A Red Cape and Some Holy Images
Peaked Hill . . . how many memories come back, the sand, the dunes, the great pink-flowered rosebush that spread over a dune near the house—a seedling or plant that had drifted in from a Japanese ship wrecked off the shore, and, blown to the dune, had established itself there. . . .
A tax sale, put through and printed in a local paper to define the boundaries and protect our rights to the property, which read: 'Bounded on the East by land unknown . . . on the South by land unknown . . . on the West by lands unknown . . . bounded on the North by the Atlantic ocean. . . .
. . . The time a whale drifted in to our front yard and lay there decomposing for weeks and Gene and I hoped each day for a strong breeze from the South, to blow away that morbid odor. . . . The morning we got up to find a barge cut loose from its tug and wrecked on the beach. . . . I remember, too, the sunny morning a coast guard brought us a wire saying Gene had won his first Pulitzer prize and how he and I looked at each other, wondering what on earth the Pulitzer prize was.
And the strange story of a cat, whom Gene threw down the outside toilet, and the events that led up to it . . . and the morning I will never forget—more because of the chaotic week that followed—when, going down to the beach to swim after Gene's work was finished, we saw something shining in the sun, reluctantly being rolled in by the waves. On inspection it turned out to be a five-gallon kerosene tin, new and evidently heavy. On closer inspection it showed many pinholes, from which, when the waves retreated, tiny streams of what looked like water came out, but which turned out to be 100 per cent pure alcohol—dropped into the sea, we found out later, by a rumrunner who was pursued off the shore by a government boat that night. Gene hesitated; we looked at the bright tin slowly loosing its contents and at each other . . . then he grinned and went up to the house, coming back in a moment with two pails, a wrench, some bottles and a funnel. He was always very thorough about everything! He had unscrewed the top and was pouring out the liquid when there was another shining glint in the waves a few feet away and another kerosene tin began rolling in. Altogether we emptied some dozen or more tins, and by two o'clock the house reeked of alcohol even with the windows open; pails, pots, a big dishpan and two washtubs were full. The rest of it Gene put in the bathtub, after being sure the spigot wouldn't leak. He walked across the dunes to get help and spread the news to his friends while I waited, wondering what was going to happen.
Gene was happy at Peaked Hill, writing, living life as he wanted it, and always rather sad when it got too cold to stay any longer and we would return to Provincetown with our things in the big farm wagon pulled by two horses. We both loved the place, but after we separated I was told that he made out a deed giving it to his son Eugene. Soon after this I received a letter in the mail; and on opening it found a picture of the house cut from the rotogravure section of the New York Sunday Times, just as I remembered it but now drifting off to sea. It had torn itself, in a big storm that came along, from the dune where it had spent so many years; and now is, no doubt, lying among the many wrecks that have gone down in the dangerous currents off of Peaked Hill Bar.
We went out across the dunes in a farm wagon loaded with rope, shovels, picks and food for the day, taking three Portuguese fellows with us. I sat on the wagon in the long red cape that Gene had bought me in town, while he and one man started digging the sand away from the door and two others started at the south windows. The wind blew Gene's hair about and every once in a while he would turn to me and grin with happiness. There was a sort of pagan air about him as he threw the shovelfuls of sand into the wind, digging out his future home. It was exciting and primitive So a cave man might have excavated a home for himself thousands of years ago, while his wife and unborn child waited wrapped in animal skins,—so he told me laughingly.
During the following week Gene went out every day, sometimes with a helper, or one of his friends, and kept digging the sand away from the house. The shovels and picks had been left in one of the outbuildings on that first trip, so he walked out and back, sometimes discouraged, but enjoying it all. At last he said that we could move in—the gasoline pump that Mabel Dodge had installed was started; there was water in the house; and the plumbing was in shape. We began getting ready. . . .
It had been a great relief to the elder O'Neills when Gene and I were married and he had now more or less settled down. When they heard that I was to have a baby and that even the strange Eugene seemed to be looking forward to it, James O'Neill began to think of what he could do for his son. Somehow, up in their pleasant, homelike suite in the Prince George Hotel, an idea came to them that was to give Gene some of the happiest and most productive days of his life. Mr. O'Neill paced the floor of their living room, turning over various practical plans in his mind, thinking of the little grandson to be born in the fall. . . .
Mrs. O'Neill, as she told me later, was also thinking of the coming baby, except that it was a little granddaughter that she thought of. Already she was planning a layette in pink for a girl child and thinking of the expensive long baby dresses, sacques, caps, capes and bootees which she would manage to charge (in spite of her husband) at Lord and Taylor. What connection there was between this and the perfect idea of a gift to Gene that suddenly came to her I never knew, but she said to her husband that she knew what would make her son happier than anything else—that place which was for sale now out on the beach at Provincetown, and though he may have been surprised and grumbled a little, her husband finally consented. So it was that we received a deed to the old station and the land surrounding it. Gene had often spoken longingly to them of the place; but he had never imagined that one day he would own it and be living there
It was not long before, one morning, we left the town behind us to live at Peaked Hill. The two strong horses, plodding through the sand; the heavy wagon creaking under the load; I seated on the wagon beside the driver and Gene walking. It was a bright, windy day and although we had been warned that it was too early in the spring to move to the "outside," there was no chill in the air, and we were both of us happy and excited. Gene had carefully packed all his manuscripts in a suitcase, which he had placed on the wagon where he could keep his eye on it. We had our books with us also, carefully wrapped in newspapers; photographs; files; letters. . . . These things Gene had packed himself. His clothes too he had packed, wrapping some of our small treasures in tissue paper and using them to fill the space between sweaters, T shirts, old slacks, and his two suits, worn but still good. Two blankets we owned; two we had borrowed.
The horses stopped now and again for a rest and Gene would look up at me with deep affection in his eyes. I was going to have the baby in October, but no one would have known it and I felt wonderfully well and strong. We both looked forward to the long summer together, lying in the sun, swimming, watching the sea and the ships that went along the horizon, taking long companionable walks. He had his working hours planned, writing on his play, and reading, his exercise and rest, and once a week or so we would walk back across the dunes to Provincetown and see the people we knew and hear the latest news. It was a relief to Gene that we would be quite alone, and neither of us thought that I would need any help around the house.
We had three or four big boxes on the wagon full of food and supplies put up by John Francis, whose gentle soul was greatly delighted by new adventure. I had gone over the list three or four times to be sure that nothing was forgotten. At last we were there, and Gene unlocked the door and then helped me down from the wagon. Our driver thought it was all a big joke; and, looking at me, he kept shaking his head. I really believe that he thought Gene was quite mad. He began untying the ropes that held our belongings together, and meanwhile Gene and I pushed open the door.
It was an incredibly happy moment when we stepped inside and looked around. Instead of the former light into which I had peered before (a light which gave the effect of the whole interior being submerged in an opalescent quietness at the bottom of the sea, with objects appearing unreal, or as if swimming in nothingness or shadow), there was brightness and sharpness and beauty. One of the friendly coast guards had come over early that morning and opened all the windows, letting in the sun and air. He had started the engine for the pump and even brought a bouquet of flowers which we found upstairs afterward—evidently he thought it more appropriate to put them in the bedroom.
We stood for a moment in a long, white empty room. Two big doors made one end of the room; they were open onto the dunes, letting in the sunlight to lie in a large patch on the blue floor. Through those doors, Gene told me, they used to take out a lifeboat on rollers when there was distress at sea. At the other end of the room, near where we entered, was the kitchen, a large room with casement windows opening on the sea. Neither of us could quite believe it—what Mabel Dodge had done or how she had done it. Copper pots and skillets hung against the wall, which was a soft white like all the other rooms in the house; the floor was a deep blue linoleum, highly polished. There was a dinner service of old, heavy willow ware in soft blues and white; bowls; platters; a tureen—everything. Rows of glasses of different sizes, translucent and all the color of the sea; a copper teakettle; Italian trays and Mexican silver; everything beautiful and unusual and useful. A long table made of wood from the beach with its top rubbed to a velvety luster stood next to a modern white sink. The casement windows, through which the sound of the waves came in, as if they were just beneath us, were curtained with yellow linen, which blew and shifted in the breeze.
The other end of the kitchen (separated by a small partition) contained a kitchen range; a huge white icebox; low lockers with cushioned tops which lifted up, revealing space for storage; and closets—closets for everything needed to run a house, several of them fully equipped with tools and gadgets needed for that purpose, in fact, everything anyone could want; for Mrs. Dodge, besides her many other talents, was evidently a most practical and efficient person. She believed in beauty and order and non-cluttered living. Everything to keep the house in order was "of the best" and probably the most expensive.
Gene watched with delight my dumfounded pleasure, ecstatic silly smiles, murmurings and little cries at all this, for his pleasure was as great as mine: but he had known about it all week and kept it as a surprise for me—even letting me bring an old iron frying pan and a couple of battered pots along when I insisted I must have something to cook in. I had thought him rather mean, in fact, not to let me buy a few things to cook with, and was secretly provoked at his insistence that we'd manage all right with cooking frankfurters and other things on sticks, and baking potatoes in the ashes of a driftwood fire,—though I'd forgotten all about it when we started out in our farm wagon.
Tony Sousa, the driver, was bringing in the boxes of groceries, and we showed him where to put them; then Gene said, "Now!" and, taking my arm, opened the middle door from the kitchen.
We stood on the threshold of a large, wide, long room—our living room. At the far end was a fireplace with casement windows on either side and great wood boxes, used as seats, below. The ceiling was painted white, and held together by strong wire cables; in fact the entire room was white, except the floor, which was blue. But white and blue does not describe it, or perhaps gives a wrong impression, for Mrs. Dodge had something more than whiteness there, or blueness. She had achieved a depth, a patina, a quality that was perfect. She had put seven coats of white paint (with time between for complete drying) on the walls and ceilings and when it was finished it was something more than paint—it glowed, it soothed, it was just right. The blue of the floors—she had the walls and the floors the same all through the house—was a different blue, not dark at all, not too light. I have tried to get that same blue in other places and never succeeded.
Along each wall was a heavy white wooden table on which stood tall Italian pottery lamps with yellow shades. And against each wall was an enormous couch, covered in blue linen and piled with comfortable cushions in blue and yellow linen. Above the tables and couches hung great round pottery fishplates, each with a different and fascinating design of strange fish. There were heavy straw rugs on the floor, a cushioned chaise longue of woven reed, other chairs of soft reed and—two great comfortable Morris chairs, painted with the seven coats of white and with blue cushions, arranged for reading at the end of each table under the tall lamps.
Again I was speechless, and wandered around, went from one thing to another, touching things, looking at things, sitting for a moment here, and getting up and sitting there, just to see how it felt, trying to get used to it, Gene opening the wood boxes to see what was inside, lifting up the big blue blotters on the tables to see if anything was left beneath them, pulling the lamp nearer to the Morris chair and turning the wick. . . .
Yes, we had forgotten to bring kerosene—no lamplight, no cooking without it, for the kitchen range had been equipped with a kerosene burner inside the firebox. We had plenty of gasoline for the pump stored in one of the big outhouses; but now we had to send the driver to the coast-guard station to borrow five gallons of kerosene. But it was early and we didn't care, though Gene did say, with a frown, that now the driver would have to make another trip out this week. . . . He lit a driftwood fire outside, and we made coffee and ate sandwiches for lunch, for we were hungry by now; and I found myself a little tired because while the driver was getting the kerosene Gene and I unpacked, carried in, and arranged the contents of the boxes and bundles that had been piled outside the door. There were blankets and sheets to be taken upstairs, the bed to be made, clothes hung up and shoes unpacked. Gene carried in his books and arranged them on the shelves, took his dumbbells and what other equipment he had of that sort into another room that we had discovered next to the bathroom (which was downstairs).
He took off his clothes in there and came out barefooted in his bathing trunks. Every once in a while he would go to the window and look out at the sea. Then he would go back to work, helping me put things away in the kitchen, or carefully arranging what he wanted to keep in the table drawers in the big room.
After a while he began to get chilly, for the early June day was not too warm. So he collected wood and kindling, and we had a fire in the big fireplace. I lay on the wide blue couch, comfortable, and watched him.
That night we slept upstairs in a big white-enameled iron bed, which was very cold at first, even the sheets chilly, listening to the sea and the slow rising of the wind, his arm around me and my head pillowed against his chest. I could hear his heart beating, and the sound of his heart and the sound of the sea were confused but peaceful as I drifted off to sleep.
It was there, that first summer at Peaked Hill, that Gene told me of how he first got himself into the writing of plays, trained himself, I was going to say, because in one sense it was that—a training of the senses. He wanted to write plays, that is understood. He may have even written a few of the earlier ones, which didn't amount to much. But he was undisciplined, he told me, not only in working habits, but in writing itself, what form to use and how. Then he began consciously to use a method which he kept up for over a year. He read nothing but plays, great plays, melodrama. . . .
Before long he was thinking in dialogue, talking to himself in dialogue, and answering his own thoughts more or less aloud in his low voice, seeing life in scenes and acts—with the curtain going down, perhaps, as he went off to sleep.
There were always periods of working and not working with Gene, as with every other writer. Long periods of work, of course, depending sometimes on the length of the play. Nothing to stop him, no going to parties, no going out in the evenings or making trips away from the house. When a play was finished he relaxed, sometimes just swimming and lying in the sun, or seeing and talking to people he liked. It was harder in the winter, of course. Sometimes—but now I am remembering Peaked Hill—I think perhaps it was that first summer out there that he finally settled into the general routine that he followed faithfully when he was working as long as I knew him—long walks on country roads taking the place of sun and swimming, if we were where it was cold.
Every evening after dinner Gene sat down in the white Morris chair and, under the light of the tall Italian lamp, took his book and read until eleven. At midnight he would go to bed, and at Peaked Hill he seldom had trouble sleeping.
After breakfast, which he always ate silently, he was glum. He said some people were and some weren't; and he was one of the ones that were—so not to mind it. He told me that when we were first married. Sometimes I wonder when we did talk, but I know we talked a lot. He talked about his work with me before he wrote it, while he was writing it, and after it was finished.
Upstairs there were two long rooms, separated by a stairway, and they too had been given their seven coats of white paint so that they glowed luminously, even in the darkness. We slept in the room that looked out, through two small sand-glazed windows on either side of the chimney, on to the sand dunes behind the house, that first year in a white iron bed with a driftwood table beside it for Gene's cigarettes, the tall kerosene lamp and his book. Above us the beams of the ceilings, tied with iron cables, rose to the peak of the roof; and on windy nights we could lie there and listen to the sand beating with a sharp needlelike sound on the windows, and on the roof above us, and the sound of the sea. Gene had all he wanted there, me in his arms, the sound of the sea, and he would go to sleep at last, with my head on his shoulder.
The other room faced on the sea, so that the windows almost overhung it, above a narrow strip of sea grass which broke sharply into a cliff above where the ocean lay stretched out to the horizon. Here Gene had his driftwood desk, with several large drawers, and a gray weathered top on which he kept his manuscript neatly arranged. There was a captain's chair, a couch covered with dark blue denim, and a horror of a clotheshorse which he insisted on keeping there. Along the walls of this room he hung some old nets with weathered floats, and there were some pieces, too, of driftwood encrusted with barnacles. When the windows were closed the sanded glass shut the room off in a solitary and opaque light.
When he went up there to work, after breakfast, the door at the foot of the stairs was shut—the whole house was quiet and peaceful. At intervals a coast guard would pass on his way along the shore, and sometimes he would come up and leave some mail.
Gene always read the mail eagerly. Sometimes his comments were extremely sarcastic; and although he wished to live with me in solitude, he kept a close and shrewd watch on the progress of his plays. But he never looked at the mail until after he was finished working. At one o'clock there would often be a cry of pleasure or relief, and the playwright would appear, sometimes with the dream still in his eyes, embrace me if he was happy about what he had finished that morning, or go to the larder to make a small sandwich if he was perplexed or troubled.
Whichever it was it didn't last too long, for now was the time for his exercise. In good weather this was a run up the beach, his head thrown back, full of exuberance and joy, then a dive in the sea and a swim, from which he was apt to emerge a little cold and blue, ready to lie in the sun until lunch was ready. If it rained he would go into the back room and vigorously attack the punching bag for half an hour, then take a book and sit reading until we were ready to eat.
After lunch he always lay down and took a nap. Then he got up and went silently back to work alone and preoccupied, going over what he had written in the morning and often typing it out for the first draft. But soon he would be in the west room, punching vigorously at the bag again, wearing only his swimming trunks, and coming out with his brown lean body shining with sweat, ready for another plunge in the sea.
It was that summer that Gene meditated most, and was most alone with and even sometimes absorbed into that reality which for him lay behind outer appearances—and which he was always, perhaps even later, seeking. In the warm peaceful afternoons we would walk along the beach, rousing little flocks of little sandpipers, who scattered as we approached; and sheltered by an old sand dune, Gene would remove his swimming trunks and lie naked in the sun (which warmed his closed eyes) his face turned upward, his eyes closed, at peace at last with the sun, the sea, and the earth. Sometimes he would get up and do a strange jungle dance, and then plunge, laughing, into the sea. This laugh—for it seems to me I saw it more than I heard it—was a half-pagan, half-ecstatic cry of himself to God.
I sat there, not too close, alone, too, with the dunes and the sky! But I think that I sometimes admitted a solitary sandpiper or a gull into my solitude and happiness; or looked wonderingly at strange small tracks in the sand.
Gene was beautiful that summer, tall and brown and tender and smiling, working all morning, lying for hours in the sun, absorbing life and courage and hope from the sea. . . . I too, felt strong and well and happy; full of a sort of creative joy and well-being, a physical at—oneness with life and nature, with the sea, the sand, the dunes and the ever-changing sky. The days went by; at night we walked along the edge of the vast friendly sea in the darkness, holding hands, our feet on the damp sand, in a mysterious world to which we both belonged.
Each day was the same and yet divinely different; we ate breakfast on a card table covered with a blue cloth, drinking coffee from the cups with the willow design, the morning sun slanting in across our faces, the gentle sound of the breakers outside. Whenever I fixed poached eggs I waited with silent joy for the moment when Gene would cut off the edge of the toast, and then solemnly put the entire egg and toast into his mouth. I never understood how he was able to do it. We made sandwiches for lunch, and with tea, always about five o'clock and always ready for it, devoured dozens of biscuits imported from England, for we were very hungry. We made strange concoctions, sometimes, for our evening meal, trying to think, as the end of each week came and we ran low on stores, what shipwrecked sailors would manage with. I remember Gene insisting once that we experiment with stewing a horseshoe crab with onions and marjoram; but at this I balked and made curried duck eggs instead, with rice flavored with marjoram, as he seemed to like this herb very much at that time. He decided that it was a prenatal craving on his part and seemed rather disappointed that I didn't crave marjoram too. Sometimes he would cross the dunes alone to town, and always when he left he would ask me if there wasn't something I craved, so he could bring it back to me. I would say no—only him! and he would laugh and say that I was easily satisfied; but when he returned, besides what we needed, he would always bring something special—preserved ginger in a little gray jar, or one of Mrs. Avellar's famous blueberry pies.
Once, after a walk to town, he came back and very seriously inquired why I wasn't feeling sick at my stomach every morning. John Francis had told him how, when his wife was pregnant, he had morning sickness every day, just like his wife—and I'm almost positive that John Francis told him that when her labor pains began he, too, began getting cramps in his stomach. Gene began to wonder if this wasn't the way all husbands should be if they really loved their wives.
We grew quite fond of the large, prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs—there were always two or three near the house or on the sand—and of the tiny sandpipers that ran in droves before us as we walked up the beach, rising in their flight and curving back to us again to pick up their food as the waves retreated, and even of the sea gulls that screamed around the top of the house.
One day I was sitting on the sand, watching my
husband's dark head as he swam further and further out to sea, going
under the water and emerging again, when I saw another dark head
swimming beside him. I thought I was seeing double at first; but as
Gene began swimming nearer shore again, I saw I'd made no mistake.
Then the second dark head disappeared; and a few minutes later Gene
came through the surf and up the sand to where I was waiting,
breathless and laughing. He told me he had been swimming underwater
and when he came to the surface a beautiful sleek young seal was
gazing at him with luminous friendly eyes. Not only that, she (we
decided, of course, it was a she) swam along with him, under
the water and on the surface of the sea, finally submerging as he
came nearer the shore. For a few days after that his little seal
remained off Peaked Hill Bar, waiting until he came out, when she
would appear at his side, with the same curious, friendly gaze. Gene
said he talked to her, and she seemed to understand; but something
must have happened to her, or perhaps her husband came along and
reproved her; for soon after that she left; we never saw her again.
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