MARCH 17, 1937
THE HOUR had come: along the station platform there was a flurry of excitement in the crowd, a light flashed, the porters moved along the quay. I turned and looked up the tracks. The train was sweeping down on us. It bore down swiftly, sweeping in around the edges of the Zoölogic Gardens, the huge snout of the locomotive looming bluntly, the fenders touched with trimmings of bright green. The great machine steamed hotly past and halted. The dull line of the coaches was "broken vividly in the middle with the glittering red of the Mitropa dining car.
We swung to action. My porter, heaving up my heavy leather case, clambered quickly up the steps and found a seat for me. There was a blur of all around, an excited tumult of farewell, shook hands hard and fast, his small and bitter face was contorted as if he were weeping, as he indeed he was. With a sudden shock of recognition I saw how close together were his laughter and his grief. I heard his curiously vibrant, deep and tragic voice saying, “Good-bye, good-bye, dear Paul, auf wiedersehen.”
Then I climbed up into the train. The guard slammed the door. Even as I made my way down the narrow corridor toward my compartment the train started, was in motion. These forms, these faces and these lives all slid away.
Hartmann kept walking forward, waving his hat, his face still contorted with that strange grimace that was half bitter mirth, half sorrow. Then the train swept out around the curve. And he was lost.
We gathered speed. The streets and buildings of the West slipped past me—those solid ugly streets, those great solid ugly buildings of Victorian German style, that yet, with all the pleasant green of trees, the window-boxes bright with red geraniums, the air of order, substance and comfort, had always been as familiar and as pleasant to me as the quiet streets and houses of a little town. Already we were sweeping through Charlottenburg. We passed the station without halting and on the platforms, with the old and poignant feeling of loss and of regret, I saw the people waiting for the Stadtbahn trains. Upon its elevated track the great train swept on smoothly toward the West, gathering in momentum slowly. We passed the Funkturm. Almost before I knew it we were running through the western outskirts of the city, toward the open country. We passed an aviation field. I saw the hangars and a flock of shining planes. Even as I looked a great silver-bodied plane moved out, taxied along and gathered speed, lifted its tail and, as we vanished, broke slowly from the earth.
And now the city was behind us. Those familiar faces, forms and voices of just six minutes past were now remote from me as dreams, imprisoned there as in another world, a world hived of four million lives, of hope and fear and hatred, anguish and despair, of love, of cruelty and devotion, that was called Berlin.
And now the land was stroking past, the level land of Brandenburg, the lonely flatland of the north that I had always heard to be so ugly and that I had found so strange, so haunting and so beautiful. The dark solitude of the forest was around us now, the loneliness of the kiefern trees, tall, slender, towering and straight as sailing masts, bearing upon their tops the burden of their needled and eternal green. Their naked poles shone with that lovely goldbronze color that is itself like the material distillation of a magic light. And all between was magic too. The forest dusk was gold-brown, also, with this magic light, the earth gold-brown and barren, the trees themselves alone and separate, a pole-like forest filled with haunting light.
And then, the light would open and the wood be gone. And we were sweeping through the level cultivated earth, tilled thriftily to the very edges of the track. And I could see the clusters of farm buildings, the red-tiled roofs, the cross-quarterings of barns and houses. Then we would find the magic of the woods again.
I opened the door of my compartment and went in and took a seat beside the door. On the other side, in a corner by the window, a young man sat and read a book. He was an elegant young man dressed most fashionably. There was a kind of foppish elegance about his costume that one felt somehow was Continental, even though one did not know from what place upon the Continent he came.
What struck me therefore with a sense of shock was the American book he was reading. Even as I pondered on this puzzling combination the door was opened and a woman and a man came in.
They were Germans. The woman was no longer young, but plump, warm, seductive-looking, with hair so blonde it was the color of bleached straw, and eyes as blue as sapphires. She spoke rapidly to the man who accompanied her, then turned to me and asked me if the other places were unoccupied. I replied that I thought so, and looked inquiringly at the young man in the corner. And he too replied, in somewhat broken German, that he believed so. The woman nodded her head in satisfaction, spoke with quick authority to her companion and he went out and presently returned with their baggage—two valises, which he arranged upon the baggage rack above their heads.
He was a tall, blond, fresh-complexioned German, who conveyed indefinably an impression of bewildered innocence. The woman, although most attractive, was obviously much the older of the two. One knew for a certainty she was in her thirties, and she might even already have attained her fortieth year. There were traces of fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, a kind of physical maturity and warmth which had in it the wisdom of experience, but from which some of the freshness of youth had gone.
The young fellow obviously was in his early twenties. One felt instantly, without knowing why, that there was no family relation between these two: it was completely evident that the young man could not have been a brother, but it was also evident that they were not man and wife. Again, the woman, with the seductive warmth of her appeal, had an almost shameless physical attraction, a kind of naked allure such as one often sees in people of the theatre—in a chorus girl or in the strip woman of a burlesque show. Beside her assurance, her air of practice and authority, her sharply vivid stamp, the young man was almost countrified. And he certainly did look nervous and uneasy in the art of travel: I noticed that he kept his head down most of the time, and did not speak unless she spoke to him. And when she did, he would flush crimson with embarrassment, two wedge-shaped flags of color deepening in his fresh pink face to beetlike red.
It was hard not to fall back upon an ancient parable—to assume that the boy was the village hayseed in the toils of the city siren, that she had duped him into taking her to Paris, that the fool and his money would soon be parted. And yet, there was certainly nothing repulsive about the blonde-haired woman. She was decidedly a most attractive and engaging creature. She even seemed to be completely unaware of that astonishing quality of sexual magnetism which she undoubtedly did possess, and to express herself sensually and naturally with the innocent warmth of a child.
While I was busy with these speculations the door of the compartment opened again and a stuffy-looking little man with a long nose looked in, peered about truculently and rather suspiciously, and then demanded to know if the remaining seats in the compartment were free. We all told him that we thought so. Upon receiving this information, he too, without another word, disappeared down the corridor, to reappear again with a large valise. I helped him stow it away upon the rack above his head; although I do not think he could have done it for himself, he accepted my service without a word of thanks, hung up his overcoat, fidgeted and worried about, took a newspaper from his pocket, sat down and opened it, banged the compartment door rather viciously, and after peering around sourly and mistrustfully at the rest of us, rattled his paper and began to read.
While he read his paper I had a chance to observe this sour-looking customer from time to time. In a well-known phrase of modern parlance, he was “nothing to write home about.” Not that there was anything sinister-looking about the man—decidedly there was not. It was just that he was a drab, stuffy, irascible-looking little fellow of the type that one is always afraid one is going to encounter on a trip out that one hopes fervently he won't meet. He looked like the kind of fellow who would always be hanging down the window of the compartment without asking anyone else about it, always fidgeting and fuming about always, in short, trying by every cranky, crusty and ill tempered means to make his traveling companions as uncomfortable as possible.
Yes, he was certainly a well known type, but aside from these unpleasant aspects he was wholly unremarkable. It was only when he had intruded himself into the intimacy of a long journey and began immediately to buzz and worry around like a troublesome hornet that he became memorable. At this moment, in fact, the elegant young gentleman in the corner by the window almost ran afoul of him. The young fellow took out an expensive-looking cigarette case, and, smiling amiably, asked the lady if she objected to his smoking. She immediately answered, with great friendliness, that she minded not at all. I myself received this welcome information with considerable relief, took a package of cigarettes from my pocket and was on the point of joining my unknown young companion in the luxury of smoke when old Fuss-And-Fidget opposite me rattled his paper viciously, glared sourly at us and then, pointmg at a sign upon the wall of the compartment, croaked dismally, “Nicht Raucher.”
Well, all of us had known that at the beginning, hut we had not known that Fuss-And-Fidget was going to make an issue of it. The young fellow and I glanced at each other with a slightly startled look, grinned a little, caught the lady's eye, which was also twinkling with the comedy of the occasion, and were obediently about to put our cigarettes away unsmoked when Fuss-And-Fidget looked sourly around at us a second time and then said bleakly that as far as he was concerned it was all right. He’d just wanted to point out to us that we were in a nonsmoking compartment. The implication plainly was that from this time on the crime was on our heads, that he had done what he could as a good citizen to warn us, but that if we proceeded with our guilty plot against the laws of the land it was no further concern of his. Being thus reassured, we produced our cigarettes again and lighted up.
Time passed in silence now, and presently I fell into a dozing sleep, from which I would start up from time to time to look about me, then to doze again. Again and again I started up to find old Fuss-And-Fidget’s eyes fixed on me in a look of such suspicion and ill tempered sourness that the expression barely escaped malevolence. Moreover, he was so fidgety and nervous that it was almost impossible to sleep longer than for a few minutes at a time.
He was always crossing and uncrossing his legs, always rattling his newspaper, always fooling with the handle of the door, half opening the door and banging it to again, as if he were afraid it was not securely closed. He was always jumping up and going out into the corridor, where he would pace up and down, look out the windows at the speeding landscape, and fidget up and down the corridor again, holding his hands behind him, twiddling his fingers nervously as he walked.
Meanwhile, the train was advancing across the country at terrific speed. Forest and land, village and farm, tilled land and pasture rushed past us with the deliberate but devouring movement of the high velocity. We slackened a moment as we crossed the Elbe but there was no halt. Two hours after our departure from Berlin we were sweeping in beneath the arched, enormous roof of the Hannover station. There was a halt of ten or fifteen minutes here. I had fallen into a doze but as the train slackened and began to come into the outskirts of the old city I awoke. But fatigue still held me. I did not get up.
The others in the compartment—everyone except myself and the elegant young gentleman in the corner—got up and went out upon the platform to get as much fresh air and exercise as our short stay allowed. Meanwhile, my companion in the corner had put down his book and, after peering out the window for a moment, turned to me and said in English, marked by a slight accent, “Where are we now?”
1 told him we were at Hannover.
He sighed a little and said, “I am tired of traveling. I shall be glad when I get home.”
“And where is home for you?”
“New York," he said, and seeing a look of surprise upon my face he added quickly: “Of course I am not American by birth, as you can see. But I am a naturalized American and my home is in New York.”
I told him that I lived there too, and he asked me if I had been long in Germany.
“No, not recently. I came over about two months ago.”
“At first, when you came in this morning, I thought you were German. But then I saw you could not be German from your accent. When I saw you reading The Paris Herald I decided that you were English or American.”
“I am American, of course.”
“Yes, I can see that now. I,” he said, “am Polish by birth. I went to America fifteen years ago to live, but my family still live in Poland.”
“And you have been to see them, naturally?”
“Yes. I have two brothers living in the country. I am coming from there now,” he said. He was silent for a moment and then added with some emphasis, “But not again. Not for a long time will I visit them. I am sick of Europe,” he went on. “I am tired of all this foolish business, these politics, this hate, these armies and this talk of war—the whole damn stuffy atmosphere—here”—he cried indignantly and, thrusting his hand into his breast pocket, he pulled out a paper, “Will you look at this?”
“What is it?”
“A paper—a permit—which allows me to take twenty-three marks out of Germany. Twenty-three
marks!” he repeated scornfully, “—as if I want their God-damn money.”
“I know. You've got to get a paper every time you turn around. Look here!” I cried, and reaching in my own breast pocket I pulled out a mass of papers big enough to choke a horse. “I got all of these in two months’ time.”
The ice was broken now. Upon a mutual grievance we began to warm up to each other. It quickly became evident that my new acquaintance, with the patriotic fervor of his race, was almost passionately American.
“Oh,” he said, “it will be good after all this to be back there where all is Peace—where all is Friendship—where all is Love.”
I had myself some reservations on this score, but I did not utter them. His fervor was so genuine and warm that it would have been unkind to try to qualify it. And besides, I too was homesick now and his words, generous and wholehearted as they were, warmed me with their pleasant glow.
For I, as he, was weary and oppressed, exhausted with these pressures, worn out with these tensions of the nerves and spirit, sickened by the cancer of these cureless hates which had not only poisoned the life of nations but had eaten in one way or another into the lives of all my friends, of almost everyone that I had known here. And so, like my new-found fellow countryman, I too felt, beneath the extravagance and intemperance of his language, a certain justice in comparison. And I felt further that it would be very good to be back home again, out of the poisonous constrictions of this atmosphere, where, whatever we might lack, we still bad air to breathe in, winds to clear that air.
My new friend now told me that he was a member of a brokerage concern in Wall Street. This seemed to call for some similar identification on my part and I gave him the most truthful answer I could make, which was that I worked for a publishing house. He remarked then that he knew the family of a New York publisher. And when I asked him who these people were he answered, “The Edwards family.”
I said: “I know the Edwardses. They are friends of mine and Mr. Edwards is my publisher. And you,” I said, "your name is Johnnie, isn't it? I have forgotten your last name, but I have heard it—”
He nodded quickly, smiling. “Yes, Johnnie Stefanowski,” he said. “And you?—what is your name?”
I told him.
He said, “Of course. I know of you.”
And instantly we were shaking hands, with that kind of stunned but exuberant surprise which reduces people to the banal conclusion that “it's a small world after all.”
And now indeed we had established contact at a thousand points and found we knew in common scores of people. We discussed them enthusiastically, almost joyfully. By the time the other people returned to the compartment and the train began to move again we were engaged in rapid conversation.
Our three companions looked somewhat startled to hear this rapid-fire of conversation, this evidence of acquaintanceship between two people who had apparently been strangers just ten minutes since.
Our little blonde lady smiled at us and took her seat; the young man also. Old Fuss-And-Fidget, all ears now, glancing quickly, sharply, from one to the other of us, listened attentively to all we said.
The cross-fire of our talk went back and forth, from my corner of the compartment to my friend’s. I felt myself a sense of embarrassment at the sudden intrusion of this intimacy in a foreign language among fellow travelers, with whom we had heretofore maintained a restrained formality. But Johnnie Stefanowski evidently was troubled not at all and smiled in a friendly fashion at our companions as if they too were parties to our conversation and could understand every word we said.
Under this engaging influence, everyone began to thaw out visibly. The little blonde lady now began to talk in an animated way to her young companion. In a few moments Fuss-And-Fidget chimed in too. In a very short time the whole compartment was humming with this rapid interplay of English and
Johnnie Stefanowski now proposed that we seek out the Speisewagen and procure refreshment. “I am not hungry,” he said indifferently. “In Poland I have had to eat too much. I am sick of food—but would you like some Polish fruits?” he said, indicating a large paper-covered package at his side. “I believe they have prepared some things for me—some fruits from my brother's estate, some chickens and some partridges. I have no appetite myself, but wouldn't you take something?”
I told him that I was not hungry yet.
He suggested thereupon that we get a drink. “I still have these marks,” he said, “seventeen or eighteen of them. I no longer have any need of them. But now that I have met you I think it would be nice if we could spend them. Shall we go and see what we can find?”
To this I agreed. We arose, excused ourselves to our companions and as Stefanowski left his seat, old Fuss-And-Fidget asked him if he was willing to change seats. Indifferently the young man answered, “Yes, take my seat, of course. It does not matter to me where I sit.”
We went out into the narrow corridor and, moving forward through several coaches of the hurtling train, we finally reached the Speisewagen, skirted the hot breath of the kitchens and seated ourselves at one of the tables in one of the beautiful, bright clean coaches of the Mitropa service. Stefanowski seemed to have a Polish gentleman’s liberal capacity for drink. He tossed his brandy off at a single gulp, remarking rather plaintively: “It is very small. But it is good and does no harm. We should have more.”
Pleasantly warmed by brandy, and talking together with the ease of people who had known each other for many years, we now began to discuss our companions in our own compartment.
“The little woman—she is rather nice,” said Stefanowski—“I think she is not very young, and yet, she is quite charming, isn't she? A personality.”
“And the young man with her?” I inquired. “You do not think he is her husband?”
“No, of course not,” replied my companion instantly. “It is most curious,” he went on in a puzzled tone, “he is much younger, obviously, and not the same—he is much simpler than the lady.”
“Yes. It's almost as if he were some young fellow from the country, and she—”
“Is like someone in the theatre," Stefanowski nodded. “An actress. Or perhaps some music-hall
“And the other man?” I said. “The little one? The fidgety little fellow who keeps staring at us. Who is he?”
“Oh, that one,” said my friend impatiently. “I do not know. I do not care. He is some stuffy little man-—you always meet them on a trip—it does not matter. But shall we go back now?” he said, “and talk to them? We shall never see them after this: and it would be interesting to find out who they are.”
I agreed. Accordingly, my Polish friend now called the waiter, got our bill and paid it—and still had ten or twelve marks left from what remained of the waning twenty-three. Then we got up and went back through the speeding train to our compartment.
The lady smiled at us as we came in. And our three fellow passengers all regarded us with a kind of sharpened curiosity. It was evident that during our absence we had been the subject of their speculation. Stefanowski smiled and spoke to them at once, his German was somewhat broken but coherent, and he was a man of such natural warmth and social assurance that his deficiencies did not bother him at all. Our companions responded quickly, even eagerly, to our greeting, and immediately gave free expression to their curiosity, to the speculations which our meeting, our apparent recognition of each other, had aroused.
The lady asked Stefanowski where he came from—“Was sind sie für ein Landsmann” And he replied that he was an American.
“Ach so?”—for a moment she looked surprised, then added quickly, "but not by birth?”
“No,” said Stefanowski, “I am Polish by birth. But I live in New York now. And my friend here”—he indicated me, and they all turned to stare curiously at me—“is an American by birth.”
They nodded in satisfaction and, smiling with eager curiosity, the lady said—“And your friend here—he is an artist, isn't he?"
Stefanowski said I was.
“A painter?”—the lady almost gleefully pursued the confirmation of her own predictions.
“He is not a painter. He is a writer.” My young Polish friend said “Dichter,” which means poet, which I amended quickly to “ein schriftsteller”
All three of them thereupon looked at one another with nods of satisfaction, saying ah, they thought so, it was evident, etc. Old Fuss-And-Fidget even now chimed in with a sage observation that it was apparent “from the head.” The others nodded in agreement, and the lady, now turning again to Stefanowski, said, “But you—you are not an artist, are you? You do something else?”
He replied that he was a business man—a “Geschaftsmann”—that his business was in Wall Street, a name which apparently had imposing connotations for them, for they all nodded in an impressed manner and said “ah” again.
We went on then and told them how we had never seen each other before that morning, but how each of us had known of the other through many mutual friends whom we had known for years. This news delighted everyone. Our little blonde lady nodded triumphantly, burst out in excited conversation with her companion and with Fuss-And-Fidget, the effect of which was, “What did I tell you? I said the same thing, didn’t I? It's a small world after all, isn't it?” etc.
Now we were all really wonderfully at ease with one another, all talking eagerly and naturally, as if we had known one another for years. The little lady began to tell us all about herself. She and her husband were, she said, proprietors of a business near the Alexanderplatz. No—smiling—the young man was not her husband. He was a young artist and employed by her. In what sort of business? She laughed—one would never guess. She and her husband manufactured mannikins for window-shop display. Their business, I inferred, was quite a large one. She told us that they employed over fifty workers, and occasionally they had had almost a hundred. For this reason, she had to go to Paris once or twice
a year. For, she explained, Paris set the fashion in these figures as it did in clothes.
Of course, they did not buy the Paris models. Mein Gott! that was impossible with the present money situation as it was. Nevertheless, hard as it was, she had to get to Paris somehow once or twice a year, just in order to keep up with “what was going on.” She took this young man with her on these trips. He made designs, drew models of the late show-window modes in Paris, and duplicated them for her when he returned.
Stefanowski now remarked that he did not see how it was even possible, under present circumstances, for a German citizen to travel anywhere. It had become difficult enough for a foreigner now to travel in and out of Germany. The money complications were so confusing and so wearisome. I added to this an account of my own experiences of the summer in my brief travels—the difficulties that had attended even a short journey to the Austrian Tirol. Ruefully I displayed the pocket full of papers, permits, visas and official stamps I had accumulated in two months. Upon this common ground we all again were vociferously agreed. The lady affirmed that it was stupid, exhausting and, for a German with business out of his own country, almost impossible. She added quickly, loyally, that of course it was also necessary, but then began to give an account of her own difficulties, which went swiftly into a bewildering maze of checks and balances, and which finally ended by her waving her hand charmingly, saying, “Ach Gott! it is all too complicated, too confusing, to explain.”
Old Fuss-And-Fidget put in here, with confirmations of his own. He was, he said, an attorney in Berlin—a “Rechtsanwalt”—who had formerly had extensive professional connections in France and in other portions of the Continent. He had visited America as well, he added. He had been there, in fact, as recently as 1930, when he had attended an international congress of lawyers in New York. He even spoke a little English, which he now unveiled for us, and he was going now, he told us, to another international congress of lawyers which was to open in Paris within the next day or so and which would last a week. But it was hard for a German to make a trip even of this short duration. And as for his former professional activities in other countries, they were now, alas, impossible.
He asked me if any of my books had been translated and published in Germany and I told him they had. They were all warmly curious, wanted to know the title and my name. Accordingly, I wrote out for them the German titles of the hooks, the name of the German publisher, my own name. The little lady put the paper away in her pocketbook and announced enthusiastically that she would buy the books on her return to Germany. And Fuss-And-Fidget, after carefully reading the paper, folded it and put it away in his wallet, remarking that he too would buy the books when he returned.
Stefanowski now picked up his bulky paper package, opened it and demanded that everyone partake. There were some splendid pears and peaches, a plump broiled chicken, some fat squabs and various other delicacies. Our companions protested that they could not deprive him of his lunch, but the young man insisted with a vigorous warmth that was obviously a characteristic of his good-hearted nature that he and I were going to the dining car for luncheon anyway, and that if they did not eat the contents of the package it would go to waste.
Whereupon, they all helped themselves to fruit, which they pronounced delicious, and the lady promised she would later on investigate the chicken. Upon these assurances, with friendly greetings all around, my Polish friend and I departed for a second time.
This is the second installment of a short novel by Thomas Wolfe. The third section will be published in our next issue.—THE EDITORS.