When I came home to West Egg that night I was afraid for a moment that my house was on fire. Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires. Turning a corner, I saw that it was Gatsby’s house, lit from tower to cellar.
At first I thought it was another party, a wild rout that had resolved itself into ‘hide-and-go-seek’ or ‘sardines-in-the-box’ with all the house thrown open to the game. But there wasn’t a sound. Only wind in the trees, which blew the wires and made the lights go off and on again as if the house had winked into the darkness. As my taxi groaned away I saw Gatsby walking toward me across his lawn.
‘Your place looks like the World’s Fair,’ I said.
‘Does it?’ He turned his eyes toward it absently. ‘I have been glancing into some of the rooms. Let’s go to Coney Island, old sport. In my car.’
‘It’s too late.’
‘Well, suppose we take a plunge in the swimming pool? I haven’t made use of it all summer.’
‘I’ve got to go to bed.’
He waited, looking at me with suppressed eagerness.
‘I talked with Miss Baker,’ I said after a moment. ‘I’m going to call up Daisy tomorrow and invite her over here to tea.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ he said carelessly. ‘I don’t want to put you to any trouble.’
‘What day would suit you?’
‘What day would suit you?’ he corrected me quickly. ‘I don’t want to put you to any trouble, you see.’
‘How about the day after tomorrow?’
He considered for a moment. Then, with reluctance: ‘I want to get the grass cut,’ he said.
We both looked down at the grass—there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began. I suspected that he meant my grass.
‘There’s another little thing,’ he said uncertainly, and hesitated.
‘Would you rather put it off for a few days?’ I asked.
‘Oh, it isn’t about that. At least—’ He fumbled with a series of beginnings. ‘Why, I thought—why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?’
‘Not very much.’
This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently.
‘I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my—you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a sort of side line, you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much—You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?’
‘Well, this would interest you. It wouldn’t take up much of your time and you might pick up a nice bit of money. It happens to be a rather confidential sort of thing.’
I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life. But, because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.
‘I’ve got my hands full,’ I said. ‘I’m much obliged but I couldn’t take on any more work.’
‘You wouldn’t have to do any business with Wolfshiem.’ Evidently he thought that I was shying away from the ‘gonnegtion’ mentioned at lunch, but I assured him he was wrong. He waited a moment longer, hoping I’d begin a conversation, but I was too absorbed to be responsive, so he went unwillingly home.
The evening had made me light-headed and happy; I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door. So I don’t know whether or not Gatsby went to Coney Island, or for how many hours he ‘glanced into rooms’ while his house blazed gaudily on. I called up Daisy from the office next morning, and invited her to come to tea.
‘Don’t bring Tom,’ I warned her.
‘Don’t bring Tom.’
‘Who is “Tom”?’ she asked innocently.
The day agreed upon was pouring rain. At eleven o’clock a man in a raincoat, dragging a lawn-mower, tapped at my front door and said that Mr Gatsby had sent him over to cut my grass. This reminded me that I had forgotten to tell my Finn to come back, so I drove into West Egg Village to search for her among soggy whitewashed alleys and to buy some cups and lemons and flowers.
The flowers were unnecessary, for at two o’clock a greenhouse arrived from Gatsby’s, with innumerable receptacles to contain it. An hour later the front door opened nervously, and Gatsby in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-coloured tie, hurried in. He was pale, and there were dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes.
‘Is everything all right?’ he asked immediately.
‘The grass looks fine, if that’s what you mean.’
‘What grass?’ he inquired blankly. ‘Oh, the grass in the yard.’ He looked out the window at it, but, judging from his expression, I don’t believe he saw a thing.
‘Looks very good,’ he remarked vaguely. ‘One of the papers said they thought the rain would stop about four. I think it was The Journal. Have you got everything you need in the shape of—of tea?’
I took him into the pantry, where he looked a little reproachfully at the Finn. Together we scrutinized the twelve lemon cakes from the delicatessen shop.
‘Will they do?’ I asked.
‘Of course, of course! They’re fine!’ and he added hollowly, ‘. . . old sport.’
The rain cooled about half-past three to a damp mist, through which occasional thin drops swam like dew. Gatsby looked with vacant eyes through a copy of Clay’s Economics, starting at the Finnish tread that shook the kitchen floor, and peering towards the bleared windows from time to time as if a series of invisible but alarming happenings were taking place outside. Finally he got up and informed me, in an uncertain voice, that he was going home.
‘Nobody’s coming to tea. It’s too late!’ He looked at his watch as if there was some pressing demand on his time elsewhere. ‘I can’t wait all day.’
‘Don’t be silly; it’s just two minutes to four.’
He sat down miserably, as if I had pushed him, and simultaneously there was the sound of a motor turning into my lane. We both jumped up, and, a little harrowed myself, I went out into the yard.
Under the dripping bare lilac-trees a large open car was coming up the drive. It stopped. Daisy’s face, tipped sideways beneath a three-cornered lavender hat, looked out at me with a bright ecstatic smile.
‘Is this absolutely where you live, my dearest one?’
The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain. I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone, before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek, and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.
‘Are you in love with me,’ she said low in my ear, ‘or why did I have to come alone?’
‘That’s the secret of Castle Rackrent. Tell your chauffeur to go far away and spend an hour.’
‘Come back in an hour, Ferdie.’ Then in a grave murmur: ‘His name is Ferdie.’
‘Does the gasoline affect his nose?’
‘I don’t think so,’ she said innocently. ‘Why?’
We went in. To my overwhelming surprise the living-room was deserted.
‘Well, that’s funny,’ I exclaimed.
She turned her head as there was a light dignified knocking at the front door. I went out and opened it. Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.
With his hands still in his coat pockets he stalked by me into the hall, turned sharply as if he were on a wire, and disappeared into the living-room. It wasn’t a bit funny. Aware of the loud beating of my own heart I pulled the door to against the increasing rain.
For half a minute there wasn’t a sound. Then from the living-room I heard a sort of choking murmur and part of a laugh, followed by Daisy’s voice on a clear artificial note:
‘I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.’
A pause; it endured horribly. I had nothing to do in the hall, so I went into the room.
Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantelpiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock, and from this position his distraught eyes stared down at Daisy, who was sitting, frightened but graceful, on the edge of a stiff chair.
‘We’ve met before,’ muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me, and his lips parted with an abortive attempt at a laugh. Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head, whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers, and set it back in place. Then he sat down, rigidly, his elbow on the arm of the sofa and his chin in his hand.
‘I’m sorry about the clock,’ he said.
My own face had now assumed a deep tropical burn. I couldn’t muster up a single commonplace out of the thousand in my head.
‘It’s an old clock,’ I told them idiotically.
I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor.
‘We haven’t met for many years,’ said Daisy, her voice as matter-of-fact as it could ever be.
‘Five years next November.’
The automatic quality of Gatsby’s answer set us all back at least another minute. I had them both on their feet with the desperate suggestion that they help me make tea in the kitchen when the demoniac Finn brought it in on a tray.
Amid the welcome confusion of cups and cakes a certain physical decency established itself. Gatsby got himself into a shadow and, while Daisy and I talked, looked conscientiously from one to the other of us with tense, unhappy eyes. However, as calmness wasn’t an end in itself, I made an excuse at the first possible moment, and got to my feet.
‘Where are you going?’ demanded Gatsby in immediate alarm.
‘I’ll be back.’
‘I’ve got to speak to you about something before you go.’
He followed me wildly into the kitchen, closed the door, and whispered: ‘Oh, God!’ in a miserable way.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘This is a terrible mistake,’ he said, shaking his head from side to side, ‘a terrible, terrible mistake.’
‘You’re just embarrassed, that’s all,’ and luckily I added: ‘Daisy’s embarrassed too.’
‘She’s embarrassed?’ he repeated incredulously.
‘Just as much as you are.’
‘Don’t talk so loud.’
‘You’re acting like a little boy,’ I broke out impatiently. ‘Not only that, but you’re rude. Daisy’s sitting in there all alone.’
He raised his hand to stop my words, looked at me with unforgettable reproach, and, opening the door cautiously, went back into the other room.
I walked out the back way—just as Gatsby had when he had made his nervous circuit of the house half an hour before—and ran for a huge black knotted tree, whose massed leaves made a fabric against the rain. Once more it was pouring, and my irregular lawn, well-shaved by Gatsby’s gardener, abounded in small muddy swamps and prehistoric marshes. There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour. A brewer had built it early in the ‘period’ craze, a decade before, and there was a story that he’d agreed to pay five years’ taxes on all the neighbouring cottages if the owners would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heart out of his plan to Found a Family—he went into an immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while willing, even eager, to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.
After half an hour, the sun shone again, and the grocer’s automobile rounded Gatsby’s drive with the raw material for his servants’ dinner—I felt sure he wouldn’t eat a spoonful. A maid began opening the upper windows of his house, appeared momentarily in each, and, leaning from the large central bay, spat meditatively into the garden. It was time I went back. While the rain continued it had seemed like the murmur of their voices, rising and swelling a little now and then with gusts of emotion. But in the new silence I felt that silence had fallen within the house too.
I went in—after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove—but I don’t believe they heard a sound. They were sitting at either end of the couch, looking at each other as if some question had been asked, or was in the air, and every vestige of embarrassment was gone. Daisy’s face was smeared with tears, and when I came in she jumped up and began wiping at it with her handkerchief before a mirror. But there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.
‘Oh, hello, old sport,’ he said, as if he hadn’t seen me for years. I thought for a moment he was going to shake hands.
‘It’s stopped raining.’
‘Has it?’ When he realized what I was talking about, that there were twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room, he smiled like a weather man, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light, and repeated the news to Daisy. ‘What do you think of that? It’s stopped raining.’
‘I’m glad, Jay.’ Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.
‘I want you and Daisy to come over to my house,’ he said, ‘I’d like to show her around.’
‘You’re sure you want me to come?’
‘Absolutely, old sport.’
Daisy went upstairs to wash her face—too late I thought with humiliation of my towels—while Gatsby and I waited on the lawn.
‘My house looks well, doesn’t it?’ he demanded. ‘See how the whole front of it catches the light.’
I agreed that it was splendid.
‘Yes.’ His eyes went over it, every arched door and square tower. ‘It took me just three years to earn the money that bought it.’
‘I thought you inherited your money.’
‘I did, old sport,’ he said automatically, ‘but I lost most of it in the big panic—the panic of the war.’
I think he hardly knew what he was saying, for when I asked him what business he was in he answered: ‘That’s my affair’, before he realized that it wasn’t an appropriate reply.
‘Oh, I’ve been in several things,’ he corrected himself. ‘I was in the drug business and then I was in the oil business. But I’m not in either one now.’ He looked at me with more attention. ‘Do you mean you’ve been thinking over what I proposed the other night?’
Before I could answer, Daisy came out of the house and two rows of brass buttons on her dress gleamed in the sunlight.
‘That huge place there?’ she cried pointing.
‘Do you like it?’
‘I love it, but I don’t see how you live there all alone.’
‘I keep it always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.’
Instead of taking the short-cut along the Sound we went down to the road and entered by the big postern. With enchanting murmurs Daisy admired this aspect or that of the feudal silhouette against the sky, admired the gardens, the sparkling odour of jonquils and the frothy odour of hawthorn and plum blossoms and the pale gold odour of kiss-me-at-the-gate. It was strange to reach the marble steps and find no stir of bright dresses in and out the door, and hear no sound but bird voices in the trees.
And inside, as we wandered through Marie Antoinette music-rooms and Restoration Salons, I felt that there were guests concealed behind every couch and table, under orders to be breathlessly silent until we had passed through. As Gatsby closed the door of ‘the Merton College Library’ I could have sworn I heard the owl-eyed man break into ghostly laughter.
We went upstairs, through period bedrooms swathed in rose and lavender silk and vivid with new flowers, through dressing-rooms and poolrooms, and bathrooms with sunken baths—intruding into one chamber where a dishevelled man in pyjamas was doing liver exercises on the floor. It was Mr Klipspringer, the ‘boarder’. I had seen him wandering hungrily about the beach that morning. Finally we came to Gatsby’s own apartment, a bedroom and a bath, and an Adam’s study, where we sat down and drank a glass of some Chartreuse he took from a cupboard in the wall.
He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.
His bedroom was the simplest room of all—except where the dresser was garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold. Daisy took the brush with delight, and smoothed her hair, whereupon Gatsby sat down and shaded his eyes and began to laugh.
‘It’s the funniest thing, old sport,’ he said hilariously. ‘I can’t—When I try to—’
He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an over-wound clock.
Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.
‘I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.’
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-coloured disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.’
After the house, we were to see the grounds and the swimming pool, and the hydroplane, and the midsummer flowers—but outside Gatsby’s window it began to rain again, so we stood in a row looking at the corrugated surface of the Sound.
‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
I began to walk about the room, examining various indefinite objects in the half darkness. A large photograph of an elderly man in yachting costume attracted me, hung on the wall over his desk.
‘That? That’s Mr Dan Cody, old sport.’
The name sounded faintly familiar.
‘He’s dead now. He used to be my best friend years ago.’
There was a small picture of Gatsby, also in yachting costume, on the bureau—Gatsby with his head thrown back defiantly—taken apparently when he was about eighteen.
‘I adore it,’ exclaimed Daisy. ‘The pompadour! You never told me you had a pompadour—or a yacht.’
‘Look at this,’ said Gatsby quickly. ‘Here’s a lot of clippings—about you.’
They stood side by side examining it. I was going to ask to see the rubies when the phone rang, and Gatsby took up the receiver.
‘Yes . . . Well, I can’t talk now . . . I can’t talk now, old sport . . . I said a small town . . . He must know what a small town is . . . Well, he’s no use to us if Detroit is his idea of a small town . . .’
He rang off.
‘Come here quick!’ cried Daisy at the window.
The rain was still falling, but the darkness had parted in the west, and there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea.
‘Look at that,’ she whispered, and then after a moment: ‘I’d like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around.’
I tried to go then, but they wouldn’t hear of it; perhaps my presence made them feel more satisfactorily alone.
‘I know what we’ll do,’ said Gatsby, ‘we’ll have Klipspringer play the piano.’
He went out of the room calling ‘Ewing!’ and returned in a few minutes accompanied by an embarrassed, slightly worn young man, with shell-rimmed glasses and scanty blond hair. He was now decently clothed in a ‘sport shirt’, open at the neck, sneakers, and duck trousers of a nebulous hue.
‘Did we interrupt your exercise?’ inquired Daisy politely.
‘I was asleep,’ cried Mr Klipspringer, in a spasm of embarrassment. ‘That is, I’d been asleep. Then I got up . . .’
‘Klipspringer plays the piano,’ said Gatsby, cutting him off. ‘Don’t you, Ewing, old sport?’
‘I don’t play well. I don’t—hardly play at all. I’m all out of prac—’
‘We’ll go downstairs,’ interrupted Gatsby. He flipped a switch. The grey windows disappeared as the house glowed full of light.
In the music-room Gatsby turned on a solitary lamp beside the piano. He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.
When Klipspringer had played ‘The Love Nest’ he turned around on the bench and searched unhappily for Gatsby in the gloom.
‘I’m all out of practice, you see. I told you I couldn’t play. I’m all out of prac—’
‘Don’t talk so much, old sport,’ commanded Gatsby. ‘Play!’
‘In the morning,
In the evening,
Ain’t we got fun—’
Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air.
‘One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer
The rich get richer and the poor get—children.
In the meantime,
In between time—’
As I went over to say good-bye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.
As I watched him he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song.
They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn’t know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.
About this time an ambitious young reporter from New York arrived one morning at Gatsby’s door and asked him if he had anything to say.
‘Anything to say about what?’ inquired Gatsby politely.
‘Why—any statement to give out.’
It transpired after a confused five minutes that the man had heard Gatsby’s name around his office in a connection which he either wouldn’t reveal or didn’t fully understand. This was his day off and with laudable initiative he had hurried out ‘to see’.
It was a random shot, and yet the reporter’s instinct was right. Gatsby’s notoriety, spread about by the hundreds who had accepted his hospitality and so become authorities upon his past, had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news. Contemporary legends such as the ‘underground pipeline to Canada’ attached themselves to him, and there was one persistent story that he didn’t live in a house at all, but in a boat that looked like a house and was moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore. Just why these inventions were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota, isn’t easy to say.
James Gatz—that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career—when he saw Dan Cody’s yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior. It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat, pulled out to the Tuolomee, and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.
I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
For over a year he had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam-digger and a salmon-fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed. His brown, hardening body lived naturally through the half-fierce, half-lazy work of the bracing days. He knew women early, and since they spoiled him he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorption he took for granted.
But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.
An instinct toward his future glory had led him, some months before, to the small Lutheran College of St Olaf’s in southern Minnesota. He stayed there two weeks, dismayed at its ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny, to destiny itself, and despising the janitor’s work with which he was to pay his way through. Then he drifted back to Lake Superior, and he was still searching for something to do on the day that Dan Cody’s yacht dropped anchor in the shallows alongshore.
Cody was fifty years old then, a product of the Nevada silver fields, of the Yukon, of every rush for metal since seventy-five. The transactions in Montana copper that made him many times a millionaire found him physically robust but on the verge of soft-mindedness, and, suspecting this, an infinite number of women tried to separate him from his money. The none too savoury ramifications by which Ella Kaye, the newspaper woman, played Madame de Maintenon to his weakness and sent him to sea in a yacht, were common property of the turgid journalism in 1902. He had been coasting along all too hospitable shores for five years when he turned up as James Gatz’s destiny in Little Girl Bay.
To young Gatz, resting on his oars and looking up at the railed deck, that yacht represented all the beauty and glamour in the world. I suppose he smiled at Cody—he had probably discovered that people liked him when he smiled. At any rate Cody asked him a few questions (one of them elicited the brand new name) and found that he was quick and extravagantly ambitious. A few days later he took him to Duluth and bought him a blue coat, six pairs of white duck trousers, and a yachting cap. And when the Tuolomee left for the West Indies and the Barbary Coast, Gatsby left too.
He was employed in a vague personal capacity—while he remained with Cody he was in turn steward, mate, skipper, secretary, and even jailor, for Dan Cody sober knew what lavish doings Dan Cody drunk might soon be about, and he provided for such contingencies by reposing more and more trust in Gatsby. The arrangement lasted five years, during which the boat went three times around the Continent. It might have lasted indefinitely except for the fact that Ella Kaye came on board one night in Boston and a week later Dan Cody inhospitably died.
I remember the portrait of him up in Gatsby’s bedroom, a grey, florid man with a hard, empty face—the pioneer debauchee, who during one phase of American life brought back to the Eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon. It was indirectly due to Cody that Gatsby drank so little. Sometimes in the course of gay parties women used to rub champagne into his hair; for himself he formed the habit of letting liquor alone.
And it was from Cody that he inherited money—a legacy of twenty-five thousand dollars. He didn’t get it. He never understood the legal device that was used against him, but what remained of the millions went intact to Ella Kaye. He was left with his singularly appropriate education; the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man.
He told me all this very much later, but I’ve put it down here with the idea of exploding those first wild rumours about his antecedents, which weren’t even faintly true. Moreover he told it to me at a time of confusion, when I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him. So I take advantage of this short halt, while Gatsby, so to speak, caught his breath, to clear this set of misconceptions away.
It was a halt, too, in my association with his affairs. For several weeks I didn’t see him or hear his voice on the phone—mostly I was in New York, trotting around with Jordan and trying to ingratiate myself with her senile aunt—but finally I went over to his house one Sunday afternoon. I hadn’t been there two minutes when somebody brought Tom Buchanan in for a drink. I was startled, naturally, but the really surprising thing was that it hadn’t happened before.
They were a party of three on horseback—Tom and a man named Sloane and a pretty woman in a brown riding-habit, who had been there previously.
‘I’m delighted to see you,’ said Gatsby, standing on his porch. ‘I’m delighted that you dropped in.’
As though they cared!
‘Sit right down. Have a cigarette or a cigar.’ He walked around the room quickly, ringing bells. ‘I’ll have something to drink for you in just a minute.’
He was profoundly affected by the fact that Tom was there. But he would be uneasy anyhow until he had given them something, realizing in a vague way that that was all they came for. Mr Sloane wanted nothing. A lemonade? No, thanks. A little champagne? Nothing at all, thanks . . . I’m sorry—
‘Did you have a nice ride?’
‘Very good roads around here.’
‘I suppose the automobiles—’
Moved by an irresistible impulse, Gatsby turned to Tom, who had accepted the introduction as a stranger.
‘I believe we’ve met somewhere before, Mr Buchanan.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Tom, gruffly polite, but obviously not remembering. ‘So we did. I remember very well.’
‘About two weeks ago.’
‘That’s right. You were with Nick here.’
‘I know your wife,’ continued Gatsby, almost aggressively.
Tom turned to me.
‘You live near here, Nick?’
Mr Sloane didn’t enter into the conversation, but lounged back haughtily in his chair; the woman said nothing either—until unexpectedly, after two highballs, she became cordial.
‘We’ll all come over to your next party, Mr Gatsby,’ she suggested. ‘What do you say?’
‘Certainly; I’d be delighted to have you.’
‘Be ver’ nice,’ said Mr Sloane, without gratitude. ‘Well—think ought to be starting home.’
‘Please don’t hurry,’ Gatsby urged them. He had control of himself now, and he wanted to see more of Tom. ‘Why don’t you—why don’t you stay for supper? I wouldn’t be surprised if some other people dropped in from New York.’
‘You come to supper with me,’ said the lady enthusiastically. ‘Both of you.’
This included me. Mr Sloane got to his feet.
‘Come along,’ he said—but to her only.
‘I mean it,’ she insisted. ‘I’d love to have you. Lots of room.’
Gatsby looked at me questioningly. He wanted to go and he didn’t see that Mr Sloane had determined he shouldn’t.
‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to,’ I said.
‘Well, you come,’ she urged, concentrating on Gatsby.
Mr Sloane murmured something close to her ear.
‘We won’t be late if we start now,’ she insisted aloud.
‘I haven’t got a horse,’ said Gatsby. ‘I used to ride in the army, but I’ve never bought a horse. I’ll have to follow you in my car. Excuse me for just a minute.’
The rest of us walked out on the porch, where Sloane and the lady began an impassioned conversation aside.
‘My God, I believe the man’s coming,’ said Tom. ‘Doesn’t he know she doesn’t want him?’
‘She says she does want him.’
‘She has a big dinner party and he won’t know a soul there.’ He frowned. ‘I wonder where in the devil he met Daisy. By God, I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me. They meet all kinds of crazy fish.’
Suddenly Mr Sloane and the lady walked down the steps and mounted their horses.
‘Come on,’ said Mr Sloane to Tom, ‘we’re late. We’ve got to go.’ And then to me: ‘Tell him we couldn’t wait, will you?’
Tom and I shook hands, the rest of us exchanged a cool nod, and they trotted quickly down the drive, disappearing under the August foliage just as Gatsby, with hat and light overcoat in hand, came out the front door.
Tom was evidently perturbed at Daisy’s running around alone, for on the following Saturday night he came with her to Gatsby’s party. Perhaps his presence gave the evening its peculiar quality of oppressiveness—it stands out in my memory from Gatsby’s other parties that summer. There were the same people, or at least the same sort of people, the same profusion of champagne, the same many-coloured, many-keyed commotion, but I felt an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness that hadn’t been there before. Or perhaps I had merely grown used to it, grown to accept West Egg as a world complete in itself, with its own standards and its own great figures, second to nothing because it had no consciousness of being so, and now I was looking at it again, through Daisy’s eyes. It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.
They arrived at twilight, and, as we strolled out among the sparkling hundreds, Daisy’s voice was playing murmurous tricks in her throat.
‘These things excite me so,’ she whispered. ‘If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll be glad to arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card. I’m giving out green—’
‘Look around,’ suggested Gatsby.
‘I’m looking around. I’m having a marvellous—’
‘You must see the faces of many people you’ve heard about.’
Tom’s arrogant eyes roamed the crowd.
‘We don’t go around very much,’ he said; ‘in fact, I was just thinking I don’t know a soul here.’
‘Perhaps you know that lady.’ Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white-plum tree. Tom and Daisy stared, with that peculiarly unreal feeling that accompanies the recognition of a hitherto ghostly celebrity of the movies.
‘She’s lovely,’ said Daisy.
‘The man bending over her is her director.’
He took them ceremoniously from group to group:
‘Mrs Buchanan . . . and Mr Buchanan—’ After an instant’s hesitation he added: ‘the polo player.’
‘Oh no,’ objected Tom quickly, ‘not me.’
But evidently the sound of it pleased Gatsby for Tom remained ‘the polo player’ for the rest of the evening.
‘I’ve never met so many celebrities,’ Daisy exclaimed. ‘I liked that man—what was his name?—with the sort of blue nose.’
Gatsby identified him, adding that he was a small producer.
‘Well, I liked him anyhow.’
‘I’d a little rather not be the polo player,’ said Tom pleasantly, ‘I’d rather look at all these famous people in—in oblivion.’
Daisy and Gatsby danced. I remember being surprised by his graceful, conservative fox-trot—I had never seen him dance before. Then they sauntered over to my house and sat on the steps for half an hour, while at her request I remained watchfully in the garden. ‘In case there’s a fire or a flood,’ she explained, ‘or any act of God.’
Tom appeared from his oblivion as we were sitting down to supper together. ‘Do you mind if I eat with some people over here?’ he said. ‘A fellow’s getting off some funny stuff.’
‘Go ahead,’ answered Daisy genially, ‘and if you want to take down any addresses here’s my little gold pencil.’ . . . She looked around after a moment and told me the girl was ‘common but pretty’, and I knew that except for the half-hour she’d been alone with Gatsby she wasn’t having a good time.
We were at a particularly tipsy table. That was my fault—Gatsby had been called to the phone, and I’d enjoyed these same people only two weeks before. But what had amused me then turned septic on the air now.
‘How do you feel, Miss Baedeker?’
The girl addressed was trying, unsuccessfully, to slump against my shoulder. At this inquiry she sat up and opened her eyes.
A massive and lethargic woman, who had been urging Daisy to play golf with her at the local club tomorrow, spoke in Miss Baedeker’s defence:
‘Oh, she’s all right now. When she’s had five or six cocktails she always starts screaming like that. I tell her she ought to leave it alone.’
‘I do leave it alone,’ affirmed the accused hollowly.
‘We heard you yelling, so I said to Doc Civet here: “There’s somebody that needs your help, Doc.” ’
‘She’s much obliged, I’m sure,’ said another friend, without gratitude, ‘but you got her dress all wet when you stuck her head in the pool.’
‘Anything I hate is to get my head stuck in a pool,’ mumbled Miss Baedeker. ‘They almost drowned me once over in New Jersey.’
‘Then you ought to leave it alone,’ countered Doctor Civet.
‘Speak for yourself!’ cried Miss Baedeker violently. ‘Your hand shakes. I wouldn’t let you operate on me!’
It was like that. Almost the last thing I remember was standing with Daisy and watching the moving-picture director and his Star. They were still under the white-plum tree and their faces were touching except for a pale, thin ray of moonlight between. It occurred to me that he had been very slowly bending toward her all evening to attain this proximity, and even while I watched I saw him stoop one ultimate degree and kiss at her cheek.
‘I like her,’ said Daisy, ‘I think she’s lovely.’
But the rest offended her—and inarguably because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented ‘place’ that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village—appalled by its raw vigour that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand.
I sat on the front steps with them while they waited for their car. It was dark here in front; only the bright door sent ten square feet of light volleying out into the soft black morning. Sometimes a shadow moved against a dressing-room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, who rouged and powdered in an invisible glass.
‘Who is this Gatsby anyhow?’ demanded Tom suddenly. ‘Some big bootlegger?’
‘Where’d you hear that?’ I inquired.
‘I didn’t hear it. I imagined it. A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know.’
‘Not Gatsby,’ I said shortly.
He was silent for a moment. The pebbles of the drive crunched under his feet.
‘Well, he certainly must have strained himself to get this menagerie together.’
A breeze stirred the grey haze of Daisy’s fur collar.
‘At least they are more interesting than the people we know,’ she said with an effort.
‘You didn’t look so interested.’
‘Well, I was.’
Tom laughed and turned to me.
‘Did you notice Daisy’s face when that girl asked her to put her under a cold shower?’
Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air.
‘Lots of people come who haven’t been invited,’ she said suddenly. ‘That girl hadn’t been invited. They simply force their way in and he’s too polite to object.’
‘I’d like to know who he is and what he does,’ insisted Tom. ‘And I think I’ll make a point of finding out.’
‘I can tell you right now,’ she answered. ‘He owned some drug-stores, a lot of drug-stores. He built them up himself.’
The dilatory limousine came rolling up the drive.
‘Good night, Nick,’ said Daisy.
Her glance left me and sought the lighted top of the steps, where ‘Three o’clock in the Morning’, a neat, sad little waltz of that year, was drifting out the open door. After all, in the very casualness of Gatsby’s party there were romantic possibilities totally absent from her world. What was it up there in the song that seemed to be calling her back inside? What would happen now in the dim, incalculable hours? Perhaps some unbelievable guest would arrive, a person infinitely rare and to be marvelled at, some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion.
I stayed late that night. Gatsby asked me to wait until he was free, and I lingered in the garden until the inevitable swimming party had run up, chilled and exalted, from the black beach, until the lights were extinguished in the guest-rooms overhead. When he came down the steps at last the tanned skin was drawn unusually tight on his face, and his eyes were bright and tired.
‘She didn’t like it,’ he said immediately.
‘Of course she did.’
‘She didn’t like it,’ he insisted. ‘She didn’t have a good time.’
He was silent, and I guessed at his unutterable depression.
‘I feel far away from her,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to make her understand.’
‘You mean about the dance?’
‘The dance?’ He dismissed all the dances he had given with a snap of his fingers. ‘Old sport, the dance is unimportant.’
He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.
‘And she doesn’t understand,’ he said. ‘She used to be able to understand. We’d sit for hours—’
He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favours and crushed flowers.
‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’
‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll see.’
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was . . .
. . . One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.
His heart beat faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.