Death at Dawn
The cold continued and even grew worse, and my mother wrote me that they were completely cut off by the great piles and drifts of snow, but managed to get the mail and groceries sent up to the letter box at the foot of the hill. But she was taking care of everything and I mustn't worry, they were keeping warm, using up the pile of wood outside the shed door: best of all, as the road wouldn't be passable for a month or so, William Jones couldn't come around and raise the devil about that note—not till a thaw came. She wished, however, that we had never bought the other cows, for even though they were dry they had to be fed, and the manure froze behind them before she could get it cleaned out and they were now standing at an angle of nearly forty-five degrees. Foxes were coming close to the house at night and once they thought that they heard the howling of a wolf in the distance. She told me that the baby was fine and hadn't even missed me, it was much better for her there, and again, not to worry. She was going to write a mystery story herself and send it out, about a strange woman who lived on a big farm across the Housatonic River.
My mother said that she could see across the valley the light that was on at this house all night, illuminating the garden and the grounds; and the tale was that the woman had driven her husband away with her cold behavior and was living there with the hired man in sin. But rumors had reached her that her husband had returned and was lurking in the hills, and so she kept the grounds bright with the new electric lights that she had strung up outside; she had even had the evergreens around the house cut down so they would not be surprised, and the lover had to sit all night with a shotgun, instead of the lady, in his arms.
She would, she thought, end it with the neighbors—who were a little in awe of the whole ménage and also disgruntled and obnoxious about what it was costing to burn all that electricity whereas most of them had only kerosene lamps, becoming aware after several more months had passed that it was now the husband who sat at night with the rifle across his knee or on his arm, waiting for the strange and aloof wife and her hired-man lover. It now turned out that the wife and the lover had disappeared—no one knew where or how or even when, or if the husband had killed them and buried them under the wisteria vine which that spring began to grow and bloom prodigiously though it had never bloomed before; or if the husband had simply taken over and installed himself one night when, driven by desperation or perhaps boredom, the lovers had gone for a walk in the woods. And the husband was now waiting for them to return—would they? Or perhaps the woman would return alone? If that was to be the case, what, my mother wondered, would be the motivation for this return? Nothing, of course, but the love of the austere lonely house and the farm felt by the strange and aloof woman who was willing (perhaps glad, who knows? my mother added) by this time to sacrifice both men to her moods and needs. She could go inside after all was over and the two corpses had fallen side by side on the ivied lawn to be picked up and buried by the county, for there was neither murdered nor murderer any more and she was free. She could go inside, where she would turn out the electric lights and cut the wires and draw the bolt across the door, never again to look on the face of a man. . . . They might find her, my mother added, tranquil and full-blown, with a strangely satiated look on her strangely satiated face—like a female Dorian Gray.
But there were too many complications to that, she wrote, unless she did it as a macabre tale—she rather preferred the strange and luxurious vitality of the wisteria vine. This could point out to the husband after a number of dazed years that there was no point in sitting there any longer with the shotgun. . . .
But my mother never wrote it, of course, which was a shame as she was really interested in it. Particularly when a year or so later, the lights having been burning all the time in the farm across our valley, she heard that the bill for the electricity got so enormous that a collection bureau that had taken over the account went to collect, broke in the door, and found the place had been deserted for months.
Do you remember, she added, how the vine at the end of the Old House suddenly began to grow after never growing for fifteen years?
I laughed, remembering her strange, almost pixyish way of liking to scare us just to laugh at our fears. I was relieved, too, for I had neglected writing to her and was beginning to feel guilty about it, but not guilty enough to sit down at the typewriter and do it. I had not told her, nor did I like mentioning it now, about Gene. They had not heard of him, nor of the Provincetown Players, I was sure of that, for the theater did not figure in our lives. Mary Pyne would not have written about it; probably she thought that it would all blow over and I would see the light. My reasons for not mentioning Gene or my plans when I did write had been rather obscure; but I think that they were based on the fact that a year or so before, I had, in some fit of madness or romance, allowed myself to become engaged—engaged, no less, because he insisted on it, and talked of being married in St. Patrick's Cathedral—to an odd young man with a distinguished and romantic Irish name. He had been in the war since the beginning and had been gassed. A few years later I received a telegram telling me that his plane had crashed and mine was the name he left to be notified. They had not cared too much for him, and somehow I was reluctant to mention to them that I was interested in someone else with an Irish name. . . .
I did not go back to the farm on the hill for Christmas, and I do not recall much about that Christmas in New York, except a general impression that people were moving in and out of the Village. Harold de Polo came down for one hectic week from Woodstock, where he had left his wife Helen and their two children. I met Lottie O'Neill, who later that year came to visit us in Provincetown. Saxe Commins was there, and Charles Demuth arrived for a visit from his home in Pennsylvania—both of these men later became the greatest of friends. Harry Kemp . . . Edith Adams and Hutchins Hapgood, who was writing a book about her, appeared more frequently. Many others . . . I was with Gene a great deal and these people were all friends of his.
I managed to get a lot of writing done, though this often meant leaving earlier in the evening than the others, many of whom liked to stay up late—as Gene in those days always did. It was necessary that I have at least some money ahead when I left New York, and that wasn't too easy. I wasn't spending too much money. I went to the place that Mary Pyne had told me about on Sixth Avenue and sitting there bewildered by a whole assortment of fantastic shoes (which would have suited a demimondaine better than me), I finally chose two pair which I later had to discard. I'm afraid I wasn't too practical—but I was happy.
One day I went up to see an old friend of the family who liked me to keep in touch with her. She was a charming stout old lady, widely read and amusing, and she had lived for many years quite alone in one of the few beautiful old houses left on Twenty-third Street in the Chelsea district, taken care of by the two trimly uniformed maids whom she had had ever since I first remembered her. She poured tea for me in her long drawing room and gave me kindly advice about my writing; she felt that I had talent, but that I should devote it to doing something serious and important. She had known Talcott Williams, dean of journalists, in his Philadelphia days and through him had met my mother, and my mother's sister, who at the age of nineteen had astonished the literary world with a brilliant and promising novel about a revolution in South America. She had not particularly approved of my first marriage, her idea being that a woman who wanted to write should go off somewhere by herself, study and write and do nothing else. She explained that it was different with men—they could always find women who would devote themselves, give them good meals, keep visitors away, and see that no household or even business details bothered them. The only other answer to the problem of a woman really interested in the literary life was to attach to herself another female who would take everything off her shoulders just as a wife did when it was the man who wrote. She looked at me with such kindness and affection when she said this that for a moment I thought she was going to suggest that I come and live with her, not realizing that not for anything would she have given up her solitary life. What she did was to suggest (to my great surprise) that she subsidize me for two years while I devoted myself to nothing but writing a book—any book, although she thought if I had nothing definite in my mind I might do a lot of research and find it most amusing and interesting to write an intimate life of Dean Swift.
I was deeply touched by this and her way of expressing it, and tried to show my gratitude, at the same time explaining rather lamely that I was involved in other things and couldn't very well accept her offer. She told me that she kept part of her income untouched every year in order to use it for something she was interested in: she did not urge me any further but said as she kissed me good-by to let her know if I changed my mind. . . . I hurried back to Polly's restaurant where I was meeting Gene for dinner—I don't think I ever told him of our old friend's kindly offer.
Polly's restaurant . . . it must be a familiar memory to many people who went to Greenwich Village in those days. Writers and painters went there to discuss their problems as well as to eat the good food that was served at a reasonable price. Polly Holladay dominated the scene—tall, dark-eyed, and calm, with an interesting and receptive mind, she gave her place the air of a club, and the people who went there didn't think of it as a restaurant. . . .
It seems to me that the Holladay family were in some way connected with the O'Neill family in the sense of being old friends. Adele Holladay had been a protégé of Otis Skinner—who was probably a friend of the elder O'Neill. She had been on the stage for a while, then given it up to marry and to give birth to two children, Polly and her brother Louis. Polly, at some time when money was scarce, had started a restaurant. Her brother Louis had been a friend of Gene's for years.
It was Louis' return to Greenwich Village that put an end to what had become an almost static time for everyone . . . a doldrums where nothing happened and action of every sort was being put off. It was, as I remember it, after the holidays, and everyone became excited and alive when the news came that Louis would return and there would be a celebration. Gene was very pleased and gay when he heard it and went to the Hell Hole the day Louis was expected back and started celebrating in the late afternoon. Unexpectedly Charles Demuth came in, bringing Eddie Fisk, another painter, then others, and when I went there to meet Gene at six o'clock there was a very convivial crowd.
We were supposed to go to Christine's that night for dinner. Christine also knew and loved Louis Holladay and she was starting a celebration at her place and with many nips of gin getting herself very happy, flushed of face, and moist-eyed, for she loved to cry with happiness when she was drinking. Gene, Demuth, and I arrived there and had dinner. Gene talked and did not eat. Dorothy and some others came in, and everyone was waiting for Louis, who at last arrived—a beautiful strong young man, full of health and vitality, tanned and clear-eyed from his year in the open air, good food and hard physical work. I have never seen anyone so at the peak of life, so confident and happy. He had conquered. He had come through—and tonight he was going to see his love again and this coming week they were to be married.
He had called Louise, his girl, on his arrival, but she said not to come up to her apartment—she would meet him later in the Hell Hole. Louis told about this jokingly—it did not bother him at all, for he knew Louise! She was testing him—she wanted to be sure! If, with the drinking and the memories and the old friends, he still stuck to his promise and did not drink, then she would know that the future was secure for them both. Louise had been testing him all along—and this was the final test, and of course she could depend on him.
It is to the credit of all of Louis' friends that not one of them offered him a drink; not even a final toast was drunk to the ending of the past and the beginning of a new life. They were all deeply pleased that he had accomplished what he had set out to do. From then on, the evening began to take on a pattern of movement and confusion. We all went back to the Hell Hole—other acquaintances of Louis' were already gathered there, some of them rather sinister-looking. Louis was having a wonderful time, not taking a drink, and as the time drew near for the arrival of Louise, he kept watching the entrance.
She came at last. . . . I remember seeing her and Louis sitting alone at a table, talking, while the noise and crazy songs and conversation went on around them. I can see them, even now—Louis eager, holding her hand, pressing it in both of his across the table while the dark girl listened and smiled with a curious sort of detachment. I remember, for it was the last thing I saw there that night. I had waited because I did want to see Louise. It was now after twelve. It was all too much for me—even before this I had felt that I must go home. Gene wanted me to stay but it was impossible, I was beginning to be overcome with a sort of uneasy fear, a sense of frustration and despair. He walked to Waverly Place with me and then left—saying he wanted to go back and be with Louis again.
I was lying in an exhausted sleep some time later when I was aroused by Gene's voice. He stood at the door a moment, as if groping and afraid—and my awareness of this was deepened when he did not reply to my questions. "Turn out the light!" was all he could say, and without even removing his overcoat he lay down on the bed, reached out to me when I lay down again and held me tightly, his head on my shoulder. He is just very drunk—can't manage, I thought, going off to sleep again myself, but I don't believe he slept at all. For, about three o'clock, I was awakened again (the door was left unlocked) and Dorothy stood there, looking down at the two of us—Gene crumpled in his overcoat, clinging to my hand like a lost child who has found its mother.
There was a strangeness about Dorothy's appearance; she gave the impression of being disheveled, as though she had forgotten about herself and even who she was. Her coat was unbuttoned, her hair damp, her face very pale. Something had happened, I knew that at once; and as she stood there, something was happening to her again. For a moment she looked at Gene as if he were a stranger; there was an emptiness in her face, as if some sudden knowledge had shocked her into awareness.
"So you're here!" she said. It seemed as if all her young vitality had left her. Gene just stared at her gloomily. "I tried to get you at the Hell Hole. Louis is dead," she added emptily. "I knew he would die."
Gene got up, then sat down on the bed, fumbling at the edge of horror, refusing to be aware of it. I could not understand, but I could see he knew exactly what Dorothy was talking about.
All at once calmness—purpose and some deep understanding—came from the young girl standing there.
"I came to get you," she said to Gene. "You must go back with me to Romany Marie's. The police came. The coroner was there. But I," she said, taking a small container of some white powder from her coat pocket, "have this. The verdict was death from a heart attack." I got somehow into my clothes, longing to understand some part of what had happened. Dorothy became even paler and I saw her grimly wiping tears from her eyes. But she refused to say anything more. I gave her a comb and she ran it through her hair. Then the three of us went along the empty silent street, with Gene holding tightly to my elbow. I was bewildered and shaky, still not knowing just what had happened. Dorothy strode silently beside us, and Gene said not a word. Then at the corner he stopped and stood there. He did not look at either Dorothy or me, but there was suddenly something strongly belligerent about him.
"I'm going back to the Hell Hole!" he said in an anguished and now firm voice, as if he expected us to oppose him. "I'll see you later."
But Dorothy did not answer him. She held to my arm as if she could not now be any longer alone, and we watched him walk swiftly away. Then, crossing the street, we went without any words between us to Romany Marie's restaurant and up the flight of steps. The first thing that I noticed was that there was complete silence in the building, instead of the usual noise of talking and the clatter of dishes. When we went in the room appeared to be empty. There was no one at the long tables, and we stood a moment at the door. Dawn was just breaking outside and the pale light of day was already coming through the windows. I followed Dorothy to the other end of the big room where two policemen stood nonchalantly watching us. On a chair, with his legs stretched out before him and his head bent forward on his chest, was Louis Holladay. I thought he was asleep, and it was a moment before I realized from the motionless rigidity of his body and the translucence beneath his tanned skin that he was really dead.
One of the policemen greeted us, and Dorothy began talking to him in a low voice. I saw again how strained and unhappy she looked. I stood there silently regarding the dead man. A window had been opened by someone to let the cold fresh air into the room, and a breeze blowing in stirred his hair, and the dark damp curls over his forehead moved as though they at least were alive, so that for a brief moment it seemed to me that he must be aware of the wind and the dawn outside, until I realized again with added poignancy that he was dead, that the joy and confidence had left; that the flesh was in some unseen way preparing itself for dissolution.
After a moment Dorothy turned toward me, and we went back down the steps to the street. It was light by now, the thin silent daylight of a winter morning was all that the dawn had left and we walked down to the corner of Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue where a few cabs were lined up in front of the building owned by old Wallace. The doors were closed, but Dorothy knocked, saying she heard voices inside. No one answered. The cabbies slept in their seats, waiting for the bar to open, and Dorothy suggested that we get some coffee in a small cafeteria nearby while we too waited. As we turned to go, a certain shifty, rather elusive friend of Gene's appeared at our side and insisted on going with us. He had been there the night before, and he tried to talk to Dorothy, but she neither saw nor heard him, being absorbed in some inner world of her own.
Spilling tepid coffee into his saucer, P—told me that after I left the Hell Hole the evening before, Louis got up suddenly from the table where he had been sitting with Louise, and with his face adamant went into the bar and ordered a double brandy. Louise rose too, and left at once, without saying anything to anyone. She had broken the news to him that she was going to marry another man. After two more brandies Louis announced this fact to everyone there and bought drinks for the house for an hour or more, or until closing time, using the money that he had saved for Louise. The party had grown very noisy and confused, and Louis sent out for some shifty character that he had done business with when he was in New York before, and a certain narcotic had passed into Louis' hands. He had concealed this carefully from everyone, and when the bar closed they all went upstairs to finish the evening in Romany Marie's restaurant. Gene and Dorothy and Louis and Charles Demuth were sitting together—Louis drinking, and passing from a blatant forced gaiety into a deep and introspective silence.
P— had finished his tale, rather aimlessly, at the point where they had all arrived at Romany Marie's; and Dorothy, perhaps aware of my unspoken inquiry, began to tell me what had happened then (still ignoring P—, who sat there with rabid excitement on his thin face).
Louis had suddenly seemed to be quite himself, as if he had solved some problem; he half smiled at Gene, and, glancing at Dorothy as if sure she, too, would understand, he removed a small glass container from his pocket and quickly swallowed some sort of white powder. They did not understand, at first, what had happened.
"What—about Gene?" I was still confused. "He left. It was obvious that Louis was dying. Everyone left except Demuth."
That was why Gene had come to me. . . .
"He died in my arms!" said Dorothy, with awe and a questioning wonder in her eyes, and then she wept briefly and went to the door to wait for us. She had not mentioned that without thought of her own safety she had jeopardized herself by concealing the drug from the police, so that if there was any suspicion, no proof was ever found. When we joined her she was calm and there was a strange peace in her eyes.
When we got back to the Golden Swan the door was unlocked and Gene was sitting in the back room, drinking Old Taylor. He had a pint bottle of it, half empty, in front of him on the table. There were others there, but I saw only him, and with consternation, for he was in very bad shape—the worst I had ever seen him. He looked through us with torpid coldness and then took another drink from the bottle. He did not want us there, he did not want to leave, he did not want to be disturbed, and when Dorothy asked him to come with us and get a grapefruit and a cup of coffee he only gave a sardonic laugh, for he was unable to talk. After leaving us, Gene had come back to the Golden Swan and started drinking with old Wallace; he was drinking still and nothing was going to stop him. He did not want me or anyone else around. He was going to drink himself into oblivion and no one was going to stop him or penetrate the alcoholic barrier behind which he was determined to be alone. We sat there in helpless silence, not wanting to stay and yet afraid to leave, for it seemed that, in spite of the somber and unnatural quiet that he was maintaining, at any moment something violent and destructive might break forth. . . .
As the news of Louis' suicide leaked out, others came in, some of those who had been there the night before, and there was a subdued excitement and painful and furtive questions asked. It seemed to me that there was fear, a sense of being complicated or involved; a certain movement toward getting away and keeping out of sight—a feeling that the question was going to come up as to where and from whom Louis had got the narcotic that he had so fatally taken. Polly appeared, sinister and cold, and stood staring around in search of something that she did not find, and went out again, without a word, and without even looking at Gene. . . .
There seemed nothing to do and I left, accompanied by Dorothy, who walked a couple of blocks with me and then suddenly left me, going off down a side street. I do not know if she went back to where Gene was or not. The sunlight was bright and hard now, and objects and people seemed to me like falsely colored pictures, pasted against empty space. It was after ten o'clock. I got back to my place, unlocked the door, locked it again, and, pulling a blanket up, lay down on the cold, empty bed. I did not dare remove my clothes and I did not want to go to sleep but, exhausted, I slept. When I awoke I saw from the fading light in the thinly curtained window that it was evening again.
The suicide of his friend and what led up to it did something to Gene; brought to him more than grief and the usual images and words of destiny, Fate, life's a tragic blot on the fabric of time, and so forth, that lesser things evoked in his mind. He left the Hell Hole and stayed for a while with his brother at the Garden Hotel. He became gentler and more quiet, and one day he came to my place and suggested that he and I arrange to go down to City Hall and get married. I thought it over and told him I thought we should wait. I believe my feeling was that it would not be fair to him or to me to get married just then—that we should wait until we were both in a more serene and marriageable mood. I saw him becoming more and more irked against whatever it was that prevented him from leaving the city. He was in very low spirits, and for the first time I saw him object to anyone whom I might see or be interested in. Once he packed his bag and brought it over to leave with me, saying he was going to get tickets on the Fall River Line boat. He had just received an unexpected check and he left in a taxi to do this, but I did not see him again until the next afternoon. He was still drinking and I realized that he would not be able to stop until he got to Provincetown, and wondered if he would ever get to the point where he would not allow some unexpected event to interfere with his departure, either something that occurred at the theater, or some need to help a friend. He decided one morning to stop drinking—then he would get away.
He bought the tickets and again packed his bag, borrowing another which he packed with books. He helped me close my suitcase, and went out to say good-by to a few people while I straightened the apartment and put a few things I had forgotten in my handbag. He came back and we got a taxi and started for the pier where the Fall River boat docked. It was a long and, for me, upsetting ride, with Gene sitting beside me, his lips pressed together, very silent and strange—and I feeling that he was a stranger whenever I managed to look at him. I did not realize what was wrong until we got on the boat and to a stateroom, where he produced a bottle of Old Taylor, and with shaking hands swallowed a large drink. The ordeal of the ticket office and the packing and saying good-by and ordering the cab—all of it had been too much to face: perhaps in the taxi he did not want me to know, or perhaps he was oblivious of me and concentrating on himself.
At last the lines were cast off and the boat turned
in the river and we were leaving the shore. . . .
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