The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “Thank you,” said Charles stuffily, feeling deeply offended.

  This melancholy conversation first depressed him, then it put him in a temper. He sat down in a dull but pleasant fury and began to draw hastily, without plan. Now and then he raised his elbows, drew his lungs full of air. The walls seemed to be closing in upon him, he imagined he could hear the breathing of those people in the other rooms, he smelt the iodoform on Hans’ bandage, the spoiled sardines on Herr Bussen’s breath, Rosa’s sweetish female hysteria made him ill. He drew the people at the hotel, the woman a sick fox, the man half pig, half tiger. He drew Herr Bussen’s unenlightened face, several times, growing more tender with each version. There was something about the fellow. With concentrated malice he drew Rosa, first as kitchen sloven, then as a withered old whore, finally without any clothes on. Studying these, he decided he had paid off a large installment of his irritation with her, and tore them all into minute bits. Instantly he regretted it, but there was no place to hide them from her. Then quite calmly he began to draw Hans’ face from the memory of that strange expression of pride in his wound, and this absorbed him so that he grew calm, was ashamed of his anger, wondered what had got into him. They were all good people, they were in terrible trouble, jammed up together in this little flat with not enough air or space or money, not enough of anything, no place to go, nothing to do but gnaw each other. I can always go home, he told himself, but why did I come here in the first place?

  The sound of Tadeusz’ piano stopped him. He listened with pleasure, sitting back at ease. That fellow really could play. Charles had heard a great many famous pianists, by radio, who didn’t, it seemed to him, sound so much better than that. Tadeusz knew what he was doing. He drew Tadeusz sitting over the piano, bird head, little stiff wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, fingers like bird claws. “Hell, maybe I’m a caricaturist,” he thought, but he did not really worry about it. He settled down again and forgot to listen.

  A scurrying about in the hall and Rosa’s voice raised in a shrill whimpering got through to him slowly, he did not wake up altogether until she was beating at his door, crying aloud in real terror, “Oh, God, oh, God, Herr Upton, come and help me. Come help. Herr Bussen—” Charles opened the door. Tadeusz and Hans were already at Herr Bussen’s door. Rosa’s face was streaming with tears, her hair was draggled. “Herr Bussen has poisoned himself.”

  Charles shuddered with a mortal chill of fear. He came straight out and joined the others and they went in to Herr Bussen’s room together.

  Herr Bussen was kneeling beside his bed, clutching a large bedroom jar in his arms, vomiting and retching, speechless except for a gasp between convulsions. Yet he could still raise his hand in a violent waving motion, gurgling, “Go away, go away. . . .”

  “Get him to the bathroom,” cried Rosa, “fetch a doctor, bring water, for God’s sake look out for the rug,” and while Charles seized Herr Bussen under the arms to lift him up, Tadeusz came with wet towels and Hans, holding his face, ran to the telephone.

  “No, no, God damn it,” shouted Herr Bussen, fiercely. “No doctor, no.” Freeing himself partially from Charles, he doubled up over the footboard of his bed, holding his stomach, apparently in agony, his face a terrifying purple green, a shower of sweat pouring over his eyebrows and nose.

  “Oh, why did you do it?” cried Rosa, weeping. “To poison yourself, here among your friends, how could you?”

  Herr Bussen collected himself for protest. “I tell you, I did not poison myself,” he shouted in a good strong baritone, “I told you, I ate something and it poisoned me.” He collapsed again over the jar, and the upheavals recommenced.

  “Get him to the bathroom,” cried Rosa, wringing her hands. “I know,” she said, turning on Herr Bussen, indignant again. “That sausage. All those sardines. That liver paste. I warned you, but no, you would not listen. No, you knew best. How many times did I tell you. . .”

  “Let me alone,” cried Herr Bussen, desperately. “Leave me.”

  Charles and Tadeusz joined forces. “Come on,” said Tadeusz, in Platt Deutsch, with a conversational tone, “come on, we’ll help you.”

  They took hold of him around the middle so that he hung down rather like a sack, and began hauling him as well as they could. “Oh, Almighty God,” groaned Herr Bussen in sincere despair, “let me alone.” But they got him in the bathroom, with no more regard for his feelings than if he were already dead, closed the door and locked it. At once Charles came out again, and left the apartment at a run, without his hat. He was back in a very few minutes with a large package, purchases from a pharmacy, and again closing the bathroom door, ignoring Rosa’s questions, he and Tadeusz got to work on Herr Bussen seriously.

  Rosa turned on Hans, her face quite sodden by then, and still weeping, ordered him back to bed. Hans said, “No, don’t trouble yourself. I am better, I am going out to the clinic now.”

  “You will make yourself worse,” wept Rosa.

  “No, you may be surprised, I shall be quite all right,” said Hans, coolly, leaving.

  Herr Bussen, eased, soothed, cleansed, safe in bed with an ice cap on his brow, the object of all attention from his three new friends, lay in bitter, ungrateful silence. He does not seem to be very pleased with us, thought Charles, and we did a roaring good job, too. Herr Bussen—why did they call him that? He wasn’t more than twenty-four years old—seemed sunken and shame-faced, he kept his eyes closed or turned to the wall, and when Tadeusz came in with hot soup from a restaurant, he shook his head and seemed about to shed tears. Rosa was injured by the sight of the soup, also.

  “You must let me prepare his food,” she said to Tadeusz, “I do not want him poisoned again.” She took away the soup and brought it again freshly hot on an elegant tray. She seemed very subdued and Herr Bussen was melancholy and without appetite.

  Charles, noticing the piles of papers on Herr Bussen’s desk, saw written upon them only endless mathematical calculations which he could recognize but not read. Rosa fidgeted among them, trying to straighten them out. In the hall she said to Charles, “You may not know it, but Herr Bussen is considered, at the University, to be a very brilliant mathematician. He promises to become a very learned man.” She spoke with pride and possessiveness. “If I am annoyed with him at times, it is because he needs someone to teach him good habits. He eats—ah, it is no better than offal. And now he is ashamed because you know—you have found him out in his misery. It is a terrible thing to be poor,” she said, and the tears seemed to come not only from her eyes but from her skin, the tears and the sweat mingled in a stream and covered her face. “What shall we do? What is to become of us?”

  Tadeusz came out and took her by the arm. “Enough of that, Rosa,” he said, shaking her gently. “Now what happened, really? Herr Bussen eats a sardine and makes a nuisance of himself. Go and lie down, we will look after him and not disturb anything.”

  “I am very nervous,” said Rosa, smiling at him gratefully.

  They looked in upon Herr Bussen. He was lying with his arm thrown over his face, quietly, as if the sleeping powders were taking effect. “Come along with me,” said Tadeusz to Charles, “I have an odd spot of brandy, too.”

  Hans came in with his face done up in fresh lint and court plaster, much improved. He refused brandy and said, “Do you suppose we ought to watch him? Do you suppose?”

  “No, I don’t believe it for a minute,” said Tadeusz, after a small pause. “Do you?” he asked Charles.

  “I think he told the truth,” said Charles.

  “Good,” said Hans. “Have one for me,” he said, and closed his door.

  Tadeusz’ narrow room was crowded with an upright piano, and a small silent keyboard which Charles examined, touching stiffly. “I work on that seven hours a day,” said Tadeusz, spreading his hands and turning them about, “and you’d better be grateful. Now the damnation suicide is asleep, I shan’t be able to play any more today. We may as well get drunk,” he said, showing four inch
es of brandy in a bottle. “Seriously, I don’t drink. But if I stayed too long in this place I would.”

  Charles said, “It’s getting me down, too, and I wish I knew why. Compared to really poor people, people I have seen, here and at home, even Herr Bussen is almost rich. Compared to even well-off people, I suppose I’m almost a pauper. But I never felt poor, I never was afraid of it. I always thought that if I really wanted money more than anything else, I could get it. But here—I don’t know. . . everybody seems so crowded, somehow, so worried, and they can’t get their minds off of money for a second.”

  “They lost that war, please don’t forget,” said Tadeusz, running his fingers over the silent keyboard that gave forth an even wooden clatter. “That damages a nation’s personality no end, you know. But I have no sympathy for them, none. And as for feeling crowded, ha, you would have to be a Pole to know what that means. These big fat ugly people,” he said, and he crossed his knees and began torturing his scalp lock. “By God they should be Poles for a while to know what it is to be hungry.”

  “They aren’t all ugly,” said Charles. “Not by a long shot.”

  “Okay,” said Tadeusz, indifferently and his little eyes closed. Charles thought, Well, what should I say? Am I supposed to go into an impassioned defense of the Poles? Or a denunciation of the Germans? He was thinking really of his fleece-lined coat, wondering if it would be good enough to offer to Herr Bussen and how to go about it. Could he just knock at his door and say, “Here is a coat I don’t happen to need?” Or (no, this wouldn’t do), “If you don’t have a coat with you, why not use this one for a while?” There should be some way of doing it decently. He explained to Tadeusz and asked for advice.

  “Oh, never,” said Tadeusz. “You can’t do that. He is very proud and he would be furious as hell. And besides,” Tadeusz swung a foot, “we have to realize that a man’s sufferings are his own, quite often he chooses them to some ends of his own—how do we know? We pity people too often for the wrong reasons. They may not need it or want it at all, you know. Poor Old Bussen, we are able to say, and it makes us feel better, more secure, in our own fortune. Sometimes there are worse things than cold and hunger. Had you thought of that? Do you know him at all, his feelings, or his plan for himself? I think until you do, don’t interfere.”

  “If we hadn’t interfered today, he might be dead by now,” said Charles.

  “We may have made a mistake even so,” said Tadeusz, calmly. “Now we must wait and see. Of course if we could give him money or food without letting him know why we did it, that would be another thing. But we can’t. If you go now after all that has happened and offer him a coat, just like that, why, what can you expect? He would feel like throwing it back at you. A man might accept charity if he did not fear the contempt of the giver. But only good friends can accept or exchange favors. Otherwise it doesn’t do.” Tadeusz stood up and walked about quickly, bent at the waist and peering at Charles. “Dear fellow, don’t mind if I say, you Americns have some very odd notions. Why all this benevolence? What do you expect to gain by it?”

  Charles said, “I wouldn’t gain anything by it, and I would expect to lose a coat. But I don’t need the coat,” he said, “and so far as I am concerned that would be the end of it.”

  “You sound morally indignant,” said Tadeusz. He paused before Charles and smiled. “Don’t get mad, you hear how well I speak American? You would gain from it the pride in being able to give a coat. And Herr Bussen would be warm, but he would owe his coat to the charity of a stranger, and it might spoil his whole career. Try to understand. I know more about this than you do. If ever I come to your country I will take your advice about Americans.”

  “I don’t believe Americans are so different from other people as all that,” said Charles.

  “Believe me,” said Tadeusz, “you are like beings from another planet to us. Don’t offer a coat to Herr Bussen. He will hate you for it.”

  Charles said, “I can’t believe it really.”

  “If you set yourself up as a benefactor,” said Tadeusz, “you must expect to be hated. Let me tell you something. A very rich man I know wished to give good sums of money to help young musicians. But he went to his lawyer and insisted that the gift must be anonymous; under no circumstances must the giver be known. Well, the lawyer said of course it would be arranged, but it would make work, mystery, why did his client want that? And this very wise man said, ‘I am superstitious and I do not want them to be able to curse me by name.’”

  “Good God,” said Charles, sincerely horrified.

  “Ah, yes, good God,” said Tadeusz, amiably.

  Charles left the coat in his closet, and brought milk and oranges instead to Herr Bussen. Hans was there already, sitting beside the bed offering Herr Bussen more soup.

  The invalid accepted, and swallowed the nourishment as if it were bitter medicine. Charles thought, Yes, it’s true, he isn’t getting any good out of it; and he saw plainly that Herr Bussen felt himself being engulfed slowly in a debt he had no hope of paying. Charles, at the foot of the bed, had a curious scene flash through his mind: Herr Bussen, the object of charity, fleeing like a stag across the snowy waste, with Hans and Tadeusz and Rosa and he, Charles, after him in full cry, bringing him down, by the throat if necessary, to give him aid and comfort. Charles heard the deep mournful voices of his father’s liver-spotted hounds.

  When Rosa brought the coffee tray, one end of it was occupied by an ordinary looking black japanned metal box. She stood, without pouring the coffee, her hands on the table, and said in a low voice, “This hasn’t been a very good day for anybody, I suppose. But I have on my conscience my sharpness to Herr Bussen. I have told him so, and he answered—he answered kindly,” she said. “But I know that you, a stranger, and from a rich country—”

  “The country may be rich,” said Charles, “but most of the people in it are not—”

  “Couldn’t be expected to understand,” Rosa went on, waving his speech away without listening. “Look, I want to show you something, then maybe you will see a little of what has happened to us. Outlanders, all the world, come here with their money—”

  “I tell you I am not rich, for one,” said Charles, hopelessly. She gave him a stare very much like contempt for his lying speech; she knew better. He was the worst kind of rich American, the kind who pretended to be poor. “With their money,” she said, angrily, raising her voice, “and then they think we are cheap because we worry about how we shall live. You despise us because we are ruined and why are we ruined, tell me that? It is because your country deserted and betrayed us in the war, you should have helped us and you did not.” Her voice dropped and became bitter and quiet.

  Charles said in a matter-of-fact, reasoning tone: “All the way over on the boat, the Germans kept telling me that. The truth is, I’ve heard talk about that war all my life, but I hardly remember it. I have to confess I hadn’t thought much about it. If I had, maybe I would never have come here.”

  “You didn’t have to think about it,” said Rosa, “but here, we have nothing else to think about.” She opened the black box. It was full of paper money, thick bales of it in rubber bands, such an amount of printed money as Charles had seen only in glimpses at the elbow of a clerk behind the barred windows of a great bank. Rosa lifted one of the bundles.

  “These are nothing,” she said with affected airiness, “these are only a hundred thousand marks each. . . . Wait.” She lifted another and flirted the edges through her fingers. “These are five hundred thousand marks each—look,” she said, her voice wavering. “One million marks each, these.” She dropped each bundle as she spoke upon the table beside them without glancing up. Terror and awe were in her face, as if again for just a moment, she believed in the value of this paper as she had once believed. “Did you ever see a note for five million marks? Here are a hundred of them, you will never see this again—and oh,” she cried suddenly, in a frenzy of grief, clutching the treacherous stuff with both hands, “
try now to buy a loaf of bread with all this, try it, try it!”

  Her voice rose and she wept shamelessly without hiding her face, her arms hanging loosely, the worthless money dropping to the floor.

  Charles looked about as if he expected help, rescue, to come by miracle. He backed away from her thinking only of escape, saying as well as he could, “I know it is all a horrible business—but, what can I do?”

  This dull question had a remarkable effect. Rosa’s tears dried almost instantly, her voice deepened a note, she spoke with intense anger. “You can do nothing,” she said vehemently, “nothing, you know nothing at all, you cannot even imagine—”

  Charles picked up the money from the carpet, and Rosa began placing the stiff pale colored bundles again in the box, carefully, arranging them first one way and another, stopping now and then to squeeze the end of her nose with her thin little handkerchief. “Nothing to say, nothing to be done,” she repeated, giving him a resentful look as if he had failed her, a look as personal and angry as if she were a member of his family, or at least a familiar friend, or—what on earth was Rosa to him? A middle-aged stranger who had rented him a room, someone he had expected to see and speak to perhaps once a week, and here she was, swarming all over him, weeping on his neck, telling her troubles, putting the blame for the troubles of the world on him, driving him nuts, and no way that he could see of getting out of it. She closed the box and leaned her hands on the table. “When you are so poor,” she said, “you are frightened of the poor and unfortunate. I was frightened of Herr Bussen—no, I almost hated him. I thought every day, ‘My God, such a man will bring bad luck on us all, he will drag us all down with him.’” She spoke in a very low tone. “But today, it came to me that Herr Bussen will live through everything, he is strong, he is not really afraid. And that is a comfort to me, because I am afraid of everything.”

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