The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
The room was cold. The round-shaded hanging lamp hardly disturbed the shadows. The doorways, of the style called Porfirian Gothic, in honor of the Díaz period of domestic architecture, soared towards the roof in a cloud of gilded stamped wallpaper, from an undergrowth of purple and red and orange plush armchairs fringed and tassled, set on bases with springs. Such spots as this, fitted up for casual visits, interrupted the chill gloom of the rooms marching by tens along the cloisters, now and again casting themselves around patios, gardens, pens for animals. A naked player-piano in light wood occupied one corner. Standing together here, we spoke again of the death of the girl, and Justino’s troubles, and all our voices were vague with the vast incurable boredom which hung in the air of the place and settled around our heads clustered together.
Kennerly worried about the possible lawsuit.
“They know nothing about such things,” Betancourt assured him. “Besides, it is not our fault.”
The Russians were thinking about tomorrow. It was not only a great pity about the poor girl, but both she and her brother were working in the picture; the boy’s rôle was important and everything must be halted until he should come back, or if he should never come back everything must be done all over again.
Betancourt, Mexican by birth, French-Spanish by blood, French by education, was completely at the mercy of an ideal of elegance and detachment perpetually at war with a kind of Mexican nationalism which afflicted him like an inherited weakness of the nervous system. Being trustworthy and of cultured taste it was his official duty to see that nothing hurtful to the national dignity got in the way of the foreign cameras. His ambiguous situation seemed to trouble him not at all. He was plainly happy and fulfilled for the first time in years. Beggars, the poor, the deformed, the old and ugly, trust Betancourt to wave them away. “I am sorry for everything,” he said, lifting a narrow, pontifical hand, waving away vulgar human pity which always threatened, buzzing like a fly at the edges of his mind. “But when you consider”—he made an almost imperceptible inclination of his entire person in the general direction of the social point of view supposed to be represented by the Russians—“what her life would have been like in this place, it is much better that she is dead. . . .”
He had burning fanatic eyes and a small tremulous mouth. His bones were like reeds.
“It is a tragedy, but it happens too often,” he said.
With his easy words the girl was dead indeed, anonymously entombed. . . .
Doña Julia came in silently, walking softly on her tiny feet in embroidered shoes like a Chinese woman’s. She was probably twenty years old. Her black hair was sleeked to her round skull, eyes painted, apparently, in the waxed semblance of her face.
“We never really live here,” she said, in a gentle smooth voice, glancing vaguely about her strange setting, in which she appeared to be an exotic speaking doll. “It’s very ugly, but you must not mind that. It is hopeless to try keeping the place up. The Indians destroy everything with neglect. We stay here now for the excitement about the film. It is thrilling.” Then she added, “It is sad about the poor girl. It makes every kind of trouble. It is sad about the poor brother. . . .” As we went towards the dining-room, she murmured along beside me, “It is sad. . . very sad. . . sad. . . .”
Don Genaro’s grandfather, who had been described to me as a gentleman of the very oldest school, was absent on a prolonged visit. In no way did he approve of his granddaughter-in-law, who got herself up in a fashion unknown to the ladies of his day, a fashion very upsetting to a man of the world who had always known how to judge, grade, and separate women into their proper categories at a glance. A temporary association with such a young female as this he considered a part of every gentleman’s education. Marriage was an altogether different matter. In his day, she would have had at best a career in the theater. He had been silenced but in no wise changed in his conviction by the sudden, astonishing marriage of his grandson, the sole inevitable heir, who was already acting as head of the house, accountable to no one. He did not understand the boy and he did not waste time trying. He had moved his furniture and his keepsakes and his person away, to the very farthest patio in the old garden, above the terraces to the south, where he lived in bleak dignity and loneliness, without hope and without philosophy, perhaps contemptuous of both, joining his family only at mealtimes. His place at the foot of the table was empty, the weekend crowds of sightseers were gone and our party barely occupied part of the upper end.
Uspensky sat in his monkey-suit of striped overalls, his face like a superhumanly enlightened monkey’s now well overgrown with a simian beard.
He had a monkey attitude towards life, which amounted almost to a personal philosophy. It saved explanation, and threw off the kind of bores he could least bear with. He amused himself at the low theaters in the capital, flattering the Mexicans by declaring they really were the most obscene he had found in the whole world. He liked staging old Russian country comedies, all the players wearing Mexican dress, on the open roads in the afternoon. He would then shout his lines broadly and be in his best humor, prodding the rear of a patient burro, accustomed to grief and indignity, with a phallusshaped gourd. “Ah, yes, I remember,” he said gallantly, on meeting some southern women, “you are the ladies who are always being raped by those dreadful negroes!” But now he was fevered, restless, altogether silent, and his bawdy humor, which served as cover and disguise for all other moods, was gone.
Stepanov, a champion at tennis and polo, wore flannel tennis slacks and polo shirt. Betancourt wore well-cut riding trousers and puttees, not because he ever mounted a horse if he could avoid it, but he had learned in California, in 1921, that this was the correct costume for a moving-picture director: true, he was not yet a director, but he was assisting somewhat at the making of a film, and when in action, he always added a greenlined cork helmet, which completed some sort of precious illusion he cherished about himself. Andreyev’s no-colored wool shirt was elbow to elbow with Kennerly’s brash tweeds. I wore a knitted garment of the kind which always appears suitable for any other than the occasion on which it is being worn. Altogether, we provided a staggering contrast for doña Julia at the head of the table, a figure from a Hollywood comedy, in black satin pajamas adorned with rainbow-colored bands of silk, loose sleeves falling over her babyish hands with pointed scarlet finger ends.
“We mustn’t wait for my husband,” said doña Julia; “he is always so busy and always late.”
“Always going at top speed,” said Betancourt, pleasantly, “70 kilometers an hour at least, and never on time anywhere.” He prided himself on his punctuality, and had theories about speed, its use and abuse. He loved to explain that man, if he had concentrated on his spiritual development, as he should have done, would never have needed to rely on mechanical aids to conquer time and space. In the meantime, he admitted that he himself, who could communicate telepathically with anyone he chose, and who had once levitated himself three feet from the ground by a simple act of the will, found a great deal of pleasurable stimulation in the control of machinery. I knew something about his pleasure in driving an automobile. He had for one thing a habit of stepping on the accelerator and bounding across tracks before approaching trains. Speed, he said, was “modern” and it was everyone’s duty to be as modern as one’s means allowed. I surmised from Betancourt’s talk that don Genaro’s wealth allowed him to be at least twice as modern as Betancourt. He could afford high-powered automobiles that simply frightened other drivers off the road before him; he was thinking of an airplane to cut distance between the hacienda and the capital; speed and lightness at great expense was his ideal. Nothing could move too fast for don Genaro, said Betancourt, whether a horse, a dog, a woman or something with metal machinery in it. Doña Julia smiled approvingly at what she considered praise of her husband and, by pleasant inference, of herself.
There came a violent commotion along the hall, at the door, in the room. The servants separated, fell back, rush
It seemed that the imbecile village judge refused to let him have Justino. It seemed there was some crazy law about criminal negligence. The law, the judge said, does not recognize accidents in the vulgar sense. There must always be careful inquiry based on suspicion of bad faith in those nearest the victim. Don Genaro gave an imitation of the imbecile judge showing off his legal knowledge. Floods, volcanic eruptions, revolutions, runaway horses, smallpox, train wrecks, street fights, all such things, the judge said, were acts of God. Personal shootings, no. A personal shooting must always be inquired into severely. “All that has nothing to do with this case, I told him,” said don Genaro. “I told him, Justino is my peon, his family have lived for three hundred years on our hacienda, this is MY business. I know what happened and all about it, and you don’t know anything and all you have to do with this is to let me have Justino back at once. I mean today, tomorrow will not do, I told him.” It was no good. The judge wanted two thousand pesos to let Justino go. “Two thousand pesos!” shouted don Genaro, thumping on the table; “try to imagine that!”
“How ridiculous!” said his wife with comradely sympathy and a glittering smile. He glared at her for a second as if he did not recognize her. She gazed back, her eyes flickering, a tiny uncertain smile in the corners of her mouth where the rouge was beginning to melt. Furiously he ignored her, shook the pause off his shoulders and hurried on, turning as he talked, hot and blinded and baffled, to one and another of his audience. It was not the two thousand pesos, it was that he was sick of paying here, paying there, for the most absurd things; every time he turned around there at his elbow was some thievish politician holding out his paw. “Well, there’s one thing to do. If I pay this judge there’ll be no end to it. He’ll go on arresting my peons every time one of them shows his face in the village. I’ll go to Mexico and see Velarde. . . .”
Everybody agreed with him that Velarde was the man to see. He was the most powerful and successful revolutionist in Mexico. He owned two pulque haciendas which had fallen to his share when the great repartition of land had taken place. He operated also the largest dairy farm in the country, furnishing milk and butter and cheese to every charitable institution, orphans’ home, insane asylum, reform school and workhouse in the country, and getting just twice the prices for them that any other dairy farm would have asked. He also owned a great aguacate hacienda; he controlled the army; he controlled a powerful bank; the president of the Republic made no appointments to any office without his advice. He fought counterrevolution and political corruption, daily upon the front pages of twenty newspapers he had bought for that very purpose. He employed thousands of peons. As an employer, he would understand what don Genaro was contending with. As an honest revolutionist, he would know how to handle that dirty, bribe-taking little judge. “I’ll go to see Velarde,” said don Genaro in a voice gone suddenly flat, as if he despaired or was too bored with the topic to keep it up any longer. He sat back and looked at his guests bleakly. Everyone said something, it did not matter what. The episode of the morning now seemed very far away and not worth thinking about.
Uspensky sneezed with his hands over his face. He had spent two early morning hours standing up to his middle in the cold water of the horse fountain, with Stepanov and the camera balanced on the small stone ledge, directing a scene which he was convinced could be made from no other angle. He had taken cold; he now swallowed a mouthful of fried beans, drank half a glass of beer at one gulp, and slid off the long bench. His too-large striped overalls disappeared in two jumps through the nearest door. He went as if he were seeking another climate.
“He has a fever,” said Andreyev. “If he does not feel better tonight we must send for Doctor Volk.”
A large lumpish person in faded blue overalls and a flannel shirt inserted himself into a space near the foot of the table. He nodded to nobody in particular, and Betancourt punctiliously acknowledged the salute.
“You do not even recognize him?” Betancourt asked me in a low voice. “That is Carlos Montaña. You find him changed?”
He seemed anxious that I should find Carlos much changed. I said I supposed we had all changed somewhat after ten years. Besides, Carlos had grown a fine set of whiskers. Betancourt’s glance at me plainly admitted that I, like Carlos, had changed and for the worse, but he resisted the notion of change in himself. “Maybe,” he said, unwillingly, “but most of us, I think, for the better. It’s poor Carlos. It’s not only the whiskers, and the fat. He has, you know, become a failure.”
“A Puss Moth,” said don Genaro to Stepanov. “I flew it half an hour yesterday; awfully chic. I may buy it. I need something really fast. Something light, too, it must be fast. It must be something I can depend upon at any minute.” Stepanov was an expert pilot. He excelled in every activity that don Genaro respected. Don Genaro listened attentively while Stepanov gave him some clear sensible advice about airplanes: what kind to buy, how to keep them in order, and what one might expect of airplanes as a usual thing.
“Airplanes!” said Kennerly, listening in. “I wouldn’t go up with a Mexican pilot for all the money in—”
“Airplane! At last!” cried doña Julia, like a gently enraptured child. She leaned over the table and called in Spanish softly as if waking someone, “Carlos! Do you hear? Genarito is going to buy me an airplane, after all!”
Don Genaro talked on with Stepanov as if he had not heard. “And what will you do with it?” asked Carlos, eyes round and amiable from under his bushy brows. Without lifting his head from his hand, he went on eating his fried beans and green chili sauce with a spoon, good Mexican country fashion, and enjoying them.
“I shall turn somersaults in it,” said doña Julia.
“A Failure,” Betancourt went on, in English, which Carlos could not understand, “though I must say he looks worse today than usual. He slipped and hurt himself in the bathtub this morning.” It was as if this accident were another point against Carlos, symbolic proof of the fatal downward tendency in his character.
“I thought he had composed half the popular songs in Mexico,” I said. “I heard nothing but his songs here, ten years ago. What happened?”
“Ah, that was ten years ago, don’t forget. He does almost nothing now. He hasn’t been director of the Jewel for, oh, ages!”
I observed the Failure. He seemed cheerful enough. He was beating time with the handle of his spoon and humming a song to Andreyev, who listened, nodding his head. “Like that, for two measures,” said Carlos in French, “then like this,” and he beat time, humming. “Then this for the dance. . . .” Andreyev hummed the tune and tapped on the table with his left forefinger, his right hand waving slightly. Betancourt watched them for a moment. “He feels better just now, poor fellow,” he said, “now I have got him this job. It may be a new beginning for him. But he is sometimes tired, he drinks too much, he cannot always do his best.”
Carlos had slumped back in his chair, his round shoulders drooped, his swollen lids covered his eyes, he poked fretfully at his plate of enchiladas with sour cream. “You’ll see,” he said to Andreyev in French, “how Betancourt will not like this idea either. There will be something wrong with it. . . .” He said it not angrily, not timidly, but with an unhappy certainty. “Either it will not be modern enough, or not enough in the old style, or just not Mexican enough. . . . You’ll see.”
Betancourt had spent his youth unlocking the stubborn secrets of Universal Harmony by means of numerology, astronomy, astrology, a formula of thought-transference and deep breathing, the practice of will-to-power comb
“I have warned you, too,” he said to me kindly. “I have asked myself many times why you will not or cannot accept the Mysteries which would open a whole treasure house for you. . . . All,” he said, “is possible through scientific intuition. If you depend on mere intellect, you must fail.”
“You must fail,” he had been saying all this time to poor simple Carlos. “He has failed,” he said of him to others. He now looked almost fondly upon his handiwork, who sat there, somewhat grubby and gloomy, a man who had done a good day’s work in his time, and was not altogether finished yet. The neat light figure beside me posed gracefully upon its slender spine, the too-beautiful slender hands waved rhythmically upon insubstantial wrists. I remembered all that Carlos had done for Betancourt in other days; he had, in his thoughtless hopelessly human way, piled upon these thin shoulders a greater burden of gratitude than they could support. Betancourt had set in motion all the machinery of the laws of Universal Harmony he could command to help him revenge himself on Carlos. It was slow work, but he never tired.