The Uses Of Adversity by Myra Kelly

Story type: Literature

“I guess I don’t need I should go on the school,” announced Algernon Yonowsky.

“I guess you do,” said his sister.

“I guess I don’t need I should go on the school, neither,” remarked Percival.

“You got to go,” Leah informed her mutinous brothers. “I got a permit for you from off the Principal; he’s friends mit me the while I goes on that school when I was little. You got to go on the school, und you got to stay on the school. It’s awful nice how you learn things there.”

But the prospect did not appeal to the Yonowsky twins. It seemed to forbode restraint and, during their six tempestuous years, they had followed their own stubborn ways and had accepted neither advice nor rebuke from any man. The evening of the day which had seen their birth had left Leah motherless, and her father broken of heart and of ambition. Since then Mr. Yonowsky had grown daily more silent and morose, and Leah had been less and less able to cope with “them devil boys.”

A room high up in a swarming tenement had been the grave of her youth and pleasure. She was as solitary there as she could have been in a desert, for the neighbours who had known and assisted her in the first years of her bereavement had died or moved to that Mecca of the New World, Harlem. And their successors were not kindly disposed towards a family comprising a silent man, a half-grown girl, and two twin demons who made the block a terror to the nervous and the stairs a menace to the unwary. No one came to gossip with Leah. She was too young to listen understandingly to older women’s adventures in sickness or domestic infelicity, and too dispirited to make any show of interest in the toilettes or “affaires” of the younger. For what were incompetent doctors, habit-backed dresses, wavering husbands, or impetuous lovers to Leah Yonowsky, who had assumed all the responsibilities of a woman’s life with none of its consolations?

Of course she had, to some extent, failed in the upbringing of her brothers, but she had always looked forward hopefully to the time when they should be old enough to be sent to school. There they should learn, among much other lore, to live up to the names she had selected for them out of the book of love and of adventure which she had been reading at the time of their baptism. During all the years of her enslavement she had been a patron of the nearest public library, and it had been a source of great disappointment to her that Algernon and Percival had made no least attempt to acquire the grace of speech and manner which she had learned to associate with those lordly titles.

And now they were refusing even to approach the Pierian Spring! “I guess I don’t go,” Algernon was persisting. “I guess I plays on the street.”

“Me, too,” added Percival. “Patrick Brennan he goes on that school und he gives me over yesterday, a bloody nose. I don’ need I should go on no school mit somebody what makes like that mit me.”

But with the assistance of the neighbours, the policeman on the beat and the truant officer, they were finally dragged to the halls of learning and delivered into the hands of Miss Bailey, who installed them in widely separated seats and seemed blandly unimpressed by their evident determination to make things unpleasant in Room 18. She met Leah’s anticipatory apologies with:

“Of course they’ll be good. I shall see that they behave. Yes, I shall see, too, that Patrick Brennan does not fight with Percival. You musn’t worry about them any more, but I fear they have made worrying a habit with you. If you will send them to school at a quarter to nine every morning, and at ten minutes to one in the afternoon, I shall do the rest.”

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And Leah went out into the sunshine free, for the first time in six years. Free to wander through the streets, to do a little desultory shopping, to go down to the river and to watch the workmen driving rivets in the great new bridge. Never had she spent so pleasant a morning, and her heart was full of gratitude and peace when she reflected that hours such as these would henceforth be the order of the day.

The advantages of a free education did not appeal to “them Yonowsky devils.” Leah was forced to drag her reluctant charges twice a day to the school-house door–sometimes even up the stairs to Room 18–and the reports with which Miss Bailey met her were not enthusiastic. Still, Teacher admitted, too much was not to be expected from little boys coming in contact, for the first time, with authority.

“Only send them regularly,” she pleaded, “and perhaps they will learn to be happy here.” And Leah, in spite of countless obstacles and difficulties, sent them.

They were unusually mutinous one morning, and their dressing had been one long torment to Leah. They persisted in untying strings and unbuttoning buttons. They shrieked, they lay upon the floor and kicked, they spilled coffee upon their “jumpers,” and systematically and deliberately reduced their sister to the verge of distraction and of tears. They were already late when she dragged them to the corner of the school, and there they made their last stand by sitting stolidly down upon the pavement.

Leah could not cope with their two rigid little bodies, and, through welling tears of weariness and exasperation, she looked blankly up and down the dingy street for succour. If only her ally, Mr. Brennan, the policeman on the beat, would come! But Mr. Brennan was guarding a Grand Street crossing until such time as the last straggling child should have safely passed the dangers of the horse-cars, and nothing came in answer to Leah’s prayer but a push-cart laden with figs and dates and propelled by a tall man, long-coated and fur-capped. His first glance read the tableau, and in an instant he grasped Percival, shook him into animation, threw him through the big door, and turned to reason with Algernon. But that rebel had already seen the error of his ways and was meekly ascending the steps and waving a resigned adieu to his sister. The heavy door clanged. Leah raised grateful eyes to her knight, and the thing was done. For the rest of that day Aaron Kastrinsky sold dates and figs at a reckless discount and dreamed of the fair oval of a girl’s face framed in a shawl no more scarlet than her lips, while Leah’s heart sang of a youth in a fur cap and a long coat who had been able to “boss them awful boys.”

Daily thereafter did Aaron Kastrinsky establish his gay green push-cart outside the school door set apart for the very little boys and drive a half hour’s bustling trade ere the children were all housed. And daily two naughty small boys were convoyed to the door by a red-shawled, dark-eyed sister. Very slowly greetings grew from shy glance to shy smile, from swift drooping of the lashes to swift rise of colour, from gentle sweep of eyes to sustained regard, from formal good-morning to protracted chats. But before this happy stage was reached the twins decided that they no longer required safe conduct to the fountain of knowledge, and that Leah’s attendance covered them with ridicule in the eyes of more independent spirits. But she refused to relax her vigilance, nay, rather she increased it; for she began to force her mutinous brothers to the synagogue on Sabbath mornings. The twins soon came to associate the vision of Aaron Kastrinsky with the idea of restraint and of stern virtue, for on the way to the synagogue he walked by Leah’s side–looking strangely incomplete without his green push-cart–and drove them by the sheer force of his will to walk decorously in front. Decorously, too, he marched them back again, and stood idly talking to Leah at the steps of her tenement while the twins escaped to their enjoyments.

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When waiting milk-cans were thrown into cellars, when the wheels of momentarily deserted wagons were loosened, when pushcarts disappeared, when children bent on shopping were waylaid and robbed, when cats were tortured, horses’ manes clipped, windows broken, shop-keepers enraged, babies frightened, and pit-falls set upon the stairs, the cry was always, “Them Yonowsky devils.” Leah could do nothing with them. Mr. Yonowsky made no effort to control them, and Aaron Kastrinsky was not always there. Not half, not a quarter as often as he wished, for Leah promptly turned away from all his attempts to make her understand how greatly she would gain in peace and comfort if she would but marry him. They would move to a larger flat and he would manage the boys. But Leah’s view of life and marriage was tinged with no glory of romance. She had no illusions, no ignorances, and she was afraid, she told her suitor, afraid.

“But of what?” asked the puzzled Aaron. “Thou canst not be afraid of me. Thou knowest how dear thou art to me. What canst thou fear?”

“I’m afraid of being married,” was her ultimatum. She confessed that she loved no one else–she had never, poor child, known anyone else to love; she admitted the allurements of the larger flat and the strong hand always ready for the twins, was delighted to go with him to lectures at the Educational Alliance when her father could be aroused to responsible charge of the twins, rejoiced when he prospered in the world and exchanged the push-cart for a permanent fruit-stand–she even assisted at its decoration–but to marry him she was afraid. Yes, she liked him; yes, she would walk with him–and the twins–along Grand Street in the early evening. Yes, she would wear her red dress since he admired it; but to marry him–ah, no! Please, no! she was afraid of being married.

Aaron was by birth and in his own country one of the learned class, and he promptly set about supplementing Leah’s neglected education. She had lived so solitary a life that her Russian remained pure and soft and was quite distinct from the mixture of Yiddish, German, English, and slang which her neighbours spoke. English, which she read easily, she spoke rarely and haltingly, and Jewish in a prettily pedantic manner, learned from her mother, whose father had been a Rabbi. Aaron lent her books in these three languages, which straightway carried her into strange and glorious worlds. Occasionally the twins stole and sold the books, but their enlightenment remained. To supplement the reading he took her to lectures and to night schools, and thus one evening they listened to an illustrated “talk” on “Contagion and Its Causes.” There had been an epidemic of smallpox in the quarter and Panic was abroad. Parents who spoke no English fought wildly with ambulance surgeons who spoke no Jewish, and refused to entrust the sufferers to the care of the Board of Health. Many disturbances resulted and the authorities arranged that, in all the missions, night schools, and settlements of the East Side, reassuring lecturers should spread abroad the folly of resistance, the joys of hospital life, the surety of recovery in the arms of the board, with a few remarks upon the sources of contagion.

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Leah and Aaron listened to one of the most calming of these orators. The lecturer spoke with such feeling–and such stereopticon slides–that smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, and diphtheria seemed the “open sesame” to bliss unutterable, and the source of these talismans rather to be sought for diligently than shunned. “Didst hear?” Leah asked Aaron as they went home. “For a redness on the skin one may stay in bed for a week and rest.”

“Ay, but one is sick,” said Aaron sagely.

“Not if one goes where the gentleman said. One lies in bed for a week–three weeks–and there be ladies who wait on one, and one rests–all days one rests. And there be no twins. Think of it, Aaron! rest and no twins!”

A few days later she climbed home after a morning’s shopping to find Algernon, heavy of eye and red of face, crouched near the locked door with a whimper in his voice and a card in his hand.

“I’m got somethin’,” he announced, with the pride of the invalid.

“Where didst get it?” asked Leah, automatically; she was accustomed to brazen admission of guilt.

“Off of a boy at school.”

“Thou wilt steal once too often,” his sister admonished him. “Go now, confess to Miss Bailey, and return what thou hast taken.”

“The boy has it too,” retorted Algernon. “It’s a sickness–a taking sickness; und comes a man und gives me a card und says I should come by my house; I’m sick.”

Leah gazed on the card in despairing envy. She had hopefully searched her person for rash or redness, thinking thereby to achieve a ticket to that promised land where beautiful ladies–as the stereopticon had shown–sat graciously waving fans beside a smooth, white bed whereon one lay and rested: only rested: quiet day after quiet day. There had been no twins in her imaginings, yet here was Algernon already set upon the way; Algernon, who would be naughty in that blissful place, and who might even “talk sassy” to the beautiful ladies. Slow tears of disappointment grew under Leah’s heavy lids and splashed upon the coveted ticket. And the doctor from the Board of Health, come to verify the more superficial examination of his colleague, misguidedly launched forth upon a resume of the reassuring lectures.

“You mustn’t cry,” he remonstrated. “It’s only measles and he won’t be very sick. Why, you might keep him here, and I could send you a nurse to show you how to take care of him if it weren’t for that butcher shop on the ground floor. But he’ll be all right. Don’t cry.”

In a short space the house of Yonowsky was bereft of its more noisy son, and peace reigned. Percival went lonely and early to bed. Leah sat late on the steps with Aaron, and, on the next morning, Percival duplicated the redness, the diagnosis, and the departure of his brother, and Leah came into her own.

Then were the days wondrous long. There was time for all the pleasures from which she had been so long debarred. Time to read, time to sew, time to pay and to receive shy, short morning calls, time to scrub and polish until her room shone, time for experiments in cookery, time to stretch her father’s wages to undreamed-of lengths, even time so to cheer and wheedle Mr. Yonowsky that she dared to ask his permission to bring Aaron up to her spotless domain. And Aaron, with a thumping of the hearts not due entirely to the height and steepness of the stairs, came formally to call upon his young divinity. The visit was a great success. Mr. Yonowsky blossomed under the sun of Aaron’s deference and learning into an expansiveness which amazed his daughter, and the men discussed the law, the scriptures, the election, the Czar, nihilism, socialism, the tariff, and the theatre. But here Mr. Yonowsky lapsed into gloom. He had not visited a theatre for seven years–not since his wife’s death.

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“And Miss Leah?” Aaron questioned.

“Never, oh, never!” she breathed resignedly, yet so longingly that Aaron then and there arranged that he and she and Mr. Yonowsky should visit the Thalia Theatre on the following night. And Leah, with the glad and new assurance that the boys were safe, fell into happy devisings of a suitable array. When young Kastrinsky left after formal and prescribed adieus to his hostess, he dragged his host out to listen to a campaign speech.

During the weeks that followed, even Mr. Yonowsky came to see the sweet uses of the Board of Health and to ponder long and deeply upon the nature of the “taking sickness.” No longer forced to do perpetual, though ineffective, sentinel duty, he gradually resumed his place in the world of men and spent placid evenings at the synagogue, the Educational Alliance, the theatre, and the East Side Democratic Union. Leah bore him company at the theatre when she might, and Aaron followed Leah until parental pride swelled high under Mr. Yonowsky’s green Prince Albert coat. For well he saw the looks of admiration which were turned upon his daughter as she sat by his side and consumed cold pink lemonade.

He received two of the roundabout proposals which etiquette demands, and began to gather a dowry for Leah and to recall extraordinary outstanding securities to that end. But, before these things were accomplished, his sons and his troubles returned upon him. With renewed energy, stimulated imagination, and enriched profanity, “them Yonowsky devils” came home, and their reign of mischief set in afresh.

They had always been unruly; they were utterly unmanageable now. Daily was Leah summoned to the big red school-house by the long-suffering Miss Bailey, and nightly was Mr. Yonowsky forced to cancel engagements at club or synagogue and to stay at home to “explanation them boys” to outraged neighbours.

Aaron could still control them, but he was never brought upstairs now. How could Leah expect him to enjoy conversations carried on amid the yells of Algernon and Percival in freedom, or their shrieks in durance?

The twins came home one noontime full of gossip and excitement. They clamoured over their cabbage soup that a classmate of theirs, one Isidore Belchatosky, had “a sickness–a taking sickness, what he took from off his sister Sadie.”

“Is it a bad sickness?” asked the father.

“Somethin’ fierce!” Percival assured him. “Pimples stands on his face, und he says he’s got ’em everywheres, but I guess maybe he lies. He says it’s a chicken sickness what he has. Mit pimples everywheres!”

“You don’t know no names from sicknesses,” Algernon broke in contemptuously. “It ain’t the chicken sickness. It’s the chicken puffs.”

“Where is his house?” asked Leah eagerly. And she joyously despatched the twins with kind inquiries and proffers to sit with the sufferer; for had not the prophesying gentleman explained that there was no surer way of attaining to hospital tickets than by speech and contact with one who had already “arrived”? And Algernon and Percival, spurred on by the allurement of the “pimples everywheres,” pressed past all barriers and outposts until they feasted their eyes upon the neatly spotted Izzie, who proudly proved his boast of the “everywheres” and the exceeding puffiness of the chicken puffs.

Two weeks later the little emissaries of love were in sorry case. The “pimples everywheres” appeared, the ambulance reappeared, the twins disappeared. The cleaning and polishing were resumed, Aaron invited to supper, Mr. Yonowsky pledged to deliver a lecture on “The Southern Negro and the Ballot,” and a stew of the strongest elements set to simmer on the stove.

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Leah had learned the path to freedom and trod it with a light heart. Algernon and Percival enjoyed a long succession of diseases, contagious and infectious, and each attack meant a holiday of varying but always of considerable length. Under ordinary conditions Leah might have been forced to nurse her brothers through their less serious disorders, but there was a butcher shop on the ground floor of the Yonowsky tenement, and the by-laws of the Board of Health decreed that, such being the case, the children should be removed for nearly all the ills to which young and ill-nourished flesh is heir.

“Them Yonowsky devils” became only visitors to their native block, but since they returned after each retirement more unruly and outrageous, they were not deeply mourned. Only the butcher objected, because his store was occasionally quarantined when Leah had achieved some very virulent excuse for summoning the ambulance and shipping her responsibilities. Mr. Yonowsky was puzzled but grateful, and Aaron was grateful too.

Month after month went by and the twins had exhausted the lists of the lecturer and had enjoyed several other ailments, when Leah and her father went to bring them home from their typhoid-fever holiday.

“You’ve been having a hard time with these boys,” the man at the desk said kindly. “The worst luck I ever knew in the many years I’ve been here. But they’re all right now. They’ve had everything on the list except water on the brain and elephantiasis, and they can’t get them.”

“But some what they had they could some more get,” Leah suggested in the English she so rarely used.

“I think not,” the official answered cheeringly. “They hardly ever do. No, I guess you’ll be able to keep them at home now. Good luck to you!”

But it was bad luck, the worst of luck. Mr. Yonowsky’s public spirit died within his breast; Leah’s coquetry vanished before a future unrelieved by visits from the black and friendly ambulance, and when Aaron climbed the well-known stairs that evening he heard, while he was yet two floors short of his destination, the shrieks of the twins, the smashing of crockery, and the grumbling of the neighbours. Suddenly a little figure darted upon him and Leah was in his arms.

“Aaron,” she sobbed. “Oh, Aaron, mine heart it breaks. There ain’t no more taking sicknesses in all the world. So says the gentleman.”

“My golden one,” said Aaron, who was a bit of a philosopher; “all good things come to an end except only Love. And the twins have had taking sicknesses in great and unheard-of numbers.”

“But now they are more than ever bad. I can do nothing with them and I am afraid of them. In hospitals, where one is very happy, one grows very big, and the twins are no longer little boys.”

“If you marry me–” Aaron began.

“You will love me always?”

“Yea, mine gold.”

“And for me you will boss them twins?”

“Yea, verily, for thee I will boss the twins.”

And the betrothal of Leah Yonowsky to Aaron Kastrinsky was signed and sealed immediately.

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