A Strongly Human Story, with an Old Theme Told in a Refresting and Original Way.
WHEN my brother was in Burmah it was his custom to send home a boxful of curiosities every month for me to sell, and mine to take them to Mr. Levy's quaint little shop near the docks. One December my brother asked me to distribute the boxful as Christmas presents, instead of selling them. I called upon Mr. Levy to explain the matter, as I did not wish him to think that I was taking my wares elsewhere. We had become very good friends during our dealings.
He told me that he would have missed my monthly visit more than our monthly business, and asked me into the shop parlor for our usual chat. Isaac had gone down to a ship, he said, about some packages that had not arrived, but Mrs. Isaac would look after the shop. She sent us in some tea, and presently she tapped at the door and walked in herself. She was a young Jewess of about five and twenty, and I really think the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I could not help wondering how she had come to marry Isaac, who was a quiet, stolid chap, and nothing much to look at, though Mr. Levy always declared that he had “a head on his shoulders.”
She went quietly .to Mr. Levy’s safe, opened it with a key on her chain, unlocked the cash box with another key, and put some notes inside. Then she took some gold from a bag, made a memorandum in a little book, locked up again, and went out with a bow
and a smile. I did not know that I showed my surprise, but Mr. Levy noticed it. He is very quick at noticing things.
“I couldn’t tell you what’s in it,” he remarked, jerking his head toward the safe.
“Tour books show,” I suggested.
“The books show to a penny. She keeps them !”
“You evidently trust her,” I observed.
“I'm glad it’s evident,” he replied. “I try to make it plain to everyone on account of her family.”
“Ah!” I said. “I see. Yes, honesty runs in families ; and the other thing.”
“I hope not,” he demurred. “Her father was a thief, and so was her brother. Her mother wasn’t much better; or Rachel herself, once upon a time.”
“And you trust her like that!” I cried in astonishment.
“I trust Isaac,” he replied; “and I trust Rachel to do as Isaac would have her do. I never knew a woman fonder of a man. It’s a curious story about those two ; rather a pretty story to my way of thinking.”
"Tell me.” I begged ; and he told me what follows.
It’s fifteen years since I first had Isaac. I took him the year after I opened the shop. There's an odd tale about that, too, which I’ll tell you some day. For I didn't start life in this line, by any means. Isaac was seventeen then ; an awkward young fellow all arms and legs, and a bit
rough in his manners. In fact, there was nothing good to say of him except that he> was clean. He was an orphan, with no one to look after him, and sold evening papers, and knocked about the streets with a gang of young hooligans doing no good. I fell foul of them once or twice for horse-play round here ; and one day when he was skylarking with some other chaps he put his elbow through my -window. I was near the door, as it happened, and pounced out on him, and hauled him into the shop. He’d have made a fight with most people, but he knew better than to try it on with me. My first idea was to give him a hiding, but I never liked hitting a chap smaller than myself. I’ve lost a lot of sport through feeling that way. It’s the misfortune of being a big man! Next I thought I’d hand him over to the police for an example; but his mother had been kind to me when I was a kid. She was a good woman with a bad husband, as often happens. So I ended by fetching him in here and talking to him like a Dutch uncle. He was growing up a disgrace to her, I told' him, and he’d never ibe anything but a worthless blackguard, and always out at elbows and hard up and looked down upon, unless lie took to work.
“You wouldn’t go on like this, if your mother was alive, my boy,” I said; “at least, not if there’s a 'bit of a man in you, seeing how she went hungry and cold to feed and clothe you. Don’t forget what you owe her, liecause she’s not here to remind you. I don’t forget that she was kind to me, once upon a time, anyhow ; and if you’re ready to make a fair start I’ll help you to get a job, and lend you a trifle to buy some decent clothes. You go and think it over quietly and come back to-morrow and tell me if you’ve made up your mind to act like a man.”
He looked precious sulky and went off without a word; but he turned up the next morning when I was opening the shop. It was before I kept a lad.
“I ain’t going to be beholden to you or anyone for help,” he said ; “but I’ll come and work for you till I’ve paid it off.” He jerked his head at the broken window, that I’d nailed a board over till the glazier came.
“Umph!” I said. “What work can you do?”
-“What I’m told,” he answered gruffly.
“Suppose you don’t know how ?” I asked.
“Have to learn,” he grunted.
“And suppose you don’t learn?” I wanted to know.
“It’ll be your fault for not showing me right,” he growled; and I took him by the collar and shook him.
“There’s a lesson to begin,” I sàid. “Keep a civil tongue in your head in future. Now put those shutters away, and then you can help me open some packing cases.”
He worked hard and showed' a lot more sense than I expected, and took an interest in the things in the shop, and I was beginning to find that I wanted help, for the business was increasing. So in the end I took him on. He suggested it himself.
“It would pay you to keep me,” he said, with his usual bluntness. “You want someone to go errands and mind the shop when you’re out; and I’d put things straight, and not have them all over the place like you do.” Ke had a mania for being orderly, and I had let the stock get mixed up a bit, being hard pressed as the business grew.
So I took him on, as I’ve said, and he’s served me well, as you know. He’s pig-headed, and has his own way of doing things, but he’d give his head for me any day—and come to that so would Rachel—and there aren’t many smarter chaps than Isaac, when you understand him. He’s slow at speaking, but he’s mighty quick at thinking; and what he thinks, that wooden old face of his never shows. That’s where he takes people in.
I had my doubts about him at first, on account of his companions. He dropped the gang he had gone about
with as soon as he came, but he wouldn’t agree to sleep in, or to change the place where he lodged. It was a low tenement house, and the Abrahams lived there ; and the Abrahams were low thieves, father and son and mother. Rachel was one of them, and a good bit younger than her brother. She was nine then;'a skinny, black-eyed little imp, as full of mischief as a monkey is of tricks, and she played them mostly on Isaac. She knew that he was fond of her and took advantage of him. She used to come to the window and make faces at him, and peep in the door and call him names. He’d bluster and swear that if he came out and caught her he’d give her a good hiding. He went out and caught her often enough, but he never did more than shake her. and she rather liked being shaken than otherwise ! He’d made up his mind that he'd never lay his hand on a female, he told me once. He’d seen too much of it. His father had treated his mother pretty badly, I gathered, and he got that scar on his forehead—just underneath the curl on the right—standing up for her. Anwhow he'd sworn to her that he'd never hit a woman ; and when Isaac savs a thing he sticks to it.
Well, he went on all right, and I got to trust him, and that’s all I need say till I come to the proper story, except just one thing. He’d been with me for five years, and was two and twenty, and Rachel was fourteen, and looked older. She’s a pretty woman, as you’ve seen, but upon my word I think she was a prettier child. The lad's were mad after her already, but she kept them at a distance like a queen. There was never a whisper against her character in that way. I’d like to make that clear. She was wonderfully good at lessons always. The old Rabbi thought a deal of her.
Old Abrahams was doing time then, and young Abrahams had disappeared; and Mrs. Abrahams died. Isaac wore black and went to the funeral ; and, as a matter of fact, he paid for it. I kept his savings and I knew
what he drew them for, though he didn’t tell me. He asked me to take a part of his wage every week, and pay for Rachel’s room and board. “She won’t let me,” he explained. “Thinks I’d make out a claim on her when she grows up, I suppose. Might konw I wouldn’t have her as a gift when she didn't want me.”
“It seems to me you’re gone on that child, Isaac.” I said.
“Always was,” he owned.
“You’re a fool,” I told him.
“That’s right,” said he, as cooly as if I’d paid him a compliment.
“But look here, man,” I said, “it’s ridiculous, you know. You’re a young fellow of two and twenty, and she’s only a child of fourteen."
“She’s got to grow up," he remarked.
“She isn’t going to grow up your way,” I said. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but she’s no good, and never will be.” He looked as if he’d murder me. “I don’t mean that she isn’t a decent girl. She’s that all right —but it’s the only good point about her. She’s vain and ungrateful ; and I doubt if she’s honest. It’s no use looking at me like that, Isaac. I’m saying it for your good. And what’s more she doesn’t care for you and never will ; and you’d better put her out of your bead.”
“Ever so much better,” he agreed; “only I can’t ! Always did like the nasty little brat, and always shall.” “Umph !” I said. It’s no use arguing with a man about a girl, and nobody but a born fool tries to argue with a girl about a man. “I’ll see what I can do for her.”
I got her a place as a nurse-girl, by promising to pay for anything she took. I didn’t have to pay, as a matter of fact, and they said that she behaved very well, except that she was impudent and fond of finery. She is now. Women of our race are. They can’t help it.
Anyhow she stayed there for two years, and after a few months they made her into a sort of nursery governess, which just suited her ladyship.
You should see the way she keeps our books ! She’s learnt French and German since she’s been married, and when I have a little to invest I generally ask her advice about it. She manages Isaac’s savings without asking! She’s a clever woman—a very clever woman; and a very pleasant one. You must talk to her some day. You’ve only got to praise Isaac, and not say anything against me, and you’ll soon be friends with her.
When she had gone from the tenements Isaac left and went to respectable lodgings. He didn’t have much to do with her for a couple of years ; or rather she didn’t have very m ch to do with him. She found out that he’d paid for the funeral, and .seemed to regard it as a sort of insult, and vowed she’d pay it back two shillings a week through me. She only pair about a shilling a fortnight, in fact. It was my belief that she only d:d that much to make Isaac uncomfortable, and I told her so.
“Yes,” she answered like a shot. “That’s why. It’s to show him that he can’t buy me. So there ! I don’t like him any better than I like you; and that’s not at all !”
“My dear,” I said, “you don’t like me less than I like you ! And you can’t think less of me ! If ever Isaac was going to marry you I’d give him a piece of rope, to use on himself or you. It would do you a world' of good.”
I told her a few more, plain truths, and she called me a big bullying coward—which I never was, whatever I might be—and didn’t come near me after that. I didn’t hear much about her either, till Isaac came to me almost blubbing one afternoon. Old Abrahams had come out of prison, and her brother had come back. They said that he’d been in the Army and deserted. And Rachel had left her place and gone back to the tenements with them. Isaac had been to see her and begged her to come away. Her brother had sided with him—there was some good in the chap, and he’s doing well now in Australia, where Isaac
and I sent him. The father had said she could do as she pleased, and she Was too fine a lady nowadays to be much good to him. Rachel had slapped his face.
“And now,” he told me, “I’ve done with her ; but I’d give my head to see her married to a respectable chap and living honest. When you’ve liked a kid since she was a baby—why, 1 taught her to walk, I—you don’t know !”
He nearly broke down, but I would not see, and hustled him to send off an order. After that I didn’t hear a word from him about her for six months. I saw him pass her once in the street, and he never glanced at her and his face didn’t move a muscle. She turned very red1; and when she came up to the shop door, where I was standing, I laughed at her.
“Isaac won’t want the rope,” I said.
“No,” she told me; “but he’ll want me !” • i
She dropped me a curtsey and walked on. I couldn’t help owning to myself that she was a beauty, and some excuse for his foolishness. She was well-dressed, I noticed1, and I heard that her father had taken a house, and had plenty of money for the time ’being. So I guessed that he’d brought off a burglary, and I wondered if she was in it.
That very night I had a telegram that an uncle of mine was dying. I asked Isaac to sleep at the shop and went. I was too late, and came back the next morning. As I was walking home from the station I heard that the police had caught the Abrahams, father and son, breaking into my shop in the night ; and Isaac had a bad cut over the head, but he hadn’t told the police that. I hurried to the shop, and rushed in ; and then I nearly had a fit. For there, behind1 the counter was Rachel !
She was dressed very quietly, and she looked very handsome, but very pale. She was red round the eyes, and she stopped me with her hand on my arm, and her breath came and went quickly.
“Isaac is lying down on the sofa.” she said, “and I am minding the shop. I haven’t touched anything. You can count the till and everything.”
“That’s all right, Rachel,” I said. “I don’t care much if you have, so long as Isaac’s all right, and—look at me, Rachel.”
She looked at me.
“I believe he’ll want the rope after all,” I said. “Eh?”
I thought a joke would ease things down, but she shivered and went white.
“No,” she said quietly. “He can do without it. I love him. I always did ; but—but he only did things for me, instead of making love to me—and so —he knows now ; and he forgives me. He forgives me even for—what happened last night. It was my fault. I suggested it to them. I have told him, and he will tell you. I can’t expect you to forgive me ; but some day—if I am a good wife to Isaac—will you try to then ?”
I looked at her as she stood with her eyes cast down, twisting her hands together. I hadn’t liked the child before; but w'hen I thought of the way she’d been brought up, and how she’d educated herseif and kept herself respected by the boys, and how she must feel to humble herself to me considering what a proud little thing she was, I took a sudden liking for her.
“I’ll forgive you now, and have done with it,” I offered.
“Oh!” she cried. “You won’t when Isaac tells you!”
“Nonsense,” I said cheerfully. “You can forgive people anything when you like them ; and I’m going to like you, Rachel.”
I held out my hand and she grabbed it, and actually kissed it, and cried— Goodness! She did cry! So I just patted her shoulder and told her we were going to be great friends, and left her to have her cry out. I thought it would do her good.
I went in to Isaac. He tried to sit up, but I could see that he felt queer, so I made him lie down again and sat beside him. His hands twitched and
I knew that he was cut tip about what he’d got to tell me.
“Look here, old man,” I suggested. “Suppose we say nothing about what’s happened. I’ve made friends with Rachel and forgiven before I know. So what’s the use of stirring up trouble? Upon my word', I believe she’s going to turn out a nice little girl, and make you a nice little wife. Anyhow I’m going to like her; and you can’t suspect me of suspecting you. I’m not a fool. Suppose we leave it so.”
“No,” he said. “I can’t. I must tell you ;” and then he did.
I won’t try to put it into his words. He was muddled from the blow, and from worrying, and he made a fearful rigmarole of it. I don’t believe he’d ever said as much in a day as he said in three-quarters of an hour then ; for that’s the time he took. To cut it short, what happened was this :
Rachel came into the shop soon after I left, meaning, as he now believed, to sav that she was sorry for boxing his ears, and wanting to give him a chance to make love to her, which he might have had the sense to do before, and save all the bother. There’s no argument with a woman like an arm round her waist. He didn’t dream what was in her mind, and rounded on her at the start, and told her what he thought of her. I don’t blame him for that. He had also told her what I thought of her. There he was wrong, of course. She had flounced off in a rage, declaring that she’d be revenged on both of us. She went home and told' her father and brother that only Isaac would be in the place that night, and if they chose to break in she wouldn’t say a word. They’d thought of it for a long time, i: appeared, but she’d kept them off by threatening she’d peach. And now she thought it would be the best way to pay us both out. because she knew tha* Isaac, being in charge, would be more cut up than I should be. You must remember the way she’d been brought up. Stealing wouldn’t strike her like it would us, or like it would her now.
Well, Isaac went to bed at eleven, but lie couldn’t sleep, troubling about the little hussy, and thinking that perhaps he’d been a bit hard on her; and lying awake he heard sounds in the warehouse about two o’clock. He crept down with a stick, and went in through the shop, and found two men. They had heard him, and one of them picked up a bronze—Napoleon it was, and we found him broken in two. Isaac has a pretty tough head ; but it stunned him enough to give them time to get out of the window. The police took them as they were getting through, and Isaac went and stood there and talked to the police. He saw it was the Abrahams, so he said nothing about the blow on his head, not wishing to make matters worse for them ; and though it was known in the neighborhood it never came out in court. While he was standing there he saw a boy crouching inside the window by his feet. He stooped down to pick him up and throw him out. Then he thought of me giving 'him a chance, when he was a lad, so he altered his mind and whispered :—
‘You can go out to the police,” he offered, “or you can stay 'here and'have a good hiding.” The lad didn’t stir, even when they had gone; and Isaac shut the window and took an old Malacca cane, and caught hold of the young rascal and laid into him. There was enough light from the street for that.
He laid on pretty hard, thinking it was his duty, but left off before he intended, as the boy took it pluckily and hardly made a sound. Then he opened the window and told him to go. “I’m not going to look to see who you are,” he said, “and if you don’t give yourself away I shan’t. It’s wiped out. Go and start fair.” Then he went to bed. He thought that hefainted from the blow on his head rather than fell asleep. Anyhow he didn’t wake in the morning, and the neighbors had to break in. Rachel heard that he was dying and flew round. She fainted when she saw him, and then she confessed everything; even
that she loved him and always had. She wanted to go away, and said that she would try to be a good woman for his sake, but she could never see him any more, because she wasn’t good enough ; but he told her that he didn’t care what she was, he wanted her; and she said, if he’d only start her fair and trust her, she couldn’t do wrong; and so he sent her to mind the shop, thinking he couldn’t show his trust more. “But, of course,” he said. “I can’t expect you to trust her; or me, since I’m going to marry her. So I’ll go. But I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me, and—and will you do one thing more?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then do your best to get them let off easy,“ he begged. “They’re her father and brother.”
“All right,” I said. I did get them off pretty easily considering. The father died in prison, and we sent the brother off to Australia, when he came out, as I said.
“You’ll let me stop till you get someone else?” Isaac asked, turning his head away. “Someone you can trust.”
“I’m going to get someone else now,” I told him, and I walked to the cioor.
“Rachel,” I called, “come here.”
She came in, hanging her pretty head.
“Now, my little girl,” I said, “you’ve never had a fair chance yet. You’re going to have one. You’re coming here every morning to tidy up for us. You’ll have the run of the place. I shan’t lock anything up. I shan’t count the till. I’m going to trust you.”
And I went out and left them together.
I didn’t expect to see them for half an hour ; but in ten minutes she came back to the shop.
“Isaac asleep?” I asked casually.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do him good,” I told her. “You might dust those shelves while you’re here. . . . Come, come ! Don’t
start crying. Pull yourself together, my dear.”
She drew a long breath and then she looked at me. I never saw a woman look so miserable in my life. A woman, I said; but she was nothing more than a child; only seventeen.
“Mr. Levy,” she said, “you have trusted me, and I—I couldn’t tell Isaac. I couldn’t. But I must tell you though—though—you will never trust me any more. It was I who—I dressed in boy’s clothes—”
She buried her face in her hands; and I put my hand on her shoulder.
“My poor girl !” I said. “My poor little girl ! We must never let Isaac know. He’d break his heart. . . . As for not trusting you any more—Look here, Rachel. Here’s a key. It’s the key of my safe. I’ll put it on a chain.”
I took a little Chinese gold chain that was handy, put on the key, and hung the chain round her neck. “It shall stay there as long as I trust you,” I promised.
“It shall stay there as long as I live,” she declared.
And there it stays.
“It’s strange,” Mr. Levy remarked, “how you trust some people by instinct. I’ve never trusted anyone else with that story.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I shall never tell it ; or write it, much as I should like to.”
“Oh !” he said. “You can write it, so long as you touch it up so that no one can recognize it, like you writing chaps generally do. You don’t get hold of a piece of real life very often.”
We don’t. That’s a fact.