The book contains a number of interrelated short stories. One of them - perhaps the most beautiful - comes from the story bearing the same title as that of the book.
From "Pestilence in the Ghetto":
"In the name of the One Who is the Beginning and the End I call on you to tell and reveal the sin that caused the great pestilence to afflict this town."
There was silence for a while. The girl stood motionless, looking into the darkness to where, invisible to the eyes of the living, the angel of God, the guardian of souls, was hovering over the graves. Then she said:
"The angel of God has spoken, the servant of the Lord has said: `It happened because of the sin of Moab committed by one of you. And He, the Eternal, saw it, and He, the Eternal, will destroy you, as he destroyed Moab.'"
But the Great Rabbi said: "I shall not let you go back to Truth and Eternity, and you will have to begin life on earth all over again unless you answer my question. In the name of the One and Only One, in the name of Him who was and will be, I call on you to speak and reveal who is guilty of the sin because of which the great pestilence has afflicted the town and carried off its children."
The child dropped its eyes and shook its head.
"I don't know who the sinner was because of whom God summoned us to Himself, and the servant of the Lord who is set over us does not know either. Apart from God, there is only one who knows, and that is you."
A groan came from the Great Rabbi's breast, and he spoke the word that undid the spell, and the child fled back to the home of souls.
And the Great Rabbi left his house and made his way home through the dark streets of the ghetto and along the river bank past the fishermen's huts until he came to the stone bridge.
Below it was a rose bush with a single red rose, and next to it a rosemary was growing, and they were so closely intertwined that the rose leaves touched the white rosemary flowers.
The Great Rabbi bent down and pulled the rosemary out of the ground. Then he lifted the spell from the adulteress's head.
Black clouds chased each other across the sky, and the pale light of the moon clung to the piers and arches of the stone bridge. The Great Rabbi walked to the water's edge and dropped the rosemary into the river, and it was carried away in the waves and sank into the murmuring depths.
That night the pestilence in the ghetto streets came to an end.
That nigth the beautiful Esther, wife of the Jew Meisl, died in their house on the Dreibrunnenplatz.
That night Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in his Castle in Prague, awoke from a dream with a shriek.
From "By night under the stone bridge":
The evening wind swept smoothly over the waves of the river, the rosemary flower snuggled closer to the red rose, and the dreaming Emperor felt the kiss of his beloved on his lips.
"You're late," she whispered. "I lay and waited. You made me wait such a long time."
"I was here all the time," he answered. "I lay looking out into the night, watching the clouds and listening to the rustling of the trees. I was tired after the burden and noise of the day, I was so tired I felt my eyes were closing. Then at last you came."
"Did I? And am I here with you?" she asked. "But how did I get here? I don't know the way, I've never been this way before. Who brought me to you? Who brings me to you night after night?"
"You're with me, and I hold you in my arms, that's all I know," said the Emperor.
"So I walked through the streets, unaware of myself, and climbed the steps, and the people I met looked at me in surprise, but no-one got in my way, no-one stopped me. The gate sprang open, doors opened, and now I'm with you. It's not right, I shouldn't do ot. Do you hear the murmur of the river?"
"Yes. At night, when you're with me, the murmur's louder than usual, as if it wanted to sing us to sleep. The first time you heard it you wept with fear. You wept, and called out: `What has happened to me? Where am I?'"
"I was afraid. I recognised you, and couldn't grasp the fact that I was with you," she said. "The first time I saw you, you were riding a milk-white horse, and behind you was a procession of men in armour, the armour flashed and glittered, the horses' hoove clattered and the trumpets played, and I hurried home and called out: `I've seen the Emperor in his majesty' - and I thought my heart was going to stop."
"And the first time I saw you," said the Emperor, "you were standing against the wall of a house with your shoulders raised slightly as if you wanted to run away and hide, you looked timid and nervous like a little bird, that's what you looked like as you stood there with your brown curls tumbling over your forehead. I looked at you and knew I would never forget you, but would think about you day and night. But the nearer I got to you the farther away you seemed, you moved farther and farther away from me every moment, you were as unattainable as if I had lost you for ever. And then, when you came here and were with me and I held you in my arms, it was like a miracle or a dream. My heart was full of joy, and you wept."
"I wept, and I still want to weep today. Where are we, and what has happened to us?"
"How fragrant you are," said the Emperor. "Like a small, delicate flower whose name I don't know, that's what you smell like."
"And when I'm with you I feel as if I were walking through a rose garden," she whispered.
They fell silent. The murmur of the passing waves of the river grew louder. There was a gust of wind, and rose and rosemary met in a kiss.
"You're weeping," said the red rose. "Your eyes are wet, and there are tears like dewdrops on your cheeks."
"I weep," said the rosemary, "because I have come to you and yet I don't want to, because I have to leave you though I want to stay."
"You mustn't go. You're mine, and I'm holding you. I've prayed to God for you on a hundred nights, and God has given you to me, and now you're mine."
"Yes, I'm yours. But God didn't give me to you, it wasn't His hand that led me to you. God is angry with me, and I'm afraid of His anger."
"He's not angry with you," said the Emperor. "How could He be angry with you? He looks atyou, and smiles and forgives."
"No," she whispered. "He doesn't smile. I have broken His commandment. He is not a God that smiles and forgives. But, whatever happens, even if He rejects me and casts me out - I'm with you and can't leave you."
And the rosemary and rose clung fearfully and blissfully together.
"What sort of day did you have?" the rosemary asked.
"My day was a poor man's day," said the rose, "full of worries, troubles and cares. Great lords and little lords, rogues, chatterboxes, charlatans, great fools and wretched little fools - they were all there, and that was my day. They came and spoke words into my ear, evil, stupid or empty and idle words, they wanted this or that, and they were tiresome. But when I shut my eyes I saw you. That was my day, and what was yours?"
"There were voices and shadows all round me, that was my day. It was like walking through a mist, I wasn't sure where I was, it wasn't real, it was deception and illusion. Phantoms called, I heard myself speak and didn't know what I was saying. Then the day faded, blew away like smoke, vanished liek a spectre, and I was with you. You alone are real."
"In the dark hours of the day, when the chaos of the age weighs on me like a nightmare and the noise and bustle of the world is about me with all its perfidy and cunning, its lies and treachery, my thoughts fly to you, you are my comfort and consolation. With you there's clarity, when I'm with you I feel as if I could understand the way of the world and see through the lies and penetrate to the truth behind the perfidy. Sometimes I feel lost and call you, call you aloud, though in such a way as not to be overheard - but you don't come. Why don't you come? What holds you back when I call you? What prevents you?"
No answer came.
"Where are you? Do you hear me? I can't see you, are you still there? A moment ago I held you in my arms, felt your heartbeat and your breath - where are you?"
"I'm here, I'm with you, for a moment I felt I was far away, as if I were at home in bed, there was moonlight on my pillow, a bird fluttered through the room and out again, and there was a cat, it climbed in from the garden on to the window ledge, and htere was the sound of something breaking, and I lay there and listened, and then I heard you calling out: `Where are you?' And I was with you, and the whole thing, the room, the moonlight, the cat and the frightened bird, was only a dream."
"You had a child's dream", said the Emperor. "When I was a boy I dreamt of fields and woods, hunting, dogs, birds and all sorts of animals, and I woke up happy and cheerful, ready for anything. Later I had bad dreams, dreams that frightened me, and I often wished that night was morning. And yet night is better than day. Human noises are stilled, the sounds to be heard are the ringing of a bell, the soughing of the wind, the rustle of trees, the murmur of a river, the wing-beat of a bird, and over us are the eternal stars following their courses according to their Creator's will. I often think about God's creation of men and how he made their brains. While above us, order and obedience prevail eternally, down here below there is unrest, strife and chaos - where are you? Why are you silent? What are you thinking about?"
"I'm thinking about how I used to be able to live and be happy without you, and I can't understand it. I'm thinking about how the stars follow their courses though they should stop, time should stop while I'm with you."
"Time doesn't stop, and just when someone is happy it races like a hunted animal, and hour after hour plunges into infinity. Come and kiss me. Where are you?"
"I'm at your lips, I'm at your heart, I'm with you."
Drunk with reverie and happiness, the rosemary flower freed itself from the red rose.
"I must go," she whispered. "Farewell, I can't stay, I must go."
"Where? Where? Don't go, stay. Why must you go?"
"I don't know. Don't stop me, let me go. I can't stay, I must go."
"Stay. Where are you? I can't see you. Where are you? I was just holding you in my arms, where are you? Where has she gone?"
"Where has she gone?" the Emperor called out, raising his head and looking about him.
The valet Philipp Lang was in the room.
"I heard your Majesty groaning and calling out, so I came in," he said. "Your Majesty must have been having a bad dream, that's why Your Majesty was groaning and calling out. Perhaps I should have awoken Your Majesty to prevent male di testa from setting in again. A number of persons outside are craving an audience. Shall I order Your Majesty's breakfast?"
"Where has she gone?" the Emperor murmured.
The beautiful Esther, the wife of Mordechai Meisl, awoke in their house on the Reibrunnenplatz. The morning sun on her face put a reddish gleam in her hair. The cat moved noiselessly about the room, awaiting its saucer of milk. A small flower pot that had stood on the window ledge lay broken on the floor. In the next room Mordechai Maisl was walking up and down, chanting a morning prayer.
She sat up and pushed her brown hair from her brow.
"A dream," she whispered, "and the same dream night after night. A lovely dream but, praised be the Lord, only a dream."
From "The Guttering Candle"
If only God had granted me a son, he said to himself, a son whom I could have left behind in the world when I died. I would have brought him up in wisdom and good doctrine, he would have been like a pomegranate in bloom, full of learning, and he would have had no difficulty in reading Abarbanel, he would have been an interpreter of dark sayings, wisdom and knowledge would have been the breath of his breath. But it was not to be, it was not God's will. I shall leave the world childless and my wealth will go to strangers. Is my misfortune a necessity in the plan of the divine wisdom so that it may be the foundation of another man's happiness? Who knows? Who can tell? God's wisdom is as deep as the sea.
He rose to his feet. His thoughts took their usual course. From thinking about his unborn son he went on to thinking about his wife. He took from a cupboard against the wall a small rosewood box that contained things she had been fond of. They were little things, not amounting to very much, and there were not many of them. Brightly coloured birds' feathers, a faded silk ribbon, a playing card that had once come into her possession, withered rose leaves that collapsed into dust when touched, a small broken silver knife, a stone shaped like a veined human hand, an amber ball, a glass ball, and something that had once been a brightly coloured butterfly's wing. Mordechai Meisl looked at all these things thoughtfully, he had not held the box in his hands for years. He sighed, locked it, and put it back in the cupboard. Its contents struck him as no less puzzling, baffling and hard to understand than the obscure and mysterious words in Don Izak Abarbanel's book.
God decided, and so it had come about, he said to himself. He has taken her into eternal bliss. And I... There are many ideas and wishes in human hearts, but only His will prevails. It was like any other day, we sat at table, I spoke the blessing over the bread, and she served me during the meal, and then - that night - whose help did she call for when she lay dying? A stranger's name, that of a Christian. She had seen the Roman Emperor once and once only, when he rode through the Old Town into the ghetto, and the elders and the councillors awaited him, and the trumpets blew and the Great Rabbi held hte Torah in his hands - her voice, that cry on her deathbed, Rudolf, help - was it he for whom she called? Or was it someone else of whom I know nothing? Alas, I shall never know.
A short but extremely violent fit of coughing came over him and shook him, it was so violent that he thought he was going to die, and when it was over the handkerchief in his hand was coloured red, and at the sight of the blood he was surprised that he was still alive. He felt he had long since reached the end of his life, but he was not allowed to die. The Great Rabbi Loew, the light of the Diaspora and the jewel of Israel and the Only One of his age, had once sat in his room, reading the sacred books in which the God's mysteries are described, when the stump of the wax candle that lit the room started flickering and was just going out, and there were no other wax candles in the Great Rabbi's house. So the Great Rabbi had spoken a magic formula over the guttering candle, calling upon it by the ten Names not to go out, and it had obeyed, and had gone on burning steadily and without flickering all night, enabling the Great Rabbi to fathom God's mysteries, and not till it was bright daylight had the remnants of the candle gone out, leaving nothing behind. Was he, Mordechai Meisl, not such a guttering candle, that should have gone out long ago, but still went on burning? Why does God not let me go out? Why am I still alive? he wondered, still looking at the blood-soaked handkerchief in his hand. Why does God still need me in this world?
Meisl pursued his own thoughts in silence. He had heard a great deal about the strange man up in the Castle who was the elected Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia and allowed his valets and barbers to run the kingdom in his place. Only that morning, when Herr Slovsky of Slovic had called on him to discuss his debt, he had once more talked to him about his imperial master. "He doesn't like people," the treasury councillor had said. "He has a low opinion of them and despises and ridicules them. Surrounded as he is by a noisy mob of painters and musicians, soldiers of fortune and swindlers, scholars and artists of all sorts, quacks and fairground barkers, he lives a lonely life."
He, Mordechai Meisl, also led a lonely life in his house that during the daytime was full of noise and bustle.
"And why," he asked Philipp Lang, "has his Majesty the Emperor - may God increase his fame and multiply his days - why has he not a wife and children?"
"You're very outspoken," Philipp Lang said with a trace of disapproval. "But why should we not be frank with each other in view of our longstanding friendship? Why not tell you the truth? There has been no lack of marriage plans for my most gracious master. There have been negotiations with Madrid and Florence, secret couriers have ridden hither and thither, protraits painted by the hand of famous masters arrived and were viewed - but my most gracious master could not be persuaded to contemplate marriage, and all efforts to make him change his mind were in vain."
He fell silent for a while, and then went on in a whisper, as if apart from Meisl there were people in the room from whom such highly secret mattes must be kept.
"My most gracious master confided to me that the reason why he did not want to marry was that he was hoping for the return of the woman he loved, who was always in his mind and whom he could not forget. He spoke about her ina confused and bewildering way, and I could not make rhyme or reason of what he said. She had been snatched from him, he said, but how that happened he could not say, and she had not come back. And, as my most gracious master spoke of her perpetual fear of God's anger, I think she must have been another man's wife." When Philipp Lang talked about the woman the Emperor loved, Mordechai Meisl's heart grew heavy, he did not know why, it beat and beat and would not slow down, and he was full of grief and anxiety.
He wondered why this strange unrest had suddenly come over him, he could not understand it, for there was no obvious explanation. He was surprised and puzzled, and then it struck him that what weighed so heavily on his heart was perhaps a great omission of which he was guilty; he had never set eyes on that strange and puzzling, exalted and glorious man, the Holy Roman Emperor, his business partner. It seemed to him that it was this omission that so oppressed him, and this idea made him feel better; and the more he thought about it, the stronger became his desire to see the Emperor up at the Castle.
Rudolf, help. Mordechai Meisl, standing outside the keepers' lodge, with his handkerchief over his mouth becuase he had another fit of coughing, heard the words that his young wife Esther had called out when she felt the angel of death coming for her. Rudolf help. In her last moments her thoughts had been of this man who now walked past him.
Hitherto the Holy Roman Emperor in his Castle had been merely a phantom, a power of which one was aware, a distant glamour. But now he saw him - a man walking with hurried steps, with bent shoulders and bowed head, his shoes crunching the gravel. This was the man who had taken the woman he loved.
He was possessed by this idea that Esther, his wife, whom he could not forget, had become the darling of another man, the darling of the Emperor, the man walking away over there, the darling of the Emperor's heart of whom Philipp Lang had spoken when his tongue was loosened by wine. And the words that she had spoken or whispered while she, the Emperor's darling, slept by his side returned to his memory. Now he could understand them and he felt he shoudl have always recognised the truth.
There was grief in his heart, and greater even than his grief was his hate and the burning desire to avenge himself on the man who had taken his wife.
When he returned to his house on the Dreibrunnenplatz he had already made his plan.
On his death half of all his wealth was to go to the Emperor. So he was determined to leave nothing whatever behind when he died.
Not much time was left. Getting rich had been easy for him, almost a game. But getting poor - was that something he could manage? Gold clung to him, and now he must get rid of it. He must throw it away, spend it, squander it, fling it to the winds to the last half gulden. He had blood relations, a sister, a brother, and three nephews and nieces. Nothing of his money and property must fall into their hands, for the Emperor's judges and advisers could easily get it back by means of imprisonment and torture. Only the most meagre possessions such as the poorest he had would go to them: the bed in which he slept, his coat, his parchment prayer book.
And where was the money to go?
It would buy a poorhouse for the ghetto. A pest house. An orphanage. A new town hall. A house in which to read and study. A big and small synagogue. Not enough, money would still be over. Ducats in chests, valuables in vaults, money in the hands of others - all of it must go. The narro, crooked ghetto streets would be paved and lit. The Emperor and his advisers could grab the ghetto paving stones.
If only her were left enough time to get rid of it all. His only remaining wish was to become a porr man who had nothing, nothing whatever he could call his own. Guttering candle, you must go on burning till that happens. And then...
Then go to sleep, Modrechai Meisl. Sleep and forget your troubles, sleep and forget your grief. Guttering candle, go out.
From "The Angel Asael":
During his ride in the ghetto the Emperor noticed in the throng that gathered on both sides of the streets a face that captivated him and would not let him go, and he knew that it would remain in his heart for ever. It was, he thought, a child's face, that of a Jewish girl. She was standing against a gate post, her big eyes looked at him, her mouth was half open, her brown locks hung over her forehead. And when his eyes looked away from hers and he rode on, leaving her behind, a great sadness overcame him and he knew he had fallen in love.
He turned and ordered the servant riding behind him in the procession to stay behind and follow the girl wherever she went, for her was determined to discover who she was and where she could be found again.
The servant did as he was bidden. He stayed behind, saw to his horse and, when the crowd began to disperse, followed her through the ghetto streets. She walked as if she were in a hurry to get home, she looked neither to the right nor to the left and did not turn. As it was beginning to get dark, he stayed close behind her. But unfortunately in one of the streets leading to the Dreibrunnenplatz a number of street dealers who were making their way through the ghetto with their lamps and candles got in his way and offered him their wares and, by the time he managed to shale them off, the girl had gone and he looked for her in vain. So all he could tell the Emperor was that he had lost her from sight in the ghetto.
At first the Emperor thought it would not be so difficult to track the girl down, if not today then tomorrow, and so at his bidding the servant went to the ghetto every day. He wandered about the streets and spied around, but found no trace of the girl.
And as time passed, the Emperor's hope faded, and he thought he had lsot her for ever. But he could not forget her face, or her eyes, which had sought his. He grew melancholy, and found rest and consolation neither by night nor by day. And, being at his wits' end, he sent for the Great Rabbi.
He told him about the Jewish girl whom he had seen in the ghetto. He complained that he did not know how it had happened, but he could not forget her night or day. He painted her face in words, and the Great Rabbi realised that he had seen the young Esther, the wife of Mordechai Meisl, who was beautiful beyond all measure.
He advised teh Emperor to think of her no longer, for there was no hope for him in this matter. She was a Jewess, and would never give herself to a man other than her husband. But the Emperor took no notice of what he said.
"You will bring her to me at the Castle," he ordered the Great Rabbi, "and she will be my beloved. And don't keep me waiting long, because I wouldn't stand it. She has been keeping me waiting too long already. And I don't want anyone else, I want her only."
"That cannot be," said the Great Rabbi. "She will not transgress against God's law. She is a Jewess, and will not become the beloved of any other man."
When the Emperor saw that the Great Rabbi again refused to help him, a great thunderstorm of rage came over him and he swore an oath.
"If you disobey my command, and I get no loving response from her who is ever in my mind, I shall expel all the Jews from my kingdoms and territories as a disloyal people, that is my decision and will, so help me God."
Then the Great Rabbi went and planted a rose bush and a rosemary under the stone bridge on the bank of the Moldau where they were hidden from men's eyes, and over both he spoke words of magic. And a red rose opened on the rose bush, and the rosemary flower nestled up to it. And every night the Emperor's heart entered into the red rose and the Jewess's heart entered the rosemary flower.
And night after night the Emperor dreamt he held the beautiful Jewess in his arms and every nigth Esther, the wife of Mordechai Meisl, dreamt she lay in the Emperor's arms.
The angel's voice, in which there was disapproval and reproach, recalled the Great Rabbi from his meditation.
"You broke the rosemary bloom," the angel said, "but the red rose you did not break."
The Great Rabbi raised his head.
"It is not for me," he said, "to weigh the hearts of kings, it is not for me to examine them for guilt. It is not I that puts power into their hands. Would David have become a murderer and adulterer if He, the Holy One, had allowed him to remain a shepherd?"
"You children of men," the angel said, "are poor and full of troubles in your life. Why do you burden it with love, that disturbs your reason and makes your heart wretched?"
The Great Rabbi looked up with a smile at the angel, who knew the secret paths and ways of the world above, but to whom the ways of the human heart had grown strange.
"At the beginning of time," he said, "did not the children of God go together in love with the children of men? Did they not wait for them at the springs and wells and kiss them in the shadow of the oaks and olive trees? And was not Naamah, the sister of Tubal-cain, lovely, have you ever seen her like?"
The angel Asael dropped his head, and his thoughts flew back through the ages to the very beginning of time.
"Yes, Naamah, the sister of Tubal-cain, who forged clasps and gold chains, was lovely," he said softly. "She was lovely and she was delightful. She was as lovely as a garden in spring when day is breaking. Yes, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah was lovely."
And as he remembered the beloved of his distant youth, two tear-drops ran down the angel's cheeks. They were human tears.
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