You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

36. The House in the Country

The chauffeur brought the car to a jolting halt. “This must be it, sir,” he whispered. “It’s the only ’ouse there is.” His tone indicated heightened tension rather than relief.

George agreed that it was probably the place they were looking for.

All the way up the hill McHarg had given no signs of life. George was seriously alarmed about him, and his anxiety had been increased the last few miles by the inanimate flappings and jerkings of the long, limp arms and bony hands of the exhausted figure every time the car hit a new bump in the road or lurched down into another rut. George spoke to him, but there was no answer. He did not want to leave him, so he suggested to the chauffeur that he’d better get out and go up to the house and find out if Mr. McHarg’s friend really lived there; if so, George told him to ask the man to come down to the car.

This request was more than the chauffeur could bear in his already, terrified state. If before he had been frightened to be with them, he seemed now even more frightened at the thought of being without them. What he was afraid of George did not know, but he spoke as if he thought the other members of their bloody gang were in that house, just waiting for him.

“Oh, sir,” he whispered, “I couldn’t go up there, sir. Not to that ’ouse,” he shuddered. “Really, sir, I couldn’t. I’d much rather you’d go, sir.”

Accordingly, George got out, took a deep breath to brace himself, and started reluctantly up the path. He felt trapped in a grotesque and agonising predicament. He had no idea whom he was going to meet. He did not even know the name of McHarg’s friend. McHarg had spoken of him only as Rick, which George took to be an abbreviation or a nickname. And he could not be certain that the man lived here. All he knew was that after a day filled with incredible happenings, and a nightmarish ride in a Rolls–Royce with a terrified driver, he was now advancing up a path with rain and wind beating in his face towards a house he had never seen before to tell someone whose name he did not know that one of the most distinguished of American novelists was lying exhausted at his door, and would he please come out and see if he knew him.

So he went on up the path and knocked at the door of what appeared to be a rambling old farm-house that had been renovated. In a moment the door opened and a man stood before him, and George knew at once that he must be, not a servant, but the master of the place. He was a well-set and well-kept Englishman of middle age. He wore a velvet jacket, in the pockets of which he kept his hands thrust while he stared out with distrust at his nocturnal visitor. He had on a wing collar and a faultless bow tie in a polka-dot pattern. This touch of formal spruceness made George feel painfully awkward and embarrassed, for he knew what a disreputable figure he himself must cut. He had not shaved for two days, and his face was covered with a coarse smudge of stubbly beard. Save for the afternoon’s brief nap, he had not slept for thirty-six hours, and his eyes were red and bloodshot. His shoes were muddy, and his old hat, which was jammed down on his head, was dripping with the rain. And he was tired out, not only by physical fatigue, but by nervous strain and worry as well. It was plain that the Englishman thought him a suspicious character, for he stiffened and stood staring at him without a word.

“You’re-I——” George began —“that is to say, if you’re the one I’m looking for ——”

“Eh?” the man said in a startled voice. “What!”

“It’s Mr. McHarg,” George tried again. “If you know him ——”

“Eh?” he repeated, and then almost at once, “Oh!” The rising intonation of the man’s tone and the faint howl of surprise and understanding that he put into the word made it sound like a startled, sharply uttered “Owl” He was silent a moment, searching George’s face. “Ow!” he said again, and then quietly: “Where is he?”

“He — he’s out here in his car,” George said eagerly, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief.

“Ow!” the Englishman cried again, and then, impatiently: “Well, then, why doesn’t he come in? We’ve been waiting for him.”

“I think if you’d go down and speak to him ——” George began, and paused.

“Ow!” the gentleman cried, looking at George with a solemn air. “Is he — that is to say —? . . . Ow!” he cried, as if a great light had suddenly burst upon him. “Hm-m!” he muttered meditatively. “Well, then,” he said in a somewhat firmer voice, stepping out into the path and closing the door carefully behind him, “suppose we just go down and have a look at him. Shall we?”

The last squall of rain had passed as quickly as it had blown up, and the moon was sailing clear again as they started down the path together. Half-way along, the Englishman stopped, looked apprehensive, and shouted to make himself heard above the wind:

“I say — is he — I mean to say,” he coughed, “is he —sick?

George knew by the emphasis on that final word, as well as from previous experience with the English, that when he said “sick” he meant only one thing. George shook his head.

“He looks very ill,” he said, “but he is not sick.”

“Because,” the gentleman went on with howling apprehensiveness, “if he’s sick — ow, dear me!” he exclaimed. “I’m very fond of Knuck, you know — I’ve known him for years — but if he’s going to get sick!” He shuddered slightly. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not. I don’t want to know about it!” he shouted rapidly. “I— I don’t want to hear about it! I— I don’t want to be round when it’s going on! I— I— I wash my hands of the whole business!” he blurted out.

George reassured him that Mr. McHarg had not been sick but was merely desperately ill, so they went on down the path until they got to the car. The Englishman, after a moment’s hesitation, stepped up and opened the door, thrust his head inside, and, peering down at McHarg’s crumpled figure, called out:

“Knuck! I say, Knuck!”

McHarg was silent, save for his hoarse breathing, which was almost a snore.

“Knuck, old chap!” the Englishman cried again. “I say, Knuck!” he cried more loudly. “Are you there, old boy?”

McHarg very obviously was there, but he gave no answer.

“I say, Knuck! Speak up, won’t you, man? It’s Rick!”

McHarg only seemed to snore more hoarsely at this announcement, but after a moment he shifted one long jack-knifed leg a few inches and, without opening his eyes, grunted: “‘Lo, Rick.” Then he began to snore again.

“I say, Knuck!” the Englishman cried with sharper insistence. “Won’t you get up, man? We’re waiting for you at the house!”

There was no response except the continued heavy breathing. The Englishman made further efforts but nothing happened, and at length he withdrew his head out of the car and, turning to George, said:

“I think we’d better help him inside. Knuck has worn himself out again, I fancy.”

“Yes,” said George anxiously. “He looks desperately ill, as if he were on the point of complete physical and nervous collapse. We’d better call a doctor, hadn’t we?”

“Ow, no,” said the Englishman cheerfully. “I’ve known Knuck a long time and seen this happen before when he got all keyed up. He drives himself mercilessly, you know — won’t rest — won’t stop to eat — doesn’t know how to take care of himself. It would kill anybody else, the way he lives. But not Knuck. It’s nothing to worry about, really. He’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

With this comforting assurance they helped McHarg out of the car and stood him on his feet. His emaciated form looked pitifully weak and frail, but the cold air seemed to brace him up. He took several deep breaths and looked about him.

“That’s fine,” said the Englishman encouragingly. “Feel better now, old chap?”

“Feel Godawful,” said McHarg. “All in. Want to go to bed.”

“Of course,” said the Englishman. “But you ought to eat first. We’ve kept dinner waiting. It’s all ready.”

“No food,” said McHarg brusquely. “Sleep. Eat tomorrow.”

“All right, old man,” the Englishman said amiably. “Whatever you say. But your friend here must be starved. We’ll fix you both up. Do come along,” he said, and took McHarg by the arm.

The three of them started to move up the path together.

“But, sir,” spoke a plaintive voice at George’s shoulder, for he was on the side nearest the car. Full of their own concerns, they had completely forgotten the little driver. “But, sir,” he now leaned out of the window and whispered: “what shall I do with the car, sir? Will”— he moistened his lips nervously —“will you be needing it again tonight, sir?”

The Englishman took immediate charge of the situation.

“No,” he said crisply, “we shan’t be needing it. Just drive it up behind the house, won’t you, and leave it there.”

“Yes, sir, yes, sir,” the driver gasped. What he was still afraid of not even he could have said. “Drive it up be’ind the ’ouse, sir,” he repeated mechanically. “Very good, sir. And — and —” again he moistened his dry lips.

“And, ow yes!” the Englishman cried, suddenly recollecting. “Go into the kitchen when you’re through. My butler will give you something to eat.”

Then, turning cheerfully and taking McHarg by the arm again, he led the way up the path, leaving the stricken driver behind to mutter: “Yes, sir, yes, sir,” to the demented wind and scudding moon.

After the blind wilderness of storm and trouble, the house, as they entered it, seemed very warm and bright with lights. It was a lovely house, low-ceilinged, panelled with old wood. Its mistress, a charming and very beautiful woman much younger than her husband, came forward to greet them. McHarg spoke a few words to his hostess and then immediately repeated his desire for sleep. The woman seemed to take in the situation at once and led the way upstairs to the guest-room, which had already been prepared for them. It was a comfortable room with deep-set windows. A fire had been kindled in the grate. There were two beds, the covers of which had been folded neatly down, the white linen showing invitingly.

The woman left them, and her husband and George did what they could to help McHarg get to bed. He was dead on his feet. They took off his shoes, collar, and tie, then propped him up while they got his coat and vest off. They laid him on the bed, straightened him out, and covered him. By the time all this was done and they were ready to leave the room, McHarg was lost to the world in deep and peaceful slumber.

The two men went downstairs again, and now for the first time remembered that in the confusion of their meeting they had not thought to introduce themselves. George told his name, and was pleased and flattered to learn that his host knew it and had even read his book. His host had the curious name of Rickenbach Reade. He informed George later in the evening that he was half-German. He had lived in England all his life, however, and in manner, speech, and appearance he was pure British.

Reade and Webber had been a little stiff with each other from the start. The circumstances of Webber’s arrival had not been exactly conducive to easy companionship or the intimacy of quick understanding. After introductions were completed with a touch of formal constraint, Reade asked Webber if he did not want to wash up a bit, and ushered him into a small wash-room. When George emerged, freshened up as much as soap and water and comb and brush could accomplish, his host was waiting for him and, still with a trace of formality, led him into the dining-room, where the lady had preceded them. They all sat down at the table.

It was a lovely room, low-ceilinged, warm, panelled with old wood. The lady was lovely, too. And the dinner, although it had been standing for hours, was nevertheless magnificent. While they were waiting for the soup to come on, Reade gave George a glass of fine dry Sherry, then another, and still another. The soup came in at last, served by a fellow with a big nose and a sharp, shrewd, Cockney sort of face, correctly dressed for the occasion in clean but somewhat faded livery. It was a wonderful soup, thick tomato, the colour of dark mahogany. George could not conceal his hunger. He ate greedily, and, with the evidence of that enthusiastic appetite before them all the stiffness that was left began to melt away.

The butler brought in an enormous roast of beef, then boiled potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Reade carved a huge slab of meat for George, and the lady garnished his platc generously with the vegetables. They ate, too, but it was evident that they had already had their dinner. They took only small portions and left their plates unfinished, but they went through the motions just to keep George company. The beef vanished from his own plate in no time at all.

“I say!” cried Reade, seizing the carving knife again. “Do let me give you some more. You must be starved.”

“I should think you’d be famished,” said his wife in a musical voice. So George ate again.

The butler brought in wine — old, full-toned Burgundy in a cobwebbed bottle. They polished that off. Then for dessert there was a deep and crusty apple pudding and a large slice of cheese. George ate up everything in sight. When he had finished he heaved a great sigh of satisfied appeasement and looked up. At that instant their three pairs of eyes suddenly met, and with one accord they leaned back in their chairs and roared with laughter.

It was the mutual and spontaneous kind of laughter that one almost never hears. It was a booming, bellowing, solid, and ungovernable “haw-haw-haw” that exploded out of them in a rib-splitting paroxysm and bounded and reverberated all round the walls until the very glasses on the sideboard started jingling. Once begun, it swelled and rose and mounted till it left them exhausted and aching, reduced to wheezing gasps of almost inaudible mirth, and then, when it seemed that they didn’t have another gasp left in them and that their weary ribs could stand no more, it would begin again, roaring and rolling and reverberating round the room with renewed force. Twice while this was going on the butler came to the swinging-door, opened it a little, and craftily thrust his startled face round. Each time the sight of him set them off again. At length, when they were subsiding into the last faint wheezes of their fit, the butler thrust his face round the door again and said:

“Please, sir. The driver’s ’ere.”

This wretched little man now reappeared, standing nervously in the doorway, fingering his cap, and moistening his dry lips apprehensively.

“Please, sir,” he finally managed to whisper. “The car. Will you be wanting it to stay be’ind the ’ouse all night, sir, or shall I take it to the nearest village?”

“How far is the nearest village?” George wheezed faintly.

“It’s about six miles, sir, I understand,” he whispered, with a look of desperation and terror in his eyes.

The expression on his face was too much for them. A strangled scream burst from Webber’s throat. Mrs. Reade bent forward, thrusting her wadded napkin over her mouth. As for Rickenbach Reade, he just lay back in his chair with lolling head and roared like one possessed.

The driver stood there, rooted to the spot. It was clear that he thought his time had come. These maniacs had him at their mercy now, but he was too paralyzed to flee. And they could do nothing to allay his nameless fear. They could not speak to him, they could not explain, they could not even look at him. Every time they tried to say something and glanced in his direction and caught sight of the little man’s blanched and absurdly tortured face, they would strangle with new whoops and yells and shrieks of helpless laughter.

But at last it was over. The mood was spent. They felt drained and foolish and sober and ashamed of themselves because of the needless fright they had given the little driver. So, calmly and gently, they told him to leave the car where it was and forget about it. Reade asked his butler to take care of the driver and put him up for the night in his own quarters.

“Yes, sir, yes, sir,” mumbled the little driver automatically.

“Very good, sir,” said the butler briskly, and led the man away.

They now arose from the table and went into the living-room. In a few minutes the butler brought in a tray with coffee. They sat round a cheerful fire and drank it, and had brandy afterwards. It was wonderfully warm and comforting to sit there and listen to the fury of the storm outside, and under the spell of it they felt drawn together, as if they had all known each other a long time. They laughed and talked and told stories without a trace of self-consciousness. Reade, seeing that George was still worried about McHarg, tried in various ways to allay his fears.

“My dear fellow,” he said, “I’ve known Knuck for years. He drives himself to exhaustion and I’ve seen him do it a dozen times, but it always comes out all right in the end. It’s astonishing how he does it. I’m sure I couldn’t. No one else could, but he can. The man’s vitality is amazing. Just when you think he’s done himself in, he surprises you by bounding up and beginning all over again, as fresh as a daisy.”

George had already seen enough to know that this was true. Reade told of incidents which verified it further. Some years before, McHarg had come to England to work on a new book. Even then his way of life had been enough to arouse the gravest apprehensions among those who knew him. Few people believed that he could long survive it, and his writing friends did not understand how he could get any work done.

“We were together one night,” Reade continued, “at a party that he gave in a private room at the Savoy. He had been going it for days, driving himself the way he does, and by ten o’clock that night he was all in. He just seemed to cave in, and went to sleep at the table. We laid him out on a couch and went on with the party. Later on, two of us, with the assistance of a couple of porters, got him out of the place into a taxi and took him home. He had a flat in Cavendish Square. The next day,” Reade went on, “we had arranged to have lunch together. I had no idea — not the faintest — that the man would be able to make it. In fact, I very much doubted whether he would be out of his bed for two or three days. Just the same, I stopped in a little before one o’clock to see how he was.”

Reade was silent a moment, looking into the fire. Then, with a sharp expiration of his breath, he said:

“Well! He was sitting there at his desk, in front of his typewriter,, wearing an old dressing-gown over his baggy old tweeds, and he was typing away like mad. There was a great sheaf of manuscript beside him. He told me he’d been at it since six o’clock and had done over twenty pages. As I came in, he just looked up and said: ‘Hello, Rick. I’ll be with you in a minute. Sit down, won’t you?’ . . . Well!”— again the sharp expiration of his breath —“I had to sit down! I simply fell into a chair and stared at him. It was the most astonishing thing I had ever seen.”

“And was he able to go to lunch with you?”

“Was he able!” cried Reade. “Why, he fairly bounded from his chair, flung on his coat and hat, pulled me out of my seat, and said: ‘Come on! I’m hungry as a bear.’ And what was most astounding,” Reade continued, “was that he remembered everything that had happened the night before. He remembered everything that had been said, too — even the things that were said during the time when I should have sworn he was unconscious. It is an astonishing creature! Astonishing!” cried the Englishman.

In the warming glow of the fire and their new-found intimacy they had several more brandies, smoked endless cigarettes, and talked on and on for hours, forgetting the passage of time. It was the kind of talk which, freed of all constricting traces of self-consciousness, lets down the last barriers of natural reserve and lays bare the souls of men. George’s host was in high spirits and told the most engaging stories about himself, his wife, and the good life they were making here in the isolated freedom of their rural retreat. He made it seem not only charming and attractive, full of wholesome country pleasures, but altogether desirable and enviable. It was an idyllic picture that he painted — such a picture of rugged independence, with its simple joys and solid comforts, as has at one time or another haunted the imagination of almost every man in the turmoil, confusion, and uncertainties of the complex world we live in. But as George listened to his host and felt the nostalgic attractiveness of the images that were unfolded before him, he also felt a disquieting sense of something else behind it all which never quite got into the picture, but which lent colourings of doubt and falsity to every part of it.

For Rickenbach Reade, George began to see after a while, was one of those men who are unequal to the conditions of modern life, and who have accordingly retreated from the tough realities which they could not face. The phenomenon was not anew one to George. He had met and observed a number of people like this. And it was now evident to him that they formed another group or family or race, another of those little worlds which have no boundary lines of country or of place. One found a surprising number of them in America, particularly in the more sequestered purlieus of Boston, Cambridge, and Harvard University. One found them also in New York’s Greenwich Village, and when even that makeshift Little Bohemia became too harsh for them, they retired into a kind of desiccated country life.

For all such people the country became the last refuge. They bought little farms in Connecticut or Vermont, and renovated the fine old houses with just a shade too much of whimsey or of restrained good taste. Their quaintness was a little too quaint, their simplicity a little too subtle, and on the old farms that they bought no utilitarian seeds were sown and no grain grew. They went in for flowers, and in time they learned to talk very knowingly about the rarer varieties. They loved the simple life, of course. They loved the good feel of “the earth”. They were just a shade too conscious of “the earth”, and George had heard them say, the women as well as the men, how much they loved to work in it.

And work in it they did. In spring they worked on their new rock garden, with the assistance of only one other man — some native of the region who had hired himself out for wages, and whose homely virtues and more crotchety characteristics they quietly observed and told amusing stories about to their friends. Their wives worked in the earth, too, attired in plain yet not unattractive frocks, and they even learned to clip the hedges, wearing canvas gloves to protect their hands. These dainty and lovely creatures became healthily embrowned: their comely forearms took on a golden glow, their faces became warm with soaked-up sunlight, and sometimes they even had a soft, faint down of gold just barely visible above the cheek-bone. They were good to see.

In winter there were also things to do. The snows came down, and the road out to the main highway became impassable to cars for three weeks at a time. Not even the trucks of the A. & P. could get through. So for three whole weeks on end they had to plod their way out on foot, a good three-quarters of a mile, to lay in provisions. The days were full of other work as well. People in cities might think that country life was dull in winter, but that was because they simply did not know. The squire became a carpenter. He was working on his play, of course, but in between times he made furniture. It was good to be able to do something with one’s hands. He had a workshop fitted up in the old barn. There he had his studio, too, where he could carry on his intellectual labours undisturbed. The children were forbidden to go there. And every morning, after taking the children to school, the father could return to his barn-studio and have the whole morning free to get on with the play.

It was a fine life for the children, by the way. In summer they played and swam and fished and got wholesome lessons in practical democracy by mingling with the hired man’s children. In winter they went to an excellent private school two miles away. It was run by two very intelligent people, an expert in planned economy and his wife, an expert in child psychology, who between them were carrying on the most remarkable experiments in education.

Life in the country was really full of absorbing interests which city folk knew nothing about. For one thing, there was local politics, in which they had now become passionately involved. They attended all the town meetings, became hotly partisan over the question of a new floor for the bridge across the creek, took sides against old Abner Jones, the head selectman, and in general backed up the younger, more progressive element. Over week-ends, they had the most enchanting tales to tell their ciry friends about these town meetings. They were full of stories, too, about all the natives, and could make the most sophisticated visitor howl with laughter when, after coffee and brandy in the evening, the squire and his wife would go through their two-part recital of Seth Freeman’s involved squabble and lawsuit with Rob Perkins over a stone fence. One really got to know his neighbours in the country. It was a whole world in itself. Life here was simple, yet it was so good.

In this old farm-house they ate by candle-light at night. The pine panelling of the dining-room had been there more than two hundred years. They had not changed it. In fact, the whole front part of the house was just the same as it had always been. All they had added was the new wing for the children. Of course, they had had to do a great deal when they bought the place. It had fallen into shocking disrepair. The floors and sills were rotten and had had to be replaced. They had also built a concrete basement and installed an oil furnace. This had been costly, but it was worth the price. The people who had sold them the house were natives of the region who had gone to seed. The farm had been in that one family for five generations. It was incredible, though, to see what they had done to the house. The sitting-room had been covered with an oilcloth carpet. And in the dining-room, right beside the beautiful old revolutionary china chest, which they had persuaded the people to sell with the house, had been an atrocious gramophone with one of those old-fashioned horns. Could one imagine that?

Of course they had had to furnish the house anew from cellar to garret. Their city stuff just wouldn’t do at all. It had taken time and hard work, but by going quietly about the countryside and looking into farmers’ houses, they had managed to pick up very cheaply the most exquisite pieces, most of them dating back to revolutionary times, and now the whole place was in harmony at last. They even drank their beer from pewter mugs. Grace had discovered these, covered with cobwebs, in the cellar of an old man’s house. He was eighty-seven, he said, and the mugs had belonged to his father before him. He’d never had no use for ’em himself, and if she wanted ’em he calc’lated that twenty cents apiece would be all right. Wasn’t it delicious! And everyone agreed it was.

The seasons changed and melted into one another, and they observed the seasons. They would not like to live in places where no seasons were. The adventure of the seasons was always thrilling. There was the day in late summer when someone saw the first duck flying south, and they knew by this token that the autumn of the year had come. Then there was the first snowflake that melted as it fell to usher in the winter. But the most exciting of all was the day in early spring when someone discovered that the first snowdrop had opened or that the first starling had come. They kept a diary of the seasons, and they wrote splendid letters to their city friends:

“I think you would like it now. The whole place is simply frantic, with spring. I heard a thrush for the first time today. Overnight almost, our old apple-trees have burst into full bloom. If you wait another week, it will be too late. So do come, won’t you? You’ll love our orchard and our twisted, funny, dear old apple-trees. They’ve been here, most of them, I suspect, for eighty years. It’s not like modern orchards, with their little regiments of trees. We don’t get many apples. They are small and sharp and tart, and twisted like the trees themselves, and there are never too many of them but always just enough. Somehow we love them all the better for it. It’s so New England.”

So year followed year in healthy and happy order. The first year the rock garden got laid down and the little bulbs and alpine plants set out. Hollyhocks were sown all over the place, against the house and beside the fences. By the next year they were blooming in gay profusion. It was marvellous how short a time it took. That second year he built the studio in the barn, doing most of the work with his own hands, with only the simple assistance of the hired man. The third year — the children were growing up now; they grow fast in the country — he got the swimming-pool begun. The fourth year it was finished. Meanwhile he was busy on his play, but it went slowly because there was so much else that had to be done.

The fifth year — well, one did miss the city sometimes. They would never think of going back there to This place was wonderful, except for three months in the winter. So this year they were moving in and taking an apartment for the three bad months. Grace, of course, loved music and missed the opera, while he liked the theatre, and it would be good to have again the companionship of certain people whom they knew. That was the greatest handicap of country life — the natives made fine neighbours, but one sometimes missed the intellectual stimulus of city life. And so this year he had decided to take the old girl in. They’d see the shows and hear the music andrenew their acquaintance with old friends and find out what was going on. They might even run down to Bermuda for three weeks in February. Or to Haiti. That was a place, he’d heard, that modern life had hardly touched. They had windmills and went in for voodoo worship. It was all savage and most primitively colourful. It would get them out of the rut to go off somewhere on a trip. Of course they’d be back in the country by the first of April.

Such was the fugitive pattern in one of its most common manifestations. But it also took other forms. The American expatriates who had taken up residence in Europe were essentially the same kind of people, though theirs was a more desolate and more embittered type of escapism. George Webber had known them in Paris, in Switzerland, and here in England, and it seemed to him that they represented one of the extremest breeds among the race of futilitarians. These were the Americans who had gone beyond even the pretence of being nature-lovers and earth-discoverers and returners to the simple life of native virtue in rural Yankeedom. These were the ones to whom nothing was left except an encyclopedic sneer — a sneer at everything American. It was a sneer which was derived from what they had read, from what others had said, or from some easy rationalization of self-defence. It was a sneer that did not have in it the sincerity of passion or the honesty of true indignation, and it became feebler year after year. For these people had nothing left but drink and sneering, the dreary round of cafe life with its repetition of racked saucers — nothing left but a blurred vision of the world, a sentimental fantasy of “Paris”, or of “England”, or of “Europe”, which was as unreal as if all their knowledge had been drawn from the pages of a fairy-tale, and as if they had never set foot upon these shores which they professed to understand so well and to cherish so devotedly.

And always with this race of men it seemed to George that the fundamental inner structure Of illusion and defeat was the same, whether they followed the more innocuous formula of flight to the farm, with its trumped-up interest in rock gardening, carpentry, hollyhock culture, and the rest of it, or whether they took the more embittered route of retreat to Europe and the racked saucers. And it made no difference whether they were Americans, Englishmen, Germans, or Hottentots. All of them betrayed themselves by the same weaknesses. They fled a world they were not strong enough to meet. If they had talent, it was a talent that was not great enough to win for them the fulfilment and success which they pretended to scorn, but for which each of them would have sold the pitifully small remnant of his meagre soul. If they wanted to create, they did not want it hard enough to make and shape and finish something in spite of hell and heartbreak. If they wanted to work, they did not want it genuinely enough to work and keep on working till their eyeballs ached and their brains were dizzy, to work until their loins were dry, their vitals hollow, to work until the whole world reeled before them in a grey blur of weariness and depleted energy, to work until their tongues clove to their mouths and their pulses hammered like dry mallets at their temples, to work until no work was left in them, until there was no rest and no repose, until they could not sleep, until they could do nothing and could work no more — and then work again. They were the pallid half-men of the arts, more desolate and damned than if they had been born with no talent at all, more lacking in their lack, possessing half, than if their lack had been complete. And so, half full of purpose, they eventually fled the task they were not equal to — and they pottered, tinkered, gardened, carpentered, and drank.

Such a man, in his own way, was this Englishman, Rickenbach Reade. He was, as he confided to George later in the evening, a writer — as he himself put it, with a touch of bitter whimsey, “a writer of sorts”. He had had a dozen books published. He took them from their shelves with a curious eagerness that was half apology and showed them to George. They were critical biographies of literary men and politicians, and were examples of the “debunking school” of historical writing. George later read one or two of them, and they turned out to be more or less what he had expected. They were the kind of books that debunked everything except themselves. They were the lifeless products of a padded Stracheyism: their author, lacking Strachey’s wit and shirking the labours of his scholarship, succeeded at best in a feeble mimicry of his dead vitality, his moribund fatigue, his essential foppishness. So these books, dealing with a dozen different lives and periods, were really all alike, all the same — the manifestations of defeat, the jabs of an illusioned disillusion, the sceptical evocations of a fantastic and unliving disbelief.

Their author, being the kind of man he was, could not write otherwise than as he had written. Having no belief or bottom in himself, he found no belief or bottom in the lives he wrote about. Everything was bunk, every great man who ever lived had been built up into the image of greatness by a legend of concocted bunk; truth, therefore, lay in the debunking process, since all else was bunk, and even truth itself was bunk. He was one of those men who, by the nature of their characters and their own defeat, could believe only the worst of others. If he had written about Caesar, he could never have convinced himself that Caesar looked — as Caesar looked; he would assuredly have found evidence to show that Caesar was a miserable dwarf, the butt of ridicule among his own troops. If he had written about Napoleon, he would have seen him only as a fat and pudgy little man who got his forelock in the soup and had grease spots on the lapels of his marshal’s uniform. If he had written about George Washington, he would have devoted his chief attention to Washington’s false teeth, and would have become so deeply involved with them that he would have forgotten all about George Washington. If he had written about Abraham Lincoln, he would have seen him as a deified Uriah Heep, the grotesque product of backwoods legendry, a country lawyer come to town, his very fame a thing of chance, the result of a fortuitous victory and a timely martyrdom. He could never have believed that Lincoln really said the things that Lincoln said, or that he really wrote what he is known to have written. Why? Because the things said and written were too much like Lincoln. They were too good to be true. Therefore they were myths. They had not been said at all. Or, if they had been said, then somebody else had said them. Stanton had said them, or Seward had said them, or a newspaper reporter had said them — anybody could have said them except Lincoln.

Such was the tone and temper of Reade’s books, and such was the quality of disbelief that had produced them. In consequence, they fooled no one except the author. They did not even have the energy of an amusing or persuasive slander. They were stillborn the moment they issued from the press. No one read them or paid any attention to them.

And how did he rationalise to himself his defeat and failure? In the easy, obvious, and inevitable way. He had been rash enough, he told George with a smile of faint, ironic bitterness, to expose some of the cherished figures of public worship and, with his cold, relentless probing for the truth, to shatter the false legends that surrounded them. Naturally, his reward had been anathema and abuse, the hatred of the critics and the obstinate hostility of the public. It had been a thankless business from beginning to end, so he was done with it. He had turned his back on the prejudice, bigotry, stupidity, and hypocrisy of the whole fickle and idolatrous world, and had come here to the country to find solitude and seclusion. One gathered that he would write no more.

And this life certainly had its compensations. The old house which Reade had bought and renovated, making it a trifle too faultlessly agricultural, with a work-bench for mending harness in the kitchen, was nevertheless a charming place. His young wife was gracious and lovely, and obviously cared a great deal for him. And Reade himself, apart from the literary pretensions which had embittered his life, was not a bad sort of man. When one understood and accepted the nature of his illusions and defeat, one saw that he was a likable and good-hearted fellow.

It was growing late, but they had not noticed and were surprised when the clock in the hall chimed two. The three of them talked quietly for a few minutes after that, had a final glass of brandy, then said good night. George went upstairs, and shortly afterwards he heard Mr. and Mrs. Reade come softly up and go to their room.

McHarg lay motionless, just as they had left him. He had not stirred a muscle, but seemed to be sunk in the untroubled sleep of childhood. George spread another blanket over him. Then he undressed, turned out the lights, and crawled into his own bed.

He was exhausted, but so excited by all the strange events of the day that he was beyond the desire for sleep. He lay there thinking over what had happened and listening to the wind. It would rush at the house and shiver the windows, then swoop round the corners and the eaves, howling like a banshee. Somewhere a shutter flapped and banged insanely. Now and then, in the momentary lulls between the rushes of the wind, a dog barked mournfully in the faint distance. He heard the clock in the downstairs hall chime three.

It was some time after that when he finally dropped off. The storm was still howling like a madman round the house, but he was no longer aware of it.

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