You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

14. Zero Hour

Mrs. Jack came from her room a little after eight o’clock and walked along the broad hallway that traversed her big apartment from front to rear. Her guests had been invited for half-past eight, but long experience in these matters told her that the party would not be going at full swing until after nine. As she walked along the corridor at a brisk and rapid little step she felt a tense excitement, not unpleasurable, even though it was now sharpened by the tincture of an apprehensive doubt.

Would all be ready? Had she forgotten anything? Had the girls followed her instructions? Or had they slipped up somewhere? Would something now be lacking?

A wrinkled line appeared between her eyes, and unconsciously she began to slip the old ring on and off her finger with a quick movement of her small hand. It was the gesture of an alert and highly able person who had come to have an instinctive mistrust of other people less gifted than herself. There was impatience and some scorn in it, a scorn not born of arrogance or any lack of warm humanity, but one that was inclined to say a trifle sharply: “Yes, yes, I know! I understand all that. There’s no need telling me that kind of thing. Let’s get to the point. What can you do? What have you done? Can I depend on you to do everything that’s necessary?” So, as she walked briskly down the hall, thoughts too sharp and quick for definition were darting across the surface of her mind like flicks of light upon a pool.

“I wonder if the girls remembered to do everything I told them,” she was thinking. “Oh, Lord! If only Nora hasn’t started drinking again! — And Janie! She’s good as gold, of course, but God, she is a fool! — And Cookie! Well, she can cook, but after that she doesn’t know April from July. And if you try to tell her anything she gets flustered and begins to gargle German at you. Then it’s worse than if you’d never spoken to her at all. — As for May — well, all you can do is to hope and pray.” The line between her troubled eyes deepened, and the ring slipped on and off her finger more rapidly than ever. “You’d think they’d realise how well off they are, and what a good life they lead here! You’d think they’d try to show it!” she thought indignantly. But almost instantly she was touched with a feeling of tender commiseration, and her mind veered back into its more usual channel: “Oh, well, poor things! I suppose they do the best they can. All you can do is to reconcile yourself to it — and realise that the only way you can get anything done right is to do it yourself.”

By this time she had reached the entrance to the living-room and was looking quickly about, assuring herself by a moment’s swift inspection that everything was in its proper place. Her examination pleased her. The worried expression about her eyes began to disappear. She slipped the ring back on her hand and let it stay there, and her face began to take on the satisfied look of a child when it regards in silence some object of its love and self-creation and finds it good.

The big room was ready for the party. It was just quietly the way she always liked to have it. The room was so nobly proportioned as to be almost regal, and yet it was so subtly toned by the labour of her faultless taste that whatever forbidding coldness its essential grandeur may have had was utterly subdued. To a stranger this living-room would have seemed not only homelike in its comfortable simplicity, but even, on closer inspection, a trifle shabby. Almost everything in it was somewhat worn. The coverings of some of the chairs and couches had become in places threadbare. The carpet that covered the floor with its pattern of old, faded green showed long use without apology. An antique gate-legged table sagged a little under the weight of its pleasant shaded lamp and its stacks of books and magazines. Upon the mantel, a creamy slab of marble, itself a little stained and worn, was spread a green and faded strip of Chinese silk, and on top of it was a lovely little figure in green jade, its carved fingers lifted in a Chinese attitude of compassionating mercy. Over the mantel hung a portrait of herself in her young loveliness at twenty, which a painter now dead and famous had made long ago.

On three sides of the room, bookshelves extended a third of the way up the walls, and they were crowded with friendly volumes whose backs bore the markings of warm human hands. Obviously they had been read and read again. The stiff sets of tooled and costly bindings that often ornament the libraries of the rich with unread awe were lacking here. Nor was there any evidence of the greedy and revolting mania of the professional collector. If there were first editions on these utilitarian shelves, they were here because their owner had bought them when they were published, and bought them to be read.

The crackling pine logs on the great marble hearth cast their radiance warmly on the covers of these worn books, and Mrs. Jack had a sense of peace and comfort as she looked at the rich and homely compact of their colours. She saw her favourite novels and histories, plays, poems, and biographies, and the great books of decoration and design, of painting, drawing, and architecture, which she had assembled in a crowded lifetime of work, travel, and living. Indeed, all these objects, these chairs and tables, these jades and silks, all the drawings and paintings, as well as the books, had been brought together at different times and places and fused into a miracle of harmony by the instinctive touch of this woman’s hand. It is no wonder, therefore, that her face softened and took on an added glow of loveliness as she looked at her fine room. The like of it, as she well knew, could nowhere else be found.

“Ah, here it is,” she thought. “It is living like a part of me. And God! How beautiful it is!” she thought. “How warm — how true! It’s not like a rented place — not just another room in an apartment. No”— she glanced down the spacious width of the long hall —“if it weren’t for the elevator there, you’d think it was some grand old house.’ I don’t know — but —” a little furrow, this time of reflectiveness and effort, came between her eyes as she tried to shape her meaning —“there’s something sort of grand — and simple — about it all.”

And indeed there was. The amount of simplicity that could be purchased even in, those times for a yearly rental of fifteen thousand dollars was quite considerable. As if this very thought had found an echo in her mind, she went on:

“I mean when you compare it with some of these places that you see nowadays — some of the God-awful places where all those rich people live. There’s simply no comparison! I don’t care how rich they are, there’s — there’s just something here that money cannot buy.”

As her mind phrased the accusing words about “the God-awful places where all those rich people live,” her nostrils twitched and her face took on an expression of sharp scorn. For Mrs. Jack had always been contemptuous of wealth. Though she was the wife of a rich man and had not known for years the economic necessity of work, yet it was one of her unshakable convictions that she and her family could not possibly be described as “rich”. “Oh, not really,” she would say. “Not the way people are who really are.” And she would look for confirmation, not at the hundred and thirty million people there impossibly below her in the world’s hard groove, but at the fabulous ten thousand who were above her on the moneyed heights, and who, by the comparison, were “really rich”.

Besides, she was “a worker”. She had always been “a worker”. One look at the strength, the grace, the swiftness of those small, sure hands were enough to tell the story of their owner’s life, which had always been a life of work. From that accomplishment stemmed deep pride and the fundamental integrity of her soul. She had needed the benefit of no man’s purse, the succour of no man’s shielding strength. “Is not my help within me?” Well, hers was. She had made her own way. She had supported herself. She had created beautiful and enduring things. She had never known the meaning of laziness. Therefore it is no wonder that she never thought of herself as being “rich”. She was a worker; she had worked.

But now, satisfied with her inspection of the big room, she turned quickly to investigate other things. The living room gave on the dining-room through glass doors, which were closed and curtained filmily. Mrs. Jack moved towards them and threw them open. Then she stopped short, and one hand flew to her bosom. She gasped out an involuntary little “Oh!” of wonder and delight. It was too beautiful! It was quite too beautiful! But it was just the way she expected it to look — the way it looked for all of her parties. None the less, every time she saw it, it was like a grand and new discovery.

Everything had been arranged to perfection. The great dining table glowed faultlessly, like a single sheet of walnut light. In its centre, on a doily of thick lace, stood a large and handsome bowl blossoming with a fragrant harvest of cut flowers. At the four corners, in orderly array, there were big stacks of Dresden plates and gleaming rows of old and heavy English silver, knives and forks and spoons. The ancient Italian chairs had been drawn away and placed against the walls. This was to be a buffet supper. The guests could come and help themselves according to their taste, and on that noble table was everything to tempt even the most jaded palate.

Upon an enormous silver trencher at one end there was a mighty roast of beef, crisply browned all over. It had just been “begun on” at one side, for a few slices had been carved away to leave the sound, rare body of the roast open to the inspection of anyone who might be attracted by its juicy succulence. At the opposite end, upon another enormous trencher, and similarly carved, was a whole Virginia Ham, sugar-cured and baked and stuck all over with pungent cloves. In between and all round was a staggering variety of mouth-watering delicacies. There were great bowls of mixed green salads, and others of chicken salad, crab meat, and the pink, milky firmness of lobster claws, removed whole and perfect from their shells. There were platters containing golden slabs of smoked salmon, the most rare and delicate that money could buy. There were dishes piled with caviar, both black and red, and countless others loaded with hors d’oeuvres— with mushrooms, herring, anchovies, sardines, and small, toothsome artichokes, with pickled onions and with pickled beets, with sliced tomatoes and with devilled eggs, with walnuts, almonds, and pecans, with olives and with celery. In short, there was almost everything that anyone could desire.

It was a gargantuan banquet. It was like some great vision of a feast that has been made immortal in legendary. Few “rich” people would have dared venture on a “supper” such as this of Mrs. Jack’s, and in this fear of venturing they would have been justified. Only Mrs. Jack could do a thing like this; only she could do it right. And that is why her parties were famous, and why everyone who had been invited always came. For, strange to tell, there was nowhere on that lavish board a suggestion of disorder or excess. That table was a miracle of planning and of right design. Just as no one could look at it and possibly want anything to be added, so could no one here have felt that there was a single thing too much.

And everywhere in that great dining-room, with its simplicity and strength, there was evident this same faultless taste, this same style that never seemed to be contrived, that was so casual and so gracious and so right. At one side the great buffet glittered with an array of flasks, decanters, bottle, syphons, and tall glasses, thin as shells. Elsewhere, two lovely Colonial cupboards stood like Graces with their splendid wares of china and of porcelain, of cut-glass and of silver, of grand old plates and cups and saucers, tureens and bowls, jars and pitchers.

After a quick, satisfied appraisal of everything, Mrs. Jack walked rapidly across the room and through the swinging door that led to the pantry and the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. As she approached, she could hear the laughter and excited voices of the maids, broken by the gutturally mixed phrases of the cook. She burst upon a scene of busy order and of readiness. The big, tiled kitchen was as clean and spotless as a hospital laboratory. The great range with its marvellous hood, itself as large as those one sees in a big restaurant, looked as if it had been freshly scrubbed and oiled and polished. The vast company of copper cooking vessels — the skillets and kettles, the pots and pans of every size and shape, from those just large enough to hold an egg to those so huge it seemed that one might cook in them the rations of a regiment — had been scoured and rubbed until Mrs. Jack cloud see her face in them. The big table in the centre of the room was white enough to have served in a surgeon’s office, and the shelves, drawers, cupboards, and bins looked as if they had just been gone over with sandpaper. Above the voices of the girls brooded the curiously quiet, intent, dynamic hum of the mammoth electric refrigerator, which in its white splendour was like a jewel.

“Oh, this!” thought Mrs. Jack. “This is quite the most perfect thing of all! This is the best room in the house! I love the others — but is there anything in the world so grand and beautiful as a fine kitchen? And how Cookie keeps the place! If I could only paint it! But no — it would take a Breughel to do it! There’s no one nowadays to do it justice ——”

“Oh, Cookie!” Now she spoke the words aloud. “What a lovely cake!”

Cook looked up from the great layer cake on the table to which she had been adding the last prayerful tracery of frosted icing, and a faint smile illuminated the gaunt, blunt surface of her Germanic face.

“You like him, yes?” said Cook. “You think he is nice?”

“Oh, Cook!” cried Mrs. Jack in a tone of such childlike earnestness that Cook smiled this time a little more broadly than before. “It is the most beautiful— the most wonderful! —” She turned away with a comical shrug of despair as if words failed her.

Cook laughed gutturally with satisfaction, and Nora, smiling, said:

“Yes, Mrs. Jack, that it is! It’s just what I was after tellin’ her meself.”

Mrs. Jack glanced swiftly at Nora and saw with relief that she was clean and plain and sober. Thank heaven she had pulled herself together! She hadn’t taken another drink since morning — that was easy to see. Drink worked on her like poison, and you could tell the moment that she’d had a single one.

Janie and May, passing back and forth between the kitchen and the maid’s sitting-room in their trim, crisp uniforms and with their smiling pink faces, were really awfully pretty. Everything had turned out perfectly, better than she could possibly have expected. Nothing had been forgotten. Everything was in readiness. It ought to be a glorious party.

At this moment the buzzer sounded sharply. Mrs. Jack looked startled and said quickly:

“The door-bell rang, Janie.” Then, almost to herself: “Now who do you suppose —?”

“Yes’m,” said Janie, coming to the door of the maids’ sitting-room. “I’ll go, Mrs. Jack.”

“Yes, you’d better, Janie. I wonder who —” she cast a puzzled look up at the clock on the wall, and then at the little shell of platinum on her wrist. “It’s only eight-fifteen! I can’t think any of them would be this early. Oh!”— as illumination came —“I think, perhaps, it’s Mr. Logan. If it is, Janie, show him in. I’ll be right out.”

“Yes, Mrs. Jack,” said Janie, and departed.

And Mrs. Jack, after another quick look about the kitchen, another smile of thanks and approbation for Cookie and her arts, followed her.

It was Mr. Logan. Mrs. Jack encountered him in the entrance hall where he had just paused to set down two enormous black suitcases, each of which, from the bulging look of them, carried enough weight to strain strong muscles. Mr. Logan’s own appearance confirmed this impression. He had seized the biceps of one muscular arm with the fingers of his other hand, and with a rueful look upon his face was engaged in flexing the aching member up and down. As Mrs. Jack approached he turned, a thickset, rather burly-looking young man of about thirty, with bushy eyebrows of a reddish cast, a round and heavy face smudged ruddily with the shaven grain of his beard, a low, corrugated forehead, and a bald head gleaming with perspiration, which he proceeded to mop with his handkerchief.

“Gosh!” said Mr. Piggy Logan, for by this affectionate title was he known to his more intimate acquaintance. “Gosh!”— the expletive came out again, somewhat windy with relief. At the same time he released his aching arm and offered his hostess a muscular and stubby hand, covered thickly on the back up to the very fingernails with large freckles.

“You must be simply dead!” cried Mrs. Jack. “Why didn’t you let me know you had so much to carry? I’d have sent a chauffeur. He could have handled everything for you.”

“Oh, it’s quite all right,” said Piggy Logan. “I always manage everything myself. You see, I carry all of it right here — my whole equipment.” He indicated the two ponderous cases. “That’s it,” he said, “everything I use — the whole show. So naturally,” he smiled at her quickly and quite boyishly, “I don’t like to take any chances. It’s all I’ve got. If anything went wrong — well, I’d just rather do it myself and then I know where I am.”

“I know,” said Mrs. Jack, nodding her head with quick understanding. “You simply can’t depend on others. If anything went wrong — and after all the years you must have put in making them! People who’ve seen it say it’s simply marvellous,” she went on. “Everyone is so thrilled to know you’re going to be here. We’ve heard so much about it — really all you hear around New York these days is ——”

“Now —” said Mr. Logan abruptly, in a manner that was still courteous but that indicated he was no longer paying any attention to her. He had become all business, and now he walked over to the entrance of the living-room and was looking all about with thoughtful speculation. “I suppose it’s going to be in here, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes — that is, if you like it here. If you prefer, we’ll use another room, but this is the largest one we have.”

“No, thank you,” crisply, absently. “This is quite all right. This will do very nicely . . . Hm!” meditatively, as he pressed his full lower lip between two freckled fingers. “Best place, I should think, would be over there,” he indicated the opposite wall, “facing the door here, the people all round on the other three sides . . . Hm! Yes . . . Just about the centre there, I should think, posters on the bookshelves . . . We can clear all this stuff away, of course,” he make a quick but expansive gesture with his hand which seemed to dispose of a large part of the furnishings. “Yes! That ought to do it very well! . . . Now, if you don’t mind,” he turned to her rather peremptorily and said: “I’ll have to change to costume. If you have a room ——”

“Oh, yes,” she answered quickly, “here, just down the hall, the first room on the right. But won’t you have a drink and something to eat before you start? You must be terribly ——”

“No, thank you,” said Mr. Logan crisply. “It’s very nice of you,” he smiled swiftly under his bushy brows, “but I never take anything before a performance. Now”— he crouched, gripped the handles of the big cases, and heaved mightly —“if you’ll just — excuse me,” he grunted.

“Is there anything we can do?” Mrs. Jack asked helpfully.

“No — thank you — nothing,” Mr. Logan somewhat gruntingly replied, and began to stagger down the hall with his tremendous freight. “I can — get along — quite nicely — thank you,” he grunted as he staggered through the door of the room to which she had directed him; and then, more faintly: “Nothing — at all.”

She heard the two ponderous bags hit the floor with a leaden thump, and then Mr. Logan’s long, expiring “Whush!” of exhausted relief.

For a moment after the young man’s lurching departure, his hostess continued to look after him with a somewhat dazed expression, touched faintly with alarm. His businesslike dispatch and the nonchalance with which he had suggested widespread alterations in her beloved room filled her with vague apprehension. But — she shook her head and reassured herself with sharp decision — it was bound to be all right. She had heard so many people speak of him: he was really all the rage this year, everyone was talking of his show, there had been write-ups of him everywhere. He was the darling of all the smart society crowd — all those “rich” Long Island and Park Avenue people. Here the lady’s nostrils curved again in a faint dilation of patronising scorn; nevertheless, she could not help feeling a pleasant sense of triumph that she had landed him.

Yes, Mr. Piggy Logan was the rage that year. He was the creator of a puppet circus of wire dolls, and the applause with which this curious entertainment had been greeted was astonishing. Not to be able to discuss him and his little dolls intelligently was, in smart circles, akin to never having heard of Jean Cocteau or Surrealism; it was like being completely at a loss when such names as Picasso and Brancusi and Utrillo and Gertrude Stein were mentioned. Mr. Piggy Logan and his art were spoken of with the same animated reverence that the knowing used when they spoke of one of these.

And, like all of these, Mr. Piggy Logan and his art demanded their own vocabulary. To speak of them correctly one must know a language whose subtle nuances were becoming more highly specialised month by month, as each succeeding critic outdid his predecessor and delved deeper into the bewildering complexities, the infinite shadings and associations, of Mr. Piggy Logan and his circus of wire dolls.

True, at the beginning there had been those among the cognoscenti — those happy pioneers who had got in at the very start of Mr. Piggy Logan’s vogue — who had characterised his performance as “frightfully amusing”. But that was old stuff, and anyone who now dared to qualify Mr. Logan’s art with such a paltry adjective as “amusing” was instantly dismissed as a person of no cultural importance. Mr. Logan’s circus had ceased to be “amusing” when one of the more sophisticated columnists of the daily press discovered that “not since the early Chaplin has the art of tragic humour through the use of pantomime reached such a faultless elevation.”

After this, the procession formed on the right, and each newcomer paid his tribute with a new and more glittering coin. The articles in the daily press were followed by others in all the smarter publications, with eulogistic essays on Mr. Logan and pictures of his little dolls. Then the dramatic critics joined the chorus, and held up the offerings of the current stage to a withering fire of comparative criticism. The leading tragedians of the theatre were instructed to pay special attention to Mr. Logan’s clown before they next essayed the role of Hamlet.

The solemn discussions broke out everywhere. Two eminent critics engaged in a verbal duel of such adeptive subtlety that in the end it was said there were not more than seven people in the civilised world who could understand the final passages at arms. The central issue of this battle was to establish whether Mr. Piggy Logan, in his development, had been influenced more by the geometric cubism of the early Picasso or by the geometric abstractions of Brancusi. Both schools of thought had their impassioned followers, but it was finally conceded that the Picassos had somewhat the better of it.

One word from Mr. Logan himself might have settled the controversy, but that word was never spoken. Indeed, he said very little about the hubbub he had caused. As more than one critic significantly pointed out, he had “the essential simplicity of the great artist — an almost childlike naïveté of speech and gesture that pierces straight to the heart of reality.” Even his life, his previous history, resisted investigations of the biographers with the impenetrability of the same baffling simplicity. Or, as another critic clearly phrased it: “As in the life of almost all great men of art, there is little in Logan’s early years to indicate his future achievement. Like almost all supremely great men, he developed slowly — and, it might almost be said, unheeded — up to the time when he burst suddenly, like a blazing light, upon the public consciousness.”

However that may be, Mr. Piggy Logan’s fame was certainly blazing now, and an entire literature in the higher aesthetics had been created about him and his puppets. Critical reputations had been made or ruined by them. The last criterion of fashionable knowingness that year was an expert familiarity with Mr. Logan and his dolls. If one lacked this knowledge, he was lower than the dust. If one had it, his connoisseurship in the arts was definitely established and his eligibility for any society of the higher sensibilities was instantly confirmed.

To a future world — inhabited, no doubt, by a less acute and understanding race of men — all this may seem a trifle strange. If so, that will be because the world of the future will have forgotten what it was like to live in 1929.

In that sweet year of grace one could admit with utter nonchalance that the late John Milton bored him and was a large “stuffed shirt”. “Stuffed shirts”, indeed, were numerous in the findings of the critical gentry of the time. The chemises of such inflated personalities as Goethe, Ibsen, Byron, Tolstoy, Whitman, Dickens, and Balzac had been ruthlessly investigated by some of the most fearless intellects of the day and found to be largely filled with straw wadding. Almost everything and everybody was in the process of being debunked — except the debunkers and Mr. Piggy Logan and his dolls.

Life had recently become too short for many things that people had once found time for. Life was simply too short for the perusal of any book longer than two hundred pages. As for War and Peace— no doubt all “they” said of it was true — but as for oneself — well, one had tried, and really it was quite too — too — oh, well, life simply was too short. So life that year was far too short to be bothered by Tolstoy, Whitman, Dreiser, or Dean Swift. But life was not too short that year to be passionately concerned with Mr. Piggy Logan and his circus of wire dolls.

The highest intelligences of the time — the very subtlest of the chosen few — were bored by many things. They tilled the waste land, and erosion had grown fashionable. They were bored with love, and they were bored with hate. They were bored with men who worked, and with men who loafed. They were bored with people who created something, and with people who created nothing. They were bored with marriage, and with single blessedness. They were bored with chastity, and they were bored with adultery. They were bored with going abroad, and they were bored with staying at home. They were bored with the great poets of the world, whose great poems they had never read. They were bored with hunger in the streets, with the men who were killed, with the children who starved, and with the injustice, cruelty, and oppression all round them; and they were bored with justice, freedom, and man’s right to live. They were bored with living, they were bored with dying, but — they were not bored that year with Mr. Piggy Logan and his circus of wire dolls.

And the Cause of all this tumult? The generating Force behind this mighty sensation in the world of Art? As one of the critics so aptly said: “It is a great deal more than just a new talent that has started just another ‘movement’: it is rather a whole new universe of creation, a whirling planet which in its fiery revolutions may be expected to throw off its own sidereal systems.” All right; It, then — the colossal Genius which had started all this — what was It doing now?

It was now enjoying the privacy of one of the lovely rooms in Mrs. Jack’s apartment, and, as if It were utterly unaware of the huge disturbance It had made in the great world, It was calmly, quietly, modestly, prosaically, and matter-of-factly occupied in peeling off Its own trousers and pulling on a pair of canvas pants.

While this momentous happening was taking place, events were moving smoothly to their consummation in other quarters of the house. The swinging door between the dining-room and the kitchen domain kept slatting back and forth as the maids passed in and out to make the final preparations for the feast. Janie came through the dining-room bearing a great silver tray filled with bottles, decanters, a bowl of ice, and tall, lovely glasses. As she set the tray down upon a table in the living-room, the shell-thin glasses chimed together musically, and there was a pleasant jink of bottles and the cold, clean rattle of cracked ice.

Then the girl came over towards the hearth, removed the big brass screen, and knelt before the dancing flames. As she jabbed at the logs with a long brass poker and a pair of tongs there was a shower of fiery sparks, and the fire blazed and crackled with new life. For just a moment she stayed there on her knees in a gesture of sweet maiden grace. The fire cast its radiance across her glowing face, and Mrs. Jack looked at her with a softened glance, thinking how sweet and clean and pretty she was. Then the maid arose and put the screen back in its place.

Mrs. Jack was arranging anew a vase of long-stemmed roses on a small table in the hall and glancing briefly at herself in the mirror above, turned and walked briskly and happily down the broad, deep-carpeted hallway towards her own room. Her husband was just coming from his room. He was fully dressed for the evening. She looked him over with an expert eye, and saw how well his clothes fit him and how he wore them as if they had grown on him.

His manner, in contrast to hers, was calm and sophisticated, wise and knowing. One knew just to look at him that he took excellent care of himself. Here was a man, one felt, who, if he was experienced in the pleasures of the flesh, knew how far to go, and beyond what point lay chaos, shipwreck, and the reef. His wife, taking all this in with a swift and comprehensive glance that missed nothing, despite her air of half-bewildered innocence, was amazed to see how much he knew, and a little troubled to think that he knew even more, perhaps, than she could see or fathom.

“Oh, hello,” he said, in a tone of suave courtesy as he bent and kissed her lightly on one cheek.

For just the flick of an instant she was conscious of a feeling of distaste, but then she remembered what a perfect husband he had been, how thoughtful, how good, how devoted, and how, no matter what the unfathomed implications of his eyes might be, he had said nothing — and for all that anyone could prove, had seen nothing. “He’s a sweet person,” she was thinking as she responded brightly to his greeting:

“Oh, hello, darling. You’re all ready, aren’t you? . . . Listen”— she spoke rapidly —“will you look out for the bell and take care of anyone who comes? Mr. Logan is changing his costume in the guest room — won’t you look out for him if he needs anything? And see if Edith’s ready. And when the guests begin to come you can send the women to her room to take off their wraps — oh, just tell Nora — she’ll attend to it! And you’ll take care of the men yourself — won’t you, dear? You can show them back to your room. I’ll be out in a few minutes. If only everything!”— she began in a worried tone, slipping the ring quickly from her finger and slipping it back again. “I do hope everything’s all right!”

“But isn’t it?” he said blandly. “Haven’t you looked?”

“Oh, everything looks perfect!” she cried. “It’s really just too beautiful! The girls have behaved wonderfully — only”— the little furrow of nervous tension came between her eyes —“do keep an eye on them, won’t you, Fritz? You know how they are if somebody’s not round. Something’s so likely to go wrong. So please do watch them, won’t you, dear? And look out for Mr. Logan. I do hope —” she paused with a look of worried abstraction in her eyes.

“You do hope what?” he said pointedly, with just the suggestion of an ironic grin round the corners of his mouth.

“I do hope he won’t”— she began in a troubled tone, then went on rapidly —“He said something about — about clearing away some of the things in the living-room for his show.” She looked at him rather helplessly; then, catching the irony of his faint grin, she coloured quickly and laughed richly. “God! I don’t know what he’s going to do. He brought enough stuff with him to sink a battleship! . . . Still, I suppose it’s going to be all right. Everyone’s been after him, you know. Everyone’s thrilled at the chance of seeing him. Oh, I’m sure it’ll be all right. Don’t you think so — hah?”

She looked earnestly at him with an expression of such droll, beseeching inquiry that, unmasked for a moment, he laughed abruptly as he turned away, saying:

“Oh, I suppose so, Esther. I’ll look after it.”

Mrs. Jack went on down the hall, pausing just perceptibly as she passed her daughter’s door. She could hear the girl’s voice, clear, cool, and young, humming the jaunty strains of a popular tune:

“You’re the cream in my coffee — you’re the salt in my stew-w ——”

A little smile of love and tenderness suffused the woman’s face as she continued down the hall and entered the next door, which was her own room.

It was a very simple, lovely room, hauntingly chaste, almost needlessly austere. In the centre of one wall stood her narrow little wooden bed, so small and plain and old that it seemed it might almost have served as the bed of a medieval nun, as perhaps it had. Beside it stood the little table with its few books, a telephone, a glass and a silver pitcher, and in a silver frame a photograph of a girl in her early twenties — Mrs. Jack’s daughter, Alma.

Beside the door as one entered there was an enormous old wooden wardrobe, which she had brought from Italy. This contained all her beautiful dresses and her wonderful collection of winglike little shoes, all of them made by hand to fit her perfect little feet. On the opposite wall, facing the door, between two high windows, stood her writing-desk. Between the bed and the windows there was a small drawing-table. It was a single board of white, perfect wood, and on it, arranged with faultless precision, were a dozen sharpened pencils, a few feathery brushes, some crisp sheets of tracing paper on which geometric designs were legible, a pot of paste, a ruler, and a little jar of golden paint. Exactly above this table, hanging from the wall in all the clean beauty of their strength and accuracy, were a triangle and a square.

At the foot of the bed there was a chaise-longue covered with a flowered pattern of old faded silk. There were a few simple drawings, on the walls, and a single painting of a strange, exotic flower. It was such a flower as never was, a dream flower which Mrs. Jack had painted long ago.

Along the wall opposite the bed stood two old chests. One of them, a product of the Pennsylvania Dutch, was carved and coloured in quaint and cheerful patterns, and this contained old silks and laces and the noble Indian saris which she often loved to wear. The other was an old chest of drawers, with a few silver toilet articles and a square mirror on its top.

Mrs. Jack crossed the room and stood before the mirror looking at herself. First she bent forward a little and stared at her face long and earnestly with an expression of childlike innocence. Then she began to turn about, regarding herself from first one angle, then another. She put her hand up to her temple and smoothed her brow. Obviously she found herself good, for her eyes now took on an expression of rapt complacency. There was open vanity in her look as she brooded with smouldering fascination on the thick bracelet around her arm — a rich and sombre chain of ancient India, studded with dull and curious gems. She lifted her chin and looked at her neck,, tracing out with her finger-tips the design of an old necklace which she wore. She surveyed her smooth arms, her bare back, her gleaming shoulders, and the outlines of her breasts and figure, touching, patting, and half-unconsciously arranging with practiced touches the folds of her simple, splendid gown.

She lifted her arm again and with hand extended, the other hand upon her hip, she turned about once more in her orbit of self-worship. Slowly she turned, still rapt in contemplation of her loveliness, then she gasped suddenly with surprise and fright, and uttered a little scream. Her hand flew to her throat in a gesture of alarm as she realised that she was not alone and, looking up, saw her daughter standing there.

The girl, young, slender, faultless, cold, and lovely, had entered through the bathroom that connected the two rooms, and was standing in the door, having paused there, frozen to immobility as she caught her mother in the act. The mother’s face went blood-red. For a long moment the two women looked at each other, the mother utterly confused and crimson with her guilt, the daughter cold and appraising with the irony of sophisticated mirth. Then something quick and instant passed between them in their glance.

Like one who has been discovered and who knows that there is nothing more to say, the mother suddenly threw back her head and laughed, a rich, full-throated, woman’s yell of free acknowledgement, unknown to the race of man.

“Well, Mother, was it good?” said the girl, now grinning faintly. She walked over and kissed her.

Again the mother was shaken with her hysteria of helpless laughter. Then both of them, freed from the necessity of argument by that all-taking moment, were calm again.

Thus was enacted the whole tremendous comedy of womankind. No words were needed. There was nothing left to say. All had been said there in that voiceless instant of complete and utter understanding, of mutual recognition and conspiracy. The whole universe of sex had been nakedly revealed for just the flick of a second in all its guile and its overwhelming humour. And the great city roared on unwittingly round that secret cell, and no man in its many millions was any the wiser about this primal force more strong than cities and as old as earth.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02