“My heart chokes in me like in a prison! I’m dying for a little love and I got nobody—nobody!” wailed Shenah Pessah, as she looked out of the dismal basement window.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon in May, and into the gray, cheerless, janitor’s basement a timid ray of sunlight announced the dawn of spring.
“Oi weh! Light!” breathed Shenah Pessah, excitedly, throwing open the sash. “A little light in the room for the first time!” And she stretched out her hands hungrily for the warming bit of sun.
The happy laughter of the shopgirls standing on the stoop with their beaux and the sight of the young mothers with their husbands and babies fanned anew the consuming fire in her breast.
“I’m not jealous!” she gasped, chokingly. “My heart hurts too deep to want to tear from them their luck to happiness. But why should they live and enjoy life and why must I only look on how they are happy?”
She clutched at her throat like one stifled for want of air. “What is the matter with you? Are you going out of your head? For what is your crying? Who will listen to you? Who gives a care what’s going to become from you?”
Crushed by her loneliness, she sank into a chair. For a long time she sat motionless, finding drear fascination in the mocking faces traced in the patches of the torn plaster. Gradually, she became aware of a tingling warmth playing upon her cheeks. And with a revived breath, she drank in the miracle of the sunlit wall.
“Ach!” she sighed. “Once a year the sun comes to light up even this dark cellar, so why shouldn’t the High One send on me too a little brightness?”
This new wave of hope swept aside the fact that she was the “greenhorn” janitress, that she was twenty-two and dowryless, and, according to the traditions of her people, condemned to be shelved aside as an unmated thing—a creature of pity and ridicule.
“I can’t help it how old I am or how poor I am!” she burst out to the deaf and dumb air. “I want a little life! I want a little joy!”
The bell rang sharply, and as she turned to answer the call, she saw a young man at the doorway—a framed picture of her innermost dreams.
The stranger spoke.
Shenah Pessah did not hear the words, she heard only the music of his voice. She gazed fascinated at his clothes—the loose Scotch tweeds, the pongee shirt, a bit open at the neck, but she did not see him or the things he wore. She only felt an irresistible presence seize her soul. It was as though the god of her innermost longings had suddenly taken shape in human form and lifted her in mid-air.
“Does the janitor live here?” the stranger repeated.
Shenah Pessah nodded.
“Can you show me the room to let?”
“Yes, right away, but wait only a minute,” stammered Shenah Pessah, fumbling for the key on the shelf.
“Don’t fly into the air!” She tried to reason with her wild, throbbing heart, as she walked upstairs with him. In an effort to down the chaos of emotion that shook her she began to talk nervously: “Mrs. Stein who rents out the room ain’t going to be back till the evening, but I can tell you the price and anything you want to know. She’s a grand cook and you can eat by her your breakfast and dinner—” She did not have the slightest notion of what she was saying, but talked on in a breathless stream lest he should hear the loud beating of her heart.
“Could I have a drop-light put in here?” the man asked, as he looked about the room.
Shenah Pessah stole a quick, shy glance at him. “Are you maybe a teacher or a writing man?”
“Yes, sometimes I teach,” he said, studying her, drawn by the struggling soul of her that cried aloud to him out of her eyes.
“I could tell right away that you must be some kind of a somebody,” she said, looking up with wistful worship in her eyes. “Ach, how grand it must be to live only for learning and thinking.”
“Is this your home?”
“I never had a home since I was eight years old. I was living by strangers even in Russia.”
“Russia?” he repeated with quickened attention. So he was in their midst, the people he had come to study. The girl with her hungry eyes and intense eagerness now held a new interest for him.
John Barnes, the youngest instructor of sociology in his university, congratulated himself at his good fortune in encountering such a splendid type for his research. He was preparing his thesis on the “Educational Problems of the Russian Jews,” and in order to get into closer touch with his subject, he had determined to live on the East Side during his spring and summer vacation.
He went on questioning her, unconsciously using all the compelling power that made people open their hearts to him. “And how long have you been here?”
“Two years already.”
“You seem to be fond of study. I suppose you go to night-school?”
“I never yet stepped into a night-school since I came to America. From where could I get the time? My uncle is such an old man he can’t do much and he got already used to leave the whole house on me.”
“You stay with your uncle, then?”
“Yes, my uncle sent for me the ticket for America when my aunt was yet living. She got herself sick. And what could an old man like him do with only two hands?”
“Was that sufficient reason for you to leave your homeland?”
“What did I have out there in Savel that I should be afraid to lose? The cows that I used to milk had it better than me. They got at least enough to eat and me slaving from morning till night went around hungry.”
“You poor child!” broke from the heart of the man, the scientific inquisition of the sociologist momentarily swept away by his human sympathy.
Who had ever said “poor child” to her—and in such a voice? Tears gathered in Shenah Pessah’s eyes. For the first time she mustered the courage to look straight at him. The man’s face, his voice, his bearing, so different from any one she had ever known, and yet what was there about him that made her so strangely at ease with him? She went on talking, led irresistibly by the friendly glow in his eyes.
“I got yet a lot of luck. I learned myself English from a Jewish English reader, and one of the boarders left me a grand book. When I only begin to read, I forget I’m on this world. It lifts me on wings with high thoughts.” Her whole face and figure lit up with animation as she poured herself out to him.
“So even in the midst of these sordid surroundings were ‘wings’ and ‘high thoughts,’” he mused. Again the gleam of the visionary—the eternal desire to reach out and up, which was the predominant racial trait of the Russian immigrant.
“What is the name of your book?” he continued, taking advantage of this providential encounter.
“The book is ‘Dreams,’ by Olive Schreiner.”
“H—m,” he reflected. “So these are the ‘wings’ and ‘high thoughts.’ No wonder the blushes—the tremulousness. What an opportunity for a psychological test-case, and at the same time I could help her by pointing the way out of her nebulous emotionalism and place her feet firmly on earth.” He made a quick, mental note of certain books that he would place in her hands and wondered how she would respond to them.
“Do you belong to a library?”
“Library? How? Where?”
Her lack of contact with Americanizing agencies appalled him.
“I’ll have to introduce you to the library when I come to live here,” he said.
“Oi-i! You really like it, the room?” Shenah Pessah clapped her hands in a burst of uncontrollable delight.
“I like the room very much, and I shall be glad to take it if you can get it ready for me by next week.”
Shenah Pessah looked up at the man. “Do you mean it? You really want to come and live here, in this place? The sky is falling to the earth!”
“Live here?” Most decidedly he would live here. He became suddenly enthusiastic. But it was the enthusiasm of the scientist for the specimen of his experimentation—of the sculptor for the clay that would take form under his touch.
“I’m coming here to live—” He was surprised at the eager note in his voice, the sudden leaven of joy that surged through his veins. “And I’m going to teach you to read sensible books, the kind that will help you more than your dream book.”
Shenah Pessah drank in his words with a joy that struck back as fear lest this man—the visible sign of her answered prayer—would any moment be snatched up and disappear in the heavens where he belonged. With a quick leap toward him she seized his hand in both her own. “Oi, mister! Would you like to learn me English lessons too? I’ll wash for you your shirts for it. If you would even only talk to me, it would be more to me than all the books in the world.”
He instinctively recoiled at this outburst of demonstrativeness. His eyes narrowed and his answer was deliberate. “Yes, you ought to learn English,” he said, resuming his professional tone, but the girl was too overwrought to notice the change in his manner.
“There it is,” he thought to himself on his way out. “The whole gamut of the Russian Jew—the pendulum swinging from abject servility to boldest aggressiveness.”
Shenah Pessah remained standing and smiling to herself after Mr. Barnes left. She did not remember a thing she had said. She only felt herself whirling in space, millions of miles beyond the earth. The god of dreams had arrived and nothing on earth could any longer hold her down.
Then she hurried back to the basement and took up the broken piece of mirror that stood on the shelf over the sink and gazed at her face trying to see herself through his eyes. “Was it only pity that made him stop to talk to me? Or can it be that he saw what’s inside me?”
Her eyes looked inward as she continued to talk to herself in the mirror.
“God from the world!” she prayed. “I’m nothing and nobody now, but ach! How beautiful I would become if only the light from his eyes would fall on me!”
Covering her flushed face with her hands as if to push back the tumult of desire that surged within her, she leaned against the wall. “Who are you to want such a man?” she sobbed.
“But no one is too low to love God, the Highest One. There is no high in love and there is no low in love. Then why am I too low to love him?”
“Shenah Pessah!” called her uncle angrily. “What are you standing there like a yok, dreaming in the air? Don’t you hear the tenants knocking on the pipes? They are hollering for the hot water. You let the fire go out.”
At the sound of her uncle’s voice all her “high thoughts” fled. The mere reminder of the furnace with its ashes and cinders smothered her buoyant spirits and again she was weighed down by the strangling yoke of her hateful, daily round.
It was evening when she got through with her work. To her surprise she did not feel any of the old weariness. It was as if her feet danced under her. Then from the open doorway of their kitchen she overheard Mrs. Melker, the matchmaker, talking to her uncle.
“Motkeh, the fish-peddler, is looking for a wife to cook him his eating and take care on his children,” she was saying in her shrill, grating voice. “So I thought to myself this is a golden chance for Shenah Pessah to grab. You know a girl in her years and without money, a single man wouldn’t give a look on her.”
Shenah Pessah shuddered. She wanted to run away from the branding torture of their low talk, but an unreasoning curiosity drew her to listen.
“Living is so high,” went on Mrs. Melker, “that single men don’t want to marry themselves even to young girls, except if they can get themselves into a family with money to start them up in business. It is Shenah Pessah’s luck yet that Motkeh likes good eating and he can’t stand it any more the meals in a restaurant. He heard from people what a good cook and housekeeper Shenah Pessah is, so he sent me around to tell you he would take her as she stands without a cent.”
Mrs. Melker dramatically beat her breast. “I swear I shouldn’t live to go away from here alive, I shouldn’t live to see my own children married if I’m talking this match for the few dollars that Motkeh will pay me for it, but because I want to do something good for a poor orphan. I’m a mother, and it weeps in me my heart to see a girl in her years and not married.”
“And who’ll cook for me my eating, if I’ll let her go?” broke out her uncle angrily. “And who’ll do me my work? Didn’t I spend out fifty dollars to send for her the ticket to America? Oughtn’t I have a little use from her for so many dollars I laid out on her?”
“Think on God!” remonstrated Mrs. Melker. “The girl is an orphan and time is pushing itself on her. Do you want her to sit till her braids grow gray, before you’ll let her get herself a man? It stands in the Talmud that a man should take the last bite away from his mouth to help an orphan get married. You’d beg yourself out a place in heaven in the next world—”
“In America a person can’t live on hopes for the next world. In America everybody got to look out for himself. I’d have to give up the janitor’s work to let her go, and then where would I be?”
“You lived already your life. Give her also a chance to lift up her head in the world. Couldn’t you get yourself in an old man’s home?”
“These times you got to have money even in an old man’s home. You know how they say, if you oil the wheels you can ride. With dry hands you can’t get nothing in America.”
“So you got no pity on an orphan and your own relation? All her young years she choked herself in darkness and now comes already a little light for her, a man that can make a good living wants her—”
“And who’ll have pity on me if I’ll let her out from my hands? Who is this Motkeh, anyway? Is he good off? Would I also have a place where to lay my old head? Where stands he out with his pushcart?”
“On Essex Street near Delancey.”
“Oi-i! You mean Motkeh Pelz? Why, I know him yet from years ago. They say his wife died him from hunger. She had to chew the earth before she could beg herself out a cent from him. By me Shenah Pessah has at least enough to eat and shoes on her feet. I ask you only is it worth already to grab a man if you got to die from hunger for it?”
Shenah Pessah could listen no longer.
“Don’t you worry yourself for me,” she commanded, charging into the room. “Don’t take pity on my years. I’m living in America, not in Russia. I’m not hanging on anybody’s neck to support me. In America, if a girl earns her living, she can be fifty years old and without a man, and nobody pities her.”
Seizing her shawl, she ran out into the street. She did not know where her feet carried her. She had only one desire—to get away. A fierce rebellion against everything and everybody raged within her and goaded her on until she felt herself choked with hate.
All at once she visioned a face and heard a voice. The blacker, the more stifling the ugliness of her prison, the more luminous became the light of the miraculous stranger who had stopped for a moment to talk to her. It was as though inside a pit of darkness the heavens opened and hidden hopes began to sing.
Her uncle was asleep when she returned. In the dim gaslight she looked at his yellow, care-crushed face with new compassion in her heart. “Poor old man!” she thought, as she turned to her room. “Nothing beautiful never happened to him. What did he have in life outside the worry for bread and rent? Who knows, maybe if such a god of men would have shined on him—” She fell asleep and she awoke with visions opening upon visions of new, gleaming worlds of joy and hope. She leaped out of bed singing a song she had not heard since she was a little child in her mother’s home.
Several times during the day, she found herself, at the broken mirror, arranging and rearranging her dark mass of unkempt hair with fumbling fingers. She was all a-tremble with breathless excitement to imitate the fluffy style of the much-courted landlady’s daughter.
For the first time she realized how shabby and impossible her clothes were. “Oi weh!” she wrung her hands. “I’d give away everything in the world only to have something pretty to wear for him. My whole life hangs on how I’ll look in his eyes. I got to have a hat and a new dress. I can’t no more wear my ‘greenhorn’ shawl going out with an American.
“But from where can I get the money for new clothes? Oi weh! How bitter it is not to have the dollar! Woe is me! No mother, no friend, nobody to help me lift myself out of my greenhorn rags.”
“Why not pawn the feather bed your mother left you?” She jumped at the thought.
“What? Have you no heart? No feelings? Pawn the only one thing left from your dead mother?
“Why not? Nothing is too dear for him. If your mother could stand up from her grave, she’d cut herself in pieces, she’d tear the sun and stars out from the sky to make you beautiful for him.”
Late one evening Zaretsky sat in his pawnshop, absorbed in counting the money of his day’s sales, when Shenah Pessah, with a shawl over her head and a huge bundle over her shoulder, edged her way hesitantly into the store. Laying her sacrifice down on the counter, she stood dumbly and nervously fingered the fringes of her shawl.
The pawnbroker lifted his miserly face from the cash-box and shot a quick glance at the girl’s trembling figure.
“Nu?” said Zaretsky, in his cracked voice, cutting the twine from the bundle and unfolding a feather bed. His appraising hand felt that it was of the finest down. “How much ask you for it?”
The fiendish gleam of his shrewd eyes paralyzed her with terror. A lump came in her throat and she wavered speechless.
“I’ll give you five dollars,” said Zaretsky.
“Five dollars?” gasped Shenah Pessah. Her hands rushed back anxiously to the feather bed and her fingers clung to it as if it were a living thing. She gazed panic-stricken at the gloomy interior of the pawnshop with its tawdry jewels in the cases; the stacks of second-hand clothing hanging overhead, back to the grisly face of the pawnbroker. The weird tickings that came from the cheap clocks on the shelves behind Zaretsky, seemed to her like the smothered heart-beats of people who like herself had been driven to barter their last precious belongings for a few dollars.
“Is it for yourself that you come?” he asked, strangely stirred by the mute anguish in the girl’s eyes. This morgue of dead belongings had taken its toll of many a pitiful victim of want. But never before had Zaretsky been so affected. People bargained and rebelled and struggled with him on his own plane. But the dumb helplessness of this girl and her coming to him at such a late hour touched the man’s heart.
“Is it for yourself?” he repeated, in a softened tone.
The new note of feeling in his voice made her look up. The hard, crafty expression on his face had given place to a look of sympathy.
“Yes, it’s mine, from my mother,” she stammered, brokenly. “The last memory from Russia. How many winters it took my mother to pick together the feathers. She began it when I was yet a little baby in the cradle—and—” She covered her face with her shawl and sobbed.
“Any one sick? Why do you got to pawn it?”
She raised her tear-stained face and mutely looked at him. How could she explain and how could he possibly understand her sudden savage desire for clothes?
Zaretsky, feeling that he had been clumsy and tactless, hastened to add, “Nu—I’ll give you—a—a—a—ten dollars,” he finished with a motion of his hand, as if driving from him the onrush of generosity that seized him.
“Oi, mister!” cried Shenah Pessah, as the man handed her the bill. “You’re saving me my life! God will pay you for this goodness.” And crumpling the money in her hand, she hurried back home elated.
The following evening, as soon as her work was over, Shenah Pessah scurried through the ghetto streets, seeking in the myriad-colored shop windows the one hat and the one dress that would voice the desire of her innermost self. At last she espied a shining straw with cherries so red, so luscious, that they cried out to her, “Bite me!” That was the hat she bought.
The magic of those cherries on her hat brought back to her the green fields and orchards of her native Russia. Yes, a green dress was what she craved. And she picked out the greenest, crispest organdie.
That night, as she put on her beloved colors, she vainly tried to see herself from head to foot, but the broken bit of a mirror that she owned could only show her glorious parts of her. Her clothes seemed to enfold her in flames of desire leaping upon desire. “Only to be beautiful! Only to be beautiful!” she murmured breathlessly. “Not for myself, but only for him.”
Time stood still for Shenah Pessah as she counted the days, the hours, and the minutes for the arrival of John Barnes. At last, through her basement window, she saw him walk up the front steps. She longed to go over to him and fling herself at his feet and cry out to him with what hunger of heart she awaited his coming. But the very intensity of her longing left her faint and dumb.
He passed to his room. Later, she saw him walk out without even stopping to look at her. The next day and the day after, she watched him from her hidden corner pass in and out of the house, but still he did not come to her.
Oh, how sweet it was to suffer the very hurt of his oblivion of her! She gloried in his great height that made him so utterly unaware of her existence. It was enough for her worshiping eyes just to glimpse him from afar. What was she to him? Could she expect him to greet the stairs on which he stepped? Or take notice of the door that swung open for him? After all, she was nothing but part of the house. So why should he take notice of her? She was the steps on which he walked. She was the door that swung open for him. And he did not know it.
For four evenings in succession, ever since John Barnes had come to live in the house, Shenah Pessah arrayed herself in her new things and waited. Was it not a miracle that he came the first time when she did not even dream that he was on earth? So why shouldn’t the miracle happen again? This evening, however, she was so spent with the hopelessness of her longing that she had no energy left to put on her adornments.
All at once she was startled out of her apathy by a quick tap on her window-pane. “How about going to the library, to-morrow evening?” asked John Barnes.
“Oi-i-i! Yes! Thanks—” she stammered in confusion.
“Well, to-morrow night, then, at seven. Thank you.” He hurried out embarrassed by the grateful look that shone to him out of her eyes. The gaze haunted him and hurt him. It was the beseeching look of a homeless dog, begging to be noticed. “Poor little immigrant,” he thought, “how lonely she must be!”
“So he didn’t forget,” rejoiced Shenah Pessah. “How only the sound from his voice opens the sky in my heart! How the deadness and emptiness in me flames up into life! Ach! The sun is again beginning to shine!”
An hour before the appointed time, Shenah Pessah dressed herself in all her finery for John Barnes. She swung open the door and stood in readiness watching the little clock on the mantel-shelf. The ticking thing seemed to throb with the unutterable hopes compressed in her heart, all the mute years of her stifled life. Each little thud of time sang a wild song of released joy—the joy of his coming nearer.
For the tenth time Shenah Pessah went over in her mind what she would say to him when he’d come.
“It was so kind from you to take from your dear time—to—”
“No—that sounds not good. I’ll begin like this—Mr. Barnes! I can’t give it out in words your kindness, to stop from your high thoughts to—to—”
“No—no! Oi weh! God from the world! Why should it be so hard for me to say to him what I mean? Why shouldn’t I be able to say to him plain out—Mr. Barnes! You are an angel from the sky! You are saving me my life to let me only give a look on you! I’m happier than a bird in the air when I think only that such goodness like you—”
The sudden ring of the bell shattered all her carefully rehearsed phrases and she met his greeting in a flutter of confusion.
“My! Haven’t you blossomed out since last night!” exclaimed Mr. Barnes, startled by Shenah Pessah’s sudden display of color.
“Yes,” she flushed, raising to him her radiant face. “I’m through for always with old women’s shawls. This is my first American dress-up.”
“Splendid! So you want to be an American! The next step will be to take up some work that will bring you in touch with American people.”
“Yes. You’ll help me? Yes?” Her eyes sought his with an appeal of unquestioning reliance.
“Have you ever thought what kind of work you would like to take up?” he asked, when they got out into the street.
“No—I want only to get away from the basement. I’m crazy for people.”
“Would you like to learn a trade in a factory?”
“Anything—anything! I’m burning to learn. Give me only an advice. What?”
“What can you do best with your hands?”
“With the hands the best? It’s all the same what I do with the hands. Think you not maybe now, I could begin already something with the head? Yes?”
“We’ll soon talk this over together, after you have read a book that will tell you how to find out what you are best fitted for.”
When they entered the library, Shenah Pessah halted in awe. “What a stillness full from thinking! So beautiful, it comes on me like music!”
“Yes. This is quite a place,” he acquiesced, seeing again the public library in a new light through her eyes. “Some of the best minds have worked to give us just this.”
“How the book-ladies look so quiet like the things.”
“Yes,” he replied, with a tell-tale glance at her. “I too like to see a woman’s face above her clothes.”
The approach of the librarian cut off further comment. As Mr. Barnes filled out the application card, Shenah Pessah noted the librarian’s simple attire. “What means he a woman’s face above her clothes?” she wondered. And the first shadow of a doubt crossed her mind as to whether her dearly bought apparel was pleasing to his eyes. In the few brief words that passed between Mr. Barnes and the librarian, Shenah Pessah sensed that these two were of the same world and that she was different. Her first contact with him in a well-lighted room made her aware that “there were other things to the person besides the dress-up.” She had noticed their well-kept hands on the desk and she became aware that her own were calloused and rough. That is why she felt her dirty finger-nails curl in awkwardly to hide themselves as she held the pen to sign her name.
When they were out in the street again, he turned to her and said, “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to walk back. The night is so fine and I’ve been in the stuffy office all day.”
“I don’t mind”—the words echoed within her. If he only knew how above all else she wanted this walk.
“It was grand in there, but the electric lights are like so many eyes looking you over. In the street it is easier for me. The dark covers you up so good.”
He laughed, refreshed by her unconscious self-revelation.
“As long as you feel in your element let’s walk on to the pier.”
“Like for a holiday, it feels itself in me,” she bubbled, as he took her arm in crossing the street. “Now see I America for the first time!”
It was all so wonderful to Barnes that in the dirt and noise of the overcrowded ghetto, this erstwhile drudge could be transfigured into such a vibrant creature of joy. Even her clothes that had seemed so bold and garish awhile ago, were now inexplicably in keeping with the carnival spirit that he felt steal over him.
As they neared the pier, he reflected strangely upon the fact that out of the thousands of needy, immigrant girls whom he might have befriended, this eager young being at his side was ordained by some peculiar providence to come under his personal protection.
“How long did you say you have been in this country, Shenah Pessah?”
“How long?” She echoed his words as though waking from a dream. “It’s two years already. But that didn’t count life. From now on I live.”
“And you mean to tell me that in all this time, no one has taken you by the hand and shown you the ways of our country? The pity of it!”
“I never had nothing, nor nobody. But now—it dances under me the whole earth! It feels in me grander than dreams!”
He drank in the pure joy out of her eyes. For the moment, the girl beside him was the living flame of incarnate Spring.
“He feels for me,” she rejoiced, as they walked on in silence. The tenderness of his sympathy enfolded her like some blessed warmth.
When they reached the end of the pier, they paused and watched the moonlight playing on the water. In the shelter of a truck they felt benignly screened from any stray glances of the loiterers near by.
How big seemed his strength as he stood silhouetted against the blue night! For the first time Shenah Pessah noticed the splendid straightness of his shoulders. The clean glowing youth of him drew her like a spell.
“Ach! Only to keep always inside my heart the kindness, the gentlemanness that shines from his face,” thought Shenah Pessah, instinctively nestling closer.
“Poor little immigrant!” murmured John Barnes. “How lonely, how barren your life must have been till—” In an impulse of compassion, his arms opened and Shenah Pessah felt her soul swoon in ecstasy as he drew her toward him.
It was three days since the eventful evening on the pier and Shenah Pessah had not seen John Barnes since. He had vanished like a dream, and yet he was not a dream. He was the only thing real in the unreal emptiness of her unlived life. She closed her eyes and she saw again his face with its joy-giving smile. She heard again his voice and felt again his arms around her as he kissed her lips. Then in the midst of her sweetest visioning a gnawing emptiness seized her and the cruel ache of withheld love sucked dry all those beautiful feelings his presence inspired. Sometimes there flashed across her fevered senses the memory of his compassionate endearments: “Poor lonely little immigrant!” And she felt his sweet words smite her flesh with their cruel mockery.
She went about her work with restlessness. At each step, at each sound, she started, “Maybe it’s him! Maybe!” She could not fall asleep at night, but sat up in bed writing and tearing up letters to him. The only lull to the storm that uprooted her being was in trying to tell him how every throb within her clamored for him, but the most heart-piercing cry that she could utter only stabbed her heart with the futility of words.
In the course of the week it was Shenah Pessah’s duty to clean Mrs. Stein’s floor. This brought her to Mr. Barnes’s den in his absence. She gazed about her, calling up his presence at the sight of his belongings.
“How fine to the touch is the feel from everything his,” she sighed, tenderly resting her cheek on his dressing-gown. With a timid hand she picked up a slipper that stood beside his bed and she pressed it to her heart reverently. “I wish I was this leather thing only to hold his feet!” Then she turned to his dresser and passed her hands caressingly over the ivory things on it. “Ach! You lucky brush—smoothing his hair every day!”
All at once she heard footsteps, and before she could collect her thoughts, he entered. Her whole being lit up with the joy of his coming. But one glance at him revealed to her the changed expression that darkened his face. His arms hung limply at his side—the arms she expected to stretch out to her and enfold her. As if struck in the face by his heartless rebuff, she rushed out blindly.
“Just a minute, please,” he managed to detain her. “As a gentleman, I owe you an apology. That night—it was a passing moment of forgetfulness. It’s not to happen again—”
Before he had finished, she had run out scorched with shame by his words.
“Good Lord!” he ejaculated, when he found he was alone. “Who’d ever think that she would take it so? I suppose there is no use trying to explain to her.”
For some time he sat on his bed, staring ruefully. Then, springing to his feet, he threw his things together in a valise. “You’d be a cad if you did not clear out of here at once,” he muttered to himself. “No matter how valuable the scientific inquiry might prove to be, you can’t let the girl run away with herself.”
Shenah Pessah was at the window when she saw John Barnes go out with his suitcases.
“In God’s name, don’t leave me!” she longed to cry out. “You are the only bit of light that I ever had, and now it will be darker and emptier for my eyes than ever before!” But no voice could rise out of her parched lips. She felt a faintness stunning her senses as though some one had cut open the arteries of her wrists and all the blood rushed out of her body.
“Oi weh!” she moaned. “Then it was all nothing to him. Why did he make bitter to me the little sweetness that was dearer to me than my life? What means he a gentleman?
“Why did he make me to shame telling me he didn’t mean nothing? Is it because I’m not a lady alike to him? Is a gentleman only a make-believe man?”
With a defiant resolve she seized hold of herself and rose to her feet. “Show him what’s in you. If it takes a year, or a million years, you got to show him you’re a person. From now on, you got why to live. You got to work not with the strength of one body and one brain, but with the strength of a million bodies and a million brains. By day and by night, you got to push, push yourself up till you get to him and can look him in his face eye to eye.”
Spent by the fervor of this new exaltation, she sat with her head in her hands in a dull stupor. Little by little the darkness cleared from her soul and a wistful serenity crept over her. She raised her face toward the solitary ray of sunlight that stole into her basement room.
“After all, he done for you more than you could do for him. You owe it to him the deepest, the highest he waked up in you. He opened the wings of your soul.”
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