Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

The Cromptons, an electronic edition

by Mrs. Mary J. Holmes [Holmes, Mary Jane, 1825-1907]

date: 1902
source publisher: P. F. Collier & Son
collection: Genre Fiction

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CHAPTER XVI
THE AUCTION

"Astonishing, isn't it, where all the stuff comes from? Somebody must have given very freely. I never gave a thing except money. Bell sent a lot to be sure, and it's all sold. They had a pile from the Crompton House. They were good at begging. They didn't expect anything of you, a stranger, of course?"

"Oh, yes," Eloise replied. "I had an apron which Miss Patrick seemed to think might sell for something. It was rather pretty, and I made it myself. I haven't seen it, and think it may have been sold, or perhaps Mrs. Biggs, who had it in charge, forgot it. She has had a great deal on her mind."

Jack did not hear more than half Eloise was saying. One fact alone was clear. She had expected the apron to be there and he would look it up.

"Excuse me," he said, and going into the room where Mrs. Biggs was trying to make half a loaf of bread do duty as a whole loaf to a party just arrived, he said to her, "Pardon me, Mrs. Biggs, but did you send or bring Miss Smith's contribution to the sale? I believe it was an apron. She has not seen it."

The bread fell from Mrs. Biggs's hand to the table, and the knife followed it to the floor as she exclaimed, | | 272 "Lord of heavens! I forgot it till this minute. Where's Tim?"

She darted from the room and found Tim bringing two pails of water, "the last gol darned thing he was going to do that night," he said, as he put them down. Seizing him by the collar his mother almost shrieked, "Run home for your life, Tim!"

"Why--er,--what--er! Is our house afire?" Tim asked, and his mother replied, "No, but Miss Smith's apron is there. I clean forgot it. You'll find it in a paper box on my bed, or in my bureau, or on the closet shelf, pushed away back, or somewhere. Now clip it."

Tim started without his hat, and the last thing he heard was his mother's voice shrill as a clarion, "If you don't find the key under the mat, climb inter the but'ry winder, but don't upset the mornin's milk!"

Business was beginning to slacken and sales were few. Some of the people had gone home and others were going, and still there were quantities of goods unsold. An auction was the only alternative and Mr. Bills, who, to his office of school commissioner, added that of auctioneer, was sent for. There was no one like him in Crompton for disposing of whatever was to be disposed of, from a tin can to a stove-pipe hat. He could judge accurately the nature and disposition of his audience,--knew just what to say and when to say it, and had the faculty of making people bid whether they wanted to or not. To hear him was as good as a circus, his friends said, and when it became known that he was to auction off the goods remaining from the sale, many who had left came back, filling the rooms again nearly as full as they were early in the evening.

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Eloise's chair was moved a little more to the front,--a long counter was cleared, and on it Mr. Bills took his stand, smiling blandly upon the crowd around him and then bowing to Eloise and her escorts, Jack and Howard. He was bound to do his best before them and took up his work eagerly. He was happiest when selling clothes which he could try on, or pretend to, and after disposing of several bonnets amid roars of laughter he took up Mrs. Biggs's gown, which Ruby Ann had not been able to sell. Here was something to his mind and he held it out and up, and tried its length on himself and expatiated upon its beauty and its style and durability until he got a bid of twenty-five cents, and this from Howard, who said to Eloise, "It seems a pity not to start the old thing at something, and I suppose the Charitable Society will take it. I believe there is one in town."

Eloise did not answer. The spotted gown was an offence to her, and she shut her eyes while Mr. Bills, delighted that he had a bid at last and from such a source, began, "Thank you, sir. You know a good thing when you see it, but only twenty-five cents! A mere nothing. Somebody will give more, of course, for this fine tea gown to put on hot afternoons. Just the thing. Twenty-five cents! Twenty-five cents! Do I hear more? Twenty-five! Did you say thirty?" and he looked at Jack, who half nodded, and the bids, raised five cents at a time, rolled on between Jack and Howard and another young man, who cared nothing for the gown, but liked the fun. Fifty cents was reached at last, and there the bidding ceased and Mr. Bills was ringing the changes on half a dollar, half a dollar, for a robe de chambre;--he called it that | | 274 sometimes, and sometimes a tea gown, and once a robe de nu-it, which brought peals of laughter from those who understood the term, as he certainly did not. In the dining-room Mrs. Biggs was busy washing dishes, but kept her ears open to the sounds in the next room, knowing Mr. Bills was there and anxious to get in and see the fun. When the last shouts reached her she dropped her dish towel, saying to her companion, "I can't stand it any longer. I've got to go and see what Bills is up to!"

Elbowing her way in she caught sight of her gown held aloft by Mr. Bills, and heard his voluble "Going, going, at fifty cents."

She had thought it low at a dollar, and here it was as good as gone for fifty cents,--to whom she did not know or care,--probably the scrub woman who had looked at it earlier in the evening and offered sixty. Her blood was up, and making her way to Mr. Bills she snatched at her gown, exclaiming, "It's mine, and shall never go for fifty cents, I tell you!"

Here was a diversion, and Mr. Bills met it beautifully.

"Jess so, Miss Biggs," he said, bowing low to her. "I admire your taste and judgment. I've told 'em time and time over it was worth more than fifty. The fact is they don't know what is what, but you and I do. Shall we double right up and shame 'em by sayin' a dollar? A dollar! A dollar! and going!"

Mrs. Biggs did not know that she assented, she was so excited, and afterwards declared she didn't; but the final Going was said, with "Gone! to Mrs. Biggs, for one dollar. Cheap at that!"

At this juncture, when the hilarity was at its height and Mrs. Biggs was marching off with her property, | | 275 which she said she should never pay for, Tim appeared, hatless and coatless, but with the box in his hand. When Jack locked the door he pushed the key further under the mat than was usual, and failing to find it at once, and being in a hurry, Tim made his entrance into the house through the pantry window, upsetting the pan of milk and a bowl of something, he did not stop to see what, in his haste to find the box. It was not on the bed, nor on the bureau, nor pushed back on a shelf in the closet. It was on a chair near the door where his mother had put it and then forgotten it. As the key was outside Tim made his exit the way he came in, stopping a moment to look at the milk the cat was lapping with a great deal of satisfaction.

"Bobbs, you'll have a good supper, and I shall catch old hundred for giving it to you," he said, picking up the pan and springing through the window.

He was very warm, and taking off his coat he threw it across his arm and started rapidly for the sale, knowing before he reached it that Mr. Bills was there by the sounds he heard. He had no thought that the apron was not to be sold at auction. Probably that was why it was wanted, and pushing through the crowd to Mr. Bills he handed him the box, saying, "Here 'tis. I 'bout run my legs off to get it. Make 'em pay smart."

"Mr. Bills! Mr. Bills!" came excitedly from Ruby Ann, but Mr. Bills did not hear, the buzz of voices was so great.

He had opened the box and taken out the apron, which he handled far more carefully than he had the spotted gown.

"Now this is something like first-class business," | | 276 he said, holding it up. "The prettiest thing you ever saw,-a girl's apron, all ruffled and prinked, and, -yes,--made by--"

He had glanced at the card, which said it was made by Miss Smith, and was about to announce that fact, feeling sure it would bring bidders, when he chanced to look at Eloise, whose face was nearly as white as the apron, and in whose eyes he saw an expression which checked the words. But he had no idea of relinquishing the article, and misunderstood the motion of Jack's hand to stop him.

"Now, give me an offer," he began,--"a first-rate one, too; none of your quarters, nor halves. Bid high and show you know something. 'Tain't every day you have a chance to buy as fine a thing as this. You who have wives, or daughters, or sisters, or sweethearts, or want it for yourselves, speak up! Walk up! Roll up! Tumble up! Any way to get up, only come up and bid!"

He was looking at Jack, whose face was as red as Eloise's was pale.

"If the thing must be sold at auction it shall bring a good price, and I'll get it, too," he thought.

Standing close to him was Tom Walker, who all the evening had hovered near Eloise.

"Tom," Jack said. "I have a sister, you know." Tom didn't know, but he nodded, and Jack went on: "That apron is the only thing I've seen that I really want for her. I am not worth a cent to bid. Will you do it for me?"

Tom nodded again, and Jack continued, "Well, start pretty high. Keep your eyes on me. and when I look at you raise the bid if there is any against you. Understand?"

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"Yes, sir," Tom answered, understanding more than Jack thought he did.

He guessed whose apron it was and did not believe much in the sister, but he had his instructions and waited for the signal. Howard had watched the sale of the spotted gown with a great deal of amusement, but was beginning to feel tired with standing so long, and was wondering when Jack proposed taking Eloise home. That he would go with them was a matter of course, and he was about to speak to Jack when Tim came in and the apron sale began. He had no idea whose it was until he saw the halt in Mr. Bills's manner, and looked at Eloise. Then he knew, and knew, too, that nothing could get Jack away till the apron was disposed of. That Jack would buy it he did not for a moment dream, for what could he do with it?" But yes, he is going to buy it," he thought, as he heard Jack's instructions to Tom, "and I mean to have some fun with him, and run that apron up."

Close to him was Tim, and the sight of him put an idea into Howard's mind. It would be jolly for Tom and Tim to bid against each other, while he and Jack backed them.

"Tim," he said, laying his hand on the boy's arm, "I am going to buy that apron for Mrs. Amy, and I want you to bid for me against Tom Walker and everybody. I have no idea what it is worth, but when I squeeze your arm so, bid higher!"

He gave Tim's arm a clutch so tight that the boy started away from him, saying, "Great Peter, don't pinch like that! You hurt! 'cause I'm in my shirt sleeves."

"All right. I'll be more careful," Howard said. "Now begin, before Tom has time to open the ball."

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"Yes, but--er, what--er shall I bid?" Tim stammered.

"How do I know? It's Miss Smith's, and on that account valuable. Go in with a dollar."

All this time Mr. Bills had been talking himself hoarse over the merits of the apron, while his audience were watching Howard and Jack, with a feeling of certainty that they were intending to bid, but they were not prepared for Tim's one dollar, which startled every one and none more so than his mother, who, having rolled up her spotted gown "in a wopse," as she said, and put it with her dish pan and towels, had come back in time to hear Tim's astonishing bid. She could not see him for the crowd in front of her, but she could make him hear, and her voice was shrill and decided as she called out, "Timothy Biggs! Be you crazy? and where are you to get your dollar, I'd like to know!"

"Tell mother to mind her business! I know what I'm about!" Tim said to some one near him, while Mr. Bills rang the changes on that dollar with astonishing volubility, and Tom kept his eyes on Jack for a signal to raise.

Jack was taken by surprise, but readily understood that it was Howard against whom he had to contend and not Tim.

"All right, old chap," he whispered, then looked full at Tom, who, eager as a young race horse, shouted a dollar and a half!

"All right," Jack said again, and turned to Eloise on whose face there was now some color, as she began to share in the general excitement pervading the room and finding vent in laughter and cheers when Tom's bid was raised to two dollars by Tim, and two | | 279 and a quarter was as quickly shrieked by. Tom. Everybody now understood the contest and watched it breathlessly, a great roar going up when Tim lost his head and mistaking a slight movement of Howard's hand on his arm, raised his own bid from three dollars to three and a half!

"That's right," Mr. Bills said; "you know a thing or two. We are getting well under way. Never enjoyed myself so well in my life. Three and a half! three and a half! Who says four?"

"I do," Tom yelled, his yell nearly drowned by the cheers of the spectators, some of whom climbed on chairs and tables to look at Tom and Tim standing, one next to Howard and the other next to Jack, with Eloise the central figure, her ermine cape thrown back, and drops of sweat upon her forehead and around her mouth.

She almost felt as if it were herself Howard and Jack were contending for instead of her apron, which Mr. Bills was waving in the air like a flag, with a feeling that he had nearly exhausted his vocabulary and didn't know what next to say. Four dollars was a great deal for an apron, he knew, but he kept on ringing the changes on the four dollars,--a measly price for so fine an article, and for so good a cause as a Public Library. And while he talked and repeated his going, going, faster and faster, Tim stood like a hound in a leash fretting for a sign to raise.

"You ain't goin' to be beat by Tom Walker, be you?" he said, in a whisper to Howard, who gave him a little squeeze, with the words "Go easy," spoken so low that Tim did not hear them, and at once raised the four dollars to four and a half, while quick as lightning Tom responded with five dollars.

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Jack hadn't really looked at him, but it did not matter. He was going to have the apron, and turning to Howard he said, "I don't know how long you mean to keep this thing up. I am prepared to go on all night."

Howard felt sure he was and decided to stop, and his hand dropped from Tim's shoulder quite to the disgust of that young man, who said, "You goin' to let 'em lick us?"

"I think I'll have to," Howard replied, while "Five dollars, and going!" filled the room until the final "Gone!" was spoken, and the people gave gasps of relief that it was over.

"Sold for five dollars to Thomas Walker, who will please walk up to the captain's office and pay," Mr. Bills said, handing the apron to Tom, who held it awkwardly, as if afraid of harming it.

"I guess it's yourn," he said, giving it to Jack, who knew as little what to do with it as Tom.

Ruby came to his aid and took it from him. She had watched the performance with a great deal of interest, comprehending it perfectly and feeling in a way sorry for Eloise, whose lips quivered a little when she went up to her, and bending over her said, "You should feel complimented, but I'm afraid you are very tired."

"Yes, very tired and warm. I want to get into the fresh air," Eloise said, shivering as if she were cold instead of warm.

Jack had gone to the cashier's desk to pay for the apron, and Tom undertook the task of getting the wheel chair through the crowd, running against the people promiscuously, if they impeded his progress, and caring little whom he hit if he got Eloise safely | | 281 outside the door. The night was at its best, almost as light as day, as they emerged from the hot, close room, and Eloise drew long breaths of the cool air which blew up from the sea, the sound of whose waves beating upon the shore could be heard even above the din of voices inside the building. The auction was still going on, and Mr. Bills was doing his best, but the interest flagged with the sale of the apron and the breaking up of the group which had attracted so much attention. Even Mrs. Biggs's grandmother's brass kettle, on which so many hopes were built, failed to create more than a ripple, as Mr. Bills rang changes upon it both with tongue and knuckles, and when his most eloquent appeals could not raise a higher bid than ten cents, it was withdrawn by the disgusted widow, who put it aside with her dish pan and towels and gown, and then went to find Tim to take them home.

Howard had been called by Ruby into the room where Amy's dresses were lying in the boxes just as they came, and asked what they were to do with them.

"We could not offer them for sale, and she does not want them back," she said.

"Send them to the Colonel. She'll never know it, and the chance is will never think of them again," Howard said, and then hurried outside to where Eloise was still waiting and talking to Tom.

"That apron went first rate," he said. "You must have felt glad they thought so much of you, 'cause 'twas you and not the apron, though that was pretty enough."

"Oh!" Eloise replied, drawing her ermine cape around her shoulders, "I don't know whether I was | | 282 glad or not. I felt as if I were being sold to the highest bidder."

"That's so," Tom said. "It was something like it. Ain't you glad 'twas Mr. Harcourt bought you instead of t'other?"

Eloise laughed as she replied, "Why, Thomas, it was you who bought me! Have you forgotten?"

She seemed so much in earnest that for a moment Tom thought she was, and said, "You ain't so green as not to know that 'twas Mr. Harcourt eggin' me on,--winkin' to me when to raise, and tellin' me to go high! You are his'n, and I'm glad on't! I like him better than t'other; ain't so big feelin'. Here they come, both on 'em."

Howard had finished his business with Ruby Ann, and Jack had paid his five dollars and received the apron, slightly mussed, but looking fairly well in the box in which they put it. A good many people were leaving the rooms again, and among them Tim, laden with his mother's dish pan and towels, and dress and brass kettle, and one or two articles which she had bought.

"Hallo, Tim! You look some like a pack horse," Tom said, but Tim did not answer.

He was very tired, for with so many calling upon him through the day and evening; he had run miles and received only seventy cents for it. He was chagrined that he had raised his own bid, and wondered Tom did not chaff him. It would come in time, he knew, and he felt angry at Tom, and angry with the brass kettle and dish pan and dress which kept him from wheeling Eloise instead of Tom, who, when they finally started, took his place behind the chair as a matter of course, while Howard and Jack walked | | 283 on either side. It was a splendid night, and when Mrs. Biggs's house was reached Howard and Jack would gladly have lingered outside talking to Eloise, if they could have disposed of the boys. But the boys were not inclined to be disposed of. Tom had become somebody in his own estimation, and intended to stay as long as the young men did, while Tim, having found the key, this time instead of entering by the pantry window, unlocked the door, deposited his goods, and then came back, saying to Eloise with a good deal of dignity for him, "Shall I take you in?"

"Yes, please. I think it's time," she said, and Howard and Jack knew they were dismissed. "Thank you all so much for everything," she continued, giving her hand to each of them in turn, and pressing Tom's a little in token of the good feeling she felt sure was established between them.

It was not long before Mrs. Biggs came home, rather crestfallen that her spotted gown and brass kettle had not been more popular, but jubilant over the sale, the proceeds of which, so far as known when she left, were over two hundred and fifty dollars.

"Never was anything like it before in Crompton," she said, as she helped Eloise to her bed lounge. "That apron sale beat all. Them young men didn't care for the apron, of course, except that it was yours, and what Mr. Harcourt will do with it I don't know. Said he was goin' to send it to his sister. Maybe he is. He paid enough for it. Five dollars! I was in hopes they'd run it up to ten! and I was sorry when 'twas over. Mr. Bills kinder wilted after you all went out, and the whole thing flatted. Well, good-night! You was the star! the synacure,--is that the word?--of all eyes, and looked awful pretty in that | | 284 white cape. I see you've got Tom Walker, body and soul, but my land! you'd get anybody! Good-night, again."

She was gone at last, and Eloise was glad to lay her tired head upon her pillow, falling asleep nearly as soon as she touched it, but dreaming of the Rummage Sale and that she was being auctioned off instead of her apron. It was a kind of nightmare, and her heart beat fast as the bids came rapidly,--sometimes on Howard's side and sometimes on Jack's. She called him Jack in her dreams, and finally awoke with a start, saying aloud, "I am glad it was Jack who bought me!"

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