Monday, March 17, 2008

Whisper Her Name On The Wind

by H. A. Covington

[One of my favorites. I once asked The Master about this short novelette and he told me, "It was always my ambition somehow to fuck up Fiddler on the Roof." - Jack]

The residents of Beit Efrat would set a visitor straight very quickly: theirs was not a shtetl, nor even a village, but a proper small town of a thousand devout Jewish souls.

Beit Efrat did not wallow in some God-forsaken bog in Galicia or huddle out on some windy Ukrainian steppe, but stood strong and solid in a pretty wooded valley in a bend of the River Vistula in eastern Poland. There were five synagogues, each with a yeshiva and a House of Study attached, as well as a mikvah ritual bath for the women.

The institutions were all of the Vilna school and imported the most erudite and eloquent Litvaker rabbis for their congregations. There was a bookseller, Nathan Halter. There were a dozen kosher butchers and a dozen dairies and cheesemakers, and a small but vibrant weaving and leatherworking industry that brought buyers from as far away as Cracow and Danzig.

The High Street, two parallel streets and two cross streets were paved with cobblestones, and there were street lamps that were lit every night and extinguished every morning by Herzl the lamplighter and his sons. There were shops and a market square and a guildhall where the rabbis and prosperous heads of household gathered to do business. It was the only guildhall in Poland bearing the Star of David rather than a cross over its doors. Preserved in a fine silver casket in that town hall was a charter from Catherine the Great, graciously granting the Jews of Beit Efrat permission to live outside the Pale of Settlement, and even more treasured, permission for their town to bear a Hebrew name. No shtetl at all was Beit Efrat!

Next to the town's biggest synagogue, fronting right onto the market square, lived the holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz, his wife Hannah, and his four daughters. The rabbi was a man of impressive girth and resonant voice when he read aloud from the Torah on the sabbath, and he was reputed to have the most magnificent white beard of any holy man in Poland.

His oldest daughter was actually a distant niece whom the rabbi had adopted out of duty and charity on the death of her parents in a scarlet fever epidemic many years before. Her name was Hadass. She was a tall and languid girl of deep dark eyes and gentle voice.

She was also something of a scandal in the town because she remained unmarried at the ripe old age of twenty-five. There were problems with her dowry, since if the truth be told the holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz was somewhat inclined to the sin of parsimony, and had reserved most of his wealth to dower his three younger daughters by blood. These three were beautiful and vivacious, and would make good matches if only a husband could be found for Hadass, or else if Rabbi Shmulevitz could be persuaded to depart from the ancient custom that daughters must marry in precedence of age.

There was also a problem in that Hadass had some very un-womanly attributes. She was not only highly intelligent, but she was tactless enough to show it. Instead of sewing and baking and washing she was known to while away her time reading books as if she were a man in the House of Study. Not just holy seforim either, but works of pagan goyim like Herodotus, Abelard, Machiavelli, and Horace Walpole. She spent her allowance from her father not on scarves and belts and gloves or earrings, but in Nathan Halter's bookshop. She repeatedly turned down a series of men whom her father and the local matchmaker put forward as candidates for her hand, including a shochet or kosher slaughterman and a wealthy glazier who employed five glassblowers and fitters in his shop and whose only fault was to be thirty years older than she.

The attitude of the younger Shmulevitz girls towards their older sister became somewhat strained as the years went by and Hadass remained unattached in her adopted father's house, while the holy rabbi bore his tribulation bravely and earned the respect of his congregants as a patient and saintly man.

But in the spring of 1813, there were other topics of interest for the Beit Efrat folk to wag their tongues about. The year before, the historic year of 1812, the armies of Napoleon had surged eastwards across Europe and into Russia. The merchants and weavers, the cobblers and butchers and dairymen of Beit Efrat had grown affluent off the sale of cloth and leather and cordage and meat and cheese and bread and wine to the long blue columns of marching men.

After Bonaparte's Pyrrhic victory at Borodino and the subsequent fall and then the evacuation of Moscow, all through the terrible winter the blue-coated grenadiers and tirailleurs and Chausseurs on their spavined horses had straggled and stumbled back through the snow and down the muddy roads, staggering back bleeding and starving and exhausted towards the dream of La Belle France in the west. The businessmen of Beit Efrat had grown wealthier still, as desperate Frenchmen gave over their last coins, their watches, their rings, the silver lockets of their wives and mothers and lovers, anything for a bowl of hot soup or a place to rest by a fire for a single night before resuming their long nightmare retreat.

But just as in the time of Israel's Egyptian captivity there had been seven fat years, the people of Beit Efrat knew that they now faced a lean and dangerous time. They had never feared the French. Even in defeat, Bonaparte ruled his troops with an iron hand, and God help the French soldier who ever took so much as a needle and thread or a single sausage without paying for it. But the French were gone, and now would come their victors and pursuers, terrible and ancient enemies of Israel…the Russians. The Russians were a different kettle of fish altogether. The citizens of the town of Beit Efrat stashed their valuables in wells and under garden stones, swept out cellars and set up cots wherein to hide their daughters, and waited.

The spring came and there was some news of local interest to enliven the tense waiting. Would wonders never cease, that high-nosed maiden Hadass Luria had finally accepted a suitor! At Passover she had agreed that she and the wool factor Yossele Lipshits would marry on the holiday of Tisha B'av in June. Rumor had it that the holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz had finally come to accept that getting Hadass off his hands was going to cost him, and at the importunings of his wife and younger daughters he had loosened his purse strings considerably in the matter of a dowry for his oldest girl.

Yossele Lipshits was squat and ugly, with a face like a monkey, and his reputation in the town was not of the best. His business practices were reputed to be sharp, not only with the goyim but also with his fellow Jews, nor was he known for charity despite his relative wealth. Yossele spent rather too much time drinking schnapps and playing cards in Shmuel Butman's tavern on the market square, and he was reputed to engage in even worse dissipations with the shiksa prostitutes of Cracow on his frequent business trips. But what, at twenty-five she should expect Prince Charming, already? decreed the community consensus. A collective sigh of relief went up from the more eligible young men of Beit Efrat, for now they would be free to court the younger and much more personable daughters of the holy rabbi themselves. The lovely Shulamit was the next up in age, and after her came the fetching Simcha and the blossoming fifteen year-old Naomi, prizes indeed!

The odd thing was that Hadass herself seemed quite happy with the match. To everyone's surprise the gnome-like Yossele exhibited a sudden flowering of almost debonair charm. He did not lack a certain sprightly if somewhat infantile sense of humor, and for the first time in her drab and dreary life Hadass found herself courted, cozened, and paid attention to by a man of her own age who showed her interest and affection. The old yentas gossiping by the well and on the wooden stoops shrugged. "She'll see through him soon enough, the shlumpf," they assured one another. "But she'll be married by then. Isn't that always the way of it?"

As the eldest child, adopted or not, Hadass was able to command a small garret room of her own below the eaves of the rabbi's house, while her three sisters shared a large room on the first floor among themselves. This arrangement emphasized her position in the household as fostered, not quite part of the family. It also enabled the younger girls to engage in their favorite pastime after lights out, which was gossiping and spitefully criticizing and maligning Hadass in whispers and giggles beneath the bedclothes, sometimes loudly enough for Hadass to hear when the weather was warm and the windows open.

The wedding plans for Tisha B'av were well afoot when Hadass awoke one night late in April to the sound of clattering hooves, creaking cart wheels and low voices on the square beneath her window. She rose quietly in her shift and peered out the small diamond-paned window.

Beneath the flickering oil lamps of which the town was so proud she saw two mule-drawn carts drawn up against the wall of the house, and a number of men were lugging heavy wooden boxes or crates off the cart, two men per crate. Rabbi Shmulevitz himself was at the door with a lanthorn in his hand, urging the men to greater speed in frantic whispers. Hadass recognized one of the men who sweated as he unloaded the carts as her betrothed, Yossele Lipshits. Hadass shrugged and went back to bed. Jews did what they had to do in order to survive in a hostile world, and sometimes that included a spot of smuggling, or anything moving in the shade to generate a bit of income that could be concealed from the rapacious tax collectors of the Czar.

Hadass would not even have mentioned the incident to her intended had Yossele not done so first. Although generally it was considered licentious for betrothed couples to be too familiar or spend much time in one another's company prior to the nuptials, the next day Yossele met Hadass on the street as she was on her way home from bringing a cake from the rebbetzin's kitchen to a sick woman neighbor, and he pulled her aside excitedly. He was overwhelmed and bursting to tell someone his secret.

"Hadass, I can't reveal much to you, but there are great tidings! Real wealth has come to Beit Efrat at last! We will be able to expand every synagogue and yeshiva in town, buy hundreds more seforim until we have libraries to rival Vilna and Cracow, endow any number of poor students so they need not toil for a living and can spend their time studying Torah! And because I am part of this secret windfall, all our own problems are over as well! After you and I are married I will be able to expand my business and undercut every wool and leather producer in the province on my prices, and eventually corner the market! With this capital we will create the greatest center of Torah and the greatest nexus of business and finance in Europe right here in our town! I will become a great man in Israel, and you shall be a great man's wife! We'll have servants and a coach and I will dress you in silk!" he boasted.

"What are you talking about, Yossele?" asked Hadass curiously, catching some of his excitement. "I saw you and father and those other men unloading those carts last night. What are you smuggling? Isn't it dangerous? What if you get caught?"

"You saw us?" asked Lipshits, alarmed. "Hadass, you must say nothing! You must never say anything to anyone about what you saw!"

"Yossele, what are you talking about?" she asked again. "What on earth are you involved in?"

"It could get us all hanged or sent to Siberia!" hissed Yossele.

"And what is worth making me a widow when I am not yet even wed?" she demanded with some spirit. Yossele looked around furtively and took something out of his pocket, which he pressed into the young woman's hand. It was cool and hard and round. She looked down and her eyes widened as she saw in her palm the reverse side of a gleaming heavy coin of yellow gold, bearing a fasces and the words "Liberté, egalité, fraternité." She turned the coin over and on the obverse side she saw the profiled head of the Emperor Napoleon. "We have thousands of these in those boxes in your father's cellar!" whispered Lipshits in an ecstasy of excitement. "Thousands, I tell you!"

"In heaven's name, where did you get such a vast treasure?" asked Hadass, gasping in shock. "And how can we hope to spend French gold without anyone asking where it came from?"

"I can't tell you where we got it, but it won't be French gold for long," said Yossele. "I have written to my cousin in Vienna who has contacts with the Rothschilds. You know our merchants picked up quite a bit of French specie when the army was coming through, selling them supplies and services, and the Vienna Rothschilds handled the exchange at a good discount, giving us rubles or Prussian marks that don't attract so much attention. I know they will be willing to take on a transaction of this size, and there's a dozen different ways they can conceal it all using bank drafts and letters of credit that will be as good as coin in Cracow or St. Petersburg or Danzig. It will take a few weeks, but once that's done then a whole new way of life will be ours!"

But the people of Beit Efrat did not have a few weeks. The next day the Russians entered the town.

***

The word flashed through the streets before the echoes of the enemy's iron-shod hooves on the cobblestones reached the square. Gabbling in terror, Hannah the rabbi's wife snatched up Shulamit and Simcha and Naomi by their collars and shoved them down into the cellar. "Where's Hadass? Where's Hadass?" cried the rebbetzin distractedly.

"Mother, leave Hadass! What if the soldiers take you?" called one of the terrified girls from the darkness below. Suddenly remembering that she was female herself, Hannah shrieked in terror and fled into the cellar, slamming the door behind her.

Hadass was in fact browsing in Nathan Halter's bookshop and was so engrossed in the book she was reading that she didn't even hear the horses in the street until the old bookseller grabbed her arm and she saw his stricken face. She looked out the front window of the shop, and it was filled with rippling horseflesh and saddle leather and men's legs and waists, clattering sabers and pistols in belts and musket butts leaning on hips. "Hadass, hide under the counter!" pleaded Halter.

"I'd feel very foolish hiding until I at least know there is a threat, Reb Nathan," the young woman chided him gently. "We are after all subjects of the Czar, and those are the Czar's soldiers. They're supposed to be on our side."

"No, you don't understand!" pleaded the old man, his face a mask of horror. "Those aren't Russian soldiers, at least not regular ones!"

"Then they are...?" prodded Hadass.

"Cossacks!" whispered Halter, quaking. "May God have mercy on us all, those are Cossacks!" Hadass turned pale. She was a gentle and loving soul who always tried to see the good in all people, but even she had sense enough to be afraid of Cossacks. She gripped herself.

"I won't run away or hide," she said. "I will go to the square and see what is happening."

"Are you mad, girl?" demanded Halter.

"How can I come to harm?" she asked with a wan smile. "I will have you to protect me." Humbled and proud, the old man bowed and gallantly offered her his arm.

The holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz stood on the steps of the town hall, wearing his finest suit of clothes and his kipa, his prayer shawl and his phylacteries, while his fellow rabbis and the town's most prominent men gathered around him in a knot. Cold fear twisted in all their guts as the mounted column filled the square.

The riders were a motley crew, most wearing double-breasted tunics of goat's wool, but some in leather vests, and others wearing shirts of bearskin or wolf pelts. Most wore cylindrical hats of fur or wool or felt, but some wore ancient pointed helmets with nasal guards and some had leather hoods. A few were fully bearded, but most wore long curved moustaches above jutting, stubbled chins. Their cross-hilted, wickedly curved sabers of Damascus steel hung not on their belts as a European gentleman would carry his sword, but rode in their scabbards high and to the left of their saddle pommels. Some of the men rode with long steel-headed lances resting against their stirrups, with horsetail pennons. Short carbines were slung on their backs, and their torsos and belts were garlanded with brace after brace of flintlock pistols. At least every third man carried a rolled and looped whip of braided leather, twelve feet in length. Over them all floated two standards, the double-eagled Imperial Ensign of the Czar of All the Russias and a blue banner of the Archangel Michael, whom the Cossacks venerated on a par with Christ and His Virgin Mother.

"What are they?" demanded Shmulevitz in panic. "What Horde? Does any one recognize them? Donets? Zaporozhia?"

"Kuban, I think," muttered Rabbi Yaacov Feldman. "The ones with the helmets are Circassians. I have heard they are cannibals."

"Watch those whips!" whispered the jeweler Ariel Goldstein in fear. "They can pop a man's eyeball right out of his head and leave the rest of his face untouched, or tap him on the brow light as a feather so he drops stone dead. And if they aim lower..." All the men shuddered.

At the head of the cavalry brigade rode three figures. The first was a heavy-set man in a resplendent and finely embroidered scarlet Cossack jacket and black fez, with a huge curving red moustache and blue eyes that seemed to burn in a perpetual rage. The second was a tall and elegant, blond moustachioed man in European dress, wearing a bicorne hat with a cockade and a whitish uniform that looked almost like a frock coat, and sporting a rapier by his side.

But the third figure struck the most terror into the townsmen, for he was known to them by description and reputation. He was tall and well built; his face pale and handsome but marred on his left cheek by two saber scars, souvenirs of his dueling days as a student at Heidelberg. His hair and his neatly trimmed beard were black, his eyes green and as cold as the Arctic seas. He wore a short burred shako on his head, as well as the gold-braided green jacket, demi-cape and white trousers of the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Russian Imperial Guards.

"Barmine!" whispered Goldstein. "It's Prince Barmine, the man who once ordered a thousand French prisoners put to death in a single afternoon!"

"And this town holds a thousand Jewish souls!" replied Shmulevitz. "Am Yisrael chai. Israel must live. My friends, we must find some way out of this."

The three leaders dismounted. The red-moustached Cossack commander looked at them like he wanted to vomit. "Jews," he said in a flat disgusted voice. "We should kill them all, Prince my brother."

Rabbi Shmulevitz bowed low, trying not to shake. "Welcome to Beit Efrat, Your Excellencies!" he boomed in a mellifluous voice. "Our town's poor amenities are at your command. Please, step into our council chambers and we shall..."

"Is that a tavern?" asked the man in the green uniform. "I should far prefer to step in there." Without waiting for any further comment he walked down the street a few steps and into Shmuel Butman's public house, the man in the bicorne and the Cossack officer stalking after him. Their high riding boots made the plank floor shake.

The town dignitaries followed after them in confusion. So did a couple who had quietly sidled up the street and into the square, Nathan Halter and Hadass Luria. The young woman had not entered a tavern more than twice in her life, but she practically dragged the old bookseller inside in the wake of the town leaders, and her father was too distracted and busy concentrating on the town's unwelcome visitors to notice his oldest daughter tagging along behind them with her ancient escort.

The Cossack with the red moustache went behind the bar, shoving aside the stunned innkeeper Butman, where he rooted around and pulled out several bottles which he tossed to the other two. Then he picked up a small keg of ale, bashed in the head with his fist and began drinking from it, holding it with both hands.

The man in green uncorked his bottle, sniffed it, and took a long pull. "A passable Rhenish," he said conversationally to Butman. He dumped a small handful of silver onto the bar. "You are Rabbi Shmulevitz, I take it?" he asked. Shmulevitz bowed again. "I am General Prince Barmine, Ilya Aleksandrovitch. My colleague here is Colonel Fyodor Petrovitch Koltsov, of the Imperial Gendarmerie. Third Section." A shudder went through the assembly at the mention of the Czar's dreaded secret police, originally established by Potemkin under Catherine's reign. "Colonel Koltsov is here to keep me honest. This third comrade in arms of ours, who is inhaling this establishment's ale behind the bar there, is the Hetman Basaraba. He is here to keep Koltsov honest."

"And who keeps him honest?" quipped Yossele irresistably. The barbarian lowered the ale keg and looked at him, a tiger ready to spring and crush and rip flesh from bone. Yossele suddenly understood what he should have understood from the beginning, and he froze in hideous fear. Barmine raised his hand and glanced over at Basaraba sharply, shaking his head, then looked at Yossele.

"Don't do that again, any of you," warned the general quietly. "I will not save you a second time." He took another drink out of the wine bottle. "Do you know why I have come here?" he asked Shmulevitz. "I am looking for someone."

"Please, tell us who, Your Excellency," begged Rabbi Shmulevitz, his bowels turning to water.

"I am looking for this man." Barmine held up a gold coin, the duplicate of the one Yossele had shown to Hadass. "I have reason to believe I will find him here."

"But Your Excellency, everyone knows that Bonaparte is back in Paris by now!" protested Shmulevitz.

"Yet I think I will find him here," said Barmine. "I think I will find him twenty thousand times, because I am firmly of the opinion that somewhere concealed around this town are a number of boxes containing twenty thousand Napoleons d'Or. Attend, my Mosaic friends," he continued, seating himself on a table and swigging his wine.

"When Bonaparte invaded the Motherland last year, you may have heard how Russia responded. We scorched the earth. We burned our own fields and our own homes and slaughtered our own livestock, burned our forests, poisoned our own wells and wrecked every wagon, smashed every stick of furniture, chopped down and burned every orchard, laid poison for the very deer in the woodlands and the birds of the air lest the French kill them and eat them. My childhood home I torched with my own hands lest a single Frenchman defile the floors where I crawled as a baby, or sit on a chair once occupied by the sanctified presence of my father or my mother.

"Napoleon didn't expect that. He expected to live off the land and buy his foodstuffs and his supplies from people who did not care that he came as an invader and a destroyer of our religion and our culture. He brought with him an immense amount of money to pay for the supplies he expected to buy from traitors, gold cast in his own image. This gold." Barmine flipped the coin in the air.

"During the retreat from Moscow, our Cossacks captured one of the enemy's straggling supply trains. The French troops were tired and demoralized and weak from hunger, many of them wounded, but they still fought like lions to defend those wagons, and before they were wiped out they killed a number of Cossacks, brothers to the men outside," he informed them, jerking his head at the door.

"The gold we found in that wagon train will go far towards rebuilding a shattered Russia, after it is melted down and re-coined as good Russian rubles. It would have gone even farther, had someone not decided to help themselves to a hefty chunk of it. When the wagons arrived in St. Petersburg, we found many cases were full of stones instead of golden Napoleons.

"My esteemed colleague Colonel Koltsov here was called in for consultation. Fyodor Petrovitch has a nose for human duplicity and chicanery, and he eventually figured out how that exchange was accomplished right under the noses of five hundred soldiers, by two clerks in our army commissary department. One Avigdor Fischer and one Chaim Lipshits. I will not comment on exactly how it was done, except to say that it formidably augments the well-deserved reputation that the Jewish people bear for high intelligence and brilliant planning, combined with a complete lack of anything remotely resembling moral scruple where the rights or the property of non-Jews are concerned. I believe you all knew the late Monsieurs Fischer and Lipshits, since they hail from here and their families still reside in this town?"

"The...the late...?" stammered Shmulevitz.

"They weren't quite as clever as they thought they were, and they underestimated their opponents' determination to avenge robbery and insult," said Barmine gently. "Again, rabbi, a situation not unknown in the long and fascinating history of your people. Colonel Koltsov deduced what they did and how they had done it far more quickly than they thought he would, and then they got careless. They stopped at an inn outside Minsk for a night in a soft feather bed in pleasant company. They should have kept on riding. We questioned them, quite sternly. I think everyone here knows quite well what we were told. There is a large oak tree at a crossroads outside Minsk. I suspect that the ravens and the vultures have gotten them both stripped down to their ribs by now."

There was a shudder and a moan through the gathered townsfolk. "May God have mercy on their souls..." muttered Shmulevitz.

Rabbi Feldman spoke up. "Your Excellency, you cannot mean that you suspect us of having anything to do with this tragic and ill-advised crime? We are loyal subjects of His Imperial Majesty, and we would never..."

Barmine held up his hand. "Don't," he advised calmly. "Whatever you do, rabbi, do not insult my intelligence. That would make me angry. You don't want me to become angry, rabbi. Believe me, you don't. Because if I get angry, Basaraba gets angry, and if Basaraba gets angry..." He nodded his head towards the square full of lowering Cossacks and stamping, blowing horses.

"Listen to me now. Within the next twenty-four hours, one of two things is going to happen in the town of Beit Efrat. The first thing that might happen is that you will take counsel among yourselves, and tomorrow morning when I step out onto that square, I will find boxes containing the sum of twenty thousand gold Napoleons. Alongside those boxes will stand the men who were involved in this. Whether they will necessarily be all of the men who are involved in this I do not care, nor will I care if a few of the men I find standing behind those boxes are not involved and willing substitutes for the guilty.

"Yes, I know some of your people possess that kind of courage and nobility of character, when needs must. You have proven it often enough down through the centuries, and I respect that. If tomorrow I should find nothing but elderly men who are at the end of their lives in any case, then I will understand and will overlook that incongruent circumstance. But there should be enough to lade a gallows amply, at least eight or ten...no, ten, definitely ten men. A minyan.

"We will count the gold, and if all twenty thousand Napoleons are there, then I promise you that there will be no exuberance with whips or red-heated gun barrels, no beards ripped out in handfuls by the roots, no such flamboyant embellishments. I shall swing the ten of them gentle and artistic from a single tree. I saw one coming into town that will do nicely. We shall depart to return to the Czar his property, and the matter will henceforth be considered closed. I will trust in the well-renowned perspicacity of your people, rabbi, to ensure that none of you ever again allow the thought of stealing from the Emperor to cross your minds for a single, fleeting moment. That is the first possibility for tomorrow."

Barmine smiled beatifically and went on as his listeners sank to their knees, trembling. "The second possibility is that you will try something else besides producing those twenty thousand gold coins and those ten men for punishment. Anything else. It might be a trick of some kind, a lie, a denial, a plea for mercy, some attempt to stall and buy time. If we are exceptionally fortunate, you might even try to fight us. We would enjoy that immensely. But to continue. If I step out upon that square tomorrow morning and see anything other than what I wish to see, then my company and I will go in search of the gold ourselves. We will search every house, every barn, every shop, every stable, every shed, every privy. We will indeed dig up the privies in search of that gold, or shall I say that all your rabbinical pastors and your yeshiva students shall dig them up. With their bare hands.

"My lads will need light while they search in the dark corners, and so they will be carrying lamps and lanthorns, possibly even torches. Open flames of any kind always invite accidents. Any gold or silver we find may well be part of this stolen hoard, and so we would have to confiscate it until its legal ownership is determined, and possession is nine tenths of the law. Some of you may have pretty wives or daughters or sisters, and since my troops are rough-hewn boys from the steppes and the forests they may become somewhat overly enthusiastic in expressing their admiration for such dainty damsels. There is a language problem as well. If you try to address them in Yiddish some of my good fellows may think you are mocking them. Cossacks intensely dislike being mocked, and they have a number of ways of ensuring that no one repeats the offense. Do you begin to see how fraught with peril it would be for you to do anything other than turn over to me the twenty thousand, and the ten?"

Shlomo Shmulevitz was slumping to the floor on his knees by now, palsied with fear. He looked up. "How do we know you won't just slaughter us all no matter what we do?" he moaned.

"You don't," said Barmine. "But know this. Among the Cossacks a man always, let me repeat that, always keeps his word, for good or for ill. Even when given to a Jew. If I were to break my word and start a pogrom after you obeyed my command and handed over to me the gold and the culprits, those men out there would participate most gleefully, no doubt of it. But they would also remember that Prince Barmine broke his word, and that is by no means a reputation I wish to bear among them. That would not be in my long-term interest at all."

He turned to the Cossack chief. "Basaraba, my brother, bring the baggage train in and set up the tents at both ends of the High Street and at the northern and southern boundaries of the town. For today, the men are not to come into the town. Only officers with necessary business. They are not to molest or harm anyone in Beit Efrat. There is one exception to this order. If anyone, man or woman, tries to escape from this place then catch them, take them to the campfires, strip them and peel their skin from their body. Slowly. Inch by inch, so that everyone in town can hear their screams as they die." Basaraba grinned, showing two missing front teeth. "As for myself, I think Colonel Koltsov and I will take advantages of such civilized amenities as Beit Efrat has to offer. Who is the town's richest man?" he asked conversationally.

"Why...why I suppose I am," spoke up Gershon Avitan the banker.

"Where is your house?" asked Barmine.

"Across the square there, Excellency, with the portico and the red stucco roof," said Avitan.

"It will do. I presume you will not object to a couple of guests for the night?" said Barmine. "If you find our presence to be objectionable, perhaps you and your family might stay with friends this evening. In fact, I insist that you do so."

"Certainly, Your Excellency," said Avitan with defeated resignation.

"I think Colonel Koltsov and I and our orderlies can rough it for a night in your abode, sir," said the general. "By the by, Basaraba my brother, perhaps you might explain to these gentlemen what will happen tomorrow if any harm should befall Colonel Koltsov or myself tonight?"

"We will kill all the Jews. Burn the town. Tear down every brick and stone and smash them to powder. Sow the ground with salt," said Basaraba with another gap-toothed grin.

"I suddenly feel as safe as if I were in my mother's arms," said Barmine gaily. "Now get out, all of you. I am going to have a few drinks with my friends." The group of Beit Efrat dignitaries stumbled to the door in a shocked daze, Nathan Halter the bookseller with them. Hadass began to sidle for the door herself, trembling with horror and consternation at what she had heard.

Suddenly Barmine glanced over and saw her, and their eyes met for a long moment. He raised his hand. "You. Girl. Come here."
Hadass lowered her eyes, stepped forward, and curtseyed, but she was so stunned she forgot she had a book in her hand from Halter's shop, and it dropped to the floor. She froze. "What are you reading, girl?" asked Barmine. He held out his hand peremptorily. She picked up the book, handed it to him, and again curtseyed low, her eyes downcast. "Fundamental Legal Reform In The Russian Judiciary 1798 to 1805, by Mikhail Mikhailovitch Speransky, Doctor of Law, Jurisconsult, published at St. Petersburg in 1810?" asked Barmine, caught off guard. "You're not studying to be a lawyer, are you girl?" he said with a chuckle.

"No, Excellency," replied Hadass quietly but firmly. "I was reading that book in Reb Nathan Halter's bookshop, and then I saw your troops riding in and I came here to see what was happening. I absent-mindedly brought it with me. But with the greatest of respect, Excellency, I am not a girl. I am twenty-five years of age." There was a barely suppressed gasp among the Jewish men present. Was she mad to bait this powerful and dangerous nobleman?

"I know Speransky. He is a high-minded man but rather naïve in the realities of life," replied Barmine. He tossed the book onto the table. "But a woman who reads law books interests me. Your name?"

"Hadass Luria, Excellency."

"Your patronymic? Ah, sorry, I forgot, you Jews don't use them, do you?" said Barmine.

"No, Excellency. I am the daughter of the physician Isaac Luria, who is now dead. I am proud and honored to say that my adopted father is the most holy and learned rebbe, Shlomo Shmulevitz, who stands before you." Her soft yet firm voice impressed the general.

"I hope your father appreciates your obvious accomplishments. You intrigue me. I am curious as to just how accomplished you are. Stay a while and converse with me, mistress. The rest of you, out!" Once more the Jewish men surged towards the door.

"Excellency, the book?" spoke up Hadass.

"What about it?" asked Barmine, unsure what she meant.

"I unthinkingly removed it from Reb Halter's premises without paying for it, a transgression for which I hope he will forgive me. It should therefore be returned to him. It is part of his inventory and belongs in his shop. It is not my property," she said.

"Nor mine?" replied Barmine with a laugh. "Very diplomatically put, mistress. You are quite correct. In view of the purpose of my visit here it would indeed be inappropriate for me to retain something that is not mine. Thank you for pointing that out. Which of you is Halter?" The old bookman timidly raised his hand. Barmine tossed him the volume and jerked his thumb towards the door. The Jews nearly fell over themselves leaving. "Basaraba, send in my orderly Stepan and then get the men bivouacked. Do you play chess?" he asked her.

"Yes, Excellency," replied Hadass. "My father taught me to play when I was a child."

"I see the tavern's board over there on that table. Bring it to me, please," ordered Barmine. She calmly rose and did so. "Put it on the table and set up the pieces," he commanded, and she complied. "Do you want black or white?" he asked.

"I will leave that to Your Excellency," replied Hadass.

"I will be white, then, since I am a by nature a man of attack," said Barmine. "Mistress Luria, you will play me a game now, and you will do everything you possibly can in order to win. I will do the same. Because the stake we play for is your father's life. If I win, then he takes his share of tomorrow's events as they would in any event transpire, no more, no less. If you beat me, then you have my word that no matter what happens tomorrow, I will spare him."

Hadass looked up at him. In her dark eyes was a fire that burned to Barmine's soul, and he knew he was lost to her forever. "My mother and my three sisters as well, and my betrothed Joseph Lipshits," she said. "Otherwise I will not play against you, Excellency, and you must punish me as you think fit."

"Done," said Barmine.

Barmine won the game, but it took him four hours to do so. By the end every officer in the troop both Russian and Cossack was standing around them in a circle, silent and fascinated. When Barmine checkmated her Hadass let out one dry sob of agony and then asked softly, "Have I your permission to go home now, Excellency?"

"Yes," he said. "Thank you for the game, mistress. Your father taught you well, but I discern that he had in you a student of brilliance." She rose and curtseyed. As she left the tavern, as one man all the soldiers rose and bowed to her.

Koltsov leaned over to him. "I have eyes that see into men's hearts, Ilya Aleksandrovitch. I have to, in my job. Don't go insane at your time of life. She is magnificent beyond words, that I grant you. But you cannot have a Jewess, at least not in the way you want this woman. What if the Czar were to come to hear of it? Heed me, my friend. She is not worth losing everything you have."

"She is worth any price that a man can pay," said Barmine.

"If any man touches her, I will kill him with my own hands, be he my own blood brother," said Basaraba in awe. "She is an angel."

***

Hadass should have realized that every Jewish eye in the town had been glued to the front door of Shmuel Butman's tavern during the four hours of her ghoulish game. By now the rumors regarding what was transpiring inside had reached heights of erotic and homicidal fantasy that would soon elevate the incident, already sufficiently bizarre in fact, into the realm of legend.

When Hadass crossed the square and got back to her father's house she found the front room full of people. The holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz arose anxiously from his seat. "Hadass! Have you been with…with him all this time?" he asked. "Why? What did he say? What did he want of you? In God's name, daughter, speak!"

"I tried to win your life from him," said Hadass, emotionally exhausted. "I tried to win all your lives from him. I failed. I am so sorry, Father, please, I couldn't, I just couldn't…" She did not have the strength to explain that she had spent the past four hours trying to win a chess game against an eccentric mass murderer with human lives as the stake, and no one in the room could be blamed if they misunderstood what she meant. Her father came to her and embraced her.

"Hadass, I must ask you this. Did you…what did you do to persuade him not to kill us?" he asked. "Do not fear to speak the truth. You are a daughter of Israel and there is no shame in doing what Jewish women have done in the past when this terrible necessity has arisen." Hadass comprehended then, and laughed wearily.

"Oh, so you think it was that? No. You and Yossele need have no fear. I am still undefiled, Father," she told him. "It could hardly be otherwise with all his officers and men around him all the time." She wasn't thinking clearly and still did not perceive the implications, the direction that the conversation was taking.

"So you have found favor in his eyes? So you still…you might still persuade him to spare us? Later on tonight when he is alone?" asked Rabbi Feldman in a low voice. "He finds you fair? He wants you? Have we a true Hadass in our midst? A biblical Queen Esther?" Then she understood.

"I don't know," she whispered, stunned. "You…you want me to do such a thing? How could you?"

"Am Yisrael chai," said Shlomo Shmulevitz in a dead voice. "Israel must live."

"Reb Shlomo, I know I am not your daughter by blood, and I have always been grateful to you and to Hannah for all the kindness you have shown to me since the death of my parents," she said slowly. "I have also understood that you have never loved me as you have loved the daughters of your own flesh. That is natural and human, and I have never begrudged my sisters that love. But what have I ever done that was so wrong that you would now make me into a whore?" she cried bitterly.

"We want to live!" screamed Hannah, falling on her knees in terror before the stunned young woman. "Forgive me, Hadass, forgive me for every slight, for every unkind and thoughtless word, for every time I showed favoritism to your sisters, forgive! Forgive and let us live!"

"Hadass?" spoke up the teenaged Naomi, black-haired and pretty, tears on her face. "Let me speak for all us three, Shulamit and Simcha and me. We've been absolutely rotten to you for years now, and you must hate us for it. God knows I would if I had been you. But we beg you, give us a chance, let us repay you for those wrongs for the rest of our lives, as sisters…don't make us pay for it all tomorrow! Hadass, I'm afraid. Tomorrow those…those men will come and you know what's going to happen to me, and to Shulamit and Simcha when they find us down in the cellar with those crates. Hadass…I'm so scared…Hadass, please!" The girl began to weep.

Hadass looked at her betrothed. "Yossele?" she asked. "Have you agreed to this as well?"

Lipshits looked down at the floor and shuffled his feet. After a time he muttered "Am Yisrael chai." Quietly and without fanfare, Hadass's heart died within her forever.

"Israel must live. So be it," she said calmly. "Please wait here, Father. I must clean myself up, dress my hair and attire myself in my finest garments so that I can perform this holy duty that you command of me for the sake of our people, although I presume I will be wearing them for but a short while. I just want one thing from you."

"What is that?" asked Shmulevitz anxiously.

"Walk with me to his door. Look at him, and look at me, and give me to him as you should have given me to my husband on Tisha B'av," said Hadass, bitter tears streaming from her eyes. Shmulevitz recoiled.

"I…I can't do such a thing!" he jabbered in revulsion.

"She has the right to ask that of you, Reb Shlomo," said Yaacov Feldman. Feldman looked at Hadass. "If your father will not do this, daughter of Israel, then I will do it."

"Hadass, if you want, I will…." put in Yossele timidly. Hadass turned on him like a she-wolf.

"You will do nothing!" she cried in rage and agony. "How dare you? After this night, you will never, ever speak to me again!"

***

She wore a gown of white cotton and linen that her mother and sisters had made for her wedding dress, and on her head was a long lace veil. She crossed the square alone and knocked at the door of the house of Gershon Avitan the banker. The door was opened by the prince's orderly, who seemed unsurprised and did not even ask her why she had come. He simply pointed and said, "Upstairs." As she entered the house she heard a cry from someone across the square, "Queen Esther!"

Barmine was in the master bedroom upstairs. He opened the door at her knock. He had taken off his hat and uniform jacket and was wearing a rich velvet dressing down, a long Cuban cheroot smoking in his hand.

Hadass stepped into the room and looked at him. "Excellency, I have come to beg for your favor, and for your mercy to all who dwell here. Do no harm to the people of this town tomorrow, no matter what you may find as you search, and in payment for that mercy do with me whatever you wish, tonight and for as long afterward as you wish. I ask only one thing, that when you ride out of here, you take me with you. Leave me by the roadside somewhere when you tire of my company. I don't want to have to look at them again, and I don't want them looking at me."

Barmine stared at her. "Sit down," he ordered, indicating a chair. She sat. "Whose idea was this? Yours or your father's?"

"It is the wish of all of us, Excellency. We all understand that we must pay tribute to the Czar."

"You are a very bad liar, Mistress Luria," said Barmine compassionately. Suddenly Hadass was overcome by it all and she broke down, weeping vehemently, rocking back in the chair with her head in her hands.

"I thought he loved me!" she cried in agony. "I was so sure, so sure he loved me!"

"You mean that monkey-faced woolmonger?" said Barmine. "I'm sure he does love you in his own weak way. Holy Peter, how can any man not love you? But men who are afraid for their lives are not always able to overcome that fear, and sometimes they do disgraceful things in order to save the lives that they themselves have already rendered worthless. I told those cowering rag-peddlers this afternoon that I understand your people can show great courage at times. Your presence here tonight proves that. It's just a different kind of courage from ours, a survival instinct to be called upon only at direst need, just as any rat will fight when he is cornered."

"Whereas you fight among one another like rabid dogs, all the time, and when you're not savaging one another you come here to butcher us like animals for sport?" snapped Hadass, still rocking back and forth in the chair in her misery.

"No. We value courage for its own sake, because it uplifts the human spirit and breeds a higher human character by forcing men to undergo danger, privation and death for the sake of others, for our comrades in arms, to keep enemies from our families' hearths, and for ideals of the mind and the heart. There is more to life than simply staying alive, mistress."

"You can afford the luxury of such bloody high-mindedness," said Hadass. "We can't."

"I know. Here," he said, handing her a brandy snifter. "Your town banker keeps a fine cellar and has excellent taste in cognac." Hadass swallowed the fiery liquid in one gulp.

"Thank you, Excellency. Can I have some more? Would you mind if I was at least partly drunk before we proceed?" she asked.

"There are many things you have to fear, Mistress Luria, but that is not one of them," said the general. "Put your mind at rest on that score. I don't rape women."

"You just kill men," she said bitterly.

"Yes. That is our peculiar Christian idea of honor," he said with a smile.

"Your Excellency is pleased to make a jest out of something that is horrible beyond thought. You mean it? You really will not harm me?" she said, looking up at him in sudden hope.

"I didn't say that," replied Barmine, puffing on his cheroot. "I will quite possibly do you great harm. Do not mistake me, demoiselle. I have a duty to perform here, and although I hold you in high regard, I can be very cruel. I will be very cruel to you if you compel me to be so. That is a very fine bed. You will sleep in it tonight, alone. This armchair is quite comfortable and I can easily take a long nap in it. You will leave at dawn. You may if you wish tell everyone in town how the chivalrous Prince Barmine let you spend the night alone and unmolested in the banker Avitan's fine feather bed. Out of kindness, your family and your friends and your simian affianced may even pretend to believe you."

"But no one will ever really believe it," said Hadass in a dull voice.

"No. Human nature being what it is, they will have no desire to believe it. A beautiful captive spending the night alone in such a bed? How disappointing and dull! The alternative is so much juicier and lends itself to so much more prurient imagination, so many forbidden pictures in the mind. The story of this night will follow you all your life here. I know what your name means, Hadass. It is the Hebrew for Esther. I heard someone call out Queen Esther on the square a while ago. If you feel you can live the rest of your life here as this small town's Queen Esther, then do so. If you really want me to take you out of here when I leave, then you may come, and I won't leave you by the roadside. I'll leave you in Minsk or St. Petersburg with enough money to start life over. I give you my word that you, at least, will be safe from whatever happens tomorrow.

"But I must have the Emperor's gold back, and I will not allow the theft to go unpunished. There is another alternative, if you will agree, but it must be agreed upon between us quickly in order to be convincing. I can enhance your reputation for the good, by hurling your lovely body out that door and chasing you back to your father's house in a rage, possibly wearing only my nightshirt for comic effect, all the time shouting that I would rather sleep with the devil's granddaughter than that fiery Jewish bitch Hadass Luria. I'll even let you sink your teeth into my arm and leave a nice big bite mark on me. That way you are not only Queen Esther, you also are a kind of Polish Judith to my Holofernes. Tomorrow will still be bloody and bad, but when the smoke clears away you will emerge as the heroine of this whole episode. It will be your passionate refusal to yield to my horrible lecherous advances that will be remembered. Every Jewish household in Europe will honor your name."

"And may I inquire as to your price for elevating me onto this pedestal, Excellency?" asked Hadass, smiling slightly in spite of herself.

"Tell me where the gold is hidden!" he urged her.

"Not unless you agree not to harm anyone in the town," she said.
"I don't care about my own reputation any more. That ended the moment I stepped inside this house. If you make me sleep here in that bed tonight, then to the Jews I'm a whore for the rest of my life, whether or not you lie beside me. But I don't care. All I care about is that you depart this place without shedding blood. Tell me what I must do for that to happen."

"You know I can't do that. What am I supposed to tell the Czar? That I found his twenty thousand gold Napoleons under a cabbage leaf?" asked Barmine in exasperation.

"It is not my concern what you tell the Czar," she told him. "Just now I spoke for my father and the people of Beit Efrat. Now hear me speak for myself, Excellency! If I can save the life of one single human being through any action of mine, then tell me what you want me to do and I shall do it. But do not ask me to be satisfied with a mere ten deaths as opposed to a hundred. Murder is murder, and I beg of you to leave this place having done no murder! I'll give you anything you want, do anything you want, be anything you want me to be, but my price for that is no death, no blood, none at all! And if you agree falsely tonight, and then you betray me tomorrow, if you hurt any of my friends or my neighbors, then I swear to you before God I will punish you with death. My death! I'll cut my own throat or hang myself from these rafters by my belt, and before the throne of God I will cry out that my blood is on your hands and not mine!" She knelt before him. "Please! Let me do this! I want to do it if it will stop violence and murder! Let me turn your anger from my people. Whatever you want in your heart to do to Jews, do it to just one Jew. Do it to me, and not to anyone else here!"

"Noblest of women, now hear me," Barmine whispered in awe, taking her hands in his and raising her. "I did not come here in search of Jews. I am here to deal with thieves and traitors. Can you not understand that of me? Hadass, do you have any idea what I would give to hear such words from you in any other time, any other place than this? Do you have any idea what I would do for you if you could come to me with your head held high and tell me that you truly wanted me? But you have wounded me now in the one place where I must refuse you, in my duty to my king and to my country. Hadass, I would give you anything in the world I have to give, but my duty and my honor do not belong to me that I may give them away. They belong to Russia."

"What will you do?" she whispered dismally.

"What I said I would do. I never believed that your father and his people would voluntarily surrender the gold, never mind hand over ten Jews to me for execution. I expected them to try something, a trick, an escape, a bribe. I am terribly sorry that you turned out to be the bribe. Tomorrow morning we start tossing this town inch by inch and we find the gold, and after we find it there must be punishment."

"But you won't hang the right person," she said.

"Probably not," sighed Barmine. "But appearances must be maintained."

"It won't be very good for appearances when the Czar reads my confession," said Hadass.

Barmine's blood cold. "You can't…" he stuttered. "Oh, Mother of God! Hadass, no! I beg you! Not for me, for like you I no longer care about my reputation where you are concerned! You don't understand. The Czar and his army have been made to look foolish by Jews, and you can have no idea how angry they are!"

She looked up at him. "Tomorrow, you will harm no one. Take the gold. But leave here with no one injured or slain. If you punish anyone for this I will walk to St. Petersburg if I have to, and I will pound on every official door I can find until someone will listen to my detailed confession as to how I helped rob the Czar of twenty thousand Napoleons d'Or in concert with whoever you have already executed here. I will name them, for the dead will be beyond harm, and I think I can concoct a story that will convince. I don't care what they do to me afterwards, but whatever it is you will live the rest of your life knowing you could have prevented it. Choose, Excellency. Take your gold and leave here with no blood on your hands, or you shall spill mine as well whether you will or no."

"I can't do that," said Barmine wearily. "Hadass, just as I will not dishonor you tonight, neither will I lie to you. I must do my duty, and I will do it. All I can ask is that in return you do not destroy yourself, not by suicide, and not by confessing to a crime you did not commit. If you choose to do so out of a desire for revenge or hatred for me, then yes, you will inflict upon me a lifetime of grief and remorse. That power you have, lady. Before you use it, make sure you really do hate me that much." He stood and pointed to the bed. "I think you must be exhausted. Go to bed, my honored guest, and sleep well. You need fear no harm from me this night."

Hadass was indeed exhausted. She curtseyed to Barmine, took off her shoes and lay down on the rich satin counterpane in her wedding dress, and she was asleep almost as soon as her eyes closed.

Her sleep was deep and mercifully dreamless, until she awoke hours later. The first blue light of dawn was faintly visible through the cracks in the shutters, and for a moment she did not realize where she was until she remembered. "Why did I have to awaken?" she whispered to herself.

Barmine was not there; she was alone in the room. The ashes in the fireplace still smoldered. She arose and put on her shoes and wrapped her wedding veil around her head. Now she would leave, cross the square to her father's house, and begin her lifetime to come of unspoken shame and sidelong looks on the street and whispers behind her back. Eventually, when it got too unbearable, she believed she could work up the courage to kill herself. She wondered how long it would take.

The woman descended the stairs. There was no sign of the orderly. She was about to open the front door and leave the house when she heard low voices in the parlor.

She touched the door and it moved slightly beneath her hand. She slid it open just a crack and carefully put her eye to the aperture. She could just see the white-shirted back and suspenders of Barmine as he sat at a small table, smoking one of his Cuban cheroots. There was a mirror above the mantelpiece, and in it she could see Colonel Koltsov standing with one foot up on a chair, a sardonic smile on his face, both hands resting on his rapier grip. A third man was seated at the table, dressed in somber Hasidic broadcloth, but his face was cut off by the top of the mirror and she could not see who it was.

Koltsov was speaking. "Fifty per cent is ridiculous, of course, and I am amazed at his impudence, but then he always was a cheeky little bugger. I confess he amuses me, especially since no one would blame you at all if you rewarded him with nine feet of rope, Ilya Aleksandrovitch. But then one of mine would have to be rather special in the effrontery department, eh? That's what makes mine the best. I choose and groom my rats for the cleverness of their character as well as for their tales." Koltsov laughed at his own pun.

"If I hear the phrase 'fifty per cent' fall from his lips again, he will get one hundred per cent of that nine foot rope you mentioned," said Barmine grimly. "Can this…gentleman be trusted, Fyodor Petrovitch? Are you of that opinion?"

"I believe he is over last year's little flirtation with the French, Ilya Aleksandrovitch," chuckled Koltsov.

"Please, Your Honours mistake me!" protested the third man in a fawning voice, spreading his hands deprecatingly with palms upward. "The dangerous associations I undertook with the French invaders of the Motherland were all in Your Honours' service, I swear to you! Why, did I not turn over to Your Honours my own cousin Chaim when, to my shock and horror I discovered him to be a thief and a traitor? How more loyal can one of the Emperor's servants be?" A knife stabbed Hadass to the heart, for she recognized the voice.

The third man was Yossele Lipshits.

"Horse dung!" said Barmine succinctly. "You betrayed Colonel Koltsov to a higher bidder, and you betrayed your cousin because you had just enough rudimentary intelligence to understand that you were in over your head stealing that much money from the army, and you'd best look to your own worthless skin!"

"Oh, la, Ilya Aleksandrovitch, such are the vagaries of the profession," said the secret policeman. "Spies are whores, and who ever expects a whore to be entirely faithful when someone else comes along with a fat purse? Especially a purse fat with these?" Koltsov flipped a gold Napoleon in the air.

"Give me the other nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine of them and you will not go unrewarded, Lipshits," growled Barmine.

"Thirty per cent!" wheedled Yossele eagerly.

"Twelve feet of rope," replied Barmine. "And the highest perch on the tree. That's my final offer."

"Don't push it, you idiot!" said Koltsov softly. "Come to me in Cracow in a month's time. Meet me at Mother Gertrude's place and you'll have enough to spend three days and nights there, tup all the girls and then tip them, and still leave with a purse heavy enough to pull down your belt. Be content with that and speak now, before we lose patience and ask the Hetman Basaraba to join us."

"There is one thing, Your Excellency, that I must ask of you," said Yossele. "I ask that you spare the lives of Reb Shlomo Shmulevitz and his family. I am to marry his daughter."

"I see," said Barmine calmly, his voice unreadable. "And you think that Hadass will still wed you after you sent her here last night? You think most highly of yourself, or else very little of her."

"Well, actually, before she came over here she did tell me I was never to speak to her again," said Yossele with a self-deprecating chuckle. "But no, of course not, I couldn't marry Hadass now even if she still wanted me. No, Excellency, I mean that I am to marry the rabbi's daughter Shulamit on Tisha B'av. It was agreed upon last night. The rebbe feels I should have some recompense for the sacrifice I have made for the honor of Israel."

"The…sacrifice…you…have…made?" repeated Barmine slowly.
"Koltsov, get him out of here. Take him somewhere and get the necessary information from him, before I kill him. I swear I will kill him if I have to look at him for another minute."

"Marry Shulamit!" whispered Hadass desolately, leaning against the door frame, and she could not repress a wracking sob of devastation. The men in the room heard her. Koltsov's sword was out and he leaped to the door, threw it open, and dragged Hadass a short way into the room. Yossele leaped to his feet and they stared at one another, both horrified by what they saw. "I almost loved you," she said to him. Then she turned and walked back upstairs to the bedroom.

She sat on the bed staring at the floor, her mind blank. After a while the door opened and Barmine came in and knelt beside her. "I won't say I am sorry."

"I know. Your duty," she said tonelessly.

"No. I won't say I am sorry because some injuries are beyond any apology. Your own people did you one such last night, and I have done you another this morning. I have come to offer what little reparation I can make. This isn't a command on my part, it's not even a suggestion. It's just something I'd like you to think about.

"Outside St. Petersburg I have a mansion of seventy-five rooms overlooking the River Neva. Behind it are parks and gardens and a menagerie. There is a library of something like eight thousand books, if I recall correctly. There are musical instruments and musicians to play them, there is a laboratory where scientists from all over Russia come to study and experiment. There is learning, and culture, and a life of peace there, if you will accept it from me.

"I do not offer you these things to buy you, Hadass. I do not suggest for one instant that you could ever be bought. I offer you these things because they are all I have to give you in exchange for the pain you have suffered over this last day. There is one more thing I can offer you, Hadass, if you are willing to make one more sacrifice, a terrible one for you. There are some things that even a prince cannot do, and one of them is to marry a Jewess. But if you will convert to Christianity and be baptised, upon my oath as a boyar I will marry you. In our church, before God and before the eyes of all men, I will say that you are the woman I want for my partner in life, and I will defy anyone from the Czar himself on down who objects."

"You would destroy your career!" she protested in amazement.

"Yes. And I would gain my life. Will you come with me from this place?" he asked gently.

"I know you mean this honorably, Ilya Aleksandrovitch, and from the bottom of my heart I thank you," she whispered. "As to conversion, no, never, it can never be. One cannot choose one's God. One's God chooses you. As to living with you, then I would be what the world already thinks me to be."

"Then why not? Who would know the difference?" demanded Barmine.

"I would know," she told him. He rose and bowed to her. "Go do you your duty, Ilya Aleksandrovitch," she told him. "If you feel you owe me a debt, you know how I want it repaid."

The prince took up his jacket and his shako, turned, bowed to her deeply once again, and left the room. After a time she heard the horses' hooves clattering in the square outside, the creak of the leather saddlery and the gutteral talk of the Cossacks. Then there was some shouting and pounding, then the rumble of a wagon.

She arose and opened the shutters and looked out. The wagon stood before the door of her father's house, and a chain of dismounted Cossack soldiers were passing out the wooden crates containing the stolen treasure and stacking them into the wagon bed, lashing them down with ropes and covering them with canvas. Knots of people watched from the side streets, but there were no gunshots or shouts or screams or smoke, and it seemed to be an orderly process.

Hadass closed the window and went and sat down again on a stool by the dead ashes of the fire. The noises in the square outside rose and fell, and there were more horses, this time moving out down the street. The door of the room opened. It was Barmine again. He came to her side. He held out his hand to her. "Hadass? We are leaving now. No one has been hurt or punished. Please. Please come with me."

"This place and these people are all I have ever known," she said. "They hated and feared you so much that they threw me to you like the peasants in the folk tale who threw their children off the sleigh to the pursuing wolves."

"And in the tale, when the parents got to the church, no one would look at them, for they all knew what had been done. Do you want them looking at you like that for the rest of your life, lady?" asked Barmine.

"If I were guilty, then as I told you last night, I would go with you. But I am innocent, thanks to your kindness and chivalry. Ironic, isn't it, Your Excellency?" she said with a wan smile. "The very nobility of your own nature has deprived you of what you desire."

"Life is full of irony," agreed Barmine. "Will you not come with me anyway?"

"I won't run away for a sin I did not commit." She rose and curtseyed to him. "For your mercy to my friends and my family, Excellency, and for your kindness and your courtesy to me, I humbly thank you. God speed."

"Goodbye, noble lady," said Barmine.

"Goodbye, Excellency," she replied, her eyes downcast.

He left the room and she sat down again. The sound of the horses' hooves receded, and then there was an eerie silence over the town, except for voices she could hear coming from her father's synagogue across the square. Presumably the community was gathered there doing a post-mortem on the Cossacks' visitation and giving thanks to the God of Abraham that the dark angel of death had passed over the Jews of Beit Efrat. Hadass knew she should get up and go home, but she couldn't seem to move, to focus her thoughts.

The sun had risen high in the sky outside when the door crashed open and the grim, bearded, black-coated men with shirt collars and cuffs decently buttoned came into the room. They grabbed Hadass by her arms, and dragged her down the stairs while she cried out questions and protests. They pulled her out the door and into the market square where hundreds of people surrounded her, to the center of the plaza, and there she saw the piles of stones awaiting her.

The holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz stood by the biggest pile, his face livid and ghastly. The earth seemed to open beneath her feet. "Father! Why?" his daughter screamed. "You sent me to him! You told me to do it! Now they're gone and no one has died, and yet I must be stoned? How can you be so cruel and unjust? Why, Father, why?"

"It is not for your fornication, but for your falsehood," rumbled Shmulevitz in his deepest and most resonant preaching voice. "The treasure trove of gold that was taken from us by the goyim this morning on foot of your vile betrayal would have built a dozen shuls and Houses of Study, bought a thousand seforim, endowed hundreds of poor scholars each one of whom might have grown to be a Torah light unto the nations of man. That gold would have fed and clothed the Jewish destitute through the coldest winters, placed menorahs and Torah arks of silver and gold on the high altars in honor of God.

"You were sent into that house to save the Jewish people of this town, woman. Not to rob them! I can only guess, to my shame, that you were unable to do your duty without taking blasphemous and sinful pleasure in it. You convinced yourself that tyrant was your lover, that you traded the secret of this town's wealth because of some promise he made to you to take you away with him to a life of whoredom. Was that it, Hadass? If so, then you see how your Gentile lover of last night has kept his promise! He has left you here among the people whom you betrayed to suffer for your sin!"

"You think I told them…?" Hadass was stunned. She looked at Yossele, pale and trembling beside the rabbi. "Yossele? Will you let me die? Will you not speak?"

"Don't appeal to Yossele of all men!" snapped Shmulevitz. "He has already spoken, may God pity him! He told us of how he went to Avitan's house in the dawn this morning, hoping to get you away from that scarred devil, longing to beg your forgiveness for what he saw as his shame and weakness last night. He has also told us what you were…he told us how he found you. Right before the whole congregation he told us. Every filthy detail."

"I can imagine," said Hadass, her voice icy with contempt. "He learned much of such things in Cracow. Does my sister Shulamit know that on Tisha B'av she is to be married to a dog?"

With a hoarse shout of rage Yossele ran forward and hurled the first stone into her mouth full force, splintering her teeth and making sure she could speak no more. Hadass could taste her own blood in her mouth, and felt it running over her chin as she closed her eyes and drew her wedding veil over her face, but not before she saw her father hurl the second stone that knocked her to the ground. She tried to rise, felt more blows, then surrendered and let the soft dark peace of the end enfold her.

***

"Never thought I'd say it, but today Basaraba would be better company. Are you going to be like this all the way back to St. Petersburg?" asked Fyodor Petrovich Koltsov in irritation as he and Barmine rode at the head of the column. They were near the river now, and a cool breeze whispered through the bright apple blossoms and green buds of spring, dancing through the grass.

"Probably," sighed Barmine. "I'm probably not wholly sane right now, you know. I hear her name in the wind. Can't you?" The trees swayed in the breeze and did indeed seem in a sense to whisper Hadass…Hadass…

"When a man starts hearing a woman's name whispered on the wind he'd better do something about it," said Koltsov practically. "You are a very fortunate lover, Ilya Aleksandrovitch, in that you can do something about it. You are a general and a nobleman and she's a girl from a Jewish shtetl. She's only a couple of miles back, for Christ's sake! Go back there and just take her! Arrest her for something if the legalities bother you, or if you like I'll arrest her for crimes against the state and you can make yourself a hero in her eyes by saving her from me. You'll be doing her a favor in the long run. She doesn't belong in that shithole, and if she's as intelligent as she showed herself yesterday over that chess board she will come to understand that. Jewess or not, that lady was born for silks and a salon. Get her up to St. Petersburg and then worry about wooing her favor. She'll come around when she sees the city lights."

Barmine looked around him at the trees that shivered in the wind with her name. Hadass…Hadass…

"You know, I think you're right, Fyodor Petrovich," he said. "What is the point in being a prince if one cannot engage in the odd princely gesture like carrying off a beautiful girl on one's saddle bow? Basaraba! Leave the first troop here to guard the treasure wagon. Bring the second troop and come with me. We're going back to Beit Efrat!"

But before they reached Beit Efrat they came to a tall tree within sight of the rooftops of the town, the very one that the prince had earlier earmarked for his gallows tree. There they found a mule cart and the holy rabbi Shlomo Shmulevitz, who was digging a grave beneath the tree with a mattock and sobbing his heart out. On the ground nearby lay a silent form, covered with a cloth shroud that was soaked through with blood, fresh and wet and crimson.

Stricken with sudden horror, Barmine leaped from his saddle and ripped the cloth from the body. He stared at the shattered remnants of his beloved for a long moment, and then looked up at the rabbi. "What have you done, old man?" he roared in a voice like thunder. The white-bearded rabbi stared at him for a moment with wild eyes, then ignored him and went on digging. Barmine went to his mount and pulled a long flintlock horse pistol from the saddle holster, and cocked it. He went up to Shmulevitz. "Old man, do you know who I am?" he asked, not with a raised or angry voice, yet something in his tone made Shmulevitz stop his work and look up.

"Yes, I know who you are. You are Esau," said the rabbi. "You had your mess of pottage from us long ago. We paid our bargain and your birthright is now ours, even though you withhold it from us. Now leave me to bury my child."

"No, I am not Esau," replied Barmine.

"Who are you, then, ignoramus?" muttered Shmulevitz as he dug.

"I am the wrath of God!" came the prince's reply, ringing like iron. Out of the corner of his eye the old rabbi caught the motion of the pistol being raised, and he turned and screamed in a high falsetto, putting up his hands to protect his face. The muzzle vomited flame and smoke and noise, and the heavy lead ball smashed through the rabbi's upraised palms and into his skull, splattering sixty years of Torah over the trunk of the tree in a bloody, white-ropey mess.

The old man fell into the grave he had been digging for his daughter and flopped for a bit, then was still. In the leaves above the wind stirred and whispered the dead girl's name sadly over her murdered body into Barmine's ear.

Hadass…Hadass…

Basaraba rode forward. "That's one," he said approvingly. "A good start. And now, Prince my brother?"

Hadass…Hadass…

"I am the wrath of God," said Barmine again. He pointed towards the rooftops of the town. "Now go and kill them. Kill them all." He heard her name whispered again, this time not from the leaves above him, but from behind him where the Cossacks sat on their horses.

Hadass…Hadass…

It was the sound of two hundred sabers drawing from their sheaths.

2 Comments:

At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Trudie Rafferty said...

I remember that story from Other Voices, Darker Rooms.

 
At 7:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very moving tale... well done.

 

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