Nina Balatka, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XI

On one of these days old Trendellsohn went to the office of Karil Zamenoy, in the Ross Markt, with the full determination of learning in truth what there might be to be learned as to that deed which would be so necessary to him, or to those who would come after him, when Josef Balatka might die. He accused himself of having been foolishly soft-hearted in his transactions with this Christian, and reminded himself from time to time that no Jew in Prague would have been so treated by any Christian. And what was the return made to him? Among them they had now secreted that of which he should have enforced the rendering before he had parted with his own money; and this they did because they knew that he would be unwilling to take harsh legal proceedings against a bed-ridden old man! In this frame of mind he went to the Ross Markt, and there he was assured over and over again by Ziska Zamenoy — for Karil Zamenoy was not to be seen — that Nina Balatka had the deed in her own keeping. The name of Nina Balatka was becoming very grievous to the old man. Even he, when the matter had first been broached to him, had not recognised all the evils which would come from a marriage between his son and a Christian maiden; but of late his neighbours had been around him, and he had looked into the thing, and his eyes had been opened, and he had declared to himself that he would not take a Christian girl into his house as his daughter-inlaw. He could not prevent the marriage. The law would be on his son’s side. The law of the Christian kingdom in which he lived allowed such marriages, and Anton, if he executed the contract which would make the marriage valid, would in truth be the girl’s husband. But — and Trendellsohn, as he remembered the power which was still in his hands, almost regretted that he held it — if this thing were done, his son must go out from his house, and be his son no longer.

The old man was very proud of his son. Rebecca had said truly that no Jew in Prague was so respected among Jews as Anton Trendellsohn. She might have added, also, that none was more highly esteemed among Christians. To lose such a son would be a loss indeed. “I will share everything with him, and he shall go away out of Bohemia,” Trendellsohn had said to himself. “He has earned it, and he shall have it. He has worked for me — for us both — without asking me, his father, to bind myself with any bond. He shall have the wealth which is his own, but he shall not have it here. Ah! if he would but take that other one as his bride, he should have everything, and his father’s blessing — and then he would be the first instead of the last among his people.” Such was the purpose of Stephen Trendellsohn towards his son; but this, his real purpose, did not hinder him from threatening worse things. To prevent the marriage was his great object; and if threats would prevent it, why should he not use them?

But now he had conceived the idea that Nina was deceiving his son — that Nina was in truth holding back the deed with some view which he could hardly fathom. Ziska Zamenoy had declared, with all the emphasis in his power, that the document was, to the best of his belief, in Nina’s hands; and though Ziska’s emphasis would not have gone far in convincing the Jew, had the Jew’s mind been turned in the other direction, now it had its effect. “And who gave it her?” Trendellsohn had asked. “Ah, there you must excuse me,” Ziska had answered; “though, indeed, I could not tell you if I would. But we have nothing to do with the matter. We have no claim upon the houses. It is between you and the Balatkas.” Then the Jew had left the Zamenoys’ office, and had gone home, fully believing that the deed was in Nina’s hands.

“Yes, it is so — she is deceiving you,” he said to his son that evening.

“No father. I think not.”

“Very well. You will find, when it is too late, that my words are true. Have you ever known a Christian who thought it wrong to rob a Jew?”

“I do not believe that Nina would rob me.”

“Ah! that is the confidence of what you call love. She is honest, you think, because she has a pretty face.”

“She is honest, I think, because she loves me.”

“Bah! Does love make men honest, or women either? Do we not see every day how these Christians rob each other in their money dealings when they are marrying? What was the girl’s name? — old Thibolski’s daughter — how they robbed her when they married her, and how her people tried their best to rob the lad she married. Did we not see it all?”

“It was not the girl who did it — not the girl herself.”

“Why should a woman be honester than a man? I tell you, Anton, that this girl has the deed.”

“Ziska Zamenoy has told you so?”

“Yes, he has told me. But I am not a man to be deceived because such a one as Ziska wishes to deceive me. You, at least, know me better than that. That which I tell you, Ziska himself believes.”

“But Ziska may believe wrongly.”

“Why should he do so? Whose interest can it be to make this thing seem so, if it be not so? If the girl have the deed, you can get it more readily from her than from the Zamenoys. Believe me, Anton, the deed is with the girl.”

“If it be so, I shall never believe again in the truth of a human being,” said the son.

“Believe in the truth of your own people,” said the father. “Why should you seek to be wiser than them all?”

The father did not convince the son, but the words which he had spoken helped to create a doubt which already had almost an existence of its own. Anton Trendellsohn was prone to suspicions, and now was beginning to suspect Nina, although he strove hard to keep his mind free from such taint. His better nature told him that it was impossible that she should deceive him. He had read the very inside of her heart, and knew that her only delight was in his love. He understood perfectly the weakness and faith and beauty of her feminine nature, and her trusting, leaning softness was to his harder spirit as water to a thirsting man in the desert. When she clung to him, promising to obey him in everything, the touch of her hands, and the sound of her voice, and the beseeching glance of her loving eyes, were food and drink to him. He knew that her presence refreshed him and cooled him — made him young as he was growing old, and filled his mind with sweet thoughts which hardly came to him but when she was with him. He had told himself over and over again that it must be good for him to have such a one for his wife, whether she were Jew or Christian. He knew himself to be a better man when she was with him than at other moments of his life. And then he loved her. He was thinking of her hourly, though his impatience to see her was not as hers to be with him. He loved her. But yet — yet — what if she should be deceiving him? To be able to deceive others, but never to be deceived himself, was to him, unconsciously, the glory which he desired. To be deceived was to be disgraced. What was all his wit and acknowledged cunning if a girl — a Christian girl — could outwit him? For himself, he could see clearly enough into things to be aware that, as a rule, he could do better by truth than he could by falsehood. He was not prone to deceive others. But in such matters he desired ever to have the power with him to keep, as it were, the upper hand. He would fain read the hearts of others entirely, and know their wishes, and understand their schemes, whereas his own heart and his own desires and his own schemes should only be legible in part. What if, after all, he were unable to read the simple tablets of this girl’s mind — tablets which he had regarded as being altogether in his own keeping?

He went forth for a while, walking slowly through the streets, as he thought of this, wandering without an object, but turning over in his mind his father’s words. He knew that his father was anxious to prevent his marriage. He knew that every Jew around him — for now the Jews around him had all heard of it — was keenly anxious to prevent so great a disgrace. He knew all that his father had threatened, and he was well aware how complete was his father’s power. But he could stand against all that, if only Nina were true to him. He would go away from Prague. What did it matter? Prague was not all the world. There were cities better, nobler, richer than Prague, in which his brethren, the Jews, would not turn their backs upon him because he had married a Christian. It might be that he would have to begin the world again; but for that, too, he would be prepared. Nina had shown that she could bear poverty. Nina’s torn boots and threadbare dress, and the utter absence of any request ever made with regard to her own comfort, had not been lost upon him. He knew how noble she was in bearing — how doubly noble she was in never asking. If only there was nothing of deceit at the back to mar it all!

He passed over the bridge, hardly knowing whither he was going, and turned directly down towards Balatka’s house. As he did so he observed that certain repairs were needed in an adjoining building which belonged to his father, and determined that a mason should be sent there on the next day. Then he turned in under the archway, not passing through it into the court, and there he stood looking up at the window, in which Nina’s small solitary lamp was twinkling. He knew that she was sitting by the light, and that she was working. He knew that she would be raised almost to a seventh heaven of delight if he would only call her to the door and speak to her a dozen words before he returned to his home. But he had no thought of doing it. Was it possible that she should have this document in her keeping? — that was the thought that filled his mind. He had bribed Lotta Luxa, and Lotta had sworn by her Christian gods that the deed was in Nina’s hands. If the thing was false, why should they all conspire to tell the same falsehood? And yet he knew that they were false in their natures. Their manner, the words of each of them, betrayed something of falsehood to his well-tuned ear, to his acute eye, to his sharp senses. But with Nina — from Nina herself — everything that came from her spoke of truth. A sweet savour of honesty hung about her breath, and was a blessing to him when he was near enough to her to feel it. And yet he told himself that he was bound to doubt. He stood for some half-hour in the archway, leaning against the stonework at the side, and looking up at the window where Nina was sitting. What was he to do? How should he carry himself in this special period of his life? Great ideas about the destiny of his people were mingled in his mind with suspicions as to Nina, of which he should have been, and probably was, ashamed. He would certainly take her away from Prague. He had already perceived that his marriage with a Christian would be regarded in that stronghold of prejudice in which he lived with so much animosity as to impede, and perhaps destroy, the utility of his career. He would go away, taking Nina with him. And he would be careful that she should never know, by a word or a look, that he had in any way suffered for her sake. And he swore to himself that he would be soft to her, and gentle, loving her with a love more demonstrative than he had hitherto exhibited. He knew that he had been stern, exacting, and sometimes harsh. All that should be mended. He had learned her character, and perceived how absolutely she fed upon his love; and he would take care that the food should always be there, palpably there, for her sustenance. But — but he must try her yet once more before all this could be done for her. She must pass yet once again through the fire; and if then she should come forth as gold, she should be to him the one pure ingot which the earth contained. With how great a love would he not repay her in future days for all that she would have suffered for his sake?

But she must be made to go through the fire again. He would tax her with the possession of the missing deed, and call upon her to cleanse herself from the accusation which was made against her. Once again he would be harsh with her — harsh in appearance only — in order that his subsequent tenderness might be so much more tender! She had already borne much, and she must be made to endure once again. Did not he mean to endure much for her sake? Was he not prepared to recommence the troubles and toil of his life all from the beginning, in order that she might be that life’s companion? Surely he had the right to put her through the fire, and prove her as never gold was proved before.

At last the little light was quenched, and Anton Trendellsohn felt that he was alone. The unseen companion of his thoughts was no longer with him, and it was useless for him to remain there standing in the archway. He blew her a kiss from his lips, and blessed her in his heart, and protested to himself that he knew she would come out of the fire pure altogether and proved to be without dross. And then he went his way. In the mean time Nina, chill and wretched, crept to her cold bed, all unconscious of the happiness that had been so near her. “If he thinks I can be false to him, it will be better to die,” she said to herself, as she drew the scanty clothing over her shivering shoulders.

As she did so her lover walked home, and having come to a resolution which was intended to be definite as to his love, he allowed his thoughts to run away with him to other subjects. After all, it would be no evil to him to leave Prague. At Prague how little was there of progress either in thought or in things material! At Prague a Jew could earn money, and become rich — might own half the city; and yet at Prague he could only live as an outcast. As regarded the laws of the land, he, as a Jew, might fix his residence anywhere in Prague or around Prague; he might have gardens, and lands, and all the results of money; he might put his wife into a carriage twice as splendid as that which constituted the great social triumph of Madame Zamenoy — but so strong against such a mode of life were the traditional prejudices of both Jews and Christians, that any such fashion of living would be absolutely impossible to him. It would not be good for him that he should remain at Prague. Knowing his father as he did, he could not believe that the old man would be so unjust as to let him go altogether empty-handed. He had toiled, and had been successful; and something of the corn which he had garnered would surely be rendered to him. With this — or, if need be, without it — he and his Christian wife would go forth and see if the world was not wide enough to find them a spot on which they might live without the contempt of those around them.

Though Nina had quenched her lamp and had gone to bed, it was not late when Trendellsohn reached his home, and he knew that he should find his father waiting for him. But his father was not alone. Rebecca Loth was sitting with the old man, and they had just supped together when Anton entered the room. Ruth Jacobi was also there, waiting till her friend should go, before she also went to her bed.

“How are you, Anton?” said Rebecca, giving her hand to the man she loved. “It is strange to see you in these days.”

“The strangeness, Rebecca, comes from no fault of my own. Few men, I fancy, are more constant to their homes than I am.”

“You sleep here and eat here, I daresay.”

“My business lies mostly out, about the town.”

“Have you been about business now, uncle Anton?” said Ruth.

“Do not ask forward questions, Ruth,” said the uncle. “Rebecca, I fear, teaches you to forget that you are still a child.”

“Do not scold her,” said the old man. “She is a good girl.”

“It is Anton that forgets that nature is making Ruth a young woman,” said Rebecca.

“I do not want to be a young woman a bit before uncle Anton likes it,” said Ruth. “I don’t mind waiting ever so long for him. When he is married he will not care what I am.”

“If that be so, you may be a woman very soon,” said Rebecca.

“That is more than you know,” said Anton, turning very sharply on her. “What do you know of my marriage, or when it will be?”

“Are you scolding her too?” said the elder Trendellsohn.

“Nay, father; let him do so,” said Rebecca. “He has known me long enough to scold me if he thinks that I deserve it. You are gentle to me and spoil me, and it is only well that one among my old friends should be sincere enough to be ungentle.”

“I beg your pardon, Rebecca, if I have been uncourteous.”

“There can be no pardon where there is no offence.”

“If you are ashamed to hear of your marriage,” said the father, “you should be ashamed to think of it.”

Then there was silence for a few seconds before anyone spoke. The girls did not dare to speak after words so serious from the father to the son. It was known to both of them that Anton could hardly bring himself to bear a rebuke even from his father, and they felt that such a rebuke as this, given in their presence, would be altogether unendurable. Every one in the room understood the exact position in which each stood to the other. That Rebecca would willingly have become Anton’s wife, that she had refused various offers of marriage in order that ultimately it might be so, was known to Stephen Trendellsohn, and to Anton himself, and to Ruth Jacobi. There had not been the pretence of any secret among them in the matter. But the subject was one which could hardly be discussed by them openly. “Father,” said Anton, after a while, during which the black thunder-cloud which had for an instant settled on his brow had managed to dispel itself without bursting into a visible storm —“father, I am neither ashamed to think of my intended marriage nor to speak of it. There is no question of shame. But it is unpleasant to make such a subject matter of general conversation when it is a source of trouble instead of joy among us. I wish I could have made you happy by my marriage.”

“You will make me very wretched.”

“Then let us not talk about it. It cannot be altered. You would not have me false to my plighted word?”

Again there was silence for some minutes, and then Rebecca spoke — the words coming from her in the lowest possible accents.

“It can be altered without breach of your plighted word. Ask the young woman what she herself thinks. You will find that she knows that you are both wrong.”

“Of course she knows it,” said the father.

“I will ask her nothing of the kind,” said the son.

“It would be of no use,” said Ruth.

After this Rebecca rose to take her leave, saying something of the falseness of her brother Samuel, who had promised to come for her and to take her home. “But he is with Miriam Harter,” said Rebecca, “and, of course, he will forget me.”

“I will go home with you,” said Anton.

“Indeed you shall not. Do you think I cannot walk alone through our own streets in the dark without being afraid?”

“I am well aware that you are afraid of nothing; but nevertheless, if you will allow me, I will accompany you.” There was no sufficient cause for her to refuse his company, and the two left the house together.

As they descended the stairs, Rebecca determined that she would have the first word in what might now be said between them. She had suggested that this marriage with the Christian girl might be abandoned without the disgrace upon Anton of having broken his troth, and she had thereby laid herself open to a suspicion of having worked for her own ends — of having done so with unmaidenly eagerness to gratify her own love. Something on the subject must be said — would be said by him if not by her — and therefore she would explain herself at once. She spoke as soon as she found herself by his side in the street. “I regretted what I said up-stairs, Anton, as soon as the words were out of my mouth.”

“I do not know that you said anything to regret.”

“I told you that if in truth you thought this marriage to be wrong —”

“Which I do not.”

“Pardon me, my friend, for a moment. If you had so thought, I said that there was a mode of escape without falsehood or disgrace. In saying so I must have seemed to urge you to break away from Nina Balatka.”

“You are all urging me to do that.”

“Coming from the others, such advice cannot even seem to have an improper motive.” Here she paused, feeling the difficulty of her task — aware that she could not conclude it without an admission which no woman willingly makes. But she shook away the impediment, bracing herself to the work, and went on steadily with her speech. “Coming from me, such motive may be imputed — nay, it must be imputed.”

“No motive is imputed that is not believed by me to be good and healthy and friendly.”

“Our friends,” continued Rebecca, “have wished that you and I should be husband and wife. That is now impossible.”

“It is impossible — because Nina will be my wife.”

“It is impossible, whether Nina should become your wife or should not become your wife. I do not say this from any girlish pride. Before I knew that you loved a Christian woman, I would willingly have been — as our friends wished. You see I can trust you enough for candour. When I was young they told me to love you, and I obeyed them. They told me that I was to be your wife, and I taught myself to be happy in believing them. I now know that they were wrong, and I will endeavour to teach myself another happiness.”

“Rebecca, if I have been in fault —”

“You have never been in fault. You are by nature too stern to fall into such faults. It has been my misfortune — perhaps rather I should say my difficulty — that till of late you have given me no sign by which I could foresee my lot. I was still young, and I still believed what they told me, even though you did not come to me as lovers come. Now I know it all; and as any such thoughts — or wishes, if you will — as those I used to have can never return to me, I may perhaps be felt by you to be free to use what liberty of counsel old friendship may give me. I know you will not misunderstand me — and that is all. Do not come further with me.”

He called to her, but she was gone, escaping from him with quick running feet through the dark night; and he returned to his father’s house, thinking of the girl that had left him.

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