THE POISONED CHAI

Bernstein sat in the furthest corner of the café, brooding. The fiercest
torments that plague the human heart were rioting within him, as if they
would tear him asunder. Bernstein was of an impulsive, overbearing
nature, mature as far as years went, yet with the untrained,
inexperienced emotions of a savage. To such natures the “no” from a
woman’s lips comes like a blow; the sudden knowledge that those same
lips can smile brightly upon another follows like molten lead.

That whole afternoon Bernstein had suffered the wildest tortures of
jealousy. Had Natzi been a younger man Bernstein’s resentment might not
have turned so hotly upon him. Yet Natzi was almost of his own age, a
weak-faced creature, with an eternal smile, incapable of intense
feeling, ignorant of even the faintest shade of that passion which he
(Bernstein) had laid so humbly, so tenderly at her feet—and it was Natzi
she loved! Bernstein’s hand darted to his inner pocket and came forth
clutching a tiny object upon which he gazed with the look of a fiend.

“I may not have her,” he murmured, “but she will never belong to him.”

He held the tiny thing in his lap, below the level of the table, so that
none other might see it, and looked at it intently. It was a small
phial; it contained some colourless liquid.

The thought entered his brain to drain the contents of that phial
himself and put an end to the fierce pain that was eating away his
heart. Would it not be for the best? There was no one to care. The world
held no one but her; perhaps his death would bring the tears to those
big brown eyes; she might even come and kiss his cold forehead. But
after that Natzi would be master of those kisses, upon Natzi’s lips hers
would be pressed all the livelong day.

The blood surged to his brain; he clutched the table as though he would
squeeze the wood to pulp; before his eyes rose a mist—a red mist—the red
of blood. Slowly this mist cleared away, and the face and form of Natzi
loomed up before him—Natzi, with patient, boyish eyes, smiling.

“It is the third time that I’ve said ‘Good-evening.’ Have you been
sleeping with your eyes open?”

“No. No. Just thinking,” said Bernstein, talking rapidly. “Sit down.
Here, opposite me. The light hurts my eyes. Come, let us have some chai.
Here, waiter! Two chais. Have them hot, with plenty of rum.”

“You seem nervous, Bernstein. Aren’t you well?” asked Natzi,
solicitously.

“Oh, smoking too much. But let us talk about yourself. How is the
wood-carving business? Any better?”

Natzi shook his head, ruefully. “Worse,” he answered. “They’re doing
everything by machinery these days, and the machines seem to be
improving all the time. The work is all mechanical now. The only real
pleasure I get out of my tools is at night when I am home. Then I can
carve the things I like—things that don’t sell.”

The waiter brought two cups of chai, with the blue flames leaping
brightly from the burning rum on the surface. Bernstein’s eyes were
intent upon the flames.

“I have not yet congratulated you,” he said.

He did not see the look that came into Natzi’s eyes—a look of
tenderness, of earnestness, a look that Bernstein had never seen there,
although he had known Natzi many years.

“Yes,” said Natzi, thoughtfully. “I am to be congratulated. It is more
than I deserve. I am not worthy.”

Bernstein’s gaze was fastened upon the flames. They were dancing
brightly upon the amber liquid.

“She is so beautiful, so sweet, so pure,” Natzi went on. “To think that
all that happiness is for me!”

The flames changed from blue to red. Bernstein’s brain whirled. He felt
a wild impulse to throw himself upon his companion and seize him by the
throat and strangle him, and cry aloud so that all could hear it: “You
shall never have that happiness. She belongs to me. She is part of my
life, part of myself. You cannot understand her. I alone of all men
understand her. Every thought of my brain, every impulse of my being,
every fibre of my body beats responsive to her. She was made for me. No
other shall have her!”

Then the thought of the phial in his hand recurred to his mind and he
became calm. The flames died out, and Natzi slowly drained his cup.
Bernstein watched him with bloodshot eyes. Looking up he met Natzi’s
gaze bent upon him anxiously.

“You are not well, Bernstein. Let us go home.”

“No, no,” Bernstein said, quickly. “It is just nervousness. I have
smoked too much.” He made a feeble attempt at a smile. “Come,” said he,
draining his cup. “Let us have another. The last. The very last. And
after that we will drink no more chai.”

Two more cups were set before them.

“Look,” said Bernstein, “is that lightning in the sky?”

Natzi turned his head toward the open doorway. Swiftly, yet stealthily,
Bernstein’s hand stretched forth until it touched the blue flames that
danced on Natzi’s cup, hovered there a moment, and then was withdrawn
just as Natzi turned around. His fingers had been scorched.

“No, I see no lightning. The stars are shining.”

“Let us drink,” said Bernstein. “The last drink.”

“I am not a fire-eater,” said Natzi, smiling. “Let us wait at least
until the rum burns out.”

Bernstein lowered the flaming cup that, in his eagerness, he had raised
toward his lips and looked at Natzi. Malice gleamed in his eyes.

“Yes. Let it cool. Then we will drink a toast.”

“With all my heart,” said Natzi. “It shall be a toast to her. A toast to
the sweetest woman in the world.”

There was a long pause. Once or twice Natzi glanced hesitatingly at his
companion, who sat with bowed head, his eyes intent upon the flames that
leaped so brightly from his cup. Then Natzi spoke, slowly at first, but
gradually more rapidly, and more animatedly as the intensity of his
emotion mastered him.

“Do you know, dear friend,” he began, “there was a time when I thought
she loved you? We were together so much, the three of us, and she had so
many opportunities to know you—to know you as I knew you—to know your
great, strong mind, your tender heart, your steadfastness, your generous
nature, that could harbour no unworthy thought. You pose as a cynic, as
a man who looks down upon the petty things that make up life for most of
us, but I—I, who have lived with you, struggled with you, known so many
of the trials and heart-breakings of everyday life with you—I know you
better. True, you have no love for women, and I often wondered how you
could be so blind to her sweetness, and to the charm that seemed to fill
the room whenever we three were together. But I never took my eyes from
her face, and when I saw with what breathless interest she listened
whenever you spoke, whenever you told us of your plans for uplifting the
down-trodden, of your innermost thoughts and hopes and feelings, I read
in her eyes a fondness for you that filled me with despair.”

Bernstein was breathing heavily. His lips quivered; his face twitched;
the blood had mounted to his cheeks. His eyes were downcast, fastened
upon the blue flames of the chai, dancing and leaping in fantastic
shapes.

“That time you were sick—do you remember? When the doctor said there was
no hope on earth, when everyone felt that the end had come, when you lay
for days white and still, hardly breathing, with the pallor of death
upon your face—do you remember? And I nursed you—sat at your bedside
through four days and four nights without a minute’s rest. And then,
when the doctor said the crisis had passed and you would get well, I
fainted away from sheer weakness—do you remember?”




Perspiration in huge drops was trickling slowly down Bernstein’s
forehead. His lips were dry. His teeth were tightly clenched.

“And you thought I had done it all for friendship’s sake, and I listened
to your outpouring of gratitude, taking it all for myself, without a
word—without a word! Ah, my dear friend, it was hateful to deceive you;
but how could I tell the truth? But now I have no shame in telling it. I
did it for her. All for her. To save you for her. That was the only
thought in my poor, whirling brain during those long, weary days and
nights. I felt that if you died she would die. I knew the intensity of
her nature, and I knew that if aught happened to the man she loved she
would die of grief. And now to think you never cared for her, and that
it was I whom she always loved!”

Natzi looked at the bowed head before him with tender smile. Bernstein
was trembling.

“I am glad, though, that all happened as it did. Had I nursed you only
for your own sake, much as I loved you, I might have weakened, my
strength might not have held out. For a man can do that for his love
which he cannot do for himself. And, perhaps, after all, it was an
excellent lesson for me to learn to bear bitter disappointment.”

The flames in Bernstein’s cup were burning low. With every breath of air
they flickered and trembled. They would soon die out.

“Look,” said Natzi, reaching into his pocket. “Look at this little piece
that I carved during the hours that I sat at your bedside—to keep me
awake. I have carried it over my heart ever since.”

Bernstein looked up. His eyes were frightfully bloodshot. His face was
ashen. In Natzi’s hand he beheld a tiny carving in wood, fashioned with
exquisite skill and grace, of a woman’s head. The flame in Natzi’s cup
caught a light gust of air that stirred for a moment, leaped brightly,
as if on purpose to illumine the features of the carved image, then
flickered and went out. Bernstein had recognised the likeness. Those
features were burning in his brain.

“Every night since then I have set this image before me, and I have
prayed to God to always keep her as sweet, as pure, and as beautiful as
He keeps the flowers in His woods. And every morning I have prayed to
Him to fill her life with sunshine and gladness, and to let no sorrow
fall upon her. And every day I carried it pressed against my heart and I
felt sustained and strengthened. Ah, Bernstein, God is good! He gave her
to me! He brought about the revelation that her heart was mine, her
sweetness, her beauty—all were mine. Come, comrade, we have gone through
many a struggle together. Let us drink a toast—you shall name it!”

Natzi held his cup aloft. With a hoarse cry Bernstein half rose from his
seat, swiftly reached forward, and tore the cup from Natzi’s grasp.

“To her!” he cried. “To her! May God preserve her and forgive me!”

He drained the cup, stared wildly at the astonished countenance of
Natzi, and, after a moment, during which he swayed slightly from side to
side, fell forward upon the table, motionless.