Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 22

Dr. Kenneth Kingsblood winked at his son, to show that they had a secret from the womenfolks, and led him aside to chuckle, “Got any furtherer with your research? We the rightful kings of Britain?”

The question so belonged to the antiquity of six months ago that he might as well have asked, “Have you finally decided to vote for Rutherford B. Hayes?”

With the oppression of that afternoon’s dream still on him, Neil had gone to his father’s for Sunday Evening Supper — hot soup, cold chicken, potato chips, drug-store ice cream. Biddy was asleep on a couch upstairs, and Vestal was talking Servants & Children with Neil’s mother and his sister, Joan, as nice women must have talked in the primitive caves, in the Norman castles, under the tinkling eaves of China’s first dynasty. It was a maid’s-night-out evening of sweetness and security and affection.

To his father, Neil could answer only, “Haven’t got much farther with the court documents, Your Majesty,” and hastily skip it.

He studied his mother and found Negro ancestry in her dark eyes, then reminded himself that he had once found Chippewa traits in Vestal.

He mustn’t, in his urge toward Africa, forget that he had Indian bravery in him as well. Tonight, when he was restless, he’d like to be out on a stormy lake in a Chippewa canoe. It excited him to think that he had in him canoes and Kaffir knives as well as account-books and plowshares.

If that bland Sabbath domesticity did not soothe him, neither did the effervescence of the next evening dazzle him.

This was another of the practically incessant series of “Welcome home, Major Rodney Aldwick, well done, sir!” parties which had adorned Rod’s terminal leave. He was going back to camp now, to get demajorized, and he would come back a Veteran, with an honorable record; he would let the newspapers announce that he had resumed his practice at the bar.

Through this positively last final party, Neil heard Rod keeping to his high theme:

“We vets must stand together against all the elements which produced the Fascism which we have conquered: that is, the inferior races, which turned disloyal and weakened the British and American and French and Dutch Empires, and so gave mongrels like Hitler a chance to pick on Winston Churchill.”

Neil was in an empty daze as he realized that his hero was not only vicious but a bore. No man could have been more miserable than Neil in the unmasking of a friend.

He did not lie awake, the two nights after his dream of terror. Very few things could make Neil Kingsblood lie awake. His best period for brooding was during his morning shave, when he was in the thoughtful mood produced by the manifold beauties of his electric razor, that lovely body of nickel and ivory (imitation) which, without the feudal superstitions of soap and shaving-brush, whisked like the hand of love across his solid jaw, nipping off the shiny hairs and proving that there may be something to modern civilization.

He thought that his curly hair, revealed in the round shaving-mirror on a bracket-arm beside the medicine cabinet, was as kinky as Dr. Brewster’s. He thought of Evan Brewster, and his earnestness, his simple goodness. And, since Brewster was a Baptist, like himself, Neil contemplated the special, wisdom and glory of Baptist preachers and their divine program.

He demanded of himself: What was his actual creed? Did he believe in a definable God? In personal immortality? What, except to remain in love with Vestal and to give Biddy a chance to grow up happily, was his purpose in life? And why had God punished Vestal by making her husband a Negro? Or was it no punishment at all, but a noble revelation?

He held the razor stationary as he admitted that for a dozen years, except with Tony Ellerton, he had given no more thought to theological guesses than he had to Washington and the cherry-tree.

He had an official pastor, the Reverend Dr. Shelley Buncer of the Sylvan Park Baptist Church, a sensible and friendly man. Why shouldn’t he for once make himself believe that this learned pastor did actually know things about God and Immortality that were hidden from the common laborer or banker, and assume that the church had hired Dr. Buncer for that reason, and not because he was a companionable golfer, a skillful executive at weddings and children’s birthday-parties, and a dependable extemporaneous speaker at bond-drives?

So on Tuesday evening Neil called on Dr. Buncer, and considerably embarrassed him by asking what he knew about God and Truth.

It was a pleasant summer-evening walk among the maples and fresh-watered lawns of Sylvan Park. The Baptist Church was a bulky pile of red and gray stone in layers, and next door to it was the parsonage, a hungry-looking old white wooden house which Mrs. Buncer (she came from the East, from Ohio) had made as worldly as possible with blue-and-gold Tunisian curtains.

The pastor’s office — he called it his “studio,” and sometimes gaily spoke of it as “the sanctum sanctorum,” poor fellow — was at once reverent and dashing. On the morose dark-red desk were roses in an etched Swedish vase, and on the wall, between the portraits of Adoniram Judson and Harry Emerson Fosdick, was a print labeled “Kids and Kits.”

Dr. Buncer was rotund but enthusiastic, a product of Brown University and Yale Theological, twenty years older than Neil. He had thin hair and an Episcopal voice, he wore tweeds and a red tie, and he gave Neil a good cigar — well, good within reason.

“My boy,” he pronounced, “my feeling is that to prefer the pulpy cigarette to the mellow and manly weed is a sign of degeneracy in the age, so sit ye doon and light up, and I shall lay aside my volume of Saki. I must confess I have been escaping from the sordid problems of the day into that treasury of wit and abandong.”

And with that he deftly slid into a desk drawer his book — Murder Most Foul.

To the pastor’s dismay, instead of having come to ask him to address the Boosters Club or the Young Executives Association, Neil wanted to know something, and wanted to know something the doctor couldn’t look up in that fine reference-library. He would have gone mad and barked if he had guessed the real purposes of this simple parishioner.

“Dr. Buncer, I’ve had some letters from a soldier who served under me, and he claims he’s learned something that makes him suspect that he has a little Negro blood. So he’s asked me about an ethical problem that you can solve better than I can. I understand he’s married, apparently fairly happily, and has a couple of sons, and none of them have any idea of this Negro ancestry — which, I deduce, must be very distant. Now he wants to know what’s the honorable thing to do. Ought he to tell his family, and maybe his friends, or shut up about the whole thing?”

Dr. Buncer gave an exhibition of thinking deeply, an exercise at which he was rusty. Then, “Tell me, Neil, does anyone suspect his plight?”

“I judge not, from his letter.”

“Has he associated much with Negroes?”

“I doubt it.”

“And by the way, Neil, have YOU ever associated much with Negroes?”

The chill was absolute.

Neil tried to sound uninterested as he droned, “Afraid I’ve never known any n —”

No! He would not say “niggers,” not even if he was betrayed by it, and he finished up: “— never known any Negroes except maids and Pullman porters.”

“Reason I ask is, in that case you can hardly understand this poor fellow’s quandary in all its profound and I may even say religious aspects.”

— God, what a relief!

“Now it just happens that I’ve had a good deal to do with the darkies, Neil, one time and another. In Brown, I roomed right near one, and many’s the time, oh, half a dozen times at least, when I’ve dropped in at his room and tried to act as if he were my equal in every way. But those fellows, even the ones that go through the motions of getting a college education, are uneasy with us whites, who’ve inherited our culture and so take it naturally.

“We know and rejoice that they too are the sons of an all-merciful God, and maybe some day, a hundred years from now or two hundred, they’ll be scarcely distinguishable from us, psychologically. But now they all feel so inferior, no matter how small a share of the taint they have in their veins, that unfortunately it’s impossible for us to sit down for even half an hour and talk frankly and manfully with them, as you and I are doing.

“Then here in Grand Republic, I’ve served with darkies on several different committees, sat at the council table with them and so come to know them intimately. But where I really learned to understand the darkies was in the South, on their home heath. As a sort of a — ha, ha — internship I spent an entire month working in a settlement house in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I learned that segregation in the South was instituted not to discriminate against the Negroes, but to protect them, from the evil-minded men of both races, until such time as they grow up mentally and are able to face reality like you and I and other white men do.

“Understand me, I don’t condone it as a permanent arrangement. There is no reason under heaven why American citizens should be compelled to travel in jimcrow cars and have to eat separately, PROVIDED they are Americancitizensinthefullestsenseoftheword, and that, I am very much afraid, none of even the more intelligent among our colored friends would even pretend to be!

“There is no one more eager than myself to recognize any slight advances toward civilization on the part of the darkies — like rotating their crops and more hogs and diet — but a parson has to deal with the profoundest reality — and how folks do hate us for being so honest and forthright; well, let ’em, I say; it’s really a compliment to us, I always say, ha, ha!

“Now to come back to your soldier and his problem. If he never has been taken for a Negro, I don’t see that he would be committing any moral offense if he just kept silent and remained technically a white man. After all, none of us has to tell EVERYTHING he knows, ha, ha!

“I do think, though, if you’re well enough acquainted with him to tell him this without hurting his feelings, you might advise him to stay away as much as he can from the white folks because otherwise the cloven hoof of his genetic mutation would be sure to show its hand. With my Southern training, I’m sure I’d spot him at once.

“So, in all solicitude, tell him to go slow, lay low, keep his own counsel, and play the game! Ha, ha. See how I mean?”

“Yes, I guess that might —” Neil was uninterested now in any doctrine that Buncer might have. But he fell into the temptation, that menaces all of us, to ask priests and judges and doctors and senators and traffic policemen what they really think when they are in their baths, unfortified by their uniforms.

“Dr. Buncer, I suppose you serve on committees not only with Negroes but with Jews?”

“Often! I’ve even had a rabbi here for dinner once, with Mrs. Buncer and Sister and Junior at the table. I think you may say I’m an out-and-out Liberal.”

“But you take a Negro, Doctor. Would you feel that it was wise to have a Negro for dinner, if he was a qualified preacher?”

“Now, now, Neil, don’t try to pin me down! As I told you, I belong to the New School. I wouldn’t in the least mind, say at a Convention, sitting down with Negro intellectuals. But to have one for dinner in my house — oh no, my friend! That would not be kind to THEM! They aren’t used to our way of living and thinking. Can you imagine any Negro, no matter what theological training he might pretend to have, being comfortable with Mrs. Buncer, who is highly interested in Scarlatti and the harpsichord, and who studied at the Fort Wayne Conservatory of Music? No, Neil — no!”

“What do you think of this local colored Baptist preacher, Dr. Brewster — some such a name?”

“I’ve met DOCTOR Brewster. Oh, he seems a very decent, humble man.”

“Why is it that we don’t seem to have any colored members in our church, and so few even drop in for services?”

“When they do drop in, as you somewhat lightly put it, I’ve told our ushers to explain that while any darky is perfectly welcome to fellowship with us, still we feel that he would be much happier with his own people, down in the Five Points. I imagine the ushers make that point quite clear — as, indeed, they should.

“There are some young ministers who disagree with me. They act as if they were the paid agents of the labor unions and a lot of Jewish and Negro organizations. Even birth-control! Well, we are told that Our Lord broke bread with thieves and sinners, but there is no hint that He sat down with doubters and trouble-makers and destroyers of the Christian home and self-seeking agitators, white, black, or yellow, do you see, my boy?”

“I see more clearly now, and many thanks, Doctor,” said Neil.

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