Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 53

The epidemic of firing went on, but not everything was evil for the lost people in dark Egypt. Certain returned soldiers said that if a man could die with them in Europe, he could dine with them in Minnesota, and they had Phil Windeck elected to the American Legion.

Yet they were less friendly than their fathers might have been. Thirty years before, the Negroes had seemed to be gaining so much more of what they wanted because they had apparently wanted so much less. They had demanded then only a roof and sidemeat and not to be lynched. Now, they were demanding every human right, and whites who were self-admiringly willing to give them a dish of cold potatoes were sometimes unwilling to give them room at the workbench and the polling-booth, and muttered, “We’ve been too easy. We got to clamp down on these apes before they claim they can do our job just as good as we can.” The black crusade had never seemed so risky as now, but any gain that was made was a real increase in human dignity, not a pink bow tied on inescapable chains.

Neil might have been comforted by Phil’s small laurels — he did not know how doubtful Phil himself was about accepting them — but he was suffering from domestic twinges. Vestal was doing so well at Tarr’s that she began to see herself not just as husband’s little helper but, quite properly, as on her way to a lively career of her own in what she had come to consider “the art of merchandising.” She was turning from a Popular Young Matron into a woman. She exulted to Neil that, after Booker T. arrived, she could hire a nurse for him and become a buyer, a department-head, at Tarr’s, with her own office, her trips to New York, drawing-room on the train, hotel suite, handsome dinners.

— Maybe some day she’ll own a business and give me a job as colored porter. Am I doing her any kindness by sticking to her? Why not give up this house, this way of living? Could I be a man on my own? Can I get the education that enables a Sugar Gowse to live alone? Ought I to go? I will if it seems best for her.

But that mild resolution did not help him a couple of days later when he walked in on the interesting scene of Morton Beehouse, backed by Brother Oliver and by Vestal’s sister from Duluth, making his most determined effort to save his poor daughter.

“Ah, good evening, Neil. Do sit down,” said Morton — in Neil’s own house. “We are faced by no pleasant duty this afternoon, but I give you credit, whatever faults of evasion of responsibility you may have shown, for possessing good intentions. We feel you don’t realize how you have permitted Vestal and Biddy to drift into a position of ignominy.”

Vestal was merely listening. Either she agreed, or she had promised to keep still.

“If you did realize it,” Morton went on, “you would take steps to end it immediately. It isn’t their fault, it isn’t their doing, that you are a colored man, and I can’t see why you should expect them to bear the penalty.”

Neil wondered, “You expect me to ENCOURAGE them to leave me?” Uncle Oliver jumped in, splashing. “My dear boy, isn’t that obvious? It still isn’t too late to save their reputation, but if you delay much longer —”

“No.”

“What?”

“I said No. I’m completely devoted to Vestal; I do realize her discomfort; I shan’t try to control her; she must do what she wants — which may not be what YOU want, by the way. I did not marry you.”

“Thank God!” said Oliver, with equal vulgarity.

“But I have decided that Biddy and the baby that is to come — if I’m a Negro, then they’re Negroes, and no more of this shame about being what we are that you white men have put over on us.”

“Quite,” said Uncle Oliver. “I see,” said Uncle Oliver. “So you intend to visit on these two innocents the — oh, let’s call it the mark of —”

“No, let’s not call it that. What you don’t understand is that I don’t any longer think they’d be better off as white children. I don’t think my Negro friends ARE inferior to a parchment-head like you. Not to be rude, you know.”

“I see. Quite.”

Now Oliver’s firm had represented the Eisenherz estate, and Oliver knew all about Sylvan Park real-estate titles and about “restrictive covenants,” those gentlemanly agreements whereby white purchasers of property agreed never to sell to any Negro, not even to Dumas or St. Augustine. All of Grand Republic, except the Five Points, Swede Hollow, Canoe Heights and a few tracts of swamp-land, was now covered by these restrictive covenants, which have been the most delightful of devices for tactfully saying to all clean and ambitious Negroes that the better whites preferred them to be dirty, unambitious, and distant.

Oliver also knew a great deal about the Sant Tabac, and he went to Boone Havock and Rodney Aldwick to discuss it, though none of the three was on the official roll of Sant Tabac members.

Neil and Vestal heard the street door close, that Sunday afternoon, and then, in the dining-room, the sound of Biddy, crying desperately. When they galloped in, she raised her head to stare at them mutinously, her wet eyes red and desolate. She choked, “Mummy, Mrs. Staubermeyer says I’m a nigger.”

“Oh —”

“Am I a nigger?”

“Only as much as your father and mother are, and you can see for yourself how much that is,” Vestal swore, “and we think we’re pretty nice, don’t you?”

“Am I a nigger like Little Black Sambo? Or that nasty boy on the shoeblacking can?”

“Not a bit like Little Black Sambo. More like Uncle Ash. Or Nora.”

“Oh, I love them!”

“Biddy! Quick! What happened?”

“I was playing with Teddy and Tessie Staubermeyer and Teddy said I was a nigger, and I said no I wasn’t, and he said his papa and mama were all the time laughing at my daddy because he is a nigger and so I’m a nigger, too, Teddy said, and he said I couldn’t play with them any more unless I all undressed, and I didn’t want —”

“What’s all this?” Neil’s anger was that of a cold man.

“He said and Tessie said, if I was a nigger, I was a slave, and slaves aren’t good for nothing except to take off their clothes and parade around in front of their masters, bare-naked. And then Mrs. Staubermeyer, she was listening to us from the porch —”

“She was?”

“— and she said no, they didn’t ought to make me undress, it was too cold, but it was a good joke on me, though, my daddy was so high and mighty and he wasn’t nothing but a nigger, she said, and I better get out of there and go home. And I went.”

They coaxed Biddy into laughing before she was put to bed, and she announced that while she was a Negro like Nora Davis, she was also an Indian princess named Rosemary Kitten Sunshine. She was already devoted to both of those romantic strains, with a sentimentality her father could never achieve.

Outside her room, Neil growled, “I’m sorry she had to get the news that way, from a family of degenerates. Come. We’re going to have a talk with the Staubermeyers.”

On his way down the hall, he glanced into his “den” and noticed his favorite Winchester on the wall. He made no particular connection, but he did remember that he was an excellent rifle-shot and that this form of sport is not hindered by a lame leg.

Cedric Staubermeyer, dealer in paints and carpets, was not meaty and resolute like his neighbor, Mr. W. S. Vander. He was puffy and pouting and unpunctual, but in his hysteria he was dangerous. When he found Neil and Vestal at his front door — it was of golden oak, with net curtain inside a diamond-shaped plate-glass insert — he looked embarrassed and sulkily muttered, “Come in.”

The mantel in the parlor was also of golden oak, with a plate-glass mirror, and on the more-or-less Oriental table-cover was a pamphlet by Jat Snood.

Mrs. Staubermeyer was a loftier character than her husband: a vixen with free-running gray hair. She stood with her arms in two sharp V’s.

Neil remarked, “I’m not going to talk about calling the police or any of that monkey-business, but if there’s any repetition of what happened to my daughter this afternoon, I’m going to start trouble.”

“And just how?” demanded Mrs. Staubermeyer.

As that was a challenge hard to meet, Neil was relieved when Cedric started shrieking, “You’ll start trouble? You’ll get into trouble, more trouble, you mean! Got any idea how glad this neighborhood would be to get rid of all you coons? Including yours truly! I always had an idea you were a nigger or something, Kingsblood, because you got along so well with the kikes and the wops!”

Vestal bored in, “Are you two cultured Gentiles aware that your son suggested that my daughter take off her clothes?”

Mrs. Staubermeyer laughed, like the scratch of a file, and she giggled, “Oh, he’s practically a grown man, that way. All the Staubermeyer men mature so early. And let me tell you, madam, that we don’t never want your daughter to come into our yard again, so you needn’t worry!”

For days, Biddy was alternately afraid and slightly proud of her misadventure, and in sleep she trembled. Various more or less horrible versions of what had happened skipped about the neighborhood, and in no few of them, Biddy had been flagrantly indecent. They kept her at home as much as they could, and they rejoiced:

“Anyway, thank Heaven, she always will have a nice yard of her own to play in.”

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