The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
We looked at many scenes from the life of the master’s house, with the characters dressed in the fashion of 1898. They were quite perfect. One girl was especially clever. She was the typical Mexican mixed-blood beauty, her mask-like face powdered white, with a round hard full mouth, and hard slanting dark eyes. Her black waved hair was combed back from a low forehead, and she wore her balloon sleeves and small stiff sailor hat with marvelous elegance.
“But this must be an actress,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said Andreyev, “the only one. For that rôle we needed an actress. That is Lolita. We found her at the Jewel Theater.”
The story of Lolita and doña Julia was very gay. It had begun by being a very usual story about Lolita and don Genaro, the master of the pulque hacienda. Doña Julia, his wife, was furious with him for bringing a fancy woman into the house. She herself was modern, she said, very modern, she had no old-fashioned ideas at all, but she still considered that she was being insulted. On the contrary, don Genaro was very old-fashioned in his taste for ladies of the theater. He had thought he was being discreet, besides, and was truly apologetic when he was found out. But little doña Julia was fearfully jealous. She screamed and wept and made scenes at night, first. Then she began making don Genaro jealous with other men. So that the men grew very frightened of doña Julia and almost ran when they saw her. Imagine all the things that might happen! There was the picture to think of, after all. . . . And then doña Julia threatened to kill Lolita—to cut her throat, to stab her, to poison her. . . . Don Genaro simply ran away at this, and left everything in the air. He went up to the capital and stayed two days.
When he came back, the first sight that greeted his eyes was his wife and his mistress strolling, arms about each other’s waists, on the upper terrace, while a whole scene was being delayed because Lolita would not leave doña Julia and get to work.
Don Genaro, who prided himself on his speed, was thunderstruck by the suddenness of this change. He had borne with his wife’s scenes because he really respected her rights and privileges as a wife. A wife’s first right is to be jealous and threaten to kill her husband’s mistress. Lolita also had her definite prerogatives. Everything, until he left, had gone with automatic precision exactly as it should have. This was thoroughly outrageous. He could not get them separated, either. They continued to walk and talk on the terrace under the trees all morning, affectionately entwined, heads together, one a cinema Chinese—doña Julia loved Chinese dress made by a Hollywood costumer—the other in the stiff elegance of 1898. They remained oblivious to the summons from the embattled males: Uspensky calling for Lolita to get into the scene at once, don Genaro sending messages by an Indian boy that the master had returned and wished to see doña Julia on a matter of the utmost importance. . . .
The women still strolled, or sat on the edge of the fountain, whispering together, arms lying at ease about each other’s waists, for all the world to see. When Lolita finally came down the steps and took her place in the scene, doña Julia sat nearby, making up her face by her round mirror in the blinding sunlight, getting in the way, smiling at Lolita whenever their eyes met. When they asked her to sit somewhere else, a little out of camera range, she pouted, moved three feet away, and said, “I want to be in this scene too, with Lolita.”
Lolita’s deep throaty voice cooed at doña Julia. She tossed strange glances at her from under her heavy eyelids, and when she mounted her horse, she forgot her rôle, and swung her leg over the saddle in a gesture unknown to ladies of 1898. . . . Doña Julia greeted her husband with soft affection, and don Genaro, who had no precedent whatever for a husband’s conduct in such a situation, made a terrible scene, and pretended he was jealous of Betancourt, one of the Mexican advisers to Uspensky.
We turned over the pictures again, looked at some of them twice. In the fields, among the maguey, the Indian in his hopeless rags; in the hacienda house, theatrically luxurious persons, posed usually with a large chromo portrait of Porfirio Díaz looming from a gaudy frame on the walls. “That is to show,” said Andreyev, “that all this really happened in the time of Díaz, and that all this,” he tapped the pictures of the Indians, “has been swept away by the revolution. It was the first requirement of our agreement here.” This without cracking a smile or meeting my eye. “We have, in spite of everything, arrived at the third part of our picture.”
I wondered how they had managed it. They had arrived from California under a cloud as politically subversive characters. Wild rumor ran before them. It was said they had been invited by the government to make a picture. It was said they had not been so invited, but were being sponsored by Communists and various other shady organizations. The Mexican government was paying them heavily; Moscow was paying Mexico for the privilege of making the film: Uspensky was the most dangerous agent Moscow had ever sent on a mission; Moscow was on the point of repudiating him altogether, it was doubtful he would be allowed to return to Russia. He was not really a Communist at all, but a German spy. American Communists were paying for the film; the Mexican anti-government party was at heart in sympathy with Russia and had paid secretly an enormous sum to the Russians for a picture that would disgrace the present régime. The government officials themselves did not seem to know what was going on. They took all sides at once. A delegation of officials met the Russians at the boat and escorted them to jail. The jail was hot and uncomfortable. Uspensky, Andreyev, and Stepanov worried about their equipment, which was being turned over very thoroughly at the customs: and Kennerly worried about his reputation. Accustomed as he was to the clean, four-square business methods of God’s own Hollywood, he trembled to think what he might be getting into. He had, so far as he had been able to see, helped to make all the arrangments before they left California. But he was no longer certain of anything. It was he who started the rumor that Uspensky was not a Party Member, and that one of the three was not even a Russian. He hoped this made the whole business sound more respectable. After a night of confusion another set of officials, more important than the first, arrived, all smiles, explanations and apologies, and set them free. Someone then started a rumor that the whole episode was invented for the sake of publicity.
The government officials still took no chance. They wanted to improve this opportunity to film a glorious history of Mexico, her wrongs and sufferings and her final triumph through the latest revolution; and the Russians found themselves surrounded and insulated from their material by the entire staff of professional propagandists, which had been put at their disposal for the duration of their visit. Dozens of helpful observers, art experts, photographers, literary talents, and travel guides swarmed about them to lead them aright, and to show them all the most beautiful, significant, and characteristic things in the national life and soul: if by chance anything not beautiful got in the way of the camera, there was a very instructed and sharp-eyed committee of censors whose duty it was to see that the scandal went no further than the cutting room.
“It has been astonishing,” said Andreyev, “to see how devoted all of them are to art.”
Kennerly stirred and muttered; he opened his eyes, closed them again. His head rolled uneasily.
“Wait. He is going to wake up,” I whispered.
We sat still watching him.
“Maybe not yet,” said Andreyev. “Everything,” he added, “is pretty mixed up, and it’s going to be worse.”
We sat a few moments in silence, Andreyev still watching Kennerly impersonally.
“He would be something nice in a zoo,” he said, with no particular malice, “but it is terrible to carry him around this way, all the time, without a cage.” After a pause, he went on telling about Russia.
At the last station before we reached the hacienda, the Indian boy who was playing the leading rôle in the film came in looking for us. He entered as if on the stage, followed by several of his hero-worshipers, underfed, shabby youths, living happily in reflected glory. To be an actor in the cinema was enough for him to capture
But the pose would not hold. His face, from high cheekbones to square chin, from the full wide-lipped mouth to the low forehead, which had ordinarily the expression of professional-boxer histrionic ferocity, now broke up into a charming open look of simple, smiling excitement. He was happy to see Andreyev again, but there was something more: he had news worth hearing, and would be the first to tell us.
What a to-do there had been at the hacienda that morning!. . . Even while we were shaking hands all around, he broke out with it. “Justino—you remember Justino?—killed his sister. He shot her and ran to the mountains. Vicente—you know which one Vicente is?—chased him on horseback and brought him back.” And now they had Justino in jail there in the village we were just leaving.
We were all as astounded and full of curiosity as he had hoped we would be. Yes, it had happened that very morning, at about ten o’clock. . . . No, nothing had gone wrong before that anyone knew about. No, Justino had not quarreled with anybody. No one had seen him do it. He had been in good humor all morning, working, making part of a scene on the set.
Neither Andreyev nor Kennerly spoke Spanish. The boy’s words were in a jargon hard for me to understand, but I snatched key words and translated quickly as I could. Kennerly leaped up, white-eyed. . . .
“On the set? My God! We are ruined!”
“But why ruined? Why?”
“Her family will have a damage suit against us!”
The boy wanted to know what this meant.
“The law! the law!” groaned Kennerly. “They can collect money from us for the loss of their daughter. It can be blamed on us.”
The boy was fairly baffled by this.
“He says he doesn’t understand,” I told Kennerly. “He says nobody ever heard of such a thing. He says Justino was in his own house when it happened, and nobody, not even Justino, was to blame.”
“Oh,” said Kennerly. “Oh, I see. Well, let’s hear the rest of it. If he wasn’t on the set, it doesn’t matter.”
He collected himself at once and sat down.
“Yes, do sit down,” said Andreyev softly, with a venomous look at Kennerly. The Indian boy seized upon the look, visibly turned it over in his mind, obviously suspected it to refer to him, and stood glancing from one to another, deep frowning eyes instantly on guard.
“Do sit down,” said Andreyev, “and don’t be giving them all sorts of strange notions not necessary to anybody’s peace of mind.”
He reached out a free hand and pulled the boy down to sit on the arm of the seat. The other lads had collected near the door.
“Tell us the rest,” said Andreyev.
After a small pause, the boy melted and talked. Justino had gone to his hut for the noon meal. His sister was grinding corn for the tortillas, while he stood by waiting, throwing the pistol into the air and catching it. The pistol fired; shot her through here. . . . He touched his ribs level with his heart. . . . She fell forward on her face, over the grinding stone, dead. In no time at all a crowd came running from everywhere. Seeing what he had done, Justino ran, leaping like a crazy man, throwing away the pistol as he went, and struck through the maguey fields toward the mountains. His friend Vicente went after him on horseback, waving a gun and yelling: “Stop or I’ll shoot!” and Justino yelled back: “Shoot! I don’t care!. . .” But of course Vicente did not: he just galloped up and bashed Justino over the head with the gun butt, threw him across the saddle, and brought him back. Now he was in jail, but don Genaro was already in the village getting him out. Justino did not do it on purpose.
“This is going to hold up everything,” said Kennerly. “Everything! It just means more time wasted.”
“And that isn’t all,” said the boy. He smiled ambiguously, lowered his voice a little, put on an air of conspiracy and discretion, and said: “The actress is gone too. She has gone back to the capital. Three days ago.”
“A quarrel with doña Julia?” asked Andreyev.
“No,” said the boy, “it was with don Genaro she quarreled, after all.”
The three of them laughed mightily together, and Andreyev said to me:
“You know that wild girl from the Jewel Theater.”
The boy said: “It was because don Genaro was away on other business at a bad moment.” He was being more discreet than ever.
Kennerly sat with his chin drawn in severely, almost making faces at Andreyev and the boy in his efforts to hush them. Andreyev stared back at him in hardy innocence. The boy saw the look, again lapsed into perfect silence, and sat very haughtily on the seat arm, clenched fist posed on his thigh, his face turned partly away. As the train slowed down, he rose suddenly and dashed ahead of us.
When we swung down the high narrow steps he was already standing beside the mule car, greeting the two Indians who had come to meet us. His young hangers-on, waving their hats to us, set out to walk a shortcut across the maguey fields.
Kennerly was blustering about, handing bags to the Indians to store away in the small shabby mule car, arranging the party, settling all properly, myself between him and Andreyev, tucking my skirts around my knees with officious hands, to keep a thread of my garments from touching the no doubt infectious foreign things facing us.
The little mule dug its sharp hoof points into the stones and grass of the track, got a tolerable purchase at last on a cross tie, and set off at a finicking steady trot, the bells on its collar jingling like a tambourine.
We jogged away, crowded together facing each other three in a row, with bags under the seats, and the straw falling out of the cushions. The driver, craning around toward the mule now and then, and snapping the reins on its back, added his comments: An unlucky family. This was the second child to be killed by a brother. The mother was half dead with grief and Justino, a good boy, was in jail.
The big man sitting by him in striped riding trousers, his hat bound under his chin with red-tasseled cord, added that Justino was in for it now, God help him. But where did he get the pistol? He borrowed it from the firearms being used in the picture. It was true he was not supposed to touch the pistols, and there was his first mistake. He meant to put it back at once, but you know how a boy of sixteen loves to play with a pistol. Nobody would blame him. . . . The girl was nineteen years old. Her body had been sent already to the village to be buried. There was too much excitement over her; nothing was done so long as she was on the place. Don Genaro had gone, according to custom, to cross her hands, close her eyes, and light a candle beside her. Everything was done in order, they said piously, their eyes dancing with rich, enjoyable feelings. It is always regrettable and exciting when somebody you know gets into such dramatic trouble. Ah, we were alive under that deepening sky, jingling away through the yellow fields of blooming mustard with the pattern of spiked maguey shuttling as we passed, from straight lines to angles, to diamond shapes, and back again, miles and miles of it spreading away to the looming mountains.
“Surely they would not have had loaded pistols among those being used in the picture?” I asked, rather suddenly, of the big man with the red-tasseled cord on his hat.
He opened his mouth to say something and snapped it shut again. There was a pause. Nobody spoke. It was my turn to be uncomfortable under a quick exchange of glances between the others.
There was again the guarded watchful expression on the Indian faces. An awful silence settled over us.
Andreyev, who had been trying his Spanish boldly, said, “If I cannot talk, I can sing,” and began in his big gay Russian voice: “Ay, Sandunga,
A big rabbit leaped across the track, chased by lean hungry dogs. It was cracking the strings of its heart in flight; its eyes started from its head like crystal bubbles. “Run, rabbit, run!” I cried. “Run, dogs!” shouted the big Indian with the red cords on his hat, his love of a contest instantly aroused. He turned to me with his eyes blazing: “What will you bet, señorita?”
The hacienda lay before us, a monastery, a walled fortress, towered in terra cotta and coral, sheltered against the mountains. An old woman in a shawl opened the heavy double gate and we slid into the main corral. The upper windows in the near end were all alight. Stepanov stood on one balcony; Betancourt, on the next; and for a moment the celebrated Uspensky appeared with waving arms at a third. They called to us, even before they recognized us, glad to see anyone of their party returning from town to relieve the long monotony of the day which had been shattered by the accident and could not be gathered together again. Thin-boned horses with round sleek haunches, long rippling manes and tails were standing under saddle in the patio. Big polite dogs of expensive breeds came out to meet us and walked with dignity beside us up the broad shallow steps.