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THE IMPORTED BRIDEGROOM ***




Produced by Suzanne Shell, Mary Akers and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This
file was produced from images generously made available
by The Internet Archive/American Libraries.)





Transcriber's note:
Minor spelling and punctuation inconsistencies been harmonized.
Italic text has been marked with _underscores_.




THE
IMPORTED BRIDEGROOM
AND OTHER STORIES OF
THE NEW YORK
GHETTO

BY

ABRAHAM CAHAN

[Illustration]

BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
The Riverside Press, Cambridge
1898




THE IMPORTED BRIDEGROOM




I


Flora was alone in the back parlor, which she had appropriated for a
sort of boudoir. She sat in her rocker, in front of the parlor stove,
absorbed in "Little Dorrit." Her well-groomed girlish form was
enveloped in a kindly warmth whose tender embrace tinged her interest
in the narrative with a triumphant consciousness of the snowstorm
outside.

Little by little the rigid afternoon light began to fade into a
melancholy gray. Dusk was creeping into the room in almost visible
waves. Flora let the book rest on her lap and fixed her gaze on the
twinkling scarlet of the stove-glass. The thickening twilight, the
warmth of the apartment, and the atmosphere of the novel blended
together, and for some moments Flora felt far away from herself.

She was the only girl of her circle who would read Dickens, Scott, or
Thackeray in addition to the "Family Story Paper" and the "Fireside
Companion," which were the exclusive literary purveyors to her former
classmates at the Chrystie Street Grammar School. There were a piano
and a neat little library in her room.

She was rather tall and well formed. Her oblong ivory face,
accentuated by a mass of unruly hair of a lustreless black, was never
deserted by a faint glimmer of a smile, at once pensive and arch. When
she broke into one of her hearty, good-natured laughs, her deep, dark,
appealing eyes would seem filled with grief. Her nose, a trifle too
precipitous, gave an unexpected tone to the extreme picturesqueness of
the whole effect, and, when she walked, partook of the dignity of her
gait.

A month or two before we make Flora's acquaintance she had celebrated
her twentieth birthday, having been born in this little private house
on Mott Street, which was her father's property.

A matchmaker had recently called, and he had launched into a eulogy of
a young Jewish physician; but old Stroon had cut him short, in his
blunt way: his only child was to marry a God-fearing business man, and
no fellow deep in Gentile lore and shaving his beard need apply. As
to Flora, she was burning to be a doctor's wife. A rising young
merchant, a few years in the country, was the staple matrimonial
commodity in her set. Most of her married girl friends, American-born
themselves, like Flora, had husbands of this class - queer fellows,
whose broken English had kept their own sweethearts chuckling. Flora
hated the notion of marrying as the other Mott or Bayard Street girls
did. She was accustomed to use her surroundings for a background,
throwing her own personality into high relief. But apart from this,
she craved a more refined atmosphere than her own, and the vague ideal
she had was an educated American gentleman, like those who lived
up-town.

Accordingly, when the word "doctor" had left the matchmaker's lips,
she seized upon it as a great discovery. In those days - the early
eighties - a match of this kind was an uncommon occurrence in the New
York Ghetto.

Flora pictured a clean-shaven, high-hatted, spectacled gentleman
jumping out of a buggy, and the image became a fixture in her mind. "I
won't marry anybody except a doctor," she would declare, with
conscious avoidance of bad grammar, as it behooved a doctor's wife.

But what was to be done with father's opposition? Asriel Stroon had
never been the man to yield, and now that he grew more devout every
day, her case seemed hopeless. But then Flora was her father's
daughter, and when she took a resolve she could not imagine herself
otherwise than carrying it out, sooner or later.

Flora's thoughts were flowing in this direction when her father's
gruff voice made itself heard from the dining-room below. It was the
anniversary of his father's death. In former years he would have
contented himself with obit services, at the synagogue; this time,
however, he had passed the day in fasting and chanting psalms at home,
in addition to lighting his own candle in front of the cantor's desk
and reciting _Kaddish_ for the departed soul, at the house of prayer.
It touched Flora's heart to think of him fasting and praying all day,
and, with her book in her hand, she ran down to meet him.

"Just comin' from the synagogue, papa?" she greeted him
affectionately, in English. "This settles your fast, don't it?"

"It is not so easy to settle with Him, my daughter," he returned, in
Yiddish, pointing to the ceiling. "You can never be through serving
the Uppermost. Hurry up, Tamara!" he added, in the direction of the
adjoining kitchen.

"You ain' goin' to say more Thilim[1] to-night, are you, pa?"

[1] Psalms.

"Why, does it cost you too much?" he snarled good humoredly.

"Yes it does - your health. I won't let you sing again. You are weak
and you got enough."

"Hush! It is not potato-soup; you can never have enough of it." He
fell to tugging nervously at his white beard, which grew in a pair of
tiny imperials. "Tamara! It's time to break the fast, isn't it?"

"You can wash your hands. Supper is ready," came the housekeeper's
pleasant voice.

He took off his brown derby, and covered his steel-gray hair with a
velvet skull-cap; and as he carried his robust, middle-sized body into
the kitchen, to perform his ablutions, his ruddy, gnarled face took on
an air of piety.

When supper was over and Asriel and Tamara were about to say grace,
Flora resumed the reading of her novel.

"Off with that lump of Gentile nastiness while holy words are being
said!" the old man growled.

Flora obeyed, in amazement. Only a few months before she had seldom
seen him intone grace at all. She was getting used to his new habits,
but such rigor as he now displayed was unintelligible to her, and she
thought it unbearable.

"You can read your book a little after. The wisdom of it will not run
away," chimed in Tamara, with good-natured irony. She was a poor widow
of forty. Asriel had engaged her for her piety and for the rabbinical
learning of her late husband, as much as for her culinary fame in the
Ghetto.

Asriel intoned grace in indistinct droning accents. By degrees,
however, as he warmed up to the Hebrew prayer, whose words were a
conglomeration of incomprehensible sounds to him, he fell to swaying
to and fro, and his voice broke into an exalted, heartrending
sing-song, Tamara accompanying him in whispers, and dolefully nodding
her bewigged head all the while.

Flora was moved. The scene was novel to her, and she looked on with
the sympathetic reverence of a Christian visiting a Jewish synagogue
on the Day of Atonement.

At last the fervent tones died away in a solemn murmur. Silence fell
over the cosy little room. Asriel sat tugging at his scanty beard as
if in an effort to draw it into a more venerable growth.

"Flora!" he presently growled. "I am going to Europe."

When Asriel Stroon thought he spoke, and when he spoke he acted.

"Goin' to Europe! Are you crazy, papa? What are you talkin' about?"

"Just what you hear. After Passover I am going to Europe. I must take
a look at Pravly."

"But you ain't been there over thirty-five years. You don't remember
not'in' at all."

"I don't remember Pravly? Better than Mott Street; better than my
nose. I was born there, my daughter," he added, as he drew closer to
her and began to stroke her glossless black hair. This he did so
seldom that the girl felt her heart swelling in her throat. She was
yearning after him in advance.

Tamara stared in beaming amazement at the grandeur of the enterprise.
"Are you really going?" she queried, with a touch of envy.

"What will you do there? - It's so far away!" Flora resumed, for want
of a weightier argument at hand.

"Never mind, my child; I won't have to walk all the way."

"But the Russian police will arrest you for stayin' away so long.
Didn't you say they would?"

"The kernel of a hollow nut!" he replied, extemporizing an equivalent
of "Fiddlesticks!" Flora was used to his metaphors, although they were
at times rather vague, and set one wondering how they came into his
head at all. "The kernel of a hollow nut! Show a _treif_[2] gendarme a
_kosher_[3] coin, and he will be shivering with ague. Long live the
American dollar!"

[2] Food not prepared according to the laws of Moses; impure.

[3] The opposite of _treif_.

She gave him a prolonged, far-away look, and said, peremptorily: -

"Mister, you ain' goin' nowheres."

"Tamara, hand me my Psalter, will you?" the old man grumbled.

When the girl was gone, the housekeeper inquired: -

"And Flora - will you take her along?"

"What for? That she might make fun of our ways there, or that the
pious people should point their fingers at her and call her Gentile
girl, hey? She will stay with you and collect rent. I did not have her
in Pravly, and I want to be there as I used to. I feel like taking a
peep at the graves of my folks. It is pulling me by the heart,
Tamara," he added, in a grave undertone, as he fell to turning over
the leaves of his Psalter.




II


When Asriel Stroon had retired from business, he suddenly grew fearful
of death. Previously he had had no time for that. What with his flour
store, two bakeries, and some real estate, he had been too busy to
live, much less to think of death. He had never been seen at the
synagogue on week-days; and on the Sabbath, when, enveloped in his
praying-shawl, he occupied a seat at the East Wall, he would pass the
time drowsing serenely and nodding unconscious approval of the
cantor's florid improvisations, or struggling to keep flour out of
his mind, where it clung as pertinaciously as it did to his long
Sabbath coat.

The first sermon that failed to lull him to sleep was delivered by a
newly landed preacher, just after Asriel had found it more profitable
to convert his entire property into real estate. The newcomer dwelt,
among other things, upon the fate of the wicked after death and upon
their forfeited share in the World to Come. As Asriel listened to the
fiery exhortation it suddenly burst upon him that he was very old and
very wicked. "I am as full of sins as a watermelon is of seeds," he
said to himself, on coming out of the synagogue. "You may receive
notice to move at any time, Asriel. And where is your baggage? Got
anything to take along to the other world, as the preacher said, hey?"

Alas! he had been so taken up with earthly title deeds that he had
given but little thought to such deeds as would entitle him to a
"share in the World to Come;" and while his valuable papers lay secure
between the fireproof walls of his iron safe, his soul was left
utterly exposed to the flames of Sheol.

Then it was that he grew a pair of bushy sidelocks, ceased trimming
his twin goatees, and, with his heart divided between yearning after
the business he had sold and worrying over his sins, spent a
considerable part of his unlimited leisure reading psalms.

What a delight it was to wind off chapter after chapter! And how
smoothly it now came off, in his father's (peace upon him!) sing-song,
of which he had not even thought for more than thirty years, but which
suddenly came pouring out of his throat, together with the first verse
he chanted! Not that Asriel Stroon could have told you the meaning of
what he was so zestfully intoning, for in his boyhood he had scarcely
gone through the Pentateuch when he was set to work by his father's
side, at flax heckling. But then the very sounds of the words and the
hereditary intonation, added to the consciousness that it was psalms
he was reciting, "made every line melt like sugar in his mouth," as he
once described it to the devout housekeeper.

He grew more pious and exalted every day, and by degrees fell prey to
a feeling to which he had been a stranger for more than three
decades.

Asriel Stroon grew homesick.

It was thirty-five years since he had left his birthplace; thirty
years or more since, in the whirl of his American successes, he had
lost all interest in it. Yet now, in the fifty-eighth year of his
life, he suddenly began to yearn and pine for it.

Was it the fervor of his religious awakening which resoldered the
long-broken link? At all events, numerous as were the examples of
piety within the range of his American acquaintance, his notion of
genuine Judaism was somehow inseparably associated with Pravly. During
all the years of his life in New York he had retained a vague but
deep-rooted feeling that American piety was as tasteless an article as
American cucumbers and American fish - the only things in which his
ecstasy over the adopted country admitted its hopeless inferiority to
his native town.




III


On a serene afternoon in May, Asriel drove up to Pravly in a peasant's
wagon. He sat listlessly gazing at the unbroken line of wattle-fences
and running an imaginary stick along the endless zigzag of their
tops. The activity of his senses seemed suspended.

Presently a whiff of May aroma awakened his eye to a many-colored
waving expanse, and his ear to the languorous whisper of birds. He
recognized the plushy clover knobs in the vast array of placid
magnificence, and the dandelions and the golden buttercups, although
his poor mother-tongue could not afford a special name for each
flower, and he now addressed them collectively as _tzatzkes_ - a word
he had not used for thirty-five years. He looked at the tzatzkes, as
they were swaying thoughtfully hither and thither, and it somehow
seemed to him that it was not the birds but the clover blossoms which
did the chirping. The whole scene appealed to his soul as a nodding,
murmuring congregation engrossed in the solemnity of worship. He felt
as though there were no such flowers in America, and that he had not
seen any since he had left his native place.

Echoes of many, many years ago called to Asriel from amid the
whispering host. His soul burst into song. He felt like shutting his
eyes and trusting himself to the caressing breath of the air, that it
might waft him whithersoever it chose. His senses were in confusion:
he beheld a sea of fragrance; he inhaled heavenly music; he listened
to a symphony of hues.

"What a treat to breathe! What a paradise!" he exclaimed in his heart.
"The cholera take it, how delicious! Do you deserve it, old sinner
you? Ten plagues you do! But hush! the field is praying" -

With a wistful babyish look he became absorbed in a gigantic
well-sweep suspended from the clear sky, and then in the landscape it
overhung. The woody mass darkling in the distance was at once racing
about and standing still. Fleecy clouds crawled over a hazy hill-top.
And yonder - behold! a long, broad streak of silver gleaming on the
horizon! Is it a lake? Asriel's eyes are riveted and memories stir in
his breast. He recalls not the place itself, but he can remember his
reminiscences of it. During his first years in America, at times when
he would surrender himself to the sweet pangs of homesickness and
dwell, among other things, on the view that had seen him off to the
unknown land, his mind would conjure up something like the effect now
before his eyes. As a dream does it come back to him now. The very
shadows of thirty-five years ago are veiled.

Asriel gazes before him in deep reverence. The sky is letting itself
down with benign solemnity, its measureless trough filled with melody,
the peasant's wagon creaking an accompaniment to it all - to every
speck of color, as well as to every sound of the scene.

At one moment he felt as though he had strayed into the other world;
at another, he was seized with doubt as to his own identity. "Who are
you?" he almost asked himself, closing and reopening his hand
experimentally. "Who or what is that business which you call life? Are
you alive, Asriel?" Whereupon he somehow remembered Flora's
photograph, and, taking it out of his bosom pocket, fell to
contemplating it.

The wagon turned into a side-road, and the Polish peasant, leaning
forward, cursed and whipped the animal into a peevish trot. Presently
something gray hove in sight. Far away, below, hazy blotches came
creeping from behind the sky. The wagon rolls downhill. Asriel is in a
flurry. He feels like one on the eve of a great event, he knows not
exactly what.

The wagon dashes on. Asriel's heart is all of a flutter. Suddenly - O
Lord of the Universe! Why, there glistens the brook - what do you call
it? "Repka?" he asks the driver.

"Repka!" the other replies, without facing about.

"Repka, a disease into her heart! Repka, dear, may she live long! Who
could beat Asriel in swimming?" Over there, on the other side, it was
where Asriel's father once chased him for bathing during Nine Days. He
bumped his head against the angle of a rock, did the little scamp, and
got up with a deep, streaming gash in his lower lip. The mark is still
there, and Asriel delights to feel it with his finger now. As he does
so the faces of some of his playmates rise before him. Pshaw! he could
whip every one of them! Was he not a dare-devil of a loafer! But how
many of those fellow truants of his will he find alive? he asks
himself, and the question wrings his heart.

Asriel strains his eyes at the far distance till, behold! smoke is
spinning upward against the blue sky. He can make out the
chimney-pots. His soul overflows. Sobs choke his breath. "Say!" he
begins, addressing himself to the driver. But "Say" is English.
"_Sloukhai!_" he shouts, with delight in the Polish word. He utters
the names of the surrounding places, and the dull peasant's nods of
assent thrill him to the core. He turns this way and that, and in his
paroxysm of impatience all but leaps out of the wagon.

The rambling groups of houses define their outlines. Asriel recognizes
the Catholic church. His heart bounds with joy. "Hush, wicked thing!
It's a church of Gentiles." But the wicked thing surreptitiously
resumes its greeting. And over there, whitening at some distance from
the other dwellings - what is it? "The nobleman's palace, as sure as I
am a Jew!" He had forgotten all about it, as sure as he was a Jew! But
what is the nobleman's name? Is he alive? - And there is the mill - the
same mill! "I'll swoon away!" he says to himself audibly.

Asriel regains some composure.

Half an hour later he made his entry into his native town. Here he had
expected his agitation to pass the bounds of his physical strength;
but it did not. At this moment he was solemnly serene.

The town had changed little, and he recognized it at once. Every spot
greeted him, and his return of the salutation was a speechless
devotional pathos. He found several things which had faded out of his
enshrined picture of the place, and the sight of these moved his soul
even more powerfully than those he had looked forward to. Only in one
instance was he taken aback. Sure enough, this is Synagogue Lane, as
full of puddles as ever; but what has come over him? He well remembers
that little alley in the rear; and yet it runs quite the other way.
Length has turned into width.

And here is Leizer Poisner's inn. "But how rickety it has become!"
Asriel's heart exclaims with a pang, as though at sight of a friend
prematurely aged and run to seed. He can almost smell the stable
occupying the entire length of the little building, and he remembers
every room - Hello! The same market place, the same church with the
bailiff's office by its side! The sparse row of huts on the
river-bank, the raft bridge, the tannery, - everything was the same as
he had left it; and yet it all had an odd, mysterious, far-away
air - like things seen in a cyclorama. It was Pravly and at the same
time it was not; or, rather, it certainly was the same dear old
Pravly, but added to it was something else, through which it now gazed
at Asriel. Thirty-five years lay wrapped about the town.

Still, Stroon feels like Asrielke Thirteen Hairs, as his nickname had
been here. Then he relapses into the Mott Street landlord, and for a
moment he is an utter stranger in his birthplace. Why, he could buy it
all up now! He could discount all the rich men in town put together;
and yet there was a time when he was of the meanest hereabout. An
overpowering sense of triumph surged into his breast. Hey, there!
Where are your bigbugs - Zorach Latozky, Reb Lippe, Reb Nochum? Are
they alive? Thirty-five years ago Asrielke considered it an honor to
shake their palm branch on the Feast of Tabernacles, while now - out
with your purses, you proud magnates, measure fortunes with Asrielke
the heckler, if you dare! His heart swells with exultation. And
yet - the black year take it! - it yearns and aches, does Asriel's
heart. He looks at Pravly, and his soul is pining for Pravly - for the
one of thirty-five years ago, of which this is only a reflection, - for
the one in which he was known as a crackbrained rowdy of a mechanic,
a poor devil living on oatmeal and herring.

With the townspeople of his time Asriel's experience was somewhat
different from what he felt in the case of inanimate Pravly. As he
confronted them some faces lighted up with their identity at once; and
there were even some younger people in whom he instantly recognized
the transcribed images of their deceased parents. But many a
countenance was slow to catch the reflection of the past which shone
out of his eyes; and in a few instances it was not until the name was
revealed to Asriel that the retrospective likeness would begin to
struggle through the unfamiliar features before him.

"Shmulke!" he shrieked, the moment he caught sight of an old crony, as
though they had been parted for no move than a month. Shmulke is not
the blooming, sprightly young fellow of yore. He has a white beard and
looks somewhat decrepit. Asriel, however, feels as if the beard were
only glued to the smooth face he had known. But how Asriel's heart
does shrink in his bosom! The fever of activity in which he had passed
the thirty-five years had kept him deaf to the departing footsteps of
Time. Not until recently had he realized that the words "old man"
applied to him; but even then the fact never came home to him with
such convincing, with such terrible force, as it did now that he stood
face to face with Shmulke. Shmulke was his mirror.

"Shmulke, Angel of Death, an inflammation into your bones!" he
shouted, as he suddenly remembered his playmate's by-name and fell on
his shoulder.

Shmulke feels awkward. He is ashamed of the long-forgotten nickname,
and is struggling to free himself from the unwelcome embrace; but
Asriel is much the stronger of the two, and he continues to squeeze
him and pat him, grunting and puffing for emotion as he does so.

Aunt Sarah-Rachel, whom Asriel had left an elderly but exceedingly
active and clever tradeswoman, he found a bag of bones and in her
dotage.

"Don't you know me, auntie?" he implored her. She made no reply, and
went on munching her lips. "Can it be that you don't know Asrielke,
who used to steal raisins from your grocery?"

"She does not understand anything!" Asriel whispered, in
consternation.




IV


Asriel's first Sabbath in the native place he was revisiting was
destined to be a memorable day in the annals of that peaceful little
town.

At the synagogue, during the morning service, he was not the only
object of interest. So far as the furtive glances that came through
the peepholes of the women's compartment were concerned, a much
younger guest, from a hamlet near by, had even greater magnetism than
he. Reb Lippe, for forty years the "finest householder" of the
community, expected to marry his youngest daughter to an _Illoui_ (a
prodigy of Talmudic lore), and he now came to flaunt him, and the
five-thousand rouble dowry he represented, before the congregation.

Only nineteen and a poor orphan, the fame of the prospective
bridegroom, as a marvel of acumen and memory, reached far and wide.
Few of the subtlest rabbinical minds in the district were accounted
his match in debate, and he was said to have some two thousand
Talmudical folios literally at his finger's ends. This means that if


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