English Literature

The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton by Edward Phillips Oppenheim

The Double Life Of Mr. Alfred Burton by Edward Phillips Oppenheim.jpg

CHAPTER I
THE FRUIT OF THE TREE

Mr. Alfred Burton, although he was blissfully and completely ignorant of the fact, stood at the door of Fate. He was a little out of breath and his silk hat was reclining at the back of his head. In his mouth was a large cigar which he felt certain was going to disagree with him, but he smoked it because it had been presented to him a few minutes ago by the client upon whom he was in attendance. He had rather deep-set blue eyes, which might have been attractive but for a certain keenness in their outlook, which was in a sense indicative of the methods and character of the young man himself; a pale, characterless face, a straggling, sandy moustache, and an earnest, not to say convincing, manner. He was dressed in such garments as the head-clerk of Messrs. Waddington & Forbes, third-rate auctioneers and house agents, might have been expected to select. He dangled a bunch of keys in his hand.

“If this house don’t suit you, sir,” he declared, confidently, “why, there isn’t one in the whole west-end that will. That’s my opinion, anyway. There’s nothing in our books to compare with it for value and accommodation. We nearly let it last week to Lord Leconside, but Her Ladyship—she came round with me herself—decided that it was just a trifle too large. As a matter of fact, sir,” this energetic young man went on, confidentially, “the governor insisted upon a deposit and it didn’t seem to be exactly convenient. It isn’t always these people with titles who’ve got the money. That we find out in our business, sir, as quickly as anybody. As for the steam heating you were talking about, Mr. Lynn, why, that’s all very well for New York,” he continued, persuasively, “but over here the climate doesn’t call for it—you can take it from me that it doesn’t, indeed, Mr. Lynn. I have the letting in my hands of as many houses as most people, and you can take it from me, sir, as the direct result of my experience, that over here they won’t have it—won’t have it at any price, sir. Most unhealthy we find it, and always produces a rare crop of colds and coughs unknown to those that are used to an honest coal fire. It’s all a matter of climate, sir, after all, isn’t it?”

The young man paused to take breath. His client, who had been listening attentively in gloomy but not unappreciative silence, removed his cigar from his mouth. He was a middle-aged American with a wife and daughters on their way over from New York, and his business was to take a house before they arrived. It wasn’t a job he liked, but he was making the best of it. This young man appealed to his sense of business.

“Say,” he remarked, approvingly, “you’ve learned how to talk in your trade!”

Stimulated by this encouragement, Alfred Burton clapped on his hat a little more securely, took a long breath, and went at it again.

“Why, I’m giving myself a rest this morning, sir!” he declared. “I haven’t troubled to tell you more than the bare facts. This house doesn’t need any talking about—doesn’t need a word said about it. Her Ladyship’s last words to us were—Lady Idlemay, you know, the owner of the house—’Mr. Waddington and Mr. Burton,’ she said—she was speaking to us both, for the governor always introduces me to clients as being the one who does most of the letting,—’Mr. Waddington and Mr. Burton,’ she said, ‘if a tenant comes along whom you think I’d like to have living in my rooms and using my furniture, breathing my air, so to speak, why, go ahead and let the house, rents being shockingly low just now, with agricultural depression and what not, but sooner than not let it to gentlepeople, I’ll do without the money,’ Her Ladyship declared. Now you’re just the sort of tenant she’d like to have here. I’m quite sure of that, Mr. Lynn. I should take a pleasure in bringing you two together.”

Mr. Lynn grunted. He was perfectly well aware that the house would seem more desirable to his wife and daughters from the very fact that it belonged to a “Lady” anybody. He was perfectly well aware, also, that his companion had suspected this. The consideration of these facts left him, however, unaffected. He was disposed, if anything, to admire the cleverness of the young man who had realized an outside asset.

“Well, I’ve seen pretty well all over it,” he remarked. “I’ll go back to the office with you, anyhow, and have a word with Mr. Waddington. By the way, what’s that room behind you?”

The young man glanced carelessly around at the door of the room of Fate and down at the bunch of keys which he held in his hand. He even chuckled as he replied.

“I was going to mention the matter of that room, sir,” he replied, “because, if perfectly agreeable to the tenant, Her Ladyship would like to keep it locked up.”

“Locked up?” Mr. Lynn repeated. “And why?”

“Regular queer story, sir,” the young man declared, confidentially. “The late Earl was a great traveller in the East, as you may have heard, and he was always poking about in some ruined city or other in the desert, and picking up things and making discoveries. Well, last time he came home from abroad, he brought with him an old Egyptian or Arab,—I don’t know which he was, but he was brown,—settled him down in this room—in his own house, mind—and wouldn’t have him disturbed or interfered with, not at any price. Well, the old chap worked here night and day at some sort of writing, and then, naturally enough, what with not having the sort of grub he liked, and never going outside the doors, he croaked.”

“He what?” Mr. Lynn interposed.

“He died,” the young man explained. “It was just about the time that the Earl was ill himself. His Lordship gave orders that the body was to be buried and the room locked up, in case the old chap’s heirs should come along. Seems he’d brought a few odd things of his own over—nothing whatever of any value. Anyway, those were Lord Idlemay’s wishes, and the room has been locked up ever since.”

Mr. Lynn was interested.

“No objection to our just looking inside, I suppose?”

“None whatever,” the young man declared, promptly. “I was going to have a peep myself. Here goes!”

He fitted the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Mr. Lynn took one step forward and drew back hurriedly.

“Thanks!” he said. “That’ll do! I’ve seen all I want—and smelt!”

Mr. Alfred Burton, fortunately or unfortunately, was possessed of less sensitive nasal organs and an indomitable curiosity. The room was dark and stuffy, and a wave of pungent odor swept out upon them with the opening of the door. Nevertheless, he did not immediately close it.

“One moment!” he muttered, peering inside. “I’ll just look around and see that everything is in order.”

He crossed the threshold and passed into the room. It was certainly a curious apartment. The walls were hung not with paper at all, but with rugs of some Oriental material which had the effect of still further increasing the gloom. There were neither chairs nor tables—no furniture at all, in fact, of any account but in the furthest corner was a great pile of cushions, and on the floor by the side a plain strip of sandalwood, covered with a purple cloth, on which were several square-shaped sheets of paper, a brass inkstand, and a bundle of quill pens. On the extreme corner of this strip of wood, which seemed to have been used as a writing desk by some one reclining upon the cushions, was the strangest article of all. Alfred Burton stared at it with wide-open eyes. It was a tiny plant growing out of a small-sized flower-pot, with real green leaves and a cluster of queer little brown fruit hanging down from among them.

“Jiminy!” the clerk exclaimed. “I say, Mr. Lynn, sir!”

But Mr. Lynn had gone off to pace the dining-room once more. Burton moved slowly forward and stooped down over the cushions. He took up the sheets of paper which lay upon the slab of sandalwood. They were covered with wholly indecipherable characters save for the last page only, and there, even as he stood with it in his fingers, he saw, underneath the concluding paragraph of those unintelligible hieroglyphics, a few words of faintly traced English, laboriously printed, probably a translation. He struck a match and read them slowly out to himself:

“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—” The translation concluded abruptly. Mr. Alfred Burton removed his silk hat and reflectively scratched his head.

“Queer sort of joker he must have been,” he remarked to himself. “I wonder what he was getting at?”

His eyes fell upon the little tree. He felt the earth in the pot it was quite dry. Yet the tree itself was fresh and green.

“Here goes for a brown bean,” he continued, and plucked one.

Even then, while he held it in his fingers, he hesitated.

“Don’t suppose it will do me any harm,” he muttered, doubtfully.

There was naturally no reply. Mr. Alfred Burton laughed uneasily to himself. The shadows of the room and its curious perfume were a trifle disconcerting.

“Risk it, anyway,” he concluded. “Here goes!” He raised the little brown fruit—which did indeed somewhat resemble a bean—to his mouth and swallowed it. He found it quite tasteless, but the deed was no sooner done than he was startled by a curious buzzing in his ears and a momentary but peculiar lapse of memory. He sat and looked around him like a man who has been asleep and suddenly awakened in unfamiliar surroundings. Then the sound of his client’s voice suddenly recalled him to himself. He started up and peered through the gloom.

“Who’s there?” he asked, sharply.

“Say, young man, I am waiting for you when you’re quite ready,” Mr. Lynn remarked from the threshold. “Queer sort of atmosphere in there, isn’t it?”

Mr. Alfred Burton came slowly out and locked the door of the room. Even then he was dimly conscious that something had happened to him. He hated the musty odor of the place, the dusty, unswept hall, and the general air of desertion. He wanted to get out into the street and he hurried his client toward the front door. As soon as he had locked up, he breathed a little sigh of relief.

“What a delicious soft wind!” he exclaimed, removing his unsightly hat. “Really, I think that when we get a sunny day like this, April is almost our most beautiful month.”

Mr. Lynn stared at his companion, who was now slowly descending the steps.

“Say, about this house,” he began, “I guess I’d better take it. It may not be exactly what I want but it seems to me to be about as near as anything I am likely to find. We’ll go round to the office right away and fix things up.”

Mr. Alfred Burton shook his head doubtfully.

“I don’t think I would take it, if I were you, Mr. Lynn,” he said.

Mr. Lynn stopped short upon the pavement and looked at his companion in amazement. The latter had the air of one very little interested in the subject of conversation. He was watching approvingly a barrowful of lilac and other spring flowers being wheeled along by a flower-seller in the middle of the road.

“What an exquisite perfume!” the young man murmured, enthusiastically. “Doesn’t it remind you, Mr. Lynn, of a beautiful garden somewhere right away in the country—one of those old-fashioned gardens, you know, with narrow paths where you have to push your way through the flowers, and where there are always great beds of pink and white stocks near the box edges? And do you notice—an accident, of course—but what a delicate blend of color the lilac and those yellow jonquils make!”

“I can’t smell anything,” the American declared, a little impatiently, “and I don’t know as I want to just now. I am here to talk business, if you don’t mind.”

“In one moment,” Burton replied. “Excuse me for one moment, if you please.”

He hastened across the street and returned a moment or two later with a bunch of violets in his hand. Mr. Lynn watched him, partly in amazement, partly in disapproval. There seemed to be very little left of the smart, businesslike young man whose methods, only a short time ago, had commanded his unwilling admiration. Mr. Alfred Burton’s expression had undergone a complete change. His eyes had lost their calculating twinkle, his mouth had softened. A pleasant but somewhat abstracted smile had taken the place of his forced amiability.

“You will forgive me, won’t you?” he said, as he regained the pavement.
“I really haven’t smelt violets before this year. Spring comes upon us
Londoners so suddenly.”

“About that house, now,” the American insisted, a little sharply.

“Certainly,” Burton replied, removing his eyes unwillingly from the
passing barrow. “I really don’t think you had better take it, Mr.
Lynn. You see, it is not generally known, but there is no doubt that
Lord Idlemay had typhoid fever there.”

“Typhoid!” Mr. Lynn exclaimed, incredulously.

His companion nodded.

“Two of the servants were down with it as well,” he continued. “We implored Lady Idlemay, when she offered us the letting of the house, to have the drains put in thorough order, but when we got the estimate out for her she absolutely declined. To tell you the truth, the best agents had all refused, under the circumstances, to have the house upon their books at all. That is why we got the letting of it.”

Mr. Lynn removed the cigar from his mouth for a moment. There was a slight frown Upon his forehead. He was puzzled.

“Say, you’re not getting at me for any reason, are you?” he demanded.

“My dear sir!” Burton protested, eagerly. “I am simply doing my duty and telling you the truth. The house is not in a fit state to be let to any one—certainly not to a man with a family. If you will permit me to say so, you are not going the right way to secure a suitable house. You simply walked into our office because you saw the sign up, and listened to anything the governor had to say. We haven’t any west-end houses at all upon our books. It isn’t our business, unfortunately. Miller & Sons, or Roscoe’s, are the best people. No one would even come to see you at Idlemay House, much less stay with you—the place has such a bad reputation.”

“Then will you be good enough to just explain to me why you were cracking it up like blazes only a few minutes ago?” Mr. Lynn demanded, indignantly. “I nearly took the darned place!”

Mr. Burton shook his head penitently.

“I am afraid that I cannot explain, sir,” he confessed. “To tell you the truth, I do not understand in the least how I could have brought myself to be so untruthful. I am only thankful that no harm has been done.”

They had reached the corner of the street in which the offices of Messrs. Waddington & Forbes were situated. Mr. Lynn came to a full stop.

“I can’t see but what we might just as well part here, young man,” he declared. “There’s no use in my coming to your office, after what you’ve told me.”

“Not the slightest,” Mr. Burton admitted frankly, “in fact you are better away. Mr. Waddington would certainly try to persuade you to take the house. If you’ll accept my advice, sir, you will go to Miller & Sons in St. James’s Place. They have all the best houses on their books and they are almost certain to find something to suit you.”

Mr. Lynn gazed once more at his companion curiously.

“Say, I’m not quite sure that I can size you up, even now,” he said. “At first I thought that you were a rare little hustler, right on the job. I was set against that house and yet you almost persuaded me into taking it. What’s come over you, anyway?”

Mr. Burton shook his head dubiously.

“I am afraid that it is no use asking me,” he replied, “for I really don’t quite know myself.”

Mr. Lynn still lingered. The longer he looked at his companion, the more he appreciated the subtle change of demeanor and language which had certainly transformed Mr. Alfred Burton.

“It was after you came out of that little room,” he continued, meditatively, “where that Oriental fellow had been shut up. The more I think of it, the odder it seems. You were as perky as mustard when you went in and you’ve been sort of dazed ever Since you came out.”

Mr. Burton lifted his hat.

“Good day, sir!” he said. “I trust that you will find a residence to suit you.”

Mr. Lynn strolled off with a puzzled frown upon his forehead, and
Alfred Burton, with a slight gesture of aversion, pushed open the
swinging doors which led into the offices of Messrs. Waddington &
Forbes.

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Categories: English Literature

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