Axidava

Baby And Jew

When the Penny-farthing Shop began to fill Gregorio disappeared quietly by the back door. He muttered a half-unintelligible answer to the men who were playing cards in the dim parlour through which he had to pass, who called to him to join them.

Gaining the street, he wandered along till he reached the bazaars, intending to waste an hour or two until Xantippe should have left the house. Then he determined to go back and see the boy in whom all his hopes and ambitions were centered, who was the unconscious cause of his villainy and degradation.

There was a large crowd in the bazaars, for a Moolid was being celebrated. Jugglers, snake-charmers, mountebanks, gipsies, and dancing-girls attracted hundreds of spectators.

The old men sat in the shadows of their stalls, smoking and drinking coffee. They smiled gravely at the younger people, who jostled one another good-humouredly, laughing, singing, quarrelling like children. Across the roadway hung lamps of coloured glass and tiny red flags stamped with a white crescent and a star. Torches blazed at intervals, casting a flickering glow on the excited faces of the crowd.

Gregorio watched without much interest. He had seen a great many fantasias since he came to Egypt, and they were no longer a novelty to him. He was annoyed that a race of people whom he despised should be so merry when he himself had so many troubles to worry him. He would have liked to go into one of the booths where the girls danced, but he had no money, and he cursed at his stupidity in not asking the Marx woman for some. He no longer felt ashamed of himself, for he argued that he was the victim of circumstances. Still he wished Xantippe had not looked out of the window, though of course he could easily explain things to her. And Xantippe was really so angry the night before, explanations were better postponed for a time. “After all,” he thought, “it really does not much matter. Once we get over our present difficulties we shall forget all we have gone through.” This comfortable reflection had been doing duty pretty often the last day or two, and though Gregorio did not believe it a bit, he always felt it was a satisfactory conclusion, and one to be encouraged.

Meanwhile he would not meet Xantippe. That was a point upon which he had definitely made up his mind. As he strolled through the bazaars, putting into order his vagabond thoughts, in a tall figure a few yards in front of him he recognised Amos. Nervous, he halted, for he had no desire to be interviewed by the Jew, and yet no way of escape seemed possible.

Nodding affably to the proprietor, he sat down on the floor of a shop hard by and watched Amos. The old man was evidently interested, for he was laughing pleasantly, and bending down to look at something on the ground. What it was Gregorio could not see. A knot of people, also laughing, surrounded the Jew. Gregorio was curious to see what attracted them, but fearful of being recognised by the old man. However, after a few moments his impatience mastered him, and he stepped up to the group.

“What is it?” he asked one of the bystanders.

“Only a baby. It’s lost, I think.”

Gregorio pushed his way into the centre of the crowd and suddenly became white as death.

There, seated on the ground, was his own child, laughing and talking to himself in a queer mixture of Greek and Arabic. Amos was bending kindly over the youngster, giving him cakes and sweets, and making inquiries as to the parents.

A chill fear seized on Gregorio’s heart. He could not have explained the cause, nor did he stay and try to explain it. Quickly he broke into the midst of the circle and, catching up the boy in his arms, ran swiftly away.

Having reached home, he kissed the boy passionately, sent for food to Madam Marx, and wept and laughed hysterically for an hour. After a time the boy slept, and Gregorio then paced up and down the room, smoking, and puffing great clouds of smoke from his mouth, trying to calm himself. But he could not throw off his excitement. He imagined the awful home-coming had he not been to the bazaar, and he wondered what he would have done then. A great joy possessed him to see his son safe, and a fierce desire filled him to know who had taken the child away. He longed for Xantippe’s return that he might tell her. He forgot completely that he had dreaded seeing her earlier this evening. Then he began to wonder what Amos was doing at the fantasia, and why he was so interested in the boy. Perhaps, Amos would forgive the debt for love of the child. The idea pleased him, but he soon came to understand that it was untenable. Oftener, indeed, he shuddered as he recalled the old man’s figure bent over the infant. A sense of danger to come overwhelmed him. In some way he felt that the old man and the child were to be brought together to work his, Gregorio’s, ruin.

Suddenly he heard a footstep on the stairs. “Thank God!” he cried, as he ran to the door.

“Xantippe!”

But he recoiled as if shot, for as the door opened Amos entered. The Jew bowed politely to the Greek, but there was an unpleasant twinkle in his eyes as he spoke.

“You cannot offer me a seat, my friend, so I will stand. We have met already this evening.”

Gregorio did not answer, but placed himself between the Jew and the child.

“I dare say you did not see me,” the old man continued, quietly, “for you seemed excited. I suppose the child is yours. It was surely careless to let him stray so far from home.”

“The child is mine.”

“Ah, well, it is a happy chance that you recovered him so easily. And now to business.”

“I am listening.”

“I have already, as of course you know, been here to see you about the money you owe me. I was sorry you did not see fit to pay me, because I had to sell your furniture, and it was not worth much.”

“I have no money to pay you, or I would have paid you long ago. I told you when I went to your house that I could not pay you.”

“And yet, my friend, it is only fair that a man who borrows money should be prepared to pay it back.”

“I could pay you back if you gave me time. But you have no heart, you Jews. What do you care if we starve, so long as—”

“Hush!” said Amos, gravely; “I have dealt fairly by you. But I will let you go free on one condition.”

“And that is?”

“That you give me the child.”

Gregorio stood speechless with horror and rage at the window, and the old man walked across the room to where the infant lay.

“I have no young son, Gregorio Livadas, and I will take yours. Not only will I forgive you the debt, but I will give you money. I want the child.”

“By God, you shall not touch him!” cried Gregorio, suddenly finding voice for his passion.

He rushed furiously at Amos, gripped him by the throat, and flung him to the far side of the room. Then he stood by his child with his arms folded on his breast, his eyes flashing and his nostrils dilated. Amos quickly recovered himself, and, in a voice that scarcely trembled, again demanded his money.

“Go away,” shouted Gregorio; “if you come here again, I will kill you. Twice now have I saved my boy from falling into your hands.”

“I wish only to do you a service. You are a beggar, and I am rich enough, ask Heaven, to look after the child. Why should you abuse me because I offer to release you from your debts if you will let me take the child?”

Gregorio answered brusquely that the Jew should not touch the boy. “I will not have him made a Jew.”

“Then you will pay me.”

“I will not. I cannot.”

“I shall take measures, my friend, to force you to pay me. I have not dealt harshly with you. I came here to help you, and you have insulted me and beaten me.”

“Because you are a dog of a Jew, and you have tried to steal my son.”

A nasty look came into the Jew’s eyes,—a cold, cunning look,—and he was about to reply when the door opened and Xantippe entered. She was well dressed, and wore some ornaments of gold. Amos turned toward her, asking the man:

“This is your wife?”

But Gregorio told Xantippe rapidly the history of his adventures with the boy; and the woman, hearing them, moved quietly to the corner where he slept, and took him in her arms.

The Jew smiled. “I see,” he said, “that madam has money. She has taken the advice I gave you the other day. Now I know that you can pay me, and if you do not within two days, Gregorio Livadas, you will repent the insults you have heaped on my head this night.”

He walked quietly to the corner of the room, where Xantippe sat nursing the boy, touched the child gently on the forehead with his lips, and then went out.

For some minutes neither Xantippe nor Gregorio spoke, but the man rubbed the infant’s forehead with his finger as if to wipe out the stain of the Jew’s kiss.

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