"Yes, I am," said Mrs. Lapham. "If she's a woman grown, she can bear a woman's burden."
"I can't let you tell Irene," said the girl, letting fall her face on her mother's neck. "Not Irene," she moaned. "I'm afraid to let you. How can I ever look at her again?"
"Why, you haven't done anything, Pen," said her mother soothingly.
"I wanted to! Yes, I must have done something. How could I help it? I did care for him from the first, and I must have tried to make him like me. Do you think I did? No, no! You mustn't tell Irene! Not — not — yet! Mother! Yes! I did try to get him from her!" she cried, lifting her head, and suddenly looking her mother in the face with those large dim eyes of hers. "What do you think? Even last night! It was the first time I ever had him all to myself, for myself, and I know now that I tried to make him think that I was pretty and — funny. And I didn't try to make him think of her. I knew that I pleased him, and I tried to please him more. Perhaps I could have kept him from saying that he cared for me; but when I saw he did — I must have seen it — I couldn't. I had never had him to myself, and for myself before. I needn't have seen him at all, but I wanted to see him; and when I was sitting there alone with him, how do I know what I did to let him feel that I cared for him? Now, will you tell Irene? I never thought he did care for me, and never expected him to. But I liked him. Yes — I did like him! Tell her that! Or else I will."
"If it was to tell her he was dead," began Mrs. Lapham absently.
"How easy it would be!" cried the girl in self-mockery. "But he's worse than dead to her; and so am I. I've turned it over a million ways, mother; I've looked at it in every light you can put it in, and I can't make anything but misery out of it. You can see the misery at the first glance, and you can't see more or less if you spend your life looking at it." She laughed again, as if the hopelessness of the thing amused her. Then she flew to the extreme of self-assertion. "Well, I HAVE a right to him, and he has a right to me. If he's never done anything to make her think he cared for her, — and I know he hasn't; it's all been our doing, then he's free and I'm free. We can't make her happy whatever we do; and why shouldn't I — — No, that won't do! I reached that point before!" She broke again into her desperate laugh. "You may try now, mother!"
"I'd best speak to your father first — — "
Penelope smiled a little more forlornly than she had laughed.
"Well, yes; the Colonel will have to know. It isn't a trouble that I can keep to myself exactly. It seems to belong to too many other people."
Her mother took a crazy encouragement from her return to her old way of saying things. "Perhaps he can think of something."
"Oh, I don't doubt but the Colonel will know just what to do!"
"You mustn't be too down-hearted about it. It — it'll all come right — — "
"You tell Irene that, mother."
Mrs. Lapham had put her hand on the door-key; she dropped it, and looked at the girl with a sort of beseeching appeal for the comfort she could not imagine herself. "Don't look at me, mother," said Penelope, shaking her head. "You know that if Irene were to die without knowing it, it wouldn't come right for me."
"I've read of cases where a girl gives up the man that loves her so as to make some other girl happy that the man doesn't love. That might be done."
"Your father would think you were a fool," said Mrs. Lapham, finding a sort of refuge in her strong disgust for the pseudo heroism. "No! If there's to be any giving up, let it be by the one that shan't make anybody but herself suffer. There's trouble and sorrow enough in the world, without MAKING it on purpose!"
She unlocked the door, but Penelope slipped round and set herself against it. "Irene shall not give up!"
"I will see your father about it," said the mother. "Let me out now — — "
"Don't let Irene come here!"
"No. I will tell her that you haven't slept. Go to bed now, and try to get some rest. She isn't up herself yet. You must have some breakfast."
"No; let me sleep if I can. I can get something when I wake up. I'll come down if I can't sleep. Life has got to go on. It does when there's a death in the house, and this is only a little worse."
"Don't you talk nonsense!" cried Mrs. Lapham, with angry authority.
"Well, a little better, then," said Penelope, with meek concession.