Vestal did not care for this hermit business. She loved parties, all kinds of parties. She did not hold with sitting around at home and having noble principles.
Her father, who was one of the most high-minded inventors of civic duties, who believed that both matrimonial and electric-lighting contracts were drawn up in Heaven, was nevertheless urging her to leave her wedded husband, come home, and be divorced. Then she would again be able to go, panoplied in Caucasian superiority, to evening carnivals where you ate lobster Newburg and played “Who am I?” If it did not work out, he promised, he would send her off to live in some scenic locality where the taint in Biddy was unknown.
When she dropped in to see her father, he looked up from his desk as though the desk itself were looking up, and said steadily, “Why duck your fate, Vessy? I have talked it over with your Uncle Oliver and with Reverend Yarrow, than whom there are no greater believers in the sanctity of marriage — when it’s a real marriage. But they agree with me that you cannot look at it as a genuine bond when you were betrayed into wedlock with a homicidal maniac, a degenerate, or a Negro, and when a man is more or less all three — We don’t want a divorce from this fella Kingsblood; we want an annulment.”
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘Nuts.’”
“Do you think that’s respectful?”
“I’m extremely fond of Neil. He’s good fun — or he used to be, before he became a mass-meeting. Besides, I don’t want to let him down.”
“You’re letting me down, aren’t you?”
“Then you certainly can’t expect me —”
“We don’t. We won’t. We won’t take another cent from you. Besides, Neil has the refusal of the most wonderful position in- I won’t tell you anything about it, till it’s made public. Oh, Dad, you don’t want to persecute me, do you?”
“No, I want to save you.”
Elegant Eliot Hansen, whatever he might think of Neil Kingsblood, that traitor to his class and race, made it clear to Neil’s wife that he, Eliot, was merely the more loyal to her, and that he stood humbly ready to serve her with advice, sympathy, petty cash, discussion of the opera, brotherly handshakes, or anything of his that she could use. That resourceful willingness, combined with Eliot’s fresh, thin good looks and his habit of tilting his head at her like a worshipping dachshund, made him a more dangerous escape for Vestal than you would have thought.
Except for Eliot and Curtiss Havock, the men in what, till a few weeks ago, had been Neil and Vestal’s “bunch” were not a lecherous lot. They were solid homecomers who would have been embarrassed in strange bedrooms and impotent at the sight of a pink valence. They would have defined “venery” (if they had ever tried to define any words besides trade-balance, torque, and this-here-Fascism) as “sports of the hunting-field,” not as “sports of the boudoir.” But Eliot made up for the timidity of his peers. He was the specialist in goatishness as Judd Browler was the master of trout flies and Tom Crenway of salad-dressing. Just to be seen smiling privily with Eliot was enough to give a bored wife a secondary thrill and an interesting reputation. In the cosmos of Grand Republic, you can find everything, even if in miniature, and Eliot Hansen was Casanova and Solomon and the purer parts of the Marquis de Sade as condensed for newsstand sale in a reprint magazine.
Even to be in Eliot’s house, alone with his wife Daisy, was considered suggestive, and Vestal found herself there only because she was on the flower committee of the church, along with Daisy, Pomona Browler and Violet Crenway. They had tea at Daisy’s and, to their fury, were given tea at the tea, and as they all disliked one another, they concentrated on Vestal and hinted that they would be glad to receive any confidences about her troubles with Neil.
“What’s this I hear — that Neil is going to a bigger bank?” chirruped Violet, obviously meaning (or so the agitated Vestal suspected), “What’s the poor zany going to do, now that he’s fired?”
“Is Neil’s leg going to be strong enough for him to play tennis, next summer?” soothed Pomona, probably meaning “Will he dare to poke his nose into our dear little club and take a chance on having big, strong, indignantly family-protective aristocrats like my husband smash that black, flat, intrusive snout?”
Daisy Hansen probed, “I declare, I’m crazy about your husband. When you see so much of him, can he possibly go on being just as wonnerful as the rest of us girls think he is?” and Vestal interpreted this one as “Come on and tell us about refusing to sleep with that horrible swindler, now that you’ve found out he’s a — you know.”
Vestal answered all of them with nothing more than a modest presentation of Neil as the new Apollo with touches of Ajax and St. Sebastian.
Whether the things they said did have these secret meanings, whether their glee in her tragedy was real or a sick imagining, made no difference in Vestal’s uneasiness at being investigated, being the eccentric wife of a Negro, and she felt relieved when Eliot came in with a humming-bird sound of “What, you girls not getting any cocktails? Come on, Ves, help me make one.”
The well-appointed butler’s pantry in that select modern residence, with its special white-enamel miniature refrigerator for ice-cubes, was Eliot’s private cafe on the boulevards, and scene of the inception of many of his happiest seductions, over the swizzle-stick and the slightly gummy bottle of Italian vermouth. Solemnly pumping up and down the silver-plated shaker, which had a dent in it from the time Daisy had thrown it at him, he looked up at Vestal, who was half an inch taller, and purred, “Have you heard the story yet about the pilot that had a studio-couch put in his plane?”
“No — I mean yes — I mean I don’t want to hear it!”
“No? You’re missing something good, baby. Say, you remember Bradd Criley, the lawyer that used to live here — moved to New York?”
“Yes, I knew him.”
“Doc Kelly was in New York here recently, and he says Criley has a real, sure-enough New York actress for girl-friend now, and does he give her a good time! He blew her to a bed six feet wide with a sponge-rubber mattress — baby!”
Eliot referred, with no greater relevance, to soldiers and their amours in Europe, to a cabin that he owned up the Big Eagle River and that was, among his friends, in the appalling argot of the day, referred to as a “love nest.” Vestal concluded that he was trying, with all the subtlety inherent in the ice-cream business (wholesale), to get over to her the news that people were still doing it, so why not?
She wanted to choke on a mixture of finding it funny and finding it atrocious.
— He’d never dare to hint this way if I weren’t married to a colored gentleman. Now I know Eliot’s regular approach, how he goes to work when the love-bells tinkle in that boy-sized brain. . . . Mr. Hansen, if you touch my wrist again, I’m going to sock you over the head with your own cocktail-shaker.
— You know what’s funny? Borus Bugdoll would do this so much better. He’s a swine, Borus is, but he’s much more educated than this amateur barkeep; he’s lived in Harlem.
— I WILL have this out with Neil — things like this happening all because of him. I haven’t complained much, but I’ve got to go to town on the whole business. We’ve got to move away and change our name and I’d see to it that Neil never pulled the brave-Negro-pioneer junk again. And this morning I woke up confused and tried to think what crime I’d committed and then I realized that I’m married to a Negro, that I’m up against it. Oh, dear God!
Thus, while the delightful Eliot shook and tasted and babbled and smiled.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11