"In the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, take that shawl off your head, Rebecca!"
"And shall I walk through the streets bareheaded?" she retorted.
"Why didn't you get a hat in New York?"
"Did my brother send me so much money that I had some left for millinery?"
This in Yiddish.
A Rebecca should be mild eyed and meek; this one was black-eyed and self-willed. 'Way back In the Fatherland, after a day's work in the field, she had been known to take her worn-out mother by the shoulders and, after forcibly seating her in a rocking-chair, do, herself, a day's work indoors between supper and bedtime. This was the Rebecca whom steerage passage and overland immigrant trains had landed bareheaded and unwashed at the San Francisco Ferry.
Back in the Fatherland were five graves and Benjamin; here, in America, were golden opportunities and a brother. Benjamin, too, would come over and then they would marry. Benjamin was twenty and she, sixteen.
She followed her brother to his home–two rooms and a wife. Rebecca slept on the kitchen floor. Her brother told her that she would not be able to get worth while wages till she could speak English. With characteristic vigor she attacked the strange tongue; by pleadings, bribe and nagging she coerced her brother's wife into teaching her to read and write English; when the teacher, weary from a day of factory work fell asleep over the enforced lesson, Rebecca roused her by an insistent question. Each and every person who spoke to her was required to repeat his words till she could pronounce them precisely. At the factory, they would gladly have quarantined her, like any other plague, while her brother and his wife felt that they were as veritable martyrs as any boiled in oil.
It would have taken a meek-eyed Rebecca five years to learn the English acquired by this one in five months.
What she earned did not pay for what she ate, much less enable her to make any payments on the transportation with which her brother, by great privation, had provided her. How, then, would she ever be able to buy wedding clothes? These thoughts kept her awake when she should have slept, and made her irritable at her work.
Month after month slipped by; Benjamin would soon be in America and she not ready, was all her thought. One more letter she would receive from him, just one – telling of his sailing.
The letter came; it was of absorbing interest; she read it twenty times; it stated, first, the news of the unexpected death of his father; second, the long-known fact of a mortgage on the shanty he called home; the equally familiar truth of the existence of a mother plus five children younger than himself. The inter-mezzo was a tragedy – he would not be able to come to America for years, if ever! The grand finale was a hope that between them they might be able to save money enough for her return passage, when they would marry and all live together on the mortgaged patch.
Rebecca was never known to yield – to Fate or anything else. She had to be knocked down.
She wrote Benjamin a long reply. She enumerated her obligations: back board and passage money due her brother, to acquire; wedding clothes to buy and return conveyance to secure. All this she would earn herself, for, she told him, he could spare nothing from the mortgage and family of seven. This she must accomplish before they could be married, but, she assured him, she could and would do it – if not in one year, why, then in two, and she comforted by reminding him that as he was barely twenty-one and she seventeen, they would not be so very old even in two years. She closed by writing "Good-bye" in English just to show him how much she had learned.
She "could" and she "would" was her song at work; her prayer at night; yet try as she might, she could never get beyond something to eat and wear and a few pennies paid to her brother.
One day her brother's household was increased by a wee person and the wife no longer worked in the factory. Later, Rebecca, too, left, resolved to seek riches elsewhere. An agency placed her in domestic service and she was actually able to save more pennies for the back board – but always pennies.
Max knew Rebecca's brother before he knew that brother had a sister, therefore he came to visit Rebecca's brother. Hence, be saw Rebecca without coming to see her and having seen her he came to see her.
Good feeding showed in Max's cheeks and his clothes were fine enough for a Rabbi. Better yet, thought the brother, he smiled on Rebecca.
However, there is only one man for one woman and Rebecca cared no more for him than for a street cat – and showed it.
The months slipped by. In the kitchen of a strange people Rebecca worked till weary each day, yet midnight, in her bedroom, saw her seated before a pile of books –"English, more English; more, more,"–that was why she couldn't get a job that paid well. She must speak it "exactly like Americans and quick as lightning"; and she must "write good" too.
She stole newspapers and read them through, literally through, every word, with a dictionary at hand – that needed another dictionary to clear up its own unintelligible words.
The whole city lay between her and her brother – the brother as poor as herself.
Between her and her lover stretched the whole world – the lover as poor as her brother.
While the dinner burned Rebecca balanced her account with America; poorer, far poorer than when she put her foot on the ship that had chased the setting sun; in the home land she had owed nor man nor woman; she could earn her living there any day; the customs held no strange ways; the people all were friends. What had she gained in this land of uncaring folk? A debt she could never lift and a distance she could never traverse. Yet that distance must be covered if life were to be worth living.
Max knew she was homesick to the death. Max knew she was in despair–but he wasn't going to help a girl who wouldn't give him even a smile.
The months kept slipping along, as uncaring as the people. Still Rebecca clung with might and main to the rock of her determination. She could and would get back to Benjamin.
Valiantly Life pounded away at the clinging hands. Milady would loosen their hold, never fear! They were maiden hands. Pshaw! What of that? They were honest hands. Pooh! Success is the word.
Right merrily the dinner sizzled to a crisp. Rebecca pondered on. Surely, there must be some better paid work for a girl who was as strong as a man and spoke English as fast as an American – she had some vanity on both points. She would ask Max; he knew the city thoroughly. So the dinner didn't matter.
Rebecca's only brother received a visit from his only sister. The sister intimated that she would like to see Max. The suggestion met with the brother's approval; also with that of Max – therefore he materialized. When he appeared, Rebecca condescended to say "Good evening." Encouraged, he accompanied her back to her place of servitude. The way was long; but not too long for all Rebecca's eager tongue had to say. She took an outside seat on the street car so that the tongue could gallop to the end of the route.
"Max, I must have money! Why can't I earn more than just something to eat and wear? Why, Max, I am stronger than you and my English is almost as good as yours. You are earning lots of money easily, for you are well dressed and have hours of leisure. Tell me how; do, Max. I don't care how hard the work is, only so there is splendid pay for it–oh, lots of money, Max! I must get back to the Fatherland. I must, Max. I'd kill myself if I thought I'd never get back."
Before he said "Good night" he admitted that there was work which she could do that was well paid, generously paid. "But," he concluded, "you are too stuck up to do it." Although she declared Rebeccaishly, that she did not care how hard or distasteful it might be so she could earn big money, he would tell her no more.
For a week he purposely kept out of her reach, till as he foresaw, there was but one face she desired to see; one voice she longed to hear – the voice that could tell her how to earn "big money."
When they did meet, she went straight to the mark.
"Tell me what it is, Max; tell me, tell me !"
"Oh, you'll get mad."
"No, I won't, Max; just try me and see."
He tried her with but a shadow of the truth, and she used up all the Yiddish she knew, to express, loafer, blackguard, skunk!
A week passed. He kept out of her way.
Another week passed and she had not met him; if she had she would have struck him in the face. He knew she would.
She laid new plans, she would walk to New York City, begging from door to door–but she couldn't beg her way across the Atlantic!
And Life battered away at the benumbing hands.
Another week passed; then she passed Max on the street; she did not strike him–she only dropped her eyes.
Another week and she saw him again. He said, "Good-day," and she did not strike him. He walked by her side; she did not strike him.
"Isn't this a cozy room, Rebecca?"
"My God! Max, I can't see it. Hurry up and bring the customers. The sooner it is begun, the sooner it will be over and then good-bye to 'American opportunity'!"
"Well, how will I do for the first one?"
She dropped her eyes. "Not you, Max, not you; let them be strangers, all strangers."
He seated himself by her side. "I think there is a reserved seat for me before the crowd arrives."
"I ran onto a big fish to-day – a millionaire; if I can land him, he will be a steady income for us."
"You needn't land him. It's three months to-day, and that's the length of time we agreed upon; I'm through. Give me my money and let me go. I must have earned a thousand dollars, and I want my two-thirds as you said. You say it is in the bank – go and get it and we will part friends, Max."
"How do you know how much you have earned? I set the prices and I handled the money."
"Some of them told me how much they paid."
"Oh, their prices differed. If I thought a man would stand bleeding to the tune of ten dollars, I charged him tell dollars; but, if I knew he had only fifty cents, I took that – half a loaf is better than none; furthermore, I don't see why you should get more out of this deal than I; if I didn't hustle for you there would be no business."
"One reason why I should get two-thirds is, that you, yourself, said that I should. Another reason is, that I work ten times harder than you do. There has been a constant stream pouring in here, and I am tired out."
"Tired out! Rubbish! There are women who keep at it for years."
"Then they are never rested. But my time is up; give me my money and let me go."
"What do you want your money for? You have plenty to eat and wear and a comfortable room to rest in, if you must rest a while."
"You know what I want my money for."
"To marry Benjamin? Get that out of your head. You will never marry Benjamin."
"Give me my money and let me go."
"Benjamin – is – married !"
For answer, he knocked her flat to the floor.
She struggled to her feet. "You lie," she gave him again.
Again she lay on the floor.
When once more she stood, she leaned against the wall.
"Got enough?" he asked.
"Give me my money and let me go." "Maybe a little proof will help you," and he fumbled in his pockets. "Here is a letter I've had for a week, but have been waiting the fitting moment to deliver it; I think this is the time."
He touched her hand with the letter; it was directed to her brother, but it was Benjamin's writing.
She opened it and read:
"I didn't believe the stranger, but when you wrote that it was true and that you had cast her off, I had to give up. Your cousin Sarah and I got married yesterday."
She sat down. Then she lay down on the bright-cushioned lounge.
He lit a cigarette and paced the floor.
A half hour of silence is a long time – sometimes. So he thought. He came to the lounge and stood. "Get up and eat and dress, ready for business."
She looked up at him. "You told Benjamin?"
"You promised that no one should ever know."
"I wrote him the very day you came here. What are you going to do about it?"
She did not tell him.
"If you have good sense you will see what a lot of money you can make. You are a mighty good-looking girl and not eighteen years old. Do you know that if you will get right down to business, and I can get the right sort of men coming here, you can make thousands of dollars? You can brace up on drink; they all do."
"Make thousands of dollars for you to keep?"
"Well, I shall keep my share, of course."
"I have already earned more than a thousand dollars," she repeated," and yet I have only ten dollars in my purse. When do I get the hundreds still due me?"
"That depends upon how docile you are."
Into her eyes flashed murderous hate. He knew the look – it had been shot at him from the eyes of other women.
"I am going out for an hour. If you are not dressed and smiling when I get back, I'll kick a grin or two out of you."
A few minutes later she went down a backstairs.
"Mary, Mary Sullivan,"she called softly.
"Here I am," came from an inner room.
"Mary, will you lend me your long gray coat and black hat and veil for half an hour? I'll leave my short blue coat and hat for you."
"Sure! Have the Cops been butting in?"
"Yes, but I'll fool them a bunch."
When Max returned, Rebecca was still absent.
Presently the door opened. Max was obliged to explain to the caller that the lady had been suddenly summoned to the bedside of her dying father. Four times had he been required to make this sad statement and his face had become as white as his collar. He reached for his cane and as he fondled it he murmured, "When she does come, I'll beat the life out of her!"
The cane was never used.