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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 15

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Merkle found his chauffeur just closing the garage door, and three minutes later his car was sweeping westward through the Park like the shadow of some flying bird. The vagueness, the brevity of the message that had come to him out of the night made it terribly alarming. Hammon of all men! And at this time! Merkle's mind leaped to the consequences of the catastrophe, if catastrophe it proved. He remembered the issues raised by the sudden death of another associate--also a man of standing and the head of a great industrial combination--and the avalanche of misfortune that it had started. In that case death had been attributed to apoplexy, but when the truth leaked out it had created a terrible scandal. Fortunately, that man's business affairs had been well ordered, and, although his family had been ruined, his institutions had managed to survive the blow. But Jarvis Hammon's financial interests were in no condition to withstand a shock; for a long time many of them had been under fire. He had committed his associates to a program of commercial expansion, never too secure even under favorable conditions, and one, moreover, which had provoked a tremendous assault from rival steel manufacturers. Now, with Hammon himself stricken at the crisis of the struggle, there was no telling what results might follow.

But Merkle's apprehensions were by no means as purely selfish as his immediate train of thought might imply; nor were they by any means confined to the probable cost in dollars and cents of his associate's death. Hammon and he had been friends for many years; they shared a mutual respect and affection, and, although Merkle was eminently practical and unemotional, he prayed now as best he could that this alarm might be false, and that Hammon might not be grievously injured. Meanwhile he wedged himself into the cushions of the reeling car and urged his driver to more speed.

As the machine drew up to the Elegancia, Jimmy Knight leaped to the running-board and said hurriedly:

"Send your driver away."

Merkle did as he was directed, realizing his worst fears. When he and Jim stood alone on the walk he inquired weakly, "Is he--dead?"

Jim shook his head, and Merkle saw that he was deeply agitated. "No. But he's got a bullet in his chest."

"Did she--did that woman--?" Merkle laid a bony hand upon Jim's arm, and his fingers clutched like claws.

"I--don't know. He says he did it himself, and she won't talk. He declares it's only a scratch, and won't let us telephone for a doctor or for an ambulance. He's afraid of the police and--he's waiting for you."

Merkle hurried toward the entrance, but Jim halted him, and by the light from within it was plain that the latter was fairly palsied with fright. "For God's sake be careful! D-don't let the hall-man suspect. Lorelei was with 'em when it happened, and if it's-- murder she'll be in it. Understand? She says she didn't see it, but she was there."

Together the men entered the building and at the first ring were admitted to Apartment Number One by Lorelei herself. She led them straight into the library.

Perhaps a quarter of an hour had elapsed since the shooting, but Jarvis Hammon still sat in the big chair. He was breathing quietly. Bob Wharton stood beside him.

"John!" The iron-master smiled pallidly as his friend came and knelt beside him. "You got here quickly."

"Are you badly hurt, Jarvis?"

"The damned thing is in here somewhere." Hammon took his hand away from his breast, and Merkle saw that the fingers were bloody. "Can you get me out of here quietly?"

John Merkle rose to his full height, his lips writhed back from his teeth. Harshly he inquired: "Where is that woman?"

"She's back yonder, in her room," Bob told him. "She's ill."

Merkle turned, but, reading his intent, Hammon checked him, crying in a strong voice: "None of that, John. I did it myself. It was an--accident."

"I don't believe it."

Hammon's eyes met those of his accuser; the two stared at each other steadily for a moment.

"It's true."

Merkle took a step and stooped for the revolver which had lain unnoticed until this moment. He held it in his hand.

"This isn't your gun," he said, quietly.

"No. It's hers. We had a quarrel. I--She intended to use it on herself. We fought for it--and in the struggle I set it off."

The other occupants of the room had listened breathlessly; now Lorelei stirred and Merkle read more than mere bewilderment in her face. He opened his lips, but the wounded man did not wait for him to speak.

"You MUST believe me!" he said, earnestly. "It's the truth, and I won't have Lilas involved--we've been a great deal to each other. To-night--I accused her wrongfully. It was all my fault--I'm to blame for everything." There was a pause. "I ruined her--you understand? I won't allow any scandal. Now get me out of here as quietly and as quickly as you can. I'm really not hurt much. Come, come! There's nobody home except Orson and some of the kitchen help, and Orson is all right--the women are gone, you know. He'll get a doctor. It's a--bad business, of course, but I've thought it all out, and you must do exactly as I say."

The effort of this long speech told on the sufferer.

Sweat beaded his face; nevertheless, his jaws remained firmly set; his glance was purposeful, his big hands were gripped tightly over the arms of his chair. There was something superb, something terrible about his unchanging grimness.

Lorelei spoke timidly, for the first time. "But--the law, Mr. Merkle? The police--?"

"To hell with the law!" Jim burst out, nervously. "D'you want to go to court? D'you want to be up for murder? Lilas would saddle it onto you to save herself."

"Murder?" echoed Bob, with a start. "Jove!"

Jarvis Hammon cried furiously: "Don't be fools. There's no murder about it. I told you I shot myself accidentally. I'm not going to die."

"You CAN'T--you MUSTN'T," Merkle gravely agreed.

"Is your car outside, John?"

Merkle shook his head. He was thinking swiftly. "I wouldn't dare risk that, anyhow. The driver is a new man."

"Get a cab," Jim offered, in a panic.

"The cab-driver would be sure to--"

"I'll drive," Bob volunteered. "I'm drunk, but I've done it before when I was drunker. It's an old trick of mine--sort of a joke, see? Give me some money--a cabby'll do anything for money at this time o' night."

Merkle eyed the speaker in momentary doubt, then handed him a roll of bank-notes. "It's a serious business, Bob, but--this is worse, and we've no time to lose--Jarvis can't stay here. There's somebody else to consider besides us and--Miss Lynn. I'm thinking about Mrs. Hammon and the girls." Hammon groaned. "But we mustn't leave a trail, understand? Now go quickly, and--do the best you can." He followed Bob to the door and let him out. Instead of returning to the library, however, Merkle stepped swiftly down the hall, then, without knocking, opened the door to Lilas Lynn's bedroom and entered.

Lilas was busied at her dressing-table; an open traveling-bag jammed with articles of wearing-apparel stood on the bed. At his entrance she uttered a frightened cry and a silver spoon slipped from her nerveless fingers. Merkle saw also a little open box with several compartments, a glass of water, the cap of a pearl-and- gold fountain-pen, but took scant notice of them, being too deeply stirred and too much surprised at her appearance. She was no longer the vital, dashing girl he had known, but a pallid, cringing wreck of a woman. She shrank back at sight of him, babbling unintelligible words and cowering as if expecting a blow.

"Did you shoot him?" he asked, grimly.

Shivering, choking, speechless, Lilas stared at him. Her hair was disarranged; it hung in wisps and strings over her neck and brow; her eyes were dull and distended, like those of a person just recovering from the effects of an anesthetic. It was doubtful if she even recognized him. A repetition of his question brought no reply.

Seizing her roughly, he shook her, muttering savagely:

"If I were sure, by God, I'd strangle you!"

She remained limp; her expressionless stare did not change.

Merkle heard a stir behind him and found Jimmy Knight's blanched face peering in at him. Even fright could not entirely rob the younger man's features of their sly inquisitiveness.

"Mr. Hammon's calling you," said Jim, then blinked at the wretchedly disheveled woman.

"Here!" Merkle beckoned him with a jerk of his head. "This girl must get away from here. She'll ruin everything in her condition. Try to put her in some kind of shape while Lorelei packs her bag. We had better get her out of the country if we can."

Jim's quick eyes took in the articles on the dressing-table. "Ha! Dope," he exclaimed. "She's a coker--she's filled herself up. But, say--you don't really think she--did it, do you?"

"I don't know what to think. It's just as bad, either way. Hammon's wife and daughters must never know. Now, quick. See what you can do with her."

Merkle returned to the library, sent Lorelei in to her brother's assistance, then scanned his friend's face anxiously. But Hammon had not moved; the sweat still stood upon his lips and forehead, his jaws were still set like stone.

"No scandal, John," he exclaimed. "No scandal--whatever happens-- on account of my girls."

"You're worse hit than you'll admit," Merkle said, gently.

"No, no. I'm all right. I'm not even suffering." His pallor belied his words, but he went on with even better self-control than Merkle's: "There's paper and ink yonder. Take these notes, will you? Things are in bad shape on the Street, and--you never can tell what may happen, so we'd better play safe."

Merkle seated himself and took the wounded man's dictation as best he could; but his hand shook badly.

From down the hall came hysterical meanings as Lilas Lynn struggled in a drugged and drunken breakdown.

The moments dragged interminably.

Several months before, Bob Wharton during one of his hilarious moments had conceived the brilliant notion of hiring a four- wheeler and driving a convivial party of friends from place to place. The success of his exploit had been so gratifying that he had repeated the performance, but he was in a far different mood now as he left the Elegancia. The shock of Lorelei's announcement, the sight of his stricken friend, had sobered him considerably, yet he was not himself by any means. At one moment he saw and reasoned clearly, at the next his intoxication benumbed his senses and distorted his mental vision. These periods alternated with some regularity, as if the wine-fumes rose in waves; but he centered his attention upon the task ahead of him and hastened his sluggish limbs.

One word--"murder"--stuck in his memory; it kept repeating itself. He remembered Jimmy Knight's sentence directed at Lorelei. "D'you want to go to court?"

Lorelei was his wife, Bob reflected, dizzily--quite clearly he remembered marrying her. It was plainly as necessary, therefore, to shield her as to remove Jarvis Hammon and smother this accident. Or was it an accident, after all? Perhaps Lilas had shot the fellow. If that were true, then she ought to be arrested-- certainly. But somebody had said, "She'll saddle it onto Lorelei to save herself." After all, it couldn't be murder, for hadn't Hammon said that he shot himself? Bob decided there could be no such need for haste, now that the truth was known, so he slackened his zigzag progress. If nobody had been murdered, why hire a cab at all? Then he began to run again, remembering that Hammon needed a doctor. This was a fine wedding night, indeed. For once in his life he wished himself sober.

Broadway, that pulsating artery of New York life, was still flowing a thin stream of traffic despite the lateness of the hour, and Bob's mind had become clearer by the time he reached it.

He signaled to the first horse-drawn vehicle that passed, but it was occupied, and the driver paid no heed to his call. Several taxi-cabs whirled past, both north and south bound, but he knew better than to hire them, so he waited as patiently as he could while those billows of intoxication continued to ebb and flow through his brain, robbing him of that careful judgment which he fought to retain.

At last the clop-clop-clop of a horse's hoofs sounded close by, and an unshaven man in an ancient high hat steered a four-wheeler to the curb, barking: "Keb, keb!"

Bob lurched forward and laid a hand upon the driver's knee. "Very man I'm lookin' for." The hiccup that followed was by no means intentional.

"Yes, sir. Where to, sir?"

But Bob shook his head vigorously and waved a comprehensive gesture toward the west. "Got a party of my own back yonder-- everybody soused but me--understand? I'm the only sober one, so I'm goin' to drive 'em home, see? How much?"

"How much for what?" demanded the cabman.

"For the cab--one hour. I'll bring it back."

"Nothin' doin'! I'll take you where you want to go."

"Sorry. Mus' have my little joke, no matter what it costs. Next cabby'll do it."

Nothing except Bob's personal appearance prevented the driver from whipping up without more ado, but a shiny top-hat, an immaculate expanse of shirt-bosom, and silken waistcoat, especially when linked with a spend-thrift air, command respect from the cab- driving brotherhood. The night was old--and these jokers sometimes pay well, the man reflected.

"How'd I know you'd bring it back?" he inquired.

"Matter of honor with me. I'll be back in no time. Will ten dollars be right?"

"Hop in, Mister. I'll drive you an' your friends to Philadelphy for ten dollars," the cabby offered, invitingly.

But Bob was obdurate. "I'll make it fifteen, and you can lend me your coat and hat. We'll exchange--have to, or no joke. Is it a go?"

The offer was tempting, but the driver cannily demanded Wharton's name and address before committing himself. The card that Bob handed him put an end to the parley; he wheeled into the side- street and removed his long nickel-buttoned coat and his battered tile, taking Bob's broadcloth garment and well-blocked hat in return.

"First one o' these I ever had on," he chuckled. "But it's a bit cool for shirt-sleeves, ain't it? Mind now, if you get lost give the horse his head and he'll find the stable, but don't run 'im. If you ain't back in an hour I'll know you've got a puncture. Ha! In the mornin' I'll take these glad rags to Charley Voice's hotel, eh?"

"Right! The Charlevoix. But I'll be back." Bob drove away with a parting flourish of his whip.

The elevator was in its place, the hall-man was dozing, with heels propped upon the telephone switchboard, when Wharton entered the Elegancia and rang the bell of Lilas Lynn's apartment; but a careless glimpse of the glittering buttons and the rusty hat sent the attendant back into his drowse.

Once Bob had gained admittance little time was wasted. He and Merkle helped Hammon to his feet, then each took an arm; but the exertion told, and Jarvis hung between them like a drunken man, a gray look of death upon his face.

"Watch out for the door-man," Jimmy Knight cautioned for the twentieth time. "Make him think you've got a souse."

"Aren't you coming along?" asked Bob.

But Jim recoiled. "Me? No. I'll stay and help Lilas make her get- away."

Merkle nodded agreement. "Don't let her get out of your sight, either, understand? There's a ship sailing in the morning. See that she's aboard."

Jarvis Hammon spoke. "I want you all to know that I'm entirely to blame and that I did this myself. Lilas is a--good girl." The words came laboriously, but his heavy brows were drawn down, his jaw was square. "I was clumsy. I might have killed her. But she's all right, and I'll be all right, too, when I get a doctor. Now put that pistol in my pocket, John. Do as I say. There! Now I'm ready."

The hall-man of the Elegancia was somewhat amused at sight of the three figures that emerged from Miss Lynn's apartment, and surmised that there had been a gay time within, judging from the condition of the old man in the center. Theatrical people were a giddy lot, anyhow. Since there was no likelihood of a tip from one so deeply in his cups, the attendant did not trouble to lend a hand, but raised his heels to the switchboard and dozed off again.

Bob Wharton mounted the box and drove eastward across Broadway, through the gloomy block to Columbus Avenue and on to Central Park West, the clop-clop-clop of the horse's feet echoing lonesomely in the empty street. At Sixty-seventh Street he wheeled into the sunken causeway that links the East and West sides.

Once in the shadows, Merkle leaned from the door, crying softly, "Faster! Faster!"

Bob whipped up, the horse cantered, the cab reeled and bounced over the cobblestones, rocking the wounded man pitifully.

To John Merkle the ride was terrible, with a drunkard at the reins and in his own arms a perhaps fatally injured man, who, despite the tortures of that bumping carriage, interspersed his groans with cries of "Hurry, Hurry!" But, while Merkle was appalled at the situation and its possible consequences, he felt, nevertheless, that Hammon had acted in quite the proper way. In fact, for a manly man there had been no alternative, regardless of who had fired the shot. It was quite like Jarvis to do the generous, even the heroic, thing when least expected. Whatever Hammon might have been, he was in the last analysis all man, and Merkle admired his courage. He was glad that Hammon had thought of those three women who bore his name, even if they bore him no love, and he took courage from his friend's plucky self-control. Perhaps the wound was not serious, after all. Hammon's death would mean the ruin of many investors, a general crash, perhaps even a wide-spread panic, and, according to Merkle's standards, these catastrophes bulked bigger than the unhappiness of women, the fall of an honored name, or death itself.

When he felt the grateful smoothness of Fifth Avenue beneath the wheels he leaned forth a second time and warned Bob, "Be careful of the watchman in the block."

The liquor in Bob was dying; he bent downward to inquire, "Is he all right?"

Merkle nodded, then withdrew his head.

The Hammon residence has changed owners of late, but many people recall its tragic associations and continue to point it out with interest. It is a massive pile of gray stone, standing just east of Fifth Avenue, and its bronze doors open upon an exclusive, well-kept side-street. As the cab swung in sight of the house Wharton, seeing a gray-clad figure near by, drove past without pausing and turned south on Madison Avenue. He made a complete circuit of the block, meditating with sobering effect upon the risk he was running. His heart was pounding violently when the street unrolled before him for a second time. At the farther corner, dimly discernible beneath the radiance of a street-light, he made out the watchman, now at the end of his patrol. The moment was propitious; there could be no further delay.

Bob reined in and leaped from his box. Merkle had the cab door open and was hoisting Hammon from his seat.

"Have you got the key?" Bob asked, swiftly.

"Yes. Help me! He's fainted, I think."

They lifted the half-conscious man out, then with him between them struggled up the steps; but Hammon's feet dragged; he hung very heavy in their arms.

Merkle was not a strong man; he was panting, and his hands shook as he fumbled with the lock. The key escaped him and tinkled upon the stone.

"Hurry! Here comes the watchman." Bob was gazing over his shoulder at the slowly approaching figure. The watchman had his eyes fixed upon the old-fashioned vehicle and its dejected animal, wondering, no doubt, what brought such an antiquated rig into this most exclusive neighborhood. He was within a few numbers of the Hammon house before Merkle solved the mysteries of the lock and the heavy portals swung open. In another instant the door had closed noiselessly, and the three were shut off from the street by a barricade of iron grillwork and plate glass. Both Bob and Merkle were weak from the narrowness of their escape, but the way was still barred by another door, through which two elaborate H's worked into French lace panels showed pallidly.

A second but briefer delay, and they stood in the gloom of the marble foyer hall. Then they shuffled across the floor to the great curving stairway. Both of Hammon's friends knew the house well, and, guided only by their sense of touch, they labored upward with their burden. The place was still, tomb-like; only the faint, measured ticking of a clock came to them.

Hammon had assured them that there would be no one in the house except Orson, his man, and some of the kitchen servants, the others having followed their mistress to the country; nevertheless the rescuers' nerves were painfully taut, and they tried to go as silently as burglars. It was hard, awkward work; they collided with unseen objects; their arms ached with the constant strain; when they finally gained the library they were drenched with perspiration. Merkle switched on the lights; they deposited the wounded man on a couch and bent over him.

Hammon was not dead. Merkle felt his way into the darkened regions at the rear and returned with a glass of spirits. Under his and Bob's ministrations the unconscious man opened his eyes.

"You got me here, didn't you?" he whispered, as he took in his surroundings. "Now go--everything is all right."

"We're not going to leave you," Merkle said, positively.

"No!" echoed Bob. "I'll wake up Orson while John telephones the doctor."

But Hammon forbade Bob's movement with a frown. It was plain that despite his weakness his mind remained clear. "Listen to me," he ordered. "Prop me up--put me in that chair. I'm choking." They did as he directed. "That's better. Now, you mustn't be seen here-- either of you. We can't explain." He checked Merkle. "I know best. Go home; it's only two blocks--I'll telephone."

"You'll ring for Orson quick?"

Hammon nodded.

"Rotten way to leave a man," Bob mumbled. "I'd rather stick it out and face the music."

"Go, go! You're wasting time." Hammon's brow was wrinkled with pain and anger. "You've been good; now hurry."

Merkle's thin face was marked with deep feeling.

"Yes," he agreed. "There's nothing else for us to do; but tell Orson to 'phone me quick. I'll be back here in five minutes." Then he and Bob stole out of the house as quietly as they had stolen in.

They got into the cab and drove away without exciting suspicion. Merkle alighted two blocks up the avenue and sped to his own house; Bob turned his jaded nag westward through the sunken road that led toward the Elegancia and Lorelei.

The owner of the equipage was waiting patiently, and there still lacked something of the allotted hour when the exchanged garments had been transferred to their respective owners. Bob walked toward the Elegancia with a feeling of extreme fatigue in his limbs, for the effort to conquer his intoxication had left him weak; he dimly realized also that he was still far from sober.

There was no answer when he rang at Lilas Lynn's apartment; the hall-boy volunteered the information that the occupant had just gone out with a gentleman. Miss Knight? Yes, she was up-stairs, he supposed. But when Bob undertook to go up there was prompt objection. The attendant would not hear to such a thing until he had first called Miss Knight. Even Lorelei's halting assurance that the gentleman was indeed her husband did not wholly satisfy, and it was with a suspicious mien that the man finally gave way.

Bob was surprised at his wife's apparent self-control when she let him in. Except for the slim hand pressed to her bosom and the anxiety lurking in her deep blue eyes she might have just come from the theater. Those eyes, he noted, were very dark, almost black, under this emotional stress; they questioned him, mutely.

"We got him home all right," he told her, when they stood facing each other in the tiny living-room.

"Will he live?"

"Oh yes. He says he's not badly hurt, and Merkle agrees. Lord! we'd never left him alone if we'd thought--"

"I'm glad. When the telephone rang I thought--it was the police."

"There, there!" he said, comfortingly, seeing her tremble. "I won't let anybody hurt you. I was terribly drunk--things are swimming yet--but all the way across town I couldn't think of anything, anybody except you and what it would mean to you if it got out."

"It will get out, I'm sure. Such things always do."

He eyed her gravely, kindly, with an expression she had never seen upon his face.

"Then--we'll face it together," he said.

After a moment her glance drooped, a faint color tinged her cheeks. "I--wouldn't dare face it alone. I couldn't. But you're tired--sick." He nodded. "You must lie down and sleep, and get to be yourself again--We can't tell what may happen now at any moment."

"It's the reaction, I suppose. I'm all in. And you?"

She shook her head. "I couldn't sleep if I tried. I feel as if I'd never be able to sleep again. I--I'll sit and watch and--wait." _

Read next: Chapter 16

Read previous: Chapter 14

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