A Millionaire of Yesterday

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 42


With the darkness had come a wind from the sea, and the boy crept outside in his flannels and planter's hat and threw himself down in a cane chair with a little murmur of relief. Below him burned the white lights of the town, a little noisier than usual to-night, for out in the bay a steamer was lying-to, and there had been a few passengers and cargo to land. The boy had had a hard day's work, or he would have been in the town himself to watch for arrivals and wait for the mail. He closed his eyes, half asleep, for the sun had been hot and the murmurs of the sea below was almost like a lullaby. As he lay there a man's voice from the path reached him. He sprang up, listening intently. It must have been fancy - and yet! He leaned over the wooden balcony. The figure of a man loomed out through the darkness, came nearer, became distinct. Fred recognised him with a glad shout.

"Trent!" he cried. "Scarlett Trent, by all that's amazing!"

Trent held out his hand quickly. Somehow the glad young voice, quivering with excitement, touched his heart in an unexpected and unusual manner. It was pleasant to be welcomed like this - to feel that one person in the world at least was glad of his coming. For Trent was a sorely stricken man and the flavour of life had gone from him. Many a time he had looked over the steamer's side during that long, lonely voyage and gazed almost wishfully into the sea, in whose embrace was rest. It seemed to him that he had been a gambler playing for great stakes, and the turn of the wheel had gone against him.

"Fred!"

They stood with hands locked together, the boy breathless with surprise. Then he saw that something was wrong.

"What is it, Trent?" he asked quickly. "Have we gone smash after all, or have you been ill?"

Trent shook his head and smiled gravely.

"Neither," he said. "The Company is booming, I believe. Civilised ways didn't agree with me, I'm afraid. That's all! I've come back to have a month or two's hard work - the best physic in the world."

"I am delighted to see you," Fred said heartily. "Everything's going A1 here, and they've built me this little bungalow, only got in it last week - stunning, isn't it? But - just fancy your being here again so soon! Are your traps coming up?"

"I haven't many," Trent answered. "They're on the way. Have you got room for me?"

"Room for you!" the boy repeated scornfully. "Why, I'm all alone here. It's the only thing against the place, being a bit lonely. Room for you! I should think there is! Here, Dick! Dinner at once, and some wine!"

Trent was taken to see his room, the boy talking all the time, and later on dinner was served and the boy did the honours, chaffing and talking lightly. But later on when they sat outside, smoking furiously to keep off the mosquitoes and watching the fireflies dart in and out amongst the trees, the boy was silent. Then he leaned over and laid his hand on Trent's arm.

"Tell me all about it - do," he begged.

Trent was startled, touched, and suddenly filled with a desire for sympathy such as he had never before in his life experienced. He hesitated, but it was only for a moment.

"I never thought to tell any one," he said slowly, "I think I'd like to!"

And he did. He told his whole story. He did not spare himself. He spoke of the days of his earlier partnership with Monty, and he admitted the apparent brutality of his treatment of him on more than one occasion. He spoke of Ernestine too - of his strange fancy for the photograph of Monty's little girl, a fancy which later on when he met her became almost immediately the dominant passion of his life. Then he spoke of the coming of Francis, of the awakening of Ernestine's suspicions, and of that desperate moment when he risked everything on her faith in him - and lost. There was little else to tell and afterwards there was a silence. But presently the boy's hand fell upon his arm almost caressingly and he leaned over through the darkness.

"Women are such idiots," the boy declared, with all the vigour and certainty of long experience. "If only Aunt Ernestine had known you half as well as I do, she would have been quite content to have trusted you and to have believed that what you did was for the best. But I say, Trent, you ought to have waited for it. After she had seen her father and talked with him she must have understood you better. I shall write to her."

But Trent shook his head.

"No," he said sternly, "it is too late now. That moment taught me all I wanted to know. It was her love I wanted, Fred, and - that - no use hoping for that, or she would have trusted me. After all I was half a madman ever to have expected it - a rough, coarse chap like me, with only a smattering of polite ways! It was madness! Some day I shall get over it! We'll chuck work for a bit, soon, Fred, and go for some lions. That'll give us something to think about at any rate."

But the lions which Trent might have shot lived in peace, for on the morrow he was restless and ill, and within a week the deadly fever of the place had him in its clutches. The boy nursed him and the German doctor came up from Attra and, when he learnt who his patient was, took up his quarters in the place. But for all his care and the boy's nursing things went badly with Scarlett Trent.

To him ended for a while all measure of days - time became one long night, full of strange, tormenting flashes of thought, passing like red fire before his burning eyes. Sometimes it was Monty crying to him from the bush, sometimes the yelling of those savages at Bekwando seemed to fill the air, sometimes Ernestine was there, listening to his passionate pleading with cold, set face, In the dead of night he saw her and the still silence was broken by his hoarse, passionate cries, which they strove in vain to check. And when at last he lay white and still with exhaustion, the doctor looked at the boy and softly shook his head. He had very little hope.

Trent grew worse. In those rare flashes of semi-consciousness which sometimes come to the fever-stricken, he reckoned himself a dying man and contemplated the end of all things without enthusiasm and without regret. The one and only failure of his life had eaten like canker into his heart. It was death he craved for in the hot, burning nights, and death came and sat, a grisly shadow, at his pillow. The doctor and the boy did their best, but it was not they who saved him.

There came a night when he raved, and the sound of a woman's name rang out from the open windows of the little bungalow, rang out through the drawn mosquito netting amongst the palm-trees, across the surf-topped sea to the great steamer which lay in the bay. Perhaps she heard it - perhaps after all it was a fancy. Only, in the midst of his fever, a hand as soft as velvet and as cool as the night sea-wind touched his forehead, and a voice sounded in his ears so sweetly that the blood burned no longer in his veins, so sweetly that he lay back upon his pillow like a man under the influence of a strong narcotic and slept. Then the doctor smiled and the boy sobbed.

"I came," she said softly, "because it was the only atonement I could make. I ought to have trusted you. Do you know, even my father told me that."

"I have made mistakes," he said, "and of course behaved badly to him."

"Now that everything has been explained," she said, "I scarcely see what else you could have done. At least you saved him from Da Souza when his death would have made you a freer man. He is looking forward to seeing you, you must make haste and get strong."

"For his sake," he murmured.

She leaned over and caressed him lightly. "For mine, dear."