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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
MRS. Lapham went away to put on her bonnet and cloak, and she was waiting at the window when her husband drove up. She opened the door and ran down the steps. "Don't get out; I can help myself in," and she clambered to his side, while he kept the fidgeting mare still with voice and touch.
"Where do you want I should go?" he asked, turning the buggy.
"Oh, I don't care. Out Brookline way, I guess. I wish you hadn't brought this fool of a horse," she gave way petulantly. "I wanted to have a talk."
"When I can't drive this mare and talk too, I'll sell out altogether," said Lapham. "She'll be quiet enough when she's had her spin."
"Well," said his wife; and while they were making their way across the city to the Milldam she answered certain questions he asked about some points in the new house.
"I should have liked to have you stop there," he began; but she answered so quickly, "Not to-day," that he gave it up and turned his horse's head westward when they struck Beacon Street.
He let the mare out, and he did not pull her in till he left the Brighton road and struck off under the low boughs that met above one of the quiet streets of Brookline, where the stone cottages, with here and there a patch of determined ivy on their northern walls, did what they could to look English amid the glare of the autumnal foliage. The smooth earthen track under the mare's hoofs was scattered with flakes of the red and yellow gold that made the air luminous around them, and the perspective was gay with innumerable tints and tones.
"Pretty sightly," said Lapham, with a long sign, letting the reins lie loose in his vigilant hand, to which he seemed to relegate the whole charge of the mare. "I want to talk with you about Rogers, Persis. He's been getting in deeper and deeper with me; and last night he pestered me half to death to go in with him in one of his schemes. I ain't going to blame anybody, but I hain't got very much confidence in Rogers. And I told him so last night."
"Oh, don't talk to me about Rogers!" his wife broke in. "There's something a good deal more important than Rogers in the world, and more important than your business. It seems as if you couldn't think of anything else--that and the new house. Did you suppose I wanted to ride so as to talk Rogers with you?" she demanded, yielding to the necessity a wife feels of making her husband pay for her suffering, even if he has not inflicted it. "I declare----"
"Well, hold on, now!" said Lapham. "What do you want to talk about? I'm listening."
His wife began, "Why, it's just this, Silas Lapham!" and then she broke off to say, "Well, you may wait, now--starting me wrong, when it's hard enough anyway."
Lapham silently turned his whip over and over in his hand and waited.
"Did you suppose," she asked at last, "that that young Corey had been coming to see Irene?"
"I don't know what I supposed," replied Lapham sullenly. "You always said so." He looked sharply at her under his lowering brows.
"Well, he hasn't," said Mrs. Lapham; and she replied to the frown that blackened on her husband's face. "And I can tell you what, if you take it in that way I shan't speak another word."
"Who's takin' it what way?" retorted Lapham savagely. "What are you drivin' at?"
"I want you should promise that you'll hear me out quietly."
"I'll hear you out if you'll give me a chance. I haven't said a word yet."
"Well, I'm not going to have you flying into forty furies, and looking like a perfect thunder-cloud at the very start. I've had to bear it, and you've got to bear it too."
"Well, let me have a chance at it, then."
"It's nothing to blame anybody about, as I can see, and the only question is, what's the best thing to do about it. There's only one thing we can do; for if he don't care for the child, nobody wants to make him. If he hasn't been coming to see her, he hasn't, and that's all there is to it."
"No, it ain't!" exclaimed Lapham.
"There!" protested his wife.
"If he hasn't been coming to see her, what has he been coming for?"
"He's been coming to see Pen!" cried the wife. " Now are you satisfied?" Her tone implied that he had brought it all upon them; but at the sight of the swift passions working in his face to a perfect comprehension of the whole trouble, she fell to trembling, and her broken voice lost all the spurious indignation she had put into it. "O Silas! what are we going to do about it? I'm afraid it'll kill Irene."
Lapham pulled off the loose driving-glove from his right hand with the fingers of his left, in which the reins lay. He passed it over his forehead, and then flicked from it the moisture it had gathered there. He caught his breath once or twice, like a man who meditates a struggle with superior force and then remains passive in its grasp.
His wife felt the need of comforting him, as she had felt the need of afflicting him. "I don't say but what it can be made to come out all right in the end. All I say is, I don't see my way clear yet."
"What makes you think he likes Pen?" he asked quietly.
"He told her so last night, and she told me this morning. Was he at the office to-day?"
"Yes, he was there. I haven't been there much myself. He didn't say anything to me. Does Irene know?"
"No; I left her getting ready to go out shopping. She wants to get a pin like the one Nanny Corey had on."
"Oh, my Lord!" groaned Lapham.
"It's been Pen from the start, I guess, or almost from the start. I don't say but what he was attracted some by Irene at the very first; but I guess it's been Pen ever since he saw her; and we've taken up with a notion, and blinded ourselves with it. Time and again I've had my doubts whether he cared for Irene any; but I declare to goodness, when he kept coming, I never hardly thought of Pen, and I couldn't help believing at last he did care for Irene. Did it ever strike you he might be after Pen?"
"No. I took what you said. I supposed you knew."
"Do you blame me, Silas?" she asked timidly.
"No. What's the use of blaming? We don't either of us want anything but the children's good. What's it all of it for, if it ain't for that? That's what we've both slaved for all our lives."
"Yes, I know. Plenty of people lose their children," she suggested.
"Yes, but that don't comfort me any. I never was one to feel good because another man felt bad. How would you have liked it if some one had taken comfort because his boy lived when ours died? No, I can't do it. And this is worse than death, someways. That comes and it goes; but this looks as if it was one of those things that had come to stay. The way I look at it, there ain't any hope for anybody. Suppose we don't want Pen to have him; will that help Irene any, if he don't want her? Suppose we don't want to let him have either; does that help either!"
"You talk," exclaimed Mrs. Lapham, "as if our say was going to settle it. Do you suppose that Penelope Lapham is a girl to take up with a fellow that her sister is in love with, and that she always thought was in love with her sister, and go off and be happy with him? Don't you believe but what it would come back to her, as long as she breathed the breath of life, how she'd teased her about him, as I've heard Pen tease Irene, and helped to make her think he was in love with her, by showing that she thought so herself? It's ridiculous!"
Lapham seemed quite beaten down by this argument. His huge head hung forward over his breast; the reins lay loose in his moveless hand; the mare took her own way. At last he lifted his face and shut his heavy jaws.
"Well?" quavered his wife.
"Well," he answered, "if he wants her, and she wants him, I don't see what that's got to do with it." He looked straight forward, and not at his wife.
She laid her hands on the reins. "Now, you stop right here, Silas Lapham! If I thought that--if I really believed you could be willing to break that poor child's heart, and let Pen disgrace herself by marrying a man that had as good as killed her sister, just because you wanted Bromfield Corey's son for a son-in-law----"
Lapham turned his face now, and gave her a look. "You had better not believe that, Persis! Get up!" he called to the mare, without glancing at her, and she sprang forward. "I see you've got past being any use to yourself on this subject."
"Hello!" shouted a voice in front of him. "Where the devil you goin' to?"
"Do you want to kill somebody!" shrieked his wife.
There was a light crash, and the mare recoiled her length, and separated their wheels from those of the open buggy in front which Lapham had driven into. He made his excuses to the occupant; and the accident relieved the tension of their feelings, and left them far from the point of mutual injury which they had reached in their common trouble and their unselfish will for their children's good.
It was Lapham who resumed the talk. "I'm afraid we can't either of us see this thing in the right light. We're too near to it. I wish to the Lord there was somebody to talk to about it."
"Yes," said his wife; "but there ain't anybody."
"Well, I dunno," suggested Lapham, after a moment; "why not talk to the minister of your church? May be he could see some way out of it."
Mrs. Lapham shook her head hopelessly. "It wouldn't do. I've never taken up my connection with the church, and I don't feel as if I'd got any claim on him."
"If he's anything of a man, or anything of a preacher, you have got a claim on him," urged Lapham; and he spoiled his argument by adding, "I've contributed enough money to his church."
"Oh, that's nothing," said Mrs. Lapham. "I ain't well enough acquainted with Dr. Langworthy, or else I'm too well. No; if I was to ask any one, I should want to ask a total stranger. But what's the use, Si? Nobody could make us see it any different from what it is, and I don't know as I should want they should."
It blotted out the tender beauty of the day, and weighed down their hearts ever more heavily within them. They ceased to talk of it a hundred times, and still came back to it. They drove on and on. It began to be late. "I guess we better go back, Si," said his wife; and as he turned without speaking, she pulled her veil down and began to cry softly behind it, with low little broken sobs.
Lapham started the mare up and drove swiftly homeward. At last his wife stopped crying and began trying to find her pocket. "Here, take mine, Persis," he said kindly, offering her his handkerchief, and she took it and dried her eyes with it. "There was one of those fellows there the other night," he spoke again, when his wife leaned back against the cushions in peaceful despair, "that I liked the looks of about as well as any man I ever saw. I guess he was a pretty good man. It was that Mr. Sewell."
He looked at his wife, but she did not say anything. "Persis," he resumed, "I can't bear to go back with nothing settled in our minds. I can't bear to let you."
"We must, Si," returned his wife, with gentle gratitude. Lapham groaned. "Where does he live?" she asked.
"On Bolingbroke Street. He gave me his number."
"Well, it wouldn't do any good. What could he say to us?"
"Oh, I don't know as he could say anything," said Lapham hopelessly; and neither of them said anything more till they crossed the Milldam and found themselves between the rows of city houses.
"Don't drive past the new house, Si," pleaded his wife. "I couldn't bear to see it. Drive--drive up Bolingbroke Street. We might as well see where he does live."
"Well," said Lapham. He drove along slowly. "That's the place," he said finally, stopping the mare and pointing with his whip.
"It wouldn't do any good," said his wife, in a tone which he understood as well as he understood her words. He turned the mare up to the curbstone .
"You take the reins a minute," he said, handing them to his wife.
He got down and rang the bell, and waited till the door opened; then he came back and lifted his wife out. "He's in," he said.
He got the hitching-weight from under the buggy-seat and made it fast to the mare's bit.
"Do you think she'll stand with that?" asked Mrs. Lapham.
"I guess so. If she don't, no matter."
"Ain't you afraid she'll take cold," she persisted, trying to make delay.
"Let her!" said Lapham. He took his wife's trembling hand under his arm, and drew her to the door.
"He'll think we're crazy," she murmured in her broken pride.
"Well, we are," said Lapham. "Tell him we'd like to see him alone a while," he said to the girl who was holding the door ajar for him, and she showed him into the reception-room, which had been the Protestant confessional for many burdened souls before their time, coming, as they did, with the belief that they were bowed down with the only misery like theirs in the universe; for each one of us must suffer long to himself before he can learn that he is but one in a great community of wretchedness which has been pitilessly repeating itself from the foundation of the world.
They were as loath to touch their trouble when the minister came in as if it were their disgrace; but Lapham did so at last, and, with a simple dignity which he had wanted in his bungling and apologetic approaches, he laid the affair clearly before the minister's compassionate and reverent eye. He spared Corey's name, but he did not pretend that it was not himself and his wife and their daughters who were concerned.
"I don't know as I've got any right to trouble you with this thing," he said, in the moment while Sewell sat pondering the case, "and I don't know as I've got any warrant for doing it. But, as I told my wife here, there was something about you--I don't know whether it was anything you said exactly--that made me feel as if you could help us. I guess I didn't say so much as that to her; but that's the way I felt. And here we are. And if it ain't all right"
"Surely," said Sewell, "it's all right. I thank you for coming--for trusting your trouble to me. A time comes to every one of us when we can't help ourselves, and then we must get others to help us. If people turn to me at such a time, I feel sure that I was put into the world for something--if nothing more than to give my pity, my sympathy."
The brotherly words, so plain, so sincere, had a welcome in them that these poor outcasts of sorrow could not doubt.
"Yes," said Lapham huskily, and his wife began to wipe the tears again under her veil.
Sewell remained silent, and they waited till he should speak. "We can be of use to one another here, because we can always be wiser for some one else than we can for ourselves. We can see another's sins and errors in a more merciful light--and that is always a fairer light--than we can our own; and we can look more sanely at others' afflictions." He had addressed these words to Lapham; now he turned to his wife. "If some one had come to you, Mrs. Lapham, in just this perplexity, what would you have thought?"
"I don't know as I understand you," faltered Mrs. Lapham.
Sewell repeated his words, and added, "I mean, what do you think some one else ought to do in your place?"
"Was there ever any poor creatures in such a strait before?" she asked, with pathetic incredulity.
"There's no new trouble under the sun," said the minister.
"Oh, if it was any one else, I should say--I should say--Why, of course! I should say that their duty was to let----" She paused.
"One suffer instead of three, if none is to blame?" suggested Sewell. "That's sense, and that's justice. It's the economy of pain which naturally suggests itself, and which would insist upon itself, if we were not all perverted by traditions which are the figment of the shallowest sentimentality. Tell me, Mrs. Lapham, didn't this come into your mind when you first learned how matters stood?"
"Why, yes, it flashed across me. But I didn't think it could be right."
"And how was it with you, Mr. Lapham?"
"Why, that's what I thought, of course. But I didn't see my way----"
"No," cried the minister, "we are all blinded, we are all weakened by a false ideal of self-sacrifice. It wraps us round with its meshes, and we can't fight our way out of it. Mrs. Lapham, what made you feel that it might be better for three to suffer than one?"
"Why, she did herself. I know she would die sooner than take him away from her."
"I supposed so!" cried the minister bitterly. "And yet she is a sensible girl, your daughter?"
"She has more common-sense----"
"Of course! But in such a case we somehow think it must be wrong to use our common-sense. I don't know where this false ideal comes from, unless it comes from the novels that befool and debauch almost every intelligence in some degree. It certainly doesn't come from Christianity, which instantly repudiates it when confronted with it. Your daughter believes, in spite of her common-sense, that she ought to make herself and the man who loves her unhappy, in order to assure the life-long wretchedness of her sister, whom he doesn't love, simply because her sister saw him and fancied him first! And I'm sorry to say that ninety-nine young people out of a hundred--oh, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand!--would consider that noble and beautiful and heroic; whereas you know at the bottom of your hearts that it would be foolish and cruel and revolting. You know what marriage is! And what it must be without love on both sides."
The minister had grown quite heated and red in the face.
"I lose all patience!" he went on vehemently. "This poor child of yours has somehow been brought to believe that it will kill her sister if her sister does not have what does not belong to her, and what it is not in the power of all the world, or any soul in the world, to give her. Her sister will suffer--yes, keenly!--in heart and in pride; but she will not die. You will suffer too, in your tenderness for her; but you must do your duty. You must help her to give up. You would be guilty if you did less. Keep clearly in mind that you are doing right, and the only possible good. And God be with you!"