Chapter V. Discharged.
 

The superintendent sat at an office table writing a letter. He did not at first look up, but kept on with his employment. He had some remnants of conscience left, and he shrank from the task his wife had thrust upon him.

"Mr. Baker tells me you wish to see me, Mr. Davis," said Robert, who had advanced into the office, by way of calling his attention.

"Yes," said the superintendent, laying down his pen, and turning half round; "I hear a bad account of you, Rushton."

"In what way, sir?" asked our hero, returning his look fearlessly.

"I hear that you have been behaving like a young ruffian," said Mr. Davis, who felt that he must make out a strong case to justify him in dismissing Robert from the factory.

"This is a serious charge, Mr. Davis," said Robert, gravely, "and I hope you will be kind enough to let me know what I have done, and the name of my accuser."

"I mean to do so. Probably it will be enough to say that your accuser is my son, Halbert."

"I supposed so. I had a difficulty with Halbert yesterday, but I consider he was in fault."

"He says you insulted and struck him."

"I did not insult him. The insult came from him."

"Did you strike him?"

"Yes, but not until he had struck me first."

"He didn't mention this, but even if he had you should not have struck him back."

"Why not?" asked Robert.

"You should have reported the affair to me."

"And allowed him to keep on striking me?"

"You must have said something to provoke him," continued the superintendent, finding it a little difficult to answer this question, "or he would not have done it."

"If you will allow me," said Robert, "I will give you an account of the whole affair."

"Go on," said the superintendent, rather unwillingly, for he strongly suspected that our hero would be able to justify himself, and so render dismissal more difficult.

"Halbert took offense because I accompanied Hester Paine home from the writing school, evening before last, though I did with the young lady's permission, as he knew. He met me yesterday at twelve o'clock, as I was going home to dinner, and undertook to lecture me on my presumption in offering my escort to one so much above me. He also taunted me with being a factory boy. I told him to keep his advice to himself, as I should not ask his permission when I wanted to walk, with Hester Paine. Then he became enraged, and struck me with his cane. I took it from him and returned the blow, breaking the cane in doing it."

"Ahem!" said the superintendent, clearing his throat; "you must have been very violent."

"I don't think I was, sir. I struck him a smart blow, but the cane was very light and easily broken."

"You were certainly very violent," continued Mr. Davis, resolved to make a point of this. "Halbert did not break the cane when he struck you."

"He struck the first blow."

"That does not alter the question of the amount of violence, which was evidently without justification. You must have been in a great passion."

"I don't think I was in any greater passion than Halbert."

"In view of the violence you made use of, I consider that you owe my son an apology."

"An apology!" repeated Robert, whose astonishment was apparent in his tone.

"I believe I spoke plainly," said the superintendent, irritably.

"If any apology is to be made," said our hero, firmly, "it ought to come from Halbert to me."

"How do you make that out?"

"He gave me some impertinent advice, and, because I did not care to take it, he struck me."

"And you seized his cane in a fury, and broke it in returning the blow."

"I acknowledge that I broke the cane," said Robert; "and I suppose it is only right that I should pay for it. I am willing to do that, but not to apologize."

"That will not be sufficient," said the superintendent, who knew that payment for the cane would fall far short of satisfying his wife or Halbert. "The cost of the cane was a trifle, and I am willing to buy him another, but I cannot consent that my son should be subjected to such rude violence, without an apology from the offender. If I passed this over, you might attack him again to-morrow."

"I am not in the habit of attacking others without cause," said Robert, proudly. "If Halbert will let me alone, or treat me with civility, he may be sure that I shall not trouble him."

"You are evading the main point, Rushton," said the superintendent. "I have required you to apologize to my son, and I ask you for the last time whether you propose to comply with my wishes."

"No, sir," said Robert, boldly.

"Do you know to whom you are speaking, boy?"

"Yes, sir."

"I am not only the father of the boy you have assaulted, but I am also the superintendent of this factory, and your employer.".

"I am aware of that, sir."

"I can discharge you from the factory."

"I know you can," said Robert.

"Of course, I should be sorry to resort to such an extreme measure, but, if you defy my authority, I may be compelled to do so."

So the crisis had come. Robert saw that he must choose between losing his place and a humiliating apology. Between the two he did not for a moment hesitate.

"Mr. Davis," he said, boldly and firmly, "it will be a serious thing for me if I lose my place here, for my mother and I are poor, and my wages make the greatest part of our income. But I cannot make this apology you require. I will sooner lose my place."

The bold and manly bearing of our hero, and his resolute tone, impressed the superintendent with an involuntary admiration. He felt that Robert was a boy to be proud of, but none the less he meant to carry out his purpose.

"Is this your final decision?" he asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Then you are discharged from the factory. You will report your discharge to Mr. Baker, and he will pay you what you have earned this week."

"Very well, sir."

Robert left the office, with a bold bearing, but a heart full of trouble. If only himself had been involved in the calamity, he could have borne it better, but he knew that his loss of place meant privation and want for his mother, unless he could find something to do that would bring in an equal income, and this he did not expect.

"Mr. Baker," he said, addressing the foreman of his room, on his return from the superintendent's office, "I am discharged."

"Discharged?" repeated the foreman, in surprise. "There must be some mistake about this. You are one of our best hands--for your age, I mean."

"There is no dissatisfaction with my work that I know of, but I got into a quarrel with Halbert Davis yesterday, and his father wants me to apologize to him."

"Which you won't do?"

"I would if I felt that I were in fault. I am not too proud for that. But the fact is, Halbert ought to apologize to me."

"Halbert is a mean boy. I don't blame you in the least."

"So I am to report my discharge to you, and ask you for my wages."

This account was soon settled, and Robert left the factory his own master. But it is poor consolation to be one's own master under such circumstances. He dreaded to break the news to his mother, for he knew that it would distress her. He was slowly walking along, when he once more encountered Halbert Davis. Halbert was out for the express purpose of meeting and exulting over him, for he rightly concluded that Robert would decline to apologize to him. Robert saw his enemy, and guessed his object, but resolved to say nothing to him, unless actually obliged to do so.

"Where are you going?" demanded Halbert.

"Home."

"I thought you worked in the factory?"

"Did you?" asked Robert, looking full in his face, and reading the exultation he did not attempt to conceal.

"Perhaps you have got turned out?" suggested Halbert, with a malicious smile.

"You would be glad of that, I suppose," said our hero.

"I don't think I should cry much," said Halbert. "It's true then, is it?"

"Yes; it's true."

"You won't put on so many airs when you go round begging for cold victuals. It'll be some time before you walk with Hester Paine again."

"I shall probably walk with her sooner than you will."

"She won't notice a beggar."

"There is not much chance of my becoming a beggar, Halbert Davis; but I would rather be one than be as mean as you. I will drop you a slight hint, which you had better bear in mind. It won't be any safer to insult me now than it was yesterday. I can't lose my place a second time."

Halbert instinctively moved aside, while our hero passed on, without taking farther notice of him.

"I hate him!" he muttered to himself. "I hope he won't find anything to do. If he wasn't so strong, I'd give him a thrashing."