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The Silent Woman






The uproarious merriment of a wedding-feast burst forth into the night
from a brilliantly lighted house in the "gasse" (narrow street). It was
one of those nights touched with the warmth of spring, but dark and full
of soft mist. Most fitting it was for a celebration of the union of two
yearning hearts to share the same lot, a lot that may possibly dawn in
sunny brightness, but also become clouded and sullen--for a long, long
time! But how merry and joyous they were over there, those people of the
happy olden times! They, like us, had their troubles and trials, and
when misfortune visited them it came not to them with soft cushions and
tender pressures of the hand. Rough and hard, with clinched fist, it
laid hold upon them. But when they gave vent to their happy feelings and
sought to enjoy themselves, they were like swimmers in cooling waters.
They struck out into the stream with freshness and courage, suffered
themselves to be borne along by the current whithersoever it took its
course. This was the cause of such a jubilee, such a thoughtlessly noisy
outburst of all kinds of soul-possessing gayety from this house of
nuptials.

"And if I had known," the bride's father, the rich Ruben Klattaner, had
just said, "that it would take the last gulden in my pocket, then out it
would have come."

In fact, it did appear as if the last groschen had really taken flight,
and was fluttering about in the form of platters heaped up with geese
and pastry-tarts. Since two o'clock--that is, since the marriage
ceremony had been performed out in the open street--until nearly
midnight, the wedding-feast had been progressing, and even yet the
_sarvers_, or waiters, were hurrying from room to room. It was as if a
twofold blessing had descended upon all this abundance of food and
drink, for, in the first place, they did not seem to diminish; secondly,
they ever found a new place for disposal. To be sure, this appetite was
sharpened by the presence of a little dwarf-like, unimportant-looking
man. He was esteemed, however, none the less highly by every one. They
had specially written to engage the celebrated "Leb Narr," of Prague.
And when was ever a mood so out of sorts, a heart so imbittered as not
to thaw out and laugh if Leb Narr played one of his pranks. Ah, thou art
now dead, good fool! Thy lips, once always ready with a witty reply, are
closed. Thy mouth, then never still, now speaks no more! But when the
hearty peals of laughter once rang forth at thy command, intercessors,
as it were, in thy behalf before the very throne of God, thou hadst
nothing to fear. And the joy of that "other" world was thine, that joy
that has ever belonged to the most pious of country rabbis!

In the mean time the young people had assembled in one of the rooms to
dance. It was strange how the sound of violins and trumpets accorded
with the drolleries of the wit from Prague. In one part the outbursts of
merriment were so boisterous that the very candles on the little table
seemed to flicker with terror; in another an ordinary conversation was
in progress, which now and then only ran over into a loud tittering,
when some old lady slipped into the circle and tried her skill at a
redowa, then altogether unknown to the young people. In the very midst
of the tangle of dancers was to be seen the bride in a heavy silk
wedding-gown. The point of her golden hood hung far down over her face.
She danced continuously. She danced with every one that asked her. Had
one, however, observed the actions of the young woman, they would
certainly have seemed to him hurried, agitated, almost wild. She looked
no one in the eye, not even her own bridegroom. He stood for the most
part in the door-way, and evidently took more pleasure in the witticisms
of the fool than in the dance or the lady dancers. But who ever thought
for a moment why the young woman's hand burned, why her breath was so
hot when one came near to her lips? Who should have noticed so strange
a thing? A low whispering already passed through the company, a stealthy
smile stole across many a lip. A bevy of ladies was seen to enter the
room suddenly. The music dashed off into one of its loudest pieces, and,
as if by enchantment, the newly made bride disappeared behind the
ladies. The bridegroom, with his stupid, smiling mien, was still left
standing on the threshold. But it was not long before he too vanished.
One could hardly say how it happened. But people understand such
skillful movements by experience, and will continue to understand them
as long as there are brides and grooms in the world.

This disappearance of the chief personages, little as it seemed to be
noticed, gave, however, the signal for general leave-taking. The dancing
became drowsy; it stopped all at once, as if by appointment. That noisy
confusion now began which always attends so merry a wedding-party.
Half-drunken voices could be heard still intermingled with a last,
hearty laugh over a joke of the fool from Prague echoing across the
table. Here and there some one, not quite sure of his balance, was
fumbling for the arm of his chair or the edge of the table. This
resulted in his overturning a dish that had been forgotten, or in
spilling a beer-glass. While this, in turn, set up a new hubbub, some
one else, in his eagerness to betake himself from the scene, fell flat
into the very debris. But all this tumult was really hushed the moment
they all pressed to the door, for at that very instant shrieks, cries of
pain, were heard issuing from the entrance below. In an instant the
entire outpouring crowd with all possible force pushed back into the
room, but it was a long time before the stream was pressed back again.
Meanwhile, painful cries were again heard from below, so painful,
indeed, that they restored even the most drunken to a state of
consciousness.

"By the living God!" they cried to each other, "what is the matter down
there? Is the house on fire?"

"She is gone! she is gone!" shrieked a woman's voice from the entry
below.

"Who? who?" groaned the wedding-guests, seized, as it were, with an icy
horror.

"Gone! gone!" cried the woman from the entry, and hurrying up the stairs
came Selde Klattaner, the mother of the bride, pale as death, her eyes
dilated with most awful fright, convulsively grasping a candle in her
hand. "For God's sake, what has happened?" was heard on every side of
her.

The sight of so many people about her, and the confusion of voices,
seemed to release the poor woman from a kind of stupor. She glanced
shyly about her then, as if overcome with a sense of shame stronger than
her terror, and said, in a suppressed tone:

"Nothing, nothing, good people. In God's name, I ask, what was there to
happen?"

Dissimulation, however, was too evident to suffice to deceive them.

"Why, then, did you shriek so, Selde," called out one of the guests to
her, "if nothing happened?"

"Yes, she has gone," Selde now moaned in heart-rending tones, "and she
has certainly done herself some harm!"

The cause of this strange scene was now first discovered. The bride has
disappeared from the wedding-feast. Soon after that she had vanished in
such a mysterious way, the bridegroom went below to the dimly-lighted
room to find her, but in vain. At first thought this seemed to him to be
a sort of bashful jest; but not finding her here, a mysterious
foreboding seized him. He called to the mother of the bride:

"Woe to me! This woman has gone!"

Presently this party, that had so admirably controlled itself, was again
thrown into commotion. "There was nothing to do," was said on all sides,
"but to ransack every nook and corner. Remarkable instances of such
disappearances of brides had been known. Evil spirits were wont to lurk
about such nights and to inflict mankind with all sorts of sorceries."
Strange as this explanation may seem, there were many who believed it at
this very moment, and, most of all, Selde Klattaner herself. But it was
only for a moment, for she at once exclaimed:

"No, no, my good people, she is gone; I know she is gone!"

Now for the first time many of them, especially the mothers, felt
particularly uneasy, and anxiously called their daughters to them. Only
a few showed courage, and urged that they must search and search, even
if they had to turn aside the river Iser a hundred times. They urgently
pressed on, called for torches and lanterns, and started forth. The
cowardly ran after them up and down the stairs. Before any one perceived
it the room was entirely forsaken.

Ruben Klattaner stood in the hall entry below, and let the people hurry
past him without exchanging a word with any. Bitter disappointment and
fear had almost crazed him. One of the last to stay in the room above
with Selde was, strange to say, Leb Narr, of Prague. After all had
departed, he approached the miserable mother, and, in a tone least
becoming his general manner, inquired:

"Tell me, now, Mrs. Selde, did she not wish to have 'him'?"

"Whom? whom?" cried Selde, with renewed alarm, when she found herself
alone with the fool.

"I mean," said Leb, in a most sympathetic manner, approaching still
nearer to Selde, "that maybe you had to make your daughter marry him."

"Make? And have we, then, made her?" moaned Selde, staring at the fool
with a look of uncertainty.

"Then nobody needs to search for her," replied the fool, with a
sympathetic laugh, at the same time retreating. "It's better to leave
her where she is."

Without saying thanks or good-night, he was gone.

Meanwhile the cause of all this disturbance had arrived at the end of
her flight.

Close by the synagogue was situated the house of the rabbi. It was built
in an angle of a very narrow street, set in a framework of tall
shade-trees. Even by daylight it was dismal enough. At night it was
almost impossible for a timid person to approach it, for people declared
that the low supplications of the dead could be heard in the dingy house
of God when at night they took the rolls of the law from the ark to
summon their members by name.

Through this retired street passed, or rather ran, at this hour a shy
form. Arriving at the dwelling of the rabbi, she glanced backward to see
whether any one was following her. But all was silent and gloomy enough
about her. A pale light issued from one of the windows of the synagogue;
it came from the "eternal lamp" hanging in front of the ark of the
covenant. But at this moment it seemed to her as if a supernatural eye
was gazing upon her. Thoroughly affrighted, she seized the little iron
knocker of the door and struck it gently. But the throb of her beating
heart was even louder, more violent, than this blow. After a pause,
footsteps were heard passing slowly along the hallway.

The rabbi had not occupied this lonely house a long time. His
predecessor, almost a centenarian in years, had been laid to rest a few
months before. The new rabbi had been called, from a distant part of the
country. He was unmarried, and in the prime of life. No one had known
him before his coming. But his personal nobility and the profundity of
his scholarship made up for his deficiency in years. An aged mother had
accompanied him from their distant home, and she took the place of wife
and child.

"Who is there?" asked the rabbi, who had been busy at his desk even at
this late hour and thus had not missed hearing the knocker.

"It is I," the figure without responded, almost inaudibly.

"Speak louder, if you wish me to hear you," replied the rabbi.

"It is I, Ruben Klattaner's daughter," she repeated.

The name seemed to sound strange to the rabbi. He as yet knew too few of
his congregation to understand that this very day he performed the
marriage ceremony of the person who had just repeated her name.
Therefore he called out, after a moment's pause, "What do you wish so
late at night?"

"Open the door, rabbi," she answered, pleadingly, "or I shall die at
once!"

The bolt was pushed back. Something gleaming, rustling, glided past the
rabbi into the dusky hall. The light of the candle in his hand was not
sufficient to allow him to descry it. Before he had time to address her,
she had vanished past him and had disappeared through the open door
into the room. Shaking his head, the rabbi again bolted the door.

On reentering the room he saw a woman's form sitting in the chair which
he usually occupied. She had her back turned to him. Her head was bent
low over her breast. Her golden wedding-hood, with its shading lace, was
pulled down over her forehead. Courageous and pious as the rabbi was, he
could not rid himself of a feeling of terror.

"Who are you?" he demanded, in a loud tone, as if its sound alone would
banish the presence of this being that seemed to him at this moment to
be the production of all the enchantments of evil spirits.

She raised herself, and cried in a voice that seemed to come from the
agony of a human being:

"Do you not know me--me, whom you married a few hours since under the
_chuppe_ (marriage-canopy) to a husband?"

On hearing this familiar voice the rabbi stood speechless. He gazed at
the young woman. Now, indeed, he must regard her as one bereft of
reason, rather than as a specter.

"Well, if you are she," he stammered out, after a pause, for it was with
difficulty that he found words to answer, "why are you here and not in
the place where you belong?"

"I know no other place to which I belong more than here where I now am!"
she answered, severely.

These words puzzled the rabbi still more. Is it really an insane woman
before him? He must have thought so, for he now addressed her in a
gentle tone of voice, as we do those suffering from this kind of
sickness, in order not to excite her, and said:

"The place where you belong, my daughter, is in the house of your
parents, and, since you have to-day been made a wife, your place is in
your husband's house."

The young woman muttered something which failed to reach the rabbi's
ear. Yet he only continued to think that he saw before him some poor
unfortunate whose mind was deranged. After a pause, he added, in a still
gentler tone: "What is your name, then, my child?"

"God, god," she moaned, in the greatest anguish, "he does not even yet
know my name!"

"How should I know you," he continued, apologetically, "for I am a
stranger in this place?"

This tender remark seemed to have produced the desired effect upon her
excited mind.

"My name is Veile," she said, quietly, after a pause.

The rabbi quickly perceived that he had adopted the right tone towards
his mysterious guest.

"Veile," he said, approaching nearer her, "what do you wish of me?"

"Rabbi, I have a great sin resting heavily upon my heart," she replied
despondently. "I do not know what to do."

"What can you have done," inquired the rabbi, with a tender look, "that
cannot be discussed at any other time than just now? Will you let me
advise you, Veile?"

"No, no," she cried again, violently, "I will not be advised. I see, I
know what oppresses me. Yes, I can grasp it by the hand, it lies so near
before me. Is that what you call to be advised?"

"Very well," returned the rabbi, seeing that this was the very way to
get the young woman to talk--"very well, I say, you are not imagining
anything. I believe that you have greatly sinned. Have you come here
then to confess this sin? Do your parents or your husband know anything
about it?"

"Who is my husband?" she interrupted him, impetuously.

Thoughts welled up in the rabbi's heart like a tumultuous sea in which
opposing conjectures cross and recross each other's course. Should he
speak with her as with an ordinary sinner?

"Were you, perhaps, forced to be married?" he inquired, as quietly as
possible, after a pause.

A suppressed sob, a strong inward struggle, manifesting itself in the
whole trembling body, was the only answer to this question.

"Tell me, my child," said the rabbi, encouragingly.

In such tones as the rabbi had never before heard, so strange, so
surpassing any human sounds, the young woman began:

"Yes, rabbi, I will speak, even though I know that I shall never go from
this place alive, which would be the very best thing for me! No, rabbi,
I was not forced to be married. My parents have never once said to me
'you must,' but my own will, my own desire, rather, has always been
supreme. My husband is the son of a rich man in the community. To enter
his family was to be made the first lady in the _gasse_, to sit buried
in gold and silver. And that very thing, nothing else, was what
infatuated me with him. It was for that that I forced myself, my heart
and will, to be married to him, hard as it was for me. But in my
innermost heart I detested him. The more he loved me, the more I hated
him. But the gold and silver had an influence over me. More and more
they cried to me, 'You will be the first lady in the _gasse_!'"

"Continue," said the rabbi, when she ceased, almost exhausted by these
words.

"What more shall I tell you, rabbi?" she began again. "I was never a
liar, when a child, or older, and yet during my whole engagement it has
seemed to me as if a big, gigantic lie had followed me step by step.
I have seen it on every side of me. But to-day, when I stood under the
_chuppe_, rabbi, and he took the ring from his finger and put it on
mine, and when I had to dance at my own wedding with him, whom I now
recognized, now for the first time, as the lie, and--when they led me
away----"

This sincere confession escaping from the lips of the young woman, she
sobbed aloud and bowed her head still deeper over her breast. The rabbi
gazed upon her in silence. No insane woman ever spoke like that! Only a
soul conscious of its own sin, but captivated by a mysterious power,
could suffer like this!

It was not sympathy which he felt with her; it was much more a living
over the sufferings of the woman. In spite of the confused story, it was
all clear to the rabbi. The cause of the flight from the father's house
at this hour also required no explanation. "I know what you mean," he
longed to say, but he could only find words to say: "Speak further,
Veile!"

The young woman turned towards him. He had not yet seen her face. The
golden hood with the shading lace hung deeply over it.

"Have I not told you everything?" she said, with a flush of scorn.

"Everything?" repeated the rabbi, inquiringly. He only said this,
moreover, through embarrassment.

"Do you tell me now," she cried, at once passionately and mildly, "what
am I to do?"

"Veile!" exclaimed the rabbi, entertaining now, for the first time, a
feeling of repugnance for this confidential interview.

"Tell me now!" she pleaded; and before the rabbi could prevent it the
young woman threw herself down at his feet and clasped his knees in her
arms. This hasty act had loosened the golden wedding-hood from her head,
and thus exposed her face to view, a face of remarkable beauty.

So overcome was the young rabbi by the sight of it that he had to shade
his eyes with his hands, as if before a sudden flash of lightning.

"Tell me now, what shall I do?" she cried again. "Do you think that I
have come from my parents' home merely to return again without help? You
alone in the world must tell me. Look at me! I have kept all my hair
just as God gave it me. It has never been touched by the shears. Should
I, then, do anything to please my husband? I am no wife. I will not be a
wife! Tell me, tell me, what am I to do?"

"Arise, arise," bade the rabbi; but his voice quivered, sounded almost
painful.

"Tell me first," she gasped; "I will not rise till then!"

"How can I tell you?" he moaned, almost inaudibly.

"Naphtali!" shrieked the kneeling woman.

But the rabbi staggered backward. The room seemed ablaze before him,
like a bright fire. A sharp cry rang from his breast, as if one
suffering from some painful wound had been seized by a rough hand. In
his hurried attempt to free himself from the embrace of the young
woman, who still clung to his knees, it chanced that her head struck
heavily against the floor.

"Naphtali!" she cried once again.

"Silence, silence," groaned the rabbi, pressing both hands against his
head.

And still again she called out this name, but not with that agonizing
cry. It sounded rather like a commingling of exultation and lamentation.

And again he demanded, "Silence! silence!" but this time so imperiously,
so forcibly, that the young woman lay on the floor as if conjured, not
daring to utter a single word.

The rabbi paced almost wildly up and down the room. There must have been
a hard, terrible struggle in his breast. It seemed to the one lying on
the floor that she heard him sigh from the depths of his soul. Then his
pacing became calmer; but it did not last long. The fierce conflict
again assailed him. His step grew hurried; it echoed loudly through the
awful stillness of the room. Suddenly he neared the young woman, who
seemed to lie there scarcely breathing. He stopped in front of her. Had
any one seen the face of the rabbi at this moment the expression on it
would have filled him with terror. There was a marvelous tranquillity
overlying it, the tranquillity of a struggle for life or death.

"Listen to me now, Veile," he began, slowly. "I will talk with you."

"I listen, rabbi," she whispered.

"But do you hear me well?"

"Only speak," she returned.

"But will you do what I advise you? Will you not oppose it? For I am
going to say something that will terrify you."

"I will do anything that you say. Only tell me," she moaned.

"Will you swear?"

"I will," she groaned.

"No, do not swear yet, until you have heard me," he cried. "I will not
force you."

This time came no answer.

"Hear me, then, daughter of Ruben Klattaner," he began, after a pause.
"You have a twofold sin upon your soul, and each is so great, so
criminal, that it can only be forgiven by severe punishment. First you
permitted yourself to be infatuated by the gold and silver, and then you
forced your heart to lie. With the lie you sought to deceive the man,
even though he had intrusted you with his all when he made you his wife.
A lie is truly a great sin! Streams of water cannot drown them. They
make men false and hateful to themselves. The worst that has been
committed in the world was led in by a lie. That is the one sin."

"I know, I know," sobbed the young woman.

"Now hear me further," began the rabbi again, with a wavering voice,
after a short pause. "You have committed a still greater sin than the
first. You have not only deceived your husband, but you have also
destroyed the happiness of another person. You could have spoken, and
you did not. For life you have robbed him of his happiness, his light,
his joy, but you did not speak. What can he now do, when he knows what
has been lost to him?"

"Naphtali!" cried the young woman.

"Silence! silence! do not let that name pass your lips again," he
demanded, violently. "The more you repeat it the greater becomes your
sin. Why did you not speak when you could have spoken? God can never
easily forgive you that. To be silent, to keep secret in one's breast
what would have made another man happier than the mightiest monarch!
Thereby you have made him more than unhappy. He will nevermore have the
desire to be happy. Veile, God in heaven cannot forgive you for that."


"Silence! silence!" groaned the wretched woman.

"No, Veile," he continued, with a stronger voice, "let me talk now. You
are certainly willing to hear me speak? Listen to me. You must do severe
penance for this sin, the twofold sin which rests upon your head. God is
long-suffering and merciful. He will perhaps look down upon your misery,
and will blot out your guilt from the great book of transgressions. But
you must become penitent. Hear, now, what it shall be."

The rabbi paused. He was on the point of saying the severest thing that
had ever passed his lips.

"You were silent, Veile," then he cried, "when you should have spoken.
Be silent now forever to all men and to yourself. From the moment you
leave this house, until I grant it, you must be dumb; you dare not let a
loud word pass from your mouth. Will you undergo this penance?"

"I will do all you say," moaned the young woman.

"Will you have strength to do it?" he asked, gently.

"I shall be as silent as death," she replied.

"And one thing more I have to say to you," he continued. "You are the
wife of your husband. Return home and be a Jewish wife."

"I understand you," she sobbed in reply.

"Go to your home now, and bring peace to your parents and husband. The
time will come when you may speak, when your sin will be forgiven you.
Till then bear what has been laid upon you."

"May I say one thing more?" she cried, lifting up her head.

"Speak," he said.

"Naphtali!"

The rabbi covered his eyes with one hand, with the other motioned her to
be silent. But she grasped his hand, drew it to her lips. Hot tears fell
upon it.

"Go now," he sobbed, completely broken down.

She let go the hand. The rabbi had seized the candle, but she had
already passed him, and glided through the dark hall. The door was left
open. The rabbi locked it again.






Previous: The House And The Brain



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