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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 29

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Adoree Demorest, still in her glittering, hybrid costume, but heavy-limbed and dull with fatigue, paused outside her own door early that morning. The time lacked perhaps an hour of dawn, the street outside and the building itself was silent, yet from Adoree's parlor issued the sound of light fingers upon piano-keys. Adoree entered, to find Campbell Pope, with collar loosened and hair on end, seated at the instrument. The air within the room was blue and reeking with the odor of stale tobacco-smoke, and the ash-receiver at his elbow was piled high with burnt offerings, one of which was now sending an evil-smelling streamer toward the ceiling.

Pope rose at Adoree's entrance, eying her anxiously. "Is everything all right?" he cried.

"Is what all right?"


"Oh yes! What are you doing here?"

"I suppose I must apologize. You see, I heard the news and came here after the show. When I learned where you were I decided to wait and--and help."

"You decided to--help?" Adoree eyed the disheveled musician queerly. "By smelling up my parlor and playing my poor piano all night--is that how you help? What do you mean, 'help'?"

The critic appeared to realize for the first time the lateness of the hour. Glancing at his watch, he gasped:

"Why, I had no idea it was this time. I've been here all night, haven't I? You see, after I got in I was afraid to go out without explaining."

"What do you mean by saying you wanted to 'help'?" Miss Demorest repeated, curiously. "You've helped to break my lease--I'll be thrown out of this house sure."

Pope stammered, guiltily, "I was playing for Bob and Lorelei."

With one glove half off Adoree slowly seated herself, showing in her face an amazement that increased the man's embarrassment.

"I knew it was a serious matter," he explained, "and, being terribly fond of Bob and Lorelei, I naturally wanted to do what I could."

"Yes, go on."

Pope took a deeper breath, then burst out:

"Oh, I have a sixty-horse-power imagination, and it seems to me that music is a sort of--prayer; anyhow it's the only way I know of praying. Good music is divine language; it's what the angels speak, if there are any angels. Sometimes it seems to me that I can soar heavenward on the wings of--of melody and get close enough to make myself heard. In my own way I was sort of praying for those two children. Foolish, isn't it? I'm sorry I told you. It sounds nutty to me when I stop to consider it." Pope stirred uneasily under Adoree's gravely speculative eyes. "Lorelei's all right?"

Adoree nodded. "It's a boy." There was a moment of silence. "Did you ever see a brand-new baby?"

"Lord, no!"

Miss Demorest's gaze remained bent upon Pope, but it was focused upon great distances; her voice when she spoke was hushed and awe- stricken. "Neither did I until this one. I held it! I held it in my arms. Oh--I was frightened, and yet I seemed to know just what to do and--and everything. It was strange. It hurt me terribly, for, you see, I didn't know what babies meant until to-night. Now I know."

Pope saw the shining eyes suddenly fill and threaten to overflow; instead of the grotesquely overdressed and artificial stage favorite he beheld only a yearning woman whose face was softened and glorified as by a vision.

"Poor Lorelei!" he murmured, at a loss for words.

"Poor Lorelei?" Adoree's lips twisted mirthlessly. "Of course you don't understand. How could you? Why, it's her baby. She's a mother. I can hold it once in a while; she can hold it always."

"I didn't know you cared for children--"

Adoree shrugged; the beads at her throat clicked barbarously. "Neither did I, but I suppose every woman does if she only knew it. To-night I began to understand what this ache inside of me means." Her gaze came back and centered upon his face, but it was frightened and panic-stricken now. "I've sacrificed my right to children."

"How can you say--"

"Oh, you know it as well as I do!" A flush wavered in the speaker's cheeks, then fled, leaving her white and weary. "You, of all men, must understand. I'm notorious. I'm a painted woman, a wicked woman--the wickedest woman in the land--and that reputation will live in spite of anything I can do." She began to cry now in a way strange to Pope's experience, for her tears appeared, grew, and spilled themselves slowly down her cheeks, and she made no attempt to hide them. The sight depressed him dreadfully, for at heart he was intensely sentimental. "I didn't know what it means to be notorious," she stated, tensely. "I didn't know what I was doing when I agreed to be 'Adoree Demorest.'"

Pope's habitual restraint all at once gave way. "Nonsense!" he exploded. "The thing that counts is what you are, not what you seem to be. I know the truth; I don't give a damn what people say."

Now there was nothing sufficiently significant about these words to bring a light of wonderment and gladness to the girl's face, but her tears ceased as abruptly as they had commenced, and, noting the slowly growing radiance of her expression, Campbell was stricken dumb with fright at the possible consequences of temerity. The knowledge of his shortcomings robbed him of confidence and helped to confuse him.

Adoree rose, she removed her tango cap and the mantle elaborately draped from one shoulder that served as an evening wrap, then with a lingering backward glance she disappeared into her chamber. She bathed her eyes, powdered her cheeks, patted her hair into more becoming fashion, gave a final dab of the puff upon her nose, as an expert billiard-player chalks his cue. When she had quite finished she returned to the critic, who meanwhile had remained frozen in his tracks. For a moment she stood looking up at him with a peculiar, tender smile, then took him by the lapels of his shapeless coat and drew his thin face down to hers.

"I'm not going to let you back out," she declared, firmly. "You asked me, didn't you?"

"Adoree! No, no! Think what you are doing," he cried, sharply.

But she continued to smile up into his eyes with a gladness that intoxicated him.

She snuggled closer to him, murmuring, cozily "I don't want to think--we'll have plenty of time to think when we're too old to talk. Now, I just want to love you as hard as you have been loving me for the last six months."

During the days of Lorelei's recovery Bob Wharton was in a peculiarly exultant mood. Her ready forgiveness of his behavior did much to renew his faith in himself, besides doubling his devotion to her. He did not feel that he could ever learn to love her any more than he did, for at times the strength of his passion frightened him, but her allowance for his weakness brought them into closer touch with each other and kindled in him an aching humility that craved self-sacrifice. Dwarfing these and kindred emotions, however, was a feeling altogether new which had come with the birth of his son. At first the baby awed and frightened Bob, it oppressed him with a sense of tremendous responsibility, but on the heels of this came a dawning pride and then an insatiable curiosity. He began to spend a great deal of time with the infant; he studied it, he stared at it, when no one was looking he felt of the little fellow gingerly, and would have enjoyed examining it minutely had he dared. His hands itched for it, and its weak, strangling gurgles sent indescribable thrills through him. The easy dexterity with which the nurse handled it-- as if the precious atom were a bundle of rags--excited Bob's liveliest apprehension, and at such times he hovered near by, poised upon tiptoe for fear she might drop it. He felt that it should be borne on silken cushions while heads were bowed and backs bent rather than upon the hip or in the crook of a careless elbow. When he ventured to voice this feeling to his wife he was offended at her amusement, and for a whole day tortured himself with the suspicion that the child's mother did not truly love it.

To all young fathers there comes a certain readjustment of values. To Bob, who had always led a selfish, thoughtless existence, it was at first bewildering to discover that his place at the head of his household had been usurped by another. Heretofore he had always been of supreme domestic importance, but now the order of things was completely reversed, if not hopelessly jumbled. First in consequence came this new person, tiny and vastly tyrannical because of its helplessness, then the nurse, an awesome person--a sort of oracle and regent combined--who ruled in the name and stead of the new heir. Nurse's wisdom was unbounded, her lightest wish was law, and next to her in authority was a fat, bearded prime minister who daily came and went in an automobile and who wrote edicts on a little pad. This person's frown threw the entire establishment into confusion. Lorelei herself occupied no mean station in the new scheme, for at least she shared the confidence of the nurse and the doctor, and ranked above the cook and the housemaid, but not so Bob. Somewhere at the foot of the list he found his own true place.

Now, strange to say, this novel arrangement was extremely agreeable to the deposed ruler. Bob took a shameless delight in doing menial service; to fetch and to carry for all hands filled him with joy. But once outside of the premises he reasserted himself, and his importance grew as gas expands; he swelled to the bursting-point, he strutted, he grinned, he was broadly tolerant, and more than once he startled total strangers by laughing hilariously at nothing. When he could not talk he whistled in tune to the singing voices within him. But it was seldom indeed that he could not talk, and before long his intimate friends began to avoid him like a plague. It was his partner, Kurtz, who finally dubbed him "The Pestilence that talketh in darkness and the Destruction that wasteth our noondays."

Scarcely less interested in the new baby was Campbell Pope. Pope, in fact, was becoming interested in almost everything of late. He was growing youthful, too, in a way that vaguely alarmed his acquaintances. His cynicism was disappearing, his dramatic reviews began to assume a commendatory tone that all but destroyed their journalistic value.

When Lorelei had recovered sufficiently to receive visitors the two lovers appeared one afternoon laden with packages.

"We've been shopping for the baby," Adoree explained, as she began to unload herself; and Pope announced enthusiastically that the experience had been the most exciting of an adventurous lifetime. Both of them, it seemed, had given free rein to their extravagance, for to begin with there was a marvelous locomotive that ran on a circular track, slightly too large to fit any room in the apartment. It was no ordinary tin toy; it had a bell that rang and a whistle that tooted and a queer little painted manikin inside the cab. There were, moreover, a depot, a bridge, and a frowning mountain range pierced by a tunnel. All in all, the outfit weighed perhaps sixty pounds and required the operating skill of a practical mechanic.

And it proved to be a dangerous plaything, too, for once it had been thoroughly wound up and set in motion it developed an unsuspected and terrifying energy. Bob subdued it only after it had completed a speed trial down the hall, in the course of which it substantially damaged baseboard and plaster.

Pope's taste ran to mechanical contrivances; among his contributions there were, in addition to this public nuisance, an automobile, a camera, a bowling-alley, and a set of small carpenter's tools, the mere sight of which brought out a sweat of apprehension upon the baby's father. Adoree, on the other hand, had invested heavily in animals; her gifts included a roaring lion, a peacock with a lease-breaking voice, an elephant that walked, accompanied by strange, whirring, abdominal sounds, besides many other products of the toy-makers' fancy. There was a huge doll which Miss Deniorest had purchased because of its resemblance to herself and which was promptly christened "Aunt Adoree"; there were an ermine coat and a toy theater, also a full morocco set of Lives of Famous Musicians, in six volumes, this being an afterthought of Pope's, who feared the effects of Bob's low musical tastes upon a tender child. In addition to all these there was an elaborate enameled baby's bed with garlands of bisque flowers and a point d'esprit canopy. This Adoree's sad-faced footman had held upon the front of the automobile during an embarrassing trip up Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive.

During the examination of these interesting objects the lovers made known their happiness; then, after the customary felicitations, Adoree explained: "Everything is arranged. We are going to be quietly married at once--I'm afraid he'll get away from me if I put it off--"

"Not a chance!" Pope's sallow face colored happily.

"As soon as I finish my theatrical contract," Adoree ran on, "we are going to drop quietly out of sight and stay out of sight."

"Going to live abroad?" Bob inquired.

"Worse!" Pope explained. "Long Island. We're going to raise ducks."

"Ducks!" Adoree echoed, beatifically. "Hundreds and thousands of ducks! Little ducks and big ducks, fuzzy ones and smooth ones. Campbell can write plays, and I'll wear kimonos and be comfortable. It's wonderful to think about, isn't it?"

Pope supplemented her eagerly. "I'm looking for a bungalow on salt-water, with a south exposure for the brooder-houses. Say! We're going to live. I tell you, Bob, there's money in ducks. I'm reading up on the subject. My dear fellow, do you realize that--" He swung into his pet subject so swiftly that Bob could not head him off and was forced to listen somewhat dazedly.

Lorelei reached forth and drew Adoree down to her, whispering: "I'm so glad, dear. I knew he would end by loving you, for everybody does."

Pope concluded a lengthy harangue by saying: "My mistake last year was in the food. Ducks need soft food."

"Listen!" Bob raised a hand and nodded in the direction of the girls. "They're discussing that very subject."

"Top milk, indeed!" Adoree was crying, indignantly. "Ours will have cream when they want it, and lots of it too."

"My dear! It will be fatal." Lorelei was horrified. "Use nothing but top milk and barley-water. Be sure to sterilize the bottles and soak the nipples in borax--"

"Say!" Campbell Pope flushed painfully and rose to his feet. "They're not talking ducks. Women haven't the least delicacy, have they? Let's go out and smoke."

One day, after Bob had acquired sufficient confidence in himself and in the baby to handle it without anxiety to the nurse, he begged permission to show it to the hallman down-stairs. He returned greatly elated, explaining that the attendant, who had some impossible number of babies of his own and might therefore be considered an authority, declared this one to be the finest he had ever beheld. Oddly enough, this praise delighted Bob out of all reason. He remained in a state of suppressed excitement all that day, and on the following afternoon he again kidnapped the child for a second exhibition. It seemed that the infant's fame spread rapidly, for soon the tenants of neighboring apartments began to clamor for a sight of it, and Bob was only too eager to gratify them. Every afternoon he took his son down-stairs with him, until finally Lorelei checked him as he was going out.

"Bob, dear," she said, with the faintest shadow of a smile. "I don't think it's good for him to go out so often. Why don't you ask your father and mother to come up?"

Wharton flushed, then he stammered, "I--what makes you--er--think--"

"Why, I guessed it the very first day." Lorelei's smile saddened. "They needn't see me, you know."

Bob laid the child back in its bed. "But that's just what they want. They want to see you, only I wouldn't let you be bothered. They're perfectly foolish over the kid; mother cries, and father-- but just wait." He rushed out of the room, and in a few moments returned with his parents.

Hannibal Wharton was deeply embarrassed, but his wife went straight to Lorelei and, bending over her chair, placed a kiss upon her lips. "There," said she. "When you are stronger I'm going to apologize for the way we've treated you. We're old people. We're selfish and suspicious and unreasonable, but we're not entirely inhuman. You won't be too hard on us, will you?"

The old lady's eyes were shining, the palms which were clasped over Lorelei's hand were hot and tremulous. The look of hungry yearning that greeted the elder woman's words was ample answer, and with a little choking cry she gathered the weak figure into her arms and thrilled as she felt the amber head upon her breast.

Hannibal trumpeted into his handkerchief, then cleared his throat premonitorily, but Bob forestalled him with a happy laugh. "Don't hold any post-mortems, dad. Lorelei knows everything you intend to say."

"I'm blamed if she does," rumbled the old man, "because I don't know myself. I'm not much on apologies; I can take 'em, but I can't make 'em." His voice rose sternly: "Young lady, the night that baby was born I stood outside this house for hours because I was afraid to come in. And my feet hurt like the devil, too. I wouldn't lose that much sleep for the whole Steel Trust; but I didn't dare go back to the hotel, for mother was waiting, and I was afraid of her, too. I don't intend to go through another night like that."

Bob's mother turned to her son, saying: "She is beautiful, and she is good, too. Anybody can see that. We could love her for what she has done for you, if for nothing else."

"Well, I should say so," proudly vaunted the son. "She took a chance when she didn't care for me, and she made me into a regular fellow. Why, she reformed me from the ground up. I've sworn off every blessed thing I used to do."

"Including drinking?" gruffly queried the father.


Lorelei smiled her slow, reluctant smile at the visitors, and her voice was gentle as she said: "He thinks he has, but it's hard to stop entirely, and you mustn't blame him if he forgets himself occasionally. You see, drinking is mostly a matter of temperament, after all. But he is doing splendidly, and some day perhaps--"

They nodded understandingly.

"You'll try to like us, won't you, for Bob's sake?" pleaded the old lady, timidly.

"I intend to love you both very dearly," shyly returned the girl, and, noting the light in Lorelei's face, Bob Wharton was satisfied.

Restraint vanished swiftly under the old couple's evident determination to make amends, but after they had gone Lorelei became so pensive that Bob said, anxiously, "I hope you weren't polite to them merely for my sake."

Lorelei shook her head "No. I was only thinking--Do you realize that none of my own people have been to see me? That I haven't had a single word from any of them?"

Bob stirred uncomfortably; he started to speak, then checked himself as she went on, not without some effort: "I'm going to say something unpleasant, but I think you ought to know it. When they learn that your parents have taken me in and made up with us they're going to ask me for money. It's a terrible thing to say, but it's true."

"Do you want to see them? Do you want them to see the baby?"

"N--no!" Lorelei was pale as she made answer. "Not after all that has passed."

Bob heaved a grateful sigh. "I'm glad. They won't trouble you any more."

"Why? What--"

"I've been waiting until you were strong to tell you. I've noticed how their silence hurt you, but--it's my fault that they haven't been here. I sent them away."

"YOU sent them away?"

"Yes. I fixed them with money and--they're happy at last. There's considerable to tell. Jim got into trouble with the police and finally sent for me. He told me everything and--it wasn't pretty; I'd rather not repeat all he said, but it opened my eyes and showed me why they brought you here, how they put you on the auction block, and how they cried for bids. He told me things you know nothing about and could never guess. When he had finished I thanked God that they had flung you into my arms instead of--some other man's. It's a miracle that you weren't sacrificed utterly."

"Where is Jim now?"

"Somewhere in the boundless West. He gave me his promise to reform."

"He never will."

"Of course not, and I don't expect it of him. You see, I know how hard it is to reform."

"But mother and father?"

"I'm coming to them. My dad came around the day after our baby was born and shook hands. He wanted to stamp right in here and tell you what a fool he had made of himself, but I wouldn't stand for it. Finally, when he saw the kid, he blew up entirely, and right away proposed breaking ground for a jasper palace for the youngster. He wanted to build it in Pittsburg where he could run in, going to and from business. Mother was just as foolish, too. Well, when I had had my little understanding with Jim and learned the whole truth about your people I realized that no matter where we went they would be a constant menace to our happiness unless they were provided for. It struck me that you had made a game fight for happiness, and I couldn't stand for anything to spoil it at the last minute. I went to mother and told her the facts, and she seemed to understand as well as I how you must feel in spite of all they had done, so we shook down the governor for an endowment."

"Bob! What do you mean?" Lorelei faltered in bewilderment.

"We asked him for a hundred thousand dollars and got it."

Lorelei gasped.

"He bellowed like a bull, he spat poison like a cobra, he writhed like a bucket of eels, but we put it over."

"A hundred thousand dollars!" whispered the wife.

"To a penny. And it's in the bank to your credit. But I didn't stop there." Bob's voice hardened. "I went to your mother and in your name I promised her the income from it so long, and only so long, as she and Peter stayed away from you. She accepted--rather greedily, I thought--and they have gone back to Vale. They have your old house, and I have their promise never to see you except upon your invitation. Of course you can go to them whenever you wish, but--they're happy, and I think we will be happier with them in Vale than in New York. I hope you don't object to my arrangement."

There was a long silence, then Lorelei sighed. "You are a very good man, Bob. It was my dream to do something of this sort, but I could never have done it so well."

Her husband bent and kissed her tenderly. "It wasn't all my doings; I had help. And you mustn't feel sad, for something tells me you're going to learn finally the meaning of a real mother's love."

"Yes--yes!" The answer came dreamily, then as a fretful complaint issued from the crib at her side Lorelei leaned forward and swiftly gathered the baby into her arms.

"Is he sick?" Bob questioned, in alarm.

"No, silly. He's only hungry."

There in the gathering dusk Bob Wharton looked on at a sight that never failed to thrill him strangely. In his wife's face was a beautiful content, and it seemed to him fitting indeed that this country girl who had come to the city in quest of Life should end her search thus, with a baby at her breast.

Rex Beach's Novel: Auction Block


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