The Rise of Silas Laphamby William Dean Howells
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First published in book form in 1885, William Dean Howells's timeless epic of a self-made man, The Rise of Silas Lapham was the first important novel to center on the American businessman-and the first to treat its theme with a realism that was to foreshadow the work of modern writers.
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The Rise of Silas Lapham has been a steady seller since its publication in book form in 1885, perhaps the only survivor, except for A Hazard of New Fortunes, of the many-volumed fiction of the writer once known as the dean of American letters. Howells’s gift as a storyteller continues to make this novel a page-turner, and his ability to delineate character to make him a kind of John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of his younger friend Henry James, whose early work he had promoted and whose genius he generously declared to be far superior to his own. Ohio-born Howells was closer to the American soil than the New York– and Newport- bred James, and his characters were simpler and more directly motivated. Even when he moved to Boston and then New York, Howells’s eyes tended to look westward, while those of his more sophisticated and cosmopolitan colleague were directed toward Europe.
Perhaps to the readers of the eighteen eighties, the primary interest in Silas Lapham lay in the interplay of the two plots: the struggle of the newly rich, quinquagenarian metal paint producer, Lapham, to resist the tempting offer of a wicked associate to save his tottering empire, and the equally violent struggle of his younger daughter, Penelope, to maintain her imagined duty to turn down the man she loves—and who loves her—because her sister is also infatuated with him. But we pretty well know from the start that Lapham—a loving and faithful husband and father, a Civil War hero and a decent if somewhat pompously conceited businessman—is going to play straight, even if the standard postwar robber baron would not have, and the details of the villain’s plot fill the only dull spot in the book. And as for Penelope’s problem, it wouldn’t exist for a young woman today, nor does it indeed seem to for any of the more sensible characters in the novel itself. She has had nothing to do with her sister’s attraction to Tom Corey, nor was he himself even aware of it. What solace would it be for the sister to have three persons miserable instead of one? And this very question is asked over and over in the text. The reader’s reaction today is apt to be one of impatience.
The particular interest of the novel for us lies in Howells’s dramatization of the process of amalgamation between the old and the new rich. This dominated the American social scene in the eighteen seventies and eighties, when the rising tide of railroad, oil, and steel millionaires threatened to overwhelm the Boston enclaves of Cabots and Lowells and their New York counterparts of Livingstons and Van Rensselaers. Howells had seen the initial conflict between the two and knew that it could only end in merger, for the common denominator of money was too great to keep them long apart. He also saw that it was a fine subject for the novel of manners, and indeed it has played a predominate role in that genre right up to the day of John P. Marquand and John O’Hara.
Howells chose Boston of the Grant era as the site of his version of the struggle, and he reduced to a minimum the differences between the two sides. Silas Lapham is not a crook, as many of those who resisted the rise of the robber barons liked to allege; he has been, despite the one rough but legitimate ousting of an undesirable partner, scrupulously honest in his business practices, nor do the Coreys, whose ancestors have been painted by Copley, claim otherwise. Lapham and his wife are simple, decent folk, plain as old shoes, and although he is rather pompously conceited and a bit in awe of the bluer blood of the Coreys, neither he nor his spouse would dream of seeking a marital alliance with the latter if Tom, handsome, good-hearted, democratic and in love with their daughter, were not a son-in-law any parent would covet. Mrs. Lapham, indeed, and both her daughters are quite content with their unadorned social position; it is only the attraction of Irene and Penelope to Tom that brings them into contact with the Coreys, and it is he who has invaded the Laphams’ territory by coming to work for their father. The opposition to the match—and it is never very fierce—comes entirely from the Coreys, and in particular from Mrs. Corey and her daughters.
Howells, of course, here puts his finger on the real resister to the social aspirant, i.e., the established society matron. Women, right up to our own times, have been able to wrest very little power from men; society is one of the rare fields in which they had triumphed and held their sway. Look at a social resort like Newport, where the mansions, the dress, the entertainments were solely in the hands of dominating women whose husbands notoriously hid away in Wall Street and only visited them on such weekends as absolutely required their presence. Small wonder that these wives were called “dowagers.” Were such hard-earned positions as theirs to be lightly shared with Jenny-come-latelies? Hardly. One can see in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country how the newcomer could be met with a hate that was almost vitriolic, and this opposition became shriller as conformity in dress and deportment began to steal over the American scene, making it more and more difficult to discern the outward difference between a climber and a tree dweller. But the loss of the appearance heralded the loss of the battle.
Howells sees the ultimate amalgamation as already hovering. Mrs. Corey’s opposition to the Laphams is only halfhearted, not because she doesn’t care—she does, and fervently—but because she knows that her son is going to marry the girl he wants and that she cares too much for him to refuse civility to his wife. She is seen as clinging to her own world in the hope that it will at least last her lifetime and rather listlessly accepting the new. She has called on Mrs. Lapham; she has even asked her to dinner—what more can even her cynical husband expect of her?
In the end it is clear that Mrs. Corey is concerned only with the cultural difference between her family and the Laphams; their wealth is a matter of indifference to her, even though her own is much diminished from what it was. The loss by the Laphams of their fortune does not make Tom’s marriage to their daughter better or worse. “We never cared for the money,” Mrs. Corey tells her husband, and he replies: “No; and now we can’t seem to care for the loss of it. That would be still worse. Either horn of the dilemma gores us” (338).
What they really can’t stand in the new rich is their lack of taste. Bromfield Corey, visualizing his son’s marriage reception in the Laphams’ house, before the Laphams’ art masterpiece—a sentimental statue group showing Lincoln emancipating the slaves—exclaims in horror: “But that drawing room . . . really I don’t see how Tom stands that. Anna, a terrible thought occurs to me! Fancy Tom being married in front of that group, with a floral horseshoe in tuberoses coming down on either side of it” (341).
Nor do they ever quite get over this attitude. Howells predicts that, for all their good efforts, the Coreys will never wholly succeed in taking Penelope to their bosom. Indeed, he seems more pessimistic than the reader about this, for Penelope is shown as culturally far superior to her family. But it is certain, he tells us in the end of his tale, “that our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities. The price that we pay for civilization is the fine yet impassable differentiation of these. Perhaps we pay too much; but it will not be possible to persuade those who have the difference in their favor that this is so” (353–54).
Bromfield Corey acts as a kind of cynical chorus to the drama of the Laphams and Coreys. He is the perfect Boston aristocrat: a gifted amateur painter who has been too indolent to develop what might have been a real talent; widely traveled, indeed having once contemplated an expatriate life in Rome; cultivated to his fingertips; totally indifferent to the praise or abuse of his acquaintances; amused; realistic but not inspired by the passing scene; content to lead a life of comfortable leisure and make no mark in the world, yet of a gentle, kind and tolerant disposition. Howells’s portrait of him is one of mild contempt, though he gives him all his best lines. It is Bromfield whose evaluation of every character and situation in the novel is closest to the author’s.
Bromfield sees no reason for his son to seek gainful employment or to wish to live otherwise than with and on his parents, but he is perfectly reasonable about Tom’s wish to be independent and to work in Lapham’s paint business. He merely observes: “Ah, we shall never have a real aristocracy while this plebeian reluctance to live upon a parent or a wife continues the animating spirit of our youth. It strikes at the root of the whole feudal system. I really think you owe me an apology, Tom. I supposed you wished to marry the girl’s money, and here you are basely seeking to go into business with her father” (63).
It is interesting to trace in the American novel of manners the different defenses of the ever-retreating old guard before the ineluctable advance of their richer opponents. In Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, which preceded Silas Lapham by a dozen years, the new rich are still regarded as crooks, which affords reason enough to resist them. This attitude pervades the contemporary novels on the subject produced in England and France, viz., Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and much of Zola. But in Europe there existed an aristocracy whose wealth had not been dishonestly gained, or if so, so far back in history as to be irrelevant, whereas in the United States both old and new money often had a tainted source that could operate as a boomerang if used offensively. A safer defense was simply that the new rich were uncouth, as seen in Silas Lapham and in Henry James’s The Reverberator, where the hero’s father, an elegant expatriate living in France, who might be a double for Bromfield Corey, can see no virtue in his son’s newly rich fiancée because she pronounces Paris “Parus.” But as education spread and the newspapers increased conformity among the classes by making well-known how society dressed, talked and played, it was not a difficult matter for the people of new fortune to emulate their betters, and we find Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth rather bitterly conceding that the gates of society are now wide-open. In that novel, Carrie Fisher, who makes a living by preparing rich climbers for the assault on the citadel, is exasperated when confronted with the rare client who can’t make the grade. She complains: “It’s all very well to say that everybody with money can get into society, but it would be truer to say that nearly everybody can.”
As we approach our own times, we find the two novelists primarily concerned with the subject, Marquand and O’Hara, making finer and finer distinctions between the possessors of old and new money, perhaps in an unconscious effort to preserve this once rich but withering field for their art. Marquand is the master of the theme, but the difference between The Late George Apley and H. M. Pulham Esquire is significant. The Apleys in nineteen hundred are still by their customs and manners and strongly held traditions recognizably different from those who seek to join their clubs and marry their offspring. But a generation later Marvin Miles, the New York advertising girl whom Pulham wants to marry, finds him too stuffy and his family only curious relics, and she wisely chooses to go her own way. In O’Hara’s fiction, we find him groping almost feverishly for remaining tokens of class differences, and he is reduced to the trivia of clothes and accents. Indeed, some of his old guard have no identifying characteristics other than their arrogance.
The final elimination of the social climber as a staple of fiction came with Nancy Mitford’s celebrated use of “U” and “Non-U” (upper and non-upper) words, phrases and pronunciations to mark the borderlines between the classes. To say “drapes” instead of “curtains” or “wealthy” instead of “filthy rich,” to refer to a person’s “lovely home” instead of his house, or to pronounce tomato like potato was to place oneself beyond the pale. But when the game is reduced to such nonsense, it ceases to be played.
WHEN Bartley Hubbard went to interview Silas Lapham for the “Solid Men of Boston” series, which he undertook to finish up in The Events, after he replaced their original projector on that newspaper, Lapham received him in his private office by previous appointment.
“Walk right in!” he called out to the journalist, whom he caught sight of through the door of the counting room.
He did not rise from the desk at which he was writing, but he gave Bartley his left hand for welcome, and he rolled his large head in the direction of a vacant chair. “Sit down! I’ll be with you in just half a minute.”
“Take your time,” said Bartley, with the ease he instantly felt. “I’m in no hurry.” He took a notebook from his pocket, laid it on his knee, and began to sharpen a pencil.
“There!” Lapham pounded with his great hairy fist on the envelope he had been addressing. “William!” he called out, and he handed the letter to a boy who came to get it. “I want that to go right away. Well, sir,” he continued, wheeling ’round in his leather-cushioned swivel chair, and facing Bartley, seated so near that their knees almost touched, “so you want my life, death, and Christian sufferings, do you, young man?”
“That’s what I’m after,” said Bartley. “Your money or your life.”
“I guess you wouldn’t want my life without the money,” said Lapham, as if he were willing to prolong these moments of preparation.
“Take ’em both,” Bartley suggested. “Don’t want your money without your life, if you come to that. But you’re just one million times more interesting to the public than if you hadn’t a dollar; and you know that as well as I do, Mr. Lapham. There’s no use beating about the bush.”
“No,” said Lapham, somewhat absently. He put out his huge foot and pushed the ground-glass door shut between his little den and the bookkeepers, in their larger den outside.
“In personal appearance,” wrote Bartley in the sketch for which he now studied his subject, while he waited patiently for him to continue, “Silas Lapham is a fine type of the successful American. He has a square, bold chin, only partially concealed by the short reddish-gray beard, growing to the edges of his firmly closing lips. His nose is short and straight; his forehead good, but broad rather than high; his eyes blue, and with a light in them that is kindly or sharp according to his mood. He is of medium height, and fills an average armchair with a solid bulk, which on the day of our interview was unpretentiously clad in a business suit of blue serge. His head droops somewhat from a short neck, which does not trouble itself to rise far from a pair of massive shoulders.”
“I don’t know as I know just where you want me to begin,” said Lapham.
“Might begin with your birth; that’s where most of us begin,” replied Bartley.
A gleam of humorous appreciation shot into Lapham’s blue eyes.
“I didn’t know whether you wanted me to go quite so far back as that,” he said. “But there’s no disgrace in having been born, and I was born in the state of Vermont, pretty well up under the Canada line—so well up, in fact, that I came very near being an adoptive citizen; for I was bound to be an American of some sort, from the word Go! That was about—well, let me see!—pretty near sixty years ago: this is ’75, and that was ’20. Well, say I’m fifty-five years old; and I’ve lived ’em, too; not an hour of waste time about me, anywheres! I was born on a farm, and—”
“Worked in the fields summers and went to school winters: regulation thing?” Bartley cut in.
“Regulation thing,” said Lapham, accepting this irreverent version of his history somewhat dryly.
“Parents poor, of course,” suggested the journalist. “Any barefoot business? Early deprivations of any kind, that would encourage the youthful reader to go and do likewise? Orphan myself, you know,” said Bartley, with a smile of cynical good comradery.
Lapham looked at him silently, and then said with quiet self-respect, “I guess if you see these things as a joke, my life won’t interest you.”
“Oh yes, it will,” returned Bartley, unabashed. “You’ll see; it’ll come out all right.” And in fact it did so, in the interview which Bartley printed.
“Mr. Lapham,” he wrote, “passed rapidly over the story of his early life, its poverty and its hardships, sweetened, however, by the recollections of a devoted mother, and a father who, if somewhat her inferior in education, was no less ambitious for the advancement of his children. They were quiet, unpretentious people, religious, after the fashion of that time, and of sterling morality, and they taught their children the simple virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
Bartley could not deny himself this gibe; but he trusted to Lapham’s unliterary habit of mind for his security in making it, and most other people would consider it sincere reporter’s rhetoric.
“You know,” he explained to Lapham, “that we have to look at all these facts as material, and we get the habit of classifying them. Sometimes a leading question will draw out a whole line of facts that a man himself would never think of.” He went on to put several queries, and it was from Lapham’s answers that he generalized the history of his childhood. “Mr. Lapham, although he did not dwell on his boyish trials and struggles, spoke of them with deep feeling and an abiding sense of their reality.” This was what he added in the interview, and by the time he had got Lapham past the period where risen Americans are all pathetically alike in their narrow circumstances, their sufferings, and their aspirations, he had beguiled him into forgetfulness of the check he had received, and had him talking again in perfect enjoyment of his autobiography.
“Yes, sir,” said Lapham, in a strain which Bartley was careful not to interrupt again, “a man never sees all that his mother has been to him till it’s too late to let her know that he sees it. Why, my mother—” He stopped. “It gives me a lump in the throat,” he said apologetically, with an attempt at a laugh. Then he went on: “She was a little, frail thing, not bigger than a good-sized intermediate schoolgirl; but she did the whole work of a family of boys, and boarded the hired men besides. She cooked, swept, washed, ironed, made and mended from daylight till dark—and from dark till daylight, I was going to say; for I don’t know how she got any time for sleep. But I suppose she did. She got time to go to church, and to teach us to read the Bible, and to misunderstand it in the old way. She was good. But it ain’t her on her knees in church that comes back to me so much like the sight of an angel as her on her knees before me at night, washing my poor, dirty little feet, that I’d run bare in all day, and making me decent for bed. There were six of us boys; it seems to me we were all of a size; and she was just so careful with all of us. I can feel her hands on my feet yet!” Bartley looked at Lapham’s No. 10 boots, and softly whistled through his teeth. “We were patched all over; but we wan’t ragged. I don’t know how she got through it. She didn’t seem to think it was anything; and I guess it was no more than my father expected of her. He worked like a horse indoors and out—up at daylight, feeding the stock, and groaning ’round all day with his rheumatism, but not stopping.”
Bartley hid a yawn over his notebook, and probably, if he could have spoken his mind, he would have suggested to Lapham that he was not there for the purpose of interviewing his ancestry. But Bartley had learned to practice a patience with his victims which he did not always feel, and to feign an interest in their digressions till he could bring them up with a round turn.
“I tell you,” said Lapham, jabbing the point of his penknife into the writing pad on the desk before him, “when I hear women complaining nowadays that their lives are stunted and empty, I want to tell ’em about my mother’s life. I could paint it out for ’em.”
Bartley saw his opportunity at the word paint, and cut in. “And you say, Mr. Lapham, that you discovered this mineral paint on the old farm yourself?”
Lapham acquiesced in the return to business. “I didn’t discover it,” he said scrupulously. “My father found it one day, in a hole made by a tree blowing down. There it was, lying loose in the pit, and sticking to the roots that had pulled up a big cake of dirt with ’em. I don’t know what gave him the idea that there was money in it, but he did think so from the start. I guess, if they’d had the word in those days, they’d considered him pretty much of a crank about it. He was trying as long as he lived to get that paint introduced; but he couldn’t make it go. The country was so poor they couldn’t paint their houses with anything; and Father hadn’t any facilities. It got to be a kind of joke with us; and I guess that paint mine did as much as any one thing to make us boys clear out as soon as we got old enough. All my brothers went west, and took up land; but I hung on to New England, and I hung on to the old farm, not because the paint mine was on it, but because the old house was—and the graves. Well,” said Lapham, as if unwilling to give himself too much credit, “there wouldn’t been any market for it, anyway. You can go through that part of the state and buy more farms than you can shake a stick at for less money than it cost to build the barns on ’em. Of course, it’s turned out a good thing. I keep the old house up in good shape, and we spend a month or so there every summer. M’wife kind of likes it, and the girls. Pretty place; sightly all ’round it. I’ve got a force of men at work there the whole time, and I’ve got a man and his wife in the house. Had a family meeting there last year; the whole connection from out West. There!” Lapham rose from his seat and took down a large warped, unframed photograph from the top of his desk, passing his hand over it, and then blowing vigorously upon it, to clear it of the dust. “There we are, all of us.”
“I don’t need to look twice at you,” said Bartley, putting his finger on one of the heads.
“Well, that’s Bill,” said Lapham, with a gratified laugh. “He’s about as brainy as any of us, I guess. He’s one of their leading lawyers, out Dubuque way; been judge of the Common Pleas once or twice. That’s his son—just graduated at Yale—alongside of my youngest girl. Good-looking chap, ain’t he?”
“She’s a good-looking chap,” said Bartley, with prompt irreverence. He hastened to add, at the frown which gathered between Lapham’s eyes, “What a beautiful creature she is! What a lovely, refined, sensitive face! And she looks good, too.”
“She is good,” said the father, relenting.
“And, after all, that’s about the best thing in a woman,” said the potential reprobate. “If my wife wasn’t good enough to keep both of us straight, I don’t know what would become of me.”
“My other daughter,” said Lapham, indicating a girl with eyes that showed large, and a face of singular gravity. “Mis’ Lapham,” he continued, touching his wife’s effigy with his little finger. “My brother Willard and his family—farm at Kankakee. Hazard Lapham and his wife—Baptist preacher in Kansas. Jim and his three girls—milling business at Minneapolis. Ben and his family—practicing medicine in Fort Wayne.”
The figures were clustered in an irregular group in front of an old farmhouse, whose original ugliness had been smartened up with a coat of Lapham’s own paint, and heightened with an incongruous piazza. The photographer had not been able to conceal the fact that they were all decent, honest-looking, sensible people, with a very fair share of beauty among the young girls; some of these were extremely pretty, in fact. He had put them into awkward and constrained attitudes, of course; and they all looked as if they had the instrument of torture which photographers call a headrest under their occiputs. Here and there an elderly lady’s face was a mere blur; and some of the younger children had twitched themselves into wavering shadows, and might have passed for spirit photographs of their own little ghosts. It was the standard family-group photograph, in which most Americans have figured at some time or other; and Lapham exhibited a just satisfaction in it. “I presume,” he mused aloud, as he put it back on top of his desk, “that we shan’t soon get together again, all of us.”
“And you say,” suggested Bartley, “that you stayed right along on the old place, when the rest cleared out west?”
“No-o-o-o,” said Lapham, with a long, loud drawl: “I cleared out west too, first off. Went to Texas; Texas was all the cry in those days. But I got enough of the Lone Star in about three months, and I come back with the idea that Vermont was good enough for me.”
“Fatted calf business?” queried Bartley, with his pencil poised above his notebook.
“I presume they were glad to see me,” said Lapham, with dignity. “Mother,” he added gently, “died that winter, and I stayed on with Father. I buried him in the spring; and then I came down to a little place called Lumberville, and picked up what jobs I could get. I worked ’round at the sawmills, and I was ostler awhile at the hotel—I always did like a good horse. Well, I wan’t exactly a college graduate, and I went to school odd times. I got to driving the stage after a while, and by and by I bought the stage and run the business myself. Then I hired the tavern stand, and—well, to make a long story short—then I got married. Yes,” said Lapham, with pride, “I married the schoolteacher. We did pretty well with the hotel, and my wife, she was always at me to paint up. Well, I put it off and put it off, as a man will, till one day I give in, and says I, ‘Well, let’s paint up. Why, Pert’—m’wife’s name’s Persis—‘I’ve got a whole paint mine out on the farm. Let’s go out and look at it.’ So we drove out. I’d let the place for seventy-five dollars a year to a shif’less kind of a Kanuck that had come down that way; and I’d hated to see the house with him in it; but we drove out one Saturday afternoon, and we brought back a bushel of the stuff in the buggy seat, and I tried it crude, and I tried it burnt; and I liked it. M’wife, she liked it too. There wan’t any painter by trade in the village, and I mixed it myself. Well, sir, that tavern’s got that coat of paint on it yet, and it hain’t ever had any other, and I don’t know’s it ever will. Well, you know, I felt as if it was a kind of harumscarum experiment, all the while; and I presume I shouldn’t have tried it, but I kind of liked to do it because Father’d always set so much store by his paint mine. And when I’d got the first coat on”—Lapham called it cut—“I presume I must have set as much as half an hour, looking at it and thinking how he would have enjoyed it. I’ve had my share of luck in this world, and I ain’t a-going to complain on my own account, but I’ve noticed that most things get along too late for most people. It made me feel bad, and it took all the pride out of my success with the paint, thinking of Father. Seemed to me I mighta taken more interest in it when he was by to see; but we’ve got to live and learn. Well, I called my wife out—I’d tried it on the back of the house, you know—and she left her dishes—I can remember she came out with her sleeves rolled up and set down alongside of me on the trestle—and says I, ‘What do you think, Persis?’ And says she, ‘Well, you hain’t got a paint mine, Silas Lapham; you’ve got a gold mine.’ She always was just so enthusiastic about things. Well, it was just after two or three boats had burned up out west, and a lot of lives lost, and there was a great cry about noninflammable paint, and I guess that was what was in her mind. ‘Well, I guess it ain’t any gold mine, Persis,’ says I; ‘but I guess it is a paint mine. I’m going to have it analyzed, and if it turns out what I think it is, I’m going to work it. And if Father hadn’t had such a long name, I shoulda called it the Nehemiah Lapham Mineral Paint. But, any rate, every barrel of it, and every keg, and every bottle, and every package, big or little, has got to have the initials and figures N. L. f. 1835, S. L. t. 1855, on it. Father found it in 1835, and I tried it in 1855.’”
“‘S. T.—1860—X.’ business,” said Bartley.
“Yes,” said Lapham, “but I hadn’t heard of Plantation Bitters then, and I hadn’t seen any of the fellow’s labels. I set to work and I got a man down from Boston; and I carried him out to the farm, and he analyzed it—made a regular job of it. Well, sir, we built a kiln, and we kept a lot of that paint ore red-hot for forty-eight hours; kept the Kanuck and his family up, firing. The presence of iron in the ore showed with the magnet from the start; and when he came to test it, he found out that it contained about seventy-five percent of the peroxide of iron.”
Lapham pronounced the scientific phrases with a sort of reverent satisfaction, as if awed through his pride by a little lingering uncertainty as to what peroxide was. He accented it as if it were purr- ox-eyed; and Bartley had to get him to spell it.
“Well, and what then?” he asked, when he had made a note of the percentage.
“What then?” echoed Lapham. “Well, then, the fellow set down and told me, ‘You’ve got a paint here,’ says he, ‘that’s going to drive every other mineral paint out of the market. Why,’ says he, ‘it’ll drive ’em right into the Back Bay!’ Of course, I didn’t know what the Back Bay was then; but I begun to open my eyes; thought I’d had ’em open before, but I guess I hadn’t. Says he, ‘That paint had got hydraulic cement in it, and it can stand fire and water and acids’; he named over a lot of things. Says he, ‘It’ll mix easily with linseed oil, whether you want to use it boiled or raw; and it ain’t a-going to crack nor fade any; and it ain’t a-going to scale. When you’ve got your arrangements for burning it properly, you’re going to have a paint that will stand like the everlasting hills, in every climate under the sun.’ Then he went into a lot of particulars, and I begun to think he was drawing a longbow, and meant to make his bill accordingly. So I kept pretty cool; but the fellow’s bill didn’t amount to anything hardly—said I might pay him after I got going; young chap, and pretty easy; but every word he said was gospel. Well, I ain’t a-going to brag up my paint; I don’t suppose you came here to hear me blow—”
“Oh yes, I did,” said Bartley. “That’s what I want. Tell all there is to tell, and I can boil it down afterward. A man can’t make a greater mistake with a reporter than to hold back anything out of modesty. It may be the very thing we want to know. What we want is the whole truth; and more; we’ve got so much modesty of our own that we can temper almost any statement.”
Lapham looked as if he did not quite like this tone, and he resumed a little more quietly. “Oh, there isn’t really very much more to say about the paint itself. But you can use it for almost anything where a paint is wanted, inside or out. It’ll prevent decay, and it’ll stop it, after it’s begun, in tin or iron. You can paint the inside of a cistern or a bathtub with it, and water won’t hurt it; and you can paint a steam boiler with it, and heat won’t. You can cover a brick wall with it, or a railroad car, or the deck of a steamboat, and you can’t do a better thing for either.”
“Never tried it on the human conscience, I suppose,” suggested Bartley.
“No, sir,” replied Lapham gravely. “I guess you want to keep that as free from paint as you can, if you want much use of it. I never cared to try any of it on mine.” Lapham suddenly lifted his bulk up out of his swivel chair, and led the way out into the wareroom beyond the office partitions, where rows and ranks of casks, barrels, and kegs stretched dimly back to the rear of the building, and diffused an honest, clean, wholesome smell of oil and paint. They were labeled and branded as containing each so many pounds of Lapham’s Mineral Paint, and each bore the mystic devices N. L. f. 1835—S. L. t. 1855. “There!” said Lapham, kicking one of the largest casks with the toe of his boot, “that’s about our biggest package; and here,” he added, laying his hand affectionately on the head of a very small keg, as if it were the head of a child, which it resembled in size, “this is the smallest. We used to put the paint on the market dry, but now we grind every ounce of it in oil—very best quality of linseed oil—and warrant it. We find it gives more satisfaction. Now, come back to the office, and I’ll show you our fancy brands.”
It was very cool and pleasant in that dim wareroom, with the rafters showing overhead in a cloudy perspective, and darkening away into the perpetual twilight at the rear of the building; and Bartley had found an agreeable seat on the head of a half barrel of the paint, which he was reluctant to leave. But he rose and followed the vigorous lead of Lapham back to the office, where the sun of a long summer afternoon was just beginning to glare in at the window. On shelves opposite Lapham’s desk were tin cans of various sizes, arranged in tapering cylinders, and showing, in a pattern diminishing toward the top, the same label borne by the casks and barrels in the wareroom. Lapham merely waved his hand toward these; but when Bartley, after a comprehensive glance at them, gave his whole attention to a row of clean, smooth jars, where different tints of the paint showed through flawless glass, Lapham smiled, and waited in pleased expectation.
“Hello!” said Bartley. “That’s pretty!”
“Yes,” assented Lapham, “it is rather nice. It’s our latest thing, and we find it takes with customers first rate. Look here!” he said, taking down one of the jars and pointing to the first line of the label.
Bartley read, “THE PERSIS BRAND,” and then he looked at Lapham and smiled.
“After her, of course,” said Lapham. “Got it up and put the first of it on the market her last birthday. She was pleased.”
“I should think she might have been,” said Bartley, while he made a note of the appearance of the jars.
“I don’t know about your mentioning it in your interview,” said Lapham dubiously.
“That’s going into the interview, Mr. Lapham, if nothing else does. Got a wife myself, and I know just how you feel.” It was in the dawn of Bartley’s prosperity on The Boston Events, before his troubles with Marcia had seriously begun.
“Is that so?” said Lapham, recognizing with a smile another of the vast majority of married Americans; a few underrate their wives, but the rest think them supernal in intelligence and capability. “Well,” he added, “we must see about that. Where’d you say you lived?”
“We don’t live; we board. Mrs. Nash, 13 Canary Place.”
“Well, we’ve all got to commence that way,” suggested Lapham consolingly.
“Yes; but we’ve about got to the end of our string. I expect to be under a roof of my own on Clover Street before long. I suppose,” said Bartley, returning to business, “that you didn’t let the grass grow under your feet much after you found out what was in your paint mine?”
“No, sir,” answered Lapham, withdrawing his eyes from a long stare at Bartley, in which he had been seeing himself a young man again, in the first days of his married life. “I went right back to Lumberville and sold out everything, and put all I could rake and scrape together into paint. And Mis’ Lapham was with me every time. No hang back about her. I tell you she was a woman!”
Bartley laughed. “That’s the sort most of us marry.”
“No, we don’t,” said Lapham. “Most of us marry silly little girls grown up to look like women.”
“Well, I guess that’s about so,” assented Bartley, as if upon second thought.
“If it hadn’t been for her,” resumed Lapham, “the paint wouldn’t have come to anything. I used to tell her it wan’t the seventy-five percent of purr-ox-eyed of iron in the ore that made that paint go; it was the seventy-five percent of purr-ox-eyed of iron in her.”
“Good!” cried Bartley. “I’ll tell Marcia that.”
“In less’n six months there wan’t a board fence, nor a bridge girder, nor a dead wall, nor a barn, nor a face of rock in that whole region that didn’t have ‘Lapham’s Mineral Paint—Specimen’ on it in the three colors we begun by making.” Bartley had taken his seat on the windowsill, and Lapham, standing before him, now put up his huge foot close to Bartley’s thigh; neither of them minded that.
“I’ve heard a good deal of talk about that S. T.—1860—X. man, and the stove-blacking man, and the kidney-cure man, because they advertised in that way; and I’ve read articles about it in the papers; but I don’t see where the joke comes in, exactly. So long as the people that own the barns and fences don’t object, I don’t see what the public has got to do with it. And I never saw anything so very sacred about a big rock, along a river or in a pasture, that it wouldn’t do to put mineral paint on it in three colors. I wish some of the people that talk about the landscape, and write about it, had to bu’st one of them rocks out of the landscape with powder, or dig a hole to bury it in, as we used to have to do up on the farm; I guess they’d sing a little different tune about the profanation of scenery. There ain’t any man enjoys a sightly bit of nature—a smooth piece of interval with half a dozen good-sized wineglass elms in it—more than I do. But I ain’t a-going to stand up for every big ugly rock I come across, as if we were all a set of dumn Druids. I say the landscape was made for man, and not man for the landscape.”
“Yes,” said Bartley carelessly; “it was made for the stove-polish man and the kidney-cure man.”
“It was made for any man that knows how to use it,” Lapham returned, insensible to Bartley’s irony. “Let ’em go and live with nature in the winter, up there along the Canada line, and I guess they’ll get enough of her for one while. Well—where was I?”
“Decorating the landscape,” said Bartley.
“Yes, sir; I started right there at Lumberville, and it give the place a start too. You won’t find it on the map now; and you won’t find it in the gazeteer. I give a pretty good lump of money to build a town hall, about five years back, and the first meeting they held in it they voted to change the name—Lumberville wan’t a name—and it’s Lapham now.”
“Isn’t it somewhere up in that region that they get the old Brandon red?” asked Bartley.
“We’re about ninety miles from Brandon. The Brandon’s a good paint,” said Lapham conscientiously. “Like to show you ’round up at our place some odd time, if you get off.”
“Thanks, I should like it first rate. Works there?”
“Yes; Works there. Well, sir, just about the time I got started, the war broke out; and it knocked my paint higher than a kite. The thing dropped perfectly dead. I presume that if I’d had any sort of influence, I might have got it into government hands, for gun carriages and army wagons, and maybe on board government vessels. But I hadn’t, and we had to face the music. I was about brokenhearted, but m’wife, she looked at it another way. ‘I guess it’s a providence,’ says she. ‘Silas, I guess you’ve got a country that’s worth fighting for. Any rate, you better go out and give it a chance.’ Well, sir, I went. I knew she meant business. It might kill her to have me go, but it would kill her sure if I stayed. She was one of that kind. I went. Her last words was, ‘I’ll look after the paint, Si.’ We hadn’t but just one little girl then—boy’d died—and Mis’ Lapham’s mother was livin’ with us; and I knew if times did anyways come up again, m’wife’d know just what to do. So I went. I got through; and you can call me Colonel, if you want to. Feel there!” Lapham took Bartley’s thumb and forefinger and put them on a bunch in his leg, just above the knee. “Anything hard?”
Lapham nodded. “Gettysburg. That’s my thermometer. If it wan’t for that, I shouldn’t know enough to come in when it rains.”
Bartley laughed at a joke which betrayed some evidences of wear. “And when you came back, you took hold of the paint and rushed it.”
“I took hold of the paint and rushed it—all I could,” said Lapham, with less satisfaction than he had hitherto shown in his autobiography. “But I found that I had got back to another world. The day of small things was past, and I don’t suppose it will ever come again in this country. My wife was at me all the time to take a partner—somebody with capital; but I couldn’t seem to bear the idea. That paint was like my own blood to me. To have anybody else concerned in it was like—well, I don’t know what. I saw it was the thing to do; but I tried to fight it off, and I tried to joke it off. I used to say, ‘Why didn’t you take a partner yourself, Persis, while I was away?’ And she’d say, ‘Well, if you hadn’t come back, I should, Si.’ Always did like a joke about as well as any woman I ever saw. Well, I had to come to it. I took a partner.” Lapham dropped the bold blue eyes with which he had been till now staring into Bartley’s face, and the reporter knew that here was a place for asterisks in his interview, if interviews were faithful. “He had money enough,” continued Lapham, with a suppressed sigh; “but he didn’t know anything about paint. We hung on together for a year or two. And then we quit.”
“And he had the experience,” suggested Bartley, with companionable ease.
“I had some of the experience too,” said Lapham, with a scowl; and Bartley divined, through the freemasonry of all who have sore places in their memories, that this was a point which he must not touch again.
“And since that, I suppose, you’ve played it alone.”
“I’ve played it alone.”
“You must ship some of this paint of yours to foreign countries, Colonel,” suggested Bartley, putting on a professional air.
“We ship it to all parts of the world. It goes to South America, lots of it. It goes to Australia, and it goes to India, and it goes to China, and it goes to the Cape of Good Hope. It’ll stand any climate. Of course, we don’t export these fancy brands much. They’re for home use. But we’re introducing them elsewhere. Here.” Lapham pulled open a drawer and showed Bartley a lot of labels in different languages—Spanish, French, German, and Italian. “We expect to do a good business in all those countries. We’ve got our agencies in Cadiz now, and in Paris, and in Hamburg, and in Leghorn. It’s a thing that’s bound to make its way. Yes, sir. Wherever a man has got a ship, or a bridge, or a dock, or a house, or a car, or a fence, or a pigpen anywhere in God’s universe to paint, that’s the paint for him, and he’s bound to find it out sooner or later. You pass a ton of that paint dry through a blast furnace and you’ll get a quarter of a ton of pig iron. I believe in my paint. I believe it’s a blessing to the world. When folks come in, and kind of smell ’round, and ask me what I mix it with, I always say, ‘Well, in the first place, I mix it with Faith, and after that I grind it up with the best quality of boiled linseed oil that money will buy.’”
Lapham took out his watch and looked at it, and Bartley perceived that his audience was drawing to a close. “’F you ever want to run down and take a look at our Works, pass you over the road”—he called it rud—“and it shan’t cost you a cent.”
“Well, maybe I shall, sometime,” said Bartley. “Good afternoon, Colonel.”
“Good afternoon. Or—hold on! My horse down there yet, William?” he called to the young man in the counting room who had taken his letter at the beginning of the interview. “Oh! All right!” he added, in response to something the young man said. “Can’t I set you down somewhere, Mr. Hubbard? I’ve got my horse at the door, and I can drop you on my way home. I’m going to take Mis’ Lapham to look at a house I’m driving piles for, down on the New Land.”
“Don’t care if I do,” said Bartley.
Lapham put on a straw hat, gathered up some papers lying on his desk, pulled down its rolling cover, turned the key in it, and gave the papers to an extremely handsome young woman at one of the desks in the outer office. She was stylishly dressed, as Bartley saw, and her smooth yellow hair was sculpturesquely waved over a low white forehead. “Here,” said Lapham, with the same prompt, gruff kindness that he had used in addressing the young man, “I want you should put these in shape, and give me a typewriter copy tomorrow.”
“What an uncommonly pretty girl!” said Bartley as they descended the rough stairway and found their way out to the street, past the dangling rope of a block and tackle wandering up into the cavernous darkness overhead.
“She does her work,” said Lapham shortly.
Bartley mounted to the left side of the open buggy standing at the curbstone, and Lapham, gathering up the hitching weight, slid it under the buggy seat and mounted beside him.
“No chance to speed a horse here, of course,” said Lapham, while the horse with a spirited gentleness picked her way, with a high, long action, over the pavement of the street. The streets were all narrow, and most of them crooked, in that quarter of the town; but at the end of one the spars of a vessel penciled themselves delicately against the cool blue of the afternoon sky. The air was full of a smell pleasantly compounded of oakum, of leather, and of oil. It was not the busy season, and they met only two or three trucks heavily straggling toward the wharf with their long string teams; but the cobblestones of the pavement were worn with the dint of ponderous wheels and discolored with iron rust from them; here and there, in wandering streaks over its surface, was the gray stain of the salt water with which the street had been sprinkled.
After an interval of some minutes, which both men spent in looking ’round the dashboard from opposite sides to watch the stride of the horse, Bartley said, with a light sigh, “I had a colt once down in Maine that stepped just like that mare.”
“Well!” said Lapham, sympathetically recognizing the bond that this fact created between them. “Well, now, I tell you what you do. You let me come for you ’most any afternoon now, and take you out over the Milldam, and speed this mare a little. I’d like to show you what this mare can do. Yes, I would.”
“All right,” answered Bartley; “I’ll let you know my first day off.”
“Good,” cried Lapham.
“Kentucky?” queried Bartley.
“No, sir. I don’t ride behind anything but Vermont; never did. Touch of Morgan, of course; but you can’t have much Morgan in a horse if you want speed. Hambletonian mostly. Where’d you say you wanted to get out?”
“I guess you may put me down at the Events office, just ’round the corner here. I’ve got to write up this interview while it’s fresh.”
“All right,” said Lapham, impersonally assenting to Bartley’s use of him as material.
He had not much to complain of in Bartley’s treatment, unless it was the strain of extravagant compliment which it involved. But the flattery was mainly for the paint, whose virtues Lapham did not believe could be overstated, and himself and his history had been treated with as much respect as Bartley was capable of showing anyone. He made a very picturesque thing of the discovery of the paint mine. “Deep in the heart of the virgin forests of Vermont, far up toward the line of the Canadian snows, on a desolate mountainside, where an autumnal storm had done its wild work, and the great trees, strewn hither and thither, bore witness to its violence, Nehemiah Lapham discovered, just forty years ago, the mineral which the alchemy of his son’s enterprise and energy has transmuted into solid ingots of the most precious of metals. The colossal fortune of Colonel Silas Lapham lay at the bottom of a hole which an uprooted tree had dug for him and which for many years remained a paint mine of no more appreciable value than a soap mine.”
Here Bartley had not been able to forgo another grin; but he compensated for it by the high reverence with which he spoke of Colonel Lapham’s record during the war of the rebellion, and of the motives which impelled him to turn aside from an enterprise in which his whole heart was engaged, and take part in the struggle. “The Colonel bears embedded in the muscle of his right leg a little memento of the period in the shape of a minié ball, which he jocularly referred to as his thermometer, and which relieves him from the necessity of reading ‘The Probabilities’ in his morning paper. This saves him just so much time; and for a man who, as he said, has not a moment of waste time on him anywhere, five minutes a day are something in the course of a year. Simple, clear, bold, and straightforward in mind and action, Colonel Silas Lapham, with a prompt comprehensiveness and a never-failing business sagacity, is, in the best sense of that much-abused term, one of nature’s noblemen, to the last inch of his five eleven and a half. His life affords an example of single-minded application and unwavering perseverance which our young businessmen would do well to emulate. There is nothing showy or meretricious about the man. He believes in mineral paint, and he puts his heart and soul into it. He makes it a religion, though we would not imply that it is his religion. Colonel Lapham is a regular attendant at the Rev. Dr. Langworthy’s church. He subscribes liberally to the Associated Charities, and no good object or worthy public enterprise fails to receive his support. He is not now actively in politics, and his paint is not partisan; but it is an open secret that he is, and always has been, a staunch Republican. Without violating the sanctities of private life, we cannot speak fully of various details which came out in the free and unembarrassed interview which Colonel Lapham accorded our representative. But we may say that the success of which he is justly proud he is also proud to attribute in great measure to the sympathy and energy of his wife—one of those women who, in whatever walk of life, seem born to honor the name of American Woman, and to redeem it from the national reproach of Daisy Millerism. Of Colonel Lapham’s family, we will simply add that it consists of two young lady daughters.
“The subject of this very inadequate sketch is building a house on the water side of Beacon Street, after designs by one of our leading architectural firms, which, when complete, will be one of the finest ornaments of that exclusive avenue. It will, we believe, be ready for the occupancy of the family sometime in the spring.”
When Bartley had finished his article, which he did with a good deal of inward derision, he went home to Marcia, still smiling over the thought of Lapham, whose burly simplicity had peculiarly amused him.
“He regularly turned himself inside out to me,” he said, as he sat describing his interview to Marcia.
“Then I know you could make something nice out of it,” said his wife; “and that will please Mr. Witherby.”
“Oh yes, I’ve done pretty well; but I couldn’t let myself loose on him the way I wanted to. Confound the limitations of decency, anyway! I should like to have told just what Colonel Lapham thought of landscape advertising in Colonel Lapham’s own words. I’ll tell you one thing, Marsh: he had a girl there at one of the desks that you wouldn’t let me have within gunshot of my office. Pretty? It ain’t any name for it!” Marcia’s eyes began to blaze, and Bartley broke out into a laugh, in which he arrested himself at the sight of a formidable parcel in the corner of the room.
“Hello! What’s that?”
“Why, I don’t know what it is,” replied Marcia tremulously. “A man brought it just before you came in, and I didn’t like to open it.”
“Think it was some kind of infernal machine?” asked Bartley, getting down on his knees to examine the package. “Mrs. B. Hubbard, heigh?” He cut the heavy hemp string with his penknife. “We must look into this thing. I should like to know who’s sending packages to Mrs. Hubbard in my absence.” He unfolded the wrappings of paper, growing softer and finer inward, and presently pulled out a handsome square glass jar, through which a crimson mass showed richly. “The Persis Brand!” he yelled. “I knew it!”
“Oh, what is it, Bartley?” quavered Marcia. Then, courageously drawing a little nearer: “Is it some kind of jam?” she implored.
“Jam? No!” roared Bartley. “It’s paint! It’s mineral paint—Lapham’s paint!”
“Paint?” echoed Marcia, as she stood over him while he stripped their wrappings from the jars, which showed the dark blue, dark green, light brown, dark brown, and black, with the dark crimson, forming the gamut of color of the Lapham paint. “Don’t tell me it’s paint that I can use, Bartley!”
“Well, I shouldn’t advise you to use much of it—all at once,” replied her husband. “But it’s paint that you can use in moderation.”
Marcia cast her arms ’round his neck and kissed him. “Oh, Bartley, I think I’m the happiest girl in the world! I was just wondering what I should do. There are places in that Clover Street house that need touching up so dreadfully. I shall be very careful. You needn’t be afraid I shall overdo. But, this just saves my life. Did you buy it, Bartley? You know we couldn’t afford it, and you oughtn’t to have done it! And what does the Persis Brand mean?”
“Buy it?” cried Bartley. “No! The old fool’s sent it to you as a present. You’d better wait for the facts before you pitch into me for extravagance, Marcia. Persis is the name of his wife; and he named it after her because it’s his finest brand. You’ll see it in my interview. Put it on the market her last birthday for a surprise to her.”
“What old fool?” faltered Marcia.
“Why, Lapham—the mineral-paint man.”
“Oh, what a good man!” sighed Marcia from the bottom of her soul. “Bartley! you won’t make fun of him as you do of some of those people? Will you?”
“Nothing that he’ll ever find out,” said Bartley, getting up and brushing off the carpet lint from his knees.
AFTER dropping Bartley Hubbard at the Events building, Lapham drove on down Washington Street to Nankeen Square at the South End, where he had lived ever since the mistaken movement of society in that direction ceased. He had not built, but had bought very cheap of a terrified gentleman of good extraction who discovered too late that the South End was not the thing, and who in the eagerness of his flight to the Back Bay threw in his carpets and shades for almost nothing. Mrs. Lapham was even better satisfied with their bargain than the Colonel himself, and they had lived in Nankeen Square for twelve years. They had seen the saplings planted in the pretty oval ’round which the houses were built flourish up into sturdy young trees, and their two little girls in the same period had grown into young ladies; the Colonel’s tough frame had expanded into the bulk which Bartley’s interview indicated; and Mrs. Lapham, while keeping a more youthful outline, showed the sharp print of the crow’s-foot at the corners of her motherly eyes, and certain slight creases in her wholesome cheeks. The fact that they lived in an unfashionable neighborhood was something that they had never been made to feel to their personal disadvantage, and they had hardly known it till the summer before this story opens, when Mrs. Lapham and her daughter Irene had met some other Bostonians far from Boston, who made it memorable. They were people whom chance had brought for the time under a singular obligation to the Lapham ladies, and they were gratefully recognizant of it. They had ventured—a mother and two daughters—as far as a rather wild little Canadian watering place on the St. Lawrence, below Quebec, and had arrived some days before their son and brother was expected to join them. Two of their trunks had gone astray, and on the night of their arrival the mother was taken violently ill. Mrs. Lapham came to their help, with her skill as nurse, and with the abundance of her own and her daughter’s wardrobe, and a profuse, single-hearted kindness. When a doctor could be got at, he said that but for Mrs. Lapham’s timely care, the lady would hardly have lived. He was a very effusive little Frenchman, and fancied he was saying something very pleasant to everybody.
A certain intimacy inevitably followed, and when the son came he was even more grateful than the others. Mrs. Lapham could not quite understand why he should be as attentive to her as to Irene; but she compared him with other young men about the place, and thought him nicer than any of them. She had not the means of a wider comparison; for in Boston, with all her husband’s prosperity, they had not had a social life. Their first years there were given to careful getting on Lapham’s part, and careful saving on his wife’s. Suddenly the money began to come so abundantly that she need not save; and then they did not know what to do with it. A certain amount could be spent on horses, and Lapham spent it; his wife spent on rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments. Lapham had not yet reached the picture-buying stage of the rich man’s development, but they decorated their house with the costliest and most abominable frescoes; they went upon journeys, and lavished upon cars and hotels; they gave with both hands to their church and to all the charities it brought them acquainted with; but they did not know how to spend on society. Up to a certain period Mrs. Lapham had the ladies of her neighborhood in to tea, as her mother had done in the country in her younger days. Lapham’s idea of hospitality was still to bring a heavy-buying customer home to potluck; neither of them imagined dinners.
Their two girls had gone to the public schools, where they had not got on as fast as some of the other girls; so that they were a year behind in graduating from the grammar school, where Lapham thought that they had got education enough. His wife was of a different mind; she would have liked them to go to some private school for their finishing. But Irene did not care for study; she preferred housekeeping, and both the sisters were afraid of being snubbed by the other girls, who were of a different sort from the girls of the grammar school; these were mostly from the parks and squares, like themselves. It ended in their going part of a year. But the elder had an odd taste of her own for reading, and she took some private lessons, and read books out of the circulating library; the whole family were amazed at the number she read, and rather proud of it.
They were not girls who embroidered or abandoned themselves to needlework. Irene spent her abundant leisure in shopping for herself and her mother, of whom both daughters made a kind of idol, buying her caps and laces out of their pin money, and getting her dresses far beyond her capacity to wear. Irene dressed herself very stylishly, and spent hours on her toilet every day. Her sister had a simpler taste, and, if she had done altogether as she liked, might even have slighted dress. They all three took long naps every day, and sat hours together minutely discussing what they saw out of the window. In her self-guided search for self-improvement, the elder sister went to many church lectures on a vast variety of secular subjects, and usually came home with a comic account of them, and that made more matter of talk for the whole family. She could make fun of nearly everything; Irene complained that she scared away the young men whom they got acquainted with at the dancing-school sociables. They were, perhaps, not the wisest young men.
The girls had learned to dance at Papanti’s; but they had not belonged to the private classes. They did not even know of them, and a great gulf divided them from those who did. Their father did not like company, except such as came informally in their way; and their mother had remained too rustic to know how to attract it in the sophisticated city fashion. None of them had grasped the idea of European travel; but they had gone about to mountain and seaside resorts, the mother and the two girls, where they witnessed the spectacle which such resorts present through New England, of multitudes of girls, lovely, accomplished, exquisitely dressed, humbly glad of the presence of any sort of young man; but the Laphams had no skill or courage to make themselves noticed, far less courted, by the solitary invalid, or clergyman, or artist. They lurked helplessly about in the hotel parlors, looking on and not knowing how to put themselves forward. Perhaps they did not care a great deal to do so. They had not a conceit of themselves, but a sort of content in their own ways that one may notice in certain families. The very strength of their mutual affection was a barrier to worldly knowledge; they dressed for one another; they equipped their house for their own satisfaction; they lived richly to themselves, not because they were selfish, but because they did not know how to do otherwise. The elder daughter did not care for society, apparently. The younger, who was but three years younger, was not yet quite old enough to be ambitious of it. With all her wonderful beauty, she had an innocence almost vegetable. When her beauty, which in its immaturity was crude and harsh, suddenly ripened, she bloomed and glowed with the unconsciousness of a flower; she not merely did not feel herself admired, but hardly knew herself discovered. If she dressed well, perhaps too well, it was because she had the instinct of dress; but till she met this young man who was so nice to her at Baie St. Paul, she had scarcely lived a detached, individual life, so wholly had she depended on her mother and her sister for her opinions, almost her sensations. She took account of everything he did and said, pondering it, and trying to make out exactly what he meant, to the inflection of a syllable, the slightest movement or gesture. In this way she began for the first time to form ideas which she had not derived from her family, and they were nonetheless her own because they were often mistaken.
Some of the things that he partly said, partly looked, she reported to her mother, and they talked them over, as they did everything relating to these new acquaintances, and wrought them into the novel point of view which they were acquiring. When Mrs. Lapham returned home, she submitted all the accumulated facts of the case, and all her own conjectures, to her husband, and canvassed them anew.
At first he was disposed to regard the whole affair as of small importance, and she had to insist a little beyond her own convictions in order to counteract his indifference.
“Well, I can tell you,” she said, “that if you think they were not the nicest people you ever saw, you’re mightily mistaken. They had about the best manners; and they had been everywhere, and knew everything. I declare it made me feel as if we had always lived in the backwoods. I don’t know but the mother and the daughters would have let you feel so a little, if they’d showed out all they thought; but they never did; and the son—well, I can’t express it, Silas! But that young man had about perfect ways.”
“Seem struck up on Irene?” asked the Colonel.
“How can I tell? He seemed just about as much struck up on me. Anyway, he paid me as much attention as he did her. Perhaps it’s more the way, now, to notice the mother than it used to be.”
Lapham ventured no conjecture, but asked, as he had asked already, who the people were.
Mrs. Lapham repeated their name. Lapham nodded his head. “Do you know them? What business is he in?”
“I guess he ain’t in anything,” said Lapham.
“They were very nice,” said Mrs. Lapham impartially.
“Well, they’d ought to be,” returned the Colonel. “Never done anything else.”
“They didn’t seem stuck-up,” urged his wife.
“They’d no need to—with you. I could buy him and sell him, twice over.”
This answer satisfied Mrs. Lapham rather with the fact than with her husband. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t brag, Silas,” she said.
In the winter the ladies of this family, who returned to town very late, came to call on Mrs. Lapham. They were again very polite. But the mother let drop, in apology for their calling almost at nightfall, that the coachman had not known the way exactly.
“Nearly all our friends are on the New Land or on the Hill.”
There was a barb in this that rankled after the ladies had gone; and on comparing notes with her daughter, Mrs. Lapham found that a barb had been left to rankle in her mind also.
“They said they had never been in this part of the town before.”
Upon a strict search of her memory, Irene could not report that the fact had been stated with anything like insinuation, but it was that which gave it a more penetrating effect.
“Oh, well, of course,” said Lapham, to whom these facts were referred. “Those sort of people haven’t got much business up our way, and they don’t come. It’s a fair thing all ’round. We don’t trouble the Hill or the New Land much.”
“We know where they are,” suggested his wife thoughtfully.
“Yes,” assented the Colonel, “I know where they are. I’ve got a lot of land over on the Back Bay.”
“You have?” eagerly demanded his wife.
“Want me to build on it?” he asked in reply, with a quizzical smile.
“I guess we can get along here for a while.”
This was at night. In the morning Mrs. Lapham said: “I suppose we ought to do the best we can for the children, in every way.”
“I supposed we always had,” replied her husband.
“Yes, we have, according to our light.”
“Have you got some new light?”
“I don’t know as it’s light. But if the girls are going to keep on living in Boston and marry here, I presume we ought to try to get them into society, some way; or ought to do something.”
“Well, who’s ever done more for their children than we have?” demanded Lapham, with a pang at the thought that he could possibly have been outdone. “Don’t they have everything they want? Don’t they dress just as you say? Don’t you go everywhere with ’em? Is there ever anything going on that’s worthwhile that they don’t see it or hear it? I don’t know what you mean. Why don’t you get them into society? There’s money enough!”
“There’s got to be something besides money, I guess,” said Mrs. Lapham, with a hopeless sigh. “I presume we didn’t go to work just the right way about their schooling. We ought to have got them into some school where they’d have got acquainted with city girls—girls who could help them along. Nearly everybody at Miss Smillie’s was from somewhere else.”
“Well, it’s pretty late to think about that now,” grumbled Lapham.
“And we’ve always gone our own way, and not looked out for the future. We ought to have gone out more, and had people come to the house. Nobody comes.”
“Well, is that my fault? I guess nobody ever makes people welcomer.”
“We ought to have invited company more.”
“Why don’t you do it now? If it’s for the girls, I don’t care if you have the house full all the while.”
Mrs. Lapham was forced to a confession full of humiliation. “I don’t know who to ask.”
“Well, you can’t expect me to tell you.”
“No; we’re both country people, and we’ve kept our country ways, and we don’t, either of us, know what to do. You’ve had to work so hard, and your luck was so long coming, and then it came with such a rush that we haven’t had any chance to learn what to do with it. It’s just the same with Irene’s looks; I didn’t expect she was ever going to have any, she was such a plain child, and, all at once, she’s blazed out this way. As long as it was Pen that didn’t seem to care for society, I didn’t give much mind to it. But I can see it’s going to be different with Irene. I don’t believe but what we’re in the wrong neighborhood.”
“Well,” said the Colonel, “there ain’t a prettier lot on the Back Bay than mine. It’s on the water side of Beacon, and it’s twenty-eight feet wide and a hundred and fifty deep. Let’s build on it.”
Mrs. Lapham was silent awhile. “No,” she said finally; “we’ve always got along well enough here, and I guess we better stay.”
At breakfast she said casually: “Girls, how would you like to have your father build on the New Land?”
The girls said they did not know. It was more convenient to the horse cars where they were.
Mrs. Lapham stole a look of relief at her husband, and nothing more was said of the matter.
The mother of the family who had called upon Mrs. Lapham brought her husband’s cards, and when Mrs. Lapham returned the visit, she was in some trouble about the proper form of acknowledging the civility. The Colonel had no card but a business card, which advertised the principal depot and the several agencies of the mineral paint; and Mrs. Lapham doubted, till she wished to goodness that she had never seen nor heard of those people, whether to ignore her husband in the transaction altogether, or to write his name on her own card. She decided finally upon this measure, and she had the relief of not finding the family at home. As far as she could judge, Irene seemed to suffer a little disappointment from the fact.
For several months there was no communication between the families. Then there came to Nankeen Square a lithographed circular from the people on the Hill, signed in ink by the mother, and affording Mrs. Lapham an opportunity to subscribe for a charity of undeniable merit and acceptability. She submitted it to her husband, who promptly drew a check for five hundred dollars.
She tore it in two. “I will take a check for a hundred, Silas,” she said.
“Why?” he asked, looking up guiltily at her.
“Because a hundred is enough; and I don’t want to show off before them.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you did. Well, Pert,” he added, having satisfied human nature by the preliminary thrust, “I guess you’re about right. When do you want I should begin to build on Beacon Street?” He handed her the new check, where she stood over him, and then leaned back in his chair and looked up at her.
“I don’t want you should begin at all. What do you mean, Silas?” She rested against the side of his desk.
“Well, I don’t know as I mean anything. But shouldn’t you like to build? Everybody builds, at least once in a lifetime.”
“Where is your lot? They say it’s unhealthy, over there.”
Up to a certain point in their prosperity Mrs. Lapham had kept strict account of all her husband’s affairs; but as they expanded, and ceased to be of the retail nature with which women successfully grapple, the intimate knowledge of them made her nervous. There was a period in which she felt that they were being ruined, but the crash had not come; and, since his great success, she had abandoned herself to a blind confidence in her husband’s judgment, which she had hitherto felt needed her revision. He came and went, day by day, unquestioned. He bought and sold and got gain. She knew that he would tell her if ever things went wrong, and he knew that she would ask him whenever she was anxious.
“It ain’t healthy where I’ve bought,” said Lapham, rather enjoying her insinuation. “I looked after that when I was trading; and I guess it’s about as healthy on the Back Bay as it is here, anyway. I got that lot for you, Pert; I thought you’d want to build on the Back Bay someday.”
“Pshaw!” said Mrs. Lapham, deeply pleased inwardly, but not going to show it, as she would have said. “I guess you want to build there yourself.” She insensibly got a little nearer to her husband. They liked to talk to each other in that blunt way; it is the New England way of expressing perfect confidence and tenderness.
“Well, I guess I do,” said Lapham, not insisting upon the unselfish view of the matter. “I always did like the water side of Beacon. There ain’t a sightlier place in the world for a house. And someday there’s bound to be a driveway all along behind them houses, between them and the water, and then a lot there is going to be worth the gold that will cover it—coin. I’ve had offers for that lot, Pert, twice over what I give for it. Yes, I have. Don’t you want to ride over there some afternoon with me and see it?”
“I’m satisfied where we be, Si,” said Mrs. Lapham, recurring to the parlance of her youth in her pathos at her husband’s kindness. She sighed anxiously, for she felt the trouble a woman knows in view of any great change. They had often talked of altering over the house in which they lived, but they had never come to it; and they had often talked of building, but it had always been a house in the country that they had thought of. “I wish you had sold that lot.”
“I hain’t,” said the Colonel briefly.
“I don’t know as I feel much like changing our way of living.”
“Guess we could live there pretty much as we live here. There’s all kinds of people on Beacon Street; you mustn’t think they’re all big-bugs. I know one party that lives in a house he built to sell, and his wife don’t keep any girl. You can have just as much style there as you want, or just as little. I guess we live as well as most of ’em now, and set as good a table. And if you come to style, I don’t know as anybody has got more of a right to put it on than what we have.”
“Well, I don’t want to build on Beacon Street, Si,” said Mrs. Lapham gently.
“Just as you please, Persis. I ain’t in any hurry to leave.”
Mrs. Lapham stood flapping the check, which she held in her right hand against the edge of her left.
The Colonel still sat looking up at her face, and watching the effect of the poison of ambition which he had artfully instilled into her mind.
She sighed again—a yielding sigh. “What are you going to do this afternoon?”
“I’m going to take a turn on the Brighton road,” said the Colonel.
“I don’t believe but what I should like to go along,” said his wife.
“All right. You hain’t ever rode that mare yet, Pert, and I want you should see me let her out once. They say the snow’s all packed down already, and the going is A 1.”
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"[Howells's] perceptions were sure, his integrity was absolute." Henry Seidel Canby
Meet the Author
William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. Nicknamed "The Dean of American Letters", he was particularly known for his tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as his own prolific writings, including the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day" and the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham.
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I love this book. A morality tale on ambition, wealth, social standing. It is both sad and hilarious and ultimately uplifting.
Typos and font translation problems abound.