"But you won't choose when you've thought it over, Si." Then she applied an emollient to his chafed surface. "Don't you suppose I feel as you do about it? I know just how proud you are, and I'm not going to have you do anything that will make you feel meeching afterward. You just let things take their course. If he wants Irene, he's going to find out some way of seeing her; and if he don't, all the plotting and planning in the world isn't going to make him."
"Who's plotting?" again retorted the Colonel, shuddering at the utterance of hopes and ambitions which a man hides with shame, but a woman talks over as freely and coolly as if they were items of a milliner's bill.
"Oh, not you!" exulted his wife. "I understand what you want. You want to get this fellow, who is neither partner nor clerk, down here to talk business with him. Well, now, you just talk business with him at the office."
The only social attention which Lapham succeeded in offering Corey was to take him in his buggy, now and then, for a spin out over the Mill-dam. He kept the mare in town, and on a pleasant afternoon he liked to knock off early, as he phrased it, and let the mare out a little. Corey understood something about horses, though in a passionless way, and he would have preferred to talk business when obliged to talk horse. But he deferred to his business superior with the sense of discipline which is innate in the apparently insubordinate American nature. If Corey could hardly have helped feeling the social difference between Lapham and himself, in his presence he silenced his traditions, and showed him all the respect that he could have exacted from any of his clerks. He talked horse with him, and when the Colonel wished he talked house. Besides himself and his paint Lapham had not many other topics; and if he had a choice between the mare and the edifice on the water side of Beacon Street, it was just now the latter. Sometimes, in driving in or out, he stopped at the house, and made Corey his guest there, if he might not at Nantasket; and one day it happened that the young man met Irene there again. She had come up with her mother alone, and they were in the house, interviewing the carpenter as before, when the Colonel jumped out of his buggy and cast anchor at the pavement. More exactly, Mrs. Lapham was interviewing the carpenter, and Irene was sitting in the bow-window on a trestle, and looking out at the driving. She saw him come up with her father, and bowed and blushed. Her father went on up-stairs to find her mother, and Corey pulled up another trestle which he found in the back part of the room. The first floorings had been laid throughout the house, and the partitions had been lathed so that one could realise the shape of the interior.
"I suppose you will sit at this window a good deal," said the young man.
"Yes, I think it will be very nice. There's so much more going on than there is in the Square."
"It must be very interesting to you to see the house grow."
"It is. Only it doesn't seem to grow so fast as I expected."
"Why, I'm amazed at the progress your carpenter has made every time I come."
The girl looked down, and then lifting her eyes she said, with a sort of timorous appeal--
"I've been reading that book since you were down at Nantasket."
"Book?" repeated Corey, while she reddened with disappointment. "Oh yes. Middlemarch. Did you like it?"
"I haven't got through with it yet. Pen has finished it."
"What does she think of it?"
"Oh, I think she likes it very well. I haven't heard her talk about it much. Do you like it?"
"Yes; I liked it immensely. But it's several years since I read it."
"I didn't know it was so old. It's just got into the Seaside Library," she urged, with a little sense of injury in her tone.
"Oh, it hasn't been out such a very great while," said Corey politely. "It came a little before DANIEL DERONDA."
The girl was again silent. She followed the curl of a shaving on the floor with the point of her parasol.
"Do you like that Rosamond Vincy?" she asked, without looking up.
Corey smiled in his kind way.
"I didn't suppose she was expected to have any friends. I can't say I liked her. But I don't think I disliked her so much as the author does. She's pretty hard on her good-looking"--he was going to say girls, but as if that might have been rather personal, he said--"people."
"Yes, that's what Pen says. She says she doesn't give her any chance to be good. She says she should have been just as bad as Rosamond if she had been in her place."
The young man laughed. "Your sister is very satirical, isn't she?"
"I don't know," said Irene, still intent upon the convolutions of the shaving. "She keeps us laughing. Papa thinks there's nobody that can talk like her." She gave the shaving a little toss from her, and took the parasol up across her lap. The unworldliness of the Lapham girls did not extend to their dress; Irene's costume was very stylish, and she governed her head and shoulders stylishly. "We are going to have the back room upstairs for a music-room and library," she said abruptly.
"Yes?" returned Corey. "I should think that would be charming."
"We expected to have book-cases, but the architect wants to build the shelves in."
The fact seemed to be referred to Corey for his comment.
"It seems to me that would be the best way. They'll look like part of the room then. You can make them low, and hang your pictures above them."
"Yes, that's what he said." The girl looked out of the window in adding, "I presume with nice bindings it will look very well."
"Oh, nothing furnishes a room like books."
"No. There will have to be a good many of them."
"That depends upon the size of your room and the number of your shelves."
"Oh, of course! I presume," said Irene, thoughtfully, "we shall have to have Gibbon."
"If you want to read him," said Corey, with a laugh of sympathy for an imaginable joke.
"We had a great deal about him at school. I believe we had one of his books. Mine's lost, but Pen will remember."
The young man looked at her, and then said, seriously, "You'll want Greene, of course, and Motley, and Parkman."
"Yes. What kind of writers are they?"
"They're historians too."
"Oh yes; I remember now. That's what Gibbon was. Is it Gibbon or Gibbons?"
The young man decided the point with apparently superfluous delicacy. "Gibbon, I think."
"There used to be so many of them," said Irene gaily. "I used to get them mixed up with each other, and I couldn't tell them from the poets. Should you want to have poetry?"
"Yes; I suppose some edition of the English poets."
"We don't any of us like poetry. Do you like it?"
"I'm afraid I don't very much," Corey owned. "But, of course, there was a time when Tennyson was a great deal more to me than he is now."
"We had something about him at school too. I think I remember the name. I think we ought to have ALL the American poets."
"Well, not all. Five or six of the best: you want Longfellow and Bryant and Whittier and Holmes and Emerson and Lowell."
The girl listened attentively, as if making mental note of the names.
"And Shakespeare," she added. "Don't you like Shakespeare's plays?"
"Oh yes, very much."
"I used to be perfectly crazy about his plays. Don't you think 'Hamlet' is splendid? We had ever so much about Shakespeare. Weren't you perfectly astonished when you found out how many other plays of his there were? I always thought there was nothing but 'Hamlet' and 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Macbeth' and 'Richard III.' and 'King Lear,' and that one that Robeson and Crane have--oh yes! 'Comedy of Errors.'"
"Those are the ones they usually play," said Corey.
"I presume we shall have to have Scott's works," said Irene, returning to the question of books.
"One of the girls used to think he was GREAT. She was always talking about Scott." Irene made a pretty little amiably contemptuous mouth. "He isn't American, though?" she suggested.
"No," said Corey; "he's Scotch, I believe."
Irene passed her glove over her forehead. "I always get him mixed up with Cooper. Well, papa has got to get them. If we have a library, we have got to have books in it. Pen says it's perfectly ridiculous having one. But papa thinks whatever the architect says is right. He fought him hard enough at first. I don't see how any one can keep the poets and the historians and novelists separate in their mind. Of course papa will buy them if we say so. But I don't see how I'm ever going to tell him which ones." The joyous light faded out of her face and left it pensive.
"Why, if you like," said the young man, taking out his pencil, "I'll put down the names we've been talking about."
He clapped himself on his breast pockets to detect some lurking scrap of paper.
"Will you?" she cried delightedly. "Here! take one of my cards," and she pulled out her card-case. "The carpenter writes on a three-cornered block and puts it into his pocket, and it's so uncomfortable he can't help remembering it. Pen says she's going to adopt the three-cornered-block plan with papa."
"Thank you," said Corey. "I believe I'll use your card." He crossed over to her, and after a moment sat down on the trestle beside her. She looked over the card as he wrote. "Those are the ones we mentioned, but perhaps I'd better add a few others."
"Oh, thank you," she said, when he had written the card full on both sides. "He has got to get them in the nicest binding, too. I shall tell him about their helping to furnish the room, and then he can't object." She remained with the card, looking at it rather wistfully.
Perhaps Corey divined her trouble of mind. "If he will take that to any bookseller, and tell him what bindings he wants, he will fill the order for him."
"Oh, thank you very much," she said, and put the card back into her card-case with great apparent relief. Then she turned her lovely face toward the young man, beaming with the triumph a woman feels in any bit of successful manoeuvring, and began to talk with recovered gaiety of other things, as if, having got rid of a matter annoying out of all proportion to its importance, she was now going to indemnify herself.
Corey did not return to his own trestle. She found another shaving within reach of her parasol, and began poking that with it, and trying to follow it through its folds. Corey watched her a while.
"You seem to have a great passion for playing with shavings," he said. "Is it a new one?"
"I don't know," she said, dropping her eyelids, and keeping on with her effort. She looked shyly aslant at him. "Perhaps you don't approve of playing with shavings?"
"Oh yes, I do. I admire it very much. But it seems rather difficult. I've a great ambition to put my foot on the shaving's tail and hold it for you."
"Well," said the girl.
"Thank you," said the young man. He did so, and now she ran her parasol point easily through it. They looked at each other and laughed. "That was wonderful. Would you like to try another?" he asked.
"No, I thank you," she replied. "I think one will do."
They both laughed again, for whatever reason or no reason, and then the young girl became sober. To a girl everything a young man does is of significance; and if he holds a shaving down with his foot while she pokes through it with her parasol, she must ask herself what he means by it.
"They seem to be having rather a long interview with the carpenter to-day," said Irene, looking vaguely toward the ceiling. She turned with polite ceremony to Corey. "I'm afraid you're letting them keep you. You mustn't."
"Oh no. You're letting me stay," he returned.
She bridled and bit her lip for pleasure. "I presume they will be down before a great while. Don't you like the smell of the wood and the mortar? It's so fresh."
"Yes, it's delicious." He bent forward and picked up from the floor the shaving with which they had been playing, and put it to his nose. "It's like a flower. May I offer it to you?" he asked, as if it had been one.
"Oh, thank you, thank you!" She took it from him and put it into her belt, and then they both laughed once more.
Steps were heard descending. When the elder people reached the floor where they were sitting, Corey rose and presently took his leave.
"What makes you so solemn, 'Rene?" asked Mrs. Lapham.
"Solemn?" echoed the girl. "I'm not a BIT solemn. What CAN you mean?"
Corey dined at home that evening, and as he sat looking across the table at his father, he said, "I wonder what the average literature of non-cultivated people is."
"Ah," said the elder, "I suspect the average is pretty low even with cultivated people. You don't read a great many books yourself, Tom."
"No, I don't," the young man confessed. "I read more books when I was with Stanton, last winter, than I had since I was a boy. But I read them because I must--there was nothing else to do. It wasn't because I was fond of reading. Still I think I read with some sense of literature and the difference between authors. I don't suppose that people generally do that; I have met people who had read books without troubling themselves to find out even the author's name, much less trying to decide upon his quality. I suppose that's the way the vast majority of people read."
"Yes. If authors were not almost necessarily recluses, and ignorant of the ignorance about them, I don't see how they could endure it. Of course they are fated to be overwhelmed by oblivion at last, poor fellows; but to see it weltering all round them while they are in the very act of achieving immortality must be tremendously discouraging. I don't suppose that we who have the habit of reading, and at least a nodding acquaintance with literature, can imagine the bestial darkness of the great mass of people--even people whose houses are rich and whose linen is purple and fine. But occasionally we get glimpses of it. I suppose you found the latest publications lying all about in Lapham cottage when you were down there?"
Young Corey laughed. "It wasn't exactly cumbered with them."
"To tell the truth, I don't suppose they ever buy books. The young ladies get novels that they hear talked of out of the circulating library."
"Had they knowledge enough to be ashamed of their ignorance?"
"Yes, in certain ways--to a certain degree."
"It's a curious thing, this thing we call civilisation," said the elder musingly. "We think it is an affair of epochs and of nations. It's really an affair of individuals. One brother will be civilised and the other a barbarian. I've occasionally met young girls who were so brutally, insolently, wilfully indifferent to the arts which make civilisation that they ought to have been clothed in the skins of wild beasts and gone about barefoot with clubs over their shoulders. Yet they were of polite origin, and their parents were at least respectful of the things that these young animals despised."
"I don't think that is exactly the case with the Lapham family," said the son, smiling. "The father and mother rather apologised about not getting time to read, and the young ladies by no means scorned it."
"They are quite advanced!"
"They are going to have a library in their Beacon Street house."
"Oh, poor things! How are they ever going to get the books together?"
"Well, sir," said the son, colouring a little, "I have been indirectly applied to for help."
"You, Tom!" His father dropped back in his chair and laughed.
"I recommended the standard authors," said the son.
"Oh, I never supposed your PRUDENCE would be at fault, Tom!"
"But seriously," said the young man, generously smiling in sympathy with his father's enjoyment, "they're not unintelligent people. They are very quick, and they are shrewd and sensible."
"I have no doubt that some of the Sioux are so. But that is not saying that they are civilised. All civilisation comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilisation by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarise. Once we were softened, if not polished, by religion; but I suspect that the pulpit counts for much less now in civilising."
"They're enormous devourers of newspapers, and theatre-goers; and they go a great deal to lectures. The Colonel prefers them with the stereopticon."
"They might get a something in that way," said the elder thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose one must take those things into account--especially the newspapers and the lectures. I doubt if the theatre is a factor in civilisation among us. I dare say it doesn't deprave a great deal, but from what I've seen of it I should say that it was intellectually degrading. Perhaps they might get some sort of lift from it; I don't know. Tom!" he added, after a moment's reflection. "I really think I ought to see this patron of yours. Don't you think it would be rather decent in me to make his acquaintance?"
"Well, if you have the fancy, sir," said the young man. "But there's no sort of obligation. Colonel Lapham would be the last man in the world to want to give our relation any sort of social character. The meeting will come about in the natural course of things."
"Ah, I didn't intend to propose anything immediate," said the father. "One can't do anything in the summer, and I should prefer your mother's superintendence. Still, I can't rid myself of the idea of a dinner. It appears to me that there ought to be a dinner."
"Oh, pray don't feel that there's any necessity."
"Well," said the elder, with easy resignation, "there's at least no hurry."
"There is one thing I don't like," said Lapham, in the course of one of those talks which came up between his wife and himself concerning Corey, "or at least I don't understand it; and that's the way his father behaves. I don't want to force myself on any man; but it seems to me pretty queer the way he holds off. I should think he would take enough interest in his son to want to know something about his business. What is he afraid of?" demanded Lapham angrily. "Does he think I'm going to jump at a chance to get in with him, if he gives me one? He's mightily mistaken if he does. I don't want to know him."
"Silas," said his wife, making a wife's free version of her husband's words, and replying to their spirit rather than their letter, "I hope you never said a word to Mr. Corey to let him know the way you feel."
"I never mentioned his father to him!" roared the Colonel. "That's the way I feel about it!"
"Because it would spoil everything. I wouldn't have them think we cared the least thing in the world for their acquaintance. We shouldn't be a bit better off. We don't know the same people they do, and we don't care for the same kind of things."
Lapham was breathless with resentment of his wife's implication. "Don't I tell you," he gasped, "that I don't want to know them? Who began it? They're friends of yours if they're anybody's."
"They're distant acquaintances of mine," returned Mrs. Lapham quietly; "and this young Corey is a clerk of yours. And I want we should hold ourselves so that when they get ready to make the advances we can meet them half-way or not, just as we choose."
"That's what grinds me," cried her husband. "Why should we wait for them to make the advances? Why shouldn't we make 'em? Are they any better than we are? My note of hand would be worth ten times what Bromfield Corey's is on the street to-day. And I made MY money. I haven't loafed my life away."
"Oh, it isn't what you've got, and it isn't what you've done exactly. It's what you are."
"Well, then, what's the difference?"
"None that really amounts to anything, or that need give you any trouble, if you don't think of it. But he's been all his life in society, and he knows just what to say and what to do, and he can talk about the things that society people like to talk about, and you--can't."
Lapham gave a furious snort. "And does that make him any better?"
"No. But it puts him where he can make the advances without demeaning himself, and it puts you where you can't. Now, look here, Silas Lapham! You understand this thing as well as I do. You know that I appreciate you, and that I'd sooner die than have you humble yourself to a living soul. But I'm not going to have you coming to me, and pretending that you can meet Bromfield Corey as an equal on his own ground. You can't. He's got a better education than you, and if he hasn't got more brains than you, he's got different. And he and his wife, and their fathers and grandfathers before 'em, have always had a high position, and you can't help it. If you want to know them, you've got to let them make the advances. If you don't, all well and good."
"I guess," said the chafed and vanquished Colonel, after a moment for swallowing the pill, "that they'd have been in a pretty fix if you'd waited to let them make the advances last summer."
"That was a different thing altogether. I didn't know who they were, or may be I should have waited. But all I say now is that if you've got young Corey into business with you, in hopes of our getting into society with his father, you better ship him at once. For I ain't going to have it on that basis."
"Who wants to have it on that basis?" retorted her husband.
"Nobody, if you don't," said Mrs. Lapham tranquilly.
Irene had come home with the shaving in her belt, unnoticed by her father, and unquestioned by her mother. But her sister saw it at once, and asked her what she was doing with it.
"Oh, nothing," said Irene, with a joyful smile of self-betrayal, taking the shaving carefully out, and laying it among the laces and ribbons in her drawer.
"Hadn't you better put it in water, 'Rene? It'll be all wilted by morning," said Pen.
"You mean thing!" cried the happy girl. "It isn't a flower!"
"Oh, I thought it was a whole bouquet. Who gave it to you?"
"I shan't tell you," said Irene saucily.
"Oh, well, never mind. Did you know Mr. Corey had been down here this afternoon, walking on the beach with me?"
"He wasn't--he wasn't at all! He was at the house with ME. There! I've caught you fairly."
"Is that so?" drawled Penelope. "Then I never could guess who gave you that precious shaving."
"No, you couldn't!" said Irene, flushing beautifully. "And you may guess, and you may guess, and you may guess!" With her lovely eyes she coaxed her sister to keep on teasing her, and Penelope continued the comedy with the patience that women have for such things.
"Well, I'm not going to try, if it's no use. But I didn't know it had got to be the fashion to give shavings instead of flowers. But there's some sense in it. They can be used for kindlings when they get old, and you can't do anything with old flowers. Perhaps he'll get to sending 'em by the barrel."
Irene laughed for pleasure in this tormenting. "O Pen, I want to tell you how it all happened."
"Oh, he DID give it to you, then? Well, I guess I don't care to hear."
"You shall, and you've got to!" Irene ran and caught her sister, who feigned to be going out of the room, and pushed her into a chair. "There, now!" She pulled up another chair, and hemmed her in with it. "He came over, and sat down on the trestle alongside of me----"
"What? As close as you are to me now?"
"You wretch! I will GIVE it to you! No, at a proper distance. And here was this shaving on the floor, that I'd been poking with my parasol----"
"To hide your embarrassment."
"Pshaw! I wasn't a bit embarrassed. I was just as much at my ease! And then he asked me to let him hold the shaving down with his foot, while I went on with my poking. And I said yes he might----"
"What a bold girl! You said he might hold a shaving down for you?"
"And then--and then----" continued Irene, lifting her eyes absently, and losing herself in the beatific recollection, "and then----Oh yes! Then I asked him if he didn't like the smell of pine shavings. And then he picked it up, and said it smelt like a flower. And then he asked if he might offer it to me--just for a joke, you know. And I took it, and stuck it in my belt. And we had such a laugh! We got into a regular gale. And O Pen, what do you suppose he meant by it?" She suddenly caught herself to her sister's breast, and hid her burning face on her shoulder.
"Well, there used to be a book about the language of flowers. But I never knew much about the language of shavings, and I can't say exactly----"
"Oh, don't--DON'T, Pen!" and here Irene gave over laughing, and began to sob in her sister's arms.
"Why, 'Rene!" cried the elder girl.
"You KNOW he didn't mean anything. He doesn't care a bit about me. He hates me! He despises me! Oh, what shall I do?"
A trouble passed over the face of the sister as she silently comforted the child in her arms; then the drolling light came back into her eyes. "Well, 'Rene, YOU haven't got to do ANYthing. That's one advantage girls have got--if it IS an advantage. I'm not always sure."
Irene's tears turned to laughing again. When she lifted her head it was to look into the mirror confronting them, where her beauty showed all the more brilliant for the shower that had passed over it. She seemed to gather courage from the sight.
"It must be awful to have to DO," she said, smiling into her own face. "I don't see how they ever can."
"Some of 'em can't--especially when there's such a tearing beauty around."
"Oh, pshaw, Pen! you know that isn't so. You've got a real pretty mouth, Pen," she added thoughtfully, surveying the feature in the glass, and then pouting her own lips for the sake of that effect on them.
"It's a useful mouth," Penelope admitted; "I don't believe I could get along without it now, I've had it so long."
"It's got such a funny expression--just the mate of the look in your eyes; as if you were just going to say something ridiculous. He said, the very first time he saw you, that he knew you were humorous."
"Is it possible? It must be so, if the Grand Mogul said it. Why didn't you tell me so before, and not let me keep on going round just like a common person?"
Irene laughed as if she liked to have her sister take his praises in that way rather than another.
"I've got such a stiff, prim kind of mouth," she said, drawing it down, and then looking anxiously at it.
"I hope you didn't put on that expression when he offered you the shaving. If you did, I don't believe he'll ever give you another splinter."
The severe mouth broke into a lovely laugh, and then pressed itself in a kiss against Penelope's cheek.
"There! Be done, you silly thing! I'm not going to have you accepting ME before I've offered myself, ANYWAY." She freed herself from her sister's embrace, and ran from her round the room.
Irene pursued her, in the need of hiding her face against her shoulder again. "O Pen! O Pen!" she cried.
The next day, at the first moment of finding herself alone with her eldest daughter, Mrs. Lapham asked, as if knowing that Penelope must have already made it subject of inquiry: "What was Irene doing with that shaving in her belt yesterday?"
"Oh, just some nonsense of hers with Mr. Corey. He gave it to her at the new house." Penelope did not choose to look up and meet her mother's grave glance.
"What do you think he meant by it?"
Penelope repeated Irene's account of the affair, and her mother listened without seeming to derive much encouragement from it.
"He doesn't seem like one to flirt with her," she said at last. Then, after a thoughtful pause: "Irene is as good a girl as ever breathed, and she's a perfect beauty. But I should hate the day when a daughter of mine was married for her beauty."
"You're safe as far as I'm concerned, mother."
Mrs. Lapham smiled ruefully. "She isn't really equal to him, Pen. I misdoubted that from the first, and it's been borne in upon me more and more ever since. She hasn't mind enough." "I didn't know that a man fell in love with a girl's intellect," said Penelope quietly.
"Oh no. He hasn't fallen in love with Irene at all. If he had, it wouldn't matter about the intellect."
Penelope let the self-contradiction pass.
"Perhaps he has, after all."
"No," said Mrs. Lapham. "She pleases him when he sees her. But he doesn't try to see her."
"He has no chance. You won't let father bring him here."
"He would find excuses to come without being brought, if he wished to come," said the mother. "But she isn't in his mind enough to make him. He goes away and doesn't think anything more about her. She's a child. She's a good child, and I shall always say it; but she's nothing but a child. No, she's got to forget him."
"Perhaps that won't be so easy."
"No, I presume not. And now your father has got the notion in his head, and he will move heaven and earth to bring it to pass. I can see that he's always thinking about it."
"The Colonel has a will of his own," observed the girl, rocking to and fro where she sat looking at her mother.
"I wish we had never met them!" cried Mrs. Lapham. "I wish we had never thought of building! I wish he had kept away from your father's business!"
"Well, it's too late now, mother," said the girl. "Perhaps it isn't so bad as you think."
"Well, we must stand it, anyway," said Mrs. Lapham, with the grim antique Yankee submission.
"Oh yes, we've got to stand it," said Penelope, with the quaint modern American fatalism.