A Millionaire of Yesterday

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 24


An old man, with his face turned to the sea, was making a weary attempt at digging upon a small potato patch. The blaze of the tropical sun had become lost an hour or so before in a strange, grey mist, rising not from the sea, but from the swamps which lay here and there - brilliant, verdant patches of poison and pestilence. With the mist came a moist, sticky heat, the air was fetid. Trent wiped the perspiration from his forehead and breathed hard. This was an evil moment for him.

Monty turned round at the sound of his approaching footsteps. The two men stood face to face. Trent looked eagerly for some sign of recognition - none came.

"Don't you know me?" Trent said huskily. "I'm Scarlett Trent - we went up to Bekwando together, you know. I thought you were dead, Monty, or I wouldn't have left you."

"Eh! What!"

Monty mumbled for a moment or two and was silent. A look of dull disappointment struggled with the vacuity of his face. Trent noticed that his hands were shaking pitifully and his eyes were bloodshot.

"Try and think, Monty," he went on, drawing a step nearer to him. "Don't you remember what a beastly time we had up in the bush - how they kept us day after day in that villainous hut because it was a fetish week, and how after we had got the concessions those confounded niggers followed us! They meant our lives, Monty, and I don't know how you escaped! Come! make an effort and pull yourself together. We're rich men now, both of us. You must come back to England and help me spend a bit."

Monty had recovered a little his power of speech. He leaned over his spade and smiled benignly at his visitor.

"There was a Trentham in the Guards," he said slowly, "the Honourable George Trentham, you know, one of poor Abercrombie's sons, but I thought he was dead. You must dine with me one night at the Travellers'! I've given up eating myself, but I'm always thirsty."

He looked anxiously away towards the town and began to mumble. Trent was in despair. Presently he began again.

"I used to belong to the Guards, - always dined there till Jacques left. Afterwards the cooking was beastly, and - I can't quite remember where I went then. You see - I think I must be getting old. I don't remember things. Between you and me," he sidled a little closer to Trent, "I think I must have got into a bit of a scrape of some sort - I feel as though there was a blank somewhere...."

Again he became unintelligible. Trent was silent for several minutes. He could not understand that strained, anxious look which crept into Monty's face every time he faced the town. Then he made his last effort.

"Monty, do you remember this?"

Zealously guarded, yet a little worn at the edges and faded, he drew the picture from its case and held it before the old man's blinking eyes. There was a moment of suspense, then a sharp, breathless cry which ended in a wail.

"Take it away," Monty moaned. "I lost it long ago. I don't want to see it! I don't want to think."

"I have come," Trent said, with an unaccustomed gentleness in his tone, "to make you think. I want you to remember that that is a picture of your daughter. You are rich now and there is no reason why you should not come back to her. Don't you understand, Monty?"

It was a grey, white face, shrivelled and pinched, weak eyes without depth, a vapid smile in which there was no meaning. Trent, carried away for a moment by an impulse of pity, felt only disappointment at the hopelessness of his task. He would have been honestly glad to have taken the Monty whom he had known back to England, but not this man! For already that brief flash of awakened life seemed to have died away. Monty's head was wagging feebly and he was casting continually little, furtive glances towards the town.

"Please go away," he said. "I don't know you and you give me a pain in my head. Don't you know what it is to feel a buzz, buzz, buzzing inside? I can't remember things. It's no use trying."

"Monty, why do you look so often that way?" Trent said quietly. "Is some one coming out from the town to see you?"

Monty threw a quick glance at him and Trent sighed. For the glance was full of cunning, the low cunning of the lunatic criminal.

"No one, no one," he said hastily. "Who should come to see me? I'm only poor Monty. Poor old Monty's got no friends. Go away and let me dig."

Trent walked a few paces apart, and passed out of the garden to a low, shelving bank and looked downward where a sea of glass rippled on to the broad, firm sands. What a picture of desolation! The grey, hot mist, the whitewashed cabin, the long, ugly potato patch, the weird, pathetic figure of that old man from whose brain the light of life had surely passed for ever. And yet Trent was puzzled. Monty's furtive glance inland, his half-frightened, half-cunning denial of any anticipated visit suggested that there was some one else who was interested in his existence, and some one too with whom he shared a secret. Trent lit a cigar and sat down upon the sandy turf. Monty resumed his digging. Trent watched him through the leaves of a stunted tree, underneath which he had thrown himself.

For an hour or more nothing happened. Trent smoked, and Monty, who had apparently forgotten all about his visitor, plodded away amongst the potato furrows, with every now and then a long, searching look towards the town. Then there came a black speck stealing across the broad rice-field and up the steep hill, a speck which in time took to itself the semblance of a man, a Kru boy, naked as he was born save for a ragged loin-cloth, and clutching something in his hand. He was invisible to Trent until he was close at hand; it was Monty whose changed attitude and deportment indicated the approach of something interesting. He had relinquished his digging and, after a long, stealthy glance towards the house, had advanced to the extreme boundary of the potato patch. His behaviour here for the first time seemed to denote the hopeless lunatic. He swung his long arms backward and forwards, cracking his fingers, and talked unintelligibly to himself, hoarse, guttural murmurings without sense or import. Trent changed his place and for the first time saw the Kru boy. His face darkened and an angry exclamation broke from his lips. It was something like this which he had been expecting.

The Kru boy drew nearer and nearer. Finally he stood upright on the rank, coarse grass and grinned at Monty, whose lean hands were outstretched towards him. He fumbled for a moment in his loin-cloth. Then he drew out a long bottle and handed it up. Trent stepped out as Monty's nervous fingers were fumbling with the cork. He made a grab at the boy who glided off like an eel. Instantly he whipped out a revolver and covered him.

"Come here," he cried.

The boy shook his head. "No understand."

"Who sent you here with that filthy stuff?" he asked sternly. "You'd best answer me."

The Kru boy, shrinking away from the dark muzzle of that motionless revolver, was spellbound with fear. He shook his head.

"No understand."

There was a flash of light, a puff of smoke, a loud report. The Kru boy fell forward upon his face howling with fear. Monty ran off towards the house mumbling to himself.

"The next time," Trent said coolly, "I shall fire at you instead of at the tree. Remember I have lived out here and I know all about you and your kind. You can understand me very well if you choose, and you've just got to. Who sends you here with that vile stuff?"

"Massa, I tell! Massa Oom Sam, he send me!"

"And what is the stuff?"

"Hamburgh gin, massa! very good liquor! Please, massa, point him pistol the other way."

Trent took up the flask, smelt its contents and threw it away with a little exclamation of disgust.

"How often have you been coming here on this errand?" he asked sternly.

"Most every day, massa - when him Mr. Price away."

Trent nodded.

"Very good," he said. "Now listen to me. If ever I catch you round here again or anywhere else on such an errand, I'll shoot you like a dog. Now be off."

The boy bounded away with a broad grin of relief. Trent walked up to the house and asked for the missionary's wife. She came to him soon, in what was called the parlour. A frail, anaemic-looking woman with tired eyes and weary expression.

"I'm sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Price," Trent said, plunging at once into his subject, "but I want to speak to you about this old man, Monty. You've had him some time now, haven't you?"

"About four years," she answered. "Captain Francis left him with my husband; I believe he found him in one of the villages inland, a prisoner."

Trent nodded.

"He left you a little money with him, I believe."

The woman smiled faintly.

"It was very little," she said, "but such as it is, we have never touched it. He eats scarcely anything and we consider that the little work he has done has about paid us for keeping him."

"Did you know," Trent asked bluntly, "that he had been a drunkard?"

"Captain Francis hinted as much," the woman answered. "That was one reason why he wanted to leave him with us. He knew that we did not allow anything in the house."

"It was a pity," Trent said, "that you could not have watched him a little more out of it. Why, his brain is sodden with drink now!"

The woman was obviously honest in her amazement. "How can that be?" she exclaimed. "He has absolutely no money and he never goes off our land."

"He has no need," Trent answered bitterly. "There are men in Attra who want him dead, and they have been doing their best to hurry him off. I caught a Kru boy bringing him gin this afternoon. Evidently it has been a regular thing."

"I am very sorry indeed to hear this," the woman said, "and I am sure my husband will be too. He will feel that, in a certain measure, he has betrayed Captain Francis's trust. At the same time we neither of us had any idea that anything of this sort was to be feared, or we would have kept watch."

"You cannot be blamed," Trent said. "I am satisfied that you knew nothing about it. Now I am going to let you into a secret. Monty is a rich man if he had his rights, and I want to help him to them. I shall take him back to England with me, but I can't leave for a week or so. If you can keep him till then and have some one to watch him day and night, I'll give your husband a hundred pounds for your work here, and build you a church. It's all right! Don't look as though I were mad. I'm a very rich man, that's all, and I shan't miss the money, but I want to feel that Monty is safe till I can start back to England. Will you undertake this?"

"Yes," the woman answered promptly, "we will. We'll do our honest best."

Trent laid a bank-note upon the table.

"Just to show I'm in earnest," he remarked, rising. "I shall be up-country for about a month. Look after the old chap well and you'll never regret it."

Trent went thoughtfully back to the town. He had committed himself now to a definite course of action. He had made up his mind to take Monty back with him to England and face the consequences.