The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells

XI.

COREY put off his set smile with the help of a frown, of which he first became aware after reaching home, when his father asked —

“Anything gone wrong with your department of the fine arts today, Tom?”

“Oh no — no, sir,” said the son, instantly relieving his brows from the strain upon them, and beaming again. “But I was thinking whether you were not perhaps right in your impression that it might be well for you to make Colonel Lapham’s acquaintance before a great while.”

“Has he been suggesting it in any way?” asked Bromfield Corey, laying aside his book and taking his lean knee between his clasped hands.

“Oh, not at all!” the young man hastened to reply. “I was merely thinking whether it might not begin to seem intentional, your not doing it.”

“Well, Tom, you know I have been leaving it altogether to you ——”

“Oh, I understand, of course, and I didn’t mean to urge anything of the kind ——”

“You are so very much more of a Bostonian than I am, you know, that I’ve been waiting your motion in entire confidence that you would know just what to do, and when to do it. If I had been left quite to my own lawless impulses, I think I should have called upon your padrone at once. It seems to me that my father would have found some way of showing that he expected as much as that from people placed in the relation to him that we hold to Colonel Lapham.”

“Do you think so?” asked the young man.

“Yes. But you know I don’t pretend to be an authority in such matters. As far as they go, I am always in the hands of your mother and you children.”

“I’m very sorry, sir. I had no idea I was over-ruling your judgment. I only wanted to spare you a formality that didn’t seem quite a necessity yet. I’m very sorry,” he said again, and this time with more comprehensive regret. “I shouldn’t like to have seemed remiss with a man who has been so considerate of me. They are all very good-natured.”

“I dare say,” said Bromfield Corey, with the satisfaction which no elder can help feeling in disabling the judgment of a younger man, “that it won’t be too late if I go down to your office with you tomorrow.”

“No, no. I didn’t imagine your doing it at once, sir.”

“Ah, but nothing can prevent me from doing a thing when once I take the bit in my teeth,” said the father, with the pleasure which men of weak will sometimes take in recognising their weakness. “How does their new house get on?”

“I believe they expect to be in it before New Year.”

“Will they be a great addition to society?” asked Bromfield Corey, with unimpeachable seriousness.

“I don’t quite know what you mean,” returned the son, a little uneasily.

“Ah, I see that you do, Tom.”

“No one can help feeling that they are all people of good sense and — right ideas.”

“Oh, that won’t do. If society took in all the people of right ideas and good sense, it would expand beyond the calling capacity of its most active members. Even your mother’s social conscientiousness could not compass it. Society is a very different sort of thing from good sense and right ideas. It is based upon them, of course, but the airy, graceful, winning superstructure which we all know demands different qualities. Have your friends got these qualities — which may be felt, but not defined?”

The son laughed. “To tell you the truth, sir, I don’t think they have the most elemental ideas of society, as we understand it. I don’t believe Mrs. Lapham ever gave a dinner.”

“And with all that money!” sighed the father.

“I don’t believe they have the habit of wine at table. I suspect that when they don’t drink tea and coffee with their dinner, they drink ice-water.”

“Horrible!” said Bromfield Corey.

“It appears to me that this defines them.”

“Oh yes. There are people who give dinners, and who are not cognoscible. But people who have never yet given a dinner, how is society to assimilate them?”

“It digests a great many people,” suggested the young man.

“Yes; but they have always brought some sort of sauce piquante with them. Now, as I understand you, these friends of yours have no such sauce.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that!” cried the son.

“Oh, rude, native flavours, I dare say. But that isn’t what I mean. Well, then, they must spend. There is no other way for them to win their way to general regard. We must have the Colonel elected to the Ten O’clock Club, and he must put himself down in the list of those willing to entertain. Any one can manage a large supper. Yes, I see a gleam of hope for him in that direction.”

In the morning Bromfield Corey asked his son whether he should find Lapham at his place as early as eleven.

“I think you might find him even earlier. I’ve never been there before him. I doubt if the porter is there much sooner.”

“Well, suppose I go with you, then?”

“Why, if you like, sir,” said the son, with some deprecation.

“Oh, the question is, will HE like?”

“I think he will, sir;” and the father could see that his son was very much pleased.

Lapham was rending an impatient course through the morning’s news when they appeared at the door of his inner room. He looked up from the newspaper spread on the desk before him, and then he stood up, making an indifferent feint of not knowing that he knew Bromfield Corey by sight.

“Good morning, Colonel Lapham,” said the son, and Lapham waited for him to say further, “I wish to introduce my father.” Then he answered, “Good morning,” and added rather sternly for the elder Corey, “How do you do, sir? Will you take a chair?” and he pushed him one.

They shook hands and sat down, and Lapham said to his subordinate, “Have a seat;” but young Corey remained standing, watching them in their observance of each other with an amusement which was a little uneasy. Lapham made his visitor speak first by waiting for him to do so.

“I’m glad to make your acquaintance, Colonel Lapham, and I ought to have come sooner to do so. My father in your place would have expected it of a man in my place at once, I believe. But I can’t feel myself altogether a stranger as it is. I hope Mrs. Lapham is well? And your daughter?”

“Thank you,” said Lapham, “they’re quite well.”

“They were very kind to my wife ——”

“Oh, that was nothing!” cried Lapham. “There’s nothing Mrs. Lapham likes better than a chance of that sort. Mrs. Corey and the young ladies well?”

“Very well, when I heard from them. They’re out of town.”

“Yes, so I understood,” said Lapham, with a nod toward the son. “I believe Mr. Corey, here, told Mrs. Lapham.” He leaned back in his chair, stiffly resolute to show that he was not incommoded by the exchange of these civilities.

“Yes,” said Bromfield Corey. “Tom has had the pleasure which I hope for of seeing you all. I hope you’re able to make him useful to you here?” Corey looked round Lapham’s room vaguely, and then out at the clerks in their railed enclosure, where his eye finally rested on an extremely pretty girl, who was operating a type-writer.

“Well, sir,” replied Lapham, softening for the first time with this approach to business, “I guess it will be our own fault if we don’t. By the way, Corey,” he added, to the younger man, as he gathered up some letters from his desk, “here’s something in your line. Spanish or French, I guess.”

“I’ll run them over,” said Corey, taking them to his desk.

His father made an offer to rise.

“Don’t go,” said Lapham, gesturing him down again. “I just wanted to get him away a minute. I don’t care to say it to his face — I don’t like the principle — but since you ask me about it, I’d just as lief say that I’ve never had any young man take hold here equal to your son. I don’t know as you care.”

“You make me very happy,” said Bromfield Corey. “Very happy indeed. I’ve always had the idea that there was something in my son, if he could only find the way to work it out. And he seems to have gone into your business for the love of it.”

“He went to work in the right way, sir! He told me about it. He looked into it. And that paint is a thing that will bear looking into.”

“Oh yes. You might think he had invented it, if you heard him celebrating it.”

“Is that so?” demanded Lapham, pleased through and through. “Well, there ain’t any other way. You’ve got to believe in a thing before you can put any heart in it. Why, I had a partner in this thing once, along back just after the war, and he used to be always wanting to tinker with something else. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘you’ve got the best thing in God’s universe now. Why ain’t you satisfied?’ I had to get rid of him at last. I stuck to my paint, and that fellow’s drifted round pretty much all over the whole country, whittling his capital down all the while, till here the other day I had to lend him some money to start him new. No, sir, you’ve got to believe in a thing. And I believe in your son. And I don’t mind telling you that, so far as he’s gone, he’s a success.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“No kindness about it. As I was saying the other day to a friend of mine, I’ve had many a fellow right out of the street that had to work hard all his life, and didn’t begin to take hold like this son of yours.”

Lapham expanded with profound self-satisfaction. As he probably conceived it, he had succeeded in praising, in a perfectly casual way, the supreme excellence of his paint, and his own sagacity and benevolence; and here he was sitting face to face with Bromfield Corey, praising his son to him, and receiving his grateful acknowledgments as if he were the father of some office-boy whom Lapham had given a place half but of charity.

“Yes, sir, when your son proposed to take hold here, I didn’t have much faith in his ideas, that’s the truth. But I had faith in him, and I saw that he meant business from the start. I could see it was born in him. Any one could.”

“I’m afraid he didn’t inherit it directly from me,” said Bromfield Corey; “but it’s in the blood, on both sides.” “Well, sir, we can’t help those things,” said Lapham compassionately. “Some of us have got it, and some of us haven’t. The idea is to make the most of what we HAVE got.”

“Oh yes; that is the idea. By all means.”

“And you can’t ever tell what’s in you till you try. Why, when I started this thing, I didn’t more than half understand my own strength. I wouldn’t have said, looking back, that I could have stood the wear and tear of what I’ve been through. But I developed as I went along. It’s just like exercising your muscles in a gymnasium. You can lift twice or three times as much after you’ve been in training a month as you could before. And I can see that it’s going to be just so with your son. His going through college won’t hurt him — he’ll soon slough all that off — and his bringing up won’t; don’t be anxious about it. I noticed in the army that some of the fellows that had the most go-ahead were fellows that hadn’t ever had much more to do than girls before the war broke out. Your son will get along.”

“Thank you,” said Bromfield Corey, and smiled — whether because his spirit was safe in the humility he sometimes boasted, or because it was triply armed in pride against anything the Colonel’s kindness could do.

“He’ll get along. He’s a good business man, and he’s a fine fellow. MUST you go?” asked Lapham, as Bromfield Corey now rose more resolutely. “Well, glad to see you. It was natural you should want to come and see what he was about, and I’m glad you did. I should have felt just so about it. Here is some of our stuff,” he said, pointing out the various packages in his office, including the Persis Brand.

“Ah, that’s very nice, very nice indeed,” said his visitor. “That colour through the jar — very rich — delicious. Is Persis Brand a name?”

Lapham blushed.

“Well, Persis is. I don’t know as you saw an interview that fellow published in the Events a while back?”

“What is the Events?”

“Well, it’s that new paper Witherby’s started.”

“No,” said Bromfield Corey, “I haven’t seen it. I read The Daily,” he explained; by which he meant The Daily Advertiser, the only daily there is in the old-fashioned Bostonian sense.

“He put a lot of stuff in my mouth that I never said,” resumed Lapham; “but that’s neither here nor there, so long as you haven’t seen it. Here’s the department your son’s in,” and he showed him the foreign labels. Then he took him out into the warehouse to see the large packages. At the head of the stairs, where his guest stopped to nod to his son and say “Good-bye, Tom,” Lapham insisted upon going down to the lower door with him “Well, call again,” he said in hospitable dismissal. “I shall always be glad to see you. There ain’t a great deal doing at this season.” Bromfield Corey thanked him, and let his hand remain perforce in Lapham’s lingering grasp. “If you ever like to ride after a good horse ——” the Colonel began.

“Oh, no, no, no; thank you! The better the horse, the more I should be scared. Tom has told me of your driving!”

“Ha, ha, ha!” laughed the Colonel. “Well! every one to his taste. Well, good morning, sir!” and he suffered him to go.

“Who is the old man blowing to this morning?” asked Walker, the book-keeper, making an errand to Corey’s desk.

“My father.”

“Oh! That your father? I thought he must be one of your Italian correspondents that you’d been showing round, or Spanish.”

In fact, as Bromfield Corey found his way at his leisurely pace up through the streets on which the prosperity of his native city was founded, hardly any figure could have looked more alien to its life. He glanced up and down the facades and through the crooked vistas like a stranger, and the swarthy fruiterer of whom he bought an apple, apparently for the pleasure of holding it in his hand, was not surprised that the purchase should be transacted in his own tongue.

Lapham walked back through the outer office to his own room without looking at Corey, and during the day he spoke to him only of business matters. That must have been his way of letting Corey see that he was not overcome by the honour of his father’s visit. But he presented himself at Nantasket with the event so perceptibly on his mind that his wife asked: “Well, Silas, has Rogers been borrowing any more money of you? I don’t want you should let that thing go too far. You’ve done enough.”

“You needn’t be afraid. I’ve seen the last of Rogers for one while.” He hesitated, to give the fact an effect of no importance. “Corey’s father called this morning.”

“Did he?” said Mrs. Lapham, willing to humour his feint of indifference. “Did HE want to borrow some money too?” “Not as I understood.” Lapham was smoking at great ease, and his wife had some crocheting on the other side of the lamp from him.

The girls were on the piazza looking at the moon on the water again. “There’s no man in it to-night,” Penelope said, and Irene laughed forlornly.

“What DID he want, then?” asked Mrs. Lapham.

“Oh, I don’t know. Seemed to be just a friendly call. Said he ought to have come before.”

Mrs. Lapham was silent a while. Then she said: “Well, I hope you’re satisfied now.”

Lapham rejected the sympathy too openly offered. “I don’t know about being satisfied. I wa’n’t in any hurry to see him.”

His wife permitted him this pretence also. “What sort of a person is he, anyway?”

“Well, not much like his son. There’s no sort of business about him. I don’t know just how you’d describe him. He’s tall; and he’s got white hair and a moustache; and his fingers are very long and limber. I couldn’t help noticing them as he sat there with his hands on the top of his cane. Didn’t seem to be dressed very much, and acted just like anybody. Didn’t talk much. Guess I did most of the talking. Said he was glad I seemed to be getting along so well with his son. He asked after you and Irene; and he said he couldn’t feel just like a stranger. Said you had been very kind to his wife. Of course I turned it off. Yes,” said Lapham thoughtfully, with his hands resting on his knees, and his cigar between the fingers of his left hand, “I guess he meant to do the right thing, every way. Don’t know as I ever saw a much pleasanter man. Dunno but what he’s about the pleasantest man I ever did see.” He was not letting his wife see in his averted face the struggle that revealed itself there — the struggle of stalwart achievement not to feel flattered at the notice of sterile elegance, not to be sneakingly glad of its amiability, but to stand up and look at it with eyes on the same level. God, who made us so much like himself, but out of the dust, alone knows when that struggle will end. The time had been when Lapham could not have imagined any worldly splendour which his dollars could not buy if he chose to spend them for it; but his wife’s half discoveries, taking form again in his ignorance of the world, filled him with helpless misgiving. A cloudy vision of something unpurchasable, where he had supposed there was nothing, had cowed him in spite of the burly resistance of his pride.

“I don’t see why he shouldn’t be pleasant,” said Mrs. Lapham. “He’s never done anything else.”

Lapham looked up consciously, with an uneasy laugh. “Pshaw, Persis! you never forget anything?”

“Oh, I’ve got more than that to remember. I suppose you asked him to ride after the mare?”

“Well,” said Lapham, reddening guiltily, “he said he was afraid of a good horse.”

“Then, of course, you hadn’t asked him.” Mrs. Lapham crocheted in silence, and her husband leaned back in his chair and smoked.

At last he said, “I’m going to push that house forward. They’re loafing on it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in it by Thanksgiving. I don’t believe in moving in the dead of winter.”

“We can wait till spring. We’re very comfortable in the old place,” answered his wife. Then she broke out on him: “What are you in such a hurry to get into that house for? Do you want to invite the Coreys to a house-warming?”

Lapham looked at her without speaking.

“Don’t you suppose I can see through you I declare, Silas Lapham, if I didn’t know different, I should say you were about the biggest fool! Don’t you know ANYthing? Don’t you know that it wouldn’t do to ask those people to our house before they’ve asked us to theirs? They’d laugh in our faces!”

“I don’t believe they’d laugh in our faces. What’s the difference between our asking them and their asking us?” demanded the Colonel sulkily.

“Oh, well! If you don t see!”

“Well, I DON’T see. But I don’t want to ask them to the house. I suppose, if I want to, I can invite him down to a fish dinner at Taft’s.”

Mrs. Lapham fell back in her chair, and let her work drop in her lap with that “Tckk!” in which her sex knows how to express utter contempt and despair.

“What’s the matter?”

“Well, if you DO such a thing, Silas, I’ll never speak to you again! It’s no USE! It’s NO use! I did think, after you’d behaved so well about Rogers, I might trust you a little. But I see I can’t. I presume as long as you live you’ll have to be nosed about like a perfect — I don’t know what!”

“What are you making such a fuss about?” demanded Lapham, terribly crestfallen, but trying to pluck up a spirit. “I haven’t done anything yet. I can’t ask your advice about anything any more without having you fly out. Confound it! I shall do as I please after this.”

But as if he could not endure that contemptuous atmosphere, he got up, and his wife heard him in the dining-room pouring himself out a glass of ice-water, and then heard him mount the stairs to their room, and slam its door after him.

“Do you know what your father’s wanting to do now?” Mrs. Lapham asked her eldest daughter, who lounged into the parlour a moment with her wrap stringing from her arm, while the younger went straight to bed. “He wants to invite Mr. Corey’s father to a fish dinner at Taft’s!”

Penelope was yawning with her hand on her mouth; she stopped, and, with a laugh of amused expectance, sank into a chair, her shoulders shrugged forward.

“Why! what in the world has put the Colonel up to that?”

“Put him up to it! There’s that fellow, who ought have come to see him long ago, drops into his office this morning, and talks five minutes with him, and your father is flattered out of his five senses. He’s crazy to get in with those people, and I shall have a perfect battle to keep him within bounds.”

“Well, Persis, ma’am, you can’t say but what you began it,” said Penelope.

“Oh yes, I began it,” confessed Mrs. Lapham. “Pen,” she broke out, “what do you suppose he means by it?”

“Who? Mr. Corey’s father? What does the Colonel think?”

“Oh, the Colonel!” cried Mrs. Lapham. She added tremulously: “Perhaps he IS right. He DID seem to take a fancy to her last summer, and now if he’s called in that way . . .” She left her daughter to distribute the pronouns aright, and resumed: “Of course, I should have said once that there wasn’t any question about it. I should have said so last year; and I don’t know what it is keeps me from saying so now. I suppose I know a little more about things than I did; and your father’s being so bent on it sets me all in a twitter. He thinks his money can do everything. Well, I don’t say but what it can, a good many. And ‘Rene is as good a child as ever there was; and I don’t see but what she’s pretty-appearing enough to suit any one. She’s pretty-behaved, too; and she IS the most capable girl. I presume young men don’t care very much for such things nowadays; but there ain’t a great many girls can go right into the kitchen, and make such a custard as she did yesterday. And look at the way she does, through the whole house! She can’t seem to go into a room without the things fly right into their places. And if she had to do it tomorrow, she could make all her own dresses a great deal better than them we pay to do it. I don’t say but what he’s about as nice a fellow as ever stepped. But there! I’m ashamed of going on so.”

“Well, mother,” said the girl after a pause, in which she looked as if a little weary of the subject, “why do you worry about it? If it’s to be it’ll be, and if it isn’t ——”

“Yes, that’s what I tell your father. But when it comes to myself, I see how hard it is for him to rest quiet. I’m afraid we shall all do something we’ll repent of afterwards.”

“Well, ma’am,” said Penelope, “I don’t intend to do anything wrong; but if I do, I promise not to be sorry for it. I’ll go that far. And I think I wouldn’t be sorry for it beforehand, if I were in your place, mother. Let the Colonel go on! He likes to manoeuvre, and he isn’t going to hurt any one. The Corey family can take care of themselves, I guess.”

She laughed in her throat, drawing down the corners of her mouth, and enjoying the resolution with which her mother tried to fling off the burden of her anxieties. “Pen! I believe you’re right. You always do see things in such a light! There! I don’t care if he brings him down every day.”

“Well, ma’am,” said Pen, “I don’t believe ‘Rene would, either. She’s just so indifferent!”

The Colonel slept badly that night, and in the morning Mrs. Lapham came to breakfast without him.

“Your father ain’t well,” she reported. “He’s had one of his turns.”

“I should have thought he had two or three of them,” said Penelope, “by the stamping round I heard. Isn’t he coming to breakfast?”

“Not just yet,” said her mother. “He’s asleep, and he’ll be all right if he gets his nap out. I don’t want you girls should make any great noise.” “Oh, we’ll be quiet enough,” returned Penelope. “Well, I’m glad the Colonel isn’t sojering. At first I thought he might be sojering.” She broke into a laugh, and, struggling indolently with it, looked at her sister. “You don’t think it’ll be necessary for anybody to come down from the office and take orders from him while he’s laid up, do you, mother?” she inquired.

“Pen!” cried Irene.

“He’ll be well enough to go up on the ten o’clock boat,” said the mother sharply.

“I think papa works too hard all through the summer. Why don’t you make him take a rest, mamma?” asked Irene.

“Oh, take a rest! The man slaves harder every year. It used to be so that he’d take a little time off now and then; but I declare, he hardly ever seems to breathe now away from his office. And this year he says he doesn’t intend to go down to Lapham, except to see after the works for a few days. I don’t know what to do with the man any more! Seems as if the more money he got, the more he wanted to get. It scares me to think what would happen to him if he lost it. I know one thing,” concluded Mrs. Lapham. “He shall not go back to the office today.”

“Then he won’t go up on the ten o’clock boat,” Pen reminded her.

“No, he won’t. You can just drive over to the hotel as soon as you’re through, girls, and telegraph that he’s not well, and won’t be at the office till tomorrow. I’m not going to have them send anybody down here to bother him.”

“That’s a blow,” said Pen. “I didn’t know but they might send ——” she looked demurely at her sister —“Dennis!”

“Mamma!” cried Irene.

“Well, I declare, there’s no living with this family any more,” said Penelope.

“There, Pen, be done!” commanded her mother. But perhaps she did not intend to forbid her teasing. It gave a pleasant sort of reality to the affair that was in her mind, and made what she wished appear not only possible but probable.

Lapham got up and lounged about, fretting and rebelling as each boat departed without him, through the day; before night he became very cross, in spite of the efforts of the family to soothe him, and grumbled that he had been kept from going up to town. “I might as well have gone as not,” he repeated, till his wife lost her patience.

“Well, you shall go tomorrow, Silas, if you have to be carried to the boat.”

“I declare,” said Penelope, “the Colonel don’t pet worth a cent.”

The six o’clock boat brought Corey. The girls were sitting on the piazza, and Irene saw him first.

“O Pen!” she whispered, with her heart in her face; and Penelope had no time for mockery before he was at the steps.

“I hope Colonel Lapham isn’t ill,” he said, and they could hear their mother engaged in a moral contest with their father indoors.

“Go and put on your coat! I say you shall! It don’t matter HOW he sees you at the office, shirt-sleeves or not. You’re in a gentleman’s house now — or you ought to be-and you shan’t see company in your dressing-gown.”

Penelope hurried in to subdue her mother’s anger.

“Oh, he’s very much better, thank you!” said Irene, speaking up loudly to drown the noise of the controversy.

“I’m glad of that,” said Corey, and when she led him indoors the vanquished Colonel met his visitor in a double-breasted frock-coat, which he was still buttoning up. He could not persuade himself at once that Corey had not come upon some urgent business matter, and when he was clear that he had come out of civility, surprise mingled with his gratification that he should be the object of solicitude to the young man. In Lapham’s circle of acquaintance they complained when they were sick, but they made no womanish inquiries after one another’s health, and certainly paid no visits of sympathy till matters were serious. He would have enlarged upon the particulars of his indisposition if he had been allowed to do so; and after tea, which Corey took with them, he would have remained to entertain him if his wife had not sent him to bed. She followed him to see that he took some medicine she had prescribed for him, but she went first to Penelope’s room, where she found the girl with a book in her hand, which she was not reading.

“You better go down,” said the mother. “I’ve got to go to your father, and Irene is all alone with Mr. Corey; and I know she’ll be on pins and needles without you’re there to help make it go off.”

“She’d better try to get along without me, mother,” said Penelope soberly. “I can’t always be with them.”

“Well,” replied Mrs. Lapham, “then I must. There’ll be a perfect Quaker meeting down there.”

“Oh, I guess ‘Rene will find something to say if you leave her to herself. Or if she don’t, HE must. It’ll be all right for you to go down when you get ready; but I shan’t go till toward the last. If he’s coming here to see Irene — and I don’t believe he’s come on father’s account — he wants to see her and not me. If she can’t interest him alone, perhaps he’d as well find it out now as any time. At any rate, I guess you’d better make the experiment. You’ll know whether it’s a success if he comes again.”

“Well,” said the mother, “may be you’re right. I’ll go down directly. It does seem as if he did mean something, after all.”

Mrs. Lapham did not hasten to return to her guest. In her own girlhood it was supposed that if a young man seemed to be coming to see a girl, it was only common-sense to suppose that he wished to see her alone; and her life in town had left Mrs. Lapham’s simple traditions in this respect unchanged. She did with her daughter as her mother would have done with her.

Where Penelope sat with her book, she heard the continuous murmur of voices below, and after a long interval she heard her mother descend. She did not read the open book that lay in her lap, though she kept her eyes fast on the print. Once she rose and almost shut the door, so that she could scarcely hear; then she opened it wide again with a self-disdainful air, and resolutely went back to her book, which again she did not read. But she remained in her room till it was nearly time for Corey to return to his boat.

When they were alone again, Irene made a feint of scolding her for leaving her to entertain Mr. Corey.

“Why! didn’t you have a pleasant call?” asked Penelope.

Irene threw her arms round her. “Oh, it was a SPLENDID call! I didn’t suppose I could make it go off so well. We talked nearly the whole time about you!”

“I don’t think THAT was a very interesting subject.”

“He kept asking about you. He asked everything. You don’t know how much he thinks of you, Pen. O Pen! what do you think made him come? Do you think he really did come to see how papa was?” Irene buried her face in her sister’s neck.

Penelope stood with her arms at her side, submitting. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think he did, altogether.”

Irene, all glowing, released her. “Don’t you — don’t you REALLY? O Pen! don’t you think he IS nice? Don’t you think he’s handsome? Don’t you think I behaved horridly when we first met him this evening, not thanking him for coming? I know he thinks I’ve no manners. But it seemed as if it would be thanking him for coming to see me. Ought I to have asked him to come again, when he said good-night? I didn’t; I couldn’t. Do you believe he’ll think I don’t want him to? You don’t believe he would keep coming if he didn’t — want to ——”

“He hasn’t kept coming a great deal, yet,” suggested Penelope.

“No; I know he hasn’t. But if he — if he should?”

“Then I should think he wanted to.”

“Oh, would you — WOULD you? Oh, how good you always are, Pen! And you always say what you think. I wish there was some one coming to see you too. That’s all that I don’t like about it. Perhaps —— He was telling about his friend there in Texas ——”

“Well,” said Penelope, “his friend couldn’t call often from Texas. You needn’t ask Mr. Corey to trouble about me, ‘Rene. I think I can manage to worry along, if you’re satisfied.”

“Oh, I AM, Pen. When do you suppose he’ll come again?” Irene pushed some of Penelope’s things aside on the dressing-case, to rest her elbow and talk at ease. Penelope came up and put them back.

“Well, not to-night,” she said; “and if that’s what you’re sitting up for ——”

Irene caught her round the neck again, and ran out of the room.

The Colonel was packed off on the eight o’clock boat the next morning; but his recovery did not prevent Corey from repeating his visit in a week. This time Irene came radiantly up to Penelope’s room, where she had again withdrawn herself. “You must come down, Pen,” she said. “He’s asked if you’re not well, and mamma says you’ve got to come.”

After that Penelope helped Irene through with her calls, and talked them over with her far into the night after Corey was gone. But when the impatient curiosity of her mother pressed her for some opinion of the affair, she said, “You know as much as I do, mother.”

“Don’t he ever say anything to you about her — praise her up, any?”

“He’s never mentioned Irene to me.”

“He hasn’t to me, either,” said Mrs. Lapham, with a sigh of trouble. “Then what makes him keep coming?”

“I can’t tell you. One thing, he says there isn’t a house open in Boston where he’s acquainted. Wait till some of his friends get back, and then if he keeps coming, it’ll be time to inquire.”

“Well!” said the mother; but as the weeks passed she was less and less able to attribute Corey’s visits to his loneliness in town, and turned to her husband for comfort.

“Silas, I don’t know as we ought to let young Corey keep coming so. I don’t quite like it, with all his family away.”

“He’s of age,” said the Colonel. “He can go where he pleases. It don’t matter whether his family’s here or not.”

“Yes, but if they don’t want he should come? Should you feel just right about letting him?”

“How’re you going to stop him? I swear, Persis, I don’t know what’s got over you! What is it? You didn’t use to be so. But to hear you talk, you’d think those Coreys were too good for this world, and we wa’n’t fit for ’em to walk on.”

“I’m not going to have ’em say we took an advantage of their being away and tolled him on.”

“I should like to HEAR ’em say it!” cried Lapham. “Or anybody!”

“Well,” said his wife, relinquishing this point of anxiety, “I can’t make out whether he cares anything for her or not. And Pen can’t tell either; or else she won’t.”

“Oh, I guess he cares for her, fast enough,” said the Colonel.

“I can’t make out that he’s said or done the first thing to show it.”

“Well, I was better than a year getting my courage up.”

“Oh, that was different,” said Mrs. Lapham, in contemptuous dismissal of the comparison, and yet with a certain fondness. “I guess, if he cared for her, a fellow in his position wouldn’t be long getting up his courage to speak to Irene.”

Lapham brought his fist down on the table between them.

“Look here, Persis! Once for all, now, don’t you ever let me hear you say anything like that again! I’m worth nigh on to a million, and I’ve made it every cent myself; and my girls are the equals of anybody, I don’t care who it is. He ain’t the fellow to take on any airs; but if he ever tries it with me, I’ll send him to the right about mighty quick. I’ll have a talk with him, if ——”

“No, no; don’t do that!” implored his wife. “I didn’t mean anything. I don’t know as I meant ANYthing. He’s just as unassuming as he can be, and I think Irene’s a match for anybody. You just let things go on. It’ll be all right. You never can tell how it is with young people. Perhaps SHE’S offish. Now you ain’t — you ain’t going to say anything?”

Lapham suffered himself to be persuaded, the more easily, no doubt, because after his explosion he must have perceived that his pride itself stood in the way of what his pride had threatened. He contented himself with his wife’s promise that she would never again present that offensive view of the case, and she did not remain without a certain support in his sturdy self-assertion.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/h859ri/chapter11.html

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