He saw his father sweeping up the last of the fallen leaves, only a block away. He strolled over, with his mind blank, as though he had been saying good-bye to a number of people.
Dr. Kenneth Kingsblood’s house was an antiquity in Sylvan Park: thirty years old! It was of brown wood, faded, and it had a lot of assorted architecture that you could never remember, though you might recall the flying balcony on the third story, and a fern in a glazed brown jar between the lace curtains of a plate-glass window looking on the front porch. It was as homelike as the minor poems of Longfellow.
Dr. Kenneth puffed briskly, “Well, my boy, glad to have you drop by and report that you’re still alive. You living up North there, in Grand Republic?”
“If you can call it living, with the thermometer dropping this way.”
“Somebody said you were in the banking line now. You must write and tell me about it.”
“I don’t think you could stand the scandal.”
“Seriously, what you been doing with the research? I don’t take the royal business too much to heart, but I do feel there’s certain duties inherent in your blue blood — your red, white and blue blood. Noblesse oblige!”
Neil spoke tonelessly, with no desire to be cruel but no particular passion to be kind.
“Dad, maybe you have red, white and blue blood, but, according to your own classification, my blood is plain black, and I want it that way.”
“What the —”
“I find that Mom’s family was part Negro, and I’ve decided that goes for me, too.”
“What is this joke? I don’t like it!”
“Mom is descended on HER mother’s side from a frontiersman who was a full-blooded Negro — incidentally, married to a Chippewa. Do you mean she’s never told you?”
“Your mother has never told me a word of any such a cock-and-bull story, and I never heard such a vicious charge in all my life, and I don’t want to hear it! She’s descended from a fine French family, on her mother’s side, and that’s all I want to know. Why, good God Almighty, are you trying to make out your own mother — my wife — is a nigger?”
“I’m not trying to make her out anything, Dad.”
“The whole story is a dirty libel, and if anybody but you dared to repeat it, he’d get himself clapped into jail pretty darn quick, let me tell you, and you can quote me on that. There’s not one drop of blood in you that’s either Chippewa or nigger!”
“Can’t you say NEGRO?”
“No, I can’t and I won’t and I don’t intend to, and I’ll tell you right now — My God, boy, your own father ought to know SOMETHING about your ancestors, and I can tell you, you haven’t one iota of inferior or barbaric blood in you and I ought to know, hadn’t I— I’ve studied bacteriology! Oh, Neil, my dear boy, in the name of all that’s holy, try to understand the ghastly seriousness of this! Even if it WERE true, you’d have to conceal it, for your mother’s sake — your daughter’s. GOT to!”
“Dad, I’ve been trying to, but I don’t know how much longer I can do it. And I’m not sure I entirely want to. I’m not sure but that I have more affection for a lot of supposed colored folks than I do for most of the whites.”
“You can’t say that! It’s insane, it’s treachery, it’s treason to your own race and country and religion — and it would be very bad for you in your job at the bank! Say, uh — Who was this frontier impostor?”
“Xavier Pic. P-I-C.”
“How did you ever get the idea this fellow was colored?”
“From Gramma Julie, from the Historical Society, from Xavier’s own letters.”
He wanted to spare this kindly, rustic man, his father, but he had to enlist against Wilbur Feathering, and he could not see that his mother would do ill to consort with Mary Woolcape more than with Mrs. Feathering.
Dr. Kenneth was shaky, at the end; he begged of Neil, “You’ve simply got to keep all this dark till I can think it over and get my head around it.”
This, Neil realized, meant Forever, but he gave what sounded even to himself like a promise.
On that cold fall evening in Neil’s living-room, a room dark-blue and maroon, with the formal ship’s-clock that was the denomination of Grand Republic respectability, Biddy cut out paper dolls and stayed up much later than was allowed — as usual, Vestal wrote letters and listened to a hockey game on the radio, and Neil looked at the Business & Finance notes in Time and perceived, in the flushing and paling quiver of the electric fire, that none of this Negro nonsense need exist, none at all, and that he had been monstrous not to have known better how his father would take it.
The doorbell. Vestal answered. She came back with a casual, “There’s a colored woman here wants to see you — something about some relief committee.” She went back to her letters with no instinctive fear in her, though she had let in Sophie Concord.
Sophie was urgent:
“No, we’ll just stand here in the hall. Speak low. I’ve been talking to Evan Brewster. We — your friends — we don’t think you should come out as a Negro, and we’re scared you’re up to something melodramatic. With us, it’s been ground into us from birth, but we don’t see why you should have to take it, and as a white man you can do just as much for the race. How we will milk you for contributions! Neil, don’t say anything! I could have telephoned you this, but I did want to see your house and your baby and see your wife again. She’s beautiful, like a race-horse. They’re your sort, all right. Good night, my dear, AND SHUT UP!”
Sophie was gone, into a filtering of gray snow.
In the living-room, Vestal mumbled, “Who was the gal?”
“A city nurse. Miss Concord.”
“Oh. . . . Oh, Neil, did I tell you that Jinny Timberlane has the cutest embroidered blue-wool suit from an Austrian shop in New York? I think I’ll get one like it.”
That seemed to Neil altogether reasonable.
And so, without communicating his reason, without consulting Neil, Dr. Kenneth Kingsblood in mid-November summoned a council of the entire family.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57