The first night of Passover. It is already about ten o’clock. Outside it is dark, wet, cold as the grave. A fine, close, sleety rain is driving down, a light, sharp, fitful wind blows, whistles, sighs, and whines, and wanders round on every side, like a returned and sinful soul seeking means to qualify for eternal bliss. The mud is very thick, and reaches nearly to the waist.
At one end of the town of Kamenivke, in the Poor People’s Street, which runs along by the bath-house, it is darkest of all, and muddiest. The houses there are small, low, and overhanging, tumbled together in such a way that there is no seeing where the mud begins and the dwelling ends. No gleam of light, even in the windows. Either the inhabitants of the street are all asleep, resting their tired bones and aching limbs, or else they all lie suffocated in the sea of mud, simply because the mud is higher than the windows. Whatever the reason, the street is quiet as a God’s-acre, and the darkness may be felt with the hands.
Suddenly the dead stillness of the street is broken by the heavy tread of some ponderous creature, walking and plunging through the Kamenivke mud, and there appears the tall, broad figure of a man. He staggers like one tipsy or sick, but he keeps on in a straight line, at an even pace, like one born and bred and doomed to die in the familiar mud, till he drags his way to a low, crouching house at the very end of the street, almost under the hillside. It grows lighter—a bright flame shines through the little window-panes. He has not reached the door before it opens, and a shaky, tearful voice, full of melancholy, pain, and woe, breaks the hush a second time this night:
“Bertzi, is it you? Are you all right? So late? Has there been another accident? And the cart and the horse, wu senen?”
“All right, all right! A happy holiday!”
His voice is rough, hoarse, and muffled.
She lets him into the passage, and opens the inner door.
But scarcely is he conscious of the light, warmth, and cleanliness of the room, when he gives a strange, wild cry, takes one leap, like a hare, onto the “eating-couch” spread for him on the red-painted, wooden sofa, and—he lies already in a deep sleep.
The whole dwelling, consisting of one nice, large, low room, is clean, tidy, and bright. The bits of furniture and all the household essentials are poor, but so clean and polished that one can mirror oneself in them, if one cares to stoop down. The table is laid ready for Passover. The bottles of red wine, the bottle of yellow Passover brandy, and the glass goblets of different colors reflect the light of the thick tallow candles, and shine and twinkle and sparkle. The oven, which stands in the same room, is nearly out, there is one sleepy little bit of fire still flickering. But the pots, ranged round the fire as though to watch over it and encourage it, exhale such delicious, appetizing smells that they would tempt even a person who had just eaten his fill. But no one makes a move towards them. All five children lie stretched in a row on the red-painted, wooden bed. Even they have not tasted of the precious dishes, of which they have thought and talked for weeks previous to the festival. They cried loud and long, waiting for their father’s return, and at last they went sweetly to sleep. Only one fly is moving about the room: Rochtzi, Bertzi Wasserführer’s wife, and rivers of tears, large, clear tears, salt with trouble and distress, flow from her eyes.
Although Rochtzi has not seen more than thirty summers, she looks like an old woman. Once upon a time she was pretty, she was even known as one of the prettiest of the Kamenivke girls, and traces of her beauty are still to be found in her uncommonly large, dark eyes, and even in her lined face, although the eyes have long lost their fire, and her cheeks, their color and freshness. She is dressed in clean holiday attire, but her eyes are red from the hot, salt tears, and her expression is darkened and sad.
“Such a festival, such a great, holy festival, and then when it comes….” The pale lips tremble and quiver.
How many days and nights, beginning before Purim, has she sat with her needle between her fingers, so that the children should have their holiday frocks—and all depending on her hands and head! How much thought and care and strength has she spent on preparing the room, their poor little possessions, and the food? How many were the days, Sabbaths excepted, on which they went without a spoonful of anything hot, so that they might be able to give a becoming reception to that dear, great, and holy visitor, the Passover? Everything (the Almighty forbid that she should sin with her tongue!) of the best, ready and waiting, and then, after all….
He, his sheepskin, his fur cap, and his great boots are soaked with rain and steeped in thick mud, and there, in this condition, lies he, Bertzi Wasserführer, her husband, her Passover “king,” like a great black lump, on the nice, clean, white, draped “eating-couch,” and snores.
The brief tale I am telling you happened in the days before Kamenivke had joined itself on, by means of the long, tall, and beautiful bridge, to the great high hill that has stood facing it from everlasting, thickly wooded, and watered by quantities of clear, crystal streams, which babble one to another day and night, and whisper with their running tongues of most important things. So long as the bridge had not been flung from one of the giant rocks to the other rock, the Kamenivke people had not been able to procure the good, wholesome water of the wild hill, and had to content themselves with the thick, impure water of the river Smotritch, which has flowed forever round the eminence on which Kamenivke is built. But man, and especially the Jew, gets used to anything, and the Kamenivke people, who are nearly all Grandfather Abraham’s grandchildren, had drunk Smotritch water all their lives, and were conscious of no grievance.
But the lot of the Kamenivke water-carriers was hard and bitter. Kamenivke stands high, almost in the air, and the river Smotritch runs deep down in the valley.
In summer, when the ground is dry, it was bearable, for then the Kamenivke water-carrier was merely bathed in sweat as he toiled up the hill, and the Jewish breadwinner has been used to that for ages. But in winter, when the snow was deep and the frost tremendous, when the steep Skossny hill with its clay soil was covered with ice like a hill of glass! Or when the great rains were pouring down, and the town and especially the clay hill are confounded with the deep, thick mud!
Our Bertzi Wasserführer was more alive to the fascinations of this Parnosseh than any other water-carrier. He was, as though in his own despite, a pious Jew and a great man of his word, and he had to carry water for almost all the well-to-do householders. True, that in face of all his good luck he was one of the poorest Jews in the Poor People’s Street, only——
Lord of the World, may there never again be such a winter as there was then!
Not the oldest man there could recall one like it. The snow came down in drifts, and never stopped. One could and might have sworn on a scroll of the Law, that the great Jewish God was angry with the Kamenivke Jews, and had commanded His angels to shovel down on Kamenivke all the snow that had lain by in all the seven heavens since the sixth day of creation, so that the sinful town might be a ruin and a desolation.
And the terrible, fiery frosts!
Frozen people were brought into the town nearly every day.
Oi, Jews, how Bertzi Wasserführer struggled, what a time he had of it! Enemies of Zion, it was nearly the death of him!
And suddenly the snow began to stop falling, all at once, and then things were worse than ever—there was a sea of water, an ocean of mud.
And Passover coming on with great strides!
For three days before Passover he had not come home to sleep. Who talks of eating, drinking, and sleeping? He and his man toiled day and night, like six horses, like ten oxen.
The last day before Passover was the worst of all. His horse suddenly came to the conclusion that sooner than live such a life, it would die. So it died and vanished somewhere in the depths of the Kamenivke clay.
And Bertzi the water-carrier and his man had to drag the cart with the great water-barrel themselves, the whole day till long after dark.
It is already eleven, twelve, half past twelve at night, and Bertzi’s chest, throat, and nostrils continue to pipe and to whistle, to sob and to sigh.
The room is colder and darker, the small fire in the oven went out long ago, and only little stumps of candles remain.
But now she runs up to the couch by the table, and begins to rouse her husband with screams and cries fit to make one’s blood run cold and the hair stand up on one’s head:
“No, no, you’re not going to sleep any longer, I tell you! Bertzi, do you hear me? Get up, Bertzi, aren’t you a Jew?—a man?—the father of children?—Bertzi, have you God in your heart? Bertzi, have you said your prayers? My husband, what about the Seder? I won’t have it!—I feel very ill—I am going to faint!—Help!—Water!”
“Have I forgotten somebody’s water?—Whose?—Where?…”
But Rochtzi is no longer in need of water: she beholds her “king” on his feet, and has revived without it. With her two hands, with all the strength she has, she holds him from falling back onto the couch.
“Don’t you see, Bertzi? The candles are burning down, the supper is cold and will spoil. I fancy it’s already beginning to dawn. The children, long life to them, went to sleep without any food. Come, please, begin to prepare for the Seder, and I will wake the two elder ones.”
Bertzi stands bent double and treble. His breathing is labored and loud, his face is smeared with mud and swollen from the cold, his beard and earlocks are rough and bristly, his eyes sleepy and red. He looks strangely wild and unkempt. Bertzi looks at Rochtzi, at the table, he looks round the room, and sees nothing. But now he looks at the bed: his little children, washed, and in their holiday dresses, are all lying in a row across the bed, and—he remembers everything, and understands what Rochtzi is saying, and what it is she wants him to do.
“Give me some water—I said Minchah and Maariv by the way, while I was at work.”
“I’m bringing it already! May God grant you a like happiness! Good health to you! Hershele, get up, my Kaddish, father has come home already! Shmuelkil, my little son, go and ask father the Four Questions.”
Bertzi fills a goblet with wine, takes it up in his left hand, places it upon his right hand, and begins:
“Savri Moronon, ve-Rabbonon, ve-Rabbosai—with the permission of the company.”—His head goes round.—”Lord of the World!—I am a Jew.—Blessed art Thou. Lord our God, King of the Universe—” It grows dark before his eyes: “The first night of Passover—I ought to make Kiddush—Thou who dost create the fruit of the vine”—his feet fail him, as though they had been cut off—”and I ought to give the Seder—This is the bread of the poor…. Lord of the World, you know how it is: I can’t do it!—Have mercy!—Forgive me!”
A nasty smell of sputtered-out candles fills the room. Rochtzi weeps. Bertzi is back on the couch and snores.
Different sounds, like the voices of winds, cattle, and wild beasts, and the whirr of a mill, are heard in his snoring. And her weeping—it seems as if the whole room were sighing and quivering and shaking….