Jacob winced, a gesture he tried to conceal by adjusting his necktie. Across the table, Emma was holding one of the prayer books from the evenings service, cradling it in her stubby, chapped fingers while she lovingly, delicately, and pointlessly folded and unfolded a single page again and again.
I believe we all agree on Jacobs talents, David Jonas said. Then he turned back to Jacobs father. And that is why I have an opportunity for you, Marcus.
Now Jacob looked at Emmas father, curious. His face was long and thin, the opposite of his daughters, his dark eyes quick and alert behind round spectacles, his black hair combed across the protruding peak of his balding head. He was holding out his hand toward Jacobs father, his fingers steady and confident above the wine glasses on the table. Marcus, I know youve always been interested in my firm, he said. Ive decided that Id like to sell it to you. At half its value.
Jacob watched as his father raised his eyebrows, his expression just short of a laugh. You cant do that in good conscience, he said.
In fact I can, David Jonas replied, because I would be gaining something else as well. He smiled as the other guests around the table listened. I propose to give you all of Jonas Mercantile Shipping, at half value, as a wedding gift when Miss Emma Jonas becomes Mrs. Jacob Rappaport.
Jacobs eyes bulged. Surely this was some sort of joke. The service that evening had required everyone to drink four cups of wine; was Emmas father drunk? No, it didnt seem so. David Jonas was leaning forward with both hands braced on the edge of the table, his long, thin face expectant.
Jacobs father laughed. Jacob smiled at him, unspeakably relieved, and was about to laugh himself when he heard his fathers answer. A wonderful, wonderful idea, David, his father announced. I accept.
Now Jacob stopped breathing. He stared at his father, unable to keep his hands from shaking under the table. Then he looked at Emma, who hadnt even raised her eyes to the company, too absorbed in folding and unfolding the page in her book. His stomach swayed. But now everyone was watching him. His father raised his half-empty glass and leaned toward him, smiling.
So, Jacob, to the Union, then? he asked, with a grin.
Everyone around the table was still watching him, waiting. Jacob swallowed and glanced at Emma once more; she remained preoccupied with the paper between her fingers. He looked at his father, at his mother, at the Jonases, at the table with its prayer books and silver and food, at this astonishing new world that his parents had labored so mightily to bring into being, at the vast promises that had been lavished upon him and the vast obligations required to fulfill them. He looked at Emma again, and understood what was expected of him, what had always been expected. How could he say no?
To the Union, he said.
His parents and Emmas parents laughed and broke a plate together, an old engagement tradition, and everyone cheered. Jacob Rappaport had been sold.
During the seven weeks before his wedding, he often imagined that he was not one person, but two -- one Jacob Rappaport seated in the audience of a theater, quietly fulfilling expectations, while the other Jacob Rappaport stood onstage, about to upend them. He endured night after night of dinners, discussions, arguments, agreements, and then lists of figures that he was asked to disentangle, divining his own purchase price. The ordinary Jacob Rappaport observed the events unfolding before him as he held Emma Jonass hand, smiled at his father, worked diligently through the figures, stirred sugar into Emmas tea. But on the stage in his mind, the other Jacob Rappaport cursed his father aloud, sent the business into ruin, tipped poison into Emmas cup. He watched these imagined scenes unfold with a fascination that frightened him. On the night before his wedding, he escaped to the 18th Infantry Regiment of New York, unable to understand that he could have said no.
Copyright 2009 Dara Horn. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton & Co.
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