A Millionaire of Yesterday by E. Phillips Oppenheim
In a handsomely appointed room of one of the largest hotels in London a man was sitting at the head of a table strewn with blotting-paper and writing materials of every description. Half a dozen chairs had been carelessly pushed back, there were empty champagne bottles upon the sideboard, the air was faintly odorous of tobacco smoke - blue wreaths were still curling upwards towards the frescoed ceiling. Yet the gathering had not been altogether a festive one. There were sheets of paper still lying about covered with figures, a brass-bound ledger lay open at the further end of the table, In the background a young man, slim, pale, ill-dressed in sober black, was filling a large tin box with documents and letters.
It had been a meeting of giants. Men whose names were great in the world of finance had occupied those elaborately decorated leather chairs. There had been cynicism, criticism, and finally enthusiasm. For the man who remained it had been a triumph. He had appeared to do but little in the way of persuasion. His manners had been brusque, and his words had been few. Yet he remained the master of the situation. He had gained a victory not only financial but moral, over men whose experience and knowledge were far greater than his. He was no City magnate, nor had he ever received any training in those arts and practices which go to the making of one. For his earlier life had been spent in a wilder country where the gambling was for life and not merely for gold. It was Scarlett Trent who sat there in thoughtful and absorbed silence. He was leaning a little back in a comfortably upholstered chair, with his eyes fixed on a certain empty spot upon the table. The few inches of polished mahogany seemed to him - empty of all significance in themselves - to be reflecting in some mysterious manner certain scenes in his life which were now very rarely brought back to him. The event of to-day he knew to be the culmination of a success as rapid as it had been surprising. He was a millionaire. This deal to-day, in which he had held his own against the shrewdest and most astute men of the great city, had more than doubled his already large fortune. A few years ago he had landed in England friendless and unknown, to-day he had stepped out from even amongst the chosen few and had planted his feet in the higher lands whither the faces of all men are turned. With a grim smile upon his lips, he recalled one by one the various enterprises into which he had entered, the courage with which he had forced them through, the solid strength with which he had thrust weaker men to the wall and had risen a little higher towards his goal upon the wreck of their fortunes. Where other men had failed he had succeeded. To-day the triumph was his alone. He was a millionaire - one of the princes of the world!
The young man, who had filled his box and also a black bag, was ready to go. He ventured most respectfully to break in upon the reflections of his employer.
"Is there anything more for me to do, sir?"
Trent woke from his day-dream into the present. He looked around the room and saw that no papers had been omitted. Then he glanced keenly into his clerk's face.
"Nothing more," he said. "You can go."
It was significant of the man that, notwithstanding his hour of triumph, he did not depart in the slightest degree from the cold gruffness of his tone. The little speech which his clerk had prepared seemed to stick in his throat.
"I trust, sir, that you will forgive - that you will pardon the liberty, if I presume to congratulate you upon such a magnificent stroke of business!"
Scarlett Trent faced him coldly. "What do you know about it?" he asked. "What concern is it of yours, young man, eh?"
The clerk sighed, and became a little confused. He had indulged in some wistful hopes that for once his master might have relaxed, that an opportune word of congratulation might awaken some spark of generosity in the man who had just added a fortune to his great store. He had a girl-wife from whose cheeks the roses were slowly fading, and very soon would come a time when a bank-note, even the smallest, would be a priceless gift. It was for her sake he had spoken. He saw now that he had made a mistake.
"I am very sorry, sir," he said humbly. "Of course I know that these men have paid an immense sum for their shares in the Bekwando Syndicate. At the same time it is not my business, and I am sorry that I spoke."
"It is not your business at any time to remember what I receive for properties," Scarlett Trent said roughly. "Haven't I told you that before? What did I say when you came to me? You were to hear nothing and see nothing outside your duties! Speak up, man! Don't stand there like a jay!"
The clerk was pale, and there was an odd sensation in his throat. But he thought of his girl-wife and he pulled himself together.
"You are quite right, sir," he said. "To any one else I should never have mentioned it. But we were alone, and I thought that the circumstances might make it excusable."
His employer grunted in an ominous manner.
"When I say forget, I mean forget," he declared. "I don't want to be reminded by you of my own business. D'ye think I don't know it?"
"I am very sure that you do, sir," the clerk answered humbly. "I quite see that my allusion was an error."
Scarlett Trent had turned round in his chair, and was eying the pale, nervous figure with a certain hard disapproval.
"That's a beastly coat you've got on, Dickenson," he said. "Why don't you get a new one?"
"I am standing in a strong light, sir," the young man answered, with a new fear at his heart. "It wants brushing, too. I will endeavour to get a new one - very shortly."
His employer grunted again.
"What's your salary?" he asked.
"Two pounds fifteen shillings a week, sir."
"And you mean to say that you can't dress respectably on that? What do you do with your money, eh? How do you spend it? Drink and music-halls, I suppose!"
The young man was able at last to find some spark of dignity. A pink spot burned upon his cheeks.
"I do not attend music-halls, sir, nor have I touched wine or spirits for years. I - I have a wife to keep, and perhaps - I am expecting - "
He stopped abruptly. How could he mention that other matter which, for all its anxieties, still possessed for him a sort of quickening joy in the face of that brutal stare. He did not conclude his sentence, the momentary light died out of his pale commonplace features. He hung his head and was silent.
"A wife," Scarlett Trent repeated with contempt, "and all the rest of it of course. Oh, what poor donkeys you young men are! Here are you, with your way to make in the world, with your foot scarcely upon the bottom rung of the ladder, grubbing along on a few bob a week, and you choose to go and chuck away every chance you ever might have for a moment's folly. A poor, pretty face I suppose. A moonlight walk on a Bank Holiday, a little maudlin sentiment, and over you throw all your chances in life. No wonder the herd is so great, and the leaders so few," he added, with a sneer.
The young man raised his head. Once more the pink spot was burning. Yet how hard to be dignified with the man from whom comes one's daily bread.
"You are mistaken, sir," he said. "I am quite happy and quite satisfied."
Scarlett Trent laughed scornfully.
"Then you don't look it," he exclaimed.
"I may not, sir," the young man continued, with a desperate courage, "but I am. After all happiness is spelt with different letters for all of us. You have denied yourself - worked hard, carried many burdens and run great risks to become a millionaire. I too have denied myself, have worked and struggled to make a home for the girl I cared for. You have succeeded and you are happy. I can hold Edith's - I beg your pardon, my wife's hand in mine and I am happy. I have no ambition to be a millionaire. I was very ambitious to win my wife."
Scarlett Trent looked at him for a moment open mouthed and open-eyed. Then he laughed outright and a chill load fell from the heart of the man who for a moment had forgotten himself. The laugh was scornful perhaps, but it was not angry.
"Well, you've shut me up," he declared. "You seem a poor sort of a creature to me, but if you're content, it's no business of mine. Here buy yourself an overcoat, and drink a glass of wine. I'm off!"
He rose from his seat and threw a bank-note over the table. The clerk opened it and handed it back with a little start.
"I am much obliged to you, sir," he said humbly, "but you have made a mistake. This note is for fifty pounds."
Trent glanced at it and held out his hand. Then he paused.
"Never mind," he said, with a short laugh, "I meant to give you a fiver, but it don't make much odds. Only see that you buy some new clothes."
The clerk half closed his eyes and steadied himself by grasping the back of a chair. There was a lump in his throat in earnest now.
"You - you mean it, sir?" he gasped. "I - I'm afraid I can't thank you!"
"Don't try, unless you want me to take it back," Trent said, strolling to the sideboard. "Lord, how those City chaps can guzzle! Not a drop of champagne left. Two unopened bottles though! Here, stick 'em in your bag and take 'em to the missis, young man. I paid for the lot, so there's no use leaving any. Now clear out as quick as you can. I'm off!"
"You will allow me, sir - "
Scarlett Trent closed the door with a slam and disappeared. The young man passed him a few moments later as he stood on the steps of the hotel lighting a cigar. He paused again, intent on stammering out some words of thanks. Trent turned his back upon him coldly.