Excerpt from General Well’ngone in Love: A Jewish Regency Mystery Story by Libi Astaire
IT WAS A COLD DAY made even colder by the gloomy event that had brought them all to the old Jewish cemetery on Alderney Road. Mendel Krinkle had died as he had lived, quietly and without complaint. He would have been mortified by the bother his funeral was causing. But it was not his fault that he had died in the early days of the month of February in the year 1814, when a Great Frost had settled upon London, the likes of which had not been seen since the times of England’s Merry Monarch, King Charles II.
The cold had frozen the River Thames into a solid block of ice, and Mr. Samuel Lyon, clockmaker to the fashionable world and a member of London’s Jewish community, felt like a block of ice himself as he stood shivering next to the open grave, where the lifeless body of Mendel Krinkle was reposing in its final resting place.
“It is not his fault,” Mr. Lyon muttered under his breath, which made wispy streaks in the air the moment it escaped from between his chattering lips. “A man does not choose the moment when he will die.”
Still, Mr. Lyon could not but hope that the prayers would be over soon, so that he and the other mourners could return to the cheerful fires burning in their respective homes. That sentiment was silently seconded by the pair of gravediggers who were standing off to the side, stamping their feet and blowing on their hands to keep warm, even though the fires burning in their homes would make a much smaller blaze.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ezra Melamed, a wealthy widower and one of the Jewish community’s leaders, was helping a child walk to where a shovel was sitting next to a mound of dirt. The child, whose name was Berel and who was about ten years of age, was the only son of Mendel Krinkle and the only mourner at the funeral who was related to the deceased. Berel’s mother had passed away the previous year. Since it was the Jewish custom that young ladies did not go to the cemetery, his older sister, Sarah, was saying her prayers at home.
Berel was trying to act like a grownup person, but the fierce cold had numbed his toes and the snow almost came up to his knees, which made it very difficult for him to walk. It would have been much easier if Mr. Melamed lifted the child and carried him over to where the shovel was waiting. But a child has his pride. And now Berel was an orphan, which gave him a special status in the community. Therefore, Mr. Melamed only lent the boy his arm when Berel stumbled. The others waited in patient silence.
At last, the child reached the shovel, but here there was yet another obstacle. Although freshly dug, the mound of earth had already grown hard in the frosty air. It therefore took Berel several attempts until he was able to break through the frozen barrier. But he persisted and when he had succeeded in filling the shovel with dirt he turned, carefully, and faced the open grave, with the shovel stretched out before him. He stood there for several moments, motionless except for the trembling that had seized his arms, fighting back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him. Then he turned the shovel and let the earth slide down into the void, where it landed with a hollow thud.
The other mourners took the shovel in turn. When the plain wooden casket was covered with earth, they recited the final prayer, the special Kaddish recited at the side of the grave. Yisgadal, v’yiskadash sh’may rabah: May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen) in the world that He will create anew, where He will revive the dead, build His Temple, deliver life, and rebuild the city of Jerusalem …
Sarah Krinkle knew she should be grateful—she could not remember when such a roaring fire had brightened the hearth and warmed their sitting room—but she was weary from all the fuss. She looked over to where Mrs. Miriam Baer, a member of the Jewish community’s burial society, was stirring a pot of soup and a flood of memories came back to her. Had it really been only a year since her mother had passed away? Mrs. Baer had come then as well and prepared the grief-stricken family a meal on that first awful day. Now the Jewish matron was back, only now their father was dead, too.
“I think I hear them,” said Mrs. Baer, turning her face toward the door.
A moment later Berel entered the room, followed by Mr. Melamed. Mrs. Baer went to the shivering boy and led him to the fire. But when she began to peel off the child’s damp scarf and cap, Sarah rushed over and threw a protective arm about her younger brother.
“I am his mother now, if you please, Mrs. Baer. I will take care of Berel.”
Mrs. Baer wordlessly returned to her pot of soup. She was not hurt by the girl’s rebuke. Indeed, her kind heart nearly broke to see how Sarah, who was almost a child herself, fussed over her younger brother.
Now that Berel had returned home, it was time to serve the two mourners the traditional first meal: a hard-boiled egg, whose roundness symbolizes the cycle of life, and some bread. After that, there would be a proper meal, for Mrs. Baer had brought a chicken and potato kugel to go along with the vegetable soup simmering on the fire. She had also prepared a pot of strong tea, which she served at once to Mr. Melamed, who had drifted toward the fire to warm his hands.
After the children had consumed their mourners’ meal, Mr. Melamed took a seat near them. He did not like to bring up practicalities at such a distressing time, but the fact that the youngsters were now without father or mother complicated matters. Therefore, after expressing his condolences, he asked, “Miss Krinkle, have you and Berel any relatives in London, or elsewhere in England?”
“No, sir,” Sarah replied. “But we shall manage.” She then added, with a touch of defiance, “I am nearly fifteen.”
“I am sure you are most capable, Miss Krinkle. But the running of a household requires money. There is rent to pay, as well as the butcher and the greengrocer.”
“And the Hebrew teacher for Berel and the annual dues for a seat at the Great Synagogue,” said Sarah. “You forget, sir, that my father was ill for several months, before he passed away. He taught me how to keep the household books.”
“And Sarah knows how to talk back to the butcher when he tries to overcharge us for a scrawny chicken,” added Berel.
“Those are very valuable skills to have, I am sure,” said Mr. Melamed. “But how are you to live? Was your father able to put aside any money for your future?”
“The rent is paid until Nisan,” said Sarah, referring to the Jewish month when the Passover holiday occurs. She then cast a reassuring look in her brother’s direction. “We shall manage.”
“There is no need to worry about food for the week of mourning,” said Mrs. Baer. “I have seven families who are willing to bring food each day.”
“We shall manage,” said Sarah, a storm of bitter emotions welling up inside her. “We do not need the community’s help.”
“That may be, Miss Krinkle,” said Mr. Melamed, “but the community needs yours. It is a mitzvah to console mourners, and this commandment includes providing you and your brother with food during the shivah week. At least, allow us to do that.”
Sarah stared down at her plate. In truth, she was afraid. She longed to be taken care of, to collapse into the matronly arms of someone like Mrs. Baer and cry her heart out. But even greater than her fear of the future was her fear that her little family would be broken apart, that Berel would be moved to the Jewish orphanage and she would be sent to the home of some wealthy Jewish family to train to be a servant. She would not let that happen. Her parents may have been poor, but they had had dreams—and now she was the one who must take up those dreams and protect them until she was able to make them come true.
But Mr. Melamed was right. Her father had said the same thing, after her mother died. A Jewish community needed to perform acts of kindness; otherwise, how could the community ask their Father in Heaven to perform acts of kindness for them?
Sarah therefore said, “I apologize, Mrs. Baer. We shall be very grateful for the meals. Thank you for arranging them.”
“With my father’s compliments,” said Berel, placing the carefully wrapped sheets of paper on the solicitor’s desk.
Mr. Horace Barnstock eyed the package and then eyed the messenger with the same look that had made men five times Berel’s age tremble from head to foot. “Your father is dead, sir.”
Berel was prepared for this response. He knew that Mr. Barnstock was an abrupt man. Furthermore, two weeks had passed since his father’s funeral. He still missed his father, of course. But life was returning to its normal routine, which included a weekly visit to the office of Mr. Barnstock.
“Though my father can no longer be at your service, sir, the family hopes the arrangement we have with your establishment will continue.”
“I did not mind allowing your sister Sarah to do your father’s work while there was still hope that your father would regain his health,” said the solicitor, still keeping his stern eye upon the child. “Now the situation has changed.”
When he saw that Berel did not flinch, Mr. Barnstock opened the package and closely examined the page that sat at the top of the pile, a copy of a will. He did not expect to find any errors, and he found none. Removing a coin from a drawer, which he pushed toward Berel, he said, “It is highly irregular to employ a girl as a copyist. But I suppose we can continue for a little longer.” The solicitor then turned his attention to the other papers on his desk.
“Begging your pardon, sir, this is not the correct amount.”
“It is the amount I am willing to pay for a girl’s work.”
“My sister sends her compliments, sir, and says you will not find as good a copyist anywhere in London. She therefore expects to receive the same amount that you paid our father, may his memory be for a blessing.”
Mr. Barnstock once again eyed the youngster standing on the other side of the desk, although this time with a kindlier eye. He thought it was a pity that Jews could not become barristers and plead before the bar in England. This child knew how to speak well and stand his ground in an argument. If he could have brought Berel in as an articled clerk, he could have made something of the boy.
The solicitor glanced toward the closed door, on the other side of which sat his own son. Arthur had turned out to be a disappointment. More interested in boxing matches and horse races than copying wills and deeds, Arthur’s work was sloppy and full of errors. That was why Mr. Barnstock had been forced to employ Mendel Krinkle, whose handwriting and attention to detail had been superb.
It had been a great bother to Mr. Barnstock when his copyist became ill, and a great relief when the daughter took over the work. Eventually, he would find someone else, since it truly was most irregular to entrust legal documents to the hands of a child—and a girl, at that. But at the moment he was up to his ears in work, and who knew when he would find a copyist that could meet his stringent standards. Besides, no one knew that Sarah Krinkle was in his employ and no one need ever know.
The solicitor put the rest of the money on the desk.
Berel fairly danced through the streets as he made his way back to his home. Usually, when he was out on an errand his entire being was fixated upon all the fascinating sights that the streets of London had to offer—the tantalizing goods on display at the shops, the deft movements of the carriage drivers as they maneuvered their prancing horses around a sharp curve, the shouts of the street hawkers as they cried out their songs of fresh milk and new potatoes, sharp knives and old clothes, and a dozen other interesting things. He never tired of the noise and the crowds. He was too busy feeling exuberantly happy to be a part of this great and wondrous world.
This day, however, his thoughts were on his little sitting room in Duke’s Street, where he knew that his sister Sarah was anxiously awaiting his return. He also knew that she would want to hear every detail of his interview with Mr. Barnstock, and he was determined not to disappoint her. Of course, he would skip over that moment when he had felt his knees knocking together from fear; much as he tried, he could not help but quake when Mr. Barnstock glared at him with those steely eyes. But oh how he would relish telling Sarah every word of the sharp replies he had given to the solicitor, culminating in that moment of triumph when …
Berel stopped. For a moment he thought that someone was speaking to his father. Then he realized that the person must be speaking to him, and he turned to see who it was.
“Upon my word, it is Mr. Krinkle,” said a young person dressed in an oversized and over-patched military greatcoat that nearly dwarfed his somewhat undernourished frame. A bicorne hat that had also seen better days sat upon the boy’s head, which was now cocked to one side. “Allow me to express my condolences, sir, on the passing of your father. May you be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
“Thank you, General Well’ngone.” Berel cast a wary glance at his consoler, who was accompanied by a young boy also dressed in cast-off clothes. Berel knew who General Well’ngone was. Everyone knew that the General was the right-hand man of the Earl of Gravel Lane, a young Jewish man who headed a band of even younger Jewish thieves. Berel’s free hand, the one not holding the packet of legal papers, therefore went to his coat pocket, where the small pouch containing the money from the solicitor was stored. He had no intention of letting that money leave his possession and end up in the pocket of the General instead.
General Well’ngone noticed the gesture and sadly shook his head. “These are sorry times, Mr. Krinkle, if one orphan cannot express his sympathy to another, without his intentions being misunderstood.”
“My apologies, General,” replied Berel, still keeping his hand on his pocket. “I did not mean to offend.”
“Have you a moment, Mr. Krinkle? There is a matter I would like to discuss with you.”
Berel noticed that the General had moved to one side of him, while the child had sidled up to the other. It was difficult to keep a close watch on them both. “I am expected at home,” he replied, trying to move away from them.
“Excellent,” said General Well’ngone, taking Berel by the arm. “We shall escort you.”
They began to walk, and Berel did his best to keep his hand on the pocket where his money was sitting.
“London is no place for a man to be alone,” said the General. “You shall discover the truth of that, if you have not already.”
“I am not alone, General Well’ngone. I have my sister.”
“All the more reason why you must think of the future, Mr. Krinkle. A family man is a man with responsibilities, great responsibilities.”
“We shall manage,” said Berel, echoing the words that he had heard his sister say so many times.
“Of course, some boys might not mind living in the Jewish orphanage—little children who are too small to remember what it is to have a home of their own. However, someone like you, Mr. Krinkle, who has known the freedom of being able to come and go as he pleases, should find life in an orphanage somewhat confining, I should think.”
Berel glanced uneasily at his companion. “Have you heard something, General? They aren’t planning anything are they, Mr. Melamed and the others?”
“I am not in that gentleman’s confidence. I am only taking advantage of an opportunity. I saw you walking in the street, and I wished to do you a good turn. I therefore approached you, as you see. London is a city full of opportunities, if a person knows how to take advantage of them. Is that not so, Levy?”
The youngster who was accompanying them nodded his head. “Full of them.”
“An orphan’s lot is a difficult one, but it does not have to be a miserable one,” the General continued. “The Earl of Gravel Lane is always on the lookout for young men with keen eyes and sharp wits. If you should ever find yourself in the neighborhood of Gravel Lane and would like to discuss this matter further, I am certain the Earl would be pleased to receive you.”
The General looked up. At the top of a rather dilapidated building a window had been flung open. A young lady was glaring down at them, with her hands planted firmly on her hips.
“Are you acquainted with that young person?” asked the General.
“That’s Sarah, my sister.”
Sarah disappeared from the window.
“Does she always glare at people in that manner?”
“Only when she is very angry. I had better go.”
At that moment Sarah returned to the window, with a bucket in her hand.
“Berel! Come here this instant!” she shouted. “As for you, General Well’ngone, if I ever catch you talking to my brother again, you’ll get this bucket of slops on your head! Understand?!”
While Berel ran into the building, General Well’ngone instinctively raised his hand to his head, to protect his hat. Yet he did not move. Instead, he continued to stare at the young lady in the window.
“Go away! Now!”
His young companion, who did not wish to get drenched by the unsavory contents of the bucket, tugged at the General’s sleeve. “Let’s get out of here,” he pleaded. “She’ll do it. Look at her eyes.”
But that was the problem. The General was looking at the young lady’s eyes. He had fallen in love.
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