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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
THE Nova Scotia second-girl who answered Corey's ring said that Lapham had not come home yet.
"Oh," said the young man, hesitating on the outer step.
"I guess you better come in," said the girl, "I'll go and see when they're expecting him."
Corey was in the mood to be swayed by any chance. He obeyed the suggestion of the second-girl's patronizing friendliness, and let her shut him into the drawing-room, while she went upstairs to announce him to Penelope. "Did you tell him father wasn't at home?"
"Yes. He seemed so kind of disappointed, I told him to come in, and I'd see when he would be in," said the girl, with the human interest which sometimes replaces in the American domestic the servile deference of other countries.
A gleam of amusement passed over Penelope's face, as she glanced at herself in the glass. "Well," she cried finally, dropping from her shoulders the light shawl in which she had been huddled over a book when Corey rang, "I will go down."
"All right," said the girl, and Penelope began hastily to amend the disarray of her hair, which she tumbled into a mass on the top of her little head, setting off the pale dark of her complexion with a flash of crimson ribbon at her throat. She moved across the carpet once or twice with the quaint grace that belonged to her small figure, made a dissatisfied grimace at it in the glass, caught a handkerchief out of a drawer and slid it into her pocket, and then descended to Corey.
The Lapham drawing-room in Nankeen Square was in the parti-colored paint which the Colonel had hoped to repeat in his new house: the trim of the doors and windows was in light green and the panels in salmon; the walls were a plain tint of French gray paper, divided by gilt moldings into broad panels with a wide stripe of red velvet paper running up the corners; the chandelier was of massive imitation bronze; the mirror over the mantel rested on a fringed mantel-cover of green reps, and heavy curtains of that stuff hung from gilt lambrequin frames at the window; the carpet was of a small pattern in crude green, which, at the time Mrs. Lapham bought it, covered half the new floors in Boston. In the panelled spaces on the walls were some stone-colored landscapes, representing the mountains and canyons of the West, which the Colonel and his wife had visited on one of the early official railroad excursions. In front of the long windows looking into the Square were statues, kneeling figures which turned their backs upon the company within-doors, and represented allegories of Faith and Prayer to people without. A white marble group of several figures, expressing an Italian conception of Lincoln Freeing the Slaves,--a Latin negro and his wife,--with our Eagle flapping his wings in approval, at Lincoln's feet, occupied one corner, and balanced the what-not of an earlier period in another. These phantasms added their chill to that imparted by the tone of the walls, the landscapes, and the carpets, and contributed to the violence of the contrast when the chandelier was lighted up full glare, and the heat of the whole furnace welled up from the registers into the quivering atmosphere on one of the rare occasions when the Laphams invited company.
Corey had not been in this room before; the family had always received him in what they called the sitting-room. Penelope looked into this first, and then she looked into the parlor, with a smile that broke into a laugh as she discovered him standing under the single burner which the second-girl had lighted for him in the chandelier.
"I don't understand how you came to be put in there," she said, as she led the way to the cozier place, "unless it was because Alice thought you were only here on probation, anyway. Father hasn't got home yet, but I'm expecting him every moment; I don't know what's keeping him. Did the girl tell you that mother and Irene were out?"
"No, she didn't say. It's very good of you to see me." She had not seen the exaltation which he had been feeling, he perceived with half a sigh; it must all be upon this lower level; perhaps it was best so. "There was something I wished to say to your father----I hope," he broke off, "you're better to-night."
"Oh yes, thank you," said Penelope, remembering that she had not been well enough to go to dinner the night before.
"We all missed you very much."
"Oh, thank you! I'm afraid you wouldn't have missed me if I had been there."
"Oh yes, we should," said Corey, "I assure you."
They looked at each other.
"I really think I believed I was saying something," said the girl.
"And so did I," replied the young man. They laughed rather wildly, and then they both became rather grave.
He took the chair she gave him, and looked across at her, where she sat on the other side of the hearth, in a chair lower than his, with her hands dropped in her lap, and the back of her head on her shoulders as she looked up at him. The soft-coal fire in the grate purred and flickered; the drop-light cast a mellow radiance on her face. She let her eyes fall, and then lifted them for an irrelevant glance at the clock on the mantel.
"Mother and Irene have gone to the Spanish Students' concert."
"Oh, have they?" asked Corey; and he put his hat, which he had been holding in his hand, on the floor beside his chair.
She looked down at it for no reason, and then looked up at his face for no other, and turned a little red. Corey turned a little red himself. She who had always been so easy with him now became a little constrained.
"Do you know how warm it is out-of-doors?" he asked.
"No, is it warm? I haven't been out all day."
"It's like a summer night."
She turned her face towards the fire, and then started abruptly. "Perhaps it's too warm for you here?"
"Oh no, it's very comfortable."
"I suppose it's the cold of the last few days that's still in the house. I was reading with a shawl on when you came."
"I interrupted you."
"Oh no. I had finished the book. I was just looking over it again."
"Do you like to read books over?"
"Yes; books that I like at all."
"That was it?" asked Corey.
The girl hesitated. "It has rather a sentimental name. Did you ever read it?--'Tears, Idle Tears.'"
"Oh yes; they were talking of that last night; it's a famous book with ladies. They break their hearts over it. Did it make you cry?"
"Oh, it's pretty easy to cry over a book," said Penelope, laughing; "and that one is very natural till you come to the main point. Then the naturalness of all the rest makes that seem natural too; but I guess it's rather forced."
"Her giving him up to the other one?"
"Yes; simply because she happened to know that the other one had cared for him first. Why should she have done it? What right had she?"
"I don't know. I suppose that the self-sacrifice----"
"But it wasn't self-sacrifice--or not self-sacrifice alone. She was sacrificing him too; and for some one who couldn't appreciate him half as much as she could. I'm provoked with myself when I think how I cried over that book--for I did cry. It's silly--it's wicked for any one to do what that girl did. Why can't they let people have a chance to behave reasonably in stories?"
"Perhaps they couldn't make it so attractive," suggested Corey, with a smile.
"It would be novel, at any rate," said the girl. "But so it would in real life, I suppose," she added.
"I don't know. Why shouldn't people in love behave sensibly?"
"That's a very serious question," said Penelope gravely. "I couldn't answer it," and she left him the embarrassment of supporting an inquiry which she had certainly instigated herself. She seemed to have finally recovered her own ease in doing this. "Do you admire our autumnal display, Mr. Corey?"
"The trees in the Square. We think it's quite equal to an opening at Jordan & Marsh's."
"Ah, I'm afraid you wouldn't let me be serious even about your maples."
"Oh yes, I should--if you like to be serious."
"Well not about serious matters. That's the reason that book made me cry."
"You make fun of everything. Miss Irene was telling me last night about you."
"Then it's no use for me to deny it so soon. I must give Irene a talking to."
"I hope you won't forbid her to talk about you!"
She had taken up a fan from the table, and held it, now between her face and the fire, and now between her face and him. Her little visage, with that arch, lazy look in it, topped by its mass of dusky hair, and dwindling from the full cheeks to the small chin, had a Japanese effect in the subdued light, and it had the charm which comes to any woman with happiness. It would be hard to say how much of this she perceived that he felt. They talked about other things a while, and then she came back to what he had said. She glanced at him obliquely round her fan, and stopped moving it. "Does Irene talk about me?" she asked.
"I think so--yes. Perhaps it's only I who talk about you. You must blame me if it's wrong," he returned.
"Oh, I didn't say it was wrong," she replied. "But I hope if you said anything very bad of me you'll let me know what it was, so that I can reform----"
"No, don't change, please!" cried the young man.
Penelope caught her breath, but went on resolutely,--"or rebuke you for speaking evil of dignities." She looked down at the fan, now flat in her lap, and tried to govern her head, but it trembled, and she remained looking down. Again they let the talk stray, and then it was he who brought it back to themselves, as if it had not left them.
"I have to talk of you," said Corey, "because I get to talk to you so seldom."
"You mean that I do all the talking when we're--together?" She glanced sidewise at him; but she reddened after speaking the last word.
"We're so seldom together," he pursued.
"I don't know what you mean----"
"Sometimes I've thought--I've been afraid that you avoided me."
"Yes! Tried not to be alone with me."
She might have told him that there was no reason why she should be alone with him, and that it was very strange he should make this complaint of her. But she did not. She kept looking down at the fan, and then she lifted her burning face and looked at the clock again. "Mother and Irene will be sorry to miss you," she gasped.
He instantly rose and came towards her. She rose too, and mechanically put out her hand. He took it as if to say good-night. "I didn't mean to send you away," she besought him.
"Oh, I'm not going," he answered simply. "I wanted to say--to say that it's I who make her talk about you. To say I----There is something I want to say to you; I've said it so often to myself that I feel as if you must know it." She stood quite still, letting him keep her hand, and questioning his face with a bewildered gaze. "You must know--she must have told you--she must have guessed----" Penelope turned white, but outwardly quelled the panic that sent the blood to her heart. "I--I didn't expect--I hoped to have seen your father--but I must speak now, whatever----I love you!"
She freed her hand from both of those he had closed upon it, and went back from him across the room with a sinuous spring. "Me!" Whatever potential complicity had lurked in her heart, his words brought her only immeasurable dismay.
He came towards her again. "Yes, you. Who else?"
She fended him off with an imploring gesture. "I thought--I--it was----"
She shut her lips tight, and stood looking at him where he remained in silent amaze. Then her words came again, shudderingly. "Oh, what have you done?"
"Upon my soul," he said, with a vague smile, "I don't know. I hope no harm?"
"Oh, don't laugh!" she cried, laughing hysterically herself. "Unless you want me to think you the greatest wretch in the world!"
"I?" he responded. "For heaven's sake tell me what you mean!"
"You know I can't tell you. Can you say--can you put your hand on your heart and say that--you--say you never meant--that you meant me--all along?"
"Yes!--yes! Who else? I came here to see your father, and to tell him that I wished to tell you this--to ask him----But what does it matter? You must have known it--you must have seen--and it's for you to answer me. I've been abrupt, I know, and I've startled you; but if you love me, you can forgive that to my loving you so long before I spoke."
She gazed at him with parted lips.
"Oh, mercy! What shall I do? If it's true--what you say--you must go!" she said. "And you must never come any more. Do you promise that?"
"Certainly not," said the young man. "Why should I promise such a thing--so abominably wrong? I could obey if you didn't love me----"
"Oh, I don't! Indeed I don't! Now will you obey."
"No. I don't believe you."
He possessed himself of her hand again.
"My love--my dearest! What is this trouble, that you can't tell it? It can't be anything about yourself. If it is anything about any one else, it wouldn't make the least difference in the world, no matter what it was. I would be only too glad to show by any act or deed I could that nothing could change me towards you."
"Oh, you don't understand!"
"No, I don't. You must tell me."
"I will never do that."
"Then I will stay here till your mother comes, and ask her what it is."
"Ask her ?"
"Yes! Do you think I will give you up till I know why I must?"
"You force me to it! Will you go if I tell you, and never let any human creature know what you have said to me?"
"Not unless you give me leave."
"That will be never. Well, then----" She stopped, and made two or three ineffectual efforts to begin again. "No, no! I can't. You must go!"
"I will not go!"
"You said you--loved me. If you do, you will go."
He dropped the hands he had stretched towards her, and she hid her face in her own.
"There!" she said, turning it suddenly upon him. "Sit down there. And will you promise me--on your honor--not to speak--not to try to persuade me--not to--touch me? You won't touch me?"
"I will obey you, Penelope."
"As if you were never to see me again? As if I were dying?"
"I will do what you say. But I shall see you again; and don't talk of dying. This is the beginning of life----"
"No. It's the end," said the girl, resuming at last something of the hoarse drawl which the tumult of her feeling had broken into those half-articulate appeals. She sat down too, and lifted her face towards him. "It's the end of life for me, because I know now that I must have been playing false from the beginning. You don't know what I mean, and I can never tell you. It isn't my secret--it's some one else's. You--you must never come here again. I can't tell you why, and you must never try to know. Do you promise?"
"You can forbid me. I must do what you say."
"I do forbid you, then. And you shall not think I am cruel----
"How could I think that?"
"Oh, how hard you make it!"
Corey laughed for very despair. "Can I make it easier by disobeying you?"
"I know I am talking crazily. But I 'm not crazy."
"No, no," he said, with some wild notion of comforting her; "but try to tell me this trouble! There is nothing under heaven--no calamity, no sorrow--that I wouldn't gladly share with you, or take all upon myself if I could!"
"I know! But this you can't. Oh, my----"
"Dearest! Wait! Think! Let me ask your mother--your father----"
She gave a cry.
"No! If you do that, you will make me hate you! Will you----"
The rattling of a latch-key was heard in the outer door.
"Promise!" cried Penelope.
"Oh, I promise!"
"Good-bye!" She suddenly flung her arms round his neck, and, pressing her cheek tight against his, flashed out of the room by one door as her father entered it by another.
Corey turned to him in a daze. "I--I called to speak with you--about a matter----But it's so late now. I'll--I'll see you to-morrow."
"No time like the present," said Lapham, with a fierceness that did not seem referable to Corey. He had his hat still on, and he glared at the young man out of his blue eyes with a fire that something else must have kindled there.
"I really can't now," said Corey weakly. "It will do quite as well to-morrow. Good night, sir."
"Good night," answered Lapham abruptly, following him to the door, and shutting it after him. "I think the devil must have got into pretty much everybody to-night," he muttered, coming back to the room, where he put down his hat. Then he went to the kitchen-stairs and called down, "Hello, Alice! I want something to eat!