Waiting with the Little Clowns
I had thought that after we left the Prince George Gene would want to stay and talk with his brother, possibly stop somewhere and have a drink with him; but instead of that we went back to the hotel, and the next morning, rather pale but determined, Gene went up to the Williams office. I don't know how it was that he did not go to see Mr. Nathan, who was anxious to see him and who was on Gene's list, but he did not, for that meeting did not occur until the following May. Gene came back to the hotel very quiet and sullen, for Williams, it seemed, was on one of his frequent absences; where he was seemed a mystery, and apparently he could not be reached.
But there was a bright spot—Mr. Williams' brother Joe, to whom Gene had talked. "He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met," Gene told me, "but sort of worried-looking!" Joe had informed him that Williams was still planning to open with the two Barrymores—as soon as John was free.
"Let's hope Redemption flops soon," Gene said gloomily. He was in a very gloomy mood about everything—money included. "I guess we'll have to go to your place in Jersey as soon as The Cross rehearsals are over; then I'll have to come back for The Moon—they'll make a mess of that unless I'm here."
The telephone rang. It was Jimmy Light to see Gene. They were going to start rehearsals for Where the Cross Is Made and he wanted to talk to Gene and then take him down to Macdougal Street. It seemed that some objections were already being made about the actual presence on the stage of the ghosts of the dead sailors. . . . When Jimmy came in he handed me a letter that had come to the theater addressed to me. It was from my mother. I glanced at it—and then forgot everything else. I went into the bathroom, closed the door and tore it open, the postmark on the envelope had shown me that the letter came from the small town in New Jersey where I had thought of going with Gene.
She had received my letter saying that we were leaving Provincetown for New York and that Gene expected Beyond the Horizon would go on that winter. She supposed that with the good news about the play we would be able to get a nice apartment, but meantime she was writing me care of the Provincetown Players as I suggested. She should have written before—but you know how things are! They had thought for some time that they didn't want to put up with another cold winter on the farm, and then Grannie had cabled from London that she at last had been able to arrange for a passage to the States. It would be, of course, impossible to have the old lady on the farm—she would freeze to death! So they had decided to spend the winter in the Old House (my mother always capitalized this). Everything is fine, she went on to say, and added that having the electricity put in had made a great difference. The tenants had left some things in a mess, but she had cleaned it up. I might have to get the windmill fixed later, as it was making a lot of noise. They were looking forward to having either me, or Gene and me, if he wasn't too busy, come down for a visit: or perhaps she would be able to get up to New York later. Grannie had arrived safely and looked very well. In order to leave London with the war still more or less on, she had finally appealed to a cousin of hers who happened to be very influential in the Government at the time. He had arranged everything and now Grannie was happily installed in the upper nursery. Grannie, of course, after paying her passage hadn't a cent left, and Teddy had taken so long doing a miniature that had been ordered that she didn't know when he'd get it finished. But try not to worry! Things were all right so far, and she was designing some hooked rugs that she thought might sell. They had left the farm in care of a young man who was going to stay there for the winter in exchange for looking after the place. . . .
The curse of not writing letters when one should—letting things slip! Procrastination! What is it, anyway? Why does one procrastinate? Is it because that which one puts off is really disagreeable and disturbing even though one does not consciously know it? Or is it that writing letters is a real chore for those who do other writing? I wish I knew!
Now because I had put off writing to my mother at the farm I was completely baffled. I didn't know what to do. In looking back at it now the winter down in New Jersey certainly had its humorous aspects. I remember several incidents that are very funny, at least as I recall them. At the time I may not have seen them in that way, being always too much influenced by Gene's personal aspect—whether he looked gloomy or pleased. For example, the time we were sitting before the fireplace one afternoon and someone I knew appeared on the porch and then walked in; Gene didn't have time to leave the room but hid in the closet, listening with fury to the conversation, which I was trying in vain to terminate.
There was a lot of heartache connected with it however, at least as far as I was concerned. At the house, at the time she wrote me, and expecting to stay for the winter, was not only the whole family, but my mother's little dog Trixie, three cats, and a pet crow! And here was my husband—like Garbo, he must be alone—and I had promised him that. He had two important long plays to do and other work planned. . . .
Why didn't I admit the whole situation to him and let him know that we'd have to go somewhere else? But where else was there to go? I just couldn't do it—he had counted on me and the house and being quite alone. I was no doubt completely obsessed by my devotion to him and his work. And also, there was now beginning to be the question of money.
I had promised to go down to the Provincetown Players with Gene that afternoon (Jimmy Light after his talk with him went on uptown); but the next day I sat down and wrote my mother the letter I should have written in the first place—only now it was a problem that I didn't know how to solve and I didn't see how she could solve it either. . . .
But she did—and that was what led to a situation which must have seemed strange to various people in that New Jersey town. All right! she said, we could use the house, of course. Gene could have his solitude, with no one to bother him, although, she added, it would have been nice to meet him. But she would have to leave the cats and Trixie in the house and we would have to take care of them. The pet crow she would take with them, she had already gone down to the village and rented a small cottage near the sea for the winter: it would be up to me to explain to Gene about Trixie and the cats. They would be very crowded in the little house, but everybody understood except Grannie and she was going to have a hard time explaining things to that firm and opinionated lady, for if she knew we were there she would be marching right up to see us. . .
They, at least, could keep out of sight, although my father had looked forward to meeting Gene, as he admired his work so much—he had been reading some of the plays published by the Provincetown people. And after all, she said, it is your house.
It was, and yet I knew she felt that in a way it wasn't. Or so it seemed now. When I came of age I had received a not too large inheritance from my great-aunt Agnes Boulton, for whom I had been named. There was a mortgage on the house, the man who held it wanted his money to use for something else, and there was difficulty in getting anyone to take the mortgage over. I had paid the mortgage and with what was left bought myself a little riding horse, which I had shipped down in a boxcar; got a new black suit and a couple of hats and an outfit for each of my sisters. Some time later on (a year or so before I met Gene I believe), there seemed to be talk again of selling the place. I don't know why this time, but I do remember everyone sitting in front of the fireplace and reading the advertisements in the Strout farm catalogue. Perhaps that had nothing to do with it—but my mother decided that she would turn the place over to me in payment of what I'd put into it, and she would take a second mortgage for the balance of the value of house and land. So Agnes Boulton Burton, short-story writer, became the legal owner. It was all rather complicated and what it amounted to was that except for the time it was rented, the family, or certain members of it came and went, lived there or not, according to what was convenient or expedient for everyone. I had not been there, except for short visits, for quite a long time.
So in one way, I was tremendously relieved—as far, at least, as Gene was concerned. And when soon after that I received another letter from my mother in which she seemed to think the whole thing was a big joke—they had all laughed so at the idea and at Gene's needs, all except Teddy, who said he understood; and Grannie, who didn't know. I must be sure and not let Gene know that they were there, as, after they thought it over, they were sure that it would be just too boring meeting him—he must be quite a disagreeable and morose man; when I read this letter and saw that even that sarcasm was more or less of a joke, I, too, began to feel less badly about it and wondered how it would all turn out. . . .
Gene and I took a bus downtown. The Provincetown Players had moved from 139 Macdougal Street to number 133, a few doors away, and there was a chaotic happy hammering and painting and moving around of scenery and stage effects going on. . . . Everyone seemed in a daze—but it was the absorbed daze of a fixed purpose. They were getting the place ready for their first bill. They were already more than two weeks behind in their schedule; if you spoke to someone, he answered you, but his attention was not on you but on a place on the wall where electric wires were being hung, waiting for a fixture; or on the shade of yellow paint that was being applied to finish the walls; or on watching burly truckmen carrying in more lumber, as if wondering if there was room for it somewhere.
Jig Cook—no one even thought of him by his formal name of George Cram Cook—was standing on the stage, which was piled with boxes, lumber, and half-filled pots of paint. Bolts of material lay on a bench made of rough planks laid on wooden sawhorses, and Jig was regarding them with speculative eyes when we came in. Someone tapped his shoulder and he turned around; his tired, absorbed face lit with joy and affection as he saw Gene standing in the aisle.
"Knew you'd be here. Thank God you are!" He had not seen Gene since the night of the welcoming party. He held my arm, squeezed it, and put his other hand on Gene's shoulder. "We'll start rehearsals tomorrow on The Cross—come hell or high water! I'm wondering what shade of cloth would be best for the ghosts—theatrical gauze, damp—come and look! But first, what do you think of our color scheme?"
The place had been painted since the first night we were there, all but the benches, which were now being hammered into place. The walls were a rich tawny orange, the ceiling deep blue, and the rectangular proscenium was a dark smoke gray.
"The benches will be black—and, by God, Gene, we're going to have them comfortable—pad 'em! We've put in an inclined floor. I figured it out so that each seat is right, and everybody in the audience will be able to see the stage!"
Jig was sweating, the perspiration in streaks on his unshaven face. His hair, gray and dusty, swept in a massive mop just escaping his kind and brilliant eyes. I don't believe he had had time to take off his clothes since we last saw him; he was wearing the same gray sweater and paint-stained trousers. In order to save time and money (for they had begun their moving not really knowing where the money was coming from, but carried along by Jig's indomitable spirit and enthusiasm), Jig had contributed the rent he expected to pay for an apartment; he slept on the stage, ate whenever he could manage, and worked with the others day and night.
Gene approved briefly of the color scheme—but his eyes were on the stage, and a moment later he and Jig were up there, Jig explaining, and Gene looked at everything with intense interest. I pushed into a row of seats that had been finished, all but the padding, and in the half-light watched two men hammering away in front of me.
Behind me something else was going on—a switchboard was being installed. A tall, light-haired woman was supervising this operation, meantime doing a dozen other things—answering the telephone, talking to people, selling subscriptions—all of which did not interrupt her other job of putting the circulars into envelopes for the new bill. I watched her. It seemed to me she had become conservative, businesslike and quite distant. That impression was probably due to the same absorption that I noticed in everyone else. Eleanor Fitzgerald was a wonderful warmhearted person. She stayed with the Provincetown Players, giving to them everything she had—her health, her time, her warm devotion, her life—up to the very end.
Suddenly I heard Jig call to the young man working on the benches and a moment later they left their work and were moving the boxes, paintpots and barrels away from the center of the stage. Gene and Jig stood and watched, and soon they were joined by others.
Gene came toward me at last, nearly an hour later, and sat down in the next seat. He looked pallid; his jaw and mouth were set in a determined line.
"Well, rehearsals start tomorrow—that's fixed! Tonight they'll read the parts—James Light as Nat, Ida as Sue, and Hutch Collins as Captain Bartlett—he'll be fine! As for the ghosts!" Gene's voice was as quiet as ever, but as he spoke he was looking at the stage with angry determination.—"Jig's for it, but some of the others want to cut them out—say it can't be done! I'll show them if it can be done or not!"
At this moment the outer door opened, letting in daylight, and Ida Rauh and another woman came down the aisle. Fitzie had telephoned them that Gene was there. Ida went right to the point and without too much tact.
"You'll have to do something about the ghosts, Gene. The boys never can look like ghosts, you know it. The audience will simply laugh at them. . . ."
They waited for Gene to reply:
"Everybody in the play is mad except the girl. Everyone sees the ghosts except the girl. What I want to do is hypnotize the audience so when they see the ghosts they will think they are mad too! And by that I mean the whole audience! Remember—"The author shall produce his plays without hindrance, according to his own ideas."
At last Gene and I left for New Jersey. The rehearsals were over—thank God! Then there was a meeting. Gene went to that while Christine and I and some others sat in the Hell Hole and waited for it to be finished. It was all too much for me. I couldn't figure out what it was all about—the arguments and discussions and so on—except that this meeting, a very important one, was partly to decide whether or not they would give free tickets to the critics from now on. I was tired, and very anxious to get away before another opening-night party. Gene, absorbed in working with the play, the cast, the direction and the ghosts, had kissed me each time he started to a rehearsal. "Don't worry—not a swallow of anything stronger than coffee today."
We left the night before the opening, after the meeting was held, and I cannot even remember if Gene was for or against admitting the critics free. . .
It was a drafty, dusty, two-hour trip, and it seemed to me that particular train stopped at every station on the way down. We got off at last—ours was the last stop—and took a local jitney, as they called them then, to go up to the house. The driver, clam-faced, greeted me coldly and never said a word, although when Gene paid him the fare, which was a quarter, and gave him a quarter tip he managed an inarticulate grunt.
We went into the house through the door of the outside shed, to which I had the key, and into the kitchen. As we entered the shed, my mother's dog Trixie leaped up at me, barking furiously with joy, and inside the kitchen Happy, the small gray cat, and a Manx tomcat looked up at us and began mewing piteously. It seemed Mother had expected we would be there in the morning, and the animals had been without food since then.
Gene looked so funny bundled up with a muffler around his neck, his brief case under his arm, his expression quite bitter and amazed, for the place was cold and the train trip had been more than we bargained for and it had made him very petulant.
"What the hell is this—a menagerie?" he said. He put his brief case down on the kitchen table and started to unloosen his scarf. Then he paused suspiciously. "Good God! What do I smell—cat mess?"
It was a dreadful moment. I could smell it too. The Manx cat was rubbing against Gene's trousers—he shoved it away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw what we were speaking about, on a pile of newspapers in the corner, newspapers that had been put there next to some kindling wood to start the stoves.
"Come in the next room, Gene, I'll start a fire!"
Trixie, still in the shed, was barking. The cats sat on the floor, looking up expectantly.
"Better feed these animals something first, and keep them quiet!"
I had picked up a couple of clean newspapers and some kindling wood and pushed open the door into the next room. Gene followed me, taking his brief case, and the cats followed him. I pulled the cord of the light that hung from the ceiling, and knelt before the fireplace, rumpling the paper and laying the sticks across it. Gene would love the fire, and in a moment a small fire crackled behind the andirons. Gene stood watching me. He looked tired and thin, and yet relieved at being here. I smiled up at him—the ordeal was over, we were here, no drinking this time, thank God! I'd been a little resentful in the kitchen, when he acted the way he did—thinking that after all it wasn't my fault but his for not taking the train that we planned and arriving in the afternoon—but then, I had been tired, too.
Gene smiled back at me, a trusting warm smile, with that gaze behind it of love and intimacy that I always felt he kept for me alone. "That fire's fine—I'll put a log on. . . . "
There was a pile of cordwood against the side of the fireplace—that had been ordered ahead of time. Gene, still wearing his gloves, carefully laid one of the largest logs on top of the little blaze. Then he straightened up and pulled off his gloves.
"What's that? Never saw anything like that before!" he exclaimed suddenly.
He had seen a hand that appeared to be holding up the arch of the brick fireplace, as though from the inside of the chimney. It was once white plaster, but now pale yellow from the smoke of many logs.
"Oh—that's my mother's!" I explained, laughing at the expression on his face. "Don't let it frighten you. A friend of ours made a cast of her hand and later we thought this was an appropriate place for it and fastened it there with some cement."
I took his coat and my own and hung them inside the closet and closed the door—that old familiar door on which were marks cut with a penknife where each year my father had measured his four little girls as we grew up.
Gene was standing before the fire, holding his hands in front of the blaze, when I went back into the kitchen. I fed the cats out in the shed and closed the door upon them. On the shelf were the things I had ordered, and I opened a can of soup, made hamburgers and some canned green beans. The old coffee mill was still attached to the wall, and I was grinding enough for the two of us when my husband came in.
"For grinding coffee," I explained. "Just a moment and everything will be ready!"
We carried a tray in and ate before the fire. Every once in a while Gene would look at the hand holding up the arch of the fireplace. It was warm and comfortable in the room now, and we ate our supper without talking. I wanted to sit for a while after we finished, and watch the flames, and the embers dropping into the ashes. But Gene was alert and curious.
"Let's look around and see what sort of a place you've got here." His typewriter, which had been sent ahead by express, was standing in a crate in the corner of the room. "I'd better decide where I'm going to work. This room"—he was looking at the three doors that opened from it—"won't do."
A year earlier he and I would have had to carry a lamp, going from room to room, upstairs and down; but now I proudly pulled the cords of the electric lights installed last spring. Briefly I recalled my father's telegram to the Garden Hotel—and our fantastic last days there. . . .
I suggested that we see upstairs first—most of the rooms were closed off, I explained. We could decide which ones we wanted to use. . . .
We climbed a narrow flight of stairs, and stood a moment looking in the upper west bedroom, where we could dimly see a Victorian bed, a bureau, and a stove.
"That's enough now!" I told him shivering, and without opening the two other bedroom doors, took him through the big old-fashioned bathroom into the large upper nursery where we had slept as children. "There's no stove here, Gene, just a register from the room below. We can't use this room—it's too cold."
We went down the east stairs, and back to where the fire was burning. Gene looked thoughtful. I opened a door at the foot of the stairs that we had just descended.
"This is the lower nursery! There's a fireplace, but it never worked."
"It's a nice room—must be very light in the daytime." He carefully examined another large stove, set before the fireplace. It had a tin drum that went to the ceiling. "What's that for?"
"It's supposed to heat the upper nursery—the room above—but it doesn't do more than take the chill off it in cold weather."
"It's chilly in here—let's get warm again and then see the rest of it. Where do we sleep, dearie?" he added facetiously. "Hope you've got a lot of blankets!"
We put more logs on the fire and stood getting warm for a few minutes. Then I took Gene's hand and led him through the little front entry into the lower west room. I had looked in there before; the coal stove was banked, the room was warm and cosy, and I had opened the damper and put on the drafts to make it even warmer. A full coal scuttle stood beside the hearth. There was a double bed, neatly made up, a chest of drawers, and sofa. "This is nice!" Gene said. I noticed again that he seemed to be studying the stove, as if in some abstract speculation about it. Then he opened the door leading from the north side of the room. "What's in here?"
"The studio." I had really not wanted him to see my father's studio that night—not until tomorrow, when I'd have a chance to straighten it out. I was not sure where the light was; and as we stood there in the darkness inside the door, I noticed the faint, familiar odor of tubes of paint. . . . It was like the stage set of a ghost room; the familiar objects coming slowly into our vision from the pale translucence of the skylight, beyond which the stars shone in a dim and misty swarm.
I saw the cord for the light hanging from the ceiling and reached for it, feeling as if my father were there in the room with us. The light went on and Gene gave the room a careful inspection. He appeared to be pleased. The tall walnut wardrobes that had been sent down from Philadelphia after the death of my great-aunt gave off the sheen of old polished wood; against another wall canvases were stacked; on my father's big easel was a half-finished landscape. . . .
"What's that—another stove?"
"That's the 'coffin stove.' Doesn't it look like one?" I opened one end. "It takes eight or ten cord lengths of wood!" There was a pile of wood inside, laid on kindling and paper. I had asked my father to see that wood was there, and he laid the fire in case we should need it. "This is a cold room in the winter, Gene! It needs a big stove."
"Who's going to take care of all these stoves?" Gene asked; and I could see from the way he spoke that this had been on his mind all the time. "Let's get back to where it's warm. We're going to sleep in here tonight," he added as we closed the door behind us. "I'll bring the bags in and unpack."
I wondered, as I washed up the few dishes and straightened the kitchen, why he had said tonight? The lower west room was the most comfortable place to sleep in the winter. The family had a habit of changing the rooms and furniture according to the season—or even according to mood; the west room had been a sitting room, and (before my father added the upper and lower nurseries to the old farmhouse) even a lesson room when we were very small. But it had also been used as a bedroom—certainly in the winter it was the warmest room in the house.
I was feeling a little low by now, thinking of the family down in a small rented cottage by the ocean, and Gene and I here. Mother and Teddy had come up to the house and made everything ready for our arrival, and now there they were (hiding away, I thought to myself), no doubt wondering whether or not we had arrived. It was pretty sad and as my mother had suggested, rather crazy; but I tried not to mind. What might have made me forget it hadn't happened. Gene just hadn't been enthusiastic or even seemed pleased at being here. . . .
I began to wonder what was wrong. I just couldn't tell what it was. Whatever it was I would try to make it all right. I put the cats out and went into the next room, closing the door behind me.
The fire was blazing and my husband sat in an oak armchair before it. He had taken off his suit while I was doing the dishes, and put on a gray flannel shirt and corduroy slacks and a sweater, and I saw with relief that he did look contented and happy.
"I was thinking about this," he began. "Why couldn't we sleep upstairs, and, if it's such a job keeping the studio warm, I could use the west room to work in—I imagine it's quieter than that big room—you call it the lower nursery?"
"Well, it won't be warm, just the register in the floor, and you know you like to read at night!" I didn't add that upstairs we would hear the windmill at night. . . . "Do you like it here, Gene, or don't you?"
"Yeah, I like it. Got to get used to it, that's all. I don't know about the cats and the dog—suppose you can keep them quiet. And another thing—the stoves. How do we manage about them?"
"They have to be shaken down every day and the ashes taken out. Then coal has to be brought in—you can help with that."
"Sure. If I don't forget it!" Gene laughed. "I don't know anything about running them though, and I don't intend to learn—that's your job."
"I don't expect you to. . . ."
"It's good to be here anyway, and alone! God, I'm
tired! Let's go to bed. We can decide about everything in the
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