Nina Balatka, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter VII

Madame Zamenoy and her son no doubt understood each other’s purposes, and there was another person in the house who understood them — Lotta Luxa, namely; but Karil Zamenoy had been kept somewhat in the dark. Touching that piece of parchment as to which so much anxiety had been expressed, he only knew that he had, at his wife’s instigation, given it into her hand in order that she might use it in some way for putting an end to the foul betrothal between Nina and the Jew. The elder Zamenoy no doubt understood that Anton Trendellsohn was to be bought off by the document; and he was not unwilling to buy him off so cheaply, knowing as he did that the houses were in truth the Jew’s property; but Madame Zamenoy’s scheme was deeper than this. She did not believe that the Jew was to be bought off at so cheap a price; but she did believe that it might be possible to create such a feeling in his mind as would make him abandon Nina out of the workings of his own heart. Ziska and his mother were equally anxious to save Nina from the Jew, but not exactly with the same motives. He had received a promise, both from his father and mother, before anything was known of the Jew’s love, that Nina should be received as a daughter-inlaw, if she would accept his suit; and this promise was still in force. That the girl whom he loved should love a Jew distressed and disgusted Ziska; but it did not deter him from his old purpose. It was shocking, very shocking, that Nina should so disgrace herself; but she was not on that account less pretty or less charming in her cousin’s eyes. Madame Zamenoy, could she have had her own will, would have rescued Nina from the Jew — firstly, because Nina was known all over Prague to be her niece — and, secondly, for the good of Christianity generally; but the girl herself, when rescued, she would willingly have left to starve in the poverty of the old house in the Kleinseite, as a punishment for her sin in having listened to a Jew.

“I would have nothing more to say to her,” said the mother to her son.

“Nor I either,” said Lotta, who was present. “She has demeaned herself far too much to be a fit wife for Ziska.”

“Hold your tongue, Lotta; what business have you to speak about such a matter?” said the young man.

“All the same, Ziska, if I were you, I would give her up,” said the mother.

“If you were me, mother, you would not give her up. If every man is to give up the girl he likes because somebody else interferes with him, how is anybody to get married at all? It’s the way with them all.”

“But a Jew, Ziska!”

“So much the more reason for taking her away from him.” Then Ziska went forth on a certain errand, the expediency of which he had discussed with his mother.

“I never thought he’d be so firm about it, ma’am,” said Lotta to her mistress.

“If we could get Trendellsohn to turn her off, he would not think much of her afterwards,” said the mother. “He wouldn’t care to take the Jew’s leavings.”

“But he seems to be so obstinate,” said Lotta. “Indeed I did not think there was so much obstinacy in him.”

“Of course he is obstinate while he thinks the other man is to have her,” said the mistress; “but all that will be changed when the girl is alone in the world.”

It was a Saturday morning, and Ziska had gone out with a certain fixed object. Much had been said between him and his mother since Anton Trendellsohn’s visit to the office, and it had been decided that he should now go and see the Jew in his own home. He should see him and speak him fair, and make him understand if possible that the whole question of the property should be settled as he wished it — if he would only give up his insane purpose of marrying a Christian girl. Ziska would endeavour also to fill the Jew’s mind with suspicion against Nina. The former scheme was Ziska’s own; the second was that in which Ziska’s mother put her chief trust. “If once he can be made to think that the girl is deceiving him, he will quarrel with her utterly,” Madame Zamenoy had said.

On Saturday there is but little business done in Prague, because Saturday is the Sabbath of the Jews. The shops are of course open in the main streets of the town, but banks and counting-houses are closed, because the Jews will not do business on that day — so great is the preponderance of the wealth of Prague in the hands of that people! It suited Ziska, therefore, to make his visit on a Saturday, both because he had but little himself to do on that day, and because he would be almost sure to find Trendellsohn at home. As he made his way across the bottom of the Kalowrat-strasse and through the centre of the city to the narrow ways of the Jews’ quarter, his heart somewhat misgave him as to the result of his visit. He knew very well that a Christian was safe among the Jews from any personal ill-usage; but he knew also that such a one as he would be known personally to many of them as a Christian rival, and probably as a Christian enemy in the same city, and he thought that they would look at him askance. Living in Prague all his life, he had hardly been above once or twice in the narrow streets which he was now threading. Strangers who come to Prague visit the Jews’ quarter as a matter of course, and to such strangers the Jews of Prague are invariably courteous. But the Christians of the city seldom walk through the heart of the Jews’ locality, or hang about the Jews’ synagogue, or are seen among their houses unless they have special business. The Jews’ quarter, though it is a banishment to the Jews from the fairer portions of the city, is also a separate and somewhat sacred castle in which they may live after their old fashion undisturbed. As Ziska went on, he became aware that the throng of people was unusually great, and that the day was in some sort more peculiar than the ordinary Jewish Sabbath. That the young men and girls should be dressed in their best clothes was, as a matter of course, incidental to the day; but he could perceive that there was an outward appearance of gala festivity about them which could not take place every week. The tall bright-eyed black-haired girls stood talking in the streets, with something of boldness in their gait and bearing, dressed many of them in white muslin, with bright ribbons and full petticoats, and that small bewitching Hungarian hat which they delight to wear. They stood talking somewhat loudly to each other, or sat at the open windows; while the young men in black frock-coats and black hats, with crimson cravats, clustered by themselves, wishing, but not daring so early in the day, to devote themselves to the girls, who appeared, or attempted to appear, unaware of their presence. Who can say why it is that those encounters, which are so ardently desired by both sides, are so rarely able to get themselves commenced till the enemies have been long in sight of each other? But so it is among Jews and Christians, among rich and poor, out under the open sky, and even in the atmosphere of the ball-room, consecrated though it be to such purposes. Go into any public dancing-room of Vienna, where the girls from the shops and the young men from their desks congregate to waltz and make love, and you shall observe that from ten to twelve they will dance as vigorously as at a later hour, but that they will hardly talk to each other till the mellowness of the small morning hours has come upon them.

Among these groups in the Jewish quarter Ziska made his way, conscious that the girls eyed him and whispered to each other something as to his presence, and conscious also that the young men eyed him also, though they did so without speaking of him as he passed. He knew that Trendellsohn lived close to the synagogue, and to the synagogue he made his way. And as he approached the narrow door of the Jews’ church, he saw that a crowd of men stood round it, some in high caps and some in black hats, but all habited in short muslin shirts, which they wore over their coats. Such dresses he had seen before, and he knew that these men were taking part from time to time in some service within the synagogue. He did not dare to ask of one of them which was Trendellsohn’s house, but went on till he met an old man alone just at the back of the building, dressed also in a high cap and shirt, which shirt, however, was longer than those he had seen before. Plucking up his courage, he asked of the old man which was the house of Anton Trendellsohn.

“Anton Trendellsohn has no house,” said the old man; “but that is his father’s house, and there Anton Trendellsohn lives. I am Stephen Trendellsohn, and Anton is my son.”

Ziska thanked him, and, crossing the street to the house, found that the door was open, and that two girls were standing just within the passage. The old man had gone, and Ziska, turning, had perceived that he was out of sight before he reached the house.

“I cannot come till my uncle returns,” said the younger girl.

“But, Ruth, he will be in the synagogue all day,” said the elder, who was that Rebecca Loth of whom the old Jew had spoken to his son.

“Then all day I must remain,” said Ruth; “but it may be he will be in by one.” Then Ziska addressed them, and asked if Anton Trendellsohn did not live there.

“Yes; he lives there,” said Ruth, almost trembling, as she answered the handsome stranger.

“And is he at home?”

“He is in the synagogue,” said Ruth. “You will find him there if you will go in.”

“But they are at worship there,” said Ziska, doubtingly.

“They will be at worship all day, because it is our festival,” said Rebecca, with her eyes fixed upon the ground; “but if you are a Christian they will not object to your going in. They like that Christians should see them. They are not ashamed.”

Ziska, looking into the girl’s face, saw that she was very beautiful; and he saw also at once that she was exactly the opposite of Nina, though they were both of a height. Nina was fair, with grey eyes, and smooth brown hair which seemed to demand no special admiration, though it did in truth add greatly to the sweet delicacy of her face; and she was soft in her gait, and appeared to be yielding and flexible in all the motions of her body. You would think that if you were permitted to embrace her, the outlines of her body would form themselves to yours, as though she would in all things fit herself to him who might be blessed by her love. But Rebecca Loth was dark, with large dark-blue eyes and jet black tresses, which spoke out loud to the beholder of their own loveliness. You could not fail to think of her hair and of her eyes, as though they were things almost separate from herself. And she stood like a queen, who knew herself to be all a queen, strong on her limbs, wanting no support, somewhat hard withal, with a repellant beauty that seemed to disdain while it courted admiration, and utterly rejected the idea of that caressing assistance which men always love to give, and which women often love to receive. At the present moment she was dressed in a frock of white muslin, looped round the skirt, and bright with ruby ribbons. She had on her feet coloured boots, which fitted them to a marvel, and on her glossy hair a small new hat, ornamented with the plumage of some strange bird. On her shoulders she wore a coloured jacket, open down the front, sparkling with jewelled buttons, over which there hung a chain with a locket. In her ears she carried long heavy earrings of gold. Were it not that Ziska had seen others as gay in their apparel on his way, he would have fancied that she was tricked out for the playing of some special part, and that she should hardly have shown herself in the streets with her gala finery. Such was Rebecca Loth the Jewess, and Ziska almost admitted to himself that she was more beautiful than Nina Balatka.

“And are you also of the family?” Ziska asked.

“No; she is not of the family,” said Ruth. “She is my particular friend, Rebecca Loth. She does not live here. She lives with her brother and her mother.”

“Ruth, how foolish you are! What does it signify to the gentleman?”

“But he asked, and so I supposed he wanted to know.”

“I have to apologise for intruding on you with any questions young ladies,” said Ziska; “especially on a day which seems to be solemn.”

“That does not matter at all,” said Rebecca. “Here is my brother, and he will take you into the synagogue if you wish to see Anton Trendellsohn.” Samuel Loth, her brother, then came up and readily offered to take Ziska into the midst of the worshippers. Ziska would have escaped now from the project could he have done so without remark; but he was ashamed to seem afraid to enter the building, as the girls seemed to make so light of his doing so. He therefore followed Rebecca’s brother, and in a minute or two was inside the narrow door.

The door was very low and narrow, and seemed to be choked up by men with short white surplices, but nevertheless he found himself inside, jammed among a crowd of Jews; and a sound of many voices, going together in a sing-song wail or dirge, met his ears. His first impulse was to take off his hat, but that was immediately replaced upon his head, he knew not by whom; and then he observed that all within the building were covered. His guide did not follow him, but whispered to some one what it was that the stranger required. He could see that those inside the building were all clothed in muslin shirts of different lengths, and that it was filled with men, all of whom had before them some sort of desk, from which they were reading, or rather wailing out their litany. Though this was the chief synagogue in Prague, and, as being the so-called oldest in Europe, is a building of some consequence in the Jewish world, it was very small. There was no ceiling, and the high-pitched roof, which had once probably been coloured, and the walls, which had once certainly been white, were black with the dirt of ages. In the centre there was a cage, as it were, or iron grille, within which five or six old Jews were placed, who seemed to wail louder than the others. Round the walls there was a row of men inside stationary desks, and outside them another row, before each of whom there was a small movable standing desk, on which there was a portion of the law of Moses. There seemed to be no possible way by which Ziska could advance, and he would have been glad to retreat had retreat been possible. But first one Jew and then another moved their desks for him, so that he was forced to advance, and some among them pointed to the spot where Anton Trendellsohn was standing. But as they pointed, and as they moved their desks to make a pathway, they still sang and wailed continuously, never ceasing for an instant in their long, loud, melancholy song of prayer. At the further end there seemed to be some altar, in front of which the High Priest wailed louder than all, louder even than the old men within the cage; and even he, the High Priest, was forced to move his desk to make way for Ziska. But, apparently without displeasure, he moved it with his left hand, while he swayed his right hand backwards and forwards as though regulating the melody of the wail. Beyond the High Priest Ziska saw Anton Trendellsohn, and close to the son he saw the old man whom he had met in the street, and whom he recognised as Anton’s father. Old Trendellsohn seemed to take no notice of him, but Anton had watched him from his entrance, and was prepared to speak to him, though he did not discontinue his part in the dirge till the last moment.

“I had a few words to say to you, if it would suit you,” said Ziska, in a low voice.

“Are they of import?” Trendellsohn asked. “If so, I will come to you.”

Ziska then turned to make his way back, but he saw that this was not to be his road for retreat. Behind him the movable phalanx had again formed itself into close rank, but before him the wailing wearers of the white shirts were preparing for the commotion of his passage by grasping the upright stick of their movable desks in their hands. So he passed on, making the entire round of the synagogue; and when he got outside the crowded door, he found that the younger Trendellsohn had followed him. “We had better go into the house,” said Anton; “it will not be well for us to talk here on any matter of business. Will you follow me?”

Then he led the way into the old house, and there at the front door still stood the two girls talking to each other.

“You have come back, uncle,” said Ruth.

“Yes; for a few moments, to speak to this gentleman.”

“And will you return to the synagogue?”

“Of course I shall return to the synagogue.”

“Because Rebecca wishes me to go out with her,” said the younger girl, in a plaintive voice.

“You cannot go out now. Your grandfather will want you when he returns.”

“But, uncle Anton, he will not come till sunset.”

“My mother wished to have Ruth with her this afternoon if it were possible,” said Rebecca, hardly looking at Anton as she spoke to him; “but of course if you will not give her leave I must return without her.”

“Do you not know, Rebecca,” said Anton, “that she is needful to her grandfather?”

“She could be back before sunset.”

“I will trust to you, then, that she is brought back.” Ruth, as soon as she heard the words, scampered up-stairs to array herself in such finery as she possessed, while Rebecca still stood at the door.

“Will you not come in, Rebecca, while you wait for her?” said Anton.

“Thank you, I will stand here. I am very well here.”

“But the child will be ever so long making herself ready. Surely you will come in.”

But Rebecca was obstinate, and kept her place at the door. “He has that Christian girl there with him day after day,” she said to Ruth as they went away together. “I will never enter the house while she is allowed to come there.”

“But Nina is very good,” said Ruth.

“I do not care for her goodness.”

“Do you not know that she is to be uncle Anton’s wife?”

“They have told me so, but she shall be no friend of mine, Ruth. Is it not shameful that he should wish to marry a Christian?”

When the two men had reached the sitting-room in the Jew’s house, and Ziska had seated himself, Anton Trendellsohn closed the door, and asked, not quite in anger, but with something of sternness in his voice, why he had been disturbed while engaged in an act of worship.

“They told me that you would not mind my going in to you,” said Ziska, deprecating his wrath.

“That depends on your business. What is it that you have to say to me?”

“It is this. When you came to us the other day in the Ross Markt, we were hardly prepared for you. We did not expect you.”

“Your mother could hardly have received me better had she expected me for a twelvemonth.”

“You cannot be surprised that my mother should be vexed. Besides, you would not be angry with a lady for what she might say.”

“I care but little what she says. But words, my friend, are things, and are often things of great moment. All that, however, matters very little. Why have you done us the honour of coming to our house?”

Even Ziska could perceive, though his powers of perception in such matters were perhaps not very great, that the Jew in the Jews’ quarter, and the Jew in the Ross Markt, were very different persons. Ziska was now sitting while Anton Trendellsohn was standing over him. Ziska, when he remembered that Anton had not been seated in his father’s office — had not been asked to sit down — would have risen himself, and have stood during the interview, but he did not know how to leave his seat. And when the Jew called him his friend, he felt that the Jew was getting the better of him — was already obtaining the ascendant. “Of course we wish to prevent this marriage,” said Ziska, dashing at once at his subject.

“You cannot prevent it. The law allows it. If that is what you have to come to do, you may as well return.”

“But listen to me, my friend,” said Ziska, taking a leaf out of the Jew’s book. “Only listen to me, and then I shall go.”

“Speak, then, and I will listen; but be quick.”

“You want, of course, to be made right about those houses?”

“My father, to whom they belong, wishes to be made right, as you call it.”

“It is all the same thing. Now, look here. The truth is this. Everything shall be settled for you, and the whole thing given up regularly into your hands, if you will only give over about Nina Balatka.”

“But I will not give over about Nina Balatka. Am I to be bribed out of my love by an offer of that which is already mine own? But that you are in my father’s house, I would be wrathful with you for making me such an offer.”

“Why should you seek a Christian wife, with such maidens among you as her whom I saw at the door?”

“Do not mind the maiden whom you saw at the door. She is nothing to you.”

“No; she is nothing to me. Of course, the lady is nothing to me. If I were to come here looking for her, you would be angry, and would bid me seek for beauty among my own people. Would you not do so? Answer me now.”

“Like enough. Rebecca Loth has many friends who would take her part.”

“And why should we not take Nina’s part — we who are her friends?”

“Have you taken her part? Have you comforted her when she was in sorrow? Have you wiped her tears when she wept? Have you taken from her the stings of poverty, and striven to make the world to her a pleasant garden? She has no mother of her own. Has yours been a mother to her? Why is it that Nina Balatka has cared to receive the sympathy and the love of a Jew? Ask that girl whom you saw at the door for some corner in her heart, and she will scorn you. She, a Jewess, will scorn you, a Christian. She would so look at you that you would not dare to repeat your prayer. Why is it that Nina has not so scorned me? We are lodged poorly here, while Nina’s aunt has a fine house in the New Town. She has a carriage and horses, and the world around her is gay and bright. Why did Nina come to the Jews’ quarter for sympathy, seeing that she, too, has friends of her own persuasion? Take Nina’s part, indeed! It is too late now for you to take her part. She has chosen for herself, and her resting-place is to be here.” Trendellsohn, as he spoke, put his hand upon his breast, within the fold of his waistcoat; but Ziska hardly understood that his doing so had any special meaning. Ziska supposed that the “here” of which the Jew spoke was the old house in which they were at that moment talking to each other.

“I am sure we have meant to be kind to her,” said Ziska.

“You see the effect of your kindness. I tell you this only in answer to what you said as to the young woman whom you saw at the door. Have you aught else to say to me? I utterly decline that small matter of traffic which you have proposed to me.”

“It was not traffic exactly.”

“Very well. What else is there that I can do for you?”

“I hardly know how to go on, as you are so — so hard in all that you say.”

“You will not be able to soften me, I fear.”

“About the houses — though you say that I am trafficking, I really wish to be honest with you.”

“Say what you have to say, then, and be honest.”

“I have never seen but one document which conveys the ownership of those houses.”

“Let my father, then, have that one document.”

“It is in Balatka’s house.”

“That can hardly be possible,” said Trendellsohn.

“As I am a Christian gentleman,” said Ziska, “I believe it to be in that house.”

“As I am a Jew, sir, fearing God,” said the other, “I do not believe it. Who in that house has the charge of it?”

Ziska hesitated before he replied. “Nina, as I think,” he said at last. “I suppose Nina has it herself.”

“Then she would be a traitor to me.”

“What am I to say as to that?” said Ziska, smiling. Trendellsohn came to him and sat down close at his side, looking closely into his face. Ziska would have moved away from the Jew, but the elbow of the sofa did not admit of his receding; and then, while he was thinking that he would escape by rising from his seat, Anton spoke again in a low voice — so low that it was almost a whisper, but the words seemed to fall direct into Ziska’s ears, and to hurt him. “What are you to say? You called yourself just now a Christian gentleman. Neither the one name nor the other goes for aught with me. I am neither the one nor the other. But I am a man; and I ask you, as another man, whether it be true that Nina Balatka has that paper in her possession — in her own possession, mind you, I say.” Ziska had hesitated before, but his hesitation now was much more palpable. “Why do you not answer me?” continued the Jew. “You have made this accusation against her. Is the accusation true?”

“I think she has it,” said Ziska. “Indeed I feel sure of it.”

“In her own hands?”

“Oh yes; in her own hands. Of course it must be in her own hands.”

“Christian gentleman,” said Anton, rising again from his seat, and now standing opposite to Ziska, “I disbelieve you. I think that you are lying to me. Despite your Christianity, and despite your gentility — you are a liar. Now, sir, unless you have anything further to say to me, you may go.”

Ziska, when thus addressed, rose of course from his seat. By nature he was not a coward, but he was unready, and knew not what to do or to say on the spur of the moment. “I did not come here to be insulted,” he said.

“No; you came to insult me, with two falsehoods in your mouth, either of which proves the other to be a lie. You offer to give me up the deeds on certain conditions, and then tell me that they are with the girl! If she has them, how can you surrender them? I do not know whether so silly a story might prevail between two Christians, but we Jews have been taught among you to be somewhat observant. Sir, it is my belief that the document belonging to my father is in your father’s desk in the Ross Markt.”

“By heaven, it is in the house in the Kleinseite.”

“How could you then have surrendered it?”

“It could have been managed.”

It was now the Jew’s turn to pause and hesitate. In the general conclusion to which his mind had come, he was not far wrong. He thought that Ziska was endeavouring to deceive him in the spirit of what he said, but that as regarded the letter, the young man was endeavouring to adhere to some fact for the salvation of his conscience as a Christian. If Anton Trendellsohn could but find out in what lay the quibble, the discovery might be very serviceable to him. “It could have been managed — could it?” he said, speaking very slowly. “Between you and her, perhaps.”

“Well, yes; between me and Nina — or between some of us,” said Ziska.

“And cannot it be managed now?”

“Nina is not one of us now. How can we deal with her?”

“Then I will deal with her myself. I will manage it if it is to be managed. And, sir, if I find that in this matter you have told me the simple truth — not the truth, mind you, as from a gentleman, or the truth as from a Christian, for I suspect both — but the simple truth as from man to man, then I will express my sorrow for the harsh words I have used to you.” As he finished speaking, Trendellsohn held the door of the room open in his hand, and Ziska, not being ready with any answer, passed through it and descended the stairs. The Jew followed him and also held open the house door, but did not speak again as Ziska went out. Nor did Ziska say a word, the proper words not being ready to his tongue. The Jew returned at once into the synagogue, having during the interview with Ziska worn the short white surplice in which he had been found; and Ziska returned at once to his own house in the Windberg-gasse.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43