The breakfasts were better, now that Vestal made them, and there was always an ash-tray on the table, and the morning Banner. Now and then Neil danced a jig on the kitchen floor, and gloated “This is all ours again!”
But, with the perversity of children and animals, Biddy and Prince kept mourning for Belfreda, coming in to search for her, looking reproachfully at Neil and Vestal, and saying, if only with their eyes, “What did you do to our friend?”
Within a week Vestal engaged Nancy Havock’s cousin, Shirley Pzort, as maid.
Shirley was highly willing to share the cheer of the coming Christmas; she was even friendlier than Vestal desired, and always addressed her as “sweetie.” She was what at that period was known as a “bobby-soxer”; an almost pure young woman, innocent and graceful as a kitten, devoted to bubble-gum and dancing.
As December grew colder, Neil’s injured leg began to ache again, and he thought of the war, of companions who had been killed, of the lonely hospital Christmas a year ago. The Englishwomen had been so kind, but he had longed for the voices of the Middlewest, for his mother and Vestal and Biddy, his sisters Joan and Kitty. He had them all now; it would be their first Christmas together in three years.
He wondered what effect the war had had on him. Had there been any at all?
Lying in the hospital, he had been certain that all of the young soldiers would get together when they returned and shut up that one single revolving door called “the Republican and Democratic Parties,” and vote for righteousness and prosperity and no more wars. But when he had been in the bank for six weeks, as he heard nothing from the bankers and lawyers and merchants except the prophecy that That Man Roosevelt would be dictator of the country by 1950, he slipped back into his normal faith in the security of zeros.
But lately, at the Federal and Sylvan Park Tennis clubs, he had found himself irritated by the frequent sneers at “kikes.” He meditated:
— I don’t suppose the Jews like being called “kikes” any more than my French–Canadian ancestors liked being called “frog-eaters.” I admitted that fellow Lieutenant Rosen who got killed by the land-mine. Sure, lots of Jews are just like us — I guess. I ought to get the liberal point of view while I’m still young, and then hold onto it, or I might turn mean, when I’m fat and middle-aged and president of this bank — or maybe of the First National of St. Paul.
These meditations were conducted at his desk, under the marble vaulted ceiling of the Second National’s banking-room. He had been busy with Small Loans all morning, particularly with returned soldiers who wanted to start businesses, and he had tried to combine generosity with caution. It is not true that every banker lies awake days plotting to ruin all establishments belonging to small indignant men with crippled daughters. The banking business is usually not so good in a community with no money whatever.
He had before him a pile of folders with complicated financial statements, and as he recalled his dawn-thoughts during the war, the folders looked dreary. He sighed over a cigarette and glanced suspiciously at the fine brass plate with “N. Kingsblood, Asst. Cashier.”
When he had graduated from the University of Minnesota, in 1935, he had planned to study medicine. But in the summer he went temporarily to work as a messenger in the Second National. Nothing happened that would blast him out of that smug mausoleum, and when he had married Vestal and begot Biddy, he was caught, and not at all unhappy about it. He read books on banking; he rose to be teller; he was popular with women customers who saw his smile and his red hair through the bars that he did not know were there. He was a favorite of President John William Prutt for his steadiness and good-humor and honesty, and this year, after his return from the service, he had been made an assistant cashier.
Mr. Prutt believed in training his young men in all branches of banking, and Neil, even now, was shifted about from “contacting prospects” and the nursing of old customers through overdrafts to book-work, to signing cashier-checks, and the transfer of funds, and Prutt kept him familiar with the depositors by having him sit in as teller for an hour or two every day.
He was as much in favor with the cashier, S. Ashiel Denver, who was a neighbor in Sylvan Park, as he was with Mr. Prutt.
There were eight banks in Grand Republic, of which the largest was the Blue Ox National: Norton Trock, president, Boone Havock, chairman of the board, Curtiss Havock, general nuisance. But Mr. Prutt considered that institution and its twelve-story building merely utilitarian. He felt that the Second National (there was no First) was in the true Morgan or Tellson’s tradition. In its two-story marble temple, with massive bronze gates, at Chippewa Avenue and Sibley Street, there were no offices to rent, and it did not house alien chiropractors and machinery-agents.
In the banking-room, under the arched ecclesiastic vastness of its ceiling, which was upheld by ponderous pillars of green Italian marble, upon the glossy sea-shining floor of black marble inlaid with squares and diamonds of polished granite and pink quartz, where there was lacking only a robed choir of High–Church bookkeepers to complete the spell of sanctity and of solvency, Neil considered himself a minor canon.
Actually, he was another schoolboy in a row of schoolboy desks.
For all its slanted brass name-plate and its onyx combination clock-inkstand-calendar-thermometer-barometer, his was a small desk, a leg-cramping desk, and his only personal treasures were the silver-framed photograph of Vestal and Biddy, his pipe and tobacco pouch, a copy of True Detective Stories, and a begging letter from his alumni secretary.
If Neil had any singular virtue, it was his loyalty to his friends.
He was thinking that at Christmas most of the dozen or so men whom he called his “close friends” would still be in peril abroad, his three intimates, Eliot and Judd and Rod, among them.
Eliot Hansen, the flashing, the dance-mad, the party-giver, was the inheritor from his plain Norwegian father of the Sweet Scent Dairy and Ice Cream Company, of which the symbol, to be seen on billboards along every highway into Grand Republic, was a pot of honey and a penny-piece.
Judd Browler, the sturdy, the careful, son of Duncan Browler who was the first vice-president of Wargate’s, had sold prunes and biscuits in carload lots before the war.
The great man in that gallery was Rodney Aldwick.
Five years older than Neil, Princeton cum Harvard law-school, now a well-decorated major in the tank corps, Rod Aldwick was the Great Gentleman, the High Adventurer. He was a polo-player, he was a ski-stunter, he was a quick-memorizing genius who had only to look at a page of print to know it. He had the standard Anglo–Prussian specifications for a hero: crisp hair, broad shoulders, slim waist, and 6’ 2”. Major Aldwick would never seduce any woman in the limbo between countess and chambermaid, and if he had had slaves, he would have hacked them to death, but he would never have nagged them. Probably he will some day be found dead in bed, not necessarily his own bed, with either a dagger in his lungs or a laurel-wreath, slightly twisted, on his fine white brow.
Neil reflected that if these intimates were here, he would be able to discuss such personal puzzles as why he had recently enjoyed hating Belfreda. Then he admitted that all three of them had shied away from any subject more spiritual than the legs of their stenographers, any topic more embarrassing than the Republican Party. Only once in his life had Neil possessed a friend with whom he could talk about fear and love and God, and that friend he had known for only two weeks.
He had been young Captain Ellerton, whom Neil had met on the transport to Italy. All day, all night, they had talked. Ellerton was a designer of machinery, with a taste for Mozart and Eugene O’Neill and Toulouse–Lautrec and Veblen, and he had not seemed to be impertinent when he had asked, “Do you ever think about personal immortality?” and “Do you love your Vestal out of love or out of loyalty?”
Ellerton was killed by a sniper, forty-two minutes after they had landed in Italy.
Neil had forgotten, by now, just what he had answered when, under the Mediterranean stars, Tony Ellerton had speculated, “Since you have only one life that you know of, do you enjoy devoting most of it to banking?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52