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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 9

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Lorelei was not a little mystified by Merkle's cryptic message, for she could imagine no possible way in which she or the writer himself could be connected discreditably with Jarvis Hammon's affair. She gained some light, however, when that evening she read the note to Lilas.

"Why, they're going to blackmail Merkle, too," Lilas exclaimed. "Well, they'd be foolish to let him off, wouldn't they? Two millionaires out with two showgirls! Hilarious foursome at the Chateau! Automobile wreck! Foxy Pinkertons and flash-light photographs! Nice story."

"So they think he'll pay to keep his name out of the papers?"

"Exactly. And he will--for your sake."

"I won't let him."

Lilas was surprised. "Why? He's rich. He wouldn't miss a few thousand."

"You wouldn't allow Mr. Hammon to be robbed, would you?"

"Oh, wouldn't I? If he didn't care enough for me to protect me from scandal I'd want to know it."

"Lilas, you puzzle me," confessed Lorelei, doubtfully. "You say things that make me think you don't care for him at all; then again you seem to be crazy about him. How DO you feel? How far would you go with him?"

Lilas laughed airily. "Perhaps I'd go farther WITH him than FOR him. He asked me to marry him if his wife gets a divorce; and I agreed. Does that answer your question?"

"I--suppose it does."

"Now that he has come to the point, I'm not sorry things happened just as they did. A woman must look out for herself--no man will ever help her. It's worth some notoriety to become Mrs. Jarvis Hammon."

Something in the speaker's words rang false; but just what that something was, Lorelei could not decide.

"Then you'd like to see the story made public?" she queried.


"I dare say if I loved a man I'd want him at any price, but I-- hope I'm not going to be dragged into this matter."

"My dear, New York has blackmailing newspapers, just as it has blackmailing men. They live off people like Merkle. You'd be foolish to let him escape from this just to save a few dollars, for the notoriety will injure you, where it benefits me. It's not often that girls in our business know men like those two. You have a family; they can make Merkle do the right thing by you."

"I don't want him to do anything," protested Lorelei. "There's nothing to do."

"You could make him marry you."

Lorelei winced. "Nonsense! I don't care for him. He's an old man. There's no reason why he should."

"He could be made to pay, at least, and you'll be sorry if you don't get something out of him. Just wait and see what a difference the story makes with your other men friends."

During the ensuing performance Lorelei pondered her friend's disquieting prophecy; yet she could see no reason for grave apprehension. Publicity of the kind threatened would, of course, be disagreeable; but how it could seriously affect her was not apparent.

Later in the evening Robert Wharton appeared, as usual, and so resentful was he at the deceptions previously practised upon him that Lorelei with difficulty escaped a scene. He declared positively that he was not to be discouraged; that he proposed to have his attentions accepted at any cost, even if it became necessary to use force. He seemed sufficiently drunk to execute his threat, and his invitation to supper was couched this time more in the terms of a command. At last he borrowed a stool from the Judge, who by now was his willing vassal, and planted himself in the hallway, where he remained throughout the performance--a gloomy, watchful figure. Lorelei came down boldly, dressed for the street, and, since she could not pass the besieger, excused herself briefly. Descending the basement stairs, she crossed under the stage, made her way into the orchestra-pit, and managed to leave the theater by the front door.

She was waiting when Jim came home, and followed him into his room, where they could talk without disturbing their father. Lorelei made her accusation boldly, prepared for the usual burst of anger, but Jim listened patiently until she paused.

"I knew you had to spill this, so I let you rave," said he. "But it's too late; somebody has been after Hammon for a long time, and he's been got--yes, and got good. Take a flash at THE CHORUS- GIRL'S BIBLE." He tossed his sister a copy of a prominent theatrical paper. "I waited until it came out."

Lorelei gasped, for on the front page glared black-typed head- lines of the Hammon scandal. John Merkle's name was there, too and linked with it, her own.

"Jim!" she cried aghast. "They promised to kill the story."

"Humph! Charley Murphy himself couldn't kill that."

"What is--THIS?" She ran her eye swiftly down the column.

"Sure. Melcher commenced suit against Hammon this afternoon. Fifty thousand dollars for alienation of Lilas's affections. Joke, eh? He claims there was a common-law marriage and he'll get the coin."

"But Mrs. Hammon?"

"The evidence is in her hands already--dates, places, photographs, everything. She'll win her suit, too."

"Why, it sounds like a--a deliberate plot. But I don't understand who's behind it. What part did you have in it, Jim? Were you helping Mr. Melcher in his blackmail scheme, or--" Another possibility came to her--"Were you by any chance working for Mrs. Hammon?"

Divining his sister's prejudice, Jim lied promptly and convincingly. "Why, Mrs. Hammon, of course. I had a chance to turn a few dollars, and I took it."

"But why did they drag me in? Couldn't you keep me out of it? This is dreadful." As she ran her eye over the article she saw that it was quite in harmony with the general tone and policy of the paper which catered to the jaded throngs of the Tenderloin. Truth had been cunningly distorted; flippancy, sensationalism, and a salacious double meaning ran through it all.

"What's dreadful about it?" inquired her brother. "That sort of advertising does a show-girl good. You've got to make people talk about you, Sis, and this'll bring a gang of high-rollers your way. You've been so blamed proper that nobody's interested in you any more."

For a moment Lorelei scrutinized her brother in silence, taken aback at his outrageous philosophy. Jim had changed greatly, she mused; not until very lately had she observed the full measure of the change in him. He was no longer the country boy, the playmate and confidant of her youth, but a man, sophisticated, hard, secretive. He had been thoroughly Manhattanized, she perceived, and he was as foreign to her as a stranger. She shook her head hopelessly.

"You're a strange brother," she said. "I hardly know what to make of you. Has the city killed every decent instinct in you, Jim?"

"Now don't begin on the Old Home stuff," he replied, testily. "I haven't changed any more than you have. Why, ma used to think you'd play dead or jump through whenever she snapped her finger, but--you're getting tough-bitted. You're getting sanctimonious in your old age. Where you got it from I don't know--not from ma, surely, nor from dad; he's a cheater and always has been."


"Oh, you know it. I'm wondering--how long you'll stand pat."

"What do you mean?"

"Do you really intend to marry a bunch of coin?"

"That's the program, isn't it? I've been raised for that, and nothing else."

"Well, ma can't put it over, so I guess it's up to me. Just leave things to Brother Jim, and don't worry over what happens. Nobody along Broadway pays any attention to this rot." He indicated the newspaper with a wave of his cigar. After a moment he added, "Would you accept Merkle?"

Lorelei shivered. "Oh--no! Not Mr. Merkle."

"Why not? He's all right, and he won't last long."

"The idea is--Ugh! He wouldn't ask me, and I sha'n't allow you to use this scandal to--urge him. The proposition sounds all right in the abstract--marriage, money, comfort, everything I want--but when it comes right down to the point--I--always balk."

"Humph! You ought to consider the rest of us a little bit. Pa could be cured, ma'd be happy. I could get on my feet. How about Bob Wharton?"

"He's a drunkard."

"Good Lord, you don't expect to grab a divinity student, do you? That kind never has anything."

"Let's not talk about it, please. Mr. Wharton is getting nasty, and--I'm beginning to be afraid of him."

"I'll bet you could land him--"

"Please. I--don't want to think about it. I dare say I'll bring myself to marry some rich man some day; but--Merkle--Wharton--" She shuddered for a second time. "If Mr. Wharton is serious this scandal will scare him off, or else he'll become--just like the others. I could cry. He threatened me to-night; I don't know how I'll manage to avoid him to-morrow night."

"Hm-m! He's coming that strong, eh?" was Jim's interested query; but on hearing his sister's account of the young millionaire's determined pursuit he volunteered in his offhand way to assist her.

"I'll come for you myself, and we'll whip over to a cafe for supper."

"You'll save me from him," said Lorelei, with a wan smile, "and I'll know that you are in good company for one evening at least."

"Don't lose any sleep over my habits," he told her, lightly; "and don't worry yourself about this newspaper story, either. Melcher is in the right, for Hammon cut him out with Lilas. He's after Merkle, too; so you'll have to stand the gaff this time. I'll look up this chap Wharton to-morrow and find out what sort of a farmer's son he really is."

As Jim and his mother breakfasted together on the following morning he broached the subject of his recent conversation with Lorelei.

"She's sore about the story," he said. "We had a long talk last night."

"I knew she would be, and I'm not sure it was a good thing."

"We'll drag something out of it if you do your part. Merkle will pay. Don't mention money--nothing but marriage--understand? Outraged motherhood, ruined daughter, blasted career--that's yours. I'll be the brother who's in the position of a father to her. I can threaten, but you mustn't. Goldberg will close for us."

"I don't see why we have to divide with a lawyer, when it's our affair and we can handle it ourselves," his mother complained.

"I tell you it's got to go through the regular channels. This was Melcher's idea, and, since I'm in on the Hammon money, Max is entitled to his bit of this. Gee! If she'd only told us she was going out with Merkle we might have framed something worth while-- I don't mind telling you this is a pretty weak case."

"He won't stand publicity; they never do," averred Mrs. Knight.

"Oh, he's not like Hammon; he hasn't GOT a family-and Lorelei won't back us up, either. We've got to bluff it through."

"Wouldn't he marry her?"

"Not a chance. In the first place, she wouldn't have him. Bob Wharton is the white hope."

"She hates him, too. Goodness knows what we're going to do with her."

"I think she'll stand for Wharton if we work her right; it's him or nobody. She's getting harder to handle every day, though, and one of these times she'll fall for some rummy. If she ever does lose her head she'll skid for the ditch, and we can kiss ourselves good-by. She'll be as easy to steer as a wild boar by the tail. I guess you're sorry now that you didn't listen to me and let Max handle her before she got wise."

"I wouldn't feel safe with any of that crowd. I'd be terribly afraid." Mrs. Knight shook her head dubiously.

"Say! She's got you doing it, too. Why, they don't take a chance. Goldberg handles the legal end, and his brother is in the legislature. But that's not all: Melcher's partner in his gambling-house is Inspector Snell. You can't beat that. I could have Merkle killed for five hundred bucks and never stand a pinch. I'd merely tip one of Maxey's gunmen, and some night Old Dyspepsia Dick would wake up with a harp in his hand. They'd get him coming out of his bank or going to his club or leaving the theater; and nobody would dream who did it, for there wouldn't be a motive. It's done every day, ma. Even if they grabbed one of the boys, Melcher would spring him from the Tombs. 'Alibi' is Maxey's middle name, and he MAKES bondsmen. How do you suppose politics are run in this town, anyhow?"

"That isn't politics; that's murder." Mrs. Knight was deeply shocked. "This is a terrible city, Jim."

"Sure; but Max is in politics for the protection it gives him in his other lines of business. His gambling-house is as safe as a church. There's big money in this banker-hunting, too. Did you read about the two old guys at the King William Hotel last month? Well, Max laid 'em against two squabs, friends of Tony's. He got the girls into the hotel, paid their bills, and all that. They've cleaned up about twenty thousand so far. Of course, Lorelei won't stand for anything like that, so we've got to marry her, I suppose."

"Just the same, I'm frightened--and this isn't honest. I wish she would listen to Robert Wharton."

James winked meaningly. "Leave that to me. She's going to Proctor's with me to-night. Maybe he'll join us. But meanwhile we've got Merkle for some quick money if we work him right. I'm off for Goldy's office now. I'll meet you at three."

When Jim reappeared, dressed for the street, he gave a bit of parting advice:

"Better lay on the hysterics when she wakes up. It'll make it easier for me to-night."

Lorelei found her mother visibly upset by the story in the morning's newspaper.

"You told me you only went to supper with that man," Mrs. Knight cried, tragically. "Instead of that you two were off in the country together all night. Here's the whole thing." She brandished the paper dramatically.

"Well, I told you a fib. But there's no harm done."

"Harm, indeed? You're ruined. I never read anything more disgraceful; I daren't show it to Peter--it would kill him. What EVER possessed you, after the way we've watched over you, after the care we've taken of you? It's terrible."

"Please don't carry on so. It was too bad, of course, but--I'll live through it."

The shock of this callous assertion seemed to rob Mrs. Knight of speech; she stared at her daughter in grief and amazement.

"Mr. Merkle is a gentleman," Lorelei defended. "He'll regret this publicity as much as I."

"The wretch! I'll teach him to spoil an innocent girl's career and drag her name in the mud." Mrs. Knight glared balefully.

"You'll do nothing of the sort," said her daughter, sharply.

"He--ought to marry you."

"Why, mother! You're more insulting than that newspaper. The career of a show-girl is something of a joke." Lorelei undertook to laugh, but the attempt failed rather dismally.

"Indeed. What will the other men say? You had a character; nobody could say a word against you until now. Do you think any decent man would marry a girl who did a thing like this? Of course, I know you're a good girl, but they don't, and they'll believe absolutely the worst. You've spoiled everything, my dear; I'm completely discouraged." Mrs. Knight began to weep in a weak, heart-broken manner, expecting Lorelei to melt, as usual; but, seeing something in her daughter's expression that warned her not to carry her reproaches too far, she broke out: "You're SO hard, SO unreasonable. Don't you see I'm frantic with worry? You're all we have, and--and the thought of an injury to your prospects nearly kills me. You misunderstand everything I say. I--WISH you were safely married and out of danger. I think I could die happy then. It means so much to all of us to have you settled right away. Peter is failing every day; Jim is going to the dogs, and-- I'm sick over it all."

"I wish I WERE married and out of the way. You would all be fixed, at least. I--don't much care about myself." Lorelei sighed in hopeless weariness of spirit, for variations of this scene had been common of late, and they always filled her with the blackest pessimism.

"Maybe Mr. Merkle--"

"We'll leave him out of this," declared Lorelei; "he's too decent to have a person like me foisted upon him--and there's no reason whatever why he should be held responsible for my notoriety." She turned away from the dining-room with a shudder of distaste. "I don't want any breakfast. I think I'll get some air."

As soon as she was out in the street she turned southward involuntarily, and set off toward the establishment of Adoree Demorest.

Mrs. Knight dried her eyes and began to dress herself carefully, preparatory to a journey into the Wall Street section of the city, for the hour was drawing on toward three o'clock.

Meanwhile Jim, having transacted his business at Goldberg's office, sought a more familiar haunt on one of the side-streets among the forties. Here, just off Broadway, was a famous barber- shop--a spotless place with white interior and tiled walls. Six Italians in stiff duck coats practised their arts at a row of well-equipped chairs. A wasp-waisted girl sat at the manicure- table next the front windows. As Jim entered she was holding the hand of a jaded person in a light-gray suit, and murmuring over it with an occasional upward glance from a pair of bold dark eyes.

"Tony the Barber's" place was thoroughly antiseptic. Dirt was a stranger there; germs found life within its portals a hazardous business--what with the vitrified walls, the glass shelves, and enameled plumbing. Even the towels were handled with tongs; the nickel-plated steamer in which they were heated to an unbearable temperature seemed to puff its cheeks with a consciousness of painful and almost offensive cleanliness. The men who worked here had hard, black eyes, but their hands were soft and white. The rows of mugs that stood inside the glass cupboards were inscribed with the names of prominent actors, managers, and booking-agents of the Rialto--for this was a famous place in its way.

Tony, engaged in administering a shampoo, nodded at Jim, and from force of habit murmured politely:

"Next!" Then, with a meaning glance, he indicated a door at the rear of the shop. In the third chair Jim recognized Max Melcher, although the face of the sporting-man was swathed in steaming cloths.

Jim passed on and into a rear room, where he found three men seated at a felt-covered card-table. They were well dressed, quiet persons--one a bookmaker whom the racing laws had reduced from affluence to comparative penury; another, a tall, pallid youth with bulging eyes. The third occupant of the room was an ex- lightweight champion of the ring, Young Sullivan, by name. His trim waist and powerful shoulders betokened his trade. His jaw was firm, and a cauliflower ear overhung his collar like a fungus.

Jim drew up a chair and chatted idly until the book-maker yawned, rose, and went out. Then Jim and the others relaxed.

"Gee, he's a sticker!" exclaimed the pugilist. "I thought he'd broke his back."

"Max is getting his map greased," the pop-eyed youth explained. Taking a pasteboard box from his pocket, he removed a heroin tablet therefrom and crushed it; the powder he held in the indentation between the base of his closed thumb and first finger, known as "the thimble"; then, with a quick inhalation, he drew the drug up his nostrils. "Have an angel?" he inquired, offering the box.

Jim accepted, but Young Sullivan declined.

"What's the news?" the latter inquired.

"I've seen Goldy," replied Jim. "Mother and I will call on Merkle at three. I finally got her to consent."

Sullivan shook his head. "He MIGHT fall, but I doubt it. How does your sister feel?"

"That's the trouble. She's square, and we can't use her," Jim explained.

"Some doll!" admiringly commented Armistead, the third member of the group. Armistead had once been famed in vaudeville for dancing, but the drug habit had destroyed his endurance, and with it his career. "She's a perfect thirty-six, all right. She could rip a lot of coin loose if she tried."

At this moment Mr. Melcher, freshly perfumed and talcumed, entered the room. His white hair was arranged with scrupulous nicety; his pink face, as unwrinkled as his immaculate attire, was beaming with good humor.

"Well, boys, I'm the pay-car," he smiled.

"Hammon came through, eh?" Sullivan inquired, eagerly.

"Not exactly; we compromised. Quick sales and small profits; that's business."

"How strong did he go?" queried Armistead.

"Now, what's the difference, so long as you get yours? Photography is a paying business." Melcher laughed agreeably.

"Sure! I'll bet Sarony is rich." Young Sullivan carelessly accepted the roll of currency which Melcher tossed him, and the others did likewise.

"I suppose that's curtain for us," Jim said, regretfully.

"It is. The rest is Lilas's affair."

"Say, will the old man fall AGAIN?" queried Armistead.

"He's going to marry her!" The three others stared at him in amazement. "Right!" confirmed Melcher. "She's got a strangle hold on him."

"Hm-m! Maybe we haven't lost the last car yet," Sullivan ventured.

Jim seconded the thought. "She's got an ace buried somewhere. There's a lot more in her head than hair-pins. I wish Merkle would marry my sister."

"Not a chance," Melcher declared. "You'll be lucky to shake him down for a few thousand. How about Wharton? Will she stand for him?"

Jim frowned, and his voice was rough as he replied:

"I'll MAKE her stand for him--if it's a marry."

"He's a lush; if you got him stewed he might go that far. It has been done; but, of course, it's all up to the girl. Anyhow, if he balks at the altar we might get him for something else."

"I'm not sure I'll need any help in this." Jim looked up coldly. "If he marries her, that ends it; if we have to frame him, of course I'll split."

"How are you going to frame him, with a square dame like Lorelei?" asked Armistead.

"Frame both of them," Melcher said, shortly. "By the way, he's a gambler, too, isn't he? Bring him in some night, Jim, and I'll turn for him myself."

"Save his cuff-buttons for me," laughed Young Sullivan, idly riffling the cards. "Gee! Money comes easy to some folks. Don't you guys never expect to do any honest work?" _

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