June the twelfth was all brightness and lilacs and new leaves, as was required, for June the twelfth was Biddy’s fifth birthday. It was fit for the birthday of a little white lady, with white blossoms, white dresses, and all the white children in the block admiring her and the new roller skates and the toy theater, gold and white.
Neil came home early. The half-dozen girls and the four screaming but attentive young gentlemen of Biddy’s age were playing hide-and-seek in the back yard, around the cement fish-pond and Biddy’s playhouse, of white clapboards thick-covered with vines. All the children, especially Peggy Havock, were fond of Neil, and they danced about him affectionately, crying, “Oh, Mister Capten Kingsblood — oh Mister Capten Kingsblood!”
Vestal came out of the house, tall and benign as an angel, in a long sage-green dress, gold-girdled, and she bore the maple layer-cake of the day, on which, in white on yellow icing, was handsomely engrossed, “Our Biddy — 5.” The six pink candles (one to grow on) were steady in the calm, happy summer afternoon.
To receive the cake, the histrionic Biddy popped into her playhouse and came out wearing her gilt Christmas crown. But if she insisted on being a queen, she was a popular constitutional monarch, and she cut and distributed the slices of cake with royal justice. Neil watched her, and remembered that not for many days had he thought of the Blood Royal. She had it, clearly, but was it from the old lecher, Henry VIII, or from Xavier Pic, regent of the wilderness?
Biddy romped up to him, her eyes diamonds for happiness. She reached up to hug his waist. “Daddy, I never did have such a lovely birthday, not in all my life. Am I always going to have lovely birthdays like this?”
He kissed her roughly.
Prince, erstwhile “Nigger,” who all along had assumed that this was his birthday party and that it was his social duty to welcome his little friends by yelping at them and pushing them over, came hysterically bounding up, licking Biddy’s face, knocking off her crown and laughing at her, and Biddy forgot her royal dignity in a shrill, “Now you bad ole dog, you stop it and be good now or I’ll rule you right out of my cas-tel, you bad ole dog you, NIGGER!”
Neil was irritated.
To Neil at his desk in the bank, came Dr. Ash Davis, and Dr. Davis was a Negro, his face the color of dry brown bright autumn leaves in the sun. Neil had heard that one of the dismaying exigencies of the war had been that the Wargate experimental laboratory had had to hire this colored fellow, Davis — oh, a good enough chemist, a Doctor of Science from the University of Chicago, but still and all, just a darky. That certainly showed, didn’t it (agreed everybody at the Boosters Club luncheon), how hard-up we were for manpower. Though it was a question whether any conceivable contribution to the war effort could justify a precedent like that, of giving a white man’s job to a tough dinge. God knows what it might lead to!
Oh, yes, Neil had heard of Ash Davis.
For the first time in his life he really looked at a “colored man.” He had never looked at Belfreda, at the Emerson Woolcape who had been in his class all through school, at Mac, at the Negro soldiers; he had not looked at them but only been impatiently aware of them, as though in Arabia he were searching for a road-sign in English or French or some human language, and found nothing but an absurd sign in Arabic. Certainly he had never looked at the Negro callers who had arranged with him for bank loans. They had been merely dark hands holding papers, dark voices that were over-ingratiating.
He looked now at Ash Davis, but he did not see a “Negro,” a “colored man.” He saw a curiously charming man of the world who seemed also to be a scholar. He was pricked by the familiar feeling, “Where have I known him before?” He realized that here, plus an extra tan, was Captain Tony Ellerton of the army transport, his one completely ungrudging friend.
Dr. Davis was a man of forty, slim, compact, very easy, not tall, wearing a small black mustache without foppishness. His eyes were steady. He was dressed like any other well-to-do professional man, but he wore his gray lounge-suit with a vaguely European air. Had Neil been Sherlock Holmes, he might have detected in Dr. Davis’s accent an Ohio boyhood, three years in England and France and Russia, friendships with tennis-partners and piano-teachers and laboratory-mates. But he knew only that Dr. Davis spoke clearly and pleasantly, rather like Rodney Aldwick, but more accurately.
He was, in fact, deciding, “This Davis is a bright-looking fellow. I didn’t know there were any Negroes like him. Well, how could I? I’ve never even had the chance to see them.”
(As a matter of fact, a few months before, Neil had sat opposite Dr. Ash Davis in a bus, had heard him talking to a large Negro with a clerical collar, and had never looked at either of them.)
Dr. Davis had, he said, come to beg.
With the war over, hundreds of Negroes would be dismissed from local factories, and the leaders of the Negro community were working with the Urban League in trying to persuade local business firms to give them jobs. Could the Second National hire one or two? He could produce a number of colored business-school graduates who in wartime had been clerks, bookkeepers. How about it?
“How do you happen to come to me?” fretted Neil. “I’d like to do anything I can, but I’m only an assistant cashier.”
Ash Davis had a smile that invited companionship. “Dr. Norman Kamber, who is a good friend of my race, told me you were one banker who could be quite human. I’m afraid that doesn’t sound too complimentary!”
“For Doc Kamber it does. Well, I’ll see what can be done. I really will!”
He tried to think of something that would hold Dr. Davis in talk. He acutely needed someone who understood this Thing that he had become. And the thoughts that had been growing pallidly in the darkness of his brooding became fresh and strong in the clear light of Ash Davis’s presence. He reflected, “This seems to be a very agreeable fellow and he has to beg white men for a chance for his people. It makes me mad that he should have to be almost obsequious to a louse of a bank clerk like me. He’s a lot smarter than I am. Well, Kingsblood, there is a chance for you, if you can recognize your superiors.”
He made talk, so far as he could, about jobs for Negroes, but he shyly did not know whether to say “Negro” or “colored people” or neither. Dr. Davis eased away and, for the second time in his life (the first was Borus Bugdoll), in this hand-mauling land, Neil was shaking hands with a Negro.
He seemed to suffer no injuries from it.
He put it cunningly to John William Prutt that, as they had several prosperous Negro depositors, and some day they might have more, perhaps they ought to hire one or two Negro clerks. Prutt looked at him pityingly.
“My boy, I’m pleased that you take a liberal attitude toward the Negro. I long for the day when they’ll get a decent education and be able to take their stand right alongside white laborers — in their own Southland. But they don’t belong up here, and the kindest thing to do is to let ’em starve till it penetrates their thick heads that they ought to hustle back South. . . . Besides, our customers would kick like hell!”
On his way home, he stopped for a cocktail with his father. That gentle fusser fussed gently, “Got any furtherer on our royal path, Neilly?”
“I think maybe I have, Dad.”
He thought of Dr. Ash Davis by contrast that evening, for it was Rod Aldwick’s great homecoming party — staged by Rod himself, since no one else could stage it so well.
Major Rodney Aldwick of the Tank Corps, in private life lawyer and investor, graduate of Princeton and of Harvard Law, trained in National Guard maneuvers, tanned and tall and lean, with cropped Prussian hair, was a soldier, a gentleman adventurer, a hawk, a handsaw, a hero. To Neil, five years his junior, Rod in high-school days had always been THE hero. Rod could do his algebra, correct his tango step, show him where the best pickerel camped in Dead Squaw Lake, coach him in hockey, reinforce him in wars with gangs of Poles and Italians, comfort him when Ellen Havock turned him down, lend him fifty cents, and explain the mysteries of taxes and the Trinity and why decent men like their fathers never voted the Democratic ticket. Not that Rod did do any of these heroic things for Neil, who had gone through boyhood pretty steadily on his own feet, but Neil had felt fervently that he would do them if he were asked.
In his Eastern college days, as Neil learned from afar, Rod had been equally deft at debating and at polo, and while he sozzled with the rowdies he picked up in New York bars and took the oath of the Brother in Blood in pretzels and in salt, he seduced none but girls of families above or below the blackmail line, and said with the humorous clarity typical of him even in youth, “When I get ready to run for the Senate, there won’t be any little bastards on the platform.”
Rod lived not in the sweet neighborliness of Sylvan Park but next door to Dr. Roy Drover, in the grandeur of Ottawa Heights. He was now on terminal leave from the Army, a figure of romantic war, given to specially tailored battle-jackets. For his own welcome, the wide oaken floors of his large house had been waxed, his collection of crystal vases and bowls, new-washed and glittering, had been filled with daffodils, and behind a Chinese screen, liberated from the unlawful hands of German looters, a four-piece orchestra played Delius and Copland. It was the first warm summer evening in that Northern land, and the men were out in white-flannel dinner jackets (and damn cold they were, too) and the flower of local womanhood were in white net with Mexican shawls.
Rod moved like a Candidate from admiring knot to knot, and to Neil and Vestal he said simply, “You two — now I KNOW I’m home! Neilly, I’ve heard how gallantly you took your wound, and I heard it from some pretty high-ranking brass on the Other Side. I said to them, ‘He’s about my oldest friend, that boy, and am I proud of him!’”
Neil’s stomach burned with pride, and he was annoyed later to hear Dr. Drover speculate, “Looks to me like Rod is going in for popularity and politics when he gets out of the Army.”
Rod’s wife, Janet was just a little taller than Vestal and a little better made-up and a little chattier about horse-shows, and Rod’s son and daughter were as cool and decorative as the wide house, and Neil felt that he was where he ought to be. When Rod could detach himself from circulating like a first secretary of embassy and exchange with Neil precious recollections of juvenile basketball and of beer in the high-school locker room, Neil decided that they were two gentlemen and officers and responsible men of affairs, standing together, shoulder to shoulder, for the higher ideals and enterprise of America.
The thought of Xavier Pic was but a ghost haunting a ghost, and Ash Davis was a fellow who worked in a laboratory.
Captain Kingsblood asked in a high manner of Major Aldwick, “Did you see any colored troops in action? Didn’t happen to, myself.”
“I certainly did! A black tank outfit brigaded with mine, and they were terrible: sullen and undisciplined and we had to keep pushing ’em ahead of us into combat. There was a colored sergeant in that outfit that was an absolute Bolshevik. Instead of going through proper channels, he was always sneaking complaints to the general commanding, through crooked orderlies — endangering our whole morale with a lot of bellyaching about the Negroes being segregated in transportation and Red Cross supplies. If our staff could have managed it, there was one dusky gentleman that would never have come home to his hot mama in the sweet land of liberty!”
Suddenly, to Neil, it wasn’t so; the black soldiers had not been like that; and as to the rebellious sergeant whom Rod had sportingly wanted to murder —“It could be me!” thought Neil.
He was most civil to Rod at parting.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57