Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
Mr. Sonnenscheins Inheritance
By Henry Harland (18611905)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1861. Died in San Remo, Italy, 1905. A Latin-Quarter Courtship, and Other Stories. By Sidney Luska. 1889.]
THE ENGLISH language very likely possesses an equivalent for the Jüdisch word Schlemiel; but I have tried in vain to find it. Briefly, a Schlemiel is a person who never prospers, with whom everything goes wrong. Born under an evil star, or with a leaden spoon in his mouth, he is constitutionally unsuccessful. Misfortune has marked him for her own; ill luck accompanies him through life. The witty Jewish author Leopold Kompert says that while other people seize opportunities by the head, the Schlemiel lays hold of them by the foot, and allows them to wriggle and kick themselves loose. Put gold into the hands of your Schlemiel, adds Kompert, it turns to copper. Let him purchase a cask of wine; when he opens the spigot, vinegar gushes forth. Yet, of all mortal men, the Schlemiel is usually the best-natured, the lightest-hearted. A perpetual sunny smile illuminates his face. He seems to regard his sorry destiny as an excellent practical joke, at which, though it be at his own expense, he can laugh as well as another. Calamity is his native element. He is impervious to it. He minds it no more than a salamander minds fire, or a duck water. The Lord shapes the back to the burden. That same careless and irresponsible temperament which is constantly bringing the Schlemiel to grief enables him to accept it with a shrug. Not but that, once in a while, you may meet a melancholy, even a crabbed and misanthropic, Schlemiel; but he will also be a highly exceptional Schlemiel.
By his own admission, as well as by the judgment of his friends, Emmanuel Sonnenschein was a Schlemiel. I aint no goot, he used to say, with an hilarious twinkle in his eye. I aint got no sense. Im a raikular Schlemiel. He was a very old man, white, and bent, and wrinkled; but, though he rather prided himself upon his age, and loved to prate about it, the exact figure of it he would never tell .
He lived with his crippled daughter Nettie up several flights of dark and rickety stairs, in a tenement-house overlooking Tompkins Square. Nettie passed her life between her bed and her easy-chair. Mr. Sonnenschein did the house-work,cooked the meals and washed the dishes, made the beds and kept the quarters clean .
Mr. Sonnenschein commonly arrived just as we had finished dinner, while we were getting into sympathy with our newly lighted cigars. We would install him at the table,for in respect of that virtue which ranks second only to godliness he was unimpeachable,fill his plate and his wineglass, and wait expectantly for the good cheer to loosen his tongue. By and by, face fairly radiant of benevolence, he would lean back in his chair, heave a mighty sigh of satisfaction, wipe the tears of enjoyment from his eyes (with his napkin), and the unruly member would begin to wag. I always enjoyed listening to him, he was so simple-minded and so optimistic.
Vail, now, dis is a funny vorld, Saimmy; it is, and no mistake. Yais, its an awful funny vorld, dere aint no use in talking. Vail, now look at here. I vas a Schlemiel,hey? Dere aint no kervestion about dot,I vas a Schlemiel. Vail, now look at here. Maybe you vouldnt belief me,you might tink I vas trying to fool you,but, honor bright, I got a brudder ofer in Chairmany whos vun of de very luckiest shentlemen dot vas aifer born. Now, aint dot funny? His name is Shakie, and me and him vas tervins. Vail, I suppose dere vasnt goot luck enough to go around beterveen us; so Shakie he got it all, and I didnt get ainy. All de same, I leaf it to you if it aint awful funny . Vail, Shakie, he vas so fearful lucky, he vent into de chewelry business, and he got rich. Vail, I dont know shust exaictly how rich he vas; I aint naifer aisked him. But I dont belief hes vort less as fifty or a hoonert tousand tollars. Vail, of course, he might not be vort more as terventy-fife or tirty tousand. But hes an awful rich shentleman ainyhow; you can bet a hat on dot. Vail, Shakie he aint naifer got mairried, nor haid no children; so fen he dies I get his money. Vail, he caint expect to live much longer, for hes a fearful old man by dis time already, and it aint necheral dot he should live to get much older. Him and me vas tervins; so hes shust exactly as old as me; and you aint got no idea how old dot is. Vail, Ill feel awful sorry fen Shakie dies; yais, Ill feel simply terrible; but he caint expect to live much longer,hes so fearful old,and Ill be glaid to get dot money on account of Nettie. I dont care two cents about money on my own account; I dont, honor bright. But poor little Nettie, shes haid such a hart time of it all her life, Ill be glaid fen I get money enough to let her live in comfort . Vail, Saimmy, my brudder Shakie hes an awful goot-hearted shentleman, and hes got a lot of faimily feeling about him; and I suppose if I wrote him a letter to-morrer, and aisked him to make me a present of a tousand tollars,vail, I suppose Shakie hed saind it to me by returner-mail; hes an old bechelor, you know, and hes got so much faimily feeling. But I aint naifer aisked him for vun single cent. No, sir; I go to de poor-house sooner as aisk my brudder Shakie for a haif a tollar. Dots becoase Im so prout. You aint got no idea how prout I am. Dere aint no use in talking, I shouldnt vunder if I vas about de proutest shentleman de Lord aifer mait. And dots the reason I vouldnt aisk no favors of my brudder Shakie. I vouldnt let him know dot I aint so rich as himself, not for ten hoonert tousand tollars. Im so fearful prout. Fy, Saimmy, my brudder Shakie he dont dream dot I vas a Schlemiel. Vail, I guess maybe if he knew dot,hes got so much faimily feeling about him,I guess maybe if Shakie knew dot, it vould break his heart.
Well, Mr. Sonnenschein, my mother would presently inquire, what has Nettie been doing lately? I hope you have brought some of her things with you to show us,thus proving herself to be a consummate hypocrite, though from the kindest motives.
His hands would fly up toward the ceiling; his head would begin to sway from side to side; and, Ach, Nettie! he would cry in response. Nettie! Shes a born vunder! Industrious aint no vord for it. Shes de graindest vorker in de United States, she simply is. Vork, vork, vork, from de time she vakes oop in de morning till she goes to sleep again at night! I naifer seen nodings like it in all my life before. Its fearful. And such a tailent! I dont know fere she gets it. Vail, I guess maybe she gets it from her mommer. Yais, my vife vas vun of de very smartest ladies de Lord aifer mait; and I guess maybe dots how my dowter Nettie gets her tailent. Vail, shes been vorking a new paittern lately, fich she mait oop out of her own hait. Its de most maiknificent ting she aifer done; its elegant; its immense. I got it in tidies and piller-shaims and table-maits and bait-kervilts. Youll fall daid in loaf mit it; I bet a hat on dot. Hold on.
Therewith he would open his pack, and display treasures, going into raptures of enthusiasm over them. Aint dey splendid? Aint dey serveet? Aint my dowter got a chenu-wine tailent? etc., etc. He was generosity incarnate, was Mr. Sonnenschein; and after we had satisfied our consciences by the purchase of tidies enough to fit out a colony, he would throw in two or three extra ones, as he explained, for loaf. Our protestations to the effect that he mustnt rob himself he would quickly silence, crying, Dont mention it. Dont say anudder vord about it. Dere aint nodings stinchy about me. Goot maisure, small proafits, kervick sales,dots my motter. Take em and vailcome. You say anudder vord about it, I trow in some more. That threat was effectual. We took them.
Yes, his habit was to drop in upon us not seldomer than three or four times a year; but a period of quite six months had elapsed, and he had given us no sign of life, and we were beginning to wonder what had become of him,when, one blustering evening in November, at his usual hour, he entered our dining-room.
From the instant we laid eyes upon him we knew that something extraordinary was in the wind. His accoutrement proclaimed as much, and so did the profound dejection that was painted upon his face. Instead of the motley assortment of other peoples superannuated garments in which we were wont to see him clad, he wore a brand-new suit of broadcloth. A black cravat encircled his gnarled and ancient throat. In his hand he carried a glossy stove-pipe hat, with a crape band about it; and under his arm, an oblong thickish parcel, neatly done up in a paper, and tied with pink twine; while the badge and instrument of his profession, his accustomed pack, was nowhere to be seen. His countenance, as I have said, bespoke a deep and consuming melancholy.
No, he interrupted, with a solemn gesture and in a sepulchral voice. No, it aint Nettie. No, tank de Lord, it aint so baid as dot. But its fearful all de same. Its my brudder,its my brudder Shakie.
Yais, replied Mr. Sonnenschein, sinking into a chair, the picture of a man prostrated and undone by grief. Yais, hes daid, my brudder Shakies daid. After a brief pause, in a sudden passionate outburst: Ach Gott, and ve vas tervins!
He bowed his head, and for a little while his sorrow seemed to deprive him of the power of speech. The rest of us, too, kept silence. We were surprised to see him so painfully affected, but we were also very much impressed.
Presently he raised his head, and slowly, in a shaken voice, went on: Yais, Shakies daid. Its about two monts ago already I got de news. Vail, it pretty nearly broke my heart. Him and me vas tervins . Poor Shakie! He vas an awful goot-hearted shentleman, and he hadnt oughter been taken avay. Oh, vail, I suppose his time haid come. He vas fearful old; and I guess maybe his time haid come. He couldnt expect to live foraifer; his time haid come; and so he haid to die. Vail, dis is a hart vorld; an outracheous hart vorld, deres no two vays about it: but de Lord mait it, and I suppose he haid some reason for it. Boruch dajir emes! With that pious ejaculation,Blessed be the Most High Judge,he again bowed his head and held his peace.
Some minutes passed in unbroken silence. Then, all at once, Mr. Sonnenschein drew a deep, loud sigh and straightened up. He gave his shoulders a prodigious shrug, as if to shake off his spiritual burden; he passed his hands over his face as if to wipe away the shadows that darkened it . Abruptly, with a sudden change of mien and manner,eyes lighted by their familiar happy smile,voice vibrant with its familiar jubilant ring,But I got de money, he cried. I got terventy-nine tousand, seven hoonert and sixty tollars; and Ive come ofer to haif you conkratulate me. I only got it de day before yesterday, or Id haif come around sooner. I hope you vont mind, but I brought a couple bottles champagne along to celebrate mit. You folks, you been awful friendly to me fen I vas poor already, and you vas raikular customers of mine; so, now I vas rich, I tought I like to give you a little treat.
Yais, he said, smacking his lips upon a bumper of his wine, I got de money de day before yesterday. I got a draift on de bainking estaiblishment of Schaumberg, Knaus, Bauer & Co., down in Villiam Street. I aint haid it caished yet. Dere it is.
He had unbuttoned his coat and extracted from its inside pocket a dilapidated leather wallet. Out of this he picked his draft and handed it to me for circulation around the table. The amount was, as he had said, $29,760.
Vail, no, I guess not, tank you, he returned. Its awful goot-nechered of you to make de oaffer; but I guess not, tank you all-de same. No; to tell you de honest troot, I dont make no investments of dot money; I keep de caish. You see, I vas a Schlemiel. Vail, a Schlemiel is a party whos bount to haif bait luck. Vail, if I put dot money in de baink, de first ting I know, de bainkll bust. Or else, if I buy stoacks mit it, de stoack company vill fail; or coverment boants, de coverment vill get into a var. If I put it in a mowgage on real estate, de title to dot real estate would be defaicted. Deres no two vays about it. I vas a Schlemiel. No, sir, I dont make no investments of dot money; I be sure to lose it, dere aint no use in talking. But I tell you fat I do. I tought it all ofer in my own mind, and now I tell you fat I do. To-morrer morning I go down-town, and I call at de office of Schaumberg, Knaus, Bauer & Co., in Villiam Street, and I get dot draift caished,hey? Vail, den I take dot caish baick oop-town again mit me; and I go to my friend Mr. Solomon Levinson, who keeps a second-haint clodings establishment in de basement of de house I live in; and I aisk Mr. Levinson to put dot caish in his chenu-wine burglar-proof safe, and keep it for me,you understand? Vail, den fen me and Nettie needs some money, den I go to dot safe, and I take out a hoonert tollars,you see de point? Tirty tousand tollars! My kracious, dots enough to laist me and Nettie longer as ve eider of us lives; it is, honor bright. Ve aint extraivagant, and ve aint got no heirs to feel disappointed if ve dont leaf no fortune. No, sir; I vas a Schlemiel. I dont make no investments of dot money; I be sure to lose it. I keep de caish.
Unanimously and vehemently we protested against this course. We labored long and hard to convince him of its rash unwisdom. We assured him that of all the possible dispositions of his money which he could make, this was the wildest, the most hazardous; and we invoked every argument by which a reasonable human being could be moved to vindicate our proposition.
He heard us respectfully to the end, while a tolerant smile played about his lips. Then he rejoined, Dots all right. Fat you folks say is shust exaictly so. You got an awful lot of sense about you, and you arkue simply splendid,especially Saimmy. My kracious, if Saimmy vas to go to de laichislature, hed make a chenu-wine sensation, he arkues so goot. He vas a necheral debater, deres no two vays about it. But I tell you how it is. Deres a proverb fich goes, Circumstainces alter cases. Vail, dots an aictual faict; dey do, and no mistake. Vail, now I tell you how it is. You see, I vas a Schlemiel. Vail, a Schlemiel is a party whos bount to haif bait luck. Vail, if I make ainy investments of dot money, I be sure to lose it; I vould, honor bright. So, I dont make no investments of it. I dont run no risks. I keep de caish.
And so he went away, leaving us in an exasperated and anxious frame of mind. We tried hard to hope for the best; but how could we help fearing the worst? To invite disaster by keeping so large a sum of ready money lying exposed in another mans safe,who but a Schlemiel could be guilty of such unmitigated folly?
It was rather more than a week later that the post brought me one morning a letter, written in a cramped foreign hand, of which the following is a true and perfect copy:
ime Konfeint to de Haus bei a fieful Kolt an de het and Lonks and, i Kand go autt for fier i gett vurs But i leik, to sie You as i got a Fieful gut schoke to tell you and Den annyhau Ime lonsum and i leik to Sie you for Kumpny to schier Me up vel days ane ole vumin of de nehmer rebekah doz our Haus vork for Us and her and nettie is Die onelie piepul i sie Ole Day so i gett Kein der Lonsum and i leik to sie you to tell You dat Schoke vel ittul mehk you Laff to dei sammy it vil and no mistek vel if a parties a Schlemiel day ant no Yous in toking Hies gott to haf bat luck. vel kum sie Me sammy for i gess Mabie mei time is com i do on a Brite, ime a fieful ole Gentulmin you no and de Doktor sais I Gott a bat kase Braun Kietiz, Kom sie me enyhau de Doktor sed, it ant Kesching. give my Lof papa and mama your
Ill go with you, my mother volunteered, some fifteen minutes later, after the sensation created by the exhibition to the rest of the family of Mr. Sonnenscheins effort had subsided. Poor old man! Perhaps theres something I can do to make him comfortable.
Our greeting over, and our inquiries concerning the exact state of his health satisfactorily answered (he had indeed a bad cold, but was not nearly so ill as we had feared to find him): Vail, now, Saimmy, began Mr. Sonnenschein, as I told you a great mainy times already, dis is a vunderful vorld. By and by, fen you get so old as me, youll say de same ting; dough now, file youre young, you might imachine dot I vas only fooling. My kracious, fen I tink about how vunderful it really isvail, Saimmy, Im aictually aistonishedvail, honor bright, I caint hartly belief it. Vail, now look at here. I vas a Schlemiel, hey? Vail, a Schlemiel is a party whos bount to haif bait luck, aint he? No maitter fat he does, no maitter fat precowtions he takes, he caint help it; he got to haif bait luck. Vail, now look at here. Its shust exaictly about two weeks ago already I got dot draift from de eggs-hecutor of my brudder Shakie ofer in Chairmany. Vail, I guess maybe I told you I vasnt going to make no investments of dot money, becoase, as I vas a Schlemiel, I be sure to lose it. I guess maybe I told you I vas going to keep de caish. Yais, I tought it all ofer, and I mait oop my mind dot I better stay on de safe side and keep de caish. Vail, now look at here. De very next day aifter I seen you, I vent down-town to de office of Schaumberg, Knaus, Bauer & Co., in Villiam Street, and I got dot draift caished. I got terventy-nine vun-tousand-tollar pills, vun fife-hoonert-tollar pill, two vun-hoonert-tollar pills, and de ott sixty tollars in fifes and tens. Vail, Saimmy, den I done all dot money oop, except dose ott sixty tollars, fich I kep in my poacket, I done it all oop mit paper in a poontle, and I vent to my friend Mr. Solomon Levinson, who keeps a second-haint clodings estaiblishment down-stairs in de basement; and I aisked Mr. Levinson to put dot poontle inside his chenu-wine burglar-proof safe and keep it for me; and Mr. Levinson he done it. He put it inside on de toap shelf, file I stood dere and seen him. Vail, Saimmy, Mr. Levinson hes got a lot of curiosity about him, fich is only necheral; and, so, as I vas leafing, Mr. Levinson he aisked me if I haid any op-shections to informing him fat dot poontle contained. Vail, I tought to myself, I guess maybe I better not let nobody know how much money dere is in dot poontle; so I said to Mr. Levinson, Fy, certainly, I aint got no op-shections. It contains old loaf-letters. Dots fat I said to Mr. Levinson. Vail, dot was pretty goot for an oaff-hainder, vasnt it, Saimmy? Vail, now look at here. Vail, I suppose youd tink dere vasnt vun chaince in a hoonert tousand of ainydings haippening to dot money, now it vas loacked oop in Mr. Levinsons burglar-proof safe, vouldnt you, Saimmy? Vail, now look at here. Now youll see shust exaictly how it is fen a partys a Schlemiel. Youll see fat a vunderful vorld dis is. Vail, de day Mr. Levinson put dot money inside his safe vas Friday. Vail, den it stainds to reason de next day vas Schabbas (Sabbath); dont it, Saimmy? Vail, maybe you vouldnt belief meyou might tink I vas trying to fool you,but, honor bright,I hope to die de next minute if it aint a faict,dot very same night,Sotturday night,aifter ve vas gone to bait,vail, Saimmy, I bet you a brain-new fife tollar silk hat you caint guess fat haippened. You take de bet? No? You gif it oop? Hey? Vail, now look at here. Dot very same night,Sotturday night,vail, Mr. Levinson he haid a fire in his establishment, and my money got burned oop,aifery red cent of it got burned to cinters!
It never once entered Mr. Sonnenscheins head to fear that his fortune was in danger, for I tought of course it vas loacked oop in Mr. Levinsons chenu-wine burglar and fire-proof safe. But the next morning Mr. Levinson came to see him, and explained that, as his safe had been somewhat crowded with matter the day before, he had removed Mr. Sonnenscheins bundle of old letters and placed it in the cupboard of his writing-desk. And den, of course, as I vas a Schlemiel, dot estaiblishment haid to ketch fire, and dot writing-desk, mit aiferydings inside of it, get burned oop. Raikular Schlemiels luck aint it, Saimmy? Vail, aifter all, it dont make much difference. Fen I got dot money I mait oop my mind dot Id retire from business, and be a shentleman of leisure. Vail, now I simply got to go baick into business again; dots all dere is about it.
[This chapter, omitted from these pages, recounts the discovery, by the narrator and his friend the Fire Marshal, that Mr. Solomon Levinson had pocketed Sonnenscheins greenbacks, and then kindled the fire to account for their disappearance. It ends with Levinsons confession and surrender of the spoil, in consideration of which he is allowed to enter a plea of guilty to a minor degree of arson, and gets off with a sentence to the State Prison for a term of ten years.]
Mein Gott! You dont mean it! he cried, when I had done. Go vay. You dont really mean it! Mr. Levinson, he set fire to dot establishment, and you got baick de money? Vail, if I aifer? Vail, dot beats de record; it does, and no mistake. Talk about brains! Fy, Saimmy, smartness aint no vord for it. You got vun of de graindest haits on your shoulders de Lord aifer mait. And Mr. Levinson, he aictually set fire to dot establishment, so as to get my money! Vail, dot vas outracheous, dere aint no use in talking. Vail, Saimmy, I caint hardly belief it; I caint, honor bright.
The marshal was busy with pen and ink at a table hard by, drawing up an affidavit and a receipt for Mr. Sonnenschein to sign and swear to. After the old man had laboriously traced his name and vouched for the truth of what was written above it, the marshal handed him the bundle containing his inheritance, and, covered with thanks from both of us, went away.
Vail, now, Saimmy, said Mr. Sonnenschein, now I tell you fat you do. You cairry dot poontle down-town mit you, and you go to you poppers office, and you gif it to him, and you tell him to make all de investments of dot money fich he likes. Deres no two vays about it, Saimmy, I vas a raikular Schlemiel; and I guess maybe de best ting I can do is to let your popper mainage dot money shust exaictly as if it vas his own. No maitter fat investments he makes of it, Saimmy, I tell you vun ting, I bet a hat dot vun vay or anudder dot money gets lost inside six monts. Vail, Saimmy, as I told you a great mainy times before already, dis is a fearful funny vorld; and I guess maybe now, aifter dis fire and aiferydings, I guess maybe youll belief me.
My father made such investments of dot money as would yield Mr. Sonnenschein an annual income of fifteen hundred dollars, which the old gentleman, still hale and hearty, is enjoying to this day. Though a Jew by birth and faith, he is as good a Christian as most of the professing ones; for after he learned of Levinsons imprisonment he insisted upon making a liberal provision for Mrs. Levinson and her children. Nor is ingratitude a vice that could justly be attributed to our Schlemiel. When my parents celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of their wedding, a few months ago, they received by express a large and luminous worsted-work picture, enclosed by a massive gilt frame, which represented in the primary colors the nuptial ceremonies of Jacob and Rachel. A card attached informed them that it came with compliments and best wishes from Mr. Sonnenschein and Nettie, and on the obverse of the card, in Mr. Sonnenscheins chirography, we read, Nettie dun it Ole herself.
But his continued prosperity has undermined the old mans philosophy and upset all his established views of life. He calls at my fathers office to receive his allowance on the first day of every month. Vail, ainydings haippened yet? is the inquiry with which he invariably begins. And when my father replies that nothing has happened, and proceeds to count out his money, Vail, Gott in Himmel, fat kind of a vorld is dis, ainyhow! he cries. I gif it oop. I caint make haits or tails of it. Here I been a Schlemiel aifer since I vas born already, and now all of a sutten I change ofer, and I aint no Schlemiel no more. Vail, dot beats me,it beats me all holler, and no mistake about it. But de Lord done it, and I guess maybe hes got some reason for it. Blessed be de name of de Lord!