The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “And maybe one day they overstep themselves, or a new young power rises to put an end to them,” said Tadeusz; “that happens.”

  “Maybe they find out it doesn’t pay,” said Charles.

  “It always pays,” said Hans; “that is the point. It pays, and nothing else does. Everything else is childish beside it. Otto, you surprise me. That is a strange point of view for you.”

  Otto sagged, guilty and uncomfortable. “I am not a soldier,” he said. “I love study and quiet.”

  Hans sat very stiffly, an alienated hostile glitter in his eyes. He turned halfway to Charles and said, “We Germans were beaten in the last war, thanks partly to your great country, but we shall win in the next.”

  A chill ran down Charles’ spine, he shrugged his shoulders. They were all a little drunk, there might be a row if they didn’t pull themselves together. He did not want to quarrel with anybody, nor to fight the war over again. “We were all in short pants when that war was ended,” he said. Hans answered instantly, “Ah, yes, but we will all be in uniforms for the next.”

  Tadeusz said, “Oh, come now, dear Hans, I never felt less bloodthirsty in my life. I only want to play the piano.”

  “I want to paint,” said Charles.

  “I want to teach mathematics,” said Otto.

  “Neither am I bloodthirsty,” said Hans, “but I know what will happen.” His cheek, under its band of court plaster, was slightly more swollen than earlier in the evening. The fingers of his left hand explored tenderly along the line of angry blue flesh. He said, in a bright impersonal tone, “Look, it is most interesting to remember one thing. We should have won that war, and we lost it in the first three days, though we did not know it, or could not believe it, for four years. What was the cause? One single delayed order, one sole failure of a body of troops to move at a given moment, on that first advance through Belgium. A delay of three days lost us that war. Well, it won’t happen the next time.”

  “No,” said Tadeusz, gently, “the next time, there will be another kind of mistake, something else quite different will go wrong, who knows how or why? It is always like that. Wars are not won by intelligence, Hans. Can’t you see that? All the fine planning in the world can’t insure an army against that one fellow who will, when the moment comes, delay, or give the wrong order, or be in the wrong place. Why, the other side did nothing but blunder all the way through, and yet they won, that time.”

  “Sea power,” said Charles, “good old sea power. I bet on that. It wins in the long run.”

  “Carthage was a sea power, but she didn’t beat Rome,” said Otto.

  “The next time,” said Hans, with cool stubbornness, “they won’t win. You’ll see. The next time, there will be no mistakes on our side.”

  “I can wait,” said Tadeusz, “I am in no hurry.”

  “I can wait, all right,” said Charles, “and meantime, let me get the beer.”

  The orchestra, increased by the efforts of guests with their fiddles, flutes and the violoncello, had been making a fine din, so that the four voices had been rising gradually. “Let’s give it up for the present,” said Tadeusz; “it can’t be settled this evening.”

  The actor and his mistress were gone, and Lutte remained the only beauty in the room. She was sitting with several young men and another girl at a table near by, all drinking beer heartily, laughing constantly and falling into each other’s arms at intervals for embraces and smacks on the cheek, the boys kissing boys or girls alike with indiscriminate warmth. Lutte caught Charles’ glance and waved her beer glass at him. He waved back and smiled excitedly. She was a knockout and he hoped quite violently to know her better. And even at that moment, like the first symptoms of some fatal sickness, there stirred in him a most awful premonition of disaster, and his thoughts, blurred with drink and strangeness and the sound of half-understood tongues and the climate of remembered wrongs and hatreds, revolved dimly around vague remembered tales of Napoleon and Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun and all the Caesars and Alexander the Great and Darius and the dim Pharaohs and lost Babylon. He felt helpless, undefended, looked at the three strange faces near him and decided not to drink any more, for he must not be drunker than they; he trusted none of them.

  Otto, leaving his beer, wandered away, and one of the brothers handed him a white piano accordion as he passed. The change in Otto was miraculous. From soggy gloom his face turned to a great mask of simple enjoyment, he took up the tune the orchestra was playing and roamed among the tables, the instrument folding and unfolding in his arms, his blunt fingers flying over the keys. In a fine roaring voice he began to sing:

  “Ich armes welsches Teufelein

  Ich kann nicht mehr marschieren—”

  “MARSCHIEREN!” roared every voice in the place, joyously. “Ich kann nicht mehr marschier’n.”

  Otto sang:

  “Ich hab’ verlor’n mein Pfeiflein

  Aus meinen Mantelsack—”

  “’SACK!” yelled the chorus, “Aus meinen Mantelsack.”

  Hans stood up and sang in a clear light voice: “Ich hab’, ich hab’ gefunden, was du verloren hast—”

  “HAST!” bawled the chorus, and everybody was standing now, their laughing faces innocent and pure as lambs at play, “was du verloren hast.”

  There was a great wave of laughter after this, and the orchestra suddenly changed to “The Peanut Vendor.” Lutte, with a serious face as if she were fulfilling her duty, stood up and began to dance alone, something supposed no doubt to be a rumba, but to Charles, it seemed rather a combination of the black bottom and the hoochy-coochy such as he had seen, sneaking off furtively with other boys, in carnival sideshows during his innocent boyhood in Texas. He had danced the rumba to the tune of “The Peanut Vendor” all the way from his home town, across the Atlantic and straight into Bremen harbor, and it occurred to him that here was something he could really do. He took the gourds from the quiet little fellow who was clacking them rather feebly, and began to do his version of the rumba, shaking the gourds and cracking them together with great authority.

  He could hear hands clapping in rhythm all over the room, and Lutte, abandoning her solo, began to dance with him. He handed back the gourds at once and took Lutte firmly around her warm, agitated waist, very thinly covered. She held her face back from him stiffly, smiled with a fair imitation of a cinematic femme fatale, and rather clumsily but with great meaning bumped her hip against him. He gathered her in, folded her up to him as close as he could, but she stiffened again and bumped him, this time full in the stomach. “What say we give up the technique and let nature take its course,” said Charles, with a straight face.

  “What is that?” she asked, unexpectedly in English. “I do not understand.”

  “Well,” said Charles, kissing her on the cheek, “it speaks English too.” She did not kiss back, but went limp and began to dance naturally.

  “Am I as beautiful as that moving picture actress who was here this evening?” asked Lutte, wistfully.

  “At least,” said Charles.

  “Would I do for the moving pictures in America, in your Hollywood?” she asked, leaning upon him.

  “Don’t bump,” said Charles. “Yes, you would do fine in Hollywood.”

  “Do I dance well enough?” asked Lutte.

  “Yes, darling, you do. You are a whizz.”

  “What is that?”

  “Something wonderful,” said Charles. “Come to me, angel.”

  “Do you know anybody in Hollywood?” asked Lutte, sticking firmly to her one interest.

  “No, but you might,” said Charles; “all Germany and Central Europe are there already; you’d be bound to run into friends. Anyway you won’t be lonesome long.”

  Lutte put her mouth like a ripe peach to his ear and blowing warmly upon it whispered, “Take me to America with you.”

  “Let’s go,” said Charles, and seizing her more firmly he ran a few steps towards the door. She held back. “No, I am serious,
I want to go to America.”

  “So do I,” said Charles, recklessly, “so does everybody.”

  “That is not true,” said Lutte, severely, almost stopping in her tracks. At this moment Hans cut in. Charles sat down feeling cheated. Lutte’s manner changed completely. She melted towards Hans, they danced slowly and as they danced, she kissed him softly and continually and gently on his right cheek, her mouth meek and sweet, her eyes nearly closed. Over Hans’ disfigured face came that same look of full-fed pride, of composed self-approval—of arrogance, that was the word. Charles felt a flicker of sharp hatred for Hans. Then it passed. “Hell,” he said, aloud, yet to no one, “what of it?”

  “I think so too,” said Tadeusz, “I think, hell, what of it?”

  “Let’s have some brandy,” said Charles. Otto was sitting quietly, he roused and smiled.

  “What a fine evening!” he said. “We are all friends, are we not?”

  “Completely,” said Tadeusz, “we are all friends to you, Otto.” He had grown quieter and softer in his gestures, his eyes peered vaguely between his wrinkled lids, his little tight smile was constant. “I am getting damnation drunk, and my conscience will begin hurting soon,” he said, contentedly. Then the others, listening dimly, heard him telling some story about his childhood in Cracow. “. . . in the old house where my family have lived since the twelfth century. . .” he said. “At Easter we ate only pork in contempt of the Jews, and after the long fasting of Lent naturally we gorged ourselves shamelessly. . . . On Easter morning after High Mass I would eat until I was perfectly round, and in pain. Then I would lie down and cry, and when they asked me what troubled me, I would say, out of shame, that my conscience was hurting me. They would be very respectful and comfort me, but sometimes I thought I saw a gleam in an eye, or just a flash of a look on a face—not my mother’s, but my sister’s, perhaps—she was a horrid, knowing little thing—and my nurse’s. One day my nurse gave me some soothing syrup and rubbed my stomach with that insulting false sympathy and said, ‘There now, your conscience feels better, doesn’t it?’ I went howling and told my mother that my nurse had kicked me in the stomach. Then I upchucked all my Easter pork, so the Jews had their revenge for once. My nurse said, ‘What a little monster it is’; then she and my mother talked in the next room, and when they came back smiling I knew the game was up. I never mentioned my conscience again to them. But once after I was grown up, or nearly, I was very drunk and came home at four in the morning, and I crawled upstairs because it seemed unreasonable, this business of people walking about on their hind legs all the time. The red stair carpet gave me a sense of great security and ease, and I remember feeling that I was a kind of prophet of good for mankind, restoring an old way of locomotion which would probably revolutionize all society once I had proved its pleasures and possibilities. The first obstacle I encountered was my mother. She stood at the head of the stairs holding a lighted candle, waiting without a word. I waved one paw at her but she did not respond. And when I put my head above the last step she kicked me under the chin and almost knocked me out. She never mentioned this incident and I could hardly believe it myself except for my sore tongue the next day. Well, such was my upbringing in that old city, but I remember it dearly now, something between a cemetery and a Lost Paradise, with an immense sound of bells. . . .”

  Otto said, “Maybe we should have some beer,” and with a sad mouth he talked a little about his own childhood. His mother had beaten him quite hard one day, without warning, when he was cracking walnuts and eating them. With tears he had asked her why, and she said, “Don’t ask me any questions. What is good enough for Martin Luther is good enough for you.” And later in a child’s book he had read how Luther’s mother had beaten him until the blood came because he annoyed her with the sound of cracking nuts. “Until then I had thought of Luther as a great, forbidding cruel man who loved bloodshed, but after that I felt sorry for him. He was once a poor helpless child like me, beaten for nothing,” Otto said, “and yet he became great.” His face was full of humble apology. “That was child’s nonsense, but it helped me to live,” he said.

  The drifting smoke and the lights and the voices and the music were all mingled and swimming together around their heads. The big young woman who had been helping at the bar came then, her knot of hair slipping still further down her neck, and seemed to be pulling chairs and tables towards the wall. Her fine haunches jiggled under her tight skirt, her great breasts were stretching and falling as she raised and lowered her arms, her heavy legs were braced far apart as she pushed at a table. The men sitting about watched her without moving or offering help. Charles observed another change in Otto. He was watching the girl intently, his mouth moistening. He seemed lost in a pleasant daze, his nose twitched, his eyes grew round and took on the calculating ferocity of a tomcat’s. The girl leaned over and the hollows of her knees showed; she straightened up and the muscles of her back and shoulders writhed. Slowly, feeling Otto’s gaze upon her, she began to blush. Her neck turned red, her cheeks, her forehead, the whole face stiffened and darkened as if she were resisting pain, or a surge of anger. But the corners of her soft formless mouth were smiling, and she did not raise her eyes again after her first quick glance. Quite suddenly she gave a last plunge at a chair, set it in place with a thump, and ran away, her body full of awkward, contradictory motions. Otto turned to Charles, and showered upon him the remains of his impassioned gaze at the girl.

  “There is a fine armful for you,” he said; “I like big strong girls.” Charles nodded as if he agreed, and looked again at Lutte, still dancing with Hans and kissing him.

  A wooden cuckoo about the size of a humming bird leaped from his little door above the clockface and began his warning note. Instantly everybody rose and each one embraced the person nearest him, shouting, “Happy New Year, health, good luck, happy New Year, God bless you.” Glasses and stems danced aloft in half circles, spilling foam on uplifted faces. A disordered circle formed, arms interlocked, and a ragged singing began which smoothed out almost at once into a deep chorus, the fine voices swinging along together in frolicsome tunes Charles did not know. He swayed with the circle, woven into it, he opened his mouth and sang tunelessly without words. Real joy, warm and careless, swept him away; this was a place to be, these were wonderful people, he liked absolutely everybody there. The circle broke up, ran together, whirled, loosened, fell apart.

  Hans came over smiling on one side of his face, Lutte beside him. They put their arms around Charles together and wished him a happy New Year. He stood there swaying with an arm around each, all jealousy gone. Lutte kissed him sweetly on the mouth, and he kissed back but like a child. Then they all saw Tadeusz leaning over Otto, who was sprawled at the little table, head pillowed on his arms.

  “He’s gone completely, he has deserted us,” said Tadeusz. “Now we must drag him about with us wherever we go for the rest of the evening.”

  “We aren’t going anywhere else, are we,” asked Charles, “for God’s sake?”

  Otto was indeed gone, altogether. They got him up by the arms, and in a busy sort of scramble they found themselves on the sidewalk, with a tall policeman watching mildly, getting into a taxicab, where their feet were tangled hopelessly and they all seemed to hang at once dangerously far out of the windows. Lutte was saying, to all of them alike, “Good night, happy New Year,” her face shining but sober looking.

  On the staircase, Otto collapsed once for all. The three pulled him along slowly, pausing at every step. At moments the whole structure tottered, they would stagger and lose hold of each other and step on Otto, who groaned and howled, but without resentment. They would heave themselves together more firmly and start again, making wild sounds of laughter, nodding at each other as if agreed on some inexplicable but gloriously comic truth. “Let’s crawl,” shouted Charles to Tadeusz; “maybe it will work this time.” Hans disapproved of this instantly.

  “No crawling,” he said, taking command at once. “Every man go
es up on his own feet, except perhaps Otto.” They assembled themselves once more for a last effort, and arrived at the door known to be theirs.

  Rosa’s door was ajar slightly, a streak of light shining into the hall. They regarded it with sobering gloom, expecting the door to fly open and Rosa to rush forth scolding. Nothing happened. They changed their tactics, and dragging Otto, they rushed her door, beating on it in tattoo and shouting recklessly, “Happy New Year, Roslein, Roslein, happy New Year.”

  There was a small flurry inside, the door opened a few inches more, and Rosa put out a sleek, orderly head. Her eyes were a little pink and sleepy looking, but she was smiling a gay, foxy smile. Her pensioners were most lordly drunk, she saw at a glance, none the worse for it, thank God. Hans’ cheek was discolored somewhat more, but he was laughing, Charles and Tadeusz were quieter, trying to appear sober and responsible, but their eyelids drooped, they leered drolly. The three were supporting Herr Bussen between them, and Herr Bussen, hanging at random, his knees bent, had a blissful innocent confidence in his sleeping face.

  “Happy New Year, you owls,” said Rosa, proud of her household who knew how to celebrate an occasion. “I had champagne too, with friends, and New Year’s punch. I am a little merry too,” she told them, boasting. “Go to sleep now, look, this is the New Year. You must start it well tomorrow. Good night.”

  Charles sat on the feather bed and wriggled out of his clothes, pushing them off any old way and leaving them where they fell. As he fumbled with his pajamas, his eyes swam about in his head, seeing first one thing and then another, but none of it familiar, nothing that was his. He did notice at last that the Leaning Tower seemed to be back, sitting now safely behind the glass of the corner cabinet. By a roundabout way he brought himself across the room to the Tower. It was there, all right, and it was mended pretty obviously, it would never be the same. But for Rosa, poor old woman, he supposed it was better than nothing. It stood for something she had, or thought she had, once. Even all patched up as it was, and worthless to begin with, it meant something to her, and he was still ashamed of having broken it; it made him feel like a heel. It stood there in its bold little frailness, as if daring him to come on; how well he knew that a thumb and forefinger would smash the thin ribs, the mended spots would fall at a breath. Leaning, suspended, perpetually ready to fall but never falling quite, the venturesome little object—a mistake in the first place, a whimsical pain in the neck, really, towers shouldn’t lean in the first place; a curiosity, like those cupids falling off the roof—yet had some kind of meaning in Charles’ mind. Well, what? He tousled his hair and rubbed his eyes and then his whole head and yawned himself almost inside out. What had the silly little thing reminded him of before? There was an answer if he could think what it was, but this was not the time. But just the same, there was something terribly urgent at work, in him or around him, he could not tell which. There was something perishable but threatening, uneasy, hanging over his head or stirring angrily, dangerously, at his back. If he couldn’t find out now what it was that troubled him so in this place, maybe he would never know. He stood there feeling his drunkenness as a pain and a weight on him, unable to think clearly but feeling what he had never known before, an infernal desolation of the spirit, the chill and the knowledge of death in him. He wrapped his arms across his chest and expelled his breath, and a cold sweat broke out all over him. He went towards the bed and fell upon it and rolled himself into a knot, being rather unpleasant with himself. “All you need is a crying jag to make it complete,” he said. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself, and no crying jag or any other kind of jag would ever, in this world, do anything at all for him.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via OnlineBooks