The waves of Lake Superior splashed among the bare dark roots of the birch and cedar and white pine, and their log cabin smelled damp and fresh. They dived into the cold water and came out blissfully screaming, and on the warmer small lakes, back in the solid forest of the Arrowhead, they canoed, they fished for small-mouth bass, and made a whole warfare of shooting at tin cans floating. And in all this peace, Neil never stopped fretting.
This was old Chippewa country. Xavier Pic must have driven his canoe through the shadow of these cliffs on his journeys to Thunder Bay. There was, indeed, still a Chippewa Reservation near their cabin, and Neil had prickly ideas about getting his Biddy to love the redskin brethren and gradually becoming able to tell her that she — though, of course, a very sweet little white girl, too — was part Chippewa, part Negro, and wasn’t it all nice and natural!
Like every thoughtful parent in every age of history, Neil consoled himself, “My generation failed, but this new one is going to change the entire world, and go piously to the polls even on rainy election-days, and never drink more than one cocktail, and end all war.”
He sat in the car with Biddy at a small encampment of Chippewa women and children, who were lodged in bark huts for the summer, selling baskets and toy canoes of birchbark to the tourists.
“Biddy! Look at the Indian pickaninnies, or whatever they call em. Aren’t they cute! Wouldn’t you like to play with them, play scouts and make campfires and everything?”
“Why not, dear?”
“The little Indian children? Dirty?”
“Well, maybe they are, but think of beaver-dams and, uh, war-bonnets. Aren’t they wonderful?”
“But why do you object to their being a little dirty? It’s just smoke from cooking. After all, Daddy’s little girl gets pretty dirty, too, sometimes!”
“They look like niggers.”
“And what’s the matter with — Negroes?”
“I don’t like ’em.”
“Did you ever know one?”
“And just who, now, besides Belfreda?”
“She wasn’t a Negro. She was white.”
“I didn’t like her.”
“May I put it to you, Elizabeth, that you are being a horrid little girl?”
“With a curl in the middle of my forehead?”
“Oh, Daddy, you said it, you did — you said ‘Hell.’ Hell, hell, hell, hell, hell!”
In the midst of her feminine seizing of an advantage, Biddy was so enchantingly pink and white and gleeful that he loved her despairingly and realized, like cold dough in his brain, that all the cheerful little viciousnesses of common belief among nice people are more devastating than bombs and great wings.
Because he had a fortnight of leisure, because it occurred to him that Vestal was “the white wife of a colored man,” he studied her as they loafed on the lichen-cushioned rocks. She was less intelligent and worldly-wise than Nurse Concord, he thought, less warm and beautiful, but possessed of more clarity and control. She was a “fine type of young American matron,” clean, athletic, well read — well, well-enough read — and Interested in What Goes on in the World. She had a piety adequate for Sylvan Park, and derision of sentimentality. She had, indeed, everything, except any individuality whatsoever.
In a matter of weeks, he had learned that without suffering and doubt, there can be no whole human being. Vestal had never known suffering except in child-birth, nor any upsetting surprise and doubt except on her wedding-night.
In one thing she was clearly superior to a good many virtuous women: she did not enjoy intentional cruelty. But Neil was discovering that unconscious cruelty can be very effective.
Vestal, remembering old days, kept singing, “Coon, coon, coon, how I wish my color would fade.”
— That’s what I am. What Biddy is. A coon. A moke. A boogie. Something so grotesque that a fine lady like Vestal couldn’t imagine hurting its feelings.
Prince trotted up, shaking off a shower of mud, and Vestal scolded him, “We shouldn’t have changed your name, dog! You’re no prince. You’re nothing but a dirty, good-for-nothing nigger!”
And smiled at Neil so trustingly.
He saw that, to Vestal, his devotion to the Negroes would be half insanity and half naughtiness, if she knew. Why take on such a silly character? And two weeks can do an extensive healing, in a Northern magic of gray rocks and orange lichens and sweet pines and sliding red canoes and blade-blue distances across the tremendous lake. He bathed with her in shock-cold water and, for all his hobbling, they raced like children, and he came back to town cured of his frenzy.
He came back to it an energetic young banker — white.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57