Finally, all that dress-making in the house began to scare him with vague apprehensions in regard to his own dress. As soon as he had determined to go, an ideal of the figure in which he should go presented itself to his mind. He should not wear any dress-coat, because, for one thing, he considered that a man looked like a fool in a dress-coat, and, for another thing, he had none — had none on principle. He would go in a frock-coat and black pantaloons, and perhaps a white waistcoat, but a black cravat anyway. But as soon as he developed this ideal to his family, which he did in pompous disdain of their anxieties about their own dress, they said he should not go so. Irene reminded him that he was the only person without a dress-coat at a corps reunion dinner which he had taken her to some years before, and she remembered feeling awfully about it at the time. Mrs. Lapham, who would perhaps have agreed of herself, shook her head with misgiving. "I don't see but what you'll have to get you one, Si," she said. "I don't believe they ever go without 'em to a private house."
He held out openly, but on his way home the next day, in a sudden panic, he cast anchor before his tailor's door and got measured for a dress-coat. After that he began to be afflicted about his waist-coat, concerning which he had hitherto been airily indifferent. He tried to get opinion out of his family, but they were not so clear about it as they were about the frock. It ended in their buying a book of etiquette, which settled the question adversely to a white waistcoat. The author, however, after being very explicit in telling them not to eat with their knives, and above all not to pick their teeth with their forks, — a thing which he said no lady or gentleman ever did, — was still far from decided as to the kind of cravat Colonel Lapham ought to wear: shaken on other points, Lapham had begun to waver also concerning the black cravat. As to the question of gloves for the Colonel, which suddenly flashed upon him one evening, it appeared never to have entered the thoughts of the etiquette man, as Lapham called him. Other authors on the same subject were equally silent, and Irene could only remember having heard, in some vague sort of way, that gentlemen did not wear gloves so much any more.
Drops of perspiration gathered on Lapham's forehead in the anxiety of the debate; he groaned, and he swore a little in the compromise profanity which he used.
"I declare," said Penelope, where she sat purblindly sewing on a bit of dress for Irene, "the Colonel's clothes are as much trouble as anybody's. Why don't you go to Jordan & Marsh's and order one of the imported dresses for yourself, father?" That gave them all the relief of a laugh over it, the Colonel joining in piteously.
He had an awful longing to find out from Corey how he ought to go. He formulated and repeated over to himself an apparently careless question, such as, "Oh, by the way, Corey, where do you get your gloves?" This would naturally lead to some talk on the subject, which would, if properly managed, clear up the whole trouble. But Lapham found that he would rather die than ask this question, or any question that would bring up the dinner again. Corey did not recur to it, and Lapham avoided the matter with positive fierceness. He shunned talking with Corey at all, and suffered in grim silence.
One night, before they fell asleep, his wife said to him, "I was reading in one of those books to-day, and I don't believe but what we've made a mistake if Pen holds out that she won't go."
"Why?" demanded Lapham, in the dismay which beset him at every fresh recurrence to the subject.
"The book says that it's very impolite not to answer a dinner invitation promptly. Well, we've done that all right, — at first I didn't know but what we had been a little too quick, may be, — but then it says if you're not going, that it's the height of rudeness not to let them know at once, so that they can fill your place at the table."
The Colonel was silent for a while. "Well, I'm dumned," he said finally, "if there seems to be any end to this thing. If it was to do over again, I'd say no for all of us."
"I've wished a hundred times they hadn't asked us; but it's too late to think about that now. The question is, what are we going to do about Penelope?"
"Oh, I guess she'll go, at the last moment."
"She says she won't. She took a prejudice against Mrs. Corey that day, and she can't seem to get over it."
"Well, then, hadn't you better write in the morning, as soon as you're up, that she ain't coming?"
Mrs. Lapham sighed helplessly. "I shouldn't know how to get it in. It's so late now; I don't see how I could have the face."
"Well, then, she's got to go, that's all."
"She's set she won't."
"And I'm set she shall," said Lapham with the loud obstinacy of a man whose women always have their way.
Mrs. Lapham was not supported by the sturdiness of his proclamation.