You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

44. The Way of no Return

“Well,” said Adamowski, turning to George, “I think this is a sad end to our journey.”

George nodded but said nothing. Then they all went back into their compartment and took their former seats.

But it seemed strange and empty now. The ghost of absence sat there ruinously. The little man had left his coat and hat; in his anguish he had forgotten them. Adamowski rose and took them; and would have given them to the conductor, but the woman said:

“You’d better look into the pockets first. There may be something in them. Perhaps”— quickly, eagerly, as the idea took her —“perhaps he has left money there,” she whispered.

Adamowski searched the pockets. There was nothing of any value in them. He shook his head. The woman began to search the cushions of the seats, thrusting her hands down around the sides.

“It might just be, you know,” she said, “that he hid money here.” She laughed excitedly, almost gleefully. “Perhaps we’ll all be rich!”

The young Pole shook his head. “I think they would have found it if he had.” He paused, peered out of the window, and thrust his his hand into his pocket. “I suppose we’re in Belgium now,” he said. “Here’s your money.” And he returned to her the twenty-three marks she had given him.

She took the money and put it in her purse. George still had the little man’s ten marks in his hand and was looking at them. The woman glanced up, saw his face, then said quickly, warmly: “But you’re upset about this thing! You look so troubled.”

George put the money away. Then he said:

“I feel exactly as if I had blood-money in my pocket.”

“No,” she said. She leaned over, smiling, and put her hand reassuringly upon his arm. “Not blood-money — Jew-money!” she whispered. “Don’t worry about it. He had plenty more!” George’s eyes met Adamowski’s. Both were grave.

“This is a sad ending to our trip,” Adamowski said again, in a low voice, almost to himself.

The woman tried to talk them out of their depression, to talk herself into forgetfulness. She made an effort to laugh and joke.

“These Jews!” she cried. “Such things would never happen if it were not for them! They make all the trouble. Germany has had to protect herself. The Jews were taking all the money from the country. Thousands of them escaped, taking millions of marks with them. And now, when it’s too late, we wake up to it! It’s too bad that foreigners must see these things — that they’ve got to go through these painful experiences — it makes a bad impression. They don’t understand the reason. But it’s the Jews!” she whispered.

The others said nothing, and the woman went on talking, eagerly, excitedly, earnestly, persuasively. But it was as if she were trying to convince herself, as if every instinct of race and loyalty were now being used in an effort to excuse or justify something that had filled her with sorrow and deep shame. For even as she talked and laughed, her clear blue eyes were sad and full of trouble. And at length she gave it up and stopped. There was a heavy silence. Then, gravely, quietly, the woman said:

“He must have wanted very badly to escape.”

They remembered, then, all that he had said and done throughout the journey. They recalled how nervous he had been, how he had kept opening and shutting the door, how he had kept getting up to pace along the corridor. They spoke of the suspicion and distrust with which he had peered round at them when he first came in, and of the eagerness with which he had asked Adamowski to change places with him when the Pole had got up to go into the dining-car with George. They recalled his explanations about the ticket, about having to buy passage from the frontier to Paris. All of these things, every act and word and gesture of the little man, which they had dismissed at the time as trivial or as evidence simply of an irascible temper, now became invested with a new and terrible meaning.

“But the ten marks!” the woman cried at length, turning to George. “Since he had all this other money, why, in God’s name, did he give ten marks to you? It was so stupid!” she exclaimed in an exasperated tone. “There was no reason for it!”

Certainly they could find no reason, unless he had done it to divert suspicion from their minds about his true intent. This was Adamowski’s theory, and it seemed to satisfy the woman. But George thought it more likely that the little man was in such a desperate state of nervous frenzy and apprehension that he had lost the power to reason clearly and had acted blindly, wildly, on the impulse of the moment. But they did not know. And now they would never find out the answer.

George was still worried about getting the man’s ten marks returned to him. The woman said that she had given the man her name and her address in Paris, and that if he were later allowed to complete his journey he could find her there. George then gave her his own address in Paris and asked her to inform the man where he was if she should hear from him. She promised, but they all knew that she would never hear from him again.

Late afternoon had come. The country had closed in around them. The train was winding through a pleasant, romantic landscape of hills and woods. In the slant of evening and the waning light there was a sense of deep, impenetrable forest and of cool, darkling waters.

They had long since passed the frontier, but the woman, who had been looking musingly and a little anxiously out of the window, hailed the conductor as he passed along the corridor and asked him if they were really in Belgium now. He assured her that they were. Adamowski gave him the little man’s hat and coat, and explained the reason. The conductor nodded, took them, and departed.

The woman had her hand upon her breast, and now when the conductor had gone she sighed slowly with relief. Then, quietly and simply, she said:

“Do not misunderstand me. I am a German and I love my country. But — I feel as if a weight has lifted from me here.” She put her hand upon her breast again. “You cannot understand, perhaps, just how it feels to us, but —” and for a moment she was silent, as if painfully meditating what she wished to say. Then, quickly, quietly: “We are so happy to be-out!

Out? Yes, that was it. Suddenly George knew just how she felt. He, too, was “out” who was a stranger to her land, and yet who never had been a stranger in it. He, too, was “out” of that great country whose image had been engraved upon his spirit in childhood and youth, before he had ever seen it. He, too, was “out” of that land which had been so much more to him than land, so much more than place. It had been a geography of heart’s desire, an unfathomed domain of unknown inheritance. The haunting beauty of that magic land had been his soul’s dark wonder. He had known the language of its spirit before he ever came to it, had understood the language of its tongue the moment he had heard it spoken. He had framed the accents of its speech most brokenly from that first hour, yet never with a moment’s trouble, strangeness, or lack of comprehension. He bad been at home in it, and it in him. It seemed that he had been born with this knowledge.

He had known wonder in this land, truth and magic in it, sorrow, loneliness, and pain in it. He had known love in it, and for the first time in his life he had tasted there the bright, delusive sacraments of fame. Therefore it was no foreign land to him. It was the other part of his heart’s home, a haunted part of dark desire, a magic domain of fulfilment. It was the dark, lost Helen that had been forever burning in his blood — the dark, lost Helen he had found.

And now it was the dark, found Helen he had lost. And he knew now, as he had never known before, the priceless measure of his loss. He knew also the priceless measure of his gain. For this was the way that henceforth would be forever closed to him — the way of no return. He was “out”. And, being “out”, he began to see another way, the way that lay before him. He saw now that you can’t go home again — not ever. There was no road back. Ended now for him, with the sharp and clean finality of the closing of a door, was the time when his dark roots, like those of a pot-bound plant, could be left to feed upon their own substance and nourish their own little self-absorbed designs. Henceforth they must spread outward — away from the hidden, secret, and unfathomed past that holds man’s spirit prisoner — outward, outward towards the rich and life-giving soil of a new freedom in the wide world of all humanity. And there came to him a vision of man’s true home, beyond the ominous and cloud-engulfed horizon of the here and now, in the green and hopeful and still-virgin meadows of the future.

“Therefore,” he thought, “old master, wizard Faust, old father of the ancient and swarm-haunted mind of man, old earth, old German land with all the measure of your truth, your glory, beauty, magic, and your ruin; and dark Helen burning in our blood, great queen and mistress, sorceress — dark land, dark land, old ancient earth I love — farewell!”

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