You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

41. Five Passengers for Paris

The train gathered speed. The streets and buildings in the western I part of the city slipped past — those solid, ugly streets, those massive, ugly buildings in the Victorian German style, which yet, with all the pleasant green of trees, the window-boxes bright with red geraniums, the air of order, of substance, and of comfort, had always seemed as familiar and as pleasant to George as the quiet streets and houses of a little town. Already they were sweeping through Charlottenburg. They passed the station without halting, and on the platforms George saw, with the old and poignant feeling of regret and loss, the people waiting for the Stadtbahn trains. Upon its elevated track the great train swept on smoothly towards the west, gathering momentum steadily. They passed the Funkturma. Almost before he knew it they were rushing through the outskirts of the city towards the open country. They passed an aviation field. He saw the hangars and a flock of shining ‘planes. And as he looked, a great silver-bodied ‘plane moved out, sped along the runway, lofted its tail, broke slowly from the earth, and vanished.

And now the city was left behind. Those familiar faces, forms, and voices of just six minutes past now seemed as remote as dreams, imprisoned there as in another world — a world of massive brick and stone and pavements, a world hived of four million lives, of hope and fear and hatred, of anguish and despair, of love, of cruelty and devotion, that was called Berlin.

And now the land was stroking past, the level land of Brandenburg, the lonely flatland of the north which he had always heard was so ugly, and which he had found so strange, so haunting, and so beautiful. The dark solitude of the forest was around them now, the loneliness of the kiefern-trees, tall, slender, towering, and as straight as sailing masts, bearing upon their tops the slender burden of their needled and eternal green. Their naked poles shone with that lovely gold-bronze colour which is like the material substance of a magic light. And all between was magic, too. The forest dusk beneath the kieferntrees was gold-brown also, the earth gold-brown and barren, and the trees themselves stood alone and separate, a polelike forest filled with haunting light.

Now and then the light would open and the woods be gone, and they would sweep through the level cultivated earth, tilled thriftily to the very edges of the track. He could see the clusters of farm buildings, the red-tiled roofs, the cross-quarterings of barns and houses. Then they would find the haunting magic of the woods again.

George opened the door of his compartment and went in and took a seat beside the door. On the other side, in the corner by the window, a young man sat and read a book. He was an elegant young man and dressed most fashionably. He wore a sporting kind of coat with a small and fancy check, a wonderful vest of some expensive doelike grey material, cream-grey trousers pleated at the waist, also of a rich, expensive weave, and grey suede gloves. He did not look American or English. There was a foppish, almost sugared elegance about his costume that one felt, somehow, was Continental. Therefore it struck George with a sense of shock to see that he was reading an American book, a popular work in history which had the title, The Saga of Democracy, and bore the imprint of a well-known firm. But while he pondered on this puzzling combination of the familiar and the strange there were steps outside along the corridor, voices, the door was opened, and a woman and a man came in.

They were Germans. The woman was small and no longer young, but she was plump, warm, seductive-looking, with hair so light it was the colour of bleached straw, and eyes as blue as sapphires. She spoke rapidly and excitedly to the man who accompanied her, then turned to George and asked if the other places were unoccupied. He replied that he thought so, and looked questioningly at the dapper young man in the corner. This young man now spoke up in somewhat broken German, saying that he believed the other seats were free, and adding that he had got on the train at the Friedrich-strasse station and had seen no one else in the compartment. The woman immediately and vigorously nodded her head in satisfaction and spoke with rapid authority to her companion, who went out and presently returned with their baggage — two valises, which he arranged upon the rack above their heads.

They were a strangely assorted pair. The woman, although most attractive, was obviously much the older of the two. She appeared to be in her late thirties or early forties. There were traces of fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and her face gave an impression of physical maturity and warmth, together with the wisdom that comes from experience, but it was also apparent that some of the freshness and resilience of youth had gone out of it. Her figure had an almost shameless sexual attraction, the kind of naked allure that one often sees in people of the theatre — in a chorus girl or in the strip-tease woman of a burlesque show. Her whole personality bore a vague suggestion of the theatrical stamp. In everything about her there was that element of heightened vividness which seems to set off and define people who follow the stage.

Beside her assurance, her air of practice and authority, her sharply vivid stamp, the man who accompanied her was made to seem even younger than he was. He was probably twenty-six or thereabouts, but he looked a mere stripling. He was a tall, blond, fresh-complexioned, and rather handsome young German who conveyed an indefinable impression of countrified and slightly bewildered innocence. He appeared nervous, uneasy, and inexperienced in the art of travel. He kept his head down or averted most of the time, and did not speak unless the woman spoke to him. Then he would flush crimson with embarrassment, the two flags of colour in his fresh, pink face deepening to beetlike red.

George wondered who they were, why they were going to Paris, and what the relation between them could be. He felt, without exactly knowing why, that there was no family connection between them. The young man could not be the woman’s brother, and it was also evident that they were not man and wife. It was hard not to fall back upon an ancient parable and see in them the village hayseed in the toils of the city siren — to assume that she had duped him into taking her to Paris, and that the fool and his money would soon be parted. Yet there was certainly nothing repulsive about the woman to substantiate this conjecture. She was decidedly a most attractive and engaging creature. Even her astonishing quality of sexual magnetism, which was displayed with a naked and almost uncomfortable openness, so that one felt it the moment she entered the compartment, had nothing vicious in it. She seemed, indeed, to be completely unconscious of it, and simply expressed herself sensually and naturally with the innocent warmth of a child.

While George was busy with these speculations the door of the compartment opened again and a stuffy-looking little man with a long nose looked in, peered about truculently, and rather suspiciously, George thought, and then demanded to know if there was a free seat in the compartment. They all told him that they thought so. Upon receiving this information, he, too, without another word, disappeared down the corridor, to reappear again with a large valise. George helped him to stow it away upon the rack. It was so heavy that the little man could probably not have managed it by himself, yet he accepted this service sourly and without a word of thanks, hung up his overcoat, and fidgeted and worried around, took a newspaper from his pocket, sat down opposite George and opened it, banged the compartment door shut rather viciously, and, after peering round mistrustfully at all the other people, rattled his paper and began to read.

While he read his paper George had a chance to observe this sour-looking customer from time to time. Not that there was anything sinister about the man — decidedly there was not. He was just a drab, stuffy, irascible little fellow of the type that one sees a thousand times a day upon the streets, muttering at taxi-cabs or snapping at imprudent drivers — the type that one is always afraid he is going to encounter on a trip but hopes fervently he won’t. He looked like the kind of fellow who would always be slamming the door of the compartment to, always going over and banging down the window without asking anyone else about it, always fidgeting and fuming about and trying by every crusty, crotchety, cranky, and ill-tempered method in his equipment to make himself as unpleasant, and his travelling companions as uncomfortable, as possible.

Yes, he was certainly a well-known type, but aside from this he was wholly unremarkable. If one had passed him in the streets of the city, one would never have taken a second look at him or remembered him afterwards. It was only when he intruded himself into the intimacy of a long journey and began immediately to buzz and worry around like a troublesome hornet that he became memorable.

It was not long, in fact, before the elegant young gentleman in the corner by the window almost ran afoul of him. The young fellow took out an expensive-looking cigarette-case, extracted a cigarette, and then, smiling engagingly, asked the lady if she objected to his smoking. She immediately answered, with great warmth and friendliness, that she minded not at all. George received this information with considerable relief, and took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and was on the point of joining his unknown companion in the luxury of a smoke when old Fuss-and-Fidget rattled his paper viciously, glared sourly at the elegant young man and then at George, and, pointing to a sign upon the wall of the compartment, croaked dismally:

Nicht Raucher.”

Well, all of them had known that at the beginning, but they had not supposed that Fuss-and-Fidget would make an issue of it. The young fellow and George glanced at each other with a slightly startled look, grinned a little, caught the lady’s eye, which was twinkling with the comedy of the occasion, and were obediently about to put their cigarettes away unsmoked when old Fuss-and-Fidget rattled his paper, looked sourly round at them a second time, and then said bleakly that as far as he was concerned it was all right — he didn’t personally mind their smoking — he just wanted to point out that they were in a non-smoking compartment. The implication plainly was that from this time on the crime was on their own heads, that he had done what he could as a good citizen to warn them, but that if they proceeded with their guilty plot against the laws of the land, it was no further concern of his. Being thus reassured, they produced their cigarettes again and lighted up.

Now while George smoked, and while old Fuss-and-Fidget read his paper, George had further opportunity to observe this unpleasant companion of the voyage. And his observations, intensified as they were by subsequent events, became fixed as an imperishable image in his mind. The image which occurred to him as he sat there watching the man was that of a sour-tempered Mr. Punch. If you can imagine Mr. Punch without his genial spirits, without his quick wit, without his shrewd but kind intelligence, if you can imagine a crotchety and cranky Mr. Punch going about angrily banging doors and windows shut, glaring round at his fellow-travellers, and sticking his long nose into everybody’s business, then you will get some picture of this fellow. Not that he was hunchbacked and dwarfed like Mr. Punch. He was certainly small, he was certainly a drab, unlovely little figure of a man, but he was not dwarfed. But his face had the ruddy glow that one associates with Mr. Punch, and its contour, like that of Mr. Punch, was almost cherubic, except that the cherub had gone sour. The nose also was somewhat Punchian. It was not grotesquely hooked and beaked, but it was a long nose, and its fleshy tip drooped over as if it were fairly sniffing with suspicion, fairly stretching with eagerness to pry around and stick itself into things that did not concern it.

George fell asleep presently, leaning against the side of the door. It was a fitful and uneasy coma of half-sleep, the product of excitement and fatigue — never comfortable, never whole — a dozing sleep from which he would start up from time to time to look about him, then doze again. Time after time he came sharply awake to find old Fussand–Fidget’s eyes fixed on him in a look of such suspicion and ill-temper that it barely escaped malevolence. He woke up once to find the man’s gaze fastened on him in a stare that was so protracted, so unfriendly, that he felt anger boiling up in him. It was on the tip of his tongue to speak hotly to the fellow, but he, as if sensing George’s intent, ducked his head quickly and busied himself again with his newspaper.

The man was so fidgety and nervous that it was impossible to sleep longer than a few minutes at a time. He was always crossing and uncrossing his legs, always rattling his newspaper, always fooling with the handle of the door, doing something to it, jerking and pulling it, half opening the door and banging it to again, as if he were afraid it was not securely closed. He was always jumping up, opening the door, and going out into the corridor, where he would pace up and down for several minutes, turn and look out of the windows at the speeding landscape, then fidget back and forth in the corridor again, sour-faced and distempered-looking, holding his hands behind him and twiddling his fingers nervously and impatiently as he walked.

All this while, the train was advancing across the country at terrific speed. Forest and field, village and farm, tilled land and pasture stroked past with the deliberate but devouring movement of high velocity. The train slackened a little as it crossed the Elbe, but there was no halt. Two hours after its departure from Berlin it was sweeping in beneath the arched, enormous roof of the Hanover station. There was to be a stop of ten minutes. As the train slowed down, George awoke from his doze. But fatigue still held him, and he did not get up.

Old Fuss-and-Fidget arose, however, and, followed by the woman and her companion, went out on the platform for a little fresh air and exercise.

George and the dapper young man in the corner were now left alone together. The latter had put down his book and was looking out of the window, but after a minute or two he turned to George and said in English, marked by a slight accent:

“Where are we now?”

George told him they were at Hanover.

“I’m tired of travelling,” the young man said with a sigh. “I shall be glad when I get home.”

“And where is home for you?” George asked.

“New York,” he said, and, seeing a look of slight surprise on George’s face, he added quickly: “Of course I am not American by birth, as you can see from the way I talk. But I am a naturalised American, and my home is in New York.”

George told him that he lived there, too. Then the young man asked if George had been long in Germany.

“All summer,” George replied. “I arrived in May.”

“And you have been here ever since — in Germany?”

“Yes,” said George, “except for ten days in the Tyrol.”

“When you came in this morning I thought at first that you were German. I believe I saw you on the platform with some German people.”

“Yes, they were friends of mine.”

“But then when you spoke I saw you could not be a German from your accent. When I saw you reading the Paris Herald I concluded that you were English or American.

“I am American, of course.”

“Yes, I can see that now. I,” he said, “am Polish by birth. I went to America when I was fifteen years old, but my family still lives in Poland.”

“And you have been to see them, naturally?”

“Yes. I have made a practice of coming over every year or so to visit them. I have two brothers living in the country.” It was evident that he came from landed people. “I am returning from there now,” he said. He was silent for a moment, and then said with some emphasis: “But not again! Not for a long time will I visit them. I have told them that it is enough — if they want to see me now, they must come to New York. I am sick of Europe,” he went on. “Every time I come I am fed up. I am tired of all this foolish business, these politics, this hate, these armies, and this talk of war — the whole damned stuffy atmosphere here!” he cried indignantly and impatiently, and, thrusting his hand into his breast pocket, he pulled out a paper —“Will you look at this?”

“What is it?” George said.

“A paper — a permit — the damn thing stamped and signed which allows me to take twenty-three marks out of Germany. Twenty-three marks!” he repeated scornfully —“as if I want their God-damn money!”

“I know,” George said. “You’ve got to get a paper every time you turn round. You have to declare your money when you come in, you have to declare it when you go out. If you send home for money, you have to get a paper for that, too. I made a little trip to Austria as I told you. It took three days to get the papers that would allow me to take my own money out. Look here!” he cried, and reached in his pocket and pulled out a fistful of papers. “I got all of these in one summer.”

The ice was broken now. Upon a mutual grievance they began to warm up to each other. It quickly became evident to George that his new acquaintance, with the patriotic fervour of his race, was passionately American. He had married an American girl, he said. New York, he asserted, was the most magnificent city on earth, the only place he cared to live, the place he never wished to leave again, the place to which he was aching to return.

And America?

“Oh,” he said, “it will be good after all this to be back there where all is peace and freedom — where all is friendship — where all is love.”

George felt some reservations to this blanket endorsement of his native land, but he did not utter them. The man’s fervour was so genuine that it would have been unkind to try to qualify it. And besides, George, too, was homesick now, and the man’s words, generous and whole-hearted as they were, warmed him with their pleasant glow. He also felt, beneath the extravagance of the comparison, a certain truth. During the past summer, in this country which he had known so well, whose haunting beauty and magnificence had stirred him more deeply than had any other he had ever known, and for whose people he had always had the most affectionate understanding, he had sensed for the first time the poisonous constrictions of incurable hatreds and insoluble politics, the whole dense weave of intrigue and ambition in which the tormented geography of Europe was again enmeshed, the volcanic imminence of catastrophe with which the very air was laden, and which threatened to erupt at any moment.

And George, like the other man, was weary and sick at heart, exhausted by these pressures, worn out with these tensions of the nerves and spirit, depleted by the cancer of these cureless hates which had not only poisoned the life of nations but had eaten in one way or another into the private lives of all his friends, of almost everyone that he had known here. So, like his new-found fellow countryman, he too felt, beneath the extravagance and intemperance of the man’s language, a certain justice in the comparison. He was aware, as indeed the other must have been, of the huge sum of all America’s lacks. He knew that all, alas, was not friendship, was not freedom, was not love beyond the Atlantic. But he felt, as his new friend must also have felt, that the essence of America’s hope had not been wholly ruined, its promise of fulfilment not shattered utterly. And like the other man, he felt that it would be very good to be back home again, out of the poisonous constrictions of this atmosphere — back home where, whatever America might lack, there was still air to breathe in, and winds to clear the air.

His new friend now said that he was engaged in business in New York. He was a member of a brokerage concern in Wall Street. This seemed to call for some similar identification on George’s part, and he gave the most apt and truthful statement he could make, which was that he worked for a publishing house. The other then remarked that he knew the family of a New York publisher, that they were, in fact, good friends of his. George asked him who these people were, and he answered:

“The Edwards family.”

Instantly, a thrill of recognition pierced George. A light flashed on, and suddenly he knew the man. He said:

“I know the Edwardses. They are among the best friends I have, and Mr. Edwards is my publisher. And you”— George said —“your name is Johnnie, isn’t it? I have forgotten your last name, but I have heard it.”

He nodded quickly, smiling. “Yes, Johnnie Adamowski,” he said. “And you? — what is your name?”

George told him.

“Of course,” he said. “I know of you.”

So instantly they were shaking hands delightedly, with that kind of stunned but exuberant surprise which reduces people to the banal conclusion that “It’s a small world after all.” George’s remark was simply: “I’ll be damned!” Adamowski’s, more urbane, was: “It is quite astonishing to meet you in this way. It is very strange — and yet in life it always happens.”

And now, indeed, they began to establish contact at many points. They found that they knew in common scores of people. They discussed them enthusiastically, almost joyfully. Adamowski had been away from home just one short month, and George but five, but now, like an explorer returning from the isolation of a polar voyage that had lasted several years, George eagerly demanded news of his friends, news from America, news from home.

By the time the other people returned to the compartment and the train began to move again, George and Adamowski were deep in conversation. Their three companions looked somewhat startled to hear this rapid fire of talk and to see this evidence of acquaintance between two people who had apparently been strangers just ten minutes before. The little blonde woman smiled at them and took her seat; the young man also. Old Fuss-and-Fidget glanced quickly, sharply, from one to the other of them and listened attentively to all they said, as if he thought that by straining his ears to catch every strange syllable he might be able somehow to fathom the mystery of this sudden friendship.

The cross-fire of their talk went back and forth, from George’s corner of the compartment to Adamowski’s. George felt a sense of embarrassment at the sudden intrusion of this intimacy in a foreign language among fellow-travellers with whom he had heretofore maintained a restrained formality. But Johnnie Adamowski was evidently a creature of great social ease and geniality. He was troubled not at all. From time to time he smiled in a friendly fashion at the three Germans as if they, too, were parties to the conversation and could understand every word of it.

Under this engaging influence, everyone began to thaw out visibly. The little blonde woman began to talk in an animated way to her young man. After a while Fuss-and-Fidget chimed in with those two, so that the whole compartment was humming with the rapid interplay of English and German.

Adamowski now asked George if he would not like some refreshment.

“Of course I myself am not hungry,” Adamowski said indifferently. “In Poland I have had to eat too much. They eat all the time, these Polish people. I had decided that I would eat no more until I got to Paris. I am sick of food. But would you like some Polish fruits?” he said, indicating a large paper-covered package at his side. “I believe they have prepared some things for me,” he said casually —“some fruits from my brother’s estate, some chickens and some partridges. I do not care for them myself. I have no appetite. But wouldn’t you like something?”

George told him no, that he was not hungry either. Thereupon Adamowski suggested that they might seek out the Speisewagen and get a drink.

“I still have these marks,” he said indifferently. “I spent a few for breakfast, but there are seventeen or eighteen left. I shall not want them any longer. I should not have used them. But now that I have met you, I think it would be nice if I could spend them. Shall we go and see what we can find?”

To this George agreed. They arose, excused themselves to their companions, and were about to go out when old Fuss-and-Fidget surprised them by speaking up in broken English and asking Adamowski if he would mind changing seats. He said with a nervous, forced smile that was meant to be ingratiating that Adamowski and the other gentleman, nodding at George, could talk more easily if they were opposite each other, and that for himself, he would be glad of the chance to look out the window. Adamowski answered indifferently, and with just a trace of the unconscious contempt with which a Polish nobleman might speak to someone in whom he felt no interest:

“Yes, take my seat, of course. It does not matter to me where I sit.”

They went out and walked forward through several coaches of the hurtling train, carefully squeezing past those passengers who, in Europe, seem to spend as much time standing in the narrow corridors and staring out of the windows as in their own seats, and who flatten themselves against the wall or obligingly step back into the doors of compartments as one passes. Finally they reached the Speisewagen, skirted the hot breath of the kitchen, and seated themselves at a table in the beautiful, bright, clean coach of the Mitropa service.

Adamowski ordered brandy lavishly. He seemed to have a Polish gentleman’s liberal capacity for drink. He tossed his glass off at a single gulp, remarking rather plaintively:

“It is very small. But it is good and does no harm. We shall have mote.”

Pleasantly warmed by brandy, and talking together with the ease and confidence of people who had known each other for many years — for, indeed, the circumstances of their meeting and the discovery of their many common friends did give them just that feeling of old intimacy — they now began to discuss the three strangers in their compartment.

“The little woman — she is rather nice,” said Adamowski, in a tone which somehow conveyed the impression that he was no novice in such appraisals. “I think she is not very young, and yet, quite charming, isn’t she? A personality.”

“And the young man with her?” George inquired. “What do you make of him? You don’t think he is her husband?”

“No, of course not,” replied Adamowski instantly. “It is most curious,” he went on in a puzzled tone. “He is much younger, obviously, and not the same — he is much simpler than the lady.”

“Yes. It’s almost as if he were a young fellow from the country, and she ——”

“Is like someone in the theatre,” Adamowski nodded. “An actress. Or perhaps some music-hall performer.”

“Yes, exactly. She is very nice, and yet I think she knows a great deal more than he does.”

“I should like to know about them,” Adamowski went on speculatively, in the manner of a man who has a genuine interest in the world about him. “These people that one meets on trains and ships — they fascinate me. You see some strange things. And these two — they interest me. I should like so much to know who they are.”

“And the other man?” George said. “The little one? The nervous, fidgety fellow who keeps staring at us — who do you suppose he is?”

“Oh, that one,” said Adamowski indifferently, impatiently. “I do not know. I do not care. He is some stuffy little man — it doesn’t matter . . . But shall we go back now?” he said. “Let’s talk to them and see if we can find out who they are. We shall never see them again after this. I like to talk to people in trains.”

George agreed. So his Polish friend called the waiter, asked for the bill, and paid it — and still had ten or twelve marks left of his waning twenty-three. Then they got up and went back through the speeding train to their compartment.

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