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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 11

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During the last act of the matinee on the day following Lorelei was surprised to receive a call from John Merkle. "The Judge" led him to her dressing-room, then shuffled away, leaving him alone with her and Mrs. Croft.

"I hope I haven't broken any rules by dropping in during your office hours," he began.

"Theatrical rules are made to be broken; but I do think you are indiscreet. Don't you?"

The banker had been using his eyes with an interest that betrayed his unfamiliarity with these surroundings. "I was on my way up- town and preferred not to telephone." He looked meaningly at Croft; and Lorelei, interpreting his glance, sent the dresser from the room on some errand. "Well, the game worked," said Merkle. "Mrs. Hammon has left home and commenced suit for divorce. If our friend Miss Lynn had set out to ruin Jarvis socially--and perhaps financially--she couldn't have played her cards better."

"Is that what you came to tell me?"

Merkle hesitated. "No," he admitted, "it isn't; but I'm a bit embarrassed now that I'm here. I suppose your mother told about seeing me?"

"My mother?" Lorelei's amazement was convincing, and his keen eyes softened. "When did you see mother? Where?"

"Yesterday, at my office. Didn't you know that she and your brother had called?"

Lorelei shook her head; she felt sick with dread of his next words.

"It was very--unpleasant, I fear, for all of us."

"What did they--want?" The girl was still smiling, but her lips beneath the paint were dry.

"They felt that I had--er--involved you in a great deal of notoriety. From what they said I judged that you shared their feelings." He paused awkwardly once more, and she motioned him to continue. "We didn't get on very well, especially your brother and I; for he presumed to--criticize my relations with you and--er--my motive in taking you to ride the other night. I believe I was quite rude to him; in fact, I had the watchman eject him, not daring to trust myself."

"They asked for--money?" Lorelei averted her face, for she could not bear to meet his frank eyes.

"Yes--what I considered a great deal of money. I understood they represented you. They didn't insist, however; they offered me a choice."

"Choice? Of what?"

"Well--I inferred that marriage would undo the wrong I had--"

"Oh-h!" Lorelei rose with a gasp. Bravely she stilled the tremor of her lips. "Tell me--the rest."

"There isn't much more. Your mother was quite hysterical and-- noisy. To-day a lawyer came to see me. He offers to settle the whole matter, but I prefer dealing directly with you."

"Do you think I knew anything about it?" she cried, indignantly.

"No, I do NOT think so now. Yesterday I was too much surprised and too angry to know just what I did think. It's perfectly true, however, that I was to blame for the unfortunate outcome of the ride, and I want to make amends for any injury--"

"Weren't you injured, too, by the publicity?"

Merkle showed his teeth in a mirthless smile.

"That's neither here nor there."

"Please--leave me, and--let me think this over. I must do something quickly, or--I'll smother."

"I'm glad I came," said he, rising. "I'm glad I made sure."

"So am I. What you have told me has made a great difference in-- everything. Don't allow them to--" She hesitated and her voice broke. "I can't say it. Y-you must think I'm--unspeakable."

He shook his head gravely. "No, I merely think you are very unfortunate. I think you need help more than any girl I ever knew."

"I do. I do."

"But I am not the one to give it--at least not the kind of help you need."

"I'll need help more than ever--after to-night."

"Yes? Why?"

"Because I'm going to leave home." Lorelei's head was up, and she spoke with a note of defiance.

"Then perhaps I CAN do something." He seated himself again. "You will need money."

"Oh no. I have my salary and the other revenues you know about. I have kept my family for two years."

"Work won't hurt you, but why force yourself to go on with those other things? They're not to your liking, I'm sure."

"My mother and father must live. There isn't enough--don't you see? There just isn't enough for all of us unless I--graft like the other girls."

Merkle broke out, impatiently: "Make an end of it. I'll finance you." She laughed a little harshly. "Don't misunderstand me," he went on, almost eagerly. "Don't think for an instant that I'd venture to expect anything in return. I won't trouble you; I won't even see you. Nobody will ever know. I wouldn't miss the money, and I'd really love to do it. You tried to do me a favor--"

"There's no use arguing."

"Well, don't be stubborn or hasty. You could use--say, ten thousand dollars. It would keep you going very nicely, and really it's only the price of a new auto."

"Why do you offer me so much?" she asked, curiously.

"Because I like you--Oh, I mean 'LIKE,' not 'LOVE'! Because I think you're a good sort and will need money to remain good. You're not an ordinary woman, Miss Knight; you can't live as ordinary women live, now that you're famous. New York won't let you."

"You're very kind and generous after all that has occurred and after knowing my reason for being here."

"My dear child, you didn't choose your family, and as for the other, the women of my set marry for money, just as you plan to do. So do women everywhere, for that matter, and many of them make excellent wives--yes, far better than if they had married poor men. Few girls as beautiful as you in any walk of life are allowed to marry for love. Trust me, a woman like you, if she lives up to the obligations of wifehood, deserves better than one who takes a man for love and then perhaps goes back on her bargain. Will you accept my offer?"

"No. But I thank you."

"Think it over; there is no hurry, and remember I want to help." With one of his infrequent, wan smiles he extended his hand, and Lorelei grasped it warmly, though her face was set and strained.

She was far too well balanced for hasty resolutions, but her mind, once made up, was seldom changed. It distressed her grievously to leave her people, but at the thought of remaining longer with them every instinct rebelled. Her own kin, urged by greed, had not hesitated to cheapen and degrade her; their last offense, coupled with all that had gone before, was more than could be borne. Yet she was less resentful than sad, for it seemed to her that this was the beginning of the end. First the father had been crippled, then the moral fiber of the whole family had disintegrated until the mother had become a harpy, the brother a scamp, and she, Lorelei, a shameless hunter of men. Now the home tie, that last bond of respectability, was to be broken.

Her first impulse was to take up her abode with Adoree Demorest, but a little thought showed the inadvisability of that. In her doubt she appealed to Lilas, broaching the subject as the two girls were dressing after the performance.

"An apartment?" echoed the latter. "Why, my building is full of them. Who wants one?"

"I do."

"You--?" Lilas turned with her mouth full of hair-pins, and her hands halted in their nimble duties.

When Lorelei had made known her decision, the other girl nodded her approval.

"I don't blame you a bit; a girl needs liberty. I have five rooms, and a Jap to take care of them; they're lovely."

"I can't afford an expensive place."

"Well, there are some three-room flats in the rear, and--I have it! Gertie Moore kept one, but she's gone on the road. It's all furnished, too. Some Rah-rah boy from Columbia fixed it up for her, but they had a row, broke the engagement, and she joined out with the 'Kissing Girls.' If it hasn't been sublet you can get it at your own terms. The building is respectable, too; it's as proper as the Ritz. I'm dining alone to-night. Come to dinner with me and we'll find out all about it."

Lorelei would have preferred a different location, not particularly desiring to be near Lilas; but there was no time in which to look about, and the necessity that faced her made any assistance welcome. Without more discussions she agreed, and the two girls rode up-town together.

The Elegancia, where Lilas lived, was a painfully new, over- elaborate building with a Gothic front and a Gotham rear--half its windows pasted with rental signs. Six potted palms, a Turkish rug, and a jaundiced Jamaican elevator-boy gave an air of welcome to the ornate marble entrance-hall.

Lilas fitted a key to the first door on the right as they went in, explaining, "I'm on the ground floor, and find it very convenient."

"This place is too grand for me," Lorelei objected.

"Oh, offer your own price for Gertie's flat if you like it. They're crazy for tenants. If you didn't want a furnished place you could get in rent-free. They have to fill up these buildings to sell them. I've lived for months without paying a cent, and always in a new apartment. As soon as my lease was up and the owner wanted to renew I'd move to another house that wasn't full. It's cheaper than hotels--if you want to save money."

Lorelei was surprised to find her friend's quarters not only richly, but lavishly furnished. The floors were covered with rugs of the deepest hue and richest luster; the furniture of the front room into which she was first ushered was of an inlaid foreign pattern, of which she could not guess the name or period. There was a player-piano to match the furniture, and a cabinet of rolls. Near by stood a specially made Victrola with an extensive selection of records. There were bronze lamps, ravishing bits of bric-a-brac, lace curtains of which she could judge the quality, and heavy hangings, sheathed now in their summer coverings. The decorations of the room were harmonious and bespoke a reckless disregard of cost. A fluffy Japanese spaniel with protruding eyes and distorted visage capered deliriously at its mistress's feet.

But the objects that intrigued the visitor most strongly were several paintings. They were of a kind she had seldom seen, and in the afternoon light one stood out with particularly startling effect. It was a dusky landscape; there was a stream, a meadow edge, trees just growing black against a dying sunset, a herd of cattle coming out of the west. Before this picture Lorelei paused, staring with wide eyes of wonder.

Lilas flung her hat carelessly into a chair, lit a cigarette from a Tiffany humidor, then turned with the spaniel in her arms and, beholding her guest with rapt, upturned face, remarked, with a laugh:

"Looks the real thing, doesn't it?"

"Oh--it's wonderful--so clean and cool and quiet! I've seen cattle in Vale that looked just like those, when I went barefoot in the grass."

"Some Dutchman painted it--his name's in the corner. He's dead now, I believe. It used to hang in some museum--I forget where. I like pictures of women best, but--" She shrugged and left her sentence unfinished. "There's a dandy in my bedroom, although it didn't cost half as much as that barn-yard thing. The frame's a foot wide and covered with solid gold."

"I had no idea you lived like this." Lorelei peered through a pair of French doors and into a perfectly appointed library, with a massive mahogany table, deep lounging-chairs, a writing-desk, and a dome-crowned reading-lamp.

"My study," Lilas laughed, shortly. "That's where I improve my mind--not. The books are deadly. Now come; Hitchy Koo must have dinner ready. His name isn't Hitchy Koo, but it sounds like it, and he's 'the cutest little thing; got the cutest little swing.'" She moved down the hall humming the chorus of the senseless popular song from which she had quoted.

Everywhere was the same evidence of good taste in decoration and luxury of equipment, but a suspicion had entered Lorelei's mind, and she avoided comment. Hitchy Koo was cook, butler, and house- boy, and in view of Miss Lynn's disorderly habits it was evident that he had all he could do to keep the place presentable. His mistress possessed that faculty of disarrangement so common in stage-women; wherever she went she left confusion behind; she was careless to the point of destruction, and charred marks upon the handsome sideboard and table showed where glowing cigarette stumps had suffered a negligent demise. The spaniel was allowed to worry bits of food that left marks on the rug; his owner ate without appetite and in a hypercritical mood that took no account of the wasteful attempts to please her. Quite regardless of the patient little Jap, she alternately found fault with him and discussed with her guest matters of so frank a nature that Lorelei was often painfully embarrassed.

"So, you like my home, do you?" she queried, after a time.

"I've never seen one so beautiful."

Lilas nodded. "Hitchy sleeps out, and that leaves me the whole place. Jarvis furnished it, even to the books, and I'm studying to be a lady." Again she laughed mockingly. "I make a bluff at reading, but so long as I talk about Napoleon he never thinks to question me. I know that French gink backward."

"I wish I had a hobby--something to interest me, something to live for," said Lorelei, lamely.

"Yes. It gives you something to think about when you're alone. It helps you to--stand things." For the first time Lilas showed a trace of feeling in her voice; she dropped her chin into her palm and, leaning upon the table, stared as if at a vision. Her dark eyes were somber, her brows were lowered and drawn together.

The slipshod informality of the meal, the constant faultfinding of the hostess, made it something of a trial. Lorelei was not sorry when it was over and Lilas took her to look at the vacant flat.

Miss Moore's apartment offered a wide contrast to the one they had just quitted, being very small and very modestly furnished; but it was on the second floor, convenient to both elevator and stairway, it boasted a piano, and the superintendent allowed his prospective tenant to name her own terms. She descended with relief, feeling that she had made not a bad bargain.

She stated, as she sank into Lilas's big library chair, "I feel quite independent at last. The rent is ridiculous, and I can do my own cooking."

"Don't make a fool of yourself. You can do as well as I've done. You have the looks."

"But I'm not engaged to a multimillionaire."

"It seems queer, when I think of it," Lilas mused. "Jarvis is one of the richest men in New York, and he made his money out of the steel business--the business into which I was born. Have you ever been through a mill?"


"It's wonderful, terrible. I can smell the hot slag, the scorching cinders, the smoke, to this day. Some nights I wake up--screaming, it's so vivid. I see the glare of the furnaces, the belching flames, the showers of sparks from the converters, the streams of white-hot metal, and they seem to pour over me. I have the same dream always; I've had it ever since the night after my father was killed."

"You told me he was killed in a steel-mill."

"Yes, before my eyes. I saw it." Lilas shuddered. "I was a little girl then, but I've never forgotten. We were poor, dreadfully poor, like all the Jews--Oh yes; didn't you know I'm a Jew?"

"Then 'Lilas Lynn'--?"

"Stage name. It's really Lily Levinski. We were Polish. I was dragged up, along with the other workmen's children, in the soot and grime of the Pennsylvania mills. We never saw anything green; nothing grew in our town. I learned to play on a slag-pile, and my shoes, when I had any, were full of holes--the scars are on my feet yet. Everything was grim and gray there, and the children were puny, big-eyed little things. ... The mills were hideous by day, but at night they became--oh, tremendous. They changed the sky into a flaring canopy, they roared with the clashing of rolls and the rumble of gears; the men looked black and tiny, like insects, against the red glow from the streaming metal. ...

"Hell must be like those mills--it couldn't be worse. I used to watch the long rows of little cars, each with an upright ingot of hot steel on its way to the soaking-pit, and I used to fancy they were unhappy spirits going from one torture to another. When the furnaces opened and the flames belched out into the night--they threw horrible black shadows, you know, like eddies of pitch--or when the converters dumped. ... They lit up the sky with an explosion of reds and yellows and whites that put out the stars. It--it was like nothing so much as hell."

Lorelei had never heard her room-mate speak with such feeling nor in such a strain. But Lilas seemed quite unconscious of her little burst of eloquence. She was seated, leaning forward now with hands locked between her knees; her eyes were brilliant in the gathering dusk. Her memories seemed to affect her with a kind of horror, yet to hold her fascinated and to demand expression.

"I was an imaginative kid," she continued. "It's a trait of our people, like--well, like their distrust of authority and their fear of law. You see, persecution made them cunning, but underneath they are fierce and revengeful and--lawless. I inherited all these traits--but that has nothing to do with the story. Father worked in the Bessemer plant, like any hunkie, and the women used to bring the men's lunches to them. Mother wasn't strong, and that duty fell to me; I had my stand where I used to wait for the whistle to blow. ...

"It was one of the biggest mills in Pennsylvania, and its tonnage was always heavy because the superintendent was a slave-driver. He was one of those men who are born without soul or feeling, and he had no interest in anything except rails and plates. His plant held the record, month after month, but at last he lost the broom at the stack. That was the pennant of victory--a broom tied to the highest chimney. I remember hearing father and the others talk about it, and they seemed to feel the loss--although, goodness knows, they had little reason for wanting to keep the broom, since it meant only more sweat and labor for them, while the glory all went to the superintendent. But that's the way with men. ...

"One day I took my bucket and joined the line of women and girls that filed in through the gates. I was twelve then, but stunted with smoke and thin from poverty. I'll never forget that day; the sole of one of my shoes was worn through, and cinders kept working in. I took my stand just outside the Bessemer plant. It was a big shell of steel girders and corrugated iron, and the side where we were was open. Away up above were the roaring crucibles where the metal was fluxed; beneath ran the little flat-cars waiting for the ingots to be poured. Father saw me and waved his hand--he always waved at me--then I saw the superintendent coming through--a big, square-faced man whom everybody feared. We kids used to think he was an ogre and ate little people. He was raging and swearing and spurring the men on to more haste--I heard later that he had sworn to win the broom back if he wrecked the plant. Wherever he went, the hunkies danced; he could put life into a dead man's limbs, that man. It was because of their great fear of him and his furious urging that--something happened."

Lilas had begun her recital slowly, without apparent object, but once into it she seemed unable to stop; and now, although her words came haltingly, it was plain that she had worked herself into a sort of hysteria in which she gave little heed to her hearer. It was characteristic of her that she could so excite herself by the power of visualization as to be completely transported.

"Something went wrong overhead; the operator got rattled or somebody was late in his duties and fouled the machinery; anyhow, the converter dumped too soon. Men were working directly underneath, father among the rest. Being so young, I had no idea of what it all meant at the time--but the memory stuck. I saw him go down under a stream of liquid steel--"

Lorelei's horrified exclamation went unnoticed; Lilas's voice was shrill.

"Yes. He was blotted out, right there before my eyes, in an instant. In the time it takes to snap your finger, he--and the others--were gone, changed into smoke, into absolute nothingness. One moment he was whole, alive, flesh and bone, the next he didn't exist; tons of boiling metal ran over the spot. Nothing in the world was ever so horrible. You've never seen liquid steel nor felt the awful breath of it, have you? There wasn't even a funeral. Twelve men, twelve pinches of ashes, were lost somewhere, swallowed up in that mass--nothing more. There was no insurance, and nobody took the blame. Another Jew family, a few more widowed and fatherless foreigners, among that army, meant nothing. Scarcely a month went by without accidents of some sort.

"The shock finished mother, for she was emotional and she had imagination, too. I've never forgotten that day, nor the figure of that shouting, swearing man who came through the Bessemer mill crying for more speed, more speed, more speed--so that a broom could be hoisted on a halyard and so that other men in other cities, for one short month, could point to him with envy.

"I suppose I was too little to make any foolish vows of vengeance, for I was only a ragged mite of a child among a horde of slaves, but when I grew older I often dreamed of having that man in my power, and--making him suffer. Who would--who COULD have imagined that I'd ever be living on money wrung from the labor of men like my father, and be in a position to meet that man on an equal footing? _I_ never did--not in my wildest moments, and yet--here I am. Steel-money bought these books, these rugs and paintings. Any one of those pictures represents the wages of a lifetime for a man like my father. He was murdered, so was my mother--but things are queer. Anyhow, here I am, rich--and the day of reckoning gets closer all the time."

She ended with an abruptness that evidenced her agitation. Rising, she jerked a beaded chain that depended from the center lamp, and the room was flooded with mellow light; then she drew out the table drawer at her guest's elbow, and with shaking hands selected a small box from the confusion within. Lorelei recoiled at the sight of a revolver half hidden among the disorder.

"Goodness! I hope it isn't loaded," the latter exclaimed. "Your story gives me the creeps and that thing--seems to fit in."

"It's loaded, all right. I keep it for protection," Lilas explained, carelessly, then rang for the Jap. She opened the box, which contained several compartments, in one of which was a package of white powder, in another a silver tablespoon. When the obedient Hitchy Koo appeared she ordered a glass of water.

"I don't know why I told you all this," she half apologized to Lorelei. "It has upset me, as it always does."

"How did you ever grow up and--educate yourself?"

"I hardly know. Some neighbors took me in at first, and I worked for them; then I got a job in a dry-goods store, and finally in the corset department. I filled out when I began to get something to eat and I developed a good figure. Finally I got to be a model. I was quick to learn, and when rich dames came in I watched them. I became good-looking, too, although not so pretty as I am now, for I couldn't put the time or the money on it. But I was pretty enough, and I seemed to appeal strongly to men. Some girls do, you know, without understanding how or why. First, it was the buyer for our department; he lost his head completely, and, although he was married and I didn't care for him, I realized he could do me good. I was seventeen then; he taught me to dress and to take care of myself--he had wonderful taste in such things. It was his affair with me that finally cost him his place--and his wife, too, for that matter. When I'd got all he had I left him and came to New York. The rest isn't a pretty story, for I went the way most girls do who have that appeal I spoke about."

Miss Lynn made this declaration calmly as she busied herself with the glass her servant had fetched. She dissolved a portion of the powder in the spoon, then carefully transferred the liquid into the cap of a pearl-and-gold fountain-pen. Inserting the open end of the receptacle into first one, then the other nostril, she inhaled the contents.

"What are you doing?" asked Lorelei, curiously.

"Something to quiet my nerves. I--wonder why I told you all this?" She eyed her guest speculatively, then shrugged. "Well, since we're to be neighbors, we must be friends, and there's no harm done. Now that Jarvis and I are engaged, he's awfully particular about the company I keep, but he likes you. How different they act when they're in earnest! He even wants me to quit work now, but I like the excitement--it's better than waiting." She glanced at her wrist-watch and drew herself together. "Our time is up, dear; we must get back to the show-shop." _

Read next: Chapter 12

Read previous: Chapter 10

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