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Chapter 26

XXVI.

The stagger seemed to be sufficiently satisfactory. Corey could not repress some twinges at certain characteristics of Lemuel's accent, but he seemed, in a critical way, to take a fancy to him, and he was conditionally installed for a week.

Corey was pleased from the beginning with Lemuel's good looks, and justified himself to his wife with an Italian proverb: "Novanta su cento, chi è bello difuori ê buono di dentro." She had heard that proverb before, and she had always considered it shocking; but he insisted that most people married upon no better grounds, and that what sufficed in the choice of a husband or wife was enough for the choice of an intellectual nurse. He corrected Lemuel's pronunciation where he found it faulty, and amused himself with Lemuel's struggles to conceal his hurt vanity, and his final good sense in profiting by the correction. But Lemuel's reading was really very good; it was what, even more than his writing, had given him a literary reputation in Willoughby Pastures; and the old man made him exercise it in widely different directions. Chiefly, however, it was novels that he read, which, indeed, are the chief reading of most people in our time; and as they were necessarily the novels of our language, his elder was not obliged to use that care in choosing them which he must have exacted of himself in the fiction of other tongues. He liked to hear Lemuel talk, and he used the art of getting at the boy's life by being frank with his own experience. But this was not always successful, and he was interested to find Lemuel keeping doors that Sewell's narrative had opened carefully closed against him. He betrayed no consciousness that they existed, and Lemuel maintained intact the dignity and pride which come from the sense of ignominy well hidden.

The week of probation had passed without interrupting their relation, and Lemuel was regularly installed, and began to lead a life which was so cut off from his past in most things that it seemed to belie it. He found himself dropped in the midst of luxury stranger to him than the things they read of in those innumerable novels. The dull, rich colours in the walls, and the heavily rugged floors and dark-wooded leathern seats of the library where he read to the old man; the beautiful forms of the famous bronzes, and the Italian saints and martyrs in their baroque or Gothic frames of dim gold; the low shelves with their ranks of luxurious bindings, and all the seriously elegant keeping of the place, flattered him out of his strangeness; and the footing on which he was received in this house, the low-voiced respect with which the man-servant treated him, the master's light, cordial frankness, the distant graciousness of the mistress, and the unembarrassed, unembarrassing kindliness of the young ladies, both so much older than himself, contributed to an effect that afterwards deepened more and more, and became a vital part of the struggle which he was finally to hold with himself. The first two or three days he saw no one but Mr. Corey, and but for the women's voices in the other parts of the house, he might have supposed himself in another bachelor's apartments, finer and grander than Bellingham's. He was presented to Mrs. Corey when she came into the library, but he did not see the daughters of the house till he was installed in it. After that, his acquaintance with them seemed to go no further. They were all polite and kind when they met him, in the library or on the stairs, but they showed no curiosity about him; and his never meeting them at table helped to keep him a stranger to them under the same roof. He ate at a boarding-house in a neighbouring street, but he slept at the Coreys' after he had read their father asleep, and then, going out to his late breakfast, he did not return till Mr. Corey had eaten his own, much later.

He wondered at first that neither of those young ladies read to their father, not knowing the disability for mutual help that riches bring. Later, he saw how much Miss Lily Corey was engrossed with charity and art, and how constantly Miss Nannie Corey was occupied with social cares, and was perpetually going and coming in their performance. Then he saw that they could not have rendered nor their father have received from his family the duty which he was paid to do, as they must have done if they had been poorer. But they were all fond of one another, and the father had a way of joking with his daughters, especially the youngest; and they talked with a freedom of themselves which puzzled Lemuel. It appeared from what they said at different times that they had not always been so rich, or that they had once had money, and then less, and now much more. It appeared also that their prosperity was due to a piece of luck, and that the young Mr. Corey, whom they expected in the summer, had brought it about. His father was very proud of him, and, getting more and more used to Lemuel's companionship, he talked a great deal about his Tom, as he called him, and about Tom's wife, and his wife's family, who were somehow, Lemuel inferred, not all that his own family could wish them, but very good people. Once when Mr. Corey was talking of them, Mrs. Corey came in upon them, and seemed to be uneasy, as if she thought he was saying too much. But the daughters did not seem to care, especially the youngest.

He found out that Mr. Corey used to be a painter, and had lived a long time in Italy when he was young, and he recalled with a voluptuous thrill of secrecy that Williams had once been in Italy. Mr. Corey seemed to think better of it than Williams; he liked to talk of Rome and Florence, and of Venice, which Williams had said was a kind of hole. The old man said this or that picture was of this or that school, and vague lights of knowledge and senses of difference that flattered Lemuel's intellectual vanity stole in upon him. He began to feel that the things Mr. Corey had lived for were the great and high objects of life.

He now perceived how far from really fine or fashionable anything at the St. Albans had been, and that the simplicity of Miss Vane's little house, which the splendour of the hotel had eclipsed in his crude fancy, was much more in harmony with the richness of Mr. Corey's. He oriented himself anew, and got another view of the world which he had dropped into. Occasionally he had glimpses of people who came to see the Coreys, and it puzzled him that this family, which he knew so kind and good, took with others the tone hard and even cynical which seemed the prevailing tone of society; when their acquaintances went away they dropped back, as if with relief, into their sincere and amiable fashions of speech. Lemuel asked himself if every one in the world was playing a part; it did not seem to him that Miss Carver had been; she was always the same, and always herself. To be one's-self appeared to him the best thing in the world, and he longed for it the more as he felt that he too was insensibly beginning to play a part. Being so much in this beautiful and luxurious house, where every one was so well dressed and well mannered, and well kept in body and mind, and passing from his amazement at all its appointments into the habit of its comfortable beauty, he forgot more and more the humility and the humiliations of his past. He did not forget its claims upon him; he sent home every week the greater part of his earnings, and he wrote often to his mother; but now, when he could have got the time to go home and see her, he did not go. In the exquisite taste of his present environment, he could scarcely believe in that figure, grizzled, leathern, and gaunt, and costumed in a grotesque unlikeness to either sex. Sometimes he played with the fantastic supposition of some other origin for himself, romantic and involved like that of some of the heroes he was always reading of, which excluded her.

Another effect of this multifarious literature through which his duties led him was the awakening of the ambition to write, stunned by his first disastrous adventures in Boston, and dormant almost ever since, except as it had stirred under the promptings of Evans's kindly interest. But now it did not take the form of verse; he began to write moralistic essays, never finished, but full of severe comment on the folly of the world as he saw it. Sometimes they were examinations of himself, and his ideas and principles, his doctrines and practice, penetrating quests such as the theologians of an earlier day used to address to their consciences.

Meantime, the deeply underlying mass of his rustic crudity and raw youth took on a far higher polish than it had yet worn. Words dropped at random in the talk he now heard supplied him with motives and shaped his actions. Once Mr. Bellingham came in laughing about a sign which he saw in a back street, of Misfit Parlours, and Lemuel spent the next week's salary for a suit at a large clothing store, to replace the dress Sewell had thought him so well in. He began insensibly to ape the manners of those about him.

It drew near the time when the ladies of the Corey family were to leave town, where they had lingered much longer than they meant, in the hope that Mr. Corey might be so much better, or so much worse, that he would consent to go to the shore with them. But his disabilities remained much the same, and his inveterate habits indomitable. By this time that trust in Lemuel, which never failed to grow up in those near him, reconciled the ladies to the obstinate resolution of the master of the house to stay in it as usual. They gave up the notion of a cottage, and they were not going far away, nor for long at any one time; in fact, one or other of them was always in the house. Mrs. Corey had grown into the habit of confidence with Lemuel concerning her husband's whims and foibles; and this motherly frankness from a lady so stately and distant at first was a flattery more poisonous to his soul than any other circumstance of his changed life.

It came July, and even Sewell went away then. He went with a mind at rest concerning Lemuel's material prospects, and his unquestionable usefulness and acceptability; but something, at the bottom of his satisfaction, teased him still: a dumb fear that the boy was extravagant, a sense that he was somehow different, and not wholly for the better, from what he had been. He had seen, perhaps, nothing worse in him than that growth of manner which amused Corey.

"He is putting us on," he said to Bellingham one day, "and making us fit as well as he can. I don't think we're altogether becoming, but that's our fault, probably. I can't help thinking that if we were of better cut and material we should show to better effect upon that granite soul. I wish Tom were here. I've an idea that Tom would fit him like a glove. Charles, why don't you pose as a model for Barker?"

"I don't see why I'm not a very good model without posing," said Bellingham. "What do you want me to do for him? Take him to the club? Barker's not very conversational."

"You don't take him on the right topics," said Corey, not minding that he had left the point. "I assure you that Barker, on any serious question that comes up in our reading, has a clear head and an apt tongue of his own. It isn't our manners alone that he emulates. I can't find that any of us ever dropped an idea or suggestion of value that Barker didn't pick it up, and turn it to much more account than the owner. He's as true as a Tuscan peasant, as proud as an Indian, and as quick as a Yankee."

"Ah! I hoped you wouldn't go abroad for that last," said
Bellingham.

"No; and it's delightful, seeing the great variety of human nature there is in every human being here. Our life isn't stratified; perhaps it never will be. At any rate, for the present, we're all in vertical sections. But I always go back to my first notion of Barker: he's ancestral, and he makes me feel like degenerate posterity. I've had the same sensation with Tom; but Barker seems to go a little further back. I suppose there's such a thing as getting too far back in these Origin of Species days; but he isn't excessive in that or in anything. He's confoundedly temperate, in fact; and he's reticent; he doesn't allow any unseemly intimacy. He's always turning me out-of-doors."

"Of course! But what can we old fellows hope to know of what's going on in any young one? Talk of strangeness! I'd undertake to find more in common with a florid old fellow of fifty from the red planet Mars than with any young Bostonian of twenty."

"Yes; but it's the youth of my sires that I find so strange in Barker. Only, theoretically, there's no Puritanism. He's a thorough believer in Sewell. I suspect he could formulate Sewell's theology a great deal better than Sewell could."

William Dean Howells