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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 20

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Lorelei's family continued to smart under a sense of bitter injustice, but although they kept aloof they were by no means uninterested in her experiment. On the contrary, they watched it with derisive enjoyment, predicting certain failure. After Hannibal Wharton's insult Jim was all for a prompt revenge, but he could not determine just how to use his dangerous knowledge to the best advantage. He considered the advisability of enlisting the aid of Max Melcher; but, not liking the thought of dividing the loot, he decided provisionally to engineer a separation between Bob and Lorelei.

His desire to make mischief arose in only a slight degree from resentment--Jim's method of making a living had long since dulled the edge of feeling--it was merely the first step in a comprehensive scheme. With Bob and Lorelei estranged, a divorce would follow, and divorces were profitable. A divorce, moreover, would open the way for a second inroad upon the Wharton wealth, for with Lorelei's skirts clear Jim could proceed with a larger scheme of extortion, based on the Hammon murder.

One evening after Lorelei had gone to the theater Jim appeared at the apartment and found Bob in a mood so restless and irritable that he dared not go out.

"I had a hunch you were lonesome," the caller began, "so I came up to whittle and spit at the stove."

Now Jim could be agreeable when he chose; his parasitic life had developed in him a certain worldly good-fellowship; he was frankly unregenerate, and he had sufficient tact never to apologize nor to explain. Therefore he kept Bob entertained.

A few nights later he returned with a fund of new stories, and during the evening he confessed to a consuming thirst.

"Death Valley has nothing on this place," he mourned.

Bob explained apologetically, "I'm sorry, but there's nothing in the house wetter than Croton water."

"I understand! Will you object if I sweeten a glass of it with some Scottish rites? I'm afraid of germs, and if water rots leather think what it must do to the sensitive lining of a human stomach?" Jim drew a flask from his pocket, then hesitated as if in doubt.

"Don't mind me," Bob assured him, hastily. "I'm strapped in the driver's seat." But he looked on with eager appreciation as his brother-in-law filled a long glass and sipped it.

Bob had never been a whisky-drinker, yet the faint odor of the liquor tantalized him. When in the course of time he saw Jim preparing a second drink he stirred.

"Kind of itchy, eh? Let's whip across the street and have a game of pool," suggested Jim; and Bob was glad to escape from the room.

An agreeable hour followed; but Bob played badly, and found that his eye had lost its sureness. His hand was uncertain, too, and this lack of co-ordination disgusted him. He was sure that with a steadying drink he could beat Jim, and eventually he proved it; but, mindful of his resolution, he compromised on beer, which, Jim agreed, could not reasonably be called an intoxicant.

On his way to the theater Bob chewed cinnamon bark, and when he kissed Lorelei he held his breath.

This was the first of several pool matches, and after a while Bob was gratified to find that beer in moderation left no disagreeable effect whatever upon him. He rejoiced in his power of restraint.

There came a night when he failed to meet his wife. After waiting nearly half an hour Lorelei went home, only to find the apartment deserted. She nibbled at a lonely lunch, trying to assure herself that nothing was seriously amiss; but she could not make up her mind to go to bed. She tried to read, and failed. An hour passed, then another; a thousand apprehensions crowded in upon her, and she finally found herself walking the floor, but pulled herself together with a mirthless laugh. So it had come, she reflected, with mingled bitterness and relief; her fight was over, her part of the bargain was ended, she was free to live her own life as she chose. Certainly she had done her best, and above all question she was not the sort of wife who could wait patiently, night after night, for a drunken husband.

Bob, when he did arrive, entered with elaborate caution. He paused in the little hall, then tossed his hat into the living-room, where his wife was waiting. After a moment his head came slowly into view, and he said:

"When the hat stays in, go in; when it comes out, beat it."

Lorelei saw that he was quite drunk.

"I just came from the theater," he explained, "but it was dark. Has the show failed, dearie?" He tried to kiss her, but she turned her face away. "Come! Must have my little kiss," he insisted; then as she rose and moved away, leaving him swaying in his tracks, he began gravely to unroll an odd, thin package that resembled a tennis-racket. Removing a soiled white wrapping, then an inner layer of oiled paper, he exposed the sad remains of what had been an elaborate bouquet of double English violets fringed with gardenias. He stared at the flowers in some bewilderment.

"Must have sat on 'em," he opined at last; then he cried brightly: "Ha! Pressed flowers! I'm full of old-fashioned sentiment." After studying Lorelei's unsmiling face his tone altered. "Oh, I know! I slipped, but it couldn't be helped. Nature insisted, and I yielded gracefully, but no harm done, none whatever. This isn't a defeat, my dear; it's a victory. I licked the demon rum and proved myself a man of iron. I subjugated the cohorts of General Benjamin Booze, then I signed a treaty of peace, and there was no bad blood on either side." After an uncomfortable pause, during which he vainly waited for her to speak, he explained more fully: "My dear, nothing is absolute! Life is a series of compromises. Have a heart. Would you rob the distiller of his livelihood? Think of the struggling young brewer with a family. Could you take the bread from the mouths of his little ones? The president of a bottling- works may be a Christian; he may have a sick wife. Remember the boys that work in the hop-fields and the joyous peasant girls of France. Moderation is the thing. Live and let live."

Lorelei nodded. "Exactly! We shall live as we choose, only, of course, we can't live together after this." Then her disgust burst its control, and she demanded, bitterly, "Haven't you any strength whatever? Haven't you any balance, Bob?"

He grinned at her cheerfully. "I should say I had. I walked a fence on the way home just to prove it; and I scarcely wabbled. Balance! Strength! Why, you ought to see Jim. They had to CARRY him."

"Jim? Was--Jim with you?"

"In spirit, yes; in body--only for a time. For a brief while we went gaily, hand in hand, then Jim lagged. He's a nice boy, but weak; he falters beneath a load; and, as for pool, why, I've slept on pool-tables, so naturally I know the angles better than he. Ha! that's a funny line, isn't it? I know the angles of pool-tables because I've slept on 'em, see? Don't hurry; I'll wait for you. Even an 'act' like mine needs applause."

But Lorelei was in no laughing mood. She questioned Bob searchingly and soon learned of Jim's visits, of the flask, of the pool games. When she understood it all her eyes were glowing, but she found nothing to say. At last she got Bob to bed, then lay down beside him and stared into the darkness through many wakeful hours.

In the morning he was not only contrite, but badly frightened, yet when he undertook to make his peace he found her unexpectedly mild.

"If you're sorry, that's all I ask," she said. "I changed my mind during the night."

"Never again!" he promised, feelingly. "I thought I had cured myself."

Lorelei smiled at him faintly. "Cured! How long have you been a drinker?"

"Oh, nearly always."

"When were you first drunk?"

"I was eighteen, I think."

"You've been undergoing a bodily change for ten years. During all that time your brain-cells have been changing their structure, and they'll never be healthy or normal until they've been made over. You can't accomplish that in a few weeks."

"Say, you don't mean I'm going to stay thirsty until my egg-shaped dome becomes round again?"

"Well, yes."

"Why, that might take years!"

"It took ten years to work the damage--it will probably take ten years to repair it."

Bob was aghast. "Good heavens! In ten years I'll be too old to drink--I'd tremble so that I'd spill it. But where did you get all this M. D. dope?"

"I've been reading. I've been talking to a doctor, too. You see, I wanted to help."

"Let's change doctors. Ten years! It can't be done."

"I'm afraid you're right. There's no such thing as reformation. A born criminal never reforms; only those who go wrong from weakness or from bad influences ever make good."

"Drinking isn't a crime," Bob declared, angrily, "any more than freckles. It's just a form of diversion."

Lorelei shook her head. "If you're a born alcoholic you'll probably die a drunkard. I'm hoping that you didn't inherit the taste."

"Well, whether it was left to me or whether I bought it, I can't go dry for ten years."

"Then our bargain is ended."

He looked up sharply. "Oh no, it isn't!"


He extended a shaking hand, and his voice was supplicating as he said: "I can't get along without you, kid. You're a part of me-- the vital part. I'd go to pieces quick if you quit now."

"When we made our agreement I meant to live up to every bit of it," Lorelei told him, gently, "but we're going to try again, for this was Jim's fault."

"Jim? Jim was sorry for me. He tried to cheer--"

Lorelei's smile was bitter. "Jim was never sorry for anybody except himself. My family hate you just as your family hate me, and they'd like to separate us."

"Say, that's pretty rotten!" Bob exclaimed. "If he weren't your brother I'd--"

Lorelei laughed mirthlessly. "Go ahead! I wish you would. It might clear the atmosphere."

"Then I will." After a moment he continued, "I suppose you feel you must go on supporting them?"

"Of course."

"Just as you feel you must support me. Is it entirely duty in my case?" Seeing her hesitate, he insisted, "Isn't there any love at all?"

"I'm afraid not, Bob."

The man pondered silently. "I suppose if I were the right sort," he said, at length, with some difficulty, "I'd let you go under these circumstances. Well, I'm not the right sort; I'm not big or noble. I'm just an ordinary, medium-sized man, and I'm going to keep you. However, I'm through side-stepping; I've tried to outrun the Barleycorn Brothers, but it's no use, so I'm going to turn and face them. If they lick me I'll go under. But if I go under I'll take you with me. I won't give you up. I won't!"

"I sha'n't let you pull me down," she told him, soberly.

"Then you'll have to bear me up. When a man's drowning he grabs and holds on. That's me! There's nothing fine about me, understand? I'm human and selfish. I'd be happy in hell with you."

"You're not fair."

"I don't pretend to be. This isn't a bridge game; this is life. I'll cheat, I'll hold out, I'll deal from the bottom, if I can't win in any other way. Good God! Don't you understand that you're the only thing I ever loved, the only thing I ever wanted and couldn't get? I've never had but half of you; don't expect me to give that up." He rose, jammed his hat upon his head as if to escape from the room, then turned and crushed his wife to him with a fierce cruelty of possession. Lorelei could feel him shaking as he covered her face with kisses, but nothing within her stirred even faintly in answer to his passion.

When Bob reached the financial district that day and resumed his quest for work he was ablaze with resentment at himself and at the world in general.

He took up the search with a dogged determination that was quite unlike him. One after another he canvassed his friends for a position, and finally, as if ill fortune could not withstand his fervor, he was successful. It was not much of a job that was offered him, but he snapped at it, and returned home that evening in the best of humor. Already the serious issues of the morning were but a memory; he burst in upon Lorelei like a gale, shouting:

"I'm chalk-boy at Crosset & Meyers, so you can give Bergman your notice to-night."

"What's the salary?"

"It isn't a salary; it's a humiliation--twenty-five a week is the total insult."

"Why, Bob! That won't keep two and the family--"

"Damn the family!" He quieted himself with an effort. "Well, you give your notice, anyhow. I'll spear the coin for both establishments somehow. Come! I insist. I want to be able to shave myself without blushing."

Lorelei's objections were not easily overcome, but at last, in view of the fact that the summer run of the Revue was drawing to a close and the show would soon take to the road, she allowed herself to be persuaded.

Throughout the next week Bob Wharton really tried to make good. He was enthusiastic; the excitement of actual accomplishment was so novel that he had not time to think of liquor. When Saturday came and he found himself in possession of honestly earned funds he felt a soul-satisfying ease. He decided to invest his first savings in a present for Lorelei, then a graver sense of responsibility seized him, and he wrote to Mrs. Knight as follows:

MY DEAR MOTHER-IN-NEW-JERSEY-LAW,--Inclosed find five handsome examples of the engraver's skill, same being the result of six industrious days. I know your passion for these objets d'art, I appreciate your eagerness to share my father's celebrated collection, and I join you in regrets at your failure to do so. But remember, "As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a man." Take these photogravures, love them, cherish them, share them with the butcher, the baker, the hobble-skirt maker, and console yourself with the thought that, although you have lost much, you have gained something above price in me.

Thine in everlasting fetters,


Having despatched this missive, he set out to find Jim, for the afternoon was young and he wished to settle his obligations in full. It is well to be systematic; business is largely a matter of system, anyhow, and the tag ends of one week's work should never be allowed to lap over into another.

A round of popular up-town resorts failed to discover Jim, but Bob's search finally brought him to Tony the Barber's shop; and here, in the rear room, he found his brother-in-law playing cards with a pop-eyed youth and a repellent person with a cauliflower ear.

Bob's greeting was hearty. "Evening, James," he cried. "Feel like taking your beating here?"

"Eh? What's the matter?" Jim rose from his chair with a shocked intensity of gaze.

"I'm just cleaning up my affairs for the day of rest, and I've come to return your last call. Alas, James, I am a weak vessel! Your work was coarse, but I fell for it." To the other occupants of the room he apologized. "I'm sorry to spoil your little game of authors, but necessity prods me." He extended a muscular hand for Jim's collar and found it.

Mr. Armistead was of the emotional kind; he leaped to his feet and went to the rescue of his friend; but his first blow was wild. Seizing a chair, he swung it aloft--a manoeuver which more effectively distracted Bob's attention--but this attack also failed when Bob's fist buried itself in the spongy region of Mr. Armistead's belt-buckle, and that young man promptly lost all interest in Jimmy Knight's affairs. There had been a time when he might have weathered such a blow, but of late years easy living had left its marks; therefore he sat down heavily, all but missing the chair he had just occupied. His eyes bulged more prominently than usual; he became desperately concerned with a strange difficulty in breathing.

Alert, aggressive, Bob turned to face the man with the swollen ear; but young Sullivan, being a professional fighter, made no capital of amateur affairs, and declined the issue with an upraised palm.

"Friends, eh?" Bob panted.

"Brothers!" heartily ejaculated Sullivan, whereupon Bob foiled Jimmy Knight's short cut for the door and proceeded with the purpose of his call.

It was no difficult matter to chastise Jim, whose spirit was as wretched as his strength; as the wind whips a flag, as a man flaps a dusty garment, so did Bob shake his victim. Jim felt his spine crack and his limbs unjoint. His teeth snapped, he bit his tongue, his heels rattled upon the floor. Bob seemed bent upon shaking the bones from his flesh and the marrow from his bones; but, try as he would, Jim could not prevent the outrage. He struggled, he clawed, he kicked, he yelled; his arms threshed loosely, like the limber appendages to a stuffed figure.

Mr. Armistead, unnaturally pale, remained seated. He emitted harrowing sounds like those made by air leaking into a defective pump. Sullivan looked on with the lively appreciation of a rough- house expert.

When Bob emerged from the rear room he found the barber shop in confusion. Tony was leading a charge at the head of his assistants, who were supported in turn by the customers; but he fell back at sight of the flushed victor.

"It was nothing but a little family affair," Bob reassured him. "Now, if you please, I'll borrow a hair-brush." In front of a mirror he tidied himself, settled his scarf with a deft jerk, then went out whistling. As it was nearly closing-time for the matinees, he strolled toward the Circuit Theater, full of a satisfying contentment with the world. Now that he owed it nothing, he resolved to meet his future obligations as they arose.

Early on Monday morning Bob reported for work, only to receive from Mr. Crosset, whom he had always regarded as a warm friend, the notice of his discharge.

"What's the matter? Didn't I make good?" he demanded.

Crosset was a young man; more than once he and Bob had scandalized Broadway; some of their exploits were epic. Now he shrugged carelessly, saying:

"Oh, you made good, I guess; but we can't take a chance with you."

"I suppose you're afraid I'll steal some of your chalk."

Crosset grinned, then deponed with extreme gravity: "Bob, you drink. You're unsteady in your habits. It's too bad, but we can't--"

"I don't drink as much as you do."

"Nobody does; but that's beside the question."

"As a matter of fact, I've quit."

This announcement drew a hearty chuckle. "You're a great comedian, Bob," said Crosset.

After surveying his friend for a moment Bob responded with great earnestness: "But you're not. This fails to hand me a laugh. Now tell me, how did you wet your feet, and whence comes the icy draught?"

"Well, from the direction of Pittsburg, if you must know. It seems you are an undesirable citizen, Bob--a dangerous character. There's a can tied to you, and we can't afford to antagonize the whole Steel Trust."

"I see. I'm afraid I'll have to disown that father of mine."

"What's the trouble, anyhow?"

At Bob's explanation Crosset whistled. "Funny I didn't hear about it. Married and happy, eh? Well, I'm sorry I can't help you--"

"You can."


"Lend me five hundred."

"Certainly!" Crosset lunged at his desk, scribbled a line to the cashier, and handed it to Bob, then, in response to a call from the customers' room, dashed away with a hearty farewell.

As Bob passed through the outer office he ran his eye over the opening prices, being half inclined to "scalp" with his sudden wealth; but luck had never run his way, and he reconsidered. Anyhow, there were more agreeable uses to which he could put this money; for one thing he needed several suits, for another it was high time he gave Lorelei some little remembrance--he hadn't given her a present in nearly two weeks, and women set great store by such attentions. He decided to invest his money in Maiden Lane and demand credit from his tailor. But a half-hour at a jewelry shop convinced him that nothing suitable to so splendid a creature as his wife could be purchased for a paltry five hundred dollars, and he was upon the point of returning to Crosset with a request to double the loan when his common sense asserted itself. Poverty was odious, but not shameful, he reflected; ostentation, on the other hand, was vulgar. Would it not be in bad taste to squander this happy windfall upon jewelry when Lorelei needed practical things?

Bob was cheered by the breadth of these sentiments; they showed that he was beginning soberly to realize the leaden responsibilities of a family man. No, instead of a jewel he would buy his wife a dog.

At a fashionable up-town kennel he found exactly what he wanted, in the shape of a Pekingese--a playful, pedigreed pocket dog scarcely larger than his two fists. It was a creature to excite the admiration of any woman; its family tree was taller than that of a Spanish nobleman, and its name was Ying. But here again Bob was handicapped by poverty, for sleeve dogs are expensive novelties, and the price of Ying was seven hundred dollars--marked down from one thousand, and evidently the bargain of a lifetime at that price.

Bob hated to haggle, but he showed that his ability to drive a sharp bargain was merely latent, and he finally bore the animal away in triumph. To outgeneral a dog-fancier was a tribute to his shrewdness; to save two hundred dollars on a single purchase was economy of a high order. Much elated, he set out briskly for his tailor's place of business. _

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