Women A Prose Poem


Hedged round with tall, thick woods, as though designedly, so that no

one should know what happens there, lies the long-drawn-out old town of


To the right, connected with Pereyaslav by a wooden bridge, lies another

bit of country, named--Pidvorkes.

The town itself, with its long, narrow, muddy streets, with the crowded

houses propped up one against the other like tombstones, with

meagre grey walls all to pieces, with the broken window-panes stuffed

with rags--well, the town of Pereyaslav was hardly to be distinguished

from any other town inhabited by Jews.

Here, too, people faded before they bloomed. Here, too, men lived on

miracles, were fruitful and multiplied out of all season and reason.

They talked of a livelihood, of good times, of riches and pleasures,

with the same appearance of firm conviction, and, at the same time the

utter disbelief, with which one tells a legend read in a book.

And they really supposed these terms to be mere inventions of the

writers of books and nothing more! For not only were they incapable of a

distinct conception of their real meaning, but some had even given up

the very hope of ever being able to earn so much as a living, and

preferred not to reach out into the world with their thoughts, straining

them for nothing, that is, for the sake of a thing so plainly out of

the question as a competence. At night the whole town was overspread by

a sky which, if not grey with clouds, was of a troubled and washed-out

blue. But the people were better off than by day. Tired out,

overwrought, exhausted, prematurely aged as they were, they sought and

found comfort in the lap of the dreamy, secret, inscrutable night. Their

misery was left far behind, and they felt no more grief and pain.

An unknown power hid everything from them as though with a thick, damp,

stone wall, and they heard and saw nothing.

They did not hear the weak voices, like the mewing of blind kittens, of

their pining children, begging all day for food as though on purpose--as

though they knew there was none to give them. They did not hear the

sighs and groans of their friends and neighbors, filling the air with

the hoarse sound of furniture dragged across the floor; they did not

see, in sleep, Death-from-hunger swing quivering, on threads of

spider-web, above their heads.

Even the little fires that flickered feverishly on their hearths, and

testified to the continued existence of breathing men, even these they

saw no longer. Silence cradled everything to sleep, extinguished it, and

caused it to be forgotten.

Hardly, however, was it dawn, hardly had the first rays pierced beneath

the closed eyelids, before a whole world of misery awoke and came to

life again.

The frantic cries of hundreds of starving children, despairing

exclamations and imprecations and other piteous sounds filled the air.

One gigantic curse uncoiled and crept from house to house, from door to

door, from mouth to mouth, and the population began to move, to bestir

themselves, to run hither and thither.

Half-naked, with parched bones and shrivelled skin, with sunken yet

burning eyes, they crawled over one another like worms in a heap,

fastened on to the bites in each other's mouth, and tore them away--

But this is summer, and they are feeling comparatively cheerful, bold,

and free in their movements. They are stifled and suffocated, they are

in a melting-pot with heat and exhaustion, but there are

counter-balancing advantages; one can live for weeks at a time without

heating the stove; indeed, it is pleasanter indoors without fire, and

lighting will cost very little, now the evenings are short.

In winter it was different. An inclement sky, an enfeebled sun, a sick

day, and a burning, biting frost!

People, too, were different. A bitterness came over them, and they went

about anxious and irritable, with hanging head, possessed by gloomy

despair. It never even occurred to them to tear their neighbor's bite

out of his mouth, so depressed and preoccupied did they become. The days

were months, the evenings years, and the weeks--oh! the weeks were


And no one knew of their misery but the winter wind that tore at their

roofs and howled in their all but smokeless chimneys like one bewitched,

like a lost soul condemned to endless wandering.

But there were bright stars in the abysmal darkness; their one pride and

consolation were the Pidvorkes, the inhabitants of the aforementioned

district of that name. Was it a question of the upkeep of a Reader or of

a bath, the support of a burial-society, of a little hospital or refuge,

a Rabbi, of providing Sabbath loaves for the poor, flour for the

Passover, the dowry of a needy bride--the Pidvorkes were ready! The sick

and lazy, the poverty-stricken and hopeless, found in them support and

protection. The Pidvorkes! They were an inexhaustible well that no one

had ever found to fail them, unless the Pidvorke husbands happened to be

present, on which occasion alone one came away with empty hands.

The fair fame of the Pidvorkes extended beyond Pereyaslav to all poor

towns in the neighborhood. Talk of husbands--they knew about the

Pidvorkes a hundred miles round; the least thing, and they pointed out

to their wives how they should take a lesson from the Pidvorke women,

and then they would be equally rich and happy.

It was not because the Pidvorkes had, within their border, great, green

velvety hills and large gardens full of flowers that they had reason to

be proud, or others, to be proud of them; not because wide fields,

planted with various kinds of corn, stretched for miles around them, the

delicate ears swaying in sunshine and wind; not even because there

flowed round the Pidvorkes a river so transparent, so full of the

reflection of the sky, you could not decide which was the bluest of the

two. Pereyaslav at any rate was not affected by any of these things,

perhaps knew nothing of them, and certainly did not wish to know

anything, for whoso dares to let his mind dwell on the like, sins

against God. Is it a Jewish concern? A townful of men who have a God,

and religious duties to perform, with reward and punishment, who have

that world to prepare for, and a wife and children in this one,

people must be mad (of the enemies of Zion be it said!) to stare at the

sky, the fields, the river, and all the rest of it--things which a man

on in years ought to blush to talk about.

No, they are proud of the Pidvorke women, and parade them continually.

The Pidvorke women are no more attractive, no taller, no cleverer than

others. They, too, bear children and suckle them, one a year, after the

good old custom; neither are they more thought of by their husbands. On

the contrary, they are the best abused and tormented women going, and

herein lies their distinction.

They put up, with the indifference of all women alike, to the belittling

to which they are subjected by their husbands; they swallow their

contempt by the mouthful without a reproach, and yet they are

exceptions; and yet they are distinguished from all other women, as the

rushing waters of the Dnieper from the stagnant pools in the marsh.

About five in the morning, when the men-folk turn in bed, and bury their

faces in the white feather pillows, emitting at the same time strange,

broken sounds through their big, stupid, red noses--at this early hour

their wives have transacted half-a-day's business in the market-place.

Dressed in short, light skirts with blue aprons, over which depends on

their left a large leather pocket for the receiving of coin and the

giving out of change--one cannot be running every minute to the

cash-box--they stand in their shops with miscellaneous ware, and toil

hard. They weigh and measure, buy and sell, and all this with wonderful

celerity. There stands one of them by herself in a shop, and tries to

persuade a young, barefoot peasant woman to buy the printed cotton she

offers her, although the customer only wants a red cotton with a large,

flowery pattern. She talks without a pause, declaring that the young

peasant may depend upon her, she would not take her in for the world,

and, indeed, to no one else would she sell the article so cheap. But

soon her eye catches two other women pursuing a peasant man, and before

even making out whether he has any wares with him or not, she leaves her

customer and joins them. If they run, she feels so must she. The peasant

is sure to be wanting grease or salt, and that may mean ten kopeks'

unexpected gain. Meantime she is not likely to lose her present

customer, fascinated as the latter must be by her flow of speech.

So she leaves her, and runs after the peasant, who is already surrounded

by a score of women, shrieking, one louder than the other, praising

their ware to the skies, and each trying to make him believe that he and

she are old acquaintances. But presently the tumult increases, there is

a cry, "Cheap fowls, who wants cheap fowls?" Some rich landholder has

sent out a supply of fowls to sell, and all the women swing round

towards the fowls, keeping a hold on the peasant's cart with their left

hand, so that you would think they wanted to drag peasant, horse, and

cart along with them. They bargain for a few minutes with the seller of

fowls, and advise him not to be obstinate and to take their offers, else

he will regret it later.

Suddenly a voice thunders, "The peasants are coming!" and they throw

themselves as for dear life upon the cart-loads of produce; they run as

though to a conflagration, get under each other's feet, their eyes

glisten as though they each wanted to pull the whole market aside. There

is a shrieking and scolding, until one or another gets the better of the

rest, and secures the peasant's wares. Then only does each woman

remember that she has customers waiting in her shop, and she runs in

with a beaming smile and tells them that, as they have waited so long,

they shall be served with the best and the most beautiful of her store.

By eight o'clock in the morning, when the market is over, when they have

filled all the bottles left with them by their customers, counted up the

change and their gains, and each one has slipped a coin into her knotted

handkerchief, so that her husband should not know of its existence (one

simply must! One is only human--one is surely not expected to wrangle

with him about every farthing?)--then, when there is nothing more to

be done in the shops, they begin to gather in knots, and every one tells

at length the incidents and the happy strokes of business of the day.

They have forgotten all the bad luck they wished each other, all the

abuse they exchanged, while the market was in progress; they know that

"Parnosseh is Parnosseh," and bear no malice, or, if they do, it is only

if one has spoken unkindly of another during a period of quiet, on a

Sabbath or a holiday.

Each talks with a special enthusiasm, and deep in her sunken eyes with

their blue-black rings there burns a proud, though tiny, fire, as she

recalls how she got the better of a customer, and sold something which

she had all but thrown away, and not only sold it, but better than

usual; or else they tell how late their husbands sleep, and then imagine

their wives are still in bed, and set about waking them, "It's time to

get up for the market," and they at once pretend to be sleepy--then,

when they have already been and come back!

And very soon a voice is heard to tremble with pleasant excitement, and

a woman begins to relate the following:

"Just you listen to me: I was up to-day when God Himself was still

asleep."--"That is not the way to talk, Sheine!" interrupts a

second.--"Well, well, well?" (there is a good deal of curiosity). "And

what happened?"--"It was this way: I went out quietly, so that no one

should hear, not to wake them, because when Lezer went to bed, it was

certainly one o'clock. There was a dispute of some sort at the Rabbi's.

You can imagine how early it was, because I didn't even want to wake

Soreh, otherwise she always gets up when I do (never mind, it won't hurt

her to learn from her mother!). And at half past seven, when I saw there

were no more peasants coming in to market, I went to see what was going

on indoors. I heard my man calling me to wake up: 'Sheine, Sheine,

Sheine!' and I go quietly and lean against the bed, and wait to hear

what will happen next. 'Look here!--There is no waking her!--Sheine!

It's getting-up time and past! Are you deaf or half-witted? What's come

to you this morning?' I was so afraid I should laugh. I gave a jump and

called out, O woe is me, why ever didn't you wake me sooner? Bandit!

It's already eight o'clock!"

Her hearers go off into contented laughter, which grows clearer, softer,

more contented still. Each one tells her tale of how she was wakened

by her husband, and one tells this joke: Once, when her husband had

called to rouse her (he also usually woke her after market), she

answered that on that morning she did not intend to get up for market,

that he might go for once instead. This apparently pleases them still

better, for their laughter renews itself, more spontaneous and hearty

even than before. Each makes a witty remark, each feels herself in merry

mood, and all is cheerfulness.

They would wax a little more serious only when they came to talk of

their daughters. A woman would begin by trying to recall her daughter's

age, and beg a second one to help her remember when the girl was born,

so that she might not make a mistake in the calculation. And when it

came to one that had a daughter of sixteen, the mother fell into a brown

study; she felt herself in a very, very critical position, because when

a girl comes to that age, one ought soon to marry her. And there is

really nothing to prevent it: money enough will be forthcoming, only let

the right kind of suitor present himself, one, that is, who shall insist

on a well-dowered bride, because otherwise--what sort of a suitor do you

call that? She will have enough to live on, they will buy a shop for

her, she is quite capable of managing it--only let Heaven send a young

man of acceptable parentage, so that one's husband shall have no need to

blush with shame when he is asked about his son-in-law's family and


And this is really what they used to do, for when their daughters were

sixteen, they gave them in marriage, and at twenty the daughters were

"old," much-experienced wives. They knew all about teething,

chicken-pox, measles, and more besides, even about croup. If a young

mother's child fell ill, she hastened to her bosom crony, who knew a lot

more than she, having been married one whole year or two sooner, and got

advice as to what should be done.

The other would make close inquiry whether the round swellings about the

child's neck increased in size and wandered, that is, appeared at

different times and different places, in which case it was positively

nothing serious, but only the tonsils. But if they remained in one place

and grew larger, the mother must lose no time, but must run to the


Their daughters knew that they needed to lay by money, not only for a

dowry, but because a girl ought to have money of her own. They knew as

well as their mothers that a bridegroom would present himself and ask a

lot of money (the best sign of his being the right sort!), and they

prayed God for the same without ceasing.

No sooner were they quit of household matters than they went over to the

discussion of their connections and alliances--it was the greatest

pleasure they had.

The fact that their children, especially their daughters, were so

discreet that not one (to speak in a good hour and be silent in a bad!)

had as yet ever (far be it from the speaker to think of such a thing!)

given birth to a bastard, as was known to happen in other places--this

was the crowning point of their joy and exultation.

It even made up to them for the other fact, that they never got a good

word from their husbands for their hard, unnatural toil.

And as they chat together, throwing in the remark that "the apple never

falls far from the tree," that their daughters take after them in

everything, the very wrinkles vanish from their shrivelled faces, a

spring of refreshment and blessedness wells up in their hearts, they are

lifted above their cares, a feeling of relaxation comes over them, as

though a soothing balsam had penetrated their strained and weary limbs.

Meantime the daughters have secrets among themselves. They know a

quantity of interesting things that have happened in their quarter, but

no one else gets to know of them; they are imparted more with the eyes

than with the lips, and all is quiet and confidential.

And if the great calamity had not now befallen the Pidvorkes, had it not

stretched itself, spread its claws with such an evil might, had the

shame not been so deep and dreadful, all might have passed off quietly

as always. But the event was so extraordinary, so cruelly unique--such a

thing had not happened since girls were girls, and bridegrooms,

bridegrooms, in the Pidvorkes--that it inevitably became known to all.

Not (preserve us!) to the men--they know of nothing, and need to know of

nothing--only to the women. But how much can anyone keep to oneself? It

will rise to the surface, and lie like oil on the water.

From early morning on the women have been hissing and steaming, bubbling

and boiling over. They are not thinking of Parnosseh; they have

forgotten all about Parnosseh; they are in such a state, they have even

forgotten about themselves. There is a whole crowd of them packed like

herrings, and all fire and flame. But the male passer-by hears nothing

of what they say, he only sees the troubled faces and the drooping

heads; they are ashamed to look into one another's eyes, as though they

themselves were responsible for the great affliction. An appalling

misfortune, an overwhelming sense of shame, a yellow-black spot on their

reputation weighs them to the ground. Uncleanness has forced itself into

their sanctuary and defiled it; and now they seek a remedy, and means to

save themselves, like one drowning; they want to heal the plague spot,

to cover it up, so that no one shall find it out. They stand and think,

and wrinkle the brows so used to anxiety; their thoughts evolve rapidly,

and yet no good result comes of it, no one sees a way of escape out of

the terrifying net in which the worst of all evil has entangled them.

Should a stranger happen to come upon them now, one who has heard of

them, but never seen them, he would receive a shock. The whole of

Pidvorkes looks quite different, the women, the streets, the very sun

shines differently, with pale and narrow beams, which, instead of

cheering, seem to burden the heart.

The little grey-curled clouds with their ragged edges, which have

collected somewhere unbeknown, and race across the sky, look down upon

the women, and whisper among themselves. Even the old willows, for whom

the news is no novelty, for many more and more complicated mysteries

have come to their knowledge, even they look sad, while the swallows, by

the depressed and gloomy air with which they skim the water, plainly

express their opinion, which is no other than this: God is punishing the

Pidvorkes for their great sin, what time they carried fire in their

beaks, long ago, to destroy the Temple.

God bears long with people's iniquity, but he rewards in full at the


The peasants driving slowly to market, unmolested and unobstructed,

neither dragged aside nor laid forcible hold of, were singularly

disappointed. They began to think the Jews had left the place.

And the women actually forgot for very trouble that it was market-day.

They stood with hands folded, and turned feverishly to every newcomer.

What does she say to it? Perhaps she can think of something to advise.

No one answered; they could not speak; they had nothing to say; they

only felt that a great wrath had been poured out on them, heavy as lead,

that an evil spirit had made its way into their life, and was keeping

them in a perpetual state of terror; and that, were they now to hold

their peace, and not make an end, God Almighty only knows what might

come of it! No one felt certain that to-morrow or the day after the same

thunderbolt might not fall on another of them.

Somebody made a movement in the crowd, and there was a sudden silence,

as though all were preparing to listen to a weak voice, hardly louder

than stillness itself. Their eyes widened, their faces were contracted

with annoyance and a consciousness of insult. Their hearts beat faster,

but without violence. Suddenly there was a shock, a thrill, and they

looked round with startled gaze, to see whence it came, and what was

happening. And they saw a woman forcing her way frantically through the

crowd, her hands working, her lips moving as in fever, her eyes flashing

fire, and her voice shaking as she cried: "Come on and see me settle

them! First I shall thrash him, and then I shall go for her! We must

make a cinder-heap of them; it's all we can do."

She was a tall, bony woman, with broad shoulders, who had earned for

herself the nickname Cossack, by having, with her own hands, beaten off

three peasants who wanted to strangle her husband, he, they declared,

having sold them by false weight--it was the first time he had ever

tried to be of use to her.

"But don't shout so, Breindel!" begged a woman's voice.

"What do you mean by 'don't shout'! Am I going to hold my tongue? Never

you mind, I shall take no water into my mouth. I'll teach them, the

apostates, to desecrate the whole town!"

"But don't shout so!" beg several more.

Breindel takes no notice. She clenches her right fist, and, fighting the

air with it, she vociferates louder than ever:

"What has happened, women? What are you frightened of? Look at them, if

they are not all a little afraid! That's what brings trouble. Don't let

us be frightened, and we shall spare ourselves in the future. We shall

not be in terror that to-morrow or the day after (they had best not live

to hear of it, sweet Father in Heaven!) another of us should have this

come upon her!"

Breindel's last words made a great impression. The women started as

though someone had poured cold water over them without warning. A few

even began to come forward in support of Breindel's proposal. Soreh Leoh

said: She advised going, but only to him, the bridegroom, and telling

him not to give people occasion to laugh, and not to cause distress to

her parents, and to agree to the wedding's taking place to-day or

to-morrow, before anything happened, and to keep quiet.

"I say, he shall not live to see it; he shall not be counted worthy to

have us come begging favors of him!" cried an angry voice.

But hereupon rose that of a young woman from somewhere in the crowd, and

all the others began to look round, and no one knew who it was speaking.

At first the young voice shook, then it grew firmer and firmer, so that

one could hear clearly and distinctly what was said:

"You might as well spare yourselves the trouble of talking about a

thrashing; it's all nonsense; besides, why add to her parents' grief by

going to them? Isn't it bad enough for them already? If we really want

to do something, the best would be to say nothing to anybody, not to get

excited, not to ask anybody's help, and let us make a collection out of

our own pockets. Never mind! God will repay us twice what we give. Let

us choose out two of us, to take him the money quietly, so that no one

shall know, because once a whisper of it gets abroad, it will be carried

over seven seas in no time; you know that walls have ears, and streets,


The women had been holding their breath and looking with pleasurable

pride at young Malkehle, married only two months ago and already so

clever! The great thick wall of dread and shame against which they had

beaten their heads had retreated before Malkehle's soft words; they felt

eased; the world grew lighter again. Every one felt envious in her heart

of hearts of her to whose apt and golden speech they had just listened.

Everyone regretted that such an excellent plan had not occurred to

herself. But they soon calmed down, for after all it was a sister who

had spoken, one of their own Pidvorkes. They had never thought that

Malkehle, though she had been considered clever as a girl, would take

part in their debate; and they began to work out a plan for getting

together the necessary money, only so quietly that not a cock should


And now their perplexities began! Not one of them could give such a

great sum, and even if they all clubbed together, it would still be

impossible. They could manage one hundred, two hundred, three hundred

rubles, but the dowry was six hundred, and now he says, that unless

they give one thousand, he will break off the engagement. What, says he,

there will be a summons out against him? Very likely! He will just risk

it. The question went round: Who kept a store in a knotted handkerchief,

hidden from her husband? They each had such a store, but were all the

contents put together, the half of the sum would not be attained, not by

a long way.

And again there arose a tempest, a great confusion of women's tongues.

Part of the crowd started with fiery eloquence to criticise their

husbands, the good-for-nothings, the slouching lazybones; they proved

that as their husbands did nothing to earn money, but spent all their

time "learning," there was no need to be afraid of them; and if once in

a way they wanted some for themselves, nobody had the right to say them

nay. Others said that the husbands were, after all, the elder, one must

and should ask their advice! They were wiser and knew best, and why

should they, the women (might the words not be reckoned as a sin!), be

wiser than the rest of the world put together? And others again cried

that there was no need that they should divorce their husbands because a

girl was with child, and the bridegroom demanded the dowry twice over.

The noise increased, till there was no distinguishing one voice from

another, till one could not make out what her neighbor was saying: she

only knew that she also must shriek, scold, and speak her mind. And who

knows what would have come of it, if Breindel-Cossack, with her powerful

gab, had not begun to shout, that she and Malkehle had a good idea,

which would please everyone very much, and put an end to the whole


All became suddenly dumb; there was a tense silence, as at the first of

the two recitals of the Eighteen Benedictions; the women only cast

inquiring looks at Malkehle and Breindel, who both felt their cheeks

hot. Breindel, who, ever since the wise Malkehle had spoken such golden

words, had not left her side, now stepped forward, and her voice

trembled with emotion and pleasant excitement as she said: "Malkehle and

I think like this: that we ought to go to Chavvehle, she being so wise

and so well-educated, a doctor's wife, and tell her the whole story from

beginning to end, so that she may advise us, and if you are ashamed to

speak to her yourselves, you should leave it to us two, only on the

condition that you go with us. Don't be frightened, she is kind; she

will listen to us."

A faint smile, glistening like diamond dust, shone on all faces; their

eyes brightened and their shoulders straightened, as though just

released from a heavy burden. They all knew Chavvehle for a good and

gracious woman, who was certain to give them some advice; she did many

such kindnesses without being asked; she had started the school, and she

taught their children for nothing; she always accompanied her husband on

his visits to the sick-room, and often left a coin of her own money

behind to buy a fowl for the invalid. It was even said that she had

written about them in the newspapers! She was very fond of them. When

she talked with them, her manner was simple, as though they were her

equals, and she would ask them all about everything, like any plain

Jewish housewife. And yet they were conscious of a great distance

between them and Chavveh. They would have liked Chavveh to hear nothing

of them but what was good, to stand justified in her eyes as (ten times

lehavdil) in those of a Christian. They could not have told why, but the

feeling was there.

They are proud of Chavveh; it is an honor for them each and all (and who

are they that they should venture to pretend to it?) to possess such a

Chavveh, who was highly spoken of even by rich Gentiles. Hence this

embarrassed smile at the mention of her name; she would certainly

advise, but at the same time they avoided each other's look. The wise

Malkeh had the same feeling, but she was able to cheer the rest. Never

mind! It doesn't matter telling her. She is a Jewish daughter, too, and

will keep it to herself. These things happen behind the "high windows"

also. Whereupon they all breathed more freely, and went up the hill to

Chavveh. They went in serried ranks, like soldiers, shoulder to

shoulder, relief and satisfaction reflected in their faces. All who met

them made way for them, stood aside, and wondered what it meant. Some of

their own husbands even stood and looked at the marching women, but not

one dared to go up to them and ask what was doing. Their object grew

dearer to them at every step. A settled resolve and a deep sense of

goodwill to mankind urged them on. They all felt that they were going in

a good cause, and would thereby bar the road to all such occurrences in

the future.

The way to Chavveh was long. She lived quite outside the Pidvorkes, and

they had to go through the whole market-place with the shops, which

stood close to one another, as though they held each other by the hand,

and then only through narrow lanes of old thatched peasant huts, with

shy little window-panes. But beside nearly every hut stood a couple of

acacia-trees, and the foam-white blossoms among the young green leaves

gave a refreshing perfume to the neighborhood. Emerging from the

streets, they proceeded towards a pretty hill planted with

pink-flowering quince-trees. A small, clear stream flowed below it to

the left, so deceptively clear that it reflected the hillside in all its

natural tints. You had to go quite close in order to make sure it was

only a delusion, when the stream met your gaze as seriously as though

there were no question of it at all.

On the top of the hill stood Chavveh's house, adorned like a bride,

covered with creepers and quinces, and with two large lamps under white

glass shades, upheld in the right hands of two statues carved in white

marble. The distance had not wearied them; they had walked and conversed

pleasantly by the way, each telling a story somewhat similar to the one

that had occasioned their present undertaking.

"Do you know," began Shifreh, the wholesale dealer, "mine tried to play

me a trick with the dowry, too? It was immediately before the ceremony,

and he insisted obstinately that unless a silver box and fifty rubles

were given to him in addition to what had been promised to him, he would

not go under the marriage canopy!"

"Well, if it hadn't been Zorah, it would have been Chayyim Treitel,"

observed some one, ironically.

They all laughed, but rather weakly, just for the sake of laughing; not

one of them really wished to part from her husband, even in cases where

he disliked her, and they quarrelled. No indignity they suffered at

their husbands' hands could hurt them so deeply as a wish on his part to

live separately. After all they are man and wife. They quarrel and make

it up again.

And when they spied Chavvehle's house in the distance, they all cried

out joyfully, with one accord:

"There is Chavvehle's house!" Once more they forgot about themselves;

they were filled with enthusiasm for the common cause, and with a pain

that will lie forever at their heart should they not do all that sinful

man is able.

The wise Malkehle's heart beat faster than anyone's. She had begun to

consider how she should speak to Chavvehle, and although apt, incisive

phrases came into her head, one after another, she felt that she would

never be able to come out with them in Chavvehle's presence; were it not

for the other women's being there, she would have felt at her ease.

All of a sudden a voice exclaimed joyfully, "There we are at the house!"

All lifted their heads, and their eyes were gladdened by the sight of

the tall flowers arranged about a round table, in the shelter of a

widely-branching willow, on which there shone a silver samovar. In and

out of the still empty tea-glasses there stole beams of the sinking sun,

as it dropt lower and lower behind the now dark-blue hill.

"What welcome guests!" Chavveh met them with a sweet smile, and her eyes

awoke answering love and confidence in the women's hearts.

Not a glance, not a movement betrayed surprise on Chavvehle's part, any

more than if she had been expecting them everyone.

They felt that she was behaving like any sage, and were filled with a

sense of guilt towards her.

Chavvehle excused herself to one or two other guests who were present,

and led the women into her summer-parlor, for she had evidently

understood that what they had come to say was for her ears only.

They wanted to explain at once, but they couldn't, and the two who of

all found it hardest to speak were the selected spokeswomen,

Breindel-Cossack and Malkehle the wise. Chavvehle herself tried to lead

them out of their embarrassment.

"You evidently have something important to tell me," she said, "for

otherwise one does not get a sight of you."

And now it seemed more difficult than ever, it seemed impossible ever to

tell the angelic Chavvehle of the bad action about which they had come.

They all wished silently that their children might turn out one-tenth as

good as she was, and their impulse was to take Chavvehle into their

arms, kiss her and hug her, and cry a long, long time on her shoulder;

and if she cried with them, it would be so comforting.

Chavvehle was silent. Her great, wide-open blue eyes grew more and more

compassionate as she gazed at the faces of her sisters; it seemed as

though they were reading for themselves the sorrowful secret the women

had come to impart.

And the more they were impressed with her tactful behavior, and the more

they felt the kindness of her gaze, the more annoyed they grew with

themselves, the more tongue-tied they became. The silence was so intense

as to be almost seen and felt. The women held their breath, and only

exchanged roundabout glances, to find out what was going on in each

other's mind; and they looked first of all at the two who had undertaken

to speak, while the latter, although they did not see this, felt as if

every one's gaze was fixed upon them, wondering why they were silent and

holding all hearts by a thread.

Chavvehle raised her head, and spoke sweetly:

"Well, dear sisters, tell me a little of what it is about. Do you want

my help in any matter? I should be so glad----"

"Dear sisters" she called them, and lightning-like it flashed through

their hearts that Chavveh was, indeed, their sister. How could they feel

otherwise when they had it from Chavveh herself? Was she not one of

their own people? Had she not the same God? True, her speech was a

little strange to them, and she was not overpious, but how should God be

angry with such a Chavveh as this? If it must be, let him punish them

for her sin; they would willingly suffer in her place.

The sun had long set; the sky was grey, save for one red streak, and the

room had grown dark. Chavvehle rose to light the candles, and the women

started and wiped their tearful eyes, so that Chavveh should not remark

them. Chavveh saw the difficulty they had in opening their hearts to

her, and she began to speak to them of different things, offered them

refreshment according to their several tastes, and now Malkehle felt a

little more courageous, and managed to say:

"No, good, kind Chavvehle, we are not hungry. We have come to consult

with you on a very important matter!"

And then Breindel tried hard to speak in a soft voice, but it sounded

gruff and rasping:

"First of all, Chavveh, we want you to speak to us in Yiddish, not in

Polish. We are all Jewish women, thank God, together!"

Chavvehle, who had nodded her head during the whole of Breindel's

speech, made another motion of assent with her silken eyebrows, and


"I will talk Yiddish to you with pleasure, if that is what you prefer."

"The thing is this, Chavvehle," began Shifreh, the wholesale dealer, "it

is a shame and a sorrow to tell, but when the thunderbolt has fallen,

one must speak. You know Rochel Esther Leoh's. She is engaged, and the

wedding was to have been in eight weeks--and now she, the

good-for-nothing, is with child--and he, the son of perdition, says now

that if he isn't given more than five hundred rubles, he won't take


Chavvehle was deeply troubled by their words. She saw how great was

their distress, and found, to her regret, that she had little to say by

way of consolation.

"I feel with you," she said, "in your pain. But do not be so dismayed.

It is certainly very bad news, but these things will happen, you are not

the first----"

She wanted to say more, but did not know how to continue.

"But what are we to do?" asked several voices at once. "That is what we

came to you for, dearie, for you to advise us. Are we to give him all

the money he asks, or shall they both know as much happiness as we know

what to do else? Or are we to hang a stone round our necks and drown

ourselves for shame? Give us some advice, dear, help us!"

Then Chavvehle understood that it was not so much the women who were

speaking and imploring, as their stricken hearts, their deep shame and

grief, and it was with increased sympathy that she answered them:

"What can I say to help you, dear sisters? You have certainly not

deserved this blow; you have enough to bear as it is--things ought to

have turned out quite differently; but now that the misfortune has

happened, one must be brave enough not to lose one's head, and not to

let such a thing happen again, so that it should be the first and last

time! But what exactly you should do, I cannot tell you, because I don't

know! Only if you should want my help or any money, I will give you

either with the greatest pleasure."

They understood each other----

The women parted with Chavveh in great gladness, and turned towards home

conscious of a definite purpose. Now they all felt they knew just what

to do, and were sure it would prevent all further misfortune and


They could have sung out for joy, embraced the hill, the stream, the

peasant huts, and kissed and fondled them all together. Mind you, they

had even now no definite plan of action, it was just Chavvehle's

sympathy that had made all the difference--feeling that Chavveh was

with them! Wrapped in the evening mist, they stepped vigorously and

cheerily homewards.

Gradually the speed and the noise of their march increased, the air

throbbed, and at last a high, sharp voice rose above the rest, whereupon

they grew stiller, and the women listened.

"I tell you what, we won't beat them. Only on Sabbath we must all come

together like one man, break into the house-of-study just before they

call up to the Reading of the Law, and not let them read till they have

sworn to agree to our sentence of excommunication!

"She is right!"

"Excommunicate him!"

"Tear him in pieces!"

"Let him be dressed in robe and prayer-scarf, and swear by the eight

black candles that he----"

"Swear! Swear!"

The noise was dreadful. No one was allowed to finish speaking. They were

all aflame with one fire of revenge, hate, and anger, and all alike

athirst for justice. Every new idea, every new suggestion was hastily

and hotly seized upon by all together, and there was a grinding of teeth

and a clenching of fists. Nature herself seemed affected by the tumult,

the clouds flew faster, the stars changed their places, the wind

whistled, the trees swayed hither and thither, the frogs croaked, there

was a great boiling up of the whole concern.

"Women, women," cried one, "I propose that we go to the court of the

Shool, climb into the round millstones, and all shout together, so that

they may know what we have decided."

"Right! Right! To the Shool!" cried a chorus of voices.

A common feeling of triumph running through them, they took each other

friendly-wise by the hand, and made gaily for the court of the Shool.

When they got into the town, they fell on each other's necks, and kissed

each other with tears and joy. They knew their plan was the best and

most excellent that could be devised, and would protect them all from

further shame and trouble.

The Pidvorkes shuddered to hear their tread.

All the remaining inhabitants, big and little, men and women, gathered

in the court of the Shool, and stood with pale faces and beating hearts

to see what would happen.

The eyes of the young bachelors rolled uneasily, the girls had their

faces on one another's shoulders, and sobbed.

Breindel, agile as a cat, climbed on to the highest millstone, and

proclaimed in a voice of thunder:

"Seeing that such and such a thing has happened, a great scandal such as

is not to be hid, and such as we do not wish to hide, all we women have

decided to excommunicate----"

Such a tumult arose that for a minute or two Breindel could not be

heard, but it was not long before everyone knew who and what was meant.

"We also demand that neither he nor his nearest friends shall be called

to the Reading of the Law; that people shall have nothing to do with

them till after the wedding!"

"Nothing to do with them! Nothing to do with them!" shook the air.

"That people shall not lend to them nor borrow of them, shall not come

within their four ells!" continued the voice from the millstone.

"And she shall be shut up till her time comes, so that no one shall

see her. Then we will take her to the burial-ground, and the child shall

be born in the burial-ground. The wedding shall take place by day, and

without musicians--"

"Without musicians!"

"Without musicians!"

'Without musicians!"

"Serve her right!"

"She deserves worse!"

A hundred voices were continually interrupting the speaker, and more

women were climbing onto the millstones, and shouting the same things.

"On the wedding-day there will be great black candles burning throughout

the whole town, and when the bride is seated at the top of the

marriage-hall, with her hair flowing loose about her, all the girls

shall surround her, and the Badchen shall tell her, 'This is the way we

treat one who has not held to her Jewishness, and has blackened all our




"So it is!"

"The apostates!"

The last words struck the hearers' hearts like poisoned arrows. A

deathly pallor, born of unrealized terror at the suggested idea,

overspread all their faces, their feelings were in a tumult of shame and

suffering. They thirsted and longed after their former life, the time

before the calamity disturbed their peace. Weary and wounded in spirit,

with startled looks, throbbing pulses, and dilated pupils, and with no

more than a faint hope that all might yet be well, they slowly broke the

stillness, and departed to their homes.