Born, 1851, in Samoscz, Government of Lublin, Russian Poland; Jewish, philosophical, and general literary education; practiced law in Samoscz, a Hasidic town; clerk to the Jewish congregation in Warsaw and as such collector of statistics on Jewish life; began to write at twenty-five; contributor to Zedernbaum's Jüdisches Volksblatt; publisher and editor of Die jüdische Bibliothek (4 vols.), in which he conducted the scientific department, and wrote all the editorials and book reviews, of Literatur and Leben, and of Yom-tov Blättlech; now (1912) co-editor of Der Freind, Warsaw; Hebrew and Yiddish prose writer and poet; allegorist; collected Hebrew works, 1899-1901; collected Yiddish works, 7 vols., Warsaw and New York, 1909-1912 (in course of publication).
The small room is dingy as the poverty that clings to its walls. There is a hook fastened to the crumbling ceiling, relic of a departed hanging lamp. The old, peeling stove is girded about with a coarse sack, and leans sideways toward its gloomy neighbor, the black, empty fireplace, in which stands an inverted cooking pot with a chipped rim. Beside it lies a broken spoon, which met its fate in unequal contest with the scrapings of cold, stale porridge.
The room is choked with furniture; there is a four-post bed with torn curtains. The pillows visible through their holes have no covers.
There is a cradle, with the large, yellow head of a sleeping child; a chest with metal fittings and an open padlock—nothing very precious left in there, evidently; further, a table and three chairs (originally painted red), a cupboard, now somewhat damaged. Add to these a pail of clean water and one of dirty water, an oven rake with a shovel, and you will understand that a pin could hardly drop onto the floor.
And yet the room contains him and her beside.
She, a middle-aged Jewess, sits on the chest that fills the space between the bed and the cradle.
To her right is the one grimy little window, to her left, the table. She is knitting a sock, rocking the cradle with her foot, and listens to him reading the Talmud at the table, with a tearful, Wallachian, singing intonation, and swaying to and fro with a series of nervous jerks. Some of the words he swallows, others he draws out; now he snaps at a word, and now he skips it; some he accentuates and dwells on lovingly, others he rattles out with indifference, like dried peas out of a bag. And never quiet for a moment. First he draws from his pocket a once red and whole handkerchief, and wipes his nose and brow, then he lets it fall into his lap, and begins twisting his earlocks or pulling at his thin, pointed, faintly grizzled beard. Again, he lays a pulled-out hair from the same between the leaves of his book, and slaps his knees. His fingers coming into contact with the handkerchief, they seize it, and throw a corner in between his teeth; he bites it, lays one foot across the other, and continually shuffles with both feet.
All the while his pale forehead wrinkles, now in a perpendicular, now in a horizontal, direction, when the long eyebrows are nearly lost below the folds of skin. At times, apparently, he has a sting in the chest, for he beats his left side as though he were saying the Al-Chets. Suddenly he leans his head to the left, presses a finger against his left nostril, and emits an artificial sneeze, leans his head to the right, and the proceeding is repeated. In between he takes a pinch of snuff, pulls himself together, his voice rings louder, the chair creaks, the table wobbles.
The child does not wake; the sounds are too familiar to disturb it.
And she, the wife, shrivelled and shrunk before her time, sits and drinks in delight. She never takes her eye off her husband, her ear lets no inflection of his voice escape. Now and then, it is true, she sighs. Were he as fit for this world as he is for the other world, she would have a good time of it here, too—here, too—
"Ma!" she consoles herself, "who talks of honor? Not every one is worthy of both tables!"
She listens. Her shrivelled face alters from minute to minute; she is nervous, too. A moment ago it was eloquent of delight. Now she remembers it is Thursday, there isn't a dreier to spend in preparation for Sabbath. The light in her face goes out by degrees, the smile fades, then she takes a look through the grimy window, glances at the sun. It must be getting late, and there isn't a spoonful of hot water in the house. The needles pause in her hand, a shadow has overspread her face. She looks at the child, it is sleeping less quietly, and will soon wake. The child is poorly, and there is not a drop of milk for it. The shadow on her face deepens into gloom, the needles tremble and move convulsively.
And when she remembers that it is near Passover, that her ear-rings and the festal candlesticks are at the pawnshop, the chest empty, the lamp sold, then the needles perform murderous antics in her fingers. The gloom on her brow is that of a gathering thunder-storm, lightnings play in her small, grey, sunken eyes.
He sits and "learns," unconscious of the charged atmosphere; does not see her let the sock fall and begin wringing her finger-joints; does not see that her forehead is puckered with misery, one eye closed, and the other fixed on him, her learned husband, with a look fit to send a chill through his every limb; does not see her dry lips tremble and her jaw quiver. She controls herself with all her might, but the storm is gathering fury within her. The least thing, and it will explode.
That least thing has happened.
He was just translating a Talmudic phrase with quiet delight, "And thence we derive that—" He was going on with "three,—" but the word "derive" was enough, it was the lighted spark, and her heart was the gunpowder. It was ablaze in an instant. Her determination gave way, the unlucky word opened the flood-gates, and the waters poured through, carrying all before them.
"Derived, you say, derived? O, derived may you be, Lord of the World," she exclaimed, hoarse with anger, "derived may you be! Yes! You!" she hissed like a snake. "Passover coming—Thursday—and the child ill—and not a drop of milk is there. Ha?"
Her breath gives out, her sunken breast heaves, her eyes flash.
He sits like one turned to stone. Then, pale and breathless, too, from fright, he gets up and edges toward the door.
At the door he turns and faces her, and sees that hand and tongue are equally helpless from passion; his eyes grow smaller; he catches a bit of handkerchief between his teeth, retreats a little further, takes a deeper breath, and mutters:
"Listen, woman, do you know what Bittul-Torah means? And not letting a husband study in peace, to be always worrying about livelihood, ha? And who feeds the little birds, tell me? Always this want of faith in God, this giving way to temptation, and taking thought for this world ... foolish, ill-natured woman! Not to let a husband study! If you don't take care, you will go to Gehenna."
Receiving no answer, he grows bolder. Her face gets paler and paler, she trembles more and more violently, and the paler she becomes, and the more she trembles, the steadier his voice, as he goes on:
"Gehenna! Fire! Hanging by the tongue! Four death penalties inflicted by the court!"
She is silent, her face is white as chalk.
He feels that he is doing wrong, that he has no call to be cruel, that he is taking a mean advantage, but he has risen, as it were, to the top, and is boiling over. He cannot help himself.
"Do you know," he threatens her, "what Skiloh means? It means stoning, to throw into a ditch and cover up with stones! Srefoh—burning, that is, pouring a spoonful of boiling lead into the inside! Hereg—beheading, that means they cut off your head with a sword! Like this" (and he passes a hand across his neck). "Then Cheneck—strangling! Do you hear? To strangle! Do you understand? And all four for making light of the Torah! For Bittul-Torah!"
His heart is already sore for his victim, but he is feeling his power over her for the first time, and it has gone to his head. Silly woman! He had never known how easy it was to frighten her.
"That comes of making light of the Torah!" he shouts, and breaks off. After all, she might come to her senses at any moment, and take up the broom! He springs back to the table, closes the Gemoreh, and hurries out of the room.
"I am going to the house-of-study!" he calls out over his shoulder in a milder tone, and shuts the door after him.
The loud voice and the noise of the closing door have waked the sick child. The heavy-lidded eyes open, the waxen face puckers, and there is a peevish wail. But she, beside herself, stands rooted to the spot, and does not hear.
"Ha!" comes hoarsely at last out of her narrow chest. "So that's it, is it? Neither this world nor the other. Hanging, he says, stoning, burning, beheading, strangling, hanging by the tongue, boiling lead poured into the inside, he says—for making light of the Torah—Hanging, ha, ha, ha!" (in desperation). "Yes, I'll hang, but here, here! And soon! What is there to wait for?"
The child begins to cry louder; still she does not hear.
"A rope! a rope!" she screams, and stares wildly into every corner.
"Where is there a rope? I wish he mayn't find a bone of me left! Let me be rid of one Gehenna at any rate! Let him try it, let him be a mother for once, see how he likes it! I've had enough of it! Let it be an atonement! An end, an end! A rope, a rope!!"
Her last exclamation is like a cry for help from out of a conflagration.
She remembers that they have a rope somewhere. Yes, under the stove—the stove was to have been tied round against the winter. The rope must be there still.
She runs and finds the rope, the treasure, looks up at the ceiling—the hook that held the lamp—she need only climb onto the table.
But she sees from the table that the startled child, weak as it is, has sat up in the cradle, and is reaching over the side—it is trying to get out—
"Mame, M-mame," it sobs feebly.
A fresh paroxysm of anger seizes her.
She flings away the rope, jumps off the table, runs to the child, and forces its head back into the pillow, exclaiming:
"Bother the child! It won't even let me hang myself! I can't even hang myself in peace! It wants to suck. What is the good? You will suck nothing but poison, poison, out of me, I tell you!"
"There, then, greedy!" she cries in the same breath, and stuffs her dried-up breast into his mouth.
"There, then, suck away—bite!"