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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
IT was late June, almost July, when Corey took up his life in Boston again, where the summer slips away so easily. If you go out of town early, it seems a very long summer when you come back in October; but if you stay, it passes swiftly, and, seen foreshortened in its flight, seems scarcely a month's length. It has its days of heat, when it is very hot, but for the most part it is cool, with baths of the east wind that seem to saturate the soul with delicious freshness. Then there are stretches of gray westerly weather, when the air is full of the sentiment of early autumn, and the frying, of the grasshopper in the blossomed weed of the vacant lots on the Back Bay is intershot with the carol of crickets; and the yellowing leaf on the long slope of Mt. Vernon Street smites the sauntering observer with tender melancholy. The caterpillar, gorged with the spoil of the lindens on Chestnut, and weaving his own shroud about him in his lodgment on the brick-work, records the passing of summer by mid-July; and if after that comes August, its breath is thick and short, and September is upon the sojourner before he has fairly had time to philosophize the character of the town out of season.
But it must have appeared that its most characteristic feature was the absence of everybody he knew. This was one of the things that commended Boston to Bromfield Corey during the summer; and if his son had any qualms about the life he had entered upon with such vigor, it must have been a relief to him that there was scarcely a soul left to wonder or pity. By the time people got back to town the fact of his connection with the mineral paint man would be an old story, heard afar off with different degrees of surprise, and considered with different degrees of indifference. A man has not reached the age of twenty-six in any community where he was born and reared without having had his capacity pretty well ascertained; and in Boston the analysis is conducted with an unsparing thoroughness which may fitly impress the un-Bostonian mind, darkened by the popular superstition that the Bostonians blindly admire one another. A man's qualities are sifted as closely in Boston as they doubtless were in Florence or Athens; and, if final mercy was shown in those cities because a man was, with all his limitations, an Athenian or Florentine, some abatement might as justly be made in Boston for like reason. Corey's powers had been gauged in college, and he had not given his world reason to think very differently of him since he came out of college. He was rated as an energetic fellow, a little indefinite in aim, with the smallest amount of inspiration that can save a man from being commonplace. If he was not commonplace, it was through nothing remarkable in his mind, which was simply clear and practical, but through some combination of qualities of the heart that made men trust him, and women call him sweet--a word of theirs which conveys otherwise indefinable excellences. Some of the more nervous and excitable said that Tom Corey was as sweet as he could live; but this perhaps meant no more than the word alone. No man ever had a son less like him than Bromfield Corey. If Tom Corey had ever said a witty thing, no one could remember it; and yet the father had never said a witty thing to a more sympathetic listener than his own son. The clear mind which produced nothing but practical results reflected everything with charming lucidity; and it must have been this which endeared Tom Corey to every one who spoke ten words with him. In a city where people have good reason for liking to shine, a man who did not care to shine must be little short of universally acceptable without any other effort for popularity; and those who admired and enjoyed Bromfield Corey loved his son. Yet, when it came to accounting for Tom Corey, as it often did in a community where every one's generation is known to the remotest degrees of cousinship, they could not trace his sweetness to his mother, for neither Anna Bellingham nor any of her family, though they were so many blocks of Wenham ice for purity and rectangularity, had ever had any such savor; and, in fact, it was to his father, whose habit of talk wronged it in himself, that they had to turn for this quality of the son's. They traced to the mother the traits of practicality and common-sense in which he bordered upon the commonplace, and which, when they had dwelt upon them, made him seem hardly worth the close inquiry they had given him.
While the summer wore away he came and went methodically about his business, as if it had been the business of his life, sharing his father's bachelor liberty and solitude, and expecting with equal patience the return of his mother and sisters in the autumn. Once or twice he found time to run down to Mt. Desert and see them; and then he heard how the Philadelphia and New York people were getting in everywhere, and was given reason to regret the house at Nahant which he had urged to be sold. He came back and applied himself to his desk with a devotion that was exemplary rather than necessary; for Lapham made no difficulty about the brief absences which he asked, and set no term to the apprenticeship that Corey was serving in the office before setting off upon that mission to South America in the early winter, for which no date had yet been fixed.
The summer was a dull season for the paint as well as for everything else. Till things should brisk up, as Lapham said, in the fall, he was letting the new house take a great deal of his time. Æsthetic ideas had never been intelligibly presented to him before, and he found a delight in apprehending them that was very grateful to his imaginative architect. At the beginning, the architect had foreboded a series of mortifying defeats and disastrous victories in his encounters with his client; but he had never had a client who could be more reasonably led on from one outlay to another. It appeared that Lapham required but to understand or feel the beautiful effect intended, and he was ready to pay for it. His bull-headed pride was concerned in a thing which the architect made him see, and then he believed that he had seen it himself, perhaps conceived it. In some measure the architect seemed to share his delusion, and freely said that Lapham was very suggestive. Together they blocked out windows here, and bricked them up there; they changed doors and passages; pulled down cornices and replaced them with others of different design; experimented with costly devices of decoration, and went to extravagant lengths in novelties of finish. Mrs. Lapham, beginning with a woman's adventurousness in the unknown region, took fright at the reckless outlay at last, and refused to let her husband pass a certain limit. He tried to make her believe that a far-seeing economy dictated the expense; and that if he put the money into the house, he could get it out any time by selling it. She would not be persuaded.
"I don't want you should sell it. And you've put more money into it now than you'll ever get out again, unless you can find as big a goose to buy it, and that isn't likely. No, sir! You just stop at a hundred thousand, and don't you let him get you a cent beyond. Why, you're perfectly bewitched with that fellow! You've lost your head, Silas Lapham, and if you don't look out you'll lose your money too."
The Colonel laughed; he liked her to talk that way, and promised he would hold up a while.
"But there's no call to feel anxious, Pert. It's only a question what to do with the money. I can reinvest it; but I never had so much of it to spend before."
"Spend it, then," said his wife; "don't throw it away! And how came you to have so much more money than you know what to do with, Silas Lapham?" she added.
"Oh, I've made a very good thing in stocks lately."
"In stocks? When did you take up gambling for a living?"
"Gambling? Stuff! What gambling? Who said it was gambling?""You have; many a time."
"Oh yes, buying and selling on a margin. But this was a bona fide transaction. I bought at forty-three for an investment, and I sold at a hundred and seven; and the money passed both times."
"Well, you better let stocks alone," said his wife, with the conservatism of her sex. "Next time you'll buy at a hundred and seven and sell at forty three. Then where'll you be?"
"Left," admitted the Colonel.
"You better stick to paint a while yet." The Colonel enjoyed this too, and laughed again with the ease of a man who knows what he is about. A few days after that he came down to Nantasket with the radiant air which he wore when he had done a good thing in business and wanted his wife's sympathy. He did not say anything of what had happened till he was alone with her in their own room; but he was very gay the whole evening, and made several jokes which Penelope said nothing but very great prosperity could excuse: they all understood these moods of his.
"Well, what is it, Silas?" asked his wife when the time came. "Any more big-bugs wanting to go into the mineral paint business with you?"
"Something better than that."
"I could think of a good many better things," said his wife, with a sigh of latent bitterness. "What's this one?"
"I've had a visitor."
"Can't you guess?"
"I don't want to try. Who was it?"
Mrs. Lapham sat down with her hands in her lap, and stared at the smile on her husband's face, where he sat facing her.
"I guess you wouldn't want to joke on that subject, Si," she said, a little hoarsely, "and you wouldn't grin about it unless you had some good news. I don't know what the miracle is, but if you could tell quick----"
She stopped like one who can say no more.
"I will, Persis," said her husband, and with that awed tone in which he rarely spoke of anything but the virtues of his paint. "He came to borrow money of me, and I lent him it. That's the short of it. The long----"
"Go on," said his wife, with gentle patience.
"Well, Pert, I was never so much astonished in my life as I was to see that man come into my office. You might have knocked me down with--I don't know what."
"I don't wonder. Go on!"
"And he was as much embarrassed as I was. There we stood, gaping at each other, and I hadn't hardly sense enough to ask him to take a chair. I don't know just how we got at it. And I don't remember just how it was that he said he came to come to me. But he had got hold of a patent right that he wanted to go into on a large scale, and there he was wanting me to supply him the funds."
"Go on!" said Mrs. Lapham, with her voice further in her throat.
"I never felt the way you did about Rogers, but I know how you always did feel, and I guess I surprised him with my answer. He had brought along a lot of stock as security----"
"You didn't take it, Silas!" his wife flashed out.
"Yes, I did, though," said Lapham. "You wait. We settled our business, and then we went into the old thing, from the very start. And we talked it all over. And when we got through we shook hands. Well, I don't know when it's done me so much good to shake hands with anybody."
"And you told him--you owned up to him that you were in the wrong, Silas?"
"No, I didn't," returned the Colonel promptly; "for I wasn't. And before we got through, I guess he saw it the same as I did."
"Oh, no matter! so you had the chance to show how you felt."
"But I never felt that way," persisted the Colonel. "I've lent him the money, and I've kept his stocks. And he got what he wanted out of me."
"Give him back his stocks!"
"No, I shan't. Rogers came to borrow. He didn't come to beg. You needn't be troubled about his stocks. They're going to come up in time; but just now they're so low down that no bank would take them as security, and I've got to hold them till they do rise. I hope you're satisfied now, Persis," said her husband; and he looked at her with the willingness to receive the reward of a good action which we all feel when we have performed one. "I lent him the money you kept me from spending on the house."
"Truly, Si? Well, I'm satisfied," said Mrs. Lapham, with a deep tremulous breath. "The Lord has been good to you, Silas," she continued solemnly. "You may laugh if you choose, and I don't know as I believe in his interfering a great deal; but I believe he's interfered this time; and I tell you, Silas, it ain't always he gives people a chance to make it up to others in this life. I've been afraid you'd die, Silas, before you got the chance; but he's let you live to make it up to Rogers."
"I'm glad to be let live," said Lapham stubbornly, "but I hadn't anything to make up to Milton K. Rogers. And if God has let me live for that----"
"Oh, say what you please, Si! Say what you please, now you've done it! I shan't stop you. You've taken the one spot--the one speck--off you that was ever there, and I'm satisfied."
"There wa'n't ever any speck there," Lapham held out, lapsing more and more into his vernacular; "and what I done I done for you, Persis."
"And I thank you for your own soul's sake, Silas."
"I guess my soul's all right," said Lapham.
"And I want you should promise me one thing more."
"Thought you said you were satisfied?"
"I am. But I want you should promise me this: that you won't let anything tempt you--anything!--to ever trouble Rogers for that money you lent him. No matter what happens--no matter if you lose it all. Do you promise?"
"Why, I don't ever expect to press him for it. That's what I said to myself when I lent it. And of course I'm glad to have that old trouble healed up. I don't think I ever did Rogers any wrong, and I never did think so; but if I did do it--If I did--I'm willing to call it square, if I never see a cent of my money back again."
"Well, that's all," said his wife.
They did not celebrate his reconciliation with his old enemy--for such they had always felt him to be since he ceased to be an ally--by any show of joy or affection. It was not in their tradition, as stoical for the woman as for the man, that they should kiss or embrace each other at such a moment. She was content to have told him that he had done his duty, and he was content with her saying that. But before she slept she found words to add that she always feared the selfish part he had acted toward Rogers had weakened him, and left him less able to overcome any temptation that might beset him; and that was one reason why she could never be easy about it. Now she should never fear for him again.
This time he did not explicitly deny her forgiving impeachment. "Well, it's all past and gone now, anyway; and I don't want you should think anything more about it."
He was man enough to take advantage of the high favor in which he stood when he went up to town, and to abuse it by bringing Corey down to supper. His wife could not help condoning the sin of disobedience in him at such a time. Penelope said that between the admiration she felt for the Colonel's boldness and her mother's forbearance, she was hardly in a state to entertain company that evening; but she did what she could.
Irene liked being talked to better than talking, and when her sister was by she was always, tacitly or explicitly, referring to her for confirmation of what she said. She was content to sit and look pretty as she looked at the young man and listened to her sister's drolling. She laughed and kept glancing at Corey to make sure that he was understanding her. When they went out on the veranda to see the moon on the water, Penelope led the way and Irene followed.
They did not look at the moonlight long. The young man perched on the rail of the veranda, and Irene took one of the red-painted rocking-chairs where she could conveniently look at him and at her sister, who sat leaning forward lazily and running on, as the phrase is. That low, crooning note of hers was delicious; her face, glimpsed now and then in the moonlight as she turned it or lifted it a little, had a fascination which kept his eye. Her talk was very unliterary, and its effect seemed hardly conscious. She was far from epigram in her funning. She told of this trifle and that; she sketched the characters and looks of people who had interested her, and nothing seemed to have escaped her notice; she mimicked a little, but not much; she suggested, and then the affair represented itself as if without her agency. She did not laugh; when Corey stopped she made a soft cluck in her throat, as if she liked his being amused, and went on again.
The Colonel, left alone with his wife for the first time since he had come from town, made haste to take the word. "Well, Pert, I've arranged the whole thing with Rogers, and I hope you'll be satisfied to know that he owes me twenty thousand dollars, and that I've got security from him to the amount of a fourth of that, if I was to force his stocks to a sale."
"How came he to come down with you?" asked Mrs. Lapham.
"Corey? Oh!" said Lapham, affecting not to have thought she could mean Corey. "He proposed it."
"Likely!" jeered his wife, but with perfect amiability.
"It's so," protested the Colonel. "We got talking about a matter just before I left, and he walked down to the boat with me; and then he said if I didn't mind he guessed he'd come along down and go back on the return boat. Of course I couldn't let him do that."
"It's well for you you couldn't."
"And I couldn't do less than bring him here to tea."
"Oh, certainly not."
"But he ain't going to stay the night--unless," faltered Lapham, "you want him to."
"Oh, of course, I want him to! I guess he'll stay, probably."
"Well, you know how crowded that last boat always is, and he can't get any other now."
Mrs. Lapham laughed at the simple wile. "I hope you'll be just as well satisfied, Si, if it turns out he doesn't want Irene after all."
"Pshaw, Persis! What are you always bringing that up for?" pleaded the Colonel. Then he fell silent, and presently his rude, strong face was clouded with an unconscious frown.
"There!" cried his wife, startling him from his abstraction. "I see how you'd feel; and I hope that you'll remember who you've got to blame."
"I'll risk it," said Lapham, with the confidence of a man used to success.
From the veranda the sound of Penelope's lazy tone came through the closed windows, with joyous laughter from Irene and peals from Corey.
"Listen to that!" said her father within, swelling up with inexpressible satisfaction. "That girl can talk for twenty, right straight along. She's better than a circus any day. I wonder what she's up to now."
"Oh, she's probably getting off some of those yarns of hers, or telling about some people. She can't step out of the house without coming back with more things to talk about than most folks would bring back from Japan. There ain't a ridiculous person she's ever seen but what she's got something from them to make you laugh at; and I don't believe we've ever had anybody in the house since the girl could talk that she hain't got some saying from, or some trick that'll paint 'em out so't you can see 'em and hear 'em. Sometimes I want to stop her; but when she gets into one of her gales there ain't any standing up against her. I guess it 's lucky for Irene that she's got Pen there to help entertain her company. I can't ever feel down where Pen is."
"That's so," said the Colonel. "And I guess she's got about as much culture as any of them. Don't you?"
"She reads a great deal," admitted her mother. "She seems to be at it the whole while. I don't want she should injure her health, and sometimes I feel like snatchin' the books away from her. I don't know as it's good for a girl to read so much, anyway, especially novels. I don't want she should get notions."
"Oh, I guess Pen'll know how to take care of herself," said Lapham.
"She's got sense enough. But she ain't so practical as Irene. She's more up in the clouds--more of what you may call a dreamer. Irene's wide-awake every minute; and I declare, any one to see these two together when there's anything to be done, or any lead to be taken, would say Irene was the oldest, nine times out of ten. It's only when they get to talking that you can see Pen's got twice as much brains."
"Well," said Lapham, tacitly granting this point, and leaning back in his chair in supreme content. "Did you ever see much nicer girls anywhere?"
His wife laughed at his pride. "I presume they're as much swans as anybody's geese."
"No; but honestly, now!"
"Oh, they'll do; but don't you be silly, if you can help it, Si."
The young people came in, and Corey said it was time for his boat. Mrs. Lapham pressed him to stay, but he persisted, and he would not let the Colonel send him to the boat; he said he would rather walk. Outside, he pushed along toward the boat, which presently he could see lying at her landing in the bay, across the sandy tract to the left of the hotels. From time to time he almost stopped in his rapid walk, as a man does whose mind is in a pleasant tumult; and then he went forward at a swifter pace. "She's charming!" he said, and he thought he had spoken aloud. He found himself floundering about in the deep sand, wide of the path; he got back to it, and reached the boat just before she started. The clerk came to take his fare, and Corey looked radiantly up at him in his lantern-light, with a smile that he must have been wearing a long time; his cheek was stiff with it. Once some people who stood near him edged suddenly and fearfully away, and then he suspected himself of having laughed outright.