Corey answered, ignorant of the offence: "I haven't a very clear idea, I'm afraid; but I've been looking a little into the matter from the outside."
"I hope you hain't been paying any attention to that fellow's stuff in the Events?" Lapham interrupted. Since Bartley's interview had appeared, Lapham had regarded it with very mixed feelings. At first it gave him a glow of secret pleasure, blended with doubt as to how his wife would like the use Bartley had made of her in it. But she had not seemed to notice it much, and Lapham had experienced the gratitude of the man who escapes. Then his girls had begun to make fun of it; and though he did not mind Penelope's jokes much, he did not like to see that Irene's gentility was wounded. Business friends met him with the kind of knowing smile about it that implied their sense of the fraudulent character of its praise — the smile of men who had been there and who knew how it was themselves. Lapham had his misgivings as to how his clerks and underlings looked at it; he treated them with stately severity for a while after it came out, and he ended by feeling rather sore about it. He took it for granted that everybody had read it.
"I don't know what you mean," replied Corey, "I don't see the Events regularly."
"Oh, it was nothing. They sent a fellow down here to interview me, and he got everything about as twisted as he could."
"I believe they always do," said Corey. "I hadn't seen it. Perhaps it came out before I got home."
"Perhaps it did."
"My notion of making myself useful to you was based on a hint I got from one of your own circulars."
Lapham was proud of those circulars; he thought they read very well. "What was that?"
"I could put a little capital into the business," said Corey, with the tentative accent of a man who chances a thing. "I've got a little money, but I didn't imagine you cared for anything of that kind."
"No, sir, I don't," returned the Colonel bluntly. "I've had one partner, and one's enough."
"Yes," assented the young man, who doubtless had his own ideas as to eventualities — or perhaps rather had the vague hopes of youth. "I didn't come to propose a partnership. But I see that you are introducing your paint into the foreign markets, and there I really thought I might be of use to you, and to myself too."
"How?" asked the Colonel scantly.
"Well, I know two or three languages pretty well. I know French, and I know German, and I've got a pretty fair sprinkling of Spanish."
"You mean that you can talk them?" asked the Colonel, with the mingled awe and slight that such a man feels for such accomplishments. "Yes; and I can write an intelligible letter in either of them."
Lapham rubbed his nose. "It's easy enough to get all the letters we want translated."
"Well," pursued Corey, not showing his discouragement if he felt any, "I know the countries where you want to introduce this paint of yours. I've been there. I've been in Germany and France and I've been in South America and Mexico; I've been in Italy, of course. I believe I could go to any of those countries and place it to advantage."
Lapham had listened with a trace of persuasion in his face, but now he shook his head.
"It's placing itself as fast as there's any call for it. It wouldn't pay us to send anybody out to look after it. Your salary and expenses would eat up about all we should make on it."
"Yes," returned the young man intrepidly, "if you had to pay me any salary and expenses."
"You don't propose to work for nothing?"
"I propose to work for a commission." The Colonel was beginning to shake his head again, but Corey hurried on. "I haven't come to you without making some inquiries about the paint, and I know how it stands with those who know best. I believe in it."
Lapham lifted his head and looked at the young man, deeply moved.
"It's the best paint in God's universe," he said with the solemnity of prayer.
"It's the best in the market," said Corey; and he repeated, "I believe in it."
"You believe in it," began the Colonel, and then he stopped. If there had really been any purchasing power in money, a year's income would have bought Mrs. Lapham's instant presence. He warmed and softened to the young man in every way, not only because he must do so to any one who believed in his paint, but because he had done this innocent person the wrong of listening to a defamation of his instinct and good sense, and had been willing to see him suffer for a purely supposititious offence.
"You mustn't let me outstay my twenty minutes," he said, taking out his watch. "I don't expect you to give a decided answer on the spot. All that I ask is that you'll consider my proposition."
"Don't hurry," said Lapham. "Sit still! I want to tell you about this paint," he added, in a voice husky with the feeling that his hearer could not divine. "I want to tell you ALL about it."