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- The Auction Block - 1/69 -


THE AUCTION BLOCK

By REX BEACH

Author of "THE SILVER HORDE" "THE SPOILERS" "THE IRON TRAIL" Etc.

Illustrated

THE AUCTION BLOCK

CHAPTER I

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 James smiled crookedly, with a languid tolerance bespeaking amusement and contempt. James prided himself upon his forbearance, and it was rarely indeed that he betrayed more than a hint of the superiority which he felt toward his parent.

"Politics is all right, provided you're a good picker," he said, with all the assurance of twenty-two, "but you fell off the wrong side of the 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 go to New York, and I won't." Peter Knight tried to look forceful, but the expression did not fit his weak, complacent features. He was a plump man with red cheeks rounded by habitual good humor; his chin was short, and beneath it were other chins, distended and sagging as if from the weight of chuckles within. When he had succeeded in fixing a look of determination upon his countenance the result was an artificial scowl and a palpably false pout. Wearing such a front, he continued: "When I say 'no' I mean it, and the subject is closed. I like Vale, I know everybody here, and everybody knows me."

"That's why it's time to move," said Jim, with another unpleasant curl of his lip. "As long as they didn't know you you got past. But you'll never 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 trolley line 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 about the big dam, too. You got into the mud, pa, but you didn't go deep enough 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 New York job. He's not like these Reubs; he remembers a good turn and blows back 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--at my age!"

"Say, d'you suppose Tammany men live on their salaries?" Jimmy inquired. "Wake up! This is your chance to horn into the real herd. In New York politics is a vocation; up here it's a vacation- -everybody tries it once, like music lessons. If you'd been hooked up with Tammany instead 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 a grown woman. If we don't get out of Vale I'll still be a brakeman on a soda-fountain when I'm your age."

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

"Rats!"

At this juncture Mrs. Knight, having finished the supper dishes and set her bread to rise, entered the shoddy parlor. Jim turned to her, shrugging his shoulders with an air of washing his hands of a disagreeable subject. "Pa's weakened again," he explained. "He won't go."

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

"I've been trying to tell him that he'd get a half-Nelson on Tammany inside 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'd accept."

"You--what?" Peter was dumfounded.

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

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

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

"Yes, we're going to make a change," she repeated. "I'm glad, too, for I'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 hurt mine."

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 us do, but--she's beautiful. Where she gets her good looks from I don't know." "What's the difference? It won't hurt her to wash dishes. She wouldn't have to keep it up forever, anyhow; she can have any fellow in the county."

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

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

Mrs. Knight began slowly, musingly: "You need some plain talk, Peter. I don't often tell you just what I think, but I'm going to now. You're past 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 had your 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 in hue and distended; but while he was summoning words for a defense his wife ran on evenly:

"The party used you just as long as you could deliver something, but you're down and out now, and they've thrown you over. Fogarty offers to pay 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 my place," Peter grumbled. He was angry, yet the undeniable truth of his wife's words struck home. "That's the woman of it. You kick because we're poor, and then want me to take a fifteen-hundred- dollar job."


The Auction Block - 1/69

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