A Millionaire of Yesterday

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 28


It was then perhaps that Trent fought the hardest battle of his life. The start was made with only a dozen Kru boys, Trent himself, stripped to the shirt, labouring amongst them spade in hand. In a week the fishing boats were deserted, every one was working on the road. The labour was immense, but the wages were magnificent. Real progress was made and the boy's calculations were faultless. Trent used the cable freely.

"Have dismissed Cathcart for incompetence - road started - progress magnificent," he wired one week, and shortly afterwards a message came back - "Cathcart cables resigned - scheme impossible - shares dropping - wire reply."

Trent clenched his fist, and his language made the boy, who had never heard him violent, look up in surprise. Then he put on his coat and walked out to the cable station.

"Cathcart lies. I dismissed him for cowardice and incompetence. The road is being made and I pledge my word that it will be finished in six months. Let our friends sell no shares."

Then Trent went back and, hard as he had worked before, he surpassed it all now. Far and wide he sent ever with the same inquiry - for labour and stores. He spent money like water, but he spent from a bottomless purse. Day after day Kru boys, natives and Europeans down on their luck, came creeping in. Far away across the rolling plain the straight belt of flint-laid road-bed stretched to the horizon, one gang in advance cutting turf, another beating in the small stones. The boy grew thin and bronzed, Trent and he toiled as though their lives hung upon the work. So they went on till the foremost gang came close to the forests, beyond which lay the village of Bekwando.

Then began the period of the greatest anxiety, for Trent and the boy and a handful of the others knew what would have sent half of the natives flying from their work if a whisper had got abroad. A few soldiers were drafted down from the Fort, arms were given out to all those who could be trusted to use them and by night men watched by the great red fires which flared along the path of their labours. Trent and the boy took it by turns to watch, their revolvers loaded by their side, and their eyes ever turned towards that dark line of forest whence came nothing but the singing of night birds and the calling of wild animals. Yet Trent would have no caution relaxed, the more they progressed. the more vigilant the watch they kept. At last came signs of the men of Bekwando. In the small hours of the morning a burning spear came hurtling through the darkness and fell with a hiss and a quiver in the ground, only a few feet from where Trent and the boy lay. Trent stamped on it hastily and gave no alarm. But the boy stole round with a whispered warning to those who could be trusted to fight.

Yet no attack came on that night or the next; on the third Trent and the boy sat talking and the latter frankly owned that he was nervous.

"It's not that I'm afraid," he said, smiling. "You know it isn't that! But all day long I've had the same feeling - we're being watched! I'm perfectly certain that the beggars are skulking round the borders of the forest there. Before morning we shall hear from them."

"If they mean to fight," Trent said, "the sooner they come out the better. I'd send a messenger to the King only I'm afraid they'd kill him. Oom Sam won't come! I've sent for him twice."

The boy was looking backwards and forwards along the long line of disembowelled earth.

"Trent," he said suddenly, "you're a wonderful man. Honestly, this road is a marvellous feat for untrained labour and with such rotten odds and ends of machinery. I don't know what experience you'd had of road-making."

"None," Trent interjected.

"Then it's wonderful!"

Trent smiled upon the boy with such a smile as few people had ever seen upon his lips.

"There's a bit of credit to you, Davenant," he said. "I'd never have been able to figure out the levelling alone. Whether I go down or not, this shall be a good step up on the ladder for you."

The boy laughed.

"I've enjoyed it more than anything else in my life," he said. "Fancy the difference between this and life in a London office. It's been magnificent! I never dreamed what life was like before."

Trent looked thoughtfully into the red embers. "You had the mail to-day," the boy continued. How were things in London?"

"Not so bad," Trent answered. "Cathcart has been doing all the harm he can, but it hasn't made a lot of difference. My cables have been published and our letters will be in print by now, and the photographs you took of the work. That was a splendid idea!"

"And the shares?"

"Down a bit - not much. Da Souza seems to be selling out carefully a few at a time, and my brokers are buying most of them. Pound shares are nineteen shillings to-day. They'll be between three and four pounds, a week after I get back."

"And when shall you go?" the boy asked.

"Directly I get a man out here I can trust and things are fixed with his Majesty the King of Bekwando! We'll both go then, and you shall spend a week or two with me in London."

The boy laughed.

"What a time we'll have!" he cried. "Say, do you know your way round?"

Trent shook his head.

"I'm afraid not," he said. "You'll have to be my guide."

"Right you are," was the cheerful answer. "I'll take you to Jimmy's, and the Empire, and down the river, and to a match at Lord's, and to Henley if we're in time, and I'll take you to see my aunt! You'll like her."

Trent nodded.

"I'll expect to," he said. "Is she anything like you?"

"Much cleverer," the boy said, "but we've been great chums all our life. She's the cleverest woman ever knew, earns lots of money writing for newspapers.

"Here, you've dropped your cigar, Trent."

Trent groped for it on the ground with shaking fingers.

"Writes for newspapers?" he repeated slowly. I wonder - her name isn't Davenant, is it?"

The boy shook his head.

"No, she's my mother's cousin really - only I call her Aunty, we always got on so. She isn't really much older than me, her name is Wendermott - Ernestine Wendermott. Ernestine's a pretty name, don't you think?"

Trent rose to his feet, muttering something about a sound in the forest. He stood with his back to the boy looking steadily at the dark line of outlying scrub, seeing in reality nothing, yet keenly anxious that the red light of the dancing flames should not fall upon his face. The boy leaned on his elbow and looked in the same direction. He was puzzled by a fugitive something which he had seen in Trent's face.

Afterwards Trent liked sometimes to think that it was the sound of her name which had saved them all. For, whereas his gaze had been idle at first, it became suddenly fixed and keen. He stooped down and whispered something to the boy. The word was passed along the line of sleeping men and one by one they dropped back into the deep-cut trench. The red fire danced and crackled - only a few yards outside the flame-lit space came the dark forms of men creeping through the rough grass like snakes.