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The Bearer Of Burdens
by [?]


When her Fanny did at last marry, Natalya–as everybody called the old clo’-woman–was not over-pleased at the bargain. Natalya had imagined beforehand that for a matronly daughter of twenty-three, almost past the marrying age, any wedding would be a profitable transaction. But when a husband actually presented himself, all the old dealer’s critical maternity was set a-bristle. Henry Elkman, she insisted, had not a true Jewish air. There was in the very cut of his clothes a subtle suggestion of going to the races.

It was futile of Fanny to insist that Henry had never gone to the races, that his duties as bookkeeper of S. Cohn’s Clothing Emporium prevented him from going to the races, and that the cut of his clothes was intended to give tone to his own establishment.

‘Ah, yes, he does not take thee to the races,’ she insisted in Yiddish. ‘But all these young men with check suits and flowers in their buttonholes bet and gamble and go to the bad, and their wives and children fall back on their old mothers for support.’

‘I shall not fall back on thee,’ Fanny retorted angrily.

‘And on whom else? A pretty daughter! Would you fall back on a stranger? Or perhaps you are thinking of the Board of Guardians!’ And a shudder of humiliation traversed her meagre frame. For at sixty she was already meagre, had already the appearance of the venerable grandmother she was now to become, save that her hair, being only a pious wig, remained rigidly young and black. Life had always gone hard with her. Since her husband’s death, when Fanny was a child, she had scraped together a scanty livelihood by selling odds and ends for a mite more than she gave for them. At the back doors of villas she haggled with miserly mistresses, gentlewoman and old-clo’ woman linked by their common love of a bargain.

Natalya would sniff contemptuously at the muddle of ancient finery on the floor and spurn it with her foot. ‘How can I sell that?’ she would inquire. ‘Last time I gave you too much–I lost by you.’ And having wrung the price down to the lowest penny, she would pay it in clanking silver and copper from a grimy leather bag she wore hidden in her bosom; then, cramming the goods hastily into the maw of her sack, she would stagger joyously away. The men’s garments she would modestly sell to a second-hand shop, but the women’s she cleaned and turned and transmogrified and sold in Petticoat Lane of a Sunday morning; scavenger, earth-worm, and alchemist, she was a humble agent in the great economic process by which cast-off clothes renew their youth and freshness, and having set in their original sphere rise endlessly on other social horizons.

Of English she had, when she began, only enough to bargain with; but in one year of forced intercourse with English folk after her husband’s death she learnt more than in her quarter of a century of residence in the Spitalfields Ghetto.

Fanny’s function had been to keep house and prepare the evening meal, but the old clo’-woman’s objection to her marriage was not selfish. She was quite ready to light her own fire and broil her own bloater after the day’s tramp. Fanny had, indeed, offered to have her live in the elegant two-roomed cottage near King’s Cross which Henry was furnishing. She could sleep in a convertible bureau in the parlour. But the old woman’s independent spirit and her mistrust of her son-in-law made her prefer the humble Ghetto garret. Against all reasoning, she continued to feel something antipathetic in Henry’s clothes and even in his occupation–perhaps it was really the subconscious antagonism of the old clo’ and the new, subtly symbolic of the old generation and the smart new world springing up to tread it down. Henry himself was secretly pleased at her refusal. In the first ardours of courtship he had consented to swallow even the Polish crone who had strangely mothered his buxom British Fanny, but for his own part he had a responsive horror of old clo’; felt himself of the great English world of fashion and taste, intimately linked with the burly Britons whose girths he recorded from his high stool at his glass-environed desk, and in touch even with the lion comique, the details of whose cheap but stylish evening dress he entered with a proud flourish.