In an air-shaft so narrow that you could touch the next wall with your bare hands, Hanneh Breineh leaned out and knocked on her neighbor’s window.
“Can you loan me your wash-boiler for the clothes?” she called.
Mrs. Pelz threw up the sash.
“The boiler? What’s the matter with yours again? Didn’t you tell me you had it fixed already last week?”
“A black year on him, the robber, the way he fixed it! If you have no luck in this world, then it’s better not to live. There I spent out fifteen cents to stop up one hole, and it runs out another. How I ate out my gall bargaining with him he should let it down to fifteen cents! He wanted yet a quarter, the swindler. Gottuniu! My bitter heart on him for every penny he took from me for nothing!”
“You got to watch all those swindlers, or they’ll steal the whites out of your eyes,” admonished Mrs. Pelz. “You should have tried out your boiler before you paid him. Wait a minute till I empty out my dirty clothes in a pillow-case; then I’ll hand it to you.”
Mrs. Pelz returned with the boiler and tried to hand it across to Hanneh Breineh, but the soap-box refrigerator on the window-sill was in the way.
“You got to come in for the boiler yourself,” said Mrs. Pelz.
“Wait only till I tie my Sammy on to the high-chair he shouldn’t fall on me again. He’s so wild that ropes won’t hold him.”
Hanneh Breineh tied the child in the chair, stuck a pacifier in his mouth, and went in to her neighbor. As she took the boiler Mrs. Pelz said:
“Do you know Mrs. Melker ordered fifty pounds of chicken for her daughter’s wedding? And such grand chickens! Shining like gold! My heart melted in me just looking at the flowing fatness of those chickens.”
Hanneh Breineh smacked her thin, dry lips, a hungry gleam in her sunken eyes.
“Fifty pounds!” she gasped. “It ain’t possible. How do you know?”
“I heard her with my own ears. I saw them with my own eyes. And she said she will chop up the chicken livers with onions and eggs for an appetizer, and then she will buy twenty-five pounds of fish, and cook it sweet and sour with raisins, and she said she will bake all her shtrudels on pure chicken fat.”
“Some people work themselves up in the world,” sighed Hanneh Breineh. “For them is America flowing with milk and honey. In Savel Mrs. Melker used to get shriveled up from hunger. She and her children used to live on potato-peelings and crusts of dry bread picked out from the barrels; and in America she lives to eat chicken, and apple shtrudels soaking in fat.”
“The world is a wheel always turning,” philosophized Mrs. Pelz. “Those who were high go down low, and those who’ve been low go up higher. Who will believe me here in America that in Poland I was a cook in a banker’s house? I handled ducks and geese every day. I used to bake coffee-cake with cream so thick you could cut it with a knife.”
“And do you think I was a nobody in Poland?” broke in Hanneh Breineh, tears welling in her eyes as the memories of her past rushed over her. “But what’s the use of talking? In America money is everything. Who cares who my father or grandfather was in Poland? Without money I’m a living dead one. My head dries out worrying how to get for the children the eating a penny cheaper.”
Mrs. Pelz wagged her head, a gnawing envy contracting her features.
“Mrs. Melker had it good from the day she came,” she said, begrudgingly. “Right away she sent all her children to the factory, and she began to cook meat for dinner every day. She and her children have eggs and buttered rolls for breakfast each morning like millionaires.”
A sudden fall and a baby’s scream, and the boiler dropped from Hanneh Breineh’s hands as she rushed into her kitchen, Mrs. Pelz after her. They found the high-chair turned on top of the baby.
“Gewalt! Save me! Run for a doctor!” cried Hanneh Breineh, as she dragged the child from under the high-chair. “He’s killed! He’s killed! My only child! My precious lamb!” she shrieked as she ran back and forth with the screaming infant.
Mrs. Pelz snatched little Sammy from the mother’s hands.
“Meshugneh! What are you running around like a crazy, frightening the child? Let me see. Let me tend to him. He ain’t killed yet.” She hastened to the sink to wash the child’s face, and discovered a swelling lump on his forehead. “Have you a quarter in your house?” she asked.
“Yes, I got one,” replied Hanneh Breineh, climbing on a chair. “I got to keep it on a high shelf where the children can’t get it.”
Mrs. Pelz seized the quarter Hanneh Breineh handed down to her.
“Now pull your left eyelid three times while I’m pressing the quarter, and you’ll see the swelling go down.”
Hanneh Breineh took the child again in her arms, shaking and cooing over it and caressing it.
“Ah-ah-ah, Sammy! Ah-ah-ah-ah, little lamb! Ah-ah-ah, little bird! Ah-ah-ah-ah, precious heart! Oh, you saved my life; I thought he was killed,” gasped Hanneh Breineh, turning to Mrs. Pelz. “Oi-i!” she sighed, “a mother’s heart! Always in fear over her children. The minute anything happens to them all life goes out of me. I lose my head and I don’t know where I am any more.”
“No wonder the child fell,” admonished Mrs. Pelz. “You should have a red ribbon or red beads on his neck to keep away the evil eye. Wait. I got something in my machine-drawer.”
Mrs. Pelz returned, bringing the boiler and a red string, which she tied about the child’s neck while the mother proceeded to fill the boiler.
A little later Hanneh Breineh again came into Mrs. Pelz’s kitchen, holding Sammy in one arm and in the other an apronful of potatoes. Putting the child down on the floor, she seated herself on the unmade kitchen-bed and began to peel the potatoes in her apron.
“Woe to me!” sobbed Hanneh Breineh. “To my bitter luck there ain’t no end. With all my other troubles, the stove got broke. I lighted the fire to boil the clothes, and it’s to get choked with smoke. I paid rent only a week ago, and the agent don’t want to fix it. A thunder should strike him! He only comes for the rent, and if anything has to be fixed, then he don’t want to hear nothing.
“Why comes it to me so hard?” went on Hanneh Breineh, the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I can’t stand it no more. I came into you for a minute to run away from my troubles. It’s only when I sit myself down to peel potatoes or nurse the baby that I take time to draw a breath, and beg only for death.”
Mrs. Pelz, accustomed to Hanneh Breineh’s bitter outbursts, continued her scrubbing.
“Ut!” exclaimed Hanneh Breineh, irritated at her neighbor’s silence, “what are you tearing up the world with your cleaning? What’s the use to clean up when everything only gets dirty again?”
“I got to shine up my house for the holidays.”
“You’ve got it so good nothing lays on your mind but to clean your house. Look on this little blood-sucker,” said Hanneh Breineh, pointing to the wizened child, made prematurely solemn from starvation and neglect. “Could anybody keep that brat clean? I wash him one minute, and he is dirty the minute after.” Little Sammy grew frightened and began to cry. “Shut up!” ordered the mother, picking up the child to nurse it again. “Can’t you see me take a rest for a minute?”
The hungry child began to cry at the top of its weakened lungs.
“Na, na, you glutton.” Hanneh Breineh took out a dirty pacifier from her pocket and stuffed it into the baby’s mouth. The grave, pasty-faced infant shrank into a panic of fear, and chewed the nipple nervously, clinging to it with both his thin little hands.
“For what did I need yet the sixth one?” groaned Hanneh Breineh, turning to Mrs. Pelz. “Wasn’t it enough five mouths to feed? If I didn’t have this child on my neck, I could turn myself around and earn a few cents.” She wrung her hands in a passion of despair. “Gottuniu! The earth should only take it before it grows up!”
“Shah! Shah!” reproved Mrs. Pelz. “Pity yourself on the child. Let it grow up already so long as it is here. See how frightened it looks on you.” Mrs. Pelz took the child in her arms and petted it. “The poor little lamb! What did it done you should hate it so?”
Hanneh Breineh pushed Mrs. Pelz away from her.
“To whom can I open the wounds of my heart?” she moaned. “Nobody has pity on me. You don’t believe me, nobody believes me until I’ll fall down like a horse in the middle of the street. Oi weh! Mine life is so black for my eyes! Some mothers got luck. A child gets run over by a car, some fall from a window, some burn themselves up with a match, some get choked with diphtheria; but no death takes mine away.”
“God from the world, stop cursing!” admonished Mrs. Pelz. “What do you want from the poor children? Is it their fault that their father makes small wages? Why do you let it all out on them?” Mrs. Pelz sat down beside Hanneh Breineh. “Wait only till your children get old enough to go to the shop and earn money,” she consoled. “Push only through those few years while they are yet small; your sun will begin to shine; you will live on the fat of the land, when they begin to bring you in the wages each week.”
Hanneh Breineh refused to be comforted.
“Till they are old enough to go to the shop and earn money they’ll eat the head off my bones,” she wailed. “If you only knew the fights I got by each meal. Maybe I gave Abe a bigger piece of bread than Fanny. Maybe Fanny got a little more soup in her plate than Jake. Eating is dearer than diamonds. Potatoes went up a cent on a pound, and milk is only for millionaires. And once a week, when I buy a little meat for the Sabbath, the butcher weighs it for me like gold, with all the bones in it. When I come to lay the meat out on a plate and divide it up, there ain’t nothing to it but bones. Before, he used to throw me in a piece of fat extra or a piece of lung, but now you got to pay for everything, even for a bone to the soup.”
“Never mind; you’ll yet come out from all your troubles. Just as soon as your children get old enough to get their working papers the more children you got, the more money you’ll have.”
“Why should I fool myself with the false shine of hope? Don’t I know it’s already my black luck not to have it good in this world? Do you think American children will right away give everything they earn to their mother?”
“I know what is with you the matter,” said Mrs. Pelz. “You didn’t eat yet to-day. When it is empty in the stomach, the whole world looks black. Come, only let me give you something good to taste in the mouth; that will freshen you up.” Mrs. Pelz went to the cupboard and brought out the saucepan of gefülte fish that she had cooked for dinner and placed it on the table in front of Hanneh Breineh. “Give a taste my fish,” she said, taking one slice on a spoon, and handing it to Hanneh Breineh with a piece of bread. “I wouldn’t give it to you on a plate because I just cleaned up my house, and I don’t want to dirty up more dishes.”
“What, am I a stranger you should have to serve me on a plate yet!” cried Hanneh Breineh, snatching the fish in her trembling fingers.
“Oi weh! How it melts through all the bones!” she exclaimed, brightening as she ate. “May it be for good luck to us all!” she exulted, waving aloft the last precious bite.
Mrs. Pelz was so flattered that she even ladled up a spoonful of gravy.
“There is a bit of onion and carrot in it,” she said, as she handed it to her neighbor.
Hanneh Breineh sipped the gravy drop by drop, like a connoisseur sipping wine.
“Ah-h-h! A taste of that gravy lifts me up to heaven!” As she disposed leisurely of the slice of onion and carrot she relaxed and expanded and even grew jovial. “Let us wish all our troubles on the Russian Czar! Let him burst with our worries for rent! Let him get shriveled with our hunger for bread! Let his eyes dry out of his head looking for work!
“Shah! I’m forgetting from everything,” she exclaimed, jumping up. “It must be eleven or soon twelve, and my children will be right away out of school and fall on me like a pack of wild wolves. I better quick run to the market and see what cheaper I can get for a quarter.”
Because of the lateness of her coming, the stale bread at the nearest bakeshop was sold out, and Hanneh Breineh had to trudge from shop to shop in search of the usual bargain, and spent nearly an hour to save two cents.
In the meantime the children returned from school, and, finding the door locked, climbed through the fire-escape, and entered the house through the window. Seeing nothing on the table, they rushed to the stove. Abe pulled a steaming potato out of the boiling pot, and so scalded his fingers that the potato fell to the floor; where upon the three others pounced on it.
“It was my potato,” cried Abe, blowing his burned fingers, while with the other hand and his foot he cuffed and kicked the three who were struggling on the floor. A wild fight ensued, and the potato was smashed under Abe’s foot amid shouts and screams. Hanneh Breineh, on the stairs, heard the noise of her famished brood, and topped their cries with curses and invectives.
“They are here already, the savages! They are here already to shorten my life! They heard you all over the hall, in all the houses around!”
The children, disregarding her words, pounced on her market-basket, shouting ravenously: “Mamma, I’m hungry! What more do you got to eat?”
They tore the bread and herring out of Hanneh Breineh’s basket and devoured it in starved savagery, clamoring for more.
“Murderers!” screamed Hanneh Breineh, goaded beyond endurance. “What are you tearing from me my flesh? From where should I steal to give you more? Here I had already a pot of potatoes and a whole loaf of bread and two herrings, and you swallowed it down in the wink of an eye. I have to have Rockefeller’s millions to fill your stomachs.”
All at once Hanneh Breineh became aware that Benny was missing. “Oi weh!” she burst out, wringing her hands in a new wave of woe, “where is Benny? Didn’t he come home yet from school?”
She ran out into the hall, opened the grime-coated window, and looked up and down the street; but Benny was nowhere in sight.
“Abe, Jake, Fanny, quick, find Benny!” entreated Hanneh Breineh, as she rushed back into the kitchen. But the children, anxious to snatch a few minutes’ play before the school-call, dodged past her and hurried out.
With the baby on her arm, Hanneh Breineh hastened to the kindergarten.
“Why are you keeping Benny here so long?” she shouted at the teacher as she flung open the door. “If you had my bitter heart, you would send him home long ago and not wait till I got to come for him.”
The teacher turned calmly and consulted her record-cards.
“Benny Safron? He wasn’t present this morning.”
“Not here?” shrieked Hanneh Breineh. “I pushed him out myself he should go. The children didn’t want to take him, and I had no time. Woe is me! Where is my child?” She began pulling her hair and beating her breast as she ran into the street.
Mrs. Pelz was busy at a pushcart, picking over some spotted apples, when she heard the clamor of an approaching crowd. A block off she recognized Hanneh Breineh, her hair disheveled, her clothes awry, running toward her with her yelling baby in her arms, the crowd following.
“Friend mine,” cried Hanneh Breineh, falling on Mrs. Pelz’s neck, “I lost my Benny, the best child of all my children.” Tears streamed down her red, swollen eyes as she sobbed. “Benny! mine heart, mine life! Oi-i-i!”
Mrs. Pelz took the frightened baby out of the mother’s arms.
“Still yourself a little! See how you’re frightening your child.”
“Woe to me! Where is my Benny? Maybe he’s killed already by a car. Maybe he fainted away from hunger. He didn’t eat nothing all day long. Gottuniu! Pity yourself on me!”
She lifted her hands full of tragic entreaty.
“People, my child! Get me my child! I’ll go crazy out of my head! Get me my child, or I’ll take poison before your eyes!”
“Still yourself a little!” pleaded Mrs. Pelz.
“Talk not to me!” cried Hanneh Breineh, wringing her hands. “You’re having all your children. I lost mine. Every good luck comes to other people. But I didn’t live yet to see a good day in my life. Mine only joy, mine Benny, is lost away from me.”
The crowd followed Hanneh Breineh as she wailed through the streets, leaning on Mrs. Pelz. By the time she returned to her house the children were back from school; but seeing that Benny was not there, she chased them out in the street, crying:
“Out of here, you robbers, gluttons! Go find Benny!” Hanneh Breineh crumpled into a chair in utter prostration. “Oi weh! he’s lost! Mine life; my little bird; mine only joy! How many nights I spent nursing him when he had the measles! And all that I suffered for weeks and months when he had the whooping-cough! How the eyes went out of my head till I learned him how to walk, till I learned him how to talk! And such a smart child! If I lost all the others, it wouldn’t tear me so by the heart.”
She worked herself up into such a hysteria, crying, and tearing her hair, and hitting her head with her knuckles, that at last she fell into a faint. It took some time before Mrs. Pelz, with the aid of neighbors, revived her.
“Benny, mine angel!” she moaned as she opened her eyes.
Just then a policeman came in with the lost Benny.
“Na, na, here you got him already!” said Mrs. Pelz. “Why did you carry on so for nothing? Why did you tear up the world like a crazy?”
The child’s face was streaked with tears as he cowered, frightened and forlorn. Hanneh Breineh sprang toward him, slapping his cheeks, boxing his ears, before the neighbors could rescue him from her.
“Woe on your head!” cried the mother. “Where did you lost yourself? Ain’t I got enough worries on my head than to go around looking for you? I didn’t have yet a minute’s peace from that child since he was born!”
“See a crazy mother!” remonstrated Mrs. Pelz, rescuing Benny from another beating. “Such a mouth! With one breath she blesses him when he is lost, and with the other breath she curses him when he is found.”
Hanneh Breineh took from the window-sill a piece of herring covered with swarming flies, and putting it on a slice of dry bread, she filled a cup of tea that had been stewing all day, and dragged Benny over to the table to eat.
But the child, choking with tears, was unable to touch the food.
“Go eat!” commanded Hanneh Breineh. “Eat and choke yourself eating!”
“Maybe she won’t remember me no more. Maybe the servant won’t let me in,” thought Mrs. Pelz, as she walked by the brownstone house on Eighty-Fourth Street where she had been told Hanneh Breineh now lived. At last she summoned up enough courage to climb the steps. She was all out of breath as she rang the bell with trembling fingers. “Oi weh! even the outside smells riches and plenty! Such curtains! And shades on all windows like by millionaires! Twenty years ago she used to eat from the pot to the hand, and now she lives in such a palace.”
A whiff of steam-heated warmth swept over Mrs. Pelz as the door opened, and she saw her old friend of the tenements dressed in silk and diamonds like a being from another world.
“Mrs. Pelz, is it you!” cried Hanneh Breineh, overjoyed at the sight of her former neighbor. “Come right in. Since when are you back in New York?”
“We came last week,” mumbled Mrs. Pelz, as she was led into a richly carpeted reception-room.
“Make yourself comfortable. Take off your shawl,” urged Hanneh Breineh.
But Mrs. Pelz only drew her shawl more tightly around her, a keen sense of her poverty gripping her as she gazed, abashed by the luxurious wealth that shone from every corner.
“This shawl covers up my rags,” she said, trying to hide her shabby sweater.
“I’ll tell you what; come right into the kitchen,” suggested Hanneh Breineh. “The servant is away for this afternoon, and we can feel more comfortable there. I can breathe like a free person in my kitchen when the girl has her day out.”
Mrs. Pelz glanced about her in an excited daze. Never in her life had she seen anything so wonderful as a white-tiled kitchen, with its glistening porcelain sink and the aluminum pots and pans that shone like silver.
“Where are you staying now?” asked Hanneh Breineh, as she pinned an apron over her silk dress.
“I moved back to Delancey Street, where we used to live,” replied Mrs. Pelz, as she seated herself cautiously in a white enameled chair.
“Oi weh! What grand times we had in that old house when we were neighbors!” sighed Hanneh Breineh, looking at her old friend with misty eyes.
“You still think on Delancey Street? Haven’t you more high-class neighbors uptown here?”
“A good neighbor is not to be found every day,” deplored Hanneh Breineh. “Uptown here, where each lives in his own house, nobody cares if the person next door is dying or going crazy from loneliness. It ain’t anything like we used to have it in Delancey Street, when we could walk into one another’s rooms without knocking, and borrow a pinch of salt or a pot to cook in.”
Hanneh Breineh went over to the pantry-shelf.
“We are going to have a bite right here on the kitchen-table like on Delancey Street. So long there’s no servant to watch us we can eat what we please.”
“Oi! How it waters my mouth with appetite, the smell of the herring and onion!” chuckled Mrs. Pelz, sniffing the welcome odors with greedy pleasure.
Hanneh Breineh pulled a dish-towel from the rack and threw one end of it to Mrs. Pelz.
“So long there’s no servant around, we can use it together for a napkin. It’s dirty, anyhow. How it freshens up my heart to see you!” she rejoiced as she poured out her tea into a saucer. “If you would only know how I used to beg my daughter to write for me a letter to you; but these American children, what is to them a mother’s feelings?”
“What are you talking!” cried Mrs. Pelz. “The whole world rings with you and your children. Everybody is envying you. Tell me how began your luck?”
“You heard how my husband died with consumption,” replied Hanneh Breineh. “The five hundred dollars lodge money gave me the first lift in life, and I opened a little grocery store. Then my son Abe married himself to a girl with a thousand dollars. That started him in business, and now he has the biggest shirt-waist factory on West Twenty-Ninth Street.”
“Yes, I heard your son had a factory.” Mrs. Pelz hesitated and stammered; “I’ll tell you the truth. What I came to ask you—I thought maybe you would beg your son Abe if he would give my husband a job.”
“Why not?” said Hanneh Breineh. “He keeps more than five hundred hands. I’ll ask him if he should take in Mr. Pelz.”
“Long years on you, Hanneh Breineh! You’ll save my life if you could only help my husband get work.”
“Of course my son will help him. All my children like to do good. My daughter Fanny is a milliner on Fifth Avenue, and she takes in the poorest girls in her shop and even pays them sometimes while they learn the trade.” Hanneh Breineh’s face lit up, and her chest filled with pride as she enumerated the successes of her children. “And my son Benny he wrote a play on Broadway and he gave away more than a hundred free tickets for the first night.”
“Benny? The one who used to get lost from home all the time? You always did love that child more than all the rest. And what is Sammy your baby doing?”
“He ain’t a baby no longer. He goes to college and quarterbacks the football team. They can’t get along without him.
“And my son Jake, I nearly forgot him. He began collecting rent in Delancey Street, and now he is boss of renting the swellest apartment-houses on Riverside Drive.”
“What did I tell you? In America children are like money in the bank,” purred Mrs. Pelz, as she pinched and patted Hanneh Breineh’s silk sleeve. “Oi weh! How it shines from you! You ought to kiss the air and dance for joy and happiness. It is such a bitter frost outside; a pail of coal is so dear, and you got it so warm with steam heat. I had to pawn my feather bed to have enough for the rent, and you are rolling in money.”
“Yes, I got it good in some ways, but money ain’t everything,” sighed Hanneh Breineh.
“You ain’t yet satisfied?”
“But here I got no friends,” complained Hanneh Breineh.
“Friends?” queried Mrs. Pelz. “What greater friend is there on earth than the dollar?”
“Oi! Mrs. Pelz; if you could only look into my heart! I’m so choked up! You know they say a cow has a long tongue, but can’t talk.” Hanneh Breineh shook her head wistfully, and her eyes filmed with inward brooding. “My children give me everything from the best. When I was sick, they got me a nurse by day and one by night. They bought me the best wine. If I asked for dove’s milk, they would buy it for me; but—but—I can’t talk myself out in their language. They want to make me over for an American lady, and I’m different.” Tears cut their way under her eyelids with a pricking pain as she went on: “When I was poor, I was free, and could holler and do what I like in my own house. Here I got to lie still like a mouse under a broom. Between living up to my Fifth-Avenue daughter and keeping up with the servants, I am like a sinner in the next world that is thrown from one hell to another.” The doorbell rang, and Hanneh Breineh jumped up with a start.
“Oi weh! It must be the servant back already!” she exclaimed, as she tore off her apron. “Oi weh! Let’s quickly put the dishes together in a dish-pan. If she sees I eat on the kitchen table, she will look on me like the dirt under her feet.”
Mrs. Pelz seized her shawl in haste.
“I better run home quick in my rags before your servant sees me.”
“I’ll speak to Abe about the job,” said Hanneh Breineh, as she pushed a bill into the hand of Mrs. Pelz, who edged out as the servant entered.
“I’m having fried potato lotkes special for you, Benny,” said Hanneh Breineh, as the children gathered about the table for the family dinner given in honor of Benny’s success with his new play. “Do you remember how you used to lick the fingers from them?”
“Oh, mother!” reproved Fanny. “Anyone hearing you would think we were still in the pushcart district.”
“Stop your nagging, sis, and let ma alone,” commanded Benny, patting his mother’s arm affectionately. “I’m home only once a month. Let her feed me what she pleases. My stomach is bomb-proof.”
“Do I hear that the President is coming to your play?” said Abe, as he stuffed a napkin over his diamond-studded shirt-front.
“Why shouldn’t he come?” returned Benny. “The critics say it’s the greatest antidote for the race hatred created by the war. If you want to know, he is coming to-night; and what’s more, our box is next to the President’s.”
“Nu, mammeh,” sallied Jake, “did you ever dream in Delancey Street that we should rub sleeves with the President?”
“I always said that Benny had more head than the rest of you,” replied the mother.
As the laughter died away, Jake went on:
“Honor you are getting plenty; but how much mezummen does this play bring you? Can I invest any of it in real estate for you?”
“I’m getting ten per cent royalties of the gross receipts,” replied the youthful playwright.
“How much is that?” queried Hanneh Breineh.
“Enough to buy up all your fish-markets in Delancey Street,” laughed Abe in good-natured raillery at his mother.
Her son’s jest cut like a knife-thrust in her heart. She felt her heart ache with the pain that she was shut out from their successes. Each added triumph only widened the gulf. And when she tried to bridge this gulf by asking questions, they only thrust her back upon herself.
“Your fame has even helped me get my hat trade solid with the Four Hundred,” put in Fanny. “You bet I let Mrs. Van Suyden know that our box is next to the President’s. She said she would drop in to meet you. Of course she let on to me that she hadn’t seen the play yet, though my designer said she saw her there on the opening night.”
“Oh, Gosh, the toadies!” sneered Benny. “Nothing so sickens you with success as the way people who once shoved you off the sidewalk come crawling to you on their stomachs begging you to dine with them.”
“Say, that leading man of yours he’s some class!” cried Fanny. “That’s the man I’m looking for. Will you invite him to supper after the theater?”
The playwright turned to his mother.
“Say, ma,” he said, laughingly, “how would you like a real actor for a son-in-law?”
“She should worry,” mocked Sam. “She’ll be discussing with him the future of the Greek drama. Too bad it doesn’t happen to be Warfield, or mother could give him tips on the ‘Auctioneer.’”
Jake turned to his mother with a covert grin.
“I guess you’d have no objection if Fanny got next to Benny’s leading man. He makes at least fifteen hundred a week. That wouldn’t be such a bad addition to the family, would it?”
Again the bantering tone stabbed Hanneh Breineh. Everything in her began to tremble and break loose.
“Why do you ask me?” she cried, throwing her napkin into her plate. “Do I count for a person in this house? If I’ll say something, will you even listen to me? What is to me the grandest man that my daughter could pick out? Another enemy in my house! Another person to shame himself from me!” She swept in her children in one glance of despairing anguish as she rose from the table. “What worth is an old mother to American children? The President is coming to-night to the theater, and none of you asked me to go.” Unable to check the rising tears, she fled toward the kitchen and banged the door.
They all looked at one another guiltily.
“Say, sis,” Benny called out sharply, “what sort of frame-up is this? Haven’t you told mother that she was to go with us to-night?”
“Yes—I—” Fanny bit her lips as she fumbled evasively for words. “I asked her if she wouldn’t mind my taking her some other time.”
“Now you have made a mess of it!” fumed Benny. “Mother’ll be too hurt to go now.”
“Well, I don’t care,” snapped Fanny. “I can’t appear with mother in a box at the theater. Can I introduce her to Mrs. Van Suyden? And suppose your leading man should ask to meet me?”
“Take your time, sis. He hasn’t asked yet,” scoffed Benny.
“The more reason I shouldn’t spoil my chances. You know mother. She’ll spill the beans that we come from Delancey Street the minute we introduce her anywhere. Must I always have the black shadow of my past trailing after me?”
“But have you no feelings for mother?” admonished Abe.
“I’ve tried harder than all of you to do my duty. I’ve lived with her.” She turned angrily upon them. “I’ve borne the shame of mother while you bought her off with a present and a treat here and there. God knows how hard I tried to civilize her so as not to have to blush with shame when I take her anywhere. I dressed her in the most stylish Paris models, but Delancey Street sticks out from every inch of her. Whenever she opens her mouth, I’m done for. You fellows had your chance to rise in the world because a man is free to go up as high as he can reach up to; but I, with all my style and pep, can’t get a man my equal because a girl is always judged by her mother.”
They were silenced by her vehemence, and unconsciously turned to Benny.
“I guess we all tried to do our best for mother,” said Benny, thoughtfully. “But wherever there is growth, there is pain and heartbreak. The trouble with us is that the ghetto of the Middle Ages and the children of the twentieth century have to live under one roof, and—”
A sound of crashing dishes came from the kitchen, and the voice of Hanneh Breineh resounded through the dining-room as she wreaked her pent-up fury on the helpless servant.
“Oh, my nerves! I can’t stand it any more! There will be no girl again for another week!” cried Fanny.
“Oh, let up on the old lady,” protested Abe. “Since she can’t take it out on us any more, what harm is it if she cusses the servants?”
“If you fellows had to chase around employment agencies, you wouldn’t see anything funny about it. Why can’t we move into a hotel that will do away with the need of servants altogether?”
“I got it better,” said Jake, consulting a notebook from his pocket. “I have on my list an apartment on Riverside Drive where there’s only a small kitchenette; but we can do away with the cooking, for there is a dining service in the building.”
The new Riverside apartment to which Hanneh Breineh was removed by her socially ambitious children was for the habitually active mother an empty desert of enforced idleness. Deprived of her kitchen, Hanneh Breineh felt robbed of the last reason for her existence. Cooking and marketing and puttering busily with pots and pans gave her an excuse for living and struggling and bearing up with her children. The lonely idleness of Riverside Drive stunned all her senses and arrested all her thoughts. It gave her that choked sense of being cut off from air, from life, from everything warm and human. The cold indifference, the each-for-himself look in the eyes of the people about her were like stinging slaps in the face. Even the children had nothing real or human in them. They were starched and stiff miniatures of their elders.
But the most unendurable part of the stifling life on Riverside Drive was being forced to eat in the public dining-room. No matter how hard she tried to learn polite table manners, she always found people staring at her, and her daughter rebuking her for eating with the wrong fork or guzzling the soup or staining the cloth.
In a fit of rebellion Hanneh Breineh resolved never to go down to the public dining-room again, but to make use of the gas-stove in the kitchenette to cook her own meals. That very day she rode down to Delancey Street and purchased a new market-basket. For some time she walked among the haggling pushcart venders, relaxing and swimming in the warm waves of her old familiar past.
A fish-peddler held up a large carp in his black, hairy hand and waved it dramatically:
“Women! Women! Fourteen cents a pound!”
He ceased his raucous shouting as he saw Hanneh Breineh in her rich attire approach his cart.
“How much?” she asked, pointing to the fattest carp.
“Fifteen cents, lady,” said the peddler, smirking as he raised his price.
“Swindler! Didn’t I hear you call fourteen cents?” shrieked Hanneh Breineh, exultingly, the spirit of the penny chase surging in her blood. Diplomatically, Hanneh Breineh turned as if to go, and the fisherman seized her basket in frantic fear.
“I should live; I’m losing money on the fish, lady,” whined the peddler. “I’ll let it down to thirteen cents for you only.”
“Two pounds for a quarter, and not a penny more,” said Hanneh Breineh, thrilling again with the rare sport of bargaining, which had been her chief joy in the good old days of poverty.
“Nu, I want to make the first sale for good luck.” The peddler threw the fish on the scale.
As he wrapped up the fish, Hanneh Breineh saw the driven look of worry in his haggard eyes, and when he counted out the change from her dollar, she waved it aside. “Keep it for your luck,” she said, and hurried off to strike a new bargain at a pushcart of onions.
Hanneh Breineh returned triumphantly with her purchases. The basket under her arm gave forth the old, homelike odors of herring and garlic, while the scaly tail of a four-pound carp protruded from its newspaper wrapping. A gilded placard on the door of the apartment-house proclaimed that all merchandise must be delivered through the trade entrance in the rear; but Hanneh Breineh with her basket strode proudly through the marble-paneled hall and rang nonchalantly for the elevator.
The uniformed hall-man, erect, expressionless, frigid with dignity, stepped forward:
“Just a minute, madam. I’ll call a boy to take up your basket for you.”
Hanneh Breineh, glaring at him, jerked the basket savagely from his hands. “Mind your own business!” she retorted. “I’ll take it up myself. Do you think you’re a Russian policeman to boss me in my own house?”
Angry lines appeared on the countenance of the representative of social decorum.
“It is against the rules, madam,” he said, stiffly.
“You should sink into the earth with all your rules and brass buttons. Ain’t this America? Ain’t this a free country? Can’t I take up in my own house what I buy with my own money?” cried Hanneh Breineh, reveling in the opportunity to shower forth the volley of invectives that had been suppressed in her for the weeks of deadly dignity of Riverside Drive.
In the midst of this uproar Fanny came in with Mrs. Van Suyden. Hanneh Breineh rushed over to her, crying:
“This bossy policeman won’t let me take up my basket in the elevator.”
The daughter, unnerved with shame and confusion, took the basket in her white-gloved hand and ordered the hall-boy to take it around to the regular delivery entrance.
Hanneh Breineh was so hurt by her daughter’s apparent defense of the hall-man’s rules that she utterly ignored Mrs. Van Suyden’s greeting and walked up the seven flights of stairs out of sheer spite.
“You see the tragedy of my life?” broke out Fanny, turning to Mrs. Van Suyden.
“You poor child! You go right up to your dear, old lady mother, and I’ll come some other time.”
Instantly Fanny regretted her words. Mrs. Van Suyden’s pity only roused her wrath the more against her mother.
Breathless from climbing the stairs, Hanneh Breineh entered the apartment just as Fanny tore the faultless millinery creation from her head and threw it on the floor in a rage.
“Mother, you are the ruination of my life! You have driven away Mrs. Van Suyden, as you have driven away all my best friends. What do you think we got this apartment for but to get rid of your fish smells and your brawls with the servants? And here you come with a basket on your arm as if you just landed from steerage! And this afternoon, of all times, when Benny is bringing his leading man to tea. When will you ever stop disgracing us?”
“When I’m dead,” said Hanneh Breineh, grimly. “When the earth will cover me up, then you’ll be free to go your American way. I’m not going to make myself over for a lady on Riverside Drive. I hate you and all your swell friends. I’ll not let myself be choked up here by you or by that hall-boss policeman that is higher in your eyes than your own mother.”
“So that’s your thanks for all we’ve done for you?” cried the daughter.
“All you’ve done for me!” shouted Hanneh Breineh. “What have you done for me? You hold me like a dog on a chain! It stands in the Talmud; some children give their mothers dry bread and water and go to heaven for it, and some give their mother roast duck and go to Gehenna because it’s not given with love.”
“You want me to love you yet?” raged the daughter. “You knocked every bit of love out of me when I was yet a kid. All the memories of childhood I have is your everlasting cursing and yelling that we were gluttons.”
The bell rang sharply, and Hanneh Breineh flung open the door.
“Your groceries, ma’am,” said the boy.
Hanneh Breineh seized the basket from him, and with a vicious fling sent it rolling across the room, strewing its contents over the Persian rugs and inlaid floor. Then seizing her hat and coat, she stormed out of the apartment and down the stairs.
Mr. and Mrs. Pelz sat crouched and shivering over their meager supper when the door opened, and Hanneh Breineh in fur coat and plumed hat charged into the room.
“I come to cry out to you my bitter heart,” she sobbed. “Woe is me! It is so black for my eyes!”
“What is the matter with you, Hanneh Breineh?” cried Mrs. Pelz in bewildered alarm.
“I am turned out of my own house by the brass-buttoned policeman that bosses the elevator. Oi-i-i-i! Weh-h-h-h! What have I from my life? The whole world rings with my son’s play. Even the President came to see it, and I, his mother, have not seen it yet. My heart is dying in me like in a prison,” she went on wailing. “I am starved out for a piece of real eating. In that swell restaurant is nothing but napkins and forks and lettuce-leaves. There are a dozen plates to every bite of food. And it looks so fancy on the plate, but it’s nothing but straw in the mouth. I’m starving, but I can’t swallow down their American eating.”
“Hanneh Breineh,” said Mrs. Pelz, “you are sinning before God. Look on your fur coat; it alone would feed a whole family for a year. I never had yet a piece of fur trimming on a coat, and you are in fur from the neck to the feet. I never had yet a piece of feather on a hat, and your hat is all feathers.”
“What are you envying me?” protested Hanneh Breineh. “What have I from all my fine furs and feathers when my children are strangers to me? All the fur coats in the world can’t warm up the loneliness inside my heart. All the grandest feathers can’t hide the bitter shame in my face that my children shame themselves from me.”
Hanneh Breineh suddenly loomed over them like some ancient, heroic figure of the Bible condemning unrighteousness.
“Why should my children shame themselves from me? From where did they get the stuff to work themselves up in the world? Did they get it from the air? How did they get all their smartness to rise over the people around them? Why don’t the children of born American mothers write my Benny’s plays? It is I, who never had a chance to be a person, who gave him the fire in his head. If I would have had a chance to go to school and learn the language, what couldn’t I have been? It is I and my mother and my mother’s mother and my father and father’s father who had such a black life in Poland; it is our choked thoughts and feelings that are flaming up in my children and making them great in America. And yet they shame themselves from me!”
For a moment Mr. and Mrs. Pelz were hypnotized by the sweep of her words. Then Hanneh Breineh sank into a chair in utter exhaustion. She began to weep bitterly, her body shaking with sobs.
“Woe is me! For what did I suffer and hope on my children? A bitter old age—my end. I’m so lonely!”
All the dramatic fire seemed to have left her. The spell was broken. They saw the Hanneh Breineh of old, ever discontented, ever complaining even in the midst of riches and plenty.
“Hanneh Breineh,” said Mrs. Pelz, “the only trouble with you is that you got it too good. People will tear the eyes out of your head because you’re complaining yet. If I only had your fur coat! If I only had your diamonds! I have nothing. You have everything. You are living on the fat of the land. You go right back home and thank God that you don’t have my bitter lot.”
“You got to let me stay here with you,” insisted Hanneh Breineh. “I’ll not go back to my children except when they bury me. When they will see my dead face, they will understand how they killed me.”
Mrs. Pelz glanced nervously at her husband. They barely had enough covering for their one bed; how could they possibly lodge a visitor?
“I don’t want to take up your bed,” said Hanneh Breineh. “I don’t care if I have to sleep on the floor or on the chairs, but I’ll stay here for the night.”
Seeing that she was bent on staying, Mr. Pelz prepared to sleep by putting a few chairs next to the trunk, and Hanneh Breineh was invited to share the rickety bed with Mrs. Pelz.
The mattress was full of lumps and hollows. Hanneh Breineh lay cramped and miserable, unable to stretch out her limbs. For years she had been accustomed to hair mattresses and ample woolen blankets, so that though she covered herself with her fur coat, she was too cold to sleep. But worse than the cold were the creeping things on the wall. And as the lights were turned low, the mice came through the broken plaster and raced across the floor. The foul odors of the kitchen-sink added to the night of horrors.
“Are you going back home?” asked Mrs. Pelz, as Hanneh Breineh put on her hat and coat the next morning.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” she replied, as she put a bill into Mrs. Pelz’s hand.
For hours Hanneh Breineh walked through the crowded ghetto streets. She realized that she no longer could endure the sordid ugliness of her past, and yet she could not go home to her children. She only felt that she must go on and on.
In the afternoon a cold, drizzling rain set in. She was worn out from the sleepless night and hours of tramping. With a piercing pain in her heart she at last turned back and boarded the subway for Riverside Drive. She had fled from the marble sepulcher of the Riverside apartment to her old home in the ghetto; but now she knew that she could not live there again. She had outgrown her past by the habits of years of physical comforts, and these material comforts that she could no longer do without choked and crushed the life within her.
A cold shudder went through Hanneh Breineh as she approached the apartment-house. Peering through the plate glass of the door she saw the face of the uniformed hall-man. For a hesitating moment she remained standing in the drizzling rain, unable to enter, and yet knowing full well that she would have to enter.
Then suddenly Hanneh Breineh began to laugh. She realized that it was the first time she had laughed since her children had become rich. But it was the hard laugh of bitter sorrow. Tears streamed down her furrowed cheeks as she walked slowly up the granite steps.
“The fat of the land!” muttered Hanneh Breineh, with a choking sob as the hall-man with immobile face deferentially swung open the door—“the fat of the land!”