The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells

XVII.

“WHAT’s the reason the girls never get down to breakfast any more?” asked Lapham, when he met his wife at the table in the morning. He had been up an hour and a half, and he spoke with the severity of a hungry man. “It seems to me they don’t amount to ANYthing. Here I am, at my time of life, up the first one in the house. I ring the bell for the cook at quarter-past six every morning, and the breakfast is on the table at half-past seven right along, like clockwork, but I never see anybody but you till I go to the office.”

“Oh yes, you do, Si,” said his wife soothingly. “The girls are nearly always down. But they’re young, and it tires them more than it does us to get up early.”

“They can rest afterwards. They don’t do anything after they ARE up,” grumbled Lapham.

“Well, that’s your fault, ain’t it? You oughtn’t to have made so much money, and then they’d have had to work.” She laughed at Lapham’s Spartan mood, and went on to excuse the young people. “Irene’s been up two nights hand running, and Penelope says she ain’t well. What makes you so cross about the girls? Been doing something you’re ashamed of?”

“I’ll tell you when I’ve been doing anything to be ashamed of,” growled Lapham.

“Oh no, you won’t!” said his wife jollily. “You’ll only be hard on the rest of us. Come now, Si; what is it?”

Lapham frowned into his coffee with sulky dignity, and said, without looking up, “I wonder what that fellow wanted here last night?” “What fellow?”

“Corey. I found him here when I came home, and he said he wanted to see me; but he wouldn’t stop.”

“Where was he?”

“In the sitting-room.”

“Was Pen there?”

“I didn’t see her.”

Mrs. Lapham paused, with her hand on the cream-jug. “Why, what in the land did he want? Did he say he wanted you?”

“That’s what he said.”

“And then he wouldn’t stay?”

“Well, then, I’ll tell you just what it is, Silas Lapham. He came here”— she looked about the room and lowered her voice —“to see you about Irene, and then he hadn’t the courage.”

“I guess he’s got courage enough to do pretty much what he wants to,” said Lapham glumly. “All I know is, he was here. You better ask Pen about it, if she ever gets down.”

“I guess I shan’t wait for her,” said Mrs. Lapham; and, as her husband closed the front door after him, she opened that of her daughter’s room and entered abruptly.

The girl sat at the window, fully dressed, and as if she had been sitting there a long time. Without rising, she turned her face towards her mother. It merely showed black against the light, and revealed nothing till her mother came close to her with successive questions. “Why, how long have you been up, Pen? Why don’t you come to your breakfast? Did you see Mr. Corey when he called last night? Why, what’s the matter with you? What have you been crying about?”

“Have I been crying?”

“Yes! Your cheeks are all wet!”

“I thought they were on fire. Well, I’ll tell you what’s happened.” She rose, and then fell back in her chair. “Lock the door!” she ordered, and her mother mechanically obeyed. “I don’t want Irene in here. There’s nothing the matter. Only, Mr. Corey offered himself to me last night.”

Her mother remained looking at her, helpless, not so much with amaze, perhaps, as dismay. “Oh, I’m not a ghost! I wish I was! You had better sit down, mother. You have got to know all about it.”

Mrs. Lapham dropped nervelessly into the chair at the other window, and while the girl went slowly but briefly on, touching only the vital points of the story, and breaking at times into a bitter drollery, she sat as if without the power to speak or stir.

“Well, that’s all, mother. I should say I had dreamt, it, if I had slept any last night; but I guess it really happened.”

The mother glanced round at the bed, and said, glad to occupy herself delayingly with the minor care: “Why, you have been sitting up all night! You will kill yourself.”

“I don’t know about killing myself, but I’ve been sitting up all night,” answered the girl. Then, seeing that her mother remained blankly silent again, she demanded, “Why don’t you blame me, mother? Why don’t you say that I led him on, and tried to get him away from her? Don’t you believe I did?”

Her mother made her no answer, as if these ravings of self-accusal needed none. “Do you think,” she asked simply, “that he got the idea you cared for him?”

“He knew it! How could I keep it from him? I said I didn’t — at first!”

“It was no use,” sighed the mother. “You might as well said you did. It couldn’t help Irene any, if you didn’t.”

“I always tried to help her with him, even when I——”

“Yes, I know. But she never was equal to him. I saw that from the start; but I tried to blind myself to it. And when he kept coming ——”

“You never thought of me!” cried the girl, with a bitterness that reached her mother’s heart. “I was nobody! I couldn’t feel! No one could care for me!” The turmoil of despair, of triumph, of remorse and resentment, which filled her soul, tried to express itself in the words.

“No,” said the mother humbly. “I didn’t think of you. Or I didn’t think of you enough. It did come across me sometimes that may be —— But it didn’t seem as if —— And your going on so for Irene ——”

“You let me go on. You made me always go and talk with him for her, and you didn’t think I would talk to him for myself. Well, I didn’t!”

“I’m punished for it. When did you — begin to care for him!”

“How do I know? What difference does it make? It’s all over now, no matter when it began. He won’t come here any more, unless I let him.” She could not help betraying her pride in this authority of hers, but she went on anxiously enough, “What will you say to Irene? She’s safe as far as I’m concerned; but if he don’t care for her, what will you do?”

“I don’t know what to do,” said Mrs. Lapham. She sat in an apathy from which she apparently could not rouse herself. “I don’t see as anything can be done.”

Penelope laughed in a pitying derision.

“Well, let things go on then. But they won’t go on.”

“No, they won’t go on,” echoed her mother. “She’s pretty enough, and she’s capable; and your father’s got the money — I don’t know what I’m saying! She ain’t equal to him, and she never was. I kept feeling it all the time, and yet I kept blinding myself.”

“If he had ever cared for her,” said Penelope, “it wouldn’t have mattered whether she was equal to him or not. I’M not equal to him either.”

Her mother went on: “I might have thought it was you; but I had got set —— Well! I can see it all clear enough, now it’s too late. I don’t know what to do.”

“And what do you expect me to do?” demanded the girl. “Do you want ME to go to Irene and tell her that I’ve got him away from her?”

“O good Lord!” cried Mrs. Lapham. “What shall I do? What do you want I should do, Pen?”

“Nothing for me,” said Penelope. “I’ve had it out with myself. Now do the best you can for Irene.”

“I couldn’t say you had done wrong, if you was to marry him today.”

“Mother!”

“No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t say but what you had been good and faithfull all through, and you had a perfect right to do it. There ain’t any one to blame. He’s behaved like a gentleman, and I can see now that he never thought of her, and that it was you all the while. Well, marry him, then! He’s got the right, and so have you.”

“What about Irene? I don’t want you to talk about me. I can take care of myself.”

“She’s nothing but a child. It’s only a fancy with her. She’ll get over it. She hain’t really got her heart set on him.”

“She’s got her heart set on him, mother. She’s got her whole life set on him. You know that.”

“Yes, that’s so,” said the mother, as promptly as if she had been arguing to that rather than the contrary effect.

“If I could give him to her, I would. But he isn’t mine to give.” She added in a burst of despair, “He isn’t mine to keep!”

“Well,” said Mrs. Lapham, “she has got to bear it. I don’t know what’s to come of it all. But she’s got to bear her share of it.” She rose and went toward the door.

Penelope ran after her in a sort of terror. “You’re not going to tell Irene?” she gasped, seizing her mother by either shoulder.

“Yes, I am,” said Mrs. Lapham. “If she’s a woman grown, she can bear a woman’s burden.”

“I can’t let you tell Irene,” said the girl, letting fall her face on her mother’s neck. “Not Irene,” she moaned. “I’m afraid to let you. How can I ever look at her again?”

“Why, you haven’t done anything, Pen,” said her mother soothingly.

“I wanted to! Yes, I must have done something. How could I help it? I did care for him from the first, and I must have tried to make him like me. Do you think I did? No, no! You mustn’t tell Irene! Not — not — yet! Mother! Yes! I did try to get him from her!” she cried, lifting her head, and suddenly looking her mother in the face with those large dim eyes of hers. “What do you think? Even last night! It was the first time I ever had him all to myself, for myself, and I know now that I tried to make him think that I was pretty and — funny. And I didn’t try to make him think of her. I knew that I pleased him, and I tried to please him more. Perhaps I could have kept him from saying that he cared for me; but when I saw he did — I must have seen it — I couldn’t. I had never had him to myself, and for myself before. I needn’t have seen him at all, but I wanted to see him; and when I was sitting there alone with him, how do I know what I did to let him feel that I cared for him? Now, will you tell Irene? I never thought he did care for me, and never expected him to. But I liked him. Yes — I did like him! Tell her that! Or else I will.”

“If it was to tell her he was dead,” began Mrs. Lapham absently.

“How easy it would be!” cried the girl in self-mockery. “But he’s worse than dead to her; and so am I. I’ve turned it over a million ways, mother; I’ve looked at it in every light you can put it in, and I can’t make anything but misery out of it. You can see the misery at the first glance, and you can’t see more or less if you spend your life looking at it.” She laughed again, as if the hopelessness of the thing amused her. Then she flew to the extreme of self-assertion. “Well, I HAVE a right to him, and he has a right to me. If he’s never done anything to make her think he cared for her — and I know he hasn’t; it’s all been our doing, then he’s free and I’m free. We can’t make her happy whatever we do; and why shouldn’t I—— No, that won’t do! I reached that point before!” She broke again into her desperate laugh. “You may try now, mother!”

“I’d best speak to your father first ——”

Penelope smiled a little more forlornly than she had laughed.

“Well, yes; the Colonel will have to know. It isn’t a trouble that I can keep to myself exactly. It seems to belong to too many other people.”

Her mother took a crazy encouragement from her return to her old way of saying things. “Perhaps he can think of something.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt but the Colonel will know just what to do!”

“You mustn’t be too down-hearted about it. It — it’ll all come right ——”

“You tell Irene that, mother.”

Mrs. Lapham had put her hand on the door-key; she dropped it, and looked at the girl with a sort of beseeching appeal for the comfort she could not imagine herself. “Don’t look at me, mother,” said Penelope, shaking her head. “You know that if Irene were to die without knowing it, it wouldn’t come right for me.”

“Pen!”

“I’ve read of cases where a girl gives up the man that loves her so as to make some other girl happy that the man doesn’t love. That might be done.”

“Your father would think you were a fool,” said Mrs. Lapham, finding a sort of refuge in her strong disgust for the pseudo heroism. “No! If there’s to be any giving up, let it be by the one that shan’t make anybody but herself suffer. There’s trouble and sorrow enough in the world, without MAKING it on purpose!”

She unlocked the door, but Penelope slipped round and set herself against it. “Irene shall not give up!”

“I will see your father about it,” said the mother. “Let me out now ——”

“Don’t let Irene come here!”

“No. I will tell her that you haven’t slept. Go to bed now, and try to get some rest. She isn’t up herself yet. You must have some breakfast.”

“No; let me sleep if I can. I can get something when I wake up. I’ll come down if I can’t sleep. Life has got to go on. It does when there’s a death in the house, and this is only a little worse.”

“Don’t you talk nonsense!” cried Mrs. Lapham, with angry authority.

“Well, a little better, then,” said Penelope, with meek concession.

Mrs. Lapham attempted to say something, and could not. She went out and opened Irene’s door. The girl lifted her head drowsily from her pillow “Don’t disturb your sister when you get up, Irene. She hasn’t slept well ——”

“PLEASE don’t talk! I’m almost DEAD with sleep!” returned Irene. “Do go, mamma! I shan’t disturb her.” She turned her face down in the pillow, and pulled the covering up over her ears.

The mother slowly closed the door and went downstairs, feeling bewildered and baffled almost beyond the power to move. The time had been when she would have tried to find out why this judgment had been sent upon her. But now she could not feel that the innocent suffering of others was inflicted for her fault; she shrank instinctively from that cruel and egotistic misinterpretation of the mystery of pain and loss. She saw her two children, equally if differently dear to her, destined to trouble that nothing could avert, and she could not blame either of them; she could not blame the means of this misery to them; he was as innocent as they, and though her heart was sore against him in this first moment, she could still be just to him in it. She was a woman who had been used to seek the light by striving; she had hitherto literally worked to it. But it is the curse of prosperity that it takes work away from us, and shuts that door to hope and health of spirit. In this house, where everything had come to be done for her, she had no tasks to interpose between her and her despair. She sat down in her own room and let her hands fall in her lap — the hands that had once been so helpful and busy — and tried to think it all out. She had never heard of the fate that was once supposed to appoint the sorrows of men irrespective of their blamelessness or blame, before the time when it came to be believed that sorrows were penalties; but in her simple way she recognised something like that mythic power when she rose from her struggle with the problem, and said aloud to herself, “Well, the witch is in it.” Turn which way she would, she saw no escape from the misery to come — the misery which had come already to Penelope and herself, and that must come to Irene and her father. She started when she definitely thought of her husband, and thought with what violence it would work in every fibre of his rude strength. She feared that, and she feared something worse — the effect which his pride and ambition might seek to give it; and it was with terror of this, as well as the natural trust with which a woman must turn to her husband in any anxiety at last, that she felt she could not wait for evening to take counsel with him. When she considered how wrongly he might take it all, it seemed as if it were already known to him, and she was impatient to prevent his error.

She sent out for a messenger, whom she despatched with a note to his place of business: “Silas, I should like to ride with you this afternoon. Can’t you come home early? Persis.” And she was at dinner with Irene, evading her questions about Penelope, when answer came that he would be at the house with the buggy at half-past two. It is easy to put off a girl who has but one thing in her head; but though Mrs. Lapham could escape without telling anything of Penelope, she could not escape seeing how wholly Irene was engrossed with hopes now turned so vain and impossible. She was still talking of that dinner, of nothing but that dinner, and begging for flattery of herself and praise of him, which her mother had till now been so ready to give.

“Seems to me you don’t take very much interest, mamma!” she said, laughing and blushing at one point.

“Yes — yes, I do,” protested Mrs. Lapham, and then the girl prattled on.

“I guess I shall get one of those pins that Nanny Corey had in her hair. I think it would become me, don’t you?” “Yes; but Irene — I don’t like to have you go on so, till — unless he’s said something to show — You oughtn’t to give yourself up to thinking ——” But at this the girl turned so white, and looked such reproach at her, that she added frantically: “Yes, get the pin. It is just the thing for you! But don’t disturb Penelope. Let her alone till I get back. I’m going out to ride with your father. He’ll be here in half an hour. Are you through? Ring, then. Get yourself that fan you saw the other day. Your father won’t say anything; he likes to have you look well. I could see his eyes on you half the time the other night.”

“I should have liked to have Pen go with me,” said Irene, restored to her normal state of innocent selfishness by these flatteries. “Don’t you suppose she’ll be up in time? What’s the matter with her that she didn’t sleep?”

“I don’t know. Better let her alone.”

“Well,” submitted Irene.

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