Cover

CONTENTS

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Franz Kafka

Title Page

Introductory Note

1. The Stoker

2. Uncle Jacob

3. A Country House near New York

4. The Road to Rameses

5. The Hotel Occidental

6. The Case of Robinson

7. A Refuge

8. The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma

Postscript

Copyright

America

Franz Kafka

With an Introduction by
Edwin Muir

And a Postscript by
Max Brod

About the Book

The story of Karl Rossman who, after an embarrassing sexual misadventure with a servant girl, is banished to America by his parents. Expected to redeem himself in the magical land of opportunity, he instead gets swept up in a whirlwind of strange escapades and dizzying adventures.

About the Author

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, the son of a rich Jewish Czech merchant. After studying law he worked for a Prague insurance company. In later years he settled down in a Berlin suburb to concentrate on writing. In 1912 he met a young woman from Berlin, Felicie (Felice) Bauer, and was twice briefly engaged to her. His unhappy love affairs, his difficult relationship with his father, and his own inflexible intellectual honesty and intense sensitivity combined to weaken his health and in 1917 he discovered he was suffering from tuberculosis. In 1920 he met Milena Jesenska-Pollak, with whom he later corresponded. In 1923 he met Dora Dymant and lived with her for a time in Prague before he entered a sanitorium near Vienna. He died in 1924. Kafka published only seven works in his lifetime and left directions that his unpublished writings should be destroyed. These instructions were disregarded by his friend and executor Max Brod. The Trial appeared in 1925, followed by The Castle in 1926, America in 1927 and The Great Wall of China, a selection of his shorter fiction, in 1931.

ALSO BY FRANZ KAFKA

Fiction

Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Complete Short Stories

The Castle

The Trial

Non-fiction

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Letters to Felice

Letters to Milena

Introductory Note

AMERICA STANDS SOMEWHAT apart from Kafka’s two other long stories, The Castle and The Trial. On the surface, at least, it has little trace of allegory; it contains no inaccessible castles and no mysterious courts of justice. It deals with ordinary people, stokers, vagabonds, bankers, hotel employees; and they are not intended to have a symbolical meaning or to stand for anything but themselves. Yet America reads very like the other two books; the quality of the imagination is the same, and it takes us into a strange world which becomes stranger the more realistically, the more circumstantially, it is described. In the other two stories Kafka’s allegory is superb, taken as mere allegory; but the essence of his genius lies in those turns of his imagination which are quite unpredictable and cannot be given an allegorical meaning; in an obstinate strangeness which is the expression of his sense of the ambiguity of everything: ships and offices and hotels, as in the present book, or good and evil, justice and mercy, as in all his books. He sees everything solidly and ambiguously at the same time; and the more visually exact he succeeds in making things, the more questionable they become. The circumstantial description in the present story of the hotel where Karl Rossmann works as a lift-boy may be taken either as painstaking realism or as pure comic fantasy. It is really a description of the endless complication and imperfection of all human action which, in spite of both, most surprisingly works in practice. Every story of Kafka comes back eventually to that. So that it may be said of him that it hardly matters what he writes about; for any starting point will bring him to his subject.

America is one of the happiest of Kafka’s stories. In his other two long stories the fantasy is never far from nightmare; but here, except in the description of the country house and of Delamarche’s quarters with Brunelda, it is pure enjoyment, free improvisation without any or without much serious afterthought. The passages on the American desk, the American buffet, the American traffic regulations, are obviously comic variations on the sort of information which is provided by travel books. The description of the lift-boy’s sleeping arrangements, on the other hand, is pure invention bordering on farce; one feels here that Kafka is working everything out as he did in his two allegorical novels; given the conditions of the boy’s life, this, he seems to say, is what was bound to happen. He leaves nothing out of account; he exaggerates and extenuates nothing; with the most painstaking logic he arrives at broad farce. The Head Porter’s office is another comic masterpiece. This, too, is ‘worked out’; indeed one may say that in this book America itself, as Kafka knew it, that is from reading, is worked out, with very surprising results. It is exactly the same method as he used in the two allegorical novels, where he worked out the implications of divine justice and divine grace.

America is not allegorical; yet there is something semi-allegorical, or at least representative, about the hero, Karl Rossmann. All Kafka’s main figures have this quality; they are not mere individuals; they are images of man in conflict with fate. There are various points, or stations, in that conflict. Joseph Kafka in The Trial first defies, then tries to discover, then is overtaken by divine justice. Kafka in The Castle tries to be accepted by divine grace, which first eludes him, but is ironically granted him when, on his death-bed, he gives up the struggle. The boy Karl Rossmann in the present book stands for natural goodness and innocence; he is entangled without guilt in questionable situations, involved with bad companions (the infamous Delamarche and Robinson), falsely accused and in danger of arrest; but his natural innocence saves him from every danger. His story is the story of innocence, as that of the heroes of the other two books is the story of experience. Karl is still unfallen, though his life is spent among fallen creatures; the undercurrent of the story is therefore happy, in spite of the sordid circumstances in which it takes place; these only make Karl’s goodness shine out more clearly. The last chapter shows that the ending, too, was intended to be a happy one. The book was never finished, nor were the other two; for a writer who sets himself to work out the human situation embarks on a task which can be prolonged indefinitely, and to which there is no given term. In one of his aphorisms Kafka said: ‘There is an end, but no way; what we call the way is shilly-shallying.’ We know the end he had in mind for all his stories; but the road to it could have gone on forever, for life as he saw it was endlessly ambiguous; so that there seems to be a necessity in the gaps which are left in his three stories; if he had filled up these gaps, others would have appeared. Actually the gaps do not matter, for he found his subject everywhere.

Kafka’s imagination was unusually objective, in spite of its fantastic strangeness; in the work of no other modern writer is there a more circumstantial and just description of the human situation. But a biography recently published by his intimate friend, Dr Max Brod, throws a great deal of light on the actual material from which he constructed his picture of life. Kafka was an ailing and sensitive boy with a robust and domineering father. The Kafkas had always been renowned for their physical strength and their powers of endurance. Franz took after his mother, who came of a family of scholars given to religious contemplation. He felt from his childhood that his father was disappointed with him and never really accepted him. At the same time he wanted to be accepted, but on his own terms. The resulting conflict lasted until he was thirty-six, when he wrote his father an extraordinary letter, the size of a short volume, in which he analysed their relations from the start, doing impartial justice to both, and showing clearly how the tangle had arisen. But it did not get him nearer to his father, nor did it get him away from his father. The break did not come until a few years later, when he went to live in Berlin with Dora Dymant, a young Jewess belonging to the Chassid family. The few months from then to his death were the happiest in his life. He died in 1924, in his forty-first year, of tuberculosis.

The connexion between the actual story of Kafka’s relations with his father and the three chief stories he wrote is clear enough in itself; but he also expressly admitted it in the letter which he wrote when he was thirty-six. ‘My writings are about you,’ he told his father. ‘I merely poured out in them what I could not pour out on your breast. They were a deliberately prolonged farewell, imposed by you, certainly, but given a direction determined by myself.’ The Trial is the story of a man unjustly and yet legitimately persecuted for a fault of which he is unaware. The Castle is the story of a man who spends all his strength in trying to be accepted by an inaccessible authority which always eludes him. The harder he tries, the more ironical becomes the response of the inaccessible authority. In America the hero is cast off by his father for no fault of his own, but because ‘a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him’; the note is struck in the very first sentence. It is Karl’s separation that gives the book its atmosphere of freedom as compared with the other two books, where the tie is unbroken and father and son remain confronted, though invisible to each other, from beginning to end. Karl’s freedom is a fortuitous and wild freedom, filled with traps; but, away from his father, he eventually finds a place for himself where, as Dr Brod says, he regains ‘even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.’ The permanent preoccupation of Kafka’s mind, after being banished for most of the story, comes back again at the end, which is just as allegorical as The Trial and The Castle.

No imaginative writer chooses his theme; it is chosen for him by the experience which has most deeply affected him. To trace back the inspiration of Kafka’s stories to his relations with his father is not to belittle them or to give them a merely subjective validity. The extraordinary thing in Kafka was the profundity with which he grasped that experience and worked it out in universal terms, until it became a description of human destiny in general, into which countless meanings, at once ambiguous and clear, could be read. There is a less intense pressure behind the scenes in America than in the other books, and that is one of the things which make it perhaps the most purely delightful of Kafka’s books. But the father has not entirely disappeared; Karl acquires, one after another, a whole series of delusive fathers: his uncle Jacob, Mr Pollunder, amiable but unreliable, Mr Green, malicious and true to his word, and finally the pitiless ruffian Delamarche. The account of his life in Delamarche’s flat is one of the most wonderful episodes that Kafka ever wrote. There are countless fortuitous beauties in the book; perhaps the finest of them is Therese’s story of her mother’s death. The construction is far easier than that of The Castle and The Trial, and the ease comes from Karl’s ostensible freedom, which gave Kafka’s imagination, too, a licensed liberty.

EDWIN MUIR

1. The Stoker

AS KARL ROSSMANN, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

‘So high!’ he said to himself, and was gradually edged to the very rail by the swelling throng of porters pushing past him, since he was not thinking at all of getting off the ship.

A young man with whom he had struck up a slight acquaintance on the voyage called out in passing: ‘Not very anxious to go ashore, are you?’ ‘Oh, I’m quite ready,’ said Karl with a laugh, and being both strong and in high spirits he heaved his box on to his shoulder. But as his eye followed his acquaintance, who was already moving on among the others, lightly swinging a walking-stick, he realized with dismay that he had forgotten his umbrella down below. He hastily begged his acquaintance, who did not seem particularly gratified, to oblige him by waiting beside the box for a minute, took another survey of the situation to get his bearings for the return journey, and hurried away. Below decks he found to his disappointment that a gangway which made a handy short-cut had been barred for the first time in his experience, probably in connexion with the disembarkation of so many passengers, and he had painfully to find his way down endlessly recurring stairs, through corridors with countless turnings, through an empty room with a deserted writing-table, until in the end, since he had taken this route no more than once or twice and always among a crowd of other people, he lost himself completely. In his bewilderment, meeting no one and hearing nothing but the ceaseless shuffling of thousands of feet above him, and in the distance, like faint breathing, the last throbbings of the engines, which had already been shut off, he began unthinkingly to hammer on a little door by which he had chanced to stop in his wanderings.

‘It isn’t locked,’ a voice shouted from inside, and Karl opened the door with genuine relief. ‘What are you hammering at the door for, like a madman?’ asked a huge man, scarcely even glancing at Karl. Through an opening of some kind a feeble glimmer of daylight, all that was left after the top decks had used it up, fell into the wretched cubby-hole in which a bunk, a cupboard, a chair and the man were packed together, as if they had been stored there. ‘I’ve lost my way,’ said Karl. ‘I never noticed it during the voyage, but this is a terribly big ship.’ ‘Yes, you’re right there,’ said the man with a certain pride, fiddling all the time with the lock of a little sea-chest, which he kept pressing with both hands in the hope of hearing the wards snap home. ‘But come inside,’ he went on, ‘you don’t want to stand out there!’ ‘I’m not disturbing you?’ asked Karl. ‘Why, how should you disturb me?’ ‘Are you a German?’ Karl asked to reassure himself further, for he had heard a great deal about the perils which threatened newcomers to America, particularly from the Irish. ‘That’s what I am, yes,’ said the man. Karl still hesitated. Then the man suddenly seized the door handle and pulling the door shut with a hasty movement swept Karl into the cabin.

‘I can’t stand being stared at from the passage,’ he said, beginning to fiddle with his chest again, ‘people keep passing and staring in, it’s more than a man can bear.’ ‘But the passage is quite empty,’ said Karl, who was standing squeezed uncomfortably against the end of the bunk. ‘Yes, now,’ said the man. ‘But it’s now we were speaking about,’ thought Karl, ‘it’s hard work talking to this man.’ ‘Lie down on the bunk, you’ll have more room there,’ said the man. Karl scrambled in as well as he could, and laughed aloud at his first unsuccessful attempt to swing himself over. But scarcely was he in the bunk when he cried: ‘Good Lord, I’ve quite forgotten my box!’ ‘Why, where is it?’ ‘Up on deck, a man I know is looking after it. What’s his name again?’ And he fished a visiting-card from a pocket which his mother had made in the lining of his coat for the voyage. ‘Butterbaum, Franz Butterbaum.’ ‘Can’t you do without your box?’ ‘Of course not.’ ‘Well, then, why did you leave it in a stranger’s hands?’ ‘I forgot my umbrella down below and rushed off to get it; I didn’t want to drag my box with me. Then on top of that I got lost.’ ‘You’re all alone? Without anyone to look after you?’ ‘Yes, all alone.’ ‘Perhaps I should join up with this man,’ the thought came into Karl’s head, ‘where am I likely to find a better friend?’ ‘And now you’ve lost the box as well. Not to mention the umbrella.’ And the man sat down on the chair as if Karl’s business had at last acquired some interest for him. ‘But I think my box can’t be lost yet.’ ‘You can think what you like,’ said the man, vigorously scratching his dark, short, thick hair. ‘But morals change every time you come to a new port. In Hamburg your Butterbaum might maybe have looked after your box; while here it’s most likely that they’ve both disappeared.’ ‘But then I must go up and see about it at once,’ said Karl, looking round for the way out. ‘You just stay where you are,’ said the man, giving him a push with one hand on the chest, quite roughly, so that he fell back on the bunk again. ‘But why?’ asked Karl in exasperation. ‘Because there’s no point in it,’ said the man, ‘I’m leaving too very soon, and we can go together. Either the box is stolen and then there’s no help for it, or the man has left it standing where it was, and then we’ll find it all the more easily when the ship is empty. And the same with your umbrella.’ ‘Do you know your way about the ship?’ asked Karl suspiciously, and it seemed to him that the idea, otherwise plausible, that his things would be easier to find when the ship was empty must have a catch in it somewhere. ‘Why, I’m a stoker,’ said the man. ‘You’re a stoker!’ cried Karl delightedly, as if this surpassed all his expectations, and he rose up on his elbow to look at the man more closely. ‘Just outside the room where I slept with the Slovaks there was a little window through which we could see into the engine room.’ ‘Yes, that’s where I’ve been working,’ said the stoker. ‘I have always had a passion for machinery,’ said Karl, following his own train of thought, ‘and I would have become an engineer in time, that’s certain, if I hadn’t had to go to America.’ ‘Why did you have to go?’ ‘Oh, that!’ said Karl, dismissing the whole business with a wave of the hand. He looked with a smile at the stoker, as if begging his indulgence for not telling. ‘There was some reason for it, I suppose,’ said the stoker, and it was hard to tell whether in saying that he wanted to encourage or discourage Karl to tell. ‘I could be a stoker now too,’ said Karl, ‘it’s all one now to my father and mother what becomes of me.’ ‘My job’s going to be free,’ said the stoker, and to point his full consciousness of it, he stuck his hands into his trouser pockets and flung his legs in their baggy, leather-like trousers on the bunk to stretch them. Karl had to shift nearer to the wall. ‘Are you leaving the ship?’ ‘Yes, we’re paid off today.’ ‘But why? Don’t you like it?’ ‘Oh, that’s the way things are run; it doesn’t always depend on whether a man likes it or not. But you’re quite right, I don’t like it. I don’t suppose you’re thinking seriously of being a stoker, but that’s just the time when you’re most likely to turn into one. So I advise you strongly against it. If you wanted to study engineering in Europe, why shouldn’t you study it here? The American universities are ever so much better than the European ones.’ ‘That’s possible,’ said Karl, ‘but I have hardly any money to study on. I’ve read of someone who worked all day in a shop and studied at night until he became a doctor, and a mayor, too, I think, but that needs a lot of perseverance, doesn’t it? I’m afraid I haven’t got that. Besides, I wasn’t a particularly good scholar; it was no great wrench for me to leave school. And maybe the schools here are more difficult. I can hardly speak any English at all. Anyhow, people here have a prejudice against foreigners, I think.’ ‘So you’ve come up against that kind of thing too, have you? Well, that’s all to the good. You’re the man for me. See here, this is a German ship we’re on, it belongs to the Hamburg-American Line; so why aren’t the crew all Germans, I ask you? Why is the Chief Engineer a Roumanian? A man called Schubal. It’s hard to believe it. A measly hound like that slave-driving us Germans on a German ship! You mustn’t think’ – here his voice failed him and he gesticulated with his hands – ‘that I’m complaining for the sake of complaining. I know you have no influence and that you’re a poor lad yourself. But it’s too much!’ And he brought his fist several times down on the table, never taking his eyes from it while he flourished it. ‘I’ve signed on in ever so many ships’ – and he reeled off twenty names one after the other as if they were one word, which quite confused Karl – ‘and I’ve done good work in all of them, been praised, pleased every captain I ever had, actually stuck to the same cargo boat for several years, I did – he rose to his feet as if that had been the greatest achievements of his life – ‘and here on this tub, where everything’s done by rule and you don’t need any wits at all, here I’m no good, here I’m just in Schubal’s way, here I’m a slacker who should be kicked out and doesn’t begin to earn his pay. Can you understand that? I can’t.’ ‘Don’t you put up with it!’ said Karl excitedly. He had almost lost the feeling that he was on the uncertain boards of a ship, beside the coast of an unknown continent, so much at home did he feel here in the stoker’s bunk. ‘Have you seen the Captain about it? Have you asked him to give you your rights?’ ‘Oh, get away with you, out you get, I don’t want you here. You don’t listen to what I say, and then you give me advice. How could I go to the Captain?’ Wearily the stoker sat down again and hid his face in his hands.

‘I can’t give him any better advice,’ Karl told himself. And it occurred to him that he would have done better to go and get his box instead of handing out advice that was merely regarded as stupid. When his father had given him the box for good he had said in jest: ‘How long will you keep it?’ and now that faithful box had perhaps been lost in earnest. His sole remaining consolation was that his father could hardly learn of his present situation, even if he were to inquire. All that the shipping company could say was that he had safely reached New York. But Karl felt sorry to think that he had hardly used the things in the box yet, although, to take an instance, he should long since have changed his shirt. So his economies had started at the wrong point, it seemed; now, at the very beginning of his career, when it was essential to show himself in clean clothes, he would have to appear in a dirty shirt. Otherwise the loss of the box would not have been so serious, for the suit which he was wearing was actually better than the one in the box, which in reality was merely an emergency suit that his mother had hastily mended just before he left. Then he remembered that in the box there was a piece of Veronese salami which his mother had packed as an extra tit-bit, only he had not been able to eat more than a scrap of it, for during the voyage he had been quite without any appetite, and the soup which was served in the steerage had been more than sufficient for him. But now he would have liked to have the salami at hand, so as to present it to the stoker. For such people were easily won over by the gift of some trifle or other; Karl had learned that from his father, who deposited cigars in the pockets of the subordinate officials with whom he did business, and so won them over. Yet all that Karl now possessed in the way of gifts was his money, and he did not want to touch that for the time being, in case he should have lost his box. Again his thoughts turned back to the box, and he simply could not understand why he should have watched it during the voyage so vigilantly that he had almost lost his sleep over it, only to let that same box be filched from him so easily now. He remembered the five nights during which he had kept a suspicious eye on a little Slovak whose bunk was two places away from him on the left, and who had designs, he was sure, on the box. This Slovak was merely waiting for Karl to be overcome by sleep and doze off for a minute, so that he might manoeuvre the box away with a long, pointed stick which he was always playing or practising with during the day. By day the Slovak looked innocent enough, but hardly did night come on than he kept rising up from his bunk to cast melancholy glances at Karl’s box. Karl had seen this quite clearly, for every now and then someone would light a little candle, although it was forbidden by the ship’s regulations, and with the anxiety of the emigrant would peer into some incomprehensible prospectus of an emigration agency. If one of these candles was burning near him, Karl could doze off for a little, but if it was farther away or if the place was quite dark, he had to keep his eyes open. The strain of this task had quite exhausted him, and now perhaps it had all been in vain. Oh, that Butterbaum, if ever he met him again!

At that moment, in the distance, the unbroken silence was disturbed by a series of small, short taps, like the tapping of children’s feet; they came nearer, growing louder, until they sounded like the tread of quietly marching men. Men in single file, as was natural in the narrow passage, and a clashing as of arms could be heard. Karl, who had been on the point of relaxing himself in a sleep free of all worries about boxes and Slovaks, started up and nudged the stoker to draw his attention, for the head of the procession seemed just to have reached the door. ‘That’s the ship’s band,’ said the stoker, ‘they’ve been playing up above and have come back to pack up. All’s clear now, and we can go. Come!’ He took Karl by the hand, snatched at the last moment a framed picture of the Madonna from the wall above the bed, stuck it into his breast pocket, seized his chest, and with Karl hastily left the cubby-hole.

‘I’m going to the office now to give them a piece of my mind. All the passengers are gone; I don’t need to care what I do.’ The stoker kept repeating this theme with variations, and as he walked on kicked out his foot sideways at a rat which crossed his way, but merely drove it more quickly into its hole, which it reached just in time. He was slow in all his movements, for though his legs were long they were massive as well.

They went through part of the kitchen, where some girls in dirty white aprons – which they splashed deliberately – were washing dishes in great tubs. The stoker hailed a girl called Lina, put his arm round her waist, and since she coquettishly resisted the embrace dragged her a part of the way with him. ‘It’s pay-day; aren’t you coming along?’ he asked. ‘Why take the trouble; you can bring me the money here,’ she replied, squirming under his arm and running away. ‘Where did you pick up that good-looking boy?’ she cried after him, but without waiting for an answer. They could hear the laughter of the other girls, who had all stopped their work.

But they went on and came to a door above which there was a little pediment, supported by tiny, gilded caryatides. For a ship’s fitting it looked extravagantly sumptuous. Karl realized that he had never been in this part of the ship, which during the voyage had probably been reserved for passengers of the first and second class; but the doors that cut it off had now been thrown open to prepare for the cleaning down of the ship. Indeed, they had already met some men with brooms on their shoulders, who had greeted the stoker. Karl was amazed at the extent of the ship’s organization; as a steerage passenger he had seen very little of it. Along the corridors ran wires of electric installations, and a little bell kept sounding every now and then.

The stoker knocked respectfully at the door, and when someone cried ‘Come in!’ urged Karl with a wave of the hand to enter boldly. Karl stepped in, but remained standing beside the door. The three windows of this room framed a view of the sea, and gazing at the cheerful motion of the waves his heart beat faster, as if he had not been looking at the sea without interruption for five long days. Great ships crossed each other’s courses in either direction, yielding to the assault of the waves only as far as their ponderous weight permitted them. If one almost shut one’s eyes, these ships seemed to be staggering under their own weight. From their masts flew long, narrow pennants which, though kept taut by the speed of their going, at the same time fluttered a little. Probably from some battleship there could be heard salvoes, fired in salute, and a warship of some kind passed at no great distance; the muzzles of its guns, gleaming with the reflection of sunlight on steel, seemed to be nursed along by the sure, smooth motion, although not on an even keel. Only a distant view of the smaller ships and boats could be had, at least from the door, as they darted about in swarms through the gaps between the great ships. And behind them all rose New York, and its skyscrapers stared at Karl with their hundred thousand eyes. Yes, in this room one realized where one was.

At a round table three gentlemen were sitting, one a ship’s officer in the blue ship’s uniform, the two others harbour officials in black American uniforms. On the table lay piles of various papers, which the officer first glanced over, pen in hand, and then handed to the two others, who read them, made excerpts, and filed them away in portfolios, except when they were not actually engaged in taking down some kind of protocol which one of them dictated to his colleagues, making clicking noises with his teeth all the time.

By the first window a little man was sitting at a desk with his back to the door; he was busy with some huge ledgers ranked on a stout book-shelf on a level with his head. Beside him stood an open safe which, at first glance at least, seemed empty.

The second window was vacant and gave the better view. But near the third two gentlemen were standing conversing in low tones. One of them was leaning against the window; he was wearing the ship’s uniform and playing with the hilt of his sword. The man to whom he was speaking faced the window, and now and then a movement of his disclosed part of a row of decorations on the breast of his interlocutor. He was in civilian clothes and carried a thin bamboo cane which, as both his hands were resting on his hips, also stood out like a sword.

Karl did not have much time to see all this, for almost at once an attendant came up to them and asked the stoker, with a glance which seemed to indicate that he had no business here, what he wanted. The stoker replied as softly as he had been asked that he wished to speak to the Head Purser. The attendant made a gesture of refusal with his hand, but all the same tiptoed towards the man with the ledgers, avoiding the round table by a wide detour. The ledger official – this could clearly be seen – stiffened all over at the words of the attendant, but at last turned round towards this man who wished to speak to him and waved him away violently, repudiating the attendant too, to make quite certain. The attendant then sidled back to the stoker and said in the voice of one imparting a confidence: ‘Clear out of here at once!’

At this reply the stoker turned his eyes on Karl, as if Karl were his heart, to whom he was silently bewailing his grief. Without stopping to think, Karl launched himself straight across the room, actually brushing against one of the officers’ chairs, while the attendant chased after him, swooping with widespread arms as if to catch an insect; but Karl was the first to reach the Head Purser’s desk; which he gripped firmly in case the attendant should try to drag him away.

The whole room naturally sprang to life at once. The ship’s officer at the table leapt to his feet; the harbour officials looked on calmly but attentively; the two gentlemen by the window moved closer to each other; the attendant, who thought it was no longer his place to interfere, since his masters were now involved, stepped back. The stoker waited tensely by the door for the moment when his intervention should be required. And the Head Purser at last made a complete rightabout turn in his chair.

From his secret pocket, which he did not mind showing to these people, Karl hauled out his passport, which he opened and laid on the desk in lieu of further introduction. The Head Purser seemed to consider the passport irrelevant, for he flicked it aside with two fingers, whereupon Karl, as if that formality were satisfactorily settled, put it back in his pocket again.

‘May I be allowed to say,’ he then began, ‘that in my opinion an injustice has been done to my friend the stoker? There’s a certain man Schubal aboard who bullies him. He has a long record of satisfactory service on many ships, whose names he can give you, he is diligent, takes an interest in his work, and it’s really hard to see why on this particular ship, where the work isn’t so heavy as on cargo boats, for instance, he should get so little credit. It must be sheer slander that keeps him back and robs him of the recognition that should certainly be his. I have confined myself, as you can see, to generalities; he can lay his specific complaints before you himself.’ In saying this Karl had addressed all the gentlemen present, because in fact they were all listening to him, and because it seemed much more likely that among so many at least one just man might be found, than that the one just man should be the Head Purser. Karl also guilefully concealed the fact that he had known the stoker for such a short time. But he would have made a much better speech had he not been distracted by the red face of the man with the bamboo cane, which was now in his line of vision for the first time.

‘It’s all true, every word of it,’ said the stoker before anyone even asked him, indeed before anyone so much as looked at him. This over-eagerness on his part might have proved a great mistake if the man with the decorations who, it now dawned on Karl, was of course the Captain, had not clearly made up his mind to hear the case. For he stretched out his hand and called to the stoker: ‘Come here!’ in a voice as firm as a rock. Everything now depended on the stoker’s behaviour, for about the justice of his case Karl had no doubt whatever.

Luckily it appeared at this point that the stoker was a man of some worldly experience. With exemplary composure he drew out of his sea-chest, at the first attempt, a little bundle of papers and a notebook, walked over with them to the Captain as if that were a matter of course, entirely ignoring the Head Purser, and spread out his evidence on the window-ledge. There was nothing for the Head Purser to do but also to come forward. ‘The man is a notorious grumbler,’ he said in explanation, ‘he spends more time in the pay-room than in the engine-room. He has driven Schubal, who’s a quiet fellow, to absolute desperation. Listen to me!’ here he turned to the stoker. ‘You’re a great deal too persistent in pushing yourself forward. How often have you been flung out of the pay-room already, and serve you right too, for your impudence in demanding things to which you have no right whatever? How often have you gone running from the pay-room to the Purser’s office? How often has it been patiently explained to you that Schubal is your immediate superior, and that it’s him you have to deal with, and him alone? And now you actually come here, when the Captain himself is present, to pester him with your impudence, and as if that weren’t enough you bring a mouth-piece with you to reel off the absurd grievances you’ve drilled into him, a boy I’ve never even seen on the ship before!’

Karl forcibly restrained himself from springing forward. But the Captain had already intervened with the remark: ‘Better hear what the man has to say for himself. Schubal’s getting a good deal too big for his boots these days, but that doesn’t mean I think you’re right.’ The last words were addressed to the stoker; it was only natural that the Captain should not take his part at once, yet everything seemed to be going the right way. The stoker began to state his case and controlled himself so far at the very beginning as to call Schubal ‘Mr Schubal’. Standing beside the Head Purser’s vacant desk, Karl felt so pleased that in his delight he kept pressing the letter-scales down with his finger. Mr Schubal was unfair! Mr Schubal gave the preference to foreigners! Mr Schubal ordered the stoker out of the engine-room and made him clean water-closets, which was not a stoker’s job at all! At one point even the capability of Mr Schubal was called in question, as being more apparent than real. At this point Karl fixed his eyes on the Captain and stared at him with earnest deference, as if they had been colleagues, to keep him from being influenced against the stoker by the man’s awkward way of expressing himself. All the same, nothing definite emerged from the stoker’s outpourings, and although the Captain still listened thoughtfully, his eyes expressing a resolution to hear the stoker this time to the end, the other gentlemen were growing impatient and the stoker’s voice no longer dominated the room, which was a bad sign. The gentleman in civilian clothes was the first to show his impatience by bringing his bamboo stick into play and tapping, though only softly, on the floor. The others still looked up now and then; but the two harbour officials, who were clearly pressed for time, snatched up their papers again and began, though somewhat absently, to glance over them; the ship’s officer turned to his desk, and the Head Purser, who now thought he had won the day, heaved a loud ironical sigh. From the general dispersion of interest the only one who seemed to be exempt was the attendant, who sympathized to some extent with this poor man confronting the great, and gravely nodded to Karl as though trying to explain something.

Meanwhile, outside the windows, the life of the harbour went on; a flat barge laden with a mountain of barrels, which must have been wonderfully well packed, since they did not roll off, went past, almost completely obscuring the daylight; little motor-boats, which Karl would have liked to examine thoroughly if he had had time, shot straight past in obedience to the slightest touch of the man standing erect at the wheel. Here and there curious objects bobbed independently out of the restless water, were immediately submerged again and sank before his astonished eyes; boats belonging to the ocean liners were rowed past by sweating sailors; they were filled with passengers sitting silent and expectant as if they had been stowed there, except that some of them could not refrain from turning their heads to gaze at the changing scene. A movement without end, a restlessness transmitted from the restless element to helpless human beings and their works!

But everything demanded haste, clarity, exact statement; and what was the stoker doing? Certainly he was talking himself into a sweat; his hands were trembling so much that he could no longer hold the papers he had laid on the window-ledge; from all points of the compass complaints about Schubal streamed into his head, each of which, it seemed to him, should have been sufficient to dispose of Schubal for good; but all he could produce for the Captain was a wretched farrago in which everything was lumped together. For a long time the man with the bamboo cane had been staring at the ceiling and whistling to himself; the harbour officials now detained the ship’s officer at their table and showed no sign of ever letting him go again; the Head Purser was clearly restrained from letting fly only by the Captain’s composure; the attendant stood at attention, waiting every moment for the Captain to give an order concerning the stoker.

At that Karl could no longer remain inactive. So he advanced slowly towards the group, running over in his mind the more rapidly all the ways in which he could most adroitly handle the affair. It was certainly high time; a little longer, and they might quite well both of them be kicked out of the office. The Captain might be a good man and might also, or so it seemed to Karl, have some particular reason at the moment to show that he was a just master; but after all he wasn’t a mere instrument to be recklessly played on, and that was exactly how the stoker was treating him in the boundless indignation of his heart.

Accordingly Karl said to the stoker: ‘You must put things more simply, more clearly; the Captain can’t do justice to what you are telling him. How can he know all the mechanics and ship’s boys by name, far less by their first names, so that when you mention So-and-so he can tell at once who is meant? Take your grievances in order, tell the most important ones first and the lesser ones afterwards; perhaps you’ll find that it won’t be necessary even to mention most of them. You always explained them clearly enough to me!’ If boxes could be stolen in America, one could surely tell a lie now and then as well, he thought in self-excuse.

But was his advice of any use? Might it not already be too late? The stoker certainly stopped speaking at once when he heard the familiar voice, but his eyes were so blinded with tears of wounded dignity, of dreadful memory, of extreme present grief, that he could hardly even recognize Karl. How could he at this stage – Karl silently realized this, facing the now silent stoker – how could he at this stage suddenly change his style of argument, when it seemed plain to him that he had already said all there was to say without evoking the slightest sympathy, and at the same time that he had said nothing at all, and could not expect these gentlemen to listen to the whole rigmarole over again? And at such a moment Karl, his sole supporter, had to break in with so-called good advice which merely made it clear that everything was lost, everything.

‘If I had only spoken sooner, instead of looking out of the window,’ Karl told himself, dropping his eyes before the stoker and letting his hands fall to his sides as a sign that all hope was ended.

But the stoker mistook the action, feeling, no doubt, that Karl was nursing some secret reproach against him, and, in the honest desire to disabuse him, crowned all his other offences by starting to wrangle at this moment with Karl. At this very moment, when the men at the round table were completely exasperated by the senseless babble that disturbed their important labours, when the Head Purser was gradually beginning to find the Captain’s patience incomprehensible and was just on the point of exploding, when the attendant, once more entirely translated to his masters’ sphere, was measuring the stoker with savage eyes, and when, finally, the gentleman with the bamboo cane, whom even the Captain eyed now and then in a friendly manner, already quite bored by the stoker, indeed disgusted at him, had pulled out a little notebook and was obviously preoccupied with quite different thoughts, glancing first at the notebook and then at Karl.

‘I know,’ said Karl, who had difficulty in turning aside the torrent which the stoker now directed at him, but yet could summon up a friendly smile for him in spite of all dissension, ‘that you’re right, you’re right, I have never doubted it.’ In his fear of being struck by the stoker’s gesticulating hands he would have liked to catch hold of them, and still better to force the man into a corner so as to whisper a few soothing, reassuring words to him which no one else could hear. But the stoker was past all bounds. Karl now began actually to take a sort of comfort in the thought that in case of need the stoker could overwhelm the seven men in the room with the very strength of his desperation. But on the desk, as he could see at a glance, there was a bell-arrangement with far too many buttons; the mere pressure of one hand on them would raise the whole ship and call up all the hostile men that filled its passage-ways.

But here, in spite of his air of bored detachment, the gentleman with the bamboo cane came over to Karl and asked, not very loudly yet clearly enough to be heard above the stoker’s ravings: ‘By the way, what’s your name?’ At that moment, as if someone behind the door had been waiting to hear this remark, there was a knock. The attendant looked across at the Captain; the Captain nodded. Thereupon the attendant went to the door and opened it. Outside was standing a middle-sized man in an old military coat, not looking at all like the kind of person who would attend to machinery – and yet he was Schubal. If Karl had not guessed this from the expression of satisfaction which lit up all eyes, even the Captain’s, he must have recognized it with horror from the demeanour of the stoker, who clenched his fists at the end of his outstretched arms with a vehemence that made the clenching of them seem the most important thing about him, to which he was prepared to sacrifice everything else in life. All his strength was concentrated in his fists, including the very strength that held him upright.

And so here was the enemy, fresh and gay in his shore-going clothes, a ledger under his arm, probably containing a statement of the hours worked and the wages due to the stoker, and he was openly scanning the faces of everyone present, a frank admission that his first concern was to discover on which side they stood. All seven of them were already his friends, for even though the Captain had raised some objections to him earlier, or had pretended to do so because he felt sorry for the stoker, it was now apparent that he had not the slightest fault to find with Schubal. A man like the stoker could not be too severely repressed, and if Schubal were to be reproached for anything, it was for not having subdued the stoker’s recalcitrance sufficiently, since the fellow had dared to face the Captain after all.

Yet it might still be assumed that the confrontation of Schubal and the stoker would achieve, even before a human tribunal, the result which would have been awarded by divine justice, since Schubal, even if he were good at making a show of virtue, might easily give himself away in the long run. A brief flare-up of his evil nature would suffice to reveal it to those gentlemen, and Karl would arrange for that. He already had a rough and ready knowledge of the shrewdness, the weaknesses, the temper of the various individuals in the room, and in this respect the time he had spent there had not been wasted. It was a pity that the stoker was not more competent; he seemed quite incapable of decisive action. If one were to thrust Schubal at him, he would probably split the man’s hated skull with his fists. But it was beyond his power to take the couple of steps needed to bring Schubal within reach. Why had Karl not foreseen what so easily could have been foreseen: that Schubal would inevitably put in an appearance, if not of his own accord, then by order of the Captain? Why had he not outlined an exact plan of campaign with the stoker when they were on their way here, instead of simply walking in, hopelessly unprepared, as soon as they found a door, which was what they had done? Was the stoker even capable of saying a word by this time, of answering yes and no, as he must do if he were now to be cross-examined, although, to be sure, a cross-examination was almost too much to hope for? There he stood, his legs a-sprawl, his knees uncertain, his head thrown back, and the air flowed in and out of his open mouth as if the man had no lungs to control its motion.

But Karl himself felt more strong and clear-headed than perhaps he had ever been at home. If only his father and mother could see him now, fighting for justice in a strange land before men of authority, and, though not yet triumphant, dauntlessly resolved to win the final victory! Would they revise their opinion of him? Set him between them and praise him? Look into his eyes at last, at last, those eyes so filled with devotion to them? Ambiguous questions, and this the most unsuitable moment to ask them!