He had read enough of pretenders to titles and lands to be certain that his father’s claim was fool’s gold. But the arrogant nonsense of it amused him, and he wanted a new hobby.
Since his leg would not let him ski, or go wallowing through the snowdrifts after rabbits, swimming at the Federal Club was his only sport. He had bored himself with bridge, with crossword puzzles, with an aimless reading of travel and biographies and the novels, the spiritual flowering of the war, in which Elizabethan tarts delighted several million respectable readers by doing things which would be considered undesirable in a young lady of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
He was glad that it was England of which he was to be king. He had seen little of it beyond docks, trains and a Tudor manor house which had been turned into a hospital, but he had felt that the kind and weary Englishwomen who had nursed him had been veritably his own people. From his room of convalescence he had looked out all day at a flint church with a battlemented tower and long harp-strings of winter-bleached ivy, and coming and going through its pointed door he had seen Tess and Jude and Little Nell and Lorna Doone — and J. G. Reeder and Henry Baskerville. There was no building in Grand Republic, not even the bit of log stockade from 1862 which was built into the Fashion Livery Stable Garage, which was to him so admirable a proof of the enduring courage of mankind.
He had a much shrewder notion than his father of what would happen if the London newspapers were to be informed that an American banking gentleman had decided to be their king. Yet if there were that one-millionth chance, if it could be true —
Why not look into the history books and find out whether his father’s Secret was completely absurd, or only ninety-nine per cent. so? It would be exciting for Biddy to be able to say that she was the king’s daughter. From what he knew of that dictatorial young lady, he would not think it beyond her to round up all the neighborhood children and yelp, “Oyez, oyez, you canst now approach my royal person.” He remembered the Christmas crown of gilt paper, which she had worn proudly though sidewise.
At the kitchen table, over gin-and-ginger-ale, he explained it all to Vestal. It was on a winter Sunday afternoon. They had gorged on turkey, napped, listened to the broadcast of the Philharmonic Orchestra, studied the sports and fashions in the Sunday Frontier–Banner. On the sun-porch, Biddy, with her cousin Ruby and Peggy Havock, was playing with the debris of her Christmas presents. As children of the final Anglo–Saxon civilization, they were machine-gunning a sad-eyed brown woolen pup and a doll with a glass necklace and a broken nose.
“So look who’s a king!” Vestal jeered. “Your dad certainly is an old darling, and the craziest dreamer in town. Isn’t that nice! If we ever save up enough money, which with the present price of meat is highly unlikely, we might go over to the Old Country and look at Our palace, and then get the hell back here, where we understand the dialect. But may I say, Captain, that I couldn’t love you better if you were not only King of Britain but Exalted Ruler of the Elks. Anyway, I bet I play a sharper game of gin-rummy than any other queen living. Come here.”
In the sun-room she dug Biddy’s crown out from the Christmas ruins and gravely placed it on Neil’s brow, adjusting it as she would a new hat, and she demanded of the three delighted babies, “Now tell me, chicks, what is he?”
“He’s a king!” they all shrieked.
Vestal curtsied to him.
“You are both very silly,” said Biddy.
In that world of war-widowed wives and of babies who had never seen their fathers, Biddy was proud of having a visible and proven father.
“How would you like it if I were a sure-enough king?” asked Neil.
His daughter admired, “I think you’d be a dandy king, and then maybe you could be an actor in the movies!”
It was Shirley’s Sunday night off. As Neil and Vestal got the supper, she meditated, “I love trying to think of you as a king, but I can’t do it. You’re so obviously just what you are: a one-hundred per cent. normal, white, Protestant, male, middle-class, efficient, golf-loving, bound-to-succeed, wife-pampering, Scotch–English Middlewestern American. I wouldn’t believe that you were anything else, not if you brought me papers signed by General Eisenhower to prove it. Oh, didums want to be a king, in a castle? Well, you shall be king in my heart.”
“Maybe there’s a lot of girls that would like me to be king in their hearts.”
“Are there now! Isn’t that lovely. Slice those potatoes as fine as you can, will you, sire?”
He would never have begun the great genealogical research if his father had not twice begged, “Started to look up our ancestors yet?” Suddenly, on a Saturday afternoon when Vestal had the car and was off playing bridge, he determined, “Why not? At least it would be nice, now that I’ll never get much credit in golf or tennis again, if I got to be known as a good historian. Why not?”
He went up to his den, and sat down at his table, a scholar, dedicated and immovable, the vows taken, his lifework clear and vigorously begun, while Vestal and Rod Aldwick and Mr. Prutt and his one-time professor of European History all stood behind him, in awe.
There was one trouble: Now that he had begun his research, just how did you begin a research?
His head slowly turned as he peered speculatively about the room. There seemed to be no very relevant material except Dickens’s A Child’s History of England, a World Almanac, and The Yankee Universal Cyclopedia, in four volumes.
Resolutely he opened the cyclopedia to look up Catherine of Aragon. All that he learned was that she had been married to Henry, had had a daughter but no son, and that it had taken the destruction of the True Church to get rid of her.
— Well, if she didn’t have a son, then her son could have been our ancestor. No, that doesn’t sound right.
A Child’s History was no more helpful.
What DID you do with this research stuff?
Probably, you first wrote and bothered some authority. But which authority? His university history professor had never indicated that he longed for correspondence with tennis players. Was there some fellow in the Government whose job it was to explain how you got historical facts? And who was this writer who knew so much about all kinds of history and wrote these great, big books — five dollars a throw?
How did all these professors chase out and get all this information about some guy who had been dead for a couple hundred years? In the university, he had had no singular respect for professors; they had seemed to him oppressive and full of nasty tricks to catch a fellow who had been out on a bock-beer party last evening.
“Those guys may have it harder than I realized. How do you suppose they decide what Shakespeare meant in some line when chances are he was cockeyed when he wrote it, and didn’t know himself? I probably missed a lot of chances when I was in college. I’ll make up for them now.”
It is to be said for Neil Kingsblood that the hardness of a task did not repel him. Now that he saw the disinterring of his royal ancestors as arduous digging, he really began to work.
He hobbled rapidly to Sylvan Circle, took the bus down to Rita Kamber’s Vanguard Book Shop, and bought Trevelyan’s History of England. In the second-hand bins he saw two treasures which could not help him greatly, he knew, but which he could not resist: Lady Montressor’s Memoirs of Court, Camp, and Stately Residences of Our Fair Isle, two volumes, bound in white buckram with heraldic stampings, extra-illustrated, a great bargain, marked down from $22.50 to $4.67, and Metaphrastic Documentation of Feoffments under Henry VIII, a doctoral thesis by J. Humboldt Spare, Ph.D., published at $2.50, now fifteen cents.
His arm ached as he lugged them back to the bus, and he wondered, “Will I ever really go through them?” He was having the first, great, gloomy disillusionment in his career as a scholar.
He also bought Hard–Hitting Hockey, by Sandy Gough, and this, later, he actually read.
When his father heard that the research was begun, he hunted through old trunks and gave Neil a holograph letter from Daniel Kingsblood, the carpenter-farmer who had been in the Civil War, son of the Henry Aragon who had been driven out of England. Neil tasted it avidly:
Agst 7, 1864
My dr wfe:
I take my pen in hand to tell you all well so far hope Wm & you same. We are somewhere in Va or Car not sure which the sarjent will not tell us. Food is very bad am not complaining I suppose somebody has to fight this damn war but no place for man of almost 40 officers very mean and stuck up reumatism comes back when damp do not like these mts too hard to go up & down much prefer our Mich farm even if in wild & wooly west well there is no special news camp was attacked other night but halfharted do not think the graybellies like this War any better than us so getting along alright hope you all well. Must close now, your affct husband
Daniel R. Kingsblood
Dr. Kenneth, nervously trotting his fingers in air, urged, “Wonderful letter, eh! Can’t you just see the old boy? Golly, those fellows were patriotic! Took things like they came — endure anything for the sake of preserving the nation. Wonderful letter. I bet a historian would pay a lot to see that letter, but I’m not going to let one of those fellows even take a look at it, and don’t you ever show it to ’em if they come snooping around. Well, that ought to be an inspiration to you, eh?”
“Oh yes — yes — sure, Dad.”
“Well now, this is going to be a great surprise to you. I think I know where there’s a lot of letters from not only my father and old Daniel but maybe Henry Aragon himself! Think of that! My cousin, Abby Kiphers, was a great hand to save papers, in Milwaukee, the hardware-dealer’s wife, and I’ve already written to her. How’ll that be for honest-to-God treasure-trove, eh?”
“Grand,” said Neil feebly. “Original documents. I guess they’re what you want for research.”
From Cousin Abby came the letters from William, Daniel, and Henry Aragon Kingsblood, and Neil fell upon them like a kitten upon a catnip-mouse.
He learned a good deal about the price of wheat in 1852, the voraciousness of pigs in 1876, and the health of a whole gallery of Emmas, Abigails, and Lucys, but all of it was singularly unilluminating about royalty. Even in Henry Aragon’s letters, written in New Jersey between 1826 and 1857, there was only one sentence that might be of guidance:
“These Jerseyites can never seem to decide whether they prefer a Fool or a Scoundrel for Governor, and if I were King of this ignorant Land, I would hang the whole pack of them.”
Neil unhappily concluded that his father’s ancestors were an industrious, sober, and dreary lot, and that if he ever did reach back to the putative son of Catherine, the fellow would probably prove to have become a pious gravedigger. He sighed, “I never did think I’d have much luck at getting to be royal. It was just a chore I promised to do for Dad. I believe I’ll chuck it and think about Biddy and the future, not about Lord High Prince Whoozit. Hell with him.”
But he had been aroused to enough interest in his family to consider now his mother’s line. He hoped that they would be spicier.
He knew little of them, though as a student at the university he had often seen his mother’s mother Julie Saxinar, who was still living. His mother and Gramma Julie had never been harmonious, and for five years now Neil had not seen her, but he remembered her as a spark-eyed, tiny, scoffing old Frenchwoman, whose childhood had been struggled through on the Wisconsin frontier. The next time he saw his mother, late one afternoon, he suggested:
“I’ve been reading about Dad’s family, Mom, but what about yours?”
They were in the “back parlor” of Dr. Kenneth’s lean and aging house, an ill-ventilated room, all brown and dark-gray, jammed with a decrepit roll-top desk and imitation-ebony chairs carved with dragons. Faith Kingsblood was small and flexible, and in her there was a curious stillness. She said little; she seemed always to be waiting for something of which she was apprehensive. Her eyes were bead-black, but her face pale and her lips a faded pink. She trusted Neil and approved of him, and she never gave him advice nor anything more demonstrative than a pat on the arm.
She mused as though she was trying to remember something pleasant but dusty with time.
“I don’t really know much about my folks. My father’s folks, the Saxinars, were about like your father’s: Scotch and English stock, good steady farmers and little businesses. All I know about Mama’s family is, they were French, and I understand that in the old days they were in the fur trade in Canada. But those frontiersmen, I don’t suppose they ever wrote down much about themselves. One time when I asked Mama about them, she just laughed, and she said, ‘Oh, they were a terrible lot of boozy canoemen — nobody for a clean little girl to hear about.’ You know, Mama is a funny woman. I think she always kind of objected to my having so much Saxinar in me, and being so neat and orderly, and clean pinnies. Ain’t that strange!”
She slipped back into her silent waiting, and the quest of his ancestors became to Neil slightly absurd.
In so vast a universe as Grand Republic, with nearly a hundred thousand people, there are many worlds unknown to one another. One of the worlds least known to Neil was the feverish one of music: violin teachers giving lessons in the “front parlors” of red-brick houses in rows; little girls learning the saxophone; the Symphony Association which, once a year, managed to bring the Duluth Orchestra to town.
This year, with the local Finnish Choral Society, the orchestra appeared at the Wargate Memorial Auditorium, in late January. Along with such ordinary citizens as Neil and Vestal, the fabulously great appeared at the concert: Webb and Louise Wargate, Dr. Henry Sparrock, Madge Dedrick with her daughter, Eve Champeris, Oliver and Morton Beehouse, Greg and Diantha Marl, Judge and Mrs. Cass Timberlane — she a frail, excited sparkle. Even Boone and Queenie Havock were there, both slightly drunk, as that was the only state in which they could endure the enjoyment of music.
(There were also present, but unmarked by the Frontier society reporter, a number of people who liked music.)
It amused Neil to think of how they would all turn from the mild magnificence of Hannikainen on the podium to HIM, if they knew that he was a Royal Personage. . . . He might wear his crown and ermine down to work on the Sylvan Park bus, and set up court at his desk at the Second National.
He forgot these splendors as the orchestra and the chorus marched into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He was borne into a place he had never seen. It was a spacious prospect across ornamental waters and oak-shadowed lawns to the pillars of a great house whose windows were wreathed with stone flowers. Behind it was a hill of heather, and over all a tower, broken and ancient. And it seemed to him that this was all his own.
“Is this some ancestral memory?” he wondered. “Did some great-great-something, that is me now, own that once? Is it maybe true that I could be a king?
“Oh, settle for a baron!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57