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   Chapter 3 MR. ALFRED BURTON'S FAMILY

The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 14118

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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!"

"Well?"

"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 th

ese 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."

"Finished?"

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.

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