He sits and “learns,” unconscious of the charged atmosphere; does not see her let the sock fall and begin wringing her finger-joints; does not see that her forehead is puckered with misery, one eye closed, and the other fixed on him, her learned husband, with a look fit to send a chill through his every limb; does not see her dry lips tremble and her jaw quiver. She controls herself with all her might, but the storm is gathering fury within her. The least thing, and it will explode.
That least thing has happened.
He was just translating a Talmudic phrase with quiet delight, “And thence we derive that—” He was going on with “three,—” but the word “derive” was enough, it was the lighted spark, and her heart was the gunpowder. It was ablaze in an instant. Her determination gave way, the unlucky word opened the flood-gates, and the waters poured through, carrying all before them.
“Derived,’you say, derived? Oh, derived may you be, Lord of the World,” she exclaimed, hoarse with anger, “derived may you be! Yes! You! ” she hissed like a snake. “Passover coming—Thursday—and the child ill—and not a drop of milk is there. Ha?”
Her breath gives out, her sunken breast heaves, her eyes flash.
He sits like one turned to stone. Then, pale and breathless, too, from fright, he gets up and edges toward the door.
At the door he turns and faces her, and sees that hand and tongue are equally helpless from passion; his eyes grow smaller; he catches a bit of handkerchief between his teeth, retreats a little further, takes a deeper breath, and mutters:
“Listen, woman, do you know what Bittul-Torah means? And not letting a husband study in peace, to be always worrying about livelihood, ha? And who feeds the little birds, tell me? Always this want of faith in God, this giving way to temptation, and taking thought for this world . . . foolish, ill-natured woman! Not to let a husband study! If you don’t take care, you will go to Gehenna.”
Receiving no answer, he grows bolder. Her face gets paler and paler, she trembles more and more violently, and the paler she becomes, and the more she trembles, the steadier his voice, as he goes on:
“Gehenna! Fire! Hanging by the tongue! Four death penalties inflicted by the court!”
She is silent, her face is white as chalk.
He feels that he is doing wrong, that he has no call to be cruel, that he is taking a mean advantage, but he has risen, as it were, to the top, and is boiling over. He cannot help himself.
“Do you know,” he threatens her, “what Skiloh means? It means stoning, to throw into a ditch and cover up with stones! Srefoh—burning, that is, pouring a spoonful of boiling lead into the inside! Hereg— beheading, that means they cut off your head with a sword! Like this” (and he passes a hand across his neck). “Then Cheneck—strangling! Do you hear? To strangle! Do you understand? And all four for making light of the Torah! For Bittul-Torah!”