The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats
The rain was beating against the windows, the east wind roaming around the building in gusts; then abating; then shaking the windows as if it wanted to get in. Gene walked around softly in his slippers, going to the window and looking out, trying to see what the harbor looked like, a sort of mournful and baffled nostalgia on his face. . . .
"The sea gulls—where are they tonight? I should have been a sea gull. . . ." He came and put his arms around me tenderly. "Own little wife . . ."
"Did you—take the pills because of the girl—wanting to get a divorce?" I asked him, after a few minutes.
"No! Good God! I thought you'd understand me. . . ."
"What about her? You've never explained to me. I mean—where is she now, for instance?"
"I understand that she's married again—that's why she wanted the divorce. I've been wiped completely off the slate—you needn't worry! Guess it turned out the same with her as it was with me—as if nothing had happened. Even the boy doesn't know about me. The lawyer told me that they were going to bring him up to think the man she was going to marry was his real father. No claims would ever be made on me."
"The boy—?" I said, in a faint voice. "You mean—she had a child?"
"Yes!" He grinned, rather shamefaced, but as if he had thought I too would consider it more or less of a joke. "Why not? He'll probably grow up to be a darned good stockbroker, don't worry. They'll never want him to know what a drunken wastrel his real father was. . . ."
Trying to explain to others a situation where a girl married several months to a man only just discovers, and then, as it were, casually, that he has had a child, I was puzzled. Particularly as we were then, and had been from the first, so very close, so intimate. I had told him about my first husband, or tried to, but he had been bored, not interested. He didn't want to hear anything about it. He had not so far talked about his own marriage. He didn't think of it, and most of the time didn't even remember that it had occurred. What he had just told me explains a great deal of it. It was just that Gene was like that. . . . Who, having seen Long Day's Journey into Night, would ever realize that Edmund, the younger son, had been married and divorced and was the father of a child nearly three years old on that August evening in 1912?
Sunday morning, after a late breakfast at which Jamie joined us, we sat around watching Bowser and the kittens playing together on the floor. Gene got a bright idea—the darned kittens were old enough to get out and see the world!—and holding one in each arm he went downstairs, Jamie and I following, and set them down in the sand, after stroking them gently. . . .
The tide was out; the sun was hot, there was no movement of the air, and the kittens, who had never yet been outside our rather dark flat, sat blinking their amber eyes, motionless. Bowser watched them eagerly. They walked gingerly on their toes in a small circle, saw the expanse of sand, and first one and then the other decided that this was a big toilet, and dug a hole. This was not necessary, as they had used their sandbox toilet upstairs, but sand was sand and had one purpose only. They sat a moment—nothing happened! They got up, neatly covered the spot with their paws, looked around, paying no attention to us, moved away a little—nothing but sand! So they dug another hole, went through the same business again, and cleaned up neatly. Then they walked five or ten feet away from us—dug and covered up, this time not bothering to sit at all. They got tired, rolled over, chased one another—and then, suddenly realizing their responsibility, began digging holes and covering them, very methodically, in the most businesslike manner.
After that they washed their little faces and then went on a reckless hole-digging spree, frisking and digging holes, not covering them up but scattering each other with sand. And, believe it or not, Bowser, after watching them for a while and hearing our laughter, went and madly dug a couple of holes himself, barking and looking at us for approval, and then digging a few more with mad enthusiasm when we became breathless with laughter over his performance!
After that, Gene had great fun taking the kittens downstairs if anyone came to see us, and showing them how our kittens regarded the outside world as one great big toilet. . . . It was strange about Gene and cats. Like so many men, he always said he didn't like them but once they were there, he became very fond of them. One summer when we were staying at Peaked Hill Bar a hungry, wet and exhausted cat howled at our door, which was battened against a heavy storm. At first determined not to let her in, Gene looked out and saw that a huge barge had drifted up on our beach almost in front of the house—she was the only survivor! He was fascinated by this, named her "Anna Christie," and, in the end, after she had been our pet for a year or so, tried vainly to have her life saved in a New York cat hospital—at least to try and keep her alive until after the opening night of his play. . . .
Speaking of cats . . . it is one of those Strindbergian coincidences (to which he so often referred in his discussions of the Swedish dramatist) that the green bronze bust of Eugene O'Neill was done by the man after whom an old cat of ours in New Jersey was named. . . . My parents went to London after they were married and my mother insisted on taking along her pet cat, "Quinny." They rented a flat in Chelsea, on Cheyne Walk; and there, some nine months later, I was born, and Quinny (named after my father's great friend Edmond T. Quinn) had kittens on the same day. When I was six weeks old they brought Quinny and her kittens back with me to the States, and she became the ancestress of the many cats that roamed around the house in New Jersey when I was a child. . . .
After Anna Christie was a great success, Gene and I were living at Brook Farm in Ridgefield when he saw a photograph of the bust of Edgar Allan Poe executed by Edmond T. Quinn. He admired it greatly; and before long he had Ned Quinn and his wife Emily staying at the house, while Ned modeled a bust of him. Gene also wanted a bust done of me. The two heads were cast in green bronze, with marble bases; for a long time they stood on the mantelpiece at Ridgefield. Gene's bust is now at Yale; while mine is on the mantelpiece at the Old House, looking down at me serenely as I write this.
Jamie, oddly enough, did not grow restless that summer or appear to yearn for the fleshpots of New York. But the O'Neills had returned to the Prince George and they began to feel that Jamie should return too—that he had perhaps too long imposed on us. It was soon after hearing from them that Jamie went out and purchased somewhere a bottle of liquor. We knew nothing about it until he came in after supper, weaving a little and whathoing loudly. Bowser followed, looking meek and dejected, and very carefully crawled under the table, watching Jamie with fond distrust. It seemed his master had again placed before him a bowl of spiked milk. But Bowser was a reformed animal—he had not only refused, he growled at Jamie, who, it appeared, had then tried to force his nose into the dish. . . .
Jamie was in the mood for talk—much talk—and Gene, after a reluctant moment or so, wanted, it seemed, to talk too, so he joined Jamie in a drink. He had finished Where the Cross Is Made by this time and that day had gone over the script of Chris rather aimlessly, not really wanting to start on it then. I don't think that he felt that a drink with Jamie, who so evidently needed a companion, was going to start him drinking again. He wanted to go ahead working on Chris; even though he had not done much with it that day. At first, I was a little upset when Jamie came in and I saw the bottle. But, even then, I never thought that Gene would decide to join him. Fortunately, perhaps because of the swimming, the good food, and his own desire to remain in that good physical shape he had reached that summer, he did not drink too much the next day, and the day after that not at all. . . . Also, there was at that particular time no strain of having to meet people, or any decisions to make. He was gay and quite happy. And Jamie was very good about it all, too—he took only a couple of drinks the next day and seemed a little guilty about having brought in the bottle at all.
That night I was to hear some more of Jamie's story—at first just sitting with them and listening. Gene listened too, for evidently Jamie wanted to talk about himself. And later in bed, until four or five o'clock in the morning, I listened to more of it—things he would not have wanted to say in front of me.
Jamie was forty years old that year; there was some sort of a fixation, or vow, or something concerned with his fortieth birthday in his mind. This did not come out clearly at first. It was concerned with his sex life, however. That was obvious. Gene who was both understanding about it and slightly scoffing, seemed to know what it was.
The girl—the quiet, freckle-faced girl—had in a sense brought all this to a head. . . .
It was blowing again, chilly and suddenly cold. Gene had another drink and closed the windows. Jamie, his shirt collar open, his face beginning to take on a harder, redder look from the liquor, regarded me with a half-satanic leer.
"Ora pro nobis," he intoned in a priestlike chant. "Such is life, little wife . . . What have you been doing all summer long . . . ? What have you been doing with my brother, little wife? Wash the dishes, wild Irish rose, dirty your hands in the soapy suds and then let us celebrate! Let us drink," he said, rising with a solemn and dramatic gesture, looking at Gene. "Let us drink to the beautiful, the lost, the divine Pauline!"
He poured a drink, swaying slightly.
"Just for a handful of baubles he sold her. . . . Just for a ribbon to tie in her hair. Suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping on my chamber door. . . . Last night, ah yesternight, between her lips and mine there fell thy shadow, Cynara . . ."
Gene's eyes were pensive; and suddenly, without explanation, Jamie was silent. . . .
Gene had told me about Jamie's love for Pauline Fredricks, the dark beautiful star with the classic profile whose photograph in a silver frame he kept at intervals on his bureau. She, too, had been very much in love, and for a while they planned marriage. But from her point of view—and she grew more insistent about this as the years passed—this marriage must depend on the fact that he first give up liquor. He had given it up several times, but only for a while. At last, very firmly, she had given up the idea of marrying Jamie. . . .
"No, Mr. Jimmy. It's liquor or me. Not both—never!"
These words came from Jamie, in his slightly nasal voice, from somewhere in the past and he spoke them solemnly. He shook his head and the Punch expression came back to his face. "And, what ho! It was liquor!"
Gene was perhaps wondering what marriage would have meant to Jamie. He regarded his brother pensively for a moment. He had told me once that it would never have worked, even had Jamie stopped drinking long enough to convince her that he was through with drinking. She was a wonderful woman, a fine person, Gene said, but Jamie had the seed of self-destruction planted too deeply in his soul. They were fundamentally different—perhaps that was what had attracted them; perhaps, too, she saw in Jamie something that no one else had ever seen, for she waited a long time, always hoping. . . .
"Pauline is just an image that you fool around with in your sentimental moments," Gene said. "You convince yourself that if she'd married you, you wouldn't be hanging on to Mama, letting her secretly hand you out a quarter a day!"
"Mama—there's never been another like her, my little kid brother! She takes that bath every morning, all that sweet-smelling stuff in it—what for? The old man! The old bastard doesn't appreciate her even now. Sometimes I go into the bathroom and dip my hands into the water before it's all run out—umm!"
It was incongruous. I couldn't understand or even imagine Jamie doing this. He was sitting there, his eyes glazed. Gene watched him, absorbed in what he was saying—as if, through his brother, he was going back to the past that they had shared.
"Ruffles and lace—me, not Mama! Louis the Thirteenth! . . . I was good, eh? Papa even thought I was good . . . Everyone thought I was damn good. When was that, eh? What a company! Edmund Breese, Maud Odell, Gertie Bennet . . . and James O'Neill, junior, as Louis the Thirteenth!" Jamie hiccoughed and added: "Now Louis the Thirteenth is at the end of his rope!"
I moved the dishes away and sat down. A kitten crawled up Jamie's back and sat on his shoulder, closing and unclosing its amber eyes. Jamie closed his eyes too, and began quoting from The Three Musketeers.
Gene was silent, there was a certain sadness between them—nothing that they could joke about.
Jamie changed the subject and informed us that he had allowed himself to get into a mild and nostalgic state of pastoral love for the freckle-faced quiet girl. . . . For all her calmness, that girl was an enigma to Gene and myself. We had no clew from her what her ideas or intentions were, only that she spent all of her disengaged time with him: if she had revealed her feelings or state of mind to him, Jamie did not tell us. He had never felt this calm affection for a girl before, or even believed that it was possible. It seemed that he had a desire (though he poked fun at himself for it) to remain always at her side. It is possible that she may have consented, or even desired this too, for Jamie, even then, had a fascination for the female sex. Obviously marriage was out of the question, for unless, as Gene suggested, the girl supported him, what were they to live on?
But it didn't even go as far as this with Jamie—the great obstacle was his sex life; and what would he do about that? For his own prophecy about himself was true. At the age of forty he had always said that he would have to alter his sex life—or was it his sex? I was for a moment confused. Because at forty he would be impotent. He had gone too far, too long, too soon, to keep it up after that age. As he believed, so it was. It didn't seem to bother him much at the moment—except in regard to the girl. That affair, it seemed, had never gone beyond Jamie's holding her warm young hand as they dug scallops.
But his dilemma, as he discussed it that night with Gene, furnished material for much lewd speculation—various modes, manners and types of loving that deviated from the normal. . . . Stories of strange women with strange habits, of Lesbians and so on . . . of some old actress of seventy who, while the unsuspecting Jamie was talking to her, slowly inched her long black skirts up until Jamie, looking down, saw with a gasp her bony knees clad in thin black stockings and slightly opened out. . . . A male homosexual who had made advances to him—and that long horrible story ending with Jamie making him crawl out of the bedroom (which he had managed to enter by bribing the waiter to let him take in the tray of lobster mayonnaise and wine Jamie had ordered) on his hands and knees. It seems to me that Jamie did something with the mayonnaise too, but I can't remember what. He told Gene that he had been in a black mood that night because he had been stood up, not once but twice; first a girl that he had picked up, who didn't show up in his hotel room as he'd expected; on top of that, a luscious little actress in the company who had promised to visit him after the show and for whom Jamie (thinking he had at last made a conquest after many attempts) ordered the lobster and white wine, telephoned him at the last moment that she couldn't possibly come. . . . So Jamie took it all out on the poor infatuated young homosexual. I could hardly believe this as I heard him telling it to Gene, his voice coming through the thin curtain. I'm sure they both thought I was asleep. It was a revelation to me of the ways of men and of their moral values, for Jamie told this story with gusto and with a sadistic emphasis on just how brutal he had been at the end—evidently convinced that the little guy more than deserved it.
So Jamie purged himself that night of what was on his mind, as people so frequently do, and evidently felt the better for it, although after that he didn't see the girl as frequently as before. Several times she came looking for him and he wasn't there. He was his quiet, kindly self again, and when we put him on the train for New York he was robust and tanned and apparently sorry to leave us. But there was never any word on his part or any indication in any way that he was going to alter his old way of life after he got back to New York—neither did he seem to look forward to it. What was, was. The past was over and he could not change now and be that which he once was—or might have been. Gene too, seemed to take the same attitude. There was never any thought on his part that Jamie might now, after this healthy, happy summer, stop drinking or change his way of life. . . .
About his own life, and particularly about the drinking, he had a very different idea. He wanted not to drink—even then. He firmly resolved that when we got to New York that fall this would not happen—no more of those long drunken sprees which interfered with everything. His friend, Harold de Polo, had told him the secret, which was to take your liquor with lots of water—even ice was not necessary. That way you could drink all night and never have it bother you, and Gene said that if he had to take a few drinks, that was the way he would do it. . . .
There seemed no reason to return to New York, and we both wanted to stay. Provincetown was beautiful, with autumn not far away, and with Jamie gone it was almost like the old days in the studio. The harbor was a flat oval of glittering water, meeting the yellow sands almost without a ripple. The birches glittered along Commercial Street in the late afternoon sun as we looked from our front window, and sometimes in the early evening we walked up to a little restaurant and ate our dinner there, perhaps stopping in afterward to see Mary Vorse or Susan, if we felt like it. One of the reasons that we stayed so long in Provincetown that fall was that Gene was waiting to hear from John D. Williams when rehearsals would start on Beyond the Horizon. It was definitely decided that John and Lionel Barrymore would play the parts of the two brothers—but when?
When he wrote early in September that he wanted to open with the two Barrymores we were both in a state of happiness and exultation. It's hard to explain how much this meant to both of us. To Gene it was a confirmation of his belief in both Williams and the resources of the commercial theater—the uptown as contrasted to the downtown group. We went over the play together, Gene reading first Robert's part, then Andrew's—reading aloud in his low expressive voice, thinking of how John Barrymore would do it; then visualizing Lionel when he returned to find the farm a neglected waste. We had been told that the brothers were excited about doing it, but I sometimes wonder if they read the play at all! Anxiety—there was none of that feeling. Mr. Williams would arrange everything. We were like two trusting children who were sure that everything was going to turn out all right. . . .
Then we heard the bad news: John Barrymore was going to open in Redemption sometime in October. Susan, who had perhaps grown a little weary of hearing how the Barrymores were going to appear in Gene's play, saw a notice in the Times to that effect and brought it over. From Mr. Williams, not a word—he evidently did not consider it any obstacle to his designs for the play. We did not know until much later the rather complex personality of Mr. Williams, which included, among other things, a strange desire for secrecy and aloofness. There were periods when he seemed to disappear from the earth and, no matter how urgent the matter, was incommunicado. But this was all in the future, and in spite of Gene's disappointment and what he thought was his knowledge of the theater, he was sure that the delay would not be a long one. Redemption, he was sure, would never be a financial success. After it closed, John would be free. . . .
There was an ominous thing happening now in Provincetown, and everywhere else. The influenza epidemic that took so many people and swept like a plague over the country came to Provincetown. Gene and I walking up Commercial Street, shivering in the fog, saw the little church turned into a hospital, often saw mourners following a hearse into the graveyard. Gene got a letter from Jamie that their mother was ill—an attack of the influenza, but fortunately a light one. A couple of days later he wrote again saying that she was much better.
Among brief notes of something or other that I wished to remember, ideas for stories, a memoranda of some particular day which for some unknown reason I saw fit to put down, I find some letters to me in the delicate, slanting handwriting of Ella Quinlan O'Neill and I find also a letter to her in my handwriting:
Francis' Flats, Provincetown
Dear Mrs. O'Neill:
. . . Jamie sends the good news that you are better. Gene wrote you yesterday I know. He was awfully upset by your sickness. He's so cheerful at your being better and so anxious to see you again—not a bit more than I am, though. I've been looking forward to meeting you and Mr. O'Neill. Gene, you know, occasionally gets started about his wonderful mother and actually—well I never heard of a mother who got so many bouquets!—so I can imagine a little bit what you are like. Also I've had a good system of getting an imaginary portrait of you by asking Gene just how he and Jamie resembled you two. I'd say—"Are your mother's eyes like yours or Jamie's?"—and so on, until I think I'd know you anywhere. Of course I've seen some pictures of Mr. O'Neill and that helps some. Aren't you dying to see Gene? I suppose he would laugh if he saw that and make some teasing remark. He's an awful tease in some ways. He's looking fine and goes swimming every day, much to the admiration of the Portuguese fishermen. As for writing, well, I wish I could get as much done as he does.
Owing to the epidemic it's doubtful if we can get down until November. Still it's really lovely here, and quite mild. Tell Jamie that the two kittens now follow Terry all over the flats, getting soaking wet, thinking he'll give them some clams. . . .
The days were getting chilly and we borrowed a kerosene stove from Mr. Francis to keep warm. Gene wore his old brown bathrobe in the morning and sat propped up on the cot, working again on Chris. We expected in every mail to hear from Williams. There was a sense of uncertainty—not about money, for Gene had been getting the fifty dollars a week from In the Zone, and the advance from Williams had not been touched, as I remember. Our rent was absurdly small, and except for some sweaters and a pair of new slacks for Gene we had not bought any clothes. Our food did not cost much, and outside of an occasional magazine and items at the drugstore and stationery shop, we had no other expenses.
I had sold a novelette and a short story to my old markets during the summer. . . .
But we were wondering what our life would be like, where it would be spent during the winter that was ahead of us. We had thought at first of renting a little house in Provincetown where we would be warm and comfortable, and Gene could continue his work after rehearsals were over. But Gene wouldn't consider leaving me in Provincetown while the rehearsals were going on, even though this meant only a separation of possibly six weeks. He was determined not to stay in New York after the play was produced, no matter what the results of the production might be.
Gene knew about the Old House in New Jersey which had been rented for the summer. . . . When there was no word from Williams and Redemption opened with a fine production by Arthur Hopkins on October 3, Gene began asking me about the place: what was it like, how far was it from New York, and above all—would we be alone there?
I described it, and the more I told him about it the more he liked the idea. He teasingly told me that there was nothing like being married to a girl who owned a house or so. There would be no rent to pay, and certainly for the coming winter it would be a great convenience—or rather for part of the winter, for at that time we were sure that Beyond rehearsals would start soon after the new year. After that, Gene said, we would take a trip, he and I; and he talked of the South Seas and the long white beaches and of how wonderful it would be there. Later in the spring we would come back to Provincetown—not to Francis' Flats, but perhaps get a cottage in Truro. Once again he spoke of the old coast-guard station. If only that were for sale! By that time perhaps Beyond the Horizon would be making money and he could buy it. Once again we walked over the dunes and sat in the cupola and watched the sea, never dreaming of the years that we would spend on that stormy, isolated shore.
There was a sort of exuberance in our relationship in spite of everything that autumn. Gene was gay, joked about small things, teased me and made love to me and took more pleasure, if that is possible, in his bouts with the water, which was colder by now, his dashes up and down the beach, and more joy in his physical being; he seemed to expand, grow even more handsome. He wrote his mother, telling her what he could of our plans and, after hearing from someone that John Barrymore might consider leaving Redemption in order to create the role of Robert, he began going over the script again. Williams, he had heard, was a genius when it came to production; he would take care of the sets, cast, the other parts, find the perfect actress for the touching part of Ruth. . . .
I was so contented that I'm afraid I became lazy and, living in the present and thinking of the creative future as assured, neglected things I should have attended to—particularly writing letters. At times I thought of the house in New Jersey and about our being there. . . . I was hoping that Gene would like it there—hoping that the windmill wouldn't creak too much at night, that we could keep the house warm; wondering which room Gene would work in. It seemed to me that there was much he could enjoy there—books, records to hear, walks in the pine woods and above all the solitude that he desired—that we desired.
There were drawbacks, too, besides the creaking windmill: the stoves; seven coal stoves to be shaken down every day, ashes carried out, coal brought in the coal scuttle. But there were the two fireplaces. One smoked, but we would use the other, and sit before it in the evening watching the logs burn. . . .
So I put off writing to my family and telling them that Gene and I would probably go down to the Old House after a few days in New York. The truth was that Gene didn't really want to leave Provincetown, and although the Provincetown Players had successfully negotiated for a larger theater at 133 Macdougal Street and were planning to do Where the Cross Is Made on their first bill, Gene convinced himself that it wouldn't be necessary for him to attend these rehearsals. He was completely wrapped up in working out the outline of Chris—as he and I always called that play which at different times had different titles. He didn't want to have to stop work on it—at least not for anything less than the news that Beyond had gotten started. When we shivered and were uncomfortable because of a few days of cold weather he would tell me that we had better arrange to pack up and go. . . .
Perhaps this was another reason I put off writing to my mother. It all seemed too complicated to try and explain. I had not heard from her, as a matter of fact, for three or four weeks and I wonder now why this did not strike me as rather strange. There was a lull in my mail at that time anyhow, which pleased me, particularly as I no longer heard from William Jones, nor any further demands from the pulp magazines for more stories.
But Gene got a letter—an emphatic letter from Jig Cook. Jig insisted that Gene must be there for the casting and rehearsals of Where the Cross Is Made. Already there was strong disagreement as to how it should be done, and Jig wanted Gene there to back him up.
Susan, who was staying alone in the house across the street and working on a play of her own, came over and urged that Gene go down at once, having had a letter from Jig the same day. She added that in her opinion we'd both be down with pneumonia if we stayed any longer in that chilly flat.
So Gene reluctantly decided that we had better leave. I wrote a letter to my mother, saying that we were going to New York in a couple of days and, if there was anything urgent, to write me care of the Provincetown Players at 133 Macdougal Street, as I wasn't sure where we were going to stay.
Gene was rather glum and irritated at having to leave. Jig was right, of course, he said, but he damn well didn't see why the Provincetown Players had to call on him again. I think he suspected that they wanted his assistance in not only moving into the new place but in some major matters of organization. Before we left he got into the mood of being rather aloof with them; they mustn't think that they could make unreasonable demands on his time and advice. We would go to a small hotel somewhere—not in the Village—and, listening to him, I realized that he thought we should be in every way very circumspect and businesslike. He would go to rehearsals—but by God they were going to do the play the way he wanted it done!
We packed rather sadly, gave the kittens to friends
who promised to keep them until the spring, and had to leave Bowser
with a young friend of John Francis' with whom the dog had been
spending a lot of time since Jamie's departure. We got dressed
before it was light outside; Gene wore his suit and velour hat and a
smooth topcoat that he had bought in the village the day before; to
me he suddenly seemed very grim and conservative. The taxi honked
outside and we went down the wooden steps for the last time in the
chilly empty dawn, carrying suitcases and parcels, to take the train
that left for Fall River.
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