When he walked into their living-room Vestal was in fluffy negligee and was knitting, no usual domesticity for her. “I’m afraid you’ve caught me. I’ve been making a scarf for you, but I didn’t get it done in time for Christmas, drat it, so I’m finishing it up for New Year’s and — What is it? Neil! Why are you standing there? Oh! Neil! No! It hasn’t come out?”
“Rod Aldwick made such an attack on Negroes that I had to tell them — publicly — I’m one. Sounds curious to say ‘I’m a Negro’!”
“Curious. Yes. Yes, it does sound curious. It sounds curious to say that I’m the wife of a colored man. That Biddy is colored — and damned forever now. Yes. Curious. And we have to do something quick, to make up for your delightful public confession. I don’t know what.”
She was at the telephone, calling Dr. Kenneth, begging him to meet them at Morton Beehouse’s. She called her father and Brother Robert at the Federal Club. As she dressed, upstairs, with Neil blankly watching, she moaned, “If you just won’t say anything!”
“I’m not saying anything!”
She tried to smile. “Well then, if you just won’t not say anything, or SOMETHING! I think I’m going to stand by you — or maybe you don’t want me to, any longer? Maybe I’m not even good enough to be a colored man’s wife.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“What can I think? You could do this to me. I’m pretty tough, or I thought I was, but to Biddy —”
“Vestal, there’s no use. I guess it’s simple. If I’m a Negro, then I’m a Negro. And Judd Browler — probably a lot of others, too — back me in wanting to be honest about it.”
“I could hate you, I believe, if I put my mind to it, and yet I don’t, not now, and when I look at you, just as ruddy and red-headed and decent as ever, I don’t seem to have any revulsion, and yet — Suppose Uncle Oliver could prove that there’s been some mistake — you’re not even a tiny bit Negro?”
“Then I’d volunteer. I prefer Ash and Evan and Phil and Sophie and the Woolcapes to Rod Aldwick and Doc Drover and Oliver Beehouse.”
“Who are all these weird people? Coons?”
Surely it was impossible that she should not know these, the most important persons living. “They are Negroes whom I prize for their kindness and courage and intelligence and —”
“Oh nuts! You’ve become impossible!”
The residence of Mr. Morton Beehouse needs only one word: Solidity.
Thirty thoughtful years had been devoted to selecting the final place for his slippers, and to finding a buffet of the right solidity. In this fortress, where the air seemed composed of the same oak as the panels of the walls, Dr. Kenneth, with a suit and a plaid overcoat over his pajamas, was waiting like a fluttering stork when Neil trailed in, while Brother Robert was a bumptious bull, and their host was altogether motionless, except for his eyes.
Robert proclaimed, “Neil, I’ve been talking to Mother on the phone, and she absolutely denies the whole story. She insists on your getting the Federal Club members together again, and telling them you had a stroke.”
Morton Beehouse said, “That would be very much like a private citizen ordering Congress to reassemble. It’s too late. After all, I was there, and I may tell you, Neil, that you might better have murdered my daughter than have done this obscene thing to her. She will, of course, leave you immediately, in mere self-respect.”
“I will not,” said Vestal.
“Think so? Wait till Lorraine Wargate and Janet Aldwick cut you on the street,” her father said solidly.
“I won’t wait. I’ll cut them first.”
Morton was calm. “Go ahead, my dear. Get it out of your system. I would expect you to be loyal. The Beehouses are a loyal folk. But when you have done enough for honor, you will agree with me that this fellow, your husband — temporarily — is the most unspeakable, selfish, exhibitionistic, vile, brawling sot and bounder that ever disgraced this city!”
Robert was frightened, but he was a decent clansman, and he rumbled at Morton, “We’ve had enough of your sauce, Beehouse!”
“We certainly have!” said Dr. Kenneth, and Robert kept it up with, “My father and I love this boy, even if he is as crazy as a loon, and I guess maybe your daughter does, and seems like there’s nothing more to say.”
But there was, oh, there was, and Neil and Vestal were not home till after three. When they came in, Biddy awoke, crying. They wretchedly tried to comfort her, and crawled to their sleepless twin beds. Vestal vowed, “I do love you very much and I’m going to stand by you — as long as I can. I’m not a professional martyr, though. Apparently I’m not even intellectual enough to be one of your fancy niggers.”
“How can I help it?”
Till dawn, a dawn of sleet and metallic gray.
The next day, the courteous Verne Avondene, secretary of the Federal Club, telephoned to Neil that a committee had met that noon and “accepted his resignation.” Verne hoped that “your good lady and Miss Elizabeth are having joyful holidays.”
“Not half!” said Vestal, who had been eavesdropping on the extension phone.
As husbands do, he believed that his victory had been easy and sure, that she had forgiven him for the bad taste of being born a Negro. As wives do, even very good wives, she let him drop his guard and then she hit. Late in the dim December afternoon, a defenseless time, when they had cheerfully agreed that, yes, they’d better not go to Norton Trock’s party, she turned on him with:
“And don’t think, because I’m not kicking and screaming, that I don’t resent not being allowed to go anywhere, nowheres again ever, because of this idiotic stand of yours. Sometimes I begin to see the Negro in you — I hope I’ll forget it again, but I see you shambling and grinning foolishly —”
“Is that really the way you think you see all Negroes?”
“That’s the way I KNOW I see them, ALL of ’em. And I imagine a kind of horrible shadow over your face. Oh, I’ve always hated all darkies, and their beastly simpering, that gives them away. They know they’re inferior!”
He demanded, not too cherubically, “Did you ever know any Negro, besides Belfreda?”
“Yes! You and your dumb brother, Robert, and your sisters — Oh, I’m sorry, dear, I’m truly sorry. I’m upset. I could slap myself for saying that.”
“Saying what? It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Honestly, Neil, I’ll endure anything except your getting calm and strong and wise on me! I can’t stand that.”
But they escaped — this time — from the more ardent tortures of quarreling.
The Federal Club Smoker had been on Thursday, December 27th. Neil’s bank was open all day Friday and half of Saturday; it was also open on Monday, the day before New Year’s. An automaton called Our Mr. Kingsblood was in busy attendance upon those days, sitting in at a teller’s window, giving advice to veterans whose advice to himself he would have been afraid to hear, talking to Mr. Prutt about the window-cleaning service.
Prutt did a lot of throat-clearing and quick, unnecessary smiling during their talk, and Neil wondered if the miracle had come: if Prutt was going to be so heroic as to decide that this Negro myth was none of his business. He saw Prutt’s glance craftily hitch-hiking all over the place, and he realized that the good man was trying to look down at his fingernails . . . to see if the halfmoons were blue.
He sat as chilly as a palace guard at whom the dictator peeps too meditatively. There was the smell of death in the air. But he was safe until some customer should complain about having to do business with this colored fellow Kingsblood.
At the annual bonus-giving, when all the employees were supposed to be surprised and pleased by the bank’s fatherliness (and once in a while some of them were considerably surprised), when they were all lined up like a daisy-chain in the president’s office, Neil seemed to be still on the payroll. But just before Mr. Prutt should have handed him his envelope and his cliche, Prutt coughed, “I’ll be back, just a minute,” and Neil received the annual gilded leg-chain not from the pale, aseptic hand of the president but from the broad fist of Mr. S. Ashiel Denver.
— I’m still working here, but I begin to get an idea I’m not going to be first vice-president.
Of course it got out. Though slowly.
Of course every one present at the Federal Club’s Scandal in High Life had promised to keep silence; and of course every one of them confided in someone else. In New Year’s week there was nothing in print, but Radio Station KICH, the property of the highly disaffected Mr. Harold W. Whittick, on its chatty Home News Hour promised that within a few days it would be able to give to its far-flung audience — the KICH staff were among the most horrible far-flungers in the country — the details of a shameful incident which had revealed that a well-known financier in the North Middlewest had been leading a shocking double life.
Neil and Vestal listened and looked at each other and were scared.
The day before New Year’s, Judd Browler telephoned, “Look, old man, I’m in kind of an embarrassing position. My wife and my dad are simply raising Cain about my wanting to publicly stand back of you for — you know. So I guess you better not come here for dinner tomorrow evening. Might be uncomfortable for you. But PRIVATELY, I agree with you. I’ll call you for lunch, this week.”
Judd did not call again.
They had planned gaily to go to the big New Year’s Eve Party at the Heather Country Club. They stayed home and were reasonably bleak. Neil worried, “I don’t think I could lose my job, could I? What would we do, if I did?”
“I don’t know. We’ve always been so sort of sure of a decent living. You don’t suppose Papa Morton, the old clubman, would cut off my pocket-money, do you?”
“Oh, what if he does! We’ll get along somehow.” It did not sound like a bugle-call of courage.
“I suppose,” she speculated, startled by the revolutionary observation, “that there’s quite a proportion of American families that, every New Year’s Eve, worry about whether their jobs will hold up through the coming year.”
“Yes, I doubt if my friend John Woolcape, the janitor, is spending this New Year’s Eve wondering whether he’ll switch his investments from General Motors to real estate.”
“Oh, don’t be so damned smug! You and your crusading friends! I don’t see that is took any special virtue in you to get yourself born colored. Can’t you forget it, while you’re with me? I’m trying hard enough to!”
“You’re right I’ll probably become as self-righteous as Corinne Brewster.”
“And just who may Miss Corinne be? I don’t know any of these new people you seem to have been seeing. Neil, you’re drifting pretty far away from me. I say!” Her wistfulness turned to sharpness. “Was she that extremely good-looking colored woman that sneaked in here to see you, one evening?”
“No, that was another girl. I’m very popular. Are you paying me the compliment of being jealous, puss?”
He tried to make it airy and domestic.
All of New Year’s Eve, the only person who came in was Pat Saxinar, and she was so profusely enthusiastic about being colored — she had just discovered Harriet Tubman and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — that she annoyed that veteran race-crusader, Neil, as much as he had ever annoyed Corinne Brewster.
At one minute after midnight, Dr. Kenneth telephoned to them, and his voice was very old. “My dear boy, I do hope everything will go all right with you and yours, this coming year. I’m trying to get things straight, and God bless you, anyway!”
— It would be hard on Dad and his practice if his hand got shaky. Maybe I shouldn’t — Too late.
Vestal was carefully careless with Biddy, these days; everything in her manner said breezily, “Oh, yes, dear, Mother is ever so happy.” But the child caught something of the shadow of horror that was moving through the house, and with it some notion that Negroes were aggravatingly important here. With the innocent hellishness of all Dear Little Ones, she restored Prince’s name, and went through the house calling “Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!”
Vestal was trembling with something like fury when she whispered to Neil, “Suppose Curtiss Havock heard that from next door? He probably knows, from his father. But if I try to shut the baby up, I’ll just make her worse.”
Late on a January night they heard that thin wailing, “Nigger, Nigger, Nigger” woven with the snow-wind.
“I AM going up and make her stop that,” sighed Vestal.
Neil said, “Are you sure that was Biddy?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57