“I SUPPOSE YOU are right, Mr. Melamed. The thing must be done, though it is inconvenient. Not to mention the expense, the cost of traveling such a great distance being what it is.”
Mr. Samuel Lyon returned the letter he had been given to peruse to his fellow member of London’s Great Synagogue, Mr. Ezra Melamed. Mr. Melamed was not just a member of that illustrious institution but a parnass, or benefactor, of London’s Jewish community, due to his great wealth and numerous connections, which extended as far as the upper reaches of English society. Yet even though all agreed that Mr. Melamed could expect others to defer to his leadership (and, to be truthful, there were those who wished that he would perform his duties single-handedly and not bother them with tiresome communal affairs), Mr. Melamed insisted upon soliciting the advice of other well-regarded members of the community, such as Mr. Samuel Lyon, clockmaker to the fashionable world, whenever an important decision had to be made.
“I would go to Leeds myself, but I must travel to Brighton for business,” said Mr. Melamed. When Mr. Lyon did not reply, Mr. Melamed added, “Of course, you have your business concerns as well. But I thought that your assistant might be able to take care of your shop while you are away.”
“Mr. Warburg is a most capable man,” Mr. Lyon reluctantly agreed. “I have no uneasiness about Mr. Warburg. But why is the woman in Leeds?”
“I suppose you will hear the full story before the rest of us.”
Mr. Melamed took a final look at the piece of paper, upon which a few brief lines had been written with a hand that displayed education, elegance and economy—three virtues that could not but make an impression upon a person who valued excellence in both taste and character. He then returned the letter to his coat pocket and his attention to Mr. Lyon, who was still looking unhappy about the prospect of traveling to Leeds to escort a Jewish woman back to London.
“I will do all in my power to make your journey a comfortable one,” said Mr. Melamed. “You and Mrs. Lyon may make use of my carriage. You may take one of my servants, as well, if you prefer not to take your own. The other expenses of the journey will be paid for out of the communal fund.”
Mr. Lyon could not quarrel with such generous terms. Yet still he hesitated. “I first must speak to Mrs. Lyon and obtain her consent. A journey from London to Leeds—and back again—is no small undertaking.”
“That is precisely why I am sure Mrs. Lyon will agree to your going. Mrs. Salomon cannot possibly make such a journey alone.”
The two friends parted, one certain that a communal duty had been disposed of, the other just as certain that a conjugal disagreement was about to ensue.
When Mr. Lyon returned to his family abode in Devonshire Square, he was met with a scene of family tranquility that was all the more arresting for being so rare. Mrs. Rose Lyon, the matriarch of the family, was seated on the settee by the fire, reading to Esther and Sarah, the family’s two youngest daughters.
Joshua Lyon was, as usual, busy with his toy soldiers, planning the next battle. General Wellington’s forces had achieved a tremendous success that summer in Spain, at the Battle of Vitoria, and in the autumn Wellington had crossed the Pyrenees and brought his army to France. That mountainous performance had been reenacted many times in the Lyon family’s drawing room, to the consternation of Mrs. Lyon, who, at the sight of the furniture rearranged to form a suitable mountain range, would declare with an aggrieved tone of voice that, in her opinion, war ought to be abolished by all civilized nations. But her opinion had gone unheeded, and after England’s Austrian, Prussian, and Russian allies suffered a crushing defeat at Dresden, it was clear that the war with “Boney,” as we Englishmen call Mr. Napoleon, was far from over. Mrs. Lyon therefore had to be contented with the soothing words of her husband that at least Wellington had not crossed any large bodies of water, and so for the moment the furniture and carpets were safe from a watery recital of the British army’s latest adventures.
As for Miss Rebecca Lyon, the chronicler of this narrative and the eldest daughter at home, now that her sister Hannah was happily married to Mr. David Goldsmith, she was seated by the window overlooking Devonshire Square, thinking how nice it would be if a mysterious carriage painted all in black, except for the gold trim, and pulled by a team of sleek black horses would clamber into the square at that moment. The owner of the carriage, a man whose black looks signaled that he was from foreign parts—Italy or Sicily, she had not yet decided which—and up to no good, would jump down from the carriage, followed by a beautiful but pale-looking young woman (his daughter? his wife?), who was clearly in distress. The two would disappear into one of the square’s apartments (the recently vacated rooms above the residence of Miss Harriet Franks, Rebecca’s best friend, would suit nicely), and thus would begin a lovely mystery story for Rebecca to solve, in the style of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, the well-known authoress of Gothic novels.
When she was thus employed in such pleasant daydreams, Rebecca had no desire to scatter Joshua’s regiment with a well-aimed swirl of the hem of her muslin dress, or complain that Sarah and Esther had cut up one of her old straw bonnets without permission, to make new bonnets for their dolls, even though they had done so that morning. Besides, she was already much too old to stoop to such childish displays of perverseness and temper, at least when she was feeling grown up of her own accord. It was another thing entirely when adults reminded a young person that they were no longer a child, a reprimand that somehow always seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect.
Mr. Lyon stayed in the doorway for a few moments, to savor the homey scene. Then his presence was discovered and the tranquility was exchanged for the bustle of the family’s removal to the dining room, where the table was already laid for their supper. It was only after the soup course had been eaten and cleared that Mr. Lyon broached the subject of the journey to Leeds to his helpmeet, Mrs. Lyon.
“Why you, Mr. Lyon? What have you to do in Leeds?” asked that good woman, who disliked traveling even as far as Mayfair, since she preferred the comfort of her own home to all other places in the world.
“I have nothing to do in Leeds. But someone from the community must escort Mrs. Salomon to London.”
“I do not see why. Why cannot her husband arrange for her return to London, without bothering the community? And what about our children? We cannot possibly leave them here in London on their own.”
“I am sure that Mr. and Mrs. Franks would take them in. It is just for a few days.”
“I think it would be much better if the Franks went to Leeds and we took in Harriet,” said Mrs. Lyon, glancing over at the far end of the table, where Esther was busy braiding a string bean into Sarah’s hair. “Harriet is no trouble at all.”
“Yes, but Mr. Melamed asked me to make the journey. He must have had his reasons for making the request.”
“And I have my reasons for declining that request. No, I cannot give my consent to such a venture, Mr. Lyon. The roads at this time of year, the lack of proper kosher accommodations along the way—Mr. Salomon should have considered that before he allowed Mrs. Salomon to embark upon such a hazardous journey alone.”
Mr. Lyon was silent, but not defeated. Mrs. Salomon might have been in America for almost twenty years, but he had not forgotten that in the waning years of the previous century there had been a great rivalry between Mrs. Salomon and Mrs. Lyon, who were then young ladies of marriageable age. The fact that they had both married well had done nothing to dispel their antipathy to one another; and so, when the Salomons were ready to embark upon that long-ago journey to New York, the two ladies had said their good-byes with frigid politeness, quite content to have an ocean between them.
Knowing all this, Mr. Lyon, who had by now accepted the necessity of the journey to Leeds, had kept undisclosed one important detail, which he intended to reveal only after his wife had had time to express her initial displeasure. This having been done, he said, “Mr. Salomon has met with a tragic end. Mrs. Salomon is a widow.”
Mrs. Lyon opened her mouth to speak, but once the full meaning of her husband’s words sank in, she quickly closed it. A few moments later, though, she said, “What about her son? I am positive that when Mrs. Salomon left London, there was a little boy. By now he must be a grown man.”
“I cannot say. Mrs. Salomon did not mention him in her letter.”
“Do you think he has met with a tragic end as well, Papa?” asked Rebecca, who had been following the conversation with great interest.
“I hope not.”
“If he did, Mrs. Salomon will be like Naomi, returning to Bethlehem without husband or sons,” said Rebecca, vividly visualizing the Biblical scene described in the Megillah of Ruth.
“She did not mention a daughter-in-law, Rebecca,” said Mr. Lyon, “and we should not anticipate misfortune. For all we know, Mrs. Salomon’s son is quite healthy and still in America.”
For a brief moment, it did occur to Mrs. Lyon to say that if that were the case, the son should have accompanied the mother to England. But she held her tongue. A widow must be treated with charity, both in thought and deed, no matter what had happened in the past.
“I suppose, then, that Mr. Melamed is right. Someone must accompany Mrs. Salomon,” she therefore conceded. “But I cannot possibly accompany you, Mr. Lyon. You know the state of my health, how delicate my digestion has become during this last year. Yet you must not travel alone. Surely Mr. Melamed would agree that you and Mrs. Salomon cannot travel such a distance alone. ”
“I agree with you entirely,” he replied. “That is why I thought that Rebecca could come with me. And Perl could help us prepare our food, and serve as Rebecca’s maid—if, of course, you can spare Perl, my dear.”
Mrs. Lyon did not know what to protest first—the absence of her daughter, or her housemaid. Rebecca had no such hesitations. She leaped from her chair and flung her arms about her father’s neck. “Oh, Papa! May I really come with you? Shall we travel by the Royal Mail, and stay at a coaching inn, and be accosted by bandits, and …”
“We shall not travel in a Royal Mail coach, and with God’s help we will not meet with any bandits,” said Mr. Lyon, extricating his neck from his daughter’s arms. He then said to his wife, “Mr. Melamed has offered us the use of his carriage. He also offered us one of his servants. But I thought Rebecca might be more comfortable if Perl accompanied us.”
“I would,” said Rebecca. “Perl is so very capable, I am sure we will not go hungry. If we pack a few of our cooking pots, she will think of a dozen ways to cook an egg.”
This interesting discussion continued all the way through the meat course. When it had been decided which kosher provisions and cooking utensils would be brought along, and that they would bring their own bed linens, since one could not possibly rely upon those provided by a strange inn, Mrs. Lyon gave her reluctant consent to the plan.
“I must tell Harriet at once,” said Rebecca, as the family returned to the drawing room for tea, since she could not conceive of keeping such exciting news from her best friend overnight.
“At this hour?” Mrs. Lyon protested, glancing out the window.
“It is still light out,” said Mr. Lyon. “And the Franks home is just a few steps away. And we shall then be able to drink our tea in quiet. But do not stay long, Rebecca,” he added, giving a nod in Mrs. Lyon’s direction. “Your mother is correct to insist that you be home before it is dark.”
When Rebecca returned, it was earlier than either Mr. or Mrs. Lyon expected—and she did not return alone.
“I hope you do not mind our barging in like this,” said Mr. Franks, whose entrance was followed by his wife and daughter. “When I heard you were planning a trip to Leeds, it occurred to me that we might make a party of it.”
“Have you business there?” asked Mr. Lyon.
“Not yet. But you must have heard about the experiments being made there with steam locomotives. Blenkinsop and Murray seem to be making great progress with their two-cylinder machine. I should like to see it for myself.”
Mrs. Lyons smiled indulgently at Mrs. Franks. It was commonly known that Mr. Franks had a great interest in all things scientific. Mrs. Lyons thought it must be very tiresome to have a husband who was forever talking about gas lighting and water pumps and, now, locomotives, and so she handed Mrs. Franks a larger than usual slice of cake.
“How fast can they go?” Mr. Lyon asked.
“According to the newspaper accounts, ten miles an hour.”
Mrs. Lyon nearly dropped the tea pot. “So fast? Why so fast, Mr. Franks? I am not against progress, but surely that must be very dangerous!”
Mr. Franks smiled. “A fast horse can travel that distance in an hour, Mrs. Lyon. Even the Royal Mail can do it, on certain roads.”
“Then what is the advantage?”
“A horse cannot keep up the pace for very long. But a locomotive will not tire. As long as it has fuel, it can travel day and night at ten miles an hour. One could travel from London to Leeds in a day, instead of in four or five.”
“I cannot imagine it either,” said Mrs. Franks, giving an astonished Mrs. Lyon a reassuring smile.
Mr. Franks stood up and began to pace up and down the room, something he often did when he was excited about a new scientific venture. “I predict,” he said, pointing a prophetic-looking finger in the air, “I predict that the day is not far off when we will not have to imagine traveling by locomotive; we shall do it. It’s the coal mine owners who are behind the race to build a better machine, and they shall not rest until they have found a way to transport their coal quickly and inexpensively.” Having reached the settee where Rebecca and his daughter Harriet were sitting, he said to them, “You may not think it possible now, but I predict that when you are my age you will travel by locomotive, and you will look back with fond amusement at our cumbersome and drafty coaches, and wonder how you ever tolerated traveling at such a slow pace.”
Rebecca and Harriet exchanged glances. It was impossible, of course, to laugh at Mr. Franks. He was an adult, and one did not laugh at one’s elders. But it was also impossible to think of themselves as ever being as old as their fathers and mothers, and so they hid their smiles behind their teacups.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lyon was looking worried. “I do not know what to say. Mr. Melamed has offered me the use of his carriage, but it can seat only three comfortably and I have already promised Rebecca. And we must have a servant to see about the meals.”
Rebecca’s heart skipped a beat as she saw, for the first time, the danger. Mr. Franks intended to go with her father to Leeds!
“Yes, so Miss Lyon informed us,” said Mr. Franks. “But if I hired a carriage, and brought Harriet and one of our servants along …”
Before he could finish his sentence, the two young ladies sprang up from their seats as one, and began to thank Mr. Franks for thinking of this most excellent plan.
Mr. Lyon glanced over at Mrs. Lyon. He knew that, despite her protestations to the contrary, she did disapprove of Mr. Franks’s enthusiasm for progress and mechanical advancements. After several moments of tense consideration, she said, “I give my consent, Mr. Lyon, only if you promise me that the carriages will not travel faster than five miles an hour. Otherwise, I cannot possibly agree.”
“I shouldn’t worry,” said Mrs. Franks. “After the girls have loaded their trunks with their clothes and their sketching supplies and whatever else they intend to bring, I doubt there is a team of horses in the world that could travel any faster.”
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