The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells

I.

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 note-book 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 book-keepers, 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-grey 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 arm-chair 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 generalised 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 school-girl; 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 wa’n’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 in doors 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 note-book, 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 practise 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 give 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 — practising medicine in Fort Wayne.”

The figures were clustered in an irregular group in front of an old farm-house, 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 head-rest 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 sha’n’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 note-book.

“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 saw-mills, and I was ostler a while at the hotel — I always DID like a good horse. Well, I WA’N’T exactly a college graduate, and I went to school odd times. I got to driving the stage after 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 school-teacher. 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 about 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 wa’n’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 my success with the paint, thinking of father. Seemed to me I might ‘a 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 burnt up out West, and a lot of lives lost, and there was a great cry about non-inflammable 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 analysed, 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 should call 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 analysed 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 per cent. 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 has 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 long-bow, 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 bath-tub 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 labelled 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, recognising 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 wa’n’t the seventy-five per cent. of purr-ox-eyed of iron in the ORE that made that paint go; it was the seventy-five per cent. of purr-ox-eyed of iron in HER.”

“Good!” cried Bartley. “I’ll tell Marcia that.”

“In less’n six months there wa’n’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 colours we begun by making.” Bartley had taken his seat on the window-sill, 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 colours. 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 wine-glass 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 gazetteer. 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 WA’N’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 may be on board Government vessels. But I hadn’t, and we had to face the music. I was about broken-hearted, 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?”

“Ball?”

Lapham nodded. “Gettysburg. That’s my thermometer. If it wa’n’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 lock, or a house, or a car, or a fence, or a pig-pen 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 sha’n’t cost you a cent.” “Well, may be 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 type-writer 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 curb-stone, 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 pencilled 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 cobble-stones of the pavement were worn with the dint of ponderous wheels, and discoloured with iron-rust from them; here and there, in wandering streaks over its surface, was the grey 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 dash-board 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 recognising 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 any one. 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 mountain-side, 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 forego 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 minie-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 business men 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 honour 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 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 colour 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. “O 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.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/h859ri/chapter1.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38