The Auction by Stephen Crane
Some said that Ferguson gave up sailoring because he was tired of the
sea. Some said that it was because he loved a woman. In truth it was
because he was tired of the sea and because he loved a woman.
He saw the woman once, and immediately she became for him the symbol
of all things unconnected with the sea. He did not trouble to look
again at the grey old goddess, the muttering slave of the moon. Her
splendours, her treacheries, her smiles, her rages, her vanities, were
no longer on his mind. He took heels after a little human being, and
the woman made his thought spin at all times like a top; whereas the
ocean had only made him think when he was on watch.
He developed a grin for the power of the sea, and, in derision, he
wanted to sell the red and green parrot which had sailed four voyages
with him. The woman, however, had a sentiment concerning the bird's
plumage, and she commanded Ferguson to keep it in order, as it
happened, that she might forget to put food in its cage.
The parrot did not attend the wedding. It stayed at home and
blasphemed at a stock of furniture, bought on the installment plan, and
arrayed for the reception of the bride and groom.
As a sailor, Ferguson had suffered the acute hankering for port; and
being now always in port, he tried to force life to become an endless
picnic. He was not an example of diligent and peaceful citizenship.
Ablution became difficult in the little apartment, because Ferguson
kept the wash-basin filled with ice and bottles of beer: and so,
finally, the dealer in second-hand furniture agreed to auction the
household goods on commission. Owing to an exceedingly liberal
definition of a term, the parrot and cage were included. "On the
level?" cried the parrot, "On the level? On the level? On the level?"
On the way to the sale, Ferguson's wife spoke hopefully. "You can't
tell, Jim," she said. "Perhaps some of 'em will get to biddin', and we
might get almost as much as we paid for the things."
The auction room was in a cellar. It was crowded with people and with
house furniture; so that as the auctioneer's assistant moved from one
piece to another he caused a great shuffling. There was an astounding
number of old women in curious bonnets. The rickety stairway was
thronged with men who wished to smoke and be free from the old women.
Two lamps made all the faces appear yellow as parchment. Incidentally
they could impart a lustre of value to very poor furniture.
The auctioneer was a fat, shrewd-looking individual, who seemed also to
be a great bully. The assistant was the most imperturbable of beings,
the dignity of an image on rollers. As the Fergusons
forced their way down the stair-way, the assistant roared: "Number
"Number twenty-one!" cried the auctioneer. "Number twenty-one! A fine
new handsome bureau! Two dollars? Two dollars is bid! Two and a half!
Two and a half! Three? Three is bid. Four! Four dollars! A fine new
handsome bureau at four dollars! Four dollars! Four dollars! F-o-u-r
d-o-l-l-a-r-s! Sold at four dollars."
"On the level?" cried the parrot, muffled somewhere among furniture and
carpets. "On the level? On the level?" Every one tittered.
Mrs. Ferguson had turned pale, and gripped her husband's arm. "Jim! Did
you hear? The bureau—four dollars—"
Ferguson glowered at her with the swift brutality of a man afraid of a
scene. "Shut up, can't you!"
Mrs. Ferguson took a seat upon the steps; and hidden there by the thick
ranks of men, she began to softly sob. Through her tears appeared
the yellowish mist of the lamplight, streaming about the monstrous
shadows of the spectators. From time to time these latter whispered
eagerly: "See, that went cheap!" In fact when anything was bought at a
particularly low price, a murmur of admiration arose for the successful
The bedstead was sold for two dollars, the mattresses and springs
for one dollar and sixty cents. This figure seemed to go through the
woman's heart. There was derision in the sound of it. She bowed her
head in her hands. "Oh, God, a dollar-sixty! Oh, God, a dollar-sixty!"
The parrot was evidently under heaps of carpet, but the dauntless bird
still raised the cry, "On the level?"
Some of the men near Mrs. Ferguson moved timidly away upon hearing her
low sobs. They perfectly understood that a woman in tears is formidable.
The shrill voice went like a hammer, beat and beat, upon the woman's
heart. An odour of varnish, of the dust of old carpets, assailed her
and seemed to possess a sinister meaning. The golden haze from the two
lamps was an atmosphere of shame, sorrow, greed. But it was when the
parrot called that a terror of the place and of the eyes of the people
arose in her so strongly that she could not have lifted her head any
more than if her neck had been of iron.
At last came the parrot's turn. The assistant fumbled until he found
the ring of the cage, and the bird was drawn into view. It adjusted its
feathers calmly and cast a rolling wicked eye over the crowd.
"Oh, the good ship Sarah sailed the seas,
And the wind it blew all day—"
This was the part of a ballad which Ferguson had tried to teach it.
With a singular audacity and scorn, the parrot bawled these lines at
the auctioneer as if it considered them to bear some particular insult.
The throng in the cellar burst into laughter. The auctioneer attempted
to start the bidding, and theparrot interrupted with a repetition
of the lines. It swaggered to and fro on its perch, and gazed at the
faces of the crowd, with so much rowdy understanding and derision that
even the auctioneer could not confront it. The auction was brought to a
halt; a wild hilarity developed, and every one gave jeering advice.
Ferguson looked down at his wife and groaned. She had cowered against
the wall, hiding her face. He touched her shoulder and she arose. They
sneaked softly up the stairs with heads bowed.
Out in the street, Ferguson gripped his fists and said: "Oh, but
wouldn't I like to strangle it!"
His wife cried in a voice of wild grief: "It—it m—made us a
laughing-stock in—in front of all that crowd!"
For the auctioning of their household goods, the sale of their
home—this financial calamity lost its power in the presence of the
social shame contained in a crowd's laughter.