Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 41

They were alone in the evening, sadly reading. At the doorbell’s sound, Vestal speculated, “After ten — what gives? It’s probably Brother Robert, come over to enjoy a little knitting and worry. I better go. I’ll tell him we’re just off to bed.”

There was a jangle of voices when the door opened, and high laughter, rough and derisive. Neil rose, ready for battle, but he heard Vestal, like a flute too shrill, inviting, “Certainly, come right in. Enchanted to see you. . . . Now that was very thoughtful of you!”

At the living-room door there were three black faces and one plastered dead-white, all maliciously merry, and they were Borus Bugdoll of the Jumpin’ Jive, Hack Riley, a dark ex-soldier, a white Polish girl called Faydis — surname forever unknown — and the black rose, Belfreda Gray, bubbling, “I always swore I’d come in the front door here, and by God, I have!”

“And, by God, so you have!” Vestal said sweetly.

Self-assured yet languid, hard as a flyer, his thin nose dark and bold above a race-track tie, a black hawk that liked to kill little birds, Borus winked at Vestal, glanced derisively at the jangled Neil, and said smoothly, “Good evening. My name is Bugdoll. I am a saloonkeeper. I heard there was a new mixed couple in town, and I always call and welcome them to our gang.”

Faydis crowed, “Yeh, him and me are mixed. He used to go with Bel, but her and Hack have clicked, and Borus is my fellow, and I’m just as white as you folks, maybe more so, but do I love my little brown dumpling! Yeh, I’m just like you, Vestal, living with a colored boy, and is it good cuddling — I’ll say!”

Neil drew the breath of one about to repel boarders, but Vestal’s voice, clear, low, only to be caught by a husband, insisted, “No. I want you to see what your intellectual friends are like!” Then, cheerily, “Do sit down, everybody. Belfreda — if I’m not being too intimate — how is everything going?”

She was so placid, so merry, that already she had taken the fuse out of their joke. Borus, an expert in social relations, stood easily, a little taller than Vestal, and he condescended, “You know, you’re a good guy, lady.”

He stared at her with such amusement, as though he knew all her thoughts and snobbishnesses and generosities, knew her in ball-gown or bathing suit, that she flushed and lost the lead. She said hastily, “Neil, I’ll get some drinks for your friends. Will you make them at home?”

He thought how taut, quick, knife-sliding, Borus looked, and he said carefully, with the expectation of trouble, “What do you mean by butting in here?”

“Maybe just to needle you, and maybe to see whether you’re an honest-to-God raceman or another gravy-sermon, race-relations highbrow. We was wondering if you can take it with us coalheavers, Neil?”

He felt that properly he ought to be offended, and found that he was not at all offended; that a lot of fine, high social fences which he had supposed to exist between Captain Kingsblood (of the Kingsbloods) and Borus the black bartender had been shadows, and that he might be lucky to have the friendship of a Borus, when all the Featherings set upon him.

“I hope so, Borus,” he said, very gravely. “But I’m green. I’ll have to count on you, if I can.”

“You bet!” said Hack Riley, and Borus drawled, “Maybe you can,” as one who meant it, or would mean it some day, or would very nearly mean it.

Vestal came in with a huge maple tray with drinks and ice and soda. Hack clumsily rose, reaching out his hands to take it, but the deft Borus was ahead of him, and he began to mix, while Hack and Faydis looked shyly about the serenity and assurance of the room. They all had highballs, and everything was changed, and these were no longer black invaders resented by lofty whites, but just six young people, fond of ribaldry and laughter, having a surprisingly good time together. They laughed at Borus’s stories of greedy white policemen, at Hack’s opinion of white sergeants, at Vestal’s first surprise at their entrance.

Belfreda wanted to know, “How’s Biddy?”

“Getting so big now!” said Mother Vestal.

“You ought to give her more broccoli.”

“That’s so.”

“And how is Nigger — Prince, I mean!” said Belfreda:

There was a trace, inevitably, of race-talk.

Borus agreed completely with Mr. Feathering about Negro culture. “What does a smoke want of drayma when he can get a bankroll and a nice piece — pink or tan?” he scoffed.

Hack Riley offered, “I meant to kid the pants off you, Cap, but you’re all right. I guess you’ll have a mean time with the ofays. So what? I’ve had one, all my life! I’d like to see you stowing cargo, or pearl-diving!”

It is almost certain that Vestal supposed “pearl-diving” to mean diving for pearls. She replied firmly, “I’m sure he’ll do it splendidly. He’s such a wonderful swimmer.”

She wondered why they laughed so flatteringly.

They stayed not an hour. At farewell, Belfreda patted Vestal’s hand, and the troop of the gay enchanted went sliding off in Borus’s sumptuous car, with shrieks of “You two guys are okay! Come see us at the Jive.” Once, their people had plodded the Carolina roads while Massa galloped, but a Negro in a car goes as fast as a white man.

Neil crowed, “They’re roughnecks, but they’re fun. They’d be swell friends, if you ever needed them. Can’t you see why I take them seriously?”

Vestal examined him coldly. “Those clowns? My dear boy, have you gone quite mad?”

“I thought you rather liked them.”

“Well, I didn’t want our throats cut.”

“Oh, nonsense!” Neil protested. “They’re much decenter than Curtiss Havock, and much smarter.”

“Who isn’t! You mean to say you could ever tolerate the way that horrible Bugdoll leers? I could have him whipped! I’m not Southern, but I’m awful white.”

“Oh, I liked it as much as I do the way Eliot Hansen simpers at you and always manages to touch you! And Borus has courage. Some day we might be very glad to have a house next to him.”

“You might. Not me. I won’t be there!”

“No? Well, I think I’ll walk a few blocks before I turn in.”

He rather wanted to be unfaithful to his oppressive wife, as regularized young husbands often do when they are sorely puzzled, when they feel that new and surprising caresses of warmer arms might provide a rational explanation of everything. He very much wanted to telephone to Sophie Concord.

And so, after five minutes of cold air and loneliness, he came home and argued with Vestal till midnight.

February had come in, and the sidewalks were perilously icy under the shifty covering of snow. Cars stalled and slipped backward when they tried to run up the hills, and the chains about the tires as they hit the fenders flapped all day long in an irritable chorus.

In the Capital of the Nation, a few Southern Senators refused to let their fellow Titans even vote upon a bill to prevent employers from refusing jobs on the grounds of an applicant’s color.

Fort Sumter had been fired on again, and the Deep South had again seceded from the American Constitution, and this time they were supported by more Northern Copperheads. The new Jefferson Davis was yet to be chosen, but a clear statement of Southern ideals and a bugle-call to armed rebellion had been issued by that aristocratic old planter, Mr. David L. Cohn, who in the obliging Atlantic Monthly had recently stated:

“There are whites and Negroes who would attempt to break down segregation in the South by Federal fiat. Let them beware. I have no doubt that in such an event every Southern white man would spring to arms and the country would be swept by civil war.”

There was no Lincoln now to call for troops and, eighty-five years after it had started, the War Between the States was won by the South. And in a small frozen city in the North Central States, a Negro named Neil Kingsblood was having trouble in keeping his job, not because of any incompetence or incivility but because of his color — even though he did not have that color, and God still reigned and everything was mysterious in its wondrous lack of any sense whatever.

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