Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 2

Neil and Vestal Kingsblood were having an amount of servant trouble that seemed improbable with so tolerant a couple, and it was not entirely a comedy of domestic mishaps. Tragedy in wry forms may come even to the Colonial Residence of a Young Banker.

You would have said of Neil Kingsblood that he would not encounter either tragedy or remarkable success. Red-headed, curly-headed, blue-eyed, stalwart, cheerful, and as free of scholarship as he was of malice, Neil was, in November, 1944, an assistant cashier in the Second National Bank of Grand Republic, of which Mr. John William Prutt was president.

He was devoted to his family, his friends, his job, to shooting and fishing and golf, and to the guns, rods, canoes and other enchanting and childish objects associated with those sports. But he was now unfitted for excursions among the forests and lakes of Northern Minnesota. A year ago, when he was a captain of infantry, his right leg had been wrecked in the capture of an Italian village.

That leg would always be half an inch shorter than the other, but he could limp briskly now, and by spring of 1945, he was sure, he would be able to hitch about the court in a sort of tennis. The limp did not damage his position as one of the best-looking men in town; it gave an almost humorous lurch to his gait, and his chest and arms were as powerful as ever.

Last Christmas he had spent in agony in an army hospital in England; this Christmas, he would be with his beloved Vestal, a tall, gay, affectionate but sensible matron, and his daughter Elizabeth, aged four and always known as “Biddy”— the enchanting, the good-tempered Biddy, with her skin of strawberries and cream, her hair like champagne.

Neil was born in 1914, during the fever-symptoms of the First World War; he had believed in the sanctity of the Second World War; and over highballs at the Sylvan Park Tennis Club, he stated bravely and he almost believed that there would not be a Third World War arriving just in time to catch the son whom the benevolent gods (his God was Baptist and Vestal’s was Episcopal) might send them.

His father, still blessedly alive and in practice, was Dr. Kenneth M. Kingsblood, the popular dentist (office in the Professional and Arts Building, Chippewa Avenue at West Ramsey Street) and his maternal grandfather was Edgar Saxinar, retired telephone official living in Minneapolis. He had, thus, a scientific and industrial background, very solid, but it must be owned that for wealth and social standing, his family could not touch the gentility of Vestal’s father, who was Morton Beehouse, president of the Prairie Power and Light Corporation, brother of Oliver Beehouse, chief counsel for the Wargate industries. In Grand Republic, we say “Beehouse” as you say Adams or Cecil or Pignatelli.

Vestal had been president of the Junior League, women’s golf-champion of the Heather Country Club, top war-bond saleswoman of the county, secretary of the St. Anselm’s Altar Guild, chairman of the Program Committee of the Women’s Club, and winner of the after-dinner coffee-set at the Cosmopollies’ bridge-tournament. She was, however, human.

She was a graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and it was understood that she was possessed of rather better taste than Neil, who had had a boarding-house and beer existence at the University of Minnesota. But she said, “I’m no highbrow. At heart, I’m a Hausfrau.”

Her face was narrow, a bit long, but lightened by humorous gray eyes, and her hair, of an average chestnut, was remarkably thick. Her hands were squarer than Neil’s, which were strong but tapered to slender fingers. Vestal laughed easily and not too much. She loved Neil, she respected him, she liked him; she often held his hand at the movies, and in the bedroom she was serious about him. She had, before his leg was injured, enjoyed canoeing with him all through the lonely Border Lakes; and she shared with him his Sound Conservative Republican Beliefs about banking, taxes, and the perfidy of labor unions. They were truly a Happy Young American Married Couple.

Though she had been reared in a Beehouse mansion of gray stone, in the old faubourg of Beltrami Avenue, Vestal liked coming home to the artful simplicities of Sylvan Park. Here were forests ancient as the hills enclosing sunny spots of greenery, all laid out in curves and crescents, regardless of expense, by Mr. William Stopple, Realtor and Developer.

Vestal was friendly with her own white cottage and the smart semi-circular stoop and its slim pillars. Inside, the living-room was modest enough but bright as a gold purse, with barrel-chairs in dark-blue corduroy, maroon curtains, a ship’s-clock, an ardent hearth-fire (electric, with glass coals), and on the mantel a German helmet which Neil was supposed to have captured in combat. But even more indicative of their prosperity was the “sun-porch,” with green wicker furniture and red-tile floor and a portable bar and, for grandeur, a view of the mound on which was “Hillhouse,” the fabulous residence of Berthold Eisenherz.

No ordinary bank teller could have afforded such richness, and Neil had been only a teller until a couple of months ago. His father-inlaw had helped to make this splendor possible, and to enable them to have a maid of all work, that last and dearest luxury in a pattern of American civilization in which you own a Cadillac but black your own shoes; and a sound civilization it is, too, in which you may bully only the servants that are made of steel.

In Sylvan Park there are none of the brick-walled gardens and brick-faced chauffeurs which adorn Ottawa Heights. Neil’s neighbors rejoice in Cape Cod cottages, seven-room chalets, and plain wooden boxes with fake half-timbering. Along the halfmoon Lanes and Trails are fountains, and the chief square, named “The Carrefour,” is surrounded by smart shops with illegitimate Spanish arcading. But all over this plaster Granada children are passionately running, mothers are wheeling baby-carriages, and fathers are raking leaves.

Mr. William Stopple (and remember that not long ago he was mayor of Grand Republic) privately advises you that Sylvan Park is just as free of Jews, Italians, Negroes, and the exasperatingly poor as it is of noise, mosquitoes, and rectangularity of streets. Publicly, he announces:

“WHERE are boyhood’s dreams and the maiden’s fancy, where are old-time romance and the lily-white maid beside the mirroring pool under the shadow of the castle tower flying its gallant gonfalon? YOU can recapture that dream today. Sylvan Park is where gracious living, artistic landscaping, the American Way of Life, and up-to-the-minute conveniences are exemplified in Dream o’ Mine Come True, at surprisingly reasonable prices and liberal terms, phone or write, two offices, open ‘til ‘ten P.M. Wedns.’”

Neil and Vestal jeered at this true modern poetry, but they did consider Sylvan Park a paradise and a highly sensible paradise — and their house was almost paid for.

Back of their own double bedroom (it had a tiled bathroom adorned with seahorses and lotos blossoms) was Biddy’s apartment, bunnies and Mickey Mouses, and behind that a coop, all angles and eaves, with things tucked behind other things, which they called Neil’s “den,” and which could serve as guest-room. Here Neil came to gloat over his rods and clubs, the Arrowhead Rifle Marksmanship Cup, which he had won in 1941, and his beloved collection of guns. He had a Hudson’s-Bay trade rifle, a .45 automatic pistol which had belonged to the Royal Mounted, and half a dozen contemporary rifles. He had always wanted to be a frontiersman, an Astor Company trader of 1820 on the Minnesota border, and he liked calendars portraying canoemen and the habits of the moose.

And here were his own not-very-numerous books. The set of Kipling, the set of O. Henry, the set of Sherlock Holmes, a history of banking, and the bound volumes of the National Geographic Magazine, with Beasley on tennis and Morrison on golf. Among these solid wares, pushed back on a shelf, was a volume of Emily Dickinson, which a girl, whose name and texture he had now forgotten, had given to him in college, and sometimes Neil picked at it and wondered.

The rooms to which they gave the most nervous care were at the end of a constricted hall: the bedroom and private bath of their maid, Miss Belfreda Gray, a young lady of color.

In the hope of keeping a maid at all in these war days, they had made Belfreda’s suite as pretty as they could afford. The bedroom was complete with radio, candlewick spread, and copies of Good Housekeeping, and in an entirely insane moment, Vestal had bought a real English loofah for the bathroom. Belfreda had considered it some form of mummified bug, and had almost quit when Vestal presented it to her.

Also, Belfreda declined to use the cake of pink bathsoap, in the shape of a duck, which Vestal provided, explaining that her dark skin was delicate and she could tolerate only Gout de Rose, at a dollar a cake. . . . Vestal got that for her, too, and still Belfreda thought about quitting. She was a good cook, when she wanted to be, but just now she did not want to be.

Belfreda was twenty-one, and beautiful in her slim elastic way. She firmly preferred not to wear stockings, even when waiting on table, and her voluptuous legs of warm, satin-finished bronze, not much concealed by her flirting skirts, bothered Neil and his masculine visitors continually, though they didn’t do anything about it.

It is to be feared that, after putting more spiritual agony into holding a maid than it would have taken to do the housework themselves, Neil and Vestal had a distinct anti-Ethiopian bias in the matter of Belfreda, along with no very remarkable pro-Semitism or love for the Hindus, the Javanese, or the Finns.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38