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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 14

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Hitchy Koo had gone home. When Lilas ushered her friends in and snapped on the lights, the apartment, save for the delirious spaniel, was unoccupied. She flung down her hat, coat, and gloves, then, with the help of Jim, prepared glasses and a cooler. Lorelei was restless; the thought of more wine, more ribaldry, revolted her, and yet she was grateful for this delay, brief though it promised to be. Any interruption, trivial or tragic, would be welcome. Meanwhile her husband's eyes followed her hungrily.

Strangely enough, the fears that had driven her to this reckless marriage had dwindled steadily since the final words were spoken, and now these apprehensions seemed in no wise so alarming as the consequences of her rash act. She cringed at her own thoughts; they set her to shivering; she stole a glance at her husband and was not reassured, for he continued to eye her with a look she did not like. She was forced to pledge her own happiness in a glass, then in a wild moment of desperation longed to deaden herself with liquor as the others had done.

Jim and Lilas were talking loudly when a key grated in the lock, the door of the little apartment opened and clicked shut again. Another instant and Jarvis Hammon paused on the threshold, glowering.

Lilas's wine-glass shattered upon the floor.

"Jarvis! You frightened me," she cried.

"Evening, Mr. Hammon." Bob lurched to his feet, upsetting his chair. "This IS a s'prise."

Jim had risen likewise, but Hammon had eyes for no one except Lilas.

"Ah! You're home again, finally. Where have you been?" he demanded, in a voice heavy with anger. His hostile tone, his threatening attitude brought an uncomfortable silence upon the hearers.

"Now, Jarvis," said the bridegroom, placatingly, steadying himself meanwhile with the aid of the table, "don't be a grouch. Everything's all right."

Lilas remained motionless, staring defiantly. Her face had slowly whitened, and now its unpleasantness matched that of her elderly admirer. Hammon dropped his smoldering gaze to the half-empty glasses, then raised it, scowling at Jim.

"Humph! Who is--this?"

Lilas made her guest known. "Mr. Knight, Mr. Hammon. I believe you know Miss Knight."

"So YOU'RE the one." Hammon showed his teeth in a sardonic smile.

"I'm the one what?" inquired Jim, with a sickly attempt at pleasantry.

"By God! What does she see in YOU?" Hammon measured the young man with contemptuous curiosity.

"Don't be an ass, Jarvis," began Lilas. "I--"

She was interrupted roughly. "That's precisely what I don't intend to be; and I don't intend that Bob shall be one, either." He turned to young Wharton. "What are you doing here, my boy?" he asked.

"Just stopped in for a minute. You'll find all the bric-a-brac in its place."

"Now don't get funny. I'm sorry to see you with these grafters." Hammon indicated Jim and Lorelei with a nod.

"Eh? What's that?" Bob stiffened, and Jim murmured an indignant protest.

"You heard me. They're grafters, and you'd better cut loose from them."

"Wait a minute. Lorelei's my wife. 'S true, Jarvis."

"Wife?" Hammon took a heavy step forward. "WIFE? Hell, you're drunk, Bob!"

"P'raps. But we're mar--"

"So! You landed him, did you?" Hammon glared at the brother and sister. "You got him drunk and married him, eh? And Lilas helped you, I suppose. Fine! They're crooks, Bob, and they've made a fool of you." Bob checked the speech on Lorelei's lips with an upraised hand, then said slowly, with a painful effort to sober himself: "You're--mistaken, Jarvis. She's an honest girl and a good one, too good for me. You mus' 'pologize."

The elder man breathed an oath. "She's a blackmailer, and so is-- this person. Oh, don't look hurt, my friend." He froze Jim with a glare. "Merkle told me how you tried to work your sister off on him. When you couldn't make that go you grabbed the next best man, eh? It's true, Bob; she's a stalking horse for her whole damned family."

Bob centered his eyes laboriously upon the speaker, then said distinctly: "We've been good friends, Jarvis; you're a kind of an uncle to me, but--you're a liar. You've lied 'bout my wife, so I'spose I've got to lick you." With a backward kick he sent his overturned chair flying, then made for Hammon. But Jim seized him by the arm; Lorelei sprang in front of him.

"Mr. Whar--Bob," she cried. "You mustn't--for my sake." The three scuffled for an instant until Hammon said, more quietly:

"I couldn't fight with you, Bob--you're like my own son. But you've been sold out, and--and it looks as if I'd been sold out, too. Now go home and sleep. I didn't come here to quarrel with you; I have a matter of my own to settle." He laid a hand on Bob's shoulder in an effort to pacify him, but the young man's indignation flared into life with drunken persistence. It was Lorelei who at last prevailed upon her husband to leave peaceably, and she was about to accompany him when Lilas Lynn checked her.

During this angry scene Lilas had not risen nor spoken, but had sat with her elbows upon the table, her chin resting upon her interlocked fingers, obviously enjoying it all. Her eyes were very black and very brilliant against her pallor, and she was smiling derisively.

"Wait!" she interposed. "I'm not going to stay here with this old--fool."

Hammon grew purple; he ground his teeth.

"You SHALL stay. We're going to have a talk and settle things once for all."

"See? He's going to settle me."

"Nonsense. I mean--"

"He's liable to harm me." Lilas's words were directed as an appeal to the others, but her eyes mocked Hammon. "Jim, dear, you won't leave me alone?"

Jimmy, not relishing in the least this attempt to goad the millionaire, remained silent, but no words from him were needed.

"We've got to have an understanding, right now," stormed Hammon, "so clear 'em out. Clear 'em out, I say."

Lilas rose swiftly with a complete change of manner; she was smiling no longer; her face was sinister.

"Very well," she agreed. "To-night. Why not? But I want Lorelei to stay and--hear. Yes."

"No, I don't want her."

"I do." Lilas's bad temper flared up promptly from the hot coals of a spiteful drunken stubbornness. "She'll stay till you go, or else I'll put you out too. I don't trust you." She laughed disagreeably.

"Then have your way. It's you I want to talk with, anyhow, drunk as you are. Now, Bob--will you say good night?" He waved the two men from the room, and the outer door closed behind them.

Lorelei had little desire to remain as the witness to a distressing scene, but she seized upon the delay, for even a sordid lovers' quarrel was preferable to the caresses of a sodden bridegroom. But daylight seemed a long way off--she feared Bob would not fall asleep during this brief respite.

"Now come with me, if you please." Hammon turned in the direction of the library, and Lilas followed, pausing to light a cigarette with a studied indifference that added fuel to his rage. Lorelei seated herself at the disordered dining-table and stared miserably at the wall.

"Well?" said Hammon, when he and Lilas were alone. "Is this how you live up to your promises?"

"How did you know I went out to-night?" she inquired in her turn.

"I had you watched. After what happened last night I was suspicious. I've been waiting for hours--while you were out with that grafter, drinking, carousing--"

He bent toward her, white with fury, but she blew the smoke from her cigarette into his face, and he checked himself, staring at her strangely. For the first time he forgot his own injured feelings and perceived the insolent defiance in her expression. It took him aback, for in all his aggressive, violent life of conquest no one had ever defied him, no one had ever insulted him nor deliberately set about rousing his ire. But Lilas, he saw, was doing so, and with a purpose. There was more in this woman's bearing, he decided, than reckless defiance--there was an intentional challenge and a threat. Therefore with an effort he governed himself, recoiling in surprise.

She had seated herself upon the edge of the reading-table, one foot swinging idly. She watched him with a brooding, insolent amusement.

"Are you just drunk," he said, uncertainly, "or--have you completely lost your senses?"

"Yes, I'm drunk, but I know what I'm doing. I went out last night, and you warned me. I went out again to-night and--Oh yes! I helped marry your friend's son to a show-girl. What are you going to do about it?"

"I--why, you mustn't talk like that; you're not yourself, Lilas." He ran his eyes over the luxurious little room; he wiped his face with a shaky hand, feeling that it was he who had lost his senses. "The wine is talking. When I asked you to marry me I never dreamed--"

"You never dreamed I'd disobey you, eh? Well, I didn't intend to so early." She laughed again. "Now I suppose you'll drop me. What?"

"There's nothing else to do, if this--But I can't imagine what possessed you."

She eyed him silently with an expression he could not fathom, then asked, "Tell me, do you really care for me?"

Jarvis Hammon was a virile, headstrong man; his world had come suddenly, inexplicably to an end. His voice was hoarse, as he answered:

"Do you think I'd have made a fool of myself if I hadn't? Do you think I'd have ruined myself?"

"Have you ruined yourself?" she interrupted, quickly.

"Not quite, perhaps; but what I've lost, what I've sacrificed, would have ruined most men. My home is gone, and my family--as you know--yes, and a good many other things you don't know about. Financially I'm not done for--"

"That's too bad."


She motioned him to proceed.

"You've cost me dear enough, as money goes, for you've gotten into my brain, somehow. I was never foolish over women until I met you, but you made me lose my grip on things, and indirectly I paid high. I didn't care, though. I was glad. I wanted you at any price. I tried to change the world around to suit me, and--now you've spoiled it all."

"That blackmail cost you something, didn't it?" He agreed, carelessly.

"And your wife's divorce will cost a lot more, won't it? You've squandered quite a fortune on me, too, haven't you?"

He was too bewildered by her expression to do more than stare.

"No woman could totally ruin you; you're too rich for that, but you're hit hard inside, so I guess the price is high enough." Lilas nodded with satisfaction. "Thank God, I'm through, and you'll never paw me over again!"

"I don't understand. What are you getting at?"

"I'll tell you. I never intended to marry you, Jarvis."

He started as if she had struck him.

"That's what I said," she reaffirmed, "and I'll tell you why. Look at me--close."

He did as she directed, but saw nothing, his mind being in chaos. It had been her intention to call Lorelei to witness this dramatic disclosure and thus enhance its effect, but in the excitement of the moment she forgot. "Look at me," she repeated. "I'm Lily Levinski."

"Levinski. A Jew?" he exclaimed, in naive surprise.

"Yes. I'm Joe Levinski's girl. Don't you remember?"

Many times she had rehearsed this declaration, picturing the consternation, the dawning horror it would cause, and deriving a fierce, quivering pleasure from the anticipation, but the real effect was disappointing. Hammon only blinked stupidly, repeating:

"A Jew!" It was plain that the name meant nothing.

She slid down from her perch and approached him, crying roughly, "Don't you remember Joe Levinski?" Hammon shook his head. "He worked for you in the Bessemer plant of the old Kingman mill. Don't you remember?"

"There were four thousand men--"

"He was killed when the converter dumped. You were rushing the work. Do you remember now?" Her words came swift and shrill.

Hammon started; a frown drew his brows together. His mind groped back through the years and memory faintly stirred, but she gave him no leisure to speak.

"I was waiting outside with his dinner-bucket, along with the other women. I saw him go. I saw you kill him--"

"LILAS! Good God, are you crazy?" he burst forth.

"It was murder."


"It was. You did it. You killed him." She had dropped her cigarette, and it burned a black scar into the rug at their feet. Hammon retreated a step, the girl followed with blazing eyes and words that were hot with hate. "You spilled that melted steel on him, and I saw it all. When I grew up I prayed for a chance to get even, for his sake and for the sake of the other hunkies you killed. You killed my mother, too, Jarvis Hammon, and made me a-- a--You made me hustle my living in the streets, and go through hell to get it."

"Be quiet!" he commanded, roughly. "The thing's incredible-- absurd. You--the daughter of one of my workmen--and a JEW!"

"Yes. Levinski--Lily Levinski. And you wanted to marry me," she gibed. "But I fooled you."

"I guess I--must be--out of my head. I never knew the man--there were thousands of them; accidents were common. But--you say--" He gathered his whirling thoughts, and, strangely enough, grew calm. "You say you prayed for a chance to get even--So, then, you've been humbugging--By God, I don't believe it!"

"It's true. It's true. It's true," shrilled the girl so hysterically that her voice roused Lorelei, sitting vacant-eyed in the room down the hall, and brought her to her feet with ears suddenly strained. Lorelei could hear only a part of the words that followed, but the tones of the two voices drew her from her retreat and toward the front of the apartment.

"I went through the gutter, I was a girl of the streets," Lilas was saying. "Oh, you're not the first--At last I got on the stage and then--you came. I knew you; I thought I'd die when you first touched me--then I figured it all out, and--you were easy."

"Go on," he said, hoarsely.

"You were a bigger fool than I dreamed, but you were old and you didn't know women. I knew men, though--old men especially."

"You took my money--you let me support you!" cried Hammon, in bitter accusation.

"Oh, I did more than that. I planned everything that has happened to you, even that blackmail."

"Blackmail!" he shouted. "Did you--was that your--?" He grew suddenly apoplectic; his eyes distended and reddened with rage.

His dismay delighted her.

"Certainly," she smiled. "Half the money is in my bank at this minute--besides all the rest you've given me. Oh, I've got enough to live on without marrying you. Who do you think put your wife wise and gave her the evidence for her divorce, eh? Think it over."

As she watched the effect of her words Lilas felt that her satisfaction was now complete; the man's slack jaw, his staring, bloodshot eyes convinced her that this moment was all that she had wished it to be.

"You'll settle with her for a million, and then you'll settle with me for this." She indicated the elaborate apartment with a gesture. "You think this ends our affair, don't you? Well, it doesn't. Oh no! You can't cast me off. I'll drag you through the gutter where you sent me, and you'll either marry me or--the courts and the newspapers will get all your letters. You can't buy them--the letters. I'm rich, understand? Do you remember those letters? You were very indiscreet--and--do you want me to quote them? The less said, the better, perhaps. Your wife will read them and your daughters--"

Jarvis Hammon roused himself at last. Surprise, incredulity, dismay gave place to fury, and, as in all primitive natures, his wrath took shape as an impulse to destroy.

"You'll--do that--eh?" His tone, his bearing were threatening. He advanced as if to seize her in his great hands, and only her quickness saved her.

"Don't touch me!" Her voice ended in a little shriek as she evaded a second effort to grasp her, and placed the table between them. "What do you--mean?"

But it seemed that she had done her work too well, for his answer was like the growl of a hungry beast. His eyes roved over the table for a weapon, and, reading his insane purpose, she cried again:

"Don't do that. I warn you--"

The nearest object chanced to be a crystal globe in which was set a tiny French clock--one of those library ornaments serving as timepiece and paperweight--over this his hand closed; he moved toward her.

"Put that down," she cried. He did not pause. "Put it--" She wrenched at the table drawer and fumbled for something. Hammon uttered a bellow and leaped at her.

It was a tiny revolver, small enough to fit into a man's vest pocket or a woman's purse, but its report echoed loudly. The noise came like a cannon-shot to the girl in the hall outside and brought a cry to her lips. Lorelei flung herself against the library door.

What she saw reassured her momentarily, for, although Lilas was at bay against a book-case, Hammon was rooted in his tracks. A strange, almost ludicrous expression of surprise was on his face; he was staring down at his breast; the revolver lay on the floor between him and Lilas.

Lorelei gasped an incoherent question, but neither of the two who faced each other appeared to hear it or to notice her presence in the room.

"I told you to--keep off," Lilas chattered. Her eyes were fixed upon Hammon, but her out-flung arms were pressed against the support at her back as if she felt herself growing weak. "You did it--yourself. I warned you."

The man merely remained motionless, staring. But there was something shocking in the paralysis that held him and fixed his face in that distorted mold of speechless amazement. Finally he stirred; one hand crept inside his waistcoat, then came away red; he turned, walked to a chair, and half fell upon it. Then he saw Lorelei's face, and her agonized question took shape out of the whirling chaos in his mind.

"Where's Bob?" he said, faintly. "Call him, please."

"You're--hurt. I'll telephone for a doctor; there's one in the house, and--and the police, too." Lorelei voiced her first impulse, then shrilly appealed to Lilas to do something. But Lilas remained petrified in her attitude of retreat; from the pallor that was whitening her cheeks now it might have been she who was in danger of death.

"Don't telephone," said Hammon, huskily. "You must do just as I say, understand? This mustn't get out, do you hear? I'm not--hurt. I'm all right, but--fetch Bob. Don't let him call a doctor, either, until I--get home. Now hurry--please."

Lorelei rushed to the outside door, restraining with difficulty a wild impulse to run screaming through the hall of the apartment building and so arouse the other tenants. But the wounded man's instructions had been terse and forceful, therefore she held herself in check. Fortunately, the hall-man was not at his post, or without doubt he would have read tragedy in her demeanor. With skirts gathered high and breath sobbing in her throat, the girl fled up the stair to her own door, where she clung, ringing the bell frantically.

She could hear Bob's--her husband's voice inside, raised in the best of humor. Evidently he was telephoning.

"Yes. Two hours ago, I tell you. With book, bell, and candle. Sure, I'm happy--couldn't be otherwise, for I'm drunk and married. I knew you'd be glad. What? No; glad because I'm married."

Jim's footsteps sounded, his hand opened the door, then his arm flew out to his sister's support as she staggered in.

"SIS! What the devil?" he cried, aghast at sight of her.


Bob continued his cheerful colloquy over the wire. "Just got in from your nightly joy-ride, eh? Lucky I caught you. Say! Here she is now. We'll expect a marble clock with gilt cupids from you, Merkle--Want to say hello?" He lurched aside from the telephone as Lorelei snatched the receiver from his hand.

"Mr. Merkle," she cried.

"Hello! Yes. Is that you?" came Merkle's steady voice.

"Come quick--quick."

"What's wrong?" he demanded, with a sharp change of tone. "Has Bob--?"

"No, no. It's Mr. Hammon. He's down-stairs with--Lilas, and he's hurt--shot. I--I'm frightened."

She turned to find Bob and Jim staring at her.

"Come," she gasped. "I think he's--dying."

She led the way swiftly, and they followed. _

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