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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 22

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Under Lorelei's encouragement Bob put in the next two weeks to good advantage. In fact, so obsessed was he with his new employment that it was not long before his imaginary bet with Cady assumed reality in his mind. Moreover, it became gossip around his clubs; and in quarters where he was well known his method of winning the wager was deemed not only characteristic, but ingenious. His exploits were famous; and his friends, rejoicing in one more display of eccentricity, and relishing any mild misfortune to Dick Cady, in the majority of cases changed tailors.

Business at Kurtz's increased so substantially that Bob was treated with a reverential amazement by every one in the shop. The other salesmen gazed upon him with envy; Kurtz's bearing changed in a way that was extremely gratifying to one who had been universally accounted a failure. And Bob expanded under success; he began to feel more than mere amusement in his experiment.

His marriage in some way had become public, but, although it occasioned some comment, the affair was too old to be of much news value, and therefore it did not get into the papers except as an announcement. Now that he had escaped the disagreeable notoriety he had expected and was possessed of larger means, Bob-- inordinately proud of his wife's beauty and boyishly eager to display it--undertook to win social recognition for her. It was no difficult task for one with his wide acquaintance to make a beginning. Lorelei was surprised and delighted one day to receive an invitation for her and her husband to spend a week-end at Fennellcourt, the country home of Bert Hayman's sister.

She had not been sorry to give up her theatrical work, and the prospect of meeting nice people, of leaving for good and all the sordid, unhealthy atmosphere of Broadway, bathed her in a glow of anticipation. She had considerable knowledge of rich men, in their hours of recreation at least, but of their women she knew little, and nothing whatever of the life which went on in exclusive circles. During the fortnight of preparation before the visit her feelings more nearly approached stage-fright than upon the occasion of her first public appearance.

Fennellcourt is one of the show-places of the Wheatley Hills section. The house itself is a pretentious structure of brick and terra-cotta, crowning a hill. A formal and a sunken garden--the latter with a pergola and a Temple of Venus--grassy terraces, rows and clumps of ornamental trees and dwarfed shrubs, dazzling patches of flowers and empty green lawns, evidence the skill of a highly paid landscape-artist; while stables, greenhouses, a natatorium, tennis and squash courts in the background, testify to the expensive habits of the owners. The gardens are a feature of the estate; a fortune is represented in the stone pools, the massive urns, the statuary, and the potted plants. Spotless, brilliant-hued tiled walks lead between riotous beds ablaze with every color, and the main driveway swings to the crest of a ridge that overlooks this charming prospect.

Bert Hayman drove the Whartons out from the city, and Lorelei's first glimpse of Fennellcourt was such that she forgot her vague dislike of Hayman himself. Bert, who had met her and Bob for luncheon, had turned out to be, instead of a polished man of the world, a glib youth with an artificial laugh and a pair of sober, heavy-lidded eyes. Lorelei's shyness at meeting him had quickly disappeared when she found that he knew more theatrical people than she and that he was quite unable to talk interestingly about anything except choruses and coryphees. Of the former he was a merciless critic, of the latter he was an enthusiastic supporter. That he possessed a keen appreciation of feminine beauty he showed by surrendering unconditionally to Lorelei's charms. She might have been flattered had he not pressed his attentions over-boldly. As it was, seeing that Bob was pleased at the tribute to his wife's loveliness rather than offended at his friend's effrontery, she did her best to smother her resentment.

As Hayman's car rolled up the driveway and the beauties of Fennellcourt displayed themselves Lorelei found her heart throbbing violently. Was not this the beginning of a glorious adventure? Was not life unfolding at last? Was she not upon the threshold of a new world? The flutter in her breast was answer.

Bert led the way through an impressive hall that bisected the building, then out upon a stately balustraded stone terrace, where, in the grateful shade of gaudy awnings, a dozen people were chatting at tea-tables.

Mrs. Fennell, the hostess, a plain-faced, dumpy young matron, welcomed the new-comers, then made Lorelei known. As for Bob, he needed no introductions; a noisy outburst greeted him, and Lorelei's heart warmed at the welcome. There were a few embarrassing moments when she felt critical eyes measuring her, but her first instinctive appraisal of the other women made her easy. It needed no more than a modest estimate of her own attractions to tell her that she was the smartest person in this smart assembly; the swift, startled admiration of the men proved it beyond question.

A few moments of chatter, then she and Bob were led into the house again and up to a cool, wide bedroom. As Lorelei removed her motor-coat and bonnet she exclaimed breathlessly: "What a gorgeous house! And those people! They weren't the least bit formal."

Bob laughed. "Formality is about the last thing they're famous for. There's liable to be too much informality. Say! You made those dames look like the Monday morning wash-ladies' parade. I knew you would."

"You said this was the younger set--but that awful Thompson- Bellaire widow is here, and that blonde girl I met with her."

"Alice Wyeth?"

"Yes. I thought she was going to kiss you."

Bob grinned. "So did I. She will, too, if she feels like it."

"Won't you have anything to say about it?"

"What could I say? Alice does just as she likes. So does everybody else, for that matter. I've never gone in for this sort of thing very much."

After a moment Lorelei ventured, "I suppose they're all hard drinkers--"

"That wasn't spring water you saw in their glasses."

"Are you--going to?" Lorelei eyed him anxiously.

"I can't very well make myself conspicuous by refusing everything; I don't want to look like a zebra in a hen-yard--and a cocktail before dinner wouldn't hurt anybody." Noting his wife's expression he kissed her lightly. "Now don't spoil your first party by worrying over me. Just forget you're married and have a good time."

Music greeted them as they descended the stairs, and they found some of the guests dancing to the strains of a giant orchestrion built into the music-room. Hayman promptly seized upon Lorelei and whirled her away, but not before she saw the Wyeth blonde making for Bob as an eagle makes for its prey.

Society was tango-mad. The guests could not wait for evening, but indulged their latest fancy in the open air and in the light of day. Doubtless the Naiads used to dance in daylight, when they made merry, but modern terpsichorean figures are suitable only for the evening. The spectacle of a red-faced, harem-skirted matron wabbling through a one-step, her billowing amplitude restrained only by a boneless six-inch corset, is even less classic than the antics of a dancing bear.

Guests continued to arrive from time to time; some from Westchester and the Connecticut shore, others from neighboring estates. One couple in riding-clothes, out for a gallop, dismounted and stayed for a trot. The huge tiled terrace began to resemble a Broadway the dansant.

There was more freedom, more vivacity, than Lorelei was accustomed to, even in the gayest down-town resorts; the fun was swift and hilarious, there was a great deal of drinking. Bob, after a manful struggle against his desires and a frightened resistance to the advances of Miss Wyeth, had fled to the billiard-room. The Widow T.-B., odorous of cocktails, plowed through the intricacies of the latest dances, wallowing like a bluff-bowed tramp steamer, full to the hatches with a cargo of rum and sugar. Bert Hayman, fatuously inflamed with Lorelei's beauty, waged a bitter contest with the other men for her favor. He appropriated her, he was affectionate; he ventured to become suggestive in a snickering, covert way. His intimate manner of dancing would not have been tolerated in any public place, and Lorelei was upon the point of objecting, until she saw that the others, men and women alike, were exaggerating the movements and entwining their limbs even more pronouncedly. Harden Fennell, Lorelei's host, explained:

"We don't dance in the cafes any more. They're so strict it's no fun."

Fennell was a slight man of thirty or fifty, colorless of face and predatory of nose. He had a shocking sense of humor, which he displayed by telling Lorelei a story that left her mute with indignation until she saw that he was quite unconscious of any breach of etiquette. When he finally left her she was sadly bewildered and found herself wondering if the occurrences of this afternoon were not a part of some bad dream. Certainly such an erotic atmosphere could not be considered "smart," this complete freedom from restraint could not be a recognized social usage. The suspicion that Fennell had presumed upon her reputation as a show- girl to lower the bars of decorum troubled her until she heard him repeat his vile story to other women. From the general laughter she judged that her own ideas would be thought Puritanical.

She became interested in watching Miss Courtenay, the girl in the riding-habit, one of the season's debutantes, who, it seemed, was especially susceptible to the influence of liquor.

"If you shake a bar-towel at Elizabeth she goes under the table," Bert Hayman explained. "We love to get her full." It excited great merriment when, some time later, Miss Courtenay had to be sent home in an automobile, leaving her saddle-horse to be led by her escort.

Lorelei was glad when it came time to dress for dinner. As she went to her room Mrs. Fennell stopped her on the stairs to say:

"My dear, you're stunning in that little black and white. Where did you get it?"

Lorelei gave her the name of her tailor.

"Really! I never heard of her." Mrs. Fennell smiled and laid a soft hand upon her guest's arm. "Elizabeth Courtenay was frantically jealous of you."

"Of me? I don't understand."

"She and Bert are great friends--and he's gone perfectly daft over you. Why, he's telling everybody." Lorelei flushed, to the evident amusement of her hostess, who ran on: "Oh, Bert means it! I never heard him rave so. Quite a compliment, my dear! He declares he's going to win you, so make up your mind to it--he never takes 'no' for an answer." With a playful pat she went on her way, leaving the young wife weak with dismay.

When Bob came in he betrayed an elation only too familiar.

"You've been drinking!" cried Lorelei.

"I had to; I ran fifteen three times. My abstinence is the marvel of the whole party. Why, Clayton has composed a song about it."

"I'm afraid--"

"Say! You can't help sneezing when you have a cold. What's a fellow going to do in a crowd like this? But don't worry, I know when to quit."

In truth he did seem better able to take care of himself than most of the men Lorelei had seen, so she said no more.

As he throttled himself with his evening tie Bob gasped: "Having a good time?"

"Ye-es!" Lorelei could not summon courage for a negative answer; she could not confess that her dream had turned out wretchedly, and that what Bob seemed to consider simply the usual thing impressed her as abnormal and wanton.

"Well, that's good," he said. "I'm not strong for these week-end slaughters, but it's something you'll have to do."

"Is all society like--this?" she inquired.

"Um-m, yes and no! Society is like a layer-cake--"

"Because it's made of dough?"

Bob laughed. "Partly! Anyhow, the upper crust is icy, and while the lower layer is just as rich as those above, it's more indigestible. There's the heavy, soggy layers in between, too. I don't know any of that crowd. They're mostly Dodos--the kind that endow colleges. This younger set keeps the whole cake from getting tasteless."

After a while Lorelei ventured: "I'm still a little nervous. I wish you'd stay close to me this evening."

"Can't be done," Bob declared. "It's a rule at Fennellcourt that husbands must ignore their wives. Betty doesn't invite many married couples, and a wife-lover is considered a pest. When in Rome do as the tourists do."

Lorelei finished dressing in silence.

Dinner was quite different to anything Bob's wife had ever experienced, and if the afternoon had been embarrassing to her the evening was a trial. As the cocktails were served, Harden Fennell distinguished himself by losing his balance and falling backward, to the great amusement of his guests. No one went to his assistance; he regained his feet by climbing a high-backed chair, hand over hand, and during the dinner he sat for the most part in a comatose state, his eyes bleared and staring, his tongue unresponsive. Lorelei had little opportunity of watching him, since Bert Hayman monopolized her attention. The latter made love openly, violently now, and it added to her general disgust to see that Bob had again fallen into the clutches of Miss Wyeth, who made no secret of her fondness for him.

Lorelei was not the only one to take special note of the blonde girl's infatuation. Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire was equally observant and at length made her disapproval patent by a remark that set the table laughing and drove the blood from Lorelei's face. As if further to vent her resentment at Bob, the widow turned spitefully upon his wife. Seeing Lorelei wince, Hayman murmured consolingly: "Oh! Don't mind the old heifer. She's jealous of any man Alice speaks to."

But Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire seemed to take a quenchless delight in embarrassing her victim, and sometime later Lorelei heard her explain to the man on her right:

"We weren't surprised in the least. ... Bob's always doing some crazy thing when he's drunk. ... His latest fancy ... pretty, of course, but ... from some Western village, I believe ... can't possibly last. Why should it?" The words were purposely made audible, and during the rest of the meal, when Mrs. Thompson- Bellaire was not bitingly sarcastic to Lorelei, she was offensively patronizing.

Bert Hayman, it transpired, was not only an authority on musical comedies and pony ballets, but he was equally well posted on dogs, and a debutante across the table appealed to him for advice in breeding an Airedale bitch she had purchased at the last show. The discussion that followed was sufficiently frank to embarrass the aristocratic Airedale herself had she been present, but it did not appear to shock the diners.

Mrs. Madden, a neighbor, who was a leader in the polo set, dropped in for coffee and a cigarette. Lorelei was surprised to see her clad in a well-fitting man's dinner-suit. Mrs. Madden's hair was tightly drawn back, with a neat part on the left side; she smoked extra large cigarettes, from a man's jeweled case; her voice was coarse, her mannerisms distinctly masculine. Nor was this eccentricity a passing whim; she masqueraded thus--so Hayman affirmed--whenever she dared, and had once attempted to attend a horse-show in trousers.

After dinner Lorelei had a better opportunity than during the afternoon of becoming acquainted with the women of the party, but the experience was not pleasant. Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire had struck a popular note by patronizing her, and the other women followed suit. Lorelei amused and interested them in a casual way, but she was made to understand that they regarded her not as Bob's wife in any real sense, but rather as his latest and most fleeting fancy. His marriage they seemed to look upon as a bizarre adventure, such as might happen to any man in their set who was looking for amusement.

There was more dancing during the evening. Miss Wyeth continued to monopolize Bob, and Lorelei was offended to note that his resistance gave signs of weakening. She smothered her feelings, however, and remonstrated gently, only to find that he was in no condition to listen. The dinner had been too much for him.

There were many gaieties to enliven the party, and, although outward decencies were observed after a fashion, Lorelei was sickened by the sheer license that she felt on every hand. Unable to endure the growing heat of Hayman's advances, she slipped away at last and hid herself in another room, only to overhear a quarrel between Alice Wyeth and Mrs. Thompson-Bellaire, the fierceness of which was only equaled by its absurdity. Lorelei stole out of the room again with ears burning; her dislike of the muscular widow had turned to loathing, and she was glad to return to the lights and laughter. She had a wild desire to make her excuses and escape from Fennellcourt, but Bob had disappeared, and she gathered that he and Bert were playing off some fabulous wager in the billiard-room. Pleading a headache, she excused herself as soon as she could.

"So sorry," said Mrs. Fennell; then, with a knowing laugh: "There's no likelihood of Bob's annoying you for some time. Bertie will see to that." _

Read next: Chapter 23

Read previous: Chapter 21

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