"Well, we do buy a good many books, first and last," said the Colonel, who probably had in mind the costly volumes which they presented to one another on birthdays and holidays. "But I get about all the reading I want in the newspapers. And when the girls want a novel, I tell 'em to get it out of the library. That's what the library's for. Phew!" he panted, blowing away the whole unprofitable subject. "How close you women-folks like to keep a room! You go down to the sea-side or up to the mountains for a change of air, and then you cork yourselves into a room so tight you don't have any air at all. Here! You girls get on your bonnets, and go and show Mr. Corey the view of the hotels from the rocks."
Corey said that he should be delighted. The girls exchanged looks with each other, and then with their mother. Irene curved her pretty chin in comment upon her father's incorrigibility, and Penelope made a droll mouth, but the Colonel remained serenely content with his finesse. "I got 'em out of the way," he said, as soon as they were gone, and before his wife had time to fall upon him, "because I've got through my talk with him, and now I want to talk with YOU. It's just as I said, Persis; he wants to go into the business with me."
"It's lucky for you," said his wife, meaning that now he would not be made to suffer for attempting to hoax her. But she was too intensely interested to pursue that matter further. "What in the world do you suppose he means by it?"
"Well, I should judge by his talk that he had been trying a good many different things since he left college, and he hain't found just the thing he likes — or the thing that likes him. It ain't so easy. And now he's got an idea that he can take hold of the paint and push it in other countries — push it in Mexico and push it in South America. He's a splendid Spanish scholar," — this was Lapham's version of Corey's modest claim to a smattering of the language, — "and he's been among the natives enough to know their ways. And he believes in the paint," added the Colonel.
"I guess he believes in something else besides the paint," said Mrs. Lapham.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Silas Lapham, if you can't see NOW that he's after Irene, I don't know what ever CAN open your eyes. That's all."
The Colonel pretended to give the idea silent consideration, as if it had not occurred to him before. "Well, then, all I've got to say is, that he's going a good way round. I don't say you're wrong, but if it's Irene, I don't see why he should want to go off to South America to get her. And that's what he proposes to do. I guess there's some paint about it too, Persis. He says he believes in it," — the Colonel devoutly lowered his voice, — "and he's willing to take the agency on his own account down there, and run it for a commission on what he can sell."
"Of course! He isn't going to take hold of it any way so as to feel beholden to you. He's got too much pride for that."
"He ain't going to take hold of it at all, if he don't mean paint in the first place and Irene afterward. I don't object to him, as I know, either way, but the two things won't mix; and I don't propose he shall pull the wool over my eyes — or anybody else. But, as far as heard from, up to date, he means paint first, last, and all the time. At any rate, I'm going to take him on that basis. He's got some pretty good ideas about it, and he's been stirred up by this talk, just now, about getting our manufactures into the foreign markets. There's an overstock in everything, and we've got to get rid of it, or we've got to shut down till the home demand begins again. We've had two or three such flurries before now, and they didn't amount to much. They say we can't extend our commerce under the high tariff system we've got now, because there ain't any sort of reciprocity on our side, — we want to have the other fellows show all the reciprocity, — and the English have got the advantage of us every time. I don't know whether it's so or not; but I don't see why it should apply to my paint. Anyway, he wants to try it, and I've about made up my mind to let him. Of course I ain't going to let him take all the risk. I believe in the paint TOO, and I shall pay his expenses anyway."
"So you want another partner after all?" Mrs. Lapham could not forbear saying.
"Yes, if that's your idea of a partner. It isn't mine," returned her husband dryly.
"Well, if you've made up your mind, Si, I suppose you're ready for advice," said Mrs. Lapham.
The Colonel enjoyed this. "Yes, I am. What have you got to say against it?"
"I don't know as I've got anything. I'm satisfied if you are."
"When is he going to start for South America?"
"I shall take him into the office a while. He'll get off some time in the winter. But he's got to know the business first."
"Oh, indeed! Are you going to take him to board in the family?"
"What are you after, Persis?"
"Oh, nothing! I presume he will feel free to visit in the family, even if he don't board with us."
"I presume he will."
"And if he don't use his privileges, do you think he'll be a fit person to manage your paint in South America?"