Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Rex Beach > Auction Block > This page

The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 4

< Previous
Table of content
Next >

Lorelei turned from--the man on her left, who had regaled her with an endless story, the point of which had sent the teller into hiccoughs of laughter, and said to John Merkle:

"I'm glad I'm with you to-night. I don't like drinking men."

"Can a girl in your position afford preferences?" he inquired, tartly. Thus far the banker had fully lived up to his sour reputation.

"All women are extravagant. I have preferences, even if I CAN'T afford them. If you were a tippler instead of a plain grouch I could tell you precisely how you'd act and what you'd talk about as the evening goes on. First you'd be gallant and attentive; then you'd forget me and talk business with Mr. Wharton--he's nearest you. About that time I'd begin to learn the real names of these lords of finance. After that you'd become interested in my future. That's always the worst period. Once I'd made you realize that you meant nothing in my life and that my future was provided for, you'd tell me stories about your family--how your wife is an invalid, how Tom is at Yale, how Susie is coming out in the autumn, and how you really had no idea ladies were to be present tonight or you'd never have risked coming. Finally you'd confess that you were naturally impulsive, generous, and affectionate, and merely lacked the encouragement of a kindred spirit like me to become a terrible cut-up. Then you'd insist upon dancing. I'd die if I had to teach you the tango."

Mr. Merkle grunted, "So would I."

She smiled sweetly. "You see, we're both unpleasant people."

Merkle meditated in silence while she attacked her food with a healthy, youthful appetite that awoke his envy.

"I suppose you see a lot of this sort of thing?" he at length suggested.

"There's something of the kind nearly every night. Is this your first experience?"

"Um-m--no. Steel men are notoriously sporty when they get away from home. But I don't go out often."

"This party isn't as bad as some, for the very reason that most of the men are from out of town and it's a bit of a novelty to them. But there's a crowd of regular New-Yorkers--the younger men-about- town--" She paused significantly. "I accepted one invitation from them."

"Only one?"

"It was quite enough."

"I've traveled some," observed Merkle, "but this city is getting to be the limit."

She nodded her amber head. "There's only one Paris, after all, and that's New York. Don't laugh; I read that. We girls remember all the clever things we hear, and use them. Do you see the young person in black and white with the red-nosed man--the one who looks as if he were smelling a rose? Well, she's in our company, and she's very popular at these parties because she's so witty. As a matter of fact, she memorizes the jokes in all the funny papers and springs them as her own. Her men friends say she's too original to be in the show business."

For a moment the girl at Merkle's right engaged his attention, and Lorelei turned again to the incoherent story-teller beside her, who had made it plain by pawing at her that he was bursting once more with tidings of great merriment.

The meal grew noisier; the orchestra interspersed sensuous melodies from the popular successes with the tantalizing rag-time airs that had set the city to singing. Silent-footed attendants deposited tissue-covered packages before the guests. There was a flutter of excitement as the women began to examine their favors.

"What is it?" Merkle inquired, leaning toward Lorelei.

"The new saddle-bag purse. See? It's very Frenchy. Gold fittings-- and a coin-purse and card-case inside. See the monogram? I'm going to keep this."

"Don't you keep all your gifts?"

"Not the expensive ones. Lilas picked these out for Mr. Hammon, and they're exquisite. We share the same dressing-room, you know."

Merkle regarded her with a sudden new interest.

"You and she dress together?"


"Then--I dare say you're close friends?"

"We're close enough--in that room; but scarcely friends. What did you get?"

He unrolled the package at his plate.

"A gold safety razor--evidently a warning not to play with edged tools. I wonder if Miss Lynn bought one for Jarvis?"

"Now, why did you say that," Lorelei asked, quickly, "and why did you ask in that peculiar tone if she and I were friends?"

The man leaned closer, saying in a voice that did not carry above the clamor:

"I suppose you know she's making a fool of him? I suppose you realize what it means when a woman of her stamp gets a man with money in her power? You must know all there is to know from the outside; it occurred to me that you might also know something about the inside of the affair. Do you?"

"I'm afraid not. All I've heard is the common gossip."

"There's a good deal here that doesn't show on the surface. That woman is a menace to a great many people, of whom I happen to be one."

"You speak as if she were a dangerous character, and as if she had deliberately entangled him," Lorelei said, defendingly. "As a matter of fact, she did nothing of the sort; she avoided him as long as she could, but he forced his attentions upon her. He's a man who refuses defeat. He persisted, he persecuted her until she was forced to--accept him. Men of his wealth can do anything, you know. Sometimes I think--but it's none of my business."

"What do you sometimes think?"

"That she hates him."


"I know she did at first; I don't wonder that she makes him pay now. It's according to her code and the code of this business."

"I can't believe she--dislikes him."

"He may have won her finally, but at first she refused his gifts, refused even to meet him."

"She had scruples?"

"No more than the rest of us, I presume. She gave her two weeks' notice because he annoyed her; but before the time was up Bergman took a hand. He sent for her one evening, and when she went down there was Mr. Hammon, too. When she came up-stairs she was hysterical. She cried and laughed and cursed--it was terrible."

"Curious," murmured the man, staring at the object of their controversy. "What did she say?"

"Oh, nothing connected. She called him every kind of a monster, accused him of every crime from murder to--"

"Murder!" The banker started.

"He had made a long fight to beat her down, and she was unstrung. She seemed to have a queer physical aversion to him."

"Humph! She's got nobly over THAT."

"I've told you this because you seemed to think she's to blame, when it is all Mr. Hammon's doing."

"It's a peculiar situation--very. You've interested me. But the man himself is peculiar, extraordinary. You can't draw a proper line on his conduct without knowing the circumstances of his home life, and, in fact, his whole mental make-up. Sometime I'll tell you his story; I think it would interest you. In a way I don't blame him for seeking amusement and happiness where he can find it, and yet--I'm afraid of the result. This supper means more than you can understand or than I can explain."

"The city is full of Samsons, and most of them have their Delilahs."

Merkle agreed. "These men put Hammon where he is. I wonder if they will let him stay there. It depends upon that girl yonder." He turned to answer a question from Hannibal Wharton, and Lorelei gave her attention to the part of the entertainment which was beginning on the stage. Turn after turn appeared; black-faced comedians, feature acts from vaudeville and from the reigning successes, high-priced singers, dancers, monologists followed each other. Occasionally they were applauded, but more frequently their efforts to amuse were lost in the self-made merriment of the diners. Now and then an actor was bombarded with jests or openly guyed. Music and wine flowed as steadily as the crystal stream of the fountain; faces became flushed; glasses rang. The women chattered; the men raised loud voices; the birds fluttered and the peacocks shrieked. It all blended in a blood-stirring, Bacchanalian joviality. Only now and then the frolic threatened to become a carouse, and the revel bordered upon a debauch.

Of a sudden the clamor was silenced, and indifference gave place to curiosity, for the music had begun the introduction to one of Adoree Demorest's songs.

"Her rubies are the finest in the world." "Too strong for Paris, so she came to New York." "Anything goes here if it's bad enough," came from various quarters.

Lorelei had never seen this much-discussed actress, whose wickedness had set the town agog, and her first impression was vaguely disappointing. Miss Demorest's beauty was by no means remarkable, although it was accentuated by the most bizarre creation of the French shops. She was animated, audacious, Gallic in accent and postures--she was vividly alive with a magnetism that meant much more than beauty; but she over-exerted her voice, and her song was nothing to excite applause. At last she was off, in a whirl of skirts, a generous display of hosiery, and a great bobbing of the aigrette pompon that towered above her like an Indian head-dress. Only a moment later she was on again, this time in a daring costume of solid black, against and through which her limbs flashed with startling effect as she performed her famous Danse de Nuit.

"Hm-m! Nothing very extreme about that," remarked Merkle, at length. "It would be beautiful if it were better done."

Lorelei agreed. She had been staring with all a woman's intentness at this sister whose strength consisted of her frailty, and now inquired:

"How does she get away with it?"

"By the power of suggestion, I dare say. Her public is looking for something devilish, and discovers whatever it chooses to imagine in what she says and does."

Hannibal Wharton had changed his seat, and, regardless of the dancer, began a conversation with Merkle. After a time Lorelei heard him say:

"It cost me five thousand dollars to pay for the damage those boys did. They threatened to jail Bob, but of course I couldn't allow that."

"I remember. That was five years ago, and Bob hasn't changed a whit. I think he's a menace to society."

Wharton laughed, but his reply was lost in the clamorous demand for an encore by Mlle. Demorest.

"So he gets his devilment from you, eh?" Merkle inquired.

"It isn't devilment. Bob's all right. He's running with a fast crowd, and he has to keep up his end."

"Bah! He hasn't been sober in a year."

"You're a dyspeptic, John. You were born with a gray beard, and you're not growing younger. He wanted to come to this party, but-- I didn't care to have him for obvious reasons, so I told Hammon to refuse him even if he asked. He bet me a thousand dollars that he'd come anyhow, and I've been expecting him to overpower those doormen or creep up the fire-escape."

The hand-clapping ceased as the dancer reappeared, smiling and bowing.

"I will dance again if you wish," she announced, in perfect English, "introducing my new partner, Mr.--" she glanced into the wings inquiringly--"Senor Roberto. It is his first public appearance in this country, and we will endeavor to execute a variation of the Argentine tango. Senor Roberto is a poor boy; he begs you to applaud him in order that he may secure an engagement and support his old father." She stooped laughingly to confer with the orchestra leader, who had broken cover at her announcement.

Mr. Wharton was still talking. "That's my way of raising a son. I taught Bob to drink when I drank, to smoke when I smoked, and all that. My father raised me that way."

The opening strain of a Spanish dance floated out from the hidden musicians, Mlle. Demorest whirled into view in the arms of a young man in evening dress. She was still laughing, but her partner wore a grave face, and his eyes were lowered; he followed the intricate movements of the dance with some difficulty. To Lorelei he appeared disappointingly amateurish. Then a ripple of merriment, growing into a guffaw, advised her that something out of the ordinary was occurring.

"The--scoundrel!" Hannibal Wharton cried.

Merkle observed dryly: "He's won your thousand. I withdraw what I said about him; it requires a gigantic intelligence to outwit you." To Lorelei he added: "This will be considered a great joke on Broadway."

"That is Mr. Wharton's son?"

"It is--and the most dissipated lump of arrogance in New York."

"Bob," the father shouted, "quit that foolishness and come down here!" But the junior Wharton, his eyes fixed upon the stage, merely danced the harder. When the exhibition ended he bowed, hand in hand with Miss Demorest, then leaped nimbly over the footlights and made his way toward Jarvis Hammon, nodding to the men as he passed.

A moment later he sank into a chair near his father, saying: "Well, dad, what d'you think of my educated legs? I learned that at night school."

Wharton grumbled unintelligibly, but it was plain that he was not entirely displeased at his son's prank.

"You were superb," said Merkle, warmly. "It's the best thing I ever saw you do, Bob. You could almost make a living for yourself at it."

The young man grinned, showing rows of firm, strong teeth. Lorelei, who was watching him, decided that he must have at least twice the usual number; yet it was a good mouth--a good, big, generous mouth.

"Thanks for those glorious words of praise; that's more than we're doing on the Street nowadays. Miss Demorest said we'd 'execute' the dance, and we did. We certainly killed Senor Thomas W. Tango, and I'll be shot at sunrise for stamping on Adoree's insteps. I looked before I leaped, but I couldn't decide where to put my feet. Whew! Got any grape-juice for a growing boy?" He helped himself to his father's wine-glass and drained it. "You can settle now, dad--one thousand iron men. I owe it to Demorest."

"What do you mean?"

"Debt of honor. I heard she was due here with some kind of an electric thrill, so I offered her my share of the sweepstakes to further disgrace herself by dancing with me. She's an expensive doll; she needs that thousand--mortgage on the old family opera- house, no shoes for little sister, and mother selling papers to square the landlord." He caught Lorelei's eye and stared boldly. "Hello! I believe in fairies, too, dad. Introduce me to the Princess."

Merkle volunteered this service, and Bob promptly hitched his chair closer. Lorelei saw that he was very drunk, and marveled at his control during the recent exhibition.

"Tell me more about the 'Parti-color Petticoat' and 'Dentol Chewing-Gum,' Miss Knight. Your face is a household word in every street-car," he began.

She replied promptly, quoting haphazard from the various advertisements in which she figured. "It never shrinks; it holds its shape; it must be seen to be appreciated; is cool, refreshing, and prevents decay."

"How did you meet that French dancer?" Hannibal Wharton queried, sourly, of his son.

"I stormed the stage door, bullied the door-man, and waylaid her in the wings. She thought I was you, dad. Wharton is a grand old name." He chuckled at his father's exclamation. "She's a good fellow, though, and I don't blame the King of What's-its-name. Kings have to spend their money somewhere. Maybe I can induce her to invest some of the royal dough in stocks and bonds. The prospect dizzies me."

"The crowd in your office would give you a banquet if you sold something," Merkle told him.

Wharton, Senior, pressed for further information. "Where did you learn those Argentine wiggles?"

"Hard times are to blame, dad. The old men on the Exchange play golf all day, and the young ones turkey-trot all night. I stay up late in the hope that I may find a quarter that some suburbanite has dropped. It's dangerous to drive an automobile through a dark street these days; one's liable to run down a starving banker or an indigent broker with a piece of lead pipe and a mask. You find it so, don't you, Miss Knight?"

"I have no automobile," said the girl.

"Strange. Show business on the blink, too, eh?" The elder men rose and sauntered away in the direction of their host, whereupon Bob winked.

"They've left us flat. Why? Because the wicked Mlle. Demorest has finally made her appearance as a guest. My dad is a splendid shock-absorber. Naughty, naughty papa!"

"It's probably well that you came with her; fathers are so indiscreet."

Young Wharton signaled to a waiter who was passing with a wine- bottle in a napkin.

"Tarry!" he cried. "Remove the shroud, please, and let me look at poor old Roderer. Thanks. How natural he tastes." Then to Lorelei: "The governor is a woman-hater; but, just the same, I'm glad you drew Merkle instead of him to-night, or there'd surely be a scandal in the Wharton family. No man is safe in range of your liquid orbs, Miss Knight, unless he has his marriage license sewed into his clothes. Mother keeps hers framed. Wouldn't she enjoy reading the list of Hammon's guests at this party? 'Among those present were Mr. Hannibal C. Wharton, the well-known rolling-mill man; Miss Lorelei Knight, Principal First-Act Fairy of the Bergman Revue; and Mlle. Adoree Demorest, the friend of a king. A good time was had by all, and the diners enjoyed themselves very nice.'" He laughed loudly, and the girl stirred.

"She'd be pleased to read also that you came late, but highly intoxicated."

"Ah! Salvation Nell." Bob took no offense. "If the hour was late she'd know that my intoxication followed as a matter of course. It always does, just as the dew succeeds the sunset, as the track follows the wheelbarrow, as the cracker pursues the cheese. I am a derivative of alcohol, the one and infallible argument against temperance, Miss Knight. In me you behold the shining example of all that puts the reformer to rout and gladdens the heart of the cafe-keeper."

"You talk as if you were always drunk."

"Oh--not always. By day I am frequently sober, but at such times I am fit company for neither man nor beast; I am harsh and unsympathetic; I scheme and I connive. With nightfall, however, there comes a metamorphosis. Ah! Believe ME! When the Clover Club is strained and descends like the gentle dew of heaven, when the Bronx is mixed and the Martini shimmers in the first rays of the electric light, then I humanize and harmonize, For me gin is a tonic, rum a restorative, vermuth a balm. Once I am stocked up with ales, wines, liquors, and cigars, I become attuned to the nobler sentiments of life. I aspire. I make friends with lonely derelicts whose digestions have foundered on seas of vichy and buttermilk, and I show them the joys of alcoholism--without cost. We share each other's pleasures and perplexities, at my expense. They are my brothers. I am optimistic; I laugh; I play cards for money; I turkey-trot. I become a living, palpitating influence for good, spreading happiness and prosperity in my wake."

"Do you consider yourself in such a condition now?" queried Lorelei, who had been vaguely amused at this Rubaiyat.

"I am, and, since it is long past the, closing hour of one and the tango parlors are dark, suppose we blow this 'Who's Who in Pittsburg' and taxi-cab it out to a roadhouse where the bass fiddle is still inhabited and the second generation is trotting to the 'Robert E. Lee'?"

Lorelei shook her head with a smile.

"Don't you dance?"

"Doesn't everybody dance?"

"Then how did you break your leg?"

"I don't care to go."

"Strange!" Mr. Wharton helped himself to a goblet of wine, appearing to heap the liquor above the edge of the glass. "Now, if I were sober I could understand how you might prefer these 'pappy guys' to me, for nobody likes me then, but I'm agreeably pickled. I'm just like everybody you'll be likely to meet at this time of night. Merkle won't take you anywhere, for he's full of distilled water and has a directors' meeting at ten. I overflow with spirits and have a noontide engagement with an Ostermoor."

"Why don't you ask Miss Demorest? She came with you?"

Wharton sighed hopelessly. "Something queer about that Jane. D'you know what made us so late? She went to mass on the way down."

"Mass? At that hour?"

"It was a special midnight service conducted for actors. I sat in the taxi and waited. It did me a lot of good."

Some time later Merkle returned to find Bob still animatedly talking; catching Lorelei's eye, he signified a desire to speak with her, but she found it difficult to escape from the intoxicated young man at her side. At last, however, she succeeded, and joined her supper companion at the farther edge of the fountain, where the tireless cupids still poured water from the cornucopias.

Merkle was watching his friend's son with a frown.

"You have just left the personification of everything I detest," he volunteered. "You heard what his father said about raising him --how he taught Bob to drink when he drank and follow in his footsteps? Well, sometimes the theory works and a boy grows up with open eyes, but more often it turns out as it has in this case. Bob's an alcoholic, a common drunkard, and he'll end in an institution, sure. He'd be there now if it wasn't for Hannibal's money. He's run the gamut of extravagance; he's done everything freakish that there is to do. But that isn't what I want to say to you. Help me feed these foolish goldfish while I talk."

"Do you think anybody would understand if they overheard you? I fancied you and I were the only sober ones left."

"Some of the girls are all right." Merkle eyed his companion closely. "Don't you drink?"

"I daren't, even if I cared to."


"You'll notice that most of the pretty girls are sober."


"I have nothing but my looks. Wouldn't I be a fool to sacrifice them?"

"You seem to be sensible, Miss Knight. Something tells me you're very much the right sort. I know you're trying to get ahead, and-- I can help you if you'll help me."

"Help you 'get ahead'?"

He smiled. "Hardly. I need an agent, and I'll pay a good price to the right person."

"How mysterious!"

"I'll be plain. That affair yonder"--he nodded toward Jarvis Hammon and Lilas Lynn--"strikes you as a--well, as a flirtation of the ordinary sort. In one way it is; in another way it is something very different, for he's in earnest. He thinks he is injuring no one but himself with this business, and he is willing to pay the price; but the fact is he is putting other people in peril--me among the rest. I'm not arguing for his wife nor the two Misses Hammon. I don't go much on the ordinary kinds of morality, and nobody outside of a man's family has the right to question his private life so long as it is private in its consequences. But when his secret conduct affects his business affairs, when it endangers vast interests in which others are concerned, then his associates are entitled to take a hand. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly. But you don't want me; you want a detective."

"My dear child, we have them by the score. We hire them by the year, and they have told us all they can. We need inside information."

The girl's answer was made with her habitual self-possession.

"I've heard about such things. I've heard about men prying into each other's private affairs, pretending to be friends when they were enemies, and using scandal for business ends. Lilas Lynn is my friend--at least in a way--and Mr. Hammon is my host, just as he is yours. Oh, I know; this isn't a conventional party, and I'm not here as a conventional guest--inside the little coin-purse he gave me is a hundred-dollar bill--but, just the same, I don't care to act as your spy."

Merkle's grave attention arrested Lorelei's burst of indignation.

"Will you believe me," he asked, "when I tell you that Jarvis Hammon and Hannibal Wharton are the two best friends I have in the world? There is such a thing as loyalty and friendship even in big business; in fact, high finance is founded on confidence and personal honor. This is more than a business matter, Miss Knight."

"I can hardly believe that."

"It's true, however; I mean to serve Hammon. At the same time I must serve myself and those who trust me. My honor is concerned in this as well as his, and there is a rigid code in money matters. If what I suspect is true, Hammon's infatuation promises to do harm to innocent people. I fear--in fact, I'm sure--that he is being used. I've learned things about Miss Lynn that you may not know. What you have told me to-night adds to my anxiety, and I must know more."

"What, for instance?"

"Her real feeling for him--her intentions--her relations with a man named Melcher--"

"Maxey Melcher?"

"The same. You know his business?"


"He is a gambler, a political power; a crafty, unscrupulous fellow who represents--big people. By helping me you can serve many innocent persons and, most of all, perhaps, Hammon himself."

Lorelei was silent for a moment. "This is very unusual," she said, at length. "I don't know whether to believe you or not."

"Suppose, then, you let the matter rest and keep your eyes open. When you convince yourself who means best to Jarvis--Miss Lynn and Melcher and their crowd, or I and mine--make your decision. You may name your own price."

"There wouldn't be any price," she told him, impatiently. "I'll wait."

Merkle bowed. "I can trust your discretion. Thank you for listening to me, and thank you for being agreeable to an irascible old dyspeptic. Will you permit me to drive you home when you're ready?"

"I'm ready now."

But as Lorelei made her way unobtrusively toward the cloak-room she encountered Robert Wharton, who barred her path.

"Fairy Princess, you ran away," he declared, accusingly.

"I'm leaving." She saw that his intoxication had reached a more advanced stage. His cheeks were flushed; his eyes were wild and unsteady.

"Good news! The night is young; we'll watch it grow up."

"Thank you, no. I'm going home."

"A common mistake. Others have tried and failed." With extreme gravity he focused his gaze upon her, saying, "Home is the one place that our mayor can't close."

She extended her hand. "Good night."

"I don't understand. Speak English."


Wharton's countenance darkened unpleasantly, and his voice was rough. "Where'd you learn that line? It's country stuff. We'll leave when I'm ready. Now we'll have a trot."

The music was playing; other couples were dancing, and he seized her in his arms, whirling her away. In and out among the chairs he piloted a dizzy course, while she yielded reluctantly, conscious, meanwhile, that Adoree Demorest was watching them with interest.

For an interval Wharton said nothing; then, with a change of tone, he murmured in her ear: "D'you think I'd let you spoil the whole night? Can't you see I'm crazy about you?"

Lorelei endeavored to free herself from his embrace, but he clutched her the tighter and laughed insolently.

"Nothing like a good 'turkey' to get acquainted, is there? We're going to dance till we're old folks."

She continued to struggle; they were out of step and out of time, but he held her away from himself easily, bending a hot glance upon her upturned face. She saw that he was panting and doubly drunk with her nearness. "Don't fight. I've got you."

She was smiling faintly, out of habit, but, mistaking her expression, he drew her close once more, then buried his face in her neck and kissed her just at the turn of her bare shoulder.

Then she tore herself away, and his triumphant laugh was cut short as she slapped him resoundingly, her stinging fingers leaving their imprint on his cheek.

Her eyes were flaming and her lips were white with fury, though she continued to smile.

"Here! What d'you mean by that?" he cried.

She silenced him sharply: "Hush! Remember you broke in here. I'd like to see you in that fountain."

There was a swish of garments, a musical laugh, and Adoree Demorest was between them.

"I'm madly jealous, Senor Roberto," she exclaimed. "Come, you must dance once more with me. We'll finish this. What?" She swayed toward him in sympathy with the music, snapping her fingers and humming the words of the song.

"She--walloped me--like a sailor," the young man stammered, incoherently. "She--wants to see me in the fountain."

"Then jump in like a gentleman," laughed the danseuse. "But dance with me first." She entwined her arms about him and forced him into motion. As she danced away she signaled over her shoulder to Lorelei, who made haste to seek the cloak-room.

When she emerged John Merkle was waiting in the hall. A shout of laughter echoed from the banquet-hall, and she started.

"That's nothing," Merkle told her. "Bob Wharton is in the fountain. He says he's a goldfish." _

Read next: Chapter 5

Read previous: Chapter 3

Table of content of Auction Block


Post your review
Your review will be placed after the table of content of this book