"Have you, Tom?" she asked faintly.
"Yes. For the present I am going to have charge of his foreign correspondence, and if I see my way to the advantage I expect to find in it, I am going out to manage that side of his business in South America and Mexico. He's behaved very handsomely about it. He says that if it appears for our common interest, he shall pay me a salary as well as a commission. I've talked with Uncle Jim, and he thinks it's a good opening."
"Your Uncle Jim does?" queried Mrs. Corey in amaze.
"Yes; I consulted him the whole way through, and I've acted on his advice."
This seemed an incomprehensible treachery on her brother's part.
"Yes; I thought you would like to have me. And besides, I couldn't possibly have gone to any one so well fitted to advise me."
His mother said nothing. In fact, the mineral paint business, however painful its interest, was, for the moment, superseded by a more poignant anxiety. She began to feel her way cautiously toward this.
"Have you been talking about your business with Mr. Lapham all night?"
"Well, pretty much," said her son, with a guiltless laugh. "I went to see him yesterday afternoon, after I had gone over the whole ground with Uncle Jim, and Mr. Lapham asked me to go down with him and finish up."
"Down?" repeated Mrs. Corey. "Yes, to Nantasket. He has a cottage down there."
"At Nantasket?" Mrs. Corey knitted her brows a little. "What in the world can a cottage at Nantasket be like?"
"Oh, very much like a 'cottage' anywhere. It has the usual allowance of red roof and veranda. There are the regulation rocks by the sea; and the big hotels on the beach about a mile off, flaring away with electric lights and roman-candles at night. We didn't have them at Nahant."
"No," said his mother. "Is Mrs. Lapham well? And her daughter?"
"Yes, I think so," said the young man. "The young ladies walked me down to the rocks in the usual way after dinner, and then I came back and talked paint with Mr. Lapham till midnight. We didn't settle anything till this morning coming up on the boat."
"What sort of people do they seem to be at home?"
"What sort? Well, I don't know that I noticed." Mrs. Corey permitted herself the first part of a sigh of relief; and her son laughed, but apparently not at her. "They're just reading Middlemarch. They say there's so much talk about it. Oh, I suppose they're very good people. They seemed to be on very good terms with each other."
"I suppose it's the plain sister who's reading Middlemarch."
"Plain? Is she plain?" asked the young man, as if searching his consciousness. "Yes, it's the older one who does the reading, apparently. But I don't believe that even she overdoes it. They like to talk better. They reminded me of Southern people in that." The young man smiled, as if amused by some of his impressions of the Lapham family. "The living, as the country people call it, is tremendously good. The Colonel — he's a colonel — talked of the coffee as his wife's coffee, as if she had personally made it in the kitchen, though I believe it was merely inspired by her. And there was everything in the house that money could buy. But money has its limitations."
This was a fact which Mrs. Corey was beginning to realise more and more unpleasantly in her own life; but it seemed to bring her a certain comfort in its application to the Laphams. "Yes, there is a point where taste has to begin," she said.
"They seemed to want to apologise to me for not having more books," said Corey. "I don't know why they should. The Colonel said they bought a good many books, first and last; but apparently they don't take them to the sea-side."
"I dare say they NEVER buy a NEW book. I've met some of these moneyed people lately, and they lavish on every conceivable luxury, and then borrow books, and get them in the cheap paper editions."
"I fancy that's the way with the Lapham family," said the young man, smilingly. "But they are very good people. The other daughter is humorous."
"Humorous?" Mrs. Corey knitted her brows in some perplexity. "Do you mean like Mrs. Sayre?" she asked, naming the lady whose name must come into every Boston mind when humour is mentioned.
"Oh no; nothing like that. She never says anything that you can remember; nothing in flashes or ripples; nothing the least literary. But it's a sort of droll way of looking at things; or a droll medium through which things present themselves. I don't know. She tells what she's seen, and mimics a little."
"Oh," said Mrs. Corey coldly. After a moment she asked: "And is Miss Irene as pretty as ever?"
"She's a wonderful complexion," said the son unsatisfactorily. "I shall want to be by when father and Colonel Lapham meet," he added, with a smile.