A WEDDING IN DURESS

In the days when the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim were divided by walls
of sentiment and pride, as difficult to surmount as the walls that
separated patrician from plebeian in ancient Rome, an Ashkenazi youth
married a Sephardi maiden. It happened some four hundred or five hundred
years ago. Youth and maiden are dust, their romance is forgotten, and we
owe them an apology for disturbing their memory. Let us only add that
the youth’s name was Zalman. May Mr. and Mrs. Zalman rest in peace!

* * * * *

Zalman, the tailor, lived in Essex Street on the same floor with the
Rabbi Elsberg. Zalman possessed two treasures, each a rarity of
exquisite beauty, each vying with the other for supremacy in his
affections. The one was a wine glass of Venetian make, wonderful in its
myriad-hued colouring, its fragile texture, and its rare design. The
mate of it rests in one of the famous museums of Italy, and the
connoisseurs came from far and near to feast their eyes upon Zalman’s
piece. Money, in sums that would have made Zalman a rich man in that
neighbourhood, had been offered to him for this treasure, but he always
shook his head.

“It has been in my family for hundreds of years,” he would say, “and I
cannot part with it. Years ago—many, many years ago—our family was
wealthy, but now I have nothing left save this one wine glass. I would
rather die than lose it.”

His visitors would depart with feelings of mingled wonder and rage;
wonder that so priceless a gem should be in the possession of a
decrepit, untidy, poverty-stricken East Side tailor; and rage that he
should be so stubborn as to cling to it in spite of the most alluring
offers that were made to him. Zalman’s other treasure was his daughter
Barbara, whose name, like the wine glass, had descended from some
long-forgotten Spanish or Italian ancestress. All the lavish praise that
the most enthusiastic lover of things beautiful had ever lavished upon
that wonderful wine glass would have applied with equal truth to
Barbara. Excepting that Barbara was distinctly modern.

Reuben sat in the Rabbi Elsberg’s sitting-room, frowning and unhappy;
the rabbi, puffing reflectively at a long pipe, gazing at him in
silence. Through the walls they could hear Barbara singing. Barbara
always sang when she was merry, and Barbara was merry, as a rule, from
the moment she left her bed until she returned to it. The rabbi took a
longer puff than usual, and then asked Reuben:

“What said her father?”

Reuben gulped several times as if the words that crowded to his lips for
utterance were choking him.

“It is well for him that he is her father,” he finally said. “I would
not have listened to so much abuse from any other living man.” (Reuben,
by the way, had a most determined-looking chin, and there was something
very earnest in the cut of his features.)

“He gave me to understand,” he went on, “that he knew perfectly well it
was his wine glass I was after, and not his daughter. That I was
counting on his dying soon, and already looked forward to selling that
precious glass to spend the money in riotous living. And when I told him
that Barbara and I loved each other, he said ‘Bosh!’ and forbade me to
speak of it again.”

The rabbi puffed in silence for a moment.

“He evidently has not a flattering opinion of you, my young friend.”

“He knows nothing against me!” Reuben hurriedly exclaimed. “It is only
because I want Barbara. He would say the same to anyone else that asked
for his daughter. You know me, rabbi; you have known me a long time,
ever since I was a child. I do not pretend to be an angel, but I am not
bad. I love the girl, and I can take good care of her. I don’t want to
see his old wine glass again. I’d smash it into a——”

Reuben’s jaw fell, and his eyes stared vacantly at the wall. The rabbi
followed his gaze, and, seeing nothing, turned to Reuben in surprise.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing,” replied Reuben, with a sheepish grin. “I—I just happened to
think of something.”

The rabbi frowned. “If you are often taken with such queer ideas that
make you look so idiotic, I don’t think I can blame Zalman so very
much.” But Reuben’s contrite expression immediately caused him to regret
his momentary annoyance, and holding out his hand, he said,
affectionately:

“Come, Reuben, I will do what I can for you. You are a good boy, and if
you and the girl love each other I will see if there is not some way of
overcoming her father’s objections.”

Taking Reuben by the arm he led him into Zalman’s shop. Zalman was not
alone. A little shrivelled old man, evidently a connoisseur of _objets
d’art_, was holding the wonderful wine glass to the light, gloating over
the bewildering play of colours that flashed from it, while Zalman
anxiously hovered about him, eager to receive the glass in his own hands
again, yet proudly calling the old man’s attention to its hidden
beauties.

Barbara stood in the doorway that led to the living-rooms in the rear.
When she saw Reuben she blushed and smiled.

Zalman looked up and saw the rabbi and smiled; saw who was with him and
frowned.

“I just dropped in to have a little chat,” said the rabbi, “but there is
no hurry. I will wait until you are disengaged.”

The connoisseur carefully set the glass upon the counter, and heaved a
long, painful sigh.

“And no price will tempt you to part with it?” he asked. Zalman shook
his head and grinned. What followed happened with exceeding swiftness.

Zalman had got as far as, “It has been in our family for hundreds of
years——” when a shadow caused him to turn his head. He saw Barbara throw
up her hands in amazement, saw the rabbi start forward as though he were
about to interfere in something, and saw the precious wine glass in
Reuben’s hand. Mechanically he reached forward to take it from him, and
then instantly felt Reuben’s other hand against his breast, holding him
back, and heard Reuben saying, quite naturally, “Wait!”

It had not taken ten seconds—Zalman suddenly felt sick.

The connoisseur hastily put on his glasses. The situation seemed
interesting.

“Mr. Zalman,” said Reuben, speaking very slowly and distinctly, yet
carefully keeping the tailor at arm’s length, “I told you this very day
that your daughter Barbara and I love each other. We will not marry
without your consent. So you must consent. If I cannot marry Barbara I
do not care what happens to me. I will have nothing to live for. I can
give her a good home, and we will be very happy. You can come to live
with us, if you like, and I will always be a good son to you. I swear by
the Torah that this glass is nothing to me. I want Barbara because I
love her, and you can throw this glass into the river for all I care.
But if you do not give your consent I also swear by the Torah that I
shall fling this glass to the floor and smash it into a thousand
pieces.”

Zalman, who had been clutching Reuben’s outstretched arm throughout this
speech, and had followed every word with staring eyes and open mouth,
dropped his arms and groaned. Barbara had listened in amazement to
Reuben’s first words, but when his meaning dawned upon her she had
clapped her kerchief to her mouth and fled precipitately through the
doorway whence now came faint sounds which, owing to the distance, might
have been either loud weeping or violent laughter. The rabbi’s face had
reddened with indignation. The connoisseur alone was smiling.

“Reuben,” said the rabbi sternly, “you have gone too far. Put the glass
down!” He advanced toward the young man.

“Hold!” cried Reuben. “If anyone in this room touches me or attempts to
take this glass from me, I shall quickly hurl it to the floor. Look,
everybody!” He held the glass aloft. “See how fragile it is! I have only
to hold it a little tighter and it will break into a dozen pieces, and
no human skill will ever be able to put them together again!”

Zalman was in agony.

“I yield,” he cried. “Give me the glass. You shall marry Barbara
to-morrow. Do not hold it so tightly. Put it down gently.”

He held out his hand. His lips were twitching with repressed curses on
Reuben’s head. But Reuben only smiled.

“No, good father,” he said. “Not to-morrow. You might change your mind.
Let it be now, and your glass is safe.”

(“What a pertinacious young man!” thought the connoisseur.)

“May the fiends devour you!” cried Zalman.

“Now look you,” said Reuben, twirling the delicate glass in a careless
way that sent chill shudders down the tailor’s spine; “it is you who are
stubborn. Not I. If you knew how devotedly I loved Barbara you would
not, you could not be so heartless as to keep us apart.”

“The foul fiends!” muttered Zalman. Beads of perspiration stood out upon
his forehead; he was very pale.

“You were young yourself once,” Reuben went on. “For the sake of your
own youth, cast aside your stubbornness and give us your consent.
Barbara! Barbara! Where are you?”

The young woman, blushing like a rose, came out and stood beside him
with lowered head and downcast eyes.

“You see,” said Reuben, gently encircling her waist, “we love each
other.”

“The foul fiends!” muttered Zalman.

“Help me, Barbara! Help me to plead with your father,” urged Reuben. But
Barbara, abashed, could not find courage to raise her voice. Besides,
she kept her kerchief pressed tightly against her lips.

“Would you make your own daughter unhappy for the rest of her life?”
Reuben went on. (At every sentence Zalman murmured as far as “The foul
fiends!” then stopped.) “Everything is ready save your consent. The good
Rabbi Elsberg is here. He can marry us on the spot. We can dispense with
the betrothal. Our hearts have been betrothed for more than a year. I
want no dowry. I only want Barbara. Can you be so cruel as to keep us
apart?”

The glass slipped from his fingers as if by accident, but deftly his
hand swooped below it and caught it, unharmed. The tailor almost
swooned.

“Take her!” he cried, hoarsely. “In the foul fiend’s name take her! And
give me the glass!” He held out his trembling hands. With a joyful cry
Reuben pressed the girl tightly against his heart, and was about to kiss
her when the rabbi’s voice rang out:

“This is outrageous! I refuse to have anything to do with marrying
them!”

Reuben turned pale. To be so near victory, and now to lose everything
through the desertion of his old friend, was an unexpected,
disheartening blow. The tailor’s face brightened. Barbara, who had
looked up quickly when the rabbi spoke, began to cry softly.

“I have consented,” said Zalman. “That was what you asked, was it not?
Now give me back my wine glass. I can do no more.”

A faint smile had come into his face. It must have been his evil
guardian who prompted that smile, for it gave Reuben heart.

“If the rabbi will not marry us immediately,” said Reuben, “then I have
lost everything, and have nothing more to live for.” With the utmost
deliberation he raised an enormous iron that lay upon the counter,
placed the glass carefully upon the floor, and held the iron directly
over it.

“I shall crush the glass into a million tiny bits beneath this ponderous
weight!”

“Hold!” screamed the tailor. “He shall marry you! Please, oh, please!
Marry them, rabbi! For my sake, marry them! I beg it of you! I cannot
bear to see my precious glass under that horrible weight! Don’t let it
fall! For God’s sake, hold it tight! Oh, rabbi, marry them, marry them,
marry them! Let me have my glass!”

The rabbi glared at Reuben, then at the tailor, who was almost on his
knees before him, and then at the face of the connoisseur, who, somewhat
embarrassed at finding himself observed in that exciting moment, said,
apologetically, “I—I don’t mind being a witness.”

The rabbi married them.

“It is not for either of you that I am doing this,” he said, in stern
accents. “You have disgraced yourselves—both of you. But for the sake of
this old man, my friend, who holds that bauble so high that I fear he
will lose his reason if any harm befall it, I yield.”

They were married. And then—and not until then—Reuben raised the
precious wine glass, glittering and sparkling with multi-coloured fire,
gently from the floor and placed it upon the counter. But he held fast
to the iron. Zalman pounced upon his heirloom, examined it carefully to
see whether the faintest mishap had marred its beauty, held it tightly
against his breast, and with upraised arm turned upon his daughter and
her husband. With flashing eyes and pallid lips, he cried:

“May the foul fiends curse you! May God, in His righteousness——”

There was a sound of crashing glass. Whether in his excitement the
tailor’s fingers had, for one instant, relaxed their grip; whether
mysterious Fate, through some psychic or physical agency had playfully
wrought a momentary paralysis of his nerves; whether—but who may
penetrate these things? The glass had slipped from his hand. That
exquisite creation of a skill that had perished centuries ago, that
fragile relic of a forgotten art which, only a moment ago, had sparkled
and glittered as though a hundred suns were imprisoned within its frail
sides, now lay upon the floor in a thousand shapeless fragments.

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