That winter Robert Cohn went over to America with his novel, and it was accepted by a fairly good publisher. His going made an awful row I heard, and I think that was where Frances lost him, because several women were nice to him in New York, and when he came back he was quite changed. He was more enthusiastic about America than ever, and he was not so simple, and he was not so nice. The publishers had praised his novel pretty highly and it rather went to his head. Then several women had put themselves out to be nice to him, and his horizons had all shifted. For four years his horizon had been absolutely limited to his wife. For three years, or almost three years, he had never seen beyond Frances. I am sure he had never been in love in his life.
He had married on the rebound from the rotten time he had in college, and Frances took him on the rebound from his discovery that he had not been everything to his first wife. He was not in love yet but he realized that he was an attractive quantity to women, and that the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle. This changed him so that he was not so pleasant to have around. Also, playing for higher stakes than he could afford in some rather steep bridge games with his New York connections, he had held cards and won several hundred dollars. It made him rather vain of his bridge game, and he talked several times of how a man could always make a living at bridge if he were ever forced to.
Then there was another thing. He had been reading W. H. Hudson. That sounds like an innocent occupation, but Cohn had read and reread “The Purple Land.” “The Purple Land” is a very sinister book if read too late in life. It recounts splendid imaginary amorous adventures of a perfect English gentleman in an intensely romantic land, the scenery of which is very well described. For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guide-book to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of the same age to enter Wall Street direct from a French convent, equipped with a complete set of the more practical Alger books. Cohn, I believe, took every word of “The Purple Land” as literally as though it had been an R. G. Dun report. You understand me, he made some reservations, but on the whole the book to him was sound. It was all that was needed to set him off. I did not realize the extent to which it had set him off until one day he came into my office.
“Hello, Robert,” I said. “Did you come in to cheer me up?”
“Would you like to go to South America, Jake?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I never wanted to go. Too expensive. You can see all the South Americans you want in Paris anyway.”
“They’re not the real South Americans.”
“They look awfully real to me.”
I had a boat train to catch with a week’s mail stories, and only half of them written.
“Do you know any dirt?” I asked.
“None of your exalted connections getting divorces?”
“No; listen, Jake. If I handled both our expenses, would you go to South America with me?”
“You can talk Spanish. And it would be more fun with two of us.”
“No,” I said, “I like this town and I go to Spain in the summertime.”
“All my life I’ve wanted to go on a trip like that,” Cohn said. He sat down. “I’ll be too old before I can ever do it.”
“Don’t be a fool,” I said. “You can go anywhere you want. You’ve got plenty of money.”
“I know. But I can’t get started.”
“Cheer up,” I said. “All countries look just like the moving pictures.”
But I felt sorry for him. He had it badly.
“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”
“I’m not interested in bull-fighters. That’s an abnormal life. I want to go back in the country in South America. We could have a great trip.”
“Did you ever think about going to British East Africa to shoot?”
“No, I wouldn’t like that.”
“I’d go there with you.”
“No; that doesn’t interest me.”
“That’s because you never read a book about it. Go on and read a book all full of love affairs with the beautiful shiny black princesses.”
“I want to go to South America.”
He had a hard, Jewish, stubborn streak.
“Come on down-stairs and have a drink.”
“Aren’t you working?”
“No,” I said. We went down the stairs to the café on the ground floor. I had discovered that was the best way to get rid of friends. Once you had a drink all you had to say was: “Well, I’ve got to get back and get off some cables,” and it was done. It is very important to discover graceful exits like that in the newspaper business, where it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working. Anyway, we went down-stairs to the bar and had a whiskey and soda. Cohn looked at the bottles in bins around the wall. “This is a good place,” he said.
“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.
“Listen, Jake,” he leaned forward on the bar. “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”
“Yes, every once in a while.”
“Do you know that in about thirty-five years more we’ll be dead?”
“What the hell, Robert,” I said. “What the hell.”
“It’s one thing I don’t worry about,” I said.
“You ought to.”
“I’ve had plenty to worry about one time or other. I’m through worrying.”
“Well, I want to go to South America.”
“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”
“But you’ve never been to South America.”
“South America hell! If you went there the way you feel now it would be exactly the same. This is a good town. Why don’t you start living your life in Paris?”
“I’m sick of Paris, and I’m sick of the Quarter.”
“Stay away from the Quarter. Cruise around by yourself and see what happens to you.”
“Nothing happens to me. I walked alone all one night and nothing happened except a bicycle cop stopped me and asked to see my papers.”
“Wasn’t the town nice at night?”
“I don’t care for Paris.”
So there you were. I was sorry for him, but it was not a thing you could do anything about, because right away you ran up against the two stubbornnesses: South America could fix it and he did not like Paris. He got the first idea out of a book, and I suppose the second came out of a book too.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve got to go up-stairs and get off some cables.”
“Do you really have to go?”
“Yes, I’ve got to get these cables off.”
“Do you mind if I come up and sit around the office?”
“No, come on up.”
He sat in the outer room and read the papers, and the Editor and Publisher and I worked hard for two hours. Then I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line, put the stuff in a couple of big manila envelopes and rang for a boy to take them to the Gare St. Lazare. I went out into the other room and there was Robert Cohn asleep in the big chair. He was asleep with his head on his arms. I did not like to wake him up, but I wanted to lock the office and shove off. I put my hand on his shoulder. He shook his head. “I can’t do it,” he said, and put his head deeper into his arms. “I can’t do it. Nothing will make me do it.”
“Robert,” I said, and shook him by the shoulder. He looked up. He smiled and blinked.
“Did I talk out loud just then?”
“Something. But it wasn’t clear.”
“God, what a rotten dream!”
“Did the typewriter put you to sleep?”
“Guess so. I didn’t sleep all last night.”
“What was the matter?”
“Talking,” he said.
I could picture it. I have a rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends. We went out to the Café Napolitain to have an apéritif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard.