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 8

< Previous
Table of content
Next >

When Lorelei awoke on the following afternoon her first inquiry was for Jim; but he had not come home, and her mother knew nothing of his whereabouts. Lorelei ate her breakfast in silence; then, in reply to a question, accounted for the lateness of her arrival by saying that she had dined with Mr. Merkle.

At the name Mrs. Knight pricked up her ears; vulture-like, she undertook to pick out of her daughter all that had occurred, down to the most insignificant detail. Lorelei had always made a confidant of her mother in such cases, even to the repetition of whole conversations; but this time the latter's inquisitiveness grated on her, and she answered the questions put to her grudgingly. Just why she felt resentful she scarcely knew. Certainly she had no interest in Mr. Merkle, nor suffered the least embarrassment over their exploit. Rather, on this afternoon, she beheld with unusual clarity her present general life, and that of her family, feeling more keenly than usual the utter sordidness of their whole scheme of existence. Unwelcome thoughts of this sort had come of late, and would not be banished. Once she had made a pet of a magpie, but the bird's habits had forced her to dispose of it. She remembered the way it forever pried into things; how nothing was safe from that sharp beak and inquisitive eye. Its waking hours had been busied in a tireless, furtive search for forbidden objects. Now she could not help likening her mother to the bird, although the thought shocked her. There was the same sly angle of countenance, a similar furtiveness of purpose; the very expression of Mrs. Knight's keen, hard eyes was like nothing so much as that of the magpie's. Displeased at her own irritation, Lorelei made the excuse of a shopping trip to escape from the house.

At the nearest news-stand she bought the afternoon papers, and was relieved to find no mention of the incidents of the night before. It appeared that Hammon and Merkle had succeeded in their attempt to suppress the story--if, indeed, there had ever been any intention of making it public.

Looking back upon last night's homeward ride, she was wholly at a loss. In view of Jim's words and of what she had gathered at the theater she had felt sure of Lilas's complete knowledge of the blackmail plot, but Hammon's unwavering faith in the girl and Lilas's own story of her relations with Max Melcher had awakened a doubt. If Lilas had told the whole truth, and if she really cared for Hammon, the affair, despite its clandestine nature, would bear a more favorable construction, and Lorelei could not entirely withhold her sympathy from the offending pair. Of the two Hammon was the more blameworthy; but his domestic unhappiness in a measure canceled his guilt--so, at least, said the code under which Lorelei lived. What concerned her far more than the moral complexion of the liaison, was her brother's connection with the unlawful scheme of extortion. Jim, she saw, had gone wrong with a vengeance, and the consequences to him troubled her, for in spite of all that he might be or do she cherished a sisterly affection for him. Family ties were very real and very strong to her--strong enough to keep her loyal to her kin even after the demoralizing change in her whole mode of life. The firmest, in fact, the only bond that she had ever known, was that of blood; obedience, faithfulness, and affection had been born in her, and she never thought to question their sacredness.

Idling down Fifth Avenue, she found herself in front of a fashionable department store. A knot of curious people were gaping at a unique automobile which stood in the line of vehicles along the curb, and she paused to look. The equipage was snow-white in color; its upholstery was of soft, white leather; the chauffeur and a stiff-backed footman were in blood-red with white facings on their livery. Upon their left sleeves was worked the gold monogram "A. D." In their caps both men wore cockades that resembled shaving-brushes. A tiny mop of a lap-dog, imprisoned within the closed body of the car, was barking frenziedly at the throng. He was an animated bundle of cotton, with shoe-button eyes sewed into one end. As for the car itself, Lorelei decided it to be a combination of every absurd tradition of the coach-builder's art. Across the doors, in gold letters an inch high, was the name "Adoree Demorest."

As she entered the store Lorelei reflected with some disgust that no visiting Rajah, no barbaric potentate--no one, in fact, except a self-advertised musical-comedy queen--would so flagrantly defy good taste as to ride in such a vehicle.

She was engaged in her final purchase when a dazzling creature in red and white descended upon her with exclamations of surprise and delight. It was Mademoiselle Demorest herself, and her greeting was so effusive that the stream of shoppers halted in the aisle. Mademoiselle Demorest wore a gown of a style that proved her taste in dress as individual as her choice of motor-cars. A war-like head-decoration of aigrette feathers burst into spray above her right ear; the wrists of her white gloves bore her monogram worked in gold-thread to match those that ornamented the livery of her servants. A heavy string of white-coral beads, the size of cherries, was looped about her neck, and she carried the mate to the excitable poodle that defied the curiosity-seekers outside. All in all, she was a figure to awaken interest in the nightly performance at the Palace Garden, and to cause men customers to forget their change.

"Miss Knight! I'm SO glad to see you again," she burbled. "How SWEET you look!" The poodle pawed frantically and yelped a shrill appreciation of the meeting. "I hoped we'd meet again; but where HAVE you been? I--Hush, Francois! Shake hands with the lady, there's a dear." Francois squirmed violently and snapped at a small boy whose mother had pushed forward to stare at the notorious beauty.

Lorelei laughed. "How well he minds!"

"He hates children--they excite him."

The woman with the child turned to a companion, exclaiming audibly: "Those are the King's rubies--see! Ain't they nice and white?"

A fat matron beside Lorelei elbowed her way forward; in one hand she carried a pair of embroidered silk stockings, with the other she raised a lorgnette. After a measured scrutiny her lips tightened, her nose lifted, she blew loudly like a porpoise, and, gathering her skirts closely, waddled away, as if fleeing from contagion. She continued to clutch the hosiery until a floor- walker, in answer to the clerk's frantic signal, intercepted her. Another crowd promptly gathered to listen to her indignant denial of guilt.

"Have you finished your shopping?" Adoree inquired. "Then do come and help me match some rose du Barry. I've no more eye for color than Francois. Pink is just another shade of blue to me."

"Gee! He's alive, all right," piped the small boy, whose eyes were glued upon the poodle. "Ma, what does a live dog cost?"

Lorelei felt herself flushing uncomfortably under the stares of the onlookers, and, glad to escape, she moved away beside the undisturbed cause of all the furore.

Miss Demorest seemed genuinely delighted at this encounter. She clung to her companion, chattering vivaciously; then, when the rose du Barry had been matched, she suggested tea.

"We'll run right over to the Waldorf--my car is outside." But Lorelei declined, explaining lamely that she did not care for public places.


"Really. People point out one--and I get enough of that."

The dancer's expression and tone changed abruptly. "I supposed you were like all the others."

"Well, I'm not. When I'm away from the theater I try to forget it. I--hate the business."

The reply, which came with sincere feeling, widened Lorelei's eyes with uncontrollable surprise.

"Here, too," said Adoree Demorest, quietly. "But I'm not allowed to forget it. Our first meeting made me think you were--out with banners. I was hired on that occasion to be naughty. What do you say to some real tea at my house? Just you and I?"

Lorelei's heart sank at thought of that gaudy machine outside, but there was an honest appeal in the speaker's eyes, and, moreover, the memory of her own obligation rose to prevent her from appearing ungrateful. "I'd be delighted," she falsified, and, gurgling with appreciation, Miss Demorest hurried her toward the nearest exit. In the street, however, Adoree paused, and her next words showed that she was not wanting in womanly intuition.

"I sha'n't inflict you with a ride in that circus-wagon. It's all right for me, but--you're one of the decent kind. If you have a reputation it won't do to parade it in a show-case. We'll take a taxi." Lorelei's relief must have been obvious, for Adoree sped swiftly to the corner, then was back again without the dog. "If there's anything more conspicuous than a blonde with a white poodle," she explained, "it's two blondes with two poodles." Then, she flung herself into the cab and slammed the door.

"You must think I'm very rude," her guest ventured.

"Nothing of the sort. I know just how you feel." Miss Demorest's smile was a trifle strained. "Only--I'm awfully lonesome, and-- I'll take care that nobody sees us."

"Now I KNOW I've been nasty." Lorelei felt her embarrassment growing, for this woman differed entirely from what she had expected. Underneath the dancer's extravagant theatricalism she appeared natural and unaffected. Adoree changed the current of the conversation by saying:

"I hope those bloodhounds get to fighting."

"Don't you like them?"

"Hate 'em! I'd use 'em to scrub the windshield if I had my way."

"Why--aren't they yours?"

"Oh, I suppose so; as much as that rubber-tired igloo is mine. They're my props, like the two British Peers on the box. Gee! I'd like to stick chewing-gum in the side-whiskers of the tall one-- the one with the cramps in his elbows. His name's Riley, and he gets nine dollars a week for looking like that. A man's board bill isn't particular how it's made nowadays."

"How--FUNNY!" Lorelei was eying the speaker with undisguised curiosity. "You're not a Frenchwoman?"

"Agnes Smith is the name. Decent by descent, but an actress by advertising. What's YOUR game?"

"Um-m--My nose is straight; I don't limp; so I'm an actress by force of feature."



"Want to be?"

"Got to be."

Both girls laughed unaffectedly.

"I like you," said the dancer. "Do you mind if I get out of this cast-iron corset and into a kimono when we get home?"

"Have you a spare one?"

"Dozens; but they're not very clean."

"That's lovely. And let's make the tea weak."

"Oh, I can't drink anything strong! I'm an awful counterfeit."

"I'm beginning to think so. I--wonder if I'm dreaming."

The girls had much in common; they chattered continuously through the short ride, and when they alighted from the taxi-cab they disputed over the right to pay for it. When the guest was ushered into Adoree's apartment she received another surprise, for the place was neither elaborate nor showy. It consisted merely of two large, comfortable rooms overlooking a side-street lined with monotonous brown-stone boarding-houses which for the most part were inhabited by doctors, dressmakers, and semi-professional people.

A battered tea-kettle was set to boil over an absurd alcohol-stove that required expert assistance to maintain its equilibrium. Adoree flung out of her finery and donned a Japanese robe, offering another to Lorelei. A plate of limber crackers was unearthed from somewhere, also the disreputable remains of a box of marshmallows; and these latter Madamoiselle Demorest toasted on a hat-pin.

"You're the most extraordinary person," her guest at length remarked. "Aren't you going to show me your jewels or--anything like that?"

"You probably have better jewels of your own," carelessly replied Adoree; then she voiced a very tame and womanly oath as a marshmallow dripped into the flames. "Pickles! I spoiled that one."

"But the Cabachon rubies are real."

"Sure. So is the 'square toe' who brings 'em and takes 'em away; so is the bond that covers 'em. Lordy, but they ARE pretty!"

"Then the King didn't give them to you?"

"My dear, I never saw a king--outside of a pinochle deck. If I lost one of those rubies the Maiden Lane Shylock who owns them would tear enough curled hair out of his beard to fill a mattress. You never really believed that King stuff, did you?"

"Why, yes."

"I had no idea it worked so well." Again Miss Demorest smiled crookedly. "No wonder you didn't want to go to the Waldorf with me; I wonder you consented to come here."

"Your advance work is great--"

"I knew the public swallowed it; but I supposed the profession knew press stuff when they saw it. I sang and danced for ten years in this country and never got better time than the schutzen parks and air-domes--seven shows a day and a change of act each week. I was Agnes Smith then. Somehow I got the price of a ticket to England, and I figured the music-halls would rave over a good kid imitation; but, bless you, I starved! I was closed the first place I played--got the hook. I ate Nabiscos till I got another date, then I pulled the air-dome stuff that had scored in Little Rock and Michigan City, and it got by somehow. My mother was a Canuck, so I knew some French, and eventually I reached the Continent. There I met the Old Nick. You may think the devil is a tall, dark man with the ace of spades on his chin and a figure-six tail-- that's what he looks like on the ham-cans; but in reality he's a little fat, bald man with a tenor voice, and he eats cloves. His name is Aubrey Lane, and he can't stand hot weather. Never heard of him, eh? Well, neither had anybody else until I met him. He was in Paris selling patent garters at the time. He saw me work at a cabaret and told me I was good, but not good enough. I'd known that for years, so he didn't hurt my feelings. He confessed that he was tired of working and intended to have me make a lot of money for him, but warned me that he had expensive tastes and I'd have to pay well for the privilege. He was right; I did. But here I am in electric lights on Broadway while he is exercising a wheeled chair at Atlantic City." "He's your manager?"

"He is that very little thing. He told me I could sing until my back ached and never get anywhere because I lacked brains. Then he offered to make me a star if I'd allow him to hitch his chariot to me--on a share of the gross. There was one trifling sacrifice I had to make in the nature of my personal reputation--so he told me. He said I'd have to be the best or else the worst actress in the world in order to land big and support him in the luxury he craved. I couldn't hope to be the best, so he made me the worst. He began by tying a can to the 'Agnes Smith,' and handed me 'Adoree Demorest' instead; then he went to work. He really did work, too, although it nearly killed him, and he's never done anything since. I forgot to mention that I signed a contract with him which lawyers tell me is the finest example of air-tight, time, weather, and water proof construction that has been seen since the Declaration of Independence. It fits closer than a rubber shirt, always retains its shape, lasts longer than old age, and--no metal can touch you. The King fable is a joke on the other side, but New York swallowed it clear up to the sinker, and Aubrey gaffed the Palace Garden management for a three years' contract. Of course, my advertised salary is phony, just like the rubies and the wrecked throne and that gilded bandwagon with the poodles and the stuffed supers on the box. Aubrey owns them all except the rubies, which he rents. I'm billed as the most notorious woman in America, and the shred of reputation I have left wouldn't make a neck-tie for a gnat, whereas in reality I love marshmallows and tea much more than men. But I'm a star, at the head of my own company, and playing to sidewalk prices. Do you think it was a good bargain?"

Lorelei had listened with breathless interest. Now she burst out impulsively:

"You poor dear."

Miss Smith smiled, but her eyes were tragic.

"Sometimes I cry when I think about it. I--cry a good deal," said she. "I didn't realize until too late what it meant, but, you see, I was tired of working, tired of ambition, and I wanted to come home. Thank God I have no people! I save all the money I can, and when I get enough I'm going to take Agnes Smith out of the moth- balls, dust her off tenderly, and go to raising ducks."

"Ducks? What do you mean?"

"What I say. That has always been my ambition."

"Why not quit now?"

"What's the use? I'm half-way through the swamp; the mud is as deep behind as it is in front. But I'm deathly afraid all the time that I'll be found out--I'd--rather be notorious than ridiculous. Of course, Aubrey sees to that."

"Are you fond of him?"

Adoree turned up her nose. "He's a little pink rabbit. I don't like any man, and I never have. There's only one I'd really care to meet; his name is Campbell Pope."

"The critic. He IS nice."

"The beast. Did you read what he said about me? I'll never rest until I have a lock of his hair that I've plucked myself. I'd love to have his whole scalp--with say, one ear attached--hanging on my bureau where I could see it every morning when I wake up. Somehow I don't seem to mind the press stuff that Aubrey puts out, but Pope--actually BELIEVES what he wrote. And other people will believe it, too. I--I--Gosh! I'm going to cry again."

Lorelei nodded in perfect sympathy; she did not laugh. "I haven't any girl chum; let's be friends," said she.

Adoree had been nibbling at marshmallows as she talked; as she wiped her eyes now she left a smear of powdered sugar on her cheek.

"I'd love to--I'm simply bursting to confide in somebody--but we couldn't go around together."

"Why? I don't care what people think."

"You can't afford to be reckless. We're each playing our own game and chasing the dollar in our own way. The men you met would make life unbearable for you if they knew we were pals. Aubrey was right: a girl must either be mighty good or mighty bad in this business--or make people think she is, which amounts to the same thing. You have had easy going because you're known to be straight; but if you ever get into the papers watch what will happen. You'll have to fight. You wouldn't like that kind of fighting, either, and--I'm not sure you could stand it."

As Lorelei walked homeward that afternoon she felt an unaccustomed warmth in her breast, and realized that she, too, had been very lonely in the city. The certainty that she had made a friend gladdened her heart. She looked forward with a thrill to the morrow when she could see Adoree again.

During her absence Jim had returned and departed; but a note was waiting for her. It had been brought by a messenger, and read:

"Things look bad. I'm afraid we'll be implicated, too. Better see your brother quickly. M." _

Read next: Chapter 9

Read previous: Chapter 7

Table of content of Auction Block


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