Ship of Fools

This is the first of two episodes to be drawn from KATHERINE ANNE PORTER’S forthcoming novel, No Safe Harbor, which will appear under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint. No Safe Harbor, Miss Porter writes us, “began as a diary kept on hoard ship on my first trip to Europe in 1931. Little by little it began to turn itself into a story, by that mysterious process which I cannot explain, but which I recognize when it begins, and I no along with it out of a kind of curiosity, as if my mind which knows the facts is watching to see what my story-telling mind will finally make of them.” Miss Porter is regarded as one of the masters of the short story, and her collections Flowering judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider have become classics in our time.


VERA CRUZ-BREMERILAVEN, August, 1931. Though it was still broad daylight, the August sun, dipping into the far horizon, threw a burning track of light over the waters which ran like oil in the wake of the ship. The ladies of trade appeared on deck in identical black lace evening gowns, their fine smooth backs gleaming to the belt, their jeweled sandals flashing. They paced about slowly, and came face to face with the two priests who were pacing slowly also, their dark trap mouths locked, their relentless eyes fixed on their breviaries. The ladies bowed respectfully, the fathers ignored or perhaps did not see them. William Denny followed them at a safe distance once around, pausing now and then to appear interested in something in the depths of the sea, his Adam’s apple bobbing ever so slightly. The bride and groom sat together in their extended chairs, watching the sunset in silence, their eyes tranced and mystified, their hands clasped lightly.

The Indian nurse brought the newly born baby to his mother, who received him rather helplessly in her inexperienced arms. Frau Kittersdorf, passing, took the liberty of a true woman who, though childless herself, and never ceasing to be thankful for it, still appreciated intuitively the glorious martyrdom of motherhood as enjoyed by others. With a smile of intimate sympathy for the mother, she dropped silently on her knees to adore the divine mystery of life for a few seconds, admiring his feathery eyebrows and the tender mouth, the complexion to the last degree enviable. His mother looked on with a formal, unwilling smile, thinking her son was spoiled enough already, she wished people would let him alone; remembering how he woke and yelled in the night and pulled on her like a pig when she was tired to tears and wanted only to sleep.

“Such a splendid man-child,” said Frau Rittersdorf. “Is he your first?”

“Ah, yes,” said the mother, and there was a shade of terror in her face.

“A fine beginning,” said Frau Rittersdorf, “a perfect little general. El Generalissimo, in fact!” She had been told by her German friends that every second male Mexican was a general, or intended to be, or called himself one, at least.

The mother could not, after all, quite resist the flattery, however crude, however German in its style. El Generalissimo indeed! How vulgar; still, she knew her child was superb, she loved to hear him praised, even in Spanish with such an atrocious accent. Somehow Frau Rittersdorf led the talk from infant to mother; began to speak pretty good French, which delighted the Mexican woman, who prided herself on her command of that language. Frau Rittersdorf learned with great satisfaction that Madame was the wife of an attaché in the Mexican Embassy in Paris, she was even now on her way there to join her husband; it had been impossible—“Well, you can see why,”said the mother — for her to accompany him. Frau Rittersdorf was soothed in her highest social sense to find a lady in diplomatic circles among the passengers; there would be someone to associate with, after all. Señora Esperón y Chavez de Ortega for her part rapidly seemed to sink in mood, to become a touch distrait, perhaps only natural in her situation. El Generalissimo opened his eyes, waved his fists and yawned divinely in Frau Rittersdorf’s face. His mother frowned just perceptibly and pleaded, “Oh, please don’t wake him. He has only just got to sleep. If you could imagine the trouble we have with him — colic and all!”

Copyright 1956, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mas. All rights reserved.

Feeling slightly rebuffed, Frau Rittersdorf rose instantly and took her leave with such exaggerated politeness it hardly stopped short of rudeness. The little Mexican woman was, after all, probably not particularly intelligent, perhaps not even particularly well-bred. It was rather difficult to judge the standards of the dark races; even Don Pedro in Mexico, whose failure to ask for her hand in marriage after what had seemed irreversible overtures — was there not something sinister in his nature? And yet —could it have been the fact of his owning a great brewery? — he had at times seemed to her so human, so Germanized, she had been quite lulled and led astray. She walked on faster, shaking her head.


HERR LöWENTHAL, who had been put at a small table by himself, hung around watchfully for a while first in the salon, then the bar, then out on deck, wandering and disturbed; but no one spoke to him and he therefore spoke to nobody. He peered here and there at even face that passed, a quick glance and away, trying to pass unobserved himself, yet hoping to see one of his own people. It was hardly to be believed, in all his life it had never happened to him, but here it was, the thing he feared most was upon him: there was not another Jew on the whole ship. Not one. A German ship, going back to Germany, and not a Jew on board besides himself. Oh, how could such a thing have happened? Instantly his pangs of instinctive uneasiness mounted to positive fright, accompanied by a cold hostility to the whole alien world of the Goyim, so deep and pervasive it was like a movement of his blood; and his courage came back on this tide, incomplete, wavering, but bringing its own sense of restored good health of the mind. He made the rounds once more, this time with a bolder eye and a well-composed air which concealed his little worry — but no, of course, why look any longer? If there had been another, they would have seated him at the same table. They would have spotted each other before now. Well, there would be nobody to talk to, but it wouldn’t cost him anything to be friendly with these people; he intended to get along as well as possible on the voyage. He sat down in the bar near a rather decent-looking pair of middle-aged fat persons with a white bulldog at their feet, thinking that if they spoke to him he might pass half an hour in some sort of sociability — better than nothing, and that was barely all it could be. But he never liked to speak to Gentiles first, and they did not turn their heads his way. After two beers he decided he was tired, ready for bed. The cabin was empty except for the other passenger’s luggage. Herr Löwenthal put his sample case out of the way, laid out his modest toilet articles, put on his phylacteries, and climbed into the upper berth and said his prayers, wondering what sort of cabin mate he had. Perhaps the fellow would be quite pleasant. After all, in a business way at least, he had known some very decent Gentiles. Maybe this would be one. He lay there with the light on, unable to go to sleep, waiting and watching for what sort of man would open the door. At last, at the sound of entry, he lifted his head eagerly. '‘Grüss Gott,” he said, almost before he got a glimpse of the man.

Herr Richer stopped short. Almost instantly a deep look of repulsion set itself upon his snubby features; he drew his brows down and pursed his lips. “Good evening,” he said, with immense cold finality.

Herr Löwenthal fell back upon his pillow, knowing the worst as if he had always known it. “My God, the luck! and for such a long voyage,” he mourned inwardly. “And yes, there is no doubt, he looks like a pig even more than a Gentile.” But he would be careful, he would be watching all the time, he would see that the fellow did not get the advantage of him. “Let me just see what he does next, after this start. After all, now I know what to expect, I should be ready for him.”So he worried and fretted, turning over and over; but he slept after a while, his brows knitted, but very deeply and restfully in spite of Herr Rieber’s snores.

Life on shipboard had already in only two days begun to arrange itself with pleasant enough monotony. but on the third there was repeated the excitement of being in port again, in Havana. This time the travelers had nothing to worry about, nothing to do for once but enjoy themselves so far as they were able. Fresh hot-weather dress appeared on all shapes and sizes, and there was a rush for the gangplank before it had fairly settled. Even Herr Glocken went ambling down the dock by himself, in a gay necktie frayed at the knot, smiling like a gargoyle as he dodged with practiced quickness a bold young woman who darted forward to touch his hump for luck.

The ladies of trade, arriving at home from their business trip in Mexico as casually as though returning from a day’s shopping in town, walked away together in white linen backless dresses and fine wide-brimmed Panama hats. William Denny, a discreet distance behind, followed them determinedly, to find out if possible what sort of house sheltered these haughty creatures on their native heath. He was soured and baffled by their resolutely unbusinesslike behavior toward him. “Women peddling tail don’t usually carry it so high, where I come from,” he remarked to David Scott. “It’s just cash on the barrelhead and no hurt feelings.” David had merely remarked that he thought that could easily be a bore. So Denny had set out by himself, resolved to track them to their lair and boldly invite himself inside. But along a narrow street of shops one of them turned around unexpectedly to look into a window, saw Denny, nudged the other. They both looked back then, and breaking into high girlish screams of derisive laughter, they darted into a narrow doorway and disappeared once for all. Denny, scalded bitterly, let a pale sneer cover his countenance and an ugly short epithet form in his mouth; then, like a man who had plans of his own, he took a small map meant for tourists out of his pocket and began a search for Sloppy Joe’s.


LET’S be real tourists this once,” said Jenny Angel to David Darling, for so they called each other, though their real names were Jenny Brown and David Scott. “I have no prejudice against tourists — I consider that a low form of snobbism. I envy them, lucky dogs with money to spend and time on their hands! I always have to work. I am on a job or running an errand for somebody . . . even in Paris if I ever get there, I’ll still have to do those silly drawings for somebody’s foul little stories; and now don’t say I’m riddled with self-pity, David Darling —

“You always say that, I never do,” said David.

“All right,” said Jenny, “but never in my whole life did I ever go anywhere just to look at the scenery. Now is the moment to begin. Let’s take a Fordito and see the sights, such as they may be. I’ve passed through Havana this is the fourth time and it may be the last, and I’ve never seen the beach and that famous Drive, what’s its name?”

David lapsed into what Jenny called his speaking silence; she saw by the expression drifting over his face that he thought it a good idea. They had not far to look, for there on the first corner was an aged Negro with a crippled-looking Ford car—“a real Fotingo,” said Jenny, a Mexican popular name for such a vehicle — and he was waiting and hoping for just such as they. The Negro’s skin was the color of brown sugar; he had one light gray eye and one pale tan eye, he believed that he spoke English, and he had a high-flown speech of solicitation made up and learned by heart. They waited politely to the end before nodding their heads; he settled them at once in the back seat where the door rattled on its hinges and the stuffing was coming out in lumps, and set off with an impressive clatter and roar of mechanical locomotion. He gained an appalling speed almost at once, and began another set piece, which flew back to them in fragments of roars and mutters as they whirled along the splendid white road beside the sea. He drove with one hand, his head almost reversed on his shoulders toward them, eyes fixed on the water.

“ We are passing......Monument,” he shouted, as they rushed by an incoherent mass of bronze, “WHICH COMMEMORATES ......” he pronounced largely and carefully, then fell to a mutter. Then, “This,” his voice rose again, “...... the war of......year of Our Lord......and afterwards,” he said clearly, “the Sons of Cuban Independence erected this noble monument for the view of strangers.” Mutter, mutter, mutter. “ We are now passing ......” and they spun perilously around a long curve, “the building......erected for the view of strangers . TO YOUR LEFT,” he called warningly, and Jenny and David craned the left instantly, but the spectacle was already far behind, “you see a tragic memorial erected by the Sons of......for the view of strangers.”

They slowed down with dizzying suddenness, stopped with a hard jolt. Their guide pushed back his cap and pointed to a vast, nondescript edifice shining through tall palms and heavy treetops in a small park. “And there,” he said, in rather smugly censorious tones, “is the famous Casino, where rich North Americans gamble away, before the eyes of the starving poor, hundreds of thousands of dollars every night.”

His passengers gawked as they were expected to; then David said to Jenny in an aside, “I don’t think much of our touring, do you?” and in Spanish to the guide, who seemed to be regarding them with a certain possessiveness, “Now let’s just drive back the same way, very slowly.”

“I understand English perfectly,” said the guide, in Spanish. “Your touring is not a success yet because you have not yet seen all. There are monuments of the utmost grandeur and sentiment the whole length of this Carrera, some of them more expensive and important than those you have seen. You are paying to see them all,” he said, virtuously, ”I do not wish to defraud you.”

“I think our touring is perfect,” said Jenny. “It is just what I expected. Let’s see them all!” The Fordito leaped away again like a kangaroo in flight; they saw all the monuments in shapeless flashes, and were set down again, wind-blown and flushed with sunburn, under palms on a fine terrace freshly washed and steaming, with great wicker bird cages along the wall and a banana tree in the patio. The waiter brought tall glasses of iced tea with rum in it.

“More and more,” said David, feeling again for a few moments that repose of [Hire sympathy and well-being he had with Jenny now and then — not often enough or long enough for any continuous illusion, but good when it happened — “more and more I am convinced it is a great mistake to do anything or make anything for the view of strangers.”

“Let’s not ever,” said Jenny, in a glow still from their foolish escapade along the beach. “ Let’s have a wonderful private life that begins in our bones, or our souls even, maybe, and works out.”

She had hesitated and then spoken the word soul very tentatively, for it was one of David’s tabus, along with God, spirit, or spiritual, virtue — especially that one! — and love. None of these words flowered particularly in Jenny’s daily speech, but now and then in some stray warmth of feeling she felt the need for one or the other; but David could not endure the sound of any of them, and she saw now the stiff, embarrassed, almost offended look which she had learned to expect if she spoke one of them; yet he could translate them into obscene terms and pronounce them like an incantation; and Jenny, who blasphemed as harmlessly as a well-taught parrot, was in turn offended by what she prudishly described as “David’s dirty mind.” They were in fact at a dead end on this subject.

After a dismal pause, David said carefully, “Yes, of course, always a private life, which will wind up in galleries and magazines and art books if we have any luck at all. I suppose, considering the way we live, on handouts of jobs, we should look at it this way: every one of those monuments meant a good commission and a chance to work tor some sculptor.”

“But such sculptors!” said Jenny, intolerantly. “Such godforsaken awful stuff. No, I’11 do all the chores I can get, but I mean to paint for myself alone —”

“I know, and hope that somebody else likes it too, likes it enough to buy it,”said David. “There is something wrong with our theory of a private life so far as work is concerned.”

“I want good simple people who don’t know a thing about, art 1o like my work,” said Jenny. “I wish they would come for miles to look at it, as the Indians do the murals in Mexico City.”

“That was a great piece of publicity, all right,” said David, “you good simple girl! Those good simple people were laughing their heads off and making gorgeously dirty remarks; they were the ones who scrawled pubic hair on the copy of Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte — didn’t you ever notice any of this? Where were you?”

“I was there,” said Jenny, without resentment. “But I heard and saw other things too. I don’t blame the Indians realty. They have something better of their own, after all.”

“I don’t think it’s better, I don’t think it’s as good in some ways; it’s debased by now—after all, they find the best things in buried cities; but I do like it, and it’s plain they prefer it. But they don’t help us any. We are on our own, Jenny Angel. Let’s nol go fake primitive, we couldn’t fool men ourselves. ...”

“I love the Indians, though,” said Jenny. “I’ve got a weakness for them. I feel certain I learned something from them, even if I don t know yet what it is.”

“But they didn’t love you,” said David, “and you know it. And the only thing they wanted from you was your broken-down old Fotingo, last year; and my cigarette lighter; and the portable phonograph. We love their beautiful straw mats because we don’t have to sleep on them, and they would like spring mattresses. No, I don’t blame them either.”

Jenny laughed because she felt very baffled and melancholy for a moment. “I suppose it’s all true as far as it goes, but there’s something else ... I know I’m much too simple to be a good primitive.”

“I don’t think they are any more complicated than we are,” said David. “They tie a different set of knots, that’s all.”

“That isn’t all,” said Jenny, “not by any means.”

David, hearing the thin edge in her voice, said no more. They finished their second tea and rum in a comfortable-looking silence; wondered what time it was, had to ask the waiter because they complicated their lives on principle by refusing to wear watches; and strolled back toward the harbor.


THE heat was overwhelming, the life of the streets wandered torpidly in a sluggish dream, the charge of daylight was almost staggering, and sweat broke from every pore of every human being; the tongues of dogs streamed, and Jenny and David, in their cool-looking linen, were wet and streaked and almost gasping by the time they reached the dock. At the entrance of the long shed through which they must pass to the ship, they saw first a large thick cluster of human beings with frowzy dark heads and ragged clothing. There was no space to pass among them, for their bundles wrapped in hemp fiber sacks tied with rope lay on the ground, filled their arms, and bulged from their shoulders. There were men and women of all ages, in every stale of decay, children of all sizes and many babies in arms. All these people were unbelievably ragged and dirty, hunched over, silent and miserable. Several of them, seeing the two strangers, quietly pushed and nudged at their bundles and each other in signal, until a narrow way was cleared. “Pass if you please,” they murmured in Spanish, and “Thank you, thank you,” said Jenny and David, edging through carefully. The crowd thinned a little then, but the whole huge shed was filled with them. They sat huddled on the ground, they stood formlessly bowed over, they leaned in tired arcs against the walls.

The air was not air any more, but a hot clinging vapor of sweat, of dirt, of stale food and befouled litter, of rags and excrement: the reek of poverty. The people were not faceless: they were all Spanish, their heads had shape and meaning and breeding, their eyes looked out of beings who knew they were alive. Their skins were the skins of the starved who are also overworked, a dark dirty pallor, with green copper overtones, as if their blood had not been sufficiently renewed for generations. Their bare feet were bruised, hardened, cracked, knotted in the joints, and their hands were swollen fists. It was plain they were there by no will or plan of their own‚ and in the helpless humility of complete enslavement they were waiting for whatever would be done to them next. Women nursed their starveling infants; men sat fumbling among their wretched possessions, tying them up more firmly; they picked at their feet or scratched in their hair; or they sat suspended in uneasy idleness, simply staring. Pale anxious children, miserable, uncomplaining, sat near their mothers and gazed at them, but asked for nothing.

Several officious-looking men wore moving among them, counting them with pointing fingers, writing down something, consulting with each other and steadying themselves as they felt their way between bodies by laying a hand upon the nearest head as if it were a newel or a doorknob. If they wished one of the people to move aside, they did not speak, but gave a gentle impersonal push on a shoulder, without looking at the one they had touched. The strangest sort of silence was over the whole scene — strange, thought Jenny, because the misery is so great and something so terrible is happening to them, you might think they would all be howling and crying and fighting to escape. “David, what can it be.?” she asked, but he shook his head. They came out into the open air, and there was the ship looming up, t he gangplank ready.

Almost everyone on shipboard had forgot his reserves, and strangers were asking each other questions and getting answers full of rumor and conflicting theories. The young officers found themselves under a rapid fire of inquiries about the beggars on the dock who now seemed to be coming on board. The officers could only shake their heads. They were sorry, but they had no idea who the new steerage passengers were, nor why there were so many, nor what their situation was precisely, except that anyone could see they were of the lowest class. No doubt everything would be known in time.

This answer roused greater curiosity all around. Professor and Frau Hutten. who had persuaded their seasick bulldog Bébé out for a breath of air on solid earth, had been told by someone that the strange people were political malcontents and were being deported as a dangerous and subversive element. Professor Hutten, observing them carefully, remarked that they appeared to be quite harmless though unfortunate people. Herr Lutz, the Swiss hotelkeeper, told the Professor that he had heard that the people were returning to Spain because of a new and sudden demand for labor in that country: since they threw the king out, Spain was lining up for progress, catching up with the rest of the world. “Same old story,” said Herr Lutz, “the grass looks greener in the next pasture until you get there. It is the first I have heard of prosperity in Spain.”

Herr Hieber and Lizzi Spöckenkieker pranced onto the deck, and Lizzi screamed out to little Frau Otto Schmitt, whose tender heart was plainly to be surmised in her soft face: “Oh, what do you think of this dreadful fellow? Can you guess what he just said? I was saying, ‘Oh, those poor people, what can be done for them?’ and this fellow” — she gave a kind of whinny between hysteria and indignation— “he said, ‘I would do this for them: I would put them all in a big oven and turn on the gas.’ Oh,” she said weakly, doubling over with laughter, “can you believe such a thing?”

Herr Rieber stood by smiling broadly, quite proud of himself. Frau Schmitt went a little pale, and said in a motherly severe tone, “For shame. I don’t think that’s funny.” Herr Hieher’s face fell, he pouted.

Lizzi said, “Oh, he did not mean any harm, of course! Only to fumigate them, isn’t it so?”

“No, I did not mean fumigate,” said Herr Rieber, stubbornly.

“Well, then,” said Lizzi, indulgently, “you are not very nice.” But she smiled at him so forgivingly he smiled back, and they left the atmosphere of Frau Schmitt ‘s moral disapproval for the freedom of the bar.


AT LAST the afternoon papers appeared on deck, and there was the whole story, quite straight, and nothing so unusual after all. It had something to do with the price of sugar in the world market. The bottom had fallen out, it seemed. Cuban sugar, because of international competition, had fallen in price until the sugar planters could no longer afford to gather and market their crops. There had been strikes and riots, too, and demands for higher wages, due to the presence of foreign labor agitators among the workers. The planters were burning their crops in the fields, and naturally this had thrown thousands of sugar workers in the fields and refineries out of employment. A great number of these were Spanish, mostly from the Canaries and the Asturias, who had been imported during the great days of Cuban sugar. This policy of importation had turned out to be a farsighted one, for if these laborers had been Cubans, what could have been their fate except reliance on charity, beggary, or a haven in the public jails? As it was, the government had forestalled the inconvenience of so many idle foreigners on the island. Arrangements had been completed to send them back to their native land, their fares had been raised by public subscription, everything was being done for their comfort, and the first lot, consisting of exactly eight hundred and seventysix souls, were already safely on their way. Thus, the newspaper stories and editorials agreed, Cuba was setting an example to the world in disposing of its labor problems in the most humane and yet practical manner.

The eight hundred and seventy-six souls formed a straggling procession and moved across the gangplank leading to the steerage, while a dozen or more first-class passengers lined up above to watch them. Herded carefully on either side by sailors and the officious men who had been counting them, the people came on with some nervous jostling, thumping of feet, hesitations when the whole mass would be agitated, clotted in one spot; then it would smooth out and go forward. Among the watchers a new uneasiness rose, and Frau Rittersdorf mentioned it first.

“There is great danger of infectious disease among such creatures,” she said to Herr Baumgartner at her elbow. “I am wondering—should we not complain to the Captain? After all, we did not engage to travel on a cattle ship.”

Herr Baumgartner’s pained face leaped into new lines of anxiety. “My God,” he said, “I was thinking the very thought. I was thinking, you can almost smell the pestilence among them. No, it is not right; we should have been warned.”

Professor Hutton remarked to his wife, “I was told by the purser the steerage contains accommodations for only three hundred, and yet look, still they come. I am interested to see what arrangements can possibly be made for such a number. Infants, too,” he said, and clicked his tongue in deprecation. His wife sighed and shook her head, accepting once more the sad truth that there is no cure for the troubles of life, no peace or repose anywhere. Her comfortable fat quivered with some intimation of suffering, but she could not bear to think of it. “Come,”she said, “let’s not spy upon them. Suppose they looked up and saw us gazing?” She moved away, her face tender and vacant. Bébé, somewhat improved in spirits, followed on a loose leash.

William Denny, who had made his way safely to Sloppy Joe’s and had there swallowed rapidly several Daiquiris with increasing depression of mood, leaned on the rail and spoke at random in loud indignation. “Poor devils, they don’t deserve it,” he said, almost tearfully. “After all, why should they be deported? They’re not dirty Reds; the papers said so.”

Mrs. Treadwell, who had found herself once or twice in some passing talk with the young man, whom she considered odious, was standing almost next to him; she knew well that no matter what he thought or felt it was none of her affair, but spoke just the same on impulse, which she also knew very well was not her style, and always got her into some kind of difficulty.

“Why always ‘dirty,’please,” she said in her light agreeable voice, “and why always ‘Red,’and what do you really care or know about it&363;”

Denny’s head rolled a trifle; he stared at her as if he had never seen her before. “Are you a Red?” he asked. Without moving his folded arms he slid along the rail toward her, turned sidewise and inspected her as if she were a horse he was thinking of buying. His gaze ran like a band to her ears, her neck, over her breasts, down her thighs, and his mouth was bitter, as if he did not like what he saw but could not control the roving of his eyes. Mrs. Treadwell made a determined effort to catch and fix his gaze with hers, but he would not look at her face, where a girlish prettiness lingered under the mask of approaching middle age.

“Do you know the meaning of the word?” she inquired coldly, moving from him along the rail as he approached. She regretted now the three planters’ punches she had drunk with Wilhelm Freytag in Havana; for to tell the truth, she did not know the meaning of the word herself— it was just that she resented that stupid Denny to the point where she could have enjoyed slapping him. She had never known a Red and did not expect to.

“I know what I’d do to them if l were running the government ,” he said, in a heavy rage, peering into the front of her low-collared blouse. Mrs. Treadwell pulled herself together resolutely. How typical — here she was, about to get into an altercation with a drunken stranger, and a low type at that, on a topic of which both of them were totally ignorant, and she at least hadn’t the faintest desire to learn anything. She turned her head away, wheeled about and walked away, smiling into the air and trying not to hurry.

(To be Continued)