The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells

XIV.

THE Coreys were one of the few old families who lingered in Bellingham Place, the handsome, quiet old street which the sympathetic observer must grieve to see abandoned to boarding-houses. The dwellings are stately and tall, and the whole place wears an air of aristocratic seclusion, which Mrs. Corey’s father might well have thought assured when he left her his house there at his death. It is one of two evidently designed by the same architect who built some houses in a characteristic taste on Beacon Street opposite the Common. It has a wooden portico, with slender fluted columns, which have always been painted white, and which, with the delicate mouldings of the cornice, form the sole and sufficient decoration of the street front; nothing could be simpler, and nothing could be better. Within, the architect has again indulged his preference for the classic; the roof of the vestibule, wide and low, rests on marble columns, slim and fluted like the wooden columns without, and an ample staircase climbs in a graceful, easy curve from the tesselated pavement. Some carved Venetian scrigni stretched along the wall; a rug lay at the foot of the stairs; but otherwise the simple adequacy of the architectural intention had been respected, and the place looked bare to the eyes of the Laphams when they entered. The Coreys had once kept a man, but when young Corey began his retrenchments the man had yielded to the neat maid who showed the Colonel into the reception-room and asked the ladies to walk up two flights.

He had his charges from Irene not to enter the drawing-room without her mother, and he spent five minutes in getting on his gloves, for he had desperately resolved to wear them at last. When he had them on, and let his large fists hang down on either side, they looked, in the saffron tint which the shop-girl said his gloves should be of, like canvased hams. He perspired with doubt as he climbed the stairs, and while he waited on the landing for Mrs. Lapham and Irene to come down from above before going into the drawing-room, he stood staring at his hands, now open and now shut, and breathing hard. He heard quiet talking beyond the portiere within, and presently Tom Corey came out.

“Ah, Colonel Lapham! Very glad to see you.”

Lapham shook hands with him and gasped, “Waiting for Mis’ Lapham,” to account for his presence. He had not been able to button his right glove, and he now began, with as much indifference as he could assume, to pull them both off, for he saw that Corey wore none. By the time he had stuffed them into the pocket of his coat-skirt his wife and daughter descended.

Corey welcomed them very cordially too, but looked a little mystified. Mrs. Lapham knew that he was silently inquiring for Penelope, and she did not know whether she ought to excuse her to him first or not. She said nothing, and after a glance toward the regions where Penelope might conjecturably be lingering, he held aside the portiere for the Laphams to pass, and entered the room with them.

Mrs. Lapham had decided against low-necks on her own responsibility, and had entrenched herself in the safety of a black silk, in which she looked very handsome. Irene wore a dress of one of those shades which only a woman or an artist can decide to be green or blue, and which to other eyes looks both or neither, according to their degrees of ignorance. If it was more like a ball dress than a dinner dress, that might be excused to the exquisite effect. She trailed, a delicate splendour, across the carpet in her mother’s sombre wake, and the consciousness of success brought a vivid smile to her face. Lapham, pallid with anxiety lest he should somehow disgrace himself, giving thanks to God that he should have been spared the shame of wearing gloves where no one else did, but at the same time despairing that Corey should have seen him in them, had an unwonted aspect of almost pathetic refinement.

Mrs. Corey exchanged a quick glance of surprise and relief with her husband as she started across the room to meet her guests, and in her gratitude to them for being so irreproachable, she threw into her manner a warmth that people did not always find there. “General Lapham?” she said, shaking hands in quick succession with Mrs. Lapham and Irene, and now addressing herself to him.

“No, ma’am, only Colonel,” said the honest man, but the lady did not hear him. She was introducing her husband to Lapham’s wife and daughter, and Bromfield Corey was already shaking his hand and saying he was very glad to see him again, while he kept his artistic eye on Irene, and apparently could not take it off. Lily Corey gave the Lapham ladies a greeting which was physically rather than socially cold, and Nanny stood holding Irene’s hand in both of hers a moment, and taking in her beauty and her style with a generous admiration which she could afford, for she was herself faultlessly dressed in the quiet taste of her city, and looking very pretty. The interval was long enough to let every man present confide his sense of Irene’s beauty to every other; and then, as the party was small, Mrs. Corey made everybody acquainted. When Lapham had not quite understood, he held the person’s hand, and, leaning urbanely forward, inquired, “What name?” He did that because a great man to whom he had been presented on the platform at a public meeting had done so to him, and he knew it must be right.

A little lull ensued upon the introductions, and Mrs. Corey said quietly to Mrs. Lapham, “Can I send any one to be of use to Miss Lapham?” as if Penelope must be in the dressing-room.

Mrs. Lapham turned fire-red, and the graceful forms in which she had been intending to excuse her daughter’s absence went out of her head. “She isn’t upstairs,” she said, at her bluntest, as country people are when embarrassed. “She didn’t feel just like coming to-night. I don’t know as she’s feeling very well.”

Mrs. Corey emitted a very small “O!”— very small, very cold — which began to grow larger and hotter and to burn into Mrs. Lapham’s soul before Mrs. Corey could add, “I’m very sorry. It’s nothing serious, I hope?”

Robert Chase, the painter, had not come, and Mrs. James Bellingham was not there, so that the table really balanced better without Penelope; but Mrs. Lapham could not know this, and did not deserve to know it. Mrs. Corey glanced round the room, as if to take account of her guests, and said to her husband, “I think we are all here, then,” and he came forward and gave his arm to Mrs. Lapham. She perceived then that in their determination not to be the first to come they had been the last, and must have kept the others waiting for them.

Lapham had never seen people go down to dinner arm-inarm before, but he knew that his wife was distinguished in being taken out by the host, and he waited in jealous impatience to see if Tom Corey would offer his arm to Irene. He gave it to that big girl they called Miss Kingsbury, and the handsome old fellow whom Mrs. Corey had introduced as her cousin took Irene out. Lapham was startled from the misgiving in which this left him by Mrs. Corey’s passing her hand through his arm, and he made a sudden movement forward, but felt himself gently restrained. They went out the last of all; he did not know why, but he submitted, and when they sat down he saw that Irene, although she had come in with that Mr. Bellingham, was seated beside young Corey, after all.

He fetched a long sigh of relief when he sank into his chair and felt himself safe from error if he kept a sharp lookout and did only what the others did. Bellingham had certain habits which he permitted himself, and one of these was tucking the corner of his napkin into his collar; he confessed himself an uncertain shot with a spoon, and defended his practice on the ground of neatness and common-sense. Lapham put his napkin into his collar too, and then, seeing that no one but Bellingham did it, became alarmed and took it out again slyly. He never had wine on his table at home, and on principle he was a prohibitionist; but now he did not know just what to do about the glasses at the right of his plate. He had a notion to turn them all down, as he had read of a well-known politician’s doing at a public dinner, to show that he did not take wine; but, after twiddling with one of them a moment, he let them be, for it seemed to him that would be a little too conspicuous, and he felt that every one was looking. He let the servant fill them all, and he drank out of each, not to appear odd. Later, he observed that the young ladies were not taking wine, and he was glad to see that Irene had refused it, and that Mrs. Lapham was letting it stand untasted. He did not know but he ought to decline some of the dishes, or at least leave most of some on his plate, but he was not able to decide; he took everything and ate everything.

He noticed that Mrs. Corey seemed to take no more trouble about the dinner than anybody, and Mr. Corey rather less; he was talking busily to Mrs. Lapham, and Lapham caught a word here and there that convinced him she was holding her own. He was getting on famously himself with Mrs. Corey, who had begun with him about his new house; he was telling her all about it, and giving her his ideas. Their conversation naturally included his architect across the table; Lapham had been delighted and secretly surprised to find the fellow there; and at something Seymour said the talk spread suddenly, and the pretty house he was building for Colonel Lapham became the general theme. Young Corey testified to its loveliness, and the architect said laughingly that if he had been able to make a nice thing of it, he owed it to the practical sympathy of his client.

“Practical sympathy is good,” said Bromfield Corey; and, slanting his head confidentially to Mrs. Lapham, he added, “Does he bleed your husband, Mrs. Lapham? He’s a terrible fellow for appropriations!”

Mrs. Lapham laughed, reddening consciously, and said she guessed the Colonel knew how to take care of himself. This struck Lapham, then draining his glass of sauterne, as wonderfully discreet in his wife. Bromfield Corey leaned back in his chair a moment. “Well, after all, you can’t say, with all your modern fuss about it, that you do much better now than the old fellows who built such houses as this.”

“Ah,” said the architect, “nobody can do better than well. Your house is in perfect taste; you know I’ve always admired it; and I don’t think it’s at all the worse for being old-fashioned. What we’ve done is largely to go back of the hideous style that raged after they forgot how to make this sort of house. But I think we may claim a better feeling for structure. We use better material, and more wisely; and by and by we shall work out something more characteristic and original.”

“With your chocolates and olives, and your clutter of bric-a-brac?”

“All that’s bad, of course, but I don’t mean that. I don’t wish to make you envious of Colonel Lapham, and modesty prevents my saying, that his house is prettier — though I may have my convictions — but it’s better built. All the new houses are better built. Now, your house ——”

“Mrs. Corey’s house,” interrupted the host, with a burlesque haste in disclaiming responsibility for it that made them all laugh. “My ancestral halls are in Salem, and I’m told you couldn’t drive a nail into their timbers; in fact, I don’t know that you would want to do it.”

“I should consider it a species of sacrilege,” answered Seymour, “and I shall be far from pressing the point I was going to make against a house of Mrs. Corey’s.”

This won Seymour the easy laugh, and Lapham silently wondered that the fellow never got off any of those things to him.

“Well,” said Corey, “you architects and the musicians are the true and only artistic creators. All the rest of us, sculptors, painters, novelists, and tailors, deal with forms that we have before us; we try to imitate, we try to represent. But you two sorts of artists create form. If you represent, you fail. Somehow or other you do evolve the camel out of your inner consciousness.”

“I will not deny the soft impeachment,” said the architect, with a modest air.

“I dare say. And you’ll own that it’s very handsome of me to say this, after your unjustifiable attack on Mrs. Corey’s property.”

Bromfield Corey addressed himself again to Mrs. Lapham, and the talk subdivided itself as before. It lapsed so entirely away from the subject just in hand, that Lapham was left with rather a good idea, as he thought it, to perish in his mind, for want of a chance to express it. The only thing like a recurrence to what they had been saying was Bromfield Corey’s warning Mrs. Lapham, in some connection that Lapham lost, against Miss Kingsbury. “She’s worse,” he was saying, “when it comes to appropriations than Seymour himself. Depend upon it, Mrs. Lapham, she will give you no peace of your mind, now she’s met you, from this out. Her tender mercies are cruel; and I leave you to supply the content from your own scriptural knowledge. Beware of her, and all her works. She calls them works of charity; but heaven knows whether they are. It don’t stand to reason that she gives the poor ALL the money she gets out of people. I have my own belief”— he gave it in a whisper for the whole table to hear —“that she spends it for champagne and cigars.”

Lapham did not know about that kind of talking; but Miss Kingsbury seemed to enjoy the fun as much as anybody, and he laughed with the rest.

“You shall be asked to the very next debauch of the committee, Mr. Corey; then you won’t dare expose us,” said Miss Kingsbury.

“I wonder you haven’t been down upon Corey to go to the Chardon Street home and talk with your indigent Italians in their native tongue,” said Charles Bellingham. “I saw in the Transcript the other night that you wanted some one for the work.”

“We did think of Mr. Corey,” replied Miss Kingsbury; “but we reflected that he probably wouldn’t talk with them at all; he would make them keep still to be sketched, and forget all about their wants.”

Upon the theory that this was a fair return for Corey’s pleasantry, the others laughed again.

“There is one charity,” said Corey, pretending superiority to Miss Kingsbury’s point, “that is so difficult, I wonder it hasn’t occurred to a lady of your courageous invention.”

“Yes?” said Miss Kingsbury. “What is that?”

“The occupation, by deserving poor of neat habits, of all the beautiful, airy, wholesome houses that stand empty the whole summer long, while their owners are away in their lowly cots beside the sea.”

“Yes, that is terrible,” replied Miss Kingsbury, with quick earnestness, while her eyes grew moist. “I have often thought of our great, cool houses standing useless here, and the thousands of poor creatures stifling in their holes and dens, and the little children dying for wholesome shelter. How cruelly selfish we are!”

“That is a very comfortable sentiment, Miss Kingsbury,” said Corey, “and must make you feel almost as if you had thrown open No. 31 to the whole North End. But I am serious about this matter. I spend my summers in town, and I occupy my own house, so that I can speak impartially and intelligently; and I tell you that in some of my walks on the Hill and down on the Back Bay, nothing but the surveillance of the local policeman prevents my offering personal violence to those long rows of close-shuttered, handsome, brutally insensible houses. If I were a poor man, with a sick child pining in some garret or cellar at the North End, I should break into one of them, and camp out on the grand piano.”

“Surely, Bromfield,” said his wife, “you don’t consider what havoc such people would make with the furniture of a nice house!”

“That is true,” answered Corey, with meek conviction. “I never thought of that.”

“And if you were a poor man with a sick child, I doubt if you’d have so much heart for burglary as you have now,” said James Bellingham.

“It’s wonderful how patient they are,” said the minister. “The spectacle of the hopeless comfort the hard-working poor man sees must be hard to bear.”

Lapham wanted to speak up and say that he had been there himself, and knew how such a man felt. He wanted to tell them that generally a poor man was satisfied if he could make both ends meet; that he didn’t envy any one his good luck, if he had earned it, so long as he wasn’t running under himself. But before he could get the courage to address the whole table, Sewell added, “I suppose he don’t always think of it.”

“But some day he WILL think about it,” said Corey. “In fact, we rather invite him to think about it, in this country.”

“My brother-inlaw,” said Charles Bellingham, with the pride a man feels in a mentionably remarkable brother-inlaw, “has no end of fellows at work under him out there at Omaha, and he says it’s the fellows from countries where they’ve been kept from thinking about it that are discontented. The Americans never make any trouble. They seem to understand that so long as we give unlimited opportunity, nobody has a right to complain.”

“What do you hear from Leslie?” asked Mrs. Corey, turning from these profitless abstractions to Mrs. Bellingham.

“You know,” said that lady in a lower tone, “that there is another baby?”

“No! I hadn’t heard of it!”

“Yes; a boy. They have named him after his uncle.”

“Yes,” said Charles Bellingham, joining in. “He is said to be a noble boy, and to resemble me.”

“All boys of that tender age are noble,” said Corey, “and look like anybody you wish them to resemble. Is Leslie still home-sick for the bean-pots of her native Boston?”

“She is getting over it, I fancy,” replied Mrs. Bellingham. “She’s very much taken up with Mr. Blake’s enterprises, and leads a very exciting life. She says she’s like people who have been home from Europe three years; she’s past the most poignant stage of regret, and hasn’t reached the second, when they feel that they must go again.”

Lapham leaned a little toward Mrs. Corey, and said of a picture which he saw on the wall opposite, “Picture of your daughter, I presume?”

“No; my daughter’s grandmother. It’s a Stewart Newton; he painted a great many Salem beauties. She was a Miss Polly Burroughs. My daughter IS like her, don’t you think?” They both looked at Nanny Corey and then at the portrait. “Those pretty old-fashioned dresses are coming in again. I’m not surprised you took it for her. The others”— she referred to the other portraits more or less darkling on the walls —“are my people; mostly Copleys.”

These names, unknown to Lapham, went to his head like the wine he was drinking; they seemed to carry light for the moment, but a film of deeper darkness followed. He heard Charles Bellingham telling funny stories to Irene and trying to amuse the girl; she was laughing, and seemed very happy. From time to time Bellingham took part in the general talk between the host and James Bellingham and Miss Kingsbury and that minister, Mr. Sewell. They talked of people mostly; it astonished Lapham to hear with what freedom they talked. They discussed these persons unsparingly; James Bellingham spoke of a man known to Lapham for his business success and great wealth as not a gentleman; his cousin Charles said he was surprised that the fellow had kept from being governor so long.

When the latter turned from Irene to make one of these excursions into the general talk, young Corey talked to her; and Lapham caught some words from which it seemed that they were speaking of Penelope. It vexed him to think she had not come; she could have talked as well as any of them; she was just as bright; and Lapham was aware that Irene was not as bright, though when he looked at her face, triumphant in its young beauty and fondness, he said to himself that it did not make any difference. He felt that he was not holding up his end of the line, however. When some one spoke to him he could only summon a few words of reply, that seemed to lead to nothing; things often came into his mind appropriate to what they were saying, but before he could get them out they were off on something else; they jumped about so, he could not keep up; but he felt, all the same, that he was not doing himself justice.

At one time the talk ran off upon a subject that Lapham had never heard talked of before; but again he was vexed that Penelope was not there, to have her say; he believed that her say would have been worth hearing.

Miss Kingsbury leaned forward and asked Charles Bellingham if he had read Tears, Idle Tears, the novel that was making such a sensation; and when he said no, she said she wondered at him. “It’s perfectly heart-breaking, as you’ll imagine from the name; but there’s such a dear old-fashioned hero and heroine in it, who keep dying for each other all the way through, and making the most wildly satisfactory and unnecessary sacrifices for each other. You feel as if you’d done them yourself.”

“Ah, that’s the secret of its success,” said Bromfield Corey. “It flatters the reader by painting the characters colossal, but with his limp and stoop, so that he feels himself of their supernatural proportions. You’ve read it, Nanny?”

“Yes,” said his daughter. “It ought to have been called Slop, Silly Slop.”

“Oh, not quite SLOP, Nanny,” pleaded Miss Kingsbury.

“It’s astonishing,” said Charles Bellingham, “how we do like the books that go for our heart-strings. And I really suppose that you can’t put a more popular thing than self-sacrifice into a novel. We do like to see people suffering sublimely.”

“There was talk some years ago,” said James Bellingham, “about novels going out.” “They’re just coming in!” cried Miss Kingsbury.

“Yes,” said Mr. Sewell, the minister. “And I don’t think there ever was a time when they formed the whole intellectual experience of more people. They do greater mischief than ever.”

“Don’t be envious, parson,” said the host.

“No,” answered Sewell. “I should be glad of their help. But those novels with old-fashioned heroes and heroines in them — excuse me, Miss Kingsbury — are ruinous!”

“Don’t you feel like a moral wreck, Miss Kingsbury?” asked the host.

But Sewell went on: “The novelists might be the greatest possible help to us if they painted life as it is, and human feelings in their true proportion and relation, but for the most part they have been and are altogether noxious.”

This seemed sense to Lapham; but Bromfield Corey asked: “But what if life as it is isn’t amusing? Aren’t we to be amused?”

“Not to our hurt,” sturdily answered the minister. “And the self-sacrifice painted in most novels like this ——”

“Slop, Silly Slop?” suggested the proud father of the inventor of the phrase.

“Yes — is nothing but psychical suicide, and is as wholly immoral as the spectacle of a man falling upon his sword.”

“Well, I don’t know but you’re right, parson,” said the host; and the minister, who had apparently got upon a battle-horse of his, careered onward in spite of some tacit attempts of his wife to seize the bridle.

“Right? To be sure I am right. The whole business of love, and love-making and marrying, is painted by the novelists in a monstrous disproportion to the other relations of life. Love is very sweet, very pretty ——”

“Oh, THANK you, Mr. Sewell,” said Nanny Corey, in a way that set them all laughing.

“But it’s the affair, commonly, of very young people, who have not yet character and experience enough to make them interesting. In novels it’s treated, not only as if it were the chief interest of life, but the sole interest of the lives of two ridiculous young persons; and it is taught that love is perpetual, that the glow of a true passion lasts for ever; and that it is sacrilege to think or act otherwise.” “Well, but isn’t that true, Mr. Sewell?” pleaded Miss Kingsbury.

“I have known some most estimable people who had married a second time,” said the minister, and then he had the applause with him. Lapham wanted to make some open recognition of his good sense, but could not.

“I suppose the passion itself has been a good deal changed,” said Bromfield Corey, “since the poets began to idealise it in the days of chivalry.”

“Yes; and it ought to be changed again,” said Mr. Sewell.

“What! Back?”

“I don’t say that. But it ought to be recognised as something natural and mortal, and divine honours, which belong to righteousness alone, ought not to be paid it.”

“Oh, you ask too much, parson,” laughed his host, and the talk wandered away to something else.

It was not an elaborate dinner; but Lapham was used to having everything on the table at once, and this succession of dishes bewildered him; he was afraid perhaps he was eating too much. He now no longer made any pretence of not drinking his wine, for he was thirsty, and there was no more water, and he hated to ask for any. The ice-cream came, and then the fruit. Suddenly Mrs. Corey rose, and said across the table to her husband, “I suppose you will want your coffee here.” And he replied, “Yes; we’ll join you at tea.”

The ladies all rose, and the gentlemen got up with them. Lapham started to follow Mrs. Corey, but the other men merely stood in their places, except young Corey, who ran and opened the door for his mother. Lapham thought with shame that it was he who ought to have done that; but no one seemed to notice, and he sat down again gladly, after kicking out one of his legs which had gone to sleep.

They brought in cigars with coffee, and Bromfield Corey advised Lapham to take one that he chose for him. Lapham confessed that he liked a good cigar about as well as anybody, and Corey said: “These are new. I had an Englishman here the other day who was smoking old cigars in the superstition that tobacco improved with age, like wine.”

“Ah,” said Lapham, “anybody who had ever lived off a tobacco country could tell him better than that.” With the fuming cigar between his lips he felt more at home than he had before. He turned sidewise in his chair and, resting one arm on the back, intertwined the fingers of both hands, and smoked at large ease. James Bellingham came and sat down by him. “Colonel Lapham, weren’t you with the 96th Vermont when they charged across the river in front of Pickensburg, and the rebel battery opened fire on them in the water?”

Lapham slowly shut his eyes and slowly dropped his head for assent, letting out a white volume of smoke from the corner of his mouth.

“I thought so,” said Bellingham. “I was with the 85th Massachusetts, and I sha’n’t forget that slaughter. We were all new to it still. Perhaps that’s why it made such an impression.”

“I don’t know,” suggested Charles Bellingham. “Was there anything much more impressive afterward? I read of it out in Missouri, where I was stationed at the time, and I recollect the talk of some old army men about it. They said that death-rate couldn’t be beaten. I don’t know that it ever was.”

“About one in five of us got out safe,” said Lapham, breaking his cigar-ash off on the edge of a plate. James Bellingham reached him a bottle of Apollinaris. He drank a glass, and then went on smoking.

They all waited, as if expecting him to speak, and then Corey said: “How incredible those things seem already! You gentlemen KNOW that they happened; but are you still able to believe it?”

“Ah, nobody FEELS that anything happened,” said Charles Bellingham. “The past of one’s experience doesn’t differ a great deal from the past of one’s knowledge. It isn’t much more probable; it’s really a great deal less vivid than some scenes in a novel that one read when a boy.”

“I’m not sure of that,” said James Bellingham.

“Well, James, neither am I,” consented his cousin, helping himself from Lapham’s Apollinaris bottle. “There would be very little talking at dinner if one only said the things that one was sure of.”

The others laughed, and Bromfield Corey remarked thoughtfully, “What astonishes the craven civilian in all these things is the abundance — the superabundance — of heroism. The cowards were the exception; the men that were ready to die, the rule.”

“The woods were full of them,” said Lapham, without taking his cigar from his mouth.

“That’s a nice little touch in School,” interposed Charles Bellingham, “where the girl says to the fellow who was at Inkerman, ‘I should think you would be so proud of it,’ and he reflects a while, and says, ‘Well, the fact is, you know, there were so many of us.’”

“Yes, I remember that,” said James Bellingham, smiling for pleasure in it. “But I don’t see why you claim the credit of being a craven civilian, Bromfield,” he added, with a friendly glance at his brother-inlaw, and with the willingness Boston men often show to turn one another’s good points to the light in company; bred so intimately together at school and college and in society, they all know these points. “A man who was out with Garibaldi in ‘48,” continued James Bellingham.

“Oh, a little amateur red-shirting,” Corey interrupted in deprecation. “But even if you choose to dispute my claim, what has become of all the heroism? Tom, how many club men do you know who would think it sweet and fitting to die for their country?”

“I can’t think of a great many at the moment, sir,” replied the son, with the modesty of his generation.

“And I couldn’t in ‘61,” said his uncle. “Nevertheless they were there.”

“Then your theory is that it’s the occasion that is wanting,” said Bromfield Corey. “But why shouldn’t civil service reform, and the resumption of specie payment, and a tariff for revenue only, inspire heroes? They are all good causes.”

“It’s the occasion that’s wanting,” said James Bellingham, ignoring the persiflage. “And I’m very glad of it.”

“So am I,” said Lapham, with a depth of feeling that expressed itself in spite of the haze in which his brain seemed to float. There was a great deal of the talk that he could not follow; it was too quick for him; but here was something he was clear of. “I don’t want to see any more men killed in my time.” Something serious, something sombre must lurk behind these words, and they waited for Lapham to say more; but the haze closed round him again, and he remained silent, drinking Apollinaris.

“We non-combatants were notoriously reluctant to give up fighting,” said Mr. Sewell, the minister; “but I incline to think Colonel Lapham and Mr. Bellingham may be right. I dare say we shall have the heroism again if we have the occasion. Till it comes, we must content ourselves with the every-day generosities and sacrifices. They make up in quantity what they lack in quality, perhaps.” “They’re not so picturesque,” said Bromfield Corey. “You can paint a man dying for his country, but you can’t express on canvas a man fulfilling the duties of a good citizen.”

“Perhaps the novelists will get at him by and by,” suggested Charles Bellingham. “If I were one of these fellows, I shouldn’t propose to myself anything short of that.”

“What? the commonplace?” asked his cousin.

“Commonplace? The commonplace is just that light, impalpable, aerial essence which they’ve never got into their confounded books yet. The novelist who could interpret the common feelings of commonplace people would have the answer to ‘the riddle of the painful earth’ on his tongue.”

“Oh, not so bad as that, I hope,” said the host; and Lapham looked from one to the other, trying to make out what they were at. He had never been so up a tree before.

“I suppose it isn’t well for us to see human nature at white heat habitually,” continued Bromfield Corey, after a while. “It would make us vain of our species. Many a poor fellow in that war and in many another has gone into battle simply and purely for his country’s sake, not knowing whether, if he laid down his life, he should ever find it again, or whether, if he took it up hereafter, he should take it up in heaven or hell. Come, parson!” he said, turning to the minister, “what has ever been conceived of omnipotence, of omniscience, so sublime, so divine as that?”

“Nothing,” answered the minister quietly. “God has never been imagined at all. But if you suppose such a man as that was Authorised, I think it will help you to imagine what God must be.”

“There’s sense in that,” said Lapham. He took his cigar out of his mouth, and pulled his chair a little toward the table, on which he placed his ponderous fore-arms. “I want to tell you about a fellow I had in my own company when we first went out. We were all privates to begin with; after a while they elected me captain — I’d had the tavern stand, and most of ’em knew me. But Jim Millon never got to be anything more than corporal; corporal when he was killed.” The others arrested themselves in various attitudes of attention, and remained listening to Lapham with an interest that profoundly flattered him. Now, at last, he felt that he was holding up his end of the rope. “I can’t say he went into the thing from the highest motives, altogether; our motives are always pretty badly mixed, and when there’s such a hurrah-boys as there was then, you can’t tell which is which. I suppose Jim Millon’s wife was enough to account for his going, herself. She was a pretty bad assortment,” said Lapham, lowering his voice and glancing round at the door to make sure that it was shut, “and she used to lead Jim ONE kind of life. Well, sir,” continued Lapham, synthetising his auditors in that form of address, “that fellow used to save every cent of his pay and send it to that woman. Used to get me to do it for him. I tried to stop him. ‘Why, Jim,’ said I, ‘you know what she’ll do with it.’ ‘That’s so, Cap,’ says he, ‘but I don’t know what she’ll do without it.’ And it did keep her straight — straight as a string — as long as Jim lasted. Seemed as if there was something mysterious about it. They had a little girl — about as old as my oldest girl — and Jim used to talk to me about her. Guess he done it as much for her as for the mother; and he said to me before the last action we went into, ‘I should like to turn tail and run, Cap. I ain’t comin’ out o’ this one. But I don’t suppose it would do.’ ‘Well, not for you, Jim,’ said I. ‘I want to live,’ he says; and he bust out crying right there in my tent. ‘I want to live for poor Molly and Zerrilla’— that’s what they called the little one; I dunno where they got the name. ‘I ain’t ever had half a chance; and now she’s doing better, and I believe we should get along after this.’ He set there cryin’ like a baby. But he wa’n’t no baby when he went into action. I hated to look at him after it was over, not so much because he’d got a ball that was meant for me by a sharpshooter — he saw the devil takin’ aim, and he jumped to warn me — as because he didn’t look like Jim; he looked like — fun; all desperate and savage. I guess he died hard.”

The story made its impression, and Lapham saw it. “Now I say,” he resumed, as if he felt that he was going to do himself justice, and say something to heighten the effect his story had produced. At the same time he was aware of a certain want of clearness. He had the idea, but it floated vague, elusive, in his brain. He looked about as if for something to precipitate it in tangible shape.

“Apollinaris?” asked Charles Bellingham, handing the bottle from the other side. He had drawn his chair closer than the rest to Lapham’s, and was listening with great interest. When Mrs. Corey asked him to meet Lapham, he accepted gladly. “You know I go in for that sort of thing, Anna. Since Leslie’s affair we’re rather bound to do it. And I think we meet these practical fellows too little. There’s always something original about them.” He might naturally have believed that the reward of his faith was coming.

“Thanks, I will take some of this wine,” said Lapham, pouring himself a glass of Madeira from a black and dusty bottle caressed by a label bearing the date of the vintage. He tossed off the wine, unconscious of its preciousness, and waited for the result. That cloudiness in his brain disappeared before it, but a mere blank remained. He not only could not remember what he was going to say, but he could not recall what they had been talking about. They waited, looking at him, and he stared at them in return. After a while he heard the host saying, “Shall we join the ladies?”

Lapham went, trying to think what had happened. It seemed to him a long time since he had drunk that wine.

Miss Corey gave him a cup of tea, where he stood aloof from his wife, who was talking with Miss Kingsbury and Mrs. Sewell; Irene was with Miss Nanny Corey. He could not hear what they were talking about; but if Penelope had come, he knew that she would have done them all credit. He meant to let her know how he felt about her behaviour when he got home. It was a shame for her to miss such a chance. Irene was looking beautiful, as pretty as all the rest of them put together, but she was not talking, and Lapham perceived that at a dinner-party you ought to talk. He was himself conscious of having, talked very well. He now wore an air of great dignity, and, in conversing with the other gentlemen, he used a grave and weighty deliberation. Some of them wanted him to go into the library. There he gave his ideas of books. He said he had not much time for anything but the papers; but he was going to have a complete library in his new place. He made an elaborate acknowledgment to Bromfield Corey of his son’s kindness in suggesting books for his library; he said that he had ordered them all, and that he meant to have pictures. He asked Mr. Corey who was about the best American painter going now. “I don’t set up to be a judge of pictures, but I know what I like,” he said. He lost the reserve which he had maintained earlier, and began to boast. He himself introduced the subject of his paint, in a natural transition from pictures; he said Mr. Corey must take a run up to Lapham with him some day, and see the Works; they would interest him, and he would drive him round the country; he kept most of his horses up there, and he could show Mr. Corey some of the finest Jersey grades in the country. He told about his brother William, the judge at Dubuque; and a farm he had out there that paid for itself every year in wheat. As he cast off all fear, his voice rose, and he hammered his arm-chair with the thick of his hand for emphasis. Mr. Corey seemed impressed; he sat perfectly quiet, listening, and Lapham saw the other gentlemen stop in their talk every now and then to listen. After this proof of his ability to interest them, he would have liked to have Mrs. Lapham suggest again that he was unequal to their society, or to the society of anybody else. He surprised himself by his ease among men whose names had hitherto overawed him. He got to calling Bromfield Corey by his surname alone. He did not understand why young Corey seemed so preoccupied, and he took occasion to tell the company how he had said to his wife the first time he saw that fellow that he could make a man of him if he had him in the business; and he guessed he was not mistaken. He began to tell stories of the different young men he had had in his employ. At last he had the talk altogether to himself; no one else talked, and he talked unceasingly. It was a great time; it was a triumph.

He was in this successful mood when word came to him that Mrs. Lapham was going; Tom Corey seemed to have brought it, but he was not sure. Anyway, he was not going to hurry. He made cordial invitations to each of the gentlemen to drop in and see him at his office, and would not be satisfied till he had exacted a promise from each. He told Charles Bellingham that he liked him, and assured James Bellingham that it had always been his ambition to know him, and that if any one had said when he first came to Boston that in less than ten years he should be hobnobbing with Jim Bellingham, he should have told that person he lied. He would have told anybody he lied that had told him ten years ago that a son of Bromfield Corey would have come and asked him to take him into the business. Ten years ago he, Silas Lapham, had come to Boston a little worse off than nothing at all, for he was in debt for half the money that he had bought out his partner with, and here he was now worth a million, and meeting you gentlemen like one of you. And every cent of that was honest money — no speculation — every copper of it for value received. And here, only the other day, his old partner, who had been going to the dogs ever since he went out of the business, came and borrowed twenty thousand dollars of him! Lapham lent it because his wife wanted him to: she had always felt bad about the fellow’s having to go out of the business.

He took leave of Mr. Sewell with patronising affection, and bade him come to him if he ever got into a tight place with his parish work; he would let him have all the money he wanted; he had more money than he knew what to do with. “Why, when your wife sent to mine last fall,” he said, turning to Mr. Corey, “I drew my cheque for five hundred dollars, but my wife wouldn’t take more than one hundred; said she wasn’t going to show off before Mrs. Corey. I call that a pretty good joke on Mrs. Corey. I must tell her how Mrs. Lapham done her out of a cool four hundred dollars.”

He started toward the door of the drawing-room to take leave of the ladies; but Tom Corey was at his elbow, saying, “I think Mrs. Lapham is waiting for you below, sir,” and in obeying the direction Corey gave him toward another door he forgot all about his purpose, and came away without saying good-night to his hostess.

Mrs. Lapham had not known how soon she ought to go, and had no idea that in her quality of chief guest she was keeping the others. She stayed till eleven o’clock, and was a little frightened when she found what time it was; but Mrs. Corey, without pressing her to stay longer, had said it was not at all late. She and Irene had had a perfect time. Everybody had been very polite, on the way home they celebrated the amiability of both the Miss Coreys and of Miss Kingsbury. Mrs. Lapham thought that Mrs. Bellingham was about the pleasantest person she ever saw; she had told her all about her married daughter who had married an inventor and gone to live in Omaha — a Mrs. Blake.

“If it’s that car-wheel Blake,” said Lapham proudly, “I know all about him. I’ve sold him tons of the paint.”

“Pooh, papa! How you do smell of smoking!” cried Irene.

“Pretty strong, eh?” laughed Lapham, letting down a window of the carriage. His heart was throbbing wildly in the close air, and he was glad of the rush of cold that came in, though it stopped his tongue, and he listened more and more drowsily to the rejoicings that his wife and daughter exchanged. He meant to have them wake Penelope up and tell her what she had lost; but when he reached home he was too sleepy to suggest it. He fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, full of supreme triumph.

But in the morning his skull was sore with the unconscious, night-long ache; and he rose cross and taciturn. They had a silent breakfast. In the cold grey light of the morning the glories of the night before showed poorer. Here and there a painful doubt obtruded itself and marred them with its awkward shadow. Penelope sent down word that she was not well, and was not coming to breakfast, and Lapham was glad to go to his office without seeing her.

He was severe and silent all day with his clerks, and peremptory with customers. Of Corey he was slyly observant, and as the day wore away he grew more restively conscious. He sent out word by his office-boy that he would like to see Mr. Corey for a few minutes after closing. The type-writer girl had lingered too, as if she wished to speak with him, and Corey stood in abeyance as she went toward Lapham’s door.

“Can’t see you to-night, Zerrilla,” he said bluffly, but not unkindly. “Perhaps I’ll call at the house, if it’s important.”

“It is,” said the girl, with a spoiled air of insistence.

“Well,” said Lapham, and, nodding to Corey to enter, he closed the door upon her. Then he turned to the young, man and demanded: “Was I drunk last night?”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/howells/william_dean/h859ri/chapter14.html

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