The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“She was joking, Cousin Eva,” said Miranda, innocently, “and everybody loved her.”
“Not everybody, by a long shot,” said Cousin Eva in triumph. “She had enemies. If she knew, she pretended she didn’t. If she cared, she never said. You couldn’t make her quarrel. She was sweet as a honeycomb to everybody. Everybody,” she added, “that was the trouble. She went through life like a spoiled darling, doing as she pleased and letting other people suffer for it, and pick up the pieces after her. I never believed for one moment,” said Cousin Eva, putting her mouth close to Miranda’s ear and breathing peppermint hotly into it, “that Amy was an impure woman. Never! But let me tell you, there were plenty who did believe it. There were plenty to pity poor Gabriel for being so completely blinded by her. A great many persons were not surprised when they heard that Gabriel was perfectly miserable all the time, on their honeymoon, in New Orleans. Jealousy. And why not? But I used to say to such persons that, no matter what the appearances were, I had faith in Amy’s virtue. Wild, I said, indiscreet, I said, heartless, I said, but virtuous, I feel certain. But you could hardly blame anyone for being mystified. The way she rose up suddenly from death’s door to marry Gabriel Breaux, after refusing him and treating him like a dog for years, looked odd, to say the least. To say the very least,” she added, after a moment, “odd is a mild word for it. And there was something very mysterious about her death, only six weeks after marriage.”
Miranda roused herself. She felt she knew this part of the story and could set Cousin Eva right about one thing. “She died of a hemorrhage from the lungs,” said Miranda. “She had been ill for five years, don’t you remember?”
Cousin Eva was ready for that. “Ha, that was the story, indeed. The official account, you might say. Oh, yes, I heard that often enough. But did you ever hear about that fellow Raymond somebody-or-other from Calcasieu Parish, almost a stranger, who persuaded Amy to elope with him from a dance one night, and she just ran out into the darkness without even stopping for her cloak, and your poor dear nice father Harry—you weren’t even thought of then—had to run him down to earth and shoot him?”
Miranda leaned back from the advancing flood of speech. “Cousin Eva, my father shot at him, don’t you remember? He didn’t hit him. . . .”
“Well, that’s a pity.”
“. . . and they had only gone out for a breath of air between dances. It was Uncle Gabriel’s jealousy. And my father shot at the man because he thought that was better than letting Uncle Gabriel fight a duel about Aunt Amy. There was nothing in the whole affair except Uncle Gabriel’s jealousy.”
“You poor baby,” said Cousin Eva, and pity gave a light like daggers to her eyes, “you dear innocent, you—do you believe that? How old are you, anyway?”
“Just past eighteen,” said Miranda.
“If you don’t understand what I tell you,” said Cousin Eva portentously, “you will later. Knowledge can’t hurt you. You mustn’t live in a romantic haze about life. You’ll understand when you’re married, at any rate.”
“I’m married now, Cousin Eva,” said Miranda, feeling for almost the first time that it might be an advantage, “nearly a year. I eloped from school.” It seemed very unreal even as she said it, and seemed to have nothing at all to do with the future; still, it was important, it must be declared, it was a situation in life which people seemed to be most exacting about, and the only feeling she could rouse in herself about it was an immense weariness as if it were an illness that she might one day hope to recover from.
“Shameful, shameful,” cried Cousin Eva, genuinely repelled. “If you had been my child I should have brought you home and spanked you.”
Miranda laughed out. Cousin Eva seemed to believe things could be arranged like that. She was so solemn and fierce, so comic and baffled.
“And you must know I should have just gone straight out again, through the nearest window,” she taunted her. “If I went the first time, why not the second?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Cousin Eva. “I hope you married rich.”
“Not so very,” said Miranda. “Enough.” As if anyone could have stopped to think of such a thing!
Cousin Eva adjusted her spectacles and sized up Miranda’s dress, her luggage, examined her engagement ring and wedding ring, with her nostrils fairly quivering as if she might smell out wealth on her.
“Well, that’s better than nothing,” said Cousin Eva. “I thank God every day of my life that I have a small income. It’s a Rock of Ages. What would have become of me if I hadn’t a cent of my own? Well, you’ll be able now to do something for your family.”
Miranda remembered what she had always heard about the Parringtons. They were money-hungry, they loved money and nothing else, and when they had got some they kept it. Blood was thinner than water between the Parringtons where money was concerned.
“We’re pretty poor,” said Miranda, stubbornly allying herself with her father’s family instead of her husband’s, “but a rich marriage is no way out,” she said, with the snobbishness of poverty. She was thinking, “You don’t know my branch of the family, dear Cousin Eva, if you think it is.”
“Your branch of the family,” said Cousin Eva, with that terrifying habit she had of lifting phrases out of one’s mind, “has no more practical sense than so many children. Everything for love,” she said, with a face of positive nausea, “that was it. Gabriel would have been rich if his grandfather had not disinherited him, but would Amy be sensible and marry him and make him settle down so the old man would have been pleased with him? No. And what could Gabriel do without money? I wish you could have seen the life he led Miss Honey, one day buying her Paris gowns and the next day pawning her earrings. It just depended on how the horses ran, and they ran worse and worse, and Gabriel drank more and more.”
Miranda did not say, “I saw a little of it.” She was trying to imagine Miss Honey in a Paris gown. She said, “But Uncle Gabriel was so mad about Aunt Amy, there was no question of her not marrying him at last, money or no money.”
Cousin Eva strained her lips tightly over her teeth, let them fly again and leaned over, gripping Miranda’s arm. “What I ask myself, what I ask myself over and over again,” she whispered, “is, what connection did this man Raymond from Calcasieu have with Amy’s sudden marriage to Gabriel, and what did Amy do to make away with herself so soon afterward? For mark my words, child, Amy wasn’t so ill as all that. She’d been flying around for years after the doctors said her lungs were weak. Amy did away with herself to escape some disgrace, some exposure that she faced.”
The beady black eyes glinted; Cousin Eva’s face was quite frightening, so near and so intent. Miranda wanted to say, “Stop. Let her rest. What harm did she ever do you?” but she was timid and unnerved, and deep in her was a horrid fascination with the terrors and the darkness Cousin Eva had conjured up. What was the end of this story?
“She was a bad, wild girl, but I was fond of her to the last,” said Cousin Eva. “She got into trouble somehow, and she couldn’t get out again, and I have every reason to believe she killed herself with the drug they gave her to keep her quiet after a hemorrhage. If she didn’t, what happened, what happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Miranda. “How should I know? She was very beautiful,” she said, as if this explained everything. “Everybody said she was very beautiful.”
“Not everybody,” said Cousin Eva, firmly, shaking her head. “I for one never thought so. They made entirely too much fuss over her. She was good-looking enough, but why did they think she was beautiful? I cannot understand it. She was too thin when she was young, and later I always thought she was too fat, and again in her last year she was altogether too thin. She always got herself up to be looked at, and so people looked, of course. She rode too hard, and she danced too freely, and she talked too much, and you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to notice her. I don’t mean she was loud or vulgar, she wasn’t, but she was too free,” said Cousin Eva. Sh
“And her illness wasn’t romantic either,” said Cousin Eva, “though to hear them tell it she faded like a lily. Well, she coughed blood, if that’s romantic. If they had made her take proper care of herself, if she had been nursed sensibly, she might have been alive today. But no, nothing of the kind. She lay wrapped in beautiful shawls on a sofa with flowers around her, eating as she liked or not eating, getting up after a hemorrhage and going out to ride or dance, sleeping with the windows closed; with crowds coming in and out laughing and talking at all hours, and Amy sitting up so her hair wouldn’t get out of curl. And why wouldn’t that sort of thing kill a well person in time? I have almost died twice in my life,” said Cousin Eva, “and both times I was sent to a hospital where I belonged and left there until I came out. And I came out,” she said, her voice deepening to a bugle note, “and I went to work again.”
“Beauty goes, character stays,” said the small voice of axiomatic morality in Miranda’s ear. It was a dreary prospect; why was a strong character so deforming? Miranda felt she truly wanted to be strong, but how could she face it, seeing what it did to one?
“She had a lovely complexion,” said Cousin Eva, “perfectly transparent with a flush on each cheekbone. But it was tuberculosis, and is disease beautiful? And she brought it on herself by drinking lemon and salt to stop her periods when she wanted to go to dances. There was a superstition among young girls about that. They fancied that young men could tell what ailed them by touching their hands, or even by looking at them. As if it mattered? But they were terribly self-conscious and they had immense respect for man’s worldly wisdom in those days. My own notion is that a man couldn’t—but anyway, the whole thing was stupid.”
“I should have thought they’d have stayed at home if they couldn’t manage better than that,” said Miranda, feeling very knowledgeable and modern.
“They didn’t dare. Those parties and dances were their market, a girl couldn’t afford to miss out, there were always rivals waiting to cut the ground from under her. The rivalry—” said Cousin Eva, and her head lifted, she arched like a cavalry horse getting a whiff of the battlefield—“you can’t imagine what the rivalry was like. The way those girls treated each other—nothing was too mean, nothing too false—”
Cousin Eva wrung her hands. “It was just sex,” she said in despair; “their minds dwelt on nothing else. They didn’t call it that, it was all smothered under pretty names, but that’s all it was, sex.” She looked out of the window into the darkness, her sunken cheek near Miranda flushed deeply. She turned back. “I took to the soap box and the platform when I was called upon,” she said proudly, “and I went to jail when it was necessary, and my condition didn’t make any difference. I was booed and jeered and shoved around just as if I had been in perfect health. But it was part of our philosophy not to let our physical handicaps make any difference to our work. You know what I mean,” she said, as if until now it was all mystery. “Well, Amy carried herself with more spirit than the others, and she didn’t seem to be making any sort of fight, but she was simply sex-ridden, like the rest. She behaved as if she hadn’t a rival on earth, and she pretended not to know what marriage was about, but I know better. None of them had, and they didn’t want to have, anything else to think about, and they didn’t really know anything about that, so they simply festered inside—they festered—”
Miranda found herself deliberately watching a long procession of living corpses, festering women stepping gaily towards the charnel house, their corruption concealed under laces and flowers, their dead faces lifted smiling, and thought quite coldly, “Of course it was not like that. This is no more true than what I was told before, it’s every bit as romantic,” and she realized that she was tired of her intense Cousin Eva, she wanted to go to sleep, she wanted to be at home, she wished it were tomorrow and she could see her father and her sister, who were so alive and solid; who would mention her freckles and ask her if she wanted something to eat.
“My mother was not like that,” she said, childishly. “My mother was a perfectly natural woman who liked to cook. I have seen some of her sewing,” she said. “I have read her diary.”
“Your mother was a saint,” said Cousin Eva, automatically.
Miranda sat silent, outraged. “My mother was nothing of the sort,” she wanted to fling in Cousin Eva’s big front teeth. But Cousin Eva had been gathering bitterness until more speech came of it.
“‘Hold your chin up, Eva,’ Amy used to tell me,” she began, doubling up both her fists and shaking them a little. “All my life the whole family bedeviled me about my chin. My entire girlhood was spoiled by it. Can you imagine,” she asked, with a ferocity that seemed much too deep for this one cause, “people who call themselves civilized spoiling life for a young girl because she had one unlucky feature? Of course, you understand perfectly it was all in the very best humor, everybody was very amusing about it, no harm meant—oh, no, no harm at all. That is the hellish thing about it. It is that I can’t forgive,” she cried out, and she twisted her hands together as if they were rags. “Ah, the family,” she said, releasing her breath and sitting back quietly, “the whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth. It is the root of all human wrongs,” she ended, and relaxed, and her face became calm. She was trembling. Miranda reached out and took Cousin Eva’s hand and held it. The hand fluttered and lay still, and Cousin Eva said, “You’ve not the faintest idea what some of us went through, but I wanted you to hear the other side of the story. And I’m keeping you up when you need your beauty sleep,” she said grimly, stirring herself with an immense rustle of petticoats.
Miranda pulled herself together, feeling limp, and stood up. Cousin Eva put out her hand again, and drew Miranda down to her. “Good night, you dear child,” she said, “to think you’re grown up.” Miranda hesitated, then quite suddenly kissed her Cousin Eva on the cheek. The black eyes shone brightly through water for an instant, and Cousin Eva said with a warm note in her sharp clear orator’s voice, “Tomorrow we’ll be at home again. I’m looking forward to it, aren’t you? Good night.”
Miranda fell asleep while she was getting off her clothes. Instantly it was morning again. She was still trying to close her suitcase when the train pulled into the small station, and there on the platform she saw her father, looking tired and anxious, his hat pulled over his eyes. She rapped on the window to catch his attention, then ran out and threw herself upon him. He said, “Well, here’s my big girl,” as if she were still seven, but his hands on her arms held her off, the tone was forced. There was no welcome for her, and there had not been since she had run away. She could not persuade herself to remember how it would be; between one home-coming and the next her mind refused to accept its own knowledge. Her father looked over her head and said, without surprise, “Why, hello, Eva, I’m glad somebody sent you a telegram.” Miranda, rebuffed again, let her arms fall away again, with the same painful dull jerk of the heart.
“No one in my family,” said Eva, her face framed in the thin black veil she reserved, evidently, for family funerals, “ever sent me a telegram in my life. I had the news from young Keziah who had it from young Gabriel. I suppose Gabe is here?”
“Everybody seems to be here,” said Father. “The house is getting full.”
“I’ll go to the hotel if you like,” said Cousin Eva.
“Damnation, no,” said Father. “I didn’t mean that. You’ll come with us where you belong.”
Skid, the handy man, grabbed the suitcases and started down the rocky village street. “We’ve got the car,” said Father. He took Miranda by the hand, then dropped it again, and reached for Cousin Eva’s elbow.
“I’m perfectly able, thank you,” said Cousin Eva, shying away.
Cousin Eva pushed back her veil. She was smiling merrily. She liked Harry, she always had liked him, he could tease as much as he liked. She slipped her arm through his. “So it’s all over with poor Gabriel, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes,” said Father, “it’s all over, all right. They’re pegging out pretty regularly now. It will be our turn next, Eva?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said Eva, recklessly. “It’s good to be back now and then, Harry, even if it is only for funerals. I feel sinfully cheerful.”
“Oh, Gabriel wouldn’t mind, he’d like seeing you cheerful. Gabriel was the cheerfullest cuss I ever saw, when we were young. Life for Gabriel,” said Father, “was just one perpetual picnic.”
“Poor fellow,” said Cousin Eva.
“Poor old Gabriel,” said Father, heavily.
Miranda walked along beside her father, feeling homeless, but not sorry for it. He had not forgiven her, she knew that. When would he? She could not guess, but she felt it would come of itself, without words and without acknowledgment on either side, for by the time it arrived neither of them would need to remember what had caused their division, nor why it had seemed so important. Surely old people cannot hold their grudges forever because the young want to live, too, she thought, in her arrogance, her pride. I will make my own mistakes, not yours; I cannot depend upon you beyond a certain point, why depend at all? There was something more beyond, but this was a first step to take, and she took it, walking in silence beside her elders who were no longer Cousin Eva and Father, since they had forgotten her presence, but had become Eva and Harry, who knew each other well, who were comfortable with each other, being contemporaries on equal terms, who occupied by right their place in this world, at the time of life to which they had arrived by paths familiar to them both. They need not play their roles of daughter, of son, to aged persons who did not understand them; nor of father and elderly female cousin to young persons whom they did not understand. They were precisely themselves; their eyes cleared, their voices relaxed into perfect naturalness, they need not weigh their words or calculate the effect of their manner. “It is I who have no place,” thought Miranda. “Where are my own people and my own time?” She resented, slowly and deeply and in profound silence, the presence of these aliens who lectured and admonished her, who loved her with bitterness and denied her the right to look at the world with her own eyes, who demanded that she accept their version of life and yet could not tell her the truth, not in the smallest thing. “I hate them both,” her most inner and secret mind said plainly, “I will be free of them, I shall not even remember them.”