Two middle-aged men were strolling arm in arm along a country lane, carefully sidestepping the puddles left by a recent downpour. The taller of the two was dressed in a brown tweed suit and matching cape which betokened his status as a gentleman of means. His solemn demeanor and downward gaze underlined his absorption in the conversation with his friend. The latter had bronzed, sharply chiseled features and wore his hair down to his shoulders. His jacket was a trifle too large for him, the sleeves were frayed and the elbows patched, the entire garment contributing to the picture of someone whom life had treated badly. He carried himself with a slight limp, which slowed the pace for both of them, while with his free hand he described geometrical patterns in the air to emphasize points in the story he was telling, as if conducting a piece of music from a podium.
At one point the taller man interrupted. ‘I simply marvel, Jack, at how you managed to hold body and soul together throughout your hideous ordeal,’ he said. ‘You must have had tremendous spirit to have survived, not to say iron stamina.’
‘Call it what you will,’ returned the other. ‘I only know that the cruel labor which was forced on me day after day has deadened my heart, and there was many a time when I came close to ending my life. A single plunge off the rock-face where I was toiling would have done for me. Just like that’, he added, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
‘You should no longer be thinking like that,’ said his friend in a gentle tone. ”You are back now, on the shores of this country, a free man, and you must banish all thoughts of the past and look towards building your life in the future.’
These words failed to disperse the air of gloom which surrounded Mr. Jack Dawkins, although his reply sounded a note of gratitude. ‘You have grown into a kind man, Oliver,’ he said. ‘You were a kind boy and now you have become a kind man.’
The two walked slowly on until the lane became a street and the fields gave way to a row of houses, each with a small garden decorated by shrubs and flower-beds. Eventually they reached the gate of a cottage set well back from the road, where Oliver called a halt.
‘Well, here we are, Jack,’ he said, ‘not too early, I think. Bernice will be delighted to meet you, and we will have plenty of time to chew the fat over a glass of ale before I introduce you to an experience which I believe will be entirely new to you.’
At this, Mr. Dawkins raised a questioning eyebrow, but before Oliver could respond to his unspoken invitation to expand, the front-door opened and a slim, petite woman emerged and warmly embraced her husband before stepping back to turn an expectant, smiling face to their guest.
‘This is my dear friend, Mr. Jack Dawkins,’ said Oliver warmly. ‘You have often heard me speak of him – in nothing but the most affectionate terms, I assure you,’ he added mischievously, turning towards his friend. ‘Jack, this is my wife, Bernice.’
After a curtsey from Bernice and a shy nod from Jack, Oliver ushered his wife and friend into the parlor, which they had no sooner entered than an inner door burst open and two children, aged about 10 and 7, rushed in and made a bee-line for their father, only stopping in their tracks when they saw the stranger in the room. ‘Our two progeny’, said Oliver proudly. ‘This’, (indicating the older one) ‘is Nancy. ‘Her exuberance often exceeds the bounds of propriety but she has a fascination for the wonders of nature and I am sure that she is destined for a career in one of the sciences.’
‘And I’m Fabian’, exclaimed the younger of the two, anxious not to be left out of the introductions.
‘And you, Fabian, you have a great future as an author of tales,’ said his father chidingly. ‘You are forever exercising your powers of imagination, especially when you are at a loss to explain the disappearance of something, or when there are fewer pastries on the plate than can be accounted for by the laws of natural consumption.’
‘This is an old friend of mine, Mr. Jack Dawkins, ‘ pursued Oliver. ‘I know who you are!’, piped up young Fabian. ‘You’re the one they used to call the Artful Dodger’.
‘That’s enough from you, Fabian!’ said his mother severely, and turning to Jack Dawkins, who by now was smiling at such a spirited display of bravado on the part of the youngster, she continued apologetically, ‘You must excuse him, sir. The children are quite unaccustomed to adult company and they often allow their tongues to run away with their thoughts.’
‘That’s quite alright’, replied Mr. Dawkins, barely able to suppress a chuckle, ‘I rather like to be reminded of my former accomplishments.’ And he winked conspiratorially at young Fabian, who grinned back at him in perfect understanding of their newly established bond.
The two friends spent a pleasant hour reminiscing about their youthful exploits, suitably edited for the benefit of the two children who listened agog to stories of petty thievery from fruit stalls and picking the pockets of passers-by in the crowded streets. ‘We would have starved, otherwise,’ said Oliver, glancing uneasily at Nancy and Fabian, who both wore anxious frowns as tales of their father’s misdemeanours bounced back and forth between Jack and Oliver. ‘That’s true enough, said Jack. Staying alive was an art in itself and there’s nothing like hunger pangs to help you to refine it.’
There was a moment of respectful silence while Bernice lit the candles in two silver candlesticks which rested on the dinner table and murmured a short blessing. This was followed by the arrival of a platter of succulent roast beef and a dish of steaming vegetables, which led to a further silence while the family and their guest proceeded to tuck in.
‘This is the surprise I was going to tell you about, Jack’, said Oliver, resuming the conversation. ‘It’s the only link which Bernice retains with the faith of her ancestors and I am happy to maintain it with her.’
‘Oliver has always accepted my Jewish background’, added Bernice, ‘and it has even induced him to read some of the literature of our people. The lighting of the candles heralds the arrival of the Sabbath and we find it quite comforting to look forward to a day of complete rest and escape from the travails of daily living.’
Jack Dawkins was looking thoughtful. ‘Something stirs in my mind,’ he said. I remember, when we were living in Fagin’s dingy apartment, that there were times when the old man would retreat into a corner, light two candles in candlesticks not unlike yours, and mutter some foreign-sounding incantation which we all assumed were his forays into the dark arts. The old man was always very secretive and no one ever dared to question him about that mysterious ritual.’
‘Was that Uncle Fagin, dad?’ asked Fabian.
‘We always refer to him as Uncle Fagin’, said Oliver to Jack, by way of explanation. ‘Nobody really knew his surname, did they?’
‘That’s him over there, on the wall’, said Bernice, pointing to a small portrait in a round frame above the mantelpiece. The middle-aged man in the picture, painted in somber colors, was wearing a skull cap. The large brown eyes nestled under bushy eyebrows, the brow was furrowed, the cheeks hollow and the grey-black beard untrimmed though neatly brushed. The man’s expression gave forth a sense of dignity clouded by an indescribable sadness.
‘Painted by an admirer during the trial,’ she added. Jack nodded understandingly.
‘Terrible business,’ said Oliver. ‘The man was hounded by society and pilloried by the popular press. He was condemned from the moment of his arrest and vilified into the grave. Jews everywhere quaked in their boots at the mention of his name. My own suffering was miniscule by comparison.’
Bernice interjected ‘Thanks to Nancy, you had been rescued from that hornet’s nest before the arrests began and placed with Mr Brownlow. Otherwise, my darling, the Lord only knows what charges might have been laid against you too. I was told by my parents about the hideous misfortune which befell Nancy at the hands of that rogue Sikes and I shall never forget it as long as I live.’
At the sound of her namesake’s name, little Nancy pricked up her ears. ‘Why, what happened, mama?’ she asked.
Oliver tried to silence his wife with a look but little Nancy anticipated a parental blockade. ‘I should like to know,’ she said imperiously. ‘After all, you gave me her name, so I think it’s only fair that I know all about her.’
Bernice rose to the occasion. ‘She was a truly lovely woman, my darling’, she said soothingly. ‘She was always kind to your father and when the moment came, she spirited him away from the robbers who were holding him against his will and took him to a haven of safety. Had she not, I shudder to think what might have become of him.’
‘Then what happened?, asked Fabian, who was also listening intently.
‘Well, unfortunately she had taken up with a criminal man who was prone to terrible rages,’ continued Bernice. ‘When he found out what had happened, he struck her, and the blow resulted in her death.’
Little Nancy listened impassively to this tale of horror. ‘What happened next?’, she asked. ‘I hope he got severely punished.’
‘That he did,’ said Jack Dawkins, taking up the story. ‘He was chased by the police and fled up onto a rooftop but lost his footing and fell to his death. ‘Nancy was a truly brave person’, he added. ‘You should be proud to carry her name.’
‘I am’, said little Nancy calmly, devouring the rest of her roast beef with relish.
The following morning, Oliver and Jack set out for the nearby railway station where Jack was to take the train for London. Bernice, Nancy and Fabian chorused their farewells from the gate and waved vigorously, importuning Jack to return soon, which I have no doubt he did.