Chapter XVIII. A Strange Situation.

The road to West Street was no longer a strange one to Richard, and it took him but a short quarter of an hour to reach the Watch Below.

As usual the restaurant was crowded, and the merry jests of the sailors mingled with the rattle of dishes and clatter of knives.

Doc Linyard was glad to see the boy, and immediately asked how he was progressing and how he liked his position.

"I have good news for you," said Richard.

And he handed over the two letters.

"Are they the ones as were lost?" asked the old sailor.

"Yes; I caught the boy and made him return them."

"Did you get your money, too?" went on Linyard, as he cut the envelopes open.

"Not yet, but I'm pretty sure of getting it in the near future."

"Hope you do; two dollars ain't much, but it's something, and nowadays everything counts. Will you read these letters for me? My eyesight ain't none of the best any more, and besides, writing is kinder stiff reading for me at the best."

"Certainly I will, Mr.--"

"Avast there on that figurehead!" interrupted the old tar.

"Doc Linyard, I'll do it with pleasure."

But it was no pleasure after all for Richard to read the two communications, for each was a disappointment.

The first was from a firm of lawyers who wished to take the case in hand at "astonishingly low terms," which must, however, be paid in advance. The other had been sent by a private detective, who was willing to institute a search for the missing party for the modest sum of three dollars per day, also payable in advance.

"Just what I thought they might be," observed Doc Linyard, when the reading was finished. "You can tear them up. We don't want such outside help."

Richard did as directed.

"It's a pity that such letters should cause you so much trouble," went on the old sailor; "but that's the way of the world."

"Have you had any other letters?" asked Richard, for he had not seen Doc Linyard for several days, and thought it possible that something might have turned up in the meantime.

"Nary a word. I've put the advertisement in the papers--three of 'em--twice now, and not a single answer."

"It's too bad. Have you heard anything from the property in England?"

"Yes; I got a letter to-day asking me to hurry, as they wanted to settle affairs up there."

"Did you answer?"

"Not yet. You know it's hard lines for me to write."

"If you wish I'll write for you."

"Thank you; I'll wait a day or two yet, and see if something doesn't turn up."

It was not yet eight o'clock when Richard, after having a bit of lunch, left the restaurant to return to the Massanets'. Feeling that it was early yet, and having a desire to do some "window gazing," he did not go up the Bowery, but strolled up Broadway instead.

The magnificent windows and their rare and costly exhibits were to him an enjoyment of the keenest sort, and as he approached the neighborhood of Astor Place, where the book stores seem to have congregated, he walked slower and slower, taking in all there was to be seen of each establishment, how the windows were dressed and the stock arranged, and wondering away down in his heart if he would ever own, or have an interest in, any similar establishment.

While deeply engaged in reading the titles of a number of volumes in a certain window, he felt a light tap on his shoulder, and turning, found himself face to face with Earle Norris.

The shipping-clerk was dressed in the height of style, including low cut shoes and carried a heavy gold-headed cane.

"Hello, Dare!" he exclaimed pleasantly. "What brings you up here?"

For an instant Richard was taken aback, not only at meeting Norris, but at being greeted so familiarly after what had occurred during the day.

"I have just finished my errand, and thought I'd take a walk to see the sights," he returned. "How is it you are not at the theater?"

"As I said, I didn't care to go alone, so took your advice and sold the extra ticket, and also my own. I'll take a walk along with you if you don't mind."

Richard was not overpleased at the proposition; yet he could not very well object except by seeming rude, and from this he shrank; so he gave a mild assent.

"You see I like to get on good terms with all the boys," explained Norris, as they walked leisurely along. "I'm on the best of terms with every one in the establishment but Massanet, and I'd like to be with him, only he's so awfully slow."

"Frank Massanet is a very nice fellow," said Richard stoutly.

"Oh, yes--too nice for me, though. But let that pass. Everybody has his peculiarities. Have a smoke?"

And Norris pulled two strong-looking cigars from his vest pocket.

"I'm much obliged," replied the boy. "I don't smoke."

"Try one. They are fine," went on the shipping-clerk, stopping to get a light. "No time like the present for making a beginning. I'm quite sure it won't make you sick."

"I don't think I care to try," was all Richard could say; and he heartily wished Earle Norris would go his own way.

"Oh, well, it's all right if you don't care to. I find it just the thing to settle my nerves after a big day's work."

They walked on in silence for nearly a block, and the boy was wondering how best to leave Norris without offending him when the latter spoke up.

"Here are the rooms of the Laurel Club," he said, pointing up to the narrow but brilliantly lighted stairways of a handsome building just around the corner of a side street.

"The Laurel Club?" repeated Richard.

"Yes; it is a club of about twenty young fellows. I am a member. We have a reading-room, and another for all kinds of games."

Norris did not take the trouble to add that "all kinds of games" had narrowed down to simply card playing, and that for money, too.

"Just come up for a moment," he went on. "I wish to get a book I left there a few nights ago."

"I'll wait for you here," replied Richard.

"No, no; I want to show you the rooms. We have some fine pictures and all that up there."

Somewhat against his will Richard consented. Norris led the way up three flights of stairs and then down a side hall.

Stopping at a certain door he gave two distinct knocks, followed by a single one.

There was a hurried movement within, and then the door, which had been securely locked, was cautiously opened.

"Hello, Springer!" exclaimed Norris to the tall young man who had admitted them. "You're locked up as if this was a sub-treasury. This is a friend of mine. Mr. Dare, Mr. Springer, our worthy secretary."

"Glad to know you, Mr. Dare!" said the other, and he gave Richard's hand a tight grip, but at the same time cast a sidelong, inquiring glance at Norris.

"He's a green one," murmured Norris, as he brushed past. "Don't you think we have it cozy up here?" he continued, turning to Richard.

Richard was not prepared to answer in the affirmative. His introduction into the place, even though his curiosity has been small, was a disappointment. The room had been nicely furnished once, but the carpet and the furniture showed signs of much wear, and the pictures of which Norris had spoken proved to be several of a remarkably "loud" sort, but of no real artistic value or excellence.

"Many of the boys here to-night, Springer?" asked Norris.

"Foley, Nichols and two or three others. Will you take a hand in?"

"Maybe; I'll see in a little while."

"My night at the door," growled Springer. "I hate it."

"Never mind; as long as we can't pay a porter some one has got to do it among us. I'll get my book," added the shipping-clerk, glancing at Richard.

He entered the next room, closing the door carefully behind him. Richard thought he heard the clinking of glasses within, but he was not sure.

In a few moments Norris reappeared.

"Come in!" he said. "The boys would like to know you."

Not dreaming of what was to come, Richard accepted the invitation.

He found himself in a small room, well lighted. The air was heavy with tobacco smoke, and the fumes of liquor were not wanting. But what astonished him most was a group of five fellows seated at the center table, playing cards, with several piles of money in front of them.

"They are gambling!" he thought, with something like horror. "I wish I was out of it."

"Gentlemen, my friend, Mr. Dare," said Earle Norris. "Come, sit down and make yourself at home," he added, slapping Richard on the shoulder.