A fat, unwholesome - looking creature, half native, half Belgian, waddled across the open space towards the hut in which the two strangers had been housed. He was followed at a little distance by two sturdy natives bearing a steaming pot which they carried on a pole between them. Trent set down his revolver and rose to his feet.
"What news, Oom Sam?" he asked. "Has the English officer been heard of? He must be close up now."
"No news," the little man grunted. "The King, he send some of his own supper to the white men. 'They got what they want,' he say.
'They start work mine soon as like, but they go away from here.' He not like them about the place! See!"
"Oh, that be blowed!" Trent muttered. "What's this in the pot? It don't smell bad."
"Rabbit," the interpreter answered tersely. "Very good. Part King's own supper. White men very favoured."
Trent bent over the pot which the two men had set upon the ground. He took a fork from his belt and dug it in.
"Very big bones for a rabbit, Sam," he remarked doubtfully.
Sam looked away. "Very big rabbits round here," he remarked. "Best keep pot. Send men away."
Trent nodded, and the men withdrew.
"Stew all right," Sam whispered confidentially. "You eat him. No fear. But you got to go. King beginning get angry. He say white men not to stay. They got what he promised, now they go. I know King - know this people well! You get away quick. He think you want be King here! You got the papers - all you want, eh?"
"Not quite, Sam," Trent answered. "There's an Englishman, Captain Francis, on his way here up the Coast, going on to Walgetta Fort. He must be here to-morrow. I want him to see the King's signature. If he's a witness these niggers can never back out of the concession. They're slippery devils. Another chap may come on with more rum and they'll forget us and give him the right to work the mines too. See!"
"I see," Sam answered; "but him not safe to wait. You believe me. I know these tam niggers. They take two days get drunk, then get devils, four - raving mad. They drunk now. Kill any one to-morrow
- perhaps you. Kill you certain to-morrow night. You listen now!"
Trent stood up in the shadow of the overhanging roof. Every now and then came a wild, shrill cry from the lower end of the village. Some one was beating a frightful, cracked drum which they had got from a trader. The tumult was certainly increasing. Trent swore softly, and then looked irresolutely over his shoulder to where Monty was sleeping.
"If the worst comes we shall never get away quickly," he muttered. "That old carcase can scarcely drag himself along."
Sam looked at him with cunning eyes.
"He not fit only die," he said softly. "He very old, very sick man, you leave him here! I see to him."
Trent turned away in sick disgust.
"We'll be off to-morrow, Sam," he said shortly. "I say! I'm beastly hungry. What's in that pot?"
Sam spread out the palms of his hands.
"He all right, I see him cooked," he declared. "He two rabbits and one monkey."
Trent took out a plate and helped himself.
"All right," he said. "Be off now. We'll go to-morrow before these towsly-headed beauties are awake."
Sam nodded and waddled off. Trent threw a biscuit and hit his companion on the cheek.
"Here, wake up, Monty!" he exclaimed. "Supper's come from the royal kitchen. Bring your plate and tuck in!"
Monty struggled to his feet and came meekly towards where the pot stood simmering upon the ground.
"I'm not hungry, Trent," he said, "but I am very thirsty, very thirsty indeed. My throat is all parched. I am most uncomfortable. Really I think your behaviour with regard to the brandy is most unkind and ungenerous; I shall be ill, I know I shall. Won't you - "
"No, I won't," Trent interrupted. "Now shut up all that rot and eat something."
"I have no appetite, thank you," Monty answered, with sulky dignity.
"Eat something, and don't be a silly ass!" Trent insisted. "We've a hard journey before us, and you'll need all the strength in your carcase to land in Buckomari again. Here, you've dropped some of your precious rubbish."
Trent stooped forward and picked up what seemed to him at first to be a piece of cardboard from the ground. He was about to fling it to its owner, when he saw that it was a photograph. It was the likeness of a girl, a very young girl apparently, for her hair was still down her back and her dress was scarcely of the orthodox length. It was not particularly well taken, but Trent had never seen anything like it before. The lips were slightly parted, the deep eyes were brimming with laughter, the pose was full of grace, even though the girl's figure was angular. Trent had seen as much as this, when he felt the smart of a sudden blow upon the cheek, the picture was snatched from his hand, and Monty - his face convulsed with anger - glowered fiercely upon him.
"You infernal young blackguard! You impertinent meddling blockhead! How dare you presume to look at that photograph! How dare you, sir! How dare you!"
Trent was too thoroughly astonished to resent either the blow or the fierce words. He looked up into his aggressor's face in blank surprise.
"I only looked at it," he muttered. "It was lying on the floor."
"Looked at it! You looked at it! Like your confounded impertinence, sir! Who are you to look at her! If ever I catch you prying into my concerns again, I'll shoot you - by Heaven I will!"
Trent laughed sullenly, and, having finished eating, lit his pipe.
"Your concerns are of no interest to me," he said shortly; "keep
'em to yourself - and look here, old 'un, keep your hands off me! I ain't a safe man to hit let me tell you. Now sit down and cool off! I don't want any more of your tantrums."
Then there was a long silence between the two men. Monty sat where Trent had been earlier in the night at the front of the open hut, his eyes fixed upon the ever-rising moon, his face devoid of intelligence, his eyes dim. The fire of the last few minutes had speedily burnt out. His half-soddened brain refused to answer to the sudden spasm of memory which had awakened a spark of the former man. If he had thoughts at all, they hung around that brandy bottle. The calm beauty of the African night could weave no spell upon him. A few feet behind, Trent, by the light of the moon, was practising tricks with a pack of greasy cards. By and by a spark of intelligence found its way into Monty's brain. He turned round furtively.
"Trent," he said, "this is slow! Let us have a friendly game - you and I."
"Come on, then," he said. "Single Poker or Euchre, eh?"
"I do not mind," Monty replied affably. "Just which you prefer."
"Single Poker, then," Trent said.
"And the stakes?"
"We've nothing left to play for," Trent answered gloomily, "except cartridges."
Monty made a wry face. "Poker for love, my dear Trent," he said, "between you and me, would lack all the charm of excitement. It would be, in fact, monotonous! Let us exercise our ingenuity. There must be something still of value in our possession.
He relapsed into an affectation of thoughtfulness. Trent watched him curiously. He knew quite well that his partner was dissembling, but he scarcely saw to what end. Monty's eyes, moving round the grass-bound hut, stopped at Trent's knapsack which hung from the central pole. He uttered a little exclamation.
"I have it," he declared. "The very thing."
"You are pleased to set an altogether fictitious value upon half bottle of brandy we have left," he said. "Now I tell you what I will do. In a few months we shall both be rich men. I will play you for my I 0 U, for fifty pounds, fifty sovereigns, Trent, against half the contents of that bottle. Come, that is a fair offer, is it not? How we shall laugh at this in a year or two! Fifty pounds against a tumblerful - positively there is no more
- a tumblerful of brandy."
He was watching Trent's face all the time, but the younger man gave no sign. When he had finished, Trent took up the cards, which he had shuffled for Poker, and dealt them out for Patience. Monty's eyes were dim with disappointment.
"What!" he cried. "You don't agree! Did you understand me? Fifty pounds, Trent! Why, you must be mad!"
"Oh, shut up!' Trent growled. "I don't want your money, and the brandy's poison to you! Go to sleep!"
Monty crept a little nearer to his partner and laid his hand upon his arm. His shirt fell open, showing the cords of his throat swollen and twitching. His voice was half a sob.
"Trent, you are a young man - not old like me. You don't understand my constitution. Brandy is a necessity to me! I've lived on it so long that I shall die if you keep it from me. Remember, it's a whole day since I tasted a drop! Now I'll make it a hundred. What do you say to that? One hundred!"
Trent paused in his game, and looked steadfastly into the eager face thrust close to his. Then he shrugged his shoulders and gathered up the cards.
"You're the silliest fool I ever knew," he said bluntly, "but I suppose you'll worry me into a fever if you don't have your own way."
"You agree?" Monty shrieked. Trent nodded and dealt the cards.
"It must be a show after the draw," he said. "We can't bet, for we've nothing to raise the stakes with!"
Monty was breathing hard and his fingers trembled, as though the ague of the swamps was already upon him. He took up his cards one by one, and as he snatched up the last he groaned. Not a pair!
"Four cards," he whispered hoarsely. Trent dealt them out, looked at his own hand, and, keeping a pair of queens, took three more cards. He failed to improve, and threw them upon the floor. With frantic eagerness Monty grovelled down to see them - then with a shriek of triumph he threw down a pair of aces.
"Mine!" he said. "I kept an ace and drew another. Give me the brandy!"
Trent rose up, measured the contents of the bottle with his forefinger, and poured out half the contents into a horn mug. Monty stood trembling by.
"Mind," Trent said, "you are a fool to drink it and I am a fool to let you! You risk your life and mine. Sam has been up and swears we must clear out to-morrow. What sort of form do you think you'll be in to walk sixty miles through the swamps and bush, with perhaps a score of these devils at our heels? Come now, old 'un, be reasonable."
The veins on the old man's forehead stood out like whipcord.
"I won it," he cried. "Give it me! Give it me, I say."
Trent made no further protest. He walked back to where he had been lying and recommenced his Patience. Monty drank off the contents of the tumbler in two long, delicious gulps! Then he flung the horn upon the floor and laughed aloud.
"That's better," he cried, "that's better! What an ass you are, Trent! To imagine that a drain like that would have any effect at all, save to put life into a man! Bah! what do you know about it?"
Trent did not raise his head. He went on with his solitary game and, to all appearance, paid no heed to his companion's words. Monty was not in the humour to be ignored. He flung himself on the ground opposite to his companion.
"What a slow-blooded sort of creature you are, Trent!" he said. "Don't you ever drink, don't you ever take life a little more gaily?"
"Not when I am carrying my life in my hands," Trent answered grimly. "I get drunk sometimes - when there's nothing on and the blues come
- never at a time like this though."
"It is pleasant to hear," the old man remarked, stretching out his limbs, "that you do occasionally relax. In your present frame of mind - you will not be offended I trust - you are just a little heavy as a companion. Never mind. In a year's time I will be teaching you how to dine - to drink champagne, to - by the way, Trent, have you ever tasted champagne?"
"Never," Trent answered gruffly "Don't know that I want to either."
Monty was compassionate. "My young friend," he said, "I would give my soul to have our future before us, to have your youth and never to have tasted champagne. Phew! the memory of it is delicious!"
"Why don't you go to bed?" Trent said. "You'll need all your strength to-morrow!"
Monty waved his hand with serene contempt.
"I am a man of humours, my dear friend," he said, "and to-night my humour is to talk and to be merry. What is it the philosophers tell us? - that the sweetest joys of life are the joys of anticipation. Here we are, then, on the eve of our triumph - let us talk, plan, be happy. Bah! how thirsty it makes one! Come, Trent, what stake will you have me set up against that other tumblerful of brandy."
"No stake that you can offer," Trent answered shortly. "That drop of brandy may stand between us and death. Pluck up your courage, man, and forget for a bit that there is such a thing as drink."
Monty frowned and looked stealthily across towards the bottle.
"That's all very well, my friend," he said, "but kindly remember that you are young, and well, and strong. I am old, and an invalid. I need support. Don't be hard on me, Trent. Say fifty again.
"No, nor fifty hundred," Trent answered shortly. "I don't want your money. Don't be such a fool, or you'll never live to enjoy it."
Monty shuffled on to his feet, and walked aimlessly about the hut. Once or twice as he passed the place where the bottle rested, he hesitated; at last he paused, his eyes lit up, he stretched out his hand stealthily. But before he could possess himself of it Trent's hand was upon his collar.
"You poor fool!" he said; "leave it alone can't you? You want to poison yourself I know. Well, you can do as you jolly well like when you are out of this - not before."
Monty's eyes flashed evil fires, but his tone remained persuasive. "Trent," he said, "be reasonable. Look at me! I ask you now whether I am not better for that last drop. I tell you that it is food and wine to me. I need it to brace me up for to-morrow. Now listen! Name your own stake! Set it up against that single glass! I am not a mean man, Trent. Shall we say one hundred and fifty?"
Trent looked at him half scornfully, half deprecatingly.
"You are only wasting your breath, Monty," he said. "I couldn't touch money won in such a way, and I want to get you out of this alive. There's fever in the air all around us, and if either of us got a touch of it that drop of brandy might stand between us and death. Don't worry me like a spoilt child. Roll yourself up and get to sleep! I'll keep watch."
"I will be reasonable," Monty whined. "I will go to sleep, my friend, and worry you no more when I have had just one sip of that brandy! It is the finest medicine in the world for me! It will keep the fever off. You do not want money you say! Come, is there anything in this world which I possess, or may possess, which you will set against that three inches of brown liquid?"
Trent was on the point of an angry negative. Suddenly he stopped
- hesitated - and said nothing Monty's face lit up with sudden hope.
"Come," he cried, "there is something I see! You're the right sort, Trent. Don't be afraid to speak out. It's yours, man, if you win it. Speak up!"
"I will stake that brandy," Trent answered, "against the picture you let fall from your pocket an hour ago."Next