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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 21

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It still lacked something of luncheon-time when Bob Wharton swung into Fifth Avenue with Ying snugly ensconced in his coat pocket. Bob was in fine fettle, what with the anticipation of Lorelei's delight at his gift and the certainty of an agreeable hour with his tailor. It was always a pleasure to deal with Kurtz, for in his shop customers were treated with the most delicate consideration. Salesmen, cutters, fitters, all were pleasant acquaintances who displayed neither the fawning obsequiousness of Fifth Avenue trades-people nor the sullen apathy of Broadway clerks. Kurtz himself was an artist; he was also a person of generally cultivated taste and a man about town. His pleasure in making a sale was less than his delight at meeting and serving his customers, and his books were open only to those he considered his equals. A stony-faced doorman kept watch and ward in the Gothic hallway to discourage the general public from entering the premises. The fact that Bob owed several hundred dollars dismayed that young man not in the least, for Kurtz never mentioned money matters--the price of garments being after all of far less consequence than fit, and style, and that elusive something which Kurtz called "effect."

Our daily actions are controlled by a variety of opposing influences which are like threads pulling at us from various directions. When for any reason certain of these threads are snapped and the balance is disturbed we are drawn into strange pathways, and our whole lives may be changed through the operation of what seems a most trivial case. In Bob's case the cause approached, all unheralded, in the person of Mr. Richard Cady, a youth whose magnificent vacuity of purpose was the envy of his friends. Comet-like, he was destined to appear, flash brightly, then disappear below the horizon of this tale. Mr. Cady greeted Bob with listless enthusiasm, teetering the while upon his cane like a Japanese equilibrist.

"Haven't seen you for ages," he began. "Been abroad?"

Bob explained that he was spending the summer in New York, a statement that filled his listener with the same horror he would have felt had he learned that Bob was passing the heated season in the miasmatic jungles of the Amazon.

"Just ran down from Newport," Cady volunteered. "I'm sailing to- day. Better join me for a trip. I know--" he cut Bob's refusal short--"travel's an awful nuisance; I get seasick myself."

"Then why play at it?"

Cady rolled a mournful eye upon his friend. "Girl!" said he, hollowly. "Show-girl! If I stay I'll marry her, and that wouldn't do. Posi-TIVE-ly not! So I'm running away. I'll wait over if you'll join me."

"I'm a working-man."

"Haw!" Mr. Cady expelled a short laugh.

"True! And I've quit drinking."

Now Cady was blase, but he had a heart; his sympathies were slow, but he was not insensible to misfortune. Accordingly he responded with a cry of pity, running his eye over his friend to estimate the ravages of Temperance. Midway in its course his gaze halted, he passed a silk-gloved palm lightly across his brow, and looked again. A tiny head seemed to protrude from Bob's pocket, a pair of bright, inquiring eyes seemed to be peering directly at the observer.

"I--guess I'd better quit, too," said Cady, faintly. "Are you-- alone?" Bob gently extracted Ying from his resting-place, and the two men studied him gravely.

"Little beggar, isn't he?" Cady remarked. "Has he got a brother? I'd like to give one to--you know!"

"He's alone in the world. I'm his nearest of kin."

"Give you five dollars for him," Cady offered.

"I just paid five hundred, and he's worth a thousand. Why, his people came over ahead of the Mayflower."

The gloomy lover was interested; in his face there gleamed a faint desire. "Think of it! Well, make it a thousand. I'll send him in a bunch of orchids. Haw!" He doubled over his stick, convulsed with appreciation of his own originality. But again Bob refused. "Don't be nasty, I'll make it fifteen hundred."

Bob carefully replaced the canine atom and grinned at his friend.

"I need the money, but--nothing doing."

"Up against it?" hopefully inquired the other.

"Broke! I couldn't afford a nickel to see an earthquake."

"I'll lend you fifteen hundred and take Ying as security."

But Bob remained inflexible, and Mr. Cady relapsed into gloom, muttering:

"Gee! You're a rotten business man!"

"So says my heartless father. He has sewed up my pockets and scuttled my drawing-account, hence the dinner-pail on my arm. I'm in quest of toil."

"I'll bet you starve," brightly predicted Mr. Cady, in an effort at encouragement. "I'll lay you five thousand that you make a flivver of anything you try."

"I've quit gambling, too."

As they shook hands Cady grunted: "My invitation to globe-trot is withdrawn. Fine company you'd be!"

As Bob walked up the Avenue he pondered deeply, wondering if he really were so lacking in ability as his friends believed. Money was such a common thing, after all; the silly labor of acquiring it could not be half so interesting as the spending of it. Anybody could make money, but to enjoy it, to circulate it judiciously, one must possess individuality--of a sort. Money seemed to come to some people without effort, and from the strangest sources--Kurtz, for instance, had grown rich out of coats and trousers!

Bob halted, frowning, while Ying peered out from his hiding-place at the passing throngs, exposing a tiny, limp, pink-ribbon tongue. If Kurtz, armed only with a pair of shears and a foolish tape, had won to affluence, why couldn't another? Stock-broking was no longer profitable; none of Bob's friends had earned their salt for months; and old Hannibal's opposition evidently forced a change of occupation.

The prospect of such a change was annoying, but scarcely alarming to an ingrained optimist, and Bob took comfort in reflecting that the best-selling literature of the day was replete with instances of disinherited sons, impoverished society men, ruined bankers, or mere idlers, who by lightning strokes of genius had mended their fortunes overnight. Some few, in the earlier days of frenzied fiction, had played the market, others the ponies, still others had gone West and developed abandoned gold-mines or obscure water- powers. A number also had grown disgustingly rich from patenting rat-traps or shoe-buttons. One young man had discovered a way to keep worms out of railroad-ties and had promptly bludgeoned the railroad companies out of fabulous royalties.

Over the stock-market idea Bob could work up no enthusiasm--he knew too much about it--and, inasmuch as horse-racing was no longer fashionable, opportunities for a Pittsburg Phil future seemed limited. Moreover, he had never saved a jockey's life nor a jockey's mother from eviction, hence feed-box tips were not likely. Nor did he know a single soul in the business of inventing rat-traps or shoe-buttons. As for going West, he was clearly of the opinion that a search for abandoned gold-mines or forgotten waterfalls wasn't in his line; and the secret of creosoting railroad-ties, now that he came to think of it, was still locked up in the breast of its affluent discoverer. Besides, as the whole episode had occurred in the second act of a play, the safety of building upon it was doubtful at best.

No, evidently the well-recognized short cuts to wealth had all been obliterated by many feet, and he must find another. But where? At length Bob's wrinkled brow smoothed itself, and he nodded. His path was plain; it led around the nearest corner to his tailor's door.

Mr. Kurtz's greeting was warm as Bob strolled into the stately show-room with its high-backed Flemish-oak chairs, its great carved tables, its paneled walls with their antlered decorations. This, it may be said, was not a shop, not a store where clothes were sold, but a studio where men's distinctive garments were draped, and the difference was perfectly apparent on the first of each month.

Bob gave Ying his freedom, to the great interest of the proprietor, who studied the dog's points with a practised eye.

"Kurtz," began Bob, abruptly, "I just bet Dick Cady five thousand dollars that I can make my own living for six months." This falsehood troubled him vaguely until he remembered that high finance must be often conducted behind a veil.

Mr. Kurtz, genial, shrewd, gray, raised admiring eyes from the capering puppy and said:

"I'll take another five thousand."

But Bob declined. "No, I'm going to work."

This announcement interested the tailor deeply. "Who's going to hire you?" he asked.

"You are."

Kurtz blinked. "Maybe you'd like to bet on that, too," he ventured. "I'll give you odds."

"Work is one of the few things I haven't tried. You need a good salesman."

"No, I don't. I have seven already."

"Say, wouldn't you like the trade of the whole younger set? I can bring you a lot of fresh customers--fellows like me."

"'Fresh customers' is right," laughed Kurtz, then sobered quickly. "You're joking, of course?"

"I'm so serious I could cry. How much is it worth to you to make clothes for my crowd?"

"Well--" the tailor considered. "Quite a bit."

"The boys like to see Dick trimmed--it's a matter of principle with them never to let him win a bet--and they'd do anything for me. You're the best tailor in the city, but too conservative. Now I'm going to bring you fifty new accounts, every one good for better than two thousand a year. That's a hundred thousand dollars. How much am I offered? Going! Going!--"

"Wait a minute! Would you stick to me for six months if I took you on?"

"My dear Kurtz, I'll poultice myself upon you for life. I'll guarantee myself not to slide, slip, wrinkle, or skid. Thirty years hence, when you come hobbling down to business, you'll find me here."

Mr. Kurtz dealt in novelties, and the idea of a society salesman was sufficiently new to appeal to his commercial sense.

"I'll pay you twenty per cent.," he offered, "for all the new names you put on my books."

"Make it twenty-five on first orders and twenty on repeaters. I'll bring my own luncheon and pay my car-fare."

"There wouldn't be any profit left," demurred Kurtz.

"Good! Then it's a bargain--twenty-five and twenty. Now watch me grab the adolescent offshoots of our famous Four Hundred." Bob chased Ying into a corner, captured him, then took a 'bus up the Avenue to the College Club for luncheon.

At three o'clock he returned, accompanied by four flushed young men whose names gave Kurtz a thrill. In spite of their modish appearance they declared themselves indecently shabby, and allowed Bob to order for them--a favor which he performed with a Rajah's lofty disregard of expense. He sat upon one of the carved tables, teasing Ying, and selecting samples as if for a quartette of bridegrooms. Being bosom cronies of Mr. Cady, the four youths needed little urging. When they had gone in to be measured Kurtz said guardedly:

"Whew! That's more stuff than I've sold in two weeks!"

"A mere trifle," Bob grinned, happily. "Say, Kurtz, this is the life! This is the job for me--panhandling juvenile plutocrats--no office hours, no heavy lifting, and Thursdays off. I'm going to make you famous."

"You'll break me with another run like this."

"How much did they order?"

The proprietor ran over his figures incredulously.

"Twenty-four sack suits, two riding-suits, one knicker, four evening suits, four dinner-suits, forty fancy waistcoats, sixteen evening waistcoats, four pairs riding-breeches, four motor-coats, three Vicuna overcoats, two ulsters. You don't think they're bluffing?"

"Why should they bluff? They'll never discover how many suits they have. Now figure it up and tell me the bad news."

Mr. Kurtz did as directed, announcing, "Fifty-five hundred and five dollars."

"Pikers!" exclaimed the new salesman; then he began laboriously to compute twenty-five per cent. of the sum, using as a pad a bolt of expensive white-silk vest material. "Thirteen hundred and seventy- six dollars and twenty-five cents is my blackmail, Kurtz. That's what I call 'a safe and sane Fourth.' Not bad for dull times, and yet it might be better. Anyhow, it's the hardest thirteen hundred and seventy-six dollars I ever earned."

"Hard!" The merchant's lips twitched, oscillating his cigar violently. "Hard! I'll bet those fellows even bought your lunch. I suppose you mean it's the first money you ever--earned." He seemed to choke over the last word. "Well, it's worth something to get men like these on the books, but--thirteen hundred and seventy-six dollars--"

"And twenty-five cents."

Mr. Kurtz gulped. "In one day! Why, I could buy a farm for that. How much will you have to 'earn' to cover your living expenses for six months?"

"Ah, there we journey into the realm of purest speculation." Bob favored him with a sunny smile. "As well ask me how much my living expenses must be in order to cover my earnings. Whatever one is, the other will be approximately ditto--or perhaps slightly in excess thereof. Anyhow, nothing but rigid economy--bane of my life--will make the one fit into the other. But I have a thought. Something tells me these boys need white flannels, so get out your stock, Kurtz. If they can't play tennis they must learn, for my sake." Bob's remarkable stroke of fortune called for a celebration, and his four customers clamored that he squander his first profits forthwith. Ordinarily such a course would have been just to his liking; but now he was dying to tell Lorelei of his triumph, and, fearing to trust himself with even one drink, he escaped from his friends as soon as possible. Thus it chanced that he arrived home sober.

It was a happy home-coming, for Ying was adorable and made his way instantly into Lorelei's heart, while Bob was in a state of exaltation. He had no desire to bind himself to Kurtz's service for six months or for any other period; nor had he the least thought of living up to his agreement until Lorelei began to treat the matter seriously. Then he objected blankly:

"Why, it was all right as a joke, but I don't want to be a TAILOR. There's no romance in woolen goods."

"How much do you owe?" she asked.

"Really, I've no idea. It's something you don't have to remember-- somebody always reminds you in plenty of time, and then you borrow enough to pay up."

"Let's forget the romance and pay up without borrowing. Remember you have two families to support." Noting that the idea of permanent employment galled him, she added, craftily, "Of course you'll never sell another lot of clothes like this, but--"

"Why not? It's like selling candy to a child."

"You can't go with that crowd without drinking."

"Is that so? Now you sit tight and hold your hat on. I can make that business pay if I try, and still stay in the Rain-makers' Union. There's big money in it--enough so we can live the way we want to. I'm sick of this telephone-booth, anyhow; we'll present it to some nice newsboy and rent an apartment with a closet. This one's so small I don't dare to let my trousers bag. Besides, we've been under cover long enough, and I want you to meet the people I know. We can afford the expense--now that I'm making thirteen hundred and seventy-six dollars and twenty-five cents a day."

"I should like to know nice people," Lorelei confessed. "I'm sick of the kind I've met; the men are indecent and the women are vulgar. I've always wanted to know the other kind."

Bob was delighted; his fancy took fire, and already he was far along toward prosperity. "You'll make a hit with the younger set; you'll be a perfect rave. Bert Hayman told me to-day that his married sister is entertaining a lot, and, since the drama will be tottering on its way to destruction without you in a few days, I'll tell him to see that we're invited out to Long Island for a week-end." _

Read next: Chapter 22

Read previous: Chapter 20

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