A Millionaire of Yesterday by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Trent's appearance upon the lawn was greeted with a shout of enthusiasm. The young lady in blue executed a pas seut, and came across to him on her toes, and the girl with the yellow hair, although sulky, gave him to understand by a sidelong glance that her favour was not permanently withdrawn. They neither of the noticed the somewhat ominous air of civility with which he received their greetings, or the contempt in his eyes as he looked them silently over.
"Where are the lost tribe?" he inquired, as the girls, one on either side, escorted him to the house.
They received his witticism with a piercing shriek of laughter.
"Mamma and her rag of a daughter are in the drawing room," explained Miss Montressor - the young lady with fluffy hair who dressed in blue and could dance. "Such a joke, General! They don't approve of us! Mamma says that she shall have to take her Julie away if we remain. We are not fit associates for her. Rich, isn't it! The old chap's screwing up his courage now with brandy and soda to tell you so!
Trent laughed heartily. The situation began to appeal to him. There was humour in it which he alone could appreciate.
"Does he expect me to send you away?" he asked.
"That's a cert!" Miss Montressor affirmed. "The old woman's been playing the respectable all day, turning up the whites of her eyes at me because I did a high kick in the hall, and groaning at Flossie because she had a few brandies; ain't that so, Flossie?"
The young lady with yellow hair confirmed the statement with much dignity.
"I had a toothache," she said, "and Mrs. Da Souza, or whatever the old cat calls herself, was most rude. I reckon myself as respectable as she is any day, dragging that yellow-faced daughter of hers about with her and throwing her at men's heads."
Miss Montressor, who had stopped to pick a flower, rejoined them.
"I say, General," she remarked, "fair's fair, and a promise is a promise. We didn't come down here to be made fools of by a fat old Jewess. You won't send us away because of the old wretch?"
"I promise," said Trent, "that when she goes you go, and not before. Is that sufficient?"
"Right oh!" the young lady declared cheerfully. "Now you go and prink up for dinner. We're ready, Flossie and I. The little Jew girl's got a new dress - black covered with sequins. It makes her look yellower than ever. There goes the bell, and we're both as hungry as hunters. Look sharp!"
Trent entered the house. Da Souza met him in the hall, sleek, curly, and resplendent in a black dinner-suit. The years had dealt lightly with him, or else the climate of England was kinder to his yellow skin than the moist heat of the Gold Coast. He greeted Trent with a heartiness which was partly tentative, partly boisterous.
"Back from the coining of the shekels, my dear friend," he exclaimed. "Back from the spoiling of the Egyptians, eh? How was money to-day?"
"An eighth easier," Trent answered, ascending the stairs.
Da Souza fidgeted about with the banisters, and finally followed him.
"There was just a word," he remarked, "a little word I wanted with you."
"Come and talk while I wash," Trent said shortly. "Dinner's on, and I'm hungry."
"Certainly, certainly," Da Souza murmured, closing the door behind them as they entered the lavatory. "It is concerning these young ladies."
"What! Miss Montressor and her friend?" Trent remarked thrusting his head into the cold water. "Phew!"
"Exactly! Two very charming young ladies, my dear friend, very charming indeed, but a little - don't you fancy just a little fast!"
"Hadn't noticed it," Trent answered, drying himself. "What about it?"
Da Souza tugged at his little black imperial, and moved uneasily about.
"We - er - men of the world, my dear Trent, we need not be so particular, eh? - but the ladies - the ladies are so observant."
"What ladies?" Trent asked coolly.
"It is my wife who has been talking to me," Da Souza continued. "You see, Julie is so young - our dear daughter she is but a child; and, as my wife says, we cannot be too particular, too careful, eh; you understand!"
"You want them to go? Is that it?"
Da Souza spread out his hands - an old trick, only now the palms were white and the diamonds real.
"For myself," he declared, "I find them charming. It is my wife who says to me, 'Hiram, those young persons, they are not fit company for our dear, innocent Julie! You shall speak to Mr. Trent. He will understand!' Eh?"
Trent had finished his toilet and stood, the hairbrushes still in his hands, looking at Da Souza's anxious face with a queer smile upon his lips.
"Yes, I understand, Da Souza," he said. "No doubt you are right, you cannot be too careful. You do well to be particular."
Da Souza winced. He was about to speak, but Trent interrupted him.
"Well, I'll tell you this, and you can let the missis know, my fond father. They leave to-morrow. Is that good enough?"
Da Souza caught at his host's hand, but Trent snatched it away.
"My dear - my noble - "
"Here, shut up and don't paw me," Trent interrupted. "Mind, not a word of this to any one but your wife; the girls don't know they're going themselves yet."
They entered the dining-room, where every one else was already assembled. Mrs. Da Souza, a Jewess portly and typical, resplendent in black satin and many gold chains and bangles, occupied the seat of honour, and by her side was a little brown girl, with dark, timid eyes and dusky complexion, pitiably over-dressed but with a certain elf-like beauty, which it was hard to believe that she could ever have inherited. Miss Montressor and her friend sat on either side of their host - an arrangement which Mrs. Da Souza lamented, but found herself powerless to prevent, and her husband took the vacant place. Dinner was served, and with the opening of the champagne, which was not long delayed, tongues were loosened.
"It was very hot in the City to-day," Mrs. Da Souza remarked to her host. "Dear Ju1ie was saying what a shame it seemed that you should be there and we should be enjoying your beautiful gardens. She is so thoughtful, so sympathetic! Dear girl!"
"Very kind of your daughter," Trent answered, looking directly at her and rather inclined to pity her obvious shyness. "Come, drink up, Da Souza, drink up, girls! I've had a hard day and I want to forget for a bit that there's any such thing as work."
Miss Montressor raised her glass and winked at her host.
"It don't take much drinking, this, General," she remarked, cheerily draining her glass! "Different to the 'pop' they give us down at the 'Star,' eh, Flossie? Good old gooseberry I call that!"
"Da Souza, look after Miss Flossie," Trent said. "Why don't you fill her glass? That's right!"
Da Souza removed his hand from the back of his neighbour's chair and endeavoured to look unconscious. The girl tittered - Mrs. Da Souza was severely dignified. Trent watched them all, half in amusement, half in disgust. What a pandemonium! It was time indeed for him to get rid of them all. From where he sat he could see across the lawn into the little pine plantation. It was still light-if she could look in at the open window what would she think? His cheeks burned, and he thrust the hand which was seeking his under the table savagely away. And then an idea flashed in upon him - a magnificent, irresistible idea. He drank off a glass of champagne and laughed loud and long at one of his neighbour's silly sayings. It was a glorious joke! The more he thought of it, the more he liked it. He called for more champagne, and all, save the little brown girl, greeted the magnum which presently appeared with cheers. Even Mrs. Da Souza unbent a little towards the young women against whom she had declared war. Faces were flushed and voices grew a little thick. Da Souza's arm unchidden sought once more the back of his neighbour's chair, Miss Montressor's eyes did their utmost to win a tender glance from their lavish host. Suddenly Trent rose to his feet. He held a glass high over his head. His face was curiously unmoved, but his lips were parted in an enigmatic smile.
"A toast, my friends!" he cried. "Fill up, the lot of you! Come! To our next meeting! May fortune soon smile again, and may I have another home before long as worthy a resting-place for you as this!
Bewilderment reigned. No one offered to drink the toast. It was Miss Montressor who asked the question which was on every one's lips.
"What's up?" she exclaimed. "What's the matter with our next meeting here to-morrow night, and what's all that rot about your next home and fortune?"
Trent looked at them all in well-simulated amazement.
"Lord!" he exclaimed, "you don't know - none of you! I thought Da Souza would have told you the news!"
"What news?" Da Souza cried, his beady eyes protuberant, and his glass arrested half-way to his mouth.
"What are you talking about, my friend?"
Trent set down his glass.
"My friends," he said unsteadily, "let me explain to you, as shortly as I can, what an uncertain position is that of a great financier."
Da Souza leaned across the table. His face was livid, and the corners of his eyes were bloodshot.
"I thought there was something up," he muttered. "You would not have me come into the City this morning. D--n it, you don't mean that you - "
"I'm bust!" Trent said roughly. "Is that plain enough? I've been bulling on West Australians, and they boomed and this afternoon the Government decided not to back us at Bekwando, and the mines are to be shut down. Tell you all about it if you like."
No one wanted to hear all about it. They shrunk from him as though he were a robber. Only the little brown girl was sorry, and she looked at him with dark, soft eyes.
"I've given a bill of sale here," Trent continued. "They'll be round to-morrow. Better pack to-night. These valuers are such robbers. Come, another bottle! It'll all have to be sold. We'll make a night of it."
Mrs. Da Souza rose and swept from the room - Da Souza had fallen forward with his head upon his hands. He was only half sober, but the shock was working like madness in his brain. The two girls, after whispering together for a moment, rose and followed Mrs. Da Souza. Trent stole from his place and out into the garden. With footsteps which were steady enough now he crossed the velvety lawns, and plunged into the shrubbery. Then he began to laugh softly as he walked. They were all duped! They had accepted his story without the slightest question. He leaned over the gate which led into the little plantation, and he was suddenly grave and silent. A night-wind was blowing fragrant and cool. The dark boughs of the trees waved to and fro against the background of deep blue sky. The lime leaves rustled softly, the perfume of roses came floating across from the flower-gardens. Trent stood quite still, listening and thinking.
"God! what a beast I am!" he muttered. "It was there she sat! I'm not fit to breathe the same air."
He looked back towards the house. The figures of the two girls, with Da Souza standing now between them, were silhouetted against the window. His face grew dark and fierce.
"Faugh!" he exclaimed, "what a kennel I have made of my house! What a low-down thing I have begun to make of life! Yet - I was a beggar - and I am a millionaire. Is it harder to change oneself? To-morrow" - he looked hard at the place where she had sat - "to-morrow I will ask her!"
On his way back to the house a little cloaked figure stepped out from behind a shrub. He looked at her in amazement. It was the little brown girl, and her eyes were wet with tears.
"Listen," she said quickly. "I have been waiting to speak to you! I want to say goodbye and to thank you. I am very, very sorry, and I hope that some day very soon you will make some more money and be happy again."
Her lips were quivering. A single glance into her face assured him of her honesty. He took the hand which she held out and pressed her fingers.
"Little Julie," he said, "you are a brick. Don't you bother about me. It isn't quite so bad as I made out - only don't tell your mother that."
"I'm very glad," she murmured. "I think that it is hateful of them all to rush away, and I made up my mind to say goodbye however angry it made them. Let me go now, please. I want to get back before mamma misses me."
He passed his arm around her tiny waist. She looked at him with frightened eyes.
"Please let me go," she murmured.
He kissed her lips, and a moment afterwards vaguely repented it. She buried her face in her hands and ran away sobbing. Trent lit a cigar and sat down upon a garden seat.
"It's a queer thing," he said reflectingly. "The girl's been thrown repeatedly at my head for a week and I might have kissed her at any moment, before her father and mother if I had liked, and they'd have thanked me. Now I've done it I'm sorry. She looked prettier than I've ever seen her too - and she's the only decent one of the lot. Lord! what a hubbub there'll be in the morning!"
The stars came out and the moon rose, and still Scarlett Trent lingered in the scented darkness. He was a man of limited imagination and little given to superstitions. Yet that night there came to him a presentiment. He felt that he was on the threshold of great events. Something new in life was looming up before him. He had cut himself adrift from the old - it was a very wonderful and a very beautiful figure which was beckoning him to follow in other paths. The triumph of the earlier part of the day seemed to lie far back in a misty and unimportant past. There was a new world and a greater, if fortune willed that he should enter it.