Death at Dawn
The Moon of the Caribbees. . . . I saw now an enchanted double of the man I knew. An image removed and lonely—surrounded by color, lights, and strange beauty, so that I, reading the words of the script, which seemed more a poem than a play, was a part of that luminous light and color and sound. . . . Outside, the snow, pale and wet, fell damply and pointlessly through empty city air, and the walls of the small room shut me into a new claustrophobia, and I knew I did not belong there; there was another world, something . . . Yet there was something luminous and excited and full of wonder within me, in my body as it were, and without thinking I pulled on my coat, and still without thought crossed Washington Square through the aimless snow, over the wet soggy pavements—to Fourth Street. I went into the Golden Swan, knowing he would be there.
I opened the door quietly: he did not hear me or look up. There was a small empty shot glass on the table before him, at which he was staring; and beside it a glass of water in which bubbles broke. Then he raised his eyes from the glass and fixed them on the flyspecked white swan floating in the painted lily pads. With sudden pain I observed the uncertainty and restlessness with which he looked at the passive symbol of that somehow sinister place.
He saw me and the sadness vanished with his sudden surprised smile, as if doubt and unrest had suddenly been blown away. I went over and sat down beside him.
"I just finished reading The Moon of the Caribbees. Oh, Gene—"
I could not say any more, but perhaps what I felt showed in my voice, for he caught my hand and held it in both of his. Then the uneasy, tortured look came back into his face, and he said uncertainly: "You're sure you didn't come here to see me about what happened last night?"
"I never thought of it after I read The Moon. . . . I had to come over and find you and tell you how wonderful it is. You don't know how it has affected me, Gene—you've got to get away from New York. You've just got to get away to someplace where you can write."
I remember now his long pause, wondering if I had said too much, what he was thinking about. At last he spoke, but it was without looking at me.
"I have been sitting here fighting something out with myself. I don't want to go anywhere alone. I can't go anywhere without you. I know that now—since you came in. Since I saw the look in your eyes."
I was unable to speak. What did he mean? For as he finished speaking his lips pressed together in a solemn, almost stern look.
"Last night—this morning, wasn't it really?—I hated you. You with your great eyes that half the time are looking at something that I can't see! Jealousy is nothing but hatred. I'm very jealous—I've found that out recently. I was sore about your going into the room and sitting on the bed and talking to Hutch. I—"
"He was making me some coffee. The bed just happened to be there. It didn't mean anything." For a moment I thought Gene imagined I'd sat on the bed with the idea of luring Hutch to sit beside me.
"No—the bed didn't mean anything!" he continued, with a sort of mocking bitterness. "Not later, either!"
"Listen," I managed to say at last. "It's not that you mind Hutch, who's one of your best friends and who's never given me a really personal glance and you know it. You call it jealousy, but it's really that you aren't sure of yourself!"
He looked up from the empty glass, watching me with that same uncertainty.
"You aren't even sure about me. And that's the most ridiculous thing that ever happened in the whole wide world! Haven't I shown you? I've been chasing you, idiot! If you really knew me you'd know that's something I've never done before. And will never do again!"
He said nothing for a moment. I saw his face soften a little. "You are the only one who can make me sure of myself—sure about everything."
He looked at the envelope with its rubber band lying beside me on the table. He was leaning back against the chair now, away from me. "There's something else. Do you remember what I said that first night? I haven't forgotten what I said then—because I meant it."
"I haven't forgotten either."
An old woman stood at the door. She came in silently and crept past the table where we sat. She pulled out a chair and emptied the contents of an old tarnished embroidered bag on the beer-stained table.
"The next day I went to Christine's, thinking you might be there with her," Gene went on. "I didn't tell her this, but she started talking about you. She has great intuition. She seemed to think you were a wonderful person. I kept watching the door, thinking you might walk in and wondering what I would say to you. Then Christine got up—we were sitting at a table, nobody else was there, and she was drinking a cup of coffee—and went into the kitchen. I heard her pull out a drawer, and the sound of her searching through papers. She came back with an old Evening World in her hand. It had that article about you on the second page, with your picture. The picture made you look like a washed-out nincompoop! 'No money in milk cows says woman dairy farmer who's made a brave fight'! Woman dairy farmer—Ye Gods!" He gave me a hard look. "Down in New York to help the poor farmers win a milk strike—young widow has supported herself, a baby, and a herd of cows by her pen—"
I remembered something and laughed, rather wickedly.
"That picture got me eleven proposals by mail, one handsome young milkman called on me with a box of candy and his bankbook, and a man in one letter said that he had eleven children and knew I was a fine woman because I looked like Abraham Lincoln!"
"Your mole, no doubt," said Gene sardonically. "It's in the same place as his was!"
But my little attempt at reprisal didn't help much; I saw Gene's face grow heavy and his low voice had a note of contemptuous self-pity.
"A dream came back to me that night when I first met you. It was a dream of my childhood—when I had to dream that I was not alone. There was me and one other in this dream. I dreamed it often—and during the day sometimes this other seemed to be with me and then I was a happy little boy."
"But this other in my dream"—he paused, looking at me,—"this other I never quite saw. It was a presence felt that made me complete. In my dream I wanted nothing else—I would not have anyone else!"
As he hesitated, I could see him watching his thoughts, trying to be sure. His fingers tightened unconsciously and clenched in the palm of his sensitive hand. Then he said: "I am right. I would have resented anyone else—this other was so much a part of myself."
I was listening, aware and almost identified with him, and it seemed as if I knew and understood the child he had been.
"You brought back this dream. No other person ever has. No other person ever will. You were the other in my dream. . . . I felt, after I left you that night, that I had always known you and that you were a part of me. It was the same the next morning. But I didn't want to go to the desk at the Brevoort and ask for you. I didn't even want to telephone you." He gave his sudden boyish smile again. "Maybe I just wanted it to happen that we—well—ran into each other! Without my having appeared to have done anything about it. The point however is—I wanted it to happen. That was why I went to Christine's. . . .
"After that I felt that the dream was impossible. You had seemed to me alone and virginal and somehow—with nothing but yourself. I wanted you alone . . . in an aloneness broken by nothing. Not even by children of our own. I don't understand children, they make me uneasy, and I don't know how to act with them."
This long conversation, which had confused and almost frightened me, for I could not see where it was leading, had the effect now of making me speechless. I looked over at the old woman, who with bony hands was picking out and separating the assortment of trash that she had emptied on the table before her. She took up a small stone, stared at it for a while with her rheumy eyes, and put it aside.
Gene got up and came back with two drinks and sat down again. I had the feeling that he didn't even know what he had done—or that he had left the table.
"There's more to it," he said. "God damn it, I want to get this over with! I've just been through a year and a half . . ." A pause—this was not finished. "That is all over now. It was torture to everyone concerned. That day at Christine's when she showed me the article I made up my mind I would not go through anything like that again. I felt immediately a terrible jealousy of this farm—this other life of yours, and the fact that you had been married to another man and had a child by him. I looked at your picture and the caption over it and I laughed. Christine looked shocked. She didn't understand that I was laughing because it would be easy now—pretty damn easy—to forget you! She told me that you'd be at the party Saturday night. I decided I wouldn't be there, but after getting potted that night I changed my mind, thinking it wouldn't make any difference to me whether I saw you or not. I got myself into a state where it seemed nothing made any difference. Then I deliberately and drunkenly turned back the hands of the clock and sang that goddamn song because I saw you and wanted to hurt you. Everyone thought I was thinking of Louise. I wasn't—I was acting a part. I knew they'd whisper about it—some kindly soul would be sure to tell you that I was suffering because of Louise. They saw the way you looked at me when I came in. Nothing is ever missed. I wanted to hurt you—but after I got back upstairs here and lay on the bed and couldn't sleep I saw that this action of mine pointed to a truth!"
The old woman had picked up the stone and was turning it over in her fingers, peering at it as if she was looking for something. Where did she get it? I will give you a stone and on it will be written a new name. She pushed it beside two letters that looked as if they had been read many times; she held up a tattered clipping printed with bars of music. Among burned match ends and bits of broken cigarettes, she found some change. She carefully pushed two dimes and five pennies in a small pile at one side of the table. . . .
"If I had convinced myself that you were nothing to me, if I had felt nothing, I wouldn't have made a fool of myself that night. But I couldn't escape you. I tried to pay no attention to you, to absorb myself with other people, with other things."
He looked at the drinks on the table before us, which had not been touched.
"But you crept into my soul, and at night, alone, I heard your voice and thought of your hands being laid on my forehead. Last night I wanted to seduce you, to possess you—though under the circumstances, and in that place it would have meant nothing to either of us. I wanted to consummate the physical act because I thought it would free me from you. I hoped that then you would be just another woman. But I could not bring myself to this low subterfuge. And when I saw you leaving this morning, saw you even had your gloves on, I hated you with a fierce hatred. You were unattainable—because I saw that, I tried again to hurt you."
I put my hand over his. His face grew pale and I could feel his flesh trembling.
"I have thought of nothing but you since then—of you and me. Again I've gone down into my private inferno. For all your sweet ways I am not sure of you. How can I be sure of myself when I am not sure of you? I want it to be not you and me, but us, one being not two. I want you to feel that as deeply as I do. And this must be my life—our life—from now on. I will build my house not on sand, but on a rock."
The old woman made a swift movement. Her toothless mouth working, she swept all the objects which she had been sorting back into the tarnished tinsel of her bag.
"Now I have no choice. What is, is! I'm going back to Provincetown after Christmas. Is it possible for you to get away—to go up there?"
"Yes, it is," I said.
In the silence that was between us Lefty appeared, a dirty towel over his arm. He signaled to Gene. "Want a drink?"
"Not right now—we're going for a walk."
He looked down and saw that my shoes and feet were very wet from walking across the square. I was shaking, or shivering, but not from the cold.
"Your feet are wet! What's the matter—haven't you got any other shoes? Those look as if they had danced all night in all the sordid places of the world."
"I'll get some others," I said, wondering how. Gene looked away, toward the swing door of the bar, but he was seeing something else.
"The snow is very deep at Provincetown. Often it lies in the streets for weeks. . . ."
I moved over to Waverly Place. There was a large room, rather dusty, with a double bed and a couch along the wall, a boxed-in kitchenette, and another small room hardly more than a closet. The bed was covered with a faded blue spread. The only light was a bulb in the center of the ceiling, and I put my typewriter on a small table near the dingy window which looked out on a small empty court. I remember a feeling of happiness when I got my things in and was alone there, perhaps it was the little dingy kitchenette, for I went out at once and bought coffee, sugar, and milk and other things, and made myself a cup of coffee and sat there alone, drinking it.
Among my first visitors was Mary Pyne. It would have been too much of an effort for her to visit me at the Brevoort, for she was not well then but here on Waverly Place she felt I was a neighbor, and she wanted to see me and, I found out, talk about Gene O'Neill, for it seemed that the story of what was happening to Gene and me had spread around the Village.
"I only want to ask you this," she said. "I want to help you to see things as they are." Mary Pyne had a deep vision and peace within her. She never spoke with hurry or pressure. I realized that it was only because she felt close to me and concerned that she spoke at all. "You are in love with him, I suppose?"
"Yes, I am."
"I know what that would mean to you," she told me. "But you have to protect yourself in some way. I hear that you are thinking of going back to Provincetown with him when he goes. Do you know what that means?" No, I said, I didn't, not understanding what she meant. "I can only put it this way," she said. "Gene, here, is not the person he is in Provincetown. In other words, if I met a man under the circumstances you have met him, seeing him as you are seeing him, I could not persuade myself to believe or take seriously anything he said, any plans, however definite and urgent. He, now, is not exactly Gene, his mind is running around in a hot circle, and I don't know if he even sees what he thinks he sees. . . .
"It's not as bad as that."
"I have seen him when he is not drinking and you have not. To begin with—how do you know that he is not still in love with Louise Bryant?"
"I don't know. He has never talked to me about her—not yet."
"She will come back from Russia and want him back. She is much more clever than you, and they were very much in love. That is"—Mary smiled—"if torture is love. I sometimes think Gene enjoys being tortured. What you will give him is something else, but he may want to go back to the pleasure of being tortured."
"I don't know anything about it," I said, feeling empty, and yet sure that my friend was wrong. It comes back to me that the point Mary Pyne was making was how could any woman take seriously what a man who was constantly under the influence of alcohol said to her. I protested to her that this was not so, that it was only sometimes; that he went to the rehearsals of his plays and was usually very quiet, if not a little bit somber; that having the room available at the Hell Hole—But she interrupted me to say that I had not seen Gene when he was not drinking, and that she was thinking of me, not of him; that she had talked it over with Hutch and they both thought she, being really detached from everything, should talk to me about it. I think she saw me as having spent the past few weeks in and out of bars with Gene, up all night, and so on, becoming involved in Gene's loneliness and self-torture. But it isn't all like that! I tried to explain, and then she asked me if I could really believe that Gene loved me, for I had no doubt implied through all this that he did. I could only think about the shoes, and that I must get some if I was going to Provincetown, and she told me of a place on Sixth Avenue where they were cheap. . . .
Perhaps there is no point in my putting down this conversation with Mary Pyne at all. But it has remained strongly in my memory of these past days when other things, more interesting, perhaps, are obscure and much is forgotten. I think it made an impression on me then because of what she said; the advice she gave was so wrong and there was no way I could explain this to her. She was so fine a person, so sincere in her judgment, the fact that she was trying to help me made it much more important than it would have been coming from anyone else. I think it shows that the convictions of the heart are the right ones; one knows. There was no question of choice; no planning or plotting, putting one advantage against another disadvantage. One acts without choice, without the pain and delay of thought, for there is no choice.
She gave me a picture of Gene O'Neill that I did not understand, although to her it was the true one. The only advantage she had was in knowing him at other times, a fact which she repeated several times. This did not bother me, if anything it filled me with expectation.
Waverly Place remains indistinct in my mind, though there should be a sort of halo around it; but there is an element of the ludicrous which overcomes other memories. I was trying to finish a novelette, so as to get a check. I would get up, make a cup of coffee and propped in bed, continue at the point where I had left the troubled heroine the day before.
After an hour or so of this, I would sit at my typewriter and, with two fingers, type what I had written. I could not hear the noises of the street; everything was quiet. I silently cursed writing, remembering that I had said the year before that I would rather scrub floors than do what I was doing.
No doubt any interruption was a pleasure to me though I had the need of the check firmly in my mind. So when Dorothy appeared about ten o'clock one morning, I greeted her with warmth. She had not been seen around for a few days; but now she told me she had not been to bed all night and needed sleep. I remember she brought a great big yellow grapefruit in a bag. For, no matter what happened, she always ate a grapefruit in the morning and urged others to do so. She looked gaunt but firm, and rather annoyed me by treating me in a superior way, telling me to get along with my typing. She would lie down and sleep. This she did, but not before telling me she had just left a church that she found open at an early hour that morning.
Gene had been over the evening before and stayed until after eleven. He hadn't said anything about drinking or going out for a bottle, but had a cup of coffee and sat there telling me about a play he was going to write. He had done some work on it before leaving Provincetown; now he talked about it and his face became alive as he spoke of his characters and the meaning behind the play. He talked for a long time, sometimes getting up from the couch to walk up and down the room. I had become excited by the story of the play and did not notice, in that quiet room, how late it was, until he suddenly stopped and said he'd have to have a drink—we would go over to the Hell Hole. I hesitated, thinking of my work the next morning. Not expecting that even for a moment would I consider the matter, but that I would be only too eager to go with him, he said; Oh, all right! gave me a slow sarcastic look, as if to say I didn't understand anything, didn't understand at all; and before I could stop him the door closed and he was gone. I almost put on my coat and followed him; but, following some old pattern of inhibition, I had stayed there, lying on the big bed and wondering what he was doing, until at last I had fallen asleep.
I sat at my typewriter, determined to impress Dorothy with the fact that I was a professional writer and had work to do. I was thinking of how I had not gone with Gene the night before. Suddenly there was an emptiness inside me; I said: "How did you know I was here?"
"Oh, Gene told me!" Dorothy said, closing her eyes. She opened them after a moment and looked at me with strong calmness. "He's going to meet me here this afternoon around four o'clock. . . ."
It is beginning to bore me, thinking of this, although when first recalling it, it struck me as very funny. I have to tell about it because in a sense it leads up to Louis Holladay's death. Dorothy at first suggested that she stay with me and pay half of the rent. I was adamant and used my writing as an excuse; then she said she could give a lot of ideas.
But her only idea was a deep and increasing and, I am sure, a very real and important interest in Gene O'Neill. She could no more resist this than she could resist those sudden and unexplainable impulses to go into any nearby Catholic church and sit there. She had no religious background, and probably this impulse was as obscure to her then as it was to her friends, who only considered it amusing—Dorothy's way of dramatizing herself when she was not singing "Frankie and Johnny."
Who knows what strange elements or signs or portents were working in her? Only a few months ago I saw her picture in a newspaper article—a strong and benevolent face. She has become a renowned mother to the poor and destitute, giving them food and shelter within the fold of that religion which must have been beckoning her in those empty churches, where the Eucharist symbol of purity and love was always on the quiet altar. I could not recognize much of my Dorothy of the "Frankie and Johnny" days but sometime I shall go down and see her and ask her if she minds my bringing all this back. . . .
My little place became a ménage à trois. Gene did not give up his room at the Golden Swan, of course, but he began to spend more and more time with me. Dorothy would appear, often very late, and lie down on the bed fully dressed and go to sleep. I would lie down beside her after a while, and Gene would still be sitting on the couch, still talking. Dorothy once said Gene just had to have someone to listen while he talked and he never stopped talking. . . . In the morning Dorothy would ask where he was, as if I had secreted him somewhere. This went on with many variations. I don't know what Gene thought—but he was drinking less and talking more about his work.
Another play of his was going on; and after that he insisted that he wanted to go back to Provincetown. The idea of Beyond the Horizon was occupying his mind, and he wanted to get to work on it. I told him about the farm where I had lived for a while. He asked me many questions about it, and it seems to me now that Beyond the Horizon is laid in that countryside although he never went there, and the idea for the play, as Harry Kemp had told, originated on the beach of the harbor of Provincetown.
Once he left behind him a volume of Strindberg's plays that he had been reading in the apartment. Gene considered the author of A Dream Play and The Dance of Death a greater and much more profound playwright than Ibsen, whom he liked to belittle as being conventional and idealistic. He lost that copy of Strindberg, but in the spring of 1920 (after he won the Pulitzer prize for Beyond the Horizon, with its check for one thousand dollars) he bought, among other things, a new copy of the book containing these two plays.
Gene was very impressed by Strindberg's anguished personal life as it was shown in his novels (The Son of a Servant and others, all autobiographical); particularly of his tortured relationship with the women who always seemed to be taking advantage of him—even his cook, who maliciously boiled all the good out of his food. These novels Gene kept by him for many years, reading them even more frequently than the plays. I don't know—but I imagine he had the same feeling of identification with the great tortured Swede up to the time of his own death.
I knew nothing about this playwright, but when one night, a little drunk, he read Miss Julie aloud, losing himself in the sound of the words and their haunted meaning, I was able to understand what Gene meant. He read passages from The Confessions of a Fool, smiling with sarcastic sympathy. Dorothy, interested, came with a tale of Madame Strindberg herself being in town (and was it then or later on that she managed to meet her and told Gene of her impressions . . . ?)
Dorothy would sit in a sort of trance when sometimes Gene would recite The Hound of Heaven.
"I fled him, down the
night and down the days;
She even managed to get him to recite the poem one night from beginning to end at the Hell Hole while the Hudson Dusters listened admiringly.
Sometimes Jamie would come down looking for his brother; sometimes Gene brought him over to Waverly Place, and they would sit down and talk about their past life and of their adventures with women and wine. Often they would refer, with humorous, tolerant fondness to "the old man," as they called their father, James O'Neill. Jamie was always trying to get extra money from his father by some cleverly worked-out scheme—which never worked. Once in a while they would speak of their mother with affection—they called her "Mama." Jamie told of how she would get up at five-thirty in the morning, take a bath and get dressed without a sound, afraid of waking "the old man," slip out of the room and down the elevator at the Prince George and go to early Mass across the street—praying (as Jamie said, "on the side," but implying to us that it was her most important prayer, and diverted her attention from Jesus himself) that her husband would be asleep when she returned, for he disliked being parted from her for a moment.
I got an impression of Gene's mother that was never to change and I longed to meet her—and wondered what she thought of her two strange sons. For Jamie I had a real fondness. No matter what he had been through in one of those long nights of his, longing for a bottle, or even having it there, he showed up the next day with that smile of the sardonic Punch, and a loud "What ho!" neatly dressed, well shaven, and, though his hands were shaking and there might not be a quarter in his pocket, viewing life as a stale joke that still intrigued and held him—a joke that he wanted to share with others.
I had an impression of strength from Jamie. He never complained, he never intrigued against others, he never looked sad or blamed himself or anyone else, and if he lived in the past, it was with irony. The world was his oyster and he had eaten it, and that was that! He was all of a piece, unique, not vulnerable any more, exactly what he had made of himself and what he was. Never did the Punch mask drop—but never did he make you feel a mask was there.
Gene was happy with him and lost much of the somberness that at times overcame him. I never thought of this before, but it comes to me now and it may be significant, that Jamie was the only male human being with whom Gene felt completely at ease all the time—without self-consciousness. Without self, as it were.
And this leads me to realize that I don't, even now, know what, in his unspoken thoughts, was Jamie's idea of his own brother, or what he really thought of him. . . .
He had ideas, of course, of what Gene should do or
not do; that superficial and mocking advice that he loved to give
him, then and later. He appeared to like me very much and urged Gene
to give up any memories of any other females and cling to and
cherish this new wild Irish rose. Nor did he seem to feel that I was
interfering in his relationship with his brother; but when Dorothy
appeared he would gaze at her with silent, baffled curiosity.
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