Act Two, SCENE SIX – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – (age 46-48)
1911-13, Frankfort, Lexington, Camp Nelson, New York…
[lights up on Paul standing before a desk at which a “banker” is seated. He hands Paul a check.
Banker There you are, Paul, fifteen hundred dollars drawn on this bank.
Paul Thank you.
Banker Are you absolutely certain you want to borrow this as a note? It’s still not too late to set it up as monthly payments if that would make repayment easier for you.
Paul No, the house’s value and its location on Broadway guarantees I could always sell it for more than this note. I’d rather use the house as collateral than put myself at risk. Conceivably, there might be a month when I might not sell enough paintings to make a monthly payment. This way I can always count on the rent I collect off the house to buy my groceries, regardless.
Banker Yes indeed, I’m sure you know better than I how to handle your finances. Paul, I well remember when your family were all together in that house. When did you lose your parents? And where are your sisters these days?
Paul Mother passed away three years ago, in 1908, and my father died late last year. My sisters all live far away in the northeast now. Two of them in New York City.
Banker Well, everything sure does keep changing, doesn’t it?!
Paul More than you can imagine. [he turns to leave] More than you can imagine.
[Lights fade on Paul; Spotlight comes up on John Wilson Townsend, writing in his diary; reads aloud in upbeat voice:]
Townsend Entry to my journal. January 1911. I’m glad I met Paul Sawyier. What a unique, unusual fellow. Dare I say eccentric. Much of his life seems to be ruled by money, or the lack of it – he’s usually very much in need of money. But he’s not overly ambitious either. The other day when I was visiting at his houseboat a twenty-seven dollar check arrived for the sale of some paintings at Brower’s. “It’s here!,” he shouted, thrilled as a child with a new toy. We enjoyed a fresh supply of Boone’s Knoll that very same evening.
[Lights up on Paul and Brower who mime the scene Townsend is reading]
The sum of $200 comes up often with Paul. He seems to feel that any man who has $200 is rich, and no man could possibly hope to have more. $200 was the figure Paul quoted to Brower when he went in there one day to touch him for a loan against future paintings. “Young man,” Brower told him, “what you need is a job. I’ll give you one right here, managing the art department in this store.” Paul is usually a quiet man, but he hit the ceiling. The last thing in the world he wanted was a job, he growled. How could he paint if he had a job? He was insulted – he thought Brower was implying he was a failure. He said “I’d rather starve than accept this or any job, because I would have to admit I had failed in my art.” Brower was furious. Paul was furious.
But they made up and Paul continues selling his paintings at Brower’s. How could he not? – he can ill afford to lose the best outlet he has. Living off his art is very important to Paul. He seems to think living through an ordinary job would amount to selling out his principles. He sticks to this, even when he’s clearly down, out and broke — which is fairly often, seems to me.
[Lights fade on Paul and Brower, they exit]
Paul said a strange thing recently. “My life,” he said, “is becoming the same as my art.” I asked what he meant, and he replied that “I often feel unreal these days, as if I am living in an impressionist painting come to life, in which all the faces and events are slightly indistinct, slightly unreal. The only difference is that all the edges of things seem hard nowadays, not soft as they are in my watercolors.” I still didn’t understand, but he declined to explain more.
[Spotlight down on Townsend, spotlight up on Rose standing on other side of stage;
Paul enters spotlight beside Rose]
Rose Oh Paul, I shall miss you terribly.
Paul Terrible is the right word, Rose. I’ve become accustomed to your being here. High Bridge is going to feel terribly empty without you in it.
Rose No more carefree days with my artist… my dear friend… But now you can stop all those long boat trips from Camp Nelson to High Bridge. Think of the time and money you’ll save.
Paul What else have I to spend my time and money on? I can always paint all I want, but now when I look up at that great sky-high bridge all I’ll see is steel against the blue sky. All blue. No rose. My Rose will be gone. You’ll be far away in Cincinnati.
Rose We always knew I’d have to leave when the Doughertys went home. Now that the new bridge is built our reason for being here is finished.
Paul This seems so unreal… your leaving. Sometimes, once in a while, I travel up through Cincinnati. May I stop in and visit you there… sometimes?
Rose I will look forward to it, Paul. But now I must say goodbye…
Paul I hate those words.
[They enbrace. Light fades. Lights up on the houseboat on other side of stage;
Paul pours whiskey in a glass, hands it to his guest JJ King]
Paul Mister King, meet my good friend “Boone’s Knoll.” Nectar from the best little distillery in the state of Kentucky.
King You may as well call me JJ, Paul. We’re going to be first-name friends.
Paul I’ve no doubt of that. When I first met you I was so encouraged to find a Frankfort resident who is not only an art connoisseur but who already knows the meaning of impressionism. I don’t have to explain it!
King An artist of your caliber should not have to explain something as significant as impressionism. Ordinary folk simply don’t know what’s going on in the world of art, Paul. Are you painting for anyone in Frankfort these days?
Paul Well… I have started painting a portrait from a photo… I don’t do portraits any more, but this is an exception. I hope to give the portrait to a certain Missus Bull next Christmas. She’s the mother of a friend who lives in Frankfort… Miss Mary Thomas Bull… I don’t suppose you know her…?
King Can’t say that I do. But I want those who pass through my hotel to know that Frankfort is definitely on the map with modern art. Paintings hang in every hall on every floor now. I want your art to be the first thing they see when they enter the lobby.
Paul I’m honored that my work will hang in a place as elegant as the Frankfort Hotel. How many would you like me to produce?
King I’d say about ten paintings for starters. Landscapes. No, make that waterscapes. These palisades on this part of the river are the most spectacular cliffs I’ve ever seen. What a getaway you offer! This weekend living on your houseboat is going to rejuvenate me! Would, say, three hundred dollars be sufficient for ten watercolors?
Paul Oh, that would be fine. Just fine. Like another whiskey?
King Sure! [extends glass] Don’t worry about lodging when you’re in Frankfort, Paul. My hotel will always have a vacant room when you need it! Just call me.
[Lights fade. Lights up on other side of stage where Paul’s sisters Lillian and Natalie are seated; Lillian is reading a letter, Natalie paints intently at a miniature canvas on a small tabletop easel]
Lillian [looking up from the letter] Natalie, our younger brother is crazy.
Natalie Paul has done many dumb things, but I’m not sure he’s crazy.
Lillian If this letter from our little sister is remotely true, he’s crazy.
Natalie Can Mary Campbell be trusted to tell a thing remotely true?
Lillian In her exalted status as baby of the family she was raised without the discipline imposed on the rest of us, but this letter has the ring of truth.
Natalie I’ve not spoken with little sister since last year. What does she say?
Lillian Thank goodness our husbands wanted to go out tonight. I’d rather they not hear this. They’re doubtful about Paul already. This would clinch it.
Natalie [she looks up] All right, I’m hooked. What did he do or not do this time?
Lillian Remember how our family were friends with the Taft family? Remember how we always saw the Taft children when we visited Grandfather Sawyier in Ohio?
Natalie Dimly. I was pretty young. I remember William Howard as a dim-witted brat who somehow grew up to be president of the United States.
Lillian The fattest president in U.S. history. They call him “Big Bill.”
Natalie Didn’t his grandfather Taft practice law with grandfather Sawyier?
Lillian They were law partners in Cincinnati. Anyway, several weeks ago William Howard invited Mary Campbell and Edwin to come dine at the White House – in a private dining room – and reminisce about the good old childhood days in Ohio.
Natalie He did!? [she paints sporadically] I’ll wager it was Edwin’s celebrity as Pennsylvania’s landscape architect that brought forth the invitation. Not little sister.
Lillian Be that as it may, the President asked Mary Campbell about Paul’s art! He said he’s heard very good things about Paul from Dixie Selden. You’ll recall, Dixie was a classmate of Paul’s the first time he studied in Cincinnati.
Natalie Dixie is a very successful artist. Unlike some in that class.
Lillian Well it seems Mister Taft said he thinks Paul deserves greater recognition. He told Mary Campbell if she would invite Paul to submit some art to the Corcoran Gallery, then he – the president – would ensure it got hung in the Corcoran’s new room they’re dedicating to contemporary American art this fall!
Natalie He didn’t! My gosh, would that I had such a break as that!! I must ask little sister why she didn’t mention my miniatures to him!
Lillian So Mary Campbell wrote this urgent letter to Paul at Camp Nelson, or wherever he docks his tramp steamer these days. You won’t believe his reply.
Natalie There’s little he could do that I wouldn’t believe.
Lillian He got indignant! Said Who was the President to be “drumming up business” for him!, he said. He said Mister Taft was out of his mind if he thought for a minute that he, Paul, would show his work in a gallery like the Corcoran, where – get this – “where daubs are the rule.”
Natalie Well, he did it. I would not have believed that. I can’t believe he said that.
Lillian Believe it sister. There’s more.
Natalie No. Please get this pain over with.
Lillian Mary Campbell naturally did not tell the President about Paul’s irrational negative response. In the circumstances, she simply did not pass any word back to him at all. But Mister Taft didn’t let it rest. Oh no. He himself followed up with a nice letter, direct to Paul, repeating the invitation. And how did our only surviving brother respond?
Lillian He didn’t. He simply never replied to this wonderful invitation from the President of the United States – who had guaranteed him exhibitor space in one of the nation’s greatest art galleries. His paintings hanging in the Corcoran would have made his name in the art world for the rest of his life! [she slaps table for emphasis]
[The sisters stare at each other, speechless. Natalie finally speaks.]
Natalie I don’t know what to say. What does one say of a debacle like that?
Lillian It is better that I not say what I think. [pause, thinking] Natalie, are your miniatures selling as well as I hear? Are you making money with your art?
Natalie Lillian, in all modesty, if my husband were to drop dead tomorrow I could maintain a comfortable life style with the income from my art. Dixie Selden is not the only female who is financially successful as an artist.
Lillian Perhaps we won’t mention that to Paul.
Natalie Perhaps not. [pause] But he knows. He’d just rather not think about it.
Lillian He sent me a letter last week.
Natalie Oh? Any news from The Source Himself?
Lillian He asked if he might move in here late this year. For a while, he said. After he makes “some arrangements.” I don’t know what arrangements. He didn’t say.
Natalie Move in here? You mean your house? I thought he wanted to live in a houseboat! And central Kentucky is the only place he has any name recognition at all. Why on earth would he leave it?
Lillian Apparently the romance of the houseboat has faded. Along with his other romances. At age forty-eight he’s decided to seek his fortune here in New York.
[Lights fade. A spotlight follows Paul through the following six short episodes as he moves from side to side of the stage; the intended effect is to be somewhat surreal]
Paul Mister Brower, I appreciate this.
Brower Glad to help out, Paul. Just sign my standard loan form please.
Paul I, Paul Sawyier… four hundred fifty dollars… so forth and so forth…
…this date… 1913… [He signs]
[Paul walks to other side of stage, same scene as before with Banker at desk; he hands Paul a check]
Banker This five hundred dollar check will simply become a second mortgage against the Broadway house. You do understand why the bank cannot just add it on to the outstanding fifteen hundred dollar note?
Paul Not sure I do, but it doesn’t matter. I need the money either way.
Banker Paul, we’re always glad to help. Just sign right here.
[Paul walks to other side of stage where he, another man and a woman engage in conversation]
Paul I’m glad we came to terms. This house will part sadly from me. It’s been our family home for three generations you know. I did most of my growing up here.
Man I hear you are the last of your family to possess this house. Is that true?
Paul It is. And I wish you every happiness as you commence living here. You’ve seen for yourself how well built it is.
Man It is quite well built. That was what convinced us to pay your price. We need to move in immediately. Will the renters’ things all be out by noon tomorrow?
Paul Yes, I’ll see to it. A good day to you both. [Paul exits]
Woman He says he’s glad we came to terms. How could we not? Darling, I think we just got the good deal of the year!
Man Good deal? My dear, we got a steal. The poor guy either doesn’t know the value of money or else he must be starving.
[Paul walks to other side of stage where he and another man talk]
Paul So that’s my price for the fleet. All four craft. Rag, tag, bob and tail. Rag is the houseboat. You get it with all furnishings except my clothes, my paintings and art supplies. What do you say?
Other Man I’ll take it! Don’t change your mind, Paul. I’ll buy the whole works!
Paul I hate parting with them. You know I’m making you a real good deal.
Other Man Paul, I’m so happy I could dance a jig. I’ve always wanted to live on the river. I could not have afforded your houseboat and canoe and… and all of it, if the price wasn’t in my range. Now what are you gonna do? Be a landlubber again?
Paul Probably, but not here. I can’t haul a houseboat to New York City.
[Paul walks to other side of stage where he and LeCompte talk]
LeCompte Paul, you’ve made my day! This has been a long time coming, but I always held out hope for actually owning those plates one day.
Paul Today is your day, Joe LeCompte. You are now the proud owner of both plates. I hope my etchings of the old bridge bring you many future sales.
LeCompte The prints have always sold slow but steady, Paul. People in Frankfort loved that old covered bridge, and I still sell quite a few prints every year.
Paul And this clears my bill with you? No more $75 debt on your books?
LeCompte You are free and clear. You need art supplies? Start anew!
Paul Sorry, Joe – my next art supplies will probably be bought in New York.
[Light fades on Paul; spotlight comes up on Mary across stage, seated, writing; she speaks aloud]
Mayme Tired; I am tired tonight, and something, the wind maybe or rain,
Or the cry of a bird in a copse outside, has brought back the past and its pain.
And I feel as I sit here thinking, that the hand of a dead old June
Has reached out hold of my heart’s loose strings, and is drawing them up in tune.
I am tired tonight, and I miss you, and long for you love, through tears;
And seems but today that I saw you go, you have been gone for years.
And I seem to be newly lonely, I, who am so much alone,
And the strings of my heart are well in tune, but they have not the same old tone.
I am tired; and that old sorrow sweeps down the bed of my soul
As a turbulent river might suddenly break away from a dam’s control.
It beareth a wreck on its bosom, a wreck with a snow-white sail,
And the hand on my heart strings strums away but they only respond with a wail.