Hannah sits down opposite Sarah. Her heart sinks. Now she will have to give a full accounting, which she prefers not to do
Emmy stops her piano practice and turns around to face Felix. “Hmm?”
She’s usually calm after piano practice, more pliable than usual. “I have to make a small journey — only half a day. Will you come along with me?”
Emmy plays a chord, B-flat minor. “No.”
A snatch of tune with her right hand. “Why should I?”
“I need to do some research for a story I’m working on. For my job.”
“Do not tell me we are chasing after another Hans and Bertha adventure?”
“Perhaps. I need to have a woman with me to talk to a fräulein. And you owe me a favor.”
She closes the music book and wrinkles her nose. “I must practice some more Mozart. Polite company does not enjoy the new type of music. What is this about a favor?”
“Did I not chaperone you a thousand times? Did I not come with you on your circus fiasco?”
Her face grows pinched as he says this. “Yes.”
Chasya has given him a list of villages, some addresses. She has been asking around, and every woman in the Jewish quarter can tell her about a niece or a friend or an old neighbor or someone they know.
An hour out of Prague and they will already be in the wilderness. For this trip, it means that they can be back and forth in one day, which is the only way he can do it really, for he has used up all of Wolf’s patience.
She looks vaguely interested. “A carriage with springs. That has been reupholstered within the last year. And no fellow passengers chewing tobacco, or wanting to match me up with their neighbor’s grandson.”
“Well, then. When do we set off?”
Sarah arrives at precisely four o’clock, the earliest polite time for afternoon visitors. From the kitchen, Hannah glimpses her bustle past Gertrude and sit down on the ottoman, as if she is about to announce her reign.
Hannah takes the pot off the stove and hurries over.
Sarah does not even stand up. “So long, so much has happened, and you have not come to tell me about what has been going on.”
Hannah sits down opposite Sarah. Her heart sinks. Now she will have to give a full accounting, which she prefers not to do.
“It has been so busy. You would not believe.”
Hannah takes a deep breath. What to say, what not to say?
Sarah picks up a piece of embroidery from the table. She examines it. “This is not Emmy’s work, surely?”
“And you were never fond of piecework.”
“Me? No. I prefer my books.”
“So who is embroidering this tablecloth?”
Sarah turns it over front and back, and runs the tips of her fingers over the stitched challah and the goblet of purple wine.
“Sweet,” she pronounces. “A beginner.”
“We have a… a house guest.”
Sarah perks up. She leans forward in her seat. “How lovely. You must tell me about her. A relative from Vienna?”
As Hannah is thinking about how to begin, where, and with what, Becca and Raizel appear.
“Ah, Rebecca. I had heard you were here. When do you return to the mystery of the Ottoman Empire?”
Becca stands with her back stiff. Hannah pats the place on the couch next to her, but Becca does not take up on her offer. “There is no reason for haste.”
“Do you not have a school there?” Sarah turns to Hannah. “Some tea would be welcome.”
Hannah finds herself blushing. “Oh, of course.”
She enters the kitchen, and as she stacks the tea cups onto the tray and places the kettle on the stove to boil, their conversation drifts after her.
It is all prepared but there are no students.
As she reenters the living room with the laden tray, Sarah catches sight of Raizel, who dashes past the open door to the kitchen.
“And who is that?” she asks.
“How many sugars, Sarah? I am so forgetful about these things.”
Sarah points to the doorway. “A new servant, Hannah? How many times have I told you not to employ anyone whom I have not vetted?”
Becca shakes her head.
“She is not a servant,” Hannah says. She hands Sarah her tea.
“So then? A charity case?”
Hannah hesitates. “Of a kind.”
Sarah is a wonderful woman, a woman who gives and cares. Why does she feel so hesitant to reveal anything? As if Raizel is a secret that she must keep for herself.
Becca answers. “She is a girl who was sent to Turkey for domestic work.”
“So why is she here?”
“She was mistreated. And so I am returning her home.”
“To her parents?”
“We have written to the parents.” Hannah interposes.
“And let me guess, they have not replied.”
Becca gives half a nod.
“So are you going to put her on a wagon there?”
Hannah answers quickly. “No. No, we shall not do that.”
Sarah sniffs and puts down her teacup. “Because it sounds as if someone needs to go there and talk to the parents about taking care of their girl. About what it means to make responsible decisions.” She shakes her head. “It never fails to amaze me how any fool can bring a child into this world. If I were in charge, there would be some system. Couples would have to apply, and prove their capability.”
Hannah laughs. “Oh, Sarah, if you were in charge of that, what would we do here in Prague?”
Becca does not find it funny. “We do not know who her parents are. They may well be good, well-intentioned people.”
Sarah shakes her head. “Intentions are not sufficient.”
Becca sticks out her jaw. Hannah knows the signs. Something is eating at her sister. Sarah has put all of them out of joint.
“Sometimes they are. My parents were lucky. When Ernst sent them information about the Alliance, what did they do but send off their daughter to an unknown place, to be cared for by people they had never met? What makes them responsible and good and Raizel’s parents not?”
Hannah stares. Does Becca really think that she and Ernst would have allowed her to go to a place that was… that would harm her?
Becca continues. “It’s not that I agree with what they did. They have a child, a child, what could be more precious? But how can I blame them for not knowing the evil of the world? Society must also accept some responsibility.”
Sarah stands and walks over to the doorway. She looks toward the kitchen, and they watch her trying to stare at Raizel. “Does it matter who is at fault? There are things to be done. If the parents are not up to the task, we shall have to find some sweet old couple who would be happy to take her in as a daughter.
Hannah considers. Is that what Raizel needs?
Becca stands up, spots of red on each of her cheeks. “I can not picture that. A 14, 15-year-old girl, suddenly calling a stranger Mama and Papa? Simply for their edification, for them to play at being parents? No. I can not countenance that. The girl has been used enough.”
Sarah’s voice is hard. “Very well, but what is the choice? She is too old to be sent to an orphanage, and I would not wish that on her. At best, it would be another form of slavery — they will have her wringing piles after pile of dripping wet laundry and feeding it through the mangle.”
Hannah feels a rising sense of desperation. So what then? What would be the right thing for her, and for Ernst, and for Raizel? She has been counting on Raizel’s parents answering the letter, but if she stops and considers, they probably can not even read it. And Raizel shows no interest in locating them; it has been more a matter of duty than a solution.
“One thing is clear. She does not belong here.”
“Why not?” Becca demands.
“Well, this is not Turkey, for a start,” Sarah says.
“Sarah, where do you think she comes from? From a shtetl. She’s one of our own. Half a day’s journey from Prague. And the man who attacked Felix. Where do you think he comes from?”
Sarah shakes her head.
“Not far from here. Why are we always so quick to think that the problems come from other places, that they have nothing to do with us, when in fact they were grown in our own backyards?”
Sarah’s cheeks are flushed, swelling with the words she’s waiting to spill out in a current. “Oh, spare me the lecture. I have seen more of the world than you. Well, perhaps not more, but longer.” Sarah fingers the tip of the needle. “There was a case, years ago. A girl arrived here from Odessa. But she endangered the community.
“Put it this way, if she was taken away by these people, or employed under false pretences, or whatever it is, they will want her back. There is still money to be made from her. These people—” She passes a finger across her throat. “They stop at nothing.”
“Anyway, there’s nothing to be done for her here.” She brings the linen piecework close to her face and squints. “Her hand is not steady enough to learn how to embroider. She will not be able to earn a pittance for herself.”
Becca folds her arms and straightens her back. “I went to Ottoman Turkey because… I was educated by a visionary. In Paris, the director of the Alliance said, again and again, educate them. Education is the key to the future. It is the key to good, clean, honest work that will enable you to earn your keep with dignity. An honest life and a good life depends on honestly earning one’s keep.” Becca pauses and then nods, as if agreeing to her own words. “She needs an education.”
Sarah snorts. “Do you think it will help her learn how to conjugate French verbs?”
“No, not French. But if she can learn to read and write in German, that would help her.”
Sarah cocks her head to the side, as if to say, I am listening.
Becca continues. “She needs to know some arithmetic so that she can calculate the household expenses. She needs penmanship, so she can write a letter. She needs to know a little history so that she is aware of the political climate. This is all in addition to learning an honest trade: needlework or teaching or millinery. Perhaps she could learn music and then earn some money teaching piano.”
“Music?” Hannah tries to find her voice. “She can sing, I have heard her. But if she had a few voice lessons… Ernst always says there is nothing more healing for the soul.” A grand piano sat in the hall of the sanitorium, but she does not need to mention that now. “Mothers would pay for a good girl to teach them. Every home needs someone who can play an instrument, so that there can be joy in that home. And every little girl should learn music. That would be a fruitful direction.”
Sarah’s voice is acerbic. “So you are planning a new school, are you, Rebecca?”
“No. I am simply sketching out my thoughts about a potential education, about some areas of study that might be helpful to everyone. Including girls who have come from the shtetl.”
“Ah, so you don’t want to fail at another school?”
“Oh,” she says, sweetly. “With your help, Sarah, we can not help but succeed.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 722)
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