Story type: Literature
The curious episode in the London Ghetto the other winter, while the epidemic of small-pox was raging, escaped the attention of the reporters, though in the world of the Board-schools it is a vivid memory. But even the teachers and the committees, the inspectors and the Board members, have remained ignorant of the part little Bloomah Beckenstein played in it.
To explain how she came to be outside the school-gates instead of inside them, we must go back a little and explain her situation both outside and inside her school.
Bloomah was probably ‘Blume,’ which is German for a flower, but she had always been spelt ‘Bloomah’ in the school register, for even Board-school teachers are not necessarily familiar with foreign languages.
They might have been forgiven for not connecting Bloomah with blooms, for she was a sad-faced child, and even in her tenth year showed deep, dark circles round her eyes. But they were beautiful eyes, large, brown, and soft, shining with love and obedience.
Mrs. Beckenstein, however, found neither of these qualities in her youngest born, who seemed to her entirely sucked up by the school.
‘In my days,’ she would grumble, ‘it used to be God Almighty first, your parents next, and school last. Now it’s all a red mark first, your parents and God Almighty nowhere.’
The red mark was the symbol of punctuality, set opposite the child’s name in the register. To gain it, she must be in her place at nine o’clock to the stroke. A moment after nine, and only the black mark was attainable. Twenty to ten, and the duck’s egg of the absent was sorrowfully inscribed by the Recording Angel, who in Bloomah’s case was a pale pupil-teacher with eyeglasses.
But it was the Banner which loomed largest on the school horizon, intensifying Bloomah’s anxiety and her mother’s grievance.
‘I don’t see nothing,’ Mrs. Beckenstein iterated; ‘no prize, no medal–nothing but a red mark and a banner.’
The Banner was indeed a novelty. It had not unfurled itself in Mrs. Beckenstein’s young days, nor even in the young days of Bloomah’s married brothers and sisters.
As the worthy matron would say: ‘There’s been Jack Beckenstein, there’s been Joey Beckenstein, there’s been Briny Beckenstein, there’s been Benjy Beckenstein, there’s been Ada Beckenstein, there’s been Becky Beckenstein, God bless their hearts! and they all grew up scholards and prize-winners and a credit to their Queen and their religion without this meshuggas (madness) of a Banner.’
Vaguely Mrs. Beckenstein connected the degenerate innovation with the invasion of the school by ‘furriners’–all these hordes of Russian, Polish, and Roumanian Jews flying from persecution, who were sweeping away the good old English families, of which she considered the Beckensteins a shining example. What did English people want with banners and such-like gewgaws?
The Banner was a class trophy of regularity and punctuality. It might be said metaphorically to be made of red marks; and, indeed, its ground-hue was purple.
The class that had scored the highest weekly average of red marks enjoyed its emblazoned splendours for the next week. It hung by a cord on the classroom wall, amid the dull, drab maps–a glorious sight with its oaken frame and its rich-coloured design in silk. Life moved to a chivalrous music, lessons went more easily, in presence of its proud pomp: ’twas like marching to a band instead of painfully plodding.
And the desire to keep it became a passion to the winners; the little girls strained every nerve never to be late or absent; but, alas! some mischance would occur to one or other, and it passed, in its purple and gold, to some strenuous and luckier class in another section of the building, turning to a funeral-banner as it disappeared dismally through the door of the cold and empty room.
Woe to the late-comer who imperilled the Banner. The black mark on the register was a snowflake compared with the black frown on all those childish foreheads. As for the absentee, the scowls that would meet her return not improbably operated to prolong her absence.
Only once had Bloomah’s class won the trophy, and that was largely through a yellow fog which hit the other classes worse.
For Bloomah was the black sheep that spoilt the chances of the fold–the black sheep with the black marks. Perhaps those great rings round her eyes were the black marks incarnate, so morbidly did the poor child grieve over her sins of omission.
Yet these sins of omission were virtues of commission elsewhere; for if Bloomah’s desk was vacant, it was only because Bloomah was slaving at something that her mother considered more important.
‘The Beckenstein family first, the workshop second, and school nowhere,’ Bloomah might have retorted on her mother.
At home she was the girl-of-all-work. In the living-rooms she did cooking and washing and sweeping; in the shop above, whenever a hand fell sick or work fell heavy, she was utilized to make buttonholes, school hours or no school hours.
Bloomah was likewise the errand-girl of the establishment, and the portress of goods to and from S. Cohn’s Emporium in Holloway, and the watch-dog when Mrs. Beckenstein went shopping or pleasuring.
‘Lock up the house!’ the latter would cry, when Bloomah tearfully pleaded for that course. ‘My things are much too valuable to be locked up. But I know you’d rather lose my jewellery than your precious Banner.’
When Mrs. Beckenstein had new grandchildren–and they came frequently–Bloomah would be summoned in hot haste to the new scene of service. Curt post-cards came on these occasions, thus conceived:
‘A son. Send Bloomah.
Sometimes these messages were mournfully inverted:
‘Poor little Rachie is gone. Send Bloomah to your heart-broken
Occasionally the post-card went the other way:
‘Send back Bloomah.
‘Your loving mother.’
The care of her elder brother Daniel was also part of Bloomah’s burden; and in the evenings she had to keep an eye on his street sports and comrades, for since he had shocked his parents by dumping down a new pair of boots on the table, he could not be trusted without supervision.
Not that he had stolen the boots–far worse! Beguiled by a card cunningly printed in Hebrew, he had attended the evening classes of the Meshummodim, those converted Jews who try to bribe their brethren from the faith, and who are the bugbear and execration of the Ghetto.
Daniel was thereafter looked upon at home as a lamb who had escaped from the lions’ den, and must be the object of their vengeful pursuit, while on Bloomah devolved the duties of shepherd and sheep-dog.
It was in the midst of all these diverse duties that Bloomah tried to go to school by day, and do her home lessons by night. She did not murmur against her mother, though she often pleaded. She recognised that the poor woman was similarly distracted between domestic duties and turns at the machines upstairs.
Only it was hard for the child to dovetail the two halves of her life. At night she must sit up as late as her elders, poring over her school books, and in the morning it was a fierce rush to get through her share of the housework in time for the red mark. In Mrs. Beckenstein’s language: ‘Don’t eat, don’t sleep, boil nor bake, stew nor roast, nor fry, nor nothing.’
Her case was even worse than her mother imagined, for sometimes it was ten minutes to nine before Bloomah could sit down to her own breakfast, and then the steaming cup of tea served by her mother was a terrible hindrance; and if that good woman’s head was turned, Bloomah would sneak towards the improvised sink–which consisted of two dirty buckets, the one holding the clean water being recognisable by the tin pot standing on its covering-board–where she would pour half her tea into the one bucket and fill up from the other.
When this stratagem was impossible, she almost scalded herself in her gulpy haste. Then how she snatched up her satchel and ran through rain, or snow, or fog, or scorching sunshine! Yet often she lost her breath without gaining her mark, and as she cowered tearfully under the angry eyes of the classroom, a stab at her heart was added to the stitch in her side.
It made her classmates only the angrier that, despite all her unpunctuality, she kept a high position in the class, even if she could never quite attain prize-rank.
But there came a week when Bloomah’s family remained astonishingly quiet and self-sufficient, and it looked as if the Banner might once again adorn the dry, scholastic room and throw a halo of romance round the blackboard.
Then a curious calamity befell. A girl who had left the school for another at the end of the previous week, returned on the Thursday, explaining that her parents had decided to keep her in the old school. An indignant heart-cry broke through all the discipline:
‘Teacher, don’t have her!’
From Bloomah burst the peremptory command: ‘Go back, Sarah!’
For the unlucky children felt that her interval would now be reckoned one of absence. And they were right. Sarah reduced the gross attendance by six, and the Banner was lost.
Yet to have been so near incited them to a fresh spurt. Again the tantalizing Thursday was reached before their hopes were dashed. This time the break-down was even crueller, for every pinafored pupil, not excluding Bloomah, was in her place, red-marked.
Upon this saintly company burst suddenly Bloomah’s mother, who, ignoring the teacher, and pointing her finger dramatically at her daughter, cried:
‘Bloomah Beckenstein, go home!’
Bloomah’s face became one large red mark, at which all the other girls’ eyes were directed. Tears of humiliation and distress dripped down her cheeks over the dark rings. If she were thus hauled off ere she had received two hours of secular instruction, her attendance would be cancelled.
The class was all in confusion. ‘Fold arms!’ cried the teacher sharply, and the girls sat up rigidly. Bloomah obeyed instinctively with the rest.
‘Bloomah Beckenstein, do you want me to pull you out by your plait?’
‘Mrs. Beckenstein, really you mustn’t come here like that!’ said the teacher in her most ladylike accents.
‘Tell Bloomah that,’ answered Mrs. Beckenstein, unimpressed. ‘She’s come here by runnin’ away from home. There’s nobody but her to see to things, for we are all broken in our bones from dancin’ at a weddin’ last night, and comin’ home at four in the mornin’, and pourin’ cats and dogs. If you go to our house, please, teacher, you’ll see my Benjy in bed; he’s given up his day’s work; he must have his sleep; he earns three pounds a week as head cutter at S. Cohn’s–he can afford to be in bed, thank God! So now, then, Bloomah Beckenstein! Don’t they teach you here: “Honour thy father and thy mother”?’
Poor Bloomah rose, feeling vaguely that fathers and mothers should not dishonour their children. With hanging head she moved to the door, and burst into a passion of tears as soon as she got outside.
After, if not in consequence of, this behaviour, Mrs. Beckenstein broke her leg, and lay for weeks with the limb cased in plaster-of-Paris. That finished the chances of the Banner for a long time. Between nursing and house management Bloomah could scarcely ever put in an attendance.
So heavily did her twin troubles weigh upon the sensitive child day and night that she walked almost with a limp, and dreamed of her name in the register with ominous rows of black ciphers; they stretched on and on to infinity–in vain did she turn page after page in the hope of a red mark; the little black eggs became larger and larger, till at last horrid horned insects began to creep from them and scramble all over her, and she woke with creeping flesh. Sometimes she lay swathed and choking in the coils of a Black Banner.
And, to add to these worries, the School Board officer hovered and buzzed around, threatening summonses.
But at last she was able to escape to her beloved school. The expected scowl of the room was changed to a sigh of relief; extremes meet, and her absence had been so prolonged that reproach was turned to welcome.
Bloomah remorsefully redoubled her exertions. The hope of the Banner flamed anew in every breast. But the other classes were no less keen; a fifth standard, in particular, kept the Banner for a full month, grimly holding it against all comers, came they ever so regularly and punctually.
Suddenly a new and melancholy factor entered into the competition. An epidemic of small-pox broke out in the East End, with its haphazard effects upon the varying classes. Red marks, and black marks, medals and prizes, all was luck and lottery. The pride of the fifth standard was laid low; one of its girls was attacked, two others were kept at home through parental panic. A disturbing insecurity as of an earthquake vibrated through the school. In Bloomah’s class alone–as if inspired by her martial determination–the ranks stood firm, unwavering.
The epidemic spread. The Ghetto began to talk of special psalms in the little synagogues.
In this crisis which the epidemic produced the Banner seemed drifting steadily towards Bloomah and her mates. They started Monday morning with all hands on deck, so to speak; they sailed round Tuesday and Wednesday without a black mark in the school-log. The Thursday on which they had so often split was passed under full canvas, and if they could only get through Friday the trophy was theirs.
And Friday was the easiest day of all, inasmuch as, in view of the incoming Sabbath, it finished earlier. School did not break up between the two attendances; there was a mere dinner-interval in the playground at midday. Nobody could get away, and whoever scored the first mark was sure of the second.
Bloomah was up before dawn on the fateful winter morning; she could run no risks of being late. She polished off all her house-work, wondering anxiously if any of her classmates would oversleep herself, yet at heart confident that all were as eager as she. Still there was always that troublesome small-pox—-! She breathed a prayer that God would keep all the little girls and send them the Banner.
As she sat at breakfast the postman brought a post-card for her mother. Bloomah’s heart was in her mouth when Mrs. Beckenstein clucked her tongue in reading it. She felt sure that the epidemic had invaded one of those numerous family hearths.
Her mother handed her the card silently.
‘I am rakked with neuraljia. Send Bloomah to fry the fish.
Bloomah turned white; this was scarcely less tragic.
‘Poor Becky!’ said her heedless parent.
‘There’s time after school,’ she faltered.
‘What!’ shrieked Mrs. Beckenstein. ‘And not give the fish time to get cold! It’s that red mark again–sooner than lose it you’d see your own sister eat hot fish. Be off at once to her, you unnatural brat, or I’ll bang the frying-pan about your head. That’ll give you a red mark–yes, and a black mark, too! My poor Becky never persecuted me with Banners, and she’s twice the scholard you are.’
‘Why, she can’t spell “neuralgia,”‘ said Bloomah resentfully.
‘And who wants to spell a thing like that? It’s bad enough to feel it. Wait till you have babies and neuralgy of your own, and you’ll see how you’ll spell.’
‘She can’t spell “racked” either,’ put in Daniel.
His mother turned on him witheringly. ‘She didn’t go to school with the Meshummodim.’
Bloomah suddenly picked up her satchel.
‘What’s your books for? You don’t fry fish with books.’ Mrs. Beckenstein wrested it away from her, and dashed it on the floor. The pencil-case rolled one way, the thimble another.
‘But I can get to school for the afternoon attendance.’
‘Madness! With your sister in agony? Have you no feelings? Don’t let me see your brazen face before the Sabbath!’
Bloomah crept out broken-hearted. On the way to Becky’s her feet turned of themselves by long habit down the miry street in which the red-brick school-building rose in dreary importance. The sight of the great iron gate and the hurrying children caused her a throb of guilt. For a moment she stood wrestling with the temptation to enter.
It was but for the moment. She might rise to the heresy of hot fried fish in lieu of cold, but Becky’s Sabbath altogether devoid of fried fish was a thought too sacrilegious for her childish brain.
From her earliest babyhood chunks of cold fried fish had been part of her conception of the Day of Rest. Visions and odours of her mother frying plaice and soles–at worst, cod or mackerel–were inwoven with her most sacred memories of the coming Sabbath; it is probable she thought Friday was short for frying-day.
With a sob she turned back, hurrying as if to escape the tug of temptation.
‘Bloomah! Where are you off to?’
It was the alarmed cry of a classmate. Bloomah took to her heels, her face a fiery mass of shame and grief.
Towards midday Becky’s fish, nicely browned and sprigged with parsley, stood cooling on the great blue willow-pattern dish, and Becky’s neuralgia abated, perhaps from the mental relief of the spectacle.
When the clock struck twelve, Bloomah was allowed to scamper off to school in the desperate hope of saving the afternoon attendance.
The London sky was of lead, and the London pavement of mud, but her heart was aglow with hope. As she reached the familiar street a certain strangeness in its aspect struck her. People stood at the doors gossiping and excited, as though no Sabbath pots were a-cooking; straggling groups possessed the roadway, impeding her advance, and as she got nearer to the school the crowd thickened, the roadway became impassable, a gesticulating mob blocked the iron gate.
Poor Bloomah paused in her breathless career ready to cry at this malicious fate fighting against her, and for the first time allowing herself time to speculate on what was up. All around her she became aware of weeping and wailing and shrieking and wringing of hands.
The throng was chiefly composed of Russian and Roumanian women of the latest immigration, as she could tell by the pious wigs hiding their tresses. Those in the front were pressed against the bars of the locked gate, shrieking through them, shaking them with passion.
Although Bloomah’s knowledge of Yiddish was slight–as became a scion of an old English family–she could make out their elemental ejaculations.
‘Give me my Rachel!’
‘They are destroying our daughters as Pharaoh destroyed our sons.’
‘Give me back my children, and I’ll go back to Russia.’
‘They are worse than the Russians, the poisoners!’
‘O God of Abraham, how shall I live without my Leah?’
On the other side of the bars the children–released for the dinner-interval–were clamouring equally, shouting, weeping, trying to get to their mothers. Some howled, with their sleeves rolled up, to exhibit the upper arm.
‘See,’ the women cried, ‘the red marks! Oh, the poisoners!’
A light began to break upon Bloomah’s brain. Evidently the School Board had suddenly sent down compulsory vaccinators.
‘I won’t die,’ moaned a plump golden-haired girl. ‘I’m too young to die yet.’
‘My little lamb is dying!’ A woman near Bloomah, with auburn wisps showing under her black wig, wrung her hands. ‘I hear her talk–always, always about the red mark. Now they have given it her. She is poisoned–my little apple.’
‘Your little carrot is all right,’ said Bloomah testily. ‘They’ve only vaccinated her.’
The woman caught at the only word she understood. ‘Vaccinate, vaccinate!’ she repeated. Then, relapsing into jargon and raising her hands heavenward: ‘A sudden death upon them all!’
Bloomah turned despairingly in search of a wigless woman. One stood at her elbow.
‘Can’t you explain to her that the doctors mean no harm?’ Bloomah asked.
‘Oh, don’t they, indeed? Just you read this!’ She flourished a handbill, English on one side, Yiddish on the other.
Bloomah read the English version, not without agitation:
‘Mothers, look after your little ones! The School Tyrants are plotting to inject filthy vaccine into their innocent veins. Keep them away rather than let them be poisoned to enrich the doctors.’
There followed statistics to appal even Bloomah. What wonder if the refugees from lands of persecution–lands in which anything might happen–believed they had fallen from the frying-pan into the fire; if the rumour that executioners with instruments had entered the school-buildings had run like wildfire through the quarter, enflaming Oriental imagination to semi-madness.
While Bloomah was reading, a head-shawled woman fainted, and the din and frenzy grew.
‘But I was vaccinated when a baby, and I’m all right,’ murmured Bloomah, half to reassure herself.
‘My arm! I’m poisoned!’ And another pupil flew frantically towards the gate.
The women outside replied with a dull roar of rage, and hurled themselves furiously against the lock.
A window on the playground was raised with a sharp snap, and the head-mistress appeared, shouting alternately at the children and the parents; but she was neither heard nor understood, and a Polish crone shook an answering fist.
‘You old maid–childless, pitiless!’
Shrill whistles sounded and resounded from every side, and soon a posse of eight policemen were battling with the besiegers, trying to push themselves between them and the gate. A fat and genial officer worked his way past Bloomah, his truncheon ready for action.
‘Don’t hurt the poor women,’ Bloomah pleaded. ‘They think their children are being poisoned.’
‘I know, missie. What can you do with such greenhorns? Why don’t they stop in their own country? I’ve just been vaccinated myself, and it’s no joke to get my arm knocked about like this!’
‘Then show them the red marks, and that will quiet them.’
The policeman laughed. A sleeveless policeman! It would destroy all the dignity and prestige of the force.
‘Then I’ll show them mine,’ said Bloomah resolutely. ‘Mine are old and not very showy, but perhaps they’ll do. Lift me up, please–I mean on your unvaccinated arm.’
Overcome by her earnestness the policeman hoisted her on his burly shoulder. The apparent arrest made a diversion; all eyes turned towards her.
‘You Narronim!’ (fools), she shrieked, desperately mustering her scraps of Yiddish. ‘Your children are safe. Ich bin vaccinated. Look!’ She rolled up her sleeve. ‘Der policeman ist vaccinated. Look–if I tap him he winces. See!’
‘Hold on, missie!’ The policeman grimaced.
‘The King ist vaccinated,’ went on Bloomah, ‘and the Queen, and the Prince of Wales, yes, even the Teachers themselves. There are no devils inside there. This paper’–she held up the bill–‘is lies and falsehood.’ She tore it into fragments.
‘No; it is true as the Law of Moses,’ retorted a man in the mob.
‘As the Law of Moses!’ echoed the women hoarsely.
Bloomah had an inspiration. ‘The Law of Moses! Pooh! Don’t you know this is written by the Meshummodim?‘
The crowd looked blank, fell silent. If, indeed, the handbill was written by apostates, what could it hold but Satan’s lies?
Bloomah profited by her moment of triumph. ‘Go home, you Narronim!’ she cried pityingly from her perch. And then, veering round towards the children behind the bars: ‘Shut up, you squalling sillies!’ she cried. ‘As for you, Golda Benjamin, I’m ashamed of you–a girl of your age! Put your sleeve down, cry-baby!’
Bloomah would have carried the day had not her harangue distracted the police from observing another party of rioters–women, assisted by husbands hastily summoned from stall and barrow, who were battering at a side gate. And at this very instant they burst it open, and with a great cry poured into the playground, screaming and searching for their progeny.
The police darted round to the new battlefield, expecting an attack upon doors and windows, and Bloomah was hastily set down in the seething throng and carried with it in the wake of the police, who could not prevent it flooding through the broken side gate.
The large playground became a pandemonium of parents, children, police, and teachers all shouting and gesticulating. But there was no riot. The law could not prevent mothers and fathers from snatching their offspring to their bosoms and making off overjoyed. The children who had not the luck to be kidnapped escaped of themselves, some panic-stricken, some merely mischievous, and in a few minutes the school was empty.
* * * * *
The School Management Committee sat formally to consider this unprecedented episode. It was decided to cancel the attendance for the day. Red marks, black marks–all fell into equality; the very ciphers were reduced to their native nothingness. The school-week was made to end on the Thursday.
Next Monday morning saw Bloomah at her desk, happiest of a radiant sisterhood. On the wall shone the Banner.