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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 28

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Late that night John Merkle telephoned Bob Wharton to say:

"Headquarters just rang me up and told me--prepare yourself for a shock--Lilas Lynn is dead."

"Dead?" Bob cried, in a startled voice. "Dead! How? When did it happen? I can't believe it."

Merkle made known the details that had come to him. "Looks like suicide, but they're not sure. Anyhow, she took too much dope of some sort. You can sleep easy now. I wish I could."

"I suppose it's the law of compensation."

"Compensation?" Merkle's voice sounded querulous. "There's no such thing. Don't talk to a Wall Street man about the law of compensation."

"Well, then, call it Providence."

"Providence has too much on its hands to bother with people like her. No, there is a certain--well, immovability about the conventional, and Lilas wasn't strong enough to topple it over."

"I--I'm shocked, of course, and yet I can't help feeling greatly relieved. Rotten thing to say--"

"Not at all. I'm delighted."

"Once I read about a flare-back on a battle-ship, and how a fellow threw himself into the door of the powder-magazine to prevent an explosion. That's me! I'm nearly scorched to death."

Bob's anxiety had been so intense of late that this unexpected solution of his difficulties seemed indeed nothing less than a godsend. Lorelei, thank Heaven! had been saved from any knowledge of the affair, and when he went down to business it was with a lighter heart than he had felt for some time. Bob's acquaintance with Lilas Lynn had been far from pleasant; she had repaid his kindness with treachery, and now, although he was not a callous person, he could not pretend that his pity exceeded his relief. His regrets at the girl's tragic end were those which any normal man would have felt at the death of an acquaintance, but they were far overbalanced now by his joy at the fact that no further shadows menaced the peace of his wife and that once again the future was all dancing sunshine.

Bob had seldom been conscious of a deliberate effort to please himself, for to want a thing had always meant to have it almost before the desire had been recognized. The gratification of his impulses had become a sort of second nature to him, and now, feeling that he owed a debt of friendliness to the world, he was impelled to liquidate it.

He did struggle half-heartedly against his first drink, but after he had taken it and after other drinks had gone the way of the first he was troubled less and less by the consciousness of broken resolves. He met a number of people whom he liked and to whom he was inspired to show his liking, and, strange to say, the more he drank the more of such friends he discovered. By late afternoon he was in a fantastically jubilant mood, and, seizing Kurtz, he bore him across the way to Delmonico's.

Now, Kurtz was worldly and therefore tolerant. He had grown to like and to understand his young associate very well indeed, and something about Bob's riotous disposition to gladness awoke a response in the little tailor.

It was that expansive and expensive hour of the afternoon when business worries are dropped and before social cares are shouldered. It was cocktail-time along the Avenue, the hour when sprees are born and engagements broken, and as it lengthened Wharton celebrated it as in days gone by. His last regret had vanished, he was having a splendid time, when a page called him to a telephone-booth.

Adoree's voice greeted him; she was speaking from his own home, and her first words almost sobered him. Something was wrong; Bob was needed quickly; Lorelei was asking for him. For more than an hour they had been vainly trying to locate him. They had succeeded in reaching the doctor, and he was there--with a nurse. Adoree's voice broke--probably it was nothing serious, but Lorelei was frightened and so was the speaker. Bob had better waste no time, for--one never could tell what might happen in cases of this sort.

When Bob lurched out of the booth he was white; the noisy group he had left rose in alarm at sight of his stricken face. His legs led him a crooked course out of the cafe, bringing him into collision with chairs and tables and causing him to realize for the first time how far he had allowed himself to go. In a shaking voice he called for a taxi-cab, meanwhile allowing the raw air of the street to cool his head.

But as he was hurried up the Avenue his fright grew until he lost himself in a dizzy, drunken panic. He tried to lay hold of himself, but his thoughts were as unruly as his legs had been. The significance of his conduct and its probable effect upon his wife filled him with horror. Fate had cunningly timed her punishment. Before long he began to attribute this catastrophe, whatever it might prove to be, directly to his own criminal behavior, and for once in his care-free life he knew the taste of bitter regret. But he could not think coherently; black fears were pouring in upon him with a speed to match the staggering objects that fled past his open cab window.

The terror of the unknown was upon him. What if Lorelei should die? Bob asked himself. A swing of the vehicle flung him into a corner, where he huddled, slack-jawed, staring. He was unable to shut out this last suggestion. If Lorelei died he would be her murderer, that was plain. He had wanted a child, to be sure, but until this moment he had never counted the risk nor realized what price might be exacted. No child could be worth a risk to Lorelei.

But regrets were unavailing. "Something had gone wrong," and Lorelei needed him. She was calling for him and he was drunk. He would reel up to her bed of pain with bleared eyes, with poisoned lips. How could he kiss her? How could he explain?

The cab swung into the curb, and he scrambled out, then stumbled blindly up the steps and into the building where he lived.

Adoree met him at his own door. Lorelei's summons had evidently found the dancer dressed for anything except such a crisis, for Miss Demorest was arrayed in the very newest importation. The lower half of her figure was startlingly suggestive of the harem, while above the waist she was adorned like a Chinese princess. A tango cap of gold crowned her swirls of hair, and from it depended a string of tremendous beads, looped beneath her chin. She presented a futurist combination of colors, mainly Mandarin yellow and royal blue, both of which in some peculiar way seemed to extend upward, tingeing her cheeks. But Wharton's impression was vague; he saw little more than the tragic widening of the girl's eyes as she recognized his condition.

"Am I as bad as that?" he stammered. "Do you think she'll notice it?"

"Oh, Bob!" Adoree cried, in a stricken voice. "How could you--at this time?"

"You said she wanted me. I couldn't take time--"

"Yes! She has been calling for you, but I'm sorry I found you."

A silent-footed figure in a nurse's uniform emerged from the dining-room, and her first expression of relief at sight of Bob changed swiftly to a stare of startled wonderment. Bob was not too drunk to read the half-spoken protest on her lips. Then he heard his wife calling him and realized that somehow she knew of his coming. At the sound of her voice, strangely throaty and hoarse from pain, the strength ran out of his body. The doctor heard him fumbling at the bedroom door and admitted him; then a low, aching cry of disappointment sounded, and Adoree Demorest bowed her head upon her arms.

When Bob groped his way back into the living-room his look was ghastly; his face was damp; his eyes were desperate.

"She sent me away," he whispered.

"Poor thing!" He winced at Adoree's tone. "God! I heard her when she saw you. I wonder if you realize--"

"Oh yes," he nodded, slowly. "I don't get drunk all over, like most men. I'm afraid I'll never forget that cry."

He was trembling, and his terror was so pitiful that Adoree laid a compassionate hand upon his shoulder.

"Don't let go, Bob. Hold your thoughts steady and sober up. We must all help."

"Tell me--you know about these things--tell me honestly--"

"What do I know about such things? What can I tell you?" bitterly cried the dancer. "I don't know anything about babies. I never even held one in my arms. I'm worse frightened than you are."

Darkness found Bob huddled in his chair fighting for his senses, but as the liquor died in him terrible fancies came to life. Those muffled cries of pain rising now and then terrorized him, and yet the long intervals of silence between were worse, for then it seemed to him that the fight must be going against his wife and that her strength must be proving insufficient. There were times, too, when he felt the paralyzing conviction that he was alone in the house, and more than once he stole down the hall, his heart between his teeth, his body shaking in a palsy of apprehension.

A frightened maid began preparations for his dinner, but he ordered her away. Then when she brought him a tray, anger at the thought that his own comfort should be considered of consequence made him refuse to touch it.

At length his inactivity became unbearable, and, feeling the desperate need of sane counsel, he telephoned to John Merkle. Bob was too deeply agitated to more than note the banker's statement that Mr. and Mrs. Hannibal Wharton were in the city, but, recalling it later, he experienced a stab of regret that his mother was not here to comfort Lorelei in the first great crisis of her womanhood. It had been Lorelei's wish that her own mother be kept in ignorance of the truth, and now, therefore, the girl had no one to lean upon except an unpractical stage-woman--and a drunken husband. In Bob's mind the pity of it grew as the time crept on.

But Adoree Demorest was wonderful. Despite her inexperience she was calm, capable, sympathetic, and, best of all, her normality afforded a support upon which both the husband and the wife could rest. When she finally made herself ready for the street Bob cried piteously:

"You're not going to leave us?"

"I must. It's nearly theater-time," she told him. "It's one of the penalties of this business that nothing must hold the curtain; but I'll be back the minute the show is over."

"Lorelei needs you."

Adoree nodded; her eyes met Bob's squarely, and he saw that they were wet. Her face was tender, and in spite of her grotesquely affected toilette she appeared very simple and womanly at this moment. Her absurd theatricalism was gone; she was a natural, unaffected young woman.

"I wish I could do something to help," wearily continued Bob, but Adoree shook her head so violently that the barbaric beaded festoon beneath her chin clicked and rattled.

"She knows you're close by; that's enough. This is a poor time to preach, but--it seems to me if you've got a bit of real manhood in you, Bob, you'll never drink again. The shock of seeing you like this--when she needed you--didn't help her any."

"I know! I know!" The words were wrung from him like a groan. "But the thing is bigger and stronger than I am. It takes both of us to fight it. If she should--leave me I'd never pull through and--I wouldn't want to."

Never until she left Lorelei's house and turned toward the white lights of Broadway did Adoree Demorest fully realize whither her theatrical career had carried her. Lorelei, it seemed to her now, had lived to high purpose; she was soon to be a mother. But as for herself--the dancer cringed at the thought. What had her life brought? Notoriety, shame! In the eyes of men she was abominable. She had sold herself for the satisfaction of seeing a false name blazoned in electric lights, while Lorelei had played the game differently and won. Yes, she would have won even though she died to-night. But how could a woman like Adoree Demorest, "The King's Favorite," "The Woman with the Rubies," hope for wifehood or for motherhood? The bitterness of these reflections lay in the fact that Adoree knew herself to be pure. But the world considered her evil, and evil in its eyes she would remain. How could she hope to bring anything but misery to a husband or bequeath anything but shame to a child? At this moment she would gladly have changed places with that other girl whose life hung in the scales.

John Merkle had never lost interest in Lorelei, nor forgotten her refusal of his well-meant offer of assistance. From the night of their first meeting she had intrigued his interest, and her marriage to Bob had deepened his friendly feeling. Although he prided himself upon a reputation for harsh cynicism and cherished the conviction that he was wholly without sentiment, he was in reality more emotional than he believed, and Lorelei's courageous efforts to regenerate her husband, her vigorous determination to build respectability and happiness out of the unpromising materials at her hand, had excited his liveliest sympathy. It pleased him to read into her character beauties and nobilities of which she was utterly unconscious if not actually devoid. Now that she had come to a serious crisis Merkle's slowly growing resentment at Bob's parents for refusing to recognize her burst into anger. The result was that soon after his talk with Bob he telephoned Hannibal Wharton, making known the situation in the most disagreeable and biting manner of which he was capable. Strange to say, Wharton heard him through, then thanked him before ringing off.

When Hannibal had repeated the news to his wife she moved slowly to a window and stood there staring down into the glittering chasm of Fifth Avenue. Bob's mother was a frail, erect, impassive woman, wearied and saddened with the weight of her husband's millions. There had been a time when society knew her, but of late years she saw few people, and her name was seldom mentioned except in connection with her benefactions. Even the true satisfaction of giving had been denied her, since real charity means sacrifice. Wealth had lent her a painful conspicuousness and had made her a target for multifarious demands so insistent, so ill-considered, so unworthy--many of them--that she had been forced into an isolation, more strict even than her husband's.

Great responsibilities had changed Hannibal Wharton into a machine; he had become mechanical even in his daily life, in his pleasures, in his relaxations. His suspicions and his dislikes were also more or less automatic, but in all his married life he had never found cause to complain of anything his wife had done. He was serenely conscious, moreover, of her complete accord with his every action, and now, therefore, in reporting Merkle's conversation he spoke musingly, as a man speaks to himself.

"John loves to be caustic; he likes to vocalize his dyspepsia," the old man muttered. "Well, if it's as serious as he seems to think, we may be spared the disgrace of a grandchild." Mrs. Wharton did not stir; there was something uncompromising in the rigid lines of her back and in her stiffly poised head. "People of her kind always have children," he continued, "and that's what I told Bob. I told him he was laying up trouble for himself."

"Bob had more to him than we thought," irrelevantly murmured the mother.

"More than we thought?" Hannibal shook his head. "Not more than I thought. I knew he had it in him; you were the one--"

"No, no! We both doubted. Perhaps this girl read him."

"Sure she read him!" snorted the father. "She read his bank-book. But I fooled her."

"Do you remember when Bob was born?"


"Do you remember? I had trouble, too."

Into Hannibal's eyes came a slow and painful light of reminiscence.

"The doctors thought--"

"Of course I remember!" her husband broke in. "Those damned doctors said you'd never come through it."

"Yes; I wasn't strong."

"But you did. I was with you. I fought for you. I wouldn't let you die. Remember it?" The speaker moistened his lips. "Why, I never forgot."

"Bob is experiencing something like that to-night."

Hannibal started, then he fumbled uncertainly for a cigar. When he had it lighted he said, gruffly, "Well, it made a man of me; I hope it'll help Bob."

Still staring out across the glowing lights and the mysterious, inky blots that lay below her, Mrs. Wharton went on: "You are thinking only of Bob, but that girl is suffering all I suffered that night, and I'm thinking of her, too. She is offering her life for the life of a little child, just as I offered mine."

There was a silence, then Hannibal looked up to find his wife standing over him with face strangely humble. Her eyes were appealing, her frail figure was shaking wretchedly.

"My dear!" he cried, rising.

"I can't keep it up, Hannibal. I can't pretend any longer. It's Bob's baby and it's ours--" Disregarding his denial, she ran on, swiftly: "I wanted more children, but I couldn't have them, so I've starved myself all these years. You can't understand, but I'm lonely, Hannibal, terribly lonely and sad. Bob grew up and went away, and all we had left was money. The dollars piled up; year by year they grew heavier and heavier until they squeezed our lives dry and crowded out everything. They even crowded out our son and- -spoiled him. They made you into a stone man; they came between me and the people and the things I loved; they walled me off from the world. My life is empty--empty. I want to mother something."

Hannibal inquired, hoarsely: "Not this baby, surely? Not that woman's child?"

"It's Bob's baby and ours."

He looked down at her queerly for a moment. "The breed is rotten. If he had married a decent girl--"

"John Merkle says she is splendid."

"How do you know?"

"I have talked with him. I have learned whatever I could about her, wherever I could, and it's all good. After all, Bob loves her, and isn't that enough?"

"But she doesn't love him," stormed the father. "She said she didn't. She wants his money, and she thinks she'll get it this way."

"Do you think money can pay her for what she is enduring at this minute? She's frightened, just as I was frightened when Bob was born. She's sick and suffering. But do you think all our dollars could buy that child from her? Money has made us hard, Hannibal; let's--be different."

"I'm afraid we have put it off too long," he answered, slowly. "She won't forgive us, and I'm not sure I want her to."

"Bob's in trouble. Won't you go to him?"

Hannibal Wharton opened his lips, closed them; then, taking his hat and coat, he left the room.

But as the old man went up-town his nerve failed him. He was fixed in his ways, he had a blind faith in his own infallibility. Twice he rode up in the elevator to his son's door, twice he rode down again. The hall-man informed him that the crisis had not passed, so, finding the night air not uncomfortable, Hannibal settled himself to wait. After all, he told himself, this was not the moment for a painful reconciliation.

As time dragged on he came to a reckoning with his conscience, and his meditations brought home the realization that despite his success, despite the love and companionship of his wife, he, too, was growing old and lonely.

During the chill, still hours after the city had gone to rest an automobile drew up to the apartment house; when its expected passenger emerged from the building a grim-faced stranger in a greatcoat accosted him. One glance challenged the physician's attention, and he answered:

"Yes, it's all over. A boy."

"And--Mrs. Wharton, the mother?"

"Youth is a wonderful thing, and she has everything to live for. She is doing as well as could be expected. You're a relative, I presume?"

The old man hesitated, then his voice came boldly "Yes, I'm her father."

When the doctor had driven away Hannibal strode into the building and telephoned to the Waldorf, but now his words were short and oddly broken. Nevertheless they brought a light of gladness to the eyes of the woman who had waited all these hours. _

Read next: Chapter 29

Read previous: Chapter 27

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