Chapter XXVII. A Fire and its Result.
 

As one proof of Williams & Mann's good intentions towards Richard, the boy found his salary on the following week increased to eight dollars, and Frank received a proportionate addition to his pay.

In the middle of the week a new shipping-clerk, a German by the name of Bretzwartz, was engaged, and, though everybody in the establishment found it hard at first to understand the young man's broken English, yet he was such a jolly fellow--as well as an honest and capable one--that he was soon on good terms all around.

During the evenings of this week Richard wrote a great number of letters to the Grand Army and other military organizations, in the hope of finding some one who had known his father during the war or immediately after it.

On Thursday evening Frank accompanied him to the neighborhood in which Mr. Dare had once resided; but, though the two spent nearly three hours in the search, no trace of any former acquaintance was found.

"You see it's different here from what it is in the country," said Frank, when they were returning. "Here you often find that people don't know who lives next door, or even in the same house with them. It sounds queer, but it's true. No one is introduced, no one is sociable, and the majority are continually moving, in the hope of finding a better dwelling or cheaper rent."

"Yes, I noticed that," replied Richard, with something like a sigh. "Out in the country everybody knows everybody else, and outside of a few prim people all are as sociable as can be. But I suppose if one wants to make money one must expect to give up some comforts."

"You're right there," replied Frank.

During the week Pep met them twice on the Bowery. He was cleanly washed, had his curly hair brushed, and wore a brand-new suit. In his altered appearance Richard hardly knew him.

"Dad's better," was the urchin's reply to the boy's question. "Uncle Doc is going to take him out of de hospital next week, so as Aunt Betty can nurse him herself. She's awful kind, she is."

"And how do you like the change?" asked Frank.

"I feel like I was dreamin'," was Pep's answer. "It don't seem natural-- these clo'es and that nice home. It's like de times long ago."

"Are you selling papers yet?" asked Richard.

"No, sir. Uncle Doc says I'm to go to school in a week or so. He says I must have an eddication, and he's going to help dad get his money and invest it so it's safe, and all that. Here's yer dollar."

As Pep concluded, he suddenly dived into one of the pockets of his new trousers, and, after considerable difficulty, extricated a silver dollar.

"Never mind, Pep, you can keep it," said Richard, yet well pleased to see the urchin's evident desire to right the wrong he had done.

"No, no, it's yours," exclaimed Pep earnestly. "I won't keep it nohow. And say," he added in a whisper, "I'm awful glad you didn't say nothin' to me uncle of it. It's de first time I stole anything, and it's the last, too, and I wouldn't have Uncle Doc or Aunt Betty know it for de world."

"You can make sure they shall never hear of it," returned Richard, as, after more urging, he took the coin. "I can understand how desperate you felt that morning we met at the newspaper office, and we'll let the whole matter drop."

"Thank you, sir."

And Pep felt much relieved.

"You must come up Sunday," put in Frank. "Come up to dinner, same as you were going to."

"Thank you, Mr. Massanet, I will," replied Pep. "My uncle expects both of you down soon, too."

And they separated, Pep being on his way to Frying Pan Court to get a few treasured belongings that still remained there.

Early the following morning Richard and Frank started for the store together. It was a clear, but windy day, thick clouds of dust flying in all directions. As they passed the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, a fire engine dashed past, on its way down the street.

"Hello! there's a fire somewhere!" exclaimed Frank.

"Can we go to it?" cried Richard. He had not yet seen a conflagration in the city, and was anxious to see how such a thing would be handled. Frank looked at his watch.

"We've got twenty-five minutes," he replied. "Come on; if it's in the neighborhood we can take a look at it."

Both boys started off on a run. They reached Spruce Street, and followed the engine around the corner.

A dense volume of black smoke greeted them.

The crowd was thick, and the two had hard work making their way forward.

"It's our place!" cried out Frank suddenly. "And the whole store is afire, too!"

"Our place!" ejaculated Richard. "Oh, I hope not!"

But it was only too true, and in a moment they stood opposite the establishment of Williams & Mann, now all blaze from top to bottom.

"Stand back there!" exclaimed a burly policeman, waving his club at both boys. "Stand back."

"We work in the place," explained Frank.

"Can't help it," was the reply. "The insurance patrol has charge of the goods. You'll have to get out of the way. Lively, there!" added the officer, as a hook and ladder truck came dashing up the street.

So Richard and Frank fell back into the crowd, and were immediately joined by Bretzwartz, the German shipping-clerk.

"I guess the place is a goner," remarked Frank, as the flames shot out of the upper windows.

"Wonder how it caught?" said Richard.

"Der poiler in der pasement busted," put in Bretzwartz. "I chust come, and vos putting on mine odder coat ven I heard an explosion vich knock me mine feets off, and I rund out like I vos killed, and der whole place was on fire in two seconds already."

"Was Larry killed?" asked Frank.

Larry was the engineer and porter around the place.

"No, he vos out, getting a pite to eat," replied the shipping-clerk.

Despite the efforts of the firemen, the flames made rapid progress, and in an hour the "fireproof" building was known to be doomed. Both of the heads of the firm had been sent for, and Mr. Williams soon put in an appearance.

He was pale and excited, and shook his head sadly when his many employees offered their services in any way they could be used.

"We can do nothing at present," he said. "The insurance companies have entire charge."

"I hope you are covered, Mr. Williams," said Richard earnestly.

"Very nearly so," was the reply. "The stop to business will be our worst loss. There is no telling when we will be able to resume. I only trust the accounts in the safes are all right."

By noon the fire was under control. It had burnt itself out, and all that remained of the establishment was its four scorched walls, and the mass of half burned stock and fixtures within. Part of the stock had been saved, and this was transferred to an empty store near by.

The boys assisted in this work until late in the evening, and also all day Saturday.

In the middle of Saturday afternoon Mr. Mann came to them and paid them their week's wages.

"You had both better find other places," he said. "We have got into difficulty with the insurance companies, and it may be some time before our claim is adjusted. Besides, Mr. Williams speaks of retiring, and in that case I will probably join some other firm,"

This was dismaying news. Yet neither could blame Mr. Mann, though it threw them both out of employment without notice.

"You may help us here next week," went on Mr. Mann. "But next Saturday will finish the job. I will give both of you first-class recommendations, and if I hear of any openings will let you know."

And Mr. Mann went away to carry his news to the other clerks.

"It's too bad," said Frank, when he was gone. "It won't be an easy job to find another place."

"No, indeed," replied Richard. "Still, we can't complain of the way they have treated us."

Both of the boys wore sober faces that night. To Richard came the ever- recurring, thought, what next?