A MILLIONAIRE OF YESTERDAY
By E. Phillips Oppenheim
"Filth," grunted Trent—"ugh! I tell you what it is, my venerable friend—I have seen some dirty cabins in the west of Ireland and some vile holes in East London. I've been in some places which I can't think of even now without feeling sick. I'm not a particular chap, wasn't brought up to it—no, nor squeamish either, but this is a bit thicker than anything I've ever knocked up against. If Francis doesn't hurry we'll have to chuck it! We shall never stand it out, Monty!"
The older man, gaunt, blear-eyed, ragged, turned over on his side. His appearance was little short of repulsive. His voice when he spoke was, curiously enough, the voice of a gentleman, thick and a trifle rough though it sounded.
"My young friend," he said, "I agree with you—in effect—most heartily. The place is filthy, the surroundings are repulsive, not to add degrading. The society is—er—not congenial—I allude of course to our hosts—and the attentions of these unwashed, and I am afraid I must say unclothed, ladies of dusky complexion is to say the least of it embarrassing."
"Dusky complexion!" Trent interrupted scornfully, "they're coal black!"
Monty nodded his head with solemn emphasis. "I will go so far as to admit that you are right," he acknowledged. "They are as black as sin! But, my friend Trent, I want you to consider this: If the nature of our surroundings is offensive to you, think what it must be to me. I may, I presume, between ourselves, allude to you as one of the people. Refinement and luxury have never come in your way, far less have they become indispensable to you. You were, I believe, educated at a Board School, I was at Eton. Afterwards you were apprenticed to a harness-maker, I—but no matter! Let us summarise the situation."
"If that means cutting it short, for Heaven's sake do so," Trent grumbled. "You'll talk yourself into a fever if you don't mind. Let's know what you're driving at."
"Talking," the elder man remarked with a slight shrug of his shoulders, "will never have a prejudicial effect upon my health. To men of your—pardon me—scanty education the expression of ideas in speech is doubtless a labour. To me, on the other hand, it is at once a pleasure and a relief. What I was about to observe is this: I belong by birth to what are called, I believe, the classes, you to the masses. I have inherited instincts which have been refined and cultivated, perhaps over-cultivated by breeding and associations—you are troubled with nothing of the sort. Therefore if these surroundings, this discomfort, not to mention the appalling overtures of our lady friends, are distressing to you, why, consider how much more so they must be to me!"
Trent smiled very faintly, but he said nothing. He was sitting cross-legged with his back against one of the poles which supported the open hut, with his eyes fixed upon the cloud of mist hanging over a distant swamp. A great yellow moon had stolen over the low range of stony hills—the mist was curling away in little wreaths of gold. Trent was watching it, but if you had asked him he would have told you that he was wondering when the alligators came out to feed, and how near the village they ventured. Looking at his hard, square face and keen, black eyes no one would surely have credited him with any less material thoughts.
"Furthermore," the man whom Trent had addressed as Monty continued, "there arises the question of danger and physical suitability to the situation. Contrast our two cases, my dear young friend. I am twenty-five years older than you, I have a weak heart, a ridiculous muscle, and the stamina of a rabbit. My fighting days are over. I can shoot straight, but shooting would only serve us here until our cartridges were gone—when the rush came a child could knock me over. You, on the contrary, have the constitution of an ox, the muscles of a bull, and the wind of an ostrich. You are, if you will pardon my saying so, a magnificent specimen of the animal man. In the event of trouble you would not hesitate to admit that your chances of escape would be at least double mine. Trent lit a match under pretence of lighting his pipe—in reality because only a few feet away he had seen a pair of bright eyes gleaming at them through a low shrub. A little native boy scuttled away—as black as night, woolly-headed, and shiny; he had crept up unknown to look with fearful eyes upon the wonderful white strangers. Trent threw a lump of earth at him and laughed as he dodged it.
"Well, go ahead, Monty," he said. "Let's hear what you're driving at. What a gab you've got to be sure!"
Monty waved his hand—a magnificent and silencing gesture.
"I have alluded to these matters," he continued, "merely in order to show you that the greater share of danger and discomfort in this expedition falls to my lot. Having reminded you of this, Trent, I refer to the concluding sentence of your last speech. The words indicated, as I understood them, some doubt of our ability to see this thing through."
He paused, peering over to where Trent was sitting with grim, immovable face, listening with little show of interest. He drew a long, deep breath and moved over nearer to the doorway. His manner was suddenly changed.
"Scarlett Trent," he cried, "Scarlett Trent, listen to me! You are young and I am old! To you this may be one adventure amongst many—it is my last. I've craved for such a chance as this ever since I set foot in this cursed land. It's come late enough, too late almost for me, but I'm going through with it while there's breath in my body. Swear to me now that you will not back out! Do you hear, Trent? Swear!"
Trent looked curiously at his companion, vastly interested in this sudden outburst, in the firmness of his tone and the tightening of the weak mouth. After all, then, the old chap had some grit in him. To Trent, who had known him for years as a broken-down hanger-on of the settlement at Buckomari, a drunkard, gambler, a creature to all appearance hopelessly gone under, this look and this almost passionate appeal were like a revelation. He stretched out his great hand and patted his companion on the back—a proceeding which obviously caused him much discomfort.
"Bravo, old cockie!" he said. "Didn't imagine you'd got the grit. You know I'm not the chap to be let down easy. We'll go through with it, then, and take all chances! It's my game right along. Every copper I've got went to pay the bearers here and to buy the kickshaws and rum for old What's-his-name, and I'm not anxious to start again as a pauper. We'll stay here till we get our concessions, or till they bury us, then! It's a go!"
Monty—no one at Buckomari had ever known of any other name for him—stretched out a long hand, with delicate tapering fingers, and let it rest for a moment gingerly in the thick, brown palm of his companion. Then he glanced stealthily over his shoulder and his eyes gleamed.
"I think, if you will allow me, Trent, I will just moisten my lips—no more—with some of that excellent brandy."
Trent caught his arm and held it firmly.
"No, you don't," he said, shaking his head. "That's the last bottle, and we've got the journey back. We'll keep that, in case of fever."
A struggle went on in the face of the man whose hot breath fell upon Trent's cheek. It was the usual thing—the disappointment of the baffled drunkard—a little more terrible in his case perhaps because of the remnants of refinement still to be traced in his well-shaped features. His weak eyes for once were eloquent, but with the eloquence of cupidity and unwholesome craving, his lean cheeks twitched and his hands shook.
"Just a drop, Trent!" he pleaded. "I'm not feeling well, indeed I'm not! The odours here are so foul. A liqueur-glassful will do me all the good in the world."
"You won't get it, Monty, so it's no use whining," Trent said bluntly. "I've given way to you too much already. Buck up, man! We're on the threshold of fortune and we need all our wits about us."
"Of fortune—fortune!" Monty's head dropped upon his chest, his nostrils dilated, he seemed to fall into a state of stupor. Trent watched him half curiously, half contemptuously.
"You're terribly keen on money-making for an old 'un," he remarked, after a somewhat lengthy pause. "What do you want to do with it?"
"To do with it!" The old man raised his head. "To do with it!" The gleam of reawakened desire lit up his face. He sat for a moment thinking. Then he laughed softly.
"I will tell you, Master Scarlett Trent," he said, "I will tell you why I crave for wealth. You are a young and an ignorant man. Amongst other things you do not know what money will buy. You have your coarse pleasures I do not doubt, which seem sweet to you! Beyond them—what? A tasteless and barbaric display, a vulgar generosity, an ignorant and purposeless prodigality. Bah! How different it is with those who know! There are many things, my young friend, which I learned in my younger days, and amongst them was the knowledge of how to spend money. How to spend it, you understand! It is an art, believe me! I mastered it, and, until the end came, it was magnificent. In London and Paris to-day to have wealth and to know how to spend it is to be the equal of princes! The salons of the beautiful fly open before you, great men will clamour for your friendship, all the sweetest triumphs which love and sport can offer are yours. You stalk amongst a world of pygmies a veritable giant, the adored of women, the envied of men! You may be old—it matters not; ugly—you will be fooled into reckoning yourself an Adonis. Nobility is great, art is great, genius is great, but the key to the pleasure storehouse of the world is a key of gold—of gold!"
He broke off with a little gasp. He held his throat and looked imploringly towards the bottle. Trent shook his head stonily. There was something pitiful in the man's talk, in that odd mixture of bitter cynicism and passionate earnestness, but there was also something fascinating. As regards the brandy, however, Trent was adamant.
"Not a drop," he declared. "What a fool you are to want it, Monty! You're a wreck already. You want to pull through, don't you? Leave the filthy stuff alone. You'll not live a month to enjoy your coin if we get it!"
"Live!" Monty straightened himself out. A tremor went through all his frame.
"Live!" he repeated, with fierce contempt; "you are making the common mistake of the whole ignorant herd. You are measuring life by its length, when its depth alone is of any import. I want no more than a year or two at the most, and I promise you, Mr. Scarlett Trent, my most estimable young companion, that, during that year, I will live more than you in your whole lifetime. I will drink deep of pleasures which you know nothing of, I will be steeped in joys which you will never reach more nearly than the man who watches a change in the skies or a sunset across the ocean! To you, with boundless wealth, there will be depths of happiness which you will never probe, joys which, if you have the wit to see them at all, will be no more than a mirage to you."
Trent laughed outright, easily and with real mirth. Yet in his heart were sown already the seeds of a secret dread. There was a ring of passionate truth in Monty's words. He believed what he was saying. Perhaps he was right. The man's inborn hatred of a second or inferior place in anything stung him. Were there to be any niches after all in the temple of happiness to which he could never climb? He looked back rapidly, looked down the avenue of a squalid and unlovely life, saw himself the child of drink-sodden and brutal parents, remembered the Board School with its unlovely surroundings, his struggles at a dreary trade, his running away and the fierce draughts of delight which the joy and freedom of the sea had brought to him on the morning when he had crept on deck, a stowaway, to be lashed with every rope-end and to do the dirty work of every one. Then the slavery at a Belgian settlement, the job on a steamer trading along the Congo, the life at Buckomari, and lastly this bold enterprise in which the savings of years were invested. It was a life which called aloud for fortune some day or other to make a little atonement. The old man was dreaming. Wealth would bring him, uneducated though he was, happiness enough and to spare.
A footstep fell softly upon the turf outside. Trent sprang at once into an attitude of rigid attention. His revolver, which for four days had been at full cock by his side, stole out and covered the approaching shadow stealing gradually nearer and nearer. The old man saw nothing, for he slept, worn out with excitement and exhaustion.
A fat, unwholesome—looking creature, half native, half Belgian, waddled across the open space towards the hut in which the two strangers had been housed. He was followed at a little distance by two sturdy natives bearing a steaming pot which they carried on a pole between them. Trent set down his revolver and rose to his feet.
"What news, Oom Sam?" he asked. "Has the English officer been heard of? He must be close up now."
"No news," the little man grunted. "The King, he send some of his own supper to the white men. 'They got what they want,' he say. 'They start work mine soon as like, but they go away from here.' He not like them about the place! See!"
"Oh, that be blowed!" Trent muttered. "What's this in the pot? It don't smell bad."
"Rabbit," the interpreter answered tersely. "Very good. Part King's own supper. White men very favoured."
Trent bent over the pot which the two men had set upon the ground. He took a fork from his belt and dug it in.
"Very big bones for a rabbit, Sam," he remarked doubtfully.
Sam looked away. "Very big rabbits round here," he remarked. "Best keep pot. Send men away."
Trent nodded, and the men withdrew.
"Stew all right," Sam whispered confidentially. "You eat him. No fear. But you got to go. King beginning get angry. He say white men not to stay. They got what he promised, now they go. I know King—know this people well! You get away quick. He think you want be King here! You got the papers—all you want, eh?"
"Not quite, Sam," Trent answered. "There's an Englishman, Captain Francis, on his way here up the Coast, going on to Walgetta Fort. He must be here to-morrow. I want him to see the King's signature. If he's a witness these niggers can never back out of the concession. They're slippery devils. Another chap may come on with more rum and they'll forget us and give him the right to work the mines too. See!"
"I see," Sam answered; "but him not safe to wait. You believe me. I know these tam niggers. They take two days get drunk, then get devils, four—raving mad. They drunk now. Kill any one to-morrow—perhaps you. Kill you certain to-morrow night. You listen now!"
Trent stood up in the shadow of the overhanging roof. Every now and then came a wild, shrill cry from the lower end of the village. Some one was beating a frightful, cracked drum which they had got from a trader. The tumult was certainly increasing. Trent swore softly, and then looked irresolutely over his shoulder to where Monty was sleeping.
"If the worst comes we shall never get away quickly," he muttered. "That old carcase can scarcely drag himself along."
Sam looked at him with cunning eyes.
"He not fit only die," he said softly. "He very old, very sick man, you leave him here! I see to him."
Trent turned away in sick disgust.
"We'll be off to-morrow, Sam," he said shortly. "I say! I'm beastly hungry. What's in that pot?"
Sam spread out the palms of his hands.
"He all right, I see him cooked," he declared. "He two rabbits and one monkey."
Trent took out a plate and helped himself.
"All right," he said. "Be off now. We'll go to-morrow before these towsly-headed beauties are awake."
Sam nodded and waddled off. Trent threw a biscuit and hit his companion on the cheek.
"Here, wake up, Monty!" he exclaimed. "Supper's come from the royal kitchen. Bring your plate and tuck in!"
Monty struggled to his feet and came meekly towards where the pot stood simmering upon the ground.
"I'm not hungry, Trent," he said, "but I am very thirsty, very thirsty indeed. My throat is all parched. I am most uncomfortable. Really I think your behaviour with regard to the brandy is most unkind and ungenerous; I shall be ill, I know I shall. Won't you—"
"No, I won't," Trent interrupted. "Now shut up all that rot and eat something."
"I have no appetite, thank you," Monty answered, with sulky dignity.
"Eat something, and don't be a silly ass!" Trent insisted. "We've a hard journey before us, and you'll need all the strength in your carcase to land in Buckomari again. Here, you've dropped some of your precious rubbish."
Trent stooped forward and picked up what seemed to him at first to be a piece of cardboard from the ground. He was about to fling it to its owner, when he saw that it was a photograph. It was the likeness of a girl, a very young girl apparently, for her hair was still down her back and her dress was scarcely of the orthodox length. It was not particularly well taken, but Trent had never seen anything like it before. The lips were slightly parted, the deep eyes were brimming with laughter, the pose was full of grace, even though the girl's figure was angular. Trent had seen as much as this, when he felt the smart of a sudden blow upon the cheek, the picture was snatched from his hand, and Monty—his face convulsed with anger—glowered fiercely upon him.
"You infernal young blackguard! You impertinent meddling blockhead! How dare you presume to look at that photograph! How dare you, sir! How dare you!"
Trent was too thoroughly astonished to resent either the blow or the fierce words. He looked up into his aggressor's face in blank surprise.
"I only looked at it," he muttered. "It was lying on the floor."
"Looked at it! You looked at it! Like your confounded impertinence, sir! Who are you to look at her! If ever I catch you prying into my concerns again, I'll shoot you—by Heaven I will!"
Trent laughed sullenly, and, having finished eating, lit his pipe.
"Your concerns are of no interest to me," he said shortly; "keep 'em to yourself—and look here, old 'un, keep your hands off me! I ain't a safe man to hit let me tell you. Now sit down and cool off! I don't want any more of your tantrums."
Then there was a long silence between the two men. Monty sat where Trent had been earlier in the night at the front of the open hut, his eyes fixed upon the ever-rising moon, his face devoid of intelligence, his eyes dim. The fire of the last few minutes had speedily burnt out. His half-soddened brain refused to answer to the sudden spasm of memory which had awakened a spark of the former man. If he had thoughts at all, they hung around that brandy bottle. The calm beauty of the African night could weave no spell upon him. A few feet behind, Trent, by the light of the moon, was practising tricks with a pack of greasy cards. By and by a spark of intelligence found its way into Monty's brain. He turned round furtively.
"Trent," he said, "this is slow! Let us have a friendly game—you and I."
"Come on, then," he said. "Single Poker or Euchre, eh?"
"I do not mind," Monty replied affably. "Just which you prefer."
"Single Poker, then," Trent said.
"And the stakes?"
"We've nothing left to play for," Trent answered gloomily, "except cartridges."
Monty made a wry face. "Poker for love, my dear Trent," he said, "between you and me, would lack all the charm of excitement. It would be, in fact, monotonous! Let us exercise our ingenuity. There must be something still of value in our possession."
He relapsed into an affectation of thoughtfulness. Trent watched him curiously. He knew quite well that his partner was dissembling, but he scarcely saw to what end. Monty's eyes, moving round the grass-bound hut, stopped at Trent's knapsack which hung from the central pole. He uttered a little exclamation.
"I have it," he declared. "The very thing."
"You are pleased to set an altogether fictitious value upon half bottle of brandy we have left," he said. "Now I tell you what I will do. In a few months we shall both be rich men. I will play you for my I O U, for fifty pounds, fifty sovereigns, Trent, against half the contents of that bottle. Come, that is a fair offer, is it not? How we shall laugh at this in a year or two! Fifty pounds against a tumblerful—positively there is no more—a tumblerful of brandy."
He was watching Trent's face all the time, but the younger man gave no sign. When he had finished, Trent took up the cards, which he had shuffled for Poker, and dealt them out for Patience. Monty's eyes were dim with disappointment.
"What!" he cried. "You don't agree! Did you understand me? Fifty pounds, Trent! Why, you must be mad!"
"Oh, shut up!" Trent growled. "I don't want your money, and the brandy's poison to you! Go to sleep!"
Monty crept a little nearer to his partner and laid his hand upon his arm. His shirt fell open, showing the cords of his throat swollen and twitching. His voice was half a sob.
"Trent, you are a young man—not old like me. You don't understand my constitution. Brandy is a necessity to me! I've lived on it so long that I shall die if you keep it from me. Remember, it's a whole day since I tasted a drop! Now I'll make it a hundred. What do you say to that? One hundred!"
Trent paused in his game, and looked steadfastly into the eager face thrust close to his. Then he shrugged his shoulders and gathered up the cards.
"You're the silliest fool I ever knew," he said bluntly, "but I suppose you'll worry me into a fever if you don't have your own way."
"You agree?" Monty shrieked. Trent nodded and dealt the cards.
"It must be a show after the draw," he said. "We can't bet, for we've nothing to raise the stakes with!"
Monty was breathing hard and his fingers trembled, as though the ague of the swamps was already upon him. He took up his cards one by one, and as he snatched up the last he groaned. Not a pair!
"Four cards," he whispered hoarsely. Trent dealt them out, looked at his own hand, and, keeping a pair of queens, took three more cards. He failed to improve, and threw them upon the floor. With frantic eagerness Monty grovelled down to see them—then with a shriek of triumph he threw down a pair of aces.
"Mine!" he said. "I kept an ace and drew another. Give me the brandy!"
Trent rose up, measured the contents of the bottle with his forefinger, and poured out half the contents into a horn mug. Monty stood trembling by.
"Mind," Trent said, "you are a fool to drink it and I am a fool to let you! You risk your life and mine. Sam has been up and swears we must clear out to-morrow. What sort of form do you think you'll be in to walk sixty miles through the swamps and bush, with perhaps a score of these devils at our heels? Come now, old 'un, be reasonable."
The veins on the old man's forehead stood out like whipcord.
"I won it," he cried. "Give it me! Give it me, I say."
Trent made no further protest. He walked back to where he had been lying and recommenced his Patience. Monty drank off the contents of the tumbler in two long, delicious gulps! Then he flung the horn upon the floor and laughed aloud.
"That's better," he cried, "that's better! What an ass you are, Trent! To imagine that a drain like that would have any effect at all, save to put life into a man! Bah! what do you know about it?"
Trent did not raise his head. He went on with his solitary game and, to all appearance, paid no heed to his companion's words. Monty was not in the humour to be ignored. He flung himself on the ground opposite to his companion.
"What a slow-blooded sort of creature you are, Trent!" he said. "Don't you ever drink, don't you ever take life a little more gaily?"
"Not when I am carrying my life in my hands," Trent answered grimly. "I get drunk sometimes—when there's nothing on and the blues come—never at a time like this though."
"It is pleasant to hear," the old man remarked, stretching out his limbs, "that you do occasionally relax. In your present frame of mind—you will not be offended I trust—you are just a little heavy as a companion. Never mind. In a year's time I will be teaching you how to dine—to drink champagne, to—by the way, Trent, have you ever tasted champagne?"
"Never," Trent answered gruffly "Don't know that I want to either."
Monty was compassionate. "My young friend," he said, "I would give my soul to have our future before us, to have your youth and never to have tasted champagne. Phew! the memory of it is delicious!"
"Why don't you go to bed?" Trent said. "You'll need all your strength to-morrow!"
Monty waved his hand with serene contempt.
"I am a man of humours, my dear friend," he said, "and to-night my humour is to talk and to be merry. What is it the philosophers tell us?—that the sweetest joys of life are the joys of anticipation. Here we are, then, on the eve of our triumph—let us talk, plan, be happy. Bah! how thirsty it makes one! Come, Trent, what stake will you have me set up against that other tumblerful of brandy."
"No stake that you can offer," Trent answered shortly. "That drop of brandy may stand between us and death. Pluck up your courage, man, and forget for a bit that there is such a thing as drink."
Monty frowned and looked stealthily across towards the bottle.
"That's all very well, my friend," he said, "but kindly remember that you are young, and well, and strong. I am old, and an invalid. I need support. Don't be hard on me, Trent. Say fifty again.
"No, nor fifty hundred," Trent answered shortly. "I don't want your money. Don't be such a fool, or you'll never live to enjoy it."
Monty shuffled on to his feet, and walked aimlessly about the hut. Once or twice as he passed the place where the bottle rested, he hesitated; at last he paused, his eyes lit up, he stretched out his hand stealthily. But before he could possess himself of it Trent's hand was upon his collar.
"You poor fool!" he said; "leave it alone can't you? You want to poison yourself I know. Well, you can do as you jolly well like when you are out of this—not before."
Monty's eyes flashed evil fires, but his tone remained persuasive. "Trent," he said, "be reasonable. Look at me! I ask you now whether I am not better for that last drop. I tell you that it is food and wine to me. I need it to brace me up for to-morrow. Now listen! Name your own stake! Set it up against that single glass! I am not a mean man, Trent. Shall we say one hundred and fifty?"
Trent looked at him half scornfully, half deprecatingly.
"You are only wasting your breath, Monty," he said. "I couldn't touch money won in such a way, and I want to get you out of this alive. There's fever in the air all around us, and if either of us got a touch of it that drop of brandy might stand between us and death. Don't worry me like a spoilt child. Roll yourself up and get to sleep! I'll keep watch."
"I will be reasonable," Monty whined. "I will go to sleep, my friend, and worry you no more when I have had just one sip of that brandy! It is the finest medicine in the world for me! It will keep the fever off. You do not want money you say! Come, is there anything in this world which I possess, or may possess, which you will set against that three inches of brown liquid?"
Trent was on the point of an angry negative. Suddenly he stopped—hesitated—and said nothing Monty's face lit up with sudden hope.
"Come," he cried, "there is something I see! You're the right sort, Trent. Don't be afraid to speak out. It's yours, man, if you win it. Speak up!"
"I will stake that brandy," Trent answered, "against the picture you let fall from your pocket an hour ago."
For a moment Monty stood as though dazed. Then the excitement which had shone in his face slowly subsided. He stood quite silent, muttering softly to himself, his eyes fixed upon Trent.
"Her picture! My little girl's picture! Trent, you're joking, you're mad!"
"Am I?" Trent answered nonchalantly. "Perhaps so! Anyhow those are my terms! You can play or not as you like! I don't care."
A red spot burned in Monty's cheeks, and a sudden passion shook him. He threw himself upon Trent and would have struck him but that he was as a child in the younger man's grasp. Trent held him at a distance easily and without effort.
"There's nothing for you to make a fuss about," he said gruffly. "I answered a plain question, that's all. I don't want to play at all. I should most likely lose, and you're much better without the brandy."
Monty was foaming with passion and baffled desire. "You beast!" he cried, "you low, ill-bred cur! How dared you look at her picture! How dare you make me such an offer! Let me go, I say! Let me go!"
But Trent did not immediately relax his grasp. It was evidently not safe to let him go. His fit of anger bordered upon hysterics. Presently he grew calmer but more maudlin. Trent at last released him, and, thrusting the bottle of brandy into his coat-pocket, returned to his game of Patience. Monty lay on the ground watching him with red, shifty eyes.
"Trent," he whimpered. But Trent did not answer him.
"Trent, you needn't have been so beastly rough. My arm is black and blue and I am sore all over."
But Trent remained silent. Monty crept a little nearer. He was beginning to feel a very injured person.
"Trent," he said, "I'm sorry we've had words. Perhaps I said more than I ought to have done. I did not mean to call you names. I apologise."
"Granted," Trent said tersely, bending over his game.
"You see, Trent," he went on, "you're not a family man, are you? If you were, you would understand. I've been down in the mire for years, an utter scoundrel, a poor, weak, broken-down creature. But I've always kept that picture! It's my little girl! She doesn't know I'm alive, never will know, but it's all I have to remind me of her, and I couldn't part with it, could I?"
"You'd be a blackguard if you did," Trent answered curtly.
Monty's face brightened.
"I was sure," he declared, "that upon reflection you would think so. I was sure of it. I have always found you very fair, Trent, and very reasonable. Now shall we say two hundred?"
"You seem very anxious for a game," Trent remarked. "Listen, I will play you for any amount you like, my I O U against your I O U. Are you agreeable?"
Monty shook his head. "I don't want your money, Trent," he said. "You know that I want that brandy. I will leave it to you to name the stake I am to set up against it."
"As regards that," Trent answered shortly, "I've named the stake; I'll not consider any other."
Monty's face once more grew black with anger.
"You are a beast, Trent—a bully!" he exclaimed passionately; "I'll not part with it!"
"I hope you won't," Trent answered. "I've told you what I should think of you if you did."
Monty moved a little nearer to the opening of the hut. He drew the photograph hesitatingly from his pocket, and looked at it by the moonlight. His eyes filled with maudlin tears. He raised it to his lips and kissed it.
"My little girl," he whispered. "My little daughter." Trent had re-lit his pipe and started a fresh game of Patience. Monty, standing in the opening, began to mutter to himself.
"I am sure to win—Trent is always unlucky at cards—such a little risk, and the brandy—ah!"
He sucked in his lips for a moment with a slight gurgling sound. He looked over his shoulder, and his face grew haggard with longing. His eyes sought Trent's, but Trent was smoking stolidly and looking at the cards spread out before him, as a chess-player at his pieces.
"Such a very small risk," Monty whispered softly to himself. "I need the brandy too. I cannot sleep without it! Trent!"
Trent made no answer. He did not wish to hear. Already he had repented. He was not a man of keen susceptibility, but he was a trifle ashamed of himself. At that moment he was tempted to draw the cork, and empty the brandy out upon the ground.
"Trent! Do you hear, Trent?"
He could no longer ignore the hoarse, plaintive cry. He looked unwillingly up. Monty was standing over him with white, twitching face and bloodshot eyes.
"Deal the cards," he muttered simply, and sat down.
Trent hesitated. Monty misunderstood him and slowly drew the photograph from his pocket and laid it face downwards upon the table. Trent bit his lip and frowned.
"Rather a foolish game this," he said. "Let's call it off, eh? You shall have—well, a thimbleful of the brandy and go to bed. I'll sit up, I'm not tired."
But Monty swore a very profane and a very ugly oath.
"I'll have the lot," he muttered. "Every drop; every d—d drop! Ay, and I'll keep the picture. You see, my friend, you see; deal the cards."
Then Trent, who had more faults than most men, but who hated bad language, looked at the back of the photograph, and, shuddering, hesitated no longer. He shuffled the cards and handed them to Monty.
"Your deal," he said laconically. "Same as before I suppose?"
Monty nodded, for his tongue was hot and his mouth dry, and speech was not an easy thing. But he dealt the cards, one by one with jealous care, and when he had finished he snatched upon his own, and looked at each with sickly disappointment.
"How many?" Trent asked, holding out the pack. Monty hesitated, half made up his mind to throw away three cards, then put one upon the table. Finally, with a little whine, he laid three down with trembling fingers and snatched at the three which Trent handed him. His face lit up, a scarlet flush burned in his cheek. It was evident that the draw had improved his hand.
Trent took his own cards up, looked at them nonchalantly, and helped himself to one card. Monty could restrain himself no longer. He threw his hand upon the ground.
"Three's," he cried in fierce triumph, "three of a kind—nines!"
Trent laid his own cards calmly down.
"A full hand," he said, "kings up."
Monty gave a little gasp and then a moan. His eyes were fixed with a fascinating glare upon those five cards which Trent had so calmly laid down. Trent took up the photograph, thrust it carefully into his pocket without looking at it, and rose to his feet.
"Look here, Monty," he said, "you shall have the brandy; you've no right to it, and you're best without it by long chalks. But there, you shall have your own way."
Monty rose to his feet and balanced himself against the post.
"Never mind—about the brandy," he faltered. "Give me back the photograph."
Trent shrugged his shoulders. "Why?" he asked coolly. "Full hand beats three, don't it? It was my win and my stake."
"Then—then take that!" But the blow never touched Trent. He thrust out his hand and held his assailant away at arm's length.
Monty burst into tears.
"You don't want it," he moaned; "what's my little girl to you? You never saw her, and you never will see her in your life."
"She is nothing to me of course," Trent answered. "A moment or so ago her picture was worth less to you than a quarter of a bottle of brandy."
"I was mad," Monty moaned. "She was my own little daughter, God help her!"
"I never heard you speak of her before," Trent remarked.
There was a moment's silence. Then Monty crept out between the posts into the soft darkness, and his voice seemed to come from a great distance.
"I have never told you about her," he said, "because she is not the sort of woman who is spoken of at all to such men as you. I am no more worthy to be her father than you are to touch the hem of her skirt. There was a time, Trent, many, many years ago, when I was proud to think that she was my daughter, my own flesh and blood. When I began to go down—it was different. Down and down and lower still! Then she ceased to be my daughter! After all it is best. I am not fit to carry her picture. You keep it. Trent—you keep it—and give me the brandy."
He staggered up on to his feet and crept back into the hut. His hands were outstretched, claw-like and bony, his eyes were fierce as a wild cat's. But Trent stood between him and the brandy bottle.
"Look here," he said, "you shall have the picture back—curse you! But listen. If I were you and had wife, or daughter, or sweetheart like this "—he touched the photograph almost reverently—"why, I'd go through fire and water but I'd keep myself decent; ain't you a silly old fool, now? We've made our piles, you can go back and take her a fortune, give her jewels and pretty dresses, and all the fal-de-lals that women love. You'll never do it if you muddle yourself up with that stuff. Pull yourself together, old 'un. Chuck the drink till we've seen this thing through at any rate!"
"You don't know my little girl," Monty muttered. "How should you? She'd care little for money or gewgaws, but she'd break her heart to see her old father—come to this—broken down—worthless—a hopeless, miserable wretch. It's too late. Trent, I'll have just a glass I think. It will do me good. I have been fretting, Trent, you see how pale I am."
He staggered towards the bottle. Trent watched him, interfering no longer. With a little chuckle of content he seized upon it and, too fearful of interference from Trent to wait for a glass, raised it to his lips. There was a gurgling in his throat—a little spasm as he choked, and released his lips for a moment. Then the bottle slid from his nerveless fingers to the floor, and the liquor oozed away in a little brown stream; even Trent dropped his pack of cards and sprang up startled. For bending down under the sloping roof was a European, to all appearance an Englishman, in linen clothes and white hat. It was the man for whom they had waited.
Trent moved forward and greeted the newcomer awkwardly. "You're Captain Francis," he said. "We've been waiting for you."
The statement appeared to annoy the Explorer. He looked nervously at the two men and about the hut.
"I don't know how the devil you got to hear of my coming, or what you want with me," he answered brusquely. "Are you both English?"
Trent assented, waving his hand towards his companion in introductory fashion.
"That's my pal, Monty," he said. "We're both English right enough."
Monty raised a flushed face and gazed with bloodshot eyes at the man who was surveying him so calmly. Then he gave a little gurgling cry and turned away. Captain Francis started and moved a step towards him. There was a puzzled look in his face—as though he were making an effort to recall something familiar.
"What is the matter with him?" he asked Trent.
"Then why the devil don't you see that he doesn't get too much?" the newcomer said sharply. "Don't you know what it means in this climate? Why, he's on the high-road to a fever now. Who on this earth is it he reminds me of?"
Trent laughed shortly.
"There's never a man in Buckomari—no, nor in all Africa—could keep Monty from the drink," he said. "Live with him for a month and try it. It wouldn't suit you—I don't think."
He glanced disdainfully at the smooth face and careful dress of their visitor, who bore the inspection with a kindly return of contempt.
"I've no desire to try," he said; "but he reminds me very strongly of some one I knew in England. What do you call him—Monty?"
"Never heard any other name," he said.
"Have you ever heard him speak of England?" Francis asked.
Trent hesitated. What was this newcomer to him that he should give away his pal? Less than nothing! He hated the fellow already, with a rough, sensitive man's contempt of a bearing and manners far above his own.
"Never. He don't talk."
Captain Francis moved a step towards the huddled-up figure breathing heavily upon the floor, but Trent, leaning over, stopped him.
"Let him be," he said gruffly. "I know enough of him to be sure that he needs no one prying and ferreting into his affairs. Besides, it isn't safe for us to be dawdling about here. How many soldiers have you brought with you?"
"Two hundred," Captain Francis answered shortly.
"We're all right for a bit, then," he said; "but it's a pretty sort of a picnic you're on, eh?"
"Never mind my business," Captain Francis answered curtly; "what about yours? Why have you been hanging about here for me?"
"I'll show you," Trent answered, taking a paper from his knapsack. "You see, it's like this. There are two places near this show where I've found gold. No use blowing about it down at Buckomari—the fellows there haven't the nerve of a kitten. This cursed climate has sapped it all out of them, I reckon. Monty and I clubbed together and bought presents for his Majesty, the boss here, and Monty wrote out this little document—sort of concession to us to sink mines and work them, you see. The old buffer signed it like winking, directly he spotted the rum, but we ain't quite happy about it; you see, it ain't to be supposed that he's got a conscience, and there's only us saw him put his mark there. We'll have to raise money to work the thing upon this, and maybe there'll be difficulties. So what we thought was this. Here's an English officer coming; let's get him to witness it, and then if the King don't go on the square, why, it's a Government matter."
Captain Francis lit a cigarette and smoked thoughtfully for a moment or two.
"I don't quite see," he said, "why we should risk a row for the sake of you two."
"Look here," he said; "I suppose you know your business. You don't want me to tell you that a decent excuse for having a row with this old Johnny is about the best thing that could happen to you. He's a bit too near the borders of civilisation to be a decent savage. Sooner or later some one will have to take him under their protection. If you don't do it, the French will. They're hanging round now looking out for an opportunity. Listen!"
Both men moved instinctively towards the open part of the hut and looked across towards the village. Up from the little open space in front of the King's dwelling-house leaped a hissing bright flame; they had kindled a fire, and black forms of men, stark naked and wounding themselves with spears, danced around it and made the air hideous with discordant cries. The King himself, too drunk to stand, squatted upon the ground with an empty bottle by his side. A breath of wind brought a strong, noxious odour to the two men who stood watching. Captain Francis puffed hard at his cigarette.
"Ugh!" he muttered; "beastly!"
"You may take my word for it," Trent said gruffly, "that if your two hundred soldiers weren't camped in the bush yonder, you and I and poor Monty would be making sport for them to-night. Now come. Do you think a quarrel with that crew is a serious thing to risk?"
"In the interests of civilisation," Captain Francis answered, with a smile, "I think not."
"I don't care how you put it," Trent answered shortly. "You soldiers all prate of the interests of civilisation. Of course it's all rot. You want the land—you want to rule, to plant a flag, and be called a patriot."
Captain Francis laughed. "And you, my superior friend," he said, glancing at Trent, gaunt, ragged, not too clean, and back at Monty—"you want gold—honestly if you can get it, if not—well, it is not too wise to ask. Your partnership is a little mysterious, isn't it—with a man like that? Out of your magnificent morality I trust that he may get his share."
Trent flushed a brick—red. An angry answer trembled upon his lips, but Oom Sam, white and with his little fat body quivering with fear, came hurrying up to them in the broad track of the moonlight.
"King he angry," he called out to them breathlessly. "Him mad drunk angry. He say white men all go away, or he fire bush and use the poisoned arrow. Me off! Got bearers waiting."
"If you go before we've finished," Trent said, "I'll not pay you a penny. Please yourself."
The little fat man trembled—partly with rage, partly with fear.
"You stay any longer," he said, "and King him send after you and kill on way home. White English soldiers go Buckomari with you?"
Trent shook his head.
"Going the other way," he said, "down to Wana Hill."
Oom Sam shook his head vigorously.
"Now you mind," he said; "I tell you, King send after you. Him blind mad."
Oom Sam scuttled away. Captain Francis looked thoughtful. "That little fat chap may be right," he remarked. "If I were you I'd get out of this sharp. You see, I'm going the other way. I can't help you."
Trent set his teeth.
"I've spent a good few years trying to put a bit together, and this is the first chance I've had," he said; "I'm going to have you back me as a British subject on that concession. We'll go down into the village now if you're ready."
"I'll get an escort," Francis said. "Best to impress 'em a bit, I think. Half a minute."
He stepped back into the hut and looked steadfastly at the man who was still lying doubled up upon the floor. Was it his fancy, or had those eyes closed swiftly at his turning—was it by accident, too, that Monty, with a little groan, changed his position at that moment, so that his face was in the shadow? Captain Francis was puzzled.
"It's like him," he said to himself softly; "but after all the thing's too improbable!"
He turned away with a shade upon his face and followed Trent out into the moonlight. The screeching from the village below grew louder and more hideous every minute.
The howls became a roar, blind passion was changed into purposeful fury. Who were these white men to march so boldly into the presence of the King without even the formality of sending an envoy ahead? For the King of Bekwando, drunk or sober, was a stickler for etiquette. It pleased him to keep white men waiting. For days sometimes a visitor was kept waiting his pleasure, not altogether certain either as to his ultimate fate, for there were ugly stories as to those who had journeyed to Bekwando and never been seen or heard of since. Those were the sort of visitors with whom his ebon Majesty loved to dally until they became pale with fright or furious with anger and impatience; but men like this white captain, who had brought him no presents, who came in overwhelming force and demanded a passage through his country as a matter of right were his special detestation. On his arrival he had simply marched into the place at the head of his columns of Hausas without ceremony, almost as a master, into the very presence of the King. Now he had come again with one of those other miscreants who at least had knelt before him and brought rum and many other presents. A slow, burning, sullen wrath was kindled in the King's heart as the three men drew near. His people, half-mad with excitement and debauch, needed only a cry from him to have closed like magic round these insolent intruders. His thick lips were parted, his breath came hot and fierce whilst he hesitated. But away outside the clearing was that little army of Hausas, clean-limbed, faithful, well drilled and armed. He choked down his wrath. There were grim stories about those who had yielded to the luxury of slaying these white men—stories of villages razed to the ground and destroyed, of a King himself who had been shot, of vengeance very swift and very merciless. He closed his mouth with a snap and sat up with drunken dignity. Oom Sam, in fear and trembling, moved to his side.
"What they want?" the King asked.
Oom Sam spread out the document which Trent had handed him upon a tree-stump, and explained. His Majesty nodded more affably. The document reminded him of the pleasant fact that there were three casks of rum to come to him every year. Besides, he rather liked scratching his royal mark upon the smooth, white paper. He was quite willing to repeat the performance, and took up the pen which Sam handed him readily.
"Him white man just come," Oom Sam explained; "want see you do this."
His Majesty was flattered, and, with the air of one to whom the signing of treaties and concessions is an everyday affair, affixed a thick, black cross upon the spot indicated.
"That all right?" he asked Oom Sam.
Oom Sam bowed to the ground.
"Him want to know," he said, jerking his head towards Captain Francis, "whether you know what means?"
His forefinger wandered aimlessly down the document. His Majesty's reply was prompt and cheerful.
"Three barrels of rum a year."
Sam explained further. "There will be white men come digging," he said; "white men with engines that blow, making holes under the ground and cutting trees."
The King was interested. "Where?" he asked.
Oom Sam pointed westward through the bush.
"Down by creek-side."
The King was thoughtful "Rum come all right?" he asked.
Oom Sam pointed to the papers.
"Say so there," he declared. "All quite plain."
The King grinned. It was not regal, but he certainly did it. If white men come too near they must be shot—carefully and from ambush. He leaned back with the air of desiring the conference to cease. Oom Sam turned to Captain Francis.
"King him quite satisfied," he declared. "Him all explained before—he agree."
The King suddenly woke up again. He clutched Sam by the arm, and whispered in his ear. This time it was Sam who grinned.
"King, him say him signed paper twice," he explained. "Him want four barrels of rum now."
Trent laughed harshly.
"He shall swim in it, Sam," he said; "he shall float down to hell upon it."
Oom Sam explained to the King that, owing to the sentiments of affection and admiration with which the white men regarded him, the three barrels should be made into four, whereupon his Majesty bluntly pronounced the audience at an end and waddled off into his Imperial abode.
The two Englishmen walked slowly back to the hut. Between them there had sprung up from the first moment a strong and mutual antipathy. The blunt savagery of Trent, his apparently heartless treatment of his weaker partner, and his avowed unscrupulousness, offended the newcomer much in the same manner as in many ways he himself was obnoxious to Trent. His immaculate fatigue-uniform, his calm superciliousness, his obvious air of belonging to a superior class, were galling to Trent beyond measure. He himself felt the difference—he realised his ignorance, his unkempt and uncared-for appearance. Perhaps, as the two men walked side by side, some faint foreshadowing of the future showed to Trent another and a larger world where they two would once more walk side by side, the outward differences between them lessened, the smouldering irritation of the present leaping up into the red-hot flame of hatred. Perhaps it was just as well for John Francis that the man who walked so sullenly by his side had not the eyes of a seer, for it was a wild country and Trent himself had drunk deep of its lawlessness. A little accident with a knife, a carelessly handled revolver, and the man who was destined to stand more than once in his way would pass out of his life for ever. But in those days Trent knew nothing of what was to come—which was just as well for John Francis.
* * * * *
Monty was sitting up when they reached the hut, but at the sight of Trent's companion he cowered back and affected sleepiness. This time, however, Francis was not to be denied. He walked to Monty's side, and stood looking down upon him.
"I think," he said gently, "that we have met before."
"A mistake," Monty declared. "Never saw you in my life. Just off to sleep."
But Francis had seen the trembling of the man's lips, and his nervously shaking hands.
"There is nothing to fear," he said; "I wanted to speak to you as a friend."
"Don't know you; don't want to speak to you," Monty declared.
Francis stooped down and whispered a name in the ear of the sullen man. Trent leaned forward, but he could not hear it—only he too saw the shudder and caught the little cry which broke from the white lips of his partner.
Monty sat up, white, despairing, with strained, set face and bloodshot eyes.
"Look here," he said, "I may be what you say, and I may not. It's no business of yours. Do you hear? Now be off and leave me alone! Such as I am, I am. I won't be interfered with. But—" Monty's voice became a shriek.
"Leave me alone!" he cried. "I have no name I tell you, no past, no future. Let me alone, or by Heaven I'll shoot you!"
Francis shrugged his shoulders, and turned away with a sigh.
"A word with you outside," he said to Trent—and Trent followed him out into the night. The moon was paling—in the east there was a faint shimmer of dawn. A breeze was rustling in the trees. The two men stood face to face.
"Look here, sir," Francis said, "I notice that this concession of yours is granted to you and your partner jointly whilst alive and to the survivor, in case of the death of either of you."
"What then?" Trent asked fiercely.
"This! It's a beastly unfair arrangement, but I suppose it's too late to upset it. Your partner is half sodden with drink now. You know what that means in this climate. You've the wit to keep sober enough yourself. You're a strong man, and he is weak. You must take care of him. You can if you will."
"Anything else?" Trent asked roughly.
The officer looked his man up and down.
"We're in a pretty rough country," he said, "and a man gets into the habit of having his own way here. But listen to me! If anything happens to your partner here or in Buckomari, you'll have me to reckon with. I shall not forget. We are bound to meet! Remember that!"
Trent turned his back upon him in a fit of passion which choked down all speech. Captain Francis lit a cigarette and walked across towards his camp.
A sky like flame, and an atmosphere of sulphur. No breath of air, not a single ruffle in the great, drooping leaves of the African trees and dense, prickly shrubs. All around the dank, nauseous odour of poison flowers, the ceaseless dripping of poisonous moisture. From the face of the man who stood erect, unvanquished as yet in the struggle for life, the fierce sweat poured like rain—his older companion had sunk to the ground and the spasms of an ugly death were twitching at his whitening lips.
"I'm done, Trent," he gasped faintly. "Fight your way on alone. You've a chance yet. The way's getting a bit easier—I fancy we're on the right track and we've given those black devils the slip! Nurse your strength! You've a chance! Let me be. It's no use carrying a dead man." Gaunt and wild, with the cold fear of death before him also, the younger man broke out into a fit of cursing.
"May they rot in the blackest corner of hell, Oom Sam and those miserable vermin!" he shouted. "A path all the way, the fever season over, the swamps dry! Oh! when I think of Sam's smooth jargon I would give my chance of life, such as it is, to have him here for one moment. To think that beast must live and we die!"
"Prop me up against this tree, Trent—and listen," Monty whispered. "Don't fritter away the little strength you have left."
Trent did as he was told. He had no particular affection for his partner and the prospect of his death scarcely troubled him. Yet for twenty miles and more, through fetid swamps and poisoned jungles, he had carried him over his shoulder, fighting fiercely for the lives of both of them, while there remained any chance whatever of escape. Now he knew that it was in vain, he regretted only his wasted efforts—he had no sentimental regrets in leaving him. It was his own life he wanted—his own life he meant to fight for.
"I wouldn't swear at Oom Sam too hard," Monty continued. "Remember for the last two days he was doing all he could to get us out of the place. It was those fetish fellows who worked the mischief and he—certainly—warned us all he could. He took us safely to Bekwando and he worked the oracle with the King!"
"Yes, and afterwards sneaked off with Francis," Trent broke in bitterly, "and took every bearer with him—after we'd paid them for the return journey too. Sent us out here to be trapped and butchered like rats. If we'd only had a guide we should have been at Buckomari by now."
"He was right about the gold," Monty faltered. "It's there for the picking up. If only we could have got back we were rich for life. If you escape—you need never do another stroke of work as long as you live."
Trent stood upright, wiped the dank sweat from his forehead and gazed around him fiercely, and upwards at that lurid little patch of blue sky.
"If I escape!" he muttered. "I'll get out of this if I die walking. I'm sorry you're done, Monty," he continued slowly. "Say the word and I'll have one more spell at carrying you! You're not a heavy weight and I'm rested now!"
But Monty, in whose veins was the chill of death and who sought only for rest, shook his head.
"It shakes me too much," he said, "and it's only a waste of strength. You get on, Trent, and don't you bother about me. You've done your duty by your partner and a bit more. You might leave me the small revolver in case those howling savages come up—and Trent!"
"The picture—just for a moment. I'd like to have one look at her!"
Trent drew it out from his pocket—awkwardly—and with a little shame at the care which had prompted him to wrap it so tenderly in the oilskin sheet. Monty shaded his face with his hands, and the picture stole up to his lips. Trent stood a little apart and hated himself for this last piece of inhumanity. He pretended to be listening for the stealthy approach of their enemies. In reality he was struggling with the feeling which prompted him to leave this picture with the dying man.
"I suppose you'd best have it," he said sullenly at last.
But Monty shook his head feebly and held out the picture.
Trent took it with an odd sense of shame which puzzled him. He was not often subject to anything of the sort.
"It belongs to you, Trent. I lost it on the square, and it's the only social law I've never broken—to pay my gambling debts. There's one word more!"
"It's about that clause in our agreement. I never thought it was quite fair, you know, Trent!"
"The clause which—at my death—makes you sole owner of the whole concession. You see—the odds were scarcely even, were they? It wasn't likely anything would happen to you!"
"I planned the thing," Trent said, "and I saw it through! You did nothing but find a bit of brass. It was only square that the odds should be in my favour. Besides, you agreed. You signed the thing."
"But I wasn't quite well at the time," Monty faltered. "I didn't quite understand. No, Trent, it's not quite fair. I did a bit of the work at least, and I'm paying for it with my life!"
"What's it matter to you now?" Trent said, with unintentional brutality. "You can't take it with you."
Monty raised himself a little. His eyes, lit with feverish fire, were fastened upon the other man.
"There's my little girl!" he said hoarsely. "I'd like to leave her something. If the thing turns out big, Trent, you can spare a small share. There's a letter here! It's to my lawyers. They'll tell you all about her."
Trent held out his hands for the letter.
"All right," he said, with sullen ungraciousness. "I'll promise something. I won't say how much! We'll see."
"Trent, you'll keep your word," Monty begged. "I'd like her to know that I thought of her."
"Oh, very well," Trent declared, thrusting the letter into his pocket. "It's a bit outside our agreement, you know, but I'll see to it anyhow. Anything else?"
Monty fell back speechless. There was a sudden change in his face. Trent, who had seen men die before, let go his hand and turned away without any visible emotion. Then he drew himself straight, and set his teeth hard together.
"I'm going to get out of this," he said to himself slowly and with fierce emphasis. "I'm not for dying and I won't die!"
He stumbled on a few steps, a little black snake crept out of its bed of mud, and looked at him with yellow eyes protruding from its upraised head. He kicked it savagely away—a crumpled, shapeless mass. It was a piece of brutality typical of the man. Ahead he fancied that the air was clearer—the fetid mists less choking—in the deep night-silence a few hours back he had fancied that he had heard the faint thunder of the sea. If this were indeed so, it would be but a short distance now to the end of his journey. With dull, glazed eyes and clenched hands, he reeled on. A sort of stupor had laid hold of him, but through it all his brain was working, and he kept steadily to a fixed course. Was it the sea in his ears, he wondered, that long, monotonous rolling of sound, and there were lights before his eyes—the lights of Buckomari, or the lights of death!
They found him an hour or two later unconscious, but alive, on the outskirts of the village.
Three days later two men were seated face to face in a long wooden house, the largest and most important in Buckomari village.
Smoking a corn-cob pipe and showing in his face but few marks of the terrible days through which he had passed was Scarlett Trent—opposite to him was Hiram Da Souza, the capitalist of the region. The Jew—of Da Souza's nationality it was impossible to have any doubt—was coarse and large of his type, he wore soiled linen clothes and was smoking a black cigar. On the little finger of each hand, thickly encrusted with dirt, was a diamond ring, on his thick, protruding lips a complacent smile. The concession, already soiled and dog-eared, was spread out before them.
It was Da Souza who did most of the talking. Trent indeed had the appearance of a man only indirectly interested in the proceedings.
"You see, my dear sir," Da Souza was saying, "this little concession of yours is, after all, a very risky business. These niggers have absolutely no sense honour. Do I not know it—alas—to my cost?"
Trent listened in contemptuous silence. Da Souza had made a fortune trading fiery rum on the Congo and had probably done more to debauch the niggers he spoke of so bitterly than any man in Africa.
"The Bekwando people have a bad name—very bad name. As for any sense of commercial honour—my dear Trent, one might as well expect diamonds to spring up like mushrooms under our feet."
"The document," Trent said, "is signed by the King and witnessed by Captain Francis, who is Agent-General out here, or something of the sort, for the English Government. It was no gift and don't you think it, but a piece of hard bartering. Forty bearers carried our presents to Bekwando and it took us three months to get through. There is enough in it to make us both millionaires.
"Then why," Da Souza asked, looking up with twinkling eyes, "do you want to sell me a share in it?"
"Because I haven't a darned cent to bless myself with," Trent answered curtly. "I've got to have ready money. I've never had my fist on five thousand pounds before—no, nor five thousand pence, but, as I'm a living man, let me have my start and I'll hold my own with you all."
Da Souza threw himself back in his chair with uplifted hands.
"But my dear friend," he cried, "my dear young friend, you were not thinking—do not say that you were thinking of asking such a sum as five thousand pounds for this little piece of paper!"
The amazement, half sorrowful, half reproachful, on the man's face was perfectly done. But Trent only snorted.
"That piece of paper, as you call it, cost us the hard savings of years, it cost us weeks and months in the bush and amongst the swamps—it cost a man's life, not to mention the niggers we lost. Come, I'm not here to play skittles. Are you on for a deal or not? If you're doubtful about it I've another market. Say the word and we'll drink and part, but if you want to do business, here are my terms. Five thousand for a sixth share!"
"Sixth share," the Jew screamed, "sixth share?"
"The thing's worth a million at least," he said. "A sixth share is a great fortune. Don't waste any time turning up the whites of your eyes at me. I've named my terms and I shan't budge from them. You can lay your bottom dollar on that."
Da Souza took up the document and glanced it through once more.
"The concession," he remarked, "is granted to Scarlett Trent and to one Monty jointly. Who is this Monty, and what has he to say to it?"
Trent set his teeth hard, and he never blenched.
"He was my partner, but he died in the swamps, poor chap. We had horrible weather coming back. It pretty near finished me."
Trent did not mention the fact that for four days and nights they were hiding in holes and up trees from the natives whom the King of Bekwando had sent after them, that their bearers had fled away, and that they had been compelled to leave the track and make their way through an unknown part of the bush.
"But your partner's share," the Jew asked. "What of that?"
"It belongs to me," Trent answered shortly. "We fixed it so before we started. We neither of us took much stock in our relations. If I had died, Monty would have taken the lot. It was a fair deal. You'll find it there!"
The Jew nodded.
"And your partner?" he said. "You saw him die! There is no doubt about that?"
"He is as dead," he said, "as Julius Caesar."
"If I offered you—" Da Souza began.
"If you offered me four thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds," Trent interrupted roughly, "I would tell you to go to glory."
Da Souza sighed. It was a hard man to deal with—this.
"Very well," he said, "if I give way, if I agree to your terms, you will be willing to make over this sixth share to me, both on your own account and on account of your late partner?"
"You're right, mate," Trent assented. "Plank down the brass, and it's a deal."
"I will give you four thousand pounds for a quarter share," Da Souza said.
Trent knocked the ashes from his pipe and stood up.
"Here, don't waste any more of my time," he said. "Stand out of the way, I'm off."
Da Souza kept his hands upon the concession.
"My dear friend," he said, "you are so violent. You are so abrupt. Now listen. I will give you five thousand for a quarter share. It is half my fortune."
"Give me the concession," Trent said. "I'm off."
"For a fifth," Da Souza cried.
Trent moved to the door without speech. Da Souza groaned.
"You will ruin me," he said, "I know it. Come then, five thousand for a sixth share. It is throwing money away."
"If you think so, you'd better not part," Trent said, still lingering in the doorway. "Just as you say. I don't care."
For a full minute Da Souza hesitated. He had an immense belief in the richness of the country set out in the concession; he knew probably more about it than Trent himself. But five thousand pounds was a great deal of money and there was always the chance that the Government might not back the concession holders in case of trouble. He hesitated so long that Trent was actually disappearing before he had made up his mind.
"Come back, Mr. Trent," he called out. "I have decided. I accept. I join with you."
Trent slowly returned. His manner showed no exultation.
"You have the money here?" he asked.
Da Souza laid down a heap of notes and gold upon the table. Trent counted them carefully and thrust them into his pocket. Then he took up a pen and wrote his name at the foot of the assignment which the Jew had prepared.
"Have a drink?" he asked.
Da Souza shook his head.
"The less we drink in this country," he said, "the better. I guess out here, spirits come next to poison. I'll smoke with you, if you have a cigar handy."
Trent drew a handful of cigars from his pocket. "They're beastly," he said, "but it's a beastly country. I'll be glad to turn my back on it."
"There is a good deal," Da Souza said, "which we must now talk about."
"To-morrow," Trent said curtly. "No more now! I haven't got over my miserable journey yet. I'm going to try and get some sleep."
He swung out into the heavy darkness. The air was thick with unwholesome odours rising from the lake-like swamp beyond the drooping circle of trees. He walked a little way towards the sea, and sat down upon a log. A faint land-breeze was blowing, a melancholy soughing came from the edge of the forest only a few hundred yards back, sullen, black, impenetrable. He turned his face inland unwillingly, with a superstitious little thrill of fear. Was it a coyote calling, or had he indeed heard the moan of a dying man, somewhere back amongst that dark, gloomy jungle? He scoffed at himself! Was he becoming as a girl, weak and timid? Yet a moment later he closed his eyes, and pressed his hands tightly over his hot eyeballs. He was a man of little imaginative force, yet the white face of a dying man seemed suddenly to have floated up out of the darkness, to have come to him like a will-o'-the-wisp from the swamp, and the hollow, lifeless eyes seemed ever to be seeking his, mournful and eloquent with dull reproach. Trent rose to his feet with an oath and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He was trembling, and he cursed himself heartily.
"Another fool's hour like this," he muttered, "and the fever will have me. Come out of the shadows, you white-faced, skulking reptile, you—bah! what a blithering fool I am! There is no one there! How could there be any one?"
He listened intently. From afar off came the faint moaning of the wind in the forest and the night sounds of restless animals. Nearer there was no one—nothing stirred. He laughed out loud and moved away to spend his last night in his little wooden home. On the threshold he paused, and faced once more that black, mysterious line of forest.
"Well, I've done with you now," he cried, a note of coarse exultation in his tone. "I've gambled for my life and I've won. To-morrow I'll begin to spend the stakes."
In a handsomely appointed room of one of the largest hotels in London a man was sitting at the head of a table strewn with blotting-paper and writing materials of every description. Half a dozen chairs had been carelessly pushed back, there were empty champagne bottles upon the sideboard, the air was faintly odorous of tobacco smoke—blue wreaths were still curling upwards towards the frescoed ceiling. Yet the gathering had not been altogether a festive one. There were sheets of paper still lying about covered with figures, a brass-bound ledger lay open at the further end of the table, In the background a young man, slim, pale, ill-dressed in sober black, was filling a large tin box with documents and letters.
It had been a meeting of giants. Men whose names were great in the world of finance had occupied those elaborately decorated leather chairs. There had been cynicism, criticism, and finally enthusiasm. For the man who remained it had been a triumph. He had appeared to do but little in the way of persuasion. His manners had been brusque, and his words had been few. Yet he remained the master of the situation. He had gained a victory not only financial but moral, over men whose experience and knowledge were far greater than his. He was no City magnate, nor had he ever received any training in those arts and practices which go to the making of one. For his earlier life had been spent in a wilder country where the gambling was for life and not merely for gold. It was Scarlett Trent who sat there in thoughtful and absorbed silence. He was leaning a little back in a comfortably upholstered chair, with his eyes fixed on a certain empty spot upon the table. The few inches of polished mahogany seemed to him—empty of all significance in themselves—to be reflecting in some mysterious manner certain scenes in his life which were now very rarely brought back to him. The event of to-day he knew to be the culmination of a success as rapid as it had been surprising. He was a millionaire. This deal to-day, in which he had held his own against the shrewdest and most astute men of the great city, had more than doubled his already large fortune. A few years ago he had landed in England friendless and unknown, to-day he had stepped out from even amongst the chosen few and had planted his feet in the higher lands whither the faces of all men are turned. With a grim smile upon his lips, he recalled one by one the various enterprises into which he had entered, the courage with which he had forced them through, the solid strength with which he had thrust weaker men to the wall and had risen a little higher towards his goal upon the wreck of their fortunes. Where other men had failed he had succeeded. To-day the triumph was his alone. He was a millionaire—one of the princes of the world!
The young man, who had filled his box and also a black bag, was ready to go. He ventured most respectfully to break in upon the reflections of his employer.
"Is there anything more for me to do, sir?"
Trent woke from his day-dream into the present. He looked around the room and saw that no papers had been omitted. Then he glanced keenly into his clerk's face.
"Nothing more," he said. "You can go."
It was significant of the man that, notwithstanding his hour of triumph, he did not depart in the slightest degree from the cold gruffness of his tone. The little speech which his clerk had prepared seemed to stick in his throat.
"I trust, sir, that you will forgive—that you will pardon the liberty, if I presume to congratulate you upon such a magnificent stroke of business!"
Scarlett Trent faced him coldly. "What do you know about it?" he asked. "What concern is it of yours, young man, eh?"
The clerk sighed, and became a little confused. He had indulged in some wistful hopes that for once his master might have relaxed, that an opportune word of congratulation might awaken some spark of generosity in the man who had just added a fortune to his great store. He had a girl-wife from whose cheeks the roses were slowly fading, and very soon would come a time when a bank-note, even the smallest, would be a priceless gift. It was for her sake he had spoken. He saw now that he had made a mistake.
"I am very sorry, sir," he said humbly. "Of course I know that these men have paid an immense sum for their shares in the Bekwando Syndicate. At the same time it is not my business, and I am sorry that I spoke."
"It is not your business at any time to remember what I receive for properties," Scarlett Trent said roughly. "Haven't I told you that before? What did I say when you came to me? You were to hear nothing and see nothing outside your duties! Speak up, man! Don't stand there like a jay!"
The clerk was pale, and there was an odd sensation in his throat. But he thought of his girl-wife and he pulled himself together.
"You are quite right, sir," he said. "To any one else I should never have mentioned it. But we were alone, and I thought that the circumstances might make it excusable."
His employer grunted in an ominous manner.
"When I say forget, I mean forget," he declared. "I don't want to be reminded by you of my own business. D'ye think I don't know it?"
"I am very sure that you do, sir," the clerk answered humbly. "I quite see that my allusion was an error."
Scarlett Trent had turned round in his chair, and was eying the pale, nervous figure with a certain hard disapproval.
"That's a beastly coat you've got on, Dickenson," he said. "Why don't you get a new one?"
"I am standing in a strong light, sir," the young man answered, with a new fear at his heart. "It wants brushing, too. I will endeavour to get a new one—very shortly."
His employer grunted again.
"What's your salary?" he asked.
"Two pounds fifteen shillings a week, sir."
"And you mean to say that you can't dress respectably on that? What do you do with your money, eh? How do you spend it? Drink and music-halls, I suppose!"
The young man was able at last to find some spark of dignity. A pink spot burned upon his cheeks.
"I do not attend music-halls, sir, nor have I touched wine or spirits for years. I—I have a wife to keep, and perhaps—I am expecting—"
He stopped abruptly. How could he mention that other matter which, for all its anxieties, still possessed for him a sort of quickening joy in the face of that brutal stare. He did not conclude his sentence, the momentary light died out of his pale commonplace features. He hung his head and was silent.
"A wife," Scarlett Trent repeated with contempt, "and all the rest of it of course. Oh, what poor donkeys you young men are! Here are you, with your way to make in the world, with your foot scarcely upon the bottom rung of the ladder, grubbing along on a few bob a week, and you choose to go and chuck away every chance you ever might have for a moment's folly. A poor, pretty face I suppose. A moonlight walk on a Bank Holiday, a little maudlin sentiment, and over you throw all your chances in life. No wonder the herd is so great, and the leaders so few," he added, with a sneer.
The young man raised his head. Once more the pink spot was burning. Yet how hard to be dignified with the man from whom comes one's daily bread.
"You are mistaken, sir," he said. "I am quite happy and quite satisfied."
Scarlett Trent laughed scornfully.
"Then you don't look it," he exclaimed.
"I may not, sir," the young man continued, with a desperate courage, "but I am. After all happiness is spelt with different letters for all of us. You have denied yourself—worked hard, carried many burdens and run great risks to become a millionaire. I too have denied myself, have worked and struggled to make a home for the girl I cared for. You have succeeded and you are happy. I can hold Edith's—I beg your pardon, my wife's hand in mine and I am happy. I have no ambition to be a millionaire. I was very ambitious to win my wife."
Scarlett Trent looked at him for a moment open mouthed and open-eyed. Then he laughed outright and a chill load fell from the heart of the man who for a moment had forgotten himself. The laugh was scornful perhaps, but it was not angry.
"Well, you've shut me up," he declared. "You seem a poor sort of a creature to me, but if you're content, it's no business of mine. Here buy yourself an overcoat, and drink a glass of wine. I'm off!"
He rose from his seat and threw a bank-note over the table. The clerk opened it and handed it back with a little start.
"I am much obliged to you, sir," he said humbly, "but you have made a mistake. This note is for fifty pounds."
Trent glanced at it and held out his hand. Then he paused.
"Never mind," he said, with a short laugh, "I meant to give you a fiver, but it don't make much odds. Only see that you buy some new clothes."
The clerk half closed his eyes and steadied himself by grasping the back of a chair. There was a lump in his throat in earnest now.
"You—you mean it, sir?" he gasped. "I—I'm afraid I can't thank you!"
"Don't try, unless you want me to take it back," Trent said, strolling to the sideboard. "Lord, how those City chaps can guzzle! Not a drop of champagne left. Two unopened bottles though! Here, stick 'em in your bag and take 'em to the missis, young man. I paid for the lot, so there's no use leaving any. Now clear out as quick as you can. I'm off!"
"You will allow me, sir—"
Scarlett Trent closed the door with a slam and disappeared. The young man passed him a few moments later as he stood on the steps of the hotel lighting a cigar. He paused again, intent on stammering out some words of thanks. Trent turned his back upon him coldly.
Trent, on leaving the hotel, turned for almost the first time in his life westwards. For years the narrow alleys, the thronged streets, the great buildings of the City had known him day by day, almost hour by hour. Its roar and clamour, the strife of tongues and keen measuring of wits had been the salt of his life. Steadily, sturdily, almost insolently, he had thrust his way through to the front ranks. In many respects those were singular and unusual elements which had gone to the making of his success. His had not been the victory of honied falsehoods, of suave deceit, of gentle but legalised robbery. He had been a hard worker, a daring speculator with nerves of iron, and courage which would have glorified a nobler cause. Nor had his been the methods of good fellowship, the sharing of "good turns," the camaraderie of finance. The men with whom he had had large dealings he had treated as enemies rather than friends, ever watching them covertly with close but unslackening vigilance. And now, for the present at any rate it was all over. There had come a pause in his life. His back was to the City and his face was set towards an unknown world. Half unconsciously he had undertaken a little voyage of exploration.
From the Strand he crossed Trafalgar Square into Pall Mall, and up the Haymarket into Piccadilly. He was very soon aware that he had wandered into a world whose ways were not his ways and with whom he had no kinship. Yet he set himself sedulously to observe them, conscious that what he saw represented a very large side of life. From the first he was aware of a certain difference in himself and his ways. The careless glance of a lounger on the pavement of Pall Mall filled him with a sudden anger. The man was wearing gloves, an article of dress which Trent ignored, and smoking a cigarette, which he loathed. Trent was carelessly dressed in a tweed suit and red tie, his critic wore a silk hat and frock coat, patent-leather boots, and a dark tie of invisible pattern. Yet Trent knew that he was a type of that class which would look upon him as an outsider, and a black sheep, until he had bought his standing. They would expect him to conform to their type, to learn to speak their jargon, to think with their puny brains and to see with their short-sighted eyes. At the "Criterion" he turned in and had a drink, and, bolder for the wine which he had swallowed at a gulp, he told himself that he would do nothing of the sort. He would not alter a jot. They must take him as he was, or leave him. He suffered his thoughts to dwell for a moment upon his wealth, on the years which had gone to the winning of it, on a certain nameless day, the memory of which even now sent sometimes the blood running colder through his veins, on the weaker men who had gone under that he might prosper. Now that it was his, he wanted the best possible value for it; it was the natural desire of the man to be uppermost in the bargain. The delights of the world behind, it seemed to him that he had already drained. The crushing of his rivals, the homage of his less successful competitors, the grosser pleasures of wine, the music-halls, and the unlimited spending of money amongst people whom he despised had long since palled upon him. He had a keen, strong desire to escape once and for ever from his surroundings. He lounged along, smoking a large cigar, keen-eyed and observant, laying up for himself a store of impressions, unconsciously irritated at every step by a sense of ostracism, of being in some indefinable manner without kinship and wholly apart from this world, in which it seemed natural now that he should find some place. He gazed at the great houses without respect or envy, at the men with a fierce contempt, at the women with a sore feeling that if by chance he should be brought into contact with any of them they would regard him as a sort of wild animal, to be humoured or avoided purely as a matter of self-interest. The very brightness and brilliancy of their toilettes, the rustling of their dresses, the trim elegance and daintiness which he was able to appreciate without being able to understand, only served to deepen his consciousness of the gulf which lay between him and them. They were of a world to which, even if he were permitted to enter it, he could not possibly belong. He returned such glances as fell upon him with fierce insolence; he was indeed somewhat of a strange figure in his ill-fitting and inappropriate clothes amongst a gathering of smart people. A lady looking at him through raised lorgnettes turned and whispered something with a smile to her companion—once before he had heard an audible titter from a little group of loiterers. He returned the glance with a lightning-like look of diabolical fierceness, and, turning round, stood upon the curbstone and called a hansom.
A sense of depression swept over him as he was driven through the crowded streets towards Waterloo. The half-scornful, half-earnest prophecy, to which he had listened years ago in a squalid African hut, flashed into his mind. For the first time he began to have dim apprehensions as to his future. All his life he had been a toiler, and joy had been with him in the fierce combat which he had waged day by day. He had fought his battle and he had won—where were the fruits of his victory? A puny, miserable little creature like Dickenson could prate of happiness and turn a shining face to the future—Dickenson who lived upon a pittance, who depended upon the whim of his employer, and who confessed to ambitions which were surely pitiable. Trent lit a fresh cigar and smiled; things would surely come right with him—they must. What Dickenson could gain was surely his by right a thousand times over.
He took the train for Walton, travelling first class, and treated with much deference by the officials on the line. As he alighted and passed through the booking-hall into the station-yard a voice hailed him. He looked up sharply. A carriage and pair of horses was waiting, and inside a young woman with a very smart hat and a profusion of yellow hair.
"Come on, General," she cried. "I've done a skip and driven down to meet you. Such jokes when they miss me. The old lady will be as sick as they make 'em. Can't we have a drive round for an hour, eh?"
Her voice was high-pitched and penetrating. Listening to it Trent unconsciously compared it with the voices of the women of that other world into which he had wandered earlier in the afternoon. He turned a frowning face towards her.
"You might have spared yourself the trouble," he said shortly. "I didn't order a carriage to meet me and I don't want one. I am going to walk home."
She tossed her head.
"What a beastly temper you're in!" she remarked. "I'm not particular about driving. Do you want to walk alone?"
"Exactly!" he answered. "I do!"
She leaned back in the carriage with heightened colour.
"Well, there's one thing about me," she said acidly. "I never go where I ain't wanted."
Trent shrugged his shoulders and turned to the coachman.
"Drive home, Gregg," he said. "I'm walking."
The man touched his hat, the carriage drove off, and Trent, with a grim smile upon his lips, walked along the dusty road. Soon he paused before a little white gate marked private, and, unlocking it with a key which he took from his pocket, passed through a little plantation into a large park-like field. He took off his hat and fanned himself thoughtfully as he walked. The one taste which his long and absorbing struggle with the giants of Capel Court had never weakened was his love for the country. He lifted his head to taste the breeze which came sweeping across from the Surrey Downs, keenly relishing the fragrance of the new-mown hay and the faint odour of pines from the distant dark-crested hill. As he came up the field towards the house he looked with pleasure upon the great bed of gorgeous-coloured rhododendrons which bordered his lawn, the dark cedars which drooped over the smooth shaven grass, and the faint flush of colour from the rose-gardens beyond. The house itself was small, but picturesque. It was a grey stone building of two stories only, and from where he was seemed completely embowered in flowers and creepers. In a way, he thought, he would be sorry to leave it. It had been a pleasant summer-house for him, although of course it was no fit dwelling-house for a millionaire. He must look out for something at once now—a country house and estate. All these things would come as a matter of course.
He opened another gate and passed into an inner plantation of pines and shrubs which bordered the grounds. A winding path led through it, and, coming round a bend, he stopped short with a little exclamation. A girl was standing with her back to him rapidly sketching upon a little block which she had in her left hand.
"Hullo!" he remarked, "another guest! and who brought you down, young lady, eh?"
She turned slowly round and looked at him in cold surprise. Trent knew at once that he had made a mistake. She was plainly dressed in white linen and a cool muslin blouse, but there was something about her, unmistakable even to Trent, which placed her very far apart indeed from any woman likely to have become his unbidden guest. He knew at once that she was one of that class with whom he had never had any association. She was the first lady whom he had ever addressed, and he could have bitten out his tongues when he remembered the form of his doing so.
"I beg your pardon, miss," he said confusedly, "my mistake! You see, your back was turned to me."
She nodded and smiled graciously.
"If you are Mr. Scarlett Trent," she said, "it is I who should apologise, for I am a flagrant trespasser. You must let me explain."
The girl had moved a step towards him as she spoke, and a gleam of sunlight which had found its way into the grove flashed for a moment on the stray little curls of her brown-gold hair and across her face. Her lips were parted in a delightful smile; she was very pretty, and inclined to be apologetic. But Scarlett Trent had seen nothing save that first glance when the sun had touched her face with fire. A strong man at all times, and more than commonly self-masterful, he felt himself now as helpless as a child. A sudden pallor had whitened his face to the lips, there were strange singings in his ears, and a mist before his eyes. It was she! There was no possibility of any mistake. It was the girl for whose picture he had gambled in the hut at Bekwando—Monty's baby-girl, of whom he had babbled even in death. He leaned against a tree, stricken dumb, and she was frightened. "You are ill," she cried. "I'm so sorry. Let me run to the house and fetch some one!"
He had strength enough to stop her. A few deep breaths and he was himself again, shaken and with a heart beating like a steam-engine, but able at least to talk intelligently.
"I'm sorry—didn't mean to frighten you," he said. "It's the heat. I get an attack like this sometimes. Yes, I'm Mr. Trent. I don't know what you're doing here, but you're welcome."
"How nice of you to say so!" she answered brightly. "But then perhaps you'll change your mind when you know what I have been doing."
He laughed shortly.
"Nothing terrible, I should say. Looks as though you've been making a picture of my house; I don't mind that."
She dived in her pocket and produced a card-case.
"I'll make full confession," she said frankly. "I'm a journalist."
"A what!" he repeated feebly.
"A journalist. I'm on the Hour. This isn't my work as a rule; but the man who should have come is ill, and his junior can't sketch, so they sent me! Don't look as though I were a ghost, please. Haven't you ever heard of a girl journalist before?"
"Never," he answered emphatically. "I didn't know that ladies did such things!"
She laughed gaily but softly; and Trent understood then what was meant by the music of a woman's voice.
"Oh, it's not at all an uncommon thing," she answered him. "You won't mind my interviewing you, will you?"
"Doing what?" he asked blankly.
"Interviewing you! That's what I've come for, you know; and we want a little sketch of your house for the paper. I know you don't like it. I hear you've been awfully rude to poor little Morrison of the Post; but I'll be very careful what I say, and very quick."
He stood looking at her, a dazed and bewildered man. From the trim little hat, with its white band and jaunty bunch of cornflowers, to the well-shaped patent shoes, she was neatly and daintily dressed. A journalist! He gazed once more into her face, at the brown eyes watching him now a little anxiously, the mouth with the humorous twitch at the corner of her lips. The little wisps of hair flashed again in the sunlight. It was she! He had found her.
She took his silence for hesitation, and continued a little anxiously.
"I really won't ask you many questions, and it would do me quite a lot of good to get an interview with you. Of course I oughtn't to have begun this sketch without permission. If you mind that, I'll give it up."
He found his tongue awkwardly, but vigorously.
"You can sketch just as long as ever you please, and make what use of it you like," he said. "It's only a bit of a place though!"
"How nice of you! And the interview?"
"I'll tell you whatever you want to know," he said quietly.
She could scarcely believe in her good fortune, especially when she remembered the description of the man which one of the staff had given. He was gruff, vulgar, ill-tempered; the chief ought to be kicked for letting her go near him! This was what she had been told. She laughed softly to herself.
"It is very good indeed of you, Mr. Trent," she said earnestly. "I was quite nervous about coming, for I had no idea that you would be so kind. Shall I finish my sketch first, and then perhaps you will be able to spare me a few minutes for the interview?"
"Just as you like," he answered. "May I look at it?"
"Certainly," she answered, holding out the block; "but it isn't half finished yet."
"Will it take long?"
"About an hour, I think."
"You are very clever," he said, with a little sigh.
She laughed outright.
"People are calling you the cleverest man in London to-day," she said.
"Pshaw! It isn't the cleverness that counts for anything that makes money."
Then he set his teeth hard together and swore vigorously but silently. She had become suddenly interested in her work. A shrill burst of laughter from the lawn in front had rung sharply out, startling them both. A young woman with fluffy hair and in a pale blue dinner-dress was dancing to an unseen audience. Trent's eyes flashed with anger, and his cheeks burned. The dance was a music-hall one, and the gestures were not refined. Before he could stop himself an oath had broken from his lips. After that he dared not even glance at the girl by his side.
"I'm very sorry," he muttered. "I'll stop that right away."
"You mustn't disturb your friends on my account," she said quietly. She did not look up, but Trent felt keenly the alteration in her manner.
"They're not my friends," he exclaimed passionately "I'll clear them out neck and crop."
She looked up for a moment, surprised at his sudden vehemence. There was no doubt about his being in earnest. She continued her work without looking at him, but her tone when she spoke was more friendly.
"This will take me a little longer than I thought to finish properly," she said. "I wonder might I come down early to-morrow morning? What time do you leave for the City?"
"Not until afternoon, at any rate," he said. "Come to-morrow, certainly—whenever you like. You needn't be afraid of that rabble. I'll see you don't have to go near them."
"You must please not make any difference or alter your arrangements on my account," she said. "I am quite used to meeting all sorts of people in my profession, and I don't object to it in the least. Won't you go now? I think that that was your dinner-bell."
He hesitated, obviously embarrassed but determined. "There is one question," he said, "which I should very much like to ask you. It will sound impertinent. I don't mean it so. I can't explain exactly why I want to know, but I have a reason."
"Ask it by all means," she said. "I'll promise that I'll answer it if I can."
"You say that you are—a journalist. Have you taken it up for a pastime, or—to earn money?"
"To earn money by all means," she answered, laughing. "I like the work, but I shouldn't care for it half so much if I didn't make my living at it. Did you think that I was an amateur?"
"I didn't know," he answered slowly. "Thank you. You will come to-morrow?"
"Of course! Good evening."
Trent lifted his hat, and turned away unwillingly towards the house, full of a sense that something wonderful had happened to him. He was absent-minded, but he stopped to pat a little dog whose attentions he usually ignored, and he picked a creamy-white rose as he crossed the lawn and wondered why it should remind him of her.
Trent's appearance upon the lawn was greeted with a shout of enthusiasm. The young lady in blue executed a pas seut, and came across to him on her toes, and the girl with the yellow hair, although sulky, gave him to understand by a sidelong glance that her favour was not permanently withdrawn. They neither of the noticed the somewhat ominous air of civility with which he received their greetings, or the contempt in his eyes as he looked them silently over.
"Where are the lost tribe?" he inquired, as the girls, one on either side, escorted him to the house.
They received his witticism with a piercing shriek of laughter.
"Mamma and her rag of a daughter are in the drawing room," explained Miss Montressor—the young lady with fluffy hair who dressed in blue and could dance. "Such a joke, General! They don't approve of us! Mamma says that she shall have to take her Julie away if we remain. We are not fit associates for her. Rich, isn't it! The old chap's screwing up his courage now with brandy and soda to tell you so!"