Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

Always Neil felt that the malign small presence of Belfreda was in the room, making his large, ruddy, Caucasian strength seem bloated. When he was shaving, he fancied that she was standing behind him, snickering. When he learnedly answered Biddy’s questions and explained to her that God wants us to go to Sunday School (up to and including age eighteen), he could hear Belfreda’s tiny jeer.

And it was this time, when her flea-like insignificance had reduced his St. Bernard bulk to quivering ridiculousness, that Belfreda picked out for being a race-conscious crusader.

For years they had had a black cocker spaniel which they had named “Nigger” without any thought except that black dogs DO get called Nigger. He was an imploring, mournful-eyed hound, and Biddy’s best friend — next to Belfreda.

On a snowy evening, with Christmas close, Neil came home from the bank with cheerfulness. When Vestal let him in, she stood on the stoop calling, “Nigger, Nigger, here Nigger, here Nig!” The dog dashed up in a complicated and happy waltz and almost upset Biddy in an excess of affection, while the young parents looked on fondly. It was altogether a model family scene, until Belfreda, a black rose, much too pretty in a much too short black skirt, remarked from behind them, “I guess you folks just despise all the colored people, don’t you!”

It was the first time that either of them had ever heard a Negro mention the race; and there was feebleness and embarrassment in Vestal’s plaint, “Why, what do you mean?”

“Calling Nigger, Nigger, Nigger at the front door that way.”

“But my dear, it’s the dog’s name. Always has been.”

“Makes it worse, calling a DOG that. We colored people don’t like the word ‘nigger,’ and when you act like dogs and us are just the same —”

Neil was angry. “All right, all right, we’ll change it! Anything to please you! We’ll call the mutt ‘Prince’!”

Untouched by the effort at sarcasm, blissful in her missionary zeal, Belfreda granted, “That’ll be nice,” and sailed off, while the prancing Biddy, a flitting white moth of a child, yelped, “I don’t want his name to be changed! Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!” Her chirp made the word so enchanting that her correct parents were betrayed into smiling, and that was enough; the little prima donna had a hit, and she knew it.

Though they called after her, she went through the house screaming “Nigger, Nigger!” while the spaniel followed her fondly, a little surprised by all this attention to his name but considering it an excellent idea.

An expressman came with a Christmas package, and Biddy greeted (and offended) that high Caucasian with a hearty, “Hello, Mr. Nigger!”

“Oh, now, darling, you mustn’t use that word!” said Vestal.

Biddy was always willing to co-operate, but this seemed to her a lot of nonsense. “Then why do you and Daddy use it? Why did you call Nigger ‘Nigger’?” she said reasonably, looking friendly but firm.

“We don’t, any more. We just decided that maybe, after all, it isn’t a pretty word.” Vestal was rather too sweet about it.

“Oh, I think it’s a lovely word!” Biddy said with enthusiasm.

Uncle Robert Kingsblood, Neil’s older brother, dropped in then for a free drink, and Biddy yelled at him, “It’s Uncle Nigger!”

“What’s the big idea!” protested Uncle Robert, while Vestal insisted, “Biddy! You stop it now!” But, thoroughly excited by this attention, and slightly hysterical, as all good and energetic children are bound to be at the wrong time, Biddy flashed off to the kitchen, and in horror they heard her address Belfreda, “Hello, Miss Nigger!”

To make disaster utterly distraught, they beard Belfreda cackling with laughter.

They had to explain everything to Brother Robert, who was as curious as a cat, and about as literate.

He commented on the crisis from his experience as Vice–President in Charge of Sales of the Osterud Baking Corporation, Makers of Vitavim Bread, Crisp Crunchy Crusts Jammed with Health and Yumyum:

“You kids want to know how to handle the niggers and not have any trouble? I’ll tell you how to handle the niggers and not have any trouble. At My Firm, we never have any trouble with the niggers, and we never have to fire them, because we never hire any of ’em in the first place! That’s the way to handle ’em and not have any trouble. See how I mean? Same time, I don’t know as I blame Belfreda much, getting sore when you called her a nigger right to her face.”

“But Bob, we didn’t call her that. It was the dog that we called ‘Nigger,’” Vestal clarified it.

“Well, same principle, ain’t it? The girl got sore, didn’t she? She wouldn’t of been here to GET sore if you hadn’t never of hired her in the first place, would she? That shows the difference in what we call the inherent mental capacities of the two races. I wouldn’t never get sore if somebody called ME a nigger. See how I mean? That’s the trouble with you two, going to college instead of getting right into a business career, like I done. Never hire ’em in the first place. So now do I get a drink?”

That was Brother and Uncle Robert Kingsblood, v.p. in c. of s.

At dinner, the Belfreda who had laughed at Biddy’s “Miss Nigger” looked evangelical and unforgiving again, but toward the end of the meal they heard boisterousness from the kitchen: the giggles of Belfreda and a masculine barking.

“My, my, what’s all this! I’m going out and get a glass of water,” alleged Vestal, who had a full glass of water in front of her. She scouted into the kitchen. There, by the gay metal table, standing upright yet seeming to lounge, was a Negro of perhaps thirty-five. His color was dark, his hair frizzly, his lips not thin, yet his nose was a thin blade. He did not suggest cotton-fields but the musical comedy, the race track, the sweet shooting of craps; and he wore bright-blue trousers, a sports-jacket in wide checks, and a shrimp-colored bow tie. He had fine hands and the poised shoulders of a middleweight prizefighter; there was in him an animal beauty made devilish by his stare at Vestal, a bold and amused stare, as though he had known every woman from Sappho to Queen Marie and had understood them all perfectly. His eyes did not merely undress Vestal; they hinted that, in a flustered and hateful way, she was enjoying it.

She was at once saying to herself, “I’ve never in my life seen such a circus-clown get-up,” and wishing that her substantial Neil could wear clothes like that and still look romantic.

Belfreda smiled as though they were just girls together, and cooed, “Oh, Mis’ Kingsblood, this is Mr. Borus Bugdoll. He owns the Jumpin’ Jive Night Club — it’s a lovely place. He’s a friend of mine. He come to see how I was getting along.”

Borus spoke with only the smallest musky taste of Southern Negro accent. “I have heard of Mrs. Kingsblood, often. This is an honor. May I hope that it will be repeated?”

“He’s laughing his head off at me!” Vestal quaked, and with a mumbled something which did no especial credit to her intellectual superiority, she bolted from the kitchen — without the glass of water. She grinned at Neil and quavered, not displeased, “I’ve just been insulted, I think, and I think the gentleman got away with it.”

“Who’s this? Curtiss?”

“No, a person of color named Borus or Boreas Bugdoll, Mister Bugdoll, and don’t leave out the Mister, or else. Borus and Belfreda! I tell you, the darkies ARE comic! And what a lie THAT is! Don’t look now, but I imagine I’ve just been privileged to gaze upon the most attractive and horrid heel I ever saw.”

“What IS all this? Some one in the kitchen?” Neil said mildly.

“Now for Heaven’s sake, don’t be your brother Robert!”

“But who is the brash boy-friend? I’m going out and take a look.”

With Vestal following and in a lively way wondering whether Neil or Borus would do the murdering, he marched into the kitchen. But Borus was gone, and so was Belfreda, and so was the red coupe that had been parked behind the house, and the dishes lay there in the sink, miserable and untouched.

Neil’s sister, the pleasant Kitty, three years older, had always been closest to him of the whole family. She was married to Charles Sayward, a very decent young lawyer who for a term had been city attorney. Kitty and Charles came in this evening, to further their lifework, which was contract bridge.

Serenely playing, forgetting the horrors of domestic insurrection, Vestal looked up, late in the evening, to see Belfreda crooking a finger from the half-darkness of the hall. Behind her was the sardonic Borus Bugdoll.

“You back? What is it?” said Vestal crossly.

“Oh, Mis’ Kingsblood, I’m sorry but I got to quit. Right away. We got sickness in the family.”

The grim warrior-woman snapped, “You mean quit now, for good, at this hour, with the dishes unwashed?”

Borus said smoothly, “You might dock her four bits for failing to do the dishes.”

Not Vestal alone but all the others felt uncomfortably that Borus was laughing at them.

“Oh, I’ll wash ’em,” Belfreda said sulkily.

“No you won’t! I want you to get out right now, and get out quick. I’ll pay you at once.” Vestal stalked to her little cream-colored desk and slammed open her efficient small account-book. “With what I’ve advanced you this month deducted, I owe you $63.65, Belfreda. Oh. I haven’t got that much.”

To the bridge-table: “Anybody got any money?”

From Neil and Charles Sayward, she was able to garner sixty-four dollars, but they had not enough silver for change.

“You might make it the even sixty-four,” purred Borus.

Neil sprang up, full of the most romantic notions about ordering this bandit out of the house, but as he looked at Borus’s amused ease, it was revealed to him that, for his own sport, this was what Borus hoped for.

“Good idea. Make it even,” said Neil. “Good luck, Belfreda. Good-bye, Mr. — Bugdoll, is it?”

He resolutely moved over, like a small but very select company, to shake Borus’s hand. There was a moment’s trial of strength, Borus’s steel claw against Neil’s fist, and then Borus smiled. Neil liked that smile so much that half a minute passed before he remembered to be a superior white man and to say, with the grave courtesy which is the essence of insult, “Would you care to sit down in the kitchen, Mr. Bugdoll, while Belfreda packs?”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Kingsblood. Yes, I’ll sit down in the kitchen . . . while Miss Gray packs.” And vanished.

Vestal came back with laughter from supervising Belfreda’s packing.

“Damn those tramps, they win!”

“How come?” they all said.

“I was simply delighted that Belfreda had up and quit. I felt so free. And I thought I’d show ’em what a grand white-lady I am by being cordial and forgiving. I thought they’d slink off repentantly in his car (which is quite a bus, by the way; I wish we could afford one like it). But they didn’t. They drove off yelling ‘Good-bye, honey’ like hyenas. Because while Belfreda was up packing, Borus washed all the dishes and put ’em away, neater than I ever saw, and he’s left for us, right in the middle of the kitchen table, a jorum of champagne! My God, I never saw a jorum of champagne before, outside of an advertisement!”

“What a man!” admired Kitty Sayward. “I thought he had the most stunning build I ever laid eyes on.”

“Yes, quite a man,” murmured Vestal absently.

But Charles Sayward, most genial of husbands, protested, “What kind of white women do you two think you are, falling for a notorious, booze-peddling, slot-machine-owning, white-slaving black gangster! At least half of this country has plumb gone to hell — the women!”

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