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?"