The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Into this bliss broke Gabriel. He had thrown away his shepherd’s crook and he was carrying his wig. He wanted to speak to Harry at once, and before Mariana knew what was happening she was sitting beside her mother and the two excited young men were gone. Waiting, disturbed and displeased, she smiled at Amy who waltzed past with a young man in Devil costume, including ill-fitting scarlet cloven hoofs. Almost at once, Harry and Gabriel came back, with serious faces, and Harry darted on the dance floor, returning with Amy. The girls and the chaperones were asked to come at once, they must be taken home. It was all mysterious and sudden, and Harry said to Mariana, “I will tell you what is happening, but not now—”

  The grandmother remembered of this disgraceful affair only that Gabriel brought Amy home alone and that Harry came in somewhat later. The other members of the party straggled in at various hours, and the story came out piecemeal. Amy was silent and, her mother discovered later, burning with fever. “I saw at once that something was very wrong. ‘What has happened, Amy?’ ‘Oh, Harry goes about shooting at people at a party,’ she said, sitting down as if she were exhausted. ‘It was on your account, Amy,’ said Gabriel. ‘Oh, no, it was not,’ said Amy. ‘Don’t believe him, Mammy.’ So I said, ‘Now enough of this. Tell me what happened, Amy.’ And Amy said, ‘Mammy, this is it. Raymond came in, and you know I like Raymond, and he is a good dancer. So we danced together, too much, maybe. We went on the gallery for a breath of air, and stood there. He said, “How well your hair looks. I like this new shingled style.’” She glanced at Gabriel. ‘And then another young man came out and said, “I’ve been looking everywhere. This is our dance, isn’t it?” And I went in to dance. And now it seems that Gabriel went out at once and challenged Raymond to a duel about something or other, but Harry doesn’t wait for that. Raymond had already gone out to have his horse brought, I suppose one doesn’t duel in fancy dress,’ she said, looking at Gabriel, who fairly shriveled in his blue satin shepherd’s costume, ‘and Harry simply went out and shot at him. I don’t think that was fair,’ said Amy.”

  Her mother agreed that indeed it was not fair; it was not even decent, and she could not imagine what her son Harry thought he was doing. “It isn’t much of a way to defend your sister’s honor,” she said to him afterward. “I didn’t want Gabriel to go fighting duels,” said Harry. “That wouldn’t have helped much, either.”

  Gabriel had stood before Amy, leaning over, asking once more the question he had apparently been asking her all the way home. “Did he kiss you, Amy?”

  Amy took off her shepherdess hat and pushed her hair back. “Maybe he did,” she answered, “and maybe I wished him to.”

  “Amy, you must not say such things,” said her mother. “Answer Gabriel’s question.”

  “He hasn’t the right to ask it,” said Amy, but without anger.

  “Do you love him, Amy?” asked Gabriel, the sweat standing out on his forehead.

  “It doesn’t matter,” answered Amy, leaning back in her chair.

  “Oh, it does matter; it matters terribly,” said Gabriel. “You must answer me now.” He took both of her hands and tried to hold them. She drew her hands away firmly and steadily so that he had to let go.

  “Let her alone, Gabriel,” said Amy’s mother. “You’d better go now. We are all tired. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

  She helped Amy to undress, noticing the changed bodice and the shortened skirt. “You shouldn’t have done that, Amy. That was not wise of you. It was better the other way.”

  Amy said, “Mammy, I’m sick of this world. I don’t like anything in it. It’s so dull,” she said, and for a moment she looked as if she might weep. She had never been tearful, even as a child, and her mother was alarmed. It was then she discovered that Amy had fever.

  “Gabriel is dull, Mother—he sulks,” she said. “I could see him sulking every time I passed. It spoils things,” she said. “Oh, I want to go to sleep.”

  Her mother sat looking at her and wondering how it had happened she had brought such a beautiful child into the world. “Her face,” said her mother, “was angelic in sleep.”

  Some time during that fevered night, the projected duel between Gabriel and Raymond was halted by the offices of friends on both sides. There remained the open question of Harry’s impulsive shot, which was not so easily settled. Raymond seemed vindictive about that, it was possible he might choose to make trouble. Harry, taking the advice of Gabriel, his brothers and friends, decided that the best way to avoid further scandal was for him to disappear for a while. This being decided upon, the young men returned about daybreak, saddled Harry’s best horse and helped him pack a few things; accompanied by Gabriel and Bill, Harry set out for the border, feeling rather gay and adventurous.

  Amy, being wakened by the stirring in the house, found out the plan. Five minutes after they were gone, she came down in her riding dress, had her own horse saddled, and struck out after them. She rode almost every morning; before her parents had time to be uneasy over her prolonged absence, they found her note.

  What had threatened to be a tragedy became a rowdy lark. Amy rode to the border, kissed her brother Harry good-by, and rode back again with Bill and Gabriel. It was a three days’ journey, and when they arrived Amy had to be lifted from the saddle. She was really ill by now, but in the gayest of humors. Her mother and father had been prepared to be severe with her, but, at sight of her, their feelings changed. They turned on Bill and Gabriel. “Why did you let her do this?” they asked.

  “You know we could not stop her,” said Gabriel helplessly, “and she did enjoy herself so much!”

  Amy laughed. “Mammy, it was splendid, the most delightful trip I ever had. And if I am to be the heroine of this novel, why shouldn’t I make the most of it?”

  The scandal, Maria and Miranda gathered, had been pretty terrible. Amy simply took to bed and stayed there, and Harry had skipped out blithely to wait until the little affair blew over. The rest of the family had to receive visitors, write letters, go to church, return calls, and bear the whole brunt, as they expressed it. They sat in the twilight of scandal in their little world, holding themselves very rigidly, in a shared tension as if all their nerves began at a common center. This center had received a blow, and family nerves shuddered, even into the farthest reaches of Kentucky. From whence in due time great-great-aunt Sally Rhea addressed a letter to Mifs Amy Rhea. In deep brown ink like dried blood, in a spidery hand adept at archaic symbols and abbreviations, great-great-aunt Sally informed Amy that she was fairly convinced that this calamity was only the forerunner of a series shortly to be visited by the Almighty God upon a race already condemned through its own wickedness, a warning that man’s time was short, and that they must all prepare for the end of the world. For herself, she had long expected it, she was entirely resigned to the prospect of meeting her Maker; and Amy, no less than her wicked brother Harry, must likewise place herself in God’s hands and prepare for the worst. “Oh, my dear unfortunate young relative,” twittered great-great-aunt Sally, “we must in our Extremty join hands and appr before ye Dread Throne of Jdgmnt a United Fmly, if One is Mssg from ye Flock, what will Jesus say?”

  Great-great-aunt Sally’s religious career had become comic legend. She had forsaken her Catholic rearing for a young man whose family were Cumberland Presbyterians. Unable to accept their opinions, however, she was converted to the Hard-Shell Baptists, a sect as loathsome to her husband’s family as the Catholic could possibly be. She had spent a life of vicious self-indulgent martyrdom to her faith; as Harry commented: “Religion put claws on Aunt Sally and gave her a post to whet them on.” She had out-argued, out-fought, and out-lived her entire generation, but she did not miss them. She bedeviled the second generation without ceasing, and was beginning hungrily on the third.

  Amy, reading this letter, broke into her gay full laugh that always caused everyone around her to laugh too, even before they knew why, and her small green lovebirds in their cage turned and eyed her so
lemnly. “Imagine drawing a pew in heaven beside Aunt Sally,” she said. “What a prospect.”

  “Don’t laugh too soon,” said her father. “Heaven was made to order for Aunt Sally. She’ll be on her own territory there.”

  “For my sins,” said Amy, “I must go to heaven with Aunt Sally.”

  During the uncomfortable time of Harry’s absence, Amy went on refusing to marry Gabriel. Her mother could hear their voices going on in their endless colloquy, during many long days. One afternoon Gabriel came out, looking very sober and discouraged. He stood looking down at Amy’s mother as she sat sewing, and said, “I think it is all over, I believe now that Amy will never have me.” The grandmother always said afterward, “Never have I pitied anyone as I did poor Gabriel at that moment. But I told him, very firmly, ‘Let her alone, then, she is ill.’” So Gabriel left, and Amy had no word from him for more than a month.

  The day after Gabriel was gone, Amy rose looking extremely well, went hunting with her brothers Bill and Stephen, bought a velvet wrap, had her hair shingled and curled again, and wrote long letters to Harry, who was having a most enjoyable exile in Mexico City.

  After dancing all night three times in one week, she woke one morning in a hemorrhage. She seemed frightened and asked for the doctor, promising to do whatever he advised. She was quiet for a few days, reading. She asked for Gabriel. No one knew where he was. “You should write him a letter; his mother will send it on.” “Oh, no,” she said. “I miss him coming in with his sour face. Letters are no good.”

  Gabriel did come in, only a few days later, with a very sour face and unpleasant news. His grandfather had died, after a day’s illness. On his death bed, in the name of God, being of a sound and disposing mind, he had cut off his favorite grandchild Gabriel with one dollar. “In the name of God, Amy,” said Gabriel, “the old devil has ruined me in one sentence.”

  It was the conduct of his immediate family in the matter that had embittered him, he said. They could hardly conceal their satisfaction. They had known and envied Gabriel’s quite just, well-founded expectations. Not one of them offered to make any private settlement. No one even thought of repairing this last-minute act of senile vengeance. Privately they blessed their luck. “I have been cut off with a dollar,” said Gabriel, “and they are all glad of it. I think they feel somehow that this justifies every criticism they ever made against me. They were right about me all along. I am a worthless poor relation,” said Gabriel. “My God, I wish you could see them.”

  Amy said, “I wonder how you will ever support a wife, now.”

  Gabriel said, “Oh, it isn’t so bad as that. If you would, Amy—”

  Amy said, “Gabriel, if we get married now there’ll be just time to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. If we wait until after Lent, it may be too late.”

  “Why, Amy,” said Gabriel, “how could it ever be too late?”

  “You might change your mind,” said Amy. “You know how fickle you are.”

  There were two letters in the grandmother’s many packets of letters that Maria and Miranda read after they were grown. One of them was from Amy. It was dated ten days after her marriage.

  “Dear Mammy, New Orleans hasn’t changed as much as I have since we saw each other last. I am now a staid old married woman, and Gabriel is very devoted and kind. Footlights won a race for us yesterday, she was the favorite, and it was wonderful. I go to the races every day, and our horses are doing splendidly; I had my choice of Erin Go Bragh or Miss Lucy, and I chose Miss Lucy. She is mine now, she runs like a streak. Gabriel says I made a mistake, Erin Go Bragh will stay better. I think Miss Lucy will stay my time.

  “We are having a lovely visit. I’m going to put on a domino and take to the streets with Gabriel sometime during Mardi Gras. I’m tired of watching the show from a balcony. Gabriel says it isn’t safe. He says he’ll take me if I insist, but I doubt it. Mammy, he’s very nice. Don’t worry about me. I have a beautiful black-and-rose-colored velvet gown for the Proteus Ball. Madame, my new mother-in-law, wanted to know if it wasn’t a little dashing. I told her I hoped so or I had been cheated. It is fitted perfectly smooth in the bodice, very low in the shoulders—Papa would not approve—and the skirt is looped with wide silver ribbons between the waist and knees in front, and then it surges around and is looped enormously in the back, with a train just one yard long. I now have an eighteen-inch waist, thanks to Madame Duré. I expect to be so dashing that my mother-in-law will have an attack. She has them quite often. Gabriel sends love. Please take good care of Graylie and Fiddler. I want to ride them again when I come home. We’re going to Saratoga, I don’t know just when. Give everybody my dear dear love. It rains all the time here, of course. . . .

  “P.S. Mammy, as soon as I get a minute to myself, I’m going to be terribly homesick. Good-by, my darling Mammy.”

  The other was from Amy’s nurse, dated six weeks after Amy’s marriage.

  “I cut off the lock of hair because I was sure you would like to have it. And I do not want you to think I was careless, leaving her medicine where she could get it, the doctor has written and explained. It would not have done her any harm except that her heart was weak. She did not know how much she was taking, often she said to me, one more of those little capsules wouldn’t do any harm, and so I told her to be careful and not take anything except what I gave her. She begged me for them sometimes but I would not give her more than the doctor said. I slept during the night because she did not seem to be so sick as all that and the doctor did not order me to sit up with her. Please accept my regrets for your great loss and please do not think that anybody was careless with your dear daughter. She suffered a great deal and now she is at rest. She could not get well but she might have lived longer. Yours respectfully. . . .”

  The letters and all the strange keepsakes were packed away and forgotten for a great many years. They seemed to have no place in the world.

  PART II: 1904

  During vacation on their grandmother’s farm, Maria and Miranda, who read as naturally and constantly as ponies crop grass, and with much the same kind of pleasure, had by some happy chance laid hold of some forbidden reading matter, brought in and left there with missionary intent, no doubt, by some Protestant cousin. It fell into the right hands if enjoyment had been its end. The reading matter was printed in poor type on spongy paper, and was ornamented with smudgy illustrations all the more exciting to the little girls because they could not make head or tail of them. The stories were about beautiful but unlucky maidens, who for mysterious reasons had been trapped by nuns and priests in dire collusion; they were then “immured” in convents, where they were forced to take the veil—an appalling rite during which the victims shrieked dreadfully—and condemned forever after to most uncomfortable and disorderly existences. They seemed to divide their time between lying chained in dark cells and assisting other nuns to bury throttled infants under stones in moldering rat-infested dungeons.

  Immured! It was the word Maria and Miranda had been needing all along to describe their condition at the Convent of the Child Jesus, in New Orleans, where they spent the long winters trying to avoid an education. There were no dungeons at the Child Jesus, and this was only one of numerous marked differences between convent life as Maria and Miranda knew it and the thrilling paperbacked version. It was no good at all trying to fit the stories to life, and they did not even try. They had long since learned to draw the lines between life, which was real and earnest, and the grave was not its goal; poetry, which was true but not real; and stories, or forbidden reading matter, in which things happened as nowhere else, with the most sublime irrelevance and unlikelihood, and one need not turn a hair, because there was not a word of truth in them.

  It was true the little girls were hedged and confined, but in a large garden with trees and a grotto; they were locked at night into a long cold dormitory, with all the windows open, and a sister sleeping at either end. Their beds were curtained with muslin, and small night-lamps were s
o arranged that the sisters could see through the curtains, but the children could not see the sisters. Miranda wondered if they ever slept, or did they sit there all night quietly watching the sleepers through the muslin? She tried to work up a little sinister thrill about this, but she found it impossible to care much what either of the sisters did. They were very dull good-natured women who managed to make the whole dormitory seem dull. All days and all things in the Convent of the Child Jesus were dull, in fact, and Maria and Miranda lived for Saturdays.

  No one had even hinted that they should become nuns. On the contrary Miranda felt that the discouraging attitude of Sister Claude and Sister Austin and Sister Ursula towards her expressed ambition to be a nun barely veiled a deeply critical knowledge of her spiritual deficiencies. Still Maria and Miranda had got a fine new word out of their summer reading, and they referred to themselves as “immured.” It gave a romantic glint to what was otherwise a very dull life for them, except for blessed Saturday afternoons during the racing season.

  If the nuns were able to assure the family that the deportment and scholastic achievements of Maria and Miranda were at least passable, some cousin or other always showed up smiling, in holiday mood, to take them to the races, where they were given a dollar each to bet on any horse they chose. There were black Saturdays now and then, when Maria and Miranda sat ready, hats in hand, curly hair plastered down and slicked behind their ears, their stiffly pleated navy-blue skirts spread out around them, waiting with their hearts going down slowly into their high-topped laced-up black shoes. They never put on their hats until the last minute, for somehow it would have been too horrible to have their hats on, when, after all, Cousin Henry and Cousin Isabel, or Uncle George and Aunt Polly, were not coming to take them to the races. When no one appeared, and Saturday came and went a sickening waste, they were then given to understand that it was a punishment for bad marks during the week. They never knew until it was too late to avoid the disappointment. It was very wearing.

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