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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 3

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In his summary of Lorelei's present life Slosson had not been far wrong. Many changes had come to the Knights during the past two years--changes of habit, of thought, and of outlook; the entire family had found it necessary to alter their system of living. But it was in the girl that the changes showed most. When Mrs. Knight had forecast an immediate success for her daughter she had spoken with the wisdom of a Cassandra. Bergman had taken one look at Lorelei upon their first meeting, then his glance had quickened. She had proved to have at least an average singing-voice; her figure needed no comment. Her inexperience had been the strongest argument in her favor, since Bergman's shows were famous for their new faces. The result was that he signed her promptly, and mother and daughter had walked out of his office quite unconscious of having accomplished the unusual. At first the city had seemed strange and bewildering, and Lorelei had suffered pangs at the memory of Vale, for at her age the roots of association strike deep; but in a short time the novelty of her new life proved an anodyne and deadened acute regrets, while the vague hazard of it all kept her at an agreeable pitch of excitement.

Moreover, she took naturally to the work, finding it more like play; and, being quite free from girlish timidity, she felt no stage-fright, even upon her first appearance. Her recognition had followed quickly--it was impossible to hide such perfection of loveliness as hers--and the publicity pleased her. In due course rival managers began to make offers, which Mrs. Knight, rising nobly to the first test of her business ability, used as levers to raise her daughter's salary and to pry out of Bergman a five-year contract. The role of the Fairy Princess was a result.

Thus it was that without conscious effort, without even a proof of merit beyond her appearance, Lorelei had arrived at the point where further advancement depended upon study and hard work; but, since these formed no part of the family program, she remained idle while Mrs. Knight and Jim arranged so many demands upon her time that she had no leisure for serious endeavors, even had she desired it. Proficiency in stage-craft of any sort comes only at the expense of peonage, and this girl was being groomed solely for matrimony.

The principals who topped the Bergman bill were artists--men and women who had climbed through years of patient effort; toward their subordinates they maintained an aloofness that is peculiar to the show business. They moved in a world apart from the chorus: the two classes impinged briefly eight times a week, but outside the theater they never saw each other. Even Labaudie, the doll- like danseuse, looked down upon Lorelei and Lilas almost as she looked down upon the members of her ballet. Out of all the big company there were perhaps a half-dozen chorus men and women who had eyes definitely fixed upon a stage career; the rest, like Lorelei and Lilas, regarded the work simply as an easy means of livelihood.

The theatrical profession is peculiar to itself. It is a world with customs, habits, and ambitions differing from those of any other sphere. That division of stage life to which Lorelei Knight belonged--that army of men and women from shows like Bergman's-- constitutes a still more distinctive community--a community, moreover, that is characteristic of New York alone. Its code is of its own making; its habits of life are as individual as its figures of speech. Although at first all this bewildered the country girl, at length she had come to adopt the new ways as a matter of course. From the association she had learned much. She had learned how to reap the fruits of popularity, how to take without giving, how to profit without sacrifice; and under her mother's influence she was not allowed to forget what she had learned.

With the support of the family entirely upon her shoulders, she had been driven to many shifts in order to stretch her salary to livable proportions. Peter was a total burden, and Jim either refused or was unable to contribute toward the common fund, while the mother devoted her time almost solely to managing Lorelei's affairs. Presents were showered upon the girl, and these Mrs. Knight converted into cash. Conspicuous stage characters are always welcome at the prominent cafes; hence Lorelei never had to pay for food or drink when alone, and when escorted she received a commission on the money spent. She was well paid for posing, advertisements of toilet articles, face creams, dentifrices, and the like, especially if accompanied by testimonials, yielded something. In the commercial exploitation of her daughter Mrs. Knight developed something like genius. She arranged for paid interviews and special beauty articles in the Sunday supplements; she saw to it that Lorelei's features became identified with certain makes of biscuits, petticoats, chewing-gums, chocolates, cameras, short-vamp shoes, and bath-tubs. But of all the so-called "grafts" open to handsome girls in her business the quickest and best returns came from prodigal entertainers like Jarvis Hammon.

As Lorelei and her companion left their taxi-cabs and entered Proctor's Hotel, shortly before midnight, they were met by a head waiter and shown into an ornate ivory-and-gold elevator which lifted them noiselessly to an upper floor. They made their exit into a deep-carpeted hall, at the end of which two splendid creatures in the panoply of German field-marshals stood guard over one of the smaller banquet-rooms.

Hammon himself greeted the girls when they had surrendered their wraps, and, after his introduction to Lorelei, engaged Lilas in earnest conversation.

Lorelei watched him curiously. She saw a powerfully built gray- haired man, whose vigor age had not impaired. In face he was perhaps fifty years old, in body he was much less. He was the typical forceful New York man of affairs, carefully groomed, perhaps a little inclined to stoutness. By this time millionaires had lost their novelty for the girl. She had met some who were more distinguished in appearance than this man, but never one who seemed possessed of more nervous energy and virility. Jarvis Hammon had a bold, incisive manner that was compelling and stamped him as a big man in more ways than one. Playfully he pinched Lilas's cheek, then turned with a smile to say:

"You'll pardon us for whispering, won't you, Miss Knight? You see, Lilas got up this little party, and I've been waiting to consult her about some of the details. Of course, she was late, as usual. However"--he ran an admiring eye over the two girls--"the time wasn't wasted, I see. My! How lovely you both look!"

Taking an arm of each, he swept them toward a reception-room from which issued noisy laughter.

"Awfully good of you to come, Miss Knight. I hope you'll find my friends agreeable and enjoy yourself."

Perhaps twenty men in evening dress and as many elaborately gowned young women were gossiping and smoking as the last comers appeared. Some one raised a vigorous complaint at the host's tardiness, but Hammon laughed a rejoinder, then gave a signal, whereupon folding-doors at the end of the room were thrown back. From within an orchestra struck up a popular rag-time air, and those nearest the banquet-hall moved toward it. A girl whom Lorelei recognized as a fellow-member of the Revue danced up to her escort with arms extended, and the two turkey-trotted into the larger room.

Hammon was introducing two of his friends--one a languid, middle- aged man who was curled up in a deep chair with a cigarette between his fingers; the other a large-featured person with a rumbling voice. The men had been arguing earnestly, oblivious of the confusion around them; but now the former dropped his cigarette, uncoiled his long form, and, rising, bowed courteously. His appearance as he faced Lorelei was prepossessing, and she breathed a thanksgiving as she took his arm.

Hammon clapped the other gentleman upon the shoulder, crying: "The rail market will take care of itself until to-morrow, Hannibal. What is more to the point, I saw your supper partner flirting with 'Handsome Dan' Avery. Better find her quick."

Lorelei recognized the deep-voiced man as Hannibal C. Wharton, one of the dominant figures in the Steel Syndicate; she knew him instantly from his newspaper pictures. The man beside her, however, was a stranger, and she raised her eyes to his with some curiosity. He was studying her with manifest admiration, despite the fact that his lean features were cast in a sardonic mold.

"It is a pleasure to meet a celebrity like you, Miss Knight," he murmured. "All New York is at your feet, I understand. I'm deeply indebted to Hammon. Blessings on such a host!"

"Oh, don't be hasty. You may dislike me furiously before the evening is over. He does things in a magnificent way, doesn't he? I'm sure this is going to be a splendid party."

As they entered the banquet-hall she gave a little cry of pleasure, for it was evident that Hammon, noted as he was for a lavish expenditure, had outdone himself this time. The whole room had been transformed into a bower of roses, great, climbing bushes, heavy with blooms; masses of cool, green ivy hid the walls from floor to ceiling and were supported upon cunningly wrought trellises through which hidden lights glowed softly. In certain nooks gleamed marble statuettes so placed as to heighten the effect of space and to carry out the idea of a Roman garden.

The table, a horseshoe of silver and white, of glittering plate and sparkling cut-glass, faced a rustic stage which occupied one end of the room; occupying the inner arc of the half-circle was a wide but shallow stone fountain, upon the surface of which floated large-leaved Egyptian pond-lilies. Fat-bellied goldfish with filmy fins, and tails like iridescent wedding trains, propelled themselves indolently about. Two dimpled cupids strained at a marble cornucopia, out of which trickled a stream of water, its whisper drowned now by the noisy admiration of the guests.

But the surprising feature of the decorating scheme was not apparent at first glance. Through the bewildering riot of greenery had been woven an almost invisible netting, and the space behind formed a prison for birds and butterflies. Where they had come from or at what expense they had been procured it was impossible to conceive. But, disturbed by the commotion, the feathered creatures twittered and fluttered against the netting in a panic which drew attention to them even if it did not wholly convey the illusion of a woodland scene. As for the butterflies, no artificial light could deceive them, and they clung with closed wings to leaves and branches, only now and then displaying their full glory in a sleepy protest. There were scores, hundreds of them, and the diners passed in review of the spectacle like country visitors before the glass tanks of the Aquarium. A strident shriek sounded as a gorgeously caparisoned peacock preened himself; others were discovered here and there, brilliant- hued specimens, voicing shrill indignation.

"How--BEAUTIFUL!" gasped Lorelei, when she had taken in the whole scene. "But--the poor little things are frightened." She looked up to find her companion staring in Hammon's direction with an expression of peculiar, derisive amusement.

Hammon was the center of an admiring group; congratulations were being hurled at him from every quarter. At his side was Lilas Lynn, very dark, very striking, very expensively gowned, and elaborately bejeweled. The room was dinning with the strains of an invisible orchestra and the vocal uproar; topping the confusion came shrieks from the excitable peacocks; the wild birds twittered and beat themselves affrightedly against the netting.

Becoming conscious of Lorelei's gaze, her escort looked down, showing his teeth in a grin that was not of pleasure.

"You like it?" he asked.

"It's beautiful, but--the extravagance is almost criminal."

"Don't tell me how many starving newsboys or how many poor families the cost of this supper would support for a year. I hate poor people. I like to see 'em starve. If you fed them this year they'd starve next, so--what's the difference? Nevertheless, Jarvis HAS surprised me." He paused, and his eyes, as he stared again at the steel magnate, were mocking. "You'll admit it was a dazzling idea--coming from a rolling-mill boss. Now for the ortolans and the humming-bird tongues. No doubt there's a pearl in every wine-cup. Prepare to have your palate tickled with a feather when your appetite flags."

"That's what the Romans did, isn't it?"

"Ah, you are a student as well as an artist, Miss Knight."

"I thought you were going to be pleasant, but you're not, are you?" Lorelei was smiling fixedly.

"No, quite the opposite. Thank God, I'm a dyspeptic."

"Then why did you come here?"

"Why did those birds come? Why did you come?"

"Oh, we--the birds and I--are merely decorations--something to add to the rich man's gaiety. But I'm afraid you don't intend to have a good time, Mr.--" They had found their places at the table, and Lorelei's escort was seating her. "I didn't catch your name when we were introduced."

"Nor I," said he, taking his place beside her. "It sounded like Rice Curry or some other damnable dish, but it's really Merkle-- John T. Merkle."

"Ah! You're a banker. Aren't you pretty--reckless confessing your rank, as it were?"

"I'm a bachelor; also an invalid and an insomniac. You couldn't bring me any more trouble than I have."

"You ARE unpleasant."

"I'm famous for it. Being the only bachelor present, I claim the privilege of free speech." Again he looked toward Hammon, and this time he frowned. "From indications I'll soon have company, however."

"Indeed. Is there talk of a divorce there?" She inclined her head in the host's direction.

Merkle retorted acidly: "My dear child, don't try to act the ingenue. You're in the same show as Miss Lynn, and you must know what's going on. This sort of thing can't continue indefinitely, for Mrs. Hammon is very much alive, to say nothing of her daughters. I dare say they'll hear about this supper, which won't improve conditions at home. Now, we both had to come to this Oriental orgy, and, since neither of us enjoys it, let's be natural, at least. I haven't slept lately, and I'm not patient enough to be polite."

"It's a bargain. I'll try to be as disagreeable as you are," said Lorelei; and Mr. Merkle signified his prompt acquiescence. He lit a huge monogrammed cigarette, pushed aside his hors d'oeuvres, and reluctantly turned down his array of wine-glasses one by one.

"Can't eat, can't drink, can't sleep," he grumbled. "Stewed prunes and rice for my portion. Waiter, bring me a bottle of vichy, and when it's gone bring me another."

The diners had arranged themselves by now; the supper had begun. Owing to the nature of the affair, there was a complete absence of the stiffness usual at formal banquets, and, since the women were present in quite the same capacity as the performers who were hired to appear later on the stage, they did not allow the moments to drag. A bohemian spirit prevailed; the ardor of the men, lashed on by laughter, coquetry, and smiles, rose quickly; wine flowed, and a general intimacy began. Introductions were no longer necessary, the talk flew back and forth along the rim of the rose- strewn semicircle. _

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Read previous: Chapter 2

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