You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

11. Mrs. Jack Awake

Mrs. Jack awoke at eight o’clock. She awoke like a child, completely alert and alive, instantly awake all over and with all sleep shaken clearly from her mind and senses the moment that she opened her eyes. It had been so with her all her life. For a moment she lay flat on her back and stared straight up at the ceiling.

Then with a vigorous and jubilant movement she flung the covers off of her small and opulent body, which was clothed with a long, sleeveless garment of thin yellow silk. She bent her knees briskly, drew her feet from beneath the covers, and straightened out flat again. She surveyed her small feet with a look of wonder and delight. The sight of her toes in perfect and solid alignment and of their healthy, shining nails filled her with pleasure.

With the same expression of childlike wonder and vanity she slowly lifted her left arm and began to revolve the hand deliberately before her fascinated eyes. She observed with tender concentration how the small and delicate wrist obeyed each command of her will, and she gazed raptly at the graceful, winglike movement of the hand and at the beauty and firm competence that were legible in its brown, narrow back and in the shapely fingers.. Then she lifted the other arm as well, and turned both hands upon their wrists, still gazing at them with a tender concentration of delight.

“What magic!” she thought. “What magic and strength are in them! God, how beautiful they are, and what things they can do! The design for everything I undertake comes out of me in the most wonderful and exciting way. It is all distilled and brewed inside of me — and yet nobody ever asks me how it happens! First, it is all one piece — like something solid in the head,” she thought comically, now wrinkling her forehead with an almost animal-like expression of bewildered difficulty. “Then it all breaks up into little particles, and somehow arranges itself, and then it starts to move!” she thought triumphantly. “First I can feel it coming down along my neck and shoulders, and then it is moving up across my legs and belly, then it meets and joins together like a star. Then it flows out into my arms until it reaches down into my finger-tips — and then the hand just does what I want it to. It makes a line, and everything I want is in that line. It puts a fold into a piece of cloth, and no one else on earth could put it in that way, or make it look the same. It gives a turn to the spoon, a prod to the fork, a dash of pepper when I cook for George,” she thought, “and there’s a dish the finest chef on earth could never equal — because it’s got me in it, heart and soul and all my love,” she thought with triumphant joy. “Yes! And everything I’ve ever done has been the same — always the clear design, the line of life, running like a thread of gold all through me back to the time I was a child.”

Now, having surveyed her deft and beautiful hands, she began deliberately to inspect her other members. Craning her head downwards, she examined the full outlines of her breasts, and the smooth contours of her stomach, thighs, and legs. She stretched forth her hands and touched them with approval. Then she put her hands down at her sides again and lay motionless, toes evenly in line, limbs straight, head front, eyes staring gravely at the ceiling — a little figure stretched out like a queen for burial, yet still warm, still palpable, immensely calm and beautiful, as she thought:

“These are my hands and these are my fingers, these are my legs and hips, these are my fine feet and my perfect toes — this is my body.”

And suddenly, as if the inventory of these possessions filled her with an immense joy and satisfaction, she sat up with a shining face and placed her feet firmly on the floor. She wriggled into a pair of slippers, stood up, thrust her arms out and brought the hands down again behind her head, yawned, and then put on a yellow quilted dressing-gown which had been lying across the foot of the bed.

Esther had a rosy, jolly, delicate face of noble beauty. It was small, firm, and almost heart-shaped, and in its mobile features there was a strange union of child and woman. The instant anyone met her for the first time he felt: “This woman must look exactly the way she did when she was a child. She can’t have changed at all.” Yet her face also bore the markings of middle age. It was when she was talking to someone and her whole countenance was lighted by a merry and eager animation that the child’s face was most clearly visible.

When she was at work, her face was likely to have the serious concentration of a mature and expert craftsman engaged in an absorbing and exacting labour, and it was at such time that she looked oldest. It was then that one noticed the somewhat fatigued and minutely wrinkled spaces round her eyes and some strands of grey that were beginning to sprinkle her dark-brown hair.

Similarly, in repose, or when she was alone, her face was likely to have a sombre, brooding depth. Its beauty then was profound and full of mystery. She was three parts a Jewess, and in her contemplative moods the ancient, dark, and sorrowful quality of her race seemed to take complete possession of her. She would wrinkle her brow with a look of perpelexity and grief, and in the cast of her features there would be a fatal quality, as of something priceless that was lost and irrecoverable. This look, which she did not wear often, had always troubled George Webber when he saw it because it suggested some secret knowledge buried deep within the woman whom he loved and whom he believed he had come to know.

But the way she appeared most often, and the way people remembered her best, was as a glowing, jolly, indomitably active and eager little creature in whose delicate face the image of the child peered out with joyfulness and immortal confidence. Then her apple-cheeks would glow with health and freshness, and when she came into a room she filled it with her loveliness and gave to everything about her the colour of morning life and innocence.

So, too, when she went out on the streets, among the thrusting throngs of desolate and sterile people, her face shone forth like a deathless flower among their dead, grey flesh and dark, dead eyes. They milled past her with their indistinguishable faces set in familiar expressions of inept hardness, betraying cunning without an end, guile without a purpose, cynical knowledge without faith or wisdom, yet even among these hordes of the unburied dead some would halt suddenly in the dreary fury of their existence and would stare at her with their harassed and driven eyes. Her whole figure with its fertile curves, opulent as the earth, belonged to an order of humanity so different from that of their own starved barrenness that they gazed after her like wretches trapped and damned in hell who, for one brief moment, had been granted a vision of living and imperishable beauty.

As Mrs. Jack stood there beside her bed, her maidservant, Nora Fogarty, knocked at the door and entered immediately, bearing a tray with a tall silver coffee-pot, a small bowl of sugar, a cup, saucer, and spoon, and the morning Times. The maid put the tray down on a little table beside the bed, saying in a thick voice:

“Good maar-nin’, Mrs. Jack.”

“Oh, hello, Nora!” the woman answered, crying out in the eager and surprised tone with which she usually responded to a greeting. “How are you — hah!” she asked, as if she were really greatly concerned, but immediately adding: “Isn’t it going to be a nice day? Did you ever see a more beautiful morning in your life?”

“Oh, beautiful, Mrs. Jack!” Nora answered. “Beautiful!”

The maid’s voice had a respectful and almost unctuously reverential tone of agreement as she answered, but there was in it an undernote of something sly, furtive, and sullen, and Mrs. Jack looked at her swiftly now and saw the maid’s eyes, inflamed with drink and irrationally choleric, staring back at her. Their rancour, however, seemed to be directed not so much at her mistress as at the general family of the earth. Or, if Nora’s eyes did swelter with a glare of spite more personal and direct, her resentment was blind and instinctive: it just smouldered in her with an ugly truculence, and she did not know the reason for it. Certainly it was not based on any feeling of class inferiority, for she was Irish, and a papist to the bone, and where social dignities were concerned she thought she knew on which side condescension lay.

She had served Mrs. Jack and her family for more than twenty years, and had grown slothful on their beauty, but in spite of a very affectionate devotion and warmth of old Irish feeling she had never doubted for a moment that they would ultimately go to hell, together with other pagans and all alien heathen tribes whatever. Just the same, she had done pretty well by herself among these prosperous infidels. She had a “cushy” job, she always fell heir to the scarcely-worn garments of Mrs. Jack and her sister Edith, and she saw to it that the policeman who came to woo her several times a week should lack for nothing in the way of food and drink to keep him contented and to forestall any desire he might have to stray off and forage in other pastures. Meanwhile, she had laid by several thousand dollars, and had kept her sisters and nieces back in County Cork faithfully furnished with a titillating chronicle (sprinkled with pious interjections of regret and deprecation and appeals to the Virgin to watch over her and guard her among such infidels) of high life in this rich New World that had such pickings in it.

No — decidedly this truculent resentment which smouldered in her eyes had nothing to do with caste. She had lived here for twenty years, enjoying the generous favour of a very good, superior sort of heathen, and growing used to almost all their sinful customs, but she had never let herself forget where the true way and the true light was, nor her hope that she would one day return into the more civilised and Christian precincts of her own kind.

Neither did the grievance in the maid’s hot eyes come from a sense of poverty, the stubborn, silent anger of the poor against the rich, the feeling of injustice that decent people like herself should have to fetch and carry all their lives for idle, lazy wasters. She was not feeling sorry for herself because she had to drudge with roughened fingers all day long in order that this fine lady might smile rosily and keep beautiful. Nora knew full well that there was no task in all the household range of duties, whether of serving, mending, cooking, cleaning, or repairing, which her mistress could not do far better and with more dispatch than her.

She knew, too, that every day in the great city which roared all about her own dull ears this other woman was going back and forth with the energy of a dynamo, buying, ordering, fitting, cutting, and designing — now on the scaffolds with the painters, beating them at their own business in immense, draughty, and rather dismal rooms where her’ designs were wrought out into substance, now sitting cross-legged among great bolts of cloth and plying a needle with a defter finger than any on the flashing hands of the pallid tailors all about her, now searching and prying indefatigably through a dozen gloomy little junk shops until she unearthed triumphantly the exact small ornament which she must have. She was always after her people, always pressing on, formidably but with good humour, keeping the affair in hand and pushing it to its conclusion in spite of the laziness, carelessness, vanity, stupidity, indifference, and faithlessness of those with whom she had to work — painters, actors, scene-shifters, bankers, union bosses, electricians, tailors, costumers, producers, and directors. Upon this whole motley and, for the most part, shabbily inept crew which carried on the crazy and precarious affair known as “show business”, she enforced the structure, design, and incomparably rich colour of her own life. Nora knew about all this.

The maid had also seen enough of the hard world in which her mistress daily strove and conquered to convince herself that even if she had had any of the immense talent and knowledge that her mistress possessed, she did not have in all her lazy body as much energy, resolution, and power as the other woman carried in the tip of her little finger. And this awareness, so far from arousing any feeling of inferiority in her, only contributed to her self-satisfaction, making her feel that it was Mrs. Jack, not herself, who was really the working woman, and that she — enjoying the same food, the same drink, the same shelter, even the same clothing — would not swap places with her for anything on earth.

Yes, the maid knew that she was fortunate and had no cause for complaint; yet her grievance, ugly and perverse, glowered implacably in her inflamed and mutinous eyes. And she could not have found a word or reason for it. But as the two women faced each other no word was needed. The reason for it was printed in their flesh, legible in everything they did. It was not against Mrs. Jack’s wealth, authority, and position that the maid’s rancour was directed, but against something much more personal and indefinable — against the very tone and quality of the other woman’s life. For within the past year there had come over the maid a distempered sense of failure and frustration, an obscure but powerful feeling that her life had somehow gone awry and was growing into sterile and fruitless age without ever having come to any ripeness. She was baffled and tormented by a sense of having missed something splendid and magnificent in life, without knowing at all what it was. But whatever it was, her mistress seemed marvellously somehow to have found it and enjoyed it to the full, and this obvious fact, which she could plainly see but could not define, goaded her almost past endurance.

Both women were about the same age, and so nearly the same size that the maid could wear any of her mistress’s garments without alteration. But if they had been creatures from separate planetary systems, if each had been formed by a completely different protoplasm, the contrast between them could not have been more extreme.

Nora was not an ill-favoured woman. She had a mass of fairly abundant black hair which she brushed over to the side. Her face, had it not been for the distempered look which drink and her own baffled fury had now given it, would have been pleasant and attractive. There was warmth in it, but there was also a trace of that wild fierceness which belongs to something lawless in nature, at once coarse and delicate, murderous, tender, and savagely ebullient. She still had a trim figure, which wore neatly the well-cut skirt of rough green plaid which her mistress had given her (for, because of her long service, she was recognised as a kind of unofficial captain to the other maids and was usually not required to wear maid’s uniform). But where the figure of the mistress was small of bone and fine of line and yet at the same time lavish and seductive, the figure of the maid was, by contrast, almost thick and clumsy-looking. It was the figure of a woman no longer young, fresh, and fertile, but already heavied, thickened, dried, and hardened by the shock, the wear, the weight, and the slow accumulation of intolerable days and merciless years, which take from people everything, and from which there is no escape.

No — no escape, except for her, the maid was thinking bitterly, with a dull feeling of inarticulate outrage, and for her, for her, there was never anything but triumph. For her the years brought nothing but a constantly growing success. And why? Why?

It was here, upon this question, that her spirit halted like a wild beast baffled by a sheer and solid blank of wall. Had they not both breathed the same air, eaten the same food, been clothed by the same garments, and sheltered by the same roof? Had she not had as much — and as good — of everything as her mistress? Yes — if anything she had had the better of it, for she would not drive herself from morning to night, she thought with contemptuous bitterness, the way her mistress did.

Yet here she stood, baffled and confused, glowering sullenly into the shining face of the other woman’s glorious success — and she saw it, she knew it, she felt its outrage, but she had no word to voice her sense of an intolerable wrong. All she knew was that she had been stiffened and thickened by the same years that had given the other woman added grace and suppleness, that her skin had been dried and sallowed by the same lights and weathers that had added lustre to the radiant beauty of the other, and that even now her spirit was soured by her knowledge of ruin and defeat while in the other woman there coursed for ever an exquisite music of power and control, of health and joy.

Yes, she saw it plainly enough. The comparison was cruelly and terribly true, past the last atom of hope and disbelief. And as she stood there before her mistress with the weary distemper in her eyes, enforcing by a stern compulsion the qualities of obedience and respect into her voice, she saw, too, that the other woman read the secret of her envy and frustration, and that she pitied her because of it. And for this Nora’s soul was filled with hatred, because pity seemed to her the final and intolerable indignity.

In fact, although the kind and jolly look on Mrs. Jack’s lovely face had not changed a bit since she had greeted the maid, her eye had observed instantly all the signs of the unwholesome fury that was raging in the woman, and with a strong emotion of pity, wonder, and regret she was thinking:

“She’s been at it again! This is the third time in a week that she’s been drinking. I wonder what it is — I wonder what it is that happens to that kind of person.”

Mrs. Jack did not know clearly what she meant by “that kind of person”, but she felt momentarily the detached curiosity that a powerful, rich, and decisive character may feel when he pauses for a moment from the brilliant exercise of a talent that has crowned his life with triumphant ease and success almost every step of the way, and notes suddenly, and with surprise, that most of the other people in the world are fumbling blindly and wretchedly about, eking out from day to day the flabby substance of grey lives. She realised with regret that such people are so utterly lacking in any individual distinction that each seems to be a small particle of some immense and vicious life-stuff rather than a living creature who is able to feel and to inspire love, beauty, joy, passion, pain, and death. With a sense of sudden discovery the mistress was feeling this as she looked at the servant who had lived with her familiarly for almost twenty years, and now for the first time she reflected on the kind of life the other woman might have had.

“What is it?” she kept thinking. “What’s gone wrong with her? She never used to be this way. It has all happened within the last year. And Nora used to be so pretty, too!” she thought, startled by the memory. “Why, when she first came to us she was really a very handsome girl. Isn’t it a shame,” she thought indignantly, “that she should let herself go to seed like this — a girl who’s had the chances that she’s had! I wonder why she never married. She used to have half a dozen of those big policemen on the string, and now there’s only one who still comes faithfully. They were all mad about her, and she could have had her pick of them!”

All at once, as she was looking at the servant with kindly interest, the woman’s breath, foul with a stale whisky stench, was blown upon her, and she got suddenly a rank body smell, strong, hairy, female, and unwashed. She frowned with revulsion, and her face began to burn with a glow of shame, embarrassment, and acute distaste.

“God, but she stinks!” she thought, with a feeling of horror and disgust. “You could cut the smell round her with an axe! The nasty things!” she thought, now including all the servants in her indictment. “I’ll bet they never wash — and here they are all day long with nothing to do, and they could at least keep clean! My God! You’d think these people would be so glad to be here in this lovely place with the fine life we’ve made for them that they would be a little proud of it and try to show that they appreciate it! But no! They’re just not good enough!” she thought scornfully, and for a moment her fine mouth was disfigured at one corner by an ugly expression.

It was an expression which had in it not only contempt and scorn, but also something almost racial — a quality of arrogance that was too bold and naked, as if it were eager to assert its own superiority. This ugly look rested only for a second, and almost imperceptibly, about the edges of her mouth, and it did not sit well on her lovely face. Then it was gone. But the maid had seen it, and that swift look, with all its implications, had stung and whipped her tortured spirit to a frenzy.

“Oh, yes, me fine lady!” she was thinking. “It’s too good fer the likes of us ye are, ain’t it? Oh me, yes, an’ we’re very grand, ain’t we? What wit’ our fine clothes an’ our evenin’ gowns an’ our forty pairs of hand-made shoes! Jesus, now! Ye’d think she was some kind of centipede to see the different pairs of shoes she’s got! An’ our silk petticoats an’ step-ins that we have made in Paris, now! Yes! That makes us very fine, don’t it? It’s not as if we ever did a little private monkey-business on the side, like ordinary people, is it? Oh, me, no! We are gathered together wit’ a friend fer a little elegant an’ high-class entertainment durin’ the course of the evenin’! But if it’s some poor girl wit’out an extra pair of drawers to her name, it’s different, now! It’s: ‘Oh! you nasty thing! I’m disgusted wit’ you!’ . . . Yes! An’ there’s many a fine lady livin’ on Park Avenoo right now who’s no better, if the truth was told! That I know! So just take care, me lady, not to give yerself too many airs!” she thought with rancorous triumph . . .

“Ah! if I told all that I know! ‘Nora,’ she says, ‘if anyone calls when I’m not here, I wish ye’d take the message yerself. Mr. Jack don’t like to be disturbed.’ . . . Jesus! From what I’ve seen there’s none of ’em that likes to be disturbed. It’s love and let love wit’ ’em, no questions ast an’ the divil take the hindmost, so long as ye do it in yer leisure hours. But if ye’re twenty minutes late fer dinner, it’s where the hell have ye been, an’ what’s to become of us when ye neglect yer family in this way? . . . Sure,” she thought, warming with a flush of humour and a more tolerant and liberal spirit, “it’s a queer world, ain’t it? An’ these are the queerest of the lot! Thank God I was brought up like a Christian in the Holy Church, an’ still have grace enough to go to Mass when I have sinned! But then ——”

As often happens with people of strong but disordered feelings, she was already sorry for her flare of ugly temper, and her affections were now running warmly in another direction:

“But then, God knows, there’s not a better-hearted sort of people in the world! There’s no one I’d rather work fer than Mrs. Jack. They’ll give ye everything they have if they like ye. I’ve been here twenty years next April, an’ in all that time no one has ever been turned away from the door who needed food. Sure, there’s far worse that go to Mass seven days a week — yes, an’ would steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes if they got the chance! It’s a good home we’ve been given here — as I keep tellin’ all the rest of ’em,” she thought with virtuous content, “an’ Nora Fogarty’s not the one to turn an’ bite the hand that’s feedin’ her — no matter what the rest of ’em may do!”

All this had passed in the minds and hearts of the two women with the instancy of thought. Meanwhile, the maid, having set the tray down on the little table by the bed, had gone to the windows, lowered them, raised the blinds to admit more light, slightly adjusted the curtains, and was now in the bathroom drawing the water in the tub, an activity signalised at first by the rush of tumbling waters, and later by a sound more quiet and sustained as she reduced the flow and tempered the boiling fluid to a moderate heat.

While this was going on, Mrs. Jack had seated herself on the edge of her bed, crossed her legs jauntily, poured out a cup of black steaming coffee from the tall silver pot, and opened the newspaper which lay folded on the tray. And now, as she drank her coffee and stared with blank, unseeing eyes at the print before her, there was a perplexed frown on her face, and she was slipping one finger in and out of a curious and ancient ring which she wore on her right hand. It was a habit which she performed unconsciously, and it always indicated a state of impatience and nervousness, or the troubled reflection of a mind that was rapidly collecting itself for a decisive action. So, now, her first emotions of pity, curiosity, and regret having passed, the practical necessity of doing something about Nora was pressing at her.

“That’s where Fritz’s liquor has been going,” she thought. “He’s been furious about it . . . She’s got to stop it. If she keeps on at this rate, she’ll be no good for anything in another month or two . . . God! I could kill her for being such a fool!” she thought. “What gets into these people, anyway?” Her small and lovely face now red with anger, the space between her troubled eyes cleft deeply by a frown, she determined to speak plainly and sternly to the maid without any more delay.

This decision being made, she was conscious instantly of a sense of great relief and a feeling almost of happiness, for indecision was alien to the temper of her soul. The knowledge of the maid’s delinquency had been nagging at her conscience for some time, and now she wondered why she had ever hesitated. Yet, when the maid came back into the room again and paused before going out, as if waiting for further orders, and looked at her with a glance that now seemed affectionate and warm, Mrs. Jack felt acute embarrassment and regret as she began to speak, and, to her surprise, she found herself beginning in a hesitant and almost apologetic tone.

“Oh, Nora!” she said somewhat excitedly, slipping the ring rapidly on and off her finger. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

“Yes, Mrs. Jack,” Nora answered humbly, and waited respectfully. “It’s something Miss Edith wanted me to ask you,” she went on quickly, somewhat timidly, discovering to her amazement that she was beginning her reproof quite differently from the way she had intended.

Nora waited in an attitude of studious and submissive attention.

“I wonder if you or any of the other girls remember seeing a dress Miss Edith had,” she said, and went on quickly —“one of those dresses she brought back last year from Paris. It had a funny grey-green kind of colour and she used to wear it in the morning when she went to business. Do you remember — hah?” she said sharply.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Nora with a solemn, wondering air. “I’ve seen it, Mrs. Jack.”

“Well, Nora, she can’t find it. It’s gone.”

“Gone?” said Nora, staring at her with a stupid and astonished look.

But even as the servant repeated the word, a furtive smile played round her mouth, betraying her sullen humour, and a look of sly triumph came in her eyes. Mrs. Jack read the signs instantly:

“Yes! She knows where it is!” she thought. “Of course she knows! One of them has taken it! It’s perfectly disgraceful, and I’m not going to stand it any longer!”— and a wave of indignation, hot and choking, boiled up in her. “Yes, gone! It’s gone, I tell you!” she said angrily to the staring maid. “What’s become of it? Where do you think it’s gone to?” she asked bluntly.

“I don’t know, Mrs. Jack,” Nora answered in a slow, wondering tone. “Miss Edith must have lost it.”

“Lost it! Oh, Nora, don’t be stupid!” she cried furiously. “How could she lose it? She’s been nowhere. She’s been here all the time. And the dress was here, too, hanging in her closet, up to a week ago! How can you lose a dress?” she cried impatiently. “Is it just going to crawl off your back and walk away from you when you’re not looking?” she said sarcastically. “You know she didn’t lose it! Someone’s taken it!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nora said with dutiful acquiescence. “That’s what I think, too. Someone must have sneaked in here when all of yez was out an’ taken it. Ah, I tell ye,” she remarked with a regretful movement of the head, “it’s got so nowadays ye never know who to trust and who not to,” she observed sententiously. “A friend of mine who works fer some big people up at Rye was tellin’ me just the other day about a man that came there wit’ some kind of a floor-mop he had to sell — ast to try it out an’ show ’em how it worked upon their floors, ye know, an’ a finer, cleaner-lookin’ boy, she says, ye wouldn’t see again in yer whole lifetime. ‘An’ my God! she says — I’m tellin’ ye just the way she told it to me, Mrs. Jack —‘I couldn’t believe me own ears when they told me later what he’d done! If he’d been me own brother I couldn’t have been more surprised!’ she says. — Well, it just goes to show ye that ——”

“Oh, Nora, for heaven’s sake!” Mrs. Jack cried with an angry and impatient gesture. “Don’t talk such rot to me! Who would come in here without your knowing it? You girls are here all day long, there’s only the elevator and the service entrance, and you see everyone who comes in! And besides, if anyone ever took the trouble to break in, you know he wouldn’t stop with just one dress. He’d be after money or jewellery or something valuable that he could sell.”

“Well, now, I tell ye,” Nora said, “that man was here last week to fix the refrigerator. I says to May at the time: ‘I don’t like the look of him,’ I says. ‘There’s somethin’ in his face that I don’t like. Keep yer eye on him,’ I says, ‘because ——’”

Nora!

At the sharp warning in her mistress’s voice the maid stopped suddenly, looked quickly at her, and then was silent, with a dull flush of shame and truculence upon her face. Mrs. Jack stared back at her with a look of burning indignation, then she burst out with open, blazing anger.

“Look here!” Mrs. Jack cried furiously. “I think it’s a dirty shame the way you girls are acting! We’ve been good to you! Nora,” and now her voice grew gentler with pity, “there are no girls in this town who’ve been better treated than you have.”

“Don’t I know it, Mrs. Jack,” Nora answered in a lilting and earnest tone, but her eyes were sullenly hostile and resentful. “Haven’t I always said the same? Wasn’t I sayin’ the same thing meself to Janie just the other day? ‘Sure,’ I says, ‘but we’re the lucky ones! There’s no one in the world I’d rather work fer than Mrs. Jack. Twenty years,’ I says, ‘I’ve been here, an’ in all that time,’ I says, ‘I’ve never heard a cross word from her. They’re the best people in the world,’ I says, ‘an’ any girl that gets a job wit’ ’em is lucky!’ Sure, don’t I know all of ye”— she cried richly —“Mr. Jack an’ Miss Edith an’ Miss Alma? Wouldn’t I get down on me knees right now an’ scrub me fingers to the bone if it would help ye any?”

“Who’s asking you to scrub your fingers to the bone?” Mrs. Jack cried impatiently. “Lord, Nora, you girls have it pretty soft. There’s mighty little scrubbing that you’ve had to do!” she said. “It’s the rest of us who scrub!” she cried. “We go out of here every morning — six days in the week — and work like hell ——”

“Don’t I know it, Mrs. Jack?” Nora broke in. “Wasn’t I sayin’ to May just the other day ——”

“Oh, damn what you said to May!” For a brief moment Mrs. Jack looked at the servant with a straight, burning face. Then she spoke more quietly to her. “Nora, listen to me,” she said. “We’ve always given you girls everything you ever asked for. You’ve had the best wages anyone can get for what you do. And you’ve lived here with us just the same as the rest of us, for you know very well that ——”

“Sure,” Nora interrupted in a richly sentimental tone. “It hasn’t been like I was workin’ here at all! Ye couldn’t have treated me any better if I’d been one of the family!”

“Oh, one of the family my eye!” Mrs. Jack said impatiently. “Don’t make me laugh! There’s no one in the family — unless maybe it’s my daughter, Alma — who doesn’t do more in a day than you girls do in a week! You’ve lived the life of Riley . . . here! The life of Riley!” she repeated, almost comically, and then she sat looking at the servant for a moment, a formidable little dynamo trembling with her indignation, slowly clenching and unclenching her small hands at her sides. “Good heavens, Nora!” she burst out in a furious tone. “It’s not as if we ever begrudged you anything! We’ve never denied you anything you asked for! It’s not the value of the dress! You know very well that Miss Edith would have given it to any one of you if you had gone to her and asked her for it! But — oh, it’s intolerable! — intolerable!” she exclaimed suddenly in uncontrollable anger —“that you should have no more sense or decency than to do a thing like that to people who have always been your friends!”

“Sure, an’ do ye think I’d be the one who’d do a thing like that?” cried Nora in a trembling voice. “Is it me ye’re accusin’, Mrs. Jack, when I’ve lived here wit’ yez all this time? They could take me right hand”— in her rush of feeling she held the member up —“an’ chop it from me arm before I’d take a button that belonged to one of yez. An’ that’s God’s truth,” she added solemnly. “I swear it to ye as I hope to live an’ be forgiven fer me sins!” she declared more passionately as her mistress started to speak. “I never took a pin or penny that belonged to any one of yez — an’ so help me God, that’s true! An’ yes! I’ll swear it to ye be everything that’s holy!” she now cried, tranced in a kind of ecstasy of sacred vows. “By the soul an’ spirit of me blessed mother who is dead ——”

“Ah, Nora!” Mrs. Jack said pityingly, shaking her head and turning away, and, in spite of her indignation, breaking into a short laugh at the extravagance of the servant’s oaths. And she thought with a bitter, scornful humour: “God! You can’t talk to her! She’ll swear a thousand oaths and think that makes everything all right! Yes! and will drink Fritz’s whisky and go to Mass if she has to crawl to get there — and cross herself with holy water — and listen to the priest say words she cannot understand — and come out glorified — to act like this when she knows that one of the girl’s is taking things that don’t belong to her! What strange and magic things these oaths and ceremonies are!” she thought. “They give a kind of life to people who have none of their own. They make a kind of truth for people who have found none for themselves. Love, beauty, everlasting truth, salvation — all that we hope and suffer for on earth is in them for these people. Everything that the rest of us have to get with our blood and labour, and by the anguish of our souls, is miraculously accomplished for them, somehow,” she thought ironically, “if they can only swear to it ‘by the soul an’ spirit of me blessed mother who is dead.’”

“— An’ so help me God, by all the Blessed Saints, an’ by the Holy Virgin, too!” she heard Nora’s voice intoning; and, wearily, she turned to the maid again and spoke to her softly, with an almost pleading earnestness:

“Nora, for God’s sake have a little sense,” she said. “What is the use of all this swearing by the Virgin and the Saints, and getting up and going out to Mass, when all you do is come back home to swill down Mr. Jack’s whisky? Yes, and deceive the people who have been the best friends you ever had!” she cried out bitterly. Then, seeing the old mutinous look flaring again in the maid’s sullen and distempered eyes, she went on almost tearfully: “Nora, try to have a little wisdom. Is this all you’ve been able to get from life — to come in here and act this way and blow your stinking breath on me, when all we’ve ever done has been to help you?” Her voice was trembling with her pity and her sense of passionate outrage, yet her anger was more than personal. She felt that the maid had betrayed something decent and inviolable in life — a faith and integrity in human feeling that should be kept and \honoured everywhere.

“Well, ma’am,” said Nora with a toss of her black head, “as I was sayin’, if it’s me ye’re accusing’——”

“No, Nora. Enough of that.” Mrs. Jack’s voice was sad, tired, dispirited, but its tone was also firm and final. She made a little dismissing gesture with her hand. “You may go now. I don’t need anything more.”

The maid marched to the door, her head held high, her stiff back and neck eloquently expressive of outraged innocence and suppressed fury. Then she paused, her hand upon the knob, and half-turned as she delivered her parting shot.

“About Miss Edith’s dress”— she said with another toss of her head —“if it’s not lost, I guess it’ll turn up. Maybe one of the girls borrowed it, if ye know what I mean.”

With this, she closed the door behind her and was gone.

Half an hour later Mr. Frederick Jack came walking down the hall with his copy of the Herald–Tribune under his arm. He was feeling in very good humour. By now he had completely forgotten his momentary annoyance at the telephone call that had awakened him in the middle of the night. He rapped lightly at his wife’s door and waited. There was no answer. More faintly, listening, he rapped again.

“Are you there?” he said.

He opened the door and entered noiselessly.

She was already deeply absorbed in the first task of her day’s work. On the other side of the room, with her back to him, she was seated at a small writing-desk between the windows with a little stack of bills, business letters, and personal correspondence on her left hand, and an open cheque-book on her right. She was vigorously scrawling off a note. As he advanced towards her she put down the pen, swiftly blotted the paper, and was preparing to fold it and thrust it in an envelope when he spoke.

“Good morning,” he said in the pleasant, half-ironic tone that people use when they address someone who is not aware of their presence.

She jumped and turned round quickly.

“Oh, hello, Fritz!” she cried in her jolly voice. “How are youhah?”

He stooped in a somewhat formal fashion, planted a brief, friendly, and perfunctory kiss on her cheek, and straightened up, unconsciously shrugging his shoulders a little, and giving his sleeves and the bottom of his coat a tug to smooth out any wrinkle that might have appeared to disturb the faultless correctness of his appearance. While his wife’s quick glance took in every detail of his costume for the day — his shoes, socks, trousers, coat, and tie, together with the perfection of his tailored form and the neat gardenia in his buttonhole — her face, now bent forward and held firmly in one cupped hand in an attitude of eager attentiveness, had a puzzled and good-natured look which seemed to say: “I can see that you are laughing at me about something. What have I done now?”

Mr. Jack stood before her, feet apart and arms akimbo, regarding her with an expression of mock gravity, in which, however, his good humour and elation were apparent.

“Well, what is it?” she cried excitedly.

In answer, Mr. Jack produced the newspaper which he had been holding folded back in one hand, and tapped it with his index finger, saying:

“Have you seen this?”

“No. Who is it?”

“It’s Elliot in the Herald–Tribune. Like to hear it?”

“Yes. Read it. What does he say?”

Mr. Jack struck a pose, rattled the paper, frowned, cleared his throat in mock solemnity, and then began in a slightly ironic and affected tone, intended to conceal his own deep pleasure and satisfaction, to read the review.

“‘Mr. Shulberg has brought to this, his latest production, the full artillery of his distinguished gifts for suave direction. He has paced it brilliantly, timed it — word, scene, and gesture — with some of the most subtly nuanced, deftly restrained, and quietly persuasive acting that this season has yet seen. He has a gift for silence that is eloquent — oh, devoutly eloquent! — among all the loud but for the most part meaningless vociferation of the current stage. All this your diligent observer is privileged to repeat with more than customary elation. Moreover, Mr. Shulberg has revealed to us in the person of Montgomery Mortimer the finest youthful talent that this season has discovered. Finally ——’”

Mr. Jack cleared his throat solemnly —“Ahem, ahem!”— flourished his arms forward and rattled the paper expressively, and stared drolly at his wife over the top of it. Then he went on:

“‘Finally, he has given us, with the distinguished aid of Miss Esther Jack, a faultless and unobtrusive décor which warmed these ancient bones as they have not been warmed for many a Broadway moon. In these three acts, Miss Jack contributes three of the most effective settings she has ever done for the stage. Hers is a talent that needs make obeisance to no one. She is, in fact, in the studied opinion of this humble but diligent observer, the first designer of her time.’”

Mr. Jack paused abruptly, looked at her with playful gravity, his head cocked over the edges of the paper and said: “Did you say something?”

“God!” she yelled, her happy face flushed with laughter and excitement. “Did you hear it? Vat is dees?” she said comically, making a Jewish gesture with her hands —“an ovation? — What else does he say — hah?” she asked, bending forward eagerly.

Mr. Jack proceeded:

“‘It is therefore a pity that Miss Jack’s brilliant talent should not have had better fare to feed on than was given it last evening at the Arlington. For the play itself, we must reluctantly admit, was neither ——’”

“Well,” said Mr. Jack, stopping abruptly and putting down the paper, “the rest of it is you know”— he shrugged slightly —“sort of soso. Neither good nor bad. He sort of pans it. — But say!” he cried, with jocular indignation. “I like the nerve of that guy! Where does he get this Miss Esther Jack stuff? Where do I come in?” he said. “Don’t I get any credit at all for being your husband? You know,” he said, “I’d like to get in somewhere if it’s only a seat in the second balcony. Of course”— and now he began to speak in the impersonal manner that people often use when they are being heavily sarcastic, addressing himself to the vacant air as if some invisible auditor were there, and as if he himself were only a detached observer —“of course, he’s nothing but her husband, anyway. What is he? Bah!” he said scornfully and contemptuously. “Nothing but a business man who doesn’t deserve to have such a brilliant woman for his wife! What does be know about art? Can he appreciate her? Can he understand anything she does? Can he say — what is it this fellow says?” he demanded, suddenly looking at the paper with an intent stare and then reading from it again in an affected tone —”‘a faultless and unobtrusive décor which warmed these ancient bones as they have not been warmed for many a Broadway moon.’”

“I know,” she said with pitying contempt, as if the florid words of the reviewer aroused in her no other emotion, although the pleasure which the reviewer’s praise had given her was still legible in her face. “I know. Isn’t it pathetic? They’re all so fancy, these fellows! They make me tired!”

“‘Hers is a talent that needs make obeisance to no one,’” Mr. Jack continued. “Now that’s a good one! Could her husband think of a thing like that? No!” he cried suddenly, shaking his head with a scornful laugh and waving a plump forefinger sideways before him. “Her husband is not smart enough!” he cried. “He is not good enough! He’s nothing but a business man! He can’t appreciate her!”— and all at once, to her amazement, she saw that his eyes were shot with tears, and that the lenses of his spectacles were being covered with a film of mist.

She stared at him wonderingly, her face bent towards him in an expression of startled and protesting concern, but at the same moment she was feeling, as she had often felt; that there was something obscure and strange in life which she had never been able to find out about or to express. For she knew that this unexpected and reasonless display of strong feeling in her husband bore no relation whatever to the review in the paper. His chagrin at having the reviewer refer to her as “Miss” was nothing more than a playful and jocular pretence. She knew that he was really bursting with elation because of her success.

With a sudden poignant and wordless pity — for whom, for what, she could not say — she had an instant picture of the great chasms downtown where he would spend his day, and where, in the furious drive and turmoil of his business, excited, prosperous-looking men would seize his arm or clap him on the back and shout:

“Say, have you seen today’s Herald–Tribune? Did you read what it had to say about your wife? Aren’t you proud of her? Congratulations!”

She could also see his ruddy face beginning to blush and burn brick-red with pleasure as he received these tributes, and as he tried to answer them with an amused and tolerant smile, and a few casual words of acknowledgment as if to say:

“Yes, I think I did see some mention of her. But of course you can hardly expect me to be excited by a thing like that. That’s an old story to us now. They’ve said that kind of thing so often that we’re used to it.”

When he came home that night he would repeat all that had been said to him, and although he would do it with an air of faintly cynical amusement, she knew that his satisfaction would be immense and solid. She knew, too, that his pride would be enhanced by the knowledge that the wives of these rich men — handsome Jewesses most of them, as material-minded in their quest for what was fashionable in the world of art as were their husbands for what was profitable in the world of business — would also read of her success, would straightway go to witness it themselves, and then would speak of it in brilliant chambers of the night, where the glowing air would take on an added spice of something exciting and erotic from their handsome and sensual-looking faces.

All this she thought of instantly as she stared at this plump, grey-haired, and faultlessly groomed man whose eyes had suddenly, and for no reason that she knew, filled with tears, and whose mouth now had the pouting, wounded look of a hurt child. And her heart was filled with a nameless and undefinable sense of compassion as she cried warmly, in a protesting voice:

“But, Fritz! You know I never felt like that! You know I never said a thing like that to you! You know I love it when you like anything I do! I’d rather have your opinion ten times over than that of these newspaper fellows! What do they know anyway?” she muttered scornfully.

Mr. Jack, having taken off his glasses and polished them, having blown his nose vigorously and put his glasses on again, now lowered his head, braced his thumb stiffly on his temple and put four plump fingers across his eyes in a comical shielding position, saying rapidly in a muffled, apologetic voice:

“I know! I know! It’s all right! I was only joking,” he said with an embarrassed smile. Then he blew his nose vigorously again, his face lost its expression of wounded feeling, and he began to talk in a completely natural, matter-of-fact tone, as if nothing he had done or said had been at all unusual. “Well,” he said, “how do you feel? Are you pleased with the way things went last night?”

“Oh, I suppose so,” she answered dubiously, feeling all at once the vague discontent that was customary with her when her work was finished and the almost hysterical tension of the last days before a theatrical opening was at an end. Then she continued: “I think it went off pretty well, don’t you? I thought my sets were sort of good — or did you think so?” she asked eagerly. “No,” she went on in the disparaging tone of a child talking to itself, “I guess they were just ordinary. A long way from my best — hah?” she demanded.

“You know what I think,” he said. “I’ve told you. There’s no one who can touch you. The best thing in the show!” he said strongly. “They were by far the best thing in the show — by far! by far!” Then, quietly, he added: “Well, I suppose you’re glad it’s over. That’s the end of it for this season, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said, “except for some costumes that I promised Irene Morgenstein I’d do for one of her ballets. And I’ve got to meet some of the Arlington company for fittings again this morning,” she concluded in a dispirited tone.

“What, again! Weren’t you satisfied with the way they looked last night? What’s the trouble?”

“Oh”— she said with disgust —“what do you think’s the trouble, Fritz? There’s only one trouble! It never changes! It’s always the same! The trouble is that there are so many half-baked fools in the world who’ll never do the thing you tell them to do! That’s the trouble! God!” she said frankly, “I’m too good for it! I never should have given up my painting. It makes me sick sometimes!” she burst out with warm indignation. “Isn’t it a shame that everything I do has to be wasted on those people?”

“What people?”

“Oh, you know,” she muttered, “the kind of people that you get in the theatre. Of course there are some good ones — but God!” she exclaimed, “most of them are such trash! Did you see me in this, and did you read what they said about me in that, and wasn’t I a knockout in the other thing?” she muttered resentfully. “God, Fritz, to listen to the way they talk you’d think the only reason a play ever gets produced is to give them a chance to strut around and show themselves off upon a stage! When it ought to be the most wonderful thing in the world! Oh, the magic you can make, the things you can do with people if you want to! It’s like nothing else on earth!” she cried. “Isn’t it a shame no more is done with it?”

She was silent for a moment; sunk in her own thoughts, then she said wearily:

“Well, I’m glad this job’s at an end. I wish there was something else I could do. If I only knew how to do something else, I’d do it. Really, I would,” she said earnestly. “I’m tired of it. I’m too good for it,” she said simply, and for a moment she stared moodily into space.

Then, frowning in a sombre and perturbed way, she fumbled in a wooden box upon the desk, took from it a cigarette, and lighted it. She got up nervously and began to walk about the room with short steps, frowning intently while she puffed at the cigarette, and holding it in the rather clumsy but charming manner of a woman who rarely smokes.

“I wonder if I’ll get any more shows to do next season,” she muttered half to herself, as if scarcely aware of her husband’s presence. “I wonder if there’ll be anything more for me. No one has spoken to me yet,” she said gloomily.

“Well, if you’re so tired of it, I shouldn’t think you’d care,” he said ironically, and then added: “Why worry about it till the time comes?”

With that he stooped and planted another friendly and perfunctory kiss on her cheek, gave her shoulder a gentle little pat, and turned and left the room.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wolfe/thomas/you-cant-go-home-again/chapter11.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30