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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 13

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Jimmy Knight felt his sister's desertion quite as keenly as did his mother and father, for his schemes, though inchoate, were ambitious, and his heart was set upon them. Lorelei's obstinacy was exasperating--a woman's unaccountable freakishness.

He confided his disappointment to Max Melcher. "It's pretty tough," complained Jimmy. "I had Merkle going, but she crabbed it. Then just as that boob Wharton was getting daffier over her every day she gets her back up and the whole thing is cold."

"You mean it's cold so far as you're concerned," Melcher judicially amended.

"Sure. She's sore on me, and the whole family."

"Then this is just the time to marry her off. New York is a mighty lonesome place for a girl like her. Suppose I take a hand."

"All right."

"Will you declare me in?"


Melcher eyed his associate coldly. "There's no 'certainly' about it. You'd throw your own mother if you got a chance. But you can't throw me, understand? You try a cross and--the cold-meat wagon for yours. I'll have you slabbed at the morgue."

Jimmy's reply left no doubt of the genuineness of his fears, if not of his intentions. Strange stories were told in the Tenderloin--tales of treachery punished and ingratitude revenged. Jimmy knew several young men who appeared out of the East Side at Melcher's signal. They were inconspicuous fellows, who bore fanciful dime-novel names--Dago Red, Izzy the Toad, Jew Mike, the Worm, and the rest--and no rustler's stronghold of the old-time Western cattle country ever boasted more formidable outlaws than they. New York is law-ridden, therefore corruption reigns; vice is capitalized, and in consequence there are men who live not only by roguery, but by violence. They hide in the crannies of the underworld; politics is their protection. At election times they do service for men high in authority; betweenwhiles they thrive on the bickerings and feuds among the despoilers. Jim knew these gunmen well; he had no wish to know them worse.

"I can't promise anything definite when she's sore on me," he declared.

"Oh yes, you can. She'll marry to please your mother and father, and she'll fix them up the first thing. Get them to agree to split their share, and I'll take a hand. If it doesn't go through there's no harm done."

"I don't see how you're going to frame a marriage--and yet she won't stand for anything else."

"You'll have to help, of course, and so will your mother. I've a hunch that we can handle Wharton all right--through booze. A man can be made to marry anybody if he's drunk enough."

"He's about ready to ask her--SHE'S the one to fix. She hates men, though, and that Merkle story made her crazy."

"Sore, eh?"

"She talked the Dutch route--thinks her good name is gone, and regards every man as a hyena."

Melcher pondered for several moments. "I think I know Lorelei better than you do," he stated, deliberately, "and I believe we can pull this off, provided Wharton really wants to marry her. Anyhow, he's so rich it's worth the odds, and she's just the sort to fall for it."

"What's the idea?"

"If she's sore about that story in The Despatch we'll pull another one--and keep pulling them."

"Humph! That'll queer Wharton."

"Not if you get inside his shirt and make him believe they're lies. You and your mother will have to convince her that he's her only 'out.'"

"I don't think much of that program," Jim protested, nervously.

Melcher smiled. "A girl like her can be driven anywhere if she's handled right. Between you and your mother and Lilas you can do it."

"Perhaps, but I doubt it. Ma's got her afraid of men. If we could scare her good, if we could tip some John to rough it with her some night, she might stampede to the altar."

"That's easy, but you can't put a stop-order on a thing like that. There's no telling how far the guy might go."

"Oh, she'll take care of herself," said Jim, carelessly; "she's as strong as a pony."

"If you'll take the chance I'll stake a shillaber to do it. I've got half a dozen high-class fellows working the hotels, and Lilas knows some of them."

Jim shrugged disgustedly. "I suppose I'll have to repent and be a good boy," he snorted, "and let Lorelei weep on my shoulder. Gee! She makes me sick."

"I'll take care of my part, and--maybe we can put it through. This is out of my line, but they do it abroad, so why not here? The girl's no more than human." Mr. Melcher seemed ingenuously pleading for reasonableness. "If we make good I'll hang out a sign, 'Max Melcher, Matrimonial Agent.' Meanwhile I want it understood with your mother that I share in what comes her way."

"I'll fix that," promised Jim.

He found it, in fact, no very difficult task to regain at least a part of his sister's lost esteem, though the process took time. He went about it with the lazy, cat-like patience of his kind, behaved himself, kept his mouth shut, and assumed just enough of an injured air to be plausible. He enlisted the aid of his mother and of Lilas Lynn, and meanwhile made himself as agreeable as possible to Robert Wharton.

Melcher was as good as his word, and there shortly appeared in The Despatch an unpleasant rehash of the former story. It was published in connection with the Hammon divorce proceedings, news of which was exciting comment, and it further smirched Lorelei's reputation. Wharton ignored it utterly, but Merkle was prompt in his indignation and sympathy. This unshaken confidence in her afforded Lorelei far more comfort than Bob's unconcerned attitude, which might be merely the result of his own lax standards. Upon the other men she knew the effect of the story was quickly noticeable, and she was forced to be on guard at all times. Several whom she considered sincere admirers proved to be quite the opposite; some whom she had counted as friends dropped her entirely; others of a different sort undertook to press their acquaintance beyond prudent bounds.

Jim was appropriately indignant, but helpless, and Mrs. Knight unweariedly blamed everything upon her daughter's desertion of the family circle, predicting more evil to follow unless Lorelei came home at once. She also dwelt upon the fact that Peter was steadily failing and was in immediate need of both medical and surgical attention. The doctor had pronounced sentence, prescribing a total change of living and a treatment by foreign specialists.

In some unaccountable way the story of Nobel Bergman's humiliation became public and afforded the basis for a newspaper article that brought him to Lorelei's dressing-room in a fine fury. Even after she had convinced him of her innocence his resentment was so bitter that she expected her dismissal at any time.

Other press stories followed; the girl suddenly found herself notorious; scarcely a day passed without some disagreeable mention of her. There was published a highly imaginative but circumstantial account of a weak-minded youth whom she had driven to suicide--utterly false, of course, but difficult to deal with. A Sunday "special" appeared--one of those fantastic, colored- supplement nightmares--in which she was pictured as a vampire with an angel's face. It was the hackneyed "moth and flame" story. The page was luridly decorated with a swarm of entomological curiosities--winged bipeds supposedly representing her fatuous admirers. These fond victims of her enticements appeared to be badly singed and crippled.

Adoree Demorest, as indignant as Lorelei herself, declared finally that her friend must be the object of a premeditated attack directed by some strong hand, and once this suspicion had entered Lorelei's mind it took root in spite of its seeming extravagance. Her good sense argued that she was of too little consequence to warrant such an assault, but her relatives seized the suggestion so avidly as to more than half convince her.

Mrs. Knight attributed this injustice first to Bergman, then to Merkle, whom she hated bitterly since her unfortunate attempt at blackmail; Jim was inclined to agree with her.

"Money can do anything," he stated, gloomily, "and these big guys amuse themselves by hunting beautiful women. It's a game with them. When one of 'em takes a fancy to a girl she's a goner. It may not be Merkle in this case, but--you're the handsomest woman in New York, and I'll bet some old spider is weaving his web for you. When he has spoiled your good name and ruined your chances of marrying or of making an honest living he'll creep out and show himself. They frame innocent men for Sing Sing in this town, so why can't they frame a girl for something else?"

Lorelei abhorred spiders; the picture of some evil-minded millionaire enmeshing her in a web of intrigue brought a sickening feeling of helplessness and apprehension. Of course she thought the idea utterly fantastic, but Jim and her mother appeared to believe it, and her own notions of the city's wickedness were so vivid that anything seemed possible. Certainly some malign influence seemed to be deliberately at work against her, and a thousand disagreeable incidents, once she took time to reflect upon them, bore out her suspicions. She was half minded to run away, but dared not.

Mrs. Knight, as always, ended her sympathetic reassurances by saying, "If you were only married, my dear, that would end all our troubles."

The climax of these annoyances came one night after a party at which Lorelei had been presented to an old friend of Miss Lynn's. Lilas had introduced the man as one of her girlhood chums, and Lorelei had tried to be nice to him; then in some way he arranged to take her home. The memory of that ride was a horror.

Lorelei, as Jim had said, was strong, and she fought the ruffian's attack with the desperation of utter terror; but her shame at the indignity was so keen that she refrained as long as possible from crying for help. Then, hearing her screams, the chauffeur stopped his car and made an investigation. Fortunately for her, he was more of a man than most night-hawk drivers, and he promptly summoned an officer.

Miss Lynn's girlhood friend waited for no test of the law; he beat a hasty retreat, uttering threats that rang in Lorelei's ears and redoubled her previous fears.

Her wrists and arms bore purple marks, her dress was torn, her limbs shook from the effects of her struggle, and even when she had gained the security of her rooms she was unable to shake off her fright. Neither could she sleep, for menacing forms crouched in the darkness: most of the night she walked the floor in a panic.

She knew now that she was hunted; the man had told her so. She felt like a deer cowering in a brake with the hounds working close. Her cover seemed pitifully insecure.

Thus far Max Melcher's campaign had worked even better than he had expected; and meanwhile he had employed Jim in assiduously cultivating Robert Wharton and arranging as many meetings as possible between Bob and Lorelei. A short experience had taught Jim to avoid his victim in daylight, for in Bob's sober hours the two did not agree; but once mellowed by intoxication, Wharton became imbued with a carnival spirit and welcomed Jim as freely as he welcomed every one. Incidentally the latter managed to reap a considerable harvest from the association, for Bob was a habitual gambler, and the courteous treatment he received at Melcher's place seemed to reconcile him to the loss of any amount of money.

When, on the morning after her distressing adventure, Lorelei sent for her brother and demanded vengeance upon her assailant he decided that it was time to test the issue. He pretended, of course, to be ferociously enraged, but on learning over the telephone that the wretch had left the city he declared that there was nothing to be done except perhaps exact an explanation from Lilas.

Miss Lynn, however, could offer no excuse. She was heartbroken at the occurrence, but she was too full of her own troubles to give way to her sympathy for others. Jarvis Hammon, it seemed, had heard about the party, and was furious with her.

"You must expect to meet some muckers in this business," she remarked, philosophically, "and you've had so much notoriety, my dear, that the fellow probably wouldn't believe you were all right."

Jim agreed. "I guess you'll have to forget it, Sis. Just don't think about it. I'll bring Wharton around to-night, and we four will have supper, eh?"

Lilas's hesitation in accepting this invitation seemed genuine, but she acquiesced finally, saying with a short laugh: "All right. Maybe a little jealousy won't hurt my lord and master. He's getting too bossy, anyhow."

When the four set out that night Robert Wharton was in exceptional spirits and, as always, devoted himself to Lorelei. For him life was a joyous adventure; he took things as they came, and now that he knew the girl for what she was he did not allow himself the slightest liberty. He was a fervent suitor, to be sure, yet he courted her with jests and concealed his ardor behind a playful raillery.

Jim had ordered supper at a popular Washington Heights inn, and thither the quartette were driven in an open car which he hired in the square beside the theater.

As the glassy expanse of upper Broadway unrolled before them Bob explained: "My chauffeur quit to invest his savings in real estate, so I sold my machine. If he'd only listened to my advice and bought stocks with my money I might have made a good commission and afforded to keep a car. But nobody deals with the brokers nowadays." He sighed gloomily. "We live lonely lives. We are objects of suspicion--even the newsboys bite the pennies we give them."

Jim scoffed. "I suppose you Pittsburg plunderers don't know where your next meal is coming from."

"Mine is coming from you, I hope, otherwise I'll be a public charge until banking-hours."

"You've been gambling again," Lorelei accused.

Bob nodded carelessly.

At their destination they found seats on a balcony overlooking the Hudson; and Jim, being in funds, played host with a prodigality that mimicked Wharton.

It was a charming place for a supper; the wooded bluffs fell away abruptly and a cool breath from the river refreshed the diners; the inn itself was just comfortably filled with merry-makers whom the heat had driven from the asphalt canons farther down-town; in the distance the Jersey lights winked like glittering brilliants sewed into the night; other illuminations swam through the mysterious void separating the shores; an orchestra played, not too loudly, and several couples were dancing. It had been a stifling week; people complained that they could not dine in comfort, yet they tangoed and trotted bravely wherever there was music and an open floor.

Contrary to her custom, Lilas Lynn allowed herself free rein, and for once drank more than was good for her, rejoicing openly in the liberty she had snatched.

It is a peculiar experience to sit soberly through a meal and see one's companions become intoxicated. Lorelei had often done so, carelessly enough, but now her recent worries had not only depressed her, but made her pensive, and it was in no approving mood that she watched Lilas and Bob respond to the effect of the wine. The whole procedure struck her, like her present life as a whole, as both inane and wicked, and she longed desperately to lay hold of something really decent, true, and permanent.

Jimmy Knight's admirable hospitality continued; he devoted his entire attention to his guests, he made conversation and he led it into the channels he desired it to follow. Then, when the psychological moment had come, he acted with the skill of a Talleyrand. No one but he knew precisely how Bob's proposal was couched, whence it originated, or by what subtlety the victim had been induced to make it. As a matter of fact, it was no proposal, and not even Bob himself suspected how his words had been twisted. He was just dimly aware of some turn in the conversation, when he heard Jim exclaim:

"By Jove, Sis, Bob asks you to marry him!"

In prize-ring parlance, Jimmy had "feinted" his opponent into a lead, then taken prompt advantage to "counter."

Lorelei awoke to her surroundings with a start, sensing the sudden gravity that had fallen upon her three companions.


Lilas nodded and smiled at the bewildered lover. "That's the way to put it over, Bob--before witnesses."

"Don't joke about such things," cried Lorelei, sharply.

"Joke? Who's joking?" Jim was indignant and glanced appealingly at Bob. "You meant it, didn't you?"

"Sure. No joking matter," Bob declared, vaguely.

"I was just saying that this is no life for a fellow to lead-- batting 'round the way I do; then Jim said--I mean _I_ said--I needed a wife, a beautiful wife. I never saw a girl beautiful enough to suit me before, and he said--"

Jim's relief came as an explosion.

"There! That's English. You spoke a mouthful that time, Bob, for she certainly is a beauty bright. But I didn't think you had the nerve to ask her. If she says yes, you'll be the luckiest man in New York--the whole town's crazy about her."

"We'll make her say yes," Lilas added, with drunken decision. "Come, dear, say it." She bent a flushed face toward Lorelei and laid a loose hand upon her arm. "Well? What's your answer?"

Bob fixed heavy eyes upon his heart's desire and echoed: "Yes. What d' you say?" More than once in his sober moments he had pondered such a query, and now that it appeared to have taken shape without conscious effort, he was not displeased with himself.

"I say, YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING," Lorelei responded, curtly.

Now Bob, like all men in his condition, was quite certain that he was in perfect possession of his faculties, and therefore he very naturally resented such an absurd assertion. "Don't you b'lieve it," he protested. "I know what I'm doing, all right, all right."

"A man never speaks his mind until he's ginned," Lilas giggled.

"Righto! I'm not half drunk yet."

Jim urged the suitor on with a nervous laugh, at the same time avoiding his sister's eyes. "She's stalling, Bob. Make her answer."

"Yes or no?" forcefully insisted the wooer, determined, now, to show his complete sobriety.


Jim seized Wharton's hand and shook it lustily. "Congratulations, old man; that means yes. I'm her brother, and I know. Why, she told father that you were her ideal, and pa said he'd die happy if you two were married. He meant it, too; he's a mighty sick man."

Lorelei stirred uncomfortably, and the faint color in her cheeks faded slowly. "We'll talk about it some other time--to-morrow. Please don't tease the poor man any more. He didn't know what he was saying, and--now, for Heaven's sake, talk about something else."

Jim leaped to his feet with a grin and a chuckle, then drew Lilas from her chair, saying: "The lovers are embarrassed, and they're dying to be alone. Let's leave 'em to talk it over."

"She's a dear, Bob, and I wish you both joy. But don't kiss her here," said Lilas, warningly; then with a wave of her hand she turned toward the dancing-room with Jim.

"Call us when you've fixed the date," laughed the latter, over his shoulder.

When he and Lilas had danced the encore and returned to the table Bob rose unsteadily, glass in hand, and nodded at them.

"Thanks, noble comrades," he proclaimed; "she's mine!"

"Hurrah!" Lilas kissed Lorelei effusively. Jim seized Bob's hand, crying:

"Brother!" He waved to a waiter and ordered a magnum of champagne. "Bring me a wreath of orange blossoms and a wedding-cake, too." His jubilation attracted the attention of the other diners; the occupants of a near-by table began to applaud, whereupon Bob beamed with delight.

Lorelei was very white now, but she was given no chance to speak. Nor was there anything for her to say, torn as she was by conflicting emotions and uncertain of what feeling most strongly possessed her. Foremost in her thoughts was the realization that she had won the fight she had been reared and trained for, that the climax of her worldly hopes had come; but with this she also experienced a sickly loathing for herself. During Bob's protestations of love she had fought a brief but disastrous battle. That moral perfidy which had been her teaching since childhood had influenced her decision no more perhaps than her terror at the plight in which her mysterious persecution had left her. Weighing on the same side with these considerations were also the needs of her family, her own bitter distaste for her present life, and her desire for peace and outward respectability even at the cost of secret degradation. She had decided swiftly, recklessly, reasoning that this proffered marriage was merely a bargain by which she got more than she gave. She had accepted without allowing her better self an opportunity to marshal its protests, and, having closed her eyes and leaped into the dark, it now seemed easier to meet new consequences than to heed those higher feelings that were tardily struggling for expression. She did pity Wharton, however, for it seemed to her that he was the injured party. When he was himself he was a very decent fellow, and it was a contemptible trick thus to cheat him. It would have been less ignoble to sell herself outright to a man she detested-- for the transaction would then have been one of dollars and cents, purely, a sacrifice prompted by necessity, so she reasoned-- whereas to impose upon the weakness of one she rather liked was not only dishonest, but vile.

But she was in a wanton mood to-night, and of late a voice had been desperately urging her to grasp at what she could, that she might, as long as possible, delay her descent into worse conditions.

She heard Lilas inquiring: "When does the marriage come off? Right away?"

Bob, who appeared somewhat dazed by the suddenness and the completeness of his good fortune, smiled vacantly. "Any time suits me," he said. "I'm a happy man--little Joys are capering all over the place and old Dr. Gloom has packed his grip."

Jim startled them all by saying, crisply: "Let's make it to-night. I know Bob--he's not the sort to wait."

"Fine! Never thought of that." Bob welcomed the suggestion with a delight that drowned Lorelei's frightened protest; then, as the idea grew in his mind, he joyously appropriated it as his own. A mere proposal of marriage and an acceptance were more or less hackneyed; the event contained no elements of the spectacular; but to follow it promptly with a midnight ceremony impressed him as a grandiose achievement and one calculated to shed luster upon his adventurous career. "That's my idea of romance--that's the way I like to do things," he declared. "We'll be married soon's I pay this check." Fumbling through his pockets, he remembered that his last dollar had gone across Melcher's gaming-table earlier in the evening, and cried in dismay, "Hold on! Nothing doing in the marriage line, after all. I'm bust. Isn't that a burglar's luck? And right on the altar steps, too."

"I'll settle everything--all the way through," Jim offered, eagerly.

Bob feebly demurred, asserting that his temporary financial condition ruined the whole joke, and that he never married without a pocket full of money; but as Jim insisted, and seeing that Miss Lynn was becoming tearful at the thought of a disappointment, he yielded grudgingly.

"But--I say--where do they keep these weddings?" he inquired. "Everything's closed now, and there's nobody dancing at the City Hall, is there?" He appealed helplessly to Jim.

Jim rose to the occasion with the same promptitude he had displayed throughout. "Leave it to Jimmy the Fixer," he cried, reassuringly. "Marriages aren't made in heaven any more--that's old stuff. They're made in Hoboken, while the cab waits. Get your things on, everybody, while I telephone." He allowed no loitering; he waved the girls away, sent the waiter scurrying with his bill, helped Robert secure hat and stick, and then dove into a telephone-booth as a woodchuck enters its hole. When he had disposed his three charges inside a taxi-cab he disappeared briefly, to return with a basket of champagne upon his arm. It is a wise general who provides himself in advance with ammunition.

It was not late, as late hours are computed, but the streets were empty of traffic; hence the driver made good time, and a waiting ferry at the foot of Forty-second Street helped to shorten the journey. The wine-basket was lighter as the machine rushed up the cobbled incline to the crest of the Weehawken bluffs; Bob and Lilas were singing as it tore down the Boulevard.

The smooth celerity with which this whole adventure ran its course argued a thorough preparation on James's part, but Lorelei was in no condition to analyze. On the contrary, she was tossed in the vortex of warring impulses. More than once she laid her hand upon the cab door, feeling that she could not go on with this damnable travesty. But necessity urged; she was tired, disgusted, reckless. Her former arguments continued to prove potent.

Even at the journey's end there was a suspicious lack of delay. The vehicle stopped in a narrow business street, now dark and dismal; its occupants were hurried up a stairway and into a room filled with law-books, where a sleepy Justice of the Peace was nodding in a cloud of cigar smoke. There followed a noisy shuffling of chairs, some mumbled questions and answers, the crackle of papers, a deal of unintelligible rigamarole, then a man's heavy seal-ring was slipped upon Lorelei's finger, and she knew herself to be Mrs. Robert Wharton. It was all confused, unimpressive, unreal. She was never able fully to recall the picture of that room or the events that occurred there. They formed but a part of the kaleidoscopic jumble of the night's occurrences.

The wedding party was in the cab once more, and it was under way. Lilas was singing maudlinly, lying back in Jim's arms with her feet projecting through a window; the groom was laughing foolishly and pawing at his bride. The street lights reeled by in drunken procession. Now that his work was done, Jim flung aside his caution and, popping the cork of a wine-bottle, drank deeply, in disregard of Lilas's attempts to share the contents. He was fiercely elated; he imbibed with the eager thirst of a dipsomaniac. It was all so like a nightmare that Lorelei began to doubt her own sanity.

Once at rest in the dim-lit tunnel of the ferry-boat, however, she was brought sharply to herself by hearing her brother exclaim: "Say! He hasn't kissed her yet."

Lilas shrieked, and Bob stiffened himself, then slipped an arm around his bride. As she shrank away he mumbled angrily: "Here! I won't stand for that," and crushed her to him. He tipped her head back, then pressed his lips to hers, and she yielded, her whole body a-quiver with repugnance. But it was part of the price, she told herself; therefore she paid, although she was like to faint with the effort. She became conscious of a sudden savagery that swept over Bob at her first surrender, and in revulsion fought herself free from his embrace. He followed her, his eyes fierce, his hot breath heavy with the fumes of wine; his clutch hurt her, "By God!" he mumbled, thickly, "You are beautiful--beautiful. And you're mine. She's mine, eh? No foolishness about that, is there?" he appealed to Jim.

As they drew in toward the New York side the chauffeur inquired, "Where to, now?"'

"Why, drive us--" Jim hesitated. There was a silence which Lilas broke with a titter. The bridegroom joined her in an awkward laugh.

"Never thought of that."

"Drive to the Charlevoix," Lorelei said, sharply.

"No women allowed there; it's a stag place," objected Bob.

"Of course! We'll take you home. It's all over now," she told him, faintly.

"You can't get into no hotel without baggage," explained the driver.

"That's right. No baggage, no money. Deuce of a way to get married." Bob turned again to Jim, who solved the difficulty with a word.

"Why, you're both going to Lorelei's place, of course; then you can make your plans to-morrow."

The bride's half-strangled protest was lost in a burst of enthusiasm from Lilas.

"Surest thing you know," she cried; "and we'll stop in my flat for a farewell bottle; I've got a whole case. We'll end the night with another party at Jarvis's expense. He's crazy about marriages, anyhow. Ha! But you needn't tell him I was--full, understand?" She fell silent suddenly, then burst into a loud laugh. "Bah! I should worry!" Jim struggled with her as for a second time she endeavored to thrust her silken ankles through the taxi window.

The ferry drew into its slip, the cab motor shivered, the metallic rattle of windlass and chain proclaimed the return to Manhattan. Up the deserted avenues the vehicle sped, while inside the white- faced bride cowered with fingers locked and heart sick with dread. _

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