QUEER SCHARENSTEIN

“Scharenstein?” they would say. “Oh, Scharenstein is queer! He is
good-hearted, poor fellow, but——”

Then they would tap their foreheads significantly and shake their heads.
He had come from a hamlet in Bessarabia—a hamlet so small that you would
not find it on any map, even if you could pronounce the name. The whole
population of the hamlet did not exceed three hundred souls, of whom all
but three or four families were Christians. And these Christians had
risen, one day, and had fallen upon the Jews. Scharenstein’s wife was
stabbed through the heart, and his son, his brown-eyed little boy, was
burned with the house. Upon Scharenstein’s breast, as a reminder of an
old historical episode, they hacked a crude sign of a cross; then they
let him go, and Scharenstein in some way—no one ever knew how—found his
way to this country. When the ship came into the harbour he asked a
sailor what that majestic figure was that held aloft the shining light
whose rays lit up the wide stretch of the bay. They told him it was the
statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.

“It is good,” he said.

He found work in a sweatshop. An immigrant from a neighbouring hamlet
came over later and told the story, but when they came to Scharenstein
with sympathy he only laughed.

“He is queer,” they said.

In all that shop none other worked as diligently as Scharenstein. He was
the first to arrive, and the last to leave, and through all the day he
worked cheerfully, almost merrily, often humming old airs that his
fellow-workers had not heard for many years. And a man who worked harder
than his fellows in a sweatshop must surely have been queer, for in
those days the sweatshop was a place where the bodies and souls of men
and women writhed through hour after hour of torment and misery, until,
in sheer exhaustion, they became numb. Scharenstein went through all
this with a smile on his lips, and even on the hottest day, when there
came a few moments’ respite, he would keep treading away at his machine
and sing while the others were gasping for breath. And at night, when
the work was done, and the weary toilers dragged themselves home and
flung themselves upon their dreary beds, Scharenstein would trudge all
the way down to the Battery and stand for hours gazing at the statue of
Liberty Enlightening the World. And as he gazed, the tense lines of his
face would relax, and a bright light would come into his eyes, perhaps a
tear would trickle down his cheek. Then, after holding out both arms in
a yearning farewell, he would turn and walk slowly homeward.

There was one day—it was in summer, when the thermometer stood at
ninety-five in the shade—that the burden of life seemed too heavy to be
borne. The air of the sweatshop was damp from the wet cloth, and hot
from the big stove upon which the irons were heating. The machines were
roaring and clicking in a deafening din, above which, every now and
then, rose a loud hissing sound as a red-hot goose was plunged into a
tub of water. The dampness and heat seemed to permeate everything; the
machines were hot to the touch. Men sat stripped to their undershirts,
the perspiration pouring from them. The sweater sat as far from the
stove as he could get, figuring his accounts and frowning. The cost of
labour was too high. Suddenly Marna, the pale, fat old woman who sat at
a machine close by the ironers, spat upon the floor and cried:

“A curse on a world like this!”

Some looked up in surprise, for Marna rarely spoke, but the most of them
went on without heeding her until they heard the voice of Scharenstein
with an intonation that was new to them.

“Right, Marna,” he said. “A terrible world. A terrible world it is. Ho!
ho! ho!”

They all looked at him. He was smiling, and turning around to look from
face to face. Then, still smiling and speaking slowly and hesitatingly,
as if he found it hard to select the right word, he went on:

“An awful world. They come and take the woman—hold her down under their
knees—hold her throat tight in their fingers—like I hold this
cloth—tight—and stick a dagger into her heart. And they set fire to the
house—to the big house—all the smoke comes out of the windows—and
flames—bigger and hotter than in the stove there—oh, terrible
flames!—and the little boy’s face comes to the window—and they all
laugh. Ho! ho! ho! Then the whole house falls in—and the little boy’s
face disappears—and oh, how high the flames go up!”

He looked around him, smiling. A chill struck the heart of every one of
his hearers. He shook his head slowly and said to Marna:

“Right, Marna! It is a terrible world.”

The sweater was busy with his accounts and had not heard. But the sudden
cessation of work made him look up, and hearing Scharenstein address the
woman, and seeing others looking at her, he turned upon Marna.

“Confound it! Is this a time to be idling? Stop your chattering and back
to work. We must finish everything before——”

There was something harsh and grating in his voice that seemed to
electrify Scharenstein. Dropping his work, he sprang between the sweater
and Marna and held out his arms beseechingly.

“Oh, spare her! For God’s sake spare her! She is an innocent woman! She
has done you no harm!”

And as he stood with outstretched arms, his shirt fell open, and every
eye saw plainly upon his breast the red sign of a crude cross. The
sweater fell back in amazement. Then a sudden light dawned upon him,
and, in an altered tone, he said: “Very well. I will do her no harm. Sit
down, my friend. You need not work to-day if you are not feeling well. I
will get someone to take your place, and—and—” (it required a heroic
effort) “you will not lose the day’s pay. You had better go home.”

Scharenstein smiled and thanked the sweater. Then he started down the
stairs. Marna followed him, and with her arm around him helped him down
the steps.

“My little boy is playing in the street,” she said. “Why don’t you take
him for a walk to the park where you took him before? It will do you
good, and he will be company for you.”

Scharenstein’s face lit up with pleasure. Marna’s little boy had
frequently accompanied him on his walks to the Battery, and to see the
little fellow romping about and hear him screaming with delight at the
harbour sights had filled Scharenstein’s heart with exquisite pleasure.
He now sought the boy. He found him playing with his companions, all of
them running like mad through all that fierce heat.

“Boy!” cried Scharenstein. “Look!” The boy turned and saw Scharenstein
standing erect with one arm held straight over his head, the other
clasped against his breast as though he were hugging something—the
attitude of the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. With a shout
of delight he ran toward his friend, crying, “Take me with you!” And
hand in hand they walked down to the sea-wall.

The boy watched the ships. Scharenstein, seated in the shade of a tree,
feasted his eyes upon that graceful bronze figure that stood so lonely,
so pensive, yet held aloft so joyfully its hopeful emblem.

He sat like one entranced, and now and then his lips would move as
though he were struggling to utter some of the vague thoughts that were
floating in his brain. His face, however, was serene, and his whole
frame was relaxed in a delightful, restful abandon.

The boy played and ran about, and asked Scharenstein for pennies to buy
fruit, and slowly the hours slipped by. As the sun sank, and the
coolness of night succeeded the painful heat of the afternoon,
Scharenstein moved from his seat and stood as close to the water’s edge
as he could. Then it grew dark, and the boy came and leaned wearily
against him.

“I am tired,” he said. “Let us go home now.”

Scharenstein took the little fellow in his arms and perched him upon one
of the stone posts.

“Soon, boy,” he said. “Soon we will go. But let us wait to see the
statue light her torch.”

They gazed out into the gathering darkness. Scharenstein’s hand caressed
the boy’s curly hair; the little head rested peacefully against his
breast,—against the livid cross that throbbed under his shirt,—and the
pressure stirred tumultuous memories within him.

“You are a fine boy,” he said. “But you are not my boy.”

“I’m mamma’s boy,” murmured the lad, drowsily.

“Yes. Very true. Very true. You are mamma’s boy. But I have a little
boy, and—dear me!—I forgot all about him.”

“Where is he?” asked the boy.

“Out there,” answered Scharenstein, pointing to the dim outlines of the
statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. “She is keeping him for me!
But listen!” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “When I see him again I
will ask him to come and play with you. He often used to play with me.
He can run and sing, and he plays just like a sweet little angel. Oh,
look!”

The bright electric light flashed from the statue’s torch, lighting up
the vast harbour with all its shipping, lighting up the little head that
rested against Scharenstein’s breast, and lighting up Scharenstein’s
face, now drawn and twitching convulsively.

“Do you see him?” he whispered hoarsely. “Boy! Do you see my little boy
out there? He has big brown eyes. Do you see him? He is my only boy. He
wants me. He is calling me. Wait here, boy. I will go out and bring him
to you. He will play with you. He loves to play.”

Gently he lowered his little companion from the post and carried him to
a bench.

“Wait here, boy,” he said. “I will soon be back.”

In sleepy wonderment the little fellow watched Scharenstein take off his
hat and coat and climb over the chain. The moment he disappeared from
view the little fellow became thoroughly awake and ran forward to the
sea-wall. Scharenstein was swimming clumsily, fiercely out into the bay.

“Come back!” cried the boy. “Come back!”

He heard Scharenstein’s voice faintly, “I am coming.” Then again, more
faintly still, “I am coming.” Then all became silent except the lapping
of the waves against the sea-wall, and the boy began to cry.

It was fully an hour before the alarm was given and a boat lowered, but
of Scharenstein they found no trace. The harbour waters are swift, and
the currents sweep twistingly in many directions. The harbour clings
tenaciously to its dead—gives them up only with reluctance and after
many days. And the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World looks down
upon the search and holds out hope. But it gives no help.

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