2024/07/20 - 20:27

The Stoker

            As the seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman – who had been shipped off to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child with him – introduced himself to New York’s harbor on a slowly advancing ship, he caught sight of the Statue of Liberty in a sudden, strong advance of sunlight. Her arm with the sword rose upwards now, and over her figure the free air blew.

            “So high,” he said to himself, not thinking to leave and being shoved to the railing by an ever-swelling crowd of porters who pushed him around.

            A young man he had briefly become acquainted with during the trip said in passing: “Don’t you want to get out of here?” “Oh, I’m ready,” Karl said to him smiling and lifted his trunk onto his shoulder out of pure high spirits – he was a strong boy. But as he looked at his acquaintance, who swung his stick a little as he left with the others, he realized he had forgotten his umbrella back in the ship. He quickly asked his acquaintance, who didn’t seem too happy about it, to wait for a moment by his trunk for friendship’s sake, then he looked over the situation to figure out a return route and hurried along. Beneath the deck, he found to his regret that the way he had at first used as a shortcut was blocked up by what seemed to be all the passengers on the ship disembarking at once, and he had to arduously find his way through a host of smaller rooms, continually bending corridors, short staircases following one after the other, an empty room with a forgotten writing table, and then, because he had only come this way once or twice and even then it had been in larger groups, he found he had completely lost his way. In his bewilderment, and because he hadn’t come across anyone, and because all the time he heard somewhere above him the scraping of a thousand footsteps and in the distance, as if it were breathing, he picked up the last motions of the still-working engine, he flung himself without thinking onto a random, small door, banging on it, and so he broke off his wandering. “It’s open,” someone yelled from the inside, and Karl opened the door with an honest sigh of relief. “Why are you banging on the door like a lunatic?” asked the enormous man, barely looking at Karl. Through some porthole from the top of the ship, a dim, broken light fell into the miserable cabin, in which a bed, a cabinet, an armchair and the man stood tightly crunched against one another. “I’ve lost myself,” Karl said. “I didn’t notice it during the trip, but this is a terribly big ship.” “Yeah, you’ve got that right,” said the man with a certain pride and busied himself with the lock on a small trunk, which he pressed shut again and again with both hands, so he could hear the snapping of the bolts. “But come in,” the man continued. “You shouldn’t stay outside.” “Won’t I bother you?” Karl asked. “Oh how could you bother me!” “Are you German?” Karl asked to reassure himself, because he’d heard a lot about the dangers posed to newcomers in America, particularly by the Irish. “I am, I am,” said the man. Karl still hesitated. Then the man suddenly grabbed the door handle and shoved the door, closing it quickly and pulling Karl inside with him. “I can’t stand it when someone looks in at me from a hallway,” the man said, working again on his trunk. “Then everyone walks by and looks in, I can only take so much.” “But the hallway’s empty,” said Karl, who stood uncomfortably squeezed against the bedpost. “Yeah, for now,” the man said. “All that matters is now,” thought Karl. “It’s tough to talk to this guy.” “Lie down on the bed, you’ll have more room,” said the man. Karl crawled in as best he could and laughed loudly at his first futile attempt to swing into it. He was barely in when he yelled, “Oh God, I forgot my trunk.” “So where is it?” “Over on the deck, I gave it to a friend. But what’s his name?” And he pulled his calling card from a secret pocket which his mother had put in the lining of his jacket for the trip. “Butterbaum. Franz Butterbaum.” “Is your trunk really that important?” “Of course it is.” “Well then, why did you give it to a stranger?” “I’d forgotten my umbrella below and ran in to fetch it, but I didn’t want to schlep my trunk around. Then I lost my way.” “You’re alone? Nobody’s with you?” “Yes, alone.” It went through Karl’s head that he should hold onto this guy, where would he find a better friend? “And now you’ve lost your trunk. Not to mention an umbrella.” And the man sat himself down on the sofa, as if Karl’s business had suddenly become interesting. “I believe, though, that the trunk isn’t lost just yet.” “Believe whatever makes you happy,” said the man as he scratched fiercely at his dark, short, thick hair. “But on a ship the customs change with the ports, in Hamburg maybe your Butterbaum would have watched over your trunk, but here chances are there’s no trace of either of them.” “But now I have to search for it right away,” said Karl and looked around the room for a way out. “Just stay,” the man said and, with a hand against his chest, pushed him roughly onto the bed. “Why?” Karl asked annoyed. “Because it makes no sense,” said the man. “In a little while I’ll go too, then we’ll go together. Either the trunk is stolen, then there’s no help and you can cry about it to the end of your days, or this person is still forever watching over it, then he’s an idiot and should keep on watching it, or he’s just an honest man and left your trunk standing there, and then we’ll have a better time finding it when the ship is completely empty. Even your umbrella too.” “Are you that familiar with the ship?” Karl asked suspiciously, and it seemed to him that there had to be a catch to the otherwise convincing idea that it was best to find his things on an empty ship. “I am the ship’s stoker,” the man said. “You’re the ship’s stoker!” Karl shouted joyfully, as if this surpassed all his expectations, and he propped up on an elbow to get a closer look. “Right from the room, where I had slept with a Slovak, there was an opened hatch which let me see into the engine room.” “Yeah, I worked there,” the stoker said. “I have always been so interested in mechanical things,” said Karl, who stuck to his own train of thought. “And I would have certainly become an engineer, if I hadn’t been forced to go to America.” “Why did you have to go?” “Oh . . . something . . .” Karl said and waved the whole history away with his hand. He looked over at the stoker with a smile, as if begging him to ignore this little non-confession. “I guess there was a reason,” the stoker said, and there was no way to tell if he wanted to ignore Karl’s reasons or demand them. “Now I could become a stoker,” Karl said. “My parents don’t care what I do.” “My job will be free,” said the stoker, consciously jamming his hands into his pockets and throwing out his legs, which had been jammed into a wrinkled, leathery, iron-gray pair of pants, onto the bed so he could stretch them. Karl had to back up closer to the wall. “You’re leaving the ship?” “We move off today.” “But why? Don’t you like it here?” “Yeah, the way things go, it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. You’re right, by the way, I don’t like it here. You probably think it doesn’t take much motivation to become a stoker, but that’s exactly why it’s so easy to become one. I suggest you give up any determination you might have. If you’d wanted to study in Europe, why not study here? The American universities are incomparably better.” “That’s probably true,” Karl said, “but I have almost no money for studying. I did once hear about someone who worked in a store by day and studied at night until he become a doctor and then, I think, a mayor. But that takes a lot of persistence, doesn’t it? I’m afraid I just don’t have that in me. Besides, I wasn’t a very good student, leaving school wasn’t really that hard. And the schools here are probably even tougher. I don’t know much English. I think people here are biased against foreigners anyway.” “So you found out about that too? That’s good. You’re my man. Have you noticed, we’re on a German ship, it belongs to the Hamburg-American line, why should we have anyone who isn’t German? Why is the head engineer a Romanian? His name is Schubal. It’s unbelievable. And this dog of a scoundrel abuses us Germans on a German ship. Now don’t you start thinking –” All his air had rushed out of him, he flapped about with his hands, “ – that I’m complaining just to complain. I know you have no influence and are just a poor boy. But it’s too bad.” He banged hard on the table many times with his fists and didn’t keep his eyes off it while he banged. “I served on so many ships,” and he named twenty names one after another as if they were one word, Karl became completely confused. “And I distinguished myself, was praised, was a worker to the taste of my captain, I was on the same trade ship for quite a few years.” He picked himself up as if this were the highpoint of his life. “And here in this box, where everyone’s pulled on a string, where there’s no need for imagination – I’m useless here, here I’m always in Schubal’s way, I’m lazy, I slave away only to be thrown out and be given my paycheck out of mercy.” “You shouldn’t let this happen to you,” Karl said excitedly. He felt so at home on the stoker’s bed he had almost forgotten he was on uncertain ground in a ship off the coast of an unknown continent. “Have you ever gone to the captain? Have you ever demanded your rights from him?” “Oh just go, I want you to go away, I don’t want you here. You don’t listen to what I say and then you give me advice. How should I get to the captain.” And the stoker sat himself down again, tired, and laid his face in both hands. “I can’t give him any better advice,” Karl said to himself. And he began to think it would have been better to have fetched his trunk than to give advice which would only be taken for idiocy. When his father had handed over the trunk to him for good, he had asked jokingly: How long then will you have it? and now this valuable trunk was probably, in all seriousness, lost. The single remaining comfort was that his father could never hear about all these details from where he was now, even if he himself should start asking questions. All the shipping company could say was that he had come to New York. But Karl regretted that he had barely used anything in the trunk, despite the fact that he should have, for instance, changed his shirt a long time ago. He had saved his money in all the wrong places; now, at the beginning of his career, when he could’ve walked in with immaculate clothing, now he would have to show up in a dirty shirt. That would be a sight to see. Otherwise the loss of the trunk wouldn’t be that bad, since the suit he had on was so much better than the one in the trunk, which was really only an emergency suit which his mother, for lack of money, had been forced to sew up for his departure. He also remembered that his mother had packed a Veronese salami in the trunk as a special treat, but he’d only bitten off the tiniest part, because he’d had no appetite during the trip and the soup distributed in steerage had been more than enough for him. But now he would’ve loved to have the sausage in his hand, so he could offer it up to the stoker. Because such people are easily won over when you slip them some small trifle, Karl found that out from his father, who won over all the hirelings he had to work with by sending out cigars. Karl still had money for a cash gift, and he didn’t want to touch that for now, in case it turned out he really lost the trunk. His thoughts went back to the trunk again, and he couldn’t see why he had lost sleep during the trip to watch over it, only to let that same exact trunk be taken away now so easily. He remembered the five nights when he had kept up the constant suspicion that a tiny Slovak lying two bunks to the left of him had had his eye on the trunk. This Slovak was only lying in wait for Karl to finally fall asleep in a moment of weakness, so that he could pull over the trunk with a long pole he always practiced or played with during the day. By day this Slovak looked innocent enough, but the night barely came on when he would pick himself up off his bed from time to time and look over sadly at Karl’s trunk. Karl could clearly notice all this, because someone with the unrest of an emigrant had always been lighting small candles here and there, even though it was against the ship’s rules, so he could try to decipher the incomprehensible brochures of the emigration agency. If one of these lights were close to him, Karl could doze off for a little, but if the candle was in the distance or if it was dark, then he would have to force his eyes open. The effort of it had exhausted him. And now it was all useless. That Butterbaum! If ever he should meet him!

            At that moment, a small, short tapping like the steps of children resonated in the until now perfect silence, they came nearer, with a stronger clanging, and now it was a steady march of men. They plainly were traveling in a line, as was natural in a small hallway, the clinking sounded like armor. Karl, who’d been almost to the point of stretching out on the bed and being free from all his cares about the trunk and the Slovak, became startled and poked the stoker into readiness, since the head of the group seemed to have just reached the door. “That’s the ship’s band,” the stoker said. “They’ve been playing up top and are going to pack up. Now everything’s finished and we can go. Come here.” He grabbed Karl by the hand, took at the last moment a picture of the blessed mother from the wall above his bed, stuffed it in his breast-pocket, grabbed his trunk and quickly abandoned the cabin, Karl in hand.

            “Now I’ll go to the office and tell those men what I really think. Nobody’s around anymore, you don’t have to be polite,” the stoker repeated a few different ways, and then he wanted to crush a rat that was in his way by kicking his foot out sideways, but he only forced it faster into its hole, which it reached just in time. All in all, he was very slow moving, because even if his legs were very long, they were also very heavy.

            They came through a part of the kitchen where some maids in dirty aprons cleaned dishes in large tubs -- they splashed them on purpose. The stoker called over a certain girl named Line, slung an arm around her hips and dragged her along with him for a little while as she squeezed herself against his arm like a coquette. “The paychecks are in, wanna come along?” he asked. “Why should I bother, bring my money back with you,” she answered, slipping under his arm and running away. “Where’d you get that beautiful boy?” she called after him, but she didn't want any answer.

            They went away again and came to a door with a small gable above it carried by small, golden caryatids. For a ship’s fitting it looked downright wasteful. Karl noticed he had never come through this section, it was probably reserved for first and second-class passengers during the trip, but now the partitions had been taken off for the ship’s cleaning crew. They had actually met a few of these men already, who carried brooms on their shoulders and greeted the stoker kindly. Karl was amazed at the whole business, he had experienced little from his spot in steerage. Electric wires ran along the hallway, and somewhere ahead a small bell could always be heard.

            The stoker knocked respectfully on the door and when someone called “Come in,” he motioned for Karl to walk in without any fear. He stepped in, but stayed at the door, standing. Through the three windows of the room he saw the waves of the sea, and thinking about their happy motions hit him straight in the heart, as if he hadn’t been watching the sea nonstop for five long days. Huge ships crossed each other’s way and gave in to the ruckus of the waves only as much as their bulk allowed. When you squinted your eyes, the ships seemed to sway from the force of their own bulk. On their masts they carried long but narrow flags, pulled tight from the speed of traveling but still wriggling back and forth. Salute shots rang out, probably from war ships, the cannon of a close one was fondled by the safe, smooth but not quite horizontal movement of its ship, the sunlight reflecting off its steel armor. From the door, you could just make out the small ships and boats as they came in crowds into the openings between the great ships. Behind all this, however, stood New York, and Karl gazed on the skyscrapers with their hundred thousand windows. You knew where you were in this room.

            At a round table sat three men, the first a ship’s officer in a blue ship’s uniform, the other two were clerks from the harbor authority in black American uniforms. On the table various documents piled high, which the officer skimmed over with a pen so he could hand them to the other two, who read them here, made excerpts there, now laid them in their briefcase whenever one of them, who nearly incessantly clicked his teeth, wasn’t dictating the minutes to his colleagues.

            By the window, a smaller man sat at a writing desk with his back to the door, busying himself with large volumes which were lined up side by side on a strong bookshelf level with his eyes. Next to him a safe stood slightly ajar, and at first glance it was empty.

            The second window was empty and gave the best view. But in the area of the third window two men stood in quiet conversation. The first leaned against the window, also wore the ship’s uniform and played with the hilt of a sword. The man he talked to was turned to the window and revealed through his various motions a string of medals on the chest of the other. He was in the civil service and had a thin bamboo stick, and since his hands were on his hips, it also stood out like a sword.

            Karl didn’t have much time to see all this, because soon a servant walked up to them, looking at the stoker as if to say he didn’t belong, and asked him what he wanted. The stoker answered as quietly as he was asked, he wanted to speak to the head accountant. The servant, for his part, rejected this request with a motion of his hands, but went on tiptoe to the round table, taking a wide berth around the man with the large volumes. This man, clearly visible, started up immediately at the servant’s words, looked around eventually at the man who wished to speak with him, waved fiercely to dismiss the stoker and denounced the servant too, just to be sure. The servant returned to the stoker and spoke as if he were trusting him with a secret: “Get out of here now!”

            The stoker looked over to Karl after this answer, as if Karl were his heart, something he could quietly cry to about his pains. Without thinking, Karl broke away, running straight through the room, so that he even brushed up lightly against the officer’s chair. The servant ran crouched, his arms prepared for a tackle, as if he were hunting vermin, but Karl was the first to the head accountant’s table, where he hung on tight just in case the servant tried to pull him away.

            Naturally the entire room livened up immediately. The ship’s officers at the table sprung up, the men from the harbor authorities looked on calmly but attentively, the two men at the window stepped close to each other, the servant backed off, believing it wasn’t his place to be in the way when the high-ranking men showed interest. The stoker waited intently by the door for a moment, until help was necessary. The ship’s officer finally turned in his chair.

            Karl rummaged through the secret pocket, which he didn’t hesitate to reveal to these people, and took out his passport, which he opened up and lay on the table in place of any further introduction. The head accountant seemed to brush off this pass, because he snipped it aside with two fingers, and so Karl stuck the pass back in, as if the formalities were over and done with. “I take the liberty of saying,” he then began, “that in my opinion the stoker has been wronged. There is here a certain Schubal, who oppresses him. He has served on many ships, ships he can name for all of you, and served to complete satisfaction, he is industrious, thinks highly of his work and it’s really impossible to see why he should take orders so poorly precisely on this ship, where the work isn’t nearly as difficult as it is, for instance, on commercial ships. Therefore, it could only be slander that’s keeping him from making progress and taking away from him the recognition which he would not be missing otherwise. I have only spoken generally about all this, he will bring his specific complaints himself.” Karl had addressed all of the men, because in reality all of them were listening, and it seemed more probable that he could find one fair man if he tried all the men together, than if he should try to find that fair man in the head accountant. In addition, Karl had cleverly avoided the fact that he had only known the stoker for a very short time. He would’ve spoken even better if he had not been bothered by the red face of the man with the bamboo stick, which he had caught sight off right away from his current position.

            “It’s all correct, word for word,” said the stoker before anyone could have a chance to ask him any questions or even look him over. The stoker’s hastiness would have been a terrible mistake, if the man with the medals, whom Karl just realized was the captain, hadn’t already decided to listen to the stoker. He stuck out his hand and called to the stoker, “Come here!” with a voice firm enough to hit with a hammer. Now everything depended on the stoker’s behavior, because Karl had no doubt as to the justice of his cause.

            Luckily it became clear just now that the stoker had been around in the world. With exemplary calm he took in one grab a small bundle of paper out of his little trunk, together with a notebook, then went with them right past the head accountant, as if it were the only thing to do, so he could spread out on the windowsill his evidence for the captain. The accountant couldn’t stay where he was, so he addressed everyone instead. “The man’s a notorious crank,” he explained. “He’s at the cash desk more than the machine room. He has brought Schubal, an otherwise calm man, to despair. Listen!” He turned to the stoker. “You like to push people around a little too much. How often have you been thrown out of an office while you make your consistently unjustified demands? How often have you come running back and forth from the main office? How often has someone said to you, in all kindness, that Schubal is your direct superior, that you’re his inferior, that you just have to come to terms with him? And still, you come here now, when the captain is here, with no sense of shame whatsoever, not even if you start to bother him, and you don’t even hesitate to bring this little one, this trained speaker, whom I’ve never seen on this ship before, to make your vulgar accusations.”

            Karl had to forcibly keep himself from lunging forward. But then the captain said, “Let’s hear the man. Schubal’s been get a little too independent, but that doesn’t mean I’ll agree with you.” The last part applied to the stoker, it was only natural that he couldn’t back him up right away, but everything seemed to be on the right track. The stoker began his explanation and from the very beginning controlled himself enough to always refer to Schubal as Mr. Schubal. How Karl rejoiced at the deserted writing desk of the head accountant, where he pushed down on a scale again and again just for fun. Mr. Schubal is unfair. Mr. Schubal prefers foreigners. Mr. Schubal kicked the stoker out of the machine room and made him clean bathrooms, which the stoker knew nothing about. Once he even questioned Mr. Schubal’s competence, calling it more apparent than real. By this point Karl was staring at the captain with all his power, like a colleague, so that he wouldn’t think badly of the stoker because of his improper way of speaking. All the same, he couldn’t hear anything concrete from all this talk, and even though the captain looked straight ahead, determined to hear the stoker to the end this time, the other men became impatient, and the stoker’s voice wasn’t dominating the room anymore, and that could lead to something dreadful. At first the man in civil service set his bamboo stick to work and tapped ever so slightly on the floorboards. The other men naturally looked here and there. The ones from the harbor authority, who clearly had urgent business to attend to, grabbed their papers again and began to look through them absentmindedly. The ship’s officer moved his table even nearer, and the head accountant, who believed he had won the game, sighed deeply and ironically. In this general scattering, only the servant seemed reliable, sympathizing in part with the sorrows of a poor man under a great weight, and nodding to Karl as if he wanted to explain something to him.

            In the meantime, harbor life went on behind the window. A flat cargo ship dragged along, nearly plunging the room into complete darkness with its mountain of barrels, which must have been miraculously loaded in for them not to go rolling around. Small motorboats, which Karl could’ve seen now if only he’d had the time, rushed straight ahead at the twisting hands of the upright men behind the wheel. Odd floating bodies dove separately in and out of the restless waves, were flooded over all the same and sank underneath his astonished eyes. Feverishly working sailors rowed ocean liners full of passengers, who were sitting still, full of expectation, as if they had been crammed in that way, but some of them couldn’t help but turn their heads to look at the passing scenery. A movement without end, an unrest sent from the restless element down to the helpless people and their works

            But everything demanded action, clarity, a complete and precise account, but what did the stoker do? He spoke covered in sweat, he couldn’t hold the papers on the window much longer with his shaking hands, complaints against Schubal spilled into him from every direction, and in his opinion just one of them would’ve been good enough to bury this Schubal completely, but all he could show to the captain was a sad, muddled swirl, all of it the same. The man with a bamboo stick threw a long and weak whistle up towards the deck, the men from the harbor authority held the officer at their table and made no sign of ever letting him loose, the head accountant was kept from his itching desire to intervene only by the silence of the captain. The servant waited for a moment at attention for the captain’s order concerning the stoker.

            Karl couldn’t sit still anymore. He went over to the group and, as he went, thought all the faster about how he could take care of the situation. It was high time, only a little while longer and they both could’ve been thrown out of the office. The captain might be a good man and right now he had the opportunity to display the judgment of a true superior, or so it seemed to Karl, but in the end he wasn’t an instrument that could played into the ground and the dirt – and that was exactly how the stoker was treating him, with all the boundless indignation pent up inside him.

            So Karl said to the stoker: “You must explain yourself more simply, more clearly, the captain cannot appreciate it so long as you explain it to him like that. Does he know all the machinists and messengers by name, or even by their first names, so that whenever one of these names is spoken, he knows exactly what to do? Put your complaints in order, say the most important first and descend to the others, maybe then it won’t be so important to talk about most of them. You described it so clearly to me.” If a trunk could be stolen in America, a lie could be told every now and then, he thought as an excuse.

            If only it could’ve helped! Or was it already too late? The stoker cut himself off right away, as if he heard a familiar voice, but with his eyes fogged over with the tears of offended manly honor, terrifying memories and the most extreme present need, he couldn’t recognize Karl any more. Karl silently inspected the silent one: How could he change his way of speaking now, since it seemed to him on the one hand that he had brought out everything there was to say without the smallest acknowledgment, and on the other hand it seemed as if he hadn’t said nearly enough and couldn’t expect the men to listen to all of it now. And by this point Karl is his only follower, wants to give him a good lesson, but instead shows him that everything and everything is lost.

            If I had come in earlier, instead of staring out the window, Karl said to himself, lowering his face to the stoker and beating the seams of his trousers to demonstrate the end of every hope.

            But the stoker misunderstood, sensed perhaps in Karl some secret reproach against him, and with the good intention of talking him out of it, he began his crowning glory by arguing with Karl. Now, when the men at the round table at last became indignant over the useless noise, when the head accountant gradually found the captain’s patience incomprehensible and came all the closer to an outburst, when the servant, once again in the sphere of his master, took wild glances at the stoker and when finally the man with the bamboo stick, receiving  the occasional kind look from the captain, pulled out a little notebook, openly busied himself with other matters and let his eyes wander here and there between the notebook and Karl . . .

            “Yes, I know, I know,” said Karl, warding off with great effort the sweeping torrent of the stoker while trying to keep up a laughing friendliness toward him. “You are right, you’re right, I am not doubting you.” Fearing a beating, he would have liked to hold down those twisting hands, he would have loved to pack him into a corner so he could whisper some soft, comforting words to him that no one else would have to hear. But the stoker was boisterous and jittery. Karl scooped out from his thoughts the consolation that the stoker would be able to conquer all seven of the men here with the strength of his despair. However, a device was laying on the writing desk with many too many push-buttons and electric lights, and the force of one hand pushing down on these buttons could rouse the whole ship, with all its gangs of hostile men.

            Then the up-to-now uninterested man with the bamboo stick walked up to Karl and asked, not too loudly, but just enough to be heard over the stoker’s shrieks, “What is your name exactly?” At this moment, as if someone had been waiting behind the door for this man’s remark, there was a knock. The servant looked over at the captain, he nodded. So the servant went to the door and opened it. Outside, a man of middling proportions stood in an old gentleman’s coat, looking somewhat out of place for machinist’s work – and yet it was Schubal. If Karl hadn’t recognized him from the certain satisfaction squeezing out of all the gentlemen’s eyes, even the captain’s, he would have been forced to see it in the horror of the stoker, who tightened the fists on his outstretched arms as if they were the most important thing about him, for which he was prepared to sacrifice everything. He put all his strength there, even the kind that kept him standing straight and tall.

            And then there was the demon, dashing and refreshed in a dapper suit, holding under his arm an account-book, probably with the wage sheet and the stoker’s working papers, and he looked fearlessly into everyone’s eyes, each in turn, establishing all of their moods. All seven were already his friends, and if ever the captain had maintained a certain objection against him, or even had only feigned one, after all the sorrows the stoker had put him through, it seemed to him that Schubal hadn’t done the smallest thing wrong. You couldn’t deal harshly enough with a man like the stoker, and if Schubal could be chided for anything, it would be for not having broken the stoker’s tenacity a long time ago, so that today he had dared to show himself in front of the captain.

            Now one could probably accept that the confrontation between the stoker and Schubal would not receive any different judgment from this crowd of people than from a higher court, because even if Schubal managed to present himself well, he couldn't hold it up to the end. A short flash of his malevolence should probably be enough to expose himself to these gentlemen, and Karl worried himself to make sure that would happen. He had become casually acquainted with the acumen, the weaknesses, the whims of each of these men, and from this point of view all his stolen time here had not been lost. If only the stoker had been in a better position, but he seemed completely unfit for battle. If someone had held Schubal in front of him, he could’ve beat his hateful skull in with his fists, like a thin-shelled nut. But he was incapable of taking those few steps over to him. Why hadn’t Karl seen what was so easily seen, that Schubal would finally have to come, if not through his own drive, then by the captain’s call. Why hadn’t he discussed a decent battle plan with the stoker on the way over here, instead what they had really done, walking in damnably unprepared wherever they could find the door. Could the stoker still talk, say yes and no in a cross-examination, but that would only happen in the most favorable fall of events. He stood there, his legs spread apart, his knees a little bent, his head somewhat lifted and the air running through his open mouth as if he had lost his lungs.

            Karl, though, felt stronger and smarter than he’d ever felt at home. If his parents could see him now, speaking out for goodness in a strange land before people of importance, and even though he hadn’t yet brought it to victory, he stood completely prepared for the final triumph. Would they change their opinion of him? Sit him down between them and praise him? Look once, just once into his devoted eyes? Uncertain questions, and the worst time to ask them!

            “I come here, because I believe, that the stoker has accused me of some dishonesty. A young woman from the kitchen said to me, she had seen him coming this way. Captain, all my gentlemen, I am prepared to refute every accusation through my own handwritten records and, if necessary, through the evidence of unbiased and uninfluenced witnesses.” So said Schubal. That was a man’s speech, and judging by the change in the listeners’ demeanor, you’d believe this was the first time they had heard a human noise in a long while. But they willingly ignored a few holes in this beautiful speech. Why was the first significant word to occur to him “dishonesty”? Maybe the accusations should’ve begun here, instead of with his national prejudices. A young woman from the kitchen had seen the stoker on his way to the office and Schubal had begun planning right away? Was it his guilt that sharpened his wits? And he brought witnesses with him and called them unbiased and uninfluenced? Robbery, nothing but robbery, and these gentlemen tolerate it and endorse it as proper behavior? Why did he let so much time pass between the report of the kitchen maid and his arrival here? For no other reason than to allow the stoker to tire out the men, so that they might lose their clear judgment, and that judgment was what Schubal had been afraid of. Hadn’t he been standing behind the door for a long time, not knocking right away, so that he might hope to shatter the stoker in front of everyone with his petty questions?

            Everything was clear, and Schubal presented it that way in spite of himself, but it still had to be put differently to the gentlemen, more tangibly. They needed something rousing. And so Karl, a bit rashly, made the most of his little time before the witnesses walked in and everything went under.

            Just now the captain called Schubal off – who stepped aside right away, his business having been pushed away for the meantime – and began a soft conversation with the servant, who had immediately joined him, making their share of sidelong glances at the stoker and Karl as well as hand gestures of the highest conviction. Schubal seemed to be practicing his next big speech.

            “Would you like to ask something of this young man here?” said the captain into the general stillness to the man with the bamboo stick.

            “Indeed,” the man said, with a little bow in thanks for the courtesy. And then he asked Karl again: “What is your name exactly?”

            Believing it was in the interest of his great cause to deal with this stubborn interrogator quickly, Karl answered curtly, without his habit of showing his passport as an introduction, which of course he would’ve had to find first, “Karl Rossman.”

            “But,” said the man who was being referred to as Jakob, stepping backwards and laughing in unbelief. Also the captain, the head accountant, the ship’s officer, even the servant plainly showed an overwhelmed astonishment at Karl’s name. Only Schubal and the men from the harbor authority didn’t seem to care.

            “But,” Mr. Jakob repeated and walked up to Karl with somewhat stiff steps, “then I am your Uncle Jakob and you are my dear nephew. I suspected it the entire time,” he said to the captain before hugging Karl and kissing him, leaving everyone speechless.

            “What’s your name?” Karl asked after he felt himself let go, being polite no doubt but entirely unmoved, and made an effort to see what effect this new event could have on the stoker. It didn’t seem that Schubal could pull some benefit from it, at least not now.

            “Realize your good luck, young man,” said the captain, believing that Karl’s question had offended the dignity of Mr. Jakob’s person, who stood by the window dabbing his clearly agitated face with his handkerchief, so that the others wouldn’t see it. “This is Senator Edward Jakob, you know him as your uncle. A shining career waits for you now beyond your latest expectations. Try to see how good it’s going, right now, and compose yourself.”

            “I have indeed an Uncle Jakob in America,” Karl said, turning to the captain, “but if I understand correctly, this man’s name is Senator Jakob.”

            “So it is,” said the captain expectantly.

            “Now, my Uncle Jakob, who is my mother’s brother, has Jakob for his first name while his last name naturally has to be the same as my mother’s, who was born Bendelmayer.”

            “My gentlemen!” cried out the senator at Karl’s explanation, returning quite lively from his recovery at the window. Everyone except the harbor officials broke into laughter, some of them emotional, some of them impenetrable.

            What I said wasn’t that ridiculous, thought Karl.

            “My gentlemen,” repeated the senator. “Against my will, and against yours, you are taking part in this little family scene, and for that reason I cannot avoid giving you an explanation, since I believe only the captain (this mention was followed by a mutual bow) is fully informed.”

            Now I have to pay attention to every word, Karl said to himself, and he was overjoyed when he noticed with a sideways look that life was coming back to the stoker’s figure. “I am living all my long years of this American visit – the word “visit” sounds terrible for an American citizen, which I am with my whole soul – I am living my long years here divided from my European relatives on the grounds that, first, shouldn’t be mentioned here and, second, would bother me just too much. I dread the moment when I will be forced to exchange a few frank words with my nephew about his parents and their family.”

            “He’s my uncle, no doubt about that,” Karl said to himself and listened. “He’s probably had his name changed.”

            “My dear nephew has now been – we’ll call the situation what it is – abandoned by his parents, the way a man tosses a cat out the door when it annoys him. I won’t mince words over what my nephew has done – mincing words is not an American art – but his mistake is the kind that only needs to be named to be forgiven.”

            “That sounds okay,” thought Karl, “but I don’t want him to explain all of it. Besides, he can’t know all of it. How could he? But we’ll see if he really knows everything.”

            “It was, namely,” his uncle continued, as he leaned on his bamboo stick and rocked a little, taking away some of the unneeded ceremony of the occasion. “He was, namely, seduced by the maid Johanna Brummer, about thirty-five years old. I don’t want to offend you by talking about the seduction of my nephew, but it’s difficult to find a different word on the spot.”

            Walking fairly near to his uncle, Karl looked around to see what impression the explanation made on the faces of those present. No one laughed, everyone listened patiently and seriously. No one laughs at the nephew of a senator the first chance he gets. At most, he could’ve said that the stoker was smiling a little, but firstly, that was a good thing, a sign of new life, and secondly, it was forgivable, since back in the cabin Karl had tried to make a secret of things which now had become very public.

            “Now this Brummer,” his uncle went on, “has received a child from my nephew, a healthy young boy named Jakob, most likely with my lowly person in mind, because the insignificant mention of me by my nephew must have made a great impression on the girl. All for the better, I say. For since the parents, to avoid alimony payments or to keep the scandal from reaching them – I have to stress, I don’t know much about either local custom or any other circumstances surrounding the parents, aside from two begging letters from the parents from an earlier time, which I left unanswered but kept and which mean for me my only, and moreover, one-sided connection with them during this whole time – since the parents, then, to avoid their alimony payments and their son’s scandals, allowed my dear nephew to be shipped to America with irresponsibly insufficient luggage, as you can see – if not for those signs and wonders still alive in America, this young boy would have been assigned to his lonely self, where he immediately would have come to no good in some alley off the New York harbor, if not this serving woman had sent me a letter, which came into my possession after long wanderings the day before yesterday, and which told me about the entire story, complete with a description of my nephew and also, quite sensibly, the name of his ship. If I had aimed to entertain you gentlemen – ” He pulled two large, closely written sheets of paper from his briefcase and waved them. “ – I could read a few passages from that letter right here. It would certainly move you, because it was written simply, if also with a well-meaning cleverness, and with much love for the father of her child. But I don’t want to keep you longer than is necessary for your enlightenment, nor do I want to hurt any remaining feelings for her my nephew might have. When he likes, he can read the letter for his own instruction in the quiet of his room which waits for him now.”

            But Karl didn’t have any feelings for the girl. In the press of a constantly falling past, she sat in the kitchen next to the kitchen dresser, resting her elbow on the surface. She watched him as he walked in and out of her kitchen to fetch a glass of drinking water for his father or to finish a job for his mother. Sometimes she contorted herself oddly to write a letter sideways on the dresser while taking her inspiration from Karl’s face. Sometimes she covered her eyes with her hands, and nothing could get through to her. Sometimes she kneeled in her cramped little room beside the kitchen and prayed to her wooden cross, Karl observed her then only with shyness through the crack in her barely opened door as he walked back. Sometimes she hunted around the kitchen and jumped back if Karl got in her way. Sometimes she closed the door when Karl walked in and held the door handle so long that he demanded to get out. Sometimes she brought him things he didn’t want and pushed them silently into his hand. But once she said “Karl!”, startled him with the unexpected greeting and took him sighing and grimacing into her little room, which she closed. She embraced him with a stranglehold around his neck, and while she begged him to undress her, she in reality undressed him and laid him in her bed as if she didn’t want to let anybody else have him from this day on, so she could stroke and nurse him until the end of the world. “Karl, O my Karl,” she cried as if she could look at him and claim him as her own, while he didn’t see the smallest thing and felt uncomfortable in the much too warm bedding, which she seemed to have piled up just for him. Then she laid herself down with him and wanted to pull some secrets from him, but he couldn’t tell her anything and she pestered him in jest or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, presented her breast for him to listen to, but when Karl couldn’t bring himself to do it, she dragged her naked belly onto his body, sought with her hand down between his legs, which so revolted Karl that his head and neck shuddered upwards from the pillows, then thrust that belly against him a couple of times, to him it was as if she were a piece of himself and perhaps for that reason he had been gripped by an appalling need for help. Finally he came back weeping to bed, after many requests on her part to meet again. That had been it, and yet his uncle thought there was a great story to be made of it. And so the cook had been thinking of him and had informed his uncle about his arrival. That had been handled wonderfully by her, and he would pay her back one day.

            “And now,” cried the senator, “I want to hear from you, am I your uncle or not?”

            “You are my uncle,” Karl said and kissed his hand and was kissed on the forehead. “I am very happy I met you, but you’re wrong if you think my parents only say bad things about you. And apart from that there were also a few mistakes in your speech, that is, I mean, it didn’t all happen like that, really. However, you couldn’t really judge these things very well from all the way over here, and I believe, in addition, it will bring no special harm, if these gentleman were informed a little incorrectly about the details of this matter, which can’t hold much interest for them.”

            “Well said,” said the senator, taking Karl to the sympathetic captain and saying, “Don’t I have a magnificent nephew?”

            “I am lucky,” said the captain with a bow as only comes from those trained in the military, “to have become acquainted with your nephew, senator. It is a special honor for my ship, that it could provide a place for such a meeting. But the journey in steerage must have been very trying. Who can tell who travels down there? Once, for example, the first-born of a powerful Hungarian magnate traveled in our steerage, I don’t remember his name why he took the trip. I only heard about it much later. Now we do everything possible to make the journey as easy as possible for the people in steerage, far more than, for example, the American lines, but enjoying yourself on that kind of trip . . . is never a successful venture.”

            “It didn’t hurt me,” said Karl.

            “It didn’t hurt him!” repeated the senator, laughing loudly.

            “Only I managed to lose my trunk – ” And with that he remembered everything that had happened and that remained to be done, looked around and caught sight of all those present, their eyes fixed on him, silent from respect and astonishment at his earlier circumstances. Only the harbor authorities showed regret – as far as their stern, complacent faces allowed – for having come at such an inconvenient time, and the pocket watch they relied on was probably as important to them as everything that had gone on in the room and anything that could possibly happen.

            The first one after the captain to give congratulations was, strangely enough, the stoker. “I congratulate you deeply,” he said and shook Karl’s hand, trying to squeeze out something like appreciation. When he wanted to turn with the same words to the senator, the man stepped back, as if the stoker were exceeding his rights; the stoker backed off immediately.

            The others, though, saw right away what to do and started a fuss over Karl and the senator. It even came about that Karl received congratulations from Schubal, took them and thanked him for them. At last the harbor authorities stepped into the returning quiet and said two words in English, which made quite a ridiculous impression.

            The senator was in the mood to take full advantage of this pleasantness by bringing out for the others every insignificant moment he could remember, and not only did the others tolerate it, they took it in with interest. So he was careful to mention he had marked down Karl’s most striking features from the cook’s letter into his notebook for some quick and necessary consulting. During the unbearable talking of the stoker, he had no other prospect but to distract himself by pulling out the notebook, and as a game he tried to connect the not quite detective-grade observations of the cook with Karl’s appearance. “And so one finds one’s nephew,” he said, as if he wanted to receive at least one more congratulation.

            “What’s going to happen to the stoker?” asked Karl, speaking over the last explanation of his uncle. He believed that, with his new position, everything he thought could be spoken aloud.

            “The stoker will get what he deserves,” said the senator, “and what the captain considers necessary. I believe we have had enough from the stoker, and more than enough. The gentleman will certainly agree with me.”

            “That’s not the point, it’s a matter of justice,” said Karl. He stood between the captain and his uncle, believing that in this position he could influence the decision to be handed down.

            And in spite of this it seemed that the stoker had stopped hoping. He stuck his hands halfway into his belt, and through his nervous movements revealed the stripes on his shirt. That didn’t concern him in the least, he had cried out all his complaints, now everyone should be allowed to see the pair of rags he carried on his body and then they should carry him out. He thought that the servant and Schubal, being the two lowest ranking here, should be the ones to do him this last kindness. Schubal would have quiet then and not be driven into despair, as the head accountant had put it. The captain would be able to hire nothing but Romanians, Romanian would be spoken everywhere and maybe then everything would go much better. No stoker would drone on in the head accountant’s office, they could remember only his last complaint in a somewhat kinder way, since, as the senator had put it, it had been the indirect reason for the recognizing of his nephew. This nephew had in any case tried quite often to be useful to him and had paid him back more than enough for his service in the reunion; it didn’t occur to the stoker now to ask anything of him. Besides, even if he was the nephew of a senator, he was still a long way from being a captain, and those final, evil words would in the end fall out of the captain’s mouth. So, following his opinions, he tried not to look at Karl, but in this room of foes, there was no other place for his eyes.

            “Don’t misunderstand the situation,” the senator said to Karl. “It feels perhaps like a matter of justice, but it’s really a matter of discipline. Both, and especially the last, are subject to the captain’s judgment.”

            “So it is,” the stoker mumbled. Anyone who heard this and understood was smiling uncomfortably.

            “Besides, we have already done enough to hinder the captain’s duties, which must pile up unbelievably upon arrival in New York, so now it is high time for us to abandon the ship, so we can keep ourselves from making a major event out of a useless interference in a petty squabble between two machinists. I completely understand the way you handled it, dear nephew, but that’s what gives me the right to get you out of here as fast as I can.”

            “I’ll get a boat going for you right away,” said the captain, without any objection to the senator’s words, to Karl’s astonishment, although these would certainly have been seen as demeaning. The head accountant rushed quickly to the writing desk and telephoned the captain’s order to the boatswain.

            “Time pushes on,” Karl said to himself, “but without offending everyone I can’t do a thing. I can’t abandon my uncle now that’s he just found me. The captain is very polite, but that’s just it. His politeness ends with his discipline, and my uncle had spoken from the heart. I don’t want to talk to Schubal, it makes me sorry I ever reached out a hand to him. And all the other people here don’t matter.”

            And he went slowly to the stoker with these thoughts in mind, grabbed his right hand out of his belt and held it effortlessly in his own. “Why don’t you say anything?” he asked. “Why are you letting this happen to you?”

            The stoker only wrinkled his brow, as if he were looking for the right words for what he was about to say.

            “An injustice has happened to you like none other on this ship, I know that well enough.” And Karl moved his fingers here and there in-between the fingers of the stoker, who looked around with shining eyes, as if he were in the sort of bliss that no one could hold against him.

            “You have to defend yourself, say yes and no, or none of the people will have any idea of the truth. You must promise to do as I say, because I myself, and I’m afraid of this for many reasons, I can’t help you anymore.” And Karl cried now as he kissed the stoker’s hand and took that cracked and almost lifeless hand and pressed it to his cheek like a treasure he had to give up. – But then Uncle Senator was by his side and took him away with only the slightest force. “The stoker seems to have enchanted you,” he said and looked understandingly at the captain over Karl’s head. “You felt abandoned, then you found the stoker and are grateful to him, and that’s praiseworthy. But don’t carry on like this, for my sake, and learn to understand your place.” A ruckus picked up from the door, they heard the cries and it was as if someone were brutally knocking against the door.

A sailor trotted in, somewhat unkempt, wearing a maid’s apron. “There’s a mob outside,” he cried and jabbed around with his elbows as if he were still in the crowd. Finally he found his senses and wanted to salute the captain, noticed the maid’s apron, ripped it off, slung it to the ground and cried, “That’s disgusting, someone put a maid’s apron on me!” Then, however, he clicked his heels together and saluted. Someone tried to laugh, but the captain said sternly, “That’s some good mood they’re in. Who’s outside?” “Those are my witnesses,” said Schubal, stepping forward. “I beg pardon for their inappropriate behavior. When these people have a sea voyage behind them, they sometimes get a little crazy.” – “Call them in immediately,” ordered the captain and turned to the senator, saying congenially but quickly, “Would you be as good, honored sir, to go with your nephew and follow this sailor, who will bring you to your boat. I must first say, it has been a pleasure and an honor to get to know you, senator. I wish sometime soon we could have the opportunity to pick up our interrupted discussion about the state of the American fleet, and then perhaps our conversation will be interrupted in as pleasant a manner as it was today.” “For the time being, one nephew is enough for me,” the uncle said, laughing. “And now, take all the best for your kindness, and farewell. It’s not so unlikely –” He grabbed Karl warmly. “ – that we could perhaps come together during our next trip to Europe.” “It would give me great joy,” said the captain. The two men shook each other’s hands, Karl could only reach out a silent and furtive hand to the captain, because he was already busy with the approximately fifteen people, somewhat disconcerted but still very loud, who were being guided in under the command of Schubal. The sailor asked the senator to allow him to go ahead and divided the heap of men for Karl and him, who walked easily through the bowing people. It seemed that all this good-natured crowd took the argument between Schubal and the stoker as a joke, whose absurdity reached all the way up to the captain. Karl noticed in the midst of them the kitchen maid Line, who waved cheerfully to him while wearing the cast-off apron of the sailor – it was hers.

            Again following the sailor, they abandoned the office and turned into a small hallway, which took them with a few steps to a small door, at which point they were led down the short staircase into the boat prepared for them. The sailors stood up in the boat and saluted as the guide sprang into it with a single motion. The senator gave Karl a warning to climb down carefully, and Karl broke into the fiercest weeping. The senator laid his right hand under Karl’s chin, pressed him tightly against himself and stroked him with his left hand. And so they went down slowly, stair for stair, and stepped embracing into the boat, where the senator chose a good spot opposite Karl. At a gesture from the senator, the sailors pushed off from the ship and were immediately in full work. They had barely gone a few yards from the ship when Karl made the unexpected discovery that they had found themselves on the side of the ship exactly below the window of the head office. All three windows overflowed with Schubal’s witnesses, who hollered and waved jovially, even the uncle acknowledged them and a sailor pulled off the trick of blowing a kiss with his hand without interrupting his exact rowing. It was as if there were no such thing as the stoker. Karl examined his uncle carefully in the eye, their knees almost touched, and it was doubtful that this man could ever replace the stoker. And the uncle avoided his looks and looked out at the waves on which their boat was tossing.

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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