You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

17. Mr. Hirsch Could Wait

Esther had seen George’s gesture and wondered what it meant. She disengaged herself from the people to whom she had been talking and came over to him, a frown of tender solicitude on her face.

“Darling,” she said eagerly, taking his hand and looking at him earnestly, “how are you getting along? Are you all right?”

In his confusion and anguish he could not answer her for a moment, and when he did, the guilty knowledge of the decision he had just arrived at made him lash out angrily as though in self-defence.

“Who said I wasn’t all right?” he demanded harshly. “Why shouldn’t I be?” And, instantly, seeing her gentle face, he was filled with baffled and furious regret.

“Oh, all right, all right,” she said hastily and placatingly. “I just wanted to know if — are you having a good time?” she said, with a little forced smile. “Don’t you think it’s a nice party — hah? You want to meet anyone? You must know some of the people here.”

Before he had a chance to say anything more Lily Mandell came weaving through the crowded room to Mrs. Jack’s side.

“0 Esther, darling,” she said in a drowsy tone, “I wonder if you’ve heard —” Seeing the young man, she paused. “Oh, hello. I didn’t know you were here.” There was a note of protest in her voice.

These two had met before, but only casually. They shook hands. And all at once Mrs. Jack’s face was glowing with happiness. She put her own hands in a firm clasp upon those of the man and woman, and whispered:

“My two. Two of the people that I love best in the whole world. You must know and love each other as I do you.”

In the grip of her deep emotion she fell silent, while the other two remained clumsily holding hands. After a moment, awkwardly, they let their hands drop to their sides and stood ill at ease, looking at each other.

Just then Mr. Lawrence Hirsch sauntered up. He was calm and assured, and did not seem to be following anyone. His hands in he trouser pockets of his evening clothes, a man fashionably at ease, urbanely social, a casual ambler from group to group in this brilliant gathering, informed, alert, suave, polished, cool, detached — he was the very model of what a great captain of finance, letters, arts, and enlightened principles should be.

“0 Esther,” he said, “I must tell you what we have found out about the case.” The tone was matter-of-fact and undisturbed, carrying the authority of calm conviction. “Two innocent men were put to death. At last we have positive proof of it — evidence that was never allowed to come to light. It proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Vanzetti could not have been within fifty miles of the crime.”

Mr. Hirsch spoke quietly, and did not look at Miss Mandell.

“But how horrible!” cried Mrs. Jack, righteous anger blazing up in her as she turned to Mr. Hirsch. “Isn’t it dreadful to know that such things can happen in a country like this! It’s the most damnable thing I ever heard of!”

For the first time, now, Mr. Hirsch turned to Miss Mandell, casually, as if he had only just become aware of her presence. “Yes, isn’t it?” he said, including her with charming yet not over-zealous intimacy within the range of his quiet enthusiasm. “Don’t you think —?”

Miss Mandell did not actually step on him. She just surveyed him slowly, with a smouldering look of loathing. “What!” she said. Then to Mrs. Jack: “Really! I simply can’t —” She shrugged helplessly, despairingly, and moved away, a miracle of sensual undulance.

And Mr. Hirsch — he did not follow her, not even with a glance. Nor did he show by so much as the flicker of a lash that he had seen or heard or noticed anything. He went on talking in his well-modulated tones to Mrs. Jack.

In the middle of what he was saying, suddenly he noticed George Webber. “Oh, hello,” he said. “How are you?” He detached one hand from his elegant pocket and for a moment bestowed it on the young man, then turned back again to Mrs. Jack, who was still burning with hot indignation over what she had heard.

“These miserable people who could be guilty of such a thing!” she exclaimed. “These despicable, horrible, rich people! It’s enough to make you want a revolution!” she cried.

“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Hirsch with cool irony, “you may have your wish gratified. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. And if it comes, that case may still return to plague them yet. The trials, of course, were perfectly outrageous, and the judge should have been instantly dismissed.”

“To think that there are people living who could do a thing like that!” cried Mrs. Jack. “You know,” she went on earnestly and somewhat irrelevantly, “I have always been a Socialist. I voted for Norman Thomas. You see,” she spoke very simply and with honest self-respect, “I’ve always been a worker. All my sympathy is on their side.”

Mr. Hirsch’s manner had become a trifle vague, detached, as if he were no longer paying strict attention. “It is a cause célèbre,” he said, and, seeming to like the sound of the words, he repeated them portentously: “A cause célèbre.”

Then, distinguished, polished, and contained, with casual hands loose-pocketed beneath his tails, he sauntered on. He moved off in the general direction of Miss Mandell. And yet he did not seem to follow her.

For Mr. Lawrence Hirsch was wounded sorrowfully. But he could wait.

“Oh, Beddoes! Beddoes!

At these strange words, so exultantly spoken that they rang round the walls of the great room, people halted in the animation of their talk with one another and, somewhat startled, looked in the direction from which the sounds had proceeded.

“Oh, Beddoes by all means!” the voice cried even more exuberantly than before. “Hah-hah-hah! Beddoes!”— there was gloating in the laugh. “Everyone must, of course, they simply must!”

The speaker was Mr. Samuel Fetzer. He was not only an old friend of Mrs. Jack’s, but apparently he was also a familiar of many of the people there, because when they saw who it was they smiled at one another and murmured: “Oh, it’s Sam,” as if that explained everything.

In the world to which he belonged Mr. Samuel Fetzer was known as “the book-lover” par excellence. His very appearance suggested it. One needed only to look at him to know that he was an epicure, a taster of fine letters, a collector and connoisseur of rare editions. One could see with half an eye that he was the kind of fellow you might expect to find on a rainy afternoon in a musty old bookshop, peering and poking and prowling round the stacks with a soft, cherubic glow on his ruddy features, and occasionally fingering with a loving hand some tattered old volume. He made one think somehow of a charming thatched cottage in the English countryside — of a pipe, a shaggy dog, a comfortable chair, a warm nook by the blazing fire, and an old book and a crusty bottle — a bottle of old port! In fact, the exultant way in which he now pronounced the syllables of “Beddoes!” suggested a bottle of old port. He fairly smacked his lips over the word, as if he had just poured himself a glass of the oldest and rarest vintage and taken his first appraising sip.

His whole appearance confirmed this impression of him. His pleasant, sensitive, glowing face, which wore a constant air of cherubic elation, and his high bald forehead were healthily browned and weathered as if he spent much time tramping in the open air. And, in contrast to the other guests, who were all in formal evening dress, he had on tan, thick-soled English walking shoes, woollen socks, grey flannel trousers, a trifle baggy but fashionably Oxonian, a tweed coat of brownish texture, a soft white shirt, and a red tie. One would have said, at sight of him, that he must have just come in from a long walk across the moors, and that now, pleasantly tired, he was looking forward with easeful contemplation to an evening spent with his dog, beside his fire, with a bottle of old port, and Beddoes. One would never have guessed the truth — that he was an eminent theatrical director whose life since childhood had been spent in the city, along Broadway and among the most highly polished groups of urban society.

He was talking now to Miss Mandell. She had wandered over to him after leaving Mrs. Jack, and had asked him the provocative question which had touched off his extraordinary demonstration of enthusiasm. Miss Mandell was herself somewhat of an adept in the arts — a delver into some of the rarer obscurities. She was forever asking people what they thought of William Beckford’s Vathek, the plays of Cyril Tourneur, the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, or — as now — the works of Beddoes.

What she had said, to be exact, was: “Did you ever read anything by a man named Beddoes?”

Miss Mandell had the habit of putting her questions that way, and she would even use the same form of oblique reference when she spoke of the more famous objects of her aesthetic interest. Thus she would inquire what one knew about “a man named Proust”, or “a woman named Virginia Woolf”. The phrase, accompanied as it always was by a dark and smouldering look, carried an air of “There’s more to this than meets the eye”. It made Miss Mandell appear to be a person of profound and subtle knowingness, and one whose deep and devious searchings had gone so far beyond the platitudes that might be found in the Encyclopadia Britannica and other standard works that there was really no way left for her to learn anything new except, possibly, through a quiet talk with Mr. T. S. Eliot — or, since he wasn’t handy, through an occasional tentative yet not very optimistic question addressed to someone of superior intelligence like oneself. And after one had answered Miss Mandell and had poured forth whatever erudition one commanded on the subject of her interest, her usual comment would be a simple and non-committal “Um”. This always produced a very telling effect. For as Miss Mandell murmured “Um” and wandered off, the victim was left flattened out, feeling that he had emptied himself dry and still had been found childishly superficial and pathetically wanting.

Not so, however, Mr. Samuel Fetzer. If Miss Mandell had hoped to work this technique on him when she wove her languorous way to his side and casually asked: “Did you ever read anything by a man named Beddoes?”— she was in for a rude surprise. She had caught a tartar — a cherubic tartar, it is true, a benevolent tartar, an exultant, exuberant, elated tartar — but a. tartar nevertheless. For Mr. Fetzer had not only read Beddoes: he felt that he had rather discovered Beddoes. Beddoes was one of Mr. Fetzer’s philobiblic pets. So he was not only ready for Miss Mandell: it almost seemed as if he had been waiting for her. She had hardly got the words out of her mouth before he fairly pounced upon her, and his pleasant face lit up all over with a look of cherubic glee as he cried:

“Oh, Beddoes!” The name rang out with such explosive enthusiasm that Miss Mandell recoiled as if someone had thrown a lighted firecracker at her feet, “Beddoes!” he chortled. “Beddoes!”— he smacked his lips. “Hah-hah-hah! Beddoes!”— he cast back his head, shook it, and chuckled gloatingly. Then he told her about Beddoes’ birth, about his life, about his death, about his family, and his friends, about his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, about things that were well known about Beddoes, and about other things that no one in the world except Mr. Samuel Fetzer had ever known about Beddoes. “Oh, Beddoes!” cried Mr. Fetzer for the sixteenth time. “I love Beddoes! Everybody must read Beddoes! Beddoes is ——”

“But he was insane, wasn’t he?” The quiet, well-bred voice was that of Mr. Lawrence Hirsch, who had just wandered up casually, as if attracted by the noise of cultural enthusiasm, and without seeming to follow anyone. “I mean,” he turned with an air of gracious explanation to Miss Mandell, “it’s an interesting example of the schizophrenic personality, don’t you think?”

She looked at him for a long moment as one might look at a large worm within the core of a chestnut that one had hoped was sound.

“Um,” said Miss Mandell, and with an expression of drowsy loathing on her face she moved away.

Mr. Hirsch did not follow her. Perfectly possessed, he had already shifted his glance back to the glowing Mr. Fetzer.

“I mean,” he continued, with that inflection of interested inquiry which is the mark everywhere of a cultivated intelligence, “it always seemed to me that it was a case of misplaced personality — an Elizabethan out of his time. Or do you think so?”

“Oh, absolutely!” cried Mr. Fetzer, with instant and enthusiastic confirmation. “You see, what I have always maintained ——”

Mr. Hirsch appeared to be listening carefully. He really was not following anyone. He kept his eyes focused on Mr. Samuel Fetzer’s face, but something in their expression indicated that his mind was elsewhere.

For Mr. Lawrence Hirsch was wounded sorrowfully. But he could wait.

So it went all evening. Mr. Hirsch moved from group to sophisticated group, bowing, smiling suavely, exchanging well-bred pleasantries with all he met. Always he was imperturbable, authoritatively assured, on his aesthetic toes. And his progress through that brilliant assemblage was marked by a phosphorescent wake composed of the small nuggets of enlightenment which he dropped casually as he passed. Here it was a little confidential gossip about Sacco and Vanzetti, there a little first-hand information from Wall Street, now a sophisticated jest or so, again an amusing anecdote about what happened only last week to the President, or a little something about Russia, with a shrewd observation on Marxian economy — and to all of this a little Beddoes had been added for good measure. It was all so perfectly informed and so alertly modern that it never for a moment slipped into cliche, but always represented the very latest mode in everything, whether art, letters, politics, or economics. It was a remarkable performance, an inspiring example of what the busy man of affairs can really accomplish if he only applies himself.

And, in addition to all this, there was Miss Mandell. He never seemed to follow her, but wherever she went he was not far behind. One always knew that he was there. All evening long, whenever he came up to any group and honoured it with one of his apt observations, and then, turning casually and discovering that Miss Mandell was among the company, made as if to include her in the intimate circle of his auditors, she would just give him a smouldering look and walk away. So it was no wonder that Mr. Lawrence Hirsch was wounded sorrowfully.

Still, he did not beat his breast, or tear his hair, or cry out: “Woe is me!” He remained himself, the man of many interests, the master of immense authorities. For he could wait.

He did not take her aside and say: “Thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair, thou hast doves’ eyes.” Nor did he say: “Tell me, 0 thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest.” He did not remark to her that she was beautiful as Tirzah, or comely as Jerusalem, or terrible as an army with banners. He did not ask anyone to stay him with flagons, or comfort him with apples, or confess that he was sick of love. And as for saying to her: “Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor; thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies,” the idea had never occurred to him.

Though he did not cry out to her in his agony, what he was thinking was: “Flaunt me with your mockery and scorn, spurn me with your foot, lash me with your tongue, trample me like a worm, spit upon me like the dust of which I am composed, revile me to your friends, make me crawl far and humbly — do anything you like, I can endure it. But, oh, for God’s sake, notice me! Speak to me with just a word — if only with hate! Stay near me for just a moment, make me happy with just a touch — even if the nearness is but loathing, and the touch a blow! Treat me in any way you will But I beg you, 0 beloved that thou art”— out of the corner of his eye he followed her lavish undulations as she turned and walked away again —“in God’s name, let me see you know that I am here!”

But he said nothing. He showed nothing of what he felt. He was sorrowfully wounded, but he could wait. And no one but Miss Mandell knew how long she intended to keep him waiting.

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