A Millionaire of Yesterday by E. Phillips Oppenheim
From a conversational point of view," Lady Tresham remarked, "our guest to-night seems scarcely likely to distinguish himself."
Ernestine looked over her fan across the drawing-room.
"I have never seen such an alteration in a man," she said, "in so short a time. This morning he amazed me. He knew the right people and did the right things - carried himself too like a man who is sure of himself. To-night he is simply a booby."
"Perhaps it is his evening clothes," Lady Tresham remarked, "they take some getting used to, I believe."
"This morning," Ernestine said, "he had passed that stage altogether. This is, I suppose, a relapse! Such a nuisance for you!"
Lady Tresham rose and smiled sweetly at the man who was taking her in.
"Well, he is to be your charge, so I hope you may find him more amusing than he looks," she answered.
It was an early dinner, to be followed by a visit to a popular theatre. A few hours ago Trent was looking forward to his evening with the keenest pleasure - now he was dazed - he could not readjust his point of view to the new conditions. He knew very well that it was his wealth, and his wealth only, which had brought him as an equal amongst these people, all, so far as education and social breeding was concerned, of so entirely a different sphere. He looked around the table. What would they say if they knew? He would be thrust out as an interloper. Opposite to him was a Peer who was even then engaged in threading the meshes of the Bankruptcy Court, what did they care for that? - not a whit! He was of their order though he was a beggar. But as regards himself, he was fully conscious of the difference. The measure of his wealth was the measure of his standing amongst them. Without it he would be thrust forth - he could make no claim to association with them. The thought filled him with a slow, bitter anger. He sent away his soup untasted, and he could not find heart to speak to the girl who had been the will-o'-the-wisp leading him into this evil plight.
Presently she addressed him.
He turned round and looked at her.
"Is it necessary for me to remind you, I wonder," she said, "that it is usual to address a few remarks - quite as a matter of form, you know - to the woman whom you bring in to dinner?"
He eyed her dispassionately.
"I am not used to making conversation," he said. "Is there anything in the world which I could talk about likely to interest you?"
She took a salted almond from a silver dish by his side and smiled sweetly upon him. "Dear me!" she said, "how fierce! Don't attempt it if you feel like that, please! What have you been doing since I saw you last? - losing your money or your temper, or both?"
He looked at her with a curiously grim smile.
"If I lost the former," he said, "I should very soon cease to be a person of interest, or of any account at all, amongst your friends."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You do not strike one," she remarked, "as the sort of person likely to lose a fortune on the race-course."
"You are quite right," he answered, "I think that I won money. A couple of thousand at least."
"Two thousand pounds!" She actually sighed, and lost her appetite for the oyster patty with which she had been trifling. Trent looked around the table.
"At the same time," he continued in a lower key, "I'll make a confession to you, Miss Wendermott, I wouldn't care to make to any one else here. I've been pretty lucky as you know, made money fast - piled it up in fact. To-day, for the first time, I have come face to face with the possibility of a reverse."
"Is this a new character?" she murmured. "Are you becoming faint-hearted?"
"It is no ordinary reverse," he said slowly. "It is collapse - everything!"
"0 - oh!"
She looked at him attentively. Her own heart was beating. If he had not been engrossed by his care lest any one might over-hear their conversation, he would have been astonished at the change in her face
"You are talking in enigmas surely," she said. "Nothing of that sort could possibly happen to you. They tell me that the Bekwando Land shares are priceless, and that you must make millions."
"This afternoon," he said, raising his glass to his lips and draining it, "I think that I must have dozed upon the lawn at Ascot. I sat there for some time, back amongst the trees, and I think that I must have fallen to sleep. There was a whisper in my ears and I saw myself stripped of everything. How was it? I forget now! A concession repudiated, a bank failure, a big slump - what does it matter? The money was gone, and I was simply myself again, Scarlett Trent, a labourer, penniless and of no account."
"It must have been an odd sensation," she said thoughtfully.
"I will tell you what it made me realise," be said. "I am drifting into a dangerous position. I am linking myself to a little world to whom, personally, I am as nothing and less than nothing. I am tolerated for my belongings! If by any chance I were to lose these, what would become of me?"
"You are a man," she said, looking at him earnestly; "you have the nerve and wits of a man, what you have done before you might do again."
"In the meantime I should be ostracised."
"By a good many people, no doubt."
He held his peace for a time, and ate and drank what was set before him. He was conscious that his was scarcely a dinner-table manner. He was too eager, too deeply in earnest. People opposite were looking at them, Ernestine talked to her vis-a-vis. It was some time before he spoke again, when he did he took up the thread of their conversation where he had left it.
"By the majority, of course," he said. "I have wondered sometimes whether there might be any one who would be different."
"I should be sorry," she said demurely.
"Sorry, yes; so would the tradespeople who had had my money and the men who call themselves my friends and forget that they are my debtors."
"You are cynical."
"I cannot help it," he answered. "It is my dream. To-day, you know, I have stood face to face with evil things."
"Do you know," she said, "I should never have called you a dreamer, a man likely to fancy things. I wonder if anything has really happened to make you talk like this?"
He flashed a quick glance at her underneath his heavy brows. Nothing in her face betrayed any more than the most ordinary interest in what he was saying. Yet somehow, from that moment, he had uneasy doubts concerning her, whether there might be by any chance some reason for the tolerance and the interest with which she had regarded him from the first. The mere suspicion of it was a shock to him. He relapsed once more into a state of nervous silence. Ernestine yawned, and her hostess threw more than one pitying glance towards her.
Afterwards the whole party adjourned to the theatre, altogether in an informal manner. Some of the guests had carriages waiting, others went down in hansoms. Ernestine was rather late in coming downstairs and found Trent waiting for her in the hall. She was wearing a wonderful black satin opera cloak with pale green lining, her maid had touched up her hair and wound a string of pearls around her neck. He watched her as she came slowly down the stairs, buttoning her gloves, and looking at him with eyebrows faintly raised to see him waiting there alone. After all, what folly! Was it likely that wealth, however great, could ever make him of her world, could ever bring him in reality one degree nearer to her? That night he had lost all confidence. He told himself that it was the rankest presumption to even think of her.
"The others," he said, "have gone on. Lady Tresham left word that I was to take you."
She glanced at the old-fashioned clock which stood in the corner of the hall.
"How ridiculous to have hurried so!" she said. One might surely be comfortable here instead of waiting at the theatre."
She walked towards the door with him. His own little night-brougham was waiting there, and she stepped into it.
"I am surprised at Lady Tresham," she said, smiling. "I really don't think that I am at all properly chaperoned. This comes, I suppose, from having acquired a character for independence."
Her gown seemed to fill the carriage - a little sea of frothy lace and muslin. He hesitated on the pavement.
"Shall I ride outside?" he suggested. "I don't want to crush you."
She gathered up her skirt at once and made room for him. He directed the driver and stepped in beside her.
"I hope," she said, "that your cigarette restored your spirits. You are not going to be as dull all the evening as you were at dinner, are you?"
He sighed a little wistfully. "I'd like to talk to you," he said simply, "but somehow to-night... you know it was much easier when you were a journalist from the 'Hour'."
"Well, that is what I am now," she said, laughing. "Only I can't get away from all my old friends at once. The day after to-morrow I shall be back at work."
"Do you mean it?" he asked incredulously.
"Of course I do! You don't suppose I find this sort of thing particularly amusing, do you? Hasn't it ever occurred to you that there must be a terrible sameness about people who have been brought up amongst exactly the same surroundings and taught to regard life from exactly the same point of view?"
"But you belong to them - you have their instincts."
"I may belong to them in some ways, but you know that I am a revolted daughter. Haven't I proved it? Haven't I gone out into the world, to the horror of all my relatives, for the sole purpose of getting a firmer grip of life? And yet, do you know, Mr. Trent, I believe that to-night you have forgotten that. You have remembered my present character only, and, in despair of interesting a fashionable young lady, you have not talked to me at all, and I have been very dull."
"It is quite true," he assented. "All around us they were talking of things of which I knew nothing, and you were one of them."
"How foolish! You could have talked to me about Fred and the road-making in Africa and I should have been more interested than in anything they could have said to me."
They were passing a brilliantly-lit corner, and the light flashed upon his strong, set face with its heavy eyebrows and firm lips. He leaned back and laughed hoarsely. Was it her fancy, she wondered, or did he seem not wholly at his ease.
"Haven't I told you a good deal? I should have thought that Fred and I between us had told you all about Africa that you would care to hear."
She shook her head. What she said next sounded to him, in a certain sense, enigmatic.
"There is a good deal left for you to tell me," she said. "Some day I shall hope to know everything."
He met her gaze without flinching.
"Some day," he said, "I hope you will."