The Washerwoman's Daughter
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Eliya Karmona
Translated from Ladino by Michael Alpert
‘Where is my father’s money?’ said Léontine to her brother. ‘My father left a lot of money. He was a carpenter, very skilled, and when he died he left a large inheritance. What happened to all that money?’
‘But I married you off, dear Léontine’, said Merovak to his sister. ‘I gave you a big dowry and I found you a husband, as was right.’
‘It was worthwhile giving away so much money to get a thieving husband, a drunk of ahusband, was it? It would have been better for you to find me a craftsman who knew how to earn his bread with the sweat of his brow and would always live honourably. But now, poor me, I’m always on tenterhooks. Every minute I think they’ve arrested my husband and have taken him off to prison and sentenced him. He’s already served two stretches of a year each and God save us from a third one.’
‘Something’s got into you today, Léontine. It’s not like you. The husband I chose for you is a good young man. If I had given you a husband who worked with his hands, he wouldn’t earn much and you would not live as well as you do now. What do you lack? He earns lots of cash and satisfies all your wishes as soon as you ask for them.’
‘That’s true, but in the end, what will become of that thief? Isn’t it gaol? Isn’t it punishment? And what good is it for me to have a husband if I can be sure that he’s going to arrested and gaoled when I least expect it? Really I don’t understand your idea. The two of you could easily invest the money you have today in an honest business. You’ve been in that trade for so many years and you’ve got money and you can begin another business. Stop that wretched thievery which will bring you down one day.’
‘My dear sister, do you think we can do something different now? Impossible! We are used to making several thousand francs all in one go so we couldn’t possibly start a business making small sums.’
‘Léontine, open the door!’ A voice was heard from the window. It was Armand the thief, Léontine’s husband, who was back from his latest job. The woman opened the door and the husband entered, puffingand exclaiming at the same time: ‘Léontine, be happy. You want to have babies and I’ve brought you a very beautiful one who will amuse you when I am away from home.’
‘Oh! A child! exclaimed Léontine, taking it from from her husband’s arms. ‘Where does it come from? Did you steal it?’
‘No, darling. Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you.’ The husband and wife went to the room with Merovak, who sat down beside his associate and brother-in-law. The latter said to him: ‘Merovak, God has brought us a child.’
‘How did this come about?’ asked Léontine and Merovak in astonishment.
‘Well, last night, I’d gone around to get some tools to get into the house of the famous Count Gustave Talmiri. The waiter in the café where we were sitting has a brother who works in the house, and he promised to introduce me to his brother. I think we can come to an agreement that this brother will open the door at midnight. These lads from the provinces haven’t seen much money and when I promise to grease his hand with a few thousand francs he’ll accept the arrangement I’m offering.’
‘Armand!’ said Léontine, ‘You know how I worry. I beg you, tell me who this child is.’
‘Well, I had left the café to go home. It was already past midnight. In the streets I walked through, there was almost nobody. I was walking fast so as to get home quicker when my eyes suddenly saw something white on a bench in the street. I was curious to see what it was. I went up to the bench and saw this baby, left there by heaven knows who. Now, my dear Léontine, change its clothes because they must be damp from the night dew. Put what you want on it and tomorrow I’ll buy everything that the baby requires.’
While the baby cried now and then, Léontine began to take off its swaddling clothes and the two men began to examine its face, for it was very pretty.
Hardly had the woman taken off the swaddling clothes when she felt something hard. She picked it up. It was a large, thick envelope with these words written on it in big letters:
TO THE PERSON WHO RESCUES THIS CHILD
The two men swiftly opened the envelope and found a letter and forty banknotes, each of a thousand francs.
‘Oh!’ cried Merovak, ‘we’re rich!’
Armand put the money in his inside pocket and began to read the letter aloud.
I leave my baby to the mercy of somebody, but I don’t want it to be looked after for nothing, so with this envelope I am leaving the sum of 40,000 francs to maintain this child until the age of twenty. As soon as he reaches that age I ask you to tell me by letter addressed to RD, Poste Restante, Paris. You will be rewarded for your care of my son. Certain as I am that this child will be well looked after and raised, I thank in advance the person who becomes my son’s guardian.
‘This is good’, said Armand. ‘We will bring this child up properly. When he is twenty years old, if we are rich, we shan’t tell him, and if we’re poor it will be a good way of solving our problem.’
He put away the letter carefully and the two brothers-in-law, Armand and Merovak, left Léontine to change the baby’s clothes and began to talk about the matter of Count Gustave Talmiri.
‘There isn’t much to think about’, said Armand. ‘He lives at number 19 Rue Aubert. Once we make the arrangement with the house servant everything is easy. We’ll wait for two or three days. That café waiter I told you about is going to introduce me to his brother, and I think I’ll be able to carry out the plan successfully.’
‘Look at this beautiful baby’, said Léontine to Armand. ‘Although he’s wearing just bedsheets, he looks so pretty. Who knows how lucky he’ll be?’
‘Is it a boy?’ asked Merovak.
‘Yes, a boy, and just born. Of course, he needs to be fed so, first of all, go and get me a wet nurse, quickly, and find a nanny.’
‘That’s my job,’ said Merovak. ‘I’ll go and find you a wet nurse at once and tomorrow I’ll be able to find a nanny.’
‘Since you’re going out,’ said Armand to his brother-in-law, ‘get two okas of wine and an oka of ribs to roast. Last night we thought we had no money and poverty was staring us in the face. Now that the Master of the World has taken pity on us, we should eat and drink and praise His name.’
‘Bravo, Armand, I had the same idea. The innkeeper where we drink every night has got a delicious white wine. I’ll buy some and we shall have a good time tonight.’
Merovak left, and Armand and Léontine stayed indoors looking closely at the baby. ‘What name shall we give him?’ the woman asked her husband.
‘This baby has brought us a fortune, hasn’t he, Léontine?’
‘Well then, I’m going to call him Fortunato.’
‘It’s rather a long name.’
‘Long or short, I like it.’
‘If you like it, that’s what we’ll call him.’
Merovak arrived then with everything they had told him to buy.
The meat had just been roasted, and the three people whom our readers have already met, sat down to eat heartily, drank deeply, and then went to bed.
Translation copyright © Michael Alpert 2013
This novel was originally published as La ija de la lavandera, in Constantinople in 1923-1924.
Eliya Rafael Karmona (born Constantinople 1869, died 1932) was a typesetter at the Ladino newspaper, El Tyempo. He tried several unsuccessful ventures in other parts of the Ottoman world, including Salonika, Smyrna, and Cairo, returning finally to El Tyempo. Beginning by printing folktales told him by his mother, he went on to write a total of nearly fifty novels. From 1908, when the Young Turks’ revolution freed the press from censorship, Karmona edited a comic weekly, El Djugeton (The Clown). Karmona was a typical Sephardi intellectual of his time, in touch with new values and characterised by his multiplicity of interests.
Michael Alpert (the translator) is Professor Emeritus of the Modern and Contemporary History of Spain at the University of Westminster and Honorary Research Fellow of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department at University College London. He has three specialities: 20th century Spanish history on which he has published widely; the Spanish Inquisition and secret Judaism, on which he has published Secret Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition (2nd edition, Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2008), and, more recently, the Ladino novel. He has published a transliteration from the Hebrew letter text and a translation into English of Elia Rafael Karmona's La muz'er onesta, under the title The Chaste Wife (Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2009), and some articles about the Ladino novel in general. He is now working on Viktor Levy (died Constantinople, 1940), a journalist, newspaper editor, novelist and translator.