The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  She poured the coffee, took up the japanned box and went out.

  The household settled down that night for a good sleep. What a relief, thought Charles, to put a long quiet stretch of darkness between you and the thing that happened. Suppose Old Bussen had popped off? He felt warmly towards Old Bussen, who was still breathing—snoring, in fact, in long rich groans, as if he couldn’t breathe hard enough.

  When Charles put his head in to look at Herr Bussen the next morning, two rawboned solemn youths with identical leather-colored forelocks were sitting with him, one on the bed, one on the spindling chair. They turned and gazed at the stranger with profound blue eyes exactly alike, and Herr Bussen, looking very well and merry, introduced them. Twin brothers, he said, school friends of his, who were at that moment on the point of fulfilling a life’s ambition. On New Year’s Eve they were going to open a small cabaret of their own, a snug little half-cellar with the best beer, a supper table and pretty girls who could sing and dance. Nothing big, but a good place, and Herr Bussen hoped Charles would go with him to celebrate the first evening. Charles said it sounded a fine idea to him, and thought perhaps Hans and Tadeusz would like to go, too. The brothers eyed him without a flicker of expression.

  Herr Bussen sat up as if he had new life in him. “Oh, yes, we will all go together.” The brothers stood up to giant heights, and one of them said, “It will not be expensive, either.” As if being able to give this piece of good news was pleasant to him, he grinned broadly and reassuringly at Charles, who grinned in turn. He said to Herr Bussen, “I’m going out. Could I bring you anything?”

  “Oh, no,” said Herr Bussen, firmly, shaking his head with a small glitter of resentment in his eye. “Thank you, nothing at all. I’m getting up now.”

  At the foot of the shallow flight of steps leading to the new cabaret, a dish of food scraps had been set out for the hungry small animals. A black cat was there, eating very fast, glancing nervously over his shoulder as he swallowed. One of the twins put his head out, invited his four visitors in festively, noticed the cat and said ritually, “May it do him good.” He threw open the door to disclose a small, freshly painted, well-lighted little place, full of tables covered with red checkerboard cloths, a modest bar, and at the farther end, a long table set out with cold supper. It could all be seen at a glance. There was a homemade air about the colored paper decorations, the feathery tinsel draped above the bar mirror, the rack full of steins and the small cuckoo clock.

  It was hardly Charles’ notion of a Berlin cabaret; he had heard about Berlin night life and expected something more sophisticated. He remarked as much to Tadeusz.

  “Oh, no,” said Tadeusz, “this is another kind of thing altogether. This is going to be nice-stuffy-middle-class-German full of rosy emotions and beer. You could bring your most innocent child here if you had an innocent child.” He seemed pleased, and so did Hans and Herr Bussen: they walked about and praised everything the brothers had done. All of them were pleasantly excited because none of them had ever known anyone who ran a cabaret, and they enjoyed a cozy feeling of being on the inside of things for once. Almost immediately they began calling Herr Bussen by his first name. Tadeusz began it.

  “Otto, dear fellow, could you give me a light?” he asked, and Otto, who did not smoke, blushed with pleasure and felt in his pockets as if he expected to find matches.

  They were the first comers. As the brothers went on about their last-minute business, rushing back and forth through the swinging door leading to the kitchen, Otto led the way to the supper table, where they helped themselves comfortably but carefully, for at close range there was an air of thrift about the food, as if the cheese and sausages had been counted and the bread weighed, perhaps. A boy in a white jacket brought them tall steins of beer; they lifted them to each other, waved them at the brothers, and drank long and deeply.

  “In Munich,” said Tadeusz, “I used to drink with a crowd of music students, all Germans. We drank and drank, and the man who had to leave the table first paid for all. I always paid. It was a bore, really.”

  “A dull custom at best,” commented Hans, “and of course the kind of thing foreigners would notice and tell about, as if it were typical.” His face was quietly annoyed, he looked past Tadeusz, who refused to be snubbed.

  “I have already agreed with you it was a bore,” he said, “and after all, only an incident of life in Munich.” His tone was soothing, indulgent, a little insolent. Charles, observing, thought with some slight surprise that these fellows did not like each other, after all. And almost instantly he felt indifference tinged with dislike for them both, and an uneasy feeling that he was in the wrong company; he wished pretty thoroughly he had not come to that place with them.

  One of the brothers leaned over them with his open, singleminded expression, calling their attention to newcomers. A stupidly handsome young man with a careful thatch of curls above a self-consciously god-like brow was helping an oliveskinned, yellow-haired young woman with her wraps. “A star in the moving pictures,” whispered the brother, excitedly, “and that girl is his mistress and his leading lady.” He dived towards his celebrities awkwardly, saw them settled and was back in a moment. “There comes Lutte, a model, one of the most beautiful girls in Berlin,” he said, his voice throbbing. “She is going to dance a rumba when the time comes.”

  They all turned in natural curiosity and saw indeed a very beautiful slender girl, her head shining like a silver yellow peony above her rather skimpy black dress. She smiled and waved her hand at them, they stood up and bowed, but she did not approach them as they had hoped. Leaning on the bar, she talked to the boy in the white jacket. The room filled then rather rapidly, there was a rush for the long table and the brothers, flushed with success, beamed and scurried with trays and steins. A small orchestra moved into the space beside the bar.

  Almost every guest, Charles noticed, had brought a musical instrument, a violin or flute or white piano accordion, a clarinet; and one man lumbered in under the burden of a violoncello in a green baize-covered case. A young woman with huge haunches and thick legs, a knot of sleek brown hair slipping upon her unpowdered neck, came in by herself, looked around with a vague smile which no one returned, and went behind the bar, where she began competently to set up trays of beer.

  “There you see her,” said Hans, looking at Lutte possessively, “the truest type of German beauty—tell me, have you seen anything better anywhere?”

  “Oh, come now,” said Tadeusz, mildly, “there aren’t a half dozen like her in this town. The legs and feet, surely they aren’t typical? She might have French blood, or even a little Polish,” he said. “Only she is perhaps a little flat-bosomed for that.”

  “What you seem never to understand,” said Hans, in a slightly edged voice, “is that when I say German I don’t mean peasants or these fat Berliners.”

  “Perhaps we should always mean peasants when we speak of a race,” said Tadeusz. “The nobility and the royalty are always mixed bloods, the complete mongrel, really, they have no nationality at all. Even the middle classes marry everywhere, but the peasant stays in his own region and marries his own kind, generation after generation, and creates the race, quite simply, as I see it.”

  “The trouble with that notion,” said Hans, “is that the peasantry of almost any country looks quite like the peasantry of any other.”

  “Oh, superficially,” said Otto. “Their heads are very different, if you will study them.” He leaned forward earnestly. “No matter how it came about,” he told them, “the true great old Germanic type is lean and tall and fair as gods.” His forehead formed a deep wrinkle which sank to a meaty cleft between his brows. His small puffy eyes swam tenderly, the roll of fat across his collar flushed with emotion. “We are not by any means all the pig type,” he said humbly, spreading his thick hands, “though I know the foreign caricaturists make us all appear so. Those were perhaps the old Wendish people, and after all, they were a single tribe, they are not of t
he old true great Germanic—”

  “Type,” finished Tadeusz, mildly rude. “Let’s agree then, the Germans are all of the highest type of beauty and they have preposterously fine manners. Look at all the heel-clicking and bowing from the waist and elegant high-toned voices. And how polite and smiling a seven-foot policeman can be when he is getting ready to crack your skull open. I have seen it. No, Hans, you have a great culture here, no doubt, but I think no civilization. You will be the last race on earth to be civilized, but does it matter?”

  “On the other hand,” said Hans with extreme politeness, smiling, a cold gleam in his eye, “the Poles, if you like that high-cheeked, low-browed Tartar style, have also great physical beauty, and though they have contributed exactly nothing to world-culture, they are civilized in a medieval sort of way, I suppose.”

  “Thanks,” said Tadeusz, turning towards Hans as if to show his flat cheeks and narrow high forehead. “One of my grandmothers was a Tartar, and you can see how typical I am.”

  “One of your grandfathers was an Austrian, too,” said Otto; “I’d never think of you as a Pole. You seem to me an Austrian.”

  “Oh, by God, I can’t have that,” said Tadeusz, decidedly, and he laughed with his lips tightly closed. “No, no, I’ll be a Tartar first. But I am a Pole just the same.”

  Charles had never seen any Poles except a few short-legged broad-faced men laying railroad ties somewhere in the South, and he would not have known they were Poles unless someone had told him, and the man called them Polacks, besides. He could make nothing of Tadeusz, but Hans and Otto both seemed persons he had known before; Texas was full of boys like Otto, and Hans reminded him of Kuno. It seemed to him that the discussion was getting nowhere, and it reminded him of quarrels during his schooldays between the German boys and Mexican boys and the Kentucky boys; the Irish boys fought everybody, and Charles, who was partly Irish, remembered that he had done a good deal of fighting in which all sight of the original dispute had been lost in the simple love of violence. He said, “All the way over on the boat the Germans kept telling me I was not a typical American. How could they know? Of course I am perfectly typical.”

  “Oh, not at all,” said Tadeusz, and this time his good humor was real. “We know all about you. Americans are all cowboys or very rich, and when they are rich they get drunk in poor countries and paste thousand-franc notes on their suitcases, or light cigarettes with them—”

  “Oh, God,” said Charles simply. “Who started that story?” Even American tourists went about repeating it with complacent horror, as if to prove they were not that sort of tourist.

  “You know what is the trouble?” asked Tadeusz, amiably. “The Americans we know are all so filthy rich. There is nothing Europeans love and crave and covet more than wealth. If we didn’t believe your country has all the money, there would be nothing wrong with you, particularly.”

  “We’re punch drunk, anyhow,” said Charles. “We don’t give a damn any more.”

  “Europeans hate each other for everything and for nothing; they’ve been trying to destroy each other for two thousand years, why do you Americans expect us to like you?” asked Tadeusz.

  “We don’t expect it,” said Charles. “Who said we did? We, naturally, like just everybody. We are sentimental. Just like the Germans. You want to be loved for yourselves alone and you are always right and you can never see why other people can’t see you in the same rosy light you see yourselves. Look what a glorious people you are and yet nobody loves you. Well, that’s a great pity.”

  Otto gazed earnestly at Charles from under his deep brows, wagged his head and said, “I do not think you really like anybody, you Americans. You are indifferent to everybody and so it is easy for you to be gay, to be careless, to seem friendly. You are really a coldhearted indifferent people. You have no troubles. You have no troubles because you do not know how to have them. Even if you get troubles, you think it is just a package meant for the people next door, delivered to you by mistake. That is what I really believe.”

  Charles, embittered, said, “I can’t talk about whole countries because I never knew one, not even my own. I only know a few persons here and there and some I like and some I don’t like and I never thought it anything but a personal matter. . . .”

  Tadeusz said, “Oh, dear fellow, that is being much too modest. The whole art of self-importance is to raise your personal likes and dislikes to the plane of moral or esthetic principle, and to apply on an international scale your smallest personal experience. . . . If someone steps on your foot, you should not rest until you have raised an army to avenge you. . . . And as for us, what are we doing with our evening? At this rate I shall have indigestion. . . .”

  “What about our friends the French?” asked Hans, suddenly. “Can anyone find fault with them? Their food, their wine, their dress, their manners—” he lifted his stein and drank without enjoyment, and added—“a race of monkeys.”

  “They have very bad manners,” said Tadeusz, “and they would cut you into ribbons with a dull pair of scissors for five francs in hand. A shortsighted and selfish people, and how I love them. But not as I do the English. Take the English—”

  “Take the Italians,” said Charles, “all of them.”

  “Nothing worth mentioning since Dante,” said Tadeusz. “I detest their lumpy Renaissance.”

  “Now that’s settled,” said Charles, “let’s take the pigmies, or the Icelanders, or the head hunters of Borneo—”

  “I love them all,” cried Tadeusz, “especially the Irish. I like the Irish because they are nearly as damnation patriotic as the Poles.”

  “I was brought up on Irish patriotism,” said Charles. “My mother’s name was O’Hara, and I was supposed to be proud of it, but you have a tough time being proud if you are called Harp and Potato Mouth at school where the others are all Scotch Presbyterians or of English descent.”

  Tadeusz said, “What nonsense,” and he began to talk pleasantly and quietly about the great ancient Celtic race, slyly too, aiming at Hans; praising their ancient culture of which traces were found in all parts of Europe. “Yes, even the Germans have been improved by it,” he said. Hans and Otto shook their heads, but their anger seemed to have disappeared, their faces smoothed and their eyes met openly once more. Charles was soothed and flattered to find Irish greatness acknowledged at last by somebody other than his immediate family. He said to Tadeusz, “My father used to tell me, ‘Ah, the Irish, my boy. God knows they went down early in time, but don’t forget this, they had a great national culture when the British were still painting themselves blue, and the old French used to exchange scholars with them!’”

  Tadeusz translated this to Hans and Otto, and Hans laughed so suddenly he put his hand to his cheek with a grimace. “Be careful,” said Tadeusz, looking at the wound as he always did, with an air of clinical interest, which he knew Hans liked. Charles went on to say he had never seen such a statement in any history books, which seemed very vague about the Irish until they began fighting with the British. By that time, the books said in effect, they were just a lot of wild bog-jumpers. He had felt sorry for his father, trying to wring a drop of comfort out of the myth of his splendid past, but the usual run of histories on the subject hadn’t borne him out. He was pleased to think he had simply got hold of the wrong books.

  “They are very like the Poles,” said Tadeusz, “those Irish, living on the glory of their past, on their poetry and the jeweled Book of Kells and the great cups and crowns of ancient Ireland, the memories of victories and defeats godlike in intensity, the hope of rising again to glory: and in the meantime,” he added, “always fighting quite a lot and very unsuccessfully.”

  Hans leaned forward and spoke with importance, as if he were a professor addressing his class: “The fate of Ireland (and of Poland, too, Tadeusz, don’t forget) is an example, a most terrible example, of what can happen to a country when it divides against itself and lets the enemy in. . . the Irish, so nationalistic at th
is late day, are yet divided. What do they expect? They could have saved themselves in early time by uniting and attacking the enemy, instead of waiting to be attacked.”

  Tadeusz reminded him, “Hans, that does not always work either,” but Hans ignored the little gibe.

  Charles, ill-informed as he was, floundering in the quicksands of popular history, could not answer, yet the whole notion was offensive to him. “But why jump on a man unless he jumps first?”

  Hans, the youthful oracle, was ready. “Why, because he always attacks when you are not looking, or when you have put down your arms for an instant. So you are punished for carelessness really, for not troubling to learn the intentions of your enemy. You are beaten, and that is the end of you, unless you can gather strength and fight again.”

  “The Celts aren’t ended,” said Tadeusz; “they exist in great numbers and are scattered all over and still have influence everywhere they touch.”

  “Influence?” asked Hans. “A purely oblique, feminine, worthless thing, influence. Power, pure power is what counts to a nation or a race. You must be able to tell other peoples what to do, and above all what they may not do, you must be able to enforce every order you give against no matter what opposition, and when you demand anything at all, it must be given you without question. That is the only power, and power is the only thing of any value or importance in this world.”

  “It doesn’t last, though, any better than some other things,” said Tadeusz. “It doesn’t always work as well as long ruse and intelligent strategy. It goes down in the long run.”

  “Maybe it goes down because powerful people get tired of power,” said Otto, leaning his head on his hand and looking discouraged; “maybe they wear themselves out beating other people and spying on them and ordering them about and robbing them. Maybe they exhaust themselves.”

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