By the time the foundation was in and the brick walls had begun to go up, there were so few people left in the neighbourhood that she might indulge with impunity her husband's passion for having her clamber over the floor-timbers and the skeleton stair-cases with him. Many of the householders had boarded up their front doors before the buds had begun to swell and the assessor to appear in early May; others had followed soon; and Mrs. Lapham was as safe from remark as if she had been in the depth of the country. Ordinarily she and her girls left town early in July, going to one of the hotels at Nantasket, where it was convenient for the Colonel to get to and from his business by the boat. But this summer they were all lingering a few weeks later, under the novel fascination of the new house, as they called it, as if there were no other in the world.
Lapham drove there with his wife after he had set Bartley Hubbard down at the Events office, but on this day something happened that interfered with the solid pleasure they usually took in going over the house. As the Colonel turned from casting anchor at the mare's head with the hitching-weight, after helping his wife to alight, he encountered a man to whom he could not help speaking, though the man seemed to share his hesitation if not his reluctance at the necessity. He was a tallish, thin man, with a dust-coloured face, and a dead, clerical air, which somehow suggested at once feebleness and tenacity.
Mrs. Lapham held out her hand to him.
"Why, Mr. Rogers!" she exclaimed; and then, turning toward her husband, seemed to refer the two men to each other. They shook hands, but Lapham did not speak. "I didn't know you were in Boston," pursued Mrs. Lapham. "Is Mrs. Rogers with you?"
"No," said Mr. Rogers, with a voice which had the flat, succinct sound of two pieces of wood clapped together. "Mrs. Rogers is still in Chicago."
A little silence followed, and then Mrs Lapham said —
"I presume you are quite settled out there."
"No; we have left Chicago. Mrs. Rogers has merely remained to finish up a little packing."
"Oh, indeed! Are you coming back to Boston?"
"I cannot say as yet. We sometimes think of so doing."
Lapham turned away and looked up at the building. His wife pulled a little at her glove, as if embarrassed, or even pained. She tried to make a diversion.
"We are building a house," she said, with a meaningless laugh.
"Oh, indeed," said Mr. Rogers, looking up at it.
Then no one spoke again, and she said helplessly —
"If you come to Boston, I hope I shall see Mrs. Rogers."
"She will be happy to have you call," said Mr Rogers.
He touched his hat-brim, and made a bow forward rather than in Mrs. Lapham's direction.
She mounted the planking that led into the shelter of the bare brick walls, and her husband slowly followed. When she turned her face toward him her cheeks were burning, and tears that looked hot stood in her eyes.
"You left it all to me!" she cried. "Why couldn't you speak a word?"
"I hadn't anything to say to him," replied Lapham sullenly.
They stood a while, without looking at the work which they had come to enjoy, and without speaking to each other.
"I suppose we might as well go on," said Mrs. Lapham at last, as they returned to the buggy. The Colonel drove recklessly toward the Milldam. His wife kept her veil down and her face turned from him. After a time she put her handkerchief up under her veil and wiped her eyes, and he set his teeth and squared his jaw.
"I don't see how he always manages to appear just at the moment when he seems to have gone fairly out of our lives, and blight everything," she whimpered.
"I supposed he was dead," said Lapham.
"Oh, don't SAY such a thing! It sounds as if you wished it."
"Why do you mind it? What do you let him blight everything for?"
"I can't help it, and I don't believe I ever shall. I don't know as his being dead would help it any. I can't ever see him without feeling just as I did at first."
"I tell you," said Lapham, "it was a perfectly square thing. And I wish, once for all, you would quit bothering about it. My conscience is easy as far as he is concerned, and it always was."
"And I can't look at him without feeling as if you'd ruined him, Silas."
"Don't look at him, then," said her husband, with a scowl. "I want you should recollect in the first place, Persis, that I never wanted a partner."
"If he hadn't put his money in when he did, you'd 'a' broken down."
"Well, he got his money out again, and more, too," said the Colonel, with a sulky weariness.
"He didn't want to take it out."
"I gave him his choice: buy out or go out."
"You know he couldn't buy out then. It was no choice at all."