"When will Colonel Lapham be in, do you suppose?" she sharply asked of the girl.
"I couldn't say exactly," replied the girl, without looking round.
"Has he been out long?"
"I don't know as I noticed," said the girl, looking up at the clock, without looking at Mrs. Lapham. She went on working her machine.
"Well, I can't wait any longer," said the wife abruptly. "When Colonel Lapham comes in, you please tell him Mrs. Lapham wants to see him."
The girl started to her feet and turned toward Mrs. Lapham with a red and startled face, which she did not lift to confront her. "Yes — yes — I will," she faltered.
The wife went home with a sense of defeat mixed with an irritation about this girl which she could not quell or account for. She found her husband's message, and it seemed intolerable that he should have gone to New York without seeing her; she asked herself in vain what the mysterious business could be that took him away so suddenly. She said to herself that he was neglecting her; he was leaving her out a little too much; and in demanding of herself why he had never mentioned that girl there in his office, she forgot how much she had left herself out of his business life. That was another curse of their prosperity. Well, she was glad the prosperity was going; it had never been happiness. After this she was going to know everything as she used.
She tried to dismiss the whole matter till Lapham returned; and if there had been anything for her to do in that miserable house, as she called it in her thought, she might have succeeded. But again the curse was on her; there was nothing to do; and the looks of that girl kept coming back to her vacancy, her disoccupation. She tried to make herself something to do, but that beauty, which she had not liked, followed her amid the work of overhauling the summer clothing, which Irene had seen to putting away in the fall. Who was the thing, anyway? It was very strange, her being there; why did she jump up in that frightened way when Mrs. Lapham had named herself?
After dark, that evening, when the question had worn away its poignancy from mere iteration, a note for Mrs. Lapham was left at the door by a messenger who said there was no answer. "A note for me?" she said, staring at the unknown, and somehow artificial-looking, handwriting of the superscription. Then she opened it and read: "Ask your husband about his lady copying-clerk. A Friend and Well-wisher," who signed the note, gave no other name.
Mrs. Lapham sat helpless with it in her hand. Her brain reeled; she tried to fight the madness off; but before Lapham came back the second morning, it had become, with lessening intervals of sanity and release, a demoniacal possession. She passed the night without sleep, without rest, in the frenzy of the cruellest of the passions, which covers with shame the unhappy soul it possesses, and murderously lusts for the misery of its object. If she had known where to find her husband in New York, she would have followed him; she waited his return in an ecstasy of impatience. In the morning he came back, looking spent and haggard. She saw him drive up to the door, and she ran to let him in herself.
"Who is that girl you've got in your office, Silas Lapham?" she demanded, when her husband entered.
"Girl in my office?"
"Yes! Who is she? What is she doing there?"
"Why, what have you heard about her?"
"Never you mind what I've heard. Who is she? IS IT MRS. M. THAT YOU GAVE THAT MONEY TO? I want to know who she is! I want to know what a respectable man, with grown-up girls of his own, is doing with such a looking thing as that in his office? I want to know how long she's been there? I want to know what she's there at all for?"
He had mechanically pushed her before him into the long, darkened parlour, and he shut himself in there with her now, to keep the household from hearing her lifted voice. For a while he stood bewildered, and could not have answered if he would, and then he would not. He merely asked, "Have I ever accused you of anything wrong, Persis?"
"You no need to!" she answered furiously, placing herself against the closed door.
"Did you ever know me to do anything out of the way?"
"That isn't what I asked you."
"Well, I guess you may find out about that girl yourself. Get away from the door."
"I won't get away from the door."
She felt herself set lightly aside, and her husband opened the door and went out. "I WILL find out about her," she screamed after him. "I'll find out, and I'll disgrace you. I'll teach you how to treat me — — "