MRS. SIDNEY M. LESTER used to come into the grocery store of Kahn & Seidelman every day in the busy time about five-thirty. She looked things over, from the boxes of red apples to the rich hams and golden-brown chickens under the glass of the delicatessen counter. Those bologna sausages, broadly sliced across, those glittering heaps of potato salad, overstrewn with parsley, and the various new touches which came into the store from the kitchen of Minnie Seidelman. Sometimes, but that was in the early days before Kahn & Seidelman understood, one of them asked Mrs. Lester if she were being served. On those occasions she priced some of the delicacies and learned with undying interest, over and over again, that the little tubes of anchovy paste were sixty-five cents and that the dabs of pâté cost seventy-five; and three dollars and a half for one tiny little jar of caviar always caused Mrs. Sidney M. Lester to nod her head and look out of the corner of a speculative eye, as though she were telling herself that she must remember this when she gave her party next week.
But the party never came, and in six months of constant patronage Mrs. Lester never bought five cents' worth of provisions of any kind from the store of Kahn & Seidelman. But every day, at about five-thirty, she stole a loaf of bread and walked with dignity into the street.
It would not be easy for most women to steal a loaf of bread. A loaf is about the clumsiest object in the world to conceal. But Mrs. Sidney M. Lester wore a short cloak of black silk, and when she picked up the loaf, she held it between her hip and the pinch of her left elbow, so that it was very well concealed by the cloak. These loaves, you understand, were not the ordinary blocks, soft, pulpy, cellophane-wrapped articles which you get in most stores. Instead, they were long, brown-crusted French loaves which come out of the oven of Minnie Seidelman's own kitchen. If you know what good bread is, go over there to Lexington Avenue this very day and buy a loaf of Minnie Seidelman's bread. It has a good smack to it, I can tell you; with a bottle of milk and an apple, it will make you a fine meal. And every day, at about five-thirty, when the store was filled with shopping women who had finished their day's work and were getting food for supper, Mrs. Sidney M. Lester stole a loaf of that beautiful bread and took it away.
Bernie Kahn saw it first of all.
Bernie is a good boy. He is in high school now, when a lot of youngsters begin to put on airs; but Bernie has no nonsense about him, and when he comes home from school, he rushes through with his homework and then hurries over to help at the store during the rush hour. His cousin, Abe Seidelman, is following that good example, shamed into it. And of course Ruth Kahn and sweet little Rose Seidelman are always around to help out. It's a wonderful thing, the way the Kahns and Seidelmans work together and in their own families find all the help that they need for everything. By the way, Rose Seidelman is the pretty one with the high color. If you say that the apples are not as red as her cheeks, she lifts up a quick hand and touches one of them and looks as surprised as though she never had heard this remark in her life before.
But to go back to Bernie, he was the one who discovered the thefts. He was not one of those headlong young fools who shout out the first guess that comes into the head. The first day he suspected. What did he do? The second day he counted every loaf in the stack just before Mrs. Sidney M. Lester went out past the bread counter. And then he counted them again after she went by and found out, as he suspected, that the store was one loaf shy. Any other boy would have talked then and there, but Bernie is really a boy in a thousand. He waited until the next day, and the next day's theft, and then he trailed Mrs. Sidney M. Lester around the corner to the old place which had been turned into a rooming house. When she went in, he looked at the names under the mail boxes and discovered that she lived on the west side of the top floor. When Bernie was thoroughly equipped with this information, he went back to the store, took his father aside, and told him the news.
The brow of his father darkened, but he said nothing. Bernie did not talk about it to the others. He watched his father and kept his mouth shut.
You never saw a boy like Bernie. Nothing can keep him from getting on in the world.
His father, Jake Kahn, is unlike the physical tradition of his family. Martha Kahn has cooked for her entire family with wonderful success all the days of her married life, but she can't put a pound on Jake. He remains as thin as a thinker, and his shoulders bend forward over a narrowing chest.
That night after supper they all went in, as usual, to sit for a half hour with Grandfather Oscar Kahn in the front room. Grandfather Oscar sits there in a brown leather chair and smokes a long pipe that has a China bowl with a cap of silver filigree. It curves down out of the white beard of Oscar and rests comfortably upon the top fold of his stomach, as upon a shelf.
The half hour almost had ended when Jake Kahn said, "Well, we've got one at last."
Grandfather Oscar opened one eye and lifted the white shag of one eyebrow.
"What have you got, my son?" he asked.
"A shoplifter," said Jake quietly.
The stir in the family circle was immense. Grandfather Oscar opened both eyes wide. Only Bernie, rich in knowledge, sat still and said nothing, but watched. He is that kind of a boy.
"An old scoundrel of a woman," said Jake, "who steals a loaf of bread from our store every day of her life!"
His indignation put fire in his sunken eyes.
As for Grandfather Oscar, he sank back in his chair and the mouthpiece of his pipe slipped from his lips and the pipe itself sank down to the second fold of his stomach, where it rested again as upon a shelf.
"Himmel—Gott!" said Grandfather Oscar.
"There's a jail for such people!" cried Martha Kahn.
"Himmel und Herr Gott!" said Grandfather Oscar.
"I know that sly old thief—I know the very one!" cried Ruth, inspired by afterthought.
Only Bernie Kahn said nothing. He is really a remarkable boy.
Then Grandfather Oscar groaned again, his voice like a rumbling of distant thunder: "Heiliger Himmel—unter Herr Gott der Vater! A loaf of bread!"
The last four words were unexpected. They struck the rest of the family to a sudden silence. They were rich in surprising implications. They attacked the whole Kahn family of the younger generations as from the rear.
Grandfather Oscar said, "Every day of her life—to steal—a loaf of bread!"
There was such an accent upon "bread" that a shudder ran through the listeners.
After that, Oscar Kahn closed his eyes, lifted his pipe to the uppermost fold of his stomach, and restored the mouthpiece to his lips.
His family stole quietly from the room.
The next day they were changed people. No one said anything to anybody else; and every one of the Kahns had the same idea.
That very afternoon, Abe Seidelman came running to Jake Kahn shortly after five-thirty and cried out, "That old woman—the one in the black cloak—she's a thief!"
"Yeah?" said Jake. He looked down upon Abe—not from a superior height of inches, but from a superiority of mind and soul and time. "What did she steal?"
"She stole a loaf of bread!" said Abe. "I saw her put it up under her cloak as slick as you please!"
"She stole a loaf of bread. And so what?" asked Jake.
Bewildering light dawned upon the brain of Abe.
"Geez!" he said, and laughed a little, embarrassed.
"Yeah, sure," said Abe, and he laughed a little again, very softly.
The Kahns and the Seidelmans have lived and worked together for so many years that their mutual understanding is remarkable. In a flash they now knew what their attitude should be toward Mrs. Sidney M. Lester. And that attitude never faltered.
When she came in, always wearing the same dress of black silk, upon which time had shed a sort of dust, almost impalpable, with a collar of black lace concealing the indignities which the years had worked upon her throat, she was sure to get a cheerful greeting from the Kahns and the Seidelmans—not too much, not so much attention that she might become embarrassed, but just enough to warm the air with a touch of neighborliness. Her pleasure was always asked. She always had a chance to price the caviar or the sliced white chicken, or the lobsters, or the pâté. And at the moment when she started from the store again, all the Kahns and all the Seidelmans were suddenly very busy, with their faces turned to the rear of the store. At that moment even a flash of lightning would not have been seen by those good people.
As I was saying, this went on for upward of six months before Mrs. Sidney M. Lester failed to appear at the store. Her absence was noted at once. It was the subject of a telephone conversation between the house of Kahn and the house of Seidelman that evening. On the second day again she was missing. And when the third evening did not bring her between five and five-thirty, Bernie went around to the rooming house and rang the porter's bell. A sour old woman said, "Mrs. Lester must be in because she ain't gone out!"
"She's sick, I guess," said Bernie, when he went back to the store.
The Kahns and the Seidelmans were confused and worried by the thought.
Then Jake Kahn did something about it. Jake is a dry, hard-faced man and he is apt to surprise his entire family by the unexpected workings of his brain.
They were about to close the store; the last clients were gone; and Jake's loud, dry voice said: "Ruthie, get a jar of that caviar out of the icebox, and a couple tubes of anchovy paste, and some of them anchovies, and a jar of pâté. Bernie, get a dozen of those Southern California navels. Select. No, maybe you better make it half a dozen. Some of those Spanish olives, Abe..."
He went on with additional selections.
The unanimity of the Kahns and Seidlemans never was shown to better advantage. The mind of Jake instantly was apparent to all the rest, and in ten minutes every Kahn and Seidelman in the store was walking around the corner on that cold November day—for it was nearly Thanksgiving and there was ice in every breath they drew. And every Kahn and every Seidelman of the lot carried something in hand to the little rooming house where Mrs. Sidney M. Lester lived.
The sour-faced woman opened the door again.
"Top floor west," she said. "And help yourself!"
She stood at the bottom of the stairs, sniffing, as the procession climbed.
When they came to the top floor west, Jake tapped. There was no response. The smiles died upon the faces of the Kahns and the Seidelmans.
Then Jake tried the door. It opened at once. He peeked and the Kahns and the Seidelmans peeked behind him. They saw a neat little living room with a round table in the center of it, and the center of the table was crossed by an embroidered runner; and on the runner stood four or five books, upheld by bronze book ends; and on the wall there was a picture of a dignified gentleman in tails, making a gesture as though he were in the midst of a public address. They knew, instantly, that that was Sidney M. Lester, and that he was dead.
"Good!" said Jake, seeing that the inner door to the bedroom-kitchenette was closed. "We'll get everything on the table and surprise her..."
They got into the living room. Their eyes gave warning to one another to make no sound. When Ruthie dropped the spoon out of the potato salad and it clattered on the floor, the whole group looked upon her as upon a mortal sinner, and she was frozen with fright.
But presently they had everything laid out so that it would have done you good to see that caviar, packed in glistening ice, and the silver white of pure chicken breast, sliced by Abe—he really has a perfect touch for carving, Grandfather Oscar says; and there were grapes frosted with cold and sweetness and the fragrant big California oranges, richer than the fabled apples of the Hesperides; and so on, through item after item, almost every article that Mrs. Sidney M. Lester ever had priced in the store was represented by that array upon the table.
Then Jake, after taking a final survey of the table, advanced toward the inner door. The Kahns and Seidelmans, unbidden, ranged themselves in a straight line, beginning with Martha Kahn and ending with Bernie, who is the smallest of the family, though of course he more than makes up for inches with brains.
Jake rapped delicately upon that inner door. He waited. He rapped again. Suddenly he rapped very loudly indeed. Martha Kahn caught her breath.
Martha said, whispering: "Gott mit uns...!"
And then Jake turned the knob slowly, and slowly pushed the door open. He and all the families behind him could look through the door to the chair where Mrs. Sidney M. Lester sat beside the western window with a time-yellowed old letter in her hand, and her head bent thoughtfully to the side, and her eyes looking askance out the window for all the world as though she had just been pricing the caviar or the pâté in the store of Kahn & Seidelman.
Jake Kahn did not speak. He turned slowly, and slowly he closed the door.
He crossed the room. He opened the door into the hall. Through it filed the Kahns and the Seidelmans, stepping soundlessly. So perfectly were they of one mind that it did not occur to any of them to take even the perishable caviar away; but all remained as they had brought it and arranged—what was to have been a feast, but became a sacrifice. The caviar with its glistening ice, the rich pâté, uncovered, the snow-white slices of chicken which Abe had carved, all stood there in order, and the California oranges, at a dollar and twenty-five cents a dozen, gave into the air an aromatic fragrance purer than the purest incense in a church.
The Kahns and Seidelmans went noiselessly down the stairs with big Martha Kahn weeping silently all the way and Jake comforting her, for he understood the nature of their loss.