“We’ll have an honest-to-God traditional Christmas, carols and bellyaches and everything. We’ll celebrate, because the war will be over by next year, and the boys will be coming home . . . and we’ll get more butter,” Vestal rejoiced.
Their tree was a tall spruce from a northern swamp, but when she came to decorate it she protested that the war was indeed terrible, for in the Five-and-Tens and Tarr’s Emporium there were only a few silver balls and twisted sticks of colored glass.
She resolutely explored her father-inlaw’s attic and in a lurching pasteboard carton, like Captain Kidd’s treasure in a shoe-box, she found the trinkets remaining from the good old days of 1940: a great silver star, a silver-and-gold angel, glass oranges and grapes and cherries, a handful of tinsel rain, and a jocose little plaster statue of Santa Claus with a red coat and a red nose and a lighted pipe.
She came home like a walking Christmas van, and that evening the tree was ridden from the garage into the living-room on Neil’s stout back, and Vestal, Neil, Biddy, Prince, and Shirley danced round it, squealing.
It was Neil’s turn, this year, to entertain the whole Kingsblood tribe on Christmas Day. So, with all of her womanly genius raging, Vestal coursed through Tarr’s, allowing herself a strict budget of seven presents to every ten dollars, and she accomplished a fabulous wonder by finding, at Bozard’s, a four-strand almost-real pearl necklace for Mother Kingsblood for eleven dollars. With a not-even-almost-real diamond pendant attached to it.
It was at Tarr’s that Vestal snatched up the gifts for Biddy: the lovely, old-fashioned, starry-eyed, flaxen-headed doll which resembled a plumper Biddy, and the lovely, new-fashioned machine gun which, in the 1940’s, had become just the right token of the Christchild for a nice little girl. And at Tarr’s she got the new collar and the rubber bone for Prince, the scarf for Shirley, and the rosewood pipe for Neil’s father, which the good dentist would admire extravagantly and never use.
For themselves, Neil and Vestal put Biddy to bed early and spent Christmas Eve dancing at the Pineland.
“It’s a crime that you have to feed my whole hungry tribe tomorrow,” murmured Neil.
“Sweetie, anybody that you manage to get related to, even if it’s that second cousin of yours that runs the filling-station in Hiawatha, Wisconsin, is my pal, and always will be.”
“And I love you very much, and I’m praying that we’ll have fifty more happy Christmases together.”
“I drink to that!” cried Vestal, holding up her tiny glass of the white creme de menthe, frappe, which in Grand Republic is considered the most elegant cordial.
Drexel Greenshaw, the dark-brown, stately headwaiter of the Fiesole Room, with his small white mustache like that of a Haitian general trained in France, smiled to see his young people still so much in love. It elevated his feudal soul to hover near Captain Kingsblood, future president of the Second National, and his young wife, a real lady, daughter of the Prairie Power and Light.
Drexel thought to himself, “It’s just as I told that little fool, Belfreda: if she didn’t get along with a fine lady and gentleman like that, it was all her fault. My race will never have any trouble with high-class white people. I keep telling these colored agitators like Clem Brazenstar that they do more harm to my race than any mean buckra, and then they laugh at me and call me an ‘Uncle Tom’! Those radical scum don’t know nothing about aristocratic society. I’m tickled to death to serve a gentleman like Captain Kingsblood, that couldn’t never be nothing but a gentleman, nohow.”
Thus did the magisterial old Tory take his triumph all by himself, though he seemed to be considering nothing profounder than napkins. When Neil and Vestal rose, Drexel humbly shadowed them to the door, and chanted, “We always feel it’s a great honor to have you here in the Feesoly Room, Captain and Madam, and we hope we shall be privileged to serve you again soon.”
Drexel was almost hurt when Neil answered the tribute with a dollar, but he controlled himself.
Back home, Neil telephoned a Merry Christmas to his father and mother, at midnight, and they brought out the presents. Vestal had dug up wrinkled wrappings from pre-war Christmases, scarlet and silver and crocus-yellow, and ironed them out, and the odd-shaped boxes under the tree were a sparkling heap.
“It’s so pretty!” she exulted. “Oh, my dear lover, it’s been Christmas now for seventeen minutes, and you’re back from the war all safe, and everybody loves us, and we’re going to be happy forever.”
They clung together and trembled.
They were a handsome, confident and parental couple, in flannel dressing-gowns and purple scarves, when they came down before breakfast on Christmas morning, to help open the presents; and Biddy was a shining butterball in her tiny blue-and-white robe, Shirley a small dark Eskimo, and Prince a barking whirligig of excitement as they dragged the bright boxes out of the pile under the tree. Vestal was pleased by her own major gift, the fur-piece, because it was handsomer than Nancy Havock’s. They had waffles for breakfast, all of them — including Prince, and what a mistake that was — and Christmas carols on the radio, and they dressed and bustled into preparations for the family feast at two o’clock.
Head of the family was Neil’s father, Dr. Kenneth M. Kingsblood, whom the community esteemed equally for his bridgework, for his Adult Bible Class at the Baptist Church, for his trap-shooting, and for the jig-saw puzzles which he cut out on a private lathe. He was a ginger-colored man, tall and thin and kindly and hesitating.
Neil’s mother, Faith, was small and slight and brown-haired, and she always seemed to be a little afraid of life, a little surprised that the four powerful children were really hers. Yet her dark eyes were as hot as those of her own mother, Julie Saxinar, that piquant and bawdy Frenchwoman, who lacked only a scarlet kerchief and a tambourine to become a gipsy. Faith’s eyes seemed to have a life of their own, while all the rest of her was gentle and entirely vague, and she never listened to anybody at all.
Next in the family were Brother Robert, the Vitavim Bread salesman, the joker and total-recaller, and his wife Alice and their three children, including Biddy’s pal, Ruby. But it must be understood that Alice was not merely the wife of Robert Kingsblood. She was nothing less than sister of Harold W. Whittick, the poetic bull-frog of advertising.
After them were Neil’s sister, Kitty Sayward, with her Charles. And youngest of Dr. Kenneth’s children was Joan, who was still living at home. Joan was ten years younger than Neil; reasonably pretty, reasonably intelligent, reasonably uninteresting. She thought that she wanted to go to Chicago and study dress-designing and she knew that she wanted to stay here and be married, preferably to her fiance, an affable young man who was now a lieutenant in the Navy.
The tribe gathered, nine adults and six children — not to include Shirley and Prince — and though they talked about Russia and chemotherapy, they gave the feeling of the farmhouse-kitchen from which none of them was ancestrally far distant. The younger women all bustled about the stove and set the table (including the cut-glass dish of brandied peaches), while Neil elaborately served cocktails to the men, and Mother Faith was throned in the blue wing-chair by the fireplace, smiling and vague.
Dr. Kenneth took the head of the table of fifteen. (Under the linen table-cloths, there were concealed two cardtables, eking out the mahogany.) He looked down the two robust lines of people, loving them all, surprised at how beautiful and buoyant they were. He bowed his head, and in his thin kind voice he said grace:
“Dear Father in Heaven, through all these perilous days Thou hast preserved us, to celebrate again the birthday of Thy dear son. God keep us together all this wondrous coming year, and bless these, my children, bless them, oh, bless them!”
Neil remembered the hospital ward of a year ago. He looked past those beloved faces to the worn face of his father, and his breath caught sharply.
“Gee, two turkeys!” reverently whispered Robert’s Ruby.
After dinner, children and dogs and aunties were sleeping all over the house. Vestal’s father, Morton Beehouse, accompanied by his brother Oliver — they were widowers and they had dined at Oliver’s — honored the house by dropping in, bearing unnecessary things in leather and synthetic ivory. Dr. Kenneth was pleased to see how easy his son Neil was with the fabulous Beehouses.
“He’s a sterling young man,” gloated Dr. Kenneth. “He will go far. Maybe it’s time to tell him The Secret.”
He watched his son through the quiet supper, the games of Monopoly and gin-poker and charades, and in mid-evening he said to Neil fondly, “Young fellow, you seem to think so blame well of your trifling house and family, but your old man has to take you up to your den and tell you the facts of life.”
He was a man whose fancies sometimes ran away, and Neil followed him upstairs with a degree of nervous surprise.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11