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!
THE TRUTHFUL AUCTIONEER
At a little before ten on the following morning, Burton stood upon the pavement outside, looking with some amazement at the house in Wenslow Square. The notices “To Let” had all been torn down. A small army of paper-hangers and white-washers were at work. A man was busy fastening flower boxes in the lower windows. On all hands were suggestions of impending occupation. Burton mounted the steps doubtfully and stood in the hall, underneath a whitewasher’s plank. The door of the familiar little room stood open before him. He peered eagerly in. It was swept bare and completely empty. All traces of its former mysterious occupant were gone.
“Is this house let?” he inquired of a man who was deliberately stirring a pail of shiny whitewash.
The plasterer nodded.
“Seems so,” he admitted. “It’s been empty long enough.”
Burton looked around him a little vaguely.