You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

35. A Guest in Spite of Himself

When Bendien and Stoat were so suddenly and unceremoniously ushered from the room, George rose from his chair in some excitement, not knowing what to do with himself. McHarg now looked at him wearily.

“Sit down, sit down!” McHarg gasped, and fell into a chair. He crossed his bony legs with a curiously pathetic and broken attitude. “Christ!” he said, letting out a long sigh, “I’m tired. I feel as if I’ve been run through a sausage grinder. That damned Dutchman! I went out with him in Amsterdam, and we’ve been going it ever since. God, I can’t remember having eaten since I left Cologne. That was four days ago.”

He looked it, too. George was sure that he had spoken the literal truth and that he had not paused to eat for days. He was a wreck of jangled nerves and utterly exhausted weariness. As he sat there with his bony shanks crossed like two pieces of limp string, his gaunt figure had the appearance of being broken in two at the waist. He looked as if he would never be able to get out of that chair again without assistance. Just at that moment, however, the telephone rang sharply, and McHarg leaped up as if he had received an electric shock.

“Jesus Christ!” he shrilled. “What’s that?” He darted for the phone, snatched it up savagely, and snapped: “Hello, who’s there?” Then feverishly but very cordially: “Oh, hello; hello, Rick — you bastard, you! Where the hell have you been, anyway? I’ve been trying to reach you all morning . . . No! No! I just got here last night . . . Of course I’m going to see you. That’s one of the reasons I’m here . . . No, no, you don’t need to come for me. I’ve got my own car here. We’ll drive down. I’m bringing someone with me . . . Who?” he cackled suddenly in his shrill falsetto. “You’ll see, you’ll see. Wait till we get there . . . For dinner? Sure, I’ll make it. How long does it take? . . . Two hours and a half? Seven o’clock. We’ll be there with time to spare. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What’s the address? Wait till I get it down.”

He seated himself abruptly at the writing-desk, fumbled for a moment with pen and paper, and then passed them impatiently towards George, saying: “Write it down, George, as I give it to you.” The address was in Surrey, a farm on a country road several miles away from a small town. The directions for finding it were quite complicated, involving detours and cross-roads, but George finally got it all down correctly. Then McHarg, feverishly assuring his host that they would be there for dinner, with time to spare, hung up.

“Well, now,” he said impatiently, springing to his feet with another exhibition of that astounding vitality which seemed to burn in him all the time, “come on, Georgie! Let’s snap out of it! We’ll have to get going!”

W-w-w-we?” George stammered. “Y-y-y-you mean me, Mr. McHarg?”

“Sure, sure!” McHarg said impatiently. “Rick’s expecting us to dinner. We can’t keep him waiting. Come on! Come on! Let’s get started! We’re getting out of London! We’re going places!”

“P-p-p-places?” George stammered again, dumbfounded. “But w-w-w-where are we going, Mr. McHarg?”

“West of England,” he barked out instantly. “We’ll go down to Rick’s and spend the night. But tomorrow — tomorrow,” he muttered, pacing up and down and speaking with ominous decision, “we’ll be on our way. West of England,” he muttered again, pacing and hanging to his coat lapels with bony fingers. “Cathedral towns,” he said. “Bath, Bristol, Wells, Exeter, Salisbury, Devonshire, coast of Cornwall,” he cried feverishly, getting his geography and his cathedrals hopelessly confused, but covering, nevertheless, a large portion of the kingdom in a single staccato sentence. “Keep out of cities,” he went on. “Stay away from swank hotels — joints like this one. Hate them. Hate all of them. Want the country — the English countryside,” he said with relish.

George’s heart sank. He had not bargained for anything like this. He had come to England to finish his new book. The work had been going well. He had established the beat and cadence of daily hours at his writing, and the prospect of breaking the rhythm of it just when he was going at full swing was something that he dreaded. Moreover, God only knew where such a jaunt as McHarg spoke of would end. McHarg, meanwhile, was still talking, pacing nervously back and forth and letting his enthusiasm mount as his mind built up the idyllic picture of what he had suddenly taken it into his head to do.

“Yes, the English countryside — that’s the thing,” he said with relish. “We’ll put up at night by the side of the road and cook our own meals, or stay at some old inn — some real English country inn,” he said with deliberate emphasis. “Tankards of musty ale,” he muttered. “A well-done chop by the fireside. A bottle of old port, eh Georgie?” he cried, his scorched face lighting up with great glee. “Did it all before one time. Toured the whole country several years ago with my wife. Used a trailer. Went from place to place. Slept in our trailer at night and did our own cooking. Wonderful! Marvellous!” he barked. “The real way to see the country. The only way.”

George said nothing. At the moment he was unable to say anything. For weeks he had looked forward to his meeting with McHarg. He had leaped to his bidding when McHarg had summoned him to get out of bed instantly and come to lunch. But he had never dreamed of being abducted as a travelling and talking companion on an expedition that might last for days and even weeks, and end up almost anywhere. He had no desire or intention of going with McHarg if he could avoid it. And yet — his mind groped frantically for a way out — what was he to do? He did not want to offend him. He had too great an admiration and respect for McHarg to do anything that might, wittingly or unwittingly, hurt him or wound his feelings. And how could he reject the invitation of a man who, with the most generous and unselfish enthusiasm, had used the power and elevation of his high place to try to lift him out of the lower channel in which his own life ran?

In spite of the brevity of their acquaintance, George had already seen dearly and unmistakably what a good and noble human being McHarg really was. He knew how much integrity and courage and honesty was contained in that tormented tenement of fury and lacerated hurts. Regardless of all that was jangled, snarled, and twisted in his life, regardless of all that had become bitter, harsh, and acrid, McHarg was obviously one of the truly good, the truly high, the truly great people of the world. Anyone with an atom of feeling and intelligence, George thought, must have seen this at once. And as he continued to watch and study McHarg, and took in again the shock of his appearance — the inflamed face, the poached blue eyes, the emaciated figure and nervously shaking hands — an image flashed into his mind which seemed to represent the essential quality of the man, and this, curiously, was the image of Abraham Lincoln. Save for McHarg’s tallness and gauntness, there was no physical similarity to Lincoln. The resemblance came, George thought, from a certain homely identity, from a kind of astonishing ugliness which was so marked that it was hard to see how it escaped the grotesque, and yet it was not grotesque. It was an ugliness which somehow, no matter what extravagances of gesture, tone, and manner McHarg indulged in, never lost its quality of enormous, latent dignity. This strange and troubling resemblance became strikingly evident in repose.

For now, his decision having been arrived at with explosive violence, McHarg sat quietly in a chair, his bony legs crossed lankly, and with the fingers of one freckled and large-knuckled hand fumbled in the breast pocket of his coat for his cheque-book and his wallet. He got them out at last, his hands still shaking as with palsy, but even that did not disturb the suggestion of quiet dignity and strength. He put wallet and cheque-book on his knees, fumbled in a pocket of his vest, took out an old, worn spectacle-case, snapped it open, and deliberately extracted a pair of spectacles. They were the most extraordinary spectacles George had ever seen. They looked as if they might have belonged to Washington, or to Franklin, or to Lincoln himself. The rims, the nose clasp, and the handles were of plain old silver. McHarg opened them carefully, and then, using both hands, slowly adjusted them and settled the handles over his large and freckled ears. This done, he bent his head, took up the wallet, opened it, and very carefully began to count the contents. The transforming effect of this simple act was astonishing. The irritable, rasping, overwrought man of a few minutes before was gone completely. This lank and ugly figure in the chair, with its silver-rimmed spectacles, its wry and puckered face lowered in calculation, its big bony hands deliberately fingering each note inside the wallet, was an image of Yankee shrewdness, homely strength, plain dignity, and assured power. His very tone had changed. Still counting his money, without lifting his head, he spoke to George, saying quietly:

“Ring that bell over there, George. We’ll have to get some more money. I’ll send John out to the bank.”

George rang, and shortly the young man with buttons rapped at the door and entered. McHarg glanced up and, opening his chequebook and, taking out his fountain pen, said quietly:

“I need some money, John. Will you take this cheque round to the bank and cash it?”

“Very good, sir,” said John. “And ‘Enry is ’ere, sir, with the car. ‘E wants to know if ‘e should wait.”

“Yes,” said McHarg, still writing out the cheque. “Tell him I’ll need him. Tell him we’ll be ready in twenty minutes.” He tore out the cheque and handed it to the man. “And by the way,” he said, “when you come back will you pack some things — shirts, underwear, socks, and so on — in a small bag? We’re going out of town.”

“Very good, sir,” John said quietly, and went out.

McHarg was silent and thoughtful for a moment. Then he capped his fountain pen, restored it to his pocket, put away his wallet and cheque-book, took off his old spectacles with the same grave and patient movement, folded them and laid them in the case, snapped it to and put it in the pocket of his vest, and then, with a much quieter and more genial friendliness than he had yet displayed, brought one hand down smartly on the arm of his chair and said:

“Well, George, what are you doing now? Working on another book?”

Webber told him that he was.

“Going to be good?” he demanded.

Webber said he hoped so.

“A nice, big, fat one like the first? Lots of meat on it, is there? Lots of people?”

Webber told him that there would be.

“That’s the stuff,” he said. “Go to it and give ’em people,” he said quietly. “You’ve got the feeling for ‘ern. You know how to make ’em live. Go on and put ’em in. You’ll hear a lot of bunk,” he went on. “You’ve probably heard it already. There’ll be a lot of bright young men who will tell you how to write, and tell you that what you do is wrong. They’ll tell you that you have no style, no sense of form. They’ll tell you that you don’t write like Virginia Woolf, or like Proust, or like Gertrude Stein, or like someone else that you ought to write like. Take it all in, as much of it as you can. Believe all of it that you’re able to believe. Try to get all the help from it you can, but if you know it’s not true, don’t pay too much attention to it.”

“Will you be able to know whether it’s true or not?”

“Oh, yes,” he said quietly. “You always know if it’s true. Christ, man, you’re a writer, you’re not a bright young man. If you were a bright young man you wouldn’t know whether it was true or not. You’d only say you did. But a writer always knows. The bright young men don’t think he does. That’s the reason they’re bright young men. They think a writer is too dumb or too pig-headed to listen to what they say, but the real truth of the matter is that the writer knows much more about it than they can ever know. Once in a while they say something that hits the nail on the head. But that’s only one time in a thousand. When they do, it hurts, but it’s worth listening to. It’s probably something that you knew about yourself, that you knew you’d have to look at finally, but that you’ve been trying to dodge and that you hoped no one else would discover. When they punch one of those raw nerves, listen to them, even though its hurts like hell. But usually you’ll find that you’ve known everything they say a long time before they say it, and that what they think is important doesn’t amount to a damn.”

“Then what’s a man to do?” Webber said. “It looks pretty much as if he’s got to be his own doctor, doesn’t it? It looks as if he’s got to find the answer for himself.”

“I never found any other way,” said McHarg. “I don’t think you will, either. So get going. Keep busy. For Christ’s sake, don’t freeze up. Don’t stall around. I’ve known a lot of young fellows who froze up after their first book, and it wasn’t because they had only that one book in them, either. That’s what the bright young men thought. That’s what they always think, but it just ain’t true. Good God, man, you’ve got a hundred books in you! You can keep on turning them out as long as you live. There’s no danger of your drying up. The only danger is of freezing up.”

“How do you mean? Why should a man freeze up?”

“Usually,” said McHarg, “because he loses his nerve. He listens to the bright young men. His first book gets him pretty good reviews. He takes them seriously. He begins to worry about every little bit of criticism that’s sandwiched in with the praise. He begins to wonder if he can do it again. His next book is really going to be ‘as good as his first, maybe better. He has been a natural slugger to begin with, with a one-ton punch. Now he begins to shadow-box. He listens to everything they tell him. How to jab and how to hook. How to counter with his right. How to keep out of the way. How to weave and how to bob. How to take care of his feet. He learns to skip the rope, but forgets to use that paralysing punch that he was born with, and the first thing you know some palooka comes along and knocks him for a row of ash-cans. For God’s sake, don’t let it happen to you. Learn all you can. Improve all you can. Take all the instruction you can absorb. But remember that no amount of instruction can ever take the place of the wallop in the old right hand. If you lose that, you may learn all the proper ways that other men have used to do the job, but you’ll have forgotten your own way. As a writer, you’ll be through. So for God’s sake, get going and keep going. Don’t let them slow you down. Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.”

“You think that can happen? Do you think a man can freeze up if he really has talent?”

“Yes,” McHarg said quietly, “that can happen. I’ve seen it happen. You’ll find out, as you go on, that most of the things they say, most of the dangers that they warn you of, do not exist. They’ll talk to you, for instance, about prostituting your talent. They’ll warn you not to write for money. Not to sell your soul to Hollywood. Not to do a dozen other things that have nothing whatever to do with you or with your life. You won’t prostitute yourself. A man’s talent doesn’t get prostituted just because someone waves a fat cheque in his face. If your talent is prostituted, it is because you are a prostitute by nature. The number of writers in this world who weep into their Scotch and tell you of the great books they would have written if they hadn’t sold out to Hollywood or to the Saturday Evening Post is astonishingly large. But the number of great writers who have sold out is not large. In fact, I don’t believe there are any at all. If Thomas Hardy had been given a contract to write stories for the Saturday Evening Post, do you think he would have written like Zane Grey or like Thomas Hardy? I can tell you the answer to that one. He would have written like Thomas Hardy. He couldn’t have written like anyone else but Thomas Hardy. He would have kept on writing like Thomas Hardy whether he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post or Captain Billy’s Whizbang. You can’t prostitute a great writer, because a great writer will inevitably be himself. He couldn’t sell himself out if he wanted to. And a good many of them, I suppose, have wanted to, or thought they did. But he can freeze up. He can listen too much to the bright young men. He can learn to shadow-box, to feint and jab and weave, and he can lose his punch. So whatever you do, don’t freeze up.”

There was a rap at the door, and in response to McHarg’s summons John came in, carrying in his hand a bundle of crisp, brand-new Bank of England notes.

“I think you will find these right, sir,” he said, as he handed the money to McHarg. “I counted them. One ‘undred pounds, sir.”

McHarg took the notes, folded them into a wad, and thrust it carelessly into his pocket. “All right, John,” he said. “And now will you pack a few things?”

He got up, looked about him absently, and then, with a sudden resumption of his former feverish manner, he barked out:

“Well, George, get on your coat! We’ve got to be on our way!”

“B-b-but”— George began to temporise —“don’t you think we’d better get some lunch before we start out, Mr. McHarg? If you haven’t eaten for so long, you’ll need food. Let’s go somewhere now and get something to eat.”

George spoke with all the persuasiveness he could put into his voice. By this time he was beginning to feel very hungry, and thought longingly of the “prime bit” of gammon and peas that Mrs. Purvis had prepared for him. Also he hoped that if he could only get McHarg to have lunch before starting, he could use the occasion diplomatically to dissuade him from his intention of departing forthwith, and taking him along willy-nilly, on a tour that was apparently designed to embrace a good portion of the British Isles. But McHarg, as if he foresaw Webber’s design, and also feared, perhaps, the effect of further delay upon his almost exhausted energies, snapped curtly, with inflexible decision:

“We’ll eat somewhere on the road. We’re getting out of town at once.”

George saw that it was useless to argue, so he said nothing more. He decided to go along, wherever McHarg was going, and to spend the night, if need be, at his friend’s house in the country, trusting in the hope that the restorative powers of a good meal and a night’s sleep would help to alter McHarg’s purpose. Therefore he put on his coat and hat, descended with McHarg in the lift, waited while he left some instructions at the desk, and then went out with him to the automobile that was standing at the kerb.

McHarg had chartered a Rolls–Royce. When George saw this magnificent car he felt like roaring with laughter, for if this was the vehicle in which he proposed to explore the English countryside, cooking out of a frying-pan and sleeping beside the road at night, then the tour would certainly be the most sumptuous and the most grotesque vagabondage England had ever seen. John had already come down and had stowed away a small suitcase on the floor beside the back seat. The driver, a little man dressed appropriately in livery, touched the visor of his cap respectfully, and he and George helped McHarg into the car. He had suddenly gone weak, and almost fell as he got in. Once in, he asked George to give the driver the address in Surrey, and, having said this, he collapsed: his face sank forward on his chest, and he had again that curious broken-intwo look about the waist. He had one hand thrust through the loop of a strap beside the door, and if it had not been for this support he would have slumped to the floor. George got in and sat down beside him, still wondering desperately what to do, how in the name of God he was going to get out of it.

It was well after one o’clock when they started off. They rolled smoothly into St. James’s Street, turned at the bottom into Pall Mall, went round St. James’s Palace and into the Mall, and headed towards Buckingham Palace and Webber’s own part of town. Coming out of the Mall and wheeling across the great place before the palace, McHarg roused himself with a jerk, peered through the drizzle and the reek — it was a dreary day — at the magnificent sentries stamping up and down in front of the palace, stamping solemnly, facing at the turns, and stamping back again, and was just about to slump back when George caught him up sharply.

At that moment Ebury Street was very near, and it seemed very dear to him. George thought with desire and longing of his bed, of Mrs. Purvis, and of his untouched gammon and peas. That morning’s confident departure already seemed to be something that had happened long ago. He smiled bitterly as he remembered his conversation with Mrs. Purvis and their speculations about whether Mr. McHarg would take him to lunch at the Ritz, or at Stone’s in Panton Street, or at Simpson’s in the Strand. Gone now were all these Lucullan fantasies. At that point he would joyfully have compromised on a pub and a piece of cheese and a pint of bitter beer.

As the car wheeled smoothly past the palace, he felt his last hope slipping away. Desperately he jogged his companion by the elbow before it should be too late and told him he lived just round the corner in Ebury Street, and could he please stop off a moment there to get a tooth-brush and a safety-razor, that it would take only a minute. McHarg meditated this request gravely and finally mumbled that he could, but to “make it snappy”. Accordingly, George gave the driver the address, and they drove down round the palace, turned into Ebury Street, and slowed down as they approached his modest little house. McHarg was beginning to look desperately ill. He hung on grimly to his strap, but when the car stopped he swayed in his seat and would have gone down if George had not caught him.

“Mr. McHarg,” George said, “you ought to have something to eat before we go on farther. Won’t you come upstairs with me and let the woman give you something? She has fixed me a good lunch. It’s all ready. We could eat and be out again in twenty minutes.”

“No food,” he muttered and glared at George suspiciously. “What are you trying to do — run out on me?”

“No, of course not.”

“Well, get your tooth-brush then, and hurry up. We’re going to get out of town.”

“All right. Only I think you’re making a mistake not to eat first. It’s there waiting for you if you’ll take it.”

George made it as persuasive as he could. He stood at the open door, with one foot upon the running-board. McHarg made no answer; he lay back against the seat with his eyes closed. But a moment later he tugged on the strap, pulled himself partly erect, and, with just a shade of obstinate concession, said:

“You got a cup of tea up there?”

“Of course. She’ll have it for you in two minutes.”

He pondered this information for a moment, then half unwillingly said: “Well, I don’t know. I might take a cup of tea. Maybe it would brace me up.”

“Come on,” George said quickly, and took him by the arm.

The driver and George helped him out of the car. George told the man to wait for them, that they would be back within thirty minutes, which McHarg quickly amended to fifteen. Then George opened the street door with his key and, slowly, carefully, helping the exhausted man, began to propel the tall and angular form up the narrow stairs. They finally got there. George opened the door, led him through into his sitting-room, and seated McHarg in his most comfortable chair, where he immediately let his head slump forward on his breast again. George lit the little open gas radiator which provided the room with the only heat it had, called Mrs. Purvis, who had heard them and was already coming from the kitchen, whispered quickly to her the circumstance of his being there and the identity of his distinguished visitor, and dispatched her at once to make the tea.

When she left the sitting-room McHarg roused himself a little and said: “Georgie, I fell all shot to hell. God, I could sleep a month.”

“I’ve just sent Mrs. Purvis for the tea,” George answered. “She’ll have it ready in a minute. That’ll make you feel better.”

But almost instantly, as if the effort to speak had used up his last energies, McHarg sank back in the chair and collapsed completely. By the time Mrs. Purvis entered with her tray and teapot, he no longer needed tea. He was buried in comatose oblivion — past tea or travel now, past everything.

She saw instantly what had happened. She put the tray down quietly and whispered to George: “‘E’s not goin’ anywhere just yet. ‘E will be needin’ sleep.”

“Yes,” George said. “That’s what he does need, badly.”

“It’s a shame to leave ’im in that chair. If we could only get ’im up, sir,” she whispered, “and into your room, ‘e could lie down in your bed. It’d be more comfortable for ’im.”

George nodded, stooped beside the chair, got one of McHarg’s long, dangling arms round his neck and his own arm round McHarg’s waist, and, heaving, said encouragingly: “Come on, Mr. McHarg. You’ll feel better if you lie down and stretch out.” He made a manful effort and got out of the chair, and took the few steps necessary to enter the bedroom and reach the bed, where he again collapsed, this time face downwards. George rolled him over on his back, straightened him out, undid his collar, and took off his shoes. Then Mrs. Purvis covered him from the raw chill and cold, which seemed to soak right into the little bedroom from the whole clammy reek of fog and drizzle outside. They piled a number of blankets and comforters upon him, brought in a small electric heat reflector and turned it on in such a way that its warmth would reach him, the they pulled the curtains together at the window, darkened the room, closed the doors, and left him.

Mrs. Purvis was splendid.

“Mr. McHarg is very tired,” George said to her. “A little sleep will do him good.”

“Ah, yes,” she said, and nodded wisely and sympathetically. “You can see it’s the strain ‘e’s been under. Meetin’ all them people. And then ‘avin’ to travel so much. It’s easy to see,” she went on loftily, “that ‘e’s still sufferin’ from the fatigue of the journey. But you,” she said quickly —“should think you’d feel tired yourself, what with the excitement and ‘avin’ no lunch and all. Do come,” she said persuasively, “and ‘ave a bite to eat. The gammon is nice, sir. I could ‘ave it for you in a minute.”

Her proposal had George’s enthusiastic endorsement. She hastened to the kitchen, and soon came in again and told him lunch was ready. He went at once to the little dining-room and ate a hearty meal — gammon, peas, boiled potatoes, a crusty apple tart with a piece of cheese, and a bottle of Bass ale.

After that he returned to the sitting-room and decided to stretch out on the sofa. It was a small sofa and much too short for him, but he had had no sleep for more than twenty-four hours and it looked inviting. He lay down with his legs dangling over the end, and almost instantly fell asleep.

Later he was faintly conscious that Mrs. Purvis had come softly in, had put his feet upon a chair, and had spread a blanket over him. He was also dimly aware that she had drawn the curtains, darkened the room, and gone softly out.

Later still, as she prepared to leave for the day, George heard her open the door and listen for a moment; then, very quietly, she tiptoed across the floor and opened the bedroom door and peered in. Evidently satisfied that all was well, she tiptoed out again, closing the doors gently as she went. He heard her creep softly down the stairs, and presently the street door closed. He fell asleep again and slept soundly for some time.

When George woke again it had grown completely dark outside, and McHarg was up and stirring about in the bedroom, evidently looking for the light. George got up and switched the light on in the sitting-room, and McHarg came in.

Again there was an astonishing transtormation in him. His short sleep seemed to have restored his vitality, and restored it to a degree and in a direction George had not wanted. He had hoped that a few hours of sleep would calm McHarg and make him see the wisdom of getting a really sound rest before proceeding farther on his travels. Instead, the man had wakened like a raging lion, and was now pacing back and forth like a caged beast, fuming at their delay and demanding with every breath that George get ready to depart instantly.

“Are you coming?” he said. “Or are you trying to back out of it? What are you going to do, anyway?”

George had waked up in a semi-daze, and he now became conscious that the door-bell was ringing, and had been ringing for some time. It was probably this sound which had aroused them both. Telling McHarg that he’d be back in a moment, George ran down the stairs and opened the door. It was, of course, McHarg’s chauffeur. In the excitement and fatigue of the afternoon’s event he had completely forgotten him, and the poor fellow had been waiting all this time there in his glittering chariot drawn up before Webber’s modest door. It was not yet quite five o’clock in the afternoon, but dark comes early in the dismal wintry days of London’s ceaseless fog and drizzle, and it was black as midnight outside. The street lights were on, and the shop fronts were shining out into the fog with a blurred and misty radiance. The street itself was still and deserted, but high up over the roof-tops the wind was beginning to swoop in fitful gusts, howling faintly in a way that promised a wild night.

The little chauffeur stood patiently before George when he opened the door, holding his visored cap respectfully in his hands, but he had an air of restrained anxiety about him which he could not conceal. “I beg your pardon, sir,” he said, “but I wonder if you know whether Mr. Mc’Arg ‘as changed ‘is plans?”

“Plans? Plans?” George stammered, still not quite awake, and he shook his head like a dog coming out of the water in an effort to compose himself and bring order to his own bewilderment. “What plans?”

“About going to Surrey, sir,” the little man said gently, yet giving George a quick and rather startled look. Already the painful suspicion, which later in the evening was to become a deep-rooted conviction, that he was alone and under the criminal direction of two dangerous maniacs, had begun to shape itself in the chauffeur’s consciousness, but as yet he betrayed his apprehension only by an attitude of solicitous and somewhat tense concern. “You know, sir,” he continued quietly, in a tone of apologetic reminder, “that’s where we started for hearlier in the hafternoon.”

“Oh, yes, yes. Yes, I remember,” George said, running his fingers through his hair and speaking rather distractedly. “Yes, we did, didn’t we?”

“Yes, sir,” he said gently. “And you see,” he went on, almost like a benevolent elder speaking to a child —“you see, sir, one is not supposed to park ’ere in the street for so long a time as we’ve been ’ere. The bobby,” he coughed apologetically behind his hand, “‘as just spoken to me, sir, and ‘as told me that I’ve been ’ere too long and will ‘ave to move. So I thought it best to tell you, sir, and to find out if you know what Mr. Mc’Arg intends to do.”

“I— I think he intends to go on with it,” George said. “That is, to go on to Surrey as we started out to do. But — you say the bobby has ordered you to move?”

“Yes, sir,” the chauffeur said patiently, and held his visored cap and looked up at George and waited.

“Well, then —” George thought desperately for a moment, and then burst out: “Look here, I’ll tell you what you do. Drive round the block — drive round the block ——”

“Yes, sir,” the chauffeur said, and waited.

“And come back here in five minutes. I’ll be able to tell you then what we’re going to do.”

“Very good, sir.” He inclined his head in a brief nod of agreement, put on his cap, and got into his car.

George closed the door and went back up the stairs. When he entered the sitting-room, McHarg had on his overcoat and hat and was pacing restlessly up and down.

“It was your driver,” George said. “I forgot about him, but he’s been waiting there all afternoon. He wants to know what we’re going to do.”

“What we’re going to do?” McHarg shrilled. “We’re going to get a move on! Christ Almighty, man, we’re four hours late already! Come on, come on, George!” he rasped. “Let’s get going!”

George saw that he meant it and that it was useless to try to change his purpose. He took his brief-case, crammed tooth-brush, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and brush, and a pair of pyjamas into it, put on his hat and coat, switched off the lights, ands led the way into the hall, saying: “All right. I’m ready if you are. Let’s go.”

When they got out into the foggy drizzle of the street, the car was just wheeling to a halt at the kerb. The chauffeur jumped out and opened the door for them. McHarg and Webber got in. The chauffeur climbed back into his seat, and they drove swiftly away, down the wet street, with a smooth, cupped hissing of the tyres. They reached Chelsea, skirted the Embankment, crossed Battersea Bridge, and began to roll south-westward through the vast, interminable ganglia of outer London.

It was a journey that Webber remembered later with nightmare vividness. McHarg had begun to collapse again before they crossed the Thames at Battersea. And no wonder! For weeks, in the letdown and emptiness that had come upon him as a sequel to his great success, he had lashed about in a frenzy of seeking for he knew not what, going from place to place, meeting new people, hurling himself into fresh adventures. From this impossible quest he had allowed himself no pause or rest. And at the end of it he had found exactly nothing. Or, to be more exact, he had found Mynheer Bendien in Amsterdam. It was easy to see just what had happened to McHarg after that. For if, at the end of the trail, there was nothing but a red-faced Dutchman, then, by God, he’d at least find out what kind of stuff a red-faced Dutchman was made of. Then for several days more, in his final fury of exasperation, he had put the Dutchman to the test, driving him even harder than he had driven himself, not even stopping to eat, until at last the Dutchman, sustained by gin and his own phlegmatic constitution, had used up what remained of McHarg’s seemingly inexhaustible energies. So now he was all in. The flare of new vitality with which he had awakened from his nap had quickly burnt itself out: he lay back in the seat of the car, drained and emptied of the fury which had possessed him, too exhausted even to speak, his eyes closed, his head rolling gently with the motion of the car, his long legs thrust out limply before him. George sat beside him, helpless, not knowing what to do or where he was going or how and when it would end, his gaze fixed upon the head of the little driver, who was hunched up behind the wheel, intent upon the road, steering the car skilfully through the traffic and the fog-bound night.

The enormous ganglia of unending London rolled past them — street after street wet with a dull gleam of rain-fogged lamps, mile after mile of brick houses, which seemed steeped in the fog and soot and grime of uncounted days of dismal weather, district after district in the interminable web, a giant congeries of uncounted villages, all grown together now into this formless, monstrous sprawl. They would pass briefly through the high streets of these far-flung warrens. For a moment there would be the golden nimbus of the fog-blurred lights, the cheerful radiance of butcher shops, with the red brawn of beef, the plucked plumpness and gangling necks of hung fowls, and the butchers in their long white aprons; then the wine and liquor stores, and the beer-fogged blur and warmth and murmur of the pubs, with the dull gleam of the rain-wet pavement stretching out in front; then pea-soup darkness again, and again the endless rows of fog-cheat houses.

At last they began to come to open country. There was the darkness of the land, the smell of the wet fields, the strung spare lights of night across the countryside. They began to feel the force of the wind as it swooped down at them across the fields and shivered against the sides of the car. It was blowing the fog away and the sky was lifting. And now, against the damp, low, thick, and dismal ceiling of the clouds, there was an immense corrupted radiance, as if all the swelter, smoke, and fury of London’s unending life had been caught up and resumed there. With every revolution of the wheels the glow receded farther behind them.

And now, with the lonely countryside all round him, George became conscious of the mysterious architecture of night. As he felt the abiding strength and everlastingness of the earth, he began to feel also a sense of exultation and release. It was a feeling he had had many times before, a feeling that every man who lives in a vast modern city must feel when, after months within the hive of the city’s life — months of sweat and noise and violence, months of grimy brick and stone, months of the incessant thrust and intershift and weaving of the endless crowd, months of tainted air and tainted life, of treachery, fear, malice, slander, blackmail, envy, hatred, conflict, fury, and deceit, months of frenzy and the tension of wire-taut nerves and the changeless change — he leaves the city and is free at last, out beyond the remotest filament of that tainted and tormented web. He that has known only a jungle of mortared brick and stone where no birds sing, where no blade grows, has now found earth again. And yet, unfathomable enigma that it is, he has found earth and, finding it, has lost the world. He has found the washed cleanliness of vision and of soul that comes from earth. He feels himself washed free of all the stains of ancient living, its evil and its lust, its filth and cruelty, its perverse and ineradicable pollution, But curiously, somehow, the wonder and the mystery of it all remains, its beauty and its magic, its richness and its joy, and as he looks back upon that baleful glow that lights the smoky blanket of the sky, a feeling of loss and loneliness possesses him, as if in gaining earth again he has relinquished life.

The car sped onwards and still onwards, until finally the last outpost of London was left behind and the glow in the sky was gone. They were driving through dark country and night towards their journey’s end. McHarg had not uttered a word. He still sat with legs sprawled out and head thrown back, swaying from the motion of the car but held in position by one limp arm which was hooked in the strap beside him. George was getting more and more alarmed at the thought of bringing him in this exhausted state to the house of an old friend whom he had not seen for years. At last he stopped the car and told the driver to wait while he pleaded with his master.

He switched on the overhead light and shook him, and to his surprise McHarg opened his eyes right away and by his responses showed that his mind was completely clear and alert. George told him that, worn out as he must be, he could not possibly enjoy a visit with his friend. He begged him to change his mind, to return to London for the night, to let him telephone his friend from the nearest town to say that he had been delayed and would see him in a day or two, but by all means to defer his visit until he felt better able to make it. After McHarg’s former display of obstinate determination, George had little hope of success, but to his amazement McHarg now proved most reasonable. He agreed to everything George said, confessed that he himself thought it would be better not to see his friend that night, and said he was prepared to embrace any alternative George might propose, except — on this he was most blunt and flat — he would not go back to London. All day his desire to get out of London had had the force and urgency of an obsession, so George pressed no further on that point. He agreed that they should not turn back, but asked McHarg if he had any preference about where they should go. McHarg said he didn’t care, but after meditating with chin sunk forward on breast for several moments, he said suddenly that he would like the sea.

This remark did not seem at all astonishing to George at the time. It became astonishing only as he thought of it later. He accepted the proposal of going to the sea as naturally as a New Yorker might accept a suggestion of riding on a Fifth Avenue bus to see Grant’s tomb. If McHarg had said he wanted to go to Liverpool or to Manchester or to Edinburgh, it would have been the same — George would have felt no astonishment whatever. Once out of London, both of these Americans, in their unconscious minds, were as little impressed by the dimensions of England as they would have been by a half-acre lot. When McHarg said he’d like the sea, George thought to himself: “Very well. We’ll just drive over to the other side of the island and take a look at it.”

So George thought the idea an excellent one and fell in with it enthusiastically, remarking that the salt air, the sound of the waves, and a good night’s sleep would do them both a world of good, and would make them fit and ready for further adventures in the morning. McHarg, too, began to show whole-hearted warmth for the plan. George asked him if he had any special place in mind. He said no, that it didn’t matter, that any place was good as long as it was on the sea. In rapid order they named over seacoast towns which they had either heard of or at one time or another had visited — Dover, Folkestone, Bournemouth, Eastbourne, Blackpool, Torquay, Plymouth.

“Plymouth! Plymouth!” cried McHarg with enthusiastic decision. “That’s the very place! I’ve been in there in ships dozens of times, but never stopped off. True, it’s in the harbour, but that doesn’t matter. It always looked like a nice little town. Let’s go there for the night.”

“Oh, sir,” spoke up the chauffeur, who till now had sat quietly at his wheel, listening to two maniacs dismember the geography of the British Isles. “Oh, sir,” he repeated, with an intonation of quite evident alarm, “you can’t do that, you know. Not to-night, sir. It’s quite himpossible to make Plymouth to-night.”

“What’s the reason it is?” McHarg demanded truculently.

“Because, sir,” said the driver, “it’s a good two ‘undred and fifty miles, sir. In this weather, what with rain and never knowing when the fog may close in again, it would take ite all of eight hours, sir, to do it. We should not arrive there, sir, until the small hours of the morning.

“Well, then, all right,” McHarg cried impatiently. “We’ll go somewhere else. How about Blackpool? Blackpool, eh, Georgie?” he said, turning to Webber feverishly, his lips lifting in a grimace of puckered nervousness. “Let’s try Blackpool. Never been there. Like to see the place.”

“But, sir”— the driver was now obviously appalled —“Blackpool — Blackpool, sir, is in the north of England. Why, sir,” he whispered, “Blackpool is even farther away than Plymouth is. It must be all of three ‘undred miles, sir,” he whispered, and the awe in his tone could not have been greater if they had just proposed an overnight drive from Philadelphia to the Pacific coast. “We couldn’t reach Blackpool, sir, before tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, well, then,” said McHarg in disgust. “Have it your own way. You name a place, George,” he demanded.

Webber thought earnestly for a long minute, then, fortified with memories of scenes from Thackeray and Dickens, he said hopefully: “Brighton. How about Brighton?”

Instantly he knew that he had hit it. The driver’s voice vibrated with a tone of unspeakable relief. He turned round in his seat and whispered with almost fawning eagerness:

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Brighton! We can do that very nicely, sir.”

“How long will it take?” McHarg demanded.

“I should think, sir,” said the driver, “I could do it from ’ere in about two and a ‘arf hours. A bit late for dinner, sir, but still, it is within reach.”

“Good. All right,” McHarg said, nodding his head with decision and settling back in his seat. “Go ahead.” He waved one bony hand in a gesture of dismissal. “We’re going to Brighton.”

They started off again, and at the next cross-road charged their course to hunt for the Brighton road.

From that time on, their journey became a nightmare of halts and turnings and changes of direction. The little driver was sure they were headed towards Brighton, but somehow he could not find the road. They twisted this way and that, driving for miles through towns and villages, then out into the open country again, and getting nowhere. At last they came to an intricate and deserted cross-road where the driver stopped the car to look at the signs. But there was none to Brighton, and he finally admitted that he was lost. At these words, McHarg roused and pulled himself wearily forward in his seat, peered out into the dark night, then asked George what he thought they ought to do. The two of them knew even less about where they were than the driver, but they had to go somewhere. When George hazarded a guess that Brighton ought to be off to the left somewhere, McHarg commanded the man to take the first left fork and see where he came out, then sank back in his seat and closed his eyes again. At each intersection after that McHarg or Webber would tell the driver what to do, and the little Londoner would obey them dutifully, but it was evident that he harboured increasing misgivings at the thought of being lost in the wilds of Surrey and subject to the unpredictable whim of two strange Americans. For some inexplicable reason it never occurred to either of them to stop and ask their way, so they only succeeded in getting more lost than ever. They shuttled back and forth, first in one direction, then in another, and after a while George had the feeling that they must have covered a good part of the whole complex system of roads in the region south of London.

The driver himself was being rapidly reduced to a nervous wreck. The little man was now plainly terrified. He agreed with frenzied eagerness to everything that was said to him, but his voice trembled when he spoke. From his manner, he obviously felt that he had fallen into the clutches of two madmen, that he was now at their mercy in the lonely countryside, and that something dreadful was likely to happen at any moment. George could see him bent over the wheel, his whole figure contracted with the tenseness of his terror. If either of the crazy Americans on the back seat had chosen to let out a bloodcurdling war whoop, the wretched man would not have been surprised, but he would certainly have died instantly.

Under these special circumstances the very geography of the night seemed sinister and was conducive to an increase of his terror. As the hours passed, the night grew wilder. It became a stormy and demented kind of night, such as one sometimes finds in England in the winter. A man alone, if he had adventure in his soul, might have found it a thrilling and wildly beautiful night. But to this quiet little man, who was probably thinking bitterly of a glass of beer and the snug haven of his favourite pub, the demoniac visage of the night must have been appalling. It was one of those nights when the beleaguered moon drives like a spectral ship through the scudding storm rack of the sky, and the wind howls and shrieks like a demented fiend. They could hear it roaring all round them through the storm-tossed branches of the barren trees. Then it would swoop down on them with an exultant scream, and moan and whistle round the car, and sweep away again while gusts of beating rain drove across their vision. Then they would hear it howling far away — remote, demented, in the upper air, rocking the branches of the trees. And the spectral moon kept driving in and out, now casting a wild, wan radiance over the stormy landscape, now darting in behind a billowing mass of angry-looking clouds and leaving them to darkness and the fiendish howling of the wind. It was a fitting night for the commission of a crime, and the driver, it was plain to see, now feared the worst.

Somewhere along the road, after they had spent hours driving back and forth and getting nowhere, McHarg’s amazing reserves of energy and vitality ran completely out. He was sitting sprawled out as before, with head thrown back, when suddenly he groped blindly with a hand towards George and said:

“I’m done in, George! Stop the car! I can’t go on.”

George stopped the car at once. There by the roadside in the darkness, in stormy wind and scudding rain, they halted. In the van and fitful light of the spectral moon McHarg’s appearance was ghastly. His face now looked livid and deathlike. George was greatly alarmed and suggested that he get out of the car and see if the cold air wouldn’t make him feel better.

McHarg answered very quietly, with the utter finality of despair. “No,” he said. “I just feel as if I’d like to die. Leave me alone.” He slumped back into his corner, dosed his eyes, and seemed to resign himself entirely into George’s keeping. He did not speak again during the remainder of that horrible journey.

In the half-darkness, illuminated only by the instrument panel of the car and the eerie light of the moon, George and the driver looked at each other in mute and desperate interrogation. Presently the driver moistened his dry lips and whispered:

“What are we to do now, sir? Where shall we go?”

George thought for a moment, then answered: “We’ll have to go back to his friend’s house, I think. Mr. McHarg may be very ill. Turn round quickly, and let’s get there as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” the driver whispered. He backed the car round and started off again.

From that point on, the journey was just pure nightmare. The directions they had received were complicated and would have been hard enough to follow if they had kept to the road they had first intended to take. But now they were lost and off their course, and had somehow to find their way back to it. Through what seemed to George nothing less than a miracle, this was finally accomplished. Then their instructions required them to look carefully for several obscure cross-roads, make the proper turns at each, and at the end of all this find the lonely country lane up which McHarg’s friend lived. In attempting it, they lost their way again and had to go back to a village, where the driver got his bearings and the true directions. It was after ten-thirty before they finally found the lane leading up to the house which was their destination.

And now the prospect was more sinister and weird than any they had seen. George could not believe that they were still in England’s Surrey. He had always thought of Surrey as a pleasant and gentle place, a kind of mild and benevolent suburb of London. The name had called to his mind a vision of sweet, green fields, thick-sown with towns and villages. It was, he had thought, a place of peace and tranquil spires, as well as a kind of wonderful urbs in rure, a lovely countryside of which all parts were within an hour’s run of London, a place where one could enjoy bucolic pleasures without losing any of the convenient advantages of the city, and a place where one was never out of hailing distance of his neighbour. But the region they had now come to was not at all like this. It was densely wooded, and as wild and desolate on that stormy night as any spot he had ever seen. As the car ground slowly up the tortuous road, it seemed to George that they were climbing the fiendish slope of Nightmare Hill, and he rather expected that when the moon broke from the clouds again they would find themselves in a cleared and barren circle in the forest, surrounded by the whole witches’ carnival of Walpurgis Night. The wind howled through the rocking trees with insane laughter, the broken clouds scudded across the heavens like ghosts in flight, and the car lurched, bumped, groaned, and lumbered its way up a road which must have been there when the Romans came to Rye, and which, from the feel of it, had not been repaired or used since. There was not a house or a light in sight.

George began to feel that they were lost again, and that surely no one would choose to live in this inaccessible wilderness. He was ready to give up and was about to command the driver to turn back when, as they rounded a bend, he saw, away on the right, a hundred yards or so off the road and at some elevation above it, a house — and from its windows issued the beaconing assurance of light and warmth.

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