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The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells, 1885
LAPHAM was gone a fortnight. He was in a sullen humor when he came back, and kept himself shut close within his own den at the office the first day. He entered it in the morning without a word to his clerks as he passed through the outer room, and he made no sign throughout the forenoon, except to strike savagely on his desk-bell from time to time, and send out to Walker for some book of accounts or a letter-file. His boy confidentially reported to Walker that the old man seemed to have got a lot of papers round; and at lunch the book-keeper said to Corey, at the little table which they had taken in a corner together, in default of seats at the counter, "Well, sir, I guess there's a cold wave coming."
Corey looked up innocently, and said, "I haven't read the weather report."
"Yes, sir," Walker continued, "it's coming. Areas of rain along the whole coast, and increased pressure in the region of the private office. Storm-signals up at the old man's door now."
Corey perceived that he was speaking figuratively, and that his meteorology was entirely personal to Lapham. "What do you mean?" he asked, without vivid interest in the allegory, his mind being full of his own tragi-comedy.
"Why, just this: I guess the old man's takin' in sail. And I guess he's got to. As I told you the first time we talked about him, there don't any one know one-quarter as much about the old man's business as the old man does himself; and I ain't betraying any confidence when I say that I guess that old partner of his has got pretty deep into his books. I guess he's over head and ears in 'em, and the old man's gone in after him, and he's got a drownin' man's grip round his neck. There seems to be a kind of a lull--kind of a dead calm, I call it--in the paint market just now; and then again a ten-hundred-thousand-dollar man don't build a hundred-thousand-dollar house without feeling the drain, unless there's a regular boom. And just now there ain't any boom at all. Oh, I don't say but what the old man's got anchors to windward; guess he has; but if he's goin' to leave me his money, I wish he'd left it six weeks ago. Yes, sir, I guess there's a cold wave comin'; but you can't generally 'most always tell, as a usual thing, where the old man's concerned, and it's only a guess." Walker began to feed in his breaded chop with the same nervous excitement with which he abandoned himself to the slangy and figurative excesses of his talks. Corey had listened with a miserable curiosity and compassion up to a certain moment, when a broad light of hope flashed upon him. It came from Lapham's potential ruin; and the way out of the labyrinth that had hitherto seemed so hopeless was clear enough, if another's disaster would befriend him, and give him the opportunity to prove the unselfishness of his constancy. He thought of the sum of money that was his own, and that he might offer to lend, or practically give, if the time came; and with his crude hopes and purposes formlessly exulting in his heart, he kept on listening with an unchanged countenance.
Walker could not rest till he had developed the whole situation, so far as he knew it. "Look at the stock we've got on hand. There's going to be an awful shrinkage on that, now! And when everybody is shutting down, or running half-time, the works up at Lapham are going full chip, just the same as ever. Well, it's his pride. I don't say but what it's a good sort of pride, but he likes to make his brags that the fire's never been out in the works since they started, and that no man's work or wages has ever been cut down yet at Lapham, it don't matter what the times are. Of course," explained Walker, "I shouldn't talk so to everybody; don't know as I should talk so to anybody but you, Mr. Corey."
"Of course," assented Corey.
"Little off your feed to-day," said Walker, glancing at Corey's plate.
"I got up with a headache."
"Well, sir, if you're like me you'll carry it round all day, then. I don't know a much meaner thing than a headache--unless it's earache, or toothache, or some other kind of ache I'm pretty hard to suit, when it comes to diseases. Notice how yellow the old man looked when he came in this morning? I don't like to see a man of his build look yellow--much." About the middle of the afternoon the dust-colored face of Rogers, now familiar to Lapham's clerks, showed itself among them. "Has Colonel Lapham returned yet?" he asked, in his dry, wooden tones, of Lapham's boy.
"Yes, he's in his office," said the boy; and as Rogers advanced, he rose and added, "I don't know as you can see him to-day. His orders are not to let anybody in."
"Oh, indeed!" said Rogers; "I think he will see me!" and he pressed forward.
"Well, I'll have to ask," returned the boy; and hastily preceding Rogers, he put his head in at Lapham's door, and then withdrew it. "Please to sit down," he said; "he'll see you pretty soon;" and, with an air of some surprise, Rogers obeyed. His sere, dull-brown whiskers and the mustache closing over both lips were incongruously and illogically clerical in effect, and the effect was heightened for no reason by the parchment texture of his skin; the baldness extending to the crown of his head was like a baldness made up for the stage. What his face expressed chiefly was a bland and beneficent caution. Here, you must have said to yourself, is a man of just, sober, and prudent views, fixed purposes, and the good citizenship that avoids debt and hazard of every kind.
"What do you want?" asked Lapham, wheeling round in his swivel-chair as Rogers entered his room, and pushing the door shut with his foot, without rising.
Rogers took the chair that was not offered him, and sat with his hat-brim on his knees, and its crown pointed towards Lapham. "I want to know what you are going to do," he answered with sufficient self-possession.
"I'll tell you, first, what I've done," said Lapham. "I've been to Dubuque, and I've found out all about that milling property you turned in on me. Did you know that the G. L. & P. had leased the P. Y. & X. ?"
"I some suspected that it might."
"Did you know it when you turned the property in on me? Did you know that the G. L. & P. wanted to buy the mills?"
"I presumed the road would give a fair price for them," said Rogers, winking his eyes in outward expression of inwardly blinking the point.
"You lie," said Lapham, as quietly as if correcting him in a slight error; and Rogers took the word with equal sang froid. "You knew the road wouldn't give a fair price for the mills. You knew it would give what it chose, and that I couldn't help myself, when you let me take them. You're a thief, Milton K. Rogers, and you stole money I lent you." Rogers sat listening, as if respectfully considering the statements. "You knew how I felt about that old matter--or my wife did; and that I wanted to make it up to you, if you felt anyway badly used. And you took advantage of it. You've got money out of me, in the first place, on securities that wa'n't worth thirty-five cents on the dollar, and you've let me in for this thing, and that thing, and you've bled me every time. And all I've got to show for it is a milling property on a line of road that can squeeze me, whenever it wants to, as dry as it pleases. And you want to know what I'm going to do? I'm going to squeeze you. I'm going to sell these collaterals of yours,"--he touched a bundle of papers among others that littered his desk,--"and I'm going to let the mills go for what they'll fetch. I ain't going to fight the G. L. & P."
Lapham wheeled about in his chair and turned his burly back on his visitor, who sat wholly unmoved.
"There are some parties," he began, with a dry tranquillity ignoring Lapham's words, as if they had been an outburst against some third person, who probably merited them, but in whom he was so little interested that he had been obliged to use patience in listening to his condemnation,--"there are some English parties who have been making inquiries in regard to those mills."
"I guess you're lying, Rogers," said Lapham, without looking round.
"Well, all that I have to ask is that you will not act hastily."
"I see you don't think I'm in earnest!" cried Lapham, facing fiercely about. "You think I'm fooling, do you?" He struck his bell, and "William," he ordered the boy who answered it, and who stood waiting while he dashed off a note to the brokers and enclosed it with the bundle of securities in a large envelope, "take these down to Gallop & Paddock's, in State Street, right away. Now go!" he said to Rogers, when the boy had closed the door after him; and he turned once more to his desk.
Rogers rose from his chair, and stood with his hat in his hand. He was not merely dispassionate in his attitude and expression, he was impartial. He wore the air of a man who was ready to return to business whenever the wayward mood of his interlocutor permitted. "Then I understand," he said, "that you will take no action in regard to the mills till I have seen the parties I speak of."
Lapham faced about once more, and sat looking up into the visage of Rogers in silence. "I wonder what you're up to," he said at last; "I should like to know." But as Rogers made no sign of gratifying his curiosity, and treated this last remark of Lapham's as of the irrelevance of all the rest, he said, frowning, "You bring me a party that will give me enough for those mills to clear me of you, and I'll talk to you. But don't you come here with any man of straw. And I'll give you just twenty-four hours to prove yourself a swindler again."
Once more Lapham turned his back, and Rogers, after looking thoughtfully into his hat a moment, cleared his throat, and quietly withdrew, maintaining to the last his unprejudiced demeanor.
Lapham was not again heard from, as Walker phrased it, during the afternoon, except when the last mail was taken in to him; then the sound of rending envelopes, mixed with that of what seemed suppressed swearing, penetrated to the outer office. Somewhat earlier than the usual hour for closing, he appeared there with his hat on and his overcoat buttoned about him. He said briefly to his boy, "William, I shan't be back again this afternoon," and then went to Miss Dewey and left a number of letters on her table to be copied, and went out. Nothing had been said, but a sense of trouble subtly diffused itself through those who saw him go out.
That evening as he sat down with his wife alone at tea, he asked, "Ain't Pen coming to supper?"
"No, she ain't," said his wife. "I don't know as I like the way she's going on, any too well. I'm afraid, if she keeps on, she'll be down sick. She's got deeper feelings than Irene."
Lapham said nothing, but having helped himself to the abundance of his table in his usual fashion, he sat and looked at his plate with an indifference that did not escape the notice of his wife. "What's the matter with you?" she asked.
"Nothing. I haven't got any appetite."
"What's the matter?" she persisted.
"Trouble's the matter; bad luck and lots of it's the matter," said Lapham. "I haven't ever hid anything from you, Persis, well you asked me, and it's too late to begin now. I'm in a fix. I'll tell you what kind of a fix, if you think it'll do you any good; but I guess you'll be satisfied to know that it's a fix."
"How much of a one?" she asked with a look of grave, steady courage in her eyes.
"Well, I don't know as I can tell, just yet," said Lapham, avoiding this look. "Things have been dull all the fall, but I thought they'd brisk up come winter. They haven't. There have been a lot of failures, and some of 'em owed me, and some of 'em had me on their paper; and----" Lapham stopped.
"And what?" prompted his wife.
He hesitated before he added, "And then--Rogers."
"I'm to blame for that," said Mrs. Lapham. "I forced you to it."
"No; I was as willing to go into it as what you were," answered Lapham. "I don't want to blame anybody."
Mrs. Lapham had a woman's passion for fixing responsibility; she could not help saying, as soon as acquitted, "I warned you against him, Silas. I told you not to let him get in any deeper with you."
"Oh yes. I had to help him to try to get my money back. I might as well poured water into a sieve. And now--" Lapham stopped.
"Don't be afraid to speak out to me, Silas Lapham. If it comes to the worst, I want to know it--I've got to know it. What did I ever care for the money? I've. had a happy home with you ever since we were married, and I guess I shall have as long as you live, whether we go on to the Back Bay, or go back to the old house at Lapham. I know who's to blame, and I blame myself. It was my forcing Rogers on to you." She came back to this with her helpless longing, inbred in all Puritan souls, to have some one specifically suffer for the evil in the world, even if it must be herself.
"It hasn't come to the worst yet, Persis," said her husband. "But I shall have to hold up on the new house a little while, till I can see where I am."
"I shouldn't care if we had to sell it," cried his wife, in passionate self-condemnation. "I should be glad if we had to, as far as I'm concerned."
"I shouldn't," said Lapham.
"I know!" said his wife; and she remembered ruefully how his heart was set on it.
He sat musing. "Well, I guess it's going to come out all right in the end. Or, if it ain't," he sighed, "we can't help it. May be Pen needn't worry so much about Corey, after all," he continued, with a bitter irony new to him. "It's an ill wind that blows nobody good. And there's a chance," he ended, with a still bitterer laugh, "that Rogers will come to time, after all."
"I don't believe it!" exclaimed Mrs. Lapham, with a gleam of hope in her eyes. "What chance?"
"One in ten million," said Lapham; and her face fell again. "He says there are some English parties after him to buy these mills."
"Well, I gave him twenty-four hours to prove himself a liar."
"You don't believe there are any such parties?"
"Not in this world."
"But if there were?"
"Well, if there were, Persis----But pshaw!"
"No, no!" she pleaded eagerly. "It don't seem as if he could be such a villain. What would be the use of his pretending? If he brought the parties to you"
"Well," said Lapham scornfully, "I'd let them have the mills at the price Rogers turned 'em in on me at. I don't want to make anything on 'em. But guess I shall hear from the G. L. & P. first. And when they make their offer, I guess I'll have to accept it, whatever it is. I don't think they'll have a great many competitors."
Mrs. Lapham could not give up her hope. "If you could get your price from those English parties before they knew that the G. L. & P. wanted to buy the mills, would it let you out with Rogers?"
"Just about," said Lapham.
"Then I know he'll move heaven and earth to bring it about. I know you won't be allowed to suffer for doing him a kindness, Silas. He can't be so ungrateful! Why, why should he pretend to have any such parties in view when he hasn't? Don't you be down-hearted, Si. You'll see that he'll be round with them to-morrow."
Lapham laughed, but she urged so many reasons for her belief in Rogers that Lapham began to rekindle his own faith a little. He ended by asking for a hot cup of tea; and Mrs. Lapham sent the pot out and had a fresh one steeped for him. After that he made a hearty supper in the revulsion from his entire despair; and they fell asleep that night talking hopefully of his affairs, which he laid before her fully, as he used to do when he first started in business. That brought the old times back, and he said: "If this had happened then, I shouldn't have cared much. I was young then, and I wasn't afraid of anything. But I noticed that after I passed fifty I began to get scared easier. I don't believe I could pick up, now, from a regular knock-down."
"Pshaw! You scared, Silas Lapham?" cried his wife proudly. "I should like to see the thing that ever scared you; or the knockdown that you couldn't pick up from!"
"Is that so, Persis?" he asked, with the joy her courage gave him.
In the middle of the night she called to him, in a voice which the darkness rendered still more deeply troubled: "Are you awake, Silas?"
"Yes; I'm awake."
"I've been thinking about those English parties, Si----"
"And I can't make it out but what you'd be just as bad as Rogers, every bit and grain, if you were to let them have the mills----"
"And not tell 'em what the chances were with the G. L. & P.? I thought of that, and you needn't be afraid."
She began to bewail herself, and to sob convulsively: "O Silas! O Silas!" Heaven knows in what measure the passion of her soul was mired with pride in her husband's honesty, relief from an apprehended struggle, and pity for him.
"Hush, hush, Persis!" he besought her. "You'll wake Pen if you keep on that way. Don't cry any more! You mustn't."
"Oh, let me cry, Silas! It'll help me. I shall be all right in a minute. Don't you mind." She sobbed herself quiet. "It does seem too hard," she said, when she could speak again, "that you have to give up this chance when Providence had fairly raised it up for you."
"I guess it wa'n't Providence raised it up," said Lapham. "Any rate, it's got to go. Most likely Rogers was lyin', and there ain't any such parties; but if there were, they couldn't have the mills from me without the whole story. Don't you be troubled, Persis. I'm going to pull through all right."
"Oh, I ain't afraid. I don't suppose but what there's plenty would help you, if they knew you needed it, Si."
"They would if they knew I didn't need it," said Lapham sardonically.
"Did you tell Bill how you stood?"
"No, I couldn't bear to. I've been the rich one so long, that I couldn't bring myself to own up that I was in danger."
"Besides, it didn't look so ugly till to-day. But I guess we shan't let ugly looks scare us."