A Millionaire of Yesterday by E. Phillips Oppenheim
The carriage drew up at the theatre and he handed her out - a little awkwardly perhaps, but without absolute clumsiness. They found all the rest of the party already in their seats and the curtain about to go up. They took the two end stalls, Trent on the outside. One chair only, next to him, remained unoccupied.
"You people haven't hurried," Lady Tresham remarked, leaning forward.
"We are in time at any rate," Ernestine answered, letting her cloak fall upon the back of the stall.
The curtain was rung up and the play began. It was a modern society drama, full of all the most up-to-date fashionable jargon and topical illusions. Trent grew more and more bewildered at every moment. Suddenly, towards the end of the first act, a fine dramatic situation leaped out like a tongue of fire. The interest of the whole audience, up to then only mildly amused, became suddenly intense. Trent sat forward in his seat. Ernestine ceased to fan herself. The man and the woman stood face to face - the light badinage which had been passing between them suddenly ended - the man, with his sin stripped bare, mercilessly exposed, the woman, his accuser, passionately eloquent, pouring out her scorn upon a mute victim. The audience knew what the woman in the play did not know, that it was for love of her that the man had sinned, to save her from a terrible danger which had hovered very near her life. The curtain fell, the woman leaving the room with a final taunt flung over her shoulder, the man seated at a table looking steadfastly into the fire with fixed, unseeing eyes. The audience drew a little breath and then applauded; the orchestra struck up and a buzz of conversation began.
It was then that Ernestine first noticed how absorbed the man at her side had become. His hands were gripping the arms of the stall, his eyes were fixed upon the spot somewhere behind the curtain where this sudden little drama had been played out, as though indeed they could pierce the heavy upholstery and see beyond into the room where the very air seemed quivering still with the vehemence of the woman's outpoured scorn. Ernestine spoke to him at last, the sound of her voice brought him back with a start to the present.
"You like it?"
"The latter part," he answered. "What a sudden change! At first I thought it rubbish, afterwards it was wonderful!"
"Hubert is a fine actor," she remarked, fanning herself. "It was his first opportunity in the play, and he certainly took advantage of it."
He turned deliberately round in his seat towards her, and she was struck with the forceful eagerness of his dark, set face.
"The man," he whispered hoarsely, "sinned for the love of the woman. Was he right? Would a woman forgive a man who deceived her for her own sake - when she knew?"
Ernestine held up her programme and studied it deeply.
"I cannot tell," she said, "it depends."
Trent drew a little breath and turned away. A quiet voice from his other side whispered in his ear - "The woman would forgive if she cared for the man."
* * * * *
Trent turned sharply and the light died out of his voice. Surely it was an evil omen, this man's coming; for it was Captain Francis who had taken the vacant seat and who was watching his astonishment with a somewhat saturnine smile.
"Rather a stupid play, isn't it? By the by, Trent, I wish you would ask Miss Wendermott's permission to present me. I met her young cousin out at Attra."
Ernestine heard and leaned forward smiling. Trent did as he was asked, with set teeth and an ill grace. From then, until the curtain went up for the next act, he had only to sit still and listen.
Afterwards the play scarcely fulfilled the promise of its commencement. At the third act Trent had lost all interest in it. Suddenly an idea occurred to him. He drew a card from his pocket and, scribbling a word or two on it, passed it along to Lady Tresham. She leaned forward and smiled approval upon him.
Trent reached for his hat and whispered in Ernestine's ear.
"You are all coming to supper with me at the 'Milan,'" he said; "I am going on now to see about it."
She smiled upon him, evidently pleased.
"What a charming idea! But do you mean all of us?"
He found his carriage outside without much difficulty and drove quickly round to the Milan Restaurant. The director looked doubtful.
"A table for eighteen, sir! It is quite too late to arrange it, except in a private room."
"The ladies prefer the large room," Trent answered decidedly, "and you must arrange it somehow. I'll give you carte blanche as to what you serve, but it must be of the best."
The man bowed. This must be a millionaire, for the restaurant was the "Milan."
"And the name, sir?"
"Scarlett Trent - you may not know me, but Lady Tresham, Lord Colliston, and the Earl of Howton are amongst my guests."
The man saw no more difficulties. The name of Scarlett Trent was the name which impressed him. The English aristocrat he had but little respect for, but a millionaire was certainly next to the gods.
"We must arrange the table crossways, sir, at the end of the room," he said. "And about the flowers?"
"The best, and as many as you can get," Trent answered shortly. "I have a 100 pound note with me. I shall not grumble if I get little change out of it, but I want value for the money."
"You shall have it, sir! " the man answered significantly - and he kept his word.
Trent reached the theatre only as the people were streaming out. In the lobby he came face to face with Ernestine and Francis. They were talking together earnestly, but ceased directly they saw him.
"I have been telling Captain Francis," Ernestine said, "of your delightful invitation."
"I hope that Captain Francis will join us," Trent said coldly.
Francis stepped behind for a moment to light a cigarette.
"I shall be delighted," he answered.
* * * * *
The supper party was one of those absolute and complete successes which rarely fall to the lot of even the most carefully thought out of social functions. Every one of Lady Tresham's guests had accepted the hurried invitation, every one seemed in good spirits, and delighted at the opportunity of unrestrained conversation after several hours at the theatre. The supper itself, absolutely the best of its kind, from the caviare and plovers' eggs to the marvellous ices, and served in one of the handsomest rooms in London, was really beyond criticism. To Trent it seemed almost like a dream, as he leaned back in his chair and looked down at the little party - the women with their bare shoulders and jewels, bathed in the soft glow of the rose-shaded electric lights, the piles of beautiful pink and white flowers, the gleaming silver, and the wine which frothed in their glasses. The music of the violins on the balcony blended with the soft, gay voices of the women. Ernestine was by his side, every one was good-humoured and enjoying his hospitality. Only one face at the table was a reminder of the instability of his fortunes - a face he had grown to hate during the last few hours with a passionate, concentrated hatred. Yet the man was of the same race as these people, his connections were known to many of them, he was making new friends and reviving old ties every moment. During a brief lull in the conversation his clear, soft voice suddenly reached Trent's ears. He was telling a story.
"Africa," he was saying, "is a country of surprises. Attra seems to be a city of hopeless exile for all white people. Last time I was there I used to notice every day a very old man making a pretence of working in a kitchen garden attached to a little white mission-house - a Basle Society depot. He always seemed to be leaning on his spade, always gazing out seawards in the same intent, fascinated way. Some one told me his history at last. He was an Englishman of good position who had got into trouble in his younger days and served a term of years in prison. When he came out, sooner than disgrace his family further, he published a false account of his death and sailed under a disguised name for Africa. There he has lived ever since, growing older and sinking lower, often near fortune but always missing it, a slave to bad habits, weak and dissolute if you like, but ever keeping up his voluntary sacrifice, ever with that unconquerable longing for one last glimpse of his own country and his own people. I saw him, not many months ago, still there, still with his eyes turned seawards and with the same wistful droop of the head. Somehow I can't help thinking that that old man was also a hero."
The tinkling of glasses and the sort murmuring of whispered conversation had ceased during Francis' story. Every one was a little affected - the soft throbbing of the violins upon the balcony was almost a relief. Then there was a little murmur of sympathetic remarks - but amongst it all Trent sat at the head of the table with white, set face but with red fire before his eyes. This man had played him false. He dared not look at Ernestine - only he knew that her eyes were wet with tears and that her bosom was heaving.
The spirits of men and women who sup are mercurial things, and it was a gay leave-taking half an hour or so later in the little Moorish room at the head of the staircase. But Ernestine left her host without even appearing to see his outstretched hand, and he let her go without a word. Only when Francis would have followed her Trent laid a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
"I must have a word with you, Francis," he said.
"I will come back," he said. "I must see Miss Wendermott into her carriage."
But Trent's hand remained there, a grip of iron from which there was no escaping. He said nothing, but Francis knew his man and had no idea of making a scene. So he remained till the last had gone and a tall, black servant had brought their coats from the cloak-room.
"You will come with me please," Trent said, "I have a few words to say to you."
Francis shrugged his shoulders and obeyed.