Neil was at an evening meeting of the financial committee at the Federal Club when his father telephoned, “Your mother and I want to see you immediately. It’s important. Can you stop by at the house in not over forty minutes? Good.”
That there was to be a council, even that Vestal was to be there, Neil did not guess. He came into the narrow, Brussels-carpeted hall of his father’s house, into the “front-parlor,” whistling, and stopped at the spectacle of the entire family, beneath the pictures of Pilgrim Fathers and sleigh-rides and Venice, sitting on the imitation-petit-point chairs, on the egg-yolk-yellow couch, on the floor, looking at one another and at souvenir ash-trays and an Album of the New York World’s Fair.
Including Vestal and Neil and his parents, there were fifteen worriers gathered, none of them except Dr. Kenneth knowing why they had been summoned: Brother Robert and Alice, with her brother, who was none other than Harold W. Whittick, the entrepreneur of radio and advertising; Sister Kitty and her husband, Charles Sayward, the attorney; Joan, Neil’s unwed sister; the tribe of Saxinar — Uncle Emery and Aunt Laura and Pat. To make it all legal, Dr. Kenneth had also gathered in the portly presences of Vestal’s father, Morton Beehouse, and his brother Oliver, dean of the Grand Republic bar and the only connoisseur of Napoleon brandy and of the odes of Pindar in town.
Oliver Beehouse was short and solid, with a fringe of fine, sand-colored hair about his huge freckled tonsure. He was always pouting all over his pale but freckled face at the contemplation of the perfidious attacks on capitalism. Brother Morton, taller and four years younger, substituted a small liver-spot on his right cheek for Oliver’s freckles.
Pat Saxinar and Vestal and Joan giggled together, thinking how old-fashioned were the house and their elders, who were muttering about the reason for this parliament, while Neil’s mother sat reserved and frail, and Dr. Kenneth ambled about with mystery and lemonade.
Such was the grand jury when Neil came in.
They smiled upon him, for if there really was trouble ahead, no one could be more depended upon for common sense than good old Neil.
Dr. Kenneth, fluttering his hands, looking frightened, cried, “Now you young people please get up off the floor and all be properly seated. Oliver, you take that big green-plush chair. Now please let me have your close attention.
“My son Neil, who hitherto has been a boy to be proud of and with a lovely wife and daughter, has astonished me by wanting to do something of which I violently disapprove, in fact you might say it appals me, something of which, as I understand it, even Vestal hasn’t the slightest idea, and which I shall certainly not tolerate without his first asking all your advice, and which he will now confess to you. Neil!”
Dr. Kenneth sank on a frail gilt chair, and Neil was sick with pity for his father, but he stood out and spoke gravely, like a man on the scaffold with no more hope of reprieve:
“I have learned that my mother — she may not even know it — is descended from one Xavier Pic, who lived from about 1790 to 1850, and who was a brave and honorable pioneer on the Northern Minnesota border, an ancestor to be proud of, and who was also a full-blooded Negro. Which makes every one of us, technically, either a Negro or the close relative of one.”
He got only so far before he was whelmed by the fury, the denials, the shouts that he was insane. Vestal was burning with an unspoken astonishment that he had told her nothing, burning and rigid. Only his mother and Pat were altogether quiet. He held up his hand and the hecklers slowly stopped. He chronicled the story of Gramma Julie, the discoveries of Dr. Werweiss, and he wound up:
“A few months ago I would have been scared or apologetic about telling you this, but now I see that the only apology is to the Negroes, the Indians, the Orientals, for the wrongs that have been done to them for hundreds of years —”
Oliver Beehouse, not even rising, took charge:
“So, young man, you propose to correct those wrongs by hideously wronging all of us, your friends and family, who have never given you anything but loving assistance — to ruin even your wife, my own niece! Will you kindly stop your self-pity and your self-dramatization? I think you’ve been shameless enough, for one evening!”
Neil suggested, “Will you go to hell?”
“You heard me. Quit acting supreme court. Maybe I would have shut up and never told, if Dad hadn’t summoned this inquisition and you hadn’t appointed yourself referee, but since you have, the question is, shall I be plain honest and tell the world the truth about what we are? Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry you got dragged into this!”
The comments of the distressed tribe did not come so clearly and patly as they are here given, but together, and all mixed with wails, curses, protests, interdicts from Oliver, something like laughter from Pat Saxinar. Dr. Kenneth asserted, “Neil, I think we are all agreed that if you continue to say nothing to outsiders, we’ll try to ignore this whole business.”
Since he had already told the Woolcapes, Ash, Sophie, Evan, Neil had nothing handy with which to answer, and his father soared on, “You claim you revere the truth, but do you call it the truth to make your own mother, that bore you, into a nigger, when obviously she isn’t?”
“I don’t —”
“Why, her and your daughter and your grandmother and your brothers and sisters are the last people living that any intelligent man would ever call niggers,” Dr. Kenneth insisted. “I suppose it would tickle you to see your own Biddy a low-down nigger tramp!”
“NEGRO! And she wouldn’t be low-down; she’d be just what she is now. She won’t change; it’s your ideas that have to change. And will you please quit saying nigger? Least you can do!”
“And the least YOU can do, that want to torture your own family, is not to be frivolous and quibble about mere words!” snapped Oliver Beehouse.
Dr. Kenneth was laboring on, “Boy, none of us has to tell all he knows. Suppose I were a dope-fiend. I wouldn’t expect you to go around blabbing that I—”
Pat Saxinar piped, “But you aren’t, Uncle Kenneth. Or are you?”
“Shut up!” contributed her father, Uncle Emery, son of Gramma Julie, who was in no exhilarated mood at having been nominated a Negro. Pat’s mother (a Pedick of Winona) added, “This is no time for you to be impertinent and saucy, Patricia. I wish I’d never let you join the WAVES.”
Neil’s brother, Robert, simple-heartedly denied the whole thing.
Neil, he ventured to say, had gone batty from his war-injury, and even if this disgusting story could be true — but it was merely the addled recollection of an old woman like Gramma Julie — there was no proof. Nobody could pin it on them. A letter from Xavier Pic? Why, a forgery!
Charles Sayward suggested, Forget the whole thing. Cheer up. There was no law that they had to incriminate themselves. He led thus to a set speech by Oliver Beehouse:
“Neil, I’ve been thinking it over, and I was wrong and you were quite right, my boy, in insisting upon our having the courtesy to refer to this nation’s darker wards as Negroes, not niggers. We appreciate the finer qualities of the better class of Negroes, and have since long before you were born! Didn’t T.R., when he was President, have Booker T. Washington to lunch? (That’s more than F.D.R. would ‘ve done, let me tell you!) But hot-heads like you, by demanding more for these unfortunates than they’re able to digest, more than the decent ones would even think of asking for, are merely interfering with the orderly processes of evolution, and — And so shut up about the whole thing, Neil, and try to have the sense of a moron at least! And while, as an illegal act, none of us would take any personal part in it, I think some day those documents about Xavier Pic may be found missing from the files of the Historical Society, and then none of us need worry!”
Oliver’s cheery smile urged, “Have courage, my young friend,” and Neil expected to hear an archangelic judge say, “Motion granted.” But the court-room silence was ruined by Harold Whittick, brother of Robert’s wife. He was screaming, “The hell with Neil and his ‘truth’! It’s outrageous that my own sister should be dragged into this and wake up and find she’s married to a nigger like Bob. And what the scandal may do to my advertising business, I hesitate to even contemplate!”
Alice yelled in agreement, “Outrage is right!” She turned upon Robert a glare of extreme dislike, and hissed, “I see now why you always make such noises in the bathroom!”
Robert, a dull man but fond of home and slippers, mourned, “Great God, it’s not my fault if I have some queer blood. Besides — you heard me — I deny the story, lock, stock and barrel, and I think Neil has gone plumb crazy!”
“Something worse than crazy,” said Morton Beehouse.
Aunt Laura Saxinar looked sniffy at all this vulgarity, and stated, “This is a vile mess, with which I simply do not care to be associated. My husband will tell you whether or no he considers himself a black man. But as for my daughter, Patricia, I have not merely a mother’s heart to feel but a mother’s eye to see that she is most certainly no — no Negro, or whatever you prefer to call those freaks — and I am told that none of them can ever learn to speak a foreign language, whereas Patricia speaks French like a native!”
Her husband, Uncle Emery, looked at her with no tenderness, and snarled, “Very kind of you to allow me to define my own racial status! Well, Neil says that his mother, his own mother, is a coon, but it just happens that she is also my sister, and let me tell you right here and now that she is no nigger, or me either, and if I’m descended from any Xavier Pic, and who the hell he was I don’t know a thing about it, but I can tell you beyond the peradventure of a doubt, he was no nigger, and unfortunately that goes for Neil, too, though just now nothing would give me more pleasure, you young stinker, than to have you exposed as the blackest shine in Christendom, if it wasn’t that it dragged in all the rest of us, you hear me? But as for my family —”
He was cut off by Neil’s young sister, Joan:
“Oh, for God’s sake, Uncle Emery, shut up about your family. They’re has-beens. You’re married, and Aunt Laura has GOT to stand for you. But what about me — what about me? Johnny will never marry me now, and he’ll bawl me out plenty for deceiving him about my race, and I never meant to, I never did!
“Oh, Neil, what made you do this to me? I’ve never hurt you, never! You’ve turned me into an outcast for my whole life, just to satisfy some silly idea of justice. Why? How could you deliberately make me queer like this, hiding from people all my life, never daring to have a friend, not one boy-friend, not my whole ife now, when I was so happy with Johnny? Oh, why — how could you?”
But his sister Kitty Sayward, his loyal playmate all through childhood, was intent on him with unspoken horror that he should have destroyed her when she had loved him so.
He was frightened, ready to cry out that it had all been a maniac joke, when defense came from the still woman who was his mother.
They had been particularly tender of her, because she was so fragile and out of the common world. Her husband had been keeping a hand of affirmation and love on her shoulder, Joan had been smoothing her hair, Neil had peeped at her wretchedly. But she spoke more clearly than anyone else in the room. They stopped squabbling as she raised her hand, and so they got it full:
“Please! I think maybe Neil is right.”
The chorus was tremendous, but it ceased in agonized attention.
“I never could see why there is all this fuss about whether you’re ‘white’ or ‘black,’ so long as your folks love you, but you all seem to be so worried about it, so I must tell you.
“Once or twice when I was very little, there was an uncle of mine, my mother’s brother, Uncle Benoit Payzold, that used to come calling on us, but only when Daddy was away. I always thought he looked like a light-complected darky. My mother never talked about him. He was a gambler, and he drifted off somewheres and I don’t know if he’s alive today or dead.
“I asked my mother wasn’t Uncle Benoit a colored man, and she slapped me and told me to be still, and I went and forgot it till just now. I guess maybe I made myself forget it, and I think my mother did, too. I think she knows about us, about our being — You know.
“She had a voodoo lodestone that, she told me one time, came from Martinique, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago, and then long afterwards I couldn’t find it, and I asked her where it was, and she got mad and said there never had been such a stone. I don’t know. Maybe I just imagined it. But you mustn’t punish Neil if he tried to tell the truth.”
Dr. Kenneth was triumphing, “There, you see, Neil? Your mother’s had the sense and the magnificent will-power to simply forget evil and only look upon the good, like the Bible says. . . . Mother, I want you to simply FORBID Neil to go around trying to convince himself and everybody else that this miserable business is true.”
His wife wondered, “I don’t know, Kenny. If it IS true —”
Robert turned hysterical then. “Mother! God is going to curse you for making a nigger out of me, when I’m really white and decent, and I’m getting so successful — I’m going insane! You and Neil have driven me absolutely dotty, and it’s a dirty fake, and all because of a damn-fool lodestone that could of come from anywheres and you don’t even know for sure it existed! . . . Alice! Don’t you SEE I’m white, darling? It’s a lie and I’m white and our kids are white! They are! I’m not going to be ruined by any lunatic like Neil! I’m white, and God help any bastard that comes around trying to prove different. Look at me, Alice!”
Pat Saxinar’s voice was precise and frigid.
“All of you are assuming that you are superior to the ‘colored people,’ which isn’t obvious to me at all. I’ve been infuriated by discrimination against extremely nice colored sailors, and I’ve wanted to do something about it, and now that I’m colored myself, I shall!”
The chorus, this time, was catastrophic, and it lasted for many minutes, while Neil turned toward Vestal.
She had ardently said nothing at all. When he had a chance to mutter “Well?” she answered, “I must think it over. Naturally, I’m a little surprised.”
After one o’clock, her eyes told Neil that it was time to go home, and, with nothing whatever settled, with even his father determined to stay up all night and exclaim, it was hard for Neil and Vestal to break away.
They did, by the admirable feint of sudden deafness, and now the unknown Negro, Neil, faced his white wife, and he had no allies.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57