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On the Fiddle by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich

 

Children, I will now play for you a little tune on the fiddle. I imagine there is nothing better and finer in the world than to be able to play on the fiddle. What? Perhaps it is not so? I don't know how it is with you. But I know that since I first reached the age of understanding, my heart longed for a fiddle. I loved as my life any musician whatever—no matter what instrument he played. If there was a wedding anywhere in the town, I was the first to run forward and welcome the musicians. I loved to steal over to the bass, and draw my fingers across one of the strings—Boom! And I flew away. Boom! And I flew away. For this same “boom” I once got it hot from Berel Bass. Berel Bass—a cross Jew with a flattened out nose, and a sharp glance—pretended not to see me stealing over to the bass. And when I stretched out my hand to the thick string, he caught hold of me by the ear and dragged me, respectfully, to the door:

“Here, scamp, kiss the 'Mezuzah.'”

But this was not of much consequence to me. It did not make me go a single step from the musicians. I loved them all, from Sheika the little fiddler with his beautiful black beard and his thin white hands, to Getza the drummer with his beautiful hump, and, if you will forgive me for mentioning it, the big bald patches behind his ears. Not once, but many times did I lie hidden under a bench, listening to the musicians playing, though I was frequently found and sent home. And from there, from under the bench, I could see how Sheika's thin little fingers danced about over the strings; and I listened to the sweet sounds which he drew so cleverly out of the little fiddle.

Afterwards I used to go about in a state of great inward excitement for many days on end. And Sheika and his little fiddle stood before my eyes always. At night I saw him in my dreams; and in the daytime I saw him in reality; and he never left my imagination. When no one was looking I used to imagine that I was Sheika, the little fiddler. I used to curve my left arm and move my fingers, and draw out my right hand, as if I were drawing the bow across the strings. At the same time I threw my head to one side, closing my eyes a little—just as Sheika did, not a hair different.

My “Rebbe,” Nota-Leib, once caught me doing this. It happened in the middle of a lesson. I was moving my arms about, throwing my head to one side, and blinking my eyes, and he gave me a sound box on the ears.

“What a scamp can do! We are teaching him his lessons, and he makes faces and catches flies!”

* * *

I promised myself that, even if the world turned upside down, I must have a little fiddle, let it cost me what it would. But what was I to make a fiddle out of? Of cedar wood, of course. But it's easy to talk of cedar wood. How was I to come by it when, as everybody knows, the cedar tree grows only in Palestine? But what does the Lord do for me? He goes and puts a certain thought in my head. In our house there was an old sofa. This sofa was left us, as a legacy, by our grandfather “ Reb” Anshel. And my two uncles fought over this sofa with my father—peace be unto him! My uncle Benny argued that since he was my grandfather's oldest son, the sofa belonged to him; and my uncle Sender argued that he was the youngest son, and that the sofa belonged to him. And my father—peace be unto him!—argued that although he was no more than a son-in-law to my grandfather, and had no personal claim on the sofa, still, since his wife, my mother, that is, was the only daughter of “Reb” Anshel, the sofa belonged, by right, to her. But all this happened long ago. And as the sofa has remained in our house, this was a proof that it was our sofa. And our two aunts interfered, my aunt Etka, and my aunt Zlatka. They began to invent scandals and to carry tales from one house to another. It was sofa and sofa, and nothing else but sofa! The town rocked, all because of the sofa. However, to make a long story short, the sofa remained our sofa.

This same sofa was an ordinary wooden sofa covered with a thin veneer. This veneer had come unloosened in many places and was split up. It had now a number of small mounds. And the upper layer of the veneer which had come unloosened was of the real cedar wood—the wood of which fiddles are made. At least, that is what I was told at school. The sofa had one fault, and this fault was, in reality, a good quality. For instance, when one sat on it one could not get up off it again because it stood a little on the slant. One side was higher than the other, and in the middle there was a hole. And the good thing about our sofa was that no one wanted to sit on it, and it was put away in a corner, to one side, in compulsory retirement.

It was on this sofa that I had cast my eyes, to make a fiddle out of the cedar wood veneer. A bow I had already provided myself with, long ago. I had a comrade, Shimalle Yudel, the car-owner's son. He promised me a few hairs from the tail of his father's horse. And resin to smear the bow with I had myself. I hated to depend on miracles. I got the resin from another friend of mine, Mayer-Lippa, Sarah's son, for a bit of steel from my mother's old crinoline which had been knocking about in the attic. Out of this piece of steel, Mayer Lippa afterwards made himself a little knife. It is true when I saw the knife I wanted him to change back again with me. But he would not have it. He began to shout:

“A clever fellow that! What do you say to him! I worked hard for three whole nights. I sharpened and sharpened and cut all my fingers sharpening, and now he comes and wants me to change back again with him!”

“Just look at him!” I cried. “Well then, it won't be! A great bargain for you—a little bit of steel! Isn't there enough steel knocking about in our attic? There will be enough for our children, and our children's children even.”

Anyway, I had everything that was necessary. And there only remained one thing for me to do—to scale off the cedar wood from the sofa. For this work I selected a very good time, when my mother was in the shop, and my father had gone to lie down and have a nap after dinner. I hid myself in a corner and, with a big nail, I betook myself to my work in good earnest. My father heard, in his sleep, how some one was scraping something. At first he thought there were mice in the house, and he began to make a noise from his bedroom to drive them off—“Kush! Kush!” I was like dead.... My father turned over on the other side and when I heard him snoring again, I went back to my work. Suddenly I looked about me. My father was standing and staring at me with curious eyes. It appeared that he could not, on any account, understand what was going on—what I was doing. Then, when he saw the spoiled and torn sofa, he realized what I had done. He pulled me out of the corner by the ear and beat me so much that I fainted away and had to be revived. I actually had to have cold water thrown over me to bring me to life again.

“The Lord be with you! What have you done to the child?” my mother wailed, the tears starting to her eyes.

“Your beautiful son! He will drive me into my grave, while I am still living,” said my father, who was white as chalk. He put his hand to his heart and was attacked by a fit of coughing which lasted several minutes.

“Why should you eat your heart out like this?” my mother asked him. “As it is you are a sickly man. Just look at the face you've got. May my enemies have as healthy a year!”

* * *

My desire to play the fiddle grew with me. The older I grew, the stronger became my desire. And, as if out of spite, I was destined to hear music every day of the week. Right in the middle of the road, halfway between my home and the school, stood a little house covered with earth. And from that house came forth various sweet sounds. But most often than all the playing of a fiddle could be heard. In that house there lived a musician whose name was Naphtali “Bezborodka,”—a Jew who wore a short jacket, curled-up earlocks, and a starched collar. He had a fine-sized nose. It looked as if it had been stuck on his face. He had thick lips and black teeth. His face was pock-pitted, and had not on it even signs of a beard. That is why he was called “ Bezborodka,” the Beardless One. He had a wife who was like a machine. The people called her “Mother Eve.” Of children he had about a dozen and a half. They were ragged, half-naked, and bare-footed. And each child, from the biggest to the smallest, played on a musical instrument. One played the fiddle, another the 'cello, another the double-bass, another the trumpet, another the “Ballalaika,” another the drum, and another the cymbals. And amongst them there were some who could whistle the longest melody with their lips, or between their teeth. Others could play tunes on little glasses, or little pots, or bits of wood. And some made music with their faces. They were demons, evil spirits—nothing else.

I made the acquaintance of this family quite by accident. One day, as I was standing outside the window of their house, listening to them playing, one of the children, Pinna the flautist, a youth of about fifteen, in bare feet, caught sight of me through the window. He came out to me and asked me if I liked his playing.

“I only wish,” said I, “that I may play as well as you in ten years' time.”

“Can't you manage it?” he asked of me. And he told me that for two and a half 'roubles' a month, his father would teach me how to play. But if I liked he himself, the son, that is, would teach me.

“Which instrument would you like to learn to play?” he asked. “On the fiddle?”

“On the fiddle.”

“On the fiddle?” he repeated. “Can you pay two and a half ' roubles' a month? Or are you as unfortunate as I am?”

“So far as that goes, I can manage it,” I said. “But what then? Neither my father nor my mother, nor my teacher must know that I am learning to play the fiddle.”

“The Lord keep us from telling it!” he cried. “Whose business is it to drum the news through the town? Maybe you have on you a cigar end, or a cigarette? No? You don't smoke? Then lend me a 'kopek' and I will buy cigarettes for myself. But you must tell no one, because my father must not know that I smoke. And if my mother finds that I have money, she will take it from me and buy rolls for supper. Come into the house. What are we standing here for?”

* * *

With great fear, with a palpitating heart and trembling limbs, I crossed the threshold of the house that was to me a little Garden of Eden.

My friend Pinna introduced me to his father.

“Shalom—Nahum Veviks—a rich man's boy. He wants to learn to play the fiddle.”

Naphtali “Bezborodka” twirled his earlocks, straightened his collar, buttoned up his coat, and started a long conversation with me, all about music and musical instruments in general and the fiddle in particular. He gave me to understand that the fiddle was the best and most beautiful of all instruments. There was none older and none more wonderful in the world than the fiddle. To prove this to me, he went on to tell me that the fiddle was always the leading instrument of any orchestra, and not the trumpet or the flute. And this was simply because the fiddle was the mother of all musical instruments.

And so it came about that Naphtali “Bezborodka” gave me a whole lecture on music. Whilst he was speaking he gesticulated with his hands and moved his nose, and I stood staring right into his mouth. I looked at his black teeth and swallowed, yes, positively swallowed, every word that he said.

“The fiddle, you must understand,” went on Naphtali “Bezborodka “ to me, and evidently satisfied with the lecture he was giving me, “the fiddle, you must understand, is an instrument that is older than all other instruments. The first man in the world to play on the fiddle was Jubal-Cain, or Methuselah, I don't exactly remember which. You will know that better than I, for, to be sure, you are learning Bible history at school. The second fiddler in the world was King David. Another great fiddler—the third greatest in the world—was Paganini. He also was a Jew. All the best fiddlers in the world were Jews. For instance there was 'Stempenyu,' and there was 'Pedotchur.' Of myself I say nothing. People tell me that I do not play the fiddle badly. But how can I come up to Paganini? They say that Paganini sold his soul to the Ashmodai for a fiddle. Paganini hated to play before great people like kings and popes, although they covered him with gold. He would much rather play at wayside inns for poor folks, or in villages. Or else he would play in the forest for wild beasts and fowls of the air. What a fiddler Paganini was!...

“Eh, boys, to your places! To your instruments!”

That was the order which Naphtali “Bezborodka” gave to his regiment of children, all of whom came together in one minute. Each one took up an instrument. Naphtali himself stood up, beat his baton on the table, threw a sharp glance on every separate child and on all at once; and they began to play a concert on every sort of instrument with so much force that I was almost knocked off my feet. Each child tried to make more noise than the other. But above all, I was nearly deafened by the noise that one boy made, a little fellow who was called Hemalle. He was a dry little boy with a wet little nose, and dirty bare little feet. Hemalle played a curiously made instrument. It was a sort of sack which, when you blew it up, let out a mad screech—a peculiar sound like a yell of a cat after you have trodden on its tail. Hemalle beat time with his little bare foot. And all the while he kept looking at me out of his roguish little eyes, and winking to me as if he would say: “Well, isn't it so? I blow well—don't I?” But it was Naphtali himself who worked the hardest of all. Along with playing the fiddle, he led the orchestra, waved his hands about, shifted his feet, and moved his nose, and his eyes and his whole body. And if some one made a mistake—God forbid! he ground his teeth and shouted in anger:

“Forte, devil, forte! Fortissimo! Time, wretch, time! One, two, three! One, two, three!”

* * *

Having arranged with Naphtali “Bezborodka” that he should give me three lessons a week, of an hour and a half each day, for two “ roubles” a month, I again and yet again begged of him that he would keep my visits a secret of secrets; for if he did not, I would be lost forever. He promised me faithfully that not even a bird would hear of my coming and going.

“We are the sort of people,” he said to me, proudly, fixing his collar in place, “we are the sort of people who never have any money. But you will find more honour and justice in our house than in the house of the richest man. Maybe you have a few 'groschens' about you?”

I took out a “rouble” and gave it to him. Naphtali took it in the manner of a professor, with his two fingers. He called over “Mother Eve,” turned away his eyes, and said to her:

“Here! Buy something to eat.”

“Mother Eve” took the “rouble” from him, but with both hands and all her fingers, examined it on all sides, and asked her husband:

“What shall I buy?”

“What you like,” he answered, pretending not to care. “Buy a few rolls, two or three salt herring, and some dried sausage. And don't forget an onion, vinegar and oil. Well, and a glass of brandy, say—”

When all these things were brought home and placed upon the table, the family fell upon them with as much appetite as if they had just ended a long fast. I was actually tempted by an evil spirit; and when they asked me to take my place at the table I could not refuse. I do not remember when I enjoyed a meal as much as I enjoyed the one at the musician's house that day.

After they had eaten everything, Naphtali winked to the children that they should take their instruments in their hands. And he treated me, all over again to a piece—“his own composition.” This “composition” was played with so much excitement and force that my ears were deafened and my brain was stupefied. I left the house intoxicated by Naphtali “Bezborodka's” “composition.” The whole day at school, the teacher and the boys and the books were whirling round and round in front of my eyes. And my ears were ringing with the echoes of Naphtali's “composition.” At night I dreamt that I saw Paganini riding on the Ashmodai, and that he banged me over the head with his fiddle. I awoke with a scream, and a headache, and I began to pour out words as from a sack. What I said I do not know. But my older sister, Pessel, told me afterwards that I talked in heat, and that there was no connection between any two words I uttered. I repeated some fantastic names—“Composition.” “Paganini,” etc.... And there was another thing my sister told me. During the time I was lying delirious, several messages were sent from Naphtali the Musician to know how I was. There came some barefoot boy who made many inquiries about me. He was driven off, and was told never to dare to come near the house again....

“What was the musician's boy doing here?” asked my sister. And she tormented me with questions. She wanted me to tell her. But I kept repeating the same words:

“I do not know. As I live, I do not know. How am I to know?”

“What does it look like?” asked my mother. “You are already a young man, a grown-up man—may no evil eye harm you! They will be soon looking for a bride for you, and you go about with fine friends, barefoot young musicians. What business have you with musicians? What was Naphtali the Musician's boy doing here?”

“What Naphtali?” I asked, pretending not to understand. “What musician?”

“Just look at him—the saint!” put in my father. “He knows nothing about anything. Poor thing! His soul is innocent before the Lord! When I was your age I was already long betrothed. And he is still playing with strange boys. Dress yourself, and go off to school. And if you meet Hershel the Tax-collector, and he asks you what was the matter with you, you are to tell him that you had the ague. Do you hear what I am saying to you? The ague!”

I could not for the life of me understand what business Hershel the Tax-collector had with me. And for what reason was I to tell him I had been suffering from the ague?... It was only a few weeks later that this riddle was solved for me.

* * *

Hershel the Tax-collector was so called because he, and his grandfather before him, had collected the taxes of the town. It was the privilege of their family. He was a young man with a round little belly, and a red little beard, and moist little eyes, and he had a broad white forehead, a sure sign that he was a man of brains. And he had the reputation in our town of being a fine, young man, a modern, and a scholar. He had a sound knowledge of the Bible, and was a writer of distinction. That is to say, he had a beautiful hand. They say that his manuscripts were carried around and shown in the whole world. And along with these qualities, he had money, and he had one little daughter—an only child, a girl with red hair and moist eyes. She and her father, Hershel the Tax-collector, were as like as two drops of water. Her name was Esther, but she was called by the nickname of “Plesteril.” She was nervous and genteel. She was as frightened of us, schoolboys, as of the Angel of Death, because we used to torment her. We used to tease her and sing little songs about her:

“Estheril.”

“Plesteril!”

“Why have you no little sister?”

Well, after all, what is there in these words? Nothing, of course. Nevertheless, whenever “Plesteril” heard them, she used to cover up her ears, run home crying, and hide herself away in the farthest of far corners. And, for several days, she was afraid to go out in the street.

But that was once on a time, when she was still a child. Now she is a young woman, and is counted amongst the grown-ups. Her hair was tied up in a red plait, and she was dressed like a bride, in the latest fashions. My mother had a high opinion of her. She could never praise her enough, and called her “a quiet dove.” Sometimes, on the Sabbath Esther came into our house, to see my sister Pessel. And when she saw me, she grew redder than ever, and dropped her eyes. At the same time, my sister Pessel would call me over to ask me something, and also to look into my eyes as she looked into Esther's.

And it came to pass that, on a certain day, there came into my school my father and Hershel the Tax-collector. And after them came Shalom-Shachno the Matchmaker—a Jew who had six fingers, and a curly black beard, and who was terribly poor. Seeing such visitors, our teacher, “Reb” Zorach, pulled on his long coat, and put his hat on his head. And because of his great excitement, one of his earlocks got twisted up behind his ear. His hat got creased; and more than half of his little round cap was left sticking out at the back of his head, from under his hat; and one of his cheeks began to blaze. One could see that something extraordinary was going to happen.

Of late, “Reb” Shalom-Shachno the Matchmaker had started coming into the school a little too often. He always called the teacher outside, where they stood talking together for some minutes, whispering and getting excited. The matchmaker gesticulated with his hands, and shrugged his shoulders. He always finished up with a sigh, and said:

“Well, it's the same story again. If it is destined it will probably take place. How can we know anything—how?”

When the visitors came in, our teacher, “Reb” Zorach, did not know what to do, or where he was to seat them. He took hold of the kitchen stool on which his wife salted the meat, and first of all spun round and round with it several times, and went up and down the whole length of the room. After this, he barely managed to place the stool on the floor when he sat down on it himself. But he at once jumped up again, greatly confused; and he caught hold of the back pocket of his long coat, just as if he had lost a purse of money.

“Here is a stool. Sit down,” he said to his visitors.

“It's all right! Sit down, sit down,” said my father to him. “We have come in to you, 'Reb' Zorach, only for a minute. This gentleman wants to examine my son—to see what he knows of the Bible.”

And my father pointed to Hershel the Tax-collector.

“Oh, by all means! Why not?” answered the teacher, “Reb” Zorach. He took up a little Bible, and handed it to Hershel the Tax-collector. The expression on his face was as if he were saying: “Here it is for you, and do what you like.”

Hershel the Tax-collector took the Bible in his hand like a man who knows thoroughly what he is doing. He twisted his little head to one side, closed one eye, turned and turned the pages, and gave me to read the first chapter of the “Song of Songs.”

“Is it the 'Song of Songs'?” asked my teacher, with a faint smile, as if he would say: “Could you find nothing more difficult?”

“The 'Song of Songs,'“ replied Hershel the Tax-collector. “The 'Song of Songs' is not as easy as you imagine. One must undehstand the 'Song of Songs.'“ (Hershel could not pronounce the letter R but said H.)

“Certainly,” put in Shalom-Shachno, with a little laugh.

The teacher gave me a wink. I went over to the table, shook myself to and fro for a minute, and began to chant the “Song of Songs” to a beautiful melody, first introducing this commentary on it:—

“The 'Song of Songs'—a song above all songs! All other songs have been sung by prophets, but this 'Song' has been sung by a prophet who was the son of a prophet. All other songs have been sung by men of wisdom, but this 'Song' has been sung by a man of wisdom who was the son of a man of wisdom. All other songs have been sung by kings, but this 'Song' has been sung by a king who was the son of a king.”

Whilst I was singing, I glanced quickly at my audience. And on each face I could see a different expression. On my father's face I could see pride and pleasure. On my teacher's face were fear and anxiety, lest, God forbid! I should make a mistake, or commit errors in reading. His lips, in silence, repeated every word after me. Hershel the Tax-collector sat with his head a little to one side, the ends of his yellow beard in his mouth, one little eye closed, the other staring up at the ceiling. He was listening with the air of a great, great judge. “Reb” Shalom-Shachno the Matchmaker never took his eyes off Hershel for a single minute. He sat with half his body leaning forward, shaking himself to and fro, as I did. And he could not restrain himself from interrupting me many times by an exclamation, a little laugh and a cough, all in one breath, as he waved his double-jointed finger in the air.

“When people say that he knows—then he knows!”

A few days after this, plates were broken, and in a fortunate hour, I was betrothed to Hershel the Tax-collector's only daughter, Plesteril.

* * *

It sometimes happens that a man grows in one day more than anybody else grows in ten years. When I was betrothed, I, all at once, began to feel that I was a “grown-up.” Surely I was the same as before, and yet I was not the same. From my smallest comrade to my teacher “Reb” Zorach, everybody now began to look upon me with more respect. After all, I was a bridegroom-elect, and had a watch. And my father also gave up shouting at me. Of smacks there is no need to say anything. How could any one take hold of a bridegroom-elect who had a gold watch, and smack his face for him? It would be a disgrace before the whole world, and a shame for one's own self. It is true that it once happened that a bridegroom-elect named Eli was flogged at our school, because he had been caught sliding on the ice with the Gentile boys of the town. But for that again, the whole town made a fine business of the flogging afterwards. When the scandal reached the ears of Eli's betrothed, she cried so much until the marriage contract was sent back to the bridegroom-elect, to Eli, that is. And through grief and shame, he would have thrown himself into the river, but that the water was frozen....

Nearly as bad a misfortune happened to me. But it was not because I got a flogging, and not because I went sliding on the ice. It was because of a fiddle.

And here is the story for you:—

At our wine-shop we had a frequent visitor, Tchitchick, the bandmaster, whom we used to call “Mr. Sergeant.” He was a tall, powerful man with a big round beard and terrifying eyebrows. And he talked a curiously mixed-up jargon composed of several languages. When he talked, he moved his eyebrows up and down. When he lowered his eyebrows, his face was black as night. When he raised them up, his face was bright as day. And this was because, under these same thick eyebrows he had a pair of kindly, smiling light blue eyes. He wore a uniform with gilt buttons, and that is why he was called at our place “Mr. Sergeant.” He was a very frequent visitor at our wine-shop. Not because he was a drunkard. God forbid! But for the simple reason that my father was very clever at making from raisins “the best and finest Hungarian wine.” Tchitchick used to love this wine. He never ceased from praising it. He used to put his big, terrifying hand on my father's shoulder, and say to him:

“Mr. Cellarer, you have the best Hungarian wine. There isn't such wine in Buda Pesth, by God!”

With me Tchitchick was always on the most intimate terms. He praised me for learning such a lot at school. He often examined me to see if I knew who Adam was. And who was Isaac? And who was Joseph?

“Yousef?” I asked him, in Yiddish. “Do you mean Yousef the Saint?”

“Joseph,” he repeated.

“Yousef,” I corrected him, once again.

“With us it's Joseph. With you it's Youdsef,” he said to me, and pinched my cheek. “Joseph, Youdsef, Youdsef, Dsodsepf—what does it matter? It is all the same.”

“Ha! ha! ha!”

I buried my face in my hands, and laughed heartily.

But from the day I became a bridegroom-elect, Tchitchick gave up playing with me as if I were a clown; and he began to talk to me as if I were his equal. He told me stories of the regiment and of musicians. “Mr. Sergeant” had a tremendous lot of talk in him. But no one else excepting myself had the time to listen to him. On one occasion he began to talk to me of playing. And I asked him:

“On which instrument does 'Mr. Sergeant' play?”

“On all instruments,” he answered, and raised his eyebrows at me.

“On the fiddle, also?” I asked him. And all at once he took on, in my imagination, the face of an angel.

“Come over to me some day,” he said, “and I will play for you.”

“When can I come to you Mr. Sargeant, if not on the Sabbath day?” I asked. “But I can only come on condition that no-one knows anything about it.” “Can you promise that?”

“As I serve God,” he exclaimed, and lifted his eyebrows at me.

Tchitchick lived far out of town. In a little white house that had tidy windows and painted shutters. Leading up to it, there was a big green garden from out of which peeked proudly a number of tall, yellow sunflowers. As if they were something important. They bent their heads a little to one side and shook themselves to and fro. It seemed to me that they were calling out to me, “Come over here to us, boy.” “There is grass here. There is freedom here. There is light here. It is fresh here. It is warm here. It is pleasant here.” And after the stench and heat and dust of the town, and after the overcrowding and the noise and the tumult of the school, one was indeed glad to get here because there is grass here. It is fresh here. It is bright here. It is warm here. It is pleasant here. One longs to run, leap shout and sing. Or else one wants suddenly to throw oneself on the bear earth. To bury one's face in the green sweet smelling grass.

But alas, this is not for you Jewish children. Yellow sunflowers, green leaves, fresh air, pure earth or a clear day. Do not be offended Jewish children. But all these have not grown up out of your rubbish.

I was met by a big, shaggy-haired dog with red, fiery eyes. He fell upon me with so much fierceness that the soul almost dropped out of my body. It was fortunate that he was tied up with a rope.

On hearing my screams, Tchitchick flew out without his jacket and began ordering the dog to be silent. And he was silent.

Afterwards, Tchitchick took hold of my hand, led me straight to the black dog and told me not to be afraid. He would not harm me.

“Just try and pat him on the back,” said Tchitchick to me. And without waiting, took hold of my hand and drew it all over the dog's skin. At the same time calling him many curious names and speaking kind words to him.

The black villain lowered his head, wagged his tail and licked himself with his tongue. He threw at me a glance of contempt. As if he would say, “It's lucky for you that my master is standing beside you. Otherwise you would have gone from here without a hand.”

I got over my terror of the dog. I entered the house with Mr. Sargeant and I was struck dumb with astonishment. All the walls were covered with guns. From top to bottom. And on the floor lay a skin with the head of a lion or a leopard. It had terribly sharp teeth. But the lion was half an evil. After all, it was dead. But the guns. The guns! I did not even care about the fresh plums and the apples which the master of the house offered me out of his own garden. My eyes did not cease leaping from one wall to the other.... But later on, when Tchitchick took a little fiddle out of a red drawer—a beautiful, round little fiddle, with a curious little belly, let his big spreading beard droop over it, and held it with his big strong hands, and drew the bow across the strings a few times, backwards and forwards, I forgot, in the blinking of an eye, the black dog and the terrible lion, and the loaded guns. I only saw before me Tchitchick's spreading beard and his black, lowered eyebrows. I only saw a round little fiddle with a curious little belly, and fingers which danced over the strings so rapidly that no human brain could answer the questions which arose to my mind: “Where does one get so many fingers?”

Presently, Tchitchick and his spreading beard, vanished, along with his thick eyebrows and his wonderful fingers. And I saw nothing at all before me. I only heard a singing, a groaning, a weeping, a sobbing, a talking, and a growling. They were extraordinary, peculiar sounds that I heard, the like of which I had never heard before, in all my life. Sounds sweet as honey, and smooth as oil were pouring themselves right into my heart, without ceasing. And my soul went off somewhere far from the little house, into another world, into a Garden of Eden which was nothing else but beautiful sounds—which was one mass of singing, from beginning to end....

“Do you want some tea?” asked Tchitchick of me, putting down the little fiddle, and slapping me on the shoulder.

I felt as if I had fallen down from the seventh heaven on to the earth.

From that day I visited Tchitchick regularly every Sabbath afternoon, to hear him playing the fiddle. I went straight to the house. I was afraid of no one; and I even became such good friends with the black dog that, when he saw me, he wagged his tail, and wanted to fall upon me to lick my hands. I would not let him do this. “Let us rather be good friends from the distance.”

At home not even a bird knew where I spent the Sabbath afternoons. I was a bridegroom-elect, after all. And no one would have known of my visits to Tchitchick to this day, if a new misfortune had not befallen me—a great misfortune, of which I will now tell you.

* * *

Surely it is no one's affair if a Jewish young man goes for a walk on the Sabbath afternoon a little beyond the town? Have people really got nothing better to do than to think of others and look after them to see where they are going? But of what use are such questions as these? It lies in our nature, in the Jewish nature, I mean, to look well after every one else, to criticize others and advise them. For example, a Jew will go over to his neighbour, at prayers, and straighten out the “Frontispiece” of his phylacteries. Or he will stop his neighbour, who is running with the greatest haste and excitement, to tell him that the leg of his trouser is turned up. Or he will point his finger at his neighbour, so that the other shall not know what is amiss with him, whether it is his nose, or his beard, or what the deuce is wrong with him. Or a Jew will take a thing out of his neighbour's hand, when the other is struggling to open it, and will say to him: “You don't know how. Let me.” Or should he see his neighbour building a house, he will come over to look for a fault in it. He says he believes the ceiling is too high, the rooms are too small, or the windows are awkwardly large. And there seems nothing else left the builder to do but scatter the house to pieces, and start it all over again.... We Jews have been distinguished by this habit of interfering from time immemorial—from the very first day on which the world was created. And you and I between us will never alter the world full of Jews. It is not our duty to even attempt it....

After this long introduction, it will be easy for you to understand how Ephraim Log-of-wood—a Jew who was a black stranger to me, and who did not care a button for any of us—should poke his nose into my affairs. He sniffed and smelled my tracks, and found out where I went on Sabbath afternoons, and got me into trouble. He swore that he himself saw me eating forbidden food at the house of “Mr. Sergeant,” and that I was smoking a cigarette on the Sabbath. “May I see myself enjoying all that is good!” he cried. “If it is not as I say, may I never get to the place where I am going,” he said. “And if I am uttering the least word of falsehood, may my mouth be twisted to one side, and may my two eyes drop out of my head,” he added.

“Amen! May it be so,” I cried.

And I caught from my father another smack in the face. I must not be insolent, he told me....

But I imagine I am rushing along too quickly with my story. I am giving you the soup before the fish. I was forgetting entirely to tell you who Ephraim Log-of-wood was, and what he was, and how the incident happened.

At the end of the town, on the other side of the bridge, there lived a Jew named Ephraim Log-of-wood. Why was he called Log-of-wood? Because he had once dealt in timber. And today he is not dealing in timber because something happened to him. He said it was libel, a false accusation. People found at his place a strange log of wood with a strange name branded on it. And he had a fine lot of trouble after that. He had a case, and he had appeals, and he had to send petitions. He just managed to escape from being put into prison. From that time, he threw away all trading, and betook himself to looking after public matters. He pushed himself into all institutions, the tax-collecting, and the work done at the House of Learning. Generally speaking, he was not so well off. He was often put to shame publicly. But as time went on, he insinuated himself into everybody's bones. He gave people to understand that “He knew where a door was opening.” And in the course of time, Ephraim became a useful person, a person it was hard to do without. That is how a worm manages to crawl into an apple. He makes himself comfortable, makes a soft bed for himself, makes himself a home, and in time becomes the real master of the house.

In person, Ephraim was a tiny little man. He had short little legs, and small little hands, and red little cheeks, and a quick walk which was a sort of a little dance. And he tossed his little head about. His speech was rapid, and his voice squeaky. And he laughed with a curious little laugh which sounded like the rattling of dried peas. I could not bear to look at him, I don't know why. Every Sabbath afternoon, when I was going to Tchitchick's, I used to meet Ephraim on the bridge, walking along, in a black, patched cloak, the sleeves of which hung loosely over his shoulders. His hands were folded in front of him, and he was singing in his thin little voice. And the ends of his long cloak kept dangling at his heels.

“A good Sabbath,” I said to him.

“A good Sabbath,” he replied. “And where is a boy going?”

“Just for a walk,” I said.

“For a walk? All alone?” he asked. And he looked straight into my eyes with such a little smile that it was hard to guess what he meant by it—whether he thought that it was very brave of me to be walking all alone or not. Was it, in his opinion, a wise thing to do, or a foolish?

* * *

On one occasion, when I was going to Tchitchick's house, I noticed that Ephraim Log-of-wood was looking at me very curiously. I stopped on the bridge and gazed into the water. Ephraim also stopped on the bridge, and he also gazed into the water. I started to go back. He followed me. I turned round again, to go forward, and he also turned round in the same direction. A few minutes later, he was lost to me. When I was sitting at Tchitchick's table, drinking tea, we heard the black dog barking loudly at some one, and tearing at his rope. We looked out of the window, and I imagined I saw a low-sized, black figure with short little legs, running, running. Then it disappeared from view. From his manner of running, I could have sworn the little creature was Ephraim Log-of-wood.

And thus it came to pass—

I came home late that Sabbath evening. It was already after the “ Havdalah.” My face was burning. And I found Ephraim Log-of-wood sitting at the table. He was talking very rapidly, and was laughing with his curious little laugh. When he saw me, he was silent. He started drumming on the table with his short little fingers. Opposite him sat my father. His face was death-like. He was pulling at his beard, tearing out the hairs one by one. This was a sure sign that he was in a temper.

“Where have you come from?” my father asked of me and looked at Ephraim.

“Where am I to come from?” said I.

“How do I know where you are to come from?” said he. “You tell me where you have come from. You know better than I.”

“From the House of Learning,” said I.

“And where were you the whole day?” said he.

“Where could I be?” said I.

“How do I know?” said he. “You tell me. You know better than I.”

“At the House of Learning,” said I.

“What were you doing at the House of Learning?” said he.

“What should I be doing at the House of Learning?” said I.

“Do I know what you could be doing there?” said he.

“I was learning,” said I.

“What were you learning?” said he.

“What should I learn?” said I.

“Do I know what you should learn?” said he.

“I was learning 'Gemarra' were you learning?” said he.

“What 'Gemarra' should I learn?” said I.

“Do I know what 'Gemarra' you should learn?” said he.

“I learnt the 'Gemarra', 'Shabos',” said I.

At this Ephraim Log-of-wood burst out laughing in his rattling little laugh. And it seemed that my father could bear no more. He jumped up from his seat and delivered me two resounding fiery boxes on the ears. Stars flew before my eyes. My mother heard my shouts from the other room. She flew into us with a scream.

“Nahum! The Lord be with you! What are you doing? A young man—a bridegroom-elect! Just before his wedding! Bethink yourself! If her father gets to know of this—God forbid!”

* * *

My mother was right. The girl's father got to know the whole story. Ephraim Log-of-wood went off himself and told it to him. And in this way Ephraim had his revenge of Hershel the Tax-collector; for the two had always been at the point of sticking knives into one another.

* * *

Next day I got back the marriage-contract and the presents which had been given to the bride-elect. And I was no longer a bridegroom-elect.

This grieved my father so deeply that he fell into a very serious illness. He was bedridden for a long time. He would not let me come near him. He refused to look into my face. All my mother's tears and arguments and explanations and her defence of me were of no use at all.

“The disgrace,” said my father, “the disgrace of it is worse than anything else.”

“May it turn out to be a real, true sacrifice for us all,” said my mother to him. “The Lord will have to send us another bride-elect. What can we do? Shall we take our own lives? Perhaps it is not his destiny to marry this girl.”

Amongst those who came to visit my father in his illness was Tchitchick the bandmaster.

When my father saw him, he took off his little round cap, sat up in his bed, stretched out his hand to him, looked straight into his eyes and said:

“Oh, 'Mr. Sergeant!' 'Mr. Sergeant!'”

He could not utter another sound, because he was smothered by his tears and his cough....

This was the first time in my life that I saw my father crying. His tears gripped hold of my heart, and chilled me to the very soul.

I stood and looked out of the window, swallowing my tears in silence. At that moment, I was heartily sorry for all the mischief I had done. I cried within myself, from the very depths of my heart, beating my breast: “I have sinned.” And within myself, I vowed solemnly to myself that I would never, never anger my father again, and never, never cause him any pain.

No more fiddle!

 
 
 

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