THAT evening James Bellingham came to see Corey after dinner, and went to find him in his own room.
"I've come at the instance of Colonel Lapham," said the uncle. "He was at my office to-day, and I had a long talk with him. Did you know that he was in difficulties?"
"I fancied that he was in some sort of trouble. And I had the book-keeper's conjectures — he doesn't really know much about it."
"Well, he thinks it time — on all accounts — that you should know how he stands, and why he declined that proposition of yours. I must say he has behaved very well — like a gentleman."
"I'm not surprised."
"I am. It's hard to behave like a gentleman where your interest is vitally concerned. And Lapham doesn't strike me as a man who's in the habit of acting from the best in him always."
"Do any of us?" asked Corey.
"Not all of us, at any rate," said Bellingham. "It must have cost him something to say no to you, for he's just in that state when he believes that this or that chance, however small, would save him."
Corey was silent. "Is he really in such a bad way?"
"It's hard to tell just where he stands. I suspect that a hopeful temperament and fondness for round numbers have always caused him to set his figures beyond his actual worth. I don't say that he's been dishonest about it, but he's had a loose way of estimating his assets; he's reckoned his wealth on the basis of his capital, and some of his capital is borrowed. He's lost heavily by some of the recent failures, and there's been a terrible shrinkage in his values. I don't mean merely in the stock of paint on hand, but in a kind of competition which has become very threatening. You know about that West Virginian paint?"
"Well, he tells me that they've struck a vein of natural gas out there which will enable them to make as good a paint as his own at a cost of manufacturing so low that they can undersell him everywhere. If this proves to be the case, it will not only drive his paint out of the market, but will reduce the value of his Works — the whole plant — at Lapham to a merely nominal figure."
"I see," said Corey dejectedly. "I've understood that he had put a great deal of money into his Works."
"Yes, and he estimated his mine there at a high figure. Of course it will be worth little or nothing if the West Virginia paint drives his out. Then, besides, Lapham has been into several things outside of his own business, and, like a good many other men who try outside things, he's kept account of them himself; and he's all mixed up about them. He's asked me to look into his affairs with him, and I've promised to do so. Whether he can be tided over his difficulties remains to be seen. I'm afraid it will take a good deal of money to do it — a great deal more than he thinks, at least. He believes comparatively little would do it. I think differently. I think that anything less than a great deal would be thrown away on him. If it were merely a question of a certain sum — even a large sum — to keep him going, it might be managed; but it's much more complicated. And, as I say, it must have been a trial to him to refuse your offer."
This did not seem to be the way in which Bellingham had meant to conclude. But he said no more; and Corey made him no response.
He remained pondering the case, now hopefully, now doubtfully, and wondering, whatever his mood was, whether Penelope knew anything of the fact with which her mother went nearly at the same moment to acquaint her.
"Of course, he's done it on your account," Mrs. Lapham could not help saying.
"Then he was very silly. Does he think I would let him give father money? And if father lost it for him, does he suppose it would make it any easier for me? I think father acted twice as well. It was very silly."
In repeating the censure, her look was not so severe as her tone; she even smiled a little, and her mother reported to her father that she acted more like herself than she had yet since Corey's offer.
"I think, if he was to repeat his offer, she would have him now," said Mrs. Lapham.
"Well, I'll let her know if he does," said the Colonel.
"I guess he won't do it to you!" she cried.
"Who else will he do it to?" he demanded.
They perceived that they had each been talking of a different offer.