You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

40. Last Farewell

When they got downstairs the bill was made up and ready, and George paid it. There was no need to count it up, because there never had been a cheat or error in their reckoning. George distributed extra largess to the head porter — a grey, chunky, sternly able Prussian — and to the head waiter. He gave a mark to the smiling boy beside the lift, who clicked his heels together and saluted. He took one final look at the faded, ugly, curiously pleasant furnishings of the little foyer, and said good-bye again, and went swiftly down the steps into the street.

The porter was already there. He had the baggage on the kerb. A taxi was just drawing up, and he stowed the baggage in. George tipped him and shook hands. He also tipped the enormous doorman, a smiling, simple, friendly fellow who had always patted him upon the back as he went in and out. Then he got into the taxi, sat down by Heilig, and gave the driver the address — Bahnhof Am Zoo.

The taxi wheeled about and started up along the other side of the Kurfürstendamm, turned and crossed into the Joachimtalen-strasse, and, three minutes later, drew in before the station. They still had some minutes to wait before the train, which was coming from the Friedrich-strasse, would be there. They gave the baggage to a porter, who said he would meet them on the platform. Then Heilig thrust a coin into the machine and bought a platform ticket. They passed by the ticket inspectors and went up the stairs.

A considerable crowd of travellers was already waiting on the platform. A train was just pulling in out of the west, from the direction of Hanover and Bremen. A number of people got off. On other tracks the glittering trains of the Stadtbahn were moving in and out; their beautiful, shining cars — deep maroon, red, and golden yellow — going from east to west, from west to east, and to all the quarters of the city’s compass, were heavily loaded with morning workers. George looked down the tracks towards the east, in the direction from which his train must come, and saw the semaphores, the lean design of tracks, the tops of houses, and the massed greens of the Zoologic Garden. The Stadtbahn trains kept sliding in and out, swiftly, almost noiselessly, discharging streams of hurrying people, taking in others. It was all so familiar, so pleasant, and so full of morning. It seemed that he had known it for ever, and he felt as he always did when he left a city — a sense of sorrow and regret, of poignant unfulfilment, a sense that here were people he could have known, friends he could have had, all lost now, fading, slipping from his grasp, as the inexorable moment of the departing hour drew near.

Far down the platform the doors of the baggage elevator clanged, and the porters pulled trucks loaded with great piles of baggage out upon the platform. And presently George saw his porter advancing with a truck, and among the bags and trunks upon it he could see his own. The porter nodded to him, indicating at about what point he ought to stand.

At this same moment he turned and saw Else coming down the platform towards him. She walked slowly, at her long and rhythmic stride. People followed her with their eyes as she passed by. She was wearing a rough tweed jacket of a light, coarse texture and a skirt of the same material. Everything about her had a kind of incomparable style. She could have worn anything with the same air. Her tall figure was stunning, a strange and moving combination of delicacy and power. Under her arm she was carrying a book, and as she came up she gave it to George. He took her hands, which for so large a woman were amazingly lovely and sensitive, long, white, and slender as a child’s, and George noticed that they were cold, and that the fingers trembled.

“Else, you have met Herr Heilig, haven’t you? Franz, you remember Frau von Kohler?”

Else turned and surveyed Heilig coldly and sternly. Heilig answered her look with a stare that was equally unrelenting and hostile. There was a formidable quality in the mutual suspicion they displayed as their eyes met. George had observed the same phenomenon many times before in the encounters of Germans who were either total strangers or who did not know each other well. At once their defences would be up, as if each distrusted the other on sight and demanded full credentials and assurances before relenting into any betrayal of friendliness and confidence. George was used to this sort of thing by now. It was what was to be expected. Just the same, it never failed to be alarming to him when it happened. He could not accustom himself to it and accept it as an inevitable part of life, as so many of these Germans seemed to have done, because he had never seen anything like it at home, or anywhere else in the world before.

Moreover, between these two, the usual manifestations of suspicion were heightened by an added quality of deep, instinctive dislike. As they stood regarding each other, something flashed between them that was as cold and hard as steel, as swift and naked as a rapier thrust. These feelings of distrust and antagonism were communicated in a single moment’s silence; then Else inclined her head slightly and sternly and said in her excellent English, which had hardly a trace of accent and revealed its foreignness only by an occasional phrase and the undue precision of her enunciation:

“I believe we have met, at Grauschmidt’s party for George.”

“I belief so,” Heilig said. And then, after surveying her a moment longer with a look of truculent hostility, he said coldly: “And Grauschmidt’s drawing in ze Tageblatt— you did not like it — no?”

“Of George!” she spoke derisively, incredulously. Her stern face was suddenly illuminated with a radiant smile. She laughed scornfully and said: “This drawing by your friend, Grauschmidt — you mean the one that made George look like a wonderful and charming sugar-tenor?”

“You did not like it, zen?” said Heilig coldly.

“But ja!” she cried. “As a drawing of a Zuckertenor— as a drawing of Herr Grauschmidt, the way he is himself, the way he sees and feels — it is quite perfect! But George! It looks no more like George than you do!”

“Zen I may tell you somesing,” said Heilig coldly and venomously. “I sink zat you are very stupid. Ze drawing vas egg-zellent — everybody sought so. Grauschmidt himself said zat it vas vun of ze very best zat he has effer done. He likes it very much.”

“But natürlich!” Else said ironically, and laughed scornfully again. “Herr Grauschmidt likes so many things. First of all, he likes himself. He likes everything he does. And he likes music of Puccini,” she went on rapidly. “He sings Ave Maria. He likes sob-songs of Hilbach. He likes dark rooms with a red light and silken pillows. He is romantic and likes to talk about his feelings. He thinks: ‘We artists!’”

Heilig was furious. “If I may tell you somesing ——” he began.

But Else now could not be checked. She took a short and angry step away, then turned again, with two spots of passionate colour in her cheeks:

“Your friend, Herr Grauschmidt,” she continued, “likes to talk of art. He says: ‘This orchestra is wonderful!’— he never hears the music. He goes to see Shakespeare, saying; ‘Mayer is a wonderful actor.’ He ——”

“If I may tell you somesing ——” Heilig choked.

“He likes little girls with high heels,” she panted. “He is in the Ess Ah. When he shaves, he wears a hair-dress cap. Of course his nails are polished. He has a lot of photographs — of himself and other great people!” And, panting but triumphant, she turned and walked away a few paces to compose herself.

“Zese bloody people!” Heilig grated. “0 Gott, but zey are dretful!” Turning to George, he said venomously: “If I may tell you somesing — zis person — zis voman — zis von Kohler zat you like so much — she iss a fool!”

“Wait a minute, Franz. I don’t think she is. You know what I think of her.”

“Vell, zen,” said Heilig, “you are wrong. You are mistaken. If I may say so, you are again also one big fool. Vell, zen, it does not matter,” he cried harshly. “I vill go and buy some cigarettes, and you can try to talk to zis damn stupid voman.” And, still choking with rage, he turned abruptly and walked away down the platform.

George went up to Else. She was still excited, still breathing rapidly. He took her hands and they were trembling. She said:

“This bitter little man — this man whose name it means ‘the holy one’— he is so full of bitterness — he hates me. He is so jealous for you. He wants to keep you for himself. He has told you lies. He has tried to say things against me. I hear them!” she went on excitedly. “People come to me with them! I do not listen to them!” she cried angrily. “0 George, George!” she said suddenly, and took him by the arms. “Do not listen to this bitter little man. Last night,” she whispered, “I had a strange dream. It was a so strange, a so good and wonderful dream that I had for you. You must not listen to this bitter man!” she cried earnestly, and shook him by the arms. “You are religious man. You are artist. And the artist is religious man.”

Just then Lewald appeared on the platform and came towards them. His pink face looked fresh and hearty as always. His constant exuberance had in it a suggestion of alcoholic stimulation. Even at this hour of the morning he seemed to be bubbling over with a veiny exhilaration. As he barged along, swinging his great shoulders and his bulging belly, people all along the platform caught the contagion of his gleeful spirits and smiled at him, and yet their smiles, were also tinged with respect. In spite of his great pink face and his enormous belly, there was nothing ridiculous in Lewald’s appearance. One’s first impression was that of a strikingly handsome man. One did not think of him as being fat; rather, one thought of him as being big. And as he rolled along, he dominated the scene with a sense of easy and yet massive authority. One would scarcely have taken him for a business man, and a very shrewd and crafty one to boot. Everything about him suggested a natural and instinctive Bohemianism. Looking at him, one felt that here, probably, was an old army man, not of the Prussian military type, but rather a fellow who had done his service and who had thoroughly enjoyed the army life — the boisterous camaraderie of men, the eating and drinking bouts, the adventures with the girls — as, indeed, he had.

A tremendous appetite for life was plainly legible all over him. People recognized it the moment they saw him, and that is why they smiled. He seemed so full of wine, so full of spacious, hearty unconventionality. His whole manner proclaimed him to be the kind of man who has burst through all the confines of daily, routine living with the force of a natural element. He was one of those men who, immediately somehow, shine out luminously in all the grey of life, one of those men who carry about their persons a glamorous aura of warmth, of colour, and of temperament. In any crowd he stood out in dominant and exciting isolation, drawing all eyes to himself with a vivid concentration of interest, so that one would remember him later even though one had seen him only for an instant, just as one would remember the one room in an otherwise empty house that had furniture and a fire in it.

So now, as he approached, even when he was still some yards away, he began to shake his finger at George waggishly, at the same time moving his great head from side to side. As he came up, he sang out in a throaty, vinous voice the opening phrases of an obscene song which he had taught to George, and which the two of them had often sung together during those formidable evenings at his house:

Lecke du, lecke du, lecke du die Katze am Arsch . . .

Else flushed, but Lewald checked himself quickly at the penultimate moment and, wagging his finger at George again, cried:

Ach du!” And then, in an absurdly sly and gleeful croon, his small eyes twinkling roguishly: “Naught-ee boy-ee! Naught-ee boy-ee!”— wagging a finger all the time. “My old Chorge!” he cried suddenly and heartily. “There haf you been — you naught-ee boy-ee? I look for you last night and I cannot see you anyvheres!”

Before George could answer, Heilig returned, smoking a cigarette. George remembered that the two men had met before, but now they gave no sign of recognition. Indeed, Lewald’s hearty manner dropped away at sight of the little Heilig, and his face froze into an expression of glacial reserve and suspicion. George was so put out by this that he forgot his own manners, and instead of presenting Else to Lewald, he stammered out an introduction of Heilig. Lewald then acknowledged the other’s presence with a stiff and formal little bow. Heilig merely inclined his head slightly and returned Lewald’s look coldly. George was feeling very uncomfortable and embarrassed when Lewald took the situation in hand again. Turning his back on Heilig, he now resumed his former manner of hearty exuberance and, seizing George’s arm in one meaty fist and pounding affectionately upon it with the other, he cried out loudly:

“Chorge! Vhere haf you been, you naught-ee boy-ee? Vhy do you not come in to see me dese last days? I vas eggsbecting you.”

“Why — I— I—” George began, “I really meant to, Karl. But I knew you would be here to see me off, and I just didn’t get around to dropping in at your office again. I’ve had a great deal to do, you know.”

“And I also!” cried Lewald, his voice rising in droll emphasis on the last word. “I alzo!” he repeated. “But me — I alvays haf time for mein friends,” he said accusingly, still beating away on George’s arm to show that his pretended hurt had not really gone very deep.

“Karl,” George now said, “you remember Frau von Kohler, don’t you?”

Aber natürlich!” he cried with the boisterous gallantry that always marked his manner with women. “Honourable lady,” he said in German, “how are you? I shall not be likely to forget the pleasure you gave me by coming to one of my parties. But I have not seen you since that evening, and I have seen less and less of old Chorge since then.” Relapsing into English at this point, he turned to George again and shook his finger at him, saying: “You naught-ee boy-ee, you!”

This playful gallantry had no effect on Else. Her face did not relax any of its sternness. She just looked at Lewald with her level gaze and made no effort to conceal the scorn she felt for him. Lewald, however, appeared not to notice, for once more he turned to her and addressed her in his exuberant German:

“Honourable lady, I can understand the reason why the Chorge has deserted me. He has found more exciting adventures than anything the poor old Lewald had to offer him.” Here he turned back to George again and, with his small eyes twinkling mischievously, he wagged his finger beneath George’s nose and crooned slyly, absurdly: “Naught-ee boy-ee! Naught-ee boy-ee!”— as if to say: “Aha, you rascal, you! I’ve caught you now!”

This whole monologue had been delivered almost without a pause in Lewald’s characteristic manner — a manner that had been famous throughout Europe for thirty years. His waggishness with George was almost childishly naive and playful, while his speech to Else was bluff, high-spirited, hearty, and good-humoured. Through it all he gave the impression of a man who was engagingly open and sincere, and one who was full of jolly good will towards mankind. It was the manner George had seen him use many times — when he was meeting some new, author, when he was welcoming someone to his office, when he was talking over the telephone, or inviting friends to a party.

But now again, George was able to observe the profound difference between the manner and the man. The bluff and hearty openness was just a mask which Lewald used against the world with all the deceptive grace and subtlety of a great matador preparing to give the finishing stroke to a charging bull. Behind that mask was concealed the true image of the man’s soul, which was sly, dexterous, crafty, and cunning. George noticed again how really small and shrewd were the features. The big blond head and the broad shoulders and the great, pink, vinous jowls gave an effect of massive size and grandeur, but that general effect was not borne out by the smaller details. The mouth was amazingly tiny and carnal; it was full of an almost obscene humour, and it had a kind of mousing slyness, as if its fat little chops were fairly watering for lewd tidbits. The nose was also small and pointed, and there was a sniffing shrewdness about it. The eyes were little, blue, and twinkled with crafty merriment. One felt that they saw everything — that they were not only secretly and agreeably aware of the whole human comedy, but were also slyly amused at the bluff and ingenuous part that their owner was playing.

“But come, now!” Lewald cried suddenly, throwing back his shoulders and seeming to collect himself to earnestness with a jerk. “I bring somet’ing to you from mein hosband . . . Was?” He looked round at all three of them with an expression of innocent, questioning bewilderment as George grinned.

It was a familiar error of his broken English. He always called his wife his “hosband”, and frequently told George that some day he, too, would get a “good hosband”. But he used the word with an expression of such droll innocence, his little blue eyes twinkling in his pink face with a look of cherubic guilelessness, that George was sure he knew better and was making the error deliberately for its comic effect. Now, as George laughed, Lewald turned to Else, then to Heilig, with a puzzled air, and in a lowered voice said rapidly:

Was, denn? Was meint Chorge? Wie sagt man das? Ist das nicht richtig englisch?

Else looked pointedly away as though she had not heard him and wished to have nothing more to do with him. Heilig’s only answer was to continue looking at him coldly and suspiciously. Lewald, however, was not in the least put out by the unappreciativeness of his audience. He turned back to George with a comical shrug, as if the whole thing were quite beyond him, and then slipped into George’s pocket a small flask of German brandy, saying that it was the gift his “hosband” had sent. Next he took out a thin and beautifully bound little volume which one of his authors had written and illustrated. He held it in his hand and fingered through it lovingly.

It was a comic memoir of Lewald’s life, from the cradle to maturity, done in that vein of grotesque brutality which hardly escapes the macabre, but which nevertheless does have a power of savage caricature and terrible humour such as no other race can equal. One of the illustrations showed the infant Lewald as the infant Hercules strangling two formidable-looking snakes, which bore the heads of his foremost publishing rivals. Another showed the adolescent Lewald as Gargantua, drowning out his native town of Kolberg in Pomerania. Still another pictured Lewald as the young publisher, seated at a table in Aenna Maentz café and biting large chunks out of a drinking-glass and eating them — an operation which he had actually performed on various occasions in the past, in order, as he said, “to make propaganda for meinself and mein business.”

Lewald had inscribed and autographed this curious little book for George, and underneath the inscription had written the familiar and obscene lines of the song: “Lecke du, lecke du, lecke du die Katze am Arsch.” Now he closed the book and thrust it into George’s pocket.

And even as he did so there was a flurry of excitement in the crowd. A light flashed, the porters moved along the platform. George looked up the tracks. The train was coming. It bore down swiftly, sweeping in round the edges of the Zoologic Garden. The huge snout of the locomotive, its fenders touched with trimmings of bright red, advanced bluntly, steamed hotly past, and came to a stop. The dull line of the coaches was broken vividly in the middle with the glittering red of the Mitropa dining-car.

Everybody swung into action. George’s porter, heaving up his heavy baggage, clambered quickly up the steps and found a compartment for him. There was a blur of voices all round, an excited tumult of farewell.

Lewald caught George by the hand, and with his other arm around George’s shoulder half-pounded and half-hugged him, saying: “My old Chorge, auf wiedersehen!

Heilig shook hands hard and fast, his small and bitter face contorted as if he were weeping, while he said in a curiously vibrant, deep, and tragic voice: “Good-bye, good-bye, dear Chorge, auf wiedersehen.

The two men turned away, and Else put her arms round him. He felt her shoulders shake. She was weeping, and he heard her say: “Be good man. Be great one that I know. Be religious man.” And as her embrace tightened, she half-gasped, half-whispered: “Promise.” He nodded. Then they came together: her thighs widened, dosed about his leg, her voluptuous figure yielded, grew into him, their mouths clung fiercely, and for the last time they were united in the embrace of love.

Then he climbed into the train. The guard slammed the door. Even as he made his way down the narrow corridor towards his compartment, the train started. These forms, these faces, and these lives all began to slide away.

Heilig kept walking forward, waving his hat, his face still contorted with the grimace of his sorrow. Behind him, Else walked along beside the train, her face stern and lonely, her arm lifted in farewell. Lewald whipped off his hat and waved it, his fair hair in disarray above his flushed and vinous face. The last thing George heard was his exuberant voice raised in a shout of farewell. “Old Chorge, auf wiedersehen!” And then he cupped his hands round his mouth and yelled: “Lecke du——!” George saw his shoulders heave with laughter.

Then the train swept out around the curve. And they were lost.

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