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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 6

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Lorelei did not secure another word alone with the dresser until the middle of the second act, by which time Mrs. Croft was her own colorless, work-worn self once more.

"I don't know no more than I told you," she informed Lorelei. "Mr. Melcher has been coming here for a long time, and he always talks about Mr. Hammon. I've heard enough to know that him and her is after his money--millions of it. Mister Jim can tell you everything, for he's talked about it, too, when you were on the stage. Lilas mentioned him to-night when her and him was talking over the flesh-light photographs. She said--Oh, Gawd!--" Mrs. Croft broke off her narrative suddenly, and, falling to her knees in a prayerful attitude, began nervously arranging the long row of foot-gear under Miss Lynn's table. The next instant the owner herself burst into the room, panting from a swift run up the stairs.

"Quick, Croft! Don't be all thumbs, now." She tossed a sealed letter upon her table, rapidly unhooked her dress, and stepped out of it, then into a flame-colored velvet gown which the old woman held for her. She set a tremendous plumed hat upon her head, impaled it deftly, patted her hair into more becoming shape, and then seated herself, extending her feet for a change of slippers. She took the moment to open and read her note.

Lorelei looked up from her sewing at a little cry of rage from Lilas. Miss Lynn had torn the message into bits and flung it from her; her eyes were blazing.

"Damn him!" she cried, furiously, rising so abruptly as almost to upset Mrs. Croft. "The idiot!"

"What is it?"

"I--must telephone--quick." Half-way to the door she halted at Lorelei's warning:

"Wait; you haven't time."

"Damn!" repeated the elder girl. "I must; or--Lorelei, dear, will you do me a favor? Run down to the door and telephone for me? I won't be off again till the curtain, and that will be too late." Lorelei rose obediently. "That's a dear. Call Tony the Barber's place--I--I've forgotten the number--anyhow, you can find it, and ask for Max. Tell him it's off; he can't come."

"Who can't come? Max?" "No. Just say, 'Lilas sends word that it's off; he can't come.' He'll understand. Run quick, or you won't catch him, and--He'll kill me if I let him go. I'll call him later, to-night--There's my cue now. Just ask for Max, and don't use his last name. Thanks. I'll do as much for you." Lilas was off with a rush, and Lorelei hastened after her, speculating vaguely as to the cause of all this anxiety.

The telephone at the back of the Circuit Theater was located inside the stage-door and occupied one end of the shelf which separated Mr. Regan's hole in the wall from the entrance-hall. It was no place in which to conduct a private conversation, since any one coming or going could hear, but stage telephones are not installed for the convenience of performers.

As Lorelei hurried down the passageway a man in evening dress turned, and she recognized Robert Wharton.

"You are sent from heaven!" he cried, at sight of her. "I enter out of the night and unburden my heart to this argus-eyed watchman, and, lo! you come flying in answer to my wish. Quick service, Judge. In appreciation of your telepathy I present you with some lumbago cure." He tossed a bank-note to Regan, who snatched it eagerly on the fly.

Lorelei forestalled further words. "Please--I must telephone. I go on in a minute."

"Fairy Princess, last night I was a goldfish; to-night I am an enchanted lover--"

"Wait; I'm in a hurry." She thumbed the telephone-book swiftly in search of her number, but young Wharton was not to be silenced.

"Tell him it's all off," he commanded. "You can't go; I won't let you. Promise." He laid a hand upon the telephone and eyed her gravely. "Don't thwart me--I'm a dangerous man. You can't use our little 'phone unless--"

"Don't be silly. I'm telephoning for some one else."

"That's exactly what we can't permit. The 'some one else' is here --I'm it."

"No, no!"

He closed one eye and wagged his head, grasping the instrument more firmly.

"Promise to tell him--It IS a 'him,' isn't it? Aha' My intelligence is sublime. Promise."

"I slapped you last night; I promise to do it again," Lorelei told him, sharply.

"Something whispered that you did, and all day long I have been angry; but to-night--now that I'm in my natural condition--I pass the insult. I offer you my hand and my other cheek in case you want to try a left hook. But I come with another purpose. Outside is a chariot with ninety horses--French rating--champing at the throttle. We are going away from here."

"You're drunk again, Mr. Wharton?"

He glanced at the clock over Regan's head and shook his head in negation. "It's only ten-twenty. In two hours from now--"

"Give me that 'phone."

"Promise to tell him it's all off."

She smiled. "All right. I'll use those very words."

Wharton hesitated. "I trust you."

"I'm going to tell him he can't come," she said, holding out her hand.

Once the instrument was hers she oscillated the hook with nervous finger, staring doubtfully at the cause of her delay. Wharton, as on the evening before, carried his intoxication with an air. He was steady on his feet, immaculate in dress, punctilious in demeanor; only his roving, reckless eye betrayed his unnatural exhilaration.

The Judge had enjoyed the scene. He chuckled; he clicked his loose false teeth like castanets. Bob turned at the sound and regarded him with benignant interest, his attention riveted upon the old man's dental infirmity.

"You're quite a comedian," Regan wheezed.

"Click 'em again," said Bob, pleasantly. "Wonderful! Age has its compensations. Play 'Home, Sweet Home' when you get 'em tuned up. Or perhaps they are for sale?"

Lorelei secured her number and was surprised to recognize her brother's voice. She made herself known, to Jim's equal amazement, and then inquired:

"Is Max there?"

"Sure. He's outside in the automobile."

"Call him, please."

"What do you want of him? How'd you know I was here?"

"Never mind. Call him quickly."

During the wait Wharton ejaculated: "Ha! 'Jim,' 'Max.' Men's names! Mr. Regan, kindly grind your teeth for me. No? Will you grind them for a dollar? Jealousy business. Thanks."

At last Melcher's voice came over the wire, and Lorelei recited her message. There was a moment of silence, then she explained how she came to be talking instead of Lilas.

He thanked her and she heard him muttering as he hung up. She turned to find her annoyer nodding with satisfaction.

"Splendid! I thank you; my father thanks you; my family thanks you. Now where would you like to dine?"

"How can a person get rid of you?" she inquired, stiffly.

"I'm sure I don't know--it isn't being done. But I'll try to think. Wear your prettiest gown, won't you? for I intend to enrage all the other fellows."

"This is an invitation, eh?"

"The first of a nightly series. Life is opening out for you in a wonderful manner, Miss Knight. Don't refuse; my legs have petrified, and a gang of safe-movers couldn't budge me."

She turned with a shrug of mingled annoyance and amusement, and he called after her:

"The Judge's teeth will entertain me till you come. I'll be waiting."

Miss Lynn, as she dressed after the performance, was still in an evil temper; but she thanked her room-mate for aiding her; then, as if some explanation were due, she added, "That note was from Jarvis."

"You puzzle me, Lilas," Lorelei told her, slowly. "I don't think you care for him at all."

Lilas laughed. "Why do you think that? I adore him, but we had an engagement and he broke it. Men are all selfish: the bigger they are the more selfish they become. They never do anything you don't make them."

"He can't sacrifice his business for you."

"Sacrifice! It's women who sacrifice themselves. D'you suppose any of those men we met last night would sacrifice himself for anything or anybody? Not much. They are the strong and the mighty. They got rich through robbery, and they're in the habit of taking whatever they want. They made their money out of the blood and suffering of thousands of poor people, so why--"

"Poor people don't buy steel."

"No; but they make it. I knew Mr. Wharton and the rest of them years ago, for I was born and raised in a furnace town. My father worked in a Bessemer plant--until he was killed. What I saw there made me an anarchist."

Through the open window overlooking the alley came a sound of singing; two voices raised in doubtful harmony, one loud and strong, the other rasping, hoarse, and uncertain.

Of all the girls that I adore,
There's none so sweet as Sa-a-a-hall-ee.

"Ouch! Who's that?" queried Lilas.

"Bob Wharton and the Judge. Wharton's waiting to take me to supper."

"Drunk, as usual, of course. Think of a fool like that with millions behind him--millions that his father wrung out of sweating, suffering foreigners like my father. He's squandering blood-money. That's what it is--blood-money."

"You ARE bitter to-night. Is Mr. Hammon living on blood-money, too?"

"Yes; he is."

"Is that why you're planning to blackmail it out of him?"

Lilas paused in her dressing and turned slowly, brows lifted. Her dark eyes met the blue ones unwaveringly.

"Blackmail? What are you talking about?" Mrs. Croft went pale, and retired swiftly but noiselessly into the lavatory, closing the door behind her. "What did Max tell you over the 'phone?" asked Lilas, sharply.


"Then where did you get--that? From Jim?"

"Jim's pretty bad, I imagine, but he keeps his badness to himself. No. I've overheard you and Max talking."

"Nonsense. We've never mentioned such a thing. The idea is absurd. I get mad at Jarvis--he's enough to madden anybody--perhaps I'm jealous, but blackmail! Why, you're out of your head."

The girls had nearly finished dressing when a commotion sounded in the hall outside and Mrs. Croft, after investigation, reported that Robert Wharton had been forcibly expelled from a dressing- room. He could be heard gently apologizing and explaining that he was in quest of a Fairy Princess, whereupon Lorelei hastily locked her door.

"That's the worst of these swells," observed Lilas, as she left. "They pay high and go anywhere they please. Bergman caters to them."

Lorelei delayed her toilet purposely, and finally dismissed Croft; then she wrote a note to John Merkle, in care of his bank. By this time the cavernous regions at the rear of the theater were nearly deserted. She listened; but, hearing Wharton still in conversation with the watchman, she locked her door once more and sat down to wait. As she fingered the note a doubt formed in her mind--a doubt as to the advisability under any circumstances of leaving written evidence in another's hands. Finally she destroyed the missive, determining to make use of the telephone on the following day. As to just what to do after that she was undecided.

When quiet had finally descended she opened her door cautiously and peered out. Robert Wharton sat on the top step of the stairway near at hand, but his head rested against the wall, and he slept. Beside him were his high hat, his gloves, and his stick. As Lorelei, with skirts carefully gathered, tiptoed past him she saw suspended upon his gleaming white shirt-bosom what at first glance resembled a foreign decoration of some sort, but proved to be Mr. Regan's false teeth. They were suspended by a ribbon that had once done duty in the costume of a coryphee; they rose and fell to the young man's gentle breathing.

Lorelei carried out her intention of telephoning on the following day, and about the close of the show that night Merkle's card was brought up to her dressing-room. A moment later Robert Wharton's followed, together with a tremendous box of long-stemmed roses. She went down a trifle apprehensively, for by this time the current tales of Bob's drunken freaks had given her cause to think somewhat seriously, and she feared an unpleasant encounter. More than once she had witnessed quarrels in the alleyway behind the Circuit, where pestiferous youths of Wharton's caliber were frequent visitors.

But Mr. Merkle relieved her mind by saying, "I sent Bob away on a pretext, although he swore you had an engagement with him."

"I'm glad you did. I left him asleep outside my dressing-room last night, and I almost hoped he'd caught pneumonia."

Beside the curb a heavy touring-car was purring, and into this Merkle helped his companion. "I'm not up on the etiquette of this sort of thing," he explained, "but I presume the proper procedure is supper. Where shall it be--Sherry's?"

Lorelei laughed. "You ARE inexperienced. The Johns never eat on Fifth Avenue, the lights are too dim. But why supper? You can't eat."

"A Welsh rarebit would be the death of me; lobsters are poison," he confessed; "but I've read that chorus-girls are carnivorous animals and seek their prey at midnight."

"Most of them would prefer bread and milk; anyhow, I would. But I'm not hungry, so let's ride--we can talk better, and you're not the sort of man to be seen in public with one of Bergman's show- girls."

The banker acquiesced with alacrity. To his driver he said, "Take the Long Island road."

As the machine glided into noiseless motion Lorelei noted a limousine waiting near by, and saw a dim figure within. The dome- light had been turned off, and she could detect only a white shirt-front, the blurred outline of a face, and the glowing point of a cigar.

"You can follow that man's example if you wish," said she, "and hide until we're away from the bright lights."

Merkle answered shortly, "Your reputation may suffer, not mine." He leaned forward and inquired of the chauffeur, "Who's car is that?"

"Mr. Hammon's, sir. He's going our way, so his man said."

"I thought so. We'll have company."

"Why do you choose the Long Island road?" asked Lorelei.

"It's pleasant," responded Merkle. "I ride nearly every night, and I like the country. You see, I can't sleep unless I'm in motion. I get most of my rest in a car; there's something about the movement that soothes me."

"How funny!"

"Peculiar, perhaps, but scarcely humorous. I'd be dead or insane without an automobile. You see, I'm nothing but a rack of bones strung together with quivering nerves--always been so, and I'm getting worse. I keep four French cars in my garage, all specially built as to spring-suspension and upholstery, and I spend nearly every night in one or the other of them. It's seldom I do less than a hundred miles between midnight and morning; sometimes, when I'm bad, I do twice that. So long as I'm moving fast I manage to snatch a miserable sort of repose, but the instant we go slow I wake up. It's the sensation of flight, the music of a swift- running motor, the wind blowing in my face, that lulls me; but it's getting harder all the time. I used to sleep at twenty miles an hour; now I can't relax under thirty. Forty is fine--sixty means dreamless peace."

"It does, indeed, if one happens to have a blowout," laughed the girl.

"I have trouble keeping chauffeurs. The darkness breaks their nerve, and they play out in two or three months. I've known them to crack under the strain in a week, and yet all the time I want to go faster--faster. Some night, when a bolt breaks, or my driver's eye and hand fail to co-ordinate, it will all end, I suppose, in a twinkling, and--I'll get a good rest at last. Meanwhile I thank Heaven and Mr. Vanderbilt for the Motor Parkway."

The car had threaded the after-theater congestion of traffic with a swiftness that testified to the practised hand on the wheel, and was now darting through unfrequented side-streets where the asphalt lay in the shadows like dark pools. Up the approach to the Queensborough Bridge it swept, and took the long incline like a soaring bird. Overhead, the massive towers pierced the night sky; the steel-ribbed skeleton-tunnel rushed past the riders; far beneath, the river itself lay like a sheet of metal, glittering here and there with the yellow lights of ships. Blackwell's Island slipped under them, an inky bottomless pit of despair, out of which points of fire gleamed upward--like faint, steady-burning sparks of hope in the hearts of miserable men. The breath of the overheated city changed as by magic, and the thin-faced sufferer at Lorelei's side drank it in eagerly. Even in the dim flash of the passing illuminations she noted how tired and worn he was, and a sudden pity smote her.

"Won't you pretend I'm not here, and drive just as you always do? I won't mind," she said.

"My dear, it's late. You'll need to get home."

"No, no."

"Really?" His eagerness was genuine. "Won't your people worry?"

Her answer was a short, mirthless laugh that made him glance at her curiously. "They know I'm perfectly safe. It's the other way round: a man of your standing takes chances by being alone with a woman of--mine"

"Which reminds me of Miss Lynn and Mr. Hammon. You've decided to accept my offer?"

"No. I can't be a hired spy."

"You said over the 'phone that you had learned something."

"I have. I believe there is an effort on foot to get some of Mr. Hammon's money dishonestly. I have a reason for wishing to prevent it."

"I knew I wasn't mistaken in you," smiled Merkle.

"Oh, don't attribute my actions to any high moral motives! I'm getting a little rusty on right and wrong. Personally, I have no sympathy with Mr. Hammon, and I don't imagine he acquired all of his tremendous fortune in a perfectly honorable way. Besides, he's a married man."

"It isn't alone Jarvis or his family or their money that is concerned," Merkle said, gravely. "Great financial institutions sometimes rest on foundations as slight as one man's personality-- one man's reputation for moral integrity. A breath of suspicion of any sort at the wrong time may bring on a crash involving innocent people.

"Hammon at this moment carries a tremendous top-heavy burden of responsibilities; his death would be no more disastrous than a scandal that would tend to destroy public confidence in him as a man."

"Doesn't he know that himself?"

"Perhaps. But his infatuation overtook him at an age when a man is a fool. Young men are always objects of suspicion in the financial world, for their emotions are unruly; but when old men fall in love they are superbly heedless of consequences. I promised to tell you something about Jarvis, and I will, since you spoke of his married life. To begin with, his father and his father's father were steel-workers. They came from Cornwall before he was born, and Jarvis grew up in the glare of the Pennsylvania furnaces. From the time he could walk he never knew anything, never heard anything except steel. He inherited all the driving strength of his father and developed such a remarkable business ability that he became a rolling-mill superintendent almost before he was of age. They say he never did less than two men's work and often more; but he could make others work, too, and there lay the secret of his success. He was indefatigable; he was a machine; he never rested, nor played, nor relaxed, as other men do. He just worked; and his mill held the tonnage record for years.

"When the Corporation was formed he played a big part in the deal and got a big slice of the profits. He had been successful, noted: at one turn of the wheel he became enormously wealthy. The story of Alladin is nothing to the story of the men who took part in that combination. Hammon went into other things than steel, and he prospered. He never failed at anything. Now, here comes the part of the story that interests me most of all and will interest you if you can understand the workings of a man's mind. Jarvis had no vices and but one hobby--at least his vices were neutral, for he had never taken time to acquire the positive kind. His hobby was Napoleon Bonaparte. He read everything there was to read about Napoleon; he studied his life and patterned his own on similar lines. His collection of Napoleona is the finest in this country; he is an authority on French history of that period--in fact, he's as nearly hipped on the subject as a man of his powers can be considered hipped on anything. Do I bore you, Miss Knight?"

"No; go on. I'm tremendously interested."

"Well, naturally, Hammon began to consider himself another Napoleon, and his accomplishments were in a way quite as wonderful; his strategy was quite as brilliant, and his victories quite as complete. He even confided to me once that his idol surpassed him in only one respect--namely, the power to relax--a pardonable conceit, under the circumstances. Jarvis had never taken time for relaxation, and he was beginning to wear out; and so--he deliberately set about learning to play. The Emperor of France, so history tells us, took his greatest pleasure in the company of women; therefore Hammon sought women, just as he had sought and gained financial conquest. He doesn't know the taste of defeat; so the result was fore-ordained."

"But surely he thought something of his family," protested Lorelei. "Didn't he consider them?"

"I fancy he wasn't well acquainted with his family. I'm sure he never enjoyed any home life, as we understand it. He lived with a rich old woman who bore his name but scarcely knew him; his daughters were grown women whom he saw on rare occasions and whose extravagant whims he gratified without question. But there was little real intimacy, little sympathy. Remember, Jarvis had been a boy, but he had never been young, and this was his first taste of youth, But--he was not Napoleon. As you've noticed, he's quite mad on the Lynn woman. He's no longer himself. He has been drugged by her charms, and--now he's paying the price. I wanted you to know the story before we went any further. Now tell me what you have learned." _

Read next: Chapter 7

Read previous: Chapter 5

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