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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 17

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Hannibal Wharton arrived in New York at five o'clock and went directly to Merkle's bank. At eight o'clock Jarvis Hammon died. During the afternoon and evening other financiers, summoned hurriedly from New England shores and Adirondack camps, were busied in preparations for the struggle they expected on the morrow. During the closing hours of the market prices had slumped to an alarming degree; a terrific raid on metal stocks had begun, and conditions were ripe for a panic.

Hammon had bulked large in the steel world, and his position in circles of high finance had become prominent; but alive he could never have worked one-half the havoc caused by his sudden death. That persistent rumor of suicide argued, in the public mind, the existence of serious money troubles, and gave significance to the rumor that for some time past had disturbed the Street. Hammon's enemies summoned their forces for a crushing assault.

In this emergency Bob's father found himself the real head of those vast enterprises in which he had been an associate, and until a late hour that night he was forced to remain in consultation with men who came and went with consternation written upon their faces.

The amazing transformation which followed the birth of the giant Steel Trust had raised many men from well-to-do obscurity into prominence and undreamed-of wealth. Since then the older members of the original clique had withdrawn one by one from active affairs, and of the younger men only Wharton and Hammon had remained. Equally these two had figured in what was perhaps the most remarkable chapter of American financial history. Both had been vigorous, self-made, practical men. But the outcome had affected them quite differently.

Riches had turned Jarvis Hammon's mind into new channels; they had opened strange pathways and projected him into a life foreign to his early teachings. His duties had kept him in New York, while Wharton's had held him in his old home. Hammon had become a great financier; Wharton had remained the practical operating expert, and, owing to the exactions of his position, he had become linked more closely than ever to business detail. At the same time he had become more and more unapproachable. Unlimited power had forced him into the peculiar isolation of a chief executive; he had grown hard, suspicious, arbitrary. Even to his son he had been for years a remote being.

It was not until the last conference had broken up, not until the last forces had been disposed for the coming battle, that he spoke to Merkle of Bob's marriage. Merkle told him what he knew, and the old man listened silently. Then he drove to the Elegancia.

Bob and Lorelei had just returned from the theater, much, be it said, against the bridegroom's wishes. Bob had been eager to begin the celebration of his marriage in a fitting manner, and it had required the shock of Hammon's death added to Lorelei's entreaties to dissuade him from a night of hilarity. He was flushed with drink, and in consequence more than a little resentful when she insisted upon spending another night in the modest little home.

"Say! I'm not used to this kind of a place," he argued. "I'm not a cave-dweller. It's a lovely flat--for a murder--but it's no place to LIVE. And, besides, it doesn't look right for me to come to your house, when all the hotels are gasping for my patronage. I never heard of such a thing. Makes me feel like a rummy."

"Don't be silly," she told him. "We acted on impulse; we can't change everything at a moment's notice. I couldn't bear a hotel just yet."

"But--people take trips when they get married."

"That is different. Are you--in a position to take me away to- night?"

With an eloquent gesture Bob turned his trousers pockets wrong side out. "Not to-night, perhaps, but to-morrow."

"I can't quit the show without two weeks' notice."

"Two weeks?" He was aghast. "Two minutes. Two seconds. I won't have you dodging around stage-doors. To-morrow you'll breeze in and tell my old friend Regan you've quit. Just say, 'I quit'-- that's notice enough."

"Bergman won't let me go; it wouldn't be right to ask him."

But Bob was insistent. "It pains me to pull the props out from under the 'profession' and leave the drama flat, but matrimony was a successful institution before the Circuit Theater was built, and a husband has rights. I intend to cure you of the work habit. You must learn to scorn it. Look at me. I'm an example of the unearned increment. We'll kiss this dinky flat a fond farewell--it's impossible, really--I refuse to share such a dark secret with you. To-morrow we leave it for the third and last time. What d'you say to the sunny side of the Ritz until we decide where we want to travel?"

"You don't want to leave New York, you know," she told him, soberly. "You're offering to go because you think it's the proper thing to do and because you don't know what else to suggest. But-- I have to work."

"Ah! The family, eh? We'll retire 'em and put an end to this child labor. Now, as for the trip--we've got to do SOMETHING: we can't just--live. Where do you have your clothes made?"

Lorelei named several tailors of whom Bob had seldom heard.

"That won't do," he said, positively. "I'll get a list of the smartest shops from Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire, and I want you to buy enough gowns to last till we reach Paris--a couple dozen will do-- then we'll fit out properly. I'll bet you never went shopping-- really shopping--did you? and bought everything you saw?"

"Of course not. I never dreamed of such a spree."

"Well, that will be lesson number two. Can you ride?"

"Not well."

"Must know how to ride--that's number three, and very important. I'll get you some horses when we return. We'll spend our mornings at Durland's for a while, and I'll teach you to play polo, too. All the girls are going in for it lately. You'll need an electric motor, I suppose, for calling and shopping--they're making some stunning bodies in that wicker effect. Now, what's your favorite jewel? I haven't had time to get your ring yet--this whole day was upside down. Everything had closed before I opened up, but to- morrow we'll paw through Tiffany's stock, and you can choose what you like. I'm going to select a black-opal set for you--they're the newest thing and the price is scandalous." He paused, eying her curiously, then with a change of tone inquired, "Say, are you in mourning for somebody?"

"Why, no."

"You don't seem to care for all these things I've bought."

Lorelei laughed spontaneously, for the first time during the long day. "Of course I care. But--where is the money coming from? You haven't a dollar."

"My dear, so long as the Western Union lasts you'll never see a wrinkle on my brow. We'll begin by destroying everything you own-- hats, gowns, jewelry--then we'll start at the beginning."

Just then the apartment bell rang. Bob went to the door. He returned with his father at his heels. Mr. Wharton tramped in grimly, nodded at his daughter-in-law, who had risen at the first sound of his voice, then ran his eyes swiftly over the surroundings.

"I hear you've made a fool of yourself again," he began, showing his teeth in a faint smile. "Have you given up your apartment at the Charlevoix?"

"Not yet," said Bob. "We're considering a suite at the Ritz for a few days."

"Indeed. You're going back to the Charlevoix to-night."

Lorelei started. She had expected opposition, but was unprepared for anything so blunt and business-like. "I think you and Bob can talk more freely if I leave you alone," she said.

Hannibal Wharton replied shortly: "No, don't leave. I'll talk freer with you here."

It appeared, however, that Robert stood in no awe of his father's anger; he said lightly:

"They never come back, dad. I'm a regular married man. Lorelei is my royal consort, my yoke-mate, my rib. We'll have to scratch the Charlevoix."

This levity left the caller unmoved; to Lorelei he explained:

"I want no notoriety, so all we need talk about is terms. You'll fare better by dealing directly with me than through lawyers--I'll fight a lawsuit--so let's get down to business. You should realize, however, that these settlements are never as large as they're advertised. I'll pay you ten thousand dollars and stand the costs of the divorce proceedings."

"You are making a mistake," she told him, quietly.

"I expected you to refuse, but ten thousand dollars is better than nothing. Talk it over with your people. Now, Bob, come with me."

"Where?" demanded his son.

"Anywhere. You can't stay here."

"You're infallible in business, dad," Bob protested, "but where sentiment is concerned you're a terrible failure."

"Not at all! Not at all!" Mr. Wharton exclaimed, irritably. "I know real sentiment when I see it, and I'll foot the bill for this counterfeit, but I'm too tired to argue."

Lorelei was standing very white and still; now she said, "Don't you think you'd better go?"

The elder man laid aside his hat and gloves, then spoke with snarling deliberation. "I'll go when I choose. No high and mighty airs with me, if you please." After a curious scrutiny of them both he asked his son: "You don't really imagine that she married you for anything except your money, do you?"

"I flattered myself--" Bob began, stiffly.

"Bah! You're drunk."

"Moderately, perhaps--or let us say that I am in an unnaturally argumentative mood. I take issue with you. You see, dad, I've been crazy about Lorelei ever since I first saw her, and--"

"To be sure, that's quite natural. But why in hell did you MARRY her? That wasn't necessary, was it?"

Lorelei uttered a sharp cry. Bob rose; his eyes were bright and hard. Mr. Wharton merely arched his shaggy brows, inquiring quickly of the bride: "What's the matter? I state the case correctly, do I not?"

"No!" gasped Lorelei.

"Let's talk plainly--"

"That's a bit too plain, even from you, dad," Bob cried, angrily.

"It's time for plain speaking. You got drunk, and she trapped you. I'm here to get you out of the trap. It's a matter of money, isn't it? Well, then, don't let's allow sentiment to creep in." Addressing himself to Lorelei, he said: "You probably counted on five times the sum I offer, but ten thousand dollars will buy a lot of clothes, and the publicity won't hurt you professionally; it'll do you good. You might even spend the winter in Europe and catch another victim. I believe that's the amount Merkle offered you, isn't it?"

"Merkle? What are you talking about?" Bob demanded.

"Did Mr. Merkle tell you how and why he came to make that offer?" asked Lorelei, indignantly.

"No. But he offered it, did he not?"

"Yes, and I refused it. Ask him why?"

"We don't seem to be getting along very well," Bob interposed. "Lorelie is my wife and your daughter-in-law. What's more, I love her; so I guess that ends the Reno chatter." He crossed to Lorelei's side and encircled her with his arm. "There's no price- tag on this marriage, dad, and you'll regret what you've said."

Wharton senior shrugged wearily. "You tell him, Miss; maybe he'll believe you."

"Tell him what?" asked Lorelei.

"The truth, of course." He paused for a reply, and, receiving none, broke out wrathfully: "Then I will. She's a grafter, Bob, and her whole family are grafters. Now, let me finish. She makes her living in any way she can; she smirks at you out of every catch-penny advertisement along Broadway. She's 'The Chewing-Gum Girl' and 'The Petticoat Girl' and 'The Bath-Tub Girl'--"

"There's nothing dishonest in that."

"Just a minute. I won't have my daughter's face grinning at me every time I get into a street-car. I'd be the laughing-stock of the country. It's legitimate, perhaps, but it's altogether too damned colorful for me."

"Is that all you have against her?"

"Not by any means. She's notorious--"

"Newspaper talk!"

"Is it? She's made her living by bleeding men, by taking gifts and renting herself out the way she did at Hammon's supper. Men don't support show-girls from chivalrous motives. I had her family looked up, and it didn't take two hours. Listen to this report." He extracted a typewritten sheet from his bill-case, adjusted his glasses, and began to read:

"Peter Knight: former residence Vale, New York. Held several minor offices; sheriff for one term; involved in scandal over public works and defeated for re-election. Reputation bad. Detailed record can be had if necessary. Moved to this city 1911; clerk in Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity until injured by taxi-cab while intoxicated. Believed to be crippled.

"James Knight, son. Reputation bad. Generally known as a loafer, suspected of boosting for so-called 'wire-tappers' operating on upper West Side last spring. Believed to have some connection with more than one blackmailing scheme--details available. He figured in recent scandal concerning well-known financier and actress. Of late employed as steerer for Max Melcher's gambling-house, West Forty-sixth Street. Broker living at Charlevoix Apartments reported to have lost large sums through his efforts. No police record as yet.

"Mathilda Knight, wife of Peter--

"D'you want the rest?" Mr. Wharton inquired.

"No!" Lorelei gulped.

"'No police record as YET'--'Broker living at the Charlevoix Apartments'--'Injured by a taxi-cab while intoxicated,'" quoted Wharton. "Scandal, blackmail, graft. It's all here, Bob. And I hadn't come to this girl's record. The report was made by one of our own men, and it's incomplete, but I can have it elaborated. What do you say, MRS. WHARTON? Is it true?"

Lorelei dropped her head. "Most of it, I dare say."

"Did you try to blackmail Merkle?"


"Your mother and your brother did."

She was silent.

"They tried to scare him into marrying you, did they not?"

"Hammon said something about that," ejaculated Bob, "but I don't believe--"

Lorelei checked him. "It's quite true."

"Merkle said you had nothing to do with it personally," conscientiously explained Mr. Wharton, "and I'm willing to take his word. But that's neither here nor there." There was a moment of silence during which he folded and replaced the report; then he shook his head, exclaiming, "Second-hand goods, my boy!"

"That's a lie!" Lorelei's voice was like a whip.

Mr. Wharton eyed her grimly. "That's something for Bob to determine--I have only the indications to go on. I don't blame him for losing his wits--you're very good-looking--but the affair must end. You're not a girl I'd care to have in my family--pardon my bluntness."

She met his eyes fairly. At no time had she flinched before him, although inwardly she had cringed and her flesh had quivered at his merciless attack.

"You have told Bob the truth," she began, slowly, "in the worst possible way; you have put me in the most unfavorable light. I dare say I never would have had the courage to tell him myself, although he deserves to know. I've been pretty--commercial-- because I had to be, but I never sold myself, and I sha'n't begin now. Bob isn't a child; he's nearly thirty years old--old enough to make up his own mind--and he must make this decision, not I."

Bob opened his lips, but his father forestalled him.

"What do you mean by that?"

"I have no price. If he's sick of the match we'll end it, and it won't cost you a cent."

Bob looked inscrutable; his father smiled for the first time during the interview.

"That's very decent of you," he said, "but of course I sha'n't put the good faith of your offer to the test. I don't want something for nothing. I'll take care of you nicely."

Thus far Bob had yielded precedence to his father, but he could no longer restrain himself. "Now let me take the chair," he commanded, easily. "My mind is made up. You see, I didn't marry 'Peter Knight, residence Vale,' nor 'James Knight, reputation bad,' nor even 'Mathilda Knight, wife of Peter.' I married this kid, and the books are closed. You say the Knights are a bad lot, and Lorelei's reputation is a trifle discolored: maybe you're right, but mine has some inky blots on it, too, and I guess the cleanest part of it would just about match the darkest that hers can show. I seem to have all the best of the deal."

"Don't be an ass," growled his father.

"I've always been one--I may as well be consistent" Bob felt the slender form at his side begin to tremble, and smiled down into the troubled blue eyes upturned to his. "Maybe we'll both have to do some forgiving and forgetting. I believe that's usual nowadays."

"Oh, I'm not whitewashing you," Hannibal snapped. "She probably knows what you are."

"I do," agreed Lorelei. "He's a--drunkard, and everything that means. But you taught him to drink before he could choose for himself."

Mr. Wharton smiled sneeringly. "Admirable! I begin to see that you're more than a pretty woman. Get his sympathy; it's good business. Now he'll think he must act the man. But that will wear off. And understand this: you can't graft off me. You and your family are due for a great disappointment. Bob hasn't anything, and he won't have until I die, but I'm good for thirty years yet. I'm not going to disinherit him. I'm merely going to wait until you both get tired. Take my word for it, poverty is the most tiresome thing in the world."

"We can manage," said Lorelei.

"You speak for yourself, but he can't make a living--unless he has something in him that I never discovered. I fear you'll find him rather a heavy burden."

Throughout the interview Mr. Wharton had kept his temper quite perfectly, and his coolness at this moment argued a greater fixity of purpose than might have been inferred from a display of rage. He made a final appeal to his son: "Can't you see that it won't do at all, Bob? I won't stand parasites, unless they're my own. Either have done with the matter and let me pay the charges or--go through to the bitter finish on your own feet. She's supporting three loafers; I dare say she can take care of another, but it isn't quite right to put it upon her--she's sure to weary of it sometime. You'll notice I've said nothing about your mother so far, but--she's with me in this. I'll be in the city for several days, and I'd like to have you return to Pittsburg with me when I go. Mother is expecting you. If you decide to stick it out--" Wharton's face showed more than a trace of feeling, his deep voice lowered a tone--"you may go to hell, with my compliments, and I'll sit on the lid to keep you there."

He rose, took his hat, and stalked out of the apartment without so much as a backward glance. _

Read next: Chapter 18

Read previous: Chapter 16

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