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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Auction Block - Chapter 25
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The Auction Block - Chapter 25 Post by :joyous Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2027

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The Auction Block - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV

Bob's work as a salesman continued to be so effective that Kurtz finally offered him a salaried position. But instead of accepting, Bob made a counter-proposition that caused the little man to gasp. Briefly, it was to extend the scope of the present business by laying in a stock of extravagant, high-priced shirt and necktie materials, with Bob as partner in the new venture. Kurtz protested that he was not a haberdasher, but he was constrained to admit that Bob had the right idea of smart business, and after some discussion accepted his employee's nonchalant offer to go halves on the new venture and share in its profits. The fact that Bob had no money with which to carry through his part of the deal troubled that youth not in the least--Kurtz's credit was ample. Bob's theory of securing the Fifth Avenue trade was to double existing prices, and if this did not bring the business, to double them a second time; and this theory was correct, as he demonstrated when the new department was organized.

But despite the excellent income he now began to make there was never anything left in the Wharton bank-account, for Bob moved his wife to a more pretentious apartment on Riverside Drive and managed to increase their expenses so as to balance his earnings very nicely. It was quite a feat to adjust a fixed outlay to a varying income so that nothing whatever should remain, and he considered it a strong proof of his capacities that he succeeded.

By Christmas the haberdashery venture had shown such a profit that he began to pile up a small bank-account in spite of himself; so he bought an automobile, which served to eat up any monthly profits and guarantee a deficit under the most favorable circumstances. Being thus relieved of financial uncertainty, he laid plans to wrest from Kurtz a full partnership in the tailoring business itself.

The Whartons' new home was charming, and Bob provided his wife with every luxury. Lorelei did not regret that she was prevented from going out as much as formerly--her experience at Fennellcourt had cured her of any desire to get into her husband's social set-- and unconsciously she and Bob began to develop a real home life.

As time went on and evidences of prosperity showed themselves Lorelei's family forgot some of their dislike of Bob and became more companionable. Strangely enough, too, their cost of living increased in proportion to their friendliness; but Bob never questioned any amount they asked him for, and he swelled their allowance with characteristic prodigality.

Lorelei was proud of him, as she had reason to be, but she had occasion for sorrow as well. His generosity was really big, his pagan joyousness banished shadows, but he was intensely human in his failings, and in spite of his determination to stop drinking, in spite of all his earnest promises, the old appetite periodically betrayed him. For a month, for two months at a time, he would manfully fight his desires, then without excuse, without cause, just when he was boasting loudest of his victory, he would fall. And yet drinking did not brutalize him as it does most men; he never became disgusting; liquor intoxicated him, but less in body than in spirit. His repentance followed promptly, his chagrin was intense, and his fear of Lorelei almost ludicrous. But the girl had acquired a wider charity, a gentler patience; she grieved, she tried to help him, and his frailty endeared him to her. Love had been slow to awaken; in fact, she had not been definitely aware of its birth; but suddenly she had found it flowering in her soul, and now it flourished the more as that other interest intensified and began to dominate her.

Bob responded to all her efforts save one: she could not make him serious. On the whole, however, they were more happy than they had ever been.

One day, during the slack holiday season, Hannibal Wharton appeared at the Kurtz establishment. He appraised the elaborate surroundings with a hostile eye and stared at his son impassively.

"So! You're a seamstress now," he began, and Bob grinned. "Merkle told me you repaid his loan and had an automobile."

"That's true."

"Second-hand car?"

"No."

"How much do you owe?"

"Nothing, except for stock."

"Stock! What do you mean?"

"Kurtz and I are partners in one end of this business."

"I'll be damned!" breathed Mr. Wharton. Then he inquired, curiously, "Do you like this work?"

"It's not what I prefer, still there is a margin of profit."

"Huh! I should think so, at ninety dollars a suit. Well, this town is full of fools."

Bob agreed. "But we dress 'em better than they do in Pittsburg."

After a moment's consideration Hannibal said slowly: "Mother's at the Waldorf; she wants to see you. You've just about broken her heart, Bob."

"We're not going out much, but perhaps we could call on her--"

"'We'! I said she wants to see YOU."

"And not my wife?"

"Certainly not. Neither do I. You don't seem to understand--"

Bob answered smoothly: "Certainly I understand; you think ninety dollars is too much for a suit. Perhaps I can show you something in scarfs of an exclusive design?"

"Don't be funny!" growled his father.

"Really, dad, you'd better go. That suit of yours is a sight. Somebody may think we made it for you."

Mr. Wharton remained silent for a moment. "The situation is impossible, and anybody but you would see it. We can't accept that woman, and we won't. She's notorious."

"No more so than I--or you, for that matter."

"She's a grafter. She'd quit you if I paid her enough."

"How do you know?"

"Her mother has been to see me half a dozen times. I've offered to pay her anything within reason, but they're holding out for something big. You come back, Bob. Let her go back to her own people."

"And what's to become of the other one?" Bob was smiling faintly.

"The other one? What do you mean?"

"I mean there will be three in the family soon, dad; you're going to be a grandfather."

The effect of this announcement was unexpected. Hannibal Wharton was momentarily stricken dumb, for once he was utterly at a loss. Then, instead of raising his voice, he spoke with a sharp, stuttering incisiveness:

"So that's her game, eh? I suppose she thinks she'll breed her way into the family. Well, she won't. It won't work. I was willing to compromise before--so long as there was no tangible bond between that family and mine--but they've got their blood mixed with mine; they've got a finger-hold in spite of hell, and I suppose they'll hold on. But I won't acknowledge a grandchild with scum like that in its veins. Good God! Now listen--you." Wharton's jaw was outthrust, his gaze hard and unwavering. "No child tainted with that blood will share in one penny of my money, now or at any other time. Understand?"

"Perfectly." Bob's color had receded, but in no other way did he show his struggle for self-mastery. "My wife isn't having a baby to spite you, and if it ever needs a grandfather we'll adopt one."

"They've pulled you down into the mud; now they've tied you there. Heredity's stronger than you or I; watch your child grow up, and watch its mother's blood tell. Then remember that I tried to free you before it was too late. Well, I'm through. This settles me. Good-by, and God help you with that rotten gang." Hannibal Wharton turned and strode out of the room shaking his head and mumbling.

Jimmy Knight had fallen upon evil times. A combination of circumstances had seriously affected his mode of making a living, and that of his friends. To outward appearances the frequenters of Tony the Barber's place were as thrifty as usual, but in the pinochle-room at the rear there was gloom. Reason for these hard times lay in an upheaval of public sentiment that had galvanized the Police Department into one of its periodic spasms of activity, and the cause ran back to a sordid quarrel between two factions of the Tenderloin. At about the time when Jimmy came to New York the contention had become too bitter for the underworld to hold, and echoes of it had begun to leak out; later it culminated in the murder of the leader of one clique. Murders, it is true, are not uncommon in New York, but this one was staged in the glare of Broadway, and with a bold defiance of the law that aroused popular indignation. There followed a chain of fortuitous happenings that issued in the capture of the murderers, in a wide-spread exposure of social conditions, and in a great outburst of public indignation against a police system that allowed such abuses to exist.

Of course there came a loud protest from the guardians of the law, a frantic waving of spotless banners, and a prating of virtue; but the popular will has a way of obtaining its desires regardless of red tape, trickery, or politics, and in this case it demanded a reorganization of the department and got it.

Discipline suddenly strengthened, and as a result gambling almost ceased, wire-tapping languished, organized blackmail was conducted under cover: only crime in its crudest forms continued as usual; and it followed therefore that Jimmy Knight was not prosperous. Had it not been for his share in Bob's generosity he would have been forced to the distressing necessity of asking for employment --a thing to curdle his blood! It was characteristic of young Knight that he did not scruple to accept charity from the man he hated, although he cherished the memory of that public beating at Bob's hands and the humiliation of it gnawed him like a cancer.

More than once lately Jim had been tempted to turn his knowledge of the Hammon "suicide" into cash, but he could think of no safe and certain means of doing so until one day Max Melcher dropped a bit of intelligence that promised to open a way.

"Who do you suppose I just heard from?" Max inquired, one raw afternoon in March, when he had found Jim in their usual haunt. "Lilas Lynn."

Jim made no attempt to conceal his surprise and interest. "Where is she?"

"She wrote from Liverpool, asking for money. Can you beat that?"

"Money? Why, she had a satchel full. What's become of it?"

Melcher shrugged. "She's taken the jumps--English Derby, Paris race-meet, Monte Carlo--"

"Huh! She fished all the sucker-holes along the route, eh? Of course you cabled her a few C's?" Jim snickered.

"Do I look as if I had? She's sick, got a cough, and says it's the 'con.' She wants to come home."

Jim started. "Say, that's no hospital bark of hers; it's nothing but the coke." After a moment he asked casually, "Where's she stopping?"

"Liverpool."

"What's her address? I'll drop her a line to cheer her up." "She wrote from the Hotel--" Melcher checked himself and shot a questioning look at his friend. "Why this sudden charity?"

Jim's gaze was bland, his tone one of wounded innocence. "Can't a guy offer to cheer--"

"You're not in the business of cheering sick dames," Melcher said, sharply. Then, after a pause, "You never came through with me, Jim. There was something phony about Lilas's get-away. She left too suddenly after the Hammon suicide, and she's been under cover now for eight months. I never got it quite right. What're you holding out?"

Jim sparred adroitly, but without effect.

"Oh! You've got an ace buried somewhere," Melcher said. "You're a shifty guy. Of course this is a friendly game we're playing, but, just the same, I never bettered a poker hand by leaving the room. I don't even turn my head to spit when I'm sitting in with a fellow like you. Lilas has got something on her mind, and I believe I'll cable her the price of a ticket."

That was enough for Jim. He began to weaken, and at last made a clean breast of all the circumstances surrounding Jarvis Hammon's death rather than risk the result of a meeting between Max and Lilas. When he had finished his story Melcher was leaning forward, his pink, smooth-shaven, agreeable face gravely intent.

"So that was the way of it. Wharton and Merkle--and a four- wheeler! By God! That was nervy--on Merkle's part, especially. He took a chance. And Lilas shot the old man, eh?"

"Nobody saw her do it," Jim explained. "Lorelei was in the dining- room at the time it happened, and Hammon swore he did it himself. He stood on that to the last."

"I didn't know they grew men the size of that fellow," Max mused. "After all, it's the suckers that die game. And you were going to put this over single-handed, eh?--you and Lilas, perhaps! My boy, you must learn to shoot before you go hunting. Why, there's a hundred thousand quick money in this."

"If Wharton had done the shooting or Merkle--yes."

"What's the difference who did it? Why, it's a cinch. Get this! Lilas comes home broke. She's sick, and sees the undertaker flirting with her, so she decides to spill the whole story and take the consequences--understand? It's conscience." Mr. Melcher laughed lightly at his little joke. "A sick woman's conscience is an expensive thing; it takes money to square it. Merkle won't stand, and Wharton can't, on account of his wife--your sister. He'll tap his old man, and Hannibal will loosen for the family honor. After they're dry we've got the Hammon widow to work on."

"It'll take money to do this--protection, too."

"Well, I've got both."

"I suppose we'll split three ways."

Max pursed his lips thoughtfully. "N-no; you and Lilas are broke. I've got the money and the police. I'll take half."

Jim's acquiescence to these terms came hard, and he cursed himself as a fool for putting himself at the mercy of this man. He was still raging inwardly when Melcher left to send a cablegram; but there was ample leisure for reflection during the week that followed, and, being possessed of some ingenuity, Jim had formulated a scheme before Lilas Lynn's arrival.

In due time she came, and Melcher saw her established at a modest hotel before making known in detail his intentions.

Lilas was little more than a wreck of what she had been. It seemed impossible that eight short months could have worked so great a change in one of her youth and strength. Ill she undoubtedly was. She was thin, her nerves had yielded to the ravages of the drug, and a queer, unhealthy pallor had blanched her skin; her eyes were big and feverish and restless. Only at such times as she was without cocaine did her mind suffer; when she had it she was unnaturally alert. Having lately felt the harsh grip of poverty, she was obsessed now by the need of money, and offered no objections to Max's schemes. Rather, she welcomed them fiercely. She and Max and Jim mapped out a course of action together; but a day or two later, when Jim thought the moment propitious, he secured her ear alone and gave voice to his resentment against Max.

As soon as Lilas understood his drift she met him more than half- way. She was vulture-like in her greed, and with a full understanding between them the two conspired to use Max only so long and so far as suited their purposes.

In spite of Bob Wharton's peculiarly mutable temperament he was not remiss in his duties toward Lorelei during the period that led up to the birth of their child. Utterly careless and improvident in his own affairs, he was naturally considerate of others and possessed a surprising depth of sympathy. Hence he met the responsibilities of his present situation with considerable credit.

One evening he was concerned to find his wife greatly agitated, and upon learning the cause his consternation matched hers. Lorelei's eyes were big and frightened as she explained: "Lilas is back. She was here to-day."

"Lilas? Good Lord! What did she want?"

"Nothing. She just came to see me. She's changed dreadfully, and talked about nothing except--that awful night. You remember? I'm nearly in hysterics."

"Now, that won't do. You pass your worries on to me. Lilas can't make trouble for us without making more for herself."

But Lorelei seemed oppressed with a premonition of trouble. "I'm frightened, Bob," she confessed. "She acted so--strangely. Suppose--oh, suppose I should have to go to jail now or--to court--"

Bob took his wife in his arms and did his best to cure her of these sick fancies; but it was no easy task to quiet her, for a million apprehensions had sprung into life with the reopening of that old horror. At last he reminded her gently:

"Remember, dear, your thoughts are like branding-irons just now; they leave their marks. We want our child to be brave and confident and steadfast, not a coward--or something worse. This is how cowards are made. How can a child inherit weakness when its mother is without fear?"

Profiting by this experience, Bob undertook to guard against another visit from Lilas. He was really worried, although he pretended to dismiss the matter as inconsequential, and his fears flared into full blaze again a few days later, when Jimmy Knight called upon him and announced cautiously:

"Say, you know Lilas is back. Well, she's gone off her nut--she's going to give herself up."

"Give herself up? How?"

"She's going to tell the truth about the Hammon affair. She thinks she's dying. Where do we go from here if she does that?"

Bob could not conceal his alarm, which increased when his brother- in-law begged him to do something quickly to save them all from disaster. "I wouldn't come to you," Jim confessed, candidly, "if I knew what to do; for you don't like me, and I'm not crazy about you. But we've got to stand together on account of Lorelei--not that I'd enjoy a call on the district attorney at any time."

Agreeing that there was no time to waste, the two men hastened to Lilas's hotel, only to receive a greeting that was far from auspicious. When they had adroitly brought the conversation around to the point at issue Lilas explained:

"Yes, the doctors have ticketed me. They've shown me the gate." She coughed hollowly and laid her hand on her chest. "Oh, it's the white bug! That closes the show for me." She appeared very ill, and it did not occur to Bob to doubt her.

Jim began briskly: "Why, that's nothing, Lilas! Arizona is the place for you."

"Arizona is a long jump from Broadway."

"I'll help you if you need help," Bob hastened to offer.

Lilas flashed him a grateful glance from eyes that were doubly large and dark against her pallor. "You're a prince with your money, but--it's too late."

"Nonsense!"

"Oh, they'd get me sooner or later. I may as well face the music."

"Do you mean slow music? Do you mean the bugs will get you?" Jim inquired.

"No. I mean I'd have to take it on the dodge if I went, and what's the use of that? I've talked too much." With a sudden flash of feeling she cried: "I've been through hell for eight months, and I'm tired out. I came home broke, sick, thinking of that night when--you know! I seem to see HIS face everywhere. It bothers me at night. I used to dream of my father and a stream of molten steel. Well, the dreams are getting worse, only now I see Jarvis's face in place of my father's, and I tell you I can't stand it; I can't stand these dreams, and that face of his looking at me all the time. So I'm going to give myself up, have it over with, and do my penalty. Maybe I can sleep then. If my lungs hold out, all right; if they don't--well, I'll sleep anyhow. You see, I can't make a living, for I can't go back on the stage. Why, I can't leave this hotel--and take my trunks."

Jimmy Knight broke out nervously, "That penalty talk is all right for you, Lilas, but think about the rest of us."

"Yes; Lorelei, for instance," Bob added. "She isn't strong. You mustn't think of doing this thing."

"I know," Miss Lynn nodded. "I'm sorry, but--"

"I'll furnish all the money you want." She looked her gratitude again. "You must buck up and try to get well."

For some time the two men jointly attempted to argue Lilas out of her black despondency, and when they left it was with a hard-won promise that she would do nothing definite at once.

Outside the room Jim heaved a sigh of relief. "Whew! I could feel the knot under my ear, but--glory to God, it slipped! Just the same, I'm going to buy some oakum and make a false beard in case she flops."

In this way the trap was set and baited so skilfully that the victim was without suspicion. That evening Lilas, Jim, and Max Melcher dined together in very good spirits; and, strangely enough, the girl showed an excellent appetite for one so troubled in soul.

Wharton was as good as his word. Not only did he put Lilas in funds, but he exerted his every power of persuasion to rouse her from her despondency and reawaken a healthy desire for life. It transpired that she had assumed some outrageous obligations, and, moreover, had hired a number of expensive lung specialists, for whom she asked him to settle; nevertheless he met her demands and was encouraged when she began to purchase a new wardrobe. Although he considered himself a spendthrift, her reckless disregard of money gave him a jolt, but he was working to gain time, and his relief on Lorelei's account deadened all other feelings.

Before long he had advanced several thousand dollars to the girl, and still her desire for martyrdom had not entirely vanished. Realizing that the mere presence of one so temperamentally hysterical as she was a constant menace, he insisted upon her going South, and in order to provide handsomely for her comfort he borrowed from his friends. He was aghast when he finally reckoned up the amount he had spent upon her.

There followed a short interval of relief, during which Lilas pretended to be making ready, then upon the very eve of her departure she sent for him in much haste and awoke him rudely from his trance.

She began by saying that his kindness and liberality had aroused in her a desire to live and to begin anew, if not for her own, then for his and Lorelei's sakes, but that she was in terrible trouble. Her punishment had sought her out after all.

It was a long time before Bob could make head or tail out of what she told him, but eventually he learned that in the hour of her deepest dejection she had confided her secret to others, and the result of this confidence had now arisen to thwart all their plans.

With a dizzy feeling of insecurity Bob asked, "Who did you tell?"

"Melcher. He sent me money to come home with, and he seemed to be my only friend."

"Friend! I thought you and he were enemies."

"Oh, he doesn't love me and he doesn't hate me," Lilas explained. "He seemed sorry for me, and I was grateful for any sympathy, no matter where it came from. You see, I didn't know what I was doing, and I didn't realize my mistake until it was too late."

"Melcher of all people!" Bob groaned.

"Wait--that's not all. You see, I wanted to go clean, and yet I was afraid of the police, so Max advised me to hire a lawyer who'd get me off light. Well, I did."

"Goldberg, I suppose." Bob breathed a malediction as Lilas nodded. "Why didn't you hire a hall or book yourself through the Lyceum Bureau?"

"Don't be hard on me." Lilas had foresworn the stage, but she did a creditable bit of emotional acting. "A frantic woman will do almost anything."

"Well, present your bill in full. What's the next misfortune?"

"I had no idea men could be so vile. Yesterday I told Max of the change in my plans; that you've made life possible to me and showed me that I couldn't go through without consequences to others. He--" She dropped her hands in a gesture of resignation. "What's the use? You know the kind of man he is."

"Go on."

Lilas began to weep silently, rocking her body to and fro. "It's just my luck--when I had another chance, too! I don't care for my own sake, but I do love--Lorelei; and you've certainly been a prince, Bob."

"Good Lord! Max can't insist on your giving yourself up. Why, that's absurd!"

"Oh, he doesn't care what becomes of me. It's--it's--" Lilas broke out in a passion: "I never thought I was putting you in his power, and--and Lorelei, too--and Jim, and Mr. Merkle. Of course you won't believe that, but I can't help what you think. I wouldn't blame you for--killing me. Why, I'd go to the chair to keep you people clear, but--those are the facts. Now you've got it all."

"Max sees money in sight, I presume?"

"That's all he sees. Money? My God! He's mad. Why he doesn't talk figures that I understand. It's nothing but blackmail, Bob, and you mustn't stand for it. He's a queer man--he helped me when I was broke; now he'd hitch me to a bull and ticket me up the river, to get that money. Why, he'd strap the coppers on my feet and turn on the juice with his own hand rather than lose this chance."

As her flow of speech died down to apologetic murmurs Bob said gravely: "I never thought Merkle and I could cover a thing like Hammon's death, but, after all, they can't do much to us."

"It's mighty kind of you to say so. I'll stand whatever comes to me; I was thinking more of Lorelei--she's in no condition--"

Bob uttered an exclamation. "You're right! We've got to gain time. After the baby's born it won't matter so much."

"Max is no fool; he won't wait. Besides, Goldberg's been to see Inspector Snell already on my account, and Snell is in the know. He's holding back warrants now for all of us. I couldn't leave town if I wanted to."

The numbing force of the calamity coming at this of all times fairly stupefied Bob, rendering him incapable of clear analysis or even of the suspicions his ordinary intelligence would have prompted.

"Why doesn't Snell get busy?" he inquired, blankly, at which Lilas lost her patience.

"Don't you see he's in on the graft? Snell doesn't want to pinch us. He doesn't care how Jarvis died, any more than Max or Goldberg cares. They want money, MONEY--coin! That's how things are run in this town, that's how the police are squared. If you don't come across they'll try to show that it was murder instead of self- defense. Remember it was my gun that killed--that did the work-- and it was found in Hammon's library."

Before Bob's arrival Lilas had prepared herself for this scene by a liberal dose of cocaine, but the strain of her acting had exhausted her strength; her brain was tiring. Accordingly she excused herself, and, once in her bathroom, prepared a fresh solution of the powder, leaving Bob the while to meditate upon his plight. When she returned her eyes were brighter and she had regained the mastery of her unruly nerves. Bob looked up with a drawn expression that almost moved her to pity.

"How much do they want?" he inquired, dully.

"Don't be a fool, Bob. You helped me; I won't see you gouged. No matter what you gave they'd frame you over again. We'd better face it."

"I CAN'T face it," he cried. "Alone, I would in a minute--no court in the world would hold Merkle and me for what we did--but I can't let 'em hurt my wife and my kid. Why, Lorelei would die of fright." He choked and stammered. "They want money. How much?"

"Merkle is the man they're after."

"How much?" he insisted.

"It would take a hundred thousand to square it."

Bob gasped. "This is the worst dream I ever had."

"I told you I couldn't understand their figures. But Merkle's a millionaire. If you had ten dollars you'd give one to square a copper, wouldn't you? Well, your name's Wharton, and his is Merkle. There's fifty million dollars behind those two names, and Max knows it. If I had the price I'd pay it to save you people who helped me when I needed help, but--what have I got? I told Max he could go to hell, and you'd better tell him the same thing. Now-- what do you want me to do?"

Bob's lips were white. "Stand pat and wait until I--rob a bank. I've got to buy three weeks' time, no matter what it costs."

When he had gone Lilas 'phoned first to Melcher and reported progress; then she called up Jim. The latter appeared in person that evening, and the two sat until late talking guardedly.

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CHAPTER XXVIThere was but one man to whom Bob dared appeal in this unhappy situation, and that man was John Merkle. The banker listened gravely to Bob's recital, then inquired with apparent irrelevance: "You are mighty fond of Lorelei, aren't you?" "Why, of course." Merkle nodded reflectively. "I was mistaken in you," he admitted. "I didn't think the marriage would last. I suppose you are immensely pleased with yourself--reformed character, aren't you?" His face expressed a cynical inquiry. "Pleased with myself? Not much! Lorelei reformed me. I didn't have anything to do with it." "Good! I wondered if you took all
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CHAPTER XXIVOn Tuesday afternoon a badly shaken, exceedingly frightened young man called at Campbell Pope's boarding-house. "Good Lord, Bob! Been on another bat?" cried Pope, at sight of his caller. Wharton took a fleeting glance at himself in a mirror and nodded, noting for the first time the sacks beneath his eyes, the haggard lines from nostrils to lip-corners. "I'm all in. Lorelei's quit me," he said, dully. "Quit you!" Pope frowned. "Tell me about it." "Well, I climbed the vine again and fell off. She packed up-- disappeared--been gone since Saturday night, and I can't find her. Nobody seems to
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