Of time and the river a.., p.1

Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth, page 1


Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth
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Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth



  Thomas Wolfe


  "Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?"




  "Crito, my dear friend Crito, that, believe me, that is what I seem to hear, as the Corybants hear flutes in the air, and the sound of those words rings and echoes in my ears and I can listen to nothing else."


  Book One


  Book Two


  Book Three


  Book Four


  Book Five


  Book Six


  Book Seven


  Book Eight


  "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,

  Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,

  Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,

  Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht,

  Kennst du es wohl?

  Dahin! Dahin

  Möcht' ich mit dir, O mein Geliebter, ziehn!

  Kennst du das Haus, auf Säulen ruht sein Dach,

  Es glänzt der Saal, es schimmert das Gemach,

  Und Marmorbilder stehn und sehn mich an:

  Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, getan?

  Kennst du es wohl?

  Dahin! Dahin

  Möcht' ich mit dir, O mein Beschützer, ziehn!

  Kennst du den Berg und seinen Wolkensteg?

  Das Maultier sucht im Nebel seinen Weg,

  In Höhlen wohnt der Drachen alte Brut,

  Es stürzt der Fels und über ihn die Flut:

  Kennst du ihn wohl?

  Dahin! Dahin

  Geht unser Weg; O Vater, lass uns ziehn!"



  . . . of wandering for ever and the earth again . . . of seed-time, bloom, and the mellow-dropping harvest. And of the big flowers, the rich flowers, the strange unknown flowers.

  Where shall the weary rest? When shall the lonely of heart come home? What doors are open for the wanderer? And which of us shall find his father, know his face, and in what place, and in what time, and in what land? Where? Where the weary of heart can abide for ever, where the weary of wandering can find peace, where the tumult, the fever, and the fret shall be for ever stilled.

  Who owns the earth? Did we want the earth that we should wander on it? Did we need the earth that we were never still upon it? Whoever needs the earth shall have the earth: he shall be still upon it, he shall rest within a little place, he shall dwell in one small room for ever.

  Did he feel the need of a thousand tongues that he sought thus through the moil and horror of a thousand furious streets? He shall need a tongue no longer, he shall need no tongue for silence and the earth: he shall speak no word through the rooted lips, the snake's cold eye will peer for him through sockets of the brain, there will be no cry out of the heart where wells the vine.

  The tarantula is crawling through the rotted oak, the adder lisps against the breast, cups fall: but the earth will endure for ever. The flower of love is living in the wilderness, and the elm-root threads the bones of buried lovers.

  The dead tongue withers and the dead heart rots, blind mouths crawl tunnels through the buried flesh, but the earth will endure for ever; hair grows like April on the buried breast and from the sockets of the brain the death flowers grow and will not perish.

  O flower of love whose strong lips drink us downward into death, in all things far and fleeting, enchantress of our twenty thousand days, the brain will madden and the heart be twisted, broken by her kiss, but glory, glory, glory, she remains: Immortal love, alone and aching in the wilderness, we cried to you: You were not absent from our loneliness.


  About fifteen years ago, at the end of the second decade of this century, four people were standing together on the platform of the railway station of a town in the hills of western Catawba. This little station, really just a suburban adjunct of the larger town which, behind the concealing barrier of a rising ground, swept away a mile or two to the west and north, had become in recent years the popular point of arrival and departure for travellers to and from the cities of the east, and now, in fact, accommodated a much larger traffic than did the central station of the town, which was situated two miles westward around the powerful bend of the rails. For this reason a considerable number of people were now assembled here, and from their words and gestures, a quietly suppressed excitement that somehow seemed to infuse the drowsy mid-October afternoon with an electric vitality, it was possible to feel the thrill and menace of the coming train.

  An observer would have felt in the complexion of this gathering a somewhat mixed quality--a quality that was at once strange and familiar, alien and native, cosmopolitan and provincial. It was not the single native quality of the usual crowd that one saw on the station platforms of the typical Catawba town as the trains passed through. This crowd was more mixed and varied, and it had a strong colouring of worldly smartness, the element of fashionable sophistication that one sometimes finds in a place where a native and alien population have come together. And such an inference was here warranted: the town of Altamont a mile or so away was a well-known resort and the mixed gathering on the station platform was fairly representative of its population. But all of these people, both strange and native, had been drawn here by a common experience, an event which has always been of first interest in the lives of all Americans. This event is the coming of the train.

  It would have been evident to an observer that of the four people who were standing together at one end of the platform three--the two women and the boy--were connected by the relationship of blood. A stranger would have known instantly that the boy and the young woman were brother and sister and that the woman was their mother. The relationship was somehow one of tone, texture, time, and energy, and of the grain and temper of the spirit. The mother was a woman of small but strong and solid figure. Although she was near her sixtieth year, her hair was jet-black and her face, full of energy and power, was almost as smooth and unlined as the face of a girl. Her hair was brushed back from a forehead which was high, white, full, and naked-looking, and which, together with the expression of her eyes, which were brown, and rather worn and weak, but constantly thoughtful, constantly reflective, gave her face the expression of straight grave innocence that children have, and also of strong native intelligence and integrity. Her skin was milk-white, soft of texture, completely colourless save for the nose, which was red, broad and fleshy at the base, and curiously masculine.

  A stranger seeing her for the first time would have known somehow that the woman was a member of a numerous family, and that her face had the tribal look. He would somehow have felt certain that the woman had brothers and that if he could see them, they would look like her. Yet, this masculine quality was no
t a quality of sex, for the woman, save for the broad manlike nose, was as thoroughly female as a woman could be. It was rather a quality of tribe and character--a tribe and character that was decisively masculine.

  The final impression of the woman might have been this:--that her life was somehow above and beyond a moral judgment, that no matter what the course or chronicle of her life may have been, no matter what crimes of error, avarice, ignorance, or thoughtlessness might be charged to her, no matter what suffering or evil consequences may have resulted to other people through any act of hers, her life was somehow beyond these accidents of time, training, and occasion, and the woman was as guiltless as a child, a river, an avalanche, or any force of nature whatsoever.

  The younger of the two women was about thirty years old. She was a big woman, nearly six feet tall, large, and loose of bone and limb, almost gaunt. Both women were evidently creatures of tremendous energy, but where the mother suggested a constant, calm, and almost tireless force, the daughter was plainly one of those big, impulsive creatures of the earth who possess a terrific but undisciplined vitality, which they are ready to expend with a whole-souled and almost frenzied prodigality on any person, enterprise, or object which appeals to their grand affections.

  This difference between the two women was also reflected in their faces. The face of the mother, for all its amazing flexibility, the startled animal-like intentness with which her glance darted from one object to another, and the mobility of her powerful and delicate mouth, which she pursed and convolved with astonishing flexibility in such a way as to show the constant reflective effort of her mind, was nevertheless the face of a woman whose spirit had an almost elemental quality of patience, fortitude and calm.

  The face of the younger woman was large, high-boned, and generous and already marked by the frenzy and unrest of her own life. At moments it bore legibly and terribly the tortured stain of hysteria, of nerves stretched to the breaking point, of the furious impatience, unrest and dissonance of her own tormented spirit, and of impending exhaustion and collapse for her overwrought vitality. Yet, in an instant, this gaunt, strained, tortured, and almost hysterical face could be transformed by an expression of serenity, wisdom and repose that would work unbelievably a miracle of calm and radiant beauty on the nervous, gaunt, and tortured features.

  Now, each in her own way, the two women were surveying the other people on the platform and the new arrivals with a ravenous and absorptive interest, bestowing on each a wealth of information, comment, and speculation which suggested an encyclopædic knowledge of the history of every one in the community.

  "--Why, yes, child," the mother was saying impatiently, as she turned her quick glance from a group of people who at the moment were the subject of discussion--"that's what I'm telling you!--Don't I know? . . . Didn't I grow up with all those people? . . . Wasn't Emma Smathers one of my girlhood friends? . . . That boy's not this woman's child at all. He's Emma Smathers' child by that first marriage."

  "Well, that's news to me," the younger woman answered. "That's certainly news to me. I never knew Steve Randolph had been married more than once. I'd always thought that all that bunch were Mrs. Randolph's children."

  "Why, of course not!" the mother cried impatiently. "She never had any of them except Lucille. All the rest of them were Emma's children. Steve Randolph was a man of forty-five when he married her. He'd been a widower for years--poor Emma died in childbirth when Bernice was born--nobody ever thought he'd marry again and nobody ever expected this woman to have any children of her own, for she was almost as old as he was--why, yes!--hadn't she been married before, a widow, you know, when she met him, came here after her first husband's death from some place way out West--oh, Wyoming, or Nevada or Idaho, one of those States, you know--and had never had chick nor child, as the saying goes--till she married Steve. And that woman was every day of forty-four years old when Lucille was born."

  "Uh-huh! . . . Ah-hah! the younger woman muttered absently, in a tone of rapt and fascinated interest, as she looked distantly at the people in the other group, and reflectively stroked her large chin with a big, bony hand. "So Lucille, then, is really John's half-sister?"

  "Why, of course!" the mother cried. "I thought every one knew that. Lucille's the only one that this woman can lay claim to. The rest of them were Emma's."

  "--Well, that's certainly news to me," the younger woman said slowly as before. "It's the first I ever heard of it. . . . And you say she was forty-four when Lucille was born?"

  "Now, she was all of that," the mother said. "I know. And she may have been even older."

  "Well," the younger woman said, and now she turned to her silent husband, Barton, with a hoarse snigger, "it just goes to show that while there's life there's hope, doesn't it? So cheer up, honey," she said to him, "we may have a chance yet." But despite her air of rough banter her clear eyes for a moment had a look of deep pain and sadness in them.

  "Chance!" the mother cried strongly, with a little scornful pucker of the lips--"why, of course there is! If I was your age again I'd have a dozen--and never think a thing of it." For a moment she was silent, pursing her reflective lips. Suddenly a faint sly smile began to flicker at the edges of her lips, and turning to the boy, she addressed him with an air of sly and bantering mystery:

  "Now, boy," she said--"there's lots of things that you don't know . . . you always thought you were the last--the youngest--didn't you?"

  "Well, wasn't I?" he said.

  "H'm!" she said with a little scornful smile and an air of great mystery--"There's lots that I could tell you--"

  "Oh, my God!" he groaned, turning towards his sister with an imploring face. "More mysteries! . . . The next thing I'll find that there were five sets of triplets after I was born--Well, come on, Mama," he cried impatiently. "Don't hint around all day about it. . . . What's the secret now--how many were there?"

  "H'm!" she said with a little bantering, scornful, and significant smile.

  "O Lord!" he groaned again--"Did she ever tell you what it was?" Again he turned imploringly to his sister.

  She snickered hoarsely, a strange high-husky and derisive falsetto laugh, at the same time prodding him stiffly in the ribs with her big fingers:

  "Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi," she laughed. "More spooky business, hey? You don't know the half of it. She'll be telling you next you were only the fourteenth."

  "H'm!" the older woman said, with a little scornful smile of her pursed lips. "Now I could tell him more than that! The fourteenth! Pshaw!" she said contemptuously--"I could tell him--"

  "O God!" he groaned miserably. "I knew it! . . . I don't want to hear it."

  "K, k, k, k, k," the younger woman snickered derisively, prodding him in the ribs again.

  "No, sir," the older woman went on strongly--"and that's not all either!--Now, boy, I want to tell you something that you didn't know," and as she spoke she turned the strange and worn stare of her serious brown eyes on him, and levelled a half-clasped hand, fingers pointing, a gesture loose, casual, and instinctive and powerful as a man's.--"There's a lot I could tell you that you never heard. Long years after you were born, child--why, at the time I took you children to the Saint Louis Fair--" here her face grew stern and sad, she pursed her lips strongly and shook her head with a short convulsive movement--"oh, when I think of it--to think what I went through--oh, awful, awful, you know," she whispered ominously.

  "Now, Mama, for God's sake, I don't want to hear it!" he fairly shouted, beside himself with exasperation and foreboding. "God-damn it, can we have no peace--even when I go away!" he cried bitterly, and illogically. "Always these damned gloomy hints and revelations--this Pentland spooky stuff," he yelled--"this damned I-could-if-I-wanted-to-tell-you air of mystery, horror, and damnation!" he shouted incoherently. "Who cares? What does it matter?" he cried, adding desperately, "I don't want to hear about it--No one cares."

  "Why, child, now, I was only saying--" she began hastily and diplomatically.

  "All rig
ht, all right, all right," he muttered. "I don't care--"

  "But, as I say, now," she resumed.

  "I don't care!" he shouted. "Peace, peace, peace, peace, peace," he muttered in a crazy tone as he turned to his sister. "A moment's peace for all of us before we die. A moment of peace, peace, peace."

  "Why, boy, I'll vow," the mother said in a vexed tone, fixing her reproving glance on him, "what on earth's come over you? You act like a regular crazy man. I'll vow you do."

  "A moment's peace!" he muttered again, thrusting one hand wildly through his hair. "I beg and beseech you for a moment's peace before we perish!"

  "K, k, k, k, k," the younger woman snickered derisively, as she poked him stiffly in the ribs--"There's no peace for the weary. It's like that river that goes on for ever," she said with a faint loose curving of lewd humour around the edges of her generous big mouth--"Now you see, don't you?" she said, looking at him with this lewd and challenging look. "You see what it's like now, don't you? . . . You're the lucky one! You got away! You're smart enough to go way off somewhere to college--to Boston--Harvard--anywhere--but you're away from it. You get it for a short time when you come home. How do you think I stand it?" she said challengingly. "I have to hear it all the time. . . . Oh, all the time, and all the time, and all the time!" she said with a kind of weary desperation. "If they'd only leave me alone for five minutes some time I think I'd be able to pull myself together, but it's this way all the time and all the time and all the time. You see, don't you?"

  But now, having finished, in a tone of hoarse and panting exasperation, her frenzied protest, she relapsed immediately into a state of marked, weary, and dejected resignation.

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