The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“She loathes and despises everybody in this room,” thought Miranda, coolly, “and she’s afraid we won’t know it. She needn’t worry, we knew it when we came in.” With all her heart she wanted to go, but her father, though his face was a study, made no move. He seemed to be trying to think of something pleasant to say. Maria, feeling guilty, though she couldn’t think why, was calculating rapidly, “Why, she’s only Uncle Gabriel’s second wife, and Uncle Gabriel was only married before to Aunt Amy, why, she’s no kin at all, and I’m glad of it.” Sitting back easily, she let her hands fall open in her lap; they would be going in a few minutes, undoubtedly, and they need never come back.
Then father said, “We mustn’t be keeping you, we just dropped in for a few minutes. We wanted to see how you are.”
Miss Honey said nothing, but she made a little gesture with her hands, from the wrist, as if to say, “Well, you see how I am, and now what next?”
“I must take these young ones back to school,” said father, and Uncle Gabriel said stupidly, “Look, Honey, don’t you think they resemble Amy a little? Especially around the eyes, especially Maria, don’t you think, Harry?”
Their father glanced at them in turn. “I really couldn’t say,” he decided, and the little girls saw he was more monstrously embarrassed than ever. He turned to Miss Honey, “I hadn’t seen Gabriel for so many years,” he said, “we thought of getting out for a talk about old times together. You know how it is.”
“Yes, I know,” said Miss Honey, rocking a little, and all that she knew gleamed forth in a pallid, unquenchable hatred and bitterness that seemed enough to bring her long body straight up out of the chair in a fury, “I know,” and she sat staring at the floor. Her mouth shook and straightened. There was a terrible silence, which was broken when the little girls saw their father rise. They got up, too, and it was all they could do to keep from making a dash for the door.
“I must get the young ones back,” said their father. “They’ve had enough excitement for one day. They each won a hundred dollars on Miss Lucy. It was a good race,” he said, in complete wretchedness, as if he simply could not extricate himself from the situation. “Wasn’t it, Gabriel?”
“It was a grand race,” said Gabriel, brokenly, “a grand race.”
Miss Honey stood up and moved a step towards the door. “Do you take them to the races, actually?” she asked, and her lids flickered towards them as if they were loathsome insects, Maria felt.
“If I feel they deserve a little treat, yes,” said their father, in an easy tone but with wrinkled brow.
“I had rather, much rather,” said Miss Honey clearly, “see my son dead at my feet than hanging around a race track.”
The next few moments were rather a blank, but at last they were out of it, going down the stairs, across the patio, with Uncle Gabriel seeing them back into the cab. His face was sagging, the features had fallen as if the flesh had slipped from the bones, and his eyelids were puffed and blue. “Good-by, Harry,” he said soberly. “How long you expect to be here?”
“Starting back tomorrow,” said Harry. “Just dropped in on a little business and to see how the girls were getting along.”
“Well,” said Uncle Gabriel, “I may be dropping into your part of the country one of these days. Good-by, children,” he said, taking their hands one after the other in his big warm paws. “They’re nice children, Harry. I’m glad you won on Miss Lucy,” he said to the little girls, tenderly. “Don’t spend your money foolishly, now. Well, so long, Harry.” As the cab jolted away he stood there fat and sagging, holding up his arm and wagging his hand at them.
“Goodness,” said Maria, in her most grown-up manner, taking her hat off and hanging it over her knee, “I’m glad that’s over.”
“What I want to know is,” said Miranda, “is Uncle Gabriel a real drunkard?”
“Oh, hush,” said their father, sharply, “I’ve got the heartburn.”
There was a respectful pause, as before a public monument. When their father had the heartburn it was time to lay low. The cab rumbled on, back to clean gay streets, with the lights coming on in the early February darkness, past shimmering shop windows, smooth pavements on and on, past beautiful old houses set in deep gardens, on, on back to the dark walls with the heavy-topped trees hanging over them. Miranda sat thinking so hard she forgot and spoke out in her thoughtless way: “I’ve decided I’m not going to be a jockey, after all.” She could as usual have bitten her tongue, but as usual it was too late.
Father cheered up and twinkled at her knowingly, as if that didn’t surprise him in the least. “Well, well,” said he, “so you aren’t going to be a jockey! That’s very sensible of you. I think she ought to be a lion-tamer, don’t you, Maria? That’s a nice, womanly profession.”
Miranda, seeing Maria from the height of her fourteen years suddenly joining with their father to laugh at her, made an instant decision and laughed with them at herself. That was better. Everybody laughed and it was such a relief.
“Where’s my hundred dollars?” asked Maria, anxiously.
“It’s going in the bank,” said their father, “and yours too,” he told Miranda. “That is your nest-egg.”
“Just so they don’t buy my stockings with it,” said Miranda, who had long resented the use of her Christmas money by their grandmother. “I’ve got enough stockings to last me a year.”
“I’d like to buy a racehorse,” said Maria, “but I know it’s not enough.” The limitations of wealth oppressed her. “What could you buy with a hundred dollars?” she asked fretfully.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” said their father, “a hundred dollars is just something you put in the bank.”
Maria and Miranda lost interest. They had won a hundred dollars on a horse race once. It was already in the far past. They began to chatter about something else.
The lay sister opened the door on a long cord, from behind the grille; Maria and Miranda walked in silently to their familiar world of shining bare floors and insipid wholesome food and cold-water washing and regular prayers; their world of poverty, chastity and obedience, of early to bed and early to rise, of sharp little rules and tittle-tattle. Resignation was in their childish faces as they held them up to be kissed.
“Be good girls,” said their father, in the strange serious, rather helpless way he always had when he told them good-by. “Write to your daddy, now, nice long letters,” he said, holding their arms firmly for a moment before letting go for good. Then he disappeared, and the sister swung the door closed after him.
Maria and Miranda went upstairs to the dormitory to wash their faces and hands and slick down their hair again before supper.
Miranda was hungry. “We didn’t have a thing to eat, after all,” she grumbled. “Not even a chocolate nut bar. I think that’s mean. We didn’t even get a quarter to spend,” she said.
“Not a living bite,” said Maria. “Not a nickel.” She poured out cold water into the bowl and rolled up her sleeves.
Another girl about her own age came in and went to a washbowl near another bed. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Did you have a good time?”
“We went to the races, with our father,” said Maria, soaping her hands.
“Our uncle’s horse won,” said Miranda.
“My goodness,” said the other girl, vaguely, “that must have been grand.”
Maria looked at Miranda, who was rolling up her own sleeves. She tried to feel martyred, but it wouldn’t go. “Immured for another week,” she said, her eyes sparkling over the edge of her towel.
PART III: 1912
Miranda followed the porter down the stuffy aisle of the sleeping-car, where the berths were nearly all made down and the dusty green curtains buttoned, to a seat at the further end. “Now yo’ berth’s ready any time, Miss,” said the porter.
“But I want to sit up a while,” said Miranda. A very thin old lady raised choleric black eyes and fixed upon her a regard of unmixed disapproval. She ha
“You may, indeed,” said the old lady, for she seemed old in spite of a certain brisk, rustling energy. Her taffeta petticoats creaked like hinges every time she stirred. With ferocious sarcasm, after a half second’s pause, she added, “You may be so good as to get off my hat!”
Miranda rose instantly in horror, and handed to the old lady a wilted contrivance of black horsehair braid and shattered white poppies. “I’m dreadfully sorry,” she stammered, for she had been brought up to treat ferocious old ladies respectfully, and this one seemed capable of spanking her, then and there. “I didn’t dream it was your hat.”
“And whose hat did you dream it might be?” inquired the old lady, baring her teeth and twirling the hat on a forefinger to restore it.
“I didn’t think it was a hat at all,” said Miranda with a touch of hysteria.
“Oh, you didn’t think it was a hat? Where on earth are your eyes, child?” and she proved the nature and function of the object by placing it on her head at a somewhat tipsy angle, though still it did not much resemble a hat. “Now can you see what it is?”
“Yes, oh, yes,” said Miranda, with a meekness she hoped was disarming. She ventured to sit again after a careful inspection of the narrow space she was to occupy.
“Well, well,” said the old lady, “let’s have the porter remove some of these encumbrances,” and she stabbed the bell with a lean sharp forefinger. There followed a flurry of rearrangements, during which they both stood in the aisle, the old lady giving a series of impossible directions to the Negro which he bore philosophically while he disposed of the luggage exactly as he had meant to do. Seated again, the old lady asked in a kindly, authoritative tone, “And what might your name be, child?”
At Miranda’s answer, she blinked somewhat, unfolded her spectacles, straddled them across her high nose competently, and took a good long look at the face beside her.
“If I’d had my spectacles on,” she said, in an astonishingly changed voice, “I might have known. I’m Cousin Eva Parrington,” she said, “Cousin Molly Parrington’s daughter, remember? I knew you when you were a little girl. You were a lively little girl,” she added as if to console her, “and very opinionated. The last thing I heard about you, you were planning to be a tight-rope walker. You were going to play the violin and walk the tight rope at the same time.”
“I must have seen it at the vaudeville show,” said Miranda. “I couldn’t have invented it. Now I’d like to be an air pilot!”
“I used to go to dances with your father,” said Cousin Eva, busy with her own thoughts, “and to big holiday parties at your grandmother’s house, long before you were born. Oh, indeed, yes, a long time before.”
Miranda remembered several things at once. Aunt Amy had threatened to be an old maid like Eva. Oh, Eva, the trouble with her is she has no chin. Eva has given up, and is teaching Latin in a Female Seminary. Eva’s gone out for votes for women, God help her. The nice thing about an ugly daughter is, she’s not apt to make me a grandmother. . . . “They didn’t do you much good, those parties, dear Cousin Eva,” thought Miranda.
“They didn’t do me much good, those parties,” said Cousin Eva aloud as if she were a mind-reader, and Miranda’s head swam for a moment with fear that she had herself spoken aloud. “Or at least, they didn’t serve their purpose, for I never got married; but I enjoyed them, just the same. I had a good time at those parties, even if I wasn’t a belle. And so you are Harry’s child, and here I was quarreling with you. You do remember me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Miranda, and thinking that even if Cousin Eva had been really an old maid ten years before, still she couldn’t be much past fifty now, and she looked so withered and tired, so famished and sunken in the cheeks, so old, somehow. Across the abyss separating Cousin Eva from her own youth, Miranda looked with painful premonition. “Oh, must I ever be like that?” She said aloud, “Yes, you used to read Latin to me, and tell me not to bother about the sense, to get the sound in my mind, and it would come easier later.”
“Ah, so I did,” said Cousin Eva, delighted. “So I did. You don’t happen to remember that I once had a beautiful sapphire velvet dress with a train on it?”
“No, I don’t remember that dress,” said Miranda.
“It was an old dress of my mother’s made over and cut down to fit,” said Eva, “and it wasn’t in the least becoming to me, but it was the only really good dress I ever had, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. Blue was never my color.” She sighed with a humorous bitterness. The humor seemed momentary, but the bitterness was a constant state of mind.
Miranda, trying to offer the sympathy of fellow suffering, said, “I know. I’ve had Maria’s dresses made over for me, and they were never right. It was dreadful.”
“Well,” said Cousin Eva, in the tone of one who did not wish to share her unique disappointments. “How is your father? I always liked him. He was one of the finest-looking young men I ever saw. Vain, too, like all his family. He wouldn’t ride any but the best horses he could buy, and I used to say be made them prance and then watched his own shadow. I used to tell this on him at dinner parties, and he hated me for it. I feel pretty certain he hated me.” An overtone of complacency in Cousin Eva’s voice explained better than words that she had her own method of commanding attention and arousing emotion. “How is your father, I asked you, my dear?”
“I haven’t seen him for nearly a year,” answered Miranda, quickly, before Cousin Eva could get ahead again. “I’m going home now to Uncle Gabriel’s funeral; you know, Uncle Gabriel died in Lexington and they have brought him back to be buried beside Aunt Amy.”
“So that’s how we meet,” said Cousin Eva. “Yes, Gabriel drank himself to death at last. I’m going to the funeral, too. I haven’t been home since I went to Mother’s funeral, it must be, let’s see, yes, it will be nine years next July. I’m going to Gabriel’s funeral, though. I wouldn’t miss that. Poor fellow, what a life he had. Pretty soon, they’ll all be gone.”
Miranda said, “We’re left, Cousin Eva,” meaning those of her own generation, the young, and Cousin Eva said, “Pshaw, you’ll live forever, and you won’t bother to come to our funerals.” She didn’t seem to think this was a misfortune, but flung the remark from her like a woman accustomed to saying what she thought.
Miranda sat thinking, “Still, I suppose it would be pleasant if I could say something to make her believe that she and all of them would be lamented, but—but—” With a smile which she hoped would be her denial of Cousin Eva’s cynicism about the younger generation, she said, “You were right about the Latin, Cousin Eva, your reading did help when I began with it. I still study,” she said. “Latin, too.”
“And why shouldn’t you?” asked Cousin Eva, sharply, adding at once mildly, “I’m glad you are going to use your mind a little, child. Don’t let yourself rust away. Your mind outwears all sorts of things you may set your heart upon; you can enjoy it when all other things are taken away.” Miranda was chilled by her melancholy. Cousin Eva went on: “In our part of the country, in my time, we were so provincial—a woman didn’t dare to think or act for herself. The whole world was a little that way,” she said, “but we were the worst, I believe. I suppose you must know how I fought for votes for women when it almost made a pariah of me—I was turned out of my chair at the Seminary, but I’m glad I did it and I would do it again. You young things don’t realize. You’ll live in a better world because we worked for it.”
Miranda knew something of Cousin Eva’s career. She said sincerely, “I think it was brave of you, and I’m glad you did it, too. I loved your courage.”
“It wasn’t just showing off, mind you,” said Cousin Eva, rejecting praise, fretfully. “Any fool can be br
Miranda did not venture any answer, but she felt convinced that indeed women would be voting soon if nothing fatal happened to Cousin Eva. There was something in her manner which said such things could be left safely to her. Miranda was dimly fired for the cause herself; it seemed heroic and worth suffering for, but discouraging, too, to those who came after: Cousin Eva so plainly had swept the field clear of opportunity.
They were silent for a few minutes, while Cousin Eva rummaged in her handbag, bringing up odds and ends: peppermint drops, eye drops, a packet of needles, three handkerchiefs, a little bottle of violet perfume, a book of addresses, two buttons, one black, one white, and, finally, a packet of headache powders.
“Bring me a glass of water, will you, my dear?” she asked Miranda. She poured the headache powder on her tongue, swallowed the water, and put two peppermints in her mouth.
“So now they’re going to bury Gabriel near Amy,” she said after a while, as if her eased headache had started her on a new train of thought. “Miss Honey would like that, poor dear, if she could know. After listening to stories about Amy for twenty-five years, she must lie alone in her grave in Lexington while Gabriel sneaks off to Texas to make his bed with Amy again. It was a kind of lifelong infidelity, Miranda, and now an eternal infidelity on top of that. He ought to be ashamed of himself.”
“It was Aunt Amy he loved,” said Miranda, wondering what Miss Honey could have been like before her long troubles with Uncle Gabriel. “First, anyway.”
“Oh, that Amy,” said Cousin Eva, her eyes glittering. “Your Aunt Amy was a devil and a mischief-maker, but I loved her dearly. I used to stand up for Amy when her reputation wasn’t worth that.” Her fingers snapped like castanets. “She used to say to me, in that gay soft way she had, ‘Now, Eva, don’t go talking votes for women when the lads ask you to dance. Don’t recite Latin poems to ’em,’ she would say, ‘they got sick of that in school. Dance and say nothing, Eva,’ she would say, her eyes perfectly devilish, ‘and hold your chin up, Eva.’ My chin was my weak point, you see. ‘You’ll never catch a husband if you don’t look out,’ she would say. Then she would laugh and fly away, and where did she fly to?” demanded Cousin Eva, her sharp eyes pinning Miranda down to the bitter facts of the case. “To scandal and to death, nowhere else.”