"Stella Rosa! Stella Rosa!"
My parents gave me many names. Two Hebrew names, dark and sandy like the desert, to commemorate my ancestors and signify my connection with the Hebrew people--Shoshana Rivkah. A chain of Ladino names, melodic and fruitful, like the gardens of S'farad, to make me one of them. My sisters, too, had many names, but Margarita was simply Margarita, and Elena was but Elena, and only I was never Stella, but Stella Rosa, and nobody knew why.
I ran downstairs to the store. It had been ours since fourteen years prior, the Hebreos were first allowed to trade. My father, Levi de Lara, whose family had come to London from Amsterdam to seek the auspices of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, had been a money lender before, but usury was distasteful to him. As soon as he had the opportunity, he bought the diamond store in the East End Whitechapel district of London, and next to it, he bought and rebuilt a house. The diamond business was kind to my family, and my childhood was happy in that new house of ours, so beautiful and brightly-lit, and only a half a block from the great Bevis Mark Synagogue; I barely remembered the darker, smaller one, on the other end of Whitechapel, where I was born.
Having come down to the store, I found myself behind the counter, and facing two English gentlemen, elegantly dressed and conversing in what I was able to deduce was very proper English. It was not often that such customers graced my father's store; behind the counter, my older sister Margarita made round eyes at me. It was understood in my family that I had a lucky hand when it came to selling diamonds. Margarita bowed to the customers and left me alone with them.
They demanded to see whatever brooches and earrings we had; I took the jewelry out, a piece after piece, and soon, one of the gentlemen--the taller, more serious one--chose an elaborate brooch and two pairs of simple drop earrings.
"By God, cousin," his companion said, "I'm glad to not have any sisters. My brother will be well satisfied with a pair of riding boots this Christmas."
"It befits young ladies to wear diamonds," the customer said earnestly as he counted off the bank notes and placed them in my hand. "Your mother, my aunt, expressed her displeasure today with my decision to visit here and buy these for Alexandra."
"You do have to agree, cousin, she is only fourteen. Diamonds cannot serve but make her vain."
"She is the kindest, most unassuming, most humble child there ever was, captain," the customer said. "Nothing can make her vain."
"Well, you are a very, very good brother to her," his cousin said good-heartedly. "Thank you, Miss." He added.
"Thank you, gentlemen." I said, thrilled. I had just made a big sale; my father would be well pleased and my mother, who believed that a young lady of a good family ought not to dirty her hands with trade, would chastize me kindly, secretly proud of me. As his companion was already outside, the taller gentleman bowed to me, low and sharply, as if I were a gentile lady, his equal; his civility touched me, and I curtsied back. After he was gone, I came to the window and watched them disappear into the wintry night. Something kept me there, watching, until I could no longer see; only then did I go back to my father's office, to give him the money from the sale.
As the two young gentlemen stepped outside the de Laras' diamond shop, William Hester was pleasantly surprised at how festive everything looked. It was the time of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, and there was hardly a window in sight that did not have the gleaming light of a menorah in it. The snow fell quickly, in large, soft flakes, and William thought, with delight, that the usual East End grime was invisible under the feathery white carpet. Around them, men--some in typical Hebrew skull-caps, some in fashionable top hats--and women, in elaborate Spanish headdresses and mantillas, scurried about, paying the two cousins no mind.
"The are a fascinating people," William said. "So dejected, yet so proud of who they are."
"Perhaps," Captain Alec Hester, his cousin, echoed, "too proud for their station. And perhaps their station, so inferior, is due to their insufferable conceit. They think themselves a chosen people and frown upon everyone else."
"They have a good reason to frown upon us," William said. "We have not been as equitable or liberal towards them as befits their Christian hosts."
"Oh, come off it, Will!" Captain Hester sneered. "By God, this is truly forward thinking from a country gentleman who has never lived near a single Jew!"
William furrowed his brow, but said nothing to that. Captain Hester went on. "They have been welcomed by every Christian country, and only a short time later, driven out of every single one of them, including this one."
"So they have," William agreed. "But I daresay, that is no commendation to their hosts. It speaks to their illiberality and unfair prejudice. I refuse to believe that an entire people can be as bad as to merit wholesale expulsion."
Captain Hester chose to move the conversation in a more pleasant direction. "You will forgive me, my dear cousin," said he, "but methinks your liberal sentiments have been inspired by the lovely eyes of the handsome Jewess who sold us the diamonds!"
William smiled uncomfortably. "Do you think me so primitive?" he asked.
"Did you not think her beautiful?" his cousin persisted.
"Perhaps. She was certainly fair, but for my taste, too bright."
"Hear, hear!" Captain Hester laughed. "I, myself, quite prefer a gentle English rose to such an exotic beauty."
Upon which he suggested to his cousin that they visit just such a rose or two under the auspices of Madame Fleuri right here in Whitechapel. This offer William refused, politely, but firmly. Naturally fastidious and particular when it came to his human contacts, William Hester never went near the houses of ill-repute that so many men of his station frequented. He, however, avoided making his sentiments known for the risk of offending his cousin, and simply referred to his father, who had been feeling ill and expected him at home in --shire as soon as possible. The Captain relented and the two men soon made their way out of East End and back to his residence in a more reputable area of London.
That very night, William Hester left London and rode back to his father's estate in --shire. There, his beloved father lay dying; there, his mother remained a pitiable wreck; there, all the duties of the head of the family and the master of a great estate awaited him.
Our house was in uproar. Tomorrow, my favorite brother Enrique, whom I called Henry to the outrage of our father, was getting married. His betrothed, Viola Lopez, was an empty sort of girl, though kind-hearted; she and Enrique had been betrothed for over a year, and she had come to be regarded as one of us. Our mother was particularly fond of her, mostly because she saw that Viola regarded Enrique as a sort of demi-god. But I do swear, there was nothing you could talk to her about beyond a new hat she had bought; I asked Enrique once about that, and he retorted, laughing, that a man had smart sisters for talking to, and wives served another purpose altogether.
Be as it may, the day of their kiddushin had come. Tomorrow, they would be man and wife; tomorrow, they would drink from the same cup and Enrique would place a ring on Viola's second finger. And tonight, among all the preparations, we, the women in the family, had to take the bride-to-be to her ritual bath. It was the custom that no matter the affairs, all of us--the married women and the unmarried girl, any female beyond her first menses--had to come with Viola to the mikveh.
We walked outside; next to me, walked my mother, Reina, wrapped in her precious silver-stitched mantilla; my older sister, Margarita, who was married to the youngest son of the most illustrious family in the juderia, the Abravanels; my younger sister, Elena, my best friend and companion, yet unmarried, but betrothed to her childhood sweetheart, Pedro de Silva; Viola herself, secreted from head to toe in a mantilla; her mother, Donna Emilia Lopez; her brother Moises' wife Lia, who had herself only been married for a fortnight and was already with child--quite a scandal!; and a number of friends and neighbor women, who were invited, as the custom was, to participate in the ceremony. As we walked, we sang a song to the novia, and Elena whispered to me:
"I can hardly wait to be taken to mikveh myself."
"Well, we do go, you know," I said. "Every time our menses come, we go."
"You know what I mean to say," Elena pinched my arm, painfully, so that I almost yelped. "And yet you always make light of me."
"You are a selfish, selfish girl!" I whispered. "After you marry Pedro, you will leave me here, all alone--"
"You know I shan't. Margarita is married, and yet she spends days in our house. Surely Pedro won't mind if I were to come home now and then."
"Girls, why aren't you singing?" My mother tugged at my sleeve, and Elena and I joined in, dutifully. None of us cared much for Viola or the fact that she was to come live with us now; but as I once said to Elena, Enrique could have done much worse. He could have married someone like Margarita.
Once we reached Bevis Marks, a woman attendant lead us to a back bathroom, where we were told to undress and clean ourselves before the mikveh was to begin; and to that purpose, we were given various aromatic essences. Elena blushed violently as she had to undress in front of other women, but hardly anyone was watching her, as everyone was busy, bestowing every bit of attention on the novia.
I wrapped myself in a sheet and gave one to my sister, to ease her embarrassment. The attendant led us into the mikveh sanctuary, where a large clear pool of cool water awaited us.
Viola entered first, descending the stone steps, and we all followed her; she completely immersed herself, three times. Every time, as she came up, gasping for air, we cried out in joy and after her last immersion, we chanted a prayer for her.
After the ritual was over, we returned to the preparation room, where a feast of sweets, fruits, and sweet wine awaited us. "Now," I whispered to Elena, "this is the far pleasanter part!" She blushed again; we sat down in the corner and whispered to each other for the rest of the evening.
"Soon it will be your time," I said to her. "It will be my delight to sing a song of joy for you, but I will still miss you terribly."
"And you, what about you?" she asked.
"I will marry in due time," I said. "I am in no hurry to leave Father's house, and shall certainly not do so until I fall in love, like you."
"I overheard our parents talking," Elena whispered. "Father said Marcus d'Almazan has inquired if he could pay respects to you."
This was no welcome news. Marcus d'Almazan was once my older brother Beni's playmate and had often pulled my hair most cruelly. I suspected that now that he had grown up into a stout young man with a beard, his habits and affections remained the same. Elena confirmed my suspicion. "I hope Father refuses him, for your sake. He is an unpleasant and unfriendly sort."
Suddenly, I thought of the young gentleman who came into our diamond shop several weeks prior. He, too, seemed reserved and quiet, but I remembered the strange, pensive, attentive look he bestowed on me before leaving. I remembered that he bowed to me, as I was a gentle-lady; I remembered that he spoke kindly of his younger sister.
"Stella Rosa!" Elena shook my shoulder. "We are to go back now. There are still too many preparations left undone for tomorrow."
That night, we went to bed late. Elena and I shared a room, and often spent our evenings in private and pleasant conversation.
"You seem sad today," Elena said, watching me. I sat up in bed.
"Have you ever thought--imagined--that it would be possible to marry an outsider?"
"A gentile, you mean?"
"Yes, a gentile. Provided that he did not fail to be a good, kind man--well, you know, if being a gentile were his own fault."
"No!" Elena shook her head vehemently. "Khakhan da Silva has always said that the children from such union would forever be lost!"
"Forget what the rabbi has said," I whispered. "What do you think?"
"If he were good enough?"
"If he were the best man in the whole world!"
Elena thought for a moment and shook her head. "No," she said gravely. "A wife follows her husband's faith, Stella Rosa. A child's faith becomes that of his mother. If I were to marry a gentile, I would be forced to give up everything I cherish and hold dear. My people, my home, my language, my parents, my brothers and sisters!"
"You should never lose my esteem," I said. "Whatever you do, sister, I will always remain devoted to you."
"True, true," she nodded. "I am sorry. And I--to you. But it is still awfully much that one would have to give up!"
She was correct, of course.. The price I would have to pay for such a choice would be enormous; indeed, it would be the very life I am accustomed to; in the eyes of the juderia and perhaps even my family, I would cease to exist.
"But why are you asking me this?" she whispered, her eyes growing round. I held my breath, hesitating.
"Do you promise not to tell?" This question was entirely unnecessary, for even as a girl, Elena had never betrayed my any of my confidences. And so I told her about the stranger.
"Oh, Stella Rosa," Elena whispered. "You liked him, did you not?"
"I did," I said. "And I dare think he may have liked me as well."
"I do not doubt that, you are so beautiful. But wasn't he a gentleman?"
"He was, it seemed."
"My darling," My sister shook her head sadly. "Do you think a noble man would ever--"
"If he were liberal-minded enough, he would."
Elena looked at me with pity, as if I was mad.
"Forgive me, dearest, but I hope, for your sake, and for all of ours, that you were wrong."
As much as it pained me to think so, after careful reflection on the subject, I had to agree with my younger, yet wiser, sister.
On the day of the wedding, we, the women of the de Lara family, sat in the upper gallery of the Bevis Marks Temple. I thought how lonely poor Viola must be below, alone among the many men of the congregation. As she looked at the hundreds of well-wishers in the sanctuary, she would not see her mother there, or either of her sisters. I would be miserable if I, at this most crucial moment of my life, could not lock eye with my mother, or my beloved Elena. I knew that my mother, too, would have liked to be nearer Enrique at that moment. I thought, wistful, of the gentiles and their ceremonies, where men and women sat next to each other, and could provide each other with companionship.
The cantor below sang, in Ladino:
"Que abrira as Portas do Hechal
Que levara o Sepher Torah
Que accompanhara o Sepher Torah
Que fara Heshaim do Sepher Torah
Que desenfaxara o Sepher Torah
Que levantara o Sepher Torah."
Bevis Marks was a Portuguese synagogue, though many Spanish Sefardim families, like mine, frequented it as well. I looked at Elena and saw her lips move; I, on the other hand, was not praying. I was barely listening. What my sister told had said to me the night before--that Marcus d'Almazan had come to inquire after me--frightened and worried me. I hoped that my father would refuse him: he was rude, coarse, and, as I was beginning to suspect, exceedingly stupid. It was true that he had wealth and connections, but we, after all, were not poor ourselves, and connected, through my sister Margarita, to the Abravanels themselves. Surely my father would not insist that I marry someone so abhorrent to my heart.
Below us, my brother-khatan stepped on a crystal glass with all his might, eliciting a rather awful crunching sound. The congregation exploded with cries of joy and congratulations; around me, the women embraced and cried, happily.
"Stella Rosa!" Elena cried, too, tugging on my sleeve. "You do not seem happy, sister! Is anything wrong?"
"No, no," I whispered, pulling her into a close embrace. "Rejoice, sister. Our brother is married!"
Dr. Younge had been in practice for thirty years, and by far, the hardest part of it had always been telling the dying man's family the worst possible news. It was especially difficult, when the persons he addressed were the family of a dear and old friend. Now, as he saw Isaiah Hester's children, all four of them, walk towards him, he gathered all his strength for what was to follow.
They were a handsome and noble-looking group. Mr. William Hester, the oldest son, looked much like his father in his younger days: the same quiet nobility of mien, tall height, and a stately manner to walk. His years numbered six-and-twenty, and has long replaced his father in all household matters. His brother, Mr. Samuel Hester, four years his junior, extracted urgently from his studies at Oxford, was gentle-looking and affable, though right now, his face betrayed utmost anxiety and his eyes were red. The young ladies, their sisters, were both quite handsome, though different-looking: nineteen-year-old Miss Vanessa was dark and stately, much like William, and the sweet, gentle, fourteen-year-old Alexandra was much fairer, though equally beautiful.
"My dear children," he said. He was a friend of the family, and felt in his own right to address them so, "I should dearly wish to speak with you, William."
They stepped aside, and the other three watched the old physician take their older brother's hand as he explained something to him. When the two came back, it was up to William to relate to his siblings, that their beloved father did not have long to live. The girls embraced and wept, and Samuel, though turning white, said nothing, but took off running down the hallway. Dr. Younge pitied these children, but above all, he pitied William; as much as he knew the young man, he would do all he could to replace his siblings their father, but there was no-one to take care of his grief. Their mother at the moment was prostrate in her room, as she was of a gentle disposition, and could not be relied upon for any kind of support. Dr. Younge knew that Isaiah Hester had been a kind father and guiding influence in his children's lives; now that he stood on the brink of death, they were to be truly orphaned.
They have all entered the dying man's bedroom and circled his last berth. Sir Isaiah was once a formidable man, but over the last six months, the disease has eaten away at him, leaving him but a shadow of his former self. Sir Isaiah was lucid most of the time, though sometimes, influenced by morphine, he did drift away.
"Will?" He asked. The eldest son approached his bed.
"I am dying," Sir Isaiah informed him, somewhat gruffly. "I am dying, and so much is left unfinished!"
The young man remained, dark-faced and silent.
"Listen to me, Will," his father said. "You have always been the pride of our hearts---have never disappointed me or your mother. Now, it is time for you to take after me. You are to inherit Bloomfield, but I am leaving the London house to your mother---but I assume my solicitor will deal with all this business---Will, you must take good care of this land---of this home---it must remain in our family forever, Will, as a source of income and life for generations of your children-"
"Yes, father," William said, tiredly. He had been running the estate effectively since the day Sir Isaiah first fell ill nearly two years ago. "Do not trouble yourself with this. I love Bloomfield as much as you do."
"Very well," the old man breathed and for a short second, his face was contorted with pain. "Water," he whispered, after the agony had let go of him. William reached for a glass on the bedstand and let his father drink.
"Where was I?" Sir Isaiah asked. "Oh, yes. Take care---take care of your mother, William---she shall be a wreck after I die---and your sisters---I am leaving you their guardian-"
"Me?" William was so surprised that he allowed himself to interrupt his father---something he never did. "What about Mother?"
"Mother has no objection to this decision of mine, son, we both think that you would be better fit to undertake this job-"
"As you wish, sir," William acquiesced. He could not argue with him; the job would certainly be difficult, but it could not be so arduous as to make him displease his dying father.
"Very well. Now, Samuel---look after him---he does not have your qualities---but he is a good boy---where is he, by the way?"
"He has been sent after, sir," Vanessa said.
"You---good girl, my girl," the man whispered. "You shan't make it difficult for your brother, shall you?"
"Do not trouble yourself, father," Vanessa replied, her lips trembling most uncharacteristically.
"Come, my darlings," Sir Isaiah motioned to his daughters, and they both knelt near his bed, allowing him to gently pat their heads. As he did so, the dying man turned to William again.
"My boy," he continued, "you must marry---and marry well. I do not mean well in material sense, William---you must find a good woman, sensible, loving, caring, able to secure your strongest affection---"
His face contorted with pain, he stopped.
"All of you---all of you must do just that---must be happy--- " he whispered, his voice trailing off.
There was a moment of silence, during which the children watched their father's face with trepidation. It was so still, so drawn, so white; has it already happened, they all wondered, in fear and grief; have we missed our last chance to say good-bye to him? Then, his lips moved and he slowly raised his eye-lids:
"Vanessa, where are you?" he called faintly.
"I am here, father," the girl answered, shaken that he failed to see her, near as she was.
"Sing for me, my love," Sir Isaiah asked.
"Yes, sir," Vanessa whispered, wiping the tears from her eyes.
Outside, just about to enter the room, the clergyman stopped in shock as he heard a lovely voice, akin to that of an angel's, raise its doleful song to the sorrowful wintry skies. Running like mad down a hallway, young Samuel Hester heard his sister's voice and fell to the floor in a heap, weeping madly for his father.
...Two days after the reading of his father's will, the new Sir William Hester asked his mother for an audience. Lady Hetty waited for him in her handsome apartments; William noticed that grief had made her older. She was a celebrated beauty in her day, but tears had dulled her bright eyes and put a trace of silver into her fair hair.
"Mother," he said, as he bent low to kiss her hand, "what is it I hear? Vanessa tells me you are to leave for London tomorrow?"
"I am, dearest," Lady Hetty answered, gently stroking the side of his face.
"But madam," he said. "Bloomfield is still your home. You are still the lady of the house and are welcome to stay."
Lady Hetty adored all her children, but her oldest son claimed a special place in her heart.
She never ceased to be amazed at how accomplished and responsible he had become; and within him, she saw the most basic, wonderful goodness, that she could not yet see, look as she might, in her younger son--the volatile, difficult Samuel.
"May I tried to dissuade you from going?"
"You are kind, my darling," Lady Hetty said, tears in her eyes. "But I have resolved myself to go to London. It will be good for me, Will--too much sadness haunts me here. My sister is there, and I do so long to see her. And I shall take the girls along---I hope that you have no objection to that."
He handed her a handkerchief. "No principal objection, no. But madam, you are leaving me here all alone! Be assured then, that I shall not tarry at Bloomfield myself---not beyond putting my affairs in order."
"You will be most welcome to join us in town, dearest," Lady Hetty replied, managing a weak smile.
William Hester's solicitor, Mr. Moises Lopez, was a Jew. Though his cousin Alec Hester expressly cautioned him against placing his affairs into the hands of "the stock of Israel," William harbored little prejudice against them. In fact, he quite liked Mr. Lopez: one of the first of his people to be allowed access to a legal education, the young man was extremely capable, industrious and quick-thinking young man--if only a little obsequious.
Once he was in town, the new Sir William Hester called on his lawyer in order to write a will of his own, now that his fortune so greatly--and sadly--increased. If something were to happen to him, the new will was to leave Bloomfield Park to Samuel and divide the money between all three of his beloved siblings.
He waited in Mr. Lopez' parlor--not long, but enough to hear a din of young female voices, speaking an obviously foreign language, coming from behind the doors. Then the doors flew open, and three young women stepped out, dressed in simple dark dresses and colorful silk headscarves. Among them, William immediately recognized the girl from the de Laras' diamond shop; a scarf of fine blue silk covered her hair, now set in a thick regal braid on top of her head.
Mr. Lopez himself appeared, rushing ahead of his fair guests.
"Ah!" he cried. "Sir William! Do forgive me, dear sir, for making you wait! " he effused. William assured him that he, himself, had been late, and had just come in.
"May I introduce my sister to you, sir," the solicitor pointed to one of the women. "Mrs. Viola Lopez de Lara, and her sisters-in-law, the Misses Elena and Stella Rosa de Lara."
All three beauties curtsied, and William bowed, thinking that he much preferred Miss Stella Rosa de Lara with her hair slightly disheveled and without all this lacy finery around her lovely face. He wondered if she remembered him, and was pleased to no end when she inquired whether his mother and sisters liked his gifts.
They talked pleasantries for a quarter of an hour: from this he deduced that he much preferred her to the rest of the company. She was obviously intelligent, spoke well and without pretense, and completely lacked in sycophancy, which her relative Mr. Lopez so amply exhibited. Her sister, Miss Elena de Lara, was, perhaps, prettier, but was also altogether too shy, barely raised her eyes to him during the conversation and answered any questions he had monosyllabically. As for their sister-in-law, she seemed so obviously silly and shallow that William resolved, right away, to pay her mindless twittering no mind.
When the ladies finally rose to leave, Mrs. Lopez de Lara said, quite surprisingly:
"Sir William, you simply *must* come and have supper at
our house. Say, Thursday night?"
Before he even stopped to consider whether he had any previous engagements that night, William had already agreed.
After the ladies left, Mr. Lopez, obviously mortified by his sister's improper forwardness, apologized profusely. "Please, forgive my sister, Your Grace," he said. "She does not understand."
William feigned displeasure. "To be honest, Mr. Lopez, neither do I," he said. "You do not think me unworthy of your sister's house, do you? Then why are you so opposed to the idea of me having supper there? By George, you are *most* unwelcoming!"
Having thus silenced Mr. Lopez, who now thought it best not to argue with his patron, William found himself to be in the most tremendous mood for the rest of the day--for the first time since his father's death.
Out in the street, I seized my sister by the hand and raised my eyes to the sky. Viola could not see us, as she walked slightly ahead--the three of us could not possibly fit side-by-side in the narrow Spitalfield Street in our wide skirts.
"Is it--" Elena whispered, her eyes round. I shook my head vigorously and ran ahead, to beg Viola's indulgence of my wild ideas for the Thursday night supper.
That night, during supper at my Father's house, pandemonium ensued. Viola's brother Moises, whom I could never tolerate, quarreled with Enrique. The latter was much like myself, and saw no incredible honor in a visit by a rich gentile man and no incredible indiscretion in having invited him.
"My wife thought he was pleasant to have supper with, and chose to invite him," he told Moises. "I don't see any harm in that."
Moises peered at Enrique, as if he had just sprouted a third eye in the middle of his forehead; it was evident to him that Viola had committed a terrible faux pas in daring to invite Sir William Hester to dinner. He thought--and made it evident--that what Viola did was inappropriate, nay, insufferable, damaging, dangerous, and that we, the Jews, should never forget our station-
"-lest they think we have aspired to equality with them!"
"Precisely," echoed my oldest brother Binyamin, whom we all called Beni. "And they should not think so, because that would be a gross perversion. We, who are so superior to their contaminated, swine-eating, fornicating, lawless society-we have been here for centuries, and yet they won't change their barbarous behavior towards us! Aspire to equality, indeed!" he huffed angrily.
Enrique shook his head. "You both are such daft idiots," he said. "Listen to you," he addressed his brother-in-law. "How are we ever to come to emancipation in this country, if we are afraid to extend a friendly invitation to a friendly man-because we are so certain of our own inferiority! And you," he turned to Beni, "you, and people like you are the reason why we are so hated!"
I completely agreed with him, but did not wish to argue with Moises, whom I thought to be of no consequence, and dared not quarrel with Beni, who was so ill tempered as to even to strike his wife Rivkah-a rather docile creature.
"And you-and people like you and your fair idiot wife-are the only reason why our people may ever go into obscurity, so ready you are to ingratiate yourself to the goyim!"
Enrique's face went deep red. "You should better hold your tongue, brother, before insulting my wife!"
"Say what you want," Beni shrugged. "I shan't come to supper with you while a goy is sitting at your table."
Enrique blew up, slamming down his silverware. Moises was now entirely forgotten.
"And I shan't ask you, if you would rather scorn your brother than bear the company of a man whom you do not know and have no reason to dislike!"
My mother did not like where the argument was going: "Ah, hijos," she chastised her sons. "You will break my heart if you speak to each other like so! Beni, what does it matter if a gentleman comes to supper at your brother's house?"
"Beni," my father interjected, "Enrique is right about something. We live next to them; we are fighting for our emancipation. Every time the Deputados meet with the government, we manage to cajole yet another liberty for our people out of them; if we are to be successful, we must establish bridges-connections."
"Our sojourn in this country is temporary," Beni said. "We shall all one day return to the land of our forefathers. In the meantime, Father, I say that you are right-we must establish some basic connections. But that, in my opinion, does not extend so far as to invite a goy to one's house-as an equal."
My father mumbled something. The subject of the Return was a painful one for him; perhaps because he realized that never in his lifetime would he see the walls of Jerusalem, he generally avoided arguing with Beni about it. As for the rest of us, though we repeated, each Pesach, our hope to meet in Jerusalem for the next one, all of us knew that it would never come to pass. We had a comfortable life in London, and from what I understood, the gentiles there was kinder to us than those on the Continent. And there have been so many places wherefrom we were driven; for most of us, the Return was simply a beautiful prayer to offer during a holiday. But Beni, he believed it, with the very core of his soul, and Father did not have enough strength to argue with his fiery son.
That night, after we went up to our bedroom, Elena said to me:
"Do you see now, Stella Rosa, why I could never love a gentile?"
I told her I understood. She turned around from her mirror, slowly drawing the brush over her hair.
"What of you?" she asked. "I am sure you could not---could not possibly---not with Beni thinking like this!"
"Beni is not my father," I sat down on my bed, drawing my knees to my chest. "He is harsh and unthinking. Enrique does not think so."
"Enrique is disposed to be friends with the gentiles---but he is young. You know that it is only until he is first hurt by them."
I fell back on the bed, thinking about William Hester. So that was what he was called; I rolled the name on my tongue, driving Elena mad with fear.
"Please stop," she begged me. "You are toying with something altogether too serious!"
"I am not toying with anything," I laughed. "I simply said his name. Why does it scare you so much that I did?"
Elena could not answer my question and only begged me to stop, again and again. So I did. But that night, I could not sleep. I thought about the gentleman, with a strange feeling of near-tenderness in my breast. And as I lay next to my sister, I wished, not daring to hope, that as he went to bed at night, he wondered about me as well.
On Thursday night, about five o'clock in the evening, Miss Vanessa Hester knocked, hesitantly, on the door of her brother's room. Will came to be with them only a week after they, themselves, had come to town; and she was glad of it. Still grieving after her beloved father, the nineteen-year-old Vanessa was also suddenly left with her helpless, brokenhearted mother. Her parents have always been an ideal couple: her father's kindness to Lady Hetty and his deep love and respect for her were obvious, and as for her, she plainly venerated Sir Isaiah. Now that he was gone, she had been inconsolable, and young Vanessa was finding it rather difficult to manage both her own and her mother's grief. It was after Will came to London that Lady Hetty stopped crying and began smiling and eating better. Vanessa had always been aware William was their mother's favorite; but this time, she did not mind.
Vanessa knocked and heard him say, "Come in." He was sitting in front of a mirror, torturing his cravat, and Vanessa thought it amusing that her brilliant, capable brother was unable to secure his tie without the help of his trusted steward, left at Bloomfield. Their London residence was always somewhat makeshift, with minimal help, particularly during the last six months, which they had spent at Bloomfield, looking after their dying father.
William saw her in the mirror, and reached for his waistcoat, discomfited that she saw him only in his shirt and vest. Vanessa smiled: after all, they were siblings and she still remembered swimming with him in the pond at Bloomfield when she eight or ten years old, and he---a youth.
"Are you going out tonight?" she asked, pointing to a pair of white gloves, a top hat and his ebony cane, which all lay on the corner of his bed. He nodded, while still fighting with his cravat. Grinning, she came from behind, and softly turned him around, placing both her hands on his shoulders.
"Let me help you," she said, and lo and behold! it was done perfectly. He stared at her with mock suspicion.
"Where did you learn how to do this, Miss?"
"I am a young lady of many talents, Will, you should know."
William looked up at his sister; indeed, he thought, you are. Vanessa had the most beautiful voice of anyone he knew; it was her secret ambition to one day sing at the Opera---but as a young lady of noble birth, she was forever forbidden from it.
"So where are you going, dearest?"
That was what she called him: dearest. Just like his mother, but with a slight tease in her voice. William allowed for it---he loved his sisters madly and indulged all their whims. Granted, with Vanessa, there were not so many to indulge---so clever and reasonable she was.
"Will? Where are you going tonight? May I ask?"
He told her, as he stood up and reached for his gloves.
"Are these new friends?" she took and held his cane and hat for him, and when he was done donning the gloves, handed them to him.
"They are my solicitor's relations," he said, as they walked to the door. "The De Laras."
"The de Laras, I daresay," she grinned. "Jews, are they?"
William nodded cautiously. With Vanessa, it was impossible to say when she was teasing him and when she was serious.
"Well," she said, pensively. "If you like them, I should much like to meet them. They are a most interesting people, with the most curious language and customs."
"Then you shall meet them," William promised, giving his sister a kiss on the forehead. As he was leaving, she remembered something.
"Nearly forgot!" she cried. "Willie, shall you take me riding in the park tomorrow, if it's not too cold?"
On Thursday, I had been up since morning; after breakfast, of which I could barely swallow a bite, I went to services with my entire family. Sitting in the gallery with my mother and sisters, I pretended to pray, while all the while hearing the beating of my own heart. I tried very hard not to betray the nervous agitation, and so succeeded with my mother and Margarita, but could not deceive my sister Elena. Her watchful eyes followed me all through the day, and sometime later, as we were dressing in our room to go to Enrique's house, she seized me by the arm and sat me down on the bed.
"Pardon?" I asked, pretending to seem irked. "What are you doing?"
"Stella Rosa," she said. "What is happening to you?"
"Nothing," I shrugged, "I know not what you mean."
"You do, perfectly, sister. It is that gentleman, isn't it? Come," she said, urging me towards the mirror. "Look at yourself. Look at your face."
It was true: I was glowing, my eyes twinkling in happy anticipation.
"Oh, Stella Rosa," my sister shook her head in disapproval.
"It's nothing, sister," I tried to reassure her. "It's just that we do not invite people to supper so often--I am simply glad of that."
"Do not lie to me," Elena said sternly. "You know that I shall never betray your confidence, but I cannot have you lying to me."
I finally admitted. All day long, I had been feeling slightly--and happily--vertigious. And the only perceived reason for my strange giddy state was the prospective visit by Sir William Hester.
"Oh, Stella Rosa," Elena repeated, "It would so pain me to see you get hurt."
"I shan't get hurt!" I said, gently disengaging myself from her grip. "You need not worry for me, dearest, I still have my head firm on my shoulders."
"Oh, I do so hope you do," Elena said, somewhat crossly, and turned away, looking for her shoes.
The supper was to be held at seven in the evening. The day before, as Enrique and his new wife visited with us, I caught Viola by the arm, and begged her to have a word with her. When alone with her, I inquired what my sister-in-law planned to serve for supper the next day. With an air of importance, she told me that she had borrowed a friend's cook, who was skilled in preparing gentile dishes.
"Something our gentleman guest is accustomed to."
Flailing my arms, I told Viola that she was all wrong. "Think about it," I said. "He can eat mutton stew at home all he wants!"
No, I told her, she positively must prepare something of our own cuisine; and who would be better suited for that than our old, tried-and-true cook, Rufina? I was fortunate in that my brother's wife was extremely easily influenced and after a short while, was wont to believe that this idea--to serve native Sefardim dishes to our English guest--was her own from the very beginning. We even discussed the menu: I suggested to her lamb with stuffed prunes and Dolce de Tagliatelli for dessert. She promised to think of the rest.
There were four of us altogether--my parents, Elena, and I--as neither Beni, nor Margarita wished to come. Enrique's house was only a block from my father's, and almost as large and handsome: it was a wedding gift to Enrique and Viola by her father, the owner of the neighborhood cigar-making factory.
I saw him immediately, as soon as I walked in the room; he was deep in conversation with my brother, and though I was not afraid of Enrique, I dared not approach. He saw me, too, over Enrique's shoulder, and must have faltered in his speech, because Enrique turned around and greeted me warmly.
"Sir William," he said, smiling. "I believe you have already met my sister, Miss Stella Rosa de Lara."
The gentleman bowed, and I curtsied.
"Yes, I have already had the honor," he said, earnestly. "Perhaps, if there is dancing later, I may have the honor of the first two?"
There was an uncomfortable pause. The dances we danced were not the kinds that he must have been accustomed to. I knew not the waltz, nor the polonaise, and I told him so. He seemed embarrassed and apologized.
"But perhaps," I continued, "there may be some other amusements known to both of us?"
He shot a quick glance at me, and I quickly pointed to the pianoforte, which Enrique had just recently bought for Viola and which she tortured, shamefully and regularly.
"If you so wish, I shall be your most captive evidence."
Viola approached and asked Enrique's indulgence for something she had to tell him. We were left alone amidst my family and some of Enrique's friends, and had nothing better to do but sit down.
"Do you come to London much?" I asked, somewhat uncomfortable, as he was now silent and I felt Elena's gaze, full of worry and disapprobation, on me from the opposite side of the room.
"I try not to," he answered, smiling. "I much prefer the country, Miss De Lara. London, for my taste, has too much pompousness and not enough air."
"I have never been out of London," I said wistfully. "You, on the other hand, must have traveled quite a bit?"
"I have," he agreed.
"Have you been to Palestine?" I asked, curious of his answer.
"No," he said. "The closest I have ever come to the Holy Land was Turkey. And on a different occasion, Egypt."
"So you have seen the Pyramides?"
"Is it true that Napoleon has shot the nose off the Great Sphynx?"
"Yes, it is. It's quite a sad vision, the great Sphynx so bruised."
"A short man's pride is easily wounded and can hardly ever be satisfied," I said. He smirked with obvious surprise, and I went on. "Sometimes it requires a satisfaction as great and violent as defacing an ancient statue."
I wanted to ask him whether the Mamelukes were truly all eunuchs, but then decided against it, for he might think me too forward for a young lady.
"And Turkey?" I asked him. "You have been to Istanbul, then?"
He nodded. "It is quite a beautiful town?"
I asked him whether he had seen the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia, which had previously been the greatest Christian Church, and the Topkapi Palace, which housed the harem of the Sultan. He seemed impressed.
"You say you do not travel, but you seem to know quite a lot about the faraway places, Miss De Lara."
"Well, my family frowns on travel," I explained. "My people have been forced to wander around the world so many times, and in such recent past, too. My family is firmly rooted in London and does everything it can to entrench itself here all the more deeply. My father is aghast at an idea of leaving one's home for an extended period of time."
"I do understand his sentiments," he said. "But then pray explain, how do you know all these things?"
"So you read quite a lot?"
"I do. Because we live so privately, there really is not much more for me to do. You see, I don't even know how to waltz."
He gave me a thoughtful look. "One can learn how to waltz in a day; it is quite impossible, on the other hand, to gain the liveliness of mind obtained only by extensive reading."
I felt myself blush as he asked me what I usually read.
"Anything I can find in a book shop. My father indulges and funds this fancy of mine. As far as English writers, I am quite fond of Sir Walter Scott, Miss Austen, and perhaps, Mr. Cooper--but oh no, he's an American, isn't he?"
He nodded, smiling. "I think Mr. Cooper is a fine writer myself--I dare not begrudge him the fact that he is an American. But pray, go on. You said you liked Sir Walter?"
"Do you have a favorite book of his?"
"I like them all more or less equally, though, perhaps, I like Ivanhoe slightly less than others."
He raised his eyebrows. "Why so?"
"I don't think the ending is fair," I said and waited for his reaction. When none came, I explained. "I did not find it persuasive that Lady Rowena loved Ivanhoe, but I thought it quite obvious that Rebecca did. She nursed him back to health after he had been wounded; she clearly loved him. How can he be happy with the one that does not love him, while slighting the one that does?"
He stared at me, smiling. "Indeed," he said. "You are right, he cannot. The ending is indeed most unfair and I promise you to re-read the book with that in mind. So what else do you read?"
"Some rabbinical writers. Maimonides, Rambam, Rabbi Isaac Luria."
"I confess that on this subject," he said, "I would be entirely ignorant. Do you read them in English?"
"Oh, no," I said. "I doubt highly they were ever translated into English. I read them in Hebrew--or Ladino."
"Ladino? Pardon my ignorance..."
"It is our language," I explained. "That of the Sefardim, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews."
"Ah," he said. "How most curious. And you speak it?"
"Of course we do. Not all of us speak Hebrew--especially not all the women, since some less enlightened members of our congregation have preferred not to teach it to their daughters--thank goodness, my father is different. Ladino is a common every-day language, used by all of us in our homes."
His eyes widened. I was greatly pleased at his reaction, for it betrayed an open mind and honest interest, but no improper curiosity.
"You have never heard it spoken?" I guessed. "It is much like Spanish, with some Hebrew intertwined. For instance, "good-bye" is "addio", much like in Spanish it is "addios"."
"Honor?" he asked
"Kavod," I answered. "A Hebrew word."
"We use two words. We say El Dio--because to us, there is only one Supreme God. And sometimes, to avoid mentioneing His name, we say Abastado, which means "All-Powerful."
He hesitated, glanced at me unsurely, and then finally asked. "How do you say "love"?"
I felt myself blush furiously, but did not avert my eyes, for it wasn't in my habit to do so.
"Amor," I said, unsmiling.
"Indeed," he said softly, "it is much like Spanish."
An uncomfortable pause ensued and was mercifully interrupted by Enrique's announcement that supper has been served.
She wore her hair high on top of her head; it was very dark, nearly black, but her eyes were of the most brilliant green color. He had lied to his cousin Alec Hester--at first meeting, Stella Rosa's beauty certainly intrigued him. Now that he had also learned that she was sensible, smart and naturally charming, he was positively bewitched.
He was captivated, entranced, and teetered dangerously near to falling in love. She was no doubt very attractive, but it was the way she spoke--calmly, without any pretension or affectation--that made his heart flutter and his head spin. She reminded him of Vanessa. He had always thought that he wanted a wife who would approach his sister in wit and sensibility; he had lived to be six-and-twenty and had never met a woman who did. Now, as he eyed her cautiously across the supper table, William had to restrain his inner self from tumbling deeply and hopelessly in love with this girl. For she was, after all, a Jewess.
The supper went very well, he thought, with light chatter about the theater, to which the lady of the house was rather partial, some politics--though he was careful not to tread on any question that might offend his hosts, his many travels and the difference between country and city living. He was certainly curious about them, about their world, but for some reason, he felt, they would be most appropriately asked from her.
The food served was excellent, though a little too spicy for his taste, and reminded him of his travels to Turkey and the Mahreb. But to be honest with himself, he hardly noticed what he ate. She sat right across from him, next to her meeker sister, and her skin gleamed like nacre under the candlelight. He chastised himself for thinking of her in such a way; though a Jewess, she was nevertheless a maiden, and had to be granted all the respect he would afford to the highest-placed English "rose."
And then, after the delectable dessert and black Turkish coffee had been served and joyfully consumed, the women left the room and the men to their more manly pursuits. The conversation turned to harsher politics, the remarks became more jagged, and sometimes words were uttered, which William did not understand, in Ladino or Hebrew. A box of fine cigars was passed around, and as he took one--for he smoked one now and then, though finding the habit of doing so continuous quite noxious--he thought, with some surprise, that these people have managed to make a good life for themselves in one of the most unmanageable London neighborhoods. It was not before music, somewhat wild, came from the living room.
"Well, those would be my daughters," Levi de Lara said, smiling. Indeed, as they rejoined the ladies in the living room, William saw Stella Rosa behind the pianoforte, and her sister Elena next to her, leaning against it with a small timbrel, giving her music more rhythm; two younger female cousins danced in the middle of the room as several older women, including Stella Rosa's mother, surrounded them, clapping their hands.
William approached the pianoforte from behind and stood, watching her play. She looked up at him, smiling blissfully.
"You see," she said. "These are the kinds of dances that we dance; I believe you would not be interested."
He only smiled, regretting to himself that he could not dance with her.
"But perhaps," she said, suddenly switching to a slower pace (this elicited loud protestations from her cousins, to which she paid no mind) "I can tempt you to sing with me?"
She played a well-known Italian romance, and the two of them sang, pleasantly enough--for in William's family, with Vanessa's obvious talent, music had always been a welcome diversion--and caused the de Laras to applaud.
"Finally," Enrique de Lara said teasingly, "someone to sing together with my sister!"
"Will you sing one of--" he almost said "one of your songs", but caught himself in time. "--are there songs in Ladino?"
She nodded vigorously and proceeded to ruffle through a thick stack of sheet music that lay on top of the piano-forte.
"This, perhaps," she said. The melody she chose full of rue, but also soulful and lovely. William watched Miss de Lara play and found that she had beautiful hands and sang well; he did not even stop to compare her voice, which was far from operatic, to Vanessa's powerful soprano, as he would have usually done. Having finished, she raised her eyes to him and said, softly. "This is called Addio Kerido."
"'Good bye, my beloved?' What a sad song!"
"Most sad," she agreed, standing up. "The song, in fact, is something of a curse by a woman to her errant lover, who had hurt her so much, she now considers him dead."
He soon left her side as to not seem completely inappropriate; but throughout the evening, and later, after he bid the hospitable family good-bye and went home, he could not stop thinking about her. She was so beautiful, so alive, so real--what a pity it is that she should be a Jewess.
He heard the pitter-patter of feet, then knocking, and whispering, and more knocking.
Sitting up in bed, William looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of his bedroom. It was eleven o'clock: probably, the latest he had ever gotten up.
"Willie!" he heard Alexandra's voice, impatient, from behind his door, and then, quieter, Vanessa's, hissing something about not waking him up.
He swore under his breath. He had promised Vanessa to take her and Ali riding today in **** Park, and had slept shamefully through any reasonable hour. He had come home late last night, around midnight, and could not, try as he might, fall asleep until at least three.
"Right!" he yelled. "Wait for me downstairs! I'll be down presently!" And he rang, furiously, for a servant to help him dress--only to remember that he had left his valet at Bloomfield.
Half an hour later, the three of them set out. His sisters were good riders; particularly Vanessa, who was already a grown woman, and sat in her saddle with a regal air. Alexandra, still a girl, slouched, both walking and riding, and it gave her family a lot of grief.
"Ali," William said, gently, barely touching her shoulder with his riding whip. "Sit up straight, darling."
Vanessa touched her whip to the brim of her hat as they passed some acquaintance, and smiled genially.
"Who was that?" William asked.
"Some old crone, a friend of our mother's."
"I shan't have you talk like that of Mother's friends."
"Well, you asked me, I told you who that was. Besides, you doubt not that she is not really her friend, do you?"
William smiled. His sister possessed a good deal of sense, for which he respected her, and a free spirit, which he almost regretted: for it would soon have to be reined in, if she were ever to find a husband.
"No," he said. "I do not really think so."
They soon reached the park and took one of the lanes into the woods, where all the snow had melted the week before. William knew what was coming.
"So, Will," Vanessa asked. "Was your evening pleasant last night?"
"Very," he said, as he held his horse, Zanzibar, back, letting Alexandra on her heavy Vicar go ahead. "They seemed very amiable, extremely pleasant people."
"So how soon shall we see them dine with us?"
William hesitated. "Perhaps, never," he said. "They adhere to special dietary restrictions, to satisfy which would be quite impossible for me."
"Willie, nothing's impossible for you!" cried the impulsive Alexandra, turning back in the saddle.
William smiled, touched.
"I'm pleased you think so," he said. "But I do know the limitations upon my abilities. And I would much rather you watched where you're going on that horse--before a branch hits you in the face."
Alexandra turned back, just in time to avoid being hit by a low-hanging branch.
"So what do you say?" Vanessa asked. "How much trouble would it be, really, to find a cook who can satisfy your guests' needs?"
He said nothing, riding quietly next to her.
"And it would so help Mother's moods, if only for just one night. If they are such a delightful people, that family, maybe they'll be able to lift her out of her dreary condition."
"Vanessa, our father hasn't been dead a month. It's natural for her to grieve."
"I know, I know, Will," his sister said. "I know. But--it is just so difficult. We have all lost him, you and I did, too."
"I know, Vanessa," he answered, patiently. "A lot has fallen on your shoulders lately, dear girl. At your age, I was quite carefree and happy."
For a short time, she stared away, looking grimly from under the brims of her hat. Then, as she turned back to him, she smiled, and said:
"I am happy, brother. I do grieve for our father, and I do so wish Mother stopped crying, and I could sing--"
"Vanessa!" William said, in slight exasperation. "We have discussed it, haven't we?"
"Yes!" Alexandra turned back in her saddle again. "You can't possibly sing, because then you would be a woman of the demi-monde!"
"And that would be undesirable?" Vanessa asked, angrily.
"Oh, that is awful!" Alexandra cried, excitedly. "That is almost as bad as being a--" and she lowered her voice, smirking at her brother. "--a fallen woman!"
"Alexandra!" William was now angry. "Where did you--"
With a pealing laugh, the girl took off and galloped down the lane. William considered catching up with her and taking both of his sisters' home, but decided against it. Underneath his demeanor, so severe at the moment, he was laughing. In fact, he had been laughing inside ever since he had left the Henry de Lara's home the previous night.
"So?" Vanessa asked. "Shall you ask the de Laras to supper?"
He promised to think about it, and they took off in a faster pace, looking to find Alexandra.
On the morning of Erev Shabbat, Viola was feeling ill.
"Enrique certainly is fast," I heard Margarita say to our mother, "Only a month married, and already knocked-up!"
I was not in the least shocked to hear Margarita say those callous words; pretentious around strangers, my older sister was harsh and vulgar with her family. Our mother looked concerned, as she gave Viola her salts to smell and brought her a drink of water.
"Perhaps you girls should go take her out for a breath of air," she suggested. "Perhaps to a park!"
Elena and I exchanged a glance: to leave the juderia! For there were certainly no parks in Whitechapel--not the kind where three young ladies could take a safe and pleasurable walk! We were given the family carriage, and half an hour later, the three of us were walking down a path in the *** Park. As the fresh air, however cold, touched her ashen face, Viola became livelier. Her gift of mindless chatter returned to her, and both Elena and I were soon cruelly missing the previous hour, when she was quiet. This was particularly upsetting, as Viola's twittering revolved around her pregnancy, and though I did not much care, it was most irksome for me to see that my dear Elena was disturbed by the discourse. I was just about to ask her to change the subject, when a desperate cry caught my attention.
A large horse flew, galloping, out of the woods, and bore down on us. I only had time to see the terrified eyes of its rider--a young girl, who was holding on for dear life--before I, in an attempt to push both my sister and Viola--who was still babbling about her baby--out of its way, slipped on one of the few remaining patches of ice and fell, right under its hooves.
...I came to soon, and saw a number of concerned miens leaning over me. There was, of course, Elena, white as snow, Viola, who, though scared, could barely contain her excitement at such a "happening," two unknown to me female faces--a blonde and a brunette, both exceedingly pretty--and Sir William Hester.
"What happened?" I whispered, finding it difficult to talk.
"Vicar--my horse--I'm so sorry!" the blonde girl cried in great agitation. "He galloped away with me, and I wasn't able to restrain it, that is until Will caught up with me--but you had already fallen--"
"Sh-sh, Ali," the brunette said. "How are you feeling, Miss?"
"Try to set up, Miss de Lara," Sir William said, offering me his arm. I did, and though all of my body ached slightly, there was no acute pain anywhere, and soon, I was able to stand. Elena, who, in her shock and terror, forgot all of her English, asked me if I had shasheo, dizziness. I did, indeed, and in my attempt to gain footing, attached myself to the first arm extended to me--that of Sir William.
"I believe I am quite all right now," I said, but my head was still spinning most cruelly, and Sir William sat me down, quickly, but gently, on one of the stone benches.
"Miss de Lara," he said, seeming genuinely worried, "I wish I could have done this at a better time, but I would like to introduce to you my sisters, Miss Vanessa," he pointed to the brunette, "and Miss Alexandra," and the blonde curtsied, looking extremely guilty.
Trying to be socially graceful, I, in turn, introduced my sister and Viola to the young ladies, and, after my head stopped spinning, stood up, shakily.
"Willie," the younger girl said suddenly, as Sir William escorted me to my carriage, "why don't you ask them now?"
"Alexandra!" her older sister admonished her. "This really is not the time!"
Her brother had to agree with her. "I shall discuss it with the ladies at a more appropriate time."
I only had to wonder what he planned to ask us; my sister was intrigued as well, and Viola positively squealed with excitement.
As he closed the door to my carriage, Sir William hesitated and said, tentatively:
"What Alexandra said," he said, finally, "about me, asking you--I--we should very much like to see you at our house for supper next Thursday."
"You are addressing this to the wrong person, Sir William," I said. "You should ask my sister-in-law."
"Oh," he became red with embarrassment. "You are correct, of course. Mrs. de Lara--" he turned to
Viola, but she interrupted him with a resounding "Of Course!" And so it was settled. We were to dine with Sir William and his family Thursday next. That is, if Father allowed us to go; we were rarely allowed to eat outside our home, particularly anywhere where the food might have been prepared against the laws of kashrut.
"And, Miss de Lara," he said, addressing me again, "Please tell your father that I should take proper care to ensure that your religious dietary needs are well taken care of."
"That is very kind of you," I thought, smitten by the fact that he had thought of everything in advance. "Indeed, very kind."
As the carriage pulled away, I watched Sir William Hester and his sisters mount their horses, as Miss Vanessa flew up in her saddle, and Miss Alexandra was taken up to that of her brother; but I paid them no mind, engaged by the regal way his figure looked on horseback.
When the three of them were finally out of sight, I turned to Elena.
"So what happened?" I asked. "I was sure the blasted beast would trample me!"
"And it nearly did!" Viola gushed. "But for the gentleman--he galloped straight after the first horse, and grabbed its reins just as it reared above you!"
I looked at Elena, whose silent nod confirmed everything Viola was saying; she was still ashen-faced and could barely get a word out.
"Viola," I asked my sister-in-law. "Would it be too much to ask of you to keep this story to yourself?"
I cherished every opportunity to get out of the juderia; if my father found out what had happened, he would surely prohibit me from leaving it again. I could not risk it; Viola's face, however, betrayed her complete inability to keep such a secret from coming out. Elena finally opened her mouth:
"Viola," she said. "Enrique will think that it's your fault--that his favorite sister was nearly killed because of you, because you had to be taken out to that godforsaken park--so you better not tell him."
Looking at Viola's stretched-out face, I threw Elena a shocked glance, for I had never before seen my beloved sister lie so blatantly. But Elena's point was well-made: only the reverence Viola felt for her husband could keep her from blurting out that I was nearly killed in the park. On our way home from the park, Elena and I fruitlessly attempted to neaten my disheveled appearance and to minimize the unpleasant bruise on my cheekbone. The better I looked, the less there would be to explain after we came home. But when we did, nobody paid attention to my appearance; as soon as I stepped over the threshold, my mother seized me by the hand and dragged me, sliding behind her on the hardwood floor, to my father's study. There, she left me alone with him.
My father, Levi de Lara, was a kind man. At that moment, his whole countenance glowed in what must have been a premonition at my future happiness at the news he was going to bestow.
"Stella Rosa," he said to me. "I have the most wonderful news."
I waited, not saying a word, though inside, I already knew what those news would be--and what frightened me the most was the smile of gladness on his face.
"Marcus d'Almazan was here today," he said. "He asked for your hand in marriage."
He waited for my answer, but all I needed to know was that he was prepared to acquiesce to my dismissal of Marcus d'Almazan.
"I told him that we would be honored to make a connection with him," he said, finally.
"Father!" I cried. "He hasn't even spoken with me!"
"He will speak with you, in due time," my father said, pleased. "But what matters most is that he made his intentions known to me, and have received my blessing."
"Indeed. Marcus d'Almazan is a fine young man from a very good family. His second cousin is Sir Moses Montefiore, a man much favored by Her Majesty the Queen."
"But I do not love him! Indeed, I do not even like him!"
"You shall. Your mother and I did not even know each other before our wedding. In time, you shall learn to love and respect your husband."
My head was spinning again.
"I don't--shan't marry him!" I cried. "We have enough money and connections to last us a lifetime! Margarita is married to the Abravanels, and Elena will marry soon into the Da Silvas--why do you feel such a need to barter me, too?!"
My father scowled, most displeased at my reaction.
"Stella Rosa," he said, harshly. "Indeed, you shall. You shan't disobey your father--or I shall put you out of the house, without as much as a shilling in your pocket. Mr. d'Almazan will be absent from town for the next week, but he will call on you with his family Thursday next. You shall then be civil and pleasant to all of them, or I shall punish you most cruelly."
Weeping, I ran out of his study and up the stairs to my room. Dressed as I was, shoes and all, I fell prostrate on my bed. What I felt at that moment could not be described with words: all my hope of happiness was now utterly ruined. I was hurt and frightened, but most of all, I was angry at my father for thinking so little of my happiness. Only the full realization that on my own, I would not make it alive past the boundaries of Whitechapel kept me from dashing out of the house that very minute.
My mother and Elena came up to my room and sat with me. My mother stroked my hair gently and whispered kind words to me. Elena was quiet and, though my face was hidden in the pillows, I heard, from time to time, a suspicious sniffle emanate from where she sat.
"He only has your good in mind, daughter," my mother said softly.
I sat up on the bed.
"How does he have my good in mind, mama? I could not have made it clearer to him that I do not love Mr. D'Almazan and have no wish to marry him! And yet he insisted! He said that I would have to marry him."
"But that is how we marry, Stella Rosa," my mother said, offering me a handkerchief. "That is how I married your father. I had seen him only once before the day of our betrothal."
"But I do know Marcus, mama!" I cried. "He is one of Beni's friends! As a child, he pulled my hair! He has come to our house many times, and I have had an opportunity to watch him!"
"And?" my mother asked.
"And I don't like him!" I bellowed, falling onto the pillows again.
"But you are young, Stella Rosa. Your father is old and he knows people better than you do. If he feels that Mr. D'Almazan is good enough to marry, he must be. Now, now," she said. "It is almost time to light the candles! Come downstairs, girls," she said as she rose.
"I shan't go," I said through my teeth.
"Stella Rosa!" my mother chastised me. "You must light a candle, it is Shabbat! You must give your thanks to El Dio."
"I do not want to light a candle," I replied, burrowing my face deeper into the pillows. "I have nothing to thank Him for."
I heard my mother gasp, and Elena sigh in exasperation. Then my mother said:
"Well, then, remain here, you obstinate, stupid, most ungrateful girl. Elena, you come with me."
"May I stay with Stella Rosa for another minute, mama? I shall come down presently," Elena said sweetly, and I thanked El Dio for having at least one loyal soul among the members of my family.
My mother left, and Elena shook my shoulder gently. "Dear sister," she whispered, turning me around slowly. "Please take heart. Do not cry. El Dio has mysterious ways--you shall be happy, somehow, I am sure of it."
Such concern was written upon her dear face, that I felt something akin to shame. "Elena," I said, "You are so fortunate to love the one you are marrying." For Elena and her betrothed, Pedro da Silva, had first been friends and then sweethearts ever since they had met ten years ago.
"But perhaps you are mistaken about Mr. D'Almazan?" she suggested, shyly.
"Marcus? I am mistaken about Marcus? The same Marcus, of whom I was afraid as a girl? Who once nearly pulled all of my hair out? Who found enjoyment in wringing pigeons' necks? I am mistaken about him?"
Elena's face betrayed disgust, as she asked:
"He killed birds?"
"Yes, for the sheer pleasure of it! I could even forgive him my hair--after all, all boys do that, from time to time. But such unmitigated cruelty at such a young age--what kind of a husband do you think he will make?"
Elena sighed. "You are right, Stella Rosa. And he is close friends with Beni."
"True!" I said. "And you know how our older brother treats his wife, Elena--now, what have I to expect from a man like this? Oh, Elena, what do I do?" I exclaimed, tears coming to my eyes once again.
She had no answer for me, but tried, once again, to persuade me to come downstairs and light the candles with our mother.
"No," I said. "No. You go down. I cannot make myself tonight. "
After Elena left, I lay on the bed for a short time, but inaction, more than anything, made me desperate. I felt a strong need to do something to help my situation, but knew that there was nothing to be done; on Thursday next, I should have to welcome Marcus d'Almazan as my future husband, and his parents--as my future family. Less than a week left, I thought, on Thur--Oh, I thought, the supper invitation from Sir William!
I jumped to my feet, ran up to the armoire, and flipping the front door open to serve as my writing desk, pulled out a sheet of paper. The sun had already set, and I knew that by writing on Shabbat, I committed a serious sin, but at that moment, I did not care.
On a sheer impulse, I wrote:
"Dear Sir! Please forgive me, but I shall not be able to dine with you on Thursday next--or ever, for that matter. After I came home, my father had the most unpleasant news for me--I am to be married, to a man, whom I know enough to dislike and despise; yet, my personal desires have no weight in this matter: I am to be married. Dear Sir William, please give my regards--and regrets--to your fair sisters."
Oh, what am I doing! I said to myself. Why does he need to know this? I was just a casual acquaintance to him; no doubt, he entertained no serious interest in me, a Jewess. I tore the first letter to shreds and threw it into the fire; then I sat down and wrote anew:
"Dear Sir. You have been most kind in extending my sisters and me an invitation to dine with you on Thursday next. Sadly, for reasons, over which I have no control, I must decline your invitation. Please, give my regrets--and regards--to your fair sisters."
I signed the second letter and sealed it with red wax; I took out the card he had given me in the park and wrote his London address on the letter, after which I threw the card into the fire, and ran downstairs.
"What are you doing?" It was my oldest sister Margarita, standing with her arms on her hips.
"Looking for Mathilda," I said, defiantly.
Mathilda was the gentile servant, who came in on Fridays so as to serve us on Shabbat.
Margarita stepped up and tried to take the letter out of my hand.
"What were you doing?" she asked, squinting her eyes. "You were writing a letter, on Shabbat?"
I hid the letter behind my back. "It is really none of your business what I was doing," I snapped.
"Whom were you writing?" Margarita walked around me, like a cat. "I shall tell Father and Beni that you were doing work on Shabbat," she murmured.
"I had no doubts that you would," I said, bitterly. "What are you doing here, at any rate? Shouldn't you be with your husband's family?"
We all knew that Margarita barely spoke with her mother- and sister-in-law--which automatically filled me with sympathy and respect for her husband's family.
"Margarita!" Elena appeared in the doorway, lit by the lights of the candles lit in the dining room. "Your husband wants you, come."
Margarita was forced to retreat. Having thrown a sad glance at me, Elena followed her into the dining room. I found Mathilda and begged her to take the letter to Sir William's residence, to which she acquiesced after I slid several coins in her hand. Having so taken care of this affair, I went upstairs, to attempt to cry myself to sleep.
© 2002 Copyright held by the author.