RABBI AND PRIEST.
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1891. Copyright, 1891, by the Jewish Publication Society of America.
Press of Edward Stern & Co. Philadelphia.
Towards the end of 1882, there arrived at the old Pennsylvania Railroad Depot in Philadelphia, several hundred Russian refugees, driven from their native land by the inhuman treatment of the Muscovite Government. Among them were many intelligent people, who had been prosperous in their native land, but who were now reduced to dire want. One couple, in particular, attracted the attention of the visitors, by their intellectual appearance and air of gentility, in marked contrast to the abject condition of many of their associates. Joseph Kierson was the name of the man, and the story of his sufferings aroused the sympathy of his hearers. The man and his wife were assisted by the Relief Committee, and in a short time were in a condition to provide for themselves.
The writer had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kierson a few years later, and elicited from him a complete recital of his trials and an account of the causes of the terrible persecution which compelled such large numbers of his countrymen to flee from their once happy homes.
His story forms the nucleus of the novel I now present to my readers. While adhering as closely as possible to actual names, dates and events, it does not pretend to be historically accurate. In following the fortunes of Mendel Winenki, from boyhood to old age, it endeavors to present a series of pictures portraying the character, life, and sufferings of the misunderstood and much-maligned Russian Jew.
In the description of Russia's customs and characteristics, the barbarous cruelty of her criminal code and the nihilistic tendency of the times, the author has followed such eminent writers as Wallace, Foulke, Stepniak, Tolstoi and Herzberg-Fraenkel. The accounts of the riots of 1882 will be found to agree in historic details with the reports which were published at the time.
With this introduction, I respectfully submit the work to the consideration of an indulgent public.
MILTON GOLDSMITH. PHILADELPHIA, April, 1891.
RECRUITS FOR SIBERIA.
We are in Russia.
On the high road from Tscherkask to Togarog, and not far from the latter village, there stood, in the year 1850, a large and inhospitable-looking inn. Its shingled walls, whose rough surface no paint-brush had touched for long generations, seemed decaying from sheer old age. Its tiled roof was in a most dilapidated state, displaying large gaps imperfectly stuffed with straw, and serving rather to collect the rain and snow for the more thorough inundation of the rooms below than to protect them from the elements. The grounds about the house were in keeping with it in point of picturesque neglect, and were as innocent of cultivation as the building was of paint. A roughly paved path led from the highway to the tavern door. Two old and sickly poplar trees cast a poor and half-hearted shade upon the parched ground, and mournfully shook their leaves over the scene of desolation. The herbage grew in isolated patches on a black and uncultivated soil. Nature might have originally been friendly to the place, but generations of poverty and neglect had reduced it to a condition of wretched misery.
As was this particular spot, so was the entire village. Slavery had wound its chains about the inhabitants, stifling whatever energy they possessed, entailing upon them constant toil to satisfy the exorbitant demands of their task-masters. Hence, even with a genial sun and a southern climate, the fields were barren, the crops poor and the people sunk in abject poverty.
The dilapidated inn, or kretschma, was known in the vicinity by the ideal and appropriate name of "Paradise"—appropriate, because in it many a sinner had been tempted and had fallen from grace. It was the popular rendezvous of the village peasants. Thither the serfs living in the village of Togarog and for miles around, would repair after their labors in the fields, and forget their fatigue in a dram of rank Russian vodka. Upon the barren plot of ground before the tavern, the mir, or communal assembly, was wont to meet, and in open session elect its Elder, decide its quarrels, allot its ground to the heads of families, and frame its rude and primitive laws.
In its bare and smoke-begrimed public room, the people of Togarog assembled night after night, and discussed, as far as the autocratic government of the Czar Nicholas would allow, the political news of the day. Poor souls! They enjoyed little latitude in this direction. Items of information concerning the acts of the central government in St. Petersburg were few and vague. The newspapers, owing to an extremely severe censorship, gave but meagre accounts of the political situation in the capital, and these were of necessity favorable to the government. Now and then, however, came rambling accounts of insurrections, of acts of cruelty, of large bodies of political offenders banished to a life-long slavery in Siberia. At times came the news that the Czar had been inspired by Providence to inaugurate some new and important reform, only to be followed by the announcement that Satan had held a conference with his Imperial Majesty, and that the reform had fallen through. All such information was carried into Togarog by word of mouth, for few of the good moujiks could read the papers. Woe to anyone, however, who allowed his tongue too great a license! Woe to him who dared utter a suggestion that the existing laws bore heavily upon him. It was a dangerous experiment to criticise in a hostile spirit any of the abuses heaped upon the degraded people. The condition of Russia was deplorable. Insurrection and rebellion nourished in all parts of the Empire. Degraded to the lowest depths, the crushed worm turned occasionally, but free itself it could not. Brave spirits arose for whom exile had no terrors. With their rude eloquence they incited their fellow-sufferers to throw off the yoke of tyranny and assert their freedom; and the morrow found them wandering toward the snow-bound confines of Siberia. Patriotism was not very much encouraged in Russia.
The proprietor of the tavern, a burly, red-faced Cossack, Peter Basilivitch by name, was in the employ and under the protection of the Governor of Alexandrovsk, in which department the village of Togarog lay. The rent paid by Basilivitch was nominal, it is true, but he sold enormous quantities of liquor, all of which he was obliged to buy from the Governor's stills; furthermore, he furnished his master with such information concerning the actions, words, and even thoughts of his patrons, as came under his observation; and as the serfs that frequented "Paradise" had no suspicion of the true relation betwixt master and man, the Governor was enabled to keep himself accurately informed as to the sayings and doings of his subjects.
Let us enter the public room, this bright Sunday afternoon in the month of April, in the year 1850. A dense crowd has assembled to-day to do honor to Basilivitch's wretched liquor. The face of the host fairly gloats in anticipation of the lucrative harvest that he will glean. He rubs his hands gleefully, as he orders his servants about.
"Here, Ivan, a pint of vodka, and be quick about it! Alexander, you lazy dog, here comes the village elder, Selaski Starosta—see that he is served!"
And the crowd continues to grow, until his room will scarcely seat all the guests.
There are sturdy farmers, wearing their heavy coats and fur caps, in spite of the sultry weather and still warmer alcoholic beverages, and swearing and vociferating in sonorous Russian. There are gossiping women, decked in their caps and many-colored finery. There are smartly-arrayed young girls, chatting merrily with the swains at their side. Unruly children scamper, barefooted and bareheaded, around and under the tables. Puling infants and barking dogs add their discord to the din and confusion. It is a scene one is not apt to forget.
We repeat it, this is Sunday; the one day when the arm of the laborer obtains a respite from the tasks imposed upon it during the week; and the serf of Russia knows no diversion, can find no relaxation, but in the genial climate of a tavern. But this is no ordinary occasion. Not every Sunday ushers in so bountiful a supply of customers to Peter Basilivitch's inn as this. There must be something of unusual importance, perhaps some interesting bit of rumor from the capital, that unites the inhabitants of Togarog. After the alcoholic beverages that are so freely imbibed fulfil their mission and loosen the wits and the tongues of these good moujiks, we may arrive at the cause. Nor have we long to wait. Already in the far corner of the dingy and smoke-obscured room, we hear voices in altercation; a hot, angry dispute forces itself upon our ears, and the people cease their revels to listen.
"Say what you will," shouted one fur-bedecked individual; "it is an outrage! We are already burdened with enough taxes. Three days of the week we must work for the master of our lands, and but three days are left us for our own support; and now they want to tax us again for a war in which we have no interest."
"But the Czar must have the money," retorted another. "The people of Poland are in a state of rebellion, and the army has already been ordered out to subdue that province."
"Let them tax the nobles, then," angrily cried a third. "Why do they constantly bleed the poor peasant? Do they want to suck the last drop of our life's blood? I tell you, we ought not submit."
"How will you help yourselves?" sneeringly asked the host, who, with napkin tucked under his chin, stood near the speakers, and lost not a word of the conversation.
How, indeed? Silence fell over the disputants. The question had been asked, alas! how often, but the answer had not yet been forthcoming.
"Let us arise and organize," at length cried the first speaker, one Podoloff by name, who was known as a man of great daring and more than average intelligence, and who had upon more than one occasion been unconsciously very near having himself transported to Siberia. "Let us organize!" he repeated. "Think ye we alone are tired of this wretched existence? Think ye that the peasants of Radtsk and Mohilev and Kief are less human than ourselves, and that they are less weary of the slavery under which they drag out a miserable existence? Let us assert our rights! With the proper organization, and a few good leaders, we could humble this proud nobility and bring it to our feet. There was a time when the Russian peasant was a free man, with the privilege to go whither he pleased, but a word from an arrogant ruler changed it all, and we are now bound and fettered like veritable slaves."
A murmur of surprise swept through the room. Such an incendiary harangue was new to the serfs of that region. Never before had such revolutionary doctrines been openly advanced. Subdued complaints, undefined expressions of discontent, were frequent, and were as frequently repressed, but such an outspoken insult to the reigning nobility, such a fearless invitation to rebellion against the authorities, were unheard of.
The village elder, a venerable and worthy man, arose and sought to check the fiery eloquence of the orator.
"Be silent, Podoloff," he commanded. "It is not for you to speak against the existing order of things. Your father and your father's father were content to live as you do, and were none the worse for it. By what right do you complain?"
"By the right that every human being ought to enjoy!" retorted Podoloff. "Our condition is growing worse every year. Last year the Czar imposed a tax on account of the disturbances in Poland. Three months later, the Governor created another tax to pay for his new palace. Now there is to be still another tax, bigger than the last. No; we ought not to stand it. It has reached the limit of endurance."
Murmurs of approval arose from various quarters, only to be quickly suppressed by the cooler heads in the assembly.
"Still we have much to be thankful for," said an old cobbler, Sobelefsky by name. "The nobles are very kind to us. They supply us with implements and find a market for our grain."
"And for that they rob us of our money and our liberty," retorted Podoloff, hotly. "Ask Simon Schefsky there, how much he owes to our gracious Governor, who last year took from him his pretty daughter, that her charms might while away his weary hours in Alexandrovsk."
"He is a tyrant!" shouted several women, their rough cheeks tingling at the recollection of recent indignities. The cry was taken up by many of the poor wretches present.
What material there was in "Paradise" for the infernal regions of Siberia!
In vain did Selaski Starosta endeavor to make himself heard. In vain did the older and more conservative among the company advise caution. The passion of an angry and enslaved people had for the moment broken its bonds, and the tumult could not be quelled by mere words.
"See!" cried Podoloff, emboldened by his success. He sprang upon a table and tore a paper from his pocket. "Yesterday I went to Kharkov to sell some cattle. I found that the people there had already organized. They have sent a petition to the Czar, asking for greater liberties. Here is a copy. Let me read it to you," and, amid a silence as profound as the occasional bark of a dog or the wail of a child would permit, Podoloff read the following:
"Russia, O Czar, confided to thee supreme power, and thou wert to her as a God upon earth. What hast thou done? Blinded by passion and ignorance, thou hast sought nothing but power! Thou hast forgotten Russia! Thou hast consumed thy time in reviewing troops, in altering uniforms, in signing the legislative papers of ignorant charlatans. Thou hast created a despicable race of censors of the press, that thou mightst sleep in peace, and never know the wants, never hear the murmurs of thy people, never listen to the voice of truth. Truth! Thou hast buried her. For her there is no resurrection. Thou hast refused liberty. At the same time thou wast enslaved by thy passions. By thy pride and thy obstinacy thou hast exhausted Russia. Thou hast armed the world against her. Humiliate thyself before thy brothers! Bow thy haughty forehead in the dust! Implore pardon! Ask counsel! Throw thyself in the arms of thy people. There is no other way of salvation for thee!"
Podoloff replaced the paper in his pocket, and looked triumphantly about him. A twofold sentiment greeted the reading of this wonderful manifesto. The younger generation were disposed to applaud it, but the older men, those who preferred to bear the evils they had rather than fly to those they knew not of, shook their fur-capped heads in doubt.
"Did the writers sign their names to that article?" asked the circumspect old cobbler.
"Not they," answered Podoloff. "They valued their lives too highly. But nearly every village in the north has sent the Czar a similar petition. Nicholas must in the end perceive our misery, and lighten our burdens."
"Or make our existence doubly bitter," answered old Schefsky. "It is a dangerous experiment."
"The Government will take no notice of it, unless it be to double your taxes," said the Elder.
At the word "taxes," a new storm of wailing and imprecations broke out.
"I could not pay another kopeck," cried one cadaverous looking wretch. "I work myself to death, and as it is can hardly keep starvation from the door."
"Why don't they tax the nobles?" asked another. "They can stand it."
"Or the Jews," cried a third, whose liberal potations of alcohol had brought him to the verge of intoxication. "Let them take all they possess. A Jew don't work in the fields. He has no right to wealth!"
Here was a topic upon which all these people were cordially agreed.
"Oppress the Jews."
There was not a dissenting voice in the room.
"The Czar has need of soldiers. Why don't he take the sons of Jews for his wars?"
"We must sit and toil till our nails fall off, while the Jews do nothing but grow rich."
"We'll have no more of it! Let the Jews pay the taxes."
And so the cry went on. Glass after glass of vodka moistened the capacious throats that had shrieked themselves hoarse, and in the cry of "Down with the Jews!" the other more dangerous cry of "Down with the Nobles!" was for the moment forgotten.
It was with difficulty that the Elder of the commune could make himself heard above the din.
"My friends," he finally said, "I am afraid we have made bad work of it to-day. Should this get to the Governor's ears, I fear some of us will suffer. I hope, however, that what we have to-day heard and discussed will remain our secret. I trust all of you. I am sure there is no traitor among us who would betray our deliberations to the Governor. As regards our condition, let us be patient. We have nothing serious to complain of. If the Czar needs money, ours should be at his disposal. If he needs men for the army, we are his subjects and his property. Whatever he does, is for the best. Let us submit. As to the manifesto we have just heard, we will have none of it. Other mirs may do as they please, but we will remain loyal to our Czar and our Governor, and live our quiet, uneventful lives."
These words, delivered in a simple but forcible manner by the acknowledged head of the village, did not fail of their desired effect. The rabble, realizing the danger into which its enthusiasm had hurried it, became but too anxious to appear on the side of the Government. Those who had been loudest in their outcry, now meekly protested against disloyalty, and Podoloff suddenly found himself bereft of all friends, with the exception of three or four fearless supporters, as stanch as their leader. In vain he sought by his eloquence to regain his lost ground, but he was in a hopeless minority, and, gulping down the remaining spirits which stood before him, he prepared to leave the tavern.
"Continue to suffer," were his parting words. "No people is worse off than it deserves to be. But the day is not far distant when the serf shall be able to hold up his head, a free man, and that will be accomplished as soon as you all feel the humiliation of being slaves!"
The meeting broke up in great disorder. Sentiment appeared to be divided, but the radicals were very circumspect in their remarks, for earlier experience had taught them that, under an autocratic government like that of Czar Nicholas, silence was golden. The blandly smiling host, Basilivitch, went from group to group, threw in a word here and a suggestion there, smiled at this man's eloquence and ridiculed that man's caution, all the while making a mental inventory of the facts he would lay before the Governor on the next morning.
The peasants, when they retired for the night, felt none of that pleasurable exaltation which should accompany a step towards liberty, but were oppressed by the weight of an undefined terror, as though they were on the verge of some catastrophe.
[Footnote 1: "Looking about, one saw venality in full feather, serfdom crushing people like a rock, informers lurking everywhere. No one could safely express himself in the presence of his dearest friend. There was no common bond, no general interest. Fear and flattery were universal."—Tourgenieff.]
[Footnote 2: Leroy-Boileau.]
MASTER AND MAN.
A clear April morning was dawning when Basilivitch saddled his horse and rode off in the direction of Alexandrovsk, at which place he arrived at noon and at once repaired to the Governor's residence. A crowd of idle and flashily-dressed servants, all of whom were serfs, lounged about the new and stately palace, and found exhilarating amusement in setting their ferocious dogs upon the unoffending farmers who happened to pass that way. The greater the fear evinced by the victims, the greater was the delight of the humorously inclined menials, and if perchance a dog succeeded in fixing his fangs in the garments or calf of a pedestrian their mirth found vent in ecstatic shouts of laughter. Basilivitch had on more than one occasion been upon such errands as that which brought him to-day, and seemed on terms of familiarity with the liveried guardians of the palace. They obligingly called off their dogs, and at once announced the innkeeper to his excellency, General Drudkoff. The Governor had dined sumptuously and received his henchman graciously.
Stretching himself upon a sofa and lazily rolling a cigarette, he said:
"Well, Basilivitch, what news do you bring? How fare my good subjects at Togarog?"
"I have bad news, your excellency," answered Basilivitch. "My heart is sad at the information I have to impart. Insurrection is rife in our village, and not only your excellency, but also his majesty the Czar is in imminent danger."
The Governor sprang up from his couch, and his face became ashen white with fear. There was perhaps no man in all Russia more cruel, and at the same time more cowardly, than this General Drudkoff.
"Explain yourself," he cried, at length recovering from his terror. "What do you mean?"
Thereupon the loyal Basilivitch began a recital of the events of the previous evening. Nor did he spare exaggeration where it suited him to strive for effect. According to his version, Podoloff had incited his fellow-peasants to march at once to Alexandrovsk and attack his excellency in the palace. The line of march had already been formed with the arch agitator, Podoloff, at the head.
"I saw," said Basilivitch, waxing warm as his recital progressed, "I saw that it would fare ill with your excellency if the progress of the mob was not arrested. With a handful of friends, therefore, I threw myself in front of the insurgents and commanded them to disband."
"Well done," cried the Governor, upon whom every word made a profound impression. "What did Podoloff do?"
"He would have come on alone, but I overpowered him and secured him in my barn, where he spent the night in imprecations against your excellency."
"You did well, Basilivitch, and I shall not forget you. But who were Podoloff's accomplices? You say a number of men supported him in his treasonable utterances."
"Yes; there were fully a dozen of them," said Basilivitch, counting upon his fingers, and enumerating a number of poor innocents, whose only offence lay in the fact that Basilivitch owed them some private grudge. "There were quite a number of Jews in the assembly," continued the innkeeper; "and their presence seemed to cause a great deal of ill-feeling."
Now it happened that there was not a single Jew in the tavern on that memorable Sunday. The twelve Israelitish families of Togarog found sufficient relaxation and entertainment in their own circle, and did not in the least yearn after the boisterous and uncivil companionship of Russian moujiks. Alas! they knew but too well that taunts and insults would be their portion, if they but dared to show themselves at one of these public gatherings. Moreover, the Jews were in the midst of their Passover, a time during which the partaking of any refreshments not prepared according to their strict ritual is sternly interdicted.
Be that as it may, Basilivitch did not allow such simple facts to stand in his way. He had come with a very pretty and effective tale, and drew largely upon his imagination to make it dramatic.
"Ah, the Jews again!" hissed the Governor. "Did they take an active part in the insurrection?"
Basilivitch was forced to admit that they did not.
The Governor appeared disappointed.
"Well, what matters it?" he said. "They have been a menace to us long enough. I doubt whether they have a legal right to live in this part of Russia. We must investigate the matter. In the meantime, we will make an example of them. Give me the names of those Hebrews that were present."
Basilivitch's powers of improvisation failed him. In vain he endeavored to remember the names of the Jews who would most likely have been implicated in such an affair, but the names had slipped his memory.
"Your excellency," he stammered, "I never could tax my memory with their outlandish names."
"It is of no consequence," said the Governor. "A Jew is a Jew. We will make an example of the entire tribe. And now, good Basilivitch, of what do the people complain?"
"It is a mere bagatelle, your excellency. They would like to imitate their betters and live a life of ease and luxury; as though a serf were created for anything but labor. They complain that they cannot lie upon a bed of roses. They want their taxes remitted and would like their children to be sent to school, to be brought up to detest honest work."
"Preposterous!" exclaimed the Governor. "What else have they to complain of?"
"They say that, while they must toil from morning till night, the Jews do nothing but amass wealth; that they must provide men for the army, while the Jews remain at home."
"Stop!" cried the Governor in a fury. "Is what they say concerning the Jews true?"
"It is, your excellency. They do not work in the fields, they have no trades, they simply buy and sell and make money."
The Governor paced the room in silence, an occasional vehement gesture alone giving evidence of the agitation or fear that was raging within him. Finally, he stopped and stood before the obsequious Basilivitch.
"We will find a plan to humble the haughty race," he said. "Return to Togarog and keep your eyes open. Make out a list of the Jews in the village, and find out exactly how many boys there are in each family, and what are their ages. We will remove the brats from their parents' influence and send them to the army, where they will soon become loyal soldiers and faithful Catholics. Bring me the names of the moujiks who supported Podoloff in his rebellion. I shall send them to Siberia to reflect on the uncertainty of human aspirations. Now, go! Here is a rouble for you. Should any new symptoms of revolt show themselves, send me word at once."
Scarcely had the door closed upon Basilivitch, before the Governor rang for his Secretary.
"Send two officers to Togarog at once," he commanded. "It appears my good serfs are becoming unruly, and would like a taste of freedom. Let the officers disguise themselves as peasants, and carefully observe every action of Podoloff and his friends. Let our faithful Basilivitch also be watched. I have my suspicions concerning that fellow. He is too ready with his information."
The Secretary left the room to fulfil the Governor's instructions, while Basilivitch remounted his horse and returned to his kretschma, to serve, with smiling countenance and friendly mien, the men whom he had devoted to irretrievable ruin.
A FAMILY IN ISRAEL.
In a remote portion of Togarog, and separated from the main village by a number of wretched lanes, lay the Jewish quarter. A decided improvement in the general condition of the houses which formed this suburb was plainly visible to the casual observer. The houses were, if possible, more unpretentious than those of the serfs, yet there was an air of home-like comfort about them, an impression of neatness and cleanliness prevailed, which one would seek for in vain among the semi-barbarous peasants of Southern Russia. To the inhabitants of these poor huts, home was everything. The ordinary occupations, the primitive diversions of the serfs, were forbidden them. Shunned and decried by their gentile neighbors, the Jews meekly withdrew into the seclusion of their dwellings, and allowed the wicked world to wag. Their "home" was synonymous with their happiness, with their existence.
The shadows of evening were falling upon the quiet village. Above, the stars were beginning to twinkle in the calmness of an April sky, and brighter and brighter shone the candles in the houses of the Jews, inviting the wayfarer to the cheer of a hospitable board.
It is the Jewish Sabbath eve, the divine day of rest. The hardships and worry of daily toil are succeeded by a peaceful and joyous repose. The trials and humiliations of a week of care are followed by a day of peace and security.
The poor, despised Hebrew, who, during the past week, has been hunted and persecuted, bound by the chain of intolerance and scourged by the whip of fanaticism; who, in fair weather and foul, has wandered from place to place with his pack, stinting, starving himself, that he may provide bread for his wife and little ones, has returned for the Sabbath eve, to find, in the presence and in the smiles of his dear ones, an ample compensation for the care and anxiety he has been compelled to endure.
At the end of the street, and not far from the last house in the settlement, stands the House of Prayer. Thither the population of the Jewish quarter wends its way. Men arrayed in their best attire, and followed by troops of children, who from earliest infancy have been taught to acknowledge the efficacy of prayer, enter the synagogue.
It is a poor, modest-looking enclosure.
A number of tallow candles illumine its recesses. The oron-hakodesh, or ark containing the holy Pentateuch, a shabbily-covered pulpit, or almemor, and a few rough praying-desks for the men, are all that relieve the emptiness of the room. Around one side there runs a gallery, in which the women sit during divine service. In spite of its humble plainness, the place beams with cheerfulness; it bears the impress of holiness. Gradually the benches fill. All of the men, and many of the boys who form the population of the quarter, are present.
Reb Mordecai Winenki, the reader, begins the service. Prayers of sincere gratitude are sent on high. The worshippers greet the Sabbath as a lover greets his long-awaited bride—with joy, with smiles, with loving fervor. The service is at an end and the happy participants return to their homes.
Beautiful is the legend of the Sabbath eve.
When a man leaves the synagogue for his home, an Angel of Good and an Angel of Evil accompany him. If he finds the table spread in his house, the Sabbath lamps lighted, and his wife and children in festive attire, ready to bless the holy day of rest, then the good Angel says:
"May the next Sabbath and all thy Sabbaths be like this. Peace unto this dwelling!"
And the Angel of Evil is forced to say, "Amen."
No one, indeed, would, before entering one of these poor, unpainted huts expect to find the cheerful and brilliant interior that greets his eyes. Let us enter one of the houses, that of Reb Mordecai Winenki.
The table is covered with a snow-white cloth. The utensils are clean and bright. The board is spread with tempting viands. An antique brass lamp, polished like a mirror, hangs from the ceiling, and the flame from its six arms sheds a soft light upon the table beneath. A number of silver candlesticks among the dishes add to the illumination.
On this evening, Mordecai returned from the synagogue with his son Mendel, a lad of thirteen, and his brother-in-law, Hirsch Bensef, a resident of Kief. Mordecai was a thin, pale-faced, brown-bearded man of forty or thereabouts, with shoulders stooping as though under a weight of care; perhaps, though, it was from the sedentary life he led, teaching unruly children the elements of Hebrew and religion. He had resided in Togarog for fourteen years, ever since he had married Leah, the daughter of Reb Bensef of Kief. His wife's brother was a man of different stamp. He was a few years younger than Mordecai. His step was firm, his head erect, his beard jet black, and his intellect, though not above the superstitious fancies of his time and race, was, for all ordinary transactions, especially those of trade, eminently clear and powerful. He was, as we shall see, one of the wealthiest Jewish merchants in Kief, and therefore quite a power in the community of that place.
Leah met the men at the door.
"Good Shabbes, my dear husband; good Shabbes, brother," said the woman, cheerfully, her matronly face all aglow with pride and pleasure. "You must be famished from your long trip, brother."
"Yes, I am very hungry. I have tasted nothing since I left Kharkov, at five o'clock this morning."
"How kind of you to come all that distance to our boy's bar-mitzvah! He can never be sufficiently grateful."
"He is my god-child," said the man, affectionately stroking his nephew's head. "I take great pride in him. It has pleased the Lord to deny me children, and the deprivation is hard to bear. Sister, let me take Mendel with me. I am rich and can give him all he can desire. He shall study Talmud and become a great and famous rabbi, of whom all the world will one day speak in praise. You have still another boy, while my home is dreary for want of a child's presence. What say you?"
But the mother had, long before the conclusion of this appeal, clasped the boy to her bosom, while the tears of love forced themselves through her lashes at the bare suggestion of parting from her first-born.
"God forbid," she cried, "that he should ever leave me; my precious boy." And she embraced him again and again.
Meanwhile, the husband had crossed the room to where a little fellow, scarcely six years of age, lay upon a sofa.
"Well, Jacob, my boy; how do you feel?" he asked, gently.
"A little better, father," murmured the child. "My arm and ear still pain me, but not so much as yesterday."
The boy sat up and attempted to smile, but sank back with a groan.
"Poor child, poor child," said the father, soothingly, "Have patience. In a few days you will be about again."
"Is uncle here? I want to see uncle," cried the boy.
Hirsch Bensef obeyed the call, and, going to the sufferer, kissed his burning brow.
"Why, Jacob; how is this?" he said. "I did not know that you were sick. What is the trouble, my lad?" The child turned his face to the wall and shuddered.
Reb Mordecai shook his head mournfully, while a tear he sought to repress ran down his furrowed cheek.
"It is the old story," he said. "Prejudice and fanaticism, hatred and ignorance."
And while the Sabbath meal waited, the father told his tale in a simple, unaffected manner, and the uncle listened with clenched hands and threatening glances.
The day following the events in the kretschma, little Jacob had wandered, in company with some Christian playmates, through the village, and seeing the door of a barn wide open, his childish curiosity got the better of his discretion, and he peeped in. A brindled cow, with a pretty calf scarcely three days old, attracted his attention, and for some minutes he gazed upon the pair in silent ecstasy. Then, knowing that he was on forbidden ground, he retraced his steps and endeavored to reach the lane where he had left his companions. The master of the farm, however, having witnessed the intrusion from a neighboring window, did not lose the opportunity to vent his anger against the whole tribe of inquisitive Jews. On the following day the cow ran dry. In vain did the calf seek nourishment at the maternal breast; there was nothing to satisfy its cravings.
The farmer, slow as he was in matters of general importance, was far from slow in tracing the melancholy occurrence to its supposed source.
"That accursed Jew has bewitched my cow," was his first thought, and his second was to find the author of the deed and mete out punishment to him.
Throughout the whole of Russia, and even in parts of civilized Germany, Jews are accused of all manner of sorcery. The Cabala is the principal religious authority of the lower classes among the Russian Jews, and this may perhaps inspire such a preposterous notion. The Jews, themselves, frequently believe that some one of their own number is in possession of supernatural secrets which give him wonderful and awful powers. Many were the tortures which these poor people were doomed to endure for their supposed influence over nature's laws.
It was an easy matter to find little Jacob. His hours at the cheder (school) were over. He was sure to be playing upon the streets, and his capture was quickly effected. Seizing the innocent little fellow by the arm, the irate peasant lifted him off his feet, and dragged him by sheer force into the barn, where he confronted the malefactor with his victim.
"So, you thought you could bewitch my cow," he hissed. "But I saw you, Jew, and, by our holy Czar, I swear that, unless you repair the damage, I shall feed your carcass to the dogs."
Poor Jacob was too terrified to understand of what crime he had been accused. He looked piteously at his tormentor, and burst into tears.
"Well?" cried the peasant, impatiently; "will you take off the spell, or shall I call my dog?"
The child, knowing that such threats were not made in vain, endeavored to plead his innocence, but the bellowing of the hungry calf outweighed the sobbing of the boy, and with an angry oath Jacob was struck to the ground, and a ferocious bull-dog, but little more brutal than his master, was set upon the helpless little fellow.
"Please, Mr. Farmer, don't kill me," he pleaded, groaning in pain.
"Will you cure my cow?" demanded the peasant.
"I'll try to; I'll do my best," sobbed the boy, whose pain made him diplomatic at last.
The dog was called off, and the child, after promising to restore the cow to her former condition, was turned out into the lane, where his mother found him an hour later, unconscious, his body lacerated, one arm broken, and a portion of his right ear torn off.
When Reb Mordecai concluded his sad narration, all about him were in tears.
"Just God!" exclaimed the uncle; "hast Thou indeed deserted Thy people, that Thou canst allow such indignities? How long, O Lord! must we endure these torments?"
"Nay, brother," sobbed the poor mother, while she caressed her ailing boy; "what God does is for the best. It is not for us to peer into his inscrutable actions. But come, Mordecai, banish your sorrows. This is Shabbes, a day of joy and peace. Come, the table is spread."
Father and mother placed their hands upon the heads of their children, and pronounced the solemn blessing:—"May God let you become like Ephraim and Manasseh!" and the family took their places at the table.
Then Mordecai made kiddush, which consisted in blessing the wine, without which no Jewish Sabbath is complete, and having pronounced motzi, a similar prayer over the bread, he dipped the latter in salt, and passed a small piece to each of the participants. It is a ceremony which no pious Jew ever neglects.
In spite of the recent affliction, the meal was a merry one. The poorest Israelite will deny himself even the necessaries of life during the six working-days, that he may live well on the Sabbath. Reb Mordecai was a poor man. He had a small income, derived from teaching the Talmud to the children in the vicinity, from transcribing the holy scrolls, and from sundry bits of work for which he was fitted by his intellectual attainments. He was the most influential Jew in the settlement and not even the fanatical serfs of the village could find a complaint to make against his character or person.
The theme of conversation was naturally the family festival, which would take place upon the morrow. Mendel having attained his thirteenth year and acquired due proficiency in the difficult studies of the Jewish law, would become bar-mitzvah; in other words, he would take upon himself the responsibility of a man before God and the world, and acknowledge his readiness to act and suffer for the maintenance of the belief in Adonai Echod—the only God. Mendel, under his father's tuition, had made rapid strides. He was the wonder of every male inhabitant of the community. His knowledge of the Scriptures was simply phenomenal, and his philosophical reasoning puzzled and astonished his friends.
"He will be a great rabbi some day," they prophesied.
Hirsch Bensef had journeyed all the way from Kief to take part in the family festival. There were some privileges which not even the wealthy Jews of Russia could purchase, and among them was the right to travel in a public conveyance. Hirsch was obliged to journey as best he could. A kindly disposed wagoner had permitted him to ride part of the way, but the greater portion of the distance he was compelled to walk. Still, at any cost, he had determined not to miss so important an event as his nephew's bar-mitzvah.
The bread having been broken, the supper was proceeded with. The fish was succulent and the cake delicious. A lofty and religious Sabbath sentiment enhanced the charm of the whole meal. Then a prayer of thanks was offered, the dishes were cleared away and the family settled themselves at ease, to discuss the topics most dear to them.
"You make a great mistake, sister," said Bensef, "if you allow Mendel to waste his time in this village. The boy is much too bright for his surroundings."
"Don't begin that subject again," said the mother, determinedly; "for I positively will not hear of his leaving. The parting would kill me."
"But," continued her brother, "have you ever asked yourself what his future will be in this wretched neighborhood? Shall he waste his precious years helping his father teach cheder? Shall he earn a few paltry kopecks in making tzitzith (fringes for the praying scarfs) for the Jehudim in the village? Or, shall he cobble shoes or peddle from place to place with a bundle upon his back, which are the only two occupations open to the despised race?"
"Alas!" sighed the mother, "what you say may be true. But what would you propose for the boy?"
"Let him go with me to Kief. There are nearly fifteen thousand of our co-religionists in that city; and, while their lot is not an enviable one, it is decidedly better than vegetating in a village. Our celebrated Rabbi Jeiteles is getting old and we will soon need a successor. It is an honorable position and one which our little Mendel will some day be able to fill. Would you not like living in a big city, my boy?"
Mendel hovered between filial affection and a desire to see the big world. It was difficult to decide.
"I should like to remain with father and mother—and Jacob," he stammered, "and yet——"
"And yet," continued his uncle, "you would love to come to Kief, where everything is grand and brilliant, where the stores and booths are fairly alive with light and beauty, where the soldiers parade every day in gorgeous uniforms. Ah, my boy, there is life for you!"
"But how much of that life may the Jews enjoy?" asked Mordecai. "Are they not restricted in their privileges and deprived of every possibility of rising in station? Is their lot any happier than ours in this village, where, at all events, we are not troubled with the envy which the sight of so much luxury must bring with it?"
"It will not always be so," said Bensef, confidently. "With each year we may expect reforms, and where will they strike first if not in the cities? Nicholas already has plans under consideration, whereby the condition of the serfs may be bettered."
"How will that benefit our race?"
"How? I will tell you. The serf persecutes the Jew because he is himself persecuted by the nobility. There is no real animosity between the peasant and his Jewish neighbors. Our wretched state is the outgrowth of a petty tyranny, in which the serf desires to imitate his superiors. Let the people once enjoy freedom and they will cease to persecute the Hebrews, without whom they cannot exist."
"Absurd ideas," interrupted the teacher. "Our degradation proceeds not from the people, but from those in authority. Our lot will not improve until the Messiah comes with sword in hand, to deliver us from our enemies. Remember the proverb: 'The heavens are far, but further the Czar.'"
"But about Mendel?" asked Bensef, suddenly reverting to his original topic, for in spite of his hopeful theories, he did not feel sanguine that he would live to see their realization.
"The matter is not pressing," said the father. "We can think it over, and decide before you return to Kief."
"No, no!" cried Leah; "Mendel must not leave us. Promise to remain, my child!"
But the boy was now delighted with the idea of accompanying his uncle. He asked a thousand questions concerning the wonderful town of Kief, which suddenly became the goal of all his hopes and ambitions.
Bensef took the boy upon his lap and told him all about the great city, which had once been the capital of Russia. Mendel listened and sighed. His eyes beamed with pleasurable anticipation. Before going to bed, he threw his arms about his mother's neck.
"Mother," he whispered; "let me go to Kief. I want to become great."
Leah held him in a convulsive embrace, but said nothing.
The morrow was Saturday—Sabbath morning. The little synagogue was crowded with an expectant throng. It was long since there had been a bar-mitzvah in Togarog, and Israelites came from all the villages in the vicinity to witness the happy event. Happy seemed the men, arrayed in their white tallesim (praying scarfs)—happy at the thought of another member being added to their ranks. Happy appeared the mothers in the reflection that their sons, too, would some day be admitted to the holy rite. When Mendel finally mounted the almemor (pulpit), and began his Bar'chu eth Adonai, the audience scarcely breathed.
Like a finished scholar did Mendel recite his sidrah, that portion of the Torah or Law which was appropriate to the day. This was followed by the drosha, a well-committed speech, expressive of gratitude to his parents and teachers, and full of beautiful promises of a future that should be pleasant in the eyes of the Lord. The words fell from his lips as though inspired. It was a proud moment for the boy's parents. Their tears mingled with their smiles. Forgotten were hardships and persecutions. God still held happiness in reserve for his chosen people. When the boy concluded his exercises, kisses and congratulations were showered upon him by his admiring friends.
"Hirsch Bensef is right," said Mordecai to his wife. "Mendel ought to go to some large city. He has wonderful talents. He may become a great rabbi. Who can tell?"
"We shall see; we shall see!" replied his wife, with a look of mingled pleasure and pain. But she did not say her husband was in the wrong.
In the afternoon the entire congregation visited Reb Mordecai, so that the little house scarcely held all the people. The men came with their long caftans, the women with their black silk robes, their prettiest wigs, and strings of pearls; and one and all brought presents, tokens of their esteem. Naturally, Mendel was the centre of attraction. His present, past and future were discussed. A brilliant career was predicted for him, and he was held up as a model to his juniors.
Little Jacob was also the recipient of attentions from young and old. His mishap, though painful, was not an exceptional case. Similar ones occurred almost weekly in the surrounding country. What mattered it? His arm would be stiff and his ear mutilated to the end of his days; but he was only a Jew—doomed to live and suffer for his belief in the one God. It was a sad consolation they gave him, but it was the best they had to offer.
The poor children, Christian as well as Jew, came from miles around to receive alms, which were generously given. Then refreshments were served, followed by speeches and jests; and so the afternoon and evening wore merrily away, and night—a dark and dismal night—followed the happy day.
A NIGHT OF TERROR.
The guests had retired to their homes. The children had been blessed and sent to bed. The parents throughout the quarter, having discussed the one topic of the day, Mendel's bar-mitzvah, had extinguished their candles and sought their pillows, preparatory to again venturing forth into a cold and inhospitable world in search of their meagre subsistence.
In the village, too, the serfs had retired, the brawling in "Paradise" had gradually ceased, and silent night had cast her mantle of sleep over Togarog.
A dim rumbling of wagons, a clattering of horses' hoofs, a murmur of men's voices fell upon the air. Nearer and nearer came the sounds and the soldiers that produced them, until the village was reached. With as little noise as possible, the company crept through the narrow streets until they came to the inn of our friend Basilivitch, who evidently expected them, for he hastily opened the door and bade the martial band enter. There was a whispered consultation between the host and the leader of the soldiers. Basilivitch put on his cap and guided the captain through the village. Carefully the two scanned the houses, and now and then Basilivitch drew a cross upon one of the doors with a piece of red chalk. They then directed their footsteps to the Jewish quarter, where they repeated their tactics, and finally rejoined their companions in "Paradise." Here the soldiers were given their instructions, and silently and stealthily, lest they might arouse the village and invite resistance, they crept forth in twos, to the huts marked with the mystic sign of the cross. The house of Podoloff was the first they reached. Cautiously one of the soldiers knocked at the door.
"Who's there?" cried a voice, inside.
"Friends! Open at once!" was the enticing answer.
Podoloff hastily attired himself, and, cautiously opening the door, he peeped through the crevice. At the sight of the soldiers, he instinctively divined danger, and tried to bar the entrance. Too late! One of the soldiers had already thrust the muzzle of his gun into the opening, while the other forced his way into the room.
"Utter a single cry," he said, "and you are a corpse."
Resistance was useless. Podoloff, in spite of his pleading, was seized and his hands bound behind him. Then, while one man held guard over the captive's wife and children, the other ransacked the house, rummaging through filthy and worm-eaten closets, and exploring dirty coffers, into which had been thrust a wretched assortment of rags—the garb of slavery. Every scrap of paper was captured and jealously guarded. During this time, the greatest silence was preserved. Other arrests were to be made, and it was imperative upon the men to take every precaution not to arouse the intended victims prematurely.
"Forward, march!" commanded one of the soldiers; and poor Podoloff, without even daring to bid his wife farewell, was forced into the street and carried, rather than led, to Basilivitch's hostlery.
Nine others were captured in a similar manner; nine poor wretches, doomed to life-long misery in the copper mines of Siberia, many of them having not the slightest idea of the nature of their offence. Basilivitch had placed the Governor of Alexandrovsk under eternal obligations by his patriotic devotion. Of the number captured, there were three who had seconded Podoloff during the discussion at the inn, the previous Sunday afternoon. The remainder were to be exiled, because the Governor, on Basilivitch's recommendation, deemed them dangerous. A good day's work, Basilivitch! You have done the nation a signal service, and have rid yourself of six persons from whom you had at various times borrowed money, and who had of late become troublesome in their dunning. They will not trouble you from the Siberian mines.
The prisoners were thrown into two carts, which had been brought for that purpose, and a detachment of soldiers accompanied them without delay to Alexandrovsk. There they were put into prison for a month, until it pleased the Governor to take notice of them. Then followed the mere mockery of a trial, during which the prisoners were not permitted to utter a word in self-defence, and as a fitting end to this travesty of justice, the ten unfortunates were launched upon their weary foot-journey to the frozen North, destined to live and die beyond the reach, beyond the sympathy of mankind.
Let us retrace our steps and accompany the Governor's soldiers through the Jewish quarter. The refinement of cruelty demanded from the Jews a greater sacrifice than from the Catholics. The malefactors must be punished through their little ones. In pursuance of a decree of the mighty Czar, passed some years before, the Governors of the various provinces were authorized to visit the Jewish homes, and to remove from them all male children that had reached the age of five years.
There was a twofold object in this course. Firstly, the humane Czar desired to accustom these babes to the rigorous soldier life of Russia, to transform the weakly scions of an oriental race into strong and hardy Russians; and, secondly, it was deemed a blessing to humanity to tear the Jewish children from their homes, parents and religion, and to bring them up in the only saving Catholic faith. Far, far from all that was dear to them, in a strange locality, among hostile people, exposed to unutterable hardships and rigorous discipline, these unfortunate beings dragged out their wretched existence. Fully half of their number died of exposure, wearing away their poor lives in a vain longing for home and friends, while the remainder survived, only to forget their kind and kin, and to furnish the raw material for future Nihilists. Many Jewish communities had already suffered from this heartless decree, and those who had been spared its terrors, anticipated them as they would some dreaded scourge, some deadly pestilence. That the Jews of Togarog and the surrounding villages had escaped its influences, was due less to the humane sentiments of the Governor than to his natural indolence. But now his ire was aroused. The Jews should feel his power.
The detachment of soldiers having seen their Russian prisoners safely on the road to oblivion, now directed their attention to the Jewish quarter.
Mordecai Winenki's house stood not far from the head of the street. No need to knock for admittance. A Jew was not allowed to lock his door, the better to give his sociable neighbors an opportunity of molesting him. Two of the soldiers entered, and groped their way through the darkness. The master of the house heard their footsteps, and timidly called out:
"Quick, Jew, give us a light!" was the sole reply.
Shaking like a leaf, poor Mordecai struck a light, and the candle cast its rays upon the fierce-looking Cossacks in the apartment. A cry escaped the man's lips, but it was quickly stifled by the rough hand of one of the soldiers.
"If you make the least noise I will strangle you. Now show me where your boys sleep!"
"Oh, God! they will take my Mendel for a recruit," cried the poor father.
"Silence, you viper! Well, why don't you move? We want to know where your boys are sleeping!"
Mordecai, convinced of the futility of resistance, shuffled across the floor in his bare feet, and opened the door of an adjoining room. There, in the innocence of youth, lay Mendel, dreaming, perhaps, of his recent triumphs. An unpitying hand landed the boy upon the floor. Paralyzed with fear, he could not speak, but gazed pleadingly from his father to the soldiers. His uncle Bensef, who had shared his bed, now endeavored to interfere, but a blow from the stalwart Cossack sent him to the opposite corner of the room. Quickly they inspected the boy, taking a mental note of his height and appearance, and, barely giving him time to put on his clothing, hurried him into the arms of the soldiers waiting without.
"You have another son! Where is he?" demanded one of the soldiers of the half-paralyzed Mordecai.
"No! no!" he sobbed; "I have no more!"
"You lie, Jew! Show us the other boy!" And without further ceremony, they broke into the third room, where Jacob lay in the arms of his terrified mother.
In vain the boy shrieked at the sight of the fierce-looking visitors. In vain the mother pleaded: "He is sick and helpless. Spare him. He is but a baby. Leave him with me!"
There was no pity in the breasts of the hardened soldiers. Neither tears nor entreaties won them over. The more the sorrowing parents implored, the louder were the oaths, the fiercer the blows of the barbarous Cossacks.
Jacob, followed by his weeping parents, was carried half-dressed into the street.
Similar scenes were enacted in every house in which there were male children. Of the twelve Jewish homes in Togarog, but two were spared. The children, in most cases scantily dressed, were hurried to Basilivitch's hostlery, where wagons were in waiting to take them to Alexandrovsk for the Governor's inspection.
Mournful was the train that followed the little band through the village. Shrieks and lamentations, prayers and imprecations resounded, until the brutal guards, wearied by the incessant clamor, finally drove the frenzied people back and set out upon their homeward journey.
The little ones sat cowering in the wagons, afraid to weep, scarcely daring to breathe. Taken from home when they most needed their parents' care and love, what would become of these poor waifs? What would the future have in store for them?
General Drudkoff could now sleep in peace; the insurrection in Togarog was quelled. Its ringleaders were on the way to Siberia, and its abettors, the Jews (according to Basilivitch), had been rendered harmless.
[Footnote 3: This decree was repealed by Alexander II.]
THE JOURNEY TO KHARKOV.
The wagons, with their helpless freight, reached Alexandrovsk shortly after daybreak. Their first stupor having passed, the children conversed with each other in whispers and tried in their own poor way to console one another. Jacob, whose mutilated ear and broken arm had not been improved by the rough treatment he had experienced, wept bitterly at first, until the savage voice of a soldier bade him be quiet. Then the child made a Spartan-like endeavor to forget his pain and fell asleep upon his brother's breast. It was nine o'clock on Sunday morning when they arrived at the Governor's palace. The devout and religious General Drudkoff usually declined to transact any business on that day; but this was an important matter of State, a question threatening perhaps the very existence of the Empire, and a departure from ordinary rules was allowable. The waifs were brought into the ante-chamber, and obliged to pass muster before his excellency, who read them a lesson upon their future career and duties. After those whose hasty abduction had made it impossible to dress, had been provided with odds and ends of clothing, the rags cast off by the children of the Governor's serfs, and which his excellency declared were much too good for Jews, the lads were again placed upon rickety carts, and, while the Governor proceeded to his religious services at the kiosk, they were escorted under a strong guard to the military headquarters at Kharkov.
Long and tedious was the journey. At noon a village was reached, and the travellers were furnished with a meal consisting of pork and bread. Half-famished by his long fast, one of the boys had already bitten into his portion, but stern religion interfered.
"Do not eat it," whispered Mendel; "it is trefa!" (unclean).
The lads gazed wistfully at the tempting morsels, but touch them they dared not.
"Why don't you eat?" roughly asked one of the soldiers, whose duty it was to walk by the side of the wagon and guard against a possible escape.
"It is forbidden," answered Mendel, who, being the oldest of the little group, took upon himself the duties of spokesman. "It is unclean."
"If it is good enough for us, it is good enough for a Jew. Here, eat this quickly!" and he endeavored to force a large piece of the dreaded meat between the teeth of one of the lads.
"If they wont eat, let them starve," said another of the guards, who was attracted by the noise. "Why do you trouble yourself about them?"
"You are right," answered the first; "let them starve."
And their fast continued.
The smiling fields through which they rode, the sunny sky above them, the merry birds warbling in the bushes, had no attraction for the ill-fated boys. The world was but a vast desert, an unfriendly wilderness to them. But Mendel's mind, sharpened by misfortune, was not dormant. A thought of escape had already presented itself to his active brain.
"If Jacob and I could only manage to run away and reach our uncle in Kief," he mused.
Presently he plucked up courage and asked the guard: "Will you please tell me what you are going to do with us?"
"You will find out when you get to Kharkov," was the ungracious rejoinder.
To Kharkov! The information was welcome indeed. Not that Mendel had ever been in that place, but he recollected hearing his uncle say that he had come through Kharkov on his way from Kief. It must be on the direct route to the latter city. O God! if he could but escape!
A dark, stormy night found the travellers in the miserable little village of Poltarack. The weary horses were unharnessed and the soldiers looked about for comfortable quarters for the night. They found refuge in a dilapidated structure, the only inn of which the place could boast. The children were led to a barn, where a bountiful supply of straw served them as a bed. A piece of bread and a glass of rank brandy formed their evening meal, and hunger left them no desire to investigate whether the humble repast was kosher (clean) or not.
The footsteps of the guards had scarcely died away in the distance, before Mendel sprang to the door and endeavored to open it. It was securely locked and the boy turned disconsolate to his companions. It was the hour when, at home, their fathers would send them lovingly to bed, when their mothers would tuck them comfortably under the covers and kiss them good-night; and here they lay, clad in tatters, numb with cold, pinched with hunger; pictures of misery and woe. Heart-rending were the sighs, bitter the complaints, in which the poor lads gave utterance to their feelings.
"Come, boys!" at length cried Mendel, "it wont do to grieve. Let us bear up as bravely as possible. They will take us to Kharkov and leave us at military headquarters. Perhaps we can escape. If we are kept together it will be difficult, but if they separate us, it will perhaps be easy to give the soldiers in charge the slip. If you get away, do not at once go back home or you will be recaptured. Go on until you come to a Jewish settlement, where you will be cared for. Jacob, you must try to stay with me, whatever may happen."
Long and earnest was the conversation between the boys, all of whom, in spite of their tender years, realized their perilous position.
Then Mendel arose and recited the old and familiar Hebrew evening prayers and the little gathering made the responses; then, weary and homesick, the boys cried themselves to sleep.
At break of day, the Cossacks pounded at the barn-door, and the boys, after breakfasting on dry bread, again set out upon their tedious journey. The soldiers who had accompanied the wagons, were replaced by others; the new men were in a better humor and more graciously inclined than those of the preceding day. They even condescended to jest with the young recruits and to civilly answer their many questions. From their replies, Mendel gleaned that the commander at Kharkov would distribute them among the various military camps throughout the province, where constant hard labor, a stern discipline and a not too humane treatment would eventually toughen their physical fibre and wean them from the cherished religion of their youth.
The weather was unfriendly, the sky was overcast, and the boys, shivering with cold and apprehension, at length made their entry into Kharkov. The commander of the garrison, a grim-visaged, bearded warrior, received them, heard the story of their capture from one of the guards, amused himself by pulling the boys' ears and administering sundry blows. He then divided them into twos, to be escorted to the various barracks about the district. Mendel and Jacob were permitted to go together, not because the commander yielded to a feeling of humanity, but because they happened to be standing together, and it really did not matter to the Russian authorities how the new recruits were distributed. A soldier was placed in charge of each couple, and, like cattle to the slaughter, the boys were led through the town.
Weary and silent, yet filled with wonder and surprise, Mendel and Jacob preceded their guard through the gay and animated streets of Kharkov. It was a new life that opened to their vision. With childish curiosity they gazed at every booth, looked fondly into every gaily decorated shop and glanced timidly at the many uniformed officers who hurried to and fro.
For a moment, their desolate homes, their sorrowing parents, their unpromising future were forgotten in the excitement of the scenes about them, and it required at times the rough command and brutal push of the soldier behind them to recall them to the misery of the moment. This soldier, a fine-looking, sturdy fellow, appeared as much interested in the animated scene as were his captives. Years had passed since he had last visited Kharkov, his native town. Much had changed during that period. A conflagration had destroyed the central portion of the city and imposing stone edifices had in many streets replaced the former crazy structures. Now and then an old building or hoary landmark would recall pleasant memories of early youth. The fountain in the centre of the square was eloquent with reminders of by-gone joys, of hasty interviews, of stolen kisses; and our brave warrior strode along with a bland smile of contentment upon his bronzed countenance. Suddenly, a man brushed past him. The two looked at each other for a moment, as if in doubt, and then with a simultaneous shout of recognition, they shook each other heartily by the hand.
"Cantorwitch!" cried the soldier. "By all the saints, this is rare good luck! How have you been?"
"Very well, friend Polatschek. But you are the last man I should have looked for in Kharkov. How well your service agrees with you."
The two friends stood and talked of all that had befallen them since their separation. Not until the calendar of gossip had been exhausted did Cantorwitch finally ask: "But what brings you to Kharkov, my boy? I thought you were on the southern frontier."
"So I was; so I was," rejoined the other. "I have been sent up with two Jewish recruits. Holy Madonna! what has become of them?"
Mendel and Jacob had disappeared, without even saying, "By your leave!" In vain the friends peered into the various shops along the street, into every open door-way, behind every box and barrel. In vain they inquired of every soldier who passed. No one had seen the runaways.
Poor Polatschek, after listening to the consolations of his friend and fortifying himself with a quart of spirits, returned to headquarters, to spend the following ninety days under arrest for gross negligence while on duty.
To Mendel, Cantorwitch seemed a special messenger sent by a benign Providence. He waited for a moment until he perceived the two friends in earnest conversation, and seizing his brother by the arm, he took advantage of an approaching crowd of sight-seers to get away from the gossiping soldier. The boys ran down the nearest street as fast as their feeble limbs would carry them. Not until they had reached the limits of the town did they pause for breath, and Jacob, thoroughly exhausted, sank to the ground.
"Thank God, we are free!" said Mendel, jubilantly.
But Jacob began to weep, crying, "Oh, I'm so tired and hungry!"
"Do not cry; it is of no use. We will find our way to Kief, and there uncle will take care of us."
"I do not think I can go much farther, Mendel."
"But you must. If we remain here we shall be captured and put into prison. Let us go as far as we possibly can. Perhaps we can find a village on the road where the Jehudim (Jews) will shelter us until you become stronger. Come, Jacob."
The child struggled to his feet and the brothers set out upon their journey through an unknown country.
The sun, the cheerful king of day, had peeped through the April rifts and sent his bright rays upon the smiling landscape. Gradually the clouds dissolved under the genial influence and a friendly sky cheered the fugitives on their way.
The merry chirping of the birds, the buzzing of the insects, the blossoming fruit trees along the route, betokened the advent of spring. Mendel gulped down a great lump in his throat and stifled a sob, as he thought of his distant home. How happy, how joyful, had this season been, when, after the termination of the Bible studies at the cheder, their father had taken them for a long walk through the fields and in his own crude way had spoken of the beauties of Nature and of the wisdom and beneficence of the Creator. Then, all was peace and contentment; and now, what a dreary contrast! Mendel dashed the gathering tears from his eyes—it would not do to let Jacob see him cry—and resolutely taking his little brother by the hand, walked on more rapidly.
There was a tedious journey in prospect; God only knew when and where it would end. On they walked through bramble and marsh, over stones and fallen boughs, preferring the newly-ploughed fields to the public road, for fear of detection; trembling with fear at the sight of a human being, lest it might be a soldier charged with their recapture. On they struggled until night hid the road from their view and darkness arrested further progress. A ruined and deserted shed afforded them shelter, a stone did service as a pillow, and, embracing each other, the lads lay down to sleep.
The dawn found the wanderers astir, and after a hasty ablution at a neighboring brook and a recital of their morning prayers, they bravely started out upon their cheerless journey.
The day had dawned brightly, but before long threatening clouds obscured the sun. The wind veered to the North and howled dismally.
Sadly and silently the boys trudged onward, buffeting the wind and stifling their growing hunger.
"Mendel," finally sobbed Jacob, "I am so hungry. If I only had a piece of bread I would feel much stronger."
"Let us walk faster," replied the other. "Perhaps we will reach some village."
Manfully they pushed onward for another hour, Mendel endeavoring to entertain his brother by relating stories he had heard when a child.
Jacob stopped again, exhausted.
"It is no use, Mendel," he cried. "I am too hungry to walk any further."
"Courage, brother," answered Mendel, cheerfully. "See, there are houses ahead of us. We can surely find something to eat."
The waifs dragged their way to a weather-beaten hut and knocked at the door. A mild-visaged woman responded and surveyed the travel-stained children with something like compassion.
"We are hungry," pleaded Mendel. "Please give us a bite of food."
"Who are you and where do you come from?" queried the woman.
"We are trying to reach Kief, where we have friends," answered Mendel. "Please do not let us starve on the road."
"Jews, eh?" asked the woman, suspiciously. "Well, no matter; you don't look any too happy. Come in and warm yourselves."
The boys were soon sitting before a roaring kitchen-fire, while the woman busied herself with providing them with a meal. Tempting, indeed, did it appear to the famished lads; but could they eat it? Was it prepared according to the Jewish ritual? It was a momentous question to Mendel, and only his little brother's pinched and miserable countenance could have induced him to violate the law which to his conception was as sacred as life itself. While Mendel debated, Jacob solved the knotty problem by attacking the savory dishes before him, and his brother reluctantly followed his example.
"It may be a sin, but God will forgive us," was his mental reflection as he greedily swallowed the food.
The woman looked on in admiration at the huge appetites of the lads. She plied them with questions, to which she received vague replies, and finally contented herself with the thought that these were perhaps wayward children who had run away from home and were now penitently trying to find their way back.
After the boys were rested, they thanked their kind hostess and set out again upon their wanderings with no other compass than blind chance, but avoiding the highways for fear of being captured by the soldiers. On they went for hours, Mendel supporting his complaining brother and whispering words of hope and courage.
By noon the sky had become darker, the storm more threatening. The wind blew in furious gusts over the dismal country, and an occasional rumbling of distant thunder filled the weary lads with dread. The road they had chosen was absolutely deserted. It lay through a bleak, scarcely habitable prairie, a landscape common enough in that part of Russia; and stones and brambles did much to retard their progress. There was not a place of shelter in sight. The outlook was sufficiently unpromising to dismay the most resolute.
Jacob sat down upon a stone and began to weep.
"I can go no further," he sobbed. "I am tired and sick."
"But you must come," pleaded his brother. "See what a storm is gathering. If we remain here we shall be drenched. We must find shelter."
"Go alone, brother," said the little one. "I'll stay here."
There was a sudden flash of lightning, which illumined Jacob's bandaged face, pale with fear and fatigue. The trembling boys looked at each other and Jacob began to cry.
"Come, Jacob," murmured Mendel, helping his brother to rise. "We shall die if we stay here. May God protect us."
Again the waifs plodded on, Mendel supporting his brother and endeavoring to protect him from the cruel wind. Darker grew the sky. Large drops of rain began to fall and with a startling peal of thunder the tempest broke in its fury. The pitiless wind sweeping through the land from the bleak northern steppes brought cold and desolation in its train. The poor children were drenched to the skin. They clung to each other and painfully made their way across the miry fields to the highway, the ancient road of the Tartar Khans.
At last Jacob succumbed to the awful strain and sank to the ground.
"Let me die," moaned the child.
"Oh, dear brother; you must live! We will find our way back to Togarog to papa and mamma. How they would grieve if I came back alone."
The child shook his head mutely to this appeal, but rise he could not. Mendel was in despair.
A bright flash lit up the landscape and showed the dim outlines of huts not many rods away.
"God be thanked!" cried Mendel, fervently. "See, Jacob, there are houses. The village is near. There we can get food and shelter. Come, lean on me and we will be there in a few minutes."
"No, go alone; I am too weak."
"I will carry you," cried Mendel. "Oh, I can do it; I am strong enough."
He attempted to lift the child from the ground, but he had overrated his strength and gave up his task in despair. What was he to do? He could not leave him in the road to perish. If he could but reach the village and summon help. They would not refuse assistance to a dying child, even if he were a Jew.
"Jacob," he said, encouragingly, "I am going for help. Don't be afraid; keep up your courage and strength until I come back. The rain will soon stop. Good-by. I shall not be long."
Kissing his scarcely conscious brother, the heroic boy bounded in the direction of the village.
Though the thunder still rolled and the lightning still flashed, the rain soon ceased and the clouds began to show cheerful patches of blue. Mendel was gone some five minutes when a covered droshka drove up the road as rapidly as the muddy ground would allow. The driver, amply protected by furs, seemed proof against both wind and water, yet he cursed in good round Russian at the inclemency of the weather. Suddenly, a brilliant flash lighted up the road, and he saw a lad near the wheels. With an oath, the driver reined in the frightened horses and jumped to the ground.
"What is it, Ivan? Has anything happened?" asked a lady, from the carriage window.
"Please your excellency, a little boy lying in the road, half-dead."
"Bring him here," commanded the lady, and the child was lifted into the carriage and placed on the seat before them.
"What a pretty lad," said the lady, who was no less important a person than the Countess Drentell, of Lubny, to her companion. "The poor child must be badly hurt."
"Perhaps a little brandy would strengthen him," suggested the practical coachman, who knew the value of the remedy.
The cordial revived him, and, opening his eyes, he murmured: "Wait for me, Mendel; I will go along."
"Drive on, Ivan, as quickly as possible; we must get the little fellow some dry clothes," said the Countess.
Yielding to the luxury of shelter and to the effect of the brandy, Jacob sank into a sweet sleep.
Mendel had in the meantime reached the village and knocked at the first house. A moujik emerged and eyed him suspiciously. "What do you want?" he asked, gruffly.
"We have been caught in the storm and my brother is out on the road, dying. Please help me bring him here."
"You are a Jew, are you not?" asked the man, savagely, as he recognized by the boy's jargon that he was a member of the proscribed race.
"Yes, sir," answered Mendel, timidly.
"Then go about your business; I wont put myself out for a Jew!" saying which, he shut the door in the boy's face.
Sadly Mendel wandered on until he met a kindly disposed woman, who directed him to the Jewish quarter.
"At the house of prayer there is always someone to be found," thought Mendel, and thither he bent his steps. Half-a-dozen men at once surrounded him and listened to his harrowing story; half-a-dozen hearts beat in sympathy with his distress. One of the number soon spread the dismal tidings; the entire congregation, headed by Mendel, hastened to where the child had been left. As they came to the highway, a droshka passed them at full speed; they fell back to the right and left to make room for the galloping horses and in a moment the carriage had disappeared.
When they reached the spot pointed out by Mendel they saw the impress of a child's form in the yielding ground, and a tattered little cap which was Jacob's; but the child was gone.
"The soldiers have recaptured him!" gasped Mendel, with a groan of anguish. "Oh, my poor brother; God help you!" and sank unconscious into the friendly arms of his new acquaintances.
A RUSSIAN NOBLEMAN.
After an hour's sojourn in "The Imperial Crown," the best inn of Poltava, Countess Drentell continued her journey towards her country-seat at Lubny, where the carriage arrived just before nightfall. With the creaking of the wheels upon the gravel path leading to the house, Jacob awoke and gazed sleepily about him.
"See, Tekla; he is awake!" cried the Countess. "Poor child!"
The carriage stopped; Ivan opened the door and assisted the ladies to alight.
"Carry the little one into the house and take him to the kitchen to dry," commanded the Countess. "What a surprise he will be to Loris and how he will enjoy having a playmate!"
Another servant appeared at the door to assist the Countess.
"Your excellency," he whispered, "the Count arrived the day before yesterday. He was furious at finding you absent."
Louise bit her lip and her face became pale. Then she shrugged her pretty shoulders and broke into a careless laugh.
"Oh, well, Dimitri will forgive me when I tell him how sorry I am," she thought to herself, as she tripped up the stone steps into the house.
In the brilliantly lighted hall she was met by her husband, Count Dimitri Drentell, and she clasped her arms around his neck in a transport of conjugal affection.
"So you have come back, my dear, from those horrid barracks!" she cried. "I am so glad! But why didn't you send word you were coming, that I might have been at home to meet you? But it is just like you to keep the matter a perfect secret and give me no chance to prepare for your reception."
The Count's brow contracted. Before he had an opportunity to reply, his wife continued:
"Indeed, I'm glad you've come. If I had known that I was marrying a son of Mars who would be away in the army for eight months of the year, I doubt whether I should have left my happy Tiflis."
The Countess paused for want of breath.
"The Czar places duty to country higher than domestic comfort," answered her husband, curtly. "But how could you leave your home and your child for so long a time? It is now three days since I arrived here, expecting to be lovingly received by you and little Loris; but you had gone away, no one knew whither, leaving Loris in charge of an ignorant woman, who has been sadly neglecting the child."
"Poor fellow," laughed the Countess, in mock grief. "I suppose he will be happy to see his mamma again. But, my dear, you must not scold me for having gone away. It was so dull at home without you, so lonesome, that I could bear it no longer, and I took a trip to Valki, to visit the Abbess of the convent there."
The cloud upon the Count's face darkened.
"I have repeatedly told you that I do not approve of your excursions into the country," he answered, gloomily; "and I am especially opposed to your locking yourself up in a convent. You pay no heed to my requests, nor do you seem to realize the dangers you incur in travelling about in that manner."
"Then let us live in our town house. I am too dull here, all alone," answered the Countess, nestling closer to her husband and kissing him.
"It was at your desire that I bought this place, immediately after our marriage. You were enchanted with it and said it reminded you of your Caucasian country. Now you are already tired of it."
"I would not be if you were here to share its delights with me," she answered, coquettishly. "But, alone!—b-r-r! It is too vast, too immense! I shall never feel at home in it."
Louise gave her graceful head a mournful shake and looked dismally at her husband.
Suddenly she cried: "Where is Loris? What have they done with my boy?"
"It is time you inquired," said her husband, reproachfully. "I doubt if he remembers you."
Louise broke into a merry laugh. "Not know his mamma? Indeed! We shall see!"
Going to a table, she rang a bell, which was immediately answered by a liveried servant.
"Bring me my Loris," she cried.
"He has already been put to bed," answered the man.
"Bring him, anyhow. I have not seen him for almost nine days."
The man disappeared, and shortly after a nurse entered, bearing in her arms a bright little fellow scarcely four years of age. Loris, the tyrant of the house, who was fast being spoiled by the alternate indulgence and neglect of his capricious mother, struggled violently with his nurse, who had just aroused him from his first sleep.
Louise threw herself upon the child in an excess of maternal devotion. She fairly covered him with kisses.
"How has my Loris been? My poor boy! Will he forgive his mamma for having deserted him?"
The boy resented this outburst of love by sundry kicks and screams.
"The child is cross and sleepy," said the Count; "let Minka put him to bed."
"Wait a moment," exclaimed the Countess, in childish glee. "I have brought him a present. Loris, my pet, how would you like a little boy to play with? A real live boy?"
Loris ceased his struggles and became interested.
"I want a pony to play with! I don't want a boy," he cried, peevishly.
"What folly have you been guilty of now?" asked Dimitri, with some misgivings, for he had had frequent proofs of his wife's impulsive extravagance.
"You shall see, my dear."
Louise rang for Ivan. When he appeared, she asked:
"What have you done with the boy we found?"
"He is in the kitchen and has just eaten his supper," answered the servant.
"Bring him up at once."
While Ivan went to fetch Jacob, the Countess related, with many embellishments and exaggerations, and with frequent appeals to her maid Tekla for corroboration, how she had found the boy on the road, how she had saved his life, and, finally, how she had decided to bring him home as a little playmate for her darling Loris. Before she had finished her story Jacob himself appeared upon the scene, the personification of abject misery. His features were still besmeared with the dirt of the highway, his clothes were in a wretched condition, and his bandaged arm and lacerated face did not improve his general appearance. Louise laughed heartily when this apparition entered the door.
"Is he not a beauty?" she exclaimed.
The Count was too much surprised to speak. After a pause, during which poor Jacob looked pleadingly from one to the other, Dimitri asked:
"In all seriousness, Louise, why did you introduce that being into our house?"
"He is not as bad as he looks," answered the Countess. "Wait till he is washed and dressed, and you will agree that he is a handsome fellow."
The Count crossed the room and looked at the boy.
"What is your name?" he asked, gruffly.
"Jacob Winenki," answered the child, timidly.
"A Jew!" ejaculated the Count. "By our Holy Madonna, that is just what I needed to make me completely happy—the companionship of an accursed Jew!"
Jacob instinctively divined that he was not welcome, and began to cry.
"Please, I want my mamma!"
"Stop your whimpering, you cur!" shouted the enraged Count.
But Jacob's tears would not be checked so abruptly.
"Please don't send me back to the soldiers," he pleaded, in his miserable jargon. "I don't want to go with the soldiers."
At this juncture Loris joined in the cry. "I don't want him. I want a pony to play with."
"Here, Ivan," commanded the excited Count, "take this brat out into the barn, and keep him secure until I ask for him. We will investigate his case after supper. Minka, take Loris to bed at once." Then turning to his wife, who actually trembled before his infuriated glance, he said:
"Louise, you have done some very silly things since I married you, but this is the most absurd. You know my aversion to Jews, and here you bring a dirty Jew out of the streets to become a playmate of our Loris!"
"I could not leave the poor child to die in the road," pouted Louise, who, in addition to being extremely frivolous, was very tender-hearted. "If I had found a sick dog, I should have aided him."
"I would rather it had been a dog than a Jew."
"How could I know it was a Jew?"
"By his looks; by his language," answered the exasperated man.
"He was insensible, and could not speak," retorted Louise; "and his appearance no worse than that of other dirty children. Tell me, Dimitri," she added, throwing her arms about her husband's waist, in a childish endeavor to appease his wrath; "tell me why you have such an animosity towards the Jews?"
The count impressively rolled up his sleeve and displayed a scar about two inches in length upon his forearm.
"See, Louise," he said, gloomily; "that is some of their accursed work. Have I not cause to detest them? They are spiteful, vengeful, implacable."
Louise lovingly kissed the scarred arm.
"Poor Dimitri," she murmured; "how it must have pained. Tell me how it happened."
"There is no need to go into details," answered the Count, abruptly. "But if ever I acquire the power, I shall make a Jew smart for every drop of blood that flowed from the wound. Come, supper must be ready. We will not spoil our appetites by speaking of the despicable race."
Count Drentell wisely refrained from telling his wife the cause of his scar. It was not for a wife's ear to hear the tale. Eight years before, he, with a number of young officers of the army stationed at Pinsk, while in search of a little pleasurable excitement, had raided the Jewish quarter and terrorized the helpless inhabitants. After having broken every window, the party, inflamed by wine and enthusiasm, entered the house of Haim Kusel, demolished the furniture, helped themselves to articles of value that chanced to be exposed, and having caught a glimpse of Haim's pretty daughter, Drentell, the leader of the band, attempted to embrace her. The Jew, who had offered no resistance while his hard-earned possessions were being destroyed, was driven to frenzy by the insult to his daughter. Seizing a knife he drove the party from the house, but not until he had wounded several of the wretches, among whom was Drentell. Kusel had saved his daughter's honor, but he well knew that he had forfeited his life if he remained in the village. Packing up the few household articles that yet remained, he and his daughter fled from Pinsk to find protection with friends in a distant town.
At midnight, the officers, now reinforced by a number of sympathizing comrades, returned, and furious at the escape of their victim, burned his dwelling to the ground. Drentell never forgot his ignominious repulse nor the wound he received at the hands of Haim Kusel. His own offence counted as naught, so blunted was his moral sense. To inflict misery upon a Jew was at all times considered meritorious, but for a Jew to so far forget himself as to assault an officer of the Czar, was a crime for which the whole race would one day be held accountable.