AN INTERRUPTION

In the story books the tragedies of life work themselves out to more or
less tragic conclusions. In real life the most tragic tragedies are
those that have no conclusion—that can have no conclusion until death
writes “Finis!” From which one might argue that many of us would be
better off if we lived in novels. Chertoff, however, lived in Hester
Street, and therefore had to abide by his destiny.

Chertoff was a hunchback. He had a huge head and tremendously long arms
and features of waxen pallor. Children who saw him for the first time
would run from him with fright and would hide in doorways until he had
passed. Yet those who knew him loved him, for under his repellent
exterior throbbed a warm heart, and his nature was kindly and cheering.
In Gurtman’s sweatshop, where he toiled from dawn to nightfall, he was
loved by all—that is, all save Gurtman—for when the day’s task seemed
hardest and the click and roar of the machines chanted the song of
despair that all sweatshop workers know so well, Chertoff would burst
into a lively tune and fill the room with gladness. Then he would gossip
and tell interesting stories and bandy jests with anyone in the room who
showed the slightest disposition to contribute a moment’s gaiety to the
dreary, heart-breaking routine.

It was before the days of the factory inspectors, and conditions were
bad—so bad that if anyone were to tell you how bad they were you would
never believe it. In those days a bright spirit in a sweatshop was no
common thing. One day Gurtman announced that there would be a reduction
of three cents on piece-work, and a great silence fell upon the room. A
woman gasped as if something had struck her. And Chertoff struck up a
merry Russian tune:

“_The miller in his Sunday clothes
Came riding into Warsaw._”

“Why do you always sing those silly tunes?” Gurtman asked, peevishly.

And then Chertoff closed his eyes and answered:

“Perhaps to save your life! Who knows?”

Then he opened his eyes and laughed, and many laughed with him at the
very silliness of the retort, but the sweater only disliked him the more
for it. It was a curious habit of Chertoff’s to close his eyes when
something stung him, and it worked a startling transformation in his
expression. It was as if a light had been extinguished and a sudden
gloom had overspread his features. The lines became sharp, and something
sinister would creep into his countenance. But in a moment his eyes
would open and a light of kindness would illumine his face.

Twice this transformation had come upon him and had lingered long enough
to make the room uneasy. The first time was when Chertoff’s mother, who
had worked at the machine side by side with her son for five years, was
summarily dismissed. Chertoff had asked the sweater for the reason. In
the hearing of all the room Gurtman had curtly replied:

“She’s too old for work. She’s too slow. I don’t want her.”

They thought that Chertoff was fainting, so ashen and so haggard did his
features become. But when he opened his eyes and smiled the iron rod
that he held in his hands was seen by all to have been bent almost
double. The other time—and oh! how this must have rankled!—was when
Gurtman jestingly taunted Chertoff with being enamoured of Babel. For it
was true. Chertoff, in addition to his skill as a workman, was an expert
mechanic, and was quite valuable in the shop in keeping the sewing
machines in repair. He was sitting under a machine with a big
screw-driver in his hand when Gurtman, in a burst of pleasantry, asked
him if it were true that he loved Babel. For a long time no answer came.
Then the screw-driver rolled to the sweater’s feet, crumpled almost into
a ball, and Chertoff’s merry voice rang out:

“Of course I love Babel! Who does not?”

And then all laughed—all save Babel, who reddened and frowned, for, with
all her poverty and with all the struggle for existence that had been
her lot since she was old enough to tread a pedal, Babel was a sensitive
creature, and did not like to hear her name flung to and fro in the
sweatshop. Was Babel pretty? “When a girl has lovely eyes,” says the
Talmud, “it is a token that she is pretty.” Babel had lovely eyes, and
must, therefore, have been pretty. Yet what matters it? Chertoff was
eating out his heart with vain longing for Babel, suffering all the
tortures of unrequited passion, all the agonies that he suffers who
yearns with all the strength of his being to possess what he knows can
never be his. Is not that the true tragedy of life? So what matters it
if Babel be not to your taste or mine? Chertoff loved her.

He had never told Babel that he loved her; never had asked her whether
she cared for him. He had spared himself added misery. Content to
suffer, he did his best to conceal his hopeless passion, and strove with
all his might to lighten the burden of gloom that was the lot of his
fellow-workers. He never could understand, however, why the sweater had
taken so strong a dislike to him. Surely Gurtman could envy him nothing.
Why should a strong, fine-looking man—a rich man, too, as matters went
in Hester Street—take pleasure in tormenting an ugly, good-natured
cripple? It was strange, yet true. Perhaps it was that Chertoff’s cheery
disposition grated upon the brooding, gloomy temperament of the sweater,
or perhaps the cripple’s popularity in the sweatshop was an offence in
his employer’s eyes, or perhaps it was merely one of those unreasoning
antipathies that one man often feels toward another and for which he can
give not the slightest explanation. It was an undeniable fact, however,
that the sweater hated his hunchback employee, and would never have
tolerated him had Chertoff not been so valuable a workman, and, deeming
it unprofitable to discharge him, vented his dislike in baiting and
tormenting Chertoff whenever an opportunity offered itself. And had it
not been for Babel, Chertoff would have gone elsewhere. Hopeless though
he knew his longing to be, he could not bring himself to part from her
presence.

And so matters went until a summer’s night brought an interruption, and
this interruption is the only excuse for this tale. It had been a busy
day, and the sweatshop was working late into the night to finish its
work. It had been a hot day, too, and men and women were nigh exhausted.
The thermometer was ninety-five in the street, but in this room, you
know, were four tremendous stoves at full blast to keep the irons hot.
And the machines had been roaring almost since daybreak, and the men and
women were pale and weary and half suffocated. Chertoff had been
watching Babel anxiously for nearly an hour. She had lost her pallor and
her face had become slightly flushed, which is a bad sign in a
sweatshop. He feared the strain was becoming too great, and the thoughts
that crowded one upon another in his wearied brain were beginning to
daze him. He made a heroic effort.

“Come, Babel,” he said, “if you will stop work and listen I’ll sing that
song you like.”

“Sing it! Sing it!” cried fifty voices, although no one looked up.

“Not unless Babel stops working,” said Chertoff, smiling.

“Stop working, Babel! Stop working! We want a song!” they all cried. So
Babel stopped working and, with a grateful nod to Chertoff, folded her
hands in her lap and settled herself comfortably in her chair and
fastened her eyes upon the door that led into the rear room. Gurtman was
in this rear room filling the benzine cans.

Chertoff began to sing. It was an old Russian folk-song, and it began
like this:

“_Sang a little bird, and sang,
And grew silent;
Knew the heart of merriment,
And forgot it.
Why, O little songster bird,
Grew you quiet?
How learned you, O heart, to know
Gloomy sorrow?_”

He had sung this far when the door of the rear room was flung open and
Gurtman, in angry mood, cried:

“In God’s name stop! That singing of yours is making my back as crooked
as yours!”

Chertoff turned swiftly, with arm upraised, but before he could utter a
word a huge flame of fire shot from the open doorway and enveloped the
sweater, and a crash, loud as a peal of thunder, filled the room.

The benzine had exploded. In a twinkling bright flames seemed to dart
from every nook and cranny, and the wall between the two rooms was torn
asunder. Then a panic of screams and frenzied cries arose, and the
workers ran wildly, some to the door, some to the windows that looked
down upon the street four stories below, some trying frantically to tear
their way through the solid walls. The voice of Chertoff rose above the
tumult. “Follow me!” he cried. “Don’t be afraid!” He seized Babel, who
had fainted, laid her gently upon his misshapen shoulder, and led the
way into an adjoining room where the windows opened upon a fire escape.
“Take your time,” he cried. “Follow me slowly down the ladders. There is
no danger.”

Once out of sight of the flames calmness was soon restored, and one by
one they slowly descended the iron ladders, following the lead of the
hunchback with his burden. Babel soon regained consciousness. She looked
wildly from face to face and then, clutching Chertoff’s arm, asked
hoarsely, “Gurtman! Where is he? Is he safe?”

Chertoff smiled. “Do not worry, Babel. He probably will never torment a
human being again!”

Babel relaxed her hold and every drop of blood left her face. She began
to moan pitifully: “I loved him! I loved him!” She buried her face in
her hands and burst into a fit of weeping. Chertoff’s eyes closed. A
look of hatred, unutterable, venomous hatred, flashed into his face. He
swayed to and fro with clenched fists, as though he would fall. Then
swiftly he raised his head, his eyes opened, and a smile overspread his
face. “Wait, Babel,” he whispered. “Wait!” With the agility of a gorilla
he sprang upon the iron ladder and climbed swiftly upward. The bright
moon cast a weird, twisting shadow upon the wall of the house, as of
some huge, misshapen beast. He reached the fourth story and disappeared
through the open window, whence the smoke had already begun to creep.
Presently he reappeared with the form of Gurtman upon his shoulder, and
slowly descended. With the utmost gentleness he laid his burden upon the
ground and placed his hand over the heart. Then he looked up into
Babel’s face.

“He is alive. He is not hurt much.” Then Babel cried as though her heart
would break, and Chertoff—went home.

Gurtman lived. He lived, and in a few days the sweatshop was running
again exactly as it had run before, and everything else went on exactly
as it had gone on before. Perhaps Chertoff’s pale face became a trifle
whiter, but that only brought out his ugliness the more vividly. He was
a splendid workman, and Gurtman could not afford to lose him. Sometimes
when the task was hard he sang that old song:

“_Sang a little bird, and sang,
And grew silent;
Knew the heart of merriment,
And forgot it.
Why, O little songster bird,
Grew you quiet?
How learned you, O heart, to know
Gloomy sorrow?_”

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