Turn Back the
The next day, answering the telephone, I heard Christine's deep warm laughter. She told me she left Jim—as she always called him—downstairs waiting for Louis Ell and still roaring like a lion. When she got upstairs she found Louis sound asleep on the bed. Did I have a good time? How did Gene O'Neill behave? What did I think of him? There was to be a party Saturday night: he would be there and everybody else and I must be sure to come. . . .
After she hung up I went out and sat for a moment in Washington Square, observing the ghostlike trees through the mist which had arisen after the cold night. Then I had breakfast at the nearby drugstore and while I sat drinking coffee and eating a cruller I thought how nice it would be some morning just to telephone down while I was still in bed and have room service send up coffee and brioche.
The typewriter was waiting in my room and I sat down and began writing. Then I got up, lay down on the bed, and continued in longhand. The story had gotten away from me; it was not what I had intended but I continued for two or three hours. By then I had finished what I was doing and, reading it over slowly, was quite happy about it. I could not understand how the style of the typewriter and the style of the pen were so entirely different. Thinking about writing I began to think of Mary and Harry Kemp up on the farm that summer and Harry's great enthusiasm about his work and the way he went about it. (Was it then that he was writing the play about Judas or was that when he was in Ocean County?) I decided to call Mary Pyne and go over and see her and show her what I had just written, because she was a good critic and would like it. Then, too, I could find out more about these Provincetown Players, not Christine's angle but what Mary thought about them, for I knew that she was very interested, even going to act with them. I suppose I really wanted to ask her about Gene O'Neill, the sound of whose name still fascinated me, and about whom I really knew nothing. I kept thinking about the strange thing he'd said the night before, though of course I wouldn't mention that to Mary. . . . Men said things like that because they thought after a few moments more it might lead up to going to bed with the girl; but he had said it and departed. Or when they knew a girl well and meant it—it might be a sort of vague proposal. But he didn't know me and had given no sign of sudden love. But he had stared at me.
I thought him the strangest man I had ever met and could not stop wondering what would happen when I met him at Christine's party.
One has an idea, puts it off and thinks about it, and then nothing happens. I carried on an imaginary conversation with Mary Pyne in my room about the young playwright and other things also, for we had much in common, but I did not call up to see her before the night of the party. I finished the novelette that I'd been working on the day before and put it in the mail. Then I went over to see Bob Davis, who had bought some of my first short stories, and came back full of confidence—though, as he explained, he was now only publishing magazines for men.
Bob Davis, then editor of a string of magazines for Munsey—The Cavalier, Scrap Book, Railroad Man's Magazine—became a famous figure later in American literary history; a noted editor, a writer of books himself, a famous photographer, and a beloved gourmet and bon vivant.
It was always fun being with him, he gave so much to everybody, and I think he was fond of me, perhaps remembering the time when he had written me to come to his office in regard to a story titled "Lanigan—Lineman" which I had sent in to The Cavalier magazine and a girl of seventeen wearing a blue serge suit, her hair in a big bun under a straw hat, had appeared. I was trying to appear sophisticated but he just looked at me in silence. Then he had said: "Young lady, where did you learn about linemen?" and burst into a large boisterous laugh ending in an amused chuckle, for it appeared very funny to him—but not to me. He finally made me admit that my knowledge of them, or rather interest in them, came from seeing them climb poles along the road and thinking them very romantic men and even falling in love with one particular dark, bright-eyed one whom I never met, and whose only communication with me had been what they would now say was a wolf call from the top of a pole which I was passing on the way to high school, adding admiringly, "You for me when you develop!" which I pondered on, sometimes thinking he was fresh, but often thinking he meant something much more serious and wondering how we could meet.
But I had managed to assure Mr. Davis that I was a professional writer, having sold a story to the Black Cat and one to the Evening World, and that I very carefully looked up all the technical details of my story. He bought it for forty dollars. He was even more astonished when I sent him my next one, called "Past One at Rooney's," concerning what happened late at night at a gambling hall once visited by O. Henry. He had asked me how the h— I ever got the material for that and I told him I went there one night, of course.
I went back to the Brevoort, amused at his suggestion that I might see if I couldn't fall in love with a fireman so I could write for Railroad Man's Magazine. He would probably buy a story a month from me. When I got there I called up the magazine to which I'd sent the novelette and asked them if they could read it as soon as it arrived and send me a check by Friday. It was an order from them, but they told me no checks could possibly be mailed out until Monday. This upset me, as I had planned to buy a new dress to wear to the party—convincing myself that I needed one anyway, as one does when rather guilty about an expenditure. I found a letter from my mother saying that my little girl was doing fine and hadn't even seemed to miss me, but the cows weren't giving much milk and that William Jones, from whom I had bought the cows on the installment plan, said the last payment was overdue and he would take the cows away if I didn't send the money right away. However, the check coming Tuesday would cover that payment, which was only twenty-five a month for six cows. I wouldn't buy the dress; it would be too late to wear it to the party anyhow. Instead I went out and purchased a new blouse, and probably made some purchases at the cosmetic counter
When I looked at myself Saturday night I felt satisfied. The new blouse went very well with my suit, and I did not wear a hat. Christine, whom I called earlier, said just to come as I was, nobody bothered to dress, so I felt fairly confident as I climbed the stairs at Macdougal Street. Until, almost at the top, I heard the sound of laughter and many voices inside.
The room was very crowded, people talking and moving about in an atmosphere of excitement, some standing alone in self-absorbed depression. The tables had been pushed back against the wall. One silent group near the radiator was watching the others gloomily; I got the impression that they were trying to get warm, but it seemed that they were only waiting for a drink, for when Louis Ell came in from the kitchen carrying a tray with filled glasses they stepped forward eagerly. The air was full of cigarette smoke and as I stood at the door, someone got up and opened a window—for in spite of the depressed people there was such warmth and talking and humidity and enthusiasm that it seemed something must be done to let some of it out into the night and out over the city.
I didn't see Christine and for a moment I wondered what I should do, for no one noticed me. Then a thin, interesting, pallid and dazed young girl, who seemed for the moment as out of things as I was, who seemed indeed to be in or belong to another world, said, "You can put your coat outside!"
There was a long table in the outer room, which was in semidarkness. The table was piled with coats and wraps and I laid my heavy coat there, thinking the girl was beside me, for she had followed me outside. I turned to thank her but she was gone and it was a moment before I saw that she had pulled a chair up at the far end of the table and was just silently sitting there, her gaze fixed like the eye of a dazed camera on the open door of the crowded room. There was nothing for me to do but go back, for she did not see me any longer, and in truth I wasn't interested in her then, though later on in the year, before she suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, she had become of great interest to me (though all this time I never had any conversation with her, for few people did) and I had become one of her silent allies.
I often thought of her later; but not for some years did I know that this girl whom I admired and even defended (for there was a certain conspiracy among the women against her) had become the brilliant photographer Berenice Abbott, whose photographs for many years have been on exhibition in New York and Paris.
At that moment I was tangled like a fly in flypaper in a thought or feeling that was depressing me. It wasn't that I hadn't seen Christine, whom I needed in order to orient myself, but that the man who had walked home with me to the Brevoort wasn't there. I went again to the door, and perhaps because I had taken off my heavy coat this time was noticed, for though everyone else was as absorbed in the talk and themselves as before, this time a bright-eyed man with slightly grizzled hair and an intensely alive face came and stared at me, led me to a chair and said to wait, he'd get me a drink. After doing that he stood by my side without a word, listening to what was going on and watching through his heavy-lensed glasses a group near the mantelpiece, over which hung the large clock ticking its moments away. A big man with thick white hair and fine and kindly eyes was talking and listening at the same time to two or three women; a couple of men edged in, listening. Nearer us an intense woman with a strong and fascinating face was also watching the big man near the mantel, paying no attention to a tall blond young man, still wearing his overcoat (which I later found he never took off), who was talking earnestly and quietly to her.
These people I came to know later: The big man with white hair was the great George Cram Cook, who organized and started the Provincetown Players, and without whose intense interest and devotion some people think Gene O'Neill would never have succeeded in reaching the theater; the dark woman was Ida Rauh, who, as an actress, was once compared to Duse; and the blond young man (Lawrence Vail) with the overcoat also had an interesting life, for he first married Peggy Guggenheim with all her money, and then later a distinguished woman writer.
At that moment Christine came in from the kitchen, laughing and dimpling and fortified with gin and food, Louis behind her, holding her arm. They were both happy now, not only because of the party and the gin, but because at a meeting of the Provincetown Players it had been decided that Louis should do the scenery for a play called 'Ile; not only that, but also play the part of a harpooner. Christine saw me at once; in fact she had been waiting for me, expecting, no doubt, that I would go out into the kitchen and find her. She pulled me to my feet and told me about Louis' good luck while he stood by, large and friendly, regarding me with his large eyes, which were quite bovine now; apparently he had forgotten all about the other night—it was as if he had never seen me before.
"That Gene!" she finished. "He was the only one that voted against him. He did his best to keep him out. He hates all big men, Louis! that's it. Where is he now—where is he now? At the Hell Hole, drunk. Big guy among the gangsters!"
Christine had not been malicious as she said this, but very kindly: at the same time giving the impression that it was the truth.
"Isn't he coming?"
"Maybe later. He'll make some sort of a sensation," she whispered to me, winking both eyes. "A lot of people haven't come yet. Come into the kitchen with me. I want to tell you—Why don't you drink your drink?"
I wondered why she didn't introduce me to the man who had brought me the drink and who was still standing by. But this didn't happen, as she took it for granted that people got to know one another without the need of names. (A name, a label, what did it mean except that it prevented your knowing the person behind it?) Christine, among other things, was a mystic. Now she was listening to the general trend of the conversation that was going on, some sort of argument or opposition to something, whispered or determinedly voiced in guarded words. I had no idea what it was all about, but decided that the people who were drinking the most were having the best time. Then I heard someone ask where Gene was and people were silent; the question made a break in the clamor, which seemed to affect everyone so that in a moment all of them, indifferent or not, were wondering why he was not here when he should be here.
"Gene's all right. Leave him alone!" the big man by the mantel said, and then people went on talking and drinking and becoming more and more interested in each other. Christine went back to the kitchen and I with her, while Louis Ell remained to talk to a blond man, who, it seemed, was a portrait painter and wanted to help him with the sets.
There was no one in the kitchen and it was quieter there. The mixed punch, very strong, was in a granite pot on the table, but Christine had her good gin behind the stove. The man who had got me the chair followed us, so Christine took a drink from the big pot instead, and, after a minute, during which he also helped himself to a drink, he said: "Why don't you introduce us, Christine?" to her: and to me: "Are you going to join? You could get a part in the next play. You are an actress?"
I was secretly flattered, as in fact I have always been when once in a great while people who have just met me will ask that question, probably because of having been married to a playwright.
"No! She's a writer and wants to write about factory girls." Not write about them, I explained, I wanted to work there. "Well—let's say you want to write about something," said Christine vaguely, for she did not want to hurt my feelings. "This is Otto Liveright, God bless him!"
"Be careful—writing destroys a woman's looks!" said Otto Liveright, looking me over again, as if from a new angle. But I could see that he had lost interest, and a moment later he sauntered out into the other room.
I, too, was beginning to get bored. I felt very much out of things. I was not particularly interested in the people there, or in the Provincetown theater, and this in itself was enough to dampen my spirits. I tried to recall exactly what Christine had said about Gene O'Neill. Someone else had come in and was claiming her attention now. He might come over—maybe later, that was it! She wasn't sure, then. Also, it seemed to me definitely that she was taking a different attitude. The other morning she had taken such interest in Gene and me, almost as if there was something brewing, as she would phrase it. Tonight she acted as if it should make no difference to me if he were here or not. I began to think that I should not have come.
Mary Pyne had told me that she was coming tonight—she was not here either. Christine, no longer busy, and perhaps noticing my rather forlorn expression, took my arm and we went back into the other room. It was just then, as we came in one door, that Gene O'Neill appeared at the other. He stood there with a peculiar, slow dramatic glance that seemed to take in everything, without really noticing anyone. Everyone in the room stopped talking and looked at him, and he moved inside, with a laugh and a gesture both mocking and defiant. There was another man with him who waited at the door like a shadow—someone I never saw before, or saw again.
There was a sort of general movement toward him, laughter and greetings. I don't think he said a word. He just smiled. Jig Cook came forward and clapped him on the shoulder, and somebody brought him a drink of the punch, which he ignored. I don't know what he was wearing, probably the same things as when I saw him before, but there was something about his appearance that started and held the attention. Was it intensity? No, perhaps a quality of romantic somberness. If there was intensity, it was that of being himself—an awareness on the part of others of his being always intensely aware of himself. Now I am getting at it, for this would account for his shyness or whatever it was—which was really an intense self-consciousness.
His eyes moved slowly, in a peculiar manner, resting for a moment on something or someone, but he gave the impression that he was only cognizant of something that went on inside himself. And all the while there was the mask or echo of a sardonic laughter, at times ribald and again becoming painful, etched on his restless face.
I saw all this but it did not seem to affect me, for what I was seeing was the person I wanted to see—the person he was. Judge not by appearances, but judge with true judgment. The man who had kept his eyes steadily on me the night we met, saying without words something that was true; he who had walked home with me through Washington Square, and standing in front of the Brevoort had said something that he seemed to feel deeply—it was he whom I saw.
But this man (though it was he) would not look at me. He saw Christine, made a gesture, saw me standing with her and ignored me. It was not obvious to anyone except Christine—but it was obvious to me.
Somehow this did not upset me, but aroused a rather excited and firm determination to make him acknowledge that he saw me. It was as if a battle, out of sight of everyone, was going on, an unseen and psychic combat, though outwardly I still gave the appearance of being rather quiet and uninterested. Christine, glancing from him to me, looked uncomfortable.
Some music was turned on and one or two couples began to dance. Gene watched them as if there was forming in his mind an image of some bizarre dance that he would in a moment execute. His inner attention was obviously still on himself. Christine moved away from me over to where he was standing and I saw her put her hand on his arm. She said something quietly. He refused to reply. She said something more and he took a pint bottle from his hip pocket. With a laugh he threw some of the contents into the back of his throat and swallowed it. His eyes roamed abstractedly, then came back to Christine. He looked across the room at me.
I didn't wait for Christine to bring him over—that was evidently what she had in mind. Perhaps I knew better—that she would be unsuccessful. But I didn't even think. I walked across to where they were standing. "Hello!" I said to him. "Remember me?"
After we were married I came to know too well that, no matter what his inner feelings, Gene O'Neill in a moment of embarrassment, or crisis, would dissemble and give quite a different and often opposite impression. Now he just looked at me vaguely and, without answering my question, gave me a most polite smile.
"It's quite a party," he said, continuing this politeness in the tone of his voice. Christine looked at him, then at me, and moved away, leaving me standing there beside him, while, before us, dancing couples passed, holding each other closely.
"It's a cold night—good night for a party! The iceman cometh!" he said, and I saw his eyes fasten on Nina Moise, who was sitting with a plate of food on her lap. He smiled with a warm and yet diabolic expression—at her. Then—he was gone.
Someone came up and began to talk to me, but I didn't hear a word that was being said. I saw Mary Pyne come in with another woman and stand near the door, talking, but I was not even interested in speaking to her now. I was watching Gene. It was only a moment later that I saw him take the bottle again and drink from it. I was the only one who saw it, for he went outside into the other room, which was dark, stood there, and then tilted the bottle quickly. I, alas, was watching everything he did. . . . Then, returning, he really did something. He crossed dramatically to the end of the room and with a violent, sardonic, and loud laugh, pulled a chair up in front of the mantel over which the big clock ticked away the minutes. Everyone stopped talking. He stood on the chair and looked about at his audience. Then he quoted—it may have been a popular song at that time, I don't know—in a dramatic chant, full of meaning:
"Turn back the universe,
Turning back to the mantel, he leaned over and opened the glass face of the clock, and slowly and carefully with his sensitive spatulate fingers he pushed back the long hand of the clock, watching the small hand follow it.
There was silence—then sudden laughter. He got down, still singing or chanting in his low voice, looking a little dizzy but pleased. He seemed to see no one now but Nina Moise, who was gazing at him, her plate untouched, fascinated and amused. Nina was the new and very capable director at the Provincetown Players, a dark and trimly plump girl with a keen kind face, later to become one of the most important people in her field in Hollywood. He went over to her and sat down on the floor at her feet. Her face grew tender and understanding, and then he took her hand and placed it for a moment on his forehead.
He did not look at me again as far as I knew. His eyes grew more violent, and although he devoted himself to Nina more or less, he also became involved in some sort of an argument that was going on among those people who seemed to be at the head of the theater group to which he belonged. His talk, though it seemed rather incoherent to me, was about the future of the Provincetown Players and he was evidently opposing some of their ideas very strongly.
Now his admiration for Nina Moise did upset me, and I quite lost the feeling of combat with him that I had had before. I tried my best to appear gay and indifferent, but I did not feel that I was succeeding very well. Even the few men who had cast eyes in my direction before left me alone. I have noticed, particularly at parties that what really attracts people is a certain vitality. Fame or beauty or an interesting mind do attract and hold for a while, to be sure, usually for reasons of self-interest; but it is vitality, a spontaneous giving forth of itself that people seek and need and gravitate toward. My inner temperature was burning very low indeed. All I did was try to hear if anyone was talking about Gene O'Neill. . . .
He was with Nina and some others, but no one made any comments now on him or his actions—it was as if there was nothing more to be said. I didn't even feel like talking to Mary Pyne, but, deciding it was time to go, I went over to her. She was still talking to the woman who had come to the party with her. Calm and beautiful, with her lovely, smooth red hair, Mary saw me coming and smiled; and then she kissed me and asked me how I was? She introduced me to her friend—Susan Glaspell. Susan had been glancing around the room with her expressive eyes. Her wavy hair was fluffed under a seal cap, and her sensitive face was pleasant and even rather gay, though she appeared pinched from the cold, which she felt even in that warm room.
They had been talking about Gene O'Neill, and Susan continued this conversation, praising a short play which he had written the past summer in Provincetown—adding that it was a pity he ever had to come to New York. She had given me a brief smile, but now she was observing me with a certain interest and turning to Mary Pyne she asked her if I didn't remind her of someone?
Mary was puzzled, until Susan said, "Louise, of course!" Mary looked at me thoughtfully then frowned slightly, as if an unpleasant thought had occurred to her.
"Well—perhaps! But she's not like her, really. Though I do see what you mean. We're speaking about Louise Bryant," she explained to me, "who went to Russia this fall with her husband, Jack Reed. You've heard Harry and me talking about Jack. . . ."
I felt awkward being discussed like this; and vague, too, about this person whom I resembled. Miss Glaspell glanced over at Gene, who at the moment was silent, looking at the tall, dusty window near him with a very melancholy expression. Then she caught Mary's eye and shook her head.
"Poor Gene is still suffering about it, I'm afraid," she remarked. "I think that up to the last he thought she would not go to Russia with Jack!"
Mary Pyne somehow gave the impression that she did not want any of this to touch her. She may have seen something that disturbed her in my reaction to Susan's words for she said very dryly: "I don't think its very important one way or the other. Certainly after the exhibition he put on in front of all of us here tonight he can't be very sensitive about it! 'Turn back the clock—and give me yesterday!' When a man makes a public gesture like that to convince us that he's still unhappy about some woman, it's being rather blatant, isn't it? One would say that he's now dramatizing it and not feeling it—don't you think so?"
"I don't understand it," Susan said. "Of course, he's been drinking very hard tonight! I think he had it in his mind to oppose some of our plans—probably got himself well loaded in order to do it. We need him here, and yet I wish often that he would go back to Provincetown. We'd like another short play of his for the last bill."
I felt empty and exhausted and suddenly so depressed at being here at all that I was unable to say anything—about anything. Why had I ever come? Mary Pyne said, putting her hand on mine, "You're tired! Why don't you go home?" Susan looked at me curiously again. I managed a smile and said I had better run along—and then I could not resist glancing over to where Gene O'Neill was sitting. This time he was looking at me—with that same absorbed contemplation that had so stirred me the night I met him. For a moment we looked into each other's eyes across the noisy room.
Susan had the gift of pointed and significant gaiety; it was a part of her that helped make her play, "Suppressed Desires," so well known. She laughed now, and looked at me rather archly:
"I believe Gene is the one who sees your little friend's
resemblance to Louise," she said to Mary Pyne: "Maybe that's what's
wrong with him tonight!"
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