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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
THE exultant Colonel swung himself lightly down from his seat. "I've brought Mr. Corey with me," he nonchalantly explained.
Mrs. Lapham made their guest welcome, and the Colonel showed him to his room, briefly assuring himself that there was nothing wanting there. Then he went to wash his own hands, carelessly ignoring the eagerness with which his wife pursued him to their chamber.
"What gave Irene a headache?" he asked, making himself a fine lather for his hairy paws.
"Never you mind Irene," promptly retorted his wife. "How came he to come? Did you press him? If you did, I'll never forgive you, Silas!"
The Colonel laughed, and his wife shook him by the shoulder to make him laugh lower. "'Sh!" she whispered. "Do you want him to hear every thing? Did you urge him?"
The Colonel laughed the more. He was going to get all the good out of this. "No, I didn't urge him. Seemed to want to come."
"I don't believe it. Where did you meet him?"
"At the office."
"Nonsense! What was he doing there?"
"Oh, nothing much."
"What did he come for?"
"Come for? Oh! he said he wanted to go into the mineral paint business."
Mrs. Lapham dropped into a chair, and watched his bulk shaken with smothered laughter. "Silas Lapham," she gasped, "if you try to get off any more of those things on me----"
The Colonel applied himself to the towel. "Had a notion he could work it in South America. I don't know what he's up to."
"Never mind!" cried his wife. "I'll get even with you yet."
"So I told him he had better come down and talk it over," continued the Colonel, in well-affected simplicity. "I knew he wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."
"Go on!" threatened Mrs. Lapham.
"Right thing to do, wa'n't it?"
A tap was heard at the door, and Mrs. Lapham answered it. A maid announced supper. "Very well," she said, "come to tea now. But I'll make you pay for this, Silas."
Penelope had gone to her sister's room as soon as she entered the house.
"Is your head any better, 'Rene?" she asked.
"Yes, a little," came a voice from the pillows. "But I shall not come to tea. I don't want anything. If I keep still, I shall be all right by morning."
"Well, I'm sorry," said the elder sister. "He's come down with father."
"He hasn't! Who?" cried Irene, starting up in simultaneous denial and demand.
"Oh, well, if you say he hasn't, what's the use of my telling you who?"
"Oh, how can you treat me so!" moaned the sufferer. "What do you mean, Pen?"
"I guess I'd better not tell you," said Penelope, watching her like a cat playing with a mouse. "If you're not coming to tea, it would just excite you for nothing."
The mouse moaned and writhed upon the bed.
"Oh, I wouldn't treat you so!"
The cat seated herself across the room, and asked quietly--
"Well, what could you do if it was Mr. Corey? You couldn't come to tea, you say. But he'll excuse you. I've told him you had a headache. Why, of course you can't come! It would be too barefaced But you needn't be troubled, Irene; I'll do my best to make the time pass pleasantly for him." Here the cat gave a low titter, and the mouse girded itself up with a momentary courage and self-respect.
"I should think you would be ashamed to come here and tease me so."
"I don't see why you shouldn't believe me," argued Penelope. "Why shouldn't he come down with father, if father asked him? and he'd be sure to if he thought of it. I don't see any p'ints about that frog that's any better than any other frog."
The sense of her sister's helplessness was too much for the tease; she broke down in a fit of smothered laughter, which convinced her victim that it was nothing but an ill-timed joke.
"Well, Pen, I wouldn't use you so," she whimpered.
Penelope threw herself on the bed beside her.
"Oh, poor Irene! He is here. It's a solemn fact." And she caressed and soothed her sister, while she choked with laughter. "You must get up and come out. I don't know what brought him here, but here he is."
"It's too late now," said Irene desolately. Then she added, with a wilder despair: "What a fool I was to take that walk!"
"Well," coaxed her sister, "come out and get some tea. The tea will do you good."
"No, no; I can't come. But send me a cup here."
"Yes, and then perhaps you can see him later in the evening."
"I shall not see him at all."
An hour after Penelope came back to her sister's room and found her before her glass. "You might as well have kept still, and been well by morning, 'Rene," she said. "As soon as we were done father said, 'Well, Mr. Corey and I have got to talk over a little matter of business, and we'll excuse you, ladies.' Ho looked at mother in a way that I guess was pretty hard to bear. 'Rene, you ought to have heard the Colonel swelling at supper. It would have made you feel that all he said the other day was nothing."
Mrs. Lapham suddenly opened the door.
"Now, see here, Pen," she said, as she closed it behind her, "I've had just as much as I can stand from your father, and if you don't tell me this instant what it all means----"
She left the consequences to imagination, and Penelope replied with her mock soberness:
"Well, the Colonel does seem to be on his high horse, ma'am. But you mustn't ask me what his business with Mr. Corey is, for I don't know. All that I know is that I met them at the landing, and that they conversed all the way down--on literary topics."
"Nonsense! What do you think it is?"
"Well, if you want my candid opinion, I think this talk about business is nothing but a blind. It seems a pity Irene shouldn't have been up to receive him," she added.
Irene cast a mute look of imploring at her mother, who was too much preoccupied to afford her the protection it asked.
"Your father said he wanted to go into the business with him."
Irene's look changed to a stare of astonishment and mystification, but Penelope preserved her imperturbability.
"Well, it's a lucrative business, I believe."
"Well, I don't believe a word of it!" cried Mrs. Lapham. "And so I told your father."
"Did it seem to convince him?" inquired Penelope.
Her mother did not reply. "I know one thing," she said. "He's got to tell me every word, or there'll be no sleep for him this night."
"Well, ma'am," said Penelope, breaking down in one of her queer laughs, "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if you were right."
"Go on and dress, Irene," ordered her mother, "and then you and Pen come out into the parlor. They can have just two hours for business, and then we must all be there to receive him. You haven't got headache enough to hurt you."
"Oh, it's all gone now," said the girl.
At the end of the limit she had given the Colonel, Mrs. Lapham looked into the dining-room, which she found blue with his smoke.
"I think you gentlemen will find the parlor pleasanter now, and we can give it up to you."
"Oh no, you needn't," said her husband. "We've got about through." Corey was already standing, and Lapham rose too. "I guess we can join the ladies now. We can leave that little point till to-morrow."
Both of the young ladies were in the parlor when Corey entered with their father, and both were frankly indifferent to the few books and the many newspapers scattered about on the table where the large lamp was placed. But after Corey had greeted Irene he glanced at the novel under his eye, and said, in the dearth that sometimes befalls people at such times: "I see you're reading Middlemarch. Do you like George Eliot?"
"Who?" asked the girl.
Penelope interposed. "I don't believe Irene's read it yet. I've just got it out of the library; I heard so much talk about it. I wish she would let you find out a little about the people for yourself," she added. But here her father struck in:
"I can't get the time for books. It's as much as I can do to keep up with the newspapers; and when night comes, I'm tired, and I'd rather go out to the theatre, or a lecture, if they've got a good stereopticon to give you views of the places. But I guess we all like a play better than 'most anything else. I want something that'll make me laugh. I don't believe in tragedy. I think there's enough of that in real life without putting it on the stage. Seen 'Joshua Whitcomb'?"
The whole family joined in the discussion, and it appeared that they all had their opinions of the plays and actors. Mrs. Lapham brought the talk back to literature. "I guess Penelope does most of our reading."
"Now, mother, you're not going to put it all on me!" said the girl, in comic protest.
Her mother laughed, and then added, with a sigh: "I used to like to get hold of a good book when I was a girl; but we weren't allowed to read many novels in those days. My mother called them all lies. And I guess she wasn't so very far wrong about some of them."
"They're certainly fictions," said Corey, smiling.
"Well, we do buy a good many books, first and last," said the Colonel, who probably had in mind the costly volumes which they presented to one another on birthdays and holidays. "But I get about all the reading I want in the newspapers. And when the girls want a novel, I tell 'em to get it out of the library. That's what the library's for. Phew!" he panted, blowing away the whole unprofitable subject. "How close you women-folks like to keep a room! You go down to the sea-side or up to the mountains for a change of air, and then you cork yourselves into a room so tight you don't have any air at all. Here! You girls get on your bonnets, and go and show Mr. Corey the view of the hotels from the rocks."
Corey said that he should be delighted. The girls exchanged looks with each other, and then with their mother. Irene curved her pretty chin in comment upon her father's incorrigibility, and Penelope made a droll mouth, but the Colonel remained serenely content with his finesse. "I got 'em out of the way," he said, as soon as they were gone, and before his wife had time to fall upon him, "because I've got through my talk with him, and now I want to talk with you. It's just as I said, Persis; he wants to go into the business with me."
"It's lucky for you," said his wife, meaning that now he would not be made to suffer for attempting to hoax her. But she was too intensely interested to pursue that matter further. "What in the world do you suppose he means by it?"
"Well, I should judge by his talk that he had been trying a good many different things since he left college, and he hain't found just the thing he likes--or the thing that likes him. It ain't so easy. And now he's got an idea that he can take hold of the paint and push it in other countries--push it in Mexico and push it in South America. He's a splendid Spanish scholar,"--this was Lapham's version of Corey's modest claim to a smattering of the language,--"and he's been among the natives enough to know their ways. And he believes in the paint," added the Colonel.
"I guess he believes in something else besides the paint," said Mrs. Lapham.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Silas Lapham, if you can't see now that he's after Irene, I don't know what ever can open your eyes. That's all."
The Colonel pretended to give the idea silent consideration, as if it had not occurred to him before. "Well, then, all I've got to say is, that he's going a good way round. I don't say you're wrong, but if it's Irene, I don't see why he should want to go off to South America to get her. And that's what he proposes to do. I guess there's some paint about it too, Persis. He says he believes in it,"--the Colonel devoutly lowered his voice,--"and he's willing to take the agency on his own account down there, and run it for a commission on what he can sell."
"Of course! He isn't going to take hold of it any way so as to feel beholden to you. He's got too much pride for that."
"He ain't going to take hold of it at all, if he don't mean paint in the first place and Irene afterward. I don't object to him, as I know, either way, but the two things won't mix; and I don't propose he shall pull the wool over my eyes--or anybody else. But, as far as heard from, up to date, he means paint first, last, and all the time. At any rate, I'm going to take him on that basis. He's got some pretty good ideas about it, and he's been stirred up by this talk, just now, about getting our manufactures into the foreign markets. There's an overstock in everything, and we've got to get rid of it, or we've got to shut down till the home demand begins again. We've had two or three such flurries before now, and they didn't amount to much. They say we can't extend our commerce under the high tariff system we've got now, because there ain't any sort of reciprocity on our side,--we want to have the other fellows show all the reciprocity,--and the English have got the advantage of us every time. I don't know whether it's so or not; but I don't see why it should apply to my paint. Anyway, he wants to try it, and I've about made up my mind to let him. Of course I ain't going to let him take all the risk. I believe in the paint too, and I shall pay his expenses anyway."
"So you want another partner after all?" Mrs. Lapham could not forbear saying.
"Yes, if that's your idea of a partner. It isn't mine," returned her husband dryly.
"Well, if you've made up your mind, Si, I suppose you're ready for advice," said Mrs. Lapham.
The Colonel enjoyed this. "Yes, I am. What have you got to say against it?"
"I don't know as I've got anything. I'm satisfied if you are."
"When is he going to start for South America?"
"I shall take him into the office a while. He'll get off some time in the winter. But he's got to know the business first."
"Oh, indeed! Are you going to take him to board in the family?"
"What are you after, Persis?"
"Oh, nothing! I presume he will feel free to visit in the family, even if he don't board with us."
"I presume he will."
"And if he don't use his privileges, do you think he'll be a fit person to manage your paint in South America?"
The Colonel reddened consciously. "I'm not taking him on that basis."
"Oh yes, you are! You may pretend you ain't to yourself, but you mustn't pretend so to me. Because I know you."
The Colonel laughed. "Pshaw!" he said.
Mrs. Lapham continued: " I don't see any harm in hoping that he'll take a fancy to her. But if you really think it won't do to mix the two things, I advise you not to take Mr. Corey into the business. It will do all very well if he does take a fancy to her; but if he don't, you know how you'll feel about it. And I know you well enough, Silas, to know that you can't do him justice if that happens. And I don't think it's right you should take this step unless you're pretty sure. I can see that you've set your heart on this thing"
"I haven't set my heart on it at all," protested Lapham.
"And if you can't bring it about, you're going to feel unhappy over it," pursued his wife, regardless of his protest.
"Oh, very well," he said. "If you know more about what's in my mind than I do, there's no use arguing, as I can see."
He got up, to carry off his consciousness, and sauntered out of the door on to his piazza. He could see the young people down on the rocks, and his heart swelled in his breast. He had always said that he did not care what a man's family was, but the presence of young Corey as an applicant to him for employment, as his guest, as the possible suitor of his daughter, was one of the sweetest flavors that he had yet tasted in his success. He knew who the Coreys were very well, and, in his simple, brutal way, he had long hated their name as a symbol of splendor which, unless he should live to see at least three generations of his descendants gilded with mineral paint, he could not hope to realise in his own. He was acquainted in a business way with the tradition of old Phillips Corey, and he had heard a great many things about the Corey who had spent his youth abroad and his father's money everywhere, and done nothing but say smart things. Lapham could not see the smartness of some of them which had been repeated to him. Once he had encountered the fellow, and it seemed to Lapham that the tall, slim, white-mustached man, with the slight stoop, was everything that was offensively aristocratic. He had bristled up aggressively at the name when his wife told how she had made the acquaintance of the fellow's family the summer before, and he had treated the notion of young Corey's caring for Irene with the contempt which such a ridiculous superstition deserved. He had made up his mind about young Corey beforehand; yet when he met him he felt an instant liking for him, which he frankly acknowledged, and he had begun to assume the burden of his wife's superstition, of which she seemed now ready to accuse him of being the inventor.
Nothing had moved his thick imagination like this day's events since the girl who taught him spelling and grammar in the school at Lumberville had said she would have him for her husband.
The dark figures, stationary on the rocks, began to move, and he could see that they were coming toward the house. He went indoors, so as not to appear to have been watching them.