There was but a three-minute walk to their own house. Vestal was silent, her hand trustingly on his arm, till they were on their doorstep, and she spoke then naturally, not angrily nor too carefully:
“My dear, why didn’t you tell me before? I’d ‘ve tried to understand and help.”
“I was going to. Dad sprang this on me before I’d worked out what I wanted to say. Now you can help me. The biggest question is: must I admit this publicly? It is the truth!”
“Hush now. Be quiet. I know what you’re going to do, because I know you!” She touched his lips to silence, and drew him into the house. Holding his hand as though they were young lovers again, she led him up to the pink-and-white room where Biddy was sleeping, curled tight, very earnest about it, with Prince curled and asleep at the foot of the low bed.
“Look at her, Neil. I know you wouldn’t let anyone hurt or shame HER, and even if the story about Pic being a colored man were true, you wouldn’t tell the world, you wouldn’t torture her, to satisfy your vanity about being so truthful. But I’m as sure as I ever can be of anything, as sure as I am of your love or of our immortality, that the story is not true! There’s some mistake in what Gramma Julie told you — she’s old and forgetful — and she always was a malicious old pixie, curse her! We’ll find out there was some other Xavier Pic or Pick or Peake or whatever his horrible name was — and how I hate him! So! You’ll see! It’ll come out all right. Neil! Will you look at that child — all rose and satin and gold. There’s no Negro blood in HER!”
But Neil remembered Phoebe Woolcape, all rose and satin and gold, and a Negro.
“We’ll wait and see,” was all he could manage.
Next morning, his father telephoned that, under the chairmanship of Counselor Beehouse, the family had Resolved that it was the sense of this assembly that Neil would please shut up.
It was weeks later when Neil received from Dr. Werweiss of the State Historical Society a copy of a letter from Xavier Pic to Major Joseph Renshaw Brown which had been found in the society’s files:
“The castors you ask about are not plentiful this winter. The white men have been stripping our forests. I have been thinking about you whites. Of course to the Ojibways I am white too as they recognize only white & Indian, but I think I would rather be counted as Indian then.
“You said to me, ‘Why don’t you defy them all and wear your black visage as a badge of honor?’ But why should I explain it or excuse it or think about it at all? Why should a man with red hair excuse it to men with black hair & brown & straw color?
“You white men set yrselves up as the image of God, but which of you have seen Him? You have seen Genl Sibley & you have seen Govr Ramsey but which of you has seen God? Maybe He is dark, like the Indians and me, and maybe He is all colors, or no color at all, like a rock in the moonlight.
“I have been reading the Scriptures a gd deal lately & found a text to tell you whites, He that hateth Me hateth my Father also. Excuse writing as my hands are stiff I froze them last week getting a missionary out of some rapids when his canoe upset, he asked me, Can you or the heathen Indians read & write?”
Neil admired, “There is blood royal for Biddy to be proud of.” Then he laughed. He could hear Clem Brazenstar jeering, “That’s the trouble with all you mulattoes. You got to be so high and biggety, while the rest of us only want good jobs and a good seegar!”
As December froze its way toward Christmas, the family avoided Neil except for urgent private conferences at which only Charles Sayward seemed quite human — and firmly hostile. The rest of the tribe were either touchy or desperately respectful.
Pat Saxinar was constantly running in. To an extent which did not at all please Vestal, Pat assumed that Neil and she were underground conspirators, and she had tales for him of how frantically Harold Whittick and Alice were sniffing at Brother Robert to see if he really had done the foul crime of getting himself born a Negro.
Vestal did not again speak of “that other Xavier Pic,” and Neil guessed that while consciously she would not believe in his piebald origin, deep down and hopelessly she was certain. She held Biddy on her lap and looked at her so long.
He remembered how she had skipped through the sacred chores of Christmas a year ago, while now she sighed, “There’s still such a post-war shortage of all the pretty things; let’s not try to get any new Christmas-tree ornaments this year, but use the old junk.” In pity he saw that her zest in life was being wiped out, saw that he and his social justice had done this to her.
They did try to make a festival of Christmas shopping. They lunched together at the Fiesole Room, looking at the unconscious Drexel Greenshaw as at an unwelcome relative. They struggled through the human surf at Tarr’s Emporium. Levi Tarr, who had been a colonel four months ago, was now trying to learn again how to rub his hands and be piously attentive to women who wanted an electric refrigerator for forty-nine ninety-five. He shepherded them through the toy-department, calling them Neil and Vestal, and when with slightly heavy secrecy they parted, to shop for each other, he murmured to Neil that he could get a very fine thing for Vestal in the way of matching bracelet, earrings, necklace, in brilliants.
When they came out of the store, they plodded to the grim parking-lot, and Vestal’s cheeriest Yuletide comment was, “My, the traffic is thick! I thought the cars were all worn-out, but seems as if these dubs have just as many as ever. Look at that lavender sports-job. My, my, and who is that driving it but that awful nigger, Borus Bugdoll. Oh! Sorry! Honestly, darling, I AM sorry! I forgot that — Well, it’s hard for me to realize.”
It was tacitly understood by the whole family that he was to say nothing UNTIL. Just when UNTIL would arrive had not been mentioned. He was constantly afraid, meantime, that the news of his honorable state would sift out through Brother Robert’s confusion or Uncle Emery’s fury or Pat Saxinar’s excess of courage or the conniving spite of Harold Whittick. How many people actually knew It? Fifteen in the family, eight or ten colored people — oh, too many! And who else knew, who suspected, who was watching and leering, holding a match to blow him up?
At Eliot Hansen’s buffet supper, when Violet Crenway tittered at Neil, “Oh, you red-heads are always peculiar,” what did she imply? How could she possibly know of Xavier’s letter about red hair and black?
At Ackley Wargate’s annual snow-party, what was Pomona Browler getting at when she sang the voyageur’s song, “Dans mon chemin”? That whole fiesta gave Neil a depressed feeling of leaving forever the easy white-man’s life: the cheerful guests driving in cutters through the great stand of white pine to Ackley’s enormous log lodge on frozen Lake Riflestock; old friends, pine torches, the frail afterglow at the end of a forest trail, girls, hot rum punch, rapturous singing of traditional songs like “Seeing Nellie Home” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Yes, that was all very nice, but wasn’t Ackley watching him in a curious way?
Neil felt safer when he went down to the Five Points, one afternoon just before the holidays, with small gifts for the Brewsters, Davises, Woolcapes — but not for Sophie, lest he slip.
He talked for an hour with Mary Woolcape, as he had every week or two. With her he had the comfort and reassurance of sharing in little things that once he had treasured with his mother and Vestal: meditatively gnawing a doughnut, really getting right down deep into a discussion of whether the thermometer had gone down to seventeen above this morning or only eighteen.
“Don’t worry too much, son,” said Mary, the eternal. “You have more people that love you than you know.”
At the Brewsters’, that afternoon, only Winthrop, back for vacation from his first year in the University, was at home. That typical bright-young-college-man in sweater and moccasin-shoes was full of yells and welcome.
“Neil! I just heard you’ve come over to my race! Oh, boy, am I glad!”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Listened to Dad and Mother doing a fine job of worrying about you.”
As, with overstrained cordiality, he shook hands with his youthful admirer, Neil was fretful. So many others could have been listening. It could all pop out so easily. His “Okay — let it!” was not highly spirited. But he was proud that this ambitious boy turned to him as a friend with whom he could drop the parboiled cynicism with which his kind protected themselves against a dull and extremely advisory adult world.
“Neil! Maybe you’ll really get into the race-struggle and be able to give us some new slants. I wish you could do something with the racemen that are too touchy, and insist that the colored press spell That Word as n-blank-r, and have a cat-fit when they hear a bunch of innocent white kids doing some corny old song like ‘You could hear those darkies singing.’ I’ll bet some of ’em insist that Niggardly ought to be pronounced Negrodly. Couldn’t you make fun of them? Gee, you know, you could maybe become one of the leaders of the race.”
Neil was gratified by such faith, after days when he had been creepily conscious of the Family muttering, secretly telephoning to one another late at night.
The Family stood there looking at him, no matter where he was. The Charles Sayward who had always been the most cheerful and reasonable and decent of his inlaws was most firmly alienated. He had quietly abolished Neil along with any silly rumors that Kitty might have “Negro blood.” Charles had the simple-hearted immobility of the small man who knows his small job perfectly, and Kitty turned to him now for the sweetness she had once found in a brother named Neil, who had died here recently — very regrettable, but let’s not talk about it.
He found a measure of sympathy only in his mother and Vestal and Pat. And his mother, though she was tender, though she was not retaliatory, was now asserting that she had thought it all over and received a new revelation, to the effect that Uncle Benoit had been neither colored nor a gambler, but a respectable Caucasian in the bill-collecting line.
So they came to a Christmas that was a caricature of Christmases past, with more Topsies than Tiny Tims. No Saywards or Beehouses appeared at the holiday dinner, held at Robert’s this year, and the rest of the Family poured a horrid sweetness upon a self-sufficient young woman to whom they could not help referring as “poor Biddy.”
Snow was falling all day, and from time to time somebody would say brightly, “Fine! It’s a real WHITE Christmas,” and every time he heard it, Neil thought, “So even Christmas gets jimcrowed.”
The Family did not, as of old, stay on for a rackety supper, but managed to get themselves gone by three. When he had escorted Vestal and Biddy home, Neil muttered, “I think I’ll get a little fresh air,” and hastened to Ash Davis’s for a taste of security.
Not only was Sophie there, patting his hand, placidly fond of him, but also there was that jittery and courteous Southern Liberal, Mr. Lucian Firelock, of Wargate’s, discussing the part of Negro sculptors in a black world that had once seemed to Neil a mass of dark pathos or of dark poison but that seemed now as lively and multicolored and unpredictable as a tropic aviary.
Lucian was apologetic: “The Davises and Nora have been so nice to my kids that I thought I’d drop in and — and so I’ll be running along.”
Neil wanted to stay with Sophie in the warmth, but he could feel Vestal and Biddy alone at Christmas twilight. As he limped home through the snow, he meditated that he could conceivably have for Sophie a love that was altogether spiritual, but that he had for Vestal a fleshly love, and that of the two, it was the flesh that was likely to endure.
Sophie was his sister, his other self. As he had once shared toys and all the small rebellions against their father with Kitty, so with Sophie he shared the greatest rebellion he had known. But Vestal — she was his love. Every thought that the brownskin Alabama girl might have was natural to him and familiar; every thought of the woman with whom he had gone to high school, played tennis, shared a bedroom for seven years, was exotic and amazing, and so he loved her most of all and hoped some day to captivate her and even to understand her.
Oh, he had understood her once, had known everything that she would do and would say, but that had been in a day when she had nothing to do that was not perfectly scheduled, when she had not been called upon to say anything upon the topic of a man who seemed prepared to ruin her and ruin himself for the love of a God in whom he did not very ardently believe.
Vestal looked bright as a candle at his return. She seemed to Neil little older than Biddy and more defenseless. That child would always attack life and scare it into obedience; the humble and unexacting Sophie would always get along, in hospital or nunnery or low cabaret; but the brisk Vestal, pride of the Junior League, would always be forlorn and bewildered without a man: a father, a husband, a son, a priest.
He kissed her fairly, and they were happy cooking their supper. Shirley had gone off to a Balkan carnival. They put Biddy to bed and sat at the shiny kitchen table, eating scrambled eggs and agreeing about the viciousness of Curtiss Havock and the virtues of Father Kenneth, and the putative cost of a “picture-window” in the living-room.
Yes, they really might get the new window, they said joyfully, on this black night after a black Christmas.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57