Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 52

Glenn Tartan called in Drexel Greenshaw, and tittered, “I’ve got some bad news to tell you, old man, and I want you to know that it isn’t in any way my fault. The owners have decided to change our policy and employ only white help in the dining-rooms and so I’m afraid — But we all wish you the very best of luck, and I’ve dictated a letter of recommendation that’ll knock your eye out.”

If the oratorical Drexel said anything now, it was not heard.

He tried to see the chief owners of the Hotel Pineland, but they were too busy. They were Dr. Henry Sparrock and Mrs. Webb Wargate, who was everywhere known as a Great Friend of the Negro. Dr. Sparrock was busy campaigning for the Red Cross, and Mrs. Wargate for the Suffer the Little Children League.

Drexel sneaked back to the three-room cottage which he shared with his daughter Garnet, and for a week he was ashamed to leave it. The tough boys from Texas and Arkansas, kicked out of Wargate’s and loafing around the Bar-B-Q, would have laughed at him.

Garnet said good-bye to Phil Windeck and went off to work in Chicago. Drexel sold his house, and lived with his other daughter, Mrs. Emerson Woolcape.

He tried not to, but he could not help criticizing her cooking, her bed-making, and her care of the baby. He told himself — she did not tell him — that he would have to stay away from her house by day. He got a waiter’s job in a very nasty hash-house, from which he was discharged within a week, for criticizing everything in sight, including the overcharges. Albert Woolcape was willing to set him up in a chicken-joint of his own, but Drexel was suddenly afraid of responsibility.

For some months he sat on Emerson’s porch, wondering whether the no-count white waiters now at the Fiesole Room would understand that Mr. Randy Spruce had to have four lumps in his coffee — things like that, which only Drexel understood.

Drexel died alone, suddenly, during a summer thunderstorm. Garnet came back for his funeral, and gave up all notion of marrying Phil Windeck, who was running whisky into Oklahoma, in partnership with Sugar Gowse. Garnet is now a civil-service stenographer in Chicago, lonely and chaste, she who was so ripe for love.

When the Fiesole Room had changed to white waiters, Randy Spruce had made another entry in the Sant Tabac books, and chuckled. Poor dear fuzzy Randy, who was some day to be caught in a scandal with a telephone operator and to skip town. He did such a lot of evil, but all so innocently. If he had ever asked himself why he hated Negroes, he would probably have found that he did not hate them. He had never really met one. He meant so well. They say he has a wonderful job now with the Atomic Bomb Perfume Company.

Select portions of that April might have been called spring, even in Grand Republic. As he made pyramids of early daffodils in the showcase, Neil whistled, with a feeling that he had never been anything but a devoted florist.

Mr. Brandl looked anxious over his morning mail and over a couple of unexplained telephone calls, during which he answered nothing but “Yes” and “I see.” After scratching his hands and worrying his soft gray bush of hair, he trembled, “Neil, I keep hearing where you are a friend of a Dr. Davis, that is a very bad Negro agitator. I would like to stand by you, but I know from the war what tattle and rumor can be like. I could lose all my business, and I have an old wife.”

Neil sighed, “Okay, Ulrich, I quit. Tell the Sant Tabac boys that you fired me.”

Mr. Brandi mourned, “I want to give you a lovely reference for your next job.”

What next job?

Vestal was not too astonished when he walked into the house before eleven in the morning, a man out of work. “Cheer up. I knew it would come. Now I’M going to get a job myself, and keep it till Booker T. is about ready to arrive.”

“How?”

“I’ve already talked with Levi Tarr, at the Emporium. I won’t be on the counter at first, but in the marking-room. And don’t go getting proud and uxorious on me, and be offended by my working. We have to have the money.”

“I’m not GOING to get proud and what-is-it! I know we do.”

After seeing wartime women in uniform, in overalls, he was not so ashamed of letting her go to work as his father would have been, but he still had his young-white-gentleman worries:

“Will it be all right for Booker T.?”

(They had never agreed on this working title for the coming baby, and neither of them really approved of anything so flippant. It had chosen itself and it persisted.)

“Sure, he’s a healthy little brute. And they have a doctor’s office right in the store.”

“The other clerks will plague you, as the wife of a colored man.”

“Not me they won’t! I’ll plague back. I’m not tolerant like you, Captain! And your mother — she does face things, when she has to — she’s promised to fetch Biddy from kindergarten and keep her afternoons till I get back. Oh, it won’t be so bad. And some day — I’ve been thinking; all this prejudice against you simply must cease. Isn’t this the Land of the Noble Free? I hear so. In a couple years you’ll be in the dough again, and I can stay home with Biddy and Booker and recline on my new chaise longue and say to my maid, very languid, ‘Bring me my nail-polish, Anzolette, and just pop your head out of the window, will you, and see if little Master Booker is playing around in his helicopter.’ Oh, Neil, Neil, he will be white then, when all this is over, he will be white, WON’T he!”

She did go to work at Tarr’s. Apparently she was quick and competent, and soon she was selling furniture, on which she was an expert — by a Sylvan Park standard. Apparently no one dared to mock her, twice.

Neil rose before seven, got her breakfast, bullied Biddy into resuming the burdens of life, waved good-bye to the family wage-earner when she hurried off, washed the dishes and swept the house, took Biddy to kindergarten. But instead of feeling degraded and made small, he was pleased that he could do this little for Vestal, and pleased that there was this one place where he could work without rebuke for being black.

It was when he trudged out to look for more virile labor, like making figures in large books and saying, “The discount rate is one and a quarter per cent.,” that he was dreary; it was when he abandoned the refuge of home to go and be dutiful to the other members of his family that he was helpless. His brother Robert hated him, had resigned his job and was going off to anonymity in Chicago even before he should be divorced.

Sometimes Neil could work up a little rage in his own defense. Why couldn’t his family admit that they were, by the very definitions they had all maintained, Negroes, and face the world with Negro courage, not with the white mythology about the delights of exclusive clubs and polite churches and invitations to dull houses? Was this structure of anxious jealousies, this “good society,” so precious that, in losing it, his family had suffered very picturesquely?

Sometimes, aside from his mother, these people seemed not related to him at all. Much closer were not only Ash and Phil and Sophie but a youngster like Winthrop Brewster who, in the university, was studying electricity and manners, teleology and basketball, Sibelius symphonies and dancing with girls of all colors, and who at pipe-fogged “bull sessions” spoke up as briskly as any of the collegians who were the sacred descendants of Norfolk hedgers, Killarney potato-diggers, Welsh miners and French skunk-skinners. Why could Kitty and Charley Sayward not be as realistic as this boy?

It was hard to be so realistic himself as to demand that Vestal accept the fact that her two children would be “colored,” and learn to see all “colored” people as human. He was joyful when, on a Sunday morning, Vestal said eagerly, “Know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take Biddy and go call on Dr. and Mrs. Davis.” (She never did come to call them Ash and Martha.) “I want to have their little girl come play with Biddy some day.”

“But Nora is almost ten years older than Bid.”

She was touchy. “Of course if you don’t WANT me to call on your —”

“No, no, no, no, I’d be delighted, and I do hope you’ll come to like them. You know, don’t you, that Ash has been fired?”

“So?”

She had no notion, clearly, that Ash’s discharge meant anything more to him than a like embarrassment to a white chemist. Ash was still in town only to sell his house, with a choice between being cheated by Frank Brightwing and gypped by William Stopple. He might not be in a mood to be patronized by Vestal, but she was so pleased with her own resolution that Neil tried to cheer it.

She would not let him go with them. She was full of enterprise and benevolence, though Biddy did ruffle her by a certain over-enthusiasm about going to see “Uncle Ash and Aunt Martha and darling, DARLING Nora.” Biddy had made detailed plans for the presentation of a play and a grand opera by herself and Nora (whom she had never seen), this coming summer, and when Neil explained that Nora would no longer be here, Biddy waved all such triviality away, as blithely arrogant as her mother.

— I guess that’s all to the good. Bid will be like Winthrop. She’ll say, “Certainly I’m colored. I also have one crooked toe. So what!”

On that cold April afternoon, after lunch, Vestal started beamingly off for the bus, with Biddy prancing under the skeleton maple trees. They were to be home at five. At a quarter past four, they returned, silent.

“Don’t be such a baby — take your own coat off, and skip upstairs and play,” Vestal ordered Biddy, while Neil was rigid. His “Well?” was cautious.

“If you must know, it didn’t go so well. Oh, they were just as pleasant as they could be, and they do have a nice house, but — Maybe it had nothing to do with their being colored, maybe they’re just too intelligent for me, but I caught myself wishing that I were at Judd Browler’s, talking about vegetable gardens. And Nora was just too darned nice and patronizing to our poor moron child. Neil, are you so sure you really want me to try and feel natural with your highbrow buddies — all these Hindus and Koreans and Zionists and Nigerians? I do get so sick of propaganda. I’m not sure I can do it, my dear. I’m not sure it will go. At all.”

Neither was Neil.

Ash had not yet found his teaching job (he had given up calling it a college position), but he had sold his house through Frank Brightwing, who was very jovial about “you darkies” and had willingly persuaded the purchaser to pay almost half the value. Ash believed that jobs would be more easily found in the educational slave-market of New York, and he was leaving Grand Republic — probably forever, lamented Neil.

Vestal said abruptly, No, she did not think she wanted to go with him to see the Davises off. Besides, she couldn’t run away from her job that way! Whether she meant to or not, it seemed to Neil that she was reminding him that she, the tragic white woman, was toiling to support a vagrant Negro, and that such heroism was too uncomfortable to last.

Grand Republic was proud of its new Union Station and the waiting-room the Great Hall, of gray limestone with murals of the explorers Radisson and Groseilliers, David Thompson, Le Sueur, Lieutenant Pike, the Sieur Dulhut. Neil plumed himself, “Xavier was one of those fellows. Biddy and I belong with them, not with the Prutts and Wargates — those parvenus!”

Not the departing Ash himself had more greeters among the Negro crowd than Neil. How many of them he had come to know on first-name terms in these six months: all the Woolcapes and Davises and Brewsters, Phil Windeck — who was now a bootlegger and overdressed in zoot-suit fanciness, Axel Skagstrom, Borus Bugdoll, Wash, Hack Riley, Dr. Darius Melody, Sugar Gowse. As for Sophie, Neil twined his arm with hers so naturally that he did not know he was doing it.

They were all crying to the Davises, “Gosh, we’re going to miss you, Professor,” and “Kiss Harlem for me, Ash,” and “Oh, Martha, we need you!” and “Oh, come back soon, Nora.” But as Ash turned away from them to go through the train gate, the portal through which he would never return, his eyes had no hope in them. He was leaving not only his friends but the one place — in America — where, for a time, the whites had permitted him to pretend that he was a scientist and a responsible citizen.

The last thing Neil saw of Ash, as he started down the stairs to the train-platform below, his hand in Nora’s, was the apology in his face as a fat white woman cursed him because she had jostled him.

Behind him Neil heard a white man explaining to a friend, “That guy they were saying good-bye to was this educated nigger that was a draftsman or something at Wargate’s. Well, every nigger that leaves here makes this burg just that much better!”

The two men laughed, for they did not hear the earth moving.

When the telephone rang, at home that evening, a woman’s voice, entirely unknown to him, said “Neilly?”

“Yes?”

“So your friend Ash has sneaked out of town and your friend Drexel got the axe. It’ll be your turn soon, sweetie!”

“Who is this?”

“Don’t you wish you knew! But I wouldn’t want a bunch of niggers and perverts to know my nice name! Say, is it true that Vestal has nigger blood, too, on her mother’s side? Why don’t you two unspeakable fakes get out of town? Nobody wants you here!”

Neil hung up; he told Vestal nothing.

Later in the evening, when they were reading, he heard Vestal say, low and urgent, “Don’t look up, but there’s somebody staring in through the window.”

He sprang up, he hobbled rapidly outside, but he found no one.

Mr. Cedric Staubermeyer demanded of Dr. Cortez Kelly, his neighbor, “Wouldn’t you say that Kingsblood absolutely broke his father’s heart, and killed him by his misbehavior?”

The Kelly who had once denied that fine theory agreed: “Yuh, you might put it that way.”

Long hatred of the Jews had given Mr. Staubermeyer both training and professional delight in the art of Rumorizing. Evening after evening, when other residents of Sylvan Park said, “I don’t see anything particularly objectionable about Kingsblood; seems a nice quiet fellow,” Mr. Staubermeyer gave forth, “You know he not only got fired from the bank for embezzlement but had a fight with his own father and yelled at him so outrageously that the poor old fellow dropped dead from a heart attack. I heard that from old Doc Kingsblood’s own assistant, who was right there at the time.”

“What? Is that so? Well!”

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