Waiting with the Little Clowns
Without bothering to think what the consequences might be, I locked Trixie in the shed, the cats in the kitchen, left them food and water; banked the stove, and turned the dampers; extinguished the fire in the fireplace with half a bottle of water, got a jitney, and took the next train for New York.
After I bought a return ticket and gave the man at the ticket office a wire to be sent to Gene telling him that I was arriving, I found I had very little money left—less than a dollar in change. As the train pulled out of the station I realized that I had forgotten to turn off the windmill. . . .
Gene was not at the Provincetown Theater, when I arrived about two hours later, and no one seemed to know where he was. Yes, there had been an opening-night party the night before! I talked in whispers to Fitzie, for the play had already started and there was an expectant silence in the small theater. For a moment I stood there watching the play and listening to the lines spoken by the actors—those words that had come out of Gene's heart, out of a lonely and somehow embittered past. A feeling of unspeakable sadness and beauty came over me as I stood there with Fitzie, holding tightly to her arm; my throat constricted and I felt tears in my eyes.
Fitzie led me outside, and we stood a moment longer in the street. She explained to me that Gene had intended to leave for New Jersey . . . why didn't I go and see if he was at the Hell Hole? If he wasn't there, I must come back and tell her. . . .
I walked around the corner and down Fourth Street and pushed in the back door of the old Hell Hole. I saw Gene at once, sitting at a table with Jamie. There was a good-sized white dog lying at his feet. The back room was full of people—I recognized several of Gene's old friends, the Hudson Dusters. Scotty Macdonald was there; James Light, and his wife Sue Jenkins, with whom I afterward became great friends, Harold de Polo, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Harold saw me first and, as always the most polite of men, pushed through the crowd and took me by the arm.
"Agnes, my dearest! We've been expecting you!" This, I soon found out, was a polite subterfuge on Harold's part, as Gene had not received my wire. Harold seldom showed his liquor, but that night his eyes were glazed. In one hand he held an empty bottle firmly by the neck. When we reached the table where Gene was sitting I realized that my husband was reciting The Hound of Heaven. Harold and I stood watching. Gene did not notice us and continued in his low voice:
"'Yea, faileth now even
"Shall I go out and get you a wreath of vine leaves, Gene?"
He saw me, got to his feet, and I felt his arms around me. He made me sit down next to him. "No vine leaves, my own, not tonight! I knew you'd come at last. The Hounds of Heaven have been on my trail. . . . wait a minute! Or was it the Hound of the Baskervilles? Anyway, here's a hound for you—our hound. I'm bringing him back with us—a playmate for Trixie!"
Jamie, who had risen to greet me, sat down. Harold went to bring me a drink. "Make it a double one, Harold!" I said. Jamie leered at me and patted my hand affectionately.
"The boys from Brooklyn are coming over the bridge tonight, wild Irish rose! They'll be sitting on the end of my bed, dozens of little men all staring at me . . . !
"Ah! that's what we'll name him—'Brooklyn Boy!' " Gene leaned over and patted the white dog, who sat up and licked his hand. (Poor Brooklyn Boy! Little did he know that he'd be murdered before the winter was over! Nor could I know that Trixie, too, would be lying beside him in a grave under the cedars.) He was a wonderful dog, somehow; I don't know what it was, but he certainly had something. He looked rather like Bowser—funny old Bowser, who had attached himself with such devotion to Jamie last summer.
At that moment I caught Scotty's eyes fixed on me with a complacently malevolent expression, a look of satisfaction that caught me unaware and confused me. The dog put both paws on Gene's knee and tried to lick his face. Gene put his arm around the dog, and there they both were, looking at me.
"How do you like our new dog, honey-puss? We're taking him home with us," Gene repeated, as if he wanted to be sure that I understood. I knew that we couldn't take the dog with us, and decided it was just an idea of Gene's that he would forget after a while, so I said nothing. "God, baby, I'm glad you got here!" he went on. "You surely let me down this time, promising to come up. Never again! You come with me next time."
Jamie sat there abstracted, paying no attention to us, as if he were remembering the other white dog and the brown freckle-faced girl and the flats where the fiddler crabs hid in their shells. Harold de Polo brought up a chair and began a vivid conversation, telling us how he had bottled a milkman who woke him soon after dawn one day demanding payment for his bill. Obviously he did this to intimidate two burly, tensely silent Hudson Dusters who stood nearby; for as he talked Harold gesticulated with the large whisky bottle, which he was holding firmly by the neck, and I was sure that at any movement on anyone's part that did not meet with his approval he would smash the bottle against the wall and, armed with his favorite weapon, begin an attack on the enemy. But, alas, this time Harold was not able to indulge in one of his favorite sports, for the Hudson Dusters, it seemed, were fascinated by Gene and unable to take their eyes off him. They knew him well and looked on to him as a two-fisted drinker, one of their own kind; but Gene had given them tickets to the opening night of The Moon of the Caribbees and the reason that they couldn't take their eyes off him was that they were trying to figure how all that they had seen and heard on the Provincetown stage had come out of their friend Gene. . . .
Edna Millay, chaste, silent, and mysteriously discreet, sat at a table with two admiring male friends, watching all this. Her play, The Princess Marries the Page Boy, had been on the previous bill and she had heard the story that on leaving the party after the show (to which Gene had also invited them), the Dusters had picked up a copy of her play, thinking it was Gene's, and taken it off to read. She had been brought to the Hell Hole to hear, if possible, what the Dusters thought of her play. Scotty managed to get to her and tell her that they had thrown it down the toilet, and soon after, she and her friends left.
Gene knew by this time that we had to take the train that left at midnight (known as the Owl), the last train leaving that night. He seemed anxious to catch it and not spend another night in town. At least this is what he told me, managing to convey to me at the same time that he wanted to be alone with me and tell me everything that had happened—after he'd had just a few more drinks. He already had a bottle of Old Taylor in his topcoat pocket to take on the train.
There was still enough time, but I began to get uneasy as Gene made no movement to leave. Scotty, who had disappeared a half hour before, suddenly appeared again, holding a leash and dog collar. Gene took it and put the collar on the dog. Jamie's glazed eyes went from the dog to Gene and back to the dog again.
"We can't take the dog, Gene—are you crazy!" I said, and added—thinking I must have made a mistake and that Scotty would take the dog—"You weren't thinking of doing that, were you?"
He did not answer, and I knew that he had gone into that abstract state where no answer was necessary to anything. But I kept on talking, after one glance at Scotty's face.
"Gene!" I pleaded. "It's bad enough taking care of Trixie and the cats and feeding them. We can't have another dog there!"
"What do you mean, we can't?" He heard me that time, even though his big dark eyes had been moving aimlessly around the room.
Scotty agreed immediately, though Gene did not seem to hear him:
"Of course y' can! There's plenty of room, from what Gene told me, and plenty of pine trees, too, for him to lift his leg and pee on!"
"Gene, let's go!" I was getting angry now. "We'll get a cab outside and drop Jamie off. Don't you realize that we cannot take the dog on the train? There is no baggage car on the Owl."
"I won't take a train then—is that clear?"
"Jamie," I said, "let's go! Maybe we can leave the dog with you."
I put my hand on his shoulder and Jamie got slowly to his feet.
"Leave him wherever you like, my dear! What's Hecuba to me or me to Hecuba?" He hiccupped and looked at Gene: "C'm'on, old timer. . . . let's get goin'!"
Somehow we persuaded Gene to leave the Hell Hole. Jamie, Gene, the dog and I stood on the corner waiting for a taxi, and how we got even that far I don't know. I was beginning to think it was all very funny and wondering what would happen if Gene tried to take the dog through the train gate. A taxi picked us up, and we started up to the Garden Hotel, where we were to drop Jamie. I decided we shouldn't take the dog as far as the station, and whispered in Jamie's ear that we would put the dog off with him. . . .
But Gene must have heard me or read my mind; for when we next stopped for a traffic light I saw him set his lips firmly and just as firmly grasp the dog's collar. I didn't realize what he had in mind, for he was clever enough to wait until the light changed and our taxi started. Then with a swift and adroit movement he picked up the dog, opened the door, slammed it shut behind him, and stepped into the oncoming traffic. It happened before I could stop him, or stop the taxi, and as we moved on I saw through the back window that he had reached the curb and was starting rapidly back downtown. . . .
Jamie didn't seem to know what had happened. There was no use going back—we'd never find Gene. But when we stopped at the Garden Hotel, Jamie refused to get out of the cab. The driver shrugged and told me we were going to miss the train if we didn't get going. . . . So we started again, Jamie sitting beside me. By this time I began to think I was living one of Strindberg's dramas myself, a sort of Spook Sonata or Dream Play, maybe, for neither Jamie nor the driver seemed to notice that Gene and the dog had disappeared. The driver began to sing in a very melancholy and very loud voice, making it impossible for me to think what we would do when we did get to the station—should I take the train, go back and look for Gene, or what?
Gene had all the money in his pocket—all I had was my return ticket and twenty-five cents. When we pulled up in front of Penn Station Jamie got out of the cab and began fumbling in his pockets to pay the taxi driver. I knew he had some money and I tried to get him to get back into the cab and return to the Garden Hotel. There was a sort of slow-motion scene there under the lights of the entrance between Jamie, me and the driver—with me trying to push Jamie into the cab, knowing that words would be of no effect, and the driver peering around to see what happened to the other passenger with the dog.
"So long! De odder guy was wise to leave!" he exclaimed, having at last realized that fact; he gave Jamie his change and drove off, again singing his melancholy song about his old gal Sal. . . .
I told Jamie that I had to hurry and tried to say good-by, but he grasped my arm and hurried along with me. When we got to the gate and he found that he couldn't get through without a ticket, or without buying one, he began fumbling for his money. I heard the conductors calling All aboard and saw the train begin to move, and ran down the steps just in time to get on the last car. As I got on I saw Jamie, who had at last sorted out enough money to pay his fare, walking like a somnambulist down the ramp toward the moving train. . . .
There was always someone waiting at the station to pick up any passenger who might be on the Owl. Old Clarence Hall saw me step off the train, waved to me glumly and opened the door of his cab. Halfway up to the house his peculiar nasal voice drifted back to me. "Saw your paw today. He hain't lookin' very well!" and I saw his lean jaw close like a trap. No more was said—not even good night.
Everything must have been all right at the house. I only remember dragging myself upstairs and getting into bed in the upper nursery and lying there watching the reflection on the ceiling from the stove until I fell asleep.
It was still dark when I awoke, reluctantly letting go of some dream as I tried to identify whatever it was that had awakened me. I was sure that I had heard the sound of a heavy vehicle stopping outside and I tiptoed to the window and peered out. Yes, there was something outside the back gate. It looked like a large truck. I turned back, listening, for I had heard something else—voices talking somewhere—and after a moment, standing at the head of the stairs, I discovered that these voices came from the kitchen. I pulled on my bathrobe, pretty frightened by now, wishing Gene or someone was there, and crept silently downstairs. The door into the kitchen was closed. I listened—and couldn't believe what I heard. Gene was talking, and he was interrupted by another voice almost as low as his own.
I pushed the door open. Gene was sitting on one side of the kitchen table. Across from him was sitting a man wearing a pea cap and a heavy jacket; between them on a chair, eating canned beans out of a dish that Gene had put before him, was the Brooklyn Boy. In the center of the table was an open pint of Old Taylor.
Gene rose, a smile of intoxicated good will and satisfaction on his face. I'm not sure that he really knew that it was I who was there. Then he swallowed, looked at me unsteadily, looked again, and came over to me.
"My wife, Hank!" he said, putting his arms around me. "Aggie, this is Hank. He's on his way to Atlantic City with a truckload of frozen geese. He's brought me and Brooklyn Boy down from New York."
Gene brought a turkey along with him that night. Hank, the truck driver, had helped him buy it somewhere in Newark. I suspect that we ate turkey for a week or so; but I have a folded piece of thin typewriting paper, and on one side of it is written down in not too orderly fashion what I also bought on a trip to the village the day before Christmas.
A couple of items help me to remember, even more vividly, that this Christmas was like past Christmases for Gene and not as he had wanted it to be; but also that he was trying to get himself straightened out. He had decided that a bottle of Pluto water was good to take before going to sleep—when (as he explained) he wanted to start thinking about not drinking; the next day if he changed his mind, and wanted to stop thinking and start drinking, it still was a help. And the Post (was the S.E.P. ever five cents?), which he must have asked me to buy for him, shows the same thing. . . .
The other side of the paper might be a diary but isn't; I wasn't keeping a diary then. I had put the list in the kitchen drawer, and, finding it when I was alone in the kitchen before going to bed, I wrote down (for no reason, perhaps, except that I was feeling sorry for myself) just what I had done that day; the day before New Year's, for it is dated at the top of the page, December 30, 1918:
Got up about 1/4 to nine, got breakfast and at 10.30 started to work on THE HAT SHOP at twelve the dogs had been raising such hell, and G. just discovered that Happy made another mess. So was too nervous to work longer. Swept living-room and dusted it, mopped up all four cat messes, got lunch, only mush, and after lunch just had time to dress with Gene and start downtown. He walked as far as P.O. with me, where I got "Wharf" back from the Metropolitan with a letter from Sonia Levine, and a letter from Arthur Jones saying unless I paid note he would put it in the hands of a lawyer. Walked on to village by myself, very tired. Met Mrs. Q—. She is very attractive and wants to meet Gene as she has heard much of his work and admires it. Left her, did other shopping, arriving pretty tired, got supper, liver, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, and tea. After supper laid down a while, then fixed damper in stove-pipe, very hard job, tidied kitchen, put up stove-pipe. Then felt very blue, it being last of 1918 and for other reasons.
Gene had brought with him a few copies of Thirst, the small book of one-act plays which, to encourage his son, James O'Neill had paid to have published. I was consoled and amused looking at the inscription that Gene had written when he gave me the book for a Christmas present. It was not as intense and full of meaning as some of the inscriptions to me in his later plays—but I loved it.
These first five Stations of the Cross in my Plod up Parnassus—
"I, also have been afraid—but I know now that I had been gazing at the sea too long, and listening to the great silence."
also—(It is four bells and the scoff—summons yet unheard)—"I think I am a little out of my head. I am very weak. We have not eaten in so long—"
It was dark long before six o'clock on New Year's Eve, and although I had in mind some sort of a little celebration for the two of us (creamed turkey, probably, and a pie, and the remaining liquor decked out somehow in a bowl with lemon peel), on observing Gene's laconic look as the evening approached I quickly gave up this foolish idea. I was relieved when I realized that he would only be bored by anything of the sort, for I was not really interested in doing it either. So we both settled down for the evening, Gene with a severe and dour expression as he picked up the Saturday Evening Post and finally got started reading it after a few necessary drinks.
I poured myself a couple of good straight ones too; feeling that I should bid farewell to the old year in some manner even though Gene chose to ignore it. I gave Trixie and Brooklyn Boy each a big slice of turkey, and cut up some turkey breast for poor Happy, who it appeared, was going to have kittens before long. She was a very sensitive cat; one of our trials during the past few days had been that (not being used to liquor or its effects on human beings) she got uncontrollable diarrhea when Gene was drinking. I was never able to figure out if it was fear or sympathy. . . .
After my second Old Taylor, (with neither lemon peel nor ice), seeing from Gene's expression that he was not interested in talking, I had a remarkably nice time getting into a real O'Neill mood all by myself. I evolved a little drama which seemed very significant to me, and after the last distant noise of the New Year had died away I left my seat by the fire and went into the next room where Gene was lying on the bed.
"Listen, Gene: There is a little country village, overhung with the indifferent moodiness of a somber night. At twelve o'clock midnight all about in isolated spots indicating taverns, churches and farms there is a comical medley of sounds which sound unutterably futile against the night's silences!"
Gene put the S.E.P. down, vaguely frowning.
"You're right—no . . . it's another word. I don't know how to pronounce it—don't know how to spell it, either. It means—" I stopped.
"That's the word!" and I continue: "Guns firing, an old horn a dinner bell or so . . . a revolver . . . a voice raised in a drunken hurrah!"
Gene picked up the S.E.P. but I kept on.
"In a farmhouse where poverty or ill luck—or something—have brought—er—my hero to the point of despair, these shots, signifying to the world only good luck—"
I could see that he had gone back to that story that he always liked about a tractor, but I continued to read, raising my voice.
". . . These shots which signify to the world a greeting to the New Year have bloodily and at leisure closed the human comedy for one small family!"
"You mean us?" said Gene, but his eyes were following the dilemma of the salesman and a client for the tractor.
"Of course not!" I said. "This is tragedy! This man because of his guilt at being a failure, and utter disgust at life, kills his wife, his children and himself. Didn't you hear the gunshots a while ago? I should think you at least could understand!"
There was silence, then Gene raised his dark somber eyes to mine, and I understood that for some time he had not heard what I had been reading, nor getting much sense from the story before him, but had been absorbed in profound self-disgust. . . .
He glanced at the clock, closed the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and let it drop to the floor beside the bed.
"Life's a tragedy—hurrah!" he said sarcastically. "No, I heard neither bells nor gunshots. I was insulated from time—the past, the present, and the future—by the liquor, one half of which now remains, my darling, in the bottle on the floor beside the bed; and by the involvements of a salesman with the home office, a client, and what became to me a strangely important female impersonation—a tractor!"
He got up, and for a second I saw the crazy, laughing light in his eyes; then I was caught and pulled tightly against him, his arms embraced me almost with desperation. I seemed to feel a tremor in that body against which my head rested, and then I felt him kiss my hair as he whispered in my ear:
"Forgive me, darling—and happy New Year! We will make it our New Year this time!"
I lay awake with Gene asleep beside me in the quiet
room, and thought of tomorrow—a new day—and of the week that would
follow, and the carpenter who was coming to make a typewriter table
and a long writing table with two drawers for correcting
manuscripts. We had decided on this, and Gene had made a rough
sketch of the table. I thought also of my hurried trip in a jitney
to the cottage near the sea the day before Christmas, while Gene was
home and I was doing my shopping. I had taken a few small presents;
it was Grannie's afternoon to go to the library and no one was there
but my sister, my mother, and my little girl. I could only stay a
few minutes, for I knew Gene would be restless at home. When I
embraced my child she had seemed astonished and detached, and then
mildly pleased at my present. When I left she was regarding it with
increasing interest and paid little attention to my farewell. For
some reason I had brought her a bouquet of flowers, arranged by the
local florist in circles around a little glass angel, and as I went
off to sleep the bouquet of bright flowers appeared and floated for
a moment before my eyes, with the little, smiling, expectant angel
in the center. . . .
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