During the week that followed Aunt Maw’s funeral George renewed his acquaintance with his home town, and it was a disconcerting experience. The sleepy little mountain village in which he had grown up — for it had been hardly more than that then — was now changed almost beyond recognition. The very streets that he had known so well, and had remembered through the years in their familiar aspect of early-afternoon emptiness and drowsy lethargy, were now foaming with life, crowded with expensive traffic, filled with new faces he had never seen before. Occasionally he saw somebody that he knew, and in the strangeness of it all they seemed to him like lights shining in the darkness of a lonely coast.
But what he noticed chiefly — and once he observed it he began watching for it, and it was always there — was the look on the people’s faces. It puzzled him, and frightened him, and when he tried to find a word to describe it, the only thing he could think of was — madness. The nervous, excited glitter in the eyes seemed to belong to nothing else but madness. The faces of natives and strangers alike appeared to be animated by some secret and unholy glee. And their bodies, as they darted, dodged, and thrust their way along, seemed to have a kind of leaping energy as if some powerful drug was driving them on. They gave him the impression of an entire population that was drunk — drunk with an intoxication which never made them weary, dead, or sodden, and which never wore of, but which incited them constantly to new efforts of leaping and thrusting exuberance.
The people he had known all his life cried out to him along the streets, seizing his hand and shaking it, and saying: “Hi, there, boy! Glad to see you home again! Going to be with us for a while now? Good! I’ll be seeing you! I’ve got to go on now — got to meet a fellow down the street to sign some papers! Good to see you, boy!” Then, having uttered this tempestuous greeting without a pause and without the loss of a stride, pulling and dragging him along with them ‘as they wrung his hand, they vanished.
On all sides he heard talk, talk, talk — terrific and incessant. And the tumult of voices was united in variations of a single chorus — speculation and real estate. People were gathered in earnestly chattering groups before the drug-stores, before the post office, before the Court House and the City Hall. They hurried along the pavements talking together with passionate absorption, bestowing half-abstracted nods of greeting from time to time on passing acquaintances.
The real estate men were everywhere. Their motors and buses roared through the streets of the town and out into the country, carrying crowds of prospective clients. One could see them on the porches of houses unfolding blueprints and prospectuses as they shouted enticements and promises of sudden wealth into the ears of deaf old women. Everyone was fair game for them — the lame, the halt, and the blind, Civil War veterans or their decrepit pensioned widows, as well as high school boys and girls, negro truck drivers, soda jerkers, elevator boys, and bootblacks.
Everyone bought real estate; and everyone was “a real estate man” either in name or practice. The barbers, the lawyers, the grocers, the butchers, the builders, the clothiers — all were engaged now in this single interest and obsession. And there seemed to be only one rule, universal and infallible — to buy, always to buy, to pay whatever price was asked, and to sell again within two days at any price one chose to fix. It was fantastic. Along all the streets in town the ownership of the land was constantly changing; and when the supply of streets was exhausted, new streets were feverishly created in the surrounding wilderness; and even before these streets were paved or a house had been built upon them, the land was being sold, and then resold, by the acre, by the lot, by the foot, for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A spirit of drunken waste and wild destructiveness was everywhere apparent. The fairest places in the town were being mutilated at untold cost. In the centre of town there had been a beautiful green opulent with rich lawns and lordly trees, with beds of flowers and banks of honeysuckle, and on top of it there had been an immense, rambling, old wooden hotel. From its windows one could look out upon the vast panorama of mountain ranges in the smoky distance.
George could remember its wide porches and comfortable rockers, its innumerable eaves and gables, its labyrinth of wings and corridors, its great parlours and their thick red carpets, and the lobby with its old red leather chairs, hollowed and shaped by the backs of men, and its smell of tobacco and its iced tinkle of tall drinks. It had a splendid dining-room filled with laughter and quiet voices, where expert negroes in white jackets bent and scraped and chuckled over the jokes of the rich men from the North as with prayerful grace they served them delicious foods out of old silver dishes. George could remember, too, the smiles and the tender beauty of the rich men’s wives and daughters. As a boy he had been touched with the unutterable mystery of all these things, for these wealthy travellers had come great distances and had somehow brought with them an evocation of the whole golden and unvisited world, with its fabulous cities and its promise of glory, fame, and love.
It had been one of the pleasantest places in the town, but now it was gone. An army of men and shovels had advanced upon this beautiful green hill and had levelled it down to an ugly flat of clay, and had paved it with a desolate horror of white concrete, and had built stores and garages and office buildings and parking spaces — all raw and new — and were now putting up a new hotel beneath the very spot where the old one had stood. It was to be a structure of sixteen storeys, of steel and concrete and pressed brick. It was being stamped out of the same mould, as if by some gigantic biscuit-cutter of hotels, that had produced a thousand others like it all over the country. And, to give a sumptuous — if spurious — distinction to its patterned uniformity, it was to be called The Libya–Ritz.
One day George ran into Sam Pennock, a boyhood friend and a classmate at Pine Rock College. Sam came down the busy street swiftly at his anxious, lunging stride, and immediately, without a word of greeting, he broke hoarsely into the abrupt and fragmentary manner of speaking that had always been characteristic of him, but that now seemed more feverish than ever:
“When did you get here? . . . How long are you going to stay? . . . What do you think of the way things look here?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he demanded with brusque, challenging, and almost impatient scornfulness: “Well, what do you intend to do — be a two-thousand-dollar-a-year school-teacher all your life?”
The contemptuous tone, with its implication of superiority — an implication he had noticed before in the attitude of these people, big with their inflated sense of wealth and achievement — stung George to retort sharply:
“There are worse things than teaching school! Being a paper millionaire is one of them! As for the two thousand dollars a year, you really get it, Sam! It’s not real estate money, it’s money you can spend. You can buy a ham sandwich with it.”
Sam laughed. “You’re right!” he said. “I don’t blame you. It’s the truth!” He began to shake his head slowly. “Lord, Lord!” he said. “They’ve all gone clean out of their heads here . . . Never saw anything like it in my life . . . Why, they’re all crazy-as a loon!” he exclaimed. “You can’t talk to them . . . You can’t reason with them . . . They won’t listen to you . . . They’re getting prices for property here that you couldn’t get’ in New York.”
“Are they getting it?”
“Well,” he said, with a falsetto laugh, “they get the first five hundred dollars . . . You pay the next five hundred thousand on time.”
“How much time?”
“God!” he said. “I don’t know . . . All you want, I reckon . . . For ever! . . . It doesn’t matter . . . You sell it next day for a million.”
“That’s it!” he cried, laughing. “You make half a million just like that.”
“You’ve got it!” said Sam. “On time . . . God! Crazy, crazy, crazy,” he kept laughing and shaking his head. “That’s the way they make it.”
“Are you making it, too?”
At once his manner became feverishly earnest: “Why, it’s the damnedest thing you ever heard of!” he said. “I’m raking it in hand over fist! . . . Made three hundred thousand dollars in the last two months . . . Why, it’s the truth! . . . Made a trade yesterday and turned round and sold the lot again not two hours later . . . Fifty thousand dollars just like that!” he snapped his fingers. “Does your uncle want to sell that house on Locust Street where your Aunt Maw lived? . . . Have you talked to him about it? . . . Would he consider an offer?”
“I suppose so, if he gets enough.”
“How much does be want?” he demanded impatiently. “Would he take a hundred thousand?”
“Could you get it for him?”
“I could get it within twenty-four hours,” he said. “I know a man who’d snap it up in five minutes . . . I tell you what I’ll do, Monk, if you persuade him to sell — I’ll split the commission with you . . . I’ll give you five thousand dollars.”
“All right, Sam, it’s a go. Could you let me have fifty cents on account?”
“Do you think he’ll sell?” he asked eagerly.
“Really, I don’t know, but I doubt it. That place was my grandfather’s. It’s been in the family a long time. I imagine he’ll want to keep it.”
“Keep it! What’s the sense in keeping it? . . . Now’s the time when things are at the peak. He’ll never get a better offer!”
“I know, but he’s expecting to strike oil out in the backyard any time now,” said George with a laugh.
At this moment there was a disturbance among the tides of traffic in the street. A magnificent car detached itself from the stream of humbler vehicles and moved in swiftly to the kerb, where it came to a smooth stop — a glitter of nickel, glass, and burnished steel. From it a gaudily attired creature stepped down to the pavement with an air of princely indolence, tucked a light Malacca cane carelessly under its right armpit, and slowly and fastidiously withdrew from its nicotined fingers a pair of lemon-coloured gloves, at the same time saying to the liveried chauffeur:
“You may go, James. Call for me again in hal-luf an houah!” The creature’s face was thin and sunken. Its complexion was a deathly sallow — all except the nose, which was bulbous and glowed a brilliant red, showing an intricate network of enlarged purple veins. Its toothless jaws were equipped with such an enormous set of glittering false teeth that the lips could not cover them, and they grinned at the world with the prognathous bleakness of a skeleton. The whole figure, although heavy and shambling, had the tottering appearance which suggested a stupendous debauchery. It moved forward with its false, bleak grin, leaning heavily upon the stick, and suddenly George recognised that native ruin which had been known to him since childhood as Tim Wagner.
J. Timothy Wagner — the “J” was a recent and completely arbitrary addition of his own, appropriated, no doubt, to fit his ideas of personal grandeur, and to match the eminent position in the town’s affairs to which he had belatedly risen — was the black sheep of one of the old, established families in the community. At the time George Webber was a boy, Tim Wagner had been for so long the product of complete disillusion that there was no longer any vestige of respect attached to him.
He had been preeminently the town sot. His title to this office was unquestioned. In this capacity he was even held in a kind of affection. His exploits were notorious, the subjects of a hundred stories. One night, for example, the loafers in McCormack’s pharmacy had seen Tim swallow something and then shudder convulsively. This process was repeated several times, until the curiosity of the loafers was aroused. They began to observe him furtively but closely, and in a few minutes Tim thrust out his hand slyly, fumbled round in the gold-fish bowl, and withdrew his hand with a wriggling little shape between his fingers. Then the quick swallow and the convulsive shudder were repeated.
He had inherited two fortunes before his twenty-fifth year and had run through them both. Hilarious stories were told of Tim’s celebrated pleasure tour upon the inheritance of the second fortune. He had chartered a private car, stocked it plentifully with liquor, and selected as his travelling companions the most notorious sots, vagabonds, and tramps the community could furnish. The debauch had lasted eight months. This party of itinerant bacchuses had made a tour of the entire country. They had exploded their empty flasks against the ramparts of the Rocky Mountains, tossed their empty kegs into San Francisco Bay, strewn the plains with their beer bottles. At last the party had achieved a condition of exhausted satiety in the nation’s capital, where Tim, with what was left of his inheritance, had engaged an entire floor at one of the leading hotels. Then, one by one, the exhausted wanderers had drifted back to town, bringing tales of bacchanalian orgies that had not been equalled since the days of the Roman emperors, and leaving Tim finally in solitary possession of the wreckage of empty suites.
From that time on he had slipped rapidly into a state of perpetual sottishness. Even then, however, he had retained the traces of an attractive and engaging personality. Everyone had had a tolerant and unspoken affection for him. Save for the harm he did himself, Tim was an inoffensive and good-natured creature.
His figure on the streets of the town at night had been a familiar one. From sunset on, he might be found almost anywhere. It was easy to tell what progressive state of intoxication he had reached simply by observing his method of locomotion. No one ever saw him stagger. He did not weave drunkenly along the pavement. Rather, when he approached the saturation point, he walked very straight, very rapidly, but with funny little short steps. As he walked he kept his face partly lowered, glancing quickly and comically from side to side, with little possumlike looks. If he approached complete paralysis, he just stood quietly and leaned against something — a lamppost or a door-way or the side of a building or the front of the drugstore. Here he would remain for hours in a state of solemn immobility, broken only by an occasional belch. His face, already grown thin and flabby-jowled, with its flaming beacon of a nose, would at these times be composed in an expression of drunken gravity, and his whole condition would be characterised by a remarkable alertness, perceptiveness, and control. He rarely degenerated into complete collapse. Almost always he could respond instantly and briskly to a word of greeting.
Even the police had had a benevolent regard for him, and they had exercised a friendly guardianship over him. Through long experience and observation, every policeman on the force was thoroughly acquainted with Tim’s symptoms. They could tell at a glance just what degree of intoxication he had reached, and if they thought he had crossed the final border line and that his collapse in door-way or gutter was imminent, they would take charge of him, speaking to him kindly, but with a stern warning:
“Tim, if you’re on the streets again to-night, we’re going to lock you up. Now you go on home and go to bed.”
To this Tim would nod briskly, with instant and amiable agreement: “Yes, sir, yes, sir. Just what I was going to do, Captain Crane, when you spoke to me. Going home right this minute. Yes, sir.”
With these words he would start off briskly across the street, his legs making their little fast, short steps and his eyes darting comically from side to side, until he had vanished round the corner. Within ten or fifteen minutes, however, he might be seen again, easing his way along cautiously in the dark shadow of a building, creeping up to the corner, and peeking round with a sly look on his face to see if any of the watchdogs of the law were in sight.
As time went on and his life lapsed more and more into total vagabondage, one of his wealthy aunts, in the hope that some employment might partially retrieve him, had given him the use of a vacant lot behind some buildings in the business section of the town, a short half-block from Main Street. The motor-car had now come in sufficient numbers to make parking laws important, and Tim was allowed by his aunt to use this lot as parking space for cars and to keep the money thus obtained. In this employment he succeeded far better than anyone expected. He had little to do except stay on the premises, and this was not difficult for him so long as he was plentifully supplied with corn whisky.
During this period of his life some canvassers at a local election, had looked for Tim to enrol him in the interest of their candidate, but they had been unable to find out where he lived. He had not; lived, of course, with any member of his family for years, and investigation failed to disclose that he had a room anywhere. The question then began to go round: “Where does Tim Wagner live? Where does he sleep?” No one could find out. And Tim’s own answers, when pressed for information, were slyly evasive.
One day, however, the answer came to light. The motor-car had come, and come so thoroughly that people were even getting buried by motor-car. The day of the horse-drawn hearse had passed for ever. Accordingly, one of the local undertaking firms had told Tim he could have their old horse-drawn hearse if he would only take it off their premises. Tim had accepted the macabre gift and had parked the hearse in his lot. One day when Tim was absent the canvassers came back again, still persistent in their efforts to learn his address so they could enrol him. They noticed the old hearse, and, seeing that its raven curtains were so closely drawn that the interior was hidden from view, they decided to investigate. Cautiously they opened the doors of the hearse. A cot was inside. There was even a chair. It was completely furnished as a small but adequate bedroom.
So at last his secret had been found out. Henceforth all the town knew where he lived.
That was Tim Wagner as George had known him fifteen years ago. Since then he had been so constantly steeped in alcohol that his progressive disintegration had been marked, and he had lately adopted the fantastic trappings of a clown of royalty. Everyone knew all about him, and yet — the fact was incredible! — Tim Wagner had now become the supreme embodiment of the town’s extravagant folly. For, as gamblers will stake a fortune on some moment’s whimsey of belief, thrusting their money into a stranger’s hand and bidding him to play with it because the colour of his hair is lucky, or as racetrack men will rub the hump upon a cripple’s back to bring them luck, so the people of the town now listened prayerfully to every word Tim Wagner uttered. They sought his opinion in all their speculations, and acted instantly on this suggestions. He had become — in what way and for what reason no one knew — the high priest and prophet of this insanity of waste.
They knew that he was diseased and broken, that his wits were always addled now with alcohol, but they used him as men once used divining rods. They deferred to him as Russian peasants once deferred to the village idiot. They now believed with an absolute and unquestioning faith that some power of intuition in him made all his judgments infallible.
It was this creature who had just alighted at the kerb a little beyond George Webber and Sam Pennock, full of drunken majesty and bleary-eyed foppishness. Sam turned to him with a movement of feverish eagerness, saying to George abruptly:
“Wait a minute! I’ve got to speak to Tim Wagner about something! Wait till I come back!”
George watched the scene with amazement. Tim Wagner, still drawing the gloves off of his fingers with an expression of bored casualness, walked slowly over towards the entrance of McCormack’s drug-store — no longer were his steps short and quick, for he leaned heavily on his cane — while Sam, in an attitude of obsequious entreaty, kept at his elbow, bending his tall form towards him and hoarsely pouring out a torrent of questions:
“ . . . Property in West Libya . . . Seventy-five thousand dollars . . . Option expires tomorrow at noon . . . Joe Ingram has the piece above mine . . . Won’t sell . . . Holding for hundred fifty . . . Mine’s the best location . . . But Fred Bynum says too far from main road . . . What do you think, Tim? . . . Is it worth it?”
During the course of this torrential appeal Tim Wagner did not even turn to look at his petitioner. He gave no evidence whatever that he heard what Sam was saying. Instead, he stopped, thrust his gloves into his pocket, cast, his eyes round slyly in a series of quick glances, and suddenly began to root into himself violently with a clutching hand. Then he straightened up like a man just coming out of a trance, and seemed to become aware for the first time that Sam was waiting.
“What’s that? What did you say, Sam?” he said rapidly. “How much did they offer you for it? Don’t sell, don’t sell!” he said suddenly and with great emphasis. “Now’s the time to buy, not to sell. The trend is upwards. Buy! Buy! Don’t take it. Don’t sell. That’s my advice!”
“I’m not selling, Tim,” Sam cried excitedly. “I’m thinking of buying.”
“Oh — yes, yes, yes!” Tim muttered rapidly. “I see, I see.” He turned now for the first time and fixed his eyes upon his questioner. “Where did you say it was?” he demanded sharply. “Deepwood? Good! Good! Can’t go wrong! Buy! Buy!”
He started to walk away into the drug-store, and the lounging idlers moved aside deferentially to let him pass. Sam rushed after him frantically and caught him by the arm, shouting:
“No, no, Tim! It’s not Deepwood! It’s the other way . . . I’ve been telling you . . . It’s West Libya!”
“What’s that?” Tim cried sharply. “West Libya? Why didn’t you say so? That’s different. Buy! Buy! Can’t go wrong! Whole town’s moving in that direction. Values double out there in six months. How much do they want?”
“Seventy-five thousand,” Sam panted. “Option expires tomorrow . . . Five yeas to pay it up.”
“Buy! Buy!” Tim barked, and walked off into the drug-store.
Sam strode back towards George, his eyes blazing with excitement.
“Did you hear him? Did you hear what he said?” he demanded hoarsely. “You heard him, didn’t you? . . . Best damned judge of real estate that ever lived . . . Never known to make a mistake! . . . ‘Buy! Buy! Will double in value in six months!’ . . . You were standing right here”— he said hoarsely and accusingly, glaring at George —“you heard what he said, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I heard him.”
Sam glanced wildly about him, passed his hand nervously through his hair several times, and then said, sighing heavily and shaking his head in wonder:
“Seventy-five thousand dollars’ profit in one deal! . . . Never heard anything like it in my . . . life! Lord, Lord!” he cried. “What are we coming to?”
Somehow the news had got round that George had written a book and that it would soon be published. The editor of the local paper heard of it and sent a reporter to interview him, and printed a story about it.
“So you’ve written a book?” said the reporter. “What kind of a book is it? What’s it about?”
“Why — I— I hardly know how to tell you,” George stammered. “It — it’s a novel ——”
“A Southern novel? Anything to do with this part of the country?”
“Well — yes — that is — it’s about the South, all right — about an Old Catawba family — but ——”
LOCAL BOY WRITES ROMANCE OF THE OLD SOUTH
George Webber, son of the late John Webber and nephew of Mark Joyner, local hardware merchant, has written a novel with a Libya Hill background which the New York house of James Rodney & Co. will publish this autumn.
When interviewed last night, the young author stated that his book was a romance of the Old South, centring about the history of a distinguished antebellum family of this region. The people of Libya Hill and environs will await the publication of the book with special interest, not only because many of them will remember the author, who was born and brought up here, but also because that stirring period of Old Catawba’s past has never before been accorded its rightful place of honour in the annals of Southern literature.
“We understand you have travelled a great deal since you left home. Been to Europe several times?”
“Yes, I have.”
“In your opinion, how does this section of the country compare with other places you have seen?”
“Why — why — er — why good! . . . I mean, fine! That is ——”
LOCAL PARADISE COMPARES FAVOURABLY
In answer to the reporter’s question as to how this part of the country compared to other places he had seen, the former Libya man declared:
“There is no place I have ever visited — and my travels have taken me to England, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, to say nothing of the south of France, the Italian Riviera, and the Swiss Alps — which can compare in beauty with the setting of my native town.
“We have here,” he said enthusiastically, “a veritable Paradise of Nature. Air, climate, scenery, water, natural beauty, all conspire to make this section the most ideal place in the whole world to live.”
“Did you ever think of coming back here to live?”
“Well — yes — I have thought of it — but — you see ——”
WILL SETTLE AND BUILD HERE
When questioned as to his future plans, the author said:
“For years, my dearest hope and chief ambition has been that one day I should be able to come back here to live. One who has ever known the magic of these hills cannot forget them. I hope, therefore, that the time is not far distant when I may return for good.
“Here, I feel, as nowhere else,” the author continued wistfully, “that I will be able to and the inspiration that I must have to do my work. Scenically, climatically, geographically, and in every other way, the logical spot for a modern renaissance is right here among these hills. There is no reason why, in ten years’ time, this community should not be a great artistic colony, drawing to it the great artists, the music and the beauty lovers, of the whole world, as Salzburg does now. The Rhododendron Festival is already a step in the right direction.
“It shall be a part of my purpose from now on,” the earnest young author added, “to do everything in my power to further this great cause, and to urge all my writing and artistic friends to settle hereto make Libya Hill the place it ought to be-The Athens of America.”
“Do you intend to write another book?”
“Yes — that is — I hope so. In fact —”
“Would you care to say anything about it?”
“Well — I don’t know — it’s pretty hard to say ——”
“Come on, son, don’t be bashful. We’re all your home folks here . . . Now, take Longfellow. There was a great writer! You know what a young fellow with your ability ought to do? He ought to come back here and do for this section what Longfellow did for New England . . . ”
PLANS NATIVE SAGA
When pressed for details about the literary work he hopes to do hereafter, the author became quite explicit:
“I want to return here,” he said, “and commemorate the life, history, and development of Western Catawba in a series of poetic legends comparable to those with which the poet Longfellow commemorated the life of the Acadians and the folklore of the New England countryside. What I have in mind is a trilogy that will begin with the early settlement of the region by the first pioneers, among them my own forebears, and will trace the steady progress of Libya Hill from its founding and the coming of the railroad right down to its present international prominence and the proud place it occupies today as ‘The Gem City of the Hills’.”
George writhed and swore when he read the article. There was hardly an accurate statement in it. He felt angry and sheepish and guilty all at the same time.
He sat down and wrote a scathing letter to the paper, but when he had finished he tore it up. After all, what good would it do? The reporter had spun his story out of nothing more substantial than his victim’s friendly tones and gestures, a few words and phrases which he had blurted out in his confusion, and, above all, his reticence to talk about his work; yet the fellow had obviously been so steeped in the booster spirit that he had been able to concoct this elaborate fantasy — probably without quite knowing that it was a fantasy.
Then, too, he reflected, people would take an emphatic denial of the statements that had been attributed to him as evidence that he was a sorehead, full of conceit about his book. You couldn’t undo the effect of a thing like this with a simple negative. If he gave the lie to all that gush, everybody would say he was attacking the town and turning against those who had nurtured him. Better let bad enough alone.
So he did nothing about it. And after that, strangely enough, it seemed to George that the attitude of people changed towards him. Not that they had been unfriendly before. It was only that he now felt they approved of him. This in itself gave him a quiet sense of accomplishment, as if the stamp of business confirmation had been put upon him.
Like all Americans, George had been amorous of material success, so it made him happy now to know that the people of his home town believed he had got it, or at any rate was at last on the highroad to it. One thing about the whole affair was most fortunate. The publisher who had accepted his book had an old and much respected name; people knew the name, and would meet him on the street and wring his hand and say:
“So your book is going to be published by James Rodney & Co.?”
That simple question, asked with advance knowledge of the fact, had a wonderful sound. It had a ring, not only of congratulation that his book was being published, but also of implication that the distinguished house of Rodney had been fortunate to secure it. That was the way it sounded, and it was probably also the way it was meant. He had the feeling, therefore, that in the eyes of his own people he had “arrived”. He was no longer a queer young fellow who had consumed his substance in the deluded hope that he was — oh, loaded word! —“a writer”. He was a writer. He was not only a writer, but a writer who was about to be published, and by the ancient and honourable James Rodney & Co.
There is something good in the way people welcome success, or anything — no matter what — that is stamped with the markings of success. It is not an ugly thing, really. People love success because to most of them it means happiness, and, whatever form it takes, it is the image of what they, in their hearts, would like to be. This is more true in America than anywhere else. People put this label on the image of their heart’s desire because they have never had an image of another kind of happiness. So, essentially, this love of success is not a bad thing, but a good thing. It calls forth a general and noble response, even though the response may also be mixed with self-interest. People are happy for your happiness because they want so much to be happy themselves. Therefore it’s a good thing. The idea behind it is good, anyhow. The only trouble with it is that the direction is misplaced.
That was the way it seemed to George. He had gone through a long and severe period of probation, and now he was approved. It made him very happy. There is nothing in the world that will take the chip off of one’s shoulder like a feeling of success. The chip was off now, and George didn’t want to fight anybody. For the first time he felt that it was good to be home again.
Not that he did not have his apprehensions. He knew what he had written about the people and the life of his home town. He knew, too, that he had written about them with a nakedness and directness which, up to that time, had been rare in American fiction. He wondered how they would take it. Even when people congratulated him about the book he could not altogether escape a feeling of uneasiness, for he was afraid of what they would say and think after the book came out and they had read it.
These apprehensions took violent possession of him one night in a most vivid and horrible dream. He thought he was running and stumbling over the blasted heath of some foreign land, fleeing in terror from he knew not what. All that he knew was that he was filled with a nameless shame. It was wordless, and as shapeless as a smothering fog, yet his whole mind and soul shrank back in an agony of revulsion and self-contempt. So overwhelming was his sense of loathing and guilt that he coveted the place of murderers on whom the world had visited the fierceness of its wrath. He envied the whole list of those criminals who had reaped the sentence of mankind’s dishonour — the thief, the liar, the trickster, the outlaw, and the traitor — men whose names were anathema and were spoken with a curse, but which were spoken; for he had committed a crime for which there was no name, he was putrescent with a taint for which there was neither comprehension nor cure, he was rotten with a vileness of corruption that placed him equally beyond salvation or vengeance, remote alike from pity, love, and hatred, and unworthy of a curse. Thus he fled across the immeasurable and barren heath beneath a burning sky, an exile in the centre of a planetary vacancy which, like his own shameful self, had no place either among things living or among things dead, and in which there was neither vengeance of lightning nor mercy of burial; for in all that limitless horizon there was no shade or shelter, no curve or bend, no hill or tree or hollow: there was only one vast, naked eye — searing and inscrutable — from which there was no escape, and which bathed his defenceless soul in its fathomless depths of shame.
And then, with bright and sharp intensity, the dream changed, and suddenly he found himself among the scenes and faces he had known long ago. He was a traveller who had returned after many years of wandering to the place he had known in his childhood. The sense of his dreadful but nameless corruption still hung ominously above him as he entered the streets of the town again, and he knew that he had returned to the springs of innocence and health from whence he came, and by which he would be saved.
But as he came into the town he became aware that the knowledge of his guilt was everywhere about him. He saw the men and women he had known in childhood, the boys with whom he had gone to school, the girls he had taken to dances. They were engaged in all their varied activities of life and business, and they showed their friendship towards one another, but when he approached and offered his hand in greeting they looked at him with blank stares, and in their gaze there was no love, hatred, pity, loathing, or any feeling whatsoever. Their faces, which had been full of friendliness and affection when they spoke to one another, went dead; they gave no sign of recognition or of greeting; they answered him briefly in toneless voices, giving him what information he asked, and repulsed every effort he made towards a resumption of old friendship with the annihilation of silence and that blank and level stare. They did not laugh or mock or nudge or whisper when he passed; they only waited and were still, as if they wanted but one thing — that he should depart out of their sight.
He walked on through the old familiar streets, past houses and places that lived again for him as if he had never left them, and by people who grew still and waited until he had gone, and the knowledge of wordless guilt was rooted in his soul. He knew that he was obliterated from their lives more completely than if he had died, and he felt that he was now lost to all men.
Presently he had left the town, and was again upon the blasted heath, and he was fleeing across it beneath the pitiless sky where flamed the naked eye that pierced him with its unutterable weight of shame.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56