The original Yiddish version of this story was published on November 3, 1917, in the newspaper Di Varheyt. It has been translated into English, for the first time, by Jessica Kirzane.
She was blonde. She had big blue eyes, a Grecian nose, a tiny mouth with blood red lips, and when she laughed two dimples appeared on her round cheeks.
The first time one of her aunts brought her to us to work as our maid I could hardly take my eyes off her. She looked like she’d come out of a romance novel. I imagined myself in the role of the prince, and she the shepherdess, or perhaps I was even the lowly shepherd and she a princess, and I suffered from our ill-fated love.
My heart pounded with fear that my mother wouldn’t be pleased with her and might decide not to take her on. I’d already noticed my mother glancing disapprovingly at the girl’s small, delicate hands. She wasn’t looking to bring a “lady” into her household. She wanted a girl who knew how to prepare dinner, wash the floors, use the samovar. She already had one “lady” to take care of in her house, she said, gesturing at me, and that was enough.
I blushed. My romantic, sentimental feelings about egalitarianism and democracy were insulted. I decided then and there that if my mother hired the girl I’d show her that I wasn’t a “lady”—I’d be like a sister to her. She wouldn’t feel like a servant in our house. I’d tell her all the time that she was one of us.
And that’s exactly what happened. Freydl came to work for us and I introduced her to all of my friends as a cousin. A poor cousin, they all understood, but that didn’t mean that they should treat her with any less respect. They assumed that she was so quiet because of her provincial background. And they couldn’t help but notice her beauty. It was staring them in the face. I waited with the same breathless anticipation I felt while reading novels to see who would be the hero who would fall in love with my “cousin” and what would come of their love—
My mother thought that my fascination with Freydl was just temporary child play. She decided to make Freydl my nanny.
Freydl took all this as the foolish caprice of her mistress’s daughter and decided not to resist. A cousin is a cousin. She didn’t think anything of it. Of course she wore her “cousin’s” stockings as though they belonged to her. But she regarded the status of cousin with as little care as the stockings themselves. And I was proud of this. I had decided it was the right thing to be proud, and I was proud of my pride in taking her to be my cousin.
My mother soon discovered that I had exempted my cousin-friend from all household work and I wouldn’t let her sleep because I dragged her out with me until late at night to go for walks. My mother decided it was a time to put an end to it. But to me it was only the beginning. I was so enjoying the fact that I was the kind of person who was seen as the kind of person who would condescend to speak to the hired help, and even go out for walks with her with my friends for everyone to see!
I noticed that there was a boy who might start declaring his love to her. He tried to be alone with her, but she stuck even closer to me so that when I was ready to go home I wouldn’t have to look for her. He hinted to me about his concerns that he wasn’t her equal. I was delighted. I was thrilled with the idea that an aristocrat might marry a servant, and that it was all my doing. I promised to ask her if she had feelings for him and to tell him her response.
Finding out her feelings proved more difficult than I’d thought. She didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. She was unrefined as she was beautiful. She didn’t have the patience to listen to what I had to say about such elevated topics as love. I finally came out with it and asked what she thought of him, naming our aristocratic friend. Did she want him to fall in love with her, and what would she think about marrying him?
She was very insulted at the question. I should stop making fun of her, she said. And I shouldn’t think that just because I’d let everyone laugh at her until now she was willing to let everyone go on treating her like a plaything. She’s no fool. She understands well and good who he is and that she’s no more than a maid, a poor girl and an orphan to boot. No matter how I tried to convince her that I wasn’t trying to laugh at her, nothing helped. She kept telling me: he is who he is, and she is who she is—she’s nothing more than a maid.
So I told him that the best thing he could do was to ask her himself. Or not to ask her at all, but beg her to give him her word that she would make him happy, that she would marry him, regardless of who she is.
That’s what he decided to do. All I had to do was give him some time alone with her.
I looked forward with anxious anticipation and perhaps more impatience than he had himself to the fateful moment when he would ask her to be his. The union of two people from such different classes seemed to me a symbol of my progressive, humanistic faith in the eventual equality between all classes.
He had almost broached the question when we received bitter news in the form of Freydl’s great aunt. The great aunt, her guardian, came and spoke to her at length before reporting to us that she had found Freydl a new position that paid better by a whole ruble a moth and for that reason (at a time when I wasn’t at home) she took her away to the new place.
She left me with only those words that often echo in my mind still, “A maid, nothing more than a maid…”