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The Man-Servant's Tale

by Doug Lipman

It wasn't easy for me to go there. I did not care for Jews, and, in my position, to be seen visiting one at night - let alone the rabbi - might have landed me in the same dungeon the Jewish innkeeper was in. But the old sire - my employer, my friend - had made it his last request. And besides, my conscience was heavy with the events of the last days. So I found myself knocking at the rabbi's door, pulling my coat around me against the cold night wind.

At last, the door opened. When the rabbi saw me, his mouth twisted in anger. For a moment, I thought he would not invite me in. Then he gestured for me to enter. Once inside, he introduced me stiffly to his wife, then motioned me to sit at the table. He sat down but did not look at me. "You..," he growled, as though beginning an accusation.

But his wife interrupted him. "Payshe," she said, "you have to listen. Now." She glanced at me. I took this as my cue to explain my presence.

"Rabbi, I believe you knew the old sire."

The rabbi interrupted me. "I THOUGHT I knew him. I THOUGHT he was my friend. But he has betrayed us in his will - and instructed his son to jail the innocent innkeeper!"

"That's just it," I said. "His last wish was that I take this to you." I pulled out the parchment I had protected under my coat. "This is the copy of his will that he entrusted to me. He wanted you to see it." For the first time, the rabbi turned to look at my face. "He...he told me you would help me know what to do next."

Dumbfounded, the rabbi began to read the parchment. "But this says...!" As he began to piece together what must have happened since the old sire's death, I began my story.

As you know, Rabbi, the old sire was lenient - some said too lenient - with your people. He defended you against those who resented your presence. And, since he and his wife were so loved by all of us Poles in the area, he was able to prevail - even against the incitements mouthed by his own son.

As his manservant and confidante, I saw how distressed he was at his son's behavior. In these last months, as the old sire's illness progressed, he summoned his son again and again to talk. At first, the son stood quietly while the old sire spoke - and then went out to spread his hate-talk against the Jews, yet again. But as the old sire neared death and the son's inheritance of all these lands seemed near at hand, the son became insolent. He argued with his father. And each time the father reproached him, the reports of the son's words - and deeds - against you Jews became ever more extreme, and ever more upsetting to the old sire.

Just last week, when I knew the old sire's end was approaching, he called me close to him - and, even though we were alone in the room, he motioned me to silence. He said, "Get that box from my trunk." When I had brought him the wooden box, he whispered, "Read both parchments. Make sure they are still the same."

Reading them, even I was shocked by what the old sire had written. "But, Sire, your wife...?" He shook his head. "She will not hear a word against our son. But our failure with him is complete. We must take drastic action, lest he ruin not only his own happiness, but the happiness of every one within his reach."

He rested for a moment. "I am counting on you," he said. "Keep one copy of the will a secret. If the will that is read aloud after my death is not the one I signed, take your copy to the rabbi." He saw my surprise. "Yes, the rabbi. He is the only one you can trust not to flatter or be intimidated by my son. If anyone can help you figure a way out of my son's villainy, he can. Do you promise?"

The rabbi had not taken his gaze from me as I spoke. "As you see, Rabbi," I concluded, "I made the promise. Here I am." The rabbi said nothing. "Surely you understand my situation," I said. "The son is now the new sire. Already, he has jailed the innkeeper and set up a band of ruffians in the inn, claiming that was a provision of his father's will. Yet if I go to the son with the true will, he will have me jailed - or worse. What should I do next?"

The rabbi looked at his wife. She began to ask me questions. "Is the old sire's wife well? Is she still revered by the Poles?"

"She is heartbroken after the old sire's death. But she is as tough as ever."

"And you?" she asked. "Are you willing to take a risk? I can imagine a plan. But it may not work. If we risk ourselves for it, will you risk your life, too?"

She must have seen my hesitation. "I am not asking you to do this for us Jews," she said, "although our lives depend on it. But the old sire obviously took you to be a man of integrity. If that is true, then you will not be able to live with yourself unless you take action now. Your silence would kill you as surely as would the new sire. All I can offer you is a slim chance that you might remain alive and be able to live with yourself, as well."

I looked at her, then at her husband, then at the tiny fire barely warming their hearth. I said, "What is your plan?"

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The next day, I made my errands. I talked to the priest, then made my invitation to the widow. Later, when I was sure the new sire was not at the inn, I went there and made an announcement to his companions. I said, "Tomorrow, I will sponsor a mass to bless the new sire." When they had lifted their glasses and drunk to that, I added, "He will need our blessing, if he is to properly deal with the Jews." They stared at me, for I had not been at the forefront of their agitation. "He will need courage. More courage."

Some of them jeered me. Yet I saw in their eyes that I had driven a slight wedge between them and their devotion to the new sire. "Be sure to be in the church tomorrow. I will announce the full extent of the old sire's plan." Then I went from one gathering place to another, repeating my announcement.

The next day, the church was packed. I sat in the front, next to the old sire's widow. On her other side sat her son. Before the priest could begin the mass, I arose and spoke. "We are here to bless our new sire." I nodded at the new sire, who seemed pleased to receive me as a new vassal. I continued, "The inn has been taken back from the infidels." Now the new sire smiled. He imagined, I suppose, that I was preparing to position myself in his favor.

I walked to the center of the aisle and faced the crowd. "As you all know," I said, "I was the old sire's confidante. You may not know that, at the end, he had a change of heart about the Jews. He told me that his will would specify many acts of vengeance against them. We must pray that the new sire will have the strength to carry them out. Understandably, he is timid at first. But we must insist that he take the property of ALL the Jews, just as his father instructed him to. Let us pray that he overcomes his trepidation and becomes a man of action!"

I half expected the new sire to attack me - but even he would not assault me in the church. Instead, he, too, stood and faced the others. "My father's old servant means well, but he is mistaken. I have the will here" - he patted his vest pocket - "and it specifies only that I take the inn." I nearly sighed aloud with relief. He had taken the bait and brought the will!

Everything depended on this next moment. I said, "Then I must be mistaken. Surely your mother will be gracious enough to read the will? Then my error will be confirmed, and we can all bless you with our entire hearts." The new sire opened his mouth to speak. I went on, "We will all trust her to tell us the truth, won't we?"

If there was one person everyone loved and trusted in that room, it was the new sire's mother. And she had always backed him, no matter what. So he bowed slightly to her, then sat back down. "Good lady," I said, "will you bring the will here, so you may read it by the holy light of these altar candles?"

Surprised, she stood up. She looked hard at me for a moment, then extended her hand to her son. He hesitated slightly, then pulled out a parchment from his vest. Slowly, she walked to where I stood and began to peer down at the parchment.

I said, "Forgive me, my lady. I would do anything rather than bring you grief. But can you tell me" - I drew out my copy of the will from my pocket - "which of these is written and signed in your husband's hand?" As one, the crowd drew a breath. The new sire stood up as though to march over and wrest the wills from her hand. Yet he stopped himself. Here, in front of those who adored her, she was the one person he did not dare treat roughly.

She stared at the two parchments a long while. "My eyes are weak with grief," she said. "Yet it is obvious to me that only one of these is signed by my husband." The crowd was so silent, I could hear the loud drumming of my own heart. "And the other," she said, "is in the poorly disguised hand of my son."

Now the crowd murmured. Yet they quieted again as she went on. "Neither of these wills speaks of taking all the Jews' property. Yet the false will speaks of the inn."

Now she turned to face her son. "My husband told me of his plans for you, son. Yet I resisted. I told him, 'our son is honorable, and will rise to the dignity of his new position.' My husband insisted, 'No, this is our only hope for him.'

"I had hoped that my husband had listened to me. He did not. And the forgery I hold here has convinced me that your father was right.

"My son, your entire inheritance, as written in the true will, is just this: A cart. A horse. And money enough to travel for two months. I will read your father's words: 'You have failed to find your goodness as a son of wealth. I can only hope that you will find your own goodness as a son of poverty.'

"So," she continued, "the most loving thing I can do for you now, my son, is to demand that you leave." She turned toward me. "Give him the horse. Give him the cart. Give him the purse."

She stood like an iron statue, the will clenched in her fist. Her eyes bore into her son's back as he swaggered down the aisle and left through the rear door. Then she said, "To any of you who feel that you must go with him - that you must let him be your leader, that you must give him what he has not earned - I say, 'Go, now.' But you will never again be a friend of mine."

Her gaze took in all those who had been her son's companions on the way into the church that day. All hung their heads. But not one of them left.

In the long silence, the priest said, "Let us pray." With their heads bowed, no one could see the face of the widow. But those behind her saw the barely perceptible shake of her shoulders.

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Later, she asked me a surprising question. "My old friend," she said, "my heart is heavy. Where would you go to lighten your life's greatest sorrow?"

I was startled by my own answer. "First, my lady," I said, "I would go among those who love me. And to our good priest. But if you seek a stranger's perspective, I know some who are both wise and brave."

An hour later, her carriage stopped in front of a small, unlikely home - one that seemed almost dwarfed by the carriage itself. I helped the widow out. The two of us walked up the small path. Then, for the second time in my life, I knocked at the rabbi's door.



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This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 5, 2003
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