"Why, what IS it, mamma?" asked Irene, while the Colonel, who had taken up his carving-knife for another attack on the ham, held it drawn half across it.
"Why, I don't know what it does mean," answered Mrs. Lapham tremulously, and she let the girl take the note from her.
Irene ran it over, and then turned to the name at the end with a joyful cry and a flush that burned to the top of her forehead. Then she began to read it once more.
The Colonel dropped his knife and frowned impatiently, and Mrs. Lapham said, "You read it out loud, if you know what to make of it, Irene." But Irene, with a nervous scream of protest, handed it to her father, who performed the office.
"DEAR MRS. LAPHAM:
"Will you and General Lapham — — "
"I didn't know I was a general," grumbled Lapham. "I guess I shall have to be looking up my back pay. Who is it writes this, anyway?" he asked, turning the letter over for the signature.
"Oh, never mind. Read it through!" cried his wife, with a kindling glance of triumph at Penelope, and he resumed —
" — and your daughters give us the pleasure of your company at dinner on Thursday, the 28th, at half-past six.
"ANNA B. COREY."
The brief invitation had been spread over two pages, and the Colonel had difficulties with the signature which he did not instantly surmount. When he had made out the name and pronounced it, he looked across at his wife for an explanation.
"I don't know what it all means," she said, shaking her head and speaking with a pleased flutter. "She was here this afternoon, and I should have said she had come to see how bad she could make us feel. I declare I never felt so put down in my life by anybody."
"Why, what did she do? What did she say?" Lapham was ready, in his dense pride, to resent any affront to his blood, but doubtful, with the evidence of this invitation to the contrary, if any affront had been offered. Mrs. Lapham tried to tell him, but there was really nothing tangible; and when she came to put it into words, she could not make out a case. Her husband listened to her excited attempt, and then he said, with judicial superiority, "I guess nobody's been trying to make you feel bad, Persis. What would she go right home and invite you to dinner for, if she'd acted the way you say?"
In this view it did seem improbable, and Mrs. Lapham was shaken. She could only say, "Penelope felt just the way I did about it."
Lapham looked at the girl, who said, "Oh, I can't prove it! I begin to think it never happened. I guess it didn't."
"Humph!" said her father, and he sat frowning thoughtfully a while — ignoring her mocking irony, or choosing to take her seriously. "You can't really put your finger on anything," he said to his wife, "and it ain't likely there is anything. Anyway, she's done the proper thing by you now."
Mrs. Lapham faltered between her lingering resentment and the appeals of her flattered vanity. She looked from Penelope's impassive face to the eager eyes of Irene. "Well — just as you say, Silas. I don't know as she WAS so very bad. I guess may be she was embarrassed some — — "
"That's what I told you, mamma, from the start," interrupted Irene. "Didn't I tell you she didn't mean anything by it? It's just the way she acted at Baie St. Paul, when she got well enough to realise what you'd done for her!"
Penelope broke into a laugh. "Is that her way of showing her gratitude? I'm sorry I didn't understand that before."
Irene made no effort to reply. She merely looked from her mother to her father with a grieved face for their protection, and Lapham said, "When we've done supper, you answer her, Persis. Say we'll come."
"With one exception," said Penelope.
"What do you mean?" demanded her father, with a mouth full of ham. "Oh, nothing of importance. Merely that I'm not going."
Lapham gave himself time to swallow his morsel, and his rising wrath went down with it. "I guess you'll change your mind when the time comes," he said. "Anyway, Persis, you say we'll all come, and then, if Penelope don't want to go, you can excuse her after we get there. That's the best way."
None of them, apparently, saw any reason why the affair should not be left in this way, or had a sense of the awful and binding nature of a dinner engagement. If she believed that Penelope would not finally change her mind and go, no doubt Mrs. Lapham thought that Mrs. Corey would easily excuse her absence. She did not find it so simple a matter to accept the invitation. Mrs. Corey had said "Dear Mrs. Lapham," but Mrs. Lapham had her doubts whether it would not be a servile imitation to say "Dear Mrs. Corey" in return; and she was tormented as to the proper phrasing throughout and the precise temperature which she should impart to her politeness. She wrote an unpractised, uncharacteristic round hand, the same in which she used to set the children's copies at school, and she subscribed herself, after some hesitation between her husband's given name and her own, "Yours truly, Mrs. S. Lapham."