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   Chapter 2 A TRANSFORMATION

The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 14191

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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!

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