"Irene!" she said harshly, "there is something you have got to bear. It's a mistake we've all made. He don't care anything for you. He never did. He told Pen so last night. He cares for her."
The sentences had fallen like blows. But the girl had taken them without flinching. She stood up immovable, but the delicate rose-light of her complexion went out and left her colourless. She did not offer to speak.
"Why don't you say something?" cried her mother. "Do you want to kill me, Irene?"
"Why should I want to hurt you, mamma?" the girl replied steadily, but in an alien voice. "There's nothing to say. I want to see Pen a minute."
She turned and left the room. As she mounted the stairs that led to her own and her sister's rooms on the floor above, her mother helplessly followed. Irene went first to her own room at the front of the house, and then came out leaving the door open and the gas flaring behind her. The mother could see that she had tumbled many things out of the drawers of her bureau upon the marble top.
She passed her mother, where she stood in the entry. "You can come too, if you want to, mamma," she said.
She opened Penelope's door without knocking, and went in. Penelope sat at the window, as in the morning. Irene did not go to her; but she went and laid a gold hair-pin on her bureau, and said, without looking at her, "There's a pin that I got to-day, because it was like his sister's. It won't become a dark person so well, but you can have it."
She stuck a scrap of paper in the side of Penelope's mirror. "There's that account of Mr. Stanton's ranch. You'll want to read it, I presume."
She laid a withered boutonniere on the bureau beside the pin. "There's his button-hole bouquet. He left it by his plate, and I stole it."
She had a pine-shaving fantastically tied up with a knot of ribbon, in her hand. She held it a moment; then, looking deliberately at Penelope, she went up to her, and dropped it in her lap without a word. She turned, and, advancing a few steps, tottered and seemed about to fall.
Her mother sprang forward with an imploring cry, "O 'Rene, 'Rene, 'Rene!"
Irene recovered herself before her mother could reach her. "Don't touch me," she said icily. "Mamma, I'm going to put on my things. I want papa to walk with me. I'm choking here."
"I--I can't let you go out, Irene, child," began her mother.
"You've got to," replied the girl. "Tell papa ta hurry his supper."
"O poor soul! He doesn't want any supper. HE knows it too."
"I don't want to talk about that. Tell him to get ready."
She left them once more.
Mrs. Lapham turned a hapless glance upon Penelope.
"Go and tell him, mother," said the girl. "I would, if I could. If she can walk, let her. It's the only thing for her." She sat still; she did not even brush to the floor the fantastic thing that lay in her lap, and that sent up faintly the odour of the sachet powder with which Irene liked to perfume her boxes.
Lapham went out with the unhappy child, and began to talk with her, crazily, incoherently, enough.
She mercifully stopped him. "Don't talk, papa. I don't want any one should talk with me."
He obeyed, and they walked silently on and on. In their aimless course they reached the new house on the water side of Beacon, and she made him stop, and stood looking up at it. The scaffolding which had so long defaced the front was gone, and in the light of the gas-lamp before it all the architectural beauty of the facade was suggested, and much of the finely felt detail was revealed. Seymour had pretty nearly satisfied himself in that rich facade; certainly Lapham had not stinted him of the means.
"Well," said the girl, "I shall never live in it," and she began to walk on.
Lapham's sore heart went down, as he lumbered heavily after her. "Oh yes, you will, Irene. You'll have lots of good times there yet."
"No," she answered, and said nothing more about it. They had not talked of their trouble at all, and they did not speak of it now. Lapham understood that she was trying to walk herself weary, and he was glad to hold his peace and let her have her way. She halted him once more before the red and yellow lights of an apothecary's window.
"Isn't there something they give you to make you sleep?" she asked vaguely. "I've got to sleep to-night!"
Lapham trembled. "I guess you don't want anything, Irene."
"Yes, I do! Get me something!" she retorted wilfully. "If you don't, I shall die. I MUST sleep."
They went in, and Lapham asked for something to make a nervous person sleep. Irene stood poring over the show-case full of brushes and trinkets, while the apothecary put up the bromide, which he guessed would be about the best thing. She did not show any emotion; her face was like a stone, while her father's expressed the anguish of his sympathy. He looked as if he had not slept for a week; his fat eyelids drooped over his glassy eyes, and his cheeks and throat hung flaccid. He started as the apothecary's cat stole smoothly up and rubbed itself against his leg; and it was to him that the man said, "You want to take a table-spoonful of that, as long as you're awake. I guess it won't take a great many to fetch you." "All right," said Lapham, and paid and went out. "I don't know but I SHALL want some of it," he said, with a joyless laugh.
Irene came closer up to him and took his arm. He laid his heavy paw on her gloved fingers. After a while she said, "I want you should let me go up to Lapham to-morrow."
"To Lapham? Why, to-morrow's Sunday, Irene! You can't go to-morrow."
"Well, Monday, then. I can live through one day here."
"Well," said the father passively. He made no pretence of asking her why she wished to go, nor any attempt to dissuade her.
"Give me that bottle," she said, when he opened the door at home for her, and she ran up to her own room.
The next morning Irene came to breakfast with her mother; the Colonel and Penelope did not appear, and Mrs. Lapham looked sleep-broken and careworn.
The girl glanced at her. "Don't you fret about me, mamma," she said. "I shall get along." She seemed herself as steady and strong as rock.
"I don't like to see you keeping up so, Irene," replied her mother. "It'll be all the worse for you when you do break. Better give way a little at the start."
"I shan't break, and I've given way all I'm going to. I'm going to Lapham to-morrow,--I want you should go with me, mamma,--and I guess I can keep up one day here. All about it is, I don't want you should say anything, or LOOK anything. And, whatever I do, I don't want you should try to stop me. And, the first thing, I'm going to take her breakfast up to her. Don't!" she cried, intercepting the protest on her mother's lips. "I shall not let it hurt Pen, if I can help it. She's never done a thing nor thought a thing to wrong me. I had to fly out at her last night; but that's all over now, and I know just what I've got to bear."
She had her way unmolested. She carried Penelope's breakfast to her, and omitted no care or attention that could make the sacrifice complete, with an heroic pretence that she was performing no unusual service. They did not speak, beyond her saying, in a clear dry note, "Here's your breakfast, Pen," and her sister's answering, hoarsely and tremulously, "Oh, thank you, Irene." And, though two or three times they turned their faces toward each other while Irene remained in the room, mechanically putting its confusion to rights, their eyes did not meet. Then Irene descended upon the other rooms, which she set in order, and some of which she fiercely swept and dusted. She made the beds; and she sent the two servants away to church as soon as they had eaten their breakfast, telling them that she would wash their dishes. Throughout the morning her father and mother heard her about the work of getting dinner, with certain silences which represented the moments when she stopped and stood stock-still, and then, readjusting her burden, forced herself forward under it again.
They sat alone in the family room, out of which their two girls seemed to have died. Lapham could not read his Sunday papers, and she had no heart to go to church, as she would have done earlier in life when in trouble. Just then she was obscurely feeling that the church was somehow to blame for that counsel of Mr. Sewell's on which they had acted.
"I should like to know," she said, having brought the matter up, "whether he would have thought it was such a light matter if it had been his own children. Do you suppose he'd have been so ready to act on his own advice if it HAD been?"
"He told us the right thing to do, Persis,--the only thing. We couldn't let it go on," urged her husband gently.
"Well, it makes me despise Pen! Irene's showing twice the character that she is, this very minute."
The mother said this so that the father might defend her daughter to her. He did not fail. "Irene's got the easiest part, the way I look at it. And you'll see that Pen'll know how to behave when the time comes."
"What do you want she should do?"
"I haven't got so far as that yet. What are we going to do about Irene?"
"What do you want Pen should do," repeated Mrs. Lapham, "when it comes to it?"
"Well, I don't want she should take him, for ONE thing," said Lapham.
This seemed to satisfy Mrs. Lapham as to her husband, and she said in defence of Corey, "Why, I don't see what HE'S done. It's all been our doing."
"Never mind that now. What about Irene?"
"She says she's going to Lapham to-morrow. She feels that she's got to get away somewhere. It's natural she should."
"Yes, and I presume it will be about the best thing FOR her. Shall you go with her?"
"Well." He comfortlessly took up a newspaper again, and she rose with a sigh, and went to her room to pack some things for the morrow's journey.
After dinner, when Irene had cleared away the last trace of it in kitchen and dining-room with unsparing punctilio, she came downstairs, dressed to go out, and bade her father come to walk with her again. It was a repetition of the aimlessness of the last night's wanderings. They came back, and she got tea for them, and after that they heard her stirring about in her own room, as if she were busy about many things; but they did not dare to look in upon her, even after all the noises had ceased, and they knew she had gone to bed.
"Yes; it's a thing she's got to fight out by herself," said Mrs Lapham.
"I guess she'll get along," said Lapham. "But I don't want you should misjudge Pen either. She's all right too. She ain't to blame."
"Yes, I know. But I can't work round to it all at once. I shan't misjudge her, but you can't expect me to get over it right away."
"Mamma," said Irene, when she was hurrying their departure the next morning, "what did she tell him when he asked her?"
"Tell him?" echoed the mother; and after a while she added, "She didn't tell him anything."
"Did she say anything, about me?"
"She said he mustn't come here any more."
Irene turned and went into her sister's room. "Good-bye, Pen," she said, kissing her with an effect of not seeing or touching her. "I want you should tell him all about it. If he's half a man, he won't give up till he knows why you won't have him; and he has a right to know."
"It wouldn't make any difference. I couldn't have him after----"
"That's for you to say. But if you don't tell him about me, I will."
"'Rene!" "Yes! You needn't say I cared for him. But you can say that you all thought he--cared for--me."
"Don't!" Irene escaped from the arms that tried to cast themselves about her. "You are all right, Pen. You haven't done anything. You've helped me all you could. But I can't--yet."
She went out of the room and summoned Mrs. Lapham with a sharp "Now, mamma!" and went on putting the last things into her trunks.
The Colonel went to the station with them, and put them on the train. He got them a little compartment to themselves in the Pullman car; and as he stood leaning with his lifted hands against the sides of the doorway, he tried to say something consoling and hopeful: "I guess you'll have an easy ride, Irene. I don't believe it'll be dusty, any, after the rain last night."
"Don't you stay till the train starts, papa," returned the girl, in rigid rejection of his futilities. "Get off, now."
"Well, if you want I should," he said, glad to be able to please her in anything. He remained on the platform till the cars started. He saw Irene bustling about in the compartment, making her mother comfortable for the journey; but Mrs. Lapham did not lift her head. The train moved off, and he went heavily back to his business.
From time to time during the day, when he caught a glimpse of him, Corey tried to make out from his face whether he knew what had taken place between him and Penelope. When Rogers came in about time of closing, and shut himself up with Lapham in his room, the young man remained till the two came out together and parted in their salutationless fashion.
Lapham showed no surprise at seeing Corey still there, and merely answered, "Well!" when the young man said that he wished to speak with him, and led the way back to his room.
Corey shut the door behind them. "I only wish to speak to you in case you know of the matter already; for otherwise I'm bound by a promise."
"I guess I know what you mean. It's about Penelope."
"Yes, it's about Miss Lapham. I am greatly attached to her--you'll excuse my saying it; I couldn't excuse myself if I were not."
"Perfectly excusable," said Lapham. "It's all right."
"Oh, I'm glad to hear you say that!" cried the young fellow joyfully. "I want you to believe that this isn't a new thing or an unconsidered thing with me--though it seemed so unexpected to her."
Lapham fetched a deep sigh. "It's all right as far as I'm concerned--or her mother. We've both liked you first-rate."
"But there seems to be something in Penelope's mind--I don't know--" The Colonel consciously dropped his eyes.
"She referred to something--I couldn't make out what--but I hoped--I hoped--that with your leave I might overcome it--the barrier--whatever it was. Miss Lapham--Penelope--gave me the hope--that I was--wasn't--indifferent to her----"
"Yes, I guess that's so," said Lapham. He suddenly lifted his head, and confronted the young fellow's honest face with his own face, so different in its honesty. "Sure you never made up to any one else at the same time?"
"NEVER! Who could imagine such a thing? If that's all, I can easily."
"I don't say that's all, nor that that's it. I don't want you should go upon that idea. I just thought, may be--you hadn't thought of it."
"No, I certainly hadn't thought of it! Such a thing would have been so impossible to me that I couldn't have thought of it; and it's so shocking to me now that I don't know what to say to it."
"Well, don't take it too much to heart," said Lapham, alarmed at the feeling he had excited; "I don't say she thought so. I was trying to guess--trying to----"
"If there is anything I can say or do to convince you----"
"Oh, it ain't necessary to say anything. I'm all right."
"But Miss Lapham! I may see her again? I may try to convince her that----"
He stopped in distress, and Lapham afterwards told his wife that he kept seeing the face of Irene as it looked when he parted with her in the car; and whenever he was going to say yes, he could not open his lips. At the same time he could not help feeling that Penelope had a right to what was her own, and Sewell's words came back to him. Besides, they had already put Irene to the worst suffering. Lapham compromised, as he imagined. "You can come round to-night and see ME, if you want to," he said; and he bore grimly the gratitude that the young man poured out upon him.
Penelope came down to supper and took her mother's place at the head of the table.
Lapham sat silent in her presence as long as he could bear it. Then he asked, "How do you feel to-night, Pen?"
"Oh, like a thief," said the girl. "A thief that hasn't been arrested yet."
Lapham waited a while before he said, "Well, now, your mother and I want you should hold up on that a while."
"It isn't for you to say. It's something I can't hold up on."
"Yes, I guess you can. If I know what's happened, then what's happened is a thing that nobody is to blame for. And we want you should make the best of it and not the worst. Heigh? It ain't going to help Irene any for you to hurt yourself--or anybody else; and I don't want you should take up with any such crazy notion. As far as heard from, you haven't stolen anything, and whatever you've got belongs to you."
"Has he been speaking to you, father?"
"Your mother's been speaking to me."
"Has HE been speaking to you?"
"That's neither here nor there."
"Then he's broken his word, and I will never speak to him again!"
"If he was any such fool as to promise that he wouldn't talk to me on a subject"--Lapham drew a deep breath, and then made the plunge--"that I brought up----"
"Did you bring it up?"
"The same as brought up--the quicker he broke his word the better; and I want you should act upon that idea. Recollect that it's my business, and your mother's business, as well as yours, and we're going to have our say. He hain't done anything wrong, Pen, nor anything that he's going to be punished for. Understand that. He's got to have a reason, if you're not going to have him. I don't say you've got to have him; I want you should feel perfectly free about that; but I DO say you've got to give him a reason."
"Is he coming here?"
"I don't know as you'd call it COMING----"
"Yes, you do, father!" said the girl, in forlorn amusement at his shuffling.
"He's coming here to see ME----"
"When's he coming?"
"I don't know but he's coming to-night."
"And you want I should see him?"
"I don't know but you'd better."
"All right. I'll see him."
Lapham drew a long deep breath of suspicion inspired by this acquiescence. "What you going to do?" he asked presently.
"I don't know yet," answered the girl sadly. "It depends a good deal upon what he does."
"Well," said Lapham, with the hungriness of unsatisfied anxiety in his tone. When Corey's card was brought into the family-room where he and Penelope were sitting, he went into the parlour to find him. "I guess Penelope wants to see you," he said; and, indicating the family-room, he added, "She's in there," and did not go back himself.
Corey made his way to the girl's presence with open trepidation, which was not allayed by her silence and languor. She sat in the chair where she had sat the other night, but she was not playing with a fan now.
He came toward her, and then stood faltering. A faint smile quivered over her face at the spectacle of his subjection. "Sit down, Mr. Corey," she said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't talk it over quietly; for I know you will think I'm right."
"I'm sure of that," he answered hopefully. "When I saw that your father knew of it to-day, I asked him to let me see you again. I'm afraid that I broke my promise to you--technically----"
"It had to be broken." He took more courage at her words. "But I've only come to do whatever you say, and not to be an--annoyance to you----"
"Yes, you have to know; but I couldn't tell you before. Now they all think I should."
A tremor of anxiety passed over the young man's face, on which she kept her eyes steadily fixed.
"We supposed it--it was--Irene----"
He remained blank a moment, and then he said with a smile of relief, of deprecation, of protest, of amazement, of compassion--
"OH! Never! Never for an instant! How could you think such a thing? It was impossible! I never thought of her. But I see--I see! I can explain--no, there's nothing to explain! I have never knowingly done or said a thing from first to last to make you think that. I see how terrible it is!" he said; but he still smiled, as if he could not take it seriously. "I admired her beauty--who could help doing that?--and I thought her very good and sensible. Why, last winter in Texas, I told Stanton about our meeting in Canada, and we agreed--I only tell you to show you how far I always was from what you thought--that he must come North and try to see her, and--and--of course, it all sounds very silly!--and he sent her a newspaper with an account of his ranch in it----"
"She thought it came from you."
"Oh, good heavens! He didn't tell me till after he'd done it. But he did it for a part of our foolish joke. And when I met your sister again, I only admired her as before. I can see, now, how I must have seemed to be seeking her out; but it was to talk of you with her--I never talked of anything else if I could help it, except when I changed the subject because I was ashamed to be always talking of you. I see how distressing it is for all of you. But tell me that you believe me!"
"Yes, I must. It's all been our mistake----"
"It has indeed! But there's no mistake about my loving you, Penelope," he said; and the old-fashioned name, at which she had often mocked, was sweet to her from his lips.
"That only makes it worse!" she answered.
"Oh no!" he gently protested. "It makes it better. It makes it right. How is it worse? How is it wrong?"
"Can't you see? You must understand all now! Don't you see that if she believed so too, and if she----" She could not go on.
"Did she--did your sister--think that too?" gasped Corey.
"She used to talk with me about you; and when you say you care for me now, it makes me feel like the vilest hypocrite in the world. That day you gave her the list of books, and she came down to Nantasket, and went on about you, I helped her to flatter herself--oh! I don't see how she can forgive me. But she knows I can never forgive myself! That's the reason she can do it. I can see now," she went on, "how I must have been trying to get you from her. I can't endure it! The only way is for me never to see you or speak to you again!" She laughed forlornly. "That would be pretty hard on you, if you cared."
"I do care--all the world!"
"Well, then, it would if you were going to keep on caring. You won't long, if you stop coming now."
"Is this all, then? Is it the end?"
"It's--whatever it is. I can't get over the thought of her. Once I thought I could, but now I see that I can't. It seems to grow worse. Sometimes I feel as if it would drive me crazy."
He sat looking at her with lacklustre eyes. The light suddenly came back into them. "Do you think I could love you if you had been false to her? I know you have been true to her, and truer still to yourself. I never tried to see her, except with the hope of seeing you too. I supposed she must know that I was in love with you. From the first time I saw you there that afternoon, you filled my fancy. Do you think I was flirting with the child, or--no, you don't think that! We have not done wrong. We have not harmed any one knowingly. We have a right to each other----"
"No! no! you must never speak to me of this again. If you do, I shall know that you despise me."
"But how will that help her? I don't love HER."
"Don't say that to me! I have said that to myself too much."
"If you forbid me to love you, it won't make me love her," he persisted.
She was about to speak, but she caught her breath without doing so, and merely stared at him. "I must do what you say," he continued. "But what good will it do her? You can't make her happy by making yourself unhappy."
"Do you ask me to profit by a wrong?"
"Not for the world. But there is no wrong!"
"There is something--I don't know what. There's a wall between us. I shall dash myself against it as long as I live; but that won't break it."
"Oh!" he groaned. "We have done no wrong. Why should we suffer from another's mistake as if it were our sin?"
"I don't know. But we must suffer."
"Well, then, I WILL not, for my part, and I will not let you. If you care for me----"
"You had no right to know it."
"You make it my privilege to keep you from doing wrong for the right's sake. I'm sorry, with all my heart and soul, for this error; but I can't blame myself, and I won't deny myself the happiness I haven't done anything to forfeit. I will never give you up. I will wait as long as you please for the time when you shall feel free from this mistake; but you shall be mine at last. Remember that. I might go away for months--a year, even; but that seems a cowardly and guilty thing, and I'm not afraid, and I'm not guilty, and I'm going to stay here and try to see you."
She shook her head. "It won't change anything? Don't you see that there's no hope for us?"
"When is she coming back?" he asked.
"I don't know. Mother wants father to come and take her out West for a while."
"She's up there in the country with your mother yet?"
He was silent; then he said desperately--
"Penelope, she is very young; and perhaps--perhaps she might meet----"
"It would make no difference. It wouldn't change it for me."
"You are cruel--cruel to yourself, if you love me, and cruel to me. Don't you remember that night--before I spoke--you were talking of that book; and you said it was foolish and wicked to do as that girl did. Why is it different with you, except that you give me nothing, and can never give me anything when you take yourself away? If it were anybody else, I am sure you would say----"
"But it isn't anybody else, and that makes it impossible. Sometimes I think it might be if I would only say so to myself, and then all that I said to her about you comes up----"
"I will wait. It can't always come up. I won't urge you any longer now. But you will see it differently--more clearly. Good-bye--no! Good night! I shall come again to-morrow. It will surely come right, and, whatever happens, you have done no wrong. Try to keep that in mind. I am so happy, in spite of all!"
He tried to take her hand, but she put it behind her. "No, no! I can't let you--yet!"