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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 23

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Once in her room, Lorelei gave way to the indignation that had been slowly growing in her breast. How dared Bob introduce her to such people! If this was the world in which he had moved before his marriage he had shown his wife an insult by bringing her into it. Surely people like the Fennells, Bert Hayman, Mrs. Thompson- Bellaire, the Madden woman, were not typical members of New York's exclusive circles! Applied to them, 'smart' was a laughably inadequate term; they were worse than fast; they were frankly vicious. This was more than a gay week-end party; it was an orgy. Lorelei's anger at her betrayal was so keen that she dared not send for Bob immediately for fear of speaking too violently, but she assured herself that she would leave in the morning, even though he chose to remain.

Still in a blazing temper, she disrobed and sat down to calm herself and to wait for her husband. A half-hour passed, then another; at last she sent a maid in quest of him, but the report she received was not reassuring; Bob was scarcely in a condition to come to his room. Lorelei's lips were white as she dismissed the servant.

By and by the music ceased. She heard people passing in the hall, and distinguished Betty Fennell's voice bidding good night to some one. Still she waited.

Heavy with resentment, sick from disillusionment, she finally crept into bed, leaving one electric candle burning upon her dressing-table. Although she knew she could not sleep, she determined to postpone a scene with Bob by feigning slumber.

When the door opened with a cautious hand she closed her eyes and lay still. She heard Bob turn the key and tiptoe toward her, but even when he stood over her and she caught the odor of his garments she did not lift her lids. A moment passed, then some sixth sense gave her warning, and her eyes flew open.

Hayman was standing at the bedside, peering down at her. He extended a cautious hand, saying: "Don't make a fuss. Everything is all--"

Lorelei spoke sharply, but with a restraint that surprised her. "What are you doing here?"

"What am I--? Why, nothing especial. Had to tell you good night, you know." He laughed guardedly, nervously. She saw that he was considerably drunker than when she had escaped from his attentions, but evidently he knew quite well what he was about.

"Kindly get out, and close the door after you," she directed, still without raising her voice.

"The door's closed--and locked," he snickered. Lorelei sat up with eyes blazing. "Oh, don't worry about Bob," muttered Hayman, reassuringly. "Bob's good for two hours yet--I've seen to that-- and he couldn't find his way up-stairs, anyhow. Say! I want to talk to you. You've got me going, Lorelei."

"You've been drinking, Mr. Hayman. I'm willing to think that you made a mistake in the room if you go at once."

The intruder took no warning from her crisp tones nor from the fact that her twilight eyes were as dark as a midnight sky. On the contrary, he suddenly bent low over her, his odorous breath beating into her face, his arms reaching for her.

With the lithe alertness of a leopard she evaded him; the next instant the bed was between them and she had whipped a negligee about her. For an instant they faced each other; then she pointed a quivering arm, gasping in a voice that sounded strange and throaty to her ears:

"Get out! Get out! You--beast!"

Hayman was unused to opposition. He had engineered this moment carefully; a galling anger rose to meet hers as he felt his labors wasted.

"Don't get flighty," he growled. "You knew I'd come, didn't you? Why'd you leave your door unlocked if you didn't expect me?"

Lorelei stepped to her dressing-table and pressed the pearl push- button, holding her finger upon it and staring at Hayman.

"Oh, ring and be damned!" he cried. "Call Bob. I'll tell him you asked me in." He moved toward her, his body swaying, his hands shaking, his face convulsed; but as he groped forward she snatched one of the electric candlesticks from among her toilet articles and swung it above her head. The fixture was of heavy brass, and its momentum ripped the connection from its socket; her arm was tense with the strength of utter loathing as she brought the weapon down. Hayman reeled away, covering his face with his hands and cursing wildly; then, profiting by his retreat, Lorelei was at the door, had turned the key, and was in the hall before he could prevent her. Guided more by instinct than by reason or memory, she found Mrs. Fennell's chamber and pounded upon its door with blind fury. She heard a stir from the direction whence she had come, and Hayman's voice calling something unintelligible; then Mrs. Fennell's startled face appeared before her.

"What's the matter? My DEAR! You'll wake everybody in the house."

"Your brother--forced his way into--my room."

"What are you talking about?" Mrs. Fennell drew her guest swiftly inside. "Hush! Don't make a show of yourself."

"Wha's all this?" came from Harden Fennell, who was sprawled in a chintz-covered easy-chair, minus coat, waistcoat, and collar. He rose slowly as Lorelei, incoherent with rage, poured out her story. "Wha's trouble?" he mumbled. "Bob's all right--and so's Bert. They're both drunk, but Bob's the drunkes'. What're you talkin' about, anyhow?"

"Be still!" his wife cried, sharply. "It's Bertie again." Then of Lorelei she inquired: "But why did you let him into your room if-- if you were going to quarrel--"

"Mrs. Fennell!"

"Now, now! Don't be silly. Bertie didn't mean anything; he's intoxicated and--there's no harm done. You said you struck him with something. I presume he's hurt, and everybody in the house will know about it."

"Got into your room, eh?" Harden Pennell said, thickly, then exploded in moist laughter. "Bertie's work is all right, but it's coarse. Don't you mind him, Mrs. Wharton."

"Will you send some one for Bob?" Lorelei asked, more quietly. "I want to--leave."

But her hostess protested. "Now why stir up trouble? Bob is drunk; he and Bertie are old friends. Bertie will apologize in the morning, and--after all, it was nothing. I told you he was mad about you. He's just like any other man, and you shouldn't have encouraged him."

"Will you send for my husband?"

Mrs. Fennell's gaze hardened; she stiffened herself, saying coldly:

"Why, certainly, if you insist upon rousing the whole household; but he's in no condition to understand this silly affair. You might have SOME consideration for us."

"Sure!" echoed the husband. "Go to sleep and forget it. Don't spoil the party."

"You realize we have other guests?" snapped Mrs. Fennell.

Bright disks of color were burning in Lorelei's cheeks; she was smiling peculiarly.

"Rest easy," she said. "I've no wish to embarrass you nor to drag my husband into this rotten business. It seems he's as modern as the rest of you, but I'm--old-fashioned."

There came a knock at the door, and Hayman's voice, calling:

"Betty! Let me in!"

His sister opened the door an inch or two. "You mustn't come in now," she expostulated, then cried, sharply: "Why, you're badly hurt. You're all bloody!" As Hayman agreed in a burst of profanity she exclaimed fretfully: "Oh, this is dreadful! Go to your room, for Heaven's sake! I'll see what I can do with this--with Mrs. Wharton." Bert continued to growl until his brother-in-law led him away down the hall. Then Mrs. Fennell turned acidly upon her outraged guest. "Well, you've caused enough trouble, it seems to me, without involving the rest of us in it. A woman of your experience should be more careful. I'm sure Bertie never would have taken such a liberty if he hadn't thought you were accustomed to such things."

Lorelei broke out sharply. "You're as badly mistaken as your brother was. But--I should have been more careful; I suppose a woman of my experience shouldn't have come here at all. Now, I don't want to cause any trouble nor scandal, so if you'll permit me to thank you for your hospitality I'll leave at once."

"Leave? At this hour?"

"In ten minutes, if you'll rouse a chauffeur and let him drive me to the station."

"Nonsense! You can't get Bob--"

"Bob needn't know anything about it; I'm sure that will be pleasanter all around. I'll go alone." Lorelei's forced smile bared her even, white teeth. "Of course, if it's too much trouble I can walk--"

"No trouble at all." Mrs. Fennell showed some relief. "I think you're acting very rudely--but I dare say it WOULD save a lot of unpleasantness; Bertie's furious--he and Bob might fight. I--I'm dreadfully sorry. Still, I can't permit you--"

"In ten minutes, then. If there's no train I may ask your chauffeur to drive me into the city."

"Why, to be sure! Er--what shall I tell Bob when he asks for you?"

"Use your own judgment, please. You can handle drunken men better than I. And don't trouble to send a maid to my room. I'll be down- stairs when the car comes."

The hostess continued to demur feebly, but Lorelei cut short any further discussion, and, once behind her own locked door, she dressed with feverish haste. Her only desire now was to escape from Fennellcourt and all its guests as quickly as possible. Her thoughts concerning Bob at the moment were too much involved in anger at the Fennells and at Hayman to be quite coherent.

She was pacing the gloom of the porte-cochere when an automobile swung out from among the trees and swept the shadows flying with its brushes of flame. As she directed the driver, from an open window behind her came a drunken shout; a burst of men's laughter followed the car as it rolled away.

So that was the charmed circle to which she had aspired, those the people she had envied; behind her was that life to which she had sold herself, and this was the end of her dream of fine ladies and gallant gentlemen! Lorelei scarcely knew whether to laugh or to cry. As she stared out at the night shapes capering past she felt acute personal shame that she had been tricked into even a brief association with so vile a crew. That uproar of men's voices rang in her ears like a jeering farewell, and she realized that in all probability her flight would appear ridiculous to Bob's friends. Women like the kalsomined widow, the masculine matron, the jaded Wyeth girl, would echo that laughter and score her with their gossip on the morrow; the thought turned her mind bitterly toward Bob. He had defiled her by bringing her into contact with those libertines. He had left her defenseless against their insults and unprotected from the assaults of men he knew to be capable of anything. He had told her to forget she was married and have a good time; he had refused her appeal for protection. She asked herself dazedly what sort of a creature he could be. Of a sudden the old life of the theater and the cafe seemed clean as opposed to the fetid existence behind her; even Jim, adventurer, crook, blackmailer that he was, appeared wholesome compared with men like Hayman and his brother-in-law. Although Lorelei, under ordinary circumstances, was even-tempered, her anger, once aroused, was tenacious. As she brooded over her humiliation her indignation at Bob began to take definite shape and purpose.

She reached the little apartment in the hushed hours before the dawn, and straightway began her packing. Since Bob was doubtless in a drunken stupor which would last for hours, she did not hurry.

Only once did she halt in her labors, and then only from surprise. In a bureau drawer she uncovered a bundle of letters and documents addressed to her husband, which in some way aroused her curiosity. Swallowing her qualms, she examined the contents. They proved to be, in the main, letters from Bob's mother and father urging him to break off his marriage. Those from Mr. Wharton were characteristically intolerant and dictatorial; those from Bob's mother were plaintive and infinitely sad. Both parents, she perceived, had exhausted every effort to win their son from his infatuation, both believed Lorelei to be an infamous woman bent upon his destruction, and, judging from the typewritten reports inclosed with some of the father's letters, there was ample reason for such a belief. These reports covered Lorelei's every movement, they bared every bit of ancient scandal connected with her, they recounted salacious stage gossip as fact and falsely construed those actions which were capable of more than one interpretation. It gave the girl a peculiar sensation of unreality to see her life laid out before her eyes in so distorted a shape, and when she read the business-like biographies of herself and the members of her family she could only marvel at Bob's faith. For evidently he had not answered a single letter. Nevetherless, after preparing an early breakfast, she sent her trunks down-stairs and 'phoned for a taxi-cab. _

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Read previous: Chapter 22

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