The Best Friend, story by Rivka Shlesinger at Spillwords.com
Tom Athawes

The Best Friend

The Best Friend

written by: Rivka Shlesinger

 

London, 1819

A dark velvet curtain covered the Torah shrine and swallowed the glow of flickering wax candles and the murmur of prayers. Without looking up Arie turned a page in his Siddur, the prayer book his Uncle Nathan gave him proudly at his Bar Mitzvah. He focused on Benjamin sitting next to him. They had the best seats, enjoying more light than others, and on printed books, no less. A luxury not everybody had the means for, so the worshipper followed the cantor diligently while Arie and Benjamin could afford to let their concentration slip for a moment and turn their interest to more pressing matters. Bending over their books, they mumbled, but not prayers.
“Have you seen her?”
“Of course I did. One can hardly miss her.”
“I’m going to talk to her on the way home.”
“Are you mad?” These words shot out of Arie’s mouth louder than wished for, so his father shot a piercing look over to them, which Arie chose to ignore while he ran his finger over the letters. Neither greasing the pages nor his father’s scowls concerned him while he carried on his private conversation.
Benny, who followed in Arie’s ways since they learned to walk, conversed in the same long practised whisper, except, right now he disregarded his best friend’s advice, which annoyed Arie.
“You can’t marry her.” Arie repeated.
“Why ever not?”
Arie forced his voice into a convincing calm. “She is a refugee. She does not have a penny to her name.”
Arie had pointed this out several times. It was the truth. None of the refugees from the old country had money. Most of them were lucky to cross the channel with their souls in their hands.
“It doesn’t matter. My father has enough money for her and her family.”
“Your father will never allow it, and besides, her looks are plain.” Arie had waited with this blatant lie as the final blow.
Benny had listened in silence but now rose to the beauty’s defence. “She’s graceful and lovely.”
“You’re stubborn.” Arie ground out, but before he could lunge into another attack on Benny’s senses, somebody banged on the bookstand of his pew. He didn’t need to look up to know it was his father. As the general attention floated back to praying or other people, Benny hissed back. “I’m not!”
Arie mumbled, “You’ll ruin yourself. You should marry my sister.” The casual introduction of his plan satisfied him. Perla needed to get married before everyday life wore away the looks of fresh spring flowers, her innocence was replaced by ignorance. Who was better than Benny, his best friend? The families would settle money and inheritance between them, and everybody would be content. If Benny felt a pang of regret, he would learn to appreciate his wife with time. This is how it should be.
“I love her.” Benny finally blurted out.
Arie cast his eyes heavenward. “Love is for fools and tailors.” His own thoughtless remark gave him an idea, while Benny was going on about love and loyalty.
Tailors! Of course, the tailor’s lane.
He would find her a place to stay out of sight.
And if I have to pay her keep!
Yes, that was a splendid idea. He had to talk to his father about it. Settle the poor girl with their tailor and pay for her board. An allowance which the tailor couldn’t refuse. Anything, as long as she stayed out of Benny’s sight.
Now the time to convince Benny had come. Arie’s stare bored into his friend, willing him to ignore the women on the balcony.
As Benny’s hushed voice registered with him, “With all due respect, why should I marry Perla? I have known her all my life.”
Arie awoke from his reflection. He had to answer because if he did not make his wishes clear, he would lose the match for his sister and more.
“Because she has a dowry which deserves the name, comes from a good family and has good looks.” He counted off the advantages on his fingers, holding them out under the table for his friend to see.
Benny looked at the hand, held out to him. Arie silently stretched them out again, one after the other and nodded with each count. The dowry was no secret. Their fathers had made their fortunes together and daughters of both houses would bring the same wealth to a marriage. Both were of equal importance, and marrying into each other’s families was almost expected. There were enough girls on both sides to make one match or other, but Arie wanted Perla to be the bride. She would not object or ask questions. She would easily submit to her father’s wishes and thus clear his own path.
Money and name were indisputable, as for beauty… one could tolerate sitting across from her at the dinner table, even a two hour long Shabbat dinner. His two younger sisters could not only wait another year or two, but would find a groom without his help. Perla’s charms were less reassuring. He took a deep breath.
“Benny, look…”
“No, I don’t want to listen to you anymore. How do you know Ruth does not come from a good family?”
“Look at her,” Arie lifted his chin to the women’s gallery, “she’s all rags, probably handouts from your servants. No money. Not a penny. Her family was starving in the old country.” Arie’s portrayal of the young woman grew more outrageous by the moment.
Benny hissed before he got up for the silent prayer. “All I can see is the most beautiful girl that walks on G-d’s earth, and I don’t care if she is poor.”
Arie puffed out a breath. His best friend was not only stubborn, regrettably, he was also right. Ruth’s delicate looks framed by ink-black hair always slowed his breathing. Where her eyes were bright, alert and followed with interest when he was talking to others, Perla’s eyes went blank and her mouth opened ever so slightly as soon as a conversation was concerning matters of business or the wider world.
All of this made it more urgent to turn Benny’s attention back to her and show her in a favourite light.
“You’re a fool.” Arie muttered the moment he had finished his silent prayer.
“Because I see the truth?”
“No, because you throw away your future for a penniless refugee with a pretty face.”
Benny bowed his head and mumbled. “Who else would marry her?”
“That should not be your concern. London is a big city. You should marry my sister or any other settled girl. With a good dowry and our connections you’ll be established.” His tone was genial and he put a hand on Benny’s shoulder.
“And what about the poor girl?” Benny made a last feeble attempt at resistance, but Arie knew he was close to his goal.
“One day, she will make someone a decent wife.”

***

The Shabbat evening prayer was over, and the men filed out of the sanctuary when Arie’s father grabbed his arm. “What were you talking about?”
“I told him to ask for Perl before anybody else does,” Arie smirked into the dark of the street.
“So, you’re the one who’s talking some sense into your friend, and there was I, thinking you were completely useless.” His father slapped him on the neck, laughing.
Arie stopped before relating his plan in hushed tones. “You know that Perl’s chances aren’t great. Wouldn’t it be a zechus to marry off a poor orphan girl? A good deed like that could ensure Perl’s betrothal to Benny.”
“The idea is certainly a worthy one. Why is Benny so reluctant?”
“He wants to marry that refugee girl.”
“Ah! So, you want to get her out of the way?”
“Yes.” Arie blew out a breath, blessing his father’s quick comprehension and his own ability to flavour words according to his needs.
“And what is there for you to gain from this?”
“I haven’t thought about gain.”
“Oh please. Who is it? Benny’s younger sister? You want him to get married first so that she is the next in line?”
Arie smirked but did not contradict his father.
“Has anybody else set his eyes upon the girl you want? Is that why you are so impatient? I thought I’m blessed with a son who will accept whichever match I make for him and then loves the girl he gets.”
Arie clenched his teeth and silently lowered his head.
“Well, so be it. I will have to buy a decent Chatan for a poor girl to look generous and present my own daughter as an excellent match. I’m sure Benny’s father will have our Perla without this extra cost but if you think it must be done, it must be done.” He patted Arie on the back, sealing their secret agreement. “Go and make the arrangements, but make sure that it does not look like my doing.”

***

During Kiddush, Arie held his wine cup, listened to the blessings and grinned. When his three younger sisters moved to wash their hands, Arie sneaked behind Perla and whispered, “You won’t guess which surprise I have for you.”
She squealed, but then slapped a hand to her mouth before continuing in a whisper, “A surprise? Oh, I love surprises. Tell me, what is it?”
Instead of telling her more, he put a hand on her shoulder, steering her to wash her hands by the water basin in the hall. “Shh… Manners.” She could not talk after washing her hands and that suited Arie just fine.

They all sat down in silence, waited for the bread to be blessed, dipped in salt and given out, before resuming their conversations. As soon as Perla had swallowed her first bite, she pounced. “Papa, Arie said there is a surprise for me. I want to know what it is.”
“Oh, did he say so? Well, it is his surprise to tell, not mine.”
Arie grinned more than before, chewed on his bread and mulled over his plan.
“I spoke to Benny tonight.”
“Benny? That’s nothing new. You always speak to him.” Perl scoffed.
Their father reached for the fish-platter before he looked up and answered her. “Their mouths moved all Kabbalat Shabbat. I am sure their prayers were fervent.”
Perl’s cheeks flushed with excitement. “Papa. you’re teasing me. They didn’t pray at all, did they?”
He leaned over to her and in a mock whisper said. “Oh, they did. Prayers on your behalf.”
“But I am not sick,” she protested.
Arie snorted and helped himself to more food while Perla stopped eating and gazed at him.
“You spoke about me?” She stammered.
“We did. I told him to forget the nonsense he has been talking about for some time now, and to finally come and ask for you.”
He observed his sister, hoping she wouldn’t ask about the other topic of conversation. She didn’t. She was never suspicious, only concerned for her own happiness. Like the devoted younger sister, who had always looked up to him, she did so now. Her lips slightly parted and her eyes grew with curiosity and excitement.
Arie wondered if his sister had a stroke of greed, but then decided that she must have been instantly in love instead. In love with the idea of marrying, of being important, even if it was only for a few weeks. She was so easy to lead.
“Really?” she asked, glowing.
She obeyed his wishes, even those he never spoke out loud. A slight nod or nudge into a direction or thought, and she would yield to his influence. She would be such a good wife. His friend deserved the best.
“Something like that.” Arie said out loud.
“What something. Arie. What did you say to him?” She was dying to know now.

Answering without hesitation was essential when a female interrogation was to be expected. Being used to these conversations, he silenced her with expertise. “I would not be a gentleman if I told you, but I opened his eyes to the fact that you are pretty and should get married. I enumerated your charms, and he agreed with me.” Arie held his breath. “Pass the fish, will you.”
“Oh…” Perl knocked over a glass and giggled, “Oh, I am so clumsy.”
“Then you will have to be less clumsy when he comes the next time.” Arie shot her a brotherly grin as he caught the glass.
“Nonsense, my daughter has a fine dowry and if she is a bit less graceful than one would wish for, Benny will overlook it.”
“Papa!” Perla cried out in indignation.
“A new dress and some powder and you look like a princess.” Arie emphasised his opinion at the point of his fork, praying for his sister to be graceful, if only once. After the meal, his mother and sisters left the table, leaving Arie and his father with tea and politics. Arie grinned at his father. “Benny should sit opposite Perl next time he visits. Maybe I should make him stay for supper. ”
“Invite him. As often as you wish, if that increases her charms.”
“That will be Mother’s task.”
To his father Arie murmured, “It will be my task to keep Benny away from that refugee.”
Away from Ruth, my dove, my perfect one.
He lifted his glass to his father in celebration.

***

Arie visited Benny to keep him company and distract him. Books and games could only hold one’s attention for so long. He made sure to direct the conversation towards topics he had chosen for his friend and future brother-in-law. Benny toyed with a chess figurine. “Have you seen Ruth?”
“What, that orphan? You still haven’t got her out of your head?”
“She is nowhere around.”
Arie knew precisely why. He had arranged for the girl to live in the tailor’s lane. The place was safe, and she was out of sight. He had to divert Benny’s thoughts. “Maybe she’s moved because nobody wanted her as a maid. You never know.” He listed several possibilities before turning the conversation to his sister.
“When are you going to see Perl?”

***

When Benny didn’t approach Perl’s father to ask for her hand, Arie devised a different plan.
“Did Benny come today?” He asked his father in the study’s quiet.
“No, and he is not likely to come.” His father sipped deep red tea and sank into thoughts.
“Your little plan didn’t work, did it?” he said after a few moments.
Arie cringed. “What if I go to Reb Alter and ask him?”
“Ask him what?” His father snapped.
“For example, ‘Benny has said nothing yet, but can we proceed with the wedding preparations? You know it’s difficult to get all the things girls want.’ or something like that.”
“You are becoming quite the businessman. In a year or two, I will need to look out for you in negotiations.” His father smiled and Arie took this as permission to go ahead.
A week later Arie stood again by his father’s side, listening to the Kiddush and smiled secretly upon his achievement. Benny was a good friend, listening and understanding. He would be a pleasant and conceding brother-in-law. He would marry Perl, who would never stir anybody’s heart or imagination, and Arie would puff out his chest and ever so often remind everybody of his benevolence.

***

The wedding preparations were underway. Everybody envied the happy families and the lucky groom. The community praised Benny’s good fortune and speculated which of his sisters would be Arie’s bride.
Benny had not seen his bride the week before the wedding as was good custom. Even Arie had little time for his friend. He was too busy with his affairs.
When the families were assembled, the tables set, the Chuppah liften on its poles, Arie rushed to the Rabbi’s side.
“The groom will be here soon.”
“Groom? Is that not you?”
“No, it’s Benny.”
“Benjamin? But he got married in the morning to the lovely Ruth.”

Rivka Shlesinger

Rivka Shlesinger

R. Shlesinger holds an MA in Literature. Her mother tongue is German which she teaches as a foreign language. She is writing historical short stories with a Jewish background for the English speaking audience and occasionally tries her hand in modern short stories. For the last twenty years, she has been living with her husband in Israel.
Rivka Shlesinger

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