Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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The Lie

The first thing about his American teachers that struck David Rudinsky was the fact that they were women, and the second was that they did not get angry if somebody asked questions. This phenomenon subverted his previous experience. When he went to heder (Hebrew school), in Russia, his teachers were always men, and they did not like to be interrupted with questions that were not in the lesson. Everything was different in America, and David liked the difference.

The American teachers, on their part, also made comparisons. They said David was not like other children. It was not merely that his mind worked like lightning; those neglected Russian waifs were almost always quick to learn, perhaps because they had to make up for lost time. The quality of his interest, more than the rapidity of his progress, excited comment. Miss Ralston, David’s teacher in the sixth grade, which he reached in his second year at school, said of him that he never let go of a lesson till he had got the soul of the matter. “I don’t think grammar is grammar to him,” she said, “or fractions mere arithmetic. I’m not satisfied with the way I teach these things since I’ve had David. I feel that if he were on the platform instead of me, geography and grammar would be spliced to the core of the universe.”

One difficulty David’s teachers encountered, and that was his extreme reserve. In private conversation it was hard to get anything out of him except “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am,” or, “I don’t understand, please.” In the classroom he did not seem to be aware of the existence of anybody besides Teacher and himself. He asked questions as fast as he could formulate them, and Teacher had to exercise much tact in order to satisfy him without slighting the rest of her pupils. To advances of a personal sort he did not respond, as if friendship were not among the things he hungered for.

It was Miss Ralston who found the way to David’s heart. Perhaps she was interested in such things; they sometimes are, in the public schools. After the Christmas holidays, the children were given as a subject for composition, “How I spent the Vacation.” David wrote in a froth of enthusiasm about whole days spent in the public library. He covered twelve pages with an account of the books he had read. The list included many juvenile classics in American history and biography; and from his comments it was plain that the little alien worshiped the heroes of war.

When Miss Ralston had read David’s composition, she knew what to do. She was one of those persons who always know what to do, and do it. She asked David to stay after school, and read to him, from a blue book with gilt lettering, “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Independence Bell.” That hour neither of them ever forgot. To David it seemed as if all the heroes he had dreamed of crowded around him, so real did his teacher’s reading make them. He heard the clash of swords and the flapping of banners in the wind. On the blackboard behind Miss Ralston troops of faces appeared and vanished, like the shadows that run across a hillside when clouds are moving in the sky. As for Miss Ralston, she said afterwards that she was the first person who had ever seen the real David Rudinsky. That was a curious statement to make, considering that his mother and father, and sundry other persons in the two hemispheres, had had some acquaintance with David previous to the reading of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” However, Miss Ralston had a way of saying curious things.

There were many readings out of school hours, after that memorable beginning. Miss Ralston did not seem to realize that the School Board did not pay her for those extra hours that she spent on David. David did not know that she was paid at all. He thought Teacher was born on purpose to read and tell him things and answer his questions, just as his mother existed to cook his favorite soup and patch his trousers. So he brought his pet book from the library, and when the last pupil was gone, he took it from his desk and laid it on Miss Ralston’s, without a word; and Miss Ralston read, and they were both happy. When a little Jewish boy from Russia goes to school in America, all sorts of things are likely to happen that the School Board does not provide for. It might be amusing to figure out the reasons.

David’s reserve slowly melted in the glowing intimacy of these happy half-hours; still, he seldom made any comment on the reading at the time; he basked mutely in the warmth of his teacher’s sympathy. But what he did not say orally he was very likely to say on paper. That also was one of Miss Ralston’s discoveries. When she gave out the theme, “What I Mean to Do When I Grow Up,” David wrote that he was going to be an American citizen, and always vote for honest candidates, and belong to a society for arresting illegal voters. You see David was only a greenhorn, and an excitable one. He thought it a very great matter to be a citizen, perhaps because such a thing was not allowed in the country he came from. Miss Ralston probably knew how it was with him, or she guessed. She was great at guessing, as all her children knew. At any rate, she did not smile as she read of David’s patriotic ambitions. She put his paper aside until their next quiet hour, and then she used it so as to get a great deal out of him that he would not have had the courage to tell if he had not believed that it was an exercise in composition.

This Miss Ralston was a crafty person. She learned from David about a Jewish restaurant where his father sometimes took him; a place where a group of ardent young Russians discussed politics over their inexpensive dinner. She heard about a mass meeting of Russian Jews to celebrate the death of Alexander III, “because he was a cruel tyrant, and was very bad to Jewish people.” She even tracked some astonishing phrases in David’s vocabulary to their origin in the Sunday orations he had heard on the Common, in his father’s company.

Impressed by these and other signs of paternal interest in her pupil’s education, Miss Ralston was not unprepared for the visit which David’s father paid her soon after these revelations. It was a very cold day, and Mr. Rudinsky shivered in his thin, shabby overcoat; but his face glowed with inner warmth as he discovered David’s undersized figure in one of the front seats.

“I don’t know how to say it what I feel to see my boy sitting and learning like this,” he said, with a vibration in his voice that told more than his words. “Do you know, ma’am, if I didn’t have to make a living, I’d like to stay here all day and see my David get educated. I’m forty years old, and I’ve had much in my life, but it’s worth nothing so much as this. The day I brought my children to school, it was the best day in my life. Perhaps you won’t believe me, ma’am, but when I hear that David is a good boy and learns good in school, I wouldn’t change places with Vanderbilt the millionaire.”

He looked at Miss Ralston with the eyes of David listening to “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

“What do you think, ma’am,” he asked, as he got up to leave, “my David will be a good American, no?”

“He ought to be,” said Miss Ralston, warmly, “with such a father.”

Mr. Rudinsky did not try to hide his gratification.

“I am a citizen,” he said, unconsciously straightening. “I took out citizen papers as soon as I came to America, four years ago.”

So they came to the middle of February, when preparations for Washington’s Birthday were well along. One day the class was singing “America,” when Miss Ralston noticed that David stopped and stared absently at the blackboard in front of him. He did not wake out of his reverie till the singing was over, and then he raised his hand.

“Teacher,” he asked, when he had permission to speak, “what does it mean, ‘Land where my fathers died’?”

Miss Ralston explained, wondering how many of her pupils cared to analyze the familiar words as David did.

A few days later, the national hymn was sung again. Miss Ralston watched David. His lips formed the words “Land where my fathers died,” and then they stopped, set in the pout of childish trouble. His eyes fixed themselves on the teacher’s, but her smile of encouragement failed to dispel his evident perplexity.

Anxious to help him over his unaccountable difficulty, Miss Ralston detained him after school.

“David,” she asked him, when they were alone, “do you understand ‘America’ now?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you understand ‘Land where my fathers died’?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You didn’t sing with the others.”

“No, ma’am.”

Miss Ralston thought of a question that would rouse him.

“Don’t you like ‘America,’ David?”

The boy almost jumped in his place.

“Oh, yes, ma’am, I do! I like ‘America.’ It’s—fine.”

He pressed his fist nervously to his mouth, a trick he had when excited.

“Tell me, David, why you don’t sing it.”

David’s eyes fixed themselves in a look of hopeless longing. He answered in a whisper, his pale face slowly reddening.

“My fathers didn’t die here. How can I sing such a lie?”

Miss Ralston’s impulse was to hug the child, but she was afraid of startling him. The attention she had lavished on the boy was rewarded at this moment, when her understanding of his nature inspired the answer to his troubled question. She saw how his mind worked. She realized, what a less sympathetic witness might have failed to realize, that behind the moral scruple expressed in his words, there was a sense of irreparable loss derived from the knowledge that he had no share in the national past. The other children could shout the American hymn in all the pride of proprietorship, but to him the words did not apply. It was a flaw in his citizenship, which he was so jealous to establish.

The teacher’s words were the very essence of tact and sympathy. In her voice were mingled the yearning of a mother and the faith of a comrade.

“David Rudinsky, you have as much a right to those words as I or anybody else in America. Your ancestors did not die on our battlefields, but they would have if they’d had a chance. You used to spend all your time reading the Hebrew books, in Russia. Don’t you know how your people—your ancestors, perhaps!—fought the Roman tyrants? Don’t you remember the Maccabean brothers, and Bar Kochba, and—oh, you know about them more than I! I’m ashamed to tell you that I haven’t read much Jewish history, but I’m sure if we begin to look it up, we’ll find that people of your race—people like your father, David—took part in the fight for freedom, wherever they were allowed. And even in this country—David, I’m going to find out for you how many Jews there were in the armies of the Revolution. We don’t think about it here, you see, because we don’t ask what a man’s religion is, as long as he is brave and good.”

David’s eyes slowly lost their look of distress as his teacher talked. His tense little face, upturned to hers, reminded her of a withered blossom that revives in the rain. She went on with increasing earnestness, herself interested in the discoveries she was making, in her need.

“I tell you the truth, David, I never thought of these things before, but I do believe that the Pilgrim Fathers didn’t all come here before the Revolution. Isn’t your father just like them? Think of it, dear, how he left his home, and came to a strange land, where he couldn’t even speak the language. That was a great trouble, you know; something like the fear of the Indians in the old days. And wasn’t he looking for the very same things? He wanted freedom for himself and his family, and a chance for his children to grow up wise and brave. You know your father cares more for such things than he does for money or anything. It’s the same story over again. Every ship that brings your people from Russia and other countries where they are ill-treated is a Mayflower. If I were a Jewish child like you, I would sing ‘America’ louder than anybody else!”

David’s adoring eyes gave her the thanks which his tongue would not venture to utter. Never since that moment, soon after his arrival from Russia, when his father showed him his citizenship papers, saying, “Look, my son, this makes you an American,” had he felt so secure in his place in the world.

Miss Ralston studied his face in silence while she gathered up some papers on her desk, preparatory to leaving. In the back of her mind she asked herself to how many of the native children in her class the Fourth of July meant anything besides fire-crackers.

“Get your things, David,” she said presently, as she locked her desk. “It’s time we were going. Think if we should get locked up in the building!”

David smiled absently. In his ears ran the familiar line, “Land where my fathers died—my fathers died—fathers died.”

“It’s something like the Psalms!” he said suddenly, himself surprised at the discovery.

“What is like the Psalms, dear?”

He hesitated. Now that he had to explain, he was not sure any more. Miss Ralston helped him out.

“You mean ‘America,’ sounds like the Psalms to you?” David nodded. His teacher beamed her understanding. How did she guess wherein the similarity lay? David had in mind such moments as this when he said of Miss Ralston, “Teacher talks with her eyes.”

Miss Ralston went to get her coat and hat from the closet.

“Get your things, David,” she repeated. “The janitor will come to chase us out in a minute.”

He was struggling with the torn lining of a coat-sleeve in the children’s dressing-room, when he heard Miss Ralston exclaim,—

“Oh, David! I had almost forgotten. You must try this on. This is what you’re going to wear when you speak the dialogue with Annie and Raymond. We used it in a play a few years ago. I thought it would do for you.”

She held up a blue-and-buff jacket with tarnished epaulets. David hurried to put it on. He was to take the part of George Washington in the dialogue. At sight of the costume, his heart started off on a gallop.

Alas for his gallant aspirations! Nothing of David was visible outside the jacket except two big eyes above and two blunt boot-toes below. The collar reached to his ears; the cuffs dangled below his knees. He resembled a scarecrow in the cornfield more than the Father of his Country.

Miss Ralston suppressed her desire to laugh.

“It’s a little big, isn’t it?” she said cheerily, holding up the shoulders of the heroic garment. “I wonder how we can make it fit. Don’t you think your mother would know how to take up the sleeves and do something to the back?”

She turned the boy around, more hopeless than she would let him see. Miss Ralston understood more about little boys’ hearts than about their coats.

“How old are you, David?” she asked, absently, wondering for the hundredth time at his diminutive stature. “I thought the boy for whom this was made was about your age.”

David’s face showed that he felt reproved. “I’m twelve,” he said, apologetically.

Miss Ralston reproached herself for her tactlessness, and proceeded to make amends.

“Twelve?” she repeated, patting the blue shoulders. “You speak the lines like a much older boy. I’m sure your mother can make the coat fit, and I’ll bring the wig—a powdered wig—and the sword, David! You’ll look just like George Washington!”

Her gay voice echoed in the empty room. Her friendly eyes challenged his. She expected to see him kindle, as he did so readily in these days of patriotic excitement. But David failed to respond. He remained motionless in his place, his eyes blank and staring. Miss Ralston had the feeling that behind his dead front his soul was running away from her.

This is just what was happening. David was running away from her, and from himself, and from the image of George Washington, conjured up by the scene with the military coat. Somewhere in the jungle of his consciousness a monster was stirring, and his soul fled in terror of its clutch. What was it—what was it that came tearing through the wilderness of his memories of two worlds? In vain he tried not to understand. The ghosts of forgotten impressions cackled in the wake of the pursuing monster, the breath of whose nostrils spread an odor of evil sophistries grafted on his boyish thoughts in a chimerical past.

His mind reeled in a whirlwind of recollection. Miss Ralston could not have understood some of the things David reviewed, even if he had tried to tell her. In that other life of his, in Russia, had been monstrous things, things that seemed unbelievable to David himself, after his short experience of America. He had suffered many wrongs,—yes, even as a little boy,—but he was not thinking of past grievances as he stood before Miss Ralston, seeing her as one sees a light through a fog. He was thinking of things harder to forget than injuries received from others. It was a sudden sense of his own sins that frightened David, and of one sin in particular, the origin of which was buried somewhere in the slime of the evil past. David was caught in the meshes of a complex inheritance; contradictory impulses tore at his heart. Fearfully he dived to the bottom of his consciousness, and brought up a bitter conviction: David Rudinsky, who called himself an American, who worshiped the names of the heroes, suddenly knew that he had sinned, sinned against his best friend, sinned even as he was planning to impersonate George Washington, the pattern of honor.

His white forehead glistened with the sweat of anguish. His eyes sickened. Miss Ralston caught him as he wavered and put him in the nearest seat.

“Why, David! what’s the matter? Are you ill? Let me take this off—it’s so heavy. There, that’s better. Just rest your head on me, so.”

This roused him. He wriggled away from her support, and put out a hand to keep her off.

“Why, David! what is the matter? Your hands are so cold—”

David’s head felt heavy and wobbly, but he stood up and began to put on his coat again, which he had pulled off in order to try on the uniform. To Miss Ralston’s anxious questions he answered not a syllable, neither did he look at her once. His teacher, thoroughly alarmed, hurriedly put on her street things, intending to take him home. They walked in silence through the empty corridors, down the stairs, and across the school yard. The teacher noticed with relief that the boy grew steadier with every step. She smiled at him encouragingly when he opened the gate for her, as she had taught him, but he did not meet her look.

At the corner where they usually parted David paused, steeling himself to take his teacher’s hand; but to his surprise she kept right on, taking his crossing.

It was now that he spoke, and Miss Ralston was astonished at the alarm in his voice.

“Miss Ralston, where are you going? You don’t go this way.”

“I’m going to see you home, David,” she replied firmly. “I can’t let you go alone—like this.”

“Oh, teacher, don’t, please don’t! I’m all right—I’m not sick,—it’s not far—Don’t, Miss Ralston, please!”

In the February dusk, Miss Ralston saw the tears rise to his eyes. Whatever was wrong with him, it was plain that her presence only made him suffer the more. Accordingly she yielded to his entreaty.

“I hope you’ll be all right, David,” she said, in a tone she might have used to a full-grown man. “Good-bye.” And she turned the corner.

All the way home Miss Ralston debated the wisdom of allowing him to go alone, but as she recalled his look and his entreating voice, she felt anew the compulsion that had made her yield. She attributed his sudden breakdown entirely to overwrought nerves, and remorsefully resolved not to subject him in the future to the strain of extra hours after school.

Her misgivings were revived the next morning, when David failed to appear with the ringing of the first gong, as was his habit. But before the children had taken their seats, David’s younger brother, Bennie, brought her news of the missing boy.

“David’s sick in bed,” he announced in accents of extreme importance. “He didn’t come home till awful late last night, and he was so frozen, his teeth knocked together. My mother says he burned like a fire all night, and she had to take little Harry in her bed, with her and papa, so’s David could sleep all alone. We all went downstairs in our bare feet this morning, and dressed ourselves in the kitchen, so David could sleep.”

“What is the matter with him? Did you have the doctor?”

“No, ma’am, not yet. The dispensary don’t open till nine o’clock.”

Miss Ralston begged him to report again in the afternoon, which he did, standing before her, cap in hand, his sense of importance still dominating over brotherly concern.

“He’s sick, all right,” Bennie reported. “He don’t eat at all—just drinks and drinks. My mother says he cried the whole morning, when he woke up and found out he’d missed school. My mother says he tried to get up and dress himself, but he couldn’t anyhow. Too sick.”

“Did you have the doctor?” interrupted Miss Ralston, suppressing her impatience.

“No, ma’am, not yet. My father went to the dispensary but the doctor said he can’t come till noon, but he didn’t. Then I went to the dispensary, dinner time, but the doctor didn’t yet come when we went back to school. My mother says you can die ten times before the dispensary doctor comes.”

“What does your mother think it is?”

“Oh, she says it’s a bad cold; but David isn’t strong, you know, so she’s scared. I guess if he gets worse I’ll have to stay home from school to run for the medicines.”

“I hope not Bennie. Now you’d better run along, or you’ll be late.”

“Yes, ma’am. Good-bye.”

“Will you come again in the morning and tell me about your brother?”

“Yes, ma’am. Good-bye.—Teacher.”

“Yes, Bennie?”

“Do you think you can do something—something—about his record? David feels dreadful because he’s broke his record. He never missed school before, you know. It’s—it’s too bad to see him cry. He’s always so quiet, you know, kind of like grown people. He don’t fight or tease or anything. Do you think you can, teacher?”

Miss Ralston was touched by this tribute to her pupil, but she could not promise to mend the broken record.

“Tell David not to worry. He has the best record in the school, for attendance and everything. Tell him I said he must hurry and get well, as we must rehearse our pieces for Washington’s Birthday.”

The next morning Bennie reeled off a longer story than ever. He described the doctor’s visit in great detail, and Miss Ralston was relieved to gather that David’s ailment was nothing worse than grippe; unless, as the doctor warned, his run-down condition caused complications. He would be in bed a week or more, in any case, “and he ought to sleep most of the time, the doctor said.”

“I guess the doctor don’t know our David!” Bennie scoffed. “He never wants at all to go to sleep. He reads and reads when everybody goes to bed. One time he was reading all night, and the lamp went out, and he was afraid to go downstairs for oil, because he’d wake somebody, so he lighted matches and read little bits. There was a heap of burned matches in the morning.”

“Dear me!” exclaimed Miss Ralston. “He ought not to do that. Your father ought not—Does your father allow him to stay up nights?”

“Sure. My father’s proud because he’s going to be a great man; a doctor, maybe.” He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “What may not a David become?”

“David is funny, don’t you think, teacher?” the boy went on. “He asks such funny questions. What do you think he said to the doctor?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Well, he pulled him by the sleeve when he took out the—the thing he puts in your mouth, and said kind of hoarse, ‘Doctor, did you ever tell a lie?’ Wasn’t that funny?”

Miss Ralston did not answer. She was thinking that David must have been turning over some problem in his mind, to say so much to a stranger.

“Did you give him my message?” she asked finally.

“Yes’m! I told him about rehearsing his piece for Washington’s Birthday.” Bennie paused.


“He acted so funny. He turned over to the wall, and cried and cried without any noise.”

“The poor boy! He’ll be dreadfully disappointed not to take his part in the exercises.”

Bennie shook his head.

“That isn’t for what he cries,” he said oracularly.

Miss Ralston’s attentive silence invited further revelations.

“He’s worrying about something,” Bennie brought out, rolling his head ominously.

“Why? How do you know?”

“The doctor said so. He told my father downstairs. He said, ‘Make him tell, if you can, it may help to pull him off’—no, ‘pull him up.’ That’s what the doctor said.”

Miss Ralston’s thoughts flew back to her last interview with David, two days before, when he had broken down so suddenly. Was there a mystery there? She was certain the boy was overwrought, and physically run down. Apparently, also, he had been exposed to the weather during the evening when he was taken ill; Bennie’s chatter indicated that David had wandered in the streets for hours. These things would account for the grippe, and for the abnormal fever of which Bennie boasted. But what was David worrying about? She resolved to go and see the boy in a day or two, when he was reported to be more comfortable.

On his next visit Bennie brought a message from the patient himself.

“He said to give you this, teacher,” handing Miss Ralston a journal. “It’s yours. It has the pieces in it for Washington’s Birthday. He said you might need it, and the doctor didn’t say when he could go again to school.”

Miss Ralston laid the journal carelessly on a pile of other papers. Bennie balanced himself on one foot, looking as if his mission were not yet ended.

“Well, Bennie?” Miss Ralston encouraged him. She was beginning to understand his mysterious airs.

“David was awful careful about that book,” the messenger said impressively. “He said over and over not to lose it, and not to give it to nobody only you.”

It was not till the end of the day that Miss Ralston took up the journal Bennie had brought. She turned the leaves absently, thinking of David. He would be so disappointed to miss the exercises! And to whom should she give the part of George Washington in the dialogue? She found the piece in the journal. A scrap of paper marked the place. A folded paper. Folded several times. Miss Ralston opened out the paper and found some writing.


I can’t be George Washington any more because I have lied to you. I must not tell you about what, because you would blame somebody who didn’t do wrong.

Your friend,

Again and again Miss Ralston read the note, unable to understand it. David, her David, whose soul was a mirror for every noble idea, had lied to her! What could he mean? What had impelled him? Somebody who didn’t do wrong. So it was not David alone; there was some complication with another person. She studied the note word for word and her eyes slowly filled with tears. If the boy had really lied—if the whole thing were not a chimera of his fevered nights—then what must he have suffered of remorse and shame! Her heart went out to him even while her brain was busy with the mystery.

She made a swift resolution. She would go to David at once. She was sure he would tell her more than he had written, and it would relieve his mind. She did not dread the possible disclosures. Her knowledge of the boy made her certain that she would find nothing ignoble at the bottom of his mystery. He was only a child, after all—an overwrought, sensitive child. No doubt he exaggerated his sin, if sin there were. It was her duty to go and put him at rest.

She knew that David’s father kept a candy shop in the basement of his tenement, and she had no trouble in finding the place. Half the children in the neighborhood escorted her to the door, attracted by the phenomenon of a teacher loose on their streets.

The tinkle of the shop-bell brought Mr. Rudinsky from the little kitchen in the rear.

“Well, well!” he exclaimed, shaking hands heartily. “This is a great honor—a great honor.” He sounded the initial h. “I wish I had a palace for you to come in, ma’am. I don’t think there was such company in this house since it was built.”

His tone was one of genuine gratification. Ushering her into the kitchen, he set a chair for her, and himself sat down at a respectful distance.

“I’m sorry,” he began, with a wave of his hand around the room. “Such company ought not to sit in the kitchen, but you see—”

He was interrupted by Bennie, who had clattered in at the visitor’s heels, panting for recognition.

“Never mind, teacher,” the youngster spoke up, “we got a parlor upstairs, with a mantelpiece and everything, but David sleeps up there—the doctor said it’s the most air—and you dassn’t wake him up till he wakes himself.”

Bennie’s father frowned, but the visitor smiled a cordial smile.

“I like a friendly kitchen like this,” she said quietly. “My mother did not keep any help when I was a little girl and I was a great deal in the kitchen.”

Her host showed his appreciation of her tact by dropping the subject.

“I’m sure you came about David,” he said.

“I did. How is he?”

“Pretty sick, ma’am. The doctor says it’s not the sickness so much, but David is so weak and small. He says David studies too much altogether. Maybe he’s right. What do you think, ma’am?”

Miss Ralston answered remorsefully.

“I agree with the doctor. I think we are all to blame. We push him too much when we ought to hold him back.”

Here Bennie made another raid on the conversation.

“He’s going to be a great man, a doctor maybe. My mother says—”

Mr. Rudinsky did not let him finish. He thought it time to insure the peace of so important an interview.

“Bennie,” said he, “you will go mind the store, and keep the kitchen door shut.”

Bennie’s discomfiture was evident in his face. He obeyed, but not without a murmur.

“Let us make a covenant to take better care of David in the future.”

Miss Ralston was speaking when Mrs. Rudinsky appeared in the doorway. She was flushed from the exertions of a hasty toilet, for which she had fled upstairs at the approach of “company.” She came forward timidly, holding out a hand on which the scrubbing brush and the paring knife had left their respective marks.

“How do you do, ma’am?” she said, cordially, but shyly. “I’m glad to see you. I wish I can speak English better, I’d like to say how proud I am to see David’s teacher in my house.”

“Why, you speak wonderfully!” Miss Ralston exclaimed, with genuine enthusiasm. “I don’t understand how you pick up the language in such a short time. I couldn’t learn Russian so fast, I’m sure.”

“My husband makes us speak English all the time,” Mrs. Rudinsky replied. “From the fust day he said to speak English. He scolds the children if he hears they speak Jewish.”

“Sure,” put in her husband, “I don’t want my family to be greenhorns.”

Miss Ralston turned a glowing face to him.

“Mr. Rudinsky, I think you’ve done wonders for your family. If all immigrants were like you, we wouldn’t need any restriction laws.” She threw all possible emphasis into her cordial voice. “Why, you’re a better American than some natives I know!”

Mrs. Rudinsky sent her husband a look of loving pride.

“He wants to be a Yankee,” she said.

Her husband took up the cue in earnest.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, “that’s my ambition. When I was a young man, in the old country, I wanted to be a scholar. But a Jew has no chance in the old country; perhaps you know how it is. It wasn’t the Hebrew books I wanted. I wanted to learn what the rest of the world learned, but a poor Jew had no chance in Russia. When I got to America, it was too late for me to go to school. It took me all my time and strength to make a living—I’ve never been much good in business, ma’am—and when I got my family over, I saw that it was the children would go to school for me. I’m glad to be a plain citizen, if my children will be educated Americans.”

People with eyes and hands like Mr. Rudinsky’s can say a great deal in a few words. Miss Ralston felt as if she had known him all his life, and followed his strivings in two worlds.

“I’m glad to know you, Mr. Rudinsky,” she said in a low voice. “I wish more of my pupils had fathers like David’s.”

Her host changed the subject very neatly.

“And I wish the school children had more teachers like you. David likes you so much.”

“Oh, he liked you!” the wife confirmed. “Please stay till he veks up. He’ll be sorry to missed your visit.”

While his wife moved quietly around the stove, making tea, Mr. Rudinsky entertained their guest with anecdotes of David’s Hebrew-school days, and of his vain efforts to get at secular books.

“He was just like me,” he said. “He wanted to learn everything. I couldn’t afford a private teacher, and they wouldn’t take him in the public school. He learned Russian all alone, and if he got a book from somewhere—a history or anything—he wouldn’t eat or drink till he read it all.”

Mrs. Rudinsky often glanced at David’s teacher, to see how her husband’s stories were impressing her. She was too shy with her English to say more than was required of her as hostess, but her face, aglow with motherly pride, showed how she participated in her husband’s enthusiasm.

“You see yourself, ma’am, what he is,” said David’s father, “but what could I make of him in Russia? I was happy when he got here, only it was a little late. I wished he started in school younger.”

“He has time enough,” said Miss Ralston. “He’ll get through grammar school before he’s fourteen. He’s twelve now, isn’t he?”

“Yes, ma’am—no, ma’am! He’s really fourteen now, but I made him out younger on purpose.”

Miss Ralston looked puzzled. Mr. Rudinsky explained.

“You see, ma’am, he was twelve years when he came, and I wanted he should go to school as long as possible, so when I made his school certificate, I said he was only ten. I have seven children, and David is the oldest one, and I was afraid he’d have to go to work, if business was bad, or if I was sick. The state is a good father to the children in America, if the real fathers don’t mix in. Why should my David lose his chance to get educated and be somebody, because I am a poor business man, and have too many children? So I made out that he had to go to school two years more.”

He narrated this anecdote in the same simple manner in which he had told a dozen others. He seemed pleased to rehearse the little plot whereby he had insured his boy’s education. As Miss Ralston did not make any comment immediately, he went on, as if sure of her sympathy.

“I told you I got my citizen papers right away when I came to America. I worked hard before I could bring my family—it took me four years to save the money—and they found a very poor home when they got here, but they were citizens right away. But it wouldn’t do them much good, if they didn’t get educated. I found out all about the compulsory education, and I said to myself that’s the policeman that will keep me from robbing my David if I fail in business.”

He did not overestimate his visitor’s sympathy. Miss Ralston followed his story with quick appreciation of his ideals and motives, but in her ingenuous American mind one fact separated itself from the others: namely, that Mr. Rudinsky had falsified his boy’s age, and had recorded the falsehood in a public document. Her recognition of the fact carried with it no criticism. She realized that Mr. Rudinsky’s conscience was the product of an environment vastly different from hers. It was merely that to her mind the element of deceit was something to be accounted for, be it ever so charitably, whereas in Mr. Rudinsky’s mind it evidently had no existence at all.

“So David is really fourteen years old?” she repeated incredulously. “Why, he seems too little even for twelve! Does he know?—Of course he would know! I wonder that he consented—”

She broke off, struck by a sudden thought. “Consented to tell a lie” she had meant to say, but the unspoken words diverted her mind from the conversation. It came upon her in a flash that she had found the key to David’s mystery. His note was in her pocketbook, but she knew every word of it, and now everything was plain to her. The lie was this lie about his age, and the person he wanted to shield was his father. And for that he was suffering so!

She began to ask questions eagerly.

“Has David said anything about—about a little trouble he had in school the day he became ill?”

Both parents showed concern.

“Trouble? what trouble?”

“Oh, it was hardly trouble—at least, I couldn’t tell myself.”

“David is so hard to understand sometimes,” his father said.

“Oh, I don’t think so!” the teacher cried. “Not when you make friends with him. He doesn’t say much, it’s true, but his heart is like a crystal.”

“He’s too still,” the mother insisted, shaking her head. ”All the time he’s sick, he don’t say anything, only when we ask him something. The doctor thinks he’s worrying about something, but he don’t tell.”

The mother sighed, but Miss Ralston cut short her reflections.

“Mrs. Rudinsky—Mr. Rudinsky,” she began eagerly, “I can tell you what David’s troubled about.”

And she told them the story of her last talk with David, and finally read them his note.

“And this lie,” she ended, “you know what it is, don’t you? You’ve just told me yourself, Mr. Rudinsky.”

She looked pleadingly at him, longing to have him understand David’s mind as she understood it. But Mr. Rudinsky was very slow to grasp the point.

“You mean—about the certificate? Because I made out that he was younger?”

Miss Ralston nodded.

“You know David has such a sense of honor,” she explained, speaking slowly, embarrassed by the effort of following Mr. Rudinsky’s train of thought and her own at the same time. “You know how he questions everything—sooner or later he makes everything clear to himself—and something must have started him thinking of this old matter lately—Why, of course! I remember I asked him his age that day, when he tried on the costume, and he answered as usual, and then, I suppose, he suddenly realized what he was saying. I don’t believe he ever thought about it since—since you arranged it so, and now, all of a sudden—”

She did not finish, because she saw that her listeners did not follow her. Both their faces expressed pain and perplexity. After a long silence, David’s father spoke.

“And what do you think, ma’am?”

Miss Ralston was touched by the undertone of submission in his voice. Her swift sympathy had taken her far into his thoughts. She recognized in his story one of those ethical paradoxes which the helpless Jews of the Pale, in their search for a weapon that their oppressors could not confiscate, have evolved for their self-defence. She knew that to many honest Jewish minds a lie was not a lie when told to an official; and she divined that no ghost of a scruple had disturbed Mr. Rudinsky in his sense of triumph over circumstances, when he invented the lie that was to insure the education of his gifted child. With David, of course, the same philosophy had been valid. His father’s plan for the protection of his future, hingeing on a too familiar sophistry, had dropped innocuous into his consciousness, until, in a moment of spiritual sensitiveness, it took on the visage of sin.

“And what do you think, ma’am?”

David’s father did not have to wait a moment for her answer, so readily did her insight come to his defense. In a few eager sentences she made him feel that she understood perfectly, and understood David perfectly.

“I respect you the more for that lie, Mr. Rudinsky. It was—a noble lie!” There was the least tremor in her voice. “And I love David for the way he sees it.”

Mr. Rudinsky got up and paced slowly across the room. Then he stopped before Miss Ralston.

“You are very kind to talk like that, Miss Ralston,” he said, with peculiar dignity. “You see the whole thing. In the old country we had to do such things so many times that we—got used to them. Here—here we don’t have to.” His voice took on a musing quality. “But we don’t see it right away when we get here. I meant nothing, only just to keep my boy in school. It was not to cheat anybody. The state is willing to educate the children. I said to myself I will tie my own hands, so that I can’t pull my child after me if I drown. I did want my David should have the best chance in America.”

Miss Ralston was thrilled by the suppressed passion in his voice. She held out her hand to him, saying again, in the low tones that come from the heart, “I am glad I know you, Mr. Rudinsky.”

There was unconscious chivalry in Mr. Rudinsky’s next words. Stepping to his wife’s side, he laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, and said quietly, “My wife has been my helper in everything.”

Miss Ralston, as we know, was given to seeing things. She saw now, not a poor immigrant couple in the first stage of American respectability, which was all there was in the room to see, but a phantom procession of men with the faces of prophets, muffled in striped praying-shawls, and women radiant in the light of many candles, and youths and maidens with smouldering depths in their eyes, and silent children who pushed away joyous things for—for—

Dreams don’t use up much time. Mr. Rudinsky was not aware that there had been a pause before he spoke again.

“You understand so well, Miss Ralston. But David”—he hesitated a moment, then finished quickly. “How can he respect me if he feels like that?”

His wife spoke tremulously from her corner.

“That’s what I think.”

“Oh, don’t think that!” Miss Ralston cried. “He does respect you—he understands. Don’t you see what he says: I can’t tell you—because you would blame somebody who didn’t do wrong. He doesn’t blame you. He only blames himself. He’s afraid to tell me because he thinks I can’t understand.”

The teacher laughed a happy little laugh. In her eagerness to comfort David’s parents, she said just the right things, and every word summed up an instantaneous discovery. One of her useful gifts was the ability to find out truths just when she desperately needed them. There are people like that, and some of them are school-teachers hired by the year. When David’s father cried, “How can he respect me?” Miss Ralston’s heart was frightened while it beat one beat. Only one. Then she knew all David’s thoughts between the terrible, “I have lied,” and the generous, “But my father did no wrong.” She guessed what the struggle had cost to reconcile the contradictions; she imagined his bewilderment as he tried to rule himself by his new-found standards, while seeking excuses for his father in the one he cast away from him as unworthy of an American. Problems like David’s are not very common, but then Miss Ralston was good at guessing.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Rudinsky,” she said, looking out of her glad eyes. “And you, Mrs. Rudinsky, don’t think for a moment that David doesn’t understand. He’s had a bad time, the poor boy, but I know—Oh, I must speak to him! Will he wake soon, do you think?”

Mr. Rudinsky left the room without a word.

“It’s all right,” said David’s mother, in reply to an anxious look from Miss Ralston. “He sleeps already the whole afternoon.”

It had grown almost dark while they talked. Mrs. Rudinsky now lighted the lamps, apologizing to her guest for not having done so sooner, and then she released Bennie from his prolonged attendance in the store.

Bennie came into the kitchen chewing his reward, some very gummy confection. He was obliged to look the pent-up things he wanted to say, until such time as he could clear his clogged talking-gear.

“Teacher,” he began, before he had finished swallowing, “What for did you say—”

“Bennie!” his mother reproved him, “You must shame yourself to listen by the door.”

“Well, there wasn’t any trade, ma,” he defended himself, “only Bessie Katz, and she brought back the peppermints she bought this morning, to change them for taffy, but I didn’t because they were all dirty, and one was broken—”

Bennie never had a chance to bring his speeches to a voluntary stop: somebody always interrupted. This time it was his father, who came down the stairs, looking so grave that even Bennie was impressed.

“He’s awake,” said Mr. Rudinsky. “I lighted the lamp. Will you please come up, ma’am?”

He showed her to the room where David lay, and closed the door on them both. It was not he, but Miss Ralston, the American teacher, that his boy needed. He went softly down to the kitchen, where his wife smiled at him through unnecessary tears.

Miss Ralston never forgot the next hour, and David never forgot. The woman always remembered how the boy’s eyes burned through the dusk of the shadowed corner where he lay. The boy remembered how his teacher’s voice palpitated in his heart, how her cool hands rested on his, how the lamplight made a halo out of her hair. To each of them the dim room with its scant furnishings became a spiritual rendezvous.

What did the woman say, that drew the sting of remorse from the child’s heart, without robbing him of the bloom of his idealism? What did she tell him that transmuted the offense of ages into the marrow and blood of persecuted virtue? How did she weld in the boy’s consciousness the scraps of his mixed inheritance, so that he saw his whole experience as an unbroken thing at last? There was nobody to report how it was done. The woman did not know nor the child. It was a secret born of the boy’s need and the woman’s longing to serve him; just as in nature every want creates its satisfaction.

When she was ready to leave him, Miss Ralston knelt for a moment at David’s bedside, and once more took his small hot hands in hers.

“And I have made a discovery, David,” she said, smiling in a way of her own. “Talking with your parents downstairs I saw why it was that the Russian Jews are so soon at home here in our dear country. In the hearts of men like your father, dear, is the true America.”  

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