The Romantic Messiah

A moment later the musician Eiser, respected by all as an old man who feared God, appeared along the road. His tall, lean body was clothed in a long, dark robe, white stockings and black sandals. Advancing with the careful steps of a blind man, he played a violin. His left cheek was glued to the instument, his long curls fell down over it, and in a kind of ecstasy he was singing in a high raucous voice:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”

He looked like a ghost.

Recognizing old Eiser, the crowd was struck with astonishment, Voices were raised.

“The old man has lost his senses!”

“Take the violin away from him!”

Old Eiser had almost reached the synagogue when some young men threw themselves upon him. Fearing they would seize his violin, the old man with unexpected vigor pushed them away, crying:

“Leave me alone, blasphemers, it is you, not I, who are mad. I am God’s musician. Harken!”

And accompanying himself on his violin he sang again:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”

“Do you hear it?” he cried in a wild voice. “The word is ‘Comfort ye’, it is not ‘Weep’ “

Beside itself with excitement, the crowd awaited the Rabbi’s verdict. A few men again tried to snatch the violin from old Eiser. But, hiding it between his Lnees, he shouted in a threatening voice:

“Don’t touch it, don’t touch it. I told you I am God’s musician.”

“Give up your violin,” demanded a young man who was pressing forward. “Give it up, now!”

The Rabbi who had watched the struggle left the crowd and laid his hand upon the young man’s shoulder:

“Leave him alone,” he said. “It is not proper to harry an old man, who is blind, too.”

The young man stepped back.

“Let him sing,” continued the Rabbi, “if such is his humor.”

At these words there was a movement of astonishment in the crowd, for though the Rabbi had not siad a word about the evident madness of the old man, he seemed to pardon his blasphemy on the grounds of insanity.

“Rabbi,” said the cantor, “your words seem mysterious to us.”

The Rabbi fixed his eyes on the musician who was moving towards the bench close to the synagogue. He turned to the cantor to answer him.

Just then, two boys sped like arrows through the thick crowd. They had come from the graveyard. Pale, breathless, with tears of fright in their eyes, they stammered:

“A corpse-down there, a corpse-it’s walking.”

The cantor bent down to one of them, and pinching his cheek, began to calm him gently.

“There, there, little one. Don’t be frightened. You were dreaming. But don’t go visiting graveyards at twilight.”

“I did not dream it,” said the child, earnestly, and a little calmer. “A corpse is walking down there-a Jewish woman-in her shroud.”

The beadle of the synagogue approached, and fixing his blinking eyes on the boy, said:

“This is the son of Chakme, the sexton. He is accustomed to the sight of corpses, and is probably not-lying.”

The remark of the old man had its effect on the crowd.

“Reb Mendl,” said the Rabbi, “go and look for us.”

Undisturbed, Reb Mendel disappeared through the trees. All during his life he had been employed burying the dead, and for him a graveyard held no terrors even in the darkest night.

The Jewish worshippers watched him depart, their faces tense with emotion. To them an apparition of the dead did not seem supernatural. In their minds no curtain of iron was drawn between life and death, for those departed ones still remained members of the great congregation of Israel.

A few moments passed. Then Reb Mendel appeared hastening from the cemetery with. swift strides.

“A Jewess! A Jewess!” he shouted, no longer calm.

A low murmur of fright and agitation, a shudder, passed through the crowd. But already Reb Mendel, having seized a black veil used to drape coffins, was flying back to the cemefery.

“A Jewess! A Jewess!” he shouted.

The Rabbi, followed by his congregation, moved toward the cemetery. To those mystics in the crowd, eager for miracles, the seconds seemed hours.

At last Mendel appeared at the railing. He held by the hand, as if she were a child, a tall, young Jewess, hastily wrapped in the mourning veil. Her hair was unbound, and her eyes burned with a mad fire. But she seemed neither frightened nor surprised. Tall and straight she followed her guide.

“Alive,” declared Reb Mendel, taking the young girl to the Rabbi. “A Jewess.”

Had a shrouded woman returned from her grave because she found no peace there, had a dead woman returned to ask prayers for her soul and then disappeared, the crowd would have been less astonished. But here before them was a living and splendid creature with dark, beautiful hair. It seemed supernatural, indeed.

The Rabbi asked the young girl a few qucstions. She understood the Jewish dialect, but could use it only with difficulty. It seemed as if she had forgotten many words. She smiled distractedly and answered:

“I come from the convent. My name is Sarah. I am the betrothed of the gentle and merciful Messiah. Some one was singing here! Some one was singing.”

At these words the Rabbi recoiled with such astonishment that he nearly fell. The apparition of the young girl, her strange words combined with the mysterious conduct of the old musician, seemed fraught with deep and mystical implications.

“God’s Musician,” “the Betrothed of the Messiah”-their appearance together on this evening of the ninth of Ab, on this evening of mourning and tears, was something more than a simple coincidence. Was it not a rainbow sent by God after the deluge of blood which had washed away the tents of exiled Israel?

The pathetic old Rabbi remained motionless and stern. With superstitious awe the crowd watched him, divining something of the thoughts which agitated his mind, heavy with years and wisdom. But Sarah smiled like a child at the strange scene before her.

The crowd of men, the white tombstones, with trees bending over them, the blind musician dozing on his bench with his violin forgotten in his hand-it all seemed like the shadow of a shadow.

In the silence the Rabbi’s voice rose, hollow and penetrating.

“Sarah. In the name of God, I command you to tell us what you know. Why were you in the convent? What vision was vouchsafed unto you?”

Sarah, frightened by the solemnity of the Rabbi’s voice, pressed closer to Reb Mendel who was still holding ber the hand.

“I am tired. My arm hurts,” she murmured.

The Rabbi ordered that Sarah be taken to his wife, Reb Mendel led her away. No sound was heard in the quiet square. At last the Rabbi spoke.

“You were mocking the old man,” he said, pointing to the blind musician who was slowly awakening. “You were full of wrath. But behold how inscrutable are the ways of God. A great sign has been vouchsafed us. The blood of Jews has not been shed for nothing in the Ukraine. The time ripens. Pray steadfastly and be pure of heart, for salvation is near.”

Followed by the silent crowd the Rabbi moved forward. But they had not gone far when they heard blind Eiser chanting in a low, meditative voice:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”

The Rabbi paused and turned to a young man.

“Lead the old man away,” he commanded. “It is becoming damp and cool. He might take cold.”

(To be continued tomorrow. The next chapter is concerned with Sarah’s childhood and her life after the terrible events in her family.)

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