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The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 15025

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

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 on

ly 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.

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