Chapter 1: Long Island
My quiet life as a schoolboy in a Midwestern town ended on the day before I left for New Haven to attend college. My father had a talk with me in his study after dinner. ‘The most important rule for a gentleman to live by is: never judge people for lacking the insights you deem natural,’ he said. ‘The second-most important is: help others to achieve the right ideas, not by corrupting them, but by gently guiding them and setting good examples.’
I was eighteen and ignorant. I believed my father wanted me to become a politician.
Secretly, I wanted to become nothing and earn just enough to pay for my meals and a roof over my head. What I yearned for could not be bought with money anyway.
‘Are there any other rules to consider?’ I asked my father.
‘Only one more, my son. Don’t ever get a girl into an awkward situation.’
I graduated in 1915, went home to work at my father’s office and enlisted in 1917. Living in European trenches was rather like my school and college years. There were only men and they were all drilled to pursue a single objective. I had many a laugh with them on leave, I shed tears over comrades who had perished. Some of those who survived are still my friends today. It was the only good thing I could salvage from the gruesome Teutonic terror.
Maybe that is why I grew restless as soon as I returned to my parents’ home after the armistice. I held a degree in economics and my father suggested that I move to the East to learn the bond business trade. ‘I’ll support you for two years,’ he said. ‘If you have shown satisfactory progress by then, I’ll see if I can finance a house for you.’
I found a position with a firm in New York and shared an apartment with a colleague. In 1922, I moved into a little cottage on West Egg, a peninsula on the Long Island Sound some twenty miles from the Village. My lawn went down to the shore where I could dimly see the beach of East Egg across the bay, another patch of land reaching into the Atlantic. It was there where rich people lived. West Egg was modest. I had to cross a derelict industrial zone that stank of tar and burning coal on my way to the next station.
My property was bordered by an enormous garden that was a kaleidoscope of colors from the many rose and rhododendron bushes. It surrounded a monumental villa that looked like an overpriced European hotel, a building more suited for East Egg.
The owner, a certain Mr. Gatsby, was never seen, but a few months after I had moved into my cottage, the warm season began and his house was ablaze with parties and music every Friday and Saturday night until dawn. The noise of drunken merriment and starting cars kept me awake. Mr. Gatsby was not a very considerate neighbor.
My actual story begins on that peculiar evening in May 1922 when I drove to East Egg to visit Daisy, a distant cousin of mine from Louisville. In her younger years, she had been the town belle, prettier than any other woman and very busy doing volunteer work for those who suffered from the war. She had married Tom Buchanan, an incredibly wealthy heir to a family in Chicago. I had known him briefly at New Haven where he had been a college football and polo wunderkind, a man with a build like a wrestler. I had not liked him then and I wondered if his being my kin now by marrying my cousin would change this.
They had moved from Chicago to this East Egg mansion in the fall of 1921, but I had been to busy or too neglectful to call on them.
Tom rushed out as I got out of my car and shook hands with me, telling me how happy he was that I finally came to visit and then remarking that I looked starved and that my old Dodge was a disgrace.
Daisy was in the living room, lazing on a sofa beside another lady. She looked more beautiful than ever when she got op and clasped me in her arms. ‘Nick, it’s been too long,’ she breathed. Her voice that had soothed so many soldiers who had prepared for the trenches in despair had not changed. She said that she was paralyzed with happiness to see me again. Then she introduced me to her friend Jordan Baker, a cool beauty that had a certain reputation as moderately successful golf player.
Drinks were served. We chattered about Tom’s polo horses, the couple’s little daughter Pammy and the district.
‘So you live on West Egg,’ Jordan remarked. ‘I know someone there. His name is Gatsby.’
Daisy shivered and bit her lip. Tom cast his wife a puzzled look. ‘Gatsby?’ she mumbled. ‘What Gatsby?’ Then she sat up and rang for the butler to give orders for dinner.
All through the meal, I saw her eat with a surprising aloofness. The butler came in and told Tom that he was wanted on the telephone. He left the room and Daisy rushed after him.
Jordan and I were alone now. ‘Tom has got some woman in New York,’ she said with condescending amusement. ‘She should have the decency not to disturb him at this hour.’
Presently Daisy and her husband returned and resumed their meal in a distressing, fake-happy mood as if to cover a boiling turmoil of distracting thoughts. I felt relieved when I left after coffee.
Chapter 2: An Afternoon in New York
Nick meets some acquaintances of Tom's and spends a lovely afternoon with them in the Big Crapple.
A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, Tom had some business in New York and invited me to come along. He picked me up in his mouth-watering blue Rolls Royce. In the middle of the desperate coal and ore desert, he stopped at a shabby fuel station and told a man in filthy overalls to fill the tank. ‘This is Mr. Wilson,’ Tom said to me. ‘The finest mechanic in the state.’ I grinned a salute and then Mrs. Wilson came out, dressed as if she were off to a tea party. ‘That’s my girl,’ Tom whispered to me. ‘Isn’t she pretty?’
While Wilson was pumping up the tires, Tom walked away with her and me and told her to take the next train to New York. ‘I’m going to visit my sister,’ she said to her husband a little later.
‘All right,’ Wilson nodded. ‘Let me get Mr. Hall then. Won’t be a minute.’ He crossed the street and went down an alley that was lined with collapsing cottages rather like mine.
‘Mr. Hall fancies my sister,’ Mrs. Wilson said to me, as if I cared. ‘I would very much like to fling them together.’ Tom giggled.
Soon Wilson was back with a man in tow whose face was like a storm cloud. ‘I say, couldn’t we go another day?’ the stranger lamented. ‘I’ve got tons of work waiting for me at home.’
Judging by his speech, he was an Englishman.
‘Don’t be an ass, Maurice,’ Tom snorted. ‘You’ve got clerks at your office, haven’t you? Come on now, it’s Saturday, let’s have some fun in New York.’
We climbed into the car. Mrs. Wilson sat in the passenger seat next to Tom. Mr. Hall and I were in the back. ‘You’re both in the bond business,’ Tom said happily. ‘I’m sure you will be talking shop all afternoon. Never miss out on essential information from competing companies.’
It showed all to clearly how Tom ticked. He was a millionaire and had never done a day’s serious work in his life. He had not fought in the war and had only traveled Europe for pleasure. His careless remark must be degrading to the Englishman beside me. I felt compelled to give Mr. Hall a consoling look to show him that I understood and that Tom meant no harm.
My eyes met his. They were intensely dark-blue. His neatly parted hair was black and slightly tinged with silver, even though he must only be in his thirties, a few years older than me. He wore platinum-rimmed glasses.
It was then that this whole outing struck me as bizarre. We were on our way to the station now. At the wheel was a millionaire, a man married to the most beautiful woman in America, and the father of a precious little girl. His mistress, whose first name was Myrtle, was the wife of a struggling car mechanic, and yet she looked glamorous and out of place in the dusty backyard of New York.
I understood now why Mr. Hall had to come along. Not only did he fancy her sister, but he was also a chaperone at Wilson’s request to prevent her and Tom from doing unacceptable things.
When I had shaken hands with Hall, I had felt something coming from him and this grew stronger as we were sitting in a railway carriage. Yes, he qualified as a chaperone.
Outside Pennsylvania Station, we piled into a taxi. Just when the driver started the engine, Tom told him to wait and beckoned a man standing on the sidewalk holding a basket full of puppies. ‘We ought to get you a dog, Maurice,’ he said to Hall. ‘Preferably a bitch. You need some sound female influence in your life, and dogs are man’s best friends.’
‘Forget it, Tom,’ Hall said. ‘Who would walk it when I’m out working? Besides, I’ve got a bunch of stray cats in my back yard. I like them. I’m not going to impose a dog on them.’
The vendor held up an adorable black-and-white specimen, all paws and fluffy ears.
Hall handed Myrtle a five-dollar note. ‘Would you please give this to the gentleman?’ he asked her. Then he looked at the man and said: ‘I’m sorry, sir. Please accept this as a compensation for your trouble.’
‘My God, Maurice, you’re such an ass,’ Myrtle grumbled.
To this very day, I don’t know if the apartment we ended up in was owned or rented by Tom, Myrtle or her sister. In any case, this was the place where the two lovers met regularly.
A flock of people living in the same building came to visit. I was sitting next to Mr. Hall, who had urged me to call him by his first name. We exchanged some words and smiled when we learned from one another that we had done our war duties in France and Flanders and that we worked indeed for competing companies. We decided that talking shop was therefore out of the question.
Myrtle’s sister Catherine was loud and cheerful. Hall chattered with her about fashion and plays on Broadway. He courteously lit her cigarettes and complimented her and Myrtle on their beautiful outfits. It told me that he liked the two women, but also that he did not have a more profound interest in them. My pulse quickened.
I mingled for decency’s sake. We were all fairly tipsy by then, and I was happy about this, or else I could never have stood an old artist’s endless talk about his passion, which was photographing seagulls on the Long Island shore.
It was almost refreshing to have my ennui interrupted by a little accident. ‘Oh, blast,’ Hall said, pointing at his tie. He had spilled cigarette ashes and whiskey on it.
‘Let’s get you cleaned up,’ Tom decided. They disappeared into the bedroom. I thought it strange, since it was usually the task of the hostess to provide a bowl of water and a sponge. Then the photographer gave me another monologue about seagulls. I had trouble keeping my eyes open until the bedroom door was closed with a bang and Tom sat down on the couch next to Mrs. Wilson, trembling with anger.
Hall stomped up to him, lit a cigarette and blew smoke into his face. ‘I told you a hundred times before,’ the Englishman growled. ‘I don’t want any private discussions with you. And even if I did, you should still remember that you’re a married man with a little daughter.’ He paused to drew a breath. Tom opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out. Myrtle put her arms around him.
‘Yes, that’s better,’ Hall went on. ‘If you are so desperate for company, resort to Myrtle then. She’s fond of you. I’m not. I still think it’s disgraceful that you commit adultery, but I’d rather have you scream ‘Myrtle, Myrtle’ than ‘Maurice, Maurice.’ Always Maurice, isn’t it? You’re a loathsome, despicable creature, Thomas Buchanan II.’
Myrtle grew crimson in the face. ‘Don’t insult Tom in my house, Maurice, do you hear?’
‘She’s right,’ Tom said, clutching her closer to him. ‘Be a good Englishman and apologize to her.’
There was some silence. Hall stood before him, smoking and panting. Catherine suppressed a giggle.
‘Come on now, you ass,’ Tom growled, getting up as if to prepare for a fight. ‘Cat got your tongue? The tongue I never had the plea-…’
He could say no more, for now Hall struck him in the face. Blood squirted on the carpet.
Tom sank down on the couch. I had expected Myrtle to comfort him, but she sat there, all rigid and deathly pale, watching blood run from his nose. Then her chest started to heave, slowly at first, but then faster. She sobbed. ‘I thought you loved me, Tom,’ she stammered. ‘I thought you really loved me.’
‘I like you, Myrtle,’ Tom said. ‘But I don’t love you.’
‘So why did you pretend you did, and why did you…’
‘I gave you money,’ Tom interrupted her calmly. ‘So that you and your husband could save up to move back West. That’s what you always wanted, isn’t it?’
‘Is your nose broken?’ Catherine asked Tom. He shook his head.
‘Let’s get you cleaned up,’ she decided. ‘Come along, dear.’
He obediently rose from the couch and followed her to the bedroom. Before she opened the door, she gave Hall a caustic look. ‘And you,’ she snarled. ‘Beat it. We’re all drunk so violence may be a natural consequence, but I want no dirty business in my house.’
‘It ain’t yours, sweetie,’ the seagull man remarked pleasantly.
‘Fuck off, Walter,’ was all she said.
I have never possessed any analytic qualities, but when I took the train back, I tried to reflect on what I had seen.
Myrtle Wilson was to be pitied. Tom had wooed her and given her money and maybe even a place to stay in New York, with the only objective to use her as an excuse to meet Hall. Every rich married man had at least one mistress, but a man doing so in order to conceal his trysts with another man was new to me.
Tom was clever. Adultery was a reason for divorce, but sodomy could have him sent to jail. It puzzled me how Daisy put up with all this, provided that she knew the true reason for his trips to New York. It made me love her all the more, as if she were my sister and not only my cousin. She was wealthy, I was just making ends meet, but we were alike. We were deprived of our basic rights to happiness.
I decided not to talk to her about what I had witnessed unless she brought the subject on herself. The very thought that at least nothing serious had been going on between Tom and Myrtle was soothing.
The fact that even less had happened between Tom and Hall was downright refreshing, but this I would never mention to Daisy, lest I should reveal what I wanted to keep covered to save myself.
Chapter 3: The Gentleman Next Door
Nick meets his neighbor, who wants to make his acquaintance for a very peculiar reason.
I took to visiting Tom and Daisy regularly. They were happy now and all too set on having me meet Jordan Baker at their dinner table as often as possible.
She had a slender, bony physique and was sporty and carelessly dressed in shapeless frocks as it was in fashion then. She lacked Daisy’s feminine grace and elegance, which was inexplicably familiar to me, so I took her out to lunch in New York a few times. I could tell she was falling in love with me and I could not find it in my heart to explain to her that my feelings were not mutual. At least I could mention a nice girl in my letters to my parents. They were elated.
On a Saturday evening, when I was at home preparing dinner, someone knocked on the kitchen door. A man in a valet’s uniform handed me an envelope and told me that Mr. Gatsby invited me to attend his party that night. I told the servant that I would be there and laid out my tuxedo and press-fold pants.
I crossed my lawn to enter Gatsby’s premises and soon found myself among dozens of people dressed in dazzling outfits, dancing to the latest ragtime tunes played by an orchestra, sipping champagne from enormous glasses, smoking and talking.
There was a huge buffet that offered everything from cold hors d’oeuvres to roast pork and elaborately decorated cakes. I had already had my dinner, but the food was too tempting, so I filled a plate and looked for a place to sit down.
Someone yelled and waved at me from a table. Thinking this was a blatant display of bad form, I wanted to ignore this until I saw it was Jordan Baker.
She pointed to a vacant chair next to her. I had no choice but to comply.
Opposite us were several girls who eyed me with amusement as if they knew that the tux I was wearing had belonged to my father. They asked me what I did for a living and when I answered that I was in the bond business they only raised their eyebrows. There were cries of admiration when one girl told about how she had accidentally ripped her dress while attending a party at this place the previous week and how Gatsby had sent her a beautiful new garment which had cost over two hundred dollars.
I was still wondering how she had found out about the price when she remarked: ‘It was so sweet of him. I don’t even know him!’
‘They say he’s a cousin or a nephew of the Kaiser,’ another girl smiled. ‘That’s why he’s loaded with money. They say he was a German spy during the war.’ ‘I heard he killed a man once,’ an older woman added.
In tune with the jazz song that was played, a balding man sang the libretto of an Italian opera. The pharisee earned loud cheers and ‘encore’ shouts from those at my table. Of course I was not of interest to anybody. My purity and modesty were well out of order here.
Jordan was the first to sense this. She left to go and chat with some friends at the other side of the garden. It was then that a kind, deep voice asked me: ‘Would you mind if I sat down next to you?’ ‘Please do,’ I answered.
I turned to the side and saw a man in his thirties, tall, powerfully built, with neatly parted hair the color of wild honey, greenish eyes with tiny brown and blue specks in them and a square jaw. He was immaculately dressed and the buttons on his shirt were studded with topazes.
‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ I said. ‘The music is lovely and the food is delicious. And the ladies are ever so charming.’
‘That’s marvelous. Would you like a cigarette?’
He let me help myself from his gilded case, gave me a light, lit up himself and looked at me again with an adorable smile. I thought this odd. I did not know him and as a Midwesterner, I was naturally inclined to distrust strange folk acting like they were my friends.
His eyes distracted me. ‘But it’s rather hot tonight, isn’t it?’ I remarked.
He nodded. ‘And quite crowded, too. I prefer small parties…Would you like to have luncheon with me tomorrow? Or would you rather go for a spin in my hydroplane? It’s on the beach outside this garden.’
‘So you are the host? Mr. Gatsby?’
‘Quite so, old sport. Please call me Jay.’
‘I am very pleased to meet you. My name is Nick Carraway.’
We shook hands. The skin of his palm felt pleasantly cool.
‘I know. You live next door. Miss Baker told me. I’m not much of a neighbor, am I? I should have invited you months ago, but I never got around to it…Shame on me! Oh, do have luncheon with me tomorrow so that I can make up for it.’
‘I’d be delighted.’
Now Jordan Baker was coming towards us, looking sweaty after a wild foxtrot. ‘What are you doing with my suitor?’ she grinned at him. ‘I want to sit there.’
Gatsby offered her the chair and gave me a wink before he disappeared into the boiling crowd.
He drove a magnificent pale-yellow Rolls Royce, the largest car I had ever seen. ‘I know a place further down Long Island Sound where they serve delectable oysters,’ he said as we were cruising on the coastal road. ‘You should not miss out on those, Nick.’
I was sitting next to him, feeling awfully shabby in my grey weekday suit. He wore similar attire, but of a far better make, probably from Bond Street. Even though the car was open, I could still smell the scent he used – verbena and lily-of-the-valley. The ride ended too soon. He stopped outside a restaurant on the beach.
Oysters are slimy creatures hidden in primordial-looking shells. I have never understood why people like them. A corned beef sandwich would have been a better lunch for me.
Gatsby ordered two dozens of tasty horrors and Chablis. We were sitting at a table on a deck overlooking the sea. The shore of East Egg was hidden by a warm fog.
Two complete strangers who both served in the trenches feel an immediate kinship, and so we got to talking as we ate. Like me, he had been all over Flanders and the north of France.
‘It was hell,’ he said. ‘Not only because I’ve seen comrades die screaming or choking, but also because I had to give my men orders to fire at enemy lines, at soldiers who happened to fight under a different banner and whom I pitied. The blood you inherited never lies, old sport.’
It turned out that he was born and raised in Minnesota, but his parents were immigrants from Germany. More precisely, from Homburg in Hesse. ‘I spoke German at home and English at school,’ he said. ‘I saw nothing wrong with that. People say I was a spy during the war, but I wasn’t. It’s monstrous to see your own roots disgraced like that. My parents are good people, they just fled their beloved home country because they wanted more freedom.’
‘I’m from Wisconsin,’ I said. ‘I always believed that prejudice was characteristic of rural areas, but it’s no different here.’
He smiled. ‘I couldn’t agree with you more, Nick. You’re a very clever man. Miss Baker told me so. It’s so delightful to share a meal with a fellow Midwesterner.’
You are lonely, I thought. You roam among your hundreds of guests or through the many empty rooms in your house.
I had long decided not to ask how he had risen to wealth. It was none of my business and he was far from unique, given the many millionaires that had populated the Long Island shores after the war. The Prohibiton had created its new jet-set that had become rich from counterfeit liquor trade and that laughed at descendants from European nobility. Yet there was a softness about this man that was as rare as those magic rainforest orchids that bloom only for one night every ten years. Whoever gets to breathe in their scent is considered lucky and blessed for life.
After coffee and brandy, Gatsby signaled to the waiter, probably to have everything charged to his account, and then invited me to a stroll on the beach. Even though it was Sunday, it was practically deserted.
We stopped to light cigarettes. The fog had cleared a bit by now and showed a green light flashing on the opposite shore. ‘My cousin Daisy lives there,’ I said.
‘I know,’ Gatsby nodded. ‘Mrs. Tom Buchanan from Louisville. So you are related to her? That’s lovely.’
‘So you know her.’
‘I met her when I was stationed at an army base not far from her parents’ house during the war. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. A kind and generous soul. It took me ages to gather enough courage to ask her for a dance at a charity ball…How happy I was when I found out that she liked me too…Her parents graciously allowed her to associate with any officer, but I don’t believe they approved of me. It was wonderful all the same. She drove me around in her little white roadster and we had picnics in the park.’
He uttered a deep sigh and stared at the green light. You were in love with her, I thought, but then again, every man is smitten with her at first sight and then never forgets her. Dear Daisy.
‘I take it she has been to many of your parties then. She loves to dance.’
‘No. I learned by chance that she moved to East Egg about a year ago. I’d rather not invite her unless she takes the initiative and gets in touch with me. I have a feeling her husband would not approve of it.’
‘I visit her often. Why don’t I take her and Tom along to your house one day? I’m sure she’d love to see you again.’
‘All in good time, old sport…’ He lit another cigarette. Poor Daisy, I thought, it would do you a world of good. You deserve happiness. And yet I felt immensely relieved.
‘I would have invited you to luncheon anyway,’ Gatsby now said, giving me a serious look. ‘But there is something else. I wonder if you could do me a favor.’
I was expecting a business proposition. A rather shady man like Gatsby could use an inconspicuous stepping stone into my professional world.
‘You work at Finley & Cooper’s, don’t you? Miss Baker told me. I would just like to know if you happen to be acquainted to Mr. Maurice Hall from London. If I’m not mistaken, he's in the bond business, too.’
‘Yes, I know him. Tom Buchanan introduced me to him not long ago.’
Gatsby’s eyes lit up. When he shivered, I believed it was because of the cold breeze that had suddenly come up.
‘Mr. Hall is with Swift & Feinman, I believe,’ I said proudly, happy to be of some use to Gatsby now. ‘He lives in an alley opposite that ghastly fuel station.’
He laughed nervously. ‘I thought so. It’s a coincidence. A guest at one of my parties brought up his name once. Hall and I met in a staff office outside Arras in the war. We had some nice times in Paris. You know, drinking bad beer and watching can-can dancers…Dreadful, really dreadful.’
It was the first time I heard him laugh. I felt sweat breaking out under my shirt.
‘The favor I’m asking of you now, old sport,’ he went on hesitantly, ‘and please decline if you think it unseemly…Could you invite him to tea at your house and have me visit, too? He’s not to know that I will be there.’
I could not find out where Hall lived exactly unless I asked Tom or the Wilsons, and that did not seem like a good idea to me.
‘Why don’t you telephone him at Swift & Feinman?’ I asked. ‘And you might just invite him to your house. Mine is not a place to entertain guests. I’m sorry.’
‘Your suggestions are logical, but I see no other way. I have my reasons and you may understand more than you are willing to admit, old sport.’ His eyes grew soft. ‘I’m sorry to even have brought it up, but…’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll arrange something.’
Gatsby patted my hand, shivered again and promised he would send a servant with china cups and saucers, delicacies and such. He would have his gardener mow my lawn and he would order flowers to cheer up my living room. It was all too clear now that I lived in a shack.
Gatsby could have met Maurice for luncheon in New York. But he wouldn’t, obviously not to attract any disapproving looks.
Chapter 4: A House full of Flowers
Nick manages to get in touch with Maurice and invites him to tea at his house.
The next day was a Monday. On my way back from the station I parked the car at the junction outside Wilson’s garage and went down the alley where Maurice presumably lived.
It was lined with cottages, one more run-down than the other. Most mailboxes did not have names on them. There were no doorbells to ring, only worn wood to rap on. ‘Does Mr. Hall from London live here?’ I had to ask a hundred times. Either little children answered and ran away crying, or exhausted housewives hollered at me how they were sickantired of them travelin’ salesmen trying to hawk useless junk. Some didn’t even speak English. My last attempt was aborted when a man set his German shepherd on me. I had to run for dear life and then I saw Hall get out of a battered Overland in the drive of the next house.
He burst out laughing when he saw me. ‘Dear me, Nick, your trousers are ripped. Did Brutus bite you?’
We shook hands and I said no damage was done. He sent his sounds of glee into the warm air again and asked me if I would come in for tea.
His eyes surveyed me. I was wearing an old brown office suit that had gained no embellishment from its encounter with the dog. He was dressed regally in matte pearl-grey. My attire was more suitable for this coal pit of a district than his. It made me decide to politely decline his invitation and to extend mine.
‘Well, yes, four o’clock next Thursday will be fine,’ he said. We exchanged phone numbers and shook hands again.
Only when I walked back to my car did I realize how easily he had accepted, and people watching from their rotting porches must have wondered why I suddenly broke into a triumphant, energetic run.
My living room was filled with vases and baskets of flowers in shades varying from the clearest white to dusky pink. Roses, lilies, snapdragons and geraniums. Their sweet smell was so overpowering that I had to open a window.
Paradoxically, my house felt like a funeral parlor. The dining table with its white cloth and the delicate china tea set loomed in the middle of the room like a coffin.
Gatsby, dressed in a tan suit and a sea-green tie, fixed the wooden clock on the mantelpiece with growing irritation. ‘It’s stopped,’ he said. ‘The hands are not moving.’
‘It’s five minutes to four,’ I reassured him. ‘He’ll come yet.’
At that very moment, the soft rumble of a car engine could be heard. Gatsby flew up from the couch and rushed out the back door into the garden.
I opened the front door and saw Hall slowly move into the drive. He sounded the horn and leaned out of the window. ‘I say, is this where you absolutely live, old chap?’ he called out cheerfully.
Then he turned off the engine and stepped out. He was dressed in a dark-grey suit and a felt hat in the same color. He patted me on the shoulder as we shook hands.
‘Did you invite me to sing me a sweet song of courteous love?’ he smiled. ‘I’ve had quite enough of it. I sometimes wish I was born rich instead of good-looking.’
His Overland that was too old to even qualify for a vintage vehicle museum.
I burst out laughing and he joined in.
When we entered the living room, he gasped. ‘Look at those bouquets…How pretty they are. They smell heavenly…And the table…Really too much for an old rotter from London, I’d say.’
Then he quickly pulled a white flower from a vase, broke off the stem and put it in the buttonhole of my lapel. ‘There you go, dear host,’ he said. ‘You’re an absolute rose now.’
The patio door creaked and he turned around. Gatsby stopped on the threshold, frozen with bewilderment and disbelief. There was a long silence.
‘Hello, Lieutenant Hall,’ I then heard softly.
‘Captain Gatsby, well, well, it’s been so long…How do you do?’
They shook hands like they might have done at the staff office in France. I could not tell if they were happy or not.
I had to see to the tea kettle in the kitchen, but I could not move.
‘It certainly is very nice to see you, old sport.’
‘Likewise. You’re looking well, Hall.’
‘So are you. When did you leave France?’
‘After the armistice.’
‘I went back to England on sick leave in July 1918. Rotten time.’
‘Could not agree with you more.’
‘Are you stopping on Long Island?’
‘I live on Long Island.’
‘I thought you’d gone back to Minnesota.’
‘Would you care for some tea?’ I asked. They nodded and sat down on the couch.
We drank and helped ourselves to scones and sandwiches. We talked about the weather, the resplendent restaurants around Central Park and the latest plays on Broadway.
When the pot was empty, I took it to the kitchen and filled the kettle again. The door to the living room was ajar. The gas ring made an annoying noise.
I positioned myself in a way that I could not be seen from the couch. They had shifted closer together now, looking one another in the eyes and talking softly.
‘Was this Carraway’s idea? The man must be mad.’
‘No, it was mine. I learned in London that you had emigrated to America.’
‘That’s rather intricate. After our last days in Paris, I was miserable because my regiment moved further west. I went to England after the armistice to attend college at Oxford, a special favor granted to officers who had done outstanding deeds in the war. I spent most of my time in London, though. You had never told me where you lived. I telephoned everyone listed under the name of Hall, and after dozens of vain attempts, I reached your sister Kitty.’
‘Kitty? Good heavens, no…’
‘Sssh, love, it’s all right. She was very pleasant and invited me over to tea.’
‘I’m not surprised. She was as unhappily unmarried then as she is now, bless her.’
They chortled softly.
‘So I went to your house and I met Kitty and your mother. Two lovely ladies. They were very sorry that I had missed you by a few days. They told me you had boarded a ship to America and that you would presumably settle in New York.’
‘I arrived in May 1919. I was a stockbroker in London before the war. You may have guessed where you could find me. On Wall Street, where else?’
‘All I learned then, and I had to bribe errand boys and porters for it, was that you were employed at Swift & Feinman.’
‘You might have sent a note to my office. Why did you wait for three years?’
‘I have a perfectly reasonable explanation, but I’ll tell you later…’
They were holding hands now.
‘Rest assured, Maurice, that all I could think of were our times on leave in Paris.’
‘I never forgot those either, James.’
‘Let me hold you again like I used to do back then…You still use the same scent. How I missed that! Remember how we went to cabarets and music joints in our uniforms, just like so many other men? There was nothing odd about members of two allied nations amusing themselves together.’
‘We would wear civil clothes, however, when we went to those other clubs. The ones in basements with back rooms. We felt quite incognito, but to little avail, I’d say, because we kept running into trench buddies.’
‘Yes, it was ever so jolly, Maurice. But the fondest memories I cherish are those of the hotels on Montmartre. Nobody cared about two men booking one room. The bedbugs were complementary.’
They laughed again.
The kettle started to shriek alarmingly. I turned off the gas ring and poured the water into the teapot.
‘Oh God, I forgot we’re in Carraway’s house now.’
‘Don’t worry, Maurice. He’s very discreet, a quality so rare in this area…And he’s like us.’
‘Don’t be grotesque. I’m convinced Carraway idolizes every attractive female creature between the age of eighteen and forty, and quite successfully. His good looks account for it.’
I drew a long, slow breath.
‘Believe me, Maurice. I recognize a man who’s just like you and me as soon as I see one. Our stays in Paris gave me the eye for it.’
I did not know if I was about to drop or to smash Gatsby’s teapot. I filled it and walked into the living room. The two men were holding hands.
As we drank again, Gatsby invited me and Hall to his next party. He added smilingly that Miss Baker, my beautiful cousin Daisy and her husband would attend too. It puzzled me how he had finally found the courage to get in touch with her.
Shortly after five o’ clock, Gatsby said that he wanted to show Hall and me around his house.
We walked to the end of my garden, where Hall stopped and gasped.
‘It’s marvelous, James. Splendid. And you live there all alone, don’t you?’
‘I’ve got five heads of staff.’
We stepped onto my neighbor’s property. Gatsby showed us the swimming pool, the garage with three limousines and then a row of lounges on the ground floor, starting with a room furnished in Louis XVI style, and ending with one that looked like a British Jugendstil office.
We then went upstairs. ‘I’ve only a few bedrooms,’ the host said. His own had a four-poster bed on a dais and an adjacent bathroom that was all black marble.
Hall walked around hesitantly as if the soft Persian carpets hurt the soles of his feet until we reached an enormous dressing room. There were shelves full of shirts in all colors, endless racks of suits and shoe trees and little tables full of cufflink and watch boxes. In the middle was a Biedermeier sofa.
Gatsby took some shirts from a shelf and held them out to Hall. ‘I have trunks of these sent to me from Bond Street every year…Do you like them?’
Hall was mesmerized and hesitantly stroked some fabric with his index finger. Gatsby laughed and started flinging shirts into the air, where they unfolded like butterflies in a rainforest. Hall caught a pale mint-green specimen and held it to his face. ‘Real silk,’ Gatsby said proudly. ‘They’re all silk…What’s the matter?’
The sofa was nearly hidden in a multicolored blanket of tailored shirts. Hall had sunk down on it, clutching the green one with one hand and taking off his glasses with the other. His shoulders twitched. ‘They’re all so lovely…and they smell like you.’ He hid his face and I believed I heard him sobbing softly.
‘Take as many as you like,’ Gatsby said. ‘You and I are the same size and I never wear most of them anyway.’ Then he decided that we should all go down to the porch for a drink.
Before we did he wanted to show us the most precious room of the house. It was down the hall upstairs and lined with bookshelves.
‘There you go,’ he said to Hall. ‘I bought everything from Brontë and Henry James to D.H. Lawrence. And pretty much the whole German canon. I’m an avid reader myself and you are welcome to borrow any book you like.’
Only then did our host notice that I was staring at him. ‘And that goes for you as well, Nick,’ he added, walking briskly to a window from which part of my drive could be seen.
‘Good Lord, Maurice,’ he gasped. ‘That old Overland is yours, isn’t it? Oh, dear…’
Before Hall could answer, Gatsby breezily remarked that he would see if anything could be done about that.
We had whiskey on the porch and then dinner inside. When coffee and brandy were served, I half rose from my chair, wondering if it was appropriate to leave the table to go and wash my hands. ‘Don’t tell me you’re leaving already,’ Hall said. ‘We’re having a splendid time.’
‘Carraway has to get up early tomorrow,’ Gatsby rather decided than assumed.
I hurriedly finished my drink and walked back to my house.
At half past eleven, when I had already changed into pyjamas and a dressing gown, the doorbell rang. There was Hall, holding an old suitcase that probably contained some of Gatsby’s discarded English shirts and exuding a faint, sweaty halo of liquor and scent.
‘I’m most dreadfully sorry to disturb you, old sport,’ he panted. ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m going home now. I didn’t want to drive off your premises without saying goodbye.’
The last word and the image of the suitcase stung me. ‘Do come in,’ I said. ‘Would you like a drink?’
He shook his head and smiled. ‘No, thank you, I’ve had quite enough already. Oh yes, and Gatsby told me to remind you that there’s another party the day after tomorrow. He would very much like you to come.’
‘And you will be there too, I presume.’
‘Most certainly. To be brutally honest, I’d rather stay at home and read, but it would be rotten to leave him to roam among guests who very often don’t know him in person.’
‘Mr. Buchanan will be there too.’
‘I know. I’m dying to meet his wife…Well, cheerio then, and goodnight!’
Chapter 5: A Party
It's Saturday night and party time at Casa Gatsby. Not everyone is having a good time, though.
Jordan Baker lived in Westchester with an old aunt she couldn’t stand. It was quite a drive for her and she had an open car, so I invited her to get changed in my house before the party.
When she arrived, we had coffee first. Sitting on the sofa, she let her eyes wander through the room. ‘Does no one ever clean around here?’ she asked, trailing her finger over a dusty armrest. When I answered that I had a Finnish housekeeper who came in three times a week, she laughed. Then she wanted to know if I had bought the furniture at an auction and if I kept cats, judging by the smell of the place. Before I could come up with an answer, she said it was she who had arranged for Daisy and Tom to attend the party by giving Gatsby the Buchanans' phone number.
‘You can get changed in my bedroom,’ I said despondently. She grabbed her little suitcase and dashed upstairs.
A little later the doorbell rang. There was Hall, dressed in a splendid tux and matching pants with velvet piping. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Is it all right if I leave my car in your drive? The lane in Gatsby’s front yard is completely packed.’
‘No trouble at all,’ I grinned, ‘and you did not have to bring me flowers to return the favor.’
He handed me a bunch of delicate pink roses just as Jordan came down the stairs looking like a sporty fairy in a black, sequined frock that exposed a lot of skin.
I introduced them. ‘How do you do,’ Hall smiled, bending over to kiss her hand.
Instead of repeating his question, she asked him if he was from England. He nodded and then she said he looked Irish. ‘My maternal grandmother was from Cork,’ he explained proudly.
‘Were you at Oxford?’ she then wanted to know.
‘I studied at Cambridge, ma chère. I do hope you deem that just as satisfactory.’
She laughed. His obvious irony did not hurt her, or it was lost on her.
‘I’d like to go to Gatsby’s now,’ she announced. ‘Would you mind if Nick escorted me, Maurice?’
He smiled and said he would be her cavalier the next time. And so I held her lightly by her arm as we strolled to our neighbor’s garden with Hall in tow.
Gatsby’s property was undulating with a multitude of guests. The orchestra blared and a waiter poured champagne en cascade from a two-gallon bottle over a pyramid of glasses.
I looked around, saw no one I knew and clutched Jordan’s arm a little tighter.
When a waltz came on, she wanted to dance with me and so I carefully led her among daintily rotating couples. As I held her, I felt her grey eyes on me. Mine surveyed the people around us and I noticed, to my pleasant surprise, that some of the guests were black. Gatsby was an unorthodox, modern host.
Jordan and I whirled around endlessly, stopping only for a glass of champagne and a cigarette. ‘It’s odd, but it feels like you and I are the only ones present at this party,’ she remarked.
We danced again until someone tapped me on the shoulder. I let go of her, turned around and stared into Tom Buchanan’s eyes. ‘Hello!’ he roared. ‘Nice to see you here. Sorry we missed the first part of the evening, but Daisy took forever getting dressed.’
‘So did you, dear,’ Daisy squealed, who had suddenly turned up at his side. ‘Well, Jordan, aren’t you a beauty tonight! Do let me kiss you…Tell me, isn’t Nick absolutely heavenly?’
Daisy herself was dressed in a pale-green chiffon frock with a matching head band. She usually wore white, which made this attire all the more eye-catching.
‘You seen Gatsby around?’ Tom asked me. ‘I’d like to greet him. Some host he is…No one bothers to talk to him and he doesn’t know the people who come here.’
‘He invited us,’ Daisy said proudly. ‘Yes, it’s only proper that we should shake hands with him.’
All four of us left the dancefloor and searched the garden until we found him, Hall and a lady standing next to a jasmine bush and smoking. I recognized her from a picture I had seen in the literary section of the New York Times. She was a poet of some sort, originally from Montreal. Hall was chattering to her in remarkably fluent French. Gatsby probably could not follow and looked a little forlorn. When he saw us, his eyes lit up.
‘Well, Daisy,’ he said, kissing her gloved hand. ‘It’s been too long really.’
‘Five years,’ she stammered. ‘Too long indeed.’
The Canadian lady raised her eyebrows and walked off.
‘Thank you so much for inviting us, Mr. Gatsby,’ Tom’s voice boomed. ‘My wife and I are honored.’ It sounded very much like an insult. When he shook hands with Hall as if it were the first time they met, I suddenly felt tired.
The lovely Louis XVI parlor seemed like the right place to escape the boiling masses. Before I could, Jordan ran up to me and grabbed my arm.
‘Nick, you forgot to put Maurice’s roses in a vase. They’ll have withered by now.’
It struck me how she used Hall’s first name, as if he were an intimate friend of hers.
She shook her head as I pointed to the double doors that led to my prospective refuge.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Such pretty flowers. Don’t disappoint him.’
It was the first time that I felt I did not like her all that much.
We sat down at a table next to the buffet and lit cigarettes. A man I recognized as Clive Endive, a Texan heir to a monstrously wealthy oil business family, whirled by in a crazy two-step dragging along a squealing girl. She lost a slipper. He picked it up and she daintily held up her stockinged leg, expecting him to slip the shoe back on her foot like Cinderella’s prince, but he filled it with champagne, drank from it and belched.
‘So this is how people behave around here,’ I said to Jordan. ‘I feel sorry for Gatsby.’
‘You shouldn’t,’ she smiled. ‘He allows all of New York to come here for a reason…Looks like he finally caught his prize fish from the vast ocean.’
While slapping sounds and incoherent screaming from the girl could be heard, Jordan’s eyes wandered toward the path that led to my lawn. ‘They’re off to your garden,’ she said. ‘I suggest you see to the flowers when they get back.’
In a haze, I rose and followed Jordan to the edge of Gatsby’s property. She put her finger to her lips and motioned that I should hide behind the trunk of an oak with her.
My back porch was completely dark. Two figures, one clad in a black evening suit, the other in a green dress, were sitting on the steps, only dimly visible in the lights from Gatsby’s garden.
Two tiny orange sparks flared up like fireflies as they lit cigarettes.
‘Did you leave the kitchen door unlocked?’ Jordan asked me. I did not answer.
Minutes went by. Endive’s girl was still screaming at her suitor, threatening to punch him again and to sue him for damage done to her shoes.
Then Daisy rose from the steps and slowly walked towards Gatsby’s garden, her face flushed and her eyes sparkling with joy. She saw us, happily made a gesture that could either mean ‘don’t tell’ or ‘don’t go there’ and then moved away.
‘Let’s go to that disgusting sans-culotte room you’re so enthusiastic about,’ Jordan said to me.
While we wandered among the French furniture, she told me about what she had seen in Louisville five years before.
‘I was sixteen and still in school at the time,’ she began. ‘Daisy’s younger sister Emma was my best friend and I often went to her house. Daisy was twenty and she had the most beautiful brown eyes and black hair I’d ever seen. She took me to all kinds of charity sessions where we would make bandages or sew things that were sold at fancy fairs to raise money for British war widows. There were many dances and the officers from the nearby army base quarreled over which one of them would be the first to waltz with her. Every man who laid eyes on her fell head over heels in love. Of course, I was too young to attend, but whenever I met Daisy in the afternoons, she would tell me about them and laugh at how they were all at each other’s throats for coveting her. I was sixteen and I had to be home before dinner and I was not allowed to talk to any boy or man, not even when I was chaperoned by my brother.
Daisy said I should not lose sleep over missing out on flirtations. ‘Your time will come yet and it’s not all that interesting anyway.’
I felt she was keeping me away from something. At some moment she stopped driving me to all those charity meetings. I was bored and roamed the park and the forest. And that’s where I would see her from a distance, in her white roadster or sitting on a picnic blanket, with a man in uniform beside her. Always the same officer, not very good-looking, but I could hear her laughter – ah, that sound! – ring through the air.
Needless to say I wanted the same. I thought it mighty unfair that I was only sixteen and that everything was denied to me while she had all. One day, I just marched up to her car, it was parked in a clearing, and I raised my hand pretending I had not expected to find them there. I stopped and waited for her to introduce her friend, and then she said to me: ‘Run along now, dear, we’re fixing something.’
I hated her after that. I swore never to lay eyes on her again. And she was so sweet, she either forgot or she never knew…Anyhow, a year later, she asked me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding. The day before the ceremony, I found her in her room, drunk and clutching a crumpled-up sheet of paper. She soaked it in the bath tub until it dissolved into little flakes. A letter, obviously not from Tom, whom she would marry, but from someone else.
And last year, I suddenly found myself selected to play in the New York State golf team. I met Gatsby at a party and I recognized him. He was the same man that had roamed the woods around Louisville with her when he was still an officer and she the most eligible young lady in Kentucky.
When you first came to visit her on East Egg, Nick, I mentioned his name and I saw what it did to her. And then I knew. She never forgot him and he never forgot her…She’s married now and I’m sure he’s hosting these foolish parties with one objective: to see her again. Everybody comes here, so she would too, eventually, but he had to officially invite her through me to see her. And now it finally happened – thanks to me, I suppose, even though I don’t know why I should even bother.’
Suddenly my own house seemed like the safest place on earth to me. I got up and told Jordan I was going to see to the roses.
Two dark figures were on my porch now – Tom sitting on the steps with a glass of whiskey, Hall standing before him. When Tom looked up, I could tell he was very drunk.
‘I believe I left the stove on,’ I said to them and went in.
The roses were on the kitchen table, still wrapped and wilting. I cut away the paper, snipped the ends off the stems and looked for a container that could serve as a vase.
All I found was a large pickle jug. When a cry was heard from the porch, I dropped it. Shards of glass cascaded over the floorboards. I swept them up and then put the roses in an old coffee pot.
When I stepped out, the two men were still staring at each other. Hall was rubbing his stomach. ‘I’m drunk,’ Tom mumbled. ‘And I’m going home,’ Hall said.
I walked him to his car, which was next to mine in my drive. He took off his jacket, put on an old macintosh and opened the door. ‘Goodnight, Nick,’ he smiled.
‘Thank you for the roses,’ I said. He merely nodded, got in and started the engine.
The heat was stifling, but it was as if I felt a cooling breeze in my back.
‘Wait,’ a low voice sounded. I turned around and saw Gatsby walk up to us.
‘Are you going already?’ he asked Hall.
‘I am, old sport. I’m sorry, but I’m awfully tired. Your party was lovely. Thank you very much for inviting me.’
A black-and white creature floated towards us on the garden path and chirped: ‘Peek-a-boo.’
‘Hello, Miss Baker,’ Gatsby said. ‘Dear, are you all right?’
‘I was looking all over for you. Clive got beaten up by your doorman. About time someone did, to be honest. Thought you should know this.’
Gatsby gasped for air. Hall turned off the engine and looked at me. ‘Clive…what Clive?’ he stammered.
‘Mr. Endive,’ Jordan shrugged, ‘you know, that idiot from Texas.’
Hall laughed. ‘Clive Endive? That’s not his real name, is it? I presume he’s a comedian.’
‘If he is,’ Jordan remarked smugly, ‘then he’s not funny. He got into a fight with that Broadway producer. The doorman had to punch him and drag him away to prevent him from throwing the other fellow into the fountain. I believe he was sick in the hall on his way out.’
The Englishman shook his head. Then he started the engine again, let it roar, called out ‘Cheerio, my dears,’ and backed out of the drive.
Gatsby stared at the Overland, rigid and biting his lip, until it was out of sight.
‘Are you all right?’ Jordan asked him sweetly. ‘Don’t tell me you’re tipsy. You never are.’
‘No…um…no,’ Gatsby murmured, offering her and me a cigarette from his gilded case. ‘Let’s go back to my garden now.’
But neither he or I moved as Jordan walked up the path without looking back.
‘Hall was not having a good time tonight,’ he said to me. ‘I had expected him to amuse himself, and then I saw him and Tom Buchanan on your porch.’
‘They were talking business, I suppose. Investments in Royal Dutch Rubber Inc. on Sumatra.’
‘So Hall gave Mr. Buchanan some inside information? That’s strange. I could have sworn they had just met. The English don’t tend to be very confidential to anyone they hardly know.’
‘Oh well, companies in the Dutch East Indies are the latest thing. It’s…’
He made an annoyed sound.
‘But Daisy Buchanan is having a good time,’ I went on.
Now he smiled. ‘Is she? Thank God. At least someone is happy tonight.’
We crushed out our cigarettes and walked back to his garden.
Chapter 6: Mrs. Buchanan
Daisy visits Nick and tells her story.
This was the very last party at Gatsby’s house. The morning after, I took my first cup of coffee into the garden to breathe in some cool air before the heat would take over. Paper garlands, cigarette ends, crushed champagne glasses and smudged napkins were strewn all over my lawn.
Gatsby’s porch was bustling with servants cleaning up the mess. One of them saw me and waved his hand in a cordial salute. It felt like a desperate goodbye, because all the shutters were closed.
As the day wore on, I stepped onto my lawn many times and watched every stage of restoration. When the stifling afternoon heat had reached its peak, all the furniture had been removed from Gatsby’s garden and the workers had gone.
A string of uneventful days followed. I commuted to New York and back. My office manager wondered why I had not bothered to take time off.
My neighbor’s house remained closed and deserted. Throngs of people arrived in exquisite cars on Friday and Saturday nights or even on weekdays, got out, looked around and then sadly drove off again when they found the host gone. They eventually gave up.
On a very hot night, I woke from troubled dreams to what must be a cry of despair. I stared at the open window that let in dusty air and then sank back into the pillows, vowing to order an electric fan for my bedroom.
Whenever I telephoned the Buchanan mansion, the butler answered and offered to take down any message I had. It was as if my cousin and her husband had left as well.
One late afternoon, I drove back from the station as usual, but nearly let go of the steering wheel when I saw a white open car in my drive. I parked, ran to my garden and found Daisy pacing up and down my lawn. She was dressed in white and wearing a frivolous, floppy hat with a scarf tied around it.
‘Nick,’ she said pleadingly. ‘Thank God, you’re back at last.’ Before I embraced her, I saw many cigarette ends on the ground, their edges tinged with lipstick.
‘You must have been waiting for hours,’ I observed. ‘Come on, let me fix us a drink.’
It was the first time she saw the inside of my house. She walked around and said the furniture was worn, but very nice. The state of the kitchen made her shake her head. ‘Don’t you ever wash the dishes, Nick? What are all those empty cans doing? Dear, you’re not eating well, do have dinner at my place soon…’
She then asked if she could borrow an apron and rubber gloves so that she could scrub the pans. Before I could answer, she had found the utensils and put a kettle on the stove.
‘I’d better throw these out,’ she said, picking up the coffee pot with the roses in it. ‘They’re dead anyway.’
‘Don’t touch them,’ was all I could utter.
She eyed me from head to foot with amusement. ‘Keep your voice down, Nick…Ah, all right then, they're a courteous gift…I know, I know.’
I felt my heart race.
‘That Jordan Baker,’ she went on. ‘She’s really a remarkable one…Tom and I so much wanted to fling you and her together. Looks like we did a great job. Ha, at least someone’s happy now…or rather two someones.’
She crammed through the ice-box and gave me an angry look. ‘Only half a bottle of milk and a tiny chunk of cheese. Nick, you are positively starving yourself…Isn’t there anything I could make you a full meal with? God, you’re such a bachelor…’
I offered her a glass of martini to calm her down. She happily accepted, but when we were sitting on the couch, she constantly fingered the beads of her necklace and the frills on her purse and stared out of the window that overlooked the garden.
‘Forget about dinner, forget about me acting like a neurotic housewife,’ she suddenly snapped. ‘Where’s Gatsby?’
‘I wouldn’t know, dear.’
‘Come on, you’re neighbors. Surely he must have told you something.’
‘I presume he’s not feeling well. The summer heat takes its toll on everyone.’
‘Nonsense, Nick. Whenever his phone doesn’t happen to be disconnected, a man answers who knows no English besides: ‘Mister not here. I take message, Mam?’’
‘I tried to reach you too, Daisy. I almost believed you and Tom had gone to Kentucky to visit your parents.’
‘What’s that to you? Don’t stare at me like that, you’ve got better manners.’
She bent over to put her glass on the table, but when she leaned back again, tears were streaming down her face.
‘I shouldn’t have treated you like that, Nick,’ she said. ‘I’d better tell you all.’
Daisy Fay was born into Kentucky’s most prominent family. Her childhood consisted of summer vacations in Europe, horseback riding, piano lessons and ice-skating in winter.
In 1917, shortly after her début at a ball, the nearby army base filled up with men preparing for war. The Fays were religious and modern, so they opened up their warm home for officers who were far from their loved ones and who dreaded the idea of going further to face the hardships of combat. The gentlemen were offered any kind of consolation and distraction.
One of them was Jay Gatsby. He was in his thirties and claimed to be descended from an illustrious family that sent their sons to Oxford for their education.
He was not considered particularly handsome, but his smile was genuine and sweet and he had impeccable manners.
When Daisy first met him, it was as if the world came to a standstill. All around her collapsed and the void was filled up with his image. He shook hands with her, blushed profusely and stammered some pleasantries that struck a chord deep within her. There were many men who wanted to take her to charity balls or tea parties. She accepted their invitations, hoping to meet Gatsby and have him ask her for the next waltz, but he was shy.
She had one of the maids secretly deliver a note to him at the base, indicating a deserted clearing in the woods where she wanted to meet him.
The next day, she told her parents she was off to another charity session at the Red Cross and left in her roadster. She found him waiting in the place she had mentioned.
They would have many more meetings and she had to pacify her parents by inventing more daring excuses for her absence. She knew their opinions. ‘His last name is English, but he sometimes speaks with a slight foreign drawl. He’s got freckles and the build of a farm hand. An American citizen he may be, but he’s German. You are not to associate with Germans, dear.’
They would not believe the stories about his family’s wealth and his time at Oxford either. ‘He tries too hard to be a gentleman, quite like any poor boy from a small town.’
She didn’t care. Whenever he was sitting next to her as she drove her car or lying on a picnic blanket and looking up at her with his exotic, shining eyes, she no longer felt like a child, but like a woman.
‘Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,’ was a common saying at the time. Her parents would never give their permission, and at twenty, she was still underage. ‘Let’s elope and get married in another state before you leave,’ she pleaded. He nodded and kissed her hand.
They made plans for a house in a warm place in the South where they would raise their many children and simply be happy. Then he got the order to travel to Europe.
‘I’ll come and get you when I’m rich,’ he promised.
He sent her some letters and post cards from France, telling her about the weather and the food and the sights of Paris.
In the spring of 1918, Tom Buchanan arrived from Chicago. He had hired four railway carriages and a whole floor of Louisville’s best hotel for the many friends he had invited along. He had been to Yale but his family was so wealthy that he did not need to work for a living. All he ever did was play polo. This and his brutish good looks struck her as pleasantly solid. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes.
As her room filled up with elegant things that were part of her trousseau, she wrote to Gatsby and told him the news. His reply came a day before the wedding. ‘You were very right in choosing a man so suited for you as Tom Buchanan. He’s the luckiest man in the world, because he is marrying the sweetest and prettiest girl. He will give you all I couldn’t. I wish you all the happiness you can imagine. With all my heartfelt feelings of friendship – J.G.’
‘And then I broke down,’ Daisy said to me. ‘I drank too much, I was sick, the bridesmaids had to clean me up and dress me. The next day, Tom and I were married. ‘The beautiful bride wept tears of happiness,’ was what some reporter wrote about me in the Louisville Daily.
No one knew the real reason why I could not stop crying.’
The couple had a house in Chicago, but they only stayed there until the war ended. They left for Europe in 1919 and lived in rented villas and hotels, in any place where people played polo and were rich together.
Daisy was soon feeling to weak to mingle with the merry crowds or to accompany her husband, who was sometimes gone for days. She was expecting.
In March 1920, she gave birth to Pamela in a maternity clinic in Nice. Tom was nowhere to be found. ‘I woke up from the ether,’ she said to me, ‘and I asked a nurse: ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ And she smiled. ‘Mes félicitations, Madame, c’est une jolie jeune fille. *’
She put the baby in my arms. A precious child, a little angel she was. I knew Tom wanted a son, Tom who had left in his car and who was God knows where. So this is a woman’s fate, I thought, being all alone because men only care for their own amusement…What’s my daughter to be? She should never reflect on things, it would only make her miserable. Yes, I know what she will be. A fool, a beautiful little fool, then she’ll be happy.’
Daisy said that she regretted not having put this idea into practice for her own benefit anytime sooner. She had been roaming around Gatsby’s house for days, hoping to catch a glimpse of him since he wouldn’t answer the phone. The doorman paid no attention to her so she could cross my lawn and enter Gatsby’s premises quite undisturbed. All the shutters were closed, the garden furniture was gone and the swimming pool was drained.
‘He was so happy to see me at his party a few weeks ago,’ she said to me. ‘And when I talked to him on your porch, I felt like I had woken from the ether again, but now into another world full of colors and sounds and…’
Happiness, I thought.
‘I can leave my house whenever I please now,’ she went on, grinning bitterly. ‘Tom spends most of his time in New York, with his mistress, I presume. And Pammy has a nanny who takes care of her…’
Poor Pammy, I thought, but then Daisy erupted.
‘Why won’t Gatsby see me? Would you know? Is there some other woman…? Oh, I’m wicked, so wicked, but I don’t care. If my husband seeks his happiness elsewhere, I’m entitled to do the same.’
I wondered if I should offer her another drink but felt too weak to ask. Then I sat down next to her and held her as she wept profusely.
Translation: 'Congratulations, madam, it's a pretty girl.'
Chapter 7: Man on the Run
Something is going on at Gatsby's place. Nick hears a distressing confession.
The next day, I was sitting in the garden with a glass of lemonade and a newspaper. I had just returned from work and felt too idle to change into my house clothes or to see about dinner.
My eyes kept wandering to the adjoining property, which was still abandoned. Maybe I was too tired or the figure I detected after a long time had melted into the scenery.
A man was standing on a slightly elevated terrace that marked the edge of Gatsby’s garden and overlooked the bay. When he finally moved to light a cigarette, I squinted my eyes.
He kept fixing the sea and the shore of East Egg like a living statue. The crickets were singing like mad in the bushes, the ocean murmured.
Just as I was about to doze off in the afternoon heat, the man turned around and started to walk back into the garden. He stopped near the old oak, looked in my direction and raised his arm in a salute. Only now did I see that he was wearing glasses.
I got up, waved back and went up the path to Gatsby’s lawn. We shook hands.
‘Nice to see you, Hall.’
‘Likewise, Nick. How have you been?’
‘All right, I suppose. It’s very hot, isn’t it?’
‘Quite so. Would you have tea with me?’
As we strolled towards my neighbor’s porch, Hall told me that he was staying at this house. Gatsby had left for New York that morning on business and to see a dentist.
We sat down on modest wooden furniture under an awning. Hall rang a little silver bell and presently a pretty, black-haired girl in a mud-colored cotton dress came.
He spoke to her in German. She did not understand, but when he mentioned something that sounded like tsai, she smiled.
‘James fired his original staff a few weeks ago,’ Hall explained to me when she had left. ‘He replaced them with some members of a family straight off Ellis Island. They don’t speak English, only a language I believe to be the lingua franca in the former easternmost provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They’re good people, I like them.’
He sounded rather like a host than a guest.
I was at a loss for words and so we sat there, encapsuled in the heat even under the protective awning, smoking and staring at our shoes.
After much thinking, I decided to ask the only question I considered safe enough.
‘How do you like living in America?’
Hall told me it was splendid. New York was fascinating, class distinction was less of a problem than in England and the famous tale about men who could make careers regardless of their social or educational background proved to be true. ‘But I dislike the way black people are treated,’ he said. ‘They belong to this country too.’
‘I agree with you.’
When tea was served, Hall waited until the maid had gone back inside and then went on.
‘It’s very pleasant that you’re here,’ he said with a wan smile. ‘I’m not intentionally being rude now, but it’s been on my mind for some time. How is Daisy Buchanan doing? Is she all right? I talked with her at the party and she is the loveliest creature I have ever laid my eyes upon.’
‘She’s doing well, I suppose. I haven’t seen her often lately. She’s very busy doing charity work and it’s too hot to do anything else.’
He smiled as if he pitied me. ‘Well, I see you obviously don’t know. How could you? You’re in New York during the day and I suppose you have all kinds of engagements in the evenings.’
I heard how he had taken time off from work and spent most of his days in Gatsby’s house. The host had insisted that he stay inside and keep all the shutters closed, but Hall sometimes opened them a bit to overlook the front lawn and the drive. The maid’s father served as a doorman but one person could only do so much and telling a lady off was definitely out of the question.
‘I saw Daisy roam about, looking up at the housefront with sad eyes. She stayed there for hours, pacing up and down, smoking and sometimes even hiding among the bushes.’
I felt myself grow hot and had great pains not to clench my fists.
‘I suppose she’s looking for Gatsby,’ Hall went on. ‘They were friends in the war. She may be seeking some kind of help from him.’
‘Why would you think that?’
‘I’m going to be brutally honest with you, old sport, and I’d like to apologize in advance for what I’m about to say. Tom Buchanan is a good man, but he can be rather a bully too. I know him – oh well, that’s not new to you. I’m afraid he may be beastly to Daisy. He always speaks of her in the most caring manner, but he’s a two-sided medal.’
‘Don’t worry, Hall. He’s good to her. I’m sure of that.’
‘Please call me Maurice.’
He poured some more tea, offered me a biscuit from a plate and lit another cigarette.
‘I really should not bother you with this,’ he went on. ‘After all, Tom is your kin because he’s your cousin’s husband.’
Then his face flushed. ‘Tom punched me in the stomach while we were talking on your porch that night when Gatsby hosted a party. It hurt, it hurt awfully, but I decided not to give it too much attention. After all, I nearly broke his nose at Myrtle Wilson’s flat…excuse me…at Myrtle Wilson’s apartment. Ha, I still talk like a Brit!’ He grinned.
‘There was a lot of tension then,’ I said. ‘And we’d all had too much to drink.’
‘Quite correct, Nick, but that’s not the point…I met Tom at Sal Gambini’s place last year. A lovely restaurant. The food is delicious.’
‘It’s on Ninety-Seventh, isn’t it?’
‘No, on Seventy-Second.’
I had never been there and the fact that Hall knew New York better than I irked me.
‘I used to go there after work quite often because no other restaurant in New York has such superb Sicilian dishes. And of course, I never ran the risk of meeting clients who wanted to pry information out of me, which they could not have done inside the walls of Swift & Feinman…Well, I was having coffee and liqueur and a cigarette and reading a newspaper after dinner, and then I felt that someone was staring at me. I looked up and saw a man dressed in a suit too fancy for the district. I could instantly tell he was not a bookmaker or a bootlegger, but a real gentleman. He walked up to my table and asked me for a light. Then he invited me to join him, since he had no company.
We got to talking. He enjoyed exchanging thoughts and views with an Englishman. He’s garrulous, I can tell you. At first I thought he was one of those men who go to bars to find a stranger to confide in, about this very famous problem: ‘My wife don’t understand me.’’
He mimicked the New York accent well and I couldn’t help but laugh.
‘I thought I had done my duty as a patient listener when we both asked for our bills and left the restaurant, but a few days later, he was back, insisting that he buy me dinner. And he talked again, endlessly, senselessly, he drank too much whereas I only had seltzer water, he wanted to see me off on the underground to Penn Station, I told him no but he would not let go…’
He uttered a sigh, lit another cigarette and stared at the fountain.
‘I was horrendously stupid. I told him where I worked, hoping this would make him back away from me, for no creature is as secluded as a Wall Street man, you know that, old sport…
He telephoned me at my office. My secretary was clueless and put the calls through – several times! Then I got deliveries at the very same office almost on a daily basis – bunches of flowers, a silk tie, bottles of French cognac. ‘So you’ve got a sweetheart,’ my secretary said drily. ‘You might tell her to send those things to your house.’’
‘But he didn’t know where you lived, I suppose.’
‘He found out anyway, Nick. He probably intercepted one of the staff outside the building and offered a lavish sum. My home number is not listed, but he even got that! He started calling me at my house at all hours and when I left the phone off the hook, he drove by in his car several times every night.
I confronted him once. ‘This has got to stop,’ I told him. ‘Or else I will press charges.’
What he said then was to be expected. ‘You won’t Maurice, you wouldn’t stand a chance. You’re in America on a temporary residence permit. Who can prove that it is me doing all this to you instead of the other way around? One word from me could have you on the next ship back to England. It may cost me hundreds of dollars, but I’ve got them, and the police always back my sort against yours.’ By which he meant, of course, a millionaire against a foreigner.’
Hall had decided not to act and to wait for things to wear off.
The Wilsons lived in the neighborhood and he had become friends with them. When he learned that Myrtle had embarked on an affair with Tom, he had been distressed, feeling sorry for her husband, and relieved, because Tom now only seemed to have eyes for her.
It was George Wilson who suggested that Hall accompany Myrtle on her many trips to New York to visit her sister. George knew that his wife was cheating on him, but oddly enough, he didn’t mind all that much, since Tom paid him lavishly for it. The Wilsons needed the money to save up to move back West. They both had quite enough of New York.
Wilson was a simple, decent man. He promised to return the favor of Hall’s time as a chaperone.
‘A total washout,’ Hall said. ‘Because Tom had many a chance to see me again, on top of it with other people around, so there was no way I could defend myself without compromising my position at Swift & Feinman or my residence permit.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear all this, Maurice.’
He smiled. ‘Don’t be sorry, Nick. I am a man and I can handle this myself, never you worry.’ Then his expression grew sad. ‘But Daisy is a woman and anyone rebuking him faces terror. The thought of her coming to harm at his hands never leaves me. Tom drinks too much. He even told me on several occasions that he can’t stand her…I just thought you should know, Nick. You are her cousin.’
‘I’ll see what can be done,’ I said, feeling the inadequacy of this promise, which is never given in full and honest commitment. And that’s when someone stepped onto the porch.
‘Hello, old sport,’ Gatsby said to me. ‘How nice of you to keep Maurice company.’
‘Was the dentist beastly to you?’ Hall asked.
‘He was,’ Gatsby answered. ‘That’s what he’s being paid for, isn’t it?’
His speech was slightly slurred and now I saw that his left cheek was swollen. He would not be able to eat for some time, but still he wanted me to come over for dinner later on.
‘Well, then I shall drive home to pick up the mail and to feed the cats,’ Hall decided, getting up. ‘I’ll be back soon.’
We watched him disappear into the house. Then Gatsby turned to me and patted my arm.
‘I’m still not much of a neighbor, am I?’ he rather stated than asked. ‘Things have been very quiet around here for the past few weeks, as you must have noticed.’
He gave me a serious look. ‘Maurice is staying here because he can’t be alone in his own house for a reason.’
‘You don’t have to tell me why.’
‘I’m not going to. But both you and he are in the same trade, so you may guess why he has to lay low for a while. I trust you not to inform anyone on his whereabouts.’
We had dinner on the patio. The table was pleasantly laid with silver and china. It breathed a minimal bit of fresh air into the place that hat once boiled with hundreds of guests every weekend.
Both Hall and Gatsby were dressed in white cotton shirts, light sports jackets and flannel pants. The host poured a sublime pinot gris and remarked that he himself would have preferred red wine. But of course, that could not be done since we were having salmon.
‘Please treat yourself to some Burgundy,’ Hall persisted. ‘It’s an antique idea to only serve white wine with fish. In fact, that is considered awfully bourgeois.’
Presently Gatsby was sipping red wine and remarking that he seldom drank, but tonight was an exception because he needed something to numb the pain the dentist had inflicted on him.
‘Do come back tomorrow,’ they said when I rose after coffee to go home.
Chapter 8: New York City
It's too hot for decent meals. Swimming is a better way to deal with it, going to town definitely is not.
The summer of 1922 is by far the hottest one I’ve ever experienced. The electric fan for my bedroom had not materialized yet, and would not do so until years later.
I kept all the windows on the first floor open, hoping to catch a cooling breeze, but even though I lived only yards away from the refreshing sea, the heat was stifling.
The night after the dinner at Gatsby’s I woke, panting and drenched in sweat, to what I believed to be a helpless cry, followed by laughter. When I opened my eyes, all was quiet but for the singing of the crickets and the murmur of the waves. I fell asleep again and relapsed into the dream that had been interrupted – about things I could not fathom because everything was a moist, dark, fragrant mass.
The next day happened to be a Friday, a day on which it was perfectly admissible to leave the office at four instead of five, since that was a custom at Finley & Cooper.
I had promised Gatsby I would arrive around six, but when I stepped onto his back porch, I found the two men not ready for dinner. They were both wearing white cotton bathrobes embroidered with white paisley motifs, and white silk slippers with palmwood soles.
‘Poor Nick, you must be suffering,’ Hall laughed, because I was dressed in a light summer suit with a waistcoat. ‘Why don’t you take a plunge, it will refresh you.’
I now saw that the swimming pool had been filled again. An inflatable mattress was bobbing forlornly on the water.
Gatsby went in and returned with cocktails on a tray, explaining that he had given all of his staff the evening off. It made me wonder what we would be having for dinner.
We toasted, drank, talked about what went on in the world and smoked.
‘I say, it’s really too hot,’ Hall said after a few minutes. He got up and took off his glasses and then his bathrobe, revealing a black swimsuit that molded his body as if it had been painted on. His skin was tanned. He walked to the pool, kicked off his slippers and dived in almost noiselessly. An amber-and-black figure undulated under the water for seconds, contrasting with the turquoise of the tiles, and then he came up for air, his black hair plastered to his forehead. Gatsby watched him with eyes full of light and a smile on his lips.
Maurice swam around in circles, disappeared under the mattress and appeared on the other side of the pool again.
‘Aren’t you swimming?’ I asked Gatsby.
‘Not today. I’m still recovering from yesterday’s dental disaster.’
Then he walked to the edge, crouched down and held out his hands. Maurice gripped them and Gatsby pulled him out effortlessly. I now saw that they were exactly the same height.
The host toweled Maurice off and handed him his bathrobe. ‘I’d like to show you my room,’ Maurice said to me.
We walked through several parlors and then mounted the stairs.
Maurice’s room was located next to Gatsby’s and decorated in intense dark-blue with glowing mahogany accents from the furniture. Waistcoats, shoes, cufflink boxes and office folders were carelessly shattered everywhere. ‘It’s a bit of a tip now,’ he said, ‘because I spend hours in the garden instead of tidying up.’
He sat down at the dressing table, fixed his own face in the mirror, ran his fingers through his wet hair, traced his lower lip and patted his cheeks, probably to check if he needed a shave.
Then he turned around and looked at me.
‘If you wouldn’t mind, old sport…I have to bathe and get dressed for dinner.’
And so I left the room.
I have no recollection of the meal we had. It might be safe to say that there was a cold chicken salad, bread and an assorted fresh fruits for dessert. The wine still comes to mind – a blanc perlé, because Gatsby remarked shyly that he did not like champagne all that much, which made Maurice burst out in laughter that sounded like music. All that was said further is still lost on me.
It was Maurice who wanted to be my cavalier after coffee. He took me by the arm and walked me home as far as my back porch. I held out my hand to shake his, but he bent down and breathed a kiss on it before he disappeared into Gatsby’s garden.
I was in and out of sleep that night, woken by soft cries which must have been imagination and dozing off again. Shortly before dawn, I distinctly heard splashing sounds and gleeful laughter, not coming from Gatsby’s pool but from the sea. It was then that I buried my face in my drenched bedsheet.
I never bothered to find out if Jordan Baker was still on her golf team. She went to stay with Daisy and Tom by mid-August to flee the heat of Westchester and her aunt.
Her constant invitations to come and visit annoyed me. When I found a bunch of pale-pink roses on my office desk with a card from her simply signed ‘J.’, my secretary’s amused look made me decide not to write a thank-you note.
She did not refer to my omission when she phoned me in the first week of September and asked me over to lunch with the Buchanans. ‘Could you get in touch with Gatsby and Maurice?’ she asked innocently. ‘They’re invited too…I understand them wanting to see Gatsby, but what the hell would they want from Maurice? He’s boring as whale blubber…I believe Daisy has an announcement to make or something.’
All I had to do was wait for a moment when soft voices could be heard from my neighbor’s garden. I went over and found the two men sitting at the dinner table smoking and talking.
Gatsby did not offer me a drink, so I simply relayed Jordan’s message and earned two pairs of raised eyebrows.
‘It would be jolly for a change,’ Maurice remarked. Gatsby nodded.
Two days later, on a Sunday, we met in the Buchanans’ drive. Gatsby had arrived in his yellow Rolls, Maurice in his ramshackle Overland.
The door opened and there was Tom, raising his hand in a merry salute.
Gatsby and Maurice were both wearing tan suits and off-white hats. ‘Welcome, gentlemen,’ Tom cried. ‘Well, look at the two of you – you could be twins.’
‘One of them has a very distinct British accent, I’m afraid,’ Maurice smiled.
‘Even your voices are alike,’ Tom remarked as we all shook hands.
‘That’s because I have a cold,’ Maurice grinned.
Daisy and Jordan were in the lounge. They wore matching white dresses. ‘Two sisters,’ I said jestingly when I greeted them, expecting them to laugh. They kissed me silently and reservedly, but I could see a happy glow in Jordan’s grey eyes.
We all sat down and sipped gin and tonic. When we were ready for our second round, little Pammy was brought in by her nanny. She ran to her mother and climbed onto her lap.
‘My precious,’ Daisy crooned as the child buried its blond head in her bosom. ‘Look up now to those gentlemen and say how-de-do.’
Pammy shook her head and clutched Daisy’s hands. ‘Come to Daddy,’ Tom wheedled.
The little girl whimpered when he lifted her in his arms and kissed her. He sang a meaningless nursery rhyme, probably to coerce her into greeting the guests, but she burst into tears. ‘Want Mommy,’ she hiccupped.
‘Meet those nice people first, my little princess,’ Tom pleaded.
‘Hello,’ Maurice breathed, and that is when she turned around. She sobbed and showed a hesitant smile. Then she held out her little hands to him and cried ‘Uncle!’
‘Yes, you may call me Uncle, dear,’ Maurice laughed, and so Tom handed her over to him. She stared in adoration at this gentleman she may or may not have met before. I assumed his glasses fascinated her.
‘I had lunch with Nanny,’ she told him happily. Then she noticed Gatsby.
He waved at her and she waved back, wriggling in Maurice’s arms. ‘Whoa, careful now, my pet,’ Maurice laughed. Gatsby got up, took her little hand and stroked her golden hair.
‘Now I’m going to bed,’ she said proudly.
We watched her and her nanny leave the room and then had another drink. Daisy lamented about the heat and ordered the maid to serve lunch in the dining room and not on the porch as initially planned. She fussed as she ate, complaining about the hot soup and fanning herself and spilling cigarette ashes. ‘Let’s go to New York,’ she whined. ‘Let’s book a hotel room and have more drinks there.’
‘It will be even more unpleasant in the city, darling,’ Tom protested kindly. ‘There’s no sea and the streets are full of traffic.’
‘I like the idea,’ Jordan remarked. ‘We could go to a cinema. It’s cooler in the dark and everybody has left town anyway. Manhattan will be deliciously deserted.’
The plan was ridiculous. Daisy knew and said that nothing made sense anyway and that we might as well go. After all, the drive in open cars would be refreshing, especially with two gentlemen present who were looking so pleasantly cool. Gatsby and Maurice smiled.
‘All right then,’ Tom said. ‘We’re taking my Rolls and Gatsby’s.’
‘As long as Jordan gets to ride with Nick,’ Daisy added with a giggle. ‘Tom will be their courteous chauffeur. And since it’s too stuffy for me to sit with three other people, I’m going with Jay if you don’t mind.’
‘Ride with me,’ Tom said to Gatsby. ‘Jordan and Nick can be in the back and you can sit next to me and tell me all about drugstores. I’ve been told that drugstores are quite the thing these days. You ought to know.’
This was meant as an insult. ‘I’d be delighted, old sport,’ Gatsby smiled. Then he bit his lip. ‘But who will drive my car then?’
‘I will,’ Maurice offered. ‘I shall be Lady Buchanan’s gallant charioteer today.’
Daisy and Jordan went upstairs to get changed. I walked into the drive to see if my car was locked.
After a few minutes, Maurice appeared on the threshold. He offered me a cigarette, gave me a light and then lit up himself. We kept silent and listened to the muffled sounds from inside.
‘Let’s take a bottle of whiskey so that we can have mint juleps at the hotel,’ Daisy called from upstairs.
‘We could just as easily order room service,’ Gatsby’s baritone sounded pleasantly from the hallway. His voice was never loud, but it was as if his every word could be heard for miles around.
Maurice’s lips curled up with mirth. ‘It’s funny, old sport,’ he said to me. ‘I could never fathom Gatsby’s speech, not even in the war…I don’t intend to be insulting, but there’s something inexplicably indiscreet about his voice. It’s full of…full of…’
‘Money,’ I completed.
We both burst out laughing. ‘Did I just miss a Wall Street joke?’ Tom asked as he emerged from the dark hallway and positioned himself between us. ‘Why do women always take forever getting dressed?’
‘I suppose that was the joke,’ Maurice grinned.
Daisy came out wearing a burgundy-red frock with a matching scarf and a hat, a color that made the heat all the more obvious. Jorden joined us a little later, dressed in a stuffy navy-blue gown that looked more suited for a funeral.
‘I’ll give you a head start,’ Tom said to Maurice as car keys were produced. ‘I have to stop for gas anyway. Where shall we meet?’
‘At the corner of Fifty-Ninth,’ Maurice suggested. ‘You’ll find me easily. I’ll be the silly Brit in the bowler hat waving a miniature Union Jack and smoking two cigars.’ He courteously opened the door on the passenger’s side for Daisy, and off they went.
‘Did he drive your car before?’ Jordan innocently asked Gatsby. Before he could answer, Tom ushered us into his blue Rolls and started the engine.
The sunlight hurt, but as we reached the industrial district, the sky went slightly dark with the ever-present fumes from coal heaps and chimneys. Tom stopped at Wilson’s gas station. The curtains on the top floor were drawn and the garage was closed.
‘I need gas,’ Tom said to Gatsby. ‘I wonder why no one ever thought of converting this place into a drugstore. You can get fuel at drugstores too, you know.’
‘It would be a good idea,’ Gatsby agreed. ‘It’s close enough to the station to be of use to commuters.’
Tom had to sound his horn many times until the curtains at one window moved. Minutes later, Wilson stepped out, unshaven, unkempt and drowsy. ‘No service on Sundays, Mr. Buchanan,’ he greeted our driver.
‘Don’t be a lazy ass and fill her up,’ Tom snapped. It was then that I saw a pale face appear at a window. Myrtle Wilson stared at her lover and made pleading gestures like a prisoner aching to be freed while her husband reluctantly held the fuel nozzle. Tom ignored her, paid and started the engine again.
As we flew further west, the upsetting landscape gradually changed into the concrete maze of Manhattan. When Central Park came into sight, Tom slowed down and looked around in amazement. ‘Nowhere to park!’ he cried, pointing at the sidewalks tightly lined with cars. ‘What the hell is going on?’
We found Daisy and Maurice standing next to the yellow Rolls, which was skillfully wedged between two equally luxurious vehicles. ‘There!’ she shouted at Tom, waving and pointing at a spot a few yards away. ‘That car is leaving!’ Presently Tom steered his into the vacant place and sighed with relief.
‘I had to drive around the block for twenty minutes until I could finally park,’ Maurice remarked as we walked to the hotel.
‘I’m surprised you didn’t dent Gatsby’s Rolls,’ Tom said. ‘You’re from a country where people drive on the wrong side of the road and I assume you’re not used to handling limousines.’
‘It’s a British car,’ Maurice smiled.
Chapter 9: Concrete Jungle
The famous hotel scene.
We were given a room with a parlor furnished with turn-of-the-century treasures. The place breathed a derelict quietness. The only noises came from the ground floor where a wedding banquet had attracted hundreds of guests who had clogged up the whole quarter with their cars.
‘Let’s order some ice and mint,’ Daisy said to Tom as she sat down next to Gatsby on a couch. ‘We forgot to bring whiskey. And would someone please turn on all the fans?’
I set to pressing buttons and opening windows. A pleasant breeze soon whirled through the room.
‘I’m too tired to talk,’ Tom muttered. ‘You order, Maurice.’
‘That would be too tempting, old sport,’ Maurice grinned.
‘Hurry up already. I’m thirsty!’
Maurice picked up the receiver and sank into an easy chair.
‘Hello? My name is Hall, I’m in room 415. I’d like some ice and mint leaves for six…a pot of Darjeeling tea, no sugar or cream, some water biscuits…Have you any imported beer on draft…? Fellensteiner? Yes, one pitcher of that please…’
‘Maurice!’ Tom snapped.
‘And oh yes, a bottle of whiskey…Scotch, preferably McGrath Black Label….’
‘Maurice!’ Tom roared. Daisy smothered a giggle and grabbed Gatsby’s hand. While he squeezed it, his shining, joyful eyes fixed the man on the phone.
‘And before I forget,’ Maurice went on. ‘We’re celebrating. I’d also like a vanilla cake…Pink icing, lots of candles and perhaps…Yes, a birthday…Splendid…Thank you very much.’
When he hung up, Gatsby was laughing in a subdued manner, his soft, musical tones filling the room.
‘What the hell got into you all of a sudden, Maurice?’ Jordan wanted to know.
Maurice sat down, took off his glasses and produced a handkerchief from his pocket. I could now see that his eyelids were red and swollen. A summer flu.
‘When I still lived in London, I already heard many tales about the Plaza,’ he explained. ‘They serve anything you order. Well, I aptly proved it now, didn’t I?’
‘You’re still nowhere near the Almighty King of Drugstores,’ Tom admonished, straightening his broad shoulders. He turned to Gatsby. ‘I made some inquiries on you in New York, my good man. You might as well admit all.’
Daisy bit her lip, but then relaxed.
‘Yes, I started a drugstore business long ago,’ Gatsby said calmly. ‘I own fifty of them. They line the main road from Newark down to Baltimore.’
‘Ah, a cover for more lucrative business…I have it on good authority that you’re the biggest bootlegger on the East Coast.’
Daisy let out a cry of disgust. ‘Enough of this!’ she erupted.
Tom gave her a worried look and held out his left hand to her, but she violently pushed it away.
I rose to let in two waiters who wheeled trolleys with our orders. ‘The cake is taking some time,’ one of them said apologetically to no one in particular. ‘We hope to send it up in half an hour.’
I tipped them and after they had left, I set to filling tumblers with ice and mint. When I was about to open the bottle of whiskey, Tom and Daisy shook their heads. Maurice giggled and poured himself a large glass of beer. Jordan lit a cigarette and ignored my inviting gesture to have tea.
‘Enough of this,’ Daisy said again. ‘I wanted us to meet on neutral territory. I’ve an announcement.’
Tom laughed. ‘God, why are you being so ceremonial? It’s simple.’ He bent forward and let his eyes wander over all of us. ‘Daisy and Pammy and I are moving back to Chicago in November.’
Maurice’s lips trembled with a smile as he daintily sipped his German beer.
Then I noticed Daisy’s pasty complexion. She looked positively ill.
She put a hand on Gatsby’s forearm. ‘Tell Tom,’ she said to him. ‘Tell him that I never loved him…Tell him that I want a divorce so that I can marry you.’
Gatsby’s face was a kind mask that revealed nothing. He affectionately patted her wrist.
‘Jay loves me,’ she went on. ‘He has loved me since we first met in 1917. He promised he’d come back to marry me as soon as he had become a rich man. It happened at last.’
Tom got up from the couch and started pacing up and down the room. There were minutes of silence, only interrupted by the violent tap of Maurice’s cigarette lighter.
‘Of course Jay loves Daisy,’ Jordan said then. ‘He threw this parties, hoping she would show up among the masses, and she did. She can thank me for it. I relayed Jay’s invitation.’
Tom stopped before Gatsby. ‘I should rip you apart,’ he said calmly. ‘But I won’t, since there are ladies present. You think you can lure my wife with your enormous house and your money. Well, I’ve got money, too.’
He grinned. ‘And something else…Daisy loves me.’
Jordan sat up and lit another cigarette, her eyes flashing. ‘Oh yes, she does, Tom,’ she said happily. ‘Or why else would she roam around Jay’s house every day for weeks, either getting sunburnt or drenched in the rain…’
She tapped my knee. ‘Nick can confirm it. She would always leave her car in his drive.’
For the first time that day I felt Gatsby’s eyes on me.
‘Is that true, Nick?’ he asked softly, like a father about to punish a disobedient child in a civilized manner. ‘You might have told me, old sport.’
‘You might have told me first, Nick,’ Tom hissed through clenched teeth.
‘I did go to your house,’ Daisy said to Gatsby. ‘Nick invited me to his own place for a drink once.’
‘So you met my wife almost every afternoon,’ Tom said to Gatsby. ‘Plenty of time for the two of you to make plans…’ His eyes flashed triumphantly. ‘Waste of efforts. She’ll never leave me. She loves me.’
‘I know she does,’ Gatsby reassured him. ‘I consider her my friend, but no more than that.’
He gave Daisy a sweet look. ‘I’m sorry, dear…How was I to know you wanted to see me? I wasn’t even home.’
‘Would you mind an awful lot if I said I don’t believe you?’ Tom asked him. ‘I suppose you were just hiding in your own house, which is easy, because it’s the size of a castle…God damn it, I am going to tear you apart. You’re disrupting a happy family. It’s sacrilege.’
‘You’re one to talk, Tom,’ Jordan laughed. ‘And very tactless. If you want to phone your lover, at least have the decency to do so outside your own four walls.’
‘Your mistress, Tom!’ Daisy said full of triumphant anger. ‘Your woman in New York.’
‘I didn’t mean her,’ Jordan said soothingly. ‘I meant someone else. The person is in this very room now.’
The silence that followed left us all clueless for a while.
‘Jordan…’ Daisy murmured. ‘So it was you too. You…and Tom. I considered you my best friend.’
Jordan tittered and let her gaze wander to Maurice, who was reclining in the chair and smoking, breathing resignation like a repentant man about to be put to death.
‘God, it was awful,’ Jordan went on. ‘You were out or tending to Pammy, Daisy…and then Tom would be on the phone in his study. Pleading, begging: ‘Please let me speak to Mr. Hall, it’s urgent…’ or ‘Maurice, is that you?’ and then bursting into tears because Maurice had enough sense to hang up on him.’
‘Tom kept seeking my company,’ Maurice said to Daisy. ‘He wanted mine more than I wanted his. Nothing happened, thank goodness.’
Daisy was breathing heavily now. I caught her gaze and motioned to the trolleys with the drinks, but she gave me a repelling gesture. Then she blew out an indignant gust of air in Maurice’s direction. ‘Don’t hide the truth,’ she snapped at him. ‘You’re not the first one. We left France in a hurry in 1920, for a reason.’
She told us how Tom had been roaming the Mediterranean coast in his car while she was in the maternity clinic in Nice counting the days. Her husband had returned by train a week after Pammy’s birth. He had wrecked his car. An inquest had followed because someone had been with him, a person who had come out of a terrible crash with a broken forearm. Daisy’s friends had only learned that Tom had been on a spree with a maid from the hotel where they were staying.
Tom had never shown the court documents to his wife. She had come across them when she was packing the things that had to be shipped to America. It had not been a maid riding in the car with Tom, but a waiter.
‘I hoped things would not repeat themselves once we had settled on Long Island,’ Daisy said now. ‘But Tom went astray again under my very eyes.’
‘He and Maurice talked for a long time on Nick’s porch that night when Jay threw his party,’ Jordan remarked. ‘But then again, you had been sitting there with Jay for the longest time before that.’
She drew a breath. ‘And Nick saw all when he went into his kitchen to put some roses in a vase.’
‘So Gatsby had a private talk with my wife?’ Tom asked me. ‘Why did you never tell me?’
‘I just did,’ Jordan smiled.
Maurice suddenly came to life. ‘Please leave Nick out of this, Tom,’ he said. ‘Don’t bully him. I’ve seen you behave in a not so gentlemanly fashion before. You gave me all that foul talk at Myrtle Wilson’s flat. It’s bad enough that Nick had to witness the scene.’
‘Myrtle Wilson?’ Daisy asked. ‘What Myrtle Wilson?’
‘The wife of the man who owns that horrible gas station near the railroad junction,’ Jordan explained. ‘Tom’s famous woman in New York. I thought you knew, Daisy.’
‘So you knew this woman’s name and about Maurice?’ Daisy asked me. ‘You might have told me.’
‘Whatever I saw provided no valuable clues,’ I said. It felt like a declaration of independence.
‘You might still have told me,’ she persisted. I kept staring at her, hoping for the turbulence of the waves inside her to subside. When she spoke again, my heart stopped.
‘Jordan, dear, why are you crying now?’ she asked, rushing over to the girl and clutching her hands. ‘I’m not mad at you…You never made eyes at Tom and I believe you…’
Jordan was sobbing uncontrollably. Gatsby, ever unchanged, tapped a cigarette on his gilded case and put it between his lips. Maurice rose a bit unsteadily to give him a light.
Tom was sweating, staring at his fingernails and twisting his wedding band.
‘The roses,’ Jordan stammered.
‘What roses?’ Daisy and Gatsby asked.
Jordan wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and sat up with a crooked grin. ‘The ones that Maurice gave to Nick before we went to the party. I was at Nick’s house to get changed and I saw it with my own eyes.’
Tom clenched his fists. The veins on his temples protruded.
‘A man bringing another man flowers,’ Jordan went on. ‘You can argue that it’s maybe an European custom, but I don’t believe it.’
‘Were they pale-pink La Frances?’ Daisy asked. Jordan nodded.
‘Funny,’ Daisy smiled. ‘I found them weeks later on Nick’s kitchen table, in an old coffee pot, all dried up and shriveled. When I offered to throw them out, he snapped at me.’
Maurice laughed and smothered a cough in his handkerchief.
‘So Nick kept them,’ Jordan wailed. ‘And you should all have seen his face when Maurice handed him the bunch…He looked as if he’d been given gold and rubies.’
Gatsby blew up his cheeks and leaned back into the sofa cushions.
‘I understand now,’ Jordan went on, piercing me with tear-sodden eyes. ‘I called you a million times to invite you over to Daisy’s but you wouldn’t come. I sent roses to your office and you never thanked me for them. You don’t love me. You’re one of the wrong kind. You might have told me.’
Daisy drew her to her bosom and rocked her gently. ‘I expected Nick to ask me to marry him by the end of the summer,’ Jordan sobbed into the fabric of Daisy’s dress. ‘I was hoping he would propose to me today…He should have told me that he never loved me.’
Daisy still held her, stroking her hair and kissing her temples.
‘I think it’s time to go home,’ Tom said calmly.
Daisy let go of Jordan with a jolt, walked up to Gatsby and fiercely gripped him by the shoulders. ‘Give me your car keys,’ she hissed. ‘Now.’
He smiled sheepishly as he handed her a little leather purse.
‘Come with me, Jordan,’ she said. ‘I’ll educate you on the way. Men are free to do whatever they want. Women are reduced to marrying them, cleaning up after them and bearing their sons who will grow up to become brutes like them, and daughters who will suffer like their mothers.’
She laughed wickedly. ‘You’re young, Jordan. You’re only twenty. I’m twenty-five. Accept this well-meant advice from an old woman: never get married, never have children, always look for a fool who will pay your bills. And have fun, for God’s sake, have fun.’
She turned to Tom and held up the little purse. ‘I’m going straight home and I’m taking Jordan with me. She can help me pack. I’ll stay at Gutmann’s hotel tonight and I’ll be on the first westbound train tomorrow. My attorney will send you the necessary papers.’
‘I’ll never divorce you,’ Tom said.
Daisy laughed. ‘I know. It just so happens that I am divorcing you.’
She got up and left with Jordan in her wake, but popped her head around the door ten seconds later. ‘You paid for this room in advance, didn’t you?’ she sweetly asked Tom. ‘I don’t want any unpleasantness from the reception clerks downstairs.’
‘I keep an account here,’ Tom said kindly. ‘You’ll be all right.’
Right then, a waiter slid past her pushing a trolley with a hideous cake on it. It was decorated with sickly pink icing and marzipan flowers.
I tipped the man and when he left, I remembered something.
‘Today is my birthday,’ I said. ‘I’m thirty.’
Maurice got up from the chair, shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder. ‘I say, congratulations, old sport! Many happy returns.’
‘You knew, didn’t you?’ Tom asked Maurice. ‘Why else would you order a cake?’
‘I didn’t,’ Maurice smirked. ‘I just wanted to see if this story about the Plaza’s fabulous room service was true. It was just a lark.’
Then he grabbed a knife from the trolley. ‘It looks delicious. Would any of you gentlemen care for a piece?’
Tom made a sound of disgust. Gatsby merely shook his head. ‘I might have some later,’ I said.
Maurice cut himself a generous slice, flopped down into his chair and started eating with a relish. He was in a very good mood.
Tom went back to the sofa, sat down, lit a cigarette and stared sternly at his knees. Minutes went by in silence.
Gatsby, who had been cluelessly watching Maurice savor the treat, cleared his throat and turned to Tom. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said softly. ‘I’m quite sure Daisy will not divorce you.’
‘I need no reassurance from you,’ Tom growled. ‘You got what you wanted in the end.’
We all understood. Maurice kept elegantly putting nauseating pink bits into his mouth.
‘The two of you,’ Tom went on, catching him and Gatsby with an ice-cold gaze. ‘Perfectly matching brothers. Well, you’re not related. You can’t fool me. I’m disgusted.’
‘None of this is of any concern to you, old sport,’ Gatsby admonished calmly like a father. ‘Just take comfort in the knowledge that Daisy and I have been nothing but friends.’
Tom’s eyes flashed at him. ‘Do you think I’d care if it were otherwise?’
‘I should hope so.’
‘I want none of your speech, sir. Tomorrow is Monday. A few phone calls from me will have you and Maurice jailed.’
‘We’d meet you again behind bars Tom,’ Maurice concluded happily. ‘That would be jolly.’
‘Don’t do this to yourself, Tom,’ Gatsby murmured.
Tom stubbed out his cigarette and got up. ‘I’ll be at the bar downstairs,’ he said. ‘Just tell me when you’re ready to go home. By then I will have broken up the wedding in the ball room, I suppose. And beware – I keep a gun in my car.’
He walked out briskly and closed the door.
The sun had sunk behind the concrete buildings. The room gradually grew darker and cooler.
‘Would any of you care for a drink?’ I asked.
‘For God’s sake,’ Gatsby sighed. Then he cast Maurice an angry look. It puzzled me that he was capable of feeling ire at all.
‘What have you been doing? You’ve been flirting with Nick. Would you tell me why?’
‘He’s a nice man. It was only a lark. You’re one to talk. You and Daisy…’
‘And nothing happened at my end either. Ours is a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. Why does everything have to be so damned serious? This is a free country.’
‘I’d like to go home,’ I said. ‘I’m catching the underground to Penn station.’
‘Your car is still in the Buchanans’ drive,’ Gatsby reminded me. ‘If you could get a taxi to East Egg at all on a Sunday evening, it would cost a fortune.’
Then an idea rose in me. ‘You’re right. We’ll ride home with Tom.’
'Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.' - This is the first line of D.H. Lawrence's novel 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.' The book was published in 1928 and would not be widely available due to legal restrictions until decades later, whereas the hotel scene is set in 1922. It makes me wonder if Maurice Hall actually invented the phrase.
Quiz: which lines of conversation can be attributed to Forster's novel and Ivory's movie? Hint: it's not about German beer.
Chapter 10: The Garage
Something terrible happens on the way home.
I had expected Tom to urge us to leave in his car with him because he wanted rush home and see how Daisy was doing. We found him sitting at the bar, downing one glass of whiskey per minute.
‘Keep them coming, Gerald,’ he said to the barkeeper, who never so much as raised his eyebrows and matter-of-factly asked what the other gentlemen would like to have.
This was Tom’s turf. He could do as he pleased and his credit must be endless.
The wedding party was still in full swing in the adjacent room. When the band played a Slavic-sounding polka, Gatsby smiled. ‘I suppose the bride and the groom are both sitting on chairs that are carried around in circles by the dancing guests…The groom probably crushed an empty bottle under his feet to show that the bond is as definite as the fact that shards of glass can’t be put together again. It’s a Jewish tradition.’
‘No one is paying any attention to what you’re saying,’ Tom growled.
‘Let’s go home,’ I suggested. ‘And I’ll drive.’
‘You’re such a klutz at the wheel,’ Tom sighed.
‘I’ll drive,’ Gatsby offered.
‘I wish I could,’ Maurice said. ‘But I had too much to drink this afternoon.’
‘I’ll drive,’ I repeated. Gatsby gave me a puzzled look.
When we reached the blue Rolls, Tom insisted that Gatsby and Maurice ride in the back. ‘I’d rather sit next to Nick than either of you bastards.’
I was used to my smallish, easy Dodge, but Tom’s enormous car felt familiar and reliable. The roads were less busy and before I knew, we had passed through Queens and were heading east on Long Island. The three men kept silent, thus allowing me to go over the plan I’d made. It had gone almost completely dark by now.
When I turned into the road that led from the station to the coal desert, I stepped on the pedal.
‘Slow down, you ape,’ Tom roared. ‘Do you want to get us all killed?’
I did not answer and gunned the engine until we reached a hilltop.
‘Look, there’s Gatsby’s car,’ Tom said, pointing at the valley below us.
The yellow Rolls was parked by the side of the road opposite Wilson’s garage. The building looked completely deserted and the only light came from a street lamp.
I stopped, switched gears and rolled down at a moderate speed so as to come to a standstill a few yards from the fuel station. I would wait for a few seconds to allow my passengers and myself a moment to say goodbye to the world we knew and then I would floor the pedal and steer the car straight into the pumps. It would all be over before any of us would notice.
I drove slowly, hesitant because we were approaching Gatsby’s car, and then a black, rippling figure appeared next to the bonnet of ours like a giant bat. Tom’s cry of alarm went under in a decisive bang. ‘Pull the handbrake!’ Maurice yelled. ‘Oh God…pull the handbrake!’
It was Tom who ferociously yanked up the handle and tumbled out of the car. The engine had stalled and we could here his cries of terror.
‘Be careful,’ Maurice warned me. ‘She’s lying right outside your door.’
As I slowly slid out, my foot got caught in the black fabric of Myrtle Wilson’s dress.
She was on the ground, writhing and breathing in gulps of dusty air.
‘What happened?’ Maurice asked. She raised her left hand and pointed at her right wrist. Then she burst into tears.
‘Someone better get George,’ Maurice stammered. Gatsby wanted to cross the street, but Wilson was already flying towards us while Daisy got out of the yellow Rolls.
‘What happened?’ we all wanted to know, from each other or no one in particular.
Wilson slumped down in the dust, shoved an arm under Myrtle’s body and moved her gently until she was sitting upright. Her dress had ridden up to her bare thighs. Her left knee was bruised. ‘My wrist,’ she cried. ‘My wrist.’
Maurice and Wilson helped her to stand up and each held her by an upper arm as they shuffled towards the garage.
Daisy, Gatsby and I watched them enter the downstairs office cubicle. Soon all the lights on the ground floor were turned on.
‘I thought you’d gone straight home,’ Gatsby said to her. ‘And where is Miss Baker?’
‘I dropped her off at her aunt’s house,’ she answered. ‘I was on my way home when I had a puncture on that hilltop.’ She pointed at the elevation on the main road. ‘I managed to steer the car onto level ground before I couldn’t go any further.’
Daisy had decided she’d rather wait for us to pass by and change the tire than knock on Wilson’s door for help. It was very late on a Sunday evening and therefore very inappropriate to disturb hard-working people.
I crossed the street and went into Wilson’s office. Tom, Gatsby and Daisy followed.
Myrtle was sitting at a desk, supporting her lower arm with a sofa cushion.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said to her. ‘I can tell you’re in a lot of pain.’
‘Mind your own business,’ Wilson barked at me. ‘What’s your name, by the way?’
‘I’m Nick Carraway.’
‘Fine. We might need you to testify in court.’
‘Don’t be crazy, George,’ Myrtle snapped. ‘We’re not suing anybody. It was an accident.’
Daisy bent over Myrtle and asked softly if she could have a look at her wrist. It was black and blue and starting to swell. ‘I’ll fix her up,’ Daisy told Wilson. ‘I attended an ambulance class in the war.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to Wilson. ‘I didn’t see her coming in the dark.’
He spat on the floor. ‘So you’re covering up for your friend, eh? I’m sickantired of men taking the blame to get favors from lazy rich idiots.’
He felt six pairs of eyes staring at him. ‘Damn,’ he said. ‘Do I need to explain?’ He looked at Tom. ‘It was you at the wheel. You wanted to get rid of her because she was bothering you. You wanted to kill her.’
‘I was driving,’ I said. ‘Mr. Buchanan was in the passenger seat.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Wilson grumbled.
‘Mr. Carraway was driving,’ Maurice stated. ‘I was in the back seat. I can testify if need be.’
‘Shut up,’ Wilson fumed. ‘I don’t want your good deeds. I asked you to take Myrtle to New York to see that she came to no harm with Mr. Buchanan. I was stupid enough to offer you a good deal on that Oldsmobile in return. And what did I get? A wife I had to keep locked up upstairs because she had gone stark raving mad for Mr. Buchanan. God knows how she managed to run out into the road just now. She must have seen Mr. Buchanan’s car coming and off she went. She could have been killed.’
‘She only got hit by the side mirror,’ a strange voice sounded. A man appeared in the doorway with a bloodhound in tow.
‘Hello Vasilis,’ Maurice said.
‘Hello Maurice,’ Vasilis smiled.
Mr. Petridis was the owner of a bar across the road. He had been walking his dog on the path along the railroad track when he had spotted a presumably deserted Rolls outside the fuel station. He knew that this was Mr. Gatsby’s car. He had gone down to see if anything was wrong and then the accident had happened.
‘I saw the yellow Rolls when I ran out,’ Wilson confirmed. Then he looked at Gatsby.
‘So you were on stakeout in your own car, with a good look of the spot. You were in cahoots with Mr. Buchanan. You both planned to have her killed. I didn’t know that Myrtle was after you as well.’
‘There you go, dear,’ Daisy now said to Myrtle. ‘You can keep the scarf.’
Daisy had skillfully bandaged the wrist with a clean rag she had found somewhere and then used her stole as a sling to tie it up. ‘Thank you,’ Myrtle smiled.
‘Have you got any brandy?’ Daisy asked Wilson. ‘She needs something to numb the pain before she gets to the hospital.’
‘I’ll get some from my bar,’ Vasilis promised.
When the drink was provided, Daisy poured some in a tumbler and offered this to Myrtle.
‘Let’s step into the garage,’ Wilson said to Tom, Gatsby, Maurice and me.
While I scribbled on a piece of paper, the mechanic said he would drive his wife to the hospital. Vasilis whistled for his dog and left the site.
‘Here are my home address and my phone numbers,’ I said to Wilson, handing him the slip. ‘I can be reached at my office in daytime. You can rely on me to get into contact with the police and my insurance company first thing in the morning.’
‘Don’t bother,’ Wilson said. A trace of a smile appeared on his lips. ‘I’ll deal with this my way. I’ve got a gun.’
‘So have I,’ Tom retorted.
Our gazes wandered to the office, where Daisy and Myrtle could be seen through the window that overlooked the garage. They were smoking, talking and smiling. Then Daisy’s eyes met Tom’s. She got up and walked up to him. ‘Let’s go home,’ she said.
We saw the couple get into the blue Rolls and slowly drive off the premises.
Then we left the garage. Wilson shut the door behind us with a bang.
We crossed the road and only then did we remember the puncture. ‘I’ll get Vasilis,’ Maurice promised.
Presently we were watching the Greek, who surprisingly spoke with a New York drawl, change the tire of Gatsby’s car. ‘You’re a godsend,’ Maurice said to him. ‘None of us would have known how to do it.’
‘Easy as pie,’ Vasilis grinned. ‘I was an infantry mechanic in the war.’
Gatsby, Maurice and I had been officers, men who knew how to fire a gun and how to write reports, but who lacked true survival skills.
Maurice thanked Vasilis profusely when the job was done. We watched the bar owner walk back to his own house whistling. When he was out of earshot, Maurice turned to us.
‘So this is it, gentlemen. I can manage the two hundred yards to my humble abode on foot. We’re all in a state of shock, but still – goodnight.’
‘You can’t stay alone,’ Gatsby said, sounding worried for the first time. ‘What about Wilson? He’s got a gun.’
Maurice smiled. ‘If so, then I’d like to bid you and Nick adieu now with some famous lines. ‘If I should die, think only this of me, that there’s a corner in New York State that is forever Eng-…’’
‘Your car is still in the Buchanans’ drive,’ I interrupted him. ‘So is mine.’
‘I’d like you both to spend the night at my house,’ Gatsby added. ‘None of us should be alone. I’ve got a doorman and two Rottweiler dogs in the front yard.’
Maurice nodded and asked us to give him some time to dash home. He wanted to feed the cats and turn on every light, however futile the latter seemed.
Ten minutes later, we were in Gatsby’s Rolls, cruising further east. Gatsby drove and kept silent. Maurice was in the passenger seat, staring out of the window and humming melodiously. Years later, I would condone the introduction of car radios. They are the only medium to kill deathly silence.
'If I should die, think only this of me, that there's a corner...' is the first part of the poem 'The Soldier' by Rupert Brooks, written in 1915 and the best-known example of trench poetry. Maurice adapts it, of course.
Chapter 11: A Man from Minnesota
Gatsby tells the story of his life.
The doorman let us into Gatsby’s house. The master painstakingly explained to him that the slightest sound or movement from outside was to be taken seriously. The man nodded understandingly and mimicked a soldier holding a machine gun. I assumed he was an East Front veteran. He smiled, reassuring us tacitly that he was ready to defend us.
As all the other servants had gone to bed, it was Gatsby who made tea and sandwiches.
We sat down in the parlor that was closest to the kitchen. Gatsby opened some upper windows to let in fresh air, brought a box of cigarettes and poured the tea.
While we drank, the soft rumble of thunder could be heard outside. ‘Finally,’ Maurice sighed. ‘We haven’t had any rain for weeks.’
We lit up, stared at one another, knowing that none of us would get any sleep that night.
Gatsby took off his jacket, unbuttoned his waistcoat and settled comfortably on the sofa. Maurice was sitting next to him, fondling the frills of a cushion.
‘Arabian Nights,’ the host suddenly said with a wan smile. ‘Stories to postpone your trial by death. I believe Nick would very much like to know how I came to be who I am now…Maurice knows most of this, of course, but…’
‘I’ll listen to you anyway,’ Maurice smiled. ‘Your voice is so soothing.’
James Gatz was born in Minnesota in 1885. He was his parents’ only child. They came from Homburg in Germany and ran a small grocery and dry goods store. Money was always scarce, the summers were blisteringly hot and the snow lay feet high in the winter.
Mr. and Mrs. Gatz wanted their son to do well at school so that he could qualify for a scholarship. He possessed a quick mind but he was averse to learning, got low grades and skipped classes to work on a nearby farm. He could ride any horse and earned a little on the side by hunting in the woods.
When he was fifteen, his father announced that he would be sent to military school to be licked into shape. The next day, he ran away and found work as a fisherman on Lake Superior.
It was Mr. Dan Cody, a man originally from England who owned a yacht, who noticed the boy’s zeal and resilience. He hired the young Gatz as a deck hand and they spent months sailing from port to port. This gentleman convinced him to take correspondence courses to educate himself.
Mr. Cody was not a healthy man and he had no children. He knew his disapproving family would never grant Gatz a cent after his death. He started giving the young man cash sums that went onto a bank account in Duluth.
When Cody died, Gatz cried, for he had loved this man as much as his own father. But he had close to five thousand dollars now, and so he had his last name officially changed to Gatsby, bought himself into a drugstore in Milwaukee and became its full owner a year later.
He lived frugally and sent large parts of his earnings to his parents. He had a room with a landlady, he seldom smoked and never drank. Very occasionally he would have flings with girls or women, but he was in fact too busy attracting more business to establish a household of his own.
By 1910, he owned three drugstores and two fuel stations in Milwaukee. He was an entrepreneur with a growing sense of his own inadequacy, because he still knew nothing relevant.
Taking correspondence courses in his sparse leisure time proved unsuccessful, even though he read anything he could lay his hands on.
There was talk of the probability of a war in Europe. He had someone draw up a forged college certificate. When America prepared to send its sons to the battlefields, he went to a recruiting office and talked his way into a training course for officers. A businessman could not serve as a rankless soldier.
He was sent to a base in Louisville and found himself among men from every state. Those from the East mostly stemmed from wealthy families and had studied at outstanding colleges. Some of them had even been educated at Cambridge or Oxford. Other young fellows had attended military school or had simply provided enough money to qualify as suitable.
The staff would have rather seen all men from rural areas trained as front line soldiers. They were used to any kind of weather and stood out as excellent marksmen, having learned to shoot at moving targets from a speeding horse at a young age.
Gatsby still felt he belonged to the latter category. His powerful build and his freckles accounted for it.
When he met Daisy Fay, it was as if he was lifted from a dark, dreary underworld into skies full of sparkling stardust. Her family was enormously wealthy and protective of this girl who dressed and spoke in a way he had never seen before. He became aware of his speech now, artificially britified and still bearing the undertones of German, the language he had spoken at home.
It amazed him when he found out that the words and looks she gave him harbored more than just kind interest. It must be the first time a woman had ever really fallen in love with him.
He had had flings with girls before and it had been him who had been burdened with the task of flirting and love-talk.
It was Daisy who courted him now. He had been destined to marry a girl who shared his religious and social origins, probably a shopkeeper’s daughter. This young lady, however, made him feel rewarded and a man who could successfully rise in the world.
Woefully ignorant of the stirrings of a human heart, he gave in and felt unbelievably happy.
Only much later, when he found himself in the trenches, would he come to understand that love thrives on the illicit rather than the obvious. Daisy adored chauffeuring him around in her car and serving him delicacies on a picnic blanket, giggling about how unsuitable their affair was.
He knew her parents disliked anything Midwestern or German, and he was both. It made him decide not to disclose the third aspect of his background. Being the suitor of the most coveted girl in Kentucky made him proud. She wanted to be his wife and move to the South with him after the war and have his children. Her natural, unconditional trust endeared him.
‘I’ll come and get you when I’m rich,’ he told her the night before he would leave for Europe.
Quite like any other boy, he had once cherished fantasies about the glorious, heroic aspects of war. No one could have convinced him them how it eventually turned out to be. Thousands of soldiers perishing for the conquest of a few yards of land, trenches flooded with rain or sewage water, violent rats hunting for leftovers from meal tins, invisible gas inhaled by men unable to keep on their protective masks any longer, the stench of burning farms and decaying human flesh, the voices of friendly comrades stilled forever. He hoped very much to die.
One afternoon, very early in the spring of 1918, he was summoned to a meeting with all the allied forces in a small castle outside Arras that served as a British staff office. The sun shone through the windows, lighting up even the farthest corner of the room furnished with maps and scale models.
Lieutenant Hall from England was quite unlike his fellow countrymen. He had a clean-shaven face and spoke in a deep London voice, so huskily and elegantly that it was almost indiscreet.
James felt the other man’s dark-blue eyes on him as the meeting wore on with senseless plans of advance tactics.
There were drinks in the mess afterwards. They talked and fondled their tobacco pouches (they both smoked pipes then) and tried to avoid one another’s gazes. Neither of them wore engagement rings.
They met again, maybe by chance, in a café in the next village a few days later. This was not a wine-making area and the reddish liquid from barrels that had suffered in the heat and the cold on their way up from the Languedoc tasted terrible.
Maurice Hall told about his younger years at Cambridge and his time as a stockbroker in London. His manners and speech were so impeccable that James assumed he was a country nobleman or born into the capital’s highest circles. ‘My family qualifies as high middle-class,’ Maurice explained. ‘My mother has a villa and two maids and a chauffeur, but then again, so have many other people. And war is indiscriminate. An individual’s background, education or creed signify nothing here. We’re all equally entitled to die.’
They both laughed at this. Maurice’s cynicism opened up a window into a calm, darkened underworld where life was no longer fought for, but simply taken for granted.
This was the north of France, covered in a blanket of fog after sundown, quite like England. They paid for their drinks and went for a stroll down the alley behind the café. When they reached its end, Maurice put his gloved hand on James’s forearm and now they turned to the side to face each other in the hesitant gas light from a lamppost. It was Maurice who kissed James on the cheek first, with cool, closed lips and James thoughtlessly did the same, feeling a strange warmth rise within him. His first instinct was to flee, but then his arms were around Maurice and they united again, chastely rubbing noses, whispering, laughing softly, until somewhere either a porch door slammed shut or a dog barked, and then they walked back to the square and said goodnight.
They planned a trip to Paris a few weeks later. Maurice knew the city quite well and soon they drifted away from the others from their respective regiments who were on leave as well.
Montmartre was home to cafés where everything was delicious, from the food and wine served on the terraces to what was hidden behind velvet curtains or in rooms downstairs.
It was there where men danced intimately as couples and where women dressed as boys serenaded young maidens.
‘Jolly boring,’ Maurice said, and James agreed, but it was in these places where they both could sit and sip beer or wine and feel every muscle in their war-beaten bodies relax.
James only had a faint notice about the things he witnessed. He had believed them to be very European and artistic, a mere play on a stage with the carnage of the trenches for a background, a crazy carnival before the curtains would close.
He rather liked the fatalistic atmosphere that permeated these places. Nothing really mattered to any man who might die a few days later.
As he and Maurice strolled through the alleys one evening, talking and admiring window displays, under a sky that leaked soft rain, he felt that this was different.
They found shelter in a corridor leading to a courtyard between four rows of houses to light cigarettes when gramophone music could be heard from an open window.
Instinctively they moved into the little square and then they danced among the clutter of crates, dustbins and bicycles as the rain grew stronger. Maurice hummed along to the tune – his voice in itself could have constituted all the music.
‘I remember,’ Maurice said, leaning over to take Gatsby’s hand. ‘Je te veux by Erik Satie.’
‘I just slid into your arms,’ Gatsby whispered. ‘And we waltzed. I was never a good dancer, but…’
‘You were then,’ Maurice smiled. ‘We were still in uniforms but we had taken off our hats. Your hair streamed across your forehead and we only had he lights from the flats to see by, but your eyes were sparkling.’
A ray of lightning shot across the sky. We waited, smothered in the sounds of our breathing and the whirring of the fans, until faint thunder rumbled.
‘It was very odd,’ Gatsby said. ‘Maurice was twenty-eight and a lieutenant, I was thirty-two and a captain. I thought I should be leading him while we danced and I did, but so did he, because that is what a man does. I expected us to stumble and tread on each other’s toes, but we moved effortlessly…And then…’
‘And then,’ Maurice added, ‘the music stopped. All we could hear then was the roar of the rain. We looked each other in the eyes again and we kissed – really kissed.’
‘I’m going to make us another pot of tea,’ Gatsby said, getting up from the couch with some difficulty. Then he gave me a smile full of memories and fatigue. ‘And then I’m going to tell you what happened next, old sport.’
Maurice and Gatsby danced to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbT9DeULzU4
Chapter 12: City of Lights
Gatsby's story continues.
Maurice found a hotel a few doors down from the courtyard and paid in advance for one room. The friendly owner asked no questions. They were officers from allied nations fighting for the freedom of the French people, they were both drenched and letting two male guests share a bed apparently was not illegal in this country.
The first thing Gatsby did was build a fire in the grate of the room to let their uniforms dry. They hung up their dripping clothes and sat down on the bed in their undershirts and drawers, sharing brandy from Gatsby’s gilded flask and smoking Maurice’s cigarettes.
Some time after midnight, Maurice clasped him in his arms and kissed him again, deeply and shamelessly, softly encouraging any response coming from the other man.
They slid out of their garments and under the sheets and now felt their bare skins touch.
The little Gatsby had known about this was that it could entail being court-martialed or shot on sight or worse even, getting tortured to death by a lynch mob of villagers when they had found out.
All this did not signify now, not even the war that had instilled the idea in any man that life was futile and that neither good or bad deeds would save him for perishing under gunfire.
Maurice was clearly experienced and showed Gatsby things he had never considered possible. Moreover, Gatsby had not known that he himself was open to this new kind of bliss, for he had only slept with girls until then.
It was Maurice who led him gently and inflicted pain on him, or rather, it would have been considered painful if Gatsby’s body had not hardened under years of physical labor and combat.
When the first light of dawn slowly crept into the room, they lit cigarettes and talked.
‘Yes, I’ve slept with men before,’ Maurice said. ‘I am what the English call an unspeakable, like Oscar Wilde…You’re not, James. You are far too earthy and beautiful to qualify as such.
If we ever live to see this Teutonic hell being completely defeated, you’ll return to America and marry a pretty woman who will give you many children. You’re too precious to deserve my fate.’
‘What will be your fate then?’ Gatsby asked.
‘To go back to my mother’s house and to commute to my office in London every day and to spend my leisure time reading and musing. Utter misery, I’d say.’
They embraced in silence, relaxing and savoring the tranquil intimacy Gatsby knew would not return. When the outside world slowly came to life with the sound of delivery vans and people walking to work, he got dressed and dashed to the next bakery. He bought sweet and savory rolls and croissants. He knew very little French, having only caught snippets of it when Cody’s yacht had been moored on the Canadian shores of Lake Superior, and it was well before the breakfast hour at the hotel now, but he managed to talk a drowsy maid into providing a pot of coffee for two.
The men had their meal under the warm sheets, feeding the bedbugs with crumbs in the process, and then lazed and talked and smoked until noon. When they were ready to explore the city again, they were both consciously in love.
A few more trips to Paris followed. Maurice was extremely versed in conducting operations incognito. They would sit in cafés wearing their uniforms and chatting to other soldiers, and visit clubs in back alleys dressed in civil clothing. Those were the places where they could hold hands but where they also met men from their regiments who behaved just as illicitly and who cast them understanding or pleading glances meaning ‘well, yes, so you’re like us, that’s all right’ or ‘for heaven’s sake, don’t report us to the staff.’
Maurice and Gatsby never kissed in public. They saved their intimacy for the private atmosphere of seedy hotel rooms. The joy they felt was immense and undefinable, they were simply happy.
One night they had taken a bottle of absinthe with them and were in bed, naked, smoking and laughing and caressing one another. ‘You know,’ Gatsby said, ‘if living and working in London is such a drag, why don’t you consider moving to America? You’re a stockbroker, you’ve got a college degree…’
‘A minor one,’ Maurice interrupted. ‘I only spent three years at Cambridge.’
‘That doesn’t matter. I left high school at fifteen and I run a business. My country offers opportunities for those willing to work hard, regardless of their education and…’
‘I know,’ Maurice said fiercely. He was the sweetest, most beautiful man imaginable, but he had this annoying habit of interrupting. ‘I know, and I would if it had been feasible. But I can’t leave my mother alone. My father died when I was twelve. She’s well-off, but she relies on me to run the house. And I would miss her and my sisters too much. I once knew a man from Wiltshire, a fellow who had left school at fourteen and who went to the Argentine at twenty-two to establish a career. Very daring, I admire that, but I could never do it…No, it’s England for me, old sport.’
It was obvious that they would not meet again when the war was over.
Gatsby had hoped very much to die in the trenches, but all this had faded away the moment he had first laid eyes on Maurice.
Many a night, when Maurice was asleep in his arms, naked and relaxed and with the glow of their lovemaking still all over his body, Gatsby heard him murmur and laugh or cry softly and mention a name. Clive.
This must be the man he’ll return to, Gatsby thought. That is why he wants to stay in England.
‘Clive…who’s Clive?’ he asked Maurice when the two of them had woken from each other’s cries.
Gatsby would never forget the look Maurice gave him then, with eyes full of love and sadness. ‘Oh, we had a fling at Cambridge,’ Maurice said. ‘I thought he was like me, but he wasn’t. He got married in the end.’
Clive Durham had been a law student then, a man from a patrician family who was now the owner of Penge, a vast estate in Wiltshire. Maurice had last seen him in September 1913 and had not been in touch with him since. He did not even know if Clive had enlisted.
A fling – it couldn’t possibly have been just that. This Clive still haunted Maurice’s dreams.
I’ll chase him away, Gatsby promised himself as he drew Maurice into his arms and rocked him until they both drifted off to sleep again.
The separation came in June 1918 when Gatsby and his regiment got orders to move further west. He and Maurice had planned another stay in Paris in August, but weeks before that, he got a letter from Maurice’s orderly. Lieutenant Hall was very sorry to cancel their plans. He had been taken ill and would get in touch again after his recovery.
No more news came after that. Gatsby only learned that Maurice was still alive and this made him conclude that his lover had found someone else.
He grew melancholic, had his orderly put under military arrest for a trifle, roused his men at all hours of the night for drills, laughed at his heads of staff and roamed the fields outside the barracks in the darkness, looking for the best place to shoot himself.
One afternoon, after lunch, he was leafing through an old issue of the Louisville Daily, one of the many papers on the reading table. The social column sported one huge article with dazzling pictures. ‘Thomas Buchanan II and Daisy Fay to be married.’
Gatsby sat there, not paying attention to the reporter’s details about Daisy’s gown or the fabulous names of the guests at the engagement party. He had loved her too and like Maurice, she had left him without any explanation.
As he put down the paper, he felt his spirits return. She had moved on and was surely going to be very happy. It made him decide to do the same.
He received a letter from her and replied instantly, congratulating her and stating that Thomas, whom he did not know, was the luckiest man in the world and expressing fondest wishes for the two of them to be happy and to have many children. He knew now that he could never have given her what she longed for.
Without the soft comfort of Maurice’s arms, war had become terror again, but he stood it with all the strength he could muster, telling himself that all things would come to an end, even the most gruesome battle that mankind had seen until then.
He resiliently led his troops to a glorious, blood-red conclusive encounter in Normandy, with himself crawling towards enemy lines sporting a machine gun like a front line soldier, catching the orders the opponents handed down in a whisper, understanding all because German was his native language, firing and discovering his own men had followed him and conquered a vast stretch of scorched land, and earning the rank of major when talk about a possible armistice already ran rampant in the staff office.
He attended a briefing from his superiors standing erect, motionlessly, smiling understandingly as they announced a treaty had been signed at Versailles.
The war was far from over him after that. He had to supervise the dismissal of his men and the dismantling of the bases, and learned in passing that the British government was offering college scholarships to any American officer who had performed in an outstanding fashion.
He was one of them, he was a major now, and he sailed from Dunkirk to Dover in January 1919.
Magdalen College in Oxford became the alma mater of his choice. When an Englishman told him that Oscar Wilde had studied there too, he merely smirked. He had never read anything by this writer since his works were considered immoral in the Midwest, but he understood the implicit allusion.
Gatsby was as averse to learning as he had been as a boy. He attended a few lectures for good measure and was frowned upon when he asked to be enrolled in a German literature course.
He had taken up his studies straight after the spring term break, but by the time the rainy weather had made way to lovely summerlike days, he left for London.
His first plan was to telephone anyone listed under the name of Hall. He did and got responses varying from sympathetic to downright humiliating. When one man called him a stupid Yank, he gave up.
In between he was in and out of public libraries, feeling other people’s eyes on him, as if they were surprised that an American could read at all.
He found the information he sought in a travel guide on the southern counties of England. Penge was an estate in the westernmost part of Wiltshire, on the Somerset border.
He was more affluent than most of the other American students at Oxford, so he hired a car, put on his uniform and set off, finding to his surprise that driving on the left was very easy. He found the place, parked alongside the main road and then found the gates inhospitably closed.
The estate was enormous, quite like the largest farms in northern Minnesota but not undulating in amber waves of ripening wheat. Here well-mown lawns alternated with patches of forests and ponds. The borders were marked by hawthorn bushes. It was the easiest thing to step right through them and onto the property owned by Mr. Clive Durham.
He walked on, admiring primrose and rhododendron bushes in full bloom and the majestic house in the background that eclipsed all the buildings he had seen until then. Then he heard a horse neigh. A man on a magnificent Arabian gelding came riding in his direction and stopped a few yards short of where the visitor was standing.
‘Good afternoon, Major,’ a clipped voice sounded. The man was probably in his late twenties. He wore no headgear, but he touched his left temple with a gloved hand in a mock military salute. ‘I presume you got lost?’
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ Gatsby said, sounding very British. ‘No, I’m not lost. I read about Penge in a travel guide long ago and I very much wished to see it.’
‘What travel guide?’ the gentleman wanted to know.
‘A very old one, published in New York…in 1902.’
Gatsby had hastily added the latter detail because he had surveyed the squire in a split second. He had always believed English country gentry to be powerfully built, a remnant from the Danish occupation in the early Middle Ages, very similar to himself, for he was blond and broad-shouldered. He was a child of Minnesota, a state where many people from Nordic countries had settled. There was something of the hardy Swede about him and he had expected to encounter a similar-looking man, but this Englishman was different.
Clive Durham had looked magnificent at first, due to his sitting erect in the saddle. He did not dismount but Gatsby could still tell that he was smallish and very frail. His hair was dark-brown and his eyes surveyed the American coldly behind gold-rimmed glasses.
His pinkish lips quivered and he almost unnoticeably turned up his delicate, aquiline nose, as if the other man smelled.
‘I am most dreadfully sorry, sir,’ Clive Durham said. ‘But Penge has never been a tourist attraction…You will understand that there are no guided tours here. I’m afraid you took the article in the American book quite out of context…Good afternoon.’
He made his horse turn around and it broke into a modest gallop, leaving Gatsby to stand on the path in the sickening smell of the primroses.
As he walked back to his car, he told himself that Clive Durham was beautiful in an almost unearthly fashion. And now he understood. It was this kind of man that could capture Maurice’s heart. Even though it was illegal, a squire associating intimately with a member of the London upper-middle class made more sense than the latter doing the same with a fellow who had worked as a farm hand and whose assets consisted of a few drugstores and fuel stations.
Gatsby felt an idea rise in him on the way back to London. He resumed calling anyone listed under the name of Hall and eventually spoke to Kitty, Maurice’s youngest sister.
She did not know him and he was sure that Maurice had never mentioned his name in letters to his family. She told Gatsby that Maurice was not in London at the time. Yet she invited him over to tea in a sweet, low voice, so much like her brother’s.
A few days later, he got to meet Miss Hall. She was blond, her eyes were brown like Daisy’s and she could cast a man bending over to her to give her a light a glance quite like the girl he had loved. He had arrived in uniform and with a bunch of flowers for the lady of the house.
Mrs. Hall fussed over him, sweetly cajoling him into having another cup of tea or a scone or a crumpet, and expressed her delight at meeting her son’s friend. Kitty’s interest in the visitor was palpable. She wore no engagement ring and he was an officer. Maybe she had hopes.
The subject of Maurice himself was briefly dealt with. ‘He sailed for New York last week,’ Mrs. Hall said. ‘He’s hoping to obtain a position with a company on Wall Street.’
Gatsby knew why Kitty had not disclosed this on the telephone and why she wanted him to come to tea even though her brother was not there. To avoid suspicion or false hope, he decided not to ask if Maurice already had a home address in New York,
After an hour or so, he rose and bid the ladies goodbye. The impressive villa they lived in had made his plan develop a bit further.
Maurice would not want to meet him if he went on living like a modestly wealthy businessman in Minnesota. Gatsby decided to move to New York and make a fortune to be able to buy a house in the suburbs, large enough to rival the mansion on Penge and to ensure privacy. He wanted to become the American version of a British squire, for only then would Maurice come back to him.
He went to New York, engaged in business deals he would not disclose and bought this furnished villa from the owner of an oil company in Oklahoma. He was rich even before he came into more money, because wealth begets wealth as soon as the jet-set comes to visit.
All of New York had champagne and danced and splashed in the pool fully clothed, the young ladies flirted with the host and rubbed the contents of their glasses into his hair and trotted off to seek amusement with other men as soon as they noticed he didn’t care for their attention. He barely spoke to the visitors and very often walked to the edge of his garden to overlook the sea and to watch the green light on East Egg flash on and off, wondering if Maurice was on the other shore now – his background accounted for it – or hidden in the concrete mass of Manhattan and struggling to make ends meet, or maybe even on one of the giant steamers bound for Europe.
He slept badly and roamed the beach at night, smoking and whispering to the man he wanted to see, to hold, to kiss. All of New York invaded his home every Friday and Saturday night, but Maurice had disappeared off the face of the earth.
The only thing Gatsby had found out about Maurice after bribing porters and errand boys on Wall Street was that he was employed at Swift & Feinman, one of the most prominent companies in the quarter. When a guest once mentioned a certain Mr. Hall from London, a bond business expert, it did not matter anymore. Maurice had become successful, but it did not change things for the better.
America’s laws were rigorous when it came to punishing men going astray. Maybe Maurice was right by avoiding him.
And then Gatsby learned – he could not remember now from whom – that the man who had just moved into that hideous shack of a house next to his premises, worked on Wall Street.
He invited Mr. Carraway, whom he had not met until then, over to one of his parties, got into a pleasant talk with him with one objective – to use this man’s connections.
It was surprising, and at the same time not surprising at all, that Carraway knew Maurice, moreover, showed that he knew more than the fact that Mr. Hall from London had a position with one of the Wall Street firms. What was downright astonishing was Carraway’s compliance when Gatsby asked him to invite Maurice to tea. And so Gatsby and Maurice met, four years after their last visit to Paris.
Chapter 13: A Man from London
Maurice now tells his own story.
The clock struck two. The thunder rumbled outside, hesitantly as if it was unsure whether it should develop the power it had gained over the Atlantic.
‘Good heavens, how late it is!’ Maurice cried, lighting a cigarette and fondling his cufflinks. ‘I’m due back at work at nine tomorrow.’
He gave me a sweet look. ‘And how about you, old sport? You are going back to the office as well, aren’t you? You should get some sleep, you’re looking awfully tired.’
He blew out a plume of smoke and fixed me with sparkling, midnight-blue eyes behind platinum-rimmed glasses. Then his pink lips parted, showing a hint of his pearl-white teeth.
‘Aren’t you tired, then?’ I asked.
He shook his head and burst out in gleeful peals of laughter. ‘No, I’m as chipper as a whistle…Death is on our doorstep and it’s the greatest glory granted to mankind according to Tennyson, but I just might treat my jolly self to a drop of whiskey later. Not that plonk from Tennessee, but golden amber from the Scottish Highlands.’ He playfully cuffed Gatsby, who pushed his hand away, and giggled: ‘Aye, Jim, me laddie, ye know I’d nae settle for anythin’ else.’
Gatsby sighed and crossed his arms as if to keep himself from falling over from the couch onto the Persian carpet. ‘I don’t know what’s been wrong with you since yesterday,’ he said to Maurice with a trace of anger in his voice. ‘If you were tipsy, I’d understand, but you only had a pitcher of beer this afternoon…No offence intended, but you’re being so violently happy that it’s annoying, old sport.’
Maurice laughed again. ‘I’m in a celebratory mood…Nick, would you go and look for some McGrath Black Label? I learned yesterday, or rather the day before yesterday, that someone is coming to visit me at my humble cottage very soon…Deo gratias, at last, at last!’
‘Your sister?’ I asked, feeling too lost to think of another probability.
He shook his head. ‘No, it’s not Kitty. I might take leave in the next spring and dash over to England to see my family, but that still remains to be decided. It all depends on…’
‘God damn it,’ Gatsby erupted. It sounded like sacrilege.
Then he leaned back into the couch cushions. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured.
‘I’d better tell you and Nick all then,’ Maurice said.
Maurice Hall was born in a village on the borders of London in 1889. He had two younger sisters, Ada and Kitty. His father, who owned half of a stockbroking company, died when he was twelve. Maurice knew he was destined to follow in old Mr. Hall’s footsteps, especially since he had no brothers.
At the age of fourteen he was sent to Sunnington, a boarding school in Middlesex that had none of the glory and academic promises like Eton, Gordonstoun or Ackworth.
The pupils were drilled in daytime and policed by monitors at night. Shortly before he enrolled, there had been a scandal of some sort, causing at least one boy to be expelled with immediate effect.
He was quite ignorant about the feelings that slowly developed within him and hurt him during sports games or in the changing rooms. It was a faint blur of muscled forearms, delicately curved calves or unexpected smiles, all coming from his classmates.
At nineteen, he was ready for an education at Cambridge. Playtime was over, the very premises exuded intellect and true manhood.
A few months into his second year, he met Clive Durham, the only son of a family from Wiltshire, a man descended from nobility and destined to become the lord and master of his late father’s estate.
Clive was elegant, smallish and moved and talked briskly, his spring-blue eyes always glittering with life. He mocked Maurice for being too level-headed and acting a tiny bit too much like the people’s man. Maurice rode a motorcycle then.
Clive was the first one to speak the words that made the world collapse on a warm April afternoon in 1910: ‘I love you.’
Confusion, arguments and silent reconciliations followed after. Maurice was in love with him, in love for the first time in his life, feeling they would both face terror and hell if this was ever made known. Sweetness triumphed and they became lovers in every sense of the word.
They had both been untouched until then and their first attempts in the dark security of Clive’s campus room were clumsy, but warm and intimate all the same.
Maurice was only a middle-class man, considered unfit to associate with a patrician like Clive, as fellow students remarked, for now they were best friends in the sunlight between or after lectures.
Seeing Clive, who knew all and who would become a country squire, perish with bliss and lust whenever they made love fitted Maurice with a sense of power. A patrician giving himself completely to a mediocre bourgeois from the City showed that conventions could either be accepted or dismissed. They remained lovers after they had both left college.
Clive, however, kept saying that this could not continue lest he and Maurice should lose all – their prospective careers, their families, their names. It was Clive who ended it by doing the only sensible thing. He married and became the lord of Penge.
Maurice lost his good, healthy spirits. He kept commuting to London and back, hoping very much to die in a railroad accident, knowing there was no cure for his ailment.
Clive was a generous host and invited Maurice to his estate often. The two of them wanted to remain friends, even though they knew this was impossible. Maurice was very close to venturing out into Penge’s vast woods and waiting for the right night with a full moon to shoot himself, when he suddenly noticed how Alec Scudder, Clive’s under-gamekeeper, who often roamed the garden and who always had time for a chat, was actually a very good-looking man. He had glossy black curls, bright brown eyes and a tanned skin.
This man knew more than Maurice would show and climbed up a ladder to the guest room one night and left before dawn.
The young man, preciously uninhibited by social scruples or schooling, turned the world into a fairground where every attraction was another display of simple happiness and bliss.
It only lasted a few weeks. Alec loved Maurice, but he had a ticket to the Argentine. His brother had established a business outside Buenos Aires and had invited him to come and join him. After a night at a hotel in London, Alec told Maurice that he had pledged his word and that he would sail. He added that Maurice, whom he considered a learned feller who could do all, might go there eventually too. They both knew this was romantic, but utter nonsense at the same time. Maurice decided that men were unreliable. They either broke things off, got married or simply emigrated. If he was to be miserable, he would rather be so in England than in a country where his true nature would encounter as little recognition as on his home soil.
They kept a correspondence. Alec sent his letters from Buenos Aires under a false name. His tales were enthusiastic. The new country was beautiful, the weather was nice and he earned good wages, which hurt Maurice, who had been ready and willing to give up his middle-class life to live with him in Scotland.
Then the war broke out. It was a relief to know that Alec was too far away to report and find a glorious death in the trenches for futile reasons. Maurice enlisted as a lieutenant, hoping again to die.
He served for nearly three years, only going back to England once to attend his nephew’s christening as a godfather. He found Alec’s letters in his room at his mother’s house.
The stories were even more fascinating now. Alec had saved up and bought himself into a garage outside the centre of Buenos Aires. When two gas pumps and and a little store run by his maid and her husband were added, the place came to fruition.
Alec, who had left school at fourteen and who had never risen above the level of a farm hand or an underpaid under-gamekeeper, was a businessman with an apartment and a motor car now.
He never mentioned returning to England, not even to visit when the war would be over.
Maurice fled back to the trenches, led his troops through Flanders and the north of France, hoping to die, but he was spared by his superiors. A man who knew German quite well was too valuable to be sacrificed to enemy gunfire.
That one afternoon, in the very early cold but sunny spring of 1918, he met Captain Gatsby at the staff office outside Arras. A man with a loose, businesslike demeanor like all Americans, but also with incredible green eyes, precious freckles around his nose and hair the color of wild honey. The smile he gave Maurice was full of endearing shyness, and it was then that Maurice decided that wanting to die was nonsense, since life offered its sweet treasures even in the furthest reaches of the hell that was called war.
Maurice met Gatsby again and found to his surprise that this man was not averse to him, but also woefully ignorant of what he could do. It took him a stay in Paris on leave to finally grant him this last insight, and he imbibed it all with joyful eagerness and became Maurice’s lover.
The past could not be repeated. Clive Durham was married and Alec was being rich and industrious in the Argentine. It was odd how Clive still haunted Maurice’s dreams, but sleep is always saved by waking.
It was in July that Maurice started to feel rather unwell while on duty. He ignored it at first even though he had to leave his desk many times to deal with it, and when his orderly found him lying next to a latrine unconscious, he was taken to a field hospital and diagnosed with typhoid fever.
Weeks of weakness in quarantine followed. He had to be fed by nurses and he was not allowed to send out any letters lest they should contaminate anyone touching them.
He recovered slowly but was classified unfit to resume his duty in the trenches. The medical staff had him taken home by the Red Cross.
Gatsby’s regiment had moved to the west. Maurice read the lists of the fallen in the newspapers every day but his name was not in them. No letters were forwarded from the military office.
It was only too logical. James Gatsby had grown into a person of standing who could not afford to risk his reputation or his life for loving a man. He was strong, healthy and good-looking and he would return to America and marry a girl from a good family. Like Alec, he had risen and there was no way back. It was this very fact that made any man unreliable.
Now that peace had broken out, England held its own terrors for Maurice – his mother expecting him to resume work as a stockbroker, Clive out of reach (he did not even know then if Clive had survived the war) and Alec on the other side of the globe.
All right, Maurice said to himself, then I shall disappear as well, and he wrote a letter to the American consulate requesting prospects and booklets on emigrating.
Things progressed rather fast. He got a visa almost right away and set sail for New York in May 1919. An acquaintance of his had recommended him to Swift & Feinman and soon he found himself at a desk in a room with a personal secretary.
After half a year of living at a mediocre boarding house in Queens, he found a small cottage on Long Island, not very suited for a bond broker on the rise, but he wanted cheap accommodation to save up for a visiting trip back to England. It was actually a nice place because it had a garden full of stray cats and it was only three miles by car to the next railway station. He was about to be promoted and at some time he would have to move into a better house for decency’s sake, but he was not in a hurry. There were more important things to consider now, because the visitor would arrive by the end of November, God willing.
Chapter 14: Lifting the Veil
Things hitherto unknown are revealed as the night wears on.
‘What visitor?’ Gatsby asked. ‘If it’s not your sister, who is it then?’
Maurice poured himself a glass of whiskey and raised it in a toast, rather to himself than to us.
‘It’s Alec Scudder.’
He told us how he had consistently kept a correspondence with the former gamekeeper he had last seen on Penge in September 1913. They had been lovers for a few weeks then, so it would have been natural to dismiss this as a thing of the past.
Alec wrote how he was happy in Argentina, but that he also missed Maurice, who could not help but miss him as well. They exchanged letters almost weekly and every written word was a reason for joy.
‘In January of this year,’ Maurice said, ‘Alec had booked a ticket and engaged a solicitor to oversee the sale of his business. It was an exceptionally dry summer. Three days before he was due to sail, his garage caught fire. It flared up all of a sudden, at six o’clock in the morning, and it spread quickly, because everything was as dry as tinder. Alec’s head mechanic and his wife lived in a flat over it and they could flee in time. But then this man rushed back into the garage, probably wanting to salvage something valuable, and at that moment a few beams from the ceiling fell on top of him…He was rescued by firemen before the whole building collapsed. He nearly died in the hospital.
Alec lived in the main house on the other side of the yard. He was still asleep when the fire broke out. By the time he woke up it was too late.
The insurance company ordered an inquest. They believed that the construction did not meet the fire prevention regulations and moreover, that Alec had deliberately caused the garage to burn down to be able to cash a huge sum that would come in handy for his journey to America.
There were investigations proving that the building had been safe and fireproof. It did not rule out that things like these could happen…’
Maurice took of his glasses and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief. Then he poured himself some more whiskey. Another flash of lightning turned the room into an inferno for a split second.
‘Alec wrote to me that this was the end. He reckoned he would be sent to jail. He implored me to forget about him because we would never meet again…And oddly enough, I felt I had been thinking this all along. It was meant to be, even if this gruesome accident had never happened.
And in May of this year the mechanic, who had spent months in hospital, had his solicitor draw up a testimony. He had gone into the garage that morning to collect some car parts, unaware of how he had entered the building with a cigarette in his mouth. This was forbidden, of course, and he had only noticed his mistake when he stooped down to mop up some engine oil he had spilled. But it was too late. A tiny speck of glowing tobacco was enough to cause an enormous fire.
Alec got acquitted, insurance will cover the medical costs and the damage done to the property. Alec would not disclose this to me until his solicitor was sure the court case was closed for good. That’s why I did not learn about his coming until the day before yesterday…Heaven be blessed!’
Maurice suppressed a cry of glee, biting his lip. ‘Alec is coming to stay, my lovely friends.’
‘For good,’ Gatsby rather concluded than asked.
‘For good indeed,’ Maurice smiled. ‘As soon as I read Alec’s letter, I wanted to dash out to Wilson’s garage and tell him that my plans on leasing the place including the flat over it would finally be executed, but I couldn’t, because I was at a loss for words for happiness. I had talked to him about it last year when Alec announced he would come to America. And when all was canceled, Wilson called me an idiot and a liar…Poor Wilson, I’d best leave him and his wife alone for a while. They had a terrible shock tonight…’
Maurice looked at me with understanding eyes. ‘Even though it was only a minor accident, caused by Myrtle’s reckless flight…Nick, dear, how are you feeling now?’
‘I’m all right, I suppose,’ I said.
Gatsby rose from the sofa and started pacing up and down the room. ‘So this is it,’ he said. ‘So this is it.’ He laughed mirthlessly. ‘I should have had more sense. If something feels too good to be true, it probably is. I should have known it would all end.’
Now he sank down before Maurice and grabbed his hands. ‘Please tell me it’s all a folly. Please admit you’re in a muddle. I would understand.’
Maurice stroked Gatsby’s forearms with a moist, tender look in his eyes.
Thunder rumbled again, closer now. A gust of wind made the shutters rattle.
‘So you won’t tell me,’ Gatsby went on. ‘You’re confused. I don’t blame you for that.’
Maurice kept staring at him, shaking his head and biting his lip.
‘So this is it,’ Gatsby said softly. ‘On that first night when you came to my house, after Nick had left, you cried tears of joy because you had found me again…I fired my servants and replaced them with people who didn’t speak English and who wouldn’t bear the tale anyway. And when that was done, I closed up my house and hid inside with you…It was all I ever wished for…I bought this villa to be able to meet you again. Right after I moved in, I had a room furnished especially for you, in dark-blue, the color of your eyes. And you finally came to stay on that Monday after the party. We hid inside and talked to no one but each other, we became lovers again…’
Maurice bent over and ran his fingers through Gatsby’s hair. ‘It was heaven, James,’ he said. ‘I loved you more than I did in the war…We had beauty and bliss and even simple things were so delightful…Watching you, asleep in my arms or shaving in the bathroom or picking the most magnificent clothes from your wardrobe because you wanted to look beautiful for me…You always were and always will be.’
‘I now believe you only spent weeks at my house to hide from Tom.’
‘James, he pretty much assaulted me in a public lavatory outside Penn Station before my holiday…of course I had to hide…But I might have hidden elsewhere, and yet I chose to come to you.’
‘Tom is moving back to Chicago. He’ll no longer bother you. You can stay here and drive to work and back undisturbed. You can move in for good. If anyone asks, you’re a cousin of mine from England. And I’ll entertain no more guests to avoid suspicion. I got it planned as soon as I signed the deed for this house in 1920.’
Maurice gently drew Gatsby to him and kissed the top of his head. Then he ran his fingers over Gatsby’s cheeks.
‘I owe you so much, my love. Do you know how I felt a spark of life when I met you at Nick’s house? It was as if we had not been apart since our last days in Paris.’
Maurice lifted Gatsby’s chin and looked him in the eyes. ‘All Alec meant to me had become dormant when the accident at his garage occurred. I told myself it would be better to forget him…And then I saw you and I got my spirits back, just like that. It endowed me with foolish hope. I thought that if a miracle like meeting you again was possible, it would not be ludicrous to wish to be reunited with Alec.’
‘We were reunited, Maurice. You won’t need to change that.’
‘I’m afraid I will…Alec and I have been lovers since 1913.’
‘For a few weeks.’
‘Yes, and then on paper for nine years. Could you think of anything more solid? Now that he’s clear of all this unpleasant damage business, he could have chosen to stay in the Argentine, he was doing well enough for that…But he sacrificed his career for my sake.’
Gatsby got up and let his arms dangle along his sides.
‘A man with little education, and you went to Cambridge…Well, I never even finished school, and I made it as well.’ He made a wide gesture with his left arm to indicate the vastness of his assets. ‘Alec and I are the same, so why would you choose him over me?’
Then he swallowed and drew a few breaths.
‘I always thought you looked down on me, Maurice, even in the war, even at our most intimate moments…What am I to you? A man devoid of intellect, quite like I imagine Alec, and a boy from a rural lower middle-class family…a Yank. I know how Europeans think.’
Maurice eyed him in despair. ‘Oh no, I never thought any of those things. You are who you are. You’re beautiful, but even if you weren’t, I’d still…’
‘You despise me because of my German roots, don’t you?’
‘Not at all! What makes you think that? I hope you are as proud of your ancestry as I am of mine.’
‘You’re one to talk…’ Gatsby waved his hand impatiently. ‘You may love me, but you’ll drop me in the end for what I am besides American and German…’
Maurice blinked his eyes. ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand, dear.’
Gatsby threw back his head as if to express his anger over the other man’s ignorance.
‘Don’t fool me, Maurice…You despise me because I’m Jewish.’
Maurice smiled. ‘I had a notion you were…even though you don’t bear that one distinctive feature.’
I understood. Maurice had seen with his own eyes that Gatsby had not undergone this minor surgery that established the bond between the Hebrew people and God.
‘My parents consciously decided against it when I was born,’ Gatsby explained. ‘They wanted me to look like a gentile, in case I should be drafted and undergo a medical examination…They came from a continent stricken with prejudice and unrest and they always feared that they might encounter it elsewhere.’
‘Dear, please,’ Maurice begged sadly. ‘Don’t ever think that I consider Judaism inferior, or any faith for that matter…If I did, I would never have accepted a position at Swift & Feinman. Both founders are Jewish, I’m sure you know that…Please be proud of your religion too. I was born into an Anglican family and I turned agnostic at twenty, but you…’
‘What’s your real name then?’ I heard myself ask Gatsby.
He turned around and looked at me in astonishment, as if he had forgotten my presence.
He gave me a tiny smile. ‘I was registered Jakob Meyer Friedrich Gatz at birth…Jakob is written with a k, in German fashion. Meyer is my father’s first name and Friedrich was randomly chosen to indicate that I am, in a way, still tied to my parents’ home country.’
He drew a few deep breaths. ‘My religious education was not very profound. My father would bless the candles on Sabbath and read from the Torah after dinner. I can only rudimentarily read Hebrew. There was no community in the far-off corner of northern Minnesota where we lived. My parents had to take me across the border into Canada to let me have my bar mitzvah. But yes, all this is a part of me too.’
‘You changed all you were,’ Maurice said sadly. ‘It must hurt in a way.’
‘It does,’ Gatsby nodded. ‘But not much. And maybe it was all for the best. If I my origins had been manifest, God knows what the German forces would have done to me if they had taken me prisoner of war…And you know what all of New York has to say about so-called criminal Jewish masterminds who never get caught and who gather fortunes…Let me tell you one thing: both crime and virtue know no creed. You can be either good or bad or something in between and that goes for all of mankind.’
‘I agree,’ I said, but they never heard, because now a violent outburst of thunder shook the house so vigorously that the cut-glass ornaments on the ceiling light tinkled anxiously.
We remained silent, lit cigarettes and avoided one another’s gazes, even when the rain came down with a loud roar – the first notable shower after weeks of stifling draught.
I got up and poured myself a cup of tea. It had gone cold. Gatsby and Maurice watched me but they made no sign that they wanted some as well.
The rain beat down more forcefully and the gurgling of water in drainpipes could be heard. It stopped after fifteen minutes or so, as unexpectedly as it had started. A faint murmur of thunder sounded from the west, almost muted by the song of birds heralding dawn.
Maurice opened a door that led into the garden and pulled back the shutters. A wave of fragrant, cool air blew in. He stepped onto the porch, drew a few long breaths and lit a cigarette. It was still dark, so only his silhouette and a little circle of gleaming tobacco could be seen. I joined him and stared into the quiet, blue garden.
We stood there for minutes until we detected a faint scent of verbena behind us. We turned around and saw Gatsby standing on the threshold, looking like a dark giant in the electric light that came from the parlor.
‘I consider it best if you both leave now,’ he said calmly. ‘After all, it’s Monday morning and you have to go to work.’ Then he looked at Maurice. ‘Your clothes and toiletries and such are still in your room here. None of my staff can drive, but I’ll have your things sent to your house soon.’
‘Will you be all right?’ I asked. It was the first question I ever directed at him.
He nodded. ‘I will. I’ll sleep for a few hours and then I’ll get on the afternoon train. I am going to visit my parents. They are now living in a nice house I bought for them outside Duluth. It’s been ages since I last saw them.’
He drew a slow breath. ‘And as soon as I get back, I’ll look up my advisors and my attorney. I’m putting this house up for sale.’
‘Where are you going to live?’ Maurice asked.
Gatsby grinned. ‘I’ve not decided yet…Maybe in Duluth to be closer to my parents, or on the Cote d’Azur…Or maybe even on Hawaii. Any place that’s not like New York.’
He gently patted my wrist. ‘As for you, old sport, I’d like to give you some advice…Move back to Wisconsin. You’re too honest and pure to live in a rotten place like this…And please try and make peace with Jordan Baker. She’s clever in her own way, but she lacks the dark side that stimulates profound reflection. You’re destined to get married and have many healthy children. There are means and ways to overcome the so-called unspeakable part of yourself.’
He smiled. ‘I’m feeling very tired now. I’m going to bed, so if you would please excuse me now…’
‘You’re in a muddle, dear,’ Maurice said sadly. ‘Do let me stay a bit to comfort you.’
‘No, thank you…I’ll be all right…Well, goodbye, gentlemen.’
Gatsby stepped back and gripped the door handle. As Maurice and I started for the path that led to my lawn, a low, sweet voice made us turn around.
‘Nick!’ We saw Gatsby stand on his porch, more visible now in the growing daylight.
‘Nick!’ he called out again. ‘Pretend you didn’t hear him,’ Maurice whispered.
I walked back and looked into Gatsby’s eyes that exuded some inexplicable joy.
‘Nick,’ he said, loud enough for Maurice to hear. ‘You’re better than the rest of us put together.’
‘Sleep well,’ was all I said before I ran back to join Maurice.
Chapter 15: Garden of Silence
No explanation needed.
Maurice and I did not look over our shoulders and marched straight to my kitchen door. I turned on the light and started looking for the coffee tin. ‘We might have some later,’ Maurice said softly. ‘It’s going on six o’clock and there’s still some time for us to doze on the…’
The rest of his words eluded me. I have no recollection of what happened then – I presume I fainted and crashed to the floor. What I do remember is waking up on the couch without my shoes and jacket on and my waistcoat unbuttoned while Maurice was talking on my telephone.
‘Good morning, this is John Stone speaking. I presume you are the porter…? I live across the street from Mr. Carraway…Would you please inform his superior that he can’t come to work today…? A very bad cold, I presume, he’s got a fever and my wife is looking after him now…I’ll tell him to phone you as soon as he’s feeling better…Thank you, sir.’
Maybe I was staring at him when he hung up, because he rushed to me and told me to remain on the couch and asked me if I’d like a hot drink or something. Then there were words about both our cars still being in the Buchanans’ drive, followed by another phone conversation with a company that would send down a taxi to take someone to the station.
I remember waking up again at four o’ clock in the afternoon. Maurice was gone. The sun shone straight into my living room and the scent of cigarette smoke and sandalwood still lingered in the air.
I got up, walked to the hallway and found an envelope containing the keys to my Dodge. From the side window I could see my car parked in the drive, and to this very day I don’t know who has done me the immense favor of returning the vehicle and sparing me a costly taxi ride to the Buchanans’ house.
I went to bed early, was violently sick all through the night and was woken from my first fitful slumber by the ringing of my phone at eight o’clock the next morning. Maybe I uttered a name of a person I had expected to call, but when I heard ‘For heaven’s sake, Nick, it’s Daisy’, I became alert.
Without asking me how I was doing or wondering while I was still at home (I was usually on the train to New York around this time), she told me that she had postponed her return to Louisville by a few days. There were a million things to pack and she had spent hours on the phone, for instance with Jordan, the previous day.
‘She’s at her aunt’s and she keeps saying she wants to leave New York. I won’t repeat what she remarked about you. Just remember she never wants to lay eyes on you again. You hurt her terribly.’
‘I didn’t want to,’ I said. ‘She’s a nice girl, but I was never in love with her. I just wanted to be honest with her.’
‘I know, dear. But how I understand how she’s feeling now…She and I both agree that there’s something terribly wrong with men these days. They’d rather amuse themselves without the presence of women. Some of them take this completely the wrong way, like…well, a few men I know.’
‘Are you taking Pammy to Louisville with you?’
‘Who…? Oh yes, Pammy…Of course she’s coming with me, and her nanny too.’
‘How is Tom?’
‘He went to bed as soon as we got home the day before yesterday and he hasn’t left it since. I slept in a guest room. We have nothing more to say to each other and I don’t want us to part with a row.’
‘Will I see you before you leave?’
‘No, dear. It’s for your own good if you stay clear of my house…Well, you can’t help being who you are. You are reliable and loyal. The trouble with people like you is that they are good, and that makes them attract vice. It reminds me of the Middle Ages. Innocent citizens being beheaded in town squares for allegedly renouncing religion or possessing witchcraft…You lack the proper strength to live in New York. Be sensible and go back to Wisconsin.’
I wanted to end the conversation, but she told me how she had been to Wilson’s fuel station the day before. She had found Myrtle with her wrist in plaster and her arm tied up in a sling.
‘I had brought her some flowers and candy to console her and she appreciated that, but she still thought I was just being nice to her to placate my husband. When I asked her how she was coping, she just grinned and said she was lucky that it was her right wrist that was broken. She’s left-handed.’
Daisy then wished me best of luck and hung up.
Oddly enough, I felt sleepy after that and went straight back to bed.
I woke at three in the afternoon and went down to the kitchen to have a glass of milk.
The weather outside was warm. The sky was overcast and sealed in the last bit of summer heat. I went into my garden and saw that all the shutters of Gatsby’s house were closed. The furniture under the awning had been removed and the fountain had been turned off.
Gatsby must have left for Duluth in a hurry, because he had forgotten to give his staff orders to have the swimming pool drained. Its cool, turquoise waves beckoned me.
I vaguely remembered Gatsby telling me at some moment that I was welcome to use it anytime, even when he was not in.
This may be my very last swim, I thought as I went upstairs to change into my bathing suit. Then I put on my dressing gown and sandals and went into my neighbor’s garden. The door of the shed was unlocked. I found the inflatable mattress in there, blew some more air into it and set it afloat in the pool. The water was pleasantly warm as I carefully immersed myself. It made me realize the owner had forgotten to tell his staff to turn off the heating.
I crawled onto the mattress, lay down on my stomach, put my head on my crossed arms and drifted about in the warm summer breeze with my eyes closed. My thoughts slowly crept from one point to another, like lines drawn on a map. Long Island, New York, Penn Station, Wall Street, Wisconsin, enhanced by calculations.
To this very day I still can’t tell who suddenly appeared noiselessly, probably from between the rhododendron bushes. I heard a voice but I never registered what it said. There are various possibilities. Maybe ‘Peek-a-boo…You never loved me, I’m going to make you suffer for it’ or ‘I loved him before you did, he’s mine, there you go’ or ‘I told you I had a gun, it was you at the wheel and you could have killed her, well, eat this then,’ or maybe even ‘Look what you did, you ape, I’ll be crippled for life thanks to you…You’re welcome.’
The person firing twice at me might have fought in the trenches. Even those who never had still kept guns in their homes or their cars. There were many Midwesterners, including myself, skilled in shooting at moving targets from speeding horses.
I had been bobbing innocently in the pool, dressed in a dark swimsuit like all men wore at the time. The person attacking may have mistaken me for Maurice, because I had black hair like him, and since I was not standing up but lying down it was probably impossible to see that I was in fact a few inches shorter than the Englishman. Maybe the shots were intended for Gatsby. He was as tall as Maurice and had the same build, and blond hair looks darker when it’s wet, and both men’s skins were amber-colored while I was as pale as paper, but whoever fired at me might have dismissed all these details as irrelevant.
The first bullet hit the mattress, causing it to deflate and sink with me on it, fast but still slowly enough for the attacker to aim again and drive the second bullet deep into my left shoulder.
I remember landing in a soundless underwater world that grew darker with my blood before I lost consciousness. I don’t know who pulled me out and dragged me into the house, because when I woke up, I was lying on a grimy couch in what I presumed to be the servants’ dining room, with the doorman hovering over me and coaxing me into sipping some brandy.
‘No police,’ I said, and he nodded. He then pointed at the wound with one hand while he pressed a blood-soaked rag onto my shoulder. He held out an index finger and a thumb, imitating a pistol or a revolver. Then he let the two fingers almost touch, indicating that the bullet must be very small. A delicate scooping motion showed that he intended to remove it.
He fed me more brandy to numb the pain, bandaged the wound, left the room and returned a few minutes later with a pair of tweezers that kitchen chefs use to gut shrimp. I averted my face as I felt the two metal ends dig into my flesh, then I heard ‘A-ha!’ and looked again and saw him triumphantly hold up the bullet. He dressed the wound, left again and returned with a red-hot knife. I had read about this. Singeing flesh was the only way to seal blood vessels. He motioned that I had to cover my mouth and I did. The brandy must have numbed the pain, because I wouldn’t feel anything until hours later, but the stench of burning skin and muscle tissue made me scream out.
I clenched my teeth as he sewed the blackened cavity with a darning needle and some silk thread. He finished by dabbing the spot with gin and then bandaging it tightly with a clean cotton rag.
Only after that could I smile. I wanted to sit up but he gestured that I had to remain lying on my back. He drew up a chair, sat down next to me, broke a cigarette in two and offered me one half. Smoking calmed me down to a point where I could try and ask a question – I had barely done so in this house.
‘Were you in the war?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Eastern Front? Fighting Cossacks?’ He smiled and probably did not understand that I took him for a former soldier from the Austrian army. ‘Franz Joseph?’ I asked, and then he looked up at the ceiling and clasped his hands as if in prayer. It seemed he had indeed served under Austria’s last real emperor who had died some six years earlier.
I decided not to ask him if he had seen anybody on the premises or if the master was in. He must know and any answer to me would either leave me clueless or provide me with a certainty I was unwilling to accept.
After an hour the good servant helped me up and off the couch, wrapped me in my dressing gown and walked me to my own kitchen door.
Chapter 16: Closing Down
Nick reflects on past events and makes some crucial decisions.
After a night of fitful sleep with my throbbing shoulder constantly waking me up, I sent my office manager a telegram telling him that I was to be hospitalized and would remain on sick-leave until further notice. It was all I could do to justify the fact that I would not answer my phone.
The days went by quietly. I would sit on my couch from morning until mid-afternoon and go to bed before dinnertime.
The nearby grocery shop delivered food on my doorstep. When I ran out of coffee and forgot to order a new tin, I resorted to tap water.
With no work or friends to distract me, I had ample time to think.
The past months had been the first real ones in my life, starting with the night I fist visited the Buchanans at their East Egg mansion. I had been the center of everything, or rather the axle, unnoticed by people who relied on things to keep moving for their benefit and who never bothered to find out who had made all this possible.
I had not dissuaded Daisy from desperately seeking to meet Gatsby, I had hosted a tea party for him at my home, allowing him to meet the man he loved on neutral, friendly territory, I had seen Tom turn into the world’s worst enemy because Maurice rebuked him. Like a law-abiding citizen and a good Christian, I had not intervened on any occasion, not even for my own benefit.
I had fallen in love with James Gatsby when he had introduced himself at his party, and with Maurice when we first shook hands outside Wilson’s fuel station.
Both Gatsby and Maurice had noticed this and done nothing as a consequence. They could both have had me, but they had only had eyes for each other. At least Maurice had shown me some kindness. He had loved Gatsby quite like he had flirted with me – it was nothing but play. He loved the man who would soon sail to America.
This could have been the opportunity for Gatsby to welcome me as more than a neighbor, but he had left for Duluth, probably never to return.
I was unblemished, because the accident at Wilson’s garage had not been deliberate and I had never denied that I had been driving.
Breaking Jordan’s heart was just a manner of speaking, because someone like her would weep for a day and then woo another man.
I was innocent but for a few meaningless mistakes, the others had been granted the luxury of wrath, and firearms were widely available in America.
There were plenty of motives to shoot Gatsby or Maurice or me. They would have had it coming because they were substantial enough to cause unforgiving jealousy. I, however, had remained inert. Yet it was me who had taken a bullet that, if the attacker had aimed a little more accurately, would have hit me in the head and killed me instantly.
‘So much for your wise words, Dad,’ I heard myself say one evening after my third glass of whiskey.
In the days that followed I finally took matters in my own hands. Pretending to be too sick to leave the house and leaving my phone off the hook during office hours, I wrote a letter of resignation to the board of directors at Finley & Cooper. This meant I had to serve out three more months at the office, but as I still had many unused holidays left, they would not see much of me anymore.
After posting my letter, I greeted my Finnish housekeeper who had just come in to clean and cook. When I told her I would not need her services anymore as of the next week, she spat at me and stamped her foot. Even my promise of a lavish bonus (which I could barely afford) did little to improve her mood. She put on her coat and walked out, leaving me with heaps of dirty dishes and a downright filthy bathroom. I never saw her again.
My greengrocer, who still delivered my food and who was the only kind element to me in those days, had often eyed my old Dodge with some surprising envy. I offered to let him have it for a song by the end of December, and he immediately agreed.
I phoned my landlord and told him I would move out shortly before Christmas. ‘Keep the place clean and neat, because I will be along soon to show some potential tenants around,' he said.
I spent time discarding all the clutter that had assembled during the neglectful three years of my reign, started packing trunks and inquired with some companies about shipping fees.
The whole house, in which I would leave all the furniture because it belonged to the landlord, was looking a lot better when I finally decided to return to my Wall Street desk.
‘So you are leaving us,’ John Finley II, the office manager and the son of the founder, remarked. ‘What are your plans?’
‘I’m moving back to Wisconsin,’ I announced. He did not protest and showed up a few days later with the man who would fill in my position. This fellow was fresh out of college and Finley would be entitled to pay him far less wages for the same work I had done.
My landlord was conferring with some so-called outstanding candidates who took interest in the little cottage. His insistence that I smarten the place up told me he would charge more rent from his next tenants.
I sent Maurice a letter thanking him for the way he had saved me after we had left Gatsby’s house. His friendly reply in neat British fountain-pen writing told me how busy he was preparing things for Alec’s arrival. He also invited me most cordially to come to luncheon at his house after New Year’s day.
New York no longer had any use for me. Moreover, I had been dispensable all along, maybe even since my birth.
The scruples instilled in me at a very young age left me tied to my Wall Street desk and training up the new broker until shortly before Thanksgiving. Then I took my remaining time off and set out for the West.
Chapter 17: Wisconsin
Nick travels to his place of birth for Thanksgiving.
Warning: this chapter contains references to extreme violence and biased opinions which I myself would never condone.
My home town lies in the western corner of Wisconsin, a few miles from the Iowa border. It is too far away from the sea to benefit from any tepid gulf stream winds and therefore sees its first snow in November. My breath froze in the cold air as soon as I left the taxi outside my father’s house. The driver sounded the horn and the curtains at one bay window moved. Presently the front door opened and a voice I had missed without realizing it rang out.
‘Look who’s here now…Nick, my boy…Come here and give you ol’ Minnie a hug!’
I was still standing in a nest of suitcases on the garden path as the woman came flying to me, her white apron radiating night light reflected by the snow. She pressed me against her bosom and I inhaled her familiar smell of rising dough and cinnamon and coffee. Her round, black cheeks glistened with joy.
‘Lord, I ain’t seen you since last Christmas and look at you now…all thin.’
She was a woman in her fifties, plump and energetic, and she stooped down to pick up my suitcases, but I told her not to and asked her how she and her sister Ethel were doing. When I had moved all my luggage to the hall, she took my coat and my hat and tut-tutted.
‘Baby…’ she began. Using this term of endearment had been her prerogative since my birth. ‘Baby, what have they been feedin’ you down in New York?’ Then she smiled. ‘But no worries, you’re home now. Ethel and me made your favorites for dinner. Roast pork and buttered taters and a peach cobbler for dessert. We sure gonna fatten you up.’
I went into the parlor and found my father and my mother sitting by the fire. There was a handshake from one and a hug from the other. ‘Do sit down,’ they ordered pleasantly. ‘And have some hot lemon water to warm up.’
My mother chattered endlessly about the upcoming Thanksgiving festivities. Grandfather, Aunt Beth, Uncle Peter, cousin Harry and old Miss Thompson would be having dinner with us.
‘It was originally intended to display the friendship between settlers and natives, but it’s all about enormous meals now,’ my father said to me. ‘But then again, what we’ll be having must seem shabby to someone used to New York restaurants.’
I asked to be excused and carried my suitcases upstairs. My room had not changed much since the days I had spent there on college breaks.
Minnie came in and unpacked my clothes. She put them in the wardrobe and suddenly sniffed loudly. ‘Say, boy, what’s that smell?’
An object fell from between two neatly folded shirts onto the floor. Now she grinned.
‘So your sweetheart sent you a letter with her scent on it – it smells cheap.’
I grabbed the envelope and put it in my nightstand before she could make any remarks on how there was no address written on it. It contained a handful of petals of Maurice’s La France roses. I kept the rest at home.
She left and I changed into a tweed evening jacket. Then I went downstairs to join my parents in the dining room.
The first course was vegetable soup, the second was served in my honor – a side of pork roast basted with honey and mustard, buttered potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Dessert was a treat that tasted of my careless childhood years. Minnie’s peach cobbler was unique. No one could make the dough so light and crumbly as she, and she always used a hint of nutmeg and pepper in Southern fashion. Oddly enough I did not enjoy any of the dishes.
‘Let’s have coffee in my study,’ my father said to me when Ethel had cleared the table.My mother gave him an understanding nod and went back to her embroidery in the parlor.
My father’s office with its bookshelves and the globe and the display case full of sparkling college trophies had always fascinated me as a child. I had always believed that wisdom and contentment lived here, but only now could I tell for some inexplicable reason that he had never read the largest part of his own library and that the prizes from his years at New Haven had been granted for brief flares of physical or scholastic excellence.
Dad watched me intensely as he lit a cigar. I produced my cigarette case but I did not feel like smoking.
‘I wanted to talk to you without your mother present,’ he began. ‘You arrived well in time for Thanksgiving. Not a thing a very busy bond broker usually does…Tell me, son, what happened?’
‘Nothing particular, Dad.’
His face turned sour. ‘You got fired at Finley & Cooper, didn’t you?’
‘I resigned as of the thirty-first of December.’
Dad nodded the way he had done when I had to confess some misdemeanor to him as a child – stealing candy from the jar or bullying the neighbors’ dog. His motions were a friendly build-up of momentum to strike.
‘I wanted you to have a career in the East,’ he said. ‘You made some progress, I presume, but that wasn’t enough for you. It’s strange, you look as ever, but you smell of money.’
I couldn’t think of an answer.
His wise, brown eyes pierced mine. ‘I read about this Royal Dutch Rubber Inc. scam in the newspaper a few weeks ago…It tore a hole in the solid Wall Street fortress…’
‘Finley & Cooper were not involved, and neither were the other companies I know.’
Dad smiled. ‘So it’s something else. Is it this girl…what’s her name? Jean Becker?’
‘Jordan Baker, Dad…I took her out to lunch a few times. She’s a bit shallow.’
‘They all are,’ Dad said. ‘Don’t tell your mother I said that. It would only upset her.’
I then explained the plans I had made. The Southern Wisconsin Investment Bank had an opening and companies like that were always keen on hiring those who had worked in the East or were Yale graduates. Both applied to me.
My father rightly argued that I would earn well, but considerably less than I had done at Finley & Cooper, and not enough to get a place of my own. He dreaded the prospect of his thirty-year-old son moving back under this roof. It would look like an utter failure.
Ten minutes later I said I was tired from the train journey. Dad nodded and leaned back in the easy chair, staring into nothingness.
My mother was still embroidering by the light of a parchment-shaded lamp in the parlor.
‘Goodnight, Mom,’ I said. ‘Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.’
My remark must hurt her. Minnie and Ethel had always done the cooking. A lady merely devised the menu. She gave me a wan smile.
‘Where’s your father?’ she asked.
‘Dozing in his study.’
‘He’s getting old, Nick. Worrying over you isn’t doing him any good…Whatever made you leave your position?’
‘Who told you, Mom?’
‘No one, we just guessed. You came home so early.’
She put the counterpane in the making in a sewing basket, took off her glasses and motioned me to sit down next to her.
‘You must have a reasonable explanation for this, Nick. It’s this Jordan Baker, isn’t it?’
‘No. We had some nice evenings at Tom’s house and I went out with her a few times. There was no…’
‘Tell me. The sooner we know, the better. I thought it strange how you never mentioned her in your last letters.’
‘Oh, I was too busy to…’
‘Nick, look at me, my son. Who is she?’
‘A golf player.’
‘Nick, please, that’s not important…Tell me the truth. Is she a Catholic?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Oh…Is she Jewish?’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘I just know, Mom.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t mind much, it’s just that your grandfather wouldn’t like it. He’s eighty-four, we shouldn’t upset him…Your father and I would mind, however, if…’
‘I’m sorry, Mom, what do you mean, please?’
‘Is she black?’
‘Keep your voice down…Don’t leave yet! Hear me out. Your father and I want to help. Did you get her into some kind of trouble?’
‘No…I mean, nothing unusual.’
She rubbed her hands nervously. ‘I just know there’s trouble, I’m your mother. I would very much like to meet her in New York. And of course, Dad and I will see to it that the two of you are married in a discreet ceremony…How much time have we left until…would you know?’
‘But Mom, I have no reasons to marry her. I didn’t like living in New York anymore, that’s why I am coming back for good before Christmas.’
My mother smiled now. ‘ I know. Your father is not pleased. But I’ll enjoy having you with me again. Don’t tell Dad. This is to be our sweet little secret, my son.’
The next day I decided to avoid my father until dinnertime. I borrowed his car and drove out of town to a farm so large it went all the way to the banks of the Mississippi, the Iowa border. My school friend John lived here.
Like most second sons, he had not been under the pressure of continuing the family business so he had drifted off to college in West Virginia and found work at a local school upon his return.
When I drove up the lane to the main house and a blond giant waved from the porch, I scolded myself for not remembering a teacher’s work hours. It was going on eleven and the man greeting me was not John, but his brother Earl, the owner of the place.
I had always disliked Earl. He had been a bully at school and was never punished, because his family donated lavishly to the church. He was stronger than any man I knew but he had successfully dodged his military duty by feigning an incurable physical condition.
‘Mornin’,’ he said as I stepped out of the car. ‘How can I help you?’
Then he recognized me. ‘Good Lord, it’s Nick Carraway! How you been, you bookworm?
Sad thing John’s not home from school yet. My wife is visiting her mother in town but I’ll have Mary make us some coffee…’
As he talked on, he led me into a scantily furnished living room and barked orders at a thin, underdeveloped girl.
When coffee was served, he gave me a disapproving look when I produced my cigarette case. I had quite forgotten. Smoking, like drinking and gambling, was frowned upon and considered a big-town vice by families like his.
He asked me all about New York, laughed when I told him I had quit my position and then nodded towards a window that faced east. ‘You drove past Reilly’s place, didn’t you?’ he inquired. ‘I did,’ I answered. ‘Looks worse than ever.’
‘Old Reilly died a month or so ago,’ Earl smiled. ‘He was killed…He had hired a young man from Utah, one of those fellows who want to earn some bucks to get themselves to the gold mines in Yukon or Alaska…The boy never went to town, there was talk and then one of Stanton’s workers saw him and Reilly somewhere in the woods and they weren’t exactly playing chess or something…One morning the man who always collects the milk pails drove onto the farmyard and found Reilly gagged and tied to a tree. His pants were torn and red with blood and flies were buzzing around him. Someone had cut off his…you know, so he had bled to death.’
‘Was there an inquest?’
‘Wouldn’t know. Police said it had been armed robbery. Seems that Reilly had a good deal of money while everybody thought he was poor. The boy must have taken it with him. They never found him.’
‘Thank you for the coffee,’ I said, feeling nauseous. ‘I’m going home now. Please tell John I said hello.’
‘Sure,’ Earl smiled, flexing his muscular arms. Something told me it had been him who had issued the verdict on his neighbor.
‘You’re sounding like an Englishman now,’ he remarked as he walked me to the car. ‘This town is no longer a place for you. Give my regards to your old folks, will you?’
I barely have any sound recollection of what I saw or did in the days that followed. Only snippets of conversation come to mind now.
The Thanksgiving dinner – ‘Nick, dear, New York is a cesspool of vice. Your parents must be so happy that you decided to leave the city.’ (Miss Thompson or Aunt Beth). ‘I agree.’ (My mother). ‘No disrespect intended, but a thirty-year-old man living under his parents’ roof is not exactly the first fellow any girl would like to dance with at a party.’ (Cousin Harry).
‘Anyhow, Nick is here to stay. And he’s happy about it. Minnie is already spoiling him terribly with special dishes and treats and such. She’s like a mother to him. Even as a child he would turn up his nose at any meal I had made.’ (My mother).
‘Nick, my dear boy, how I remember you when you were two, three years old. You said ‘mighty fine’ and ‘I done had my lunch’. You talked like a Negro. That’s because Minnie and Ethel were your nannies.’ (Aunt Beth or Miss Thompson). ‘Oh well, listen to him now! He’s talking like a Brit. Must be because of the war.’ (Cousin Harry).
‘What would you know? You never were a soldier, my boy. I lived through two wars and no one knows as well as me that it changes a man forever. Nick has done well, we ought to be grateful for that.’ (My grandfather). ‘Does any of you know ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Hubbard or Goddard? It’s supposed to be scientific, but it’s the biggest load of nonsense I ever read. It’s all about blacks and Chinese usurping our power, but he completely ignores how the Jews are taking over our cities on the East Coast.’ (Uncle Peter). ‘I told you, no politics at the table! It’s Thanksgiving!’ (Aunt Beth). ‘Any man coming to money, regardless of his origins, is likely to develop an empire of his own. But of course, you young people would not understand.’ (My grandfather).
‘Please don’t get excited, Dad.’ (My father).
The interview I had at the Southern Wisconsin Investment Bank – ‘So you were in bonds, Mr. Carraway. I know your father. He’s an exemplary businessman. It’s an honor that his son is applying for a position with us…I’m sorry, your idea of a salary is way out of line. After all, you never worked as a banker before, you’d have to start from scratch so to speak…Things are different on Wall Street, I know…Why don’t you take some time to consider my offer? I’d like to learn of your decision by the end of next week at the latest.’
Chapter 18: West Egg
Nick returns to his cottage on Long Island.
In the second week of December I told my parents I would go home for a few days to oversee the final preparations at my house for the next tenants. I promised them I would be back shortly before Christmas. They were elated when I told him I had accepted the position at the bank.
While I was waiting for the train at the station restaurant, I carefully wrote a letter to the gentleman who had interviewed me, explaining that I had had an offer in New York that was more suited for me.
My house was cold and damp and since it had no central heating, I had to light fires in every grate. The frost had reached Long Island by now, turning the steps of my porch into a death trap and the drive into a slide.
The greengrocer came, paid a small sum for my car and left. I had some money now.
Food became intolerable, coffee a source of comfort in daytime and whiskey a consoling blanket after sundown.
The nights were so cold that I could see my own breath freeze in my bedroom, but I did not bother to light a fire, since I felt unbearably hot.
It was as if every artificial light hat gone out on West Egg so that anyone outside only had the arctic glow of millions of stars to see by.
I crossed my lawn often after midnight, defied the frozen paths and walked to the terrace at the edge of Gatsby’s property. There I spent hours huddled in two overcoats three scarves, sipping whiskey from a pocket flask, smoking and talking to the green light on the East Egg shore that winked mockingly at me.
Gatsby’s house was deserted. Someone had covered the pool with an oilcloth. Even the van that delivered groceries had stopped coming now. I could tell by the pristine sheet of solid frost in the drive.
Many times I went inside at daybreak to count the money I had. It would be the easiest thing to take the train to New York and head for any speakeasy in Harlem and exchange understanding glances with men who sold anything to anyone who didn’t have a license for firearms. It meant I would have to take a taxi to the next station, since I no longer had a car. This would cost me a fair amount of money I should not spend if I wanted to execute my plan.
The irony of this made me laugh. I wanted to shoot myself but I could not afford to go out and buy a gun.
About a week before Christmas I woke up to the sound of a delivery van slowly driving past my house. By mid-afternoon I believed I heard window shutters bang and when evening had come, someone sneezed loudly in my neighbors’ garden.
It was three o’clock in the morning when a helpless cry rang across the bay. I left the bed, put on my dressing gown and went downstairs without turning on the lights. The door to the back porch creaked annoyingly. By the time I was halfway across the lawn, I heard a persistent wail. The night was clear and full of stars. A shapeless silhouette – a man in a thick overcoat and scarves - was standing on the terrace overlooking the bay. The green light on the other shore flashed on and off like it had done for years. ‘Come!’ the man cried. ‘Oh, come!’
The voice sounded as if it came from beyond the grave. It was a ghost roaming the marble tiles and never keeping his eyes off the unhospitable sea and meaningless East Egg.
When Gatsby eventually turned around and started walking back to his house, I dashed back to my kitchen and locked the door.
The next day I sat in my living room with the curtains drawn and no lights on. The whiskey had run out and all I had was weak coffee which kept me painfully sober.
The suitcase I needed to travel back to Wisconsin had been packed. My parents expected me to arrive on Christmas Eve afternoon at the latest. I was supposed to leave in two days but I had not bought a railway ticket yet.
While I was sitting on the couch, I cursed myself for witnessing my neighbor at the edge of his garden. The cries he had uttered were familiar. I had heard those on many nights in the summer, but then they had not expressed sadness.
Images came back to mind like they had done ever since, in fact I had not slept well since those stifling, dusty days, I had not seen anything but could tell, feel, smell all because I had been close by – Gatsby and Maurice in the large bed on the dais, naked and covered in sweat, descending to the depths of human existence and mumbling words of love or crying out in lustful pain or painful lust, I transcended again into the blond man administering caresses and watching his lover under him perish in a warm, wet, fragrant universe, and then I changed into the dark-haired man who clung to him with a million tentacles and who wept for happiness, maybe he was the blond man after all, but there were always two of them, diving from the pier naked and enjoying the cool waves of the Atlantic after hours of lovemaking, sending their gleeful laughter across the sleeping Sound and not caring about what went on in the world, they were two men, but neither of them was me. It had never been and would never be me.
Having been nothing but a friendly neighbor who had let things happen without reaping any benefit from it, for only those who express their demands are heard, a man who had refrained from any judgment or attempts at corruption and avoided trouble because his father had told him so, I had only one choice left. I would confront Gatsby on his porch and provoke him until he would grab a pistol, then I would try to pry it from him as we wrangled until he would, intentionally or unintentionally, pull the trigger and shoot me. The last thing I hoped to see would be the sweet, questioning look in his eyes – why, Nick, why? –, he would not cry watching me expire, but he would have something to reflect on after that, because he was a good man in spite of his wealth and he had a conscience. The trouble with good men is that they never actually do anything essential, because only so-called bad acts and thoughts will make the Flower of Life and Truth blossom.
Too late, I thought as I got up, shoveled ashes over the fire in the grate, turned off all the lights, decided not to put on my overcoat and went out through the kitchen door. It had gone dark now and sleet was falling densely, freezing instantly on the ground.
All the shutters of Gatsby’s house were open and electric light shone softly through the drawn curtains, inviting any passing stranger in to share in the warmth of the holidays.
Too late, too late now, I thought, and I rattled the handle of the glass door that led into the parlor closest to the kitchen. The clanking sound of metal carried far, but no response came.
‘I know you’re home!’ I roared. ‘Come out, you coward! Let’s settle this once and for all!’
I banged on the window panes, hoping to break them, but no one heard, and then I stepped back, slipped on the frozen flagstones and cried out in pain, I scrambled up but kept falling down and crept to the next elevated flower bed, hoisted myself up and dug a large stone from the soil, turned around with a new-found stamina and strength and raised my arm to hurl the rock to the glass door just as a lock creaked and the door opened. A wave of warm air came out, surrounding the man wearing a silk dressing gown, a tucker with paisley motifs and flannel trousers. ‘Nick,’ I heard. ‘My God…no!’
He rushed out and I dropped the rock and I sank into his arms. ‘Come inside,’ he whispered and then he maneuvered me gently into the room, still holding me with one arm and closing the door with the other, and when the cold was shut out, I burst into tears and collapsed on the Persian carpet.
Chapter 19: The Villa
I was on the sofa, wrapped in a brocade blanket and lying in James’s arms. My shoes and my jacket were drying by the fire. He buried his nose in my hair and kissed my temples and cheeks, murmuring soft words and caressing my left hand.
He sweetly coaxed me into sipping a hot concoction of whiskey, lemon and sugar. When I had finished my drink, he drew me closer to him and sighed. I was too weak to talk, but I had heard him say that he understood all.
We spent hours in silence, watching the burning logs collapse in the grate and listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner. I dozed off a few times but still heard the sounds around me in my warm slumber – the clinking of ice cubes in a whiskey glass, the tap of his lighter and his breathing.
‘It’s funny, old sport,’ he said, ‘but I believe I’m falling in love with you…I’m sorry.’
I leaned my head against his shoulder and inhaled his wonderful scent of lilies-of-the-valley and verbena. My hand was on his, slowly caressing his fingers.
He knew his confession would not prompt me to leave, because after minutes of silence he asked me if he could share his bed with me that night. He would lend me a pair of pyjamas.
I was too weak to be left alone in the bathroom to wash, so it only took me minutes to prepare for bed. He offered me Maurice’s room to change into night clothes, which were far too large, but I did not care.
He held me all through the night, curled up around me and with his hand possessively on my hip, either sleeping and dreaming peacefully or waking up from my fits of coughing and anxiously asking if I was going to be sick and murmuring contentedly that he felt no inclination to roam the edge of his garden until dawn.
Only when the first hesitant light of the new day crept into the room did I realize he had a bedside telephone. He was wide awake now and talking.
‘Good morning, Miss, would you please connect me with Mr. Carraway in Pine Hills, Wisconsin…? Thank you…’ I dozed off as he waited and woke up again to his voice. ‘Good morning, madam, this is James Gatsby from West Egg speaking…I’m Nick Carraway’s neighbor…I’m sorry to disturb you so early, but Nick is not feeling well….Possibly a very bad cold…He asked me to inform you that he’s in no state to come home now…Yes, madam, I sent for a doctor…I let him have a spare room in my house and my staff are looking after him…Yes, I will tell him to telephone you…Thank you very much…No, it’s no trouble, after all, we’re neighbors so I’d like to help whenever it’s necessary…And please don’t worry, I’m sure Nick will recover soon…Thank you, and have a merry Christmas.’
After he had hung up, I turned around and looked into his sweet, colorful eyes. His hair was tousled, he needed a shave and the collar of his pyjama jacket was crumpled. He was the most beautiful man I had ever laid eyes on.
‘Good morning, old sport,’ he said. ‘How are you feeling now? You’re looking a bit better, but you’re still too weak to leave the bed.’ He grinned. ‘Your mother is worried whether you’d be fit and able to make it to Wisconsin in time to start your new job after New Year’s Day.’
‘I’m not going,’ I said. ‘I declined the company’s offer weeks ago.’
He went pale. ‘And your parents still don’t know, do they…?’
I felt something magnificent rise within me, as if it were the first time in my life that I felt truly happy, which was nonsense, because I had experienced happiness on numerous occasions.
‘Oh well,’ he interrupted my thoughts. ‘We can fix that…Shall I ring the maid for some coffee now? We’ll have it in bed. It’s much too early to be industrious.’
When I woke again, it had gone dark outside and the bedside lights and the one on the dressing table were on. In my drowsiness, I first detected some smells that did not belong to this bedroom – warm broth, sandalwood soap, frost and cigarette smoke.
Maurice was sitting on a chair next to my side of the bed. On the other chair was a tray with a metal cover.
‘There you are, old sport,’ he whispered, stroking my cheeks and kissing my hand. ‘How are you feeling now? The maid made you something to eat.’
He presently lifted the cover and revealed a deep china plate and a cloud of tantalizing steam. ‘Chicken soup,’ he said ceremoniously. ‘The Jewish cure for bad colds and general discomfort…It smells heavenly.’
He put an extra pillow in my back and spread a starched napkin on my lap. He handed me the plate and a spoon. ‘Bon appétit,’ he grinned. ‘Or like they say in the East End: stuff yer gob an’ build yerself up, son.’
The soup contained tiny morsels of chicken and shreds of liver, dainty little carrot and celery wedges, parsley and a generous dose of pepper. The darkness of the liquid suggested that whoever had cooked it had let the bones and the marrow simmer on the stove for hours.
I took a few spoonsful and instantly felt some of my strength return. ‘Have you tasted this?’ I asked Maurice, feeling inexplicably happy that he was sitting next to me.
He borrowed my spoon, sipped and smiled. ‘I say, that’s delectable. You wouldn’t get superb soup like this even at the finest French restaurants in Manhattan or Mayfair.’
When I had finished the whole lot, he put the plate back on the tray and mechanically reached for his cigarette case. Then he shook his head. ‘What was I thinking, this is a sick-room, I ought not to smoke in here.’
‘Please do,’ I said.
He lit up, grinned and blew a cloud of smoke towards the bathroom door.
‘Where’s James?’ I asked. It was the first time I mentioned his first name to anybody.
Maurice’s face sank a bit. ‘In his study downstairs. He’s got Tulsa on the phone.’
My questioning look was met with mild understanding. ‘Yes, a code word, I presume. If it’s indeed Oklahoma, I reckon he’s trying to get back into the oil business…Nothing illicit, it’s just that he’s not one to convey his plans…Well, shall I get you some more of that delicious soup?’
I nodded and he got up to pick up the tray, but he stopped midway and sank back onto his chair.
He took off his glasses and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief. ‘I was lucky a had the day off today,’ he said. ‘I was home when James phoned me and implored me to come over straight away. He sounded as if the world was ending. I got into my car and drove to West Egg like a man possessed.’
I remembered that Maurice lived in a little cottage a few hundred yards from the main road into Queens. The man from Buenos Aires must have arrived there.
‘How is Alec Scudder?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘He’s all right…well, not quite…He’s got a bad cold too. His coughing and sneezing kept me awake last night. I had to banish him to the spare room.’ He laughed and then bit his lip.
‘I’ll tell you more about Alec later…James is downstairs and he’s in a muddle. When I came into the parlor this afternoon he rushed to me and cried. I’ve never seen him cry before. It was a shock to me, old sport, a shock.’
I leaned back into the pillows and felt an ice-cold hand grab hold of my warm heart.
‘Good heavens,’ Maurice whispered. Then he flew off his chair and into the bathroom and returned with a glass of water and a tube of aspirin. He watched me with worried eyes as I swallowed a bitter pill and washed it down.
‘I should not tell you this before you’ve quite recovered,’ he went on. I now saw that the greyish tinge of his black hair had grown stronger over the past months.
‘Please only tell me if you’re up to it,’ I said.
Clutching his handkerchief and his glasses, Maurice made last night’s events unroll like a movie. James had heard me cry out on his porch and believed I was fleeing armed burglars. He had caught my insults and took them to be meaningless, only a display of profound panic.
As soon as he had opened the glass door, he had seen me, covered in icy sleet and holding a rock and eyeing him with a murderous look. It was then when he had understood all, the turmoil that had haunted me for months, a hell that could be defeated by a single, desperate embrace.
‘He’s so consumed by feelings of guilt now that he is ready to resort to a final act,’ Maurice said. ‘He believes you will turn down any offer of help…After all, you’re moving back to Wisconsin…He wants to save you but he’s convinced that you don’t want to be saved. He might have thought differently if I…’
His glasses fell to the ground as he slipped off the chair and onto his knees, shivering uncontrollably. He buried his head in the bed cover, sobbed and then suppressed a few painful wails. I stared at him for minutes, feeling hurt and lost, but then I bent over and ran my fingers through his silky hair. ‘Get up, sit down on the bed,’ I whispered. ‘Let me hold you.’
He crawled up to me and I held him, rocking him and crooning a long-forgotten song that Minnie had sung to me when I was an infant.
He cried violently, gasped for air and stammered apologies. ‘Don’t, please don’t,’ I murmured. ‘It’s all right.’
It took him quite some time to overcome his sickness. Eventually he got up, washed his face in the bathroom and returned wearing his glasses and with his clothes straightened. A Wall Street man.
He sat down, lit a cigarette and put his handkerchief away. ‘I’m to blame for all this,’ he said. ‘When I met James again after four years, he wanted me to be at his side. I wanted the same, because I believed Alec would never make it to America…We were so happy during those weeks in this house, so incredibly happy…I loved him. I still do…The distinction is that Alec and I are reunited, even though I’m not sure if that is going to last…James, however, had no one after he lost me again.’
He smiled now, genuinely and full of warmth. ‘He’s in love with you.’
Maurice was the only one who deserved to know how I felt. ‘I’m in love with him too,’ I said.
He grabbed my hands. His eyes, still red with crying, sparkled behind his platinum-rimmed glasses.
‘I thought so, dear. It was not a difficult thing for me to guess when we were having tea at your house. But you are so reserved, so insecure, and you’re a Wall Street man who will avoid slander and prosecution at all cost.’
‘I’m no longer a Wall Street man.’
He laughed. ‘I figured as much.’ Then his face grew calm and determined. ‘Would you take some advice from an old Brit?’
‘You’re a Brit, but you’re not old.’
‘I’m thirty-three. Three years ahead of you, the same age as our Lord Jesus Christ when he was crucified. You and I both served in the war. We know that worrying over our reputations and our careers made us into the men we are now, but also that it’s all irrelevant when you realize that life can end anytime, so then you understand that you should not miss out on the only thing that counts - love.’
‘Being in love with someone is not the same as truly loving someone.’
He nodded. ‘Quite so, dear…But in the light of what I just said, don’t you think you’re entitled to explore the freedom that is being granted to you?’
I gave him a puzzled look, causing him to kiss my hand again.
‘What I mean is,’ he went on, ‘that even if whatever has risen between James and you is only infatuation and nothing more profound, it’s perfectly all right to do more than just sleep together.’
I leaned back again, letting his words sink in and feeling lost.
‘I couldn’t,’ I mumbled.
‘Why not? Well, perhaps not now or tomorrow, I can see that, but soon anyway.’
‘I’ve never slept with a man,’ I said. His soft look made me relax. ‘Or with a woman for that matter.’
Maurice took my hand again. ‘That’s all right. There’s a first time for everything…I was twenty when I first slept with Clive while all our friends had already had numerous flings with waitresses and shop assistants…James started courting girls at sixteen, quite young…He was thirty-two when I initiated him into men’s love in Paris and he embraced it with vigor…Then we drifted apart and he went back to America. He told me some time ago how he had been given ample opportunities to engage in paramours with ladies, but he would not act on it. He spent four years in celibacy waiting for me to return…James Gatsby is the most hopeful man I’ve ever met.’
He blew his nose and shook his head. ‘Well listen to me talking a mile a minute…I’ll cut it short.’ His eyes, full of tender sadness, sought mine.
‘I hurt him terribly, Nick, to an extent where he stopped believing he that he could ever experience love and joy again. And I hurt you too…I never wanted to, honestly…You were in love with me, and all I did was flirt with you. The worst crime in the calendar…So let me try and make it up to you by giving you this advice – when you feel like making love to James, please do. He’s gentle and sweet and incredibly beautiful. Only when two human beings unite bodily do their souls bare themselves. They share sweetness and comfort and pleasure and laughter.’
‘But I wouldn’t know how to…’ I stammered, and then Maurice sat down on the bed again.
He bent over until his face was only inches from mine. I could smell coffee, peppermint and cigarettes on his breath. ‘Let me kiss you then,’ he whispered in my ear.
Without waiting for an answer, he put his soft lips on mine and kept them there while his hands crept over my back. His mouth trembled and I could feel a short flick of his tongue. Then we drifted apart.
‘There!’ he said, playfully squeezing my nose. ‘It’s up to you to discover the rest.’
He left the room and returned minutes later with another plate of soup. He put it in my lap, told me that the maid would be up a little later with some tea and that he would have supper with James downstairs. ‘I’ll pop in before I go home,’ he promised. Then he went downstairs.
As I savored the spicy liquid, I repeated inwardly: I just kissed a man, a man just kissed me, and I liked it…oh no…I enjoyed it.
The girl came in with a pot of tea, a cup and a dish of gingerbread biscuits.
‘Would you believe it,’ I said to her. ‘I just kissed a man.’
She grinned, pretending to understand and trying to soothe me because my facial expression told her that I had just said something very inappropriate.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked. She understood this phrase.
I pointed at the empty dish in my lap. ‘Your soup…’ I said, ‘was very, very good.’
She nodded enthusiastically, removed the crockery and the napkin and poured the tea. Then she left the room.
It was going on eight when Maurice walked in, looking more relaxed and with slightly flushed cheeks from the wine. He sat down and smiled.
‘Did you have a nice dinner?’ I asked.
‘It was marvelous, old sport. Delectable clear broth with a hint of horseradish, filet mignon, cauliflower au gratin and pommes de terre sarladaises, and some cheese for dessert.’
It made me conclude that he and James had buried the hatchet.
‘I told him about what you and I discussed this afternoon,’ he went on, lighting a cigarette. ‘He’s pacing up and down his study now, smoking and suppressing giggles…A bundle of nerves, I say, from sheer happiness! He’ll be up presently to see how you are doing.’
There was completion now, and we both felt it. No more words were needed.
‘Today is the shortest day of the year,’ he suddenly remarked. ‘Do you always watch for the shortest day of the year and then miss it? I do. But oddly enough, I always remember the Ides of March.’
‘You as well, Maurice?’ I asked innocently, causing him to burst into a fit of delicious laughter.
We then agreed that winter solstice served one purpose only – to sleep longer.
The door opened and James came in, looking dazzling in a navy-blue suit. He walked up to the other side of the bed, sat down and bent over to kiss me on the cheek. The soft, sweet look on his face told me that he too understood that all was well.
‘I ought to be going now,’ Maurice said, rubbing his cheek against James’s. ‘Alec will be worried. The roads were already frozen this afternoon.’
He got up, kissed me dangerously close to my mouth and started for the door.
‘Maurice,’ I called.
He turned around. ‘Yes, dear?’
‘Please phone us when you made it home safely.’
‘Please do,’ James added.
Maurice waved and then disappeared.
James embraced me and then changed into his night clothes and dressing gown in the bathroom. After that he brought a pot of fresh tea, poured each of us a cup and settled under the sheets. We drank in silence until Maurice phoned to tell he was home, albeit more dead than alive because it was horribly cold. To add insult to injury, his lover was making a hell of a bloody racket sneezing and coughing and loudly demanding hot water bottles, tea and aspirin.
James wished them both all the best and hung up. And then the night began for us.
Chapter 20: Christmas Eve
A holiday tinged with tension.
I spent hours in the library upstairs, sipping tea, smoking and reading and trying to banish all the thoughts of my future from my mind. James had told me to take things leisurely, since I was still recovering. He strictly forbade me to come downstairs when he was not around.
It made me wonder what was going on. He was fixing something he would never share with me.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I left the large master bed and went to Maurice’s room. It was my domain now, even though Maurice’s toiletries and accessories were still strewn everywhere. Someone had taken up all my trunks that had been waiting at my house to be shipped to Wisconsin.
I bent over the bed on which I had laid out the clothes I wanted to wear. James had become his own housekeeper, probably because the maid was too busy downstairs. When the door opened and he came in carrying a stack of towels, he stopped and went pale.
‘Who did this to you?’ he asked. I was wearing drawers and a sleeveless undershirt. It took me some time to realize what he had seen.
‘That scar is quite fresh,’ he said. ‘What happened?’
‘I got hit by a bullet in September,’ I answered. ‘Someone fired at me while I was dozing on my porch. You weren’t home.’
It must be the latter that shocked him. His doorman had not told him, quite as I had expected.
‘You didn’t go to hospital, did you?’
I shook my head. ‘My housekeeper happened to be in and she took care of it.’
‘Would she talk?’
‘No. She’s discreet. And besides, she’s not in my service anymore.’
I saw him draw a few slow breaths. He then walked to the dressing table with difficulty, put the towels on it as if they weighed a ton and froze when the bedside phone rang.
The fact that someone wanted to speak to him seconds after a crime had been revealed must strike him like lightning. ‘Shall I answer?’ I asked.
Without waiting for his reaction I picked up the receiver. The maid, probably unaware that it was me, mumbled something about a call and then put it through. ‘Good morning, Gatsby residence,’ I said, trying to sound like a doorman. There were clicking and rushing sounds. ‘Pine Hills, Wisconsin on the phone for you, sir,’ a distant operator announced.
‘Mr. Gatsby?’ my father then called out.
‘It’s Nick, Dad, good morning.’
‘It’s nine o’clock. Why are you still at your neighbor’s house? You only had a bad cold so I reckoned you’d recover soon. Your mother and I had expected you to be on the train from Chicago by now. But you never sent us a telegram…I knew this was going to happen. Not only will you not be home with us for Christmas, but you also don’t intend to start your job at the bank after New Year’s Day…So they didn’t hire you after all. Don’t lie to me, my son.’
‘They made me an offer and I turned it down. I’ve decided to look for work in New York.’
I sought James’s figure to draw reassurance from it, but he had left the room.
My father protested and reprimanded me for making him look like a fool at the local club. No decent man dismissed an opportunity to work at the Southern Wisconsin Investment Bank.
I interrupted him for the first time in my life and heard myself say how I loved my home village and Minnie and Ethel and the house I was born in, but I had grown to an extent where I considered myself unfit to live in the back of beyond. The quiet rural corner of the state was riddled with arrogance, ignorance and prejudice. It was no different in New York, but far more bearable. There was nothing I could do to change that, but if I had to be miserable, I would rather be so in a city that sparkled and boiled with life day and night than in an underdeveloped hick town.
I was about to placate my father by asking him to postpone financing a house for me until I had found a solid position when he said: ‘Your mother wants to speak to you.’
Her tearful voice reached me over thousands of miles of frozen wire. ‘Please make sure you wear a warm winter coat when you go outside, dear. Are you feeling better now? Have you seen a doctor…? Please let us know if we can do anything to help…And merry Christmas, my son.’ Then the line went dead.
James phoned and invited me for a stroll in the garden. He instructed me to go out through the servants’ entrance. I found him standing next to a flower bed smoking and wearing a heavy black overcoat trimmed with seal fur. He offered me a cigarette and a light, but kept silent. We watched plumes of smoke drift into the white garden under dense, grey clouds. The air smelled of snow.
‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘It was only a small bullet.’ I thought about how I had taken a bullet either from him or, more likely, for him, but that it didn’t matter anyway.
‘It’s not all right,’ I heard. ‘But let’s not talk about it.’
We had lunch in a small dining room opposite the kitchen. I had never seen it and the country neatness of hideous flowery china stowed away in an oak cupboard annoyed me.
The maid provided only beef and vegetable soup and some bread. No wine was served, only metallic-tasting tap water in a thick glass pitcher.
We ate in silence until I came up with a question he would have no choice but to reply to.
‘Did you go and see your parents in Duluth in September?’
He then told me he had stayed with them for weeks. It had been marvelous. He had even attended some temple services with them and had donated a large sum to the rabbi’s assistant when he had learned that the community lacked funds to provide books and utensils for the shul. Of course they had celebrated Sukkot and Thanksgiving at home.
‘And you,’ he smiled. ‘Did you have Thanksgiving dinner with your family?’
‘I had,’ I said. ‘It was terrible. I hate obligatory festivities.’
He went pale. ‘Do you? That’s a pity…By the way, excuse me for asking, but are you…?
I understood. ‘I’m an atheist,’ I said, realizing for the first time that I was one. ‘I dismissed religion when I was sixteen, when I discovered that I…that I am what I am.’
His reproachful look hurt me.
‘But I was born into a Presbyterian family,’ I reassured him.
‘Let’s have a stroll on the beach after dessert,’ he suggested as the maid came in with a tray of coffee and fresh fruit.
The dark sand was tinged with frost. Ice-cold waves lapped hesitantly at the shore. Dense, grey clouds had sunk so low that East Egg and its green light had become invisible.
We walked to the hangar where James kept his hydroplane. He patted its frozen flanks affectionately with gloved hands and talked to it, probably promising he’d take it out onto the sea at the first sign of spring.
As we circled around the aircraft, he told me how Maurice was struggling to cope with the recent change in his household. Alec had booked a ticket to sail from Buenos Aires to New York and had left Argentina without any difficulties. The ship’s crew had received wire messages about treacherous icebergs further up the American east coast, so the vessel had eventually put all passengers ashore in New Orleans.
The port authorities had refused to believe that Alec’s British passport was an official document, probably because he looked too much like a South-American and spoke English with a Spanish accent. It had taken Maurice, who acted as his guarantor, endless wires and pleas with the British consul in Louisiana to enable his lover to travel on by rail. Alec had expected a more easy welcome into the United States. He was overjoyed to be with Maurice again, but ever since his arrival on Long Island he had been terribly ill. He had lived in a warm, sunny country for nine years and he had left Buenos Aires in balmy spring weather. The cold rain, the sleet and the dark atmosphere of the coal desert made him miserable.
Maurice felt desperate. Both he and Alec realized how they had only grown to know each other on paper since 1913. Actually living together in a three-bedroom house was a different matter. There would not be any chance of them spending exclusive time with one another soon, because Maurice had been promoted to head of the main office at Swift & Feinman.
Meanwhile, Alec had to get back on his feet quickly to devote himself to the project Maurice had help him establish while he was still in Argentina: to start a business at Wilson’s former garage. They both realized that they were in fact complete strangers to one another. The future, in spite of the considerable increase in Maurice’s income, looked dark.
‘I do hope it will all work out in the end,’ I said to James.
‘So do I,’ he nodded. ‘Let’s get back to the house now before you catch a real cold.’
When we went inside, James insisted that I go upstairs to rest a bit and to freshen up and maybe get changed. His hint was not lost on me. I was a guest in a millionaire’s house and wearing my everyday tweed office suit.
Someone had laid out my tux, press-fold pants and a white shirt on my bed. This person wanted me to dress as if there would be a party. Then it dawned on me.
It was Christmas Eve and three o’clock. Soon every room downstairs would be full of anonymous guests downing champagne and dancing on the tables.
I bathed and dressed reluctantly. When I was smoothing my hair with what I took to be Maurice’s brush (it had the initials MCH on it), the phone rang its house signal.
‘I’m waiting for you in the Louis XVI parlor, old sport,’ the lord of the mansion said mysteriously.
I went down and only now did I notice the smell of northern forests permeating the warm air. James was standing at the door to the French room, dressed in a tux and black pants and a shirt with topaz buttons, the same one he had worn when we had first met.
He beckoned me and let me step into the parlor. The window frames, the mantelpiece and the cabinet were lined with holly and pine branches. In a corner I saw a huge fir tree sparkling with tinsel garlands, globes in all colors and electric lights. Under it was a neat stash of elaborately wrapped presents. The central table was laden with dainty sandwiches, ginger biscuits, iced cakes, spiced wine and tea. \‘Do you like it?’ James asked.
I was too dumbfounded to speak. He laughed for the first time that day, took me by the arm and gave me a tour of the connecting parlors. They were all decorated too according to the different styles of their interiors.
When we were back in the French room, I stopped next to the sofa and embraced him. I felt tears burn behind my eyelids. He had gone through a lot of trouble to surprise me, and that was why my remark over lunch had hurt him so. ‘Thank you so much,’ I whispered, kissing his cheeks and his chin. ‘It’s lovely, absolutely lovely.’
His warm fingers stroked my temples and traced my lips. ‘I’m falling in love with you even more now,’ he murmured.
We crept closer together and stood there for minutes, breathing in the smells of winter holidays. Then he said I must be hungry. Luncheon had been frugal lest I should spoil my appetite for all the delicacies that were waiting now.
We poured tea, put sandwiches on plates, lit cigarettes and started talking. The spell had been cast. Nothing could hurt us anymore.
Chapter 21: Outside the Walls
A new world opens up for Nick, which does not go unnoticed by others.
The next morning he woke me with a kiss on my earlobe and whispered that more surprises were awaiting me downstairs. Under no circumstances was I to open any curtains in the house. I understood. The outside world held its dangers, even on the holiest day of the year.
We had a very decadent breakfast with coffee and leftover sweet treats from Christmas Eve. When the maid had cleared the table, he told me to follow him into the French room.
He did not turn on the lights but simply went to the largest window and opened the curtains.
Thick snowflakes were falling from a grey sky into the garden that was already covered in a dense, white sheet. I understood and felt a lump rise in my throat. This was his surprise Christmas gift to me. ‘We’ll have some winter fun later,’ he said as I took him in my arms. ‘Let’s see what the angels brought you last night.’
All the presents under the tree turned out to be for me. A black overcoat trimmed with grey seal fur, a matching fedora and leather gloves, wonderful toiletries and elegant little flasks of scent, a fountain pen and endless knick-knacks to brighten up my room.
It was clear what he had been doing for the past few days. While I was upstairs, he had been on the phone, not to Tulsa, but giving orders to an assistant who had hurried over all of New York to get the gifts and have them delivered on time.
I sank into his arms again and whispered plain words of gratitude, unable to come up with original phrases. I refrained from saying ‘I love you’ because I did not want him to believe I only did so because he had been so generous.
I stayed with him. We kissed often, avoiding one another’s mouths because he sensed I was not ready to go any further. He told me how happy he was to feel someone beside him at night and to enjoy the simple bliss of saying ‘Good morning’ to a real person when he woke.
It snowed until after New Year’s Day and we often went into the garden to engage in boyish games. I refused to pelt him with snowballs, but he fashioned dozens of them with gloved hands and threw them at me, deliberately missing me by inches so that I could feel the alarming whizz of projectiles flying past me past me. He was an excellent marksman.
He wanted me to move into his house, and so I did, as an official tenant who used Maurice’s room. When I offered to pay rent, he laughed and explained that the zero in the contract constituted a figure in itself. It was perfectly legal for a landlord to charge zero dollars a month.
We went to New York to see his advisor and to have me sign a document granting me power of attorney over his private bond matters and the management of some apartments he owned and rented out in Manhattan.
He gave me a home office next to his study with an extra telephone line and endowed me with the title of financial manager of his company.
I had new ties with Wall Street now and the tranquility of my work space enabled me to study the newspapers in the morning, get in touch with brokers at ten to buy five hundred shares from Southern Oklahoma Oil for twelve hundred dollars and sell them for seventeen hundred after lunch.
The salary he paid me was staggering, all the more since I had no expenses.
At thirty, I finally had become successful and I could not help but write to my parents about it.
Their reply was enthusiastic, but the fact that a former neighbor was involved struck them as unpleasant. They thought I had chosen the easy way out by accepting an offer from the man next door and becoming his tenant. Getting employment by seeking connections in Upper Manhattan restaurants and engaging rental agencies to find another place to live was more sensible, for only rocky paths lead to true success.
It was early in March when I went to lunch after signing a contract with new tenants for one of James’s apartments. I was affluent now and too exalted to content myself with a sandwich and coffee at a deli outside Penn Station, so I went to La Provence, a restaurant on Fifty-Ninth where guests from the Plaza went whenever they felt that the hotel’s own kitchen was inadequate.
I had just finished ordering fish soup, lamb rack, ratatouille and oven-roast potatoes when a man dressed in an impressive black winter coat and sporting a silver-tipped cane walked in. He was seated a few tables away from mine by a waiter, who presently brought him a large whiskey and ice. While I was waiting for my first course, he carelessly drank one glass after another. Since I still considered him my kin, even though I realized now that I disliked him even more than I had done at New Haven, I rose and walked up to him.
‘Tom,’ I said. ‘Nice to see you. I thought you’d moved back to Chicago.’
I held out my hand, but he made no move to shake it. Some guests from other tables gave us puzzled stares.
‘Come on, be a sport,’ I urged. ‘People are watching us.’
Now he looked up at me with eyes more drink-sodden than ever.
‘You’re dead to me, Nick,’ he said softly. ‘You’re not clever, you’re shallow, you’ll never amount to anything, and yet you got it all.’
‘Yes, you did. Don’t lie to me. That suit you’re wearing is not from the garment district. Bought with a bootlegger’s money, you know who I mean.’
‘You’re quite wrong, Tom.’
‘God damn it, you’re even too stupid to lie convincingly…And wipe that smug grin off your face before I do.’
‘Not now, not here.’
I now saw a slight discoloration around his left eye, a shiner in its last stage of healing.
He motioned for me to stay put and talked on.
‘After Daisy and Pammy had left for Louisville, I roamed my house on East Egg. It was so quiet, so lifeless…I used to snap at Pammy when she whined or wouldn’t eat dinner or had one of those inexplicable temper tantrums over a dress her nanny had made her wear…And then it dawned on me: now I’ve got no one left to snap at. You can’t treat servants like that, they’ll break things or quit or gossip about you in speakeasies…So I went to Pammy’s room and sat down on her little bed. All of her things had been shipped to Louisville except for a huge teddy bear I had bought her in London when we were on our way from France to America. It’s got a tie with Union Jack motifs and a green felt bowler hat and she never much cared for it, but I just sat there and stared at the hideous thing…Then I took a comb from my pocket. It’s made of bone and it has Maurice’s initials in dull copper on the edge…I once stole it from him when he had accidentally left it in the bathroom of Myrtle’s apartment…I sat there with the comb in my hand and I cried…I cried like a baby.’
‘Are you going to see Daisy and Pammy in Louisville?’
He shook his head and said he would sail to Europe in a few weeks to seek treatment in a sanitarium outside Montreux.
I was glad not to have shaken hands with him after all. He knew and smiled. ‘I’m not contagious, Nick,’ he said. ‘But still I want you to walk the hell away from this table and I hope never to see you again.’
He drank while I enjoyed my lunch and by the time I had paid the bill, his head had sunk down on the tablecloth and the maître d’ was anxiously trying to rouse him from his drunken doze and calling for assistance from the waiters to turn him out.
A few weeks later the new tenants of my old cottage came to tea at James’s house and handed me a letter they had found in their mailbox that morning.
Dear Nick Daisy wrote. I am very sorry for having been out of touch with you for months, but I’ve been terribly busy arranging things. I have filed for divorce on account of Tom’s excessive drinking. Of course, this was not my main reason, but I won’t disclose anything else in court. Tom should consider himself lucky that I won’t ever tell anyone about what really brought on this separation. I am saving him from criminal prosecution and probably incarceration and being disinherited by his family.
Pammy is having a swell time in my parents’ house. Her nanny and the cook are her best friends and they go out of their way to amuse her. It suits me, since I need time to write. Yes, I’ve taken up writing, nothing too intellectual since my only education consists of a year at a girls’ college in town, but it’s such fun!
In the summer, God willing, I’ll be off to Paris to get some inspiration. I want to meet artists and visit exhibitions. There will be plenty of time to rest in Cannes or Monte Carlo after that!
And now to you, dear Nick. I’ve been worried about you. It must have been a hard blow learning about Jordan’s marriage. Mr. Humphrey Leblond is enormously wealthy and they moved into a lovely house outside Montreal. He is an adorable man and she’s fond of him.
These are the things you could not achieve, but don’t despair. You are an intrinsically good and caring person. Another woman will come your way if you are willing to abide your time.
But whatever you do, do not get entangled in Gatsby’s web. I know how you are, you think every nice person is trustworthy. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, dear. I have it on good authority that he runs with the worst mob in Manhattan. One of those men actually fixed the 1919 World Series and they never caught him. So do not accept any offer from Gatsby, not even a cigarette, because he buys everything with stolen money. He’s selfish and feels no qualms breaking people’s hearts or ruining them financially. I was a fool to believe that I loved him, but I attribute that to my youthful ignorance, which I’ve cast off. You are older than me, but I am endowed with more wisdom, so please take this well-meant advice from your cousin who loves you: stay away from that despicable Gatsby!
I am enclosing a newspaper clipping about Jordan’s wedding in Louisville, since I believe the details never reached New York State. You’ll agree with me that she’s looking absolutely radiant.
I may not get to see you anytime soon, but rest assured that I’ll always think of you.
Lots of love – Daisy.
The article from the Louisville Daily was dated November the second and elaborated on Mrs. Leblond’s splendid attire. Jordan was wearing a wide silk dress as white as her husband’s mustache and sparse hair. I wondered when and where she had met him and what had caused her to get married in such a rush. She was living in Canada now. There must be a reason she had acted so quickly after her undeserved defeat at the Plaza in September.
Peek-a-boo. She had left New York for good.
‘I know Leblond,’ James said. ‘He claims to be descended from the first prominent settlers in Montreal, but he’s from a humble family from the other side of the Canal Lachine. A nice fellow, but boring…Well, Madame won’t need to play golf for a living anymore.’
My parents knew that I was living at James’s house now, so my father’s letter was delivered directly onto my desk.
He wrote how he had made some inquiries at the club. Many gentlemen with business connections in New York went there. He knew he could not claim to gather information for the benefit of a friend or a distant nephew of his, because that was the oldest lie in the world. He had told everyone how Mr. Jay Gatsby, whom he did not know in person, had written to him and made him an offer to buy his hardware store business.
Dad’s friends had heard a thing or two about this man, for instance how he had been in a project with an oil pipeline that would run from northern Canada to Iowa. It had gone bust because Gatsby had obliged himself by contract to finance it and had turned up without a cent.
This had diverted attention from worse things. Mr. Gatsby had joined forces with a predominantly Jewish underground circle in Brooklyn that had relentlessly beaten dozens of small-scale bootleggers in the race, causing many of them to get jailed and on at least one occasion driving a man who had lost all his assets to suicide.
The fact that Gatsby himself had never been caught could only be attributed to one probability: he was distantly related to the German Kaiser and having him arrested would cause a breach in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Dad himself was not sure if the tale about Gatsby’s lineage was true, but it still served as a sound warning.
My father urged me to withdraw from my new business and look for another position on Wall Street, if only to grant my dear mother some peace, for she had slept fitfully ever since I had started working for this dangerous man.
Chapter 22: Pastures Green
Death and mourning.
On an early morning in April I was dreamily picking some tulips and daffodils in the garden as a gift for James when he came rushing out, pale and shivering. ‘Your mother is on the phone,’ he stammered. ‘She was sobbing so much that she could barely speak.’
I went into his office and picked up the receiver. When my mother heard my voice, she smothered loud wails and then said in a reproachful tone that my grandfather had died at seven that morning.
I stood there, sending futile words of comfort and promising I would come home.
‘I’m coming with you,’ James said when I had hung up.
It took us two days to travel to my home village by train. James booked a room in a hotel across the station and ordered a taxi that took me to my parents’ house.
My mother was happy to see me and sat with me as I had a slice of Minnie’s delectable lemon cake with a glass of milk. She told me I was looking healthy and very smart in my new black suit. A little later Minnie expressed her view more directly when I had gone to the kitchen to greet her and Ethel. ‘Lord, look at you, you sure grown fatter. Someone has been taking mighty good care of you in New York, baby.’
Both my parents frowned when I told them over dinner that Mr. Gatsby was in town and would come to the funeral to pay his respects. They thought this very rural. A gentleman would only offer his condolences to anyone in his service who had lost a dearly beloved and then grant him enough leave to attend the ceremony, and that was all.
Wine was served and after the main course my mother generously distributed slices of cherry pie. The whole house breathed hospitable merriment as always, as if we had no death in the family to mourn.
I spent a fitful night in my old room, missing the comfort of James’s heavy body in his sweet, warm bed and the sound of his calm breathing. He was at a hotel three miles down the road, a cold, miserable place frequented mainly by traveling salesmen, where sleep was constantly interrupted by the loud rumble of freight trains.
The service was held in our church in the center of town. Many of the Carraway family were in the front pew and since Dad was my grandfather’s oldest son, he, Mom and I were seated in the center.
The coffin was covered in roses and calla lilies. The organ played a melody I did not know. Some women sniveled discreetly. The smell of moth balls that had preserved mourning clothes was overpowering.
I turned around and saw James walk in. He was dressed in his seal fur-trimmed overcoat and wearing a black kippah. A young man, probably one of the bible college students that assisted the reverend between lectures, smilingly handed him a hymn book and directed him to the back pew. James sat down next to Mr. Brod, the village tailor, who sported a kippah as well, and Mr. Santini, the greengrocer who had delivered food to my grandfather’s house. Presently they were joined by Mr. Dos Passos. This man, if I remembered correctly, had been my grandfather’s gardener.
The reverend invited us all to reminisce about Mr. Nicolas Jonathan Carraway, the man born to English parents who had taken up arms in the Civil War to fight for justice and whose life had been all about giving – donations to the poor, employment as his business expanded, opportunities to his sons who had all attended college.
Many of the people present had clearly outgrown the habit of attending church regularly. The hymns were frantically and noisily looked up in the worn books and sung hesitantly and out of tune.
When the congregation had followed the coffin into the graveyard, the reverend delivered the reassurance that ashes would turn to ashes, making me wonder like many times before why this should be something a living human being had to derive strength from. I felt an urge to smoke.
The coffin was lowered and people filed past the gaping hole to throw some soil and red roses into it.
Spring had not quite reached Wisconsin yet, so the crowd soon flocked to the living streets where their warming cars awaited them.
I stood talking softly to my cousin Katherine when James walked up to us. He shook hands with my parents and my uncles, uttered condolences in a soft, low voice, smiling comfortingly, until his eyes met mine.
He shook my hand as well. ‘It must be hard for you, Nick,’ he said. ‘But you and your family have a lot of memories to share.’
‘Oh, Mr. Gatsby, would you do us the honor and have lunch with us?’ my mother asked.
My father bit his lip and then nodded. ‘Yes, please have lunch with us, sir,’ he mumbled.
Twenty minutes later some relatives and friends were all in my parents’ parlor having coffee. They talked about the people in the village, some of whom had attended the funeral as well. ‘It surely was lovely to see dear Sylvia Hoggins again,’ no one in particular remarked.
Minnie and Ethel and a hired cook had prepared lunch. There was cream of celery soup, followed by roast beef, boiled vegetables and various potato dishes.
When the topic of acquaintances and their successes or failures had worn down, the looks gradually shifted to James, who was sitting between cousin Harry and Uncle Peter.
‘Are you from New York?’ Katherine asked. He smiled and said he lived there but was originally from Minnesota.
‘That’s funny,’ someone remarked. ‘You do look like a Nordic man from that state, but you’re wearing a cap. I never knew there were Jews in Minnesota, too…No offence intended…’
‘None taken,’ James smiled. ‘I am Jewish, but I’m not very religious. I just think it’s only proper to wear ritual headdress on occasions like these.’
An aunt remarked she appreciated this gesture and then her daughter innocently asked if there were any foods on the table he was not supposed to touch.
‘Oh, I don’t pay attention to that,’ James explained honestly. ‘It’s a lovely meal.’ He cast my mother a grateful look, knowing full well it was she who had devised the menu.
‘We’re honored to have you here,’ my father said. Then he looked around with a smile.
‘Mr. Gatsby hired Nick as a manager of his company,’ he said to everyone at the table. ‘My son had enough of Wall Street. I sent him to Yale so that he would become an all-round man. He did, but he never quite excelled…Nick likes books and he did well in the war, but he lacks the cleverness and the spirit to become a real businessman.’ He looked at James. ‘And that’s why I think it’s magnificent that you gave him a chance, sir. My son never bothered to establish connections to advance in the world. But you happened to live next door to him and you hired him.’
‘Your son is doing extremely well,’ James said sweetly. ‘He’s very accomplished, he is accurate and he has an eye for the conduction of intricate projects…a find in a thousand.’
‘Hear hear,’ Katherine said tonelessly. Her husband was a clerk at a factory.
The afternoon wore on. When the guests went home, James asked me demurely if I would call him a taxi. He had booked a dinner table at the hotel.
‘I was hoping you’d spent the evening with us,’ my father said to him. ‘Would you do me the honor and see my study before you leave? It’s full of books that might interest you…I’ll order a car that can pick you up in half an hour.’
‘I’d be delighted,’ James answered, even though he was visibly tired.
My mother smiled and said she and I would be waiting in the parlor. We rose from the table and dispersed.
As she sat on the sofa rearranging wound-up strands of embroidering silk in her sewing basket, she told me she had gotten a letter from her cousin Dora with the most distressing news. Dora’s daughter Daisy was going through a divorce. ‘I last saw Daisy and Tom at their wedding in Louisville in 1918,’ Mom said. ‘They were such a lovely couple. Tom is a good man from an excellent family. You went to their house on East Egg very often, Nick. Would you know what caused all this?’
‘I believe they just grew apart,’ I said. ‘They both have different interests at heart.’
Mom smiled at me and shook her head like she always did when I did not understand things she considered logical. ‘Women are far too free-spirited these days,’ she went on. ‘They lack the moral strength to endure bad weather because they believe that life should only consist of sunshine…Has she been going out in New York often? Were you with her then?’
‘No, I wasn’t,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid I was just too busy.’
‘I wish you could have spent more time with her,’ Mum went on. ‘You could have talked some sense into her. But you were too wrapped up in that Miss Baker, I believe. Have you spoken to her lately?’
‘She got engaged in Louisville,’ I smiled, happy to have come up with a lie in time. If Mom had learned that Jordan had married Leblond in November, she would have assumed that the girl had hurriedly tied the bond with a random man to cover up a mistake I was to blame for.
My mother gave me an understanding nod and put her hand on mine. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.
Ten minutes later Ethel came in and told me that Mr. Gatsby wanted to see me. I went into the hall and waited until he had put on his overcoat and his fedora.
‘Let’s go outside before the taxi gets here,’ he said to me. He shook hands with my parents and then went to the sidewalk with me. The sun was setting and the temperature had dropped considerably.
‘I need to talk to you, old sport,’ he said, offering me a cigarette from his case.
My heart rate went up. ‘My father is on to us,’ I managed to stammer.
He shook his head. ‘No, it’s not that. What I just heard is far worse, actually.’
I could not help but scan the street for a police car.
He told me how my father had wanted to see him without anyone else present to praise him again for offering me such outstanding professional opportunities. Dad had then asked him if he knew of anyone who might be interested in taking over his hardware store business. I did not qualify as a successor, nor did any of my male cousins because they had either moved away or were too young.
‘I said I would be honored to inquire in New York,’ James went on. ‘Your father was visibly disappointed. He kept saying how exemplary I was by engaging in various businesses. It was obvious to me that he had been hoping that I would make him an offer.’
I gasped for air. ‘Don’t worry,’ James said. ‘Your father mentioned some figures. His company is not suffering. In fact, it has seen a rise in profits…But he feels that the time has come for him to retire. He and your mother want to travel and see the world.’
‘Are you considering…?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘No. Why would I? My promise to inquire was only a polite refusal.’
A taxi pulled up. The driver got out and opened the door on the passenger’s side.
‘Do call me tomorrow, old sport,’ James said to me. ‘I’ll stay at the hotel until you are ready to go back to New York.’
My parents and I had dinner in silence. Every now and then my mother uttered a sigh. My father mechanically finished his plate and gave Ethel a pleading look as she came in with coffee and pie, as if he could not eat any more.
Mom must know about his plans and sense now how they had been aborted.
The hot drink seemed to restore her spirits somewhat. ‘Mr. Gatsby is such a kind and well-mannered gentleman,’ she said. ‘I was pleasantly surprised.’
Her blue eyes met mine. ‘He’s pleased with you, Nick,’ she went on. ‘So take your job seriously, always agree with him and don’t forget to show him your gratitude.’
‘You’re right, dear,’ Dad said to her.
‘I’ve a call to make,’ I mumbled. It was the first time I announced to them that I needed the phone instead of asking for permission. They did not object, probably thinking it had something to do with business.
It was going on nine o’clock and they had always taught me never to disturb anyone after dinnertime, but they must assume this was just a part of being in Mr. Gatsby’s service.
I went into Dad’s study and phoned the hotel. Presently I heard James’s voice, full of soft reproach and bewilderment as I told him that I wanted to go back to New York the next day.
He had booked us each a compartment, but we spent hours talking, smoking and drinking coffee on his bunk bed as we traveled back on the train.
‘Don’t be hard on your parents, old sport,’ he said. ‘They mean no harm.’
‘Maybe they don’t,’ I said. ‘But they are not mourning my grandfather, and look at how they regard you. I let you read my father’s letter, didn’t I?’
‘You did,’ he nodded. ‘All those tales are nonsense. The Canadian pipeline project was canceled by the government before any investor could join in. I was a bootlegger, that’s true, but I operated on my own accord and the men I hired never came to harm, nor did they impose any. And I’m definitely not related to the Kaiser…How could I be, I’m Jewish!’
‘Still I don’t understand why you would not stay at your parents’ house a bit longer to comfort them,’ he remarked sadly. ‘After all, someone died.’
‘They don’t need me for that,’ I retorted. ‘I love them, but I will not deny I feel an unaffected scorn for some aspects of their characters. Let them be happy in Wisconsin. I’ll be happy on Long Island.’
‘Because I love you.’
Chapter 23: Spring
Winter has finally retreated.
As soon as we got home, I tried my best to feel sadness over losing my grandfather. I decided to sleep in Maurice’s room for at least a few weeks because sharing a bed with James shortly after the funeral would constitute sacrilege.
He understood and never failed to tuck me in and bid me goodnight with the gift of a snifter of brandy or a cup of tea.
‘We need a short holiday,’ he said to me on a morning when we were both going over some contracts in his study. ‘I don’t want you to overexert yourself, dear.’
My plans to mourn my grandfather in order to compensate the light-hearted way my family treated the loss never came to fruition. I tossed and turned in Maurice’s bed at night, unable to sleep because I missed James.
I had told him I loved him and then decided to wait how things would develop. Surrendering to him would mean parting with the congregation of outstanding people I had been born into. What I failed to realize right away was that I had done so ever since I had first laid eyes on him at his party in May of the previous year. By the time this certainty dawned on me the gardens on West Egg had turned into colorful fields of forsythia, japonica and spring roses.
The wind carried sweet smells, even on cloudy days. We both had cast off our winter tweed and dressed in light wool suits. When I was working at my office, I could often hear him hum or whistle melodiously in his study. He radiated spring freshness. I longed for him now.
The day before our holiday was due to start we had dinner in the dining room with the porch doors wide open. We stepped outside between courses to smoke, always taking our wine glasses with us.
The garden looked beautiful in the late sunlight, and so did the man beside me.
When coffee was served, we took our cups outside and as we drank, I looked into his eyes and said: ‘I want to make love to you.’
He laughed in sweet disbelief. ‘Don’t feel like you ought to sleep with me to return a favor…You are profoundly platonic. Maurice was wrong. He said you’d eventually want it, but then again, I suppose he and Alec Scudder are different, more carnal.’
I remembered how it had always been James who had had to court girls and how he needed to be seduced when it came to real love.
Before I knew it, I had put my cup on a garden table, rushed to him and sought his lips with mine for the first time. He laughed again and moved away, but then he drew me closer to him and kissed me deeply. We shivered as our tongues touched. ‘I’m going upstairs now to take a bath,’ I whispered. ‘You can either follow me in fifteen minutes or so or just stay in the dining room.’
His eyes were full of tears. ‘Go ahead then, old sport,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll wait until the maid has cleared the table…Kiss me before you leave, do kiss me…’
Our mouths locked again and then I bounded into the dining room, nearly knocking over Adelina as she came in with a tray to collect the dishes.
The curtains moved softly in the breeze from the open windows of James’s bedroom. He came in carrying a bottle of brandy, two snifters and his cigarette case. I was in bed with the brocade covers drawn up to my chin.
He put everything on a nightstand, disappeared into the bathroom, spent much time there and returned wearing only a towel. It slid off as he crawled onto the bed and embraced me. Then he pulled back the sheets and moved away from me. I was not wearing any night clothes or underwear and kept my eyes closed, too scared that a mere glimpse of his fully naked body would end all or that his looks would betray disgust at the sight of my physique.
Then I felt his lips on mine. He kissed me, deeply and deliciously, while his hands crept up and down my arms. ‘You’re so beautiful,’ he whispered. ‘It’s unbelievable.’
Only then did I dare to open my eyes and look at him. His skin was of a delicate amber, his shoulders were dusted with golden freckles and his chest was smooth. My gaze wandered down from his light-brown nipples to his deep navel and then to his lower belly. His hard sex and the neat, round pouch behind it were rosy pink.
As he slowly explored me I finally became aware of my own body. My skin tone was ivory, I had long, straight limbs and I had grown from desperately thin to slightly and attractively plump since I had moved into this house and discovered the sensuous joy of food.
I was beautiful and my erect member reflected his beauty, I was my own God now who issued the laws of lust.
He rolled me onto my back, settled between my legs and playfully ran his tongue over my nipples. ‘You’re still a virgin, aren’t you?’ he whispered.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ I acquiesced, suddenly feeling very human and inadequate.
‘So Maurice was right,’ he said. ‘But that doesn’t matter. I’ll be very careful. I want you to enjoy it.’
‘I want you to enjoy it too,’ I murmured, kissing him and stroking his broad shoulders.
He grabbed a tin from the nightstand that contained a fragrant substance, probably cold cream. ‘I don’t want to hurt you,’ he whispered. ‘But I still might.’
He applied some of the contents of the tin onto his sex and then lowered his body onto me again. His tongue slid over mine. I held him and breathed in his warm natural scent of apricots and bergamot. ‘You smell like summer,’ I said, weak with bliss.
He kissed the sensitive spot under my left ear. ‘And you smell like cornflowers and new-mown hay, like the Midwest.’
This made us both laugh and distracted me from what happened next, because when I had calmed down, he had already slipped inside me and was moving almost unnoticeably.
It did not hurt, it did not hurt at all, my muscles twitched around his glorious, hard member while his soft stomach languidly massaged my sex.
I cried out when a wave of lust washed over me, causing him to breathe faster and sweat more profusely until he shuddered deep within me. We both wept as we slowly regained our senses. ‘I love you, oh, how I love you,’ he stammered. His tears mingled with mine.
We lay in each other’s arms then, smoking, having brandy and enjoying the feel of our moist skins touching. It was well after midnight when we got up and ran the bath. We washed one another lovingly in the relaxing warm water. Then we dried ourselves off and went back to bed.
We dozed for a while – maybe only I did, because I woke up to a delicious, tingling sensation in my lower belly. James was gently running his tongue over my sex. When I was about to lose my senses, he let it slip into his mouth.
I had seen clumsily drawn pictures of this act in cheap booklets sold outside public restrooms in Paris, but I had believed it to be only a figment of subconscious imagination. And yet this was real now and I did not stifle my moans of lust and, still demurely, felt a shock as I noticed that James did not retreat on time.
He rested his head on my stomach while I tried to control my ragged breathing. Then he crawled up, lay down on top of me, quickly swallowed some brandy with a giggle and then kissed me. The fortress had finally been conquered. Anything worse than this would only feel more delightful. His joyful eyes told me.
I relaxed and stroked his back all the way down to his buttocks.
‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘How do I taste?’
He grinned and rubbed his nose against mine.
‘Like fresh oysters.’
Both our bodies trembled with mirth as we gave in to fits of gleeful laughter.
Chapter 24: The Coal Desert
Nick and James are off for a day in Manhattan.
We woke deep in each other’s arms the next morning. I surrendered to him again and then lay relaxing in a daze, with my arms folded behind my head and staring at the ceiling.
He was beside me, smoking and brooding and stroking my belly until he crushed out his cigarette, rolled over and kissed my nipples and my armpits.
‘I could stay in bed with you all day,’ he said with a tempting smile. ‘But it’s Saturday and now we are really united, my sweet Nick, my love…I want to have luncheon in New York and show off my lover and earn jealous looks and laugh at the new-money crowd. What do they know? We know now…My beautiful groom is getting fed and spoiled rotten in Upper Manhattan today.’
New York beckoned, for the first time in months. I finally felt I had conquered the city and would be free from harm or suspicion. After all, I was in James’s service as a financial expert and a Saturday lunch à deux in town never killed an entrepreneur and his employee.
When we met again in the dining room for breakfast, we found to our surprise that we were almost equally dressed. His suit was of a slightly darker grey than mine, but our peach-colored silk ties could not be told apart. It made us smirk.
Since he disliked the idea of leaving one of his limousines at the station, we set out in an old Hudson he had bought shortly after the war and that was now mostly used by me.
Ever since Myrtle Wilson’s accident I had taken the long way along the coast to the station instead of the road that ran past the garage. I was at the wheel now, a changed man, and so I decided to drive past it to see if it was still there, because I assumed someone must have set fire to the place.
The sky was cloudy with only a few rays of sunlight, but at the junction the dark coal desert suddenly gave way to a bright-looking building. The front had been painted clear grey and the erstwhile dull brown of the doors and the window frames had disappeared under a coat of merry moss-green. It was not quite finished yet because I detected some ladders and buckets of varnish outside the main entrance.
Without consulting James I drove unto the premises, waited until a pump became available and pulled up.
A man dressed in a crisp grey cotton mechanic’s jacket, matching trousers and a white collarless shirt nodded a friendly greeting and walked up to us. His black curls were blown in all directions by the spring breeze. Warm, brown eyes under long, dark lashes surveyed our vehicle with kindness. His skin was tanned. He gave us a welcoming smile with the pleasant self-assuredness only Hispanics can lay claim on.
‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ he said after James had lowered the window. ‘How can I help you today?’ He did not sound very Spanish, rather English.
‘Would you please fill her up?’
He nodded. ‘Of course. Shall I wipe the windscreen too? Check the tires? They do look a bit limp.’
‘Please do, Mr. Scudder,’ I said, because now I knew who this man was.
‘At your service,’ he grinned. ‘I don’t believe I saw your car here before.’
‘We barely use it,’ James explained. ‘By the way, my name is Gatsby. I’m a friend of Mr. Hall’s.’
For some reason we both left the car, in an instinct to flee or to justify our presence.
Alec nodded in appreciation. ‘Happen I rent a room at Mr. Hall’s house…So you are the gentleman from West Egg.’
We shook hands with him as he filled the tank. ‘My name is Carraway,’ I said. ‘Mr. Hall has told me so much about you. Welcome to Long Island. Your garage is looking fine.’
‘Ain’t quite finished yet,’ Alec said. ‘I could not start renovating until the frost had gone. The place was a bit of a tip when I arrived.’
‘It’s looking very nice,’ James said, pointing at the window of the room that had once been Wilson’s office. ‘I see you opened up a shop.’
Alec smiled demurely. ‘I did. Not much of a shop yet. I sell lemonade and cigarettes, though.’
‘Splendid,’ I said. ‘I’d like to buy a few packs.’
I went in and was blinded by the sheen of fresh white paint and the smell of shellac and industrial soap. A Mexican woman in a crisp apron smiled at me and sold me cigarettes and matches.
When I walked back to our car a horn blared. A magnificent Oldsmobile stopped outside the garage door. Maurice climbed out holding a brown paper bag. When he saw us standing next to the very old Hudson, he burst out laughing.
‘I say, old sport, have you gone bankrupt?’ he asked James. ‘You used to drive superb limousines when I last had the pleasure of meeting you.’
‘And you, did you rob a bank?’ James protested pleasantly. ‘You finally got yourself a respectable vehicle. It looks good on you.’
Maurice observed the three of us with shining eyes. He was wearing a light-grey, almost white suit and new glasses with a modern frame.
‘I brought you some lunch,’ he said to Alec, who had just finished pumping up the tires.
‘Cheers, mate,’ Alec smiled. ‘Are ye coming inside or are ye in a rush? I’m closing for afternoon break in ten minutes.’
‘Only if these fine gentlemen care to join us,’ Maurice said.
James paid Alec, got behind the wheel and parked his car on the side of the building.
Then Alec opened the garage door and invited us in.
‘Would you draw up some chairs so somebody can sit down?’ Maurice asked him. ‘And is there any tea going?’
Alec let out a tantalizing, smoky laugh. ‘Yer a good one. Always Scudder-do-this, Scudder-do-that. Old habits die hard, eh?’
Then he peered into the lunch bag. ‘Yuck,’ he muttered. ‘Corned beef sandwiches again. If I fancied those for me dinner every day, I’d have stayed in bloody England.’
The garage door was closed now so Maurice could cuff him playfully and blow him kisses without being seen from outside.
Tea was served in enamel mugs. Even though we saw cigarette ends on the concrete floor, we did not smoke. This was a garage after all.
‘Thank you,’ James said to Alec. ‘The tea is very nice. We will not be staying long. You need to have your meal undisturbed. Nick and I are having lunch in Manhattan. And I’m sure Maurice wants to keep you company, so you won’t appreciate any intruders.’
‘That’s all right,’ Alec smiled. ‘It’s lovely to meet you, sir.’ Then he looked at Maurice. ‘And you, Mr. Fancy Trousers, are ye having yer luncheon with me? You need not have dressed up for that. All I can offer ye are some of yer own sandwiches, but I’d be happy to do that. We’re not at the bleeding Plaza and they taste like pigswill anyroad.’
We all burst out laughing. Maurice took off his glasses, wiped them and put them back on.
‘I’m sorry, dear,’ he said to Alec. ‘I’ll be off to the station soon too. I’m meeting Mr. Durham today.’
It has been years now since this afternoon at Scudder’s garage, but I still don’t understand why James and I exchanged glances full of amusement.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Alec asked Maurice.
Maurice smiled. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. In fact, Mr. Durham arrived in New York yesterday morning. He telephoned me last night when you had already gone to bed. And when I woke up this morning you had already left for work.’
Maurice drew a breath and then looked at all of us with eyes full of life. ‘In fact,’ he went on. ‘Mr. Durham is staying at the Plaza. He would very much like to meet you all…I’m sorry, James, it was too late to ring you yesterday, and when I tried half an hour ago, your maid told me you were not in.’
‘Nick and I are having lunch this afternoon,’ James said. ‘So I’m afraid we…’
‘We could go after that,’ I said, not knowing what possessed me and earning a grin from Alec. The mechanic was taking violent bites from his sandwiches.
‘I’m not coming,’ he said with his mouth full. ‘I’ve worked for Durham for eighteen bloody months before the war. Always at beck and call for the old lady, his mum. ‘Oh, would you most kindly of your goodness post these letters for me…what’s your name?’ She never learned my name. And it was always raining and I had to cycle three miles to the next post office…When Durham hired me, I thought it would be grand being an under-gamekeeper on an estate. It would have been if it hadn’t been for all the bloody odd-jobs I had to do on the side. He would bark at me whenever he thought I had not polished his shoes well enough…He’s not fit to lick mine now. I had a business in Buenos Aires and now I’ve got one on Long Island – ha!’
‘There’s no harm in you meeting him, love,’ Maurice remarked soothingly. ‘You are no longer in his service, you’re a man of standing now. By the way, Mr. Durham has also been doing quite well. He became a bar solicitor in London after the war. And how do you like this, Alec…he was appointed magistrate in your place of birth last year, in Osmington.’
‘Osmington, New Mexico,’ Alec scoffed. ‘Could never be in Wiltshire anyroad. If you want someone who can rule over cactuses and steer skulls in the desert, he’s the man.The feller’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.’
Maurice blew his nose discreetly and stared at his Oldsmobile through the side window. He must be feeling defeated.
‘You can order anything at the Plaza,’ I said to Alec. ‘If you go and visit, just have Mr. Durham send up caviar, lobster Thermidor and a bottle of 1903 Moet & Chandon.’
‘And some cyanide toffee for pudding,’ Alec said happily. ‘I’m starting to like the idea.’
Maurice turned around and laughed.
‘I saw a sign in your shop window about a Ford for sale, Alec,’ James suddenly remarked. ‘Could I have a look at it next week? I’m considering buying Nick a car.’
Maurice must have told Alec that James and I were lovers, but only now did he seem truly convinced.
‘Of course,’ Alec said. ‘There are people interested in buying it, but I’ll put them off until you have taken it for a test drive.’
I rose in amazement. It had only taken a few words to avert a crisis. James had directed things softly and respectfully as usual. I, however, had grown immensely since the previous night. I had a voice and hands that could press any button now.
Chapter 25: Top Floor
Nick and James have lunch in Manhattan and then meet Maurice's friend at the Plaza.
Alec told us he would close for the day at four like he always did on Saturdays. Then he would dash home to feed the cats and to get changed and drive to the station (he owned Maurice’s Overland now) after that to travel to New York.
James suggested that Maurice leave his car at Alec’s garage and ride to the station with us.
‘I owe you the world now,’ Maurice said to James and me when we were on the train. ‘If it hadn’t been for you, he would not have agreed to go and visit Clive at the Plaza.’
I silently assumed Alec regarded my lover and me as chaperones or protectors who would keep him safe from harm while he faced his former master whom he clearly hated.
We were at the exit of Penn Station when James stopped and made an annoyed sound.
‘I forgot to buy cigarettes,’ he said. ‘Would the two of you mind waiting outside while I get some at the store on the first floor?’ He went back inside.
Maurice and I positioned ourselves behind a large pillar so as to avoid pleading looks from taxi drivers offering rides. We intended to take the underground.
I looked at him from the side as he lit a cigarette and stared at a worn billboard ahead of him. He was clearly nervous, because he exhaled with a shudder and anxiously fondled a box of matches. I could tell he had not slept well either. The shadows under his eyes behind the glasses gave him a beautiful, ghostlike appearance.
‘I’ve got some news,’ I said happily, hoping to distract him.
His dull, dark-blue eyes rested listlessly on me.
‘I’m all ears, old sport.’
I drew a breath to prevent myself from erupting.
‘Well, James and I, we finally…’
He smiled faintly. ‘I know. He gave you a position.’
‘He did, but I don’t mean that…I finally…well…Remember that talk you and I had in December…? It happened. It really happened. Last night.’
He laughed softly and patted my hand. His eyes filled with life again.
‘Yes, I can tell now. There’s a rosy glow on your cheeks. Have you gained weight ever since you moved in with him? I suppose so. You are looking more gorgeous than ever, dear.’
He bit his lip and batted his eyelashes mischievously.
‘Well…What was it like? Did it hurt?’
I laughed now. Some people passing turned their heads.
‘It was wonderful,’ I said softly. ‘Very warm, comforting, intimate…and when I had my crisis, it was as if the world around me died and only James and I survived. We both cried.’
‘It’s the most blissful thing to sleep with him,’ Maurice nodded. ‘I’m so happy for the two of you, I really am.’
‘I’m convinced that what we did was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad,’ a voice sounded.
Maurice and I turned around and stared into James’s smiling face.
‘Let’s walk to the underground now,’ he went on. ‘I could do with some luncheon.’
Le Canigou was one of the prominent French restaurants in Upper Manhattan in those years. It was run by a family originally from Brussels and I can still taste the Catalan dishes it was famous for. Its vicinity to Carnegie Hall made it into a favorite spot for those who wanted a good meal after a concert. After the crash in 1929, it slowly shrank to a grand café that offered cheap wine under the counter and was eventually taken over by an investor during the next war and turned into an adolescent-proof hamburger and milkshake joint.
James and I had a three-course luncheon with snails and parsley butter, roast lamb and riz à la gachucha and fig pie for dessert on that peculiar day. Since we were in public, we modestly talked shop and furtively cast one another glances that our thoughts were in fact not with our business.
Maurice had traveled by underground to Fifty-Seventh with us. We had parted there.
‘I’m afraid the joy is too great to be real,’ were his last gleeful, nervous words. Then he had walked away in the direction of the Plaza, with his hat askew and the tails of his English macintosh billowing in the spring breeze, leaving James and me to stare at one another in disbelief. ‘Let’s go and eat now,’ my lover muttered.
We had initially planned to wait for Alec at the hotel bar and then go up to Mr. Durham’s room with him, but by the time we had finished our meal, it was a quarter past three, so it would still be hours before he’d show up.
‘Let’s get this over with,’ James sighed when he had paid the bill. ‘The sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll be able to leave and go home.’ We exchanged joyful glances.
It was raining when we walked to the Plaza. When we arrived, we thought it only decent to ask the reception clerk to phone Mr. Durham and announce our arrival.
The young man dialed, got no answer and then looked at James. ‘Mr. Durham is in anyway, Mr. Gatsby. I suppose you can just go up. Top floor, room 1024.’
James was well-known here. The hotel served liquor.
We took the elevator and knocked on double doors.
The host bid us welcome with a pleasant smile. He held a cigarette between his teeth and clumsily adjusted his tie. His waistcoat was unbuttoned and he was wearing embroidered Lobb slippers.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen,’ he said merrily, shaking hands with James first. ‘You must be Mr. Gatsby…Can I kiss you?’ He did and then his lips brushed my cheek.
‘And you are Mr. Carraway, of course…Do call me Clive, I’ll use your Christian names if you don’t mind. We’re in America.’
We looked around in a lounge that was brightened up by skylights and lavishly furnished with modern sofas and tables. In an anteroom that led to the bedrooms we saw a grand piano. There were endless vases with roses and orchids.
‘Maurice!’ Clive roared. ‘Your friends are here.’
Maurice came out of the bathroom. His suspenders were dangling down his pant legs and his shirt was unbuttoned, exposing a strip of amber skin and a deep navel. His hair was wet and disheveled and he was not wearing his glasses. He blinked. ‘I say, you’re early,’ he grinned in a deep, lazy voice. ‘Did you have a nice luncheon?’ When I explained we had been to Le Canigou, he nodded approvingly.
Clive disappeared into a bedroom.
‘Blast,’ Maurice murmured, studying his face in the mirror over the mantelpiece and running his fingers through his hair. ‘Somewhere in the universe there must be a refuge for lost combs. I really thought I had one on me.’
‘Use mine,’ I offered, handing him a cheap metal specimen I always took with me.
As he stood parting his hair and smoothing it with his palms, Clive appeared in the doorway holding a pair of glasses and looked at him with shining eyes. Our host was indeed smallish, a few inches shorter than me. His thin frame gave him an elegant appearance. A few damp oak-brown curls had escaped a hasty treatment with hair cream. He held up his aquiline nose, probably too look taller. His pinkish lips parted and showed white, slightly uneven teeth.
‘There you go, old sport,’ he said, handing Maurice his glasses.
Only when Maurice had put them on did he notice his state of dress. He chuckled hoarsely, buttoned up his shirt, tucked it into his pants and adjusted his suspenders. He then looked at the door to the bedroom where probably his waistcoat and his tie could be found, but merely shrugged and curled up on a sofa.
Clive sat down next to him and invited us to a drink and some refreshments. He suggested coffee since we had just had lunch, but when we both demurely asked for tea, he laughed.
Presently he was on the phone ordering tea, pastries and sandwiches. When he had hung up, he said he would have a more substantial meal sent up after Scudder’s arrival.
James and I sat down on the opposite sofa. We all lit cigarettes and talked. Clive had gone to war as an infantry lieutenant in 1916. He had returned to England in 1917 and regretted he had missed the arrival of the overseas allied forces. His combat territory had predominantly been the east of France.
James and I took turns telling about our prospective regiments. Then my lover talked about his time in England as a so-called student at Oxford. ‘You and I met before,’ he calmly said to Clive. ‘Early in May 1919 I hired a car and drove to Penge.’
‘Sounds too much like contingency,’ Clive smiled.
‘But I did,’ James said. ‘There was a sign on the main gate that said ‘No Soliciting’, but the eastern border was only partially fenced. I could step right through the hawthorn bushes and walked up a path towards the house. I saw rhododendrons and primroses and a weeping willow to my right…And then you came riding up to me on a black Arabian gelding, a magnificent animal.’
‘King George,’ Clive stammered. ‘He’s still alive, you know, but he’s an old horse now.’
‘You practically threw me off the premises,’ James went on. ‘I was in uniform and I meant no harm, but you said, quite rightly, that Penge was not open for tourists.’
Clive’s jaw dropped. He bent over and fixed James with slightly unfocused spring-blue eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. ‘You’re a major, aren’t you?’ he asked softly.
‘I am,’ James said. ‘Or rather, I was. The war has long been over. I’d like to apologize to you for trespassing.’
Silence descended on the room. It was so high above ground level that no noises from outside could be heard.
Maurice drew a few breaths and cast Clive a worried look. ‘I say, are you all right, old sport?’ he asked. His voice was heavy with love.
Clive rose unsteadily, sank down before James and grabbed his hands.
‘So it was you,’ he murmured. ‘When I met you just now, I thought you did look familiar. Your hair was short in military fashion and covered by a hat back then, but I could guess by the color of your eyebrows what it looked like.’
He then told James how he had taken to socializing with American officers in London after that – he went there often anyway and stayed at his flat in Kensington. He and his wife loved entertaining guests and so gentlemen from distant shores came to Penge and rode horses or rowed on the pond. None of them was the American major whose name he had never learned. He had only seen the distinctives of this man’s rank from horseback and not the small print on the breast pocket. He had even courageously entered the military staff bureau on Chancery Lane once and had been told off. No British citizen, not even a solicitor, had any business on what was considered United States territory.
‘I went to Penge to look for Maurice,’ James said now.
‘I just figured that out,’ Clive nodded. ‘That’s all right, I understand. I had only seen you for a minute in my park, but you lingered in my mind ever since. Your name tag was too small to read, but I did notice your eyes. The most exotic pair of eyes I’ve ever seen…’
His voice rose. ‘Imagine meeting you here and now! Nothing short of a miracle. It leaves me paralyzed with happiness…Don’t apologize, James. It’s me who ought to do so. Poor Nick! What must he be thinking now?’
‘Lest we forget,’ I said. ‘That would be the worst thing. But we remember. We all do.’
Clive took my hand and kissed it. ‘Wise words,’ he said. ‘Spoken by a beautiful man. Did someone ever tell you how gorgeous your eyes are? Precious mahogany brown, full of southern summer joy.’
‘I’m from Wisconsin,’ I remarked. Then I realized that ‘south’ had a different connotation to a Brit than to an American. It did not matter. All four of us were equals.
Tea and refreshments were wheeled in on trolleys. We drank to the friendship between two outstanding nations.
Clive told us how he had met Kitty Hall, Maurice’s sister, by chance in London the previous year, and so he had found out that Maurice had emigrated and was living on Long Island. She had written down her brother’s address and so Clive had taken up a correspondence with Maurice, of whom he had until then only known that he had survived the war.
As the two men embraced on the couch, I wondered if Clive had an official reason to be in New York and if his wife was with him and if so, where she was now.
None of this was clarified as we talked on and the sun set outside, and when Clive answered the phone and heard from the reception clerk that a Mr. Scuttle from Long Island had arrived, I no longer bothered to wonder why the squire had invited his former under-gamekeeper to tea.
This chapter contains two references to Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights'. Reminder: James has all the works by the Brontës at home.
'...and when I had my crisis, it was as if the world around me died and only James and I survived.' - Nick's words to Maurice about his first sexual experience with James show a similarity to Cathy's remark to Nelly about her emotional attachment to Heathcliff: 'If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be...' (Scribd, Early Bird Books issue, p. 103).
Before Maurice leaves to meet Clive at the Plaza, he bids his friends goodbye with: 'I'm afraid the joy is too great to be real', a phrase directly taken from the same novel (same issue, p.118). It is spoken by Cathy, who is a married woman now and out of her head with happiness at having met her lover who has returned after years of absence.
Chapter 26: Nocturnal Dance
Alec joins the party.
As I am writing all this, I feel an urge to jump ahead and tell about the turmoil of the years that followed. How James saw his business collapse in 1929 and had to sell his villa for a fraction of its original value to an investor who turned into a nursing home. How he and I moved into a spacious apartment on Ninth Avenue after that, because we were still well-off. How we traveled the world. How he finally set foot on German soil, weeping for joy when he walked the streets of Homburg and all the while feeling society’s growing aversion to his own people. How he endlessly listened to the radio in our living room in the darkest years, softly reciting Shema Yisrael when Pearl Harbor, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Dieppe, Arnhem and Nagasaki were mentioned, his listless smile at the sight of victorious troops marching down Times Square when all was over. And how we had always stayed together.
I spent that evening in May 1923 in woeful ignorance at the Plaza and still felt that this private party showed the tables had finally been turned. A series of events in that luxurious hotel apartment has been tumbling in my mind ever since, like beads on a rosary, connected and yet apart.
Alec – Clive let him in, shook hands with him, patted him on the shoulders and told him how good he was looking. Alec was dressed in a blue suit and holding a matching cap.
He sat down next to me, accepted a cup of tea from the host and whispered to me that James should not feel compelled to buy the Ford he had for sale. James ended up buying it anyway and I drove it for years.
Alec was the most prominent guest at the party. We had grown weary of trench talk. He had never seen the war and provided a handful of full of colorful stories from Argentina.
When the tea pot was empty and we were waiting for our evening meal, Clive opened a bottle of Scotch whiskey and served the amber liquid in large tumblers with ice and without any mint.
Clive told Alec about his new position as a magistrate in Osmington, which caused the mechanic to smirk. ‘You’ve done well, sir,’ the former under-gamekeeper remarked. ‘At least you won’t get to bollock yer staff on Penge about two apricots missing from the tree. I never forgot that. It was Millie the house maid as stole them and I took the blame because I fancied her…Of course that was before I met Maurice.’
Clive wildly embraced and kissed Maurice, who was sitting beside him. Maurice chortled and giggled, playfully fought him off and then adjusted his glasses.
‘Stop that,’ I admonished. I was a bastard now. ‘There are gentlemen present.’
‘Fair enough,’ Clive panted. ‘You kiss James then. Or Alec.’
Alec looked at me and then shook his head. ‘Nah…Nick’s already got a sweetie and I don’t fancy brown-eyed fellers anyroad.’
We all burst out laughing. It was James who then bent over Alec to kiss me.
‘That’s better,’ Alec remarked. I suddenly realized that his speech bore no undertones of Spanish, which had been his lingua franca for years. He had become a Brit again, moreover, a Wiltshire lad.
A head waiter came in, followed by his staff carrying trays of food. When he saw Alec, he uttered a string of angry words in Spanish. ‘Lo siento mucho, no soy Cárdenas,’ Alec explained. ‘Fui invitado por el Sr. Durham.’*) The man did not believe it. ‘Ask Mr. Durham then,’ Alec went on in English. ‘My name is Scudder and I’m from England. Any further questions?’
The men left in misery. ‘He took me for one of his waiters who did not show up for work today,’ Alec explained. This was what his new life in America sometimes looked like. He must be used to it, especially since he had already been a migrant in Argentina.
Clive urged him to eat well, since he had had a hard day’s work. There were shrimp cocktails, mushroom vol-au-vents, Scotch eggs, salmon canapes and many other things.
Alec was the only one who politely refused wine and stuck to Coca-Cola.
The lady – Clive had just opened another bottle of pinot gris when the phone rang. He answered, waited for a connection and then smiled broadly.
‘Anne, dear! I’ve been worried about you…How was your trip? Are your friends well…? Yes, Maurice is here. He brought some delightful company…Three gentlemen…We’re having dinner now…One of them has Carraway for a family name and he went to Yale, how do you like that?’
Clive then beckoned me and handed me the receiver.
‘Hello?’ I heard. Wondering if I should address her with milady or madam, I feverishly thought of something to say.
‘My name is Anne,’ it sounded. Her voice was metallic.
‘My name is Nick Carraway,’ I said, twisting the cord as I waited for a reaction.
‘I’m Nicolas Ralph Jonathan Carraway,’ I tried again. Maurice chortled.
‘I’m Anne Clare Wilbraham Durham,’ she saved me. ‘My maiden name is Woods. How do you do? It’s a pity we can’t meet in person now. I’m staying at an old school friend’s house in New Haven to attend her wedding. She’s marrying Professor Hartman tomorrow. Do you know him?’
I said I didn’t and then she explained she had wanted to talk to me because my last name intrigued her. She had read about the large Carraway family that mainly resided in Ohio and was descended from the first Duke of Buccleuch. When I told her they were only very distant relatives of mine and that my direct ancestors had been from Somerset and that I myself was from Wisconsin, she laughed.
‘You sound most kind,’ she remarked. Her voice developed with warm, friendly tones as I studied a framed picture beside the telephone. It showed a lady in a mink coat as black as her hair, holding a cigarette, with a border collie crouching at her feet, and standing next to a black roadster I took to be hers.
‘Hello?’ she inquired.
‘I’m sorry, madam, I…’
She tittered. ‘Do call me Anne. I’d love to meet you. I’ll be back in New York some time next week. I’m not exactly sure when. I ought to plan, but then again, what does one plan?’
Now it struck me as odd that she was in Connecticut. She and her husband had disembarked from a transatlantic steamer the previous day. Instead of resting a bit before she would travel on, she must have boarded the train to New Haven almost straight after landing in New York.
I was quite sure now the couple had no children. They were rich and like so many Europeans they would take to drifting up and down the American East Coast and staying at rented villas or in hotel rooms in every place where people played golf or bezique and were bored together. It was not a life one could lead if one had offspring not old enough to be packed off to boarding school.
‘I’m wondering if Maurice would speak to me,’ she interrupted my thoughts. ‘Dear Maurice! Is he still the dashing-looking man I remember? I last saw him on Penge in 1913. He was clumsy then, always spilling ashes and brandy on his ties and too shy to even speak to Clive’s mother.’
‘Maurice?’ I played for time. ‘Well, he might…’
Maurice got up and gently took the receiver from my hand. There were cries of surprise and joy. Yes, he was doing all right, and yes, he was planning on going to England for a holiday soon, and oh yes, he would definitely stay on Penge.
I sat down next to Alec. ‘She doesn’t know, bless her,’ he murmured. ‘I always liked her.’
‘Connecticut is absolutely lovely this time of year,’ Maurice said to Anne. ‘Do have luncheon with me on Park Avenue after you get back, and bring Clive.’ He laughed.
Then Clive spoke to her again, full of worried sweetness, about cold, ghastly train rides and rain and chilling sea breezes. By the time he had wished her goodnight and hung up, he was blushing.
Clive – The meal had been lavish and we were slightly dazed from the wine. The host asked us if anyone cared to play the piano, but no one present had ever gotten beyond Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
The room had a gramophone and an enormous stash of records. Clive picked one at random and soon we were treated to a tune played by a bandoneon and a small orchestra.
Alec hummed, tapped his foot and sang along. ‘Las rosas del otoño se estaban desvaneciendo cuando bailamos por la ultima vez, recuerdo, oh, recuerdo, y tu?’ **)
‘Do have this dance with me,’ Clive said to him. ‘I take it you have gained much practice in the Argentine.’
Alec laughed. ‘I did, that is going to friends’ parties and sitting at the table and eating and watching other people wear themselves out…I’m sorry sir, I couldn’t.’
‘Have James sign your dance card then, old sport,’ Maurice said to Clive. ‘He’s heavenly and I’m tipsy, so there.’
It was Clive who tried to teach James some tango steps and presently they were caught up in a jerky chase between the piano and the sofa.
It was very late now and I remember kicking off my shoes and curling up on the couch. At some point I dozed off and barely noticed how my nose gradually sank into a mop of black curls that smelled endearingly of carbolic soap. Alec had cuddled up to me and was asleep.
We both woke slowly to the treacly melody of a Viennese waltz and words spoken in an unnerving hiss. Clive was standing opposite James and giving him an icy look.
‘Nick…Nick…always Nick! What am I then? Your bus boy?’
The sound of his sobs was muted by James’s calming, baritone laughter.
‘I’m sorry, James, old sport…I’ve had too much to drink.’
I now discovered that Maurice was sitting next to Alec and staring at the dancers wide-eyed.
‘Give over, the two of ye,’ Alec snapped. He was still lying in my arms and his voice tore through my flesh. ‘No fighting or else I will…’
‘Alec,’ Maurice said pleadingly.
‘Scudder, this is no time to seek revenge for the fact that I once unjustly blamed you for stealing apricots,’ Clive admonished.
‘Yer about to steal more than that from me,’ Alec retorted. ‘Or you probably did already.’
‘Alec,’ Maurice pleaded again.
‘Sir!’ Alec roared. ‘May I remind you that you’re married? James and Maurice and Nick and me are not, so it’s different with us.’
Clive nodded with a wan smile. ‘I know. And I find it in my heart to envy you all at times.’
Maurice lit a cigarette and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. James discreetly blew his nose, sat down and looked out the window.
Our host mesmerized me. There was no way anyone could ever find fault with him. He was riddled with mistakes and readily admitted to having them, a true sign of nobility.
I remember how things turned peaceful quickly after that, so I dozed off again. When I woke, Alec was taking long swigs from a bottle of Moet & Chandon he must have furtively ordered to spite his former master.
I remember Clive and Maurice probably being absent from the main room for some time when dawn was slowly breaking outside. My senses returned when Alec finished his sparkling drink, belched revoltingly, lit a cigarette and then said with a grin that it tasted like bog water and that he’d kill for a good old pint of stout.
At some time, James emerged from somewhere and sat down next to me.
I remember Alec softly pacing up and down the room in stockinged feet while I was reclining in James’s arms. ‘I’m so tired,’ my lover said. ‘Too tired to walk to the underground and go home…Let’s rest until we’re both feeling better and then we’ll rush back to our house on West Egg and go straight to bed, sleep a bit and then make love for hours.’
I kissed him drowsily, tasting whiskey and tobacco and something unfamiliar on his tongue and earning an admiring whistle from Alec, who was wide awake.
James, Clive, Maurice and Alec – The first yellowish light of day brightened up the sky outside. James was lying on the sofa and sleeping. Someone had covered him with Maurice’s macintosh.
Clive and Maurice materialized on the other sofa, yawning and scratching their unshaven cheeks and expressing a desire for some strong coffee.
‘I’m off,’ Alec said. ‘Not because I don’t like it here, it’s grand and all, but I’ve been worried about my car being outside the station all night and the cats need feeding. I also have to go over my accounts later on.’
Maurice embraced him, kissed him lovingly and whispered something in his ear. Then Clive kissed him goodbye – maybe the squire and the mechanic had become friends at some moment during the night.
‘I’ll walk you to the underground,’ I said to Alec. ‘And then I’ll get back here and stay until James is fit to go home.’
‘Give him my love,’ Alec said to Maurice, pointing at the sleeping beauty.
‘I will,’ Maurice promised. ‘I’ll be home this afternoon. Don’t bother about making dinner. I’m treating you to a meal at Vasilis’s place tonight.’
‘Don’t touch the handle,’ the elevator boy snapped as Alec drowsily leaned against the paneled wall of the moving cubicle. Soon we were outside and walking down Fifty-Seventh in the cold daylight.
*) Translation:'I'm very sorry, but I'm not Cárdenas...I was invited by Mr. Durham.'
**) Translation: 'The autumn roses were wilting as we danced for the last time...I rember, oh, I remember, how about you?'
Chapter 27: Babylon
Nick walks Alec to the underground.
It was going on seven and it was Sunday morning, so the streets were deserted but for some sweepers and servants walking their masters’ dogs.
Alec kept silent as he marched on beside me, frowning and drawing from his cigarette.
When we reached the stairs to the underground platform, he suddenly stopped and uttered a scornful laugh.
‘How d’ye like this, Nick? I completely forgot. Today’s me bleeding birthday. I’m thirty-two.’
He reluctantly accepted my handshake. ‘Congratulations,’ I said. ‘And many happy returns.’
‘Thanks,’ he muttered. ‘Seems like everybody else forgot about it too. Well, welcome to the United States of America, Mr. Alexander Scudder from bloody Osmington. I feel like I’m living on the fucking North Pole now.’
He lit another cigarette, leaned against a lamp post and cast me a venomous look when I urged him to talk about how he felt. Eventually he gave in and blurted out that no explanations were needed. After all, I had seen everything at the Plaza, more than he had, because I had arrived before him. He still had the right to reside in Argentina, so he could go back, but if he did, he would return to nothing because he had sold his business.
It turned out that Maurice intended to apply for American citizenship as soon as he was granted a permanent residence permit. Well, good on him then, he would stay here, but Alec would pack his bags and leave, for England if need be, for he was still a British citizen, thank God.
It had all been a delicious dream – emigrating to the greatest nation in the world and being close to Maurice, his Maurice who had forgotten all about him and who had been James’s lover on West Egg for weeks and who had been so happy ever since Mr. Durham had set foot in New York. But then again, that was to be expected. Rich toffs had a way of sticking together in more than one sense of the word.
Alec had been to many parties and dances in Buenos Aires. That was the beauty of Argentina. A host could invite anyone from industrials and clergymen to journalists and struggling artists and factory workers who could barely write their own names. He had met many people, communists, anarchists, followers of European health movements who sought spiritual enlightenment in playing sports games in the nude and so on even though that could get you jailed in Argentina, he had listened to writers and union leaders advocating women’s universal rights to vote to and build up their own fortunes, and off course everybody had usually been mighty drunk.
He did not consider himself very political. After all, he was not a learned feller, but it did not take a college education to welcome the idea of freedom granted to all of mankind, regardless of any individual’s faith, ancestry, skin color or sex.
‘But not this,’ he said, ferociously striking a match on the lamp post and lighting a cigarette. ‘Not this. I expected Manhattan just to be Manhattan, not Babylon…Yes, I would sometimes pay attention in Sunday school as a little nipper in Osmington.’ He laughed.
As I am writing this chapter, I wish how I had known then how our lives would develop in later years. Alec expanded his garage, hired more staff and moved into the apartment over his workshop. Maurice bought himself a nice house on West Egg. It was as small as his former old cottage, but much neater and truly decent enough for a Wall Street man. He no longer lived within walking distance of his lover’s premises, but they both had cars and spent their leisure time together, telling everybody that they were brothers-in-law. They are still lovers now.
I wish I had been able to tell Alec all this on that cold Sunday morning. What I explained to him then did little to lift his spirits at first.
‘It’s hard, dear, I know,’ I said. ‘But Maurice struggled to fight off the image of Mr. Durham when he and James were on leave in Paris during the war. He never mentioned you. You were rooted so deeply within him that it was not necessary to have his dreams haunted by you. Mr. Durham simply broke things off with him by marrying Miss Woods. Maurice mourned him. He never needed to mourn you, because he knew you would come back to him.
Ah, you don’t know, but I watched Maurice pace up and down the terrace at the edge of James’s garden and stare at the green light on the shore of East Egg. It serves as a beacon to guide the ships. The big steamers take the route along the southern shore of Long Island, so they can’t be seen from the garden, but the light meant hope. He knew you would eventually be on one of those ships. Green is the color of hope.’
‘Happen Mr. and Mrs. Durham crossed the Atlantic,’ Alec said despondently. ‘It’s not like they went to Cornwall for a week’s holiday. God knows how long they’ll be staying in America.’
‘They’ll go back soon,’ I comforted him. ‘Mr. Durham can’t leave his position as a magistrate just like that.’
Clive Durham stayed in America for a bewilderingly long time. His wife, the lovely Anne, returned to England long before he did. We would meet the couple again on Penge a few years later, with Maurice present. Both he and Alec have visited their home country many times, but they never traveled together to avoid suspicion.
Alec and I slowly descended the steps to the platform. Because of the early hour and the day of the week the trains only ran every thirty minutes, so it would be some time yet before one would arrive.
‘Remembering is the greatest gift granted to mankind,’ I said to Alec. ‘Meeting someone and then getting to know this person very superficially or more profoundly sometimes changes the mind for good. What you should concentrate on is trying to remember pleasant things and not to forget. Forgetting is the worst foe to the human soul, because then you’ll lose the grasp of what made you into the man you are now.’
I smirked. ‘And maybe there are people you met in Argentina and who you remember. Maybe there’s someone special you left behind. A lot can happen in nine years.’
He nodded in defeat.
Until this very day he has often thanked me for the words I spoke then. It had taken him some time to realize their true meaning. After all, he considered himself a daft feller and I had done more book-learning at Yale and such.
The distant rumble of an approaching train could be heard.
‘Maurice loves you,’ I said. ‘If you’re not convinced, please bear in mind that he dropped James, the richest man on Long Island, for you…And something else…a little trench anecdote. I once overheard two Australian soldiers talking about respective sweethearts they had left behind in their home country. One of them complained about how his beloved was the most beautiful girl in Sydney. Every fellow wanted her and he was sure she was cheating on him. The other soldier pitied him and advised him to drop her and marry a plain-looking wench, just to be on the safe side and to prevent himself from becoming the father of a child he had not sired. ‘Not gonna happen, mate,’ his friend then remarked. ‘Yes, I’m worried, but I’d rather share a box of chocolates with other blokes than eat shit from a bucket on me own.’’
Alec burst out laughing. He coughed and wiped tears of amusement from his eyes.
‘Blimey, Nick, yer the best,’ he hiccupped. He still says this to me now.
When the train pulled up alongside the platform, he drew me behind a pillar by the lapels of my jacket. Then he planted a sloppy kiss on my mouth.
‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘I’m off now.’
He bounded into a carriage and before the doors closed, I called out: ‘Have a nice birthday dinner at Vasilis’s place tonight. Seems your sweetie didn’t forget after all.’
His smile of reassurance as we gave one another a last stare through a train window set me afloat with dizzy happiness. Then I ascended the steps and walked back to Babylon’s dwellings on the top floor of the Plaza.
Chapter 28: Green Lights
An epilogue begging for a sequel.
As conclusive as this chapter is, it would not be complete if I omitted what happened after that Sunday morning. We have been boats floating along with the current, but a few words or seemingly unimpressive events will bear us back into the past that shaped our futures.
Only recently, when Maurice and Alec came to dinner at our apartment on Ninth Avenue, we discussed what we had read in the newspapers about the increase in cases of armed robbery and violence in general.
‘I know a thing or two about that,’ Alec remarked. ‘Back in 1923, I had only been on Long Island for a few months…One evening, Maurice was in the garden feeding the cats and I was clearing the dinner table when someone knocked on the door. I answer and stare into a face I had never seen before, but I had gotten enough descriptions of this man. As broad as he was tall, bow-legged, blond and with a ridiculous mustache. I even knew what car he drove, a blue Rolls. I saw it parked along the pavement. ‘I want to speak to Mr. Hall,’ this feller says to me. ‘I take it you’re his servant?’ I tell him to fuck off and mind his own business but he won’t move and then I strike him in the face. Broke his nose and gave him a good old shiner.’
Maurice stared at his lover in disbelief. ‘You never told me,’ he said.
Alec shrugged. ‘You would have kicked up a row, love. It was bad enough that I did what I did. If that bastard Buchanan had told the police, they would have put me on the next ship to England. But that’s me all right. No one is to hurt my Maurice.’
‘Tom surely won’t hurt anyone now,’ I remarked, refraining from elaborating on the subject.
I had met Tom by chance a few months before in a restaurant in Chicago. He had been in the company of a matronly nurse who pushed his wheelchair. He did not recognize me when I shook his trembling hand and he remained aloof until a family with a few little blond-haired girls sat down at the next table. ‘Pammy, there’s Pammy,’ he stammered happily, but then he burst into tears. ‘I want a bedtime story…Why won’t anyone read to me? I want my teddy bear.’ He had indeed sought treatment in Switzerland in 1923, but it is a country full of wine and eau-de-vie and all his plans had failed.
James and I literally traveled around the globe. We visited Paris and met Daisy. She mingled with a predominantly American crowd of writers and once kicked up a fight with Anaïs Nin in a bar in Montmartre. Both women were Henry Miller’s lovers.
Her novels, written under the pseudonym Marguerite, are not read in America but can be had at any railway station or airport bookstore in Europe. What fills me with disbelief is how she manages to come up with erotic plots. Her story about a woman who seduces her lover’s wife to spite him and then runs off with the couple’s seventeen-year-old son was made into film by an Italian producer in Rome.
‘I wonder if I am to blame for all this,’ James remarked to Anne Durham when we were visiting on Penge in 1936. ‘I was her sweetheart in Louisville before I went to war.’
‘What Marguerite or rather Daisy Fay writes is rubbish,’ Anne remarked. ‘But it’s fun to read when one grows weary of literature. Who knows, James dear, perhaps it was you who ignited a spark within her. You gave her a taste of life, I suppose.’
The beautiful hostess, who always dressed in black and who ran a ladies’ reading circle, was a woman convinced of the soundness of her own views.
A few hours after this conversation James and I were in bed in the Russet Room, where Maurice had stayed on every visit since 1910. ‘Maybe Anne is right,’ my lover said to me. ‘I slept with Daisy in 1917. I took her virginity.’
I smiled with recognition and I still do whenever I remember that night on Penge.
Whatever happened may have shaped James more than he dares to admit. He’s not only his own creation, but he has also been made by others. By Daisy, who had shown him a bright world were anything is possible. By Maurice, who had done the same in a different setting. Indirectly by Clive – he is the one who has addressed any man he feels sympathy for with ‘old sport’ ever since his first days as a student at Cambridge. Maurice followed his example and infected James, who still uses it.
What he and I experienced on our journeys is a story that springs from this one. Maybe I’ll find the time to write that down as well. It is a delicious novel full of heat and sounds and wine and music.
We crossed the desert from Texas to California by car. We boarded a ship in San Diego and spent weeks in a cottage on a private beach in Oahu. It was before the days of mass tourism, so we went about naked, we made love in the surf and dived into the fluorescent waves after sundown. We had whiskey at harbor clubs in Sydney and Melbourne. We went on a guided tour to the inland rainforests of Ceylon. We tasted delectable food in Naples. He bought two delicately crafted rings in Zurich and proposed to me in a café on a boulevard in Geneva. We got drunk in Montmartre. We had modest meals in London.
Yes, this is a story in itself, pleasantly devoid of plot, but wonderful all the same, I agree with Daisy on that point. The world is a string of green lights that beckon and then guide us, reminding us of the past and promising a fulfilled future.