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AT AN AUCTION “KNOCK-OUT.”
In the placard that announced the coming sale, “twelve for one o'clock” was the time mentioned for the auctioneer to mount his rostrum; and as early as half-past eleven, the bar of the public-house nearest to the unfortunate dwelling doomed to be sacked was crowded with a choice company of that peculiar class of persons who make a living—and not at all a bad one—by “ attending at sales.”
So they themselves modestly describe their avocation, should a stranger venture to make enquiry; but amongst themselves they are "skinners," "knock-outs,” and "odd-trick men,” and they work together in what the elegant language of the profession calls a “swim.” At a glance, however, it was evident that the element in which the knock-outs commonly "swam” was not water. Men, as well as women, looked as though they had recently taken a dry bath in the dust of old carpets, and given themselves a polish with an unclean duster. An unsavoury, shabby lot, attired for the most part in suits which an old-clothesman would not have purchased at the rate of half-a-crown a suit, and wearing hats so battered and greasy that the same enterprising individual would not have picked them off a dunghill; yet there they were, having half-an-hour to spare and a little preliminary business to arrange, indulging in sixpen'orths of hot brandy and water and in glasses of the best ale, with an ease and prodigality that bespoke the prosperity of the business in which they were engaged.
Evidently, however, it was not a business the nature of which might be openly discussed. There was one gentleman with a nose of the vulture pattern, and who was chiefly remarkable for the dirtiness of the enormous ears that stood out from his head, so that they looked more like ugly rosettes to the brim of his greasy old hat than natural appendages; this was the captain.
There was nothing in his appearance to mark him as a man of wealth, but the respectful demeanour of those about him proclaimed him unmistakably their chief. Every member of the unclean “swim” held in his hand a catalogue of the “furniture and general household effects” that were presently to be brought under the hammer, and every man and woman there licked the tip of his or her black-lead pencil as they all listened to the whispered instructions of the gentleman with the enormous ears, in order to make an unmistakable note against the printed item under discussion.
The males of the swim addressed this important personage as Ben ; but the women, with an eye to ulterior business, did violence to the natural expression of their faces in a desperate effort to appear amiable, and, in accents bold or wheedling, called him “Benny ;” while the wofully-shabby few who were not of the elect, but humbly “hung on," swigged pots of fourpenny as they kept a respectable distance from the initiated, and looked their admiration and wriggled their bodies devotedly towards him as they politely blew off the froth of the pot replenished, and drank “Your 'ealth, Mister Benjamin!” A wary old swimmer was Benjamin! He had explored the upper chambers of the house doomed to demolition under the hammer of the auctioneer, "in consequence of the death of the late proprietor;" he had dived down into the lower regions, and overhauled
the cutlery, and the plated goods, and the “small but choice stock of wine" in the cellar; and he had weighed and estimated the exact market value of every item that the dwelling contained, from the warming-pan hanging against the kitchen wall to the elegant fullcompass walnut pianoforte in the drawing-room.
I may as well here explain that I was no mere eavesdropper at this select assemblage. With the connivance of a traitor in the knock-out camp, I too was in the swim, and at perfect liberty to make notes on the margin of my catalogue in cypher all the time that I was supposed to be “ticking off” the bed and bedding in the second floor front, and the fender and fire-irons in the parlour. As one o'clock drew near we marched to the house round the corner, where two lengths of shabby stair-carpet were feebly fluttering from the upper windows.
The sale was to take place in the parlour, and the trestles of the ironing-board from below, as well as the kitchen-table, had been utilised in making a sort of platform, at one end of which the auctioneer's rostrum was perched. There was a tolerable sprinkling of intending purchasers of respectable appearance already assembled, but the “swim” knew its business too well to feel the least disconcerted at that fact. Mr Benjamin was a wary General; at one keen glance (after friendly nods of recognition with the auctioneer) he read the exact position of affairs, and proceeded to take measures accordingly. Grouped together were six or eight welldressed persons, including three ladies, and they were earnestly discussing certain lots that they were bent on securing. “We can do without that there lot,” growled Mr Benjamin in an under-tone, as he indicated the “lot" in question with a backward jerk of his dirty thumb.
The hint was sufficient. Before twenty might be counted, half-a-dozen fish of the “swim " had worked their way where the respectable group was standing, and quite surrounded it. Simultaneously half-a-dozen limp and unclean cards were produced from as many waistcoat pockets, and pressed on the acceptance of the respectable folk. “Anythink you wants we'll buy for you, mum. We're the trade—the brokers, don't you know. Five per cent. is our commission.”
“Thank you, we can buy for ourselves if we feel inclined.”
"Oh! well, don't you make any mistake. We wants everythink here; we're the trade, don't you know, and if you are a lady you won't run your head agin the trade. You'd better tell us what you wants."
The respectable “lot” remaining obdurate, however, a change of tactics was at once resorted to. Each unshaven shabby blackguard of the gang at once exerted all his cowardly ingenuity towards making himself as disgustingly annoying as possible. Every one knows how powerless decent people are in the hands of an equal number of roughs at close quarters. The accidental brushing off of hats, the elbowing and treading on toes, the sofa pillow that is thrown by Brown over to Jones and falls short and strikes a lady in the face, the stable-yard “chaff,” the practical joke, the coarse and brutal conversation shaped and aimed with a purpose. Mr Benjamin's gang was eminently successful. Before a dozen lots were disposed of, the party specially attacked had made its escape, while others of a like class, who had attended the sale prepared to pay for such of the widow's goods the best they would realise, shrank from competing with the blackguardly fellows and remained silent and amazed spectators.
Had I not been previously aware that such scenes are almost invariable at small-house furniture auctions, I should have found it difficult to believe the evidence of my eyes and ears on the present occasion. Literally no one had a chance of bidding for anything but the "skinners” and the “odd-trick men;" and if they did so, they were made to suffer. In the slang of the clique, they were “run up till they were out of breath.”
The “running-up” process is simple and peculiarly effective. An innocent individual having a fancy for an article—a picture, say—bids for it, and has previously fixed the sum he will give at a couple of guineas, which is the picture's full value. The clique want the picture, and bid in the most spirited manner against him, capping his extreme bid with a further one to the extent of half-a-crown, and so raising the mettle of the innocent bidder that, not to be outdone, and to settle the matter at once, he calls, “Two, seven and six.” “Two ten," exclaims one of Mr. Benjamin's men. And a very good thing, too, the reader may say. If people will be obstinate and wrong-headed they should pay for it; and since the widow in whose behalf the goods are sold gets the benefit, there is no harm done. But the reader has not yet heard the finish of that spirited bidding for the picture. “Two ten !" cries a knock-out. “Two twelve six !” exclaims the weak-minded, though rash Briton. “Three pound !” and an audible giggle amongst the skinners and odd-trick men. “Going for three pounds !” and down falls the hammer. “For you, Mr Davis,” says the auctioneer. “Me! Lor' bless yer, me bid three pounds for a daub like that! Ho! ho! that's good;" and he appeals to his confederate skinners, while they as one man swear that Mr Davis has not once opened his mouth. “It was that ginelman over