A sky like flame, and an atmosphere of sulphur. No breath of air, not a single ruffle in the great, drooping leaves of the African trees and dense, prickly shrubs. All around the dank, nauseous odour of poison flowers, the ceaseless dripping of poisonous moisture. From the face of the man who stood erect, unvanquished as yet in the struggle for life, the fierce sweat poured like rain - his older companion had sunk to the ground and the spasms of an ugly death were twitching at his whitening lips.
"I'm done, Trent," he gasped faintly. "Fight your way on alone. You've a chance yet. The way's getting a bit easier - I fancy we're on the right track and we've given those black devils the slip! Nurse your strength! You've a chance! Let me be. It's no use carrying a dead man." Gaunt and wild, with the cold fear of death before him also, the younger man broke out into a fit of cursing.
"May they rot in the blackest corner of hell, Oom Sam and those miserable vermin!" he shouted. "A path all the way, the fever season over, the swamps dry! Oh! when I think of Sam's smooth jargon I would give my chance of life, such as it is, to have him here for one moment. To think that beast must live and we die!"
"Prop me up against this tree, Trent - and listen," Monty whispered. "Don't fritter away the little strength you have left."
Trent did as he was told. He had no particular affection for his partner and the prospect of his death scarcely troubled him. Yet for twenty miles and more, through fetid swamps and poisoned jungles, he had carried him over his shoulder, fighting fiercely for the lives of both of them, while there remained any chance whatever of escape. Now he knew that it was in vain, he regretted only his wasted efforts - he had no sentimental regrets in leaving him. It was his own life he wanted - his own life he meant to fight for.
"I wouldn't swear at Oom Sam too hard," Monty continued. "Remember for the last two days he was doing all he could to get us out of the place. It was those fetish fellows who worked the mischief and he - certainly - warned us all he could. He took us safely to Bekwando and he worked the oracle with the King!"
"Yes, and afterwards sneaked off with Francis," Trent broke in bitterly, "and took every bearer with him - after we'd paid them for the return journey too. Sent us out here to be trapped and butchered like rats. If we'd only had a guide we should have been at Buckomari by now."
"He was right about the gold," Monty faltered. It's there for the picking up. If only we could have got back we were rich for life. If you escape - you need never do another stroke of work as long as you live."
Trent stood upright, wiped the dank sweat from his forehead and gazed around him fiercely, and upwards at that lurid little patch of blue sky.
"If I escape!" he muttered. "I'll get out of this if I die walking. "I'm sorry you're done, Monty," he continued slowly. "Say the word and I'll have one more spell at carrying you! You're not a heavy weight and I'm rested now!"
But Monty, in whose veins was the chill of death and who sought only for rest, shook his head.
"It shakes me too much," he said, "and it's only a waste of strength. You get on, Trent, and don't you bother about me. You've done your duty by your partner and a bit more. You might leave me the small revolver in case those howling savages come up - and Trent!"
"The picture - just for a moment. I'd like to have one look at her!"
Trent drew it out from his pocket - awkwardly - and with a little shame at the care which had prompted him to wrap it so tenderly in the oilskin sheet. Monty shaded his face with his hands, and the picture stole up to his lips. Trent stood a little apart and hated himself for this last piece of inhumanity. He pretended to be listening for the stealthy approach of their enemies. In reality he was struggling with the feeling which prompted him to leave this picture with the dying man.
"I suppose you'd best have it," he said sullenly at last.
But Monty shook his head feebly and held out the picture.
Trent took it with an odd sense of shame which puzzled him. He was not often subject to anything of the sort.
"It belongs to you, Trent. I lost it on the square, and it's the only social law I've never broken - to pay my gambling debts. There's one word more!"
"It's about that clause in our agreement. I never thought it was quite fair, you know, Trent!"
"The clause which - at my death - makes you sole owner of the whole concession. You see - the odds were scarcely even, were they? It wasn't likely anything would happen to you!"
"I planned the thing," Trent said, "and I saw it through! You did nothing but find a bit of brass. It was only square that the odds should be in my favour. Besides, you agreed. You signed the thing."
"But I wasn't quite well at the time," Monty faltered. "I didn't quite understand. No, Trent, it's not quite fair. I did a bit of the work at least, and I'm paying for it with my life!"
"What's it matter to you now?" Trent said, with unintentional brutality. "You can't take it with you."
Monty raised himself a little. His eyes, lit with feverish fire, were fastened upon the other man.
"There's my little girl!" he said hoarsely. "I'd like to leave her something. If the thing turns out big, Trent, you can spare a small share. There's a letter here! It's to my lawyers. They'll tell you all about her."
Trent held out his hands for the letter.
"All right," he said, with sullen ungraciousness. "I'll promise something. I won't say how much! We'll see."
"Trent, you'll keep your word," Monty begged. "I'd like her to know that I thought of her."
"Oh, very well," Trent declared, thrusting the letter into his pocket. "It's a bit outside our agreement, you know, but I'll see to it anyhow. Anything else?"
Monty fell back speechless. There was a sudden change in his face. Trent, who had seen men die before, let go his hand and turned away without any visible emotion. Then he drew himself straight, and set his teeth hard together.
"I'm going to get out of this," he said to himself slowly and with fierce emphasis. "I'm not for dying and I won't die!"
He stumbled on a few steps, a little black snake crept out of its bed of mud, and looked at him with yellow eyes protruding from its upraised head. He kicked it savagely away - a crumpled, shapeless mass. It was a piece of brutality typical of the man. Ahead he fancied that the air was clearer - the fetid mists less choking - in the deep night-silence a few hours back he had fancied that he had heard the faint thunder of the sea. If this were indeed so, it would be but a short distance now to the end of his journey. With dull, glazed eyes and clenched hands, he reeled on. A sort of stupor had laid hold of him, but through it all his brain was working, and he kept steadily to a fixed course. Was it the sea in his ears, he wondered, that long, monotonous rolling of sound, and there were lights before his eyes - the lights of Buckomari, or the lights of death!
They found him an hour or two later unconscious, but alive, on the outskirts of the village.
Three days later two men were seated face to face in a long wooden house, the largest and most important in Buckomari village.
Smoking a corn-cob pipe and showing in his face but few marks of the terrible days through which he had passed was Scarlett Trent - opposite to him was Hiram Da Souza, the capitalist of the region. The Jew - of Da Souza's nationality it was impossible to have any doubt - was coarse and large of his type, he wore soiled linen clothes and was smoking a black cigar. On the little finger of each hand, thickly encrusted with dirt, was a diamond ring, on his thick, protruding lips a complacent smile. The concession, already soiled and dog-eared, was spread out before them.
It was Da Souza who did most of the talking. Trent indeed had the appearance of a man only indirectly interested in the proceedings.
"You see, my dear sir," Da Souza was saying, "this little concession of yours is, after all, a very risky business. These niggers have absolutely no sense honour. Do I not know it - alas - to my cost?"
Trent listened in contemptuous silence. Da Souza had made a fortune trading fiery rum on the Congo and had probably done more to debauch the niggers he spoke of so bitterly than any man in Africa.
"The Bekwando people have a bad name - very bad name. As for any sense of commercial honour - my dear Trent, one might as well expect diamonds to spring up like mushrooms under our feet."
"The document," Trent said, "is signed by the King and witnessed by Captain Francis, who is Agent-General out here, or something of the sort, for the English Government. It was no gift and don't you think it, but a piece of hard bartering. Forty bearers carried our presents to Bekwando and it took us three months to get through. There is enough in it to make us both millionaires.
"Then why," Da Souza asked, looking up with twinkling eyes, "do you want to sell me a share in it?"
"Because I haven't a darned cent to bless myself with," Trent answered curtly. "I've got to have ready money. I've never had my fist on five thousand pounds before - no, nor five thousand pence, but, as I'm a living man, let me have my start and I'll hold my own with you all."
Da Souza threw himself back m his chair with uplifted hands.
"But my dear friend," he cried, "my dear young friend, you were not thinking - do not say that you were thinking of asking such a sum as five thousand pounds for this little piece of paper!"
The amazement, half sorrowful, half reproachful, on the man's face was perfectly done. But Trent only snorted.
"That piece of paper, as you call it, cost us the hard savings of years, it cost us weeks and months in the bush and amongst the swamps - it cost a man's life, not to mention the niggers we lost. Come, I'm not here to play skittles. Are you on for a deal or not? If you're doubtful about it I've another market. Say the word and we'll drink and part, but if you want to do business, here are my terms. Five thousand for a sixth share!"
"Sixth share," the Jew screamed, "sixth share?"
"The thing's worth a million at least," he said. "A sixth share is a great fortune. Don't waste any time turning up the whites of your eyes at me. I've named my terms and I shan't budge from them. You can lay your bottom dollar on that."
Da Souza took up the document and glanced it through once more.
"The concession," he remarked, "is granted to Scarlett Trent and to one Monty jointly. Who is this Monty, and what has he to say to it?"
Trent set his teeth hard, and he never blenched.
"He was my partner, but he died in the swamps, poor chap. We had horrible weather coming back. It pretty near finished me."
Trent did not mention the fact that for four days and nights they were hiding in holes and up trees from the natives whom the King of Bekwando had sent after them, that their bearers had fled away, and that they had been compelled to leave the track and make their way through an unknown part of the bush.
"But your partner's share," the Jew asked. "What of that?"
"It belongs to me," Trent answered shortly. "We fixed it so before we started. We neither of us took much stock in our relations. If I had died, Monty would have taken the lot. It was a fair deal. You'll find it there!"
The Jew nodded.
"And your partner?" he said. "You saw him die! There is no doubt about that?"
"He is as dead," he said, "as Julius Caesar."
"If I offered you - " Da Souza began.
"If you offered me four thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds," Trent interrupted roughly, "I would tell you to go to glory."
Da Souza sighed. It was a hard man to deal with - this.
"Very well," he said, "if I give way, if I agree to your terms, you will be willing to make over this sixth share to me, both on your own account and on account of your late partner?"
"You're right, mate," Trent assented. "Plank down the brass, and it's a deal."
"I will give you four thousand pounds for a quarter share," Da Souza said.
Trent knocked the ashes from his pipe and stood up.
"Here, don't waste any more of my time," he said. "Stand out of the way, I'm off."
Da Souza kept his hands upon the concession.
"My dear friend," he said, "you are so violent. You are so abrupt. Now listen. I will give you five thousand for a quarter share. It is half my fortune."
"Give me the concession," Trent said. "I'm off."
"For a fifth," Da Souza cried.
Trent moved to the door without speech. Da Souza groaned.
"You will ruin me," he said, "I know it. Come then, five thousand for a sixth share. It is throwing money away."
"If you think so, you'd better not part," Trent said, still lingering in the doorway. "Just as you say. I don't care."
For a full minuteDa Souza hesitated. He had an immense belief in the richness of the country set out in the concession; he knew probably more about it than Trent himself. But five thousand pounds was a great deal of money and there was always the chance that the Government might not back the concession holders in case of trouble. He hesitated so long that Trent was actually disappearing before he had made up his mind.
"Come back, Mr. Trent," he called out. "I have decided. I accept. I join with you."
Trent slowly returned. His manner showed no exultation.
"You have the money here?" he asked.
Da Souza laid down a heap of notes and gold upon the table. Trent counted them carefully and thrust them into his pocket. Then he took up a pen and wrote his name at the foot of the assignment which the Jew had prepared.
"Have a drink?" he asked.
Da Souza shook his head.
"The less we drink in this country," he said, "the better. I guess out here, spirits come next to poison. I'll smoke with you, if you have a cigar handy."
Trent drew a handful of cigars from his pocket. "They're beastly," he said, "but it's a beastly country. I'll be glad to turn my back on it."
"There is a good deal,"Da Souza said, "which we must now talk about."
"To-morrow," Trent said curtly. "No more now! I haven't got over my miserable journey yet. I'm going to try and get some sleep."
He swung out into the heavy darkness. The air was thick with unwholesome odours rising from the lake-like swamp beyond the drooping circle of trees. He walked a little way towards the sea, and sat down upon a log. A faint land-breeze was blowing, a melancholy soughing came from the edge of the forest only a few hundred yards back, sullen, black, impenetrable. He turned his face inland unwillingly, with a superstitious little thrill of fear. Was it a coyote calling, or had he indeed heard the moan of a dying man, somewhere back amongst that dark, gloomy jungle? He scoffed at himself! Was he becoming as a girl, weak and timid? Yet a moment later he closed his eyes, and pressed his hands tightly over his hot eyeballs. He was a man of little imaginative force, yet the white face of a dying man seemed suddenly to have floated up out of the darkness, to have come to him like a will-o'-the-wisp from the swamp, and the hollow, lifeless eyes seemed ever to be seeking his, mournful and eloquent with dull reproach. Trent rose to his feet with an oath and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He was trembling, and he cursed himself heartily.
"Another fool's hour like this," he muttered, "and the fever will have me. Come out of the shadows, you white-faced, skulking reptile, you - bah! what a blithering fool I am! There is no one there! How could there be any one?"
He listened intently. From afar off came the faint moaning of the wind in the forest and the night sounds of restless animals. Nearer there was no one - nothing stirred. He laughed out loud and moved away to spend his last night in his little wooden home. On the threshold he paused, and faced once more that black, mysterious line of forest.
"Well, I've done with you now," he cried, a note of coarse exultation in his tone. "I've gambled for my life and I've won. To-morrow I'll begin to spend the stakes."