“Very well, then, tell him I’ll be with him at six,” he said, and the young ragamuffin departed, while Bruce resumed his work on the chief’s wagon, amazed and delighted to get an answer in such a short time to his letter. The afternoon seemed to pass very slowly, and at half-past five he obtained the chief’s permission to go out for a little while, and bent his steps immediately to Lyons’s, a restaurant on the Bowery, which Skinny visited once in a while when he was prosperous enough to treat himself to a substantial meal.
Bruce found the little newsboy standing in front of the open door.
“I got your note yesterday, an’ here I am,” was Skinny’s greeting, as the two boys shook hands. “I cum right on de minute I knowed I wuz wanted here,” he added, “an’ what’s more I’ve got dat mun’ yer let me have de time we cum outter de hospital,” and he handed four dollars and twenty-two cents to his companion, with a distinct look of pride.
It pleased Bruce very much to feel that his humble little friend was so honest and so willing to do his bidding, and he said so in a hearty, straightforward manner that Skinny readily understood. Then they entered the restaurant, selected a quiet table, in an obscure corner, and sat down to a nice supper, Skinny acting as host for perhaps the first time in his life. And as they ate they talked, the newsboy describing 288his experiences on the farm, and Bruce plying him with questions about the different country people he knew.
Never before in his life had Bruce felt so much like a character in a story book as he did now, and even Skinny remarked that the situation reminded him of a similar one in his favorite romance “Shorty, the Boy Detective.”
It was the first time that the newsboy had ever entertained anyone at a dinner as sumptuous as the one which he now offered to the young lad whom he admired and liked as he liked and admired no other human being. He recommended all the most expensive dishes on the bill of fare, ordered the waiter around in a way that brought a broad smile to that functionary’s face, and “showed off” in so many other ways that Bruce, who was at heart a modest and unobtrusive young chap, finally felt constrained to ask him to attract less attention, and conduct himself with more decorum.
The fact was, that Skinny “felt his oats,” as they say in the country. He was very proud to be called in as a sort of advisory counsel in such a delicate and important matter as the one which now occupied Bruce’s mind, and he was ready enough to give his friend the full benefit 289of his long experience in the city and really remarkable knowledge of the habits of crooked, crafty and dangerous people. Young as he was, the newsboy had long since learned the great lesson of eternal vigilance, and he knew well enough that the man whom he called “Scar-faced Charlie” was not one in whom implicit confidence should be reposed.
He listened attentively as Bruce described his visits to the Dexter mansion, and then said to him “Wot’s de matter wid bracin’ him in his Eldridge Street joint?”
“But I don’t know where it is,” replied the other.
“Come along wid me, an’ I’ll show yer,” said Skinny quickly, and, having paid the check and handed the amazed waiter a quarter, coupling his gift with an admonition to “hustle lively” the next time he had any visitors of distinction to wait on, the newsboy led the way down the Bowery which was by this time crowded with people and brilliantly lighted, to Grand Street, and then in an easterly direction to a corner from which he could see the building in which Mr. Korwein had his office.
But beyond this corner Skinny positively refused to go. Plucky as he was, and heedless 290of results, he had a profound fear for the big strong man out of whose stern grasp he had wriggled that very day.
“You go over dere, an’ brace de old bloke. I’ll wait here. He’s dere, fer de lights in the windy,” he said. And Bruce was forced to make his visit alone.
Never before in his life had he gone about any task that so tried his nerves as this one, and it was fully five minutes before he could make up his mind to open the door and enter the money-lender’s dingy office. At last, however, his will conquered his fears, and he marched boldly up the steps, opened the door and closed it behind him with a sharp bang. Mr. Korwein was standing behind the tall desk adding up a long column of figures in his ledger. He looked up as the boy entered and said rather roughly: “Well, what can I do for you this evening?”
“I’m not quite sure what you can do for me,” rejoined his visitor, looking him carefully in the face and speaking in a tone which arrested the tall man’s attention at once. “I heard that you are making some rather particular inquiries about me, and I thought if there was anything you wanted to know, I might be able to tell you myself.”
291“Inquiries about you!” repeated Mr. Korwein, dropping his pen and coming out from behind the tall desk, in order to get a good view of his visitor, “why, who are you?”
“My name is Bruce Decker, and I am the son of Frank Decker, the fireman,” was the boy’s answer.
Not much in the words he uttered nor in the tone of his voice, one would say. But enough to drive every particle of color from the money-lender’s face and to cause him to start back with a half suppressed oath on his lips, and an expression in which rage, disappointment and astonishment seemed to be blended in equal parts.
“Frank Decker’s son! He never had any son!” he exclaimed.
“Oh yes he did,” replied Bruce “and I am that son. I heard you were looking for me. Now that I am here, tell me what you want.”
“And so you are really Frank’s boy are you,” said the money-lender, speaking in a more conciliatory tone and evidently trying to recover his equanimity, “well I am glad to see you, glad to see you. I’ve been looking for you because, because—to tell the truth, there is a little money coming to you, not much my boy, 292not very much, but something. It was left to your father, and by his death goes to his next of kin. If you are really his son, you are entitled to it. But I must have proof you know, proof, before I can pay it over. Where do you live, my boy? Let me know your address and I will look you up and see that you receive every cent that is your due.” He wiped the perspiration from his face as he entered with much care in a memorandum book the address which Bruce gave him, which was that of Chief Trask’s house and not of the boy’s. And then, declaring that he could say no more until he received absolute proof that Bruce was what he represented himself to be, he opened the door and ushered his visitor out into the street.
Bruce stood for a moment on the sidewalk, utterly bewildered by what he had heard.
“Well, did yer brace de bloke?” demanded Skinny appearing suddenly in front of him.
“Yes,” answered Bruce “and he told me he had some money to pay me that was left to my father.”
“Hully gee,” exclaimed the boy. “Better look out though dat yer get all wot’s comin’ to yer. Dat Scar-faced Charlie don’t never pay bills in full.”
In his private office in the poor, shabby building, in which for reasons best known to himself he had chosen to establish his place of business, the tall saturnine black bearded and altogether mysterious character known already to some of our readers sat busy with books and letters.
In the outer office his bookkeeper stood at his tall desk pausing now and then to talk to those who came in, intent on some business errand, and once in a while referring some particular person to his master who sat in the inside room.
It was just twelve o’clock and during the morning all sorts of people had been coming and going in and out of that dingy little place of business. Some of the visitors were well to do in appearance while others looked as if poverty and misfortune had long since claimed them as their own. Some were men and others women, and there were three or four children among the clients of the place. If the visitors were noticeable for any one thing it was for 294the stealthy and mysterious manner in which they entered and made known their wishes to the bookkeeper who stood guard at the outer office. This functionary, by the way, seemed to be well acquainted with nearly every one that called, and he usually had a word of greeting that was sometimes pleasant sometimes sarcastic and often contemptuous. To a man with a cast in his eye who slouched cautiously in after having scanned the neighborhood from under his hat for at least three minutes before entering, the bookkeeper said jocosely:
“Well what have you got for us to-day? Any nice loose diamonds or a few watch cases?”
“Hush!” exclaimed the visitor warily as he laid his finger-against his nose, “you’re always talking foolishly. Can I have a word with the boss to-day?”
“I guess so; you’re a pretty good customer here. So you may walk right in.” The visitor tip-toed into the private room, closed the door behind him, drew his chair up beside the tall saturnine man who was still busy with his pen, and whispered something in his ear that caused him to sit bolt upright and gaze sharply and with amazement in the face of his visitor. For fully an hour the man with the cast in his eye 295remained in the inner office and when he finally withdrew, the other accompanied him to the door and stood for a moment talking earnestly to him in a low voice before he permitted him to depart. Then he went back to his desk, and his face as he passed through the room, was so stern and troubled that one or two visitors who were seated awaiting his pleasure viewed him carefully, then shook their heads and departed, preferring to talk to him at some time when they should find him in better humor. As for the visitors they all came with one object in view which was money, for the well dressed man who sat at the desk in the inner office made a business of lending money at exorbitant rates of interest and on all sorts securities.
“But why,” some reader might inquire, “should a man of good connections and education embark in such a business and select as his headquarters a dirty cheap office in a poverty stricken part of the town?”
And the reply is that he selected a neighborhood in which he knew money to be a scarce commodity, and which all his clients, the high as well as the low, could visit without fear of detection. As has been already said he had clients of various classes. There was one man, 296for example, who could be found almost any evening in some fashionable club or drawing-room up town and who, on the very morning of which we write, had spent nearly half an hour in that little private office. This man had debts amounting to $25,000, and a father whose fortune of a million he had reasonable hopes of acquiring in due course of time. But his father was a man of the strictest honor, and the son well knew that if he were to hear of his losses at cards and horse racing he would cut him off without a dollar, and leave all his money to a distant cousin whom he had always detested. Situated as he was, this man found the money-lender of Eldridge Street a most convenient friend, and it was an easy matter for the latter to persuade him that for the use of ten or fifteen thousand dollars in cash with which to appease the most importunate of his creditors, he could well afford to give a note for five times the amount payable after the death of his parent.
“And even now,” continued the money lender, shaking his head as he handed him a large roll of bills, “I am taking risks that I ought not to take with you or with anybody else. How do I know that you will outlive your father? How do I know that the old man 297will leave you anything when he dies? How do I know even that he has got anything to leave, or that having it now he will have it a year hence? These are ticklish times, and if I were a prudent business man, without anything of the speculator in me, I would just hang on to what money I’ve got, and let you and the rest of them like you shift for yourselves. I’ve half a mind now,” he added, suddenly, as he tightened his grip on the greenbacks, which had not quite passed out of his hand, “to tear your note up and put the money back in my safe.” But at this threat his visitor snatched the coveted roll from his hand, placed it in his inside pocket, and buttoning his coat up tightly, exclaimed, “Don’t talk to me about the chances you take, Mr. Shylock, when you know perfectly well that I’m good for anything I put my name to, and that it won’t be long before you get your own again with a pound of my flesh into the bargain.”
It will be seen from this conversation that the mysterious bearded man had a keen eye for business, and as his little shop was full of customers from morning till night, one may readily believe that he made a large income with very little mental or physical exertion on his part.
298It was just one o’clock when, having disposed of his visiter with the cast in his eye, the money-lender sat behind his desk with his cigar in his mouth, lost in thought. Something must have troubled him for his brow was ruffled and from time to time an angry blush crept into his cheek. One might have noticed too—had there been any one there to notice him—that he started uneasily at every sound that came from the little outer room and finally when he heard a woman’s voice raised in shrill anger he stepped to the door, listened for a moment or so and then come out to see what was the matter. It was an old Irish woman who stood with a package in her hand talking angrily to the bookkeeper.
“An’ sure you’ll not refuse a poor old woman the loan of a ten dollar note on these little bits of things?” she was saying in a voice that betrayed her peevishness and annoyance.
“Can’t give you anything to-day, madam,” returned the bookkeeper speaking very positively and then, noticing his employer he added, “There’s the boss himself, and he’ll tell you the same thing.”
But the “boss” had already caught a glimpse of the old Irish woman’s face, and to the intense surprise of his subordinate he retreated 299suddenly into his private room, banged the door after him and then thinking better of his act, opened it wide enough to say in a low and guarded whisper, “Give the old woman what she wants and bring the package in to me. Get her address, too, while you’re about it.”
The bookkeeper did as he was ordered. And as the old woman wrote her name on the receipt with trembling fingers she uttered: “Now remember, I’ll be back for this when my allowance comes. But me friends are coming back from Europe soon and they will never let old Ann Crehan go hungry. They’ll all be back, the master and Miss Emma and the two young children and then I’ll have everything I want. An’ it’ll be a sorry day for that hard-hearted spalpeen who forgot the one who took care of him and will let her go to the poorhouse for the want of a few dollars. Sure his fine old uncle would never threat me in that fashion.”
As the old woman departed, the clerk took the package into the inner office and laid it before his employer, and the latter before opening the paper shut and bolted the door. He found nothing within but a few thin and worn silver spoons and an old fashioned open-faced 300gold watch. Inside of the case was the following inscription
“FOR FIDELITY AND COURAGE
TO ANN CREHAN
FROM SAMUEL DEXTER.”
Well did that strong, bearded man, whose face, with its deep lines and heavy, overhanging brow, was an index to his passionate, wilful nature, know what that inscription meant. It carried him back in memory to a bright, spring morning, years ago, when this same old woman, whose tottering footsteps had just passed over his threshold, was a servant in the family of his kinsman, Samuel Dexter, with whom he, an orphan boy, had found a home. Well did he recall that day, and the accident through which he might have lost his life had it not been for the courage of the Irish servant, who rushed at the peril of her own life, into a burning building, and snatched from the flames the two children who had been committed to her care.
The fierce red scar across his cheek had remained a vivid reminder of that day, and he remembered how, throughout his youth and early manhood, he had always hated his young kinsman, who had been with him in the flames, but who had escaped without disfigurement. Well, the kinsman had long ago passed to his 301final reward, and he was living still, with the red scar on his face but half concealed by the thick, stiff beard. He folded up the paper containing the watch and the pieces of silver, and put the package carefully away in his safe.
“It’s a lucky thing for me, that the old creature didn’t recognize me when I put my head through the door,” he said to himself. “I’ll have to be more careful in the future about showing myself down here, for one never knows who is going to turn up. Everybody wants money, and there are none too proud to come down here to this dirty street and ask for it. It’s a great thing, money, and it’s the lack of it that puts all men on the same footing.”
When one is young and life still seems new and fresh and full of bright, ever-changing hues, a few months seem a long period, and one that often brings with it many changes.
And so the year that the Van Kuren children spent abroad was not without its effect upon them. During that time they had travelled through England, France, Italy and Germany, and, under the guidance of their father and their tutor, had learned much of the countries through which they passed, and of the history and customs of the different people. With minds naturally bright and retentive, both Harry and Laura had derived much more profit from their journeyings in foreign lands than most people do, and although they had seen so much and enjoyed so many things, they were both heartily glad to return to their own country.
It was on a bright, sunny morning in the early winter that the steamer in which Mr. Van Kuren had taken passage for himself and 303family, sailed up the superb harbor of New York, while the two children stood on the deck, almost screaming with delight as they recognized such familiar landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge, Trinity steeple, the Produce Exchange, and even caught a distant glimpse of the Palisades. A tall column of smoke rising from the heart of the great city caught their eye.
“What makes that smoke?” said Harry, to his tutor who was standing beside him.
“I don’t know,” replied Mr. Reed, doubtfully, “But I think it must be a fire. Yes, the smoke is growing denser every moment and now we can see bits of flame in it too.”
“I wonder if Bruce Decker is there, helping to put it out,” exclaimed Harry, impulsively. “I tell you it must be grand to be running to the fires all the time. I wonder how Bruce is getting along, anyway. Don’t you think it’s funny we haven’t heard a word from him?”
Laura did not reply at first but seemed to be interested only in looking intently at the familiar features of the scene about her, but when Harry repeated his question she remarked carelessly, “Oh I suppose he’s too much occupied with his own affairs to bother about us. Anyway, Harry, it is not necessary 304for us to see him any more. He is very well in his way, but not nearly so refined and elegant in his manners as those children we used to play with in Paris. Just compare him with little Victor Dufait for example. Why Victor was the politest boy I ever saw in my life, and it would be a good thing for Bruce, and you too, to copy his manners.”
“Well I’d rather copy Bruce than that little frog-eating Frenchman, any day!” cried Harry. “You think he’s all right just because he bows and scrapes and grins every time he sees you coming. But if you were to play with him and the rest of those fellows, as I did, you’d soon find out that they’re not half as nice as they seem. Besides, I’ll bet that Bruce could lick any two of them with one hand tied behind his back.”
“Well, there are better things than being able to lick other boys, even with both hands tied behind your back,” rejoined Laura, “and I think that Victor is one of the nicest boys I ever met.”
“Well, you can have him for all I care, but I’d like to see Bruce again, and as soon as we get ashore I’m going down to hunt him up.”
“You will do nothing of the sort, Harry,” interjected Mr. Reed, in a tone of quiet determination. 305“You may remember, perhaps, that your father has forbidden you to have anything to do with that young Decker, and I am quite sure that you at least, Laura, have not forgotten the circumstances which led to his making that rule. So I particularly caution you not to set your hearts upon renewing an acquaintance which your father does not consider a desirable one, and my advice is not to mention the matter in his presence.”
The tutor’s words ended all discussion of the young fireman, and very soon afterwards the children went down stairs to make their final preparations for landing. Laura had been partly in earnest in what she said about Bruce. She had made the acquaintance of several boys of foreign parentage during their stay in Paris, and had been greatly impressed with their polished manners and glib tongues. Victor Dufait, whom her brother despised, was a lad well calculated to awaken the admiration of any girl unused to superficial elegance of manners. Always handsomely dressed and neat in his appearance, he was to all outward appearances as gentlemanly and modest a lad, as one could hope to meet, but the boys who played with him knew that his politeness was, as they expressed it, “all put 306on,” and that among lads of his own age, or younger, he could be selfish, ill-natured, and vindictive. Many a time had Harry, while playing with him and other boys of his sort, thought regretfully of the manly, good-natured, and companionable Bruce Decker, who, although of much more humble origin than the little foreigner, possessed a much truer breeding—that which comes from a good heart and kindly intentions.
From the steamer Mr. Van Kuren and his family went directly to a large and fashionable hotel on Broadway, intending to remain there until their own house could be repaired and put in thorough order. The children continued their studies under the direction of their tutor and an English governess, who had accompanied them home from London, and every afternoon went out to walk in the streets. Sometimes Harry and Mr. Reed enjoyed long strolls along the river front, where the boy never wearied of looking at the great ships and little fishing sloops, as they lay at the docks, and sometimes the two went down into the poorer portions of the town, where Mr. Reed pointed out to him the habitations of different races of people, and explained to him their curious modes of living.
307Sometimes Laura accompanied them, when they walked along the principal avenues or through Central Park, but as a general thing she went out with her governess, and sometimes invited some young girl of her own age to accompany her. She was walking in this way one afternoon, talking to a richly dressed young girl, and accompanied by the prim-looking governess, when her young companion drew her attention to the fact that some one was trying to attract her attention. Laura looked up hastily and beheld Bruce Decker standing with his hat in his hand and a rosy flush on his cheeks almost in front of her. The governess was looking in wonder at the presuming young man, and the young girl beside her was beginning to laugh, for to tell the truth, Bruce presented an appearance that was not at all like that of little Victor Dufait.
“How do you do, I did not know you were back from Europe,” began the boy. But to his amazement Laura, who had always treated him in a most friendly manner, simply stared him in the face, bowed to him very coldly, and then walked on with her eyes turned in another direction, and a look in her face that was anything but pleasant or cordial. And as she passed on she realized that the boy 308was standing stock still on the pavement behind her, amazed beyond expression at the way in which he had been treated. She knew, moreover, that what with her annoyance at her companion’s sneers, and her fear lest the English governess should tell her father of the chance meeting, she had treated Bruce with a degree of harshness, which she never intended, and she would have given almost anything—at least it seemed so to her at that moment—to have been able to live the past few minutes over again.
It is no easy task to describe Bruce Decker’s feelings, as he stood in the middle of the pavement on Fifth Avenue, and watched the retreating form of the young girl, whose friendship he had once prized so highly. His cheeks grew redder and redder, as he thought of the glance she had given him, and the insolence of her manner. Then he glanced down on his clothes, and his hands reddened and hardened with toil, and said to himself, “Well, I suppose I’m not stylish enough to suit her now that she’s been across the water, and mixed up with all sorts of foreign people.” It seemed very hard to the boy, however, that he should be despised just because he did not wear fashionable clothes, and he 309said to himself with some bitterness of spirit, “I suppose I could rig myself up in fine style for less than a hundred dollars, and be as good a dude as any of them.”
It was with this feeling in his heart that he walked slowly away, and then—for his brain did not stop working merely because of some trifling rebuff—it occurred to him that if there was only a hundred dollars difference between him and a dude, the obstacle was not an impossible one to surmount, and that a few years of hard work would convert him into a very superior quality of dude, and would thus enable him to regain the friendship and esteem which he was positive Miss Van Kuren once entertained for him. With this cheerful view of the case he lifted his head bravely, and walked on toward the truck quarters with swift and resolute steps. He said nothing to his friend Charles Weyman in regard to his chance meeting. In fact, he did all he could to forget it himself, but he had been too deeply wounded to put all recollection of the young girl’s coldness to him aside, and the memory of that chance meeting rankled in his breast for many weeks.
One cold, dreary, windy evening, the tall, dark, bearded man left the office on the East side, where he was known as “Scar-faced Charlie,” and turned his face in the direction of the fine mansion in the upper part of the city, where he was known to the servants, the tradespeople, and a few of the neighbors as “Samuel Dexter,” a relative of the kindly old gentleman who owned the house. Passing through the broad gate and along the winding road, he emerged into an open space in front of the mansion, and saw to his surprise that lights were gleaming through the windows of the elder Mr. Dexter’s library, a room which was seldom opened during the owner’s absence.
The bearded man had been away for two or three days, and, thinking that the servants had taken advantage of his absence, to make use of an apartment into which he seldom penetrated himself, he quietly let himself in at the front door, and stepping across the hall, threw open the door of his uncle’s 311study, intending to administer a severe rebuke to whomever he might find within.
But the angry words died away unuttered on his lips, and he started back with a look of amazement and chagrin, as Mr. Dexter, Senior, rose from an easy chair by the fire and came forward to greet him.
“Why, my dear uncle, I had no idea that you were in this country,” exclaimed the new comer, as he recovered himself sufficiently to grasp the hand that was extended to him, and assume something that resembled at least a pleased expression of countenance.
“I only arrived this morning,” replied the other, “and so I thought I would treat you to a pleasant surprise.”
That his coming had proved a surprise, if not an altogether pleasant one, was quite apparent to the elder Mr. Dexter, who had narrowly watched his nephew’s face and noted the quick change of expression that passed across it as he entered the room. Since that evening in Paris, when he had addressed to him a letter of inquiry, several things had occurred to convince the old gentleman that his kinsman was not treating him in a straightforward manner. He had replied to the letter, it is true, but in such a way as to make it 312apparent that he either had not troubled himself to fulfill his uncle’s request, or else that he was concealing from him the information which he possessed. It was partly because of these suspicions which had taken possession of his mind, and partly because he was extremely anxious to learn more about Bruce Decker, that Mr. Dexter, Senior, determined to cut short his stay in Europe, and return at once to New York.
He had landed early that morning, and one of his first duties had been to go and see Ann Crehan, the old woman who had once been a nurse in the Van Kuren family, and who was supported now by them and by himself. The poor old creature poured into his sympathetic ear a sad tale of destitution. One of her remittances had failed to reach her, and in order to tide over a brief period, she had applied to the younger Mr. Dexter for a loan, but without success. Then, not wishing to have her true condition made known to her neighbors—for the poor are far more sensitive than the rich,—she had made up a little package of a few old pieces of silver-ware and the gold watch she cherished above all her earthly possessions, and taken them down to Eldridge Street, where “an ould blood-letting scoundrel” 313had loaned her a few dollars on them.
The old creature had but one anxiety now, and that was to recover her lost trinkets, and her benefactor readily promised to come the very next day—for his foreign money was not then exchanged—and bring her the funds that would enable her to do so.
On his way up-town that night, Mr. Dexter thought with bitterness and regret of the in-gratitude shown him by the nephew, whom he had intended to make his heir.
“He might have spared a few dollars for old Ann Crehan, if not on my account on his own, for it was she who saved his life when he was merely a boy, and a man must be hard hearted indeed, who can forget such a service.”
But despite his feelings he said nothing to his nephew about the old nurse, nor did he allude to the evasive reply which had been sent to him in Paris. On the contrary, he greeted his kinsman pleasantly, and chatted with him in his usual easy and amiable fashion until the time had come for them to separate for the night.
When the old gentleman descended to the breakfast-room the next morning, he found 314that his nephew had gone down-town, leaving word with the servant that he might be detained that night until a late hour.
Mr. Dexter accordingly breakfasted alone, and then called his carriage, and was driven to the elevated railroad station, where he took a train to the lower part of the city. It was twelve o’clock when, having attended to several matters of business, he betook himself to the East side tenement house, in which Ann Crehan lived. The old woman shed tears of joy when he told her he had come to redeem her little package of valuables, and, having taken from her the receipt and the address of the money-lender, he set out for Eldridge Street. Picking his way through the crowd of children who swarmed in that thickly settled part of the town, and sniffing the air, which was redolent of garbage and garlic and decaying fish, the old gentleman shook his head and sighed to think of the stern necessities which compelled the poor to live in such a quarter and in such a fashion.
“And what sort of a man must this money-lender be?” he said to himself. “I cannot see how a man, with any feelings at all in his heart, can deliberately establish himself in this quarter and devote his life to loaning money 315to these unfortunate creatures at rates of interest which, I doubt not, are exorbitant. Well, he will receive no exorbitant interest from me on the ten dollars he loaned to poor old Ann, for I know what the laws on usury are.”
It was with this feeling in his heart that Mr. Dexter entered the shabby-looking office on Eldridge Street and, handing the receipt to the bookkeeper behind the tall desk said “Mrs. Crehan wishes to repay her loan and get back the package which she gave as security.”
The bookkeeper glanced sharply at the receipt and then at the well-dressed, prosperous looking gentleman who presented it, and then went into the inner office, took the package from the safe and brought it out.
“Twelve dollars if you please” he remarked, in his brief business-like way.
“You loaned ten dollars on these articles, less than a month ago, and now you ask for twelve dollars. Do you charge twenty per cent. a month interest?” said Mr. Dexter in firm, quiet tones.
“It’s twelve dollars or you don’t get the stuff,” retorted the accountant in a surly voice.
316“You had better be very careful, sir, or you may get into trouble,” rejoined Mr. Dexter speaking very sternly, and looking the other squarely in the face. “I am familiar with the usury laws of the State and they are very explicit, in matters of this sort. I advise you to hand me that package without a moment’s delay and accept the sum of ten dollars and twenty-five cents, which is interest at the rate of two and one-half per cent. a month and more than you are really entitled to.”
“I will do nothing of the sort!” said the old clerk raising his voice so that it reached the ears of his employer in the inner office, “and if you don’t care to pay the twelve dollars you may go about your business, and I’ll put the package back in the safe.”
“I’ll not pay any such outrageous charge!” screamed Mr. Dexter, at the very top of his voice, “and what’s more if you hesitate one minute longer I’ll go out and make a complaint against you to the proper authorities.”
But just at this moment the door of the inner office was thrown open and the money-lender came out exclaiming “What does all this noise mean? What do you mean, sir, by coming into my place of business——”
“There’s the boss now himself. You can settle the matter with him,” remarked the bookkeeper, triumphantly. But to his surprise his master neither spoke nor stirred, and he was even more surprised to see Mr. Dexter gaze fixedly at him for a moment or two and then exclaim in tones of burning contempt, “And so this is the business that you conduct, is it? Lending money to these poor people and then charging them the most outrageous rates. I suppose you thought you could take advantage of this poor old woman who saved your life at the risk of her own when you were a mere child in arms! I believed in you Samuel in spite of the warnings that I received. But now, I have done with you forever. My servants will gather your effects together and send them to you, but I forbid you to enter my premises again under any consideration whatever.”
Trembling with indignation, and with his face suffused with a high color, the old gentleman picked up the package containing Ann Crehan’s little treasures, laid the sum of ten dollars and twenty-five cents on the desk and departed, slamming the door behind him as he went out with such violence that every window-sash in the room rattled.
And then the tall, sinister looking man reentered 318his private den, threw himself down upon a chair, and with his head bowed in an attitude of hopeless dejection muttered: “Everything has slipped from me just as I thought it was within my grasp. There is but one hope left, and that is the boy.”
When old Mr. Dexter reached his home that afternoon, he called one of his servants and ordered him to gather all of his nephew’s possessions together and pack them up, to be sent away to an address which he would give them. At the same time he informed them that if his kinsman should call, he was not to be admitted to the house on any pretense whatever. Having done this, the old gentleman sat down in his library and wrote a letter to his lawyer, who was also a warm personal friend of many years’ standing, and invited him to visit him the next day, in order that they might dine together, and at the same time discuss an important matter of business. This business was nothing less than the drawing up of a new will, which should deprive his renegade kinsman of any chance of profiting by his death. Never in his whole life had the warm-hearted and benevolent old gentleman been so stirred with shame and indignation as he had that day by the sudden discovery that his nephew, who 320was of his own flesh and blood, and bore his name, was making his livelihood by loaning money to poor and unfortunate people at usurious rates of interest. That a man of proper breeding and right feelings should take advantage of the necessities of the unfortunate, stirred Mr. Dexter’s soul to its inmost depths.
As for the money-lender, he realized as soon as his uncle had left the office and slammed the door behind him, that in all probabilities he would never see the inheritance of which he had for so many years based his hopes. However, there was one chance left to him, and he determined to try it before abandoning all expectation forever. He must see Bruce at once, for it was possible that, through this boy, he might once more obtain influence over his uncle. Taking his hat and cane, he left his office and hurried away to the address which Bruce had given him, and it was there that he learned that the boy had found employment in the very truck-house in which his father had worked before him, and where he had often visited him.
“That was stupid enough in me,” he remarked, angrily, to himself, as he strolled along toward the quarters. “I might have 321known that the boy’s first thought after his father’s death would have been to look for some sort of a job in the department. If I had only made inquiries there instead of sending that rascally newsboy up into the country, I would have found him long ago, and might have had him out of the way by this time, if I had seen the necessity for it.”
As he entered the building, Charley Weyman recognized him, and went upstairs to look for the boy. “He’s down there, Bruce,” he said, significantly.
“Who’s down there?” demanded the young lad, looking up from the book which he was reading.
“That tall chap, with the scar on his face, that you’ve talked about so often. And, mark my words, he means you no good. But you go down and see what he has to say, and then tell me about it before you give him any promise or agree to do anything that he asks you to.”
“But perhaps he’s not going to ask me anything,” replied the boy. “It may be that he’s come here to do me a favor.”
“Don’t you believe it!” retorted Weyman. “That man never goes anywhere unless it is to get something from somebody. If he 322offers to do you a favor, be mighty careful how you accept his offer.”
Bruce went downstairs, and was very cordially greeted by the mysterious man who had caused him so many sleepless nights since the first time he had heard of him. He was surprised now to find him so agreeable and kindly in his manner, and in a few moments he forgot his good friend’s caution, and found himself talking to the money-lender as freely and easily as if he had known him all his life. He told him all that he knew of his origin, and mentioned the fact that he hardly knew anything about his father’s family or friends. “I came down here soon after my father’s death, and the chief took me on here, got my pension for me, and has kept me here ever since. When I’m old enough I hope to join the department, and perhaps rise in it.”
“What pension is that?” asked Mr. Dexter, with a sudden gleam of interest in his face.
“The department pays it to me because my father was killed in the service,” replied the boy.
“Then there is no doubt about your being the son of Frank Decker, I suppose,” rejoined the other, in what seemed to Bruce like a tone of disappointment.
323“Of course not,” he replied.
“Very well, then,” continued the visitor, “so much the better for you, for you will have no trouble in establishing your identity. As I told you the other day, a legacy left to your father by some distant relatives in England has fallen to you; but in order to get it you will be obliged to go yourself to London, prove who you are, and collect the money in person. I knew your father very well indeed, and it was simply on account of my friendship for him that I have taken the trouble to look you up. I sent that little rascal of a newsboy up to the country to search for you; and if he had done what I told him to do, or if you had come to me at once, you might have obtained possession of your inheritance by this time, to say nothing of saving me a great deal of unnecessary trouble. However, I suppose you could not have helped that.”
“Indeed, sir,” said Bruce, very humbly, “I went up to your house two or three times but could not learn your address, and it was only when Skinny came back to the city that I found out where your office was. It was very kind of you, I’m sure, to take so much trouble for me, and when I get this money I will very gladly pay you for what you have done.”
324“Never mind the pay,” exclaimed the money-lender, magnanimously, “I’m willing to do a great deal for the son of my old friend. Now, I suppose you have not enough money to pay for your journey to London and back, have you?”
Bruce was forced to admit that he had not sufficient funds for such an undertaking, and on learning this, the visitor went on: “Very well, I will advance you enough for your passage there and back and other necessary expenses, and you can repay me when you receive your legacy. I suppose you might get it by sending a representative there, or engaging some well-known London lawyer, but that would cost you just as much as to take the trip yourself, and besides those English people are not like Americans, and are very slow in their business methods. And, after all, a boy of your age ought to enjoy a little trip to Europe and back. It won’t come in your way very often, especially when there’s nearly five thousand dollars at the other end of the route.”
Nearly five thousand dollars! To the young fire-lad, who had been accustomed all his life to the most rigid economy, this seemed like an enormous sum of money. And the 325prospect offered him so unexpectedly of obtaining it for himself, and at the same time making a journey to England almost stunned him. He was aroused from his stupor by Mr. Dexter, who asked him how soon he would be able to start.
“Any time you say,” he replied, and then added hastily, “provided, of course, that Chief Trask has no objection.”
At the mention of the chief’s name Mr. Dexter’s brow clouded, and he exclaimed in what Bruce thought rather a contemptuous and disagreeable tone, “Well, if he is a true friend of yours, he won’t object to your making such a journey as I propose, and if he does object, I should think five thousand dollars would be worth more to you, than anything you’ve got here.”
“I’ll ask him,” said the boy, “and let you know to-morrow. I don’t think he’ll put any obstacle in my way.” And with this understanding the two parted, the money-lender returning to his office, and Bruce going at once to lay the matter before his friends, Charley Weyman and the chief.
Both these men declared, after careful consideration of his case, that he could not do better than accept Mr. Dexter’s proposition, 326provided that gentleman paid him in advance enough to cover the expenses of his journey to England and back. “You don’t risk anything, you see,” said Weyman, “and he does. He wouldn’t send you off on a wild-goose chase, if it cost him anything to do so. In fact, you’ve everything to gain and nothing to lose, and it’s not every day in the year that a boy like you gets the chance to travel in foreign parts at somebody else’s expense. Just tell him that you’re ready to go, and keep a sharp look-out for anything that may turn up.”
The next day, accordingly, Bruce called on Mr. Dexter at his Eldridge Street office, and made known to him the decision of his friends. “I’m ready to go whenever you think best,” he added, “but, of course, as I haven’t any money, you will have to give me a return ticket, and money enough for my expenses while I’m there.”
“Certainly, my boy,” said Mr. Dexter, with his most winning smile, “and as there is a steamer that sails next Saturday for Southampton, I will engage your passage on that. Get ready to sail at three o’clock on that day, and, meantime, I advise you to keep on at your regular work and not mention to 327anybody what I have told you. Some one might start up and contest that will and keep you out of your rightful dues for ten years. When you get your hands on the money, you may talk about it as much as you please.”
And so the young boy returned to the truck quarters, and resumed his regular work, although he could scarcely drive out of his mind the wonderful intelligence that the money-lender had conveyed to him. Meantime, Samuel Dexter seated in his Eldridge Street office, was writing a long letter to the old gentleman who had driven him from his house.
“There!” he exclaimed, as he sealed the envelope, “I think that letter will bring him to terms if nothing else will.”
Acold, bitter night, with the snow falling swiftly and silently, only to be caught up by the tempestuous bursts of wind, and swept into heavy drifts of dazzling whiteness. It was snowing hard all over the great city of New York, up-town as well as down. And in the open space in front of the fine old mansion in which Mr. Dexter lived, it had gathered in great heaps, on which bright streams of light shone from the curtained window of the comfortable library. But cold and dreary and desolate as it was without, within this richly furnished room was warmth, comfort and hospitality. The master of the house was lying with a shawl thrown over his slight figure, upon a couch, which had been drawn up in front of the great open wood-fire, and about him were gathered three or four of his best friends.
Mr. Van Kuren was there, and his sister, whom the children always addressed as “Aunt Emma,” and who, on account of her delicate health, seldom ventured far away from 329home. It must have been business of importance that brought her from the great hotel, in which they were staying, to this mansion above the Harlem river, on such a cold and tempestuous night. Another guest, a portly, grey-haired, smooth-shaven man of judicial aspect, was the lawyer, who had been summoned by Mr. Dexter, in order to draw up a new will. Neither of the Van Kuren children were present, Harry having been sent away on a short trip with his tutor, while Laura had remained at the hotel in the care of her English governess.
On a table, which had been drawn up closely to Mr. Dexter’s lounge, was an open letter, which each member of the company had carefully scrutinized in turn, and with many expressions of indignation and distrust. It was the letter which the money-lender had written and sent from his office at Eldridge Street, and which had been so cruelly planned to excite and distress the kindly old gentleman, that not only his lawyer, but his intimate friends, the Van Kurens, had been hastily summoned. The doctor fearing that the shock might prove serious, if not fatal, to the venerable patient.
“I am inclined to think, on the whole,” 330said Mr. Van Kuren, after he had examined the money-lender’s letter for the twentieth time, “that there is not a word of truth in what he says, and that this has been written simply in the hope of bringing about a reconciliation with you. You know what my opinion of your nephew is and always has been. I told you when we talked the matter over in Paris that he was not a man to be trusted, and I was not at all surprised to learn that he had been running his little pawnshop down on the east side, and, I have no doubt, swindling every one of the unfortunates who are compelled by their necessities to deal with him. If I were you, I would throw this letter into the fire, and dismiss all thought of the matter from my mind. Don’t you agree with me, sir?” he added, turning to the kindly lawyer, who had been an attentive listener to his words.
“No, Horace,” said Mr. Dexter, “I am inclined to think that there is some truth in what my nephew—rascal that he is—has hinted at, and that brings me to speak of a conversation that I had with your daughter Laura at the time that we were so much together in Paris. I did not mention this before, because she regarded it as a secret, and, 331I suppose, did not care to have her interest in the matter known.”
Both Mr. Van Kuren and his sister smiled broadly at the thought that Laura, whom they regarded as a volatile and rather foolish young girl, should have been able to give their old friend any important or reliable information on a subject of vital importance to him, and Miss Van Kuren rejoined: “I wouldn’t pay too much attention to my niece, if I were you, for she has, like most children of her age, some very romantic and silly notions.”
“But I assure you,” exclaimed Mr. Dexter, earnestly, “that what she told me on this occasion made quite an impression on me—an impression which has been growing stronger and stronger ever since. It was in Paris, one morning when I called at your apartment, and there was no one there but Miss Laura. She intimated that she had something of importance to say to me, and when I encouraged her to go on she told me a story about a young boy of her acquaintance who, having come up to see me on an errand, recognized, or fancied that he recognized, the house and grounds as something that he had seen in his earliest childhood.
332“She gave me his address, and I actually wrote him a letter asking him to give me such information as he could about his family, but I never received any reply, for it was not long afterwards that I left Paris for Switzerland and Italy, and subsequently sailed for New York. It is just possible, therefore, that his letter may be at this very moment following me about the continent of Europe. I was rather inclined to believe that there was some grain of truth in the story, because I remembered the young lad myself quite distinctly, and he had a pleasant, bright, open face, and did not seem to be the sort of a boy who would invent a piece of pure fiction and try to palm it off as the truth.”
“Who was the boy? Do you recall his name?” said Mr. Van Kuren.
“Certainly I do. He is employed in the fire department in some capacity, and his name is Bruce Decker, and there was just enough similarity between his name and mine—Dexter and Decker—to suggest——”
“Bruce Decker!” interrupted Mr. Van Kuren savagely; “well, I can tell you from my own personal experience with that young rascal, that he is quite capable of inventing any story, and of deceiving you with it as well. 333And so he took Laura into his confidence, did he? Well, I have no doubt he answered your letter, and you will be very fortunate if he doesn’t hunt you up, and establish some sort of a claim on you, before you realize what he’s doing! Now I’ll tell you my experience with that bright, honest-looking, open-faced young scamp. He got acquainted with my children, I think it was by picking Harry up in the road one afternoon, when he met with an accident, and I asked him up to dinner, so that I might see for myself, what sort of a boy he was. As you know quite well, I am very democratic in my ideas, and I don’t want Harry to grow up with a notion that he’s made of better clay than the boy whose coat is not quite as good as his. In fact, I have no objection to his playing with boys in humbler circumstances than himself, providing only they are decent and honest, and as this Decker lad made a very good impression on me—for there is no denying that he has a good face and decent manners—I saw no reason why he should not come to the house now and then, and I was glad to have Harry go and visit him, when he was laid up in the hospital. The first thing I knew, the young vagabond had repaid me by entering into a sly 334correspondence with Laura, and I discovered that she had actually been down to the hospital, to call on him, without saying a word to either her aunt or myself. As you can well imagine, I put a stop to the intimacy without a moment’s delay, and as I never heard either of the children mention the boy’s name again, I concluded that they had dismissed him from their thoughts, as I had from the house. Now it seems though that he has found some means of communication with Laura, and has been filling her head with this romantic story about recognizing your house and grounds. Well, I shall put a stop to that, I can tell you, and I am very sorry to think that Laura should disobey me, as she evidently has.”
“My dear Horace,” exclaimed Mr. Dexter, raising himself with some difficulty as he spoke, “I am very sorry I said anything that will get your daughter into trouble, and I am sure that what she learned from this lad she learned from his own lips before you forbade the intimacy. In fact, if I remember rightly, she said as much to me herself. I still have the young man’s address, and to-morrow morning, or as soon as my health will allow it, I will either go to see him or send for him, and you may be sure that I will learn exactly 335how much truth there is in this story that he tells. Meantime, let me beg of you to say nothing to Miss Laura, for it would really break my heart to think that I had been the means of getting her into trouble.”
The old gentleman seemed to be so deeply in earnest that both Mr. Van Kuren and his sister readily promised to accede to his wishes, and Mr. Van Kuren was even induced to forego the intention he had formed of going the very next morning to the quarters of the hook and ladder truck, and lodging a complaint with the chief of the battalion.
It was late when they finished their discussion, much later than they had thought, and as they arose to take their leave, a servant, coming in with an armful of wood for the fire, informed them that the snow had accumulated in such heavy drifts, as to make the roads almost impassable.
And this information was confirmed by a glance through the window at the storm which was raging without.
“You must not think of going home to-night!” exclaimed Mr. Dexter. “It will never do for you in the world, my dear Emma, to think of going out into such an awful storm as this. No, there are plenty of rooms in 336the house, and I will have fires built at once, so that you will be just as comfortable as you would be at that big hotel you’re stopping at. Not one of you shall leave the house to-night.”
“But just think of poor little Laura all alone in that great, big hotel,” exclaimed Miss Van Kuren. “Suppose anything were to happen to her; why, I would never forgive myself to the last day of my life for leaving her there. And just fancy a fire breaking out in that place in the middle of the night! No, I really think that I ought to——”
“You’ll stay where you are, all of you,” put in the hospitable old gentleman, in a voice that was full of pleasant authority, “and as for the hotel, it’s warranted strictly fire-proof. And I’m sure Laura is just as safe there as she would be if you were with her.”
And so it was settled that the Van Kurens and Mr. Dexter’s lawyer should remain all night. And an hour later the last light was extinguished in the old mansion, and there was no sound to be heard about it save the raging of the storm.
It is the unconsidered trifles of life which oftentimes shape human destinies.
And what trifle is there of less importance than a window-curtain swayed by the midnight breeze?
There was such a curtain swinging idly in the window of a dimly lighted room as the clocks in the tall church towers tolled the solemn hour of midnight. The wind was high now, and the snow, which had been falling for nearly six hours, was heaped upon the roofs of the tall houses, and lay in huge drifts about the streets, while the flakes which filled the keen winter air were blown so sharply in the faces of pedestrians that men found walking possible only by keeping to the middle of the street, and bending their heads down to the sharp blasts. Now and then a policeman, muffled up to his eyes, walked along, trying the doors of shops and other places of business to see that thieves were not busy during the storm.
As the night wore on, the passers-by appeared 338at rarer intervals, and the snow, undisturbed by man or beast, allowed itself to be whirled and twisted by the wind into fantastic shapes, that changed with every fresh gust. One o’clock sounded from many a brazen tongue, and the wind, as if it heard in the sharp, vibrant note a new signal, seemed to grow suddenly in strength and swept across the city with fiercer and louder blasts, while the snow fell in blinding masses on roof and pavement.
The same wind coming with awful fury up the broad, deserted avenue, struck with full force against the splendid hotel, and pouring through the half-open window in the dimly lighted room set the white window-curtain swaying and flapping with renewed life.
“An awful night for a fire!” muttered a belated citizen, as he mounted his doorstep and shook the snow from his clothing in his marble-tiled vestibule.
It was indeed an awful night for a fire, but the cold and weary citizen dismissed all anxiety from his mind, and sought his bed, happy in the knowledge that there were scattered about the great sleeping city fire-engines, with swift horses to draw them, and companies of vigilant, courageous men ready to hurry to 339the scene of disaster at a moment’s warning. And very soon the belated citizen slept too, while the storm outside raged with increased fury, and the snow swept down from the heavens and was piled in great drifts beneath the shadows of the tall building.
And down in Chief Trask’s quarters nearly a mile away Bruce Decker slumbered peacefully, with his turnout on the floor beside him, while the horses stamped uneasily in their stalls, and the two men on watch sat close to the stove and talked in low tones about fires that they had known on just such windy, snowy nights in years gone by. Outside the truck-house the wind howled dismally, and the snow swept through the street in pitiless, blinding gusts, while up-town the same blasts paused for a moment in their northerly flight to play with the white window-curtain that was swinging and flapping now with increased violence in the half-lighted chamber.
And throughout the storm Bruce slept as calmly as a child, knowing nothing of all that that window-curtain meant for him. A gust fiercer than the others tore the light band which held the curtain to the wall and sent it fluttering against the gas jet. It blazed up and caught the woodwork about the window and 340then another gust of wind, pausing in its swift flight to the far north, scattered the blazing particles about the room, and fanned the flames that were eating their way through the handsome woodwork. Outside, beneath the window where the curtain had flapped for a moment before, the snow lay in huge untrodden drifts. There was no one there to note the blaze which had started in the room on the fifth floor, nor was there any chance watcher in the silent houses over the way to give the alarm.
It was twenty minutes after one when the idle wind blew the curtain against the flame, and at precisely twenty-five minutes of two a servant rushed, bareheaded, into the street, and, breaking for himself a path through the heavy drifts of snow, made straight for a lamp-post with red glass in its lamp that stood two blocks away. There was a red box on this lamp-post, and, although his fingers were numb with cold, the servant had it open in a jiffy, and in another second had pulled down the hook which he found inside. Before he had removed his hand from the box the number of the station had been received at headquarters and the night operator had sent the alarm to the companies in the immediate 341vicinity of the fire. A few seconds later half a dozen truck and engine companies, warned by the electric current, had started from their quarters and were on their way through the fierce, pelting storm. The men were buttoning their coats and pulling their fire-helmets well down over their heads as they were borne on truck and engine through the silent streets. There was no time for ceremony or roll-call in the houses into which the electricity had come with its dread warning. Not one of those men against whose stern, set faces the wind blew the keen flakes of snow, knew what awaited him at the end of this midnight journey. They were actuated by but one purpose, and that was to be at the fire as soon as possible.
And as the firemen bore down in swift flight from the four points of the compass upon the doomed structure, servants went hurrying through the corridors, knocking on every door and arousing the sleeping guests with shrill cries of “Fire!” Men, women, and children were emerging from their rooms, some calm and cool, others stricken with an awful terror, some in their night-clothes, and others partly dressed, and all hurrying as fast as they could to the staircase or elevator.
342And then a cry went up in every corridor, “The elevator’s afire! Make for the staircase!”
It was indeed true. The elevator shaft, acting as a draft like the tall chimney of a manufactory, had drawn the flames toward itself with resistless force, and the fire was now roaring and raving up the square shaft, burning the woodwork and spreading destruction from floor to floor.
A stranger, seeing the awful conflagration that had broken out so suddenly on that night of storm and snow, would have said, without hesitation, that the city was doomed to a repetition of that hurricane of smoke and flames that swept through Chicago years ago, and left of that fair city nothing but a waste of smoking ashes. The most destructive of all elements had begun its deadly work, and who could say what limit there would be to the destruction of life and property which would result?
But, happily for the sleeping city, there was arrayed that night against the devouring flames, the Fire Department of New York—the bravest and brainiest of men, armed with the finest appliances that modern science could produce—and it was with a knowledge of that fact and with a confidence in the courage, skill and fidelity of this branch of the municipal government, that men and women throughout the snow-covered town slept on peacefully throughout the storm.