Chapter XXI. Richard in Trouble.
 

Richard found Mr. Mann alone. The gentleman was seated at his desk and greeted the boy coldly.

"You sent for me, I believe," began Richard.

"Yes," replied Mr. Mann, "I want to have a little talk with you." He gazed at Richard sharply. "How long have you lived in New York?" he asked.

"Two weeks, sir. I was only here two days before I came to work for you."

"But you are pretty well acquainted with the place?"

"Not very well, sir. I was never here before. But I think I can find my way anywhere quick enough, if you wish to send me on an errand," he added, thinking Mr. Mann might possibly have some commission for him to execute.

"No doubt you could," replied the gentleman dryly. "But I don't wish to send you anywhere. You are an orphan, I believe. Where do you live?"

"I board with the Massanets."

"Does Norris board with them, too?"

"No, sir."

"Where does he live?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"No, sir."

Mr. Mann gazed at Richard severely.

"I thought you two were good friends," he said.

"I hardly know Norris," replied Richard. "He is certainly no friend of mine."

Richard felt that the present would have been a good time to tell what he knew about the shipping-clerk, but remembering his half promise to the latter he remained silent.

"You may go," said Mr. Mann, briefly; "but stop. Have you any keys belonging to this place in your possession?"

"Keys? No, sir."

"Oh, all right."

"But--what made you ask that?" began Richard, considerably perplexed.

"I wanted to know, that was all."

"We have no keys of anything up in the stock-room," continued the boy.

"I know that. You can go to work," Mr. Mann snapped.

And Richard passed out.

"Either that boy is perfectly honest or else he is the most accomplished actor I ever saw," thought the merchant when left alone.

"Well, what's the trouble?" asked Frank, when Richard reached the stock-room. "I hope you haven't been discharged."

"No, it's not as bad as that, but I--I don't know what to make of it, and that's a fact."

The stock-clerk listened carefully to the story Richard had to tell.

"Depend upon it there is something in the wind. You had better watch Norris; he may be getting you into trouble."

"I half wish I had told the firm of Norris's actions," said Richard.

"Perhaps it would have been best," replied Frank.

On the way home that night the two met Pep. The urchin had evidently been waiting for Richard, for he ran up at once.

"I've got something for you, Mr. Dare," he exclaimed, and shifting his bundle of papers he drew out a silver dollar from his ragged clothes. "Here is one of de dollars I owes yer. I'll have de odder one in a few days, I guess."

"Did you earn it?" asked Richard, without taking the proffered coin.

"Yes, sir, honestly too, sellin' papers."

"And how is your father? Any better?"

"Not much, sir. That pneumony hangs on so."

"Perhaps you had better keep this money. You may need it for medicine."

"No, sir, I'm earning enough to buy that now. I want you to take this. I'd feel better if yer did. If it wasn't fer dad I a-given it to yer long ago."

"All right then." Richard slipped the coin in his pocket. "I'd like to see your father once, and see how you live. Maybe I and my friend here, Mr. Massanet, can help you a bit. Can I come?"

Pep hung his head.

"We live in a garret, and you'd find it mighty dirty. Nobody with good clothes has got any right there."

"We won't mind the dirt," put in Frank eagerly. "Only let us come. I'm sure we can help you some."

"Where can we meet you, Pep?" asked Richard, seeing that the little Arab wavered. "I suppose we can't find your home alone very well."

"Guess you can't. We're in a heap down our way. I dunno," the last in reference to the meeting. "Just wherever you two gentlemen says. You was so kind I guess dad won't mind my bringin' you."

"Suppose you come up to our house," suggested Frank. "Will you do that?"

"Yes, sir, if yer want me."

"I do. Come to dinner at one o'clock, and we'll take something along for your father." Frank described the location and the house in which he lived. "Do you think you can find it?" he concluded.

"Walk right in de front door wid me eyes shet," laughed Pep. "You're mighty kind," he added soberly.

"Will you come?"

"Yes, sir."

"Sure?" put in Richard.

"I will, 'ceptin' dad's so sick I can't" replied Pep.

In the evening Richard and Frank took a walk, first up town and then down Broadway. On the way the boy pointed out to his friend the building in which the meetings of the Laurel Club were held.

"I wonder if Norris is up there to-night," observed Frank. "Suppose we stand here in the shadow for a while and watch who goes in and comes out."

Richard agreed to this, and crossing the street they took a stand directly opposite the entrance to the place.

Here they waited for perhaps fifteen minutes.

At the end of that time along came Norris, arm in arm with another member of the club.

"There he goes!" exclaimed Richard, as the two went up the stairs.

"There is a man watching them?" added Frank, as another individual, who had come close behind the others stopped at the corner. "Wonder who it is?"

"He's coming over here," said Richard. "We'll get in this hallway and see him as he passes. I suppose he's a stranger to us."

Near by was a dark hallway, partly open. Both of the boys stepped into it, and an instant later the stranger went by.

When he was gone Frank uttered an exclamation.

"I saw that fellow talking to Mr. Mann in the post-office only a few days ago! I think he is a private detective."

Richard gave a start.

"Then I see it all," he groaned. "That man knows of Norris's doings, and as he has seen me in his company he thinks I'm in with that crowd, and has probably told Mr. Mann so."

"Very likely that's the case," admitted Frank, after a moment's thought.

"It's an awful fix to be in," continued Richard. "I don't know how I can ever clear my name. Even if I tell what I know about Norris I have no proofs to show that I didn't go to that place willingly."

"That's true. You're in a bad light at the best. It's a shame! I'll tell you what you do."

"What?"

"There is no reason why you should suffer on Norris's account. He is no friend of yours, and has been trying to lead you astray. Who knows but what, if he is left alone, he may not try some day to get you in even deeper? I'd go to Mr. Williams and tell him the whole truth."

At first Richard demurred. He did not wish to "tattle" on anybody, and, besides, not having a forward nature, he shrank from the exposure.

But Frank soon talked him out of this, and by the time they reached the Massanets' home Richard decided to "have it out" the first thing in the morning.

But upon reaching the store the following day a disappointment awaited him. Mr. Williams had gone to Boston, and would not be back for several days.

"I hate to tell Mr. Mann," said Richard. "I guess I'll wait till Mr. Williams returns."

"I wouldn't," replied Frank. "I'd have it off my mind at once." But the thought of facing Mr. Mann was not a pleasant one, and the boy hesitated. While deliberating upon what to do the office boy appeared.

"Mr. Mann wants you down in his office right away," he said to Richard.

"What, again?"

"Yes, sir. Told me to tell you to come right down."

"Oh, Frank, I'm sure something is wrong!" cried Richard, when the boy was gone.

"It looks so," replied the stock-clerk. "Never mind. Remember you are in the right, and keep a stiff upper lip."

Much troubled in mind, Richard slowly descended the steps, and entered Mr. Mann's office. As before the gentleman was alone.

"You wish to see me, sir?" began Richard, and somehow his voice trembled in spite of himself.

"Yes, I do," replied Mr. Mann coldly. "I wish to tell you that your services are no longer required. Here is your salary for this week. You can leave at once."

Had Richard been struck in the face he would not have been more taken aback than he was by this short and cold speech.

"But--Mr. Mann--I--" he began.

"I want no words with you," interrupted the merchant. "You understand why you are discharged as well as I do."

"Yes, but I'm sure--"

"No words, sir. Don't you understand me? I wish you to leave instantly," cried Mr. Mann irascibly.

Richard colored.

"I'll go," he said. "But let me say that I consider you are treating me very unfairly."

And with tears of indignation in his eyes, Richard left the office.