Her mother made her no answer, as if these ravings of self-accusal needed none. "Do you think," she asked simply, "that he got the idea you cared for him?"
"He knew it! How could I keep it from him? I said I didn't — at first!"
"It was no use," sighed the mother. "You might as well said you did. It couldn't help Irene any, if you didn't."
"I always tried to help her with him, even when I — — "
"Yes, I know. But she never was equal to him. I saw that from the start; but I tried to blind myself to it. And when he kept coming — — "
"You never thought of me!" cried the girl, with a bitterness that reached her mother's heart. "I was nobody! I couldn't feel! No one could care for me!" The turmoil of despair, of triumph, of remorse and resentment, which filled her soul, tried to express itself in the words.
"No," said the mother humbly. "I didn't think of you. Or I didn't think of you enough. It did come across me sometimes that may be — — But it didn't seem as if — — And your going on so for Irene — — "
"You let me go on. You made me always go and talk with him for her, and you didn't think I would talk to him for myself. Well, I didn't!"
"I'm punished for it. When did you — begin to care for him!"
"How do I know? What difference does it make? It's all over now, no matter when it began. He won't come here any more, unless I let him." She could not help betraying her pride in this authority of hers, but she went on anxiously enough, "What will you say to Irene? She's safe as far as I'm concerned; but if he don't care for her, what will you do?"
"I don't know what to do," said Mrs. Lapham. She sat in an apathy from which she apparently could not rouse herself. "I don't see as anything can be done."
Penelope laughed in a pitying derision.
"Well, let things go on then. But they won't go on."
"No, they won't go on," echoed her mother. "She's pretty enough, and she's capable; and your father's got the money — I don't know what I'm saying! She ain't equal to him, and she never was. I kept feeling it all the time, and yet I kept blinding myself."
"If he had ever cared for her," said Penelope, "it wouldn't have mattered whether she was equal to him or not. I'M not equal to him either."
Her mother went on: "I might have thought it was you; but I had got set — — Well! I can see it all clear enough, now it's too late. I don't know what to do."
"And what do you expect me to do?" demanded the girl. "Do you want ME to go to Irene and tell her that I've got him away from her?"
"O good Lord!" cried Mrs. Lapham. "What shall I do? What do you want I should do, Pen?"
"Nothing for me," said Penelope. "I've had it out with myself. Now do the best you can for Irene."
"I couldn't say you had done wrong, if you was to marry him to-day."
"No, I couldn't. I couldn't say but what you had been good and faithfull all through, and you had a perfect right to do it. There ain't any one to blame. He's behaved like a gentleman, and I can see now that he never thought of her, and that it was you all the while. Well, marry him, then! He's got the right, and so have you."
"What about Irene? I don't want you to talk about me. I can take care of myself."
"She's nothing but a child. It's only a fancy with her. She'll get over it. She hain't really got her heart set on him."
"She's got her heart set on him, mother. She's got her whole life set on him. You know that."
"Yes, that's so," said the mother, as promptly as if she had been arguing to that rather than the contrary effect.
"If I could give him to her, I would. But he isn't mine to give." She added in a burst of despair, "He isn't mine to keep!"
"Well," said Mrs. Lapham, "she has got to bear it. I don't know what's to come of it all. But she's got to bear her share of it." She rose and went toward the door.
Penelope ran after her in a sort of terror. "You're not going to tell Irene?" she gasped, seizing her mother by either shoulder.