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   Chapter 6 A MEETING WITH ELLEN

The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 17865

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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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