IRENE did not leave her mother in any illusion concerning her cousin Will and herself. She said they had all been as nice to her as they could be, and when Mrs. Lapham hinted at what had been in her thoughts, — or her hopes, rather, — Irene severely snubbed the notion. She said that he was as good as engaged to a girl out there, and that he had never dreamt of her. Her mother wondered at her severity; in these few months the girl had toughened and hardened; she had lost all her babyish dependence and pliability; she was like iron; and here and there she was sharpened to a cutting edge. It had been a life and death struggle with her; she had conquered, but she had also necessarily lost much. Perhaps what she had lost was not worth keeping; but at any rate she had lost it.
She required from her mother a strict and accurate account of her father's affairs, so far as Mrs Lapham knew them; and she showed a business-like quickness in comprehending them that Penelope had never pretended to. With her sister she ignored the past as completely as it was possible to do; and she treated both Corey and Penelope with the justice which their innocence of voluntary offence deserved. It was a difficult part, and she kept away from them as much as she could. She had been easily excused, on a plea of fatigue from her journey, when Mr. and Mrs. Corey had called the day after her arrival, and Mrs. Lapham being still unwell, Penelope received them alone.
The girl had instinctively judged best that they should know the worst at once, and she let them have the full brunt of the drawing-room, while she was screwing her courage up to come down and see them. She was afterwards — months afterwards — able to report to Corey that when she entered the room his father was sitting with his hat on his knees, a little tilted away from the Emancipation group, as if he expected the Lincoln to hit him, with that lifted hand of benediction; and that Mrs. Corey looked as if she were not sure but the Eagle pecked. But for the time being Penelope was as nearly crazed as might be by the complications of her position, and received her visitors with a piteous distraction which could not fail of touching Bromfield Corey's Italianised sympatheticism. He was very polite and tender with her at first, and ended by making a joke with her, to which Penelope responded, in her sort. He said he hoped they parted friends, if not quite acquaintances; and she said she hoped they would be able to recognise each other if they ever met again.
"That is what I meant by her pertness," said Mrs Corey, when they were driving away.
"Was it very pert?" he queried. "The child had to answer something."
"I would much rather she had answered nothing, under the circumstances," said Mrs. Corey. "However!" she added hopelessly. "Oh, she's a merry little grig, you can see that, and there's no harm in her. I can understand a little why a formal fellow like Tom should be taken with her. She hasn't the least reverence, I suppose, and joked with the young man from the beginning. You must remember, Anna, that there was a time when you liked my joking."
"It was a very different thing!"
"But that drawing-room," pursued Corey; "really, I don't see how Tom stands that. Anna, a terrible thought occurs to me! Fancy Tom being married in front of that group, with a floral horse-shoe in tuberoses coming down on either side of it!"
"Bromfield!" cried his wife, "you are unmerciful."
"No, no, my dear," he argued; "merely imaginative. And I can even imagine that little thing finding Tom just the least bit slow, at times, if it were not for his goodness. Tom is so kind that I'm convinced he sometimes feels your joke in his heart when his head isn't quite clear about it. Well, we will not despond, my dear."
"Your father seemed actually to like her," Mrs. Corey reported to her daughters, very much shaken in her own prejudices by the fact. If the girl were not so offensive to his fastidiousness, there might be some hope that she was not so offensive as Mrs. Corey had thought. "I wonder how she will strike YOU," she concluded, looking from one daughter to another, as if trying to decide which of them would like Penelope least.
Irene's return and the visit of the Coreys formed a distraction for the Laphams in which their impending troubles seemed to hang further aloof; but it was only one of those reliefs which mark the course of adversity, and it was not one of the cheerful reliefs. At any other time, either incident would have been an anxiety and care for Mrs. Lapham which she would have found hard to bear; but now she almost welcomed them. At the end of three days Lapham returned, and his wife met him as if nothing unusual had marked their parting; she reserved her atonement for a fitter time; he would know now from the way she acted that she felt all right towards him. He took very little note of her manner, but met his family with an austere quiet that puzzled her, and a sort of pensive dignity that refined his rudeness to an effect that sometimes comes to such natures after long sickness, when the animal strength has been taxed and lowered. He sat silent with her at the table after their girls had left them alone, and seeing that he did not mean to speak, she began to explain why Irene had come home, and to praise her.