Waiting with the Little Clowns
We made a trip to New York after that—I remember that we were there when Hutch Collins died, and how much it affected Gene. Hutch had been (as were so many newspapermen in those days) a steady consumer of alcohol, and although he never appeared intoxicated to us, or at the Provincetown Players, where he played various roles so effectively, he was persuaded (or it may have been some latent feeling within himself) to give up alcohol entirely. We saw him a couple of times, and he and Gene went for a walk through the village and stopped at the Hell Hole, but Gene told me that Hutch wouldn't even take a glass of beer.
It rained, and Hutch was wet and chilled when he left Gene and went home. Gene never saw him again. Within a few days he was dead. Gene was bitter about Hutch's death, and particularly when we were told that it was the lack of alcohol after so many years of being used to it that weakened his resistance and perhaps caused his death. He died of pneumonia.
I thought of that cold night in the village when Hutch had invited Gene and myself to his friend's apartment; and how Scotty had found Gene there; and how understanding Hutch Collins had been, and I, too, felt a great loss in the death of this young man whom I had never known very well. . . .
Once again, trying to escape that fear of death which seems always to have haunted him, Gene wore the vine leaves in his hair. . . .
We were about to return to New Jersey; but once again Gene felt it was impossible to leave, to take a train, to depart anywhere but into that oblivion where he could be free of fear. . . .
Edward Fisk, the young painter who later married my sister Cecil, had arrived in town the day before. He had enlisted in the Navy as a first-class seaman during the war. Fisk and Gene had been very close friends during the summer of 1917, and he and Gene and I sat in Polly Holladay's restaurant, talking of war and love and death—Gene doing most of the talking, and he and Eddie imbibing from a flask which the young painter had brought along. There was no longer any thought of taking the train for the country that night; and Polly suggested that we take our bags and go up to her apartment upstairs over the restaurant. She had an extra couch or so, and we could take the train in the morning. Eddie came with us, for he and Gene were still talking, and brought along more liquor to celebrate his return.
Polly gave us the key to her place. I sat on a sofa, and, rather tired by now, took a cushion from another couch to put under my head. Behind the cushion, to my astonishment, was a large pile of five- and ten-dollar bills. . . .
Polly had money hidden everywhere; under bowls; in books scattered about the room. Once or twice during the evening she came up with pocketfuls of dollars, which she put in new hiding places—saying they were safer there than in the restaurant below.
I went to sleep toward morning, still hearing the low voices of Gene and Eddie as they talked on and on.
It must have been an hour later when Gene woke me. He sat on the edge of the couch and I saw his face, fixed in an expression of anger as he looked at a large vase of dying gladioli on a low table before him.
"I can't stand that lousy odor!"
Eddie had gone to sleep, and Gene was speaking either to himself or to me.
Disgusted with the odor of the dying flowers, Gene suddenly sprang up and tore them from the bowl, with the intention of flinging them from the open window into the street below. But Polly (in a hurry to get back downstairs, and knowing of no safer place), had used this spot to conceal a lot more one-dollar bills. He stared at the wet bills, thrust for security among the stems of the flowers, and, fascinated by some secret symbolism disclosed only to him by all this, his eyes sought a mirror as if desiring to find a companion who could understand him—for he was paying no attention to me. But, earlier in the evening, on one of her trips up from the restaurant, Polly had removed the mirror from the wall when she found Eddie standing before it, weeping.
Poor Eddie, now sleeping—his navy-blue sailor's uniform was still fresh, but his face was very tired, pressed in sleep against one of Polly's knitted pillows.
Gene looked at him, but it was no use.
Then—how can I describe that look of ironic humor?—he went to the window as he had first intended to do: not now, however, to drop the white gladioli, still flowering bravely from the top of their pale stems, all at once to the street below. He dropped them one by one instead; and then, returning to the bowl, he lifted out the mass of dollar bills, and with the smile of a boyish and delighted Olympian, dropped them also one by one to the pavement, where belated whores and all-night beggars of the underworld (for it was only just dawn) had already stopped to look upward at the gladiolis coming from God.
Gene came back from the window, his eyes seeking first the sleeping Eddie and then returning to me.
"They looked at last for a moment at the sky!" he said with triumph in his voice.
I suppose that we took the train back that day. . . .
Gene really wanted to get back. He was bored and restless, particularly as after going to William's office on our first day in New York he had been unable to find out anything regarding the production of Beyond. He also decided that he needed an agent; and I believe it was about this time that the American Play Company took over the handling of his plays.
I, too, was restless, and frequently feeling tired. When he asked Scotty to return with us for a few days, I did not have the energy to object; particularly as it was understood that there would be no drinking after the pint Gene took along was gone. Scotty agreed, but I think he blamed this restriction on me rather than on Gene's desire to get back to work and complete The Straw before summer arrived. Scotty had heard of the death of Brooklyn Boy and worked out some sort of intricate malevolent mystery plot, in which he dared not involve me as part of the villian force, although it was evident to me that he hoped Gene would not forget how antagonistic I had been that night in the Hell Hole to the very thought of Gene adopting the dog. If this came across to Gene, it only amused him, for Scotty did not know how attached I myself had been to poor Brooklyn Boy. Probably to Scotty, the white male dog (now dead and vanquished) represented masculinity—and Trixie (small, brown and a lady dog) represented the unwanted and inferior feminine species. Whatever it was, he was quite contemptuous of poor little Trixie, and indirectly managed to have Gene join him in the attitude that Trixie was no suitable companion and a nuisance; as I have said, she was attached to Gene, who by this time was quite used to her.
Whatever was in Scotty's mind, the results worked out satisfactorily to him. On Sunday we all took a walk. We started off on our old sand path through the pines, Trixie running here and there, having a good time. Scotty didn't much like the pines or the sand and the leafless huckleberry bushes, so we came home along the highway which ran a block or so away from the house. There were not many cars in those days, and the three of us were walking in the middle of the highway, Gene and Scotty talking, and I, tired and bored, wanting to get home. Trixie was on a steep incline above the road, racing around. We heard a truck come up behind us, and moved out of the way. Trixie would have stayed where she was, but Scotty, with pretended concern, called her, and she came—rushing down the incline to join us on the other side of the road—just in time to be run over and be killed by the truck.
Soon after this, my grandmother Williams came to see us, and this time Gene was not able to hide in a closet. When we left the Old House late that spring there was a friendly relationship between Gene and the rest of my family, a mutual liking which continued during our marriage. But my father and mother put off visiting us until later. Grannie (as she insisted we call her) was, however, of a different opinion.
Grannie was an extraordinary woman, tall, vigorous and handsome at seventy. She had a strong and yet simple mind, and her contact with various brilliant people during her life had in no way changed her liking for the novels of Ethel M. Dell or Marie Corelli, nor did it ever occur to her that, for example, the Russells, whom she knew quite well, or at the other extreme Mr. Sinnet of the Theosophical society, would question her liking of these sentimental writers to whom she often referred. She was the daughter of a librarian at Oxford, and, strange as it seems now, this, and the fact that as a young woman she gave piano lessons, was, in the caste system then prevailing in England, the first obstacle to her marriage with my grandfather—whose family probably felt he should marry someone with a name and money. The second obstacle was that Robert Williams held a fellowship (he was among other things a distinguished Greek scholar) at Oxford, which he would lose if he married. Grannie waited, meanwhile meeting (more or less briefly), many of his friends, including Swinburne, the Rossettis, and Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar.
My grandfather died and all that remains now are a few photographs and a yellowed clipping from an English weekly, the Freelance, dated 1902: "Gone also is 'Bob Williams' that mad scholar, once of Christ Church Oxford, then fellow of Merton, who coached Lord Rosebery for the Oxford schools."
Grannie had not been happy in London during the World War. Her youngest beloved daughter, Margery Bianco, was in Italy with her two children, one of whom in the years after the war was to become a famous child prodigy, Pamela Bianco, whose pictures hung in the Tate Gallery in London, and was spoken of by Gabriele d'Annunzio as the "child with a name like a flower." For some reason, Grannie could not join them and she made up her mind to come to the United States. But there were no passenger boats allowed on the high seas, and for a long time she was not able to leave England. It was characteristic of her that she went to a distant cousin with whom she had not previously bothered (probably thinking him rather uninteresting) and insisted that he get her a passage somehow. This kindly man, Sir William Bull, by then having become Privy Councilor to the King, was able to arrange passage for her on a transport. If he hadn't, I'm sure she would have kept after him until he did.
So, having learned from my mother that Gene and I were living at the Old House, she immediately arranged a visit. Hearing that Gene worked all day and walked most of the afternoon, and accepting the habits and idiosyncrasies of artists and writers (though a most conservative person herself), she sent word that she would be up on a Saturday evening "after tea": spend the evening with us, and leave at ten.
Gene couldn't get out of it. He was very gloomy, brushed his hair, trimmed his mustache, and put on a coat, not knowing what to expect; for I was not able to describe Grannie to him, any more that I was able at that time to give him much idea of the rest of my family—one reason being that he wasn't really interested. He did know that she was over seventy, and seemed astonished when I told him she was going to walk up to the Old House, a distance of over two miles.
After supper the wind began to blow from the south. It was dark by then, and Gene went out on the porch to look at the sky.
"It's raining—and it's going to get worse," he said. "She won't be up—thank God!" And he took off his coat and picked up a copy of Aeschylus which my father had left in the studio, and began reading.
I smiled to myself as I took the supper dishes out to the kitchen. He didn't know Grannie! At a quarter to seven there was a firm knock. Gene hastily slipped into his coat and I opened the front door.
"So, this is Eugene—an Irish face definitely—black Irish!" said Grannie. She removed a knitted muffler and handed it to Gene, after shaking hands with him.
Gene laughed and helped her out of her long ulster; then she held onto me while she kicked off her galoshes. Her face was wet with rain. She was still handsome in spite of her seventy years and gray hair. Her skin, colored slightly from the wind, showed no wrinkles, only a certain looseness in her cheeks—she did not seem old at all.
"Well, my dears, I see you have a nice fire! I hope you are burning up all the old dead trees around the place and not paying for wood!"
Gene laughed—already I could see that he liked her. He had been doing just what Grannie said—sawing up old branches and dead pine in the late afternoons. He offered her a cigarette.
"Just one! I don't approve of this constant smoking! Your mother, my dear," she said, turning to me, "used to roll her own—do you remember? Duke's Mixture, I believe it was called—it came in little white bags. I never allowed my daughters to smoke, but after she married your father she smoked like a chimney!"
Grannie allowed Gene to light her cigarette, but this did not interrupt her conversation:
"I came over from England, if you remember, when you children were small. Your father had spent every penny coming to him—he was working on a portrait that someone had ordered, trying to bring in something more, having spent everything on those elaborate chicken houses when he decided to go into the chicken business. Your dear mother would run out of Duke's Mixture and be very cranky without her smoke, and you children would cross the road and hunt through the woods and under bushes for empty pint whisky bottles that drunkards had flung there. . . ."
Gene grinned—he was enjoying this.
"What did the whisky bottles have to do with cigarettes?"
"Ah!" Grannie smiled too—she was feeling very much at home. "After they found five empty whisky bottles they would take them to old Fet, who ran the hotel, and get a penny apiece for them and buy a bag of Duke's Mixture for their mother. No—I don't approve of smoking becoming a vice!"
But she had one cigarette after she got into bed—then, she added, she always took a stiff glass of brandy and hot water before going to sleep.
Granny talked about the war; the United States of America; President Wilson: impending Prohibition; loose morals; skirts getting shorter—and so on. Gene was delighted. His plays and the theater were never mentioned; though once they got briefly on the subject of poetry, and she told how her husband had once taken her over to meet Algernon Charles Swinburne in a restaurant—a horrid little man with messy hair, greedily eating a huge dish of boiled cabbage and pork shins!—and that, she told Gene, finished her with poetry!
It was still raining and I wondered if Gene would walk back with her. They were now on the subject of life after death, and the astral plane—how that came about I don't know—and Grannie, her eyes alight, was telling Gene how much she was looking forward to going there when there was a knock at the door and Grannie rose. She had ordered a jitney to come for her exactly at ten o'clock.
Spring came, and I was by turns depressed and happy. I sometimes walked alone along the old boardwalk on the ocean, feeling the east wind or the fog on my face, remembering the times I had walked there as a girl. I tried not to think of what I should do or what I should not do. Gene, deeply absorbed in The Straw, talked to me only about that, or read scenes aloud, nor did I want to disturb him about anything. I typed his letters for him, and forgot my own work and my desire to make some extra money, and moved about the house silently, in a sort of hushed and expectant and yet reluctant daze.
For quite a while I had thought certain physical symptoms were the result of a chill from the wet weather or tiring myself with the stoves, or being a little rundown physically—or even from my worry over Gene's work and Beyond the Horizon. . .
Both of us felt that having so firmly thought out the pattern that was to be our "aloneness" it should never be disturbed. Even then, it was not disturbed (from his point of view) by my family; and if I was beginning to feel that it might eventually be disturbed by the various tentacles reaching out more and more to wrap themselves about him—tentacles of the theater, and the mishaps of production before his work could be seen, or judged—it had never occurred to me that he and I would have a child. Now I began to think that it might be possible.
I knew at last that I could no longer procrastinate. I walked down to the village and went to the office of the kindly old physician who had taken care of us when we were children. He said there was no doubt about it, I was pregnant. He did some thoughtful figuring and told me we could expect the baby about the first of October.
"Now"—he patted me on the shoulder—"you can go home and tell your husband the good news!"
Perhaps because I was confused and inaccurate when he asked me for information, Dr. Carrigan's calculations were wrong—little Shane was not to arrive until next to the last day of October; or perhaps, because he saw trepidation and unsureness in my face, he added a month so there could be no question of anything but acceptance on my husband's part. For I had talked with him when I first went in: I told him my troubles; my husband was working hard on a play: we were not too secure financially, as the production of another play had been long delayed. We had, I added (the thought coming to me suddenly), no place to have a baby. . . .
"What's the matter with the Old House?" he said sternly. "I brought two of your sisters into the world there!" And I realized then that there was no use trying to explain anything to him.
But where would we have the baby? Gene wanted to go back to Provincetown not later than June. He had already written John Francis to keep his eye open for a small cottage or a summer shack out on the Truro hills—where, I thought to myself sarcastically, I suppose we will live like two sea gulls—and at the end of summer have another little sea gull!
I did some shopping that afternoon, stopped at the post office, found a letter there for Gene and walked home, feeling alone and alien from everything in the world. It was a damp and chilly day, and Gene had made a fire in the fireplace. He was sitting there waiting for me—and for the afternoon mail. I gave him the letter and went into the kitchen to make some tea. Walking home I may have felt myself alone; but now I was saturated, like a sponge, with a quiet and almost welcome melancholy. My eyes swam with tears, and as I put two cups and a teapot on a tray I did nothing to wipe them away.
"Aggie—here's a darn nice letter!"
Gene called to me from the other room. When I did not answer he came in, holding the letter, and saw my tears.
"What's the matter, Aggie?" he said tenderly. "That damn walk downtown is too much for you. God damn it, after this take a jitney home! Listen—here's some good news even if it doesn't mean money!" He picked up the tray and carried it into the next room.
The letter was from a well-known critic, Barrett Clark, the man who later became Gene's first biographer. The handwriting was distinguished and scholarly; it was sent from Briarcliff Manor, New York. Gene looked at it again.
"'Dear Sir!' I'm becoming important in this cockeyed world!"
The writer informed Gene that he had been following his literary career for some time, and waiting for an occasion to do his part. He was looking forward to the publication of the new volume of Gene's plays, and wanted to write a special story for the book section of the Sunday Sun. He asked Gene if he would be good enough to give him some data relating to himself. Gene read it aloud as we sat before the fire drinking our tea.
He was very pleased, but I could see that he had something else on his mind—he kept looking at me and smiling.
"Now—more good news! I wrote those well-known words The Curtain Falls while you were downtown, darling! Surprised? I wanted you—needed you here—to hear my triumphant yell as I finished The Straw!"
I could not tell him then what I had learned from the doctor that afternoon. He sat down at the table and on a sheet of yellow paper, slowly and with much thought, began to put down dates and places and events concerning his past life. He had read Barrett Clark's European Theories and felt that this was critical opinion at its best.
But that night, lying awake, I decided, now The Straw was finished, that I would tell him the next day.
I was surprised to find that without knowing it (and certainly without our discussing it) I had somehow conveyed to Gene that there was a chance of my being pregnant, for when I began—by telling him that I'd been to the doctor the day before—he seemed to know why I had gone, and said at once, anxiously; "Well, what did he say?"
I told him. His first reaction was that the doctor had made a mistake; his second reaction was silence. I could not tell what he was thinking about. I was miserable, imagining what he might be thinking about. He was withdrawn, deep in himself, not hostile, not even perturbed, so far as I could see. But there was no contact between us and I was miserable because I could not follow him, could not understand . . .
Then one of those utterly silly and absurd things happened that make one wonder if the comic gods do not top the downcast gods of tragedy. Later, we were in the lower nursery, which was sunny and warm that spring day. Little Happy began making noises and wailing meows in the next room. Gene, who was standing at the window looking out, did not even hear her. I (brooding on the couch) saw Happy come to the door. There was a beseeching look in her frightened eyes.
We had been expecting her kittens any day. I had laid an old shirt of Gene's in a basket in the dining room closet for her.
I picked her up, took her in and put her down in the basket for the big event—her first kittens. She purred. I stroked her, and left her there.
But a moment later she returned—she was not going to be left alone. This time she went straight to Gene, looked up at him, and again gave that beseeching meow. Gene turned, looked at her and began to swear. I could not help it, I began to giggle hysterically.
"She wants you to hold her paw while she has her kittens!"
It was true. Happy simply refused to stay in her basket and have her kittens unless either Gene or I were beside her. So we took turns sitting on a stool by the basket until the first one was born. Gene insisted that she preferred him, and became very interested in what was happening. After the first kitten (a black one) was born, Happy purring loudly and Gene singing a sea chantey which he said helped her labor pains, we left her, thinking now she would take care of herself.
No! Happy, after cleaning the first kitten (purring gratefully meanwhile) came out and again demanded that Gene be with her for her second—definitely Gene this time, not me! Perhaps she liked the sea chanteys. The first kitten was born to the tune of "Whiskey Johnny," and the second, Gene decided should have "Blow the Man Down."
A little later I was in the kitchen, doing something or other, and I heard Gene go again into the closet, and then the refrain:
"I put my hand upon
"There!" he said, coming to the kitchen door. "I've named them already—'Whiskey,' 'Blow' and 'Drumstick,'"—and he came over and laughingly put his hand on my thigh, to illustrate what he meant, and then gave me a long and devoted kiss.
One day in May a package arrived at the house from Gene's publisher, Boni and Liveright, containing six beautifully printed and bound copies of The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea. Gene wrote an inscription inside one of them and gave it to me. It was a quotation from Ile, one of his sea plays. . . .
"To my wife—
"No man ever had a better Annie (only in this case it ought to be Aggie). Gene, her husband."
We were planning to leave the Old House before long, and Gene was writing letters and already making appointments in town for the middle or end of May: with George Jean Nathan, whom he had not yet met; with George Tyler, the theatrical producer who was an old friend of his father's; and with (he hoped!) John D. Williams. Gene and I had already sat down and composed a letter to his parents telling them the good news.
There was a lot to do that last week: books, scripts, the typewriter, some of our clothes and all our personal belongings were packed and sent by express to Provincetown. Gene was wonderful at packing in those early days—I had almost forgotten that! He was careful, slow and neat about it—much better than I was. He seemed to enjoy it now that there was no more work to be done on the plays and gave it the same concentrated attention that he gave his other work.
John Francis, to whom we were sending these things to hold for us, wrote us that he had two houses in view for the summer rental—but in his quaint, kindly way he added that he didn't see why Gene didn't buy the old coast-guard station at Peaked Hill Bar for his home. "It is for sale now, very cheap . . ."
Gene meditated over the price—which was far more than we had. He even wrote asking if it would be possible to make a small down payment and the balance later—or could we possibly rent it for the summer?
John Francis replied that it could not be rented, only sold. It had to be all cash, as the price was more than fair.
So Gene and I decided that the little house in the rolling hills of North Truro, not too far from the outside shore, would be the one we would take when we arrived in Provincetown. Beyond that, we made no other plans for the future.
Gene left for New York a day or so ahead of me and took a room for us at the small hotel where we had stayed in the fall. His parents, and Jamie too, had already gone to New London for the summer, after sending us a wonderful telegram saying how happy they were that there was to be a grandchild—their first. I packed my small suitcase, saw the doctor again, gave the keys of the Old House to my mother, and said good-by to all my family. I felt sad at leaving them. It was understood that they would go back to the Old House, and I left "Whiskey," "Blow" and "Drumstick" (whom Gene at first had suggested shipping to Provincetown!) to their kindly care.
I stood at the kitchen window and, while I waited for the jitney to take me to the station, I saw my "little clowns" still lined up there, waiting, and for a moment I was sad, thinking of our walks along the old sand roads—roads made a hundred years before by the early settlers and now forgotten—somehow knowing that Gene and I would never take those walks again.
I do not remember much of our time in New York that spring—except Gene dressing himself very carefully one afternoon for his meeting with George Jean Nathan. He had not taken a drink since coming to New York, and he stayed away so long that afternoon that I began wondering what had happened. But he returned at last, very pleased and still without having had anything stronger than ginger ale. This had amused Mr. Nathan, but Gene said that he had understood. Gene told me in detail about his visit; about Mr. Nathan and their conversation, and that he had been both delighted and impressed. I had the impression that his meeting with Mr. Nathan had been so stimulating that it left him without any desire for a drink.
The trip to Provincetown must have been uneventful, for I remember nothing about it. Gene was probably tired; he had taken care of several things in New York; and, alas, he had still found out nothing definite from Williams. The Jest, with the two Barrymores, was a great success—it would close for the summer and open again in the fall, and there seemed no prospect of their being free to play Beyond the Horizon for a long time.
But when at last, after that long trip by the Fall River Line and then on the slow train down the Cape, we arrived and talked with John Francis, who was waiting at the station for us, we were the happiest people in the world.
Peaked Hill Bar was ours—it was incredible, but it
was ours—our own house, our home! John Francis had received a check
for the entire amount from James O'Neill, and the deed was to be
made out in the name of his son, Eugene Gladstone O'Neill. . . .
© Copyright 1999-2010 eOneill.com