They were at home, snug against the evening of March winds, and Biddy was singing herself to sleep upstairs, when the Neighborhood Committee rang and marched in. They were four solid citizens and their resolute look indicated that they preferred to be courteous, but they were going to be hard.
They were Former Mayor Stopple, Former Friends Don Pennloss and Judd Browler, and Mr. W. S. Vander, ex-lumberjack, who had carried into his wholesale lumber-business the good old methods of eye-gouging and spiked boot, and who was as harsh and honest as Bill Stopple was slick and crooked.
All of them arranged their grins and, except the tough Mr. Vander, sat on the edges of their chairs. In that cheerful room, they seemed as out of place as so many shiny-black bull-fish. Neil stood by the fireplace and Vestal, at her small white desk, frigidly played with a lavender quill-pen.
As Gruppenfuhrer, Honorable Stopple emitted, between throat-struggles, “Folks, some time ago I told you about a dandy little house I could show you on Canoe Heights. My, is that a view!”
“What do you want? Come to the point!” Vestal snapped.
“At your service, Ma’am, and may I say that there is no one who has a greater admiration for your father than I have?”
“You may, if you feel you have to.”
Honorable Stopple was becoming irritated by this ingratitude. Was he not here unselfishly, on behalf of the public weal? Nobody loved a public weal more than Honorable Stopple, but he did want a little credit for it. On the surface, however, he still held that noble calm of a man who is always looking for votes and quick turnovers.
“I shall always accept your judgment, Ma’am. Now I have been somewhat concerned over the thought that you folks may not be altogether happy here.” Vander grunted. “I think we may call Sylvan Park the highest type of residential addition, without excessive valuations, but I must say, regretfully, that there is a lot of social prejudice here. Personally, my motto is live and let live. Whether the cause of this local prejudice is some lack in our religious training, I would not presume to say. As a layman, I feel that it is impossible for us to comprehend the task of the clergyman, and it ill behooves us —”
“Will you please stop admiring your philosophy, and get to work?” Vestal was snarling now. Neil was looking appraisingly at a large and chunky vase.
“I certainly will, Ma’am! Lots of folks around here don’t want colored neighbors, and that’s the clux or the clue or whatever it is of the whole matter! They can’t understand that it isn’t Neil’s fault that he’s colored. But there you are: a sort of what you might call a growing resentment against you folks. And so maybe you would be happier in some other neighborhood . . . and a whole lot safer!”
He was too level-voiced for Vestal to go on being pert, and he continued more blandly:
“Mr. Berthold Eisenherz, who once owned all this property, a very fine man, is willing to take your place back at just what Neil paid for it, figuring that depreciation on the house and any appreciation on the lot will just about balance. This seems to me a very generous offer, very, and may I venture to advise you —”
“Mr. Stopple, we had this all out before,” said Vestal. “You don’t seriously expect us to listen, do you?”
Don Pennloss came in. “Look, Vestal, we are here more as friends of yours than as authorized representatives of the property-holders. But we are that, too.”
Judd Browler blurted, “Neil, you got no idea how we’ve worked to keep certain neighbors from — well — demonstrating. They’re fed up. You can’t go on fooling with them. They simply will not tolerate a non-Caucasian living here and lowering the social tone of the community.”
Honorable Stopple said, “I hate to think of what some of the hotheads might do — charivaris that would scare your sweet little girl — and worse.”
“Mayor, I just don’t like blackmail. Or blackmailers,” said Neil, and Vestal nodded.
Then Vander got to work. Mr. Vander had not gone to school with dear Neil nor gone to parties nor played hockey with him. He was twenty years older, and all his salad days had been pork-and-beans days and he had been in the Big Woods, freezing half the time and getting warm by fighting with axe-handles the other half. He loved both his family and his investments and he did not love Negroes or anybody who was not a Vander. He had a flat head, a stormy jaw, a steady, blue eye, and no sentimental objections to clubs, ropes, fire, or splinters under the nails. He was a good wholesale-lumber dealer, but he might have been a good sea captain, prime minister, executioner or lieutenant-general, and he barked now as one with authority, so that Prince woke up, under the couch, and barked back, and Vestal rose, to walk across the room and stand beside Neil.
“Blackmail, hell!” said Mr. Vander. “It’s going to be a lot worse than blackmail. You folks apparently got no idea how sore people are at having niggers right in their front yard. I know I am! I get damn sick and tired of paying my taxes right on the dot and then finding some Christ-forsaken Spig or Wop or Kike or Dinge —”
“Careful of the language, ol’ man!” tittered Stopple.
“Oh, these niggers are used to any kind of language.”
Vestal, her hand on Neil’s arm, restrained him, and now she laughed at a certain wistfulness in Mr. Vander:
“Honestly, I’m getting fed to the gills on having the boys downtown rib me all the time! ‘So you’re living in a nigger neighborhood, now — ain’t a nigger yourself, are you?’ they say — you know, kidding. One time in Chicago, I heard a workman — some kind of city work he was on, where they had some shines doing clerical work, and he was grousing, ‘It just naturally makes me sore to see a nigger sitting at a desk while I have to stand up with a shovel.’ Say, I know just how he felt! Makes me sore and it ain’t right to see you darkies living as nice as I do myself, after all the hard work I put in to get where I am. By God, that ain’t justice and by God I ain’t going to have it!”
Stopple ballooned up again, lovely silken pear-shape, glittering and yellow, full of gas, always going up and collapsing and surprised about it. “Now, now, Brother Vander, you must of got out of bed on the wrong side, this morning. But Neil, it was pretty foolish of you to talk about ‘blackmail.’ I must say, I never heard of a blackmailer that did the paying!
“Nothing could be more friendly than we are. I said to my wife, ‘Pauline, I never expected Mr. Eisenherz to be that generous. He’s a diplomat and a swell,’ I told her, ‘but just the same,’ I said, ‘you scratch an Eisenherz and you find a tightwad, no matter how many French paintings he buys, or what have you,’ I said, and to tell you the truth, Neil, I was simply astonished, and I hope my influence may have had something to do with it, when he come right out and was willing to refund the full purchase-price, cash on the nail, and no if and or but about it. So, if you take his offer, you won’t be one cent out of pocket. But mind you, the next time a committee calls on you, maybe it won’t be this same committee, and maybe they won’t be so friendly, and maybe you’ll be only too glad to sell for one whale of a lot less dough.”
Vander growled, “Maybe you’ll be glad to get away with a whole hide, and no dough at all!”
“I AM going to hit him!” Neil stated to Vestal.
“No! That’s what this fellow wants!”
Vander chuckled. “Sure, let’s have a little hitting, Kingsblood, a little action!”
Vestal’s hand was firm on Neil’s arm.
Stopple oiled them, “Now, now, you boys be good. We’re talking business! So, Neil, after another twenty-four hours, my offer will be lower, a lot lower, but meanwhile you can get me on the phone any time, night or day. . . . Well, gentlemen, I think it’s all perfectly clear now, but I don’t want to go without assuring Neil and his good lady that they have our heartiest good wishes. Good night — good night! This way, gentlemen.”
Vestal embraced him. “Oh, my darling, darling Neil! I’m getting it through my thick head now what it’s all about. Never mind those shirttail Nazis. We’ll stick right here.”
“You realize tough things could happen?”
The ghost of Sophie Concord smiled on Neil with a wistful benediction and was gone.
He complained, “Why didn’t you let me hit Vander?”
“They’d have had you arrested, and that would get in the papers and make a lovely case against us. Besides,” judiciously, “I think probably Mr. Vander would have licked you, and I don’t want to have you beaten up. I need you around. Oh, Neil, we’ll live now, even if we die from it!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57