Story type: Literature
When her Fanny did at last marry, Natalya–as everybody called the old clo’-woman–was not over-pleased at the bargain. Natalya had imagined beforehand that for a matronly daughter of twenty-three, almost past the marrying age, any wedding would be a profitable transaction. But when a husband actually presented himself, all the old dealer’s critical maternity was set a-bristle. Henry Elkman, she insisted, had not a true Jewish air. There was in the very cut of his clothes a subtle suggestion of going to the races.
It was futile of Fanny to insist that Henry had never gone to the races, that his duties as bookkeeper of S. Cohn’s Clothing Emporium prevented him from going to the races, and that the cut of his clothes was intended to give tone to his own establishment.
‘Ah, yes, he does not take thee to the races,’ she insisted in Yiddish. ‘But all these young men with check suits and flowers in their buttonholes bet and gamble and go to the bad, and their wives and children fall back on their old mothers for support.’
‘I shall not fall back on thee,’ Fanny retorted angrily.
‘And on whom else? A pretty daughter! Would you fall back on a stranger? Or perhaps you are thinking of the Board of Guardians!’ And a shudder of humiliation traversed her meagre frame. For at sixty she was already meagre, had already the appearance of the venerable grandmother she was now to become, save that her hair, being only a pious wig, remained rigidly young and black. Life had always gone hard with her. Since her husband’s death, when Fanny was a child, she had scraped together a scanty livelihood by selling odds and ends for a mite more than she gave for them. At the back doors of villas she haggled with miserly mistresses, gentlewoman and old-clo’ woman linked by their common love of a bargain.
Natalya would sniff contemptuously at the muddle of ancient finery on the floor and spurn it with her foot. ‘How can I sell that?’ she would inquire. ‘Last time I gave you too much–I lost by you.’ And having wrung the price down to the lowest penny, she would pay it in clanking silver and copper from a grimy leather bag she wore hidden in her bosom; then, cramming the goods hastily into the maw of her sack, she would stagger joyously away. The men’s garments she would modestly sell to a second-hand shop, but the women’s she cleaned and turned and transmogrified and sold in Petticoat Lane of a Sunday morning; scavenger, earth-worm, and alchemist, she was a humble agent in the great economic process by which cast-off clothes renew their youth and freshness, and having set in their original sphere rise endlessly on other social horizons.
Of English she had, when she began, only enough to bargain with; but in one year of forced intercourse with English folk after her husband’s death she learnt more than in her quarter of a century of residence in the Spitalfields Ghetto.
Fanny’s function had been to keep house and prepare the evening meal, but the old clo’-woman’s objection to her marriage was not selfish. She was quite ready to light her own fire and broil her own bloater after the day’s tramp. Fanny had, indeed, offered to have her live in the elegant two-roomed cottage near King’s Cross which Henry was furnishing. She could sleep in a convertible bureau in the parlour. But the old woman’s independent spirit and her mistrust of her son-in-law made her prefer the humble Ghetto garret. Against all reasoning, she continued to feel something antipathetic in Henry’s clothes and even in his occupation–perhaps it was really the subconscious antagonism of the old clo’ and the new, subtly symbolic of the old generation and the smart new world springing up to tread it down. Henry himself was secretly pleased at her refusal. In the first ardours of courtship he had consented to swallow even the Polish crone who had strangely mothered his buxom British Fanny, but for his own part he had a responsive horror of old clo’; felt himself of the great English world of fashion and taste, intimately linked with the burly Britons whose girths he recorded from his high stool at his glass-environed desk, and in touch even with the lion comique, the details of whose cheap but stylish evening dress he entered with a proud flourish.
The years went by, and it looked as if the old woman’s instinct were awry. Henry did not go to the races, nor did Fanny have to fall back on her mother-in-law for the maintenance of herself and her two children, Becky and Joseph. On the contrary, she doubled her position in the social scale by taking a four-roomed house in the Holloway Road. Its proximity to the Clothing Emporium enabled Henry to come home for lunch. But, alas! Fanny was not allowed many years of enjoyment of these grandeurs and comforts. The one-roomed grave took her, leaving the four-roomed house incredibly large and empty. Even Natalya’s Ghetto garret, which Fanny had not shared for seven years, seemed cold and vacant to the poor mother. A new loneliness fell upon her, not mitigated by ever rarer visits to her grandchildren. Devoid of the link of her daughter, the house seemed immeasurably aloof from her in the social scale. Henry was frigid and the little ones went with marked reluctance to this stern, forbidding old woman who questioned them as to their prayers and smelt of red-herrings. She ceased to go to the house.
And then at last all her smouldering distrust of Henry Elkman found overwhelming justification.
Before the year of mourning was up, before he was entitled to cease saying the Kaddish (funeral hymn) for her darling Fanny, the wretch, she heard, was married again. And married–villainy upon villainy, horror upon horror–to a Christian girl, a heathen abomination. Natalya was wrestling with her over-full sack when she got the news from a gossiping lady client, and she was boring holes for the passage of string to tie up its mouth. She turned the knife viciously, as if it were in Henry Elkman’s heart.
She did not know the details of the piquant, tender courtship between him and the pretty assistant at the great drapery store that neighboured the Holloway Clothing Emporium, any more than she understood the gradual process which had sapped Henry’s instinct of racial isolation, or how he had passed from admiration of British ways into entire abandonment of Jewish. She was spared, too, the knowledge that latterly her own Fanny had slid with him into the facile paths of impiety; that they had ridden for a breath of country air on Sabbath afternoons. They had been considerate enough to hide that from her. To the old clo’-woman’s crude mind, Henry Elkman existed as a monster of ready-made wickedness, and she believed even that he had been married in church and baptized, despite that her informant tried to console her with the assurance that the knot had been tied in a Registrar’s office.
‘May he be cursed with the boils of Pharaoh!’ she cried in her picturesque jargon. ‘May his fine clothes fall from his flesh and his flesh from his bones! May my Fanny’s outraged soul plead against him at the Judgment Bar! And she–this heathen female–may her death be sudden!’ And she drew the ends of the string tightly together, as though round the female’s neck.
‘Hush, you old witch!’ cried the gossip, revolted; ‘and what would become of your own grandchildren?’
‘They cannot be worse off than they are now, with a heathen in the house. All their Judaism will become corrupted. She may even baptize them. Oh, Father in Heaven!’
The thought weighed upon her. She pictured the innocent Becky and Joseph kissing crucifixes. At the best there would be no kosher food in the house any more. How could this stranger understand the mysteries of purging meat, of separating meat-plates from butter-plates?
At last she could bear the weight no longer. She took the Elkman house in her rounds, and, bent under her sack, knocked at the familiar door. It was lunch-time, and unfamiliar culinary smells seemed wafted along the passage. Her morbid imagination scented bacon. The orthodox amulet on the doorpost did not comfort her; it had been left there, forgotten, a mute symbol of the Jewish past.
A pleasant young woman with blue eyes and fresh-coloured cheeks opened the door.
The blood surged to Natalya’s eyes, so that she could hardly see.
‘Old clo’,’ she said mechanically.
‘No, thank you,’ replied the young woman. Her voice was sweet, but it sounded to Natalya like the voice of Lilith, stealer of new-born children. Her rosy cheek seemed smeared with seductive paint. In the background glistened the dual crockery of the erst pious kitchen which the new-comer profaned. And between Natalya and it, between Natalya and her grandchildren, this alien girlish figure seemed to stand barrier-wise. She could not cross the threshold without explanations.
‘Is Mr. Elkman at home?’ she asked.
‘You know the name!’ said the young woman, a little surprised.
‘Yes, I have been here a good deal.’ The old woman’s sardonic accent was lost on the listener.
‘I am sorry there is nothing this time,’ she replied.
‘Not even a pair of old shoes?’
‘But the dead woman’s—-? Are you, then, standing in them?’
The words were so fierce and unexpected, the crone’s eyes blazed so weirdly, that the new wife recoiled with a little shriek.
‘Henry!’ she cried.
Fork in hand, he darted in from the living-room, but came to a sudden standstill.
‘What do you want here?’ he muttered.
‘Fanny’s shoes!’ she cried.
‘Who is it?’ his wife’s eyes demanded.
‘A half-witted creature we deal with out of charity,’ he gestured back. And he put her inside the room-door, whispering, ‘Let me get rid of her.’
‘So, that’s your painted poppet,’ hissed his mother-in-law in Yiddish.
‘Painted?’ he said angrily. ‘Madge painted? She’s just as natural as a rosy apple. She’s a country girl, and her mother was a lady.’
‘Her mother? Perhaps! But she? You see a glossy high hat marked sixteen and sixpence, and you think it’s new. But I know what it’s come from–a battered thing that has rolled in the gutter. Ah, how she could have bewitched you, when there are so many honest Jewesses without husbands!
‘I am sorry she doesn’t please you; but, after all, it’s my business, and not yours.’
‘Not mine? After I gave you my Fanny, and she slaved for you and bore you children?’
‘It’s just for her children that I had to marry.’
‘What? You had to marry a Christian for the sake of Fanny’s children? Oh, God forgive you!’
‘We are not in Poland now,’ he said sulkily.
‘Ah, I always said you were a sinner in Israel. My Fanny has been taken for your sins. A black death on your bones.’
‘If you don’t leave off cursing, I shall call a policeman.’
‘Oh, lock me up, lock me up–instead of your shame. Let the whole world know that.’
‘Go away, then. You have no right to come here and frighten Madge–my wife. She is in delicate health, as it is.’
‘May she be an atonement for all of us! I have the right to come here as much as I please.’
‘You have no right.’
‘I have a right to the children. My blood is in their veins.’
‘You have no right. The children are their father’s.’
‘Yes, their Father’s in heaven,’ and she raised her hand like an ancient prophetess, while the other supported her bag over her shoulder. ‘The children are the children of Israel, and they must carry forward the yoke of the Law.’
‘And what do you propose?’ he said, with a scornful sniff.
‘Give me the children. I will elevate them in the fear of the Lord. You go your own godless way, free of burdens–you and your Christian poppet. You no longer belong to us. Give me the children, and I’ll go away.’
He looked at her quizzingly. ‘You have been drinking, my good mother-in-law.’
‘Ay, the waters of affliction. Give me the children.’
‘But they won’t go with you. They love their step-mother.’
‘Love that painted jade? They, with Jewish blood warm in their veins, with the memory of their mother warm in their hearts? Impossible!’
He opened the door gently. ‘Becky! Joe! No, don’t you come, Madge, darling. It’s all right. The old lady wants to say “Good-day” to the children.’
The two children tripped into the passage, with napkins tied round their chins, their mouths greasy, but the rest of their persons unfamiliarly speckless and tidy. They stood still at the sight of their grandmother, so stern and frowning. Henry shut the door carefully.
‘My lambs!’ Natalya cried, in her sweetest but harsh tones, ‘Won’t you come and kiss me?’
Becky, a mature person of seven, advanced courageously and surrendered her cheek to her grandmother.
‘How are you, granny?’ she said ceremoniously.
‘And Joseph?’ said Natalya, not replying. ‘My heart and my crown, will he not come?’
The four-and-a-half year old Joseph stood dubiously, with his fist in his mouth.
‘Bring him to me, Becky. Tell him I want you and him to come and live with me.’
Becky shrugged her precocious shoulders. ‘He may. I won’t,’ she said laconically.
‘Oh, Becky!’ said the grandmother. ‘Do you want to stay here and torture your poor mother?’
Becky stared. ‘She’s dead,’ she said.
‘Yes, but her soul lives and watches over you. Come, Joseph, apple of my eye, come with me.’
She beckoned enticingly, but the little boy, imagining the invitation was to enter her bag and be literally carried away therein, set up a terrific howl. Thereupon the pretty young woman emerged hastily, and the child, with a great sob of love and confidence, ran to her and nestled in her arms.
‘Mamma, mamma,’ he cried.
Henry looked at the old woman with a triumphant smile.
Natalya went hot and cold. It was not only that little Joseph had gone to this creature. It was not even that he had accepted her maternity. It was this word ‘mamma’ that stung. The word summed up all the blasphemous foreignness of the new domesticity. ‘Mamma’ was redolent of cold Christian houses in whose doorways the old clo’-woman sometimes heard it. Fanny had been ‘mother’–the dear, homely, Jewish ‘mother.’ This ‘mamma,’ taught to the orphans, was like the haughty parade of Christian elegance across her grave.
‘When mamma’s shoes are to be sold, don’t forget me,’ Natalya hissed. ‘I’ll give you the best price in the market.’
Henry shuddered, but replied, half pushing her outside: ‘Certainly, certainly. Good-afternoon.’
‘I’ll buy them at your own price–ah, I see them coming, coming into my bag.’
The door closed on her grotesque sibylline intensity, and Henry clasped his wife tremblingly to his bosom and pressed a long kiss upon her fragrant cherry lips.
Later on he explained that the crazy old clo’-woman was known to the children, as to everyone in the neighbourhood, as ‘Granny.’
In the bearing of her first child the second Mrs. Elkman died. The rosy face became a white angelic mask, the dainty figure lay in statuesque severity, and a screaming, bald-headed atom of humanity was the compensation for this silence. Henry Elkman was overwhelmed by grief and superstition.
‘For three things women die in childbirth,’ kept humming in his brain from his ancient Hebrew lore. He did not remember what they were, except that one was the omission of the wife to throw into the fire the lump of dough from the Sabbath bread. But these neglects could not be visited on a Christian, he thought dully. The only distraction of his grief was the infant’s pressing demand on his attention.
It was some days before the news penetrated to the old woman.
‘It is his punishment,’ she said with solemn satisfaction. ‘Now my Fanny’s spirit will rest.’
But she did not gloat over the decree of the God of Israel as she had imagined beforehand, nor did she call for the dead woman’s old clo’. She was simply content–an unrighteous universe had been set straight again like a mended watch. But she did call, without her bag, to inquire if she could be of service in this tragic crisis.
‘Out of my sight, you and your evil eye!’ cried Henry as he banged the door in her face.
Natalya burst into tears, torn by a chaos of emotions. So she was still to be shut out.
The next news that leaked into Natalya’s wizened ear was as startling as Madge’s death. Henry had married again. Doubtless with the same pretext of the children’s needs he had taken unto himself a third wife, and again without the decencies of adequate delay. And this wife was a Jewess, as of yore. Henry had reverted matrimonially to the fold. Was it conscience, was it terror? Nobody knew. But everybody knew that the third Mrs. Elkman was a bouncing beauty of a good orthodox stock, that she brought with her fifty pounds in cash, besides bedding and house-linen accumulated by her parents without prevision that she would marry an old hand, already provided with these household elements.
The old clo’-woman’s emotions were more mingled than ever. She felt vaguely that the Jewish minister should not so unquestioningly have accorded the scamp the privileges of the hymeneal canopy. Some lustral rite seemed necessary to purify him of his Christian conjunction. And the memory of Fanny was still outraged by this burying of her, so to speak, under layers of successive wives. On the other hand, the children would revert to Judaism, and they would have a Jewish mother, not a mamma, to care for them and to love them. The thought consoled her for being shut out of their lives, as she felt she must have been, even had Henry been friendlier. This third wife had alienated her from the household, had made her kinship practically remote. She had sunk to a sort of third cousin, or a mother-in-law twice removed.
The days went on, and again the Elkman household occupied the gossips, and news of it–second-hand, like everything that came to her–was picked up by Natalya on her rounds. Henry’s third wife was, it transpired, a melancholy failure. Her temper was frightful, she beat her step-children, and–worst and rarest sin in the Jewish housewife–she drank. Henry was said to be in despair.
‘Nebbich, the poor little children!’ cried Natalya, horrified. Her brain began plotting how to interfere, but she could find no way.
The weeks passed, with gathering rumours of the iniquities of the third Mrs. Elkman, and then at last came the thunder-clap–Henry had disappeared without leaving a trace. The wicked wife and the innocent brats had the four-roomed home to themselves. The Clothing Emporium knew him no more. Some whispered suicide, others America. Benjamin Beckenstein, the cutter of the Emporium, who favoured the latter hypothesis reported a significant saying: ‘I have lived with two angels; I can’t live with a demon.’
‘Ah, at last he sees my Fanny was an angel,’ said Natalya, neglecting to draw the deduction anent America, and passing over the other angel. And she embroidered the theme. How indeed could a man who had known the blessing of a sober, God-fearing wife endure a drunkard and a child-beater? ‘No wonder he killed himself!’
The gossips pointed out that the saying implied flight rather than suicide.
‘You are right!’ Natalya admitted illogically. ‘Just what a coward and blackguard like that would do–leave the children at the mercy of the woman he couldn’t face himself. How in Heaven’s name will they live?’
‘Oh, her father, the furrier, will have to look after them,’ the gossips assured her. ‘He gave her good money, you know, fifty pounds and the bedding. Ah, trust Elkman for that. He knew he wasn’t leaving the children to starve.’
‘I don’t know so much,’ said the old woman, shaking her bewigged head.
What was to be done? Suppose the furrier refused the burden. But Henry’s flight, she felt, had removed her even farther from the Elkman household. If she went to spy out the land, she would now have to face the virago in possession. But no! on second thoughts it was this other woman whom Henry’s flight had changed to a stranger. What had the wretch to do with the children? She was a mere intruder in the house. Out with her, or at least out with the children.
Yes, she would go boldly there and demand them. ‘Poor Becky! Poor Joseph!’ her heart wailed. ‘You to be beaten and neglected after having known the love of a mother.’ True, it would not be easy to support them. But a little more haggling, a little more tramping, a little more mending, and a little less gorging and gormandising! They would be at school during the day, so would not interfere with her rounds, and in the evening she could have them with her as she sat refurbishing the purchases of the day. Ah, what a blessed release from the burden of loneliness, heavier than the heaviest sack! It was well worth the price. And then at bedtime she would say the Hebrew night-prayer with them and tuck them up, just as she had once done with her Fanny.
But how if the woman refused to yield them up–as Natalya could fancy her refusing–out of sheer temper and devilry? What if, amply subsidized by her well-to-do parent, she wished to keep the little ones by her and revenge upon them their father’s desertion, or hold them hostages for his return? Why, then, Natalya would use cunning–ay, and force, too–she would even kidnap them. Once in their grandmother’s hands, the law would see to it that they did not go back to this stranger, this bibulous brute, whose rights over them were nil.
It was while buying up on a Sunday afternoon the sloughed vestments of a Jewish family in Holloway that her resolve came to a head. A cab would be necessary to carry her goods to her distant garret. What an opportunity for carrying off the children at the same time! The house was actually on her homeward route. The economy of it tickled her, made her overestimate the chances of capture. As she packed the motley, far-spreading heap into the symmetry of her sack, pressing and squeezing the clothes incredibly tighter and tighter till it seemed a magic sack that could swallow up even the Holloway Clothing Emporium, Natalya’s brain revolved feverish fancy-pictures of the coming adventure.
Leaving the bag in the basement passage, she ran to fetch a cab. Usually the hiring of the vehicle occupied Natalya half an hour. She would harangue the Christian cabmen on the rank, pleading her poverty, and begging to be conveyed with her goods for a ridiculous sum. At first none of them would take notice of the old Jewish crone, but would read their papers in contemptuous indifference. But gradually, as they remained idly on the rank, the endless stream of persuasion would begin to percolate, and at last one would relent, half out of pity, and would end by bearing the sack gratuitously on his shoulder from the house to his cab. Often there were two sacks, quite filling the interior of a four-wheeler, and then Natalya would ride triumphantly beside her cabby on the box, the two already the best of friends. Things went ill if Natalya did not end by trading off something in the sacks against the fare–at a new profit.
But to-day she was too excited to strike more than a mediocre bargain. The cumbrous sack was hoisted into the cab. Natalya sprang in beside it, and in a resolute voice bade the driver draw up for a moment at the Elkman home.
The unwonted phenomenon of a cab brought Becky to the door ere her grandmother could jump out. She was still under ten, but prematurely developed in body as in mind. There was something unintentionally insolent in her precocity, in her habitual treatment of adults as equals; but now her face changed almost to a child’s, and with a glad tearful cry of ‘Oh, grandmother!’ she sprang into the old woman’s arms.
It was the compensation for little Joseph’s ‘mamma.’ Tears ran down the old woman’s cheeks as she hugged the strayed lamb to her breast.
A petulant infantile wail came from within, but neither noted it.
‘Where is your step-mother, my poor angel?’ Natalya asked in a half whisper.
Becky’s forehead gloomed in an ugly frown. Her face became a woman’s again. ‘One o’clock the public-houses open on Sundays,’ she snorted.
‘Oh, my God!’ cried Natalya, forgetting that the circumstance was favouring her project. ‘A Jewish woman! You don’t mean to say that she drinks in public-houses?’
‘You don’t suppose I would let her drink here,’ said Becky. ‘We have nice scenes, I can tell you. The only consolation is she’s better-tempered when she’s quite drunk.’
The infant’s wail rang out more clamorously.
‘Hush, you little beast!’ Becky ejaculated, but she moved mechanically within, and her grandmother followed her.
All the ancient grandeur of the sitting-room seemed overclouded with shabbiness and untidiness. To Natalya everything looked and smelt like the things in her bag. And there in a stuffy cradle a baby wrinkled its red face with shrieking.
Becky had bent over it, and was soothing it ere its existence penetrated at all to the old woman’s preoccupied brain. Its pipings had been like an unheeded wail of wind round some centre of tragic experience. Even when she realized the child’s existence her brain groped for some seconds in search of its identity.
Ah, the baby whose birth had cost that painted poppet’s life! So it still lived and howled in unwelcome reminder and perpetuation of that brief but shameful episode. ‘Grow dumb like your mother,’ she murmured resentfully. What a bequest of misery Henry Elkman had left behind him! Ah, how right she had been to suspect him from the very first!
‘But where is my little Joseph?’ she said aloud.
‘He’s playing somewhere in the street.’
‘Ach, mein Gott! Playing, when he ought to be weeping like this child of shame. Go and fetch him at once!’
‘What do you want him for?’
‘I am going to take you both away–out of this misery. You’d like to come and live with me–eh, my lamb?’
‘Rather–anything’s better than this.’
Natalya caught her to her breast again.
‘Go and fetch my Joseph! But quick, quick, before the public-house woman comes back!’
Becky flew out, and Natalya sank into a chair, breathless with emotion and fatigue. The baby in the cradle beside her howled more vigorously, and automatically her foot sought the rocker, and she heard herself singing:
‘Sleep, little baby, sleep,
Thy father shall be a Rabbi;
Thy mother shall bring thee almonds;
Blessings on thy little head.’
As the howling diminished, she realized with a shock that she was rocking this misbegotten infant–nay, singing to it a Jewish cradle-song full of inappropriate phrases. She withdrew her foot as though the rocker had grown suddenly red-hot. The yells broke out with fresh vehemence, and she angrily restored her foot to its old place. ‘Nu, nu,’ she cried, rocking violently, ‘go to sleep.’
She stole a glance at it, when it grew stiller, and saw that the teat of its feeding-bottle was out of its mouth. ‘There, there–suck!’ she said, readjusting it. The baby opened its eyes and shot a smile at her, a wonderful, trustful smile from great blue eyes. Natalya trembled; those were the blue eyes that had supplanted the memory of Fanny’s dark orbs, and the lips now sucking contentedly were the cherry lips of the painted poppet.
‘Nebbich; the poor, deserted little orphan,’ she apologized to herself. ‘And this is how the new Jewish wife does her duty to her step-children. She might as well have been a Christian.’ Then a remembrance that the Christian woman had seemingly been an unimpeachable step-mother confused her thoughts further. And while she was groping among them Becky returned, haling in Joseph, who in his turn haled in a kite with a long tail.
The boy, now a sturdy lad of seven, did not palpitate towards his grandmother with Becky’s eagerness. Probably he felt the domestic position less. But he surrendered himself to her long hug. ‘Did she beat him,’ she murmured soothingly, ‘beat my own little Joseph?’
‘Don’t waste time, granny,’ Becky broke in petulantly, ‘if we are going.’
‘No, my dear. We’ll go at once.’ And, releasing the boy, Natalya partly undid the lower buttons of his waistcoat.
‘You wear no four-corner fringes!’ she exclaimed tragically. ‘She neglects even to see to that. Ah, it will be a good deed to carry you from this godless home.’
‘But I don’t want to go with you,’ he said sullenly, reminded of past inquisitorial worryings about prayers.
‘You little fool!’ said Becky. ‘You are going–and in that cab.’
‘In that cab?’ he cried joyfully.
‘Yes, my apple. And you will never be beaten again.’
‘Oh, she don’t hurt!’ he said contemptuously. ‘She hasn’t even got a cane–like at school.’
‘But shan’t we take our things?’ said Becky.
‘No, only the things you stand in. They shan’t have any excuse for taking you back. I’ll find you plenty of clothes, as good as new.’
‘And little Daisy?’
‘Oh, is it a girl? Your stepmother will look after that. She can’t complain of one burden.’
She hustled the children into the cab, where, with the sack and herself, they made a tightly-packed quartette.
‘I say, I didn’t bargain for extras inside,’ grumbled the cabman.
‘You can’t reckon these children,’ said Natalya, with confused legal recollections; ‘they’re both under seven.’
The cabman started. Becky stared out of the window. ‘I wonder if we’ll pass Mrs. Elkman,’ she said, amused. Joseph busied himself with disentangling the tails of his kite.
But Natalya was too absorbed to notice their indifference to her. That poor little Daisy! The image of the baby swam vividly before her. What a terrible fate to be left in the hands of the public-house woman! Who knew what would happen to it? What if, in her drunken fury at the absence of Becky and Joseph, she did it a mischief? At the best the besotted creature would not take cordially to the task of bringing it up. It was no child of hers–had not even the appeal of pure Jewish blood. And there it lay, smiling, with its beautiful blue eyes. It had smiled trustfully on herself, not knowing she was to leave it to its fate. And now it was crying; she heard it crying above the rattle of the cab. But how could she charge herself with it–she, with her daily rounds to make? The other children were grown up, passed the day at school. No, it was impossible. And the child’s cry went on in her imagination louder and louder.
She put her head out of the window. ‘Turn back! Turn back! I’ve forgotten something.’
The cabman swore. ‘D’ye think you’ve taken me by the week?’
‘Threepence extra. Drive back.’
The cab turned round, the innocent horse got a stinging flip of the whip, and set off briskly.
‘What have you forgotten, grandmother?’ said Becky. ‘It’s very careless of you.’
The cab stopped at the door. Natalya looked round nervously, sprang out, and then uttered a cry of despair.
‘Ach, we shut the door!’ And the inaccessible baby took on a tenfold desirability.
‘It’s all right,’ said Becky. ‘Just turn the handle.’
Natalya obeyed and ran in. There was the baby, not crying, but sleeping peacefully. Natalya snatched it up frenziedly, and hurried the fresh-squalling bundle into the cab.
‘Taking Daisy?’ cried Becky. ‘But she isn’t yours!’
Natalya shut the cab-door with a silencing bang, and the vehicle turned again Ghettowards.
The fact that Natalya had taken possession of the children could not be kept a secret, but the step-mother’s family made no effort to regain them, and, indeed, the woman herself shortly went the way of all Henry Elkman’s wives, though whether she, like the rest, had a successor, is unknown.
The sudden change from a lone old lady to a mater-familias was not, however, so charming as Natalya had imagined. The cost of putting Daisy out to nurse was a terrible tax, but this was nothing compared to the tax on her temper levied by her legitimate grandchildren, who began to grumble on the first night at the poverty and pokiness of the garret, and were thenceforward never without a lament for the good old times. They had, indeed, been thoroughly spoilt by the father and the irregular menage. The Christian wife’s influence had been refining but too temporary. It had been only long enough to wean Joseph from the religious burdens indoctrinated by Fanny, and thus to add to the grandmother’s difficulties in coaxing him back to the yoke of piety.
The only sweet in Natalya’s cup turned out to be the love of little Daisy, who grew ever more beautiful, gracious, and winning.
Natalya had never known so lovable a child. All Daisy did seemed to her perfect. For instant obedience and instant comprehension she declared her matchless.
One day, when Daisy was three, the child told the grandmother that in her momentary absence Becky had pulled Joseph’s hair.
‘Hush! You mustn’t tell tales,’ Natalya said reprovingly.
‘Becky did not pull Joey’s hair,’ Daisy corrected herself instantly.
Much to the disgust of Becky, who wished to outgrow the Ghetto, even while she unconsciously manifested its worst heritages, Daisy picked up the Yiddish words and phrases, which, in spite of Becky’s remonstrances, Natalya was too old to give up. This was not the only subject of dispute between Becky and the grandmother, whom she roundly accused of favouritism of Daisy, and she had not reached fifteen when, with an independence otherwise praiseworthy, she set up for herself on her earnings in the fur establishment of her second step-mother’s father, lodging with a family who, she said, bored her less than her grandmother.
In another year or so, freed from the compulsory education of the School Board, Joseph joined her. And thus, by the unforeseen turns of Fortune’s wheel, the old-clo’ woman of seventy-five was left alone with the child of seven.
But this child was compensation for all she had undergone, for all the years of trudging and grubbing and patching and turning. Daisy threaded her needle for her at night when her keen eyes began to fail, and while she made the old clo’ into new, Daisy read aloud her English story-books. Natalya took an absorbing interest in these nursery tales, heard for the first time in her second childhood. ‘Jack the Giant-killer,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Cinderella,’ they were all delightful novelties. The favourite story of both was ‘Little Red Riding-Hood,’ with its refrain of ‘Grandmother, what large eyes you’ve got!’ That could be said with pointed fun; it seemed to be written especially for them. Often Daisy would look up suddenly and say: ‘Grandmother, what a large mouth you’ve got!’ ‘All the better to bite you with,’ grandmother would reply. And then there would be hugs and kisses.
But Friday night was the great night, the one night of the week on which Natalya could be stopped from working. Only religion was strong enough to achieve that. The two Sabbath candles in the copper candlesticks stood on the white tablecloth, and were lighted as soon as the welcome dusk announced the advent of the holy day, and they shed their pious illumination on her dish of fish and the ritually-twisted loaves. And after supper Natalya would sing the Hebrew grace at much leisurely length and with great unction. Then she would tell stories of her youth in Poland–comic tales mixed with tales of oppression and the memories of ancient wrong. And Daisy would weep and laugh and thrill. The fusion of races had indeed made her sensitive and intelligent beyond the common, and Natalya was not unjustified in planning out for her some illustrious future.
But after eighteen months of this delightful life Natalya’s wonderful vitality began slowly to collapse. She earned less and less, and, amid her gratitude to God for having relieved her of the burden of Becky and Joseph, a secret fear entered her heart. Would she be taken away before Daisy became self-supporting? Nay, would she even be able to endure the burden till the end? What made things worse was that, owing to the increase of immigrants, her landlord now exacted an extra shilling a week for rent. When Daisy was asleep the old woman hung over the bed, praying for life, for strength.
It was a sultry summer, making the trudge from door to door, under the ever-swelling sack, almost intolerable. And a little thing occurred to bring home cruelly to Natalya the decline of all her resources, physical and financial. The children’s country holiday was in the air at Daisy’s Board School, throwing an aroma and a magic light over the droning class-room. Daisy was to go, was to have a fortnight with a cottager in Kent; but towards the expenses the child’s parent or guardian was expected to contribute four shillings. Daisy might have gone free had she pleaded absolute poverty, but that would have meant investigation. From such humiliation Natalya shrank. She shrank even more from frightening the poor child by uncovering the skeleton of poverty. Most of all she shrank from depriving Daisy of all the rural delights on which the child’s mind dwelt in fascinated anticipation. Natalya did not think much of the country herself, having been born in a poor Polish village, amid huts and pigs, but she would not disillusion Daisy.
By miles of extra trudging in the heat, and miracles of bargaining with bewildered housewives, Natalya raised the four shillings, and the unconscious Daisy glided off in the happy, noisy train, while on the platform Natalya waved her coloured handkerchief wet with tears.
That first night without the little sunshiny presence was terrible for the old-clo’ woman. The last prop against decay and collapse seemed removed. But the next day a joyous postcard came from Daisy, which the greengrocer downstairs read to Natalya, and she was able to take up her sack again and go forth into the sweltering streets.
In the second week the child wrote a letter, saying that she had found a particular friend in an old lady, very kind and rich, who took her for drives in a chaise, and asked her many questions. This old lady seemed to have taken a fancy to her from the moment she saw her playing outside the cottage.
‘Perhaps God has sent her to look after the child when I am gone,’ thought Natalya, for the task of going down and up the stairs to get this letter read made her feel as if she would never go up and down them again.
Beaten at last, she took to her bed. Her next-room neighbour, the cobbler’s wife, tended her and sent for the ‘penny doctor.’ But she would not have word written to Daisy or her holiday cut short. On the day Daisy was to come back she insisted, despite all advice and warning, in being up and dressed. She sent everybody away, and lay on her bed till she heard Daisy’s footsteps, then she started to her feet, and drew herself up in pretentious good health. But the sound of other footsteps, and the entry of a spectacled, silver-haired old gentlewoman with the child, spoilt her intended hug. Daisy’s new friend had passed from her memory, and she stared pathetically at the strange lady and the sunburnt child.
‘Oh, grandmother, what great eyes you’ve got!’ And Daisy ran laughingly towards her.
The usual repartee was wanting.
‘And the room is not tidied up,’ Natalya said reproachfully, and began dusting a chair for the visitor. But the old lady waved it aside.
‘I have come to thank you for all you have done for my grandchild.’
‘Your grandchild?’ Natalya fell back on the bed.
‘Yes. I have had inquiries made–it is quite certain. Daisy was even called after me. I am glad of that, at least.’ Her voice faltered.
Natalya sat as bolt upright as years of bending under sacks would allow.
‘And you have come to take her from me!’ she shrieked.
Already Daisy’s new ruddiness seemed to her the sign of life that belonged elsewhere.
‘No, no, do not be alarmed. I have suffered enough from my selfishness. It was my bad temper drove my daughter from me.’ She bowed her silver head till her form seemed as bent as Natalya’s. ‘What can I do to repair–to atone? Will you not come and live with me in the country, and let me care for you? I am not rich, but I can offer you every comfort.’
Natalya shook her head. ‘I am a Jewess. I could not eat with you.’
‘That’s just what I told her, grandmother,’ added Daisy eagerly.
‘Then the child must remain with you at my expense,’ said the old lady.
‘But if she likes the country so—-‘ murmured Natalya.
‘I like you better, grandmother.’ And Daisy laid her ruddied cheek to the withered cheek, which grew wet with ecstasy.
‘She calls you “grandmother,” not me,’ said the old gentlewoman with a sob.
‘Yes, and I wished her mother dead. God forgive me!’
Natalya burst into a passion of tears and rocked to and fro, holding Daisy tightly to her faintly pulsing heart.
‘What did you say?’ Daisy’s grandmother flamed and blazed with her ancient anger. ‘You wished my Madge dead?’
Natalya nodded her head. Her arms unloosed their hold of Daisy. ‘Dead, dead, dead,’ she repeated in a strange, crooning voice. Gradually a vacant look crept over her face, and she fell back again on the bed. She looked suddenly very old, despite her glossy black wig.
‘She is ill!’ Daisy shrieked.
The cobbler’s wife ran in and helped to put her back between the sheets, and described volubly her obstinacy in leaving her bed. Natalya lived till near noon of the next day, and Daisy’s real grandmother was with her still at the end, side by side with the Jewish death-watcher.
About eleven in the morning Natalya said: ‘Light the candles, Daisy, the Sabbath is coming in.’ Daisy spread a white tablecloth on the old wooden table, placed the copper candlesticks upon it, drew it to the bedside, and lighted the candles. They burned with curious unreality in the full August sunshine.
A holy peace overspread the old-clo’ woman’s face. Her dried-up lips mumbled the Hebrew prayer, welcoming the Sabbath eve. Gradually they grew rigid in death.
‘Daisy,’ said her grandmother, ‘say the text I taught you.’
‘”Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,”‘ sobbed the child obediently, ‘”and I will give you rest.”‘