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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 19

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On the way to the Elegancia Mrs. Knight recounted in greater detail and with numerous digressions and comments what Hannibal Wharton had said to her. Not only had he given full vent to his anger at the marriage, but he had allowed himself the pleasure of expressing a frank opinion of the entire Knight family in all its unmitigated and complete badness. Mrs. Knight herself he had called a blood-sucker, it seemed--the good woman shook with rage at the memory--and he had threatened her with the direst retribution if she persisted in attempting to fasten herself upon him. Bob, he had explained, was a loafer whom he had supported out of a sense of duty; if the idiot was ungrateful he would simply have to suffer the consequences. But Bob's mother felt the disgrace keenly, and on her account Hannibal had expressed himself as willing to ransom the young fool for, say, ten thousand dollars.

"Disgrace, eh? Ten thousand dollars?" Jim growled. "What does he think we are, anyhow? Why, that ain't cigarette money."

"I never was so insulted in my life," stormed Mrs. Knight. "You should have HEARD him!"

With a show of confidence not entirely real Jim rejoined: "Now, ma, don't heat up. Everybody forgets me, but I'm going to draw cards in this game."

The interview that followed their arrival at Lorelei's home was far from pleasant, for Mrs. Knight was still too indignant to leave the discussion in Jim's more capable hands; and Lorelei, wishing Bob to cherish no illusions, allowed her relatives to make a complete and distressing exhibition of their greed. At his first opportunity Bob explained rather briefly:

"I offered Lorelei her freedom last night when my income was amputated."

"You've had time to think it over," his wife interposed. "Do you still want me?"

"Why, of course. And you?"

She shrugged. "I don't change in one night. Now--I wish you and Jim would leave mother and me--"

Bob acquiesced, glad to escape even in company with his redoutable brother-in-law. When he and Jim had gone Mrs. Knight addressed Lorelei with motherly candor.

"He's a pleasant fellow, of course, and he's crazy about you; but don't let's be sentimental. If there's no chance to make it up with his family we must get out of this mess and save what we can."

"Was Mr. Wharton very angry?"

"WAS he?" Mrs. Knight rolled her eyes in mingled rage and despair. "I'm positively sick over the things he said. Everybody seems to be against us, and--I'm almost ready to give up. But at least you saved your good name--it was a marriage, not a scandal. We have that to be thankful for." She followed this outburst of optimism with another. "You can keep the name and go into vaudeville. The publicity will help you, and that old crank will surely stretch his offer to keep his name off the bill-boards. Of course, we won't get anything like what we expected, but we'll get something. Fifteen or twenty thousand is better than--" Noting the shadow of a smile upon her daughter's lips, she checked her rush of words. "You don't seem to care what--"

"I don't."

Mrs. Knight's face twisted into an expression of pained incredulity. "Surely you don't mean to live with Bob?" she gasped. "Not--NOW."

"I do mean to."

The mother's lips parted, closed, parted again--she seemed to taste something unspeakably bitter. She groped for words to fit her state of mind, but words failed her. When she did speak, however, the weakness of her vocabulary was offset by the shrill tone of her surprise. "My DEAR! Why, my DEAR! He hasn't a CENT. Of course you're quite confused now--you've been through a lot, and you think he's the only man in the world--but it's impossible. It's absurd. The marriage was only a form. You're no more his wife in the sight of God than--"

"Let's not talk about God," cried Lorelei. "That ceremony was scarcely legal, not to speak of religion or decency."

"You've lost your mind. You've changed completely."

"Yes, I have. You see, I wasn't a wife until yesterday--until Bob and I had an understanding; but I AM a wife now, and I suppose I'll never be a girl again. I've begun to think for myself, mother; I've begun to understand. I've had a suspicion that my old ideas were wrong, and they were."

"Fiddle-de-dee! You're hysterical. You can't make me believe you learned to love that man."

"I don't say I love him."

Mrs. Knight snorted her triumph loudly. "Then you mustn't live with him another moment. My dear child, such a relationship is-- well, think it out for yourself."

Lorelei saw the futility of argument, but certain thoughts demanded expression, and she voiced them, as much for her own sake as for her mother's. "It's too late to talk about that kind of honor. But there's another kind. When I married Bob I sold myself; and all of us--I mean the family--knew that what I sold was counterfeit. He thought he was getting something more than my body, but we knew he wasn't, and now that we find we took bad money for a worthless article, how can we pretend to be swindled? When people try to cheat, and get cheated themselves, what do they do? If they're game they smile and take their medicine, don't they?"

It was plain that this form of logic impressed the listener not at all. Lorelei continued:

"I've learned that marriage is more than I considered it, mother. It's an obligation. I intend to live up to my part just as long as Bob lives up to his. If he complained of the fraud we practised on him I'd be willing to leave him; but he doesn't--so the matter is out of our hands."

Mrs. Knight relieved her steadily increasing anger by a harsh outburst.

"I never thought you could be so silly, after the way you were raised. You talk about obligations; what about your obligation to your parents? Didn't we give up everything for you? Didn't Peter sacrifice his life's work to give you an opportunity?"

"I'll keep on sharing my salary with you."

"Salary!" Mrs. Knight spat out the word. "After all our plans! Salary! My God!"

"You're probably just as honest in your ideas as I am in mine," Lorelei told her. "I sha'n't allow you to want for--"

"I should hope not, since you're to blame for Peter's condition-- Oh, you know you are! If you hadn't wanted a career he'd still be in Vale, a strong, healthy man instead of a cripple."

"I didn't want a career," Lorelei denied with heat. "And father almost HAD to leave Vale."

"Nothing of the sort. He was a big man there. 'Had to leave Vale,' eh? So you've turned against your own blood, and disparage your father--Anyhow, he was hurt while he was working to give you a start, and now he's helpless. Who waits on him? I do. If I believed in prayers I'd pray that you may never have a child to disappoint you as you've disappointed him and me." Her voice quavered as she tried for pathos, but her fury was still too fresh to be entirely restrained, and it scalded her like vitriol. "If Bob Wharton was half a man he'd step aside; but of course he won't until he's had enough of your beauty. That's all he wants, your beauty--and you'll be fool enough to let him have it FOR NOTHING. I'm sure I wish you joy with the selfish wretch and with your new- fangled ideas of wifely devotion. This will kill Peter. You'll have his death on your conscience. Think that over, now that you're so fond of thinking. Ten thousand dollars right now would save his life. Think that over, too, when your own father is dead and gone."

White with anger, sick with disappointment, Mrs. Knight whisked herself out of the apartment.

Bob returned in excellent spirits--nothing had power permanently to dampen his cheerfulness--and, seizing Lorelei's hand, he slipped a diamond ring upon her third finger, then a plain gold band over that.

"Now we're legally wrapped up in the same package and labeled 'Wed,'" he declared. "I've been terribly embarrassed."

"How did you manage to buy these?" Lorelei inquired, with some curiosity.

"I earned the money. Fact! It was a premium on abstinence. I met a friend; he invited me to drink; I refused; friend was stunned. Before he recovered I ran through his pockets like a pet squirrel. It beats a mask and a lead pipe."

"We can't begin this way," she laughed. "I love pretty things, and this is your first gift"--she kissed the solitaire--"but please don't give me anything more for a while. I'm not going to lecture you nor wear a long face nor find fault--ever--we're going to wear smiles while our experiment lasts. To-morrow is Sunday--will you take me somewhere?"

"Will I?" Bob cried, in delight. "I'll hire a car and we'll motor up to Tuxedo. There's a dandy crowd out there. We'll take Adoree and the Immaculate Critic, and we'll have dinner at the club. Campbell can show the latest effects in negligees, and--"

"That's too expensive; let's all go to Coney Island."

"Coney? How do you get there?"

"I don't know. Will you go?"

"Certainly, if you want to! I dare say we'll meet some of the best steamfitters in the city. We'll patronize everything from the Mystic Maze to the Trained Fleas; we'll Bump the Bumps and you'll throw your arms around me and scream, and we'll look at the Incubator Babies and blush. I can't wait."

Strangely enough, the news of Bob Wharton's marriage had not leaked into the papers up to this time, and Lorelei, having regard for the feelings of his parents, insisted that he help her to keep the matter secret as long as possible. Bob rebelled at first, for he adored publicity. He rejoiced in his newest exploit and desired his world to hear of it, while the prospect of further mortifying his father was so agreeable that it required much persuasion to make him relinquish it. With her own family Lorelei had less difficulty, for they were by no means eager to advertise their bad bargain and had withdrawn behind a stiff restraint, leaving the couple to their own devices. This attitude spared the bride much unpleasant notoriety, enabling her to pursue her work at the theater without comment.

Bob's society proved in some ways a welcome change from the sordid drabness of her own relatives, for he was colorful, versatile, and nearly always good-humored. He kept Lorelei entertained, at least, and if at times he provoked her it was only as a mischievous boy tries the patience of a parent. He was weirdly prankish; serious happenings reacted strangely upon him. Misfortune aroused in him a wild hilarity; cares excited mirth. He bore his responsibilities lightly and displayed them to his friends with the same profound pride with which a small boy exhibits a collection of beetles, but they meant nothing more.

Lorelei realized before long that this very jocundity of his, since it fed upon constant change and excitement, constituted the gravest menace to their happiness. The man lived entirely outside of himself; he utterly lacked the power of self-amusement, and, although he seemed content when she was near, during the long hours of her absence he was like a fretful child. He refused to frequent the theater, ostensibly because of their secret, in reality because of his shame at allowing her to work. As Lorelei came to know him better and to understand the conflicting forces within him, she began to wonder how long he could hold himself true to his bargain.

During the first week of their married life his system struggled to throw off the effects of his recent dissipations, and in consequence it craved only rest. Greatly encouraged by this lack of desire, he boasted that the battle was already won, and Lorelei pretended to agree with him.

She did not deceive herself, however, and a brief experience convinced her that to be merely a wife to one of Bob's vagrant disposition was not enough; that in order to keep his new self alive she must also be his sweetheart, his chum, and his partner. If she failed in any one of these roles disaster was bound to follow. But to succeed in them all, when there was no love to strengthen her, was by no means easy. Always she felt a great emptiness, and a disappointment that her life had been so crookedly fashioned: sometimes she even felt degraded, and wondered if she were doing right, after all. Reason argued that to live with a man she did not love was immoral, and the mere fact that she and Bob were legally married gave her no comfort whatever. There had been nothing sacred in their union; she supposed that the courts would dissolve it if the truth became known.

More than once Lorelei had spurned offers far more profitable and no less holy than that existing between her and Bob, and it seemed to her now that the difference between mistress and wife must lie in something besides the mutterings of a sleepy Hoboken court officer. Just where the line of demarcation lay, however, or upon which side of that line she stood, she could not determine.

In the course of a fortnight Bob began to grow restless. One evening when he came for her she saw that he was nervous; a strained, tired look had crept into his eyes, and she thought she understood. Nevertheless his spirits were ebullient. When they reached home he ushered her into the apartment with a flourish, and Lorelei was amazed to find their table set with strange linen, silver, and china and the dining-room decorated as if for a party.

"Who's coming? What on earth?" she exclaimed.

"A little surprise. A supper for just you and me, my dear."

Two strangers, evidently caterer's men, were completing the final preparations for an extravagant banquet. Noting a collection of wine-glasses at each place, Lorelei glanced at Bob reproachfully, but he only laughed, saying:

"Take heart. The liquid diet is all a bluff. Kindly note the centerpiece."

She saw that the center of the table was occupied by a highly decorated silver wine-cooler--empty.

"There it sits," Bob exclaimed, "the little Temple of Bacchus-- overgrown with roses. It used to be my shrine and my confessional until I saw the light. Now that I've escaped from the bondage of sin, sickness, and error, I'm giving a triumphal feast upon the altar steps."

It was one of his whims. During the meal he made elaborate speeches in the names of his friends. His imaginary guests congratulated him; in empty glasses they toasted the bride, they extolled her beauty, they praised his own gallantry, and vaunted his conquest of the demon rum. As the supper progressed Bob simulated a growing intoxication, while the hired servants looked on as if at the antics of a lunatic. He made it amusing, and Lorelei entered into the spirit of the make-believe. But when they were alone and all traces of the feast had disappeared he swooped down out of the clouds and confessed miserably:

"I thought I could kid myself, but I can't. I want a drink. I-- WANT--A--DRINK! God! how I want it!"

Lorelei went swiftly to him. "The fight is just beginning, Bob. You're doing nobly."

"It isn't thirst," he explained, and she saw that same strained uneasiness in his bright eyes. "I'm not THIRSTY--I'm shaky inside. My ego is wabbling on its pins and I'm rattling to pieces. I manage well enough when you're around, but when I'm alone I-- remember." She felt him twitch and shiver nervously. "And there are so many places to get booze! Everywhere I look I see a bartender with arms outstretched. When I grit my teeth the damned appetite leaves me alone, but when I'm off my guard it gumshoes in again. I get tired of fighting."

Lorelei nodded sympathetically. "That's why it's so hard to reform; one's conscience tires, but temptation is always fresh."

"It's not thirst," Bob repeated. "My soul is dried out. I get to thinking late at night. I'm afraid I'm going to quit."

"You must keep busy."

"I'm going to work."

"No, no! Not yet," she cried, quickly. "You must fight it out where I can help."

Bob smiled gratefully. "You're a thoroughbred. I promised to let you have your way, and you shall. Even if we lose the patient it will be a dandy operation."

Beginning with the next morning Lorelei inaugurated a change in the domestic routine. Every day thereafter she and Bob took a long walk. He rebelled, of course, as soon as the novelty wore off, for he detested walking. So did she, for that matter, but she pretended to like it, and her simulated zest overcame his reluctance. They did not amble aimlessly about the streets; she led him on purposeful tramps that kept them in the open air most of the day, and, although her feet blistered until she could hardly drag herself to the theater when night came, she persisted. In time the walking grew to be a dreadful task; it took all her determination, but she would not give up.

With admirable craft she gradually won him away from the cafes, assuming delight in household duties that she was far from feeling. In reality she was a wretched cook, but she declared her intention of becoming an expert and insisted upon preparing at least two of their daily meals, at which time she saw to it that Bob ate more sweets and more salt foods than he was accustomed to. The former took the place of alcohol, the latter roused a healthy thirst, and thirsty men drink water. These were only little things; her heaviest task lay in keeping his mind occupied. At times this was easy; again the effort wore her out. Bob began to have surly spells.

For the first time in her life Lorelei really worked, and worked not for herself, but for another. Although the experience was interesting in its novelty, the result remained unsatisfactory, for not only did love fail to respond to these sacrifices, but she could see no improvement in Bob's condition. The thing she fought was impalpable, yet enormous; it was weak, yet strong; it seemed to sleep, yet it was ever awake.

Of necessity the two lived in the closest intimacy, than which nothing is ordinarily more fatal to domestic happiness. But Bob was unique; he did not tire; he began to rely upon Lorelei as a sick man leans upon his nurse, and to worship her as a man worships his sweetheart. There was more than passion in his endearments now.

But it was discouraging to the girl, who gained no strength from her penance and derived no satisfaction whatever in service for service's sake. The whole arrangement tried her patience desperately; she was weary in mind and body, and looked back with regret upon her former easy life. There was no time now for recreation--Bob had to be amused. Salary-day assumed a new importance, and she began to count the cost of every purchase.

So spring went and midsummer came. It was terribly hot in the city; the nights were breathless, the days were glaring, and this heat was especially trying to one in Bob's condition. In his periods of gaiety he showered his wife with attentions and squandered every dollar he could borrow in presents for her; in his hours of depression he was everything strange, morose, and irritable.

Without her knowledge he applied to his old firm for a salaried position and was refused. He appealed to Merkle with the same result, but succeeded in borrowing a thousand dollars, with which he bought Lorelei a set of black opals, going into debt for half the price. _

Read next: Chapter 20

Read previous: Chapter 18

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