Turning to the left from the head of the wharf, they walked quickly through the narrow streets until they came to a square, on one corner of which quite a crowd of people were collected. They were all listening attentively to a little man with a big voice, who stood on a box in front of them and who was saying as fast as he could,
“Forty, forty, forty. Shall I have the five? Yes, sir; thank you. Forty-five, five, five—who says fifty? Fifty, fifty, forty-five— going, going, gone! and sold at forty-five to Mr.—Beg pardon; the name, sir? Of course, certainly! And now comes the finest lot of oranges ever offered for sale in Key West. What am I bid per hundred for them? Who makes me an offer? I am a perfect Job for patience, gentlemen, and willing to wait all day, if necessary, to hear what you have to say.”
Of course he was an auctioneer, and this was the regular fruit auction that is held on this same corner every morning of the year. Many other things besides fruit are sold at these auctions; in fact, almost everything in Key West is bought or sold at auction; certainly all fruit is. For an hour before the time set for the auction a man goes through the streets ringing a bell and announcing what is to be sold. This morning he had announced a fine lot of oranges, among other things, and as Mrs. Elmer was anxious to get some, she had sent Mark and Ruth to attend the auction, with a commission to buy a hundred if the bids did not run too high.
The children had already attended several auctions as spectators, and Mark knew enough not to bid on the first lot offered. He waited until somebody who knew more about the value of oranges than he should fix the price. He and Ruth pushed their way as close as possible to the auctioneer, and watched him attentively.
“Come, gentlemen,” said the little man, “give me a starter. What am I to have for the first lot of these prime oranges?”
“Two dollars!” called a voice from the crowd.
“Two,” cried the auctioneer. “Two, two, two and a half. Who says three? Shall I hear it? And three. Who bids three? That’s right. Do I hear the quarter? They are well worth it, gentlemen. Will no one give me the quarter? Well, time is money, and tempus fugit. Going at three—at three; going, going, and sold at three dollars.”
Several more lots sold so rapidly at three dollars that Mark had no opportunity of making himself heard or of catching the auctioneer’s eye, until, finally, in a sort of despair he called out “Quarter,” just as another lot was about to be knocked down to a dealer at three dollars.
“Ah!” said the auctioneer, “that is something like. It takes a gentleman from the North to appreciate oranges at their true value. A quarter is bid. Shall I have a half? Do I hear it? Half, half, half; and sold at three dollars and a quarter to Mr.—–what name, please? Elder. Oh yes; good old name, and one you can live up to more and more every day of your life. John, pick out a hundred of the best for Mr. Elder.”