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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
SINCE New Year's there had scarcely been a mild day, and the streets were full of snow, growing foul under the city feet and hoofs, and renewing its purity from the skies with repeated falls, which in turn lost their whiteness, beaten down, and beaten black and hard into a solid bed like iron. The sleighing was incomparable, and the air was full of the din of bells; but Lapham's turnout was not of those that thronged the Brighton road every afternoon; the man at the livery-stable sent him word that the mare's legs were swelling.
He and Corey had little to do with each other. He did not know how Penelope had arranged it with Corey; his wife said she knew no more than he did, and he did not like to ask the girl herself, especially as Corey no longer came to the house. He saw that she was cheerfuller than she had been, and helpfuller with him and her mother. Now and then Lapham opened his troubled soul to her a little, letting his thought break into speech without preamble or conclusion. Once he said:
"Pen, I presume you know I'm in trouble."
"We all seem to be there," said the girl.
"Yes, but there's a difference between being there by your own fault and being there by somebody else's."
"I don't call it his fault," she said.
"I call it mine," said the Colonel.
The girl laughed. Her thought was of her own care, and her father's wholly of his. She must come to his ground. "What have you been doing wrong?"
"I don't know as you'd call it wrong. It's what people do all the time. But I wish I'd let stocks alone. It's what I always promised your mother I would do. But there's no use cryin' over spilt milk; or watered stock, either."
"I don't think there's much use crying about anything. If it could have been cried straight, it would have been all right from the start," said the girl, going back to her own affair; and if Lapham had not been so deeply engrossed in his, he might have seen how little she cared for all that money could do or undo. He did not observe her enough to see how variable her moods were in those days, and how often she sank from some wild gayety into abject melancholy; how at times she was fiercely defiant of nothing at all, and at others inexplicably humble and patient. But no doubt none of these signs had passed unnoticed by his wife, to whom Lapham said one day, when he came home, "Persis, what's the reason Pen don't marry Corey?"
"You know as well as I do, Silas," said Mrs. Lapham, with an inquiring look at him for what lay behind his words.
"Well, I think it's all tomfoolery, the way she's going on. There ain't any rhyme nor reason to it." He stopped, and his wife waited. "If she said the word, I could have some help from them." He hung his head, and would not meet his wife's eye.
"I guess you're in a pretty bad way, Si," she said pityingly, "or you wouldn't have come to that."
"I'm in a hole," said Lapham, "and I don't know where to turn. You won't let me do anything about those mills----"
"Yes, I'll let you," said his wife sadly.
He gave a miserable cry. "You know I can't do anything, if you do. Oh, my Lord!"
She had not seen him so low as that before. She did not know what to say. She was frightened, and could only ask, "Has it come to the worst?"
"The new house has got to go," he answered evasively.
She did not say anything. She knew that the work on the house had been stopped since the beginning of the year. Lapham had told the architect that he preferred to leave it unfinished till the spring, as there was no prospect of their being able to get into it that winter; and the architect had agreed with him that it would not hurt it to stand. Her heart was heavy for him, though she could not say so. They sat together at the table, where she had come to be with him at his belated meal. She saw that he did not eat, and she waited for him to speak again, without urging him to take anything. They were past that.
"And I've sent orders to shut down at the Works," he added.
"Shut down at the Works!" she echoed with dismay. She could not take it in. The fire at the Works had never been out before since it was first kindled. She knew how he had prided himself upon that; how he had bragged of it to every listener, and had always lugged the fact in as the last expression of his sense of success. "Oh, Silas!"
"What's the use?" he retorted. "I saw it was coming a month ago. There are some fellows out in West Virginia that have been running the paint as hard as they could. They couldn't do much; they used to put it on the market raw. But lately they got to baking it, and now they've struck a vein of natural gas right by their works, and they pay ten cents for fuel, where I pay a dollar, and they make as good a paint. Anybody can see where it's going to end. Besides, the market's over-stocked. It's glutted. There wa'n't anything to do but to shut down, and I've shut down."
"I don't know what's going to become of the hands in the middle of the winter, this way," said Mrs. Lapham, laying hold of one definite thought which she could grasp in the turmoil of ruin that whirled before her eyes.
"I don't care what becomes of the hands," cried Lapham. "They've shared my luck; now let 'em share the other thing. And if you're so very sorry for the hands, I wish you'd keep a little of your pity for me. Don't you know what shutting down the Works means?"
"Yes, indeed I do, Silas," said his wife tenderly.
"Well, then!" He rose, leaving his supper untasted, and went into the sitting-room, where she presently found him, with that everlasting confusion of papers before him on the desk. That made her think of the paper in her work-basket, and she decided not to make the careworn, distracted man ask her for it, after all. She brought it to him.
He glanced blankly at it and then caught it from her, turning red and looking foolish. "Where'd you get that?"
"You dropped it on the floor the other night, and I picked it up. Who is 'Wm. M.'?"
"'Wm. M.'!" he repeated, looking confusedly at her, and then at the paper. "Oh,--it's nothing." He tore the paper into small pieces, and went and dropped them into the fire. When Mrs. Lapham came into the room in the morning, before he was down, she found a scrap of the paper, which must have fluttered to the hearth; and glancing at it she saw that the words were "Mrs. M." She wondered what dealings with a woman her husband could have, and she remembered the confusion he had shown about the paper, and which she had thought was because she had surprised one of his business secrets. She was still thinking of it when he came down to breakfast, heavy-eyed, tremulous, with deep seams and wrinkles in his face.
After a silence which he did not seem inclined to break, "Silas," she asked, "who is 'Mrs. M.'?"
He stared at her. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't you?" she returned mockingly. "When you do, you tell me. Do you want any more coffee?"
"Well, then, you can ring for Alice when you've finished. I've got some things to attend to." She rose abruptly, and left the room. Lapham looked after her in a dull way, and then went on with his breakfast. While he still sat at his coffee, she flung into the room again, and dashed some papers down beside his plate. "Here are some more things of yours, and I'll thank you to lock them up in your desk and not litter my room with them, if you please." Now he saw that she was angry, and it must be with him. It enraged him that in such a time of trouble she should fly out at him in that way. He left the house without trying to speak to her. That day Corey came just before closing, and, knocking at Lapham's door, asked if he could speak with him a few moments.
"Yes," said Lapham, wheeling round in his swivel-chair and kicking another towards Corey. "Sit down. I want to talk to you. I'd ought to tell you you're wasting your time here. I spoke the other day about your placin' yourself better, and I can help you to do it, yet. There ain't going to be the out-come for the paint in the foreign markets that we expected, and I guess you better give it up."
"I don't wish to give it up," said the young fellow, setting his lips. "I've as much faith in it as ever; and I want to propose now what I hinted at in the first place. I want to put some money into the business."
"Some money!" Lapham leaned towards him, and frowned as if he had not quite understood, while he clutched the arms of his chair.
"I've got about thirty thousand dollars that I could put in, and if you don't want to consider me a partner--I remember that you objected to a partner--you can let me regard it as an investment. But I think I see the way to doing something at once in Mexico, and I should like to feel that I had something more than a drummer's interest in the venture."
The men sat looking into each other's eyes. Then Lapham leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his hand hard and slowly over his face. His features were still twisted with some strong emotion when he took it away. "Your family know about this?"
"My Uncle James knows."
"He thinks it would be a good plan for you?"
"He thought that by this time I ought to be able to trust my own judgment."
"Do you suppose I could see your uncle at his office?"
"I imagine he's there."
"Well, I want to have a talk with him, one of these days." He sat pondering a while, and then rose, and went with Corey to his door. "I guess I shan't change my mind about taking you into the business in that way," he said coldly. "If there was any reason why I shouldn't at first, there's more now."
"Very well, sir," answered the young man, and went to close his desk. The outer office was empty; but while Corey was putting his papers in order it was suddenly invaded by two women, who pushed by the protesting porter on the stairs and made their way towards Lapham's room. One of them was Miss Dewey, the type-writer girl, and the other was a woman whom she would resemble in face and figure twenty years hence, if she led a life of hard work varied by paroxysms of hard drinking.
"That his room, Z'rilla?" asked this woman, pointing towards Lapham's door with a hand that had not freed itself from the fringe of dirty shawl under which it had hung. She went forward without waiting for the answer, but before she could reach it the door opened, and Lapham stood filling its space.
"Look here, Colonel Lapham!" began the woman, in a high key of challenge. "I want to know if this is the way you're goin' back on me and Z'rilla?"
"What do you want?" asked Lapham.
"What do I want? What do you s'pose I want? I want the money to pay my month's rent; there ain't a bite to eat in the house; and I want some money to market."
Lapham bent a frown on the woman, under which she shrank back a step. "You've taken the wrong way to get it. Clear out!"
"I won't clear out!" said the woman, beginning to whimper.
"Corey!" said Lapham, in the peremptory voice of a master,--he had seemed so indifferent to Corey's presence that the young man thought he must have forgotten he was there,--"Is Dennis anywhere round?"
"Yissor," said Dennis, answering for himself from the head of the stairs, and appearing in the ware-room.
Lapham spoke to the woman again. "Do you want I should call a hack, or do you want I should call an officer?"
The woman began to cry into an end of her shawl. "I don't know what we're goin' to do."
"You're going to clear out," said Lapham. "Call a hack, Dennis. If you ever come here again, I'll have you arrested. Mind that! Zerrilla, I shall want you early to-morrow morning."
"Yes, sir," said the girl meekly; she and her mother shrank out after the porter.
Lapham shut his door without a word.
At lunch the next day Walker made himself amends for Corey's reticence by talking a great deal. He talked about Lapham, who seemed to have, more than ever since his apparent difficulties began, the fascination of an enigma for his book-keeper, and he ended by asking, "Did you see that little circus last night?"
"What little circus?" asked Corey in his turn.
"Those two women and the old man. Dennis told me about it. I told him if he liked his place he'd better keep his mouth shut."
"That was very good advice," said Corey.
"Oh, all right, if you don't want to talk. Don't know as I should in your place," returned Walker, in the easy security he had long felt that Corey had no intention of putting on airs with him. "But I'll tell you what: the old man can't expect it of everybody. If he keeps this thing up much longer, it's going to be talked about. You can't have a woman walking into your place of business, and trying to bulldoze you before your porter, without setting your porter to thinking. And the last thing you want a porter to do is to think; for when a porter thinks, he thinks wrong."
"I don't see why even a porter couldn't think right about that affair," replied Corey. "I don't know who the woman was, though I believe she was Miss Dewey's mother; but I couldn't see that Colonel Lapham showed anything but a natural resentment of her coming to him in that way. I should have said she was some rather worthless person whom he'd been befriending, and that she had presumed upon his kindness."
"Is that so? What do you think of his never letting Miss Dewey's name go on the books?"
"That it's another proof it's a sort of charity of his. That's the only way to look at it."
"Oh, I'm all right." Walker lighted a cigar and began to smoke, with his eyes closed to a fine straight line. "It won't do for a book-keeper to think wrong, any more than a porter, I suppose. But I guess you and I don't think very different about this thing."
"Not if you think as I do," replied Corey steadily; "and I know you would do that if you had seen the 'circus' yourself. A man doesn't treat people who have a disgraceful hold upon him as he treated them."
"It depends upon who he is," said Walker, taking his cigar from his mouth. "I never said the old man was afraid of anything."
"And character," continued Corey, disdaining to touch the matter further, except in generalities, "must go for something. If it's to be the prey of mere accident and appearance, then it goes for nothing."
"Accidents will happen in the best regulated families," said Walker, with vulgar, good-humored obtuseness that filled Corey with indignation. Nothing, perhaps, removed his matter-of-fact nature further from the commonplace than a certain generosity of instinct, which I should not be ready to say was always infallible.
That evening it was Miss Dewey's turn to wait for speech with Lapham after the others were gone. He opened his door at her knock, and stood looking at her with a worried air. "Well, what do you want, Zerrilla?" he asked, with a sort of rough kindness.
"I want to know what I'm going to do about Hen. He's back again; and he and mother have made it up, and they both got to drinking last night after I went home, and carried on so that the neighbors came in."
Lapham passed his hand over his red and heated face. "I don't know what I'm going to do. You're twice the trouble that my own family is, now. But I know what I'd do, mighty quick, if it wasn't for you, Zerrilla," he went on relentingly. "I'd shut your mother up somewheres, and if I could get that fellow off for a three years' voyage----"
"I declare," said Miss Dewey, beginning to whimper, "it seems as if he came back just so often to spite me. He's never gone more than a year at the furthest, and you can't make it out habitual drunkenness, either, when it's just sprees. I'm at my wit's end."
"Oh, well, you mustn't cry around here," said Lapham soothingly.
"I know it," said Miss Dewey. "If I could get rid of Hen, I could manage well enough with mother. Mr. Wemmel would marry me if I could get the divorce. He's said so over and over again."
"I don't know as I like that very well," said Lapham, frowning. "I don't know as I want you should get married in any hurry again. I don't know as I like your going with anybody else just yet."
"Oh, you needn't be afraid but what it'll be all right. It'll be the best thing all round, if I can marry him."
"Well!" said Lapham impatiently; "I can't think about it now. I suppose they've cleaned everything out again?"
"Yes, they have," said Zerrilla; "there isn't a cent left."
"You're a pretty expensive lot," said Lapham. "Well, here!" He took out his pocket-book and gave her a note. "I'll be round to-night and see what can be done."
He shut himself into his room again, and Zerrilla dried her tears, put the note into her bosom, and went her way.
Lapham kept the porter nearly an hour later. It was then six o'clock, the hour at which the Laphams usually had tea; but all custom had been broken up with him during the past months, and he did not go home now. He determined, perhaps in the extremity in which a man finds relief in combating one care with another, to keep his promise to Miss Dewey, and at the moment when he might otherwise have been sitting down at his own table he was climbing the stairs to her lodging in the old-fashioned dwelling which had been portioned off into flats. It was in a region of depots, and of the cheap hotels, and "ladies' and gents'" dining-rooms, and restaurants with bars, which abound near depots; and Lapham followed to Miss Dewey s door a waiter from one of these, who bore on a salver before him a supper covered with a napkin. Zerrilla had admitted them, and at her greeting a young fellow in the shabby shore-suit of a sailor, buttoning imperfectly over the nautical blue flannel of his shirt, got up from where he had been sitting, on one side of the stove, and stood infirmly on his feet, in token of receiving the visitor. The woman who sat on the other side did not rise, but began a shrill, defiant apology.
"Well, I don't suppose but what you'll think we're livin' on the fat o' the land, right straight along, all the while. But it's just like this. When that child came in from her work, she didn't seem to have the spirit to go to cookin' anything, and I had such a bad night last night I was feelin' all broke up, and s'd I, what's the use, anyway? By the time the butcher's heaved in a lot o' bone, and made you pay for the suet he cuts away, it comes to the same thing, and why not git it from the rest'rant first off, and save the cost o' your fire? s'd I."
"What have you got there under your apron? A bottle?" demanded Lapham, who stood with his hat on and his hands in his pockets, indifferent alike to the ineffective reception of the sailor and the chair Zerrilla had set him.
"Well, yes, it's a bottle," said the woman, with an assumption of virtuous frankness. "It's whisky; I got to have something to rub my rheumatism with."
"Humph!" grumbled Lapham. "You've been rubbing his rheumatism too, I see."
He twisted his head in the direction of the sailor, now softly and rhythmically waving to and fro on his feet.
"He hain't had a drop to-day in this house!" cried the woman.
"What are you doing around here?" said Lapham, turning fiercely upon him. "You've got no business ashore. Where's your ship? Do you think I'm going to let you come here and eat your wife out of house and home, and then give money to keep the concern going?"
"Just the very words I said when he first showed his face here, yist'day. Didn't I, Z'rilla?" said the woman, eagerly joining in the rebuke of her late boon companion. "You got no business here, Hen, s'd I. You can't come here to live on me and Z'rilla, s'd I. You want to go back to your ship, s'd I. That's what I said."
The sailor mumbled, with a smile of tipsy amiability for Lapham, something about the crew being discharged.
"Yes," the woman broke in, "that's always the way with these coasters. Why don't you go off on some them long v'y'ges? s'd I. It's pretty hard when Mr. Wemmel stands ready to marry Z'rilla and provide a comfortable home for us both--I hain't got a great many years more to live, and I should like to get some satisfaction out of 'em, and not be beholden and dependent all my days,--to have Hen, here, blockin' the way. I tell him there'd be more money for him in the end; but he can't seem to make up his mind to it."
"Well, now, look here," said Lapham. "I don't care anything about all that. It's your own business, and I'm not going to meddle with it. But it's my business who lives off me; and so I tell you all three, I'm willing to take care of Zerrilla, and I'm willing to take care of her mother----"
"I guess if it hadn't been for that child's father," the mother interpolated, "you wouldn't been here to tell the tale, Colonel Lapham."
"I know all about that," said Lapham. "But I'll tell you what, Mr. Dewey, I'm not going to support you."
"I don't see what Hen's done," said the old woman impartially.
"He hasn't done anything, and I'm going to stop it. He's got to get a ship, and he's got to get out of this. And Zerrilla needn't come back to work till he does. I'm done with you all."
"Well, I vow," said the mother, "if I ever heard anything like it! Didn't that child's father lay down his life for you? Hain't you said it yourself a hundred times? And don't she work for her money, and slave for it mornin', noon, and night? You talk as if we was beholden to you for the very bread in our mouths. I guess if it hadn't been for Jim, you wouldn't been here crowin' over us."
"You mind what I say. I mean business this time," said Lapham, turning to the door.
The woman rose and followed him, with her bottle in her hand. "Say, Colonel! what should you advise Z'rilla to do about Mr. Wemmel? I tell her there ain't any use goin' to the trouble to git a divorce without she's sure about him. Don't you think we'd ought to git him to sign a paper, or something, that he'll marry her if she gits it? I don't like to have things going at loose ends the way they are. It ain't sense. It ain't right."
Lapham made no answer to the mother anxious for her child's future, and concerned for the moral questions involved. He went out and down the stairs, and on the pavement at the lower door he almost struck against Rogers, who had a bag in his hand, and seemed to be hurrying towards one of the depots. He halted a little, as if to speak to Lapham; but Lapham turned his back abruptly upon him, and took the other direction.
The days were going by in a monotony of adversity to him, from which he could no longer escape, even at home. He attempted once or twice to talk of his troubles to his wife, but she repulsed him sharply; she seemed to despise and hate him; but he set himself doggedly to make a confession to her, and he stopped her one night, as she came into the room where he sat--hastily upon some errand that was to take her directly away again.
"Persis, there's something I've got to tell you."
She stood still, as if fixed against her will, to listen.
"I guess you know something about it already, and I guess it set you against me."
"Oh, I guess not, Colonel Lapham. You go your way, and I go mine. That's all."
She waited for him to speak, listening with a cold, hard smile on her face.
"I don't say it to make favor with you, because I don't want you to spare me, and I don't ask you; but I got into it through Milton K. Rogers."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Lapham contemptuously.
"I always felt the way I said about it--that it wa'n't any better than gambling, and I say so now. It's like betting on the turn of a card; and I give you my word of honor, Persis, that I never was in it at all till that scoundrel began to load me up with those wild-cat securities of his. Then it seemed to me as if I ought to try to do something to get somewhere even. I know it's no excuse; but watching the market to see what the infernal things were worth from day to day, and seeing it go up, and seeing it go down, was too much for me; and, to make a long story short, I began to buy and sell on a margin--just what I told you I never would do. I seemed to make something--I did make something; and I'd have stopped, I do believe, if I could have reached the figure I'd set in my own mind to start with; but I couldn't fetch it. I began to lose, and then I began to throw good money after bad, just as I always did with everything that Rogers ever came within a mile of. Well, what's the use? I lost the money that would have carried me out of this, and I shouldn't have had to shut down the Works, or sell the house, or----"
Lapham stopped. His wife, who at first had listened with mystification, and then dawning incredulity, changing into a look of relief that was almost triumph, lapsed again into severity. "Silas Lapham, if you was to die the next minute, is this what you started to tell me?"
"Why, of course it is. What did you suppose I started to tell you?"
"And--look me in the eyes!--you haven't got anything else on your mind now?"
"No! There's trouble enough, the Lord knows; but there's nothing else to tell you. I suppose Pen gave you a hint about it. I dropped something to her. I've been feeling bad about it, Persis, a good while, but I hain't had the heart to speak of it. I can't expect you to say you like it. I've been a fool, I'll allow, and I've been something worse, if you choose to say so; but that's all. I haven't hurt anybody but myself--and you and the children."
Mrs. Lapham rose and said, with her face from him, as she turned towards the door, "It's all right, Silas. I shan't ever bring it up against you."
She fled out of the room, but all that evening she was very sweet with him, and seemed to wish in all tacit ways to atone for her past unkindness.
She made him talk of his business, and he told her of Corey's offer, and what he had done about it. She did not seem to care for his part in it, however; at which Lapham was silently disappointed a little, for he would have liked her to praise him.
"He did it on account of Pen!"
"Well, he didn't insist upon it, anyway," said Lapham, who must have obscurely expected that Corey would recognize his own magnanimity by repeating his offer. If the doubt that follows a self-devoted action--the question whether it was not after all a needless folly--is mixed, as it was in Lapham's case, with the vague belief that we might have done ourselves a good turn without great risk of hurting any one else by being a little less unselfish, it becomes a regret that is hard to bear. Since Corey spoke to him, some things had happened that gave Lapham hope again.
"I'm going to tell her about it," said his wife, and she showed herself impatient to make up for the time she had lost. "Why didn't you tell me before, Silas?"
"I didn't know we were on speaking terms before," said Lapham sadly.
"Yes, that's true," she admitted, with a conscious flush. "I hope he won't think Pen's known about it all this while."