It broke suddenly.
Neil was at his desk in the bank on Tuesday, a week after New Year’s, when honest Judd Browler, whose house was well within sight of Neil’s but whom he mysteriously never seemed to encounter now, marched up and said, “Neil, as you know, I haven’t got any prejudices myself, but everybody seems to think I ought to protect my wife and daughter, so maybe it would look better if you and I just didn’t see each other from now on, when we can avoid it.” And lumped off without waiting for an answer.
Then, while Neil was chafed by Prutt’s constant watching, all the old friends attacked. Curtiss Havock shouted to his wife, when he saw Neil in the yard, twenty feet away, “Christ, there’s that nigger!” Elegant Eliot Hansen telephoned to Vestal a message that, translated from hints into English, meant that when she got tired of the shame of living with a colored man, he would gladly take her out for cocktails and see what he could do. (She told Neil.)
But the worst was passing Rodney Aldwick and having him croon like an Easter benediction, “GOOD morning, Neil!”
Then, like a cold drizzle, came certainty that the news was slipping all through the city. A stranger, dark and dramatic, bent over Neil’s lonely table at the cafeteria which he frequented these days and muttered, “You don’t know me; I’m supposed to be a Greek fruit-dealer, but I’m part colored, like you. But I’ve kept my mouth shut about it. You take my tip and do the same, Brother.”
The openest insult came from Ed Fleeron, who was now mayor of Grand Republic, in succession to William Stopple. He owned a big cut-rate drugstore which sold sandwiches, rubber bathing-caps, gritty candy, velocipedes, electric fans, and some drugs, all in dirty piles incompetently attended by girls who should have been back on the farm.
Mayor Fleeron came like a one-man parade into Neil’s living-room, when Vestal was away, and blurted, “I’m the mayor of this city, and a neighbor of yours — unfortunately!”
Neil was adequately angry. “Oh, are you, Ed? I thought you lived in Swede Hollow.”
“I don’t want any of your lip, Kingsblood! I’m the mayor of this city —”
“— and I tell you we don’t want any of you niggers horning into decent white neighborhoods, corrupting the kids and frightening the women.
“And bringing down real-estate values? That’s the usual line, Ed.”
“Yes, and it’s a damn good line, too, and you’ll hear a lot more about it, and if my policemen get awful interested in you and your actions, don’t come bellyaching to me, as mayor!”
“Before I’d come to you for — Oh, all right. Get out!”
Mayor Fleeron’s chronic rival, Ex–Mayor Stopple, who as agent for Berthold Eisenherz had been the original developer of Sylvan Park, came calling the next evening. But his was the affable racket.
He did not mention Negroes; he chirped, “Neil — Mrs. Kingsblood — I’ve got a customer that’s crazy to move out here to the Park and likes the look of your house, and same time, I have a lovely little house in Canoe Heights, right near that wonderful fellow, Lucian Firelock.” He did not suggest that this would also make it near to Dr. Ash Davis, and not far from Sugar Gowse. “While it isn’t as elaborate as this house, it has a much better view — talk about your magic beauty, why, say, that view across the South End is simply breath-taking. If I could persuade you folks to think about a swap, with something to boot, I could get you a nice offer for this place, and I guess you like to make a profit ‘bout as much as most folks, ha, ha, ha.”
Neil said, “No. This is our home.”
Vestal said, “Certainly not. It’s a silly idea. Why Canoe Heights? There’s a terrible mixed population there — Jews and Italians and even — Oh. I see.”
Mr. Stopple put it gently: “Do you think this is a time for you to be haughty, Mrs. Kingsblood? And the price won’t be anything like so good, next time. But I’ll hold the offer open for a few days. Good night.”
Neil said, “He knows.”
Vestal said, “Of course he does, my good man. Maybe everybody does, by now. . . . Do all the high-toned darkies live on Canoe Heights? Like this Dr. Melody?”
“I have no idea.”
“Don’t any of your — don’t you know ANY Negroes on Canoe Heights?”
“I didn’t say that! I didn’t say anything of the kind! I didn’t say I didn’t know ANY Negroes on Canoe Heights! I just said — all I said was that I didn’t know where Dr. Melody lives, and I don’t!”
“Oh, Neil, you never used to talk to me like that!”
“I know, and — I’m sorry. Yes, let’s not squabble.” (He realized that superhumanly she was refraining from saying, “I wasn’t squabbling,” and that encouraged him.) “Let’s not let Them beat us by dividing us.”
“We won’t! . . . I don’t think we will.”
They wondered, then and every evening, how many of Them knew and what They were saying. It was a gasping relief to Vestal that as yet the neighborhood children were not taking it out on Biddy but continuing to see her only as the charming and ingenious imp who had always led them in producing incredible amounts of noise. All but Peggy Havock, next door. She had been Biddy’s acolyte, but now she rarely came out when Biddy clamored, and Vestal was sick as she watched Biddy, after yelling for Peggy, stand puzzled, slowly tracing a circle with her small red boot in the snow, staring at the Havock house, vainly waiting.
Most of the neighbors were extra cordial, and extra brief, on the street. From their look it was evident that they were finding something new and objectionable in Neil, even in Vestal. The frankest was their gentle neighbor, Mr. Topman, who at over fifty was still a teller in the Merchants & Miners Bank.
He stopped Neil, to say humbly, “I am told that you have Negro blood, Neil. I must say I was surprised. I always thought that all Negroes were big and black and did a lot of thieving. Could I have been wrong?”
He spoke as to a tremendous authority, and authoritatively Neil put it, “You could be.”
“Now isn’t that interesting! Tell me, do the Negroes like it, when they go back to Africa?”
“I don’t suppose they go back.”
“They don’t? I never realized that. But I know a Swedish fellow that went back to the Old Country.”
“I think that’s different.”
“Is it? I just wanted to know. Tell me, Neil, do you know a Negro preacher down in Atlanta, Georgia — I read about him — his name was — well, I don’t recall it exactly, but it was something like George Brown — do you know who I mean?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Or it might have been Thomas. I thought you might know about him. Say, tell me — here’s something I’ve always been curious about. How much do these top-notch colored orchestra-leaders, say like Duke Ellington — how much do they make a year, net?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you THAT.”
“Oh, don’t you know? Well say, do all Negroes want to marry white women?”
“I doubt it very much, but I couldn’t say definitely.”
“That’s funny! I thought all you colored fellows knew all about such subjects like that.”
If there was anything comic in Mr. Topman’s effort to find a common ground with this Ethiopian, Kingsblood (whom he had known for only thirty-one years), the comedy faltered when he solicitously asked:
“If Vestal and you have another child, is there very much danger that it will be coal-black?”
Considering Biddy’s pellucidness, the question was funny, then, and slightly exasperating, but later, when he had heard it put half a dozen times and hinted at a hundred times, it was extremely exasperating and not funny at all. Neil had asked Ash Davis for the exact genetic facts, and learned, as definite, that with the union of a “colored” and a “white” person, the children will not have one chance in ten thousand of being darker than the darker parent. But he was to find that the universal folk belief, among such peasants as college-presidents and sewing-machine salesmen and popular lecturers, was that if anyone with .000001 per cent. of Negro genes married anyone fair as alabaster (which is notoriously fair), their children were more than likely to be all of them as black as the heart of a dictator. The fact that none of these civic worriers had ever heard of such a case was unimportant, because they all had heard of somebody who HAD heard of it!
Not for a time did it come to Neil that if such parents could have such an ebon child, it would still be their child to love.
Orlo Vay said to W. S. Vander, a fellow pillar of Sylvan Park, “He’s a sap, but he’s always been a good neighbor of mine, right across the street, and I’m not sure you could really call him a nigger, if he’s only one thirty-second.”
Mr. Vander growled, “My definition of a nigger is a fellow that publicly admits it and means it and so kicks himself right out of the human race, even if he ain’t but one-hundred and thirty-second part black.”
“I guess maybe you’re right,” admitted Orlo, not unwillingly.
Presently, throughout Grand Republic, the belief was fixed that Neil was —“if you want to know exactly”— one-quarter Negro.
Now, when he fled to the Davises and the Woolcapes, he pleasantly felt that he need not lie to Vestal about them. By grapevine, all of Mayo Street knew of his testimony at the club smoker, and they loved him — or just laughed. Without realizing how often, he was in a way of slipping out to John and Mary’s late in the afternoon, before he went home. And often, in an uneasy friendliness, as though he was waiting for something, he saw Sophie at Ash’s.
He needed their comfort, for no day in late January went by without someone, with a feeling of being very original about it, reminding him that he was “colored.”
Tom Crenway, as he could not think of anything reproving to say, just looked it. Cedric Staubermeyer tried to stare like a white man staring at a Negro. But Rose Pennloss, in the next block, waved her hand with a timid cordiality. Shirley Pzort, in the kitchen, got a little mixed-up and thought it was Vestal who was the Negro, and was extra friendly to her, as to a fellow immigrant. Dr. Cope Anderson, a chemist colleague of Ash, came calling, with the Reverend Lloyd Gadd, liberal clergyman; while in the bank, Lucian Firelock went out of his way to be seen shaking hands with Neil in public.
Then he saw the person who for years had been known to the household only as “the little man who comes to the back door.” He frequently showed up with a basket in the early evening, to sell them a juicy chicken, cherry marmalade, eggs, or a rococo coffee cake that his wife had made at their farm, out beyond Dead Squaw Lake. This time his fumbling ring at the back door came after eleven, and they heard it anxiously, thinking of Curtiss Havock drunk, of the hostile Mayor Fleeron and his policemen. Vestal went to the door with Neil, as stoutly as though she were two bodyguards with automatics.
The Little Man, standing in half-darkness on the cement back porch, piped, “Mr. Kingsblood — Neil — I haven’t brought anything to sell tonight, but I’ve just heard about how much nerve you showed, and I want to thank you.”
But again: on a bus, a small and unknown old woman flared at Neil, “My young nigger friend, do you know what God is going to do to you for having set yourself up against His plain commandment that Ethiopia shall stay in perpetual bondage in the kitchen and not go riding in no public buses with no decent white folks? Oh, he that heedeth not the words of God, he shall go down to hell and gnashing, and that’s the Bible-truth, that’s God’s truth, praise His merciful name!”
That was the prelude to the letters.
Grandfather Edgar Saxinar wrote from Minneapolis that Neil was a lying ingrate, that there never had been a Xavier Pic.
Berthold Eisenherz, lord of the manor, wrote from his winter villa at Palm Beach that while he prized his acquaintanceship, he could make it to Neil’s financial advantage if he would move away.
Drexel Greenshaw wrote regretting that a white gentleman like Mr. Kingsblood should call any attention at all to his unfortunate race, and so merely make it the harder for them.
Then the anonymous letters, those wry tributes to glory, written in painful ecstasy by neurotics who spend the rest of their time in sneaking along back alleys, after midnight, poisoning small cats.
They began with a sheet of ruled tablet-paper, inscribed in a rheumatic hand, mailed in a characterless envelope, with the name and address clumsily lettered.
Dear Mister Smart Nigger Kingsblood:
I guess you never thought I would here about how you come out and admitted all these years you been pertending to be a decent white man and now they caught you with your pants down and you are nothing but a nigger and you are trying to get away with it and claim where niggers are just as good as white men and if you red your Bible you would know different it says there plane God made niggers to be white man’s servants and if God had intentioned to have niggers same as us white men and become doctors and lawyers and so on and so forth would he made them different color of course he wouldn’t. He gave them that disgusting black color like yours to show they inferior dont you see that now you just never thought about that.
The trouble with you fellows you never try and use your socalled branes and if you would stop and think once you would see what I mean and go back to the cabin where God intended you to be.
Well thats a good joke on you, Mr. Dinge, and come now be a good sport and see how ridiculous you make yourself when you open your mouth and show your igorance and so I had a good laugh and if you admit now that the joke is on you I will forgive you and let byguns be byguns. I freely grant just my luck I had good education while you niggers are all igorant but dont you ever dare say anything about the Mississippi & Louisiana senators they are fine gentlemen and black beggars like you are not fit to black their boots and so you can just put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mister Educated Nigger and thank
An unknown Friend
P.S. The next time you wont get off so easy we dont give you coons a second chants trying to look like a white man you better watch your step you dont know how many people got there eye on you and you never know beforehand when blow will fall.
Vestal received only one anonymous letter, to Neil’s dozen, but hers was accurately typed, on linen paper, scented:
Dear Vestal (or Virgin):
This socially impoverished community owes a GREAT DEAL to you and your handsome “hubby” for providing it with a scandal that will amuse us all for YEARS to come. But please do let us know whether your DARLING spouse will run for Congress, as a Colored Gempman, and thus enable you to flaunt your “charms” and your fifty-dollar hats in the higher (colored) circles in Washington as you have in G.R. Your fairy daughter, so “superior” to all the normal brats — we have long found her childish swank and parading VERY funny — will in Washington be able to associate with infants WORTHY of her, the precocious offspring of Negro professors, Jewish “experts” and Haitian ambassadors.
Doubtless any failure now on the part of your “better half” to earn a living will, as hitherto, be compensated for by the charity handed out by your impressive, even if slightly dreary, Papa.
You might tell your husband — did you ever chance to think of what a pretty “chorus boy” he would make? — that we are FED UP with the arrogance of the niggers. The deah boy could not have picked a WORSE time to have allied himself with these gentry. So the niggers now DEMAND the RIGHT to mix with the D.A.R., and the nigger wenches will not work in kitchens or laundries, because they are all EX-LIEUTENANTS, forsooth!
The Negroes — tell your DELIGHTFUL but singularly unalphabet sweetie — will not get along until they perceive that we are not one bit “prejudiced” against their enchanting complexions and noses, but against their preventable diseases, their parasites, their idleness and utter filth and abysmal IGNORANCE. Of course all of us know that you appreciate all this about that ilk, and we are duly impressed by your loyalty in sticking to a member of that Neanderthal tribe. Gracious, what a GOOD TIME he must give you when you cuddle and scream!!
Oh, don’t MENTION it, my dear Mrs. K., and I hope — and the numerous ladies whom I have heard discussing it ALL hope — that the interest which dear Mr. Eliot Hansen has always shown in you will develop into another “interesting situation.” We are all really very JEALOUS of the neat arts and wrigglings you employ to attract these dubious types of males, and we shall observe your dual activities with impressment.
Or will Neilly and you get WISE to yourselves and get out of town? The voice of Thersites is the voice of Truth.
A Friend Indeed
As she handed this case-history to Neil, Vestal said wildly, “Is there any chance of my proving that I have decent Negro blood, too?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11