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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
THE silken texture of the marriage tie bears a daily strain of wrong and insult to which no other human relation can be subjected without lesion; and sometimes the strength that knits society together might appear to the eye of faltering faith the curse of those immediately bound by it. Two people by no means reckless of each other's rights and feelings, but even tender of them for the most part, may tear at each other's heart-strings in this sacred bond with perfect impunity; though if they were any other two they would not speak or look at each other again after the outrages they exchange. It is certainly a curious spectacle, and doubtless it ought to convince an observer of the divinity of the institution. If the husband and wife are blunt, outspoken people like the Laphams, they do not weigh their words; if they are more refined, they weigh them very carefully, and know accurately just how far they will carry, and in what most sensitive spot they may be planted with most effect.
Lapham was proud of his wife, and when he married her it had been a rise in life for him. For a while he stood in awe of his good fortune, but this could not last, and he simply remained supremely satisfied with it. The girl who had taught school with a clear head and a strong hand was not afraid of work; she encouraged and helped him from the first, and bore her full share of the common burden. She had health, and she did not worry his life out with peevish complaints and vagaries; she had sense and principle, and in their simple lot she did what was wise and right. Their marriage was hallowed by an early sorrow: they lost their boy, and it was years before they could look each other in the face and speak of him. No one gave up more than they when they gave up each other and Lapham went to the war. When he came back and began to work, her zeal and courage formed the spring of his enterprise. In that affair of the partnership she had tried to be his conscience, but perhaps she would have defended him if he had accused himself; it was one of those things in this life which seem destined to await justice, or at least judgment, in the next. As he said, Lapham had dealt fairly by his partner in money; he had let Rogers take more money out of the business than he put into it; he had, as he said, simply forced out of it a timid and inefficient participant in advantages which he had created. But Lapham had not created them all. He had been dependent at one time on his partner's capital. It was a moment of terrible trial. Happy is the man for ever after who can choose the ideal, the unselfish part in such an exigency! Lapham could not rise to it. He did what he could maintain to be perfectly fair. The wrong, if any, seemed to be condoned to him, except when from time to time his wife brought it up. Then all the question stung and burned anew, and had to be reasoned out and put away once more. It seemed to have an inextinguishable vitality. It slept, but it did not die.
His course did not shake Mrs. Lapham's faith in him. It astonished her at first, and it always grieved her that he could not see that he was acting solely in his own interest. But she found excuses for him, which at times she made reproaches. She vaguely perceived that his paint was something more than business to him; it was a sentiment, almost a passion. He could not share its management and its profit with another without a measure of self-sacrifice far beyond that which he must make with something less personal to him. It was the poetry of that nature, otherwise so intensely prosaic; and she understood this, and for the most part forbore. She knew him good and true and blameless in all his life, except for this wrong, if it were a wrong; and it was only when her nerves tingled intolerably with some chance renewal of the pain she had suffered, that she shared her anguish with him in true wifely fashion.
With those two there was never anything like an explicit reconciliation. They simply ignored a quarrel; and Mrs. Lapham had only to say a few days after at breakfast, "I guess the girls would like to go round with you this afternoon, and look at the new house," in order to make her husband grumble out as he looked down into his coffee-cup. "I guess we better all go, hadn't we?"
"Well, I'll see," she said.
There was not really a great deal to look at when Lapham arrived on the ground in his four-seated beach-wagon. But the walls were up, and the studding had already given skeleton shape to the interior. The floors were roughly boarded over, and the stairways were in place, with provisional treads rudely laid. They had not begun to lath and plaster yet, but the clean, fresh smell of the mortar in the walls mingling with the pungent fragrance of the pine shavings neutralized the Venetian odor that drew in over the water. It was pleasantly shady there, though for the matter of that the heat of the morning had all been washed out of the atmosphere by a tide of east wind setting in at noon, and the thrilling, delicious cool of a Boston summer afternoon bathed every nerve.
The foreman went about with Mrs. Lapham, showing her where the doors were to be; but Lapham soon tired of this, and having found a pine stick of perfect grain, he abandoned himself to the pleasure of whittling it in what was to be the reception-room, where he sat looking out on the street from what was to be the bay-window. Here he was presently joined by his girls, who, after locating their own room on the water side above the music-room, had no more wish to enter into details than their father.
"Come and take a seat in the bay-window, ladies," be called out to them, as they looked in at him through the ribs of the wall. He jocosely made room for them on the trestle on which he sat.
They came gingerly and vaguely forward, as young ladies do when they wish not to seem to be going to do a thing they have made up their minds to do. When they had taken their places on their trestle, they could not help laughing with scorn, open and acceptable to their father; and Irene curled her chin up, in a little way she had, and said, "How ridiculous!" to her sister.
"Well, I can tell you what," said the Colonel, in fond enjoyment of their young ladyishness, "your mother wa'n't ashamed to sit with me on a trestle when I called her out to look at the first coat of my paint that I ever tried on a house."
"Yes; we've heard that story," said Penelope, with easy security of her father's liking what she said. "We were brought up on that story."
"Well, it's a good story," said her father.
At that moment a young man came suddenly in range, who began to look up at the signs of building as he approached. He dropped his eyes in coming abreast of the bay-window, where Lapham sat with his girls, and then his face lightened, and he took off his hat and bowed to Irene. She rose mechanically from the trestle, and her face lightened too.
She was a very pretty figure of a girl, after our fashion of girls, round and slim and flexible, and her face was admirably regular. But her great beauty--and it was very great--was in her coloring. This was of an effect for which there is no word but delicious, as we use it of fruit or flowers. She had red hair, like her father in his earlier days, and the tints of her cheeks and temples were such as suggested May-flowers and apple-blossoms and peaches. Instead of the gray that often dulls this complexion, her eyes were of a blue at once intense and tender, and they seemed to burn on what they looked at with a soft, lambent flame. It was well understood by her sister and mother that her eyes always expressed a great deal more than Irene ever thought or felt; but this is not saying that she was not a very sensible girl and very honest.
The young man faltered perceptibly, and Irene came a little forward, and then there gushed from them both a smiling exchange of greeting, of which the sum was that he supposed she was out of town, and that she had not known that he had got back. A pause ensued, and flushing again in her uncertainty as to whether she ought or ought not to do it, she said, "My father, Mr. Corey; and my sister."
The young man took off his hat again, showing his shapely head, with a line of wholesome sunburn ceasing where the recently and closely clipped hair began. He was dressed in a fine summer check, with a blue white-dotted neckerchief, and he had a white hat, in which he looked very well when he put it back on his head. His whole dress seemed very fresh and new, and in fact he had cast aside his Texan habiliments only the day before.
"How do you do, sir?" said the Colonel, stepping to the window, and reaching out of it the hand which the young man advanced to take. "Won't you come in? We're at home here. House I'm building."
"Oh, indeed?" returned the young man; and he came promptly up the steps, and through its ribs into the reception-room.
"Have a trestle?" asked the Colonel, while the girls exchanged little shocks of terror and amusement at the eyes.
"Thank you," said the young man simply, and sat down.
"Mrs. Lapham is upstairs interviewing the carpenter, but she'll be down in a minute."
"I hope she's quite well," said Corey. "I supposed--I was afraid she might be out of town."
"Well, we are off to Nantasket next week. The house kept us in town pretty late."
"It must be very exciting, building a house," said Corey to the elder sister.
"Yes, it is," she assented, loyally refusing in Irene's interest the opportunity of saying anything more.
Corey turned to the latter. "I suppose you've all helped to plan it?"
"Oh no; the architect and mamma did that."
"But they allowed the rest of us to agree, when we were good," said Penelope.
Corey looked at her, and saw that she was shorter than her sister, and had a dark complexion.
"It's very exciting," said Irene.
"Come up," said the Colonel, rising, "and look round if you'd like to."
"I should like to, very much," said the young man. He helped the young ladies over crevasses of carpentry and along narrow paths of planking, on which they had made their way unassisted before. The elder sister left the younger to profit solely by these offices as much as possible. She walked between them and her father, who went before, lecturing on each apartment, and taking the credit of the whole affair more and more as he talked on.
"There!" he said, "we're going to throw out a bay-window here, so as get the water all the way up and down. This is my girls' room," he added, looking proudly at them both.
It seemed terribly intimate. Irene blushed deeply and turned her head away.
But the young man took it all, apparently, as simply as their father. "What a lovely lookout!" he said. The Back Bay spread its glassy sheet before them, empty but for a few small boats and a large schooner, with her sails close-furled and dripping like snow from her spars, which a tug was rapidly towing toward Cambridge. The carpentry of that city, embanked and embowered in foliage, shared the picturesqueness of Charlestown in the distance.
"Yes," said Lapham, "I go in for using the best rooms in your house yourself. If people come to stay with you, they can put up with the second best. Though we don't intend to have any second best. There ain't going to be an unpleasant room in the whole house, from top to bottom."
"Oh, I wish papa wouldn't brag so!" breathed Irene to her sister, where they stood, a little apart, looking away together.
The Colonel went on. "No, sir," he swelled out, "I have gone in for making a regular job of it. I've got the best architect in Boston, and I'm building a house to suit myself. And if money can do it, guess I'm going to be suited."
"It seems very delightful," said Corey, "and very original."
"Yes, sir. That fellow hadn't talked five minutes before I saw that he knew what he was about every time."
"I wish mamma would come!" breathed Irene again. "I shall certainly go through the floor if papa says anything more."
"They are making a great many very pretty houses nowadays," said the young man. "It's very different from the old-fashioned building."
"Well," said the Colonel, with a large toleration of tone and a deep breath that expanded his ample chest, "we spend more on our houses nowadays. I started out to build a forty-thousand-dollar house. Well, sir! that fellow has got me in for more than sixty thousand already, and I doubt if I get out of it much under a hundred. You can't have a nice house for nothing. It's just like ordering a picture of a painter. You pay him enough, and he can afford to paint you a first-class picture; and if you don't, he can't. That's all there is of it. Why, they tell me that A. T. Stewart gave one of those French fellows sixty thousand dollars for a little seven-by-nine picture the other day. Yes, sir, give an architect money enough, and he'll give you a nice house every time."
"I've heard that they're sharp at getting money to realize their ideas," assented the young man, with a laugh.
"Well, I should say so!" exclaimed the Colonel. "They come to you with an improvement that you can't resist. It has good looks and common-sense and everything in its favor, and it's like throwing money away to refuse. And they always manage to get you when your wife is around, and then you're helpless."
The Colonel himself set the example of laughing at this joke, and the young man joined him less obstreperously. The girls turned, and he said, "I don't think I ever saw this view to better advantage. It s surprising how well the Memorial Hall and the Cambridge spires work up, over there. And the sunsets must be magnificent."
Lapham did not wait for them to reply.
"Yes, sir, it's about the sightliest view I know of. I always did like the water side of Beacon. Long before I owned property here, or ever expected to, m'wife and I used to ride down this way, and stop the buggy to get this view over the water. When people talk to me about the Hill, I can understand 'em. It's snug, and it's old-fashioned, and it's where they've always lived. But when they talk about Commonwealth Avenue, I don't know what they mean. It don't hold a candle to the water side of Beacon. You've got just as much wind over there, and you've got just as much dust, and all the view you've got is the view across the street. No, sir! when you come to the Back Bay at all, give me the water side of Beacon."
"Oh, I think you're quite right," said the young man. "The view here is everything."
Irene looked "I wonder what papa is going to say next!" at her sister, when their mother's voice was heard overhead, approaching the opening in the floor where the stairs were to be; and she presently appeared, with one substantial foot a long way ahead. She was followed by the carpenter, with his rule sticking out of his overalls pocket, and she was still talking to him about some measurements they had been taking, when they reached the bottom, so that Irene had to say, "Mamma, Mr. Corey," before Mrs. Lapham was aware of him.
He came forward with as much grace and speed as the uncertain footing would allow, and Mrs. Lapham gave him a stout squeeze of her comfortable hand.
"Why, Mr. Corey! When did you get back?"
"Yesterday. It hardly seems as if I had got back. I didn't expect to find you in a new house."
"Well, you are our first caller. I presume you won't expect I should make excuses for the state you find it in. Has the Colonel been doing the honors?"
"Oh yes. And I've seen more of your house than I ever shall again, I suppose."
"Well, I hope not," said Lapham. "There'll be several chances to see us in the old one yet, before we leave."
He probably thought this a neat, off-hand way of making the invitation, for he looked at his woman-kind as if he might expect their admiration.
"Oh yes, indeed!" said his wife. "We shall be very glad to see Mr. Corey, any time."
"Thank you; I shall be glad to come."
He and the Colonel went before, and helped the ladies down the difficult descent. Irene seemed less sure-footed than the others; she clung to the young man's hand an imperceptible moment longer than need be, or else he detained her. He found opportunity of saying, "It's so pleasant seeing you again," adding, "all of you."
"Thank you," said the girl. "They must all be glad to have you at home again."
"Well, I suppose they would be, if they were at home to have me. But the fact is, there's nobody in the house but my father and myself, and I'm only on my way to Bar Harbor."
"Oh! Are they there?"
"Yes; it seems to be the only place where my mother can get just the combination of sea and mountain air that she wants."
"We go to Nantasket--it's convenient for papa; and I don't believe we shall go anywhere else this summer, mamma's so taken up with building. We do nothing but talk house; and Pen says we eat and sleep house. She says it would be a sort of relief to go and live in tents for a while."
"She seems to have a good deal of humor," the young man ventured, upon the slender evidence.
The others had gone to the back of the house a moment, to look at some suggested change. Irene and Corey were left standing in the doorway. A lovely light of happiness played over her face and etherealized its delicious beauty. She had some ado to keep herself from smiling outright, and the effort deepened the dimples in her cheeks; she trembled a little, and the pendants shook in the tips of her pretty ears.
The others came back directly, and they all descended the front steps together. The Colonel was about to renew his invitation, but he caught his wife's eye, and, without being able to interpret its warning exactly, was able to arrest himself, and went about gathering up the hitching-weight, while the young man handed the ladies into the beach-wagon. Then he lifted his hat, and the ladies all bowed, and the Laphams drove off, Irene's blue ribbons fluttering backward from her hat, as if they were her clinging thoughts.
"So that's young Corey, is it?" said the Colonel, letting the stately stepping, tall coupé horse make his way homeward at will with the beach-wagon. "Well, he ain't a bad-looking fellow, and he's got a good, fair and square, honest eye. But I don't see how a fellow like that, that's had every advantage in this world, can hang round home and let his father support him. Seems to me, if I had his health and his education, I should want to strike out and do something for myself."
The girls on the back seat had hold of each other's hands, and they exchanged electrical pressures at the different points their father made.
"I presume," said Mrs. Lapham, "that he was down in Texas looking after something"
"He's come back without finding it, I guess."
"Well, if his father has the money to support him, and don't complain of the burden, I don't see why we should."
"Oh, I know it's none of my business, but I don't like the principle. I like to see a man act like a man. I don't like to see him taken care of like a young lady. Now, I suppose that fellow belongs to two or three clubs, and hangs around 'em all day, lookin' out the window,--I've seen 'em,--instead of tryin' to hunt up something to do for an honest livin'."
"If I was a young man," Penelope struck in, "I would belong to twenty clubs, if I could find them and I would hang around them all, and look out the window till I dropped."
"Oh, you would, would you?" demanded her father, delighted with her defiance, and twisting his fat head around over his shoulder to look at her. "Well, you wouldn't do it on my money, if you were a son of mine, young lady."
"Oh, you wait and see," retorted the girl.
This made them all laugh. But the Colonel recurred seriously to the subject that night, as he was winding up his watch preparatory to putting it under his pillow.
"I could make a man of that fellow, if I had him in the business with me. There's stuff in him. But I spoke up the way I did because I didn't choose Irene should think I would stand any kind of a loafer 'round--I don't care who he is, or how well educated or brought up. And I guess, from the way Pen spoke up, that 'Rene saw what I was driving at."
The girl, apparently, was less anxious about her father's ideas and principles than about the impression which he had made upon the young man. She had talked it over and over with her sister before they went to bed, and she asked in despair, as she stood looking at Penelope brushing out her hair before the glass,
"Do you suppose he'll think papa always talks in that bragging way?"
"He'll be right if he does," answered her sister. "It's the way father always does talk. You never noticed it so much, that's all. And I guess if he can't make allowance for father's bragging, he'll be a little too good. I enjoyed hearing the Colonel go on."
"I know you did," returned Irene in distress. Then she sighed. "Didn't you think he looked very nice?"
"Who? The Colonel?" Penelope had caught up the habit of calling her father so from her mother, and she used his title in all her jocose and perverse moods.
"You know very well I don't mean papa," pouted Irene. "Oh! Mr. Corey! Why didn't you say Mr. Corey if you meant Mr. Corey? If I meant Mr. Corey, I should say Mr. Corey. It isn't swearing! Corey, Corey, Co----"
Her sister clapped her hand over her mouth "Will you hush, you wretched thing?" she whimpered. "The whole house can hear you."
"Oh yes, they can hear me all over the square. Well, I think he looked well enough for a plain youth, who hadn't taken his hair out of curl-papers for some time."
"It was clipped pretty close," Irene admitted; and they both laughed at the drab effect of Mr. Corey's skull, as they remembered it. "Did you like his nose?" asked Irene timorously.
"Ah, now you're coming to something," said Penelope. "I don't know whether, if I had so much of a nose, I should want it all Roman."
"I don't see how you can expect to have a nose part one kind and part another," argued Irene.
"Oh, I do. Look at mine!" She turned aside her face, so as to get a three-quarters view of her nose in the glass, and crossing her hands, with the brush in one of them, before her, regarded it judicially. "Now, my nose started Grecian, but changed its mind before it got over the bridge, and concluded to be snub the rest of the way."
"You've got a very pretty nose, Pen," said Irene, joining in the contemplation of its reflex in the glass.
"Don't say that in hopes of getting me to compliment his, Mrs."--she stopped, and then added deliberately--"C.!"
Irene also had her hair-brush in her hand, and now she sprang at her sister and beat her very softly on the shoulder with the flat of it. "You mean thing!" she cried, between her shut teeth, blushing hotly.
"Well, D., then," said Penelope. "You've nothing to say against D.? Though I think C. is just as nice an initial."
"Oh!" cried the younger, for all expression of unspeakable things.
"I think he has very good eyes," admitted Penelope.
"Oh, he has! And didn't you like the way his sackcoat set? So close to him, and yet free--kind of peeling away at the lapels?"
"Yes, I should say he was a young man of great judgment. He knows how to choose his tailor."
Irene sat down on the edge of a chair. "It was so nice of you, Pen, to come in, that way, about clubs."
"Oh, I didn't mean anything by it except opposition," said Penelope. "I couldn't have father swelling on so, without saying something."
"How he did swell!" sighed Irene. "Wasn't it a relief to have mamma come down, even if she did seem to be all stocking at first?"
The girls broke into a wild giggle, and hid their faces in each other's necks. "I thought I should die," said Irene.
"'It's just like ordering a painting,'" said Penelope, recalling her father's talk, with an effect of dreamy absent-mindedness. "'You give the painter money enough, and he can afford to paint you a first-class picture. Give an architect money enough, and he'll give you a first-class house, every time.'"
"Oh, wasn't it awful!" moaned her sister. "No one would ever have supposed that he had fought the very idea of an architect for weeks, before he gave in."
Penelope went on. "'I always did like the water side of Beacon,--long before I owned property there. When you come to the Back Bay at all, give me the water side of Beacon.'"
"Ow-w-w-w!" shrieked Irene. "Do stop!"
The door of their mother's chamber opened below, and the voice of the real Colonel called, "What are you doing up there, girls? Why don't you go to bed?"
This extorted nervous shrieks from both of them. The Colonel heard a sound of scurrying feet, whisking drapery, and slamming doors. Then he heard one of the doors opened again, and Penelope said, "I was only repeating something you said when you talked to Mr. Corey."
"Very well, now," answered the Colonel. "You postpone the rest of it till to-morrow at breakfast, and see that you're up in time to let me hear it."