several parcels of clothing to the seat of war, and had the same duly recorded in his favourite Christian newspaper, whence it was copied into his favourite Jewish weekly, which was, if possible, still more chauvinist, and had a full-page portrait of Sir Asher Aaronsberg, M.P. for Middleton, who was equipping a local corps at his own expense. Gradually S. Cohn became aware that the military fever of which he read in both his organs was infecting his clothing emporium–that his own counter-jumpers were in heats of adventurous resolve. The military microbes must have lain thick in the khaki they handled. At any rate, S. Cohn, always quick to catch the contagion of the correct thing, announced that he would present a bonus to all who went out to fight for their country, and that he would keep their places open for their return. The Saturday this patriotic offer was recorded in his newspaper–‘On inquiry at S. Cohn’s, the great clothing purveyor of the Holloway Road, our representative was informed that no less than five of the young men were taking advantage of their employer’s enthusiasm for England and the Empire’–the already puffed-up Solomon had the honour of being called to read in the Law, and first as befitted the sons of Aaron. It was a man restored almost to his provincial pride who recited the ancient benediction; ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, who hast chosen us from among all peoples and given to us His law.’
But there was a drop of vinegar in the cup.
‘And why wasn’t Simon in synagogue?’ he inquired of his wife, as she came down the gallery stairs to meet her lord in the lobby, where the congregants loitered to chat.
‘Do I know?’ murmured Mrs. Cohn, flushing beneath her veil.
‘When I left the house he said he was coming on.’
‘He didn’t know you were to be “called up.”‘
‘It isn’t that, Hannah,’ he grumbled. ‘Think of the beautiful war-sermon he missed. In these dark days we should be thinking of our country, not of our pleasures.’ And he drew her angrily without, where the brightly-dressed worshippers, lingeringly exchanging eulogiums on the ‘Rule Britannia’ sermon, made an Oriental splotch of colour on the wintry pavement.
At lunch the reprobate appeared, looking downcast.
‘Where have you been?’ thundered S. Cohn, who, never growing older, imagined Simon likewise stationary.
‘I went out for a walk–it was a fine morning.’
‘And where did you go?’
‘Oh, don’t bother!’
‘But I shall bother. Where did you go?’
He grew sullen. ‘It doesn’t matter–they won’t have me.’
‘Who won’t have you?’
‘The War Office.’
‘Thank God!’ broke from Mrs. Cohn.
‘Eh?’ Mr. Cohn looked blankly from one to the other.
‘It is nothing–he went to see the enlisting and all that. Your soup is getting cold.’
But S. Cohn had taken off his gold spectacles and was polishing them with his serviette–always a sign of a stormy meal.
‘It seems to me something has been going on behind my back,’ he said, looking from mother to son.
‘Well, I didn’t want to annoy you with Simon’s madcap ideas,’ Hannah murmured. ‘But it’s all over now, thank God!’
‘Oh, he’d better know,’ said Simon sulkily, ‘especially as I am not going to be choked off. It’s all stuff what the doctor says. I’m as strong as a horse. And, what’s more, I’m one of the few applicants who can ride one.’
‘Hannah, will you explain to me what this Meshuggas (madness) is?’ cried S. Cohn, lapsing into a non-Anglicism.
‘I’ve got to go to the front, just like other young men!’
‘What!’ shrieked S. Cohn. ‘Enlist! You, that I brought up as a gentleman!’
‘It’s gentlemen that’s going–the City Imperial Volunteers!’
‘The volunteers! But that’s my own clerks.’
‘No; there are gentlemen among them. Read your paper.’
‘But not rich Jews.’
‘Oh, yes. I saw several chaps from Bayswater.’
‘We Jews of this favoured country,’ put in Hannah eagerly, ‘grateful to the noble people who have given us every right, every liberty, must—-‘
S. Cohn was taken aback by this half-unconscious quotation from the war-sermon of the morning. ‘Yes, we must subscribe and all that,’ he interrupted.
‘We must fight,’ said Simon.
‘You fight!’ His father laughed half-hysterically. ‘Why, you’d shoot yourself with your own gun!’ He had not been so upset since the day the minister had disregarded his erudition.
‘Oh, would I, though?’ And Simon pursed his lips and nodded meaningly.
‘As sure as to-day is the Holy Sabbath. And you’d be stuck on your own bayonet, like an obstinate pig.’
Simon got up and left the table and the room.
Hannah kept back her tears before the servant. ‘There!’ she said. ‘And now he’s turned sulky and won’t eat.’
‘Didn’t I say an obstinate pig? He’s always been like that from a baby. But his stomach always surrenders.’ He resumed his meal with a wronged air, keeping his spectacles on the table, for frequent nervous polishing.
Of a sudden the door reopened and a soldier presented himself–gun on shoulder. For a moment S. Cohn, devoid of his glasses, stared without recognition. Wild hereditary tremors ran through him, born of the Russian persecution, and he had a vague nightmare sense of the Chappers, the Jewish man-gatherers who collected the tribute of young Jews for the Little Father. But as Simon began to loom through the red fog, ‘A gun on the Sabbath!’ he cried. It was as if the bullet had gone through all his conceptions of life and of Simon.
Hannah snatched at the side-issue. ‘I read in Josephus–Simon’s prize for Hebrew, you know–that the Jews fought against the Romans on Sabbath.’
‘Yes; but they fought for themselves–for our Holy Temple.’
‘But it’s for ourselves now,’ said Simon. ‘Didn’t you always say we are English?’
S. Cohn opened his mouth in angry retort. Then he discovered he had no retort, only anger. And this made him angrier, and his mouth remained open, quite terrifyingly for poor Mrs. Cohn.
‘What is the use of arguing with him?’ she said imploringly. ‘The War Office has been sensible enough to refuse him.’
‘We shall see,’ said Simon. ‘I am going to peg away at ’em again, and if I don’t get into the Mounted Infantry, I’m a Dutchman–and of the Boer variety.’
He seemed any kind of man save a Jew to the puzzled father. ‘Hannah, you must have known of this–these clothes,’ S. Cohn spluttered.
‘They don’t cost anything,’ she murmured. ‘The child amuses himself. He will never really be called out.’
‘If he is, I’ll stop his supplies.’
‘Oh,’ said Simon airily, ‘the Government will attend to that.’
‘Indeed!’ And S. Cohn’s face grew black. ‘But remember–you may go, but you shall never come back.’
‘Oh, Solomon! How can you utter such an awful omen?’
Simon laughed. ‘Don’t bother, mother. He’s bound to take me back. Isn’t it in the papers that he promised?’
S. Cohn went from black to green.
Simon got his way. The authorities reconsidered their decision. But the father would not reconsider his. Ignorant of his boy’s graceless existence, he fumed at the first fine thing in the boy’s life. ‘Tis a wise father that knows his own child.
Mere emulation of his Christian comrades, and the fun of the thing, had long ago induced the lad to add volunteering to his other dissipations. But, once in it, the love of arms seized him, and when the call for serious fighters came, some new passion that surprised even himself leapt to his breast–the first call upon an idealism, choked, rather than fed, by a misunderstood Judaism. Anglicization had done its work; from his schooldays he had felt himself a descendant, not of Judas Maccabaeus, but of Nelson and Wellington; and now that his brethren were being mowed down by a kopje-guarded foe, his whole soul rose in venomous sympathy. And, mixed with this genuine instinct of devotion to the great cause of country, were stirrings of anticipated adventure, gorgeous visions of charges, forlorn hopes, picked-up shells, redoubts stormed; heritages of ‘The Pirates of Pechili,’ and all the military romances that his prayer-book had masked.
He looked every inch an Anglo-Saxon, in his khaki uniform and his great slouch hat, with his bayonet and his bandolier.
The night before he sailed for South Africa there was a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, for which each volunteer had two tickets. Simon sent his to his father. ‘The Lord Mayor will attend in state. I dare say you’ll like to see the show,’ he wrote flippantly.
‘He’ll become a Christian next,’ said S. Cohn, tearing the cards in twain.
Later, Mrs. Cohn pieced them together. It was the last chance of seeing her boy.
Unfortunately the Cathedral service fell on a Friday night, when S. Cohn, the Emporium closed, was wont to absorb the Sabbath peace. He would sit, after high tea, of which cold fried fish was the prime ingredient, dozing over the Jewish weekly. He still approved platonically of its bellicose sentiments. This January night, the Sabbath arriving early in the afternoon, he was snoring before seven, and Mrs. Cohn slipped out, risking his wrath. Her religion forced her to make the long journey on foot; but, hurrying, she arrived at St. Paul’s before the doors were opened. And throughout the long walk was a morbid sense of one wasted ticket. She almost stopped at a friend’s house to offer the exciting spectacle, but dread of a religious rebuff carried her past. With Christians she was not intimate enough to invite companionship. Besides, would not everybody ask why she was going without her husband?
She inquired for the door mentioned on her ticket, and soon found herself one of a crowd of parents on the steps. A very genteel crowd, she noted with pleasure. Her boy would be in good company. The scraps of conversation she caught dealt with a world of alien things–how little she was Anglicized, she thought, after all those years! And when she was borne forward into the Cathedral, her heart beat with a sense of dim, remote glories. To have lived so long in London and never to have entered here! She was awed and soothed by the solemn vistas, the perspectives of pillars and arches, the great nave, the white robes of the choir vaguely stirring a sense of angels, the overarching dome, defined by a fiery rim, but otherwise suggesting dim, skyey space.
Suddenly she realized that she was sitting among the men. But it did not seem to matter. The building kept one’s thoughts religious. Around the waiting congregation, the human sea outside the Cathedral rumoured, and whenever the door was opened to admit some dignitary the roar of cheering was heard like a salvo saluting his entry. The Lord Mayor and the Aldermen passed along the aisle, preceded by mace-bearers; and mingled with this dazzle of gilded grandeur and robes, was a regretful memory of the days when, as a Town Councillor’s consort, she had at least touched the hem of this unknown historic English life. The skirl of bagpipes shrilled from without–that exotic, half-barbarous sound now coming intimately into her life. And then, a little later, the wild cheers swept into the Cathedral like a furious wind, and the thrill of the marching soldiers passed into the air, and the congregation jumped up on the chairs and craned towards the right aisle to stare at the khaki couples. How she looked for Simon!
The volunteers filed on, filed on–beardless youths mostly, a few with a touch of thought in the face, many with the honest nullity of the clerk and the shopman, some with the prizefighter’s jaw, but every face set and serious. Ah! at last, there was her Simon–manlier, handsomer than them all! But he did not see her: he marched on stiffly; he was already sucked up into this strange life. Her heart grew heavy. But it lightened again when the organ pealed out. The newspapers the next day found fault with the plain music, with the responses all in monotone, but to her it was divine. Only the words of the opening hymn, which she read in the ‘Form of Prayer,’ discomforted her:
‘Fight the good fight with all thy might,
Christ is thy Strength and Christ thy Right’
But the bulk of the liturgy surprised her, so strangely like was it to the Jewish. The ninety-first Psalm! Did they, then, pray the Jewish prayers in Christian churches? ‘For He shall give His angels charge over thee: to keep thee in all thy ways.’ Ah! how she prayed that for Simon!
As the ecclesiastical voice droned on, unintelligibly, inaudibly, in echoing, vaulted space, she studied the hymns and verses, with their insistent Old Testament savour, culminating in the farewell blessing:
‘The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you peace.’
How often she had heard it in Hebrew from the priests as they blessed the other tribes! Her husband himself had chanted it, with uplifted palms and curiously grouped fingers. But never before had she felt its beauty: she had never even understood its words till she read the English of them in the gilt-edged Prayer-Book that marked rising wealth. Surely there had been some monstrous mistake in conceiving the two creeds as at daggers drawn, and though she only pretended to kneel with the others, she felt her knees sinking in surrender to the larger life around her.
As the volunteers filed out and the cheers came in, she wormed her way nearer to the aisle, scrambling even over backs of chairs in the general mellay. This time Simon saw her. He stretched out his martial arm and blew her a kiss. Oh, delicious tears, full of heartbreak and exaltation! This was their farewell.
She passed out into the roaring crowd, with a fantastic dream-sense of a night-sky and a great stone building, dark with age and solemnity, and unreal figures perched on railings and points of vantage, and hurrahing hordes that fused themselves with the procession and became part of its marching. She yearned forwards to vague glories, aware of a poor past. She ran with the crowd. How they cheered her boy! Her boy! She saw him carried off on the shoulders of Christian citizens. Yes; he was a hero. She was the mother of a hero.
The first news she got from him was posted at St. Vincent. He wrote to her alone, with a jocose hope that his father would be satisfied with his sufferings on the voyage. Not only had the sea been rough, but he had suffered diabolically from the inoculation against enteric fever, which, even after he had got his sea-legs, kept him to his berth and gave him a ‘Day of Atonement’ thirst.
‘Ah!’ growled S. Cohn; ‘he sees what a fool he’s been, and he’ll take the next boat back.’
‘But that would be desertion.’
‘Well, he didn’t mind deserting the business.’
Mr. Cohn’s bewilderment increased with every letter. The boy was sleeping in sodden trenches, sometimes without blankets; and instead of grumbling at that, his one grievance was that the regiment was not getting to the front. Heat and frost, hurricane and dust-storm–nothing came amiss. And he described himself as stronger than ever, and poured scorn on the medical wiseacre who had tried to refuse him.
‘All the same,’ sighed Hannah, ‘I do hope they will just be used to guard the lines of communication.’ She was full of war-knowledge acquired with painful eagerness, prattled of Basuto ponies and Mauser bullets, pontoons and pom-poms, knew the exact position of the armies, and marked her war-map with coloured pins.
Simon, too, had developed quite a literary talent under the pressure of so much vivid new life, and from his cheery letters she learned much that was not in the papers, especially in those tense days when the C.I.V.’S did at last get to the front–and remained there: tales of horses mercifully shot, and sheep mercilessly poisoned, and oxen dropping dead as they dragged the convoys; tales of muddle and accident, tales of British soldiers slain by their own protective cannon as they lay behind ant-heaps facing the enemy, and British officers culled under the very eyes of the polo-match; tales of hospital and camp, of shirts turned sable and putties worn to rags, and all the hidden miseries of uncleanliness and insanitation that underlie the glories of war. There were tales, too, of quarter-rations; but these she did not read to her husband, lest the mention of ‘bully-beef’ should remind him of how his son must be eating forbidden food. Once, even, two fat pigs were captured at a hungry moment for the battalion. But there came a day when S. Cohn seized those letters and read them first. He began to speak of his boy at the war–nay, to read the letters to enthralled groups in the synagogue lobby–groups that swallowed without reproach the tripha meat cooked in Simon’s mess-tin.
It was like being Gabbai over again.
Moreover, Simon’s view of the Boer was so strictly orthodox as to give almost religious satisfaction to the proud parent. ‘A canting hypocrite, a psalm-singer and devil-dodger, he has no civilization worth the name, and his customs are filthy. Since the great trek he has acquired, from long intercourse with his Kaffir slaves, many of the native’s savage traits. In short, a born liar, credulous and barbarous, crassly ignorant and inconceivably stubborn.’
‘Crassly ignorant and inconceivably stubborn,’ repeated S. Cohn, pausing impressively. ‘Haven’t I always said that? The boy only bears out what I knew without going there. But hear further! “Is it to be wondered at that the Boer farmer, hidden in the vast undulations of the endless veldt, with his wife, his children and his slaves, should lose all sense of proportion, ignorant of the outside world, his sole knowledge filtering through Jo-burgh?”‘
As S. Cohn made another dramatic pause, it was suddenly borne in on his wife with a stab of insight that he was reading a description of himself–nay, of herself, of her whole race, hidden in the great world, awaiting some vague future of glory that never came. The important voice of her husband broke again upon her reflections:
‘”He has held many nights of supplication to his fetish, and is still unconvinced that his God of Battles is asleep.”‘ The reader chuckled, and a broad smile overspread the synagogue lobby. ‘”They are brave–oh, yes, but it is not what we mean by it–they are good fighters, because they have Dutch blood at the back of them, and a profound contempt for us. Their whole life has been spent on the open veldt (we are always fighting them on somebody’s farm, who knows every inch of the ground), and they never risk anything except in the trap sort of manoeuvres. The brave rush of our Tommies is unknown to them, and their slim nature would only see the idiocy of walking into a death-trap, cool as in a play. Were there ever two races less alike?”‘ wound up the youthful philosopher in his tent. ‘”I really do not see how they are to live together after the war.”‘
‘That’s easy enough,’ S. Cohn had already commented to his wife as oracularly as if she did not read the same morning paper. ‘Intermarriage! In a generation or two there will be one fine Anglo-African race. That’s the solution–mark my words. And you can tell the boy as much–only don’t say I told you to write to him.’
‘Father says I’m to tell you intermarriage is the solution,’ Mrs. Cohn wrote obediently. ‘He really is getting much softer towards you.’
‘Tell father that’s nonsense,’ Simon wrote back. ‘The worst individuals we have to deal with come from a Boer mother and an English father, deposited here by the first Transvaal war.’
S. Cohn snorted angrily at the message. ‘That was because there were two Governments–he forgets there will be only one United Empire now.’
He was not appeased till Private Cohn was promoted, and sent home a thrilling adventure, which the proud reader was persuaded by the lobby to forward to the communal organ. The organ asked for a photograph to boot. Then S. Cohn felt not only Gabbai, but town councillor again.
This wonderful letter, of which S. Cohn distributed printed copies to the staff of the Emporium with a bean-feast air, ran:
‘We go out every day–I am speaking of my own squadron–each officer taking his turn with twenty to fifty men, and sweep round the farms a few miles out; and we seldom come back without seeing Boers hanging round on the chance of a snipe at our flanks, or waiting to put up a trap if we go too far. The local commando fell on our cattle-guard the other day–a hundred and fifty to our twenty-five–and we suffered; it was a horrible bit of country. There was a young chap, Winstay–rather a pal of mine–he had a narrow squeak, knocked over by a shot in his breast. I managed to get him safe back to camp–Heaven knows how!–and they made me a lance-corporal, and the beggar says I saved his life; but it was really through carrying a fat letter from his sister–not even his sweetheart. We chaff him at missing such a romantic chance. He got off with a flesh wound, but there is a great blot of red ink on the letter. You may imagine we were not anxious to let our comrades go unavenged. My superiors being sick or otherwise occupied, I was allowed to make a night-march with thirty-five men on a farm nine miles away–just to get square. It was a nasty piece of work, as we were within a few miles of the Boer laager, three hundred strong. There was moonlight, too–it was like a dream, that strange, silent ride, with only the stumble of a horse breaking the regular thud of the hoofs. We surrounded the farm in absolute silence, dismounting some thousand yards away, and fixing bayonets. I told the men I wanted no shots–that would have brought down the commando–but cold steel and silence. We crept up and swept the farm–it was weird, but, alas! they were out on the loot. The men were furious, but we live in hopes.’
The end was a trifle disappointing, but S. Cohn, too, lived in hopes–of some monstrous and memorable butchery. Even his wife had got used to the firing-line, now that neither shot nor shell could harm her boy. ‘For He shall give His angels charge over thee.’ She had come to think her secret daily repetition of the ninety-first Psalm talismanic.
When Simon sent home the box which had held the chocolates presented by the Queen, a Boer bullet, and other curios, S. Cohn displayed them in his window, and the crowd and the business they brought him put him more and more in sympathy with Simon and the Empire. In conversation he deprecated the non-militarism of the Jew: ‘If I were only a younger man myself, sir….’
The night Mafeking was relieved, the Emporium was decorated with bunting from roof to basement, and a great illuminated window revealed nothing but stacks of khaki trouserings.
So that, although the good man still sulked over Simon to his wife, she was not deceived; and, the time drawing nigh for Simon’s return, she began to look happily forward to a truly reunited family.
In her wildest anxiety it never occurred to her that it was her husband who would die. Yet this is what the irony of fate brought to pass. In the unending campaign which death wages with life, S. Cohn was slain, and Simon returned unscratched from the war to recite the Kaddish in his memory.
Simon came back bronzed and a man. The shock of finding his father buried had supplied the last transforming touch; and, somewhat to his mother’s surprise, he settled down contentedly to the business he had inherited. And now that he had practically unlimited money to spend, he did not seem to be spending it, but to be keeping better hours than when dodging his father’s eye. His only absences from home he accounted for as visits to Winstay, his pal of the campaign, with whom he had got chummier than ever since the affair of the cattle-guard. Winstay, he said, was of good English family, with an old house in Harrow–fortunately on the London and North Western Railway, so that he could easily get a breath of country air on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. He seemed to have forgotten (although the Emporium was still closed on Saturdays) that riding was forbidden, and his mother did not remind him of it. The life that had been risked for the larger cause, she vaguely felt as enfranchised from the limitations of the smaller.
Nearly two months after Simon’s return, a special military service was held at the Great Synagogue on the feast of Chanukah–the commemoration of the heroic days of Judas Maccabaeus–and the Jewish C.I.V.’s were among the soldiers invited. Mrs. Cohn, too, got a ticket for the imposing ceremony which was fixed for a Sunday afternoon.
As they sat at the midday meal on the exciting day, Mrs. Cohn said suddenly: ‘Guess who paid me a visit yesterday.’
‘Goodness knows,’ said Simon.
‘Mr. Sugarman.’ And she smiled nervously.
‘Sugarman?’ repeated Simon blankly.
‘The–the–er–the matrimonial agent.’
‘What impudence! Before your year of mourning is up!’
Mrs. Cohn’s sallow face became one flame. ‘Not me! You!’ she blurted.
‘Me! Well, of all the cheek!’ And Simon’s flush matched his mother’s.
‘Oh, it’s not so unreasonable,’ she murmured deprecatingly. ‘I suppose he thought you would be looking for a wife before long; and naturally,’ she added, her voice growing bolder, ‘I should like to see you settled before I follow your father. After all, you are no ordinary match. Sugarman says there isn’t a girl in Bayswater, even, who would refuse you.’
‘The very reason for refusing them,’ cried Simon hotly. ‘What a ghastly idea, that your wife would just as soon have married any other fellow with the same income!’
Mrs. Cohn cowered under his scorn, yet felt vaguely exalted by it, as by the organ in St. Paul’s, and strange tears of shame came to complicate her emotions further. She remembered how she had been exported from Poland to marry the unseen S. Cohn. Ah! how this new young generation was snapping asunder the ancient coils! how the new and diviner sap ran in its veins!
‘I shall only marry a girl I love, mother. And it’s not likely to be one of these Jewish girls, I tell you frankly.’
She trembled. ‘One of which Jewish girls?’ she faltered.
‘Oh, any sort. They don’t appeal to me.’
Her face grew sallower. ‘I am glad your father isn’t alive to hear that,’ she breathed.
‘But father said intermarriage is the solution,’ retorted Simon.
Mrs. Cohn was struck dumb. ‘He was thinking how to make the Boers English,’ she said at last.
‘And didn’t he say the Jews must be English, too?’
‘Aren’t there plenty of Jewish girls who are English?’ she murmured miserably.
‘You mean, who don’t care a pin about the old customs? Then where’s the difference?’ retorted Simon.
The meal finished in uncomfortable silence, and Simon went off to don his khaki regimentals and join in the synagogue parade.
Mrs. Cohn’s heart was heavy as she dressed for the same spectacle. Her brain was busy piecing it all together. Yes, she understood it all now–those sedulous Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Harrow. She lived at Harrow, then, this Christian, this grateful sister of the rescued Winstay: it was she who had steadied his life; hers were those ‘fat letters,’ faintly aromatic. It must be very wonderful, this strange passion, luring her son from his people with its forbidden glamour. How Highbury would be scandalized, robbed of so eligible a bridegroom! The sons-in-law she had enriched would reproach her for the shame imported into the family–they who had cleaved to the Faith! And–more formidable than all the rest–she heard the tongue of her cast-off seaport, to whose reverence or disesteem she still instinctively referred all her triumphs and failures.
Yet, on the other hand, surged her hero-son’s scorn at the union by contract consecrated by the generations! But surely a compromise could be found. He should have love–this strange English thing–but could he not find a Jewess? Ah, happy inspiration! he should marry a quite poor Jewess–he had money enough, thank Heaven! That would show him he was not making a match, that he was truly in love.
But this strange girl at Harrow–he would never be happy with her! No, no; there were limits to Anglicization.
It was not till she was seated in the ancient synagogue, relieved from the squeeze of entry in the wake of soldiers and the exhilaration of hearing ‘See the Conquering Hero comes’ pealing, she knew not whence, that she woke to the full strangeness of it all, and to the consciousness that she was actually sitting among the men–just as in St. Paul’s. And what men! Everywhere the scarlet and grey of uniforms, the glister of gold lace–the familiar decorous lines of devout top-hats broken by glittering helmets, bear-skins, white nodding plumes, busbies, red caps a-cock, glengarries, all the colour of the British army, mixed with the feathered jauntiness of the Colonies and the khaki sombreros of the C.I.V.’s! Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Dragoon Guards, Lancers, Hussars, Artillery, Engineers, King’s Royal Rifles, all the corps that had for the first time come clearly into her consciousness in her tardy absorption into English realities, Jews seemed to be among them all. And without conscription–oh, what would poor Solomon have thought of that?
The Great Synagogue itself struck a note of modern English gaiety, as of an hotel dining-room, freshly gilded, divested of its historic mellowness, the electric light replacing the ancient candles and flooding the winter afternoon with white resplendence. The pulpit–yes, the pulpit–was swathed in the Union Jack; and looking towards the box of the Parnass and Gabbai, she saw it was occupied by officers with gold sashes. Somebody whispered that he with the medalled breast was a Christian Knight and Commander of the Bath–‘a great honour for the synagogue!’ What! were Christians coming to Jewish services, even as she had gone to Christian? Why, here was actually a white cross on an officer’s sleeve.
And before these alien eyes, the cantor, intoning his Hebrew chant on the steps of the Ark, lit the great many-branched Chanukah candlestick. Truly, the world was changing under her eyes.
And when the Chief Rabbi went toward the Ark in his turn, she saw that he wore a strange scarlet and white gown (military, too, she imagined in her ignorance), and–oh, even rarer sight!–he was followed by a helmeted soldier, who drew the curtain revealing the ornate Scrolls of the Law.
And amid it all a sound broke forth that sent a sweetness through her blood. An organ! An organ in the Synagogue! Ah! here indeed was Anglicization.
It was thin and reedy even to her ears, compared with that divine resonance in St. Paul’s: a tinkling apology, timidly disconnected from the congregational singing, and hovering meekly on the borders of the service–she read afterwards that it was only a harmonium–yet it brought a strange exaltation, and there was an uplifting even to tears in the glittering uniforms and nodding plumes. Simon’s eyes met his mother’s, and a flash of the old childish love passed between them.
There was a sermon–the text taken with dual appropriateness from the Book of Maccabees. Fully one in ten of the Jewish volunteers, said the preacher, had gone forth to drive out the bold invader of the Queen’s dominions. Their beloved country had no more devoted citizens than the children of Israel who had settled under her flag. They had been gratified, but not surprised, to see in the Jewish press the names of more than seven hundred Jews serving Queen and country. Many more had gone unrecorded, so that they had proportionally contributed more soldiers–from Colonel to bugler-boy–than their mere numbers would warrant. So at one in spirit and ideals were the Englishman and the Jew whose Scriptures he had imbibed, that it was no accident that the Anglophobes of Europe were also Anti-Semites.
And then the congregation rose, while the preacher behind the folds of the Union Jack read out the names of the Jews who had died for England in the far-off veldt. Every head was bent as the names rose on the hushed air of the synagogue. It went on and on, this list, reeking with each bloody historic field, recalling every regiment, British or colonial; on and on in the reverent silence, till a black pall seemed to descend, inch by inch, overspreading the synagogue. She had never dreamed so many of her brethren had died out there. Ah! surely they were knit now, these races: their friendship sealed in blood!
As the soldiers filed out of synagogue, she squeezed towards Simon and seized his hand for an instant, whispering passionately: ‘My lamb, marry her–we are all English alike.’
Nor did she ever know that she had said these words in Yiddish!
Now came an enchanting season of confidences; the mother, caught up in the glow of this strange love, learning to see the girl through the boy’s eyes, though the only aid to his eloquence was the photograph of a plump little blonde with bewitching dimples. The time was not ripe yet for bringing Lucy and her together, he explained. In fact, he hadn’t actually proposed. His mother understood he was waiting for the year of mourning to be up.
‘But how will you be married?’ she once asked.
‘Oh, there’s the registrar,’ he said carelessly.
‘But can’t you make her a proselyte?’ she ventured timidly.
He coloured. ‘It would be absurd to suddenly start talking religion to her.’
‘But she knows you’re a Jew.’
‘Oh, I dare say. I never hid it from her brother, so why shouldn’t she know? But her father’s a bit of a crank, so I rather avoid the subject.’
‘A crank? About Jews?’
‘Well, old Winstay has got it into his noddle that the Jews are responsible for the war–and that they leave the fighting to the English. It’s rather sickening: even in South Africa we are not treated as we should be, considering—-‘
Her dark eye lost its pathetic humility. ‘But how can he say that, when you yourself–when you saved his—-‘
‘Well, I suppose just because he knows I was fighting, he doesn’t think of me as a Jew. It’s a bit illogical, I know.’ And he smiled ruefully. ‘But, then, logic is not the old boy’s strong point.’
‘He seemed such a nice old man,’ said Mrs. Cohn, as she recalled the photograph of the white-haired cherub writing with a quill at a property desk.
‘Oh, off his hobby-horse he’s a dear old boy. That’s why I don’t help him into the saddle.’
‘But how can he be ignorant that we’ve sent seven hundred at least to the war?’ she persisted. ‘Why, the paper had all their photographs!’
‘What paper?’ said Simon, laughing. ‘Do you suppose he reads the Jewish what’s-a-name, like you? Why, he’s never heard of it!’
‘Then you ought to show him a copy.’
‘Oh, mother!’ and he laughed again. ‘That would only prove to him there are too many Jews everywhere.’
A cloud began to spread over Mrs. Cohn’s hard-won content. But apparently it only shadowed her own horizon. Simon was as happily full of his Lucy as ever.
Nevertheless, there came a Sunday evening when Simon returned from Harrow earlier than his wont, and Hannah’s dog-like eye noted that the cloud had at last reached his brow.
‘You have had a quarrel?’ she cried.
‘Only with the old boy.’
‘But what about?’
‘The old driveller has just joined some League of Londoners for the suppression of the immigrant alien.’
‘But you should have told him we all agree there should be decentralization,’ said Mrs. Cohn, quoting her favourite Jewish organ.
‘It isn’t that–it’s the old fellow’s vanity that’s hurt. You see, he composed the “Appeal to the Briton,” and gloated over it so conceitedly that I couldn’t help pointing out the horrible contradictions.’
‘But Lucy—-‘ his mother began anxiously.
‘Lucy’s a brick. I don’t know what my life would have been without the little darling. But listen, mother.’ And he drew out a portentous prospectus. ‘They say aliens should not be admitted unless they produce a certificate of industrial capacity, and in the same breath they accuse them of taking the work away from the British workman. Now this isn’t a Jewish question, and I didn’t raise it as such–just a piece of muddle–and even as an Englishman I can’t see how we can exclude Outlanders here after fighting for the Outland—-‘
‘But Lucy—-‘ his mother interrupted.
His vehement self-assertion passed into an affectionate smile.
‘Lucy was dimpling all over her face. She knows the old boy’s vanity. Of course she couldn’t side with me openly.’
‘But what will happen? Will you go there again?’
The cloud returned to his brow. ‘Oh, well, we’ll see.’
A letter from Lucy saved him the trouble of deciding the point.
‘DEAR SILLY OLD SIM,’ it ran,
‘Father has been going on dreadfully, so you had better wait a few Sundays till he has cooled down. After all, you yourself admit there is a grievance of congestion and high rents in the East End. And it is only natural–isn’t it?–that after shedding our blood and treasure for the Empire we should not be in a mood to see our country overrun by dirty aliens.’
‘Dirty!’ muttered Simon, as he read. ‘Has she seen the Christian slums–Flower and Dean Street?’ And his handsome Oriental brow grew duskier with anger. It did not clear till he came to:
‘Let us meet at the Crystal Palace next Saturday, dear quarrelsome person. Three o’clock, in the Pompeian Room. I have got an aunt at Sydenham, and I can go in to tea after the concert and hear all about the missionary work in the South Sea Islands.’
Ensued a new phase in the relation of Simon and Lucy. Once they had met in freedom, neither felt inclined to revert to the restricted courtship of the drawing-room. Even though their chat was merely of books and music and pictures, it was delicious to make their own atmosphere, untroubled by the flippancy of the brother or the earnestness of the father. In the presence of Lucy’s artistic knowledge Simon was at once abashed and stimulated. She moved in a delicate world of symphonies and silver-point drawings of whose very existence he had been unaware, and reverence quickened the sense of romance which their secret meetings had already enhanced.
Once or twice he spoke of resuming his visits to Harrow, but the longer he delayed the more difficult the conciliatory visit grew.
‘Father is now deeper in the League than ever,’ she told him. ‘He has joined the committee, and the prospectus has gone forth in all its glorious self-contradiction.’
‘But, considering I am the son of an alien, and I have fought for—-‘
‘There, there! quarrelsome person,’ she interrupted laughingly. ‘No, no, no, you had better not come till you can forget your remote genealogy. You see, even now father doesn’t quite realize you are a Jew. He thinks you have a strain of Jewish blood, but are in every other respect a decent Christian body.’
‘Christian!’ cried Simon in horror.
‘Why not? You fought side by side with my brother; you ate ham with us.’
Simon blushed hotly. ‘But, Lucy, you don’t think religion is ham?’
‘What, then? Merely Shem?’ she laughed.
Simon laughed too. How clever she was! ‘But you know I never could believe in the Trinity and all that. And, what’s more, I don’t believe you do yourself.’
‘It isn’t exactly what one believes. I was baptized into the Church of England–I feel myself a member. Really, Sim, you are a dreadfully argumentative and quarrelsome person.’
‘I’ll never quarrel with you, Lucy,’ he said half entreatingly; for somehow he felt a shiver of cold at the word ‘baptized,’ as though himself plunged into the font.
In this wise did both glide away from any deep issue or decision till the summer itself glided away. Mrs. Cohn, anxiously following the courtship through Sim’s love-smitten eyes, her suggestion that the girl be brought to see her received with equal postponement, began to fret for the great thing to come to pass. One cannot be always heroically stiffened to receive the cavalry of communal criticism. Waiting weakens the backbone. But she concealed from her boy these flaccid relapses.
‘You said you’d bring her to see me when she returned from the seaside,’ she ventured to remind him.
‘So I did; but now her father is dragging her away to Scotland.’
‘You ought to get married the moment she gets back.’
‘I can’t expect her to rush things–with her father to square. Still, you are not wrong, mother. It’s high time we came to a definite understanding between ourselves at least.’
‘What!’ gasped Mrs. Cohn. ‘Aren’t you engaged?’
‘Oh, in a way, of course. But we’ve never said so in so many words.’
For fear this should be the ‘English’ way, Mrs. Cohn forbore to remark that the definiteness of the Sugarman method was not without compensations. She merely applauded Simon’s more sensible mood.
But Mrs. Cohn was fated to a further season of fret. Day after day the ‘fat letters’ arrived with the Scottish postmark and the faint perfume that always stirred her own wistful sense of lost romance–something far-off and delicious, with the sweetness of roses and the salt of tears. And still the lover, floating in his golden mist, vouchsafed her no definite news.
One night she found him restive beyond his wont. She knew the reason. For two days there had been no scented letter, and she saw how he started at every creak of the garden-gate, as he waited for the last post. When at length a step was heard crunching on the gravel, he rushed from the room, and Mrs. Cohn heard the hall-door open. Her ear, disappointed of the rat-tat, morbidly followed every sound; but it seemed a long time before her boy’s returning footstep reached her. The strange, slow drag of it worked upon her nerves, and her heart grew sick with premonition.
He held out the letter towards her. His face was white. ‘She cannot marry me, because I am a Jew,’ he said tonelessly.
‘Cannot marry you!’ she whispered huskily. ‘Oh, but this must not be! I will go to the father; I will explain! You saved his son–he owes you his daughter.’
He waved her hopelessly back to her seat–for she had started up. ‘It isn’t the father, it’s herself. Now that I won’t let her drift any longer, she can’t bring herself to it. She’s honest, anyway, my little Lucy. She won’t fall back on the old Jew-baiter.’
‘But how dare she–how dare she think herself above you!’ Her dog-like eyes were blazing yet once again.
‘Why are you Jews surprised?’ he said bitterly. ‘You’ve held yourself aloof from the others long enough, God knows. Yet you wonder they’ve got their prejudices, too.’
And, suddenly laying his head on the table, he broke into sobs–sobs that tore at his mother’s heart, that were charged with memories of his ancient tears, of the days of paternal wrath and the rending of ‘The Pirates of Pechili.’ And, again, as in the days when his boyish treasures were changed to ashes, she stole towards him, with an involuntary furtive look to see if S. Cohn’s back was turned, and laid her hands upon his heaving shoulders. But he shook her off! ‘Why didn’t a Boer bullet strike me down?’ Then with a swift pang of remorse he raised his contorted face and drew hers close against it–their love the one thing saved from Anglicization.