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.