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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
TOWARD the end of the winter there came a newspaper, addressed to Miss Irene Lapham; it proved to be a Texas newspaper, with a complimentary account of the ranch of the Hon. Loring G. Stanton, which the representative of the journal had visited.
"It must be his friend," said Mrs. Lapham, to whom her daughter brought the paper; "the one he's staying with."
The girl did not say anything, but she carried the paper to her room, where she scanned every line of it for another name. She did not find it, but she cut the notice out and stuck it into the side of her mirror, where she could read it every morning when she brushed her hair, and the last thing at night when she looked at herself in the glass just before turning off the gas. Her sister often read it aloud, standing behind her and rendering it with elocutionary effects.
"The first time I ever heard of a love-letter in the form of a puff to a cattle-ranch. But perhaps that's the style on the Hill."
Mrs. Lapham told her husband of the arrival of the paper, treating the fact with an importance that he refused to see in it.
"How do you know the fellow sent it, anyway?" he demanded.
"Oh, I know he did."
"I don't see why he couldn't write to 'Rene, if he really meant anything."
"Well, I guess that wouldn't be their way," said Mrs. Lapham; she did not at all know what their way would be.
When the spring opened Colonel Lapham showed that he had been in earnest about building on the New Land. His idea of a house was a brown-stone front, four stories high, and a French roof with an air-chamber above. Inside, there was to be a reception-room on the street and a dining-room back. The parlors were to be on the second floor, and finished in black walnut or parti-colored paint. The chambers were to be on the three floors above, front and rear, with side-rooms over the front door. Black walnut was to be used everywhere except in the attic, which was to be painted and grained to look like black walnut. The whole was to be very high-studded, and there were to be handsome cornices and elaborate center-pieces throughout, except, again, in the attic.
These ideas he had formed from the inspection of many new buildings which he had seen going up, and which he had a passion for looking into. He was confirmed in his ideas by a master builder who had put up a great many houses on the Back Bay as a speculation, and who told him that if he wanted to have a house in the style, that was the way to have it.
The beginnings of the process by which Lapham escaped from the master builder and ended in the hands of an architect are so obscure that it would be almost impossible to trace them. But it all happened, and Lapham promptly developed his ideas of black walnut finish, high studding, and cornices. The architect was able to conceal the shudder which they must have sent through him. He was skilful, as nearly all architects are, in playing upon that simple instrument Man. He began to touch Colonel Lapham's stops.
"Oh, certainly, have the parlors high-studded. But you've seen some of those pretty old-fashioned country-houses, haven't you, where the entrance-story is very low-studded?" "Yes," Lapham assented."Well, don't you think something of that kind would have a very nice effect? Have the entrance-story low-studded, and your parlors on the next floor as high as you please. Put your little reception-room here beside the door, and get the whole width of your house frontage for a square hall, and an easy low-tread staircase running up three sides of it. I'm sure Mrs. Lapham would find it much pleasanter." The architect caught toward him a scrap of paper lying on the table at which they were sitting and sketched his idea. "Then have your dining-room behind the hall, looking on the water." He glanced at Mrs. Lapham, who said, "Of course," and the architect went on--
"That gets you rid of one of those long, straight, ugly staircases,"--until that moment Lapham had thought a long, straight staircase the chief ornament of a house,--"and gives you an effect of amplitude and space."
"That's so!" said Mrs. Lapham. Her husband merely made a noise in his throat.
"Then, were you thinking of having your parlors together, connected by folding doors?" asked the architect deferentially."Yes, of course," said Lapham. "They're always so, ain't they?"
"Well, nearly," said the architect. "I was wondering how would it do to make one large square room at the front, taking the whole breadth of the house, and, with this hall-space between, have a music-room back for the young ladies?"
Lapham looked helplessly at his wife, whose quicker apprehension had followed the architect's pencil with instant sympathy. "First-rate!" she cried.
The Colonel gave way. "I guess that would do. It'll be kind of odd, won't it?"
"Well, I don't know," said the architect. "Not so odd, I hope, as the other thing will be a few years from now." He went on to plan the rest of the house, and he showed himself such a master in regard to all the practical details that Mrs. Lapham began to feel a motherly affection for the young man, and her husband could not deny in his heart that the fellow seemed to understand his business. He stopped walking about the room, as he had begun to do when the architect and Mrs. Lapham entered into the particulars of closets, drainage, kitchen arrangements, and all that, and came back to the table. "I presume," he said, "you'll have the drawing-room finished in black walnut?"
"Well, yes," replied the architect, "if you like. But some less expensive wood can be made just as effective with paint. Of course you can paint black walnut too."
"Paint it?" gasped the Colonel.
"Yes," said the architect quietly. "White, or a little off white."
Lapham dropped the plan he had picked up from the table. His wife made a little move toward him of consolation or support.
"Of course," resumed the architect, I know there has been a great craze for black walnut. But it's an ugly wood; and for a drawing-room there is really nothing like white paint. We should want to introduce a little gold here and there. Perhaps we might run a painted frieze round under the cornice--garlands of roses on a gold ground; it would tell wonderfully in a white room."
The Colonel returned less courageously to the charge. "I presume you'll want Eastlake mantel-shelves and tiles?" He meant this for a sarcastic thrust at a prevailing foible of the profession.
"Well, no," gently answered the architect. "I was thinking perhaps a white marble chimney-piece, treated in the refined Empire style, would be the thing for that room."
"White marble!" exclaimed the Colonel. "I thought that had gone out long ago."
"Really beautiful things can't go out. They may disappear for a little while, but they must come back. It's only the ugly things that stay out after they've had their day."
Lapham could only venture very modestly, "Hard-wood floors?"
"In the music-room, of course," consented the architect.
"And in the drawing-room?"
"Carpet. Some sort of moquette, I should say. But I should prefer to consult Mrs. Lapham's taste in that matter."
"And in the other rooms?"
"Oh, carpets, of course."
"And what about the stairs?"
"Carpet. And I should have the rail and banisters white--banisters turned or twisted."
The Colonel said under his breath, "Well, I'm dumned!" but he gave no utterance to his astonishment in the architect's presence. When he went at last,--the session did not end till eleven o'clock,--Lapham said, "Well, Pert, I guess that fellow's fifty years behind, or ten years ahead. I wonder what the Ongpeer style is?"
"I don't know. I hated to ask. But he seemed to understand what he was talking about. I declare, he knows what a woman wants in a house better than she does herself."
"And a man's simply nowhere in comparison," said Lapham. But he respected a fellow who could beat him at every point, and have a reason ready, as this architect had; and when he recovered from the daze into which the complete upheaval of all his preconceived notions had left him, he was in a fit state to swear by the architect. It seemed to him that he had discovered the fellow (as he always called him) and owned him now, and the fellow did nothing to disturb this impression. He entered into that brief but intense intimacy with the Laphams which the sympathetic architect holds with his clients. He was privy to all their differences of opinion and all their disputes about the house. He knew just where to insist upon his own ideas, and where to yield. He was really building several other houses, but he gave the Laphams the impression that he was doing none but theirs.
The work was not begun till the frost was thoroughly out of the ground, which that year was not before the end of April. Even then it did not proceed very rapidly. Lapham said they might as well take their time to it; if they got the walls up and the thing closed in before the snow flew, they could be working at it all winter. It was found necessary to dig for the kitchen; at that point the original salt-marsh lay near the surface, and before they began to put in the piles for the foundation they had to pump. The neighbourhood smelt like the hold of a ship after a three years' voyage. People who had cast their fortunes with the New Land went by professing not to notice it; people who still "hung on to the Hill" put their handkerchiefs to their noses, and told each other the old terrible stories of the material used in filling up the Back Bay.
Nothing gave Lapham so much satisfaction in the whole construction of his house as the pile-driving. When this began, early in the summer, he took Mrs. Lapham every day in his buggy and drove round to look at it; stopping the mare in front of the lot, and watching the operation with even keener interest than the little loafing Irish boys who superintended it in force. It pleased him to hear the portable engine chuckle out a hundred thin whiffs of steam in carrying the big iron weight to the top of the framework above the pile, then seem to hesitate, and cough once or twice in pressing the weight against the detaching apparatus. There was a moment in which the weight had the effect of poising before it fell; then it dropped with a mighty whack on the iron-bound head of the pile, and drove it a foot into the earth.
"By gracious!" he would say, "there ain't anything like that in this world for business, Persis!"
Mrs. Lapham suffered him to enjoy the sight twenty or thirty times before she said, "Well, now drive on, Si."
By the time the foundation was in and the brick walls had begun to go up, there were so few people left in the neighbourhood that she might indulge with impunity her husband's passion for having her clamber over the floor-timbers and the skeleton stair-cases with him. Many of the householders had boarded up their front doors before the buds had begun to swell and the assessor to appear in early May; others had followed soon; and Mrs. Lapham was as safe from remark as if she had been in the depth of the country. Ordinarily she and her girls left town early in July, going to one of the hotels at Nantasket, where it was convenient for the Colonel to get to and from his business by the boat. But this summer they were all lingering a few weeks later, under the novel fascination of the new house, as they called it, as if there were no other in the world.
Lapham drove there with his wife after he had set Bartley Hubbard down at the "Events" office, but on this day something happened that interfered with the solid pleasure they usually took in going over the house. As the Colonel turned from casting anchor at the mare's head with the hitching-weight, after helping his wife to alight, he encountered a man to whom he could not help speaking, though the man seemed to share his hesitation if not his reluctance at the necessity. He was a tallish, thin man, with a dust-colored face, and a dead, clerical air, which somehow suggested at once feebleness and tenacity.
Mrs. Lapham held out her hand to him.
"Why, Mr. Rogers!" she exclaimed; and then, turning toward her husband, seemed to refer the two men to each other. They shook hands, but Lapham did not speak. "I didn't know you were in Boston," pursued Mrs. Lapham. "Is Mrs. Rogers with you?"
"No," said Mr. Rogers, with a voice which had the flat, succinct sound of two pieces of wood clapped together. "Mrs. Rogers is still in Chicago"
A little silence followed, and then Mrs Lapham said--
"I presume you are quite settled out there."
"No; we have left Chicago. Mrs. Rogers has merely remained to finish up a little packing."
"Oh, indeed! Are you coming back to Boston?"
"I cannot say as yet. We some think of so doing."
Lapham turned away and looked up at the building. His wife pulled a little at her glove, as if embarrassed, or even pained. She tried to make a diversion.
"We are building a house," she said, with a meaningless laugh.
"Oh, indeed," said Mr. Rogers, looking up at it.
Then no one spoke again, and she said helplessly:
"If you come to Boston, I hope I shall see Mrs. Rogers."
"She will be happy to have you call," said Mr Rogers.
He touched his hat-brim, and made a bow forward rather than in Mrs. Lapham's direction.
She mounted the planking that led into the shelter of the bare brick walls, and her husband slowly followed. When she turned her face toward him her cheeks were burning, and tears that looked hot stood in her eyes.
"You left it all to me!" she cried. "Why couldn't you speak a word?"
"I hadn't anything to say to him," replied Lapham sullenly.
They stood a while, without looking at the work which they had come to enjoy, and without speaking to each other.
"I suppose we might as well go on," said Mrs. Lapham at last, as they returned to the buggy. The Colonel drove recklessly toward the Milldam. His wife kept her veil down and her face turned from him. After a time she put her handkerchief up under her veil and wiped her eyes, and he set his teeth and squared his jaw.
"I don't see how he always manages to appear just at the moment when he seems to have gone fairly out of our lives, and blight everything," she whimpered.
"I supposed he was dead," said Lapham.
"Oh, don't say such a thing! It sounds as if you wished it."
"Why do you mind it? What do you let him blight everything for?"
"I can't help it, and I don't believe I ever shall. I don't know as his being dead would help it any. I can't ever see him without feeling just as I did at first."
"I tell you," said Lapham, "it was a perfectly square thing. And I wish, once for all, you would quit bothering about it. My conscience is easy as far as he is concerned, and it always was."
"And I can't look at him without feeling as if you'd ruined him, Silas."
"Don't look at him, then," said her husband, with a scowl. "I want you should recollect in the first place, Persis, that I never wanted a partner."
"If he hadn't put his money in when he did, you'd 'a' broken down."
"Well, he got his money out again, and more, too," said the Colonel, with a sulky weariness.
"He didn't want to take it out."
"I gave him his choice: buy out or go out."
"You know he couldn't buy out then. It was no choice at all."
"It was a business chance."
"No; you had better face the truth, Silas. It was no chance at all. You crowded him out. A man that had saved you! No, you had got greedy, Silas. You had made your paint your god, and you couldn't bear to let anybody else share in its blessings."
"I tell you he was a drag and a brake on me from the word go. You say he saved me. Well, if I hadn't got him out he'd 'a' ruined me sooner or later. So it's an even thing, as far forth as that goes."
"No, it ain't an even thing, and you know it, Silas. Oh, if I could only get you once to acknowledge that you did wrong about it, then I should have some hope. I don't say you meant wrong exactly, but you took an advantage. Yes, you took an advantage! You had him where he couldn't help himself, and then you wouldn't show him any mercy."
"I'm sick of this," said Lapham. "If you'll 'tend to the house, I'll manage my business without your help."
"You were very glad of my help once."
"Well, I'm tired of it now. Don't meddle."
"I will meddle. When I see you hardening yourself in a wrong thing, it's time for me to meddle, as you call it, and I will. I can't ever get you to own up the least bit about Rogers, and I feel as if it was hurting you all the while."
"What do you want I should own up about a thing for when I don't feel wrong? I tell you Rogers hain't got anything to complain of, and that's what I told you from the start. It's a thing that's done every day. I was loaded up with a partner that didn't know anything, and couldn't do anything, and I unloaded; that's all."
"You unloaded just at the time when you knew that your paint was going to be worth about twice what it ever had been; and you wanted all the advantage for yourself."
"I had a right to it. I made the success."
"Yes, you made it with Rogers's money; and when you'd made it you took his share of it. I guess you thought of that when you saw him, and that's why you couldn't look him in the face."
At these words Lapham lost his temper.
"I guess you don't want to ride with me any more to-day," he said, turning the mare abruptly round.
"I'm as ready to go back as what you are," replied his wife. "And don't you ask me to go to that house with you any more. You can sell it, for all me. I sha'n't live in it. There's blood on it."