"WHAT's the reason the girls never get down to breakfast any more?" asked Lapham, when he met his wife at the table in the morning. He had been up an hour and a half, and he spoke with the severity of a hungry man. "It seems to me they don't amount to ANYthing. Here I am, at my time of life, up the first one in the house. I ring the bell for the cook at quarter-past six every morning, and the breakfast is on the table at half-past seven right along, like clockwork, but I never see anybody but you till I go to the office."
"Oh yes, you do, Si," said his wife soothingly. "The girls are nearly always down. But they're young, and it tires them more than it does us to get up early."
"They can rest afterwards. They don't do anything after they ARE up," grumbled Lapham.
"Well, that's your fault, ain't it? You oughtn't to have made so much money, and then they'd have had to work." She laughed at Lapham's Spartan mood, and went on to excuse the young people. "Irene's been up two nights hand running, and Penelope says she ain't well. What makes you so cross about the girls? Been doing something you're ashamed of?"
"I'll tell you when I've been doing anything to be ashamed of," growled Lapham.
"Oh no, you won't!" said his wife jollily. "You'll only be hard on the rest of us. Come now, Si; what is it?"
Lapham frowned into his coffee with sulky dignity, and said, without looking up, "I wonder what that fellow wanted here last night?" "What fellow?"
"Corey. I found him here when I came home, and he said he wanted to see me; but he wouldn't stop."
"Where was he?"
"In the sitting-room."
"Was Pen there?"
"I didn't see her."
Mrs. Lapham paused, with her hand on the cream-jug. "Why, what in the land did he want? Did he say he wanted you?"
"That's what he said."
"And then he wouldn't stay?"
"Well, then, I'll tell you just what it is, Silas Lapham. He came here" — she looked about the room and lowered her voice — "to see you about Irene, and then he hadn't the courage."
"I guess he's got courage enough to do pretty much what he wants to," said Lapham glumly. "All I know is, he was here. You better ask Pen about it, if she ever gets down."
"I guess I shan't wait for her," said Mrs. Lapham; and, as her husband closed the front door after him, she opened that of her daughter's room and entered abruptly.
The girl sat at the window, fully dressed, and as if she had been sitting there a long time. Without rising, she turned her face towards her mother. It merely showed black against the light, and revealed nothing till her mother came close to her with successive questions. "Why, how long have you been up, Pen? Why don't you come to your breakfast? Did you see Mr. Corey when he called last night? Why, what's the matter with you? What have you been crying about?"
"Have I been crying?"
"Yes! Your cheeks are all wet!"
"I thought they were on fire. Well, I'll tell you what's happened." She rose, and then fell back in her chair. "Lock the door!" she ordered, and her mother mechanically obeyed. "I don't want Irene in here. There's nothing the matter. Only, Mr. Corey offered himself to me last night."
Her mother remained looking at her, helpless, not so much with amaze, perhaps, as dismay. "Oh, I'm not a ghost! I wish I was! You had better sit down, mother. You have got to know all about it."
Mrs. Lapham dropped nervelessly into the chair at the other window, and while the girl went slowly but briefly on, touching only the vital points of the story, and breaking at times into a bitter drollery, she sat as if without the power to speak or stir.
"Well, that's all, mother. I should say I had dreamt, it, if I had slept any last night; but I guess it really happened."
The mother glanced round at the bed, and said, glad to occupy herself delayingly with the minor care: "Why, you have been sitting up all night! You will kill yourself."
"I don't know about killing myself, but I've been sitting up all night," answered the girl. Then, seeing that her mother remained blankly silent again, she demanded, "Why don't you blame me, mother? Why don't you say that I led him on, and tried to get him away from her? Don't you believe I did?"