A Millionaire of Yesterday

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 35


Da Souza's office was neither furnished nor located with the idea of impressing casual visitors. It was in a back-street off an alley, and although within a stone's throw of Lothbury its immediate surroundings were not exhilarating. A blank wall faced it, a green-grocer's shop shared with a wonderful, cellar-like public-house the honour of its more immediate environment. Trent, whose first visit it was, looked about him with surprise mingled with some disgust.

He pushed open the swing door and found himself face to face with Da Souza's one clerk - a youth of unkempt appearance, shabbily but flashily dressed, with sallow complexion and eyes set close together. He was engaged at that particular moment in polishing a large diamond pin upon the sleeve of his coat, which operation he suspended to gaze with much astonishment at this unlocked-for visitor. Trent had come straight from Ascot, straight indeed from his interview with Francis, and was still wearing his racing-glasses.

"I wish to see Mr. Da Souza," Trent said. "Is he in?"

"I believe so, sir," the boy answered. "What name?"

"Trent! Mr. Scarlett Trent!"

The door of an inner office opened, and Da Souza, sleek and curled, presented himself. He showed all his white teeth in the smile with which he welcomed his visitor. The light of battle was in his small, keen eyes, in his cringing bow, his mock humility.

"I am most honoured, Mr. Trent, sir," he declared. "Welcome back to England. When did you return?"

"Yesterday," Trent said shortly.

"And you have come," Da Souza continued, "fresh from the triumphs of the race-course. It is so, I trust?"

"I have come straight from Ascot," Trent replied, "but my horse was beaten if that is what you mean. I did not come here to talk about racing though. I want a word with you in private."

"With much pleasure, sir," Da Souza answered, throwing open with a little flourish the door of his sanctum. "Will you step in? This way! The chair is dusty. Permit me!"

Trent threw a swift glance around the room in which he found himself. It was barely furnished, and a window, thick with dust, looked out on the dingy back-wall of a bank or some public building. The floor was uncovered, the walls were hung with yellow maps of gold-mines all in the West African district. Da Souza himself, spick and span, with glossy boots and a flower in his buttonhole, was certainly the least shabby thing in the room.

"You know very well," Trent said, "what I have come about. Of course you'll pretend you don't, so to save time I'll tell you. What have you done with Monty?"

Da Souza spread outwards the palms of his hands. He spoke with well-affected impatience.

"Monty! always Monty! What do I want with him? It is you who should look after him, not I."

Trent turned quietly round and locked the door. Da Souza would have called out, but a paroxysm of fear had seized him. His fat, white face was pallid, and his knees were shaking. Trent's hand fell upon his shoulder, and Da Souza felt as though the claws of a trap had gripped him.

"If you call out I'll throttle you," Trent said. "Now listen. Francis is in England and, unless Monty is produced, will tell the whole story. I shall do the best I can for all of us, but I'm not going to have Monty done to death. Come, let's have the truth."

Da Souza was grey now with a fear greater even than a physical one. He had been so near wealth. Was he to lose everything?

"Mr. Trent," he whispered, "my dear friend, have reason. Monty, I tell you, is only half alive, he hangs on, but it is a mere thread of life. Leave it all to me! To-morrow he shall be dead! - oh, quite naturally. There shall be no risk! Trent, Trent!"

His cry ended in a gurgle, for Trent's hand was on his throat.

"Listen, you miserable hound," he whispered. "Take me to him this moment, or I'll shake the life out of you. Did you ever know me go back from my word?"

Da Souza took up his hat with an ugly oath and yielded. The two men left the office together.

* * * * *

"Listen!"

The two women sat in silence, waiting for some repetition of the sound. This time there was certainly no possibility of any mistake. >From the room above their heads came the feeble, quavering sobbing of an old man. Julie threw down her book and sprang up.

"Mother, I cannot bear it any longer," she cried. "I know where the key is, and I am going into that room"

Mrs. Da Souza's portly frame quivered with excitement.

"My child," she pleaded, "don't Julie, do remember! Your father will know, and then - oh, I shall be frightened to death!"

"It is nothing to do with you, mother," the girl said, "I am going."

Mrs. Da Souza produced a capacious pocket-handkerchief, reeking with scent, and dabbed her eyes with it. From the days when she too had been like Julie, slim and pretty, she had been every hour in dread of her husband. Long ago her spirit had been broken and her independence subdued. To her friend and confidants no word save of pride and love for her husband had ever passed her lips, yet now as she watched her daughter she was conscious of a wild, passionate wish that her fate at least might be a different one. And while she mopped her eyes and looked backward, Julie disappeared.

Even Julie, as she ascended the stairs with the key of the locked room in her hand, was conscious of unusual tremors. If her position with regard to her father was not the absolute condition of serfdom into which her mother had been ground down, she was at least afraid of him, and she remembered the strict commands he had laid upon them all. The room was not to be open save by himself. All cries and entreaties were to be disregarded, every one was to behave as though that room did not exist. They had borne it already for days, the heart-stirring moans, the faint, despairing cries of the prisoner, and she could bear it no longer. She had a tender little heart, and from the first it had been moved by the appearance of the pitiful old man, leaning so heavily upon her father's arm, as they had come up the garden walk together. She made up her mind to satisfy herself at least that his isolation was of his own choice. So she went boldly up the stairs and thrust the key into the lock. A moment's hesitation, then she threw it open.

Her first impulse, when she had looked into the face of the man who stumbled up in fear at her entrance, was to then and there abandon her enterprise - for Monty just then was not a pleasant sight to look upon. The room was foul with the odour of spirits and tobacco smoke. Monty himself was unkempt and unwashed, his eyes were bloodshot, and he had fallen half across the table with the gesture of a drunken man. At the sight of him her pity died away. After all, then, the sobbing they had heard was the maudlin crying of a drunken man. Yet he was very old, and there was something about the childish, breathless fear with which he was regarding her which made her hesitate. She lingered instead, and finding him tongue-tied, spoke to him.

"We heard you talking to yourself downstairs," she said, "and we were afraid that you might be in pain."

"Ah," he muttered, "That is all, then! There is no one behind you - no one who wants me!"

"There is no one in the house," she assured him, "save my mother and myself."

He drew a little breath which ended in a sob. "You see," he said vaguely, "I sit up here hour by hour, and I think that I fancy things. Only a little while ago I fancied that I heard Mr. Walsh's voice, and he wanted the mission-box, the wooden box with the cross, you know. I keep on thinking I hear him. Stupid, isn't it?"

He smiled weakly, and his bony fingers stole round the tumbler which stood by his side. She shook her head at him smiling, and crossed over to him. She was not afraid any more.

"I wouldn't drink if I were you," she said, "it can't be good for you, I'm sure!"

"Good," he answered slowly, "it's poison - rank poison."

"If I were you," she said, "I would put all this stuff away and go for a nice walk. It would do you much more good."

He shook his head.

"I daren't," he whispered. "They're looking for me now. I must hide - hide all the time!"

"Who are looking for you?" she asked.

"Don't you know? Mr. Walsh and his wife! They have come over after me!"

"Why?"

"Didn't you know," he muttered," that I am a thief?"

She shook her head.

"No, I certainly didn't. I'm very sorry!"

He nodded his head vigorously a great many times.

"Won't you tell me about it?" she asked. "Was it anything very bad?"

"I don't know," he said. "It's so hard to remember! It is something like this! I seem to have lived for such a long time, and when I look back I can remember things that happened a very long time ago, but then there seems a gap, and everything is all misty, and it makes my head ache dreadfully to try and remember," he moaned.

"Then don't try," she said kindly. "I'll read to you for a little time if you like, and you shall sit quite quiet."

He seemed not to have heard her. He continued presently -

"Once before I died, it was all I wanted. Just to have heard her speak, to have seen my little girl grown into a woman, and the sea was always there, and Oom Sam would always come with that cursed rum. Then one day came Trent and talked of money and spoke of England, and when he went away it rang for ever in my ears, and at night I heard her calling for me across the sea. So I stole out, and the great steamer was lying there with red fires at her funnel, and I was mad. She was crying for me across the sea, so I took the money!"

She patted his hand gently. There was a lump in her throat, and her eyes were wet.

"Was it your daughter you wanted so much to see?" she asked softly.

"My daughter! My little girl," he answered! "And I heard her calling to me with her mother's voice across the sea. So I took the money."

"No one would blame you very much for that, I am sure," she said cheerfully. "You are frightening yourself needlessly. I will speak to Father, and he shall help you."

He held up his hand.

"He is hiding me," he whispered. "It is through him I knew that they were after me. I don't mind for myself, but she might get to know, and I have brought disgrace enough upon her. Listen!"

There were footsteps upon the stairs. He clung to her in an agony of terror.

"They are coming!" he cried. "Hide me! Oh, hide me!"

But she too was almost equally terrified, for she had recognised her father's tread. The door was thrown open and De Souza entered, followed by Scarlett Trent.