By Barry Pain
MY friend in the Inland Revenue Office said: "Do you know what a character-changer is?"
"No more do I; no more does anybody else that I have asked. I came upon it in an income-tax paper, brought to me because there was some irregularity in it. The man paying the tax declares that his income is derived from the profession of character-changer."
I suggested that it might possibly be a music-hall performer who assumed many different parts.
"Anyone could have thought of that," said my friend. "That's not it. Do music-hall performers pay income tax on twenty-three hundred pounds a year?"
"What is his name?"
"You know perfectly that I cannot give you his name or anything about him. These things are strictly confidential."
"Then we'll talk about something else," I said.
"'Edward Franks, 3 Laburnum Terrace, N. W.' For heaven's sake, don't let him know that you got it from me!"
"I shall be secrecy itself. I'll tell you all about it in a day or two."
The houses in Laburnum Terrace are good houses, letting for one hundred and fifty pounds a year, detached, with gardens and billiard-rooms and all the comforts.
Mr. Franks was a man of about thirty, particularly well dressed and well groomed. There were both imagination and shrewdness in his face. The eye was poetical, the mouth thin and severe, the chin strong. He begged me to be seated, and asked what he could do for me.
"The case is very simple," I said. "The other day I was talking to a friend at the club, who knows both of us, on the subject of strange professions. He mentioned your name and said that you were a character-changer, but he refused to explain in what the profession consisted. I at once made a bet with him that I should find out in three days. I never lose a bet."
At this moment my glance fell on Mr. Franks, and I noticed that his eyes were blazing with anger and his foot tapping impatiently on the floor. I continued: "As I have said, I never lose a bet. The simplest and pleasantest way of winning this one was to come to you direct and put the simple question to you. If you would prefer not to answer, say so, and I will go at once, with many apologies for my visit; but I must add that in that case I shall be compelled to find out in some other way."
"Was this mutual friend of whom you speak," he inquired, "the Duke of Scotsburg?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Young Scotsburg always struck me as an indiscreet man. Of course, my rule is that none of my clients is at liberty to mention either my name and address or profession to anybody without very good reason to believe that the person to whom the disclosure is made will in his turn become a client, and that, I understand, is not your intention?"
"Certainly it is not."
"You have not yet told me if it was the Duke."
"I am afraid," I said, "that I must decline to—"
"You need not speak, then. I knew from the start that it must have been he. I shall never take another client with a chin as small as that; at any rate, not without a substantial money guarantee. Indiscretions like this would very soon ruin my business. However, I shall be revenged on Scotsburg, because I shall make him lose his bet. I shall tell you all.
"There is a great deal of discontent in the world," said Mr. Franks, leaning back in his chair, crossing his legs and lighting a cigar.
"A great deal," I assented.
"It has been traced to drink," Mr. Franks went on, "and to gambling, and to the reading of penny stories about pirates, and to the want of a mother's gliding hand, and to evil companionship, and to many other things."
"I have read something of the sort," I said.
"But," said Mr. Franks, "the commonest form of discontent is that which arises in a man because he does not produce on his friends and acquaintances the impression that he wishes to produce. Things are, as a matter of fact, very much what they seem. If a man, for instance, is considered to be cruel, and appears cruel, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he is cruel. Very often, as in the case of cruelty or any other objectionable quality, he tries to conceal it." Mr. Franks laughed. "These amateur attempts at character-changing amuse me immensely. They are so pettifogging and cowardly; there are no bold strokes, no coups, no inventions, no study of details—in a word, no art. I believe there never was a moment in the world when hypocrisy was at so low an ebb as at present. The intention is there all right, but the means to carry it out are wanting——"
He paused a moment, and added—"unless you employ Mr. Edward Franks, character-changer; and his terms are high. I have made a special study of this business. I enable a man to produce temporarily, and sometimes even permanently, the impression that he wishes. I employ more agents than any private detective in London. I could give you a list of some twenty journals that are subsidized by me. My income for the last year, to give you the exact figures, was £17,425.8.11, and for years past it has never been under ten thousand. My business is one of the few in London in which there is still plenty of room for competition, but the competitor will have to be a man of tact, of varied knowledge, of considerable courage and of absolute discretion."
I did not like to refer to that delicate question of the income tax, though I had noticed the discrepancy in figures. I said: "I should not have thought there were so many people in England anxious to be thought different from what they really are and willing to pay hard cash to effect the change in their reputation."
"Quite so," said Mr. Franks; "most people are of your opinion, and that is why I have the field to myself; but it is not really the case. Consider, for instance, the shady type of city man who, at the age of forty-five, has made his pile in more or less doubtful ways and has given up business. He retires to the country. He hunts two days a week, and nobody speaks to him. Plenty of people call on him, but not the people that he wants. He would like to stand for Parliament, but there are too many ugly stories about him. That is a simple and very usual case. A man wants whitewashing. I come and whitewash him. I charge him two thousand, and it costs me, say, five hundred in out-of-pocket expenses. Suppose, for instance, that the widow and the orphan were defrauded by the Gilt-Edged Investment Association, and our city man is generally known to have been himself, by himself, the Gilt-Edged Investment Association. I invent a partner and work him on the Spenlow and Jorkins lines. Letters come enclosing receipts for large sums from widows and orphans, speaking of our friend's self-sacrificing and magnanimous conduct in bearing the whole of the loss himself and shielding his partner for the sake of his partner's children. One of those letters goes through the local post office accidentally unfastened; one or two are left about in our friend's library, where his servants can see them. One is dropped by accident at the charity bazaar at which he is making large purchases. But that is merely a trifle—only one of the many possible ingredients of the whitewash. I do not give you the entire recipe for the fluid, because, speaking candidly, the business is a good business and I want to keep it to myself. Many of my patrons are actors, many are parsons, many are authors. They do not all come for whitewash, of course. I have known a man to wish to become blackwashed. I had to procure for a young curate of twenty-seven, with no vices and no knowledge of the world, the reputation of a seasoned roué. He had good reasons for asking it, and I did what he wanted, though I own that it was tough work."
"And what," I asked, "do you find is most in demand? What character is it that most people wish to assume?"
"Well," said Franks, meditatively, "they do not put it in the phrase that I shall use, but certainly what a great number of my clients want, and will pay large sums to obtain, is the reputation that they conceal the iron hand in the velvet glove. And, curiously enough, that is one of the most difficult reputations to set up. A sheep in wolf's clothing generally gets bowled out sooner or later, if I may mix my metaphors a little. They are all right while I am with them. I get the reputation started. I give them most careful directions how it is to be sustained, but too frequently it ends in disappointment. They will open their mouths and bleat, and then the wolf's skin is a poor disguise."
"What was it," I asked, "that you did for the Duke of Scotsburg?"
"I take pleasure," he answered, vindictively, "in telling you. He has given me away, and now I will give him away. He walks all right now, doesn't he?"
I do not know the Duke and have never seen him, but I answered: "Certainly; as well as you or I."
"Did you ever hear, some time ago, that he limped very badly—that one leg was shorter than the other?"
I remembered that I had seen a picture of him in a society paper in which he was represented as using two very handsome ebony walking-sticks. I mentioned the picture.
"The Scotsburgs are always hard up and have been hard up for two generations. They have always had enormous families, and, as a rule, nineteen out of every twenty Scotsburgs are black sheep. The present Duke is the blackest of the black."
"What has that got to do with his limp?" I asked—"with one leg being shorter than the other?"
"One leg never was any shorter than the other, and he never limped, except of his own free will. It was I who got him the reputation for a slight difference in the length of his legs and for the slight limp. You see, it was not a very easy business. At the age of twenty-five he had to start a congenital defect; and people who had known him for the most of those twenty-five years wanted to know why they had never noticed it before."
"How did you get over that?"
"Simplicity itself. I became known as Scotsburg's intimate friend. I had been at school with him, I had been at college with him, it was said. I had to have an indiscreet moment in a smoking-room when there were plenty of men there of the kind who would talk, and to refer to the specially constructed boot that enabled him to conceal his infirmity. Scotsburg flew into a rage and called me a liar. He tucked one foot under the couch on which he was sitting. When he got up to go people unostentatiously and with as much delicacy as possible looked at that foot. The sole of the boot was certainly thicker than that of the other. Then came the day when he owned up, when he said that he could not go through the awful agony that the patent boot caused him any more, and that he would sooner go through the world a helpless cripple. After that came the limp and the two walking-sticks. I must say that so far he did his part admirably. He really seemed to have some talent for acting. But I got to be very nervous indeed about that limp. Every now and then he would forget it. I have seen him, at the time when he had given up the patent boot and was in consequence supposed to be an incurable cripple for life, run the length of Euston platform at top speed in order to catch a train. If he had been recognized all my work would have been undone. I told him that he would have to limp always, even when he was by himself, in order to get into the habit of it, or I should give up the case."
"But," I asked, "why on earth should the Duke of Scotsburg, who, so you tell me, is hard up, pay you money in order to have it generally supposed that one of his legs is shorter than the other, and that in consequence he walks lame?"
"We are coming to that. Some months afterward, when his lameness was a matter of frequent and sympathetic reference in London papers and London society, he was playing billiards at the club; he is quite up to professional form, you know, and a good many men were watching the game. As he was hobbling round the table a man who knew him slightly said:
"You could cure that leg of yours in a fortnight, if you liked."
"No, I couldn't," said the Duke; "I'd give all I possess to be able to do it."
"Did you," said the other man, "ever try Chimmons's Remedial Tissue?"
"Never heard of it," said the Duke. Then I joined in.
"Here, old man," I said, "don't you try any of those infernal quack preparations. They'll only make you worse."
The Duke again lost his temper with me. He told me to go to the devil, and he could mind his own business without any advice from me. I told him to take Chimmons's Remedial Tissue for his temper at the same time, and went out. The Duke wrote down on his shirt cuff the name of the remedy and the name of the place where it could be procured. Three weeks afterward the world was astonished to find that his lameness had vanished and that there was no longer anything the matter with him."
"Even now I do not see it," I said.
"You can't miss it. The Duke is now the chairman of Chimmons's Remedial Tissue, Limited, and in a position to give an excellent personal reason for having joined the board. He gives no printed testimonial to the Remedial Tissue, but the thing is known and talked about, and that is better than a printed advertisement. His director's fees are very handsome and he gets them regularly, and the terms on which he consented to act as chairman of the board, though they have never been revealed, must have been highly profitable to him. Otherwise, he would never have paid me with so much readiness and gratitude the somewhat high fee that I asked for my part in the transaction."
"I see," I said, meditatively; "it must be very much more difficult for you when the change required is of a physical kind."
"So difficult," said Mr. Franks, "as to be sometimes impossible. Women who have lost their youth want it back again; women who have lost their beauty want it back again. Very often I decline the case altogether. Sometimes I succeed. I made a special study of that branch."
"And," I continued, "I suppose you supplement your income considerably from the sale of toilet articles which you have discovered to be specially suited for the purpose?"
"Good heavens, no!" he replied. "I am not a chemist or a barber. I recommend nothing of the kind and use nothing of the kind. The changes that I effect are always changes in character. I do not make a person young or beautiful. I make people think that they are young or beautiful. If it could all be done with a sovereign's worth of facial massage, cucumber cream, rice powder and rot of that kind, they would not come to me. It wouldn't be business."
"Then," I said, "how do you manage it?"
"I won't give away my secret in detail, but I will tell you the main lines on which I work. I start on the theory that I have proved over and over again that ninety-nine people in every hundred pretend to reverence beauty, and not one person in every hundred knows it when he sees it. They wait for twelve hours outside the pit door of the Lyceum—because they see the beauty of Shakespeare? Not a bit of it. They would be happier at a melodrama. They are the ninety-and-nine unjust persons to whom I have alluded. I take, say, a passably plain woman. If she wishes to be beautiful she probably does a little cucumber-cream business. She is quite elementary and childish, and it takes her no further. The first thing I teach her is to behave as if she were beautiful. All beautiful women have a distinct manner of their own. There are seventy-four special points to be noted in the behavior of a beautiful woman. My client has to learn these and practice them daily until she adopts them unconsciously. Then my agents begin to work. In one place and another they say boldly that my client is a beautiful woman. I have a special photograph taken of her—the man who takes these for me is really a genius. That gets into the papers. It is so like her that it cannot be mistaken, and yet it is undeniably beautiful. And you know that most people think that photographs cannot lie. Every woman has some good point, and I am careful to note what my client's good point is. I get it talked about, I get it alluded to in what are called society papers. Of course there are some objectors, some people who say confidentially to each other that everybody seems to consider Miss So-and-So very beautiful, but for the life of them they cannot see it. That does not matter. The general impression is made. Of course, no woman who comes to me with this request is allowed to manage her own dresses. I have a little Frenchwoman who works exclusively for me and has a marvelous talent in arranging things of that kind. Still, I own that such cases are difficult. I would sooner try to produce the effect of courage, for instance, as in the case of Peter Arlingford."
"Who was he?" I asked.
"Oh, that was a case of no interest. A big, fine-looking fellow, but his heart was not very strong, and, consequently, he had no courage. It seemed ridiculous for him, being so big, to be considered a coward, so he put himself into my hands. He was a little trouble at the start. One of my agents, an exceedingly accomplished swimmer, had a sham suicide off the Embankment. Arlingford was to go in after him. He was a very fair swimmer himself. Of course, there would have been no actual rescue. But there would have been the credit of it. Arlingford changed his mind at the last moment and would not go in. But we got him his reputation all right afterward. People who know him very well say now that many a man who wears the V. C. hasn't half the pluck of Peter Arlingford."
"Tell me some more."
"I am afraid I have no more time to give you, unless I can regard you as a client. Would you like to be considered wealthy? That is one of the easiest of my transformations. Give me three weeks, and your bank will let you overdraw a thousand without an atom of security, and never think it worth while to write to you about it."
"No, thanks," I said, "I am quite contented. My appointment in the Inland Revenue Office is all that I require. I have made a note on my cuff that you mentioned your income as £17,425.8.11. Your return gives your income at £2,300. You may have an opportunity later of explaining the discrepancy."
Mr. Franks was not in the least perturbed.
"Since," he said, "you are quite contented with your character, it is probably good. I am afraid I must tell you that in a fortnight's time the whole story will be known of your connection with the Liberator frauds, with Monson, and with one or two other little things."
"One each," I observed; "and me to play. If I were far too honorable to make any use of a private conversation for the purposes of my official work, you on your side would hardly run the risk that must attend the promulgation of scandals and libels."
"A drawn game," he replied.
And we parted.