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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
AT the same moment young Corey let himself in at his own door with his latch-key, and went to the library, where he found his father turning the last leaves of a story in the "Revue des Deux Mondes." He was a white-mustached old gentleman, who had never been able to abandon his pince-nez for the superior comfort of spectacles, even in the privacy of his own library. He knocked the glasses off as his son came in and looked up at him with lazy fondness, rubbing the two red marks that they always leave on the side of the nose.
"Tom," he said, "where did you get such good clothes?"
"I stopped over a day in New York," replied the son, finding himself a chair. "I'm glad you like them."
"Yes, I always do like your clothes, Tom," returned the father thoughtfully, swinging his glasses, "But I don't see how you can afford 'em, I can't."
"Well, sir," said the son, who dropped the "sir" into his speech with his father, now and then, in an old-fashioned way that was rather charming, "you see, I have an indulgent parent."
"Smoke?" suggested the father, pushing toward his son a box of cigarettes, from which he had taken one.
"No, thank you," said the son. "I've dropped that."
"Ah, is that so?" The father began to feel about on the table for matches, in the purblind fashion of elderly men. His son rose, lighted one, and handed it to him. "Well,--oh, thank you, Tom!--I believe some statisticians prove that if you will give up smoking you can dress very well on the money your tobacco costs, even if you haven't got an indulgent parent. But I'm too old to try. Though, I confess, I should rather like the clothes. Whom did you find at the club?"
"There were a lot of fellows there," said young Corey, watching the accomplished fumigation of his father in an absent way.
"It's astonishing what a hardy breed the young club-men are," observed his father. "All summer through, in weather that sends the sturdiest female flying to the sea-shore, you find the clubs filled with young men, who don't seem to mind the heat in the least."
"Boston isn't a bad place, at the worst, in summer," said the son, declining to take up the matter in its ironical shape.
"I dare say it isn't, compared with Texas," returned the father, smoking tranquilly on. "But I don't suppose you find many of your friends in town outside of the club."
"No; you're requested to ring at the rear door, all the way down Beacon Street and up Commonwealth Avenue. It's rather a blank reception for the returning prodigal."
"Ah, the prodigal must take his chance if he comes back out of season. But I'm glad to have you back, Tom, even as it is, and I hope you're not going to hurry away. You must give your energies a rest."
"I'm sure you never had to reproach me with abnormal activity," suggested the son, taking his father's jokes in good part.
"No, I don't know that I have," admitted the elder. "You've always shown a fair degree of moderation, after all. What do you think of taking up next? I mean after you have embraced your mother and sisters at Mount Desert. Real estate? It seems to me that it is about time for you to open out as a real-estate broker. Or did you ever think of matrimony?"
"Well, not just in that way, sir," said the young man. "I shouldn't quite like to regard it as a career, you know."
"No, no. I understand that. And I quite agree with you. But you know I've always contended that the affections could be made to combine pleasure and profit. I wouldn't have a man marry for money,--that would be rather bad,--but I don't see why, when it comes to falling in love, a man shouldn't fall in love with a rich girl as easily as a poor one. Some of the rich girls are very nice, and I should say that the chances of a quiet life with them were rather greater. They've always had everything, and they wouldn't be so ambitious and uneasy. Don't you think so?"
"It would depend," said the son, "upon whether a girl's people had been rich long enough to have given her position before she married. If they hadn't, I don't see how she would be any better than a poor girl in that respect."
"Yes, there's sense in that. But the suddenly rich are on a level with any of us nowadays. Money buys position at once. I don't say that it isn't all right. The world generally knows what it's about, and knows how to drive a bargain. I dare say it makes the new rich pay too much. But there's no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination. The Englishmen who come here are more curious about the great new millionaires than about any one else, and they respect them more. It's all very well. I don't complain of it."
"And you would like a rich daughter-in-law, quite regardless, then?"
"Oh, not quite so bad as that, Tom," said his father. "A little youth, a little beauty, a little good sense and pretty behavior--one mustn't object to those things; and they go just as often with money as without it. And I suppose I should like her people to be rather grammatical."
"It seems to me that you're exacting, sir," said the son. "How can you expect people who have been strictly devoted to business to be grammatical? Isn't that rather too much?"
"Perhaps it is. Perhaps you're right. But I understood your mother to say that those benefactors of hers, whom you met last summer, were very passably grammatical."
"The father isn't."
The elder, who had been smoking with his profile toward his son, now turned his face full upon him. "I didn't know you had seen him?"
"I hadn't until to-day," said young Corey, with a little heightening of his color. "But I was walking down street this afternoon, and happened to look round at a new house some one was putting up, and I saw the whole family in the window. It appears that Mr. Lapham is building the house."
The elder Corey knocked the ash of his cigarette into the holder at his elbow. "I am more and more convinced, the longer I know you, Tom, that we are descended from Giles Corey. The gift of holding one's tongue seems to have skipped me, but you have it in full force. I can't say just how you would behave under peine forte et dure, but under ordinary pressure you are certainly able to keep your own counsel. Why didn't you mention this encounter at dinner? You weren't asked to plead to an accusation of witchcraft."
"No, not exactly," said the young man. "But I didn't quite see my way to speaking of it. We had a good many other things before us."
"Yes, that's true. I suppose you wouldn't have mentioned it now if I hadn't led up to it, would you?"
"I don't know, sir. It was rather on my mind to do so. Perhaps it was I who led up to it."
His father laughed. "Perhaps you did, Tom; perhaps you did. Your mother would have known you were leading up to something, but I'll confess that I didn't. What is it?"
"Nothing very definite. But do you know that in spite of his syntax I rather liked him?"
The father looked keenly at the son; but unless the boy's full confidence was offered, Corey was not the man to ask it. "Well?" was all that he said.
"I suppose that in a new country one gets to looking at people a little out of our tradition; and I dare say that if I hadn't passed a winter in Texas I might have found Colonel Lapham rather too much."
"You mean that there are worse things in Texas?"
"Not that exactly. I mean that I saw it wouldn't be quite fair to test him by our standards."
"This comes of the error which I have often deprecated," said the elder Corey. "In fact I am always saying that the Bostonian ought never to leave Boston. Then he knows--and then only--that there can be no standard but ours. But we are constantly going away, and coming back with our convictions shaken to their foundations. One man goes to England and returns with the conception of a grander social life; another comes home from Germany with the notion of a more searching intellectual activity; a fellow just back from Paris has the absurdest ideas of art and literature; and you revert to us from the cowboys of Texas and tell us to our faces that we ought to try Papa Lapham by a jury of his peers. It ought to be stopped--it ought, really. The Bostonian who leaves Boston ought to be condemned to perpetual exile."
The son suffered the father to reach his climax with smiling patience. When he asked finally, "What are the characteristics of Papa Lapham that place him beyond our jurisdiction?" the younger Corey crossed his long legs, and leaned forward to take one of his knees between his hands.
"Well, sir, he bragged, rather."
"Oh, I don't know that bragging should exempt him from the ordinary processes. I've heard other people brag in Boston."
"Ah, not just in that personal way--not about money."
"No, that was certainly different."
"I don't mean," said the young fellow, with the scrupulosity which people could not help observing and liking in him, "that it was more than an indirect expression of satisfaction in the ability to spend."
"No. I should be glad to express something of the kind myself, if the facts would justify me."
The son smiled tolerantly again. "But if he was enjoying his money in that way, I didn't see why he shouldn't show his pleasure in it. It might have been vulgar, but it wasn't sordid. And I don't know that it was vulgar. Perhaps his successful strokes of business were the romance of his life----"
The father interrupted with a laugh. "The girl must be uncommonly pretty. What did she seem to think of her father's brag?"
"There were two of them," answered the son evasively.
"Oh, two! And is the sister pretty too?"
"Not pretty, but rather interesting. She is like her mother."
"Then the pretty one isn't the father's pet?"
"I can't say, sir. I don't believe," added the young fellow, "that I can make you see Colonel Lapham just as I did. He struck me as very simple-hearted and rather wholesome. Of course he could be tiresome; we all can; and I suppose his range of ideas is limited. But he is a force, and not a bad one. If he hasn't got over being surprised at the effect of rubbing his lamp"
"Oh, one could make out a case. I suppose you know what you are about, Tom. But remember that we are Essex County people, and that in savor we are just a little beyond the salt of the earth. I will tell you plainly that I don't like the notion of a man who has rivaled the hues of nature in her wildest haunts with the tints of his mineral paint; but I don't say there are not worse men. He isn't to my taste, though he might be ever so much to my conscience."
"I suppose," said the son, "that there is nothing really to be ashamed of in mineral paint. People go into all sorts of things."
His father took his cigarette from his mouth and once more looked his son full in the face. "Oh, is that it?"
"It has crossed my mind," admitted the son. "I must do something. I've wasted time and money enough. I've seen much younger men all through the West and Southwest taking care of themselves. I don't think I was particularly fit for anything out there, but I am ashamed to come back and live upon you, sir."
His father shook his head with an ironical sigh. "Ah, we shall never have a real aristocracy while this plebeian reluctance to live upon a parent or a wife continues the animating spirit of our youth. It strikes at the root of the whole feudal system. I really think you owe me an apology, Tom. I supposed you wished to marry the girl's money, and here you are, basely seeking to go into business with her father."
Young Corey laughed again like a son who perceives that his father is a little antiquated, but keeps a filial faith in his wit. "I don't know that it's quite so bad as that; but the thing had certainly crossed my mind. I don't know how it's to be approached, and I don't know that it's at all possible. But I confess that I 'took to' Colonel Lapham from the moment I saw him. He looked as if he 'meant business,' and I mean business too."
The father smoked thoughtfully. "Of course people do go into all sorts of things, as you say, and I don't know that one thing is more ignoble than another, if it's decent and large enough. In my time you would have gone into the China trade or the India trade--though I didn't; and a little later cotton would have been your manifest destiny--though it wasn't mine; but now a man may do almost anything. The real-estate business is pretty full. Yes, if you have a deep inward vocation for it, I don't see why mineral paint shouldn't do. I fancy it's easy enough approaching the matter. We will invite Papa Lapham to dinner, and talk it over with him."
"Oh, I don't think that would be exactly the way, sir," said the son, smiling at his father's patrician unworldliness.
"No? Why not?"
"I'm afraid it would be a bad start. I don't think it would strike him as business-like."
"I don't see why he should be punctilious, if we're not."
"Ah, we might say that if he were making the advances."
"Well, perhaps you are right, Tom. What is your idea?"
"I haven't a very clear one. It seems to me I ought to get some business friend of ours, whose judgment he would respect, to speak a good word for me."
"Give you a character?"
"Yes. And of course I must go to Colonel Lapham. My notion would be to inquire pretty thoroughly about him, and then, if I liked the look of things, to go right down to Republic Street and let him see what he could do with me, if anything."
"That sounds tremendously practical to me, Tom, though it may be just the wrong way. When are you going down to Mount Desert?"
"To-morrow, I think, sir," said the young man. "I shall turn it over in my mind while I'm off."
The father rose, showing something more than his son's height, with a very slight stoop, which the son's figure had not. "Well," he said, whimsically, "I admire your spirit, and I don't deny that it is justified by necessity. It's a consolation to think that while I've been spending and enjoying, I have been preparing the noblest future for you--a future of industry and self-reliance. You never could draw, but this scheme of going into the mineral-paint business shows that you have inherited something of my feeling for color."
The son laughed once more, and waiting till his father was well on his way upstairs, turned out the gas and then hurried after him and preceded him into his chamber. He glanced over it to see that everything was there, to his father's hand. Then he said, "Good night, sir," and the elder responded, "Good night, my son," and the son went to his own room.
Over the mantel in the elder Corey's room hung a portrait which he had painted of his own father, and now he stood a moment and looked at this as if struck by something novel in it. The resemblance between his son and the old India merchant, who had followed the trade from Salem to Boston when the larger city drew it away from the smaller, must have been what struck him. Grandfather and grandson had both the Roman nose which appears to have flourished chiefly at the formative period of the republic, and which occurs more rarely in the descendants of the conscript fathers, though it still characterizes the profiles of a good many Boston ladies. Bromfield Corey had not inherited it, and he had made his straight nose his defense when the old merchant accused him of a want of energy. He said, "What could a man do whose unnatural father had left his own nose away from him?" This amused but did not satisfy the merchant. "You must do something," he said; "and it's for you to choose. If you don't like the India trade, go into something else. Or, take up law or medicine. No Corey yet ever proposed to do nothing." "Ah, then, it's quite time one of us made a beginning," urged the man who was then young, and who was now old, looking into the somewhat fierce eyes of his father's portrait. He had inherited as little of the fierceness as of the nose, and there was nothing predatory in his son either, though the aquiline beak had come down to him in such force. Bromfield Corey liked his son Tom for the gentleness which tempered his energy.
"Well let us compromise," he seemed to be saying to his father's portrait. "I will travel." "Travel? How long?" the keen eyes demanded. "Oh, indefinitely. I won't be hard with you, father." He could see the eyes soften, and the smile of yielding come over his father's face; the merchant could not resist a son who was so much like his dead mother. There was some vague understanding between them that Bromfield Corey was to come back and go into business after a time, but he never did so. He traveled about over Europe, and traveled handsomely, frequenting good society everywhere, and getting himself presented at several courts, at a period when it was a distinction to do so. He had always sketched, and with his father's leave he fixed himself at Rome, where he remained studying art and rounding the being inherited from his Yankee progenitors, till there was very little left of the ancestral angularities. After ten years he came home and painted that portrait of his father. It was very good, if a little amateurish, and he might have made himself a name as a painter of portraits if he had not had so much money. But he had plenty of money, though by this time he was married and beginning to have a family. It was absurd for him to paint portraits for pay, and ridiculous to paint them for nothing; so he did not paint them at all. He continued a dilettante, never quite abandoning his art, but working at it fitfully, and talking more about it than working at it. He had his theory of Titian's method; and now and then a Bostonian insisted upon buying a picture of him. After a while he hung it more and more inconspicuously, and said apologetically, "Oh yes! that's one of Bromfield Corey's things. It has nice qualities, but it's amateurish."
In process of time the money seemed less abundant. There were shrinkages of one kind and another, and living had grown much more expensive and luxurious. For many years he talked about going back to Rome, but he never went, and his children grew up in the usual way. Before he knew it his son had him out to his class-day spread at Harvard, and then he had his son on his hands. The son made various unsuccessful provisions for himself, and still continued upon his father's hands, to their common dissatisfaction, though it was chiefly the younger who repined. He had the Roman nose and the energy without the opportunity, and at one of the reversions his father said to him, "You ought not to have that nose, Tom; then you would do very well. You would go and travel, as I did."
Lapham and his wife continued talking after he had quelled the disturbance in his daughters' room overhead; and their talk was not altogether of the new house.
"I tell you," he said, "if I had that fellow in the business with me I would make a man of him."
"Well, Silas Lapham," returned his wife, "I do believe you've got mineral paint on the brain. Do you suppose a fellow like young Corey, brought up the way he's been, would touch mineral paint with a ten-foot pole?"
"Why not?" haughtily asked the Colonel.
"Well, if you don't know already, there's no use trying to tell you."