“Not like that, Hanna!” Ruthie exclaimed as she slipped the big palm-leaf fan out of Hanna’s energetic hand and waved it gently in front of their mother’s colorless face. Sultry, windless weather made her mother’s breathing difficult, and now she was leaning against the high arm of the chaise longue, eyes closed, one hand on her chest. “Mama needs more air, but too much is as bad as too little.”
Sensing that Hanna felt her efforts had been rejected, she suggested over her shoulder, “Go see if Joan needs help in the scullery.”
“She doesn’t,” said Hanna dolefully. “Last time she said I was more hindrance than help.”
Mrs. Farber gave a feeble smile and reached a trembling hand out to Hanna’s cheek. “Never mind,” she whispered. “Remember, ‘machshavah—kemaaseh.’”
“Oh, Mama, I wish this heavy weather would end,” Hanna said. “Every time it’s like this, it’s worse for you.”
Mama’s hand caressed her cheek, but she had no strength to say more.
Seizing her mother’s hand, Hanna kissed it fiercely. Mama had to get better! Only a few weeks ago Papa had spoken of sending her to Oma and Opa in Plymouth because the air there was so much healthier. How could they manage without Mama? And if she left, she’d have to take baby Jeremy, too. It wouldn’t be a family without Jeremy, either.
As if he sensed Hanna’s thoughts, little Jeremy, playing contentedly on the floor, looked up and said, “Mama?”
“Mama is right here, darling baby,” Hanna assured him, kissing the top of his head. Taking care of Jeremy was just about the only thing she did well, though even then, everyone complained how dirty he was when she brought him back from a walk.
If only she were good at something! Her needlework looked just as bad as it had when she was eight and she was only a nuisance in the kitchen. As for staying tidy—that seemed hopeless. Why couldn’t she keep a pinafore as clean as Ruthie’s, or keep her hair as neat? And Mama’s smooth lace cap seemed always to be perfectly white. Even when Mama had been well and busy about the house, her dress had never seemed to crease or show spots. Hanna’s pinafore was the despair of everyone who saw the laundry. And now she couldn’t even fan Mama properly.
Hanna sighed and turned to the open window. Leaning on the smut-spotted sill, she gazed out morosely at the busy street below. Hooves clopping loudly on the cobbles, horses pulled rattling wagons; people shouted to one another; in the distance there was a constant background clatter of the mills, and from closer, from Chadderton’s button factory on the banks of the dirty little River Irk, came the constant, rhythmic thud, thud, thud of the button-stamping machinery and the grinding of the lathes. All around the neighborhood sewing machines whirred and clattered, and not far away the shriek of a whistle signaled an approaching train along the tracks at the bottom of the hill.
The sluggish air was heavy with familiar Red Bank odors: manure and sewage, too many people in cramped rooms, whatever factories and mills had dumped into the nearby river, general filth. Hanna wrinkled her nose. Even when there was a breeze, it rushed right over Red Bank, as though it wanted to avoid being tainted with the fetid air of the slums.
I can hardly remember Plymouth, she thought, but I’m sure it wasn’t like this. It was clean, and airy, and quiet. And I didn’t feel so useless. And I had friends.
That was a particularly sore point.
Ruthie had left school two years before, Ezriel had finished with school while they still lived in Plymouth, and Jeremy was still too young for it, so now only Hanna attended the Jews’ School in Manchester.
She did well in school, but not so well that some girls might resent her. In Plymouth she had had friends, and she had expected to make new ones, here. But many of the girls who came from immigrant families hardly spoke English, and they were often dirty—and some of them had lice. Even with the others, though, she found making friends difficult.
Very quickly, Papa had learned that the standards of Manchester’s religious observance were so unreliable that he warned Hanna not to accept food outside their own home. Telling people you aren’t allowed to eat in their houses—because even if you only say, “No, thank you, I’m not hungry,” the message is conveyed when you have to say it every time—doesn’t encourage them to go on being friendly with you.
Worst of all, she had nobody she could share her thoughts with. Mama would have been so understanding! But Mama was too unwell even to listen.
Behind her she could hear her mother catch her breath with a gasp.
“Hanna!” Ruthie said urgently. “Run downstairs and fetch Papa! Tell him it’s an emergency!”
They never, ever disturbed Papa in the shop!
Hanna ran down the stairs and peeked past the curtain that separated the store from the narrow hallway.
“Papa!” she called in a loud whisper. “Papa!”
Mr. Farber turned away from a customer who had set aside little piles of buttons and trims and reels of thread on the counter. The expression on his face was not encouraging.
“Papa, it really is an emergency!” Hanna hissed urgently. “Mama can hardly breathe!” At the far end of the counter, busy with another customer, Ezriel gave his father a quick glance.
Mr. Farber turned back. “I’ll just be a moment, Yossel,” he said to the waiting customer. “Leave everything where it is.”
Brushing past Hanna, Mr. Farber took the stairs two at a time. One look at Mrs. Farber was enough to tell him that Hanna had not exaggerated. He dashed down to the store again.
“Ezriel!” he called. “Run down to Mr. Nelson and order the landau and a driver as soon as may be. Not Robert coachman; Stephen the groom will do well enough. And I want the top and windows on the landau fully let down.”
Excusing himself to his own customer, Ezriel obeyed.
Mr. Farber apologized to his customers, explaining, “A domestic emergency. If you wish, you may come back in a couple of hours; the shop should be open again by then. If not”—he shrugged—“I shall lay away your orders.”
He saw the customers out, left the selections on the counter, and ran back up the stairs. “Girls, get your hats. We are all going for a ride,” he announced. “It will be good for Mama, and I have a surprise for all of you, too.”
“A surprise!” chorused Ruthie and Hanna, and Mr. Farber laughed.
Jeremy, who had seemed so absorbed in his toys, looked up. “Go out?”
“Oh, dear, he’ll cry if we leave him with Joan,” Hanna said. “If only it weren’t Berthe’s afternoon off!” Berthe had been Mama’s nursemaid, and had come to stay with them long ago, when Ezriel was born. It was she who ran the household; Joan, an honest, hard-working woman, came in to help with the laundry and heavy cleaning. But Joan had no patience for girls with no gift for housework and preferred to work with Berthe and Ruthie.
“Joan is ironing, anyway; she won’t appreciate Jeremy snatching at the sheets and pinafores!” Ruthie said as she put a light bonnet over her mother’s cap and gently tied the ribbons.
“We’ll have to take him along. But remember, it’s an open carriage,” decided Mr. Farber. “No wriggling.”
“I’ll take care of him. He behaves for me,” Hanna said confidently. It was true that she could sometimes manage Jeremy when everyone else had despaired, but her methods usually involved creating more laundry for Berthe and Joan.
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