Nina Balatka was a maiden of Prague, born of Christian parents, and herself a Christian — but she loved a Jew; and this is her story.
Nina Balatka was the daughter of one Josef Balatka, an old merchant of Prague, who was living at the time of this story; but Nina’s mother was dead. Josef, in the course of his business, had become closely connected with a certain Jew named Trendellsohn, who lived in a mean house in the Jews’ quarter in Prague — habitation in that one allotted portion of the town having been the enforced custom with the Jews then, as it still is now. In business with Trendellsohn, the father, there was Anton, his son; and Anton Trendellsohn was the Jew whom Nina Balatka loved. Now it had so happened that Josef Balatka, Nina’s father, had drifted out of a partnership with Karil Zamenoy, a wealthy Christian merchant of Prague, and had drifted into a partnership with Trendellsohn. How this had come to pass needs not to be told here, as it had all occurred in years when Nina was an infant. But in these shiftings Balatka became a ruined man, and at the time of which I write he and his daughter were almost penniless. The reader must know that Karil Zamenoy and Josef Balatka had married sisters. Josef’s wife, Nina’s mother, had long been dead, having died — so said Sophie Zamenoy, her sister — of a broken heart; of a heart that had broken itself in grief, because her husband had joined his fortunes with those of a Jew. Whether the disgrace of the alliance or its disastrous result may have broken the lady’s heart, or whether she may have died of a pleurisy, as the doctors said, we need not inquire here. Her soul had been long at rest, and her spirit, we may hope, had ceased to fret itself in horror at contact with a Jew. But Sophie Zamenoy was alive and strong, and could still hate a Jew as intensely as Jews ever were hated in those earlier days in which hatred could satisfy itself with persecution. In her time but little power was left to Madame Zamenoy to persecute the Trendellsohns other than that which nature had given to her in the bitterness of her tongue. She could revile them behind their back, or, if opportunity offered, to their faces; and both she had done often, telling the world of Prague that the Trendellsohns had killed her sister, and robbed her foolish brother-inlaw. But hitherto the full vial of her wrath had not been emptied, as it came to be emptied afterwards; for she had not yet learned the mad iniquity of her niece. But at the moment of which I now speak, Nina herself knew her own iniquity, hardly knowing, however, whether her love did or did not disgrace her. But she did know that any thought as to that was too late. She loved the man, and had told him so; and were he gipsy as well as Jew, it would be required of her that she should go out with him into the wilderness. And Nina Balatka was prepared to go out into the wilderness. Karil Zamenoy and his wife were prosperous people, and lived in a comfortable modern house in the New Town. It stood in a straight street, and at the back of the house there ran another straight street. This part of the city is very little like that old Prague, which may not be so comfortable, but which, of all cities on the earth, is surely the most picturesque. Here lived Sophie Zamenoy; and so far up in the world had she mounted, that she had a coach of her own in which to be drawn about the thoroughfares of Prague and its suburbs, and a stout little pair of Bohemian horses — ponies they were called by those who wished to detract somewhat from Madame Zamenoy’s position. Madame Zamenoy had been at Paris, and took much delight in telling her friends that the carriage also was Parisian; but, in truth, it had come no further than from Dresden. Josef Balatka and his daughter were very, very poor; but, poor as they were, they lived in a large house, which, at least nominally, belonged to old Balatka himself, and which had been his residence in the days of his better fortunes. It was in the Kleinseite, that narrow portion of the town, which lies on the other side of the river Moldau — the further side, that is, from the so-called Old and New Town, on the western side of the river, immediately under the great hill of the Hradschin. The Old Town and the New Town are thus on one side of the river, and the Kleinseite and the Hradschin on the other. To those who know Prague, it need not here be explained that the streets of the Kleinseite are wonderful in their picturesque architecture, wonderful in their lights and shades, wonderful in their strange mixture of shops and palaces — and now, alas! also of Austrian barracks — and wonderful in their intricacy and great steepness of ascent. Balatka’s house stood in a small courtyard near to the river, but altogether hidden from it, somewhat to the right of the main street of the Kleinseite as you pass over the bridge. A lane, for it is little more, turning from the main street between the side walls of what were once two palaces, comes suddenly into a small square, and from a corner of this square there is an open stone archway leading into a court. In this court is the door, or doors, as I may say, of the house in which Balatka lived with his daughter Nina. Opposite to these two doors was the blind wall of another residence. Balatka’s house occupied two sides of the court, and no other window, therefore, besides his own looked either upon it or upon him. The aspect of the place is such as to strike with wonder a stranger to Prague — that in the heart of so large a city there should be an abode so sequestered, so isolated, so desolate, and yet so close to the thickest throng of life. But there are others such, perhaps many others such, in Prague; and Nina Balatka, who had been born there, thought nothing of the quaintness of her abode. Immediately over the little square stood the palace of the Hradschin, the wide-spreading residence of the old kings of Bohemia, now the habitation of an ex-emperor of the House of Hapsburg, who must surely find the thousand chambers of the royal mansion all too wide a retreat for the use of his old age. So immediately did the imperial hill tower over the spot on which Balatka lived, that it would seem at night, when the moon was shining as it shines only at Prague, that the colonnades of the palace were the upper storeys of some enormous edifice, of which the broken merchant’s small courtyard formed a lower portion. The long rows of windows would glimmer in the sheen of the night, and Nina would stand in the gloom of the archway counting them till they would seem to be uncountable, and wondering what might be the thoughts of those who abode there. But those who abode there were few in number, and their thoughts were hardly worthy of Nina’s speculation. The windows of kings’ palaces look out from many chambers. The windows of the Hradschin look out, as we are told, from a thousand. But the rooms within have seldom many tenants, nor the tenants, perhaps, many thoughts. Chamber after chamber, you shall pass through them by the score, and know by signs unconsciously recognised that there is not, and never has been, true habitation within them. Windows almost innumerable are there, that they may be seen from the outside — and such is the use of palaces. But Nina, as she would look, would people the rooms with throngs of bright inhabitants, and would think of the joys of happy girls who were loved by Christian youths, and who could dare to tell their friends of their love. But Nina Balatka was no coward, and she had already determined that she would at once tell her love to those who had a right to know in what way she intended to dispose of herself. As to her father, if only he could have been alone in the matter, she would have had some hope of a compromise which would have made it not absolutely necessary that she should separate herself from him for ever in giving herself to Anton Trendellsohn. Josef Balatka would doubtless express horror, and would feel shame that his daughter should love a Jew — though he had not scrupled to allow Nina to go frequently among these people, and to use her services with them for staving off the ill consequences of his own idleness and ill-fortune; but he was a meek, broken man, and was so accustomed to yield to Nina that at last he might have yielded to her even in this. There was, however, that Madame Zamenoy, her aunt — her aunt with the bitter tongue; and there was Ziska Zamenoy, her cousin — her rich and handsome cousin, who would so soon declare himself willing to become more than cousin, if Nina would but give him one nod of encouragement, or half a smile of welcome. But Nina hated her Christian lover, cousin though he was, as warmly as she loved the Jew. Nina, indeed, loved none of the Zamenoys — neither her cousin Ziska, nor her very Christian aunt Sophie with the bitter tongue, nor her prosperous, money-loving, acutely mercantile uncle Karil; but, nevertheless, she was in some degree so subject to them, that she knew that she was bound to tell them what path in life she meant to tread. Madame Zamenoy had offered to take her niece to the prosperous house in the Windberg-gasse when the old house in the Kleinseite had become poor and desolate; and though this generous offer had been most fatuously declined — most wickedly declined, as aunt Sophie used to declare — nevertheless other favours had been vouchsafed; and other favours had been accepted, with sore injury to Nina’s pride. As she thought of this, standing in the gloom of the evening under the archway, she remembered that the very frock she wore had been sent to her by her aunt. But I in spite of the bitter tongue, and in spite of Ziska’s derision, she would tell her tale, and would tell it soon. She knew her own courage, and trusted it; and, dreadful as the hour would be, she would not put it off by one moment. As soon as Anton should desire her to declare her purpose, she would declare it; and as he who stands on a precipice, contemplating the expediency of throwing himself from the rock, will feel himself gradually seized by a mad desire to do the deed out of hand at once, so did Nina feel anxious to walk off to the Windberg-gasse, and dare and endure all that the Zamenoys could say or do. She knew, or thought she knew, that persecution could not go now beyond the work of the tongue. No priest could immure her. No law could touch her because she was minded to marry a Jew. Even the people in these days were mild and forbearing in their usages with the Jews, and she thought that the girls of the Kleinseite would not tear her clothes from her back even when they knew of her love. One thing, however, was certain. Though every rag should be torn from her — though some priest might have special power given him to persecute her — though the Zamenoys in their wrath should be able to crush her — even though her own father should refuse to see her, she would be true to the Jew. Love to her should be so sacred that no other sacredness should be able to touch its sanctity. She had thought much of love, but had never loved before. Now she loved, and, heart and soul, she belonged to him to whom she had devoted herself. Whatever suffering might be before her, though it were suffering unto death, she would endure it if her lover demanded such endurance. Hitherto, there was but one person who suspected her. In her father’s house there still remained an old dependant, who, though he was a man, was cook and housemaid, and washer-woman and servant-of-all-work; or perhaps it would be more true to say that he and Nina between them did all that the requirements of the house demanded. Souchey — for that was his name — was very faithful, but with his fidelity had come a want of reverence towards his master and mistress, and an absence of all respectful demeanour. The enjoyment of this apparent independence by Souchey himself went far, perhaps, in lieu of wages.
“Nina,” he said to her one morning, “you are seeing too much of Anton Trendellsohn.”
“What do you mean by that, Souchey?” said the girl, sharply.
“You are seeing too much of Anton Trendellsohn,” repeated the old man.
“I have to see him on father’s account. You know that. You know that, Souchey, and you shouldn’t say such things.”
“You are seeing too much of Anton Trendellsohn,” said Souchey for the third time. “Anton Trendellsohn is a Jew.”
Then Nina knew that Souchey had read her secret, and was sure that it would spread from him through Lotta Luxa, her aunt’s confidential maid, up to her aunt’s ears. Not that Souchey would be untrue to her on behalf of Madame Zamenoy, whom he hated; but that he would think himself bound by his religious duty — he who never went near priest or mass himself — to save his mistress from the perils of the Jew. The story of her love must be told, and Nina preferred to tell it herself to having it told for her by her servant Souchey. She must see Anton. When the evening therefore had come, and there was sufficient dusk upon the bridge to allow of her passing over without observation, she put her old cloak upon her shoulders, with the hood drawn over her head, and, crossing the river, turned to the left and made her way through the narrow crooked streets which led to the Jews’ quarter. She knew the path well, and could have found it with blindfolded eyes. In the middle of that close and densely populated region of Prague stands the old Jewish synagogue — the oldest place of worship belonging to the Jews in Europe, as they delight to tell you; and in a pinched-up, high-gabled house immediately behind the synagogue, at the corner of two streets, each so narrow as hardly to admit a vehicle, dwelt the Trendellsohns. On the basement floor there had once been a shop. There was no shop now, for the Trendellsohns were rich, and no longer dealt in retail matters; but there had been no care, or perhaps no ambition, at work, to alter the appearance of their residence, and the old shutters were upon the window, making the house look as though it were deserted. There was a high-pitched sharp roof over the gable, which, as the building stood alone fronting upon the synagogue, made it so remarkable, that all who knew Prague well, knew the house in which the Trendellsohns lived. Nina had often wished, as in latter days she had entered it, that it was less remarkable, so that she might have gone in and out with smaller risk of observation. It was now the beginning of September, and the clocks of the town had just struck eight as Nina put her hand on the lock of the Jew’s door. As usual it was not bolted, and she was able to enter without waiting in the street for a servant to come to her. She went at once along the narrow passage and up the gloomy wooden stairs, at the foot of which there hung a small lamp, giving just light enough to expel the actual blackness of night. On the first landing Nina knocked at a door, and was desired to enter by a soft female voice. The only occupant of the room when she entered was a dark-haired child, some twelve years old perhaps, but small in stature and delicate, and, as appeared to the eye, almost wan. “Well, Ruth dear,” said Nina, “is Anton at home this evening?”
“He is up-stairs with grandfather, Nina. Shall I tell him?”
“If you will, dear,” said Nina, stooping down and kissing her.
“Nice Nina, dear Nina, good Nina,” said the girl, rubbing her glossy curls against her friend’s cheeks. “Ah, dear, how I wish you lived here!”
“But I have a father, as you have a grandfather, Ruth.”
“And he is a Christian.”
“And so am I, Ruth.”
“But you like us, and are good, and nice, and dear — and oh, Nina, you are so beautiful! I wish you were one of us, and lived here. There is Miriam Harter — her hair is as light as yours, and her eyes are as grey.”
“What has that to do with it?”
“Only I am so dark, and most of us are dark here in Prague. Anton says that away in Palestine our girls are as fair as the girls in Saxony.”
“And does not Anton like girls to be dark?”
“Anton likes fair hair — such as yours — and bright grey eyes such as you have got. I said they were green, and he pulled my ears. But now I look, Nina, I think they are green. And so bright! I can see my own in them, though it is so dark. That is what they call looking babies.”
“Go to your uncle, Ruth, and tell him that I want him — on business.”
“I will, and he’ll come to you. He won’t let me come down again, so kiss me, Nina; good-bye.”
Nina kissed the child again, and then was left alone in the room. It was a comfortable chamber, having in it sofas and arm-chairs — much more comfortable, Nina used to think, than her aunt’s grand drawing-room in the Windberg-gasse, which was covered all over with a carpet, after the fashion of drawing-rooms in Paris; but the Jew’s sitting-room was dark, with walls painted a gloomy green colour, and there was but one small lamp of oil upon the table. But yet Nina loved the room, and as she sat there waiting for her lover, she wished that it had been her lot to have been born a Jewess. Only, had that been so, her hair might perhaps have been black, and her eyes dark, and Anton would not have liked her. She put her hand up for a moment to her rich brown tresses, and felt them as she took joy in thinking that Anton Trendellsohn loved to look upon fair beauty.
After a short while Anton Trendellsohn came down. To those who know the outward types of his race there could be no doubt that Anton Trendellsohn was a very Jew among Jews. He was certainly a handsome man, not now very young, having reached some year certainly in advance of thirty, and his face was full of intellect. He was slightly made, below the middle height, but was well made in every limb, with small feet and hands, and small ears, and a well-turned neck. He was very dark — dark as a man can be, and yet show no sign of colour in his blood. No white man could be more dark and swarthy than Anton Trendellsohn. His eyes, however, which were quite black, were very bright. His jet-black hair, as it clustered round his ears, had in it something of a curl. Had it been allowed to grow, it would almost have hung in ringlets; but it was worn very short, as though its owner were jealous even of the curl. Anton Trendellsohn was decidedly a handsome man; but his eyes were somewhat too close together in his face, and the bridge of his aquiline nose was not sharply cut, as is mostly the case with such a nose on a Christian face. The olive oval face was without doubt the face of a Jew, and the mouth was greedy, and the teeth were perfect and bright, and the movement of the man’s body was the movement of a Jew. But not the less on that account had he behaved with Christian forbearance to his Christian debtor, Josef Balatka, and with Christian chivalry to Balatka’s daughter, till that chivalry had turned itself into love.
“Nina,” he said, putting out his hand, and holding hers as he spoke, “I hardly expected you this evening; but I am glad to see you — very glad.”
“I hope I am not troubling you, Anton?”
“How can you trouble me? The sun does not trouble us when we want light and heat.”
“Can I give you light and heat?”
“The light and heat I love best, Nina.”
“If I thought that — if I could really think that — I would be happy still, and would mind nothing.”
“And what is it you do mind?”
“There are things to trouble us, of course. When aunt Sophie says that all of us have our troubles — even she — I suppose that even she speaks the truth.”
“Your aunt Sophie is a fool.”
“I should not mind if she were only a fool. But a fool can sometimes be right.”
“And she has been scolding you because — you — prefer a Jew to a Christian.”
“No — not yet, Anton. She does not know it yet; but she must know it.”
“Sit down, Nina.” He was still holding her by the hand; and now, as he spoke, he led her to a sofa which stood between the two windows. There he seated her, and sat by her side, still holding her hand in his. “Yes,” he said, “she must know it of course — when the time comes; and if she guesses it before, you must put up with her guesses. A few sharp words from a foolish woman will not frighten you, I hope.”
“No words will frighten me out of my love, if you mean that — neither words nor anything else.”
“I believe you. You are brave, Nina. I know that. Though you will cry if one but frowns at you, yet you are brave.”
“Do not you frown at me, Anton.”
“I am one of those that do frown at times, I suppose; but I will be true to you, Nina, if you will be true to me.”
“I will be true to you — true as the sun.”
As she made her promise she turned her sweet face up to his, and he leaned over her, and kissed her.
“And what is it that has disturbed you now, Nina? What has Madame Zamenoy said to you?”
“She has said nothing — as yet. She suspects nothing — as yet.”
“Then let her remain as she is.”
“But, Anton, Souchey knows, and he will talk.”
“Souchey! And do you care for that?”
“I care for nothing — for nothing; for nothing, that is, in the way of preventing me. Do what they will, they cannot tear my love from my heart.”
“Nor can they take you away, or lock you up.”
“I fear nothing of that sort, Anton. All that I really fear is secrecy. Would it not be best that I should tell father?”
“What! — now, at once?”
“If you will let me. I suppose he must know it soon.”
“You can if you please.”
“Souchey will tell him.”
“Will Souchey dare to speak of you like that?” asked the Jew.
“Oh, yes; Souchey dares to say anything to father now. Besides, it is true. Why should not Souchey say it?”
“But you have not spoken to Souchey; you have not told him?”
“I! No indeed. I have spoken never a word to anyone about that — only to you. How should I speak to another without your bidding? But when they speak to me I must answer them. If father asks me whether there be aught between you and me, shall I not tell him then?”
“It would be better to be silent for a while.”
“But shall I lie to him? I should not mind Souchey nor aunt Sophie much; but I never yet told a lie to father.”
“I do not tell you to lie.”
“Let me tell it all. Anton, and then, whatever they may say, whatever they may do, I shall not mind. I wish that they knew it, and then I could stand up against them. Then I could tell Ziska that which would make him hold his tongue for ever.”
“Ziska! Who cares for Ziska?”
“You need not, at any rate.”
“The truth is, Nina, that I cannot be married till I have settled all this about the houses in the Kleinseite. The very fact that you would be your father’s heir prevents my doing so.”
“Do you think that I wish to hurry you? I would rather stay as I am, knowing that you love me.”
“Dear Nina! But when your aunt shall once know your secret, she will give you no peace till you are out of her power. She will leave no stone unturned to make you give up your Jew lover.”
“She may as well leave the turning of such stones alone.”
“But if she heard nothing of it till she heard that we were married —”
“Ah! but that is impossible. I could not do that without telling father, and father would surely tell my aunt.”
“You may do as you will, Nina; but it may be, when they shall know it, that therefore there may be new difficulty made about the houses. Karil Zamenoy has the papers, which are in truth mine — or my father’s — which should be here in my iron box.” And Trendellsohn, as he spoke, put his hand forcibly on the seat beside him, as though the iron box to which he alluded were within his reach.
“I know they are yours,” said Nina.
“Yes; and without them, should your father die, I could not claim my property. The Zamenoys might say they held it on your behalf — and you my wife at the time! Do you see, Nina? I could not stand that — I would not stand that.”
“I understand it well, Anton.”
“The houses are mine — or ours, rather. Your father has long since had the money, and more than the money. He knew that the houses were to be ours.”
“He knows it well. You do not think that he is holding back the papers?”
“He should get them for me. He should not drive me to press him for them. I know they are at Karil Zamenoy’s counting-house; but your uncle told me, when I spoke to him, that he had no business with me; if I had a claim on him, there was the law. I have no claim on him. But I let your father have the money when he wanted it, on his promise that the deeds should be forthcoming. A Christian would not have been such a fool.”
“Oh, Anton, do not speak to me like that.”
“But was I not a fool? See how it is now. Were you and I to become man and wife, they would never give them up, though they are my own — my own. No; we must wait; and you — you must demand them from your uncle.”
“I will demand them. And as for waiting, I care nothing for that if you love me.”
“I do love you.”
“Then all shall be well with me; and I will ask for the papers. Father, I know, wishes that you should have all that is your own. He would leave the house tomorrow if you desired it.”
“He is welcome to remain there.”
“And now, Anton, good-night.”
“When shall I see you again?”
“When you please, and as often. Have I not said that you are light and heat to me? Can the sun rise too often for those who love it?” Then she held her hand up to be kissed, and kissed his in return, and went silently down the stairs into the street. He had said once in the course of the conversation — nay, twice, as she came to remember in thinking over it — that she might do as she would about telling her friends; and she had been almost craftily careful to say nothing herself, and to draw nothing from him, which could be held as militating against this authority, or as subsequently negativing the permission so given. She would undoubtedly tell her father — and her aunt; and would as certainly demand from her uncle those documents of which Anton Trendellsohn had spoken to her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01