THE morning postman brought Mrs. Lapham a letter from Irene, which was chiefly significant because it made no reference whatever to the writer or her state of mind. It gave the news of her uncle's family; it told of their kindness to her; her cousin Will was going to take her and his sisters ice-boating on the river, when it froze.
By the time this letter came, Lapham had gone to his business, and the mother carried it to Penelope to talk over. "What do you make out of it?" she asked; and without waiting to be answered she said, "I don't know as I believe in cousins marrying, a great deal; but if Irene and Will were to fix it up between 'em----" She looked vaguely at Penelope.
"It wouldn't make any difference as far as I was concerned," replied the girl listlessly.
Mrs. Lapham lost her patience.
"Well, then, I'll tell you what, Penelope!" she exclaimed. "Perhaps it'll make a difference to you if you know that your father's in REAL trouble. He's harassed to death, and he was awake half the night, talking about it. That abominable Rogers has got a lot of money away from him; and he's lost by others that he's helped,"--Mrs. Lapham put it in this way because she had no time to be explicit,--"and I want you should come out of your room now, and try to be of some help and comfort to him when he comes home to-night. I guess Irene wouldn't mope round much, if she was here," she could not help adding.
The girl lifted herself on her elbow. "What's that you say about father?" she demanded eagerly. "Is he in trouble? Is he going to lose his money? Shall we have to stay in this house?"
"We may be very GLAD to stay in this house," said Mrs. Lapham, half angry with herself for having given cause for the girl's conjectures, and half with the habit of prosperity in her child, which could conceive no better of what adversity was. "And I want you should get up and show that you've got some feeling for somebody in the world besides yourself."
"Oh, I'll get UP!" said the girl promptly, almost cheerfully.
"I don't say it's as bad now as it looked a little while ago," said her mother, conscientiously hedging a little from the statement which she had based rather upon her feelings than her facts. "Your father thinks he'll pull through all right, and I don't know but what he will. But I want you should see if you can't do something to cheer him up and keep him from getting so perfectly down-hearted as he seems to get, under the load he's got to carry. And stop thinking about yourself a while, and behave yourself like a sensible girl."
"Yes, yes," said the girl; "I will. You needn't be troubled about me any more."
Before she left her room she wrote a note, and when she came down she was dressed to go out-of-doors and post it herself. The note was to Corey:--
"Do not come to see me any more till you hear from me. I have a reason which I cannot give you now; and you must not ask what it is."
All day she went about in a buoyant desperation, and she came down to meet her father at supper.
"Well, Persis," he said scornfully, as he sat down, "we might as well saved our good resolutions till they were wanted. I guess those English parties have gone back on Rogers."
"Do you mean he didn't come?"
"He hadn't come up to half-past five," said Lapham.
"Tchk!" uttered his wife. "But I guess I shall pull through without Mr. Rogers," continued Lapham. "A firm that I didn't think COULD weather it is still afloat, and so far forth as the danger goes of being dragged under with it, I'm all right." Penelope came in. "Hello, Pen!" cried her father. "It ain't often I meet YOU nowadays." He put up his hand as she passed his chair, and pulled her down and kissed her.
"No," she said; "but I thought I'd come down to-night and cheer you up a little. I shall not talk; the sight of me will be enough."
Her father laughed out. "Mother been telling you? Well, I WAS pretty blue last night; but I guess I was more scared than hurt. How'd you like to go to the theatre to-night? Sellers at the Park. Heigh?"
"Well, I don't know. Don't you think they could get along without me there?"
"No; couldn't work it at all," cried the Colonel. "Let's all go. Unless," he added inquiringly, "there's somebody coming here?"
"There's nobody coming," said Penelope.
"Good! Then we'll go. Mother, don't you be late now."
"Oh, I shan't keep you waiting," said Mrs. Lapham. She had thought of telling what a cheerful letter she had got from Irene; but upon the whole it seemed better not to speak of Irene at all just then. After they returned from the theatre, where the Colonel roared through the comedy, with continual reference of his pleasure to Penelope, to make sure that she was enjoying it too, his wife said, as if the whole affair had been for the girl's distraction rather than his, "I don't believe but what it's going to come out all right about the children;" and then she told him of the letter, and the hopes she had founded upon it.
"Well, perhaps you're right, Persis," he consented.
"I haven't seen Pen so much like herself since it happened. I declare, when I see the way she came out to-night, just to please you, I don't know as I want you should get over all your troubles right away."
"I guess there'll be enough to keep Pen going for a while yet," said the Colonel, winding up his watch.
But for a time there was a relief, which Walker noted, in the atmosphere at the office, and then came another cold wave, slighter than the first, but distinctly felt there, and succeeded by another relief. It was like the winter which was wearing on to the end of the year, with alternations of freezing weather, and mild days stretching to weeks, in which the snow and ice wholly disappeared. It was none the less winter, and none the less harassing for these fluctuations, and Lapham showed in his face and temper the effect of like fluctuations in his affairs. He grew thin and old, and both at home and at his office he was irascible to the point of offence. In these days Penelope shared with her mother the burden of their troubled home, and united with her in supporting the silence or the petulance of the gloomy, secret man who replaced the presence of jolly prosperity there. Lapham had now ceased to talk of his troubles, and savagely resented his wife's interference. "You mind your own business, Persis," he said one day, "if you've got any;" and after that she left him mainly to Penelope, who did not think of asking him questions.
"It's pretty hard on you, Pen," she said.
"That makes it easier for me," returned the girl, who did not otherwise refer to her own trouble.
In her heart she had wondered a little at the absolute obedience of Corey, who had made no sign since receiving her note. She would have liked to ask her father if Corey was sick; she would have liked him to ask her why Corey did not come any more. Her mother went on--
"I don't believe your father knows WHERE he stands. He works away at those papers he brings home here at night, as if he didn't half know what he was about. He always did have that close streak in him, and I don't suppose but what he's been going into things he don't want anybody else to know about, and he's kept these accounts of his own."
Sometimes he gave Penelope figures to work at, which he would not submit to his wife's nimbler arithmetic. Then she went to bed and left them sitting up till midnight, struggling with problems in which they were both weak. But she could see that the girl was a comfort to her father, and that his troubles were a defence and shelter to her. Some nights she could hear them going out together, and then she lay awake for their return from their long walk. When the hour or day of respite came again, the home felt it first. Lapham wanted to know what the news from Irene was; he joined his wife in all her cheerful speculations, and tried to make her amends for his sullen reticence and irritability. Irene was staying on at Dubuque. There came a letter from her, saying that her uncle's people wanted her to spend the winter there. "Well, let her," said Lapham. "It'll be the best thing for her."
Lapham himself had letters from his brother at frequent intervals. His brother was watching the G. L. & P., which as yet had made no offer for the mills. Once, when one of these letters came, he submitted to his wife whether, in the absence of any positive information that the road wanted the property, he might not, with a good conscience, dispose of it to the best advantage to anybody who came along.
She looked wistfully at him; it was on the rise from a season of deep depression with him. "No, Si," she said; "I don't see how you could do that."
He did not assent and submit, as he had done at first, but began to rail at the unpracticality of women; and then he shut some papers he had been looking over into his desk, and flung out of the room.
One of the papers had slipped through the crevice of the lid, and lay upon the floor. Mrs. Lapham kept on at her sewing, but after a while she picked the paper up to lay it on the desk. Then she glanced at it, and saw that it was a long column of dates and figures, recording successive sums, never large ones, paid regularly to "Wm. M." The dates covered a year, and the sum amounted at least to several hundreds.
Mrs. Lapham laid the paper down on the desk, and then she took it up again and put it into her work-basket, meaning to give it to him. When he came in she saw him looking absent-mindedly about for something, and then going to work upon his papers, apparently without it. She thought she would wait till he missed it definitely, and then give him the scrap she had picked up. It lay in her basket, and after some days it found its way under the work in it, and she forgot it.