by Israel Zangwill

Cast off among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave. Whom Thou rememberest no more, and they are cut off from Thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me and Thou hast afflicted me with all Thy waves. Thou hast put mine acquaintance far from me; Thou hast made me an abomination unto them; I am shut up and I cannot come forth. Mine eye wasteth away by reason of affliction. I have called daily upon Thee, O Lord, I have spread forth my hands unto Thee. - Eighty-eighth Psalm.

There was a restless air about the Refuge. In a few minutes the friends of the patients would be admitted. The Incurables would hear the latest gossip of the Ghetto, for the world was still very much with these abortive lives, avid of sensations, Jewish to the end. It was an unpretentious institution - two corner houses knocked together - near the east lung of London; supported mainly by the poor at a penny a week, and scarcely recognized by the rich; so that paraplegia and vertigo and rachitis and a dozen other hopeless diseases knocked hopelessly at its narrow portals. But it was a model institution all the same, and the patients lacked for nothing except freedom from pain. There was even a miniature synagogue for their spiritual needs, with the women's compartment religiously railed off from the men's, as if these grotesque ruins of sex might still distract each other's devotions.

Yet the Rabbis knew human nature. The sprightly, hydrocephalous, paralytic Leah had had the chair she inhabited carried down into the men's sitting-room to beguile the moments, and was smiling fascinatingly upon the deaf blind man, who had the Braille Bible at his fingers' ends, and read on as stolidly as St. Anthony. Mad Mo had strolled vacuously into the ladies' ward, and, indifferent to the pretty white-aproned Christian nurses, was loitering by the side of a weird, hatchet-faced cripple with a stiletto-shaped nose supporting big spectacles. Like most of the patients she was up and dressed; only a few of the white pallets ranged along the walls were occupied.

"Leah says she'd be quite happy if she could walk like you," said Mad Mo in complimentary tones. "She always says Milly walks so beautiful. She says you can walk the whole length of the garden." Milly, huddled in her chair, smiled miserably.

"You're crying again, Rebecca," protested a dark-eyed, bright-faced dwarf in excellent English, as she touched her friend's withered hand. "You are in the blues again. Why, that page is all blistered."

"No - I feel so nice," said the sad-eyed Russian in her quaint musical accent. "You sall not tink I cry because I am not happy. Ven I read sad tings - like my life - den only I am happy."

The dwarf gave a short laugh that made her pendent earrings oscillate. "I thought you were brooding over your love affairs," she said.

"Me!" cried Rebecca. "I lost too young my leg to be in love. No, it is Psalm eighty-eight dat I brood over. 'I am afflicted and ready to die from my yout' up.' Yes, I vas only a girl ven I had to go to Konigsberg to find a doctor to cut off my leg. 'Lover and friend hast dou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness!'"

Her face shone ecstatic.

"Hush!" whispered the dwarf, with a warning nudge and a slight nod in the direction of a neighbouring waterbed on which a pale, rigid, middle-aged woman lay, with shut sleepless eyes.

"Se cannot understand Englis'," said the Russian girl proudly.

"Don't be so sure, look how the nurses here have picked up Yiddish!"

Rebecca shook her head incredulously. "Sarah is a Polis' woman," she said. "For years dey are in England and dey learn noting."

"Ick bin krank! Krank! Krank!" suddenly moaned a shrivelled Polish grandmother - an advanced centenarian - as if to corroborate the girl's contention. She was squatting monkey-like on her bed, every now and again murmuring her querulous burden of sickness, and jabbering at the nurses to shut all the windows. Fresh air she objected to as vehemently as if it were butter or some other heterodox dainty.

Hard upon her crooning came bloodcurdling screams from the room above, sounds that reminded the visitor he was not in a "Barnum" show, that the monstrosities were genuine. Pretty Sister Margaret - not yet indurated - thrilled with pity, as before her inner vision rose the ashen perspiring face of the palsied sufferer, who sat quivering all the long day in an easy-chair, her swollen jelly-like hands resting on cotton-wool pads, an air-pillow between her knees, her whole frame racked at frequent intervals by fierce spasms of pain, her only diversion faint blurred reflections of episodes of the street in the glass of a framed picture; yet morbidly suspicious of slow poison in her drink, and cursed with an incurable vitality.

Meantime Sarah lay silent, bitter thoughts moving beneath her white, impassive face like salt tides below a frozen surface. It was a strong, stern face, telling of a present of pain, and faintly hinting at a past of prettiness. She seemed alone in the populated ward, and indeed the world was bare for her. Most of her life had been spent in the Warsaw Ghetto, where she was married at sixteen, nineteen years before. Her only surviving son - a youth whom the English atmosphere had not improved - had sailed away to trade with Africans. And her husband had not been to see her for a fortnight!

When the visitors began to arrive, her torpor vanished. She eagerly raised the half of her that was not paralyzed, partially sitting up. But gradually expectation died out of her large gray eyes. There was a buzz of talk in the room - the hydrocephalous girl was the gay centre of a group; the Polish grandmother who cursed her grandchildren when they didn't come and when they did, was denouncing their neglect of her to their faces; everybody had somebody to kiss or quarrel with. One or two acquaintances approached the bed-ridden wife, too, but she would speak no word, too proud to ask after her husband, and wincing under the significant glances occasionally cast in her direction. By and by she had the red screen placed round her bed, which gave her artificial walls and a quasi-privacy. Her husband would know where to look for her -

"Woe is me!" wailed her centenarian country-woman, rocking to and fro. "What sin have I committed to get such grandchildren? You only come to see if the old grandmother isn't dead yet. So sick! So sick! So sick!"

Twilight filled the wards. The white beds looked ghostly in the darkness. The last visitor departed. Sarah's husband had not yet come.

"He is not well, Mrs. Kretznow," Sister Margaret ventured to say in her best Yiddish. "Or he is busy working. Work is not so slack any more." Alone in the institution she shared Sarah's ignorance of the Kretznow scandal. Talk of it died before her youth and sweetness.

"He would have written," said Sarah sternly. "He is awearied of me. I have lain here a year. Job's curse is on me."

"Shall I to him" - Sister Margaret paused to excogitate the Yiddish word - "write?"

"No! He hears me knocking at his heart."

They had flashes of strange savage poetry, these crude yet complex souls. Sister Margaret, who was still liable to be startled, murmured feebly, "But - "

"Leave me in peace!" with a cry like that of a wounded animal.

The matron gently touched the novice's arm and drew her away. "I will write to him," she whispered.

Night fell, but sleep fell only for some. Sarah Kretznow tossed in a hell of loneliness. Ah, surely her husband had not forgotten her - surely she would not lie thus till death - that far-off death her strong religious instinct would forbid her hastening! She had gone into the Refuge to save him the constant sight of her helplessness and the cost of her keep. Was she now to be cut off forever from the sight of his strength?

The next day he came - by special invitation. His face was sallow, rimmed with swarthy hair; his under lip was sensuous. He hung his head, half veiling the shifty eyes.

Sister Margaret ran to tell his wife. Sarah's face sparkled.

"Put up the screen!" she murmured, and in its shelter drew her husband's head to her bosom and pressed her lips to his hair.

But he, surprised into indiscretion, murmured: "I thought thou wast dying."

A beautiful light came into the gray eyes.

"Thy heart told thee right, Herzel, my life. I was dying - for a sight of thee."

"But the matron wrote to me pressingly," he blurted out. He felt her breast heave convulsively under his face; with her hands she thrust him away.

"God's fool that I am - I should have known; to-day is not visiting day. They have compassion on me - they see my sorrows - it is public talk."

His pulse seemed to stop. "They have talked to thee of me," he faltered.

"I did not ask their pity. But they saw how I suffered - one cannot hide one's heart."

"They have no right to talk," he muttered in sulky trepidation.

"They have every right," she rejoined sharply. "If thou hadst come to see me even once - why hast thou not?"

"I - I - have been travelling in the country with cheap jewellery. The tailoring is so slack."

"Look me in the eyes! Law of Moses? No, it is a lie. God shall forgive thee. Why hast thou not come?"

"I have told thee."

"Tell that to the Sabbath Fire-Woman! Why hast thou not come? Is it so very much to spare me an hour or two a week? If I could go out like some of the patients, I would come to thee. But I have tired thee out utterly - "

"No, no, Sarah," he murmured uneasily.

"Then why - ?"

He was covered with shame and confusion. His face was turned away. "I did not like to come," he said desperately.

"Why not?" Crimson patches came and went on her white cheeks; her heart beat madly.

"Surely thou canst understand!"

"Understand what? I speak of green and thou answerest of blue!"

"I answer as thou askest."

"Thou answerest not at all."

"No answer is also an answer," he snarled, driven to bay. "Thou understandest well enough. Thyself saidst it was public talk."

"Ah - h - h!" in a stifled shriek of despair. Her intuition divined everything. The shadowy, sinister suggestions she had so long beat back by force of will took form and substance. Her head fell back on the pillow, the eyes closed.

He stayed on, bending awkwardly over her.

"So sick! So sick! So sick!" moaned the wizened grandmother.

"Thou sayest they have compassion on thee in their talk," he murmured at last, half deprecatingly, half resentfully; "have they none on me?"

Her silence chilled him. "But thou hast compassion, Sarah," he urged. "Thou understandest."

Presently she reopened her eyes.

"Thou art not gone?" she murmured.

"No - thou seest I am not tired of thee, Sarah, my life! Only - "

"Wilt thou wash my skin, and not make me wet?" she interrupted bitterly. "Go home. Go home to her!"

"I will not go home."

"Then go under like Korah."

He shuffled out. That night her lonely hell was made lonelier by the opening of a peep-hole into Paradise - a paradise of Adam and Eve and forbidden fruit. For days she preserved a stony silence toward the sympathy of the inmates. Of what avail words against the flames of jealousy in which she writhed?

He lingered about the passage on the next visiting day, vaguely remorseful, but she would not see him. So he went away, vaguely indignant, and his new housemate comforted him, and he came no more.

When you lie on your back all day and all night you have time to think, especially if you do not sleep. A situation presents itself in many lights from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn. One such light flashed on the paradise, and showed it to her as but the portico of purgatory. Her husband would be damned in the next world, even as she was in this. His soul would be cut off from among its people.

On this thought she brooded till it loomed horribly in her darkness. And at last she dictated a letter to the matron, asking Herzel to come and see her.

He obeyed, and stood shame-faced at her side, fidgeting with his peaked cap. Her hard face softened momentarily at the sight of him, her bosom heaved, suppressed sobs swelled her throat.

"Thou hast sent for me?" he murmured.

"Yes - perhaps thou didst again imagine I was on my death-bed!" she replied, with bitter irony.

"It is not so, Sarah. I would have come of myself - only thou wouldst not see my face."

"I have seen it for twenty years - it is another's turn now."

He was silent.

"It is true all the same - I am on my death-bed."

He started. A pang shot through his breast. He darted an agitated glance at her face.

"Is it not so? In this bed I shall die. But God knows how many years I shall lie in it."

Her calm gave him an uncanny shudder.

"And till the Holy One, blessed be He, takes me, thou wilt live a daily sinner."

"I am not to blame. God has stricken me. I am a young man."

"Thou art to blame!" Her eyes flashed fire. "Blasphemer! Life is sweet to thee - yet perchance thou wilt die before me."

His face grew livid. "I am a young man," he repeated tremulously.

"Dost thou forget what Rabbi Eliezer said? 'Repent one day before thy death' - that is to-day, for who knows?"

"What wouldst thou have me do?"

"Give up - "

"No, no," he interrupted. "It is useless. I cannot. I am so lonely."

"Give up," she repeated inexorably, "thy wife."

"What sayest thou? My wife! But she is not my wife. Thou art my wife."

"Even so. Give me up. Give me Get (divorce)."

His breath failed, his heart thumped at the suggestion.

"Give thee Get!" he whispered.

"Yes. Why didst thou not send me a bill of divorcement when I left thy home for this?"

He averted his face. "I thought of it," he stammered. "And then - "

"And then?" He seemed to see a sardonic glitter in the gray eyes.

"I - I was afraid."

"Afraid!" She laughed in grim mirthlessness. "Afraid of a bed-ridden woman!"

"I was afraid it would make thee unhappy." The sardonic gleam melted into softness, then became more terrible than before.

"And so thou hast made me happy instead!"

"Stab me not more than I merit. I did not think people would be cruel enough to tell thee."

"Thine own lips told me."

"Nay - by my soul," he cried, startled.

"Thine eyes told me, then."

"I feared so," he said, turning them away. "When she came into my house, I - I dared not go to see thee - that was why I did not come, though I always meant to, Sarah, my life. I feared to look thee in the eyes. I foresaw they would read the secret in mine - so I was afraid."

"Afraid!" she repeated bitterly. "Afraid I would scratch them out! Nay, they are good eyes. Have they not seen my heart? For twenty years they have been my light.... Those eyes and mine have seen our children die."

Spasmodic sobs came thickly now. Swallowing them down, she said, "And she - did she not ask thee to give me Get?"

"Nay, she was willing to go without. She said thou wast as one dead - look not thus at me. It is the will of God. It was for thy sake, too, Sarah, that she did not become my wife by law. She, too, would have spared thee the knowledge of her."

"Yes; ye have both tender hearts! She is a mother in Israel, and thou art a spark of our father Abraham."

"Thou dost not believe what I say?"

"I can disbelieve it, and still remain a Jewess."

Then, satire boiling over into passion, she cried vehemently, "We are threshing empty ears. Thinkest thou I am not aware of the Judgments - I, the granddaughter of Reb Shloumi (the memory of the righteous for a blessing)? Thinkest thou I am ignorant thou couldst not obtain a Get against me - me who have borne thee children, who have wrought no evil? I speak not of the Beth-Din, for in this impious country they are loath to follow the Judgments, and from the English Beth-Din thou wouldst find it impossible to obtain the Get in any case, even though thou didst not marry me in this country, nor according to its laws. I speak of our own Rabbonim - thou knowest even the Maggid would not give thee Get merely because thy wife is bed-ridden. That - that is what thou wast afraid of."

"But if thou art willing, - " he replied eagerly, ignoring her scornful scepticism.

His readiness to accept the sacrifice was salt upon her wounds.

"Thou deservest I should let thee burn in the lowest Gehenna," she cried.

"The Almighty is more merciful than thou," he answered. "It is He that hath ordained it is not good for man to live alone. And yet men shun me - people talk - and she - she may leave me to my loneliness again." His voice faltered with self-pity. "Here thou hast friends, nurses, visitors. I - I have nothing. True, thou didst bear me children, but they withered as by the evil eye. My only son is across the ocean; he hath no love for me or thee."

The recital of their common griefs softened her toward him.

"Go!" she whispered. "Go and send me the Get. Go to the Maggid, he knew my grandfather. He is the man to arrange it for thee with his friends. Tell him it is my wish."

"God shall reward thee. How can I thank thee for giving thy consent?"

"What else have I to give thee, my Herzel, I who eat the bread of strangers? Truly says the Proverb, 'When one begs of a beggar the Herr God laughs!'"

"I will send thee the Get as soon as possible."

"Thou art right, I am a thorn in thine eye. Pluck me out quickly."

"Thou wilt not refuse the Get, when it comes?" he replied apprehensively.

"Is it not a wife's duty to submit?" she asked with grim irony. "Nay, have no fear. Thou shalt have no difficulty in serving the Get upon me. I will not throw it in the messenger's face.... And thou wilt marry her?"

"Assuredly. People will no longer talk. And she must needs bide with me. It is my one desire."

"It is mine likewise. Thou must atone and save thy soul."

He lingered uncertainly.

"And thy dowry?" he said at last. "Thou wilt not make claim for compensation?"

"Be easy - I scarce know where my Cesubah (marriage certificate) is. What need have I of money? As thou sayest, I have all I want. I do not even desire to purchase a grave - lying already so long in a charity-grave. The bitterness is over."

He shivered. "Thou art very good to me," he said. "Good-bye."

He stooped down - she drew the bedclothes frenziedly over her face.

"Kiss me not!"

"Good-bye, then," he stammered. "God be good to thee!" He moved away.

"Herzel!" She had uncovered her face with a despairing cry. He slouched back toward her, perturbed, dreading she would retract.

"Do not send it - bring it thyself. Let me take it from thy hand."

A lump rose in his throat. "I will bring it," he said brokenly.

The long days of pain grew longer - the summer was coming, harbingered by sunny days that flooded the wards with golden mockery. The evening Herzel brought the Get, Sarah could have read every word on the parchment plainly, if her eyes had not been blinded by tears.

She put out her hand toward her husband, groping for the document he bore. He placed it in her burning palm. The fingers closed automatically upon it, then relaxed, and the paper fluttered to the floor. But Sarah was no longer a wife.

Herzel was glad to hide his burning face by stooping for the fallen bill of divorcement. He was long picking it up. When his eyes met hers again, she had propped herself up in her bed. Two big round tears trickled down her cheeks, but she received the parchment calmly and thrust it into her bosom.

"Let it lie there," she said stonily, "there where thy head hath lain. Blessed be the true Judge."

"Thou art not angry with me, Sarah?"

"Why should I be angry? She was right - I am but a dead woman. Only no one may say Kaddish for me, no one may pray for the repose of my soul. I am not angry, Herzel. A wife should light the Sabbath candles, and throw in the fire the morsel of dough. But thy home was desolate, there was none to do these things. Here I have all I need. Now thou wilt be happy, too."

"Thou hast been a good wife, Sarah," he murmured, touched.

"Recall not the past; we are strangers now," she said, with recurrent harshness.

"But I may come and see thee - sometimes." He had stirrings of remorse as the moment of final parting came.

"Wouldst thou reopen my wounds?"

"Farewell, then."

He put out his hand timidly; she seized it and held it passionately.

"Yes, yes, Herzel! Do not leave me! Come and see me here - as a friend, an acquaintance, a man I used to know. The others are thoughtless - they forget me - I shall lie here - perhaps the Angel of Death will forget me, too." Her grasp tightened till it hurt him acutely.

"Yes, I will come - I will come often," he said, with a sob of physical pain.

Her clasp loosened, she dropped his hand.

"But not till thou art married," she said.

"Be it so."

"Of course thou must have a 'still wedding.' The English synagogue will not marry thee."

"The Maggid will marry me."

"Thou wilt show me her Cesubah when thou comest next?"

"Yes - I will contrive to get it from her."

A week passed - he brought the marriage certificate.

Outwardly she was calm. She glanced through it. "God be thanked," she said, and handed it back. They chatted of indifferent things, of the doings of the neighbours. When he was going, she said, "Thou wilt come again?"

"Yes, I will come again."

"Thou art so good to spend thy time on me thus. But thy wife - will she not be jealous?"

He stared, bewildered by her strange, eerie moments.

"Jealous of thee?" he murmured.

She took it in its contemptuous sense and her white lips twitched. But she only said, "Is she aware thou hast come here?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "Do I know? I have not told her."

"Tell her."

"As thou wishest."

There was a pause. Presently the woman spoke.

"Wilt thou not bring her to see me? Then she will know that thou hast no love left for me - "

He flinched as at a stab. After a painful moment he said: "Art thou in earnest?"

"I am no marriage-jester. Bring her to me - will she not come to see an invalid? It is a mitzvah (good deed) to visit the sick. It will wipe out her trespass."

"She shall come."

She came. Sarah stared at her for an instant with poignant curiosity, then her eyelids drooped to shut out the dazzle of her youth and freshness. Herzel's wife moved awkwardly and sheepishly. But she was beautiful - a buxom, comely country girl from a Russian village, with a swelling bust and a cheek rosy with health and confusion.

Sarah's breast was racked by a thousand needles. But she found breath at last.

"God bless - thee, Mrs. - Kretznow," she said gaspingly.

She took the girl's hand.

"How good thou art to come and see a sick creature."

"My husband willed it," the new wife said in deprecation. She had a simple, stupid air that did not seem wholly due to the constraint of the strange situation.

"Thou wast right to obey. Be good to him, my child. For three years he waited on me, when I lay helpless. He has suffered much. Be good to him!"

With an impulsive movement she drew the girl's head down to her and kissed her on the lips. Then with an anguished cry of "Leave me for to-day," she jerked the blanket over her face and burst into tears. She heard the couple move hesitatingly away. The girl's beauty shone on her through the opaque coverings.

"O God!" she wailed. "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let me die now. For the merits of the Patriarchs take me soon, take me soon."

Her vain passionate prayer, muffled by the bedclothes, was wholly drowned by ear-piercing shrieks from the ward above - screams of agony mingled with half-articulate accusations of attempted poisoning - the familiar paroxysm of the palsied woman who clung to life.

The thrill passed again through Sister Margaret. She uplifted her sweet humid eyes.

"Ah, Christ!" she whispered. "If I could die for her!"

End of Incurable by Israel Zangwill