“Rebecca, why do you vex the child, when Isaac cannot speak? Your time would be more profitably spent in helping us hem these clothes.” Mrs Rose Lyon gave her daughter a disapproving glance and then returned her attention to the tiny dress that sat in her lap.
Rebecca stroked the cheek of her nephew, Master Isaac Goldsmith, age four weeks, to reassure the infant that his inability to articulate the name of his eldest (and surely favourite) aunt was no aspersion on either his intelligence or his affectionate nature. “You want to say my name. I know you do,” she whispered. When she was greeted by a smile, or something that seemed very like, she, in turn, was reassured that her high estimation of her only nephew had not been misplaced.
“Give me the dress, Mama, and I will hem it,” said the infant’s mother, Mrs Hannah Goldsmith. “Rebecca is much better employed in amusing Isaac.”
Rebecca could feel the tips of her ears turn red. She dearly loved her older sister, considering Hannah to be everything that a Daughter of Israel should be, but wished that Hannah had not brought up the subject, even subtly, of Rebecca’s inability to sew her stitches in an even line.
“She must learn to master the needle,” Mrs Lyon said with a heartfelt sigh, plying her needle with expert motion. “What will people say when her children enter the Great Synagogue with ragged hems and uneven sleeves?”
“That is still several years away. She has ample time to improve her needlework. The main thing is to want to improve, which I am sure is a thing that Rebecca desires as much as you do. Is that not so, Rebecca?”
Rebecca did not answer at once. The truth was that she much preferred to wield a pen or a paintbrush than a needle, which always seemed to play pranks with her fingers and make the most disconcerting movements on the cloth. When she had heard Mr Franks, the father of her good friend Miss Harriet Franks, discuss with her father a machine that could cut cloth, sew seams and hems, and even produce a tolerable buttonhole, she had begged her father to procure the wonder at once.
“Is such a machine in existence today?” Mr Lyon had asked.
“Oh, I do not speak of today,” Mr Franks had replied. “I speak of a future time, when the machine will perform many of the mundane tasks that currently occupy our hours.”
At the time, Rebecca had been contented with this answer. Now, however, she silently wondered if that future epoch might occur within the next six or seven years, when she could expect to take her place among the married matrons of London’s Jewish community. If so, she would be spared much agony. In the meanwhile, though, she was aware that both her sister and her mother were waiting for her reply.
“Yes, Hannah, I should like to improve. And I am sorry you no longer live with us in Devonshire Square, as I am sure that now that I am older I should make a much better pupil.”
“Bury Street is not so very far.”
“No, but you are so busy, since you have become a mother.”
“I have not the time, it is true, but perhaps Miss Taylor could perform the duties of a teacher.”
Mrs Lyon, who had been following the conversation with interest, said with astonishment, “Why should a stranger teach Rebecca sewing, when she has a mother to instruct her?”
“I did not mean to offend, Mama, but I think you will like my little scheme when you hear it.”
At that moment the patriarch of the family, Mr Samuel Lyon, entered the drawing room. In place of his usually genial manner, a more serious expression was etched upon his face. “What is this, Hannah? Motherhood should elevate a young lady, not turn her into a schemer or gossip.”
“Yes, Papa, but before you judge me, please do me the favour of first hearing what scheme I have planned.”
Mr Lyon took his accustomed seat by the hearth and motioned for his eldest child to proceed.
”It has come to my attention that the situation of Mr Taylor and his sister is not all that it should be,” Hannah began. “Their rooms are above ours, on Bury Street, as you know, Papa.”
Mr Lyon, having unintentionally fallen into the role of judge, nodded his head in what he hoped was a suitably judicial manner.
“Knowing that they are but newly arrived in London, and apparently without family or acquaintances,” Hannah continued, “I have on more than one occasion invited Miss Taylor to my apartments for tea. But she has refused my overtures.”
“This surprises me,” said Mr Lyon. “They accepted our invitation to the Seder. Miss Taylor seemed to be a sensible, well-bred young lady.”
“She praised my special recipe for gefilte fish exceedingly,” added Mrs Lyon, by way of agreement with her husband.
“I believe she is a well-bred person, as well,” Hannah replied, “and that it is only the embarrassment of a too limited income that prevents her from accepting my invitations. If she were to have tea with me, she would feel obligated to invite me in return, and it is my belief that she and her brother do not have enough food for themselves, let alone others.”
“I do not understand you, Hannah,” said Mrs Lyon. “Is not Mr Taylor employed as physician to the Jewish orphanage? And how can he engage rooms on Bury Street, if he does not possess a comfortable income? The building is owned by Mr Melamed, who maintains his own apartments in the house next door. It is fantastic to suggest that Mr Melamed would let his property to paupers.”
Mr Lyon cleared his throat loudly and rose from his seat.
“What are you doing, Mr Lyon?” asked his helpmeet, as she watched him search behind the high-backed settle that stood in a corner of the room. “Passover has finished. There is no longer a need to search for chometz.”
“It is not unleavened bread that I am searching for,” he replied, turning his attention to the long-case clock and looking inside. Satisfied that the case was empty of all but the workings of the stately clock, he next walked over to the door that led to the library, which he quickly opened and just as quickly closed.
“Then what are you looking for?”
“Joshua,” he replied, striding down to the far end of the drawing room, where he opened the door that led to the hall.
“Joshua and Esther and Sarah are in the nursery, in bed.”
“In theory, but I wish to be certain.”
After casting a careful eye behind the curtains, and finally assuring himself that a certain inquisitive six-year-old boy was not hidden in the room, Mr Lyon returned to his place by the mantelpiece.
“What I am about to say must go no further than these four walls,” he began, casting a solemn glance upon each of the ladies in turn. “Mr Taylor and his sister are, indeed, without family or friends. Their parents died of the fever in Jamaica, as I understand, and Mr Taylor used the small legacy he received to undergo training as a physician. I believe he studied somewhere on the Continent.”
“If I recall correctly, at the Seder he mentioned that he had studied in Gottingen,” said Hannah.
“Why did he study medicine in a German city and not in England?” asked Rebecca.
“There is only one medical school in England that will accept young men of our faith, and places are limited,” replied Mr Lyon. “Mr Taylor was not accepted, perhaps because he was neither born nor reared in this country.”
Rebecca accepted this answer, but as so often happened, no sooner had one question been resolved than another one rushed into her mind. “I wonder that he did not return to Jamaica, to become a physician there. Jamaica must be very beautiful.”
“The island might have its charms for an artist,” said Mr Lyon, well aware of his daughter’s interest in painting and drawing. “But Mr Taylor has an unmarried sister, and the Caribbean is not the place to find her a suitable husband.”
“But if she has no fortune, what good will it do her to be in England?” asked Mrs Lyon, who was always very practical when it came to matrimonial matters.
“Once her brother is established as a physician, Miss Taylor’s prospects should improve.”
Mrs Lyon remained doubtful. “His work at the orphanage cannot bring him much. Has he other patients?”
“I believe that Mr Melamed engaged his services before Passover. And should anyone in our family require a physician, I have assured Mr Melamed that we shall send for Mr Taylor, as well.”
“Thank G-d, our children are healthy - pooh, pooh, pooh,” said Mrs Lyon, looking nervously about her to make sure that no demon harbingers of disease had crept into the room. “I should not like to have a physician as a regular visitor to our home, unless, of course, it was to invite Mr Taylor and his sister for a Shabbos meal.”
“I only say that should one of our children develop a cough or a sore throat, we would be doing Mr Melamed a favour by sending for Mr Taylor. You, Rebecca, for instance, if I am not mistaken, this evening you are looking a little pale. Are you perhaps not feeling well?”
“I am very well, only I am puzzled. Why would we be doing Mr Melamed a favour by engaging the services of …?” Rebecca suddenly blushed. “Oh, I see. Mr Taylor and his sister are Mr Melamed’s current charity case, is that it, Papa?”
“Mr Melamed is most likely letting the rooms on Bury Street for a minimal sum, until Mr Taylor’s medical practice is established,” said Hannah, taking up the conversation’s thread.
“Our Sages tell us that the highest form of charity is to help set up a person in business, so that one day he will no longer need public assistance,” said Mr Lyon. “Therefore, it is the responsibility of all of us to help newcomers to our community, not just Mr Melamed.”
“But we do not have to make ourselves sick to do so,” insisted Mrs Lyon.
“That is why I should like to tell you my scheme, Papa. I have also tried to think of a way to help Mr Taylor and his sister.”
“If your intention is to help and not harm, Hannah, I should very much like to hear what you have to say.”
“You, Papa, would not notice the expert manner in which Miss Taylor has mended and refashioned her walking costume from last year, but such things do attract a lady’s eye. I therefore thought that perhaps she could be employed to teach needlework to Rebecca and Esther and Sarah. We could say that she would be doing us a great favour, since Mama and I are so busy with making bed linen for the baby that we do not have the time to instruct the girls ourselves.”
“If Miss Taylor would give her assent, it would be a very good scheme, indeed. Do you not agree, Mrs Lyon?”
“With all my heart,” said Mrs Lyon. “Invite Miss Taylor to pay us a call the day after tomorrow, Hannah. I shall inform Mrs Baer.”
“Mrs Baer?” Mr Lyon protested. “Surely her duties at the coffee house would prevent her from attending a sewing party.”
“I do not like to contradict you, my dear, but I assure you that once Mrs Baer hears that there is an orphaned young lady in London who is in search of a husband, there is nothing that will prevent her from making Miss Taylor’s acquaintance.”
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