.. they did their utmost to entertain him and assure him of their gratitude. They seemed to consider him as a representative of the British Government, and foreign intervention on their behalf is one of those unfortunate fixed ideas that no persecuted Jews seem able to abandon.
Benham found himself, refreshed and tended, sitting beside a wood fire in an inner chamber richly flavoured by humanity and listening to a discourse in evil but understandable German. It was a discourse upon the wrongs and the greatness of the Jewish peopleand it was delivered by a compact middle-aged man with a big black beard and long-lashed but animated eyes. Beside him a very old man dozed and nodded approval. A number of other men crowded the apartment, including several who had helped to hold off the rioters from the court. Some could follow the talk and ever and again endorsed the speaker in Yiddish or Russian; others listened with tantalised expressions, their brows knit, their lips moving.
It was a discourse Benham had provoked. For now he was at the very heart of the Jewish question, and he could get some light upon the mystery of this great hatred at first hand. He did not want to hear tales of outrages, of such things he knew, but he wanted to understand what was the irritation that caused these things.
So he listened. The Jews dilated at first on the harmlessness and usefulness of the Jews.
“But do you never take a certain advantage?” Benham threw out.
“The Jews are cleverer than the Russians. Must we suffer for that?”
The spokesman went on to the more positive virtues of his race. Benham suddenly had that uncomfortable feeling of the Gentile who finds a bill being made against him. Did the world owe Israel nothing for Philo, Aron ben Asher, Solomon Gabriol, Halévy, Mendelssohn, Heine, Meyerbeer, Rubinstein, Joachim, Zangwill? Does Britain owe nothing to Lord Beaconsfield, Montefiore, or the Rothschilds? Can France repudiate her debt to Fould, Gaudahaux, Oppert, or Germany to Fürst, Steinschneider, Herxheimer, Lasker, Auerbach, Traube and Lazarus and Benfey? . . .
Benham admitted under the pressure of urgent tones and gestures that these names did undoubtedly include the cream of humanity, but was it not true that the Jews did press a little financially upon the inferior peoples whose lands they honored in their exile?
The man with the black beard took up the challenge bravely.
“They are merciful creditors,” he said. “And it is their genius to possess and control. What better stewards could you find for the wealth of nations than the Jews. And for the honours? That always had been the rôle of the Jewsstewardship. Since the days of Joseph in Egypt. …”
Then in a lower voice he went on to speak of the deficiencies of the Gentile population; He wished to be just and generous, but the truth was the truth. The Christian Russians loved drink and laziness; they had no sense of property; were it not for unjust laws even now the Jews would possess all the land of South Russia. . . .
Benham listened with a kind of fascination. “But,” he said.
It was so. And with a confidence that aroused a protest or so from the onlookers, the Jewish apologist suddenly rose up, opened a safe close beside the fire and produced an armful of documents.
“Look!” he said, “all over South Russia there are these!” Benham was a little slow to understand, until half a dozen of these papers had been thrust into his hand. Eager fingers pointed, and several voices spoke. These things were illegalities that might some day be legal; there were the records of loans and hidden transactions that might at any time put all the surrounding soil into the bands of the Jew. All South Russia was mortgaged. ...
“But is it so?” asked Benham, and for a time ceased to listen and stared into the fire.
Then he held up the papers in his band to secure silence and, feeling his way in unaccustomed German, began to speak and continued to speak in spite of a constant insurgent undertone of interruption from the Jewish spokesman.
All men, Benham said, were brothers. Did they not remember Nathan the Wise?
“I did not claim him.” said the spokesman, misunderstanding. “He is a character in fiction.” But all men are brothers, Benham maintained. They had to be merciful to one another and give their gifts freely to one another. Also they had to consider each other's weaknesses. The Jews were probably justified in securing and administering the property of every community into which they came, they were no doubt right in claiming to be best fitted for that task; but also they had to consider, perhaps more than they did, the feelings and vanities of the host population into which they brought these beneficent activities. What was said of the ignorance, incapacity and vice of the Roumanians and Russians was very generally believed and accepted but it did not alter the fact that the peasant, for all his incapacity, did like to imagine he owned his own patch and hovel and did have a curious irrational hatred of debt. ...
The faces about Benham looked perplexed.
“This,” said Benham, tapping the papers in his hand. “They will not understand the ultimate benefit of it. It will be a source of anger and fresh hostility. It does not follow because your race has supreme financial genius that you must always follow its dictates to the exclusion of other considerations. ...”
The perplexity increased.
Benham felt he must be more general. He went on to emphasise the brotherhood of man, the right to equal opportunity, equal privilege, freedom to develop their idiosyncrasies as far as possible, unhindered by the idiosyncrasies of others. He could feel the sympathy and understanding of his hearers returning. “You see,” said Benham, “you must have generosity. You must forget ancient scores. Do you not see the world must make a fresh beginning?” He was entirely convinced he had them with him. The heads nodded assent, the bright eyes and lips followed the slow disentanglement of his bad German.
“Free yourselves and the world,” he said.
“And so,” he said, breaking unconsciously into English, “let us begin by burning these beastly mortgages!”
And with a noble and dramatic gesture Benham cast his handful on the fire. The assenting faces became masks of horror. A score of hands clutched at those precious papers, and a yell of dismay and anger filled the room. Some one caught at his throat from behind. “Don't kill him!” cried some one. “He fought for us!”
An hour later Benham returned in an extraordinarily dishevelled and battered condition to his hotel. ...
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