by Franz Kafka
Miss Bürstner’s Friend
For some time after this, K. found it impossible to exchange even just a few words with Miss Bürstner. He tried to reach her in many and various ways but she always found a way to avoid it. He would come straight home from the office, remain in her room without the light on, and sit on the sofa with nothing more to distract him than keeping watch on the empty hallway. If the maid went by and closed the door of the apparently empty room he would get up after a while and open it again. He got up an hour earlier than usual in the morning so that he might perhaps find Miss Bürstner alone as she went to the office. But none of these efforts brought any success. Then he wrote her a letter, both to the office and the flat, attempting once more to justify his behaviour, offered to make whatever amends he could, promised never to cross whatever boundary she might set him and begged merely to have the chance to speak to her some time, especially as he was unable to do anything with Mrs. Grubach either until he had spoken with Miss Bürstner, he finally informed her that the following Sunday he would stay in his room all day waiting for a sign from her that there was some hope of his request being fulfilled, or at least that she would explain to him why she could not fulfil it even though he had promised to observe whatever stipulations she might make. The letters were not returned, but there was no answer either. However, on the following Sunday there was a sign that seemed clear enough. It was still early when K. noticed, through the keyhole, that there was an unusual level of activity in the hallway which soon abated. A French teacher, although she was German and called Montag, a pale and febrile girl with a slight limp who had previously occupied a room of her own, was moving into Miss Bürstner’s room. She could be seen shuffling through the hallway for several hours, there was always another piece of clothing or a blanket or a book that she had forgotten and had to be fetched specially and brought into the new home.
When Mrs. Grubach brought K. his breakfast – ever since the time when she had made K. so cross she didn’t trust the maid to do the slightest job – he had no choice but to speak to her, for the first time in five days. “Why is there so much noise in the hallway today?” he asked as she poured his coffee out, “Can’t something be done about it? Does this clearing out have to be done on a Sunday?” K. did not look up at Mrs. Grubach, but he saw nonetheless that she seemed to feel some relief as she breathed in. Even sharp questions like this from Mr. K. she perceived as forgiveness, or as the beginning of forgiveness. “We’re not clearing anything out, Mr. K.,” she said, “it’s just that Miss Montag is moving in with Miss Bürstner and is moving her things across.” She said nothing more, but just waited to see how K. would take it and whether he would allow her to carry on speaking. But K. kept her in uncertainty, took the spoon and pensively stirred his coffee while he remained silent. Then he looked up at her and said, “What about the suspicions you had earlier about Miss Bürstner, have you given them up?” “Mr. K.,” called Mrs. Grubach, who had been waiting for this very question, as she put her hands together and held them out towards him. “I just made a chance remark and you took it so badly. I didn’t have the slightest intention of offending anyone, not you or anyone else. You’ve known me for long enough, Mr. K., I’m sure you’re convinced of that. You don’t know how I’ve been suffering for the past few days! That I should tell lies about my tenants! And you, Mr. K., you believed it! And said I should give you notice! Give you notice!” At this last outcry, Mrs. Grubach was already choking back her tears, she raised her apron to her face and blubbered out loud.
“Oh, don’t cry Mrs. Grubach,” said K., looking out the window, he was thinking only of Miss Bürstner and how she was accepting an unknown girl into her room. “Now don’t cry,” he said again as he turned his look back into the room where Mrs. Grubach was still crying. “I meant no harm either when I said that. It was simply a misunderstanding between us. That can happen even between old friends sometimes.” Mrs. Grubach pulled her apron down to below her eyes to see whether K. really was attempting a reconciliation. “Well, yes, that’s how it is,” said K., and as Mrs. Grubach’s behaviour indicated that the captain had said nothing he dared to add, “Do you really think, then, that I’d want to make an enemy of you for the sake of a girl we hardly know?” “Yes, you’re quite right, Mr. K.,” said Mrs. Grubach, and then, to her misfortune, as soon as she felt just a little freer to speak, she added something rather inept. “I kept asking myself why it was that Mr. K. took such an interest in Miss Bürstner. Why does he quarrel with me over her when he knows that any cross word from him and I can’t sleep that night? And I didn’t say anything about Miss Bürstner that I hadn’t seen with my own eyes.” K. said nothing in reply, he should have chased her from the room as soon as she had opened her mouth, and he didn’t want to do that. He contented himself with merely drinking his coffee and letting Mrs. Grubach feel that she was superfluous. Outside, the dragging steps of Miss Montag could still be heard as she went from one side of the hallway to the other. “Do you hear that?” asked K. pointing his hand at the door. “Yes,” said Mrs. Grubach with a sigh, “I wanted to give her some help and I wanted the maid to help her too but she’s stubborn, she wants to move everything in herself. I wonder at Miss Bürstner. I often feel it’s a burden for me to have Miss Montag as a tenant but Miss Bürstner accepts her into her room with herself.” “There’s nothing there for you to worry about” said K., crushing the remains of a sugar lump in his cup. “Does she cause you any trouble?” “No,” said Mrs. Grubach, “in itself it’s very good to have her there, it makes another room free for me and I can let my nephew, the captain, occupy it. I began to worry he might be disturbing you when I had to let him live in the living room next to you over the last few days. He’s not very considerate.” “What an idea!” said K. standing up, “there’s no question of that. You seem to think that because I can’t stand this to-ing and fro-ing of Miss Montag that I’m over-sensitive – and there she goes back again.” Mrs. Grubach appeared quite powerless. “Should I tell her to leave moving the rest of her things over till later, then, Mr. K.? If that’s what you want I’ll do it immediately.” “But she has to move in with Miss Bürstner!” said K. “Yes,” said Mrs. Grubach, without quite understanding what K. meant. “So she has to take her things over there.” Mrs. Grubach just nodded. K. was irritated all the more by this dumb helplessness which, seen from the outside, could have seemed like a kind of defiance on her part. He began to walk up and down the room between the window and the door, thus depriving Mrs. Grubach of the chance to leave, which she otherwise probably would have done.
Just as K. once more reached the door, someone knocked at it. It was the maid, to say that Miss Montag would like to have a few words with Mr. K., and therefore requested that he come to the dining room where she was waiting for him. K. heard the maid out thoughtfully, and then looked back at the shocked Mrs. Grubach in a way that was almost contemptuous. His look seemed to be saying that K. had been expecting this invitation for Miss Montag for a long time, and that it was confirmation of the suffering he had been made to endure that Sunday morning from Mrs. Grubach’s tenants. He sent the maid back with the reply that he was on his way, then he went to the wardrobe to change his coat, and in answer to Mrs. Grubach’s gentle whining about the nuisance Miss Montag was causing merely asked her to clear away the breakfast things. “But you’ve hardly touched it,” said Mrs. Grubach. “Oh just take it away!” shouted K. It seemed to him that Miss Montag was mixed up in everything and made it repulsive to him.
As he went through the hallway he looked at the closed door of Miss Bürstner’s room. But it wasn’t there that he was invited, but the dining room, to which he yanked the door open without knocking.
The room was long but narrow with one window. There was only enough space available to put two cupboards at an angle in the corner by the door, and the rest of the room was entirely taken up with the long dining table which started by the door and reached all the way to the great window, which was thus made almost inaccessible. The table was already laid for a large number of people, as on Sundays almost all the tenants ate their dinner here at midday.
When K. entered, Miss Montag came towards him from the window along one side of the table. They greeted each other in silence. Then Miss Montag, her head unusually erect as always, said, “I’m not sure whether you know me.” K. looked at her with a frown. “Of course I do,” he said, “you’ve been living here with Mrs. Grubach for quite some time now.” “But I get the impression you don’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the lodging house,” said Miss Montag. “No,” said K. “Would you not like to sit down?” said Miss Montag. In silence, the two of them drew chairs out from the farthest end of the table and sat down facing each other. But Miss Montag stood straight up again as she had left her handbag on the window sill and went to fetch it; she shuffled down the whole length of the room. When she came back, the handbag lightly swinging, she said, “I’d like just to have a few words with you on behalf of my friend. She would have come herself, but she’s feeling a little unwell today. Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to forgive her and listen to me instead. There’s anyway nothing that she could have said that I won’t. On the contrary, in fact, I think I can say even more than her because I’m relatively impartial. Would you not agree?” “What is there to say, then?” answered K., who was tired of Miss Montag continuously watching his lips. In that way she took control of what he wanted to say before he said it. “Miss Bürstner clearly refuses to grant me the personal meeting that I asked her for.” “That’s how it is,” said Miss Montag, “or rather, that’s not at all how it is, the way you put it is remarkably severe. Generally speaking, meetings are neither granted nor the opposite. But it can be that meetings are considered unnecessary, and that’s how it is here. Now, after your comment, I can speak openly. You asked my friend, verbally or in writing, for the chance to speak with her. Now my friend is aware of your reasons for asking for this meeting – or at least I suppose she is – and so, for reasons I know nothing about, she is quite sure that it would be of no benefit to anyone if this meeting actually took place. Moreover, it was only yesterday, and only very briefly, that she made it clear to me that such a meeting could be of no benefit for yourself either, she feels that it can only have been a matter of chance that such an idea came to you, and that even without any explanations from her, you will very soon come to realise yourself, if you have not done so already, the futility of your idea. My answer to that is that although it may be quite right, I consider it advantageous, if the matter is to be made perfectly clear, to give you an explicit answer. I offered my services in taking on the task, and after some hesitation my friend conceded. I hope, however, also to have acted in your interests, as even the slightest uncertainty in the least significant of matters will always remain a cause of suffering and if, as in this case, it can be removed without substantial effort, then it is better if that is done without delay.” “I thank you,” said K. as soon as Miss Montag had finished. He stood slowly up, looked at her, then across the table, then out the window – the house opposite stood there in the sun – and went to the door. Miss Montag followed him a few paces, as if she did not quite trust him. At the door, however, both of them had to step back as it opened and Captain Lanz entered. This was the first time that K. had seen him close up. He was a large man of about forty with a tanned, fleshy face. He bowed slightly, intending it also for K., and then went over to Miss Montag and deferentially kissed her hand. He was very elegant in the way he moved. The courtesy he showed towards Miss Montag made a striking contrast with the way she had been treated by K. Nonetheless, Miss Montag did not seem to be cross with K. as it even seemed to him that she wanted to introduce the captain. K. however, did not want to be introduced, he would not have been able to show any sort of friendliness either to Miss Montag or to the captain, the kiss on the hand had, for K., bound them into a group which would keep him at a distance from Miss Bürstner whilst at the same time seeming to be totally harmless and unselfish. K. thought, however, that he saw more than that, he thought he also saw that Miss Montag had chosen a means of doing it that was good, but two-edged. She exaggerated the importance of the relationship between K. and Miss Bürstner, and above all she exaggerated the importance of asking to speak with her and she tried at the same time to make out that K. was exaggerating everything. She would be disappointed, K. did not want to exaggerate anything, he was aware that Miss Bürstner was a little typist who would not offer him much resistance for long. In doing so he deliberately took no account of what Mrs. Grubach had told him about Miss Bürstner. All these things were going through his mind as he left the room with hardly a polite word. He wanted to go straight to his room, but a little laugh from Miss Montag that he heard from the dining room behind him brought him to the idea that he might prepare a surprise for the two of them, the captain and Miss Montag. He looked round and listened to find out if there might be any disturbance from any of the surrounding rooms, everywhere was quiet, the only thing to be heard was the conversation from the dining room and Mrs. Grubach’s voice from the passage leading to the kitchen. This seemed an opportune time, K. went to Miss Bürstner’s room and knocked gently. There was no sound so he knocked again but there was still no answer in reply. Was she asleep? Or was she really unwell? Or was she just pretending as she realised it could only be K. knocking so gently? K. assumed she was pretending and knocked harder, eventually, when the knocking brought no result, he carefully opened the door with the sense of doing something that was not only improper but also pointless. In the room there was no-one. What’s more, it looked hardly at all like the room K. had known before. Against the wall there were now two beds behind one another, there were clothes piled up on three chairs near the door, a wardrobe stood open. Miss Bürstner must have gone out while Miss Montag was speaking to him in the dining room. K. was not greatly bothered by this, he had hardly expected to be able to find Miss Bürstner so easily and had made this attempt for little more reason than to spite Miss Montag. But that made it all the more embarrassing for him when, as he was closing the door again, he saw Miss Montag and the captain talking in the open doorway of the dining room. They had probably been standing there ever since K. had opened the door, they avoided seeming to observe K. but chatted lightly and followed his movements with glances, the absent minded glances to the side such as you make during a conversation. But these glances were heavy for K., and he rushed alongside the wall back into his own room.
The Trial by Franz Kafka