The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “You will learn,” said the landlady, smiling graciously as a mother, and added, “I am Viennese, which accounts perhaps for any little difference you may notice between my speech and that which you hear ordinarily in Berlin. I may say, the Viennese way of talking is not the worst in the world, if you really wish to learn German while you are here.”

  The room. Well, the room. He had seen it several times before in his search. It was not what he would choose if he had a choice, but it was the least tiresome example of what he recognized now as a fixed style, with its sober rich oriental carpet, the lace curtains under looped-back velvet hangings, the large round table covered with another silky oriental rug in sweet, refined colors. One corner was occupied by deep couches heaped with silk and velvet cushions, the wall above it adorned with a glass-doored cabinet filled with minute curiosities mostly in silver filigree and fine porcelain, and upon the table stood a huge lamp with an ornate pink silk shade, fluted and fringed and draped with silken tassels. The bed was massive with feather quilt and shot-silk cover, the giant wardrobe of dark polished wood was carved all out of shape.

  A hell of a place, really, but he would take it. The landlady looked human, and the price was no higher than he would be asked anywhere else for such a monstrosity. She agreed at once that he would need a plain work table and a student lamp, and added, “I hope you expect to stay for six months.”

  “I’m sorry,” said Charles, who had been waiting for this. “Only three months.”

  The landlady concealed her disappointment unsuccessfully in a sweet little smile. “It is usual to agree for six months,” she told him.

  “But I am going to another country in three months,” said Charles.

  “Oh, really? Where are you going?” she asked, and her whole face lighted as if the prospect of travel were her own.

  “To Italy, perhaps,” said Charles. “First to Rome and then to Florence. And then all over Europe,” he added recklessly, feeling certain for the first time that this was really true, it was bound to happen.

  “Oh, Italy,” cried the landlady. “I spent the three happiest months of my life there, I have dreamed of going back.”

  Charles was standing near the table. On the silk rug, near the lamp, there stood a small plaster replica, about five inches high, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As they talked, his hand wandered towards it, he picked it up lightly by the middle with his finger tips, and the delicate plaster ribs caved in. They simply crumbled at his touch, and the fragments dropped around the weighted base as he snatched back his hand. He saw in horror that the landlady had gone very pale, her blue eyes instantly suffused.

  Charles’ self-possession crumbled with the tower. He stammered, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” seeing that to the landlady the accident was serious and feeling himself shamefully exposed before her in his proved and demonstrated clumsiness, the aimless wandering curiosity of his mind, his bad habit of pawing things. Why couldn’t he have kept his hands to himself? “Please allow me to replace it.”

  “It cannot be replaced,” said the landlady, with a severe, stricken dignity. “It was a souvenir of the Italian journey. My husband and I brought it back as a pleasantry from our honeymoon. My husband has been dead for many years. No, the little tower is not a thing that can be replaced.”

  Charles, wishing to escape with his humiliation into the open air, said, “Perhaps I had better go for my luggage. I will be back in an hour.”

  “Yes,” she said, absently, gathering up the ruins bit by bit on a sheet of paper. “My only hope is, it may be repaired.”

  “Do please let me pay for that, at least,” said Charles. “I am so very sorry.”

  “It is not your fault, but mine,” said the landlady, “I should never have left it here for—” She stopped short, and walked away carrying the paper in her two cupped hands. For barbarians, for outlandish crude persons who have no respect for precious things, her face and voice said all too clearly.

  Charles, red and frowning, moved warily around the furniture towards the windows. A bad start, a very bad start indeed. The double panes were closed tightly, the radiator cast an even warmth through the whole room. He drew the lace curtains and saw, in the refracted pallor of the midmorning, winter light, a dozen infant-sized pottery cupids, gross, squat limbed, wanton in posture and vulgarly pink, with scarlet feet and cheeks and backsides, engaged in what appeared to be a perpetual scramble to avoid falling off the steep roof of a house across the street. Charles observed grimly their realistic toe holds among the slate, their clutching fat hands, their imbecile grins. In pouring rain, he thought, they must keep up their senseless play. In snow, their noses would be completely buried. Their behinds were natural victims to the winter winds. And to think that whoever had put them there had meant them to be oh, so whimsical and so amusing, year in, year out. He clutched his hat and overcoat with a wild impulse to slip out quietly and disappear. Maybe he wouldn’t come back at all. He hadn’t signed or paid anything yet. Oh, yes, but he would, though. For the landlady appeared at once, again smiling and composed, carrying a card, a slip of paper with printing on it, pen, ink, and her receipt blanks, all on a silver tray. He did not escape without leaving on that tray a full report of himself for the benefit of the police, a signed agreement to keep the room for three months, and a month’s rent in marks, instead of dollars. “What a pity you have no dollars,” she said brightly, and tilted her head at him in a brave gesture of acceptance. On her left hand she wore a rather inordinate diamond, square and blue, obviously a very fine one, set elaborately at great height. He had not noticed it before.

  The sallow wornout looking hotel proprietess greeted him with an almost pleasant expression when he approached her desk. He was surprised at the violent change in her face when he explained that he had found another room and would be leaving at once. Instantly she seemed ready to weep with anger and disappointment.

  “But I do not understand,” she told him stiffly, her lids reddening. “You agree to stay for a month, I give you very special rates, and now in eight days you are saying you must go. Do you find us disagreeable, perhaps? Isn’t your room cared for properly? What has happened?”

  “It is simply true that I must find something less expensive still,” he told her, carefully. “That is all.”

  “But our charges here are most reasonable,” she said, her dry mouth working over her long teeth. “Why will you not stay?”

  “They are reasonable,” he admitted, feeling cornered, and as if he were making a humiliating confession, “but I cannot afford them.”

  The woman opened her account book and began copying from it rapidly, her face stiff with indignation as if she had caught him snatching her purse. “That is your own business,” she told him, in a low voice, “but naturally you must expect to pay by the day, in this case.”

  “Naturally,” he agreed.

  “You will find you cannot change your mind for nothing,” said the woman, in a severe, lecturing tone. “Indecision is a very expensive luxury.”

  “I suppose so,” said Charles, uneasily watching the notations on the sheet of paper lengthening rapidly.

  She glanced up and over his shoulder, and Charles saw her face change again to a hard boldness, she raised her voice sharply and said with insolence, “You will pay your bill as I present it or I shall call the police.”

  Charles, who had his money in hand ready to pay what she asked, believed for an instant he had not understood properly. Turning in the direction of her glance, he saw standing a few feet away the middle-aged podgy partner. His head was like a soft block, covered with scanty gray bristles. Hands in pockets he was eyeing Charles with a peculiarly malignant smile on his wide lipless mouth. Charles, amazed at the sum written at the foot of the page, counted out the money to the last pfennig, suddenly afraid that if he gave her a round sum she would not give him back the change. She swept it away from him, together with the bill, without speaking.

  “Will you please give me the receipt?
” asked Charles.

  She did not answer, but moved away a little, and the man approached silently and said in a voice of edged, false courtesy, “I must require you, before you go, to let me see your papers.”

  Charles said, “I showed them when I came here,” and picked up his suitcases.

  “But not to me,” said the man, and his pale little eyes behind their puffy lids were piggish with malice. “Not to me, I am sorry to say, and that will be necessary before you are allowed to go, let me assure you.”

  He seemed struggling with some hidden excitement. His neck swelled and flushed, he closed his mouth until it was a mere slit across his face, and rocked slightly on his toes. Charles had been well prepared for the nuisance of being under constant observation, experienced travelers had told him he would feel like a criminal on parole in Europe, especially in Germany, at first, but that he would soon grow accustomed to it, and he was to be certain to hand his papers over at once to anyone who asked for them. He set his suitcases down and felt in his pockets, then remembered he had tucked the flat leather case containing his papers in one of his suitcases. Which one?

  He opened the larger of the two, exposing a huddle of untidy clothing. The man and the woman leaned forward to gaze at his belongings, and the woman said, “So,” in a contemptuous voice. Charles, in outraged silence, closed the suitcase and opened the other. He handed the leather case to the man, who drew out the passports and other papers one by one with maddening slowness, regarded them with a skeptical eye, puffing his cheeks and clicking his tongue by turns. With deliberation he handed them back and said, “Very good. You may go now,” with the insulting condescension of a petty official dismissing a subordinate.

  They continued to look at him in a hateful silence, with their faces almost comically distorted in an effort to convey the full depths of their malice. It was as if they doubted, from his manner, that he had understood the extent to which they were insulting and cheating him, or as if, being safe in their advantage, they wished to goad him to protest so they might do him further damage. Awkwardly under their fixed stare, Charles returned his papers to the suitcase, closed it with difficulty after some trouble with the fastenings. As the door closed behind him he heard them laughing together like a pair of hyenas, with deliberate loudness, to make certain he should hear them.

  He felt all at once rather too poor to afford a taxicab, so he walked, lugging his rather battered possessions, and as their weight increased and the distance stretched before him, he meditated rather shapelessly on the treatment he had just received. He was a tall, personable young man, there was nothing wrong with his looks or his intentions, though at that moment, a trifle beetle-browed, hat over eyes, he seemed sullen and rather ugly. His first furious impulse to hit the fat man in the teeth with his fist had been overcome instantly by the clear cold spot in his mind which knew that this situation was hopeless, there was no chance for any sort of reparation, he could either keep quiet and escape from the two thugs or quite simply he would be in worse trouble. His anger remained and settled, took root and became a new part of him.

  His landlady opened the door for him again. He observed there seemed to be no servant about the place. After a few more formalities of greeting, restlessly he took to the street again, telling himself he needed a haircut. Consulting his map, he bore towards Kurfürstendamm. The sun had disappeared, it was colder suddenly, the snow began to fall again on the smooth dark streets gleaming in the light like polished metal. The weighty laborious city was torpid in the early darkness.

  The barber shop was small and clean, wrapped in white towels, shining with mirrors and full of warm soapy steam. A weakly shaped, bloodless little man took him in hand and began to tuck cloths around his neck. He had scanty discouraged hair the color of tow, and a sickly, unpleasant breath. He wanted to cut Charles’ hair long on top, clip it to the skin around the back of his head in a wide swath over the ears. His own was cut that way, the streets were full of such heads, and a photograph, clipped from a newspaper and stuck in the corner of the mirror, showed a little shouting politician, top lock on end, wide-stretched mouth adorned by a square mustache, who had, apparently, made the style popular. It required a great deal of head shaking, rather desperately assembled German, some pointing to other photographs in a barber’s journal of fashion, to persuade the man to a more reasonable point of view.

  The barber, sad enough at his gayest, drooped rather more as he tapered Charles’ hair almost imperceptibly towards the neck; and to change the whole topic he spoke of the weather. The last day or two had been mild, even milder than anyone thought, for it had deceived the storks. The papers that morning had mentioned that storks had been seen flying over the city, certain signs of good weather and an early spring. Had the young gentleman noticed a dispatch from New York that said the trees in Central Park were putting out green buds—imagine, at this time of year.

  “There is nothing in the Tiergarten at this time,” said the little barber, sighing. “This is a dark place in winter. I lived in Malaga once, I worked there in a barber shop for a whole year—nearly thirteen months, in fact. The barber shops there are not like ours, they are very dirty, but there, flowers were in bloom outside, in December. There, they use real almond oil for their hair lotions—real. And they have such an extract of rosemary as you cannot find anywhere else. Olive oil the poorer people use for their hair, as well as for cookery. Olive oil, imagine, here so expensive, there they pour it out on their heads. Olive oil, they told me, inside and out, that is what makes hair grow. Well, maybe. Here, everyone wants his hair dry, and mostly,” he returned to the hateful subject, “they like it close above the ears and full on top. Say it is only our poor German taste,” he said sourly, and then, “In Malaga, I never wore my topcoat all winter. Ah, I hardly knew it was winter.” His fingers were clammy and his front teeth looked weak, as if they had never got a proper start. “It was strange there in many ways, naturally, considering the kind of people they are, but then they did not have to worry so much about living. Sometimes, there, I put my hand in my pocket and felt my last peseta, but I was not alarmed as I would have been here. I thought that when that was gone I could get more. I should have saved something there,” he said, with a guilty look, “but I did not, and here I save and save, but there is nothing.” He coughed, turning his head away. “In Malaga,” he said, and he was like a man talking about a homeland he had lost, “I never had a cough, though here I cough all the time.”

  “Flu?” asked Charles, through the towels.

  “No, gas,” said the little barber, modestly. “The war.”

  After a dismal pause, Charles said, “I noticed the other day that Malaga froze stiff too, this winter.”

  “Well, yes, once perhaps, but only for a few days,” admitted the barber, shaking his head slowly. “Once, perhaps—”

  When Charles felt carefully in his pocket for the smallest coin he could give, uneasy because he knew it was not enough, but all at once unnerved by caution, not daring to reduce his cash store by a single pfennig more than necessary, the barber held out his bluish narrow hand, glanced discreetly into the palm, smiled and said with genuine feeling, “Thank you, thank you very much.” Charles nodded his head, in shame, and hurried away.

  The knob turned from within and the door flew open as Charles was bending, key in hand, and the landlady fluted at him sweetly. She had been expecting him, she had wondered what was keeping him, she had happened to be in the hall and had heard his step on the stair. She believed she had him nicely settled now, and at what hour would he have his afternoon coffee? Charles said he supposed five o’clock would be all right. “So,” she said, smiling and tilting her head at him with what struck Charles as a slightly too intimate, possessive gleam. Still smiling, she hurried away to the farther end of the hall and rapped sharply at a closed door.

  It was opened at once, and Charles got a full glimpse of a drooping heavy-set dark young man with a big cropped head and blunt features. The landlad
y went straight past him, talking in a rapid authoritative tone as if she were giving orders. Charles closed his own door with some relief and looked around for his luggage. It had disappeared. He glanced into the big wardrobe and saw with a peculiar sense of invasion that his things were unpacked—he had long since lost the keys and had never got into the habit of locking things, anyway—and arranged with an orderliness that exposed all their weaknesses of quality and condition. His shoes, needing minor repairs and a coat of polish, were set in wooden supports. His other two suits, the tweed with its buttons hanging, were on silk padded frames. His meager toilet articles, his frayed hair brushes and his flabby leather cases were in array on the middle shelf. Conspicuous among them, looking somehow disreputable, was his quart bottle of brandy, a third empty, and he realized that he had in effect taken to secret drinking during his search for a room. He peered into the lumpy laundry bag hanging on a hook, and shuddered with masculine shame. Its snowy sweet-smelling whiteness concealed his socks that needed darning, his soiled shirts worn too long for economy’s sake, and his stringy underwear. On the pillow of his bed, half concealing the long effeminate lace pillow ruffles, lay a pair of neatly folded clean pajamas.

  Last effrontery of all, the woman had unpacked his papers and his drawing material and his cardboard folders of unfinished work. Had she looked into them? He hoped she had a good time. A great many of his sketches were not meant for publication. Everything was laid out carefully stacked with a prime regard for neatness and a symmetrical appearance. He had noticed before the strange antagonism of domesticated females for papers. They seemed to look upon papers as an enemy of order, mere dust-catching nuisances. At home he had waged perpetual silent warfare with his mother and the ser vants about his papers. They wanted to straighten them out, or better, hide them away in the deepest shelves of a closet. Why in God’s name couldn’t they let his work alone? But they could not, under their curious compulsion; and neither could this woman, that was clear. Consulting his little phrase book, he began constructing and memorizing a polite sentence beginning, “Please don’t trouble yourself about my table. . .”

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