"Why, of course!"
He stared at her hopelessly.
"O my son!" she said, for all comment on the situation.
"Don't reproach me, mother! I couldn't stand it."
"No. I didn't mean to do that. But how — HOW could it happen?"
"I don't know. When she first told me that they had understood it so, I laughed — almost — it was so far from me. But now when you seem to have had the same idea — Did you all think so?"
They remained looking at each other. Then Mrs. Corey began: "It did pass through my mind once — that day I went to call upon them — that it might not be as we thought; but I knew so little of — of — — "
"Penelope," Corey mechanically supplied.
"Is that her name? — I forgot — that I only thought of you in relation to her long enough to reject the idea; and it was natural after our seeing something of the other one last year, that I might suppose you had formed some — attachment — — "
"Yes; that's what they thought too. But I never thought of her as anything but a pretty child. I was civil to her because you wished it; and when I met her here again, I only tried to see her so that I could talk with her about her sister."
"You needn't defend yourself to ME, Tom," said his mother, proud to say it to him in his trouble. "It's a terrible business for them, poor things," she added. "I don't know how they could get over it. But, of course, sensible people must see — — "
"They haven't got over it. At least she hasn't. Since it's happened, there's been nothing that hasn't made me prouder and fonder of her! At first I WAS charmed with her — my fancy was taken; she delighted me — I don't know how; but she was simply the most fascinating person I ever saw. Now I never think of that. I only think how good she is — how patient she is with me, and how unsparing she is of herself. If she were concerned alone — if I were not concerned too — it would soon end. She's never had a thought for anything but her sister's feeling and mine from the beginning. I go there, — I know that I oughtn't, but I can't help it, — and she suffers it, and tries not to let me see that she is suffering it. There never was any one like her — so brave, so true, so noble. I won't give her up — I can't. But it breaks my heart when she accuses herself of what was all MY doing. We spend our time trying to reason out of it, but we always come back to it at last, and I have to hear her morbidly blaming herself. Oh!"
Doubtless Mrs. Corey imagined some reliefs to this suffering, some qualifications of this sublimity in a girl she had disliked so distinctly; but she saw none in her son's behaviour, and she gave him her further sympathy. She tried to praise Penelope, and said that it was not to be expected that she could reconcile herself at once to everything. "I shouldn't have liked it in her if she had. But time will bring it all right. And if she really cares for you — — "
"I extorted that from her."
"Well, then, you must look at it in the best light you can. There is no blame anywhere, and the mortification and pain is something that must be lived down. That's all. And don't let what I said grieve you, Tom. You know I scarcely knew her, and I — I shall be sure to like any one you like, after all."
"Yes, I know," said the young man drearily. "Will you tell father?"
"If you wish."
"He must know. And I couldn't stand any more of this, just yet — any more mistake."
"I will tell him," said Mrs. Corey; and it was naturally the next thing for a woman who dwelt so much on decencies to propose: "We must go to call on her — your sisters and I. They have never seen her even; and she mustn't be allowed to think we're indifferent to her, especially under the circumstances."
"Oh no! Don't go — not yet," cried Corey, with an instinctive perception that nothing could be worse for him. "We must wait — we must be patient. I'm afraid it would be painful to her now."
He turned away without speaking further; and his mother's eyes followed him wistfully to the door. There were some questions that she would have liked to ask him; but she had to content herself with trying to answer them when her husband put them to her.
There was this comfort for her always in Bromfield Corey, that he never was much surprised at anything, however shocking or painful. His standpoint in regard to most matters was that of the sympathetic humorist who would be glad to have the victim of circumstance laugh with him, but was not too much vexed when the victim could not. He laughed now when his wife, with careful preparation, got the facts of his son's predicament fully under his eye.
"Really, Bromfield," she said, "I don't see how you can laugh. Do you see any way out of it?"
"It seems to me that the way has been found already. Tom has told his love to the right one, and the wrong one knows it. Time will do the rest."