"Well," coaxed her sister, "come out and get some tea. The tea will do you good."
"No, no; I can't come. But send me a cup here."
"Yes, and then perhaps you can see him later in the evening."
"I shall not see him at all."
An hour after Penelope came back to her sister's room and found her before her glass. "You might as well have kept still, and been well by morning, 'Rene," she said. "As soon as we were done father said, 'Well, Mr. Corey and I have got to talk over a little matter of business, and we'll excuse you, ladies.' He looked at mother in a way that I guess was pretty hard to bear. 'Rene, you ought to have heard the Colonel swelling at supper. It would have made you feel that all he said the other day was nothing."
Mrs. Lapham suddenly opened the door.
"Now, see here, Pen," she said, as she closed it behind her, "I've had just as much as I can stand from your father, and if you don't tell me this instant what it all means — — "
She left the consequences to imagination, and Penelope replied with her mock soberness —
"Well, the Colonel does seem to be on his high horse, ma'am. But you mustn't ask me what his business with Mr. Corey is, for I don't know. All that I know is that I met them at the landing, and that they conversed all the way down — on literary topics."
"Nonsense! What do you think it is?"
"Well, if you want my candid opinion, I think this talk about business is nothing but a blind. It seems a pity Irene shouldn't have been up to receive him," she added.
Irene cast a mute look of imploring at her mother, who was too much preoccupied to afford her the protection it asked.
"Your father said he wanted to go into the business with him."
Irene's look changed to a stare of astonishment and mystification, but Penelope preserved her imperturbability.
"Well, it's a lucrative business, I believe."
"Well, I don't believe a word of it!" cried Mrs. Lapham. "And so I told your father."
"Did it seem to convince him?" inquired Penelope.
Her mother did not reply. "I know one thing," she said. "He's got to tell me every word, or there'll be no sleep for him THIS night."
"Well, ma'am," said Penelope, breaking down in one of her queer laughs, "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if you were right."
"Go on and dress, Irene," ordered her mother, "and then you and Pen come out into the parlour. They can have just two hours for business, and then we must all be there to receive him. You haven't got headache enough to hurt you."
"Oh, it's all gone now," said the girl.
At the end of the limit she had given the Colonel, Mrs. Lapham looked into the dining-room, which she found blue with his smoke.
"I think you gentlemen will find the parlour pleasanter now, and we can give it up to you."
"Oh no, you needn't," said her husband. "We've got about through." Corey was already standing, and Lapham rose too. "I guess we can join the ladies now. We can leave that little point till to-morrow."
Both of the young ladies were in the parlour when Corey entered with their father, and both were frankly indifferent to the few books and the many newspapers scattered about on the table where the large lamp was placed. But after Corey had greeted Irene he glanced at the novel under his eye, and said, in the dearth that sometimes befalls people at such times: "I see you're reading Middlemarch. Do you like George Eliot?"
"Who?" asked the girl.
Penelope interposed. "I don't believe Irene's read it yet. I've just got it out of the library; I heard so much talk about it. I wish she would let you find out a little about the people for yourself," she added. But here her father struck in —
"I can't get the time for books. It's as much as I can do to keep up with the newspapers; and when night comes, I'm tired, and I'd rather go out to the theatre, or a lecture, if they've got a good stereopticon to give you views of the places. But I guess we all like a play better than 'most anything else. I want something that'll make me laugh. I don't believe in tragedy. I think there's enough of that in real life without putting it on the stage. Seen 'Joshua Whitcomb'?"
The whole family joined in the discussion, and it appeared that they all had their opinions of the plays and actors. Mrs. Lapham brought the talk back to literature. "I guess Penelope does most of our reading."
"Now, mother, you're not going to put it all on me!" said the girl, in comic protest.
Her mother laughed, and then added, with a sigh: "I used to like to get hold of a good book when I was a girl; but we weren't allowed to read many novels in those days. My mother called them all LIES. And I guess she wasn't so very far wrong about some of them."
"They're certainly fictions," said Corey, smiling.