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.