"I was sorry to hear from him that Mr. — Colonel? — Lapham had not been quite well this summer. I hope he's better now?"
"Oh yes, indeed," replied Mrs. Lapham; "he's all right now. He's hardly ever been sick, and he don't know how to take care of himself. That's all. We don't any of us; we're all so well."
"Health is a great blessing," sighed Mrs. Corey.
"Yes, so it is. How is your oldest daughter?" inquired Mrs. Lapham. "Is she as delicate as ever?"
"She seems to be rather better since we returned." And now Mrs. Corey, as if forced to the point, said bunglingly that the young ladies had wished to come with her, but had been detained. She based her statement upon Nanny's sarcastic demand; and, perhaps seeing it topple a little, she rose hastily, to get away from its fall. "But we shall hope for some — some other occasion," she said vaguely, and she put on a parting smile, and shook hands with Mrs. Lapham and Penelope, and then, after some lingering commonplaces, got herself out of the house.
Penelope and her mother were still looking at each other, and trying to grapple with the effect or purport of the visit, when Irene burst in upon them from the outside.
"O mamma! wasn't that Mrs. Corey's carriage just drove away?"
Penelope answered with her laugh. "Yes! You've just missed the most delightful call, 'Rene. So easy and pleasant every way. Not a bit stiff! Mrs. Corey was so friendly! She didn't make one feel at all as if she'd bought me, and thought she'd given too much; and mother held up her head as if she were all wool and a yard wide, and she would just like to have anybody deny it."
In a few touches of mimicry she dashed off a sketch of the scene: her mother's trepidation, and Mrs. Corey's well-bred repose and polite scrutiny of them both. She ended by showing how she herself had sat huddled up in a dark corner, mute with fear.
"If she came to make us say and do the wrong thing, she must have gone away happy; and it's a pity you weren't here to help, Irene. I don't know that I aimed to make a bad impression, but I guess I succeeded — even beyond my deserts." She laughed; then suddenly she flashed out in fierce earnest. "If I missed doing anything that could make me as hateful to her as she made herself to me — — " She checked herself, and began to laugh. Her laugh broke, and the tears started into her eyes; she ran out of the room, and up the stairs.
"What — what does it mean?" asked Irene in a daze.
Mrs. Lapham was still in the chilly torpor to which Mrs. Corey's call had reduced her. Penelope's vehemence did not rouse her. She only shook her head absently, and said, "I don't know."
"Why should Pen care what impression she made? I didn't suppose it would make any difference to her whether Mrs. Corey liked her or not."
"I didn't, either. But I could see that she was just as nervous as she could be, every minute of the time. I guess she didn't like Mrs. Corey any too well from the start, and she couldn't seem to act like herself."
"Tell me about it, mamma," said Irene, dropping into a chair.
Mrs. Corey described the interview to her husband on her return home. "Well, and what are your inferences?" he asked.
"They were extremely embarrassed and excited — that is, the mother. I don't wish to do her injustice, but she certainly behaved consciously."
"You made her feel so, I dare say, Anna. I can imagine how terrible you must have been in the character of an accusing spirit, too lady-like to say anything. What did you hint?"
"I hinted nothing," said Mrs. Corey, descending to the weakness of defending herself. "But I saw quite enough to convince me that the girl is in love with Tom, and the mother knows it."
"That was very unsatisfactory. I supposed you went to find out whether Tom was in love with the girl. Was she as pretty as ever?"
"I didn't see her; she was not at home; I saw her sister."
"I don't know that I follow you quite, Anna. But no matter. What was the sister like?"
"A thoroughly disagreeable young woman."
"What did she do?"
"Nothing. She's far too sly for that. But that was the impression."
"Then you didn't find her so amusing as Tom does?"
"I found her pert. There's no other word for it. She says things to puzzle you and put you out."
"Ah, that was worse than pert, Anna; that was criminal. Well, let us thank heaven the younger one is so pretty."