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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 10

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Jim's appearance when he entered the dressing-room that night was a surprise; he was clad in faultless evening attire.

"Why the barbaric splendor?" inquired Lorelei. "Don't you know I'm only your sister?"

"I've GOT these Moe Levys, so I might as well wear 'em. I'm tired of running a moth-garage," he replied, laying aside his stick, gloves, and hat with a care that betrayed his unfamiliarity with them. "What have you got to go with this scenery?"

"Do you want me to dress, too?"

"Sure thing. Look your best, and make me think I'm a regular John."

"Bergman dropped in to see me to-night," she told him, after they had gossiped for a moment. "He referred to that story in this morning's Despatch."


"I don't like the way he talked."


"He's always that, but this time he was something more. He thinks he owns the girls who work for him."

Jim replied, carelessly: "Blow him and his job. You can get on at the Palace Garden."

"There's my contract: he can discharge me, you know, but I can't quit--that's one of the peculiarities of a theatrical contract. Well--he insisted on taking me to supper."

"A brother is a handy thing, once in a while, but for every-day use, you need a 'steady' with a kick in each mit."

"I wish YOU would punch him."

"Who? Me? And go joy-riding with a square-toe? Nix. I'm too refined. Did you see to-night's papers?"

"There wasn't much in them."

Jim smiled wisely. "There would have been if things hadn't gone right. I'm glad for your sake."

"Oh, the harm's done, I suppose. But there's one good thing about it--Bob Wharton hasn't bothered me this evening."

Jim, with an expressionless face, turned to speak to Lilas Lynn, who had just come in. When his sister came down after the last act, he was waiting at the door and helped her into a cab, despite her protestations that she would much prefer to walk.

"What are you going to do with all the coin you save? Slip it to the shoemakers?" he laughed. "I don't go out often; you'd better spring me good."

As they seated themselves in the main room at Proctor's he appraised her with admiring eyes. "You're the candy, Sis. There's class to that lay-out."

"It's part of the game to look well in public, but I'd have enjoyed myself more if we had gone to Billy the Oysterman's and dressed the part." She surveyed the gaudy dining-room with its towering marble columns, its tremendous crystal festoons showering a brilliant but becoming light upon the throngs below, then nodded here and there to casual greetings.

Proctor's was a show-place, built upon the site of a former resort the fame of which had been nation-wide; but the crowds that frequented it now were of a different type to those that had gathered in "the old Proctor's." Nowadays the customers were largely visitors to the city in whom the spirit of Bohemianism was entirely lacking. The new resort was too splendid for the old-time atmosphere. Magnificent panels done by a gifted artist were set into the walls and distant ceiling; an elaborate marble stairway rose from the street-level to the hall itself, but instead of extending an air of cheerful welcome it seemed to yawn hungrily for the occupants of the place, rudely inviting them to descend when they had sufficiently admired the costly furnishings. A superb orchestra was playing, hordes of waiters hovered about the serving-tables and sped noiselessly along the carpeted spaces between the dining-tables; but, despite the lights and the music, it was evident that the servitors outnumbered the guests. Nominally high wages were offset by the various deceptions open to an ingenious management; prices were higher here than elsewhere; the coat-rooms were robbers' dens infested by Italian mafiosi; tips were extravagant and amounted in effect to ransom; and each meal-check was headed by an illegible scrawl which masked an item termed "service." The figure opposite would have covered the cost of a repast at Childs's. But New York dearly loves to be pillaged; it cherishes a reputation for princely carelessness of expenditure. It follows that freedom from extortion in places of entertainment argues a want of popularity, than which nothing can be more distressing to contemplate. Nothing speeds the Manhattan sleep-hater more swiftly to a change of scene than the knowledge that he is getting his money's worth.

"Speaking of clothes," Jim continued, staring past his sister to another table, "there seems to be a strike-breaker in the room. Pipe the gink with the night-shirt under his coat, and the shoe- string tie. There must be a masquerade--Say! He's bowing to YOU."

"Hush! It's Campbell Pope, the critic."

Mr. Pope had risen and was slouching toward them. He took Lorelei's hand, then shot a sharp glance at her escort as the girl introduced them. Accepting Jim's mumbled invitation, he seated himself and instructed a waiter to bring his coffee. Jim continued to eye him with poorly concealed amusement, until Pope led him into conversation, whereupon the youth began to take in the fact that his guest's intelligence and appearance were entirely out of harmony. Wisely, Jim sheltered himself behind an assumption of pleasantry he was far from feeling. He also watched the nearest entrance with some anxiety, for the reviewer's presence did not fit well with his plans. As he finished ordering he heard Pope say:

"I was sorry the story got out, Miss Knight; but it was pretty well smothered in this evening's papers. Of course, you were dragged in by the hair to afford a Roman spectacle: we all saw what it meant when it came to us."

"What did it mean?" queried Jim, with brotherly interest.

"Blackmail. The word was written all over it. Melcher's connection with the affair was proof of that; then--the way it was handled! Nobody touched it except the Despatch, and, of course, it got its price."

"I thought newspapers paid for copy," innocently commented Jim.

"Yes, real newspapers; but the gang had to publish the stuff somewhere. It is reported that Hammon paid fifty thousand dollars to prevent Melcher from filing suit. I dare say things will be quiet around Tony the Barber's now."

"You press people certainly have got a lot up your sleeves." James's involuntary start of dismay did not pass unnoticed. He did not relish the gleam in Pope's eyes, and he hastily sought refuge in a goblet of water, notwithstanding his distaste for the liquid.

"We sometimes know as much as the police, and we invariably tell more," continued Pope. "Yes, a business man can get a hair-cut in Tony's without fear of family complications now. I suppose Armistead is smoking hop; young Sullivan is probably laying an alcoholic foundation for a wife-beating, and--the others are spending Hammon's money in the cafes."

Jimmy Knight paled, for behind Pope's genial smile were both mockery and contempt; a panic swept him lest this fellow should acquaint Lorelei with the truth. Jim lost interest in his clams and thereafter avoided conversation with the wariness of a fox.

He was still glowing with resentment when Robert Wharton paused at the table and greeted its occupants cheerily. In response to Jim's invitation Bob drew up a fourth chair, seated himself, and began to beam upon Lorelei. Noting the faint line of annoyance between her brows, he laughed.

"Retreat is cut off," he announced, complacently; "escape is hopeless. I've left orders to have the windows barred and the doors walled up."

"Eh? What's the idea?" inquired Pope.

Wharton answered sadly: "My vanity has suffered the rudest jolt of its young career; I mourn the death of a perfectly normal and healthy self-conceit, age twenty-nine. Services at noon; friends and relatives only."

"Oho! You've heard the seductive song of the Rhine maiden?" Pope's eyes were twinkling.

"Eh?--I'm tangled up like a basket of ticker-tape. You see, Campbell, I drink; candor compels me to acknowledge that much. In a moment of folly I was indiscreet, and ever since I have been trying to apologize. I have borne garlands of roses, offers of devotion, plaintive invitations to dine, but--the Circuit is a trick theater and it has a thousand doors. All I have to show for my efforts at reparation is a bad cold, a worse temper, and a set of false teeth which the doorman pledged with me for a loan of ten dollars. I have Mr. Regan's dental frieze in my bureau-drawer--but they only grin at me in derision. In short, I'm in Dutch, and there sits the adorable cause of my sorrows."

In spite of Wharton's reproachful tone, the gaze he bent upon Lorelei was good-humored, and she saw that he was in a mood different to any she had ever seen him in. Strange to say, he was sober, or nearly so, and he was plainly determined to make her like him.

"Has he annoyed you, Miss Knight?" asked Pope.


Wharton explained further. "The first time we met I deserved to be slapped, and I was. You see, I was ruder than usual. But I have sobered up purposely to apologize; I have repented, and--well, here we are, thanks to brother James."

"Thanks to--Jim?" Lorelei raised her brows.

Pope turned to young Knight and said, politely, "That is my foot you are stamping on."

Ignoring Jim's mute appeal, Wharton ran on smilingly: "He promised to shackle you to a table until I could stammer out my halting apologies, and now that I've done so in the presence of press and public won't you forgive me and help me to bury the hatchet in a Welsh rarebit?" He was speaking directly to her with a genuine appeal in his handsome eyes. Now that she saw him in his right mind, it was unexpectedly hard to resist him, for he was very boyish and friendly--quite unlike the person who had so grievously offended her.

When she and Jim had first entered the restaurant they had received a polite but casual recognition from the head waiter, whose duty it was to know all the stage favorites; but there attentions had ceased. With Wharton as a member of the party, however, there came a change. The head waiter himself hustled forward and, catching Lorelei's eye, signaled her with an appreciative droop of the lid. Her arrangement with Proctor's was of long standing, and her percentage was fixed, but this time she did not respond to the sign. Mr. Proctor himself paused momentarily at the table and rested a hand upon Wharton's shoulder while he voiced a few platitudes. Then in some inexplicable manner Robert found himself not only ordering for himself, but supplementing Jim's MENU with rare and expensive viands. As a great favor, he was advised of a newly imported vintage wine which the proprietor had secured for his own use; if Mr. Wharton wished to try it the steward would appeal directly to Mr. Proctor and secure the keys as a personal favor. Nothing like this wine had been seen in New York for years, possibly in a lifetime; it was an opportunity, and Mr. Proctor was eager to accommodate those who really knew wines. A visiting prince had offered him a fabulous price for the remaining bottles, but he had refused. To partake of this vintage was almost like drinking up the sunshine; darkness, complete and eternal, would follow when this precious shipment was exhausted.

Of course Mr. Wharton wished to sample such a vintage, any vintage, in fact, since a thousand fires were consuming him, and his nerves were on edge from the night before. The first draught electrified him, his spirits rose and he swept his companions along with his enthusiasm. From surrounding tables people accosted him; men paused in passing to exchange a word about stocks, polo, scandal, Newport, tennis, Tuxedo; none were in the least stiff or formal, and all expressed in one way or another their admiration for Lorelei. Women whom she knew were not of her world beamed and smiled at the young millionaire. It was a new experience for the girl, who felt herself, as the supper progressed, becoming conspicuous without the usual disagreeable accompaniments. Men no longer openly ogled her; women did not nudge each other and whisper; her presence in company with a member of the idolized rich was causing gossip, but gossip of a flattering kind.

All this attention, however, had quite the contrary effect upon Campbell Pope. Much to Jim's relief, he excused himself shortly, whereupon the former, after allowing Wharton to pay the score, suggested a dance, breezily sweeping aside his sister's mild objection. Of course, Bob was delighted, and soon the trio had set out upon a round of the dancing-cafes.

At the first place they visited they had difficulty in gaining entrance, for a crowd was held in check by the heavy plush cord stretched across the door to the restaurant proper; but here again Wharton's name proved potent. The barrier was lowered, and the party managed to squeeze their way into a badly ventilated Turkish room, where a demented darky orchestra was drumming upon various instruments ranging in resonance from a piano to a collection of kitchen utensils. Tables had been crowded around the walls and into the balcony so closely that the occupants rubbed shoulders, but the center of the lower floor was occupied by a roped corral in which a mass of dancers were revolving like a herd of milling cattle. Dusty, tobacco-smoked oriental rugs, banners and lanterns, suspended from walls and balcony railings, lent a semblance of "color" to the place; little Moorish alcoves were set into the walls, in and out of which undersized waiters dodged like rabbits in a warren. The attendants were irritable; they perspired freely, they bumped into people, squeezed past, or, failing in that, crawled over the seated guests.

After a breathless half-hour of this the three sought a resort farther up-town, where they found the entire upper floors of a restaurant building given over to "trotting." During the previous winter the craze for dancing had swept New York like a plague, and the various Barbary Coast figures had reached their highest popularity. Here, too, the rooms were thronged and the tables taken, despite the lateness of the season, but for a second time Wharton demonstrated that to a man about town of his accomplishments no place is really closed.

However loud the protest against this latest fad, it is doubtful if its effect is wholly harmful, for it at least introduced vigorous exercise and rhythmic movement into the midnight life of the city. Women went home in the gray dawn with faces flushed from natural causes; exquisite youths of nocturnal habits learned to perspire and to know the feeling of a wilted collar.

Bob Wharton had drunk heavily, but up to this time he had shown little effect from his potations beyond a growing exhilaration; now, however, the wine was taking toll, and Lorelei felt a certain pity for him. Waste is shocking; it grieved her to see a man so blessed with opportunity flinging himself away so fatuously. The hilarity which greeted him on every hand spoke of misspent nights and a reckless prodigality that betokened long habitude. Only his splendid constitution--that abounding vitality which he had inherited from sturdy, temperate forebears--enabled him to keep up the pace; but Lorelei saw that he was already beginning to show its effect. Judging from to-night's experience, he was still, in his sober moments, a normal person; but once he had imbibed beyond a certain point his past excesses uncovered themselves like grinning faces. Alcohol is a capricious master, seldom setting the same task twice, nor directing his slaves into similar pathways. He delights, moreover, in reversing the edge of a person's disposition, making good-natured people pettish or morose, while he sometimes improves those of naturally evil temper. Often under his sway the somber and the stoical become gay and impulsive, while the joyful sink into despondency. But with Robert Wharton, liquor intensified a natural agreeableness until it cloyed. His amenities were monstrously magnified; he became convivial to the point of offensiveness. In the course of this metamorphosis he was many things, and through such a cycle he worked to-night while the girl looked on.

Overcoming his niggardly instincts, Jimmy Knight, as the evening progressed, assumed the burden of entertainment. He, too, adopted a spendthrift gaiety and encouraged Wharton's libations, although he drank little himself.

There came a time when Bob could no longer dance--when, in fact, he could barely walk--and then it was that Jim proposed leaving. Bob readily agreed--having reached a condition of mellowness where he agreed enthusiastically to anything--and Lorelei was only too glad to depart. She had witnessed the pitiful breaking-down of Bob's faculties with a curious blending of concern and dismay, but her protests had gone unheeded. Having had a glimpse of his real self earlier in the evening, and being wise in the ways of intemperance, she felt only pity for him now as the three made their way down-stairs.

While Jim went in search of their belongings Bob propped himself against the wall and regarded her admiringly through eyes that were filmed and unfocusable.

"Fairy Princess, you are more adorable every minute," he said, thickly. "Yes! A thousand yesses. And I'm your little friend, eh? No more slaps, no more mysterious exits, what?"

"That depends upon you."

"I'm behaving finely," he vaunted. "I usually act much worse than I have to-night, but I like you. I like you differently-- understand? Not like the other girls. You're so beautiful! Makes me dizzy. You forgive my little joke, eh?"

"What joke?"

"Meeting you the way I did to-night. Jim's nice boy--obliged to him."

"I see. Then it was all planned?"

He nodded vehemently and nearly lost his balance.

"How much--did you pay him?" Lorelei queried, with, difficulty.

Mr. Wharton waved his hand in a magnificent gesture. "What's money, anyhow? Somebody's bound to get it."

"Fifty dollars?"

He looked at her reproachfully. "That's an insult to Jim--he's a business man, he is. More than that--Oh yes, and I'll take care of him again--this very night. I'll stake him. He knows a place."

"Will you do me a favor?" she asked, after a pause.

Wharton assured her with abnormal emphasis that her lightest wish was law.

"Then go straight home from here," she pleaded.

"I say, that's not fair." Bob looked ludicrously shocked. "I promised Jim--Wouldn't have me break a sacred promise, would you? We're expected--a little game all arranged where we can bust it quick. If you hear a loud noise--that'll be Melcher going broke."

"Melcher!" Lorelei looked sharply at her brother, who was approaching with her wraps, and noted that he was perfectly sober. A moment later she checked Bob in the act of giving directions to the cab-driver:

"Wait. Where do you live, Mr. Wharton?"

"The Charlevoix." It was the most expensive bachelor apartment building in the city.

"Drive to the Charlevoix," she told the chauffeur.

"Hold on, Sis," cried Jim. "We're going to take you home first."


"But--" Jim saw in his sister's face something that brought a smothered oath to his lips. Drawing her out of hearing, he muttered, angrily, "Mind your business; I've got something on."

"I know you have." She met his eyes unflinchingly. "But you sha'n't rob him."

Jim thrust his thin face close to hers, and she saw that it was distorted with rage. "If you don't want to go home, stay here. He's going with me."

"We'll see."

She turned, but he seized her roughly. "What are you going to do?" he demanded.

"I'm going to tell him he's being taken to a crooked gambling- house, and that you're working for Max Melcher. He isn't too drunk to understand that."

Her brother clenched his fist menacingly, but she did not recoil, and he thought better of his impulse.

"Are you grand-standing?" he queried, brutally. "Are you stuck on the boob? or do you want your bit?"

Without reply she walked back to the cab, redirected the driver to the Charlevoix, then seated herself beside Wharton, who was already sinking into a stupor. Jim slunk in behind her, and they were whirled southward.

It was a silent ride, for the besotted young millionaire slept, and Jim dared not trust himself to speak. Lorelei closed her eyes, nauseated, disillusioned, miserable, seeing more clearly than ever the depths into which she had unwittingly sunk, and the infamy into which Jim had descended. Nor was the change, she reflected, confined to them alone. Upon the other members of the family the city had stamped its mark just as plainly. She recalled the ideals, the indefinite but glorious dreams of advancement that she had cherished upon leaving Vale, and realized with a shock how steadily she had degenerated. Where was her girlhood? Where was that self-respect, that purity of impulse and thought that all men recognize as precious? Gradually, bit by bit, they had slipped away. Wisdom had come in their place; knowledge was hers, but faith had rotted. Time was when the sight of a drunken man filled her with terror; now the one beside her scarcely awakened disgust. Bad women had seemed unreal--phantoms of another world. Now she brushed shoulders with them daily, and her own maidenhood was soiled by the contact. She was a girl only in name; in reality she was a woman of the streets, or so she viewed herself in the bitterness of this hour.

At his hotel Wharton roused himself, and Lorelei sent him reeling into the vestibule. Then she and Jim turned homeward through the deserted streets. _

Read next: Chapter 11

Read previous: Chapter 9

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