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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 7

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By the time Lorelei had completed her recital of those occurrences that had excited her suspicions the car was rolling out the roads leading toward the Long Island plains, and, with head-lights ablaze, was defying all speed laws. Other vehicles on their way home to the fashionable estates of Wheatley Hills, Hempstead, and the South Shore were overhauled and left behind. The big machine had begun its long night-song, and it flashed over the rises or dipped into the swales with the gliding ease of movement characteristic of an aeroplane. It went with almost the silence of a phantom--only the sustained murmur of the motor, the whisper of the whirling tires as they parted from the road surface, the rush of the night wind pouring past, came to the ears of the passengers. These softly rhythmic sounds, combined with the swaying of the deep cushions, were decidedly restful, and had there been nothing to challenge her sight Lorelei felt that she, too, might have been soothed as Merkle was. But she was fascinated, hypnotized by the gleaming tunnel of light into which she was being hurled. The blazing panorama of fence, forest, and hedge that took dim shape out of the blackness grew, rushed at her, then leaped away into oblivion, dazzled her too much for relaxation. Merkle, however, had drawn the conversation-shield rearward, and in its shelter leaned back with eyes closed. He seemed asleep, but after a time he spoke abruptly:

"Melcher is a shrewd man. He wouldn't tackle a blackmailing job of this size without protection; otherwise I could put him out of the way very quickly. I dare say Miss Lynn, herself, doesn't know who is behind him."

"Why don't you warn Mr. Hammon at once?"

Merkle rolled his head loosely. "You don't know the man. His self- reliance is so monumental, his scorn of opposition is so deep, that he would laugh at the idea of a plot against him. Then, too, he's mad about the woman, and he'd probably tell her everything I said. After all, we have only our suspicions to go upon."

Merkle dozed again, half buried in the cushions. They had passed Jamaica; the country lay dark and silent on every side save for a dim-lit window here and there. The car was eating the miles in a flight as swift and undeviating as that of an arrow; but it was not until it had swept into the Motor Parkway that the girl fully understood what her host termed fast driving.

Then it was that the chauffeur let the machine out. Over the deserted plains it tore, comet-like, a meteor preceded by a streamer of light. It swung to the banked curves with no slackening of momentum; it devoured the tangents hungrily; the night wind roared past, drowning all other sounds. Crouched immovably in his seat, the driver scanned the causeway that leaped into view and vanished beneath the wheels, like a tremendous ribbon whirling upon spools. Merkle lay back inertly, lolling and swaying to the side-thrust of the cushions; but Lorelei found her fists clenched and her muscles hard with the nervous strain. Finally she pushed the shield forward, and, leaning over the front seat, stared at the tiny dash-light. The finger of the speedometer oscillated gently over the figure sixty, and she dropped back with a gasp. They had been running thus for a long time.

Merkle roused to say, "Is this too fast for you, Miss Knight?"

She laughed nervously. "N-no. I'm sorry I woke you."

After a moment he startled her by inquiring, "Why don't you marry Bob Wharton?"

She tore her eyes from the reeling shadows in front and peered at him.

"What makes you think I like him well enough?"

"I don't. But he's the sort you're looking for, isn't he?"

She nodded. "I can't expect to--marry a decent man. I've learned that much."

There was a pause, and then, "It would be a great pity," he said.

"You're not complimentary. Perhaps I'm not so bad as I appear."

"I didn't mean that. It would be too bad, on your account. I--like you. Maybe it's your beauty that has gone to my head; no man could remain quite sane in your company." He turned his tired, bright eyes upon her, and Lorelei stirred uncomfortably. "You're quite different to what I first thought you."

"Oh no! I'm exactly what you thought. I've seen Mr. Wharton only twice."

"He's crazy about you. He acts wholly upon impulse, of course. It ought to be easy."

Merkle inquired the time of his chauffeur, then directed him to turn homeward along the North Shore.

"I sha'n't be selfish and keep you out any longer, Miss Knight," he said. "If you don't mind I'll doze on the way in, and try to figure out the next move in this Hammon affair."

The return trip was another hurtling rush through the night, in a silence broken only by Merkle's demand for more speed whenever the machine slackened its labor. The miles wheeled past; the Sound lay to the right.

They were sweeping over a rolling North Shore road when suddenly out of the blackness ahead blazed two blinding headlights. With startling abruptness they appeared over the crest of a rise; Merkle's driver swung to the right. But the road was narrow; a trolley track was under construction, and along the edge of the amasite was strewn a row of steel rails, guarded by occasional red lanterns. The strange car held to its course; there was a blast of horns, a dazzling instant of intense illumination, then a crash as the inside mud-guards met. Merkle's car seemed to leap into the air; there was a report of an exploding tire; Lorelei felt a sickening sense of insecurity, and found herself hanging, bruised and breathless, across the back of the driving-seat. The automobile was bucking and bumping, as if the pavement had been turned into a corduroy road; then it came to a pause, half in the ditch. Merkle was jammed into an awkward coil on the floor of the tonneau, but raised himself, swearing softly. The other car held to its course, and whizzed onward, leaving in its wake a drunken shout of mockery and defiance.

The catastrophe had taken but an instant. The three were alone, and their machine disabled almost in a breath. Merkle inquired anxiously if Lorelei were hurt; the chauffeur ran after the offending car, yelling anathemas into the night. He returned slowly, mopping his face, which had been cut by fragments from the shattered windshield.

"Joy-riders," he muttered. "They wouldn't give way, and threw me into those rails."

"Narrow shave, that. I wonder we weren't all killed." Merkle eyed the car's crumpled mud-guard and running-board, then directed his driver to ascertain the extent of the damage. The motor was still throbbing, but a brief examination disclosed a broken steering- knuckle and a bent axle in addition to an injured wheel.

"I'm terribly sorry, Miss Knight; but I'll have to send for another car," apologized Merkle.

"Is this splendid machine ruined?"

He shrugged. "That's the curse of these roads. Somebody is always driving recklessly." Lorelei smiled at memory of the miles they had covered so swiftly; but she saw that he was serious and in a sour temper. "One risks his life on the whim of some drunken idiot the moment he enters a motor-car. Now for a telephone." A terse question to his man served to fix their location.

"We're not far from the Chateau," Merkle interpreted the answer. "That place is always open, so if you don't mind the walk we'll go ahead. It will take an hour to get one of my other machines, but meanwhile we can have a bite to eat." At her cheerful acceptance his tone changed.

"You're all right. Some women would be hysterical after such a shake-up. I swear, I think I feel it more than you. If you were a man I'd like to have you for a chum."

Together they set out through the starlight, leaving the chauffeur with instructions to secure help from the nearest garage; and as they followed the dim road Merkle continued to apologize until Lorelei silenced him. Both were beginning to suffer from the reaction of their fright.

It was very late; there was little sign of habitation, for the road led through a wooded country. Before long, however, they came in sight of lights, which Merkle hailed with relief.

The Chateau was a quasi-roadhouse of some architectural dignity, widely advertised as being under the same management as one of the smart Broadway cafes, and supplying the same food and drink, at twice the Broadway price. Its service was unsurpassed by any city restaurant, and, being within an hour's run by motor, it received a liberal patronage. Tips were large at the Chateau; its hospitality was famous among those who could afford the extravagance of midnight entertainment; and yet it was a quiet place. No echo of what occurred within its walls ever reached the outside world. Sea-food, waffles, privacy, and discretion were its recognized specialties, and people came for miles--mainly in pairs--to enjoy them.

As the pedestrians neared the avenue of maples leading up to the house they espied in the road ahead of them first the dull red glow of a tail-light, then a dusty license plate.

"There's luck," Merkle ejaculated. "I'll rent this car."

In the gloom several figures were standing, facing in the direction of the Chateau, and when Merkle spoke they wheeled as if startled.

"No, you can't hire this machine. What do you think this is, a cab-stand?" answered a gruff voice.

"Jim!" cried Lorelei, and ran forward.

Her breathless amazement at the meeting was no greater than her brother's. "Sis! What the devil are you doing here?" he managed to say. One of the men who had been kneeling over a case of some sort, dimly outlined in the radiance of a side-light, rose and placed his burden in the tonneau.

"I'm ready," he announced.

Young Knight showed some nervousness and apprehension--emotions which his companions, judging by their alert watchfulness, fully shared. Jim seized his sister by the arm and led her aside.

"How the deuce did YOU get here--and who is this guy?" He jerked his head toward Merkle.

Lorelei introduced her companion and made known the cause of their present plight.

"Humph!" grunted Jim. "What d'you suppose ma'll say to this--you out all night with a man?"

"What are YOU doing? Who are those people?" she retorted.

"Never mind. But say--I don't like the looks of this affair."

For a second time Merkle appealed to Jim. "If you can't take your sister home I'll have to telephone for another car."

Jim's tone was disagreeable as he replied: "You two don't look as if you'd been wrecked. Where's your driver?" Merkle's fist clenched; he muttered something, at which Jim laughed harshly.

"Now don't get sore," said the latter; "I'm not going to make trouble, only I want to know where you've been."

A bare-headed man came running across the lawn and flung himself into the waiting automobile. One of Jim's companions called his name sharply.

"Will you take me home?" his sister implored.

"Can't do it. I'll see you later, and you, too, Merkle." His last words, delivered as he swung himself upon the running-board of the car, sounded like a threat; a moment later, and the machine had disappeared into the night.

"Hm-m! Your brother has a suspicious mind," Merkle said. "I hope he won't make you any trouble."

"He can't make trouble for ME." Lorelei's emphasis on the last word made her meaning clear; her companion shrugged:

"Then there's no harm done, I assure you."

They turned in upon the driveway, walking silently, then as they neared the Chateau they became aware of an unusual commotion in progress there. Men were running from stable to garage, others were scouring the grounds; from the open door came a voice pitched high in anger. The speaker was evidently beside himself with wrath. He was shouting orders to scurrying attendants, and abusing the manager, who hovered near him in a frantic but futile effort at pacification.

The enraged person proved to be Jarvis Hammon. He was hatless, purple-faced, shaken with combative fury. At first the two new- comers thought he was dangerously drunk, but, as they mounted to the tiled terrace which served as an outdoor eating-place they saw their mistake. Recognizing Merkle, Hammon's manner changed instantly.

"John!" he cried. "By God! you're just in time."

"What's happened?"

"Blackmail, or worse. I hardly know, myself. These ruffians put up something on me--they're all in it, even the manager."

The latter, a sleek Frenchman with ferocious mustaches and frightened eyes, wrung his hands in supplication.

"M'sieu 'Ammon," he bleated, "you ruin me. Such accusation is terrible. But wait. Calmness. The man will be caught."

"Caught, hell!" roared the steel magnate. "You know who he is. Give him to me. How did he get in here if you didn't know him? How did he get his camera fixed without your knowledge? I'll have your scalp for this. I'll close this place and the city place, too." A uniformed doorman appeared with a smoking lantern in his hand, and Hammon wheeled upon him. "Well? Did you find him?"

"We can't find nobody. There was a car outside the grounds, but it's gone now."

Merkle interposed. "Will you tell me what has happened?"

"It is terrible, incredible, M'sieu," wailed the manager.

"Same old story, John. I came out here for a quiet supper with--a lady. I've been coming here regularly. They got us into a private room, then took a flash-light, and--there you are. I made a rush for the waiter as soon as I realized what had occurred, but he'd skipped. Everybody's skipped, photographer and all. Nobody knows anything. Blamedest bunch of idiots I ever saw." He ground his teeth.

Lorelei, who had remained in the background, turned suddenly sick at memory of that mysterious party at the gate; she understood now the significance of the man with the box and of the fleeing figure that had come through the darkness.

The terrified manager continued his heartbroken lament, and Hammon seemed about to destroy him when Merkle drew the latter aside, speaking in an undertone.

Hammon listened briefly, then broke out:

"Nonsense. I'd stake my life on her. Why, she's prostrated. It's either pure blackmail, or it's my wife's work. She's had detectives on me for some time." Merkle murmured something more. "Oh, come now! I know what I'm talking about, and I won't stand for that," cried Hammon.

Merkle shrugged; his next words were audible, and they were both sharp and incisive.

"The harm's done. They got away clean. Now we've got to kill the story and kill it quick in case they intend it for the papers."

"My God! Newspapers--at this time," groaned the other. "It couldn't be worse."

"Right. We must move fast. Is your car here?"


"Get it. We'll go in with you. I had an accident to mine."

"You'll see for yourself that you're wrong--about the other." Hammon jerked his head meaningly toward the house, then strode away to order his motor.

Merkle favored his young companion with a wintry smile.

"It seems we're too late."

Lorelei nodded silently. "Don't tell him who--spoke to us out there. Not yet, at least. I--can't see HIM go to jail."

"Jail? There won't be any jail to this--there never is. Jarvis will have to settle for the sake of the rest of us."

Hammon's limousine rolled in under the porte-cochere, and a moment later the owner appeared with Lilas.

Lorelei stared at her friend in genuine surprise, for it was obvious that Lilas was deeply agitated. Her face was swollen with weeping; she verged upon hysteria. No sooner were the four in the car and under way than she broke down, sobbing wretchedly.

"It's all my fault. I might have known he was up to something; but I didn't think he'd dare--" she managed to say.

"He? Who?" Merkle asked her.

"Max Melcher. This is his doing."

"What makes you think so?"

"He as much as told me. If I hadn't been a fool I'd have guessed, but he--Oh, I could kill myself!" She burst into strangling sobs and hysteric laughter.

"Why did you let him come to the dressing-room?" Lorelei inquired.

"He's been doing it for years. I've always--known him. We were-- engaged."

Hammon verified this. "That's right. They were engaged when I met her. She didn't know the sort of ruffian he is till I proved it. She's afraid of him, and he knows it."

"I tried to break with him, but he wouldn't let me, and I've HAD to be nice to him. He'd have me murdered if I--"

"Rot!" Merkle exclaimed, testily.

"Rot, eh?" Jarvis answered. "He's done as much, more than once; but he's so powerful that nobody can get him. He's the king of his ward; he keeps a gang of gunmen on the East Side, and he's the worst thug in the city."

Lilas substantiated this, giving further details as to Melcher's reputation, and then broke down again, weeping with such miserable abandon that Lorelei for the first time began to doubt her own previous convictions. It seemed incredible that such emotion could be counterfeit, and Lilas's plausible explanations did indeed make it appear that Melcher was the resentful victim of an infatuation. Lorelei cast a troubled glance at Merkle and found that he, too, gave signs of uncertainty.

Hammon soothed his charmer in his clumsy, elephantine way, showing that, despite Merkle's recent insinuations, he still trusted her. "This is the only woman who ever cared for me, John," he explained, after some hesitation, "and we're going to stick together. We have no secrets."

"Your little Fifth Avenue establishment rather complicates matters, doesn't it? What are you going to do about that?" Merkle inquired.

"This thing--to-night--is likely to settle the matter for me. You know the kind of home life I've led for twenty years, and you know I wouldn't regret any change. When a man goes ahead and his wife stands still the right and wrong of what either chooses to do is hard to settle. At any rate, it has ceased to concern me. I want a few years of happiness and companionship before I die. I'm selfish--I'll pay the price."

They rode on in silence. _

Read next: Chapter 8

Read previous: Chapter 6

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