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"Now, then, Maria," said Zerkow, his cracked, strained voice just rising above a
whisper, hitching his chair closer to the table, "now, then, my girl, let's have it all
over again. Tell us about the gold plate—the service. Begin with, 'There were
over a hundred pieces and every one of them gold.'"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Zerkow," answered Maria. "There never
was no gold plate, no gold service. I guess you must have dreamed it."
Maria and the red-headed Polish Jew had been married about a month after the
McTeague's picnic which had ended in such lamentable fashion. Zerkow had
taken Maria home to his wretched hovel in the alley back of the flat, and the flat
had been obliged to get another maid of all work. Time passed, a month, six
months, a whole year went by. At length Maria gave birth to a child, a wretched,
sickly child, with not even strength enough nor wits enough to cry. At the time of
its birth Maria was out of her mind, and continued in a state of dementia for
nearly ten days. She recovered just in time to make the arrangements for the
baby's burial. Neither Zerkow nor Maria was much affected by either the birth or
the death of this little child. Zerkow had welcomed it with pronounced disfavor,
since it had a mouth to be fed and wants to be provided for. Maria was out of her
head so much of the time that she could scarcely remember how it looked when
alive. The child was a mere incident in their lives, a thing that had come
undesired and had gone unregretted. It had not even a name; a strange, hybrid
little being, come and gone within a fortnight's time, yet combining in its puny little
body the blood of the Hebrew, the Pole, and the Spaniard.
But the birth of this child had peculiar consequences. Maria came out of her
dementia, and in a few days the household settled itself again to its sordid
regime and Maria went about her duties as usual. Then one evening, about a
week after the child's burial, Zerkow had asked Maria to tell him the story of the
famous service of gold plate for the hundredth time.
Zerkow had come to believe in this story infallibly. He was immovably persuaded
that at one time Maria or Maria's people had possessed these hundred golden
dishes. In his perverted mind the hallucination had developed still further. Not
only had that service of gold plate once existed, but it existed now, entire, intact;
not a single burnished golden piece of it was missing. It was somewhere,
somebody had it, locked away in that leather trunk with its quilted lining and
round brass locks. It was to be searched for and secured, to be fought for, to be
gained at all hazards. Maria must know where it was; by dint of questioning,
Zerkow would surely get the information from her. Some day, if only he was
persistent, he would hit upon the right combination of questions, the right
suggestion that would disentangle Maria's confused recollections. Maria would