"I oughtn't to have let you stay," she said. "But with father gone, and all that trouble hanging over us — — "
She was allowing him to hold her hand a moment at the door, to which she had followed him.
"I'm so glad you could let me!" he said, "and I want to ask you now when I may come again. But if you need me, you'll — — "
A sharp pull at the door-bell outside made them start asunder, and at a sign from Penelope, who knew that the maids were abed by this time, he opened it.
"Why, Irene!" shrieked the girl.
Irene entered with the hackman, who had driven her unheard to the door, following with her small bags, and kissed her sister with resolute composure. "That's all," she said to the hackman. "I gave my checks to the expressman," she explained to Penelope.
Corey stood helpless. Irene turned upon him, and gave him her hand. "How do you do, Mr. Corey?" she said, with a courage that sent a thrill of admiring gratitude through him. "Where's mamma, Pen? Papa gone to bed?"
Penelope faltered out some reply embodying the facts, and Irene ran up the stairs to her mother's room. Mrs. Lapham started up in bed at her apparition.
"Uncle William thought he ought to tell me the trouble papa was in; and did you think I was going to stay off there junketing, while you were going through all this at home, and Pen acting so silly, too? You ought to have been ashamed to let me stay so long! I started just as soon as I could pack. Did you get my despatch? I telegraphed from Springfield. But it don't matter, now. Here I am. And I don't think I need have hurried on Pen's account," she added, with an accent prophetic of the sort of old maid she would become, if she happened not to marry.
"Did you see him?" asked her mother. "It's the first time he's been here since she told him he mustn't come."
"I guess it isn't the last time, by the looks," said Irene, and before she took off her bonnet she began to undo some of Penelope's mistaken arrangements of the room.
At breakfast, where Corey and his mother met the next morning before his father and sisters came down, he told her, with embarrassment which told much more, that he wished now that she would go and call upon the Laphams.
Mrs. Corey turned a little pale, but shut her lips tight and mourned in silence whatever hopes she had lately permitted herself. She answered with Roman fortitude: "Of course, if there's anything between you and Miss Lapham, your family ought to recognise it."
"Yes," said Corey.
"You were reluctant to have me call at first, but now if the affair is going on — — "
"It is! I hope — yes, it is!"
"Then I ought to go and see her, with your sisters; and she ought to come here and — we ought all to see her and make the matter public. We can't do so too soon. It will seem as if we were ashamed if we don't."
"Yes, you are quite right, mother," said the young man gratefully, "and I feel how kind and good you are. I have tried to consider you in this matter, though I don't seem to have done so; I know what your rights are, and I wish with all my heart that I were meeting even your tastes perfectly. But I know you will like her when you come to know her. It's been very hard for her every way — about her sister, — and she's made a great sacrifice for me. She's acted nobly."
Mrs. Corey, whose thoughts cannot always be reported, said she was sure of it, and that all she desired was her son's happiness.
"She's been very unwilling to consider it an engagement on that account, and on account of Colonel Lapham's difficulties. I should like to have you go, now, for that very reason. I don't know just how serious the trouble is; but it isn't a time when we can seem indifferent."
The logic of this was not perhaps so apparent to the glasses of fifty as to the eyes of twenty-six; but Mrs. Corey, however she viewed it, could not allow herself to blench before the son whom she had taught that to want magnanimity was to be less than gentlemanly. She answered, with what composure she could, "I will take your sisters," and then she made some natural inquiries about Lapham's affairs. "Oh, I hope it will come out all right," Corey said, with a lover's vague smile, and left her. When his father came down, rubbing his long hands together, and looking aloof from all the cares of the practical world, in an artistic withdrawal, from which his eye ranged over the breakfast-table before he sat down, Mrs. Corey told him what she and their son had been saying.
He laughed, with a delicate impersonal appreciation of the predicament. "Well, Anna, you can't say but if you ever were guilty of supposing yourself porcelain, this is a just punishment of your arrogance. Here you are bound by the very quality on which you've prided yourself to behave well to a bit of earthenware who is apparently in danger of losing the gilding that rendered her tolerable."
"We never cared for the money," said Mrs. Corey. "You know that."
"No; and now we can't seem to care for the loss of it. That would be still worse. Either horn of the dilemma gores us. Well, we still have the comfort we had in the beginning; we can't help ourselves; and we should only make bad worse by trying. Unless we can look to Tom's inamorata herself for help."
Mrs. Corey shook her head so gloomily that her husband broke off with another laugh. But at the continued trouble of her face, he said, sympathetically: "My dear, I know it's a very disagreeable affair; and I don't think either of us has failed to see that it was so from the beginning. I have had my way of expressing my sense of it, and you yours, but we have always been of the same mind about it. We would both have preferred to have Tom marry in his own set; the Laphams are about the last set we could have wished him to marry into. They ARE uncultivated people, and so far as I have seen them, I'm not able to believe that poverty will improve them. Still, it may. Let us hope for the best, and let us behave as well as we know how. I'm sure YOU will behave well, and I shall try. I'm going with you to call on Miss Lapham. This is a thing that can't be done by halves!"
He cut his orange in the Neapolitan manner, and ate it in quarters.