You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

37. The Morning After

George lay in merciful and dreamless sleep, as leaden as if he had GEORGE knocked senseless by a heavy club. How long he had slept he did not know, but it hardly seemed five minutes when he was awakened suddenly by someone shaking him by the shoulder. He opened his eyes and started up. It was McHarg. He stood there in his underwear, prancing round on his stork-like legs like an impatient sprinter straining at the mark.

“Get up George, get up!” he cried shrilly. “For Christ’s sake, man, are you going to sleep all day?”

George stared at him dumbfounded. “What — what time is it?” he managed finally to say.

“It’s after eight o’clock,” McHarg cried. “I’ve been up an hour. Shaved and had a bath, and now,” he smacked his bony hands together with an air of relish and sniffed zestfully at the breakfast-laden air, “boy, I could eat a horse! Don’t you smell it?” he cried gleefully. “Oatmeal, eggs and bacon, grilled tomatoes, toast and marmalade, coffee. Ali!” he sighed with reverent enthusiasm. “There’s nothing like an English breakfast. Get up, George, get up!” he cried again with shrill insistence. “My God, man, I let you sleep a whole hour longer than I did because you looked as if you needed it! So get your clothes on! We don’t want to keep breakfast waiting!”

George groaned, dragged his legs wearily from the covers, and stood groggily erect. He felt as if he wanted nothing so much as to sleep for two days on end. But under the feverish urging of this red fury, he had nothing left to do except to awake and dress. Like a man in a trance, he pulled on his clothes with slow, fumbling motions, and all the while McHarg fumed up and down, demanding every two seconds that he get a move on and not be all day about it.

When they got downstairs the Reades were already at the table. McHarg bounced in as if he had a rubber core, greeted both of them cheerfully, took a seat, and instantly fell to. He put away an enormous breakfast, talking all the time and crackling with electricity. His energy was astounding. It was really incredible. It seemed impossible that the exhausted wreck of a few hours before could now be miraculously transformed into this dynamo of vitality. He was in uproarious spirits, and full of stories and adventures. He told wonderful yarns about the ceremonies at which his degree had been presented and about all the people there. Then he told about Berlin, and about people he had met in Germany and in Holland. He told of his meeting with Mynheer Bendien, and gave a side-splitting account of their madhouse escapades. He was full of plans and purposes. He asked about everyone he knew in England. His mind seemed to have a thousand brilliant facets. He took hold of everything, and whatever he touched began to crackle with the energy and alertness of his own dynamic power. He was a delightful companion. George realised that he was now seeing McHarg at his best, and his best was wonderfully and magnificently good.

After breakfast they all took a walk together. It was a rare, wild morning. The temperature had dropped several degrees during the night and the fitful rain had turned to snow, which was now coming down steadily, swirling and gusting through the air upon the howling wind and piling up in soft, fleecy drifts. Overhead, the branches of the bare trees thrashed about and moaned. The countryside was impossibly wild and beautiful. They walked long and far, filled with the excitement of the storm, and with a strange, wild joy and sorrow, knowing that the magic could not last.

When they came back to the house, they sat beside the fire and talked together. McHarg’s gleeful exuberance of the morning had subsided, but in its place had come a quiet power — the kind of Lincolnesque dignity of repose and strength which George had observed in him the day before. He took out his old silver-rimmed spectacles and put them on his homely, wry, and curiously engaging face. He read some letters which he had in his pocket and had not opened, and after that he talked to his old friend. What they talked about was not important in itself. What was important, and what George would always remember, was the way McHarg looked, and the way he sat and talked, with his bony knuckles arched and clasped before him in an attitude of unconscious power, and the dignity, wisdom, and deep knowledge of his speech. Here was a man with greatness in him, a man who was now showing the basic sources of his latent strength. His speech was full of quiet affection for his old friend. One felt something unshakable and abiding in him — a loyalty that would not change, that would remain always the same, even though he might not see his friend again for twenty years.

They had a good lunch together. Wine was served, but McHarg partook sparingly of it. After lunch, to Webber’s great relief, McHarg told him quietly that they were returning to London in the afternoon. He said nothing about the projected tour of England which he had depicted in such glowing colours the day before. Whether that had been just a passing whim, or whether he had given up the idea because he sensed George’s lack of enthusiasm for it, George did not know. McHarg did not refer to it at all. He merely announced their return to London as a fact and let it go at that.

But now, as if the thought of going back to the city was more than he could bear, he immediately underwent another of his astonishing transformations. Almost at once his manner again became feverish and impatient. By three o’clock, when they left, he had worked himself into a state of inflamed distemper. He seemed on edge, like one who wanted to get some disagreeable business over and done with.

They drove cautiously down the whitened, trackless lane, over which no car had passed that day, leaving behind them the low-eaved comfort of that fine old house, now warmly fleeced in its blanket of snow, and George felt again the almost unbearable sadness that always came to him when he said good-bye to people whom he knew he would never see again. The lovely woman stood in the doorway and watched them go, with Reade beside her, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his velvet jacket. As the car took the turn McHarg and George looked back. Reade and his wife waved, and they waved back, and something tightened in George’s throat. Then they were out of sight. McHarg and George were alone again.

They reached the high road and turned north and sped onward towards London. Both men were silent, each absorbed in his own thoughts. McHarg sat back in his corner, quiet, abstracted, sunk deep into his inner world. Darkness came, and they said nothing.

And now the lights were up, and there against the sky George saw again the vast corrupted radiance of the night — the smoke, the fury, and the welter of London’s unending life. And after a little while the car was threading its way through the jungle warren of that monstrous sprawl, and at last it turned into Ebury Street and stopped. George got out and thanked McHarg; they shook hands, exchanged a few words, and then said good-bye. The little driver shut the door, touched his cap respectfully, and climbed back into his seat. The big car purred and drove off smoothly into the darkness.

George stood at the kerb and looked after it until it disappeared. And he knew that he and McHarg might meet and speak and pass again, but never as they had in this, their first meeting; for something had begun which now was finished, and henceforth they would have to take their separate courses, he to his own ending, McHarg to his — and which to the better one no man knew.

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