A Providential Match
From The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company
HE is still known among his townspeople as Rouvke Arbel. Rouvke they call him, because this name, in its more respectful form of Rouven, was bestowed upon him on the eighth day of his life, at the ceremony which initiated him into Israel. As to the nickname of Arbel, which is Yiddish for "sleeve," he is indebted for it to the apparently never-to-be-forgotten fact that before he came to America, and when he still drove horses and did all sorts of work for Peretz the distiller, he was in the habit of assigning to the sleeves of his sheep-skin coat such duties as generally devolve upon a pocket-handkerchief.
That was only about four years ago; and yet Rouvke is now quite a different young man in quite a different coat and with a handkerchief in its side pocket. The face is precisely the same: the same everlasting frown, the same pockmarks, hollow yet ruddy cheeks, snub nose, and little gray eyes, at once timid and sly. But for all that, such is the dissimilarity between the Rouvke of four years ago and the Rouvke of today that recently, when his mother, who still peddles boiled potatoes in Kropovetz, Government of Kovno, had been surprised by a photograph of her son, her first impulse was to spit at the portrait and to repudiate it as the ungodly likeness of some unknown Gentile. But then this photograph, which, by the way, Rouvke had taken by mere chance and for the sole reason that it was no use trying to get any cash from the Bowery photographer, to whom he had sold, on the installment plan, "a pair of pants made to order"--this photograph fully establishes its original's claim of not being a "greener" in the New World. For this is what the portrait reveals. Rouvke's hair is now entirely free from the pair of sidelocks, or peieths, which dangled over his ears when he first set foot on American soil; it is parted in the middle and combed on either side in the shape of a curled ostrich feather. He wears a collar; and this collar is so high and so much below the size of his neck that it gives you the uncomfortable idea of its owner having swallowed the handle of the whip with which he used to rule over Peretz, the distiller's mare. The flannel muffler, which seemed never to part company with him while he lived in Kropovetz, has been supplanted by a gay necktie, and the sheepskin by a diagonal "cutaway."
Now, if you were conversant with the business of "custom-peddling," you might perhaps conjecture, upon inspecting Rouvke's photograph, that his cutaway, which seems to be at least one size too large for him, had formerly encased the portly figure of a bartender. And so it had, although for no length of time; for finding the bartender as backward in his payments as the photographer had been, Rouvke soon contrived to prevail upon his delinquent customer to exchange the cutaway for a "mishfeet corkshcrew Printz Albert," which would "feet him like a glove," and carrying off the diagonal in advance he let the bartender wait for the glove-like garment until doomsday.
But "bishness is bishness," as Rouvke would put it. Otherwise he is quite a fine fellow. His bills he pays promptly. On the Eve of the Day of Atonement he subscribes a dollar or two to the funds of the synagogue "Sons of Kropovetz," and has been known to start a newly arrived townsman in business by standing his security in a perforated chair-seat store to the amount of two dollars and a half. Nevertheless, since he visits the Bowery Savings Bank on Saturdays with the same punctuality with which he puts on his phylacteries and prays in his room every morning on weekdays, and since his townsfolk, who, unlike him, are blessed with families, cannot afford such excursions to the Bowery institution, these latter Kropovetz Americans begrudge him his bank account, as well as his credit in the peddler-supply stores, and out of sheer envy like to refer to him, not as Robert Friedman, as his business card reads, but as "Rouvke Arbel--what do you think of that slouch!"
Let us hope, however, that these invidious references never reach Rouvke's ears; for his susceptibilities in this direction are, it must be owned, rather keen. Indeed, if there be a weakness of which he is guilty, it is a rather intense love of approbation and a slight proneness to parade himself. I do not know what he would not give to have people say: "Robert is a smart fellow! Robert is no greenhorn! Robert is the best soul in the world!" It was this foible which, in translating his first name into English, caused him to prefer Robert to Reuben, on the ground that the former appellation seemed to have less of Kropovetz and more of a "tzibilized" sound to it.
The feminine element was until recently absent from Rouvke's life. True, while at home, in the domestic employ of Peretz the distiller, he would bestow an occasional pinch on Leike the servant-maid's cheek. But that was by no means a pinch of gallantry; it was never one of those pinches which a Kropovetz lad will accompany with a look of ostensible mock admiration in his half-shut eyes, and with the exclamation "Capital stuff, that! as sure as I am a Jew!" No! Leike the lame devil, Leike the scold, Rouvke hated from the deepest recesses of his driver's soul; and when he pinched her, as he often did in the kitchen, he did it, not from love, but simply that she might smart and "jump to heaven, the scarecrow." And Leike would so amply repay him with the ladle, that there would ensue a series of the most complex and the most ingenious oaths, attended by hair-tearing and by squeaking, till the mistress would come rushing in and terminate the war by boxing the ears of both belligerent parties.
To Hanele, his master's only daughter, Rouvke used to serve tea with more alacrity than to the rest of the family; and when Feive, the matchmaker, made his first appearance and the first suitor was introduced, Rouvke's appetite for sour cream and rye bread somehow disappeared for a few days, while Rouvke himself moved about as if out of gear, and on one occasion caught a slap in the face, because, upon being ordered to fetch a pail of water, he stood staring as if he did not understand Yiddish. But this seemed of no consequence, and Rouvke himself could not, for the life of him, explain this sudden disappearance both of his appetite and presence of mind. Indeed, how could he have dared to connect Hanele with it What could there have been in common between the relish for sour cream of a mere driver, and the pet daughter of Reb [Rabbi, Mister] Peretz, the distiller, the son of Rabbi Berele, and the first citizen of Kropovetz
The negotiations of which Hanele was the object were soon broken off, and Rouvke's truant appetite again fell into the line of drivers' appetites; with this difference, however, that, when Hanele asked for a glass of tea, he would now run to serve her with still more eagerness than before.
Suitor after suitor called and was dismissed, until a year rolled by, when Rouvke's name appeared in the military service-roll, and he packed off for America.
In America he passed his first four years in the school of peddling, among the most diligent and most successful of its students, and so had no mind for anything else in the world. Only during the first few months his heart would almost unremittingly be pining and yearning after Kropovetz--after his mother, his master's family, his master's apple tree, under which he had loved to steal a nap on summer days; the raised lawn in front of the house, where he would sit down of a Friday evening and show off his enormous top boots, just after he had given them a fresh coat of tar, "in honor of the Sabbath"; the well by the synagogue, where on Saturdays, during the intermission in the morning prayer, he used to indulge in a lark with his chums, while the elder members of the congregation were attending the reading of the scrolls. But of all the memories which at this early period of his life in New York troubled his busy mind and gnawed at his enterprising heart that of Hanele was the most excruciating and the most persistent. In due course, however, the waves of time drowned in his mind and in his heart Hanele as well as the apple tree, the lawn in front of the house, and the well by the synagogue. Only at rare intervals, when plying a new arrival from Kropovetz with questions as to the place where his cradle had been rocked, Rouvke would, after a cursory inquiry concerning the health of his mother and of the Peretz family in general, exact the most minute information about Hanele; and then he would for some time feel as if his heart was "stretching," as he himself would mentally define the effect of his stirred-up recollections.
For the rest, Rouvke followed the regular peddler course with undisturbed assiduity. From a handkerchief peddler he was promoted to "basket-peddling"--that is to say, his stock became plentiful enough and heterogeneous enough to call for a portable store in the shape of a basket. After a while he joined the class where the peddling is done on the "stairses" of tenement houses. The curriculum of this class includes the occasional experience of being sent head foremost down all the "stairses," of then picking one's self up and imperturbably knocking at some door on the ground floor, only to come face to face with the janitor and thus get into fresh trouble, and so on. Finally, Rouvke reached the senior grade of the institution, and graduated with the degree of custom peddler, and with the following business card for his diploma: "ROBERT FRIEDMAN, DEALER IN FURNITURE, CARPETS, JEWELRY, CLOTHING, LADIES' DRESS GOODS, ETC. WEEKLY PAYMENTS TAKEN."
As has been said, Rouvke was a stranger to the feminine world. He met a good many members of the gentle sex, but that was exclusively in a business way. The other peddlers he would often encounter on the street in company with nicely dressed "yoong laddas," with whom they loudly spoke in English. He also knew that these fellows attended dancing academies, balls, and picnics; but to him himself these entertainments were a terra incognita. And sometimes when Rouvke entered the house of a fellow countryman on business (Rouvke never visited his fellow countrymen except on business), and there happening to be an English-speaking young woman, the host said: "Miss Goldberg--Mr. Friedman; Mr. Friedman--Miss Goldberg," Mr. Friedman would blush crimson at the transaction, while the sentence, "I'm pleashed to meech you," which he well knew was then in order, stuck in his throat and would not budge. This, however, was no common occurrence, for Rouvke took care to avoid such predicaments. At all events, he never allowed these things to bother his head.
After a while, however, by the time the peddlers and his townsfolk estimated his capital in cash at five thousand dollars, and when he actually had over three thousand dollars in bank deposits and twenty-five summers behind his back, his heart somehow resumed its old stretching process. He was at a loss to account for it; but he became aware that each time he passed by a pretty young woman this stretching sensation forced him to outrun her, and, making a show of stopping to look at a window display, to allow his eyes to stray off under the brim of the fair one's hat.
He gradually became a new sort of Rouvke. Formerly, when he was subjected to the tortures of an introduction to a "yoong ladda," the ordeal would result in a mere blush, accompanied by one or two minutes' violent throbbing. Whereas now, every time a similar accident befell him, he would, after the calamity was over, hasten to find himself in front of a looking glass, and fall to inspecting his glaring necktie and more particularly the pockmarks on his nose. In times past he was hardly ever conscious of these traces of smallpox on his face; now they dwelt in his mind with such pertinacity that one night he dreamed of seeing a watermelon, which was somehow at the same time a dog with a huge nose all covered with pocks. And when he awoke in the morning he felt so sick at heart that he could not relish his breakfast, and was so dazed all that day that he had a carpet sent to an Irishwoman who had ordered some satin for a dress.
Rouvke enrolled in a public evening school for immigrants, and when he had achieved the wisdom of piecing together the letters in "cat," "rat," "mat," of the First Reader, he one afternoon bought a newspaper, and applied himself to looking for an advertisement of some physician who would undertake to remove the footprints of smallpox. He had an idea that the papers contained kindred advertisements. The undertaking proved a failure, however, for Rouvke could detect in the paper neither "cat" nor "rat," while the other words only swam before his eyes. And his heart was "stretching" and "stretching."
It would be unfair to Rouvke, however, to ascribe his attending evening school to the sole purpose of being able to make out a medical advertisement. His chief motive therefor was twofold. In the first place, he would often say to himself: "Robert, bear in mind that you are Rouvke no longer; the chances are that in a year or two you may open a peddler's supply-store of your own: now, you know that the owner of a store who cannot read and write is in danger of being robbed by his bookkeeper." In the second place, his "stretching" heart seemed to whisper: "Robert, remember those ladies have nothing but sneers for a gentleman who does not know how to read a newspaper."
Moreover, those of his fellow peddlers who had studied the Talmud in Russia, and having, therefore, some mental training, found no trouble in picking up some crumbs of broken English in its written form, would often rally him on the "iron head" he must possess to retain the ponderous load of the addresses and accounts of his numerous customers without committing them to writing. These pleasantries pierced Rouvke to the heart; but the pain they gave him was not half so cruel as his moral pangs at the jokes which were showered at him on the subject of his shyness in the presence of ladies. Often he would be entrapped into the company of a "nearly American-born" daughter of Israel; but a still more frequent prank at his expense was for a facetious fellow to drag him out to the middle of the floor in a peddler-supply store, and to force him into a waltz, or to jestingly measure his legs, by way of ascertaining their potential adroitness in a dancing hall. "Eh, Robert!" they would torment him, "buy a teecket for a ball, veel you? A ball fi'sht clesh, I tell you. Come, yen the laddas veel shee you, dey veel get shtuck--in de co'ners." Robert would struggle, scream, swear, and, after all, steal up to the front of the looking glass. And his heart would be "stretching" and "stretching."
Whenever he heard of a new marriage, he would apply for details as to the bride and the bridegroom--how much he earned a week, how they came to be engaged, what space of time interposed between the engagement and the wedding. One Saturday morning, while mounting the stairs which led to his miniature hall bedroom, he saw through an open door a young woman buttoning the shirt-collar for her husband; whereupon his heart swelled with a feeling of mixed envy and extreme friendliness for the young couple. "Who is he?" he remarked to himself, on reaching his room, which now seemed to him desolate and lonely. "Only a tailor, a penniless workman. When I am married I shall not live in a tenement house." And at this his fancy unfolded a picture: A parlor with bronze clock on the mantelpiece; a mirror between two lace window curtains; a dark-eyed little woman in a chocolate-colored wrapper sweeping a carpet of flaming red and yellow; and, behold! he, Robert, comes in from business, and the young woman addresses him in a piping little voice: "Hello, Rob! Will you have dinner?" just as he had the day before seen in the house of a newly married custom-peddler.
And it came to pass, in those days of "heart-stretching," that one Saturday morning Robert met at the "Sons of Kropovetz" Synagogue a new arrival from his native place in the person of Feive the melamed. As the Hebrew term implies, this tall and bony old gentleman, with the face of a martyr, had at home conducted one of the schools in which a Jewish boy passes the day, learning the Word of God. As is not unusual with melameds, Feive's profession yielded him an income which made it necessary for him to devote his spare hours to the business of shadchen, or shidech agent--that is, of matchmaker in the matrimonial sense of the word. In course of time the shadchen spirit had become so deeply imbedded in Reb Feive's soul that even on finding himself in New York, and before his draggling satin coat had had time to exhale its lingering traces of steerage odors, his long and snuff-stocked nose fell to smelling for shidechs.
"Ah, Reb Feive!" Rouvke accosted his townsman, "how do you do Quite an unexpected guest, as sure as I am a Jew! When did you arrive?"
And after a perfunctory catechism upon the health of his mother and Kropovetz matters in general, he inquired about his old master.
"Peretz?" the old man echoed Rouvke's interrogation. "May the Uppermost have mercy on him! You have heard that he is now in reduced circumstances, have you not? The distillery is closed."
"You don't say so!"
"Yes, he is in a very bad way," Reb Feive resumed, curling one of his long yellowish-gray sidelocks. "You know what hard times the Jews are now having in Russia. Things are getting from bad to worse--may He whom I dare not mention without washing my hands deliver us and preserve!--a Jew can nowadays hardly engage in any business, much less in the liquor line. Poor Peretz, he looks so careworn!"
"Can it be true that the distillery has been closed? I am very sorry."
Rouvke was moved with profound pity for his old employer, who had been kind to him, and to whom he had been devoted. But this feeling of commiseration was instantly succeeded by a vague sense of triumph. "What have I lived to see!" Rouvke seemed to exclaim. "I am now richer than Reb Peretz, as sure as I am a Jew!" And at this he became aware of the bankbook in his breast pocket.
"Oh, I am very, very sorry for him!" he added, with renewed sincerity, after a slight pause. "Why, such an honest Jew! And how is Hanele?"
"As usual," the shadchen rejoined--"still unmarried. But it serves Peretz right. (May God not punish me for my hard words!) When I offered her the best matches in the world, he was hard to please. Nothing short of a king would have suited his ambition."
As the old shadchen spoke his right arm, hand, and fingers were busily engaged punctuating his words with a system of the most intricate and most diversified evolutions in the air.
"And how does she look?" Rouvke again broke in. "Is she still as pretty as she used to be?"
"That she is," the matchmaker returned grimly. "But all the worse for her. Would she were plainer looking, for then her father would not have been so fastidious about a young man for her, and she might be a mother of three children by this time."
"Oh, she will have no trouble in making a match; such a beauty!" Rouvke observed.
In the afternoon of the same day, Rouvke lay across his bed with his legs stretched on a chair, after his wont, and his head lost in recollections of Hanele. She had recently all but faded away from his memory, and when he did have occasion to recall her, her portrait before his mind's eye would be a mere faint-drawn outline. But now, singularly enough, he could somehow again vividly see her good-natured, deep, dark eyes, and her rosy lips perpetually exposing the dazzling whiteness of her teeth and illuminating her pallid face with inextinguishable good humor; he could hear the rustle of her fresh calico dress as she friskily ran up to answer her father's solemnly affectionate "Good Sabbath," on Reb Peretz's return from synagogue, the last Saturday before Rouvke's departure.
The image did not send a yearning thrill through Rouvke, as it would have done during his first few months in America; still, on the other hand, it now had for his wearied soul a quieting, benign charm, which it had never exercised before, and the more deeply to indulge in its soothing effect, he shut his eyes. "Suppose I marry her." The thought flashed through his mind, but was instantly dismissed as an absurdity too gross to be indulged even for a pastime. But the thought carried him back to his old days in Kropovetz, and he wished he could go there in flesh for a visit. What a glorious time it would be to let them see his stylish American dress, his businesslike manners and general air of prosperity and "echucation!" Ah, how they would be stupefied to see the once Rouvke Arbel thus elegantly attired, "like a regula' dood!" For who in all Kropovetz wears a cutaway, a brown derby, a necktie, and a collar like his? And would it not be lovely to donate a round sum to the synagogue? Oh, how he would be sought after and paraded!
"Poor Reb Peretz!" he said to himself, transferring his thoughts to the news of his old employer's adversity. "Poor Hanele!" Whereat the Kropovetz girl loomed up, her head lowered and tears trickling down her cheeks, as he had once seen her when she sat quietly lamenting her defeated expectation of a new dress. Rouvke conceived the vague idea of sending Reb Peretz fifty dollars, which would make the respectable sum of one hundred rubles. But the generous plan was presently lost in a labyrinth of figures, accounts of his customers, and reflections upon his prospective store, which the notion of fifty dollars called forth in his dollar-ridden brain.
He thus lay plunged in meditation until his reverie was broken by the door flying open.
"Good Sabbath! Good Sabbath!" Reb Feive greeted his young townsman with his martyr-like features relaxed into a significant smile, as he squeezed himself through the narrow space between the half-opened door and the foot of the bedstead. "Do not take ill my not knocking at the door first. I am not yet used to your customs here, greenhorn that I am."
"Ah, Reb Feive! Good Sabbath!" Rouvke returned, starting up with an anxious air and foreboding an appeal for pecuniary assistance.
"Guess what brings me, Rouven."
"How can I tell?" the host rejoined, with a forced simper. "And why should you not call just for a visit in honor of the Sabbath? You are a welcome guest. Be seated," he added, indicating his solitary chair and himself keeping his seat on the bed, which rendered the additional service of lounge.
"How dare these beggarly greenhorns beset me in this manner?" he left unsaid. "Indeed, what business have they to come to America at all?"
"Well, how are things going on in Kropovetz?" he asked, audibly. "Business is very dull here--very dull, indeed--may I not be punished for talking business on Sabbath--"
"Well, do leave business alone! You had better hear my errand, Rouven," the matchmaker said, working his fingers. "Suppose I had a shidech for you, eh?"
"A shidech?" Rouvke ejaculated, much relieved from his misgivings, only to become all of a flutter with delicious surprise.
"Yes, a shidech; and what sort of a one! You never dreamed of such a shidech, I can assure you. Never mind blushing like that. Why, is it not high time for a young man like you to get married?"
"I am not blushing at all," Rouvke protested, coloring still more deeply, and missing the sentence by which he had been about to inform himself of the fair one's name without betraying his feverish impatience.
"Well," Reb Feive resumed, with a smile, and twisting his sidelock into a corkscrew, "it would be too cruel to try your patience. Let us come straight to the point, then. I mean--guess whom--well, I mean Hanele, Peretz the distiller's Hanele! What do you think of that?" the shadchen added in a whisper, as he let go of his corkscrew, and started back in well-acted ecstasy to watch the produced effect.
Rouvke flushed up to the roots of his hair, while his mouth opened in one of those embarrassed grins which seem to be especially adapted to the mouths of Kropovetz horse-drivers--one which makes the general expression of the face such that you are at a loss whether to take it for a smile or for the preliminary to a cry.
"You must be joking, Reb Feive. Why I a-a-a-I am not thinking of getting married as yet; a-a-you had better tell me some news," he faltered.
The fact is that the shadchen's attack had taken him so unawares that it gave him no time to analyze his own mind, and although the subject thrilled his soul with delightful curiosity, he dreaded the risk of committing himself. But Feive was not the man to let himself be put off so easily in matters of a professional nature; and so warming up to the beloved topic, he launched out in a flood of garrulity, emphasizing his speech now by striking some figure in space, now by an energetic twirl of his yellowish gray appendages. He enlarged with real shadchenlike gusto on the prospective bride's virtues and accomplishments; on the love which, according to him, she had always professed for Rouvke; on the frivolity of American girls; on the honor it would confer upon his listener to marry into the family of Reb Peretz the distiller.
Rouvke followed Reb Feive with breathless attention, but never uttered a word or a gesture which might be interpreted into an encouragement. This, however, mattered but little to the old matrimonial commission agent, for, carried away with his own eloquence, he talked himself into the impression that Rouvke "was willing," if I may be permitted to borrow a phrase from a more famous horse-driver. At any rate, when Reb Feive suddenly bethought himself that he came near missing the afternoon service at the synagogue, and abruptly got up from his seat, Rouvke seemed anxious to detain him; and as he returned "What is your hurry, Reb Feive?" to his departing visitor's "Good-pie!--is that the way you say here on leaving?" he felt for the old man a kind of filial tenderness.
Choson is a term applied to a Jewish young man, embracing the period from the time he is placed on the matrimonial market down to the termination of the nuptial festivities. There is all the difference in the world between a choson and a common unmarried mortal of the male sex, who is left to the bare designation of bocher, the very sound of the hymeneal title possessing an indefinable charm, an element of solemnity, which seems to invest its bearer with a glittering halo.
Reb Feive thus suddenly, as if by a magic wand, converted Rouvke from a simple bocher into a choson. And so keenly alive was Rouvke to his unexpected transformation, that for some time after the wizard's departure his face was wreathed in bashful smiles, as if his new self, by its dazzling presence, embarrassed him. He felt the change in himself in a general way, however, and quite apart from the idea of Hanele. As to Peretz's daughter, the notion of her assenting to marry him again seemed preposterous. Besides, admitting for argument's sake, as the phrase goes, that she would accept him, Rouvke reflected that he would then not be fool enough to enter into wedlock with a portionless girl; that if he waited a year or two longer (although it seemed much too long to wait), that is, until he was a prospering storekeeper, he could get for a wife the daughter of some Division Street merchant with two or three thousand dollars into the bargain.
So he relinquished the thought of Hanele as a thing out of the question and proceeded to picture himself the choson of some American girl. But as he was making that effort, the image of the Kropovetz maiden kept intruding upon his imagination, interfering with the mental process, and his heart seemed all the while to be longing after the dismissed subject and filled with the desire that he might have both matches to choose from. Finally, he yielded and resumed the discussion of Reb Feive's project. The idea of a Division Street business man for a father-in-law, beside the assumption of becoming the son-in-law of Reb Peretz, appeared prosaic and vulgar. Those New York merchants had risen from the mire, like himself, while his old master looked at the world from the lofty height of distinguished birth, added to Talmudical learning and exceeding social importance. And here the ties of traditional reverence and adoration which bound Rouvke to his former employer made themselves keenly felt in his heart. Ah, for the privilege of calling Reb Peretz father-in-law! To think of the stir the news would make among his townsfolk, both in Kropovetz and here in New York! Besides, the American-born or "nearly American-born" girls inspire him with fear. These young ladies are brought up at picnics and balls, while to him the very thought of inviting a lady for a dance is embarrassing. What are they good for, anyway They look more Christian than Jewish, and are only great hands at squandering their husbands' money on candy, dresses, and theatres. A woman like that would domineer over him, treat him haughtily, and generally make life a burden to him. Hanele, dear Hanele, on the other hand, is a true daughter of Israel. She would make a good housekeeper; would occasionally also mind the store; would accompany him to synagogue every Saturday; and that is just what a man like him wants in a wife. An English-speaking Mrs. Friedman he would have to call "darling," a word barren of any charm or meaning for his heart, whereas Hanele he would address in the melodious terms of "Kreinele meine! Gold meine!" ["My little crown! My gold!"] Ah, the very music of these sounds would make him cry with happiness!
The thought of a walk to synagogue with Hanele, dressed in a plush cloak and an enormous hat, by his side, and of whispering these words of endearment in her ear was enchanting enough; but then, enchantment-like, the spectacle soon faded away before the hard, retrospective fact of Rouvke, the horse-driver, in top boots, serving tea to Hanele, the only daughter of Reb Peretz the distiller. "Oh, it cannot be! Feive is a greener to take such a match into his head!" he mentally exclaimed in black despair. And forthwith he once more sought consolation in the prospect of a marriage portion which a New York wife would bring him, and fell to adding the probable amount to his own future capital. Hanele will reject him? Why, so much the better! That makes it impossible for him to commit the folly of sacrificing at least two thousand dollars. And his spirits rose at the narrow escape he was having from a ruinous temptation. Still, lurking in a deeper corner of his heart, there lingered something which wounded his pride and made him feel as if he would much rather have that means of escape cut off from him and the temptation left for himself to grapple with.
Feive, the melamed, had another talk with Rouvke; but although he did not hesitate to speak authoritatively of Reb Peretz's and Hanele's assent, he utterly failed to elicit from his interlocutor any positive hint. Nothing daunted, however, the shadchen dispatched a lengthy epistle to Reb Peretz. He went off in raptures over Rouvke's wealth, social rank in America, and religious habits, and gave him credit for newly acquired education. "It is not the Rouvke of yore," read at least one line on each of the ten pages of the letter. The installment peddling business was elevated to the dignity of a combination of large concerns in furniture, jewelry, and clothing. The owner of this thriving establishment was depicted as panting with love for Hanele, and this again was pointed out as proof that the match had been foreordained by Providence.
Reb Peretz's answer had not reached its destination when in New York there occurred two events which came to the daring matchmaker's assistance.
The daughter of a Seventh Ward landlord had been betrothed to a successful custom peddler, her father promising one thousand dollars in cash, in addition to a complete household outfit, as her marriage portion. As the fixed wedding day drew near, the choson was one day shocked to receive from his would-be father-in-law the intimation that his girl and the household outfit were good enough on their own merits, and that the thousand dollars would have to be dispensed with. The young man immediately cut short his visits to the landlord's daughter; but a fortnight had hardly elapsed before he found himself behind prison bars on an action brought in the name of his broken-hearted sweetheart. How the matter was compromised does not concern our story; but the news, which for several days was the main topic of gossip in the peddler stores, reached Rouvke; and the effect it had on him the reader may well imagine: it riddled to pieces the only unfavorable argument in his discussion of Feive's offer.
A still more powerful element in reaching a conclusion was with Rouvke the following incident.
One day he went to see the shadchen, who had his lodging in the house of a fellow townsman. While he stood behind the door adjusting his necktie, as he now invariably did before entering a house, he overheard a loud dialogue between the housewife and her boarder. Catching his own name, Rouvke paused with bated breath to listen. "Pray, don't be talking nonsense, Reb Feive," came to the ears of our eavesdropper. "Peretz the distiller give his Hanele in marriage to Rouvke Arbel!--That pock-pitted bugbear and Hanele! Such a beauty, such a pampered child! Why, anybody would be glad to marry her, penniless as she may be. She marry that horrid thing, sloptub, cholera that he is!"
Rouvke was cut to the quick; and shivering before the prospect of hearing some further uncomplimentary allusions to himself, he was on the point of beating retreat; but the very thought of those epithets continuing to be uttered at his expense, even though beyond his hearing, was too painful to bear; and so he put a stop to them by a knock at the door.
"But are you really sure, Reb Feive, that Reb Peretz will have me?" he queried, after a little, all of a flutter, in a private conversation with the shadchen, in the bedroom.
"Leave it to me," the marriage-broker replied. "I have managed greater things in my lifetime. It is as good as settled."
"See if I do not marry Hanele after all, if only to spite you, grudging witch that you are!" Rouvke, in his heart, addressed to his townswoman, on emerging from the pitchy darkness of the little bedroom. "Good-bye, Mrs. Kohen!" his tongue then said, as his eyes looked daggers at her.
Reb Peretz concluded the reading of Reb Feive's letter by good naturedly calling him "foolish melamed." Little by little, however, the very fact that the shadchen could now dare conceive such a match at all began to mortify him. It took him back to the time when Rouvke used to sit behind his mare, and when he, Reb Peretz, was the most prosperous Jew for miles around, and it wrung his heart with pity both for himself and for Hanele. He became aware that it was over a year since a young man had come to offer himself, and instead of becoming irritated with his daughter, as had latterly been frequently the case with him, he was overpowered by an acute twinge of hurt pride, as well as by compunction for the splendid matrimonial opportunities which he had brushed aside from her. It occurred to Reb Peretz that Hanele was now in her twenty-fifth year, whereupon his fancy reproachfully pointed at his cherished child in the form of a gray-haired old maid. A shudder ran through his veins at the vision, and he began to seek refuge in commercial air castles, but the aerial structures were presently blown away, only to leave him face to face with the wretched ramshackle edifice of his actual affairs. His attention reverted to the American letter, but the collocation of Rouvke Arbel with Hanele sickened Reb Peretz. His self-respect suddenly rushed back upon him, and he felt like "tearing out the beard and sidelocks" of the impudent shadchen.
Nevertheless, he took up the letter once more. This time the matchmaker's eulogies of Rouvke's flourishing business made a deeper impression on him, and brought the indistinct reflection that in course of time he might have to emigrate to America himself with his whole family.
"Pooh, nonsense!" he ultimately concluded, after a third or fourth reading of Reb Feive's missive. "America makes a new man of every young fellow. There had not been a more miserable wretch than Tevke, the watchman; and yet when he recently came back from America for a visit, he looked like a prince. Let her go and be a mother of children, as behooves a daughter of Israel. We must trust to God. The match does look like a Providential affair."
Reb Peretz was a whole day in mustering courage for an explanation with Hanele. But when he had at last broached the subject to her, by means of rendering Feive's Hebrew letter into Yiddish, his undertaking proved easier of achievement than he had anticipated.
Hanele was really a "true daughter of Israel," and this implies that her education was limited to the reading of a Yiddish version of the Five Books of Moses, and that her knowledge of the world did not extend beyond "Kropovetz and its goats," as the phrase runs in her native town. She was a taciturn, good-natured, and tractable girl, and her greatest pleasure was to be knitting fancy tablecloths and brooding over daydreams. Moreover, the repeated appearance and disappearance of chosons, by recurrently unsettling her hitherto calm and easy heart, had left it in a state of perpetual unrest. She had not fallen in love with any of the young men who had sought her hand and her marriage portion, for, according to a rigid old rule of propriety to which her father clung, she never had been allowed the chance of interchanging a word with any of them, even while the suit was pending. Still, when a month passed without a shadchen putting in an appearance, she would often, when the latch gave a click, raise her eyes to the door in the eager hope that it would admit a member of that profession. In her reveries she now frequently dwelt on her girl friends who had married out of Kropovetz, and then her soul would be yearning and longing, she knew not after what. With all the tender affection which tied her to her family, with all her attachment to her native surroundings, her father's house became dreary and lonely to her; she grew tired of her home and homesick after the rest of the world.
To be sure, the first intimation as to her marrying Rouvke Arbel shocked her, and on realizing the full meaning of the offer she dropped her head on her father's shoulder and burst into tears. But as Reb Peretz stroked her hair, while he presented the matter in an aspect which was even an improvement on Feive's plea, he gradually hypnotized her into a lighter mood, and she recalled Rouvke's photograph, which his mother had on several occasions flaunted before her. The match now assumed a somewhat romantic phase. She let her jaded imagination waft her away to an unknown far-off land, where she saw herself glittering with gold and pearls and nestling up to a masculine figure in sumptuous attire. It was a bewitching, thrilling scene only slightly marred by the dim outline of Rouvke in topboots and sheepskin rising in the background. Ah, it was such a pity to have that taint on the otherwise fascinating picture! And, in order to remove the sickly blotch, Hanele essayed to rig Rouvke out in a "cutaway," stand-up collar, and necktie after the model of the photograph. But then her effort produced a total stranger with features she could not make out, while Rouvke Arbel, topboots, sheepskin and all, seemed to have dodged the elegant attire and to remain aloof both from the stranger and the photograph. Well, it is not Rouvke, then, who is proposed to her, she settled, with the three images crowding each other in her mind. It is an entirely new man. Besides, who can tell what may transpire? Let her first get to America and then--who knows, but she may in truth marry another man, a nice young fellow who had never been her father's servant? And Hanele felt that such would be the case. At all events, did not Baske David, the flour merchant's daughter, marry a former blacksmith in America, and is she not happy? Ah, the letters she writes to her!
"Say yes or no. Speak out, my little dove," Reb Peretz insisted, in conclusion of a second conversation on the same subject. "It is not my destiny which is to be decided. It is for you to say," he added, feeling that Hanele had no business to render any but an affirmative decision.
"Yes," she at last whispered, drooping her head and bursting into a cry.
The shadchen gave himself no rest, and letters sailed over the Atlantic by the dozen. In his first reply Reb Peretz took care to appear oscillating. His second contained a hint as to the attachment which Hanele had always felt for Rouvke, whom they had treated like one of the family. There were also letters with remote allusions to money which Hanele would want for some dresses and to pay her way. And thus, with every message he penned, the conviction gained on Reb Peretz that his daughter would be happy in America, and that the match was really of Providential origin.
These letters operated on Rouvke's heart as an ointment does on a wound, to cite his own illustration; and in spite of the money hints, which constituted the fly in this ointment, he felt happy. He thought of Hanele; he dreamed of her; and, above all, he thought and dreamed of the sensation which her departure from home would create at Kropovetz, and of his glory on her arrival in New York. "Good luck to you, Robert!" the peddlers repeatedly congratulated him. "Have you ever dreamed of becoming the son-in-law of Peretz the distiller? There should be no end to the treats which you ought to stand now." And Robert stood treat and was wreathed in chosonlike smiles.
It was a busy day at Castle Garden. Several transatlantic steamers had arrived, and the railed inclosure within the vast shed was alive with a motley crowd of freshly landed steerage passengers. Outside, there was a cluster of empty merchandise trucks waiting for their human loads, while at a haughty distance from these stood a pair of highly polished carriages--quite a rare sight in front of the immigrant landing station. It was Rouvke who had engaged these superior vehicles. He had come in them with Reb Feive, and with two or three others of his fellow countrymen and brothers in business, to meet Hanele. He was dressed in his Saturday clothes and in a brand-new brown derby hat, and even wore a huge red rose which one of the party, a gallant custom peddler, had stuck into the lapel of his "cutaway" before starting.
The atmosphere of the barn-like garden was laden with nauseating odors of steerage and of carbolic acid, and reeking with human wretchedness. Leaning against the railing or sitting on their baggage, there were bevies of unkempt men and women in shabby dress of every cut and color, holding on to ragged, bulging parcels, baskets, or sacks, and staring at space with a look of forlorn, stupefied, and cowed resignation. The cry of children in their mothers' arms, blending in jarring discord with the gruff yells of the uniformed officers, jostling their way through the crowd, and with the general hum and buzz inside and outside the inclosure, made the scene as painful to the ear as it was to the eye and nostrils, and completed the impression of misery and desolation.
Rouvke and his companions, among a swarm of other residents of the East Side, who, like themselves, had come to meet newly landed friends, stood gazing through the railing. Rouvke was nervously biting his fingernails, and now and then brushing his new derby with his coat-sleeve or adjusting his necktie. Reb Feive was winding his sidelock about his finger, while the young peddlers were vying with each other in pleasantries appropriate to the situation. Our choson was lost in a tumult of emotions. He made repeated attempts at collecting his wits and devising a befitting form of welcome; he tried to figure to himself Hanele's present appearance and to forecast her conduct on first catching sight of him; he also essayed to analyze the whole situation and to think out a plan for the immediate future. But all his efforts fell flat. His thoughts were fragmentary, and no sooner had he laid hold of an idea or an image than it would flee from his mind again and his attention would, for spite, as it were, occupy itself with the merest trifle, such as the size of the whiskers of one of the officers or the sea-biscuit at which an immigrant urchin was nibbling.
At last Rouvke's heart gave a leap. His eyes had fallen on Hanele. She was still more beautiful and charming than before. Instead of the spare and childish-looking girl whom he had left at Kropovetz, there stood before him a stately, well-formed young woman of twenty-five.
"Ha-Ha-Hanele!" he gasped out, all but melting away with emotion, and suddenly feeling, not like Robert Friedman, but like Rouvke Arbel.
Hanele turned her head toward him, but she did not see him. So at least it seemed, for instead of pushing her way to the part of the railing where he stood, she started back and obliterated herself in the crowd.
Presently her name was called, together with other names, and she emerged from a stream of fellow immigrants. More dead than alive, Rouvke ran forward to meet her; but he had advanced two steps when his legs refused to proceed, and his face became blank with amazement. For, behold, snugly supporting Hanele's arm, there was a young man in spectacles and in a seedy gray uniform overcoat of a Russian collegian, with its brass buttons superseded by new ones of black celluloid.
The pair marched up to Rouvke, she with her eyes fixed at the floor, as she clung to her companion, and the collegian with his head raised in timid defiance.
"How do you do, Rouven?" she began. "This is Gospodin [Russian for Mister] Levinsky--my choson. Do not take it ill, Rouven. I am not to blame, as true as I am a child of Israel. You see, it is my Providential match, and I could not help it," she rattled off in a trembling voice and like an embarrassed schoolboy reciting a lesson which he has gotten well by heart.
"I'll pay you every copeck, you can rest assured," the collegian interposed, turning as white as a sheet. "I have a rich brother in Buffalo."
Hanele had met the young man in the steerage of the Dutch vessel which brought them across the ocean; and they passed a fortnight there, walking or sitting together on deck, and sharing the weird overawing whispers of the waves, the stern thumping of the engine, and the soothing smiles of the moon--that skillfulest of shadchens in general, and on ship's deck in particular. The long and short of it is that the matchmaking luminary had cut Reb Feive out of his job.
Hanele's explanation at first stunned Rouvke, and he stood for some time eyeing her with a grin of stupid distraction. But presently, upon recovering his senses, he turned as red as fire, and making a face like that of a child when suddenly robbed of its toy, he wailed out in a husky voice:
"I want my hundred and fifty dollars back!" And then in English: "I call a politzman. I vant my hoondered an' fifty dollar!"
"Ai, ai--murderess! murderess!" Reb Feive burst out at Hanele. "I am going to get your father to come over here, ai, ai!" he lamented, all but bursting into tears with rage. And presently, in caressing tones: "Listen to me, Hanele! I know you are a good and God-fearing Jewish girl. Fie! drop that abominable beggar. Leave that Gentile-like shaven mug, I tell you. Rouven is your Providential match. Look at him, the prince that he is! You will live like a queen with him, you will roll in gold and jewels, Hanele!"
But Hanele only clung to the collegian's arm the faster, and the two were about to leave the Garden, when Rouvke grasped his successful rival by the lapels of his overcoat, crying as he did so: "Politzman! Politzman!"
The young couple looked a picture of helplessness. But at this juncture a burly shaven-faced "runner" of an immigrant hotel, who had been watching the scene, sprang to their rescue. Brushing Rouvke aside with a thrust of his mighty arm, accompanied by a rasping "Git out, or I'll punch your pockmarked nose, ye monkey!" he marched Hanele and his choson away, leaving Rouvke staring as if he were at a loss to realize the situation, while Reb Feive, violently wringing his hands, gasped, "Ai! ai! ai!" and the young peddlers bandied whispered jokes.