Waiting with the Little Clowns
Not long after that, when I asked Gene if he wanted me to get the Saturday Evening Post and he said no! I knew that the holiday season was over.
Our life among the little clowns assumed a routine that can be recalled without much effort. For everyone there is a pattern of days, no matter what the circumstances: a waking up and a going to sleep, a time to eat and a time to go out and to stay in. . . . We had breakfast, waited for the mail, and then Gene went into the west bedroom and in that abstraction that signaled the approach of work, sharpened pencils, neatly piled up paper, put a glass of water on the table next to the bed, and, with my father's drawing board propped against his knees and a pillow behind him, looked absently at the sheet of white paper on which (in his tiny handwriting) there would soon come to life one of those others who shared the days with us in the Old House.
We ate a silent and often uninteresting lunch. (When I saw that word mush in the middle of that day's record I must admit it gave me a shock. What, mush! I felt that I couldn't leave the word there for everyone to see. I was tempted to add the word fried, so that anyone reading it would think of tempting crisp corn-meal squares, and there would come the connotation of crisply fried bacon; for I surely could do no less than that with a genius on my hands! But mush it said, and mush I left it, even though I was rather annoyed at having to admit having mush in the middle of the day!)
Our silence at this midday meal was not, however, because of our fare—for whatever we did eat, I don't think Gene would have noticed it, being still absorbed in the work which he had been doing for three or four hours and to which he would shortly return . . . nor did I particularly want to talk then or bother myself with trivialities, though probably interested in what it was like outside—if there would be sun or not for our walk in the afternoon, or even what I'd have for dinner. . . .
It was a joint and uncomplicated silence; for I, too, would have in my mind some part of that work (whatever it might be) which for the morning occupied me; or even more often I would be in that peculiar and probably lazy state known as not thinking, into which would drift ideas having no relation to who we were or what we were doing.
Gene, after taking time out for a look at the sky, would return to his room and again occupy himself with work. I am quite sure that at the Old House in New Jersey he did not take the nap after lunch which, everywhere else, I remember he did take. Why, I don't know—but he didn't. An hour or so later he would appear, stand there watching whatever I was doing, and say: "Aren't we going to take a walk?" if my duties were at the moment domestic, as they often had to be in the afternoon; or if I had my jacket and scarf ready: "Let's go while there's still some sun!" and he would get his things from the closet, and pick up his thorn walking stick; sometimes put a leash on Brooklyn Boy's collar, and sometimes leave him in the house while we set forth to find a different road, somewhere among the little pines. . . .
A pot of tea when we came back; sitting before the fire, talking or not talking, according to which was most pleasant; the lights on and the shades down. After supper, a sort of absorbed drifting around, or looking at a newspaper or a magazine, or writing a letter or so; or, now was the time (if it was to be done) for him to be sarcastic about certain people, or circumstances connected with the Beyond situation, or with the Provincetown Players. Then a book and two or three hours of reading before the fire, or sometimes in bed, until he finally turned off the light.
So went the pattern of our days, so much I can recall, but as if in a void—two small figures moving like silhouettes against an emptiness, an undramatic background, where there was only the silent waiting of the little pines, the dark, spiked, expectant little clowns.
Later, it is true, things happened there at the Old House that stirred those emotions concerned with the dramatic aspect, or, let's say, the intensity of living—as happened many times during our years together. But always elsewhere these incidents or events seemed to occur against a landscape that lent itself to what was going on, or in a house or dwelling place that in some way participated in or even aided the general effect. Peaked Hill Bar (which has become the legend of an old abandoned coast-guard station, though it was much more than that), Brook Farm . . . Spithead . . . a room over Polly Holladay's restaurant in Greenwich Village . . . or that strange place where Spanish Willy lived and moved and had his being; everything had a setting that emphasized events, and, now as I think of it, emphasized Gene himself.
For Gene dramatized Nature and made her useful for his plays and only loved her as she dramatized himself. There was nothing in that flat New Jersey landscape that he could identify with any part of his own personality. Even the ocean appeared uninteresting to him, with its waves breaking monotonously on the sand close to the old wooden boardwalk, the decrepit summer hotels and the flimsy summer cottages, and before long he stopped walking down there. He never went into a bar and seldom into a store, and after our daily walks would return to the fireplace, his books, and his tidily arranged script with something like relief.
He was comfortable there, but I do not really think that comfort itself ever meant much to Gene. To him a house was a house. He had no particular taste or feeling about them, only as they expressed that person whom he saw as himself. He would have been happy in a huge ugly Victorian villa had he seen himself as a second Disraeli; or, had he not foreseen himself as a successful playwright, but visualized himself as ending his life as a beachcomber, he would have been perfectly happy in a shack in Papeete, Tahiti. He was not uncomfortable in the Old House, but (as with the landscape and the sea) he could not dramatize himself against that background—and this trait on his part was not any outward ostentatious thing, but something quiet, deep and a part of himself.
During the winter and spring, perhaps because of our solitude, those others I spoke of were a part of our life and at times seemed even more real than ourselves. Chris Christopherson; Eileen Carmondy who lived and nearly died in The Straw; Steven, her belated fiancé; her father; a nurse or so in white uniform; and, of course, old Chris's daughter, who took the trip on the barge that was to alter her life.
Anna seemed very aloof from us, being at that time a very proper young lady from Leeds, England, who spoke most correctly and whose ambition was to improve her position as a typist and probably become a secretary—rather uninteresting, I thought, though Gene did his best to make her speeches sound convincing as he read them aloud. I used to secretly wonder how old Chris had ever come to have such a daughter. She didn't like herself either, it seems, and even then was secretly rebelling and a year or so later became a prostitute, changed her birthplace to Michigan, and demanded another lover (big romantic Mat Burke) instead of the rather ordinary first mate, Mr. Anderson, whose ambition was to become a captain. . . .
Old Chris—how real he was! It was Chris that Gene really knew and loved, and old Marthy too—and the bums and outcasts in the first act down at Johnny the Priest's saloon on South Street in lower New York; the longshoremen, even the mailman—they all came to life there in that house.
There was a man who sat at one of the tables in Johnny's saloon and wouldn't leave, though he didn't seem to add anything to the play—and I even asked Gene once when he said the play was too long, what he was there for—an uninteresting traveling salesman on a drunk, whose only purpose seemed to be to annoy the others, having run out of money. But he stayed there. Who could have known that one day he would kill his wife and turn Jimmy the Priest's upside down as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh?
Eileen Carmondy joined us also, and a man I never cared too much about: Steven Murray. Gene seemed to know these people as he wrote and thought about them; but they, at least Steven and Eileen, became rather unreal toward the end, as they were forced into certain words and actions. But, after all, he had brought them to life and it was only fair that they should help him by acting in a manner that would prove whatever theme he had in mind, rather than following their own destiny. It appeared to be Eileen's destiny to die; and I'm sure that she would rather have slipped out of life at the appointed time than have had the newspaperman, Steven, come back to the sanatorium and dangle a belated love before her—Steven, who didn't even know he loved her (or should love her) until he held a rather ambiguous conversation with a head nurse. . . .
Whatever it was that Gene was trying to say then, to the world and to himself, it was certainly convincing at the time to him and to me, for we both loved The Straw and for a long time the lines, near the end, speaking of the "hopeless hope" in life itself had meaning for both of us. I think at that time he was striving for some perfection in his own life; some dream or hope of a relationship with "one other"—that other of whom he had spoken to me one day in the back room of the Hell Hole. . . . There was that in him which desired this—and that in him which denied it. I suppose he was haunted by the God whom he had discarded. But there was neither sentimentality nor regret in his attitude toward that God and the religion in which he had been brought up—rather a robust, humorous mockery, a personal challenge and a delight in that challenge itself. There was always in him a persistent sense of the reality that lies behind what is, what seems to be. He could find nothing of that in the God he knew and whom he had outgrown; nor could he really find it elsewhere—either in love or in idea. So he saw life as a tragedy and had neither the desire nor curiosity to go beyond the limits of his own vision. He loved his own tragic conception of life and would not have given it up for the world. He even saw it at times as humorous, and would laugh at himself for it; but he would never permit any knowledge or idea, or discovery of science that would interfere with it, to enter his mind. His index was as rigorous as that of the Catholic Church.
At the same time, it was necessary to him as a man to conquer this fate, this worm that gnawed in every apple, and firmly convinced that he could not alter that heavy hand of Fate, he must believe that it was possible—even if it were never to be possible. The hopeless hope—"Life's a Tragedy, hurrah!"He must triumph—even if he didn't! Ego must outwit God.
At times, however, Gene must have achieved briefly a sense of that expanded consciousness in which the self, forgotten, becomes one with whatever is behind the veil; he speaks of it in a prose poem the next fall, which he gave me as a gift; and perhaps, in those beautiful and moving lines that Edmund speaks near the end of Long Day's Journey into Night— those lines that end: "It was a great mistake, my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea-gull or a fish. As it is I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted. . . ."
Something happened to us before long, which had the elements of a small tragedy—to which could not be added a hurrah! Gene loved our white dog from the Hell Hole, and so did I. Too much, perhaps, for our own good, for one night when we let him out before going to bed he did not return. We did not worry until the next day. That night, again, he did not come back. The next morning I was getting breakfast in the kitchen and Gene appeared at the door, wearing his bathrobe and slippers, his face a ghastly, sick color. A moment before, he had paused at the front window to look out at the day, and now he could not tell me what he had seen. . . .
There was a moment of confusion, without words—of fear. I thought he was going to be sick. Somehow he let me know; and I looked out of the window and saw on the front lawn the poor stretched-out body of Brooklyn Boy, but not that alone. Not death alone—but malice. His throat had been cut from ear to ear, and he was laid there so that his fatal wound could be plainly seen.
The mystery of Brooklyn Boy's death was never solved, although I heard from some small boys in the neighborhood that he had been seen the day before, lying dead among some huckleberry bushes at the side of the road. But Gene and I saw animosity behind it—some of the same animosity that I had noticed in the jitney drivers; perhaps this was due to the fact that people there, possibly people I didn't even know, were going over in their minds (as they went over everything in those days) the fact that my family, settled there for the winter, had suddenly left the house and moved out, while I and a strange, silent man whom they couldn't understand or place moved in.
There was an old woman living along the road, and sometimes I would stop and talk to her as she worked in her garden; or go inside while she showed me her seed catalogue and told me what she was going to plant when spring came. One day she asked me a question that so astonished me that I did not at first know how to take it.
"Doesn't your husband take drugs?"
This was put in such a naïve cheerful manner, much as she might have said doesn't he smoke cigarettes, or chew tobacco, that it took me only a moment to recover and realize how extraordinarily naïve her attitude was. No, I explained, he didn't—what made her think so?
"Those walks—those long walks! It ain't natural, a man walking like that. I thought you had to go along to take care of him. I've passed him looking so quiet, you could tell he wasn't drinking, so I calculated he must of been taking drugs."
Gene and I laughed at this, and he said it reminded him of those long solitary walks in Provincetown which resulted in his being accused of being a German spy.
The afternoon walks were not enough exercise for Gene, it being almost an obsession with him to go through every day a certain, regular routine of building up, or stretching his back, his arms, his shoulder muscles. Behind the Old House, near the edge of the grounds, stood a weathered two-story building know as the "barn"; and Gene, after looking it over, decided that here was where he could get that extra exercise that he needed. He cleared a space of some fifty feet on the east side of the building, bought some tennis balls, and either before lunch or after our walk he threw the ball against the side of the "barn" for half an hour, running to catch it as it bounced back, and throwing it back again with increased vigor.
He liked to have me watch him do this, but one afternoon, tired of watching him, I unlocked the padlock on the barn and went upstairs. A crate of empty mason jars blocked the top of the stairs, but I stepped around it and stood looking at everything piled up in that large, cobweb-hung place. It seemed to me that every object for which we had no future use had been piled here: old shutters, a broken bench, pitchers and washbasins of heavy white china; old kerosene stoves, harness for the horse we once had; toys with their paint faded, dolls with distorted arms, piled on an old hammock. . . . Here also was some of the heavy walnut furniture—wardrobes, a chest of drawers, a sofa, and Victorian chairs—that had been sent down from the house on Fortieth Street in West Philadelphia when, on the death of my great-aunt Agnes my grandmother had broken up housekeeping. Aunt Agnes' beautiful Victorian bed had been given to me; but the heavy velour curtains from her bedroom were here, wrapped in the brown paper in which they had arrived some twenty years ago. Some of her books were piled next to them, covered with thick dust. A large poison-ivy vine, which had climbed up the back of the barn, had thrust its tendrils through the window and, since I had last been here, a strong growth of brown, poisonous tendrils had twisted over the shelves and attached themselves to the dried leather of her books—all books on religion: sermons, hymns, and prayers for the living and the dead, and a set of the New Testament, each Gospel bound separately. . . . There was no room for them, anywhere else: the attic in the house had for years been piled high with the leather-bound contents of the library on Fortieth Street, and this was the overflow that had not found a place anywhere. I remembered sitting on the floor by the tiny attic window after picking out something I liked, and when it got too dark, lighting a candle. What would become of all these relics of a past? What would be done with them? In the pale dusty loft I caught sight of the clay water jar that my father had brought back from Mexico; and, going over, I removed it from a nail on the rafter where it hung on a heavy cord. It was made of beautiful heavy porous clay; I would take it back to the house, perhaps hang it in the kitchen. What had happened to the other things that he'd brought back from Mexico and given to my mother before they were married—the heavy bracelets of woven gold wire, the blue-fringed rebozo, the rosaries of carved wooden beads . . . ? I had not seen any of them for a long time; and, sitting for a moment at the head of the stairs, holding the water jar, I thought of some pictures that my father had done while he was in Mexico—they were somewhere in the house, in a portfolio. He was such a gentle man—so kind, my father. And yet—he understood! There was one pen-and-ink drawing, beautifully executed. Had he done it while he was in Mexico or after he came back? There was (in the background of this picture) a great building of stone, or as I learned later, probably of adobe; a palace or government building, early Spanish, perhaps built by Cortes or his followers; there was a great arched entrance; and before that entrance, blocking it, stood a little man. He held a shotgun. He was small, weak, insignificant, yet he held the shotgun firmly in his hands. His dress was inconspicuous, and he had a wispy mustache, and somehow one got the impression that his sad patient eyes were watering. But there he stood, before the monumental architecture of old, despotic Mexico, with a gun almost as big as he was; underneath, in my father's fine lettering were written the words: "They shall not pass!"
No; it wasn't a machete—it was a gun, and as my father was there I suppose he knew. Perhaps he was something like that little man himself—slight, kind-eyed; he, too, had a gentle mustache. But he defied his family, refused to go into their shipping business and instead studied painting under Thomas Eakins, who was the greatest and most original painter of his time. Eakins was fond of my father (I heard later that he considered him his most promising pupil), for when Eakins went to Camden to do the death mask of Walt Whitman it was my father who went with him and helped cast the mask. For a long time Teddy kept some photographs that he had taken with Eakins not long before Whitman's death. . . . Dear Teddy! I picked up the water jar and went downstairs to where Gene had just finished throwing his last ball against the wall of the barn.
"Where were you?" he asked me curiously.
"Oh—just looking over some old junk in the top of the barn!"
I must have caught a cold up there that afternoon for I had to stay in and couldn't go walking with Gene.
The first day that I stayed in bed Gene came upstairs with Trixie and told me he was going to take her along. I was up, a day or so later, much better (but still drinking lemonade and taking aspirin), when Gene came in, put his stick in the closet and hung up his coat. I was in front of the fireplace, bundled up in his woolen bathrobe. He came and sat in the chair on the other side of the hearth. He had not spoken, not even to answer my greeting, and I saw at once that there was a disturbed and severe expression on his face. Trixie came and put her head on his knee.
"Is something wrong, Gene?"
He told me then. He had come home along the river, and, taking a short cut through the pines, wasn't sure where the house was. He saw an old man, one of the natives, chopping wood. Trixie ran up to him, wagging her tail. The old man put down his ax and patted her, and Gene asked him where our house was.
"I had quite a talk with him," Gene said, looking at me sternly. "What's the idea of not telling me your family was here?"
I told my parents what had happened and they felt (my father in particular) that as Gene was working, and his work demanded solitude, this should be respected; about this time, also, they were all taken with light attacks of the influenza that was still causing so many deaths. It was a windy and damp time of year, and even the little clowns seemed to be longing for a good clean snowfall. Gene working on Chris Christophersen, and, at times frustrated by his slow progress, grew daily more gloomy. No definite news came about John and Lionel Barrymore being cast in Beyond the Horizon. I was working on a short story, hoping I could sell it to the Sonia Levine at the Metropolitan magazine, as it seemed to me important now to try and sell to the magazines that paid more money.
I was typing this story in the lower nursery one afternoon. Gene, who had finished work, lit a cigarette and was looking over what I had done while he waited for me to come to the end of my page so we could get our things on and go for our afternoon walk.
I heard a knock at the kitchen door, left Gene sitting on the couch and went out to find two of my sisters, gay and laughing at having decided to beard the lion in his den. We giggled and talked a moment or so in the kitchen—the girls wouldn't take off their coats, and said they couldn't stay; but I felt that this was the time, if ever, for them to meet Gene. . . .
The door to the dining room was open, and there was no way for him to escape. I knew he was still where I left him. I went past the stairway to the lower nursery, my sisters following me.
But he was not there. The room was empty. The windows had not been opened; they stuck, due to the damp weather; it required not only effort but a hammer to get them open.
"Oh—" I said lamely, "I thought he was in here."
My sister Barbara gave a sarcastic look at the door of the closet in which, years ago, we had kept our toys, books and dolls.
Barbara by now had given up the idea of being a lawyer, but her attitude then (she was two years younger than I) was at times that of a wary detective ferreting out clews. She had started wearing an enormous pompadour at the age of fifteen, with her hair tied in a ribbon at the back, and for some unknown reason refused to change this way of doing her hair; now she pushed her pompadour up, shrugged her shoulders under the heavy blue knitted sweater, and pointed silently to the tightly closed door. We all knew how the various doors worked in the old house; and that door could not be shut tight from the outside. The truth was that Barbara, as a painfully shy child, had always run into the closet and pulled the door behind her when we had a visitor.
My youngest sister Margery (who was, some six or seven years later, to do much of Gene's secretarial work and typing at Brook Farm in Connecticut, and in Bermuda) tried desperately not to laugh. I could see the bright color rushing into her cheeks. Margery at that time looked very much like the portraits of Lady Hamilton, while Barbara, with her pompadour and lordly profile, was supposed to look somewhat like George the Third of England. (I might add that the family joke was that I looked like Great-uncle John Boulton, whose portrait, with one hand inserted in his frock coat, and wearing a huge white stock, hung in a large gold frame on the wall.)
There was a pause—no sound anywhere. Barbara could not avoid making some slightly sarcastic remark about how badly she felt at not meeting her new brother-in-law; but I got them out of the room, and all giggling and laughing together, walked with them to the back gate. They knew, of course, how Gene had hidden in the closet when my cousin Elizabeth came in unexpectedly with a friend one day earlier in the winter, and I think they were rather delighted that he had done the same thing again that day. . . .
When I went back Gene had his coat on and his cane in his hand, all ready to go out. He only said he didn't know who it was, and thought it might be someone he didn't want to see. . . .
Not long afterward we had another visitor—a charming woman who had written a letter to Gene. I rather nervously served afternoon tea in front of the fireplace, for she was the sister of an English essayist and philosopher whom Gene and I had long admired.
I need not have been nervous, for she turned out to be a wonderful woman—a really free spirit. We laughed and talked and drank tea. She talked to Gene about his plays, which she had read and seen produced at the Provincetown Players; and she talked also to me, very interestingly about herself and her idea of life. Gene was charmed and moved by her eloquence; but as she left she made a remark which, although we tried not to show it, was a dreadful bombshell to both of us.
"Mr. John D. Williams has your new long play,
hasn't he?" She had not been over very long from England; she did
not know anything of the situation in regard to Beyond the
Horizon, for she added: "I hear he did such a fine production of
Redemption with the Barrymore brothers! He started rehearsing
the two of them last week in a new play, The Jest. I am sure
he'll do a wonderful job with your play when the time comes!"
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