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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 12

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Lorelei exploded her bomb at breakfast Sunday morning, and the effect was all she had dreaded. Fortunately, Jim had gone out, so she had only to combat her mother's panic-stricken objections and her father's weak persuasions. So keen, however, was the girl's humiliation at Merkle's disclosure that Mrs. Knight dared not go to the lengths she would otherwise have allowed herself, and Lorelei's merciless accusations left little to be said in self- defense. Of course, the usual tears followed, likewise repetitions of the time-worn plea that it had all been done for Lorelei's own good and had been prompted by unselfish love for her.

"I'm beginning to doubt that," Lorelei said, slowly. "I think you all look upon me as a piece of property to do with as you please. Perhaps I'm disloyal and ungrateful, but--I can't help it. And I can't forgive you yet. When I can I'll come home again, but it's impossible for me to live here now, feeling as I do. I want to love you--so I'm--going to run away."

Tragically, through her tears, Mrs. Knight inquired: "What will become of us? We can't live--Jim never does anything for us." In Peter's watery stare was abject fright. "Lorelei wouldn't let us suffer," he ventured, tremulously. "I'm sick. I may die any time, so the doctor says." He was indeed a changed man; that easy good humor that had been his most likable trait had been lost in habitual peevishness.

"I'll keep the house running as before," his daughter assured them, "and I'll manage to get along on what's left. But you mustn't be quite so extravagant, that's all. I sha'n't be--and you wouldn't force me to do anything I'd regret, I'm sure." She choked down her pity at the sight of the invalid's pasty face and flabby form, then turned to the window. Her emotion prevented her from observing the relief that greeted her words.

The moment was painful; Lorelei's eyes were dim, and she hardly saw the dreary prospect of fire-escapes, of whitewashed brick, of bare, gaping back yards overhung with clothes-lines, like nerves exposed in the process of dissection.

"Yes, things will go on just the same," she repeated, then clenched her hands and burst forth miserably, "Oh, I know how badly you need money! I know what the doctor says, and--I'll get it somehow. It seems to me I'd pay any price just to see dad walking around again and to know that you were both provided for. Money, money! You both worship it, and--I'm getting so I can't think of anything else. Nothing else seems worth while."

Two hours later a dray called for her trunks and took them across town.

The Elegancia Apartments looked down on her with chill disapproval as she entered; the elevator-man stared at her with black, hostile eyes until she had made herself known; and even the superintendent--in a less pretentious structure than the Elegancia, he would have been the janitor--now that "Number Six" was rented, did not extend even a perfunctory welcome as he delivered the keys. On the contrary, he made known the exclusive character of the house in such a pointed manner as to offend her.

Lilas was out, she learned, which probably meant that she was still asleep. Lorelei ascended to her new home in low spirits. Now that she saw the place in strong daylight, she was vaguely disappointed. On the evening previous, the superintendent had lighted it brilliantly, but now it was gloomy, and there was dust and disorder everywhere. The previous occupant had undoubtedly been a temperamental housekeeper; the tragic awakening of love's young dream showed in the hasty nature of her departure for the ice-box was lamentably odorous of forgotten food, the kitchenette needed scrubbing with hot water and lye, the modest fittings of the whole place were in topsy-turvy neglect. When Lorelei's trunks were dumped inside, the chaos appeared complete. She was not accustomed to rely upon her own hands, and at this moment she felt none of the pride that comes of independence. Instead of the glad spirit of freedom she had anticipated she was filled with dismaying doubts. She sat down, finally, in the midst of a confusion that her first efforts had only doubled, and stared about her with miserable eyes. She was very lonely, very friendless, and very much discouraged. Then she noticed the telephone and sprang toward it.

Adoree was at home; her voice answered cheerily, and her interruptions of amazement and delight caused Lorelei's message to spin itself out unduly. Without waiting for an invitation Adoree cried:

"Let me come and help. Please! We'll use both the poodles for mops, and I'll be there in ten minutes. ... You're a perfect dear to say yes for I know you want to do it all yourself."

"Come now--quickly. I'm scared--" Lorelei begged, in tearful tones.

"I'll drive right up in my chariot of flame; I was going out, and it's waiting while I kalsomine my face. Are you SURE everything is good and dirty? Goody! We'll make the prop footman work for once in his life--no, we'll do it ourselves. Good-by."

In a surprisingly short time the Palace Garden star came flying up the stairs, scorning such delays as elevators. She flung herself upon her friend with a hug and a smack, crying, "Hurrah! Madame Sans Gene has come to do the scrubbing."

Yet she hardly seemed dressed for house-cleaning. A tremendous floppy hat crowned her flaxen head; she was tightly incased, like a chrysalis in its cocoon, in a delicate creation of pink; her gloves were long and tight, and her high-heeled boots were longer and tighter. Nevertheless she promptly proceeded with a reckless discard of her finery--a process she had begun on her way up- stairs, like a country boy on his approach to a swimming-hole.

She paused in the center of the one passably sized room, and her piquant face was flushed with animation.

"How perfectly corking!" she exclaimed. "How BEAUTIFUL!"

"Do you think so?" Lorelei asked, doubtfully.

"It's just dandy--so cozy and secluded and--shady. Why, it's a darling place! Not a sound, is there? Gee, what a place to sleep!" She sped from one to the other of the three rooms uttering shrieks of rapture. Even the bath-room, which was much like any other, although as cramped as a Chinese lady's foot, excited a burst of enthusiasm.

At last she ceased her inspection, quite out of breath, and declared: "I'm enchanted. I tell you there's nothing like these inside apartments, after all, you're so safe from burglars. But the RENT! My dear, you stole this place. And to think it's all yours--why, I'm going to live and die here."

"WILL you? I mean live--"

The dancer laughed. "No, no. If I did either they'd fire you out. But I'll come often, and we'll have the dearest parties--just we two, without any men. We'll let our hair down, and cook and--WILL you look at that gas-stove? I could eat it."

It was impossible to resist such infectious spirits. Lorelei began to see sunshine, and before she knew it she was laughing, in the best of humor with herself and her surroundings. Adoree, clad now in a nameless, formless garment which she had discovered in a closet, her own modish belongings safely rolled up in a sheet, had covered her head with a towel turban and incased her feet in an old pair of shoes. Thus equipped, she fell upon the task of regeneration with fanatic zeal. She became grimy; a smear of soot disfigured her face; her skirt dragged, her shoe-tops flopped, and the heels clattered; but she was hilariously happy.

Side by side the girls worked; they forgot their luncheon, then sent the sad-faced footman in search of a delicatessen store, and ate ravenously with a newspaper for table-cloth. By evening the place found itself for once in its life clean and orderly, and the two occupants dressed and went out to a near-by hotel for dinner. Returning, they put the final touches to their task.

When Adoree left, late that night, she kissed her friend, saying:

"Thank you for the loveliest Sunday I ever had. It was splendid, and I'll come again to-morrow."

The theatrical profession is full of women whose lives are flawless; hence it had not been difficult for Lorelei to build up a reputation that insured respect, although her connection with a Bergman show made the task more difficult than it would otherwise have been. During the two years of her stage experience no scandal had attached to her name, and she had therefore begun to feel secure. In that period she had met many men of the usual types that are attracted by footlight favorites, and they had pressed attentions upon her, but so long as she had been recognized as the Lady Unobtainable they had not forced their unwelcome advances. Now, however, that a scurrilous newspaper story had associated her name with that of a wealthy man, she began to note a change. The Hammon-Lynn affair was already notorious; Lorelei's part in it led the stage-broken wiseacres to doubt her innocence, and their altered attitude soon became apparent to her. There was a difference also in the bearing of certain members of the company. She heard conversations retailed at second hand by envious chorus- mates; in her hearing detached remarks were dropped that offended her. Bergman's advances had been only another disquieting symptom of what she had to expect--an indication of the new color her reputation had assumed.

Nobel Bergman's success in the show business had long been a mystery among those who knew him; for, to offset an undeniable theatrical talent, he possessed all the appetites, the frailties, and the passions of a rake. It was perhaps most of all his keen personal appreciation of beauty that had made his companies the sensation of New York. At any rate, he had done amazingly well for himself, and entertainments of a certain character had become known as "Bergman Shows," just as show-girls of a dashing type were known as "Bergman Girls," even when employed by rival managers. In his office, or during the organization and production of his spectacles, he was a cold, shrewd man of business; once the venture had been launched, he became an amorous hanger-on, a jackal prowling in search of a kill. His commercial caution steered him wide of the moral women in his employ, but the other kind, and especially the innocent or the inexperienced, had cause to know and to fear him. In appearance he was slender and foppish; he affected a pronounced waist-line in his coats, his eyes were large and dark and brilliant, his mouth was sensual. He never raised his voice, he never appeared to see plain women; such girls as accepted his attentions were sure of advancement, but paid for it in other ways.

On Monday evening Mr. Slosson, the press-agent, thrust his head through the dressing-room door and inquired: "May I come in?"

"You are in."

"I came to see Lorelei. Say, there's some society people out front who want to meet you, and you're to join them after the show."

"Indeed. Who said so?"


"Declined, with thanks," promptly said Lorelei.

"Oh, wait. You can't decline this; it's business; Bergman says you must come as a personal favor to him. Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire is giving a box-party, and she told him to fetch you around for supper. She owns a piece of this show, and the theater belongs to the estate, so you'll just have to go."

"Mercy! Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire, the college-boy's giddy godmother," Lilas mocked. "I suppose she's out slumming, with her kindergarten class."

Slosson frowned at this levity. "Will you go?" he inquired. "Yes or no?"

"Um-m--I'll have to say 'yes,' it seems."

"Good. I'll 'phone Bergman."

When the press-agent had gone Lilas regarded her companion with open compassion. "Gee! But you're going to have a grand time. That bunch thinks it's smart to be seen with show-people, and of course they'll dance all night."

Lorelei groaned. "And I did so want to go straight back to my new home." When she joined her employer after the show she was in no very agreeable frame of mind.

Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire was a vermilion-haired widow with a chest like a blacksmith, who had become famous for her jewels and her social eccentricities. She and her party were established at one of the up-town "Trottoires," when Nobel Bergman and Lorelei arrived. Three examples of blushing boyhood devoted themselves to a languid blonde girl of thirty-five, and the hostess herself was dancing with another tender youth, but she came forward, panting.

"So good of you to come, dear," she cried. "This is Miss Wyeth, and these are my boys, Mr.--" She spoke four meaningless names, and four meaningless smiles responded; four wet-combed heads were bowed. She turned to her blonde companion, saying, "She IS pretty, isn't she, Alice?"

"Very," Alice agreed, without removing her eyes from the youth at her left.

Bergman invited Lorelei to finish the dance; then he inquired, "What do you think of her?"

"Her hair fascinates me; she looks as if she had just burst out of a thicket of henna leaves." Bergman laughed, silently. "But why did she invite me?"

"I told her to."


"I knew you'd refuse if I asked you."

"So? Then I'm really your guest instead of hers."

"We'll leave whenever you say."

Throughout the rest of the dance Lorelei was silent, offended at Bergman's deception and uncomfortable at her own situation; but the hostess had ordered a supper of the unsatisfactory kind usual in such places; little as she liked the prospect, she could not leave at once.

The meal was interrupted regularly each time the music played, for dancing was more than a fad in this set--it was a serious business with which nothing was allowed to interfere. The bulky widow was invariably the first upon her feet, and Miss Wyeth followed closely, yielding herself limply to the arms of first one, then another of the youthful coterie. She held her slashed gown high, and in the more fanciful extravagances of the dance she displayed a slender limb to the knee. She was imperturbable, unenthusiastic, utterly untiring. The hostess, because of her brawn, made harder work of the exercise; but years of strenuous reducing had hardened her muscles, and she possessed the endurance of a bear. Once the meal had dragged itself to a conclusion, there began the customary round of the dancing-places--this being the popular conception of a lark--and Lorelei allowed herself to be bundled in and out of the Thompson-Bellaire theater-car. There was considerable drinking, Bergman, who devoted himself assiduously to his employee, showing more effect from it than the others. He utterly refused to take her home. As the night wore on he became more and more offensive; he grew coarse in a sly, tentative manner, as if feeling his ground. He changed the manner of his dancing, also, until Lorelei could no longer tolerate him.

"Getting tired, my dear?" he queried, when she declined to join the whirling throng.

"Yes. I want to go."

"All right." He leered at her and nodded. "Still living on Amsterdam Avenue?"

"No. I've moved to the Elegancia."

"So? How does mother like it?"

"She's--I'm living alone."

Bergman started, his eyes brightened. "Ah! Then you've come to your senses finally. I thought you would. Let's finish this dance, anyhow."

"I don't want to be seen dancing too much with you."


"You understand why, Mr. Bergman." She eyed him coolly.

The lines of his sinister face, loosened and sagging slightly from drink, deepened for an instant. "Let them talk. I can do more for you than Merkle can."

"Merkle?" Her expression did not change.

"Now don't let's deceive each other." He had never found it necessary to cultivate patience in his dealings with women, and when she pretended ignorance of his meaning he flared out, half in weariness, half in anger:

"Oh, play your game with strangers, but don't put me off. Weren't you caught with him at the Chateau? Hasn't he fixed you up at the Elegancia? Well, then--"

"You needn't finish. I'm going home now."

He laid a detaining hand upon her arm. "You never learned that speech in one of my shows," he said, "and you're not going to say good night to me. Understand?" He grinned at her with disgusting confidence, and she flung off his touch. They had been speaking in low tones, because of the two vacant-faced boys across the table; now Lorelei turned appealingly to them. But they were not creatures upon whom any woman might rely. Nor could she avail herself of Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire's assistance, for the widow's reputation was little better than Bergman's, and from her attitude it was plain that she had lent herself to his designs. He was murmuring slyly:

"You're a sensible girl; you want to get ahead. Well, I can put you at the top, or--"

"Or--what?" She faced him defiantly.

"Or I can put you out of the business."

The returning dancers offered a welcome diversion.

Lorelei dreaded an open clash with the manager, knowing that the place, the hour, and the conditions were ill suited to a scene. She had learned to smile and to consider swiftly, to cross the thin ice of an embarrassing situation with light steps. Quickly she turned to Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire, who was bowing effusively to a newcomer.

"My word! What is Bob Wharton doing here?" exclaimed the widow.

"Bob Wharton? Where?" Miss Wyeth's languor vanished electrically; she wrenched her attention from the wire-haired fraternity man at her side. Lorelei felt a sense of great thanksgiving.

Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire beckoned, and Wharton came forward, his eyes fixed gloomily upon Lorelei.

"You rascal! So THIS is how you waste your evenings. I AM surprised, but, now that we've caught you, won't you join us?"

Wharton glanced at the four pawns and hesitated. "It's long past nine; I'm afraid the boys will be late for school."

Miss Wyeth tittered; the sophomore with the bristling pompadour uttered a bark of amusement. Meeting Bob's questioning glance, Lorelei seconded the invitation with a nod and a quick look of appeal, whereupon his demeanor changed and he drew a chair between her and Nobel Bergman, forcing the latter to move. His action was pointed, almost rude, but the girl felt a surge of gratitude sweep over her.

There was an interlude of idle chatter, then the orchestra burst into full clamor once more. Much to the chagrin of her escort, Lorelei rose and danced away with the new-comer.

"Why the distress signal?" queried Bob.

"Mr. Bergman has--been drinking."

"Rum is poison," he told her, with mock indignation. "He must be a low person."

"He's getting unpleasant."

"Shall I take him by the nose and run around the block?"

"You can do me a favor."

He was serious in an instant. "You were nice to me the other night. I'm sorry to see you with this fellow."

"He forced--he deceived me into coming, and he's taking advantage of conditions to--be nasty."

Bob missed a step, then apologized. His next words were facetious, but his tone was ugly; "Where do you want the remains sent?"

"Will you wait and see that mine are safely sent home?" She leaned back, and her troubled twilight eyes besought him.

"I'll wait, never fear. I've been looking everywhere for you. I wanted to find you, and I didn't want to. I've been to every cafe in town. How in the world did you fall in with the old bell-cow and her calf?"

When Lorelei had explained, he nodded his complete understanding. "She's just the sort to do a thing like that. Thompson, the first martyr, was a decent fellow, I believe; then she kidnapped Bellaire, a young wine-agent. Tuberculosis got him, and she's been known ever since as 'the widow T. B.' I suppose you'd call her 'the leading Juvenile.'"

Lorelei felt a great relief at the presence of this far from admirable young man, for, despite his vicious reputation, he seemed clean and wholesome as compared with Bergman. She was sure, moreover, that he was trustworthy, now that he knew and liked her, and she remembered that of all the men she had met since that newspaper scandal had appeared, he alone had betrayed no knowledge of it in word or deed.

On this occasion Wharton justified her faith. He ignored Bergman's scowls; he proceeded to monopolize the manager's favorite with an arrogance that secretly delighted her; he displayed the assurance of one reared to selfish exactions, and his rival writhed under it. But Bergman was slow to admit defeat, and when his unspoken threats failed to impress the girl he began to ply Wharton with wine. Bob accepted the challenge blithely, and a drinking-bout followed.

The widow T. B. and her party looked on with enjoyment.

Dawn was near when the crowd separated and the hostess was driven away, leaving Lorelei at the door of a taxi-cab in company with her two admirers. The girl bade them each good night, but Bergman ignored her words and, stepping boldly in after her, spoke to the driver.

Bob had imbibed with a magnificent disregard of consequences, and as a result he was unsteady on his feet. His hat was tilted back from his brow, his slender stick bent beneath the weight he put upon it.

"Naughty, naughty Nobel!" he chided. "Come out of that cab; you and I journey arm and arm into the purpling East."

"Drive on," cried Bergman, forcing Lorelei back into her seat, as she half rose.

Bob leaned through the open cab window, murmuring thickly: "Nobel, you are drunk. Shocked--nay, grieved--as I am at seeing you thus, I shall take you home."

"Get out, will you?" snapped the manager, undertaking to slam the door.

But Wharton was in a declamatory mood and went on, swingingly: "The sky is faintly flushed with pink; Apollo in his chariot draws nigh. The morning-glory closes with the sun, Bergman, and if a fairy princess is late she will be shut out and forced to sleep on the petals of a rose. My dear Nobel, don't spoil her beauty sleep."

"I'm tired of your insolence. I'll--"

Bergman never finished his sentence, for in his rage he committed a grave blunder--he struck wildly at the flushed face so close to his, and the next instant was jerked bodily out of his seat. Lorelei uttered a cry of fright, for the whole side of the cab seemed to go with her employer.

There was a brief scuffle, a whirl of flying arms, then Bergman's voice rose in a strangely muffled howl, followed by nasal curses. With a bellow of anguish he suddenly ceased his struggles, and Lorelei saw that Bob was holding him by the nose. It happened to be a large, unhandsome, and fleshy member, and, securely grasping it, Bergman's conqueror held him at a painful and humiliating disadvantage.

Bob was panting, but he managed to say, "Come! We will run for the lady--once around the block."

A muffled shriek of pain was the answer, but the street was empty save for some grinning chauffeurs, who offered no assistance.

"Be a good fellow. I insist, my dear Nobel. Advance! Double quick! Charge!"

The two men moved away haltingly, then at a zigzag trot, and finally at a slow run. They disappeared around the corner, Bob Wharton leading, Bergman bent double and screaming poisonous oaths.

"Drive on, quickly," Lorelei implored, but the chauffeur cranked his motor reluctantly, craning his neck in an evident desire to see more of this interesting affray. His companions were laughing loudly and slapping their thighs. Despite Lorelei's hysterically repeated orders, he experienced difficulty in starting the machine; finally he lifted the hood and fumbled inside. A moment passed, then another; he cranked once more, but as the motor was seized with a fit of shuddering the two white-fronted figures turned the upper corner and approached. Their relative positions were unchanged. The block was a short one, yet they seemed winded. Bergman was sobbing now like a woman, and he was followed by three curious newsboys.

Bob paused at the starting-point and wheezed: "Bravo! You done noble, Nobel. We've learned some new steps, too, eh?" All power of resistance had left the victim, who seemed upon the verge of collapse. "I say we've learned some new steps; haven't we, Bergy?" He tweaked the distorted member in his grasp, and Bergman's head wagged loosely.

A late diner cruised uncertainly down the street, and, sensing the unusual, paused, rocking in his tracks.

"Whash trouble? Shome fightin' goin' on?" he inquired, brightly.

"Oh, please--please--" Lorelei cried, tremulously. "Don't--"

"Canter for the kind lady," Wharton insisted. "Come on." He began to lift and lower his shoulders in imitation of a rider. Bergman capered awkwardly. "Once more."

"Fine!" shouted the drunken spectator, clapping his hands loosely. "Tha's bully. Now make 'im shingle-foot."

"Single-foot? Certainly. He's park gaited."

"Mr. Wharton! BOB--" Lorelei's agonized entreaty brought her admirer to the cab door, but he fetched his prisoner in tow. "Let him go or--we'll all be arrested."

"Want see 'im shingle-foot," eagerly importuned the stranger.

"I'll take off his bridle if you insist. But it's a grand nose. I--love it. Never was there such a nose."

Bergman, with a desperate wrench, regained his freedom and staggered away with his face in his hands.

"It--actually stretched," said Bob, as he regretfully watched his victim. "I dare say I'll never find another nose like it."

The appreciative bystander lurched forward and flung an arm over his shoulder, then, peering in at the girl, exclaimed: "Good, wasn't it? I had a horse once, an' I know. You're a'right, m' frien'. Let's go get another one."

Lorelei's cab got under way at last, but barely in time, for a crowd was assembling. She sank back weakly, and her last glimpse showed Wharton arm-in-arm with the tipsy wayfarer.

Not until she was safely inside her little apartment, with the chain on the door, did she surrender; then she burst into a trembling, choking fit of laughter. But her estimate of Wharton had risen, and for the first time he seemed not entirely bad. _

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