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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 5

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One of the minor readjustments forced upon the Knight family by the nature of Lorelei's work was that of meal-hours. Peter, from long custom of early rising in the country, insisted upon his breakfast at seven, and in spite of his inaction demanded dinner at noon and supper at six. Jim, being erratic in habit, exacted his meals at any hour that suited his appetite, while Mrs. Knight, now that she had a housemaid, ate with first one, then another. But no matter how chaotic the general household schedule, Lorelei was always assured of ten hours' sleep, a dainty breakfast upon rising, and a substantial meal before theater-time. Her mother saw to it that this program was religiously adhered to. At whatever hour of the night Lorelei might come in, no sound was ever allowed to disturb her until she arose. Irrespective also of her careless disregard of social appointments, she was never permitted to miss one with the hair-dresser, the manicure, the masseuse, or the dozen and one other beauty specialists who form as important an adjunct to the stage-woman's career as to that of the woman of fashion. All this was a vital part of that plan to which the mother had devoted herself. She attended the girl's health and good looks with a devout singleness of purpose that would have been admirable in a better cause. No race-horse on the eve of a Derby was groomed more carefully than this budding woman. In preparing her for masculine conquest the entire family took a hand. Her prospects, her actions, her triumphs, were the main topic of conversation; all other interests were subordinated to the matrimonial quest upon which she had embarked. The men she met were investigated, discussed, speculated upon until their every characteristic was worn threadbare. The domestic arrangements that resulted were of necessity unhappy, for the housework was allowed to take care of itself. The male members shifted as best they could, and the home was forever in slovenly confusion. Nevertheless, the existing condition of affairs met the approval of all; and the three conspirators lived in a constant state of eager expectation over Lorelei's fortunes.

Mother and daughter were loitering over a midday breakfast, and Lorelei, according to custom, was recounting the incidents of the previous evening.

"It's too bad you quarreled with Mr. Wharton," Mrs. Knight commented, when she heard the full story of Hammon's party. "He'll dislike you now."

The girl shrugged daintily. "He was drunk and fresh. I can't bear a man in such a condition."

"But--he's terribly rich, and he's an only son. He'll inherit everything. Is he nice-looking?"


"You shouldn't antagonize a man like him, my dear. He's single, at least; and naturally he's impulsive, like all those young millionaires. They have so many girls to choose from, you know. Young Powell, who married Norma Gale, was the same sort. She was twice his age, but he married her just the same, and his people made a fine settlement to get rid of her. She was--tough, too. Mrs. Wharton is a great club--woman and the head of a thousand charities."

"That's no sign she's charitable."

"You can't tell. She might take you right into the family."

"Bob is an alcoholic. He's no good, so Mr. Merkle said."

Jim, who was immersed in the morning paper, spoke from his chair near the window.

"Why don't you go after Merkle himself, Sis? Easy picking, these bankers."

Jim also had come home in the still hours of the night before, and had but lately made his breakfast on a cup of coffee, three cigarettes, and the racing sheet of the Morning Telegraph. He wore his pajama jacket over a silk undershirt, and was now resting preparatory to his daily battle with the world. Just how the struggle went or where it was waged the others knew not at all.

His mother shook her head. "Those old men are all alike. Mr. Hammon will never marry Lilas."

"Is that so?" James abandoned his reading. "The older they are, the softer they get. Take it from me, on the word of a volunteer fireman, Lilas will cash in on him quicker than you think. I know."

"How do you know?" inquired his sister.

"Never mind how. Maybe I've got second sight. Anyhow, the info is right; Hammon's in the game-bag."

"Who told you?"

"Maybe I got it in the dog-eared dope," mocked the brother. "Maybe Max Melcher told me. Anyhow, you could land Merkle just as easy if you'd declare Max in."

"Now, Jim," protested Mrs. Knight, "I won't let you put such ideas into her head. You and--that gang of yours--are full of tricks, but Lorelei's decent, and she's going to stay decent. You'd get everybody in jail or in the newspapers."

"Has Maxey ever been in jail? Has Tony the Barber? No, you bet they haven't, and they never will be. This jail talk is funny. Just wait and see how easy Lilas gets hers. Of course, if Lorelei could marry Wharton, that would be different, but he's no sucker."

"How is Lilas going to get hers?" insisted Lorelei.

"Wait and see." James returned to his paper.

"She'll never marry him. She hates him."

Jim laughed, and his sister broke out irritably:

"Why be so mysterious? Anybody would think you'd robbed a bank."

Jim looked up again, and this time with a scowl. "Well, every time I come through with a suggestion ma crabs it. What's the use of talking to a pair of haymakers like you, anyhow? I could grab a lot of coin for us if you'd let me. Why, Maxey has been after me a dozen times about you, but I knew you wouldn't stand for it."

"Blackmail, eh?"

Jim was highly disgusted. "What's the difference how you pronounce it? It spells k-a-l-e, and it takes a good-looking girl to pull off a deal in this town. When Lilas lands Hammon she'll be through with the show business for good. The Kaiser suite on the Imperator for hers."

Lorelei flung aside her napkin with an exclamation.

"What's wrong now?" demanded Jim. "Sore again because I offer to make a few pennies for you? All right--play for Bob Wharton. I'd like to meet him, though; he can do me a lot of good."


"Well, he dropped eighty-four hundred in Hebling's Sixth Avenue joint the other night. Maxey owns a place on Forty-sixth Street where the sky is the limit."

His sister was staring at him curiously. She had voiced misgivings concerning his activities of late, but Jim had never satisfied her inquiries. Now she asked: "What is your share?"

The young man laughed a little uncomfortably. "Forty per cent. That's usual. If he's going to gamble somewhere I might as well be in on it."

Lorelei turned to her mother, but Mrs. Knight seemed puzzled at this turn of the conversation. The girl's next words, however, left no doubt as to her feelings.

"You're a fine specimen, aren't you?" Her lip curled; mother and son started at the bitterness of the tone. "You're in a fine business, too, blackmailing with Tony the Barber's crowd, and capping for a jinny."

"Who said anything about a jinny?"

"Ugh! What a mess you've made of things. Two years ago we were decent, and now--" Lorelei's voice broke; her eyes filmed over with tears. "I'd give anything in the world if we were all back in Vale. It took only two years of the city to spoil us."

"Never mind the dramatics," Jim growled. "What's your kick? You're on Broadway, ain't you?"

"Yes, with a six-room flat on Amsterdam Avenue. Pa is a cripple, you're a crook, and I'm--"

The mother broke in sharply. "Jim is no crook. You've no right to talk like this, after all we've done for you."

"Sure. Why did we come to New York, anyhow?" echoed the young man. "What brought us here? Ain't you having the time of your young life--parties, presents, joy-rides, every day? Gee! I wish I made the coin you do."

"I hate it."

"Ha! Better try Vale again. You'd end in a straight-jacket if you did. You think you could go back, but you couldn't--nobody can after they've had a taste of the city."

"It's all wrong. The whole thing is--rotten. Sometimes I hate myself." Lorelei choked.

Mrs. Knight spoke reprovingly. "Don't be silly, dear. You know we did it all for you. Peter didn't want to leave home, and Jim had a good job, but we gave up everything to let you have a chance. Yes, and we've all worked for you every minute since. Do you think I like this stuffy flat, after that other house with the yard and the trees and the sunshine? Peter lies in his room here, day in and day out, and never has a moment's comfort or pleasure. I don't know a soul; I haven't a friend or a neighbor. But we're not complaining." Mrs. Knight put added feeling into her words. "We don't want you to live the way we've had to live; we want you to be rich and to have things. After all we've done; after all poor Peter has suffered--"

"Don't!" cried the girl, falteringly. "I think of him every hour."

"He isn't the sort that complains. I consider it very thoughtless of you to behave as you do and make it harder for us." Mrs. Knight sniffed and wiped her eyes, whereupon Lorelei went to her and hid her face upon her mother's shoulder.

"I don't want to be unkind," she murmured, "but sometimes I'm sick with disgust, and then again I'm frightened. Where are we heading? What's going to become of us?--of me? That man, last night--there was something in his face, something in the way he held me--just as if I were his for the taking. It isn't the first time I've seen it, either. All the men I meet are beasts. That whole party was sordid and mean--old men drinking with girls and pawing them over. Mr. Merkle was the only nice one there." The mother was dismayed to feel her daughter shiver.

"Good Lord! You people make me sick," cried Jim, rising and making for his room. "Anybody'd think you'd been insulted."

When he had gone Mrs. Knight asked, accusingly.

"Lorelei, are you IN LOVE?"

"No. Why?"

"You've said some queer things lately. You've worried me. I hope you'll never be tempted to do anything so--to be foolish. Just look at the girls who have made silly matches; they all go back to work. You can't be too careful with the men you meet, for you're so beautiful that they'll promise you anything or pretend to be everything they aren't. I don't intend to let you make a mess of things by marrying some chorus-man. When the right person comes along you'll accept him, then you'll never have to worry again. But you MUST be careful."

"Do you think I'd be happy with a man like Mr. Wharton?"

"Why not? You'd at least be rich, and if rich people can't be happy, who can? If you accepted some poor boy he'd probably turn out to be a drunkard and a loafer, just like Wharton is now." She sighed. "I'd like to see you settled; we could take Peter to a specialist, and maybe he could be cured. The doctor says there is a chance. But it would take a world of money."

"I'll get the money."


"Somehow. If you'd let me economize on clothes, and if Jim would help a little, we could save enough."

"Jim has all he can do to take care of himself--I'm sure I don't know how he manages--and you've got to keep up appearances. No; Peter will have to wait till you're married--only I did hope, when you told me about Robert Wharton, that he might be the one. We could go abroad and get the help of those German surgeons. I've always wanted to travel."

When Lorelei reached the theater that evening she found Lilas Lynn entertaining a caller who had been more than once in her thoughts during the day. Jim's reference to Max Melcher had recalled Mr. Merkle's earnest words of the previous night, and, although her brother had implied that Melcher was engineering the affair between Lilas and the steel man, Lorelei could not bring herself to take the statement seriously. It was too absurd. She could not imagine how such a thing could be managed by a third person, or how he could profit by it. Her stage experience had acquainted her with several intrigues in which the men's names were nearly as prominent as Hammon's; but in no case had anything more serious than gossip eventuated. A number of such attachments had resulted in happy marriages, although at the price of an occasional divorce. She remembered, now that she thought of it, that Merkle had mentioned the probability of that very thing in this instance. She began to doubt the banker's unselfishness and to question his motives, arguing, as she had done at first, that even if Hammon were really in danger it was no business of hers.

This lesson of non-interference in the affairs of others she had learned during her recent life, spent in an atmosphere not so much immoral as unmoral. For two years she had moved in a world where matters the mere mention of which would not have been tolerated in Vale were openly discussed. These topics were treated frankly, moreover, and with a wise cynicism which, in Lorelei's case, had proven protective. Gratuitous advice, however, was seldom welcomed, and a policy of "Hands off" prevailed.

Miss Lynn's visitor was a well-tailored man who gave a first impression of extreme physical neatness. He was immaculate in attire, his skin was fine, his color fresh; a pair of small, imperturbable eyes were set in a smiling face beneath a prematurely gray head. Max Melcher was a figure on Broadway; he had the entree to all the stage-doors; he frequented the popular cafes, where he surrounded himself with men. Always affable, usually at leisure, invariably obliging, he had many friends.

At Lorelei's entrance he smiled and nodded without rising, then continued his earnest conversation with Miss Lynn. None of their words were audible to the last comer until Melcher rose to leave; then Lilas halted him with a nervous laugh, saying:

"Remember, if it doesn't go, it's a joke, and I run to cover."

"It will go," he told her, quietly, as he strolled out.

"What are you two planning?" inquired Lorelei.

"Nothing. Max drops in regularly; he used to be sweet on me." Lilas completed her make-up, then fidgeted nervously. "Gee!" she presently exclaimed, "I'm tired of this business. We're fools to stay in it. Think of Atlantic City on a night like this, or the mountains. This heat has completely unstrung me." She rummaged through the confusion on her table, then inquired of the dresser, "Croft, where are my white gloves?"

"They haven't come back from the cleaner's," Mrs. Croft answered.

"Not back? Then you didn't send them when I told you. You're getting altogether too shiftless, Croft. When I tell you to do a thing I want it done."

"I sent all six pairs--"

"You did nothing of the sort."

"Oh, Miss Lynn; I hope I drop dead if--"

"Don't talk back to me. You always have an excuse, haven't you?" Lilas's voice was strident; her face was dark with sudden anger. "I've a notion to box your ears--"

Lorelei broke in reprovingly. "Lilas! Croft is old enough to be your mother."

"Yes, and she's old enough to have some sense, but she hasn't got it."

"I hope I drop dead if--"

"I hope you do," snapped the indignant girl. "I told you to attend to them; now I've nothing but soiled ones."

The dresser began to weep silently. She was a small, timid old woman, upon whose manifest need of employment Lorelei had taken pity some time before. Her forgetfulness had long been a trial to both her employers.

"That's right; turn on the flood-gates," mocked Lilas, "You stop that sniveling or I'll give you something to cry for. I'm nervous enough to-night without having you in hysterics. Remember, if it ever happens again you'll go--and you'll take something with you to think about." Seizing the cleanest pair of gloves at hand, she flung out of the room in a fine fury.

"You won't let her--fire me? I need work, I do," quavered Mrs. Croft.

"Now, now. Don't mind her temper. But you really ought to see to her gloves when--"

"I hope I drop dead this minute if I didn't send 'em out the very day she told me."

"Croft, you're fibbing. You know Lilas is excitable."

"Excitable?" Croft wiped her eyes with a corner of her apron. "Is that what you call it? How ever you can bear her I don't see, and you a nice girl. She won't do you no good, Miss Knight."

"Oh, pshaw! She was nervous."

"I should think she would be. I'll be glad if her millionaire takes her out of the business, like she thinks he will. Poor man! He's laying up trouble for himself, that he is. She'll land him in the divorce court--with her flesh-light photographs."

Lorelei swung around from her mirror. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, I heard her and that Jew--I beg pardon, Miss Knight. You ain't a Jew, are you?"

"What about the flash-lights?"

"There's so many Hebrew girls in the profession--Not that I don't like 'em, you understand--"

"Go on."

"Well, I heard enough to know that she's up to some deviltry--her and that Maxey Melcher. They've got a photographer and witnesses. Your brother is one of 'em."

"Jim? What--"

"It's true. It's a bad crowd Mister Jim's in with. And there's something big in the air. Millions it is. And her saying she'll box my ears. The hussy! I've heard 'em talking before to-night."

"Tell me everything, Croft--quickly."

"I have. Only you better warn your brother--"

The assistant stage-manager thrust his head through the curtains, shouting: "Your cue, Miss Knight. What the devil--"

With a gasp Lorelei leaped to her feet and fled from the room.

Mrs. Croft shook her head mournfully, snuffled a few times, then scowled at the disarray Lilas had left behind. She breathed a feeble malediction upon the cause of it, seized a hat-pin, and, holding it like a dagger, thrust it viciously into first one, then another of the gowns hanging on their hooks.

"I wish you was in 'em," the little old woman exclaimed. She replaced the pin, then surreptitiously removed some expensive cologne from a large bottle, transferring the perfume to a smaller bottle which she took from her pocket, dabbed her nose with Lilas's powder-puff, and began laying out her enemy's next change of costume.

Lorelei had left a handful of silver carelessly exposed, and, discovering this, Mrs. Croft counted it. The pile was sufficiently large to reassure her, so she abstracted two quarters; then, in an excess of caution, returned one coin and took a dime in its place. _

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