Flight into Snow
I must go back to our marriage—the ceremony and what led up to it. Dear little Alice Ullman, with her gay, pretty face and quick mind, had, as I said before, become interested in this matter, and although Lottie O'Neill's visit had kept us from seeing much of her for a while, it was she who helped us over whatever difficulties there were. There was a little Presbyterian minister whose home was not far from hers. If it was more convenient for us—and this meant Gene—he would perform the ceremony in the evening at his house, at nine o'clock. But we would have to let him know several days in advance. Then someone else had to be consulted (it must have been in regard to the license) and this was the genial, white-haired owner of the town's important drugstore—Mr. Darrell. Gene and I knew Mr. Darrell well—he always greeted us with genuine kindness when we came in to make small purchases. But it was Alice who consulted him about this solemn matter, and, to avoid embarrassing us with a conversation in the drugstore, she asked him to come over and see us, telling him that Gene's morning working hours were over by one or two o'clock. It turned out to be more embarrassing—particularly for Mr. Darrell—than if we had discussed the matter and given the necessary information to him in the drugstore.
Gene was in a particularly affectionate mood that day after lunch. Spring had come, the sun was hot on the shingles outside, little birds were singing and hopping along the branches of the elms, making love and looking for a place for their nests. We had the door open while we ate lunch, letting in all this warmth, and then Gene pushed it closed, stripped off his clothes—he never had any feeling about being naked—and splashed himself all over with water, rubbing himself hard and vigorously with the towel to dry off. He then grabbed me, despite some mild protests, and pulled me down on the narrow couch under the back window.
We lay there a while, talking, and then went to sleep, Gene deeply and I probably only half asleep. We were not aware at this time that Alice Ullman had already arranged with Mr. Darrell to come and see us. I probably did not hear the first knock on the door. Gene's arms were twined tightly about my head—and he certainly did not. (Mr. Darrell said he knocked two or three times.) I did hear a knock though, and decided not to open the door just then, feeling very comfortable where I was. Mr. Darrell, however, thought Gene was upstairs on the balcony and could not hear him, and as he wanted to get the matter over with—he was a very busy man—he pushed the door wide open and stepped inside, saying in a booming voice, "I've come to see about you getting that marriage license, Mr. O'Neill!"
That awoke Gene and he sprang to his feet, still stark naked, while I, I'm afraid, cowered abjectly on the couch, unable to make a move, but watching the tableau of the two astonished men, frozen into immobility, facing each other across the room. I don't think Gene knew just what had happened, but Mr. Darrell, backing politely toward the door, said to him, "Ah! I'm afraid I've come too early. But Mrs. Ullman said you would be through work by two o'clock. Suppose we make it at halfpast four?"
Alice Woods wanted us to have dinner with her the night of the wedding and then go over to the minister's house, but Gene refused. So we walked alone through that soft, misty night of spring, through the town, beneath the dripping, still-leafless elms, as silent ourselves as the town was; hearing the waves moving against the wharves and anchored boats. A nebulous moon made a small circle of herself somewhere above the mist; there was no light but the dimmed and silent lights of houses as we walked along hand in hand. The minister's house was brightly lighted as we came up and Gene looked around nervously, afraid for a moment that the gregarious Alice might have arranged something. . . .
We knocked, the door was opened by the minister's wife; Gene greeted Alice, who was in a small room waiting for us, with a grateful smile when he saw she was alone. Then there was some whispering and low talk, and, as I recall it, a sort of rehearsal—Gene and I being made to walk toward a closed door (behind which was the minister), after which Alice was to come in through another door. Anyhow, there was some sort of a ritual that had to be followed, and to my astonishment I saw that Gene was very patient and amused by it—it was I who was beginning to get nervous. I don't remember what I wore, but I guessed to myself that I didn't look much like a bride. I was so proud of Gene; he looked happy and handsome and seemed quite at ease. At last after some maneuvering the doors were opened. We went in and were greeted by a nice dark little minister holding a book. He rose from behind a table and asked us some questions, read some prayers—and so we were married.
Mr. Johnson—I think that was his name—congratulated us, and his kind wife offered us some cake.
Alice was delighted about it all and begged us to come to her house for a while; but Gene shook his head and said no, he had to be getting back now. I was pleased, as we walked back together, that this was his decision. The moon had broken through the mist, and there was a silvery and mysterious light mingling with the fog and dripping trees. We were strangely happy and secure and sure of ourselves, and everything else. . . . Though it had seemed, before it happened, only a ceremony that was to be gone through and got done with, we now felt that it had made a difference—that we had come into a new estate. I felt it in the proud way Gene held my arm. We were awed and deeply happy. For me it was perhaps a confirmation and for Gene it was a new and peaceful freedom—freedom to live, to become, to create. . . .
He told me all that and more the next day. He told me how proud he was of his father and mother; and how he wanted to make up to them for the many things he had done in the past, to make them proud and happy about him—we would do that, he and I. He talked of his love of the sea, and his hatred of drink, not as drink itself, but because of what it could do to his brain. He gave me a physical description of this, which I could see, as he explained it, actually terrified him. The brain was a texture like a raw white of egg, but enough alcohol toughened it like a cooked white of egg. "I will never," he said, "or never have written anything good when I am drinking, or even when the miasma of drink is left. That's why I didn't want to go to Alice's—she would, of course, have opened a bottle of sherry to celebrate our wedding. I might have been ashamed to refuse—might have thought it looked weak. Oh, love of my life, we need nothing, you and I, but ourselves. I have found my work, my peace, my joy. No—let me say it this way—I have found myself! I will not say to you, my love, as a poet once said, that I will pluck the stars of heaven to hang them in your hair—I say to you there are no stars in heaven, unless I can hang them in your hair. . . ."
. . . And, soon after that, he said, "Now that you are Mrs. O'Neill, I want to put our bank account in your name. You make out the checks and take care of all that—then I won't be bothered." He had opened an account in a Provincetown bank when the royalties from In the Zone began coming in. I didn't like the idea, but he insisted. Then he wrote to his family, telling them about his marriage to me; and once again what a wonderful person he had married. He had very nearly finished Beyond the Horizon, and for the first time he spoke of money in connection with it. He felt pretty sure now that he would get a five-hundred-dollar advance on it. He read all he had written of it aloud to me one afternoon. It is a great play, a really great play, I thought, silent and shaken with happiness. Our play, he said; and was going to even then start on the last act; but changed his mind. Let's walk up to Francis' flats—we should move up there, darling, as soon as the weather is a little warmer. . . .
I was living in the present, happy, expanded, transformed. The world was a golden haze, no longer alien, but an ally: nature, too, was sharing in my love, and was more than ever beloved. There was no sense of effort or strain to anything; there was no attempt to become anything, no goal of fame or money or living differently or better. There was no feeling at any time that there was something that had to be done, no guilt at things undone, for the past and the future did not exist as states of being, only as calendar marks of man's necessary measured time. And in that time there was rhythm that in itself was a delight. It came into being through the harmony of our life—night and day, morning and afternoon. We got up and ate breakfast and went to work, and in the afternoon took walks, and in the evening we talked or read. Gene was living in the creation of his characters, knowing their thoughts and what they felt, and it all came out in tiny inked words, beautiful in themselves, as he sat on the bed on the balcony with the drawing board on his lap or against his propped knees, his dark eyes absorbed, seeing something that was beyond the room. If I had spoken to him at those times he would not have heard me.
I, too, shared the lives of these people, of Robert and Ruth, old Mrs. Atkins, and the others. As he read aloud what he had written that day, we talked about the farm where they lived, and I told him again something of the farm I knew so well. Behind the people, and the farm, growing barren, was the feeling about life that he wanted to express—that illumined and shaped the plays (like a God standing behind him), coming out almost unconsciously through the people and the scenes. And, along with that, and an exciting part of it, too, it must have been, was the structure, the form of the play; and the theater itself, into which it was all going. He was happy in that, and sure of it too—very sure. He wrote the descriptions of the scenes as he came to them with as much creative absorption as when he wrote the dialogue: and as he read to me that the road was "winding like a pale ribbon between the low-rolling hills; their freshly-plowed fields . . . The old, gnarled apple tree just budding into leaf"; and of the field, "from the dark earth of which myriad bright-green blades of full-sown rye are sprouting," I never dreamed of how this would look in the painted props of the theater, and of the shock it would be when just two years later I first saw it, sitting alone without Gene in the theater.
Then one day a letter came from New York for Gene—from Louise Bryant. Gene gave it to me to read. When I had finished it I was trembling.
"What are you going to do?" I asked him.
Louise wrote that she must see him—and at once. She had left Jack Reed in Russia and crossed three thousand miles of frozen steppes to come back to him—her lover. Page after page of passionate declaration of their love—of hers, which would never change; of his, which she knew also would never change. She would, and had, forgiven him. What if he had picked up some girl in the Village and become involved? There was no use writing letters—she had to see him! It was all a misunderstanding and her fault for leaving him, for going to Russia with Jack. . . .
I was afraid—deeply afraid—for I saw some sort of uncertainty in Gene's face.
"I'll have to see her—to explain. I can't let her suffer like this. I can't do this to her. . . . now!"
"I should go to New York, I suppose. After all, she made a trip of three thousand miles . . ."
"Three thousand miles of frozen steppes—yes! She knew that phrase would get you!" Already this woman was invested, in my mind, with all the wiles of the serpent. I had read in her letter such assurance, such surety of her hold over this man. I had already begun to suspect that he liked to suffer. He was beginning to suffer already before my eyes, looking away from me, looking deep into himself. I could see him remembering all the dark passionate travail of their love. . . .
"She loves John Reed. She is his wife. She chose to go with him—not to stay with you!"
"You don't understand. She's not"—he hesitated—"there has never been any physical relationship between them."
"Oh, you fool—you fool!"
Why hadn't I told him that when he had related to me one evening the start of his love affair with Louise? Why had I listened quietly and understandingly, though privately I had immediately put her down as a very artful woman? Perhaps it was because I had wanted to protect him, not to destroy his belief in anything—even a rival woman. But at that time she was a figure in the past, a nonentity so far as Gene and I were concerned. Now she was a threat, living and possessive—ready to claim her own. Her pride had been hurt. She would stop at nothing. I recalled his story of that summer when he had arrived in Provincetown with Terry and a suitcase full of plays. . . .
She and Jack had a house here then. She was one of the group who read the plays and acted in them. Gene admired her—her Irish beauty, her charm, and her work. He admired Jack too, he had told me, almost loved him. He and Terry borrowed books, saw them at their house and at the meetings.
Then one day Louise had to go to New York. The night before her departure she came to the door with Gene and Terry as they were leaving her house and gave him a book, saying, "You will like these poems!" He did. But he found a note slipped into a page halfway through the book. It was in her handwriting! Dark eyes. What do you mean? He was astonished—and unnerved. Terry got a quart of applejack and they drank it together. Jack was his friend—who trusted him. And yet—
When Louise returned she knew he had found the note and that he was unhappy about it. She wanted him very much. He had for her that curious fascination that he had for many women. But she wanted Jack too. Gene watched her and Jack together—torturing himself; feeling now that he had loved her from the first. She tried to see him alone, although he was avoiding her. He was afraid. He had not been in love since the days of Beatrice, the unattainable beauty of his dreams. He would not betray Jack, his friend. . . .
But Louise sent a note to him by Terry.
I must see you alone. I have to explain something, for my sake and Jack's. You have to understand.
She saw him alone. He was told the secret no one must know: she and Jack lived as brother and sister. Jack was ill—he had put sex entirely out of his mind. He would understand and not blame Gene for this strange passionate love that she so needed. . . .
So it began. . . . Gene pitied her as well as admired her, and she became to him a great woman, something out of the old Irish legends, betrayed by life. Jack appeared to understand. He did not seem to mind. It probably never occurred to Gene to wonder what Louise had told Jack—or if she had told him anything.
On and on this had gone; that summer; that winter; another summer—Louise sharing herself, never willing to give up one for the other, confused herself perhaps, but always the pivotal person, beautiful, passionate and strange. . . .
I was remembering this story and watching Gene to see if I could get any clue to his feeling and what he was going to do about the letter from Louise when there was a knock on the door. I opened it, wondering who this could be. . . . It was the postman. He had another letter—special delivery this time. I handed it to Gene, recognizing the handwriting and afraid—very afraid now. He looked at it with some irritation and put it aside.
"I don't want to read it—she's crazy!"
But he did read it, and I could see that this letter upset him more than the first. He looked very gloomy and thoughtful.
"I guess I'll have to go down and see her," he said. "She'll never understand otherwise that it's all over."
"Gene, you can't! And I can't understand you! She calls—and you go! How will it seem to everyone? She comes back from Russia and you immediately appear on the scene. She just wants to show everyone she can get you back—"
"I don't give a damn how it looks! She's badly hurt—I can't explain what happened without seeing her. I can't make her believe—"
I began to weep.
"What's the matter," he said, with sudden surprised tenderness. "You're not afraid I'll go back to her—it's impossible you could think such a thing!"
"But you are going back if you go down there now. And your work, what about that?"
He looked serious. "I won't drink—is that what you're afraid of?"
I won't— So he was already planning to go. I was too miserable to say any more. Now his mood changed. I saw that he was looking at me with irritation. Suddenly I knew I had made a mistake—and a serious one. This was not love and understanding that I was giving him. . . .
Gene was right about one thing. I wasn't really afraid of his leaving me; going back to her. What was it I felt—pride? An unseen contest between this woman and me, in which I didn't even want her to have the satisfaction of winning the first round by summoning him to her side? Some of that perhaps—one's motives are so mixed sometimes. . . .
But more than anything else it was something between Gene and myself that hurt me so badly. How could he, for some motive which I couldn't understand, leave me, his work, expose himself to the temptations of the city, which he might not be able to withstand? How could he, who had held me in his arms so tenderly night after night, decide, without taking me into the workings of his mind, and immediately, as if it were the only thing to do, to take that long, boring, and uncomfortable trip to explain to this woman that he loved me and no longer loved her?
I saw very soon that what had happened to him was that he considered it a sort of obligation—very seriously too. That night, after reading her second letter and showing it to me, he spent several hours over a letter to her.
I sat by in a sort of furious misery, pretending not to care but, I suppose, jealous and chaotic, veering from one attitude to another. I felt scornful as I saw him cross out words, recompose sentences (even using other slips of paper when the final draft was under way in his neat firm handwriting and he didn't want to have to do it all over again): spending twenty minutes or more on paragraphs which, when read, would sound as if they had been torn from his heart and from the depth of his soul. I wondered in my scorn what she, the fair Louise, would think, could she see him doing this.
When it was finished he handed it to me to read. I hesitated—didn't think I should read it. But he insisted. He wanted me, also, to understand what he had felt, and felt now.
The letter was all I had expected—and more. It began with a review of their love and their torture—a searing memory of the past but bringing a great beauty to it, too, so that here and there I seemed to catch a cadence of Irish words, a memory of the Aran Islands, and, of course, the sound of the sea. I read this with my lips suddenly dry, for I thought that only to me had he brought this wild longing and restless desire. I could now see this girl. this menacing and determined hussy, of whom my main impression was from a photograph Gene had showed me of her, in which, with legs in tight riding breeches spread apart, hands dug in the pockets of a smart jacket, she leaned against a shingled, weather-beaten wall, a gamin cap rakishly on her head, a provocative smile on her lips, as a half-mythical symbol of the great old and mystic Irish legends.
From there on, his letter went to betrayal, secrecy, and more torture—particularly for Jack. A few bitter gibes at Louise were thrown in; hints of deceit and of playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse, and then he told Louise what had happened to him. I read this with trembling lips and a humble heart—a description of myself and of my meaning to his life that, somewhat as in the letter he had written to his parents, gave me a curious wonder as to why, if I was really like this, I hadn't known it before. . . .
Gene ended the letter by saying he did want to see her, but now, in the process of finishing a long play, it might be fatal for him to leave. Why, then, couldn't she come up to Provincetown?
This was a blow to me, of course, for I didn't want her to come. But I accepted it as being better than his going to New York. Perhaps I sensed that she would not make the trip—for she, I felt, wanted him to go to her, and not be running after him; and the next morning Gene was back at work, serene about it all.
(But it seemed to me that he waited rather impatiently for the arrival of the mailman.)
The day after that, another letter arrived, and he read it and laughed rather ruefully, again perplexed and disturbed. Louise was adamant. She must see him, in New York—and alone. There were also messages from Jack. Her last words were that she knew all about his marriage. And about me—that I looked very much like her. She understood the marriage—it was both escape and revenge! But she would forgive that. There were more, much more important things in the world now than marriage. . . .
Gene went back to his work without too much comment. The situation was thus left suspended. He took a long walk alone that afternoon. I could see when he came back that he was quite miserable and we ate our supper in silence. Afterward he took the script of Beyond and began working on that. I immediately felt sure that this working on the play in the evening (which he never did) was to get it finished so he could go to New York, and I brooded in silence, feeling that my dilemma was becoming worse and worse. What was I to do—what should I do? I thought suspiciously about his wanting to finish the play; but I know now he did it because it was the only way he could get his mind off the problem; and probably, also, off my brooding and miserable face.
Before he went to bed he came over and put his arms about me and pulled my head down on his shoulder. He looked so miserable, with such a longing to be helped, to be once again calm and peaceful, that I, holding tight too, was especially happy and relieved, and determined that in some way I would help.
This was difficult (as one can see looking back on it), for there were his feelings to consider; what he thought he should do; what he wanted to do. I must, in order to see his point of view and thus be able to help him, look with more kindly eyes and a better understanding at the absent Louise.
I might if I were in his place insist that I must see my past love once again if only to not have to face during the coming years the feeling that not seeing her was all a mistake which a meeting would have cleared up; for one thing that haunted Gene then was that, after all, there had never really been a break with Louise. They both expected that when she returned from Russia there would be a renewal of their relationship.
It now turned out, not only from Louise's letters, which began arriving once and sometimes twice a day, but from my own questioning of Gene, that leaving him that last time and seeing him rebellious and sullen she had promised that while in Russia she would talk to Jack, explain once again that she loved Gene as well as loving him, but that Gene had a more desperate need of her; she must now reverse the roles and live with Gene while still remaining Jack's companion and friend. (I think it is possible that she did talk this over with Jack—he must have told her that he and the Russian revolution needed her more than the crazy young playwright did!)
She repeated in her letters that this was what she must see him about—and hinted broadly that Jack for love of her had agreed. Had she not left him and was she not here? Had she not crossed alone those three thousand miles of frozen steppes?
But the more I thought of it the more complicated and unsolvable it all became. Are problems ever solved by thinking? One may get to see the other person's point of view, know more about it, but— Through desperation, through intuition, I saw what I must do: reject the me I was and become what I wasn't—a firm and determined female who was taking matters in her own hands. I was frightened inside of me of this role, I am sure of that now, nor have I ever attempted it since. But when I saw the look of curiosity, then relief, and the admiring and almost wicked smile on Gene's face when I told him my decision and that I meant it, because it was fair to everybody—I was immensely relieved myself.
I would not consent to his going down to New York! He must write her that. But, understanding the circumstances and wishing to be fair to them, I would consent to Gene going to Fall River (alone of course) and meeting and talking to her there. She could leave New York for Fall River on the night boat: he would leave Provincetown and meet her there on her arrival. I in Provincetown would await the consequences . . . and I looked firmly at Gene.
"You mean it?"
"I certainly do!"
He thought it over, decided to write her, and, with a little amused smile appearing at times on his lips, he wrote the letter. I think it struck him as funny—and as an original idea. It put Louise, to use one of his pet expressions, "on the mat." It eliminated the long train trip to New York. It meant only a day or so away from his work—and no danger of drinking, for Louise never drank in those days. It also made me out to be a fair person—and it relieved him of making a decision he did not want to make.
It seems that before Louise's reply came we both began to look on it as rather a joke. I think we both knew in our hearts what she would say to this eminently fair scheme. Gene in his letter had been kind, but very firm. She could not dismiss it as an idea to be discarded until something else could be arranged—even a longer wait for him in New York than she had anticipated.
Her reply was quick and impetuous—a vibrant assault upon and belittlement of me; and a denunciation of Gene for his weakness and lack of understanding. She made it clear that he had fallen greatly in stature in her eyes; and also that there were other and greater concerns on her mind than going to Fall River. She implied that as she was a clever journalist and writer there was a greater orbit in which she circled—of world happenings and important events—than that to which Gene in his Provincetown flight had relegated himself. She broke off abruptly as if she, then at least, could say no more. . . .
I suppose Gene replied to her letter: this he would have done; but what he said I don't remember. There was another letter or so from her saying that Jack was coming back from Russia. . . .
So she revolved back into her orbit of exciting events, of glamour and journalism and many admirers. . . .
I had no animosity toward her and at times even admired her brilliant escapades and journalistic prowess. But much later I heard from persons intimate with her how she had told of having broken Gene's heart—how, after her return from Russia she had to turn him out of her apartment—and how she found him morning after morning drunk on her doorstep. I knew then what had been her idea in having him come to New York—her pride. The story of Gene drinking and following her around only to be ignored by her became quite a legend, though it seems to be forgotten now; Gene more than once had to indignantly deny it, puzzled at how she had changed. Then the story came to him that she was drinking, and that, at first, he didn't believe, for she had been rabid against drink when he knew her—her father, it seems, having died of it. But there were other tales, too, as her journalistic fame increased. Jack Reed is buried in the Kremlin; and after the failure of another and brilliant marriage, Louise Bryant died lost, alone, and penniless in a sordid Paris room.
After Beyond the Horizon was typed, Gene sent the script to
the editors of the Smart Set. They praised it highly, and Mr.
Nathan gave it to the producer John D. Williams. Gene did not feel
like starting work immediately on another long play and we thought
vaguely of going to New York again, to see the production of The
Rope—a short play of New England which he had written at the
studio that spring. It was to go on at Provincetown Players on April
26th. Then something wonderful happened, and we decided to go down
to New York at once and stay for two weeks. John D. Williams wanted
Beyond the Horizon, and sent Gene a check for an option for
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