You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

21. Love Is Not Enough

The fire was over. Mrs. Jack and those who were with her went out on the street when they heard the first engine leaving. And there on the pavement were Mr. Jack, Edith, and Alma. They had met some old friends at the hotel and had left Amy and her companions with them.

Mr. Jack looked in good spirits, and his manner showed, mildly and pleasantly, that he had partaken of convivial refreshment. Over his arm he was carrying a woman’s coat, which he now slipped round his wife’s shoulders, saying:

“Mrs. Feldman sent you this, Esther. She said you could send it back tomorrow.”

All this time she had had on nothing but her evening dress. She had remembered to tell the servants to wear their coats, but both she and Miss Mandell had forgotten theirs.

“How sweet of her!” cried Mrs. Jack, her face beginning to glow as she thought how kind everyone was in a time of stress. “Aren’t people good?”

Other refugees, too, were beginning to straggle back now and were watching from the corner, where the police still made them wait. Most of the fire-engines had already gone, and the rest were throbbing quietly with a suggestion of departure. One by one the great trucks thundered away. And presently the policemen got the signal to let the tenants return to their rooms.

Stephen Hook said good night and walked off, and the others started across the street towards the building. From all directions people were now streaming through the arched entrances into the court, collecting maids, cooks, and chauffeurs as they came. An air of disorder and authority had been reestablished among them, and one could hear masters and mistresses issuing commands to their servants. The cloister-like arcades were filled with men and women shuffling quietly into their entryways.

The spirit of the crowd was altogether different now from what it had been a few hours earlier. All these people had recaptured their customary assurance and poise. The informality and friendliness that they had shown to one another during the excitement had vanished. It was almost as if they were now a little ashamed of the emotions which had betrayed them into injudicious cordialities and unwonted neighbourliness. Each little family group had withdrawn frigidly into its own separate entity and was filing back into its own snug cell.

In the Jacks’ entry a smell of smoke, slightly stale and acrid, still clung to the walls, but the power had been restored and the elevator was running again. Mrs. Jack noticed with casual surprise that the doorman, Henry, took them up, and she asked if Herbert had gone home. He paused just perceptibly, and then answered in a flat tone:

“Yes, Mrs. Jack.”

“You all must be simply worn out!” she said warmly, with her instant sympathy. “Hasn’t it been a thrilling evening?” she went on eagerly. “In all your life did you ever know of such excitement, such confusion, as we had to-night?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the man said, in a voice so curiously unyielding that she felt stopped and baffled by it, as she had many times before. And she thought:

“What a strange man he is! And what a difference between people! Herbert is so warm, so jolly, so human. You can talk to him. But this one — he’s so stiff and formal you can never get inside of him. And if you try to speak to him, he snubs you — puts you in your place as if he doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.”

She felt wounded, rebuffed, almost angry. She was herself a friendly person, and she liked people round her to be friendly, too — even the servants. But already her mind was worrying loosely at the curious enigma of the doorman’s personality:

“I wonder what’s wrong with him,” she thought. “He seems always so unhappy, so disgruntled, nursing some secret grievance all the time. I wonder what has done it to him. Oh, well, poor thing, I suppose the life he leads is enough to turn anyone sour — opening doors and calling cabs and helping people in and out of cars and answering questions all night long. But then, Herbert has it even worse — shut up in this stuffy elevator and riding up and down all the time where he can’t see anything and where nothing ever happens — and yet he’s always so sweet and so obliging about everything!”

And, giving partial utterance to her thoughts, she said:

“I suppose Herbert had a harder time of it to-night than any of you, getting all these people out.”

Henry made no answer whatever. He simply seemed not to have heard her. He had stopped the elevator and opened the door at their own landing, and now said in his hard, expressionless voice: “This is your floor, Mrs. Jack.”

After they got out and the car had gone down, she was so annoyed that she turned to her family and guests with flaming cheeks, and said angrily:

“Honestly, that fellow makes me tired! He’s such a grouch! And he’s getting worse every day! It’s got so now he won’t even answer when you speak to him!”

“Well, Esther, maybe he’s tired out to-night,” suggested Mr. Jack pacifically. “They’ve all been under a pretty severe strain, you know.”

“So I suppose that’s our fault?” said Mrs. Jack ironically. And then, going into the living-room and seeing again the chaos left there by Mr. Logan’s performance, she had a sudden flare of her quick and jolly wit, and with a comical shrug said: “Vell, ve should have a fire sale!”— which restored her to good humour.

Everything seemed curiously unchanged — curiously, because so much had happened since their excited departure. The place smelled close and stale, and there was still a faint tang of smoke. Mrs. Jack told Nora to open the windows. Then the three maids automatically resumed their interrupted routine and quickly tidied up the room.

Mrs. Jack excused herself for a moment and went into her own room. She took off the borrowed coat and hung it in the closet, and carefully brushed and adjusted her somewhat disordered hair.

Then she went over to the window, threw up the sash as far as it would go, and filled her lungs full of the fresh, invigorating air. She found it good. The last taint of smoke was washed clean and sweet away by the cool breath of October. And in the white light of the moon the spires and ramparts of Manhattan were glittering with cold magic. Peace fell upon her spirit. Strong comfort and assurance bathed her whole being. Life was so solid and splendid, and so good.

A tremor, faint and instant, shook her feet. She paused, startled; waited, listening . . . Was the old trouble with George there again to shake the deep perfection of her soul? He had been strangely quiet to-night. Why, he had hardly said two words all evening. What was the matter with him? . . . And what was the rumour she had heard this night? Something about stocks falling. During the height of the party she had overheard Lawrence Hirsch say something like that. She hadn’t paid any attention at the time, but now it came back. “Faint tremors in the market”— that’s what he had said. What was this talk of tremors?

— Ah, there it was a second time! What was it?

— Trains again!

It passed, faded, trembled delicately away into securities of eternal stone, and left behind the blue dome of night, and of October. The smile came back into her eyes. The brief and troubled frown had lifted. Her look as she turned and started towards the living-room was almost dulcet and cherubic — the look of a good child who ends the great adventure of another day.

Edith and Alma had retired immediately on coming in, and Lily Mandell, who had gone into one of the bedrooms to get her wraps, now came out wearing her splendid cape.

“Darling, it has been too marvellous,” she said throatily, wearily, giving Mrs. Jack an affectionate kiss. “Fire, smoke, Piggy Logan, everything — I’ve simply adored it!”

Mrs. Jack shook with laughter.

“Your parties are too wonderful!” Miss Mandell concluded. “You never know what’s going to happen next!”

With that she said her good-byes and left.

George was also going now, but Mrs. Jack took him by the hand and said coaxingly:

“Don’t go yet. Stay a few minutes and talk to me.”

Mr. Jack was obviously ready for his bed. He kissed his wife lightly on the cheek, said good night casually to George, and went to his room. Young men could come, and young men could go, but Mr. Jack was going to get his sleep.

Outside, the night was growing colder, with a suggestion of frost in the air. The mammoth city lay fathoms deep in sleep. The streets were deserted, save for an occasional taxi-cab that drilled past on some urgent nocturnal quest. The pavements were vacant and echoed hollowly to the footfalls of a solitary man who turned the corner into Park and headed briskly north towards home and bed. The lights were out in all the towering office buildings, except for a single window high up in the face of a darkened cliff which betrayed the presence of some faithful slave of business who was working through the night upon a dull report that had to be ready in the morning.

At the side entrance of the great apartment house, on the now empty cross street, one of the dark green ambulances of the police department had slid up very quietly and was waiting with a softly throbbing motor. No one was watching it.

Shortly a door which led down to a basement opened. Two policemen came out, bearing a stretcher, which had something sheeted on it that was very still. They slid this carefully away into the back of the green ambulance.

A minute later the basement door opened again and a sergeant emerged. He was followed by two more men in uniform who carried a second stretcher with a similar burden. This, too, was carefully disposed of in the same way.

The doors of the vehicle dicked shut. The driver and another man walked round and got into the front seat. And after a hushed word or two with the sergeant, they drove off quietly, turning the corner with a subdued clangour of bells.

The three remaining officers spoke together for a moment longer in lowered voices, and one of them wrote down notes in his little book. Then they said good night, saluted, and departed, each walking off in a different direction to take up again his appointed round of duty.

Meanwhile, inside the imposing front entrance, under a light within the cloistered walk, another policeman was conferring with the doorman, Henry. The doorman answered the questions of the officer in a toneless, monosyllabic, sullen voice, and the policeman wrote down the answers in another little book.

“You say the younger one was unmarried?”

“Yes.”

“How old?”

“Twenty-five.”

“And where did he live?”

“In the Bronx.”

His tone was so low and sullen that it was hardly more than a mutter, and the policeman lifted his head from the book and rasped out harshly:

Where?

The Bronx!” said Henry furiously.

The man finished writing in his book, put it away into his pocket, then in a tone of casual speculation he said:

“Well, I wouldn’t want to live up there, would you? It’s too damn far away.”

“Nah!” snapped Henry. Then, turning impatiently away, he began: “If that’s all you want ——”

“That’s all,” the policeman cut in with brutal and ironic geniality. “That’s all, brother.”

And with a hard look of mirth in his cold eyes, he swung his nightstick behind him and watched the retreating figure of the doorman as it went inside and disappeared in the direction of the elevator.

Up in the Jack’s living-room, George and Esther were alone together. There was now an air of finality about everything. The party was over, the fire was over, all the other guests had gone.

Esther gave a little sigh and sat down beside George. For a moment she looked round her with an expression of thoughtful appraisal. Everything was just the same as it had always been. If anyone came in here now, he would never dream that anything had happened.

“Wasn’t it all strange?” she said musingly. “The party — and then the fire! . . . I mean, the way it happened.” Her tone had grown a little vague, as if there was something she could not quite express. “I don’t know, but the way we were all sitting here after Mr. Logan’s performance . . . then all of a sudden the fire-engines going past . . . and we didn’t know . . . we thought they were going somewhere else. There was something so — sort of weird — about it.” Her brow was furrowed with her difficulty as she tried to define the emotion she felt. “It sort of frightens you, doesn’t it? — No, not the fire!” she spoke quickly. “That didn’t amount to anything. No one got hurt. It was terribly exciting, really . . . What I mean is”— again the vague and puzzled tone —“when you think of how . . . big . . . things have got . . . I mean, the way people live nowadays . . . in these big buildings . . . and how a fire can break out in the very house you live in, and you not even know about it . . . There’s something sort of terrible in that, isn’t there? . . . And God!” she burst out with sudden eagerness. “In all your life did you ever see the like of them? I mean the kind of people who live here — they way they all looked as they poured out into the court?”

She laughed and paused, then took his hand, and with a rapt look on her face she whispered tenderly:

“But what do they matter? . . . They’re all gone now . . . The whole world’s gone . . . There’s no one left but you and I . . . Do you know,” she said quietly, “that I think about you all the time? When I wake up in the morning the first thought that comes into my head is you. And from that moment on I carry you round inside me all day long — here.” She laid her hand upon her breast, then went on in a rapt whisper: “You fill my life, my heart, my spirit, my whole being. Oh, do you think there ever was another love like ours since the world began — two other people who ever loved each other as we do? If I could play, I’d make of it great music. If I could sing, I’d make of it a great song. If I could write, I’d make of it a great story. But when I try to play or write or sing, I can think of nothing else but you . . . Did you know that I once tried to write a story!” Smiling, she inclined her rosy face towards his: “Didn’t I ever tell you?” He shook his head.

“I was sure that it would make a wonderful story,” she went on eagerly. “It seemed to fill me up. I was ready to burst with it. But when I tried to write it, all that I could say was: ‘Long, long into the night I lay — thinking of you.’”

She laughed suddenly, richly.

“And that’s as far as I could get. But wasn’t it a grand beginning for a story? And now at night when I try to go to sleep, that one line of the story that I couldn’t write comes back to me and haunts me, and keeps ringing in my ears. ‘Long, long into the night I lay — thinking of you.’ For that’s the story.”

She moved closer to him, and lifted her lips to his.

“Ah, dearest, that’s the story. In the whole world there’s nothing more. Love is enough.”

He could not answer. For as she spoke he knew that for him it was not the story. He felt desolate and tired. The memory of all their years of love, of beauty and devotion, of pain and conflict, together with all her faith and tenderness and noble loyalty — the whole universe of love which had been his, all that the tenement of flesh and one small room could hold — returned to rend him in this instant.

For he had learned to-night that love was not enough. There had to be a higher devotion than all the devotions of this fond imprisonment. There had to be a larger world than this glittering fragment of a world with all its wealth and privilege. Throughout his whole youth and early manhood, this very world of beauty, ease, and luxury, of power, glory, and security, had seemed the ultimate end of human ambition, the furthermost limit to which the aspirations of any man could reach. But to-night, in a hundred separate moments of intense reality, it had revealed to him its very core. He had seen it naked, with its guards down. He had sensed how the hollow pyramid of a false social structure had been erected and sustained upon a base of common mankind’s blood and sweat and agony. So now he knew that if he was ever to succeed in writing the books he felt were in him, he must turn about and lift his face up to some nobler height.

He thought about the work he wanted to do. Somehow the events which he had witnessed here to-night had helped to resolve much of his inner chaos and confusion. Many of the things which had been complex before were now made simple. And it all boiled down to this: honesty, sincerity, no compromise with truth — those were the essentials of any art — and a writer, no matter what else he had, was just a hack without them.

And that was where Esther and this world of hers came in. In America, of all places, there could be no honest compromise with special privilege. Privilege and truth could not lie down together. He thought of how a silver dollar, if held close enough to the eye, could blot out the sun itself. There were stronger, deeper tides and currents running in America than any which these glamorous lives to-night had ever plumbed or even dreamed of. Those were the depths that he would like to sound.

As he thought these things, a phrase that had been running through his head all evening, like an overtone to everything that he had seen and heard, now flashed once more into his consciousness:

— He who lets himself be whored by fashion will be whored by time.

Well, then — a swift thrust of love and pity pierced him as Esther finished speaking and he looked down at her enraptured, upturned face — it must be so: he to his world, she to hers.

But to-night. He could not tell her so to-night. To-morrow ——

Yes, tomorrow he would tell her. It would be better so. He would tell it to her straight, the way he understood it now — tell it so she could not fail to understand it, too. But tell it — get it over with — tomorrow.

And to make it easier, for her as well as for himself, there was one thing he would not tell her. It would be surer, swifter, kinder, not to tell her that he loved her still, that he would always love her, that no one else could ever take her place. Not by so much as a glance, a single word, the merest pressure of the hand, must he let her know that this was the hardest thing he would ever have to do. It would be far better if she did not know that, for if she knew, she’d never understand ——

— Never understand tomorrow ——

— That a tide was running in the hearts of men ——

— And he must go.

They said little more that night. In a few minutes he got up, and with a sick and tired heart he went away.

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