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The Auction Block

The Auction Block

Author:Rex Beach


Peter Knight flung himself into the decrepit arm-chair beside the center-table and growled: "Isn't that just my luck? And me a Democrat for twenty years. There's nothing in politics, Jimmy." His son......
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  Peter Knight flung himself into the decrepit arm-chair beside thecenter-table and growled:

  "Isn't that just my luck? And me a Democrat for twenty years. There'snothing in politics, Jimmy."

  His son James smiled crookedly, with a languid tolerance bespeakingamusement and contempt. James prided himself upon his forbearance, andit was rarely indeed that he betrayed more than a hint of thesuperiority which he felt toward his parent.

  "Politics is all right, provided you're a good picker," he said, withall the assurance of twenty-two, "but you fell off the wrong side ofthe fence, and you're sore."

  "Of course I am. Wouldn't anybody be sore?"

  "These country towns always go in for the reform stuff, every so often.If you'd listen to me and--"

  His father interrupted harshly: "Now, cut that out. I don't want to goto New York, and I won't." Peter Knight tried to look forceful, but theexpression did not fit his weak, complacent features. He was a plumpman with red cheeks rounded by habitual good humor; his chin was short,and beneath it were other chins, distended and sagging as if from theweight of chuckles within. When he had succeeded in fixing a look ofdetermination upon his countenance the result was an artificial scowland a palpably false pout. Wearing such a front, he continued: "When Isay 'no' I mean it, and the subject is closed. I like Vale, I knoweverybody here, and everybody knows me."

  "That's why it's time to move," said Jim, with another unpleasant curlof his lip. "As long as they didn't know you you got past. But you'llnever hold another office."

  "Indeed! My record's open to inspection. I made the best sheriff in--"

  "Two years. Don't kid yourself, pa. Your foot slipped when the trolleyline went through."

  "What do you know about the trolley line?" angrily demanded Mr. Knight.

  "Well, I know as much as the county knows. And I know something aboutthe big dam, too. You got into the mud, pa, but you didn't go deepenough to find the frogs. Fogarty got his, didn't he?"

  Mr. Knight breathed deep with indignation.

  "Senator Fogarty is my good friend. I won't let you question his honor,although you do presume to question mine."

  "Of course he's your friend; that's why he's fixed you for this NewYork job. He's not like these Reubs; he remembers a good turn and blowsback with another. He's a real politician."

  "'Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity,'" sneered Peter."It sounds good, but the salary is fifteen hundred a year. A clerk--atmy age!"

  "Say, d'you suppose Tammany men live on their salaries?" Jimmyinquired. "Wake up! This is your chance to horn into the real herd. InNew York politics is a vocation; up here it's a vacation--everybodytries it once, like music lessons. If you'd been hooked up with Tammanyinstead of the state machine you'd have been taken care of."

  "I tell you I don't like cities. It's no place to raise kids."

  At this James betrayed some irritation. "I'm of age, and Lorelei's agrown woman. If we don't get out of Vale I'll still be a brakeman on asoda-fountain when I'm your age."

  "If you'd worked hard you'd have had an interest in the drug store now."


  At this juncture Mrs. Knight, having finished the supper dishes and sether bread to rise, entered the shoddy parlor. Jim turned to her,shrugging his shoulders with an air of washing his hands of adisagreeable subject. "Pa's weakened again," he explained. "He won'tgo."

  "Me, a clerk--at my age!" mumbled Peter.

  "I've been trying to tell him that he'd get a half-Nelson on Tammanyinside of a year. He squeezed the sheriff's office till it squealed,and if he can pinch a dollar out of this burg he can--"

  "You shut up! I don't like your way of saying things," snarled Mr.Knight.

  His wife spoke for the first time, with brief conclusiveness.

  "I wrote and thanked Senator Fogarty for his offer and told him you'daccept."

  "You--what?" Peter was dumfounded.

  "Yes"--Mrs. Knight seemed oblivious of his wrath--"we're going to makea change."

  Mrs. Knight was a large woman well advanced beyond that indefiniteturning-point of middle age; in her unattractive face was none of theeasy good nature so unmistakably stamped upon her husband's. Peter J.was inherently optimistic; his head was forever hidden in a roseateaura of hopefulness and expectation. Under easy living he had grayedand fattened; his eyes were small and colorless, his cheeks full andveined with tiny sprays Of purple, his hands soft and limber. What hadonce been a measure of good looks was hidden now behind a flabby,indefinite mediocrity which an unusual carefulness in dress could notdisguise. He was big-hearted in little things; in big things he wassmall. He told an excellent story, but never imagined one, and hislaugh was hearty though insincere. Men who knew him well laughed withhim, but did not indorse his notes.

  His wife was of a totally different stamp, showing evidence of unusualforce. Her thin lips, her clean-cut nose betokened purpose; a pair ofalert, unpleasant eyes spoke of a mental activity that was entirelylacking in her mate, and she was generally recognized as the source ofwhat little prominence he had attained.

  "Yes, we're going to make a change," she repeated. "I'm glad, too, forI'm tired of housework."

  "You don't have to do your own work. There's Lorelei to help."

  "You know I wouldn't let her do it."

  "Afraid it would spoil her hands, eh?" Mr. Knight snorted,disdainfully. "What are hands made for, anyhow? Honest work never hurtmine."

  Jim stirred and smiled; the retort upon his lips was only too obvious.

  "She's too pretty," said the mother. "You don't realize it; none of usdo, but--she's beautiful. Where she gets her good looks from I don'tknow."

  "What's the difference? It won't hurt her to wash dishes. She wouldn'thave to keep it up forever, anyhow; she can have any fellow in thecounty."

  "Yes, and she'll marry, sure, if we stay here."

  Knight's colorless eyes opened. "Then what are you talking about goingaway to a strange place for? It ain't every girl that can have herpick."

  Mrs. Knight began slowly, musingly: "You need some plain talk, Peter. Idon't often tell you just what I think, but I'm going to now. You'repast fifty; you've spent twenty years puttering around at politics,with business as a side issue, and what have you got to show for it?Nothing. The reformers are in at last, and you're out for good. You hadyour chance and you missed it. You were always expecting something big,some fat office with big profits, but it never came. Do you know why?Because YOU aren't big, that's why. You're little, Peter; you know it,and so does the party."

  The object of this address swelled pompously; his cheeks deepened inhue and distended; but while he was summoning words for a defense hiswife ran on evenly:

  "The party used you just as long as you could deliver something, butyou're down and out now, and they've thrown you over. Fogarty offers topay his debt, and I'm not going to refuse his help."

  "I suppose you think you could have done better if you'd been in myplace," Peter grumbled. He was angry, yet the undeniable truth of hiswife's words struck home. "That's the woman of it. You kick becausewe're poor, and then want me to take a fifteen-hundred-dollar job."

  "Bother the salary! It will keep us going as long as necessary"

  "Eh?" Mr. Knight looked blank.

  "I'm thinking of Lorelei. She's going to give us our chance."


  "Yes. You wonder why I've never let her spoil her hands--why I'vescrimped to give her pretty clothes, and taught her to take care of herfigure, and made her go out with young people. Well, I knew what I wasdoing; it was part of her schooling. She's old enough now; and she haseverything that any girl ever had, so far as looks go. She's going todo for us what you never have been and never will be able to do, PeterKnight. She's going to make us rich. But she can't do it in Vale."

  "Ma's right," declared James. "New York's the place for pretty women;the town is full of them."

  "If it's full of pretty women what chance has she got?" queried Peter."She can't break into society on my fifteen hundred--"

  "She won't need to. She can go on the stage."

  "Good Lord! What makes you think she can act?"

  "Do you remember that Miss Donald who stopped at Myrtle Lodge lastsummer? She's an actress."

  "No!" Mr. Knight was amazed.

  "She told me a good deal about the show business. She said Loreleiwouldn't have the least bit of trouble getting a position. She gave mea note to a manager, too, and I sent him Lorelei's photograph. He wroteright back that he'd give her a place."


  "Yes; he's looking for pretty girls with good figures. His name isBergman."

  Jim broke in eagerly. "You've heard of Bergman's Revues, pa. We saw onelast summer, remember? Bergman's a big fellow."

  "THAT show? Why, that was--rotten. It isn't a very decent life, either."

  "Don't worry about Sis," advised Jim. "She can take care of herself,and she'll grab a millionaire sure--with her looks. Other girls aredoing it every day--why not her? Ma's got the right idea."

  Impassively Mrs. Knight resumed her argument. "New York is where themoney is--and the women that go with money. It's the market-place. Thestage advertises a pretty girl and gives her chances to meet rich men.Here in Vale there's nobody with money, and, besides, people know us.The Stevens girls have been nasty to Lorelei all winter, and she'snever invited to the golf-club dances any more."

  At this intelligence Mr. Knight burst forth indignantly:

  "They're putting on a lot of airs since the Interurban went through;but Ben Stevens forgets who helped him get the franchise. I could tella lot of things--"

  "Bergman writes," continued Mrs. Knight, "that Lorelei wouldn't have togo on the road at all if she didn't care to. The real pretty show-girlsstay right in New York."

  Jim added another word. "She's the best asset we've got, pa, and if weall work together we'll land her in the money, sure."

  Peter Knight pinched his full red lips into a pucker and staredspeculatively at his wife. It was not often that she openly showed herhand to him.

  "It seems like an awful long chance," he said.

  "Not so long, perhaps, as you think," his wife assured him. "Anyhow,it's our ONLY chance, and we're not popular in Vale."

  "Have you talked to her about it?"

  "A little. She'll do anything we ask. She's a good girl that way."

  The three were still buried in discussion when Lorelei appeared at thedoor.

  "I'm going over to Mabel's," she paused a moment to say. "I'll be backearly, mother."

  In Peter Knight's eyes, as he gazed at his daughter, there wassomething akin to shame; but Jim evinced only a hard, calculatingappraisal. Both men inwardly acknowledged that the mother had spokenless than half the truth, for the girl was extravagantly, bewitchinglyattractive. Her face and form would have been noticeable anywhere andunder any circumstances; but now in contrast with the unmodifiedhomeliness of her parents and brother her comeliness was almoststartling. The others seemed to harmonize with their drab surroundings,with the dull, unattractive house and its furnishings, but Lorelei wasin violent opposition to everything about her. She wore her beautyunconsciously, too, as a princess wears the purple of her rank. Neitherin speech nor in look did she show a trace of her father's fatuouscommonplaceness, and she gave no sign of her mother's coldlycalculating disposition. Equally the girl differed from her brother,for Jim was anemic, underdeveloped, sallow; his only mark ofdistinction being his bright and impudent eye, while she wasfull-blooded, healthy, and clean. Splendidly distinctive, from hercrown of warm amber hair to her shapely, slender feet, it seemed thatall the hopes, all the aspirations, all the longings of bygonegenerations of Knights had flowered in her. As muddy waters purifythemselves in running, so had the Knight blood, coming throughunpleasant channels, finally clarified and sweetened itself in thisgirl. In the color of her eyes she resembled neither parent; Mrs.Knight's were close-set and hard; Peter's shallow, indefinite, weak.Lorelei's were limpid and of a twilight blue. Her single paternalinheritance was a smile perhaps a trifle too ready and too meaningless.Yet it was a pleasant smile, indicative of a disposition towardcourtesy, if not self-depreciation.

  But there all resemblance ceased. Lorelei Knight was mysteriouslydifferent from her kin; she might almost have sprung from a differentstrain, and except as one of those "throwbacks" which sometimes occurin a mediocre family, when an exotic offspring blooms like a delicateblossom in a bed of weeds, she was inexplicable. Simple living had madeher strong, yet she remained exquisite; behind a natural and a deepreserve she was vibrant with youth and spirits.

  In the doorway she hesitated an instant, favoring the group with hershadowy, impersonal smile. In her gaze there was a faint inquiry, forit was plain that she had interrupted a serious discussion. She cameforward and rested a hand upon her father's thinly haired bullet-head.Peter reached up and took it in his own moist palm.

  "We were just talking about you," he said.

  "Yes?" The smile remained as the girl's touch lingered.

  "Your ma thinks I'd better accept that New York offer on your account."

  "On mine? I don't understand."

  Peter stroked the hand in his clasp, and his weak, upturned face waswrinkled with apprehension. "She thinks you should see the worldand--make something of yourself."

  "That would be nice." Lorelei's lips were still parted as she turnedtoward her mother in some bewilderment.

  "You'd like the city, wouldn't you?" Mrs. Knight inquired.

  "Why, yes; I suppose so."

  "We're poor--poorer than we've ever been. Jim will have to work, and sowill you."

  "I'll do what I can, of course; but--I don't know how to do anything.I'm afraid I won't be much help at first."

  "We'll see to that. Now, run along, dearie."

  When she had gone Peter gave a grunt of conviction.

  "She IS pretty," he acknowledged; "pretty as a picture, and youcertainly dress her well. She'd ought to make a good actress."

  Jim echoed him enthusiastically. "Pretty? I'll bet Bernhardt's gotnothing on her for looks. She'll have a brownstone hut on Fifth Avenueand an air-tight limousine one of these days, see if she don't."

  "When do you plan to leave?" faltered the father.

  Mrs. Knight answered with some satisfaction: "Rehearsals commence inMay."