You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

19. Unscheduled Climax

At the conclusion of Mr. Logan’s performance there was a ripple of applause in the living-room, followed by the sound of voices. The fashionable young people clustered round Mr. Logan, chattering congratulations. Then, without paying attention to anybody else, and without a word to their hostess, they left.

Other people now gathered about Mrs. Jack and made their farewells. They began to leave, singly and in pairs and groups, until presently no one remained except those intimates and friends who are always the last to leave a big party — Mrs. Jack and her family, George Webber, Miss Mandell, Stephen Hook, and Amy Carleton. And, of course, Mr. Logan, who was busy amid the general wreckage he had created, putting his wire dolls back into his two enormous valises.

The atmosphere of the whole place was now curiously changed. It was an atmosphere of absence, of completion. Everybody felt a little bit as one feels in a house the day after Christmas, or an hour after a wedding, or on a great liner at one of the Channel ports when most of the passengers have disembarked and the sorrowful remnant know that the voyage is really over and that they are just marking time for a little while until their own hour comes to depart.

Mrs. Jack looked at Piggy Logan and at the chaos he had made of her fine room, and then glanced questioningly at Lily Mandell as if to say: “Can you understand all this? What has happened?” Miss Mandell and George Webber surveyed Mr. Logan with undisguised distaste. Stephen Hook remained aloof, looking bored. Mr. Jack, who had come forth from his room to bid his guests good-bye and had lingered by the elevator till the last one had gone, now peered in through the hall door at the kneeling figure in the living-room, and with a comical gesture of uplifted hands said: “What is it?”— leaving everybody convulsed with laughter.

‘But even when Mr. Jack came into the room and stood staring down quizzically, Mr. Logan did not look up. He seemed not to have heard anything. Utterly oblivious of their presence, he was happily absorbed in the methodical task of packing up the litter that surrounded him.

Meanwhile the two rosy-cheeked maids, May and Janie, were busily clearing away glasses, bottles, and bowls of ice, and Nora started putting the books back on their shelves. Mrs. Jack looked on rather helplessly, and Amy Carleton stretched herself out flat on the floor with her hands beneath her head, closed her eyes, and appeared to go to sleep. All the rest were obviously at a loss what to do, and just stood and sat around, waiting for Mr. Logan to finish and be gone.

The place had sunk back into its wonted quiet. The blended murmur of the unceasing city, which during the party had been shut out and forgotten, now penetrated the walls of the great building and closed in once more upon these lives. The noises of the street were heard again.

Outside, below them, there was the sudden roar of a fire truck, the rapid clanging of its bell. It turned the corner into Park Avenue and the powerful sound of its motors faded away like distant thunder. Mrs. Jack went to the window and looked out. Other trucks now converged upon the corner from different directions until four more had passed from sight.

“I wonder where the fire can be,” she remarked with detached curiosity. Another truck roared down the side street and thundered into Park. “It must be quite a big one — six engines have driven past. It must be somewhere in this neighbourhood.”

Amy Carleton sat up and blinked her eyes, and for a moment all of them were absorbed in idle speculation about where the fire might be. But presently they began to look again at Mr. Logan. At long last his labours seemed to be almost over. He began to close the big valises and adjust the straps.

Just then Lily Mandell turned her head towards the hall, sniffed sharply, and suddenly said:

“Does anyone smell smoke?”

“Hah? What?” said Mrs. Jack. And then, going into the hall, she cried excitedly: “But yes! There is quite a strong smell of smoke out here! I think it would be just as well if we got out of the building until we find out what’s wrong.” Her face was now burning with excitement. “I suppose we’d better,” she said. “Everybody come on!” Then: “0 Mr. Logan!”— she raised her voice, and now for the first time he lifted his round and heavy face with an expression of inquiring innocence —“I say — I think perhaps we’d all better get out, Mr. Logan, until we find out where the fire is! Are you ready?”

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Logan cheerfully. “But fire?”— in a puzzled tone. “What fire? Is there a fire?”

“I think the building is on fire,” said Mr. Jack smoothly, but with an edge of heavy irony, “so perhaps we’d better all get out — that is, unless you prefer to stay.”

“Oh no,” said Mr. Logan brightly, getting clumsily to his feet. “I’m quite ready, thank you, except for changing my clothes —”

“I think that had better wait,” said Mr. Jack.

“Oh, the girls!” cried Mrs. Jack suddenly, and, snapping the ring on and off her finger, she trotted briskly towards the dining-room, “Nora — Janie — May! Girls! We’re all going downstairs — there’s a fire somewhere in the building. You’ll have to come with us till we find out where it is.”

“Fire, Mrs. Jack?” said Nora stupidly, staring at her mistress.

Mrs. Jack saw at a glance her dull eye and her flushed face, and thought: “She’s been at it again! I might have known it!” Then aloud, impatiently:

“Yes, Nora, fire. Get the girls together and tell them they’ll have to come along with us. And — oh! — Cook!” she cried quickly. “Where is Cookie? Go get her, someone. Tell her she’ll have to come, too!”

The news obviously upset the girls. They looked helplessly at one another and began to move aimlessly round, as if no longer certain what to do.

“Shall we take our things, Mrs. Jack?” said Nora, looking at her dully. “Will we have time to pack?”

“Of course not, Nora!” exclaimed Mrs. Jack, out of all patience. “We’re not moving out! We’re simply going downstairs till we can learn where the fire is and how bad it is! . . . And Nora, please get Cook and bring her with you! You know how rattled and confused she gets!”

“Yes’m,” said Nora, staring at her helplessly. “An’ will that be all mum? —— I mean”— and gulped —“will we be needin’ anything?”

“For heaven’s sake, Nora —no! . . . Nothing except your coats. Tell the girls and Cook to wear their coats.”

“Yes’m,” said Nora dumbly, and after a moment, looking fuddled and confused, she went uncertainly through the dining-room to the kitchen.

Mr. Jack meanwhile, had gone out into the hall and was ringing the elevator bell. There, after a short interval, his family, guests, and servants joined him. Quietly he took stock of them:

Esther’s face was flaming with suppressed excitement, but her sister, Edith, who had hardly opened her mouth all evening and had been so inconspicuous that no one had noticed her, was her usual pale, calm self. Good girl, Edith! His daughter, Alma, he observed with satisfaction, was also taking this little adventure in her stride. She looked cool, beautiful, a bit bored by it all. The guests, of course, were taking it as a lark — and why not? —they had nothing to lose. All except that young Gentile fool — George What’s-his-name. Look at him now — all screwed up and tense, pacing back and forth and darting his feverish glances in all directions. You’d think it was his property that was going up in smoke!

But where was that Mr. Piggy Logan? When last seen, he was disappearing into the guest-room. Was the idiot changing his clothes after all? — Ah, here he comes! “At least,” thought Mr. Jack humorously, “it must be he, for if it isn’t who in the name of God is it?”

The figure that Mr. Logan now cut as he emerged from the guest-room and started down the hall was, indeed, a most extraordinary one. All of them turned to look at him and saw that he was taking no chances of losing his little wire dolls or his street clothes in any fire. Still wearing the “costume” that he had put on for his performance, he came grunting along with a heavy suitcase in each hand, and over one shoulder he had slung his coat, vest, and trousers, his overweight tan shoes were tied together by their laces and hung suspended round his neck, where they clunked against his chest as he walked, and on his head, perched on top of the football helmet, was his neat grey hat. So accoutred, he came puffing along, dropped his bags near the elevator, then straightened up and grinned cheerfully.

Mr. Jack kept on ringing the bell persistently, and presently the voice of Herbert, the elevator boy, could be heard shouting up the shaft from a floor or two below:

“All right! All right! I’ll be right up, folks, as soon as I take down this load!”

The sound of other people’s voices, excited, chattering, came up the shaft to them; then the elevator door banged shut and they could hear the car going down.

There was nothing to do but wait. The smell of smoke in the hallway was getting stronger all the time, and although no one was seriously alarmed, even the phlegmatic Mr. Logan was beginning to feel the nervous tension.

Soon the elevator could be heard coming up again. It mounted steadily — and then suddenly stopped somewhere just below them. Herbert could be heard working his lever and fooling with the door. Mr. Jack rang the bell impatiently. There was no response. He hammered on the door. Then Herbert shouted up again, and he was so near that all of them could hear every word:

“Mr. Jack, will you all please use the service elevator. This one’s, out of order. I can’t go any farther.”

“Well, that’s that,” said Mr. Jack.

He put on his derby, and without another word started down the hall towards the service landing. In silence the others followed him.,

At this moment the lights went out. The place was plunged in inky blackness. There was a brief, terrifying moment when the women caught their breaths sharply. In the darkness the smell of smoke seemed much stronger, more acrid and biting, and it was beginning to make their eyes smart. Nora moaned a little, and all; the servants started to mill round like stricken cattle. But they calmed down at the comforting assurance in Mr. Jack’s quiet voice speaking in the dark:

“Esther,” he said calmly, “we’ll have to light candles. Can you tell’ me where they are?”

She told him. He reached into a table drawer, pulled out a flashlight, and went through a door that led to the kitchen. Soon he reappeared with a box of tallow candles. He gave one to each person and lighted them.

They were now a somewhat ghostly company. The women lifted their candles and looked at one another with an air of bewildered surmise. The faces of the maids and Cookie, in the steady flame that each held before her face, looked dazed and frightened. Cookie wore a confused, fixed smile and muttered jargon to herself. Mrs. Jack, deeply excited, turned questioningly to George, who was at her side:

“Isn’t it strange?” she whispered. “Isn’t it the strangest thing? I mean — the party — all the people — and then this.” And, lifting her candle higher, she looked about her at the ghostly company.

And, suddenly, George was filled with almost unbearable love and tenderness for her, because he knew that she, like himself, felt in her heart the mystery and strangeness of all life. And his emotion was all the more poignant because in the same instant, with sharp anguish, he remembered his decision, and knew that they had reached the parting of the ways.

Mr. Jack flourished his candle as a signal to the others and led the procession down the hall. Edith, Alma, Miss Mandell, Amy Carleton, and Stephen Hook followed after him. Mr. Logan, who came next, was in a quandary. He couldn’t manage both his baggage and his light, so after a moment of indecision he blew out his candle, set it on the floor, seized his valises, gave a mighty heave, and, with neck held stiff to keep his hat from tumbling off of the football helmet, he staggered after the retreating figures of the women. Mrs. Jack and George came last, with the servants trailing behind.

Mrs. Jack had reached the door that opened on to the service landing when she heard a confused shuffling behind her in the line, and when she glanced back along the hallway she saw two teetering candles disappearing in the general direction of the kitchen. It was Cook and Nora.

“Oh Lord!” cried Mrs. Jack in a tone of exasperation and despair. “What on earth are they trying to do? . . . Nora!” She raised her voice sharply. Cook had already disappeared, but Nora heard her and turned in a bewildered way. “Nora, where are you going?” shouted Mrs. Jack impatiently.

“Why — why, mum — I just thought I’d go back here an’ get some things,” said Nora in a confused and thickened voice.

“No you won’t, either!” cried Mrs. Jack furiously, at the same time thinking bitterly: “She probably wanted to sneak back there to get another drink!”

“You come right along with us!” she called sharply. “And where is Cook?” Then, seeing the two bewildered girls, May and Janie, milling round helplessly, she took them by the arm and gave them a little push towards the door. “You girls get along!” she cried. “What are you gawking at?”

George had gone back after the befuddled Nora, and, after seizing her and herding her down the hall, had dashed into the kitchen to find Cook. Mrs. Jack followed him with her candle held high in her hand, and said anxiously:

“Are you there, darling?” Then, calling out loudly: “Cook! Cook! Where are you?”

Suddenly Cook appeared like a spectral visitant, still clutching her candle and flitting from room to room down the narrow hall of the servants’ quarters. Mrs. Jack cried out angrily:

“Oh, Cookie! What are you doing? You’ve simply got to come on now! We’re waiting on you!” And she thought to herself again, as she had thought so many times before: “She’s probably an old miser. I suppose she’s got her wad hoarded away back there somewhere. That’s why she hates to leave.”

Cook had disappeared again, this time into her own room. After a brief, fuming silence Mrs. Jack turned to George. They looked at each other for a moment in that strange light and circumstance, and suddenly both laughed explosively.

“My God!” shrieked Mrs. Jack. “Isn’t it the damnedest ——”

At this moment Cook emerged once more and glided away down the hall. They yelled at her and dashed after her, and caught her just as she was about to lock herself into a bathroom.

“Now Cook!” cried Mrs. Jack angrily. “Come on now! You simply must!”

Cook goggled at her and muttered some incomprehensible jargon in an ingratiating tone.

“Do you hear, Cook?” Mrs. Jack cried furiously. “You’ve got to come now! You can’t stay here any longer!”

Augenblick! Augenblick!” muttered Cook cajolingly.

At last she thrust something into her bosom, and, still looking longingly behind her, allowed herself to be prodded, pushed, and propelled down the servants’ hall, into the kitchen, through the door into the main hallway, and thence out to the service landing.

All the others were now gathered there, waiting while Mr. Jack tested the bell of the service elevator. His repeated efforts brought no response, so in a few moments he said coolly:

“Well, I suppose there’s nothing for us to do now except to walk down.”

Immediately he headed for the concrete stairs beside the elevator shaft, which led, nine flights down, to the ground floor and safety. The others followed him. Mrs. Jack and George herded the servants before them and waited for Mr. Logan to get a firm grip on his suitcases and start down, which at length he did, puffing and blowing and letting the bags bump with loud thuds on each step as he descended.

The electric lights on the service stairways were still burning dimly, but they clung to their candles with an instinctive feeling that these primitive instruments were now more to be trusted than the miracles of science. The smoke had greatly increased. In fact, the air was now so dense with floating filaments and shifting plumes that breathing was uncomfortable.

From top to bottom the service stairs provided an astounding spectacle. Doors were opening now on every floor and other tenants were coming out to swell the tide of refugees. They made an extraordinary conglomeration — a composite of classes, types, and characters that could have been found nowhere else save in a New York apartment house such as this. There were people in splendid evening dress, and beautiful women blazing with jewels and wearing costly wraps. There were others in pyjamas who had evidently been awakened from sleep and had hastily put on slippers, dressing-gowns, kimonos, or whatever garments they could snatch up in the excitement of the moment. There were young and old, masters and servants, a mixture of a dozen races and their excited babel of strange tongues. There were German cooks and French maids, English butlers and Irish serving girls. There were Swedes and Danes and Italians and Norwegians, with a sprinkling of White Russians. There were Poles and Czechs and Austrians, Negroes and Hungarians. All of these poured out helter-skelter on the landing-stages of the service stairway, chattering, gesticulating, their interests all united now in their common pursuit of safety.

As they neared the ground floor, helmeted firemen began to push their way up the stairs against the tide of downward-moving traffic. Several policemen followed them and tried to allay any feelings of alarm or panic.

“It’s all right, folks! Everything’s O.K.!” one big policeman shouted cheerfully as he went up past the members of the Jack party. “The fire’s over now!”

These words, spoken to quiet the people and to expedite their orderly progress from the building, had an opposite effect from that which the policeman had intended. George Webber, who was bringing up the end of the procession, paused upon hearing these reassuring words, called to the others, and turned to retrace his way upstairs again. As he did so, he saw that the policeman was about to throw a fit. From the landing half a flight above, he was making agonised faces and frantic gestures at George in a silent and desperate entreaty to him not to come back any farther or to encourage the others to come back, but to leave the building as quickly as possible. The others had looked round when George had called, and had witnessed this pantomime — so now, genuinely alarmed for the first time, they turned again and fled down the stairs as fast as they could go.

George himself, seized with the same momentary panic, was hastening after them when he heard some tapping and hammering noises from the shaft of the service elevator. They seemed to come from up above somewhere. For just a moment he hesitated and listened. The tapping began, then stopped . . . began again . . . stopped again. It seemed to be a signal of some kind, but he couldn’t make it out. It gave him an eerie feeling. A chill ran up his spine. He broke out in goose flesh. Stumbling blindly, he fled after the others.

As they came out into the great central court-yard of the building, their moment’s terror dropped away from them as quickly as it had come upon them. They filled their lungs with the crisp, cold air, and so immediate was their sense of release and relief that each one of them felt a new surge of life and energy, a preternaturally heightened aliveness. Mr. Logan, his round face streaming with perspiration and his breath coming in loud snorts and wheezes, summoned his last remaining strength and, ignoring the tender shins of those about him, bumped and banged his burdened way through the crowd and disappeared. The others of Mr. Jack’s party remained together, laughing and talking and watching with alert interest everything that was going on round them.

The scene of which they were a part was an amazing one. As if it had been produced by the combining genius of a Shakespeare or a Breughel, the whole theatre of human life was in it, so real and so miraculously compressed that it had the nearness and the intensity of a vision. The great hollow square formed by the towering walls of the building was filled with people in every conceivable variety of dress and undress. And from two dozen entry ways within the arched cloisters that ran round the court on all four sides, new hordes of people were now constantly flooding out of the huge honeycomb to add their own colour and movement and the babel of their own tumultuous tongues to the pageantry and the pandemonium already there. Above this scene, uplifted on the arches of the cloisters, the mighty walls soared fourteen storeys to frame the starry heavens. In the wing where Mr. Jack’s apartment was the lights were out and all was dark, but everywhere else those beetling sides were still blazing with their radiant squares of warmth, their many cells still burning with all the huge deposit of their just-departed life.

Except for the smoke that had been in some of the halls and stairways, there was no sign of fire. As yet, few people seemed to comprehend the significance of the event which had so unceremoniously dumped them out of their sleek nests into the open weather. For the most part they were either bewildered and confused or curious and excited. Only an occasional person here and there betrayed any undue alarm over the danger which had touched their lives and fortunes.

Such a one now appeared at a second-floor window on the side of the court directly opposite the Jacks’ entry. He was a man with a bald head and a pink, excited face, and it was instantly apparent that he was on the verge of emotional collapse. He threw open the window and in a tone shaken by incipient hysteria cried out loudly:

“Mary! . . . Mary!” His voice rose almost to a scream as he sought for her below.

A woman in the crowd came forward below the window, looked up, and said quietly:

“Yes, Albert.”

“I can’t find the key!” he cried in a trembling voice. “The door’s locked! I can’t get out!”

“Oh, Albert,” said the woman more quietly and with evident embarrassment, “don’t get so excited, dear. You’re in no danger — and the key is bound to be there somewhere. I’m sure you’ll find it if you look.”

“But I tell you it isn’t here!” he babbled. “I’ve looked, and it’s not here! I can’t find it! . . . Here, you fellows!” he shouted to some firemen who were dragging a heavy hose across the gravelled court. “I’m locked in! I want out of here!”

Most of the firemen paid no attention to him at all, but one of them looked up at the man, said briefly: “O.K., chief!”— and then went on about his work.

“Do you hear me?” the man screamed. “You firemen, you! I tell you . . . 1”

“Dad . . . Dad”— a young man beside the woman on the ground now spoke up quietly —“don’t get so excited. You’re in no danger there. All the fire is on the other side. They’ll let you out in a minute when they can get to you.”

Across the court, at the very entrance from which the Jacks had issued, a man in evening clothes, accompanied by his chauffeur, had been staggering in and out with great loads of ponderous ledgers. He had already accumulated quite a pile of them, which he was stacking up on the gravel and leaving under the guardianship of his butler. From the beginning this man had been so absorbed in what he was doing that he was completely unconscious of the milling throng round him. Now, as he again prepared to rush into the smoke-filled corridor with his chauffeur, he was stopped by the police.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the policeman said, “but you can’t go in there again. We’ve got orders not to let anybody in.”

“But I’ve got to!” the man shouted. “I’m Philip J. Baer!” At the sound of this potent name, all those within hearing distance instantly recognised him as a wealthy and influential figure in the motion picture industry, and one whose accounts had recently been called into investigation by a board of governmental inquiry. “There are seventy-five millions dollars’ worth of records in my apartment,” he shouted, “and I’ve got to get them out! They’ve got to be saved!”

He tried to push his way in, but the policeman thrust him back.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Baer,” he said obdurately, “but we have our orders. You can’t come in.”

The effect of this refusal was instantaneous and shocking. The one principle of Mr. Baer’s life was that money is the only thing that counts because money can buy anything. That principle had been flouted. So the naked philosophy of tooth and claw, which in moments of security and comfort was veiled beneath a velvet sheath, now became ragingly insistent. A tall, dark man with a rapacious, beak-nosed face, he became now like a wild animal, a beast of prey. He went charging about among the crowds of people, offering everyone fabulous sums if they would save his cherished records. He rushed up to a group of firemen, seizing one of them by the arm and shaking him, shouting:

“I’m Philip J. Baer — I live in there! You’ve got to help me! I’ll give any man here ten thousand dollars if he’ll get my records out!”

The burly fireman turned his weathered face upon the rich man. “On your way, brother!” he said.

“But I tell you!” Mr. Baer shouted. “You don’t know who I am! I’m ——”

“I don’t care who you are!” the fireman said. “On your way now! We’ve got work to do!”

And, roughly, he pushed the great man aside.

Most of the crowd behaved very well under the stress of these unusual circumstances. Since there was no actual fire to watch, the people shifted and moved about, taking curious side looks at one another out of the corners of their eyes. Most of them had never even seen their neighbours before, and now for the first time they had an opportunity to appraise one another. And in a little while, as the excitement and their need for communication broke through the walls of their reserve, they began to show a spirit of fellowship such as that enormous beehive of life had never seen before. People who, at other times, had never deigned so much as to nod at each other were soon laughing and talking together with the familiarity of long acquaintance.

A famous courtesan, wearing a chinchilla coat which her aged but wealthy lover had given her, now took off this magnificent garment and, walking over to an elderly woman with a delicate, patrician face, she threw the coat over this woman’s thinly covered shoulders, at the same time saying in a tough but kindly voice:

“You wear this, dearie. You look cold.”

And the older woman, after a startled expression had crossed her proud face, smiled graciously and thanked her tarnished sister in a sweet tone. Then the two women stood talking together like old friends.

A haughty old Bourbon of the Knickerbocker type was seen engaged in cordial conversation with a Tammany politician whose corrupt plunderings were notorious, and whose companionship, in any social sense, the Bourbon would have spurned indignantly an hour before.

Aristocrats of ancient lineage who had always held to a tradition of stiff-necked exclusiveness could be seen chatting familiarly with the plebeian parvenus of the new rich who had got their names and money, both together, only yesterday.

And so it went everywhere one looked. One saw race-proud Gentiles with rich Jews, stately ladies with musical-comedy actresses, a woman famous for the charities with a celebrated whore.

Meanwhile the crowd continued to watch curiously the labours of the firemen. Though no flames were visible, there was plenty of smoke in some of the halls and corridors, and the firemen had dragged in many lengths of great white hose which now made a network across the court in all directions. From time to time squadrons of helmeted men would dash into the smoky entries of the wing where the lights were out and would go upstairs, their progress through the upper floors made evident to the crowd below by the movement of their flashlights at the darkened windows. Others would emerge from the lower regions of basements and subterranean passages, and would confer intimately with their chiefs and leaders.

All at once somebody in the waiting throng noticed something and pointed towards it. A murmur ran through the crowd, and all eyes were turned upwards searchingly to one of the top-floor apartments in the darkened wing. There, through an open window four floors directly above the Jack’s apartment, wisps of smoke could be seen curling upwards.

Before very long the wisps increased to clouds, and suddenly a great billowing puff of oily black smoke burst through the open window, accompanied by a dancing shower of sparks. At this the whole crowd drew in its collective breath in a sharp intake of excitement — the strange, wild joy that people always feel when they see fire.

Rapidly the volume of smoke increased. That single room on the top floor was apparently the only one affected, but now the black and oily-looking smoke was billowing out in belching folds, and inside the room the smoke was coloured luridly by the sinister and unmistakable glow of fire.

Mrs. Jack gazed upwards with a rapt and fascinated expression. She turned to Hook with one hand raised and lightly clenched against her breast, and whispered slowly:

“Steve — isn’t it the strangest — the most ——?” She did not finish. With her eyes full of the deep sense of wonder that she was trying to convey, she just stood with her hand loosely clenched and looked at him.

He understood her perfectly — too well, indeed. His heart was sick with fear, with hunger, and with fascinated wonder. For him the whole scene was too strong, too full of terror and overwhelming beauty to be endured. He was sick with it, fainting with it. He wanted to be borne away, to be sealed hermetically somewhere, in some dead and easeful air where he would be free forever more of this consuming fear that racked his flesh. And yet he could not tear himself away. He looked at everything with sick but fascinated eyes. He was like a man mad with thirst who drinks the waters of the sea and sickens with each drop he drinks, yet cannot leave off drinking because of the wetness and the coolness to his lips. So he looked and loved it all with the desperate ardour of his fear. He saw the wonder of it, the strangeness of it, the beauty and the magic and the nearness of it. And it was so much more real than anything imagination could contrive that the effect was overpowering. The whole thing took on an aura of the incredible.

“It can’t be true,” he thought. “It’s unbelievable. But here it is!”

And there it was. He didn’t miss a thing. And yet he stood there ridiculously, a derby hat upon his head, his hands thrust into the pockets of his overcoat, the velvet collar turned up round his neck, his face, as usual, turned three-quarters away from the whole world, his heavy-lidded, wearily indifferent eyes surveying the scene with Mandarin contempt, as if to say: “Really, what is this curious assembly? Who are these extraordinary creatures that go milling about me? And why is everyone so frightfully eager, so terribly earnest about everything?”

A group of firemen thrust past him with the dripping brass-nozzled end of a great hose. It slid through the gravel like the tough-scaled hide of a giant boa constrictor, and as the firemen passed him, Hook heard their booted feet upon the stones and he saw the crude strength and the simple driving purpose in their coarse faces. And his heart shrank back within him, sick with fear, with wonder, with hunger, and with love at the unconscious power, joy, energy, and violence of life itself.

At the same moment a voice in the crowd — drunken, boisterous, and too near — cut the air about him. It jarred his ears\, angered him, and made him timorously hope it would not come closer. Turning slightly towards Mrs. Jack, in answer to her whispered question, he murmured in a bored tone:

“Strange? . . . Um . . . yes. An interesting revelation of the native moeurs.”

Amy Carleton seemed really happy. It was as if, for the first time that evening, she had found what she was looking for. Nothing in her manner or appearance had changed. The quick, impetuous speech, the broken, semi-coherent phrases, the hoarse laugh, the exuberant expletives, and the lovely, dark, crisp-curled head with its snub nose and freckled face were just the same. Still there was something different about her. It was as if all the splintered elements of her personality had now, in the strong and marvellous chemistry of the fire, been brought together into crystalline union. She was just as she had been before, except that her inner torment had somehow been let out, and wholeness let in.

Poor child! It was now instantly apparent to those who knew her that, like so many other “lost” people, she would not have been lost at all — if only there could always be a fire. The girl could not accept getting up in the morning or going to bed at night, or doing any of the accustomed things in their accustomed order. But she could and did accept the fire. It seemed to her wonderful. She was delighted with everything that happened. She threw herself into it, not as a spectator, but as a vital and inspired participant. She seemed to know people everywhere, and could be seen moving about from group to group, her ebony head bobbing through the crowd, her voice eager, hoarse, abrupt, elated. When she returned to her own group she was full of it all.

“I mean! . . . You know!” she burst out. “These firemen here!”— she gestured hurriedly towards three or four helmeted men as they dashed into a smoke-filled entry with a tube of chemicals —“when you think of what they have to know! — of what they have to do! — I went to a big fire once!”— she shot out quickly in explanatory fashion —“a guy in the department was a friend of mine! — I mean!”— she laughed hoarsely, elatedly —“when you think of what they have to ——”

At this point there was a splintering crash within. Amy laughed jubilantly and made a quick and sudden little gesture as if this answered everything.

“After all, I mean!” she cried.

While this was going on, a young girl in evening dress had wandered casually up to the group and, with that freedom which the fire had induced among all these people, now addressed herself in the flat, nasal, and almost toneless accents of the Middle West to Stephen Hook:

“You don’t think it’s very bad, do you?” she said, looking up at the smoke and flames that were now belching formidably from the top-floor window. Before anyone had a chance to answer, she went on: “I hope it’s not bad.”

Hook, who was simply terrified at her raw intrusion, had turned away from her and was looking at her sideways with eyes that were almost closed. The girl, getting no answer from him, spoke now to Mrs. Jack:

“It’ll be just too bad if anything is wrong up there, won’t it?” Mrs. Jack, her face full of friendly reassurance, answered quickly in a gentle voice.

“No, dear,” she said, “I don’t think it’s bad at all.” She looked up with trouble in her eyes at the billowing mass of smoke and flame which now, to tell the truth, looked not only bad but distinctly threatening; then, lowering her perturbed gaze quickly, she said to the girl encouragingly: “I’m sure everything is going to be all right.”

“Well,” said the girl, “I hope you’re right . . . Because,” she added, apparently as an afterthought as she turned away, “that’s Mama’s room, and if she’s up there it’ll be just too bad, won’t it? — I mean, if it is too bad.”

With this astounding utterance, spoken casually in a flat voice that betrayed no emotion whatever, she moved off into the crowd.

There was dead silence for a moment. Then Mrs. Jack turned to Hook in alarm, as if she were not certain she had heard aright.

“Did you hear? —” she began in a bewildered tone.

“But there you are!” broke in Amy, with a short, exultant laugh. “What I mean is — the whole thing’s there!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wolfe/thomas/you-cant-go-home-again/chapter19.html

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