Sewell remained silent, and they waited till he should speak. "We can be of use to one another here, because we can always be wiser for some one else than we can for ourselves. We can see another's sins and errors in a more merciful light — and that is always a fairer light — than we can our own; and we can look more sanely at others' afflictions." He had addressed these words to Lapham; now he turned to his wife. "If some one had come to you, Mrs. Lapham, in just this perplexity, what would you have thought?"
"I don't know as I understand you," faltered Mrs. Lapham.
Sewell repeated his words, and added, "I mean, what do you think some one else ought to do in your place?"
"Was there ever any poor creatures in such a strait before?" she asked, with pathetic incredulity.
"There's no new trouble under the sun," said the minister.
"Oh, if it was any one else, I should say — I should say — Why, of course! I should say that their duty was to let — — " She paused.
"One suffer instead of three, if none is to blame?" suggested Sewell. "That's sense, and that's justice. It's the economy of pain which naturally suggests itself, and which would insist upon itself, if we were not all perverted by traditions which are the figment of the shallowest sentimentality. Tell me, Mrs. Lapham, didn't this come into your mind when you first learned how matters stood?"
"Why, yes, it flashed across me. But I didn't think it could be right."
"And how was it with you, Mr. Lapham?"
"Why, that's what I thought, of course. But I didn't see my way — — "
"No," cried the minister, "we are all blinded, we are all weakened by a false ideal of self-sacrifice. It wraps us round with its meshes, and we can't fight our way out of it. Mrs. Lapham, what made you feel that it might be better for three to suffer than one?"
"Why, she did herself. I know she would die sooner than take him away from her."
"I supposed so!" cried the minister bitterly. "And yet she is a sensible girl, your daughter?"
"She has more common-sense — — "
"Of course! But in such a case we somehow think it must be wrong to use our common-sense. I don't know where this false ideal comes from, unless it comes from the novels that befool and debauch almost every intelligence in some degree. It certainly doesn't come from Christianity, which instantly repudiates it when confronted with it. Your daughter believes, in spite of her common-sense, that she ought to make herself and the man who loves her unhappy, in order to assure the life-long wretchedness of her sister, whom he doesn't love, simply because her sister saw him and fancied him first! And I'm sorry to say that ninety-nine young people out of a hundred — oh, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand! — would consider that noble and beautiful and heroic; whereas you know at the bottom of your hearts that it would be foolish and cruel and revolting. You know what marriage is! And what it must be without love on both sides."
The minister had grown quite heated and red in the face.
"I lose all patience!" he went on vehemently. "This poor child of yours has somehow been brought to believe that it will kill her sister if her sister does not have what does not belong to her, and what it is not in the power of all the world, or any soul in the world, to give her. Her sister will suffer — yes, keenly! — in heart and in pride; but she will not die. You will suffer too, in your tenderness for her; but you must do your duty. You must help her to give up. You would be guilty if you did less. Keep clearly in mind that you are doing right, and the only possible good. And God be with you!"