The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
The table was large, though not plain, the lamp was good enough, but the straight-backed chair was a delicate affair with curved spindle legs and old mended tapestry in seat and back: a museum piece beyond doubt, Charles decided, and sat upon it experimentally. It held up. He proposed to overlook and forget the whole damned situation, put his stuff in order and get to work. First he emptied his pockets of accumulated bits of notes, sketches, receipts, scribbled addresses of restaurants, postcard reproductions of paintings he had bought at museums, and the agreement he had signed to stay in this house for three months. He noticed that the landlady’s name was Rosa Reichl, written in a tall, looping, affectedly elegant hand. He could not see the end of those three months. He felt a blind resentment all the more deep because it could have no particular object, and helpless as if he had let himself be misled by bad advice. Vaguely but in the most ghastly sort of way, he felt that someone he trusted had left him in the lurch, and of course, that was nonsense, as Kuno used to say. “Nonsense” was one of Kuno’s favorite words, especially just after his returns from abroad.
The voices in the next room were going on, rising and tightening somewhat with an excitement that might be anger. Charles listened carefully with no sense of eavesdropping, as always surprised that he understood German so well and spoke it so poorly.
“Herr Bussen, Herr Bussen,” Frau Reichl was crying, in a flighty, impassioned voice, her light Viennese accent slightly blurred, “you treat my good chairs like this, my beautiful old chairs I have had for so long—in spite of my other troubles you must add this? How can you, when you know I shall never have chairs like these again?”
Charles, who had begun testing crayons and sharpening pencils, stopped to light a cigarette, leaning back in his own chair. He balanced on the back legs for a split second and came down with a thump, his heart seeming to turn over as the thin joints complained in a human voice.
Herr Bussen, who began by defending himself half-heartedly, gave in and took his scolding dutifully as if Frau Reichl were his mother or his conscience. Yes, he knew better, Charles heard him saying in heavy Low-German, he had been brought up properly even if she did not think so. His mother had such chairs too, he would not let it happen again. Herr Bussen’s speech sounded to Charles like some ungainly English dialect, but in no language would he have been a match for Frau Reichl. Charles found himself feeling very sorry for that poor devil as he blundered on apologizing; she was to excuse him this time if she could.
“Yes, this time,” rejoined Frau Reichl, exasperated to a point beyond all grace, “this time,” she said sarcastically in her sweetest tones, “and how many others, past and to come?”
Herr Bussen found no answer for this. After a silent moment of triumph, Frau Reichl emerged and swished past Charles’ door while he waited uneasily for her to stop before it, and knocked on the door just next his at the right.
“Jawohl!” shouted the young man inside in the drowning voice of one dredged too suddenly out of sleep. “Yes, yes, come in.” Then a gay and youthful voice cleared and added, “Oh, it’s you, Rosa dear. Well, I thought there must be a fire.”
Rosa, is it? thought Charles, hearing their voices running on together, quick and friendly, in lowered tones, with now and again a small duet of good-humored laughter. Rosa seemed very cheerful indeed, moving about the room as she talked, crossing the hall to her own apartment and back several times. At last she said, “Now then, please tell me when you need anything. Only, no more ice. There is no more.”
“Who cares?” called the young man, and Rosa laughed again. Charles began to think of her as Rosa, and a nuisance, if affairs went on at this rate all day in the house.
Daylight had failed. Charles settled himself firmly to his drawing under the lamp which was better than he expected. He began with many small anxieties. Suppose that editor changed his mind? Suppose his drawings were not published and paid for, after all? How long could his father continue to send him money? How long, and this was the real question, this was what worried him most, how long should he go on taking money from his father? Should he have come to Europe at all? A lot of good painters had never been in Europe. He tried to think of one. Well, he was here, horribly disturbed and miserable really, he might as well face it, he had got a much harder blow than he expected from the place. At least he must try to find what he came for, if it wasn’t to be just a wild goose chase. He refused to listen any further to the sounds in the house, but focused his eyes upon a certain spot on the paper, remembered what he meant to do, and went to work. All his energy seemed to flow and balance in his right hand, he felt steadied and at ease, he belonged to himself and knew what he was doing. Then he forgot himself altogether. Some time later he sat back and looked at what he had done. It wouldn’t do, it was absolutely all wrong.
A light rap on the door saved him. He had an excuse to stop, to turn the page over and let it cool off before he looked at it again. Hardly waiting for his word, Rosa came in. She glanced sharply first at the light and then at the table, already in disorder.
“Ah, you need light early, I see,” she commented, with an uncertain smile, a deprecating tilt of the head. “As for Herr Bussen, he does not work in the evenings until after supper. And Herr Mey, the Polish gentleman, quite often plays in the dark because he wishes. Our young student from Heidelberg doesn’t have anything to think about but his face at this moment, and the less light on that, the better. Ah me, it is a sight. But,” she said, fondly and mysteriously, “he is young, it is his first, he will know what to expect the next time. But the wound is infected, you know, he is here for treatment. Ah, the young one,” she said, tenderly, clasping her hands over her breast, “he is very brave all day, but when the dark comes, it is very hard for him. He is so young and tender,” she told Charles, almost tearful in her pride and pity, “but he did well, you can see. The wound—well, it is a beauty!”
She moved about the room while she talked, straightening the chairs ever so little, giving a flick at the cushions here, a whisk at the curtains there. Standing beside Charles at the table, she even reached round him to take a light turn among his papers, setting up a small commotion by moving his ash tray and the India ink a few inches out of their places. “After all, there is no more daylight,” she admitted, finally, “and if you draw, you need light, isn’t it true? Now I shall bring your coffee at once,” she promised, brightly, and went away with that extraordinarily busy air of hers.
No more daylight. Charles, feeling helpless, as if he were taking part in a play, and had forgotten his lines if he ever knew them, watched the street as he waited, silent under the falling snow, empty in the frosty shimmer of the corner lamps. Lights were coming on one by one in the many windows of the houses opposite.
In the past few days he had watched each morning by lamplight the feeble sun crawl later and later barely to the level of the housetops, slide slowly around in a shallow arc and drop away in midafternoon. The long nights oppressed him with unreasonable premonitions of danger. The darkness closed over the strange city like the great fist of an enemy who had survived in full strength, a voiceless monster from a prehuman, older and colder and grimmer time of the world. “It is just because I was born in a sunny place and took the summer for granted,” he told himself, but that did not explain why he could not endure with patience, even enjoy, even look upon as something new and memorable to see, unfamiliar weather in a foreign climate. Of course it was not the weather. No one paid attention to weather if he had the proper clothes for it; he remembered a teacher of his saying once that all great cities are built in uninhabitable places. He knew that people love even the worst of the climate in the place they know, and can wonder at the feelings of strangers about it. At home in Texas he had seen northern travelers turn upon the southern weather with the ferocity of exhaustion; it gave them the excuse they needed to hate everything else they hated in the place, too. It would be so easy and simple, it would put such an end to the argument to be able to say, “I can
There were the faces. Faces with no eyes. And these no-eyes, pale, lightless, were set in faces shriveled as if they were gnawed hollow; or worse, faces sodden in fat with swollen eyelids in which the little no-eyes peered blindly as if all the food, the plates of boiled potatoes and pig’s knuckles and cabbage fed to the wallowing body, had weighed it down and had done it no good. The no-eyes in the faces of the women were too ready to shed tears. Charles had not understood in the least the first thing that had happened to him in Berlin. He had bought some cheap socks in a little shop. At the hotel he saw they were too small, and had gone back at once to exchange them for a larger size. The woman who had sold them to him saw him coming in with the package in his hand, had remembered him and instantly stood transfixed, the tears welling up in her eyes. While he was trying to explain in awful embarrassment that he merely wished larger socks in place of those she had given him, the tears rolled over her cheeks and she said, “I have no larger size.”
“Could you get them for me?” he asked, and she said, “Oh, yes,” in such pain that Charles said awkwardly, “Don’t bother, I’ll keep these,” and ran out, annoyed and mystified. A day or two later it was all clear to him and seemed quite natural. She needed badly to sell the stock she had. She could not afford to order just a few pairs of larger socks. She was frightened at seeing the goods she had on hand, unsold, and she had deliberately given him the socks she had already, hoping he could not, a stranger, a traveler, find his way back to complain.
Men who sold wine and fruit in tiny corners did not seem to prosper in their rich and warming commodities, they got no nourishment of their company and obviously they could not afford to enjoy them. These men were silent, usually middle-aged, deeply sullen, and if Charles asked them a question, hearing the foreign voice they would shout out their answer as if in a burst of fury, though the words were harmless. Among themselves they talked in a dead tone of disheartenment that seemed an old habit. With his limited money, he was frightened to go to any place where things were for sale. Because he was poor, he went to poor places, and felt trapped, for they could not let him go until he had bought something. They tried desperately to sell him things he did not want or need, could not use, or could not afford. It was no good trying to explain this to them. They could not hear him.
No more daylight. No more ice. No more chairs with tapestry on them and legs that broke if you leaned back in them. No more of those table rugs with their nasty sweet colors. If the corner whatnot should be knocked over, just once, there would be no more of that silly bric-a-brac and a good thing too, thought Charles, hardening his heart.
“Coffee at last,” said Rosa, coming in without knocking this time, carrying a very dressed up tray. No more coffee at five o’clock, unless you were a foreigner, and—it followed naturally—rich. Charles felt he was living under false pretenses of the kind his early training had taught him to despise. “I am poorer than she is,” he thought, watching Rosa arrange the fine porcelain cup with butterfly handle, and spread out thin napery. “But of course not. A boat is coming from America for me, but there is no boat for her. For nobody in this house but me is a boat coming from America, with money. I can get along here, I can leave when I like, I can always go home—”
He felt young, ignorant, awkward, he had so much to learn he hardly knew where to begin. He could always go home, but that was not the point. It was a long way home from where he stood, he could see that. No more Leaning Tower of Pisa, he remembered with guilt, when Rosa, with a last little fussy pat as if she could not quite give up her coffee table, stood back and said, “Now, if you will sit, I will pour your coffee. Pity it is we are not in Vienna,” she told him, with a gay little air, “then I could give you real coffee. But this is not the worst in the world, either.” Then she ran away, and the flurry of her wake did not settle until some seconds after she was gone.
The coffee was indeed as good as Charles had ever tasted, more than good enough, and he had just taken the first swallow when he heard Herr Bussen’s voice in the hall. “Ha,” he pronounced in his loud Low-German, “how that coffee stinks.”
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like it just the same,” said Rosa cruelly. “Just because you drink milk like a big baby and leave the dirty bottles under the bed. Shame on you, Herr Bussen.”
They were silenced in the sound of a piano, struck firmly and softly at first, and then without pause there followed a long rippling continuous music. Charles loved music without knowing how or why, and he listened carefully. That would be the Polish student, and it seemed to Charles he was doing pretty well. He sat back in a pleasant daze, hypnotized by the steady rhythm and delighted with the running melody that he could follow easily. Rosa tapped and came in on tiptoe, finger on lip, eyebrows raised, eyes shining. She approached the table and with careful lightness gathered up the napery and silver. “Herr Mey,” she whispered, and then, reverently, “Chopin—” and before Charles could think of any response, she had the tray up and had tiptoed out again.
Charles, lightly asleep, dreamed the house was burning down, silently alive and pulsing with flame in every part. With no fear or hesitation at all, he walked safely through the fiery walls and out into the wide bright street, carrying a suitcase which knocked against his knees and weighed him down, but he could not leave it because it contained all the drawings he meant to do in his whole life. He walked a safe distance and watched the dark skeleton of the house tall as a tower standing in a fountain of fire. Seeing that he was alone, he said in wonder, “They all escaped, too,” when a loud and ghostly groan was uttered in his ear. He spun about and saw no one. The groan sounded again over his shoulder and woke him sharply. He found he was wallowing in the airless deeps of the feather quilt, hot and half smothered. He fought his way out and sat up to listen, turning this way and that to locate the sound.
“Ah,—ahoooooooo,” sighed a voice hopelessly from the room to the right, falling and dying away in a heavily expelled breath of weariness. Without deciding to do anything, Charles found himself at the right hand door tapping with the extreme tips of his fingers.
“Well, what is it?” came a drowsed but soberly indignant voice.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” asked Charles.
“No, no,” said the voice in despair. “No, thank you, no no. . .”
“I’m sorry,” said Charles, thinking he had been saying this to somebody or other, or thinking it, or feeling it, all day and every day since he had been in that city. The soles of his feet were tingling on the bare floor.
“But come in, please,” said the voice, changing to a shade of affability.
The young man sitting on the side of the tumbled bed was of the extreme pale blondness such as Charles had often noticed among the young people in the streets. His hair, eyebrows and eyelashes were pale taffy color, the skin taffy blond, the eyes a flat grayish blue almost expressionless except for a certain modeling of the outer lids that gave him the look of a young, intelligent fox. He had a long, narrow head, with smooth, sharply cut features of the kind Charles vaguely regarded as aristocratic. So far, a good-looking fellow, perhaps twenty-one years old; he stood up slowly and was eye level with Charles’ six feet of height. There was only one thing wrong with him: the left side of his face was swollen badly, the eye was almost closed from beneath, and glued along his cheek from ear to mouth was an inch-wide strip of court plaster, the flesh at its edges stained in dirty blues and greens and purples. He was the Heidelberg student, all right. He stood cupping his hand lightly over his cheek without touching.
“Well,” he said, keeping his mouth stiff and looking from under his downy light brows at Charles. “You can see for yourself. Nothing to speak of, but it gives me the devil. Like a toothache, you know. I heard myself roaring in my sleep,” he said, and his eyes quietly dared Charles to doubt his word. “I woke myself up at it. W
Charles said, “I’ve got some brandy, maybe that would do something.”
The boy said, “God, yes,” and sighed again in spite of himself. He moved around the room aimlessly, holding his spread hand just beside his face as if he expected his head to drop and hoped to catch it as it fell. His pale gray cotton pajamas gave him the look of being about to fade away in the yellowish light of the bed lamp.
Charles, in his old blanket robe and felt slippers, brought two glasses and the brandy bottle. As he poured, the young man watched the liquid filling the glass as if he would spring upon it, but he held his hands until the glass was offered, smelled the brim, they touched glasses and drank.
“Ah,” said the young man, swallowing carefully, head back and tipped to the right. He curled up the right side of his mouth at Charles and his right eye glimmered at him gratefully. “What a relief.” He added suddenly, “Hans von Gehring, at your service.”
Charles spoke his own name, the other nodded, there was a pause while the glasses were filled again.
“And how do you like it, here in Berlin?” Hans asked politely, warming the brandy between his palms.
“So far, very well,” said Charles; “of course, I’m not settled yet.” He observed Hans’ face in the hope that language was not going to get in the way of their talk. Hans seemed to understand perfectly. He nodded, and drank.
“I’ve walked nearly all over, and have been to a lot of museums, cafés, all the first things, of course. It is a great city. The Berliners are not proud of it, though, or pretend not to be.”
“They know it’s no good compared with any other city at all,” said Hans, forthrightly. “I was wondering why you came here. Why this city, of all places? You may go where you please, isn’t that so?”