The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
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Mr. Alfred Burton, although he was blissfully and completely ignorant of the fact, stood at the door of Fate. He was a little out of breath and his silk hat was reclining at the back of his head. In his mouth was a large cigar which he felt certain was going to disagree with him, but he smoked it because it had been presented to him a few minutes ago by the client upon whom he was in attendance. He had rather deep-set blue eyes, which might have been attractive but for a certain keenness in their outlook, which was in a sense indicative of the methods and character of the young man himself; a pale, characterless face, a straggling, sandy moustache, and an earnest, not to say convincing, manner. He was dressed in such garments as the head-clerk of Messrs. Waddington & Forbes, third-rate auctioneers and house agents, might have been expected to select. He dangled a bunch of keys in his hand.

"If this house don't suit you, sir," he declared, confidently, "why, there isn't one in the whole west-end that will. That's my opinion, anyway. There's nothing in our books to compare with it for value and accommodation. We nearly let it last week to Lord Leconside, but Her Ladyship—she came round with me herself—decided that it was just a trifle too large. As a matter of fact, sir," this energetic young man went on, confidentially, "the governor insisted upon a deposit and it didn't seem to be exactly convenient. It isn't always these people with titles who've got the money. That we find out in our business, sir, as quickly as anybody. As for the steam heating you were talking about, Mr. Lynn, why, that's all very well for New York," he continued, persuasively, "but over here the climate doesn't call for it—you can take it from me that it doesn't, indeed, Mr. Lynn. I have the letting in my hands of as many houses as most people, and you can take it from me, sir, as the direct result of my experience, that over here they won't have it—won't have it at any price, sir. Most unhealthy we find it, and always produces a rare crop of colds and coughs unknown to those that are used to an honest coal fire. It's all a matter of climate, sir, after all, isn't it?"

The young man paused to take breath. His client, who had been listening attentively in gloomy but not unappreciative silence, removed his cigar from his mouth. He was a middle-aged American with a wife and daughters on their way over from New York, and his business was to take a house before they arrived. It wasn't a job he liked, but he was making the best of it. This young man appealed to his sense of business.

"Say," he remarked, approvingly, "you've learned how to talk in your trade!"

Stimulated by this encouragement, Alfred Burton clapped on his hat a little more securely, took a long breath, and went at it again.

"Why, I'm giving myself a rest this morning, sir!" he declared. "I haven't troubled to tell you more than the bare facts. This house doesn't need any talking about—doesn't need a word said about it. Her Ladyship's last words to us were—Lady Idlemay, you know, the owner of the house—'Mr. Waddington and Mr. Burton,' she said—she was speaking to us both, for the governor always introduces me to clients as being the one who does most of the letting,—'Mr. Waddington and Mr. Burton,' she said, 'if a tenant comes along whom you think I'd like to have living in my rooms and using my furniture, breathing my air, so to speak, why, go ahead and let the house, rents being shockingly low just now, with agricultural depression and what not, but sooner than not let it to gentlepeople, I'll do without the money,' Her Ladyship declared. Now you're just the sort of tenant she'd like to have here. I'm quite sure of that, Mr. Lynn. I should take a pleasure in bringing you two together."

Mr. Lynn grunted. He was perfectly well aware that the house would seem more desirable to his wife and daughters from the very fact that it belonged to a "Lady" anybody. He was perfectly well aware, also, that his companion had suspected this. The consideration of these facts left him, however, unaffected. He was disposed, if anything, to admire the cleverness of the young man who had realized an outside asset.

"Well, I've seen pretty well all over it," he remarked. "I'll go back to the office with you, anyhow, and have a word with Mr. Waddington. By the way, what's that room behind you?"

The young man glanced carelessly around at the door of the room of Fate and down at the bunch of keys which he held in his hand. He even chuckled as he replied.

"I was going to mention the matter of that room, sir," he replied, "because, if perfectly agreeable to the tenant, Her Ladyship would like to keep it locked up."

"Locked up?" Mr. Lynn repeated. "And why?"

"Regular queer story, sir," the young man declared, confidentially. "The late Earl was a great traveller in the East, as you may have heard, and he was always poking about in some ruined city or other in the desert, and picking up things and making discoveries. Well, last time he came home from abroad, he brought with him an old Egyptian or Arab,—I don't know which he was, but he was brown,—settled him down in this room—in his own house, mind—and wouldn't have him disturbed or interfered with, not at any price. Well, the old chap worked here night and day at some sort of writing, and then, naturally enough, what with not having the sort of grub he liked, and never going outside the doors, he croaked."

"He what?" Mr. Lynn interposed.

"He died," the young man explained. "It was just about the time that the Earl was ill himself. His Lordship gave orders that the body was to be buried and the room locked up, in case the old chap's heirs should come along. Seems he'd brought a few odd things of his own over—nothing whatever of any value. Anyway, those were Lord Idlemay's wishes, and the room has been locked up ever since."

Mr. Lynn was interested.

"No objection to our just looking inside, I suppose?"

"None whatever," the young man declared, promptly. "I was going to have a peep myself. Here goes!"

He fitted the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Mr. Lynn took one step forward and drew back hurriedly.

"Thanks!" he said. "That'll do! I've seen all I want—and smelt!"

Mr. Alfred Burton, fortunately or unfortunately, was possessed of less sensitive nasal organs and an indomitable curiosity. The room was dark and stuffy, and a wave of pungent odor swept out upon them with the opening of the door. Nevertheless, he did not immediately close it.

"One moment!" he muttered, peering inside. "I'll just look around and see that everything is in order."

He crossed the threshold and passed into the room. It was certainly a curious apartment. The walls were hung not with paper at all, but with rugs of some Oriental material which had the effect of still further increasing the gloom. There were neither chairs nor tables—no furniture at all, in fact, of any account but in the furthest corner was a great pile of cushions, and on the floor by the side a plain strip of sandalwood, covered with a purple cloth, on which were several square-shaped sheets of paper, a brass inkstand, and a bundle of quill pens. On the extreme corner of this strip of wood, which seemed to have been used as a writing desk by some one reclining upon the cushions, was the strangest article of all. Alfred Burton stared at it with wide-open eyes. It was a tiny plant growing out of a small-sized flower-pot, with real green leaves and a cluster of queer little brown fruit hanging down from among them.

"Jiminy!" the clerk exclaimed. "I say, Mr. Lynn, sir!"

But Mr. Lynn had gone off to pace the dining-room once more. Burton moved slowly forward and stooped down over the cushions. He took up the sheets of paper which lay upon the slab of sandalwood. They were covered with wholly indecipherable characters save for the last page only, and there, even as he stood with it in his fingers, he saw, underneath the concluding paragraph of those unintelligible hieroglyphics, a few words of faintly traced English, laboriously printed, probably a translation. He struck a match and read them slowly out to himself:

"It is finished. The nineteenth generation has triumphed. He who shall eat of the brown fruit of this tree shall see the things of Life and Death as they are. He who shall eat—" The translation concluded abruptly. Mr. Alfred Burton removed his silk hat and reflectively scratched his head.

"Queer sort of joker he must have been," he remarked to himself. "I wonder what he was getting at?"

His eyes fell upon the little tree. He felt the earth in the pot it was quite dry. Yet the tree itself was fresh and green.

"Here goes for a brown bean," he continued, and plucked one.

Even then, while he held it in his fingers, he hesitated.

"Don't suppose it will do me any harm," he muttered, doubtfully.

There was naturally no reply. Mr. Alfred Burton laughed uneasily to himself. The shadows of the room and its curious perfume were a trifle disconcerting.

"Risk it, anyway," he concluded. "Here goes!" He raised the little brown fruit—which did indeed somewhat resemble a bean—to his mouth and swallowed it. He found it quite tasteless, but the deed was no sooner done than he was startled by a curious buzzing in his ears and a momentary but peculiar lapse of memory. He sat and looked around him like a man who has been asleep and suddenly awakened in unfamiliar surroundings. Then the sound of his client's voice suddenly recalled him to himself. He started up and peered through the gloom.

"Who's there?" he asked, sharply.

"Say, young man, I am waiting for you when you're quite ready," Mr. Lynn remarked from the threshold. "Queer sort of atmosphere in there, isn't it?"

Mr. Alfred Burton came slowly out and locked the door of the room. Even then he was dimly conscious that something had happened to him. He hated the musty odor of the place, the dusty, unswept hall, and the general air of desertion. He wanted to get out into the street and he hurried his client toward the front door. As soon as he had locked up, he breathed a little sigh of relief.

"What a delicious soft wind!" he exclaimed, removing his unsightly hat. "Really, I think that when we get a sunny day like this, April is almost our most beautiful month."

Mr. Lynn stared at his companion, who was now slowly descending the steps.

"Say, about this house," he began, "I guess I'd better take it. It may not be exactly what I want but it seems to me to be about as near as anything I am likely to find. We'll go round to the office right away and fix things up."

Mr. Alfred Burton shook his head doubtfully.

"I don't think I would take it, if I were you, Mr. Lynn," he said.

Mr. Lynn stopped short upon the pavement and looked at his companion in amazement. The latter had the air of one very little interested in the subject of conversation. He was watching approvingly a barrowful of lilac and other spring flowers being wheeled along by a flower-seller in the middle of the road.

"What an exquisite perfume!" the young man murmured, enthusiastically. "Doesn't it remind you, Mr. Lynn, of a beautiful garden somewhere right away in the country—one of those old-fashioned gardens, you know, with narrow paths where you have to push your way through the flowers, and where there are always great beds of pink and white stocks near the box edges? And do you notice—an accident, of course—but what a delicate blend of color the lilac and those yellow jonquils make!"

"I can't smell anything," the American declared, a little impatiently, "and I don't know as I want to just now. I am here to talk business, if you don't mind."

"In one moment," Burton replied. "Excuse me for one moment, if you please."

He hastened across the street and returned a moment or two later with a bunch of violets in his hand. Mr. Lynn watched him, partly in amazement, partly in disapproval. There seemed to be very little left of the smart, businesslike young man whose methods, only a short time ago, had commanded his unwilling admiration. Mr. Alfred Burton's expression had undergone a complete change. His eyes had lost their calculating twinkle, his mouth had softened. A pleasant but somewhat abstracted smile had taken the place of his forced amiability.

"You will forgive me, won't you?" he said, as he regained the pavement. "I really haven't smelt violets before this year. Spring comes upon us Londoners so suddenly."

"About that house, now," the American insisted, a little sharply.

"Certainly," Burton replied, removing his eyes unwillingly from the passing barrow. "I really don't think you had better take it, Mr. Lynn. You see, it is not generally known, but there is no doubt that Lord Idlemay had typhoid fever there."

"Typhoid!" Mr. Lynn exclaimed, incredulously.

His companion nodded.

"Two of the servants were down with it as well," he continued. "We implored Lady Idlemay, when she offered us the letting of the house, to have the drains put in thorough order, but when we got the estimate out for her she absolutely declined. To tell you the truth, the best agents had all refused, under the circumstances, to have the house upon their books at all. That is why we got the letting of it."

Mr. Lynn removed the cigar from his mouth for a moment. There was a slight frown Upon his forehead. He was puzzled.

"Say, you're not getting at me for any reason, are you?" he demanded.

"My dear sir!" Burton protested, eagerly. "I am simply doing my duty and telling you the truth. The house is not in a fit state to be let to any one—certainly not to a man with a family. If you will permit me to say so, you are not going the right way to secure a suitable house. You simply walked into our office because you saw the sign up, and listened to anything the governor had to say. We haven't any west-end houses at all upon our books. It isn't our business, unfortunately. Miller & Sons, or Roscoe's, are the best people. No one would even come to see you at Idlemay House, much less stay with you—the place has such a bad reputation."

"Then will you be good enough to just explain to me why you were cracking it up like blazes only a few minutes ago?" Mr. Lynn demanded, indignantly. "I nearly took the darned place!"

Mr. Burton shook his head penitently.

"I am afraid that I cannot explain, sir," he confessed. "To tell you the truth, I do not understand in the least how I could have brought myself to be so untruthful. I am only thankful that no harm has been done."

They had reached the corner of the street in which the offices of Messrs. Waddington & Forbes were situated. Mr. Lynn came to a full stop.

"I can't see but what we might just as well part here, young man," he declared. "There's no use in my coming to your office, after what you've told me."

"Not the slightest," Mr. Burton admitted frankly, "in fact you are better away. Mr. Waddington would certainly try to persuade you to take the house. If you'll accept my advice, sir, you will go to Miller & Sons in St. James's Place. They have all the best houses on their books and they are almost certain to find something to suit you."

Mr. Lynn gazed once more at his companion curiously.

"Say, I'm not quite sure that I can size you up, even now," he said. "At first I thought that you were a rare little hustler, right on the job. I was set against that house and yet you almost persuaded me into taking it. What's come over you, anyway?"

Mr. Burton shook his head dubiously.

"I am afraid that it is no use asking me," he replied, "for I really don't quite know myself."

Mr. Lynn still lingered. The longer he looked at his companion, the more he appreciated the subtle change of demeanor and language which had certainly transformed Mr. Alfred Burton.

"It was after you came out of that little room," he continued, meditatively, "where that Oriental fellow had been shut up. The more I think of it, the odder it seems. You were as perky as mustard when you went in and you've been sort of dazed ever Since you came out."

Mr. Burton lifted his hat.

"Good day, sir!" he said. "I trust that you will find a residence to suit you."

Mr. Lynn strolled off with a puzzled frown upon his forehead, and Alfred Burton, with a slight gesture of aversion, pushed open the swinging doors which led into the offices of Messrs. Waddington & Forbes.



Burton stood for a moment upon the threshold of the office, looking around him. A new and peculiar distaste for these familiar surroundings seemed suddenly to have sprung into life. For the first time he realized the intense ugliness of this scene of his daily labors. The long desk, ink-splashed and decrepit, was covered with untidy piles of papers, some of them thick with dust; the walls were hung with seedy-looking files and an array of tattered bills; there were cobwebs in every corner, gaps in the linoleum floor-covering. In front of the office-boy—a youth about fourteen years of age, who represented the remaining clerical staff of the establishment—were pinned up several illustrations cut out from Comic Cuts, the Police News, and various other publications of a similar order. As Burton looked around him, his distaste grew. It seemed impossible that he had ever existed for an hour amid such an environment. The prospect of the future was suddenly hugely distasteful.

Very slowly he changed his coat and climbed on to his worn horsehair stool, without exchanging his usual facetious badinage with the remaining member of the staff. The office-boy, who had thought of something good to say, rather resented his silence. It forced him into taking the initiative, a position which placed him from the first at a disadvantage.

"Any luck with the Yank, Mr. Burton?" he inquired, with anxious civility.

Burton shook his head.

"None at all," he confessed. "He wouldn't have anything to do with the house."

"Has any one been letting on to him about it, do you think?"

"I don't think so," Burton replied. "I don't think any one else has mentioned it to him at all. He seems to be a complete stranger here."

"Couldn't have been quite at your best, could you, Mr. Burton, sir? Not your usual bright and eloquent self, eh?"

The boy grinned and then ducked, expecting a missile. None came, however. Alfred Burton was in a very puzzled state of mind, and he neither showed nor indeed felt any resentment. He turned and faced his subordinate.

"I really don't know, Clarkson," he admitted. "I am sure that I was quite polite, and I showed him everything he wished to see; but, of course, I had to tell him the truth about the place."

"The what?" young Clarkson inquired, in a mystified tone.

"The truth," Burton repeated.

"Wot yer mean?"

"About the typhoid and that," Burton explained, mildly.

The office-boy pondered for a moment. Then he slowly opened a ledger, drew a day-book towards him, and continued his work. He was being jollied, of course, but the thing was too subtle for him at present. He decided to wait for the next move. Burton continued to regard his subordinate, however, and by degrees an expression of pained disapproval crept into his face.

"Clarkson," he said, "if you will forgive my mentioning a purely personal matter, why do you wear such uncomfortable collars and such an exceedingly unbecoming tie?"

The office-boy swung round upon his stool. His mouth was wide open like a rabbit's. He fingered the offending articles.

"What's the matter with them?" he demanded, getting his question out with a single breath.

"Your collars are much too high," Burton pointed out. "One can see how they cut into your neck. Then why wear a tie of that particular shade of vivid purple when your clothes themselves, with that blue and yellow stripe, are somewhat noticeable? There is a lack of symphony about the arrangement, an entire absence of taste, which is apt to depress one. The whole effect which you produce upon one's vision is abominable. You won't think my mentioning this a liberty, I hope?"

"What about your own red tie and dirty collar?" young Clarkson asked, indignantly. "What price your eight and sixpenny trousers, eh, with the blue stripe and the grease stains? What about the sham diamond stud in your dickey, and your three inches of pinned on cuff? Fancy your appearance, perhaps! Why, I wouldn't walk the streets in such a rig-out!"

Burton listened to his junior's attack unresentingly but with increasing bewilderment. Then he slipped from his seat and walked hurriedly across to the looking-glass, which he took down from its nail. He gazed at himself long and steadily and from every possible angle. It is probable that for the first time in his life he saw himself then as he really was. He was plain, of insignificant appearance, he was ill and tastelessly dressed. He stood there before the sixpenny-ha'penny mirror and drank the cup of humiliation.

"Calling my tie, indeed!" the office-boy muttered, his smouldering resentment bringing him back to the attack. "Present from my best girl, that was, and she knows what's what. Young lady with a place in a west-end milliner's shop, too. If that doesn't mean good taste, I should like to know what does. Look at your socks, too, all coming down over the tops of your boots! Nasty dirty pink and green stripes! There's another thing about my collar, too," he continued, speaking with renewed earnestness as he appreciated his senior's stupefaction. "It was clean yesterday, and that's more than yours was—or the day before!"

Burton shivered as he finally turned away from that looking-glass. The expression upon his face was indescribable.

"I am sorry I spoke, Clarkson," he apologized humbly. "It certainly seemed to have slipped my memory that I myself—I can't think how I managed to make such hideous, unforgivable mistakes."

"While we are upon the subject," his subordinate continued, ruthlessly, "why don't you give your fingernails a scrub sometimes, eh? You might give your coat a brush, too, now and then, while you are about it. All covered with scurf and dust about the shoulders! I'm all for cleanliness, I am."

Burton made no reply. He was down and his junior kicked him.

"I'd like to see the color of your shirt if you took those paper cuffs off!" the latter exclaimed. "Why don't you chuck that rotten dickey away? Cave!"

The door leading into the private office was brusquely opened. Mr. Waddington, the only existing member of the firm, entered—-a large, untidy-looking man, also dressed in most uncomely fashion, and wearing an ill-brushed silk hat on the back of his head. He turned at once to his righthand man.

"Well, did you land him?" he demanded, with some eagerness.

Burton shook his head regretfully.

"It was quite impossible to interest him in the house at all, sir," he declared. "He seemed inclined to take it at first, but directly he understood the situation he would have nothing more to do with it."

Mr. Waddington's face fell. He was disappointed. He was also puzzled.

"Understood the situation," he repeated. "What the dickens do you mean, Burton? What situation?"

"I mean about the typhoid, sir, and Lady Idlemay's refusal to have the drains put in order."

Mr. Waddington's expression for a few moments was an interesting and instructive study. His jaw had fallen, but he was still too bewildered to realize the situation properly.

"But who told him?" he gasped.

"I did," Burton replied gently. "I could not possibly let him remain in ignorance of the facts."

"You couldn't—what?"

"I could not let him the house without explaining all the circumstances, sir," Burton declared, watching his senior anxiously. "I am sure you would not have wished me to do anything of the sort, would you?"

What Mr. Waddington said was unimportant. There was very little that he forgot and he was an auctioneer with a low-class clientele and a fine flow of language. When he had finished, the office-boy was dumb with admiration. Burton was looking a little pained and he had the shocked expression of a musician who has been listening to a series of discords. Otherwise he was unmoved.

"Your duty was to let that house," Mr. Waddington wound up, striking the palm of one hand with the fist of the other. "What do I give you forty-four shillings a week for, I should like to know? To go and blab trade secrets to every customer that comes along? If you couldn't get him to sign the lease, you ought to have worked a deposit, at any rate. He'd have had to forfeit that, even if he'd found out afterwards."

"I am sorry," Burton said, speaking in a much lower tone than was usual with him, but with a curious amount of confidence. "It would have been a moral falsehood if I had attempted anything of the sort. I could not possibly offer the house to Mr. Lynn or anybody else, without disclosing its drawbacks."

The auctioneer's face had become redder. His eyes seemed on the point of coming out of his head. He became almost incoherent.

"God bless my soul!" he spluttered. "Have you gone mad, Burton? What's come to you since the morning? Have you changed into a blithering fool, or what?"

"I think not, sir," Burton replied, gravely. "I don't—exactly remember for the moment," he went on with a slight frown. "My head seems a little confused, but I cannot believe that it has been our custom to conduct our business in the fashion you are suggesting."

Mr. Waddington walked round the office, holding his head between his hands.

"I don't suppose either of us has been drinking at this hour in the morning," he muttered, when he came to a standstill once more. "Look here, Burton, I don't want to do anything rash. Go home—never mind the time—go home this minute before I break out again. Come to-morrow morning, as usual. We'll talk it out then. God bless my soul!" he added, as Burton picked up his hat with a little sigh of relief and turned toward the door. "Either I'm drunk or the fellow's got religion or something! I never heard such infernal rubbish in my life!"

"Made a nasty remark about my tie just now, sir," Clarkson said, with dignity, as his senior disappeared. "Quite uncalled for. I don't fancy he can be well."

"Ever known him like it before?" Mr. Waddington inquired.

"Never, sir. I thought he seemed chippier than ever this morning when he went out. His last words were that he'd bet me a packet of Woodbines that he landed the old fool."

"He's gone dotty!" the auctioneer decided, as he turned back towards his sanctum. "He's either gone dotty or he's been drinking. The last chap in the world I should have thought it of!"

The mental attitude of Alfred Burton, as he emerged into the street, was in some respects curious. He was not in the least sorry for what had happened. On the contrary, he found himself wishing that the day's respite had not been granted to him, and that his departure from the place of his employment was final. He was very much in the position of a man who has been transferred without warning or notice from the streets of London to the streets of Pekin. Every object which he saw he looked upon with different eyes. Every face which he passed produced a different impression upon him. He looked about him with all the avidity of one suddenly conscious of a great store of unused impressions. It was like a second birth. He neither understood the situation nor attempted to analyze it. He was simply conscious of a most delightful and inexplicable light-heartedness, and of a host of sensations which seemed to produce at every moment some new pleasure. His first and most pressing anxiety was a singular one. He loathed himself from head to foot. He shuddered as he passed the shop-windows for fear he should see his own reflection. He made his way unfalteringly to an outfitter's shop, and from there, with a bundle under his arm, to the baths. It was a very different Alfred Burton indeed who, an hour or two later, issued forth into the streets. Gone was the Cockney young man with the sandy moustache, the cheap silk hat worn at various angles to give himself a rakish air, the flashy clothes, cheap and pretentious, the assured, not to say bumptious air so sedulously copied from the deportment of his employer. Enter a new and completely transformed Alfred Burton, an inoffensive-looking young man in a neat gray suit, a lilac-colored tie of delicate shade, a flannel shirt with no pretence at cuffs, but with a spotless turned down collar, a soft Homburg hat, a clean-shaven lip. With a new sense of self-respect and an immense feeling of relief, Burton, after a few moments' hesitation, directed his footsteps towards the National Gallery. He had once been there years ago on a wet Bank Holiday, and some faint instinct of memory which somehow or other had survived the burden of his sordid days suddenly reasserted itself. He climbed the steps and passed through the portals with the beating heart of the explorer who climbs his last hill. It was his entrance, this, into the new world whose call was tearing at his heartstrings. He bought no catalogue, he asked no questions. From room to room he passed with untiring footsteps. His whole being was filled with the immeasurable relief, the almost passionate joy, of one who for the first time is able to gratify a new and marvelous appetite. With his eyes, his soul, all these late-born, strange, appreciative powers, he ministered to an appetite which seemed unquenchable. It was dusk when he came out, his cheeks burning, his eyes bright. He carried a new music, a whole world of new joys with him, but his most vital sensation was one of glowing and passionate sympathy. They were splendid, these heroes who had seen the truth and had struggled to give life to it with pencil or brush or chisel, that others, too, might see and understand. If only one could do one's little share!

He walked slowly along, absorbed in his thoughts, unconscious even of the direction in which his footsteps were taking him. When at last he paused, he was outside a theatre. The name of Ibsen occupied a prominent place upon the boards. From somewhere among the hidden cells of his memory came a glimmering recollection—a word or two read at random, an impression, only half understood, yet the germ of which had survived. Ibsen! A prophet of truth, surely! He looked eagerly down the placard for the announcements and the prices of admission. And then a sudden cold douche of memory descended upon his new enthusiasms. There was Ellen!



There certainly was Ellen! Like a man on his way to prison, Alfred Burton took his place in a third-class carriage in his customary train to Garden Green. Ned Miles, who travelled in the oil trade, came up and smote him upon the shoulder.

"Say, cocky, what have you been doing to yourself?" he demanded in amazement. "Have you robbed a bank and going about in disguise, eh? Why, the missis won't know you!"

Burton shrank a little back in his place. His eyes seemed filled with some nameless distaste as he returned the other's gaze.

"I have taken a dislike to my former style of dress," he replied simply, "also to my moustache."

"Taken a dislike—Lord love a duck!" his quondam friend exclaimed. "Strike me blind if I should have known you! Taken a dislike to the—here, Alf, is this a game?"

"Not at all," Burton answered quietly. "It is the truth. It is one of those matters, I suppose," he continued, "which principally concern oneself."

"No need to get jumpy about it," Mr. Miles remarked, still a little dazed. "Come in and have some farthing nap with the boys. They won't recognize you in that get-up. We'll have a lark with them."

Burton shook his head. Again he was unable to keep the distaste from his eyes or tone.

"Not to-night, thank you."

The train was just moving, so Miles was obliged to hurry off, but at Garden Green, Burton was compelled to run the gauntlet of their cheers and mockery as he passed down the platform. Good sports and excellent fellows he had thought them yesterday. To-day he had no words for them. He simply knew that they grated upon every nerve in his body and that he loathed them. For the first time he began to be frightened. What was this thing that had happened to him? How was it possible for him to continue his daily life?

As soon as he was out of the station, his troubles began again. A veil seemed to have been torn from before his eyes. Just as in London every face into which he had looked, every building which he had passed, had seemed to him unfamiliar, appealing to an altered system of impressions, so here, during that brief walk, a new disgust was born in him. The showy-looking main street with its gingerbread buildings, all new and glittering with paint, appalled him. The larger villas—self-conscious types all reeking with plaster and false decorations—set him shivering. He turned into his own street and his heart sank. Something had indeed touched his eyes and he saw new and terrible things. The row of houses looked as though they had come out of a child's playbox. They were all untrue, shoddy, uninviting. The waste space on the other side of the unmade street, a repository for all the rubbish of the neighborhood, brought a groan to his lips. He stopped before the gate of his own little dwelling. There were yellow curtains in the window, tied back with red velvet. Even with the latch of the gate in his hand, he hesitated. A child in a spotted velveteen suit and a soiled lace collar, who had been playing in the street, greeted him with an amazed shout and then ran on ahead.

"Mummy, come and look at Daddy!" the boy shrieked. "He's cut off all the hair from his lip and he's got such funny clothes on! Do come and look at his hat!"

The child was puny, unprepossessing, and dirty. Worse tragedy than this, Burton knew it. The woman who presently appeared to gaze at him with open-mouthed wonder, was pretentiously and untidily dressed, with some measure of good looks woefully obscured by a hard and unsympathetic expression. Burton knew these things also. It flashed into his mind as he stood there that her first attraction to him had been because she resembled his ill-conceived idea of an actress. As a matter of fact, she resembled much more closely her cousin, who was a barmaid. Burton looked into the tragedy of his life and shivered.

"What in the name of wonder's the meaning of this, Alfred?" his better half demanded. "What are you standing there for, looking all struck of a heap?"

He made no reply. Speech, for the moment, was absolutely impossible. She stood and stared at him, her arms akimbo, disapproval written in her face. Her hair was exceedingly untidy and there was a smut upon her cheek. A soiled lace collar, fastened with an imitation diamond brooch, had burst asunder.

"What's come to your moustache?" she demanded. "And why are you dressed like—like a house-painter on a Sunday?"

Burton found his first gleam of consolation. A newly-discovered sense of humor soothed him inexplicably.

"Sorry you don't like my clothes," he replied. "You'll get used to them."

"Get used to them!" his better half repeated, almost hysterically. "Do you mean to say you are going about like that?"

"Something like it," Burton admitted.

"No silk hat, no tail coat?"

Burton shook his head gently.

"I trust," he said, "that I have finished, for the present, at any rate, with those most unsightly garments."

"Come inside," Ellen ordered briskly.

They passed into the little sitting-room. Burton glanced around him with a half-frightened sense of apprehension. His memory, at any rate, had not played him false. Everything was as bad—even worse than he had imagined. The suite of furniture which was the joy of his wife's heart had been, it is true, exceedingly cheap, but the stamped magenta velvet was as crude in its coloring as his own discarded tie. He looked at the fringed cloth upon the table, the framed oleographs upon the wall, and he was absolutely compelled to close his eyes. There was not a single thing anywhere which was not discordant.

Mrs. Burton had not yet finished with the subject of clothes. The distaste upon her face had rather increased. She looked her husband up and down and her eyes grew bright with anger.

"Well, I did think," she declared, vigorously, "that I was marrying a man who looked like a gentleman, at least! Do you mean to say, Alfred, that you mean to go into the city like that?"

"Certainly," Burton replied. "And Ellen!"


"Since we are upon the subject of dress, may I have a few words? You have given expression to your dislikes quite freely. You will not mind if I do the same?"

"Well, what have you got to say?" she demanded, belligerently.

"I don't like your bun," Burton said firmly.

"Don't like my what?" his wife shrieked, her hands flying to the back of her head.

"I don't like your bun—false hair, or whatever you call it," Burton repeated. "I don't like that brooch with the false diamonds, and if you can't afford a clean white blouse, I'd wear a colored one."

Mrs. Burton's mouth was open but for the moment she failed to express herself adequately. Her husband continued.

"Your skirt is fashionable, I suppose, because it is very short and very tight, but it makes you walk like a duck, and it leaves unconcealed so much of your stockings that I think at least you should be sure that they are free from holes."

"You called my skirt smart only yesterday," Ellen gasped, "and I wasn't going out of doors in these stockings."

"It is just as bad to wear them indoors or outdoors, whether any one sees them or whether any one does not," Burton insisted. "Your own sense of self-respect should tell you that. Did you happen, by the bye, to glance at the boy's collar when you put it on?"

"What, little Alf now?" his mother faltered. "You're getting on to him now, are you?"

"I certainly should wish," Burton protested mildly, "that he was more suitably dressed. A plain sailor-suit, or a tweed knickerbocker suit with a flannel collar, would be better than those velveteen things with that lace abomination. And why is he tugging at your skirt so?"

"He is ready to start," Ellen replied sharply. "Haven't forgotten you're taking us to the band, have you?"

"I had forgotten it," Burton admitted, "but I am quite willing to go."

Ellen turned towards the stairs.

"Down in five minutes," she announced. "I hope you've finished all that rubbishing talk. There's some tea in the tea-pot on the hob, if you want any. Don't upset things."

Burton drifted mechanically into the kitchen, noting its disorder with a new disapproval. He sat on the edge of the table for a few moments, gazing helplessly about him. Presently Ellen descended the stairs and called to him. He took up his hat and followed his wife and the boy out of the house. The latter eyed him wonderingly.

"Look at pa's hat!" he shouted. "Oh, my!"

Ellen stopped short upon her way to the gate.

"Alfred," she exclaimed, "you don't mean to say you're coming out with us like that—coming to the band, too, where we shall meet everyone?"

"Certainly, my dear," Burton replied, placing the object of their remarks fearlessly upon his head. "You may not be quite used to it yet, but I can assure you that it is far more becoming and suitable than a cheap silk hat, especially for an occasion like the present."

Ellen opened her mouth and closed it again—it was perhaps wise!

"Come on," she said abruptly. "Alfred wants to hear the soldier music and we are late already. Take your father's hand."

They started upon their pilgrimage. Burton, at any rate, spent a miserable two hours. He hated the stiff, brand-new public garden in which they walked, with its stunted trees, its burnt grass, its artificial and weary flower-beds. He hated the people who stood about as they did, listening to the band,—the giggling girls, the callow, cigarette-smoking youths, the dressed up, unnatural replicas of his own wife and himself, with whom he was occasionally forced to hold futile conversation. He hated the sly punch in the ribs from one of his quondam companions, the artful murmur about getting the missis to look another way and the hurried visit to a neighboring public-house, the affected anger and consequent jokes which followed upon their return. As they walked homeward, the cold ugliness of it all seemed almost to paralyze his newly awakened senses. It was their social evening of the week, looked forward to always by his wife, spoken of cheerfully by him even last night, an evening when he might have had to bring home friends to supper, to share a tin of sardines, a fragment of mutton, Dutch cheese, and beer which he himself would have had to fetch from the nearest public-house. He wiped his forehead and found that it was wet. Then Ellen broke the silence.

"What I should like to know, Alfred, is—what's come to you?" she commenced indignantly. "Not a word have you spoken all the evening—you that there's no holding generally with your chaff and jokes. What Mr. and Mrs. Johnson must have thought of you, I can't imagine, standing there like a stick when they stopped to be civil for a few minutes, and behaving as though you never even heard their asking us to go in and have a bite of supper. What have we done, eh, little Alf and me? You look at us as though we had turned into ogres. Out with it, my man. What's wrong?"

"I am not—"

Burton stopped short. The lie of ill-health stuck in his throat. He thirsted to tell the truth, but a new and gentle kindliness kept him speechless. Ellen was beginning to get a little frightened.

"What is it that's come to you, Alfred?" she again demanded. "Have you lost your tongue or your wits or what?"

"I do not know," he answered truthfully enough. His manner was so entirely non-provocative that her resentment for a moment dropped.

"What's changed you since yesterday?" she persisted. "What is it that you don't like about us, anyway? What do you want us to do?"

Burton sighed. He would have given a great deal to have been able to prevaricate, but he could not. It was the truth alone which he could speak.

"I should like you," he said, "to take down your hair and throw away all that is not real, to wash it until it is its natural color, to brush it hard, and then do it up quite simply, without a net or anything. Then I should like you to wash your face thoroughly in plain soap and water and never again touch a powder-puff or that nasty red stuff you have on your lips. I should like you to throw away those fancy blouses with the imitation lace, which are ugly to start with, and which you can't afford to have washed often enough, and I should like you to buy some plain linen shirts and collars, a black tie, and a blue serge skirt made so that you could walk in it naturally."

Ellen did not at that moment need any rouge, nor any artificial means of lending brightness to her eyes. What she really seemed to need was something to keep her still.

"Anything else?" she demanded, unsteadily.

"Some thicker stockings, or, if not thicker, stockings without that open-work stuff about them," Burton continued earnestly, warming now to his task. "You see, the open-work places have all spread into little holes, and one can't help noticing it, especially as your shoes are such a bright yellow. That stuff that looks like lace at the bottom of your petticoat has got all draggled. I should cut it off and throw it away. Then I'd empty all that scent down the drain, and wear any sort of gloves except those kid ones you have had cleaned so often."

"And my hat?" she asked with trembling lips. "What about my hat? Don't leave that out."

"Burn it," he replied eagerly, "feathers and all. They've been dyed, haven't they? more than once, and I think their present color is their worst. It must be very uncomfortable to wear, too, with all those pins sticking out of it. Colored glass they are made of, aren't they? They are not pretty, you know. I'll buy you a hat, if you like, a plain felt or straw, with just a few flowers. You'll look as nice again."


He looked at her apprehensively.

"There are one or two things about the house—" he commenced.

Ellen began to talk—simply because she was unable to keep silent any longer. The longer she talked, the more eloquent she became. When she had finished, Burton had disappeared. She followed him to the door, and again to the gate. Her voice was still ringing in his ears as he turned the corner of the street.



Punctually at nine o'clock on the following morning, Alfred Burton, after a night spent in a very unsatisfactory lodging-house, hung up his gray Homburg on the peg consecrated to the support of his discarded silk hat, and prepared to plunge into his work. The office-boy, who had been stricken dumb at his senior's appearance, recovered himself at last sufficiently for speech.

"My eye!" he exclaimed. "Whose clothes have you been stealing? What have you been up to, eh? Committing a burglary or a murder?"

Burton shook his head.

"Nothing of the sort," he replied pleasantly. "The fact is I came to the conclusion that my late style of dress, as you yourself somewhat eloquently pointed out yesterday, was unbecoming."

The boy seemed a little dazed.

"You look half way between a toff and an artist!" he declared. "What's it all about, anyway? Have you gone crazy?"

"I don't think so," Burton replied. "I rather think I have come to my senses. Have you got those last furniture accounts?"

"No use starting on that job," Clarkson informed him, genially. "The guvnor wants you down at the salesrooms, you've got to clerk for him."

Burton looked very blank indeed. A flood of unpleasant recollections assailed him. He had lied a good deal in the letting of houses, but he had lied more still in the auction room. And to-day's sale! He knew all about it! He knew a great deal more than under the circumstances it was wise for him to know!

"I quite forgot," he said slowly, "that there was a sale to-day. I don't suppose Mr. Waddington would let you take my place, Clarkson?"

"Not on your life!" the boy replied. "I've got to stay here and boss the show. You'd better hurry along, too. It's Thursday morning and you know the people come in early. Lord, what a guy you look!"

Very slowly and very reluctantly Burton made his way through the gloomy warehouse and into the salesrooms, which were approached from the street by a separate entrance. He knew exactly what was before him and he realized that it must be the end. Mr. Waddington, who had not yet mounted the rostrum, saw him come in, stared at him for several moments in his gray clothes and Homburg hat, and turned away to spit upon the floor. A woman with a catalogue in her hand—evidently an intending purchaser—gripped Burton by the arm.

"I say, mister, you're the auctioneer's clerk, aren't you?"

"I am," he admitted.

"About that h'oil painting, now—the one of Gladstone. My old man's fair dotty on Gladstone and it's his birthday to-morrow. If it's all right, I thought I might make him a present. It says in the catalogue 'Artist unknown.' I suppose, as it's a real oil painting, it's worth a bit, isn't it?"

"It is not an oil painting at all," Burton said quietly.

"Wot yer mean?" the woman demanded. "Here you are—lot number 17—'Interesting oil painting of the Right Honorable W. E. Gladstone, artist unknown.'"

Burton thrust the catalogue away from him with a sigh.

"I am afraid," he admitted, "that the description can scarcely be said to be entirely accurate. As a matter of fact, it is a colored lithograph, very cleverly done but quite valueless. I dare say you would find that there are thousands of them exactly like it."

The woman stared at him suspiciously.

"Why, your guvnor's just told me that the reserve upon it's two guineas!" she exclaimed.

"Mr. Waddington must have made a mistake," Burton replied, with a sinking heart.

"Look here," the woman insisted, "what is it worth, anyway?"

"A few pence for the frame," Burton answered, hurrying off.

The woman drew her shawl about her shoulders, threw her catalogue upon the floor and made her way towards the door.

"Not going to stay here to be swindled!" she declared loudly, looking around her. "Colored lithograph, indeed, and put down in the catalogue as an interesting oil painting! They must think us folks don't know nothing. Cheating's the word, I say—cheating!"

The woman's eye met the eye of Mr. Waddington as she stood for a moment in the doorway before taking her departure. She raised her fist and shook it.

"Bah!" she exclaimed. "Ought to be ashamed of yourself! You and your h'oil paintings!"

Mr. Waddington was too far off to hear her words but the character of her farewell was unmistakable! He glanced suspiciously towards his chief clerk. Burton, however, had at that moment been button-holed by a fidgety old gentleman who desired to ask him a few questions.

"I am a little puzzled, sir," the old gentleman said, confidentially, "about the absolute authenticity of this chippendale suite—lot number 101 in the catalogue. This sale is—er—um—advertised as being—" the old gentleman turned over the pages of the catalogue quickly—"a sale of the effects of the late Doctor Transome. That's so, eh?"

"I believe the announcement is to that effect," Burton confessed, hesitatingly.

"Quite so," the little old gentleman continued. "Now I knew Dr. Transome intimately, and he was, without the slightest doubt, a rare judge of old furniture. I wouldn't mind following him anywhere, or accepting his judgment about anything. He was very set upon not having anything in his house that was not genuine. Now under any other circumstances, mind you, I should have had my doubts about that suite, but if you can assure me that it came from Dr. Transome's house, why, there's no more to be said about it. I'm a bidder."

Burton shook his head gravely.

"I am sorry," he declared, "but the frontispiece of the catalogue is certainly a little misleading. To tell you the truth, sir, there are very few articles here from Dr. Transome's house at all. The bulk of his effects were distributed among relatives. What we have here is a portion of the kitchen and servant's bedroom furniture."

"Then where on earth did all this dining-room and library furniture come from?" the old gentleman demanded.

Burton looked around him and back again at his questioner. There was no evading the matter, however.

"The great majority of it," Burton admitted, "has been sent in to us for sale from dealers and manufacturers."

The little old gentleman was annoyed. Instead of being grateful, as he ought to have been, he visited his annoyance upon Burton, which was unreasonable.

"Deliberate swindling, sir—that's what I call it," he proclaimed, rolling up the catalogue and striking the palm of his hand with it. "All the way from Camberwell I've come, entirely on the strength of what turns out to be a misrepresentation. There's the bus fare there and back—six-pence, mind you—and a wasted morning. Who's going to recompense me, I should like to know? I'm not made of sixpences."

Burton's hand slipped into his pocket. The little old gentleman sniffed.

"You needn't insult me, young fellow," he declared. "I've a friend or two here and I'll set about letting them know the truth."

He was as good as his word. The woman who had departed had also found her sympathizers. Mr. Waddington watched the departure of a little stream of people with a puzzled frown.

"What's the matter with them all?" he muttered. "Come here, Burton."

Burton, who had been standing a little in the background, endeavoring to escape further observation until the commencement of the sale, obeyed his master's summons promptly.

"Can't reckon things up at all," Mr. Waddington confided. "Why aren't you round and amongst 'em, Burton, eh? You're generally such a good 'un at rubbing it into them. Why, the only two people I've seen you talk to this morning have left the place! What's wrong with you, man?"

"I only wish I knew," Burton replied, fervently.

Mr. Waddingon scratched his chin.

"What's the meaning of those clothes, eh?" he demanded. "You've lost your appearance, Burton—that's what you've done. Not even a silk hat on a sale day!"

"I'm sorry," Burton answered. "To tell you the truth, I had forgotten that it was a sale day."

Mr. Waddington looked curiously at his assistant, and the longer he looked, the more convinced he became that Burton was not himself.

"Well," he said, "I suppose you can't always be gassing if you're not feeling on the spot. Let's start the sale before any more people leave. Come on."

Mr. Waddington led the way to the rostrum. Burton, with a sinking heart, and a premonition of evil, took the place by his side. The first few lots were put up and sold without event, but trouble came with lot number 13.

"Lot number 13—a magnificent oak bedroom—" the auctioneer began. "Eh? What? What is it, Burton?"

"Stained deal," Burton interrupted, in a pained but audible whisper. "Stained deal bedroom suite, sir—not oak."

Mr. Waddington seemed about to choke. He ignored the interruption, however, and went on with his description of the lot.

"A magnificent oak bedroom suite, complete and as good as new, been in use for three weeks only. The deceased gentleman whose effects we are disposing of, and who is known to have been a famous collector of valuable furniture, told me himself that he found it at a farmhouse in Northumberland. Look at it, ladies and gentlemen. Look at it. It'll bear inspection. Shall we say forty-five guineas for a start?"

Mr. Waddington paused expectantly. Burton leaned over from his place.

"The suite is of stained deal," he said distinctly. "It has been very cleverly treated by a new process to make it resemble old oak, but if you examine it closely you will see that what I say is correct. I regret that there has been an unfortunate error in the description."

For a moment there was a tumult of voices and some laughter. Mr. Waddington was red in the face. The veins about his temples were swollen and the hammer in his hand showed a desire to descend on his clerk's head. A small dealer had pulled out one of the drawers and was examining it closely.

"Stained deal it is, Mr. Auctioneer," he announced, standing up. "Call a spade a spade and have done with it!"

There was a little mingled laughter and cheers. Mr. Waddington swallowed his anger and went on with the sale.

"Call it what you like," he declared, indulgently. "Our clients send us in these things with their own description and we haven't time to verify them all—not likely. One bedroom suite, then—there you are. Now then, Burton, you blithering idiot," he muttered savagely under his breath, "if you can't hold your tongue I'll kick you out of your seat Thirty pounds shall we say?" he continued, leaning forward persuasively. "Twenty pounds, then? The price makes no difference to me, only do let's get on."

The suite in question was knocked down at eight pounds ten. The sale proceeded, but bidders were few. A spirit of distrust seemed to be in the air. Most of the lots were knocked down to dummy bidders, which meant that they were returned to the manufacturers on the following day. The frown on Mr. Waddington's face deepened.

"See what you've done, you silly jackass!" he whispered to his assistant, during a momentary pause in the proceedings. "There's another little knot of people left. Here's old Sherwell coming in, half drunk. Now hold your tongue if you can. I'll have him for the dining-room suite, sure. If you interfere this time, I'll break your head. . . . We come now, ladies and gentlemen, to the most important lot of the day. Mr. Sherwell, sir, I am glad to see you. You're just in time. There's a dining-room suite coming on, the only one I have to offer, and such a suite as is very seldom on the market. One table, two sideboards, and twelve chairs. Now, Mr. Sherwell, sir, look at the table for yourself. You're a judge and I am willing to take your word. Did you ever see a finer, a more magnificent piece of mahogany? There is no deception about it. Feel it, look at it, test it in any way you like. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, this is a lot I have examined myself, and if I could afford it I'd have bought it privately. I made a bid but the executors wouldn't listen to me. Now then, ladies and gentlemen, make me an offer for the suite."

"Fine bit o' wood," the half-intoxicated furniture dealer pronounced, leaning up against the table and examining it with clumsy gravity. "A genuine bit o' stuff."

"You're right, Mr. Sherwell," the auctioneer agreed, impressively. "It is a unique piece of wood, sir—a unique piece of wood, ladies and gentlemen. Now how much shall we say for the suite? Lot number 85—twelve chairs, the table you are leaning up against, two sideboards, and butler's tray. Shall we say ninety guineas, Mr. Sherwell? Will you start the bidding in a reasonable manner and make it a hundred?"

"Fifty!" Mr. Sherwell declared, striking the table with his fist. "I say fifty!"

Mr. Waddington for a moment looked pained. He laid down the hammer and glanced around through the audience, as though appealing for their sympathy. Then he shrugged his shoulders. Finally, he took up his hammer again and sighed.

"Very well, then," he consented, in a resigned tone, "we'll start it at fifty, then. I don't know what's the matter with every one to-day, but I'm giving you a turn, Mr. Sherwell, and I shall knock it down quick. Fifty guineas is bid for lot number 85. Going at fifty guineas!"

Burton rose once more to his feet.

"Does Mr. Sherwell understand," he asked, "that the remainder of the suite is different entirely from the table?"

Mr. Sherwell stared at the speaker, shifted his feet a little unsteadily and gripped the table.

"Certainly I don't," he replied,—"don't understand anything of the sort! Where is the rest of the suite, young man?"

"Just behind you, sir," Burton pointed out, "up against the wall."

Mr. Sherwell turned and looked at a miserable collection of gimcrack articles piled up against the wall behind him. Then he consulted the catalogue.

"One mahogany dining-table, two sideboards, one butler's tray, twelve chairs. These the chairs?" he asked, lifting one up.

"Those are the chairs, sir," Burton admitted. Mr. Sherwell, with a gesture of contempt, replaced upon the floor the one which he had detached from its fellows. He leaned unsteadily across the table.

"A dirty trick, Mr. Auctioneer," he declared. "Shan't come here any more! Shan't buy anything! Ought to be ashamed of yourself. Yah!"

Mr. Sherwell, feeling his way carefully out, made an impressive if not very dignified exit. Mr. Waddington gripped his clerk by the arm.

"Burton," he hissed under his breath, "get out of this before I throw you down! Never let me see your idiot face again! If you're at the office when I come back, I'll kill you! I'll clerk myself. Be off with you!"

Burton rose quietly and departed. As he left the room, he heard Mr. Waddington volubly explaining that no deception was intended and that the catalogue spoke for itself. Then he passed out into the street and drew a little breath of relief. The shackles had fallen away. He was a free man. Messrs. Waddington & Forbes had finished with him.



Burton spent the rest of the day in most delightful fashion. He took the Tube to South Kensington Museum, where he devoted himself for several hours to the ecstatic appreciation of a small section of its treasures. He lunched off some fruit and tea and bread and butter out in the gardens, wandering about afterwards among the flower-beds and paying especial and delighted attention to the lilac trees beyond the Memorial. Towards evening he grew depressed. The memory of Ellen, of little Alfred, and his gingerbread villa, became almost like a nightmare to him. And then the light came! His great resolution was formed. With beating heart he turned to a stationer's shop, bought a sheet of paper and an envelope, borrowed a pen and wrote:


I am not coming home for a short time. As you remarked, there is something the matter with me. I don't know what it is. Perhaps in a few days I shall find out. I shall send your money as usual on Saturday, and hope that you and the boy will continue well.

From your husband,


Burton sighed a long sigh of intense relief as he folded up and addressed this epistle. Then he bought four stamps and sent it home. He was a free man. He had three pounds fifteen in his pocket, a trifle of money in the savings-bank, no situation, and a wife and son to support. The position was serious enough, yet never for a moment could he regard it without a new elasticity of spirit and a certain reckless optimism, the source of which he did not in the least understand. He was to learn before long, however, that moods and their resulting effect upon the spirit were part of the penalty which he must pay for the greater variety of his new life.

He took a tiny bedroom somewhere Westminster way—a room in a large, solemn-looking house, decayed and shabby, but still showing traces of its former splendor. That night he saw an Ibsen play from the front row of a deserted gallery, and afterwards, in melancholy mood, he walked homeward along the Embankment by the moonlight. For the first time in life he had come face to face with a condition of which he had had no previous experience—the condition of intellectual pessimism. He was depressed because in this new and more spontaneous world, so full of undreamed-of beauties, so exquisitely stimulating to his new powers of appreciation, he had found something which he did not understand. Truth for the first time had seemed unpleasant, not only in its effects but in itself. The problem was beyond him. Nevertheless, he pulled his bed up to the window, from which he could catch a glimpse of the varied lights of the city, and fell asleep.

In the morning he decided to seek for a situation. A very reasonable instinct led him to avoid all such houses as Messrs. Waddington & Forbes. He made his way instead to the offices of a firm who were quite at the top of their profession. A junior partner accorded him a moment's interview. He was civil but to the point.

"There is no opening whatever in this firm," he declared, "for any one who has been in the employment of Messrs. Waddington & Forbes. Good morning!"

On the doorstep, Burton ran into the arms of Mr. Lynn, who recognized him at once.

"Say, young man," he exclaimed, holding out his hand, "I am much obliged for that recommendation of yours to these people! I have taken a house in Connaught Place—a real nice house it is, too. Come and see us—number 17. The wife and daughters land to-morrow."

"Thank you very much," Burton answered. "I am glad you are fixed up comfortably."

Mr. Lynn laid his hand upon the young man's shoulder. He looked at him curiously. He was an observant person and much interested in his fellow-creatures.

"Kind of change in you, isn't there?" he asked, in a puzzled manner. "I scarcely recognized you at first."

Burton made no reply. The conventional falsehood which rose to his lips, died away before it was uttered.

"Look here," Mr. Lynn continued, "you take a word of advice from me. You chuck those people, Waddington & Forbes. They're wrong 'uns—won't do you a bit of good. Get another job. So long, and don't forget to look us up."

Mr. Lynn passed on his way into the office. He ran into the junior partner, who greeted him warmly.

"Say, do you know that young man who's just gone out?" the former inquired.

The junior partner shook his head.

"Never seen him before," he replied. "He came here looking for a job."

"Is that so?" Mr. Lynn asked with interest. "Well, I hope you gave it to him?"

Young Mr. Miller shook his head.

"He came from the wrong school for us," he declared. "Regular thieves, the people he was with. By the bye, didn't they nearly let you that death-trap of old Lady Idlemay's?"

"Yes, and he happens to be just the young man," Mr. Lynn asserted, removing the cigar from his mouth, "who prevented my taking it, or at any rate having to part with a handsome deposit. I was sent down there with him and at first he cracked it up like a real hustler. He got me so fixed that I had practically made up my mind and was ready to sign any reasonable agreement. Then he suddenly seemed to turn round. He looked me straight in the face and told me about the typhoid and all of it, explained that it wasn't the business of the firm to let houses likely to interest me, and wound up by giving me your name and address and recommending me to come to you."

"You surprise me very much indeed," Mr. Miller admitted. "Under the circumstances, it is scarcely to be wondered at that he is out of employment. Old Waddington wouldn't have much use for a man like that."

"I shouldn't be surprised," Mr. Lynn remarked thoughtfully, "if it was through my affair that he got the sack. Couldn't you do something for him, Mr. Miller—to oblige me, eh?"

"If he calls again," Mr. Miller promised, "I will do my best."

But Burton did not call again. He made various efforts to obtain a situation in other directions, without the slightest result. Then he gave it up. He became a wanderer about London, one of her children who watched her with thoughtful eyes at all times and hours of the day and night. He saw the pink dawn glimmer through the trees in St. James's Park. He saw the bridges empty, the smoke-stained buildings deserted by their inhabitants, with St. Paul's in the background like a sentinel watching over the sleeping world. He heard the crash and roar of life die away and he watched like an anxious prophet while the city slept. He looked upon the stereotyped horrors of the Embankment, vitalized and actual to him now in the light of his new understanding. He wandered with the first gleam of light among the flower-beds of the Park, sniffing with joy at the late hyacinths, revelling in the cool, sweet softness of the unpolluted air. Then he listened to the awakening, to the birth of the day. He heard it from the bridges, from London Bridge and Westminster Bridge, over which thundered the great vans fresh from the country, on their way to Covent Garden. He stood in front of the Mansion House and watched the thin, black stream of the earliest corners grow into a surging, black-coated torrent. There were things which made him sorry and there were things which made him glad. On the whole, however, his isolated contemplation of what for so long he had taken as a matter of course depressed him. Life was unutterably and intensely selfish. Every little unit in that seething mass was so entirely, so strangely self-centered. None of them had any real love or friendliness for the millions who toiled around them, no one seemed to have time to take his eyes from his own work and his own interests. Burton became more and more depressed as the days passed. Then he closed his eyes and tried an antidote. He abandoned this study of his fellow-creatures and plunged once more into the museums, sated himself with the eternal beauties, and came out to resume his place amid the tumultuous throng with rested nerves and a beatific smile upon his lips. It mattered so little, his welfare of to-day or to-morrow—whether he went hungry or satisfied to bed! The other things were in his heart. He saw the truth.

One day he met his late employer. Mr. Waddington was not, in his way, an ill-natured man, and he stopped short upon the pavement. Burton's new suit was not wearing well. It showed signs of exposure to the weather. The young man himself was thin and pale. It was not for Mr. Waddington to appreciate the soft brilliance of his eyes, the altered curves of his lips. From his intensely practical point of view, his late employee was certainly in low water.

"Hullo, Burton!" he exclaimed, coming to a standstill and taking the pipe from his mouth.

"How do you do, sir?" Burton replied, civilly.

Getting on all right, eh?

"Very nicely indeed, thank you, sir."

Mr. Waddington grunted.

"Hm! You don't look like it! Got a job yet?"

"No, sir."

"Then how the devil can you be getting on at all?" Mr. Waddington inquired.

Burton smiled quite pleasantly.

"It does seem queer, sir," he admitted. "I said that I was getting on all right because I am contented and happy. That is the chief thing after all, isn't it?"

Mr. Waddington opened his mouth and closed it again.

"I wish I could make out what the devil it was that happened to you," he said. "Why, you used to be as smart as they make 'em, a regular nipper after business. I expected you'd be after me for a partnership before long, and I expect I'd have had to give it you. And then you went clean dotty. I shall never forget that day at the sale, when you began telling people everything it wasn't good for them to know."

"You mean that it wasn't good for us for them to know," Burton corrected gently.

Mr. Waddington laughed. He had a large amount of easy good-humor and he was always ready to laugh.

"You haven't lost your wits, I see," he declared. "What was it? Did you by any chance get religion, Burton?"

The young man shook his head.

"Not particularly, sir," he replied. "By the bye, you owe me four days' money. Would it be quite convenient—?"

"You shall have it," Mr. Waddington declared, thrusting his hand into his trousers pocket. "I can't afford it, for things are going badly with me. Here it is, though. Thirty-four shillings—that's near enough. Anything else?"

"There is one other thing," Burton said slowly. "It is rather a coincidence, sir, that we should have met just here. I see that you have been into Idlemay House. I wonder whether you would lend me the keys? I will return them to the office, with pleasure, but I should very much like to go in myself for a few minutes."

Mr. Waddington stared at his late employee, thoroughly puzzled.

"If you aren't a caution!" he exclaimed. "What the mischief do you want to go in there for?"

Burton smiled.

"I should like to see if that little room where the old Egyptian died has been disturbed since I was there, sir."

Mr. Waddington hesitated. Then he turned and led the way.

"I'd forgotten all about that," he said. "Come along, I'll go in with you."

They crossed the road, ascended the steps, and in a few minutes they were inside the house. The place smelt very musty and uninhabited. Burton delicately avoided the subject of its being still unlet. The little chamber on the right of the hall was as dark as ever. Burton felt his heart beat quickly as a little waft of familiar perfume swept out to him at the opening of the door. Mr. Waddington struck a match and held it over his head.

"So this is the room," he remarked. "Dashed if I've ever been in it! It wants cleaning out and fumigating badly. What's this?"

He picked up the sheet of paper, which was lying exactly as Burton had left it. Then he lifted up the little dwarf tree and looked at it.

"It is finished. The nineteenth generation has triumphed. He who shall eat of the brown fruit of this tree, shall see the things of Life and Death as they are. He who shall eat—"

"Well, I'm d—d!" he muttered. "What's it all mean, anyway?"

"Try a brown bean," Burton suggested softly. "They aren't half bad."

"Very likely poison," Mr. Waddington said, suspiciously.

Burton said nothing for a moment. He had taken up the sheet of paper and was gazing at the untranslated portion.

"I wonder," he murmured, "if there is any one who could tell us what the other part of it means?"

"The d—d thing smells all right," Mr. Waddington declared. "Here goes!"

He broke off a brown bean and swallowed it. Burton turned round just in time to see the deed. For a moment he stood aghast. Then very slowly he tiptoed his way from the door and hurried stealthily from the house. From some bills which he had been studying half an hour ago he remembered that Mr. Waddington was due, later in the morning, to conduct a sale of "antique" furniture!



The clearness of vision which enabled Alfred Burton now to live in and appreciate a new and marvelous world, failed, however, to keep him from feeling, occasionally, exceedingly hungry. He lived on very little, but the weekly amount must always be sent to Garden Green. There came a time when he broke in upon the last five pound note of his savings. He realized the position without any actual misgivings. He denied himself regretfully a tiny mezzotint of the Raphael "Madonna," which he coveted for his mantelpiece. He also denied himself dinner for several evenings. When fortune knocked at his door he was, in fact, extraordinarily hungry. He still had faith, notwithstanding his difficulties, and no symptoms of dejection. He was perfectly well aware that this need for food was, after all, one of the most unimportant affairs in the world, although he was forced sometimes to admit to himself that he found it none the less surprisingly unpleasant. Chance, however, handed over to him a shilling discovered upon the curb, and a high-class evening paper left upon a seat in the Park. He had no sooner eaten and drunk with the former than he opened the latter. There was an article on the front page entitled "London Awake." He read it line by line and laughed. It was all so ridiculously simple. He hurried back to his rooms and wrote a much better one on "London Asleep." He was master of his subject. He wrote of what he had seen with effortless and sublime verity. Why not? Simply with the aid of pen and ink he transferred from the cells of his memory into actual phrases the silent panorama which he had seen with his own eyes. That one matchless hour before the dawn was entirely his. Throughout its sixty minutes he had watched and waited with every sense quivering. He had watched and heard that first breath of dawn come stealing into life. It was child's play to him. He knew nothing about editors, but he walked into the office of the newspaper which he had picked up, and explained his mission.

"We are not looking for new contributors at present," he was told a little curtly. "What paper have you been on?"

"I have never written anything before in my life," Burton confessed, "but this is much better than 'London Awake,' which you published a few evenings ago."

The sub-editor of that newspaper looked at him with kindly contempt.

"'London Awake' was written for us by Rupert Mendosa. We don't get beginner's stuff like that. I don't think it will be the least use, but I'll look at your article if you like—quick!"

Burton handed over his copy with calm confidence. It was shockingly written on odd pieces of paper, pinned together anyhow—an untidy and extraordinary-looking production. The sub-editor very nearly threw it contemptuously back. Instead he glanced at it, frowned, read a little more, and went on reading. When he had finished, he looked at this strange, thin young man with the pallid cheeks and deep-set eyes, in something like awe.

"You wrote this yourself?" he asked.

"Certainly, sir," Burton answered. "If it is really worth putting in your paper and paying for, you can have plenty more."

"But why did you write it?" the editor persisted. "Where did you get the idea from?"

Burton looked at him in mild-eyed wonder.

"It is just what I see as I pass along," he explained.

The sub-editor was an ambitious literary man himself and he looked steadfastly away from his visitor, out of the window, his eyes full of regret, his teeth clenched almost in anger. Just what he saw as he passed along! What he saw—this common-looking, half-educated little person, with only the burning eyes and sensitive mouth to redeem him from utter insignificance! Truly this was a strange finger which opened the eyes of some and kept sealed the eyelids of others! For fifteen years this very cultivated gentleman who sat in the sub-editor's chair and drew his two thousand a year, had driven his pen along the scholarly way, and all that he had written, beside this untidy-looking document, had not in it a single germ of the things that count.

"Well?" Burton asked, with ill-concealed eagerness.

The sub-editor was, after all, a man. He set his teeth and came back to the present.

"My readers will, I am sure, find your little article quite interesting," he said calmly. "We shall be glad to accept it, and anything else you may send us in the same vein. You have an extraordinary gift for description."

Burton drew a long sigh of relief.

"Thank you," he said. "How much shall you pay me for it?"

The sub-editor estimated the length of the production. It was not an easy matter, owing to the odd scraps of paper upon which it was written.

"Will ten guineas be satisfactory?" he inquired.

"Very satisfactory indeed," Burton replied, "and I should like it now, at once, please. I need some money to send to my wife."

The sub-editor rang for the cashier.

"So you are married," he remarked. "You seem quite young."

"I am married," Burton admitted. "I am not living with my wife just now because we see things differently. I have also a little boy. They live down at Garden Green and I send them money every Saturday."

"What do you do? What is your occupation?"

"I just wander about," Burton explained. "I used to be an auctioneer's clerk, but I lost my situation and I couldn't get another."

"What made you think of writing?" the sub-editor asked, leaning a little over towards his new contributor.

"I picked up a copy of your newspaper on a seat in the Park," Burton replied. "I saw that article on 'London Awake.' I thought if that sort of thing was worth printing, it was worth paying for, so I tried to do something like it. It is so easy to write just what you see," he concluded, apologetically.

The sub-editor handed him his ten guineas.

"When will you bring me some more work?"

"Whenever you like," Burton replied promptly. "What about?"

The sub-editor shook his head.

"You had better choose your own subjects."

"Covent Garden at half-past three?" Burton suggested, a little diffidently. "I can't describe it properly. I can only just put down what I see going on there, but it might be interesting."

"Covent Garden will do very well indeed," the sub-editor told him. "You needn't bother about the description. Just do as you say; put down—what you see."

Burton put down just what he saw as he moved about the city, for ten days following, and without a word of criticism the sub-editor paid him ten guineas a time and encouraged him to come again. Burton, however, decided upon a few days' rest. Not that the work was any trouble to him; on the contrary it was all too ridiculously easy. It seemed to him the most amazing thing that a description in plain words of what any one might stand and look at, should be called literature. And yet some times, in his more thoughtful moments, he dimly understood. He remembered that between him and the multitudes of his fellow-creatures there was a difference. Everything he saw, he saw through the clear white light. There were no mists to cloud his vision, there was no halo of idealism hovering around the objects upon which his eyes rested. It was the truth he saw, and nothing beyond it. He compared his own work with work of a similar character written by well-known men, and his understanding became more complete. He found in their work a touch of personality, a shade of self-consciousness about the description of even the most ordinary things. The individuality of the writer and his subject were always blended. In his own work, subject alone counted. He had never learned any of the tricks of writing. His prose consisted of the simple use of simple words. His mind was empty of all inheritance of acquired knowledge. He had no preconceived ideals, towards the realizations of which he should bend the things he saw. He was simply a prophet of absolute truth. If he had found in those days a literary godfather, he would, without doubt, have been presented to the world as a genius.

Then, with money in his pocket, clad once more in decent apparel, he made one more effort to do his duty. He sent for Ellen and little Alfred to come up and see him. He sent them a little extra money, and he wrote as kindly as possible. He wanted to do the right thing; he was even anxious about it. He determined that he would do his very best to bridge over that yawning gulf. The gingerbread villa he absolutely could not face, so he met them at the Leicester Square Tube.

The moment they arrived, his heart sank. They stepped out of the lift and looked around them. Ellen's hat seemed larger than ever, and was ornate with violent-colored flowers. Her face was hidden behind a violet veil, and she wore a white feather boa, fragments of which reposed upon the lift man's shoulder and little Alfred's knickerbockers. Her dress was of black velveteen, fitting a little tightly over her corsets, and showing several imperfectly removed stains and creases. She wore tan shoes, one of which was down at the heel, and primrose-colored gloves. Alfred wore his usual black Sunday suit, a lace collar around his neck about a foot wide, a straw hat on the ribbon of which was printed the name of one of His Majesty's battleships, and a curl plastered upon his forehead very much in the style of Burton himself in earlier days. Directly he saw his father, he put his finger in his mouth and seemed inclined to howl. Ellen raised her veil and pushed him forward.

"Run to daddy," she ordered, sharply. "Do as you're told, or I'll box your ears."

The child made an unwilling approach. Ellen herself advanced, holding her skirts genteelly clutched in her left hand, her eyes fixed upon her husband, her expression a mixture of defiance and appeal. Burton welcomed them both calmly. His tongue failed him, however, when he tried to embark upon the most ordinary form of greeting. Their appearance gave him again a most unpleasant shock, a fact which he found it extremely difficult to conceal.

"Well, can't you say you're glad to see us?" Ellen demanded, belligerently.

"If I had not wished to see you," he replied, tactfully, "I should not have asked you to come."

"Kiss your father," Ellen ordered, twisting the arm of her offspring. "Kiss him at once, then, and stop whimpering."

The salute, which seemed to afford no one any particular satisfaction, was carried out in perfunctory fashion. Burton, secretly wiping his lips—he hated peppermint—turned towards Piccadilly.

"We will have some tea," he suggested,—"Lyons', if you like. There is music there. I am glad that you are both well."

"Considering," Ellen declared, "that you haven't set eyes on us for Lord knows how long—well, you need to be glad. Upon my word!"

She was regarding her husband in a puzzled manner. Burton was quietly but well dressed. His apparel was not such as Ellen would have thought of choosing for him, but in a dim sort of way she recognized its qualities. She recognized, too, something new about him which, although she vigorously rebelled against it, still impressed her with a sense of superiority.

"Alfred Burton," she continued, impressively, "for the dear land's sake, what's come over you? Mrs. Johnson was around last week and told me you'd lost your job at Waddington's months ago. And here you are, all in new clothes, and not a word about coming back or anything. Am I your wife or not? What do you mean by it? Have you gone off your head, or what have we done—me and little Alfred?"

"We will talk at tea-time," Burton said, uneasily.

Ellen set her lips grimly and the little party hastened on. Burton ordered an extravagant tea, in which Ellen declined to take the slightest interest. Alfred alone ate stolidly and with every appearance of complete satisfaction. Burton had chosen a place as near the band as possible, with a view to rendering conversation more or less difficult. Ellen, however, had a voice which was superior to bands. Alfred, with his mouth continually filled with bun, appeared fascinated by the cornet player, from whom he seldom removed his eyes.

"What I want to know, Alfred Burton, is first how long this tomfoolery is to last, and secondly what it all means?" Ellen began, with her elbows upon the table and a reckless disregard of neighbors. "Haven't we lived for ten years, husband and wife, at Clematis Villa, and you as happy and satisfied with his home as a man could be? And now, all of a sudden, comes this piece of business. Have you gone off your head? Here are all the neighbors just wild with curiosity, and I knowing no more what to say to them than the man in the moon."

"Is there any necessity to say anything to them?" Burton asked, a little vaguely.

Ellen shook in her chair. A sham tortoise-shell hairpin dropped from her untidy hair on to the floor with a little clatter. Her veil parted at the top from her hat. Little Alfred, terrified by an angry frown from the cornet player, was hastily returning fragments of partially consumed bun to his plate. The air of the place was hot and uncomfortable. Burton for a moment half closed his eyes. His whole being was in passionate revolt.

"Any necessity?" Ellen repeated, half hysterically. "Alfred Burton, let's have done with this shilly-shallying! After coming home regularly to your meals for six years, do you suppose you can disappear and not have people curious? Do you suppose you can leave your wife and son and not a word said or a question asked? What I want to know is this—are you coming home to Clematis Villa or are you not?"

"At present I am not," Burton declared, gently but very firmly indeed.

"Is it true that you've got the sack from Mr. Waddington?"

"Perfectly," he admitted. "I have found some other work, though."

She leaned forward so that one of those dyed feathers to which he objected so strongly brushed his cheek.

"Have you touched the money in the Savings Bank?" she demanded.

"I have drawn out every penny of it to send you week by week," he replied, "but I am in a position now to replace it. You can do it yourself, in your own name, if you like. Here it is."

He produced a little roll of notes and handed them to her. She took them with shaking fingers. She was beginning to lose some of her courage. The sight of the money impressed her.

"Alfred Burton," she said, "why don't you drop all this foolishness? Come home with us this afternoon."

She leaned across the table, on which she had once more plumped her elbows. She looked at him in a way he had once found fascinating—her chin thrown forward, her cheeks supported by her knuckles. Little specks of her boa fell into her untouched teacup.

"Come home with Alfred and me," she begged, with half-ashamed earnestness. "It's band night and we might ask the Johnsons in to supper. I've got a nice steak in the house, been hanging, and Mrs. Cross could come in and cook it while we are out. Mr. Johnson would sing to us afterwards, and there's your banjo. You do play it so well, Alfred. You used to like band nights—to look forward to them all the week. Come, now!"

The man's whole being was in a state of revolt. It was an amazing thing indeed, this which had come to him. No wonder Ellen was puzzled! She had right on her side, and more than right. It was perfectly true that he had been accustomed to look forward to band nights. It was true that he used to like to have a neighbor in to supper afterwards, and play the fool with the banjo and crack silly jokes; talk shop with Johnson, who was an auctioneer's clerk himself; smoke atrocious cigars and make worse puns. And now! He looked at her almost pitifully.

"I—I can't manage it just yet," he said, hurriedly. "I'll write—or see you again soon. Ellen, I'm sorry," he wound up, "but just at present I can't change anything."

So Burton paid the bill and the tea-party was over. He saw them off as far as the lift in Leicester Square Station, but Ellen never looked at him again. He had a shrewd suspicion that underneath her veil she was weeping. She refused to say good-bye and kept tight hold of Alfred's hand. When they had gone, he passed out of the station and stood upon the pavement of Piccadilly Circus. Side by side with a sense of immeasurable relief, an odd kind of pain was gripping his heart. Something that had belonged to him had been wrenched away. A wave of meretricious sentiment, false yet with a curious base of naturalness, swept in upon him for a moment and tugged at his heart-strings. She had been his woman; the little boy with the sticky mouth was child of his. The bald humanity of his affections for them joined forces for a moment with the simple greatness of his new capacity. Dimly he realized that somewhere behind all these things lurked a truth greater than any he had as yet found. Then, with an almost incredible swiftness, this new emotion began to fade away. His brain began to work, his new fastidiousness asserted itself. A wave of cheap perfume assailed his nostrils. The untidy pretentiousness of her ill-chosen clothes, the unreality of her manner and carriage, the sheer vulgarity of her choice of words and phrases—these things seized him as a nightmare. Like a man who rushes to a cafe for a drink in a moment of exhaustion, he hastened along towards the National Gallery. His nerves were all quivering. An opalescent light in the sky above Charing Cross soothed him for a moment. A glimpse into a famous art shop was like a cool draught of water. Then, as he walked along in more leisurely fashion, the great idea came to him. He stopped short upon the pavement. Here was the solution to all his troubles: a bean for Ellen; another, or perhaps half of one, for little Alfred! He could not go back to their world; he would bring them into his!

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