AFTER a week Mrs. Lapham returned, leaving Irene alone at the old homestead in Vermont. "She's comfortable there--as comfortable as she can be anywheres, I guess," she said to her husband as they drove together from the station, where he had met her in obedience to her telegraphic summons. "She keeps herself busy helping about the house; and she goes round amongst the hands in their houses. There's sickness, and you know how helpful she is where there's sickness. She don't complain any. I don't know as I've heard a word out of her mouth since we left home; but I'm afraid it'll wear on her, Silas."
"You don't look over and above well yourself, Persis," said her husband kindly.
"Oh, don't talk about me. What I want to know is whether you can't get the time to run off with her somewhere. I wrote to you about Dubuque. She'll work herself down, I'm afraid; and THEN I don't know as she'll be over it. But if she could go off, and be amused--see new people----"
"I could MAKE the time," said Lapham, "if I had to. But, as it happens, I've got to go out West on business,--I'll tell you about it,--and I'll take Irene along."
"Good!" said his wife. "That's about the best thing I've heard yet. Where you going?"
"Out Dubuque way."
"Anything the matter with Bill's folks?"
"No. It's business."
"I guess she ain't much better than Irene."
"He been about any?"
"Yes. But I can't see as it helps matters much."
"Tchk!" Mrs. Lapham fell back against the carriage cushions. "I declare, to see her willing to take the man that we all thought wanted her sister! I can't make it seem right."
"It's right," said Lapham stoutly; "but I guess she ain't willing; I wish she was. But there don't seem to be any way out of the thing, anywhere. It's a perfect snarl. But I don't want you should be anyways ha'sh with Pen."
Mrs. Lapham answered nothing; but when she met Penelope she gave the girl's wan face a sharp look, and began to whimper on her neck.
Penelope's tears were all spent. "Well, mother," she said, "you come back almost as cheerful as you went away. I needn't ask if 'Rene's in good spirits. We all seem to be overflowing with them. I suppose this is one way of congratulating me. Mrs. Corey hasn't been round to do it yet."
"Are you--are you engaged to him, Pen?" gasped her mother.
"Judging by my feelings, I should say not. I feel as if it was a last will and testament. But you'd better ask him when he comes."
"I can't bear to look at him."
"I guess he's used to that. He don't seem to expect to be looked at. Well! we're all just where we started. I wonder how long it will keep up."
Mrs. Lapham reported to her husband when he came home at night--he had left his business to go and meet her, and then, after a desolate dinner at the house, had returned to the office again--that Penelope was fully as bad as Irene. "And she don't know how to work it off. Irene keeps doing; but Pen just sits in her room and mopes. She don't even read. I went up this afternoon to scold her about the state the house was in--you can see that Irene's away by the perfect mess; but when I saw her through the crack of the door I hadn't the heart. She sat there with her hands in her lap, just staring. And, my goodness! she JUMPED so when she saw me; and then she fell back, and began to laugh, and said she, 'I thought it was my ghost, mother!' I felt as if I should give way."
Lapham listened jadedly, and answered far from the point. "I guess I've got to start out there pretty soon, Persis."
"Well, to-morrow morning."
Mrs. Lapham sat silent. Then, "All right," she said. "I'll get you ready."
"I shall run up to Lapham for Irene, and then I'll push on through Canada. I can get there about as quick."
"Is it anything you can tell me about, Silas?"
"Yes," said Lapham. "But it's a long story, and I guess you've got your hands pretty full as it is. I've been throwing good money after bad,--the usual way,--and now I've got to see if I can save the pieces."
After a moment Mrs. Lapham asked, "Is it--Rogers?"
"I didn't want you should get in any deeper with him."
"No. You didn't want I should press him either; and I had to do one or the other. And so I got in deeper."
"Silas," said his wife, "I'm afraid I made you!"
"It's all right, Persis, as far forth as that goes. I was glad to make it up with him--I jumped at the chance. I guess Rogers saw that he had a soft thing in me, and he's worked it for all it was worth. But it'll all come out right in the end."
Lapham said this as if he did not care to talk any more about it. He added casually, "Pretty near everybody but the fellows that owe ME seem to expect me to do a cash business, all of a sudden."
"Do you mean that you've got payments to make, and that people are not paying YOU?"
Lapham winced a little. "Something like that," he said, and he lighted a cigar. "But when I tell you it's all right, I mean it, Persis. I ain't going to let the grass grow under my feet, though,--especially while Rogers digs the ground away from the roots."
"What are you going to do?"
"If it has to come to that, I'm going to squeeze him." Lapham's countenance lighted up with greater joy than had yet visited it since the day they had driven out to Brookline. "Milton K. Rogers is a rascal, if you want to know; or else all the signs fail. But I guess he'll find he's got his come-uppance." Lapham shut his lips so that the short, reddish-grey beard stuck straight out on them.
"What's he done?"
"What's he done? Well, now, I'll tell you what he's done, Persis, since you think Rogers is such a saint, and that I used him so badly in getting him out of the business. He's been dabbling in every sort of fool thing you can lay your tongue to,--wild-cat stocks, patent-rights, land speculations, oil claims,--till he's run through about everything. But he did have a big milling property out on the line of the P. Y. & X.,--saw-mills and grist-mills and lands,--and for the last eight years he's been doing a land-office business with 'em--business that would have made anybody else rich. But you can't make Milton K. Rogers rich, any more than you can fat a hide-bound colt. It ain't in him. He'd run through Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and Tom Scott rolled into one in less than six months, give him a chance, and come out and want to borrow money of you. Well, he won't borrow any more money of ME; and if he thinks I don't know as much about that milling property as he does he's mistaken. I've taken his mills, but I guess I've got the inside track; Bill's kept me posted; and now I'm going out there to see how I can unload; and I shan't mind a great deal if Rogers is under the load when it's off once."
"I don't understand you, Silas."
"Why, it's just this. The Great Lacustrine & Polar Railroad has leased the P. Y. & X. for ninety-nine years,--bought it, practically,--and it's going to build car-works right by those mills, and it may want them. And Milton K. Rogers knew it when he turned 'em in on me."
"Well, if the road wants them, don't that make the mills valuable? You can get what you ask for them!"
"Can I? The P. Y. & X. is the only road that runs within fifty miles of the mills, and you can't get a foot of lumber nor a pound of flour to market any other way. As long as he had a little local road like the P. Y. & X. to deal with, Rogers could manage; but when it come to a big through line like the G. L. & P., he couldn't stand any chance at all. If such a road as that took a fancy to his mills, do you think it would pay what he asked? No, sir! He would take what the road offered, or else the road would tell him to carry his flour and lumber to market himself."
"And do you suppose he knew the G. L. & P. wanted the mills when he turned them in on you?" asked Mrs. Lapham aghast, and falling helplessly into his alphabetical parlance.
The Colonel laughed scoffingly. "Well, when Milton K. Rogers don't know which side his bread's buttered on! I don't understand," he added thoughtfully, "how he's always letting it fall on the buttered side. But such a man as that is sure to have a screw loose in him somewhere." Mrs. Lapham sat discomfited. All that she could say was, "Well, I want you should ask yourself whether Rogers would ever have gone wrong, or got into these ways of his, if it hadn't been for your forcing him out of the business when you did. I want you should think whether you're not responsible for everything he's done since."
"You go and get that bag of mine ready," said Lapham sullenly. "I guess I can take care of myself. And Milton K. Rogers too," he added.
That evening Corey spent the time after dinner in his own room, with restless excursions to the library, where his mother sat with his father and sisters, and showed no signs of leaving them. At last, in coming down, he encountered her on the stairs, going up. They both stopped consciously.
"I would like to speak with you, mother. I have been waiting to see you alone."
"Come to my room," she said.
"I have a feeling that you know what I want to say," he began there.
She looked up at him where he stood by the chimney-piece, and tried to put a cheerful note into her questioning "Yes?"
"Yes; and I have a feeling that you won't like it--that you won't approve of it. I wish you did--I wish you could!"
"I'm used to liking and approving everything you do, Tom. If I don't like this at once, I shall try to like it--you know that--for your sake, whatever it is."
"I'd better be short," he said, with a quick sigh. "It's about Miss Lapham." He hastened to add, "I hope it isn't surprising to you. I'd have told you before, if I could."
"No, it isn't surprising. I was afraid--I suspected something of the kind."
They were both silent in a painful silence.
"Well, mother?" he asked at last.
"If it's something you've quite made up mind to----"
"And if you've already spoken to her----"
"I had to do that first, of course."
"There would be no use of my saying anything, even if I disliked it."
"You do dislike it!"
"No--no! I can't say that. Of course I should have preferred it if you had chosen some nice girl among those that you had been brought up with--some friend or associate of your sisters, whose people we had known----"
"Yes, I understand that, and I can assure you that I haven't been indifferent to your feelings. I have tried to consider them from the first, and it kept me hesitating in a way that I'm ashamed to think of; for it wasn't quite right towards--others. But your feelings and my sisters' have been in my mind, and if I couldn't yield to what I supposed they must be, entirely----"
Even so good a son and brother as this, when it came to his love affair, appeared to think that he had yielded much in considering the feelings of his family at all.
His mother hastened to comfort him. "I know--I know. I've seen for some time that this might happen, Tom, and I have prepared myself for it. I have talked it over with your father, and we both agreed from the beginning that you were not to be hampered by our feeling. Still--it is a surprise. It must be."
"I know it. I can understand your feeling. But I'm sure that it's one that will last only while you don't know her well."
"Oh, I'm sure of that, Tom. I'm sure that we shall all be fond of her,--for your sake at first, even--and I hope she'll like us."
"I am quite certain of that," said Corey, with that confidence which experience does not always confirm in such cases. "And your taking it as you do lifts a tremendous load off me."
But he sighed so heavily, and looked so troubled, that his mother said, "Well, now, you mustn't think of that any more. We wish what is for your happiness, my son, and we will gladly reconcile ourselves to anything that might have been disagreeable. I suppose we needn't speak of the family. We must both think alike about them. They have their--drawbacks, but they are thoroughly good people, and I satisfied myself the other night that they were not to be dreaded." She rose, and put her arm round his neck. "And I wish you joy, Tom! If she's half as good as you are, you will both be very happy." She was going to kiss him, but something in his looks stopped her--an absence, a trouble, which broke out in his words.
"I must tell you, mother! There's been a complication--a mistake--that's a blight on me yet, and that it sometimes seems as if we couldn't escape from. I wonder if you can help us! They all thought I meant--the other sister."
"O Tom! But how COULD they?"
"I don't know. It seemed so glaringly plain--I was ashamed of making it so outright from the beginning. But they did. Even she did, herself!"
"But where could they have thought your eyes were--your taste? It wouldn't be surprising if any one were taken with that wonderful beauty; and I'm sure she's good too. But I'm astonished at them! To think you could prefer that little, black, odd creature, with her joking and----"
"MOTHER!" cried the young man, turning a ghastly face of warning upon her.
"What do you mean, Tom?"
"Did you--did--did you think so too--that it was IRENE I meant?"
"Why, of course!"
He stared at her hopelessly.
"O my son!" she said, for all comment on the situation.
"Don't reproach me, mother! I couldn't stand it."
"No. I didn't mean to do that. But how--HOW could it happen?"
"I don't know. When she first told me that they had understood it so, I laughed--almost--it was so far from me. But now when you seem to have had the same idea--Did you all think so?"
They remained looking at each other. Then Mrs. Corey began: "It did pass through my mind once--that day I went to call upon them--that it might not be as we thought; but I knew so little of--of----"
"Penelope," Corey mechanically supplied.
"Is that her name?--I forgot--that I only thought of you in relation to her long enough to reject the idea; and it was natural after our seeing something of the other one last year, that I might suppose you had formed some--attachment----"
"Yes; that's what they thought too. But I never thought of her as anything but a pretty child. I was civil to her because you wished it; and when I met her here again, I only tried to see her so that I could talk with her about her sister."
"You needn't defend yourself to ME, Tom," said his mother, proud to say it to him in his trouble. "It's a terrible business for them, poor things," she added. "I don't know how they could get over it. But, of course, sensible people must see----"
"They haven't got over it. At least she hasn't. Since it's happened, there's been nothing that hasn't made me prouder and fonder of her! At first I WAS charmed with her--my fancy was taken; she delighted me--I don't know how; but she was simply the most fascinating person I ever saw. Now I never think of that. I only think how good she is--how patient she is with me, and how unsparing she is of herself. If she were concerned alone--if I were not concerned too--it would soon end. She's never had a thought for anything but her sister's feeling and mine from the beginning. I go there,--I know that I oughtn't, but I can't help it,--and she suffers it, and tries not to let me see that she is suffering it. There never was any one like her--so brave, so true, so noble. I won't give her up--I can't. But it breaks my heart when she accuses herself of what was all MY doing. We spend our time trying to reason out of it, but we always come back to it at last, and I have to hear her morbidly blaming herself. Oh!"
Doubtless Mrs. Corey imagined some reliefs to this suffering, some qualifications of this sublimity in a girl she had disliked so distinctly; but she saw none in her son's behaviour, and she gave him her further sympathy. She tried to praise Penelope, and said that it was not to be expected that she could reconcile herself at once to everything. "I shouldn't have liked it in her if she had. But time will bring it all right. And if she really cares for you----"
"I extorted that from her."
"Well, then, you must look at it in the best light you can. There is no blame anywhere, and the mortification and pain is something that must be lived down. That's all. And don't let what I said grieve you, Tom. You know I scarcely knew her, and I--I shall be sure to like any one you like, after all."
"Yes, I know," said the young man drearily. "Will you tell father?"
"If you wish."
"He must know. And I couldn't stand any more of this, just yet--any more mistake."
"I will tell him," said Mrs. Corey; and it was naturally the next thing for a woman who dwelt so much on decencies to propose: "We must go to call on her--your sisters and I. They have never seen her even; and she mustn't be allowed to think we're indifferent to her, especially under the circumstances."
"Oh no! Don't go--not yet," cried Corey, with an instinctive perception that nothing could be worse for him. "We must wait--we must be patient. I'm afraid it would be painful to her now."
He turned away without speaking further; and his mother's eyes followed him wistfully to the door. There were some questions that she would have liked to ask him; but she had to content herself with trying to answer them when her husband put them to her.
There was this comfort for her always in Bromfield Corey, that he never was much surprised at anything, however shocking or painful. His standpoint in regard to most matters was that of the sympathetic humorist who would be glad to have the victim of circumstance laugh with him, but was not too much vexed when the victim could not. He laughed now when his wife, with careful preparation, got the facts of his son's predicament fully under his eye.
"Really, Bromfield," she said, "I don't see how you can laugh. Do you see any way out of it?"
"It seems to me that the way has been found already. Tom has told his love to the right one, and the wrong one knows it. Time will do the rest."
"If I had so low an opinion of them all as that, it would make me very unhappy. It's shocking to think of it."
"It is upon the theory of ladies and all young people," said her husband, with a shrug, feeling his way to the matches on the mantel, and then dropping them with a sign, as if recollecting that he must not smoke there. "I've no doubt Tom feels himself an awful sinner. But apparently he's resigned to his sin; he isn't going to give her up."
"I'm glad to say, for the sake of human nature, that SHE isn't resigned--little as I like her," cried Mrs. Corey.
Her husband shrugged again. "Oh, there mustn't be any indecent haste. She will instinctively observe the proprieties. But come, now, Anna! you mustn't pretend to me here, in the sanctuary of home, that practically the human affections don't reconcile themselves to any situation that the human sentiments condemn. Suppose the wrong sister had died: would the right one have had any scruple in marrying Tom, after they had both 'waited a proper time,' as the phrase is?"
"Bromfield, you're shocking!"
"Not more shocking than reality. You may regard this as a second marriage." He looked at her with twinkling eyes, full of the triumph the spectator of his species feels in signal exhibitions of human nature. "Depend upon it, the right sister will be reconciled; the wrong one will be consoled; and all will go merry as a marriage bell--a second marriage bell. Why, it's quite like a romance!" Here he laughed outright again.
"Well," sighed the wife, "I could almost wish the right one, as you call her, would reject Tom, I dislike her so much."
"Ah, now you're talking business, Anna," said her husband, with his hands spread behind the back he turned comfortably to the fire. "The whole Lapham tribe is distasteful to me. As I don't happen to have seen our daughter-in-law elect, I have still the hope--which you're disposed to forbid me--that she may not be quite so unacceptable as the others."
"Do you really feel so, Bromfield?" anxiously inquired his wife.
"Yes--I think I do;" and he sat down, and stretched out his long legs toward the fire.
"But it's very inconsistent of you to oppose the matter now, when you've shown so much indifference up to this time. You've told me, all along, that it was of no use to oppose it."
"So I have. I was convinced of that at the beginning, or my reason was. You know very well that I am equal to any trial, any sacrifice, day after to-morrow; but when it comes to-day it's another thing. As long as this crisis decently kept its distance, I could look at it with an impartial eye; but now that it seems at hand, I find that, while my reason is still acquiescent, my nerves are disposed to--excuse the phrase--kick. I ask myself, what have I done nothing for, all my life, and lived as a gentleman should, upon the earnings of somebody else, in the possession of every polite taste and feeling that adorns leisure, if I'm to come to this at last? And I find no satisfactory answer. I say to myself that I might as well have yielded to the pressure all round me, and gone to work, as Tom has."
Mrs. Corey looked at him forlornly, divining the core of real repugnance that existed in his self-satire.
"I assure you, my dear," he continued, "that the recollection of what I suffered from the Laphams at that dinner of yours is an anguish still. It wasn't their behaviour,--they behaved well enough--or ill enough; but their conversation was terrible. Mrs. Lapham's range was strictly domestic; and when the Colonel got me in the library, he poured mineral paint all over me, till I could have been safely warranted not to crack or scale in any climate. I suppose we shall have to see a good deal of them. They will probably come here every Sunday night to tea. It's a perspective without a vanishing-point."
"It may not be so bad, after all," said his wife; and she suggested for his consolation that he knew very little about the Laphams yet.
He assented to the fact. "I know very little about them, and about my other fellow-beings. I dare say that I should like the Laphams better if I knew them better. But in any case, I resign myself. And we must keep in view the fact that this is mainly Tom's affair, and if his affections have regulated it to his satisfaction, we must be content."
"Oh yes," sighed Mrs. Corey. "And perhaps it won't turn out so badly. It's a great comfort to know that you feel just as I do about it."
"I do," said her husband, "and more too."
It was she and her daughters who would be chiefly annoyed by the Lapham connection; she knew that. But she had to begin to bear the burden by helping her husband to bear his light share of it. To see him so depressed dismayed her, and she might well have reproached him more sharply than she did for showing so much indifference, when she was so anxious, at first. But that would not have served any good end now. She even answered him patiently when he asked her, "What did you say to Tom when he told you it was the other one?"
"What could I say? I could do nothing, but try to take back what I had said against her."
"Yes, you had quite enough to do, I suppose. It's an awkward business. If it had been the pretty one, her beauty would have been our excuse. But the plain one--what do you suppose attracted him in her?"
Mrs. Corey sighed at the futility of the question. "Perhaps I did her injustice. I only saw her a few moments. Perhaps I got a false impression. I don't think she's lacking in sense, and that's a great thing. She'll be quick to see that we don't mean unkindness, and can't, by anything we say or do, when she's Tom's wife." She pronounced the distasteful word with courage, and went on: "The pretty one might not have been able to see that. She might have got it into her head that we were looking down on her; and those insipid people are terribly stubborn. We can come to some understanding with this one; I'm sure of that." She ended by declaring that it was now their duty to help Tom out of his terrible predicament.
"Oh, even the Lapham cloud has a silver lining," said Corey. "In fact, it seems really to have all turned out for the best, Anna; though it's rather curious to find you the champion of the Lapham side, at last. Confess, now, that the right girl has secretly been your choice all along, and that while you sympathise with the wrong one, you rejoice in the tenacity with which the right one is clinging to her own!" He added with final seriousness, "It's just that she should, and, so far as I understand the case, I respect her for it."
"Oh yes," sighed Mrs. Corey. "It's natural, and it's right." But she added, "I suppose they're glad of him on any terms."
"That is what I have been taught to believe," said her husband. "When shall we see our daughter-in-law elect? I find myself rather impatient to have that part of it over."
Mrs. Corey hesitated. "Tom thinks we had better not call, just yet."
"She has told him of your terrible behaviour when you called before?"
"No, Bromfield! She couldn't be so vulgar as that?"
"But anything short of it?"