Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 46

All Sunday he brooded on his Beaux Arts job, his week of humiliation as a large crested bird in a very small gilded cage surrounded by tittering bird-fanciers. He determined that as a Negro worker he would neither drift nor put up with insolence. He would look for the pattern and learn it.

He did not punch the time-clock on Monday morning, but walked into Harley’s private office and said breezily, “That certainly was a phony job, Harley. Let me know, next summer, anything I can do to improve your golf, and good luck till then!”

It was a time for a Negro, even one so newly born, to be defiant or be broken. The first considerable race-riot since the end of World War II had exploded, in Tennessee; the typical war of uniformed policemen against terrified plain tanned citizens and their women and children.

It seemed to Neil that he would have considerable solace if he could have one more good lunch before he started the cold job-hunt again. He marched into the Fiesole Room at the Pineland, stating to himself, “I’m not looking for any trouble here, none at all; I’m just standing on my rights.” In other words, he was looking for trouble, and doing a dance on his rights.

Drexel Greenshaw seemed to hesitate about admitting him to that Pompeian sanctity but, merely nodding, he escorted Neil to a third-rate table by a back pillar, the kind that was reserved for farmers, small-town ministers, saints, and such riffraff. But the colored waiter served Neil quickly and politely, and Neil contentedly thought about ordering a large cigar. Then Glenn Tartan, manager of the hotel, had materialized out of some garlanded Orient jar, and was standing beside him, pleasantly inquiring, “Was everything all right? Service all right?”

Neil said heartily, “Why, fine, Glenn, just fine.”

“Then please note that we have fully complied with the law. Our regular clientele complain vigorously about you colored gentlemen coming in here and spoiling their lunch, but we have served you. And now may I ask you never to come in here again?”

Glenn went away quickly.

While Neil was still gasping, the Drexel Greenshaw who had so recently been so humble to the young banker, Mr. Kingsblood, moved up and said blankly, “Let me give you a little friendly advice, Neil. You ought to get a steady job and be humble to white folks and know your place and not step out of it, and stay away from exclusive places like this. The whites have the power, and it’s much wiser not to antagonize them. I know exactly how to get along with them; I never have the slightest trouble. I’ll never lose my job — as you did, at the Beaux Arts.”

“How did you know that?”

“We Negroes have to know everything, in order to get along in a mean white world. So get wise to yourself, boy, and stay where you belong. Maybe, in time, if you get a reputation as a sensible darky, your daughter will go ahead of you, as my daughters have, and be able to get a nice clean job. There’s certainly got to be a change in the colored position, BUT THIS ISN’T THE TIME FOR IT. All this revolution talk is wicked and foolish — and by the way, I want you to quit putting a lot of rebellious ideas in Phil Windeck’s head. He’s to be my son-inlaw, and I don’t want you corrupting him!”

“Me cor —”

“Yes, sure. You been acting very bad. Neil, it don’t make no difference what you were ONCE. Now, you’re nothing but another colored man. Play safe, like me. Now scram. I’m taking a chance on even being seen talking to you.”

— My daughter, my shining, light-footed Biddy, in a “nice, clean job”— maybe in Rod Aldwick’s kitchen!

On Sophie’s insistence, he finally went down to Mayo Street, to see Mr. Vanderbilt Litch, who was a Prominent Colored Elk and who did very well with undertaking, insurance and roulette. Mr. Litch, in a scarlet-and-chromium office with a smart colored stenographer, frigidly explained that he did not care to employ a white man who only pretended to be a Negro in order to get in on the policy racket.

— Well, I’m glad to know that some of the colored boys have reached such a high point of culture that they can snub you just as quietly as Uncle Oliver Beehouse!

He did find, in the Five Points, enough spare-time bookkeeping to keep him from starving, and that with the most successful two Negro businessmen in town: Axel Skagstrom of the Gunflint Trail Canoe Corporation, and Albert Woolcape of the Ne Plus Ultra Laundry, men who did not belong in the Feathering picture of the Shiftless Darky.

Mr. Skagstrom, who was married to a white Finnish woman and who was half Swede, quarter Negro, quarter Chinese, with traces of Choctaw and Mexican — which made him one hundred per cent. African — manufactured excellent canoes. He was a pious Lutheran and he disapproved of what he called “all this vice and laziness that you find among so many colored folks.” He felt pretty well about his generosity in employing as many Negroes as whites in his factory. He was a typical American businessman, except that he was less interested in race-questions than most of them, and he was glad to have Neil step into his accounting-room every Friday — at cut rates.

Albert Woolcape was the brother of John, the uncle of Ryan, but no friend of either. They were too radical for him. In his busy laundry on Chicago Avenue, he was willing to employ Negroes, but as most of his customers were white, he insisted that all of his drivers and collectors be white also. When he took on Neil for part-time accounting, Albert granted, “I guess maybe this race-ideal stuff is all right, but a fellow has got to think of himself first, ain’t he? Look at the difference between my bank-account and John’s! And that Ryan, with all his education, got nothing but a job on a farm!”

Working on Albert’s and Skagstrom’s books, with the telephone always querulous just behind him and the light never quite right, Neil felt exactly as he had in his hours of book-work at the Second National, except that his two employers were more anxious to please him, as one who, after all, might be “white.” He was not sure but that he preferred the suspiciousness of Mr. Vanderbilt Litch.

When he indignantly reported his employers’ distrust of Negroes to Ash and Martha, they laughed. Said Ash, “You’re a promising ethnologist. The only thing you’ve missed is the whole point. We’ve told you right along that there isn’t any difference. It’s only you and radical Harlem who insist that everything in ebony must be better than anything in birchwood. Quit being a race-fancier! Besides, there’s a lot of our race and a lot of our white friends who believe that the way for us to be popular and urged to join the Federal Club is to have a conspicuous number of our boys who become rich and own apartment houses. True, the Irish and Jews have tried the method for centuries and failed at it, but what of that!”

Neil had had only a month of job-hunting, but he had stumped his way to so many places that it seemed a year. Through it all, they had their home, sacred and secure — and paid for! To Neil it was the more important, now that he had no office, no club, no houses of old-time friends where he could be sure of welcome, and he did not think that, without it, Vestal would have been able to stand by him.

On most evenings, they stayed home, and when they did not, they usually regretted it. As:

Louise Wargate, Mrs. Webb Wargate, had always seemed to Neil traditionally the Great Lady; gentle, literate, thoughtful, not altogether human. (She was born an Osthoek of Utica, and met Webb when he was in Harvard. Her position was so ducal that she could afford to look like a farm-wife: in gardening-gloves, freckled, without lipstick. We are on a high plane here, and know nothing of Nurse Concord or Albert the Laundryman or white cottages bought on the installment-plan.) As the mother of his old playmate, Ackley, Mrs. Wargate had been to Neil an even smile, a cool hand, and chocolate peppermints in a silver box, but never singing or cookies or sliding down hill, never.

Now, when Neil and Vestal were in a social concentration camp, they had from Mrs. Wargate a civil invitation to dinner, the first they had ever had from her. Neil, after a false dawn of exultation, decided that they had been invited because Louise Wargate felt guilty over not having done for the Negroes all that she had intended when she had first encouraged Webb to hire more of them at the plant. Neil was beginning to see a good deal of that uncomfortable guilt among the worthier clergy and legal gentlemen.

Vestal said, “I don’t think I’m very crazy to go.”

“I’m not, either. It’ll be like tea at the morgue. But I do think we ought to recognize her effort. I do know it’s been hell on you, getting dropped out of everything that we used to consider decent society —”

“USED to?”

“— and having to become a hermit. Won’t you believe that I’ve suffered about you, in my dumb way?”

“Oh, I know. And I don’t want to be a Christian martyr chanting. I’ll learn to take it. Only sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for you if — Neil, isn’t there some awfully nice colored gal that could help you more than I can?”

“Conceivably, but I have dedicated my life to you, and I’d like to try and keep that dedication straight.”

She beamed, though what she said, since this was Grand Republic, was “Okay, Romeo, let’s go!”

The Webb Wargate house, on Varennes Boulevard overlooking the Sorshay Valley, was a red-roofed Touraine chateau, larger than Bertie Eisenherz’s manorial Hillhouse, and with more ells, eaves, gables, ornamental chimneys, portes-cocheres, near-marble near-fauns, fountains containing nothing but old hand-bills, flying buttresses, stationary buttresses, raped intaglios, hanging gardens, weather vanes, xats, and Keep-er-Klosed Kasement Windows, but with less books and less pictures. Altogether high-class and European, with pioneer Yankee-lumberman trimmings.

Neil and Vestal were received with gray-silk courtesy by Mrs. Wargate and with jittery incredulity by Webb, who as usual looked like the Second Bookkeeper and Gravedigger, like a saver of paper clips and rubber bands — inquiring but mute, and always apprehensive lest somebody take it away from him.

They had cocktails in the Small Drawing Room, and as Webb passed them to the guests, he was a little taut, as though he were not at all sure but that these ravening black fieldhands might bite him. He had played bridge with Vestal’s father for centuries, but he seemed to be saying, “I know so little about you colored people that I don’t even know whether it is considered etiquette to offer you a cocktail.”

The Wargate dining-room was vast, with exposed beams painted in gold and crimson, and a flooring of figured tiles. They were waited upon by an aged Swedish woman who evidently had been prewarned and held out platters to Vestal and Neil as though she were handling baskets of hot coals. The food was all hardnesses covered with floury sauces. And there were no other guests. Son Ackley and his consort were so conspicuously absent and unmentioned that they were overwhelmingly present.

The talk tried to keep itself away from the subject of Negroes. It was Vestal who deliberately yanked up the curtain.

“You know, it’s been funny, the number of confused people who assume that somehow I have magically become a Lady of Color — oh, yes, people we all know, who are bright enough to sign checks and go round in eighty-four. The poor Junior Leaguers are in a quandary, one of the deepest quandaries this side of the Grand Canyon. They don’t like to kick out the daughter of Morton the Magnificent, and maybe the easiest thing for the poor darlings would be to disband the League. Don’t you think so, Mr. Wargate?”

“Yes — yes — I see how you mean,” faltered Webb.

He had a suspicion that she was being humorous, and however powerful Webb Wargate was at selling wallboard and plastic brushes in Chicago and Venice and on Mount Kaimakischalan, he always had vertigo and pains behind the eyeballs in the presence of humor. But he also had his duty as a leading member of the National Association of Manufacturers, and now that these guinea pigs had themselves brought up the embarrassing subject of vivisection, he felt that he ought to encourage them, he ought to Get in Touch with Changing Conditions. He turned quakingly to Neil:

“Tell me — I’m perhaps inexcusably ignorant — but is the desire for political participation making much headway among the, uh, colored population?”

“I haven’t much information on it, sir, but I imagine so.”

“You mean, from your own personal experience, you would, on the whole, be inclined to think so?”

“Yes, I— well — I might say that I think I have been somewhat aware of it.”

The conversation never rose again to such dramatic heights.

As they drooped down the Italian marble front steps, Vestal sighed to Neil, “Well, there’s another place we’ll never go again.”

“Looks that way.”

“Who cares? Webb’s grandfather used to saw wood for my grandfather, back in Maine.”

“Is that so?”

“No, but it might be.”

“I wonder how the Wargates ever made so much money and got such a big house?” said Neil.

“I don’t. I wonder what makes them think Brussels sprouts are a food. . . . Oh, sweet, Webb wasn’t trying to highhat you. He’s just a smug, ignorant man. He doesn’t matter — none of them matter — just you and me.”

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