Turn Back the
I lay in bed for a long time the next morning, not caring about my typewriter, which was waiting on the table by the window, or the letter I had to write about Oscar Swanson's note to my mother, or even about getting dressed and going out for breakfast. I was very confused, and yet, looking back, it seems to me that I was happy—happier than I had been for a long time. Confused and troubled, too, because I knew that a new and obsessing emotion had taken hold of me, and from the strange and contradictory actions of the man on whom this feeling centered, I didn't know where it would lead to—or to what.
It didn't occur to me that he was influenced by alcohol, and that what I had observed was not his normal self. It was obvious that at the party he was tight—or "blotto," as he used to call it. I put the impression I had had of his slow movements and gestures and fanatical eyes down to this: but I did not seem to think of what he did or what he said as being influenced by liquor. As he moved back the hands of the clock and quoted "Turn back the universe and give me yesterday," to me that was him; that was reality. Just as that night after first meeting me, what he said when we parted was real—the truth. I saw him as a whole human being from the first. Dark, morose, yet with something childlike in his sudden smile; ironic, somber, romantic, tender and yet alien to other people in some way. I saw that he was deeply attached to something. To the fabulous Louise, whom I had never seen? No, I was sure it was not that, though there was no doubt that was an important thing. To what, then? It was, rather, to something that he held, quivering, within himself. Was it himself—and what part of himself?
(I am not sure even now, but perhaps as I write all this down as it comes back to me, it will become clear. I hope so.)
I only know that this image I had of him was very important to me. Something had happened between us, some recognition or unspoken communication. That I knew. But was it just a passing thing—however real? Would I ever see enough of him to find out? Would he ever see me and that recognition come back?
Well! I made up my mind to eat dinner every night at Christine's! And (I'm a little ashamed of this now) I took the bus up Fifth Avenue to Forty-second Street, climbed the steps between the two passive lions that guarded the Public Library, and took a big pile of books about Ireland to the reading room. I had read Synge and Yeats and knew that my mother's father had known Lady Wilde and the group that surrounded her and I had heard stories about it all, but now I wanted to know all about Ireland—and the revolution. Wasn't there a revolution—a new one, or was it one of the old ones? I wasn't sure. Looking back, I realize that two things I felt strongly about Gene were: that he was Irish: that he was revolutionary. Though I see I have not mentioned this so far.
I didn't go up to the library because I wanted to be able to talk to him on these subjects, or impress him. My mind didn't work that way. It was to find out more—to understand, to share somehow in his own being. Leaving the library after some hours of reading I was in a state of exaltation—really excited! And, really not about him, for I wasn't even thinking about him, but about dark Ireland. Uprisings, poetry, beauty and revolution. . . .
Though I knew, of course, that he wrote plays, I didn't connect this too much with Gene when I thought of him. Perhaps because I'd never been interested very much in the theater, knew little about it, and thought of it not at all. I had read plays of course, Synge and Ibsen and Wilde. We had been brought up on Bernard Shaw and I remember going to my mother at a tender age and telling her I liked Mrs. Warren's Profession and Widowers' Houses—but what sort of houses were they? But to me a play was something that came alive as one read and I never saw them as being acted in the theater. It would have been logical (as I was foolish enough to leave my work, probably not eating any breakfast either, and go up to the library) to have taken books of plays, or books about plays to the reading room; or found out more about what he had done. But I must have seen him more as a poet then—not as a playwright, or so it seems. . . .
I went back to Christine's for dinner that night and listened to the conversation around me and was more or less unnoticed, except by Christine. It was very quiet after the night before and Christine was tired. Nina Moise came in and smiled at me pleasantly; and later I saw Jig Cook and Susan Glaspell both very preoccupied. But no one spoke of Gene O'Neill—much as I was longing to hear that romantic name. Nor did he appear. Nor did I dare mention him to Christine.
After a while she came over to the table and whispered to me that she was going to close the place early and asked me to wait. Thinking of what I had read up in the library, while I was waiting I outlined on the back of some large card of invitation that was in my pocketbook an idea for a novel. I saw this card the other day, the pencil marks so faint you can hardly read them, among some other old notes and letters. It was not about the Irish, but about a clam digger who revolted, no doubt, against the clams and the mud. . . .
Christine and I went over to the Golden Swan—this was the real name of the Hell Hole. It was only ten o'clock, and very quiet in the back room. Christine pushed the buzzer and said she was glad it was quiet, she needed a rest after last night. Gene O'Neill, she told me in an offhand manner, had a room upstairs over the saloon. I was more fascinated than ever by this, and kept looking at a closed door, imagining that it opened on a stairway and that at any moment he might appear. But Christine said no more about him, talking instead about some sort of intrigue or split among the Provincetown group which seemed to interest her. Christine never took sides but was always amused and kindly. Then she talked for a while about her mother, who was always an important part of her life and whom I was to meet later that winter. Next she asked me why I didn't take the little apartment on Seventeenth Street near Gramercy Park that I had had the winter before, and I told her I hadn't been sure of staying in New York. Last winter I had my small child and one of my sisters staying with me. I wouldn't want an apartment alone. . . .
At last the barkeeper appeared and we ordered two beers. There was a lot of noise and talking going on in the front room at the bar, and it sounded as if someone was getting into a fight. That was old Wallace the owner, Christine told me, and his cronies getting tight as they did every night, and later they would all go upstairs to bed, each with a pint under his pillow for the morning. I sat looking at the glass case on the wall, which held a stuffed, moth-eaten white swan who appeared to be floating in a very reflective mood on painted lily pads. In the dim and rather sinister light the swan began to have some sort of significance—and I began turning over in my mind how to ask Christine about what had happened last night. In fact I thought it strange that she had not spoken of this before. But she was thinking of the past winter and wanted to keep on that subject. It never occurred to me until later that she realized that I was almost in love with Gene O'Neill and she didn't want to bring up anything to hurt or upset me.
But he must have been in her mind, for she began talking about Louis Holladay, who, it turned out, was a friend who was very close to the young playwright. Louis, she said, should be back in New York very soon, and she looked at the door almost as if expecting him then. I had met Louis once or twice the winter before at Christine's old restaurant, but never knew him well, recalling mostly some fight in which he had been involved one night at Christine's. She brought me up to date with the story, adding: "I think that's one reason Gene's staying round New York—to see Louis when he gets back!"
This splendid young man had for some reason let himself get into bad shape, and couldn't seem to escape from it. Then he met a girl and really fell in love. She too fell in love. They talked everything over. She was firm about one thing; he must leave the village, go somewhere and regain his full health and mental stability. He promised to do this, and he did it. He gave himself a year; went out to a ranch in the West somewhere; didn't drink at all, nor did he see his girl during that time. When he came back, which would be soon, they were to be married.
I listened, bored and empty, as Christine told me all this. It wasn't what I had come to the Hell Hole for and I began to wish that I was back in the hotel alone. Christine may have sensed this, for she repeated after a moment (almost as if we had been talking about him), "Gene told me he really wants to get back to Provincetown. But he's going to wait until Louis gets back."
Then I heard his voice out at the bar, talking, and Christine said: "That's him now!" I felt suddenly very foolish and out of place and began to wish that I had not gone to Christine's for dinner or come with her here. I became cold and without any feeling, only aware that I was pursuing the man who was standing at the bar drinking—instead of attending to my own business. I had no connection, really, with any of this group of people, nor any particular interest except in this man. I became angry with myself—particularly when I realized that all my attention was on the sound of that low voice in the front.
Christine sighed. "Well," she said, probably still thinking of Louis, "it's a strange world!" At this moment the door from Fourth Street was pushed open by a tall girl in a tweed suit. She was followed by two seedy, tough, middle-aged men who stood looking about, abashed and unsure. I saw at once that this girl was a personality, an unusual one, but . . .
May I write about you, Dorothy? I'll have to ask you if I can. I saw your picture only last summer in a newspaper article, and I heard lately that you have been written about in Time and elsewhere. Do you remember "Frankie and Johnny," and how, some weeks later, you and I went together to that deserted restaurant at dawn and saw Louis Holliday, dead, sitting at a table, while the wind from an open window ruffled his hair, and his empty eyes stared into space—those eyes that had been so sure and joyous on his return the afternoon before? It's a strange world, Dorothy, as our friend had just said. I must pay you one compliment among many, which is that—although I don't think you were more than twenty then—and you could sing "Frankie and Johnny" in a way that it was never sung before. . . .
I watched her take the two men to a table and make them sit down: "I said I'd buy you a drink, didn't I? Don't you need it? Hello, Christine! Where's Gene O'Neill?"
Christine dimpled and laughed, full of life again. "Well, Dorothy, you ought to know!" Dorothy took this as it was meant, went to the door and called the waiter. Then she said, "Oh, there you are, Gene O'Neill!" She ordered three straight ryes, then went inside to the bar for a moment and came back alone.
"He'll be out!" she said to Christine, sitting down with the two men, who I found out later she had found sleeping on the steps of a church where for some reason she had gone to pray. She was extremely attractive in a strange way and gave rather the impression of being a sort of genius herself. Almost immediately she began to sing "Frankie and Johnny were lovers." The two men were fascinated, but she paid no attention to them, stretching out her long legs and for a moment closing her eyes. She ordered another drink for them; then one of them, making for the toilet, stumbled over her legs. It wasn't long before all at once the back room was filled up with the people who'd been drinking at the bar; and that was the first time I saw any of the Hudson Dusters, some of whom had been drinking with Gene outside and came in with him; and they all began singing "Frankie and Johnny," swinging and making a big emphasis at some of the verses. A girl named "Grapes" came in with another girl and they sat down. One of the girls had just come out of jail for no less than shooting her man, and the Hudson Dusters seemed very proud of this and one of them went off somewhere with her after a few minutes.
This was my third meeting with Gene O'Neill, and it has all come back to me as I write: I haven't thought of any of this for a long time, therefore it is perhaps more clear, like a coin that has been buried in the rushing channel of a river and comes up brighter for being long submerged. Christine and young Dorothy and the singing and the girl called "Grapes" seem in retrospect more easily visualized and known than I am, and even more than Gene O'Neill himself. I can only remember him as moving slowly around, his dark eyes alive and pleased, admiring Dorothy's strange almost staccato singing; drinking, laughing, and feeling that he was with friends; not, as I recall it, paying any particular attention to me, or maybe he did, I just don't remember. I suppose Dorothy was closer to the people who surrounded him that night—the people there, who he felt accepted him as one of themselves. Dorothy was beginning to be accepted too, because of her songs and her complete lack of fear about anybody or anything. It was odd, because she looked and dressed like a well-bred young college girl. But I believe it was also that she had a sort of desperate quality beneath her extremely cool manner.
Christine was tired, and left and Dorothy suggested that she and Gene and I go to a place nearby that she knew and get something to eat. We walked along the silent street together in the cold night and went down some steps to a place that was crowded with people eating at long tables. Everyone seemed more or less to know one another; and Dorothy would say, once in a while, that she had to catch a train to go and see her mother; and after a while I left with some sort of a journalist, who walked me home and was very hurt because I wouldn't sit in Washington Square for a while, while he explained to me about Rosicrucianism. . . .
Those first few days come back in a sequence. After that, there seems to be very little sense of order or relation in some of what I remember. Perhaps this is explained in Albert Einstein's words. "The experiences of an individual appear to us to be arranged in a series of events; in this the single events which we remember appear to be ordered according to the criterion of 'earlier' or 'later'. There exists, therefore, for the individual an I-time, or subjective time. This in itself is not measurable." Certain events stand out and I can place them in time because I can relate them to where I was living and what happened afterward. But I am not too sure of just when and where other things happened. I may have forgotten to put down some amusing or interesting episodes; I do not know if this happens with other writers or not, but when I talk about something that is past and bring it back to life, it is then very apt to go back into the oblivion where perhaps it belongs.
I close my eyes now against the pale, faintly luminous March sky and the tangled dark branches and black trunk of the tree outside the window and try to remember again those days in New York. . . .
There comes to me a panorama, a montage, such as a very modern play or motion picture might show. This is not exactly right, either, and I think of it as music, about which I know very little. There is a hurdy-gurdy (yes, there was one somewhere, outside a window); a lute, a piccolo: no drums, I wonder why? They may have been beating in Gene's mind and I did not hear them, for even then he had conceived the idea of the Emperor Jones. There is, too, somewhere the melancholy music of Tchaikovsky's Symphonie Pathétique . . . and clearly now as I write I hear an Irish ballad. Mon dear, I remember . . . when comin' home the rain began. I wrapped my greatcoat round her and she swore I was the only one . . . that ever she could love. There is the melancholy piping of Pan, half man and half animal; and sea chanteys; and always "Frankie and Johnny." Sad music that has the sound of the sea, and behind the hurdy-gurdy and the mechanical piano comes the strains of the violin in Sibelius' Concerto in D Minor, introspective and somber, breaking into a mad dance.
Alas, the Pan that can never really be Pan, aping with futile gestures the abandon of life, punching the bag to keep the blood moving, staring into the mirror with haggard eyes to see if Pan's still there and if not—what is there? Secretly aware, perhaps, of some inner sickness of the blood, which one day, Pan or not, will take hold?
Nothing had been said that night about the legend of Gene's enigmatic love—even I had forgotten about it. It did not seem too important after I met Dorothy and saw Gene again and felt more confused than ever. The present, with its intense interest, mattered—not the past. I was aware that, though he paid very little attention to me that night, he was doing this as it were with a purpose. I knew that, though he was trying to avoid it, there was on his side as strong an attraction as there was on mine. This made my feeling for him even more poignant. This man was partly himself—and partly acting a part. Why? I did not understand. I had seen him sad and poetic. I had seen him pagan and ironic and darkly gay. I had seen a cruelty about his mouth that night that I had not noticed before. On what or on whom was he trying to revenge himself?
I cannot remember who told me about what had happened between him and Louise Bryant.
Louise was a young and ambitious newspaper woman—and beautiful. She was married to John Reed, who had already achieved some fame as a reporter in doing a daring story of Villa in the Mexican revolution. The idea of revolution stirred in John Reed's blood; today he is buried at the Kremlin in Moscow in a grave honored by the Russian people. Louise and Jack (as everyone called him) were among the group who organized the wharf theater in Provincetown, later to become the Provincetown Players.
Nothing too much was told me, as nothing too much was known. Only that he and Louise had been violently in love for a year or more—that there was a familiar triangle. She had gone off to Russia with Jack Reed that fall instead of (as everyone had expected) leaving Jack for Gene O'Neill.
Later, through Gene, through his mother, through friends, and even through Louise herself, though I never even spoke to her, and only saw her once, sitting at a table with her husband, I got to know all about it. Now it seems to be forgotten, people never mention it, but it was then and for some time afterward certainly a dramatic episode in his life.
One thing was brought out—that I looked like Louise. This must have been the story that at last reached her in Russia and started immediate action on her part. (For, if I looked like her, she must have thought, what was Gene doing but still clinging to her image?) This resemblance had rather an obnoxious effect on me. The main thing I wanted to find out was what she looked like. Perhaps I felt it was a good thing. For if each man carries in his heart an image of the woman he can love, then at least I bore some resemblance to that woman! Actually no two women were ever more unlike than Louise Bryant and myself.
Was I really in love with him that night when I left him in the restaurant with Dorothy? I don't know for sure, for I don't know what love meant to me at this point; certainly it had not arrived at that point which it later reached. I do not remember there being any great physical attraction in the ordinary sense, except that I liked to look at him—but this only satisfied a certain romantic part of my being. It was something stronger than that. A sense of destiny perhaps, or mutual need, or fulfillment? I learned afterward that he felt the same thing.
People moving like shadows along streets, in bars and stairways, feet crunching on frozen pavements, walks in the night and freezing bitter cold, bare trees, and distant cries in the night. (Who was Becky? She, too, loved Gene.)
Against all this I myself do not seem to stand out with any importance, though so far I've been writing more about myself than anyone else. (But that was necessary to me; it was the only way I could get back into it, and get started on remembering.) There were many people moving in and out of those winter evenings and nights—Hutch Collins, who played in 'Ile and died a year later: tall, possessive Scotty, who had a strange fascination for Gene; Hippolyte Havel, the little anarchist; the Irish fellow who mysteriously disappeared and whom I have never forgotten—it was he who sang, in the most beautiful tenor voice I have ever heard, "I wrapped my greatcoat round her," sitting at a table in the Hell Hole, and at my request, for it was a favorite of my father's.
Many people moving around here and there, but all in a small orbit. . . . From Macdougal Street to Waverly Place; north a few blocks; south a few blocks . . . I could draw a circle around it on a city map, and the center of the circle would be the point where two streets meet—there was a saloon there which had a certain glamour because John Masefield had once lived there, or spent much time there drinking at the bar.
There was another place where two streets met, with a tall building on it like a little Flatiron Building, dark and empty at night, with small factory rooms and offices above. I remember this very well, and I will try to locate it if I go down again to the Village. Perhaps the building will not be there, or will not look as it used to look, but the streets must be the same—or do they do away with streets, too, and build new ones?
I remember so clearly the two meeting streets, the tall, triangular building looming up through the darkness, and silence of a very late night . . . rain changing to snow, dim street lights, the wet and cold of the pavements soaking through my thin shoes as I stood there one night with Gene, fascinated and thinking what a strange, mad, great person he was, while he gestured at the building, speaking with slow intensity, the whites of his eyes showing as he moved his glance upward and from window to window, and told me (and himself) that this was the spot, the location, for the revolution . . . the two streets meeting, the tall building: and he would be up there in that building, with machine guns at every window commanding the two streets below; able to shoot them down as they came to attack—those forces of the reactionary law and order of the land. . . . He explained it all in detail, and at first it seemed to me that he would be alone up there, leading the revolution; and I asked him if he could handle all those machine guns; I guess it came down to there being six of them up there; but I know that they were going to hold it for a long time, maybe a week even, and then the ammunition gave out and law and order shot them down, every one, with machine guns of their own. . . . But that made no difference; this would be the symbol, the proud banner of the spirit and glory of free man with Gene leading them on, men shot down in cold blood; and this spot in Greenwich Village would for that reason never be forgotten. I saw his face, silent and intense, as he stood there when he had finished speaking, and I saw that he was deeply moved and convinced of something that meant a great deal to him.
This endeared him to me more than ever, and thinking what great manner of man is this, the dark poet and understander of everything? I held to his hands as we went down the slippery icy steps into a small, faintly lighted coffee shop that was in the basement of that very building that was to start or end, I've forgotten which, that fine revolution, and drank coffee out of tall glasses at a table lit only with candles. It was in this small place that something happened that broke up something else, and brought me and Gene together; and I mention the light of the candles because that was, in a way, the cause of it. . . .
Yes, it is important because I thought it was the first time after that meeting when he had said that he wanted to spend every night of his life with me that he saw me and became absorbed in me, and couldn't take his eyes off my face. Dorothy was there, too, of course, as we knew she would be, but the candlelight only brought out the long classic line of her jaw and the ends of her tousled short hair. Gene stopped listening to her and looking at her, as he always did under more normal light. Even when she sang "Frankie and Johnny" with a new verse added he paid little attention, for he was looking at me. . . . How do I know that it was the soft radiance of the little candles, set in a row along the table, casting their light upward on my face, that did it? Was there a mirror on the wall in which I saw myself romanticized in this light into some sort of perhaps unreal beauty? No, because if there had been a mirror Gene would have been observing himself in it as he talked, as he always did when there was a mirror around. Did he tell me? I doubt that, as I am sure he thought it was really me, and not any effect of the candlelight. Could I have done this deliberately, leaned nearer to the candles than was necessary, thinking: I am more beautiful than Dorothy, even though I can't keep a tune! Please look at me?
Those, as I remember it, seem to have been my sentiments: perhaps I
took off my hat if I wore one; or loosened my hair; or just sat
there, trying to look like The Blessed Damozel, leaning on the gold
bar of Heaven—I don't remember. I only know that I knew, because I
saw it in his eyes, that I looked beautiful; and that I was silent,
and that I loved him . . . and that he wasn't looking at Dorothy
now, but at me.
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