A Red Cape and Some Holy Images
Once a week, Gene carrying my red cape, we would walk into town in the early morning and return to Peaked Hill in the afternoon, with the big wagon and team of horses laden with food and necessities for the week. We saw our friends in town, stopped at Susan's house, talked with Hutch Hapgood, and if Mary Heaton Vorse was not working, stopped in there. Often we went to the Ballantines', where Stella would make a delicious lunch for us, evading little Ian's furious attacks as she cooked, and managing to talk to me and also listen to Teddy and Gene discussing the theater.
People were wonderful to us that summer. I think everyone realized how happy we were, and responded to it. Mary Vorse spoke later of how Gene had that look of security and sweetness that made him so lovable. As for me, she would look at my expanding red cape when she met me in town, and say that pregnancy was very becoming to me. Mary came out sometimes to see us, for she loved the dunes and the outside shore, and understood them better than anyone. I remember one night she kept us awake telling us the legend of a great white stallion who had once roamed the dunes and, when they tried to capture him, swam out among the breakers and disappeared.
Other people came out to see us, but not often, as it was a long walk; the coast guards were very friendly, brought our mail, and apparently worried about me when a storm came up and lashed the water against our house.
My mother offered to come to Provincetown to be with me when the baby was born, and this was a relief to Gene, as he was uncertain as to what to do about such things, and also not sure about how much money he could spend for a nurse. There was nothing coming in now from In the Zone, and we were running a little low. By this time, the trip across the dunes and back the same day tired me, and Dr. Hiebert, who was taking care of me, insisted I stay in town overnight whenever possible. Dr. Dan Hiebert was big and young and kindly—and, strangely enough, though he was now married and practicing in Provincetown, he had been at Harvard when Gene was studying playwriting there with Professor Baker. It seems to me that Gene boarded with his family.
Late in August, I suppose I went in for an examination, for I sent a note out to Gene by the coast guard:
Dearest Gene: There was a telegram from Mother saying they arrive tomorrow via Fall River, so I guess I better stay in tonight and ride out with them—and the wash. I'll try and catch the life-saver, send out bread, and this—and mail. Only this letter from Madden so far. Wish I wasn't going to stay in. . . . I feel so awfully lost. The doctor says I must be in by the tenth. Francis says we can have Happy Home for September. Stella send out what New York Times she has . . .
Once again memory blocks out certain things, certain times and events. I know that my mother and Gene got along very well; and that my youngest sister, who came with her, was there for that last week or so at Peaked Hill; but a month that she spent with us a year or so later blocks out that earlier visit, except for a vision I have of her among the dunes, and by the sea, almost a part of sea and dunes herself. One memory I have of my mother, who was a bit of a gourmet herself, is of her eating snails from a large platter, extracting them carefully with a toothpick and urging Gene to join her. Where she got them, I don't know; another is one day when Stella came over with young Ian Ballantine, aged five. I was sitting, or probably reclining, on the couch, when Ian, after eying me curiously for a few moments, made a sudden swift dive at me, saying he was going to give that big football I had inside me a good kick—and my mother, in spite of Stella's look of consternation, took him by both ears and locked him outside the house.
Gene was working out an idea for a play; writing letters to managers; and, I am sure, looking forward with gloomy dread to having to leave Peaked Hill for Provincetown and Happy Home. He told my mother he couldn't work there—he was sure of that; and, as she would be with me, he would walk across to Peaked Hill after we moved in, work there all day, and return in the evening. She came up with an idea which I think he may have entertained himself, but didn't like to mention. It was a time of transitions anyhow, she said, so ordinary solutions to a problem shouldn't be considered. The simple solution was that Gene should stay at Peaked Hill and work, and she would stay with me in town. Gene was grateful to her, not only for making this suggestion, but for insisting on it; and I too was pleased, expecting that the baby would arrive before the end of the month, and no longer having to worry about Gene taking that daily trip to get his work done. . . .
We went in by the tenth of September—but not to Happy Home, for Stella had taken a great liking to my mother, and insisted we stay with her. My sister had to return to New Jersey; but before she left, my mother was already sterilizing torn linen and newspapers in the rather primitive oven at Happy Home, where we were to go later on.
The warm languorous days of Indian summer came—the days of quiet sunlit peace arrived. I walked with my mother, or sat watching her as she picked up shells along the harbor shore. The coast-guard wagon went by about noon, and occasionally they would stop with a message from Gene. He walked across the dunes nearly every day to see how I was, but sometimes he sent a note or a message in this way instead, and I sent what mail there was out to him. One morning, the wagon stopped and Stella came down to the beach with a note. Inside was only a typed sheet of paper with "For You" written on the outside. I opened the thin paper and there in the sun, with a little wind that was coming across the water of the harbor rustling it so I had to hold tight, I began to read the long prose poem that he had sent me. The last part of it I read twice, then folded it carefully and put it inside my blouse, near to my heart, wondering if I would ever forget those words. . . .
* * *
But the wind that had tugged at the sheet of paper that morning grew stronger by afternoon, and colder. Dark clouds gathered and hid the sun, and that night Stella had a driftwood fire going to keep warm. . . .
Indian summer was over. The leaves fell in a golden dance and lay in piles of matted gold along the pavement; the skies turned to a brighter and colder blue, and the waters of the harbor glittered in restless excitement. Every morning I listened within myself, waiting for some sign. My mother had to leave; she did this regretfully and with some sadness, but she could stay no longer. Gene closed up Peaked Hill and came in, with a suitcase full of books and scripts on the coast-guard wagon, when Mother left, and stayed a day or so with me at Stella's house. For some reason that I can't now understand or remember, we did not move from Stella's into Happy Home, but into another house, right next to the water, called Sea Captain. This was a gray-painted house, rather austere but comfortably furnished, and with a room looking out over the harbor, where Gene could write. . . .
But everything was ready at Happy Home, ready, but not exactly comfortable. Happy Home was a small cottage, hidden back from the street, behind the house where Susan and Jig Cook lived. It had heat and could be kept warm, whereas Sea Captain had only a fireplace and couldn't be kept warm during the winter. One of our main reasons for choosing Happy Home was that it was very close to the Cooks—so close that I could call to them from the window. We both knew that it would be necessary for Gene to go to New York after the baby arrived.
Every morning after breakfast I walked across the street (for Sea Captain was nearly opposite) opened the windows, sat down, and on cold mornings started a fire in the obstinate little kitchen stove. There were three rooms—a small kitchen, through which one entered the house; an even smaller sitting room, with a couch and three chairs; and a larger bedroom—containing a huge double bed. There were dark velour curtains in the sitting room and a little Franklin stove. Gene ordered wood, which was piled up in the kitchen, next to the range. Sometimes in the afternoon Gene and I would go there together. I would look once again at the bureau drawer full of baby things, at the pile of little blankets, and at the blue packages of unopened absorbent cotton and pads on the shelf in the small bathroom, while Gene read a book in that sitting room which seemed to me almost too small for him. Then I would take a last look at the walls of the bedroom, which were covered with large, colored holy pictures, each in a gilt frame. On the wall at the end of the bed was a picture of the Holy Mother, wearing a bright blue veil, and holding in her arms a pink-cheeked Holy Child. Next to that, a verse in Portuguese, with angels in gold surrounding the lettering; then not one but two large pictures of the Sacred Heart bleeding great drops of blood. There was another picture, the Virgin alone this time, with her heart transfixed with a sword, and a serpent under her feet.
Dr. Hiebert was puzzled; Gene began to worry; and still nothing happened. Sometimes Gene and I walked out on the old Atkins-Mayo road where the dunes began, and sat a while in the sun, in that wash of wild color that comes over the Cape in the fall—the purple-red of wild cranberry vines; the yellowed beach plums were dropping their leaves, and the wild briars' leaves had turned to gold. There was a smell of bayberry and the sweet, spicy wild fern in the air.
I somehow got the idea that if I climbed into the jerky jolty bus every day and rode from one end of the town to the other, this would help matters; and as the doctor didn't advise against it, every morning, wrapped in my red cape, I took this trip, while my husband worked or wrote letters. The Dreamy Kid was already in rehearsal on Macdougal Street. I was getting heartsick and impatient, for I knew that Gene would have to leave soon; he wouldn't leave until everything was safely over. One day getting off the bus I met Hutch Hapgood, and he insisted on having a talk with me and telling me I should be doing a book right now—a book about just how it felt to be having a baby. It could be, he felt, an important document; and when he told me, after having led me back to Sea Captain, that I reminded him of nothing so much as a certain little white horse in a painting by Henri Rousseau, I felt rather confused. . . .
I was gay and lifted up as always after my encounter with Hutchins Hapgood, but afterward, sitting alone for a while in the tiny kitchen at Happy Home, I was overcome with a strange intangible sadness. I felt very alone. Although Gene was just across the street, working, it seemed to me that he hardly existed, that he had gone from my life and I was an alien here in the kitchen and in the town. Who was I, where did I belong? It was a pointless yearning—for what, I did not know; an emptiness that I could not seem to face. After a few moments I got up from the chair where I had been sitting, went into the bedroom and pulled out a drawer to look at the pile of baby clothes carefully put away there. A child was coming into the world . . . I seemed to be faced with an impenetrable mystery; not the fact of the child and its arrival, which was strange enough in itself, but the fact that all over the world even at that moment people were coming together in the sexual act and new human beings were being born. This was the important thing then. What did it mean? Why was it so? I saw the face of the gentle Israelite on the wall, with his sad eyes and his bared heart bleeding drops of blood. . . .
Only a night or so after this I was very restless and, as Gene was reading, decided to go for a walk by myself before going to bed. As I stepped outside I was aware of something curious and strange in the light—a crackling as of electricity in the air, an unusual brightness and burnish in the northern sky.
That night in later October there was a phenomenon so unusual that people stood in silent groups in the street, wondering and unbelieving. Great spears of light rose from the horizon and met and crossed and tangled in the high obscure depth of heaven. . . . The northern lights astounded and mystified Provincetown with a display that I have never seen equaled before or since.
Gene came and watched and was astonished too; but after a while he went back to his reading. I stayed outside a while, listening and looking, and then, tired, went in to bed and to sleep.
I awoke suddenly that night. There was a pale light in the room that came in past the windows from the night outside, and I lay there, frightened and not knowing what it was that had frightened me. There was an extraordinary stillness in the room—a hush, almost of expectancy. I listened; for what, I didn't know; and then became aware of the slow, solemn beating of my own heart; a heart that seemed to be preparing itself for something, as the slow rhythm grew louder in my eardrums. I was aware of the inertia of my heavy body and a sort of trapped despair rose in me. I wanted to be free of my body and drift off into the night where it could not follow me. Then I heard another sound—the slow, almost snoring breath of my husband as he lay deep in sleep on the bed beside me. I listened. How selfishly he slept! With what egotism he lay there, unconscious of me, untouched and unaware! I pulled the chain of the small lamp beside the bed and looked at him with some sort of dire vengeance in my mind, sort of a primitive and animal-dumb fury at this man lying asleep so calmly beside me. I imagined, watching him, that I could see nothing in his face but a heavy sullen moroseness, lying there in a living death.
He did not even hear me. I pushed him and cried his name again, more angrily. This time his eyes opened, he stared up at me in the dim light and now I cried out in rage and fury at him—I could definitely see a sullen, sour look at being so abruptly awakened from sleep.
"What on earth's the matter with you, waking me up like this?"
There was silence; then he leaned up on his elbow and looked frightened.
"Are you having the pains?"
"No—no, of course not!" That was the truth. There was no pain, not anywhere, nothing but inertia and some silent, secret stress.
"You're sure?" he said more gently. Then he groaned and looked at the clock. It was after two. "You'll be all right—go to sleep. It's just the electric storm—the northern lights!" He turned over and a moment later I heard him breathing evenly and knew that he was asleep again. But I could not bring myself to turn off the light and lie again in the dark. Gene was right probably—it was nothing to worry about, there was nothing going on in my body at all, only silence and my patient, anxious heart. I kept my eyes on the clock and saw the hands moving with exasperating slowness on the pale face of the clock. . . . Suddenly I could stand it no longer.
"What is it now?" He woke more quickly this time, quite impatient at me.
"I'm going over to Happy Home! I can't stay in this room one minute longer!"
He stared at me, angry now himself, for he saw the antagonism in my eyes. For a moment we were two creatures out of the past—primitive man with a club, if one had been nearby, and primitive woman, half clothed and bulging in uncomfortable ugliness—wishing too, no doubt, that she had a club to eradicate the male who had brought her to this, and who now only wanted to be left in peace! I made a quick movement from the bed, caught at the table, overturned the lamp, and uttered a cry—but of sharp pain this time, not of rage.
"Good God, Aggie!" Gene leaped from the bed and caught me, holding me as I bent over. "I didn't realize . . ."
"It's all right," I said, a moment later, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I—something has happened. Perhaps you'd better get Hiebert. I'll go across the street—"
"You'll stay here. Get in bed, get back into bed!" Gene was trembling violently himself, pulling on his trousers. There was a telephone downstairs and I heard him hurrying down in the dark, bumping into furniture and cursing. I looked at the clock: it was half-past three. Then another pain, worse than the first, caught me, moved fast and stayed long, twisting and tearing inside me.
It wasn't more than a couple of minutes since the first pain. I could hear him talking downstairs on the telephone. He ran up again at my call, looking very pale.
"Hiebert says to get you over to Happy Home. Do you think you can make it?"
"Yes," I said, looking in anguish at the clock. I knew what was happening—there would be no rest, no interval between the pains—a quick birth. Then all at once I felt calm and strong. There was a quietness in my body, a long moment of peace and relief. Gene was looking at me now with such torture in his face—and such love.
"Put your coat around me," I said. "We'll go over. You'll have to light a fire. . . ."
He got my red cape from the closet, wrapped his coat around me, over it, and, kneeling, couldn't find my slippers.
"I can't wait!" I cried, "never mind them!" I held his arm as he helped me down the stairs, and then down the steps of the porch across the lapping water.
The street was empty and silent; there was no sound of any car coming. The coldness of the pavement was grateful to my feet, and I walked proudly, not minding the sharp pressure of the tiny shells as we went up the path and I saw again the trembling light in the northern sky.
Gene held my arm, turned his flashlight on the door and unlocked it. I sat in a chair while he put a match to the paper and kindling already laid in the small kitchen range. The flames roared up the stovepipe and I went in and lay down on the bed, which had been carefully prepared long before by my mother, and in which Gene and I had never slept.
The pain really started again. It is too much, I thought, I cannot bear it, and I forgot Gene and the doctor and myself and became engaged in that animal-like struggle to bear down and bring forth that within me which, without ceasing, was causing me such torturing pain. I held the cotton quilt in my hand, pulled it and bit it desperately in an effort to stifle my cries. Gene stood there, a white and broken wreck—not knowing what to do or where to turn. Then there was another face there—the calm, smiling face of Dr. Daniel Hiebert, looking serene, as he moved about gently. I begged him to help me, do something, and he did. . . . I felt his hand go firmly over the moving tense flesh of my body, and heard him say to Gene, "Not long now!" and that was the last I heard there in that room, and my own moans were no longer in my stifled ears. There was peace and quiet and a quietness, and I was lying on the edge of a large and darkly clear lake that rippled out from its center in quiet, gentle, waves that made a gentle sound as they reached the shore. . . . Then the sound of the waves seemed to grow louder, and the lake faded slowly, but half remained for a few minutes after I opened my eyes; and the rhythm of the lapping water continued but now it was the rhythmic cry of a human being—a dark, long, angry ten-pound boy being held upside down by the grinning, triumphant young Dr. Hiebert.
Seeing me awaken, the doctor handed him without apology to his astonished father, who held him gingerly, and then looked at him with intense and delighted admiration.
"Blime—a tough bird, eh?" I heard him exclaim as the doctor bent over me. "Shane the Loud!" and a moment later as the doctor brought fresh pads and hot water from the stove: "Where do I put him, Doc? He's kicking me!" Dr. Hiebert looked around vaguely and then bent over me again, too busy to pay much attention to Gene, who, a moment later laid the baby gently beside me on the bed. "God damn it, I knew we'd forgotten something!" he whispered as he bent and kissed me. "A crib for him!"
It was not too long after dawn when the doctor
left, saying everything was fine and he'd be back later in the day.
Gene lay down on the couch in the little sitting room, covered with
his coat, asleep—I really hoped this time—at last. The doctor had
left the small night light on, but I reached out and turned it off,
for I wanted to see the light of morning coming into the room. My
little black Irishman lay beside me, snuffling a little, but
otherwise quite independent, once in a while moving his foot in a
mild baby kick. I was remembering—thinking of what Gene had said to
me after the doctor had gone and we were once again alone. He had
pulled a chair beside the bed, and, sitting there, held my hand
tightly in his, his face soft and tender, his eyes on the fuzzy
black head of the baby beside me. . . . "It'll be us still,
from now on," he said. "Us—alone—but the three of us—" and he
laughed as a thought came to him. "A sort of Holy Trinity, eh,
Shane?" he said; and when he bent over to kiss me good night he
kissed the little black head too, and I saw a real tenderness in his
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