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   Chapter 5 BURTON'S NEW LIFE

The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 12902

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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:

My DEAR ELLEN,

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,

ALFRED BURTON.

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!

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