Nina Balatka, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter X

Some days passed on after the visit to the jeweller’s shop — perhaps ten or twelve — before Nina heard from or saw her lover again; and during that time she had no tidings from her relatives in the Windberg-gasse. Life went on very quietly in the old house, and not the less quietly because the proceeds of the necklace saved Nina from any further immediate necessity of searching for money. The cold weather had come, or rather weather that was cold in the morning and cold in the evening, and old Balatka kept his bed altogether. His state was such that no one could say why he should not get up and dress himself, and he himself continued to speak of some future time when he would do so; but there he was, lying in his bed, and Nina told herself that in all probability she would never see him about the house again. For herself, she was becoming painfully anxious that some day should be fixed for her marriage. She knew that she was, herself, ignorant in such matters; and she knew also that there was no woman near her from whom she could seek counsel. Were she to go to some matron of the neighbourhood, her neighbour would only rebuke her, because she loved a Jew. She had boldly told her relatives of her love, and by doing so had shut herself out from all assistance from them. From even her father she could get no sympathy; though with him her engagement had become so far a thing sanctioned, that he had ceased to speak of it in words of reproach. But when was it to be? She had more than once made up her mind that she would ask her lover, but her courage had never as yet mounted high enough in his presence to allow her to do so. When he was with her, their conversation always took such a turn that before she left him she was happy enough if she could only draw from him an assurance that he was not forgetting to love her. Of any final time for her marriage he never said a word. In the mean time she and her father might starve! They could not live on the price of a necklace for ever. She had not made up her mind — she never could make up her mind — as to what might be best for her father when she should be married; but she had made up her mind that when that happy time should come, she would simply obey her husband. He would tell her what would be best for her father. But in the mean time there was no word of her marriage; and now she had been ten days in the Kleinseite without once having had so much as a message from her lover. How was it possible that she should continue to live in such a condition as this?

She was sitting one morning very forlorn in the big parlour, looking out upon the birds who were pecking among the dust in the courtyard below, when her eye just caught the drapery of the dress of some woman who had entered the arched gateway. Nina, from her place by the window, could see out through the arch, and no one therefore could come through their gate while she was at her seat without passing under her eye; but on this occasion the birds had distracted her attention, and she had not caught a sight of the woman’s face or figure. Could it be her aunt come to torture her again — her and her father? She knew that Souchey was down-stairs, hanging somewhere in idleness about the door, and therefore she did not leave her place. If it were indeed her aunt, her aunt might come up there to seek her. Or it might possibly be Lotta Luxa, who, next to her aunt, was of all women the most disagreeable to Nina. Lotta, indeed, was not so hard to bear as aunt Sophie, because Lotta could be answered sharply, and could be told to go, if matters proceeded to extremities. In such a case Lotta no doubt would not go; but still the power of desiring her to do so was much. Then Nina remembered that Lotta never wore her petticoats so full as was the morsel of drapery which she had seen. And as she thought of this there came a low knock at the door. Nina, without rising, desired the stranger to come in. Then the door was gently opened, and Rebecca Loth the Jewess stood before her. Nina had seen Rebecca, but had never spoken to her. Each girl had heard much of the other from their younger friend Ruth Jacobi. Ruth was very intimate with them both, and Nina had been willing enough to be told of Rebecca, as had Rebecca also to be told of Nina. “Grandfather wants Anton to marry Rebecca,” Ruth had said more than once; and thus Nina knew well that Rebecca was her rival. “I think he loves her better than his own eyes,” Ruth had said to Rebecca, speaking of her uncle and Nina. Rut Rebecca had heard from a thousand sources of information that he who was to have been her lover had forgotten his own people and his own religion, and had given himself to a Christian girl. Each, therefore, now knew that she looked upon an enemy and a rival; but each was anxious to be very courteous to her enemy.

Nina rose from her chair directly she saw her visitor, and came forward to meet her. “I suppose you hardly know who I am, Fraeulein?” said Rebecca.

“Oh, yes,” said Nina, with her pleasantest smile; “you are Rebecca Loth.”

“Yes, I am Rebecca Loth, the Jewess.”

“I like the Jews,” said Nina.

Rebecca was not dressed now as she had been dressed on that gala occasion when we saw her in the Jews’ quarter. Then she had been as smart as white muslin and bright ribbons and velvet could make her. Now she was clad almost entirely in black, and over her shoulders she wore a dark shawl, drawn closely round her neck. But she had on her head, now as then, that peculiar Hungarian hat which looks almost like a coronet in front, and gives an aspect to the girl who wears it half defiant and half attractive; and there were there, of course, the long, glossy, black curls, and the dark-blue eyes, and the turn of the face, which was so completely Jewish in its hard, bold, almost repellant beauty. Nina had said that she liked the Jews, but when the words were spoken she remembered that they might be open to misconstruction, and she blushed. The same idea occurred to Rebecca, but she scorned to take advantage of even a successful rival on such a point as that. She would not twit Nina by any hint that this assumed liking for the Jews was simply a special predilection for one Jew in particular. “We are not ungrateful to you for coming among us and knowing us,” said Rebecca. Then there was a slight pause, for Nina hardly knew what to say to her visitor. But Rebecca continued to speak. “We hear that in other countries the prejudice against us is dying away, and that Christians stay with Jews in their houses, and Jews with Christians, eating with them, and drinking with them. I fear it will never be so in Prague.”

“And why not in Prague? I hope it may. Why should we not do in Prague as they do elsewhere?”

“Ah, the feeling is so firmly settled here. We have our own quarter, and live altogether apart. A Christian here will hardly walk with a Jew, unless it be from counter to counter, or from bank to bank. As for their living together — or even eating in the same room — do you ever see it?”

Nina of course understood the meaning of this. That which the girl said to her was intended to prove to her how impossible it was that she should marry a Jew, and live in Prague with a Jew as his wife; but she, who stood her ground before aunt Sophie, who had never flinched for a moment before all the threats which could be showered upon her from the Christian side, was not going to quail before the opposition of a Jewess, and that Jewess a rival!

“I do not know why we should not live to see it,” said Nina.

“It must take long first — very long,” said Rebecca. “Even now, Fraeulein, I fear you will think that I am very intrusive in coming to you. I know that a Jewess has no right to push her acquaintance upon a Christian girl.” The Jewess spoke very humbly of herself and of her people; but in every word she uttered there was a slight touch of irony which was not lost upon Nina. Nina could not but bethink herself that she was poor — so poor that everything around her, on her, and about her, told of poverty; while Rebecca was very rich, and showed her wealth even in the sombre garments which she had chosen for her morning visit. No idea of Nina’s poverty had crossed Rebecca’s mind, but Nina herself could not but remember it when she felt the sarcasm implied in her visitor’s self-humiliation.

“I am glad that you have come to me — very glad indeed, if you have come in friendship.” Then she blushed as she continued, “To me, situated as I am, the friendship of a Jewish maiden would be a treasure indeed.”

“You intend to speak of —”

“I speak of my engagement with Anton Trendellsohn. I do so with you because I know that you have heard of it. You tell me that Jews and Christians cannot come together in Prague, but I mean to marry a Jew. A Jew is my lover. If you will say that you will be my friend, I will love you indeed. Ruth Jacobi is my friend; but then Ruth is so young.”

“Yes, Ruth is very young. She is a child. She knows nothing.”

“A child’s friendship is better than none.”

“Ruth is very young. She cannot understand. I too love Ruth Jacobi. I have known her since she was born. I knew and loved her mother. You do not remember Ruth Trendellsohn. No; your acquaintance with them is only of the other day.”

“Ruth’s mother has been dead seven years,” said Nina.

“And what are seven years? I have known them for four-and-twenty.”

“Nay; that cannot be.”

“But I have. That is my age, and I was born, so to say, in their arms. Ruth Trendellsohn was ten years older than I— only ten.”

“And Anton?”

“Anton was a year older than his sister; but you know Anton’s age. Has he never told you his age?”

“I never asked him; but I know it. There are things one knows as a matter of course. I remember his birthday always.”

“It has been a short always.”

“No, not so short. Two years is not a short time to know a friend.”

“But he has not been betrothed to you for two years?”

“No; not betrothed to me.”

“Nor has he loved you so long; nor you him?”

“For him, I can only speak of the time when he first told me so.”

“And that was but the other day — but the other day, as I count the time.” To this Nina made no answer. She could not claim to have known her lover from so early a date as Rebecca Loth had done, who had been, as she said, born in the arms of his family. But what of that? Men do not always love best those women whom they have known the longest. Anton Trendellsohn had known her long enough to find that he loved her best. Why then should this Jewish girl come to her and throw in her teeth the shortness of her intimacy with the man who was to be her husband? If she, Nina, had also been a Jewess, Rebecca Loth would not then have spoken in such a way. As she thought of this she turned her face away from the stranger, and looked out among the sparrows who were still pecking among the dust in the court. She had told Rebecca at the beginning of their interview that she would be delighted to find a friend in a Jewess, but now she felt sorry that the girl had come to her. For Anton’s sake she would bear with much from one whom he had known so long. But for that thought she would have answered her visitor with short courtesy. As it was, she sat silent and looked out upon the birds.

“I have come to you now,” said Rebecca Loth, “to say a few words to you about Anton Trendellsohn. I hope you will not refuse to listen.”

“That will depend on what you say.”

“Do you think it will be for his good to marry a Christian?”

“I shall leave him to judge of that,” replied Nina, sharply.

“It cannot be that you do not think of it. I am sure you would not willingly do an injury to the man you love.”

“I would die for him, if that would serve him.”

“You can serve him without dying. If he takes you for his wife, all his people will turn against him. His own father will become his enemy.”

“How can that be? His father knows of it, and yet he is not my enemy.”

“It is as I tell you. His father will disinherit him. Every Jew in Prague will turn his back upon him. He knows it now. Anton knows it himself, but he cannot be the first to say the word that shall put an end to your engagement.”

“Jews have married Christians in Prague before now,” said Nina, pleading her own cause with all the strength she had.

“But not such a one as Anton Trendellsohn. An unconsidered man may do that which is not permitted to those who are more in note.”

“There is no law against it now.”

“That is true. There is no law. But there are habits stronger than law. In your own case, do you not know that all the friends you have in the world will turn their backs upon you? And so it would be with him. You two would be alone — neither as Jews nor as Christians — with none to aid you, with no friend to love you.”

“For myself I care nothing,” said Nina. “They may say, if they like, that I am no Christian.”

“But how will it be with him? Can you ever be happy if you have been the cause of ruin to your husband?”

Nina was again silent for a while, sitting with her face turned altogether away from the Jewess. Then she rose suddenly from her chair, and, facing round almost fiercely upon the other girl, asked a question, which came from the fulness of her heart, “And you — you yourself, what is it that you intend to do? Do you wish to marry him?”

“I do,” said Rebecca, bearing Nina’s gaze without dropping her own eyes for a moment. “I do. I do wish to be the wife of Anton Trendellsohn.”

“Then you shall never have your wish — never. He loves me, and me only. Ask him, and he will tell you so.”

“I have asked him, and he has told me so.” There was something so serious, so sad, and so determined in the manner of the young Jewess, that it almost cowed Nina — almost drove her to yield before her visitor. “If he has told you so,” she said — then she stopped, not wishing to triumph over her rival.

“He has told me so; but I knew it without his telling. We all know it. I have not come here to deceive you, or to create false suspicions. He does love you. He cares nothing for me, and he does love you. But is he therefore to be ruined? Which had he better lose? All that he has in the world, or the girl that has taken his fancy?”

“I would sooner lose the world twice over than lose him.”

“Yes; but you are only a woman. Think of his position. There is not a Jew in all Prague respected among us as he is respected. He knows more, can do more, has more of wit and cleverness, than any of us. We look to him to win for the Jews in Prague something of the freedom which Jews have elsewhere — in Paris and in London. If he takes a Christian for his wife, all this will be destroyed.”

“But all will be well if he were to marry you!”

Now it was Rebecca’s turn to pause; but it was not for long. “I love him dearly,” she said; “with a love as warm as yours.”

“And therefore I am to be untrue to him,” said Nina, again seating herself.

“And were I to become his wife,” continued Rebecca, not regarding the interruption, “it would be well with him in a worldly point of view. All our people would be glad, because there has been friendship between the families from of old. His father would be pleased, and he would become rich; and I also am not without some wealth of my own.”

“While I am poor,” said Nina; “so poor that — look here, I can only mend my rags. There, look at my shoes. I have not another pair to my feet. But if he likes me, poor and ragged, better than he likes you, rich —” She got so far, raising her voice as she spoke; but she could get no farther, for her sobs stopped her voice.

But while she was struggling to speak, the other girl rose and knelt at Nina’s feet, putting her long tapering fingers upon Nina’s thread-bare arms, so that her forehead was almost close to Nina’s lips. “He does,” said Rebecca. “It is true — quite true. He loves you, poor as you are, ten times — a hundred times — better than he loves me, who am not poor. You have won it altogether by yourself, with nothing of outside art to back you. You have your triumph. Will not that be enough for a life’s contentment?”

“No — no, no,” said Nina. “No, it will not be enough.” But her voice now was not altogether sorrowful. There was in it something of a wild joy which had come to her heart from the generous admission which the Jewess made. She did triumph as she remembered that she had conquered with no other weapons than those which nature had given her.

“It is more of contentment than I shall ever have,” said Rebecca. “Listen to me. If you will say to me that you will release him from his promise, I will swear to you by the God whom we both worship, that I will never become his wife — that he shall never touch me or speak to me in love.” She had risen before she made this proposal, and now stood before Nina with one hand raised, with her blue eyes fixed upon Nina’s face, and a solemnity in her manner which for a while startled Nina into silence. “You will believe my word, I am sure,” said Rebecca.

“Yes, I would believe you,” said Nina.

“Shall it be a bargain between us? Say so, and whatever is mine shall be mine and yours too. Though a Jew may not make a Christian his wife, a Jewish girl may love a Christian maiden; and then, Nina, we shall both know that we have done our very best for him whom we both love better than all the world beside.”

Nina was again silent, considering the proposition that had been made to her. There was one thing that she did not see; one point of view in which the matter had not been presented to her. The cause for her sacrifice had been made plain to her, but why was the sacrifice of the other also to become necessary? By not yielding she might be able to keep her lover to herself; but if she were to be induced to abandon him — for his sake, so that he might not be ruined by his love for her — why, in that case, should he not take the other girl for his wife? In such a case Nina told herself that there would be no world left for her. There would be nothing left for her beyond the accomplishment of Lotta Luxa’s prophecy. But yet, though she thought of this, though in her misery she half resolved that she would give up Anton, and not exact from Rebecca the oath which the Jewess had tendered, still, in spite of that feeling, the dread of a rival’s success helped to make her feel that she could never bring herself to yield.

“Shall it be as I say?” said Rebecca; “and shall we, dear, be friends while we live?”

“No,” said Nina, suddenly.

“You cannot bring yourself to do so much for the man you love?”

“No, I cannot. Could you throw yourself from the bridge into the Moldau, and drown yourself?”

“Yes,” said Rebecca, “I could. If it would serve him, I think that I could do so.”

“What! in the dark, when it is so cold? The people would see you in the daytime.”

“But I would live, that I might hear of his doings, and see his success.”

“Ah! I could not live without feeling that he loved me.”

“But what will you think of his love when it has ruined him? Will it be pleasant then? Were I to do that, then — then I should bethink myself of the cold river and the dark night, and the eyes of the passers-by whom I should be afraid to meet in the daytime. I ask you to be as I am. Who is there that pities me? Think again, Nina. I know you would wish that he should be prosperous.”

Nina did think again, and thought long. And she wept, and the Jewess comforted her, and many words were said between them beyond those which have been here set down; but, in the end, Nina could not bring herself to say that she would give him up. For his sake had she not given up her uncle and her aunt, and St John and St Nicholas — and the very Virgin herself, whose picture she had now removed from the wall beside her bed to a dark drawer? How could she give up that which was everything she had in the world — the very life of her bosom? “I will ask him — him himself,” she said at last, hoarsely. “I will ask him, and do as he bids me. I cannot do anything unless it is as he bids me.”

“In this matter you must act on your own judgment, Nina.”

“No, I will not. I have no judgment. He must judge for me in everything. If he says it is better that we should part, then — then — then I will let him go.”

After this Rebecca left the room and the house. Before she went, she kissed the Christian girl; but Nina did not remember that she had been kissed. Her mind was so full, not of thought, but of the suggestion that had been made to her, that it could now take no impression from anything else. She had been recommended to do a thing as her duty — as a paramount duty towards him who was everything to her — the doing of which it would be impossible that she should survive. So she told herself when she was once more alone, and had again seated herself in the chair by the window. She did not for a moment accuse Rebecca of dealing unfairly with her. It never occurred to her as possible that the Jewess had come to her with false views of her own fabrication. Had she so believed, her suspicions would have done great injustice to her rival; but no such idea presented itself to Nina’s mind. All that Rebecca had said to her had come to her as though it were gospel. She did believe that Trendellsohn, as a Jew, would injure himself greatly by marrying a Christian. She did believe that the Jews of Prague would treat him somewhat as the Christians would treat herself. For herself such treatment would be nothing, if she were but once married; but she could understand that to him it would be ruinous. And Nina believed also that Rebecca had been entirely disinterested in her mission — that she came thither, not to gain a lover for herself, but to save from injury the man she loved, without reference to her own passion. Nina knew that Rebecca was strong and good, and acknowledged also that she herself was weak and selfish. She thought that she ought to have been persuaded to make the sacrifice, and once or twice she almost resolved that she would follow Rebecca to the Jews’ quarter and tell her that it should be made. But she could not do it. Were she to do so, what would be left to her? With him she could bear anything, everything. To starve would hardly be bitter to her, so that his arm could be round her waist, and that her head could be on his shoulder. And, moreover, was she not his to do with as he pleased? After all her promises to him, how could she take upon herself to dispose of herself otherwise than as he might direct?

But then some thought of the missing document came back upon her, and she remembered in her grief that he suspected her — that even now he had some frightful doubt as to her truth to him — her faith, which was, alas, alas! more firm and bright towards him than towards that heavenly Friend whose aid would certainly suffice to bring her through all her troubles, if only she could bring herself to trust as she asked it. But she could trust only in him, and he doubted her! Would it not be better to do as Rebecca said, and make the most of such contentment as might come to her from her triumph over herself? That would be better — ten times better than to be abandoned by him — to be deserted by her Jew lover, because the Jew would not trust her, a Christian! On either side there could be nothing for her but death; but there is a choice even of deaths. If she did the thing herself, she thought that there might be something sweet even in the sadness of her last hour — something of the flavour of sacrifice. But should it be done by him, in that way there lay nothing but the madness of desolation! It was her last resolve, as she still sat at the window counting the sparrows in the yard, that she would tell him everything, and leave it to him to decide. If he would say that it was better for them to part, then he might go; and Rebecca Loth might become his wife, if he so wished it.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01