Though the sky be grey and dreary, yet will the faintest rift reveal
a vision of the dazzling brightness that lies beyond.
So does a word, a look, a single act of a human being often reveal
the glorious beauty of a soul.
So is it written in the Talmud, and it needs no rabbi to expound it.
What I am about to tell you is not a rounded tale; it hardly rises to
the dignity of a sketch. There is a man who lives in the very heart of a
big city, and I once had a peep into his heart. His name is Polatschek.
He makes cigars during the day and gets drunk every night.
In that Hungarian colony which clusters around East Houston Street, the
lines that separate Gentile, Jew, and Gipsy are not more strictly drawn
than are the lines between the lines. And as the pedigree of every
member is the common property of the colony, the social status of each
group is pretty clearly defined.
Being an outcast, Polatschek has no social status whatever, and all that
the colony has ever known or has ever cared to know about him is this:
By a curious atavistic freak Polatschek was born honest. In the little
town in southern Hungary from which he came his great-grandfather had
been a highwayman, his grandfather had been executed for murder, his
father was serving a long sentence for burglary, and his two younger
brothers were on the black list of the police. And so, when it was
announced that one of the Polatscheks was coming to New York, Houston
Street society drew in its latch-string, and one of the storekeepers
even went so far as to tell the story to a police detective. This,
however, was frowned upon, for Goulash Avenue—as the Hungarians
laughingly call Houston Street—loves to keep its secrets to itself.
There is no need to describe the appearance of Polatschek; it is
extremely uninteresting. He has a weak chin, and when he is sober he is
very timid. A Hungarian does not easily make friends outside his own
people, and so it came to pass that Polatschek had no friends at all.
How Polatschek lived none but himself knew. Somewhere in Rivington
Street he had a room where, it was once said, he kept books, though no
one knew what kind of books they were. For a few hours every day he
worked at cigar-making, earning just enough money to keep body and soul
together. He was, in short, as uninteresting a man as you could find,
and all who knew him shunned him. Night after night he would sit in
Natzi’s café, where the gipsies play on Thursdays, drinking
slivovitz—which is the last stage. He would drink, drink, drink, and
never a word to a soul. On music nights he would drink more than usual
and his eyes would fill with tears. We all used to think they were
maudlin tears, but we had grown accustomed to Polatschek and his strange
habits, and nobody paid attention to him.
* * * * *
It was music night at Natzi’s, and Polatschek was sitting close to the
gipsies with his eyes fixed upon the leader. He had been drinking a
little more than usual, and I marvelled that a man in his maudlin
condition should take such a deep interest in music.
They were playing the “Rakoczy March,” which only the Hungarians know
how to play, and Polatschek was swaying his head in time to the melody.
It seemed so strange, this friendless, hopeless man’s love for music, so
thoroughly foreign to his dreary, barren nature as I had pictured it in
my mind, that when the gipsies had finished I spoke to him.
“That was beautiful, was it not?”
He looked at me in surprise, his eyes wide open, and after gazing at me
for a moment he shook his head.
“No, that was not beautiful. The ‘Rakoczy March’ is the greatest march
in the world, but these gipsies do not know how to play it. They cannot
play. They have no life, no soul. They play it as if they were
Startled by his vehemence, I could only murmur, “Oh!”
“Look!” he exclaimed, rising in agitation. He took up the leader’s
violin and bow. “Listen! This is the ‘Rakoczy’!”
The gipsy leader had sprung to his feet, but at the first tone of the
violin he stood as if petrified. A silence had fallen upon the room.
With his eyes fixed upon mine, his lips pressed firmly together,
Polatschek played the “Rakoczy March.” The guests were staring at him in
blank amazement. The gipsies, with sparkling eyes, were listening to
those magic strains, but Polatschek was unmindful of it all, and—I felt
proud because he was playing that march for me. I have heard Sarasate
play the “Rakoczy March.” I have heard Mme. Urso try it, and I have
heard Remenyi, who, being a Hungarian, played it best of them all. But I
had never heard it played as Polatschek played it.
As I saw the lines in that face grow sharper, saw the body quiver with
patriotic ardour, those ringing, rhythmic tones sang of the tramp,
tramp, tramp of armies, of cavalcades of horses, of the clash and
clangour of battle. Then it all grew fainter and fainter as if the
armies were vanishing in the distance, and the sad strains of the
undersong rose to the surface of the melody and I heard that sobbing
appeal which lies hidden somewhere in every Hungarian song. It died
away, there was a moment’s silence—Polatschek remained standing, looking
at me—then a mighty shout went up.
“Ujra! Ujra!” they cried. It was an encore they wanted.
But Polatschek had resumed his seat and his slivovitz, and in a few
moments he was very drunk.