"Well, I declare, there's no living with this family any more," said Penelope.
"There, Pen, be done!" commanded her mother. But perhaps she did not intend to forbid her teasing. It gave a pleasant sort of reality to the affair that was in her mind, and made what she wished appear not only possible but probable.
Lapham got up and lounged about, fretting and rebelling as each boat departed without him, through the day; before night he became very cross, in spite of the efforts of the family to soothe him, and grumbled that he had been kept from going up to town. "I might as well have gone as not," he repeated, till his wife lost her patience.
"Well, you shall go to-morrow, Silas, if you have to be carried to the boat."
"I declare," said Penelope, "the Colonel don't pet worth a cent."
The six o'clock boat brought Corey. The girls were sitting on the piazza, and Irene saw him first.
"O Pen!" she whispered, with her heart in her face; and Penelope had no time for mockery before he was at the steps.
"I hope Colonel Lapham isn't ill," he said, and they could hear their mother engaged in a moral contest with their father indoors.
"Go and put on your coat! I say you shall! It don't matter HOW he sees you at the office, shirt-sleeves or not. You're in a gentleman's house now — or you ought to be — and you shan't see company in your dressing-gown."
Penelope hurried in to subdue her mother's anger.
"Oh, he's very much better, thank you!" said Irene, speaking up loudly to drown the noise of the controversy.
"I'm glad of that," said Corey, and when she led him indoors the vanquished Colonel met his visitor in a double-breasted frock-coat, which he was still buttoning up. He could not persuade himself at once that Corey had not come upon some urgent business matter, and when he was clear that he had come out of civility, surprise mingled with his gratification that he should be the object of solicitude to the young man. In Lapham's circle of acquaintance they complained when they were sick, but they made no womanish inquiries after one another's health, and certainly paid no visits of sympathy till matters were serious. He would have enlarged upon the particulars of his indisposition if he had been allowed to do so; and after tea, which Corey took with them, he would have remained to entertain him if his wife had not sent him to bed. She followed him to see that he took some medicine she had prescribed for him, but she went first to Penelope's room, where she found the girl with a book in her hand, which she was not reading.
"You better go down," said the mother. "I've got to go to your father, and Irene is all alone with Mr. Corey; and I know she'll be on pins and needles without you're there to help make it go off."
"She'd better try to get along without me, mother," said Penelope soberly. "I can't always be with them."
"Well," replied Mrs. Lapham, "then I must. There'll be a perfect Quaker meeting down there."
"Oh, I guess 'Rene will find something to say if you leave her to herself. Or if she don't, HE must. It'll be all right for you to go down when you get ready; but I shan't go till toward the last. If he's coming here to see Irene — and I don't believe he's come on father's account — he wants to see her and not me. If she can't interest him alone, perhaps he'd as well find it out now as any time. At any rate, I guess you'd better make the experiment. You'll know whether it's a success if he comes again."
"Well," said the mother, "may be you're right. I'll go down directly. It does seem as if he did mean something, after all."
Mrs. Lapham did not hasten to return to her guest. In her own girlhood it was supposed that if a young man seemed to be coming to see a girl, it was only common-sense to suppose that he wished to see her alone; and her life in town had left Mrs. Lapham's simple traditions in this respect unchanged. She did with her daughter as her mother would have done with her.
Where Penelope sat with her book, she heard the continuous murmur of voices below, and after a long interval she heard her mother descend. She did not read the open book that lay in her lap, though she kept her eyes fast on the print. Once she rose and almost shut the door, so that she could scarcely hear; then she opened it wide again with a self-disdainful air, and resolutely went back to her book, which again she did not read. But she remained in her room till it was nearly time for Corey to return to his boat.
When they were alone again, Irene made a feint of scolding her for leaving her to entertain Mr. Corey.
"Why! didn't you have a pleasant call?" asked Penelope.
Irene threw her arms round her. "Oh, it was a SPLENDID call! I didn't suppose I could make it go off so well. We talked nearly the whole time about you!"
"I don't think THAT was a very interesting subject."
"He kept asking about you. He asked everything. You don't know how much he thinks of you, Pen. O Pen! what do you think made him come? Do you think he really did come to see how papa was?" Irene buried her face in her sister's neck.